I left San Francisco on Monday night, and arrived in Australia on Wednesday afternoon, a trip of over 10,000 km, flying at an average altitude over 10,000 m. No matter how many flights I take, I still find the experience of flying to be exhilarating. Crossing a large body of water is always particularly impressive, but there was something truly magical about leaving the far West coast of North America and landing safely on the East coast of Australia, with almost no air time over land. Satellites and computers have obviously simplified navigation, but it’s still sort of fantastic that any vehicle can travel so far and arrive at its destination with such precision.
Although Australia is a bit of a detour on my passage to India, I have long been talking about visiting my friends Arlen and Steph, and I decided that this year I would make it happen. Arlen is a good friend of mine from high school, but has been living in Melbourne for over 7 years now, and after spending a couple of weeks there, I think I’m beginning to appreciate why.
Upon arrival in Melbourne, I was bracing myself for some intense heat, but I was pleasantly surprised to walk out of the airport into sunny 17 degree weather. Aside from an unfortunate decline in the quality of Triple J (a once great radio station), Australia is much as I remembered it. The sun is still intense, the snakes and spiders are still dangerous, and everyone still speaks in a delightful argot, with many words shortened or streamlined (e.g. sunnies, swimmers, breakie, etc.) My last trip there, however, (almost 10 years ago), was mostly confined to Sydney, Australia’s premier city in terms of iconic sights and tourism. Although a fierce rivalry exists between the two, most Australians seem to feel, then as now, that Melbourne is the superior place to live.
Much like San Francisco, Melbourne is yet another city with great neighbourhoods, nice weather, friendly people, and overall good quality of life. In addition, however, it is also the most sports-focused city I’ve ever been to. On the day I arrived I had a bit of a wander around the central business district, and came across people walking, running, biking, rowing, skateboarding, and kite surfing. The Australian Open just finished, leaving heaps of tennis infrastructure in its wake, and the city was gearing up for the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Of the 18 teams in the Australian Football League (the most popular sport in Australia), 9 are based in Melbourne, with a 10th located in a nearby suburb! While in town, I managed to catch some live Ultimate Frisbee and could have spent a whole Sunday watching a one-day international cricket match. Finally, although I missed it by a few months, I think it’s worth noting that the entire country gets a national holiday for a horse race in November – the Melbourne Cup.
I was lucky enough to do a bit of cycling myself while I was in town (on a Devinci to boot, thanks to Arlen!). The bike lanes were definitely a bit wider and more numerous than they are in Toronto, with slightly better demarcation between lanes, and even a few physically separated ones, but for the most part, it was still bikes protecting parked cars on city streets. When it came to trails, however, the infrastructure was amazing. There is a fantastic network of multi-use paths that allow people to commute to work through the woods and along the Yarra river. Here’s a view of downtown, taken from a bridge over the river, with trails on either side:
Melbourne is also an incredibly beautiful city in terms of architecture. I think I must have somehow missed all the less-than-spectacular neighbourhoods, because every area of the city I visited was mostly made up of Victorian-era heritage buildings. I am told these were mostly constructed during the gold rush and population boom of the 1880s, but they all seems to have weathered very well. The nicer suburbs are filled with houses made of ornate brick and lattice work, complete with covered porches and bay windows. There is also a rather charming tendency for buildings to be named, as if each were a manor home of some kind. The image below is far from the best example of the style, but it is apparently the only picture I thought to take.
Melbourne is also known for its culture and cuisine, and indeed, bars, restaurants, cafes and coffee shops were everywhere. It’s more than just the quality of the food that makes the city stand out, however; it’s the fact that people are so intent on enjoying themselves. Wages are relatively high, and Melbournians spend a lot of time socializing and enjoying great food and drinks. Patios seemed to be perpetually filled with people, and a great brunch place we tried was pretty much full, despite the fact that it was Monday morning. Prices are definitely high compared to Canada, but taxes and tips are always included, which I think is a brilliant system.
On the downside, everything in Melbourne seems to sprawl to some extent, presumably because there is no shortage of land. The downtown core is the only part of the city that demonstrates much in the way of density, and it combines both crowds of office workers and hordes of tourists. Even downtown, however, there is an amazing system of pedestrian alleys and little shops tucked away behind the main streets. The photos below are from one such place, a very bohemian spot that Arlen and I stopped into called Captains of Industry, which combined some fantastic coffee with a proper barbershop (and possibly some tailoring services).
I could have spent much more time in Melbourne that I did, but there was adventure to be found elsewhere in the country, and after a few days in the city, Arlen and I headed North.