On our recent trip to Australia, Matt and I were lucky enough to spend a week in Melbourne. Before we went, I had been told that I would love Melbourne, that it is an artsy, European, cultured city. It did not disappoint. The food is delicious, the people are friendly, the seaside is sandy and picturesque. We rented a car and went everywhere, did everything. Each day was a unique adventure and unforgettable. Though I would go back to Melbourne in a heartbeat, we experienced so much in the time we spent there that I feel I can give some solid recommendations on the best things to do when you visit Melbourne.
1. Drive the Great Ocean Road: Even if you aren’t comfortable driving on the left hand side of the road this drive is worth getting out of your comfort zone. We started in the small town of Port Campbell and drove the Great Ocean Road back to Melbourne.
Just a few miles from Port Campbell, the Loch Ard Gorge is the site of many shipwrecks in which ships got caught in storms and didn’t make Port Campbell. Thinking of the sinking ships was a little creepy to me but the nonetheless worth stopping. Not much further down the road, the most famous part of the road, the 12 Apostles Rocks and Gibson’s Steps attract tourists for good reason. The beach you can walk at the base of Gibson’s Steps is by far the most gorgeous beach I have seen in my life.
The next stretch of road is the Great Otway National Park, a mountainous jungle where you can stop, find a hike and hope to see a koala or kangaroo in the wild. From there, the stretch between Apollo Bay to Lorne is one of the most picturesque sections of the Great Ocean Road as you drive right on the coast with the occasional lighthouse to check out.
Our last stop was at Bells Beach where we watched professional surfers practicing for the upcoming Easter Classic Surfing Contest. It was the perfect last day to an amazing vacation and this adventure should not be missed. Just remember when you are pulling out onto the highway…left side….
2. Spend an afternoon in Yarra Valley: I liked this so much that we did it twice. We tried several vineyards but by far, my favorites were DeBertoli Estate and Domaine Chandon. DeBertoli Estate also produces cheese and we had the most informative, delicious tasting at their winery. Domaine Chandon was the most beautiful vineyard we visited and had the most unique grapes and blends of wine. The proximity of Yarra Valley to Melbourne, a mere 45 minute drive, makes me long to live in an area where I can go to boutique vineyards and buy good wine.
Australia is big player in the world production of wine, most notably for Shiraz, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. Some large producers make lower quality wine blended from different vineyards all over Australia…cough…cough Yellowtail. Unfortunately, this is most of the wine that is a reasonable price exported from Australia. The smaller boutique vineyards where we went have much higher quality wines, which unfortunately do not get exported due to the export and import taxes which make the wines prohibitively expensive. The Yarra Valley is ideal for chardonnays and pinot noirs with cool nights and warm days. Our only regret was that we could not bring more home with us.
3. Visit Queen Victoria’s Market: This is foodie paradise. I was in heaven. It is my dream as a blogger to have a market like this where I can find exotic fruits such as mangosteen and finger limes, fresh meat and seafood, shops everything from Polish sausages to chocolate brioche. Vendors sell Australian opals, clothing and leather goods, art, and pretty much anything you can think of. Only open weekends and a few afternoons during the week, make sure you get here when it’s open.
4. Check out the Downtown Street Art: Hidden in the narrow alleyways of downtown, legal street art tattoos the city. The artistic spirit of the city is most evident when you look around at hip locals and wall murals representing the city. Nearby, Chinatown is great stop for a quick bite and the Melbourne Public Library lawn is an area of community and gathering for locals. Flinders Station, a historic icon of Melbourne down on Flinders Street is one of the prettiest train stations I have seen.
5. Spend a day at Phillips Island: Our first day in Melbourne we drove two hours southeast of the city to Phillips Island. Philips Island is a quaint getaway with seaside towns and uniquely Australian wildlife. On the southwest coast of the island Summerland Beach is the one of the few places in the world where you can see little penguins in the wild. Little penguins are, as their name suggests, the smallest species of penguins, but not least charming. Every evening at sunset they cautiously run out of the water to their burrows where they sleep. The wildlife preservation that has occurred there is bringing back the population of little penguins which once was more than a hundred thousand and got dangerously low due to development and human interference.
You can also see koalas in their natural habitat at a koala sanctuary at Phillips Island. Due to climate changes gum trees essential to koalas’ diets are dying. The leaves of gum trees have tannins which are toxic to most species but koalas need to survive. This is a threat to the koala populations and keeping these trees healthy is key to koala survival. The delicate balance of nature is evident everywhere you look on the island.
Besides conservation of koalas and penguins, we enjoyed the small town of Cowes, a charming spot to shop little antique stores, catch a nap on the beach or get fresh seafood at Harry’s on the Esplanade.
6. Shop and eat on Acland Street in St. Kilda: I could eat here every night for the rest of my life and be a fat, happy person. Restaurants such as Abbey Road and Rococo make it difficult to find a bad meal. There was this thing called the parma Matt ordered the evening after his Ironman race. It was essentially a breaded chicken patty the size of a pizza over a huge pile of fries. He ate half. Australia may be the only place where portions are bigger than in the US.
7. Run Ironman Melbourne: Ok, so this one is not for the faint of heart. But my amazing husband Matt did it. If you aren’t familiar with Ironman triathlons, they include a 2.4 mile swim, 110 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run (marathon). Matt had an amazing race and best his personal best by 30 minutes!! The race starts in the town of Frankston south of the city and ends on the Esplanade in St. Kilda. Twenty five hundred participants put their hearts and their bodies on the line and must finish the 140.6 mile race within 17 hours. It is an incredible feat of human will and dedication that people into their 80’s race. Ironman triathletes never cease to amaze me.
8. Check out Mornington Peninsula: If Melbourne has a place where you go to see and be seen it has to be Mornington Peninsula. Chic and sophisticated, Montalto Vineyard is an ideal place for a lunch, tasting and to check out their sculpture gardens. As you drive around, you see signs for strawberry and cherry farms as well as countless vineyards. We did a tasting at Red Hill Cheese and their creamy cow, sheep, and goat cheeses melted in our mouths.
9. Go to a cricket match – the Cricket World Cup: Yes…yes. We did this. Melbourne Cricket Ground holds roughly 100,000 seats; fans crowd in, eager to spend several hours cheering for wickets, eating fish and chips, and guzzling beer after beer. Cricket is the predecessor to baseball and though it was a long match, it was a crazy experience.
The way cricket works is: Each team has one inning of hitting which lasts about four hours. The defensive team tries get a wicket either by hitting the wickets which are little stakes behind the batter or catch a fly ball. The pitcher has a running start, and the batter has a wider, more paddle like bat than in baseball. Once the ball is hit, the batter and his partner run back and fourth until the outfield gets the ball back into the infield. That is the basic gist of the game but it seems more like an opportunity to hang out with friends and down a few brews for most Aussies.
Cricket is popular in countries around the Indian Ocean such as Australia, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa naming just a few as well as the British Isles. We actually had tickets for the championship of the World Cup fought between the Aussies and the Kiwis (New Zealand), a classic sporting rivalry. The Aussies won on a landslide and the city was a giant party.
10. Ponyfish Island and Crown Casino: The Yarra River cuts through central Melbourne and is a lovely spot to walk and take in a view of the city. One of the most unique spots is Ponyfish Island which is essentially a tiny bar on a little island in the middle of the Yarra River. We stopped for a pint and an appetizer, and it’s just a fun spot to hang out with cool locals. Just across the street is the Crown Casino. Every evening at 8 pm they light huge puffs of fire into the sky from their large gas torches. They have some great restaurants of all ethnicities.
Whatever you decide to do in Melbourne, just enjoy this beautiful, laid back city. Get some great food, meet some friendly locals; life’s too short to take so seriously mate.