Where else would you find a city lane where the milk crates and graffiti are complemented by a gorgeous wall of miniature impressionist paintings - all in the name of art? Where else but Melbourne's inner-city labyrinth of laneways, narrow streets and arcades, of course. This eclectic part of the CBD is one of its most charming attributes, not to mention exciting, surprising and fun. And we've discovered a hidden gem that's the perfect launch point to enjoy it. Welcome to Hotel Causeway.
This private boutique hotel, nestled so perfectly into one of the city's laneways that you could easily miss its charming art deco exterior, is smack-bang in the middle of downtown Melbourne. And it's great value, which means you can spend your dollars on that new Scanlan & Theodore dress or Dior Homme suit and not on a room you're planning to spend only a few hours kipping in.
Hotel Causeway's entrance - the lobby was completely refurbished in December - is on Howey Place, a quaint arcade of fashion boutiques off Little Collins Street, between Swanston and Elizabeth. Not to be confused with its sister property, the nearby Causeway Inn, rooms start at $157 a night (breakfast for two included), but the budget price and understated façade don't mean threadbare sheets and rough-around-the-edges fittings. Modern and comfortable, the Causeway offers plenty of value: crisp white duvets, aubergine plush carpets and ample storage space. It's not the Four Seasons, but it is elegant and sophisticated, with light-filled, spacious rooms and a boutique feel. There's also the peace and quiet of being away from a main road, plus ingratiating small gestures such as - shock, horror - a free bottle of water, even fresh apples and chocolate-covered nuts.
"Hotel Causeway was created to fill a niche in the Melbourne hotel market - namely to develop a small, well-located private hotel in the city centre for guests seeking something different to a standard chain hotel," says business development manager Lochlan McLachlan. "We can keep room rates competitive because of the intimate nature of the hotel. And with only 45 rooms we can provide a superior level of service and attention to our guests that keeps them coming back." And did we mention that it's the perfect stepping stone to immerse yourself in Melbourne's fabulous laneway experiences? A weekend exploring the quirky, stylish and slightly underground heart of Melbourne requires stamina and curiosity: there will be stairs to climb, basements to delve into, late nights and more than a little temptation (retail and otherwise), all within the confines of a few city blocks.
Credit cards at the ready? Let's start with the shopping. Melbourne's one-off boutiques are a unique experience in themselves. In city stores such as Marais, Assin and Chiodo, fashion is treated as an art form. At accessories den Christine, the glass cabinets include treasures such as scarlet red Lanvin velvet heels, and the walls are lined with Mulberry, Jamin Puech and Anya Hindmarch. At Marais, there is great temptation in a delectable Lara Bohinc gold ring with cascading baubles, the knits by Paris-based Atsuro Tayama and the sexy Pierre Hardy heels. At Assin the racks of sharp Heidi Slimane for Dior suits sit alongside the cool tees by cult brand Undercover.
There are bargains to be had, too. Vintage store Shag is a sheer joy for its original, edgy editing of clothing from the past century, all with a cool French pop soundtrack and moosehead hat rack. (The rumour is that Marc Jacobs' design team has trawled the store for inspiration.) Nearby Leghorn Rouge offers an original handpicked collection of bargain shoes and accessories - think Sonia Rykiel meets Miu Miu, but without the price tag. Also be sure to look at Douglas & Hope, the quirky fashion and homewares store in the Block Arcade, where you can seek out Bride & Wolfe laser-cut silhouette decorations of birds and other charming scenes all set to hang in the home. And if you have grommets to shop for, Jasper Junior in the Royal Arcade has technicolour teepees and educational toys.
In between stores, take time to refuel and enjoy the city's taste sensations, architecture, aesthetics and varied scenes. Consider the Chesterfield lounges in the dollhouse-like chocolatier's salon of Koko Black in the Royal Arcade, where you can refuel with Belgian chocolate mousse martinis. In the restored, romantic Comme, snack on the salt cod croquettes or the jamón Iberico. Tiny Hako restaurant has standout Japanese at café prices; Journal's calm surrounds and strong coffee offer a break from the Flinders Lane bustle.
As dusk falls, the city shifts gear, ready for a long night of eating and drinking, meeting up and staying up. Smart travellers put their feet up for an hour or two before heading out - perhaps a quick kip on the Causeway's rooftop terrace? There are those with reservations at the big gun restaurants such as Ezard nearby, Vue de Monde, Becco and Grossi Florentino, others might try a more casual night at Bistro Vue (read our review on p52) or head underground to the Money Order Office. Nearby, Cookie - okay, so it's not exactly in a laneway - never fails to impress. The crowd is mixed: young, old, artists, suits. People come for the extensive, interesting Thai menu (mussel cakes are a favourite), lethal cocktails, boutique beers on tap and all manner of nooks, crannies and back rooms to settle into, just like the city itself.