Life Travel Melbourne or Sydney? Our best winter beaches

Melbourne or Sydney? Our best winter beaches

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The view from Bondi Beach
Reviewed by Mike Safe

Hah, Bondi, bloody Bondi. Haven for unemployed actors you’ve never heard of, would-be super models presently waiting on tables and hipster geeks begging for seed money to fund the next big digital thingy. It’s so easy to be cynical about Australia’s most over-hyped beach – but that’s before you make it down to its sand on a glorious winter’s day like this.

A long sweep of white and blue less than 10 kilometres from the centre of Australia’s biggest city, where under a light north-westerly offshore wind that has scoured the brilliantly blue sky of any cloud, the temperature edges towards 20 degree Celsius – and that’s also the ocean which, remarkably, has only dropped a couple of degrees since summer.

Mike Safe
Writer Mike Safe squinting in the sun at Bondi Beach. The sky really was that color. The beachgoer on the right really doesn’t have a shirt on. Or much in the way of pants.

Down here, a few feral grommets – don’t these little buggers ever go to school? – check the small surf flopping onto the shore, superannuated surf lifesaving clubbies work on their skin cancers in the sheltered corner of sunshine next to the new North Bondi clubhouse or by the Icebergs pool at the beach’s southern end. A bevy of lyric-clad yummy mummies push Mini Minor-sized strollers along the concrete concourse or strike downward dog poses at their outdoor yoga classes.

Locals and visitors alike stroll along with an easier gait. Gone is the madness of summer when tens of thousands clog the sand and water as the Bondi Rescue lifeguards, our own reality TV stars, deal with drunken backpackers fearing they’re about to drown in knee-deep water, hysterical parents screaming for lost or simply misplaced kids, bluebottle stinger attacks, shark alerts and other assorted mayhem.

The boys are still on the job in their tower in the middle of the beach but, hey, this is a gentler time and they take the never-ending requests to pose for photos with tourists from seemingly every corner of the planet with good grace and dazzling smiles.

Even the boardriders, often feuding and cantankerous in summer, seem to get on better. For a start, there’s considerably fewer of them now and they’re more spread out as only a small section of the beach is flagged off for swimmers.

What the never-ending stream of overseas tourists – more of them Asian, especially Chinese and Indian, than ever before – think of all this is anybody’s guess. Bondi is hardly a picture perfect postcard kind of place. It’s a gritty urban beach, over-used and under-resourced. The architecture along the main drag, Campbell Parade, and surrounding residential streets is bog standard bad, a legacy of its working class origins that have only been shaken off in the last 20 years as the area has yuppiefied, if not quite gentrified, thankfully.

But on these special winter days, morning dawns cold and crisp and by 10 o’clock the sun is supplying enough gentle warmth to last until four or so and you can imagine the old stagers in the Icebergs bar – at the swimming club, not the ritzy restaurant – raising a glass to farewell what’s been another pretty good day.

Maybe they will do it all again tomorrow, or maybe the wind will have turned 180 degrees into a dank south-easterly, bringing rain and cold. But the dazzling days of winter will be back, at least a few of them a week – and you can drink, swim, surf or stroll to that.

Meanwhile, at Port Melbourne …
Review by Terry Brown

At Melbourne’s closest beaches, the water is clear and the sand is clean. It is certainly not messed up with people.

In the middle week of winter, on the worst day in the forecast, Port Melbourne and Albert Park beaches assume the motto of the moored Bass Strait boat – The Spirit of Tasmania.

An icy wind blows. Grey clouds do more than menace. It is the kind of day climate change deniers love, though not even they are silly enough to dip a toe. It is clearly a better day for penguin fanciers than budgie smugglers, a dog of a day with more paw than foot prints in the sand, and few of either.

Mid afternoon, kilometres of beach are bleak and entirely friendless. Earlier, for a fair while, Daniel Lynch, 27, and his Staffy-Ridgeback cross Maple, 7, have it to themselves. Maple splashes in. Daniel shivers on.

“I came down before. There was a bit of drizzle,” Daniel says. A bit? “The trees were just about sideways. Maple needs about an hour exercise. Rain, hail and shine, unfortunately for me.”

Terry Brown
Not the southern tip of Tasmania, but Port Melbourne on Thursday afternoon. This beach is in a city of four million people. All four million of them were somewhere else, probably inside, when this photo was taken. Photo: Terry Brown

Unlike Maple, Daniel is staying well out of the water, trying to keep warm in a hoodie but by all appearances, failing. Away from the shore, Port Melbourne’s got more hoods going than a Sinatra tour.

“My hands are getting a bit cold,” Daniel admits. “The wet tennis ball doesn’t help.”

He has walked the beach a good kilometre.

“I think I saw one person,” he says.

The beaches are as close to Melbourne’s CBD as bay beaches get, right in the sprawl, less than 5km as the seagull flies.

But even the seagulls are AWOL. These are the kind of beaches you can eat your rapidly-chilling chips unmolested.

The balconies of double-glazed waterfront apartments are empty. The ice cream outlets are closed on a day they could have turned the fridges off and saved power. The dubiously-named Harold Holt restaurant is supposed to be open. Customers, like its namesake, seem to have gone missing. When the sun comes out it is quite pleasant out of the wind, but there is no out-of-the-wind. There are palm trees to give the arctic blast a nice ironic ambience.

“I’ve been to Bondi, like once. It was too populated for my liking. It’d be a nice beach if you got it to yourself, not like that is ever going to happen,” Daniel says.

At 2pm there is one set of human footprints since low tide, his. Five Chinese tourists turn up and walk out on the Port Melbourne pier.

“It’s not cold today, just a little bit windy,” the hardiest one says. His four companions don’t say anything, conserving warm breath. They are the only people without dogs in tow.

“I’m enjoying it,” Caz, another Staffy-cross owner, says of the rain.

Only tough dogs are swimming. A Shitzu-cross looks warily at the water.

Caz is defensive of her beach.

“There are people here early in the morning meditating,” she says. “People jogging in the water.”

Those are footy players given no choice whatsoever, and a bit of cold never hurt anyone. Though Douglas Mawson’s widow might have begged to differ.

Terry Brown has been a writer/journalist for half his life, most recently a senior reporter at the Herald Sun. As a columnist, colour writer, humorist and news hound, he has been in the thick of almost every major stories and events since 1987.

Mike Safe is a former staff writer on The Weekend Australian Magazine and a resident of Bondi for 21 years.

Enjoy Melbourne in all its glory. Melbourne’s Best Picnic Spots & Beaches by Rebecca Robinson, has it all. Buy it here.
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