To the casual news observer, not much of a positive nature has come out of Geelong lately. Its industrial heart, Ford and Alcoa, is in the process of shutting down, and there’s some concern about where new jobs will be created.
Even the previously all-conquering Geelong Cats AFL team, whose renovated stadium sits proudly on the edge of the CBD, have had a lean time of late, failing to make the finals this year. For a football-mad blue-collar city these developments don’t sit well.
But there is much to like about Geelong. It may be Victoria’s second-largest city but it has a town-like feel – the locals provide a warm welcome and the waterfront has an easy, almost old-fashioned charm.
Geelong is close to the stunning Great Ocean Road and copious surf-friendly beaches. This city is in transition but its tourism potential is vast. It’s worth paying a visit to see what it can offer.
6pm – Check in at the Novotel Geelong
Getting to Geelong from Melbourne is pretty simple – it’s an hour in the car, a straight drive down the highway until you start seeing billboards of Darryn Lyons, Geelong’s colourful mayor, welcoming you to the city. Alternatively, there’s the V/Line train – you can get a paper ticket or use the infernal Myki swipe card, for about $8 each way.
The Novotel is a comfortable hotel on Geelong’s waterfront. It has 109 rooms, will cost you in the region of $189 a night and places plenty of things within immediate reach – a decent restaurant and bar, gym, indoor pool.
The hotel’s position, right on Corio Bay, means it’s also close to several bars and cafes.
7.30pm – Dinner
Geelong is favoured with excellent food, wine and increasingly beer but is only belatedly getting a reputation for top-grade dining. There is much excitement about star chef Aaron Turner’s new restaurant, Igni, a 50-seat venue set to open soon, but there are existing gems to be found too.
Tulip Bar & Restaurant is on Pakington Street, a long, vibrant thoroughfare in Geelong’s west which even has its own festival. The restaurant was recently named the regional restaurant of the year by The Age, and this is not faint praise.
The menu has a range of small and large modern dishes ranging in cost from $15 to $39, with an extensive list of Victorian wines. If you can’t decide on octopus, kangaroo or steak, you can let the chef decide on a whole selection of courses, for $69 a person. The place is small, intimidate, not too showy.
9am – A Melbourne-inspired breakfast
Just off Pakington Street lies the Box Office Cafe, emblematic of the change that has taken place in the city.
Box Office Cafe could easily be located in Fitzroy or Brunswick rather than suburban Geelong. It has wrought-iron tables, a cubby hole for coffee and payment, and large murals daubed on the front and side of the building.
People can sit on scattered stools out the back for their Axil coffee. There’s a whole foods store next door.
We opted for the classics – eggs and smashed avocado on toast. The food is good, not outstanding, but as a symbol of how Melbourne’s obsession with stylised-yet-nonchalant breakfast has spread down to the Bellarine, Box Office Cafe has it all.
10.30am – Stroll at the farmers’ market
No foodie evolution is complete without a decent farmers’ market and there is an impressive one in Bannockburn, about 20 minutes from the heart of Geelong.
The Golden Plains farmers’ market, named for the rich soil of the region, has a vast array of local produce as well as the obligatory farm animals for children to pet. It runs from 9am to 1pm.
We try a selection of cheeses as well as some locally grown chillis in the form of a paste, which should come with an accompanying glass of milk. There are also wine, plants and fine meats to be found.
The highlight could well be the array of “cruffins” on sale. A cruffin is a cross between a muffin and a croissant. My initial scepticism is dispelled immediately when biting into a raspberry-flavoured version – cruffins are delicious.
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12.30pm – Lunch among the vines
A number of wineries are dotted around the Geelong region and their wares are gaining in popularity, judging by their reach into bottle shops and restaurants.
A short drive from Bannockburn takes you to the Moorabool valley, where you can visit cellar doors, although things do tend to shut down on public holidays. The family-run Austins & Co has started tastings and classes and is well worth a visit to sample their 6ft6 range, including a fruity pinot noir.
For lunch we head to Clyde Park, which has a large barn-like bistro adorned with art which is a perennial favourite for weddings. A terrace overlooks a vineyard-lined valley.
Owner Terry Jongebloed has created a restaurant that can match the wine over the past decade with a range of woodfired pizzas, house-made breads, seafood and meats, including an indulgent pork belly. Jongebloed says he is busy year-round with venue hire but some of his white wines are certainly selling well now that the sun is out.
Clyde Park has different menus for weekdays and weekends. The pizzas, which range in cost from $24 to $32, are only available on Saturdays and Sundays.
2pm – Walking Geelong
The city is relatively flat and has plenty of history that can be explored on foot. There are a number of churches, the Old Geelong Gaol – which took nearly 20 years to build and was finished in 1864 – and the Wool Museum, dedicated to Geelong’s past “sheep’s back” economy.
If you are looking for a comfortable jumper or a pair of mittens this is the place.
Probably the best of the walks is to be had on the waterfront, which includes a pier, a floating seafood restaurant and a small beach next to the Geelong Botanic Gardens.
4pm – Art
The Newtown end of Pakington Street is evolving into an area for contemporary art – it’s worth popping into Boom Gallery, situated in a former mill, to see how Geelong’s art scene is evolving.
The older Geelong Gallery is also worth checking out. The gallery, next to where a new library will be, has a varied permanent collection that is displayed in its entirety, providing an interesting contrast between classic portraits and contemporary art. A video installation is also showing at present.
After the gallery, you can take a ride on a small waterfront train to a selection of bars at the end of the pier, where you can gaze back at Geelong over a drink, or over your shoulder to the sparkling sea and rusting hulks that are the city’s industrial legacy.
5.30pm – Pre-dinner drinks
The city centre is in the process of being invigorated following the unfortunate trend of large out-of-town shopping and dining complexes luring people away from the city’s heart.
The CBD can still seem a little quiet for a city of this size but there are new bars popping up that should start enticing people back. One of these is Union Street Wine, a long bar off Little Malop Street.
Launched last year, the bar combines drinking establishment and wine shop, with a rack of various bottles at the back of the venue.
A selection of cheese, olives and jamon, sliced there in front of you, accompanies the drinks, which are priced by the glass in the $10 to $13 range.
Owners Lewis and Andy, who sports an impressive curly moustache, are welcoming and clearly have a steady stream of regulars enjoying this change in Geelong’s beer-and-a-parma-night-out image. They’ve even opened a more traditional wine shop next door.
7pm – Dinner with Brian
Aaron Turner’s Igni may not have opened yet but he already has a toehold in Geelong with the Hot Chicken Project, a Nashville-style chicken bar on Little Malop Street.
Diners perch on bar stools as they combine gourmet fried chicken and chips with a selection of wines dominated by a Tasmanian offering that simply goes by the name Brian. It is delicious, as is the food, which comes with a tofu option for vegetarians.
You can choose the heat factor of your food from “mild” to “evil chicken”. Even the mid-range option packs a punch and the price isn’t too bad – about $20 before you add on the drinks.
Hot Chicken Project has only been open 10 months but already appears to have a strong following, some of whom are in for a post-show meal after visiting the Geelong Performing Arts Centre.
It looks like Turner is on to a winner here.
8.30pm – Late-night cake
Tucked away in a laneway off Little Malop Street, Armageddon Cake is another place that could well be situated in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. But this is proudly individualistic Geelong and the venue has been open for several years now, so should be considered a local institution.
Armageddon Cake is open Wednesday to Sunday for evening cake, coffee and tea from 7pm. So no midday cucumber sandwiches and dainty cakes here. Instead, there is a list of generous, luxurious cakes to be washed down with a drink, for about $10.
If you’re brave you can go for the Golden Gaytime shake instead of tea.
The venue is done out a little like a hipster’s living room, with kitsch memorabilia strewn around the place. There is retro furniture for you to sit on and you have to walk through the kitchen to get to the toilets.
An expansion is planned once the premises next door are purchased and the adjoining wall demolished. The service is friendly and the cakes – cookies and cream cheesecake, red velvet, salted caramel and so on – are delicious.
10am – Breakfast at Freckleduck
Another morning, another new Geelong cafe. Freckleduck opened last November and is doing a brisk trade on an otherwise quiet Geelong morning.
The cafe is right in the heart of the city and offers a good range of food and coffee. There are homemade waffles and prawn tacos to choose from but we opt for smashed avocado and eggs and the granola with panna cotta. Both are very good, although the granola is maybe a little too sweet.
There’s outdoor seating to see the world go by, which is welcome on a warm day. It will be interesting to see if places like Freckleduck will manage to lure punters back to the CBD.
12pm – Beer, beer, beer
If one attraction has led Geelong’s recent attempt at renaissance it’s the Little Creatures Brewery, which opened in the city in December 2013.
The story has it that the Perth-based brewers were looking to find new facilities on the east coast and the duo dispatched for this task couldn’t find the right building – until they accidentally stumbled upon an old woollen mill in South Geelong late one night.
The old mill, a sprawling series of red-brick buildings, is an ideal setting for the brewery – the pipes and drums and fermenters seem to sit perfectly in the aged structure.
An informative tour shows the whole process, from the mashing of the grains to the bottling.
You can then enjoy Little Creatures’ wares in the cavernous canteen. We go for a chickpea and flatbread combination with a pear salad and zucchini and sweet corn fritters – $42 for the lot. There are sliders, pizzas and fish available too.
This being a brewery, there are beer tastings galore and the full range of Little Creatures ales to pick from. I go for the Dog Day beer, an oddly named but refreshing summery tipple.
The place is packed. Two men suddenly start breakdancing in front of us. It doesn’t really feel like Geelong.
4pm – Flying high
Full of good ale and cheer, we head back to the waterfront to hop on to a helicopter, as you do.
Geelong Helicopters offer regular flights around the region from its landing pad near the pier. Flights range from five minutes for $50 to a $280 option that takes you down the surf coast to Torquay and back in about 30 minutes.
We opt for the 12-minute version, which gives us enough time to clear the masts of the sailboats, swoop around the south of the city and back out to the sparkling bay in a scenic loop.
The pilot is chatty and happily points out the various landmarks. People often say to him that the city looks larger from the air and you can see why – ity covers a lot of territory.
We safely touch back down with a new appreciation for Geelong, a city that is counting on tourism to bring its renewal.
Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Geelong.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Oliver Milman from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.