Secreted around every Melbourne corner is a hip and happening surprise, finds Sam Boyer.
It seemed everyone knew how cool Melbourne was, except me. Colleagues would talk about the amazing fashion and shopping scene; on radio and in magazines, discussion raved about Melbourne's "culture".
My friends who live there, just a four-hour flight away, have called me an idiot for not heading over for a long weekend. But in the true transtasman, little-brother way, I ignored them.
What could Melbourne do that we don't do just as well? Or better?
Well, rather a lot.
The cultural aspects of the city are wonderful. Les Miserables was on, there was a Pixar exhibition in one gallery and of the Italian masters in another. The shops were crowded. There were even queues to get into clothing chain store H&M.
But it was the dining and drinking scene that sealed the city's "cool" for me.
Melbourne is a proper big city, with big-city bars and restaurants offering so much that's different to (and in most cases better than) what we've got going on our fair shores.
Fine dining, hidden speakeasies and multi-storey bars all share the affection of the Melbourne public's passion for high-level food and drink. Bars down alleyways, underground dining, restored architecture and hidden entrances - going out in Melbourne seems exotic.
It's not your classic strip of cliche, bouncered nightclubs. The cool joints are dotted everywhere; you have to seek them out.
"Go up the street until you find a grey door. There's no sign. There's a doorbell. It's on the right."
So went the instructions for finding Japanese cocktail bar Hihou on Flinders Lane.
"You'll find it," we were assured.
And eventually, after trying a few other sign-less grey doors, we did find Hihou.
A minute after ringing the bell, a Japanese waitress opened the door, gave us a once-over and told us to follow her upstairs.
We sampled their cocktails - of particular note was their take on a Negroni, bitter with Japanese spirits and a squash ball-sized ice ball - before moving on.
There was more to see. But where else?
"Okay, walk along and look down the laneways. At the end of one of them is an old-fashioned lamp. That's the entrance to Eau De Vie." Right.
The alleys, or laneways as Melbournians call them, are delightful cobblestone numbers speckled throughout the inner-city. Going for a wander, you can't help but get lost among them. But it doesn't matter, because there are so many great places to stumble across. Lots of brick and concrete, very few doors or windows, lots of posters and advertisements. They're labyrinthine and fun - it's an adventure.
Eau de Vie, which we somehow located easily, was stylish, polished and hip. It felt Prohibition-era, with its dark timber and waitstaff decked impeccably in ties, waistcoats and suspenders.
I asked for a cocktail of their recommendation. They gave me a delicious espresso martini, finished at the table with liquid nitrogen poured over the whipped cream, freezing it like a dollop of icecream. An interesting touch.
The waitress did her best to flirt us into staying for another drink but we had more to explore. We stumbled upon Goldilocks, a rooftop bar you find by venturing through the lobby of an unassuming Asian restaurant and taking the lift up. It probably isn't Melbourne's best joint but it's exciting - we took a punt and found somewhere new. And that sort of sums up Melbourne.
It wasn't just the alcohol getting the blood pumping over my long weekend there, though. The food! You're a mug if you can't find restaurant after restaurant to blow you away.
We set out for dinner at Chin Chin, a hugely popular Southeast Asian-themed restaurant in Flinders Lane. Modelled on Asian hawker dining halls, the place was noisy and packed. Small tables of twos and fours jostled for room in the hall, while the chefs could be seen hurrying about in the open kitchen.
Chin Chin, the menu explained, is "all about sharing and enjoying the experience".
We did that, sampling our way through the menu over a bottle of local red.
It was a minor revelation to leave a restaurant at 11.30pm with the place still two-thirds full with diners.
But Melbourne wasn't nearly done impressing me. We lunched at Saint Crispin, on the burgeoning Smith St - with a half-broken, half-gentrified vibe akin to Kingsland in Auckland or Petone's Jackson St in Wellington - which co-owner and co-executive chef Scott Pickett described as "the grungier, poorer ... drug-addicted sister" of the very hipster Brunswick St nearby. The four-course, wine-matched meal bordered on perfect.
We also enjoyed fine dining at Brooks on Collins St; we queued for and devoured tapas at the ultra-popular Movida down Hosier Lane; the quaint family-run espresso and pasta bar Pellegrini's was a homely delight.
Melbourne is a food and drink mecca. Hell, even the hotel was desserts- and sweets-themed. The Adelphi Hotel, in the city centre, smelled like candy, had seats shaped like liquorice allsorts and restocked your candy mini-bar each day.
Try as you might, your stomach just can't miss in Melbourne.
It turns out my friends were right: I was an idiot for not making the trip sooner.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Melbourne from Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown. Four in-flight economy choices include Seat; Seat & Bag; the Works and the Works Deluxe. Business class is available from Auckland. Connections are available from Air NZ's other domestic ports and with partner airline Virgin Australia on non-stop flights from Dunedin.
Further information: See visitvictoria.com.
The writer travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand and Tourism Victoria.