Whenever I get to spend a weekend in country Victoria I always wonder why there aren’t more extended group tours and guided holidays around this state.
Maybe it’s because Victoria is a reasonably small state (by Australian standards) and a lot of the popular regional attractions like the Yarra Valley, Phillip Island and the Great Ocean Road can be done as day trips from Melbourne — albeit with some pretty long drives. However, combining more of our amazing regional historic centres on a seven or ten day tour would make a lot of sense. There’s so much to see and do, not to mention some amazing Aussie country hospitality to experience.
As you head roughly north-west from Melbourne through the Macedon Ranges and the idyllic pastoral farmland beyond, you soon find yourself deep in Victorian gold rush country. The Victorian gold rush ran from around 1850 to the end of the 1860s and virtually tripled the Australian population overnight. It was huge; a defining chapter in our history that few Aussies (myself included prior to researching this piece) probably appreciate the real significance of.
The roots of the White Australia Policy stretch back to the gold fields and the short but bloody siege of miners blockading themselves in the Eureka Stockade is forever embedded in Aussie folklore. Today, the larger surviving gold rush centres like Ballarat and Bendigo are unique tourist destinations with lots to offer visitors. The smaller towns like Castlemaine, Maldon and Creswick are just as intriguing.
I recently spent the weekend in wonderful Clunes — recognised as the site of the first gold strike of the rush in 1851, and today an amazingly well-preserved gold rush town. Clunes is a little off the beaten track, and if it weren’t for the cars parked along Fraser Street it would be tricky to tell what century you were actually in. The street is lined with original 19th century shop fronts that have been well maintained, but this is no ‘ye olde’ tourist trap. Here’s a list of top things to do in Clunes during your visit.
Ask any marketing boffin and they’ll tell you it’s all about differentiating yourself from the pack with a unique selling point. For Clunes — it’s books. The annual Clunes Booktown event is held in May and it basically transforms the town into a giant bookshop. It’s the largest meeting of new, used and rare book sellers and lovers in regional Australia. The weekend I’m in town is the inaugural Booktown for Kids spin-off. Sadly the weather doesn’t play ball so it’s a modest crowd, but the strategy of expanding the Booktown theme would seem to be a good one.
While big Booktown happens but once a year, there are plenty of good reasons to visit Clunes at any time. Check www.clunes.org for a list of upcoming events. Friday nights there’s a social gathering at Neil Newitt’s Gallery in Fraser Street. Visitors are made to feel very welcome, so don’t be shy. The drinks are extremely well priced and there’s free finger food to boot. We spend the evening rubbing shoulders with an eclectic mix of locals, including artists, authors, sculptors and a yogi. There’s a recurring theme to many of the conversations — folks making the break from the big smoke and settling here in Clunes for a cultural sea-change. It’s not hard to see the attraction.
For breakfast and lunch there are a handful of cafes in the main street. Not hundreds, but enough. The Big Breakfast at Annie’s on Fraser is awesome, and there’s a quirky accoutrement of vintage china on sale. On that subject, spend a couple of hours poking about the town’s antique and permanent book shops (of which there are understandably many), or exploring the historic buildings open to the public including the Clunes Museum and the town hall and library. You soon begin to get a clearer picture of the gold-plated affluence this town once enjoyed.
For the rest of your stay there are several wineries within easy reach of Clunes, as is tiny Talbot — another fabulous heritage town, which hosts a thriving farmers’ market day every third Sunday of the month. The spas of Hepburn Springs and Daylesford are also easily accessible.
If you’re putting together your own tour of regional Victoria, Clunes should definitely be on your itinerary. It’s Aussie country hospitality by the book.
Do you have any tips for top things to do in Clunes? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Australia, Europe, Asia, North America, parts of South America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the Tour the World travel TV series on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.