The Empyre, Castlemaine review: French twist

Read our writer's views on this property below

Andrew Stephens bunks down in an elegant European-style hotel where the bed leaves a lasting impression.

Climbing into a big, comfortable bed after a wonderful meal and a stroll around a gorgeous country town is a particular sort of pleasure. Especially when it is a bed so high we almost need footstools to hoist ourselves up onto its Italian linen softness. With candy-twist columns supporting the bedhead and intricate woodwork bearing the Latin words for "hope to have", it seems like something from a French chateau or a period drama. But then this is not such a surprise - this is the Empyre, a grand, tasteful, yet somehow quietly intimate hotel.

We've eyed this place for a good long while and have previously eaten at its restaurant, which we have decided - after thoroughly researching Castlemaine's offerings - to be the town's finest. Now, at last, we have come for a night and it meets our high expectations.

The Empyre started life as the Albion in 1860 and, after taking on various identities, was reopened in its current guise in 2005. Having had a two-year refit, it now fills the boutique hotel niche in Castlemaine admirably well.

Owner John Ganci says the building was unloved when he bought it and guests will note the great attention to detail that has been exercised in giving it new life.

There are six suites, each designed with a distinct character, in which you might find Flemish chandeliers, Louis XVI armchairs, fireplaces or a French armoire. One room, the Temperance Suite, suits families but the rest are clearly for couples.

While there are all the modern shrines - flatscreen televisions, ADSL internet, coffee stations, air-conditioning, electric blankets - there are also genuine French antiques everywhere.

The suite we have chosen is richly decorated - it's so grand that we gasp at some of the lush furnishings, such as the deluxe pelmets - but not so lavish as to make one feel out of place. High ceilings, an ornate gilt-framed mirror, marble-topped bedside tables and a gloriously upholstered sofa are all given space to breathe in this fairly large, light-filled room that opens by french doors onto a broad verandah (shared with the guests next door in the Albion Suite).

We wander onto this verandah at dusk and survey the scene up and down Mostyn Street: we can't spy the obelisk at the top of town but we can see townspeople and tourists going about their business in the thoroughfares. We try to avoid looking at the funeral parlour across the way and instead look at the lovely houses of Castlemaine, a town large enough to absorb and amuse visitors without losing its character.

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Inside, we try out the bathroom. French grandeur is abandoned here in favour of smart contemporary style: russet-coloured mosaic tiles are used judiciously amid top-quality fittings, while a huge walk-in shower with two European-style shower heads beckons to lovers who might wish to ablute side-by-side.

Our package includes a three-course dinner and breakfast in the restaurant. Dinner is close to perfect - carefully attenuated food that stimulates and sates without being pretentious. The good service seems to drop off as the evening wears on but this is a minor quibble in the face of such excellent food: a luscious eel mousse, for example, or Tunisian duck brik pie, or a twice-baked goat's cheese souffle atop a spicy braised vegetable stew.

After a quiet night's sleep in the giant bed and an exceptional breakfast of granola with stewed berries and french toast with creme fraiche and maple syrup, we explore out the back where we expect to find a garden - instead, there is a dull carpark and, thankfully, a pleasant courtyard.

Still, there is the whole town, with its beautiful botanic gardens, to explore. Or we might just stay in the luxurious bed or at one of the Empyre's tables and settle in for a longer haul.

VISITORS' BOOK

The Empyre

Address 68 Mostyn Street, Castlemaine.

Bookings 5472 5166, 5472 2304 (fax) or email info@empyre.com.au.

Getting there 124 kilometres north-west of Melbourne on the Calder Freeway.

How much One-night weekend packages including breakfast and three-course dinner from $315-$450.

Summary An elegant and very comfortable choice, professionally run and with haute cuisine on the side.

Verdict 17/20

The score: 19-20 excellent; 17-18 great; 15-16 good; 13-14 comfortable.

All weekends away are conducted anonymously and paid for by Traveller.