By Lachlan, Photojournalist and Adventure Seeker
There are special places that can stir strong emotions – places that have a way of getting deep into your soul and bringing happiness and lasting good memories.
For me, the Granite Belt and Southern Downs is such a place. I’ve been visiting since 2013 and ever since that first trip, the call of ‘the Belt’ has remained strong.
Recently I spent a few days exploring some of the region’s gems with my partner Louise and our good friends Stef and Kai. We sampled a lot of tasty food, regional wines and small batch brews, met a stream of passionate locals and discovered some new and exciting places.
Each time I visit it amazes me just how much there is to see, and how many wonderful ideas are sparked for my next visit.
Here are some of our highlights:
Girraween National Park
It was this iconic national park that first lured me to the area.
Growing up, I’d heard tales of giant domes of ancient granite, where boulders balanced in apparent defiance of gravity. Upon arrival you can’t miss these monolithic forms, but there’s so much more to Girraween National Park.
The native bushland covering the park is beautiful and varied and the abundance of native wildlife makes it a very special spot.
Sunrise is my favourite time to experience the park, despite the earlier than usual wake-up that is required to do so! But I’ve never regretted meeting the sunrise, and Girraween’s are up there with the best!
If it’s a bit cloudy when you set off in the pre-dawn, don’t be so easily deterred. The clouds often cling to the landscape and lift with the warmth of the rising sun. Other top walks are The Castle, Sphinx and Turtle Rock.
Hot tip: The First Pyramid is a classic spot for sunrise, but be sure to pack your grippy shoes, some water and a camera. The slope is steep in places and the views from the top are breathtaking!
Jester Hills Wines, Glen Aplin
The Granite Belt is geographically ideal for wine production, and every vineyard has a unique story.
We toured Jester Hill Wines with owners Ann & Mick Burke, who showed us around the vineyard, explained the finer nuances of winemaking and of course led us through a delicious tasting at their lovely cellar door.
Hot tip: it’s a very special treat to tank-taste Jester Hill’s 17 vintages with winemaker Mick– many are award winners. Follow up your tasting with a platter of locally-sourced cheeses, olives and other yummy morsels –perfect!
Jamworks Fine Foods and Cafe, Glen Aplin
Driving south from Stanthorpe on the New England Highway, delivers you deep into wine and food country.
One must-do stop is Jamworks – where, as the name suggests, jam is at the heart of what they do – but it’s just the beginning of the taste sensations to be had!
The cafe serves up amazing breakfasts (just the thing after a big morning hiking at Girraween!) and scrumptious lunches with a range of house-made cakes and coffee for in between. The food is preservative free, with gluten free and vegan options galore – so plenty to suit all diets.
Hot tip: Buy your souvenirs here – a pot of local jam makes a great gift or a sweet reminder of a beautiful break every time you spread it on your toast.
Granite Belt Brewery & Retreat, Stanthorpe
Nestled amid granite and bushland just out of Stanthorpe, you’ll find Granite Belt Brewery and Retreat. There’s a restaurant and cabins, but let’s talk about the beer: it’s yum!
Ok… I’ll elaborate. Owner and head brewer Geoff talked us though the 7 brews on tap, as we sampled our way along a tasting paddle. My favourite was the Porter which has a hint of chocolate and coffee. So good!
We ate hearty tasty meals at the restaurant-come-pub, which has a delightful mountain lodge vibe. It’s timber interior and warm ambience was well matched by some cheeky banter from Geoff.
The cabins are tucked amongst the trees – super cute and rustic, but well-appointed and very comfortable. After a relaxing night, we enjoyed breakfast on our private verandah which was a special treat, made even more memorable when a big mamma kangaroo and her joey joined us to graze nearby!
Pack a picnic
With such an abundance of tasty food and boutique wine and locally brewed beer on offer – a banging picnic is in order!
Where you ask? Well take a lofty hike in Girraween and chew with a view; visit a winery, buy a bottle and set up a yummy spread overlooking the vines; or take a haul of local goodies back to devour on a rug in the bushland backyard of your accommodation.
Wherever you decide to picnic, be sure to fill the basket with yummy apple products from Suttons Juice Factory, mouth-watering preserves from Jamworks, cheeses from Stanthorpe Cheese, local wines and beers.
Suttons Juice Factory, Thulimbah
As you reach Thulimbah and begin to spot apple orchards, you’ll know Sutton’s isn’t far!
Famed for their delicious juice, cider and baked-on-site-to-die-for apple pie – it’s worth the drive alone!
Passionate farmers Ros and David Sutton, showed us around the farm, telling us, “Sutton’s is all about the apples and has been for the past 25-odd years”. The thriving Shed Café, a revamped apple packing shed, serves up all sorts of yummy fare, made with as much local produce as the cooks can squeeze in.
We all agreed, (after a comprehensive tasting of course) that the apple pie with spiced cider ice cream is even better than the legend that precedes it. Be sure to taste the other apple-centric products too – liqueurs, brandy, jams, jellies, vinegars and sauces before deciding which you’ll take home.
Hot Tip: Scratch that last bit of advice …it’s all yummy, so just buy at least one of everything.
Queen Mary Falls, Killarney
Cascades and rainbows, bushland and vistas. The beautiful Queens Mary Falls, in Main Range National Park is a must-do detour on the way to or from The Granite Belt.
From the Falls carpark, follow the well-signed loop trail leading down to two lookouts at the top of the waterfall. The hike is easy and the views over the cascade and down the forested valley are amazing.
To stretch your legs a little more, keep walking down the trail to the base of the falls – it’s only a 20-minute walk to feel the cool mist on your face.
If you’ve worked up an appetite, the little café across the road from the carpark does great coffee, breakfast and lunch (the burgers are good!) and you can buy some birdseed to feed the colourful locals – king parrots and rainbow lorikeets which hang out in the trees around the deck.