Coombe Cottage gardens will be opened to the public to perpetuate Dame Nellie Melba's legacy. Photo: Joe Armao
For generations, people driving into the Yarra Valley from Melbourne have wondered what lay behind the thick cypress hedge lining Nellie Melba's property.
Our curiosity is set to be sated from next month when the opera diva's stunning 30-hectare Coombe Cottage estate at Coldstream opens to the public.
Melba's great-grandsons Lord Samuel Vestey and the Honourable Mark Vestey are spending millions converting outbuildings into a cafe-restaurant, gallery and cellar door, which will open on August 23.
Winter Gardens open at Dame Nellie Melba's home
Views of the garden at Dame Nellie Melba's home where Coombe Cottage is to be opened to the public. Photo: Joe Armao
The 2.8-hectare garden - designed by William Guilfoyle, landscaper of Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens - including a 1913 pool, an elm tree avenue, and a glorious 19th century oak tree, is being restored to its former glory and by October it will host public tours.
The interior of Coombe Cottage - a sprawling colonial mansion with bay windows, stately verandahs and French chintz furniture - will remain for family use only.
But estate manager Daniel Johnson says the tours will circle the house's exterior, and include tales of this place, where Melba shed her famous regal persona and relaxed.
The expansive grounds. Photo: Joe Armao
The stories include Melba christening granddaughter Pamela in a bird bath; dressing as The Old Lady Who Lived in A Shoe for Pamela's 10th birthday party; and hosting dinner parties for prime minister Billy Hughes and British actor Ellen Terry.
The motor house, with its saying ''East, West, Hame's Best'' on the clock tower (hame being Scottish for home), and where Melba once parked her De Dion-Bouton and Rolls-Royce cars, is being converted into a 150-seat restaurant, with a rear glass conservatory with views across the estate. Opera functions and weddings have already been booked for the space.
The restaurant, under French-trained, former QE2 chef Tony Milton, will use produce grown on the property including beef, vegetables, and wines from nearby Coombe Farm Estate winery.
Coombe Cottage. Photo: Joe Armao
It will also feature dishes that French chef Auguste Escoffier created in homage to the diva - Peach Melba, Melba Toast, and Melba Sauce.
The tack room, across a courtyard opposite the restaurant, will become a cellar door while a free gallery will display art and memorabilia from the family collection. A home movie of Melba on a verandah playing with roses and a cockatoo, will be projected onto the gallery wall.
The inaugural exhibition will include landscapes of Coombe estate by Hans Heysen, painted between 1914 to 1921 and not seen in public for more than 80 years.
Illustration: Matt Golding.
Objects on display will include Melba's Hermes riding boots, Cartier handbags, and a century-old, 14-piece Louis Vuitton luggage set.
Mr Johnson says future exhibitions will include paintings by Arthur Streeton depicting the Yarra Valley and the Dandenongs, and a bearskin rug given to Melba by Charlie Chaplin.
Mr Johnson says Pamela, or Lady Vestey, Melba's only grandchild who lived here for 40 years until she died in 2011, wanted the estate to remain in the family, to perpetuate Melba's legacy.
He said opening the estate was a way for Lady Vestey's sons to keep it viable while educating new generations about the ''amazing'' Melba.
''She was a very driven, single-minded woman from Australia who conquered the world.''