Gazing into the cold, dead face of a killer isn’t one of my preferred vacation activities, but on an early morning creep around southern Australia’s Old Melbourne Gaol there isn’t much choice.

 

Behind dozens of two-inch-thick doors, along a narrow passageway that’s likely cited in dictionaries under the word “dank,” stare the faces of villains such as crinolined Martha Needle. She finished her crocheting early one day, went suddenly off her middle-class rocker and poisoned most of her family.

Luckily, these nutbar miscreants are well past their murderous sell-by dates, their ghostly white death masks all that remain in the shadowy corners of their decommissioned cells. For a country that hates being reminded that it was kick-started by 160,000 British criminals, there’s a national fascination with its outlaw lineage. In fact, one infamous old lag is celebrated as if he had invented a Vegemite-covered boomerang.

Ned Kelly, the highwayman who was either a murderous thief or martyr of the disenfranchised, depending on your perspective, is Australia’s leading folk hero. Captured in a bloody police ambush after a string of robberies, he was executed here in 1880. Standing above the gallows from which he swung and checking out the bloated death mask that takes pride of place nearby, I discover that the museum’s gift shop does a roaring trade in squidgy rag dolls of Australia’s top reprobate.

With time on my hands, I escape from the gaol – I briefly consider digging a tunnel with a spoon, before finding that the main door is wide open – and head downhill toward a cosmopolitan city centre that fuses chunky colonial architecture with a wacky central plaza that makes the Guggenheim Bilbao complex look like a suburban Wal-Mart.A clutch of salmon-pink, irregular blocks that raised many a local eyebrow during construction, Federation Square (above) was the party heart of this year’s Commonwealth Games, when super-powers such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and Canada rolled into town. Pulling up an outdoor chair at one of the cafés, I munch on a cookie and watch map-wielding tourists criss-cross between the plaza’s art gallery and its high-tech film centre. While cultural attractions like these abound in Melbourne, rubbing shoulders with the locals means tapping into the city’s extensive sports scene. World-class tennis, Grand Prix and horse-racing events are de rigueur here, but a membership of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) is something parents sign up their kids for soon after conception.

With no cricket games scheduled during my visit, I content myself with a public tour of the legendary 150-year-old stadium. We trek through cavernous locker rooms and along the umpires’ tunnel – complete with a spit guard to protect officials from saliva-fuelled heckling – before hitting the hallowed turf where historic batsmen such as Don Bradman battled visiting English bowlers.

Today’s sporting heroes are more likely to be found in the nearby Telstra Dome, where I join 50,000 close friends at an Australian Rules football game. Taking my place in the top-priced seats – complete with individual swing-up TVs for replays – I grapple with a game that’s been described as “football for real men.”

I learn from the fans around me that one of today’s players has a fractured cheekbone from a previous game, which is why members of the opposite team are routinely pounding his face. These violent crunches animate the crowd, until one player hits the deck in a twisted heap. Play stops and our eyes fall to our screens as the groggy guy peels his head from the grass. When he lifts his left leg, it dangles from the knee at a sickening right angle. The crowd loudly winces in unison as a gaggle of stretcher-bearers scampers across the pitch. Game over for this fella.

__________ESSENTIALS

Weather: Languidly slipping from spring to summer, November is an ideal time to visit. Expect average temperatures of 22 degrees Celsius and occasional coastal-inspired rainy days.

Can’t miss: Melbourne Cup(below) Traditionally run on the first Tuesday in November, this celebrated horse meet now stretches to a four-day equine fiesta spread throughout the month. Locals routinely “pull a sickie” to partake of the fun. Tickets from $22. vrc.net.au

Cool eats:Café Segovia Duck down Melbourne’s shady back lanes and you’ll find dozens of hopping street cafés, exemplified by this popular Block Place spot. The bulging sandwiches are recommended, but be sure to decamp outside with a “flat white”– Australia’s milkier reinvention of the latte. Entrees from $5.

Best bed: Crown TowersA brash Vegas-style casino downstairs, the Crown’s elegant upstairs floors are surprisingly free of gold brocade. Staying on the luxurious Crystal Club floor allows access to a chichi piano lounge that doubles as a breakfast room complete with its own chef. Rooms from $292. crowntowers.com.auOne thing we need: Tipping by choice: Automatic gratuities are frowned on in Australia, an approach that would cause a citywide hissy fit amongst Vancouver’s wait staff.

One thing we don’t need: Commonwealth Games: Isn’t the Olympics expensive enough?