As a blow-in to Melbourne two decades ago, a new-found friend welcomed me to my adopted city with a local's guide in the form of a photocopied map on which each important place of the CBD was neatly marked in pencil.
During that grey winter wandering the laneways and surrounding parks, comfort eating at the likes of crowd favourites Pellegrini's Italian, Stalactites Greek and various dumpling houses, that increasingly dog-eared map, now long gone, was a gift that helped me form an enduring friendship with the city.
This is the city which just last year attracted almost 14 million visitors, 2.9 million from overseas, and which has, for the best part of this year, been shuttered up and without its all-important ingredient - its people.
So while the rest of Victoria seems to be celebrating the end of one of the world's longest and strictest lockdowns, driving beyond the so-called ring of steel to reunite with friends, family, the forest and the sea, I've chosen to catch up on some cushy places much closer to home.
I've headed off to celebrate this new joyous, albeit cautious, COVID-19 reality with the ultimate city staycation - five nights at five of Melbourne's best hotels, every one as different as the last, but all going above and beyond with health and safety practices.
However there will be the occasional appearance at home so the family won't forget my face (though after months homebound together I guess that's unlikely).
And while I admit that almost a week tucked in for some of the time beneath high-thread count Egyptian sheets is hardly an exercise in altruism, I'm hoping that it will be a demonstration of how we can all re-engage with our city and help its hard-hit hospitality sector which has been hit for six.
UNITED PLACES, SOUTH YARRA
United Places, South Yarra.
What better way to emerge from lockdown and move beyond that five-kilometre limit than by slipping into a true boutique hotel opposite the Royal Botanic Gardens. There are just 12 suites and no lobby abuzz with phones and people. Instead, a quiet battened corridor inside this sandblasted concrete and bronze trim hotel by Carr Design Group leads to the most soothing of suites. Hotelier Darren Rubenstein's devotion to creativity and sustainability extends to an artist in residence program, compostable toothbrushes and rainwater harvesting.
There are no sharp edges in this suite that overlooks the gardens. The bathroom, a mirrored pod in the centre of the room, manages privacy and a double shower. An automated velvet curtain cocoons the sleeping area at bedtime and the velvet Redondo sofa by Patricia Urquiola - its gentle curves inspired by the American cars of the 50s and 60s - is the ideal place to watch runners circle the Tan track. Favoured by international guests, today the hotel is fully booked with locals whose homes are not more than 15 kilometres away, including the couple who have cycled in and another who have eloped on the first weekend out of lockdown. From the hand-loomed organic fair trade Turkish throws to the ride in from home in a BMW X5 plug-in hybrid, also available for use during a stay, this is a carefully considered place to escape. All that's left to do is to immerse yourself in a most luxurious home away from home.
WHAT THEY SAY TO DO
Sure, you can take a casual stroll through the gardens or you can take your relaxation up a notch, and join a Forest Therapy (Shinrin-yoku) session in which a trained guide helps guests tune into their senses and surrounding nature and focus their minds. The two-hour sessions, a recognised public health practice in Asia and Europe, are run by the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, In My Nature and the International Nature and Forest Therapy Alliance and are exclusive to hotel guests.
WHAT WE SAY TO DO
While there's priority booking at ground floor restaurant Matilda 159 by Scott Pickett, opt for in-room dining which on this balmy night is served on the spacious balcony. The clink of glasses and chatter of guests below is a delightful, perfectly socially distanced way to re-enter the world, or another suburb at least. Back it up the next day with lunch at Gilson, a few doors along from United Places.
From $390 a night. United Places 157 Domain Road, South Yarra. Phone (03) 9866 6467. See unitedplaces.com.au
OVOLO LANEWAYS, CITY
Ovolo Laneways Photo: Supplied
Donning my mask (remember when they were compulsory outside?) the St Kilda Road walk takes me past the Shrine of Remembrance and smaller tributes worth pausing for, including the striking stainless steel Australian Turkish Friendship Memorial. I pass The Forum Theatre, with its Moorish revival exterior complete with minarets and gargoyles and head into the normally buzzing laneways to the hotel of 43 rooms, which is tucked away at the Spring Street end of Little Bourke Street, just around the corner from the Princess Theatre and Parliament House. In keeping with its sister hotels around the world, Laneways embraces its unique location which means guests can too. Four-legged friends are also welcome. As I've checked in, a French bulldog and two dachshunds have just checked out. Even canines need a staycation after what Melbourne's been through these past months.
Behind the bright blue door of the appropriately named OMG Terrace, there's enough room to swing a disco ball; fortunate as that's what's on the kitchen bench alongside a greeting note of "Yo J, enjoy yo' stay." With two double bedrooms, cushions for days and chalk art depicting the number 96 tram headed to St Kilda beach, it's a fun space. Take a drink from the fully stocked all-inclusive fridge onto the private terrace for city views. If the fun factor needs to be dialled up, check in at the penthouse next door which houses a pinball machine and outdoor terrace with spa. The social hour in the lobby, where breakfast is also served, has been COVID modified. At unsocial hour every day, a drinks trolley will arrive at guests' doors.
WHAT THEY SAY TO DO
Join an exclusive and ever evolving street art tour with Blender Studios and finish at the hub in West Melbourne that hosts the 24-plus street artists and fine artists. Or let Spring Street Grocer around the corner pack a hamper and head to Carlton, Treasury or Fitzroy gardens, each under a 10-minute walk for a picnic.
WHAT WE SAY TO DO
You're already in the heart of the city's laneways so cast aside Google Maps for once and stick to anything with the words Little or Lane attached. My wanderings through ChinaTown take me past Amphlett Lane and artwork featuring the iconic schoolgirl uniform of Divinyls singer Chrissy Amphlett; old school barbers Vince and Dom displaying photos of celebrity clients, including a young Barry Humphries; and the Kuo Ming Tang building, built as a pair of shops in 1903 with a facade redesigned by American architect Walter Burley Griffin. The only upside to a quiet city is that there's a seat without a booking at Hu Tong Dumpling Bar in Market Lane for vegetable dumplings and a prime view of the dumpling maker behind glass. Melbourne, I've missed you.
THE LANGHAM, SOUTHBANK
It's a warm welcome from staff in the grand marble lobby area of fountains, chandeliers and plenty of room for social distancing. This hotel of 388 rooms, just off the Southbank Boulevard, continues to exude glamour as well as its distinctive ginger flower scent, with notes of lilac and violet (take a bottle home to keep your staycation alive). One will not be getting on the beers at the Aria Bar but the hotel's celebration cocktail is in order.
It's been a long time between day spas but the hotel's ethereal Chuan spa helps make up for lost time. And a massage wearing a face mask is preferable to no massage at all, right? For COVID-safe dining, Melba's popular buffet is, for the moment, buffet to table, with plates of freshly sliced sashimi and five-spiced duck pancakes swiftly served. The teens are in tow and are delighted to have a change of scenery, even with the olds present. We choose in-room dining from an expanded post-COVID menu that ranges from eggplant curry to king george whiting to the classic club sandwich, as we watch the four seasons in one day unfold over the Yarra and the trains slide in and out of Flinders Street Station.
WHAT THEY SAY TO DO
For families with younger children, a camp-out stay includes an in-room play tent, mini bathrobes and backpacks filled with activities. Or take a cruise in the hotel's pink water taxi along the Yarra up to Toorak or down into Docklands that includes a picnic lunch, dessert and sparkling wine.
WHAT WE SAY TO DO
There is more to see and hear beyond the familiar five kilometre lockdown limit. The new Six Walks downloadable audio is narrated by Melbourne-based writers who each talk about an area of significance to them. They include Christos Tsiolkas' 25-minute loop, Silver Screens, among the city's laneways (adult themes) and 30 minutes with Eleanor Jackson in the arts precinct .
THE PRINCE, ST KILDA
The Prince, St Kilda Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts at St Kilda treasure the Prince of Wales. Its dining and sleeping spaces are now reconnected thanks to a new internal staircase where the original was believed to be. The Prince Public Bar, remodelled in art deco style, first opened in 1937 and is one of the city's longest standing LGBTQIA-friendly venues. It has been reborn thanks to a large oval island bar with a subtle rainbow glass surround and restored original floor tiles. There's also newcomer Little Prince Wine with its underground cellar and private tastings. That staircase leads to 39 rooms and the dining room where famed photographs of Bon Scott and Angus Young by Rennie Ellis grace the walls.
It's hardly rock 'n roll, but an early night in this suite of brass pendants and pastel drapes, stretched out in a Jardan armchair, suits me just fine. Overlooking the boulevard with its distinctive palm trees and beach beyond and hearing the ding of trams on Fitzroy Street below, there's no mistaking the location. If you're ever going to have breakfast in the front bar of a pub this is the place.
WHAT THEY SAY TO DO
Discover how St Kilda's fortunes waxed and waned through the centuries with the help of true local and professional photographer and banjo player Daniel Bornstein on a private walking tour of the busy esplanade and quieter streets. Spot important places of the First Peoples of Port Phillip, and the boom architecture including mansions of ruby glass and ornate iron lace work said to be built from ship ballast. In harder times these standouts became boarding houses. One such mansion, Linden New Art, is open to the public and this year celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Postcard Show, a competition for small artworks. Nearby Point Ormond, Elwood, became Victoria's quarantine station in 1840 after the ship the Glen Huntly arrived from Scotland flying the yellow fever flag. We finish with 100-year-old Polish cheesecake at Bornstein's favourite European-Jewish bakery on Acland Street.
WHAT WE SAY TO DO
The vast open beer garden with market umbrellas and hanging lights that's opened on the rooftop of The Prince is the stuff of lockdown fantasy, with Brick Lane beers on tap and Nagambie 3608 Gin cocktails. Serving pizza and picnics, the rooftop is child and dog friendly. No bookings required. What will need to be booked is Random International's Rain Room, on the Prince rooftop for summer and an installation in which visitors navigate a torrential downpour.
LANCEMORE CROSSLEY ST, CITY
Lancemore Crossley St
I'm back in the theatre district where the curtains are up on the city's newest hotel which just opened on December 1 and I'm embracing the neighbourhood's performance pedigree. Carr Design Group is behind the new hotel which features an upturned chandelier rescued from Georges Department Store above a circular banquette, making a dramatic centrepiece for its communal - or onstage - areas. While offstage, guests retreat to one of 113 rooms.
Stay offstage in your plush room of leather seats, sheer room dividing curtains and intriguing photographs by Andre Donadio of humans at the theatre wearing animal masks (reality has an intricate connection with the oneiric world, says Donadio). In a rare and refreshing occurrence, the mini-bar is stocked with local spirits, beer and wine at retail prices. The hotel welcomes you to take your drink in a cut crystal glass to the rooftop terrace of daybeds, lounges and an open fire.
WHAT THEY SAY TO DO
Head underground to the neon-lit Bodega with more than 70 bottles of mezcaleria and tacos. A few doors up and Daughter in Law Indian has an outdoor "parklet" extending the dining area, compliments of a pandemic. In-room or rooftop dining from neighbours Longrain Thai and Ginger Boy, south-east Asian is yet another initiative borne out of COVID-19. Banquet dinners delivered to the hotel are plated up and serve to guests in-suite or on the rooftop terrace.
WHAT WE SAY TO DO
After the year that's been, it's high time to take a moment and a SLOW (sensory laneway orientation walk) is a salve. Led by Fiona Sweetman, of Hidden Secrets Tour, we pause at the rear of the Wesley Church on Lonsdale Street with its ancient olive tree and navigate a quiet laneway to the sounds of lyrebirds. Part of the charm of this normally bustling city is the fact that heritage buildings saved from the wrecking ball sit next to new builds, says Sweetman. "It's what keeps us positive and what keeps us global. Take a moment to really see the space, enjoy its textures, the nostalgia and memories lost, or yet to be made," Sweetman says ."This city needs its people and its visitors back."
Lancemore Crossley St, 51 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne.
Check with individual operators regarding opening times.
The writer stayed as a guest of the hotels and Visit Victoria www.visitvictoria.com
FIVE NEW FACES ON THE BLOCK
On the intersection of Southbank Boulevard and City Road, the apartment hotel has a glass curtain facade, floor to ceiling windows in every room and an impressive light-filled pool area. The Bates Smart 220-room property of Cross Laminated Timber is a fifth of the weight of concrete and said to be the world's tallest engineered timber extension. From $159 a night. 99 City Road, Southbank. See adinahotels.com
W HOTEL MELBOURNE
The finishing touches are being put on this hotel of 294 guest rooms including four wow suites and four restaurants. Damon Page, who has been at the helm of W properties in the Maldives and Hong Kong, returns to his home city to run the hotel which opens in February. From $369 a night. 408 Flinders Lane, Melbourne. See marriott.com
VIBE HOTEL, CITY
On the corner of Queen and Flinders Streets, 206 rooms rise above the Renaissance-style building that was once the headquarters of Fletcher Jones. From $143 a night. 1 Queen Street, Melbourne. See vibehotels.com
Element Melbourne Richmond. Offers 163-rooms, is pet-friendly, close to the Yarra and has bike hire for guests. Rooms from $169 a night. 588 Swan Street, Richmond. Phone (03) 9112 8888. See marriott.com
OVOLO, SOUTH YARRA
Set in the heart of South Yarra at the intersection of Toorak Road and Chapel Street and opening early 2021, it will have 123 rooms and suites. Check rates closer to opening. 230 Toorak Road, South Yarra. See ovolohotels.com