Quaint and quirky: Small towns with big hearts

Outside a cafe in Forrest

Krysia Bonkowski

Posted December 13, 2018

Whether you’re a foraging foodie, history buff or adventure junkie, these Victorian day-trips are a delight.


All bibliophiles should bookmark this pretty little Goldfields town north of Ballarat. It’s home to so many bookshops that it’s been declared an International Book Town – one of only 22 worldwide. Along with the beloved Booktown Festival each May, Clunes hosts Booktown on Sundays – every third Sunday of the month – featuring free author talks. But on any given day, visitors can fall into the peaceful rhythms of the well-read community, where some of the state’s best-preserved 19th-century buildings house cafes, bistros and, of course, bookshops.

Fish Creek

You can’t miss the Fish Creek Hotel. The looming art deco building topped with a huge, stunned mullet by Gippsland artist Colin Suggett has become a beacon to those travelling through the rolling countryside to Wilsons Promontory, or tackling the Great Southern Rail Trail. Go for a gallery hop around this “arts capital of South Gippsland” – including the gallery/bookshop of adored children’s author/illustrator Alison Lester, and Celia Rosser’s eponymous gallery showing her intricate botanical drawings – before a lunch of fine Gippsland pub grub at the destination watering hole.

Guitarist plays on a train

All aboard the Blues Train.


Nestled in the lush Otways, Forrest lures adventurers and foodies inland from the Surf Coast. The Forrest Mountain Bike Trails offer more than 65 kilometres of track winding through the Great Otway National Park, and local hiking trails lead to secluded waterfalls and ferny nooks. Nearby, kayakers paddle between ghostly gums while searching for platypus on haunting Lake Elizabeth. Bespoke Harvest dishes up locally grown delights and the ever-popular Forrest Brewing Company and eatery beckon when it’s time to refuel.


Flying further under the radar than its Mornington Peninsula neighbours Sorrento and Portsea, Flinders ticks all the boxes for a perfect day by the seaside. Cast a line off Flinders Pier, tee off on the stunning golf course, explore rock pools at the Mushroom Reef Marine Sanctuary at low tide or soak up dramatic views from nearby Blowhole Lookout. The charming coastal village itself is peppered with boutiques and antiques stores, and the deck of the iconic Flinders Hotel is ideal for a lazy meal.


Along with having one of the most memorable names going round, Dookie is a scenic slice of the Goulburn Valley with a progressive reputation and community feel. Surrounded by canola fields that bloom golden in spring and the trio of hills Mount Major, Mount Saddleback and Gentle Annie, the town offers hidden gems including Dookie Emporium – a vintage treasure trove with a popular cafe – and laidback Tallis Wines in Dookie Hills, where vines thrive in red volcanic soil.

Tree trunks at Lake Elizabeth

Ghostly gums at Lake Elizabeth, near Forrest township.


At the mouth of Port Phillip Bay on the Bellarine Peninsula, Queenscliff combines a palpable sense of history with a chilled-out coasty vibe. Grand colonial hotels on the wide streets now hold hotspots such as Queenscliff Brewhouse – where Bellarine wines and 100-plus beers are paired with local produce – or the Vue Grande with its opulent dining room. Around Queenscliff, visitors can dive with dolphins and seals, hop aboard the legendary Blues Train or simply take in the sea air on coastal saunters.


Ballarat’s Eureka Rebellion might hog the limelight, but an earlier step towards democracy was taken in this pint-sized Goldfields town near Castlemaine. In 1851, an estimated 15,000 miners gathered here to protest over a gold-license tax. Dubbed the Monster Meeting, it was one of Australia’s first anti-government rallies. The quaint township with its minuscule workers’ cottages is also a gateway for Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park, a veritable goldmine for history buffs. Once you’ve unearthed all that lore, a dip in the nearby Expedition Pass Reservoir on a hot day is a must.