WorldMark Resort, Ballarat review: A home at the Grange

Read our writer's views on this property below

Rob Dunlop finds history and grandeur at a mansion built on the fortunes of gold.

On arrival, the large closed door is somewhat daunting. I ignore my natural reluctance, turn the small brass knob and push my way inside the bluestone mansion. I am a guest, after all.

But not all entrances are the same. Sometimes there are reticent knocks at the front door and when staff respond, they might be confronted by an old boy: "Excuse me. I used to live here." Indeed, almost 2500 boys used to live here.

The incarnations of WorldMark Resort Ballarat are extraordinary - spookily, I want to extend my stay, yet I haven't even heard the half of it.

It all started when a lucky Scottish miner, James Leckie, built an ostentatious bluestone mansion, Blythewood Grange, in 1878. The fruits of his fortune, made from local goldfields, are now the reception area of the resort, along with a few guest rooms and sitting room.

Inside the sitting room, gold ornate lighting fixtures hang from the ceiling, leather chesterfields sit on rich red carpet with gold motifs and large picture windows are framed by heavy curtains with gold pelmets.

Outside, even below the surface of the 22.25 hectares of beautiful manicured lawns and gardens, are the remnants of prosperity. Strolling around the tranquil willow-fringed lake with lawns carpeted with delicate white flowers, it's hard to imagine that nearby, 125 metres below ground, is one of the shafts from Ballarat's busiest and most prestigious goldmine, Prince of Wales.

Leckie was the "top manager" of Prince of Wales. So successful was the mine (more than 250,000 kilograms of gold extracted), visiting dignitaries wanted to witness the glory firsthand.

During a royal tour in 1867, Prince Alfred Ernest Albert (the Duke of Edinburgh) was presented with a gold nugget.

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Today, the grey, heritage-listed Blythewood Grange is complemented by heritage-listed red-brick Edwardian buildings. These are in a similar style - and for good reason - to another Ballarat landmark property, Nazareth House, by the shores of Lake Wendouree.

A religious order, the Sisters of Nazareth, operated a convent and girls' home from Nazareth House. After the Leckie family (Leckie had 11 children) left Blythewood Grange, the Bishop of Ballarat lobbied the sisters to acquire the property to build a boys' home and working farm.

Successful, the bishop laid a foundation stone in 1911. Classrooms, dormitories and recreational grounds were envisaged and St Joseph's Home had its grand opening in 1913.

Ninety boys moved in, as well as five nuns, who used the original mansion as a convent. A chapel was built, which became the local church, and the on-site kindergarten school became the local kindergarten, too.

For 70 years, St Joseph's cared for children - 2500 of them. In 2003, a global hotel consortium bought the site and faithfully redeveloped it. Today, while walking along the quiet corridors, you can imagine children running up and down them, flitting between classrooms and dormitories. These rooms are now self-contained studios and apartments.

Original features also help set the scene. Lime-green tiles along corridor walls cheerily feature blooming red roses; outside in the garden, 400 real rose bushes bloom. Stained-glass windows extend the flowering theme.

The nursery wing is now resplendent with sunny reading rooms that overlook courtyards and gardens.

Most of the boys who passed through St Joseph's spent time in the nursery, having arrived as babies. And although they could leave when they turned 16, many stayed on, including one boy until his 70th birthday. He became the head gardener.

Those who chose to stay slept in the Farm Boys wing, which is now a handful of plush rooms. The boys weren't allowed to turn up at the mansion's front door, let alone knock on it. But today, the old boys do come knocking, even if a little reticently, saying: "This used to be my home."

Rob Dunlop travelled courtesy of Wyndham Vacation Resorts and Sovereign Hill.

FAST FACTS

Staying there

WorldMark Resort Ballarat, 1ΒΌ hour's drive north-west of Melbourne, has recently been refurbished. The 39 self-contained rooms range from studios to one- and three-bedroom apartments with kitchen facilities and satellite TV. The resort facilities include an indoor heated pool and spa, tennis courts, gym, sauna, paddle boats, bike hire and fishing rods.

Rooms cost from $140 a night. See wyndhamvacationresorts.com.au, phone 5337 5337.

While you're there Visit Ballarat and Sovereign Hill for a look at the 1850s gold rush era. Open 10am to 5.30pm daily, except Christmas Day. Adult $42.50; concession $34; child (five-15) $19.50; family (two adults and up to four children) $107.50. See sovereignhill.com.au.