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July 26, 2004

Take it slow when you go Down Under

By Kaishi Lee

Time seems to slow down when you head Down Under.

Not for Melbourne is the bustle of life in a metropolis.

The best way to enjoy this Australian city — with its heady mix of sights, sounds, tastes and colors — is to take it nice and slow.

You can easily spend a day here just walking around, soaking in the atmosphere. 

Melbourne is the vibrant home of 3.2 million people, made up of over 110 ethnic groups who still proudly celebrating their origins and traditions.

Chinese and Irish diggers attracted to gold in the 19th century and the postwar arrivals of refugees and migrants from Europe have influenced the city’s character.

Melbourne is full of surprises.

You’ll find public art where you least expect it, café cultures in small lanes, restaurants or trams, a religion called Australian Rules Football, an annual sports race that stops a nation and Shakespeare performed in magnificent gardens under the stars.

Breezy cool weather greeted me when I stepped out of Melbourne International Airport.

We reached our hotel at Chinatown, unpacked our luggage and went to 7-Eleven for a quick bite.

I was flabbergasted that a pint of milk was actually cheaper than water!

The streets were quiet at night though the graffiti on the walls, supposedly an avenue of self-expression for teens, made me sleepless.

Getting out and into the city the next day, the cold air caught me.

It was dry and cool outside as we trotted along the streets.

Melbourne struck me as a cross between rural and urban living. Some parts of her were modern while some dated back to the Queen Victoria era.

Indeed, Melbourne is undeniably a place full of contradictions and hidden charms. Cosmopolitan, cultivated and fresh, it’s a haven for shoppers, food lovers and anyone seeking an alluring blend of the past, present and future!

We crossed over to Flinders Street Station where punks were staging a demonstration. I watched shocked as police escorted them down the street into downtown.

Then I had a sumptuous brunch while cruising down the Yarra River, the heart of Melbourne.

We walked (Melbournians do a lot of walking and tram-riding) to the famous Queen Victoria Market at Elizabeth Street. It was surprises galore when we discovered a shopping mecca of seven hectares, selling everything: aromatherapy oils, massage services, Tarot readings and sheepskin.

To see Melbourne, do what I did: hop onto the City Circle Tram, a free and convenient way of getting around central Melbourne.

Observe the quaint city, notice the clean streets and delightful buildings, wave at friendly Melbournians, watch joggers and chat with the stranger opposite you. 

Melbourne has one of the largest tram and light-rail networks in the world. The City Circle Tram takes you past shopping malls, arcades and major attractions such as the Greek Precinct and Collins Street.

Enjoy the tastes of tzatziki, dance to the Zorba and delight in sweet cakes at the Greek Precinct, home to the largest Greek-speaking community after Greece.

Discover the Paris end of Collins Street, the boulevard of international haute couture. Located between Spring and Spencer Streets, venture into this street adorned with beautiful steeples and trees lit with fairy lights.

One of the best-kept shopping secrets for teens is St. Kilda, Melbourne’s playground. Located at Acland Street, it has quirky, eclectic but stylish gifts for all occasions.

Bargain hunters, make a beeline for Bridge Road, Richmond, where one of the biggest ranges of factory outlets can be found. Do check out Fitzroy, strictly for the moderately alternative. Bargain retro, recycled fashion and unique local handmade jewelry is sheer indulgence!

Next, we drove to Philip Island, a 90-minute journey beyond Melbourne, where vast natural beauty and exciting historic treasures abound.

Our first stop was the Seal Rock Sea Life Centre, home to Australia’s largest colony of fur seals.

I was speechless watching the seals on Seal Rocks huddled close together, undisturbed from its wild state and communicating with “squeaks.” Wow!

At the Koala Conservation Centre, the indefinable charm of koalas was lost.

Koalas are the most adorable creatures, or so I thought, before I met them up close and discovered they were really fat and could claw you. Nevertheless, like de la naturel tourist, I snapped many pictures of them and bought a koala shirt home.

Penguin Parade is the jewel of Philip Island.

This rugged coastline is home to over a third of Victoria’s little penguins. For thousands of years, little penguins have been emerging from the ocean at dusk and waddling to their burrow homes in the sand dunes.

We arrived at 7:15 p.m. and waited in the first row shivering in the strong, blowing wind.

I saw a baby penguin!

Then, a whole group waddled ashore at sunset, around 8:30 p.m.  Something helpful: Bring blankets, mittens and hot coffee to brave the stinging cold and the treat (penguins) later!

A true geography lesson out of the classroom was planned for me the next day.

We began with the Great Ocean Road, renowned worldwide for its spectacular coastal scenery and parklands.

We witnessed breathtaking natural creations, undisturbed by mankind at Port Campbell Park, site of the Arch, the Blowhole, London Bridge and 12 Apostles, all limestone formations.

Making a break from the city, we travel to Sovereign Hill. It’s a place rich in history, embodying the birthplace of the Australian spirit and site of the Gold Rush which occurred a century ago.

Walking into 1851, I stepped back into time, in the excitement of the discovery of gold, the streets bustling with people.

I tried my luck at panning for real gold at the Red Hill Gully Diggings, to no avail.

The experience of early gold diggers in their tents and mud-and-bark hunts was re-enacted. On the Main Street, settlers wearing period costume were busy with business. I treated myself to candy at Spencer’s Confectionary Shop.

Outside the United States Hotel, a roly-poly, drunken man proposed to his girlfriend by climbing up a ladder and offering her gold (duh).

A magic show with rabbits and puppies was going on at the Victoria Theatre. Later, I went on a guided tour in the quartz mine below ground.

I felt like a miner, digging for gold and feeling the exhilaration of discovering real gold!

In the evening, I arrived for the battle at the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat, one of Australia’s great legends.

Blood on the Southern Cross was a sound-and light show, telling the story of the brief and bloody battle of men fighting and dying under their own flag — the flag of the Southern Cross. I expected live acting, but got live commentary instead. Ugh, a boring documentary.

After nine days, we returned to Melbourne Airport for flight QF 438 departing Melbourne at 2.30 p.m. and arriving at Sydney at 3.20 p.m.

Goodbye Melbourne, I loved your relaxing lifestyle, people, shops, food and atmosphere. No wonder they say about Melbourne: “You’ll love every piece of it!”

 

 

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