Friday, 16 August 2019

Inside Guide to Melbourne (Part 1: Laneways)

A few years ago I write a "First-timer's Guide to Melbourne" for a company that sold downloadable city guides. It's since gone out of business, so here's my three-day guide for your free use and enjoyment...

As a freelance travel writer, I travel the world for a living – but I always look forward to returning to Melbourne. A great Victorian city propelled into grandeur by a mighty gold rush, Melbourne has been reinvented in the 21st century as a place powered by creativity, especially in its food and music scenes.

In this guide, I’m going to take you to my favourite places in Melbourne, from alleyway cafes to innovative restaurants, visiting some cool bars and atmospheric culture along the way.

Welcome to Melbourne

The first thing you need to know about Melbourne is this: it loves secrets. Bars hide down narrow alleyways, great cafes are located on quiet residential streets, and amazing street art pops up in the most unlikely places. Luckily, the locals are happy to share their discoveries with visitors, so don’t be afraid to ask for tips on places to visit.

Melbourne is not a city of spectacular individual sights or astonishing natural landscapes. Rather it’s a city of intriguing architecture, character-packed neighbourhoods and distinctive food. Take the time to soak up the city’s charms while sipping great coffee at an outdoor café, browse its boutiques, or hang out in a bar or historic pub, and you’ll soon understand why people talk about Melbourne’s unique vibe.

Photo courtesy of Visit Victoria

Day 1 -  Explore the City within a City

Crepes, coffee, chocolate and alleyways

One of the most remarkable things about Melbourne is its network of 19th century alleyways, or laneways as the locals call them. Cross-crossing the downtown area at odd angles, twisting here and there, these old service lanes contrast with the broad main streets in their orderly grid, creating a fascinating “city within a city” which has been populated by funky cafes, shops and bars.

To start your exploration of the laneways, pull up a seat at one of the tiny tables at Aix Creperie in Centre Place. Order a sweet or savoury crepe and watch the flow of pedestrians pass the lively hole-in-the-wall cafes which line this pedestrian route, or spot the colourful street art on its walls.

Around the corner in Flinders Lane, Dukes is the place to stop for coffee – you’ll recognise it by the simple sign hanging out front, bearing only an image of a coffee cup. Cut back through Centre Place and the connected Centreway Arcade to Collins Street, still the gracious boulevard of upmarket boutiques and grand buildings it was in Victorian times.

Enter Block Arcade, a glamorous survivor of that era with its beautiful mosaic floors and high arched ceiling, and admire the posh shops as you pass through. One place that won’t break your budget here is Haigh’s, one of several excellent chocolatiers in the city centre.

If you fancy a snack, pick up one of their dark chocolate peppermint frogs and walk through adjoining Block Place, a bustling laneway packed with cafes, then across Little Collins Street into Royal Arcade. This grand shopping arcade is full of distinctive gifts and fashion, along with the best hot chocolate in Melbourne, served by Koko Black.

Turning right onto Bourke Street Mall, watch out for the trams trundling through this pedestrian route as you head east toward Swanston Street. Look up as you go, to spot several attractive art deco facades which are often overlooked by passers-by.

Thread right through Union Lane past colourful street art, then left along Little Collins Street until you reach the grand Melbourne Town Hall, an ornate building which was a product of the prosperous “Marvellous Melbourne” era of the late 19th century.

Here you’ll discover the City Gallery, a small, free space which hosts fascinating exhibitions connected with the city’s past. Check out the gallery, then sit on a bench near the flower stall outside and take a break while watching the passing parade on this lively thoroughfare.

Find it: 
Aix Creperie (24 Centre Pl)
Dukes Coffee Roasters (247 Flinders La,
Haigh’s Chocolates (Block Arcade, 282 Collins St,
Koko Black (Royal Arcade, 335 Bourke St,
City Gallery (110 Swanston St,

Next week... Enter the dragon! (ie Melbourne's Chinatown)

Friday, 9 August 2019

Ballyhoo on the Bally Hooley Railway, Port Douglas

On my visit to Port Douglas I was hosted by the Bally Hooley Railway.

When visiting Cairns last year, I was unable to ride the Kuranda Scenic Railway because of cancellations due to rockslides. So I took a bus to Port Douglas to try out a substitute: the Bally Hooley Railway. 

Parked at a platform at one end of the marina’s shopping arcade was an open-sided train. Its carriages’ bright yellow wooden benches, decorative wrought-iron doors, and firetruck red roof made it look like a funfair novelty, but it had an industrial heritage. 

“The carriage beds are from real sugar cane bins,” said the young train driver wearing a baggy blue cap, referring to the carts hauled by narrow-gauge locomotives through the cane fields of the region.

These modified carriages were attached to an original loco from the cane fields, a blocky, blunt-nosed diesel workhorse that looked like it packed a lot of power for something that ran along track a mere 610 millimetres (two feet) wide. On this damp Sunday it was half-full of day-trippers waiting for it to chug down to its terminus and back, calling at three stops along the way.

The station was an attractive timber structure pained white, with a cafe serving meals at tables on the platform beneath ceiling fans and wicker light shades. Throw in a gin and tonic, and it could have been the Last Days of the Raj.

We pulled slowly out. “It averages 15 kilometres per hour,” said our guide via a microphone, providing a commentary as we progressed. As we passed the waters of the marina, he gave a sketch of the late disgraced businessman Christopher Skase, whose Sheraton Mirage Resort was largely responsible for Port Douglas’ transformation into an upmarket tourist town in the 1980s.

Then we passed the town’s waste water treatment plant, and a sign advising of a coming “sludge treatment upgrade”.

According to our host, this sugar cane line was built over a century ago to serve the sugar industry of inland Mossman, whose refinery still produced over a million tonnes of sugar per week. So Port Douglas had got its own railway eventually, even if it was for sugar rather than people.

Sugar was brought down by train to be loaded onto ships at Port Douglas, but improved road transport had made the railway redundant. Now it had become a brightly-painted tourist train, usually pulled by steam locomotives at weekends (though we’d lucked out because an accredited driver couldn’t be found that day).

Port Douglas is on a stumpy peninsula nosing into the Coral Sea, so as we moved south we could see the mountains of the Great Dividing Range across the water to our right. Closer to hand were eucalypts, and mangroves beyond them.

There were two stations between the Marina Station and the train’s terminus. The first was at the Mirage Country Club, where the railway was lined by immaculate if unused tennis courts. The second was at the QT Resort, whose long white building shared the marina’s colonial tropicana look. 

We passed older blocks of housing built by Skase for his construction workers, then arrived at the terminus, St Crispin’s Station, which housed a cafe with water views.

I stood with other rail fans to watch the crew drive the locomotive onto a turntable (see video clip above), then turn it through 180 degrees using nothing more than physical strength. It then ran past our carriages on a parallel line, to position itself for the return run north. It was a delight to watch the operation, there was something pleasingly analogue about the simple technology involved.

Back aboard, I found myself seated with new fellow passengers, an affectionate couple on a day out. 

“Pity it’s not steam today,” said the man, meaning the locomotive. I demurred, pointing out the diesel loco was just as much a part of sugar cane farming history. He didn’t seem convinced.

On the return leg, the host pointed out lipstick palms with their red trunks, and told us how expensive it was for the shire council to maintain the thousands of coconut palms in the area, which posed a potentially fatal hazard via falling fruit.

We passed more tennis courts and I noticed two of them were a dark grey.

“See that tennis court?” asked the voice. “That’s covered with algae. It’s a non-stop job keeping things clean in the Wet.”

He then detailed all the items in the 47 tons of equipment that Captain James Cook threw overboard from the Endeavour north of there in 1770, when the ship ran aground on a reef. National Geographic had led a recent expedition to recover it, and salvaged items were on display at the museum in Cooktown.

“It wasn’t until the 1960s that Port Douglas was linked to the electricity grid,” he said, moving forward in time. “Just up the road from here to the north, it’s still the same.”

He finished by detailing the recent acquisition of the marina by Syrian billionaire Ghassan Aboud, and his plans to bulldoze the current building and rebuild in an even more upmarket style, catering for super yachts (whatever they are). Port Douglas had lost some of its celebrity-fuelled glam since the global financial crisis a decade before, so this was a chance to revive it.

It was hard to imagine Port Douglas was once a serious contender for chief city of Far North Queensland, but if the Ranges railway had been built from here it would now be a glittering tropical metropolis. Instead, it had bumped along the decades as a sugar port, then a sleepy fishing village, and latterly a getaway place for the well-heeled and super-rich. 

On the way back to Cairns, I asked the bus driver if he was worried the new owner’s plans for the marina might fall over.

“Of course,” he said. “But someone has to give it a try.”

Find timetables and other info at the Bally Hooley Railway website.

Friday, 2 August 2019

The Practicalities of Penzance

On this trip I was hosted by Visit Britain.

For all the glamour of travel, there comes a time when you have to stop admiring the scenery and get down to some practical travel admin.

One of these necessary tasks is doing laundry, especially if you travel as light as I do. I only take a backpack with me, so it's essential to do a regular wash.

On Wednesday 29 May I caught a train from London to Penzance, having the previous day caught two trains over the very long route of Zürich to London via Paris.

When I arrived in the Cornish city about 3pm, I was very tired from all that travel. But crucially, I didn't have anything else on my itinerary that day. So when I stepped out of Penzance Station and saw on opposite corners a) a laundrette; and b) a pub, I took it as a sign.

Washing had to be done, right then, and as much as possible while I had time to take advantage of the opportunity. So I stepped into the Suds & Surf laundrette and found out what I'd need in the way of coins, and how long it'd take.

Then I walked back to the train station loos, and re-dressed in order to get as much laundry done as possible. I walked out wearing an outfit which consisted of (in its entirety) my black jacket over a fleece jacket, my good black trousers, and my boots without socks. Everything else was going in the wash.

This is where the pub came in. Having put on a laundry load that would take 45 minutes in the industrial-scale machines, I stepped across the corner to The Longboat Inn. Under the guidance of the barman I ordered a local brew, a Tribute Cornish Pale Ale from the St Austell Brewery (see photo top right).

It was excellent, and I sat sipping it on a sofa while engaging in conversation with an English and American couple who were travellers in Cornwall themselves.

After 45 minutes, I asked the barman to mind my backpack, then stepped across the road to put my clothes in the dryer. Then back to the pub for another beer. I can't see how this system could be beaten.

I spent the next two days sightseeing and researching, visiting the island icon of St Michael's Mount and the wonderful hillside sculpture garden at Tremenheere. But I also visited the Penzance post office for another useful chore - posting a load of stuff home.

This is another travel chore I regularly undertake, in order to keep the backpack's weight bearable. When it's ballooned from 8 kilograms to 10 kg, you really feel it. And having come to Cornwall via Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Paris and London, I had a lot of added items such as brochures and souvenirs.

They were worth keeping, but not needed till I got home. So I posted them to Australia, and was glad to offload their 1.5 kg weight. To be frank, by the time the backpack reaches 10 kg I feel like I don't care if I never see those items again, as long as they're gone.

So that was my practical Penzance travel admin. Hardly rock 'n' roll travel, but all quite necessary and a pleasure to have completed. And the ale eased it along.

What are your essential-but-strangely-pleasurable tasks when you're travelling? Leave a comment below (treat it as a useful chore).