Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Victorian Holiday

Melbourne. It must have been thirty years since I’d set foot in the city, during some ship-travelling jaunt of yore. I know I’d never before entered the state of Victoria by plane. But this week, as you can see, all of that changed.

Wendy and I have wanted for ages to visit our ‘Australian’ horse, Livia degerolstein, chez Graeme and Dot Lang, at Melton; I was fixed to record some programmes for Melbourne’s Radio 96.5 FM, at Heidelberg, and Wendy’s sister, Jan, volunteered to babysit the horses, the cats and the peacocks for five days, so … we rose at 3am Thursday morning, and at 8.20, courtesy of a superiorly comfortable NZ Air flight, we were at Tullamarine Airport, Melbourne, being welcomed by good friend Ryan Burr (yes, the chef from the Isle of Wight) and a rental car, ready for five full on days of Australia.

After a quick Aussie-sized breakfast-n-shop in St Kilda by the sea, we headed for Melton (via a shocking traffic jam) and the Tabcorp Quality Hotel at Victoria’s HQ Melton racecourse, where we were to spend the next two nights. The first, relaxing and recovering, the second – of course -- racing.
Our accommodation was splendid. A huge, calm lounge and terrace overlooking the home straight, two comfy bedrooms, excellent bathroom and a highly useful kitchen, all in a simple, clean, modern style. But we were to find that the hotel has a serious handicap. Food. The restaurant serves racecourse food. Pub food. Catering-pack cuisine. Cardboard and sauce, Burgers, pasta and parmas. And the bar! The staff did not know what a Bloody Mary was, and the manageress escaped the situation by declaring they were ‘out of tomato juice’. ‘Continental breakfast’ in the morning was of no Continent that I – thankfully -- have ever visited. Things in plastic, things in boxes. vile! at $500 odd a night? The inedible ‘full breakfast’, next morning, featured what I am certain were egg-powder scrambled ‘eggs’! Vile!
But we were not deterred. If it stinks, hold your nose!  We had a kitchen, we had a chef, and a huge shopping centre between us and Graeme’s place ... Ryan and I invaded the seafood department and stocked up with goodies – salmon, prawns, scallops, fish for chowder, et al -- with which to make our own de luxe race-night buffet.

We visited the Langs, and I met dear, lovely little Livia for the first time. The poor girl has skinned a large area of her back leg, so she is on the ‘resting’ list, but we were able to make the acquaintance of Steal a Sixpence who was to race that night, and Wendy, much to my one-armed jealousy, had a jog behind ‘Millie’, while we watched, till scared inside by the Victorian blowflies.

Friday night was race night. The sun finally reached our terrace (the hotel is built weatherwise back-to-front!), the wind dropped, the chairs and tables went outside, the chef stoked up the kitchen, the champagne was opened, the seafood delicacies flowed, and we each stacked up a pile of TAB tickets, ready for the evening’s entertainment …

A really first-class time was had by all! We sipped, we nibbled, we cheered, we lost … and then our luck changed. Playing bookie’s runner, I had placed Wendy’s bets, and I got one wrong. So instead of being on the second fave, we realised too late she had a neat-sized bet on a 50-1 shot. And guess what? It came third, paying 7-1 a place, setting Wendy off on a run of long-priced place-getters.

Then it was Sixpence’s race. Ryan had discovered the ‘First Four’ and almost hit one at his first shot: so, having punted on his new friend, he walloped him on top of a few combos. And … Sixpence duly out-gutsied the favourite to win the race impressively, and Ryan had $10 worth of the 1st Four!  (Ryan, you don’t PUT $10 on a 1st Four…!)
We rushed down to the trackside to photograph the winning team, and join the festivities …

A perfect night at the races. Of course, it helps when the family horse wins!
But nevertheless, a must repeat experience. We shall come again to Melton. But we shall imperatively bring our own chef and barman.

Saturday, we headed for Heidelberg, where I spent three hours chatting with presenter Rob Morrison. The first of the 29 hours of ‘me’ which he now has on disc went out on New Year’s Day ..

Then in to town and our ‘home’ for the next two nights, the Grand Hotel, Spencer Street. Once again, we had a spacious suite with dining room, kitchen, and with two bedrooms and bathroom on a mezzanine. Nice accommodation, in pleasant turn-of-the century style. And very soft beds. The only problem is, the Grand is an ex-railway building, and it is just a few metres from the main railway line.
However, if we longed for the peace of Melton, the Grand came up trumps when it came to the more sophisticated things of life. The staff make excellent bloody Marys, the cuisine is quite delicious, and the little room where we ate and drank was really charming.

Night one, we went to the theatre. Wendy’s first time ever. Melbourne’s one-time J C Williamson house, Her Majesty’s Theatre. My first time ever. My favourite seats (front row of the circle!), a jolly evening (which I’ve already reviewed) .. and xtras? Lovely muzak in the foyer – yes, I know the words are normally incompatible, but this was a very superior arrangement of musical melodies – but said foyer woefully short of seating. Old men need a chair!

Sunday we walked. We walked along the Yarra, breakfasted (very well) at Time Out in Federation Square, walked up to the state library, which has sprouted a lawn since last I was here, and descended on Queen Victoria market. After a couple of footsore hours ‘shopping’ there, we headed home, via coffee at Perk Up (delightful!), to put our feet up for a few hours ..

Cocktails and dinner with penfriend Allister Hardiman, a good sleep, a farewell to the big city, and back to St Kilda, for a last shop (even I indulged in 8 t-shirts and a pair of shorts of which more anon!), and a farewell lunch in a private room in Ryan’s Big Mouth restaurant.

Per-fect bloody mary (gold stars, Bree!), a lovely light lunch, fond farewells, then into a taxi for the airport, clutching a delicious gourmet picnic-bag for the foodless, drinkless, comfortless, everything-less Virgin flight back to New Zealand.

We arrived into the arms of my faithful North Canterbury Shuttles in the New Year. The old year had finished some time while we were being taken to pieces by customs (‘horse trainers’ are automatically suspected of wicked potions or muddy shoes) …

A grand Australian adventure full of highlights… and almost no disappointments. And now back to work!  It is the farmworker season: Max and Fabian from Germany arrive this weekend, Sarah and Jana from Alaska follow …

It’s never dull at Gerolstein! At home or away ...

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