Australia has generally done a good job navigating the pandemic, but it’s taken enormous sacrifices. We had to temporarily close our borders to non-residents on March 20, 2020.
I live in Melbourne, Victoria. We had a second outbreak in June of 2020 due to a breach in hotel quarantine protocol. Within weeks, there were 7,000 cases, and Melbourne entered one of the world’s toughest lockdowns.
I weathered the first lockdown by Zooming and baking banana bread. As a seasoned traveler, my ability to discover new experiences helped me stay sane. Recalling the saying “a change is as good as a holiday,” I’d visit different parks, street art trails, sculpture parks, and cafes in Melbourne. The cafes only served takeout, but I’d try new dishes while cocooned in my car.
The second lockdown, however, was a noose. It started with certain zip codes, but eventually all of Melbourne was under lockdown — roughly five million of us with an 8 p.m. curfew and mandatory mask-wearing, with $200 fines for violations. We could leave our homes to buy food or exercise for an hour, but only within a 3-mile radius. Stuck at home, I wrapped myself in writing and the soft spotted bathrobe my daughter had gifted me in happier times.
Psychologists warned that this hard lockdown would leave us emotionally drained, and I felt moments of despair. My daughter had moved to the United States, and she was expecting a baby. I feared I might not see her or my new grandchild for years.
Folks from other countries may wonder why we accepted this incarceration so willingly. We are a nanny state and follow rules for the common good. There have been times when I have hated this, but now I’m grateful. Many of us were inspired by our Premier Dan Andrews (equivalent to a U.S. governor) who fronted media briefings for 120 days straight. He thanked us for our patience and sacrifice, for being guided by science and not letting the frustrations of lockdown get the better of us. He looked increasingly haggard, but if he could front these briefings every day, we felt we could all get through this marathon.
When restrictions eased on September 13, we had been in lockdown for 112 days (16 weeks). That was in addition to the nationwide lockdown in March and April. As I write this on November 27, Victoria recorded its 28th consecutive day of no new cases — epidemiologists’ definition of elimination. We also had no deaths and no active cases. We called it a triple donut day! When the ring of steel between Melbourne and regional Victoria came down on November 9, I was off.
When your life has shrunk to a few rooms, it can be hard to lift your eyes to the horizon. I expected an immediate euphoric rush as I headed down the highway, but my car felt like a safe bubble, and I was reluctant to stop.
Driving past a huge antique market in the large coastal city of Geelong, I forced myself to turn around. I faced the rigmarole of signing in with my contact details for the purpose of contact tracing should there be another outbreak. Except for the supermarkets, every shop, restaurant, or attraction I visited collected these details. And all of these places refused service to those not wearing masks.
Normally I enjoy rummaging through antiques, but this one-time pleasure now felt lackluster. It helped when I spotted a scarf in my favorite colors. Of course, I bought it, and that simple, everyday act lifted my mood immeasurably.
I’d booked lunch at the Jack Rabbit Vineyard on the Bellarine Peninsula but was asked whether I still wanted to sit outside, since it was quite windy. I said I did, and the waiter unzipped a tent-like awning, leaving it open so that I could move in and out. I felt slightly embarrassed, since this left everybody inside in the breeze, including one party that was forced to shield the candle flames on their birthday cake.
Yet soon others moved out of the packed space in search of the fresh air and amazing views. You could see Melbourne’s skyscrapers in the distance, the city of Geelong, the You Yangs, and Port Phillip Bay, where container ships plied the channels. The woman at the next table was with her daughter and bouncing her new grandchild on her knee. I felt pangs of regret for all the families separated by COVID, including mine.
In the afternoon I explored Queenscliff, a seaside village known as the Grand Dame of the Bellarine because of its stately historic hotels. I boarded one of the Searoad Ferries on an excursion across the bay. The ride was free in order to lure patrons back. For safety’s sake, I sat on the deck, but there were few other passengers.
Back in Queenscliff, I ate fish and chips outdoors. Despite the seagulls eyeing each chip, it was reassuring to look over moored yachts rather than a winery full of people. I realized that after a lockdown, one must ease back into society. It may take a long time before my generation feels comfortable being in crowded places again.
My first night was at an Airbnb. I’d agonized over where to stay, eventually choosing a garden suite at the back of a home with its own entrance and bathroom. The homeowners masked up to greet me, and it dawned on me that they were likely more fearful of me than I was of them. Regional Victoria had few COVID cases, so letting Melbournians out was like letting vermin loose.
The following day I drove the inland route to Warrnambool, a coastal town at the end of the Great Ocean Road. I have lived in Victoria for 60 years, so it has been challenging to find new spots to explore. Yet, since we are presently traveling closer to home, the ability to find new places in well-known regions is vital.
I stopped in small towns I’d previously only whizzed through. In Inverleigh, I wandered along the river in search of a historic tree and a rare swing bridge.
My road trip continued through the Golden Plains, aptly named for its fields of canola, pale yellow wheat, and rocky plains. Continuing to avoid crowds, I lunched at the Lake Edge Cafe on Lake Purrumbete, a volcanic lake in the middle of nowhere.
I mostly had the road to myself. But in the rearview mirror I spotted a wide-load truck bearing down on me. The driver wasn’t going to stand for a Sunday driver and pushed me to speed up. There was nowhere to pull over; it was like a scene from Steven Spielberg’s Duel. I finally managed to duck him, and he blasted his horn in triumph. Even freedom was marred by irritants.
In the evening, I reached Warrnambool and the treat I’d been promising myself for months — a two-night stay at the Deep Blue Hotel, which has a new hot spring sanctuary. The new complex has 16 outdoor rock pools fed by geothermal water sourced from 2,780 feet below the ground. With a prebooked session, I had a 2.5-hour window of opportunity for total immersion.
This is probably one of the best gifts of wellness and self-care that you can give yourself after a stressful few months, since the water from hot springs can contribute to the psychological healing process, while the heat relaxes tense muscles.
Some of the pools are in caves resembling rainforest gullies, with ferns, waterfall tunnels to wade through, and pockets of sky above. Most have rails to enter. You’re greeted with ambient music and the bubbling sound of hot water gushing in.
At the spa pool, massage jets trigger aromatherapy scents to engage the senses. Other pools have restorative minerals such as lithium, a mood stabilizer, and magnesium for muscle relaxation.
The landscaped gardens have scented plants — jasmine, lavender, and rosemary. You can sit with your feet in a foot spa, float in a reflection pool, enjoy healthy meals in a nourish dome, and bask in the sun on slabs of basalt.
The Deep Blue Hotel is the first stop on The Great Victorian Bathing Trail lining Victoria’s southern coast. Some of the hot springs are still under construction, but most will be completed by the time overseas guests return. Others, such as the consistent winner of the Luxury Spa Awards, Peninsula Hot Springs, are already open.
The days blurred as I explored Warrnambool’s fine art gallery and street art trail. The beaches were magnificent, and I headed to Thunder Point, where the locals love to watch the sunset. I saw a young man climb into the back of his vehicle, cuddling his dog as they watched the sun dip behind the horizon together. They looked so perfectly happy in the golden light, and I realized that I was happy as well.
Returning to Melbourne, I took one of the world’s most iconic driving routes, the Great Ocean Road. It hugs the cliffs, winds through coastal villages, and overlooks world-class surf beaches such as Bells Beach as well as protected little coves where families frolic in the waves.
I took every opportunity to follow the paths to coastal attractions. There’s no landmass stopping the waves rolling in from the Antarctic, and they batter the limestone coast, creating dramatic rock formations.
It was a Friday night, and because of the end of the lockdown, all the seaside towns were bustling with people escaping Melbourne. The restaurants were so full that I bought fruit for dinner from a supermarket, but it was still heartening to see Melbournians rejoicing in their freedom.
We did it. We’re out. And since most of us are careful with social distancing and mask wearing inside venues, we may never have to enter a hard lockdown again. In terms of international tourism, our nanny-state mentality of doing the right thing by others has also helped us become one of the safest and most desirable locations for overseas travelers to add to their bucket lists.