There are always places that capture your heart from the minute you reach them, and then there are those that just don’t cut the mustard or just don’t gel with you. Melbourne in Victoria, Australia was one such place for me. On my first visit in 2012, I arrived there straight from Sydney, a city which I adore, and although I enjoyed some of the things I saw and did there, Melbourne just wasn’t for me. I’d read so much hype and it wasn’t living up to my expectations. A return visit in 2015 was a vague improvement but it still didn’t excite me. When Sir David Attenborough, a man I’ve grown up with on my tv screen, announced a ‘Down Under’ tour, I quickly realised that getting to his one and only New Zealand show in Auckland just couldn’t happen. I was disappointed until a new date was added in Melbourne that just happened to be on my long weekend off work. I pounced on the ticket, secured a reasonably priced flight and waited till it was time. So in mid-February I headed across the ditch, the Tasman Sea, unenthusiastic about Melbourne and not sure what I was going to do with myself aside from the show. As it turned out, I fell in love with the place, and had a totally different experience than the two times before. Third time really is the charm.
I found myself at Christchurch airport at stupid o’clock on the Saturday morning, but it meant I arrived in Melbourne early on in the day. I had pre-purchased my bus ticket into the city so I could jump one of the queues and was on the bus with little waiting around. The traffic was reasonable, so I alighted at Southern Cross train station where the Sky Bus city stop is, and from here it was just a short walk to the YHA Central hostel, my bed for the couple of nights. The sky was grey as it always seems to be when I’m there, but it was nice and warm, so although I couldn’t yet check in, I made use of the lockers to dump my stuff, and was soon changed for the heat, and off out in search of breakfast. There’s a ridiculous amount of choice when it comes to eating out in Melbourne, and the city is famous for laneways, hidden treasures and quirkiness when it comes to eateries and cafes. I went with a recommendation from the hostel, and found myself in a crowded little espresso bar squeezed in amongst the locals.
I had arrived in the midst of the Chinese New Year celebrations, and following breakfast, I crossed the Yarra River to Southbank where there was all sorts of festival related performances and food stalls set up to mark the year of the rooster. The banks of the river are a popular place to be, especially the Southbank. It is a nice view across to the city skyline, although the grey skies turned the water a depressingly murky colour. I continued under the main bridge of St Kilda road to where the boat houses were, and being a Saturday, there were many rowing teams out on the river training. Past them, I cut up through Kings Domain and on to the Shrine of Remembrance. I’d been past here before, but hadn’t gone inside, and it was free to enter. Particularly worthy is the viewing platform on the roof offering a 360o view of its surroundings. It was busy and I spent some time just wandering around, and before I knew it, the grey skies had split open and I was being bathed in glorious sunshine. I’ve not really experienced Melbourne in the sunshine and it was radiant. Down in the basement, there is a war museum which was also very popular, and this too is free to wander around.
Not far from the Shrine of Remembrance is the Royal Botanical Gardens. I love walking around public gardens, so usually seek out the Botanical Gardens in any city that I go to. I had lunch at the cafe next to the entrance before heading down the slope and round the familiar lawns and borders. It was by now roasting and the park was full of families and groups of friends hanging out and wandering around. I found a quiet spot next to a pond and duly lay down on the grass to sunbathe. There was just the orchestra of birds and insects (and the occasional passerby) for company. No matter how many times I visit Australia, I’m always taken aback on my return by the cacophany of birds there. Even in the city, the sounds of raucous cockatoos screech at each other, and I’m reminded of how quiet the New Zealand wildlife is in comparison. After a while I moved on, but after my early morning flight, I didn’t need much encouragement to lay back down when I came across another inviting piece of lawn in the shade of a large tree. It was the perfect way to spend a sunny Saturday morning.
The lower section of the gardens contains a large Ornamental Lake where there was plenty of bird life to watch and plenty of people-watching to be had. From here I returned to the Yarra River bank, and followed it back towards the city. Crossing the St Kilda Rd bridge to the north side, there was an ecological and sustainability market taking place, and I took a wander through it down to one of the many kooky statues that lines the river bank. From there, I cut through Federation Square to visit Hosier Lane, one of the city’s famous laneways. Every time I come to Melbourne I visit this lane as I am a fan of street art, and with every visit there are newer artworks painted over the previous ones. It is an ever changing gallery. From another recommendation from the hostel, I ate dinner at nearby MoVida Next Door, a tapas-style eatery that was small but popular. The only seat was at the bar, but I very much enjoyed the food and drink that was brought to me, and I watched with interest as they went through their ritual of cocktail making.
That evening I retraced my steps to the Botanical Gardens for an outdoor cinema experience to see Disney’s Moana. With no forward planning, I had little of comfort to sit on, but it’s not an experience that I get to have often so I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. I arrived in the late evening, and found a spot on the hillside with a reasonable view of the giant inflatable screen. As the sun set and dusk set in, I was quietly surprised to see an ever-increasing number of fruit bats fly over. I’ve seen them before in Australia, but they were another thing I had forgotten about here, and I was mesmerised watching them silently flock over us as I waited for the movie to start once darkness had taken over. I wouldn’t have gone to see this movie in the regular cinema, not being particularly attracted to it, but I actually enjoyed it. By the time it was finished, the city was alive, and I wandered back to the hostel through the bustling city streets.
One of the things I loved about Melbourne this time, which was new since my first visit, was the free tram service within the boundaries of the Central Business District (CBD). For any trip within the CBD borders, travel on the trams is free, meaning I could save walking from one corner of the city to the other. I still had my MyKi (public transport) card from my previous trip but in the end I didn’t need it. On Sunday morning, I took a couple of trams to reach the Queen Victoria Market which is on the northern limit of the free tram zone. On my last visit, my partner and I had gone to the summer night market here which was my favourite thing about my last trip to Melbourne. Since my visit to Adelaide a few years ago, I’ve been jealous of the awesome food markets that these two cities have. I wasn’t going to be around for the Wednesday night market this time around, but although the Sunday market wasn’t as open or as filled as the night market would be, it was still a bustling and fun place to wander around. The outdoor area was set up to celebrate Chinese New Year, and there were performers playing drums and dancers and warriors showing off their moves. This was the one place where I got caught out for not having cash on me. Australian cities are a paradise for card payments, so I didn’t bother bringing any cash on the trip, swiping away with my Pay Pass foreign currency debit card everywhere I went. But here, it was predominantly cash-only and I was forced to get breakfast from one of the few places that accepted my card, and unfortunately the food was disappointing. All around me I could see and smell delightful food, but it remained outwith my grasp.
Whilst Melbourne was already starting to get under my skin and win me over, I was ecstatic to find myself in a giant branch of H&M, my favourite clothes store from when I lived in Scotland. Last year, New Zealand finally got its own branch in Auckland, and I can’t wait for the Christchurch branch to open as part of the rebuild when the new city mall opens, but in the meantime I have missed it. When I was back in Glasgow last year, I made sure to include a shopping trip in the branch there, and I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity here either. With my H&M hunger satiated, and my card balance a little lighter, I headed back to the hostel and then onwards to the Plenary on the South Bank.
As part of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, the Plenary was a large auditorium, and I excitedly walked along the river bank in anticipation of the coming show. For this was the whole reason I was in Melbourne: to listen to the legend that is Sir David Attenborough. The tickets were not cheap, and I had purchased the cheapest seat I could get, meaning I was as far away from the stage as it was probably possible to be, and I was at an awkward angle for seeing the tv screen. When the man himself came out, he was so small he could have been an imposter and I would never have known. But when he spoke, there was no mistaking him, and he commanded our attention with his intriguing stories about his life and his work across the decades. I have grown up with this man on the tv, and for me his voice and his face are synonymous with any BBC nature documentary that has been made in my lifetime. I have previously read his auto-biography which is definitely worth getting a hold of, and when it comes to opinions on the natural world, climate change and conservation, his is an opinion worth listening to.
After a thoroughly pleasant few hours listening to Sir David, I meandered around the local river bank, admiring the skyline from a slightly different viewpoint. I continued along the south bank unhurried before stopping for dinner at a food court near the St Kilda Rd bridge, then under the clocks of the Flinders Street Station, I met up with one of my previous work colleagues who now lives in Melbourne. We went off in search of cocktails, but instead ended up sitting outside an Irish pub enjoying a pint. It was cloudy again, but it was still warm enough to sit out and enjoy a drink. Despite being a Sunday, the city streets were still mobbed as we headed back through town after our catch up, and I was excited to discover a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream bar as we approached the train station. After my friend left to catch her train, I back tracked to get myself an old favourite which I enjoyed before heading back to the hostel.
In the morning I had to check out of the hostel but my flight wasn’t until the evening so I had plenty of time to explore some more. Leaving my belongings in the lockers, I decided to take up the suggestion of my best friend who lives in Sydney, and make use of the rental bikes around the city. She had noticed them on her last visit there, and this was another new initiative since my last visit. For a daily fee, you can rent a bike from one of the many city bike stations for up to 30mins at a time, and unlimited times during the day. Whilst the bikes were heavy to manoeuvre and not very comfortable to ride, I loved my day spent cycling around. Following a back injury whilst mountain biking 3.5 years ago which has left me with chronic back pain, I’ve barely been on a bike since. But I felt it was time to get back on the saddle, and decided I’d use the bikes to go to St Kilda which was outwith the free tram zone. Unfortunately, due to a combination of a couple of bike stations being out of order at inconvenient locations, as well as heavy traffic, it took a little over the allotted 30mins allowed to get to St Kilda. If you go over the 30mins, your card is charged extra, and so I had to pay an overtime fine both to and from the city. Whilst there are plenty of bike stations around the CBD, they are fewer and further between to the south. St Kilda is also as far south as the stations go.
St Kilda is a worthy excursion from the city on any visit to Melbourne. With enough time, I would recommend heading even further south still, towards the Mornington Peninsula, but with a small beach, marina and a cute little town centre, St Kilda is a nice wee place to visit. I noticed some street art as a I wandered towards the town centre, where one of the tram lines terminates in the main street. I had a coffee and cake in the oldest bakery in the town, an eclectic mismatch of furniture and equipment, and then set off to the small St Kilda Botanical Gardens. After reaching the waterfront, I picked up another bike from one of the stations and set off as far down the coast as I could manage before turning around to be back within the 30min limit. It was blowing a gale here and the sea looked stormy, and there was a clean-up process under way for a music festival that had taken place the day before. Being a working day, it was however relatively quiet.
Jutting out from St Kilda is a long pier which acts as a breakwater to shelter the local marina. Near the end is a large cafe, access to the yachts and boats moored there, but also a small colony of Blue Penguins, also known as Fairy Penguins. These are the smallest of the penguin species, and normally spend their day out at sea feeding, coming in to shelter amongst the rocks during the night. Still, there were plenty of eagle-eyed tourists nosying around the rockery looking for a sighting. As it turned out, there were a few of them hunkered down in the rocks if you had a beady eye to spot them. Frustratingly, despite the barriers and the signs stating not to disturb them or clamber over the rocks, there were still plenty of people ignoring these to stick their phones right up into the holes to get a close up photo. One really irritating English guy was loudly shouting down his phone to his mate about how he’d found some penguins. When he wasn’t loudly yelling down his phone, he was up over the barrier, jumping up the rocks to take a photo of them. I was livid, but I’m too introverted and self-conscious to pull strangers up about their inappropriate behaviour so I stewed internally. Ironically, as he left with his girlfriend, I overheard him say to her that he hoped people wouldn’t abuse the access to the wildlife and scare them away! But from an acceptable distance and quietly, I was able to spot about 6 little penguins and also some water rats which are also a rare sighting. Then, when heading back to the cafe, my attention was drawn to a small crowd of people looking down to the rocks below, and there in the broad daylight, completely exposed and unfazed by people, there was a solitary penguin out in the open preening itself.
After lunch in a St Kilda eatery, I picked up another bike from a bike station to pedal back to the CBD via Albert Park. This was a little more direct than the roadway I had followed on leaving the CBD, but I was still tight on time to get the bike back to a station. I still had a few hours before I needed to get the Sky Bus to Tullamarine airport, so I grabbed another bike next to Federation Square and biked up and down the river, dodging the crowds on the busy Southbank promenade. I had an absolute ball using the bike system in Melbourne, and it was well worth the daily fee. The only downside was the 30min restriction per bike use, and the 5min downtime between consecutive bike rentals but I loved it, and the Yarra river particularly lends itself to exploring on wheels. Eventually though, I had just one more thing I wanted to do before leaving, and that was go to the Lindt cafe which I had noticed the day before. I wasn’t even hungry but I ordered one of their special summer sundaes and forced myself to eat it just because. Reflecting on my trip, the spots of sunshine and lack of rain had definitely made a big difference over my previous two trips to Melbourne, but with the addition of convenient and free public transport, and the bike rental network, as well as the vibe of the city celebrating the Chinese New year, I had felt totally different on this occasion, and I was sad to leave the city behind. Finally, I could see what all the hype was about.