MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — We were not altogether happy to leave Melbourne and explore the Great Ocean Road.
So we checked out, stowed our bags and stayed a little longer, walking to one of the many places we had not yet visited: Queen Victoria Market, open since the 1880s and the largest open-air market in the Southern Hemisphere.
The general-merchandise section reminded us of markets in Mexico. Thinking of Torsten’s experience in Guadalajara’s Mercado Libertad, Beth said, “This might not be the best place to buy a genuine leather belt.” There was a lot of cheap stuff, none of it very appealing.
But what does Melbourne excel at? Food! In the delicatessen hall, there was an eye-boggling selection of breads, cheeses, olives, honey, fresh juices, cured meats and a few things we wish we could take with us — handmade pierogi, craft beer and marinated baby octopus for Beth, loaves of bread for Torsten. Despite having had a huge breakfast, he did make room for a Nutella and banana pastry.
The meat and fish hall was a treat, too. One stand offered chicken in any variation imaginable: plain, breaded, marinated, marinated on skewers. At a mussel stand, topped by a giant opened shell, you could buy them already steamed in various styles.
Not for the first time, we wistfully envisioned a whole vacation in Melbourne doing nothing but sitting around at sidewalk cafes and in markets, sampling and people-watching.
A very friendly Aussie struck up a conversation after Torsten apologized for blocking his path. Apparently, the combination of a New Zealand shirt and American accent piqued his curiosity.
He and his wife were from Anglesea on the Great Ocean Road and drive to Melbourne every two weeks to stock up on fresh produce and fish. They said we should pick up some fresh fruit, too. We did as told and bought white peaches, nectarines and a pint of ripe strawberries.
Time was running short, so we made a quick turn through the food court. As soon as we entered, we realized we should have come here for at least one dinner. It had live piano music even in the middle of the day, it was filled with light and you could see all of the enticing food (Beth loves that).
Another attraction (or distraction) was the painting of 100 Variety Entertainers from Australia, featuring some surprising names we had associated with England.
As we walked back, we stopped to watch a game of netball, possibly struck by the unusual sight of balding men — Melbourne is such a young city, we had barely seen anyone who was middle-aged. It turned out to be one of many Active Melbourne leagues. We didn’t understand the rules, but we noticed the refs whistled a lot and nobody scored a basket.
Finally, it was time to pick up our car — almost two hours late. We were reminded of that by an Avis clerk who told us they could have given away our car, but didn’t. Lucky us!
She was by far the chattiest car-rental clerk we’d met, and she gave us all of the usual information and more, including a warning against driving the Great Ocean Road after dark, when all of the kangaroos and wallabies come out — way too dangerous, she said. Many words later, we picked up a roomy, dark-gray Camry and drove to the hotel to pick up our bags.
Torsten wasn’t looking forward to making one of the crazy hook-turns he’d seen cars using around tram lines: For right turns, they pull into the far left and wait until the light turns red before making the right turn. Luckily, our route leaving town didn’t include one of those.
Once out of town, Torsten enjoyed driving a 10-lane freeway, after all of the two-lanes in New Zealand. People were going 20 over the speed limit instead of 30 under, which he thought quite refreshing.
In Torquay, we stopped to walk on the beach. Torquay is Australia’s surfing capital and home of Rip Curl and the Australian National Surfing Museum. And boy, was there wind! That day, the kiteboarders were having more fun than the surfers, who were mostly beginners in a class. The boarders were going fast, often jumping high over the waves.
Beth wasn’t too fond of the stiff wind, which could push you over if your feet weren’t firmly planted. So we ditched our plans to sit in a cafe and have a cappuccino. Walking back to the car, we stopped to see a re-creation of the wooden figurehead of the Inverlochy, which was retrieved after the ship sank in 1902 but disappeared in the 1950s.
Near Lorne, a wooden Great Ocean Road sign was mounted over the highway. Lorne marked the start of the tourist stretch, with the first camping park we’d seen in a while, plus cute shops, old-fashioned sea baths, a stone pavilion and the 1875 Grand Pacific Hotel, newly restored with full gingerbread features.
We crawled on to Apollo Bay, often stuck behind cars going well below the speed limit and campervans whose drivers were ignoring or couldn’t read the many signs advising slower drivers to pull into the many bays. This drove Torsten crazy.
The scenery was gorgeous, though. The road hugged cliffs, rising and dipping above river mouths and bays where the pounding surf created a solid blanket of white foam.
Finally, we reached town and found our motel, where our room had a strong, unpleasant smell — from cleaning agents, we hoped. So we opened the balcony door and hoped the smell would dissipate while we were at dinner.
On a Tuesday night, little Apollo Bay was dead, except in the few restaurants that were open. It came down to a brewery with a boring and overpriced menu or an Italian place called Casalinga, which was slammed with customers.
We decided the best bet was takeaway pizzas, which took a while to get but were worth it. Beth had a mushroom, goat cheese and sage pizza with a Hairyman pale ale, and Torsten had a lamb, red onion and barbecue sauce pizza with a passionfruit Bundaberg. Good enough.