Years ago, when I was darting around the countryside for my university degree I was tempted, often, to make the big leap and drive all the way to Melbourne. As a kid in the back seat of my parent’s car we’d gone as far deep as the ranges of Victoria but never quite as far as Melbourne. My mother had instilled great fear in me, probably rightly so at the time, by telling me that the road was patchy at best, straight and boring, nothing to see, and a great deal of fatalities occurred from driver fatigue. So, it was stuck there in the back of my mind as a bridge too far.
Recently my partner and I had to attend a wedding in the Mornington Peninsula. I knew nothing about the Mornington Peninsula other than that it was wine country and had never bothered to note its proximity to Melbourne until my partner had said she had rented a car and the drive time was 90 minutes … She is a lot more gifted at organising stuff around dates, so she had married up my flight with hers and with the rental car and the time the wedding bus departed the hotel – all I had to do was show up. Which, being the nuisance that I am, I was never going to fall into line like that.
I announced a week before her departure for Queensland that I was going to drive to Melbourne. An argument ensued about how stupid my plan was and how she’d planned it down to a tee and she knew I would do something to muck it all up. I dug my heels in, immovable, unshakeable, and I said I would pick her up at the airport as planned.
Bucket List item #167 began with getting my oil and tyres checked before loading a USB stick into my car and setting up my navigation. I got on the road by 11am and before long I was rekindling myself with all those forgotten songs you don’t listen to now that you have Spotify. The Doors - ‘Riders On The Storm’, The Smiths, Paul McCartney and Sade. It was so peaceful to have the cabin to myself as I sped down the highway on a bright blue day with a countryside richly green from recent rains. The windows went down. The windows went up. The air con went down. Then up. Not one other voice to contradict my operation of the cabin and controls.
I stopped three times along the way to stretch my legs, suck down a Maccas burger, a pie and some carrot sticks so that I could tell myself I was being healthy. Unlike I had been warned by my mother, this was in fact a wonderful stretch of road and between my selection of music and making phone calls the time to Melbourne seemed to melt away and with my head leaned towards the window catching the breeze and soaking up the sunshine - I was very happy indeed. After Yass, I began to yawn, I pulled over and meditated for 30 minutes and when I awoke two strange civil contractors were staring at me from a ute in the distance (visions of Wolf Creek circled) and I started my engine and got back onto the road. Victoria, which I was expecting to devoid of any life, was the exact opposite. I was surprised at what flat country it was and how much of it there seemed to be. Endless pastures and very few heavily forested areas. It did lack the terrain you get between Sydney and Canberra, but it made for a meandering and sprawling drive.
My sat nav must have taken me into Melbourne in an unusual manner because I did not seem to move from one freeway to the next coming into Melbourne but rather a series of roads that gradually became smaller and smaller until I was in a more urban and built up part of the city, which was Brunswick. That gradual reduction in the size of roads from three lanes either side with McDonalds and KFC’s hustling every corner for junk food until you start to see your tram lines. I was heading for a boutique hotel in South Yarra called The Lyall. I reached the Lyall in 9 hours and less than one tank of fuel owing to my diesel engine. I was very impressed with myself and my car.
When I asked the concierge of my hotel where was good to eat he said ‘France-Soir’. I asked him about other restaurants but he kept on going back to France-Soir so I headed off on Toorak Rd and found France-Soir – one of the best delights of my trip to Melbourne.
The thing about Melbourne is, it is less pretentious. Sydneysiders carry on in a manner sometimes that reminds me of Los Angeles, whereas I feel Melburnians are probably a little more like New Yorkers or Bostonians (not that I know many Bostonians). As a city, as a collective, they just seem a little more grounded and a little less affected. The waiters in the restaurant were kind and tolerant. When a table was not available and the restaurant clearly brimming with activity, they didn’t turn me a way with arrogance, they instead invited me to drink a half bottle of wine outside.
When finally, I did get seated I could not have had better service or a better meal. Escargots, scallops and finished with steak tartare and pomme frites. All washed down with my half bottle of St. Emilion . The food itself was enough of a turn on, but added to that was the bustling atmosphere of tables chattering away with the noise of the tables providing that bistro type setting where one might easily stay until the restaurant closes.
Fortunately for myself the St. Emilion reminded me that I had had a long day, having started at 6am with a walk. So off I went back to my hotel, preparing myself for dropping into menswear stores the following day to see if we could find more customers, and then on to the airport to pick up my other half on time for fear of great suffering and retribution lest she be standing in the freezing cold chiming ‘I knew he would stuff it up, I just knew it’.
In the end, she still did exactly just that regardless of my being early. And so, ends part one.