Cosy and comfortable ... the downstairs living area at Abbey's Place.
Clare Barry and her loved ones stay close and warm in this gold-rush town.
When three and four-year-old cousins take to ganging up on the three-year-old's big brother on the holiday house staircase, something's bound to give. In our case, it's a strand from the wire "bannister" pinging free from its bracket and dangling useless down the side of the staircase. Visitors 1, holiday house 0. And we've only been here for two hours.
We're in Ballarat. With six children. It's 13 degrees and there's perpetual drizzle. I've brought my three, aged 15, 6 and 3, and we're meeting my sister, her hubby and their three (10, 8 and 4). They're on a school-holiday jaunt from Sydney and didn't the previous week's balmy autumn days just evaporate as they crossed the Murray. It's bitingly cold and miserable.
The Sydney cousins' brief for their central-Victoria stopoff is "either Ned Kelly or some gold-rushy stuff" so Abbey's Place, within gunshot of Sovereign Hill, is an obvious choice. It's a cedar cottage set in a small garden in East Ballarat, airy and light with vaulted ceilings and dormer windows.
We're after warmth in any form and fire up the split-system heaters in the living-room and upstairs bedroom before the Sydneysiders arrive. The heaters do it tough and we shudder at the thought of a mid-winter stay, until big sister twiddles with what looks like another air-conditioning unit and floods the house with immediate warmth. We squeeze round the table for a home-made lasagne and settle in for an early night.
Abbey's Place sleeps up to 12. There's a king-size bed upstairs, with two single camp or rollaway beds stored underneath. Downstairs off the living room are three further bedrooms - one with a double bed, another with a single bed and a rollaway, and a big third room with three single beds and a rollaway. We've booked for 10 and find comfy beds made up with crisp, white, commercially laundered linen and just-right (not too heavy or light) doonas. There are welcome electric blankets on the king and double beds.
The top level is one enormous bedroom with an expanse of cushiony carpet (all the better for mashing your cousin's head into), a small wood-lined en suite with shower, toilet and vanity, and a corner set aside as a "parents' retreat" with chairs, TV with Playstation and an ancient game of '80s-era Operation. Reality sees the children set up camp here with parents retreating to the wooden dining table or widescreen telly downstairs. We can't work out the Playstation set-up, then figure life will be more peaceful without it.
There's a lot of timber going on at Abbey's Place, with wood-lined ceilings and walls in the main bedroom and living area, and "country-style" cabinetry in the kitchen. The decor is a bit dated and tired in places but the beds and red velvet couches are comfortable and, overall, the place feels cosy and cheery. And we needn't panic about stir-crazy kids messing with fancy fixtures and furnishings (except for that bannister wire, which didn't compromise safety and which the owner is happy to see to after we leave.) The kitchen has everything we need, though for a house that sleeps 12, a couple of big serving bowls or platters would have been welcome.
Day two is set aside for Sovereign Hill, a five-minute walk back to the 1850s. We find a whole lot of mud, and a little something for all of us. The 15-year-old wants to frock up for a bonnets-and-top-hats family portrait (maybe next time); the 10-year-old is desperate to pan for gold; the six-year-old exhibitionist makes it on stage in the velvet-curtained Victoria Theatre; the eight-year-old gets to sit next to the coach driver; and the two youngest cousins splatter mud and demand all-day suckers from the lolly shop. For the grown-ups, there's very real history, Irish laments in a knockabout pub and a discussion about the tax-deductibility of employees' facial hair.
We should really take a stroll down the elegant streetscapes of greater Ballarat but we've done several drive-bys and it's just too damn miserable. Back to the house for that heart-warming heater and a (fitting) jigsaw of ice-skaters and wodges of caramel fudge from the Beechworth Bakery.
There's one more thing to see to before the night is through. On an earlier holiday in Point Lonsdale my sister and brother-in-law, a nurse educator and anaesthetist respectively, minced me and my other half - both newspaper folk - at Scrabble. That game of Operation in the upstairs drawer spells payback.
Address 10 Wainwright Street, Ballarat.
Phone 0417 524 127.
Cost From $150 a couple a night; 10-person booking cost $350.
Getting there Ballarat is 80 minutes' drive from Melbourne's city centre; V/Line services run regularly from Southern Cross Station.
Summary Cosy and cheery accommodation for a big group.
The score: 19-20 excellent; 17-18 great; 15-16 good; 13-14 comfortable.
All weekends away are conducted anonymously and paid for by Traveller.