by: Tracey DeFrancesco
Australia is synonymous with sun, adventure, and laid-back locals with sexy accents. I’ve long dreamed of traveling Down Under to cuddle koalas and box with kangaroos (let’s not get hung up on the fact that neither of those things is legal). So when TWS Tennis Tours invited me to join their trip to the 2016 Australian Open, I packed my summer clothes and tons of sunscreen and hopped on a plane for the fifteen-hour flight across the Pacific Ocean.
Melbourne is a city known for experiencing four seasons in a day: a rainy morning turns into a scorching hot afternoon followed by a chilly evening. But it’s also a mysterious city whose best offerings can only be found by exploring alleyways and ducking into arcades to see what hidden gems lie just around the corner. If you’ve also been longing to see the other side of the world, no worries, mate, we’ve got you covered.
…where to crash and get some R&R
Sofitel on Collins
The centrally located Sofitel offers top notch concierge service and accommodations, plus the convenience of a shops and restaurants on the ground level of a building designed by I.M. Pei. When you sink into the super soft and comfy beds, you’ll understand why Queen Elizabeth stayed here during her visit to Australia a few years ago.
The Blackman Art Series
This boutique hotel offers five-star amenities at a more affordable price and is across the street from a St. Kilda Road city tram stop for easy access to the CBD. There are parks on either side and the Royal Botanic Gardens are walking distance.
There are three hotels in this sprawling entertainment complex on the south bank of the Yarra River. Inside the Crown you’ll find Australia’s largest casino, great restaurants, and plenty of shopping. The Eureka Tower, a 975-foot Skydeck with stunning views of the city, is short walk away – but people with a fear of heights may want to stick to the blackjack tables and slot machines.
…where to chow down and then unbutton the top button
Supernormal and Cumulus Inc
Award-winning chef owner Andrew McConnell runs these trendy restaurants in Melbourne’s CBD (central business district). Both feature small plates designed for sharing and showcase the innovative local cuisine of a city made for foodies (although we hear they prefer to be called “serious eaters”.) The duck bao at Supernormal is both delicious and interactive as you assemble your own dim sum in the bun with plum sauce.
Rockpool Bar and Grill
This high-end steakhouse is found inside the Crowne Melbourne casino complex and offers locally sourced beef and a robust wine list. Rockpool’s philosophy calls for humane treatment of animals and no growth hormones or antibiotics. Those high standards carry through to every item on the menu, but you can’t go wrong with the Wagyu burger.
Melburnians are serious about their coffee, so forget about finding a regular cup of brewed java for the duration of your trip. When in Australia, you drink espresso and you like it – or else. There are countless options for gourmet coffee, but a common recommendation is Proud Mary and its custom-made Synesso espresso machine. Order a long black to get something approximating an Americano, or play it safe with a cappuccino.
Chocolate is second only to coffee in terms of local pride, and Haigh’s is the oldest family-owned chocolate maker in Australia. There are four locations throughout Melbourne where you can pick up the artisan offerings made from premium cocoa beans, but you could throw a rock and hit a fancy chocolate shop anywhere in this city. Stop throwing rocks, though, we want Aussies to like us.
… where to drink up and get down
Inspired by a show about nothing comes this bar with a George Costanza theme in the bohemian Fitzroy neighborhood. A giant mural of George’s “timeless art of seduction” pose adorns the side of the building and the theme continues inside with the décor and food and drink menus. Order a Draped in Velvet (peach and ginger tea with vodka, gin, white rum, and domain de canton) and an Art Vandelay (double cheese toast), and enjoy the classic Seinfeld quotes in the entrance.
A cozy wine bar just a block away from Chinatown, Embla opened late last year with a wine list curated by Australian and French wine experts and a rustic menu that matches the wood and brick décor. Sophisticated yet unpretentious, this is a great spot to start or end a night out.
Truth be told, my nightclub days ended around the same time as my 20s. But while shopping on the eclectic Chapel Street, an area reminiscent of Melrose Ave in Hollywood, some locals recommended LUX for a Vegas-burlesque-circus experience. LUX is only open Friday through Sunday, which works out fine because no one could handle this seven nights a week.
Ants in Your Pants
…where to go when you can’t sit still
If you travel to Melbourne in January, the heart of the Aussie summer, you’ll find the sport-crazy city immersed in the first major tennis tournament of the year. Most people don’t know that the only way to sit close to the action is by going through an official tour operator, which is why TWS Tennis Tours offers the best seats available. Side note: check out twstennistours.com for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the French Open in May.
A cultural precinct in Melbourne, Federation Square is worth seeing just for the stunning architecture. But wander inside and you’ll find bars, restaurants, and shops. Plus, the National Gallery of Victoria, free of charge, features Australian and aboriginal art. You might even spot a tai chi class underway just outside the museum entrance.
Visiting this penguin sanctuary is a must-do experience. If you ever have 10 hours to spare, I’ll give you all the details on why seeing the penguins come home from a day of fishing was the highlight of my trip. Phillip Island is a two-hour drive outside Melbourne, and you can stop at a koala conservation area while waiting for the penguins to waddle home.
A region famous for pinot noir located about an hour south of Melbourne, Mornington has more than 50 wineries that sell directly to consumers. Port Phillip Estate has a modern building with breathtaking views while Ocean Eight is more rustic and charming. Stop for lunch at Ten Minutes by Tractor, but don’t let the name fool you: this is high-end, innovative dining with first class wines to match. If you’ve ever wanted to feel like a guest judge on Top Chef, this four-hour meal will hit the spot.