Melbourne

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By Jae-Ha Kim
Boston Herald
May 8, 2005

MELBOURNE, Australia — It was in Melbourne’s chic South Yarra district that the standard was set. Hungry and suffering from extreme jet lag, my photographer and I also were cranky because a local had guided us to a “fabulous breakfast place” that wasn’t open yet.

After walking back toward the chic, boutique Lyall Hotel where we were staying, we settled on Cafe Darling – a small, neighborhood eatery. I ordered a focaccia veggie sandwich with a piquant salsa dressing. He opted for a softly poached egg, which was served with thick slices of ham and tomato on a chunk of toasted French bread.

It was delicious, and not just because we were hungry, but because it was prepared fresh and served hot with coffee. Wait, I mean our skinny latte (latte made with skim milk) and long black (espresso thinned out with steaming hot water).

Australians and Americans may both speak English, but don’t think for a second that we share the same vocabulary. You give away your foreignness by referring to your spouse as a husband or wife. In Australia, they’re your partner. Your friend is a mate. Ripper means great. And plonk refers to cheap wine. Got that?

We hadn’t expected much from Australia in terms of fine dining. Maybe it had something to do with the image of Paul Hogan encouraging us all to put another shrimp on the barbie. Granted, that was a couple of decades ago, but some things just stick with you.

Though Canberra is Australia’s capital, Sydney and Melbourne are the country’s more famous cities. Melbourne is located near Australia’s southern tip, a bayside community with a population of 3.2 million. It offers a sophisticated, cosmopolitan vibe without the frenzied pace of a big city. There’s great shopping, lush foliage and wonderful opportunities for great dining at all price points.

From the fish and chips at the corner shop to the sit-down fine-dining experience at the deluxe Crown Towers’ Number 8 restaurant, the meals weren’t just good. They were ripper. For authentic Vietnamese fare that’s cheap and tasty, there’s Little Saigon on Victoria Street. You can’t find better Italian than on Toorak and Commercial roads. And for some fantastic Asian fusion, try the high-end Pearl on Church Street.

We even ordered a picnic lunch at the spectacular Montalto Vineyard & Olive Grove (about an hour outside of Melbourne), thinking we’d get a nice boxed meal and a bottle of wine. Wrong. The spread was out of this world, with a selection of cheese, olives, salads, caviar, meats and breads – and bottles of sparkling water and wine (and not the plonky kind, either) – all served on a linen tablecloth in a secluded area of the 50-acre vineyard. With the sun beating down on our necks, we couldn’t believe our good fortune.

About an hour northwest of Melbourne in Daylesford is the Lake House, a favorite retreat for young Melbournites eager to escape the city for the weekend. Though Daylesford’s population is just around 10,000, it quadruples on weekends when folks from the city come to relax. When Heath Ledger was in town filming “Ned Kelly,” locals joked that all the town’s inhabitants were extras in the movie.

The spa treatments at the Lake House are just the thing to work out the kinks in a traveler’s body. But it’s the first-rate amenities (heated floor tiles in the bathrooms are a lovely touch on nippy mornings) and the haute cuisine served up by Alla Wolf-Tasker that are truly memorable. She and her husband, Allan – whose original paintings adorn the walls of the luxury hotel – bought the property 21 years ago. Today their staff includes daughter Larissa, who joked that she gets “away from it all” by heading to Melbourne.

It would be a shame to travel all the way to Australia without getting the opportunity to coo over a koala or two. Sure it’s a cliche, but why not? We could’ve gone to the Melbourne Zoo, but we wanted an interactive experience and there’s only one place for that: Ballarat Wildlife Park, also just an hour’s drive from Melbourne.

Here, a small army of kangaroos and emus intent on getting a snack stuck closely by our sides. Like many visitors, we’d purchased a bag of grains to feed these animals, some of which roamed freely around the park. The shyer animals hop around hoping to be noticed. But the baby kangaroos – joeys – have learned how to use their cuddly cuteness to their advantage. One nudged her nose under my free hand and it worked like a charm. Within seconds, I was feeding her out of the palm of my hand while her buddies eagerly hopped over to collect their share.

“I grew up with a lot of these animals,” said tour guide Chris Parker, whose father, Greg, runs the park.

Set on 286 acres of beautiful peppermint gum woodland, Ballarat Wildlife Park is dedicated to the care and appreciation of Australian wildlife in its natural surroundings. Greg Parker has used his expertise to cultivate an array of Australian fauna and developed the park so visitors can see how animals live. We see more than we want to. Watching the koalas feast on eucalyptus leaves is adorable. Seeing Tasmanian devils feed on dead mice . . . not so much.

We headed back toward Melbourne and the beachside community of St. Kilda. Gorgeous both in landscape and population, the neighborhood attracts a hip, young crowd. After a lovely seafood lunch at the Stokehouse, we headed over to Federation Square, which connects Melbourne’s central business district with the Yarra River.

Spanning an entire city block, Federation Square houses the prestigious Ian Potter Center (home to more than 20 art galleries) as well as the five-story Australian Centre for Moving Image. In the center of the Centre, schoolchildren gathered to see their images projected on a wall-size outdoor screen. As their parents looked around for the video camera capturing their images, the kids squealed in delight.

Before we headed to the airport, we made one last stop at Cafe Darling. This time, we got our coffee order right.

***
SIDEBAR:The thunder Down Under: Australian Rules Football
MELBOURNE, Australia – Judging by the name, you wouldn’t expect the Melbourne Cricket Club to host one of the country’s most beloved – and dangerous – sports.
We’re not talking about cricket, a game many Australians consider to be the glue that holds the country together. No, we’re talking about Australian Rules Football, which also is played at the MCC.
At any given game, celebs such as Russell Crowe are in the crowd rooting for their favorite teams.
Take the toughest elements of soccer, rugby and American football – minus any protective gear – and you’ve got Australian Rules Football (or Aussie footy, as the natives call it). The sport is so physically demanding that most pro players have a shelf life of less than five years.
Maybe that’s why most are reticent to give up their day jobs. Oddly enough, the Australian footy teams are composed of an inordinately high number of athletes who are doctors, lawyers and other professionals.
“The players who are doctors play just as rough as anyone else,” said the MCC’s Denis Maher. “I’d be worried about breaking my hand and not being able to perform surgery, but these are all very tough guys. They handle it just fine.”
Among Aussie footy players, America’s amateur Boston Demons team, based in Beantown (the parent club is the Melbourne Demons), has a reputation as having players who are both tough and smart.
“The Boston Demons call themselves the brainiest team in the world,” Maher said with a laugh. “You can’t really argue with them. They’ve had five micro surgeons and three professors among their players, as well as a coach who was a heart surgeon.”
For more information about the Melbourne Cricket Club, go to www.mcc.org.au
***
IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand flies nonstop from Los Angeles to Melbourne, Australia. Call 800-262-1234 to book a reservation or go to www.airnz.com

STAYING THERE

The Crown Towers (www.crowntowers.com.au) offers a spectacular view of Melbourne’s skyline, with suites starting at about $230 per night. Rooms at the boutique Lyall Hotel (www.thelyall.com) start at $300.

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