Travel: Feast of dreams in Melbourne

By Jane Caple


We arrive at our hotel, the five-star Sofitel Melbourne on Collins, right at the top of leafy Collins St, and can't help admiring the flower-and feather-festooned horse heads dotted around the lobby.

Even better is the view from our room up high with Melbourne stretched out below us, with its parks, old buildings and grid of streets. Thankfully, nearly everything we've planned to eat, see and do is within a short walk or tram ride.

FASHIONISTAS & FILLIES


The central city is a virtual ghost town on the morning of Melbourne Cup day - it's a public holiday. No-one bats an eyelid as women in full makeup and fascinators eat breakfast. We receive a warm greeting and hot coffee from HeliServe - the only helicopter company allowed to fly into Flemington raceway.

We are treated to a bird's-eye view: snaking motorways, the Dandenong ranges, and the coast.

It's the only way to arrive at Flemington - a great move considering the crowd this year topped 105,000.

One of the biggest surprises is how pretty the racecourse is - surrounded by roses and pansies - a minor miracle a local tells us given that the previous week there had been a storm then two days when the mercury hit 35C. We can feel the tension mount as the clock ticks down to the race that stops the nation.

EATING & DRINKING


Good food and drink is abundant and Melburnians have understandably high epicurean expectations. Visitors are rarely disappointed. We grab an early coffee at Cumulus Inc, nearby. It oozes chic. Most importantly, the coffee is fresh, hot, tastes great and is reasonably priced at A$3.50 ($4.40). Led by our stomachs, we devote an entire day to exploring the Yarra Valley nearby. Only 45 minutes from the city, it feels like the Yarra is to Melbourne what Wairarapa is to Wellington, with green rolling hills, vineyards, boutiques and has a weekend feeling.

We stop for hand-made chocolate at Kennedy & Wilson Chocolates in Healesville followed by beer tastings at the White Rabbit Brewery.

We love the clink of the bottling line on one side and open fermentation tanks on the other.

Our host positively exudes his passion for craft brewing - well worth a weekend trip when these ever-changing beers are put on tap.

Next, we stop for lunch at the Rochford Winery, but are whisked away on a Segway tour with a group of Brazilian tourists. It's great fun sailing around the vines. Rochford also hosts a monthly farmers' market and concerts, with Hoodoo Gurus, Simple Minds and Elvis Costello already confirmed for the next season.

Just down the road is the Yarra Valley Dairy. Inside is small, but perfectly formed, with the cheese counter, a small deli, sweet treats - including caneles, small French pastries with custardy centres and a caramelised crust - and a wine-tasting corner which stocks boutique local wines not found at other cellar doors. They also produce glorious soft cheeses and it's easy to see why some of Melbourne's top restaurateurs shop here.

There's just time for high tea at the historic five-star Chateau Yering before we return to the city. Set on 101ha and surrounded by heritage-listed gardens, it's the perfect end to a perfect foodie day.

One of our best finds is Miss Chu, known as the queen of rice-paper rolls. We're hustled in and mark our selections on the checksheet on our table: sashimi tuna rice-paper rolls to share and a chilli prawn Vietnamese warm vermicelli spring roll salad washed down with young coconut juice. The food is fast, fresh and reasonably priced - with no dish over A$15.

To round off our gastronomic exploits we dine at George Calombaris's restaurant, The Press Club, to experience modern Greek cuisine. George is known here as a judge on Australia's Masterchef. We ooh and ahh through a nine-course degustation menu, accompanied by the Victorian Bird on a Wire chardonnay we'd spied at the Yarra Valley Dairy. Our final dish is a dessert called Zeus & his 8 mistresses that contains nine types of chocolate and is almost too beautiful to eat. As George once said, "Good food is not just about the flavour and the taste, it's about the experience," and The Press Club has that in buckets.

SHOPPING & GALLERIES


Like many New Zealanders, we make a beeline for that mecca of cheap and cheerful Scandinavian chic - Ikea. The Richmond store is a short tram ride from the CBD through Little Vietnam.

We're also within walking distance of Bourke Street Mall - one of Melbourne's main shopping areas.

We go into a mini-frenzy in Spanish clothing retail giant Zara. Melbourne also houses Gap and TopShop and whispers around town are that H&M; and Uniqlo are also looking to open stores.

However, we stumble upon shopping treasures almost accidentally. We stock up on quirky Christmas gifts at art and design gift shop Monster Threads and covet the folksy-cute fox handbags in Chi-Chi Leonard St.

We only have time for a quick visit to ACMI, or the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, which celebrates film, television and digital media.

In central Federation Square, entry is free and it's fun for all. You can film a time slice clip of yourself Matrix-style (and email it to yourself).

TIME TO UNWIND


After such an action-packed week, we spend the last day unwinding.

We start by taking the tram out to St Kilda to swim laps at the Moorish-style, historic St Kilda sea baths which are surprisingly uncrowded given its prime seafront location.

After eating and drinking our way around Melbourne, it feels lovely to be in the warm seawater.

Back in the city we arrive at East Day Spa for our 135-minute Sakura package that includes a 60-minute Balinese massage and Elemis oxygen skin calm facial. It's a great way to end our trip: buffed, polished and gently kneaded into total relaxation. We float out of the spa feeling 10 years younger.

Melbourne - you wooed us and won us over with your cosmopolitan, but laidback style. A truly modern great city, we've loved it so.

Jane Caple visited Melbourne with the assistance of Victoria Racing Club and Tourism Victoria.

- Hamilton News

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