Rows of luxury African-style tents in a vineyard. A narrow laneway with hipster bars and fairy lights catching the breeze. An art gallery displaying dresses worn by Jacqueline Kennedy in the 1960s. They’re not the first things that spring to mind when one thinks of Bendigo, the gold-rush-era boom town two hours north of Melbourne. But times have changed.
While history is still its strongest suit, with majestic churches, intricate fountains and stately 19th-century architecture, the Victorian city’s broad boulevards are also dotted with innovative cafés, restaurants and watering holes such as The Dispensary Bar & Diner. With about 100 craft beers, 80 single-malt whiskies, 60 gins and 50 cocktails, its drinks list is one of the weightiest tomes in town. “But you won’t find a Marlborough sav blanc on my menu,” proudly declares 25-year-old co-owner Sam Bastian. “What’s the fun in offering something you already know? I want to give you something you have never tried, like Habla la Tierra [a tempranillo, cab sav, syrah and malbec blend from Trujillo, Spain],” he says, pointing to a blackboard menu of his latest finds. Just like Bastian, Bendigo will surprise you. And while it’s impossible to experience it all in one weekend, here’s where to start.
◖ Don’t bother setting an alarm when you sign up to sleep in one of Balgownie Estate’s newly erected luxury tents. Chirpy magpies, sprightly peewees and exuberant galahs make sure no-one sleeps in for too long. And thankfully so, because to miss the break of dawn – when the rising sun bathes the vineyards in a soft golden glow – would be to forgo the whole point of staying at this retreat. There are 10 air-conditioned bell tents to choose from, each with comfortable beds, plush linen, fluffy robes and private decks with outdoor seating. But if you want to turn up the luxe factor, opt for one of the five African-style safari tents, which also include kitchenettes, alfresco bathtubs and – most importantly – ensuites. If glamping’s not your thing, there are a couple of one-bedroom cottages, plus a new homestead featuring seven modern guestrooms with every creature comfort.
◖ Breakfast is a relaxed affair at Balgownie Estate’s cellar door-cum-restaurant, with bentwood-style chairs and timber tables, and a menu of favourites such as avo on toast, housemade muesli and bacon and eggs. The lunch and dinner offerings are more ceremonial, with the small kitchen dishing up entrées such as twice-baked goat’s-cheese soufflé and main courses including Wagyu porterhouse steak farmed just down the road. Match them with wines produced on site – the suitably cellared 2004 shiraz is ripe for a pour right now and the perfect foil for beef.
◖ Housed in a heritage-listed 1863 building, once home to Bendigo’s first bank, Rocks on Rosalind features a long bar, a courtyard and a string of small and large dining areas. But the place to be is one of the two intimate rooms set in the building’s original stone-clad vaults. There’s nothing old-world about executive chef Ben Massey’s menu, though. Flavours range from Asian (fluffy pork bao buns spiked with soy and ginger) to modern Australian (herb- and mustard-crusted lamb backstrap). But it’s the Peking duck pancakes – laced with mandarin – that bring the house down.
◖ A sophisticated palette of white and blond wood sets the mood at the hatted Masons of Bendigo, where regional produce is the focus. Almost everything comes from within a 100-kilometre radius; even the wine list is entirely Victorian. But unlike many fine-diners, the menu here is exhaustive so opt for the “roaming” option and leave it to husband and wife Nick and Sonia Anthony to surprise you with unexpected combinations: beef carpaccio and truffle; Moreton Bay bugs with pork hock; and maple and pumpkin (in a crème brûlée).
◖ No trip to Bendigo is complete without a self-guided tour of its most exquisite edifices. Start at the Visitor Centre housed in a Renaissance Revival-style building dating back to 1887. Grab a map that will lead you to the 19th-century Town Hall on Hargreaves Street; the 1860s Sandhurst Gaol, now a world-class theatre; and, finally, the city’s architectural pièce de résistance, Sacred Heart Cathedral, which, at 86 metres, is the second-tallest church in Australia.
◖ Likenesses of the British Royal Family go back centuries, with the greatest artists of each reign lending their skills to capture the monarch and their heirs in paint forever. Now, some of the most important portraits of five royal dynasties have arrived at Bendigo Art Gallery (until 14 July 2019) as part of the Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits.