TRAVEL: Discovering Melbourne laneways
FOR a frenzied minute there I thought I was in Bangkok.
The laneway was so packed with people it was shoulder-to-shoulder shuffle. And the tantalising smell of food was everywhere: pungent garlic, roast meats, rich coffee.
Then there were the tables on the narrow footpath, dangling precariously onto the laneway, crammed with people sipping beer and eating noodles.
The queues to squeeze into hole-in-the-wall eateries were long and patient. Inside people sat on crates at tiny tables, brushing against each other every time they sipped or slurped.
But it wasn't Bangkok. Nor was it Hong Kong or Singapore. It was Melbourne. Once staid, now so eclectic and hip it almost hurts.
We were doing a self-guided walking tour of Melbourne's now celebrated laneways, once out-of-sight tracks that served as back entrances to properties facing big streets, now revitalised to bring a global-city beat to Melbourne.
We began at Federation Square with a map that took us first down Hosier Lane with its colourful street art and hundreds of tourists (including us) taking selfies in front of the vibrant walls.
We had been in Hosier Lane just five minutes before we dipped into MoVida Spanish restaurant, all warm wood and soft lights and welcoming tapas, where a glass of pink Spanish wine and plate of salt-cod croquettes had us declaring it to be our favourite restaurant on earth.
But we had many a lane to do, so it was quickly back into the throng.
Next, Degraves St with its cafe society and juice-bar vibe, where the hiss of the espresso machines has replaced the noise of William Degraves' steam flour mill that pumped away in the 1850s.
After that, into Centre Place, and this is where the Bangkok buzz overwhelmed us. We squeezed through the masses, stopping at the Soup Kitchen where the pay-it-forward philosophy lets you make a small donation to have your name put on a post-it note on the wall for a homeless person to later come by and enjoy a hot mug of spicy Moroccan chicken soup or Middle Eastern meatballs.
After that good deed, it was up some dodgy stairs to Hell's Kitchen to catch our breath over a glass of pinot gris and look down at the crush of the passing throng.
We had based ourselves at Fraser Place in Exploration Lane, a boutique property within a few footsteps of everything fabulous that Melbourne offers. No need to get the car out. Fraser Place studios and apartments have full kitchen facilities (not that you'd want to cook with all that cuisine outside) and make the perfect sanctuary after the frantic pace of the city streets.
A rooftop terrace to take your own drinks gives panoramic city views and a charming domestic touch with pots of herbs flourishing up in the sky. Front desk staff will give you step-by-step instructions to get to some of the more hidden lanes and anonymous bars, obviously delighted to share Melbourne's secrets and myriad charms.
Indigenous art throughout the hotel relaxes despite its vibrancy. We especially loved the spacious bathroom with its L'Occitane products, and, a relief, no technology required to work the shower, as is so often the case in new properties. Just a simple on/off tap and a high-pressure shower at a perfect temperature.
We could have spent a week discovering more lanes, even though we felt satisfied with our time in the beautiful 19th century Block Arcade, the elegant Royal Arcade and the bustling Hardware Lane with its cobbled stones and cafe umbrellas and specialty shops.
Never before had we felt so alive in Melbourne even though we lived there for many decades in the past.
Fraser Place Melbourne, 19 Exploration Lane, Melbourne.
The writer was a guest at Fraser Place.