Melbourne the Magnificent
Given my past few weeks of global geo-political depression, it seems a bit silly to be reviewing travel and restaurants, but the diversion was very good for my soul, so I will be as self-indulgent about writing as I have been about this past week of wine, food and intellectual indolence in Melbourne.
Now I have been to Melbourne several times in the past few years. Usually I have traveled with my wife and a few good friends and always with great results.
This time it was with my wife and my sister, who is an international attorney and happened to be attending to some business in Thailand and Hong Kong. Using my extraordinary skills at familial persuasion I convinced her that the 18-hour return flight to Melbourne was well worth adding to her 36-hour return flight to her New York City home. Besides, this summer is extraordinarily hot in NYC; and Thailand in August is like living in a sauna, so a week of winter weather in Australia sounded great to her and to us as well.
Melbourne is an extraordinary city. Easy and affordable mass transit, well planned, clean, and great, great cultural access museums, galleries, concerts, sports, street entertainers, and terrific music. As a longtime Midnight Oil fan I really appreciated the musical options from opera to metal, folk and country in the unlimited bars and other music venues.
And all of this in a truly multi-cultural city. In the past it was said that there are more Greeks in Melbourne than any city in the world except Athens. Today, Melbourne is even ethnically richer. You can’t walk 20 meters without tripping over an ethnic — Vietnamese, Chinese, Indonesian, Arab, Filipino, Slav, or even the occasional American. Everyone has contributed a big chunk of their culture to an already extraordinary mosaic. And all of this with very little of the “Oh they are taking our jobs” whining that you hear in America and Western Europe.
But it is at wine and food that Melbourne really sparkles.
If you are living in Southeast or Southern Asia, I recommend a winter visit (June – August). You get a great change of climate, a chance to play in the mountain snow among fewer tourists; less crowds at the vineyards and restaurants, and better economics on flights and hotels.
I suggest that you don’t stay downtown. The neighborhoods of Melbourne are great. I recommend St. Kilda and South Melbourne on the water and its added attraction of entertaining street bums left over from St. Kilda’s days as a hippie hangout; who for some unknown reason all seem to play the harmonica. Or if you prefer, try South Yarra and Docklands for the trendy lifestyle. All offer affordable and relaxed restaurants and accommodations and a chance to live the real Melbournian lifestyle for a few days.
If you like wine or even if you just like beautiful countryside take a day or two touring wineries in Yarra Valley or the Mornington Peninsula. Both are less than an hour drive from Melbourne and are just stunning land and seascapes with great wineries and restaurants. You can book a private car and guide for around $75 AUD per hour, or join a small group for an equally great tour. We took the Yarra Valley Wineries Tour (Ph: 61 3 5962 3870 Fax: 61 3 5962 3862).
It was great. We had a group of 10, and had terrific, relaxed and somewhat drunken days of great wines, great meals and for the most part very interesting company. For those of you who are hesitant about group tours, don’t be. As long as the group is small (I think 10 is the maximum, but ask the tour company to be sure.) it is a great way to share the experience, enjoy new acquaintances and get plenty of information. The guide cum drivers are great, and the wineries were all terrific. No condescending “you are only a tourist” attitudes. You can discuss wine like you were the technical advisor on the movie “Sideways,” or just enjoy some wonderful Rieslings, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, desert or other cold climate wines.
We added a morning visit to the Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary, where we got to see and play with Kangaroos, Wallabies, Wombats, Tasmanian Devils, and the snakes of Australia (Eight of the 10 most poisonous snakes in the world live in Australia — the remaining 2, Mel Gibson and Rupert Murdoch, live in the United States.).
My last recommendation is for one of the truly great restaurants in the world: Donovans on St. Kilda Beach (40 Jacka Blvd., Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 61 3 9534 8221). Don’t just take my word for this. My sister who lives in New York and regularly visits Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and other celebrity chef restaurants gives it an equal recommendation.
Donovans is located in a picture perfect Beach house right on the beach and the bay in St. Kilda. The picture windows provide visuals of the passing sailboats and commercial shipping in the distance, beach life of dogs, joggers, cyclists and hot bikini-wearing sunbathers. All in the most relaxed, unpretentious and elegant interior ambiance you could ask for. In other words, if you called central casting and asked them to send over the movie set for the dreamlike Australian beach restaurant, Donovans would arrive.
Now any restaurant that has five Bloody Mary variants on the menu immediately gets my attention, but at Donovans the food matched the great ambiance, drinks, and wine list. Incredible soft shell crabs and spicy Italian sausage with a caper vinaigrette, Tasmanian smoked salmon with a dilled mascarpone sauce, grilled baby squid stuffed with parsley and garlic served with sage and anchovy croquettes on a bed of wild rocket, and barramundi poached in a saffron cream sauce with prawns, mussels, and clams. A great T-Bone steak, and we never even got to the pheasant, lamb and pasta dishes that I eyed enviously as I made my rather obvious observation walks around the restaurant.
The best part of this lunch was the long lazy coffee and sweets taken outside as we sat in incredibly comfortable Adirondack chairs watching the sun go down. Mad Max and Road Warrior and Thunderdome were never like this.
Donovans is a bit on the pricy side, but considerably less expensive than high-end restaurants in any big city. Spend your last day in Australia at Donovans and you will buy your ticket back as soon as you land at home.