Saturday, 29 June 2013

Matakauri Lodge: one of New Zealand's finest luxury retreats

Whether you are a thrill-seeker, outdoor enthusiast or a lover of fine food and wine, Queenstown, deep in the South Island of New Zealand, has plenty to keep you busy.

Also known for its Hobbits - much of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed in the area - Queenstown is renowned for some of the best ski runs in the southern hemisphere, but also for kayaking, bungee jumping, jet boating, white-water rafting and hiking.

The less adventurous can enjoy a cruise through nearby Milford Sound, part of the Fjordland National Park World Heritage area, or maybe sample some Central Otago pinot noir from one of the region's 75 wineries. 

From the Onsen Hot Pools to the Skyline complex - reached by a gondola cableway – or maybe white water rafting, or trout fishing, the leisure options are many, and varied.

At this time of year, skiing at resorts like Cardrona Alpine Resort, Coronet Peak, The Remarkables and Treble Cone takes centre stage, but the town is also known for its vibrant nightlife scene. There are two very different demographics; younger snow sports enthusiasts and an older, sophisticated crowd.

Queenstown and surrounding towns Arrowtown, Wanaka, Alexandra and Cromwell attract over one million visitors a year and the area is also home to several impressive resorts; the most spectacular, and exclusive, of which is Matakauri Lodge, a sister property to two of New Zealand’s best-known luxury lodges, Kauri Cliffs and the Lodge at Cape Kidnappers.

Matakauri Lodge (below), which sits perched above the waters of glacial Lake Wakatipu, is one of those places where nothing is too much trouble for the staff – as you’d expect from a member of the exclusive Relais & Chateaux group. It offers a range of activities, from golf to a helicopter tour of some of the region’s most stunning natural attractions.

Set off in a chauffeur-driven limousine from Black Cars to the heliport, where pilot Louisa “Choppy” Patterson and her Over The Top team offer a selection of options, maybe a flight over Coronet Peak, the Skippers Canyon gold mining sites and the Shotover River, or a buzz over some of the finest pinot noir vineyards in the world, stopping in for tastings at wineries like Mount Edward and Felton Road.

You can “drop in” and pick up a winemaker to be your guide for the Wine by Invitation tour (Duncan Forsyth from Mount Edward, if you are lucky) and then learn about the history, soil, wines, climate and the grapes as you ‘copter to a selection of local vineyards – and travel as  far as your budget stretches.

Most visitors also take a cruise across Lake Wakatipu on the historic steam ship the TSS Earnslaw, which was built in 1912 and is the only remaining passenger-carrying coal-fired steamship in the southern hemisphere.

Known as “The Lady of the Lake”, the Earnslaw makes several trips each day from Queenstown to Walter Peak High Country Farm, where visitors can enjoy dramatic scenery, farm tours, horse treks and heritage tours

Those looking for a more active afternoon can opt for a Shotover Jet ride on wild, raging Shotover River, an experience that is billed as “the world’s most exciting jet boat ride.”
Fishing is also popular and you can give your catch to the lodge's chefs to create a gastronomic feast.

Matakauri Lodge has been named by Tatler magazine as one of the world's 101 best hotels, also earned a spot on Conde Nast Traveller's 2011 Hot List. 

After a sauna, jacuzzi or dip in the outdoor infinity pool, pre-dinner drinks and meals are served in the main lodge at Matakauri with dramatic views of Lake Wakatipu and the snow-capped Remarkable, Cecil and Walter Peak mountain ranges.

Private dining can be arranged for couples seeking romance - think dishes like seared scallops and grilled scampi with garlic and parsley butter, crayfish thermidor or fillet of beef with roast shallots, potato puree and asparagus matched to a fine collection of New Zealand wines, including several choices from the owners’ own vineyards.

Matakauri Lodge has just 11 luxury suites, each with private terraces, and all tariffs include dinner, breakfasts and a complimentary mini bar.

Matakauri Lodge is at 569 Glenorchy Road, Queenstown. Phone: +64 3 441 1008.
www.matakaurilodge.co.nz. 

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Why Vannes should be on your next French itinerary

The trouble with press media trips is that you get shown what your hosts want you to see. 

That's the way it was with a visit to France last year, where we spent a lot of time being shown desperately boring old churches and tourist traps that clearly belonged to people with important contacts at the local tourist office.

Thus our itinerary took us on quite a long trip to Brittany, but gave us only a few hours in the delightful surroundings of Vannes - a huge pity as this market town of just over 50,000 people looked like the kind of laid-back place you'd be happy to spend a few days.

The pre-Roman town, founded over 2000 years ago, is far enough off the beaten track in Brittany to ensure it has retained all of its charm.

Stroll its shaded laneways with half-timbered houses and shops built in medieval times, or enjoy a coffee overlooking the lively marina quarter with its many waterfront bars and eateries.

Located on the Gulf of Morbihan at the mouth of the rivers Marle and Vincin, Vannes is 100km north-west of bustling Nantes and 450km south-west of Paris. Many of the locals speak a Breton dialect

The Gothic cathedral of St Peter and the old city fortified walls are among the major attractions, while the gardens overlooking the port are a popular place to relax.


Try the local galettes, a style of pancake served both savoury and sweet, and the famous Breton ciders. 


The Gulf of Moribihan is home to several spa hotels but the best in town include the Quality Hotel La Marebaudiere, the Hotel de France and the Villa Keresy Hotel Spa. L’Eden and Roscanvec are considered among the better restaurants in town.

Now I've just got to get back there. 

The Gare de Vannes railway station offers connections to QuimperRennesNantes, Paris and several regional destinations. See www.raileurope.com.au 

Monday, 24 June 2013

The best-kept secret of Sydney's movers and shakers

If you really want to get away from it all try Kims Beach Hideaway, the luxury beachfront resort at Toowoon Bay on the Central Coast, just 90 minutes north of Sydney.

Kims is a hangout for the rich and famous, a place where taking things easy is an art form. All the guests stay in private, luxurious villas, many of which open directly onto the beach.

There is a range of accommodation choices ranging from bungalows with private swimming pools to spa villas with saunas. This is a couples' retreat and a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group.

The villas contain all the usual luxuries, double shower/double spa bath, quality toiletries, CD, TV and DVD player and cocktail bar as well as little touches including a heated towel rail, beach towels, and a pair of deckchairs.

While it is a swish place, and you’ll pay accordingly, there is absolutely no snobbery. Everyone is treated equally; rock star or bank clerk.

Probably the best thing about Kims is its legendary buffets. Since 1886, when it was just a beach shack, the ringing of the ship's bell has indicated a meal is being served. 

Dishes might include the likes of green pea and ham hock soup, a cold seafood selection or a selection of hot dishes like char-grilled prawns with mango and cucumber salad, slow-roasted pork belly or a Rawalpindi curry. There’s a range of cold meats, salads and vegetarian selections, followed by a choice of local and imported cheeses and a range of desserts.

Breakfasts, too, are a highlight, from the great cereals and home-made jams to the freshly-cooked kippers.

There’s a spa, the Pampering Place, for those who love massages (who doesn’t?), or you could just take a stroll along one of the country’s best beaches and enjoy the windsurfers in action.

If you have romance in mind, this setting should do the trick. 

Kims Beach Hideaway, Toowoon Bay, New South Wales, 2261. Bookings: Phone: 4332 1566 or see www.kims.com.auRates: Prices range from $265 per person, per night (including three meals a day). A range of packages, including dinner bed and breakfast deals from $230 per person per night, is available.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Have some chefs lost the plot?

It may be old-fashioned of me, but I yearn for the days of the three-course meal in restaurants. A small portion of something tasty; a main course of something I really like, followed by cheese or dessert. 

I prefer to make a choice of what I feel like eating at any given time from a small selection of dishes chosen by the kitchen - hopefully local and seasonal. So simple. So good. But increasingly hard to find. 

A growing number of chefs want to dictate what I should be eating. They insist on six or eight-course degustation menus featuring obscure ingredients they have foraged, our sourced from a grower who has the only 200 plants of a particular micro-herb in the state.

These chefs impose their personal tastes on diners - which is great when it works (as it has for us at Loam, in Victoria, and Hobart's Garagistes), far less so when it doesn't. Particularly as many of these menus are relatively expensive and no a la carte alternative is offered.

At a recent dinner we chose a six-course degustation menu that the chef would create using a list of 30 or so ingredients. We opted out of just two items on the list yet the first five dishes we were served were all vegetarian. If I want a vegetarian menu then I'll head to a vegetarian diner. But rarely do I want such an unbalanced selection of dishes.  

For me, a plate of under-seasoned heirloom carrots does not make a course, but a few delicious carrots can certainly enliven a dish. Herbs are great, too, but in the right place. 

Whatever happened to balance?

I was also recently invited to a dinner (again with a set menu) where the courses included a lamb neck dish, a beef check course and venison dish. OK. It's winter. We get it. Warming and hearty is the way to go. But three rich red meat dishes in a row? Not for me thanks. 

And don't even get me started on smears, soils and foams.   

So enough of no-choice degustation menus; enough, too, of "small plate" menus where you often pay a lot for a little - but that's an argument for another day. 

In the meantime, please bring back options!      

Friday, 21 June 2013

Five places I never want to see again

The world is full of magical places. Whether you love food and wine, arts and culture or action-packed adventure holidays there is somewhere that will delight and thrill.

Most of the places I visit I thoroughly enjoy. But there are a handful that left me vowing never to return. Here are five cities I would quite happily never visit again.

Rio de Janeiro
The host city for the 2014 World Cup final and 2016 Olympic Games is a poverty-stricken dump full of dodgy characters where you need to have eyes in the back of your head at all times. Plus they are rioting in the streets right now. I had my jeans stolen from underneath my towel on Copacabana Beach after I sat up to show my watch to someone who had asked me the time. I had street kids spray liquid on my shoes so they could "clean" them for me. The massive shanty towns, or favelas (see below right), are right above some of the most acclaimed beaches - and the residents need money to survive, so scams/crimes are frequent. Well worth avoiding. 


Tel Aviv
I'm immediately wary of any race who consider themselves to be God's chosen people - as do the Israelis, who extend their superiority theories to their everyday behaviour. They love pushing and shoving. Stand in a bus queue in Tel Aviv and it will disintegrate into a mad brawling scrum the moment the bus arrives. And Tel Aviv's international hotels follow kosher rules, which means that if you enjoy a burger and a milkshake you are out of luck - unless you want to consume them separately. Imagine the Irish insisting you must eat fish because it is Friday. If you enjoy visiting cities where the people are bolshie and there are machine-gun toting military everywhere then Tel Aviv will be right up your street.

Naples
As stated previously on this blog, Naples is surrounded by many various attractions but is best avoided unless you are in the company of a local. It's a dirty, scruffy place with bag snatching one of the most famous local sports. Pickpockets abound - there are signs on all public transport warning against them - and when it gets dark some very shady characters come out to play. Would you shop at the store I snapped below just a couple of months ago? The Neapolitans love to dump their garbage in the streets and the city is home to the Camorra, a Mafia-style secret crime society. With so many other fantastic destinations in Italy, why would you bother? 

Bloemfontein
One of the heartland cities of the Afrikaners during the apartheid era in South Africa, Bloemfontein is a dull city that appears to be full of thick-necked, prop forwards with close-cropped hairstyles and aggressive attitudes. Flat and bordering on the semi-arid Karoo, Bloemfontein is quite simply not a holiday destination - unless your idea of a holiday is boerewors, pap, beer and rugby. And even then you can do better.

Vienna
I know the Austrian capital is one of the world's great cultural cities, famous for its music as well its superb coffee houses and cakes. It's beautiful, too - but I simply don't like the people that much. I once asked a well-dressed local business man the time in faltering German - and was shouted at for my poor language skills. The Viennese tend to be stern, aloof and unsmiling (in my experience) and don't have a sense of humour about their history. Much as I'd love to love Vienna I just can't.


No doubt many of you will love these cities, and call me a racist, or a bigot or someone trotting out stereotypes. I'm just calling it as I see it. Feel free to disagree - or offer your own selections. 

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

A special treat in the Yarra Valley

Not only is the Yarra Valley one of the most beautiful wine regions in Australia; it is only just one hour from Melbourne if the traffic is kind. 

Chateau Yering is an elegant and historic property in a heritage-listed Victorian mansion on 250 acres bordering the Yarra River and is surrounded by beautiful gardens dating back to 1854.
Etremely elegant and upmarket, it has been a luxury hotel since 1997 and is the ideal venue for a romantic weekend or for anyone planning to explore the many highlights of the Yarra Valley and its cellar doors.

There are just 32 suites in all, giving the property a country house ambiance, and all are spacious and well appointed. 

Chef Mathew MacCartney is cooking some impressive dishes at the award-winning Eleonore’s restaurant, where the service is impeccable. Sweetwater Café offers more casual food.

Alternatively, relax in front of an open fire with a glass of Yarra pinot.

Right next door is Yering Station, one of the Yarra’s finest wineries and cellar doors, which is open seven days a week. 

On Saturday, July 13, Chateau Yering is hosting a special truffle weekend at a cost of $1055 per couple. That includes luxury accommodation in a river suite, a truffle hunt adventure, a six-course truffle dinner matched with Pommery Champagnes and breakfast on the Sunday morning.  For details contact the events department. 

Chateau Yering, 42 Melba Highway, Yering.  (03) 9237 3333. www.chateauyering.com.au

Monday, 17 June 2013

The chicest address in terribly trendy Milan

A city centre palace that was left to rot for 30 years before being reborn as a luxury hotel with a fairytale theme might not sound terribly promising. At the Chateau Monfort, at the epicentre of one of Europe’s most fashionable cities, it works like a charm.

The new luxury Relais & Chateaux property, which opened last year, is a charming 77-room boutique hotel in Milan with a whimsical ambiance that also has its own extravagant gourmet restaurant, Rubacuori.

Within walking distance of the cathedral and La Scala opera house, as well as some of the best shopping on the continent, Hotel Chateau Monfort, in the elegant Monforte quarter, oozes Italian style.

The hotel’s on-site restaurant Rubacuori is quirky with ultra-professional staff and features whimsical takes on traditional Italian dishes (think maybe foie gras escalope with turmeric, mango, rice chips and sea urchins; or maybe red mullet with poached eggs, red onion compote and tea foam).  

The hotel has also instituted a Wines of the World program that features labels including Cape Mentelle, Cloudy Bay, Rupert & Rothschild from South Africa and Cheval des Andes from Argentina.

These are also available in the relaxed lounge bar, populated by a collection of funky artist types, young lovers and serious suits.

Milan is alive right now; whether you love history, fashion, sport or shopping it is one of the hottest destinations in Europe. 

The hotel – part of the Planetaria Collection that also includes the excellent Grand Hotel Savoie in Genoa - has its own fitness centre and spa, swimming pool and free wifi. Rooms have a sense of retro charm but all modern comforts and the staff are impeccably mannered. Prices start from around €265.

Hotel Chateau Monfort is at 1 Corso Concordia in central Milan. Phone +39 02 776 761. www.hotelchateaumonfort.com. 

Friday, 14 June 2013

The magic of Waiheke Island

Residents of Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest - and busiest -city would probably prefer that Waiheke Island remained their little secret. Unfortunately for them, the word is out.

Just a 35-minute passenger ferry ride away from downtown Auckland, the idyllic island has long been a bolt-hole for well-heeled city folk, an island retreat that’s a perfect day-trip or weekend destination.

Some Auckland jet setters sail their own yachts across the Hauraki Gulf to Waiheke, or take a 10-minute helicopter ride from the airport to a much slower world.

Waiheke, 19.3 kilometres long and up to 9.5 kilometres wide, has a sub-tropical micro climate and boasts myriad attractions; foremost among them a dozen or so wineries, many with top-notch cellar door restaurants, which are dotted among the neighbouring fruit farms, olive groves, cafés, art studios and galleries.

Even at peak periods, Waiheke has a somnambulant feel; you get a sense that even the residents are in holiday mode.

It’s the wineries, though, that have sparked a tourism boom. They tend to specialise in red wines with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec and  cabernet franc all doing well. Chardonnay and pinot gris have also been planted.

Family-owned and operated Mudbrick vineyard and restaurant (above), which has a Tuscan vibe, is a popular spot and many of the dishes feature vegetables and herbs from the restaurant’s own potager. It has been described as "one of the most romantic places on earth".

Residents say some of the best food on the island is found at Cable Bay winery restaurant while other wineries worth visiting include Goldwater Estate, whose vineyard overlooking Putiki Bay matches the views offered by Mudbrick and Cable Bay, cabernet specialist Stonyridge Vineyard and Te Whau.

Te Whau boasts it has “the finest wine list in New Zealand” and serves Pacific Rim cuisine, while Rangihoua Estate produces a range of extra virgin olive oils. The island’s biggest producer, Man O’War, also recently opened a new cellar door.

Art lovers, meanwhile, will want to pick up the Waiheke Arts Trail brochure, which highlights 30 island studios worth visiting, including the Waiheke Community Art Gallery, which is open daily.
Waiheke is also notable for a number of natural health therapists offering treatments ranging from massage to yoga, pilates and spiritual healing. 

Visitors might well be tempted to spend a night or two operating at a slower pace and there can be fewer more chic spots to stay than The Boatshed; very exclusive, but very relaxed.

Overlooking peaceful Oneroa Bay, The Boatshed (below) has just a handful of designer suites and is cute and chic. 

The rooms are gorgeous, the service attentive, the food outstanding. The ambiance here is reminiscent of a small European fishing village, making it a perfect spot for winding down.

The suites all feature king-sized beds, fine linens, open fireplaces and five-star amenities. The Lighthouse, a three-level retreat, offers absolute seclusion – and is perfect for a romantic escape.

Breakfast can be enjoyed in bed, around the hotel breakfast table, or alfresco, while lunch is served throughout the day; eat as and when the whim strikes. Dinner customarily features local ingredients; seafood, olive oils, fresh fruits and vegetables and organic homemade breads.

As you’d expect, there’s an excellent wine list featuring many of the red wines made on the island. Note: The Boatshed reopens after its winter break on July 12. 

The Boatshed: Phone: +649 372 3242. www.boatshed.co.nz. To learn more about Waiheke Island, see www.waiheke.co.nz.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Bruny: The island with the lot

Whether you enjoy hiking, camping, wildlife or gourmet goodies, Bruny Island has plenty to offer. 

The first thing that hits you is the lack of noise. Bruny is the same size as Singapore, but has a population of fewer than 1000 rather than 4.5 million.

Tasmania’s fourth-largest island is just a 30-minute drive and 15-minute car ferry ride south of Hobart via the Mirambeena, which operates year-round. It’s close to 100 kilometres from tip to tail and can be almost deserted midweek, making it the perfect escape from city hustle and bustle with limited mobile reception, beautiful beaches (Adventure Bay, below) has been 
named among the best in Australia) and dramatic scenery.
Then there's the local critters. From white wallabies to quolls and pademelons, a colony of fairy penguins and all manner of birds, from parrots to perky little red-breasted creatures, the island is alive with them. Fur seals inhabit rocky outcrops and can be seen on adventure cruises operated by Rob Pennicott’s Bruny Island Cruises.

Also keep an eye out for sea eagles, albatrosses and – during the season – dolphins and whales. We had to slow down to allow a sluggish echidna to cross the road.

Bruny Island was first sighted by Abel Tasman in 1642 and named after Rear Admiral Bruny d’Entrecasteaux, who visited the island in 1792-93.
Captains Furneaux, Flinders, Cook and Bligh all anchored in Adventure Bay, which takes its name from Furneaux’s ship and the tiny Bligh Museum of Pacific Exploration at Adventure Bay and the Alonnah History Rooms are both open to the public.
There are several cafes on what are effectively two islands joined by a narrow isthmus and gourmets will be in their element here with smoked fish and delicious dips from the Bruny Island Smokehouse, a selection of artisan cheeses and wood-fired breads from Bruny Island Cheese, fresh oysters from Get Shucked and wine tastings at Bruny Island Premium Wines, Australia’s southernmost vineyard.
In summer, pick up fresh berries from the Bruny Island Berry Farm – pick your own if you enjoy working for your supper.
There’s just one pub, and only one petrol station, so it pays to plan ahead if you need a beer or to fill the tank.

Most of the accommodation here is self-catering, or camping. There are no five-star resorts or big brand hotels.

Adventure Bay Retreat, just a short walk from the beach, is a great place to spot wildlife at night. It comprises two styles of boutique accommodation: a three-bedroom lodge that accommodates up to eight people and a smaller cottage.

The lodge (right) has two bedrooms featuring king-sized beds, fitted with goose and down feather mattress topper, plus quilt and king-sized pillows, along with a third bedroom with two sets of bunks. One of the bedrooms includes an en-suite bathroom with a free standing designer stone bath placed by the windows to relax in the bath and watch the busy wildlife outside. An outside deck features a barbecue and the retreat is fully equipped with fridge, coffee machine, kitchen, TV, DVD player and music system.

The cottage, which is designed for couples, has a king-sized bed and a large two-person sized spa bath surrounded on two sides by glass. It is also fully equipped for self-catering with in-floor heating, combustion wood heater and double glazing ensuring a cosy stay. The lodge costs from $300 per couple per night and the cottage from $240.

Another alternative is All Angels Church House, a delightfully converted former church that can accommodate up to five people.

Bruny Island is part of the Huon Trail, which meanders its way through the southernmost part of Tasmania. Next stop Antarctica.

Adventure Bay Retreats offers a three-bedroom lodge suitable for up to eight people and a spa cottage for couples looking for a romantic weekend away. Phone 0419 300 392 or visit www.adventurebayretreat.com.au

All Angels Church House, a former church converted into a comfy cottage, can cater for up to six people and has a log fire for winter. Phone (03) 6293 1271. www.brunyisland.com.

For more details see www.brunyisland.org.au; www.huontrail.org.au.  

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Scarce Earth: McLaren Vale offers quality and variety

With a well-deserved reputation for producing some of Australia’s gutsy, most flavoursome red wines, McLaren Vale is the perfect day trip or weekend destination for anyone visiting Adelaide.

Drive just 45 minutes out of the South Australian state capital and you’ll discover 60 plus cellar doors and a genuine country welcome, along with some top-notch restaurants.

With its rich soils, warm climate and cooling sea breezes from the Gulf of St Vincent, McLaren Vale has been a premium winemaking region for almost two centuries and produces wines with power and flavour that usually offer excellent value for money.

There is a good choice of modern tasting facilities and small, quirky cellar doors where there is every chance you’ll be served by the owner, winemaker or viticulturist.

Many of the leading wineries here remain family owned and run, including names like Oliver’s Taranga, d’Arenberg (below), Coriole, Angove’s and Geoff Merrill.

While there are no luxury retreats, accommodation choices range from the popular McLaren Vale Motel and Apartments to cosy options like the Bellevue Bed and Breakfast and Red Poles. 

Wine lovers will have several names on their list including family-friendly Wirra Wirra which has a barbecue area and deck overlooking the vines; and historic d’Arenberg, which last year celebrated its 100th birthday.

Here the cellar door and the excellent d’Arry’s Verandah restaurant are housed in a 19th-century homestead with striking views – and tutored tastings are offered for a small fee.
In the recently renovated Stables Wine Immersion Centre, visitors are invited to explore the quirky labels, McLaren Vale geology, viticultural practices and winemaking philosophies.

Other favourites include Chapel Hill, with a huge range of individual-site wines, a cooking school and luxurious The Retreat accommodation facility; relative newcomer Angove’s with a state-of-the-art tasting room, cellar door and boutique function facility and the Shingleback in a beautifully renovated colonial building - the original barn of Aldersey Farm, built in the late 1800s and restored in 2003.

Also visit Coriole, pioneers of sangiovese in Australia, and producers of olive oils, olives and cheeses to enjoy a regional platter.
   
Small producers like Samuel’s Gorge, Kangarilla Road, Pertaringa, Primo Estate, Shottesbrooke, Oliver’s Taranga (below) and Battle of Bosworth are also worth seeking out, along with historic Hardy’s Tintara.

Other impressive labels include Chalk Hill, Dandelion Vineyards, Dowie Doole,  Alpha Box and Dice, Brash Higgins, Mitolo, Hugh Hamilton, Paxton, Hither & Yon  and Fox Creek.

The newest cellar door, only opened in late April, is Gemtree’s new sustainable facility overlooking their vineyards and wetlands.

There is also no shortage of places to eat with the second incarnation of The Elbow Room (below) hugely popular with locals. It can be found adjacent to the Shingleback cellar door.

Chef Nigel Rich, who spent eight years as co-head chef at the iconic d'Arry's Verandah, started at the Producers of McLaren Vale facility but now has more room to move and the new site has stunning views of newly planted vines and the surrounding hills of the Vale region. 
Fino is something of a Willunga institution and a favourite with local winemakers. Chef David Swain produces rustic, flavoursome dishes with a Mediterranean accent, concentrating on local produce, while d’Arry’s Verandah at d’Arenberg is consistently good with a vibrant atmosphere, great views and hearty portions.

Other favourite eateries include the Currant Shed, The Kitchen Door at Penny’s Hill and Mr Riggs cellars, the iconic Victory Hotel at Sellicks Beach; The Star of Greece, Woodstock Coterie and Red Poles.

The former Salopian Inn, more recently known as the Vale Inn Tap House, is under new ownership and reverting to a fine dining format.

One of McLaren Vale’s most innovative projects is the Scarce Earth program, now in its third year, which explores and celebrates the geolological, climatic and soil diversity throughout the region.

Driven by winemakers including Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg and Michael Fragos of Chapel Hill, Scarce Earth features single-site shirazes from all corners of the region; this time 23 different shirazes from the 2011 vintage that express their sense of place.
   
The new-release wines are available to taste and buy only at McLaren Vale cellar doors or the local visitors’ centre until August 1 when any that remain will be put on sale.

Scarce Earth highlights the region's best vineyards reaching their full expression through single site wines contrasted by the sub-regions and soil geology profiles they come from.

The Willunga Farmers’ Market, held ever Saturday, is also a great spot to sample local produce and rub shoulders with the artisans. The entire region is something of a foodies’ paradise with a wide range of boutique operators producing olive oils, venison, cheese, chocolates and other gourmet goodies.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Why Australian tourism needs to lift its game

We are constantly hearing about how tough it is in the Australian tourism industry.

About how tourists who opt to vacation overseas should instead holiday at home and boost the local economy.

About how small businesses are struggling and need support.

Well here are two examples - both from this weekend - about how the Australian tourism industry needs to pull up its socks and show both empathy and professionalism if it wants to win back our support. 

First story: Two visitors from Melbourne were robbed of one of their suitcases, which was driven from one city to another by the thief. Bad enough. 

They then had to spend the final day of their long weekend driving to and from that city at the request of the police - to identify and reclaim what was recovered. 

They told their story to the airline and asked if they could be switched to a flight home departing from the second city. Certainly said Jetstar, but it will cost you $400 more each to change your tickets.

So they drove another two and a half hours to catch their original flight. Next time they have four days to spare I'm guessing they might opt for Bali or Phuket. 
Second story: Two family members thought a river cruise might be a nice way to spend a few hours after spotting a roadside sign saying: "Next departure 2pm." Tickets were $55 each, including afternoon tea, but they decided to splash out. 

When they got to the ticket office they were told the cruise wasn't departing that day because of insufficient numbers. They asked about a booking for the following day and were told they would be called if there were enough bookings. They are still waiting to hear back - so they certainly won't be recommending it. 

It appears not to have occurred to this operator that if people saw his beautiful boat on the water they might be encouraged to take a cruise. 

And these are not isolated examples. last week I stayed at a city hotel where the reception desk closed at 5.30pm. And don't mention the cafes and restaurants that close at potentially their busiest time of the year "because they deserve a holiday too".

Tourism is now a competitive worldwide business but we are flagging instead of waving the flag. We are expensive so we need to be better. 

Time for some Australian tourism operators to lift their games? Certainly. Too many of them treat business like a hobby or a part-time endeavour. Other companies are simply not very nice.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The world's capital of wine: Bordeaux

With Vinexpo, the world's most important wine trade fair, starting soon, my mind flew back to my most recent visit to the wonderful city of Bordeaux. 

It is the world’s wine capital, one of France’s most beautiful and historic cities and famed for its restaurants. Bordeaux, a five-hour drive south-west of Paris, or three hours on the TGV train, is notable for its 18th-century architecture and is surrounded by vines. Wine has been made in the surrounding areas here since the eighth century.






The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site that has been reinvigorated by an urban restoartion program and can be easily traversed by foot or by using the quick and efficient tram system, but a car is needed if you head to the vineyards. 
 
Here you’ll find some of the most expensive red wines in the world; usually made from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, or a blend of the two, while the world’s greatest dessert wines are made in and around the hamlets of Sauternes and Barsac.

Even though some of the countryside may be unspectacular, there is a higher concentration of great wine names here than anywhere else in the world.

You will almost certainly need to make a reservation, or in some cases wangle an invitation, to visit the big names: Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateaux Latour on the left bank, Petrus and Chateau Cheval Blanc on the right bank and Chateau d’Yquem in Sauternes.

This is an area where the wines are usually long-lived and designed for cellaring, so quaffing is not encouraged. There are, nonetheless, several excellent wineries that do encourage visitors and offer informative winery tours and tastings. Among them: Cos de Estournel, Prieure-Lichine and Lynch-Bages. British-owned Chateau de Sours also welcomes visitors and has on-site accommodation.

St Emilion is probably the most attractive of all the Bordelaise villages and should not be missed – the Hosetellerie de Plaisance has two Michelin stars while Chateau Grand Barrail is a great place to stay and there are plenty of wine shops offering tastings. For more affordable wines, the Canon-Fronsac, Fronsac (try Chateau de Carles) and Cotes de Castillon appellations are worth investigating.

In town, Bar a Vin at the Maison du Vin de Bordeaux offers a selection of around 30 wines for tasting.

Where to stay and eat: Chateau Cordeillan-Bages in Pauillac (right) is a gracious – and expensive – boutique hotel with just 28 rooms in a chateau that dates back to the 18th century and is part of the Relais & Chateaux group.  The extremely comfortable rooms are surrounded by the vines of Pauillac and Jean-Luc Rocha cooks arguably the best food in the region  in the restaurant here. www.cordeillanbages.com. 

The Regent Grand, on the place de la Comedie, is among the smartest addresses along with the Pullman and Burdigala, while top restaurants in the city include Le Chapon Fin, Les Pavillon des Boulevards, Le Gabriel with river views and Jean Ramet, while there’s good value at La Tupina, Le Bistro de Gabriel and Le Bistro des Negociants.

Just out of town check out long-time favourites Jean-Marie Amat and Le Saint-James but avoid the area around the St Jean railway station, which can be unsavoury. 

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Emirates growing at a seriously rapid rate

As someone who travels a lot, one of the questions I am asked the most often is: Which is your favourite airline?

If I'm travelling economy to Asia, I have a definite preference for Thai Airways. I like the food and the service is invariably gracious. 

When it comes to business class, Singapore Airlines has long been the benchmark but now the two Middle Eastern carriers; Abu Dhabi-based Etihad and Emirates from Dubai are serious contenders. 

There is a lot of interest in Emirates, particularly given its new code share arrangement with Qantas and on four recent long-haul legs I had very little to complain about (a couple of the crew on one leg were decidedly snotty and a lot seemed to vanish overnight) - but found the lay-flat beds and lounges, in particular,  to be excellent. 



For those who have not yet sampled Emirates do not expect an alcohol-free carrier featuring bizarre Middle Eastern cuisine. Emirates is as up to date as its gets, including multilingual crews; menus designed by leading chefs and complemented by palatable wines and an award-winning in-flight entertainment system with up to 1,500 channels. 

I particularly enjoyed being able to use wifi while flying - and it only cost around $2.50 to check emails and send a couple of Tweets. Expect more carriers to follow suite. 

The fleet of 198 wide-bodied aircraft is among the youngest in the skies and if you think this is not an airline on the move consider this: Emirates has currently has orders placed for an additional 200 aircraft, worth nearly USD$73 billion.

That's pretty amazing when you recall Emirates was launched just 18 years ago with two leased aircraft. In the last financial year it flew 34 million passengers.

Earlier this year the world’s first purpose-built A380 facility, Concourse A, opened at Dubai International Airport for the exclusive use of Emirates and its global aviation partner Qantas, connecting to more than 20 Emirates A380 destinations around the world.

And Australia is very much at the forefront with 84 flights per week to Dubai from Australia – from Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney. One service daily from Sydney operates via Bangkok. One service daily from Brisbane operates via Singapore. One Melbourne service daily operates via Singapore, with another daily service operating via Kuala Lumpur.

Emirates also operates 28 flights per week to New Zealand – daily to Christchurch from Sydney, and daily to Auckland from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. 

And good news for those who find it impossible to travel lightly. Emirates economy class customers can check in 30kg, business class travellers 40kg and first class passengers can travel with 50kg of checked baggage.

The A380s between Australia and Dubai, are, by the way, more comfortable than the flights between Dubai and Europe - with a lot more room in business class.  

For flight information and bookings contact Emirates on 1300 303 777 or go to www.emirates.com/au.