Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sovereign Hill

This needs to be said upfront: This is NOT A SPONSORED POST. I have no connections whatsoever with Sovereign Hill or any of its affiliates; I paid for every service and item discussed below; and Sovereign Hill is not aware that I am even writing this post. I just like to write about our holiday doings sometimes, that is all.

We spent two days last week on a mini-break at Sovereign Hill, the outdoor museum / historical township in Ballarat that evokes the  Goldrush era (1850s-60s) in Victoria.

Sovereign Hill, being only just over an hour from where we live, represented a good compromise for us. Having been on a family holiday to Warrnambool only 6 weeks ago, it was not likely that we were going to get away anywhere very far, expensive or major in the school holidays just concluded.

We did, however, want to do *something*, and after much family discussion, we settled on one of Victoria's most popular tourist attractions that we had never been to with the kids - Sovereign Hill. It's fair to say that a great time was had by all, with one glitch (mostly for me), which I'll discuss below.

We decided that a single day at Sovereign Hill was not likely to be long enough to see and do everything, and so I found a deal on the Internet which gave us a night's accomodation at the Comfort Inn next to the park, two days' entry to both Sovereign Hill and the Gold Museum, breakfast and dinner, and the evening sound and light show, Blood on the Southern Cross (about the Eureka Stockade miners' rebellion).

It cost $580 for us as a family of five, which I think was pretty reasonable. If we had just paid separately for the 2 days admission and the dinner & show, it would have cost us $510, and then we would have had to either go home for the night (painful) or pay for accomodation separately, which I can't imagine we would have found for under $70 (including breakfast!)

Sovereign Hill, for those unfamiliar with it, is a fantastically detailed, engaging recreation of early goldrush Ballarat. It has a main street of shops relevant to the time, which are great (and which the kids loved), but the heart of the set up is in the manufacturies (of sweets, equipment, gold and candles), miner's villages and the mines themselves. There is also a Chinese village, with a temple and lots of information about how the Chinese miners were treated on the goldfields (hint: not well).

Here, knowledgeable, expert staff, both paid and volunteer, help to resurrect the world of 1850s Ballarat, explaining (while in costume) what life was like for the miners, their wives and children, the soldiers, the shopkeepers and the various hangers-on that flocked to the new wealth of Victoria.

We were extremely impressed with the depth of knowledge and passion for their craft displayed by the staff. Everyone seemed to have more than one role- for instance, we recognised people dressed as soldiers on the second day who we'd encountered in the sweet factory the day before. The narratives that they supplied were engaging, detailed and very informative. My husband was particularly taken with seeing the gold pour, where $150,000 worth of gold was turned into a gold bullion bar in front of our eyes. The kids thought the lolly-making was fairly special, while I enjoyed watching wheels get made - a fascinating process.

We did lots of fun things, including:
- Multiple carriage rides in the stagecoach around the township
- Lunch in the old-style "New York Bakery"
- Panning for gold at the river
- Getting our photograph taken in sepia in old-style costume (we look scarily like a proper middle-class 19th century family!)
-  Shopping in the old apocathery shop
- Watching a surprisingly hilarious pantomime in the theatre of Beauty and the Beast (it had me in stitches as well as the kids)
One of the big questions we had to determine was whether we would do one of the paid underground mine tours. These go 45-60 minutes and involve going way underground to look at the old workings.

Because the kids were keen, we decided we would, and this turned out to be a *very* over ambitious decision on my part. I am claustrophic - quite severely so - and at the moment my spinal nerve problems are playing up, which makes me often dizzy and vertigo-afflicted. If this sounds to you like a recipe for disaster, well, you'd be right ... 

The first stage of the mine tour involvers a 2-minute plunge in a cramped carriage in utter blackness to get to the mine floor, and I completely dropped my bundle. By the time we arrived and the underground lights came on, I was breathless, spinning, and having a major panic attack. To my amazement, my two elder daughters were both fine and had found the dark drop intriguing rather than scary. My 4 year old, though, wasn't happy and wanted to leave too, although she was more composed than I was.

I think I must not be the first person to have this happen, though, because the guide was clearly au fait with how to manage lily-livered patrons. He quietly and kindly guided my 4 year old and I to an exit door that let us out onto a winding path, from where we were able to climb back slowly to the park, entering through the Chinese village (which she and I enjoyed looking at). When we emerged into the sun, my legs gave out for a minute and I flopped onto the ground. My 4 year old came over and hugged me and I cried like the sook that I am for a minute. But then we got up and walked back slowly and it was all OK.

My husband and the big kids continued their tour and reported that it was really interesting and they'd had fun, so I was glad everyone didn't have to miss out because of me. I would caution, though, if you are going to Sovereign Hill, to be wary of this if you are claustro or dark-averse (or have children who are). Personally I do not think they gave adequate warning as to the intensity of the experience and I think they should exercise more diligence about this for sensitive visitors.
The final thing to talk about is the sound and light show in the evening, Blood on the Southern Cross. We had reservations about this, given how affected the girls were by the sad show at the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum in Warrnambool. 

 However, we needn't have worried, as this show was both terrific and also way less emotionally draining than Shipwrecked. It was so well put together - clever, engaging, amusing, informative and excellent. It wasn't overlong, and it had enough changes of scene and location to keep the 4 year old from getting restless. (She was mightily taken with the snore sound effects in the miner's camp :-) We all really loved it and would like to see it again one day. My elder daughters left with a lively interest in the Eureka Stockade and in the gold diggings generally, and a determination to do their own research and find out more, which is really the highest form of compliment to the success of the show.

We ended our two days away by meeting up with my parents for dinner at a bistro beside Lake Wendouree, as they happened, serendipitously, to be in Ballarat that day for a friend's book launch. We had a lovely meal and watched the sun go down over the water, which was a nice way to end this mini break.

So, overall - high recommendation for Sovereign Hill as a family venue. There is really something for every age group and no chance of boredom that we could see. Just be careful about the mine tours if being tightly packed underground ain't your thang.

1 comment:

  1. We did the same mini break this time last year and LOVED it!
    I was so impressed with how helpful the staff were, especially when I had an allergic reaction and my eyes swelled closed (fun!) .