Cognac on the hill

From birches to black caviar, Robert Upe finds a slice of Russia in the high country.

It's early morning and rain clouds have drifted into the Kiewa Valley. Snow is falling in the mountains. I turn up the collar of my coat and put my hands deeper into my pockets as I take in the scene, when, surprisingly, a nip of warming cognac is offered.

The Birches host, Kent Scott, hands me the glass and we stand on the hillside overlooking the town of Mount Beauty, admiring the misty alpine views, breathing in the crisp air and swilling the cognac around and around in a snifter.

It's peaceful up here. There are goats with the soothing sound of clinking bells around their necks, there's a nervous Canadian elk and the cock-a-doodle-doo of a rooster, Croatian fallow deer are grazing and peacocks, pheasants, turkeys and ducks are scratching about.

Not far from where we stand is a birch forest that Scott planted in 1998. Including some oaks, pines, walnuts and olives, he has put in more than 700 trees on the property, which was once infested with blackberries. In autumn, the birches are a blaze of colours. In spring and summer they provide dappled shade. In winter, the white-trunked trees are leafless and reminiscent of the grand landscapes in Doctor Zhivago.

The birches provide the name and soul of this unique property on five hectares. There are two spa chalets, ideal for couples, right alongside the pretty woodland, and a larger three-bedroom spa villa further up the hill where families or groups of up to six people can stay.

We had arrived at the villa the previous night to a blazing open fire in the most magnificent of dining rooms. The rest of the spacious villa fades in comparison but is nevertheless of superior quality.

Original artworks hang on the dining room walls, including an old painting from Europe that will be loaned to the National Gallery of Australia. There are trophy animals and trout mounted in frames, stuffed birds, a leather chesterfield couch and antique tables, chairs and lamps. On the table, set for a formal silver-service dinner, is the finest Royal Doulton, crystal glassware from Austria and Russia, sterling silver English cutlery and French candelabra.

And then we ate After the cognac on the hill, a home-cooked Russian-style breakfast arrives. Scott says he got the idea for the breakfast from Moscow's Hotel Metropol.

The plate holds black caviar, salmon, two eggs poached in vodka, leg ham, crusty bread, crushed walnuts, dollops of sour cream and a shot of vodka. Scott used to offer guests ultra-expensive beluga caviar, but he says there was not much appetite for it in Mount Beauty.

There's also an option of a silver-service dinner that can range from three courses right up to a degustation with seasonal and local produce. The dinners include before-and-after drinks, matched wines and a private butler and chef. The wines, Scott says, are of high quality but you can upgrade to rare vintages worth thousands of dollars each from his collection of 6000 bottles.

The deal maker There are so many extras here, too numerous to mention, but they include a bottle of French champagne on arrival, a pantry with spices to satisfy fastidious cooks, specially blended coffee, chocolates, a decanter of sherry, top-notch Molton Brown toiletries in the bathroom (with spa), firewood and a noon checkout.

Stepping out Scott invites all his guests to return at Easter for an annual Sunday-night stag on the spit. "We have a bonfire and people just need to bring a chair and blanket," he says. "You must make sure you come along."

Trout season has just opened and there's good fly-fishing at the nearby Kiewa River. Ski season is still going strong and Falls Creek's slopes are 30 kilometres away. In Mount Beauty, there are good options for bike riding and walking trails. The visitor information centre is on the town's main road and is open every day.

Weekends Away are reviewed anonymously and paid for by Traveller.

VISITORS' BOOK

The Birches Luxury Spa Chalets

Address 43 Ranch Road, Tawonga South (near Mount Beauty).

The verdict Country style with European flair and a dash of eccentricity. We loved the birch forest, the animals, the valley views and the traditional antique-filled dining room.

Price Spa chalets for couples from $275 a night, including breakfast; spa villa for up to six from $330 a night, including breakfast; $22.50 to upgrade to a Russian breakfast; silver-service dinner from $330 a couple for three courses.

Bookings Phone 5754 1524; see luxuryspachalets.com.au.

Getting there Mount Beauty is the township at the base of Falls Creek. It's 360 kilometres, or about four hours, from Melbourne.

Perfect for Couples, families, groups up to six.

Wheelchair access No.

While you're there Set aside a good amount of time to wander the property, meet the animals and admire the birch forest. The owner allowed us to pick as many mandarins as we wanted from a grove of fruit trees. A baby goat followed us on our meanderings.

The story Cognac on the hill first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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