Jennifer Burgess reacquaints herself with her hometown to come up with a foolproof itinerary for a future girls’ weekend in Melbourne, Australia.
Melbourne is a food town; or more specifically, a large coffee emporium. So it was only appropriate that it was a cup of coffee, in a Singapore café, that prompted a special request from my European girlfriends. Could I introduce them to my former hometown?
Outwardly my response was buzzy, but inwardly I was feeling like the lukewarm brew before me. After seven years of living apart, Melbourne and I had become like an amicably separated couple. We had plenty of history, and we had a good time whenever we met up, but we really didn’t know each other intimately any more.
If I was going to lead a great girls’ weekend sometime in the future, Melbourne and I would need to get re-acquainted. So I arranged a secret hook-up, and quietly took the seven-hour flight from Singapore.
In the City
The first and best way to get the lowdown on my former home was to seek out someone who knows its secrets, both past and present. Meltours offers a range of walking tours, including the Laneways of Melbourne Tour. For two hours, guide Stephen marched me and my assigned group through Melbourne’s famed laneways. His ability to share the history of the former Gold Rush town while name-checking the hottest designer stores proved a master class in how to be the coolest history teacher in school.
Stephen also promised that he would “show even the locals a surprising side of Melbourne”. And he delivered. Among other things, I discovered that Melbourne’s most popular gallery is actually a cobblestone laneway with an ever-changing exhibition of garish graffiti. Another revelation: while good coffee can still be found on the pedestrian thoroughfare of Degraves Street, the best coffee is now in former mechanics’ workshops found down little laneways, like the elusive Manchester Press, whose location even Google maps hasn’t penetrated.
I also learnt that in Melbourne you should purchase your designer bags and jewels in a basement at Christine’s and bespoke shoes in a vaulted warehouse at Captains of Industry, and spend the afternoon being pampered in one of the city’s former sleazy hotels (now Aurora Spa). Evenings are to be spent drinking Pimm’s on the fake grass of the rooftop terrace at Madame Brussels, before you head to the rooftop of another derelict building to watch a movie.
My girlfriends were going to love all of this. But there was another valuable piece of the itinerary to lock in. Where to eat?
When Melbourne and I had been together, the best chefs cooked out of tiny kitchens in terrace houses and shops on the fringe of the central business district (CBD). Fortunately, my local foodie friends were able to re-direct me to the new areas of interest. Flinders Lane, the former home of Melbourne’s clothing industry in the heart of the CBD, now has the city’s most wanted tables. In the name of research, I devoured slow-roasted lamb shoulder at Cumulus Inc and soft-shell crab souvlaki at Gazi. I wasn’t even sure it was legal to eat at the famed Chin Chin; these chefs were clearly thieves who had stolen all the best dishes from Asia and pimped them up with Australian produce, producing counterfeit copies that are far superior to the originals.
As befits a city that hosts most of Australia’s big sporting events, obtaining a table at some of these venues has become a competitive sport, especially since many have introduced a no-booking rule. The best way to avoid sitting at the bar waiting for two hours is to choose to eat in the sweet spot between lunch and dinner rushes.
Out of town
After all that activity in the city, my girls’-weekend-in-Melbourne itinerary needed a change of rhythm; some respite, preferably out of town. Like its European cousins, Marylebone in London and Marais in Paris, Albert Park has a village feel, ten minutes from the noise of the city. But it has an extra, uniquely Australian feature – a beach at the end of its main street, Victoria Avenue.
Some reconnaissance confirmed that it was going to be very easy to spend a whole day or two in this place. At Husk, my girlfriends could fill their suitcases with Australian designer clothing. Next door, Mecca Cosmetica has a well-curated range of the world’s best beauty brands, and an expert team who can gently convince even the most makeup-phobic client of the benefit of the right shade of lipstick. Across the road is The Rose Street Trading Company, where it’s almost impossible to enter without succumbing to “renovitis”, the urge to completely re-do your Singapore condo in “chic beach-house style”. And if my friends do manage to walk out not clutching furniture shipping documents, they can further test their resistance with nearby Turner and Lane’s eclectic range of decor, jewellery and gift items, perfect for souvenirs.
You only have to carry your new purchases a little further down Victoria Avenue to find The Petty Officer café. It’s the area’s newest and coolest spot to fuel up on coffee, enabling an energetic stroll along the beach promenade to the nearby suburb of Middle Park. Two uniquely Melbourne options are available here for lunch: dining on the edge of the beach at Sand Bar Beach Café, or imagining Formula 1 cars racing past you as you enjoy all-day breakfast at the charming Mart 130 café. This former train station is nestled in the parklands of Albert Park Lake, which are transformed every year into a Grand Prix racetrack.
Albert Park is not Melbourne’s only village. On the northern side of the city are the suburbs of Fitzroy, Collingwood and Brunswick. These areas share an industrial past, but have developed a distinctly hipster personality.
Brunswick Street in Fitzroy is the home of some of Melbourne’s hippest eateries and bars, including my new favourite, the rooftop bar provocatively named Naked in the Sky.
Nearby Gertrude Street is less noisy, and it’s the place to find the artisanal ceramics and designer furniture that are now manufactured in local factories that once churned out screws and pipes. I’m sure my girls will find coloured vase souvenirs at Mud, for instance.
Eclectic Smith Street in Collingwood offers further opportunities to savour Melbourne’s brand of industrial chic. Exploration of these villages could be scheduled in the itinerary after French toast with vanilla-soaked apricots – and, of course, coffee, at Auction Rooms, a culinary hotspot in the north.
A few days back with Melbourne has left me feeling rather amorous towards my old town. I’m impressed with the new developments and pleased that the old attractions remain. When our trip comes up, I hope my girlfriends will feel the attraction, too – or at least enjoy the buzz from all that fantastic coffee.