With its laneway cafes, hidden bars and globe-trotting cuisine, Melbourne is often said to be the most European city of Australia. So when winter hits, the cold weather is but a minor hindrance to a good time (no thermals required).
The trendy beachside enclave of St Kilda is a prime example of this "we don't stop for winter" attitude. The bars are open late, the Acland Street cake shops are jam-packed, and attractions like Luna Park, the Palais Theatre and the Sunday markets on The Esplanade brim with activity.
Sure, a swim in the sea might shock the living daylights out of you, but there's plenty of warmth to be found in buzzing St Kilda.
Rug up and enjoy the sea-nery
Let's start with the important things. You'll want to bring a jacket and scarf for walks along Jacka Boulevard Port Phillip Bay doesn't lose its beauty in the cooler weather. Like the idyllic trips to Brighton out of Austen and Thackeray novels, it's de rigueur to be all dressed up for a walk along the beach. Parasols are out of vogue, a brolly will suffice.
You'll also need shelter. St Kilda has a plethora of self-contained apartments, backpackers and boutique hotels, but I'm staying at the biggest hotel on the beach strip, the Novotel St Kilda.
Once the site of a dance hall, ice skating rink and film studio, the Novotel feels less business, more leisure. Its palm tree frontage gives the illusion of a tropical Miami-style resort, alas, without the Miami heat.
Of the 211 rooms and suites, my pick would be any room with a view. Waking up to a panorama of St Kilda Beach through a feature window is a wonderful experience, with yachts, walkers and the St Kilda Sea Baths and pier all within sight. While my King suite is warmly appointed (chocolate and caramel-brown furniture, pea-green walls, a huge open spa), I don't think the experience would be as glowing in a non-bayview room.
The Novotel is a great base for exploring the local area. A tram stop outside the hotel is useful, but most of the area's attractions are within walking distance.
King Executive Suite at the Novotel St Kilda.
Image: Accor Hotels
Across the road looms the somewhat-scary, Joan Rivers-like Luna Park face. Come rain or come shine, this unabashedly retro amusement park is packed with kids dragging parents from ride to ride, and couples holding hands on Ferris wheels (how 1950s).
Celebrating its centenary this December, St Kilda's Luna Park was there long before its Sydney counterpart, and feels closer to the original beach template of Luna Park at Coney Island, New York. One of the newest rides is even named "The Coney Island Drop Top"; thrill-seekers almost lose their breakfasts on the vertical gravity-plunge ride.
Anyone with a phobia of creaky rides might get a bit squeamish, but it's all pretty safe, harmless fun (I won't regale you with my stomach-in-mouth moment stuck at the top of the Ferris wheel for two minutes).
Just next door is an imposing Art Deco relic of another era: the Palais Theatre (open since 1914). Seating 2896 punters, it's the largest seated theatre in Australia, hosting live music, ballet, comedy nights and film events. During this winter alone, its live line-up includes Guy Sebastian, Carrie Underwood, Ed Sheeran, and a Bob Dylan tribute night.
For a grungier music experience, the historic "Espy" (Esplanade Hotel) is a must. Another long-timer, this venue has entertained groggy audiences for more than 100 years. It's not every day you can say you've been a part of Aussie music history; Paul Kelly recorded an album here, TV show RocKwiz is filmed on site, and on my visit, the one and only Daryl Braithwaite performs a free gig at the front bar. That's the way it's gonna be, little darlin'.
Another pastime fit for any season is surrendering to Acland Street's famous cake shops. The window displays alone, with their croquembouche towers and artificially coloured meringues, cast a Willy Wonka-like spell over anyone who "loves the cake", to quote Little Britain's Marjorie Dawes.
The proof is in the pastry the Europa Cake Shop's berry crumble danish is almost as big as a child's head, but I still make it disappear in record time, with a cappuccino on the side (and a cheeky nibble of my partner's vanilla slice). Marjorie and her Fat Fighters would approve.
Gorging on cake all day is dangerously easy, but keep an extra stomach aside for dinner. Fine diners like Circa, The Prince, Mirka at Tolarno, Sapore, and Melbourne Wine Room have all been recognised by The Age Good Food Guide, and that's just the tip of the iceberg in this suburb.
Concentrated mostly around Acland and Fitzroy Streets, the wine and dine options are as diverse as Melbourne itself, and as trendy as the local yuppies. For Japanese, there's Ichi Ni Izakaya, for Mexican there's The Table, and for innovative mod-Oz there's Veludo, to name a few.
Veludo is particularly impressive. The newly refurbished bar and restaurant buzzes with groups enjoying cocktails and nosh by the stone-walled fireplace at the back, the heaters out the front, and along the conspicuous wall of wine bottles. The toasty ambience is complemented by the seasonal cuisine; the white anchovy and palm heart skewers are delicious and shareable; the ocean trout special is fresh and succulent.
Nice rack: The wine wall at Veludo
The hatted Melbourne Wine Room at the historic George Hotel is another gourmand's paradise. As its name suggest, the wine list goes on and on, but I'm enamoured with freshly shucked Coffin Bay oysters, steak tartare with garlic croutons, mini wagyu burgers and not-your-average salt and pepper calamari.
Now for the steamy stuff
A trip to St Kilda is incomplete without a visit to the iconic St Kilda Sea Baths. With a waterfront gym, a heated indoor 25-metre seawater pool, and an outdoor ice skating rink from June 29 to July 15, the Baths complex is all about enjoying the beach without actually having to step onto it.
Indulgence doesn't come any purer than the Baths' European resort-style Dreamtime Spa. Before my treatment, I sip a berry tea in a white robe, stretched on an indoor daybed facing the ocean, listening to a soft instrumental soundtrack. For a moment I could be in the French Riviera, but the Melbourne clouds indicate otherwise.
Dreamtime's au naturel treatments involve sea extracts and organic ingredients. One of the rituals is a detoxifying marine algae scrub, much like the mud routine at Israel's Dead Sea. I'm given a neat pot of exfoliation cream and a sloppy pot of murky algae to spread all over myself and roast away for 30 minutes in a 40-degree-plus steam room. I last about 10 minutes it's unbearably hot and just a tad uncomfortable.
The massage that follows is a lot more relaxing. The massage therapist offers a choice of three oils with different bespoke healing qualities. I pick the sweet almond and apricot Fitness Recover Oil. An hour later, I awake to loosened muscles, a mind at ease, and thank my lucky stars I'm in Melbourne.
For more information
The Novotel Melbourne St Kilda (16 The Esplanade, St Kilda) has rooms from around $161 to $270 per night. They also have a winter "Wine and Wind Down" package including a standard non-bayview room with six bottles of wine, complimentary car parking, and full buffet breakfast for two, for $179 per room per night. For more info, visit www.novotelstkilda.com.au.
Luna Park is open Saturdays and Sundays 11am-6pm during winter, and every day during the July school holidays. Visit www.lunapark.com.au.
Qantas flies to Melbourne every day. For the latest rates, go to www.qantas.com.
For more info on St Kilda, visit www.stkildamelbourne.com.au.
What are your favourite things to do in Melbourne during winter? Tell us below.