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Footloose in Melbourne : Opulent Style Still Makes Australia City Sparkle

May 11, 1986|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Rabey and Beyer are husband and wife travel writers based in Santa Monica.

MELBOURNE, Australia — Start ticking off all the good things money can buy and you soon realize this cosmopolitan town hasn't missed much since great gobs of gold were discovered nearby 16 years after its founding. Enough of the glittery stuff was around to double the population in one year and set in motion an opulent life style that still sparkles with vitality after 150 years.

Melbourne takes pride in its preservation of gorgeous Victorian terrace houses, historic shopping arcades as ornate as a medieval castle, a marvelous old train station and public buildings.

Yet a third of Melbourne's citizens are foreign-born or the children of outlanders, a colorful ethnic ragout that fuels a willingness to accept the best of hybrid culture, be it in art, architecture, dance, food or festivities. Aussies are drawn in droves to the bright lights of Melbourne.

Here to there: Qantas, Continental and Pan Am will get you there without change, Air New Zealand with one in Auckland. Taxi fare from airport is $10-$14, bus $3.50. Bus drops you at bus depot, cab to hotel; cabbies don't like the short haul.

Getting around: Melbourne is spread out, about 60 miles in places, so trams make sense. Two hours' tram travel costs 77 cents, $1.55 all day on trains, trams and buses.

How long/how much: Three days to do the place justice, another for the wonderful beaches. Lodging prices moderate to expensive, same for dining.

A few fast facts: Australia's dollar was recently worth 70 cents U.S. Wonderful time to visit is Indian summer, March and April, when elms and oaks are changing colors. Winters (April-October) are mild, summers kept pleasant by town's location on Tasman Sea. Don't forget $20-Australian departure tax.

Getting settled in: Most of the city's downtown hotels are fairly expensive, but a few blocks out are some good values in pleasant motels. One is Travel Inn (Grattan & Drummond streets; $38), which gives you good-size rooms, color TV, pool in central courtyard, self-catering coffee and tea fixings in room. Covered parking free, restaurant, lots of others nearby.

Downtowner (Lygon & Queensberry streets; $45 B&B) isn't exactly in city center but on fringe, a modern place on edge of Italian section, which means good food at hand. Their coffee shop is a definite cut above the norm, with pork fillet in a brandy and apple cream sauce sharing the plate with gnocchi.

The Windsor (103 Spring St.; $77) is up a notch or so, but you have the pleasure of staying in a Melbourne legend, a sedate and stylish grand hotel that is protected by the National Trust. A formal dining room of distinction, Old World charm in every vase, chandelier, tufted chair and place setting. Very special.

Regional food and drink: Seafood is very large around here, but what impressed us were the many wonderful dining places from the world's four corners, not just within ethnic neighborhoods, but sprinkled all over town. Just name your country, it's well represented.

We've held off on mentioning Vegemite up until now, a super-salty yeast extract that borders on a national passion. After watching nearly everyone spread it on breakfast toast or luncheon sandwiches, we broke down and gave it a bash. At best, it's an acquired taste, and we didn't.

We've sung the praises of Australia's wines, and those of Victoria are particularly good. The beer labels are endless, all seeming to be stronger and with more body than ours.

Moderate-cost dining: Lambs (100 Lygon St.) is on the border of Little Italy yet specializes in Greek country cooking. Choose to dine in a deli-like room with rustic wooden tables and booths, a fancier section with tablecloths and flowers, or move out to the courtyard for alfresco dining, music and dancing while lamb turns on the spit. Typical here is a huge Greek salad and equal portion of moussaka for $6.

The Asian Food Plaza (Little Bourke and Russell streets in Chinatown) is like a Singapore hawkers center. Select your dishes from a number of cooking booths and take them to your table. Mongolian barbecues and hot pot were doing great business, both full meals.

Chalky's (242 Lygon St.) is the place for desserts, although they also serve lunch and dinners. Rum logs, chocolate, date and almond tortes with whipped cream are sumptuous, and there's a magical flamenco guitarist.

Going first-class: Parkroyal (St. Kilda Road; $88-$102) is a new hotel with luxury and style in every corner: beige and pink marble lobby; fruit, pate, cheese and crackers in your room; two fine restaurants, rooftop atrium and saunas. An oasis of elegance.

Everybody who's anybody in town heads for Mietta's (16 Gellibrand St.) to dine. The main room is stunning in its beauty, with glorious flower arrangements on truncated marble columns and a bevy of Victorian antiques brought from London. But folks are here for the superb food: cream of crayfish soup, John Dory with anchovy and mint, galantine of duck, a long wine list to tempt you.

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