When it comes to winter holidays, you've pretty much got two choices: go really cold, or go really warm. Go on a snow trip, or at least somewhere mountainous, or journey up north, to the upper reaches of Australia or all the way into the next hemisphere.
That's the conventional thinking. You either embrace the winter cold with proper winter cold, or you get away from it entirely.
So, what's going on with Australian travel trends? Last week the accommodation website Booking.com released its top 20 winter destinations in Australia – using searches for accommodation on its site for July and August this year – and there was something interesting in there.
The top 10 had most of the usual suspects: the Gold Coast at number one, Sydney at three, Cairns at four, Brisbane at five, Jindabyne at six, Port Douglas at seven, Darwin at eight, Perth at nine, Canberra at 10. All of these destinations pretty much fit the standard dynamic – Sydney is relatively warm and sunny in winter, and Canberra has that deep winter chill some people are looking for. The rest are no-brainers, either really hot or really cold.
The odd one out, then, is all the way up at number two: Melbourne. Why is Melbourne so popular in winter? It's definitely not warm there. Mostly, it's grey and cold. Though, it's not cold enough to snow, and there are no mountains. Plus, most Australians got used to some pretty bad news coming out of Victoria in the last few years. "Most locked down city in the world" doesn't exactly seem enticing for a holiday.
With all that in mind, Melbourne seems like a surprise for a top winter holiday – particularly one that's more popular than Cairns, more popular than Darwin, more popular than Sydney. And it's not just the domestic market that's keen, either. Last month travel website Klook released its forward booking data, which showed Victoria was the number one state for international tourists, and Melbourne the number one city. Beating Sydney. Beating the Gold Coast. In winter.
What's the deal?
I have a few theories. To begin with, the history of lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions mean very little to people travelling right now. Yes, there was plenty of bad news coming out of Victoria for a while there, but most of us who didn't live through it will never understand the trauma. Plus, the world is open now, and we have short memories, coupled with a desire to forget bad news. Lockdown schmockdown.
I imagine the popularity of Melbourne as a destination, even in mid-winter, is also driven in no small part by people from Sydney. This may come as a surprise to some residents of Melbourne who believe they're locked in an intense and reciprocated rivalry with the NSW capital. But it's been my experience that pretty much everyone in Sydney loves Melbourne, and would be nursing a long-held desire to visit again, even in winter, and even after having just been subjected to the Worst Summer Ever.
I know I do. That's why I'm adding to the stats this week and travelling to the Victorian capital. I'm heading there to do my favourite two things in Melbourne: eat, and drink. The dining and drinking scene in Melbourne is sensational. I can't wait.
In fact, the whole city is sensational. It pained me to see during the pandemic this feeling among Melburnians – real or imagined, I'm not sure, everything got so blown out of proportion in that time – that the rest of Australia was against them, that we were laughing at their misfortune.
For the most part I don't think that was true, because again: we love Melbourne. I say this honestly and sincerely. That's why the city is so popular now, even in the depths of winter. We love everything about the place.
We love its restaurants and its bars. We love its shops. We love its parks and gardens. We love its grunge and its shine. We even love its torpid river and its intense coffee snobbery. It's all good.
Of course, there's probably more to the popularity of Melbourne as a winter destination. Consider the fact that the Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley, two of Australia's finest wine regions, boozy, delicious destinations hugely popular in their own right, are on Melbourne's doorstep. On accommodation website Wotif, searches for Mornington Peninsula were up nearly 160 per cent this winter. People are keen, and if you want to visit either Mornington or the Yarra, you're going through Melbourne.
There's also the Bellarine Peninsula and the Great Ocean Road pretty close by. Cast your eye to the north and you have nouveau-rad hubs like Kyneton and Castlemaine, fancy Daylesford, winey Heathcote and Nagambie. These are all great winter destinations, again accessible via Melbourne.
So perhaps there's a lesson here: when it comes to winter holidays you actually have three choices: really cold, really warm, or Melbourne. You know which one I'm going for.
Are you surprised Melbourne is so popular as a travel destination in winter? Are you planning to travel to Melbourne in the next few months? Why? What drew you there?
The writer travelled to Melbourne as a guest of Visit Victoria.