Melbourne: Myriad marvels

By Michael Burgess

When the sun's out, Melbourne's all about action, says Michael Burgess.

St Kilda beach is only a 10-minute tram ride from the central city. Photo / Tourism Australia
St Kilda beach is only a 10-minute tram ride from the central city. Photo / Tourism Australia

If Sydney is spectacular then Melbourne is marvellous. And though the city has become famed for its winter programme of arts, music and exhibitions it's just as action-packed in summer and early autumn, as sports and outdoor activities keep visitors busy.

Tennis

If you spent January tied to your telly watching the Australian Tennis Open, arguably Melbourne's biggest summer sporting event, and decided you wanted to be there in person next year, start planning now.

Open tickets generally go on sale in September or October but you'll also need to get your airfares and accommodation sorted early if you're booking yourself rather than buying a travel agent package deal.

A daily ground pass (about NZ$38 a day or $131 for five days) is great value. There are more than 20 outside courts at the facility and you can stumble upon a top match-up.

It is a thrill to see the superstars of the sport at close quarters just walking by or in training.

Practice sessions involving Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal can attract hundreds of spectators.

Aside from watching tennis and mingling with fans from throughout the world, there is plenty of entertainment. An interactive fan zone and "autograph island" will keep the kids amused in Garden Square, where you can also relax in the sun with a glass of wine and watch all the tennis action on a huge screen.

The Grand Slam Oval is a bonus. Across 11,000sq m there is a range of sponsors' booths with fun activities and product samples, as well as wine bars and a Heineken Hotel. The main stage offers a variety of entertainment, with top Australian bands playing daily.

The city also offers free tram travel for tennis ticketholders and patrons can bring their own food and drink and enjoy a picnic on one of the many green areas of the stadium.

Melbourne Cricket Ground and Flemington Racecourse

These are two of the sporting meccas of the Southern Hemisphere and a must on your itinerary. MCG tours are conducted by volunteer guides who are all lifelong members, with a huge amount of expert knowledge. Apart from going into the dressing room and taking the batsman's walk down the steps and through the white picket fence, you learn all about the ground's fascinating multifaceted history. There are surprises, too - like the toilets in the exclusive members lounge, which have one-way glass enabling patrons to keep up with the match action.

As well as the MCG, Melbourne Sports Tours offer a half-day package which includes visits to the 2006 Commonwealth Games village, a drive on the F1 Grand Prix circuit at Albert Park and Flemington Racecourse, where you can stand at the Melbourne Cup finishing post.

The relaxed but thorough and informative Flemington tour also takes you behind the scenes. Did you know, for example, that the course is home to 12,000 roses and that there is a garden in honour of Princess Diana?

Eureka Sky deck

Think Sky Tower. Then go higher. The main Eureka viewing platform sits at 285m (Sky Tower's viewing level is 186m). The Edge experience where you are suspended 3m out in a glass cube is a thrill to impress even the most seasoned tourist. Great family fun as well.

National Sports Museum

This is another sport lover's paradise, also located at the MCG. Cricket fans will love the large hall devoted to the history of the baggy green, while a Shane Warne hologram video is mesmerising and a little weird. There is a bat signed by Bert Sutcliffe and a ball used by Sir Richard Hadlee. The new racing exhibition is the most extensive in the Southern Hemisphere and has some interesting touches, like the skeleton of 1890 Melbourne Cup winner Carbine alongside the preserved heart of 1969 champion Tulloch.

Netball, rugby, league and football all feature while the section devoted to the Olympics is particularly impressive with torches on display from every Games since 1896.

Queen Victoria Night Markets

Held every Wednesday from November to March, these markets attract thousands of locals and visitors and have to be seen to be believed.

The historic site has housed day markets since 1841, with the night market a more recent endeavour. There are more than 200 stalls selling arts, crafts and anything a little different. There are also a dozen bars and boutique wineries, and two live stages add to the great atmosphere.

There's plenty of fun for foodies here, too. Banjo's BBQ serves up game meats, including crocodile, while the Dutch pancakes attract a huge crowd.

The paella and sangria stalls do a roaring trade, and don't leave without trying an espresso martini.

Rooftop bars and fine dining

One of the reasons for Melbourne frequently being compared with European cities is the life on the streets; the cafes, the restaurants and the bars.

A new, popular trend is rooftop bars, with many emerging on the tops of otherwise nondescript buildings in the past couple of years. Some are hard to find, but knowledgeable locals are happy to point you in the right direction.

Siglo is a particular favourite. There's a steady weekday crowd and it is quite something to sit in the balmy open air and look out over the labyrinth of city streets and lanes.

Melbourne is arguably the food capital of Australia as the melting pot of cultures expresses itself in the vast array of dining options.

Fierce competition keeps quality high and prices down and the selection seems endless: "Mate, you won't get a dud feed anywhere, nor pay top dollar" was one guide's succinct summary.

The European is one of many delectable options - the Moreton Bay bugs are memorable while the salty caramel and sour cream icecream makes a surprisingly good combination.

St Kilda

An easy 10-minute tram ride from the city centre takes you to the Bohemian area of St Kilda.

Nestled beside a sprawling beach it offers great shopping at the Sunday market (particularly clothing, arts and crafts) while Acland St has the widest and best selection of bakeries in the known universe.

The beach promenade allows for an inviting stroll and the easy tides make it a family-friendly environment for a swim.

* For more events and activities in Melbourne try visitvictoria.com.au.

Michael Burgess travelled with assistance from Tourism Victoria.


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