In no other major city would you start a bike tour by being handed a leaf; so it's with curiosity that I take a gum leaf from tour guide Murray as we straddle our bikes beside Melbourne's majestic Yarra River.
It doesn't matter where I go, I love to ride my bike. There is no better way to get your bearings and feel the atmosphere. So I am excited to explore both Melbourne's CBD and the Great Ocean Road by bike.
Murray Johnson of Real Melbourne Bike Tours is a former journalist. His background has filled him with a knowledge and love of Melbourne that makes him the ideal host for bike tours of the city.
Murray explains that the lemon gum is one of 130 types of Australian gum leaf and that the gift of gum leaves is a traditional Aboriginal greeting. I put the pleasantly pungent leaf in my pocket where it stays throughout my visit to Melbourne, making my fingers smell like lemon every time I reach for my camera.
Melbourne is literally streets ahead of most New Zealand urban centres in making way for cycling. Luck was on their side in 1837 when city designer Robert Hoddle defied the British governor's call for narrow streets and instead built the streets of the "Hoddle Grid" wide enough for a bullock cart to do a U-turn. As Murray and I cycle toward the laneways, we see precious few bullock carts but the wide streets not only mean you can get a good view of the historic buildings but they also leave ample room for cycle ways. Gratifyingly, the city is flush with cycle commuters.
Murray is an encyclopaedia of knowledge and riding through Melbourne's centre with him is like spending a day at the museum. Each beautiful Victorian building has its story and the wealth from the world's biggest gold rush nearby in the 1860s is still visible in sculpted stone. I'm fascinated to learn that Melbourne was originally called Batmania after a trickster called John Batman made a bogus treaty with the locals and named the place after himself. It seems right to remember Batmania as we leave the wide streets for the narrow laneways and cycle along Hosier Lane, the world centre of street art. Stone walls are covered with ever-changing paintings and, until a couple of months ago, there was a beautiful tribute to Heath Ledger's Batman character, painted by another visiting Kiwi, Owen Dippie.
Melbourne's vibe is almost electric. The city embraces cyclists like it embraced immigration, embraces art, coffee and change. There's always something to see everywhere and, to highlight that, the city sponsored an art competition to place art high on the sides of buildings and in trees to encourage people to look above as well as around.
As we ride I take in as much as I can, but there are some things it helps to have a local to find. The saying among bar, cafe and restaurant Melbourne owners is "If you hide it, they will come" and, as we ride through the laneways, Murray shows me anonymous doorways concealing the city's coolest bars and eateries. For our food stop we call into the Southern Hemisphere's largest open air market, Victoria Market.
We finish our tour riding through Fitzroy and along Lygon St's Little Italy. Murray and I straddle our bikes across the road from a restaurant's vintage neon sign, its words "Borsari's corner" and "Ex-Olympic Champion" framing a picture of a man on a bike. The man is Nino Borsari. Standing there, I fall in love with the story of the larger-than-life Italian who, in 1939, was stranded in Melbourne by World War II and went on to become a champion of Italian immigrants. Little Italy crystallised around his bike shop and his personality. It feels right to park our bikes outside the restaurant bearing his name as we step inside for delicious antipasto and local shiraz.
The next day I get a small taste of a different adventure as we drive 90 minutes south to the start of Victoria's Great Ocean Road. This National Heritage-listed route traces 200km of stunning scenery along the Shipwreck Coast from Torquay to Allansford. I'd love to ride it all, as many people do, but there's time only to pull the borrowed bike out of the rental car long enough to get a feel for the road.
The day is wet and windy, and stopping at the coastal vantage points, busloads of tourists look at me bemusedly as I pull up slightly wet on my bike to appreciate the incredible views.
They call this place the Shipwreck Coast because Australia's first visitors had to thread a narrow strait to reach Melbourne and the weather often (638 times!) made this tragically difficult. It seems appropriate that I ride this road in challenging winter weather. The road is beautiful road and even in these conditions I am sad to have to climb back into the car after only a few hours' taking in the stunning limestone formations off the coast and learning about the shipwrecks. I will be back here to ride this road with friends.
When I fly into New Zealand days later I notice only just in time that I still have the lemon gum leaf in my pocket. I'm sure MAF wouldn't have been keen to hear its story or smell its lemony fragrance.
Art & design tour
The number of galleries in Melbourne increases every year, as does the public art. The guides at Hidden Secrets Tours will show you some of the city's creative elements. For two hours discover new installations and artists making their mark on the streetscape.
Visitors can explore the history and creativity hidden in Melbourne's laneways and byways on one of the city's arts walks or tours. Check out work by local and international artists in the City Lights programme, take the Art from the City Circle tram ride, or walk through city streets, laneways and along the Yarra River to experience the city's public artworks.
Melbourne bike share
Melbourne slopes gently to the bay, and you can rent a bike and coast along bike lanes and paths to shops and cafes, or through the Yarra River's parks and gardens. Push your wheels even further to the St Kilda foreshore or on to the beautiful beaches of the peninsula. Jump on a Melbourne Bike Share hire bike from one of the CBD docking stations. Bring a helmet or buy one from a vending machine or 7-Eleven. Return it for a refund when you drop off the bike.
Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum, Great Ocean Road
Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village is a maritime village and museum built around the 1858 State Heritage-listed Warrnambool Lighthouse. It is the ideal starting point to discover the maritime history of the Shipwreck Coast and Great Ocean Road. More than 180 ships have come to grief along the coast, and Flagstaff Hill holds Victoria's largest maritime and shipwreck collection. Its feature piece is the porcelain Loch Ard Peacock, a A$4m relic from the 1878 wreck of Loch Ard. Shipwrecked is a theatrical multi-media and outdoor special effects experience telling the story of the Loch Ard disaster.
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