( In late February- March 2011 , we went on a three-week trip to Australia with three of my wife’s siblings and their spouses. Over twenty-one days we went to Melbourne , Alice Springs and Ayers Rock, Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef , and Sydney in Australia; then Christchurch, Auckland, Rotorua, Franz Josef Glacier, Greymouth , Mount Cook and back to Christchurch before flying back home . It was a fabulous trip and I want to share some of our experiences and photographs with you over the next two weeks. )
After the mob scenes at Newark’s Liberty Airport and LAX , Melbourne airport felt unhurried and uncrowded. We were met by a courtesy shuttle towing a luggage carrier . As soon as the luggage was loaded , we took our seats for the 30 minute drive to the city . The smooth flowing traffic and the tree-lined boulevards reinforced our first impressions of Melbourne as a charming, gracious metropolis. Our hotel was in the Central Business District(CBD) where the Victorian -era buildings were interspersed with modern skyscrapers. Tired after our 22-hour journey , we didn’t do much the first day except go for an early dinner at the Shark Fin Restaurant on Little Bourke Street in nearby Chinatown . The yum cha ( dim sum in the U.S) at the Shark Fin were limited in variety and mostly fried but the three main dishes were excellent .
Tired from the journey , we didn’t do much that evening except go for a walk. It was a weekend evening and here, close to Chinatown, the streets were full of pedestrians, mostly Chinese, on their way to the crowded restaurants and pubs . Not for the first time it occurred to me that there was little evidence of the recession that we are all supposed to be laboring under.
Since we were scheduled to take a half-day tour of the city early the next morning , we turned in early.
Next morning , after a full English breakfast at the hotel buffet , we boarded the courtesy shuttle at 7:40 and it ferried us to Federation Square where we were to take the coach tour.Staying in the center of town and taking a bus/coach tour is the most efficient way of seeing a city. There is none of the hassle of deciding which places to see and taking taxis to get there . The coach drivers are usually very knowledgeable and interesting and give tourists a feel for the city that no amount of reading can give. Our usual modus operandi is to take a bus tour . A half day tour is ideal as it leaves us enough time to explore a few attractions on our own .
Before the coach arrived , we had a chance to take in the varied architecture in the Federation Square neighborhood. The huge ornate orange-brown Victorian- era Flinders Street station , the city’s main railway station was a striking contrast to the modern buildings nearby.Particularly striking was the entrance with its row of clocks showing the departure times of the trains . It is a traditional meeting place for Melburnians.
As our coach criss -crossed the city as the driver gave us a capsule history of Melbourne. Melbourne , the most British and conservative of Australian cities , was the capital of Australia until 1927 but its intense rivalry with Sydney resulted in the capital being shifted to Canberra which was built for that purpose.Since WW II , large numbers of immigrants from Greece and Italy, later from Asia, have transformed Melbourne into a cosmopolitan center which prides itself on being the cultural capital even as Sydney has become the unquestioned financial center of the nation. The driver also pointed out a building named in honor of Dame Elizabeth Murdoch , the much beloved philanthropist who is still active in charitable causes at the age of 102. Quite the opposite of her son , the publisher Rupert Murdoch!
From the center city our bus weaved its way to the shore with its panoramic views of the port and its acres and acres of stacked containers. On one street a row of beautiful cream-colored bungalows caught my eye , situated as they were across from the shoreline . The bungalows , costing in the $ 2 million range , used to have a lovely view of the waterfront but that view is completely blocked by a dozen or so multistory buildings which have sprung up across the street from them . Now it is the tenants in those luxury apartments that enjoy the sea view. I would have been happy with either !
Our first stop was at the beautiful Fitzroy Gardens where avenues of stately elms are laid out in the form of the Union Jack.We enjoyed the Technicolor masses of flowers but gave the go-by to Captain Cook’s cottage ; it actually belonged to his parents and has no historical significance. At $5 ( separate admission) it’s a tourist trap.Common to Melbourne are rows of two-story Victorian era houses with ornamental wrought iron railings. Our coach driver told us that in the 1800’s, ships putting into Melbourne were lightly loaded inbound and therefore carried pallets of wrought iron as ballast. Offloaded in Melbourne, the wrought iron pallets were converted into railings or balustrades. Ballast ….baluster or balustrade .I didn’t know that , did you ? Our final stop was at the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Shrine of Remembrance which commemorates the war Anzac war dead of WW I. The shrine is in the shape of a ziggurat and inside are mementos commemorating the young Australians and New Zealanders who died in the battles of World War I . In glass-topped cabinets are books listing the names of all the brave young men who fought and died at Gallipoli , in Egypt and Mesopotamia , in New Guinea and in the battles of the Somme. Even though Australia was not directly threatened , it was part of the British Empire and Australians enthusiastically responded to the call of Britain , the mother country. Over 60,000 of them lost their lives in the conflict and their loss is keenly felt even now , more than a century later. In the floor of the Shrine of Remembrance is an inlaid a plaque with the words ” Greater Love Hath No Man ” , the beginning of a quote which ends ‘ … than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” The plaque is so placed that on Remembrance Day , at 11 AM on the 11th day of the 11th month ( November) a beam of sunlight pierces through a strategically placed hole in the building’s wall and plays upon the word ” Love“. It is a moving ceremony attended by thousands and we got some idea of what it must be like ; each half hour a laser plays across the word Love as the docent recites the words from Laurence Binyon’s famous poem, ” For the Fallen “…
“ At the going down of the Sun and in the morning
We will remember them . “
About thirty of us, Australians and tourists, watched the re-enactment that morning and we were all moved.
Emerging from the Shrine we found that the weather had changed dramatically , with sheets of driving rain obscuring the distant skyscrapers. Regretfully , we eschewed our chance to see the Royal Botanic Gardens across the way and waited out the rain before climbing on the bus again .Too bad because the ornamental Lake and the Italianate Government House in the middle of the gardens would have been worth a look.
That was the end of our regular tour but the friendly coach driver dropped us off at the Queen Victoria Market , Melbourne’s main fresh produce market which has over a thousand stalls and covers 17 acres . The market was built over the site of the original Melbourne General Cemetery. As he dropped us off , the driver joked that dispossessed spirits were reputed to haunt the market . Well , if they had tried they would have been scared off by the hordes of shoppers. The stalls were full of clothing , knickknacks and souvenirs which we had no interest in . We had a quick lunch at the adjoining food stalls but they too were a disappointment,the food being both overpriced and untasty ( Yes , I know that’s not a word but I can’t think of anything better). Not even the excellent Victoria Bitter could wash away the taste of the leaden meat pies and sausage rolls. The Meat Market next door confirmed what we had thought — that food prices in Oz were in general twice those in the U.S— and the Fish Market, where the fishmongers were almost exclusively Chinese and Korean , was interesting for the variety of seafood that it carried . One ugly-looking specimen , which looked like a large fist sized beetle was priced at a whopping AUS $ 32/ kg. , mystified us . It hardly looked edible , let alone palatable and I don’t think I’d want it at any price.
From the Market we took the free City Line tram to The Immigration Museum . The tram ride was interesting for the cross-section of Melburnians that we saw. So too was the Immigration Museum housed in the beautifully restored Old Customs House at the corner of Flinders and William. Seven of us having crossed the age of 60 , we didn’t have to pay the $ 8 entrance fee but it would have been worth it in any case. Among the exhibits : a slide show and narrative of young European women emigrating to marry men they had never seen ; a photo story of an Italian woman who emigrated in the 50’s and worked for 30 years knitting prized woolen sweaters, as also the actual surprisingly intricate machine that she worked with; photo stories of individual migrants from Iraq, from Vietnam , from Laos, from SriLanka and every corner of the world . The highlight of the museum was a scale model of a steamer of the type in which immigrants sailed to Australia. Visitors to the museum were able to walk through the cut away model into the cramped cabins and experience what the three-month voyage must have been like . Amusingly, the exhibit also showed the unwelcome immigrants that stowed away on the ships …rats , cockroaches etc.
We walked back to our hotel about a mile away and rested for a bit before emerging at 7:30 in search of dinner. The Khan Mongolian BBQ Restaurant on Exhibition Street seemed promising but a quick look at the deserted upstairs dining room quickly dissuaded us. The floor was filthy , the round grill looked like it hadn’t been cleaned for a week and the trays of meats and vegetables looked tired and unappetizing . We went instead to the Thai restaurant next door ( Lanna Thai ? ) and were not disappointed . The tom yung goong had a slightly sweetish taste , surprising but good , and the rest of the food was OK , though a little bland.
We walked back to our hotel and quickly fell into a dreamless sleep, tired out by our first full day in Melbourne.
( Photos to follow in about two weeks … maybe)