Geelong. Why would you want to go there? Victoria's second biggest city has been snubbed by Melburnians thanks to its gritty, working class past. But I have news for you. While you weren't looking, Geelong has transformed. Some people who grew up here returned and decided to inject some love into its huge, vacant industrial buildings and turn them into the type of flourishing restaurants, venues and bars you'd expect to see in Melbourne. And if you live on Melbourne's west-side, the trip down could take just 45 minutes with no tolls, roadworks or backed-up traffic. Hell, you can even catch a ferry from Docklands if you don't fancy driving.
I head down on one of the wettest Novembers I've ever experienced to check out some of the new venues that have opened during the course of the pandemic. We inner-city slickers have been released from lockdown for a few mere weeks; Geelong has been out a bit longer and it shows, with youth lining up rain or shine to get into seaside pubs and clubs which feels a bit like King Street on steroids after being in lockdown for so long.
Along its foreshore are pathways which are filled with people running, cycling, walking, with huge areas designated for swimming, a glorious old pier, and its trademark bollards dotted along a walkway which extends from Corio Bay's Eastern Park right through to the west, almost stretching to a the old Federal Woollen Mills sprawling estate in the north.
1915 inhabits the old boiler room at the Federal Woollen Mills. Photo: Supplied
Here the magnificent, century old boiler house with high vaulted ceilings that used to power the mills has been converted into 1915 (a nod to its opening year) , a modern, casual restaurant and bar over two floors with plans to expand to have live music and functions in an adjacent space. A mediterranean inspired menu is pleasingly pescetarian-leaning and includes dishes like Singapore chilli prawns as well as saganaki with fig leaf syrup, mushroom aranchini with black truffle aoili to pizzas and a black angus steaks. They work with Anther gin distillery next door to produce excellent cocktails like an apricot amaretto sour, with amaretto-soaked apricots. OK, there's no gin in that, but you can venture next door for gin tastings or gin cocktail flights, featuring brightly-flavoured, innovative cocktails. Gins are made with botanicals such as saltbush sourced from their seaside locale.
Provenance Wines, with Rone mural. Photo: Supplied
My next stop is Provenance Wines, which sits on a hilltop in Fyansford, on the outskirts of Geelong. And this is when the restoration of Geelong's industrial spaces becomes somewhat thematic. The winery is in a beautifully-restored 1897 papermill, which overlooks the currently-rushing Barwon River. Like wines found in southern Tasmania, they produce pinot and chardonnay and tastings involve artfully presented snacks to accompany wine such as a crisp slice of green apple soaked in elderflower to set your tastebuds tingling for their sparkling Henty blanc de blanc.
Although not new to the area, Little Creatures relocated to south Geelong back in 2013 in a massive industrial site with oodles of parking and ambitious expansion plans on the horizon. No wonder it outgrew its former home in Fitzroy - It feels like a satellite village to Geelong, with colourful "laneways" leading to different spaces for the White Rabbit and Furphy microbreweries it now has under its umbrella. Bring your family, friends and kids to this buzzing and relaxed site, while they hatch plans for a distillery and cocktail bar, coffee roastery and workspace.
Little Creatures Geelong. Photo: Supplied
On the other end of the spectrum, a cosy new 25-seater bistro has opened near the city's buzzing waterfront. Translating to 'the hideaway", La Cachette is the real hidden gem of Geelong's dining scene. Chef Matt Podbury has worked everywhere from Michelin-starred Lyle's in London, Lyon in France to Captain Moonlight in Angelsea and has returned to his hometown to fulfill his dream of opening a French-style bistro. And the food does not disappoint, with a tasting menu showcasing contemporary French cuisine and the best local produce. Taste the essence of spring in a luminescent young baby pea soup or delicate fish served in a vin jaune sauce with sweet, sliced in-season asparagus while sipping French wines and Normandy ciders. For dessert a baked tarragon cream is made using the leftover egg whites from the yolks that went into pasta, "like the nonnas do in Italy" and a slice of Beaufort chalet d'alpage cheese - the "thinking man's comte". Superbe.
Off the bright laneway of Little Malop street, Felix is also a newcomer, with a bright, modern design lighting up the otherwise unremarkable Downes Lane like a beacon. Restauranter Jesse Hughes, formerly of Vue Grand Queenscliff is behind this elegant new diner, opening in May this year. With modern French food, focussing on seafood and vegetables, it playfully takes on old-school classics like french onion dip, serving with housemade crisps and lettuce. Snapper with sauce vierge instantly transports you to France, fresh with dill and sliced roasted fennel. The seasonal greens - broccolini and green beans served with a luxurious, velvety pine nut tahini and pickled red currents is sublime.
Felix, Geelong Photo: Supplied
Built around an ash tree with a focus on sustainability, The Arborist is another new addition to Geelong's burgeoning dining scene. Set back from the happening Little Malop Street, with plenty of outdoor seating, this restaurant is a very lively place to be in summer. Michael Welsh is head chef here, creating modern Australian dishes with a middle eastern influence. Dishes are designed to be shared, and include a white anchovy, muhammara & grilled sourdough and a juicy roast chicken with tarator and harissa butter. If choosing is difficult, there's a very reasonably priced 'feed me menu' - the wine list here is also excellent, with a good range by-the-glass.
The Arborist, Geelong Photo: Supplied
While we're on Little Malop, there's plenty of drinking options to choose from pre or post-dinner. The Cellar Door is an upmarket wine bar that showcases some of the region's best wines, if you can't get out to the vineyards themselves. Off the beaten track, Union St Wine was recently awarded a 'people's choice' award from Young Guns of Wine and focusses on a broader range of wine and some more avant-garde selections. Next door is microbrewers Valhalla, where the bartender spins '80s vinyl on turntables in between pouring beers. Here you can taste piney pales and raspberry sours, but they also serve local wines by the glass you might struggle to find elsewhere such as local Empire of Dirt gamay and chardonnay.
There's also plenty of eye-candy to keep you amused while exploring the streets of the CBD. Geelong is the former home of artist Rone, which might have inspired others to liven up laneways with street art and hip light installations at night. And there's regular exhibitions at the Geelong Gallery in the town centre, some of which are alone enough to persuade Melburnians to make the hour-long trip south.
Newly spruced up Novotel has rooms from $269 per night. See novotelgeelong.com.au.
The writer stayed as a guest of Tourism Greater Geelong & The Bellarine