The imposing Victorian architecture of Ballarat, Bendigo and the smaller surrounding towns are a reminder of Victoria's gold rush, when the world came to a remote fledgling colony to strike it rich. While the historical streetscapes have survived, those frontier days are long gone.
You'll find instead towns with a very civilised, even gently bohemian, atmosphere, and a host of good museums, great dining and colourful shops. The twin towns of Daylesford and Hepburn Springs also have the added attraction of hot springs and a spa industry that has grown up around them.
Give or take 20 minutes, depending on where you decide to base yourself, the trip up the Western, Calder or Hume highways will take you around 90 minutes.
When you get there
The Dispensary Enoteca
's worst-kept secret. This former pharmacy turned wine shop/cafe/restaurant is tucked away down Chancery Lane, just off the main drag. It's an all-day affair, so they'll be happy to hand you a glass of prosecco
whatever time you arrive.
Stick around for dinner: chargrilled steaks, autumn mushroom risottos or pork cooked with Harcourt apples are just what you'd hope the doctor orders. You might find yourself back here for breakfast they open at 8am.
A visit to the Bendigo Art Gallery
is a wonderful way to wile away a few hours as you decompress to a more leisurely local pace. The ornate building houses an impressive collection of Australian art, from early colonial paintings by Louis Buvelot to modernists such as Rupert Bunny, Grace Cossington-Smith, Margaret Preston and Arthur Boyd.
There's also some excellent contemporary work. Look out for the works of Victorian artists such as John Nixon, Jenny Watson, Louise Forthun, Bill Henson, Patricia Piccinini and Stieg Persson. If too much art is never enough, drive to Maldon to the Penny School Gallery & Café for low-key exhibitions by Goldfields artists, or just wander the town's antique shops. Grab a yabbie pie from Gourmet Yabbies for lunch (the yabbies are farmed locally; 44 Main Street, Maldon).
Next stop, Castlemaine a pretty, quietly booming town that's perfect for strolling. If you'd like to absorb some salient details while you walk, the Visitors Information Centre hires out digital music players preloaded with a choice of podcast tours, featuring an all-star cast of local actors, musicians and raconteurs (Historic Market Building, 44 Mostyn Street, Castlemaine; phone (03) 5471 1795).
Among the many historic drawcards is Buda, a beautiful country house and gardens that was home to family of creative daughters. The nursery here sells plants grown from heritage seeds, bulbs and cuttings.
The town also has some good shopping ops, with the rambling, eccentric Castlemaine Fashion Central showcasing the work of local designers. If you just want to stretch out on the grass and take in the country air, the Botanical Gardens are a delight. This is one of the oldest gardens in Victoria, with a number of granddaddy trees listed by the National Trust. Bonus: there's a playground to entertain the kids while you watch the clouds go by.
Come dinner time, the Empyre Hotel has a thoughtful modern Australian menu that's definitely in fine dining territory but isn't in the least stuffy. Local institution, the Theatre Royal does dinner and a show (either live acts or films). An occasional big-name graces the bill here, and it's a fantastically atmospheric place to see a band.
Stop in at Saff's
in Castlemaine for coffee first thing but say no to the brunch menu (64 Mostyn Street, Castlemaine; phone (03) 5470 6722). Instead save your appetite for a long lunch, up the Midland Highway at Harcourt's Bress Wine, Cider and Produce
The restaurant at this biodynamic winery and farm revolves around a wood-fired oven that turns out Sicilian-style pizzas and farm-fresh desserts like pear and quince tarts. They also do roasts with a seasonal menu to match the particular beast that's found itself on the impressively serious spit. Make sure you book ahead, and don't forget to try the wonderful méthode champenoise-style cider.
With Hepburn Springs only a short detour on the way back to Melbourne, a float in the newly refurbished Hepburn Bathhouse & Spa's warm salt therapy pool is a fitting end to a relaxing, restorative Goldfields weekend.
What to bring home
Antique buttons from Habadash
, in Castlemaine's Fashion Central
Where to stay
hotels and B&Bs tend to pile on the heritage trimmings, though fortunately there's a few that do it with flair and/or endearing eccentricity (like the Harry Potter room at the Theatre Royal yes it's a bed under the stairs). Recommended options include The Hotel Shamrock
, Theatre Royal
, The Empyre Hotel
, Palm House
, Ravenswood Homestead (4912 Calder Highway, Ravenswood; phone (3) 5435 3284), The Midland Hotel
, Peppers Springs Retreat & Spa
What to splurge on
A private mineral bath at Hepburn Bathhouse & Spa
Got any other suggestions? Share your insight below.