The Melbourne identity


yoga@thestar.com.my

If you’re looking for a city from which you can enjoy urban, rustic and even wildlife experiences, then say hello to Melbourne.

It was the wee hours of a cold morning when we arrived in Melbourne — we being the Malaysian media group assembled by Tourism Australia for a familiarisation tour of the city and its surrounding areas to publicise the recently introduced Emirates Kuala Lumpur-Melbourne route.

There were just the six of us, plus Tourism Australia public relations manager Amanda Chong and Weber Shandwick consultant Adli Abdul Karim, but lo and behold, our hosts had booked a 50-seater bus to take us around on our four-day tour.

It must be true then what they say about the Aussies: “They think big”. And as I was soon to discover, Melbourne was indeed big on culture and arts, natural wonders, food, sports and thrills of many kinds.

It was still drizzling after we had checked into our hotel, which meant it was a bit chilly.

Many had warned us of Melbourne’s “bipolar” weather, with its Jekyll and Hyde personality which could go from freezing cold to freaking hot in a single day. We were just thankful that the thermometer was not in the 40s like it had been the previous summer.

What’s truly to be treasured is Australia’s unique wildlife, of which we saw quite a bit. After a special walking tour and lunch, we wound up at the Melbourne Aquarium (www.melbourneaquarium.com.au). Our group had split up, with one going off to check out the Muslim communities in the city. They were supposed to meet us here but were running considerably late, so we went ahead.

Just seeing the delightful and amusing Gentoo and King penguins justified the price of admission into the aquarium but there was considerably more within to thrill, entertain and educate one. There were the stingrays, sharks, jellyfishes and even the oddballs of the Neptunian world.

The aquarium also has some nice interactive displays and a huge 2.2-million-litre Oceanarium. Nothing beats having smiley stingrays swimming overhead. We too left with smiles on our faces thanks to the superb family-themed experience here.

Our final stop for the day was at the fantastic Eureka Skydeck88 (www.eurekaskydeck.com.au). It’s at the 88th level of a fully-residential building and is the highest public vantage point in the southern hemisphere. One gets an amazing bird’s eye view from the 360° observation deck with its floor-to-ceiling glass windows.

An additional thrill here is The Edge — a glass-cube extension that projects 3m out of the building and leaves you with the unnerving sensation of being suspended 300m above ground. If you have only time to do one thing in Melbourne, make sure it is this.

As we were running late, the only proper allocated time for shopping on this tour was shelved, and we rushed straight to dinner. It being a Friday, most shops were open till 9pm. On other days, everything basically shuts down by 6pm.

On the second day, we visited the Ballarat Wildlife Park (www.wildlifepark.com.au). It was truly a magical experience to be able to feed the friendly kangaroos and to watch the infamous Tasmanian devils being fed. And the snacking continued with the emus. What was memorable, though, was getting up close with the adorable sleepy koalas.

We checked out of our hotel the next day as we were going to spend the night at the world-famous Phillip Island, 90 minutes by car from the city. But first we made two stops — once at a lavender farm and another at a stonefruit farm (see: Delights galore), followed by lunch. Fully stuffed, we bused off to Phillip Island.

On arrival, we immediately hopped on a cruise (www.wildlifecoastcruises.com.au) to Seal Rocks. The seas can be quite choppy, so those prone to having motion sickness (like moi) should take the pills half an hour before the trip. That evening the sea was rougher than usual so the boat couldn’t get up close to the rocks where 15,000 fur seals frolicked.

That’s right: 15,000! And they certainly made themselves heard and, urm, smelt. Eau de phew, anyone? But it was worth the queasiness to catch this natural spectacle of so many lumbering bodies packed into a relatively tight space.

The true gem of Victoria and Australia, though, is really the Penguin Parade at the Phillip Island Nature Park (www.penguins.org.au). People come here to watch the Little Penguins, who are principally monogamous, return for the night after a whole day out trawling for food. Before that happens, they can get a run-through of this aquatic bird’s life at an interactive display set up nearby.

Interestingly enough, some of the displays allow you to peek into the actual burrows of the penguins. Some of them were still there as it was moulting season and they couldn’t go out to fish. The island is dotted all over with their burrows.

Vehicle owners are warned to check that no penguins have crawled underneath their vehicles before starting their engine. (We unfortunately came across a dead penguin on the road when we drove back to our apartments.)

We were lucky to be given spots at the Penguin Plus viewing platform. Penguin landing was only expected at 6.45pm, but the birds had other plans, and a slew of them arrived early. There’s nothing quite like seeing these little creatures waddling their way at varying speeds up to their burrows.

We decided to walk by the side of the fenced-up pathways to get an even closer look at the creatures. We spotted some baby penguins mewing (yes, they mew like kittens) for their parents who had not arrived. And even more heartwarming was the spectacle of a family of penguins reunited.

It’s pretty certain you will go “Aww!” at this sight.

The next day, we took a break from nature so as to be amazed by the ingenuity of mankind. At A Maze N Things (www.amazenthings.com.au), clever optical illusions and other neat tricks, many of them interactive, made for a magical experience. But there was no magic or trickery involved in the 6.5m Look Out! Slide, which entails a hairy free-fall and a steep slide.

All of us had a go at it, and it was so thrilling, that oops, I did it again,!

After that, it was back to visiting the wildlife — this time, the koalas, right opposite at the Koala Conservation Centre (run by the same non-profit organisation that oversees the penguin centre). We saw the sleepy-heads (they are nocturnal creatures) resting in the treetops. It’s good to see them being protected as there are only about 40 koalas left on Phillip Island.

As our trip came to an end and we sat in the cosy Emirates Lounge to await our flight back, I concluded that this had been among my most memorable trips.

Given the time and opportunity, I would love to visit again; this time maybe to sit at a splendid Melburnian café sipping coffee. Or to make the most of some of the best shopping in Australia. Or to check out the numerous other attractions on offer.

Yes, with so much to do here, it all boils down to how much time you have.

o Emirates flies to Melbourne from Kuala Lumpur daily.


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