Monday 23 October 2017

Melbourne: Feeling on top of the world Down Under

Shane Fitzsimons has fallen in love with the rich diversity that is Melbourne

Melbourne at night
Melbourne at night

Shane Fitzsimons

I ADMIT I was high. It wasn't just the jet lag, I was really high.

About 60 metres or so from terra firma in Melbourne Cricket Ground -- the seats they call "the nosebleeds" -- when I realised that this was the same stadium where Ronnie Delaney won his Olympic gold in 1956. I'd gasped for air and grasped the nearest cultural reference.

Surrounded by 60,000 Aussie Rules fans screaming for blood and guts (and in that sport they often get it), I briefly considered time- travelling back 55 years to see an Irish sporting hero make headlines -- but right in front of me Corkman Setanta O hAilpin was kicking goals for Carlton as if they were going out of style. His side lost, but you get the picture. Melbourne and Irish sports stars go hand in hand.

But that wasn't the reason I had fallen in love with this city. As with all love things, it's hard to explain. But, in a sentence, Melbourne is the most civilised city you are likely to visit in your life. And with the economy the way it is, some of us are more likely to go sooner than others. If you're one of the lucky ones, tell Melbourne I miss her.

The city has got a foodie tradition that runs from cheap-as-chips Vietnamese street food (try anywhere on Victoria Street), right up to expense-account tapas (try the MoVida restaurant), and silver-service nouvelle cuisine (do you think I'm made of money?).

The city's got culture pouring out of the architecturally clued-up museums, galleries and theatres in the central business district through to the low-rise suburbs with their corrugated iron roofs and shady verandas.

It's got a great big smile on its face, an upward lilt to its accent, and the sort of positive attitude that is born of great year-round weather. It's even got coin-operated barbecues in the city parks.

Of course, if you're visiting the epitome of civilisation, you've got to get on the inside track. And the best place to start is at The Langham -- a hotel so civilised and luxurious it merits mention in one of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels. Smack in the centre of the city, standing high over the banks of the Yarra River, the hotel is the perfect base from which to start exploring.

It'd be difficult to pick a time to see Melbourne at its best. Possibly you'd pick Spring Racing Carnival -- the week-long festivities which centre on the Melbourne Cup, held the first Tuesday in November. Known as the race which stops a nation, it does what it says on the tin: they reckon 80 per cent of all Australians have a few bucks riding on it.

Or maybe you'd pick January, when the Australian Open Tennis gathers together Djokovic, Murray, Federer and Nadal to do battle. Or Easter, when the luminaries of the surf world gather down the coast in Torquay for the Bells Beach Classic. Or March, for the city's gut-busting Food and Wine festival. Or any other month of the year.

But the Langham is as central to this plan as it is to the social life of the city. From here it's a five-minute walk to the National Gallery, just across the road from the Botanic Gardens.

Art lovers will also love the Ian Potter Centre on Federation Square for the collections of Australian indigenous art -- an eye-opener to those of us used to seeing art though a European prism.

Having signed up for a culinary masterclass with chefs from the Langham's Melba restaurant, we first went shopping for ingredients at the Queen Victoria Market (an 18th-Century edifice that still houses a huge working food market) before returning to the hotel to try our hand at some Asian fusion cooking. The Malaysian prawns I could just about manage, but my souffle sank like a stone. Even so, it was great fun.

Although you won't tire of the city, it's always good to check out the outlying regions. The Yarra Valley is a great day trip, maybe 90 minutes, through gorgeously lush countryside. We dropped in to visit the Domaine Chandon Winery, to see what France's finest champagne makers were doing Down Under and were very impressed by the level of nature-respecting professionalism that goes in to creating a bottle of... well, by law they can't call it champagne, but wink wink -- you understand.

Just up the road was a chance to see the koalas and kangaroos at the wonderful Healesville Sanctuary on Badger Creek Road, just past Stringybark Gully.

Looking at those road signs made me wonder about places in Australia and the people who gave them their names. I don't mean the ones christened by Captain Bugle-Fudge of the First Penal Rangers when he misheard the original Aboriginal pronunciation of Tittybong, Wonglepong or Wongawilli -- I mean the Chinaman's Knobs, the Mount Buggerys, the Cock Washes.

Presumably the people doing the naming were Fenian exiles from Termonfeckin or machine-breakers from Tolpuddle. But what were they eating on their long voyage to the other side of the world that suddenly made them masters of onomatopoeia? Back home they'd been born and raised by priests on Long Acres, Fair Greens and Ben Bulbens. Then all of a sudden it's titter-ye-not postcard smut from the penal colony?

But Healesville offered more than a chance to digress. You got up close and personal with the Tasmanian devil, the duck-billed platypus (barely a foot long), koalas, joeys and birds of prey. And the howl in the near distance was indeed from a couple of hungry dingoes as bickering couples hurried by with most of their young children.

It's far from your common or garden zoo. The sanctuary is set on 70 acres of bushland and incorporates an animal hospital, which treats thousands of orphaned, ill or injured wildlife every year. The Aussies are big on that. Hit a wallaby with your car and you're expected to call a wildlife ambulance.

Roadkill aside, driving is part of the Australian experience, and routes such as the Great Ocean Road make it a sheer pleasure. Even more pressing was Bells Beach and the surf breaks of Torquay -- a town an hour's drive south of the city, and so cute it looks like it's just walked out of an Australian soap opera.

If it's surfing you're after, you'll find that Winkipop is a better wave than Bells. Forget the hype, just get out there. Sitting in the line up out in the Bass Strait with the sun on your back? It's all good. As I drove back up the 60 miles to Melbourne, I tuned in to the Triple R radio station. They were doing a special show, playing The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. How could I not love this city? God Only Knows.


Shane stayed as a guest of The Langham, Melbourne. They have hotels in Melbourne, London, Hong Kong, Auckland, Boston, Pasadena and Shanghai.

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