Most of our researches into the city of Melbourne seemed to consist of lists … the ‘top ten best places’ to eat/have coffee/hang out kind of thing. Usually, this seemed to coincide with the ten most expensive places to eat/have coffee/hang out etc. Certainly, we ate and had coffee … but didn’t use any of the lists; we prefer to find places for ourselves, anyway.
Since we arrived in Melbourne after dark, I didn't form my first impression until the morning, when I looked out of my window and saw … a wall.
Did they ever see the sun here? I wondered. Indeed, did they ever see the sky?
We were staying at the Ibis Styles Victoria Hotel, on Little Collins Street, located right in central Melbourne. Little Collins Street is extremely narrow, and was probably originally a service lane for the buildings in the parallel Collins Street.
If you're planning a number of tours, therefore, the Victoria, pleasant as it is, is probably not the best place to stay, unless you're prepared to walk to an alternative meeting point. The coach driver that took us to Phillip Island picked us up at the nearby Novotel, and said there was no way he'd take his coach down Little Collins Street … and, seeing the size of his rig, I don't blame him.
Fortunately, the rest of the city is nothing like as bad. There are plenty of green, open spaces and the wide streets are laid out in a grid-iron pattern. Down the centre of most of them runs what's claimed to be the most extensive tram system in the world. The trams are the way to get around the town centre and, within the Central Business District, they're free. Around the periphery of the CBD runs the circular Route 35, again free; always run with a vintage tram, with a recorded commentary … which 'plugs' so many shops, restaurants and night spots, I wonder if the advertising revenue pays for the tram?
We particularly wanted to go to Phillip Island to see the penguins, and the hotel receptionist kindly arranged this for us, even going as far as consulting the weather forecast to see when would be the best day. We saw the nightly 'penguin parade', and managed an excellent view of the penguins as they returned to their burrows … although sadly, photography is strictly prohibited, even without flash.
As the penguins crossed the beach at intervals in huddles, I was reminded of a busy pedestrian crossing in the city.
Although the penguins are the main reason for the trip for most people, there's also a koala sanctuary, where a boardwalk leads you through the treetops to see these cuddly marsupials really close to. Also, a visit to a 'Heritage Farm' on Churchill Island … it wasn't of much interest, except from a photographic point of view … but it did serve an excellent iced coffee.
One of the best ways to view Melbourne, like many other places, is to view it from the water, and cruises along the Yarra River leave from the dock just below Federation Square. Two cruises are on offer; up the river, as far as Herring Island or down the river to the docks. Or, as we did, you can take both … at a discount … and see everything.
While the glass and concrete towers are impressive, I feel that it's a great pity that the grand old Victorian brownstones which used to dominate the cityscape are now dwarfed by the ever-taller buildings of commerce. It seems that even St Paul’s Cathedral seems to be hiding shyly among its glitzy modern competitors.
One thing they haven't overshadowed, though, is the ornate, slightly kitsch gingerbread of Flinders Street Station, standing proudly on one corner of Federation Square. That's one busy place, mainly because the whole square offers free wifi. Finding shade so you can see your screen is a different proposition altogether, though.