Monday, January 26, 2009

Southern Star Observation Wheel

Looming over the horizon on the CBD's northwestern fringe is Melbourne's newest attraction, the Southern Star Observation Wheel. Our family kept track of the Wheel's construction as we drove along the Tullamarine Freeway on our way to and from the airport during the last year. There is quite a good view of the Wheel from the freeway and our children oohed and ahhed as they saw all the bits and pieces coming together. There hasn't been very much press surrounding the Wheel's construction or announcing it's completion. We just happened to be in the Docklands precinct one Friday night in November when they were holding the official launch for the Wheel.

Even after the launch was held in late November, the Wheel didn't open to the public until the 2oth of December 2008. When we found out it was open, I decided to check to see if I could find more information about it's operating hours and ticket prices online. A brief search led me to their very informative website . All the information you might ever want to know about this glorified Ferris wheel can be found on their page. My personal favourite section of the web page is the "Amazing Facts" section where I found out that the Wheel stands 120m high into the sky or about 40 stories up and it rotates at a speed of 11m per minute. That's just the tip of the iceberg, there is heaps more trivia there and it's probably a good site to visit with the kids before or after you take them on the Wheel. My kids love knowing the details.

After visiting the website and viewing the ticket prices, I was initially put off from visiting. Adult tickets are $29AUD while children are $17AUD. This means a typical family of four (with two adults and two children) would be up for a whopping $92AUD for the 30 minute ride on the Wheel. Both the Handsome Australian and I agreed that the costs were a bit prohibitive and it wasn't something we'd rush to try out. We decided that the next time we had an overseas visitor, we'd take them along to the Wheel and spring for the ride but in the meantime, we'd just admire it from the ground level.

A week or so went by and a family in our neighbourhood went for a ride on the Wheel. When I commented to my neighbour about the extravagant ticket prices, she said the tickets were expensive, but children under 5 years of age are free. This was not something that was clearly noted on their website. Since our children are both under 5, this meant if we chose to go, it would only cost us $58AUD instead of $92AUD. In comparison, it sounded like a bargain.

So we loaded our children up in the car one weekend in January and headed down to the Docklands to check out the Wheel from the inside. True to my neighbour's story, children under 5 were free and our tickets were $58AUD. The ticket lines are at the bottom level of the wheel and once purchased, you travel by escalator to the 1st level where you join the queue for the Wheel.

The Wheel itself doesn't actually stop. It keeps moving, but moves at such a slow rate, that passengers simply walk off when their ride is finished and the new passengers walk on. We were there about midday on a Saturday and there were maybe 10-15 people in front of us in the queue so we didn't have to wait long. Each cabin on the wheel holds about 20 people. We asked one of the employees if the Wheel had busier times and she remarked that it tends to get busier around 6pm heading towards dusk and sunset. Which makes sense as I suppose the views would be more colourful then.

When our turn arrived to board the cabin, we were joined by three others giving our cabin 7 passengers total. The man who guided us into the cabin wished us a "Happy Flight!" and then sealed the doors shut.

The cabins themselves are air conditioned and quite spacious. There is a single bench that sits in the middle of the cabin and floor to ceiling glass on all sides making for excellent viewing. It was also quite easy to take photos from the inside of the cabin and we could walk about freely taking in the view from different perspectives.

The views, however, are not really spectacular. There is quite a bit of construction going on in the immediate area around the Wheel and there you simply see a lot of unfinished projects. You can see the City skyline, but it wasn't very impressive in the middle of the day. Perhaps it is better at night with the lights giving it more ambiance, but both the Handsome Australian and I agreed, the Wheel was probably built on the wrong side of the city. We think it would have been better placed on the Eastern/Southeastern side where you might get glimpses of the Yarra River, the MCG, Melbourne Park and a better view of the Dandenong Ranges, etc.

As far as views of Melbourne go, I'd prefer to travel to the top of the Rialto or the Eureka Tower and take advantage of their observation decks. I think the views they offer are more interesting and in addition to the view, they give you some explanation of what you are seeing. In the Southern Star Observation Wheel, you don't learn anything about what is outside the windows. If you were a visitor to Melbourne, I don't think you'd come away with any new knowledge about the city or how things are laid out.

The Southern Star Observation Wheel is an engineering marvel and it's actual physical structure is in my opinion more interesting than any sights you might see while aboard, and you can admire that with your feet firmly planted on the ground.

In the end, I'm glad we went for the ride so we could tick it off the list, but it's not something I'll be returning to do. Our children enjoyed the ride, but thought it was a bit lengthy. 30 minutes is a long time for a 4 year old and a 2 year old. I think they'd have been just as happy with a ride on a normal Ferris wheel.

If you are visiting Melbourne for a few days, I don't think you'll get value for money at the Southern Star Observation Wheel. For my money, I'd visit the more reasonably priced Rialto Observation Deck where your ticket also includes a 20 minute film about Melbourne and I think you'll come away with a much better understanding of the physical geography and layout of this magnificent city.

*At the date of this post, operation of the Southern Star Observation Wheel has been temporarily suspended as several consecutive days of 40 degree Celcius temperatures has buckled some bracing. The Wheel will remain closed until the stucture can be fully inspected and the problems rectified. So please check the website before you go to avoid disappointment. That is, if you're still game!!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A day at the Docklands

Unique, culturally rich suburbs each with its own identity and history blend together seamlessly to form the patchwork quilt that is Melbourne. Some suburbs are steeped in history whilst others have only been on our maps more recently. One such newcomer is the Docklands Precinct just on the periphery of the city along Melbourne's almost forgotten waterfront.

The revitalisation of the Dockland's Precinct began in the early 1990s when the Victorian State Government appointed a task force to propose plans for renewing the derelict remains of a once booming port. The progress since then has been slow and steady with the construction and eventual completion of the Docklands Stadium (known currently as Telstra Dome but soon to be re branded as Etihad Stadium as sponsorship changes hands) followed by the extension of public transport links and the gradual construction of numerous residential towers with retail precincts on the ground levels. As the project has moved forward in stages, the area itself still has an "incomplete" feel to it.

There was a bit of excitement in 2002 when the first residents moved into the high rise apartments lining the waterfront in the NewQuay precinct and a handful of new restaurants and retail shops opened up, but I'd say the thrill was short lived and the neighbourhood lacked charisma and character. The buildings were new, the restaurants were unheard of and the location, although minutes from the city centre, still seemed out of the way. It wasn't a place people passed through on their way to anywhere. As a result, a great many of the restaurants struggled to make ends meet as the area was not yet a destination on the Melbourne radar.

The developers pressed forward with the plans for the area and have recently opened new sections of the Waterfront City precinct. This precinct is made up of entertainment venues, restaurants, retail outlets and the newest of Melbourne's tourist attractions--Southern Star Observation Wheel.

The Waterfront City precinct is where we spent most of our day today. Our first stop upon arrival was the Piazza where we attended a mid-morning concert by local children's entertainers, The Ticklish Allsorts.

While the audience numbers were low, the small crowd was enthusiastic and I think it's fair to say the little people amongst us enjoyed themselves thoroughly.

The Piazza has the capacity to hold 10,000 people and touts two enormous LED screens accompanied by a cutting-edge audio system which makes it an attractive spot for special events. The Piazza is lined with lots of interesting urban art. There are statues of many of Australia's most famous entertainers from Kylie Minogue to Dame Edna Everidge. Not to mention an amazing mosaic mural of hundreds of Australia's most famous faces.

You can spend a bit of time admiring the mural and trying to spot different celebrities whose likenesses have been carefully crafted out of tiny pieces of broken tile.

It is also a nice open area for the kids to run around in. Our little ones certainly had great fun romping around while the Handsome Australian and I enjoyed a few moments of an Australian Open tennis match being broadcast live on the enormous screens.

Hot and bothered from running around, the little people indicated it was time for lunch and a cool drink. We walked through the new Harbour Town shopping centre towards the Southern Star Observation Wheel. In the shadows of the immense 21st Century ferris wheel, we found a bevy of food choices. Most restaurants in this section offer casual dining options, but there are a few restaurants that offer a more formal dining experience--most notably a Chinese Yum Cha style restaurant. We chose the casual cafe chain Coffee Club as our place to refuel the little people. The food was average, the prices moderate to high and the service mixed. After our meal we decided we'd have been better off dining in the NewQuay section of the Docklands. The views are better and the menus are probably similarly priced.

The Harbour Town shopping centre is still under construction, but dozens of shops have been open for trading for several months now. The centre itself is open air by design and each shop has it's own entrance from one of the many walkways that crisscross the complex. It's lovely in the summer, but I will be interested to see how pleasant the experience is in the winter time. This part of Melbourne can be quite breezy and cold. The centre does have some shelter overhead that sticks out above the shop entrances a few metres on each side of the walkways and their appear to be heaters installed in these. So hopefully this provision will keep shoppers nice and toasty during the winter months.

The Harbour Town shopping centre seems to suffer from the same fate that the rest of the Docklands suffers from--it's not yet fully complete and as such still has little personality or identity of its own. After speaking to several shopkeepers, it appears that crowd numbers have been very hit or miss since the first shops opened several months ago. I was told that weekends seem to be the busiest period at the moment which goes to support my theory that the Docklands is a destination location and not yet a true neighbourhood with it's own organic traffic patterns.

The construction of a 14,000 square metre warehouse format store in the Waterfront Precinct by US retailer Costco seems to be the drawcard other retailers have pinned their hopes on. The popularity of this particular anchor store will, in my opinion, make or break the area. Until then, the Docklands seem to be stuck in perpetual dress rehearsal--a neighbourhood waiting for its moment in the spotlight, but still trying to work out the kinks.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Tianjin Dancing Kite Festival

I've lived in Melbourne for the past 8 years. In that time, I've learned a lot about this wonderful city. One interesting fact that I didn't know until last January, was that Melbourne has a Sister City in China. Melbourne's Chinese Sister City is Tianjin. Each year to celebrate this special relationship, the good folks at the Chinese Museum in conjunction with the City of Melbourne put on the Tianjin Dancing Kite Festival. We stumbled upon this event last year and had so much fun that we made a point of attending the festival again today.

The festival is held in the Native Garden of Royal Park in the Melbourne suburb of Parkville just on the city's northern edge. It's a gorgeous setting for a festival. There are expansive grass areas and a small pond in the centre with large shady trees throughout. Today's weather was perfect festival weather too--warm, sunny with a gentle breeze (perfect for kite flying).

The first thing we noticed when we arrived are the white tents dotting the landscape. Each tent houses one of the many activities on offer: kite making, Chinese lantern making, face painting, fortune telling, and Chinese calligraphy. There was also several performance spaces where the entertainment ranged from Tai Chi and Karate demonstrations to choirs and Dragon dancers. There was something for everyone and the best news is--it's FREE!!!

Dragon Dancers

Speaking of something for everyone, the Handsome Australian loves food and there was some of that too. There was a small selection of Chinese stirfrys and dim sims and because this is Melbourne--a coffee stand.

Our favourite part of the festival are the hands on activities. Our children love the kite making and the Chinese lantern making workshops. Each of these tents is staffed with a dozen or so volunteers who guide you through the process one on one. Most of the supplies needed to make both of these items are prepared in advance and it's just a matter of piecing everything together on the day. This means wait times aren't too bad and it doesn't take too long to complete--perfect for the short attention span most little people seem to have.

Kite Making Workshop

Our little people learn from the Kite Master

The Kite Master demonstrates the technique

The Chinese Lantern Workshop

My little one's little hands decorating her lantern
When you finish making your kite or lantern, you can take it to the Chinese Calligraphy tent where a lovely lady will write your name or a special message in beautiful Chinese Calligraphy on your kite or lantern. How special is that?

The kites that you make in the workshops aren't just for looks. They are fully functioning, if somewhat delicate, kites. There is a large open grassy field at the top of the Native Gardens where people adjourn to fly their newly constructed kites.


We had a ball flying our kites today. The kids had a great time helping us get them up and going. Then they had a go at holding the string themselves--the looks of determination on their little faces was priceless. It was also really beautiful to look up in the sky and see so many kites "dancing".

If you find yourself in Melbourne in mid-January, the Tianjin Dancing Kite Festival is definitely worth a visit. Especially if you have small children. They'll love the activities. Pack a picnic and enjoy a day of cultural celebration!

(As an aside, we waited for ages in the face painting line and finally aborted our mission after an hour long wait left us behind 8 others still waiting for a turn. The faces coming out of the tent were amazing, but they took too long and the line just didn't move. So you might skip that part next year or perhaps they'll have wised up by then and gotten faster face painters or more of them!).

The terrible queue for a face painting =(

Friday, January 9, 2009

Fairy Dust in Fitzroy Gardens

A gloriously sunny day with a nice gentle breeze, today seemed like the perfect day to go hunting for fairy dust with the little people. I packed both little ones in the car and squeezed in one of their friends and took advantage of the quiet summer streets and drove into the city. Our destination? The leafy, lush and large Fitzroy Gardens on the edge of Melbourne's CBD.

Each summer, the Fitzroy Gardens play host to a number of free events organised by the City of Melbourne. The events range from Sunset Concerts to Stargazing to Fairy Fanfare...and it's the fairies that took us there today. For the first two weeks in January, three comical fairies perform silly antics twice daily (At 10am and 12pm) near the Fairy Tree, alongside the Pavilion restaurant and it's FREE!! The children are encouraged to dress in costume and many do (predominantly as fairies).
Fairy in Pink
After we circled Fitzroy Gardens several times in search of a car park, we finally found one and slowly made our way across it's expansive grounds on foot towards the Fairy Tree. It was pretty obvious to tell which direction to head--there were dozens upon dozens of little people donning fairy wings, sparkly wands, and glistening dresses as well as a few muscly superheros mixed in. The trail of miniature fairies ended in a large grassy opening shaded by massive trees (if I was more of an arborist I'd tell you the variety...alas I spend my time here instead of studying tree varieties). Picnic blankets were the order of the day with each family sharing their own little patch of plaid. We found a spot mid-way back and sat down in the soft grass.

The Fairy Faithful
It wasn't long before the first fairy appeared. He introduced himself as Fairy Snooze and yawned continuously. He asked us if we'd seen his friends Fairy Nuff and Fairy Smart. We hadn't spotted his friends yet so we told him so. He also asked us if we'd seen any cheeky garden gnomes. Apparently these gnomes run around in the gardens taking things from the fairies and hiding them. They were naughty little creatures he told us. We hadn't spotted any of those either.

Since Fairy Snooze couldn't find his friends, he decided he'd start without them. He began by teaching us a special fairy song that would be required of us later. He explained that he and his fairy friends were going to use some magic fairy dust to grant some wishes for us later, but we'd need to be able to sing the song first. As you might imagine, this song had accompanying physical actions. The children were all very keen to follow along and practice the song with Fairy Snooze.

Once the children had the song down pat, Fairy Snooze actually, yes you guessed it, fell asleep. Hence the name. This was a perfect time for Fairy Nuff and Fairy Smart to come and wake him up. The children delighted in meeting the new fairies.
Fairy Nuff and Fairy Smart debate how to wake up Fairy Snooze
Once Fairy Snooze was awake again, the fairies began their search for the magical fairy dust which was apparently stolen by those naughty garden gnomes--of course!

The fairies taking a break from the search for the fairy dust
The rest of the show was packed full of jokes, songs and plenty of acrobatics. They did plenty of interesting things with a ladder they referred to as a "platter". Apparently fairies don't do much home improvement. Finally they successfully found the fairy dust and each child was allowed to go on a short fairy walk with Fairy Smart as the leader. At the end of the walk, Fairy Nuff and Fairy Snooze sprinkled each little person with a tiny bit of fairy dust so their wishes would come true.

The show runs for about an hour and most people seem to bring a picnic lunch or snacks along with them. Luckily for the unorganised amongst us, the Pavilion Cafe is set up to provide a proper cafe lunch, a take away coffee or even a simple sausage straight off their outdoor barbie. If you have little people, and are spending the summer in Melbourne, only the rain should keep you away from this little bit of fun in the heart of the city.
The Pavilion Cafe--a saviour with cold drinks and sausages!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Wiggles Wonderment con't

WARNING: The following post contains really average photographs. My pre-existing poor photography skills combined with a malfunctioning camera on the day made for particularly bad results. I apologise in advance.

I secured our tickets to the Wiggles December concert in Melbourne back in June. I didn't mention it to my children for quite awhile after that. My children, like most their age, struggle with the concept of time. The last thing I wanted was to be asked, "When are we going to see the Wiggles?" for months before the concert. So to avoid the nagging question, I waited until early September to break the news. When I did, I made it clear that we'd see the Wiggles at Christmas time. This way the children understood it was still a few months away. About a month prior to the concert, we started a countdown to the day. Here in Australia, children count down to big events by counting the number of "sleeps" between now and then. I don't remember counting "sleeps" when I was a kid in the USA. I remember counting down "days", but never "sleeps". My children count "sleeps" and now so do I. Some things you just have to run with.

Needless to say, the anticipation for the concert was building for several weeks prior to the event. My children were giddy at the opportunity to see the Wiggles live (although I think it's important to note they have been to previous Wiggles concerts and this wasn't their first) and secretly, so was I. I was really excited about this particular concert because I'd been so on the ball back in June, I'd managed to get us seats on the floor about six rows back from the stage. Not only that, I'd convinced the Handsome Australian to come along and his Mum and Auntie as well. This meant we had a 4:2 ratio happening--four adults to two children. Easy street!

Our day began quite early as we had to be bathed, fed, dressed and out of the house by about 9am to get to the city and find parking before the 10am concert. In the car on the way to the city there was excitement in the air. As soon as we got to the parking garage where we'd be leaving our car for the day, my youngest announced gleefully, "We are in the City! We are going to see the Wiggles."

We walked to the nearest tram stop and began to see the signs of fellow Wiggles faithful. There were Wiggles backpacks, Wiggles t-shirts, Wiggles dress up costumes (our son was decked in his Captain Feathersword outfit) and lots of little people with hopeful smiles on their faces waiting for a tram to take them to the venue. When the tram arrived, it was packed with even more Wiggles faithful--there were prams (strollers) and children, Mums and Dads, Aunts and Uncles, Grandparents--everyone it seems was on their way to see the Wiggles. We literally squeezed ourselves on to the tram in the various nooks and crannies that were remaining.

A few stops later we stepped off the tram in sheets of rain and cold wind and walked the short distance to the arena. We found our way into the arena and walked down the stairs, and down the stairs again and down, down, down until we reached the floor. It dawned on me then that these were the best seats I've ever had for any concert I've ever attended. I'm not sure if that is a sad statement about my previous concert going efforts or something to be celebrated. At any rate, the Handsome Australian gave me a big pat on the back and said, "Well done. Floor seats! I'm impressed. We're only six rows from the stage. Amazing." (This is why I love men. You can tell them something several times like, "I got us floor seats for the Wiggles and we'll be sitting six rows from the stage." and they'll never remember it. Then when they get to the event and notice the seating arrangement it's like they just discovered it themselves. "Wow! Aren't we lucky?" Yes everything is always new to them.) My Mother-in-law was also impressed with the good seats and the kids were thrilled with how close we were to the stage.

Immediately, the two little ones began pointing at the stage and the various backdrops waiting in the darkness for the Wiggles to appear.

We saw their instruments sitting to one side waiting to be played.Behind these billowing strips of fabric that were glowing yellow was a backdrop that looked like a circus meets a fairytale castle. It was bright, colourful and really, really festive. Our entire group couldn't wait to see what kind of magic the Wiggles would perform on this stage.

Unfortunately, these were the last two photos for which my camera was actually functioning. Once the concert began, my camera went fuzzy and took nothing but blurry psychedelic photographs. It was a sad, sad day for my camera.

Camera troubles aside, the lights went up and on the stage ballerinas and gymnasts came prancing and tumbling out on the stage. The children's eyes lit up in amazement. The costumes, the dancing, the flips--they were taking it all in. Then the crowd let out a big cheer of excitement when the Big Red Car came cruising on the stage carrying the four most important people there--Murray, Jeff, Sam and Anthony aka The Wiggles!! My youngest had a smile from ear to ear. I'm not sure I've ever seen him more excited. At one point he was actually physically shaking with excitement.

The concert continued with plenty of music, silly antics and a cast of colourful supporting characters who are loved just as dearly as the Wiggles themselves. Since we were so close the the stage, our children were able to leave their seats and dance in the aisles and up near the front of the stage--it was their own little Wiggles mosh pit! Our oldest danced her little heart out and did a wonderful job of protecting her brother from the various obstacles one encounters in a Wiggles mosh pit. She's a good sister.

In the meantime, I looked over at the Handsome Australian who had a big smile on his face. He wasn't singing any of the songs, but he seemed to be pretty pleased to be there. My mother-in-law was the same--she was very excited to see the children enjoying themselves so much. The Great Auntie and I on the other hand, were probably almost as excited as the children themselves. I caught myself singing along to most of the songs and dancing in my seat. I couldn't help myself (when you've listened to as much Wiggles as I have, it's almost impossible not to sing all the words). I had a huge smile on my face for several reasons--my kids were having a ball and it was great to see, my husband who rarely finds himself with the time to come to these events was there and able to witness their joy as well, my mother-in-law and the Great Auntie were enjoying themselves, and I can't help it, but I LOVE the Wiggles!

Yes, I just said I LOVE the Wiggles. Honestly, never before have I been to a concert where you could see such enthusiasm and enjoyment on the faces of the performers themselves. It is so obvious that the Wiggles and their entire cast and crew really do love what they do. Not only that, but they are humble and very grateful. I've been to three Wiggles concerts now with my children and each time at the very end, the Wiggles thank the parents and carers for making their way to the concert, buying the tickets and bringing the children along. It's a heartfelt thank you and it makes you feel appreciated. As a parent, I like their style.

All good things must come to an end though. The concert finally finished and we made our way out of the arena. Smiles plastered on every one's faces. In the back of my mind I was thinking, "I hope my kids still love the Wiggles next year--it would be a bit embarrassing coming without them!"

Monday, January 5, 2009

January in Melbourne

Each year our lives get more and more hectic in the lead up to Christmas. I've written here before about the busy social calendar most Aussies keep in the months preceding the big day in December. Not only is everyone busy trying to catch up with one another and attending end of year/holiday parties, but they are also running around preparing for their family Christmas celebrations. The shopping centres are packed to the rafters. People are arguing over car parking. The local fruit and veg shops have long queues and people are frantically placing Christmas orders with their local butchers. The city itself is abuzz with activity as citizens rush to and fro meeting, greeting, shopping and collecting all that is necessary to celebrate Christmas and ring in the New Year. It's a busy, busy time.

Then as if by magic on the stroke of midnight New Year's Eve, the city goes silent--well, maybe not right at midnight there would be a lot of revelers still out then, but sometime in the wee small hours of the morning of New Year's Day, everything quietens down. If you are out on the roads during any time of day--peak hour included--there is very little traffic. You'd expect such solitude on a public holiday like New Year's Day, but this tranquility lasts for several weeks as the vast majority of the population heads for the coastal towns of regional Victoria.

People leave the city in droves in the post Christmas/New Year period and spend several weeks away playing in the seaside towns that line the Victorian coast. This is my favourite time in Melbourne. The weather is beautiful, the roads are empty, the shops are quiet and I've got the place mostly to myself! It's fantastic. It's a great time for barbecues in your back garden or long afternoons sipping lattes at your favourite cafe. Ahh, the serenity. It's like the whole city is experiencing one long exhale after the insanity that was the Christmas period. I love sitting back, relaxing and enjoying it all.

This is a great time to take advantage of all that is on offer in this beautiful city. Botanical gardens, parks, picnic spots--take your pick there is no one else around so you can go anywhere you like. The Melbourne City council runs lots of free events through January and February including many wonderful things for children to attend in and around the city. We normally fill our days with many of these events--no fighting for parking, no crowds, no battling the traffic on the roads. It really couldn't be more pleasant.

In a few weeks time the Australian Tennis Open will begin and our nights will be filled with captivating tennis matches and plenty of ice cream. Melbournians will slowly return from their coastal holidays looking tanned, and relaxed. People will return to work and the kids will start another year of school...but between now and then, I've got the run of the place and while the cats are away, the mice will play!!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year!

G'day from the future! It's officially 2009 and things look very promising here in Australia. Best wishes to you and yours as you ring in the New Year around the globe!