31 July 2013 by Adam Hickmott
The history and heritage of Victoria's Goldfields region provides a dramatic backdrop to a burgeoning arts and cultural scene, new restaurants, wine and cider makers, and artisan food producers. There are many riches to be discovered, from major international art exhibitions and native wildlife to interactive history experiences, sophisticated wine bars and a thriving coffee culture.
Located in central Victoria, the Goldfields region consists of many gold rush towns and villages, namely Ballarat, Bendigo, Castlemaine, Maldon, Heathcote and Harcourt. The two largest cities, Ballarat and Bendigo, are easy day trips from Melbourne, within two hours drive of the city.
Steeped in history, Ballarat is Victoria's largest inland city and is home to the world's largest deposit of alluvial gold. Visitors can explore the town's magnificent architecture by taking a self-guided Ballarat Heritage Walking Trail, experiencing Victorian and Edwardian buildings and streets filled with parks, gardens, statues, and churches.
Some of Ballarat's grandest buildings can be found on Lydiard Street. One of these buildings is the 1862-heritage bank, which has been transformed into the Lydiard Wine Bar offering a French and Asian influenced menu. Wine buffs can also sample wine at the Mitchell Harris Cellar Door which operates as a wine bar at night. In the arts precinct, Phoenix Brewery is a cosy, rustic restaurant and tapas bar, while the 19th-century Craig's Royal Hotel, whose past guests include the British royals and Australian cricketer Don Bradman, features the Gallery Bistro, a glass-roofed dining space with a contemporary Australian menu.
Ballarat's latest tourism attraction, M.A.D.E (Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka) opened in May, 2013. The $AUD11.1 million museum is Australia's newest interactive exhibition and explores how democracy shaped the nation and how it might evolve in the future. The museum is set on the site of the original Eureka Rebellion and houses the iconic Eureka flag.
The best way to learn more about Victoria's Goldfields history is with a visit to Sovereign Hill, an open-air museum where the glorious gold rush days can be experienced first-hand. The museum is also home to a nightly sound-and-light show, Blood on the Southern Cross, while Goldasaurus, a 4.4 kilogram gold nugget which was found in 2003 in the Golden Triangle region between Ballarat and Bendigo, is on permanent display at Sovereign Hill's Gold Museum.
From gold rush to medieval history, Ballarat's Kryal Castle has had a multi-million dollar redevelopment, transforming the attraction into a medieval theme park and resort - the only one of its kind in Australia. Actors and special effects bring to life weird and wonderful tales with arena shows, demonstrations, Torture Dungeon, Riddlers maze, Braveheart's playground, village markets, interactive exhibits and children's programs. Seventeen luxury Castle suites have also been refurbished, providing an overnight medieval experience.
At Ballarat's Wildlife Park, nature enthusiasts can have a close encounter with Australian wildlife as more than 80 kangaroos roam free and staff offer guided interactions with koalas, wombats, snakes and lizards. A new crocodile billabong conservation centre for the park's large saltwater crocodiles is currently being developed and will provide an exciting new experience. An underwater 'stadium' viewing area and 150-seat auditorium will offer premium viewing and the opportunity to learn about crocodile education and wildlife conservation issues. Due to open in September 2013, the crocodile enclosure will be the largest crocodilian education exhibit in southern Australia.
Neighbouring Ballarat and located just one hour and 45 minutes' drive from Melbourne is Bendigo. The vibrant city features a façade of elegant Australian gold rush architecture, happening laneway culture, contemporary art, and a selection of premium cafes and fine dining experiences in historic buildings.
The best way to travel around Bendigo and gain an insight into the town's golden history is to take the Vintage 'Talking Tram', disembarking at any of its six stops. One of the stops is the award-winning Central Deborah Gold Mine where visitors can experience a day in the life of a miner from the 1900s, descending 228 metres beneath the surface on the Nine Levels of Darkness tour - Australia's deepest underground mine tour.
A major addition to the region will be The Great Stupa of Universal Compassion, which is currently being built 15 minutes' drive from Bendigo's city centre. The sacred Buddhist monument will be the same size and design as the Great Stupa of Gyantse in China making it the largest in the Western World. The holy site will also be the final resting place for the Jade Buddha for Universal Peace; the largest Buddha carved from gemstone-quality jade in the world. The Great Stupa is set to be completed within two years.
Bendigo is also fast becoming known as an arts destination. The Bendigo Art Gallery, one of the oldest and largest in regional Australia, features regular international touring exhibitions alongside its vast collection of Australian works. The upcoming Modern Love: Fashion visionaries from the FIDM Museum LA (26 October 2013 - 2 February 2014) will showcase the work of the most spectacular and avant-garde fashion designers from the 1980s to today, such as Vivienne Westwood, Issey Miyake, Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel and Alexander McQueen. Bendigo Art Gallery will be the exclusive venue for this exhibition in Australia.
Visitors can create their own artwork at Bendigo Pottery, Australia's oldest working pottery, with sessions on the wheel, clay play and demonstrations of hand-throwing by potters. The retail outlet sells high quality tableware and cookware made on-site, while the new Antiques and Collectables Centre features more than 30 stalls.
Bendigo is also home to a number of fine food purveyors and flourishing restaurant scene. One of Australia's best Champagne lists - along with an impressive cigar menu - can be found at The Dispensary Enoteca, located on Chancery Lane, a hip laneway in the heart of the gold rush town; its contemporary menu has a focus on Central Victorian produce. Melbourne's passion for coffee has found a new home in Bendigo with cafe Old Green Bean roasting single origin beans on-site, and El Gordo, the hole-in-the-wall cafe brewing locally-roasted beans and offering Spanish-influenced dishes. Other notable restaurants include The Woodhouse, which specialises in grassfed, dry-aged Victorian beef, and Masons, an all-day dining venue that showcases regional produce, local ales and wines.
The neighbouring town of Castlemaine, 90 minutes drive from Melbourne, is renowned for its eclectic arts scene, rich gold rush history, and growing gourmet reputation. Antique, vintage, craft and bookstores are joined by new hot dining spots including The Good Table and Public Inn. Ten minutes from Castlemaine is Harcourt, the apple centre of Victoria and home to artisan cider makers such as Henry of Harcourt and Bress.
For those seeking a cellar door experience, the Goldfields boasts three significant wine regions - Bendigo, Ballarat and Heathcote. Bendigo and Heathcote are famed for robust shiraz, while Ballarat is noted for elegant cool-climate wines. Heathcote Grape Escape Tours conduct private, tailored wine tours for small groups.
Visitors can discover some of the best-kept secrets of the Goldfields and absorb the region's history with a number of guided tours, or map out individual journeys with a self-guided walking tour available from local visitor information centres.