Friday, October 21, 2011



Melbourne was the last top on our tour. This beautiful place is Australia’s second largest city, an extremely popular destination for expatriates from all over the world. Melbourne enjoys a mild climate with four distinct seasons. The city is located just a few kilometers inland from Port Phillip Bay, where we were to go the next night, with the main part of the city on the northern bank of the Yarra River, with its historic Victorian bridges. The city has a European feel about it with its many historic buildings and attractive cobblestone alleys. Green and leafy, it also has many beautiful public parks, gardens and decorative fountains. It is also seen as multicultural, a shopping and dining capital, with a wide range of shopping malls, markets and specialist shops and dining options to suit all budgets and tastes. They certainly suited ours, as we explored almost every mall we came to, and there were many.

We were so tired by the time we got to Melbourne, that we just wanted to check into the hotel and crash. The hotel was The Crown Plaza, and it was the size of a huge plaza. It had rooms going and coming. Escalators and elevators. Doors and windows and subterranean byways! We noted also that an enormous casino took up the other side of the block from the hotel, and was called, of all things, The Crown Casino. Much later we discovered that at one time our hotel had been the casino, which made sense to us after all the strange little byways. This “Crown” person seemed to own half the city, or more. We could hardly wait to investigate.

We were a bit put-off when our van pulled up to the hotel. First off, we’d just left a 5-star, the Shangri-La, in Sydney, and were accustomed to a palatial setting; secondly, the hotel was rather dingy and the entrance was downright unappealing in its shade of prison grey. We looked at each other, rolled our eyes and wanted to bolt. Stop! This isn’t where we want to be; we’re 5-starers! But, we soldiered on.

Inside it wasn’t quite as bad, but had a strange architectural design; not like any hotel either of us had ever seen. We checked in, were given room keys and proceeded on our way. Hey, what the heck? First off, there was a set of escalators, no elevators, which made us roll our eye yet again. We took the escalator up to a large open area that had a lovely view of the Yarra River from its many-many windows, with various cozy sitting areas placed along its immense walls. It looked for all the world like another lobby area. But where were the rooms? We asked a passing porter where we were. “Oh, no worries, just hop on that lift to your floor.” Now we are getting nervous. An escalator to nowhere, then a lift to another strange sitting room, again with various overstuffed chairs grouped around windows for excellent views of the city, but still no rooms. The place was deathly quiet, no evidence of any tourists who might be staying here. Once again a porter happened by. “Can you please tell us where our room is?” “Oh, sure, no worries, just follow me straight away.”

Another set of elevators and we were at our room. The porter opened the door for us, and we stopped. Ginger sniffed and made a face: “It stinks in here.” I took a whiff and had to agree that it smelled rather old and musty. Then we opened the drapes. An over-sized picture widow looked down on grey, ugly metal rooftops of some sort. We could see the river about three blocks up the avenue. Okay, stop again.

I called the front desk. “This room is unacceptable,” I said. “We’re supposed to have a room with a view, all we see here are views of tin rooftops.” She said she had no such order but would be glad to upgrade us to a room with a nice view, for quite a bit more money. We squabbled a bit, and finally gave in, paid through the nose, and ended up with a lovely view of the city, the river, and nightlights. Spectacular. Every night at dusk, they would send up fire-flares around the river, lighting up the whole area.

Our first tour was that same evening. We’d much rather have flopped down and slept, but had only two hours before the scheduled departure. The tour was in the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant. The train car, built in 1869, was used right up to the abandonment of the cable tram system in 1930, over 55 years. Later, an electric tramway system was adopted to replace the cable cars. The Colonial Tramcar restaurant is the proud recipient of four national tourism awards and nine Victorian tourism awards, a nod to its excellence and professional service. The tramcar restaurant is a major tourist attraction for visitors to Melbourne. The train had undergone extensive rebuilding and refurbishing to ready for a first-class dining experience. We tooted around the city as we ate in splendor: a three-course dinner, along with an incredible dessert, all made by a famous Melbourne chef. Drinks were included. As many as you like, mate!

I finally found a boyfriend. He said he owned the train; I found out he was a conductor!

The next day we were scheduled for a 12-hour tour around the famous Bells Beach Road and the great ocean road and its miles of golden sandy beaches, shear cliffs and amazing rock formations. From there it was more of the same and we both felt we couldn’t do 12 hours of sightseeing. We opted instead to take a city tour and enjoyed it immensely.

On the city tour we visited Captain Cook’s home, set among what felt like a five city block park. It was breathtaking. Exotic flowers and greenery everywhere you looked. It was amazing to see how they lived in those days; the house could not have been more than ten-feet square, with straw mattresses and wood plank floors. The word Spartan comes to mind.

The rest of the day we spent strolling the beautiful walkways along the city and Yarra River. We’d stop, notice an ice cream shop nearby, order 10 scoops and then sit on a park bench and pig out. We told ourselves that we were talking off all the calories. That night we visited the casino. We were overwhelmed as we walked inside. it was over the top: 500 table games and 3,000 slot machines. Dozens of restaurants, food courts, movie theaters, and dance halls. Amazing! Around all the entrances and side-rooms, goon-like guys were stationed, looking for all the world like Mafia goons. Ginger innocently pulled out her camera, when a large, ham-bone-size hand touched her shoulder. She whirled around to see the goon, who had a goon-look on his face. "No cameras allowed" he said in his well-rehearsed goon voice. We played a couple machines, bid the goons goodnight and went back to our hotel and bed.

Our last cruise was 9.5 hours, but well worth it. Our tour took us to a cattle farm where birds, kangaroos, and wombats ran amok. Ginger was brave enough to walk up to the roos and pet one, but as I’d just seen a lady get a swift kick in the leg from a pissed-off roo, I decided I’d pass. Walking back to the main ranch house, the owner had some great-looking sausages on the barbee. I couldn’t wait to try one. She grabbed a slice of white bread, slapped a sausage in the middle, poured some tomato sauce (we call it Ketchup) on it, and handed it to me. I had it digested before we even paid for it. On the bus later in the day, someone asked if anyone had tried the kangaroo sausages. Did I try one, he asked. HELL NO! I answered, as I felt a giant heave in my belly, followed by a rather loud belch! I still denied it.

After eating a kangaroo, I would pass on the Koala kabob!

The tour bus drove along spectacular beaches and scenic coastlines of Phillip Island. We could see wildlife jumping and frolicking in the sea grass and hills as we passed by. We stopped at the famous Nobbies rock formation overlooking one of the most treacherous expanses of water in the world, Bass Strait. I jumped out and took pictures, but would not venture out on the point for a better view, which of course is exactly where Ginger went. However, her camera card was full, so I used my iPhone, which does not do that majestic scene any favors.

At sunset, we were all gathered around the water at Summerland Beach, waiting for the little penguins to perform their nightly ritual. They can have as few as 10 or as many as 1000 come ashore on any night. They were so adorable as they waddled up the sand to their nesting places. It was most amazing.

The next day was a free day, so we decided to check out a few things we’d heard about: the famous old jail where people were beaten, hanged and lost forever. It was bone-chilling walking through the cold, cement enclosures. Then we were led into a sort of police station for interrogation and fingerprinting. It was supposed to mock a real arrest, and the gal did a great job of it. "Drop your pants,” she thundered to one goofy-looking guy, “I think you’re hiding contraband.” We all laughed. “What’s funny,” she growled, “now you can all drop your pants.” We stopped laughing.

After the jain, Ginger wanted to see the Skydeck, an 81-foot monster that is supposed to be the highest building in the Southern hemisphere. The elevator shot up to the 81st floor as if it were only three or four floors. I leaned against the wall of the elevator, trying to become invisible. Again, Ginger dragged me out to enjoy the spectacular view. Well, it was amazing, as long as I stood ten feet back from the glass walls.

The next morning we bid farewell to a beautiful country and wonderful people. Our flight was a bit late, but everything else went smoothly; Customs, Immigration, no body peeking booths. Once in the air, Ginger put on her mask, closed her eyes, and I didn’t see her face again until we landed at LAX. I, of course, stayed awake to help the pilot fly the plane. Everything was great.

Then we landed at LAX.

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