The Bendigo Regional Art Gallery has made a name for hosting blockbuster exhibitions. Just down the road is the new Hotel Ernest, already forging its own strong reputation, despite being essentially unfinished. Its handy proximity to the main show in town (when a big exhibition is on at the gallery, or adjacent Rosalind Park is hosting a festival, that is) has of course made it popular.
But there's more afoot than convenience.
The Victorian Goldfields city of Bendigo is rich in architectural history. Inhabiting Bendigo's oldest bank building, dating to 1864, Hotel Ernest's owners, David Cook-Doulton and Martin Shew, have worked on the belief that visitors want to be imbued in history rather than just look at it. To that end, the street level space that was the teller hall has been stripped back to reveal original stone walls, and the cavernous old safe is now a unique place to sit and converse.
Hotel Ernest, named sweetly after country-bred Cook-Doulton's grandfather, is only a few minutes' walk from the gallery and many other attractions including adjacent Rosalind Park – and it's been busy since opening, in no small part thanks to the Elvis exhibition.
Enter the Hotel Ernest via its tall, original double front doors to be enveloped in a stylish yet sublimely comfortable parlour. Huge arch windows let in dappled green light from the park and moody greys and greens on soft furnishings invite resting a while, just like the owner's charismatic Airedale terrier, often seen doing his own resting on the furniture. But the hero is indeed the atmospheric expanse of stone wall, bearing bullet holes believed to be from a gold-rush era heist.
It's no secret that Hotel Ernest is a work in progress. Come 2023, this space will house a restaurant and a conspicuous flight of stairs leading down to the bank's original vaults will become the entrance to an ambitious bar.
Throughout the property, including the ten rooms, as well as grand stairs a spectacular collection of art, acquired by owner Cook-Doulton across decades, and well-considered ceramics and plants add interest around every corner.
No two room footprints are the same but each is spacious. Comfortable lounges, coffee tables, a dining table with seating for four, a credenza home to upmarket coffee, tea and arty crockery accompany a king bed cosily dressed with crumpled linen, plenty of cushions and a rug for a nap. Hanging space is an open, sculptural rack, the carpet is thick, the art amazing. It's the New York studio apartment of your flight of fancy, only in Bendigo.
For me, a small let-down was the bathroom, which was original to the previous accommodation incarnation. It's all marble, and while entirely functional, the tapware is dated, as is the large triangular spa bath with shower overhead. There are plans to update taps in the immediate future. Excellent tech including Netflix, is a bonus.
FOOD + DRINK
While waiting for the restaurant to be installed, light continental breakfasts are supplied by the much-lauded Harvest eatery nearby.
The on-site restaurant opens in 2023 with chef Derek Boath at the helm. Boath is moving his underbar restaurant to the Ernest's soon-to-open Ballarat twin property, Hotel Vera (named after Cook-Doulton's grandmother).
Guests are surveyed on their interests before arrival, suggestions made and bookings secured via the hotel for Bendigo's fabulous restaurants such as Masons, Ms Batterhams and The Dispensary.
OUT + ABOUT
There's so much more to Bendigo than the gallery. Sure, come for the next big exhibition but do explore further afield. Chancery Lane is a microcosm of hip Bendigo. Nearby wineries are world class. And small gems, such as the Golden Dragon Museum, dedicated to the history of Chinese Australians and home to Dai Gum Loong, a 125-metre ceremonial dragon, are worth the time.
If it's this good as a work in progress, the Hotel Ernest is going to be spectacular – and perhaps a destination unto itself – when the restaurant and bar are installed.
Rooms from $269 a night.
Hotel Ernest, 10/12 View St, Bendigo, Victoria. Phone: 0447 242 987. See hotelbendigo.com.au
THE SCORE OUT OF FIVE
Julietta Jameson stayed a guest of Bendigo Regional Tourism.