From family sword fights in a medieval castle to ‘pond to plate’ trout fishing, there’s way more to Ballarat, Victoria than meets the eye, as MEG LAW and her family discover
Ballarat: New experiences and hidden surprises
As we pulled into the historic city of Ballarat, we were ready for a mini family escape in a place we thought we knew well. In the foothills of the Great Dividing Range, Ballarat is a place we have visited frequently over the years, always squeezing in our favourite family activities — a ride on the vintage tram, a picnic at Lake Wendouree, and of course a day at the Sovereign Hill open-air museum for some gold panning, a horse and carriage ride, and the obligatory visit to the lolly shop.
But on this trip, we discovered there are so many more fun things to do, with exciting new experiences and hidden surprises filling our itinerary. Our long weekend was a wonder of wildlife, nature, food comas, laughter and quality family time all set against the backdrop of this thriving and progressive city with a charming heritage feel.
Ballarat Wildlife Park: An immersive animal experience
Opening the large wooden gates to this wildlife sanctuary was like walking into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but instead of chocolate fountains and giant candy canes, our eyes rested upon adorable meerkats standing to attention and more than 100 kangaroos on the grass. This isn’t just another zoo, this place is special. We didn’t just view the animals behind glass, we were completely immersed in interactive wildlife encounters.
The kids loved hand feeding and patting the kangaroos as they lazed contentedly on the grass in the sunshine, watching the little feathered penguins tapping their ‘happy feet’ and splashing around in their giant pool, and seeing the koalas hugging the gum trees and sleeping soundly. What a life!
A highlight for our kids was meeting Kai, the majestic Sumatran-Siberian tiger, and seeing Crunch, the ‘Super Croc’, as his jaws snapped wide open at feeding time. The ranger on duty was especially amused by our youngest adamantly explaining to him and the crowd that the crocodile was in fact called Lyle the Crocodile, not Crunch. “Get it right, Mister!”
Kryal Castle: Exploring a medieval castle with kids
As we arrived at this medieval-era castle, our five-year-old tentatively reached for my hand as we crossed the drawbridge. His face was full of trepidation and fear, but also excitement at the prospect of seeing a “real knight” on a horse and learning how to shoot a bow and arrow. My daughter, on the other hand, was soon happily off in search of fairies and crystals, and more interested in making a magic potion or flower crown.
But first, we had to navigate our way through the castle chambers, which had us all jumping at shadows and screaming as we passed through the eerie corridors lined with cobwebs, ghouls, witches, skeletons and spooky medieval halls. After retrieving our hearts from the floor, we found ourselves in the main arena, with loud trumpets bellowing, knights gallantly lined up along the fence and flags being raised in time for the main jousting event — fairies versus goblins (which was a special school holidays event).
Next, we heard the thunderous sound of horses as they galloped through the main arena, with shining knights leading the cavalry with their lances at the ready preparing to battle it out in the royal joust. The crowd went wild as the fairies and green-faced goblins competed in this thrilling showstopper of a battle, with our youngest cheering from the seats, waving his imaginary sword and shouting, “go goblins!”. We also learned how to throw an axe and engaged in family sword fights, with Dad defending himself against the kids, who were armed with shields and blunt (thankfully) swords.
Suffice to say, we left the Castle utterly exhausted, feeling like we had just stepped from the pages of a medieval storybook about the dark ages.
Tuki Trout Farm: A ‘pond to plate’ dining experience
Next up, we decided to visit the nearby Tuki Trout Farm to try catching a rainbow trout to cook up in a pan for lunch. We spent a pleasant few hours sitting by the lake watching the littlies proudly cast their own rods while soaking up the views of the Loddon Campaspe Valley. Owned by the Jones family for several generations, the property is a traditional grazing farm, complete with a woolshed, miner’s cottage, and a restaurant in a converted stable.
After many laughs during our failed attempts to catch our own fish, amongst a few terrified squeals from our daughter as she kept hooking large yabbies instead, we decided to pack the rods away and enjoy someone else’s ‘catch of the day’.
Chatting to owner, Robert, on the balcony while we sipped on a local wine and tasted fresh smoked trout pate, it was clear he and wife Janet were incredibly proud of their organic and eco-friendly venture. His eyes lit up as he told our kids with a cheeky glint in his eye just how the sustainable cycle works. “The restaurant green waste feeds the chooks,” he said. “The chooks lay the eggs, the eggs get made into breakfast, and the compost goes on the garden to grow nice veggies.”
Robert is a passionate storyteller who has been working on the business for more than three decades with his four-legged friend, Joe the cocker spaniel, never leaving his side. The menu at Tuki draws upon fresh farm produce, and you will leave there with your tastebuds dancing.
Lake Wendouree Loop Ride: A fun bike tour for all ages
To work off all the extra calories, we decided to embark on the Lake Wendouree Loop Ride – a 10km circuit that passes some of Ballarat’s key attractions. Sam from Ballarat Bike Hire met us at the start of the circuit with our bikes and helmets and then collected them all a few hours later, making this two-wheel adventure so easy! The experience began with much laughter as our five-year-old pedalled so hard he nearly went into the lake, fiercely attempting to keep up with his big sis.
This family-friendly ride not only provides scenic lake views, but also has plenty of rest stops to break up the journey, including an adventure playground, waterfront cafes, an ice-cream truck, Ballarat Tramway Museum and the beautiful Ballarat Botanical Gardens.
After three days of micro adventures, we headed home with with full bellies and happy hearts.
Getting to Ballarat
Ballarat is around an hour and 30 minutes’ drive north-west of Melbourne. A shuttle bus operates from Melbourne Airport at Tullamarine, or you can catch the V/Line train from Southern Cross Station to the historic Ballarat Railway Station and arrive in 90 minutes.
Where to stay
Quest Ballarat Station at Soldiers Hill makes an ideal base to explore Ballarat. It offers large, modern self-contained apartments perfect for families and right in the centre of town.
Where to eat
Head to Hydrant Food Hall for rainbow fairy floss pancakes and delicious share plates, Forge Pizzeria for woodfired pizza, Il Piccolo for artisan gelato, and Lake View Hotel for traditional and impressive pub grub with views over Lake Wendouree.