Take an hour's drive west of Melbourne through Victoria's rolling hills and delight in one of the world's greatest living legacies to a 19th-century gold rush.
Born in the romance and turmoil of the 1850s, the city of Ballarat drew tens of thousands of hopefuls from around the globe, afire with gold fever, after a few ounces of the shiny stuff were panned at Canadian Creek in 1851. It's believed that one in four Australians can trace their origins to the goldfields.
The staggering wealth generated by gold strikes transformed Ballarat within 10 years of the first find, leaving it the grandest collection of bluestone and brick buildings in Australia. Sumptuous architecture, historic precincts and stately gardens are all part of Ballarat's attractions.
Ballarat's cultural legacy is just as rich, with Mark Twain and Dame Nellie Melba being some of the first star visitors to wax lyrical about the town.
For a hearty dose of local history, lose yourself at Sovereign Hill. This globally acclaimed attraction is an open-air museum replicating the sights and sounds of gold-fevered Ballarat in the 1850s. Constructed directly over the site of one of its richest mines, you can still pan for gold. Cobb and Co coach rides are popular, as is the street theatre. The Redcoat Soldiers perform a range of drills, including musket-firing.
Plus there's plenty of family-friendly, hands-on activity, including old-fashioned sweet-making, candle-dipping and metal-spinning. Sovereign Hill also hosts the nightly sound and light spectacular, Blood on the Southern Cross.
The dramatic spectacle showcases the 1854 Eureka Rebellion which forced the colonial establishment to recognise the rights of miners and gave rise to democracy in Australia.
To compliment the nightly show, take a leisurely walk on the Eureka Trail, which meanders around the historic sites that are threaded into the rebellion story. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more elegant freeze-framed environment than Lydiard St, which is richly blessed with beautifully preserved, gold rush-era buildings, including the railway station, the Mining Exchange, the former jail and courthouse, and Craig's Royal Hotel.
Her Majesty's Theatre is worth a stop. Built in 1896, it is Australia's oldest continuously operating, purpose-built theatre. Green-fingered aficionados will be enthralled by Ballarat's Botanic Gardens, established in 1858 and configured in classical style.
The city is synonymous with tuberous begonias, hosting the Begonia Festival in March.
Rooms fit for royalty
Historic Lydiard St is crowned with Australia's top gold rush-era hotel. Craig's Royal Hotel has been on the frontlines of much of Ballarat's history, and certainly at the centre of the city's social scene.
The extensive list of famous guests to have graced the hotel is dizzying.
Mark Twain, Queen Victoria's second son, Prince Alfred, the Duke and Duchess of York ( later King George V and Queen Mary), Lord Kitchener, Sir Don Bradman and Dame Nellie Melba, to name just a few.
In 1865, the hotel hosted the Shenandoah Ball, organised by the Confederate Navy, who were in town to enlist recruits to fight the American Civil War.
The owners, John and Mary Finning, have completed a painstaking renovation of the property, which is positively gleaming, gorgeous and faithful to its Victorian roots. The grande dame offers 41 luxury rooms, furnished with period antiques, artworks and decorative features.
With a proud history as Ballarat's meeting place, the variety of bars, restaurants and banquet rooms within the hotel adds to its charm. The bluestone cellar is also a gem.
Ballarat is rightly proud of its legendary establishment. Be sure to experience it for yourself. www.craigsroyal.com.au
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