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Second to None

In the midst of an exciting evolution, Melbourne steps out of Sydney’s shadow with its own take on the good life Down Under.

Federation Square in the Central Business District of north Melbourne is a hub of culture and activity for locals and visitors alike

The Jazz Age vibe at The Everleigh in the Fitzroy neighborhood is impossible to miss

Scallops with endives from Cutler & Co.

The lunch crowd at Golden Fields

The TarraWarra Estate winery in Yarra Valley, about an hour away from the city

Intrigued by Australia ever since childhood, when I first discovered that the Southern Hemisphere landmass was both a country and a continent, I felt well-versed enough in Down Under lore before embarking on a recent trip to Melbourne. I am, after all, familiar with the nation’s contributions to Hollywood pop culture and can recite Aussie colloquialisms at the drop of a hat, thanks to my penchant for foreign TV. I even know about the exploits of outlaw Ned Kelly. And, yet, somehow, Australia’s most infamous rivalry—Melbourne versus Sydney—had managed to elude me.

“I don’t know if anyone outside of Australia cares about the whole thing, really,” says my host and tour guide, Margaret Ryding of Tourism Victoria (tourismvictoria.com), just hours after I land in the city. “The way I see it, Melbourne is the type of place where people will come to your [aid] if you happen to fall down on the street, whereas, in Sydney, they just might walk by you. I’ll take Melbourne any day.”

Ryding continues to make her case for geographic supremacy over a lunch of roasted barramundi fish with black cabbage, lemon and dill, a specialty at The Grill at Grossi Florentino (grossiflorentino.com), one of the city’s oldest and most pedigreed restaurants. I later learn that the eatery’s namesake, Guy Grossi, is one of the country’s foremost chefs and that this particular venue joins many other prime dining establishments in the city, which, according to Ryding, is in the full throes of a “foodie revolution.”

This revolution extends far beyond Melbourne’s kitchens, however. Divided by the murky brown waters of the Yarra River, the city is clearly in the midst of a moment, the signs of which are impossible to miss. Take Federation Square (fedsquare.com). Since its founding 11 years earlier, the mixed-use development, located in the tourist-heavy Central Business District, is a nonstop hub for new projects and businesses.

To the south, growth is more suburban, but no less impressive. My hotel, the Crown Metropol Melbourne (crownhotels.com.au), is a prime example. Five months into its third birthday, the 658-room property—one part of a vast complex under the Crown umbrella in an area known as the Southbank—still shines like new. About a 20-minute walk from Federation Square, the CMM’s grand-hotel feel makes it a popular destination with business travelers, but its multitude of good-life extras also attracts visitors. Jet-lagged souls can seek solace at the on-site Isika day spa (one of the city’s best) or reinvigorate with a dip in the 27th-floor pool, which majestically overlooks the city. The creature comforts continue at Mr. Hive Kitchen & Bar, a restaurant headed up by Executive Chef John Lawson, whose approach to French cuisine with Australian ingredients has won him a slew of national accolades. The accommodations at the Crown Metropol (with rates from $233 to $2,337 per night) range from a luxe king room to The Apartment (a sprawling, 2,045-square-foot penthouse on the 25th floor) and boast an endless checklist of modern trappings—Wi-Fi, high-definition TVs, marble-clad bathrooms and designer toiletries among them—as well as sprawling vistas of the city.

Whether it’s buzzing culture or fine hospitality, few residents are better acquainted with Melbourne’s exciting growth than Fiona Sweetman, founder of Hidden Secrets Tours (hiddensecretstours.com), an outfitter that proffers a true insider’s glimpse at the city. Hopping on and off San Francisco-style trams in the north side of the city, we set off to check out the establishments currently defining Melbourne’s independent commercial spirit. Marais (marais.com.au), for instance, offers a bewitching trove of one-off accessories from Alexander Wang, Lanvin and Balenciaga. After several similarly tempting visits, we find ourselves on Collins Street (what Sweetman describes as “the Paris end of town”), where storefronts from Prada, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and other familiar labels show off their goods from behind pristine glass.

Equally varied is Melbourne’s independent art scene. The take-it-or-leave-it spirit of the galleries along Bourke Street and Flinders Lane is the antithesis of the splashy-classic splendor of the collections at the NGV and more traditional museums. Few maneuver the intricacies of this world better than Jane O’Neill, founder of Art Aficionado Tours (artaficionadotours.com). At Funaki (galleryfunaki.com.au), we peruse boundary-pushing jewelry with craftsmanship that delights, amuses or offends. But there really isn’t a need to visit dedicated art spaces for mental stimulation. Many neighborhoods in north Melbourne teem with public art, and eye-catching murals are visible in alleys all over the city.

These cheeky lanes are also the chosen settings for locals-filled bars and restaurants. Curiously, many of the must-visits on my agenda happen to be on dark, lonely streets, something I discover when a companion and I set off to visit the nearly-impossible-to-find boîte The Everleigh (theeverleigh.‌com), an intimate speakeasy in Fitzroy that takes its Jazz Age approach (and mixology) very seriously. It’s clear that venues of this sort want to be off the grid, even if everyone already knows about them. But our navigational frustrations are soon forgotten after our cocktails arrive.

Dining excursions go much smoother. At Golden Fields (goldenfields.com.au), also in Fitzroy, modernist decor offers an ideal backdrop for chef Andrew McConnell’s small-plates approach, which takes its cues from Shanghai and Hong Kong cuisines with dishes like pork belly with kimchee. By contrast, McConnell’s Cutler & Co. (cutlerandco.com.au), located in the same neighborhood, is a testament to culinary excess. Our degustation menu is a farm-to-table tour of baked carrots with goat’s curd, marron and wood-grilled beef ribs, before an apple and sorrel sorbet with fennel meringue preps the palate for Earl Grey ice cream, chocolate, prunes and honey, all accompanied by Victoria region wine per the insistence of Ryding. “You didn’t come this far to drink California chardonnay, did you?” she asks.

Indeed not, and on my third day in Melbourne, I flee the city proper with Simon Greenland of Melbourne Private Tours (melbprivatetours.com.au) for Yarra Valley. Just 50 minutes away, this landscape of rolling hills produces some of Australia’s best pinot noir. The first stop is Domaine Chandon (chandon.com.au), the Australia outpost of the French Champagne giant Moët & Chandon. From there we drive to the TarraWarra Estate (tarrawarra.com.au), a winery known as much for its varietals as its adjoining art museum, the site for the much-lauded Archibald Prize Exhibition, a once-a-year showcase of Australian artists. After lunch at the winery’s restaurant (fragrant lamb confit so rich it practially demands a post-meal nap), we call it a day.

Back in Melbourne, I ask to be dropped off at Federation Square to walk off some of the day’s calories. Though it’s a rather cold night, the energy on the crowded streets is intoxicating, with music spilling out from bars and restaurants along the Yarra. As I walk and take in the scene, I think of Melbourne, and no other place in the world.

Getting There
There’s no better way to get to Australia than on Qantas (qantas.com.au). Fly out of Honolulu Interntional Airport in style aboard the freshly refurbished Boeing 767, which went into service in the summer of 2013. First-class service includes an eight-course degustation menu by acclaimed Aussie chef Neil Perry along the way. There’s also QStreaming, Qantas’ on-demand inflight entertainment streamed direct to iPads in every seat. Once in Australia, grab a short 90-minute connecting flight into Melbourne. When departing, be sure to experience Qantas’ first-class lounge at Melbourne Airport.