Like many Kiwis eager for a quick getaway, you'll always find Melbourne near the top of my list.
Just a few hours from our shores, the time difference isn't jetlag-inducing and you're never short of things to do - the buzzing culture scene, abundance of cafés and the vibrant Instagram-worthy laneways are always drawcards.
And of course there's the shopping. From the long expansive malls, to the quirkier arcades, the luxe high-end shops on the 'Paris end of town', to the handmade crafts at the local markets in the 'burbs, it's not surprising that some head to Melbourne city solely to shop.
I was invited with a handful of writers to go to the premiere of Come From Away in Melbourne, a musical based on events surrounding the 9/11 tragedy.
Admittedly I was slightly worried I'd have to lug an entire box of tissues into the theatre, but as I discovered later, as with the entirety of my long weekend in Melbourne – I was in for a trip that would surprise and delight in perhaps the most unexpected of ways and present a whole new side of Melbourne I'd never experienced.
On our first evening we whet our appetites at a rooftop bar.
The entire city is dotted with them, each providing a hidden oasis to enjoy alfresco dining and a unique view of the sprawling cityscape – if you're planning a visit I'd highly recommend you seek one out.
Bomba, a Spanish tapas restaurant and rooftop bar was just a block down from our hotel, The Grand Hyatt, in the heart of Melbourne's theatre district.
Despite the chilly winter weather we were cosy under the glow of the heaters and of course the cocktails likely helped. Their seasonal drinks specials menu included winter warmers like mulled wine but it was the unusual (but very Aussie) addition of vegemite in one offering that caught my eye. It took two sips to taste it, but it was there, a hint of the vegemite, much more subtle than I had imagined and surprisingly great.
Most of our dinner party opted for Bomba's set menu when it came time to eat – a selection of their top nine dishes which ranged from fresh Tasmanian oysters to manchego croquetas which were the perfect ratio of crunch to fluffiness.
But, it was the unpretentious charcoal grilled corn that was the surprise of the night.
Pushed through a metal skewer, it was accompanied by a light buttery aioli and sprinkled with dried maize (basically a fancy way of describing corn chip crumbs). Wholesome, finger-lickingly delicious and the perfect way to break the ice on our first day, because let's be honest, there's no way of eating corn on the cob daintily.
A welcome surprise about Bomba, and in fact a reoccurring observation throughout many of the places we dined in Melbourne, was how many vegetarian and vegan options were available. The one vegan of our dinner party also ordered the set menu and what arrived were nine vegan dishes which all looked mouth-wateringly delicious and were confirmed to be delightful – on night one of our Melbourne trip we were already thoroughly impressed!
The following day we were up bright and early to meet Melbournian Fiona Sweetman, co-founder and director at Hidden Secrets Tours.
The company have a number of tours available for visitors and locals alike. Today we were embarking on the Melbourne Lanes and Arcades Tour.
For many people, myself included, a mention of Melbourne usually sparks images of shops, cute cafés and of course the vibrant laneways, namely Hosier Lane - we probably have Instagram to thank for that one.
Passing the aforementioned Hosier Lane it was heaving as people jostled past each other for the best photo op. Not keen to join the masses, we continued on our way, but not before Fiona revealed Hosier Lane, which runs off Flinders Lane (once the home of Melbourne's rag trade) got its name from its past as the street where hosiery was made – I mean, it makes sense.
Fiona tells us that she aims to take people off the beaten tourist track, to places they might otherwise overlook on their way to the more well-known sites (we're looking at you Hosier Lane).
This was quickly illustrated when we turned down what looked like a dead-end laneway only for Fiona to pull back a random door to reveal a stairway down to CRAFT Victoria, a contemporary studio which provides exhibition space and a place for local artisans to sell their wares.
The four hour walking tour, which includes a delicious sit-down lunch, is the ultimate way to see the city if you're short on time and eager to immerse yourself in quite literally the hidden secrets of Melbourne, as the tour is so aptly named.
It saw us pop through more unassuming buildings and doors to discover the likes of the Melbourne home of fashion house Alpha60, housed in a former chapter house behind St Paul's Cathedral, to the Manchester Unity Building, where Fiona tells us tales of the crocodiles which once lived in the basement and the 60,000 Melbournians who lined up to ride the first escalator in Melbourne, coined 'the magic staircase'.
Passing iconic Melbourne hotspots like Brunetti pasticceria and Hopetoun Tea House at Block Arcade, Fiona impresses us with her knowledge and passion for her city as she rattles off interesting facts and insight you'd never have known otherwise.
Apparently the delectable fresh cream and berry-filled Hopetoun cakes are all baked downstairs and brought up in a dumbwaiter which had operated as a hand-pulled machine all the way into the early 2000s.
Lunch was at authentic Italian restaurant Trattoria Emilia's, hidden down a tiny laneway (obviously) and housed in an old truck mechanics' shop. Being truffle season I opted for the ricotta ravioli sprinkled with local Victoria truffle flakes – divine and oh so filling, my siesta later that afternoon was very welcome post-meal.
After two incredible meals during my stay in Melbourne I knew I was in for another treat when we made our way to dinner at Sunda, a restaurant located on the hip Punch Lane with dishes inspired by the rich flavours from south east Asia while melding in native Australian ingredients – I was not disappointed.
Our table once again opted for the set menu - by this time we were all about the 'surprise' - which ranged from pop-in-your-mouth morsels of pickled vegetables encased in a pie tee shell to succulent Rangers valley wagyu beef – it was truly phenomenal.
A personal favourite was the 'otak otak', spanner crab curry and finger lime which was accompanied by puffed rice cakes. It was the perfect familiar taste of a curry, mixed with a light crunch from the puffed rice cake for a contrast in texture.
And then on our final night, the main event – the Australian premiere of Come From Away, held at the intimate Comedy Theatre.
While I had always thought of Sydney as the go-to Aussie city to enjoy stage productions, after spending just a few days in Melbourne I soon discovered its bustling theatre district packed with eateries and watering holes, is the ultimate place to be if you want the full theatre experience.
As I walked down the streets of Melbourne's East End Theatre district I see posters for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Chicago and of course Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, it's clear it's a city that loves its theatre and I'm not sure why I'd never known this sooner.
Melbourne has a surprisingly long history with theatre, in fact the Athenaeum Theatre (which is currently showing Bring It On the Musical) was the first theatre in the world to screen a dramatic feature-length film: The 1906 release of The Story of the Kelly Gang, a film about the infamous Ned Kelly.
As aforementioned, I'd expected Come From Away to be incredibly sombre, but to our surprise it was anything but, instead being the epitome of everything there is to love about musicals: humorous, inspiring and heartwarming.
Running shorter than your average two-act production, the story follows the true events of a tiny town on the Canadian island of Newfoundland which welcomed passengers from an astounding 38 planes (that's around 7000 people), forced to land following the tragic 9/11 attacks in New York City.
The performances by the cast of 12, who switch in and out of multiple roles with ease, are brilliant, the songs are catchy and the story is one that will resonate with the audience no matter your age – it truly highlights how the best side of humanity can persevere and shine even in our darkest times – perhaps incredibly poignant considering today's climate.
One of the standouts was a solo song Me And The Sky performed by Zoe Gertz who portrayed Beverley Bass, the first ever female captain for American Airlines. It was a stirring song about female empowerment that left a tear or two in the eyes of myself and fellow theatre-goers and was an unexpected moment that stuck with me for hours after the show.
Leaving the theatre I felt inspired and empowered and if you're heading 'from away' to Melbourne in the next couple of months (the musical runs through to November 2019), I could not recommend it more.
As I drifted off to sleep that evening I reflected on my weekend in Melbourne.
It had been filled with the unexpected, from the hidden history that greeted us at every corner, to the diversity of food we sampled, to the delightful surprise that a musical I'd expected to be somewhat harrowing had me full-belly-laughing.
It was a great reminder we should never judge a book, or rather a musical or a city even, by its cover. But more importantly, it had me itching to book a flight back to Melbourne to see what side of the amazing city I'd discover next.
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