Melbourne: Off the beaten track

By Rose Garratt

Melbourne has long been known as the cultural heart of Australia, but spend a bit of time in the laneways and some of the fabulous shops and you get to appreciate another side of this city.

People enjoy drinks at the Rooftop Bar & Cinema at Curtin House, Melbourne. Photo / Supplied
People enjoy drinks at the Rooftop Bar & Cinema at Curtin House, Melbourne. Photo / Supplied

There is always something waiting around the corner for you in Melbourne: an alley covered in street art, a fabulous cafe or an interesting character ready for a chat.

Emerging from art deco Cathedral Arcade, which connects Flinders Lane with Swanston St, I came face to face with a man on an electric scooter and one helluva sound system. A sign on the front of his mobility chair declared him to be a "visually impaired travelling busker". You meet all sorts in this city.

If you find yourself in Fitzroy, stop in at Smart Alec, a men's hatter and spend some time with owner Michael Albert. I'm sure he's never met a head he couldn't fit with a hat and if you want to be on-trend with the latest in headgear, Michael is your man. If covering your pate is not top of your list, he also stocks quirky cufflinks that will add a touch of pizazz to the most boring of business attire. Michael is engaging, fun and pretty full-on. Once you get him talking, plan to be in Smart Alec for a while. Luckily, there are not many other places I would rather be than this cheerful shop.

Even if you leave without buying something, make sure you pick up one of Smart Alec's postcards: there are five in the series, featuring how-to guides from tying a bow-tie to folding a handkerchief so it peeks fashionably from the top of a suit pocket.

A few doors up from Smart Alec is womenswear store Queen. The shop girls are not there just to take your money - these women really know their stuff and are happy to spend time finding you the perfect pair of work trousers or the best top to suit your style. Queen is the label of local designer Christine Boyle; the clothes are made in Australia and ethically manufactured.

Gertrude St in Fitzroy is a great place to spend an afternoon, but if you're on a budget, keep your credit card firmly in your wallet. Queen is just the start of the fashionable Fitzroy precinct. I spent a fortune on a dress by local designers Preap & Coutts, was tempted by the eclectic mix of wares at Third Drawer Down, and coveted the industrial furniture, vintage maps and signage at Industria, which is something of an institution in Gertrude St. And when you need some sustenance, stop in at Sonido! South American Cafe. It has the most amazing hot chocolate, although the Chocolate Con Queso - hot chocolate with cheese - seemed a step too far.

Back in the CBD, head to Somerset Pl, one of the inner city's many laneways and enter the first door on the left. Walking up the rickety stairs to get to Captains of Industry is like climbing a stairway to the past. On the second floor, you'll find a charming space where old sewing tables have been converted into dining tables. Around the perimeter of the main room you'll find a tailor, a barber and a shoemaker, the "captains" who share the space.

As I tucked into my deliciously herby scrambled eggs on toast, a local came in for a haircut at the barber, where you can also get an old-fashioned shave with a cutthroat razor. There is not much demand for this at present, as men in Melbourne seem to be going through a phase with facial hair - every second server at a cafe looks like Ned Kelly. They're not wearing metal buckets on their heads but they have pioneer-style beards and their hair is parted at the side.

They all start to look the same. The barista at Captains of Industry was a dead ringer for the Kiwi barista at Truffula Seed, minus the tats on his arm, or he could have been the server at Manchester Press. The latter has the finest in Melbourne coffee art: if you want a pirate on your latte, then this is the place to come.

I'm no stickler for time, but when I say I'll meet someone at 10am, I generally try to be there by 10.30. I met my match in Matt Hurst of the Humble Vintage Bike Hire company. To be fair, Matt doesn't usually act as tour guide, preferring to let people find their own way with one of his rental bikes and a copy of his book, The Casual Cyclist's Guide. But arriving at 1.30pm seemed a little extreme.

Still, we eventually met in Richmond for a gentle ride along the banks of the Yarra River to Abbotsford Convent. Matt is a hard person to be upset with. He's engaging, sweet and a very good tour guide, although I did make my own checks before following him through intersections and traffic lights.

The Abbotsford Convent is 4km from the city centre. The former Convent of the Good Shepherd is now a community arts, culture and learning precinct. The sheer scale of the place and the architecture of the buildings on the site is breathtaking. The website saysa it is "the most important Catholic institutional complex constructed in Victoria". The Sisters of the Good Shepherd were custodians of this land from 1863 to 1975. The Collingwood Children's Farm continues the farming tradition and is reputed to be the oldest freehold farmland in Victoria.

But the real point of coming here, after visiting the monthly Farmers' Market or doing the Sunday guided tour, was to make my way to Handsome Steve's House of Refreshment. Steve Miller had a dream of opening a, old-school bar and an ex-convent may have seemed a strange setting, but his House of Refreshment was an unpretentious place to grab a beer, a snack and enjoy the view from the balcony while sitting on benches painted in the navy-blue and white of Geelong's AFL team (Melbourne is the heart of Australian Rules Football country and Handsome Steve's is Geelong territory). Unfortunately, since my visit, Handsome Steve has been turfed out of the convent (something about not paying rent), but you can wet your whistle at the Boiler Room, which serves award-winning beers from microbreweries such as Little Creatures, Three Raven and Grand Ridge. After a bike ride, there's not much that beats a cold one.

For something a bit stronger, Melbourne is home to fantastic cocktails, so if you are looking for a perfect finish to a busy day in the city, head to the Rooftop Bar in Swanston St. If you're visiting in summer, you might catch a film at the Rooftop Cinema.

Before heading to the airport, I saw the travelling busker again. This time he was stationary and in no danger of running over any unsuspecting tourists, playing hip-hop beats while parked on the corner outside Myers.

Melbourne
If you go:
The Truffula Seed: Sustainable espresso bar which uses ethically sourced beans. The end result tastes good too. Shell House, 1 Spring St, Melbourne. Online

Captains of Industry: Described as a modern day men's club, but women are welcome to come in for meals too. A barber, a tailor and a shoemaker share the premises. Great food. Level 1, 2 Somerset Pl, Melbourne. Online

Manchester Press: Great coffee art and tasty bagels. 8 Rankins Lane, Melbourne

Humble Vintage Bike Hire company: Unique bikes available for hire at cafes around the city. Online. Buy the Casual Cyclist's Guide for A$20.

Abbotsford Convent: 1 St Heliers St, Abbotsford. Online

Smart Alec: A quirky men's hatters. Well worth a visit. 71 Smith St, Fitzroy. Online

Queen: Clothing by Melbourne designer Christine Boyle, with some great shop girls. 77 Smith St, Fitzroy. Online

Industria: Industrial, commercial, medical furniture objects, lamps and fittings. 202 Gertrude St, Fitzroy. Online

Third Drawer Down: Art and designer products. You're sure to find something to buy here. 93 George St, Fitzroy. Online

Rooftop bar and cinema: Level 7/252 Swanston Street, Melbourne. Online


* Rose Garratt travelled to Melbourne courtesy of Tourism Victoria.


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