It's sophisticated and slick, edgy and modern yet my first impression of Melbourne is of ornate Victorian-era architecture and leafy, established boulevards.
Australia's second largest city is the capital of the state of Victoria and my wife and I have arrived with plans to see some of the contemporary city and the agricultural and historic western parts of the state.
Our flight arrived at Melbourne airport a little after 9 p.m. and by using the Parkroyal Melbourne Airport hotel we are cocooned in our spacious and comfortable room by 9:30 p.m. If tiredness was not overtaking us we could be eating at the restaurant, drinking at the bar, swimming in the indoor heated pool or exercising in the gym, instead we were asleep by 10:00 p.m.
The Parkroyal proved to be an excellent hotel. The staff is friendly, our room is luxurious, facilities are well maintained and the breakfast buffet is a feast. After checking out, my wife and I take the elevator downstairs and rent a car for a week from a selection of six operators. It is oh, so easy!
The drive to Ballarat is pleasant but unexciting. This grand old city was built on gold more than 150 years ago and many dignified buildings still exist from those times. After walking the main street and visiting the outstanding Art Gallery we drive to Sovereign Hill.
This is probably Australia's best historical park and it has grown even more impressive since our last visit. We watch the redcoats march and are almost deafened when they fire their muskets. We photograph the coach ride, the candle making and the metal spinning displays.
The Red Hill Mine Tours proves to be better than expected and the gold pour shows us what a $150,000 ingot looks like. A short visit to the theatre and a chance to bowl in a 140 year-old manually operated alley sees us looking for somewhere to relax. The Hope Bakery proves to be the perfect place.
No visit to Sovereign Hill would be complete without an underground gold mine tour and a chance to try our luck gold panning. After 30 minutes my wife has collected gold worth about five dollars from the creek.
Next day we reluctantly leave Ballarat after spending the morning in the Botanical Gardens by Lake Wendouree. The gardens were established in 1858 and contain a remarkable collection of mature trees and statuaries. Other features are the Prime Ministers' Avenue, a Craft Cottage, the Ex-POW Memorial and the remarkable begonia conservatory. We should have allocated more time here.
Literally dozens of historic and boutique wineries are scattered across undulating western Victoria. Our desire is to visit some of them so we start in Avoca. Here the Blue Pyrenees Winery is a chance to sample some spicy cabernet sauvignon and other classics before indulging in an excellent lunch.
Now it is on to the historic wine village of Great Western, known as the birthplace of Australia's sparkling wine industry. The iconic Seppelt and Best's wineries are here using grapes from vineyards that date back to the mid 1800s. Both offer tastings and we don't hold back. After selecting a few bottles to take with us, it is off to Stawell.
This historic gold mining town is world famous for Australia's richest short distance running race held here each Easter since 1878. We view the Hall of Fame and do a quick jog on the track which has created so many champions. No records are broken today.
For thousands of years the dramatic Grampians mountain ranges have inspired wonder. Now largely covered by the Grampians National Park, the rugged mountains with their rich cultural heritage and breathtaking views are one of Victoria's most popular destinations.
The area is suitable for everyone. There are hundreds of kilometres of bush walking tracks, excellent paved roads to waterfalls and spectacular lookouts, adventure tours offering kayaking, rock climbing, abseiling and horse riding, farm-gate providers and farmers' markets, and comfortable accommodation.
Our accommodation in Halls Gap is in a rental house. The cute tourist village is surrounded by remarkable mountain escarpments, forest and wildlife. Kangaroos graze on the football ground and around the house and birds are everywhere. There are numerous small cafes and restaurants and a general store and hotel.
We learn about the regions' Aboriginal culture and history at Brambuk — the National Park and Cultural Centre just outside town. The extraordinary building features a bush food cafe and retail outlet as well as the information centre. A quick trip by car takes us to one of five rock-art sites that are open to the public.
A slow drive through small, historic settlements takes us back to Melbourne. We leave the freeway and find ourselves in Docklands, a large urban renewal project intended to extend the CBD to the water. It has become home to some of Australia's largest companies and is a popular high-rise residential neighbourhood.
Over the next few days we explore Melbourne's fascinating alleys, world-class restaurants, and arts and sporting venues to discover why this is often awarded the title of "the world's most liveable city." In the process we find a city perfect for both Australian and international visitors. We will be back.
Parkroyal Melbourne Hotel
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