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State of Victoria's Secret
Melbourne, prim capital, dresses itself as never before
Copyright © The Star Ledger 2004

Sunday, January 18, 2004

BY LERON KORNREICH

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Standing across from Federation Square in the heart of the city, I understand what all the controversy is about. The sharp angles of the new buildings in their light grays and peachy pinks stand in complete contrast to the landmark Flinders Street train station across the street. Many Melbourne natives are not too keen on the modern design that has dominated the center of the city since the square began opening in phases a little over a year ago.

But while I understand where they are coming from, I take an immediate liking to the jagged construction, with its mix of angles and atriums. The buildings house the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the Ian Potter Centre gallery of Australian art, the Melbourne Visitor Centre, and a variety of shops and restaurants.

Federation Square makes the city stand out, giving it something special, a central point that differentiates it from cities elsewhere in Australia and around the world. The new heart of Melbourne fits nicely into a city that is reinventing itself from what used to be described as "a cemetery with restaurants" to a vibrant metropolis that can give Sydney a run for its money.

Just across the Yarra River on St. Kilda Road, another focus of local pride reopened after four years of renovation and reconstitution. The National Gallery of Victoria houses international art. The gallery was redesigned to add more light and space and to grant works by masters such as Rembrandt their own rooms.

Throughout the city, new buildings are rising, creating a contrast between Victorian and ultra-modern architecture. When I spotted the Melbourne Museum, which opened in the fall of 2000, I was amazed city leaders had had the audacity to place such a futuristic design just a few feet away from the Royal Exhibition Building, constructed in the late 1800s for Melbourne's first International Exhibition. I particularly enjoyed the section of the museum dedicated to aboriginal culture, and the outdoor microcosm of a forest.

Melbourne is a city that flourishes on juxtapositions. For instance, I do not generally think shopping and sports go hand in hand. But in Melbourne they do. The city prides itself on being the Australian fashion capital. Trendsetters such as Alannah Hill and Collette Dinnigan showcase their latest creations in boutiques along Chapel Street in South Yarra. The eastern end of Collins Street, dotted with designer stores from Chanel and Ralph Lauren to the homegrown Husk, resembles New York City's Fifth Avenue on a much smaller scale.

The hipster scene rages along Greville Street in Prahran and Brunswick Street in Fitzroy. Vendors sell arts and crafts Sundays along the esplanade in St. Kilda. And for all the souvenirs a heart desires -- at bargain prices -- Queen Victoria Market remains the spot.

But while Melbourne is a haven for trendy stores and shopaholics, it's also a magnet for sports lovers. The city marks this mix best at the Melbourne Cup Carnival. During the week when horse racing fever reaches a peak, sports and fashion events fill the calendar, often side by side.

The Melbourne Cup is known as "the race that stops a nation." It's a public holiday that tens of thousands of people mark at the racetrack. But it's not just the horses they're watching. It's the parade of men and women dressed in their sassiest, most eye-popping ensembles.

Generally you couldn't pay me to attend most sporting events. But I found myself engrossed by the sports Down Under. On any Saturday afternoon, I could walk to nearly any park to watch men dressed from head to toe in white playing cricket. I couldn't help but hit the classic Irish pub on Chapel Street, Bridie O'Reilly's, to watch rugby -- alongside Australians in their Wallaby shirts, Irish with clovers painted on their faces, and a few puzzled Americans straining to understand the rules. During the Rugby World Cup, throngs watched the final game on the jumbo screen in Federation Square. (It's the same spot from which I could catch a glimpse of runway action during Fashion Week.)

Cafes and restaurants are emerging alongside the city's new hot spots. Sit on square blocks cushioned by Asian pillows and munch on assorted noodle dishes at Chocolate Buddha in Federation Square. Just across the square, grab a table at Arintji for a meal with a view of the spire dominating the Victorian Arts Centre on the other side of the Yarra River. A few feet away from the Ian Potter Centre, reserve a spot at Reserve and find out why it was voted "Best New Restaurant" by the staff of the 2004 Good Food Guide. The casual outdoor comfort of Wine Bar on the Swanston Street side of Federation Square is a nice spot to relax with a drink. Vegetarian options abound at Soul Mama in St. Kilda, a great spot from which to watch the sun set over Port Phillip Bay. And then there is always the restaurant that was most often recommended to me by Melbourne natives of every stripe, Pearl in the suburb of Richmond.

I was impressed by the range of bars at which I could choose to end my evenings. A great day of shopping along Chapel Street deserved a toast at the trendy yet inviting Souk. I returned many a day to the bars, restaurants, and pastry shops along Acland Street in St. Kilda, which has transformed itself from an immigrant hub to a swinging gathering place. But it was at the elegant Stokehouse, with its magnificent bay views, where I most enjoyed sipping wine. Casual dining is available downstairs but I chose to dine upstairs and relish my order of elegantly served fish while taking in the waves and moonlight.

The city may be in full revival mode but while its facade is changing by the day, its personality is still wonderfully Australian. People are friendly and I found I was seldom, if ever, rushed. After sightseeing, I was happy to relax at outdoor cafes without worrying about being hassled by wait staff to leave. The cutting-edge architecture may give Melbourne a big-city feel but it has not lost its small-town charm. Nobody seems to be in a hurry here. I practically had to wave a flag to get a waiter's attention when I was ready for the bill.

And while the city has taken on a modern flair, it maintains its Old World appeal. The tram is still a primary mode of transportation for many commuters. The City Circle Tram in the Central Business District offers tourists a free ride to several museums and attractions. The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant allows diners to enjoy a meal with an ever-changing view.

Melbourne's transformation has been gradual but dramatic. The development of Southbank's riverfront walkway, restaurants, and shops in the early 1990s was one key element. The Crown Casino, with its assortment of restaurants from casual to fine dining, added another ingredient to the mix. Piece by piece, the city has come alive, with Federation Square pumping a new sense of vibrancy that's causing Melbourne to flourish.

Leron Kornreich is a reporter for New Jersey News 12, currently traveling in Australia.