Strike gold in Bendigo
Bendigo had its first lucky strike with a gold rush that left a legacy. Add its modern-day culinary offerings and rich culture, and you have a compelling city to explore.
Words: Tim Richards
Sampling the food scene
“I love chocolate, it’s always been a treat,” says Hayley Tibbett, owner of Indulge Fine Belgian Chocolates. “It only takes a little to give you that good vibe.” For more than a decade, Tibbett has been creating fine Belgian-style chocolate in the heart of Bendigo’s CBD, and I’m delighted to sample a few tasty items such as shiraz ganache and chocolates with salted caramel and sea salt.
Chocolate is only the start of the dining adventure in Bendigo, whose food scene has leapt upward in quality in recent years. Held twice a month next to the Bendigo Visitor Centre, the Bendigo Community Farmers Market is a guaranteed source of local produce. One stall to look out for is Vintage Kitchen Preserves, where owner Sue Gerdsen sells spreads made with the utmost attention to minimising waste – including the ’Outback Chutney’, made from zucchinis grown ’out the back’ of her house.
The city also has some great restaurants. Masons of Bendigo is a stylish space serving dishes with an emphasis on local ingredients within a former glass factory. In atmospheric Chancery Lane is smooth bar The Dispensary, with a great drinks list ranging from local wines to obscure European beers.
And Bendigo Wholefoods is a local favourite, matching a specialist grocery with a café specialising in tasty wholesome dishes – my bowl of housemade falafel with creamy beetroot hummus and coconut labneh makes for a great lunch.
Indulging in art and performance
The city’s cultural pride and joy is the Bendigo Art Gallery, which regularly hosts exclusive exhibitions with wide popular appeal. These shows have covered subjects such as Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe, with one of the most recent blockbuster featuring impressive portraits of British royalty.
Another cultural drawcard is the Ulumbarra Theatre, set within the walls of a former prison. The venue’s name means ’meeting place’ in the language of the local Dja Dja Wurrung people, and it fulfils that function admirably with a diverse program of music and plays.
Unearthing the golden age
Bendigo was swept up in the gold rush fever that struck Victoria in the mid-19th century. One of the best ways of learning about that era is to drop into the Central Deborah Gold Mine, an original structure that’s open for visitors to explore.
There are several tours available, but the top attraction has to be the Nine Levels of Darkness, which takes you 228 metres below ground, dressed in miners’ gear, to learn the traditional tricks of the trade: navigating tunnels, setting charges and operating a drill.
Discovering Chinese heritage
Another aspect of Bendigo’s past was the large number of miners who arrived from China, hoping to strike it lucky on the goldfields in the face of considerable discrimination. The Golden Dragon Museum tells the story of the city’s Chinese community through fascinating } exhibits. The ceremonial dragons that give the museum its name include newcomer Dai Gum Loong, the longest in the world at 120 metres. Each year the dragons wind through the city streets for the annual Easter Festival.
Outside the museum is another highlight, the Yi Yuan, a ’garden of joy’ based on the design of the gardens of the Imperial Palace in Beijing. Within its grounds are a Buddhist temple, and there’s a tea room if you fancy a cup.
Riding a heritage tram
A fun attraction that threads together city highlights is the heritage tourist tram operated by Bendigo Tramways. One line remains from Bendigo’s original tram system which ran from 1890 to the 1970s, and it plays host to a range of vintage vehicles.
At one end of the route is the Central Deborah Gold Mine. From here the tram heads east along High Street and Pall Mall past the elegant Alexandra Fountain. At its eastern terminus is the Joss House, a Chinese place of worship surviving from the gold rush era. Tram tickets are valid all day and allow passengers to hop on and off at stops along the way.
An extra drawcard is the monthly Blues Tram, which features live music and refreshment along the rails on a Saturday afternoon.
Shaping clay at Bendigo Pottery
On the edge of town in Epsom is Bendigo Pottery, founded in 1858. There’s a museum showing off its historic wood-fired kilns, and displays of equipment used down the decades.
There’s also potential shopping to be done, via the wide selection of tableware and cookware made on the premises, and galleries selling the work of local potters. The most enjoyable activity, however, is to throw your own pot. Visitors can book a pottery class and be expertly led through the art of moulding a ceramic creation, which is then glazed for an additional fee.
Staying over in city and country
My first night in Bendigo is spent at the Quest Schaller, a sleek modern hotel near the CBD which features the vibrant work of Melbourne artist Mark Schaller. Rooms are compact but bright and airy, with small balconies.
For my final night I swap city for bush, taking the short drive to Balgownie Estate. In addition to a relaxed restaurant with views over the grapes, this winery offers upmarket tent accommodation on its grounds. My ’glamping’ tent turns out to be spacious with a comfortable bed, and it’s a delight to sit on the deck as the sun sets.
Strolling the parklands
After indulging in the foodie and cultural highlights of Bendigo, there’s no better way to wind down than a stroll through Rosalind Park. This beautifully landscaped space lies between the Bendigo Art Gallery and the Visitor Centre, its grassy slopes criss-crossed by paths and the Bendigo Creek. The park’s lookout tower within an old mining frame is the perfect place from which to take a parting photo of this memorable regional city.
Bendigo takes its name from the nickname of 19th-century English bare-fist boxer William ’Bendigo’ Thompson, itself a shortening of his middle name Abednego.
The city sits within the Bendigo Wine Region, most famous for its red wines, particularly shiraz and cabernet sauvignon.
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