She’s apples – a perfect escape to the Granite Belt

My last visit to Stanthorpe was for the Apple and Grape Festival many moons ago, so setting off down the Cunningham Highway on a pleasant Spring day, I realised that all I knew about the area was that it had apples and wine.

It’s an easy drive for a short break - just 320km from the Sunshine Coast, either over Cunningham’s Gap to Warwick and its roses or via Boonah and the scenic route hugging the border past the beautiful Queen Mary Waterfalls.

The destination in Stanthorpe was the Happy Valley Retreat, about 5km from town.  Accommodation is in 20 log cabins tucked away among the granite boulders and native scrub so that it’s hard to spot any neighbours.
A short walk away is the main reception with a rustic restaurant, a huge old chesterfield facing a fireplace and the retreat’s latest addition - brewery vats where drinkers can enjoy an ale while watching the brewing process.
Owners Geoff and Dee Davenport were looking for a unique attraction and came up with the idea for a micro-brewery in the middle of a wine district.  It has worked out so well, that they plan to re-name Happy Valley the Granite Belt Brewery Retreat in the new year.

On arrival, we were presented with a breakfast hamper packed with local produce and fresh bread from the kitchen to take back to the self-contained cabin where a log fire (thankfully already built and awaiting a match) was focal point.

After settling in, it was off to the restaurant and a beer tasting before dinner. There’s a blackboard menu with a description of the six beers of the house, and a seventh which changes each season, so we ordered a paddle to try them all between us. They range from a pale ale through to a Guinness look-alike which has a noticeable undertone of espresso. The beers have been given catchy titles taken from the local history and surrounds such as the Granite Pils, and the Pozieres Porter named for the area of Stanthorpe opened up for settlement by soldiers returning from the battlefields of France.

Dinner is the house specialty, a Brewer’s Platter which is a culinary journey of beers to match each course.
Tea smoked salmon steak with celeriac remoulade goes with the Storm King Kolsch; Inida Pale Ale with duck and pork spring rolls; Irish Red Ale with char grilled venison backstrap and Pozieres Porter with rich dark chocolate tart.

You don’t have to be a beer drinker to enjoy this beer-supping jaunt but if you are, then you will be in seventh heaven. Waking up to the noise of parrots feasting on grevillea and the call of the kookaburras, it was easy to slip into holiday mode.

Tony Hannigan of Filippo’s Tours was ready when we were and we put our day in the experienced hands of this born and bred local who loves showing his home and sharing his stories with visitors.

While a wine tasting was on the agenda, we wanted to learn more about this part of Queensland and Tony set off on what was to be a perfect tailor-made tour of his district.

First stop was Sutton’s, a juice factory, famous for its apple pies which boast 24 apples in every pie. Tony explains they are only available at the onsite café as the owners are particular about protecting their reputation for the fattest pies. It’s a good idea to order one slice to share.
Then came a juice testing. Apple juice has come a long way, with combinations of apple with lime or ginger or beetroot and even a Pink Lady juice.

Tony then takes a quick detour to the old Queensland/NSW border post and again shares his local knowledge with anecdotes from the days when local teenagers would cross back and forward attending weekend parties, keeping the border guards on their toes.

Next stop was the Granite Belt Dairy and a cheese factory that uses the creamiest milk from its herd of 31 “jersey girls”.  The theory here is that if there is wine, there must be cheese and the samples lined up for tasting are worthy of a Grange. Cheesemaker Will Rodgers tells how he gave up his career as a teacher to tackle the world of cheese.

His favourite, he says, are the soft cheeses as the jersey girls have an additional 4 per cent butterfat to make them creamy and special. Certainly his blue cheese alone is worth a trip.

We make a mental note to return to the Jersey Girls café for one of their famous ploughman’s lunches.
For now though, it’s onwards. First a brief stop to sample the wines at Heritage Estate based in the former Catholic Church, built in 1926 at Thulimbah, before heading on to Kent Saddlery where a truly authentic Australian experience awaits.

Lyle and Helen Kent set up shop on the highway four years ago in the former Old Caves Winery premises.  Its roots though, are in 1991, when they set off to the Kimberleys with “four kids and a dog”.

  They camped on cattle stations repairing saddles and leather goods and devising new products. The next year, they did it again, visiting 140 remote stations, from Gulf Country to the Pilbara, in five months. And now, 25 years later,  they still head out but also have their factory and shopfront in Stanthorpe, an online shop and an ever-growing range of leather goods from essential equipment for stockman to leather-bound diaries and brief cases as gift items.

A tour of the saddlery is a fascinating journey from raw hides to crafted saddles, each individually tailored for its owner and numbered. To wrap up, we were treated to a breathtaking whipcracking display.
Lunch time and Tony whisked us off to the University of Southern Queensland’s College of Wine Tourism campus – “where education meets industry”. Students – horticulture, viticulture and winemaking - produce the food and wine for a perfect three-course lunch matched with wines.

It was a superb effort with merlot to accompany fried mozzarella and beetroot; cabernet sauvignon to set off the lamb terrine and a dessert wine with the rich chocolate cake.

It would have been easy to settle in on the lawns for an afternoon nap, but there was more to come.

Christine and Stephanie meet us at The Jamworks which is jam-packed with relishes, pastes, chutneys and jams made from Australian products (“only the spices are not available here”).

Flavour mixes are exotic – rhubarb and macadamia, fig and chilli, rosella, quince. Many are made from the original recipes of Christine’s parents who have retired after a lifetime running the cottage industry. There are now more than 100 different products and business, rather than doubling since the next generation took over, has quadrupled.

The shop is a fantasy of colourful jars and tastings are available as well as lunch and a Friday night “jam” session.
A visit to Stanthorpe is not complete without seeing Girraween National Park, where the granite boulders meet the sky. Tony turns south towards the border and tells us the story of the Ballandean Pyramid, in a field as we pass by.

Built originally in defiance by a landowner who was refused council permission to clear his land of the granite rocks, it is four storeys high and is estimated to weigh about 2500 tonnes.

Alas, no time for a walk at Girraween  but yet another good reason to return to this part of Queensland.
We then wrap up the day with a cold wine at the Rumbalara winery tasting.

To meet a niche market and something different to the region’s 50 other wineries, it is producing a range of easy-drinking wines including a delightful chilled red.

Exhausted, we collapse with a cold beer at home on our cabin verandah at Happy Valley.

It has been an interesting and varied day and we marvel that it could all be so different and yet so close to home.
We never did get to put a match to the fire as the weather was warm which of course leaves the option of returning in winter for further exploration.

Leaving Stanthorpe the next morning, we stop again at various farm gates to stock up on apples – a box for $6 – cheese, juice, wine and of course beer before returning home loaded down with Granite Belt produce.
Rae Taylor was a guest of Happy Valley Retreat