Ballarat’s booming again.

“We’re aiming for people to make a connection to the region,” says David Cook-Doulton as he guides me through Hotel Vera, the seven-suite luxury accommodation that he and partner Martin Shew created in Ballarat, 90 minutes from Melbourne. Each suite’s colour scheme is inspired by other Victorian goldfield towns – the dusky blue skies of Sandon, the pink soils of Tourello – and styled with designer furnishings and arresting art. Rooms are thoroughly modern (hello, bedside induction chargers), while honouring the heritage character of this 1893 mansion on central Sturt Street. “We have a love for old buildings but also for the contemporary,” says Cook-Doulton.

It’s a short stroll to Aunty Jacks, an industrial brewhouse clad in colourful recycled doors, mirrors and cupboards, offering music, food and six craft brews from a pale summer lager to a wintry vanilla porter. After one quick drink, I drive 20 minutes out of town to Wattle Flat where Liam and Melissa Downes have recently taken over Black Cat Truffles, an eight-hectare truffière and restaurant. Weekend truffle hunts run during much of the year, with elaborate meals or grazing plates served afterwards, but on Fridays Liam prepares an eight-course long lunch menu. Six of the courses I’m served, including luscious wood-roasted chicken and even the double-cream French cheese, come with truffle.

I stop by a former welding shop at Mount Pleasant where Chris Pratt (no, not that Chris Pratt) and Rebecca Mathews have opened Kilderkin Distillery. The gins make good use of native botanicals – cinnamon myrtle, desert lime – and I’m encouraged to drink them neat, like whisky (which Kilderkin also makes, having just released a single malt after five years in barrels). I end the day with an exceptional dinner for one at Mr Jones, where former Nahm London head chef Damien Jones conjures mod-Thai dishes that are nuanced and exciting, from punchy betel leaf parcels to smoky duck curry and a som tum-style barramundi salad.

Even though a classy continental breakfast is served every morning in Vera’s sleek, luminous dining room, I walk around the block to check out Johnny Alloo, a fire-warmed café of exposed brick and all-day brunch dishes, including laksa, scrambled eggs with chilli crab, and prawn and ’nduja tagliatelle. Breakfast Negronis are optional.

Next, a culture fix at Australia’s oldest and largest regional art gallery. Behind the 19th century Renaissance façade of the Art Gallery of Ballarat is a dynamic collection of works by famous Australian artists such as Beckett, Nolan and Williams, and always an exhibit that connects visitors to the city’s history. The highlight for me is the gallery’s latest acquisition, John Brack’s whimsical The Chase, which depicts his three daughters playing together.

Ballarat’s newest bar, Grainery Lane, brings gold rush-era excess to an old grain store with a dazzling array of chandeliers (60 and counting) and two antique American saloon bars carved extravagantly with lion heads and Corinthian columns. “It’s all about the experience,” says owner and hospitality king Brian Taylor (Hop Temple, Roy Hammond), who’s installed a speakeasy upstairs and an onsite distillery crafting eight gins and two vodkas. Chef Scott Alsop makes good use of the house pours in his vodka-spiked scallops and G&T oysters.

Though I haven’t stopped grazing since I got here, there’s no way I’d leave Ballarat without eating at Underbar. Tricky to book, chef Derek Boath’s 14-seat fine-diner opens only on Friday and Saturdays evenings, serving 10-dish dégustations with the precision (and often the flavours) of Japanese cuisine, the finesse of French gastronomy and exceptional Australian produce. Given Boath’s kitchen pedigree – he returned home to Ballarat from the three-starred Per Se in New York – the experience feels luxuriant but also local and celebratory. Standouts include a satiny chawanmushi with spanner crab and a sour cream panna cotta with calamansi jelly, lemon cream and makrut lime foam that channels the pleasure of a lemon meringue pie. Wine guy Anthony Schuurs deftly matches the drinks – anything from yuzu sake to cult Austrian winery Gut Oggau. The experience is international-standard and the ultimate way to connect with this charismatic city.

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SEE ALSO: Where to Eat and Drink in Ballarat

Image credit: Lauren Bamford


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