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Prayers in Kerala and imagining my Royal Past :)

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The next day it was an early start and off to Guruvayur Temple. The temple was a good 3 hours ( and a little extra ) away from our hotel and it was important that we got an early start.The presiding deity in the Garbhagraha (central shrine) is Mahavishnu and is supposed to be over 5000 years old! The temple is dedicated to Lord Krishna. The temple has an enormous following and is very holy and was one of the main reasons for my trip. The rules of the temple are strict.

  • You must be Hindu
  • Men must wear mundus and go bare chested.
  • Women must wear skirts or saris or salwar kurtas
  • No shoes or footwear is allowed
  • No photographs allowed!( so the one below is off a website!)

The queues are enormous and the time you get to see the deity(the darshan) is very short. But with the amount of faith this temple has among devotees – the lines are never too long and the Darshan always special!

And then it was off to Thrissur where my father was born. My father had spent several years in Thrissur and our Tharavad (ancestral) house was in Thrissur. It was wonderful to relive some of his memories.

We got to see Ratnavilas a palace that my great-great grand mother – Parukutty Nethyar Amma built and lived in after her husband died! My mother had also visited and lived here after her marriage and i too had visited as a baby! Now unfortunately it had been sold to a hotel but even then you could see perfectly beautiful wooden staircases and gorgeous windows- remnants of an incredible time gone by! My parents spent time reminiscing about Ratnavilas and there were so many fun anecdotes and incredible memories- I wished that I’d been a little older when I’d visited just to share some of the history!

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And then it was off to the Town Hall built by my great grandfather V.K. Aravindaksha Menon who was the second son of the Maharaja and Chief Engineer of Cochin State. The building from the outside seemed almost as good as new and we were very delighted.

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The famous Vadakunnathan Temple is in the middle of the huge Thrissur Circle which has a diameter of a mile. The temple is very powerful and dedicated to Lord Shiva.The statue of Shiva is in the form of a huge lingam and is not visible. It is covered under a mound of ghee, formed by the daily prayers with ghee over the years. A devotee looking into the sanctum can now see only a 16-foot-high mound of ghee embellished with thirteen cascading crescents of gold and three serpent hoods at top. Legend says that Tipu Sultan while he was invading Cochin State tied his horse in front of this temple not heeding the curses and warnings of the priests. As he did so, news came to him that his capital of Srirangapatnam (near Mysore) had been invaded by the British. He left immediately heading back to Mysore and was killed in battle.

Driving thru Thrissur you cannot but help notice the statue of my Great great grandfather the Maharaja in the middle of a busy junction and despite the fact that there was no way I could get out from the car(the roads were that busy)- I kept clicking and clicking!

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A quick bite and a lot of shopping later , we headed back towards the hotel happily tired and very nostalgic.

I know I wish I’d been born during the Maharaja’s time. I think I’d be a super Royal :)!

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Reliving my Royal History in Kerala

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My trip to Kochi was special for so many reasons! As you know my Father’s Great Grandfather was the first Maharaja of Cochin State and though Kingdoms and royalty cease to exist in India any more; many of the places in and around Kochi bear a great amount of historical significance for my family and a great amount of nostalgia for my Father. We visited palaces and homes where his parents were born, prayed at the same temples where coronations took place and walked the same ground my ancestors walked years ago. This was a very special trip.

It was also special because it was the first trip where my parents were traveling with Aditya and I. We all travel so much but with Cookie (my pet cocker spaniel and the love of our lives) at home ; my parents always baby sit her while we travel- hence though my sis has traveled with them lots– us…never! But now that Niks, my sister has a puppy of her own, I finally gave up my parental rights for 5 days and decided to take the leap and travel with my parents and husband to Kerala.

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Now these posts on Kerala are going to be several and documented! The trip was amazing and the things to see are too many to fit in to a single post.

Our trip started in Kochi at the Taj Malabar. A quick check in and lunch later , we were off on our first adventure.Our first trip was to St. Francis church,originally built in 1503, is the oldest European church in India. Vasco da Gama, died in Kochi in 1524 and his body was originally buried in this church. It is only much later that his remains were moved to Lisbon.

Kochi has many churches and each one more beautiful than the next. But when you walk in to St. Francis church you feel an overwhelming sense of calm. Tour operators are quietly talking about the history, pockets of people are praying and there is a warm goodness in this Church which made it so very personal and special!

And then it was off to Mattancherry Palace. Mattancherry Palace also known as the Dutch Palace. Created in typical Kerala style architecture with a courtyard in the middle, this palace has portraits of the Rajas and Maharjas , palanquins, stamps and other restored artifacts.

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Because of Achan’s (Father, in Malayalam) family name and our history ,we were allowed photographs in a place which usually doesn’t allow any photography at all. With an entrance tarrif of barely Rs. 5 per person, the palace is still spotlessly clean, being restored beautifully and was an absolute treat. Seeing paintings of my Great- great grand father and Stamp paper with his picture on them was wonderful. I have copies at home which are framed, but the fact that they were up there , for the world to see made me proud to be a Palat ( even more proud than I usually am!)

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And then it was a 5 minute walk to Jew town. The roads are peppered with shops which sell incredible lamps, diyas, basins and even life size idols of our Gods and our 5 minute walk almost took an hour as we stopped and marveled at some of the most gloriously restored antique pieces!

A spot of shopping later and a warm cappuccino at Jew Town and we called it an afternoon and headed back to the hotel!

Best Times To Travel-: Winter- November to February….! Beautiful weather

What you’ll love most-: How simple life is, how uncomplicated the people are and how beautiful unspoiled nature can be.

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The Royal Touch at the Taj Faluknama Palace Hyderabad

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The Taj Falaknuma Palace was a hotel I chose to stay on on a whim. It had just opened and I was curious! I had stayed in all the iconic Taj Palaces across the country and this was a hotel I had heard amazing things about…so after a show in Hyderabad , we decided to check in for the night at this iconic hotel!Falaknuma Palace is also known as the ’mirror of the sky‘ because at 2000 feet, it was built in the clouds and reflects the ever-changing moods of the sky.

Driving thru the old city of hyderabad you cannot but help see this magnificent beauty in white perched on a hill staring at the bustling city below. Calm, peaceful and detached – a beautiful painting from an era gone by… The chauffeur pointed out the hotel and it was beautiful just looking at it from afar. As you go to the gates, the car is stopped and you have the option to travel by a golf cart type buggy or horse carriage. We chose the horse carriage and enjoyed the horse hoof patter up the walkway to the entrance of the glorious hotel.

Showered by flower petals on our arrival , we were ushered into our suite….If you do choose to occupy a suite, each suite is completely different from the others and is furnished and upholstered completely uniquely. Ours was plush and comfortable and I sank into the beautiful bed, suddenly exhausted after the previous night’s theatrical performance! Choose a historical suite…it is filled with history and perfect in every way!

A few hours of rest , I found out that I was unfortunately running a fever. The hotel staff was very worried- sending me medicines and home remedies. Never one to stop exploring, we were off to eat a delicious lunch at Adaa the Indian restaurant. Fabulous biryani, succulent kebabs and authentic hyderabadi cuisine at it’s best… I was already feeling a bit better.

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And then it was off to the spa- the Jiva spa calmed me down and relaxed my aches and pains and after a quick dip in the small yet perfect pool, it was off to take a champagne tour of this iconic, historical hotel!The stories were interesting and funny. The rooms were well preserved and iconic. Every wall had a story. Every room had history. The Palace had been commissioned by Sir Nawab Vikar-Ul Umra, a Hyderabadi nobleman but caught the eye of the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, Mahbub Ali Pasha, Sir Vikar’s brother-in-law, and Sir Vikar had no choice but to offer the Palace as a gift or ‘nazar’ to the Nizam! Later it was used as a guest house to several royal dignitaries heads of state and my very own Great-Great-Grandfather a member of the Viceroy’s Privy Council and a former President of the indian National Congress ( then a High Court Judge) had been a guest years earlier and it was absolutely wonderful to be able to see his signature (the one in red!) in the iconic comment book. Years ago, he had stood where we stood today !

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After a truly thrilling afternoon, we were off to the verandah to watch live dancing and singing of sufi music and qawallis as the sun set on a perfect day. Dinner was at Celeste the italian restaurant and after a Royal bath that had been prepared for us in our room we were fast asleep cocooned in the soft, plush bed. A very filled but truly memorable day…!

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We slept so soundly ,we almost missed our flight…and I was sad that I hadn’t been that well thru the one day we had spent at this beautiful hotel…!

But as luck would have it… I was back again…soon and this time with my whole family…! They loved it as much as I did and I was able to explore and wander around more of the hotel than I did the previous visit!

Would I go back? In a heart beat….! Hospitality that books are written about, incredible beauty and unforgettable experiences… Taj Faluknama Palace has all of that!

Cost-:$600 – $700 a night…well worth it to be treated like royalty!

Best Time to Travel-: October thru to February when the weather is cool , and slightly nippy else it does get more than a little hot in the summers…!

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Beijing bound!

It was that time of year again- the time when we hadn’t gone for a vacation in far too long to remember and we were each getting on each other’s nerves- that’s the time when we know we have to fly away not just to ee something new but to breathe some fresh air and press the restart button for the both of us! So that’s what we did! I remember going to the Doctor 3 days before leaving . She was furious about some blood test results and was yelling at me like I’d purposely tried to ruin my own health- when my gallant husband stepped in and said- “we’ve had enough. Whatever the problem is, it doesn’t seem to be life threatening so I am going to take my wife and leave. We need a break and trust me everything will look better when we’re back…including her!” I was so grateful for that calm-very- good-looking-head-on-his-shoulders approach to my Doctor and we decided to continue with our travel plans.

This was our first trip to China and we were starting in Beijing!

The Grand Hyatt in Beijing is spectacular and opulent! Right in the heart of the city- it is walking distance from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City and that was why it was our only choice and what an amazing choice it was.Part of Oriental Plaza – one of China’s largest commercial complexes and with direct access to the adjacent shopping mall, our first evening was spent exploring the surrounding area despite the fact that we were exhausted! Wangfujing Street, located next to the hotel houses traditional silk shops, tea houses and some fun, cool department stores.

The road outside the hotel is really wide and a hotel employee once told us that this hotel was to serve as a runway if ever the need arose and China was suddenly in an emergency situation or was at war! Crazy, surreal and very prepared- that was also our first impressions of Beijing.

THINGS YOU MUST REMEMBER-: There is a Chinese name and an English name for everything including where you stay…so don’t think you can leave and just say ‘Hyatt’ to the cab driver- TAKE THE HOTEL CARD- it has another name and locals only know the hotel by it’s Chinese name!

The Forbidden City was a 10 minute walk from the hotel and was remarkable. Caught up in the history we didn’t even realise how quickly time flew by! The thrones, the chambers, the halls, the history- all so well preserved , each with a fascinating story as the Palace served as home to the ming Dynasty continuing right up to the Qing dynasty!

And then it was time for the flag lowering ceremony where the People’s Liberation Army of China march in the evening to Tianmen Square and lower the flag! What an incredible sight and how we rushed to keep up! Unreal, an ABSOLUTE MUST DO!

The Hyatt Pool beckoned and we went in to this indoor heated pool with ‘palm trees’ and an almost island type atmosphere and ended the cold Beijing evening with a delightful dip!

The next day we started with a car ride to the Great Wall.Depending on where you’d like to climb the Great Wall from it takes about 1.5- 3 hrs to get there. Once at the wall, we climbed up with moderate amount of effort (based on the location we’d chosen to walk from – the Great Wall can be reached from different locations and the level of climb varies from easy to hard) and enjoyed the rough path, the steep climbs (at times) and the stunning view. But after a couple of hours of walking and some remarkable photographs, we opted to go down the wall via toboggan which was unbelievable!

With a bit of shopping and some incredible chinese tea , we enjoyed a day more in Beijing and it was off to our next adventure!

Best Times To Travel-:  March through to September- else it does get a bit chilly!

Price Factor-:  $250- $500. STAY 5 STAR AND REMEMBER CARRY THE HOTEL CARD EVERYWHERE!

The Great Ocean Road and Yarra Valley(the MUST DO Day trips from Melbourne!)

As promised last week I’d finish writing about the Must-do Day trips from Melbourne, so here goes!

The Great Ocean Road and Apollo Bay with the 12 Apostles ARE FAAAAR from Melbourne! It’s comfortably a 4 hr to 5 hr drive so don’t look at seeing both and returning the same day unless you want to get stuck on a God awful tour bus for an entire day!

I’d recommend renting a car and driving their. AVIS has an office at the Grand Hyatt in the center of town and you can very easily rent a car. All you need is a Valid License written in ENGLISH! You don’t even need an International License! I opted to get an International Drivers License because I didn’t want to take a chance and that was very easy to apply for, took a day in processing and made my trip stress free (for me!!!) The husband’s never stressed when I’m at the helm … cos I’m the lister, the planner, the organizer , the madly OCD one! 😉 It works!

So off we went …I drove (yes you can make all the jokes you want about Women drivers!!! But I drive well… and I had the license! So that’s that!) With a GPS System that was far too chatty for our liking and was continuously ” re-calibrating!!!!” in a terribly annoying nasal drawl; we headed off out of Melbourne!

The minute you leave the city limits , you see the changes. Roads and highways now start moving past undulating hills, small townships and quaint coffee shops. Buildings are few and far between. There are more cottages and homes…more gardens and bicycles! And then you take the turn on to the Great Ocean Road and everything stops! A wide road on a cliff edge in front of a panoramic ocean is all that lies in front for miles and miles. Cars drive, stop and park on the left and take photographs of the incredible 180 degree view and every time you think you have the greatest photograph, you’ll find one that’s just a bit better a few minutes ahead!

My advice is to drive along and stop on the way….a cuppa coffee, a seat on a cliff edge… or just a run in the sand… that’s what Australia is all about…and that’s what a vacay should be all about too… Relax, unwind and breathe!!!

We stopped for coffee at about 5:30 p.m at Lorne ( we only left Melbourne just after lunch). The coffee shop was nondescript. I was tired. The coffee was superb!

Charged it took us another hour or so to reach our destination. We were stopping for the night at Chris’s Beacon Point Restaurant and Villas. This is not a very luxurious place to stay but has a beautiful view. We were barely staying there for a few hours, so we ate a comfortably-sized well made dinner and went to our villa to sleep.  The villa had wonderful views of the bay but was strictly okay. Sure, if you have a family and want to use a kitchenette and washing machine and want to make your own food; this might be a good option but it was bitterly cold with colder floors and small rooms and I was glad I was here for just a night. Driving for so long, I fell into a dead sleep.

We loaded our car and headed off to the helicopter point where we had booked a helicopter ride to see the 12 Apostles!

Now this was beautiful! I got some incredible photographs and we also learnt something very interesting. There were only 9 rocks that jutted out from the sea but as 9 Apostles wouldn’t attract that much attention it was decided that this would be called 12 Apostles. One rock however had now fallen, and there were only 8. The breathtaking view of the sea front and of these magnificent rock structures in the morning made the looooong trip worth it!

And then it was back home to Crown Towers and back home to Melbourne!!!

Yarra Valley is only about an hour away from the city and it was definitely easier to get to and infinitely less tiring! We left after breakfast to the Domain and Chandon Vineyards where we were taken on a fabulous tour across the winery. This tour is free and you just need to sign up at the reception when you get there. To do special tasting and wine and cheese pairings you do pay a bit extra but if you’re a wine lover (like my wonderful husband is) then a connoisseur will take you through the history of each wine , the thought behind it’s creation and fill you will fun facts and interesting stories of how the wine came to be and more importantly how it is being appreciated!

Yarra Valley has several vineyards…so you can stop at one and move thru all. They’re all barely 5 minutes away by car!

After the vineyards you could grab lunch at the wonderfully pretty Sweet water cafe at the beautiful Chateau Yering a historic house converted into a boutique hotel, with beautiful rooms each with a personal touch!

And since you’re in Yarra you must taste the cheese! A coffee and a plate of cheese at the Yarra Valley Dairy  is a perfect way to sober up, end the afternoon and head back into town!

These are both trips I recommend you do yourself so you can personalize it the way you prefer and don’t need to do the plain , simple , mass produced lunches that tours usually thrust on you! You can stop along the way- taste the cheeses, enjoy sea breezes, take your own photographs,decide on the perfect wine and just laze or go as fast as you need to!

Do these day trips at your pace…your way!

And along the way try out my faves, I know you’ll love them too!

Price Factor-: 12 Apostles Helicopter rides are approx $190 for 2 people and take about 10 minutes. Domaine Chandon wines are available by the glass from $8 or by the bottle from $22.00.

Best times to travel-: Southern Hemisphere …so once again I recommend August – February. We went end March and tho Yarra was just perfect, Apollo Bay was super chilly already!

Melbourne- a perfect symphony of youth and age!

I must admit that Melbourne was never on my map- never a city I dreamed of visiting and actually a city I had avoided once or twice during travel. It just seemed so city-ish, plain and boring and if there’s one thing I love about travel – it’s new experiences and the wonderful joy of experiencing new rhythms!

But last year during our anniversary we were encouraged by Tourism Australia to add Melbourne on our itinerary ! “You’ll love it!” They promised and skeptically I went ahead with it!

They were right. I was wrong!

Post my first trip I have been to Melbourne several more times and the last time stayed for over a week on work and just really explored the city….and LOVED IT! In this post , I am just giving you an idea of some of the must do’s in Melbourne, some of the must-see’s and some of our most memorable , fun experiences!

We arrived in Melbourne to an afternoon of glorious sun! The Crown Towers is a fabulous hotel, beautifully placed on the banks of the Yarra River! It stands tall, imposing and modern overlooking the wonderful, youthful city of Melbourne with it’s beautiful old world charm! I say youthful and old world because several old building – the Old treasury Building and the Post Office have all been remarkably kept and preserved from the outside and yet inside you have young entrepreneurs with shops and boutiques, coffee shops and funky shoes- a beautiful symphony of old meets young! Watch the Crown Towers at night tho…. with fire roaring from it sides and the casino coming to life- it’s definitely the place to be!

Day 1 quickly turned to evening and off we were on a romantic carriage drive to THE PRESS CLUB!  The Press Club is the flagship venue for chef and restauranteur George Calombaris. I have a huuuuuge Australia’s MasterChef geek and for me this was a place I wanted to my homage to a place I’d heard so much about! 

The Press Club was beautifully placed and comfortably lit; though a tad small for the number of diners! The majority of the diners were Australian so it is obviously very, very popular in Melbourne as well. What amused me tremendously was a couple on the nearby table (and all the tables were a bit too close !) photographing every dish as it arrived and then photographing it as she ate it bite by bite! Tedious, a bit nuts…but that showed the amount of fans The Press Club has. The food was a bit heavy for us and I do not know how it is possible for anyone to eat the entire Degustation menu unless you’ve not eaten for days! But all in all spectacularly plated, wonderfully attentive service and tasty food though a tad too heavy for me / or for the weather!

The next morning we set off walking across the bridge towards the yellow building that we would later come to know as Flinders Street Station. We were supposed to meet our guide there who was going to take us on a Hidden Secrets- Streets and Arcades tour of Melbourne. Now despite the fact that I hate tours and touristy traps-  I decided that this seemed an interesting tour! The best way to get the feel of a city is by walking and that’s what the tour promised! Our guide was fabulous  and knowledgeable and suddenly we were opening doors that you might have missed in lanes that you may never have visited and like Alice in Wonderland finding new exciting world’s underground, in “closed” buildings and in lanes you’d never have visited! 3 out of our group of 8 were actually Melbournians who’d heard about thetour and wanted to explore these tiny bylanes, these quaint shops and these fascinating secrets!

What I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED were the beautiful graffiti streets. Commissioned graffiti is done by local artists and displayed on these streets. Bright, striking and always changing- this was the perfect was to brighten a small lane and take the usually taboo graffiti and make it wonderful street art!

We stopped for a coffee at Koko Black at Melbourne’s historic Royal Arcade which has a Gaunt’s Clock which is flanked by two giant statues of the mythical figures of Gog and Magog. Since its implementation in 1892, the two mammoth statues have struck chimes at every hour, and can be heard resounding throughout the arcade. It was a wonderful break point with games shops, ancient doll shops , sweet shops and even shops on Wicca! Aditya signed a few autographs here and we took a few photographs with a couple of fans who had followed all of his music videos and ads and had a fabulous cup of coffee with the most incredible piece of chocolate and knew that this would be one stop we’d keep returning too!

The tour was definitely the high point of the day- though I strongly urge you NOT to sign up for their lunch! The lunch is bland and disappointing and with so many fabulous cafes and small restaurants in Melbourne DO NOT get stuck in a tasteless Mexican (?!) place!

Instead eat at this quaint cafe behind the GPO- Cafe De Vin! The most delicious pizzas and coffees and so , so, so cute!

After that incredible lunch, I suggest you spend the rest of the day exploring the lanes at your leisure! Do not forget to stop by Myer Melbourne….a one stop shop for some fabulous local designers!

Another really awesome thing about Melbourne is that opposite Flinders Street Station is the Tourism Office where you can travel on FREE Visitor Shuttles and trams which give you information about the city AND also stop at all the major landmarks. You can listen to the commentary, get off at a stop and get back on a couple of hours later!

The trams are incredible- a network of efficient , comfortable and beautifully historic. The tram stops focus more on the history of Melbourne and you can get some incredible photographs! Take the Free shuttle though if you want to shop and some of the more popular tourist stops or visit the well known Queen Victoria Market!

The Queen Victoria Market is massive. You can get everything from pet supplies, to baby clothes, to meat! The price is right and the choice is aplenty! But remember the soft toys may have their flaws and when you get 3 for a dollar don’t expect them to be soft or flawless ! It’s a place to pick up tourist souvenirs and keepsakes but for anything luxury or more fancy I’d recommend you stick to the main Bourke Street!

Another wonderful trip of ours was to Fenix Restaurant– Gary Mehigan’s restaurant (another MasterChef judge!)…. you see I AM obsessed! This was a trip we took one day for lunch! Almost 45 minutes outside of the city via tram, I’m assuming because of all the stops and because it took us time to find the correct route; we arrived late at the restaurant! Seeing our harried , worried faces; they thoughtfully seated us immediately and promised they’d do their best to ensure we get our orders in DESPITE us not having been able to keep our reservation! I ordered a grilled fish and Aditya a chicken. the meal was delicious. Light, almost airy, perfectly seasoned and finger licking good ; we were so glad we found the restaurant! Fenix , unlike Press Club has tons of natural light coming in. It is white and bright! The service was spectacular and the food was worth the change of trams and the route confusions!

Another restaurant I recommend is Jacques Reymond! This is a converted home and part of the Relaix and Chateaux chain of luxury hotels and gourmet restaurants. The restaurant was probably the living room of an old home, beautifully restored and retaining the essence of luxury and comfort. The food was phenomenal and we could see Jacques pottering in and out of his kitchen making us feel like we were guests at his home!

What I also love about Melbourne is that the city is forever on Celebration mode- whether it’s an Arts Festival or a Theatre Festival or a Comedy Festival – there’s always something happening and it’s always soooo , soo fun! The last time I was there I was participating with my team in the Melbourne Theatre Fringe Festival and half way thru the festival another one started celebrating Angels and Demons (!?)  with some fabulous art work across the city!

This entire post has covered Melbourne’s food scene but for a true Melbournian life is in the cups of coffees and the fabulously plated food! With over 300 coffee shops in a few kilometers you will understand the Melbourne obsession with the perfect brew and the perfect meal!

In between the hundreds of fabulously brewed cups of coffee we did take the car out to the Great Ocean Road and to Yarra Valley…! But more on that next week!

Price Factor-: Melbourne , like the rest of Australia is a tad expensive for food and hotels with 5 star hotel prices averaging $200- 500 for some of the better 5 star hotels! But with so much the city has to offer for tourists FOR FREE, it is definitely a city where the Tourist rules! Tourism is made easy and uncomplicated!

Best times to travel-: Southern Hemisphere …so remember March- July is more than a BIT COLD!!! August- Feb is fabulous…a DEFINITE WINTER VACAY Destination!

 

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