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Touring Australia's quiet, cultured answer to San Francisco

Both Sydney and Melbourne are on Australia's fast track. But the latter, Victoria's capital, seems to offer a more gracious route even for the hurried visitor. In fact, Aussies tell you that they are all happy to give directions to visitors. But in Melbourne, it is added with a twinkle, they will tell you where to go -- nicely.

For an American tourist with a limited timetable in Australia, the city of Sydney -- fast-moving, slick, youth-oriented, and fiercely competitive -- may present something of a culture shock, especially if one arrives via the slower-paced regions of New Zealand, as we did.

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But in Melbourne, one finds quiet dignity. Sedate charm. The ``real'' Australia -- an area of parklands and penguins, rich in both modern culture and Victorian history.

There's something a little bit special about Melbourne, although it's hard to pinpoint. It has an aroma of nicety -- from its gardens to its galleries. Part of it is the lush foliage that carpets the city -- the kind of greenery seen in Fitzroy Gardens, which provides the setting for Capt. James Cook's historic cottage. The latter was built in England in the mid-1700s and was brought to Melbourne in 1834 to commemorate the city's first centennial. This tiny, memorabilia-filled cottage is surrounded by v ividly colored roses, red and black currant bushes, and a hawthorn hedge.

There is an array of cultural attractions perhaps unequaled in this part of the world -- ranging from comedy and classic theater to ballet and symphony. Outdoor concerts -- free to the public -- run from November to April (summer and fall ``down under'') at the Sidney Meyer Music Bowl. Other free musical entertainment fills the air at municipal gardens and squares during these warmer months.

Melbourne is a city of parks, which grace its urban heart but also fan out into the suburbs. We were particularly impressed by the gentle beauty and order of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Among famous personalities who are said to have helped plant its glades were Prince Albert, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the Duke of Edinburgh. A plaque on a gum tree identifies the spot where Melbournians proclaimed their separation from New South Wales in 1851.

Downtown Melbourne reminds some Americans of San Francisco. Trams and trolleys dart through it. The bustle of large stores, shopping malls, and posh boutiques pervades it. The Myer Department Store boasts that it is the largest clothing establishment of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.

Apparel is fashionable, but it can be expensive. We had loaded up on woolens in New Zealand (where the exchange rate with United States dollars was excellent) and found moderately priced opals off the main street in Sydney, so we did more window-shopping than buying in Melbourne. But our traveling companions found good buys in children's clothing and bought some small art objects.

Most of Melbourne's stores are open Monday through Thursday from 9 to 5, and some to 9 p.m. on Friday. Saturday shoppers should be forewarned that most commercial doors are locked at noon.

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Close to the ``Golden Mile'' downtown shopping mecca is the Victoria Market, a century-old outdoor emporium of fruits, vegetables, cheese, clothing, toys, and flowers.

Melbourne's suburbs and outlying areas beckon visitors with a host of mountain retreats and national parks. Coach tours and electric trains connect travelers in an hour or two with wildlife sanctuaries, resort and mining towns, and even ``Puffing Billy,'' an antique steam train ride.

Ferntress Gully National Park provides a lush wildlife preserve for wallabies, platypuses, echidnae, and lyrebirds. Sir Colin MacKenzie Wildlife Sanctuary (also known as Healesville Sanctuary) features koalas, kangaroos, and wombats. The latter can best be reached in a half-day coach trip from Melbourne.

A favorite evening activity is a trip to Phillip Island, about 90 miles south of the city, to view the unique Fairy Penguin Parade. As the sun sinks below the water and dusk sets in, onlookers are entertained by the phenomenon of hundreds of these tuxedoed flightless birds waddling and squawking their way to their burrows. A two-hour drive by car or nightly booked coach tour (about eight hours altogether, including dinner and a visit to the fairy penguin rookeries during the nesting season, October thr ough April) takes one to this land of nocturnal strutters.

Our stay in Melbourne was significantly enhanced by the excellent accommodations at the Melbourne Regency. This was by far the most beautiful hotel we encountered on a month's trip to Australia and New Zealand. The rooms were large and airy. Service was immediate. And my wife was particularly delighted by the ``little extras'' in the rooms -- a hair dryer, bathrobes, and even a large umbrella. This is by no means common in similarly priced accommodations. And the breakfast buffet -- which included a va riety of lush fresh fruit, cold meat, fish, and cheeses -- was also out of the ordinary.

Melbourne is easily accessible by air, rail, sea, or bus. Travelers from North America can choose Qantas, Continental, Air New Zealand, and Pam Am flights to Tullamarine Airport, which is 14 miles from downtown Melbourne by bus or taxi. Cab fares are set by distance, and tariffs vary only with the time of day.

Melbourne's year-round temperatures are moderate -- with advertised highs of about 80 degrees F. in the summer heat of January and February and 60 degrees F. during the coldest period of July. But rainfall is abundant. And that hotel-provided umbrella came in handy.

For further information about travel to Melbourne contact the Victorian Tourism Commission, 3550 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 1736, Los Angeles, Calif. 90010. Phone: (213) 387-3111.

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