Written by Mark Eveleigh Photography by Adam Dimech & Mark Eveleigh
Australia’s thriving, happening, ‘cultured’ metropolis, voted one of the most liveable cities in the world, Melbourne is tops for the arts, international sporting events, musical shows, a cornucopia of restaurants and cuisines, sightseeing, and the best shopping anywhere in Australia.
How appropriate then that Qatar Airways has chosen Melbourne, with its many attractions, as its launch city for services to the land Down Under?
Sisto Malaspina has seen a few changes in old Melbourne in the 45 years he has been running Pellegrini’s espresso bar.
“From time to time I try to make some minor changes inside too. I try to repaint, decorate a bit – maybe a bit of minor renovation, you know?” he smiles. “But I get in so much trouble from the locals. They see this as their bar now – and in a sense it is. ‘Don’t you dare change a thing Sisto’, they warn me!”
Through Pellegrini’s plate glass window we watch the 96 tram rumble along the broad tree-lined boulevard of Bourke Street. Sleek and shiny steel trams cruise the main streets of Melbourne’s Central Business District (CBD). But so too do venerable old vintage trams, in their green-and-yellow or oxblood-and-gold liveries. They too have become icons of traditional Melbourne and there is little chance that they will ever be replaced.
Today Melbourne boasts the most extensive tram system anywhere in the world. Tram 96 is the most useful for tourists, linking the old city with St Kilda and the beaches of Port Phillip Bay. But the City Circle Tram runs in a constant loop around the city centre to take in all the important sights of what is certainly one of Australia’s most historically fascinating spots. Many of the trams are equipped with recorded messages explaining the importance of the landmarks you are passing to ensure that you don’t miss even the most fleeting gem. Moreover the City Circle Tram is completely free, allowing you to hop on and off at will whenever the temptation to explore in greater detail becomes irresistible.
Melbourne’s city centre consists of just eight blocks along the north bank of the Yarra River. It would, of course, be completely unrecognisable to the aboriginal nomads who knew this camping spot only as ‘Yarra’ – their name for the waterfall that marked this spot and hence neatly marked the line between the tidal river and all-important freshwater. But these shady boulevards and laneways, and sunny parks and piazzas, constitute a square mile that is as historically rich as you will find anywhere in Australia.
The forefathers laid their city out on a grid pattern that makes it very easy to navigate. In fact every major road is exactly 99ft wide, because that was the distance needed to turn the huge bullock carts that supplied the gold mines and sheep stations of the interior. The big thoroughfares of Collins, Bourke, and Flinders Streets are now the main shopping streets, but all along their lengths they are linked by narrow laneways that have played a famous part in Melbourne’s rising image as art capital of Australia. Abandon the tram for an hour or so anywhere in this area and wander randomly into a few of the tiny alleyways that link these major thoroughfares, and you will come across some fantastic examples of cutting-edge street art spray-painted onto the walls. The Laneways Commission was set up as a visionary, and ultimately impressively successful, way of brightening these once-gloomy passageways. It offers licensed street artists a unique forum for some astounding work.
Melbourne is often touted as Australia’s smartest, chicest, and most sophisticated city. And it is certainly the most cosmopolitan. Jump off the tram beside Flinders Street Station and take a stroll across the old Sandridge railway bridge to get an idea of just how many nationalities were involved in the founding of the Victorian capital. What is now a simple footbridge across the Yarra River doubles as an outdoor museum displaying information on immigrants from no less than 114 nationalities that now call the city their home.
It is said that whether you sit on one of the sunny cafe terraces or take advantage of an eagle’s-eye view from one of the delightful rooftop bars you will, within the course of an hour, have seen representatives of half the nations on earth. After the trams have made their last circuit of the day, Melbourne’s ‘historical square mile’ becomes the booming quarter for nightlife. Ask for directions to famous rooftop bars like Siglos or Tuscan (or, for something quirkier, 1806 cocktail bar or The Croft Institute) and you will find that they are all within just a few minutes’ walk.
Tram 96 will take you southwards to the beaches (and an equally jumping bar-scene) in St Kilda. But for something very original hop off just after you cross Kings Bridge and you will find yourself at what is probably Melbourne’s most interesting dining concept. Colonial Tramcar Restaurant (book on +61 (0)3 9696 4000) takes you on a rumbling but relaxed two-hour tour so that you can continue to enjoy the ever-changing panorama of some of the city’s most romantic architectural gems while tucking into a wonderfully prepared meal and a glass or two of VB (Victoria Beer). You take in some of Melbourne’s most prestigious areas and end up back among the casinos and five-star hotels of the Yarra’s southern banks.
This area is perhaps the hub of boomtown Melbourne – a city that has bucked the trend of the global downturn and is actually enjoying what amounts to a new gold-rush era. Within a couple of blocks you have the biggest casino complex and the tallest skyscraper in the southern hemisphere.
The Eureka Tower is arguably the tallest residential building in the world. It was named after the Eureka goldfields in Ballarat and the riots that took place there in 1854. The windows of the upper floors are tinted with real 24-carat gold and a streak of red panelling on the outside of the building signifies the blood of the miners who started Melbourne on its tracks to this bright and shining future. On the Eureka’s 88th floor you can experience ‘The Edge,’ Melbourne’s greatest modern-day adrenaline buzz. You stand in a small cubicle of smoked glass which is then projected three metres out over the precipice. Suddenly the glass clears and you are hovering a dizzying 300m above street level.
The cubicle is creaking, shuddering, and clunking as if it is about to disintegrate, and you struggle to remind yourself that it is designed to make these awful noises. This is part of the experience. The horrendous grating noises are doubly shocking because by now you have become used to the fact that in Melbourne pretty much everything runs as smoothly and efficiently as it was designed to do.
Apart, maybe, from the clanking, clattering old trams… and by now they are such a venerable part of Melbourne’s identity that it would be a brave planner who would even suggest messing with them!
If extensive shopping isn’t your idea of how to best burn off those delicious cafй calories, then play one of the numerous golf courses along the Yarra River, which weaves for 242km through the Yarra Valley, Warrandyte Gorge, and Melbourne suburbia before reaching Port Phillip Bay.
While not on the Yarra itself, the prestigious Yarra Yarra Golf Club, founded in 1898, is home to an astounding 11th hole – the experts’ choice of one of the best holes in Australia.
Holes: 18. Length: 6,102m. Par: 72
Richmond Golf Club is the first you’ll find as you head out from the city. A level, easy walking course, it provides a true test of skills.
Holes: 18. Length: 5,740m. Par: 70
Well-known for years as Melbourne’s premier public course, Yarra Bend Golf Course enjoys smooth greens and sculpted fairways. The par 3 holes are excellent.
Holes: 18. Length: 5,538m. Par: 70
Embraced by the Yarra on both sides, along five billabongs, Latrobe Golf Course offers a challenging championship course.
Holes: 18. Length: 6,040m. Par: 72
Tall native trees and natural billabongs provide a haven for wild birds at the picturesque Green Acres Golf Club.
Holes: 18. Length: 5,904m. Par: 71
One of Melbourne’s finest courses, the Kew Golf Club plays host to part of the Australian PGA Tour.
Holes: 18. Length: 6,173m. Par: 72
Camberwell Golf Course has lots of par 4 holes and dog-legs, especially across the back nine.
Holes: 18. Length: 4,773m. Par: 67
The 18-hole Rosanna Golf Club is reputed to be one of the premier clay-belt courses in Victoria. The course is private – members, interstate, or international guests by arrangement.
Holes: 18. Length: 6,065m. Par: 72
Yarrambat Park Community Golf Course is the final course easily reached from the city. A true championship length, with plenty of water hazards.
Holes: 18. Length: 6,085m. Par: 72
Great Ocean Road
For a breath of bracing sea air and a sense of the wildness of the Southern Ocean hire a car
(see www.europcar.com.au) and set out to explore the wonderfully winding, cliff-hugging stretch of tarmac that is the Great Ocean Road. Although capable of being tackled during a daytrip from the city, you need at least two days to do justice to the area’s diversity:
The crashing waves of Bells Beach; the eucalyptus forests near Apollo Bay (home to many kangaroos and koalas); the pristine rainforests (and Otway Fly canopy walk) in Great Otway National Park; and the breathtaking but numerically inaccurate Twelve Apostles!
For a once-in-a-lifetime adrenaline buzz take a chopper ride over these spectacular limestone formations and across the pounding breakers – of Antarctic origin – along one of the world’s most dramatic coastlines (see www.theedgehelicopters.com.au). Break the long drive back to Melbourne by diverting to Ballarat to visit the restored gold-rush town of Sovereign Hill.
The Roof Tops!
Curtin House, 252 Swanston Street. Everything about this unassuming six-storey building – once home to the Communist Party of Australia (until it was raided in the 1940s) – exudes cool. Housing the magnificent Cookie bar and restaurant (level 1), cabaret music venue Toff in Town(level 2), through to four more levels of designer boutiques and book stores, the real treat is reserved for the rooftop. From December 17 to March 14 catch a movie as the space is transformed into the coolest open-air cinema. Sip a sundowner in one of the 200 deck chairs laid out across the plush synthetic grass, and take in panoramic views of the city as the sunset darkens and the silver screen lights up. Book online at www.moonlight.com.au.