MELBOURNE HAS A REPUTATION as a buttoned-down town, but arrive on the first Tuesday in November and you might think you’ve stumbled into the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Businesses brandish “closed” signs; blokes don suits and colourful ties; women parade a rainbow whirl of hats, fascinators, and other head-gear; and a general mood of silliness prevails. This is Melbourne Cup Day, the culmination of an annual horseracing carnival, when even those who can’t tell blinkers from bookmakers feel compelled to have “a flutter,” or a bet.
Author Denise Cullen Photography Petrina Tinslay
DAY TWO / Melbourne is frequently described as the cycling capital of Australia, so what better way to blend in than by saddling up? After a stop at the concierge desk to collect the bicycles you requested ahead of your visit, take an exhilarating spin past the ornamental Alexandra Gardens and on toward breakfast. This safe, winding bike path takes you past rowing shacks and boat sheds as it runs parallel to the celebrated Yarra River all the way to Kanteen. You’ll know you’re getting close when you spot the quirky sculptures dotting Herring Island. Don’t let this casual café’s ancient history as a toilet and shower block put you off: The coffee is first-rate, and the menu options include Spanish eggs and black sticky rice as well as toast or croissants served with Jam Lady Jams, made by a friend of Kanteen proprietor Mark Tanner.
Cross the river for your return cycling trip; it will give you a different perspective on the city. Return the bikes to the hotel and walk to Federation Square. It would be an understatement to describe the design of this vast, futuristic complex constructed of steel, stone, and glass as controversial, but, love it or hate it, distinctive Federation Square forms the undeniable cultural heart of Melbourne. It contains a multitude of art galleries, museums, shops, and cafés, including The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, which has an outstanding collection of indigenous art. Those harbouring celluloid fantasies will also enjoy The Australian Centre for the Moving Image, focusing on cinema’s evolution from its early days to the latest digital technology.
You’re lunching at the ferociously popular MoVida, with a tapas-style menu to suit both large and small appetites. Here, chef Frank Camorra delights in showcasing the sausages, slow-cooked braises, and other home-cooked Spanish foods he grew up with. Sample the costilla con sobrasada (lamb cutlet with pork and paprika pâté), but be sure to leave room for the classic chocolate-dunked churros (Spanish doughnuts).
It’s been an energetic and extended morning, so return to the hotel’s luxurious Chuan Spa for some rest, relaxation, and muscle rejuvenation. Plunge into the indoor saltwater pool or contemplate Melbourne’s soaring skyline from the bubbling Jacuzzi before indulging in one of more than 40 specialty treatments based on the holistic principles of traditional Chinese medicine. Particularly recommended for couples is the Serenity Shen signature service, which incorporates a soak in a private geisha tub, a stone therapy massage, and a refreshing marine algae mask.
Feeling relaxed and refreshed, step out for dinner at The Brasserie by Philippe Mouchel. This stylish eatery is set in the opulent surrounds of the landmark Crown casino complex, the Southern Hemisphere’s largest casino. Furious bursts of flame on the rooftop mark the passing of each hour, but even this extravagance cannot distract from the food. Diners clamour for Mouchel’s signature snails served in a tomato fondue with garlic and parsley butter.
Resist, if you can, the lure of the lucre and cross the sculpture-lined pedestrian footbridge en route to familiar territory. Melbourne’s Regent Theatre oozes old-fashioned glamour and is presenting the award-winning musical Wicked until mid-2009.