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Published: March 25th 2015
Melbourne Skyline By The Yarra River
I definitely think Melbourne looks better at night.
I had big expectations of Melbourne. Described as a "European" city with lots going on, an easy place to get around and Australia's culture capital, I was very much looking forward to my eight days here. Part of that was to see my old buddy Davies again who has featured more times than anyone else on this blog but whose last appearance was all the way back in September 2013
Picking me up in Avalon Airport, Davies tells me that this is the first time he has come out here and that it is in the arse end of nowhere. Good thing he came to get me then.
Davies has been living in Melbourne for a couple of years now and like Alan in Sydney
, is living a good life. He has his own pimped out, two-bedroom apartment in the CBD and can walk to his office in twenty minutes - except he also has a car and a car park, so he drives for five minutes instead. I would also get to enjoy this awesome location for my eight day stay.
My trip to Australia was planned around one event - the 2015 Australian Open.
I had always watched
The Twelve Apostles
The famous rock stacks that are the highlight of the Great Ocean Road.
the tournament on TV and there have always been tense, dramatic matches played out at Melbourne Park, and it has always been an ambition of mine to be part of the action one day. Well, that day has come.
It has always been an ambition of mine also, to watch the best player to ever play the game do his thing in a major; I hadn't worked out which day I was going to go down but as soon as I found out that Roger Federer was playing the next day, my decision was made for me.
After about a thirty minute queue in the scorching sun, I managed to get my tickets for Rod Laver Arena - I was about to fulfil a lifelong dream.
The object of many a guy's wet dream was playing first however - Maria Sharapova. She was actually lucky to win - she had to save a couple of match points against her compatriot Alexandra Panova before winning the match in three sets. Federer also got himself into trouble by losing the first set against Italian Luca Bolelli - the last thing I wanted was to come and see him lose! Thankfully he found
The great man himself.
his best tennis and sweeped his opponent aside with the style and elegance that has become his trademark to ultimately win comfortably in four sets. It was a privilege to watch the great man do what he does best - the most graceful player to ever pick up a racquet.
My ticket into Rod Laver also got me into the grounds for the rest of the day and I then went to the outer courts to cheer on New Zealander Marina Erakovic and her doubles partner Monica Puig. You really get up, close and personal on the outer courts. Erakovic and Puig lose their match unfortunately, just before Davies arrives to join me for the night session, where we watch the all-Aussie clash between Sam Groth and Thanasi Kokkinakis at the HiSense Arena, the one show court that you didn't need separate tickets for. Our seats were awesome for this match, right behind the court, and we witnessed the best atmosphere of the day with a vocal home crowd supporting both players. Kokkinakis had more fans behind him as the teenage underdog, but it was Groth's experience and super-fast serve that won it for him in the end.
Flinders Street Station
Melbourne's busiest station and cultural icon.
a long but great day out and the Aussie crowds are humorous and knowledgeable. I do think I enjoyed Wimbledon more though, with all its tradition and atmosphere - it is the title every tennis player wants to win the most.
What Melbourne lacks in iconic sights, it makes up for in culture and atmosphere and the city really comes alive at night. Buskers and other assorted street acts are playing all throughout the CBD and on the South Bank - there was even an impressive full-on string quartet playing while I was there. In fact, I'd also say that the city itself looks better at night too.
I experience this all first hand a couple of nights later as Davies and I head to a rooftop bar to meet some old friends from high school, Jamie and Nixon. I hadn't seen either for quite some years now so it was great to catch up. Rather typically, the first drink Nixon buys me is a shot of tequila! It wasn't to be the last one either, so after we left The Carlton, we headed into a club called the Spice Market where the shots kept on coming. The place
Melbourne's city beach.
was playing late 90s / early noughties R&B as well so it really was as if we were all back at high school or university. Luckily Davies and I are able to stumble home and sober up a little bit. Damn you Nixon, some things never change!
The next day, we decided to cycle off our hangovers with a tour around Docklands. Many a new development has sprung up in this previously unloved area of Melbourne where the old warehouses have been busted down and turned into rows and rows of new apartments and office blocks. It's all quite flash.
Once done with our cycle tour, we head down to St. Kilda for a bit of beach time. St. Kilda is nice - with its old wooden theme park which evokes New York's Coney Island, it has a relaxed beach village feel to it and it's main street is lively without ever feeling busy. A nice place to be if you're not really into city life. The beach admittedly isn't the greatest as it is too narrow and seems more like a harbour beach than a surf beach. The water was nice and warm.
In what was turning out
Famous home to a plethora of Italian restaurants.
to be a very productive day, we were soon on our way to the famous Lygon Street and its concentration of Italian restaurants. We dine at a place called Donnini's where I have no complaints about my pasta sampler of hand made gnocchi, tortellini and tagliatelle. We also stop by at the famous Brunetti cake shop which is absolutely humongous. I couldn't believe how deep the shop went and the amount of cakes and desserts they had available. Over the road we saw a fifty metre queue for gelati
. I love gelati, but even I'm not going to queue that long for it.
Besides, we didn't have time - after dinner, it was off to meet my friend Al a short walk away in Fitzroy. I used to work with Al back in Auckland and I accompanied him and his friends on my first trip to Europe in the heady days of 2006 for the World Cup in Germany. Now living in Melbourne, I was now meeting him at a place called The LuWOW. Al's text to me about the place is "Be prepared for weird...".
And WOW. The place is a Hawaiian/Motown/60s themed bar which looks like it has
been transported straight from Maui to Melbourne along with a brass band and some enthusiastic Flintstone-style go-go dancers, with an equally enthusiastic clientele - some of which looked like they were reliving their 1960s youth. I just love places like this, places that have character and are a bit different.
Our LuWOW was shortlived however, as we went to meet a couple of Al's friends up the road in the Brunswick Hotel, which was the total opposite (if that is possible?) of the LuWOW. Think a black-clad, metal crowd screaming their lungs out to System Of A Down's Chop Suey
Before we meet Al's friends, he tells us that one of guys we were about to meet could only be described as "Wayne from Wayne's World". He could not have matched the description better. Just add some Aussie male bravado and imagine that Wayne is a bit better looking and is completely off his face. He was hilarious. The highlight of the evening however had to be the band playing inside. They were a semi-decent band and the singer could actually sing - they also weren't taking themselves too seriously and at one point the singer literally ripped
Great Ocean Road
Stunning coast along the Great Ocean Road.
off and started screaming into the mike. We took it as our cue to hit the road.
Wow - what an outlandish yet awesome night out in Melbourne. Al told me to prepare for weird...and I sure as hell got it.
We went road-tripping the next day along the Great Ocean Road, to check out the beautiful coast south of Melbourne.
It is a stunning drive. Along most of the way, there are endless stretches of golden sand, the inviting turquoise ocean lapping up against these deserted beaches.
The highlight of the trip was the golden cliff faces of the Twelve Apostles. It was really windy while we were there and there were also a few passing lashings of rain. Dressed simply in a football shirt, shorts and jandals, I was totally unprepared and was freezing my arse off at the lookout. It was almost like Gullfoss
minus the -30°C wind chill.
The high winds and the rough seas explain how the apostles formed - these stacks would have been part of the headland at some point but the impact of the waves gradually eroded it forming caves, which then became arches, which then collapsed to form the stacks
The Great Ocean Road is full of endless golden sand beaches like this.
you see today. There are in fact only eight apostles remaining - the ninth one collapsed as recently as 2005.
Once we took all of our snaps of the Apostles, we also stopped by at the very cool inlet of Loch Ard Gorge before we stopped in Port Campbell for dinner. I was told by my parents that I had to try barramundi
while in Australia, so I did when I saw it was on the menu - I have to say that there was nothing really special about it.
I took a share of the driving back to Melbourne by which time night had fallen and there were a lot of road works and temporary lanes along the way. Due to this, I actually had to concentrate really hard to make sure I was staying in the correct lanes. That effort, following a long day of driving and two nights out in a row, ensured we slept like babies that night!
The timing of my trip was good for another reason - the next day was Australia Day. Or Straya Day
if you prefer.
Australia's national day is usually an excuse for a good ol' booze-up so I
Typical hipster-ish bar on Smith Street which also typifies the old common architecture that is prevalent in Melbourne.
started the day on the South Bank at a pop-up bar serving Aperol Spritz. It was here that I met up again with Davies's girlfriend Rose, who I first met the last time I saw Davies in France. We had a few games of table tennis at our villa back then and we resumed our rivalry with another game here, on a table provided by the bar.
It was a beautiful day too - so having a couple of refreshing drinks, a spot of table tennis, at a scenic location right on the river under the sun, was a great way to spend a couple of hours on Straya Day
Leaving Davies and Rose some date time, I decided to do a more thorough exploration of the city.
My first of of call was back in Fitzroy and neighbouring Collingwood where I went foot-cruising up and down Brunswick and Smith Streets. Fitzroy/Collingwood is Melbourne's Shoreditch and is where the city's hipsters are at. With cool cafes and bars, there were also a tremendous variety of quirky independent restaurants and stores. I could definitely see myself living round here. The place is very similar to Newtown and Enmore in Sydney but
Melbourne is supposedly famous for having these atmospheric laneways of bars and restaurants - this was the only one I could find on Australia Day.
much bigger and with more of everything. Despite the choice of eateries available, I settled for hipster fish and chips and was left very impressed.
Back in Sydney, my friend Irene told me that I had to check out Brunswick - coming from a Melbourne native, I had no reason to doubt her, so across town I went, winging it slightly on the trams and having to make a bit of a walk to get there. Sydney Road, Brunswick's main drag, had a similar feel to Smith Street - a high street if you will - but with a lot less shops, eateries and bars of matching character. Quite boring in comparison, in fact. Off the high street, the streets were residential and sparse, reminding me of the drab and soulless wide streets of L.A. In the end I think Irene must've meant Brunswick Street
as opposed to Brunswick itself, as there really wasn't anything here.
One thing I have noticed in Australia is that there are a lot of corner hotel/pubs that all have a western saloon vibe to them. While most of Australia's 'pubs' cater for ropey, drunk old men, there are a few that had a more
Melbourne's main square where locals catch some of the tennis on the big screen.
well-heeled clientele and were a bit more 'gastro'. Speaking of pubs, I also noticed the popularity of pale ales here in Australia.
I was lucky to arrive just in time at Jewell train station to catch a train back in to the CBD, where I continued my exploration.
I spent my time walking around most of the CBD seeking out the vibrant but often hidden 'laneways' that Melbourne is famous for. Given all the walking I did, I was disappointed that I really only found two laneways that really had anything nice on them - these ones were filled with the patrons of the al-fresco restaurants that resided on them and were nicely decorated with some fancy fairy lights.
Apart from the trams and some nice art-deco buildings that hark back to the 1930s, the CBD looked and felt a lot like Sydney or even Auckland's city centre.
Night had now fallen and it was actually a bit chilly - it has been cool the last couple of days compared to the scorching heat that greeted me when I arrived - so feeling exhausted from all the walking, I headed back to Davies's apartment.
One thing that disappointed me
The South Bank
Riverside promenade which evokes the walkway of the same name by the Thames in London.
about Melbourne - and probably something that will surprise people - was the public transport. The tram network is famous here in Melbourne but I just couldn't get my head around it. The tram map is not particularly useful - stops are not indicated at all on the map so it was really difficult to work out where to catch a tram from and where to get off. It just wasn't detailed enough. Tram stops aren't indicated on Google Maps either so you couldn't work out what the nearest stop to where you were going was anyway. The trams I did catch was all down to guesswork and coincidence. The train network serves outer Melbourne more than inner Melbourne and the stops - which are indicated properly on both the train map and Google Maps - are too far apart. At least they have the trams and trains, I suppose.
So I found the best way to get around the place was by bike. Melbourne is really flat and cycle friendly with a good network of cycle paths. By riding, I found I got to places a lot quicker than I thought I would. It would definitely be my transport
Melbourne Arts Centre
With its iconic spire.
mode of choice if I lived here.
So it was by bike that I did my final tour of the city on my last day.
As a cricket fan and a sports fan, it would have been remiss of me not to visit the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) - so it was my first stop on my cycle tour.
With a capacity of 100,000 people, the MCG is the largest stadium in the Southern Hemisphere. Although primarily a cricket ground, it has also hosted Australian rules football (AFL), rugby union, rugby league, Olympic and Commonwealth Games, football and concerts. The annual Boxing Day test match and the AFL grand final are also held at the MCG, which is also due to host the final of the 2015 Cricket World Cup.
Taking the stadium tour with me was an Indian couple who were in awe of the place. The tour guide was a friendly veteran of the establishment and as a cricket fan, I found the tour very interesting and informative. Setting foot on the hallowed turf, I have to say that the ground looked smaller than it does on TV - the stands however, definitely didn't. The place is
MCG Member's Area
The plush surrounds that membership of the Melbourne Cricket Club will get you.
I was surprised that the players facilities weren't as spruced up as I thought they would be - this seemed to have been reserved for the members area which was luxurious. To get into this area match day, you'll need a membership that will currently take you 23 years to get. I was surprised that the annual subscription is only AU$642 a year - if this sounds like a lot to you, then consider that a season ticket at Arsenal Football Club costs more than three times as much and comes without the extravagant hospitality and the lavish facilities. Despite this, it all felt rather elitist.
As well as the MCG, there is Melbourne Park and the Australian Open, the annual Formula 1 Melbourne Grand Prix, a couple of football teams, a plethora of AFL teams, a rugby league team and a rugby franchise - Melbourne is definitely the sporting capital of Australia and is one of its key draws.
Next on my cycling tour was a trip to Chapel Street, Melbourne's shopping mecca. Having lived in London for seven years, I found I had a shortage of summer clothes! There are a couple of malls on Chapel
Gateway to Melbourne's Vietnamese neighbourhood on Victoria Street.
Street along with loads of individual shops including designer ones.
Finally, I rode to the part of town known as "Little Saigon", an area of Victoria Street dominated by pho
joints, bakeries, Asian grocers and Vietnamese signage. It was here that I managed to pick up a banh-mi
for just AU$3.50 (I paid AU$6 in Sydney) - by far the cheapest lunch I had bought in Australia.
Like Sydney, Melbourne is so expensive
. With similar prices to Sydney, I was scared to spend money here.
Overall, I can see why the quality of life in Melbourne is rated so highly. It is a well-run city, is thoughtfully planned and there are lot of nice touches to it - things like drinking fountains, public bike pumps, public ('Boris') bikes and free inner-city trams.
Comparing Melbourne to Sydney, Sydney has the sights and the scenery and is for me, a little more tourist-friendly - but there is definitely a friendlier vibe and character to Melbourne and you feel there is more happening here. I really think however, that you have to live or spend a lot of time here to get the best out of everything Melbourne has to offer. In
Melbourne General Post Office
Now a shopping arcade on Elizabeth Street.
that sense, it is very similar to London.
I feel I could live in either Melbourne or Sydney - if I was pressed however, I would probably have to go with Melbourne. Sydney does have those brilliant beaches though...
And so my stay in Melbourne came to an end.
Big ups to Davies for being an outstanding host and my personal chauffeur! He even took me to the airport at ridiculous o'clock in the morning - what a champion. In all seriousness, it was awesome to see him again and I really hope that we get to do some more travelling together at some point in the future. Who knows when our paths will cross next?
After a couple more months spending time with family and friends in New Zealand, I will be donning my backpack and commencing the first leg of what will be an epic couple of years travelling around the world. While I enjoyed my life in London, this nomad was always yearning to hit the road for a long trip once again - and finally, I'm doing it.
Giving up the stable life and the comforts that come with it has been daunting -
Park By Parliament House
Pleasant public space by Parliament House.
and many a friend has told me how brave I am for doing this - and I would be lying if said I wasn't feeling just a tad apprehensive about the whole thing. But I guess it's like a prolonged version of the nervousness you feel before jumping into the ocean off a boat
, jumping off a cliff into a small pool
, or waiting in a sauna before sprinting outside into the -27°C temperatures and into a frozen lake
- once you actually do it, you realise how fun and exhilarating it is, and you feel so much better for doing it. Put it this way, I know that not
doing it will be my biggest regret.
The next time you hear from me, I will be in South Africa - see you soon.
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