Last year, my lady and I did a fly-and-drive vacation to Tasmania (from Sydney). We are both time-poor, so we did a prearranged package deal through Flight Center. The flights, the hotels, the car rental and the activities were all booked for us, we just had to show up on the day. We had such a blast that I swore we would do something like that again soon. Fast-forward 6 months and, ta-da! We’re off again, this time, to Victoria.
Unlike our Tassie trip though, I decided to man-up and arrange it myself. If you’re like me, it’s a bit of a ball-ache planning your own trip, but it turned out so well I thought I’d share our itinerary with everyone. It’ll definitely save you time, money and a trip to the chemist for some Soothing Gel.
Fly: Sydney – Melbourne
Drive: Melbourne – Kyneton – Castlemaine – Bendigo – Echuca – Hepburn Springs – Daylesford – Melbourne
Fly: Melbourne – Sydney
Duration: 9 days/ 8 nights
Links I Used When Pre-Planning My Trip
Sydney to Melbourne: Days 1-3
We departed at the crack of dawn to avoid the airport rush-hour. The last budget flight I took was on Jetstar, where there are no freebies and you suspect they might charge you for using the toilet, so when Virgin Australia started handing out free drinks and peanuts, I was shocked. I felt valued as a customer. What a difference that makes! Off to a good start.
TIP: When you book your plane tickets to Melbourne, be aware there are two airports you can fly into – Melbourne and Tullamarine. I recommend flying into Melbourne Airport and taking Skybus into the city for $18 if there are just two of you (a cab will cost you $50-60). A ticket booth for Skybus is on the curb outside, you can’t miss it.
Though tired, our early arrival meant we had a full day in Melbourne. Even better, our hotel, the Causeway 353 (on Little Collins Street in the CBD) allowed us to check-in when we arrived at 10am! Again, I felt like a valued customer. I could get use to this! The rooms were small and the bathrooms had poor ventilation, but it was clean, comfortable and came with a free breakfast. The lane it resides in is filled with cafes and it’s within walking distance of Federation Square (10min) and Chinatown (15min), so it was ideal.
TIP: There are 3 Causeway hotels. If you book one, make sure you know which one. They are all close to one another, but it could get confusing and leave you lugging your bags around if you get it wrong. If you want to upgrade slightly, I’d recommend the Mantra Hotel next door to Chinatown.
There are a million things to do in Melbourne but for us, it starts with the food, nothing fancy, just really good eats. That’s where TripAdvisor.com is so indispensable. That’s how we discovered the delicious Hu Tong Dumpling Bar and Big Boy’s BBQ for lunches (sooo good). To walk off the week’s worth of calories we consumed in two days, we visited Hosier Lane, which is famous for the fantastic graffiti that covers its walls and strolled along Bourke St, which is famous for its shopping. We also went to the Australian Centre for Moving Images, a great interactive museum located at Federation Square. If you’re into films and TV, don’t miss this (I bought some classic Blu-Rays for my collection). Lastly, we did the Flinder’s Walk along the Yarra River, visiting the famous ‘lover’s lock’ bridge and just taking in the scenery. Note – you won’t get all of this done in one day, but the great thing is, it’s all within walking distance of the hotel.
Melbourne to Echuca: Days 3-5
We quickly picked up our rental car and headed out of town, stopping briefly to panic over our GPS (skyscrapers will cause your GPS to go bananas!) We headed north and an hour later cruised into Kyneton for lunch. It’s a small country town famous for Piper Street, a fairly well preserved historic street now filled with quaint cafes and antique shops. The cake and hot chocolate we had at Saint Beans Cafe were to die for. The prices we saw at a nearby high-end antique shop nearly DID kill me, but it was interesting to see what the rich are doing with their spare change. After a nice stroll down Piper Street, we motored further north to the small gold town of Castlemaine for the night. We stayed at the Albion Hotel (clean and affordable, but their kitchen closed early) before going to Bendigo the next day, our first major ‘activity’ destination.
Bendigo is smack dab in the middle of gold country and the city’s ostentatious public buildings and gardens attest to the flamboyance and piles of money that were typical of the gold rush era. A great way to see some of this is to take the Talking Tram Tour, so we hopped on for a 45min rumble past a giant cathedral, an over-the-top Victorian hotel, a Chinese temple and a tram museum. The tram conductor was a good-natured chap, unsurprisingly. I think I’d be in a good mood, too if that were my job in retirement.
After the tour, we donned hard hats and miner’s overalls and descended 100ft down a mine shaft on the Central Deborah Gold Mine Adventure Tour. The mine closed in the 1990s but you can still walk the dusty tunnels, have a go at running a gold drill and learn about the history of gold mining in Benidgo. Our legs were a bit wobbly by the end, after walking and climbing ladders for 2.5 hrs (there is a shorter option) but you finish up with a miner’s lunch of Cornish Pasties in the old miner’s underground lunchroom with a tremendous feeling of ‘man, that was cool!’ A bit dusty but immensely satisfied, we hit the road again, heading for the port town of Echuca on the Murray River, our next ‘activity’ destination.
TIPS: I recommend taking the Gold Mine Adventure Tour earlier in the day, so you have time to check out the museum on-site and then take the Tram Tour afterwards. During the Tram Tour, you can hop on and off at different points and pick it up again 45min later when it comes back around. Definitely take the side-tour at the Tram Museum and visit the Chinese Joss House Temple.
We arrived late in Echuca and, tired from a big day, crashed for the night at the Philadelphia Hotel, where there was no wifi and not enough toilet paper (still deciding which was more important), but it was clean and affordable. Two small towns – Echuca and Moama – sit across from one another on the Murray River there. At the river’s banks is the Echuca Esplanade, a preserved mid-19th century era street lined with period shops including a blacksmith, a woodworker, a penny arcade and a museum. This is all part of Echuca Wharf, where wool and wheat farmers shipped their goods via paddle-steamers during the late 1800’s. Today, there are half a dozen steamers still operating. Travelers can take 1hr, 1.5hr or overnight trips down the Murray, relaxing to the sounds of the paddle wheel, marveling at the many varieties of birds and the massive forests of eucalyptus along the banks. The 100 year old steam engine on-board the PS Emmy Lou was a site to behold, and the old fella feeding wood to the boiler’s stove had some interesting tales to tell.
On our 1.5hr cruise we passed lots of river-side holiday houses and privately owned houseboats, most displaying names that had to do with being lazy or boozed-up. Life on the water is the same everywhere, I guess, whether you’re on a sailboat in the Florida Keys or on a muddy river in rural Australia. What is it about the life-aquatic that makes people want to get drunk all the time?
Echuca to Daylesford: Days 5-7
We ate breakfast at the Wisteria Cafe on the Echuca Esplanade, but later wished we had eaten at the popular Johnny and Lyle a few blocks away. That didn’t dim our lovely day in Echuca, though. A great river cruise followed by a delicious Italian lunch at Antonio’s on the Port made all things right with our world. There are some lovely shops along High Street there, but we were pressed for time and eager to get to our next destination. We had a long drive ahead of us, but oh boy was it going to be worth the effort.
The sun was shining for the first time in 5 days as we headed to the beautiful little town of Hepburn Springs, a 2.5hr drive south-west of Echuca. Our GPS took us off the beaten track, which turned out to be great, as we saw rolling fields of green, vineyards heavy with grapes and giant stands of eucalyptus trees. By the time we arrived it was dark, but the little cottage I had booked was adorable, even in the glow of a dim street light. Aptly named, ‘The Artisan Retreat’ it had a wood burning fireplace, modern amenities, a second little building for artists and their arty moments, and a spa bathtub. Awesome.
TIP: Don’t stay in a hotel in Hepburn Springs/ Daylesford unless you want luxury. I think a nice little cottage is the way to go. You can find one easily on stayz.com.au. Be aware that the prices quoted for many of the listings on that site involve a minimum number of nights stay. If you are staying just one or two nights, or on a weekend or public holiday, it will cost you more. Email the owner and see if you can bargain with them.
The next morning was my partner’s birthday, so I had something special planned. The area is famous for its mineral waters and day spas, so I booked us into the Mineral Springs Spa at the Pepper’s Hotel for a day of massages, baths and steam rooms. It was fantastic. The baths overlooked a sculptured garden, the steam room gave you that Chinese dumpling feeling, and the massage was great (except for the guy with the leaf blower outside the window). To top it all off, we had a two course meal at Peppers, which was exceptional. That was 4.5hrs very well spent. You’d think the day couldn’t get any better, but we topped it off with a 4 course dinner at The Lake House, a 2-Hat restaurant in nearby Daylesford. Our taste-buds were in heaven! The food is not the only special thing about the restaurant, though. It’s on a beautiful piece of property by a lake, the architecture is warm and inviting and so were the fire place and cocktails. Simply superb. We wanted those two days in spa country to last forever.
Hepburn Springs to Melbourne: Day 7-9
Our time at the Artisan Retreat was far too short, but we vowed to return and packed our car for Melbourne as the rain and frosty wind chased after us. I was glad we had a couple of days of R&R in Melbourne before flying back to Sydney. We slept in, toured around the lively Queen Victoria Markets and ate more great food, the most notable being at the Ding Dong Lounge. A cook from New Orleans is in residence there and has set up a Cajun kitchen to rival any I have had back in the US. The gumbo, pulled pork, cornbread and Hurricane cocktails put a huge smile on my face as we sat there listening to the southern blues coming from their stereo. Five thumbs up! What a great way to end our trip.
This was a heck of a fly-and-drive vacation. We saw some great Australian sights, ate lots of fantastic Chinese and American food and got pampered like Arab royalty. A grand multicultural experience for a half-Aussie guy (who hates organizing holidays) and his Thai girlfriend (who hates organizing holidays). I can’t wait to do it again! If you’d like to give it a go, download the pdf and have a blast. Don’t tell too many people about The Artisan Retreat, though. Let’s keep that our little secret 😉