A Tale of Two Cities

Australia has long held sway over my imagination, a consequence in all likelihood of a misspent decade gorging on Neighbours and Home & Away as a child. But despite spending three years a mere pond’s hop away from it, I’ve still barely scratched the arid surface of this vast and obscure continent. 

With only a couple of months to travel in between leaving Auckland and our full-time return to the UK, we had to prioritise and decided to focus on South East Asia and the USA over New Zealand’s friendly Antipodean rival. Nevertheless, we did reserve ten days to catch up with friends in Melbourne and Sydney, two cities I’ve visited before but which, on this trip, I found myriad new reasons to cherish. 

            I must confess that Melbourne, our tour’s first port of call, did not exactly bowl me over on my initial visit some four and a half years ago. Knowing my character - and specifically my love of coffee and culture - friends had often remarked that Melbourne and I would be a heavenly match, but on my virgin trip to Australia I surprised them and myself by liking rather more the glitz and glamour of Sydney, with its iconic harbour and brassy beaches. 

            Melbourne, characterized by café-lined back alleys, grand arcades and world class art spaces, had felt more like a European city to me, and therefore inherently less interesting to this London-based Brit. And with limited time constraining me to a whistle-stop tour of little beyond the grid-based city centre, the charms of Melbourne’s eclectic suburbs sadly eluded me. But with the benefit on this visit of local friends to show us around, I was finally able to experience the best of a city I should have fallen for half a decade ago. 

              After Auckland, where bars often sit empty on a Monday night and city squares can lie vacant at midday but for sun-basking pigeons, I was struck immediately by how busy Melbourne was. For all the ease of living in a quieter city, I quickly realized that I’d missed the clatter and velocity of a London or a Paris, and Melbourne certainly had shades of both. For one, it boasts an exceptional public transport system revolving around an extensive and always timely tram network. I’ve often thought Auckland, in some future era of higher population and prosperity, would be a perfect candidate for a tram line, and Melbourne certainly showed its benefits as it rattled us from suburb to suburb, showcasing a city sparkling with culture, shopping and entertainment.

            An early highlight was a trawl through the labyrinthine Queen Victoria Market northwest of the city centre and home to purveyors of every food type imaginable. Recalling France’s grand marchés, its narrow undercover alleyways are hemmed with dozens of window stalls proffering breads, cheeses, pastries, salamis, chocolates, craft beers, juices, sandwiches and a hundred other delectable goodies. Our friends do almost all their food shopping there, and it was easy to see why, the range of fresh meat and fish particularly impressing. How anyone but the most discerning chef can hope to choose between over twenty different butchers flogging what appeared to be exactly the same cuts, joints and minces remained a mystery.

            Our mission at the Market was to source breakfast and we left sated with the dreamy pairing of a piping hot borek (a type of Turkish bread roll laden with spinach and feta) and an excellent filter coffee from an establishment whose tagline was “We love to make coffee for the city that loves to drink it”. Pretentious, perhaps, but their caffeinated output certainly delivered to the marketing spiel. 

            An afternoon was spent hobbling (on account of a new pair of Converse I’d foolishly overlooked to wear in before packing them as my only holiday walking shoe) around Brunswick Street in the north eastern suburb of Fitzroy, another trip highlight that cast Melbourne in a whole new light for me. Bringing to mind parts of San Francisco, with screeching trams rattling through unfeasibly long streets studded with boutique shops, bars and cafes, Fitzroy is a haven for anyone with a vaguely alternative taste in fashion, furniture and the arts. The homeware emporiums were particularly inspiring, with gorgeous antiques jostling with expert modern craft, and there were so many eateries that a resident might never have to visit the same one twice. 

            On which note, this being a holiday for us as much as an opportunity to explore a new city, a significant chunk of our visit was inevitably spent eating and drinking. Again, we were blessed with local friends to escort us around the hotspots, but I was impressed in general by the high quality of bars, restaurants and cafes we encountered. The volume of rooftop bars, dotted across the whole city and offering skyscraper views as a backdrop to a twilight beer or cocktail, particularly stood out, and left me wondering why more cities don’t make such crowd-pleasing use of their upper floors. 

            One watering hole we didn’t enter but which certainly had me intrigued was a garish black brick corner bar near the Victoria Market named, I kid you not, Witches In Britches. From the rubber ghouls behind iron bars that cackled as you walked past, it was clear this was no ordinary establishment, but given its proximity to a strip of brothels it was unclear whether this was designed as a fetishist’s fairground or hen party’s final resting place. Either way, I was more than happy to people-watch from across the street rather than risk poisoning from a pint of witches brew. 

           Away from the CBD, it turned out Melbourne offers almost as much seaside interest as the more famously beachy Sydney. A tram ride through the gentrified and leafy suburb of South Yarra and the shopperheaven that is Chapel Street led us to St Kilda, where a long beachfront walk culminates in a cluster of oceanside bars, gourmet patisseries and the glamorously fading Luna amusement park. 

More scenic was the daytrip we took with a hire car to the Mornington Peninsular, south east of Melbourne and a good two hour drive to its spindly apex. Once we escaped the clutches of the city’s seemingly endless outer suburbs, the landscape opened up into an idyll of rolling hills, lush woodland and sparkling sea views. 

Though the area is renowned for its wineries, a limited timeframe for returning our vehicle sadly prevented us from indulging in any cellar door tastings, but we were able to stop for a good old-fashioned pub lunch at the seafront hotel in Portsea and then gobble down a hopelessly decadent vanilla slice at the otherwise uninspiring town of Sorrento, where such slices are proclaimed, somewhat dubiously, to be “world famous”.

If we harboured any negative feeling as we departed Melbourne, it was reserved only for the cost of eating out, which felt high when converting back to the NZ dollars in our bank accounts. But Kiwis have long bemoaned how much better paid Australian jobs are compared to their New Zealand counterparts, so the more expensive cost of living probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. 

As I’ve blogged about it previously, I won’t linger too long on Sydney, where we spent five nights following our week in Melbourne. The city remained as intoxicating as ever, in part thanks to the exceptional weather, unblemished blue skies and thirty degree temperatures belying the fact that it was officially only a couple of weeks into spring. 

With an ever-rising number of Kiwi and British friends now based there, Sydney continues to hold an allure for me, and our mates didn’t hold back from teasing us about our impending return to the damp and chill of the British winter while they bask smugly in the searing Australian sunshine. 

Sydney’s weather though is not without its drawbacks, as we discovered during a hot but lasciviously windy walk through scene-setting Surry Hills. Every gust of muggy air swept up and forged a maelstrom of tree dust, engendering the unpleasant sensation of battling through a sandstorm. Our eyes and throats were so raw after only a few minutes of valiant exploration in the face of this woody onslaught that we were compelled to take refuge for a good half an hour in a gift shop until the winds died down. 

The blustery weather again proved obstructive the following day, when we were forced to call off a planned boat trip around Sydney Harbour just as we’d finished loading aboard our hired vessel enough food and beer to pacify the Wallabies. Though there was certainly a hot breeze coursing through the bay where we were moored, it hadn’t initially seemed to us seafaring novices to be anything particularly untoward, but the boatyard’s owner was insistent that it would be far too choppy to be enjoyable once we got out on the water. 

Before disappointment could set in, however, the owner graciously suggested that we could move to another, far more luxurious boat in the marina and spend the afternoon playing on it, albeit without actually moving anywhere. Though this wasn’t quite the sightseeing afternoon we’d had in mind, it would have been churlish to complain about spending four hours hanging out with friends in brilliant sunshine, and with all that food and booze still to be guzzled. We even managed to fit in a spot of fishing - not that we caught anything, so well adapted the local fish proved to be as they nibbled through all our bait without once attaching themselves to our increasingly deflated hooks. A couple of our group went for a dip themselves in the water, though when we later noticed, mere meters from the boat, a stingray that was closer in size to Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi submarine than your average marine life form, I was thankful I hadn’t joined them. 

The rest of our time in Sydney was spent exploring some of its inner suburbs. The quaint terraces and shady trees of Paddington, for example, provided the backdrop to a pleasant afternoon dipping in and out of boutique shops and cafes. We especially enjoyed a pair of lunchtime toasties at a café called, cutely, Not Just Coffee, on narrow Perry Lane off Oxford Street, followed by a stroll around the perimeter of the vast Centennial Park. We also paid an early evening visit to Bondi Beach, where lively seafront pub The Bucket List cleansed our weary limbs with pints of pale ale soundtracked by a live dreampop band. 

Outside of the CBD, we were fortunate enough to spend a couple of nights with friends who live in Little Bay, a sleepy community several inlets down the coast from Bondi. Though the area has none of the entertainment options that abound in the more central suburbs, it does boast a stunning secluded beach and cliff-top walking track that meanders for a couple of kilometers through the local golf course. We enjoyed a memorable afternoon flip-flop sauntering along it, dodging golf balls and wary of the snakes that were said to have been spotted in the area, but also marveling at the tourist brochure views that left me briefly questioning why on earth I was giving all this up for the grime of inner city London. 

Yes, I’d be lying if I said that leaving Australia after a fortnight of non-stop sun-kissed fun didn’t tug a little at the heartstrings. Certainly, it hit home as we boarded our Thailand-bound flight at Sydney Airport that this really was the end of our time ‘down under’. But with so many friends this side of the world, and with so much of Oz still undiscovered, we won’t need any excuses to come back again and again.  


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