The Test Run
Thus far in Miles’ young life, we’ve hesitated to take him too far away from Hong Kong. There was the trip to Phnom Penh in February, and then Koh Samui in April – both only around three hours flight time from Hong Kong, and both, perhaps more importantly, undertaken with a troop of very helpful family and friends. There’s an acknowledgment that we should eventually take him back to Toronto to see my side of the family, but the thought of a 10+ hour flight with him, plus dealing with baby jetlag and managing the logistics of such a trip, is too tiring for us to even consider.
We decided we needed to have a sort of test run holiday before attempting a Canada trip, and it would need to fulfil several criteria: a long-haul flight with just the three of us, minimal time difference, and a baby/family-friendly destination. Australia checked all three boxes for us. Ashley and I had both been to Sydney before when we were younger, and I remember our family doing other side trips to Alice Springs and Uluru, Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef, and to the capital, Canberra. We’d never been together before, though, and the fact that it would be winter there as well was a nice little bonus.
Originally we were looking to spend our holiday in Sydney – we both had some family there, and some good friends as well. We waited too long to commit, however, and it ended up being cheaper to go to Melbourne instead. Neither of us had been before, and we had been planning on going when Miles was a bit older, but in the end we figured it’d still be worth it to go, even just as a test run for future long-haul trips. So, on June 27, the three of us boarded our redeye Qantas flight from Hong Kong to Melbourne, and at least two of us were praying that Miles would somehow sleep through our night in the sky.
He didn’t. Which is not to say that he was awake the whole time, but it certainly felt like it. Actually one of the things I promised Ashley in order to get her onboard this trip was that I would take care of Miles on the flight if he was having trouble sleeping, and that promise was paid in full. It’s not something that I minded at the time – some days I only get to see him in the morning because he’s already in bed by the time I get home, so I relish any time that I can be with Miles, even if it’s holding him and walking up and down the plane aisles until he nods off – but there’s an awareness that any disruption in sleep now will have a domino effect on the rest of his day.
After we landed, we took the Starbus airport shuttle that dropped us off in front of our accommodations – it took about an hour to get into town, but it was way cheaper than taking a taxi or an Uber. We booked a few nights at Oaks on Market, a serviced apartment in the Central Business District, and for quite a reasonable price. Their check-in time is usually at 2:00 pm, but they let us check-in when we arrived at around 9:00 am, which was a real gamechanger for us, especially after a largely sleepless overnight flight.
Tipo 00 and the CBD
After a much-needed mid-morning nap, the three of us ventured out to get our first look at Melbourne. As someone that grew up in a city that often ends up near or at the top of various rankings of the world’s most liveable cities, I take note of the other members of this privileged club – mostly cities from Canada, Western Europe and Scandinavia, and Australia and New Zealand. Melbourne is right up there with Toronto on many of these lists, and when I was still a young patriotic Canadian boy I developed an irrational sort of indignation against this strange city on the other side of the world – how dare they be as liveable as us?
Years later, I can’t think of a better place for us as a family to visit. The best thing about it, and I mean this in the most complimentary way, is that there’s nothing to see. Or there are things to see, but nothing that would gather a crowd to fight through, or a long queue to line up in, or any other barely tolerable use of our time that would be made even tougher with a baby in tow. Melbourne is just a nice city to walk around in, and I love that. Better yet, it’s a city known for its fantastic food and even better coffee, and after months of tropical heat and humidity in Hong Kong the prospect of strolling down a wintry street in a warm jacket sipping a glorious flat white was almost too good to be true.
After walking around the Central Business District for a bit, we popped into Tipo 00, a pasta bar recommended to us by friends. The restaurant has earned some accolades since it opened in 2014, and all I can add to that is that the food was fantastic. We ordered the burrata with fennel and pistachio pesto, the tagliolini al nero with squid and bottarga, and the papardelle with Gippsland rabbit, hazelnut, and marjoram, and everything was delicious. The waitstaff were also friendly and they had highchairs available, which is an absolute win for us at least.
South Melbourne Market
The next morning we took our first tram ride in the city across the Yarra River to the South Melbourne Market part of town to meet up with my cousin Adam and his wife Vanessa. Adam’s mom is my mom’s younger sister, the seventh of seven daughters, and while the older sisters stayed in Hong Kong and sisters 4, 5, and 6 (my mom) immigrated to Canada, the seventh sister put down roots in Sydney, Australia. My family visited Adam’s family – aunt, uncle, and younger brother – twice when I was younger, and I have a lot of fond memories of those trips to Australia: sightseeing around Sydney, road trips up the east coast to the beachside town of Cairns, swimming in the Great Barrier Reef, flying out to Alice Springs and watching the sunrise over Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock), etc.
My last trip down under was years ago though, when Adam and his younger brother Alex were still kids, so it was nice to have a chance to catch up now that we’ve all grown up a bit. Adam and Vanessa suggested getting brunch at Chez Dré, a café located in a former warehouse just down the street from the market. The food was great and so was the coffee – it’s not an understatement to say that good coffee is life for Melburnians – though we had a bit of a scare when Miles reached out as one of the servers was bringing us our drinks and pulled one of the mugs, splashing hot coffee on his jacket and pants. Luckily he was fine, but we were a bit shaken afterwards.
After brunch, we walked over to the nearby South Melbourne Market to fill up whatever holes were left in our stomachs. There’s a lot of food available at the market, not to mention fresh produce, flowers and plants, and various household goods, and we chowed down on some oysters, good cheese, and a brilliant paella. My cousin also recommended ordering a ‘magic’ from the Padre Coffee stall in the market – a Melbourne coffee special composed of steamed milk poured over a double ristretto which theoretically achieves a ‘magical’ ratio of milk to coffee. I wish I appreciated coffee enough to enjoy this more, but in general Ashley and I really tasted a difference in the coffees here. There’s a fullness of flavour and a really gentle aftertaste that I don’t think I’ve experienced elsewhere, and, as a result, we had a lot of coffee on this trip.
Like I mentioned above, Melbourne does not have a lot of major attractions, certainly nothing as iconic as, say, the Sydney Opera House, the Coliseum, the Empire State Building, or the Taj Mahal, but that’s not a mark against the city by any means. For one thing, it means there aren’t any crowded tourist sites to navigate through, or to wait in line for – visitors must walk the same streets and neighbourhoods as the local Melburnians, and that’s really the appeal of the city to me, and probably many others.
When you visit a city that has an established bucket list of buildings and spaces to see, it’s easy to overemphasize these points on a map within the context of the cityscape. So New York is reduced to the Empire State Building, the Central Park, and the Met, and Paris is defined by the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and the Louvre, for example, and the spaces in between oftentimes fade into nothingness in our memories and imagination. With a city like Melbourne, these in-between spaces are the attraction, and the journey is the point.
In the late afternoon, we headed out into a slight drizzle to walk some of these in-between spaces. Our first stop was the Block Arcade, a gorgeous L-shaped, Victorian-era shopping arcade connecting the downtown streets of Collins and Elizabeth. The carved stone, wrought iron fixtures, and glass ceiling are a callback to Australia’s colonial legacy, but it’s also a reminder of how closely linked the country was to the United Kingdom after independence. It does feel like Melbourne has more of a British influence then, say, Toronto, both cities in what was once the British Empire, and for whatever reason Canada is one of the rare former colonies that didn’t really embrace British-isms like cricket, rugby, and Victorian shopping arcades. I’ve also written about my conflicted feelings on colonial architecture when I was interning in Yangon in 2016 (home of some of the best preserved colonial buildings in Southeast Asia), but, hey, at the end of the day it’s a pretty little corner of the city.
From there we crossed Collins Street and walked through the less visually appealing Centre Way Arcade to get to Centre Place, one of the city’s famous laneways. Melbourne’s downtown area is filled with little pedestrian lanes and alleyways that showcase some of the best of what the city has to offer – incredible coffee, tasty brunches, sidewalk restaurants and cafés, and fantastic street art. Centre Place’s cozy shops soon gave way to Degraves Street’s livelier restaurant spaces connecting Flinders Lane and Flinders Street, one of the main city thoroughfares running parallel to the Yarra River. We walked along Flinders Street, past the seriously impressive railway station (see cover photo) – the busiest in all of Australia – before ducking into the colourful wallscapes of Hosier Lane. The short, cobblestone laneway is perhaps the most famous example of the city’s approach to street art, with both walls covered in stunning representations of artistic whimsy, political ideals, and personal expression. After taking a few photos and admiring the artwork for a few minutes, however, the rain began to pour in earnest and we retreated into the mist, back in the direction of our hotel.
Thus ended our first 48 hours in Melbourne. The weather reports showed more sunshine over the next few days and our agenda was clear – max out our brunch and coffee intake, check out some cool libraries and museums, make a stop at the other major marketplace in the city, and in general just enjoy the all-too-rare feeling of strolling around an interesting city wearing comfy clothing in a mild winter climate. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but the prospect of woollen sweaters and jeans and a cup of hot coffee in hand is really living the dream for those of us sweating it out in the tropics. Beyond our activities in the city, there was also a two-day road trip in the works, and our hope and prayer was that the forecasted sunny weather would hold up for as long as possible.