From penguins to theme parks, community gardens to fantastic eats and sleeps, Madeline Hoskin discovers why St Kilda makes for an unbeatable seaside spell with kids in tow.
W hile the weather may not always be sunshiney and swimwear-appropriate, there’s no denying the ‘vibe’ rippling through Melbourne’s seaside mecca of St Kilda is one that’ll have families feeling warm and fuzzy all year round. It’s early October and I’m here on the first warm weekend of the season. Adventurous paddle boarders are, without wetsuits, embracing the calm waters; cafés are raising sidewalk umbrellas, enticing amblers to enjoy coffees and ice-cream in their shade. Families are out in force, playing in the numerous parks and the sands of St Kilda beach. It’s not crowded, but you sense the area is thawing from its winter hibernation.
Less than 20 minutes’ drive from the action-packed CBD, it might seem odd opting to holiday down on Port Phillip. However, after my visit, nothing makes more sense. It’s more relaxed, perfect for families, and the sea is quite literally at your doorstep. Most bars and restaurants are quick to accommodate young ones, and the sense of community is contagious. Plus – should you wish for a sample of the ‘big smoke’ – a quick ride on the 3a or 16 tram lands you right on Flinders Street. It’s truly the best of both worlds.
If you’re parent to some thrill-seeking types, don’t go past Luna Park. Chomp on colossal serves of fairy floss and scream on rides that discombobulate your senses like the spindly legs of the Spider, the free-falling Coney Island Top Drop or – my favourite – the whizzing Enterprise. Plus, the park is stunning. Its Parisian carousel runs at a gentle pace, with ornate ponies prancing in loops around an Art Noveau, hand-carved organ... It’s like a time warp into an old-world carnival by the sea.
During school holidays the park adds to the fun with Bumper Bubbles. Just try not to laugh as your ecstatic young ones clamber into clear, inflatable spheres before water running – or tumbling – like gleeful aquatic hamsters.
Outside the park’s laughing entrance is a prime place to locate one of St Kilda’s newest delights: St Kilda Rickshaws. This company, freshly started up by a trio of friendly Americans who’ll be deemed ‘super cool’ and instantly captivating by littlies, lets you enjoy a three-wheeled bike ride anywhere round the area, whether to get from A to B or to simply lap up the sights. Weary parents may opt for some down time, relaxing in the park as their kids go off on a rickshaw adventure... without them!
Found in the quiet backstreets off Neptune Street, St Kilda Adventure Playground is a kid’s dream. Bright colours, big climbing structures, chooks, a flying fox... One mum watching on as her toddlers and partner wreak havoc on a pirate ship tells me, "I don’t know who has more fun; my kids or husband." It’s open Monday to Friday from 3.30 to 5.30pm, and on weekends and school holidays between 11am and 5pm.
If adorable animals and pristine beachside is more your scene, head off to the iconic St Kilda Pier on a penguin hunt. The best time to see them is in the early morning or at dusk, when they’re either venturing out from or into the rocks. Ensure you have your camera at the ready – with the flash turned off so not to startle them.
Best of all, the area is buzzing with places that build a unique sense of community. On the foreshore by the pier you’ll fall in love with Catani Gardens. It’s a superbly manicured garden, prime for a summer picnic, and for just $5 each you can often treat your kids to a ride on a Shetland pony. Back over near Luna Park you’ll find Veg Out – a community garden that has a number of plots being tended to, locals who are up for a chat, picnic spots and a small playground with a sandpit. One of the artists from the surrounding studios offers me a tour of the garden; I hold guinea pigs, feed chickens, snack on broad beans and even walk through a fairy garden.
St Kilda Esplanade Market sees a quirky array of stores pop up right near the beach every Sunday from 10am.
Melbourne is known as one of Australia’s ‘foodie hubs’ and St Kilda won’t disappoint. Browsing Acland Street you’ll want to stop at every one of its cake stores... I systematically manage to devour a gooey lemon meringue, an almond croissant and a gluten-free hazelnut treat over the weekend, and that was with restraint applied! Come lunch or dinner you’ll want something substantial, and I may have found one of the world’s best family-friendly eats in the form of Pizza e Birra on Fitzroy Street. It’s a family-run Italian joint that serves up great food at pocket-friendly prices. While my party was tucking in to marinated olives, wood-fired pizzas and strawberry-coated panna cotta, a large family group is celebrating a birthday at the table next to us. One thing’s for sure, this restaurant has family groups down to an art. Kids and parents are seated at separate tables, with waitstaff ensuring the ‘rowdy’ young ones are nothing but angelic as they devour pizzas and wait for the ‘surprise’ cake to come. It’s parental bliss, a kid’s dream, all-round delicious with award-winning food, and a big ‘YES’ in my book.
For those wanting a laidback bistro vibe, complete with kids’ toys in the corner and a well-stocked drink selection, Barney Allens is also on the Fitzroy strip and has a delicious selection of bar food on offer, while those hunting for a food stop pre or post a Luna Park playtime, check out Phamish just across the road.
There is a bounty of family-friendly accommodation options in the region. I made my base a comfy two-bedroom joint at Quest Apartments, with a central location on a slightly removed back street. This meant I could enjoy all the amenities of home (washer, dryer, dishwasher, fridge, etc), minus all the road noise. It’s great for those who want space to spread out with their kids in a convenient location close to all attractions.