Thirty-three years ago, I took myself to Australia on a four-week whim. Last week, I got to go back again and managed to see the one thing I couldn't get to on my earlier trip: the monumental limestone stacks off the shore of Port Campbell National Park along the Great Ocean Road called the Twelve Apostles.
This trip, a patchwork of fabulous sample activities for incentive winners curated by Tourism Australia (and the Melbourne Convention Bureau for this part of the trip), began in Melbourne, where we arrived in time for lunch. After so many hours on planes (my personal travel time was close to 32 hours), it was so refreshing to get out on foot to see the city. We lunched at Cumulus, a contemporary eatery and bar where the shareable dishes included tuna tartare and puréed peas with curd sauce, roast lamb and warm madeleines.
Melbourne's heart features numerous alleys __ here called "laneways" __ often decorated with street art both massive and miniature, sometimes springing up overnight (a new painting of Prince had appeared in the days following his death). After lunch, the group wandered past some of the walls, ending up at Blender Studios, where we got to make some stencil art of our own. Melbourne Street Tours can make similar arrangements for your group.
We enjoyed subtly luxurious accommodations at the 481-room Crown Towers, part of a three-hotel complex and casino in the center of the city. The rooms are spacious, plush and, my favorite feature, absolutely soundproof. Eating there our first night at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal was a culinary dream come true, something our hosts managed to repeat at lunches and dinners throughout the week.
Day 2 started with a guided stroll through Queen Victoria Market, a collection of raw and prepared food stands, a vegetable market, general merchandise stalls and small storefronts. There we were treated to our first taste of kangaroo (suprisingly delicious and nongamey), along with melting bites of local cheeses and savory local olives.
From here, our small group of seven __ myself and six incentive planners __ headed west into the Yarra Valley to sample some local wines. While such grapes have been growing in the country since the early 1800s, it was toward the end of the 20th century that Australia became known for its vintages. Our travel took us to Oakridge Wines, Rochford Wines and the Sir Paz Estate.
At Oakridge, we were treated to sips of a chardonnay straight out of the vat, young and fresh-tasting, and learned about their processes for making sparkling wines. The dining room here seats up to 130 and handles receptions for up to 200; outdoor facilities grow those numbers, and smaller groups can sip among the wine barrels.
Rochford led us through to a wine-themed team-building activity, where we split into three groups and were charged with recreating a blend of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz presented to us by sales manager John Bright. Two teams got it right (although I can't remember if it was 75/25 cab/shiraz, or 25/75), and the third wasn't far off. The winery features not only a restaurant and retail shop, but also an art gallery and a natural outdoor amphitheater for hosting groups of all sizes.
The sun broke out at our lunch spot, Sir Paz Estate, just in time for us to pull out cameras and phones to capture the expansive views from its hilltop overlooking the valley. The name of the winery is the reverse of the family name; Peter Zapris took us through the history and shared some sips with us before we sat down for delectable salmon on braised celery hearts and parsnip purée in a blood-orange gel supplied by Atlantic Group (although I'm still dreaming about the appetizer of Wagyu beef in black-bean-ginger dressing).
Hours later, we were back in the city's laneways for a singular progressive dinner led by Hidden Secrets Tours' Fiona Sweetman, who knows all the ins and outs of Melbourne and is willing to share. Antipasto (and some drinks) was consumed at the Millhouse, a relaxed pub; as-real-as-you-can-get-outside-of-Italy fare (and some wine) at Trattoria Emilia, tucked down a nondescript alleyway; three dishes (and three wines) at Neapoli __ there was some heavenly soft mozzarella involved; then Peruvian small plates featuring swordfish, beef or cheese (and more drinks) at Pastuso. The evening was topped off at Eau de Vie, whose plain wooden entrance opens into a clubby, bottle-filled bar.
Time for my personal pièce de résistance came the next morning. When I first learned we would be traveling South Australia's Great Ocean Road to the 12 Apostles, I thought, "That's an awfully long drive." I was delighted to learn we would be traveling the route by helicopters operated by Heli-Serv. It wasn't the best day, weatherwise, but rain clouds produced a brief, serendipitous landing in Apollo Bay, where I took the opportunity to run down to a small, rocky beach (next stop south, Antarctica!). Back in the air, we flew over the incredible limestone structures of the Apostles (there never were 12; one has fallen, so now there are eight). To put it as clichéd as possible, the view was breathtaking and thrilling. Landing at the visitors center, a guide from Port Campbell National Park took us along the walkways on the cliffs, telling us about the flora and fauna, the life of the rocks and more. I have rarely been happier (see picture).
Back in the helicopters, we headed to the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, a luxurious outpost in the bush under the watchful eye of Mt. Sturgeon. As if we hadn't already eaten everything that is good in Australia, this five-course tasting extravaganza delivered pumpkin, local Holy Goat La Luna cheese, treacle and caramelized yoghurt (divine); ocean trout, fromage frais, and rhubarb, strawberry and nasturtium bits (sigh); Great Ocean duck with quince, clove and turnip (scrumptious); Royal Mail lamb, with sunflower seeds, artichoke and black garlic (yum); and the incredible dessert: poached quince, rosemary ice cream and Jerusalem artichoke chips. Oh, yes, followed by a blind wine tasting, comparing Australian and California whites.
After flying back to the big city, our full time in the south ended at Sketch at the Docklands, part of a special-event venue featuring four spaces. Sketch seats up to 180 or holds 350 for a reception, and can be decorated with the painted birds seen here and catered by the excellent Atlantic Group, who also fed us a day earlier at the Sir Paz Estate.
While this was the end of our time in Melbourne, it was not the end of our time in Australia. Click here to see the next post, concerning our days in Brisbane. Following are some of the photos taken along the way.