33 Reviews

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Things to do


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January, 2015

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Newly retired Andrew Morris has dragged his wife Gill with him to Australia for 5 weeks. The main, wholly selfish, reason is to complete the tennis Grand Slam – sadly as a spectator, rather than as a player. Wimbledon, New York and Paris were conquered over the last four decades, the Australian Open in Melbourne will complete the set.

It’s a long way to go for a game of tennis, so they are also visiting Adelaide and Tasmania.

Part 2 – Melbourne, Victoria

In Melbourne we stayed in the posh Langham Hotel, as part of our Sportsnet package with tickets for the Australian Open tennis tournament.

The Langham is a prominent landmark in Melbourne, an opulent golden tower perched on the vibrant South Bank of the Yarra river which defines the city.

The hotel offers 5* luxury and old-fashioned decor and service, but with 21st century amenities. More importantly, its location is perfect to explore the beating heart of the city, across the river on the north bank. And it’s only a 20 minute stroll – or a shorter taxi ride – to the sporting temples of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the tennis arena at Melbourne Park and football (“soccer”) and rugby at the AAMI stadium. And if you’re an Aussie Rules (“football”) fan, the impressive Etihad stadium is in the other direction, a short free tram ride towards the interesting Docklands area.

The Australian Open is the first tennis Grand Slam tournament in the calendar year, held in the second half of January, and I completely understand now why the players call it The Friendly Slam. If you’re a tennis fan, book your tickets now and get Down Under for next year!

Melbourne is a larger, more vibrant and slightly edgier city than cosy, compact Adelaide. Its hub, north of the Yarra, is again essentially a grid system, with large main streets running east to west, and north to south, with smaller “laneways” dropping off the thoroughfares, like a corporate organisation chart.

Flinders Street is one of the most prominent main arteries, close to the river and home to the stylish eponymous station building, completed in 1909 and inside which today’s commuters transfer to and from the suburbs.

Jump onto the free circular tram number 35 from here, for an excellent orientation tour of the external streets of the inner city grid, complete with informative tourist commentary and on-board guide. Other inner city buses and trams are also free, otherwise swipe your MYKI card – just like Oyster cards in London – if you’re venturing further afield.

Within the main city grid alone, Melbourne offers a dazzling choice of bars, restaurants, culture, arts and other tourist attractions. We only scratched the Melburnian veneer in a week, during which our main focus was the tennis, but here are a few of our own highlights.

Immerse yourself in Australian criminal history by exploring the dark Old Melbourne Gaol on Lygon Street, operating between 1842 and 1929. Stand in Ned Kelly’s cell after reading story-boards on why he became such a folklore bushwhacking legend, see where the noose was tightened on him and 132 other damned souls, and begin to understand the complex convict and immigration past of the Australian nation. You can also sign up here for an entertaining interactive tour of the neighbouring City Watch House, where you’ll be arrested by a Charge Sergeant and locked up in this more modern prison than the Old Gaol, virtually unchanged since inmates and police left it as recently as the 1990s.

The Immigration Museum on Flinders Street will help develop your understanding of the country’s fabric. It provides a fascinating insight into how, with the exception of Australia’s indigenous race, growth of the country has been fuelled by immigration from around the world. Short films and story-boards about migrating individuals and families bring the story of this kaleidoscopic nation to vivid life.

Architecturally, as you get to know the city, enjoy the stark contrasts of low-rise Victorian-era heritage buildings dwarfed by towering contemporary glass and steel corporate skyscrapers, with the older character buildings more than holding their own against the taller upstarts. We loved the scale and structure of the Royal Exhibition Building, completed in 1880 – along with beautiful adjoining Carlton Gardens – for the city’s first international exhibition, evidencing its rapid growth and prosperity as a result of the richest gold rush the world had seen. Nowadays, it stands alongside the dramatically modern design of the Melbourne Museum, the largest museum complex in the southern hemisphere. Both are located on the northern periphery of the CBD (Central Business District).

In the shadows of taller buildings near Flinders Street, at the southern end of the city grid again, you’ll find Degraves Street. This is an atmospheric “laneway”, rammed with bars, cafes and restaurants, perfect for people-watching.

And you must hunt out the famous Block Arcade, combining period charm and architecture with the opportunity for some retail therapy. Linking Collins and Elizabeth Streets, the Block is a true Melburnian icon. Built in the 1890s, it was designed to emulate a Milanese arcade. In days gone by, the arcade was abused by an infamous gang of larrikins for less honourable purposes, but now it’s restored to all its former glory. And if you’re patient – and hungry – enough, brave the inevitable queues to enjoy the genteel Hopetoun Tea Rooms, named in 1891 after the founder of the Victorian Ladies Work Association.

As for food, Greek and Italian restaurants abound in Melbourne, thanks to the significant immigration influence from both those countries, alongside almost any other cuisine you might like. We enjoyed a rewarding “Hellenic dirty food” lunch at Gazi, on Exhibition Street. It’s run by George Calombaris, of Masterchef Australia fame. George takes inspiration from his Greek roots – Gazi is his favourite Athens neighbourhood – and the concept is fun, contemporary food that is good for sharing. Saganaki grilled cheese with balsamic honey and lemon certainly floated our dirty Greek culinary boat, amongst other imaginative dishes. Nick Kyrgios, the brash young Aussie tennis player with Greek roots, ate here earlier in the week and played well at the Open, so there’s another good endorsement!

We also loved Sally’s Kitchen, further north on Exhibition Street, for breakfast. The porridge with yoghurt, honey, sultanas and banana may seem an odd choice for an Antipodean summer’s day, but it was probably the best porridge I’ve eaten, so no regrets there. The heavenly wellness granola with yoghurt and fresh strawberries was also, well, divine. Sally’s is open for dinner on Thursday and Friday nights only, and having talked to her after breakfast and seen her passion for food I wish we’d made it there for dinner too.

If you like a bit of bling with your food, venture just south of the river to the brash, sprawling Crown Casino and Entertainment complex. Eat at top-notch restaurants like Nobu and a recently opened outpost of the Fat Duck, before buying expensive jewellery or haute couture clothes with money you’ve won at the casino, which feels as large as a small town in Surrey.

Back on the sporting theme, go and experience the Melbourne Cricket Ground tour, if you can stomach the memory of all those Ashes losses. It’s an iconic stadium, holding 100,000 people, with a huge amount of history filling its vast stage. And combine it with a visit to the downstairs National Sporting Museum to relive Aussie sporting success over the years in so many sports at Olympics, Commonwealth Games and World Championships. With a population now of only 23 million, you could say that the country has punched well above its collective weight when you’re reminded what their sporting heroes have achieved over the years. My favourite part of the Museum was the hologram of Shane Warne, talking directly with you in the very MCG changing room you’ve just seen upstairs about his amazing career, and particularly the occasion when he took his 700th Test wicket and a hat-trick against England, of course.

Culturally, Melbourne has a vibrant arts and theatre scene. I’m not entirely sure this qualifies as culture, but we saw a very cheesy stage version of Strictly Ballroom – directed by Baz Luhrmann, and adapted from his hugely successful movie in the early 1990s – at the Her Majesty’s Theatre, one of many venues in the city offering performing arts for most tastes.

I’d also love to have gone to the Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI on Flinders Street), for example, but unfortunately we ran out of time. Perhaps we shouldn’t have “invested” time in the official Neighbours tour, taking you outside the city to the actual neighbourhood and street where the enduring soap is produced….

I’d love to go back to Melbourne and see some of its many attractions that we missed this time around. Along with some more tennis, of course. I’d say it’s a perfect destination for Silver Travellers, especially when you hear about the snow and sub-zero temperatures back home in January and February.

Come on over, mate.

Andrew Morris

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