Sunday, 2 June 2013

Melbourne: Staying and Seeing

More on Melbourne, I only got back last Saturday but already it feels like a distant memory, so I am trying to get it all down before I forget any of the lovely details.

We flew with Royal Brunei Airlines as it was the cheapest option with the best flight times for us, at just over £700 each. We flew Friday evening and landed Sunday mornings, with stop-offs in Dubai for refuelling and in Brunei which meant we had the opportunity to stretch our legs every 7 hours or so (though at Brunei not so much space to do so, the airport is tiny). The middle leg of the journey was perfection, as a lot of people disembarked at Dubai, meaning we had loads of space to spread out (no such luck on the way back). I can't fault the airline, the service we received, and the food was pretty good for plane food too. It's a Muslim airline so there is no booze served on board but to be honest that doesn't bother me as I always get really dehydrated during a flight.

We booked the Cosmopolitan Hotel a couple of months before we travelled via's Top Secret Hotels and we got a real bargain at around £550 for 12 nights instead of £750. We'd toyed with finding an apartment and doing self catering, but we ended up going for the hotel option as it was better value, and we could use the saving we made for eating out, it was a holiday after all!

The hotel was great. We'd asked for a twin room (I didn't fancy sharing a bed with my mum for two weeks) and the room we got was huge, with a double and two singles, so it must have been a family room. There was loads of extra space which was great for a long stay as we actually felt comfortable, some hotel rooms are so poky you don't want to spend any time in them. The room came equipped with a mini fridge, air conditioning, a hairdryer and TV with DVD player and free wifi (although signal could be pretty weak, on a couple of occasions I had to go to the hotel reception and hover just to upload a photo). The hotel staff were really helpful and were flexible enough to let us check in early when we arrived after the long journey, and were also able to help with airport shuttle bookings and local information, and there were DVDs and magazines to borrow in reception, along with a computer for guest use.

The location was great too, just off Ackland Street in St Kilda and 5 minutes from the beach, with a tram stop just over the road to get into Melbourne which took about 20 minutes. Being out of the city and right by the beach just added to the holiday feel. The trams start pretty early so a couple of times we were woken by that, and we had been told that St Kilda was pretty lively too. To be honest on a couple of nights there were some shouty folk loitering outside the hostel/club opposite but in the main it was pretty peaceful, maybe it wouldn't be so much in the height of the Australian summertime. Breakfast wasn't included in our rate and was pretty pricy (hotel breakfast always is) but there were plenty of cafes nearby for breakfast. We opted to go to a nearby supermarket and bought raisin bread and some butter and had that in the mornings if we weren't dining out.

Now for the sights:

My sister, who we went to visit bought us some iVenture cards, which cost $50 and can be used at a number of attractions in Melbourne. We used ours for a one hour Melbourne River Cruise which is usually $23 dollars per adult, as well as entry to Melbourne Aquarium, normally $35, and Old Melbourne Gaol, normally $25 again, so the pass was well worth the money.

The river cruise on the Yarra, departing from Docklands gave us a leisurely start to our trip, the day after we arrived still up to the eyeballs with jetlag, a relaxing one-hour cruise with live commentary and complimentary tea and coffee on board

At the aquarium, a great attraction for kids (or big ones) there's plenty to see in terms of colourful fish, fancy seahorses and sharks, but the highlight for us was the King and Gentoo Penguins. We spent ages watching them eating, swimming and playing, my sister and I were completely giddy!

The Old Melbourne Gaol was an interesting place where you can learn about infamous Australian criminal Ned Kelly, as well and conditions in the gaol, along with the history of the place. You can also opt for the Watchhouse experience, where a prisonguard treats the group present like they're actual criminals including locking you in a cell! That was quite an experience. For this portion, they warn of "adult themes" but there was a couple with a small child in our group so I think the guard toned it down a bit on this occasion.

We also took ourselves to the Immigration Museum, which gives the history of Melbourne in terms of the migrant population that have made the city what it is. The whole museum (and my whole experience in Melbourne) gave me the impression that the attitude in Melbourne is "come on in, there's enough for everybody", which is refreshing when you're faced with bigoted attitudes in Britain about foreigners "coming over here and taking all our jobs". There was an incredible moving photography exhibition called "Leaving Dublin" by Irish photographer David Monahan, about Irish people coming to Australia seeking a better life. Their despair at their current situation and apparent hope of more prosperous times in Australia was really touching,  I am actually welling up just thinking about it. My sister lives in a house with 14 other English and Irish young people, and their views match the tone of the exhibition, they don't feel like there's anything for them at home. If you happen to be visiting Melbourne before 25th August, I recommend it. Entry is $10 per adult, but free for concessions, so my pensioner mum and student sister got in for free. Before going here we went to the Melbourne Visitor Centre at Federation Square and picked up loads of attractions brochures, some of which had coupons inside, so I was able to redeem a 20% off voucher at the museum and paid only $8.

On arrival in Melbourne we found out that the Hollywood Costume exhibition from the V&A was in town, I missed it's London tenure so we went along to that ($19.50 per adult). It was at the ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) at the incredible Federation Square. It was so incredible to see Vivien Leigh's green curtain dress from Gone with the Wind, Audrey Hepburn's ultimate LBD from Breakfast at Tiffany's and an array of costumes from the Mighty Meryl's back catalogue. The ACMI's permanent exhibition is pretty awesome too with loads of interactive activities for kids and a load on Australian film (Baz Luhrmann, y'all). The Hollywood Costume exhibition remains at the the ACMI until Sunday 18th August.

Hollywood in Melbourne, ACMI

Federation Square
In terms of European exhibitions mum really wanted to check out Monet's Garden, whose work was on display at the National Gallery of Victoria, on loan from Paris. This was a lovely peaceful exhibition, especially the film which depicted the last day of the season at Giverny. we paid $26 each for entry to Monet but the rest of the museum was free entry so we enjoyed checking out the European and Asian art and the small but perfectly formed Dior and Yamamoto exhibition, as well as the Ballet and Fashion exhibit. 

A major trip highlight was a day trip to the Great Ocean Road with AAT Kings. We got the best possible weather that day, it was hot and sunny, perfect viewing conditions. We went through Anglesea, Lorne, Apollo Bay up to the Twelve Apostles and finished at London Bridge in time for sunset. The coach driver gave a lot of information throughout the tour and was very helpful throughout. The tour cost $120 which included lunch at the Apollo Bay Hotel. I wouldn't bother taking the lunch option. It was $21 extra but when we got there we were given menus showing a limited number of dishes from the main menu which were all priced $15-17 each. It was also a bit downmarket and my portion of fish and chips was miniscule, it hardly resembled the luxe surroundings and large tray of succulent prawns displayed in the brochure. The driver mentioned that there were plenty of places to eat in the area for the benefit of those who hadn't had lunch included and we ended up wishing we'd gone for something different.

Regardless of the lunch aspect (to be honest, we ate enough other glorious food across the rest of the trip so it wasn't much of a hardship, yet another post to come on food later!), this was one of the best days, with glorious weather and breathtaking scenery. Here's some snapshots.

On our last full day in Melbourne, we took a trip to Melbourne Zoo ($26.10 per adult) which is just a short train ride away. It was a rainy day, in fact it never stopped, but we got to see some giant things (elephants), fluffy things (bears), some cute things (penguins, seals, meerkats) and some downright scary things (snakes). It was so great seeing the kangaroos, penguins, emus, koalas and platypus and acting like a kid with my sister. That night, as we made our way back to the hotel, we were talking about all the great, Australian things we'd seen on the trip when a possum ran along the wall next to us - FULL HOUSE!

There's so much to see and do in Melbourne, I know there's probably loads more that I haven't even touched on, there's something for everyone in this amazing, multicultural city, I loved every moment.