A girls' weekend away in Melbourne's vibrant CBD turns into a riot of food, fun and sightseeing, writes Sharon Stephenson.
A reunion of three women who haven't seen each other for 10 years was never going to be a quiet affair.
We met in London; colleagues, travel companions and, at one stage, flatmates. Later came husbands, real estate, divorce and babies. There were moves across the globe and glass ceilings to bump our heads against. Somehow, a decade disappeared.
We are badly in need of a catch-up, but the dilemma is where to meet: the Brit now lives in Singapore, the Aussie has returned to Sydney and I'm in Wellington.
We settle on Melbourne, reasoning it won't gobble up too many air miles, has ample watering holes and at least two of us haven't been there for years. We are ready for the city to wow us.
By the time I get to its CBD, I'm questioning our decision: the cab driver spends the entire journey banging the xenophobic drum for "layabout Kiwis who should be rounded up and sent home", while the Brit is told to "take her poncey accent home". Nor do they unfurl the welcome mat at our Flinders Lane hotel, where the surly girl at reception is too busy getting divorced over the phone to check us in.
Still, we get our revenge at Mamasita, a delicious Mexican restaurant in Collins St, where our decibel levels rise to dangerous levels.
We've got only two nights so we stick to the script: eating, drinking, shopping and wandering. Fortunately, Melbourne delivers all these in spades, so we start Saturday at Federation Square (or "Fed Square" as the grumpy receptionist calls it) scoffing delicious pastries and drinking coffee that I begrudgingly admit is as good as anything I've had at home.
We've heard a lot about the city's revamped laneways that began life as rear access to properties facing big streets. Many were later roofed as "arcades", But then some bright spark realised they could be legitimate destinations in their own right and in moved the boutiques, eateries and graffiti artists.
We wander into Degraves St where William Degraves' steam flour-mill pumped away in the 1850s. These days the flour has been replaced by flash espresso machines.
People-watching comes with an an excess of eye-candy: this is where the city's beautiful people play. We get filthy looks from impossibly tall teenagers for daring to eat fat slabs of cheesecake. In your eye, models!
Melbourne operates on two levels - grunge or luxury, new or vintage. We jump on a tram and head to St Kilda to check out some of the city's best antique and retro shops. At Tarlo and Graham in Chapel St, we swoon over old film lights, medical posters and museum display cases. The Junk Company swallows another hour while at the adorable Empire Vintage, a woman with a 60s beehive convinces me to spend far too much on a vintage hat mould.
Hopped up on caffeine and shopping, we join what seems like half of Melbourne on a run along the Yarra River. Between admiring the skyline and stopping to pat dogs, it isn't the most energetic workout, but it's one of the most scenic.
Melbourne is no slouch when it comes to hedonism, so we put on our party pants for our last night and head out. A friend tells us Gasolina on the South Wharf Promenade has some of the city's best pizza, and he's not wrong.
You can't visit Melbourne without dipping into its nightlife so we do, first at the excellent Rum Diary Bar, where I almost expect Johnny Depp to appear, and later at Lily Blacks where, surprisingly, we're not made to feel like someone's mother. Or cougars.
Ah, Melbourne, you shocked and surprised us, and not always in a good way. But, ultimately, you delivered a stonking great weekend, and for that we are grateful.
Melbourne Cup Carnival
It's one of the biggest events in Victoria's busy sporting calendar, and the Melbourne Cup Carnival has a special day set aside for the ladies to dazzle.
On Crown Oaks Day, women shine in elegant creations _ femininity is the core theme of the day. A pink rose graces many a gentleman's lapel on the day, which features the final of Fashion on the Field, Australia's largest outdoor fashion event.
Like much of the Melbourne Cup Carnival, the day is as much about social activities as catching a horse race.
Cafe culture walk
A morning walk with Hidden Secrets Tours allows a taste of the coffee this city talks so fondly of.
Learn about innovative licensing laws, early immigration movements and the laneways that have fostered a loyal cafe culture, with nooks and crannies you'd often pass by.
Witness Melbourne's entrepreneurial spirit, from the days of coffee palaces, market gardens, in-house roasters and the origin of the city's cafe culture. And the food is delectable. Macarons and little tastes before a cafe lunch to finish, and chat about where else to explore.
Tap into Melbourne's eclectic spirit with a night out exploring the nightspots peppering the city's streets and laneways.
• Go your own way: Up a flight of stairs, down a laneway, on a rooftop or in an orchestra pit, Melbourne knows how to hide a bar. You never know where the next great drinking spot is going to pop up.
• Tall tales and cocktails: Whether you're after a cocktail with a million-dollar view or a few pots in a student dive, you'll find something that suits your mood and budget. Bar-hop like a local, dance to DJs, be challenged by installation art or chow down on a late-night snack.
• Chapel St: Hit the shopping strips of Toorak and South Yarra, daring to dream at the real estate listings.
Enjoy the window installations on Chapel St and Toorak Rd, though even the most exclusive boutiques struggle to rival the jewels in the window of Burch & Purchese Sweet Studio patisserie. European designers and local heroes such as Collette Dinnigan will happily make a dent in your wallet.
Enjoy a terrace breakfast at Harvey's Restaurant, coffee at Caffe Cucina or Yum Cha at Ay Oriental Tea House before the shopping begins. Long lunches or deluxe dinners can be had at France Soir, The Botanical and The Millswyn. Get sustenance at MoPho, The Outpost or with macarons at LuxBite.
Getting there: Fly there with Air New Zealand.
Find out more at: Australia.com.
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