Sparkle and shine

Tim Richards discovers the fine food and history on the streets of the former gold rush town.

Within hours of arriving in Castlemaine, I've spotted Persian feta on a cafe menu, wandered through chichi boutiques within an old hotel building and admired the authentic French antiques in my accommodation. Is it my imagination or is the practical old gold-rush town becoming a bit glamorous?

The owner of The Empyre, the aforementioned accommodation, John Ganci, is doing his bit to add allure. ''Our frequent customers see this as a breath of fresh air,'' he says of his establishment.

''A little bit of Melbourne or Sydney here in a town of 10,000 people.''

Whether it's going upmarket or simply broadening its attractions, Castlemaine has a distinctive identity. Its streets are still lined with the fine historic buildings that have always attracted visitors but there's a new sprinkling of quality dining, shopping and accommodation.

History

Castlemaine's history reflects that of the dynamic gold-rush era. The town was founded upon the discovery of gold at Specimen Gully in 1851. Known originally as Mount Alexander, the town sent tonnes of gold to Melbourne during the rush. By the 1860s, the township was well established and Castlemaine eased into its role as a regional centre of agriculture, industry and commerce.

Podcast tours

 Tourism authorities have produced a series of slick podcast tours, using local talent. On the Gold Rush to Mount Alexander tour, for example, narrators evoke the sadness of the Pennyweight Flat children's cemetery, reprise the turmoil of local protests against the gold-mining licences of the Eureka Stockade era and relate a memorable true story about a girl who was trapped within a mining water wheel. The tours can be downloaded from visitgoldfields.com or you can pick up a pre-loaded audio device at the Visitor Information Centre for a $20 deposit.

Historic attractions

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Buda Historic Home and Garden, a residence from the 1860s, was once owned by Hungarian-born silversmith Ernest Leviny. Much of its furniture and objets d'art were crafted by Leviny or his talented daughters (42 Hunter Street, 5472 1032, see budacastlemaine.org).

The Castlemaine Art Gallery and Museum is housed in an attractive 1930s building with plentiful natural light. The collection includes work from such luminaries as McCubbin, Roberts, Streeton, Drysdale and Brack (14 Lyttleton Street, 5472 2292, see castlemainegallery.com).

The Theatre Royal is said to be the oldest theatre on the Australian mainland still operating as such (Hobart's own Theatre Royal is older) and it has come a long way since it was housed beneath canvas during the gold rush. Nowadays it presents live music, theatre and movies in its aged interior and you can order pizza and wine during a screening (30 Hargraves Street, 5472 1196, see theatreroyal.info).

You can't go inside Old Gaol but the penal architecture of the town's 1861 jail is worth a look and there's a great view over the town from its hilly location (Bowden Street).

The Victorian Goldfields Railway operates from Platform 3 of the V/Line station, travelling to the historic treasure chest of Maldon on Sundays and Wednesdays. On Sundays, first-class travel is available in the Tambo parlour car (Castlemaine Railway Station, Kennedy Street, 5470 6658, see vgr.com.au).

Shopping

The sprawling XXXX Antique Complex (5 Elizabeth Street, 5470 5989), includes the last vestige of the Castlemaine XXXX brewery that later moved to Queensland. Restorers Barn (129 Mostyn Street, phone 5470 5669) is packed with practical items for home restoration, along with collectables. Fashionistas will be pleasantly amazed by Fashion Central (4 Templeton Street, 5472 1085), a labyrinthine complex of clothing outlets. For foodies, the Visitor Information Centre has brochures outlining gourmet trails, including the Castlemaine Food and Wine Trail and the Vine to Vintage Trail.

Where to eat

Saffs Cafe is a rambling cafe-restaurant spilling out past the kitchen to a back room and a large garden. The menu is an eclectic selection of cafe standards and more ambitious specials. It is laidback, popular with locals and family friendly (64 Mostyn Street, 5470 6722).

A street away, Tog's Place has a similar feel to Saffs but substitute a cool roof terrace for the garden. The food is cafe-style with curries, pastas and soups du jour (58 Lyttleton Street, 5470 5090).

The Albion, in the Wesley Hill district, is a bistro with an Italian-inspired menu and decor, done up in Mediterranean colours with local art for sale on the walls (152 Duke Street, 5472 1292).

Selvi's Curry and Garden Restaurant is an Indian eatery within the red-brick walls of the 1855 Globe Hotel, serving up the usual suspects at reasonable prices (83 Forest Street, 5470 5345).

Where to stay

The Empyre is an impressively restored 19th-century hotel in the town centre. On a ground floor is a fine-dining restaurant and bistro. Try to nab a table in the old dining room, if only so you can marvel at the original textured wallpaper that looks like tooled leather. Rooms from $190 a night. (68 Mostyn Street, 5472 5166, see empyre .com.au).

Clevedon Manor is the sort of place Charles Dickens's Miss Havisham might favour. It is a rambling old Victorian-era house that has high ceilings and multiple bedrooms that can accommodate up to 16 guests. With spa baths, a swimming pool and large back garden, this would be a great place for a group. Rooms from $110 (260 Barker Street, 5472 5212, see mtalexander .net/clevedon.htm).

Tuckpoint is a compact cottage that has been expanded to a comfortable size by the addition of a long, well-lit back room. It's the very model of a modern bed and breakfast, with internet access, airconditioning, a dishwasher and self-catering facilities. Rooms from $160 a night (60 Kennedy Street, 0439 035 382, see tuckpointcottage.com).

The Theatre Royal Backstage B&B is easily the quirkiest accommodation I've ever stayed in. Squeezed into a two-level space at the back of the theatre, this cosy, green-carpeted space is crammed with movie memorabilia, two double beds and a bathroom supervised by a portrait of Lola Montez, who once performed here. Cinema screenings are free to guests. Rooms from $220 (30 Hargraves Street, 5472 1196, see theatre royal.info).

The Midland is ornate and stylish accommodation above Fashion Central, with grand lounges and a dash of deco. It is a stone's throw from the train station (2 Templeton Street, 5472 1085, see themidland.com.au).

Events

- Castlemaine Farmers' Market, first Sunday each month. Next market, February 6.

- Castlemaine State Festival. Biennial arts event, April 1-10.

- BudaFest. Gardening festival, August 26-28.

- Castlemaine Show, October 28-29.

- Castlemaine and District Festival of Gardens. Biennial, next due in 2012.

Getting there

V/Line operates regular services between Southern Cross and Bendigo stations, stopping at Castlemaine (about one hour and 40 minutes from Southern Cross). By road, Castlemaine is 120 kilometres from Melbourne, 90 minutes along the Calder and Pyrenees highways.

More information

The Castlemaine Visitor Information Centre is located in the impressive old Market Building (44 Mostyn Street, phone 5471 1795, see maldon castlemaine.com) and visitvictoria.com.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria.

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