Monday 10 October 2011

The Unpublished 11: St Kilda by the Bay

I just stumbled across a trial guidebook entry about the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, which I wrote in 2005. 

It was created as part of my application to be included in Lonely Planet's pool of authors; ultimately successful therefore, but never published. 

Here it is now, an overview of the bayside locality's charms...

From the moment an 1841 party of picnickers named St Kilda after their offshore yacht, the Melbourne bayside suburb has been a place devoted to fun. Loved for its entertainment and damned for its vice, it’s never ceased attracting pleasure-seekers.

Despite recent gentrification, St Kilda’s edgier side survives, resulting in bohemian types rubbing shoulders with suited professionals, prostitutes, new-agers, teenagers, tourists and ultra-permed old ladies wedded to Acland St’s famous cake shops.

Its seaside resort history lives on via its entertainment options and classic structures like Luna Park, the St Kilda Sea Baths, and St Kilda Pier, as well as sandy St Kilda Beach with its trademark backdrop of palm trees.

Before that fateful picnic, St Kilda was the home of an indigenous coastal tribe known as the Yalukit-willam, one of the five clans of the Bunurong. They roamed the area between St Kilda and Port Melbourne, and knew the St Kilda area as “Euro-Yroke”, their name for the red-brown sandstone found along the beach.

It wasn’t long, of course, before the bay views attracted another kind of “Euro” altogether: newly-arrived settlers from Britain and beyond. They created a fashionable suburb which quickly acquired mansions, churches, a synagogue, sea baths and posh hotels.

With the advent of the tramways in the 1880s, St Kilda took another dramatic shift. With thousands of everyday people having access to its attractions, it became a bustling seaside town, and the rich folk fled to the greener pastures of South Yarra and Toorak.

They may have tut-tutted at the perceived lowering of tone, but it’s true that St Kilda had its seedier side. The early 20th century saw the building of great entertainment venues like Luna Park, the Palais Theatre and the St Moritz ice-skating rink, but also witnessed a boom in brothels and street prostitution. St Kilda was one of the first Melbourne suburbs to have an apartment boom, with many flats constructed in the 1930s.

World War II brought an invasion of American military personnel in search of a good time, an era captured in local painter Albert Tucker’s moody modernist paintings of soldiers and local girls on a big night out.

After the war, an influx of European migrants added a distinctive flavour to St Kilda’s population and cuisine, the spectacular cake shops of Acland St their most visually appealing legacy.

In the 1960s and '70s, there was growing concern about St Kilda’s illicit massage parlours, drug trafficking and street kids. However, from the 1980s a wave of gentrification began to sweep the area, as house-hunters began to appreciate anew the suburb’s unique bohemian atmosphere and natural advantages.

Luckily, gentrification and increasingly expensive property hasn’t extinguished St Kilda’s raffish charms, and visitors from Melbourne and beyond still flock to its entertainments and attractions year-round. 


Luna Park
Lower Esplanade

This venerable amusement park is the symbol of St Kilda as holiday playground, and was based on the funfairs of the USA’s Coney Island. Though Luna Park is showing its age in places, it still fulfils its function of amusing kids and adults via its various rides. A highlight is the Scenic Railway rollercoaster, the oldest still operating in the world, with impressive views of the bay (if you can concentrate on the horizon while you’re going up and down!).

St Kilda Pier 
Pier Rd

A landmark since 1853, St Kilda Pier stretches into the waters of Port Phillip Bay. At the end was a distinctive century-old kiosk which burned down in 2003, but was rebuilt from the original blueprint. Take a walk along the pier to get a waterside view of the city, and the old port of Williamstown through the forest of nearby yacht masts. From November to April, a daily ferry runs from here to Williamstown and return.

St Kilda Sea Baths
10 Jacka Blvd

Before enclosed public swimming pools existed, the St Kilda Sea Baths were all the rage. After the imposing Moorish structure became run down, it was redeveloped (controversially) as a heath and dining centre. Now it houses a salt water pool, along with a steam room and spa pool.

Catani Gardens 
Beaconsfield Pde

Palm trees were a symbol of the exotic to 19th century folk, and the Catani Gardens are home to dozens of them, lining the gravel paths which lead to a gazebo with an onion-shaped cupola. There's a barbecue and playground at the northern end. On any afternoon you might see people picnicking on the lawns, walking their dogs, or practising their juggling or drumming skills. The park's proximity to busy Fitzroy Street means you can always slip away for a beer once the sunset's been and gone.

The Unpublished is a random series comprising my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.

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