You don't need H. G. Wells' Time Machine to journey into the Australian Gold Rush era. A mere 90-minute drive from Melbourne can take you there – Sovereign Hill – a pseudo township celebrating the heyday of gold mining in Victoria.
Set over 25 hectares of alluvial goldfields, Sovereign Hill is an open-air museum in the artistic town of Ballarat. Walking on the cobbled streets, across narrow bylanes, observing artisans engaged in tralatitious craftworks, watching horse-drawn carriages trot around, admiring quaint shops, noticing costumed people walking along the streets, you'll feel as if you're part of a live diorama.
The staff and volunteers all dress up in period attires - everything from traditional parasols for women to beaver hats for men. You can purchase goods (many of them made on-site) like candles, pottery, brass and copper items, jewellery, accessories for men and women, house items, organic toiletries, chocolates, candies, jams and preserves et al. Ballarat Times Printers, an old-time printing shop on the main street, offers personalised wanted posters and other interesting bills and signs.
The town also houses a church, a post office, a bank, a library, a stable, a pin bowling alley, workshops for blacksmiths and tinsmiths, display cottages, schools and many amusing shops. There are periodic street theatre performances in traditional 1850s style.
Retrace the path of the Cornish miners, who discovered the 'Welcome' nugget, on a self-guided Red Hill Mine tour that takes the visitors 13 metres below ground-level. The nugget weighed 69 kilograms and still remains the second-largest gold nugget discovered in the world. The holograms provide a stunning and a tad eerie feel to the experience. The 'Trapped' exhibit – Sovereign Hill's multimillion-dollar recreation of the mining disaster at Creswick in 1882 – is a poignant story of 22 miners' death as a result of collapse and flooding in a mine.
There are periodic Gold Pour shows in a workhouse behind the battery house. Watching a goldsmith melt 99% pure gold and mould it to form a bullion bar within minutes was quite exciting. Holding the freshly moulded gold bar in his hand, the goldsmith asked everyone if they wished to know how it felt to hold $100,000 worth of gold in their hand, and just as the crowd chorused a big "yes", he simply said "I can admit that it feels great".
If you feel lucky, try panning for real gold at the meandering creek at Red Hill Gully Diggings along with numerous other treasure-hunters. It is surrounded by 1850s-style edifices and tents displaying mock belongings of the diggers. A stone's throw from the creek is the Chinese Camp, dedicated to the Asian miners of the time.
There are photo studios wherein you can take pictures in costumes. They offer studio (with various background and set-up options) and location (at a quondam house or alley) pictures for couples, families or singles. For $65 you can get two large poster-size images or one large and two small pictures in black and white or sepia.
But you haven't completed your trip to Sovereign Hill until you've watched the spell-binding light-and-sound show - Blood on the Southern Cross. This 'explosive' show recounts the battle of 1854 between the gold miners and the government – famously called the Eureka Rebellion. The open-air stage set dazzles with sound and light (the two heroes of the show) for impeccable effects. The riveting narrative takes the viewers through the events that led to the rebellion and the mandate that ensued.
There are packages that include entry to the night show, day ticket to Sovereign Hill, pre-show dinner and accommodation at the Sovereign Hill Lodge. The two-course dinner is usually served at the Charlie Napier Hotel or the New York Bakery (both located on the main street). For show timings, prices and booking details, click here. Bookings are highly advised.
But if you wish to take your experience to a different (read exhilarating) level, go for the 'A Night in the Museum' package. Visitors get a chance to don period costumes, enjoy a tour of the town, an exclusive mine tour, 'Blood on the Southern Cross' show, Victorian afternoon tea, a scrumptious 'Taste of Empire' dinner and an enchanting stay at the newly opened on-site accommodation – Steinfeld's. Once a warehouse, the building has been tastefully renovated to house 'A Night in the Museum' guests.
Tickets cost $670 for couples and $390 for singles (applicable only for people over 16 years). But before you utter "ouch", check this video clip from a recent Getaway episode on Nine Network where they featured this as a must-do activity for all. Bookings can be made on the phone (03 5337 1159) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Located along the main street, there are some great eating options like the New York Bakery, which can serve up to 150 guests at one time. They serve morning and evening tea, lunch, snacks and dinner. The Hope Bakery serves delectable pies, pasties and cakes baked in traditional wood-fired Scotch ovens. For a scrumptious lunch, you should head to the United States Hotel Dining Room.
On-site accommodation is available at Comfort Inn Sovereign Hill – a rustic-style, comfy and modern lodge with rooms to suit every budget and preference. Heritage rooms are ideal for couples, Steinfeld's is good for couples, families and small groups, The Residence is fit for couples and families, Esmond Terrace is a perfect option for small and big families, Canadian Barracks are good for families of up to six and then there is the Dormitory accommodation meant for groups, backpackers or people on a budget.
Bedding is provided in all private or shared accommodations. More information is available on the website about rooms' overview, facilities, bedding style and interactive floor plans. It will be best to make a booking prior to your visit. The lodge also features a bar, a lounge area, sufficient off-street parking and wonderfully maintained gardens.
Sovereign Hill is also a fabulous place to organise functions and events such as weddings, business or social events, birthday parties, school excursions, costumed school experience for children, and other educational and entertainment programs.
Set opposite the township, the Gold Museum houses an absorbing collection of gold nuggets, gold coins, alluvial deposits and other fascinating artefacts from the Rush era. It also provides interesting facts about the history of gold mining in Australia.
Sovereign Hill is open every day from 10 am to 5 pm except Christmas Day; during daylight saving, it is open until 5:30pm. The Gold Museum is open from 9:30am to 5:30pm except Christmas Day; and till 6pm during daylight saving. It is easily accessible by car, bus or train.
Entry ticket to Sovereign Hill costs $41 for adults, $18.70 for children and $32.80 for people with concessions. The ticket also includes entry to the Gold Museum. You can get further details about tickets and prices online. Check the website for other deals and special packages or contact the office for additional enquiries.
This has to be the ultimate family getaway from Melbourne. The kids love it as much adults. Blood on the southern cross show is a must-watch for all esp kids who can learn so much about our history. The little shops sell nice souvenirs. New York bakery is another place that should not be missed. Lunch was over by the time we reached but there were quite amazing things in the ready-to-go section. The kids loved it.