Uncover the best of Ballarat's food and fashion.
Sitting in the grand ballroom at Craig's Royal Hotel, I feel slightly underdressed. All the tables except one are full and most people are in their Sunday best. Slowly, gracefully, the black-clad, ponytailed waiters emerge from the kitchen carrying pretty three-tiered cake stands laden with treats. This is high tea — a revival of the glory days of Empire — and it has been a surprising success since it was reintroduced 18 months ago. For $49.90, you can get a glass of bubbly and rediscover the attractions of finger sandwiches, scones and petits fours.
Keen to explore the retro shops, I start on Main Road at That Little Vintage Shop. Owner Jennifer Bottomley can't stop collecting and her shop is brimming with cute tops, dresses, bags and some furs (she only stocks ones that have been dead a long time, she says). Down the road at My Sister Pat, Rosemary Gilbert-Waller is inspired by the romance of the 1950s. She's keen to return us all to the modest times of Doris Day and Grace Kelly. Her bathers are classics but it's the "day-night loungewear" that has me longing for bygone days. Newcomer Carrie Muffati stocks quirky feminine dresses at Miss Behavin', on Sturt Street. Here, a hassled mum is trying to juggle a pram, cranky toddler and a few dresses in the fitting room. On the same premises, Miss Lulu's pin-curl workshops reveal the mysteries of '50s hairstyles.
Let them eat cake
To cater to my daughter's sweet tooth, I check out the cafes around town. The retro Cafe Bibo is a handy stop for a sugary breakfast of french toast and berries. Open Pantry (Main Road) is great for picnic supplies, while Yummy Patisserie brews good coffee with tasty sweet things. Cake Bakeshop has been a big hit since it opened a year ago. But nothing beats hopping in the car and driving to nearby Creswick, where French couple Paul and Marie Williams run their authentic Le Peche Gourmand, which loosely translates as "the food you can't resist", Marie says.
Four times a year, Lyndelle Flintoft and fellow artists transform the historic Mining Exchange into a design market. You can buy locally designed and handcrafted jewellery, clothes and wares and talk to the craftspeople at the stalls. We plan to spend an hour browsing but much, much later emerge with bags of gifts and a few bits for ourselves. See thedesignexchange.com.au
Opened in early December, the laneway at the side of the refurbished George Hotel is a cool place to hang out. There's a bar and beer garden but we head to the Lane Restaurant and cafe. It's not warm enough to sit out but the laneway is nicely lit at night and provides a handy link between Lydiard and Armstrong streets. Across the road is the Art Gallery of Ballarat, which, despite its small size, punches above its weight with many big names in Australian art.
DRIVE Ballarat is about an 80-minute drive from Melbourne.
STAY Craig's Royal Hotel, 10 Lydiard Street South, 53311377, has double rooms from $250 a night, including continental breakfast. The B&B package for two with high tea is $345.
EAT The George Laneway Restaurant, 27 Lydiard Street North, 53334866; Yummy Patisserie, 428A Sturt Street, 53319100; Open Pantry, 22 Main Road, 53344007; Cafe Bibo, 205 Sturt Street, 53311255.
Mary O'Brien was a guest of Ballarat Regional Tourism.