A great way to spend the cold Melbourne winter is by making a day trip to Ararat where you can journey back to the 1860's and explore an abandoned "lunatic" asylum. The asylum was a functioning institution for people with mental illness up until as recently as the 1990's and it has a neighbouring prison (J-Ward) where some of the asylum's residents came from.
Driving from Melbourne CBD to Ararat takes approximately two and a half hours. If driving early in the morning then you'll also be treated to misty covered fields that are worth stopping the car for so you can take a few photographs.
Experiencing Aradale Asylum can only be done via tours that run for roughly two hours at 11am & 2pm on both Sunday & Wednesday throughout the year. To buy your ticket, you'll need to visit the tourist information centre next to Ararat railway station where you can also buy a combined tour of the abandoned prison (J-Ward) which is also worth a visit and the stories there connect very nicely to the asylum. (J-Ward is open 7 days a week 10am-3pm).
As the tour begins, you're given a brief history lesson and can read some stories from actual asylum residents plus view photographs and art work from the days that the asylum was active. From there you're then taken through the various wards where your tour guide will share some stories as well as explain the different levels of care for each type of ward.
After learning more about the wards, you will get to see what the communal and leisure facilities would have been like for residents followed by seeing how the industrial style kitchens worked. As well as this, your guide explains how the whole place managed to operate in order to provide heating, food, laundry services etc in a time when heating, communication and medical treatment was much harder.
After exploring the main wards and communal areas, the tour wraps up at the morgue and along the way your guide will also share more stories of distant relatives who have traced their family history to discover relations that were once at the ward and are now resting in unmarked graves nearby.
The walking tour is done at a leisurely pace, guided by volunteers who have great insight into the local community and will not leave a question unanswered. As the grounds are heritage listed parts of the tour are not wheelchair accessible, but you are still able to view a good amount of the tour from the outskirts and on the ground floors of each building. Plus, if you're looking for more entertainment rather than knowledge about how people with mental illness were previously treated, then there's also the option of booking onto a ghost tour, however, the standard asylum tour is fascinating enough with its rich history of the local community.
After learning about the abandoned asylum and the various views on whether it was a supportive or cruel place, it's also worth breaking up the return journey to Melbourne by stopping off at Daylesford where you can try some delicious local foods to finish off a day of exploring. Either that or remain local in the Ararat town centre and visit some local shops and cafes.