Thursday, 28 March 2013

A quick taste of Tunisia



When I went to grammar school in England, many years ago now, students were divided into four "houses" - Rome, Athens, Troy and Carthage, representing the great ancient civilisations. 

Carthage is now a suburb of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, so when we sailed into Tunis's port of La Goullete on the MSC Preziosa, I felt compelled to take a shore excursioion, even though I generally hate beng herded on and off buses with dull-witted folk unable to remember if they are on vehicle eight, or nine.

Our four-hour tour took in the "typical fishing village" of Sidi Bou Said (pictured below), pretty with its traditional blue and white-painted buildings but awash with persistent sellers of ceramics, rugs, leather goods and various nicknacks of dubious quality.  
 

These dudes don't like taking no for an answer - and they are all blokes. Even in the local coffee shops the women are noticeable by their absence. Best tactic against hard sell: either a Campo shuffle or a Colin Meads charge. 

The archaeological ruins of Carthage, often abutting modern residential developments, are, however, fascinating. The remans date back to the 6th century BC and it was from here that Hannibal crossed the Alps to take on the Romans. The ancient baths and amphitheatre are well worth exploring. 

It's worth noting that the city of Tunis itself is around 20km from the port of La Goullete, where cruise ships dock. With time limited, you may well have to choose between the Medina quarter and shopping, or taking in some history.  


Tuesday, 26 March 2013

A road less travelled


When the MSC Preziosa docked in the neat little Sicilian port of Messina most of those on board opted for excursions to either Etna or the pretty, but touristy, hilltop village of Toarmina. 

I decided to take a road less travelled and headed, instead, for the local railway station. 

A paltry €7.90 bought me a return ticket to Giardini Naxos, a cute little fishing village and seaside resort some 48 kilometers down the coast line to Catania. The journey took 35 minutes out and around an hour back and it was a delight to be in a small town that clearly marches to a slow food beat. 



Founded in 734 BC, this sleepy spot apparently comes alive in July and August.

Now, small fishing boats line the shore, a mix of rocks and dark sand, and while there are a couple of rather grand hotels, most of the accommodation appeared to be bed and breakfasts. Many of the cosy eateries specialised in local swordfish.  

This picture postcard perfect Mediterranean town is the kind of place where you could easily spend a somnambulant few days. Alas, I only had a couple of hours but I can recommend the excellent espresso at the station cafe. The chilled white wine when I reboarded the Preziosa wasn't bad either.  

Monday, 25 March 2013

Napoli: well worth avoiding


The first time I visited Naples, maybe a quarter of a century ago, I was underwhelmed by its charms.

My most recent visit served only to reinforce those youthful impressions. I have now added la not-so-bella Napoli to a list that also includes Rio de Janeiro, Tel Aviv and Bloemfontein - all cities to which I am content to never return.

A lot of people describe Naples as a city of character. They clearly confuse character with decay.

It's a grubby place. Garbage is left out on the sidewalks and the historic old quarter has an unmistakeable stench of neglect. Many of the cars appear go have been recent entries in a demolition derby while the arrival of a cruise ship at the wharf guarantees a healthy turnout of spivs and beggars.

Don't get me wrong. I love Italy. Florence and Milan are among my favourite cities and I adore Tuscan treasures like Siena and Lucca. Napoli's old quarter, however, is down at heel and the city is, somewhat belatedly, I would argue, a building site with both the Piazza Garibaldi and Piazza Municipio both turned into construction areas.

The only advert on a tram I caught was a multilingual one warning of pickpockets.

To be fair to Napoli it does good pizza and has a decent football team. It's worth taking a drive, or bus ride, through waterfront Mergellina and up through Posillipo to take in some spectacular views of the Bay of Naples (below).


If you arrive on a cruise ship like the MSC Preziosa, a most enjoyable experience, then Naples is the gateway to such undisputed treasures as Pompei, the isle of Capri, Vesuvius, Sorrento and Casserta.

I would humbly suggest an excursion to one of them and a minimal amount of time in this sprawling city and its crazy drivers. Or alternatively enjoying the luxury of an almost deserted cruise liner.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Luxury new cruise ship launches




This is the MSC Preziosa, the brand-new cruise ship which was officially christened in Genoa on March 23. I was lucky enough to be on board for the inaugural cruise. 

The launch, by Sophia Loren, marks MSC Cruises becoming the third-largest cruise line in the world - a remarkable achievement for a family-owned company that is now ranked only behind Carnival Cruises and Royal Caribbean with an annual capacity of 1.45 million guests across its 12 ships.

MSC only launched its first ship in 1997 and the new Preziosa is the fourth member of the cruise line’s ever-expanding Fantasia class.

MSC Cruises has has over 50 per cent of its capacity in the Mediterranean, 14 per cent in South America, 12.5 percent in Northern Europe, and the remainder in Africa, the Caribbean, Canary Islands and Red Sea.

The Preziosa's inaugural voyage takes it to Naples, Messina, the Tunisian coast, Barcelona and Marseille. 





All of which should prove very interesting for yours truly, who last time he cruised became violently seasick and went down with a urinary infection that confined him to bed.

I aim to make sure I enjoy this cruise a lot more - and the initial signs are good. The Preziosa is more like a floating five-star resort than some of the cruising RSLs we see in Australia. The food over the first 24 hours has been good; the service impressive; the wi-fi works and there is an on-board wine bar. So far, so good.

Stay tuned as I discover the Preziosa - its many restaurants and activities - and the ports its docks at.

For bookings and details of introductory offers on the MSC Preziosa see www.msccruises.com.au.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

A little slice of France

Montreal is a little slice of France in go-ahead North America. It's Canada’s second-largest city and the biggest in the French-speaking province of Quebec. It has close to 3.6 million people in the metropolitan area and is the second-largest French-speaking city in the world after Paris. It’s a stunning mélange of the old and the new; the lively and the laidback.

As you’d expect, it has a French ambience – and a sensational range of eating and drinking experiences; from the traditional deli food at Schwartz’s – check out the massive smoked meat sandwiches – to the hip seafood eatery Kitchen Gallery Poisson in Old Montreal. 

Don’t miss tasting the best of the local produce at the Jean-Talon markets each day (see bottom pic) and pop into the funky Pullman for tapas and to taste wines from around the world. St-Catherine Street, Montreal’s main shopping area, is 15km long and boasts 1200 stores.

Montreal is an island city at the confluence of the St Lawrence and Ottawa rivers. It boasts  green spaces and festivals like the Montreal International Jazz Festival and Just For Laughs, the world’s largest comedy festival. 

It was once known as the “city of a hundred bell towers” and is renowned for its churches along with its museums, theatres and concert halls and historic districts like the lively Old Port. The Pointe-A-Calliere is a fascinating museum of archeology and history and the spectacularly named Mary Queen of the World Cathedral another “don’t miss”.

The venue of the 1976 Olympic Games, Montreal hosts the annual Canadian Formula One Grand Prix, a NASCAR race and is home to the beloved by the locals Montreal Canadiens ice hockey team, the most successful in North America with a record 24 Stanley Cup triumphs.

My digs were at the very chic Hotel Le Germain, one of a small chain of boutique hotels that’s making a big noise. With superbly equipped rooms, free wi-fi and personalised service “the courtesy car can take you to the station Mr Dobbin”, it ticks all the boxes if you are looking for affordable luxury.

Summer is probably the best time to visit. Montreal can be bitterly cold in winter. That means locals can stay underground when the inevitable winter snow hits. Montreal has 33km of underground city with 1700 boutiques and 200 restaurants.

Air Canada offers the only non-stop direct flights between Sydney and Canada flying daily from Sydney to Vancouver with connections throughout the day to both Toronto and Montreal. See www.aircanada.com.

Hotel Le Germain, 2050 Mansfield Street. Montreal. Metro: Peel. See www.hotelgermain.com

Monday, 18 March 2013

Doing London in style

I'm more a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy than a three-piece-suit style of fellow, but fortunately both are made very welcome at The Athenaeum Hotel, one of London’s most prestigious addresses; popular with stars of stage and screen as well as many Australians. 


The Athenaeum offers every possible luxury – particularly if you opt to stay in one of the recently 
refurbished individual apartments, favoured by the likes of movie mogul Steven Spielberg. And 
your apartment is serviced twice a day, just in case you've had a mid-afternoon rock star-style party.
 
There's a comfortable ambience here. The staff don’t look down on ordinary mortals and are polite, helpful and respectful, as you’d expect of a hotel that counts Harrison Ford, Michael Douglas and Sandra Bullock among its regular guests and has been called “Tinseltown on the Thames.” 

There’s a uniformed doorman to help on your arrival and to order taxis on your departure, and the hotel is happy to store your baggage at no extra cost if you’re heading out of town for a couple of days, as I was. There are also porters to assist with your suitcases and you are escorted to your room and shown all its features (a rarity in Australia nowadays).

My apartment (with kitchen and dining area, separate sitting room and an ultra luxe bed that was hard to leave in the morning) featured a complimentary bowl of fruit. There’s an espresso machine and all soft drinks, waters and snacks are complimentary. 

There are thoughtful touches like an iPod dock in the lounge room, a safe, slippers, robes and big fluffy towels. A free newspaper is delivered to rooms each morning (the establishment Daily Telegraph, of course) and there is a full range of satellite TV channels.

Head to the stylish and sophisticated bar for a drink and you are immediately offered complimentary bowls of  green olives and sliced almonds. The green apple martini is excellent (as you’d expect for £15).

While the service is polished, it is not without difficulties with one or two of the Eastern European staff (“You please point” is not acceptable at five-star hotel.) 

That said, there is bar and room service 24 hours a day, free wifi throughout and a business centre with fast broadband and printer 24 hours a day. Each of the apartments has an individual entrance so you don’t have to use the lobby with the hoi polloi but there are no bad rooms – they all have pillow menus, complimentary magazines and mini bar and Bose speakers.

Afternoon teas are hugely popular, but The Athenaeum also has a top-grade restaurant and London’s largest selection of whiskies; 270 and counting. There are free bikes if you’d like to cycle through one of the many nearby Royal parks, and a luxury on-site spa if you feel the need for even more pampering.

Australian dollar rates start from $579 per night, including taxes, breakfasts for two, drinks and snacks and wifi.and free airport transfers for stays of three nights or more.. 



The Athenaeum offers both hotel and apartment accommodation and is beautifully situated on Piccadilly, overlooking Green Park. It is at 116 Piccadilly, London. www.athenaeumhotel.com


Sunday, 17 March 2013

Australia's most unlikely gourmet treat

Looking for the freshest, most innovative sushi in Tasmania, perhaps Australia? 

Head out of Hobart into the Huon Valley, set course for the working class timber town of Geeveston and then seek out a tiny shopfront that holds less than 20 people. 

You've found Masaaki's Sushi, open only two days a week (Friday and Saturday) but a place of pilgrimage for lovers of sushi, sashimi and other Japanese delicacies. 



Masaaki Koyama, a Japanese sushi master who married a local girl, Lucy, uses local Huon Aqua salmon and trout, along with local fish like stripey trumpeter, to create a dazzling range of taste treats including yellow fin tuna sashimi and freshly rolled temaki sushi. 

His artistry has been featured on Gourmet Farmer and other television shows, but he has rebuffed efforts to entice him to the city, having grown up in rural Japan and feeling comfortable in Geeveston, a place where most of the residents had never tried sushi prior to his arrival..  

Koyama grows his own herbs and vegetables - and utliises fresh Shima wasabi from the north of the state. His stall at the Hobart Farm Gate Market every Sunday invariably sells out. His sushi is a work of art, and tastes even better than it looks. And the prices are ludicrously low for the quality.



The fresh miso soup in the restaurant is outstanding, as are dishes like thinly sliced duck breast which appear only when the produce is available. Book, or arrive early, as Masaaki sometimes closes up when he runs out of food.

Masaaki's Sushi, 20b Church Street, Geeveston, TAS. 0408712340.

   



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Saturday, 16 March 2013

Can a hotel room that costs $25 be any good?

Sometimes all you want from a hotel room is somewhere to lay your head overnight. A hot shower and a comfortable bed in a clean, safe environment.

If you need a business centre, 100 channels of cable TV, free wifi, room service, a comfy sofa and morning paper under your door then budget chains like Tune hotels won't work for you - but if your needs are simple then you you can save a heap of money. 

I've stayed in two Tune hotels, one in downtown Kuala Lumpur when the rate was around $40 a night (during peak season) and another at London Westminster (see room image below), where the current rate is around $100 a night - but can often be found for much cheaper. 

Book far enough in advance, however, and you can pay as little as $20 or $25 per night for Asian properties, more in western cities.

So what do you get for this bargain price? You get a central location. A bed (extremely comfortable with pillows, sheets and duvet) – and a bathroom with a power shower. 

You also get a bedside table, some hangers, a television and lighting. Want a towel, soap or shampoo? Pay extra. Want air-conditioning? Pay extra. Want in-room wifi? Pay extra. Want the television turned on? Pay extra.

The rooms are small but functional and there is 24-hour reception. Parking facilities? No. Baggage storage? Pay extra. Early check-in? Pay extra. But there are computer terminals in the lobby that are free for guests to use.

In a way this is refreshing. I’ve lost count of the number of rooms I’ve checked into a hotel at 11pm one night and checked out of at 6am the next without ever looking at the bar, swimming pool, gym or business centre. Paying for stuff I’m not using, in other words.

Malaysian-based Tune has hosted over four million guests since the opening of its first hotel in Kuala Lumpur in 2007. There are currently 27 Tune Hotels with 11 in Malaysia, five in Britain, four in the Philippines, four in Thailand and three in Indonesia. 

And now the budget urban accommodation provider is heading for Australia.The first Tune Hotel will be a 235-room property in Swanston Street, Melbourne, currently under construction and scheduled to open in August. Look out for some cheap-as-chips opening offers. 

For details see www.tunehotels.com.  





Friday, 15 March 2013

Safari in style

If your idea of a safari is sleeping in a cramped tent trying to swipe away those pesky mosquitoes then you are doing it all wrong. 

There are private game reserves dotted around South Africa, some of them very affordable,  that combine a luxury experience with the chance to see elephants, lions and hippos up close and personal.

Gondwana Game Reserve outside Mossel Bay - on the Garden Route between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth - is the perfect spot to spend a couple of days unwinding while doing as many game drives as you feel like. 

The African-style Kwena huts (thankfully with all modern comforts) are right in the middle of the reserve; so you might open your curtains in the morning to find elephants outside your door. A couple of days prior to our arrival, a pair of elephants has been seen drinking from the infinity swimming pool.

Set in 11,000 hectares of sustainably-managed African shrubland with all of the “big five” in residence (although leopards are notoriously hard to spot) you can see hippos wallowing in their mud pools and also enjoy watching endangered species like the black rhinoceros.

During our two-day stay we came within a few feet of a pair of lions that had just killed a kudu and were fat from their feast, and got nuzzled in our open-top jeep by a couple of curious elephants. 

These are experiences of a lifetime – and our guides were all terrifically informative and helpful, particularly one going by the most unlikely name of Delicious.

Fully Inclusive rates including dinner, lunch and breakfast, two game activities (walks or drives), all drinks and snacks starts from around $325 per night. 

Gondwana Game Reserve: +27 44 697 7077. www.gondwanagr.co.za.  




Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Best of the Barossa

There are myriad accommodation choices in the Barossa Valley, but if you like a little luxury (and you have the budget), then The Louise, the iconic all-suite resort, is undoubtedly the best place to stay. 


For wine lovers (and why else would you be here?) The Louise, one of Australia's top boutique vineyard retreats, has put together a comprehensive program of wine experiences available exclusively to its in-house guests. 

“We are happy to share with guests the close relationships we have developed with local producers and have put together a choice of several activities that give visitors the chance to see and taste the essence of the Barossa, including hidden gems, up-and-coming 
winemakers and uber-small garagiste operations,” says marketing manager Ruby Stobart.

The exclusive wine experiences offered by The Louise and its restaurant Appellation include a private tasting at Charles Melton Wines, a short winery tour and then lunch or a cheese plate with a glass of wine, or maybe a tour of Seppeltsfield with a private tasting and the chance to sample a fortified wine, direct from barrel, from your birth year.

Other activities feature wineries including Tscharke, Murray Street Vineyard, Elderton, Milhinch Wines/Seize The Day, Hentley Farm, Rusden Wines, Two Hands, Small Fry, Kalleske and Hutton Vale.



For those dining on site, new Appellation chef Ryan Edwards hasn’t missed a beat since taking over from local legend Mark McNamara and his nightly tasting menu is a bargain for $125 (or $180 when matched with boutique Barossa wines).

Think dishes like jellied Hutton Vale lamb tongue with pickles, capers and leaves or rare roasted breast of Eden Valley pigeon with confit cherries and juniper glaze.

Suites at what was once known as Peppers Hermitage feature king beds with crisp linen and soft contemporary furnishings, in-room fireplaces, large dual spa tubs, private outdoor showers, LCD digital flat screen TV/DVDs and marble en-suite bathrooms, heated flooring, and intimate seating areas and terraces overlooking the vineyards. heated flooring, and intimate seating areas and terraces overlooking the vineyards. 

There's also a wine bar for pre-dinner drinks and the service is top-notch, particularly in the restaurant. And yes, there's free wifi.

The Louise and Appellation are on the corner of Seppeltsfield and Stonewell Roads, Marananga. (08) 8562 2722. www.thelouise.com.au

A delightful Vietnamese resort

Looking for somewhere to really get away from it all? The new Mia Resort south of the Nha Trang in Vietnam is one of those places that are so relaxed that's you'd be happy to spend a week here without leaving the property. 

The stretch of coastline between Cam Ranh Bay Airport and Nha Trang City is to be the centre of much major tourism development over the next few years but for now Mia is alone with its palm trees, golden sands and a choice of swimming pool or private beach on the South China Sea for a quick dip (or, if you are staying in one of the cliff villas, your own personal plunge pool).

Everything here is a bright, shiny and new and has a definite “wow” factor. Choose from cliff-top hideaways to waterfront bungalows, from Mojito’s cocktail bar for casual dining to the more serious Sandals, where both the Asian and western dishes are fresh and flavoursome. Or maybe enjoy a massage at the Xanh Spa (highly recommended).



I’ve stayed at some of Asia’s better resorts and the facilities and staff here are up there with them, even if the amazingly low price tag isn’t. Rates start from around $180 and there are several package deals available.

There is even a free shuttle bus to take guests into Nha Trang, a funky beach resort (try dining at the lively Sailing Club, or enjoy lunch and a pilsener brewed on-site at the Louisiane Brewhouse).

Boat tours head out from the port to Nha Trang Bay but the water in the much-vaunted bay can be horribly polluted. More interesting are the Thap Ba Hot Springs, where you can cover yourself head-to-toe in mud and enjoy a number of heated pools with the locals, and the Po Ngar Cham temple, which dates back to 781 AD and sits on a hill overlooking Nha Trang.

The Mia Resort Nha Trang +84 583 989 666. www.mianhatrang.com.



Sunday, 10 March 2013

Lyon: a treat for food and wine lovers


It is with good reason that the city of Lyon is known as the culinary capital of France.

With Beaujolais to the north and the Côtes du Rhone to the south, Lyon is surrounded by vineyards and has a formidable culinary history. 



The legendary chef Paul Bocuse, who has several restaurants in town and was named chef of the 20th century, is just one of the many famous Lyonnais pan handlers, but the city is just as well known for its many small, friendly restaurants serving traditional local dishes and wines, which are known as bouchons. 

The food in these lively establishments is usually red-meat dominated; think charcuterie dishes like rosette Lyonnais and saucisson de Lyon or hearty fare like andouilletes (tripe sausages often smothered in mustard), the traditional chicken casserole known as coq au vin, tripe cooked with onions or the small pike mousses known as quenelles. Cervelle de canut is a cheese spread much beloved by the locals with curd mixed with chopped herbs, shallots, salt, pepper, olive oil and vinegar.

Make time to check out Cafe des Federations, a lively, jovial and bustling spot where you drink local wine from small carafe bottles known as pots and a massive platter of charcuterie is slapped down in front of you on arrival. It's not about haute cuisine here - it's about fun. 

This is the real deal: checked tablecloths, closely-packed tables and sausages hanging from the ceiling. You eat what you are told, although you do get a choice of hearty mains; dishes like black pudding with apple, calf head with ravigote sauce, cake of chicken livers (and delicious it was, too) and stew of pork cheeks. Other similarly-styled bouchons include La Meunière; Daniel et Denise, Chez Hugon and Le Poêlon d'Or, as well as the character-filled Restaurant Le Musèe. 

More sophisticated (and expensive) dining choices include the venerable Le Mère Brazier, where Bocuse did his apprenticeship, Auberge de I’lle, La Rotonde Leon de Lyon and Le Maison Clovis. In all, the Lyon region has 14 Michelin-starred establishments.  The Auberge du Pont de Collonges, superchef Bocuse’s main restaurant is out of town on the banks of the Saône. The only time I have eaten here I was disappointed – but I was dining as part of a large group and found the food lacklsutre; the service equally so. Far more affordable, and enjoyable, are Bocuse's small brasseries dotted around town: Le Sud, Bistro de l’Est, Le Nord, L’Ouest etc.
  
Don't miss the Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse (pictured) - the city’s best covered market and paradise for anyone who loves gourmet goodies. Among the stalls not to miss are Mère Richard, a decadent cheese shop, Sibilia, a stunning charcuterie, and the chocolates and sweets at Sève.

If you are into food it is a delight to spend a few hours here tasting the many local specialities from the 56 merchants, many of whom also have small restaurants or cafés attached to their stalls. An alternative is the Saint-Antoine Market, a food market along the banks of the River Saône from Tuesday-Sunday. If you want to get out of town, the Kanpai group offers a range of half- and full-day wine tours to Beaujolais and the northern Rhone. And if you don’t have time to do some tastings you can pick up some well-chosen bottles at the Cave Valmy, probably the best wine store in town.

A well situated place to stay is Hotel Le Royal Lyon at 20 Place Bellecour (www.lyonhotel-leroyal.com). It has just 74 rooms, is luxurious in a restrained way and brilliantly situated on the city’s major square, just a short walk from both the Saône and the Rhone.


Saturday, 9 March 2013

How to have a rum old time in Port-of-Spain

So you are heading all the way to Port of Spain, capital of Trinidad, maybe to try some rums, or perhaps to enjoy the riotous annual carnival. 

A lot of people - some of whom should know better - will tell you the Trinidad Hilton is the place to stay. It isn't. 


There's nothing wrong with it, other than the fact its a little tired. But the fact is it is perched on a hill overlooking Port of Spain and unless you want to do a whole lot of walking, which isn't recommended at night, then you'll be getting to know a lot of the local taxi drivers.



Trinidad may not be your classical Caribbean beauty. with a few exceptions it is more your working-class hero, but its many cultures – African, Indian, South American, British and Spanish – have melded to create a unique vibe. Even if neighboring Tobago has the better beaches. 

Trinidad is gritty and real - but if you do want a holiday feel then the Hyatt Regency on the waterfront (pictured) is a modern and sleek beast with a great pool and deck; the ideal base from which to sample the many bars and cafes on Ariapita Avenue. This is the hotel that should be recommended to you.


The Hilton overlooks the city and the green expanse of the Queen’s Park Savannah. It's a good place to get away from it all; a standard resort. But why would you travel all that way to get away from it all? 


Friday, 8 March 2013

Cape Town's decadent city getaway


If location is the key to your accommodation choices you won't find anywhere better situated in the beautiful city of Cape Town than the elegant Taj Hotel. 

The V&A Waterfront is favoured by many visitors but can be rather busy - and is a considerable walk to the downtown core if you are visiting on business. 

The Taj, by contrast, is the ideal selection for those who want a central location but with peace and quiet guaranteed. 

Table Mountain looms large over the Cape Town – and many of the rooms at the Taj have 180 degree views of the icon; a dramatic sight to wake up to each morning. 

The service in this genteel hotel is gracious, with staff efficient but unobtrusive. Nothing is too much trouble. Parliament House, St George’s Cathedral and the delightful Company Gardens with its many squirrels are just a short stroll away as are many interesting shops and antique stores.

There is plenty of nightlife and a wide choice of restaurants on busy, bustling Long Street – a five-minute walk away – while the rooms are classic in design and part of the refurbished South African Reserve Bank and Temple Chambers buildings. 

All are beautifully appointed and on-site facilities at The Taj include a pool and spa; the Bombay Brasserie Indian restaurant and two more relaxed dining options. A home away from home - if you live in a palace. +27 21 819 2000. www.tajhotels.com/capetown

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Is this Sydney's hippest hotel?


The ultra-hip QT Sydney Hotel, launched late last year, and its buzzing Gowings Bar & Grill restaurant, would have to be two of the most happening hangouts in the Harbour City.

The design hotel, right in the city centre, is a fusion of cutting-edge art, bold interior design and historical architecture that melds two of the city’s most famous buildings, Gowings and The State Theatre. 

The hotel is themed on Sydney’s past, but the rooms offer every modern comfort and the service is top-notch with bespoke furniture and a daring use of colour and art. There are 200 guest rooms, all different, and three food-and-beverage outlets.

On the ground level, Parlour Lane Roasters connects the hotel entrance to bustling Market Street and is transformer from coffee shop to an aperitif bar in the late afternoon, while Gowings Bar & Grill on level 1 is the city’s new lunchtime hotspot, full to the brim with folk from the fashion, media and food and wine industries. Adjacent is Gilt Lounge, a cocktail bar catering to Sydney’s late-night party set.

The Bar & Grill (pictured) has a funky mod Australian/American food vibe and an excellent wine list with an outstanding selection by the glass. Long lunches are back in a big way here. On a recent visit the place was packed at 1pm with not a spare table to be found – and around half the punters were still there at 3pm.

The flipside to QT’s energetic bar and dining scene is SpaQ, a sanctuary for relaxation with a range host of spa treatments and packages: including a retro-style barber shop featuring traditional cut-throat shaves.

QT Sydney is on the corner of George and Market streets, Sydney. www.QTHotels.com.au

Criticism hits the mark


One of Britain’s most successful hoteliers was highly critical of the quality of service in Australia hotels – and the response to his observations was telling; with nine out of every 10 readers of the story online agreeing with him.

David Levin (pictured), owner of the award-winning Capital and Levin boutique hotels in London and a mentor to leading chefs including Gary Rhodes, said guests were in many cases being offered lower standards in top Australian hotels than they enjoy in their own homes.“Many of the staff in leading Australian hotels don’t understand the meaning of hospitality – a lot of them don’t have a clue,” said Levin, who has visited Australia every year for 42 years and recently concluded a six-week visit to Sydney and Melbourne. 

“It is a tragedy that Australia has so few privately-owned and managed hotels,” Levin said. . “Most hotels here are managed and run by large groups who are rewarded for their efforts by earning a share of the hotel’s profits. That naturally means that corners are cut in terms of quality furnishings and staff levels. It’s a conflict.”

And Scottish-born Levin, who began his hotel career in 1952, says restaurant meals in Australia are far too complicated. “Thanks to shows like My Kitchen Whatever, there are far too many ingredients in some dishes,” Levin said. “People are simply trying too hard. Often simpler would be better and people might be encouraged to eat out more often. If you have a lovely piece of turbot, or plaice, you don’t need to do much with it. It simply tastes good. Sometimes 25 ingredients can be too much.”

Levin said he hoped his comments came as a wake-up call to Australian hotel owners – saying some of them were charging prices far higher than those in other major cities in the world. “And they’ve forgotten about service,” he said. “You can’t say to a guest who is maybe hungry and jet-lagged that ‘breakfast service is over’. You should be giving your guest what they want. That is the meaning of hospitality and it seems to be getting lost.”

Levin has a career history of being ahead of the curve in the hospitality industry, starting  Britain’s first "gastro pub" in 1965. He opened the Capital Hotel in London in 1971 and it has for over 40 years been regarded as one of the world’s top boutique hotels.

Rowina Thomas, part-owner of the privately-owned and -run Lyall Hotel and Spa in South Yarra, says boutique hotels have several advantages over chains when it comes to staffing and quality service - including flexibility and quick communication. “We look for nice people, who are genuine, with humility and willing to serve and who are intuitive – those three things cannot be taught,” she says. “We prefer staff with experience and a personality, but all our front-line staff are given authority to act quickly to guests’ requests; no matter how diverse. We don't say ‘No’.”

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Luxurious new Hobart hostelry

You couldn't ask for a better position than that occupied by Salamanca Wharf Hotel, Hobart's newest apartment-style hostelry, which opened for business a couple of months ago.
The Salamanca Wharf Hotel is right on Castray Esplanade, just a few steps from bustling Salamanca Place and its many bars and restaurants; but in a peaceful location away from the hubbub. 

The new hotel has 22 apartments comprising four loft penthouses, fifteen one-bedroom apartments and three studio apartments. Opening accommodation rates range from $200 to $500 per night depending on room type and season.
The ground floor is home to Castray Esplanade Food + Wine, owned by well-known Tasmanian foodies Michael Roberts and Karen Goodwin Roberts, author of Tasmania’s Picnics in Paradise.

"The hotel apartments are designed for individuals and couples seeking extra space, quality and personality to make their leisurely escape, or business trip, a thoroughly enjoyable experience,” says owner and general manager Shane Pritchard. “They’re the perfect place to drop anchor while exploring everything this superb precinct has to offer.”

Designed and built from scratch between two original 1840 sandstone warehouses, the hotel  aims to fuse comfort with attention to detail. Our televisions didn't work initially (a switch had been thrown somewhere) and the electric blind closing control panel was far too complicated; teething problems no doubt, but the wifi is fast (and free) and car parking is also complimentary.  
Floor-to-ceiling window/doors in each room can be thrown open to let in fresh air and fully-equipped kitchens are stocked with Tasmanian wines, beers, cheese and chocolate. The beds are comfortable and bathrooms well equipped. Reception staff are both efficient and friendly making Salamanca Wharf Hotel a viable alternative to long-time Hobart favourites The Henry Jones Art Hotel and Islington. For more information see www.salamancawharfhotel.com.au or  call (03) 6224 7007.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Exploring Europe

In two weeks I will be setting off on a trip that takes in trains and boats and planes along with cities including Milan, Genoa, Marseille, Barcelona, Paris and London. I'll be updating this blog daily with hints for Australians and New Zealanders on the best places to eat, drink, stay and visit. Stay tuned.