Ever felt the urge to wrap your arms around a total stranger? Motorbiker Ronnie certainly cut a fine figure in his full leathers and shades, but my compulsion give him a cuddle had more to do with survival than a sudden Fonzie fixation.
Turns out squeezing a stranger is the only safe option when the stranger in question is speeding you around Melbourne’s Formula One racetrack on his customised Harley Davidson Road King, just days before the famous circuit hosts the 2009 season opener.
Fortunately the only thing Ronnie had an urge to squeeze was the accelerator as we whizzed past where Ralf Schumacher drove his car over Rubens Barrichello’s at the start of the 2002 race and the infamous turn three accident blackspot where Martin Brundle flipped over in 1996. Minutes later we crossed the finishing line where Lewis Hamilton took the chequered flag last year to launch his world title-winning season in style.
We had set off from the Melbourne Museum and from there cruised past the picturesque Royal Botanic Gardens and the soaring skyscrapers of the Central Business District (CBD to you and me) and breathed freshly salted air along the coast at St Kilda before our scheduled lap – and unscheduled comfort break – at the Albert Park circuit.
For a first timer Down Under, this whistle-stop tour confirmed Melbourne’s claim to be Australia’s cultural capital, classier and more cosmopolitan than its big sister 600 miles along the coast.
The Aussies enjoy giving us Pommies a hard time, but that is nothing compared to the famous Sydney-Melbourne sibling rivalry. Sydney, the Melburnian cliche goes, is a bit of a tart.
All high heels, lipstick and low cut tops, she lets it all hang out and leaves little to the imagination. Melbourne, meanwhile, is a buttoned-up arty chick defined by mysterious cosy spaces and obscure word-of-mouth places. Her public buildings are architectural innovations. From the ultra-modern Federation Square, a new cultural complex housing the world’s largest collection of Australian art, to the red-brick beauty of Flinders Street Railway Station with its majestic Edwardian archways and dome.
Visitors stumble upon quirky treats down every street. Quaint cafes and Greek restaurants stretch as far as the eye can see on secluded Lonsdale Street while the Adelphi Hotel provides swimmers with a glass-floored rooftop pool that daringly overhangs the building, giving a view of Flinders Lane two hundred feet below.
Local street artists such as Phibs and Ha-Ha use the city as their canvas, decorating buildings with day-glo spray cans, stencils and lightbox instillations. They vie for space with Aboriginal artists and images expressing community spirit in the wake of February’s tragic forest fires. A multi-headed dog monster guards an entrance to Flinders Street Station while life-size mannequins sleep in hammocks on a car park wall in the CBD. The council promotes but does not protect these creations, so they must survive on street cred alone. Some endure for years, others are painted over within hours. And even Banksy, the darling of the alternative art world, is not immune. Silver paint was daubed over his deep-sea diver in a duffle coat, which had been a fixture on Flinders Street for five years.
In a city of hidden treasures an organised walking tour is essential. Local guides have the power to amaze by revealing art beneath your feet in a disused railway station on Degraves Place and above your head in Warburton Lane, where a colossal falling chandelier is wedged between two sides of the road.
Typically for such a secretive city, the finest food can be just as hard to find. Up a nondescript stone staircase on Swanson Street awaits Cookie, a beer hall converted into an art-deco restaurant dishing up heavenly Thai home-style cooking best eaten on a window balcony where you can nosh on perfect Pad Thai noodles as the world goes by.
Maha, in a basement on Bond Street, infuses its dishes with Middle Eastern herbs and spices and serves rare Lebanese and Syrian wines. Spanish tapas diner MoVida, meanwhile, found in a graffiti-lined alleyway off Hosier Lane, offers sumptuous multi-dish grazing fare. There is no need for a menu, simply savour each taster course as it comes.
Visitors with eyes as big as their stomachs should book a table on the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant, the world’s first luxury travelling diner, where guests are served a five-course meal while riding through the scenic streets of St Kilda, Prahran and Malvern.
End the evening with a nightcap at 1806, current holder of the world’s finest cocktail list. The bar’s menu begins in the year of its name when the word cocktail was coined, and there is at least one drink from each decade since, beginning with the original 1806 Bittered Sling. The classic 1916 Martini is a big favourite.
If Melbourne is a city of culture first, it is a city of sport second. Talk about an Olympic legacy. Since hosting the Games back in 1956, it has built or rebuilt five state-of-the-art stadia – The Rod Laver Arena for tennis, Etihad Stadium for Aussie Rules football, Olympic Park for athletics, Hisense Arena for basketball and of course the majestic Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), with a capacity larger than Wembley Stadium.
The MCG (lovingly known as ‘The G’) is home to the National Sports Museum. The virtual Shane Warne is the new big attraction, a life-size hologram of the legendary Aussie spin bowler who chats about his infamous ‘ball of the century’ that bowled England batsman Mike Gatting in 1993 and the (look away now) 5-0 Ashes whitewash of 2007.
Melbourne is the starting point of the Great Ocean Road, a scenic coastline route built by returning soldiers from the Great War. It covers rugged coastline, fishing villages and forests destroyed by fire, before ending at the South Australian border. The mid-point is home to Bothfeet Walking Lodge, a cosy base camp for guests to explore a 60-mile track leading to the Twelve Apostles, towering rockstacks carved by erosion that soar out of the Southern Ocean. The route also takes in Tower Hill State Game Reserve, an Aboriginal wildlife sanctuary built inside an extinct volcano and home to emus, kangaroos and chilled out koalas that sleep for up to 20 hours a day.
Visitors can handle ancient tools such as emu callers, clapsticks and the bullroarer, a slat of wood tied to string that makes a whirring noise when spun rapidly. Best of all, there are plenty of boomerangs to chuck around – a tool and weapon in expert hands, a tree botherer in mine. Our patient guide explained how boomerangs only return if they avoid getting stuck in branches while he climbed up a particularly tall tree to retrieve mine – and the three others lost trying to knock the first one down.
I relived my hour as a hunter gatherer over a mug of heavenly hot chocolate at the Chocolate Mill, where owner Jennifer Gregory invites guests to taste her divine products before buying. Her hot chocolate is so luxurious you will insist on being read a bedtime story after drinking. And you can buy bags of the gorgeous stuff to take home. The Lake House Hotel in nearby Daylesford is just as mellow. One of Australia’s top boutique hotels, it is an idyllic setting for a final night’s stay.
Run by the family of renowned local artist Allan Wolf-Tasker, it offers avant garde comfort with lifesize ‘do not disturb’ geese guarding bedroom doors rather than boring old signs. And the restaurant, were guests dine surrounded by Allan’s artwork, is well worth a gander. Regularly voted among the nation’s finest, it offers five-star dining without airs and graces and the perfect wine for every pallet in its ten-thousand bottle cellar.
For a pampered send off book a pre-flight massage at the Hepburn Bathhouse and Spa in the village of Hepburn Springs. One hour from the airport, this century-old spa offers a saltwater float pool and underwater couches along with dozens of blissful treatments to leave you as chilled as a koala for the long flight home. After ten days of hiking, biking and speed squeezing, the spa’s signature Aroma Stone Massage was the perfect final pit stop.
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