Monday, 5 November 2012

British Lions fans will hope to see team roar in Melbourne

In June next year British Lions rugby fans will be making their way to Melbourne for the second of three tests against Australia. Tom Morris checks out what the city can offer.  

Be excited. Melbourne – the self-styled gateway to Victoria – throbs with energy and excitement. With thousands of Lions fans added to the mix next year, it will be fit to burst – especially the bars, where VB, Foster's and Carlton Draught will be guzzled by the gallon, win or lose.

Residents of Melbourne enjoy the city's vibrant lifestyle and are spoilt with a renowned arts scene, glorious gardens, boutique shopping and world famous food and wine.

On top of that, just a short trip away, they are also blessed with the majestic Yarra Valley and Dandenong Ranges as well as the scenic delights of the famous Great Ocean Road.

All this points to why, in August, Melbourne was again voted by The Economist as the most liveable city.

Last time Lions' fans (including me) ventured here they left with fond memories, but broken hearts. Footage of Jonny Wilkinson's speculative pass that was eagerly picked off by flying Australian winger Joe Roff after just 15 seconds of the second half in 2001 makes me cringe even now.

It has been 12 years, and hopefully that horrible moment will be erased for good when the two sides meet again in the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne's Docklands.

But there is plenty to do before the big day. Many fans are likely to arrive early to see the game between the Melbourne Revels and the Lions' dirt-trackers four days before the Test match on June 29.

Arriving early is a good idea. In fact, there is so much going on it can sometimes be difficult for visitors to this thriving city to know where to start.

The choice is endless: meander through the streets, take a guided tour, sight-see, visit museums and animal sanctuaries, taste wine and sample terrific food.

Those looking to chew the cud and mull over the team selection with other fans over a few beers are not short on choice either.

A laid-back but buzzing atmosphere can be found at Southbank, which is a short walk from the historic Flinders Street rail station. Here, fans can also find a variety of shops, restaurants, and art centres alongside the River Yarra.

Those looking for something more lively can head to neighbourhoods like Fitzroy, St Kilda and Carlton – well known for their energetic bars, cafes and music scene.

If it's variety and you're after, make for the bustling bars and fantastic restaurants in Lygon Street, home to Little Italy. And for culture, head to the award-winning Melbourne Museum, which explores Victoria's history. It also has a centre with dedicated art works, artefacts and stories to help visitors learn more about Aboriginal culture, as well as housing an IMAX theatre.

Those hungry for more should go to Federation Square, where they will find the Ian Potter Centre – a museum dedicated to Australian art. Another terrific activity well worth the effort is the Old Melbourne Gaol in Russell Street, which at one time housed the outlaw Ned Kelly.

Explorers among you should weave your way from Flinders Station through the pulsating heart of the city among the maze of lanes and arcades. Here there is an eclectic selection of bars, coffee shops and boutiques, which can be enjoyed while taking in some of the city's finest architecture.

Also worth visiting is the lively Queen Victoria Market, which has sold fresh produce and speciality goods for more than 130 years, and the landscaped Royal Botanic Gardens.

If you are not afraid of heights, the Eureka Skydeck towering over the Melbourne skyline on the south side of the Yarra is a wonderful way to see the city – especially at night.

For the sport-obsessed, there is a Melbourne sports lovers' tour, which delves into the history of sports in the area and the characters who sent Melbourne crowds wild. During the tour, visits are paid to the imposing MCG, the Formula 1 Grand Prix track at Albert Park and Flemington Racecourse – home of the Melbourne Cup.

Trips to the Carlton Brewery, which produces VB and Foster's, or a trip to Ramsay Street – the set of long-running soap opera Neighbours – are also worth a look if you have the time.

For exercise, a cycling tour allows you to discover many of the districts and parks around Melbourne and gives you the opportunity to ride along the banks of the River Yarra. And for a bird's eye view of the city, nothing can beat a private helicopter flight – if your wallet can stretch to it.

Now take a deep breath, because even if you managed all of the above, a trip to the stunning Yarra Valley and Dandenong Ranges is an absolute must.

The vast array of wildlife, world-class wineries, and breath-taking scenery will blow you away.

Fans of wildlife must visit the wonderful Healesville Sanctuary, with more than 200 species of native animals, including koalas and platypus.

Even more famous is Phillip Island – just a 90-minute drive from Melbourne – where the star attraction is the sunset penguin parade, where wild penguins emerge from the water on to the beach. It's mesmerising.

As if all this wasn't enough, you can while away a day marvelling at the Great Ocean Road, where there are surf beaches and towering forests. And finish off the day with the awesome sight at Port Campbell National Park of the Twelve Apostles.

Suffice to say that, if rugby history does cruelly repeat itself, Melbourne has such a wealth of attractions that it should at least succeed in taking our minds off the pain.

The British & Irish Lions has announced the launch of its first dedicated travel company. Lions Rugby Travel will organise travel for rugby fans to Australia in 2013 as well as running the Official Supporters Club. It has been set up as a joint venture company between British Lions Limited and the Mike Burton Group.

Official ticket, travel and accommodation packages are available from Lions Rugby Travel starting from £2,199 and the three Test Tours start from £5,999 – contact or call 0844 788 4070.

Lions Rugby Travel has a range of tours available for Melbourne on the website.


British Lions fans will hope to see team roar in Melbourne

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