We ultimately visited three of the larger cities in Australia. Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. From my vantage point, Sydney is the most well-known and was truly the metropolis I expected. Be it television, movies or some sort of formal education from way back when – I had an inkling as to what Sydney would be like before we stepped foot on Aussie soil. Melbourne and Perth were different stories altogether. No Melbourne Opera House. No Perth Bridge. I’ll blame it on my biased, mediocre public school education as well as old age, but my gray matter didn’t have a single image, factoid or preconception related to either of these other large Australian towns.
Of course I read some on our way into each, but with two small children in tow I must admit my proactive self-teaching attempts were embarrassingly limited. Few snippets digested before landing, I largely learned as I went.
Melbourne is Australia’s second largest city and it’s on a trajectory to become the largest city in Australia in the not too distant future. In fact, Melbourne and Sydney have jockeyed back and forth for boasting rights throughout the decades. I found Melbourne delightful, but its sprawl a bit unwieldy. Perhaps we didn’t spend enough time there, but the various neighborhoods we visited felt a little chaotic and lacked consistency. In this vein, I personally prefer Sydney. But I will say this, Melbourne weather is pretty outstanding. Melbourne in March is like Denver in June. Warm, even hot in the mid-afternoon sun. Then lusciously cool as the sun sets.
In Melbourne we have BC and WC. That is Before Cheryl and With Cheryl. Cheryl, our babysitter since Talia was born, came to Melbourne and spent several weeks with us touring Down Under. The kids knew she was coming and their frequent inquiries escalated to quite the fevered pitch by the time we left Noosa. For them, Melbourne represented the arrival of one of their favorite people on Earth. For me, it represented many things. The return of a great friend. The opportunity to have a night out and trusted help with the kids. It also meant the completing of our family. Cheryl’s dealt with our ups and downs; our moves, the starting of school, doctors appointments, endless class schedules, birthday parties. You name it. She’s been a constant in our lives and has often been the glue that keeps us put together. And she was coming to Melbourne. Cheryl boarded her NY-AU plane about the time we arrived in Melbourne so the first 24 hours were like being on a never-ending road trip, “Is Cheryl here yet”?
Before Cheryl. We arrived in Melbourne in typical fashion. In fact, I don’t recall much of anything spectacular about the trip from Noosa. And as per usual, we landed, grabbed our luggage and found our ride. Here, we opted for a taxi because like NYC there isn’t a need for private transport in this city. The town is buzzing with taxis and also has impressive tram and train systems, so no need for a rental. We were booked at a hotel called The Como in hipster-neighborhood South Yarra. The hotel came highly recommended on Trip Advisor, is an editor’s pick on concierge.com and boasts high-ratings on other travel sites. On paper, The Como sounded perfect, with all of the right credentials. Its resume was pristine. Right neighborhood, big rooms, well-designed pool.
Ahhh, the power of the interview.
We checked in, looked at each other and immediately started looking for an alternative place to stay. It was a massive dose of cognitive dissonance. The Como’s resume and The Como’s reality. Expecting to find a chic, hip home for the night and instead finding a room that needs a face lift and its sheets cleaned. It’s not that we are hyper picky – this was the first time either of us have done such a thing. But the decision was unanimous. The Como is tired, old and worst of all – dirty. I am not sure who wrote the on-line reviews, or when… But the only person I’d recommend stay at the hotel is someone I didn’t particularly like.
By 7pm, we had ordered some Thai from a restaurant down the street and booked a new hotel reservation for the following night. Over chopsticks and Pad-See-Ew we rehearsed our exit strategy. As luck would have it, our new hotel was just across the street and we wanted a discreet departure. “Your hotel is disgustingly filthy, we are hoofing it across the street” just isn’t our style. We opted for the “our youngest isn’t feeling well, need to leave early” approach and then we snuck through the parking garage and bee-lined it across the asphalt to the west side of the street. The kids thought our little (mis)adventure was a riot. We packed, flew, unpacked, slept, repacked, walked across the street, unpacked. We truly outdid ourselves.
Unlike the Como, The Olsen is brand spanking new. Literally. We moved in on the second or third night of the hotel being open. Besides being new, having a killer pool and being smack in the middle of South Yarra, The Olsen boasts absolutely fabulous art. No surprise I guess. The hotel is a member of the Art Series Group and was built upon the idea that one artist could act as the backbone theme to an entire hotel. Each hotel in the chain features a different Australian artist and his artwork. Our artist is a living man named John Olsen. And I now covet his work. Like going from a bad boyfriend to a good one, and the new one seemingly perfect – I fell immediately in love during my rebound. I think Olsen’s work is absolutely brilliant. I also think the business concept is quite brilliant. The Olsen had personality, soul and beauty unlike any hotel I’ve ever stayed in despite the fact that the fixtures and design were par for the course boutique hotel standards.
Once we settled into our hotel, we settled into our Melbourne routine quite easily. The city is eminently accessible and a joy to explore.
The Domain Gardens are located just south of the Yarra river, within walking distance of The Olsen. This is where you will find “The Tan”. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it. No worries, “The Tan” is a skin-colored gravel running path that spans approximately 4 km through the park and around the city’s botanical gardens. It is THE place to run in Melbourne. I ventured out one early morning to give the running path a spin and was mentally brought back to my time in Denver, Colorado as a young adult. The air in Melbourne is crisp and clean, less humid than Sydney – and quite reminiscent of my Mile High city. It seems like yesterday that I was listening to Warren Zevon’s tale about Denver and death while trotting around Washington Park. Like Denver, there is noticeable diversity and strong sense of athleticism. On my particular morning I saw groups of men running together, female pairs, several moms with strollers. The gamut. People looked healthy and in shape and made for great jogging entertainment.
I returned home with both the usual runner’s high as well as with an equally powerful energy that stemmed from this healthy, vibrant vibe.
On the Saturday afternoon before Cheryl arrived, we ate lunch in an area by the river that boasts restaurant after restaurant and hordes of people. Tourists and locals mingled about soaking in the sun and weekend friendships. We found our lunch spot, ate and then wandered next store to load up on frozen chocolate milk, eggs and sugar. With full tummies, we intentionally stumbled upon an interactive art exhibit that was on display. It was a fabulous surprise. There were installations the likes of nothing I’d ever seen before. In one, we danced like crazy to disco music. At first the kids just stared in disbelief and then they finally joined in once they realized it was cool to rock out. In another, one of us took control of a computer to tell a story about a snake and some cartoon wildlife. Each story was different and the animations were often hilarious. In another, one of us sat in front of a camera and framed picture. The camera snapped a shot, imposed your face into the frame and then the picture aged decades over a matter of seconds. Surreal, grotesque. I admit, I couldn’t bring myself to participate. It was difficult enough to watch Talia and Judah as seniors – I wasn’t mentally ready to see my geriatric self. In yet another installation, we acted like shadows in some sort of futuristic screenplay. It was an ideal way to spend an afternoon.
With Cheryl. With Sunday’s arrival, Cheryl joined us. The kids were beside themselves. Our family felt whole again. The kids woke knowing they’d see her later that morning. By the time she arrived the entire hotel staff knew of Cheryl, about Cheryl and that Cheryl was joining us. Talia and Judah regaled her with stories of the trip, played show and tell with trip tchochkes and battled for her attention non-stop. She beamed. They beamed. I am not sure who among us was the happiest. I do know that Cheryl was the most jet-lagged. But like the Energizer bunny that she is, Cheryl didn’t let multiple time zones slow her down one iota.
Over the course of that afternoon and the next few days we visited other areas of Melbourne with her, including South Yarra, St. Kilda and Little Collins. She was the epitome of “good sport” and rode the rides (including the roller coaster) with us at Luna Park. She tried new foods that Armon chided her into trying. I never thought I’d see the day that Cheryl consumed raw fish, but sure enough – Armon got her to do it. And I think she may have even liked it. A little.
She watched the kids one afternoon – taking them to the Aquarium while Armon and I explored and had a few grown-up hours (we went shopping, out to lunch and yes, I dragged Armon to a gallery that represents John Olsen). As I said, I covet.
The five of us explored the city together – 3 on 2. It is amazing what increasing the grown-up ratio does to everyone’s demeanor and mindset. In the mornings, the kids would run to her room for tea and breakfast. Armon and I would head to The Tan and pretend we were locals staying in shape.
She then buckled her seat-belt and came with us as we headed north, up the Great Ocean road.
Yes, post Melbourne – we took a road trip. 5 days, 3 adults, 2 kids, 1 car. Get up and drive, stop for the night, grab dinner, sleep and drive some more. We braved two kids in confined spaces for hours on end, Talia’s car sickness, forest fires and questionable living arrangements. When we said goodbye to The Olsen we had no idea what we were in for and if we had, I am not sure Cheryl would have come with us. The Olsen and Melbourne were fabulous in so many ways. We loved the diversity, the pace, the feel of South Yarra and the various neighborhoods that we explored. If Sydney is Austalia’s NYC, then Melbourne is Austalia’s Chicago – but with much more impressive weather. Kind of like living in a city the size of Chicago – but with Denver-like summer weather, year-round. Yes, you could roll around Melbourne all day (and The Olsen will even change your sheets)…