Heart of Gold: a Melbourne to Bendigo Driving Holiday

The Vintage Talking Tram travelling along the historical streets of Bendigo

He used to visit this gold-rush town during his school days, but Sarah convinces Chris to give Bendigo another go. What they find – local wineries, excellent restaurants and cafes, and places to explore nature – doesn’t disappoint.

We’ve always loved Melbourne – Chris grew up there but can’t believe how much the place has changed – and are constantly looking for a side trip to decompress after we’ve visited his family. He rolled his eyes when I suggested Bendigo – according to him not much used to happen here – but I’ve convinced him with mentions of rail trails, hikes and many wineries. We’ve picked up a car from Apex Car Rentals at Melbourne Airport and are heading off for four days.

Rock Star: Melbourne to Woodend

Sign showing a bull’s head and the words Holgates Bar & Restaurant hanging on an outer wall of Holgate Brewhouse, Woodend

We’ve decided to start this trip out of town with a stop at one of the most famous landmarks in Victoria. Hanging Rock is a real place – the story about the schoolgirls going missing during a picnic is more of a mystery – and it’s one of the best examples of a volcanic plug in the world. Several trails weave through the bush at the rock’s base, but the best walk is to the top. It meanders through the forest – we see beautiful fairy wrens flitting through the trees – before we get to the famous ‘hanging rock’, a boulder over the path. It’s all a bit of a maze of rock pillars, but it doesn’t take long to get to the top where there are views in every direction.

Woodend is one of the nearest towns to Hanging Rock, and it’s also home to Holgate Brewhouse. Set in a historical hotel, it’s where the family of the same name makes craft beer that’s sold all over Australia. Chris and I get a table in the restaurant, where there are plenty of beer-friendly dishes on the menu. We raise a glass of Holgate Explorer then, full and content once again, join the brewery tour.

History and Hot Plates: Woodend to Bendigo

The architecture of the Chinese Gardens in Bendigo, Victoria

There are lots of places to stop before we get to Bendigo, but we push on and are soon pulling into town. Bendigo is known for its gold rush history, so we jump aboard the Vintage Talking Tram, which stops at historical sites while delivering some context thanks to the running commentary.

One of its stops is Central Deborah Gold Mine, which Chris remembers from school excursions. He seems excited to stick on a hard hat and descend into the tunnels. It’s dark and tight, but it’s also fascinating to hear how miners managed to extract more than 900 kilograms from here during the gold rush.

Part of the history of Bendigo includes the arrival of Chinese migrants who worked in the mines and ran small businesses and market gardens. Their history is preserved at the Golden Dragon Museum, but I’m more interested in Yi Yuan (the Garden of Joy) that’s been designed to resemble the Imperial Palace in Beijing. It’s such a peaceful spot and there’s no way you’d guess you were in central Victoria rather than China.

Bendigo was recognised as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2019, so we’re excited to see how that translates to the restaurants. There are certainly plenty of them, but we’re attracted to mural-covered, bustling Chancery Lane and El Gordo, a tapas bar located within. Chad and Haley Aldred, who relocated here from Melbourne, oversee this excellent spot, where we load up on dishes like jamon and manchego croquettes, piquillo peppers stuffed with crab and mussels, slow-braised beef cheek and paprika-spiced octopus. Most of the produce is local, but the cephalopods come from a farm in Galicia that also supplies famous restaurants Mugaritz and El Celler de Can Roca.

Pedal Power: Bendigo to Heathcote

Listening to a musician in the garden of Shiraz Republic winery in Heathcote

Yesterday was all about the city, but today we’re getting out in the countryside. Originally a train line that connected Bendigo and Heathcote, today the 50-kilometre O’Keefe Rail Trail is the domain of walkers and cyclists. It’s too far to get there and back in one day, so we’ve hired bikes from Goldfields Bike Tours and organised for them to collect us in Heathcote for a lift back.

We set out just after breakfast along the flat track surrounded by bushland. Along the way, there are dozens of bridges that cross Axe Creek and Campaspe River. We go for a walk at Campaspe River Reserve, looking for platypuses in the slow-moving river. No luck today, but we trundle on to Axedale, the halfway point of the trail, and stop at the nineteenth-century, character-filled Axedale Tavern for some lunch. We know we’re getting close to the finish when we arrive at manmade Lake Eppalock, so it’s time to take in some of the renowned Heathcote wines. Meehan Vineyard is just off the trail and we pull in when we see the sign for the cellar door. The shiraz is beautifully balanced and we buy a bottle of it and the tempranillo to take back home with us – a fitting souvenir of a trip that brimmed with good tastes.