Live it up in Melbourne, Australia’s city of plenty

EARLY morning Melbourne, the sun is rising, and we are drifting over this modern metropolis and its spectacular skyline of skyscrapers and spires in a hot air balloon.

Rising high above the city, we gaze down on icons such as the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), the Formula One racetrack, Government House, Melbourne Park, and the meandering Yarra River far below.

When Melbourne hosted the Olympics back in 1956, it was seen as a quaint backwater, but this city, the second biggest in Australia, is now dynamic, cutting-edge, and sophisticated.

Penetrate the heart of the city, and you will soon be hit by its multi-cultural vibe, a heady mix of arts and culture and a big dose of European chic. Walk around its boulevard-style streets, criss-crossed with tramlines and interspersed with lanes and alleys teeming with bookshops, jewellers and music stores, and you’ll soon agree it deserves its title as Victoria’s capital of cool.

With so much to do and see, you need to plan your time carefully, but a good starting point is the Eureka Skydeck on the 88th floor of a towering 92-floor skyscraper, from where you can enjoy a 360 degree view across the city from the CBD to the Dandedong Ranges and Port Phillip Bay.

For the non-faint-hearted (and non-vertigo sufferers) it’s well worth trying an experience known as “The Edge”, which involves stepping into a 10ft glass cube jutting out from the tower.

From this observation deck, the highest public vantage point in Melbourne, you can gaze down over the streets of the city a long, long way below.

If, after that, you’re still looking for a buzz, jump on the back of a Harley Davidson for a tour of the city’s sites with your very own bearded biker-chauffeur. After meeting at a pre-arranged pick-up in the centre of town, I was kitted out in helmet and leathers, and spent an exhilarating hour roaring through the city and cruising out along the open road to the beach suburb of St Kilda – a kind of Brighton-down-under – complete with its very own theme park and pier.

Once here, you’ll be in no hurry to leave, as there’s no better place to sample the city’s food culture – the streets are brimming with cafes and cake shops, as well as top-notch bars and bistros.

For a slightly less adrenaline-filled introduction to the city, join one of the Hidden Secrets walking tours which take you from funky Federation Square – the new see-and-be-seen fusion of arts, eateries and museums in the city centre – through the lanes and arcades past designer start-ups and specialty retailers.

You’ll get to see the loft and basement businesses, the boutiques that are unique to the city, and the chocolate, confectionary and cafes which send the smell of fresh coffee wafting through the streets.

Spend a few hours getting under the skin of this city with a well-versed guide, and you soon begin to realise that Melbourne is far richer in history than you might have first imagined.

While you’ll find it tricky to run out of things to do in the city itself, if you can tear yourself away for a few days, you’ll find there’s plenty more to the state of Victoria than Melbourne.

Just 45 minutes from the city is the Yarra Valley – Melbourne’s premier wine-growing region. Home to acres of vineyards and 40 cellar doors – the bushland is dotted with vines and mountain ash forests for as far as the eye can see.

If you’re looking for luxury travel, take one of the Melbourne Private Tours, as these chauffeured excursions through the region can be personalised to suit your itinerary.

Spend your day stopping off at vineyards to find out how the wine is crushed, fermented, and bottled, and get a peek behind the scenes with the people who make it.

I spent a very enjoyable few hours at Dominique Portet (www.dominiqueportet.com), one of the newer wineries in the Yarra Valley, tasting the estate’s wines under the guidance of the uber-charming Dominique, the ninth recorded generation in this family of vignerons dating back to eighteenth century France.

From here, I wobbled on to the beautiful TarraWarra Estate (www.tarrawarra.com.au) – famous for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – where visitors can enjoy a lunch of delights such as saffron-cured ocean trout, followed by seared venison with sautéed chicory, while sitting out on the terrace, gazing out over the expanse of vineyards.

If you love your wines, but fancy something a little different, then head out to the Mornington Peninsula which curves southwards from Melbourne to Port Phillip Bay, and explore the region on horseback.

Once you’ve slipped into the saddle and bonded with your trusty steed, you head off into the vineyard region of Red Hill and Shoreham, dismounting every now and then to sample a little of the local produce.

You’ll stop off at wineries such as T Gallant (www.tgallant.com.au) and Ten Minutes by Tractor (www.tenminutesbytractor.com.au) for a tipple – or, if you can afford the time, a longer gourmet lunch surrounded by the patchwork of bushland, pasture, hills and vineyards.

Sitting back in the southern Australian sunshine, Pinot Noir in hand, marveling at the breathtaking vineyards before me, I can think of few better ways to while away an afternoon – or two.

For more info: Global ballooning (globalballooning.com.au) costs from AU$315 per person; the Eureka Skydeck and the Edge Experience (eurekaskydeck.com.au) costs AU$28.50. The Harley Davidson tour with HD Chauffeur Ride (www.harleyrides.com.au) costs from AU$115.50, and the Hidden Secrets tours (www.hiddensecretstours.com) cost AU$115 per person. A tour of the Yarra Valley with Melbourne Private Tours (melbprivatetours.com.au) costs from AU$560 for one person, while the Horseback Winery Tours (horsebackwinery tours.com.au) cost from AU$110 per person.