My guide, James, pauses, to show me “the best view” of Melbourne Cricket Ground. Through a gap in the stadium’s seats, there’s a strip of rich, green grass and during season, James tells me, the pitch is cut daily, to keep it exactly 12 and a half millimetres high.
Soon, he says, a 20m length of turf, grown off site, will be transported in its entirety, and “inserted” into the arena for the Ashes. Melbourne was the first club in the world to have a portable cricket pitch and is very proud of it.
The club also has a unique museum. Besides newspaper cuttings and photos, there’s even crockery and sheet music with a cricket theme.
Knowing England are the current holders of the Ashes, I can’t help asking, a little cheekily, if I can see the trophy.
James gives a wry smile, and shows me, instead, something from the first Test match at the Oval, in 1882. In all the euphoria, no one noticed that the Australian wicketkeeper, Jack Blackham, had pocketed the ball...
Besides offering stadium and club tours, Melbourne Cricket Ground is also home to the National Sports Museum. There’s an impressive display of Olympic torches (the Games were held at the ground in 1956) and galleries devoted to tennis, soccer and netball.
It doesn’t take long to realise that Melbourne, on Victoria’s south coast, lives and breathes sport. It hosts the Ashes, the Australian Open (tennis), the Melbourne Cup (horse racing) Formula One Grand Prix and Australian Rules Football.
If you’re visiting, there’s plenty for a sport-filled holiday too, with hiking, diving and surfing on the nearby Mornington Peninsula, a 90-minute drive away.
Central Melbourne also has lots of cycle paths, so I hire a bike (there are several rental shops and a city bike share scheme) and set off from Federation Square, home to ACMI (the Australian Centre for the Moving Image) and the Ian Potter Centre, a gallery dedicated to Australian Art.
I follow a path along the Yarra River and cross into parkland on the south bank. From there, I cycle to the city’s Shrine of Remembrance, dedicated to servicemen killed in WWI. Each year, at 11am on November 11, a shaft of light shines through an opening in the ceiling, illuminating the word “love” on the stone of remembrance inside.
Heading back to the city is easy, on a well-marked route, and since Melbourne is flat and compact, it’s a great way to combine sightseeing and exercise.
Where to stay
Ovolo Laneways (ovologroup.com): Located in Melbourne’s Central Business District (CBD), just minutes from Federation Square, Ovolo Laneways is quirky, modern and fun. There’s free wi-fi, a free guest laundry (detergent provided) and free Happy Hour drinks on the terrace. Rooms range from studios to a penthouse suite with an outside Jacuzzi. They have a classy, contemporary feel with welcome snacks and a complimentary minibar (wine, beer, water and juices) replenished daily. Double rooms from Aus$329 (around £189 per night), including breakfast.
Where to eat
■ St Crispin (saintcrispin.com.au): St Crispin’s in Collingwood, a small neighbourhood northeast of the city (take tram 86 from the centre), offers “Little Bites” such as Port Phillip scallops, along with five and seven-course tasting menus and an a la carte option. Located in an old cobbler’s, this award-winning restaurant is light and airy with high ceilings and a large bar. The atmosphere is casual, leisurely and laid back, with waiters finding plenty of time to chat. Two courses: Aus$50 (about £30), three courses Aus$65 (approx £40).
Embla (embla.com.au): Recently opened Embla, in the city centre, is primarily a wine bar, but it has also won recognition for its food. It’s long and narrow with painted brick walls, wooden beams and a wooden bar. The atmosphere is buzzing, with a bistro-feel and a youthful vibe. The restaurant doesn’t take bookings for dinner, and is almost always full, so unless you’re lucky enough to grab one of the tables at the front, you’ll probably have to squeeze into a row of banquette seating at the back. Most plates are designed for sharing. Main dishes: Aus$17-37 (between £10 and £25).
Where to drink
The Garden State Hotel (gardenstatehotel.com.au): This sprawling, four-level watering hole in Flinders Lane (one of the main foodie streets of Melbourne’s CBD) offers a wide range of beers, plus wine, champagne and cocktails. Its multi-level Beer Garden has wooden tables set among fig trees, while the subterranean Rose Garden serves cocktails. There’s also a traditional public bar with booths and fireplaces.
Koko Black Cafe (kokoblack.com): Melbourne is known as the coffee capital of Australia and there are independent coffee shops everywhere. Try the family-run Koko Black in Collins Street.A winding, wooden staircase leads to an upstairs cafe. Relax in leather sofas with a coffee or a cup of rich hot chocolate. Try chilli hot chocolate or a traditional variety, flavoured with hazelnut or cinnamon.
What to do
Go surfing: The Mornington Peninsula, 70km southeast of the city, offers good surfing. Beginners should try the gentler waves off Sorrento beach or join classes at Point Leo and Shoreham. Gunnamatta offers some of the best waves for experienced surfers, while the famed breaks of Bells Beach are where the Rip Curl Pro is held every Easter. Try Salty Surf School (saltysurfschool.com). Two-hour group classes cost Aus$60 per person (about £35).
For more information on the destination, visit visitmelbourne.com, visitvictoria.com and australia.com
For information on the release of tickets for the 2017 Ashes series, log on to cricket.com.au/ashes
Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com) operates daily flights from London Heathrow to Melbourne. Economy tickets start from around £1,040 return.