This was the best part of our visit to Australia. It’s all due to the warm and generous hospitality of our friends Meg and Brendan Downie who took great pains to show us the sights and treat us to excellent meals and superb wines, not to mention comfortable accommodations at their attractive home in Donvale outside the city.
We met Meg and Brendan years ago when we lived in Germany where we were members of the Porsche Club. I had a Porsche 944 (considered by many not to be a real Porsche), but it was my baby, my pride and joy, which I drove for 17 happy years. Brendan had both a Porsche 356 and 911. He still has these, and a 1936 Ford. Attendance at a Porsche event was a highlight of our visit.
Plus, a spectacular drive through the Mornington Peninsula, the Yarra Valley, a visit to an animal sanctuary, an aborigine art gallery and more.
During a visit downtown, I had the opportunity to talk to John McGaw, senior business development manager with Destination Melbourne. “I’ve worked in the tourism and wine industry for years,” he said. “I’ve lived in Syndey, Adelaide and now Melbourne. I prefer Melbourne. It’s such a friendly city. Everything is easy here…We’re a shopping and dining capital.” The city has 80 different kinds of ethnic restaurants, he pointed out.
According to John, Melbourne, a city of almost four million, was just voted “the world’s most livable city.” “It’s as safe a city as you’ll find anywhere,” he boasted. Tourism is important to the multi-cultural city, with China considered the largest future market, followed by India. Then there’s Greece. John said that Melbourne has the second largest population of Greeks after Greece. “They’ve been coming here for 40 years.” The city’s Greek Quarter, as well as Chinatown, is fun to visit. For Vietnamese fare, there’s Victoria Street lined with noodle shops and grocery stores.
The downtown is lively, vibrant, with street entertainers, hucksters, and plenty to admire, including 50 shopping arcades, the oldest, the Black Arcade, dating to 1892. John recommended we visit an old world Victorian tea shop whose window was filled with luscious pastries. The place is so popular, we had to stand in line to wait for a seat.
Federation Square is an innovative mix of glass and steel structures with shops, cafes, restaurants, and bars — and the venue for some 2,000 events every year. Docklands on Victoria Harbor offers more shopping and dining opportunities. The Queen Victoria Market is food paradise. Meg and Brendan shop there every Saturday, visiting favorite stands for fruits and veggies, as well as delis and bakeries.
Within just 90 minutes of the city center, stunning scenery awaits. We made many photo stops on our drive through the Mornington Peninsula. The Yarra Valley, a wine growing region, is also picturesque with wineries where you can stop to taste fine chardonnays, pinot noirs and more. Our drives took us though areas devastated by the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 which ravaged southeastern Australia —— past slope after slope of still barren trees.
Wildlife is a major attraction in Australia. Meg took time from her duties as ward councilor for a visit to friend Neil Abbott, a jovial farmer with 100 acres where 70 – 80 kangaroos usually hang out. As luck would have it, the beasts were missing the day we visited. The day before there had been a major fire drill with helicopters hovering over the area. The noise drove the kangaroos away, but we did spot one or two during a tour with Neil in his four-wheel drive vehicle through the hilly terrain. And, we learned about kangaroos.
“The aborigines used to eat them. The dingoes (Australian wild dog) used to eat them. But now they have no natural enemies,” Neil said. So, they proliferate and become pests, destroying trees and fences. They sharpen their claws on the tree bark. “Their claws are longer than your finger,” he explained. Some people shoot them, but this is an outrage. “People are up in arms about those who shoot our national emblem,” he said. He can no longer farm due to the kangaroo population on his land, but he won’t shoot the animals.
“The kangaroos are a wild animal. They should be in the bush. It’s cruel to have them in these areas where they are chased by dogs, where they ruin fences, and are a danger to cars and people… I believe there are a lot of accidents, people killed, veering to avoid hitting a kangaroo,” he said.
During our drive through his farm, Neil said he had a surprise for us. He knew where a wombat lived and would take us there. He got out and went ahead down a hill. “Be quiet…he’s here,” he told us. We crept behind, me with camera ready. Voila, I focused on a furry brown head. Wait, something seemed amiss. It did not move. It looked a bit suspicious. No wonder. It was a stuffed wombat Neil had buried under leaves – a joke he often plays on naïve visitors.
We saw more wildlife on a visit to the Healesville Sanctuary where demonstrations and lectures on the various critters are scheduled throughout the day. The Koalas drew big crowds.
Colin McKinnon is another friend Meg took us to visit. His Mia Mia Gallery features an amazing collection of beautiful aboriginal art. The gallery is owned by aborigines, and the profits are returned to aborigine communities. Colin, himself an aboriginal artist, explained the symbolism of many of the intricate and colorful works, and he generously gave me a print which now hangs in our living room, a treasured souvenir of our memorable visit to Melbourne.
More on the Mia Mia Gallery at www.miamiagallery.com
More on Melbourne at www.destinationmelbourne.com.au
More on the Healesville Sanctuary at www.zoo.org.au
For more views of Melbourne and surroundings, watch the following slideshow. For a taste of Greece, whose influence is prominent in Melbourne, try Meg’s Baklava, recipe in column at right.