Ballarat family holiday: The new gold rush

Sovereign Hill and Kryal Castle are great fun for the little (and big) prospectors.

It's a 40-degree day, with a fierce northerly and total fire ban. A day to be poolside. Instead, I'm back in the 1850s at Sovereign Hill necking a water bottle and marvelling at how our ancestors survived such heat. All those petticoats, all that crinoline at this colonial theme park dedicated to the gold rush, when the equivalent of $80 billion in today's terms was found in the area and life on the diggings was harsh.

A jailer eyes my son, nine, sitting outside the printers reading his freshly inked poster. "You" he points his baton then strides over from the post office kicking up the dust. "You're a hairy ladded lout, you're educated, you can read and write. You're under arrest!"

And with that the boy is cuffed and captive. There are photos, there is banter and a growing queue. Others want to be handcuffed too.

The prisoner is released and we move along Main Street of the replica village, stopping for shade on the verandahs of the sweet shop and the candlemakers and I'm surprised as anyone at the fun we are all having.

From gold rush days to the Eureka rebellion to the refreshed and somewhat kooky Kryal Castle, history lives in this region about 90 minutes from Melbourne. Here's some multi-generational picks of what you might pack into a weekend.

GOLD SMELTING WORKS

We start at one of Sovereign Hill's newer attractions at the village, where the room is packed as a chap in long gloves and apron melts 3 kilograms of gold.

Heated to 1200 degrees, the gold in the crucible is melted, poured into a bar mould then thrown into a trough.

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It makes a thumping sound as it hits the water and fills the area with steam.

My six-year-old gold digger is the first to volunteer for a hold of the ingot worth a cool $140,000.

HORSE AND CARRIAGE

"Now this is a good way to see things," says the gold digger as we climb aboard the four-horse Cobb and Co carriage at Sovereign Hill.

We jingle past the essential businesses of the time; the California tent maker, Glasgow saddlery, Mr David Jones' Criterion Store and a transit office for bookings to all parts of the colony.

The New York bakery is serving a modern-day version of the vanilla slice, the treat believed to have originated on the goldfields.

GOLD PANNING

Expectations are high at the Red Hill Gully Diggings, Sovereign Hill's bleak area of canvas tents, gums and mining equipment from another time, nodding donkey included.

A group of Chinese visitors are barefoot and panning in earnest by the water's edge, light reflecting on their faces.

In an area where during 1854-56 the Chinese population was said to be as much as one-third of the total living in the camps and district of the area, perhaps a distant relative was here also, seeking fortune. It's our good luck to be here on Chinese New Year and there's a moving concert by the Melbourne Philharmonic Orchestra, a Chinese dragon and lion parade and a re-creation of a public meeting by the anti-Chinese League to ban the prospectors.

We leave the diggings empty-handed and gently remind Miss Six that all that glitters is not gold.

KRYAL CASTLE

A 10-minute drive from the gold rush we step over a drawbridge and into mediaeval costume, the girl in a pink flared dress with long sleeves (a sign of wealth), the boy in velvet knickerbockers. If it's been a while between jousts, the castle is worth a repeat visit.

Reopened last year after a makeover, new attractions include the maze, dragon's labyrinth and a dungeon of doom (12 years and over). We watch the wizard mixing a potion of goblin's eyes, hair of a unicorn and griffin's dandruff before a trip to torture chamber. Master Nine is intrigued by wrist and leg crushers, a punishment to match repeat thievery.

Miss Six is happy to pat the kids in the thatched animal pen before we settle ringside for the champion joust between two knights in shining armour, on horses 17 hands high. The faux peasants with English accents, who have been hamming it up, take the children for training in sword fighting and archery.

Master Nine clashes wooden swords with one of them. "You are welcome to fight as long as you like! I am training to be a knight." And the battle continues.

The writer was a guest of Victorian Goldfields Tourism.

THREE MORE THINGS TO DO IN BALLARAT

THE MUSEUM OF AUSTRALIAN DEMOCRACY AT EUREKA

A stunning interactive museum less than a year old probing the meaning of people, power and democracy worldwide. Built on the site of the Eureka Stockade, the main exhibition examines the events leading to the bloody 1854 battle. Adults $12, concession $8, family $35 (maximum five); five and under free; made.org.

THE FORGE PIZZERIA

Families and bearded hipsters eat at the relaxed establishment with exposed brick walls and church pews. 14 Armstrong Street, North Ballarat; theforgepizzeria.com.au.

GOLDEN CITY HOTEL

A grand 1856 hotel and classic country pub with a full house by 6.30pm.

427 Sturt Street, Ballarat; goldencityhotel.com.au.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

By car: about 110 kilometres or 90 minutes from Melbourne on Route 8, Western Highway; about an hour from Melbourne Airport. By train and coach about one hour and 45 minutes from Melbourne's Southern Cross Station on Spencer Street. See vline.com.au.

STAYING THERE

Comfort Inn, on the Sovereign Hill site, allows you to step out of your room and back in time to the 1850s. Comfortable, free Wi-Fi and a revamped breakfast area serving a solid breakfast. Rooms from $170 a night. See sovereignhill.com.au/comfort-inn-sovereignhill.

For mediaeval tragics, refurbished suites at Kryal Castle have hand-woven French and Belgian tapestries. Rooms from $155 a night. See kryalcastle.com.au/stay/stay-in-the-castle.

MORE INFORMATION

visitvictoria.comsovereignhill.com.aukryalcastle.com.au.

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