Saturday, August 7, 2010

Destination: Melbourne

Victoria, Australia

Languages: English
Currency: Dollar (AUD)

For decades, Melbourne was the most important and famous city in Australia. In 1957, however, an ambitious project to build an opera house got underway in Sydney, the capital of New South Wales. It took 16 years to finish and incurred a final cost of around 14 times what had been estimated, but the bold structure bestowed upon its home an allure that catapulted Sydney ahead of Melbourne.

Since that time, the capital of Victoria has lived in the shadow of its neighbor to the northeast. Among locals and international visitors alike, there is a pervasive sense that Sydney is simply better than Melbourne.

Nonsense! While it is indisputable that more businesses now have their Australian headquarters in Sydney than in Melbourne, the latter retains a vibrant economy and a population of nearly 4 million. People get along well enough here.

Things to Do
To point to the Sydney Opera House as some sign that Melbourne has been eclipsed in the arts is simply not so. It's in the Melbourne CBD[1] that you'll find the impressive Australian Centre for Moving Images (ACMI), a sprawling arts complex devoted to cinematography, film, and animation. Melbourne also hosts a renowned annual film festival that bears its name, and the city is adorned with hundreds of galleries.

For wildlife, Melbourne offers both an excellent aquarium (also in the CBD) and a zoo an easy tram ride from your likely accommodations. These are at least of equal caliber to their counterparts in Sydney -- certainly no reason for Victorians to feel inferior.

One large draw to Melbourne is the Crown casino complex. If you're into casinos, you might as well check it out. Having frequented Las Vegas, though, I found nothing new here.

The Docklands, formerly used for the practical purpose that their name implies, have been reimagined as a district of luxury living spaces, outlet shopping, and excellent eateries. Whatever you'd like to eat, you'll find something that fits your tastes.

Melbourne is also a place for sport, particularly as the central hub for that sport rarely understood outside of the area, Australian Rules Football. Should you happen to find yourself in the city when a game is going on, give it a go. I wasn't able to go while I was in Melbourne but have been told that tickets are pretty cheap (about $20) and that it's quite an experience.

Visa Requirements
Virtually everyone coming from outside Australia needs a visa in advance, the only exception being New Zealand residents (and they still get visas, just on arrival rather than in advance). For citizens of most developed nations, including those traveling on American, European Union, and Singaporean passports among others, the application can be made electronically on the Web and provides an electronic record attached to the traveler's passport rather than a physical visa stamp. 

Learn more about Australian visa requirements on Melbourne's official Web site. 

Getting There
International flights come into Melbourne-Tullamarine Airport (MEL), as do most domestic flights. It's quite common for flights from the United States to deliver passengers to Sydney and then continue on to Melbourne. Depending on how that shakes out, you may clear customs in either city.

From the airport, travelers will likely find the SkyBus a hard value to beat: it runs four times an hour, 24 hours per day for every day of the year, and a $16 one-way ticket includes delivery to the front door of your hotel. $22 gets you a round-trip ticket that includes pickup (assuming that you're leaving after 6:00 a.m. when pickup begins).

Interstate rail service (from Adelaide by Great Southern Rail or Sydney by CountryLink) comes into Southern Cross Station, which is where SkyBus delivers passengers prior to their hotel transfers and also the hub for long-distance coach service. Several tram lines service Southern Cross, so it's as convenient place for travelers to be.

Learn more about travel to the from Melbourne on the city's official Web site.

Getting Around
Melbourne is extremely easy to navigate. There's an efficient system of electric trams for travel nearly anywhere within the city, including a free City Circle tram that (predictably) circles the CBD. From underground stations at key points as well as the main rail stations, you can pick up the Metro regional rail network for transit to the suburbs, and V/Line trains connect to much of the rest of Victoria.

If you do need to take a taxi -- for instance, should you need to catch the SkyBus before the trams start running -- you can expect to pay about $10 to go from one side of the CBD to the other. Cabs hailed on the streets are safe and I found the drivers quite friendly.
Melbourne has for some time been transitioning from its previous generation of paper farecards to a permanent card similar to London's Oyster.  As of August 2010, all Melbourne trams, buses, and trains (including V/Line Zones 1 and 2) accept the Myki smartcard.  Eventually, Myki will be accepted all over Victoria.

Learn more about getting around Melbourne on the city's official Web site.

Melbourne as a Base for Further Travels
The consolidated transit available makes Melbourne a great base station to use for trips to other parts of Australia.Both Southern Cross Station and Tullamarine Airport have facilities for securing bulky luggage. Flights to Adelaide, Hobart, and Canberra are often available through JetStar and Virgin Blue at low cost for those without checked baggage, so these facilities can be very handy.

If you do plan to leave luggage, be aware that the automated locker system at Southern Cross accepts only cash and no bills larger than $20, but the cost is per-locker.  The SmarteCarte storage facility in Tullamarine's International terminal is per-piece and costs about twice as much.

Parting Thoughts
There's a lot to see and do here. Sydney is worth seeing, but writing Melbourne off would shortchange your trip.

1 A commonly used Australian abbreviation for Central Business District, what Americans would typically call the "Downtown" area.

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