Thursday, November 21, 2013

Australia September 2013 - Grand Hyatt Melbourne & Exploring Melbourne

***This post is part 4 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

The Grand Hyatt Melbourne is conveniently located in the central business district, or the CBD. This is the core of Melbourne's metropolitan area, and it serves as the financial capital of the city as well as the historical, cultural, and political center of the state of Victoria. The CBD is actually quite compact, and the streets are laid out in an easy-to-manage grid that makes it virtually impossible to get lost.

I was dropped off at the hotel entrance roundabout on Russell Street, and I proceeded into the lower level lobby. The doorman and bellhop offered to take my large backpack, but I declined. Elevators and stairs led to the main lobby upstairs, where a second entrance opened onto Collins Street.

Grand Hyatt Melbourne

Bird sculptures by the entrance

Entrance roundabout

Downstairs lobby

The main lobby was elegant in an understated sort of way, with plenty of marble all around and high ceilings. Off to one side, there was a decorative fireplace and a lounge area with comfortable couches and chairs. Directly facing the front desk was a large restaurant and bar, where the daily breakfast buffet was served. Unfortunately, since I don't have Hyatt Diamond status, breakfast wasn't included, and I opted not to add it to the reservation.

I was helped by a rather pretentious gentleman at the front desk, who greeted me with a semi-joking "are you sure you're at the right place" upon seeing my large backpack, t-shirt, and jeans. I assured him I was and handed him my ID and credit card for check-in. After confirming my three-night reservation on points, I was directed to the elevators around the corner.

Unfortunately, WiFi in the room was not included, and it cost an additional $29.00 AUD per day. Even more surprisingly, not only was there no complimentary WiFi in the lobby, there wasn't even a business center with computers for guest use. In this day and age, it seemed rather archaic for a hotel of this caliber not to have at least some sort of complimentary internet connection readily available somewhere in the hotel.

Main lobby

Restaurant and bar

My standard room was located on the 14th floor, and I was pleasantly surprised with the nice layout and decor when I entered. Despite being on my own, I didn't mind the two twin beds (I had relayed this to the front desk agent). In addition there was a cozy sofa next to the large window, perfect for reading or watching TV. Unfortunately, I had one of the inner-facing rooms that looked directly at an adjacent building. At night, it was possible to see into the opposing rooms and offices, and vice versa I'm sure.

14th floor hallway

Not a pretty view

I really liked the bathroom, however, which seemed to be unusually large for a standard room at a hotel like this. There was a separate tub and shower, heated mirrors, decent bath products, two bottles of complimentary water, and fancy marble throughout. In case you were worried about your diet while on vacation, a handy scale was even provided underneath the counter.

While I didn't spend too much time at the hotel checking out all the guest amenities, I did visit the gym, which was a huge bright spot for the Grand Hyatt Melbourne. This was an actual full-sized fitness club with membership options and a extensive array of machines, free weights, and group classes - way better than the typical hotel gym. The downside was that it got noticeably crowded in the early evening as people started getting off work.

After an early morning arrival into Melbourne on my 15 1/2 hour flight from Los Angeles, I felt like a zombie for much of the first day, despite getting decent sleep on the plane. Jet lag usually hits me pretty hard, and it often takes a few days for me to fully adjust. I decided to take it easy and do a short walk around the CBD to get my bearings straight. A highly recommended starting point is the visitor center at Federation Square.

There, you can practically plan your entire tour of Melbourne and the surrounding area. Not only can you load up on free maps, brochures, and guides, you can even book tours directly with the complementary travel agency downstairs. They will make recommendations and contact the tour company for you to verify space and cost. In addition, free WiFi throughout Federation Square makes it the perfect place to relax for a bit and catch up on email.

After gathering all the information I needed, I booked a tour for the following day to the Twelve Apostles along the Great Ocean Road. For the remainder of the day, I decided to use the free City Circle tram to explore central Melbourne. This great tourist tram runs along the outer edge of the CBD, and you can hop on and off at any one of the 29 stops along the way. Be aware that it can get extremely crowded at times, and the ride can be a bit bumpy and painfully slow.

My first stop was Docklands, a major urban renewal project that is still in the midst of construction. There were lots of new apartment high rises and a huge outdoor mall, but most of it was completely empty that morning. I noticed a giant Ferris wheel being built at the north end of the mall, and was surprised to read about its troubled past. After serious structural problems and years of construction delays, the Melbourne Star is now scheduled to reopen in mid-2014.

Docklands New Quay Promenade

Melbourne Star under construction

Taking the City Circle tram clockwise to the corner of Russell and La Trobe Streets, I walked one block north to the Old Melbourne Gaol, a former prison that held and executed some of the most notorious criminals in Australian history, including bushranger Ned Kelly. It was quite fascinating to see the tiny cells and read through the colorful stories of the inmates.

As part of the entrance ticket, you can also take part in the City Watch House Experience next door, where you can be yelled at, "arrested" by a Charge Sergeant, and then locked up in a real prison cell. Unfortunately, there were a few non-English speaking tourists who did not understand the concept of this attraction, and were clearly shocked when the sergeant started to berate them.

Old Melbourne Gaol

Just three blocks south is Little Bourke Street, home to Chinatown and a plethora of shops, cafes, and restaurants. Not only is the food delicious here, but it is also very reasonably priced for an expensive city like Melbourne. I ate at a number of different restaurants around this area, and would highly recommend a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood, perhaps with a boba drink in hand.


Heading back down to the south side of the CBD, I walked along Flinders Street and noticed an alleyway filled with incredible graffiti. It turns out Hosier Lane is one of the most popular landmarks in Melbourne, known for its sophisticated and ever-changing urban art. Many of the pieces are political in nature, and reflected the heated atmosphere of the federal election in September of this year.

An even smaller alleyway branches off from Hosier Lane, and walking through this narrow corridor was like being transported into a living, breathing, evolving art installation. Virtually every inch of the ground, walls, windows, and even garbage bins was covered in graffiti. In between the typical tagging, there were some truly magnificent pieces of work that required a second look to realize what they were trying to convey. I think pictures can hardly capture the wonder and awe of this stunning life-sized canvas.

Hosier Lane

Side alleyway

South of Federation Square is the Yarra River. I would suggest a walk along the promenade, where you can take in some beautiful views of the city skyline. Flinders Street itself has a number of landmarks, including the historic Flinders Street Station, completed in 1909, and its iconic row of clocks above the main entrance. Diagonally across the street is Saint Paul's Cathedral.

Yarra River and city skyline

Flinders Street Station

St. Paul's Cathedral

In many ways, Melbourne reminded me of San Francisco, from its cool spring weather to the trams running up and down the streets to its emphasis on arts and culture. The city center is well-planned, and no car is needed if you are staying close by. Purchasing a Myki card allows you to access trains, trams, and buses, with the fare dependent on the amount of time and zones traveled. Like many large cities around the world, Melbourne also has a bike share program, which costs $2.70 AUD per day, as long as your journeys between each bike station is under 30 minutes.

Melbourne bike share

The following morning, I was picked up at 7:00 am for the long day tour to the Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road. If you have an extended stay in Melbourne, this is definitely one of the sights you shouldn't miss. Many families will opt to rent a car and do the drive on their own, stopping at some of the quaint towns and national parks along the way. However, independent travelers might strongly consider a day tour instead given the long drives that will extend well into the night.

Different tour companies may offer different stops during the trip, but most will visit the main attractions, including the Memorial Arch at Eastern View, the town of Lorne, wild koalas sightings at Kennett River, the Cape Otway Lighthouse, Loch Ard Gorge, the Gibson Steps, and of course, the Twelve Apostles. The views along the winding road are truly breathtaking, and reminded me a little of the Pacific Coast Highway in California.

Beach at Eastern View

Wild koala at Kennett River

The Great Ocean Road

Cape Otway Lighthouse

I read a lot of rave reviews regarding the Great Ocean Road, and I must say, it easily lived up to the hype. There were some magnificent sights and experiences throughout the day. Seeing wild koalas sleeping in the eucalyptus trees and being mobbed by wild parrots and rosellas at Kennett River was certainly fun, as was the visit to the historic Cape Otway Lighthouse.

Some of the most impressive views, however, were at Loch Ard Gorge, where visitors can descend into the wide crevasse and witness the truly otherworldly features of its limestone cliffs and crashing waves. The Gibson Steps is another location where you can descend all the way down to the beach. Here, you can see one of the imposing Apostles from below.

Of course, the Twelve Apostles lookout point is the main attraction, and it did not disappoint either. Afternoon hours are a great time to visit, as the lighting really enhances the majestic scenery, but just be ready for the hurricane-like winds here. Extensive paths provide plenty of great picture-taking opportunities, while the informative visitors center and sign posts along the way cater to the history and geology buffs in all of us.

Loch Ard Gorge

The Twelve Apostles

Gibson Steps view

By the time I arrived back at the hotel, it was almost 8:00 pm. While it was definitely a long and tiring way to spend a day, I would highly recommend seeing the Great Ocean Road and the Twelve Apostles. The next morning, I went about exploring some more famous sights around Melbourne. My first stop was Fitzroy Gardens just east of the CBD.

Melbourne is famous for its Victorian era landscaped gardens, and Fitzroy is one of the finest examples. There are a number of walking paths throughout the 64 acre park, many of them lined with colorful flowers and Elms. The Conservatory houses a large variety of plants, and they are definitely worth a look. For a small entrance fee, you can also visit James Cook's childhood cottage, which was brought over brick by brick from England. 

Fitzroy Gardens

The Conservatory

Cook's Cottage

Just west of Fitzroy Gardens is Saint Patrick's Cathedral, the largest and tallest church building in Australia. Despite some ongoing construction work, I was able to tour the grounds. The interior is really quite stunning, and some of the restored stained glass windows are a sight to behold. 

Saint Patrick's Cathedral

Next, I walked to the Parliament House, seat of government for the State of Victoria. I joined one of the daily free tours, which was very well-done, taking you through both the lower and upper houses, as well as the ornate library. Much of the building was constructed during the height of the Victorian Gold Rush, and as such, many of the decorative flourishes on the walls and ceilings are covered in pure gold leaf.

Parliament House

Legislative Assembly

Ornate library ceiling

Afterwards, I took a long walk south, across the Princes Bridge and through Queen Victoria's Gardens and King's Domain. I visited the Royal Botanic Gardens, an extensive and beautiful place filled with old trees, flowers, lakes, hidden paths, and even a fern gully. This sprawling oasis certainly felt a world away from the nearby hustle and bustle. 

I then proceeded to the Shrine of Remembrance, a huge monument that was originally dedicated to those who fought and died in World War I, but is now a memorial to all Australians who have served in battle. This peaceful location is a place of reflection and learning, with further information found in the visitor center underneath the memorial. You can also access the rooftop balcony of the shrine, which provides panoramic views of the city skyline and nearby parks.

Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Kings Domain

 Black swans at the Royal Botanic Gardens

Shrine of Remembrance

View from the rooftop balcony

While I was there, the Melbourne Visitor Shuttle was still completely free, although since then, a new charge of $5.00 AUD per day has been implemented. The shuttle runs through some of the most popular tourist attractions around town in a counter-clockwise direction, and there are a total of 13 stops where you can hop on and off.

From the Shrine of Remembrance, I took the shuttle up to Carlton Gardens, site of the Royal Exhibition Building and the Melbourne Museum. The Royal Exhibition Building is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, being one of the last remaining 19th century exhibition buildings in the world. It hosted the Melbourne International Exhibition between 1880 and 1881.

Royal Exhibition Building

Melbourne Museum

Since this was my last day in Melbourne, I really wanted to visit the popular Queen Victoria Market a few blocks away. However, the hours are somewhat odd, and on that Thursday, it closed at 2:00 pm. I decided to get up before the crack of dawn the following day to visit the market right when it opened at 6:00 am. Unfortunately, I was pressed for time since my flight to Sydney was scheduled to depart at 10:00 am.

By 5:30 am the next morning, I had everything packed and ready to go, and I set off on the half-hour walk to the market in darkness. There's a certain serenity to walking around in a large city before sunrise, and I really enjoyed the peaceful calm before the proverbial storm. When I arrived, most of the shops and stalls were still setting up.

Queen Victoria Market covers almost 17 acres, and there are several different areas catering to a diverse range of products. The entire section selling non-food related items such as clothing, jewelry, and arts and crafts was still closed even when I left around 7:30 am. However, the fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, seafood, and gourmet and deli food areas were all open and selling by the time I arrived.

Melbourne sunrise

Very fresh meat


The deli food stalls had some delicious options for breakfast, including toasted egg and bacon muffins and bratwurst. Later, I returned to the fruit and vegetable market and purchased some bananas and oranges. It pays to shop around even if the products look identical, as prices can often vary by a wide margin from vendor to vendor.

Finally, I noticed a van with the name American Doughnut Kitchen parked alongside the market. A waft of deep-fried goodness filled the air, and I knew I had to give it a try. A bag of six cost $6.00 AUD, but boy were they worth it. Each of the jam-filled bites tasted like heaven, and I soon devoured the entire bag.

Apparently, the doughnut van is quite an institution at the Queen Victoria Market, and has been operating continuously since 1950. Judging from the taste alone, I could definitely see why. Before I could start bingeing on another bag, I quickly gathered up my belongings and made my way back to the hotel.

Fresh fruits

The famous doughnut van

Melbourne was a fantastic city to visit, and I can fully understand why it has been consistently ranked as the most livable city in the world. From the mild weather to the copious amounts of open green space to the friendly people, I just couldn't find a single fault anywhere (although I'm sure the locals try). I would absolutely love to come back someday, or perhaps even move here for an extended period of time to really soak in culture.

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