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Twelve Apostles Marine National Park
Twelve Apostles Marine National Park

melbourne: the laneway less traveled

From the 23rd floor of the Crown Metropol Hotel, Melbourne looks like a quirky and highly innovative pop-up book. The geometric and creative buildings introduce travelers to the idea that they are part of an ever-evolving story. Down on the streets, a melange of fashion, indelible spirit and pure culinary bliss add to the plot. It’s truly a sensory explosion—and it follows you wherever you go in Melbourne (and throughout much of Australia).

The city, a 1.5-hour flight from Sydney, rests on a well-designed grid that allows pedestrians to wander off the beaten path onto vibrant laneways that crisscross in-between streets. Funky boutiques, shopping arcades, cafes, bars and eateries huddle along the edges of cobblestone streets, and graffiti art is proudly displayed by artists who have transformed some of these paths into living canvases.

“Sometimes, the best part of visiting a new city is when you leave the tourist trail,” asserts Samantha Holmes of Tourism Australia. “While the big attractions can be great fun, often it’s the subtler ‘insider’ experiences that leave you feeling really satisfied.”

Taking this advice, we meandered through Melbourne’s laneways, which are, by all standards, quirky, fun and truly magical. But don’t take our word for it—their charms also prompted Lord Mayor of Melbourne Robert Doyle to nickname them the “land of in-between.” And if your clients do happen to lose their bearings as we did from looking up, down and sideways at all of the tucked away treasures, no worries—Melbournians have you covered.

“It’s truly a community,” says Karen Bolinger, CEO of the Melbourne Convention Bureau. “Melbournians are fiercely proud of the city and know where to shop, where to eat, where the festivals are—they own the city.”

When in doubt, tell your clients to partner up on their walkabout with a laneway tour guide like Hidden Secrets Tours to get the location and scoop on Melbourne’s hard-to-find businesses and experiences. It’s so much easier to soak up the area’s addictive energy and sites when they’re not wrapped up in the worry of getting lost. But then again, in Melbourne, getting lost is half the fun. We went treasure hunting through the massive Melbourne Central shopping center and eventually stumbled against the Bourke Street Mall, the city’s retail heart only accessible by tram and foot.

We also ventured out for Walkin’ Birrarung, an aboriginal culture tour of the city. The tour began with a smoking ceremony along the Yarra River’s north bank with Dean Stewart, education manager at the Koorie Heritage Trust.

The 2-hour tour winds along the river, shedding light on Colonial Melbourne before dropping anchor in Federation Square, a hub for architectural flair and history. It’s a really great way to see the city while getting your feet wet on Melbourne’s history.

Fed Square is like a city unto itself and a trendy spot made for design aficionados with galleries, shops and restaurants. We explored Aboriginal exhibits at the Ian Potter Centre, which when combined with the walking tour, made for a pretty intricate personal crest painting in an upstairs classroom later. The center houses 20 museums with customizable classes, workshops and tours.

queensland: the grand arrival

Kangaroo fur is softer to the touch than we somehow imagined it would be. This thought crosses our mind as we gently stroke the jill before us after a hike along the timber boardwalks and pathways at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. It’s wedged against the Macalister Range and Coral Sea in the coastal country between Cairns and Port Douglas. After the 3.5-hour flight from Melbourne to Cairns, the onsite Lilies Restaurant is a great spot to recharge and refill while croc spotting over the lagoon that it borders. If your clients are into getting their Zen on with nature, the winding trails that seem to spontaneously unravel into fields hosting kangaroos, wallabys and koalas are sure to get their “om” engine revving.

At Hartley’s, clients can learn about the evolution of Australia’s wildlife and experience immersion exhibits such as the kangaroo and wallaby playground that removes the boundaries between them and the treasured animals. Hartley’s Lagoon offers intimate insights into the biology and behavior of crocodiles. Half-hour-long lagoon cruises carry on throughout the day. A Big Croc Experience can place a long feeding pole and juvenile Estuarine Crocodile directly into clients’ hands. Regardless of which experience they wander into, their perceptions about crocodiles will likely never be the same. In Port Douglas, day excursions to the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef are easy to arrange with Quicksilver Cruises. Here, “ribbon” reefs run parallel to the Continental Shelf. Visitors will have plenty of opportunities to get a sense of this magnitude during their adventure. The first will likely occur after Quicksilver drops anchor at a spacious platform along the reef after about an hour-long ride from shore—standing on the top deck of the pontoon boat, it’s hard to tell sky from sea. The second is really up to your clients. They can snorkel, scuba dive or strap on a space-like suit for underwater observing. A Quicksilver semi-sub, located just a flight of stairs underwater, offers spectacular views of the reef and its parade of colors without getting wet. We snorkeled the reef and had the opportunity to hop onto a helicopter for a short ride above.

eat pray love: what’s the difference?

After eating our way across Melbourne and Cairns, we’ve come to the conclusion that food is the official religion of Australia. Australian cuisines are almost cerebral—they infiltrate one’s mind and pillage one’s senses. Our initial meeting with Australia’s prized foodie culture began on a flight with Virgin Australia from LAX to Sydney, where we kept almost robotically reordering Luke Mangan’s lemon ricotta pancakes with mascarpone, pineapple, maple syrup and mint.

At Vue de Monde in Melbourne’s Rialto building, Shannon Bennett’s tea tree smoked salmon pearls and emu jerky, served mostly on stone and wood slabs, was almost too beautiful to eat, but somebody had to do it. Recommend spoke with Ben Huggins, Vue de Monde’s events head chef about the “elemental” presentation and he said it coincided with the restaurant’s locally sourced, seasonal ingredients such as pepper berries from Tasmania. A smorgasbord of Italian fare sprawled for the picking during a lunch at Central Pier, Docklands, and a dinner at Flames of the Forest, an amazingly modern rainforest restaurant, offered a bold introduction to kangaroo loin infused with lemon myrtle and topped with homemade fig chutney. Having bonded with the little jill earlier at Hartley’s, we opted for pan-fried reef fish with coconut and kaffir lime broth instead. Flames of the Forest’s pavlova, with vanilla bean chantilly cream and passion fruit coulis, silenced our table. For a modern beachside spot, check out family-operated Captain Baxter in St. Kilda. The restaurant offers a huge kitchen and cocktail bar—an a la carte menu with a local and international slant supports local family producers and suppliers—but what attracts most is the resort-style ambiance and clean views of Port Phillip Bay.

where to hang your hat

In Melbourne, try the Crown Metropol. The Crown “precinct” covers the equivalent of two city blocks with 1,600 rooms spread between the Crown MetropolCrown Towers and Crown Promenade. Room rates start at $255 (AUD) for a luxe king or twin followed by a city luxe room at $310. City vantage points, space and the addition of a chaise longue differentiate the two room styles. At $330, the bay luxe king is larger than its sister rooms with sprawling panoramic views of Port Phillip Bay. But when it comes to a deeply impressionable city skyline, the view from Crown Metropol’s city luxe rooms is the money shot, so to speak. The ISKIA Spa is a highlight of the hotel, with discreet access, calm and soothing color palettes and an infinity pool that juts out over the city.

A walk through the 170-room QT Port Douglas Resort’s lush, wispy grounds adds an aura of nostalgia to the mix. The onsite Bazaar restaurant was designed to replicate the traditional marketplace. Here, one finds comforting fare that keeps the weary traveler coming back. Tell clients to hop on a complimentary retro bike and see where the day leads them. In winter months, visitors will likely be lured to the state-of-the-art outdoor moonlight cinema. Room rates range from $240 per night for a resort room to $290 per night for a 1-bedroom villa.

Also in Port Douglas is the supremely eco Thala Beach Lodge, which weaves through 145 acres including a coconut plantation. Through Australia’s only coconut tour, guests can taste and learn about the “tree of life.” The bungalows at Thala have a modern “Mountain Family Robinson” vibe that is hard to beat. Plan for a night of stargazing in the onsite observatory. One- to 3-night stays range from $296 to $778 per night.

Conveniently located just an hour away from the Great Barrier Reef, the 255-room Shangri-La Hotel, The Marina, Cairns offers a clean, modern design and a natural, almost meditative atmosphere with views of the city, the hotel’s tropical gardens, Trinity Bay or Marlin Marina. The Marina Dining Promenade serves up Australian cuisine with Asian and Mediterranean influences. Call for rates. ●