As Australia brushes bushfire ash from her brow and her burns begin to heal, the restaurants, cafes, shops and hotels in fire-affected communities are open for business again. All they need is you. Here’s our story of our empty esky tour.
There are few things more heartbreaking than seeing places of natural beauty turned to cinders. As we drove down into the southern regions of New South Wales, both inland and along the coast, and then southwest through Victoria, seeing the damage the bushfires had caused was difficult to bear.
Even harder to take though was the thought of people, livestock and wildlife being close by when the flames were blazing.
The landscape will recover and has already started doing so. But it’s the communities in the villages and towns of these areas that still need all of our help to regrow.
How to support Australian bushfire communities
We love travelling through Australia, and roadtrips feature in our travel plans wherever we are in the world. But when we had the opportunity to visit some of the worst-affected parts of the country, to spend time with the locals and spend money in their neighbourhoods, we couldn’t pack the car up quick enough.
We were on our way to a beautiful wedding down on the Mornington Peninsula but instead of flying we decided to drive.
From Sydney down to the Mornington Peninsula – southwest of Melbourne – can be done in a day.
It’s a 10-hour car ride.
Instead, we took a week and added an extra 500km to our itinerary.
Is it safe to travel in Australia?
It’s sad to see the countryside so ravaged, but it’s not as desolate as you might think. Buds were already starting to show less than a week after fires had swept through, and ferns were popping up everywhere too.
Even though there is clear evidence of fire damage to so much of the beautiful landscapes, there’s still so much to see and do in these areas. They’re still full of beauty.
More importantly, everyone should know it’s safe to travel in Australia again. The country is not on fire, roads are open and visitors are more than welcome.
We heard a lot of anecdotal reports of hotel bookings being cancelled and people even dropping out of holidays completely because they think it’s too dangerous to come here. It’s crazy.
Where our empty esky quest took us
Our drive south took us in and out of various fire zones. But regions have suffered both directly from the heat and smoke of the bushfires and indirectly because of a drop in visitor numbers.
We decided as long as we were there spending time and money, that was the main thing.
Here are our favourite places we visited on the way down to the Mornington Peninsula and back up to Sydney:
A favourite brewery of mine, the TRBC does extraordinary beers, and tasty pizzas if you’re after some lunch. They’ve also set up a kind of museum showing the original kit they were brewing out of before recent upgrades.
My favourite beer from here is the Full Grunt APA, but there’s a big range to choose from.
On the New South Wales border along the Riverina, the little town of Howlong is a perfect place to stop for coffee and perhaps a cheeky bacon and egg roll. The Half Acre Coffee Lounge does both of these superlatively. And their pastries look truly amazing.
Karen, one of our lovely readers, tells me the family that runs Half Acre have also reopened the Balldale Hotel about 20 minutes out of town. You’ll find local wines, craft beers, good pub grub and live music every weekend. Check it out if you get a chance.
Other areas around Howlong that really need support due to extensive fire damage are the likes of Tumbarumba, Cudegwa, Corryong, Yaven Valley, Jingellic.
At the heart of the Milawa Gourmet Region in Victoria is the Milawa Cheese Company. If you’re anything like us and live for cheese, this place is your mecca. Time it right and enjoy one of the free cheese tastings or ask at the counter to try some.
The cheese here is honestly wonderful and there are some I’ve never heard of before. The likes of a goat cheese camembert not only caught our eye but ended up in our esky!
There’s also a cute little homewares and gift shop next door worth exploring.
There are plenty of wineries in this region worth visiting, but Sam Miranda has a special place in our hearts. We came here with Christina’s mum and dad years ago when all four of us drove down to Melbourne.
The wines here are excellent and you’ll find unusual Italian and Spanish varietals next to more regular ones. They offer free tastings here (and the restaurant looks excellent if you’re hungry and you have time).
Make sure you at least try the Seperavi, the TNT (Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Tannat) and the Verduzzo.
To avoid doubling back too much, we drove to Torquay and caught the ferry from Queenscliff over to the Mornington Peninsula. While we were waiting for the ferry, we popped our heads in a couple of the shops of this charming coastal town.
Frankie Say Relax is a pretty, beautifully styled gift and homewares shop not to be missed.
And thanks to the recommendations of Frankie Say Relax, we bought pies for the ferry from this bakery, which has won multiple national awards for its pies. In particular the giant beef pie, which is large, generously filled and extremely tasty.
On the way home, we stopped off in the gold-rush town of Beechworth, known these days for a different type of gold: its honey.
The Beechworth Honey shop is amazing and should be on everyone’s itinerary. You can taste different flower influences in the honey they sell and also see the bees in action.
By the way, across the road is a superb Indian restaurant called simply Beechworth Indian Restaurant.
Also across the road from the honey shop, this little cafe is the only one in town our friends, who have moved here from Melbourne, will buy coffee from. That’s how good the coffee is here.
The food is also first rate and well worth a stop if you’re looking for a delicious breakfast. Focus is on sources ingredients that are as local as possible.
Back in NSW, the picturesque town of Jugiong sits on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River. Behind a veil of climbing plants and from beneath the low curves of an elegant old corrugated awning, this cafe-diner and deli offers a welcome break to travellers.
The toasties they make here are the perfect roadtrip bite and the bigger meals are very tempting too.
The South Coast of New South Wales was perhaps the worst hit by the fires. Certainly the forest areas here showed the most damage.
Driving up the Princes Highway coastal road, we made our way to the bustling little town of Moruya. A friend of ours grew up here and we had to take a look.
Tucked away in a little mall, Les Gourmandises is a surprising little French cafe in the middle of regional Australia. Turning out excellent coffee and even better baked goods, you must come here for one of their sumptuous quiches or an almond croissant.
The only thing you’ll be disappointed by is how little space you’ve got left in your esky.
Further up the coast, Batemans Bay was also heavily affected by fires. This coastal community is surrounded by national park, forests and bushland.
Staying the night at the Araluen Motor Lodge, a classic Aussie motel with surprisingly spacious rooms, we kicked back and enjoyed our last night on the road. We upgraded to one of Araluen’s waterview suites for even more space and an outlook across to the water.
There’s a great range of room types here and even a stand-alone beach bungalow for longer stays.
For us, we were happy with our room, fish and chips by the beach and a couple of beers on our balcony.
Further up the coast in Ulladulla, Cupitt’s Estate is our favourite winery in the South Coast. They also make their own cheese here, all of which are superb.
A cheeseboard and a glass on the cellar door’s veranda is all you need… though they also make their own beer too, which is also excellent.
We didn’t have enough time for more, but around the South Coast here you’ve got so many options.
Here’s an earlier story we ran on places to eat in the little town of Milton and surrounding areas, including Rick Stein’s at Bannisters of course.
What is the #EmptyEsky movement?
Created by friends Erin Boutros, Eleanor Baillieu and Elise Mason from Melbourne, the campaign encourages ‘city folk’ to grab an esky and visit fire-affected towns in rural Australia.
You come home with an esky full of fresh produce, pies, cheese, wine, spirits, beer… supporting the rural communities with your tourist dollar and enjoying the best the country has to offer at the same time.
Wins all round.
On the face of it, Empty Esky is about helping areas affected by bushfires, but everywhere in Australia is suffering because of cancellations.
In fact, Tourism Australia is asking people to take a domestic holiday this year rather than heading overseas.
At the same time, you don’t have to spend your statutory in the Australian countryside. There are hundreds of regional areas less than a day’s round trip by car.
All you have to do is drive.