Mellowing out in Melbourne

Trip Start Oct 12, 2010
Trip End Mar 24, 2011

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Flag of Australia  , Victoria,
Thursday, March 10, 2011

I have always heard great things about the city of Melbourne in Southern Australia. It has a reputation of offering all of the cultural, shopping, educational and business opportunities of a big city but at the same time, retaining a historic and charming identity.  It did not disappoint on any level.

It took the better part of a day to drive from Canberra to Melbourne – at least 7 hours of straight driving with only minimal stretch breaks.  The scenery ranged from mountain ranges off in the distance to pastoral hills and fields.  We even got to see some local wildlife, although unfortunately, the kangaroo, wombat and I think even koala bear were flattened on the road.  These animals are nocturnal and tend to cross the roads at night, leading to many unfortunate accidents.

I was so incredibly lucky to have met a couple from Melbourne, Rod and Mary, on my trip to Ireland in the Fall.  These lovely people made my visit to Melbourne one of my favourite weeks of my journey so far.  They spent days driving my friend Jonathan and I around to such amazing places outside the city as the Yarra Valley wine region and the Great Ocean Road.  They also spent hours driving us through the city and pointing out interesting buildings, neighborhoods and areas of interest.

The Yarra Valley is about 45 minutes outside Melbourne and it is a lovely green area of hills and valleys with dozens of amazing wineries to visit.  We stopped by several on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and had free tastings of their red, white and rose offerings.  The winery sites were beautiful and all so very different.  Some are very traditional with older barns and buildings that are updated and elegant while others have ultra-modern designs and properties.  Many have very chic and expensive restaurants for dining out on special occasions.  We had a late lunch in the sweet town of Healesville at the Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander restaurant and winery and thoroughly enjoyed the gourmet pizzas, artisanal breads, olive oil and salt.  My pizza was very rich with pumpkin, walnut and feta toppings while Mary's was my favourite with sardines, capers, a tangy tomato sauce and dill.  Fabulous.

We finished off that day of touring with a stop by the St. Kilda’s area of the city which is reminiscent of Brighton in England and has an amusement (Luna) park, a Palais theatre and a lovely boardwalk and pier.  It was so lovely to stroll along the pier, watching people fishing with fishing poles over the sides of the pier and enjoying seeing the ferries come in through the heads of the harbor from Tasmania or across the ocean as well as the sailboats and pleasure craft floating by.  There is also a small sandy beach along this pier and it was filled on this Sunday afternoon with sunbathers and people splashing and swimming in the water.  There is apparently a colony of little yellow penguins that live at the end of the pier but they don’t come out until dusk when they are seen at all.

The day spent touring with Rod and Mary along the Great Ocean Road was so fun and filled with eye-popping scenery and excellent food and company.  The day dawned a little drizzly and gray but that didn’t dampen our spirits. We drove from Melbourne through Geelong and down to Torquay which is a surfing area and also the start of the Great Ocean Road drive.  This scenic drive is recognized as one of the best in the world due to its winding roads, hills, ocean views and iconic rock formations such as the Twelve Apostles.  We enjoyed driving from Torquay through the town of Lorne and nearing Apollo Bay.  We hugged the coastline along twisty roads and enjoyed the ocean views and high cliffs.  We weren’t able to go the whole route due to other time commitments, so we turned around and headed for Queenscliff instead where we would be able to catch a car and passenger ferry to Sorrento and eventually on another scenic drive along the coastline back to Melbourne.  One of the highlights of the day was having a take away lunch from the fish and chippery in Queenscliff before catching the ferry.  We got flake fillets, fries (chips) and potato cakes as well as dim sim (steamed dumplings).  Rod and Mary came prepared with all the fixings for a fine picnic in the park in this charming town and laid out home-made sandwiches, champagne and fresh fruit.  It was a fun way to spend lunch out in the local park and we ate to our hearts’ content.

We caught a ferry, which comes every hour on the hour and it took about 40 minutes to cross over to Sorrento.  We continued munching on our picnic lunch as we cruised along and it took no time before we were heading off the ferry and driving along very exclusive areas with beautiful homes and estates along the coastline to Melbourne. 

That evening, Jonathan and I caught a local performance of the musical Xanadu held in the Docklands area of the city, which is an up and coming harbourfront district of Melbourne.  We had to rush through the piers to find the performance but glimpsed some of the gleaming and funky condo buildings, restaurants and coffee shops and sculptures and statues featuring famous Australian performers such as Dame Edna and John Farnham.  We also dashed over what looked like an Australian performers’ walk of fame with stars devoted to Aussie actors such as Nicole Kidman.  Xanadu was a disappointment – very amateurish and campy and it was held in a huge outdoor tent, but it was neat to have even a quick chance to zip through this area of the city.

A couple of days were spent sightseeing in the city and Melbourne makes it easy for tourists with a free tourist shuttle bus that visits many attractions throughout the city as well as a free tourist tram.  One of the highlights was heading up the Eureka Tower, the tallest building in Melbourne which overlooks the city and outlying areas.  Once up on the top of the building, you can purchase a ticket to do 'The Edge’ which is a ride in which you and a small group enter a cube with glass walls and a glass floor and ceiling and the cube then moves out 3 metres from the building so that you are suspended in the air looking down on the street and around at the surrounding buildings and parks.  It was a cool thing to do and they try to freak you out a little to get your adrenalin going before you are projected out. 

The Southgate area of the city runs along the Yarra River and is a nice area with restaurants and some shops and businesses as well as several pedestrian bridges across the river and public squares.  Benches line the river and this is great place to people watch, especially at lunchtime when the locals dash across the bridges to eat lunch or relax along the river banks.

Some of the other sightseeing highlights included the Immigration Museum, Old Melbourne Gaol, the Anzac War Memorial Shrine and the Botanic Gardens.  I spent an hour or so at the Immigration Museum and it had interesting exhibits telling the stories of individuals who immigrated to Australia from countries all over the world and how they adapted to their new environments and enriched the multi-cultural identity of this country.  The Anzac War Memorial Shrine is an immense and respectful commemoration of the Australian and New Zealand soldiers that have fought in the great world wars.  There is a huge shrine building that almost looks like the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and then there is an eternal flame and several very moving and realistically sculpted variations of soldiers that help you to more personally connect with the war experience.  The Melbourne Botanic Garden is vast and lovely.  Jonathan and I ended up walking the entire perimeter of the garden one afternoon as we didn’t have a map and were enjoying exploring the trees, shrubs and flowers planted throughout the grounds.  Our feet were pretty tired when we finally found our way back home!

By far my favourite museum was the Old Melbourne Gaol.  This is the facility where most local criminals were incarcerated and often hung up until the 1920’s I believe.  This museum is so very well done – it is gruesome good fun to spend a few hours exploring this building.  The many small cells are open to be explored and in most of them on all three floors of the main jail, there are stories of the criminals who were tried, convicted and hung for their crimes, both men and women.  It was pretty eery to see the death masks displayed in many cells made after the criminals had died and showing their facial features and expressions.  By far the most famous and notorious criminal who is associated with this jail is Ned Kelly.  Kelly was a cattle rustler, horse thief and bank robber.  He had plenty of dust-ups with lawmen and one of the most fascinating characteristics of this guy was his penchant for wearing a metal suit of armour complete with a helmet with a slit cut out for his eyes.  Wacky!  Anyway, he was finally captured and hauled off to this jail, where he was first reunited with his mother who was also in jail at the same time (charming family) and then he was hung and buried here on these grounds.  You can actually still see the hanging gallows, rope and trap door used for these executions - what a bizarre and fascinating spot!

After a gruesome couple of hours at the jail, I headed downtown for a final walkabout and as it was lunchtime, I explored some options in the downtown core.  The fast food joints weren't grabbing me so I wandered around a bit and lucked into finding Centre Place, one of the many food alleys that Melbourne is known for.  What a neat spot - this was a tiny and narrow alley that you would miss if you blinked and at the end of it was an arcade building.  There were sandwich shops, coffee shops and small cafes and bistros all along both sides of this street.  If you stood in the middle of the lane, you could practically touch the buildings on both sides of the street!  The cafes and shops were open to the street and people were sitting on little chairs and tables along the alley - it was very cool.  I grabbed a seat inside one of the bistros and had a pasta lunch while watching the fascinating people zipping about outside on the street.,_Melbourne

For my last night and morning in Melbourne, I stayed with my friends Rod and Mary at their home just outside the main city centre.  Wow - was I ever spoiled!  These kind and generous friends prepared a cozy spare room and then treated me to great conversation and stories while serving wine and drinks and the best food I've had so far on my trip!  Both are great hosts and Mary is an incredible cook so I had the chance to eat homemade pumpkin pasta (one of my favourite pasta dishes EVER), braised lamb shanks in an Italian tomato sauce served on mashed potato and with green beans, fresh fruit galore and then the next day a hearty breakfast, cappucino, Anzac cookies, Australian meat pies for lunch, vanilla slices and lamingtons!  Whew!  I think I gained 10 pounds in one day and I loved every morsel and every minute!  We ran some errands and then they dropped me off at the Melbourne airport for the next leg of my journey.  I can never repay their generosity and kindness, but I hope they will come to Canada someday soon so I can do some reciprocal spoiling :) 

I'm off to the Red Centre of Australia - Alice Springs and Ayers Rock!

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