Along the Yarra River, Melbourne’s CBD is lit up by moon and man. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Four days in magnificent Melbourne

City boasts great dining, diversity, natural wonders, and more

Melbourne, a multiculturally diverse city along the Yarra River set amid an eclectic mix of classic Victorian architecture and shiny new skyscrapers, is outshone only by the Southern Ocean’s breathtaking natural marvels.

Gold discovery in the 1850s put Melbourne on the map, provided funds for requisite infrastructure and then defined it. Voted the world’s most livable city seven times, from 2011 to 2017, the “secret” is out, so that today Melbourne’s population is around 5 million, almost reaching Sydney’s nearly 6 million.

A car bridge and pedestrian Sandridge Bridge lead from Southbank to Melbourne’s CBD. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Sydneysiders joke that Melbourne has four distinct seasons, often in one day. Perhaps true, but while I was there mid-December, there were often four seasons in the same hour! Global warming may also be adding to weather whiplash: one Melbourne day it was 100 degrees, the next 62.

The bed

In the hip entertainment area of Southbank and towering 39 floors above the Yarra River is the lavish, Las Vegas/Macao-style, 481-room Crown Towers Melbourne. Walking distance to Melbourne’s main sites and Central Business District (CBD), Crown’s location is truly perfect.

Crown rooms are enormous starting at 460 square feet with floor-to-ceiling windows boasting expansive views of Port Phillip Bay, the Yarra River and CBD, much of which is spectacularly lit at night. Room interiors wed chic Art Deco designs with high-tech: think remote control pushbutton window shades and curtains. Fantastic custom bedding, large walk-in closets, Nespresso makers and marble bathrooms with separate deep soaking tubs afford complete comfort.

There is a casino, along with eight top-notch restaurants, state-of the-art fitness center, 75-foot swimming pool sanctuary that would make Cleopatra croon and retail to scratch a sophisticated shopper’s itch. The Crown Spa has one of the most in-depth treatment menus I’ve seen anywhere. My talented therapist expertly erased 30 days of work and travel fatigue in a relaxing, restorative atmosphere. Service everywhere at the Crown was so good and so personal, it utterly belied its size.

While true I can’t tell a golf ball from a Ping-Pong ball, it was very exciting at Crown Towers Melbourne in December as the official host of the 2019 President’s Club Fan Experience. Participants including U.S. Team Capt. Tiger Woods were seen milling about the property and riverside.

The meals

Food is serious business here, thus Melburnians and travelers have a wealth of excellent, diverse options, including all manner of great Asian cuisine. No small wonder Anthony Bourdain said, “I like the fact that Melbourne always seems to support their chefs and promote them in ways I find admirable.”

An open concept kitchen and sharing plates are the hallmark of owner-chef Andrew McConnell at his hip Flinders Lane eatery Cumulus. Come for dinner very hungry and delight in McConnell’s tasting menu featuring some of his excellent signature sharing dishes including tuna tartar “toast,” zucchini flower dolma, charcuterie with squid ink pork salami and a sinfully delicious lamb shoulder. It’s also open for breakfast and lunch.

Traditionalists seeking good Tuscan food will enjoy CBD’s Grossi Florentino Grill. With an open kitchen and more casual dining than its upstairs formal sibling,its staff is inviting and friendly and the atmosphere is lively.

When only cru will do, there is no place better than Nobu. Sublime tuna tataki and toro tartar followed by chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa’s signature black cod Saikyo miso were devoured in the urban chic location in Crown Towers lobby.

Fabulous all-you-eat Indian vegetarian/vegan food can be had at Crossways with mains changing daily. This unassuming, popular community restaurant has delicious food and has been a part of Melbourne’s fabric for 32 years.

While a tourist staple, locals also frequent the beautiful Hopetoun Tea Rooms for high tea in CBD’s Block Arcade. Owned by spouses Kon and Kelly Koutoumanos, its window displays are baked artwork and its sweets almost too pretty to eat. The fig cake is utterly divine.

The window of Hopetoun’s Tea Room at Block Arcade is enticing. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Australia in general and Melbourne in particular represent a coffee addict’s caffeinated carnival. Melbourne’s café scene is vibrant and cool and above all, a bad cup of java could not be found.

The finds

Melbourne is a compact grid, so getting around is easy. Better still, CBD trams are free. To get my bearings, I took a walking tour of the CBD with Mark Gagiero, an affable fourth-generation Melbournian.

The Victorian Heritage Register’s Flinders Street Station is an icon and Melbourne’s heart. It has appeared in the 1959 film “On The Beach” starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner and more recently Steven Spielberg’s 2010 mini-series, “The Pacific.”

The iconic Flinders Street Station is Melbourne’s heart. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Near Flinders Station are the Gothic Revival St. Paul’s Cathedral and the many arcades and laneways that add unique charm to Melbourne. The building walls of pedestrian-only Centre Place and Hosier Lane are ever changing as artists routinely paint over prior work.

Those who believe shopping isn’t a spectator sport can head to Bourke Street pedestrian mall. Here is arguably the world’s most historic H&M store located in the 1867-completed former General Post Office.

A magnificent example of Italian Renaissance architecture is the 19th-century Old Customs House on Flinders and Market. Now Melbourne’s Immigration Museum, it provides reflection of Melbourne’s path to multi-culturalism while addressing some still-lurking vestiges of its past.

Later, Mark took me on a driving tour of the local beach communities and immediate suburbs. Stopping in East St. Kilda’s Glick Bakery, where for 40 years the Glick family has been baking bagels, I can attest they rival anything New York City produces.

The 90-acre Royal Botanic Gardens has mind-boggling plant collections in themed sections. Nearby the monolithic Shrine of Remembrance and internal galleries present a somber reminder of the human cost of war. Climb to the top for a great view.

Bibliophiles, architecture and design lovers will delight in State Library Victoria, Australia’s oldest and most popular public library. Reopened in early December following 18 months of renovations, it incorporates tech mod cons against a backdrop of granite archways, black-and-gray limestone wall panels, bannisters, balustrades and marble staircases that grace the way to the sun-kissed Ian Potter Queen’s Hall with dozens of Ionic columns and the light-filled domed La Trobe reading room.

Ionic columns grace Ian Potter’s Queen’s Hall Reading Room at Melbourne’s State Library Victoria. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Koalas, kangaroos and cockatoos, oh my

A day spent with Mark on the “reverse drive” — to avoid minibus-toting tourists — to see the Twelve Apostles within Port Campbell National Park and nearby communities en route to the Great Ocean Road was a highlight of three Australian weeks.

A seated koala reaches for eucalyptus leaves, its main dietary staple. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Massive wheat silo art murals in Geelong, Colac town’s gold rush-era Wild West-style buildings, rolling greens, grazing Jersey cows and verdant trees competed for my rapt attention with koalas in eucalyptus trees munching on leaves, kangaroo mobs including several joeys hopping by Angle Sea Golf Club’s 12th hole and Kennett River’s cheeky cockatoos, king parrots and crimson rosellas.

Then, of course, the Twelve Apostles — the gargantuan limestone natural edifices stoically standing against the water’s edge as Southern Ocean sentinels — are dramatically breathtaking. When I thought nothing could compare, the intense beauty of Razorback rock formation and Loch Ard Gorge came into view.

Port Campbell National Park has picturesque limestone formations. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Limestone Twelve Apostles along the Great Ocean Road are impressive. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Built by 3,000 World War I veterans to honor the fallen, the spectacular 100-mile Great Ocean Road, the focus of this extraordinary day trip, is now part of Australia’s Heritage List and is the world’s longest war memorial.

The lesson learned

Australian novelist Helen Garner once said, “The two big cities of Australia are tonally as distinct from each other as Boston is from L.A. or Lyon from Marseilles.” While true, fortunately Melbourne and her environs are also distinctly wonderful.

Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney, legal columnist and the author of the award-winning memoir: “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Some vendors hosted the writer however content was not reviewed by them prior to publication and is solely the writer’s opinion.


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