Australia is the sixth country I lived in, so when we were planning our move there I might have been a little cocky about my coping skills. The truth is, no matter how many times you’ve picked up your life and moved, there’s always unexpected challenges. Enter Welcome to Travel, a tour designed to help travelers get settled in Australia, while showing them everything Melbourne and the surrounding area has to offer. Their website alone is a wealth of information, as are the guides Adam and Darryl.
Welcome to Travel caters to a category of travelers often unrepresented in the world of tourism - those looking to move to a new country and truly understand a new place from a local’s perspective. While it’s also great for short-term travelers who want to make the most of their time, it’s unique in its focus on helping you set up for a longer stay. They help you from the moment you land by arranging your airport transfer. Within the first day of the tour they’ll get you sorted with an Australian SIM card and bank account, so you aren’t wasting money on international fees. They can also help you find a job, housing, and coordinate upcoming travel.
Feelin' Aussie on one of our beach trips. IG: @TravelGarden
I was a bit different from their usual customers because I had already been in Melbourne for three months. I decided to do the tour so I could get to know Melbourne on a deeper level, and learn about their unique business model. Every week is different because they design the itinerary to be flexible to the many events happening around Melbourne, and they like to include surprises along the way. But this is how my week with Welcome to Travel went:
Day one started with a cupcake and ended with fireworks.
We were each greeted with a mini red velvet cupcake as we went over the plan for the week and played the icebreaker game “two truths and a lie”, which added to the summer camp vibe.
We rearranged the schedule a little to watch the Moomba Festival parade (Australia’s largest free community festival). Then we started a walking tour through the laneways, as Adam and Darryl pointed out landmarks. We stopped for lunch at a hole-in-the-wall crêperie/breakfast spot/sandwich shop run by a Vietnamese woman who briskly rearranged her customers to make room for our group of six. The most impressive dish was a tall lasagna consisting of layers of crepes instead of noodles. After lunch we continued our walking tour of Melbourne, which is known for its coffee culture, so of course we stopped for one at the first spot in Melbourne to have a mechanic espresso machine #history. We went back to the hostel to “rest” before dinner, which turned into a few of us enjoying some goon (cheap boxed wine popular with backpackers in Oz) on the roof.
We had dinner along the Yarra River, and then walked to the bridge in front of Crown Casino to see the pyrotechnic show that happens most nights. There are stone pillars along the length of the river, and they shoot giant flames, with the heat intense enough to warm our faces.
Photo from www.crownmelbourne.com
We walked along the river to a bar under a bridge (not as sketchy as it sounds) with a view facing up the river. Within minutes of sitting down with our drinks, the sky in front of us burst into fireworks from Moomba Festival. Our timing all night was absolutely perfect, thanks to Welcome to Travel’s expert planning. DAY TWO
Day two started with a trip to the Queen Victoria Market – the largest open-air market in the Southern Hemisphere.
We had an unofficial food tour as Adam showed us his favorite stalls and we sampled a few items. After dropping our goodies off at the hostel, we left for another walking tour, this time focusing on street art. We rearranged our day again to accommodate another special event: a secret gig by the band Jet, who happen to be from Melbourne. The show was in AC/DC laneway, a street famous for its unique art and music venues. It was so fucking cool. If I wasn’t already convinced Darryl and Adam are insiders, this definitely sealed the deal.
Waiting for Jet to take the stage. IG: @TravelGarden
After the concert we had a quick lunch break and then went to the Australian Center for the Moving Image (ACMI). Darryl studied film, so he made an excellent guide as we explored the technology and exhibits on display.
We ended our day with a food and drink tour, which started with a walk through some of Melbourne’s historic arcades. We sampled chocolates in the Royal Arcade, and then gelato in the Block Arcade, which is modeled after Milan’s grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. We also went to a gallery of Dr. Seuss’s art in the Block Arcade, which was incredibly cool.
Next we went for a drink at Adam and Darryl’s favorite bar, Sister Bella. It’s a funky little place that reminded me of being in a treehouse, and it would be rather tricky to find if you didn’t know where you were going (there’s no sign or indication of a bar near the entrance). It also had some board games, and we indulged in a rousing game of truth-or-dare Jenga. After Sister Bella we had dinner at Empress of China in Chinatown. We gorged on dumplings and garlic green beans before going for drinks at our last stop of the tour, a cool bar and restaurant called Mill House. My partner, Austin, met us for a drink there before he and I went our own way to see rapper Big Boi (from Outkast) perform at one of our favorite Melbourne venues, 170 Russell. The concert was absolutely epic and I was buzzing from having been to concerts by Jet and Big Boi in one day. After the show we went back to the hostel to pack for the next day’s adventure.
Day three was the beginning of our overnight trip on Phillip Island. We got an early start and drove straight to Mount Martha beach on the Mornington Peninsula, which has a string of colorful bathing huts decorating its coastline. After some quality beach chilling and paddle-boarding, we picked up some fish and chips to eat at picnic tables looking out over the ocean.
We drove further along and stopped at a strawberry farm, then a winery down the road. The winery was gorgeous, and we enjoyed a tasting of reds, whites, and a lovely rose. We left pleasantly buzzed for the rest of the drive to our hostel on Phillip Island (except for Darryl, who was driving, of course).
That night we drove to the Phillip Island Nature Park for the highlight of our overnight trip: THE PENGUIN PARADE. That’s right, you read that correctly, a parade of god damn penguins waddling across the beach. Not just any penguins, but the little penguin. That is the actual name of the type of penguin, because it’s the smallest species of penguin on earth. They’re also the only species that is blue. Needless to say, they were freaking adorable.
We arrived at the Nature Park before dark and made our way down to the beach where we sat in a roped-off area of the sand waiting for the sun to set. A ranger gave a talk about the behavior of the penguins, ecology of the area, and how to be respectful of the nature. She explained the “parade” we were about to see; during the day the adult penguins will go hunt out at sea, some of them eating enough to double their weight (from one kilo to two kilos, because even at double their original size they’re so tiny). To minimize the threat of predators, they wait until dark to cross the beach back to their nests and their babies. The parade starts with just a penguin or two waddling out to check the vibe. They either decide it’s still too risky and retreat for a while, or they go tell their buddies that it’s chill and they all waddle out together as a group. Sometimes a group will start waddling out and then a seagull will get a little too close or something and they’ll all go diving back into the safety of the water. Sometimes a group will start across the beach and a couple of stragglers will run to catch up to the huddle. You can hear them chirping to each other and see how carefully they’re choosing their moves, and it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. They don’t allow any photography, so watch this magical video from Phillip Island Nature Park's website:
Towards the end of the parade, when most of the people had left, some of the penguins wandered through the roped-off seating area and got within arm’s length of us. We all sat still to facilitate a peaceful passage for the penguins, and the ranger told us how lucky we were to experience that because they don’t often get that close.
The walk back to the car-park goes through the penguin habitats, so you’re able to watch the penguins arriving to their little homes and greeting each other. I was watching one penguin that looked a bit lost, and then I walked along and saw another one standing outside of its hutch waiting. Eventually the lost penguin made its way down to the hutch and when the two saw each other they made the cutest little purring/chirping sound, put their little wings together, and waddled in a circle celebrating. I’m not gonna lie, I teared up, it was just the purest thing I think I’ve ever seen. Immediately after that I saw a man take a flash photo of the penguins, which we’d been told not to do because it can actually blind them. I told the man to stop but he was completely rude to me and apparently doesn't care about literally blinding the smallest penguins in the world for a grainy photo of one, so I narced on him to security. I walked super slowly the rest of the way back, bonding with penguins and looking up at the ridiculous amount of stars.
I was the most excited and also most nervous for day four, because our first activity was a surf lesson. I’ve lived in several places known for good surfing but somehow had never given it a go. We got breakfast at the hostel and then drove to YCW beach where we met our surf instructor.
Surfing was as difficult and fun as I thought it’d be. We were in the water for about two hours and I managed to stand up two times, which I was pretty proud of. Sometimes I forget how much I love playing in the water until I get out and do it (I used to be an avid whitewater kayaker). Darryl did a Facebook Live from the water, which shows a few of my failed attempts to stand on the board.
After our lesson we left Phillip Island and stopped in the fishing village of San Remos to watch the daily pelican feeding. The woman feeding them told us facts about the birds as she tossed fish into their massive throats. We also saw some stingrays, which come through the bay to hunt the pelicans.
For lunch we had sandwiches by the water, and then went to a surf shop for the “surf experience” – a mini-museum about the history of surfing complete with “the world's first 360 degree, wrap around surf movie experience”.
Our next stop was Maru Koala and Animal Park, a nature reserve that cares for animals that couldn’t survive in the wild. We got to cuddle the koalas, feed the kangaroos, and hang out with wallabies, a Tasmanian devil, kookaburras, llamas, ponies, lizards, and more
We started day five with a tour of the historic Victoria State Library, which has some fantastic free exhibits about Melbourne’s history. It’s worth a visit for the view of the La Trobe reading room alone – a massive domed room in the center of the building.
Photo from the State Library of Victoria’s website
We caught the tram to the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne’s largest war memorial, and then headed to the suburb of St. Kilda. After a brief tour of the neighborhood we spent the afternoon chilling on the beach, sunbathing and taking turns on the paddleboard.
Before we parted ways for the night, Adam and Darryl surprised us with tickets to the Eureka Tower SkyDeck, the tallest public observation deck in the Southern Hemisphere and one of Melbourne’s main tourist attractions.
Adam and Darryl spent the first half of day six helping us find jobs, housing, and plan travel. The idea is that the tour doesn’t end when the week is over; you join the “Welcome to Travel” family and they’ll help you out as needed when you travel on, including a Facebook group where they post job opportunities. This network3 is the most valuable part of the tour, in my opinion. Saturday night we went on the Melbourne Bar Crawl, which was a blast. It happened to be St. Patrick’s Day, and one of the girls on our tour is Irish, so we were out to celebrate. There were about 100 people on the tour, and they passed out green wigs, hats, glowsticks, etc. We went to four different venues, finishing at the club Billboard.
Adam, Austin, and I (and a new friend) at the second bar on the crawl
After drinks and dancing, Adam showed Austin and I where to get the best kebab in the city before went back to the hostel.
Sunday was scheduled to start a little later than the other days thanks to the previous night’s bar crawl. The plan was to have a BBQ on the hostel’s roof, but since it was rainy they took us to the Thai Cultural Festival happening in the city center. There were demonstrations on Thai food, clothing, massage, dance, crafts, and more. After we had our food, we watched a cooking demonstration and Adam, Darryl, and an English girl on our tour went up as volunteers and made some papaya salad.
Papaya salad in the making.
We left the festival to get a final farewell beer at the riverside bar Arbory, and then parted ways.
I had high expectations for the week, and Welcome to Travel blew them out of the water. I saw a whole new side of the city I had been living in.
The tour was expertly planned, and I love their unique business model that focuses on lasting relationships with their clients. Many people want to move abroad but don’t know where to start, are afraid of messing something up, or don’t want to take the leap without support; Welcome to Travel makes an intimidating move much easier.