For decades there has been intense competition between Australia's two major cities, Sydney and Melbourne, with the brash lifestyle, glorious harbor and beaches of hedonistic Sydney standing in stark contrast to the more conservative, cultured Melbourne.
But in recent years, developments along Melbourne's Yarra River, such as Southgate and Crown Casino, Federation Square and, lately, the redevelopment of Docklands, have given Australia's second city a new, vibrant edge to complement its wonderful cultural icons and range of top restaurants.
A new view
The skyline is undergoing a major transformation. The new Eureka Tower, at nearly 1,000 feet and 92 stories, is Melbourne's tallest building and the highest residential structure in the world.
Closer to ground level, new apartment blocks in diverse but architecturally pleasing designs are springing up throughout the central business district, but especially in the Docklands area.
Federation Square, on the corner of Flinders and Swanston streets, is a magnet for tourists and locals alike. Within the complex, visitors will find Champions, a horse racing museum; the Sir Ian Potter Centre part of the National Gallery of Victoria, which specializes in Australian art; the Centre for the Moving Image; and a contemporary music and theater performance center.
However, Melbourne is more than just its urban core; within a 100-mile radius of the city center, visitors will find a wealth of attractions and areas worth exploring.
Out and about around Melbourne
The Melbourne region stretches around Port Phillip Bay. To the southeast, visitors can continue on to the lovely Mornington Peninsula, with its wonderful wineries, and Phillip Island, with the Penguin Parade.
The parade consists of ecofriendly boardwalks and viewing stands from which visitors can observe the daily march of local "little penguins," also known as fairy penguins, across Sumerland Beach to their sand-dune burrows.
On the other side of the bay -- one can travel by ferry from Sorrento to Queenscliff -- lie Geelong and the Bellarine Peninsula, with the opportunity to explore Cape Otway and the Great Ocean Road.
To the west of the city, vacationers quickly reach historical areas such as Bendigo and Ballarat, the latter famous for its connection to Australia's 1850s gold rush. The Sovereign Hill is an interactive museum that documents Ballarat's first decade after gold was discovered there in 1851.
A favorite area lies east of Melbourne, where the Dandenong Ranges form a green, wooded backdrop to the city. It is a region of nature and wildlife, animal sanctuaries, wonderful gardens, panoramic views back to the city, quaint villages, lots of arts and crafts and a wealth of bed-and-breakfast inns and other accommodations where travelers can relax and unwind in comfortable surroundings.
The Dandenong Ranges area was developed initially as a location for many nurseries providing plants for the gardens of the growing city. There are three gardens that should not be missed. At Olinda, the National Rhododendron Gardens are at their magical best during Australia's spring, especially in October and November.
One of the earliest nurseries was established by the Woolrich brothers, and Cloudehill, the extensive garden of the houses where they lived, is a superb mix of bright flowers, elegant trees, hedges, pathways, sculpture, wild meadows and perennial borders.
Quite different is Katandra at Wandin, displaying an amazing array of native Australian plants.
The Healesville Sanctuary is one of the most famous wildlife sanctuaries in Australia, home to more than 200 different species in their native habitat.
Perhaps the best-known attraction in the Dandenong Ranges is the Puffing Billy Steam Railway, one of the finest preserved steam railways in the world, in operation since 1900.
From Belgrave, about 25 miles east of the city, the train winds through forests, fern gullies, open farmland and some quaint old stations to its terminus at Lakeside.
One of the approaches to the Dandenong Ranges is through the lovely Yarra Valley on the northeastern outskirts of Melbourne. In recent years the Yarra Valley has become synonymous with top-quality wines. Among the wide selection of wineries are Coldstream Hills, St. Huberts, Rochford, Yering Station, Domaine Chandon, Balgownie Estate and de Bortoli; many have cellar door sales and tastings. Chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir are among the many grape varieties grown.
Visitors in need of pampering should be directed to the Sebel Heritage Yarra Valley, offering 96 rooms and six suites overlooking two championship golf courses, one designed by Jack Nicklaus. The Day Spa is perfect for massage, facials or other treatments, while Bella Restaurant offers fantastic meals with an excellent wine list to match.
For more information on the region, visit www.melbourne.vic.gov.au, www.melbournesurrounds.com.au and www.visityarravalley.com.au.