As the world (slowly) turns

Observation wheels are becoming must-haves for cities on the up and up, writes Belinda Jackson.

It's big, it's round, it's the Southern Star Observation Wheel. The what? Exactly. It's Melbourne's latest attraction, a gleaming white ferris wheel on steroids.

And it's so much like the London Eye you could be forgiven for referring to it as something much simpler like ... oh, the Melbourne Eye. Now would that be too hard?

Opened just five days before Christmas, the privately owned wheel has been six years in the making - four in the design sheds of Japan, Tasmania and Melbourne then two years from breaking ground at the site at Docklands.

If you've driven into the city from Melbourne Airport in the past year, you would have seen the frame gradually rising up from the new shopping, hotel and residential complex of Waterfront City.

Brisbane, prepare for wheel envy. Melbourne's Southern Star is waaay bigger than your Southbank circle. In fact, it's double the size at 120 metres high, and waaaay above Sydney's Luna Park dwarf, at a puny, unEmerald-City-like 40 metres. And yes, we all know that size matters.

On the international front, the Southern Star is the world's third observation wheel but, continuing the mine's-bigger-than-yours theme, it's 15 metres shorter than the London Eye and positively dwarfed by the Singapore Flyer, at 165 metres.

Each of the 21 enclosed cabins fits a maximum of 20 folk and people, it's not a ride, it's a flight, or so say our fluoro-clad flight attendants as we step into the air-conditioned cabins for its inaugural spin.

The wheel never truly stops turning but creeps gradually around the rotation, with passengers stepping on and off as it drifts slowly past the landing platform.

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Here are some more stats: its height is equivalent to a 40-storey building, it comprises 10 kilometres of steel piping, used 1650 tonnes of steel and is held together with 38,000 bolts. The star design mimics the seven-pointed Federation Star, to add a pinch of patriotism.

On opening day, the first public passenger, winner of a local radio competition, was booked in to propose to his girlfriend (rumour has it she was sick) and a great-grandmother reserved a cabin to get married as she and her beau took a turn on the wheel.

The trip is a single rotation, which takes 30 minutes, moving at a snail-like 11 metres a minute as the panorama of Melbourne spreads out below. A flyover here, a railway station there, the Channel Nine chopper in between.

But let's not be churlish: the highlights were looking out over the city skyline and to the Yarra River, which was behaving beautifully on the day, with the sun playing on the water and little yachts chasing each other around Port Phillip Bay. We could see the Dandenong Ranges to the east and the You Yangs to the west.

A possible alternative highlight could be if the people who have bought apartments in the Waterfront City complex decided to do some topless sunbathing, because we could see right into their little designer courtyards.

But sadly, not today. The lowlight was V/Line's West Tower railway yards and the empty construction sites where numerous hotels and two Olympic ice-skating rinks are pegged to be built as part of Australia's Olympic Winter Institute.

And now for the big question: how much does it cost? Such a big question requires a big answer. If the perfect nuclear family went up, they'd be paying $92 for half an hour's entertainment and then forking out an additional $15 for the photo taken at the top of the wheel . That's after they ran the gamut of factory outlets, food courts and face-painting stalls on the walk to the ticket box.

While it's cheaper than its London and Singapore peers, the Southern Star is almost double the cost of its rival for Melbourne views, Eureka Tower, if said nuclear family chose not to go out on the tower's glass-bottomed overhang, the Edge.

But what did it actually feel like? As we hit the wheel's apex, I had a momentary lurch in my stomach, just as the automated camera snapped a rather dark shot of us.

"Now we're in freefall," commented some wag as we started the 15-minute descent. And then I twigged that we were in Cabin 13 so I turned back to see the Telstra Dome and yes, I could see my house from up there.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Trams 48 and 86 run directly to Waterfront City, the free red City Circle tram is soon to include this stop in its circuit and the City of Melbourne tourist bus stops nearby.

Getting around

The Southern Star Observation Wheel costs $29 for adults, $20 for pensioners and $17 for children. It is open every day of the year from 10am to 10pm. To book tickets online see thesouthernstar.com.au.

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