Thursday, May 24, 2012

4 Days in Melbourne Australia

On our way to Melbourne, we decided to have a long layover in Los Angeles to check out Disneyland. We arrived in Los Angeles, picked up a rental car, and drove to Disneyland. The weather was fantastic: sunny and 75 degrees. Disneyland's entrance is less magical than Disney World. We visited both Disneyland and California Adventure Park. I loved the feel of both. The crowds seemed more local. The Parks are very intimate. Lines pour out not the streets. The lagoon held long canoes filled with tourist paddlers, a huge Clipper ship, a ferry boat, and rafts transporting guests to the pirate adventure island. We had lunch at Blue Bayou.

This Cajun restaurant recreates the look of New Orleans at night as guests on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride float by. I had the jambalaya and Glenn had the Monte Crisco. The jambalaya was very good - the right mix of tomato, spice and seafood. The Monte Crisco was unique - it was a combination beignet and sandwich with sweet fried batter surrounding the sandwich. After lunch, we hit the rides: Winnie the Pooh - a crazy psychedelic scene of a honey addicted bear; storybook boats- a float through the miniatures of old fairy tales; and we walked through Sleeping Beaty's castle. Glenn tried the darker version of Splash Mountain and the Indiana Jones ride. He thought the Indiana Jones ride was very well done. We crossed the plaza to Disney California Adventure. I was impressed with how much the Park looked like California. Glenn rode the Screamin' Eagle and deemed it fantastic.

We walked through the rest of the Park and then headed back to the airport. We arrived at the airport about 4 and a half hours before our flight. We were able to check at Virgin Australia and we just camped out at the gate.

The Virgin Australia flight was great. We each had our own row. They served dinner right when we got on and then we stretched out, watched some movies and slept. We arrived early -around 8 am -in Melbourne. We grab a taxi to the hotel (about $60 AUD) – the Hotel Ibis Melbourne.

We were so lucky that the hotel had a slightly better room available immediately. We showered and headed out to nearby Queen Victoria market for lunch. The market is fantastic -row after row of amazing food. They have a little food court so we ordered a lamb grill, falafel, and Greek salad. It was very good. We walked around the neighborhood which had at least three $10 haircut places per block. Our tour picked us up at 12:15 pm at the hotel. We were transported to Federation Square. We had a 20 minute break before the tour left so we headed to the tourist information center. It is fantastic. We learned about 2 separate trolleys that do a daily tourist route for free. Then it was tour time. Our bus was packed. We took an hour drive outside the city to Walook Cattle Farm. We fed kangaroos and a wombat and had a lovely tea service.

Next stop was the koala conservation center. This was quite impressive. Elevated boardwalks wind through the forest of high trees. You can spot the koalas high up in the trees by looking for a birds' nest.

We saw about eight. The ranger is there to answer any questions. It was one of the best wildlife experiences I have had since they were in their natural habitat. Then it was penguin time.

Phillip Island is home to a colony of little penguins. At sunset each night, you can watch them parade back up to the beach to their burrows in the sand dunes. We upgraded to the private penguin experience and it was so worth it. A ranger greeted our group of eight. We got a chair to sit on the beach, binoculars, and a headset to listen to him. He led us through the center explaining the history of the center and the penguins. The penguin colony was threatened by a group of imported foxes and a housing development. The government began an aggressive program to buy back the houses and the rangers continue to work to remove foxes from the island. We walked along the boardwalk and looked at the burrows. Then we headed down for our front row seats on the beach. It was amazing watching the penguins group up, debate whether to risk the run up the beach, run back into the water and the try again, and then do it. They have navy blue feathers to protect them from birds of prey on the top of the water. After they run up the beach, they head to their burrow. We saw male penguins fighting. We saw a male try to mate with a female, then another male intervened and a fight broke out. We saw two penguins jump off a curb and headed off down an alley. We saw two partners preening each other. It was the amazing. We’d like to share it with you, but photographs are not allowed because some idiots refused to turn off their flashes. The other amazing thing was the night sky. The stars and "spilled milk" from the milky way were breath taking. It was an amazing experience. The bus ride home took about 2 and 1/2 hours. What an incredible first day.

Day Two Melbourne
Immigration Museum, SkyDeck, Queen Victoria Market Cooking School

We started today on the free tourist shuttle. It does a 90 minute loop of the main areas of the city. We have been so impressed with how visitor friendly Melbourne is. We took the shuttle to the Immigration museum.

The museum tells the history of immigration in Australia - the sponsored trips from England for both convicts and settlers, the anti-Chinese policies, the internment of Germans during World War II, the dictation tests to work around laws preventing discrimination based on nationality, the refusal to grant asylum to a tanker of refugees, and the very limited allotments left today. The museum had a special exhibit on identity that did a terrific job addressing stereotypes and how people are more than what they look like. They had an interactive public art exhibit where people could make small model airplanes out of scraps to show how we all come from somewhere.

They also had a program at the end where you could add your handprint and a quote about diversity. It is a very impressive exhibit. We then headed down the South Promenade along the Yarra River and found a great place for lunch. We sat outside and enjoyed a fantastic appetizer platter and a ribeye with 3 sides. Post lunch, we headed up 88 floors to the Eureka Sky Deck. The views were amazing.

It is such a great perspective to get up so high and see the city. We hopped back on the bus and made our way around to Federation Square. We went to the William Kentridge exhibit at the ACMI. Kentridge is a South African artist that works in a number of mediums. I have seen two other of his exhibits - but this was by far the largest. It spanned the 5 main time periods of his work and was so impressive. We checked in at the greatest tourist center in the world to work out our plan to go to St. kilda tomorrow then we hopped back on the free shuttle to enjoy the rest of the route. After a mandatory rest period, we joined 11 other people at the Queen Victoria Market Cooking School with Chef Matthew Lambkin.

He is currently at Coda, but will be taking over at Hotel Windsor in June 2012. He made osso bucco with risotto, lamb shanks with pea purée and whole fish with sautéed mushrooms and book choi. Everything was so delicious. He offered great tips and made cooking very approachable. Everyone else in the class was very friendly. We finished up the class and headed to a Golden Monkey for night cap cocktails - The Green Ninja and port wine. A great end to a great day, mate!!

Day Three Melbourne
St Kilda, Brunswick
Today we ventured out on the tram system down to St Kilda beach on Port Phillip Bay. We walked out to the pier, along the boardwalk and beach, and then through down Achland Road - the main strip with cute stores and cafes. The big highlight of the trip was lawn bowling. We went to the St Kilda Bowling Club, rented equipment and a lane for $10 per person per hour. Luckily, it wasn't busy so got to bowl for 2 and 1/2 hours for our $20. Lawn bowling is like bocce except the bowls are weighted on one side so it curves as it slows down.

It was a gorgeous day. All the locals kept commenting they could not believe how great the weather has been. After bowling, we headed back to the beach for a pre-fix meal ($25) at Beachcomber.

 We finally tasted some Tasmania oysters and they were fantastic. I also had chili mussels and kingfish. Glenn tried the fish and chips. We tried Coopers' pale ale - a nice light drinkable beer. Carlton Draught - a yeasty lager. Fat yak pale ale - a very good ale with subtle hops. We hopped the tram back to the city and headed to the Fitzroy district and Brunswick street. Brunswick street had been recommended by some of the people in our cooking class. It was an eccentric area with cool boutiques and lots of cafes and bars. Our first stop was Little Creatures Dining Hall. In this fantastic space, we tried several Australian beers. Beers come in more sizes here. You can order a pony (8 oz), a pot (12oz) or a pint (18 oz). We order ponys for our tasting.
From Little Creatures we tried:
  • Bright Ale - a great well balanced pale ale. The New Zealand hops added a great brightness. Very good.
  • Pale Ale - a light refreshing beer with mild hops. It is bottled with live yeast for added freshness though that didn't make a huge difference
  • Rogers lager - an okay amber. Only 3.8% and very subtle flavors
  • Quiet American - a 7.2% Belgian ale hybrid with American pale ale. This is a lovely well balanced beer. We are really appreciating the subtle use of hops.
From White Rabbit we tried:
  • White ale - a belgium wheat. An okay beer. Would have been better with a smidge more body
  • Dark Ale - nothing to write home about.
We headed down the street to Naked for Satan. I think this may be my favorite bar in all the world.

It has pinxtos - basically snacks on a piece of French bread - meats, seafood spread, mussels, rice balls, even a cannoli. You help yourself. They are $2 each and then you present your toothpicks at the end to pay. Their other specialty is infused vodka. I tried the lemongrass and ginger and it was quite good. Glenn tried the Naked for Satan Ale - a tasty wheat beer with a nice malt flavor. The next bar Provence was boring by comparison. We tried the well advertised Boag's Draught - a forgettable lager and the James Squire Chancer Golden Ale wasn't much better. We headed to the beautiful St Jude restaurant for dinner.

 The menu was filled with interesting combinations and local ingredients. We tried the warm Rainbow trout salad with caperberries. It was delicious. We also had an okay charcuterie tray. After dinner we called it a night and caught the tram back to downtown. I did some laundry. This carry on/wash clothes system is working very very well.

Day Four Melbourne
Melbourne Gaol, Parliament, Fitzroy Gardens, AFL at Melbourne Cricket Ground
This morning we set out to explore more of downtown. We started the day at a local chain: Pie Face.
They have great coffee and little pies - like a chicken pot pie in lots of flavor combinations. We had egg, cheese, and bacon. So good. We went to the Old Melbourne Gaol.

It is a fantastic museum. They have an experience where they lead you through what it would have been like to be arrested. Very well done. After that, we headed to the Parliament of the state of Victoria. When Parliament is not in session, staff members provide a tour every hour on the half hour. It was a 45 minute tour of the main assembly room, the lower horse and the upper room.

It was a great primer on English government and the history of the building. Post tour we headed to 59 Bourke st and took the lift to the 3rd floor for Madame Brussels - a saucy garden themed bar. It has a terrace, a great cocktail menu, and some good snacks. I loved that in Australia they serve pitchers of cocktails and call them “jugs”. We enjoyed the sunshine as long as we could. Once the clouds moved in, we walked over to Fitzroy Gardens and Cook's Cottage. The gardens are beautiful and worth a stroll. Cook's cottage is a 1700s cottage with a kitchen and main bedroom.

The back vegetable garden is impressive, but otherwise I'd pass. The real value is in the exterior which you can see without paying admission. After the gardens, we wandered around downtown. Glenn had read about a bar made out of a shipping container. We found it - Section 8. The seating is wooden pallets and the tables are steel drums. The clientele was backpacker hip. We started walking back toward the hotel. We got close and I looked up and saw what looked like an interesting restaurant. Glenn's key powers of directions found the door and we headed up the graffiti stairs to Workshop - a very cool bar with a good affordable lunch menu. One side was a green house with some missing panes so it was more like a rooftop bar. We took a brief rest at the hotel and then headed out on the tram to Melbourne Cricket Ground for the Australian Football game - Melbourne versus Tasmania. It was a blast. Australian football is a very similar to soccer with some underhand passes, running and tackling mixed in.

The big surprise was that both teams fight songs were set to American folk songs: Yankee Doodle Dandy and Grand Old Flag. The fans had scarves and jerseys. It was pretty cold (in the 40s) so I bought a hat to keep warm. We left at the end of the 3rd quarter because it was just embarrassing how badly Melbourne was playing plus we had a plane to catch in the morning.

Overall - We loved this city. Everyone is friendly and low key. The tourist infrastructure is fantastic. One thing we didn't take advantage of was all the free apps - museums had free listening tours if you downloaded the app, etc. Things we'll have to do next time: Great Ocean Road, the Aboriginal Cultural Center, the Aquarium and the public art tour.