Melbourne magic

It's a stylish city that offers amazing shopping and dining options, as well as a rocking social calendar.

The city has a timeless beauty and grandeur. Cleverly restored and zealously maintained Victorian buildings that came up in the first flush of the gold rush, alpine ski resorts, lakes, rivers, the spectacular Great Ocean Road, and quaint vineyards that produce some of the best wines in the Yarra Valley... Melbourne has them all.

It is also a stylish, cosmopolitan city that offers amazing shopping and dining options, a rocking social calendar, museums, zoos, verdant parklands, and a night life that can match up to the best in the world.

Ask the residents what they like best about their city, and they will point to the fast-paced urban living replete with pressures and thrills, as well as ample relaxation options such as heading to the beaches for a day in the sun, or exploring the region's wildlife or simply hanging around among the city's hot spots. They are just as happy watching a community football match as an international clash at the legendary Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Federation Square, the striking new city centre, attracts many with its joyful fusion of art, events, leisure and promenading. And for those with a gambling instinct, the sprawling Crowne Entertainment Complex at Southbank, on the Yarra River, is the place to be.

Float in the sky

It was fun joining in with the four-day Easter weekend party, an occasion when residents throng the streets, determined to experience everything that the city has to offer. A group of us, including several Japanese tourists, took off in a hot-air balloon for an hour-long ride over the picturesque Yarra Valley, on a cold morning. Locals pitched in enthusiastically, helping volunteers of Global Ballooning, the company which runs the flourishing leisure activity, to drag the giant balloons from their trolleys and fill them with hot air.

From our balloon 2,000 ft in the air we savoured the feeling of floating free over carpets of dense greenery, and picture-book houses with gardens and cattle. The ride ended, literally, with a bang, as wind conditions saw us land upside down, precariously close to a water body adjacent to a stud farm. Part of the fun, we're told, but give me a normal landing on the feet any day, thank you!

We next headed to Fergusson's, a Yarra vineyard, to tuck into a hearty countryside breakfast, which included hot cross buns straight from the oven, and as much champagne and wine as one could drink.

The many lanes... & by-lanes

The best way to explore the city is on foot or on the many trams that criss-cross the city. Melbourne is a maze of lanes and by-lanes that continually surprise visitors, who liken them to a series of seamlessly flowing villages, each with its unique identity.

Lyngon Street in Carlton teems with the city's Italian community. The stylish restaurants offer the best of cuisine and coffee. Chinatown, in Little Burke Street, is choc-a-bloc with all things Chinese, including street-side eating and Flower Drum, a fine dining Chinese restaurant that's listed among the best in the world.

Flinders Quarter, once home to the rag trade, is now a designer's paradise filled with clothes, furniture, craft, art and basement jazz.

Melbourne's newest destination is the $4.8-billon, 200-hectare docklands, now being developed into eight precincts offering entertainment, waterfront restaurants, shops, and residential and commercial buildings. New Quay is the eating, drinking and entertainment heart of the docklands.

Melbourne's reigning diva

Easter weekend saw us joining hundreds of awe-struck locals walking towards the Arts Centre, for an exhibition on pop star Kylie Minogue, who enjoys cult status in her home city.

The 36-year-old diva has donated her entire wardrobe and memorabilia from her early days in showbiz and from her world tours. On their own, the flashy costumes and accessories were not really appealing, but the arts centre had displayed them tastefully using life-size cut-outs of Kylie.

One for the road

How about a ride seated in the sidecar of a sparkling, throbbing Harley Davidson bike, speeding across a new city with the cold wind biting your cheeks? This experience could be yours, courtesy John Kamouch's Chauffeur Ride. Kamouch gallantly placed his biker's leather jacket on my shoulder, after which we headed to the Grand Prix track to pose for pictures! . For a fee, Chauffeur Ride offers hour-long, half-day or out-of-the-city bike tours to wine country.

A taste of the city

The 129-year-old Queen Victoria market is the southern hemisphere's largest open-air market spread over seven acres. Over a thousand traders sell everything from exotic emu-oil body lotions to evil-eye charms and local art. Everything is cheaper here.

The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant is the city's oldest tram, dating back to 1927, which has been refurbished in Pullman-style décor to become the world's first mobile tramcar restaurant. You can sample spectacular views of city life alongside some fine wines and food.

Melbourne is always celebrating something, be it the annual food and wine festival, the international comedy festival, the Australian Football League season, or fashion events. There is a lot of excitement in the city over the upcoming Commonwealth Games in 2006. New sporting venues are coming up near the Melbourne Cricket Grounds and the Rod Laver Stadium, a sports village, is progressing at hectic pace. Almost everything in the city, including its railway stations, are getting a facelift.

Melbourne is home to several world-class hotels, but if smaller, more intimate settings are what you prefer, take your pick among the boutique hotels. The Lyall, a cosy and incredibly stylish hotel tucked away in leafy Murphy Lane, is just minutes away from the buzzing Toorak Road and Chapel Street. It comes with a contemporary, fitted kitchen with all conveniences, king-size beds, steam-free mirrors, under-floor heating and a spa. Little wonder then that celebrities check in, with assured privacy...

Or check out the Lindrum on Flinders Street that was formerly a snooker and billiards hall, and is now a stylish boutique hotel housed in a period property.

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