Soon after leaving New Zealand we began to encounter heavy seas and strong winds with lots of rocking and rolling. Moving along inside the ship from point A to point B was a challenge and usually required wall hugging, grabbing for railings when you could spot one, and staggering about like a drunken sailor. Despite this, the dining crew were somehow able to get food on the table without dumping the trays and fed all who were able to make it—not everyone since plenty of tables remained empty. These conditions prevailed for three days forcing a cancellation of the Tasmanian stopover, which resulted in some grumbling, but given the weather, there was not much choice.
We sailed directly to Melbourne, taking a full three days and arriving a day early since we bypassed Tasmania. By the time the Orion maneuvered along the narrow channel, the winds had diminished to under 10 knots and the skyscrapers in this glorious city sparkled in the early morning sun. The main dining room serving breakfast was packed, and you could tell everyone was antsy to set foot on dry land.
Melbourne did not disappoint. While Viking had managed to pull together some last minute excursions for the unscheduled day ashore, Embry and I decided we would opt for exploring the city on our own. This was a bit of a challenge for me since I still have not quite recovered from the “acute bronchitis” as officially diagnosed by the ship’s doctor. We took the free shuttle to the downtown area and then found our way to the platform serving the free tram which you can pick up every 30 minutes or so. (We learned today that there are more trams in Melbourne than in any other city in the world.) The free tram makes a complete loop around the center city, allowing you to hop on and hop off at will. Our big hop off point was the national museum of history and culture, a stunning, modern building with lots of glass, which was described as the largest museum in the Southern Hemisphere. Lots of fabulous exhibits about rain forests , dinosaurs and the aborigines people (who have not gotten a better deal from the Aussies than our Indians have from us). After spending a couple of hours in the museum, we decided to walk back through the city to the docks. Pretty stupid idea since I have been borderline disabled for the majority of the trip so far, but I am finally beginning to get my strength back and managed pretty well what turned out to be five miles, though I may still end up paying a price.
Melbourne is a very impressive city. With a population of about five million, it contains more that 20% of the population of the entire country and has the reputation of being the most cosmopolitan and European city in Australia. Towering glass skyscrapers are bunched into the center city area giving the skyline the look of the Emerald City of Oz. The population is much more diverse than what we observed in New Zealand with many more Asians and people with brown skin—not the diversity we have in New York or DC–but still you get the feeling of a very sophisticated, international city. The few people we chatted with on the tram platform or in the museum were all friendly, helpful and welcoming. I could definitely see how an American could feel right at home here.
When we returned to the ship around five pm, a full fledged regatta was underway with over 50 sailboats of varying sizes—but mainly small—battling 20-knot winds up wind and flying downwind under full spinnakers of red, green, yellow and various other colors. I concluded that this was their version of Wednesday night racing, and what a thrill to see it! I recall a similar thrill in Auckland when we saw two ’95 America’s Cup boats match racing in the Auckland harbor. For a serious sailor, this part of the world is about as good as it gets.
Today, our second here, we took the scheduled tour of the city, which took us again to the busy downtown area making two hour-long stops at beautiful, large city parks that seemed manicured by U.S. standards. Temperatures both days hit the average highs for the season near 70F but the weather here fluctuates wildly. Our guide told us that last week it reached 107F, and two days from now is supposed to climb to near 100 again. Most of the time, however, like New Zealand, this time of year the weather stays in the Goldilocks Zone. Average annual rainfall is 28 inches, mainly from summer downpours, well below our typical 39 inches in Washington. I chatted today with a fellow traveler who lives in California on the Monterey Peninsula, who observed that the weather we were experiencing was identical to what he gets at home.
Just starting this weekend is the Australian Open, the first of the Grand Slams, but we cast off for Sydney after dinner this evening, so we will miss it.
Bottom line: beautiful city, spectacular modern skyscrapers, fabulous parks, livable neighborhoods, and the feeling of prosperity. Certainly there must be poor neighborhoods somewhere, but our guides did not appear to know where. But all is not lost: plenty of graffiti around, a little reminder that this we are not in the Land of Oz after all.