A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, the city of Melbourne was famously dubbed "the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world". After many visits, over many years, BILL WATT is now willing to argue this is not the case ... it is a city (and region) in full bloom.
Way back when, I spent the better part of a year in Melbourne. I grew up that year. I worked bloody hard and independently, ran a household (just me), won a cricket comp (man of the match in the final but don't tell anybody), at times partied hard, paid for everything myself (a relief for my parents), saved money ... and (at the end) quit my job. But, I didn't fall in love with the city that gave me all that opportunity.
To me Melbourne was a bleak city, admittedly populated with pleasant, interesting and generous people. My job as a journalist, dealing all too often with the city's crime, corruption and tragedy, maybe tainted my opinion slightly. And, in the year I lived there, I only escaped the suburban area to cover news stories such as the deadly bushfires that devastated rural towns north-west of the city that year.
Since those days I've visited the Victoria capital relatively frequently. But, my opinion never changed. Like most Sydneysiders of my generation, I thought of Melbourne as Bleak City ... or Melboring ... or Melgloom.
So, it caught me by surprise recently when my wife Marie and I travelled south for a short visit to see our daughter Erin (now a Melburnian) and I actually started to appreciate the vibrant, colourful, cultured city and its beautiful rural surrounds.
What changed my mind? Here's a short list:
Melbourne is famous for its many cultural events, exhibitions etc. But we chose to take a look at one of its lesser known cultural stars - the Hellenic Museum in the old Royal Mint building in William St.
I've always loved Greek culture and history and so this museum was a bit of a no-brainer for me. But, my wife Marie and daughter Erin loved it as well.
The highlight for me was The Messenger, famed artist Sam Jinks' sculpture inspired by a statue of the Greek goddess Iris that once adorned the Parthenon in Athens, before being removed by Britain's Lord Elgin. Jinks' work of art is an absolutely stunning life-sized sculpture fantastically displayed in a quiet niche of the museum. I went back twice during my visit to fully appreciate its glory.
GREAT EATING (& DRINKING)
We are far from connoisseurs but these places kept us happy.
The Roti Bar in Little Collins Street was a busy hive of what looked like young students grabbing a cheap and very cheerful meal. Super satays, curry puffs, curries and, of course, roti. Great tastes and great value.
The Gourmet Curry Hut lives in a the small Hub Arcade in Little Collins Street. All the curries were a treat and the butter naan was to die for.
The Journal is a cafe built into the City Library and describes itself as "one of the best kept secrets of Melbourne's famous laneways". I'm not sure about that. It was pretty busy. But the food, coffee and atmosphere were superb. I can recommend their Reuben, a great version of the New York classic sandwich.
Arcadia, a cafe in Fitzroy, had awesome breakfasts. For brunch I had the French brioche with bacon, poached pear and maple syrup. OMG! And, the manager overheard it was my birthday and promptly delivered a free cocktail ... a peach mimosa. Nice touch.
Yes! We found a decent CBD pub. Hidden away in Little Collins Street is the Irish Times hotel. I know what you're thinking, but it wasn't your typical Irish themed pub. Of course there were pints of Guinness and shots of Irish whiskey, but it was tasteful, warm, beautifully decorated in ye olde Irish pub style, fairly quiet and, importantly, without a backpacker in sight. We went back twice and we will visit again next time we head south.
I've never really investigated Melbourne's surrounds. Sure, I'd been to Phillip Island to see the fairy penguins decades ago, but that was about it, apart from covering bushfires as a reporter. So, to say the least, these places took me by surprise.
1. Yarra Valley and Ranges.
Our daughter Erin was our chauffeur for the day. She took us on a picturesque journey along the Yarra Valley, with a short pitstop by the Yarra at scenic Warrandyte.
Then it was on to Healesville, a great little town which seemed full of what day tourists need - cafes, restaurants, breweries, distilleries, pubs and wine tasting venues. For a caffeine burst and sweet treat we settled for Natures Cakes, and were not disappointed. Great coffee and cakes and gluten free, lactose free options to boot.
After that came a drive through the Yarra Ranges National Park to and beyond Marysville with scenery that would rival some of the famously picturesque parts of the world. Lord of the Rings could have been filmed here. Just saying ... A highlight was Keppel Lookout, which in fine weather was easily accessible by car along an unsealed but serviceable road. Best let the pictures below do the talking here.
We finished our daytrip by revisiting Healesville and getting a tasty late lunch with local wine and beer at Innocent Bystander. I had a fabulous pizza and a Watts River Brewery stout (a delicious winter beer). I left with a feeling that the venue deserved a more thorough try-out, maybe involving wine tasting, more beer and dessert. But time was running out and our chauffeur had a work shift to attend.
Ballarat has had some horrific press in recent years thanks mainly to the Catholic Church's depraved clerics. But, it is an amazing old town with magnificently wide streets (reminded me of Russia's St Petersburg just a wee bit), art galleries, great old buildings and decent eateries and pubs. We drove the 100-minutes or so journey on a Sunday, which probably wasn't the best day (not everything is open). But, despite the freezing wind, we had a very enjoyable walk around a town dotted with 19th Century buildings, the like of which you just don't see in many places in Australia.
To get out of the cold, and fuel us for the return visit to Melbourne, we stopped in at Aunty Jack's pub/brewery/restaurant. What a great spot for lunch and a short tipple.