What would get if you crossed the best parts of New York City and Chicago and dropped it on the footprint of Los Angeles? If you were lucky and mixed it up just right, you might get Melbourne. Rated five years in a row as the world’s most livable city by the Economist, Melbourne should also top the list of the world’s most underrated cities. Like a younger, but prettier, smarter, and more talented sibling, Melbourne has lived for decades in the shadow of Sydney, a rivalry that started over 200 years ago and continues today. Because Melbourne was beating its older sibling in almost every category for a good part of that time, Sydney invested in two iconic projects: a bridge across the harbor and an opera house. Since then, Sydney’s shadow has obscured Marvelous Melbourne in the competition for international attention.
Cosmopolitan, artsy, transit, architecture, coffee culture, restaurants, laneways, arcades, gardens, coastline, sports, nightlife, and sunshine are just a few words that begin to describe this extraordinary city on the Southern Coast of Australia in the state of Victoria.
For 40,000 years, aboriginal tribes lived as one with the land – fishing, hunting and gathering in resource-rich area that is now Victoria. They didn’t believe in owning the land, but rather living in harmony with it. That changed in 1797 when European sealers, whalers and explorers started arriving on the peninsula just South of what is now Melbourne. About a decade earlier, the English had the bright idea of shipping convicts (some convicted of petty crimes and others political prisoners) from Great Britain to the other side of the globe, which gave way to the establishment of prisoner colonies in Australia. It’s believed that about 20% of Australians are descendants of these penal colonies. At least that explains Australian rules football.
On June 3, 1835, a farmer and bounty hunter from Tasmania by the name of John Batman founded Melbourne without permission from the Crown. Instead, he brokered an agreement with the native Kulin tribe. He inked a deal for 600 acres with the aboriginal tribe in exchange for “40 blankets, 30 axes, 100 knives, 50 scissors, 30 mirrors, 200 handkerchiefs, 100 pounds of flour and 6 shirts.” It’s the type of contract that now would be considered to be unconscionable, but Batman got away with it. He even pushed for the city to be called “Batmania.” But Batman missed the opportunity to establish his home as Gotham City. Instead, the Governor of New South Wales, George Bourke, named the city after the English Prime Minister who happened to be the 2nd Viscount of Melbourne, a village in Derbyshire. Suck up.
In the 1850s, a gold rush set off a period of unprecedented in migration and wealth that lasted for decades. Thirty years after gold was first mined, several buildings including the Royal Exhibition Building were built that give Melbourne the historical character is has today. The Building housed Australia’s parliament for a short time and then the World’s Fair. The 1880’s began the “Marvelous Melbourne” era.
Such is Life
On the seedier side of the city’s history, one of Melbourne’s most well known cultural icons is Ned Kelly, Australia’s very own Robin Hood. Ned’s criminal activity centered on robbing banks and wealthy people and reportedly shared his ill-gotten gains with the less fortunate. He was also known for assaulting and murdering officers of the law. At his last stand, he took hostages and the police set the building he and his gang were in on fire. He was critically injured, and the only survivor of the day’s mayhem and conflagration. On the hanging platform, Ned Kelly’s last words were “Such is life.” To this day, Ned Kelly’s image is memorialized in artistic stencils in the laneways of Melbourne and his famous phrase is a common tattoo. I would say there is a certain resemblance to members of Portland’s Timbers Army (football club) circa 2016. We should create a tifo for the Timbers Army with Ned Kelly’s picture that reads: Such is life. It could come in handy after a tough loss.
The Great Ocean Road
One of the ten best drives in the world, the Great Ocean Road stretches for 243 kilometers (151 miles) along the South coast of Australia between the cities of Melbourne and Adelaide. Originally conceived as a jobs project for veterans of World War I, the road was built with pics and axes by 3,000 returning soldiers between 1919-1932.
It is the largest war memorial in the world.
Alisa and I embarked on a two-day guided tour of the Great Ocean Road and Phillip Island with a small group of seven women from the US, England and Australia. Our guide, Rob Fields, was knowledgeable about the area and led us through some well-known and not-so-well known scenes on the road. He was great about sharing details road’s history, geology, and wildlife in the area.
The biggest tourist attraction (which draws over 7 million tourists a year) is the 12 apostles rock formation, known for their size and grandeur. Spoiler alert: there are not and probably have never been 12, but it’s still a great view that attracts visitors from around the world.
Along the Great Ocean Road there are stops for rainforest walks and wildlife sanctuaries. If you make it to Melbourne, give Rob a shout. He’s just started a new company called Victorian Adventures. He specializes in 1 day tours of the Great Ocean Road for people who’d like a small group experience: If you’re on his tour, you might even get to enjoy a lovely lunch at a whiskey distillery near the 12 apostles. Next time….
No Drink Water
The name koala is an aboriginal word for “no drink.” Koalas receive most, if not all, of their moisture from eucalyptus leaves, or gum leaves as the locals call them. They are not actually bears, but rather arboreal, herbivorous marsupials, meaning they are tree-living vegetarians with pouches (like me on a Sunday in my sweatshirt, except with more house-living than tree-living). Koalas sleep about 20 hours a day in trees.
Reasonably docile creatures, you are allowed to pet them at conservation centers, and in the state of Queensland up North, you are permitted to hold them, but only if they are awake. (Good luck with that. Wakey wakey.) One koala was spotted in the wild was either overcome by itchy legs or was training for the koala olympics. Check him out. I’d give him a 8.5 for tree dancing.
A highlight of the visit to Phillip Island was our stop by the Moonlit Sanctuary on the Mornington Peninsula, just South of Melbourne. The sanctuary promotes habitat conservation and education about the diversity of animals in the region. The kangaroos and wallabies roaming around were quite a sight to behold, though most of the “kangas” were taking their afternoon siesta when I arrived. One curious kanga was a bit peckish and didn’t seem too bothered that I was the food vendor.
Looking through the trees, it almost looked like a herd of deer lying down, except they weren’t deer.
I made a koala friend as well – he was just up from his nap, enjoying a snack of leaves while about a dozen humanoids gawked nearby. I felt like I was 11. A few shy wallabies were jumping around as well. Ever see a wallaby jump?
There is so much to love about Melbourne, it’s hard to know where to start. Getting around is a breeze. Walking is the easiest option and you can get almost anywhere in the central city or Southbank in 20-30 min.
But if your boots weren’t made for walkin’, then take a tram.
Because it boasts the world’s largest tram system, Melbourne’s slogan could be: Streetcars to Desire.
Unlike most world cities that closed their streetcar systems with the rise of the automobile, the city’s streetcar system have been in continuous service since 1884. There is a free zone around the central business district. In all other areas, you fork over about $4(AUS), payable by Myki card.
St. Kilda is a beachy suburb (on the #16 tramline) that keenly resembles Manhattan Beach in LA, complete with a long pier. If you’re more into nature than trendy bars and restaurants (of which there are multitudes), then walk out to the end of the pier just after sunset and you will be greeted by fairy penguins (or creatively named ‘little penguins’ since they are the smallest type of penguin), coasting out of the ocean into their rock burrows for the night. The penguins are more famous than the local rock stars, so secure your place on the boardwalk early to get a good view.
Modern Melbourne has a well-earned reputation of an artsy city with a proud coffee culture. Large coffee chains are shunned in support of small coffee roasters.
Public art is everywhere in Melbourne – along the boardwalks, on the bridges and up and down the main streets. You don’t have to do anything special to experience it except to open your eyes, ears, and minds.
High art, low art and everything in between is accessible any day of the week. Museums, performance art centers, sanctioned graffiti in alleyways, and street performers (e.g. buskers) are ubiquitous in the central city.
Walking back over the Flinders St. bridge after a satisfying Italian dinner served outside on a famous laneway off Bourke St, I was stopped in my tracks by a bass-playing Easter bunny. If you missed in on FB, check this guy out: Funky Easter Bunny.
Browsing the city’s arcades are the best way to shop in Melbourne. Famous sites like the Royal Arcade and the Block Arcade are the premiere sites for window shopping. When you get a bit peckish, you can always grab a quick bite at a café in a nearby laneway or wander down to one of the main public squares and grab a sandwich.
If you find yourself in the ultra modern Federation Square, sit back and relax in one of the director’s chairs provided or find the spot that gets you five minutes of fame up on the jumbotron.
As luck would have it, our visit to Melbourne corresponded with Melbourne’s Queer Film Festival. We had the privilege of seeing the film Mala Mala, a documentary that profiled nine trans activists in Puerto Rico. The film is a deep dive in the different experiences of each of these individuals, culminating in their collective fight for equal rights in employment and accommodation. One of the most moving scenes shows the Mayor of San Juan standing with the trans community shouting her support for equal rights and chanting alongside the organizers. It’s available now for rent on I-Tunes. Two thumbs up.
Not to be missed are the many gardens of Melbourne. An ariel view of the City would show you great swaths of green. The most famous of these are the Royal Botanic Gardens located across the Yarra River from the central business district. Free admission along with a running track that circles the area, makes the botanical gardens a popular destination any day of the week. At the far end of the garden is the Shrine of Remembrance Anzac Memorial, a tribute to the Australian soldiers who fought and died in WWI.
A beautiful quote is etched into the stone at the entrance of the museum:
Anzac is not merely about loss. It is about courage and endurance, and duty, and love of country, and mateship, and good humor, and the survival of a sense of self-worth and decency in the face of dreadful odds.
Talk Like a Local
You can’t go to Australia without picking up some quintessentially Aussie sayings. Aussie to English translations below.
“How you going?” – How are you doing? What would you like to order?
“No drama.” – The more modern version of “No worries, Mate.”
“Saving for Ron.” – When you’ve some food on your face after eating, you are saving some for later’on.
“Sticky beak” – Having a look into a shop or museum
“Togs” – swim suit
“Rugged up” – One of Rob’s favorites. When you bundle up in layers of outdoor wear, especially for those used to warmer climates.
“Cheeky beer” – going out to a festive and lively spot for a malty beverage
“He did a Howard Holt” – to mysteriously disappear or to break off from a group of friends without telling anyone. Howard Holt was the Prime Minister of Australia who disappeared from Cheviot Beach in 1967. His body was never found. (Maybe he’s with Jimmy Hoffa….)
“She’ll be Right” – Everything will be alright
Even after all of our amazing experiences in and around the city, we will miss our Air B&B hosts, Mark & Mike and their cat, Barney the most. They were wonderful hosts in their gorgeous Manhattan-style apartment in Southbank. Each morning, they had breakfast out with a note from Barney (also a good tour guide for a four-legged friend).
Their view over the city from the 16th floor was spectacular and every morning you could watch hot air balloons rise up above the city’s skyline from their balcony. Basically, they (especially Barney) looked after us for a few days.
Mark & Mike have been together for over 30 years. Mark recently retired from teaching (for 41 years as a music teacher). They were married in New York a few years ago. We were surprised and saddened to learn that same-sex marriage is not legal in Australia. For a seemingly liberal country, Australia still has a way to go. There has been talk of doing a non-binding referendum on the issue. Campaign, anyone?
So that’s Melbourne. Incredible, vibrant, unpretentious Melbourne. She’ll be right.