Sunday 29 March 2009

Phillip Island: The Child Within

Where is a handy niece or nephew when you want a good reason to indulge your inner child?

But let me backtrack. I’ve been visiting Phillip Island over the past few days. The island, southeast of Melbourne in Western Port Bay, has long been a summer playground for the city’s inhabitants.

As a result, it still has some of the aura of holidays past about it - numerous fish and chip shops, gaudy mismatched architecture, and classic old pubs like the Isle of Wight.

To be fair, it also has promising signs of the 21st century along its streets, including some excellent modern restaurants and wellness services such as massage. But what most intrigued me were the attractions that caught my imagination and reminded me of the fun of being a child.

Foremost among them were the interiors of the A Maze’n Things. As the name suggests, this attraction's chief element is a large maze, but the outdoor timber construction is hardly as interesting as the rooms of puzzles that lead up to it. They’re an interesting mix of old and new approaches, both electronic and manual.

I particularly liked the model train layout which consisted of a large-scale projection of two virtual trains onto a hilly layout. The trains are controlled by large real-life levers, with the implicit invitation to try to make them crash (a little anarchy that made me laugh).

But what really interested me was the so-called Gravity Room. Its floor is set on an angle, and various objects within it appear to slope uphill: a pool table, kitchen sink, and a fish tank. However, they’re all actually sloping downhill, as proven by rolling a ball along the pool table or watching the water in the sink apparently flowing upwards as it spills over.

It was baffling - although I knew it must be an illusion, I just couldn’t force my mind to correct the visuals, even when I saw Narrelle leaning at a distinct angle while actually standing upright.

Even more amazing: while my brain was thoroughly fooled, my body wasn’t. When I turned on my camera to take a photo of the fish tank, I instinctively held it so that I could see through the viewscreen that the tank was indeed level, not on the weird tipped angle my eyes couldn’t shake.

It was, even without a handy nephew in tow, fascinating. You might even say I saw Phillip Island from a new angle.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Destination Phillip Island.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

The Unicycle Diaries 3: Slovak Mountain High

From my travel diaries written in Slovakia last year, wherein I wander through the mountainous mist and learn about nudity etiquette in spas...

Wed 18 June 2008

- Got up to find the mountains completely vanished, covered in heavy mist that begins just above town. Clearly not a great day to go up major peak in cable car as planned, as no views.

- Plan B: Take train trip along the local mountain railway to Štrbské Pleso, at other end of Tatra mountains; lots of snowsports etc. Also more forest, as it was less damaged by the windstorms a few years ago.

- Starý Smokovec train station is a quaint part-timbered, pocket-sized place, with tourists milling about waiting for the next trains heading in all directions. There’s something both soothing and artificial about a purely holiday town. Staff at station even speak some German, and there’s English used extensively.

- Train is red and sparkling new, winds its way west , twisting along slopes, sometimes below roads and townsites, sometimes above. Very green and misty but you can still see a lot of damage from the storms. Occasionally rocky streams pass below us.

- Štrbské Pleso is bigger than expected, lots of accommodation under construction, and yes lots of trees. I have a hiking map so grab a coffee near station and work it out. These colour-coded paths are good, easy to follow. It’s misty still and a bit cold, threatening rain, so I decide a short walk along the red trail into the forest would be good. It is pleasant, though I’m walking into the clouds and vision is short... creates a magical kind of fairy tale forest look, all those dark greens and the rocky trail.

- After a while I turn back and take a turn around the lake. Starts raining but I encounter timber cafe overlooking water. Opens at 12 noon so an old lady and I sit just undercover on deck, me reading my book, her loudly answering mobile calls. But the lake is fascinating – mist shrouds other side, fading slowly across water, dark green trees fading out in distance. Cool but not freezing.

- In cafe, order grilled sheep’s cheese on a garlic baguette, comes with sour cream and is very good. Have beer with it.

- Eventually wend way through construction to station, then back to my hotel and its wellness centre. Despite the weather – maybe because of it – it’s been a pleasant day. It’s good to get out in nature after all my urban adventures, just take it slow, take a breather.

- At wellness centre, get talking to a Croatian guy staying at the hotel for a railway conference. I’d been wondering about spa etiquette, as men wander around naked or near-naked, even though it’s a unisex space. He says it’s like this all over Europe; chalk the puzzlement up to Anglo-Saxon prudery. I think the basic rule is: if you don’t flaunt it, it’s OK to be naked occasionally and briefly, ie heading into the spa, shower, cold pool. Seems a healthy attitude. There, I've learned something today.

Monday 16 March 2009

Marvellous Melbourne: My Favourite Things

With all the international travel I've done over the past year, it's easy to forget that my home town, Melbourne, is a popular tourist destination in itself.

But whenever I return from a jaunt overseas and arrive in the city's central business district, I'm reminded what a delightful place it is.

In the 19th century the goldrush boomtown received the nickname 'Marvellous Melbourne' for its prodigious growth and vibrant character.

The marvellousness was lost in the great economic crash of the 1890s but, despite the present economic crisis, I believe it's earned it back in the past decade.

The first thing I do if I happen to return from the airport during daytime hours, is to head to Brother Baba Budan (359 Little Bourke Street) before I even go home.

This cool little cafe serves the best coffee in a city already famous for its great coffee. If you're in the neighbourhood, sit beneath the strange collection of chair legs hanging down from the ceiling and order the character-packed blend of the day (I like the Rwandan MIG).

Now that I've started spilling Melbourne's secrets, here are a few more of my favourite semi-hidden hangouts in the city:
  • Horse Bazaar, 397 Little Lonsdale St: At this cool, low-key bar, local digital artists display their work on the wrap-around screen high up on the walls. Also check out the digital art screening behind the urinal in the men's loo.
  • Caledonian Lane: This alleyway linking Little Bourke and Lonsdale Streets is always smelly and strewn with industrial bins. However, it's also a focus of street artists, and there are always some great paintings or stencils along its walls.
  • Guildford Lane Gallery, 20 Guildford Lane: Recently open artistic space hidden in an old network of red brick buildings and alleys between La Trobe and Little Lonsdale Streets. It's a cavernous industrial space hosting contemporary art.
  • Basement Discs, 24 Block Place: I actually visited this below-ground music shop for the first time just recently, having passed its doorway for years when taking shortcuts from Little Collins Street to Collins Street. On impulse, I riffled through the nearest rack and ended up buying The London Book Of The Dead by the Real Tuesday Weld. Ambient, cool, and a little bit odd.
  • Koko Black, Royal Arcade: Above the ground-level entry to this chocolate shop is a cafe space that resembles a Viennese coffee house in miniature. It serves the best hot chocolate I've ever tasted, made from real Belgian chocolate. It costs A$5.75, but it's worth every cent.
  • Pushka, 20 Presgrave Place: In an alleyway off an alleyway, this tiny cafe is not that easy to spot even when you're standing right outside. Very dressed-down and relaxed, it serves good coffee in cups you can stir with an odd assortment of commemorative teaspoons.
  • The Toff in Town, 252 Swanston Street: Almost every floor of this building houses an interesting bar or creative business, but the Toff is special for two reasons: its train-compartment-like seating which can be closed to outside view, and its music room with a diverse range of live acts.
  • Charltons, 2 Coverlid Place: Seedy but amusing pool hall in a mouldering space above an alley in Chinatown. The place is full of international students playing pool on dozens of tables, with a video jukebox competing with the karaoke in the adjoining bar. Tacky, cheap and lots of fun. If you're ever here on a Friday night and wondering who the idiot was who put Billy Idol's White Wedding on the jukebox... that'd be me.
... and that's just a selection. One thing this city does well is hiding treasures down alleyways, and above and below the street. Try exploring alleyway Melbourne for yourself, the next time you're in town.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

The Unicycle Diaries 2: Transit of Tahiti

Taken from my travel diaries written in French Polynesia...

Travelling eastward across the Pacific and the International Dateline is like starring in your own personal version of Groundhog Day; only with the added variety of radically different scenery as each day is repeated.

We spent Saturday 29th October and the Sunday morning in Auckland, then spent Saturday evening all over again in Tahiti, and now Sunday 30th on the neighbouring island of Mo’orea.

When we finally get past this weekend to Monday 31st, it’ll be a relief. Not that you should really be watching the calendar when you’re on holiday.

Our flight arrived at the capital Papeete at an impractical hour (as many flights into Tahiti do) on Saturday night, but in the end there was enough time to walk to the waterfront and have a meal.

The Saturday night collection of food vans and fold-up tables was fun, exuding casual charm. Patrons order from a surprisingly diverse range of dishes including Tahitian fish like mahi mahi, French standards like steak frites, and displaced Chinese food like "chow men".

Because we’re only here for a few days, we hadn’t applied our minds to speaking French, but were suddenly faced with linguistic limitations. My French stems almost entirely from literary references in Agatha Christie, PG Wodehouse, Sherlock Holmes and films like Amelie, while Narrelle’s is sourced from imperfectly-remembered schoolgirl lessons.

As a result, we’ve been committing blunders like asking for a receipt (‘recipe’ in French) instead of the correct word. Fortunately the French speakers of Tahiti take a more sympathetic view of Anglos mangling their language than their compatriots in Paris. Funny to think that after visiting that city 15 years ago, the next time we’d enter French territory would be so far away from Europe.

Here’s something strange I’ve noticed: the soundtrack to every overseas experience is in English, no matter how exotic the locale. On the Papeete waterfront, we could hear ABBA drifting from a nearby cruise ship; on a ferry’s radio, a Jamaican guy was singing “I need some nookie tonight”; and as I sit typing in the hotel bar, the background music is alternating between French numbers and English covers.

Before leaving Tahiti we went out early to visit the Marche, the city markets. The building is one of those practical open-but-covered structures you see in the Pacific, a vast mostly timber shed housing numerous stalls. Locals crowd in, buying and selling handcrafts, fish, flowers and fruit, including the more interesting varieties of bananas you never see in the West.

There are some beautiful but huge wooden masks that would never fit in the luggage, and some suspiciously sexual statuettes - you could imagine them selling by the truckload to sniggering tourists mindful of the old Tahiti stereotype regarding free love.

And now we’re on the neighbouring island of Mo’orea. The catamaran ride from Tahiti only takes 30 minutes, and the two islands are visible the whole time. While both are volcanic outcrops, Moorea's eastern approach is far more dramatic, a sharp protrusion of jagged peaks covered with greenery. I felt like chanting "Kong, Kong!" as we approached, but that’s a story for another day...

Note: As this article is based on personal experience from some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within.