Victoria’s coast gets all of the glory with its shining vistas and glittering seascapes. But central Victoria should be your next weekend away destination, particularly the greater Bendigo region. Here, around the towns of Heathcote and Castlemaine, you can explore the traditional lands of the Dja Dja Wurrung and Taungurung people, an area rich in both culture and great food and wine. The region is so focused on dining and drinking in fact that it has been listed as a UNESCO City and Region of Gastronomy.
There are so many gorgeous corners of Victoria, filled with nature, beaches, sunsets, delicious restaurants and funky bars, and right now is the best time to explore them all. We've teamed up with Visit Victoria to help you Stay close, go further as you travel throughout our fantastic state. That includes, of course, the glorious greater Bendigo region, which is one of Victoria’s most lovely destinations to day trip to... or stay for a few days.
It’s likely you’ve tried a Heathcote wine before – it’s where many of Australia’s best wineries source their shiraz grapes from. The Heathcote shiraz grapes are rich and earthy, and some of the oldest vineyards were planted way back in the 1850s. These days there’s also sangiovese, tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon planted around the region. It’s a surprise then to learn that many people who enjoy the wines haven't actually visited this region – even though it’s located only 1.5 hours from the city. So, what are you waiting for? Heathcote welcomes all.
Eat and drink
Heathcote is known for being a region of owner-producers – so when you come here, it’s likely you’ll meet the people cultivating, processing and bottling your wine. At Munari Wines, which is located at the foothills of Mt Ida, you’ll meet Adrian Munari and his daughter India who have been producing delicious wines for over 25 years. Head to the intimate cellar door located in the property’s old horse stables and dig into a charcuterie platter before beginning a tasting with India. India is passionate about wine education and wants all visitors to understand exactly what they’re drinking. Munari’s Schoolhouse Red blend is a great start; this bottle is a blend of fruity merlot, cool-climate Broadford shiraz, plus cabernet and dense malbec. There’s also the Ladys Pass shiraz, the venue’s flagship wine, which has notes of dark berries, coffee and cocoa.
India is part of Heathcote’s Women in Wine Cellar Door Trail, a collab between wineries in the area: Munari Wines, Sanguine Estate Wines, Vinea Marson, Farmer & the Scientist and Silver Spoon Estate. Joining them is winemaker Emily Kinsman, who along with her partner Tom, manage the beautiful Armstead Estate on the banks of Lake Eppalock. Take a picnic to the property’s beautifully manicured gardens and enjoy a drop from the cellar door. You’ll spy about an acre of vines beside the historic 1860s estate. These grapes are mainly used to produce sparkling shiraz, however, the team used the grapes for a Syrah in 2019 – the bottle sits under the venue’s affable sister label, ECK (named after Emily’s initials). The cellar door is open on the first weekend of every month and it’s even accessible by boat if you’re coming from across the lake.
Another winery in the region to check out is Shiraz Republic, run by owner-manager Brian and his son Spencer. Ten hectares of vines surround the property, which includes a cellar door as well as six small units which you can rent out for overnight accommodation. Each unit is self-contained and overlooks the picturesque vineyards. Even if you’re not staying overnight, we’d suggest grabbing a glass of Shiraz Republic’s chardonnay or a tasting pallet of beer from the venue’s other arm, Cornella Brewery, and enjoying it in the casual outdoor area. For the wannabe viticulturists and winemakers, Shiraz Republic runs Rent-a-Row, an experiential program that gives people the opportunity to rent their own vines and make their own Heathcote Shiraz. With the help of the Shiraz Republic team, oenophiles can pick, crush, press, maintain and bottle their own small-batch vintage.
Heathcote Juniper Lounge is a cocktail bar that functions as the cellar door to the region’s own Heathcote Gin. Gather with some friends and settle in for a gin tasting experience (our pick is the Navy Strength) and enjoy a pub meal beside the indoor fireplace. There’s also a full suite of cocktails on the roster, everything from Martinis to Cosmopolitans and Turkish Delight concoctions.
See and do
You’ve heard of pink lakes – now, let us introduce you to Heathcote’s Pink Cliffs. It almost looks like a crater on Mars, with deep crevasses of fine pink clay stretching across the field. The pinkish clay that makes up the cliffs has a texture similar to talcum powder and the colour of the cliffs can change depending on the time of day and weather conditions. You could be treated to cliffs ranging in colour from creamy yellow to salmon to a soft dusty pink. The cliffs are actually a result of the sluice mining work done during the 1880s gold rush. The site is easily accessible from Heathcote (it takes just 20 minutes to walk there from the centre of town), and it’s free to enter.
Hop on your bike to traverse the 50-kilometre O’Keefe Rail Trail, which was once a historic rail journey that connected Bendigo to Heathcote during the gold rush. These days this mostly level walking and cycling trail is a popular activity for people of all ages. Pass by native bushland and babbling creeks and stop for a pit stop beside Lake Eppalock for a picnic or in Axedale for a pub feed. There are on-trail water stations and bike repair stations along the way as well.
Stay a while
A 45 minute drive from Heathcote is Castlemaine. In recent years, Castlemaine and its surrounding towns have developed a reputation for being home to artists, musicians, writers and creatives – it’s called “north Northcote” for a reason. Castlemaine punches way above its weight when it comes to cultural festivals and activities – not to mention restaurants that are well worth the drive north. Here’s what to check out if you’re around Castlemaine.
Eat and drink
Wine bar and restaurant Wild is where you want to be when the sun sets. This sleek and wood-furnished venue is located inside the historic Castlemaine fire station – though its current iteration bears only an exterior connection to its former digs. The venue is small, with only a dozen tables, and is run by former Riverland Group duo Toby Waite and Brendan Jones. The menu is packed with sharing plates like barramundi brandade, half roast chicken and pork belly with apple puree, cabbage, minted and soused onion slaw.
At the rear of Castlemaine’s Northern Arts Hotel is Johnny Baker, a bakery serving cakes, pastries, pies and coffee out of its small yet bustling shopfront. Your eyes will immediately be drawn to the glazed Danish pastries and hyper-coloured meringues, but not far away are the beautifully crafted croissants that come in a number of flavours – some savoury, too (the spinach and cheese is delightful). The shop has been running for over five years, with everything you see on the counters (except the bread) made in house.
Café and art gallery Creamtown initially opened online back in 2020 as an online collective showcasing work by artists financially affected by the shutdowns. Photographer Isaebella Doherty founded the company, and since its inception, has raised over $150,000 through the platform. Doherty, alongside her siblings and supportive parents, opened the café in August of 2020, creating a beautiful and cosy space filled with vintage furniture and artwork. The coffee is strong (they use Padre Coffee) and the food is filling and wholly local – all the ingredients sourced come from less than 90 minutes away. Snag a spot in one of the cafés many rooms and dig into a breakfast brioche or sourdough piadina pizza for brekkie or lunch.
After dark, everyone frequents the Bridge Hotel Castlemaine. This long-standing establishment is known mostly as a country-style pub that leans heavily on good food, craft beer and live music. Even if you don’t know who’s playing, we suggest heading down, snagging a good spot near the stage and joining in on the fun.
See and do
If you’re looking for daytime activities, point yourself towards the Mill Castlemaine. You can easily spend hours here browsing all the different venues that call this commune home. There’s the micro-roastery and Viennese coffeehouse, Das Kaffeehaus, run by Edmund Schaerf and Elna Schaerf-Trauner, that serves up true central European style, würstel sausages and coffee (roasted on site). Wander over to Long Paddock Cheese, a small-scale fromagerie that makes artisanal organic cow’s milk cheeses on site.
If it’s a wine you’re after, Boomtown Wine is a shared winemaking space that serves up small-batch wines made from grapes sourced in Central Victoria. The cellar door is a great space to visit if you’re keen on a tasting; otherwise, you can head over to Shedshaker Brewing just across the way for small-batch craft beers. For the ultimate Mill experience, you have to check out the massive vintage bazaar, which is filled to the brim with delightful second-hand items.
Even though it’s not in Castlemaine, we’d also suggest a quick 15 minute drive over to Maldon for the Cascade Art Gallery. This contemporary art gallery showcases a range of paintings, prints, sculptures and artist-made books inside a dramatic Gothic Revival building.
Stay overnight at the Big 4 Castlemaine. Not just a place to park your RV, this venue is also home to luxury villas, glamping tents and a glamtainer – which is basically a converted shipping container fixed up with everything you need for an overnight stay. Rest your head on a queen-sized bed, make a cuppa in the kitchenette, enjoy a warm shower in the spacious ensuite and kick back in the deck area with a glass of wine.