Like changing diapers on a bad day, it can be difficult to shake off a reputation. Geelong, the second largest city in Australia’s southern state of Victoria has somehow shaken off a boring image and reinvented itself. Long an industrial center that visitors passed through quickly, this port city has undergone a surprisingly radical facelift.
A walk along thriving Pakington Street (or Pako as it’s locally known) showed us a vibrant street buzzing with people strolling, eating, drinking, shopping and watching life on the edge of the Central Business District. Antiques, collectables and retro furniture drew browsers, fairies waved in children’s shops, the hidden delights of books beckoned, and tattered exotic postcards lay scattered in an atmospheric coffee shop, its ruddy-cheeked Italian owner bustling cheerfully.
In Geelong’s city center, new road works, along with fresh landscaping and new street furniture have soaked up millions of dollars. The CBD boasts a freshly revamped city mall and the side streets are nicely touched up. Redevelopment has improved the Botanic Gardens and the local yacht club, but the most appealing area is now the edge of Corio Bay.
Previously just a working port, Geelong is now a true tourist precinct with an historic pier, cafes and restaurants, and a marina. A walk along the waterfront took us to a series of wooden sculptures cleverly carved from bollards and depicting seaside life that fascinated the children.
Bathing pools, parklands and pavilions have transformed a deserted cement strip into a wonderfully attractive promenade. Our excited offspring rode a century-old and beautifully renovated carousel moving to the sound of a pipe organ.
The area is also an attractive setting for festivals such as the Geelong Wooden Boat Festival held in March, when unique wooden boats sail into Corio Bay for a weekend of racing and swapping yarns. Other festivals include Highland Gatherings, the Meredith Music Festival, the Offshore Festival and the sweetly named, family-inspired Poppykettle Festival.
Entertainment is also present in pubs, nightclubs and live music venues as well as in the strong regional theatre and arts scene.
History Lessons, Too
‘Old Geelong’ has not been neglected. The Wathaurong tribe lived here and some streets and place names such as Moorabool, Malop and Corio preserve their words.
Imprisoned convict, William Buckley, fled to the bush in 1803, surviving only because the Wathaurong took him in. He lived with them for 32 years until ‘a tall man dressed in animal skins’ walked into John Batman’s camp in 1835. The William Buckley Discovery Trail follows this remarkable historic figure around Geelong and the adjoining Bellarine Peninsula marking six sites significant to Buckley’s life and the Wathaurong people. This includes Buckley Falls on the Barwon River where William spent a lot of time searching for food. The river is a natural attraction as well as historically rich, with walking tracks, lookouts and picnic areas along the river. An abundance of wildlife, including platypus, uses the water
The city has abundance of beautiful churches, charming houses and heritage buildings built in the 1800’s when it was a busier port than Melbourne, and an essential supply depot for the western goldfields. Over 200 buildings are listed on the Heritage Register with two historic properties open to visitors.
The popular Wool Museum fills several levels of a converted bluestone wool store setting the scene for an in-depth exploration. Step by absorbing step, you explore the enormous impact that the sheep, the wool and the industry it spawned had, not just on Geelong, but the entire country, weaving it all together more finely than a cashmere shawl.
From Melbourne it’s an easy one-hour drive or train trip to Geelong. Flying into the local Avalon airport is probably the most convenient. This cheery and functional little aviation centre underwent a $4.5 million upgrade a few of years ago and is now used by the domestic budget airline, Jetstar. Being only 19 kilometres from Geelong, visitors can board a bus to anywhere in the city or suburbs.
Information on lodging, activities and dining can be found by visiting the Geelong Visitor’s Centre and Geelong/Otway Tourism. The Geelong Bellarine Tourism office is very helpful, and produce a wonderful walking map of the waterfront.
Speaking of dining, an increasingly high standard of local produce is appearing at Geelong’s restaurants and eateries. Lee Priest opens his doors for the enjoyment of locals and regulars at the Silver Teaspoon, conveniently situated between Pakington Street and the Barwon River, in the suburb of Belmont.
Soups are a specialty, as well as freshly made desserts. Delectable lemon tarts reveal the unmistakable tang of real lemons, which were, together with the pumpkins for our soup, ‘dropped off by friends,’ a term that encompasses anyone who walks into the little café. This may be a city, but it has a snug small town feel to it.
An atmosphere of quiet buoyancy is supported by statistics showing that almost four million visitors annually now come to Geelong, a 60% increase in the last seven years. There is no gush and no rush in Geelong, but for relaxation, living history and excellent children’s attractiond, this city now has it all.
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