Let it snow!
'Tis July and the middle of the year. Melbourne is a cold place to be and short, grey days see us locked indoors with kids these Winter school holidays. Feeling like a little joy?
One thing we Australians miss out on is the joy of Christmas in Winter. Our Summers are spent sweating it out on December 25th each year and our fare is, generally speaking, an untraditional salad with cold meats. Not so Christmassy but we do okay.
Deep down I have always longed to experience a Winter Christmas like those depicted on traditional Christmas cards: Snow, carollers, lanterns (and more snow), mittens, scarves, sugary treats...and snow again.
This past weekend we have had the pleasure of experiencing just that and more at the stunning Christmas in July celebrations at historic Sovereign Hill.
For those of you not in the know, Sovereign Hill is a sensational living history museum located a little over an hour's drive from the centre of Melbourne in historic Ballarat, Victoria. The Sovereign Hill experience gives visitors a taste of life in the 1850's in one of Victoria's richest gold mining districts. Ballarat has a genuinely wealthy history in gold discovery and mining.
But let's get back to that snow!
We were invited to come and experience the Winter Wonderland these holidays and share our thoughts here. Joy is too small a word to describe the thrill of the annual Christmas in July event held at Sovereign Hill - it's simply magnificent!
There are snowfalls, carol singers, pantomines, Christmas foods and drinks and loads of smiling faces and all on top of the immense array of regular offerings of things to do and see at this brilliant tourist attraction.
The carollers in a Winter Wonderland
We arrived at Sovereign Hill at around 11am and I would say that is right about when the park really begins to fill up. The daily program of Christmas themed events kicks-off at 11.15am at the Victoria Theatre on Main Street with a performance of A Visit From St Nicholas. Regrettably, we missed many of the performances in the Theatre as there was just so much to do here. The Christmas in July event is extremely well organised with a scheduled program that guides visitors around the park with very few clashing timeslots. Wandering from jam-packed event to event was a lot of fun and we certainly didn't feel as if we missed anything although in two days, we still had not managed to see it all.
Joaquin gets in on the act with Sovereign Hill's resident Police Officer
Sovereign Hill's Christmas in July is a true experience event. There are roving street characters dressed in period costume. Some provide on street performances and others exist to create a living backdrop and give a genuine period feel to your visit. Most are in character too and will not hesitate to pepper answers to any questions you may have with a small snippet or two of interesting and relevant history. They also provide great photographic opportunities and along with the stunning historic street frontage, it all melds together to create an authentic back in time experience and certainly one my kids loved.
The Town Crier - One of the most instrumental people in the ceremonies of the day
And the snow...oh the snow...so lovely! Snow falls occur three times a day at 11.30am, 5.25pm and 6.45pm giving visitors the opportunity to experience the wonder in three differing shades of daylight. (Note times are subject to change depending on weather conditions.)
The snow itself is artificial and is actually tiny foamy bubbles which look and behave in the air currents as real snow does; there are proper billowing drifts and clumps form, attaching themselves delicately to Christmas decorations, trees and the heads of visitors.
There was much to do and the Christmas spirit is high. Kids can enjoy the all day events including a gingerbread making workshop. There are also workshops to learn how to create traditional Christmas decorations. Enjoy Market Square and admire the decorated buildings and window displays. Visit the theatre for an impressive array of daily performances in a Christmas theme. Hear a reading of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens or watch Blackbeard the Pirate. A full program is provided to visitors on entry so you won't miss a thing if you are prepared.
On the food front, there are Christmas treats galore. The kids enjoyed the giant Christmas tree off Main Street while we grown-ups warmed ourselves with a welcoming mulled wine and took in the atmosphere. There are plenty of eateries to find warming foods, from quick snacks to sit-down traditional Christmas dinners. (Note that Christmas dinners must be booked daily.)
And sugar; there are so many vintage sugary treats for children to try. Ours kids spent a good deal of our two day visit sucking with delight on toffee apples, all-day-suckers and traditional licorice. Be sure to visit Sovereign Hill's vintage Sweet Shop to sample and buy their famous boiled lollies.
Admiring the next sugary treat in the beautiful window display of the Sovereign Hill Sweet Shop
Outside of the Christmas activities you can watch genuine craftsmen make their wares: from real wagon wheels, to candle dipping and metal spinning as well as see genuine ingots poured at the gold smelting works. Watch the resident printer produce pioneer 'Wanted' posters the traditional way by hand (and buy one of your own). See the blacksmith forge beautiful home wares and equipment. The shops are filled with the stunning products and produce all made on site and much of it is very reasonably priced. There are beautiful cookie cutters and kitchen baking items for sale and these are extremely well-priced - highly recommended.
Kids and grown-ups alike will find the fun of gold panning a true delight. My children thoroughly enjoyed sloshing about in the river with their pans and found an impressive number of gold flecks between them. You can buy small jars at the site to keep your gold safe for only $1 and these make great souvenirs.
No visit to Sovereign Hill would be complete without a mine tour. There are several to choose from and all are at an additional cost with the exception of one self-guided tour called the Red Hill Mine Tour. The mines are a lot of fun and feature everything from ride experiences into their depths and computerised effects. My kids loved these! (Mine tours must be booked on the day so get onto it early to avoid disappointment.) Be sure to ride a horse drawn coach around the township (for an additional cost also), and don't forget to see the Red Coat Soldiers perform a rifle salute at 1.30pm daily in Main Street.
The real magic of the Christmas in July at Sovereign Hill event begins at nightfall. (Could there be any more magic?! Stay tuned...I've saved the very best for last.) The Wonder Lights display is the biggest drawcard of this special event. By nightfall, Sovereign Hill transforms under a blanket of snow when the Wonder Lights display commences. Put together by the same company that transforms Melbourne at the popular annual White Night event, this experience is like no other and will be remembered for a very long time.
Visitors become spell-bound by a mesmerising display of light projections which dance across the façade of the colonial buildings and crowd. The shops and township become life-sized gingerbread houses, icicles magically appear, giant baubles and wreaths project onto the buildings and all under the enchanting snow fall and accompanying music show. This was truly breathtaking and one of the loveliest things I have experienced in a very long time. The Christmas Wonder Lights show commences daily from 5.30pm onwards. Do not miss this! (Thinking of a wedding proposal? This is the ideal place to do it!)
Things you should consider when planning your visit:
Ballarat is freezing. Around 40 minutes drive from the outskirts of Ballarat you literally drive through a 'wall' of cold that you can feel in your car and it stays that way until you drive out again. Rug up for this event in hats, scarves and waterproof coats. There are braziers situated in well populated areas at Sovereign Hill where you can warm up your frozen bones which were a very welcome addition. I strongly suggest you wear gumboots too. (I had people practically offering to buy mine off my feet!) There are no pavements, (in-keeping with the colonial feel), and much of the ground is sodden and muddy.
For parents of young kids, make sure you take an all-terrain pram to handle the steep hills and puddles. Don't forget to take a pram cover too in case of rain. We used our waterproof cover to keep our toddler warm and protected from the chill even when the rain stopped and the sun shone on our second day.
Kids get wet (as kids do) when gold panning so take extra pairs of socks for the accidents that they will invariably have. My youngest Son dumped a pan of cold water down his front which pooled in his boot! Not so fun on an icy day.
Take a tub of Wet Ones: The kids get covered in sticky lollies from all those Christmas treats. Be prepared for it as it gets messy!
Get your entry passes date stamped so that you can return for free the following day. Your entry passes also include free entry to the Gold Museum located opposite Sovereign Hill's main entry gate. Sadly we did not have the chance to get to the Gold Museum as we ran out of time.
Allow a good two days to really experience everything and grab a third day if you can afford yourself the luxury. There are many things to see and do and a little extra time would take the pressure off.
Don't be put off from visiting Sovereign Hill in the rain either. Our first day drizzled non-stop but we found it only added to the Christmas experience and certainly made the snow fall appear more realistic.
Don't miss this event. It truly is wonderful!
Christmas in July and the Christmas Wonder Lights is a themed event at Sovereign Hill and can be experienced from the 28th of June until the 13th of July. Hurry - it's ending soon!
Full details are here.
General information on Sovereign Hill can be found on their website here.
Sovereign Hill is located at 39 Magpie Street, Ballarat, Victoria, 3350.
Sovereign Hill is open 7 days a week from 10am-5pm (except Christmas Day) and hours are extended during school holidays and daylight saving periods.
*Use the hashtags #sovereignhill #lightthehill and #deckthehill on Instagram during your visit
for the opportunity to win prizes.
I strongly recommend an overnight stay to take in all that Sovereign Hill has to offer. We stayed at the Comfort Inn, Sovereign Hill and enjoyed easy access to the park using an exclusive entry gate for guests which saved us time as there were no queues to battle. There are many accommodation types at the Comfort Inn and as a large family, we were well catered for including the addition of Continental breakfast each day which is included in your room stay cost.
To book accommodation packages with the Comfort Inn Sovereign Hill visit here.
...while visions of sugar plums danced on their heads...
Have you experienced a Winter Christmas somewhere in the world?
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