Holiday in Australia when the snow is falling because it brings out the huskies, penguins and endless mugs of hot chocolate.
WHEN there is sun and surf to be enjoyed, not many head off to climes that require suitcases stuffed with fleece-lined coats. But for a winter baby like me, escaping mid-year temperatures straddling the 40 degree Celsius mark to enjoy some bracing weather is a no-brainer. Especially when the destination is sophisticated yet edgy Melbourne, in the state of Victoria. While it is not the season for events like the Australian F1 Grand Prix or the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival, my itinerary is full—from exploring the city’s labyrinth of hidden laneways and exploring its many cafés, to sipping wine in Yarra Valley and spotting penguins at Philip Island. Here are some of the things you can pack into a holiday Down Under.
Just under two hours from Melbourne, this is a quick getaway. While children can find plenty to keep them amused at A Maze’N Things (with illusion rooms, puzzles and an upcoming wing devoted to magic), I make a beeline for the wildlife. The season’s just right to spot fur seal pups gambolling in the water, so I hop on the EcoBoat tour (`3,340 onwards), which takes me to Seal Rocks. How do I explain a few hundred pups, squealing, playing and coming right up to the boat for a little tête-a-tête? Absolutely entrancing. The Nobbies—with a big blowhole and fantastic views of the coast—is another must visit. I was lucky to spot some roosting penguins before I took their virtual trip to Antarctica (`465 onwards). A cold room simulates the temperature, while photographs, videos and more help you understand the fauna. There’s even a nifty little illusion that will help you click pictures with orcas, seals and penguins. I wrap up the day at the Penguin Parade (`645 onwards), a nightly routine where I spot hordes of Little Penguins, the smallest of the species at just 33 cm, waddling their way to their burrows after a day of feeding. Details: visitphillipisland.com
There are museums, malls and cafés aplenty here. But I discover that one of the best ways to explore the city is to get lost in its myriad lanes. Coat firmly buttoned against a cold wind and umbrella in hand (it rains whenever the whim strikes, so be prepared) I set out with Nicholas Jones, a local artist who sculpts books, teaches and leads fun excursions when he has the time. We start off from Federation Square, dipping below the city to find a gallery tucked inside a subway station, jumping across tram lines, to check out stores selling local ceramic ware, and popping into alleyways-turned-restaurants for a quick croissant. Drop by Koko Black at the Royal Arcade for a sip of indulgent hot chocolate (the chilli, at `360, is the perfect pick-me-up) before checking out the mosaic work at Block Arcade or the painting of Chloe (the famous 1875 nude) at the Young and Jackson Hotel. A young 181-year history means much of Melbourne’s heritage sites are beautifully preserved. Besides selfies by the clocks at Flinders Street station or perched atop The Public Purse (a red granite and steel sculpture by Simon Perry), two of the standouts for me are the Switchboard Cafe—a literal hole-in-the-wall outlet that once housed, you guessed it, a switchboard—and the street art at ACDC lane. Three-hour tours from $95 (`4,892) onwards. Details: hiddensecretstours.com
A leisurely hour’s drive away, along roads lush with green, is this picturesque valley with its many vineyards and wineries. I spend the time trying to spot the elusive wombat, and though I draw a blank, flocks of scarlet rosellas and sulphercrested cockatoos keep me entertained on the trip. After a stop at Meletos for lunch (a café that boasts regional cuisine, I recommend the mushroom and chestnut soup, roasted duck breast and a chilled glass of pear cider), it’s chocolate tasting time at the Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery. Crafted by Belgian and French chocolatiers, there are over 250 hand-crafted varieties on offer. When my basket—overflowing with truffles, pastilles and nougats—gets too heavy, I head to their cafe where hot chocolate, as always, bolsters my energy. To wash down all that dark goodness, we head next door to Punt Road wineries, for a quick tasting that has me debating whether the notes of cardamom and raspberry in their pinot noir beat the nectarine and peach in the chardonnay. Details: visityarravalley.com.au
What’s winter without some time spent playing in the snow? And if you add a fun sled ride with huskies to the mix, it makes for great memories.
My trip to the alpine town, which is roughly three-and-a-half hours from Melbourne, begins with a ski lesson. Any confidence I have vanishes as soon as I try to walk in unwieldy show boots. At the end of two hours, however, I manage to ski down a gentle slope without toppling over— egged on by my six-foot-five instructor from Austria for whom truckloads of patience seem to come naturally. But my hoorah of joy is quickly silenced when a bunch of five-year-olds glide by effortlessly. This popular winter retreat doesn’t let you dwell on small hiccups for too long though. After some snowman-building and tobogganing to revive my spirits, a team of huskies do the rest. Sixteen boisterous dogs, ever ready with a wag and a friendly lick, take us on a ride around the resort. Getting to steer the sled is a story I plan on recounting endlessly. And did I mention14 cute-as-a-button puppies that I get to cuddle? Details: mtbuller.com.au
On day four, we strike gold. Literally. Though sitting in the car for 90 minutes in the late evening, when I could be nursing my umpteenth cup of hot chocolate, isn’t too enticing, the promise of gold at the end of the ride is incentive enough. A historical park and open-air museum that pays tribute to the gold rush, Sovereign Hill has buildings reminiscent of the late 1800s, a stream where you can pan for gold (if you can brave standing in ankle-deep cold water, that is), a fun tour of the mines led by a towering guide in a top hat and tails, and plenty of cafes were you can tuck into pasties and pies. But the highlight is their Winter Wonderlights show. We gather on Main Street, lined with Christmas trees and fairy lights, to listen to Christmas carols, as the buildings come alive with a light show that is equal parts whimsical and riveting. Faux snow adds to the effect, though we get some of the real kind, too, just enough to dust our hair. Details: sovereignhill.com.au
Queen Victoria Market
There’s nothing like shopping where the locals do. And in Melbourne, that’s the Queen Victoria Market. Be warned, even a quick trip will see you carting back a lot of seasonal produce, besides breads, chocolates and even kangaroo meat (which you can bring home unchallenged). If you are staying in a serviced apartment, pick up fresh meat and seafood for a barbecue. This is also the best place to buy souvenirs—like the boomerangsI found for just `1,000. Pick up: Bottles of Rooftop Honey, Melbourne’s initiative to promote urban beekeeping. `670 onwards. Details: qvm.com.au
In the midst of all the wineries in Yarra Valley, the Four Pillars gin distillery is a rarity. But this new entrant’s (late 2013) labels are stocked in some of Australia’s best bars. My tattooed guide, with the sweetest grin ever, explains that they make their gin in small batches (420 bottles), using native botanicals. Since the proof of the pudding is in the tasting (`515), I try their top five—the Rare Dry, Navy Strength, Spiced Negroni, Modern Australian and Bloody Shiraz. Burning a blaze down my throat, they leave me in a happy mood for the rest of the afternoon. Pick up: The Four Pillars gift pack, with a set of three bottles (200 ml), at Rs4,400. Details: fourpillarsgin.com.au
Singapore Airlines is a good pick to fly to Melbourne, especially with its current all-inclusive return fares—starting at `63,000 for economy class and Rs 1 lakh for premium economy (for bookings till August 31). At Changi Airport, don’t forget to collect your Changi Dollar Voucher for $40 (`2,000 approx), which can be redeemed at shops and restaurants (till March 31, 2017). And on the long-haul flight, enjoy their ‘Deliciously Wholesome’ meals. The latest addition to the menu, these have been created by acclaimed chefs, including Carlo Cracco, using ingredients rich in macro and phytonutrients, to restore and rejuvenate the body. Details: singaporeair.com
Reserve a seat
You can’t be in Melbourne and not be tempted to eat 24×7. While entry into fine dining outlets like Andrew McConnell’s Cutler & Co is elusive (the wait list can stretch over a month or two), I find the casual dining equally great—with many lunches and dinners spent tasting the city’s multi-cultural influences. A few favourites
TRUNK: At the corner of Exhibition and Little Lonsdale, this modern Italian café is housed in a 150 year-old heritage building. Dig into modern Italian food, with the grilled octopus and a delicious seafood risotto being my pick from the menu. Details: trunktown. com.au
TONKA: Located where two of the city’s street art-rich lanes, ACDC and Duckboard Place, meet is Tonka. With executive chef Adam D’Sylva’s Indianinspired menu, the dishes stay away from the clichéd and have fun—like the spanner crab bhel puri, kale pakoras and the spiciest steak I’ve ever eaten, with Kerala spices. Details: tonkarestaurant. com.au
CELLAR BAR: Sit down to one of the best tiramisus in town, at one of the oldest restaurants in the city. With celebrated chef Guy Grossi at the head, this informal space is warm and charming, with leather backed stools and a quintessentially Italian menu. Details: grossiflorentino.com
GAZI: At tables placed under hanging clay pots, try (MasterChef Australia judge) George Calombaris’ version of Greek street food or, as he likes to call it, Hellenic ‘dirty food’. While a 10-dish sharing menu is available, I suggest their trio of dips (the taramasalata
being the standout), followed by some crab souvlaki and baklava Greekbrest. Details: gazirestaurant.com.au
By Surya Praphulla Kumar
The writer was invited by Tourism Victoria.