I’ve never believed in filling up contest forms, for the simple reason that I feel it’s almost impossible to win among the lakhs of entries. Did you hear me say ‘almost’? Well, yes, because once in a lifetime, fate may spring a pleasant surprise on you. As it did for me! It was this fate that made me fill up a lucky draw contest form at Inox movie theatre when I went to watch the Shah Rukh Khan starrer ‘Chak De India’ in 2007. Call it karma, destiny or plain luck – I landed up being the sole winner of the contest! And the prize was an all-expense paid trip for two to Melbourne! So with great excitement, my husband and I ventured Down Under in April 2008 with a free Melbourne stay under our belt and a not-so-free trip to Sydney thrown in at our own expense.
Though Melbourne doesn’t have any iconic claim to fame, its ‘liveability’ is one of its greatest attractions. It’s a laid-back city with an endearing mix of old and new-world charm… an easy-going, yet sophisticated style. It’s not a place where you need to do something to feel you’re experiencing the city. So you needn’t wander around Melbourne just to tick off ‘must-see’ items on your list!
Instead, stroll through one of its many beautiful parks, or wander around the immaculately preserved Victorian-era downtown, or simply linger over a cup of coffee at one of the trendy cafes along the Yarra waterfront to soak in the vibes of this city. The architecture and random sculptures, stylish restaurants and bars, funky shops and galleries, parks and quirky laneways – all exude a certain charisma that adds to Melbourne’s appeal.
On our first day in Melbourne, we set out to explore the city on foot, hoping to unravel its beguiling secrets. We ambled along, soaking in the Victorian feel – from the gracious homes and wide avenues, to the landscaped public gardens and roadside cafes. Burgundy-coloured trams rumbled through the streets, imparting a quaint charm to Melbourne’s urban identity. On the way, we passed Flinders Street Station; its architectural grandeur and heritage style reminded me of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the only difference being that the former seemed cleaner and better-maintained than the latter!
Finally, we crossed Princess Bridge to reach Southbank, the chic riverside strip nestled on the banks of the Yarra river. As I sat on the promenade, taking in the serene atmosphere, it struck me that the standard of living here was quite high and the happiness quotient even more so.
Even on a weekday, people were relaxed, confident and seemed to be enjoying life – a far cry from the stressful lives we lead back home. Some people were sailing across the river, others were jogging or riding bicycles along the promenade, while many were just hanging out by the waterfront. Then there were some coochie-cooing couples who were too engrossed in each other to notice that sea gulls were merrily picking away at their food. Well, I guess when you’re in love, nothing else matters!
Having got a taste of Melbourne’s mesmerising charm, we decided to check out its historic and culturally significant landmarks. So the next day, we boarded the free City Tourist Shuttle. Our first stop was Carlton Gardens and Royal Exhibition Building, recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site. The display of flowers, plants, garden sculptures and fountains at Carlton Gardens was truly spectacular.
We then proceeded to Queen Victoria Market (QVM), a vast and vibrant centre of trade and commerce, which is over 125 years old. The sprawling market is a curious blend of high-quality food shops (fantastic breads, cakes, cheese, wine, meat, fruit and vegetables) and stalls flaunting cheap clothes, bags, shoes and souvenirs. Seeing the bustling marketplace, my husband couldn’t help but remark that QVM was a glorified version of Mumbai’s Crawford market!
Our next stop was William Street, the legal district of Melbourne. The Supreme Court, with its domed library, and the County Court are striking examples of the city’s grand architecture.
My husband, who’s a corporate lawyer, was excited about posing for pictures in front of the Supreme Court, but pooh-poohed my suggestion of clicking his photo outside the County Court, saying it was too down-market! Well, the advocates in their starched white shirts and dapper suits looked far from down-market.
Having had enough of buildings, it was now time for some excitement. And what better place to catch some action than the Sports and Entertainment Precinct, which houses the Rod Laver Arena (home of the Australian Open) and the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). Since the Aussie Open wasn’t going on currently, we were allowed to see some of the tennis courts where players were practising. We even checked out the gift shop where towels used in Australian Open 2008 were being sold at a 20% discount!
We then proceeded to take a round of the MCG, where my hubby and I took turns posing with Sir Donald Bradman’s statue. Though the actual grounds were off limits for visitors, I managed to sneak a peak from a windowpane, and I could just imagine the thundering applause of spectators reverberating throughout the MCG during a match.
My husband even dragged me for an audio tour of the National Sports Museum and Old Melbourne Cricket Club Museum, which house a fantastic array of sports heritage attractions. The curator was delighted on seeing me because he said I was one of the very few women who have visited these museums. Little did he know I had no choice!
Next on our list was the Shrine of Remembrance, a gigantic stone structure with an eternal flame, dedicated to the warriors who died fighting for their country.
We decided to round off our city tour with an artistic touch. So we headed for the vibrant precinct of Federation Square, which brings together a creative mix of attractions such as the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, NGV International, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, etc.
As twilight set in, we felt it was ‘high’ time for an adrenaline rush. The Skydeck on the 88th floor of Eureka Tower was just what we wanted. The awe-inspiring view from the top took our breath away – the Yarra river gently flowing along the city’s landmarks, the historic Victoria station buzzing with commuters, thousands of twinkling lights… it was truly a sight to cherish.
On our last day in Melbourne, we covered Melbourne Aquarium and China Town at breakneck speed, so as to leave us with enough time to visit Phillip Island in the evening. The highlight of our trip was the Penguin Parade at Summerland beach, one of the most popular attractions in the Southern Hemisphere. Every night at dusk, little ‘fairy’ penguins emerge from the sea to waddle up Summerland beach and make their way to their burrows. It’s a timeless ritual of nature that has been followed for thousands of years, and we were indeed lucky to witness it.
When we reached Phillip Island, we took our places on the beach along with hordes of other tourists and waited with bated breath for the first signs of motion in the sea. As darkness approached, someone cried out, “Look! Over there!” We craned our necks and strained our eyes to locate our feathered friends, but it was impossible to make out for sure – was it a head, a beak, or a tiny wing? Then there was another cry, we turned our heads, and yes, something was moving for sure. A hush of expectancy fell on the crowd. And then they came riding on the surf – wave after wave of tiny penguins emerged from the sea and accumulated in groups on the shore.
But they didn’t start waddling up the beach immediately. The penguins seemed to be consulting among themselves as to whether it was safe to enter hostile territory or not. When a sizeable number of penguins had congregated, they felt it was okay to proceed. But no sooner did they start walking up the beach, than one of them panicked and dived back into the water. And the entire group jumped right back after him! After a few minutes they re-emerged, again held a conference, and restarted their march. But then another penguin developed cold feet and dived back, and all the others went in after him. Back to square one. Phew! What a tiresome process!
This back-and-forth ritual continued till all the penguins built up the courage to wobble up the beach. And then began the triumphant march of the penguins as they made their way through the people seated on the beach, back to their nests. Tonight, these frail-looking pudgies had braved the seas and conquered their fears once again. This massive avian display of courage was an awesome sight! But even more endearing was to see them cuddling their loved ones in their burrows, once they were back home. Finally, what took the cake was this sign in the car park: ‘Please check under your car before driving away’ – lest one of the penguins decided to make a pit-stop there!
All said and done, our date with Melbourne had ended on a high note. Our next stop was Sydney. Read all about it in ‘Part 2: Sizzling Sydney’.
(Note: A modified and shortened version of the above article was published in the ET Travel section of The Economic Times on August 14, 2008. I have reproduced the original version here for the reading pleasure of fellow Ghumakkars.)