Sunday, 29 December 2013

Why some "hospitality" businesses are their own worst enemy

What really annoys Australians when they travel? Seat kickers, loud talkers and naughty children top the list according to a recent survey by www.cheapflights.com.au.

I'd add dismal airline food, rude airport security staff, incompetent car hire companies - but I'm rather grumpy when I travel. 

Screaming children was by far the most common complaint among Australian aircraft passengers, with just under half of all respondents saying it had affected a journey. Other top complaints included: being stuck on a delayed aircraft on the tarmac, stinky fellow passengers, broken entertainment systems and snoring seatmates. 

While the gripes from the 1,000+ respondents ranged from seat kicking to seat reclining, only 30 percent of those surveyed said they had actually confronted their fellow passengers. The rest suffer in silence. I am not one of them.

Asked "What is the most annoying thing a nearby traveller can do on your flight?" the responses were: Kick your seat - 22.72%, Let children misbehave - 16.22%, Talk loudly or incessantly - 15.02%, Recline their seat - 10.51%, Yank on your seat back - 6.3%, put feet on your arm rest or into your leg room - 5.81%, Bring smelly food aboard - 4.3%, Not waiting for those in rows ahead to exit first - 4%, Carry excessive hand luggage - 3.7%. 

My pet travel gripe, however, has nothing to do with flying. What makes me the angriest is travelling in Tasmania during any peak holiday period and finding so many "hospitality" businesses, dependent on tourism for much of their income - closed.

Read the Hobart Mercury and virtually every day there is a local small business person complaining how tough the business environment is. How hard it is to make a honest buck.

Maybe they blame kids in the mall for scaring away shoppers, or the lack of Christmas decorations, or the way council organizes car parking. You'd be convinced there is a statewide vendetta against small business. 

In fact, many of the problems that Tasmanian small businesses complain about are easily solved. For a start, they could open when they have customers ready and waiting to spend money.

Some examples. Very recently, when thousands of cruise ship passengers were wanting to explore the best of Hobart, many of the shops and cafes were closed. The reason: it was a public holiday.

Just today, a Monday, my small village was inundated with tourists. Yet three of the four eateries in town were closed. The one that was open made a killing - and turned dozens of people away. 

Of the other three eateries, one is closed until January 9 for annual holidays. the other for three days until after New Year's Day, the fourth, usually open on a Monday, who knows? They are just closed. 

Come a wet and windy Thursday in mid winter, all four will be open, competing for the business of a handful of customers. 

Now I know that small business people need a life, need to spend quality time with family and friends and often cannot afford to pay penalty rates. But to turn away business is plain crazy. Here's an idea. Why not open over the peak season, make some money (charging a Sunday or public holiday surcharge if necessary), and then close for a few weeks during the quiet winter months. Or quit complaining about how tough it is. 

It is a Tasmania-wide problem - and perhaps it extends to other states. When I flagged it on Twitter, I had responses from South Australians expressing amazement that so many cellar doors were closed; and from someone attending the sales in Hobart who could not find anywhere to buy a coffee - at the same time as The Taste of Tasmania festival was on down the road, the Sydney-Hobart yachts were arriving and every hotel room in town was full. 

Tasmanians have been told the tourism is the future for their beautiful state, but if they don't look after those tourists they will head elsewhere pretty damn smart. And then we'll be back to debating a pulp mill again. Oh, wait, we already are!

  

Discovering one of Tasmania's best-kept secrets

Perhaps because it is tucked away in sleepy New Norfolk, or maybe because it closed for three years after a family tragedy, delightful Woodbridge on the Derwent remains something of a well-kept secret even to Tasmanians. 

New Norfolk is just a 30-minute drive from Hobart and is surrounded by some of the best cellar doors in the state, as well as two distilleries, superb countryside and great fishing - but it remains off the radar for many Hobartians, even though it is a perfect weekend getaway destination. 

Heritage-listed Woodbridge on the Derwent, the only member of the Small Luxury Hotels group in Tasmania, is a beautifully restored Georgian mansion set in lovely gardens above the fast-flowing Derwent River (well-heeled guests sometimes arrive by seaplane, docking at the hotel's own pontoon). 

Built by convicts in 1825, Woodbridge was originally the home of the new colony's magistrate and is one of Australia's oldest surviving buildings. It takes its name from the first wooden bridge over the Derwent, built in 1934 and next door to the property.

Owners John and Laurelle Grimley bought the derelict property in 2003 and have done a magnificent refurbishment job. After a spell closed following a tragic car accident involving their son, they reopened Woodbridge on the Derwent 18 months ago. They are fonts of knowledge on all things local; and as this is Tasmania the staff are uniformly friendly and eager to please, if clearly a little rattled when almost all the guests from a full house arrive for breakfast at the same time.

The rooms vary in style but include all five-star accessories including Molton & Brown toiletries, flat-screen TVs, free wi-fi, iPod docks, extremely comfortable beds, modern bathrooms, in-room safes and mini bars with complimentary soft drinks. They are so quiet that it is hard to imagine there are other guests in residence. 
Guests are welcome to help themselves to port and sherry in one of the three drawing rooms and public areas are tastefully decorated with period pieces and individually sourced artworks. There are lovely gardens in which to while away an hour to two taking in the river views.

Dinner, on the night we stayed, comprised an amuse bouche of a spicy prawn bisque, followed bydelightful starter of spinach ricotta ravioli with cherry tomato and basil sauce (below).
Then came a choice of maple-glazed Tasmanian ocean trout on a leek and fennel pancake with asparagus, or rack of Tasmanian lamb with rosemary jus, hasselback potato and seasonal greens. The trout was the stronger dish, but both were respectable. 

There were two dessert choices with a pannacotta with berries the standout - and a small but well though-out wine list featuring Derwent names including Stefano Lubiana, Derwent Estate, Laurel Bank and Kinvarra, as well as several other boutique Tasmanian producers. A Pooley 2013 Riesling was very reasonably priced at $40.  

Things are not perfect, however. I felt the dinner menu could do with at least a third choice of mains, even if just a salad, and while breakfast features delicious home-made yoghurts, stewed fruits and local salmon it was disappointing to see packet cereals along with industrial bread and cheese. It would be nice, too, if the music in the restaurant was changed more often.

These, however, are very minor quibbles. For a small hotel (just eight rooms) everything works very well and the Grimleys are happy to act as concierges, booking excursions and tastings, even a seaplane jaunt should your budget stretch that far. 
There is a bit of a boozy theme, too, with several featured packages involving tastings at nearby Redlands Estate, including dinner, bed and breakfast, a 45-minute whisky tour/tasting, a $30 credit for massages and full use of all facilities including bikes, kayaks, and the sauna/hot tub and mini-gym facility. This package starts from $625 a night for a double.

Dinner, bed and breakfast packages, including a massage credit and use of all facilities starts from $590 per night for two people.

Local attractions include the several cellar doors, the Redlands and Nant distilleries, Two Metre Tall with its home-brewed beers and ciders, the Agrarian Kitchen cooking school, the Sally Wise cookery school, as well as fly fishing, bushwalking and the famous Salmon Ponds. 

Nearby you'll find the Mount Field National Park and the Styx Valley, while New Norfolk itself is the third-oldest town in Australia and is known for its old buildings and antique stores. 

The celebrated MONA museum is just a 20-minute drive away making this an excellent base for exploring the Hobart region but many guests are happy to cocoon themselves for a day or two enjoying the gardens, riverfront promenade with its resident platypus, and the hotel's focus on local food and wine. 

Woodbridge on the Derwent, 6 Bridge Street, New Norfolk, Tasmania 7140. Phone (03) 6261 5566. Email: info@woodbridgenn.com.au. Website: www.woodbridgenn.com.au.  
  



Thursday, 26 December 2013

Bali's best new romantic getaway

Sun-drenched Bali has something to offer for all ages so no wonder it is a perennial favourite with holidaymakers from around the world. 
The Indonesian resort island has fine stretches of sand, river gorges, ancient temples, adventure sports, luxury lodges, affordable spas and friendly people, top-notch golf courses, exotic food and resorts to suit all budgets. 
For those looking for a little romance and a lot of luxury, the recently refurbished and re-branded M Gallery Amarterra Villas take a lot of beating. Other highlights include a free gym, welcome drink and cool towel on arrival, daily mineral water, fruit basket, free mini bar and snacks, whirlpool Jacuzzis and the lavish main swimming pool.

Amarterra Villas, small and offering personalised service, are perfect for visitors who want to be close to the action in the Nusa Dua tourism precinct but who cherish peace and quiet in their own private compound, each of which comes with a private courtyard, lush gardens, day beds and lap pools that are actually long enough for you to do laps (and private enough to swim nude, should you so choose. 

The resort comprises an idyllic collection of 39 luxury one-, two- and three-bedroom villas in an exclusive gated enclave a short walk from the beach (where the resort has its own beach club). You don't have to walk, of course; staff will be happy to ferry you there and back on one of the resort's golf buggies. 
Opened last year, the resort's point of difference are its serenity and the quality of the staff, who are omnipresent but never intrusive.  
The villas are beautifully appointed with Balinese themes but 21st-century technology including free wi-fi, cable TV and DVD players.  
The tranquil compound is within walking distance of the Bali Collection shopping precinct and several restaurants, while the Bali National golf course is just a short drive away. 
The villas boast luxurious en-suite bathrooms with separate open-air showers, well-equipped kitchens, mini bars with free snacks and soft drinks, state-of-the-art entertainment systems, and open-air lounges and dining areas.
The use of local materials, quality interior fitting and selected Indonesian artifacts ensure a modern version of the Balinese kampung experience, while on-site Terra Terrace restaurant offers fusion food (and some rather confused combinations) and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That said, enjoying a private romantic dinner by your own pool is a real pleasure. 
The plush Amarterra Spa follows traditional Dharma rituals and offers Balinese 'Urut' Massage, a deep-tissue massage known for its ability to accelerate healing.
Treatments range from massages and head messages to aromatherapy baths, face accupoint treatments, mud therapy and body exfoliation (I tried the massage, but passed on the exfoliation) - and the therapists are uniformly charming. 
Overall, this is a brilliant place to relax and unwind for a few days. You are even cocooned from much of the construction noise on the Nusa Dua beachfront. One bedroom villas start from around $445 and several packages are available. 
Amarterra Villas, Nusa Dua, Bali. +62 361 776400. www.amarterravilla.com.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Raise a glass to this Sydney-Hobart yacht race entry

This post is a little random, but it is, at least, seasonal, so I hope you find it interesting in this time of good cheer.

While the wine connections of Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race favourite and multiple winner Wild Oats are well known, there is also a contestant with a whisky link to cheer for.
Old Pulteney distillery has a yacht racing in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, which is also competing in the Sydney to Hobart. 

And there is a real, albeit tenuous, connection - not merely sponsorship guff. Pulteney distillery at windswept Wick is one of the most northerly in Scotland and whisky connoisseurs have been known to say they can detect a faint hint of the sea in their glass of 12-year-aged single malt.

Known as the ‘Maritime Malt,’ Old Pulteney distillery dates back to 1826 and won the title of ‘World Whisky of the Year’ for 2012 in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible – one of the industry’s highest accolades. 

Dutchman Patrick van der Zijden is the skipper and his crew includes sailors from Peru, Switzerland, Brazil, Hungary, Canada, the Us and Wales - and even a couple of Scots. The Cruising Yacht Club of Australia is predicting a fleet of around 94 yachts for the 628-nautical mile classic, which starts at 1pm on Boxing Day. 

The Old Pulteney is one of a fleet of 12 super yachts competing in the Clipper Round the World race, which has taken in Brest, France, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town and Australia with stops still to come in Singapore, Qingdao, San Francisco, Panama, Jamaica, New York, Londonderry and, finally, London in July 2014.

Lara Gardner, Old Pulteney brand manager at island2island beverage company (Old Pulteney's Australian distributor) says, no doubt tongue in cheek: “As the ‘Maritime Malt’, it seems only fitting to raise a glass of Old Pulteney as the crews compete in the Sydney to Hobart race."

I know less than nothing about whisky, but thought Old Pulteney tasted delicious. My verdict was confirmed when a good Scottish friend attempted to take off with my bottle of Christmas Eve, saying "How did you know that is my favourite whisky?"

So here's to the brave (and crazy) in the yacht race fleet. 



Saturday, 2 November 2013

Wolgan Valley: rare luxury in the bush

Just about everywhere I stay I ask myself the question: What would I change if I were the general manager here?

At Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort the answer was a resounding: Not much. 

It's no surprise that Wolgan Valley is rated the No.1 place to stay in Australia by users of TripAdvisor. OK, so its not cheap - its pricing is up there with other Australian luxury lodges like Qualia and Saffire. But everything about Wolgan is world class.

Opened four years ago, this is a luxury conservation-based resort that is a three-hour drive from Sydney in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area.

The resort is nestled between two national parks and is set within its own 4,000 acre carbon-neutral conservation and wildlife reserve. The only experience of its kind in Australia, the resort combines luxury and seclusion with a quintessentially Australian bush experience.

A member of Leading Hotels of the World and is a founding member of the Luxury Lodges of Australia, Emirates Wolgan Valley recently hosted a Qantas EpiQure event at which I was lucky enough to be invited.

I'd been wary about staying here before (thinking it was a long drive) but was blown away by both the dramatic setting and the quality service - not to mention the fine food and wine served by an EpiQure team headed by Neil Perry and Brett Graham.

Emirates Wolgan Valley is an all-inclusive resort meaning you can stay, dine, help yourself to the mini bar and partake in several on-site adventures without paying extra.

Major attractions include guided walks, horse-riding tours, heritage tours, wildlife experiences, stargazing and Aboriginal culture tours. 

Constructed from wood and stone materials and designed in Federation-style, Wolgan Valley's 36 Heritage Suites are ideal for single guests, or couples looking for luxurious surroundings on a romantic break. Each has stunning views of the valley beyond and a private pool features its own deck surrounded by a garden of native plants and shrubs, and a spacious veranda.

Inside, a central, double-sided fireplace of local sandstone separates the bedroom from the living area. Great attention to detail has been paid to ensure the fixtures and fittings are reminiscent of the Federation period.

Suites feature the latest in entertainment and internet technologies, like iPod docks and iPads with resort info, while thoughtful extras, such as binoculars, let you get up close and personal with the local wildlife without having to leave the deep-cushioned comfort of the sofa. A luxurious en suite bathroom features twin vanities and separate shower and bath.


As you'd expect of a five-star resort there is also a fully equipped gym, sauna and steam room, all-weather tennis courts and an outstanding swimming pool - necessary as it gets pretty warm here during the summer months. There is also an on-site spa and Australian artworks decorate public areas.


For those who want to push the boat out, there are also three family suites and a private lodge, often used by members of the Emirates royal family.

The Wolgan Valley food philosophy is based on seasonal, regional, and organic produce from local boutique farms, private growers and vintners. The culinary skills of the Wolgan Valley chefs showcase Australia's exceptional fare with such specialties as Ormiston free-range pork, Mandagery Creek Venison and Oberon line trout, as well as a selection of local cheeses and wines.


Emirates Wolgan Valley, 2600 Wolgan Road, Wolgan Valley, Lithgow, NSW 2790. (02) 9290 9733.  www.wolganvalley.com. Email: reservations@wolganvalley.com.

Friday, 25 October 2013

TarraWarra Estate - a Yarra Valley jewel

Marc and Eva Besen fell in love with the wines of Burgundy when they honeymooned in France in 1950.

In 1983, after years of success in the fashion business, they planted some chardonnay and pinot noir vines in one of the most beautiful parts of the Yarra Valley. And in 1988 they released the first wines from what they named TarraWarra Estate.
Tarrawarra Estate entrance

The Besens recently marked the 30th birthday of the planting of the first vines on what is regarded as one of the Yarra’s best vineyards and the TarraWarra Estate is now home to a high-tech winery, one of the best cellar door restaurants in the country and the spectacular TarraWarra Museum of Modern Art (the Besens are among the country’s most generous arts benefactors).

I was fortunate enough to have attended the launch of the first wines 25 years ago – and to have attended the recent birthday celebrations at which the Besen family uncorked some of the finest wines from their cellars (think 1964 Chateau Haut Brion and 1966 Chateau d’Yquem), along with some of the best bottles they have produced with the aid of winemakers David Wollan, Michael Kluczko and now Clare Halloran over the past quarter of a century.

At the time the vines were planted, chardonnay was a relative newcomer and pinot noir grown by only a handful of adventurous Yarra Valley vignerons: Mount Mary, Yeringberg and St Huberts among them.

“So many people at that time didn’t even know what pinot noir was,” Besen recalled. “It’s always been a great challenge for us but we set out to achieve the absolute best, aiming for quality right from the start.”
There is no doubt that TarraWarra should be on the itinerary of any visitor to the Yarra, particularly with a fascinating exhibition of the works of Russell Drysdale running the gallery until February 4, 2014. 

The first Sunday of each month is also a great time to visit with TarraWarra hosting "Burgundy Sundays". The wine list highlights affordable burgundies, or guests can BYO, to enjoy with a rustic French dish from the menu. 

The restaurant, with chef Robin Sutcliffe (below) manning the pans, features local, seasonal dishes, including Buxton rainbow trout, roasted in vine leaves with feta ($17) and Yeringberg suckling lamb, slow roasted on the bone with Puy lentils and a soft herb salad, preserved lemon & pickled cucumber ($38).  

Under Clare Halloran, winemaker since 1997, all of TarraWarra’s wines are grown, hand-picked, vinified and aged on the estate, which has three kilometres of Yarra Valley river frontage. The vineyard itself is comprised of 19 hillside blocks over 28 hectares, with new clones having been added and underperforming vines ripped out as part of an ongoing viticultural program.

The reserve chardonnay and pinot noir are the flagship wines of TarraWarra Estate and they have been joined by single block wines including the K-Block Merlot (the 2010 is outstanding); J-Block Shiraz; and a marsanne/roussanne/viognier blend.

“Basically, our thrust is all about getting it right in the vineyard,” says Halloran. “It’s all about making wines that are true to your site. I’m not going to go out and make something freaky; it is just about tuning and tweaking and if you get good fruit you don’t need to tinker too much in the winery.

“A lot of people raised their eyebrows when we started to work with shiraz and merlot and it’s not about liquorice allsorts, but about the sites in the vineyard and what they are best suited to growing.”


Even though Marc Besen is now 90 years old, he still keeps a keen eye on proceedings and is a regular at the winery. His son Daniel, a lawyer and property developer, shares his father’s love for fine wine and is the heir apparent to one of the Yarra Valley’s great jewels.     

TarraWarra Estate, 311 Healesville-Yarra Glen Road, Yarra Glen, Victoria. (03) 5962 3311. www.tarrawarra.com.au. Cellar Door and Restaurant open Tuesday to Sunday 
from 11am to 5pm.




Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Southern Highlands: To the manor born

There's a new era at Peppers Manor House in the New South Wales Southern Highlands. New management, a new chef at its Katers restaurant and a new approach.

Which is a good thing because although the property is in a beautiful setting, I'd always felt it wasn't living up to its full potential. It was good, but....

Jesse Kornoff is the new GM with ideas, and says he wants to give guests a memorable retreat experience, along with "a hatted restaurant focused on local sustainable produce."

New executive chef Daniel James has set to work creating a new menu, a high tea with a difference and a Manor House market garden. 

"The Southern Highlands is a foodie’s paradise and my team and I are looking forward to working with the local producers and taking Katers to the next level,” he said.

The new menu capitalises on the Southern Highlands wealth of natural produce with its own Manor House garden complemented by an array of mushrooms, truffles, olive oil, wines and ciders sourced within a 35km radius.

Beef, lamb, pork and duck are sourced either from the Highlands or neighbouring Picton and Crookwell regions, and, drawing on his early career days as a pastry chef, James has created a savoury hig tea with a twist, with morsels ranging from a seared scallop and prawn cocktail to a sweet strawberry and Cointreau trifle. 

Peppers Manor House was originally part of the estate of Dr Charles Throsby, a well-known pioneer of the area.  It was later inherited by his nephew, Charles Throsby Jnr. and wife Elizabeth Broughton, after whom Mount Broughton and the whole estate was named.

In 1878, Henry Edward Kater bought Mount Broughton, and built the first substantial single storey house on the present site. Sir Norman Kater inherited the property in 1924 and expanded the house in 1926 creating the splendid baronial Great Hall in the centre of the house, and added the two-storey wing and several bedrooms upstairs.
The property fell into neglect under various owners throughout the 1960s and 70s until it was purchased in 1984 by Geoff and Sue O’Reilly. They returned the country estate to its grand status upgrading both accommodation and gardens and adding conferencing venues.
In 1993 the estate became part of the Peppers Group and when I stayed a while back I wrote that it was "the ideal Southern Highlands bolthole for those who love country-house style hotels".
During winter there are open fires, but in summer meals are served in a leafy courtyard, and drinks by the pool. Facilities include a beauty salon, swimming pool and tennis court and there are some lovely nooks and crannies on the ground floor that are perfect for relaxing with a good book or the Sunday papers.

Peppers Manor House has just 41 rooms and suites with views of the beautiful English-style gardens and the Mount Broughton golf course.

Peppers Manor House is located on Kater Road, Sutton Forest, 90 minutes south of Sydney.  A Gourmet Food Trail two-night package is currently on offer from $345 per couple per night (total minimum spend $690) which includes accommodation, a five-course degustation dinner for two on one night, breakfast daily, local food tasting plate on arrival and a local food trail map for self-drive discovery.

For bookings/enquiries see www.peppers.com.au/manor-house or phone (02) 4860 3111.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Norfolk: A quaint slice of England as she used to be

The county of Norfolk is quintessentially English, full of quaint country pubs and waterside towpaths, but remains a well-kept secret – although not to the British royal family. 

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the newest royal, Prince George, are setting up their country home at Anmer Hall on the Queen's private Sandringham Estate.

The 10-bedroom Georgian mansion, one of the Queen's favourites from her 150-property collection, will act as a rural retreat from the couple's primary London residence, Kensington Palace. The house has a swimming pool and tennis court and is close to idyllic Holkham Beach.
 
The couple’s move is likely to shine a spotlight on the county of Norfolk – which has long remained one of Britain’s undiscovered treasures.

Ever gaped at the jaw-dropping scenery featured on Stephen Fry’s ABC-TV series Kingdom or at Gwyneth Paltrow walking along Holkham Beach at the end of Shakespeare in Love?

Both, along with Eyes Wide Shut, Tomb Raider, The Duchess and even Dad’s Army are among the many TV shows and movies filmed in the county. It is here British royals have had their holiday home, Sandringham, for four generations; where Hollywood star Johnny Depp owns a 13-bedroom rural retreat and where the coastline has been described by Fry as the “most beautiful part of Britain bar none”.

Kingdom was filmed in and around the market town of Swaffham and seaside town Wells-next-the-Sea but England’s most easterly county of Norfolk is full of similarly delightful villages – and the ancient regional capital city of Norwich is less than two hours from London by train.

Despite its many charms, Norfolk has traditionally struggled to match the pulling power of better-known and more-publicised regions like the Lake District and the Cotswolds.

Norwich claims more medieval churches than any other city in Europe, and is surrounded by a network of rivers and lakes known as the Norfolk Broads, while rural Norfolk is a seductive slice of England as she used to be; dotted with small villages and rustic ale houses.

Back in the 11th century, Norwich was the largest city in England after London – and one of the most important places in the United Kingdom. 

Today it is a sleepy market town best known for its Premier League football team, Norwich City, and its celebrity supporters, among them part-owner and TV chef Delia Smith and writer and TV personality Fry.

The city also has a bizarre link to Australia, a local factory having provided many thousands of kilometres of metal netting for the rabbit-proof fencing scheme.

Norwich Market
Norfolk is a country area to which city folk migrate for the summer. It has some of the best beaches in Europe, country walks and much to fascinate history buffs; including over 1000 years of royal history stretching from William the Conqueror, who established Norwich Castle as a royal palace soon after his triumphs in 1066, to the current monarch.

Sandringham, in the west of Norfolk, was purchased by Queen Victoria in 1862 and has been a home away from home for monarchs Edward VII, George V, George VI and Elizabeth II. The ground floor of the house, museum, gardens and country park are all open to the public.

The museum in the old stables and coach houses contains a car museum with exhibits including a 1900 Daimler Phaeton, reputedly the first automobile owned by the royals.

Back in Norwich, the imposing cathedral features heavily in the film Jack The Giant Slayer, which stars Ewan McGregor and Bill Nighy.

Norfolk is easy to get to on Britain’s network of motorways; around two hours’ drive from London if the traffic is kind, but once you arrive you’ll find nearly all the roads are single-lane, many little more than country tracks.

Norfolk remains quiet and unspoiled – because when Britain planned its motorway network in the 1950s and 60s the major arterials were nearly all designed north-south and not a single one traverses the county.

That has, in many ways, stunted progress. Norwich remains the county’s only city and seaside resorts such as Great Yarmouth (with its old-style seaside funfair) and Cromer look very much like 1950-60s film sets and are places where simple pleasures like donkey rides are still popular.

Norwich is a smallish but charming medieval city. With its castle, cathedral and winding shopping streets it has, predictably, been named as “the city that time forgot.”

Norwich simply strolled into the 21st century at its own pace – and is all the more appealing for that; ending up a fascinating blend of old and new. It is best explored in the first instance by open-topped bus so you can get your bearings, then on foot.

Don’t miss the pedestrian shopping streets and laneways, many of them cobbled, which date back several centuries. Many of the half-timbered Tudor houses in Elm Hill have stood for over 500 years.
Norwich laneways

The city is traversed by the meandering River Wensum, a somnambulant little waterway that also runs past Carrow Road football ground, where the local “Canaries” now host giants of the game like Manchester United and Liverpool.

Norwich Cathedral is almost 1,000 years old and is surrounded by a 20-hectare "Cathedral Quarter" (the largest in England), while the castle now houses an art gallery and museum of local history that focuses on local icon Queen Boudicea, who led a rebellion against the Romans.

For those with shopping in mind, Norwich Market with its 200+ stalls is the largest daily open-air market in the country, while Jarrold’s is a traditional department store and the Royal Arcade noteworthy for its Art Nouveau design. The city also buzzes during the annual beer festival each October, one of an array of festivals throughout the year.

Many visitors to Norfolk come to spend a few days cruising the Broads, which were formed when medieval peat diggings created shallow lakes that were joined by cuts and dykes to the rivers Yare, Bure, Wensum and Waveney.

Pick up a small boat at Wroxham or Hoveton and cruise past the many windmills, tea rooms, riverside pubs and quaint villages. This is a farming county, where hunting is also popular and the local seafood excellent (including the famous oysters and mussels from Brancaster and crabs from Cromer). 

Norfolk is also known for its many historic houses, including Holkham Hall, Blickling Hall (where Anne Boleyn, one of Henry’s VIII’s eight wives was born), Sandringham House and Felbrigg Hall.

Three Norfolk pubs were nominated in the 2013 Great British Pubs awards: the Murderers, in Timberhill, Norwich, for best sports pub; the Brickmakers in Norwich, for best entertainment; and the Jolly Sailors at Brancaster Staithe, for best family pub.

The county is also something of an under-rated gourmet destination with top restaurants including St John’s, The Assembly House, Roger Hickman’s, The Library, The Last Wine Bar and The Maid’s Head Hotel (which dates back to the 13th century and offers 40 wines by the glass) in Norwich, along with more rural destinations such as Titchwell Manor, the Hoste Arms and the Parson Woodforde. And if you’ve worked up a thirst, there are dozens of micro-breweries and cider producers.

A final word of warning: away from Norwich, the locals speak in a broad country accent that can be difficult to decipher. Yes, those accents on Kingdom and other TV shows are real. It is a source of some pride that some Norfolk folk have never been to the big smoke. And by that they mean Norwich, not London.

As the receptionist at the Virginia Court Hotel in Cromer said to me: “We know we are living a little in the past, but we are happy there.” Amen to that.     

Getting there: 
Qantas operates direct daily services from Sydney to London. To book visit or call 13 13 13. Fares vary seasonally. Trains from London's Liverpool Street Station leave www.qantas.com every 30 minutes and take just under two hours. If you book in advance, fares start from £18 return. A car is recommended for exploring the county.

Staying there:
The Holiday Inn Norwich City is heaven for sports fans and is just a short walk from the city centre. Several of the rooms directly overlook the football pitch. The pitch view rooms not only offer views of the Premier League action, they also come with high-speed internet access and flat-screen TVs. There is a good on-site restaurant and bar (the breakfasts are very good).  www.holidayinn-norwichcity.co.uk.

Titchwell Manor Hotel, dating back to 1896, is a delightful coastal boutique hotel outside the hamlet of Brancaster in North Norfolk. There are just 27 rooms and a superb on-site restaurant that has become a gourmet destination thanks to chef Eric Snaith’s modern English menus, which specialise in local shellfish. The Titchwell bird reserve and Royal West Norfolk Golf Course are both close by. www.titchwellmanor.com.

Virginia Court Hotel in Cromer is a traditional British seaside hotel refurbished and comfortable in a lovely old resort with its own traditional seaside pier. An ideal base from which to explore the North Norfolk Coast and seaside towns including Holt and Sheringham. www.virginiacourt.co.uk.   

Wroxham Barns, a short drive north of Norwich, is a leisure complex that’s home to a very good restaurant, a brewery and cider shop as well as craft studios and artists workshops. www.wroxhambarns.co.uk.

Fish and chips at Cromer
Five Norfolk Attractions
1. The North Norfolk coast is dotted with historic lighthouses. Check out those at Cromer, Happisburgh, Hunstanton and Winterton on Sea.

2. A range of classic English gardens are open to the public, including Blickling Hall, Bressingham Gardens, Felbrigg Hall and Hoveton Hall Gardens.

3. Norfolk has the greatest concentration of medieval churches in the world with over 650 remaining intact. Check out Norwich Cathedral, All Saints at Burnham Thorpe and St Margaret at Cley next the Sea.

4. Norfolk is home to a long coastline, the inland Broads and several navigable rivers, making a boat trip de rigueur.

5. Several steam railways operate during the summer months, including at Bressingham, Bure Valley and the Wells Walsingham Railway.


# The writer was assisted by Qantas, VisitNorfolk and VisitNorwich. This story originally appeared in a shorter form in the Sydney Sun-Herald. 


Saturday, 19 October 2013

The Mornington Peninsula - a gourmet Mecca

It is hard to think of a wine region anywhere in Australia that ticks quite as many boxes as the Mornington Peninsula when it comes to fine food, great wines and luxurious accommodation - although the Yarra Valley, Hunter Valley and Margaret River do all come close. 

Melbourne’s movers and shakers have used the peninsula as their weekend seaside playground for generations and over the past two decades they have been joined by increasing numbers of winemakers and boutique food producers.
Gourmets, wine lovers and golfers have followed in their wake and there are now over 50 cellar doors, dozens of appealing eateries and a range of great places to stay; ranging from beach shacks to five-star resorts.

Just over an hour south of Melbourne, the peninsula is a delightful region in which to spend a few days. Boot-shaped, it lends itself to leisurely exploration of the vines and olive groves. You are indisputably in the country here, with lush farmland and winding country lanes leading from vineyard to vineyard. It’s extremely easy to get lost, but there are surprises around every corner. 

Seaside townships including Dromana, Sorrento, Mornington, Flinders and Merricks all have plenty of great views, while the hamlet of Red Hill is particularly well endowed with destinations for foodies, including Red Hill Cheese, a great market on the first Saturday of each month and the boutique Red Hill Brewery (now sadly now only open occasionally to visitors).

There’s a real warmth to the region. Visitors are made very welcome.

The boutique wineries tend to specialise in cool-climate grape varieties, particularly chardonnay and pinot noir. The breezes from Port Philip Bay and Bass Strait make Mornington perfect for cool-climate viticulture and recently Italian varieties, including pinot grigio, have been grown with great success.

Long-time favourite Stonier, Ten Minutes by Tractor, Paringa Estate, Tuck’s Ridge (far top), Eldridge Estate (below), Paradigm Hill and Yabby Lake all produce wines worth seeking out, while tiny and rustic Hurley Vineyard (visits by appointment) makes stellar pinots. Crittenden Estate, T’Gallant, Scorpo, Ocean Eight, Montalto and Quealy are other names to look out for.  

The Port Philip Estate facility should be on any visitor’s itinerary given its spectacular cellar door and restaurant and newly opened luxury suites. Sandro Mosele’s wines under both the PPE and Kooyong labels are outstanding.

Willow Creek, meanwhile, has undergone a major facelift with a renovated cellar door and homestead, a new-look Salix Bistro and a new deck. Rather than the previously cramped facilities, there’s plenty of space at the cellar door with a U-shaped bluestone tasting bench.

My personal favourite spot to visit at weekends is the ultra-laidback Foxeys Hangout, where visitors can create their own sparkling wine blend and winemaker Tony Lee also gets behind the stoves to serve up superb tasting plates like grilled mushrooms in vine leaves and barbecued quail.

Sit outside with a glass of pinot noir and take in the views. Life doesn’t get much better.
Other “must visit” destinations for wine lovers include Main Ridge Estate, Paringa Estate, Eldridge Estate and Morning Sun Vineyard.

Main Ridge Estate is the ultimate aficionado experience, a tiny space where Nat White, one of the region’s winemaking pioneers, pours his own wines – which are of superb quality with Burgundian-style chardonnays and pinots noir.

Paringa Estate has a fun cellar door with extremely knowledgeable staff, superb pinots and shirazes and there's some excellent food in the restaurant. 

Morning Sun (second top) has a cellar door that is open seven days a week and serves Northern Italian-inspired food in its Osteria eatery, while Eldridge Estate has a purely wine focus with a range of pinots featuring different clones and winemaking techniques – and one of Australia’s best gamays. Eldridge winemaker David Lloyd, a fountain of knowledge on all Peninsula pleasures, offers plenty of sage advice for first-time visitors.

Dining choices are many and varied, with the spectacular Ten Minutes by Tractor, Stillwater at Crittenden, Max’s at Red Hill Estate, Salix at Willow Creek and Montalto (right) are all winery restaurants that have garnered praise, while the pizzas and Italian dishes at La Baracca Trattoria at T’Gallant winery are also hugely popular.

Other restaurants serving stellar food include the excellent Long Table, now in comfortable new digs, the Fork to Fork Cafe at Heronswood Gardens, which specialises in seasonal food (often fresh from their own vegetable patches and herb gardens) and decadent desserts, and the country-chic Merricks General Store.

For a more casual gourmet experience pop in to Main Ridge Dairy, which produces a range of exciting goat cheeses. Tastings are offered in the cheesery, along with cheese platters and sales.

And if all the food and wine becomes a little too much, try a walk along the gloriously unspoiled Merricks Beach (with views to Philip Island), or visit the delightful Peninsula Hot Springs retreat, where you can bathe in mineral spring water and enjoy a massage or beauty treatments.  

For more information
Mornington Peninsula Tourism, (03) 5987 3078, www.visitmorningtonpeninsula.org.
Mornington Peninsula Vignerons Association, (03) 5989 2377, www.mpva.com.au.

ENDS