The Wonders of Oz: Penguin Parades, Foodie Finds & Off-the-Grid Awesomeness
The planet's only continent and country in one, Australia is nothing if not huge and varied. So if any place was going to deliver the dual-personality vacation I found myself craving recently, Oz was. I wanted to get caught up in the buzz of a big, vibrant city -- then go virtually off the grid, with nothing but vast wilderness surrounding me.
A plan started to take shape: In Melbourne, I'd culture-binge on Insta-worthy street art, architecture and ethnic eats; then, I'd hop one of the surprisingly inexpensive and direct one-hour flights to Tasmania (Virgin Australia has four daily), where I'd zen out among the remote, primordial hiking trails and national parks. Perfection.
And I did get the perfect town-and-country combo. Just not the one I'd expected. Tasmania turns out have a shockingly cosmopolitan side -- and Melbourne is far closer than I'd realized to all kinds of amazing nature and outdoor adventure in Victoria. Clearly, there was no way not to cheat on my own vacation plans.
So read on -- and let the best surprises of my trip serve as intel for yours.
Having wooed me with its fabled feasting ops, both literal and visual, Melbourne didn't disappoint. The food scene is really a vast smorgasbord of sub-scenes, taking you from morning coffee to late-night cocktails -- with every conceivable stop in between, whether for Malaysian street food at the Queen Victoria Market or a high-concept tasting menu at the award-winning Attica (best-named dish: an Imperfect History of Ripponlea as Told by Tarts).
And Melbourne's eye feast is no less bountiful, beginning with the Indigenous art at the National Gallery of Victoria and ending with the street art that's happening in real time down the hidden alleyways of Hosier Lane and Batman Street. Still, I found that many of the area's most remarkable attributes were waiting to be discovered beyond city limits.
Surf, soak, repeat
Turning the idea of a snoozy suburb on its head, Melbourne's St. Kilda is a warm weather go-to spot for shredding some waves, jamming out at a free beach concert, riding a roller coaster at Luna Park and soaking in the heated seawater pool at the St. Kilda Sea Baths. Just down the road sits friendly rival Brighton Beach, home to the iconic "bathing boxes" -- a series of 82 eye-popping beach huts that date to the early 1900s.
Wining gets you everywhere
Move over, Tuscany. It looks like you've got some fierce competition in the wine arena. Victoria's booming wine country, the Yarra Valley, is just under an hour's drive and boasts more than 70 vineyards, with a few breweries and cideries to boot.
From small-production wineries you won't find in the U.S. to big, bubbly names like Domaine Chandon, this region goes down smooth. For vino-loving early risers, an already above-average day of wine tasting in the Victorian countryside can get kicked up a notch by ballooning over the valley. Bottoms way-way-up.
1, 2, 3 ... just a few hops from the CBD
Phillip Island, home to a thriving penguin colony, is only a 90-minute drive from downtown Melbourne (or CBD in local parlance). After a hard day's fishing, these adorable aquatic birds emerge from the surrounding waters and waddle along the shore at sunset in what has come to be known as the Penguin Parade. The "little penguins" you'll see -- yes, that's their actual scientific name --are the smallest of the world's penguin species. Feel free to let out an "awwwww" now. And expect to do so every two seconds in person.
The bonus? Several more of Australia's most iconic animals are just around the corner. The island's Koala Conservation Center lets you gaze at its cuddly and perpetually sleepy inhabitants from close range. And on your way back to Melbourne, you can stop at the Moonlit Sanctuary Wildlife Conservation Park -- home to kangaroos and wallabies, among others -- to hand-feed any marsupials with the munchies.
Take a hike
Fun fact: the 12 Apostles aren't just biblical figures. Along Victoria's gorgeous Great Ocean Road, you'll find a local limestone version -- though only eight of the original 12 majestic pillars still stand. The most rewarding way to reach them? Via the Great Ocean Walk, a 60-mile, multi-day trek that starts in Apollo Bay.
Not that Victoria wants for shorter walks with stunning scenery. A few hours inland, you'll find Grampians National Park, a mountain- and falls-filled nature preserve with plenty of day hikes.
Get a Taste of Tasmania
With nearly 20 percent of its land designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site -- and 19 national parks that range from from riparian mountain enclaves to lush Fern Gully-esque forests -- Tasmania is known for breathtaking wilderness and one-of-a-kind beasties (from wombats to Tasmanian devils who, for the record, are a billion times cuter than a certain Looney Toons character would have you believe). And while these elements easily made the remote island-state a favorite of mine, revelations of a burgeoning foodie scene, world-class resorts and out-of-this-world museums caught me off guard ... in a good way.
Luxury where you least expect it
Enveloped by granite mountains, Freycinet National Park is home to not only the secluded, sandy shores of Wineglass Bay -- but a lot more improbably, a five-star resort. Saffire Freycinet is the sort of place where you can wade in a nearby estuary as you're served oysters from the local waters -- then reflect on the day's deliciousness from the private plunge pool back at your suite.
For a more rustic take on luxury in the wild, check out Pumphouse Point, a converted 1940s hydroelectric project on Lake St. Clair, where your water views come with roaring fireplaces, elevated farm fare and -- for fans of starry, starry nights -- alfresco soaking tubs. There's no better place to reward yourself if you've just finished hiking the famed, 40-mile Overland Track.
Museums that give new meaning to underground art
Spiral your way down to subterranean levels as you search for the entrance to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart's groundbreaking, boundary-pushing museum, where modern installations can be found just chillin' with ancient Egyptian sarcophagi. And if you find yourself not wanting to leave, like I did, stay overnight in the luxe Pavilions, which are named for notable Australian artists and architects, decorated with artwork from the museum -- and stocked with wine and beer that's made on site.
Farm-to-table gone wild
The Tassie food scene has its own version of farm to table -- paddock to plate -- whose adherents tap the best local purveyors, from oyster farms to fromageries, to create amazing menu offerings. Take Launceston's Stillwater, a restaurant built in an 1830s flour mill, where local ingredients go gloriously global, as in the Mt Gnomon Farm pork belly with Szechuan and black vinegar, pickled radishes and burnt cucumber. Meanwhile, at MONA's the Source, the 10,000 resident wines pair perfectly with the likes of smoked lamb shoulder from nearby Flinders Island. There's even a series of food and wine festivals here, from February's Festivale (with great live entertainment) to July's Taste of the Tamar (vino-centric) to December's Taste of Tasmania Food and Wine Festival (the granddaddy of them all).
Whisky...with a chaser
Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Tasmania anymore. Maybe Scotland? Or so I found myself thinking when I found out about the Tasmanian Whisky Trail, which boasts 17 distilleries -- among them, the award-winning Lark (the state's first single-malt whisky producer).
But have no fear; the beer is also here (this is Australia, after all). In fact, the nation's oldest continually operating brewery -- Cascade -- began near the base of Mt. Wellington in 1824. Plenty of craft brewers have since bubbled onto the scene, so for the full picture, pair a Cascade tasting with, say, a Farmer's Tan or Wet Hop American Summer from Hobart's Shambles Brewery.