Ben Lerwill savors the urban delights of Melbourne, one of many Crystal cruise ports on a Australia sailing, before taking time out in the little known Wilsons Promontory National Park.
I’ve been in Melbourne for less than 24 hours, but I’m already learning that one of the city’s greatest dangers is to walk through the Queen Victoria Market while hungry. It’s the biggest open-air market in the southern hemisphere, and sends out wave after wave of serious enticement to anyone on a casual wander – from artisan bread-makers to bratwurst stalls, from doughnut vans to cake shops, from gourmet noodle joints to fresh seafood stands. The choice is almost overwhelming.
As well as providing plenty of mealtime ideas, however, the city’s showpiece market also does a good job at summing up the myriad nationalities that make Melbourne what it is. “They say there are around 140 different cultures represented in the city these days,” says Dave, my guide. “Greeks, Vietnamese, Chinese, Italians – they all play a big part in the story.”It’s not hard to see why travelers rave about Melbourne. It’s a very easy place to love, and for all its multiculturalism it’s a thoroughly Australian city. From the Yarra Valley wines lining the shelves of the bars to the citywide infatuation with Aussie Rules football, this is somewhere very much defined by its location. Sydney and its residents might dispute the fact, but Melbourne has strong claim to being the country’s capital when it comes to art, sport, food and culture.
The city’s dynamic, diverse personality becomes apparent the next day, when Dave leads me on a walk taking us from the open-air public spaces of Federation Square – where a classical orchestra is playing a free set between modernist buildings and fusion restaurants – to the regenerated laneways of the commercial district, where funky bars and independent workshops now occupy what were once storerooms and warehouses. There’s some beautiful period architecture to be seen around the city, but Melbourne itself beats to a decidedly modern drum these days.
When we ride a tram out to the beach suburb of St Kilda, meanwhile, it reveals another face to the city. A palm-lined boardwalk runs alongside the sands, giving great views over the coastline, and its spread of cafes, gardens and seaside stalls feels far removed from the polished towers and high-end hotels of the city center. It’s a natural spot for a lazy sunset dinner, and our meal at Republica Restaurant is a 21st-century twist on a classic – beer-battered Cone Bay barramundi turning good old fish n’ chips into far more than a seafront snack. A glass of local pinot gris seems a fitting accompaniment.The city has a population of more than four million people and fizzes with life. The countryside on its outskirts, however, feels anything but crowded. The following day I set out in a rental-car to make the three-hour drive to Wilsons Promontory National Park. Tourists to Melbourne regularly travel west of the city to the blockbuster spectacle of the Great Ocean Road, but comparatively few head east towards the park affectionately known as the Prom. As one city barman tells me, “We like to see it as our little secret”.
It’s not hard to understand why some locals might want to keep Prom to themselves. The 50,000-hectare reserve represents the southernmost point of mainland Australia, sitting on a handsome peninsula across from Tasmania. It has long empty beaches, curving crescendos of green hills and a prime line-up of classic Aussie wildlife. There are loping grey kangaroos, strutting emus, squawking cockatoos and nervous wallabies. Most entertaining of all, however, are the small, stocky, furry animals that have become synonymous with the park: wombats.
“It’s a funny thing,” says park ranger Dan Jones, the morning after I’ve witnessed numerous wombats waddling around the main campsite, their dumpy legs adding to their general teddy-bear demeanor. “At full pelt, they can actually run very fast – up to 25 miles per hour. That’s the same speed as Usain Bolt! But they very rarely travel that fast. You’re more likely to see them looking huggable. I certainly wouldn’t advise giving them a cuddle though.”
I’m staying in one of the park’s safari-style Wilderness Retreat tents, an indulgent space with a queen-size bed, timber decking and an en-suite bathroom. It’s elevated above the ground on short stilts (raising it out of wombat territory) although its best asset is the fact that when I put my head on the pillow at night, there’s no noise other than the whir of the ceiling fan and the insect-trill of the bushland. It makes Melbourne suddenly seem a long way away.The park itself is an excellent place for day-hikes, full of eucalyptus-filled gullies, broad shady valleys and soft walking trails. When I step into the dense area of forest known – rather wonderfully – as Lilly Pilly Gully, the woods are suddenly alive with butterflies, and crimson rosellas fly through the tree canopies overhead. By contrast, when I reach the wide-open beach of Oberon Bay, there’s nothing in front of me except green hills, white sands and blue sea.
So much of Australia’s appeal as a vacation spot is down to the fact it gives you genuine variety. Here in the state of Victoria, as elsewhere in the country, travelers can immerse themselves in a big city then strap on their boots and head for the great outdoors. Forty-eight hours ago I was watching a section of central Melbourne busily preparing itself for the annual arrival of the Formula One Grand Prix race, now here I am wondering if I’ve ever previously had a beach this large to myself.
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