Mal Chenu finds the ever-developing Docklands already reflects the city's rich tapestry of life.
'Meet me at the cow in the tree."
Not a sentence I was expecting but, as it turned out, a precise directive understood by all. The cow in the tree is just one of myriad interesting sculptures and artworks decorating Melbourne's Docklands landscape but these only just outnumber the cranes on building sites.
Melbourne's Docklands precinct on Victoria Harbour in the centre of the city is a work of art. A work of art in progress.
So many forward-thinking and ambitious construction and renovation projects are under way, it made for a strange spectacle for a Sydneysider. Melbourne has taken this formerly industrial wharf and marshland and has started turning it into a premier attraction. Trams click-clack past parks, playgrounds and barbecue spots, cafes, bars and restaurants.
More than 30 large urban artworks are scattered about the area, some more eye-of-the-beholder than others, and the overall effect is uplifting.
Bunjil, the creation spirit eagle, watches over his territory; a towering black sculpture called Continuum features dancing human forms as cascading building blocks; and Blowhole set in a playground harnesses the wind off the bay to create a display of orbiting balls.
Webb Bridge, a walkway across the Yarra River, is designed to represent a Koori eel trap. Then there are the human artworks - not far from the 1917 Seafarers Mission, a couple of old salts of roughly the same vintage were proudly painting an anchor cut loose from a German ship that fled Melbourne in a hurry in 1939. Cyclists are everywhere and travelling by bike is an ideal way to experience the precinct.
The Cow up a Tree, to give it the correct title, stands adjacent to Etihad Stadium and it is here that Melbourne's definitive living installation can be seen three times each weekend as colourful tides of Melburnians ebb and flow to the footy - scarfed hordes drawn to the siren's call.
The stadium is impressive: a colosseum of passion capable of seating about 50,000 screaming Vics practising their religion AFL.
There is generally no need to buy a ticket in advance and at Etihad the queues move quickly, real beer is available in a range of comfortable bars and you can get a feed without taking out a mortgage. More shocks for a Sydneysider.
The spectators are fanatical but mostly well behaved, despite their denominational differences. When closed, the retractable roof amplifies the volume of the crowd, making the atmosphere in a tight finish quite ecstatic.
The winner's hymn is sung with passion and the zealots go in peace, spiritually sated for another week.
Just a drop punt from Etihad is New Pier, a boardwalk that has restaurants and cafes serving meals of pretty much any ethnicity to both scarfed hordes and secular visitors. More than 20 restaurants and cafes sit on the water's edge here. Children play on Silence another striking piece of urban art on the pier while adults sip lattes and complain about umpiring. Many more restaurants are on offer at nearby Victoria Harbour and Waterfront City.
It's hard to get a bad meal in Melbourne in general but at Docklands it's practically impossible, the quality food at reasonable prices a function of the competition.
One building that is finished and operating is the Hilton Melbourne South Wharf hotel, an ideal upmarket base camp next to the also new Melbourne Convention Centre. It opened in April and still has that wonderful new-hotel smell.
The rooms reflect the Docklands concept, with a spacious, airy feel, and the high beds are cloud-soft. Two restaurants and a cafe are up and running, with the pick of these being Sotano Wine and Tapas Bar, set up by the people behind Zeta Bar at the Sydney Hilton.
Wine racks tower above a classy timber finish and give the bar a warm ski-lodge feel and there are large, open tables and intimate nooks, as required. A wine-and-cheese sommelier is available to advise on the vexing problem of matching dairy with grape.
The view from the Hilton over the city is diverse: picturesque waterways, bridges and skyscrapers chequered with building sites and cranes. It's better at night when the city lights dominate and the building sites are dark.
One can imagine Docklands, the finished product, one day standing as a beacon of inner-city development but it is already an oasis of that particular Melbourne blend of culture, fun and style that is the envy of Sydneysiders. Though we would never admit it.
The writer was a guest of Hilton Melbourne South Wharf.
- STAYING THERE Hilton Melbourne South Wharf, 2 Convention Centre Place, (03) 9027 2000. Rates from $195 a night for a standard room.
- FURTHER INFORMATION Docklands Art Journey map, see docklands.com and follow the links.