Friday 30 August 2019

Inside Guide to Melbourne (Part 3: History & 'Hoods)

Continuing my guide to Melbourne's hotspots, taken from a downloadable guide I once wrote which is no longer available in that format (don't worry, I've updated it). Enjoy!

Photo courtesy of Visit Victoria

Day 2 – Indulge in History and Hipster Hoods

Though it’s one of Australia’s youngest cities, Melbourne wears its colonial history on its sleeve. After having breakfast in the cool industrial-themed laneway café Krimper, walk to the Queen Victoria Market to admire this great survivor of the 19th century.

A sprawling collection of stalls selling food, clothing and many other items, the Queen Vic Market still a favourite place to shop for both locals and visitors. The bratwurst stand is particularly famous, for its tasty sausages served in bread rolls. For a great coffee here, drop into Market Lane Coffee.

Find it:
Krimper (20 Guildford Ln,
Queen Victoria Market (65 Victoria St,
Market Lane Coffee (at both QVM's Dairy Hall and 83 Victoria St,‎)

Photo courtesy of Visit Victoria

Walk to the spacious Carlton Gardens and take in the grand Royal Exhibition Building with its distinctive dome and spectacular fountain in front.

A World Heritage listed structure, this is one of the few buildings surviving from the golden age of world expositions. It also hosted the opening of Australia’s first national Parliament in 1901, a few months after six British colonies federated to create the new nation.

Behind it, the excellent Melbourne Museum is a vast modern building which houses a number of mini-museums including the excellent Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre.

Have lunch on nearby Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, a hip stretch of art galleries and restaurants. Gabriel does great coffee and café food here, and there's fine pizza at Ladro.

For a final dose of the past, visit the Old Melbourne Gaol, a grim former prison which was the main jail in central Melbourne in the late 19th century. Its most well-known inmate was the notorious bushranger Ned Kelly, executed here by hanging in 1880.

Find it:
Royal Exhibition Building (9 Nicholson St,
Melbourne Museum (11 Nicholson St,‎)
Gabriel (187 Gertrude St,
Ladro (224 Gertrude St,
Old Melbourne Gaol (377 Russell St,

Head out to hip Northcote

Northcote is a suburb lying a few kilometres northeast of the city centre, and is rarely visited by tourists. As the place where the hipsters fled when the inner-city area became too expensive, it’s a wonderful district of retro-chic shopfronts, cafes, restaurants and live music venues.

Getting here via tram or train from the downtown, treat yourself to a meal at Estelle, a relaxed restaurant with excellent contemporary dishes. Alternatively, keep it simple with a classy pizza at Pizza Meine Liebe.

After eating, check out a live band at the Northcote Social Club, the suburb’s most famous live entertainment venue. After that, end the evening with a drink at the atmospheric Wesley Anne, a bar in a former church.

Inside tip: Many operators in Melbourne’s lively food truck scene hang out in the Northcote area at some point each week. There's always several of them stationed at Northcote's food truck hub Welcome to Thornbury.

Find it:
Estelle (243 High St,
Pizza Meine Liebe (231 High St,
Northcote Social Club (301 High St,
Wesley Anne (250 High St,
Welcome to Thornbury (520 High St,

Next week... Crossing the river! (gasp)

Friday 23 August 2019

Inside Guide to Melbourne (Part 2: Chinatown & Bars)

Continuing my guide to Melbourne's hotspots, taken from a downloadable guide I once wrote which is no longer available in that format (don't worry, I've updated it). Enjoy!

Photo courtesy of Visit Victoria

Enter the Dragon in Chinatown

Take lunch at Chin Chin on Flinders Lane, a great example of Melbourne’s lively food scene. You may have to queue to get a seat at this popular modern Asian restaurant, but it’s well worth it for the buzzing atmosphere and innovative menu. If feeling indecisive, just say “Feed me” and you’ll be served a range of dishes for $69.50.

Continue the Asian theme at the corner of Swanston Street and Little Bourke Street, where a colourful ceremonial gate marks the entrance to Chinatown, a part of the city since Chinese miners arrived to take part in the gold rushes of the 1850s.

Follow Chinatown as it rises for two blocks along Little Bourke Street to the east, admiring the colour and life of this quarter with its many restaurants and specialist shops.

When you reach Cohen Place, head left to the Chinese Museum. This small but fascinating institution tells the story of Chinese-Australian life, from the hardships suffered by the early miners to the cultural heritage added to Australia’s multicultural mix.

At the top of Little Bourke Street, pause on Spring Street to admire the graceful facades of the Princess Theatre and Parliament House. Next to the Princess is a string of excellent bars and restaurants you might want to make a note of for a later visit – The European, Siglo, Melbourne Supper Club and City Wine Shop.

One place you should definitely visit for an indulgence now is Spring Street Grocer, which makes its own gelati in-house. The salted caramel and chili version is excellent.

Once you have your ice-cream, walk down Spring Street to Gordon Reserve, a small city park containing Victorian-era statues of both the celebrated Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon and the British soldier General Charles Gordon. Sit on a bench or stretch out on the grass, and relax.

Find it:
Chin Chin (125 Flinders Ln,
Chinese Museum (22 Cohen Pl,
Spring Street Grocer (157 Spring St,
The European (161 Spring St,
Siglo (161 Spring St,
Melbourne Supper Club (161 Spring St,
City Wine Shop (159 Spring St,

Photo courtesy of Visit Victoria

Secrets of the night

Start the evening with a pre-dinner drink at the Rooftop Bar, on top of Curtin House, and enjoy a view of the skyline with a beer in hand. From December to April it doubles as the Rooftop Cinema, screening classic and cult movies in the open air at night.

The rest of the building – nicknamed a “vertical laneway” – is dotted with interesting shops and bars, including Metropolis Bookshop, Cookie bar, and the Toff in Town with its private booths which resemble train compartments. The Toff also has a music room wherein you catch live music acts in an intimate environment.

Walk west along Little Bourke Street, crossing Elizabeth. The stretch of Little Bourke Street from here to Queen Street is riddled with laneways containing restaurants and bars. Enjoy a great cocktail while singing along with the pianist in the former warehouse occupied by Murmur Piano Bar.

For dinner, try the excellent tapas and paella at Portello Rosso, a cosy and classy restaurant tucked away beneath Murmur. The highlight here is the jamón (dry-cured ham from Spain).

To end the evening in style, walk along nearby Hardware Lane, then descend to Golden Monkey (open Thursday to Saturday). This candlelit bar is decked out with beautiful timber furniture from Shanghai, and serves Asian-accented cocktails along with a range of beers. It makes a romantic end to a busy day.

Find it:
Rooftop Cinema (252 Swanston St,
Metropolis Bookshop (252 Swanston St,
Cookie (252 Swanston St,
Toff in Town (252 Swanston St,
Murmur Piano Bar (17 Warburton Ln,
Portello Rosso (15 Warburton Ln,
Golden Monkey (389 Lonsdale St,

Next week... History and 'hoods!

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).