Monday, January 5, 2015

Making the Most of Melbourne

By Drew Snider

I can thank Olivia Newton-John for straightening me out. She told me, in no uncertain terms, that you don’t call the Australian city “Melburn” or (Heaven help us) “Mel-born”. You do not say the “R”; the correct pronunciation is "Mel-bun".

Well, yes: it was in a TV commercial, but Olivia made her point. When I finally did visit Melbourne I was determined that, while I was obviously a foreigner, I would not be an ignorant foreigner.

You can’t fit Melbourne into a stereotype. Melbourne is arts, sports, history, a multicultural mosaic, gourmet experiences, and is within a couple of hours of some amazing natural attractions. I spent nine days there and each day found something new to explore and put on my “next time” list. So here, in no particular order, is What I Did On My Melbourne Vacation.
Circle City Tram
  1. City Circle Tram. A great “first view” of Melbourne. Vintage trams run along Melbourne’s well-developed streetcar system, with a recorded commentary pointing out important historical and cultural sites. It’s free, so you can jump off at any stop and catch another free tram (they run every 12 minutes or so), or make notes for future reference.

  2. Queen Victoria Market. Fresh produce, baked goods, works of art, clothing, souvenirs: QVM is an eclectic grab-bag of merchants and merchandise enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. We spent hours just wandering around the stalls, chatting with merchants. On Wednesdays, QVM turns into a night market with food, drink and even more artists.

  3. St Kilda Beach. In a past generation, St Kilda was a beach-side “getaway” community. Thanks to better roads and transit, those get-away cottages have become permanent residences, but it remains a fun place to visit for its quirky restaurants, shops and pubs, plus the beach, Luna Park, free (!) outdoor cinema and the historic pier.

  4. Parks. It seems you can’t go more than six blocks in any direction without finding a park, usually with some historic significance. Flagstaff Park, an important signal post and meeting place in the 19th century, is one. So is Carlton Gardens, in the shadow of several historic buildings at the “top” of the City Circle tram route.

  5. One of the many bridges over the Yarra River
    Strolling by the River. The north side of the Yarra River has a broad promenade with bars, restaurants and shops and lots of green space. You don’t have to spend money here; you can just people-watch as the mix of visitors on holiday and businesspeople on breaks flow back and forth. Heads-up: bikes and skateboards share the thoroughfare, so don’t get distracted by your iPhone.

  6. Coffee. Seattle and Vancouver may claim to have taken coffee to a new level, but compared to Melbourne’s coffee culture, those two cities are Dunkin Donuts or Tim Horton’s with pretensions. Melbourne coffee is all about espresso, with the “flat white” (latte without the foam), “long black” (espresso with hot water – I made the mistake of saying it was “what we could call an Americano”, and a friend said, “oh, no: it’s much different,” although he didn’t explain) and latte (with foam, served in a glass). It’s expensive ($3.50 - $5), but it’s so rich and strong, one cup will usually do you for the day.

  7. Melbourne Cricket Ground. Oh, sure! Let’s go to a sports stadium when there’s nothing going on! Well, a tour of MCG gives you a glimpse of life in this remotest part of the British Empire dating back 150 years, as transplanted Englishmen tried to bring gentility to a nation generally populated by criminals. MCG is a sports stadium the way Sir Laurence Olivier was an actor; its principal operator, the Melbourne Cricket Club, remains an ultra-upper-class conclave with 150,000 members and another 200,000 on the waiting list. MCG houses the National Sports Museum, with its amazing collection from sporting events around the world, often connected to key historical events.

  8. Melbourne city skyline from the Cricket Ground
  9. Restaurants. Downtown Melbourne is packed with restaurants, and the competition means the quality is very good. Hardware Lane is a smorgasbord of restaurants – Asian, Italian, barbecue, steak houses, you name it – they’re good, but locals will tell you others in the rest of the core are better. The tip-off? The gauntlet of “managers” you have to run, calling to you to check out their menu. A good restaurant shouldn’t have to shanghai its customers.

  10. Wine tours. Melbourne is within a two-hour drive of two important wine-making areas: the Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley. You can drop in for a tasting and stay for a meal, or you can do as I did: go with a group that hired a coach to take us to three wineries on the Mornington. A tasting costs $5, which is waived if you make a purchase. Food choices are all local, including snapper, lamb and Angus beef; whoever thought of "The Hundred-Mile Diet” must have lived in Australia. If you're unfamiliar, "The Hundred-Mile Diet" involves eating only foods grown within 100 miles of one's residence, and is the subject of a book by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon.

  11. Brewery tours. Australians love their beer, and many large and small breweries in the Melbourne area offer tours. We visited the Carlton Brewery, which produces Carlton Draught, Victoria Bitter, Bulmer’s cider, Peroni and Foster’s Lager. However, even the Carlton hosts bemoan the fact that the Foster’s brand has been “destroyed” to the point that only “bogans” drink the stuff. (You don’t want to call any Aussie a “bogan” which, according to Wikipedia, is a term that denotes a "working class stiff" and is viewed as a pejorative by many.) The Carlton tour includes a tasting afterwards and you can order food.

  12. The nightly Penguin Parade. A bus tour to Phillip Island – about two hours’ drive from Melbourne – makes for an interesting day-trip through the outback near the city and to a spot where Little Penguins (formerly called Fairy Penguins) make their nightly return to their nests after a day of fishing. Under cover of night (usually around 9 p.m.), they gingerly make their way onshore and then dash for their burrows to feed their babies, which have been waiting for them all day. The public have to stay on boardwalks and in a grandstand, and you’ll need a sweater and good eyesight and a memory to match. Lights are kept low to keep from spooking the penguins and any kind of photography – even without a flash – is not allowed.
A couple of notes for the visitor: you may have heard that Australia is expensive. This is not true. It is JAW-DROPPINGLY, MIND-BLOWINGLY EXPENSIVE. ATMs dispense $50 bills the way U.S. and Canadian ATMs dispense $20s, and it’s not long before you think $16.00 for a hamburger is reasonable. That said, portions are generally ample.

At the time of this posting, US$1 bought 1.24 Australian dollars, while one Canadian dollar bought A$1.05. That means the cost of that A$16 hamburger would be the equivalent of US$12.90, or C$15.25. Even considering the exchange rate, that's still pretty pricey.

There is some consolation when it comes to higher restaurant prices: tipping is not expected, and the starting wage is $18.50/hour, so your tab goes towards a decent living for service workers. It’s a good idea to rent a suite with a full kitchen and buy groceries so you can have at least one meal a day “in” (Woolworth’s downtown is very reasonably priced). Even so, count on $600 per week in spending money.

Melbourne has one of the great transit systems but you can’t use cash; you need a Myki card, which is good on trams, buses and trains. The card costs $6, plus whatever amount you think you’ll need for the fares themselves (a single-zone trip costs $2.75). The Visitors Information Centre on Elizabeth Street has some great maps showing the transit routes, and the Melbourne transit website has a very convenient “Journey Planner”.)

I’ve only scratched the surface here, so I’ve created a “next time” list, which includes the Melbourne Museum, the Royal Botanical Gardens, shows at the Princess Theatre downtown and the Palais in St Kilda, as well as the Australian Museum of Moving Images. I guess I’ll just have to go back.

Darn.

Drew Snider is a career communications professional with over 30 years in journalism and corporate communications. He created and hosted the travel show "Destinations" on CFAX Radio in Victoria, British Columbia, an outgrowth of his life-long passion for travel.



Photos by Drew Snider
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Visit TheTravelPro’s main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

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