Our itinerary and destination were largely dictated by our frequent flyer miles and hotel points (which I have been hoarding for 10 years!). Somehow I was able to score four round-trip direct flights, on Singapore Airlines, into Melbourne and out of Sydney during the Christmas holidays using mileage points. It wasn’t easy — my new job in Singapore is travel planning. Once we had our flights, we filled in the rest with four days in Melbourne, a week in Tasmania, and four days in Sydney.
As much as we like Singapore and appreciate being in Southeast Asia, being in Australia was the closest we’ve come to feel at “home” in a while — if home were 75 degrees at Christmastime. Melbourne is an amazing, diverse, beautiful city with an embarrassment of riches. Well-preserved architecture? Lively modern art scene? World-class restaurants? Stunning waterfront? Check, check and check!
The first thing you notice about Melbourne is that they are serious about coffee — well, that’s the first thing we notice in the mornings anyway. If you like your coffee in massive quantities, it is difficult and expensive to get your fix here because it is an all-espresso town. You either get instant, or you get espresso — the closest you can come to drip coffee is a “long black” at $4 a cup, no refills. Ouch.
The second thing you notice, especially if you are there on Boxing Day as we were, is that Melbourne is crazy about cricket. The Melbourne Cricket Grounds were in full swing, where two teams played something that looks like baseball but is not baseball. We keep asking Australians to explain cricket to us but still don’t get it. If the explanation takes longer than it takes to drink a beer, Americans are out.
Our first day in Melbourne we did a city tour on one of those double-decker buses, and we were actually COLD for the first time in months! (Being cold from air conditioning does not count). The temperature was in the 60s with no humidity, and it was glorious. The sun was shining and we thoroughly enjoyed a beautiful Milwaukee-ish summer day, albeit in December. We were outside for more than an hour, and did not sweat! Imagine!
Melbourne has a bike-share program, so after touring the city we rented bikes and rode into the Italian section of town for pizza. This sounds easy. Actually, it took about 45 minutes to get four bikes out of a bike rack. Think codes that don’t work, flat tires, credit cards not accepted, bike-riding tutorials, and maps-not-to-scale, all mixed up with a healthy dose of end-of-the-day whining. Fortunately, eventually, we did manage to find some pizza. And Australian wine!
Melbourne is an incredibly, surprisingly diverse city, with residents from just about every corner of the globe. However, living in Asia meant we largely skipped the Chinatowns and noodle shops. Bring on the pizza, burgers, and fries!
On Phillips Island, hundreds of “little penguins” (yes, this IS the name of the penguin) come ashore every day at dusk to sleep on land. It is so massively popular that they have bleachers set up to watch the penguins and you must have tickets. The penguins are adorable, only about a foot tall, and they waddle on shore in search of a nest. Over the holiday it was massively crowded, with people from all over the world watching the little guys. It is amazing the penguins come ashore at all given the crowds, but the area has been managed enough to encourage the penguin colony to grow, even in the glare of the paparazzi. No photos are allowed, so click on the link above for pictures of the penguins.
The next day we had a full-day tour of Phillps Island, about two hours outside of Melbourne (three hours with holiday traffic). We stopped at a local wildlife center and fed some wallabies, visited a koala refuge and saw some cute koalas in trees, and finally the famous penguin parade.
Driving the Great Ocean Road
Melbourne is such a gorgeous city it seems unnecessary to leave, but we wanted to drive the Great Ocean Road and meet up with some friends. The Great Ocean Road is Australia’s Pacific Coast Highway, an amazingly scenic road along cliffs and beaches. We had a glorious day, sunny with no humidity and rented a car to do the drive. Our goal was to meet up with some Australian friends we had met in Thailand at a place called Wye River.
Unfortunately, thousands of other people had the same idea that we did. The Great Ocean Road is a two-lane road, so we found ourselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours. It was so bad that a drive that was supposed to take 2.5 hours took 4, and we never even made it to Wye River. We stopped in a town called Lorne where we found a trampoline park, took a dip in the ocean, and enjoyed an Aussie beach for a few hours before returning to Melbourne.
A note about driving in Australia – they drive on the “other” side, just as they do in Singapore, but we do not have a car. A friend took me driving before we left to get used to being on the opposite side of the road, but despite this, I still managed to back up into another car. To be fair it was not entirely my fault, but once I hit another car, driving was a piece of cake!
On our final half-day in Melbourne we were all pretty tired from the long drive, so we took the morning off from touring and did a little retail therapy – in Target! Yes, Australia has Target! Singapore does not. To be honest, Australia Target is not as nice as US Target, but it was comforting to be surrounded by familiar things that don’t cost an arm and a leg.
Though we were disappointed not to meet up with our Australian friends, Melbourne was a city not to be missed. Some combination of its urban charm, beautiful waterfront and architecture, world-class coffee and restaurants, won us over from the get-go. Our weather was spectacular, only raining on the day we left, so after hitting Target and riding a Melbourne streetcar, we left for the airport in the rain for Tasmania.
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