The pleasantly shocking thing is the weather. One cruel afternoon, you flee OTG-like conditions in Delhi, and a few bleary-eyed flights later, your flagging spirits rise with a satisfyingly chilly dawn. Or you might be doing it the other way round—swap biting cold for sunny climes. Yes, yes, you know your geography—one axial tilt, two hemispheres, four seasons. When it’s summer here, it’s winter Down Under. Crossing the Equator may be just the fix you need—only ensure Melbourne is your port of call.
‘Marvellous Melbourne’ the prospectors called it. From tiny pastoral outpost in the 1850s, Melbourne grew rapidly to accommodate over a million inhabitants in less than 50 years. The primary engine of this furious growth was the Victoria gold rush—one of the biggest in history. I am happy to report that it’s only gotten better since then. This utterly hedonistic city topped an Economist Intelligence Unit survey listing the world’s most livable cities. Melbourne is one of the great, clean, bright cities of the world. Savour its sharp flavours on a stopover.
Get your bearings: They won’t tire of telling you that Melbourne is laid out in a neat grid of streets. Inspect for yourself at Rialto Towers, the tallest reinforced concrete structure in the southern hemisphere. Climb the 1,254 stairs to the Melbourne Observation Deck for a 360-degree view of its gigantic sprawl. Just kidding, take the lift. Your speedy transport will get you to your floor—the 55th—in 40 seconds flat. On a clear day you can see 60km to the horizon. There’s a café, binoculars and two outdoor balconies. See www.melbournedeck.com.au.
Out of doors: Melbourne lives on its streets—there are impromptu performances around fountains, open-air concerts, a lively arts scene, and much sport. Soak it all in on a stroll down the Yarra riverfront, the Southbank precinct, and round the Royal Botanic Gardens. Or get to the centre of it all—the postmodern Federation Square, once a hugely controversial project, now a much applauded city plaza that ‘hangs’ over Melbourne’s rail lines. The construction of the deck beneath the square is the largest expanse of railway decking in Australia. It is supported by over 3,000 tonnes of steel beams, 1.4 kilometres of concrete ‘crash walls’ and over 4,000 vibration-absorbing spring coils and rubber padding. The deck supports art galleries, cinemas, radio and TV studios, restaurants, etc. See www.federationsquare.com.au. The architectural legacy of the gold rush remains in imposing Victorian façades and splendidly restored terrace houses. Interesting reuse of historic buildings is exemplified in the GPO and the Queen Victoria hospital, both upmarket shopping complexes now.
St. Kilda: This hip bayside suburb with its sandy beaches was shunned for decades because it was the haunt of prostitutes and druggies. Today, it is enjoying a resurgence and has Melbourne’s highest concentration of restaurants, ranging from glitzy to cheap. The Esplanade hugs a pleasant stretch of beach and there’s an arts and crafts market on Sundays. It’s also home to Luna Park, one of the world’s oldest fun parks, built 1912, where you can ride the historic wooden roller coaster. When you tire, you could tuck into kofta curry at global vegetarian café Soul Mama and watch yachts sail into the sunset or aviators steer their pet tiger moths over the bay.
Docklands: The docklands have enjoyed a revival in cities around the world. In Melbourne, they are the biggest development of the moment (www.docklands.com). New Quay on the waterfront has a diverse range of restaurants, shops, and cinemas. To celebrate Australian Rules football, Melbournians constructed a 52,000-seat stadium—the Telstra Dome (see www.telstradome.com.au for tours). Take a river cruise while you consider buying that riverside apartment (www.melbcruises.com.au).
The Great Ocean Road: This delightful road, punctuated by shipwrecks and jaw-dropping scenery, is one of the great coastal drives of the world. There’s nice accommodation along the 400km drive so take your time about it. See www.greatoceanrd.org.au
—Quaint coastal towns on the road include Portland, Queenscliff and Port Fairy. An old whaling station, Port Fairy is now an artists’ retreat and hosts several music festivals.
—Set high in the Otways overlooking Bass Strait, Chris’s Beacon Point is a must-stop for gourmet travellers. The cuisine is Greek.
—At Port Campbell National Park, you’ll meet the Twelve Apostles—giant rock stacks, silent sentinels of the coast for over 20 million years—or are there nine? Well, they keep collapsing, so get there fast.
—Check out the new multimedia laser show at the Warrnambool Maritime Museum, which recreates the wrecking of the Loch Ard.
—In the hinterland, don’t miss gold rush era town Ballarat. Attractions include a recreated gold rush township—Sovereign Hill—and a free-range zoo where you can cuddle the koalas and feed the kangaroos.
Not just cricket: I don’t watch cricket, but for those who do, a visit to the 102-year-old Melbourne Cricket Ground is a pilgrimage. MCG tours are available daily (excluding event days) between 10am and 3pm (duration: 1hr15min; www.mcg.org.au).
Eating out: Melbourne has my vote for world hogging capital. Throw a kangaroo jerky over your shoulder, and you’ll hit a restaurant—Melbourne has the largest number in Australia. Italian, Greek, and Chinese come tops, reflecting the dominant ethnicities of Melbourne, with superlative seafood all around.
—The latest offering from star restaurateur Paul Mathis, whose restaurants are inspired by transportation, is Taxi, the Japanese dining room attached to his Transport hotel & bar in Federation Square (www.transporthotel.com.au). Cutting-edge décor, great service but meagre portions. After turning veggie, Mathis has opened Soul Mama in St Kilda (www.soulmama.com.au).
—The premier joint in town though has to be Grossi Florentino’s Italian offering (www.grossiflorentino.com), comprising a fine dining restaurant, a grill and a cellar bar. Grossi himself is a generous, warm, sexy Italian man (say hello to him). Try one of Grossi’s divine desserts. The Budino di Cioccolato e Fichi (macerated dry figs and Valrhona chocolate steamed with citrus pudding) is recommended, which I have tried and tested for you.
—In this city of trams—just like Cal—why not dine in a glossy historical tram? Take the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant (www.tramrestaurant.com.au).
—Yes, there’s Indian too, but frankly not like home. Nirankar (www.nirankar.com.au) is a much-feted restaurant (best Indian restaurant award and all that), but I wouldn’t approach their gulabjamuns with a barge pole.
—For a truly novel experience, try Dracula’s Cabaret restaurant for a blend of fetish rock and gothic opera and some weird waiters (www.draculas.com.au).
Where to stay:
—The Crown Casino complex offers two hotels: the luxurious Crown Towers and the somewhat cheaper Crown Promenade. See www.crowncasino.com.au.
—The Windsor is a Victorian-era luxury hotel run by our Oberois (see www.oberoihotels.com).
—For more options, check out the Melbourne Accommodation Guide (email email@example.com for a free copy).
Need to know:
—Melbourne Visitor Centre. A one-stop shop for all the info you’ll need; plus Internet facilities; accommodation and tour bookings, ticket sales, etc (open daily 9am-6pm; Corner Flinders & Swanson Sts, Fed. Square). See www.thatsmelbourne.com.au.
—City Ambassadors. Look out for these cheery volunteers in bright-red shirts roaming the city centre for any questions, directions or activity suggestions.
—City Circle Tram is a free service that will get you around Melbourne in a jiffy. The tram passes through major attractions, shopping precincts and theatres.
—Don’t take any open food items into Australia. There are strict quarantine restrictions—and sniffer dogs to enforce them.
—If you will only shop, consider booking a shopping tour (www.shoppingspree.com.au). Note that most stores—barring supermarkets—close by 6pm.