IF you're not staying with friends on a short city break, chances are you'll book your hotel as a package deal with your airfare or pick up whatever looks good value online. Trying out a more personalised style of accommodation may prove a better way to go, letting you see a side of the city you're visiting that isn't just a standard tourist stopover.
In Melbourne we moved from sky-high luxury to renovated city-fringe suburban hotel and, despite plenty of previous visits to the city, enjoyed two altogether different views. Both hotels had a boutique feel, although the Crown Metropol - at 28 floors - is hardly a tiddler.
The distinctive S-shaped building is the city's newest hotel, with a Gordon Ramsay restaurant and an aerial connection to the rest of the Crown complex, where designer shopping vies with the casino.
On the 27th floor you can experience swimming in a 25m waterfall-edge pool or visit the stunning Isika spa.
I was happy wallowing aloft, either in the top-level club lounge, bar and terrace, or in what must surely be one of the most spectacularly sited swimming pools you'll find anywhere. Take in a city skyline view that also lets you imagine you might be anywhere - until your eye tracks down the Yarra River and follows its muddy snaking to the distinctive curve of the MCG and the Rod Laver Tennis Arena where the Australian Open will be played in January.
The Middle Park Hotel also looks towards some of Melbourne's renowned sporting venues, being close to the Aquatic Centre in Albert Park. The traditional two-storey Victorian pub, converted into designer digs with a highly rated gastro-pub restaurant on the ground floor, is just a block away from the 225ha park, which in late March turns from being a quiet oasis for joggers and cyclists into the centre of world motor-racing attention for the running of the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix.
Walk from the hotel in the other direction and in half-a-dozen blocks you'll reach Port Phillip Bay, with Docklands off to your right and St Kilda away to your left. At the hotel door is the beginning of Middle Park's small strip of shops, an urban village that makes Herne Bay feel bustling. There's a couple of cafes, a frock shop with the good taste to stock Kate Sylvester, a few homeware and gift stores and a health food store, plus the ubiquitous Aussie betting shop.
This tiny community, with its pricey, sought-after cottages, connects by light rail to the city, past South Melbourne and the casino, over the river and into Bourke St city mall in next to no time. But it's rather fun to walk about and get a sense of what living locally would be like, or hop along two rail stops to Albert Park, for more of the same on a bigger scale, with some tempting boutiques and dining choices. The more established shopping destinations of Prahran and Armidale aren't too far away by taxi either.
The Middle Park Hotel may look like the standard Aussie boozer with a fresh lick of paint, but inside it's all restored late-Victorian elegance on the ground floor and a clever combination of character and contemporary in the accommodation suites. Black tiled bathrooms open off white painted bedrooms filled with red throw rugs and designer sofas to a mini-bar selection that includes jellybeans, decent wine and even a discreetly locked away condom or three.
The public bar features an enormous U-shaped marble bar and the cosy dining room specialises in a meat-lovers menu, with rare breeds a focus. Melbourne is in the grip of a renewed love affair with carnivorous cuisine, so if you fancy a special steak, Middle Park is worth the visit for this alone.
Crown Metropol's Maze Grill by Gordon Ramsay also specialises in steak, with the adjoining restaurant offering more refined small-plate dining at prices that are quite palatable for a five-star hotel setting. With the Crown complex housing some of the city's best restaurants it's hard not to fixate on food. But once inside Metropol itself, it's another world, away from the netherworld casino lighting and hard to find exits.
The hotel interiors, with specially commissioned contemporary artwork, have an airy Manhattan loft feel. All 658 rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows, the latest in technology hook-ups and screened-off bathrooms. From the lobby upwards, it's like browsing a design store. Strike it lucky downstairs and move into the $5000 a night apartment with custom-made furniture on the top floor. That is if it isn't booked out by a visiting star.
There's a tram stop virtually at the door of Crown Metropol, but it takes only 10 or so minutes to walk into the middle of the city or along the river's Southbank to the Art Gallery. First you have to negotiate your way out of the casino. The only problem with this preamble is it takes you past Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci and a few other places your bank manager may prefer you avoid. Still if you're into checking out designer clothes and shoes, a casino setting is rather more egalitarian than snootier uptown boutiques.
It's all about location, if you want to try something new on for size.
Just the ticket
Crown Metropol is offering a special accommodation deal over December-January, where guests pay for two nights and get a third night's accommodation free. Standard rooms are A$249 ($315) a night. Access to Level 28 is extra.
The Middle Park Hotel, 102 Clarendon Rd, Middle Park, has rooms at a special introductory price from A$170 a night.
Emirates flies to Melbourne daily, with lie-flat business class seating, and full-service economy tickets from $541 per person, including taxes and levies, in November, subject to availability. For bookings or more details visit, ph 0508 364 728 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 0508 364 728 end_of_the_skype_highlighting or see your local travel agent.
Janetta Mackay flew to Melbourne courtesy of Emirates and Tourism Victoria and stayed as a guest of Crown Metropol and the Middle Park Hotel.
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