MELBOURNE – Melbourne has always been a funny town, says Australian author Sophie Cunningham.
The city is now so officially funny that its international comedy festival, started to recognise the playfulness of the wider Melburnian community, brings in millions in turnover these days, she notes in her book Melbourne.
A good sense of humour among the locals is certainly one of the things that livened up my restorative six-day trip to the Australian city and regional Victoria from end-November to early December 2022.
During my visit to French Island, which has a road ominously named Mosquito Creek, tour guide Scott Coutts offers me “the perfume of French Island”.
Mosquito repellent. Do not leave home without it.
I had recovered from a Covid-19 infection just two weeks before the trip and it felt like a much-needed wellness tour, with dips in hot springs, strolls along the beach, invigorating artworks and a good dose of laughter like just what the doctor would have ordered.
Here are the highlights of my trip:
1. Getting into hot water
After nearly eight hours on a red-eye flight from Singapore and another hour or two in a car, barring a stop for lunch, I am looking forward to getting my feet wet.
Peninsula Hot Springs (www.peninsulahotsprings.com), which opened in 1997 on Mornington Peninsula south of Melbourne, attracts the young and old. One of its most popular pools sits atop a hill and looks out to the surrounding greenery.
I am accompanied by Ms Maree Martin from Visit Victoria, the state’s tourism and events company, and we are taken on a quick walk-around to see Peninsula’s offerings, from cold plunges to saunas to full-body clay painting.
At Peninsula, every path is a winding one, a staff member tells us, adding that relaxation is not about going straight from Point A to Point B.
When the tour’s done, though, I say a quick goodbye to Ms Martin and cut a straight path to a pool whose chief recommendation is that it has no one in it.
What bliss. I relax in the water and empty my mind, my spirits lifted by the sound of water and the pulsing of light ribbons.
Two days later, I visit the new Alba Thermal Springs & Spa (albathermalsprings.com.au), a stone’s throw away from Peninsula and which opened in October 2022.
If Peninsula is like a tropical resort, Alba is shaped like a church devoted to wellness.
Inside its monumental building with big windows and a high ceiling, I tread softly and speak in hushed tones the way people do in a museum.
“It’s all very luxe. You can have a champagne with your spa treatment,” says one of the staff.
I spot only a few couples and a group of women in the pools on the Thursday morning of my visit. The place feels sparkling new, like a product that still has its clingwrap on.
2. Fresh air, the sea and art
It is marvellous what fresh air and water can do for you.
Sorrento, a chill holiday hot spot on Mornington Peninsula, offers serene coastal walks and scenery in spades, an antidote to any lingering Covid-19 blues.
I feel calm and relaxed as I walk along the beach near Sullivan Bay, where the British first set up a settlement in Victoria, past homes with private piers and coastal paths where residents walk their dogs.
Later, I go on the Arthurs Seat Eagle gondola (aseagle.com.au) and get my fill of the balmy morning air and bird’s eye views of the surroundings and the bay water.
At Pt Leo Estate (www.ptleoestate.com.au), which boasts of a sculpture park and two restaurants, I find myself looking up at gigantic art installations set against the skies and the sea.
Alfresco art, if you will.
The sculpture park, which is on Mornington Peninsula, has some 60 artworks, mainly large installations by both Australian and overseas artists including American artist Kaws.
I am amused to see a sign with the words “Private Poetry. Trespassers Welcome”, an artwork by Australian artist Richard Tipping.
3. Rustic getaway
If hell is other people, then French Island in the state of Victoria might just be paradise.
The island, a short ferry ride from Mornington Peninsula, has just 110 human inhabitants but is about 17 times the size of Singapore’s Pulau Ubin.
On French Island, there are no traffic lights.
The island is off the grid and generates its own electricity and water. There is one school – Perseverance Primary – whose enrolment has gone up from three in 2020 to eight in 2022.
I arrive at my lunch destination Mandalaye Park to the sight of the resident peacock showing off its brilliant blue plumage. “Pretty,” I remark. “Don’t tell him. I think he knows it too,” quips Ms Celia Fisher, the park’s owner.
What the island has a lot of is koalas.
During our visit, Ms Fisher points to a giant oak tree on her property and says she has seen as many as 20 of the animals on the tree.
Ms Martin and I have no luck with the koalas at her place, but the city girl in me is delighted to see cows and horses.
Later, Mr Coutts spots a few koalas while driving and stops for me to take photos. “Both are male,” he says as he shakes the tree to wake the koalas.
But this is about as exciting as it gets on this sleepy island, which can be visited on a tour that also goes to Phillip Island, which is known for its penguins.
While waiting for the return ferry, Ms Martin and I get coffee at Figs, the only store on the island. It takes us a while to figure out that Figs stands for French Island General Store.
Info: To book a tour, go to naturalistetours.com.au/tour/french-island-tour
4. Fine dining on a train
After two days on Mornington Peninsula, Ms Martin drives the two of us in her rented car onto the sea ferry, which transports vehicles, as well as humans, across the bay to Queenscliff.
After a cup of coffee, we land on Queenscliff, the Victorian coastal town with the air of a faded belle: Its elegant buildings have likely borne witness to busier times.
We swing by the Queenscliff station the next day to take a look at the Q Train, which offers a five-course degustation meal over a three-hour train journey on the Bellarine peninsula.
It is so popular, you usually need to book a few months in advance. I miss out on lunch on the Q Train as my trip had to be rearranged at the last minute due to my Covid-19 infection.
On the Friday of my quick visit, the lunch menu includes oyster mushroom arancini served with pepperberry sauce and Drysdale goat cheese; steak alongside bush tomato polenta with a Lonsdale tomato and caper sauce.
The Q Train has a sizeable Singaporean clientele. Singaporeans, usually families with children, made up 15 per cent of its overall diners before the pandemic, notes Ms Emma Atkinson, who is in charge of partnerships and tourism at the Q Train.
The service runs on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. And for the first weekend of the month, a steam engine is featured. That is when you get the train enthusiasts.
Info: To book a table, go to www.theqtrain.com.au
5. Books and shows
After four relaxing days in regional Victoria, I spend the last leg of the trip in the city, where my spirits are nourished by Melbourne’s cultural riches.
I like visiting bookshops when I travel and am happy to find one near my hotel – a branch of the Melbourne bookshop chain Readings in the Emporium mall.
While the bookshop is not big, it has an excellent selection of titles on Australian history and books by Australian novelists. What I love especially are the handwritten book recommendations by the bookshop staff.
In Melbourne, I catch the Harry Potter: The Cursed Child musical (au.harrypottertheplay.com) and an inspiring exhibition by Australian artist Rone, who is known for his meditations on time and decay.
Rone and his team took over an unused space above Melbourne’s Flinders Street train station and created evocative scenes of mid-century Melbourne, from a private library to a sewing room.
Looking at telephones, children’s exercise books and magazines covered in dust and cobwebs, unwashed crockery in the sink, I could not help but wonder what disaster had befallen the occupants of these places.
“The music is so sad. Can’t imagine crying at work the whole day,” Ms Martin jokes with an usher at the exhibition.
Tickets to the Rone exhibition (rone.art) are sold out, but there is no need to be sad. There is a free installation of a mid-century news agency by Rone on the ground floor of the Flinders Street train station until April 23.
Where to stay
InterContinental: Sorrento Mornington Peninsula
This genteel hotel, a landmark in the area, is where the well-heeled come to stay. The hotel’s fine-dining restaurant Audrey is popular with people celebrating special occasions. Room rates for its classic room are A$534 (S$485) after a discount for members.
Portarlington Grand Hotel (Queenscliff, Bellarine Peninsula)
This refurbished hotel dates back to 1888 and has historic black-and-white photos along its corridor walls. Its grand bay room comes with a faux fireplace and balcony, where guests can look out to the bay and distant mountains. Rates for its Mural accessible rooms start at A$250 a night.
voco: Melbourne Central
Tucked away in a laneway in central Melbourne, voco has a luxe design that reminds me of Monocle magazine.
Expect rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows and coffee pod machines, as well as a lift system that takes some time to figure out. Its standard king-size bedroom costs A$269 after a discount for members.
It can get very hot and sunny Down Under. Take along a lot of sunblock, a sun hat and shades.
My visit took place during the last week of spring and the first few days of summer. Try to visit during spring or autumn – Singaporean visitors would likely enjoy the balmy weather more than hot summer days.
Even if you do not drive, you can venture out to regional Victoria. Look out for tours, such as those organised by Klook.
If you are interested in the making of rum or whiskey, you can consider visiting craft rum distillery Jimmy Rum (jimmyrum.com.au), which hosts tasting events, or Chief’s Son Distillery (www.chiefsson.com.au), which offers tours of its whisky facility and whisky tastings.
The writer was hosted by Visit Victoria. Singapore Airlines sponsored the flights for the writer’s trip.