Fashionistas, foodies and romantics, have much to discover in grown-up Bendigo, writes Angie Kelly.
BUILT on riches flowing from the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s and '60s, Bendigo, with its elegant avenues and grand heritage buildings, has traditionally relied on that gold-mining history to draw visitors. But in recent years, the city has evolved into a more grown-up place to visit, with the Bendigo Art Gallery leading the charge in attracting visitors who want sexy food, great coffee and who don't particularly love floral bedspreads in their accommodation.
And while you can still go to see the old gold mines and ride the historic talking tram, the town is responding to its new visitors with a vibrant restaurant scene, rejuvenated laneway shopping precincts and nightlife options that extend beyond the pub.
Thanks to a series of international exhibitions - such as the White Wedding Dress show on now and 2009's successful Golden Age of Couture exhibition, both the result of collaborations with London's Victoria and Albert Museum - the gallery is now the flagship of the region's cultural institutions.
As part of the new show, dozens of pieces from the V&A's famous collection of wedding gowns have been allowed out of their glass cases. Travelling with white-gloved chaperones from London to Victoria, the delicate, beaded dresses have been carefully unpacked, specifically lit and mounted by a team of specially qualified curators.
The dresses cover two centuries of fashion. Alongside the antiques are contemporary traffic-stoppers by designers Vera Wang, Christian Dior, Lanvin and Lacroix. Tapping into the public's fascination with celebrity weddings, the much-photographed frocks, shoes and accessories worn by burlesque celebrity Dita von Teese and pop star Gwen Stefani are also on show. Australian labels Akira Isogawa and Romance Was Born also get a look-in.
Gallery director, Karen Quinlan, says that the wedding dress is more than a symbol of romance and is regarded by fashion historians as the ultimate reflection of fashion trends and social mores at any given moment in history.
Quinlan says the increase in visitors to the gallery during this exhibition - on until November 6 - bodes well for their next fashion coup when a priceless exhibition of clothes belonging to screen goddess-turned-princess Grace Kelly will open next March.
"I think fashion is really accessible and when you see it displayed in this way it highlights the fact that there is something precious about the garments," Quinlan says. "People are moved by wedding dresses because they all have stories."
Modern Australian eatery Dispensary Enoteca, relaxed French bistro Bouchon, nightspot the Gold Dust Lounge and coffee-and-culture hub El Gordo, have all opened their doors in recent times.
Run by former SBS movie reviewer Megan Spencer, Spanish-influenced El Gordo, in Chancery Lane, is an exhibition space as well as a place to have tapas. As a venue for events, it holds acoustic music sessions, poetry reading, coffee talks and meditation sessions.
Also more than simply a place to eat, the Dispensary holds beer masterclasses and progressive dinners. With a mod-Oz menu, eclectic decor and an extensive drinks list, which includes more than 100 champagnes and 100 different whiskys, this intimate eatery feels much more Euro-bistro than regional town restaurant.
With neighbour El Gordo, the Dispensary is also supporting a scheme to bring street art to the lane, which also has trendy fashion stores.
An organic-food movement is proliferating alongside the town's antique stores, with the number of fresh-food outlets and upmarket delis offering locally grown produce and ethical coffee varieties also on the rise, with Bath Lane a popular haunt for foodies.
"We have looked after the historic components of the city but attention is now being paid to modern aspects like bars and accommodation because there is a need," Quinlan says. "Bendigo is growing up."
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria and Bendigo Art Gallery.
Bendigo is 90 minutes by car from Melbourne on the Calder Highway. Trains depart regularly from Southern Cross Station (formerly Spencer Street) for the 90-minute trip to View Street station, Bendigo.
City Warehouse Apartment, Apartment 3, 23 View Point, Bendigo. Friday and Saturday nights (minimum two-night stay) are $580. Midweek Sunday to Thursday, $270 a night. White Wedding Special is $240 a midweek night. 1800 813 153,
See + do
White Wedding Dress: 200 Years of Wedding Fashions is on until November 6 at the Bendigo Art Gallery. Upcoming exhibitions include Made in Hollywood photographic exhibition December 3-February 12 and Grace Kelly: Style Icon March 10-June 17 (tickets available to purchase online from November, www.bendigoartgallery.com.au).
Three other things to do
Shop at the vintage precinct of View Street where vintage fashions, homewares and antiques lure nostalgia lovers. Also browse quirky book stores and bespoke artisan boutiques. Do it on foot or tour the boutiques by chauffeur-driven vintage car ($65 a person for a 3½-hour tour). 1800 813 153 or bendigotourism.com.
Stop in at Wine Bank on View to admire your purchases over a glass of something local and if you fancy another tipple back at your hotel, this smart and cosy venue also has a takeaway licence and menu options. Open until 1am Friday and Saturday nights. 45 View Street, (03) 5444 4655.
Visit the local artists' community at Bendigo Pottery, a 10-minute drive out of town to Epsom. See ceramic artists, watercolour painters, photographers and jewellery designers at work and have a go at clay wheel throwing yourself.
Don't miss the local olive oil boutique selling produce fresh from local farms. (03) 5448 4404 or www.bendigopottery.com.au.
Luxe loft in worth the climb
The cool New York loft vibe hits as soon as you open the door to what must be among the best of Bendigo's accommodation — which is fortunate, because we hadn't enjoyed the trip to get here, schlepping up three flights of uneven, steep and narrow stairs while dragging two heavy bags.
Though these modern but hard-to-get-to digs are probably in the too-hard basket for parents with prams and older guests with stair-unfriendly knees, the fact remains that the two-bedroom City Warehouse Apartment reeks of fabulous. Even without a lift.
A 12-place dining table is the statement piece of the huge living-kitchen-dining space and is begging for a smart dinner party. I imagine a gathering of trendy arty types wandering down the hill from the gallery, opening something cheeky bought from Wine Bank bar on the way and settling in for the evening.
Contrasting block colours on the walls dominate, with a varied collection of modern art and poster-style works in contrast to the room's heritage shell. A row of towering sash windows allows shards of sunlight to scoot along the floorboards, which is a nice touch while you're arranging yourself on the funky bright-green sofa. The view across Bendigo's lovely Rosalind Park and its historic post office adds to the feeling of space.
Everything is up to date in the elevated kitchen and laundry, there are two bathrooms (one with a spa bath), lots of books, a coffee machine, two flat-screen televisions, a DVD player, adjustable lighting, remote-controlled blinds and lots of brochures about the area's many attractions, making planning easy. The visitors' book is glowing with praise, particularly from Melburnians, both for the apartment's design aesthetic and convenient location near bars, restaurants and shops.
No one has mentioned the difficult access or the frustrating street entrance, which has no sign, all of which is strangely forgotten once you're ensconced here.