Melbourne doesn’t have the iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge; it doesn’t have the world famous Bondi Beach and budgie smuggler-wearing lifesavers, so what is it about Melbourne that keeps me coming back over again and again? Let me share with you my recent 4-day trip to Melbourne and Mornington Peninsula; the reason why I fell in love with this charming city and its surroundings may just become apparent. This 4-day itinerary includes both first-time must see tourist attractions as well as hidden laneway cafes and sites for food lovers and returning visitors.
To maximise time in Melbourne, we caught an early Jetstar flight that got us in Melbourne Tullamarine airport shortly after 8am. Rush hour traffic wasn’t too bad and city skyline was soon visible. The taxi fare from the airport to CBD cost the four of us just under $70, which is cheaper than airport shuttle bus (Sky Bus) per head. We shared a decent sized two-bedroom service apartment on Russell Street by Chinatown.
First things first — breakfast on Hardware Street. It is very easy to navigate through Melbourne CBD because streets are divided into grids. Hardware Street is a laneway between Little Lonsdale and Bourke Street well known for a mishmash of popular cafes amongst locals and well informed inter-state foodie travellers (ahem). In my previous visit, I checked out Hardware Societe but this time I only have one place in mind — White Mojo (115 Hardware Street, Melbourne VIC). If you have seen pictures of their coffee and matcha latte on Instagram, you will know how exquisite they look. Only highly skilful baristas are able to draw foliage and swans out of milk in a tiny coffee cup and they are almost too beautiful to drink.
The signature dish here is a soft shell crab croissant burger with spicy mayonnaise. A large piece of deep fried soft shell crab and fried egg sandwiched between halved buttery croissants with coriander. For a healthier option, the smoked salmon is served with a glass lid sealing within swirls of white smoke. Once the lid is lifted, the smoke stimulates your sense before even tasting the dish. I came all the way from Sydney for the matcha latte and croissant burger and I wasn’t disappointed.
Melbourne is internationally celebrated for its rich art culture. Apart from National Gallery of Victoria (180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne VIC) for mainstream art exhibitions, street graffiti is another unique and distinctive cultural experience in Melbourne. A stone throw from White Mojo are a number of tiny laneways along Little Lonsdale Street that are worth checking out, including Finlay Lane, Drewery Lane, Croft Alley, just to name a few.
As we lost ourselves in the labyrinth of street arts, we were also consciously making our way toward Flinders Station in the city’s south. We passed the famous Bourke Street Shopping Mall, wandered down Union Lane where street art covers every surface, stepped into Degraves Street where the entire pavement is taken over by tiny cafes and restaurants, until finally we saw the striking yellow facade of Flinders Station and Federation Square.
After a quick stop at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), we strolled along the South Bank Promenade of Yarra River. Near the Promenade, you will find major tourist attractions such as Royal Botanic Garden, Southgate Shopping Centre, Crown Casino, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. It also boasts an abundance of prestigious restaurants and casual cafes and bars. We walked as far as Polly Woodside, a 1880s tall ship in the South Wharf precinct, before stopping for a drink in Boatbuilders’ Yard. The bar is as close to the water as you can get and offers panoramic views of the CBD skyline. A storm hit the city shortly after we ducked into the bar and the blue sky was engulfed by rolling dark clouds. We watched on as the sheer force of Mother Nature drenched the city whilst we stayed dry and cosy indoors.
A short taxi ride took us back to Russell Street where we had a quick bite in one of many dumpling houses in Chinatown. We deliberately chose Russell Street for its central location, providing direct access to Chinatown, the theatre district, Greek precinct, and Bourke street shopping mall. In my previous stay on Russell Street, I found an elegant cocktail bar called 1806 (169 Exhibition Street, Melbourne VIC) which had the most extensive list of cocktails and a most knowledgeable mixologist.
Dinner is a hard decision between two acclaimed fine dining establishments: Vue De Monde at the 55th floor of Rialto Tower or Ezard (Adelphi Hotel, 187 Flinders Lane, Melbourne VIC) in a stylish basement on Flinders Lane; the latter won due to the dietary requirement of my travel companion. Ezard has been awarded two chef hats in The Age Good Food Guide ever since it’s opening in 1999. The 8-course degustation menu starts from $165 per head and features a blend of Asian and contemporary ingredients. Japanese and Chinese inspirations such as yuzu, wasabi, shiitake, fermented black bean, reflect Chef Teage Ezard’s love affair with Asian cuisine. In 2006 he opened Gingerboy near Exhibition Street that brings Southeast Asian street food to Melbournians with an Australian adaption. It has since become one of the most recognised restaurants in Melbourne laneway culture.
We picked up our rental car and headed to Mornington Peninsula. Before the 90 minutes’ drive, we made a quick stop at Lune Croissant (119 Rose Street, Fitzroy, VIC) in Fitzroy on the outskirts of CBD. I needed to see for myself: Is this the best croissant ever made in Australia? In my book, the answer is yes. The entire warehouse is filled with the aroma of butter and coffee. The croissant couldn’t be fresher and flakier; the Snickers croffin (a hybrid of croissant and muffin) was divine and tasted just like the eponymous chocolate bar. The glass-encased working lab is where the magic happens with ultimate precision. The locally produced hot chocolate is rich, velvety, and creamy. We had breakfast and also ordered a box of six to take away. Melbourne has the Australian Open, the AFL grand final, and now the best croissant! I am jealous.
Mornington Peninsula is one of the most diverse holiday destinations in Australia. Whether you prefer to snorkel the pristine water along Rye Jetty, or taste cool climate wines in Red Hill, or simply sit back and relax in the natural hot spring pools, there is something for everyone.
There are coastal walks of varying lengths throughout the peninsula that offer breathtaking ocean views. Portsea is the most westerly town on the Mornington Peninsula and located on a thin strip of 2 kilometres in width. On the previous trip, we walked right to the tip of the peninsula, furthest from Portsea, where we could see ocean on both sides of the land. This time we ventured to the highest point on the Mornington Peninsula – Arthur’s Seat. Rising to a height of 305 metres, Arthur Seat Circuit walk is a 1.8km leisurely walk through Matthew Flinders Cairn, Seawinds Gardens and the William Ricketts Sculptures. There are a few look-outs along this circuit walk where you can have birds eye view of the entire Mornington Peninsula; on a clear day you are also able to see Melbourne CBD skyline in the distance across the water.
Don’t be alarmed if you stumble across wild kangaroos — they are very much accustomed to presence of tourists. Cable cars are being erected to provide more scenic access to the summit and are scheduled to open by end of 2016.
Nothing like a morning stroll by the beach and along the jetty to brighten up your day. The colour of the pristine water is ever changing in the sunshine from crystal clear to emerald green and then to dark blue. There is a snorkelling trail along the length of the Jetty. If you are lucky, you may spot weedy sea dragons; if you don’t fancy cold water, you may still spot starfish lying motionless at the bottom of sea bed at ankle deep water.
Feeling energised from the stroll, we drove to Red Hill for wine tasting. Home to more than 50 wineries, Mornington Peninsula is reputed for cool climate wine varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir while aromatic Pinot Gris and spicy Shiraz are emerging new highlights. The first winery we visited is Port Phillip Estate on Red Hill Road (263 Red Hill Road, Red Hill VIC). The architect-designed building spirals from the ground and forms a dramatic limestone exterior wall. Inside, the dining room and cellar door open to a timber terrace, taking advantage of a panoramic view of the vines and coast.
All dining tables are lined up to the curved ceiling to floor large glass panels. In this way, customers get uninterrupted views of this amazing scene when enjoying the world-class wines and food. We only planned to taste the wines but made an impromptu decision to have an early lunch here, seduced by this beautiful set-up.
On the weekend, a 3-course set menu is on offer at $38 per head. The 3 course consists of a bite, a small plate, and a large plate. My beef cheek croquet, blue cheese soufflé, and lemon sole pan fry are fresh ingredients cooked to perfection. The gourmet lunch as well as the picturesque surrounding make $38 feel like a steal.
Some other superb vineyards are a few minutes’ drive away on Shoreham Road. Montalto is one of the most popular wineries with a deck overlooking sculptures and vines. The winery offers both chef hat fine dining and casual pizzeria options.
A few hundred meters away Red Hill Estate is another award winning wine producer. When you pull into its driveway, the first thing you will notice is the stunning panoramic view of vineyards and the Western Port Bay beyond. How often and where else in the world have you come across a winery with magnificent views featuring both land and ocean? We couldn’t help walking down the glassy slope and admiring the spectacular view before entering the cellar door. The tasting costs $5 each but is waived if you purchase. While personally I am a Shiraz lover, I do enjoy a drop of crispy and fruity Pinot Gris. Red Hill Pinot Gris is exactly the kind of light, refreshing, zesty, and soft on palate white wine I enjoy either by itself or with seafood.
Almost next door to Montalto is Ashcombe Maze & Lavender Gardens (15 Red Hill-Shoreham Road, Shoreham VIC). This is the second time I visited this maze garden and this time I was determined to find my way out of the maze. In addition to the main North and South Maze which we successfully conquered, there are also rose garden maze, lavender maze, Japanese Zen garden, and a lake to wander around. What a better way to conclude a relaxing day of good food, good wine, and beautiful gardens.
We reluctantly bid farewell to our spacious beach front apartment at Rye in the mid-morning. Before we drove to Tullamarine airport an hour and a half away, we visited Peninsula Hot Springs (140 Springs Lane, Fingal VIC) and planned to stop for lunch at Port Melbourne. Natural thermal mineral waters provide the ultimate relaxation and rejuvenation. The bath house includes a cave pool, reflexology walk, Turkish steam bath, sauna, cold plunge pools, family bathing area, massaging thermal mineral showers and best of all, a hilltop pool offering stunning 360 degree views of the region. Unfortunately when we finally reached the hilltop pool, it was slightly over-crowded and we didn’t want to impose ourselves.
It was so relaxing and peaceful that we spent more time than planned in the Hot Springs. As a result we ran out of time for lunch en-route to the airport. The restaurants I had in mind were either Café Lafayette (55 Beach Street, Port Melbourne VIC) famous for crazy shakes or Third Wave Café (189 Rouse Street, Melbourne VIC) renowned for American BBQ. It is a shame we didn’t have time to visit those places but good reason to come back to Melbourne.
In four days, we soaked up laneway culture in Melbourne, tasted seriously good food in both hidden quirky café and fine dining chef hat restaurant, drank cool climate Pinot in idyllic countryside, and lost ourselves on a summit walk and maze gardens. We left Melbourne and Mornington Peninsula completed satisfied but there is so much more we didn’t have time to enjoy. The sight of the Sydney skyline excites me on the flight back but the enchantment of Melbourne beckons and I will be back soon.