G'day from Melbourne (pronounced MEL-bun by Australians)!
I have been to Australia a bunch of times, but because I had never seen Melbourne I felt a void. I've always heard how great it is, and that it's comparable to Boston and Chicago. Now that I've finally gotten there, I don't think it's like either of those cities. Melbourne has its own distinct feel.
Melbourne is the capital of Victoria (one of Australia's six states), located in southeastern Australia. It's Australia's second largest city, with a multicultural population of 3.6 million. The largest ethnic groups are Greek (over 800,000), Italian (over 230,000), Jewish (approximately 50,000) and Vietnamese, though there are many other immigrant groups too. Melbourne is believed to have the biggest Greek and Italian populations outside those countries. No wonder why this place is renowned for its food! There are over 3,000 restaurants and cafés. Residents love their food, coffee, arts (more than a 100 galleries), bars, shopping and football. I don't think I have ever been to a place where the locals are more proud of their city. They are very laid back, friendly and accommodating. Tourism Victoria has even organized Visitor Information helpers. They walk around the city, providing tourists with reliable information on attractions, activities and events.
Melbourne's climate is temperate, with one of Australia's lowest rainfalls. Even with its mild temperatures Melbourne has four distinct seasons, and Melburnians joke that you better be prepared because you might experience all four seasons in one day. Summer (December to February) highs average 77° F; lows average 57. During autumn (March to May) the average high is 68, the average low 52; Winter (June to August) is cool, with average highs of 57 and lows of 45. Springtime (September to November) temps are 68 to 50. The day before I was in town it was sunny and 87, but the weather rapidly changed to a chilly 48-64°F.
It seems there is always an event going on in Melbourne (here's a list). While I was here the International Flower Show was taking place. Arguably the four most popular are the Australian Open (mid-to-late January), Australian Grand Prix (late March), Melbourne Food & Wine Festival (mid-March), and the Melbourne Cup (November). I hope to go to all of them one day -- especially the latter with my dad. He loves horse racing.
AIRPORT TO CITY
I arrived in Melbourne just before 9 a.m. It's 17 hours ahead of Los Angeles, 14 hours ahead of New York. From the moment I walked out of the airport and was greeted by these three statues I could tell this was an artsy town. Even parts of the highway are works of art. Reaching downtown from the airport takes about 20 minutes (without traffic). One-way fares for a taxi cost roughly $40 AUD ($30 USD), while a bus will set you back only $15 AUD ($11). Heading back to the airport I took a car service - Hughes Limousines (tel.: 1-300-30-66-44), which cost $75 AUD ($56). Hiring a private driver (Doug Male; tel.: 04244-84785) is just $45 AUD ($34).
I was in Melbourne for only two nights. It was basically a resting point for me, because I had just finished an adventurous media trip to New Zealand and was about to begin another in a different region of Australia. Besides being exhausted, I did not feel well. So instead of running around like a madman trying to see all the sites I relaxed, and saw only a few. Believe me, I hope to go back for a longer period, and spend all my time on a food tour (food is not expensive like Sydney).
Because much of my time was spent catching up on sleep and working in my hotel, I'm glad I checked in to a sweet one. Hotel Lindrum, opened in 1999, is a stylish boutique in the heart of the city. There are only 59 rooms; all have high ceilings, plenty of space and a modern design with contemporary facilities (high-speed internet costs $25 AUD ($19 USD) a day. The hotel was formerly a billiard hall for the Lindrum family. They retained some of its history: The lobby still has one of the original billiard tables (guests can play for free). My room -- 101 - was on the first of four guest floors, with a view of the Rod Laver Tennis Center (site of the Australian Open) in the distance. The only thing wrong with my room was that I could hear some of the Flinders Street traffic below. It didn't keep me up, but next time I would get a room on a higher floor. In two days I had three tasty meals in the hotel (breakfast is included with most bookings). Rates start at $210 AUD ($160 USD). Hotel Lindrum, 26 Flinders Street, Melbourne; tel.: 61-3-9668- 1111.
CITY CIRCLE TRAM
Melbourne is a great walking city, but if your legs get tired two different light rail services can take you around. One of those is the City Circle Tram, which is free! Most of these trams look like San Francisco cable cars, but in keeping with the city's artistic image some have been painted creatively. The Circle Tram travels slowly around the city, stopping at all the major attractions and shops. Just wait at any of the specially marked stops. Trams run in both directions every ten minutes, seven days a week, between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. (except Christmas and Good Friday). During Daylight Savings they operate until 9 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
A good first place to get your bearings of the city -- and great 360-degree panoramic views -- is the Rialto Towers observation deck. At 55 stories high (823 feet), it's the tallest office building in the Southern Hemisphere. Admission includes a 20-minute film called "Melbourne and the Living City" -- what visitors can see and do while in Melbourne. Prices: adult $13.50 AUD ($10 USD); children $7.80 ($6). Melbourne Observation Deck, Level 55/525 Collins Street, Melbourne; tel: 03-9629-8222.
Two buildings you can't miss - not that you'd want to -- are Flinders Street Station and Federation Square. Federation Square, the more special of the two, takes up en entire city block. Its controversial modern design has everyone talking. It's full of neat things to see, including a digital scrolling message board that allows anyone to send text messages (send to: 19 767 333 or 19 SMS FED) for everyone to see. Inside are a variety of attractions, including the Australian Racing Museum & Hall of Fame; restaurants, cafes and bars. Federation Square, corner of Flinders Street and Swanston Street, Melbourne; tel.: 03-9639-2800.
Another must stop is the Queen Victoria Market. This historic landmark, opened in 1878, is spread over seven hectares, making it the largest open air market in the Southern Hemisphere. Nearly a thousand traders sell everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to souvenirs. It's closed every Monday and Wednesday, and on major holidays. Queen Victoria Market, 513 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne VIC 3000; tel.: 03- 9320-5830.
On the way back from Queen Victoria Market I walked down Elizabeth Street. Passing one camera shop after another reminded me I better get a new camera, since I busted my Nikkon Coolpix up pretty bad on the luge track in New Zealand. I didn't want to go out to the remote places I was headed for without a camera. Australia's not the cheapest place to buy a camera, but it's also a place you don't want to be without one. I ended up buying a camera that hit the market just a few days before: a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX01. It slides perfectly into my pocket, has a wide-angle lens, an extended battery, a giant viewfinder, and 6.0 megapixels. So far I'm happy with it!
SEVEN CITY ARCADES
Off Elizabeth Street I stumbled upon the Magnificent Seven City Arcades. These are the key shopping spots, all within walking distance of each other. With over 260 shops, it's worth visiting even if you don't want to drop any coin. The 19th-century Block and Royal arcades are beautiful, and were inspired by European design. They are the oldest arcades still trading in Australia, and offer an eclectic range of small shops. In the Royal Arcade you'll find 7-foot statues of Gog and Magog. These mythical monsters have been striking the famous Gaunt's Clock since 1992.
Next week we travel to a truly amazing place. Some people say if you haven't been there, you haven't really been to Australia!