Old McDonald had a farm...stay
I don't know about you, but there's nothing I love more than the feel of grass underfoot, fresh country air and ambles down country lanes. Maybe it's a reminder of my childhood growing up on the outskirts of Sydney when it was still semi rural. Or perhaps it's because we're urbanites, closed in by buildings, tar and concrete. I often hanker for wide open spaces, trees and a slower pace of life.
The good thing about most Australian cities is you can get out of town relatively easily and enjoy a rejuvenating country holiday. A farm stay, or rural getaway, offers city slickers the chance to get up close and grubby - or stylishly arms-length - with the nation's producer backbone. Rolling green hills, the early morning crow of a zealous rooster, country air and the thrill of collecting freshly laid eggs are part and parcel of the farm stay experience. In an increasingly urbanised and technology-reliant world, taking time out on a farm holiday can help restore the soul, allowing time to disconnect and rediscover the joys of outdoor living. Walk a country lane, pick oranges, swim in a cool, clear stream or simply marvel at a canopy of stars on a cloudless night.
Today's farm stay experience however is no longer all mud, milking cows and coffee deprivation - although that's still on offer if that's your inclination. In Australia, and globally, the farm stay experience ranges from rustic stays where you muck in, learn to wrangle a cow and cook on a campfire, through to luxury outback stations, lodges and restored farmhouses with 1000-thread cotton sheets, fine food and wine, alfresco candlelit baths and an altogether refined country squire experience.
Everything from helicopter mustering, lasso lessons, sheep shearing, cooking classes and grape crushing is on offer for city slickers wanting a taste of country life. Sometimes though it's the simple things about a farm holiday that hold the greatest appeal for urbanites. Vicki Byrne, director of Downunder Farmstays, said one guest simply wanted her "citified" child to be able to get dirty.
Over the past few years we've embraced our inner farmer several times, staying at some fabulous rural stays around Australia. Here are a few of our favourites. We'd love to hear about yours too!
STARGAZE AROUND A FIRE PIT
MANSFIELD ON THE MANNING, TINONEE, NSW
Located in the Manning Valley (3.5 hours north of Sydney) and home to best-selling Australian author Di Morrissey, Mansfield on the Manning sits at the end of a country lane, in the hamlet of Tinonee. Directly in front of the property, the magnificent Manning River – the only double delta river in the southern hemisphere – flows through the valley and out to sea.
The 16-acre, pet-friendly property offers two recently renovated cabins, a vintage Airstream and a new three bedroom cottage surrounded by soaring gum trees, native shrubs and offering direct river access. There's an abundant vegie garden, a straw bale barbecue area and hammock strung between gum trees. We've stayed twice now in one of the hand-built cabins made from reclaimed local hardwoods and furnished with a mix of modern and mid-century pieces, and antiques from the UK and France. French doors lead from the master bedroom and lounge to a generous wraparound deck, with comfy chairs and individual barbecue. In front of the cabin is a fire pit, where we gather to drink wine, toast marshmallows and witness yet another incredible sunset.
Our two-storey cabin features wooden floorboards, cosy rugs, a framed hessian coffee sack from Portobello Market and prints of Brighton Pier. Downstairs, the queen-size bedroom has pure Egyptian cotton linen, "invisible" bookshelves and Grown Alchemist toiletries in the ensuite bathroom. There's a comfy living area and cute, compact kitchen with Smeg oven, microwave, fridge, Nespresso machine, and quality cookware and crockery. A ladder stairway leads to a cute loft space with two single beds – the ideal hideaway for kids. Although let's be honest, mostly they'll be out exploring the property.
Start the day with a breakfast of free-range eggs from the property's 16 hens, bacon, yoghurt, porridge, milk, house made bread and orange juice. Neil is a chef (he previously worked for Kensington Place, Ottolenghi's and Fishworks before starting his own business, Lovefood, catering for London's photographic industry). He now offers guests meals on arrival, such as beef bourguignon made from local Wingham beef, or a local seafood platter. Owners Jane and Neil Mackenzie have thought of everything, which is why we keep going back to this gorgeous rural retreat.
Staying there The Airstream and cabins are priced from $175 and $200 respectively per night midweek: $250 on weekends. See mansfieldonthemanning.com.
Don't miss: We're still dreaming about Neil's free-range chicken and leek pie.
SOULITUDE FARM, NSW
Also located in the little-known Manning Valley, another half hour or so further north of Taree, is Soulitude Farm. This farm stay is located in lush dairy country, about four kilometres from the hamlet of Hannam Vale.
The 90-year old, self-contained farmhouse has been beautifully renovated with whitewashed walls and polished floorboards.
It sits on a rise overlooking picturesque rolling farmland and a neighbouring paddock of friendly cows, which mostly don't mind a pat. There's a pretty garden, plenty of grass for the kids to let off steam and a resident butcher bird. Our daughter, Ella, loved the swing in the big jacaranda tree, and picking fresh oranges to juice.
On a walk along the dirt road back to Hannam Vale we spotted kangaroos and patted the neighbour's horses. Another morning a local farmer showed Ella the nest of a bowerbird. Soulitude Farm has made some new additions since our stay including a new bathroom, and a deck over the dam with a covered area and sun lounges. There are not many shops around so BYO plenty of supplies so you don't have to leave this sweet little country house.
Staying there From $195 a night. See stayz.com.au/26220
Don't miss Fluffy home-made scones and pots of steaming tea at nearby Moorlands Cottage and a swim at the beautiful Waitui Falls.
ONE HUMP OR TWO?
KINGS CREEK STATION, NORTHERN TERRITORY
Immerse yourself in outback farm life at Kings Creek Station, the largest exporter of wild camels in Australia. The working station lies 36 kilometres from the magnificent Kings Canyon (Watarrka) among majestic desert oaks. Guests stay in either comfortable safari cabins or at the station's campground.
Camel or quad bike safaris are available for exploring the outback, or take a helicopter flight over the spectacular Central Ranges. Guests can fly direct to Uluru, see the sights then head on the self-drive "Red Centre Way" for Kings Creek Station's outback farm experience.
Staying there Camping is priced from $22.50 a night for an unpowered site; cabins cost $85 per adult a night ($55 children aged six-12) including bushman's style cooked breakfast. There are also luxury glamping tents from $950 a night including cheese platter, two course self cook BBQ dinner, inclusive drinks package and a self cook breakfast hamper (for those 18+). See kingscreekstation.com.au
Don't miss The station's famous "Kings Creek Camel Burger".
AMOROUS FOODIE GETAWAY
HARTS FARM, SHOREHAM, VICTORIA
The first thing that catches your eye when you arrive at Harts Farm off a dirt road on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula are the serene views of rolling vines and olive groves, across a small dam with sculptures of kangaroos. Penny and Graeme Hart's two friendly dogs, Dudley and Coco, will greet you and instantly make you feel at home.
The farm stay is on the Mornington Peninsula's Wine Food Farmgate trail, which aims to help visitors discover hidden foodie gems down country lanes, taste the bounty of artisan producers and buy direct from organic growers.
In a former life, 10-hectare Hart's Farm was a dairy property, but has evolved into a boutique olive grove and soon-to-be cidery. The purpose-built accommodation includes a luxurious queen size bed with pure cotton sheets, TV, DVD player, iPod dock. The enormous en suite has a freestanding bath looking out over a paddock and gum trees, walk in shower, big fluffy towels, bathrobes, and organic toiletries.
The decadent breakfast hamper may include goodies such as poached pears, house-made muesli and freshly squeezed juice. There's much to explore on the gourmet-blessed peninsula or kick back and relax on the daybed with a good book and glass of wine.
Don't miss Lunch at nearby Green Olive at Red Hill, an 11-hectare sustainable farm where diners can feast on handmade lamb sausages, seasonal produce, organic Wiltshire lamb and free range Isa brawn chicken.
ROOMS WITH A VIEW
SPICERS PEAK LODGE, SCENIC RIM, QUEENSLAND
Located more than 1000 metres above sea level atop a 3600-hectare working cattle station, Spicers Peak Lodge offers a refined Man from Snowy River-style experience. This isn't your ordinary farm stay mind you. This is a luxurious, adults only country lodge experience (leave the kids at home for this one). Surrounded by World Heritage-listed National Park, guests can sip champagne in the pool while taking in views over Queensland's Scenic Rim.
With nothing but cattle for neighbours, the silence is broken only by the trickle of the infinity edge pool and the crackle of the open fireplace. Owned by Flight Centre boss Graeme "Skroo" Turner, the lodge features recycled Blackbutt and Oregon timber and some of Australia's oldest Scottish bluestone.
Inside are soaring ceilings, warm earthy colours, rich textures of suede, leather and timber and plush furnishings. Artwork sourced from Christies includes William Robinson and John Olsen lithographs and a David Rankin painting. The guest lounge, with vast walls of glass, provides jaw-dropping views over Cunningham's Gap - the perfect spot for a pre-dinner drink ahead of a seven-course degustation dinner. Afterwards retire to your suite where a fire is burning in the bluestone fireplace and someone has discreetly lit the candles.
Staying there From $899 per night for two. See spicersretreats.com/spicers-peak-lodge
Don't miss A guided walk of this incredible property.
RAWNSLEY PARK STATION, SOUTH AUSTRALIA
Owned and managed by fourth generation Flinders Range residents, Tony and Julieanne Smith, this remote, once-struggling sheep station is today an award-winning tourism venture. The property is located on the southern side of the incredible Wilpena Pound (4½ hours from Adelaide) and runs 2000 sheep.
The station offers a mix of eco villas (with nifty retractable ceiling), motel, caravan and campsite accommodation. Rawnsley Homestead is the property's latest digs - luxurious accommodation in a restored, 1950s' stone farmhouse complete with private pool, two king-size bedrooms, campfire and outdoor shower. The excellent onsite Woolshed Restaurant offers stunning views over Rawnsley Bluff. Activities include 4WD tours, mountain biking, bush walking, scenic flights over Wilpena Pound and more.
Staying there One-bedroom units are priced from $160 a night; eco villas from $410 while the Rawnsley Homestead is priced from $560 a night (minimum two-night stay). See rawnsleypark.com.au
Don't miss During school holidays Tony offers shearing demonstration where the sheep are yarded by dogs. Participants also learn how wool is classed and baled and enjoy Devonshire teas.
MYELLA FARMSTAY, GLADSTONE, QUEENSLAND
Promising to leave you stiff, sore, dirty but happy, Peter and Olive Eather have been running the authentic Myella Farmstay since 1993. The 1000-hectare cattle property offers horse and motorbike riding, 4WD farm tours, home cooking, campfires, red dirt and mucking in and feed the animals or milk the cows.
An hour's drive inland from Gladstone, accommodation is simple but clean while camping is also available.
Staying there A self-drive package including meals, accommodation and farm activities is priced from $180 a person. See myella.com
Don't miss A lasso and whip-cracking lesson.
HIT THE HAY
PUMP HILL FARM COTTAGES, PEMBERTON, WA
Uninterrupted views over a misty green valley and majestic karri forest, cosy fires, fresh country air and hay rides feature at this family friendly farm stay in the picturesque town of Pemberton, south-west Western Australia.
Guests can join in each day to help feed the menagerie of farm animals.
Accommodation is in one, two and three-bedroom rammed earth and mudbrick cottages.
Staying there A one-bedroom cottage is priced from $145 a night for two people. See pumphill.com.au
Don't miss The morning hay ride, helping feed the cows from the tractor, then the donkeys, sheep, ducks and chickens.
FIVE WAYS FARM STAYS BENEFIT FAMILIES AND KIDS
A working farm offers an intimate look at the daily practices of life in the country. Families can get involved (or observe) hands on activities such as milking the cows, feeding livestock, grooming horses, building bonfires and collecting eggs.
Children are able to run free, get dirty, spend time in the fresh country air and disconnect from technology. Some farms have limited or non-existent mobile phone coverage, forcing guests on a digital detox.
Families gain a greater insight into where food comes from and can eat it at its source. Some farms offer the opportunity to help with mulching, planting or picking vegetables, herbs and fruit.
Many farm stays offer children the chance to connect with animals and participate in their care.
NATURE ON TAP
Farm stays help urban families connect with nature, the outdoors and each other through wholesome, fun activities.
Story originally published in the Sun Herald Traveller but has been edited, modified and updated.