FROM the 300-metre Eureka Sky Tower, I can see all of Melbourne spread out below me, shadowed by dark rain clouds sweeping in from the horizon. Neon-bright towers blazoned with the logos of insurance and accounting firms – Ernst & Young, Aon – dwarf those raised to the gods of earlier ages: a sturdy 1950s bank, St Paul’s Cathedral. Beyond sprawl suburbs and neat parks, the whole cut by freeways and the mud-lazy Yarra River.
I am looking down on the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground, funky Federation Square and, beside it, the copper-domed Victorian train station, a layer-cake of red brick and cream-yellow stone. Past the station come the trams, spilling tiny people onto crowded platforms to dot the neat rectangular of broad streets and disappear into narrow alleyways.
From on high, the streets of Melbourne, built wide enough for bullock carts to turn in and now busy with cars and trams, look like its lifeblood. Down on the street, you soon realise it’s actually those more human-sized alleys, once abandoned to decay, litter and worse. Now alive with cafés, bars and arty boutiques, a Lanes and Arcades tour opens up this maze of speciality shops, restaurants, vintage fashion and art galleries with a real European feel.
“Melbourne is famous for its lanes and arcades but visitors are unsure if they can go down some of the passages,” says Fiona Sweetman of Hidden Secrets who runs this daily walking tour. ‘The laneways are a bit unusual but they aren’t scary.’
That depends how you define scary, of course. My Hot Chocolate Shot at Chokolait in the Hub Arcade (see below) is thick enough for a spoon to stand up in and would frighten a heart surgeon or a dentist silly.
The Hub is one of several beautiful arcades in the city centre of which the most dazzling is the Royal Arcade. Black and white tiles line the floor and bay windows, overseen by Gog and Magog, two seven-foot English-made giants that chime the hour.
Not quite that tall, but equally fearsome-looking, is my next guide, Harley Davidson rider John Karmouche. An ex-army major, he spent 22 years in the Royal Australian Armoured Corps but left in 1998 to run a Harley tour company. Like many a big biker, he is really a gentle soul who shows his artistic side through photography. A pillion seat on his big Harley is the perfect way to see the city and its suburbs.
A mere 15mins after leaving the centre, we are parking up by the beach in the lovely seaside resort of St Kilda on a promenade lined with cafés and upmarket boutiques. Like Melbourne’s laneways, St Kilda slumped for a while with a reputation for drugs and brothels but it is now firmly back in fashion.
John says that his customers are all ages and all types but the one thing they have in common is that most of them have never been on a motorbike in their lives. Bikers like myself are usually even more unsettled by riding pillion so, after handing my leather jacket back to John, it’s time to re-assert my masculinity by setting off for a pub crawl.
Come the night, I plunge back into the alleys with a guide from Deck of Secrets. Originally designed as a set of playing card style guides to Melbourne’s bars, restaurants, shopping etc the guides are now inevitable available as iPhone apps and take in Sydney, New York and other cities worldwide.
Melbourne has some 1,500 bars and clubs, many lurking behind anonymous doors, and Deck of Secrets’ Marinella Padula is the expert on them (most frequent question: “Can I have your job?”). We do a tour of several drinking spots, from trendy 30 Meyers Place (“the first true lane bar in Melbourne”) and The Wine House (“good wines by the case”) to the tiny, retro Von Haus (“wall lined with old shaving mirrors”). We went on to some other bars but my notes become indecipherable at this point. Must have been the dim lighting, or perhaps I was still dizzy from that Sky Tower view.
The dark (and milk chocolate) side of Melbourne.
Chocolate is in danger of taking over from coffee as the addiction of choice for locals. Here are three places for some serious choc action:
Haigh’s Chocolates, Block Arcade: Australia’s oldest family-owned chocolate manufacturer has been making chocolates since 1915, so they are really starting to get the hang of it. They still start the process from raw cocoa beans, and make the final product mostly by hand. (Tel: 03 9654 7673, www.haighschocolates.com.au)
Koko Black, Royal Arcade: Famous for its Belgian dark chocolate in chilli and cinnamon flavours, Koko Black is an Australian institution. They have several shops around town but the one at Royal Arcade is the prettiest. A good place to sip champagne if you prefer to eat your chocolate after choosing from the dizzying range. (Tel: 03 9639 8911, www.kokoblack.com)
The Chokolait Hub, Hub Arcade: Although relatively new (it opened in June 2007), Chokolait won instant popularity with its Hot Chocolate Shot. Brave souls can also try a form of Russian Roulette with the Chilli Hot Chocolate. Served on a scale from one to ten, you can go off the scale if you think you’re hard enough and get your name on the chalkboard for posterity. (Tel: 03 9639 6188, www.chokolait.com.au)
One of the features of Melbourne’s alleys is the graffiti. As Banksy says: “TV has made going to the theatre seem pointless, photography has pretty much killed painting but graffiti has remained gloriously unspoilt by progress.” Local photographer Matt Irwin has some great photos of the alleys at night, and their artwork. www.mattirwin.com
I flew to Melbourne with Qantas (Tel: 020 8600 4300; www.qantas.com) and stayed at the Sofitel Melbourne (Tel: 03 9653 0000, www.sofitelmelbourne.com.au).