Melbourne shuns beaches and boardwalks for coffee, culture and creativity, finds Stylist contributor Laura Millar
Sydney’s like the girl at school with the killer looks but not, perhaps, the personality. I’ve only visited once and was blown away by its impressive, if showy, Opera House, surfer lifestyle and healthy vibe; basically the LA of Australia. In recent years I’d heard about Melbourne having more to offer those who brave the 22-hour flights.
The word was that, despite being located on the southeast coast of the world’s smallest continent, 10,500 miles from the UK, it had a rather European appeal. It’s riddled with art galleries and museums, it takes food seriously (smashed avo on toast was invented here) and it runs on caffeine (it also takes credit for giving the world the flat white. And the ‘goth latte’). So far, so intrigued. And when the taxi pulls up at my hotel, the QT Melbourne in the city’s central business district (CBD), the first thing I see is a man with a full lumberjack beard and checked shirt. Truly, the hipster has landed in the southern hemisphere.
Inside, I’m greeted by a fabulous creature in a beret atop a glossy black bob, who introduces herself as Michaela, ‘director of chaos’. This is part of QT’s philosophy; with a selection of boutique art and design properties across Australia, it focuses on individuality, which applies as much to the offbeat, friendly service as to the eclectic, contemporary installations by largely local artists dotted throughout the premises. QT’s location puts it right at the centre of Melbourne’s action: despite this being the ‘business’ district, it’s also home to most of the city’s newest, hippest bars and restaurants, which are mostly within walking distance.
One of Melbourne’s endearing idiosyncrasies is its network of laneways. The CBD’s streets are laid out in a Manhattan-style grid; behind the main thoroughfares is a network of smaller streets created for tradesmen to use. Its warehouses are now home to independent boutiques, drinking dens and eateries with walls covered in striking street art. It’s hard to choose a favourite spot, but ACDC Lane (named after the Australian heavy metal band) might just be it; not only is it covered in a massive mural depicting a child’s hand drawing childlike figures (very meta), it’s also home to Cherry Bar, a rock’n’roll dive that’s hosted gigs by Prince and Lady Gaga.
For lunch, I follow the crowds to Flinders Lane, which has its fair share of slick offerings. There’s Cumulus Inc, whose menu specialises in contemporary Aussie cuisine; Coda, which does Indian fusion; or cool pan-Asian diner Supernormal. I visit Chin Chin (chinchinrestaurant.com.au), serving up fresh Thai, in a vast, airy room decorated with vintage-style posters and neon signs. After kingfish sashimi and salt and pepper squid, I stroll to Collins Street, the CBD’s main artery.
Its stone Victorian buildings, paid for by the millions made during the city’s mid-19th century gold rush, wouldn’t look out of place in London or Manchester. This is where you come to window shop Tiffany, Cartier, Prada and D&G; no wonder the stretch that these designer stores are on is known as Collins Street’s ‘Paris End’. More suited to my budget are the hip indies of Fitzroy, the city’s answer to Shoreditch. There are vintage shops and homegrown designers such as Virginia Martin, whose label Bul (bul.com.au) is full of simple, elegant pieces inspired by her travels, and Lisa Gorman (gormanshop.com.au), who champions playful prints. There are cool bars nearby, too. I’m drawn to George’s (georgesbar.com.au) – decked out as an homage to Seinfeld character George Costanza and offering seasonal cocktails (the blood-orange liqueur ice cream float was pretty good) and, er, toasties.
The next day I take a tram down to St Kilda, Melbourne’s answer to Brighton, complete with wonderfully British-looking windswept seafront. Lunch is at neighbourhood institution Donovans, which serves obscenely fresh seafood, before a stroll to the area’s best photo-op spot: the grinning lips of the kitsch, moon-
faced entrance to Luna Park, a fairground dating back to 1912. Melbourne has its fair share of open spaces, including its elegant Royal Botanic Gardens, but getting away from the city for the weekend is popular with locals, who take the hour’s drive south to lesser-known Mornington Peninsula.
Hiring a car, I find out why they’re so drawn here; yes, it’s got proper sandy beaches, but set among the idyllic countryside are dozens and dozens of wineries. The climate – derived from being so close to the ocean, coupled with the soil – makes it a haven for growing pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. So you can basically have your own mini-Sideways adventure, stopping off for tastings at leisure. Most of the vineyards have restaurants, and some have accommodation. My first stop is at Montalto (montalto.com.au), a traditional, family run winery where you can lunch on the terrace with a view over the endless vines.
Two more places really stand out because of their impressive, city-influenced architecture. The Port Phillip Estate is a contemporary, sweeping, steel and glass construction that was built into a hill. But I fall in love with Jackalope, a converted 19th-century homestead. Now, it’s a sleek, low-slung building filled with unique, eye-popping pieces of artwork and light installations, and 46 chic rooms. Sydney can keep its surf; I’m sold on its little sister.