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With its heritage buildings housing designer clothing stores, five-star hotels and bespoke jewellers, the Collins Street precinct has secured its place as Melbourne’s stylish top end, as Kirstie Bedford discovers.

The bell above the door announces my arrival at milliner Marea Bright’s Collins Street store. She pops her head around a curtain that discreetly hides her workshop and greets me with a wide smile. There’s a small sofa against the wall, and dozens of hats and headpieces of all shapes and sizes hang on racks around the tiny shop. I look but don’t touch, fearful I might damage one of these handmade creations. But Marea is soon removing hats from their stands and encouraging me to try them on.

“Some people find the whole experience of coming into a milliner’s quite frightening, and think it’s reserved for the rich and famous,” she tells me.

I must admit, it does feel a bit like something reserved for a special occasion, like trying on a wedding dress, but this store is anything but pretentious and Marea is keen to dispel that theory.

Hats have long been associated with the horseracing industry, the so-called ‘sport of kings’. They were used to display status and fashion, so it’s hardly surprising to learn Marea is the fourth generation of a racing family. Her great-grandfather Samuel Davis rode the winning horse in the Melbourne Cup in the 1860s, her grandfather trained horses, and her father and brother were jockeys. Marea also trained as a jockey and says it gave her a huge respect for the art of controlling a horse. What she really wanted, however, was to take the reins of her own business, so in 1964 she started making hats. “My mother and I used to go to milliners when we came to Melbourne when I was a child,” she tells me. “I told her when I grew up I’d like to make hats, and that’s just what I did.”

Fifty-five years later she’s still making hats, and has even made two handbags for the Queen, when she was sought out by the Queen’s then milliner Frederick Fox. “It was very exciting the day I saw a photograph of the Queen carrying my handbag.”

When it’s time to go, I promise Marea if I’m ever looking for a hat or fascinator, I’ll come and see her. She assures me she’ll always be there, then adds with a smile, “Well, until my hands stop working!”

Food for Thought

It’s just about lunchtime when I leave, so I head across the road and duck into Flinders Lane to Brunetti, an Italian pasticceria founded by the Angelé family in 1991, serving up recipes passed down over generations.

Founder Giorgio Angelé began his training in Rome at the age of 10, and in 1956 came to Australia with the Italian Olympic team as a pastry chef, while co-owners Yuri and Fabio Angelé’s great-grandfather was the head breadmaker at a bakery in Livorno on the west coast of Tuscany. The food reflects this long line of passionate cooks. Think risotto zucca and porcini, paccheri alla vesuviana (tube-shaped pasta with sausage and mushroom) and ravioli all’osso buco, all washed down with Italian wine or a cocktail and you really can’t go past the signature Campari spritz.

A Jewel in the Collins Street Crown

After lingering maybe a little too long over lunch, I decide to go for a walk and head to Gray Reid Gallery. Here you can peruse handmade jewellery with director Alister Reid, who has had the showroom for four decades. He displays not only his own jewellery but works by other Australian jewellers too, with pieces ranging from $60 to hundreds of thousands. I slip on a large antique ring Alister hands me while we’re talking, and he opens drawer after drawer to show me the collection. His interest in jewellery started in high school where he made copper rings because he loved physics and science and was fascinated to learn he could combine this with something creative. From there he worked in London and dealt with members of the royal family, but despite a gentle nudge from me he can’t stay who. Nor will he reveal the names of the celebrities who come through his doors. It’s not really at the core of what he’s about anyway.

“Restoring family jewels is a great honour,” he says. “We’re being entrusted with people’s family history. We have four generations as the same client, and it’s wonderful to have that faith and trust.”

I look down, realise I still have on the ring and reluctantly hand it back. After all, Alister has exhibitions to organise and it’s time for me to go.

Daydreaming of jewels, I decide to head back to the hotel where I dropped my bag hours ago and am yet to officially check-in. I’m right near the Regent Theatre, with its lavish regal interior harking back to its 1929 opening as a grand picture palace. It continues to host some of the world’s best musical theatre productions, including The Lion King, We Will Rock You and King Kong.

A key is ready for me at the concierge desk and when I enter my room there’s no mistaking I’m in Melbourne. I pull back the curtains to reveal floor-to-ceiling windows framing a view of city skyscrapers, interspersed with Victorian architecture that reflects the land boom of the late 1880s. I text my husband, telling him where to meet me for dinner – after all, this day calls for company and perhaps I can take him back to Gray Reid in the morning (not that he needs to know that).

At ‘Uncle’, large fold-out windows open to the street and a waiter sits with us to go through the menu. As I look around the room I notice all the service staff are doing the same. It’s such a nice, intimate gesture and, considering the extensive menu, a welcome relief. We choose sticky chicken wings and tempura zucchini flowers stuffed with corn and cheese to start, then move on to master stock crispy pork hock with banh hoi, lettuce wraps (a must-try), and spicy mapo tofu rice rolls with sea greens, black fungus and crispy vermicelli. Portions are generous and I keep telling my husband I’m done, but the pork hock is sticky and sweet and, once you start, all willpower disappears.

Lose Yourself in Laneways

The next day I hit the shops while my husband decides the hotel pool is calling (or is it really just the supersized bed and dreamy view from those windows?). Whatever it is I’m not too worried as I’ve booked a massage at L’Occitane in the Block Arcade.

Established in 1892 and having earned a reputation as Melbourne’s most renowned shopping destination, the Block is home to Haigh’s Chocolates and the Hopetoun Tea Rooms, famous for its window filled with decadent cakes and a queue that stretches further than the arcade itself.

At L’Occitane I’m led down a tight staircase to the treatment room, reminiscent of a wine cellar. There’s a definite French feel here, hardly surprising since the company began in Provence. The shop smells of the hundreds of decadent balms and soaps that line its shelves. Shea butter is sourced from Burkina Faso in West Africa, in a sustainable joint-development partnership with the women who produce it, that protects the shea tree and reduces the environmental impact.

After the massage, feeling sleepy and relaxed, I head back to the hotel bar. I think a prosecco is calling.

This article appeared in Luxury Escapes Magazine Issue #5. Subscribe here

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