Melbourne

 



David Whitley looks with older eyes at Melbourne’s city centre – and finds that it has rediscovered its soul

 

My hazy recollections of Melbourne’s city centre are not all that favourable. Back in 2002, I trawled the rigid grid delivering magazines every week, and found it all a little dispiriting. There were a few decent pubs and Chinatown was mildly diverting but central Melbourne always struck me as having a dull functionality and little heart.

 

Melbourne, after all, was all about the scene in the various suburbs – St Kilda, Fitzroy and Carlton were the places to be, while a long list of other suburbs each had their own scene. It was a city that rewarded those who gave it time and explored at a relaxed pace – and many coming through from Sydney would turn their nose up after a couple of days in the wrong places before moving on.

 

Eight years later, and Melbourne’s city centre seems remarkably different. This may be a case of looking through different eyes – I want a little more than just the cheapest beer prices these days – but a big change has clearly taken place. I think the tourist board would like us to believe that Melbourne has always been a hive of laneways packed with cool independent shops, fascinating bars and restaurants plying cuisine from all over the world. To a certain extent, this is probably the case, but it’s undeniable that this scene has undergone a massive expansion in the last decade.

 

It has been a case of noticing that the whole character-packed laneways thing is popular and running with it. The cramped little back streets between the vast thoroughfares on the main grid are now promoted heavily, and are clearly thriving.

 

They’re fascinating to poke around, too. They’re anything but identikit. Some bars are too cool by half (and have prices to match), others are laid-back, cosy and a little grungy. Some of the more unpromising alleys will have a sweet, family-run coffee shop at the end, while on others you’ll run a gauntlet of touts between restaurant terraces. Each is keen to entice you into theirs with the best deal or most expensive free drink. 

 

On my first afternoon this time round, I had time to kill before meeting my fiancée at the airport. I got in touch with another writer who I’ve only previously known electronically, and we ended up at a bizarre place that seemed to have a million floors, each with a bar or a theatre on it. It felt typical of the new Melbourne – the top floor was a fairly rough and ready rooftop bar selling burgers and pies from a small shack. On the first floor, it was boutique beers, upmarket platters and serving staff with Shoreditch hair.

 

The next day, we explored properly, and I kept coming across things I hadn’t seen before. And not just in terms of bars and coffee shops – the stream of odd public artworks around the Docklands and South Bank, the shiny new towers and the weird little stores struck me as new additions. As I say, I may have been blind to it before, but Melbourne’s city centre has undergone a remarkable transformation. It’s now a genuinely cool place to be – and possesses a life and character that would be the envy of any city in the world. 

 

Australia travel expert David Whitley answers questions about holidays in Australia at AustraliaTravelQuestions.com

 

More photos here

 

An Australian menu: Decoded

 

After eating well in Australia, David Whitley has nobly decided to help you do so as well…

In terms of gap between perception and reality, few countries are more misjudged for their food than Australia. In fact, there’s a strong argument to say that Australia has the best food scene in the world – particularly when it comes down to sheer variety of what’s available. But to the uninitiated, Australian menus can throw up a few curiosities. Here are a few things to look out for…

Burger/ sandwich

These basically act as burgers or sandwiches do pretty much anywhere, apart from one key ingredient, which is often slipped on matter-of-factly despite not being mentioned in the menu description. This ingredient is the beetroot slice and it’s guaranteed to ruin the taste of whatever you’re eating with such totality that the addition of it is technically illegal under the Geneva Convention.

Meat pie

Australian pies, when compared to their grotesque British chip shop counterparts, are usually of pretty good quality. They’re a national source of pride, but the occasional duffer slips in. The secret to picking a good one is to look at how specific the description is. If specifies the meat, it’ll probably be lovely. If it just says “meat”, stay well away – you probably don’t want to know what’s in there.

Barramundi

It’s a big, meaty fish from the north of the country and it is almost uniformly excellent. Tick VG, just do it OK.

Sourdough

Australia operates a couple of years behind the rest of the world when it comes to trends, but once it spots one, it embraces it with such desperately pathetic enthusiasm that nothing else gets a look-in. Currently, therefore, absolutely everything comes “on sourdough”. Any café displaying an item not “on sourdough” is immediately shut down by the ultra-needy food fashion police.

 

 

“Smashed”

These same menus seem to be written by the Incredible Hulk. Everything in your breakfast, it seems, has to be “smashed”. That’s smashed eggs, smashed avocado, smashed potatoes, even “smashed browns”. Ask what it means, and you’ll be met with a sheepish shrug that basically means: “Something we’ve just broken up a bit.” Expect this to escalate in the coming years to “bludgeoned”, “hammered to fuck” and “annihilated”.

Golden Gaytime

Any Australian who claims not to love these biscuit-covered ice creams is probably an impostor. The name might elicit a double take, but no day with a Golden Gaytime consumed has been a bad day.

Sharing plates

Perhaps the most annoying over-embraced obsession is the complete takeover of “sharing plates”. To all intents and purposes, this means tapas but slightly bigger. The issue is that how much bigger is never really stated.

It can sometimes mean that a dish is half the size of a normal main course (but two-thirds the price) or it’s two-thirds the size of a main course (and exactly the same price as a main). So if you don’t actually want to share, you either end up getting the right amount of food (and paying one third more for it) or 50% more food than you really want at double the price.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept (apart from you end up paying more), but the utter domination of menus is incredibly tiresome. Sometimes you’ll have to go past five or six restaurants to find one that will give you what you want – one thing, done well, at a fair price.

 

by David Whitley

  

  

 


Australia travel expert David Whitley answers questions about holidays in Australia at AustraliaTravelQuestions.com

You can get the Australia included as a stopover on a Navigator round the world

 

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Hunter Valley wine tourism tips for self-drivers

 

David Whitley looks at how to do a day out wine tasting without going over the drink drive limit

The appeal of going to a major international wine region and going round all day sampling wines is fairly obvious, and few places do the wine tourism thing better than the Hunter Valley.

This is partly due to its proximity to Sydney – it’s two to two-and-a-half hours’ drive out of the big city, which ensures a steady stream of people on short breaks and the infrastructure to cater for them. 

The major problem, however, is that the Hunter is not well served by public transport – both in terms of getting there and getting around the sprawling vineyard area. And this means that, without military style planning, you’re probably going to have to go there by car.

There’s an obvious flaw to this – if you want to go round tasting wine, then you’re very quickly going to be over the drink driving limit. 

The easy way to deal with this problem is to take the car, park it up and go out tasting on a tour. There are numerous tours available, and the general rule is that the bigger the bus, the more bog standard the wineries you’ll go to. Going for smaller local operators who have relationships with the wineries is more rewarding. The Hunter Valley YHA does its own tours for from $55 – usually with small groups, visiting the smaller wineries.

Splashing out a bit more (think $400 per couple), Aussie Wine Tours will take you round in a private car, tailoring the wineries visited to your tastes. 

But if going it alone, it’s that selectiveness that is key. One of the Hunter’s great selling points is that there’s very little wine snobbery. The wineries know that the whole gamut will walk in through their doors – from serious wine buyers to people who basically know it’s made out of grapes and nothing else. The people at the cellar doors will happily guide you through the best ways to taste, and point you in the direction of the sorts of wines that’ll suit your palate.

As a general rule, you’ll get to taste five (roughly) 20ml samples at each winery. That comes out at approximately one standard drink. So for drivers, a rule of thumb is that men can get away with two full tastings, and women one. Add an extra one if you spread it over a few hours and eat in between. 

So you can’t go OTT, but you can still do a few tastings while driving yourself round.

The key is in picking the right wineries. I dropped into the tourist information centre on the way in and asked which wineries do the big, gutsy reds I prefer and which do unusual varietals – such as Zinfandel and Viognier. The woman recommended Piggs Peake, Ivanhoe and Peterson’s – which proved to be spot-on choices. 

 

 

It’s worth asking similar questions at the wineries themselves. Most cellar door workers will happily make suggestions for the best of the rest.

The other, and probably rather obvious tactic, is to extend the day by limiting the number of wines you sample at each winery. 

Three wines at five wineries will give you a better sample (and day out) than five wines at three wineries. Narrow it down to the ones you’re most likely to buy or enjoy – if you’re not a white wine drinker, just stick to the reds for expediency’s sake. Similarly, there’s no point trying ones that are out of your price range if you’re narrowing down which to buy. It’s also worth asking the person serving them which three in particular they’d recommend trying.

And, if you want to extend beyond the drink driving limit, check which wineries are within walking distance of your accommodation. Tackle them last, after you’ve visited wineries further afield and parked the car up, on foot. 

 

Handily, you can get Australia included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW

We also sell breaks in the Hunter Valley

by David Whitley

  

 

Australia travel expert David Whitley answers questions about holidays in Australia at AustraliaTravelQuestions.com

Australia's Clubs

 

 

If you want a beer in regional Australia, you may have no choice but to (temporarily) join our club writes David Whitley

Once you step out of the centre of Australia’s big cities, with their cosmopolitan elites and food that’s occasionally not fried, you enter the dark, often bleak world of the club. It may be a Leagues Club. It may be an RSL Club. It may be a Bowls Club. It may be a Greek or Serbian Club. But it really doesn’t matter – they’re all pretty much the same. 

These clubs theoretically exist for the benefit of their members – although in reality they are often self-sustaining juggernauts. Those linked to sports teams, in particular, can be utterly gargantuan. Yet, irrespective of size, they all have a remarkably similar feel. They’ll have a number of different bars, yet all will be open plan and depressingly utilitarian. There will be a food outlet that serves burgers, pizzas and chicken schnitzels – they’ll give you a buzzer and you go and collect it when it’s ready. In some instances there will be a secondary, marginally more upmarket food outlet upstairs, where bangers and mash or half-hearted lamb shanks are brought to your table. The room for this restaurant will look pretty much the same as the one for the bar, albeit with someone having gone round with the Mr Sheen.

The real driving force behind these clubs, however, is the partially sealed off room with neverending banks of pokie machines. For those who’ve not come across the pokies, they’re skill-free slot machines that involve  the old, the lonely, the desperate, the poor and the downright stupid just sitting there, feeding them with money. Imagine the atmosphere of a bookie’s shop, combined with the moral fibre of someone who stands in car parks offering to ‘protect’ your car for a fee. Forget the food or the drink, it’s these pokies that – more often than not – fund the club. People just joylessly pour all they’ve got into them. 

In suburbia and regional Australia, these clubs dominate the drinking landscape. This is partly due to stinginess in handing out liquor licences – small operations don’t stand a chance when the big boys can essentially block them out. It’s also partially down to tax. The clubs are theoretically for members only (although anyone can sign in as a temporary member and drink there), and they get a whole raft of tax exemptions as a result of it.

Thus, they’re almost always the cheapest place to drink in town – although don’t expect any craft beers, cocktails or interesting wines. Size and economies of scale mean they only buy in from the big producers. 

There’s nothing wrong with this per se. The clubs serve a purpose for those who want cheap drink in zero atmosphere. The problem comes when their presence is so overwhelming that there’s nowhere else to have a drink for miles around. Any small bar that wants to try something different simply isn’t going to be able to compete – even if it gets a licence in the first place.

Thus, across Australia, there’s a dominance of these cheerless barns. There are over 6,500 of them in the country, and you’d be hard pushed to tell the difference between them. They act as a surprisingly major political lobby group too, and hype up their community/ charity status as a way of any action being taken against them. Any sane Australian would love to see the pokies ripped out. But it’ll not happen as the clubs need them to survive. 

Yet, surely, if the drinking scene is dominated by places that make their money from gambling rather than drinking, something is wrong?

Handily, you can get Australia included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW

Australia travel expert David Whitley answers questions about holidays in Australia at AustraliaTravelQuestions.com

 

The land of fire

 

David Whitley visits the bushfire-hit Blue Mountains to discover the extraordinary eco-system that such fires have created

“When I took my first tours through here, everything was black,” says Evan. “But there’s not been a fire for 14 years here. And you can tell.”

Evan Yanna Muru runs the Blue Mountains Walkabout tours through a patch of thick forest near Faulconbridge station. It feels a world away from modern life, but is surprisingly close to residential areas. The residents in those areas, of course, generally see fire as a bad thing.

But for the ecosystem of the area, fire is an essential ingredient, needed every four or five years. Evan points to the shrivelled fruit pods and lack of wildflowers. They’d be booming in the year after a fire, he says. The destruction is necessary for the regeneration. And when the regeneration happens, it does so with extraordinary energy.

The next day, heading down into the Megalong Valley on the way to a campsite breakfast among the kangaroos, Tim Tranter from Tread Lightly Eco-tours tells of the 2002 bush fires. They scourged the area we’re driving through, lasted weeks and covered Sydney’s Bondi Beach in a thick black cloud on Christmas Day. “Within a year, you couldn’t actually see what had been burned,” he says.

Nature works in truly remarkable ways in these parts. “You can walk through six different biospheres without changing altitude, he says. “You go from tall eucalyptus forest to ancient Gondwana rainforest from the Jurassic era just crossing the road.” Trees don’t lose their leaves every year – they lose their bark. It’s the only country in the world where you smell the leaves rather than the flowers – the oils in the eucalyptus leaves have that distinctive nose-clearing scent.

But much of it wouldn’t be there without fire.

The Blue Mountains aren’t mountains at all – the area’s made up of a series of plateaus created through an uplifting of the ocean floor 150 million years ago. Over time, rich layers of iron formed within that dominating sandstone. And the iron brings lightning.

“The area gets 100,000 to 200,000 lightning strikes a year,” says Tim. “And 100 million years ago, there was so much lightning that a new genus of tree was born.  This is the birthplace of the eucalyptus, of which there are thought to be 103 different varieties in the Blue Mountains alone.

 

The oils in those leaves, which give the area its blue haze and clear up colds throughout the world, are highly volatile. They go up in flame terrifyingly quickly, spreading the fire through the canopy. This is evolution in progress. For the tree, fire could mean death. So having leaves that pass the fire on as quickly as possible is simply a survival strategy. The bark falling off is much the same thing. When it goes, the tree trunk is smooth and it’s much harder for the fire to take hold on it.

But the tree must reproduce leaves remarkably quickly to be able to survive. It needs them for photosynthesis. And within 100 days, you’d hardly know they’d gone in the first place.

Australian nature logic doesn’t fit that of the rest of the world. People assume that once a fire rips through, an area will be a blackened ruin for years. It’s an assumption that’s been made with the 2013 Blue Mountains bushfires (which didn’t affect any of the main tourist areas anyway), and visitors have stayed away. But this is land that needs fire, and thrives on fire. The acres that burned are already on the way back to being far more vibrant and beautiful than they have been for years.

After the burn comes the birth.

Handily, on a round the world ticket you can get Australia included as a stopover (plus get another 9 around the world) on a Navigator. We also love Australia (Go Aussies!) and sell very well priced tours in The Blue Mountains

 

by David Whitley

   

 

Australia travel expert David Whitley answers questions about holidays in Australia at AustraliaTravelQuestions.com