Australia is a traveller’s dream. It is a modern country with a fully functioning democracy, English-speaking, with a warm and sunny climate, beautiful, coastal beaches, out of this world scenery, rich in resources, and not too many people. What more could a traveller ask for?
There are many different ways to see this vast country but because it’s expensive it can be a daunting task for a solo traveller on a budget like me to decide how to do it. I realised that the only way to see as much as I wanted in just under a month would be to fly the cheapest ways possible.
My intention at first was to fly to Sydney using that as a base to start and finish. However, that plan flew out the window when in December, while researching cheap flights to Australia, a fantastic opportunity with Jet Star Airlines popped up out of nowhere. My take off point was Singapore and if you want to find out why, check out my post Travel in 2018: Fulfilling a Dream. Taking this opportunity to fly to Melbourne first made sense because from there I could easily fly up to Alice Springs, on to Cairns, and then to Sydney, my departure point. Seizing this opportunity would be a good start towards helping to keep me within my budget, knowing that other things such as accommodations and food would be double the price of travelling in SE Asia.
All was good now that I had a plan. After a stress free stay in Singapore (You can check out my post entitled Four Days in Singapore )I was looking forward to my upcoming trip to the Land of Oz. On the day before my departure, I received an e-mail from Jet Star that my 8:15 p.m. flight was delayed until 5:30 the following morning. This meant I had to find a place to sleep for a few hours at least. My hotel came to the rescue with an additional charge for the extra hours I would need. On top of that was the stress of dealing with the place I had booked in Melbourne which had a ‘no refund’ policy. They did promise to hold my room until I arrived. If I wanted compensation, I would have to get it from the airline. The trouble was I didn’t take out cancellation insurance because it’s costly. This is what budget travellers do. We take our chances and hope that the worst won’t happen, and if it does, we pay for it. It’s always a gamble.
I had only three full days to explore this cultural capital of Australia which has always competed for the number one spot with Sydney to be not just the cultural capital, but the capital of the country. The war on who should get the coveted title was finally settled by the decision to build a new city as the capital which is Canberra.
My accommodation choice while in Melbourne was a small, country-style inn of some character in St. Kilda, one of Melbourne’s precincts. St Kilda is a beach side resort, not far from the CBD (central business district). With this location and its apparent old world charm, I booked a room at Little St. Kilda with booking.com. I arrived tired and cranky after a long 11 hour trip with little to eat except the few snacks I brought with me. Discount airlines give you nothing except your seat. You pay for everything including earphones if you wish to listen to music. To add insult to injury, they then charge you for the music!
When I finally found Little St. Kilda, two hours after my arrival, I couldn’t get in. The door was locked and the house was in darkness. “How could this be the place I booked?” I asked myself. This looked like a private home with no one in it. There was no sign or even a house number. I looked around for a doorbell in the dark and instead found a box with numbers on it. But wait, underneath it was a button which looked promising so I pressed it, to which a voice responded telling me to use my code number. “Code number, what code number,” I yelled. “The one we sent you,” said the calm, slightly condescending voice. “I did not receive any messages from anyone about this!” I yelled back. Realising I am starting to come apart at the seams, the voice quickly gave me the four digit code to punch in. Barely able to see the numbers, I have to trust I am hitting the right ones. With my first attempt nothing happens so I try again. “Wait for the click and then push the door,” he barks. Finally, there is a faint click and I push. I’m in! I turn left as the voice directed and find before me a long, elegant hallway with an inviting living room at the end. Where is the check-in counter, I wonder? How naive of me. This is no ordinary hotel. There is not a human in sight to greet me or to show me to my room. Now what do I do? Is this some kind of joke? Then it dawns on me that this is one of those ‘do it yourself’ check-ins similar to what you might encounter when staying at an Airbnb. The only option was to make myself comfortable on the inviting sofa until someone came along. If no one came, I thought, I could stretch out on this comfy sofa for my first night’s sleep. Thank goodness I had the good sense to stop on my way to this place for a bite to eat. At least I wouldn’t have to go to bed hungry. While pondering this rather bizarre situation, I realised the voice over the intercom had to come from somewhere in the house so in that case he would come shortly to take me to my designated room. I would just have to be patient!
It seemed like an eternity before a young chap appeared to ask if I was happily settled into my room. “What room?” I asked in disbelief. “The Marina Room noted in the e-mail you were sent,” he replied. By this time I was totally baffled and wondered if I was loosing my marbles. I had been checking my e-mails and found nothing from Little St. Kilda. It wasn’t until a few weeks later I found that much-needed e-mail with all the check-in instructions in my spam box.
Once I got into my charming room, I quickly forgot my woes of getting into it. I was just thankful for a comfortable bed to lay down on for a good night’s sleep. As well as the great bed and other amenities such as a fridge and a kettle for making tea, there was also a well-equipped kitchen nearby to prepare my breakfasts in the morning and dinners at night. Dining out in Australia is very expensive so this is the only way to go if you are on a budget.
Unfortunately, other unexpected problems popped up during my stay concerning the final bill. An additional $40 for cleaning fees had been added and no allowance had been made as I had requested for my missed night. Never have I heard of a cleaning fee for a hotel or guest house on Booking.com. On Airbnb it is clearly visible as a part of the cost. Then I got it! The owners were cutting their costs by listing with Booking instead of Airbnb because it’s cheaper for them. I checked out their website again and found to my surprise that there was mention of a cleaning fee but for less than what I was charged.
Clearly I was not too happy with my stay at Little St. Kilda. My visit had already been cut short by a day, and once there all I seemed to get was grief. My only contact with the hosts was by intercom, phone and e-mail. The young chap, who gave me an orientation of the place, was seldom to be seen afterwards. He apparently was a long-term guest enlisted by the owners to deal with problem guests like me who had difficulties with their checking-in process. From then on I was on my own to find my way around. Fortunately, the Aussies I sought help from were more than happy to comply.
When the time came for me to give my review to Booking about my stay, I realised I didn’t have much to say that was good. I was all set to give them a bad review which I rarely do since I always pick places based on good testimonials which never have let me down . Yet this place which had a 9 out of 10 didn’t come close for me. The only way to handle it was to let them know of my discontent. I did and wasn’t too surprised that after “some consultation” they would give me a refund for my missed night. In the end, they got a decent review from me, however, I did suggest they try to improve their check-in procedure and make sure a light was on for those who were checking in after dark.
My first day in Melbourne was spent just getting to know the area of St. Kilda which I read was once a seedy area of nightclubs, prostitutes, and crime. This is certainly not true now as it has morphed into an up and coming area of trendy homes and restaurants.
However, before I set out to explore, I needed to find a place for breakfast. It was at least a ten minute walk to the centre of St. Kilda. When I got to the busiest cross street, I decided this would be the best place to look. I guessed correctly because what I found almost blew me away. It was not just the proliferation of restaurants and cafes, but in the midst of all of them were at least a half-dozen cake shops strung out in a row one after the other. Never have I ever seen such a display of mouth-watering sweets. Most of them offered good coffee and breakfast so I decided to try one out. I was famished so opted for poached eggs on toast. No butter on the toast and a fairly middling cup of coffee didn’t make much of an impression especially at a price of $11. As I was leaving, I made a promise to get to the Woolworth’s or Woolie’s* as the Aussie say before they closed to buy some food to make my own breakfasts.
Melbourne can boast of having some of Australia’s nicest beaches and St. Kilda is lucky enough to have one of them. With the first glimpse of that beach, all my stress from the past few days just melted away. Finally I had found one of the reasons for my coming to Australia. It was a sunny but windy day so not overly inviting for a swim, but I found the solitude I needed by sitting there on the sand watching the balloons and surfers. I was also able to walk along the beach via a boardwalk that gave me the feeling of being in the country even though in the distance I could see Melbourne’s skyscrapers.
My remaining two days were spent exploring the CBD ( Central Business District). With the help of a Miki card which is free pass that can be topped up for any amount depending on what you are planning to use it for, I managed to get around to see a few places of note. My first stopping place was the Melbourne Museum which you can read about in Exploring the Spiritual Heart of Australia.
There was far too much to see in just two days and getting to these places wasn’t always easy to do. I have to admit their transit system was confusing, not just for me, a visitor, but even to some of the Aussies because I kept getting different stories of how to use the card. Some stops required you to tap for getting on and off, while for others you only needed to tap getting on. Then there were the free trams which would take you around the centre. Great idea but many of the people I asked weren’t sure just where to link on to them or even which buses qualified. Such conflicting stories I did not need so opted in the end to hoof it.
I love old buildings with outstanding architecture which Melbourne has in abundance. The State Library Victoria is one of them which I found the time to visit and was glad I did. The reading room with its magnificent dome and soaring glass was one of the largest in the world when it opened in 1913. It’s now one of the most photographed sites in Australia.
However, putting aside the architectural splendor of this building, the second most interesting thing about this library is its abundance of art and memorabilia on the state of Victoria. Here I learned all about Australia’s infamous bushranger, Ned Kelly, an Irish man of poor background, who has become the stuff of legend to most of the country. His rogue life and the discrimination he endured turned him into the kind of criminal you could not hate no matter what he did. An articulate man despite no education, he left letters which were on display stating his concern for the under privileged. In addition, there was his suit of armour which he wore on some of his killing forays to reveal his bad boy side. He would do anything so long as he could get retribution for the poor at the expense of the rich gold diggers. Not surprising that he has become a symbol of all the things that were wrong in Australian at that time.
Another attraction in Melbourne is the lovely Yarra River where you can take a boat trip or walk along its meandering course lined with numerous parks and a huge Botanical Garden. I chose to do neither since my feet would not allow it. Taking the time to sit there with the ducks was enough for me. As I gazed out over the river, I recalled a similar scene many years ago in Cambridge, England where expert oarsmen plied their skiffs along that river. I realised that this was just one of the ways that Melbourne still reveals its British heritage.
The following day I had to leave for my next stop…Alice Springs. By now I was beginning to get a better feel for this massive country and the people. Melbourne taught me a valuable lesson as I came to grips with my rough start at Little St. Kilda. Australians really are true pioneers in a sense. Their approach seems to be that everyone, including tourists, must step up to the plate. We’ll help you but you must help yourself, too. Ask us the questions and we will answer them the best we can, but don’t expect us to read your minds. That was my first impression but I knew there would be more.
* Woolworth’s is one of the largest chain of supermarkets in the country and Woolies is what they fondly call it.
Some additional shots of Melbourne