If Sydney were a sleek, sunny and sophisticated young woman, it’s safe to say that Melbourne would be her ultra-hip, funkier teen-aged sister. Australia’s second largest city and capital of Victoria just oozes cool. From its lively narrow laneways to gorgeous nineteenth-century arcades to a diverse international array of foods and flavors, it’s a feast for anyone who loves to wander and explore.
The Seabourn Encore arrived at Port Melbourne on an early Wednesday morning. A blanket of clouds was hanging over the skyline, but with a brush of clear blueness in the distance, it seemed we would be heading into another beautiful summer day. Herb and I stopped at the tram ticket window inside the port – more friendly Aussie helpfulness, as we kept experiencing in these travels – and waited at the station a short distance away. Melbourne lays claim to having the largest urban tramway network in the world, and from our experience that day, it was wonderfully efficient and easy to navigate.
We rode the tram to the central business district and began a walk I had put together starting at Flinders Street Railway Station, the city’s main metropolitan train terminus. Built in the French Renaissance style in the early 1900s, the elegant building features a grand dome over the main entrance and a clock tower above the Elizabeth Street entrance. A series of distinctive clocks under the dome display the departure times of the next trains.
We were surprised by how old-fashioned this area of the city appeared, as if it were part of another time and place. There was a hat shop, a donut shop and signage that can best be described as charmingly retro. As we turned on Degraves Street and then onto a laneway called Centre Place, it felt as if we were heading down a rabbit hole into a wacky wonderland.
Inviting aromas were wafting from every nook and cranny of Centre Place. Take-away stands, coffee shops and cafés with only a handful of tables were crowded into the laneway. Even at mid-morning, the place was buzzing. The variety of international offerings was impressive as well, and if you were yearning for a specific ethnic fare – from Italian to Middle Eastern – you could probably find it at here.
The Block Arcade
The eclectic atmosphere of Centre Place quickly spilled into elegance as we crossed the street to The Block Arcade. The 1890s Victorian food and shopping mall is a stunner, with a beautiful mosaic tile floor, glass canopied ceiling and details of wrought iron and carved stone.
The Arcade’s most famous tenant is Hopetoun Tea Rooms, a fixture since 1892. Hopetoun’s window display is filled with beautifully decorated cakes, tarts and baked goods and is a popular photo stop. Inside, the cozy space is awash in shades of green and feels both old-fashioned and modern at the same time, a bit like the city it calls home.
The lines can be long for lunch and throughout the afternoon, but at mid-morning there was no wait. It was a perfect place to take a break and recharge for the next round of touring. Our friendly server explained that the teas are organic and specially blended for Hopetoun. Baked goods are freshly made on site. Teas are listed on the menu alphabetically and have intriguing names such as RiverMint Chamomile and WattleSeed Breakfast. We decided on scones and pots of Bard’s Tempest, an English Breakfast mix, and Mademoiselle Grey, Earl Grey with rose petals. The tea was so delicious that we brought several boxes home!
We walked through The Block Arcade and crossed a street into an equally beautiful and equally historic shopping venue called Royal Arcade. The Royal Arcade dates from 1870 and is considered the oldest surviving arcade in Australia. A glass roof and rows of arched windows draw your eyes upward as soon as you walk through the doorway. And above that doorway are a majestic clock and two carved figures of mythical characters Gog and Magog, who strike the chimes every hour.
What I loved most about these arcades and laneways was how connected they were, how they functioned as passageways through Melbourne’s central business district, offering pedestrian-only routes and shortcuts from one street to another. Their names as well as many of the street names defined their history or described their scope. Hardware Lane. Niagara Lane. Little Bourke Street. Little Collins Street. Centre Place. They gave the city such extraordinary character that I got the feeling I was passing through the real soul of Melbourne.
State Library of Victoria
We headed back to Swanston Street toward the State Library of Victoria. The streets away from the arcades and laneways have more of a big city feel, with interesting architecture and older buildings mixing seamlessly with the new.
The library’s main attraction is the La Trobe Reading Room, an octagon-shaped space topped with a magnificent light-filled dome. Viewing levels on the fifth and sixth floors offer a unique perspective, giving the room the illusion of spreading out like a wonderful wooden game board. Computer, chess and reading tables with charming green lamps complete the space, and worn-looking books decorate shelves built into ornately adorned balconies.
Back outside, we walked toward Flinders Street in search of a café I was hoping to find for lunch. Along the way, we passed more city scenes and landmarks, adding to the picture that Melbourne was continuing to create. I stopped to take a few quick photos, but mostly we kept walking, soaking up the lovely summer day in this fascinating city.
After a couple of wrong turns, we found Roule Galette, a French crêperie on the corner of Flinders Lane and Scott Alley. It’s a tiny café – just a few tables inside and outside – and there was a bit of a wait to be seated. But to say it was worth the wait would be an understatement of the grandest scale. Our crêpes were extraordinary and as authentic as any I’ve ever tasted. Roule Galette was created by Frenchman Michel Dubois, a self-described “experienced and passionate creepier,” who proudly claims that sauces are homemade and no processed food is ever used. It was one of those places where I would easily break my unofficial travel rule of not repeating meals at the same restaurant!
That Famous Melbourne Coffee
The afternoon was getting late and we needed to catch a tram back to the ship, but we still hadn’t tried any of the coffee so famously linked to Melbourne. We had passed such an abundance of coffee stands and cafés along our walk that day that it almost seemed impossible to pick one. We decided on Koko Black, a dessert, coffee and chocolate shop in the Royal Arcade. I think we picked it as much for the chance to return to the Royal Arcade as for the coffee itself, but it turned out to be a wonderful choice and great place to end our day.
My cappuccino was topped with a “coffee art” heart and served with freshly grated chocolate shavings to sprinkle on top. The beautiful presentation shouldn’t have surprised me. How could I have expected anything less from a city with a heart of cool?