ONE arrives in Melbourne with a suitcase filled with high expectations.
How can one not? Part of a country so vast that it also gets to call itself a continent, Melbourne manages to stand out as a center for culture. Its art and coffee scenes are said to be comparable with that of a European metropolis. And, for seven consecutive years, Melbourne was crowned as the world’s most liveable city as per the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Index; only slipping to the number two spot this year, yielding to Vienna.
While these are all fantastic to hear, a first-time wanderer to these parts has to anchor expectations with certain realities. As all trips go, there is only a finite time to explore. In our case, we had to make do with only six full days. Short of a week, we split our sights between two of Melbourne’s competing highlights, the city and the sea.
Traveling in a group of six, we wanted to get a roomy apartment – not an affordable convenience if you pick one situated strictly inside the Central Business District (CBD) limits. With the Docklands being two stops away from the CBD, booking a place here is a good compromise. To sweeten the deal, we made sure to cop a unit in a building with a tram stop at its doorstep.
Combing through the CBD without any predetermined destination is a charming little adventure in itself. Somewhere along the way, you are bound to set foot on cobbled laneways. There are over 40 alleys peeking out from the CBD’s underbelly of dizzying intersections and underpasses.
Resigned to the fact that it would be too ambitious to get acquainted with every shortlisted laneway the guidebooks recommended, we went through the Royal Arcade and five laneways at an unhurried pace. If you must limit your laneway stop to one, make it the graffiti-laden Hosier Lane.
Working our way to the outskirts of the CBD, we headed to the beachside suburb of St Kilda. Many people come here for the glorious sunset view. To get there, take the tram from the CBD and alight at the Luna Park stop. It is hard to miss the imposing and colorful Luna Park, a historic amusement park that has been in operation since 1912.
St Kilda beach is not just a magnet for tourists- locals regularly come here to picnic, sunbathe, play ball, skate or see wildlife. If you linger past sunset, you can catch a colony of fairy penguins waddling their cute way to their nests by the breakwater of the St Kilda pier. Not far is another recognizable oceanside community, Brighton Beach, home to 82 multi-colored wooden huts neatly lining up its foreshore. These bathing houses are staple images in the tourism campaigns of Melbourne. If you want souvenir photos taken, get ahead of the pack by coming in the morning.
The State of Victoria has a high index of well-preserved natural heritage parks, but none is as popular as the long stretch of the Great Ocean Road. From Melbourne, it takes 90 minutes to reach the surf town of Torquay- where the spectacular coastline starts to show itself off. For this leg, we thought it best to join a small group tour. A local guide, a manageable group of not more than 15, and a comfortable shuttle can make the hours spent on the road agreeable. Group tours take three to four stops along the way – each is designed to highlight a dramatic rock formation.
Many come to see the 12 Apostles reasonably expecting to see a collection of 12 limestone stacks off the shore of the Port Campbell National Park. A visit will confirm that there are actually eight stacks standing – one collapsed due to erosion in 2005, our guide added. Not that I was counting during my short time at the 12 Apostles. My attention was transported elsewhere, taking in all of the otherworldly beauty of a site sculpted by what we would normally consider nature’s way of destruction, erosion.
A final storybook-picture destination along Great Ocean Road is the Loch Ard Gorge. Visitors can get a closer look by descending the stairs going to the beach. No matter how tired you are, make sure not to skip the hike as it opens to another pristine beauty: a bay and an inlet of clear, blue water accentuated by two yellow-washed cliffs. This is the closest point you will be to the majestic limestone structures, a perfectly happy ending (or cliffhanger?) to your first sojourn Down Under.