GUARDIAN It was 2am. I’d been in Melbourne for 24 sleepless hours and was still wide-awake, feeling as though I were missing out on the essential glamour of a Lost In Translation moment because my low-rise hotel didn’t have views of the city. Instead of raiding the mini-bar, I went for a nightcap at a sleepy local pub called Rush – a misnomer if ever there was one. Rain came down in Hollywood torrents, the wind whipped up and I began to question the wisdom of leaving Blighty’s so-so summer for Melbourne’s grey winter.
At three-ish, I returned to the Lyall Hotel – a triumph of beige suede over good taste – turned the TV on and thought I was hallucinating when a woman said, in all seriousness: “I’ve had an iconic wardrobing experience.” Iconic? Wardrobing?
Later, in a restaurant, I was told that eggs benedict, “is our iconic dish, you’ll be sure to have a fine-dining experience.” Melbourne feels strangely Parisian, New York-ish and San Franciscan. It’s because of the street cafes and news vendors, towers, grid system and trams – a beguiling urban identikit that makes for an attractive whole. There’s also a hint of LA, in the wealthy suburb of South Yarra, and of course a splash of Ramsay Street elsewhere.
Cranes stand all over the place, saluting building sites like so many anorexic Statues of Liberty, gaudy lights winking at the top of their extended arms. If it was possible to plump-up, Botox or lift a city’s visage, then I’d describe Melbourne’s face as well and truly tucked; it’s had radical surgery. Squeaky and new, the good-looking veneer pulled tight, it has been thoroughly made-over, giving new life to its Victorian past.
New people, too, like Hank, a Dutchman who speaks “Strine” with a Flemish drawl and wears crimson patent leather ankle boots and maroon socks with tweeds – a dazzling combo. As the proprietor of the Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings, or AGOD, he is on a crusade to promote and, of course, flog Aboriginal art.
Many people, Hank included, claim a very personal stake on Aboriginal artists and tell tales of how they personally encouraged, discovered or promoted certain individuals. It’s as if Aboriginal art has become totemic in itself – a white totem, a middle-class badge of liberal respectability. Some of the artists Hank represents are extraordinary, as is his apparent grasp of the symbolism, nuance and intricacy of the different native cultures and styles. His enthusiasm is infectious, he’s a man possessed, evangelical and verging on the combustible. I was entranced and had to steel my resolve to escape without buying anything – there again, if I’d had a spare A$100,000 the story might have been quite different.
A quick escape wasn’t easy, the pedestrians in Melbourne are probably the best behaved in the world and patiently wait in orderly queues for the green man to flash. I’m unused to such municipal obedience.
Victoria’s capital does weekends better than any other days of the week. Wealthy locals might drive up to Daylesford, a peculiar town that is famed for an unlikely combination of health spas, a large gay community and locally grown organic food – produced no doubt by the lesbian WI after an invigorating salt-scrub. It’s also home to the chi-chi Lake House Hotel and its second- to-none wine cellar. Owner Alla Wolf-Tasker, a terrifying woman gated behind enormous spectacles and a shock of big black hair, extolled the virtues of all who worked for her, including the groundsman. “He’s the Australian shooting champion, and often takes out guests,” she said. I know how he must feel, and regret not having the use of a sawn-off shotgun myself.
For those who remain in town, Melbourne is a city that brunches – conspicuously so. Small groups of Melbournites, box fresh, newly streaked and well-shod, ruminate together on Chapel Street below the evocative, colonial Victorian shop facades before making their choice of restaurant. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, all the swanky eateries are full; smoked salmon & scrambled eggs, eggs benedict, bagels and croissants filling, in turn, the diners. It’s inevitably a family affair – children, very much part of Melbourne’s culture of youth, feature heavily – an almost Mediterranean mentality.
T hose hungering for culture are catered for, too: a leisurely amble to Federation Square does the trick. The newly built arts centre and public space is unremittingly hideous from the outside, but quite stupendous within. Fabulous interiors are splintered, labyrinthine and engaging, a bit like walking into a film maker’s version of an art space: huge galleries with a permanent and excellent exhibition of Aboriginal art are beautifully hung and lit. And with hardly any punters to spoil the view, the space becomes even more airy and dreamy. I momentarily shudder as the words iconic and experience pop into my head.
The good denizens are as proud of Federation Square as they are of the municipality in general. I got a powerful sense not just of community, but of care for the environment, too – the streets are incredibly clean. Likewise I felt the standard of living was high, the happiness threshold was regularly tipped and general satisfaction quotient was sated. Melbourne’s history of radical trade unionism and politics somehow doesn’t come across to the casual visitor enveloped in overwhelming niceness. It felt a bit illusory and saccharine, but then perhaps my jetlag was kicking in again.
The Adelphi Hotel on Flinders Lane is the trendy, shiny haunt of fashion folk, designers and rock stars. A cantilevered swimming pool juts out 10 stories above the pavement below; the pared down interiors feel ever so slightly monastic. Everything, including the stainless steel furniture has been especially designed for the hotel. Teething problems meant heavy metal coffee tables and chairs with lethal edges were given shin pads. One wit described the additions as “avant guards”. But isn’t a place like this is designed to separate the haves from the avants?
I met a couple called Robert and Jim in a pub called Vic’s. The bar area was a bit like the set for an alcoholic version of Friends, chummy, intimate and slightly unreal. It’s certainly none the worse for that. I mentioned my take on Melbourne’s niceness and expanded it with my theory that street violence felt remote and unlikely. Jim boasted that the biggest problem was internal Mafia gang violence – there have been 26 deaths in the past few months. The statistic came as a peculiar relief.
Caffe e Cucina is a Melbourne institution on Chapel Street famed for attracting the stars as well as for its exuberant waiters. Good food and wine is dispensed with much Italianate theatre and shouting. The Kiwi waiter serving me gave a bravura performance but sheepishly admitted that even though his accent was pretty good, he still had none of the language.