Can Melbourne Live Up to the Hype?

Expectations can be a real pain in the bottom. We loved Sydney, but we just kept hearing about Melbourne. “If you like Sydney, you’ll love Melbourne.” “Melbourne is the San Francisco to Sydney’s LA.” “Just wait ‘til you get to Melbourne.” Melbourne, Melbourne, Melbourne! Can a city possibly live up to such hype? Um, yeah.

After our night in the cheesy motel in Lakes Entrance, Victoria, Janine and I decided that we had done the coast between Sydney and Melbourne sufficient justice and made a push for the big city a day ahead of schedule. We like trees and birds and even beaches as much as the next folks, but it was time for some pavement. Heck, we saw our hoppy kangaroos and had kookaburras wake us up at dawn. We bought Aussie wool mittens at a country market. I even danced briefly on a deserted beach in my birthday suit. We’d drunk the drink of the Aussie countryside, right? We could go back to the city without fear of Aussie scorn, couldn’t we?

Well, whether we were chickening out of one more day of nature or not, we were ready to take on the World’s Most Livable City for the fourth year running, according to the Economist. We had high hopes, which can be dangerous. We had rented what seemed like a great apartment in the central business district, but the instructions to get the key sounded like something out of John le Carre. We had to go to a convenience store several blocks away and plug a combination into a lockbox on the wall. That would produce a set of keys that would get us into our building, but there was another lockbox inside the building that would produce another set of keys. For heaven’s sakes. At least we didn’t have to find a guy named Louie the Cheese and whisper a password to him.

Once we finally got there, the apartment was just great. It’s in a converted office building and has high ceilings and polished concrete floors and I could live in a place like this and be pretty happy. We dropped off our rental car and were finally free from driving for the foreseeable future (if you count South Africa and New Zealand, we have logged several thousand miles in the past month). We crossed the street and stared up at a Malaysian street food shop and I remembered why I love cities so much. Like Sydney, Melbourne is a greatest hits of Asian food – there are ramen shops and Shanghai soup dumpling shops, Korean barbeque and sushi bars, and heaven knows what else. It all looks amazingly good and it kills me that we don’t have more time to eat our way across the city. The Malaysian place made me weep tears of joy and spice. I had a pork noodle soup and Janine had roasted chicken and rice and oh my sweet bejesus do I love stuff like that. I love food that’s spicy, tangy, salty, and sour, and I especially love it when it’s cheap. On another occasion we wandered into a nondescript Chinese place and had some of the best dumplings I’ve ever had.

After staggering out of the Malaysian joint we eventually looked up and noticed gorgeous, ornate buildings all over the place. By design or luck, Melbourne has managed to keep from knocking down many of its architectural gems, which look like something out of Mary Poppins. Janine is especially fond of the architecture, and I joke that walking down the street with her is like walking our dog, who stops every ten feet. Fortunately, Janine just stops to take pictures.

One of many cool old buildings in Melbourne. (Photo courtesy of my lovely wife)

One of many cool old buildings in Melbourne. (Photo courtesy of my lovely wife)

This sums up Melbourne perfectly - a woman with a red Mohawk pushes a stroller with a child in a princess dress.

This sums up Melbourne perfectly – a woman with a red Mohawk pushes a stroller with a child in a princess dress.

We only have a few days left in Australia and then we’ll be off to non-English speaking places for the next few months, so we’re trying to grab as much culture that we can understand as we can. Our first stop was a good old-fashioned Broadway musical. (Mind you, it would probably be at least as much fun, if not more, to see a Broadway musical in Japanese or Hungarian, but still.) As luck would have it, Sweet Charity, which we’ve never seen, was playing, so we bought tickets for a Thursday matinee. I should have known that the audience would be on the mature side. In New York, the Wednesday matinee is famous for the blue rinse set, who are seemingly bused in from nursing homes and funeral parlors from across the tri-state area. I remember when I did the National Tour of On Golden Pond, and we moved from Boston, which is a great theatre town, to Fort Lauderdale, where every show feels like a Wednesday matinee. The audiences just wouldn’t laugh. The joke was that if they laughed they’d cough, and coughing could be fatal, so they wouldn’t laugh. This audience was slightly better than that, but they were still a bit subdued. The lead, a woman named Verity Hunt-Ballard, was a true triple threat. The production was the sort of slimmed-down regional tour, with a smallish ensemble and a band on the stage, that makes me pine for the great big Broadway spectaculars, but you can’t have it all. The show itself, about a New York taxi dancer with a heart of gold who can’t seem to find love, is actually quite depressing. No matter, the cast was energetic, Verity was very vivacious, and I amused myself listening to the Noooo Yaaaawwwkkk accents and observing the audience try not to cough.

Our other big cultural event was taking in an outdoor movie in the Botanic Garden. Apparently, outdoor movies are a thing here, and I can see why. We rented bean bag couches, from which we were able to order drinks and food, and we watched Inherent Vice, the truly weird PT Anderson film starring Joaquin Phoenix, on a big inflatable screen while bats the size of small dogs circled overhead in the Melbourne dusk. It was atmospheric, cultural, and there was even a smattering of nature tossed in for good measure. What fun!

Waiting for the weird Joaquin Phoenix movie to start.

Waiting for the weird Joaquin Phoenix movie to start.

Next time: A spectacular meal, a hipster neighborhood, a delicious convent, and maybe a penguin and a cuddly koala or two.

Meandering from Sydney to Melbourne – with a David Lynch casino, squeaky beaches, and an Alzheimer’s benefit (contains brief descriptions of perfectly safe for work nudity).

Australia is a very big country. With only two and half weeks to spend in it, we had too many options. There’s the Great Barrier Reef, the Outback, Tasmania – the list goes on, and on, and on. Barry Schwartz calls this phenomenon the paradox of choice. Faced with a hundred brands of cereal, the paralyzed consumer begins to whine and bleat, and scurries home empty handed, where he prepares a breakfast of dry toast.

We were starting to feel like we were standing in the cereal aisle at Safeway. How on earth should we allocate our precious time in Australia? Sydney was great, and we knew we had to end up in Melbourne, because that’s where our next flight leaves, but we had no idea what to put in the middle of the sandwich. With any number of exotic and complicated air, sea, and land itineraries in front of us, we decided to just rent a car and drive to Melbourne, stopping along the way at places that seemed interesting. It’s kind of like traveling to the U.S., driving from LA to San Francisco and pretending that you actually saw the U.S., but so be it. After 182 days away from home, sometimes the simple choice is the best choice.

Besides, after almost three weeks of hitting the open road in New Zealand, we were getting used to being footloose and fancy free. Driving in Australia has not been without its challenges, however. For one thing, the car rental company only had cars with manual transmissions. We both have driven stick shift cars for years, and we’ve been driving on the left side of the road since South Africa, but having to shift with our left hand threatened to add a layer of complexity that resembles patting your head, rubbing your belly, and reciting the alphabet backward while tap dancing. I should add, respectfully, that Aussie drivers seem ever so slightly more caffeinated than Kiwi drivers do. Basically, the speed limit appears to be a floor, not a ceiling. If you drive at the speed limit, expect to see someone very close in your rear view mirror, looking impatient.

No matter – we’re intrepid! It’s only about five hundred miles from Sydney to Melbourne, but we decided to take a week to meander down the coast, stopping when the spirit moved us to stop, if it even works that way. Our first stop was Jervis Bay, a white sand crescent about a couple hours south of Sydney. We found a cute little cottage on airbnb and watched the sunset on sand so fine that it squeaked underfoot.

On a squeaky white sand beach in Jervis Bay.

On a squeaky white sand beach on Jervis Bay.

The next night we wandered into little Huskisson and discovered a tiny village movie theater holding a special showing of Just Alice, the Julianne Moore movie about Alzheimer’s. I really have to be in the mood for downer movies. (“Hey honey, what do you want to see tonight? How about Shoah? Ooh, sounds good!”) Janine has been on a quest to see as many Oscar performances as possible before the awards are announced, and it was the only thing playing, so we went.

The Alzheimer's gala in Huskisson, near Jervis Bay.

The Alzheimer’s gala in Huskisson, near Jervis Bay.

The showing was part of a fundraiser for the local Alzheimer’s nonprofit, and fifty or sixty concerned members of the community showed up, ate potato chips and little squares of cheese, and asked thoughtful questions in the talkback after the show. Frankly, we don’t get nearly as many chances as we should to breathe the same air as folks who have nothing to do with the tourist industry. We were in a shy mood, though, so we merely lurked, but it was nice to see real people going about their real lives for a change. Mostly we spend time with waiters, cabdrivers, innkeepers, and other tourists. The two questions that everyone asks are “Where are you headed? and Where are you coming from?” Sometimes we give minimalist answers and sometimes, if we’re feeling expansive, tell people that we’re on a nine month trip, which tends to get the party started. By the way, we’ve run across more than a few people who are on similar journeys. One Dutch couple we ran into was traveling for twenty months, and they brought their own tricked-out Range Rover, which they’d converted into a travel camper, and which they would load on a cargo vessel and ship from place to place. They had already spent a year driving around Australia and were now in New Zealand for the next several months. I’m happy to report that they still seemed to be having fun.

Our next stop was a little burg called Narooma, where we stayed at a funky, slightly dowdy motel that was redeemed by the show put on by a group of flamboyantly colored parrots that live there.

The resident parrots at our funky motel.

The resident parrots at our funky motel.

For dinner, the owner of the motel also recommended something called Club Narooma. Okay, this was a cultural experience to be sure. I’m not quite sure I fully understand the concept, but anybody can “join” the club by signing a piece of paper, so I don’t really know what makes it a club. I suspect that it’s a way to circumvent liquor licensing laws. Anyway, the place felt more or less like your basic not-quite-ready-for-Las Vegas casino, with cheap food and drinks, slot machines, and a country western singer warbling on the outside patio. There, a single pair of seniors two-stepped with serious concentration. The food won’t win any awards, but for local color and David Lynch-y strangeness, it couldn’t be beat.

On our way out of town, we took a detour toward the teeny village of Tilba, which is one street of Victorian buildings that house tiny shops and tea houses and a small hall that was holding a smaller farmer’s market, where we bought veggies for dinner, a smashing little asparagus and tomato tart, and pair of knitted Australian wool gloves for Maggie, who is currently freezing her patooky off in New York. Tilba looks like the hippie enclaves that dot the Northern California coast, complete with a shop that featured lots of tie-dye and hemp products (and which was showing a loop of a pro-hemp documentary just in case you didn’t get the memo).

Sweet little Tilba, which has the munchies.

Sweet little Tilba, which has the munchies.

From there, we detoured to Mallacoota, where we stayed at the Karbeethong Lodge, an absolutely perfect little hotel high on a hill overlooking a gorgeous inlet. The building has been an inn since the 1920’s, and it has retained all of its charm. There’s a long covered porch with comfy chairs and a big communal kitchen for guests, like me, who like to cook.

The view from the Karbeethong Lodge in Mallacoota.

The view from the Karbeethong Lodge in Mallacoota.

I could spend a month on that porch, staring out at the water and doing nothing at all. Mallacoota is next to a beautiful national park with great hiking trails, the golf course is overrun by kangaroos, and there are more squeaky white sand beaches than you can count.

Here's something you don't usually see at the golf course.

Here’s something you don’t usually see at the golf course.

One, called Shipwreck Beach, is at the end of an 8 km dirt road and is as isolated as it sounds. When I was certain we were alone, I took off my suit and danced around in the altogether, just because I could.

Shipwreck Beach, where the great unveiling occurred.

Shipwreck Beach, where the great unveiling occurred.

After two days in Mallacoota, we pressed on, stopping at yet another goofy motel in a place called Lake’s Entrance. There’s not much to do here, but we stopped because Janine wanted to watch the Oscars (we’re nineteen hours ahead and the Oscars were on in the middle of the day on Monday), so we grabbed the first place with a television we could find. I like the Oscars as much as the next guy, but this was my chance to sneak in nine holes of golf. I was able to find a nearly empty golf course next to the ocean where my round, including greens fees, balls, tees, and club rental, came to a whopping seventeen bucks. I tried my best to keep the ball in the fairway, since as I was heading out to the first tee, the woman in the golf shop warned me to be on the lookout for snakes.

And so we make our final push for Melbourne, having seen the tiniest tip of an enormous iceberg. But I have eaten surf and turf at an Australian casino, watched a paranoid pro-hemp video, attended an Alzheimer’s fundraiser, and danced without any pants on a vacant beach, so there’s that.

Drinking hoppy beer and eating hoppy kangaroo – the joys of Sydney.

When you visit Australia, what’s the one thing you must do? Obviously, you need to eat their national animal, the kangaroo, right?

Australia and New Zealand. They go together like peanut butter and jelly (or jello, as they call it here). Frick and Frack. Shields and Yarnell.

They’re really quite similar, aren’t they? For starters, their flags are practically identical.

Aussie on top, Kiwi on the bottom.

Aussie on top, Kiwi on the bottom.

They both say “g’day” and “no worries.” In both countries a double espresso is a “long black” and a cappuccino is a “short white.” Their accents are pretty similar, although Kiwis say “fush and chups,” which is how I tell them apart. From now on, if I can’t tell if someone is Aussie or Kiwi, I may be forced to trick them into saying either “fish” or “chips” or, if I’m lucky, both. My sense is, however, that Kiwis have a bit of a chip (or chup) on their shoulder about their bigger, richer neighbor. While we were in New Zealand, we heard more than a few barbs aimed at the folks next door. Eec/ Dare I say it? New Zealand seems like Canada to Aussie’s America, which is to say that the place is nicer, safer, and cleaner, and all that pisses the Kiwis off just a bit. As far as I can tell, the Aussies don’t seem to notice.

Anyway, notwithstanding the shocking similarities, seeing as how we made it all the way to New Zealand, it made sense to give Australia a chance to show its stuff.

I will say that the bar was sitting a bit high. New Zealand was lovely. We covered almost 1200 miles over the two islands. Here’s the final route:

Our route through the Shire.

Our route through the Shire.

The people were almost comically friendly. Eighteen seconds out of any downtown in New Zealand and we were back in Middle Earth. The whole country is basically one big Shire full of happy hobbits. Top that, Oz!

On the other hand, we’re city people, and as it turns out, our first stop, Sydney, is an excellent city.

We hit the ground running. In December when we were still in Egypt (which feels like lifetimes ago) I bought tickets to the February 13 Paul Simon/Sting concert in Sydney. We landed, dropped our bags at our hotel (after three weeks in an RV we got to sleep in an actual bed again!) and dashed over to the arena for three hours of real, live popular culture. The walk back to the hotel took us through some of the gritty sections of downtown, complete with more than a few clubs of ill repute, drunken revelers, and other non-Kiwi like experiences. Unlike Wellington, New Zealand, which is just a nicer version of Victoria, British Columbia, Sydney has an underbelly.

In addition to all the fine culture, the nice people of Sydney also served us what may be the best meal of the trip so far, if you don’t count Peter Lugar. We went to a place called Monopole, in the Pott’s Point neighborhood. Despite its name, which brings to mind the central feature of a strip club, it delivered a near-perfect meal. We started with a scallop ceviche, served with grilled avocado and corn and topped with a buttermilk avocado cream and a hint of fresh tarragon. Damn, friends, this was a good dish.

Then there was that kangaroo. It seemed kind of rude to come to Australia and eat their most famous animal, but I just couldn’t help myself. They served us a simply smashing kangaroo loin in a red wine reduction with a dandy little raw beet salad. The ‘roo was tender and tasty and I don’t care who knows it. I promise, however, not to eat koala. (For the record, Janine wants me to remind everyone that there are lots of kangaroos in Australia and that eating the national animal is not against the law or anything.)

Sydney is known for its Asian food, and we went all in, searing our innards at a northern Thai place called House. Isan food from northern Thailand is known for being fiery, and let’s just say that the House burned down, despite the copious amounts of India Pale Ale I used to attempt to put out the flames. We also had really good ramen at one of the very many good looking ramen joints in town.

We went on to sample even more culture in Sydney. After touring at least a half dozen theaters in Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Argentina, we finally saw a show. At one of the six theatres in the Sydney Opera House, The Sydney Theatre Company (run by Cate Blanchett’s husband) presented a strange but good production of Tennessee Williams’s play Suddenly Last Summer starring one of Australia’s most beloved actresses, Robyn Nevin. The production employed a very weird technique – half the time the actors performed behind a white cyclorama, but the live performance was captured by cameras and projected on the screen. Every so often, the stage would rotate and the audience could see the actors directly. The technique distracted me from the (mostly) great acting, but Janine felt it gave the wordiness of the text some oomph. I’m happy to say that we disagreed unbickeringly. No matter, this was risky theatre done with verve and I give them points for that.

We also saw Tosca at the Opera House, which reminded me why I have come to really like opera. It was a huge production with massive sets, a cast of more than fifty, an enormous and wonderful orchestra, an overwrought love story, and great big, unamplified voices. Opera audiences are almost as fun as the show itself, and Sydney’s didn’t disappoint. There were dowager empress types, old guys with short ties and pants up to their necks, and a goodly assortment of the aged and the aging out for a night on the town.

The Sydney Opera House really is all that. It’s every bit as dramatic from the inside looking out as it is from the outside looking in. As you might imagine, building it was no picnic. Before the opera, we dug deep for the guided tour, in which we learned of the tribulations of its construction. For any of you out there who have remodeled your house, or, heaven forbid, built one from scratch, take heart – this project went ten years and $70 million over budget. The architect quit two thirds of the way in. When they poured the foundation, they didn’t actually know how they were going to build those famous sails. I’m here to tell you that it was worth it. When Washington, D.C. wanted to create a big performing arts showpiece, it settled for the square, boring Kennedy Center. Sydney built this. These are my kind of people.

The Sydney Opera House - worth every penny.

The Sydney Opera House – worth every penny.

There was so much we didn’t see or eat in Sydney, which in addition to being cultural and delicious is also a truly beautiful city. It’s got harbors, hills, some really lovely neighborhoods, and the famous Bondi Beach. What’s not to like? I’m only sorry that we didn’t have more time. We are told that Melbourne, the big city to the south, is more elegant, more hip, and even more delicious. If that’s the case, we may never leave.