I’ve just spent a couple of months in Melbourne catching up with family and friends. And I have to admit I’d forgotten what a fab town it is. I was born and raised there, and sometimes it’s hard to really see your hometown, but a few years away gave me fresh eyes. So here’s my Top 10 of things I did this Downunder Summer.
Melbourne in summer: Beachside in St Kilda
I was having dinner with my gorgeous goddaughters, 8 and 10, and their mum so we went to the Stokehouse, a cafe/restaurant right next to the beach. This place is great for kids; they can play on the beach just outside and still be in sight, while we catch up on a year’s worth of gossip. After dinner, we went for a walk, avoiding bikes and rollerbladers on the path, watched the sunset over Port Phillip Bay while ships headed up the bay and the Spirit of Tasmania ferry left for its night crossing of Bass Strait to Hobart. Perfect.
St Kilda is Melbourne’s beachside hub: beaches, cafes, shops, cakes, pubs, nightlife. A couple of favourite places: the Galleon Café, great coffee and full of locals, and the Esplanade Hotel, for a beer watching the sunset over the bay, full of backpackers.
Melbourne in summer: Marios in Brunswick Street
The other side of the town is more sticky-black tarmac than sand and seagulls. I was catching up with a friend I used to go to writing school with. Where else would I go but inner-city Fitzroy? Brunswick Street is for clothes shopping and bar hopping. Marios has been a Melbourne institution for years, run by two guys called Mario (surprisingly). The waiters are cheeky, the service fast and efficient, the food good and reliable, the coffee serious: no decaf here.
Next door is the Brunswick Street Bookstore, which has one of the best selections of books in town (confession: I used to work there). Further down the street is Scally and Trombone, which has Melbourne’s best (costume) jewellery, bags and hats. Accessorising is everything!
Melbourne in summer: Shopping the city’s laneways
I had a friend fly in from New Zealand so I took him to my favourite city laneway: Centre Place between Flinders Lane and Collins Street. For a very short lane, it’s full of an impressive number of boutiques and hole in the wall cafes. I indulged a passion for trying on clothes. He bought a very stylish, unusual designer watch. Melbourne has great young (and established) designers.
In the past few years, Melbourne has rediscovered the laneways that connect the main streets of the central business district. Now the best bars are found down the dark alleys, past the bins and through the little doorways. Sometimes it can be a bit of a climb up old wooden stairways but the bars are worth it. This year there was a Laneways music festival and the turnout was so huge that most people got nowhere near seeing the performers. Outrage ensued. This is the problem with Melbournites – we’re enthusiastic and turn out in unexpected droves for supposedly small events. (Many years ago, the photographer Spencer Tunick came to Melbourne to photograph anyone brave enough to get nude on the main street of the city at dawn; 4,000 people took their clothes off – he was expecting a few hundred.)
Melbourne in summer: National Gallery of Victoria
My sister and I decided to have a cultural Saturday. We walked between Federation Square, the National Gallery and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. Melbourne is the culture centre of Australia (oooh, hear the other cities yell at me), especially for visual arts. The opening of Federation Square really pushed Melbourne into this century and the Ian Potter Gallery is fantastic, so is ACMI, the museum of the moving image.
Fed Square also has great food and drink. It was the first time I’d been to the National Gallery of Victoria in probably 10 years and, boy, has it changed. What used to be a bit of a fortress is opened right up inside. Now you can walk in the front doors – past the fabulous wall of water – straight through to the big central hall (where you definitely must lie on the floor and stare at the stained glass ceiling), then through the back doors into the sculpture garden. Great bookshop, great exhibitions. I was really impressed.
Melbourne in summer: The Botanical Gardens
I filled a hamper and headed to Melbourne’s biggest and best park, the Botanical Gardens: full of ponds, faux temples, and home to a colony of bats. Under a huge tree near the duck pond I met a bunch of ex-colleagues. Around us people played Frisbee and tried to spot eels in the pond. A couple of tutu-clad fairies approached from a nearby kids’ party and offered us cake. As the sun set, people carrying chairs and blankets started flooding by on their way to the Moonlight Cinema. But for us, the security guard gave our marching orders as dark fell and the gates were closed for the night.
Melbourne in summer: Riding the trams
Melbourne’s trams rattle along in the middle of the road, holding up traffic and forcing people to risk life and limb getting on and off them across the lane of traffic. Since coming to Europe, I have realised it would have been much more sensible to put the tracks on the edge of the road, next to the sidewalk but, too late now.
Anyway, they are still a Melbourne institution. I love the trams; they signify home to me. There’s even a restaurant tram that glides down to the beach and back up to the city a few times a night. But I didn’t manage to go on it this time. Instead it was hopping on and off various lines to get from coffee appointment to art assignation. One of my favourite lines is the Number 8 – I caught it to school every day as a child and now they’ve extended it. It crosses the city from the affluent inner east, past the Botanical Gardens and up the boulevard of St Kilda Road, right through the centre, past the university and out to the working class north. A good way to see many faces of Melbourne. I had a friend who used to spend the weekends just riding the trams and the trains to explore his hometown – good plan, but I didn’t have time. Not this trip. (If you like Melbourne trams, check out this ode to the #96.)
Melbourne in summer: Japanese Bath House
I love relaxing in water – everyone knows that about me. The Japanese Bath House in Melbourne is one of the places I miss most. It’s tucked away in an industrial street in inner Collingwood. I was catching up with a really close girlfriend so what better place to do it? Soak away our cares and talk our heads off. Although the water is so hot that after a while, the talking stops. It starts again lying on the tatami mats in little pyjama suits sipping green tea, or saki. Only a place to be visited with your nearest and dearest as it’s all nude. But I would never miss it on a trip to Melbourne.
Melbourne in summer: CERES Community Environment Park, Brunswick
It’s always difficult finding a place you can catch up with friends who have young children. Somewhere that the coffee is good, the atmosphere relaxed, time is not an object and no one is going to get upset by a bit of noise and energetic play. In Melbourne, it’s CERES. This place is wonderful. It’s all about sustainability and has animals and vegetable gardens, an organic market and harvest festival, plus a playground near the café that, unsurprisingly, has parents and prams everywhere.
Melbourne in summer: Alannah Hill/Revival Outlet store
I had to go to a meeting. In Fitzroy, near Brunswick Street. And I admit, I fell into temptation. The shopping around there is so good. And this one huge warehouse-style shop of designer clothes is such an Aladdin’s Cave that I have to go there every time I’m in Melbourne. As usual I did not walk out empty handed. Don’t tell anyone.
Melbourne in summer: Riding a bike bayside
I don’t have a bike. And I’m not getting on one of those dangerous looking racing things my nephew owns. So, he did the early morning ride along with many others in lycra, and I greeted him with breakfast in a café in the bayside suburb of Black Rock. For those people lucky enough to live near the water in Melbourne, this is a bit of a weekend ritual. Melbourne has great bike paths, especially along the river and beside the bay. You can ride for miles and explore lots of the little beaches and coves. Apparently, it’s gorgeous. I did once rollerblade the bayside path – it did not turn out well.