From convict settlements to historic ports, Indigenous sites to goldrush villages, there’s an array of destinations close to home just waiting to be discovered. Sarah Trevor explores 15 fascinating contenders for the history lover’s dream holiday!
New Norfolk, Tasmania
Nestled in the scenic Derwent Valley 32km northwest of Hobart, New Norfolk is gifted with dramatic mountainous surrounds, a mild climate, grand poplar trees that turn gold in autumn, and a lengthy record of pioneer history. The town earned its name due to its resettlement of 554 Norfolk Islanders — including many First Fleeters — between 1807 and 1808. It also became home to many exiled Irish rebels, including nationalist leader Terence MacManus, whose cottage, The Grange, still stands. New Norfolk boasts the honour of Australia’s oldest continuously licensed pub, the atmospheric Bush Inn Hotel, opened by Ann Bridger in 1825. With several historic churches and cottages, old oast (kiln) houses along the roads, and the Willow Court asylum, which predates Port Arthur, buildings attesting to Van Diemen’s Land important heritage abound.
Best time to visit = September to November
One of Victoria’s quaintest gold rush towns, Castlemaine offers tree-lined boulevards, grand public buildings and Georgian architecture. See the Theatre Royal, opened in 1854, and the Buda Historic Home and Gardens, a magnificent example of 19th century architecture which housed the Leviny family for 118 years. Explore Castlemaine Diggings, Australia’s first national heritage park, to see gold rush relics and Chinese market gardens, or try fossicking yourself! Don’t forget to pack a copy of Gib Wettenhall’s Goldfields Track Walking Guide (Em Press Publishing, $29.95) — it’s an essential guide to the region’s walking trails, with the 15.5km Heritage Park Walk passing by a cemetery, water wheel and Welsh village ruins, all from the gold rush era.
Best time to visit = March, for the Castlemaine State Festival
Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory
One of Australia’s most spectacular national parks, Litchfield National Park is 100km southwest (“just down the road”, in Territorian speak) from Darwin. The National Park is home to striking landscapes, stunning swimming holes and waterfalls, diverse wildlife and birdlife, magnetic termite mounds up to 2m high — and is a blend of pastoral and pioneer heritage. Nearby, Batchelor was an important airfield during World War II, hosting some 36 Australian, American and Dutch units. Its new museum is worth a visit for insights into the region’s history.
Best time to visit = Winter
Albany, Western Australia
This historic port city, 420km southeast of Perth, occupies a special place in Australia’s Anzac legend. In World War I, Albany was the last port of call for troopships departing for abroad, giving many soldiers their last glimpse of Australian soil. Fittingly, the tradition of the Anzac Day dawn service began here in 1923 thanks to Anglican priest Padre Arthur White. Its earlier history is equally fascinating. The Noongar people, who have inhabited the region for 45,000 years, built fish traps and hunted turtle along its scenic coastline. The oldest town on Australia’s west coast, Albany was founded in 1826, and up to 50 colonial-era buildings remain from this period. Highlights include the Old Gaol Museum, and Brig Amity Replica, a full-scale model of the Amity that brought Albany its first settlers, as reconstructed by local craftsmen in the 70s.
Best time to visit = September to December
Port Fairy, Victoria
Situated on Victoria’s western ‘Shipwreck Coast’, Port Fairy is a living museum by the seaside. Established in the 1820s as a sealing and whaling port, its whimsical name came from Captain Wishart, in honour of his small cutter, Fairy. During its peak in the 1850s, it was the second busiest port in Australia. More than 50 buildings of historical significance remain within easy walking distance of the CBD, including an 1859 lighthouse, and the Lifeboat Station housing a noteworthy collection of early maritime equipment. The Port Fairy Maritime and Shipwreck Walk, along the scenic shoreline, allows you to amble through the port’s past — you’ll spot several shipwrecks, including pioneer Edward Henty’s Thistle, and maybe even whales or dolphins. Nearby Portland and Warrnambool are worth exploring, too, as is Tower Hill, an inactive volcano.
Best time to visit = Spring
Stradbroke Island, Queensland
Only 30km southeast of Brisbane, North Stradbroke Island is a history lover’s paradise. Known as Minjerribah to its Indigenous people, who have inhabited the island for some 40,000 years, North Stradbroke is home to a rich archaeological record. The Nunukul, Nughie and Gorenpul tribes became renowned for their hospitality having looked after three shipwrecked timber-getters for six weeks in 1823. The island’s first port of call, Dunwich, is a small town and former convict outstation, quarantine station, and asylum. Starting from the award-winning historical museum, a self-guided heritage trail wanders past Convict Causeway, Benevolent Asylum cottages, and Dunwich Cemetery, plus much more. Point Lookout – named by James Cook himself – is a prime spot for humpback whale watching. Needless to say, Stradbroke’s pristine beaches, diverse flora and walking tracks will satisfy less history-oriented travelling companions!
Best time to visit = Any time
On the map, Winton appears to be in the middle of nowhere: some 470km southeast of Mount Isa, in central Queensland’s vast red outback. In history, however, this small, friendly town has been central to some of Australia’s most famous icons. When visiting the township in 1895, Banjo Paterson wrote Waltzing Matilda and, according to bush legend, the ballad was first performed in Winton’s North Gregory Hotel. Winton is also regarded as the birthplace of Qantas, having hosted its first board meeting in February 1921. The region’s pastoral history is best glimpsed at Blandensburg National Park, while the town itself boasts heritage-listed buildings such as the open air Royal Theatre, built in 1918, and the Corfield and Fitzmaurice building, opened in 1878. For family holidays, Winton’s best attractions are prehistoric. The nearby Lark Quarry Dinosaur Trackways evidence the world’s only recorded dinosaur stampede, approximately 95 million years ago. How better to get kids interested in the (prehistoric) past?
Best time to visit = September
Esperance, Western Australia
With its sparkling beaches and neighbouring national parks, Esperance, on Western Australia’s southeast coast, is a standout of the Golden Outback region. The area’s first known European contact was in 1627, when Dutch ship Gulden Zeepaert passed by the coast. In 1792, while seeking shelter from a storm, French explorers named the town after their Espérance ship. First settled in the 1870s by the pioneer Dempster family, Esperance hosted whalers, farmers and goldminers over its varied history before becoming an official municipality in 1895. Its Museum Village memorialises its history, featuring schoolhouses, medical buildings and historic shops. Lucky Bay — aptly named by Matthew Flinders in 1802 — is officially the whitest sand beach in Australia, and is nestled alongside brilliant blue ocean and granite cliffs. Esperance is also a great adventure spot, offering diving, abseiling, helicopter tours, and more.
Best time to visit = April and May
Mudgee, New South Wales
With more heritage-listed buildings than any other town in the state, and an enthralling history that seems microcosmic of the colony itself, there is much to see, do and learn in the relaxed mid-western town of Mudgee. Situated in the picturesque Cudgegong River Valley, the district’s rich Indigenous heritage is demonstrated in its ancient rock art. In the gold rush era, Mudgee’s population and prosperity swelled when neighbouring villages struck gold. Traces of this period linger in remaining Cobb & Co stops and change stations, while various homesteads and stations, such as Havilah, from the 1850s, symbolise the region’s strong wool industry. Its traditional viniculture is still thriving, with 40 local wineries to visit. Beer (and history) lovers will enjoy the heritage inns encountered along the Historic Pub Trail.
Best time to visit = September for the Food and Wine Festival
Goolwa, South Australia
Sitting at the point where the Murray River meets the Southern Ocean, about an hour’s drive south of Adelaide, Goolwa’s prime location has been a key driver of its history. Today a slow-paced river port town, Goolwa’s historic wharf, constructed in 1852, saw the town thrive as the colony’s only inland port. Still strongly associated with watercraft, Goolwa has an impressive collection of paddle steamers. One by the name of PS Oscar W was built in 1908 and still offers weekend cruises. In addition to several heritage buildings, its history museum is housed in the former blacksmith shop constructed in 1872. Goolwa is also ideally located to explore the picturesque Fleurieu Peninsula, and the Coorong’s wetlands and wildlife.
Best time to visit = February
Broken Hill, New South Wales
Known as the Silver City for its mining background, Broken Hill is well worth exploring. Established in 1883, it became one of the most significant towns in the state’s west, helping to wean Australia off the ‘sheep’s back’. Its Daydream Mine takes visitors underground to understand the tough working conditions that local miners faced, while the Line of Lode Miner’s Memorial commemorates more than 800 miners who died at work. The community played a significant role in Australia’s trade union culture through miners’ strikes from the 1880s to the 1920s, assisted by the Women’s Brigade. Now a peaceful locale with a vibrant arts scene, Broken Hill’s galleries profile emerging artists, plus works by Pro Hart and Jack Absalom, inspired by the desert surrounds.
Best time to visit = August