Sunday, 28 July 2013

Port Douglas: A taste of the tropics in Australia

I first visited Port Douglas – a one-hour drive or bus ride north of Cairns – around a quarter of a century ago, when a flashy multi-millionaire called Christopher Skase put the sleepy little town on the map by building a mega-resort he called Mirage Port Douglas.

While the Mirage’s charms have faded somewhat (as did Skase’s reputation) Port Douglas has boomed and the main drag – Macrossan Street – is alive with restaurants, bars and trendy boutiques.
Today, the late Mr Skase is remembered at Skase’s Bar (below), a waterfront drinking hole at the Meridien Marina – where dozens of fast motor yachts, cruisers and dive boats take tourists out on day trips to the Great Barrier Reef. 

The Reef, of course, is the major local attraction, along with the Daintree Rain Forest, Cape Tribulation and the Atherton Tablelands.

Neighbouring towns including Kuranda and Mossman, are also hugely popular day-trip destinations, but Port Douglas is so self-contained, with just about everything within walking distance, that it is easy to spend a week or more here without setting foot in a car.

Port Douglas has a permanent tropical holiday vibe – no wonder the locals appear so self-satisfied.

We stayed at the delightful Shantara resort (below), an adults-only oasis just a five-minute walk from all the action, but quiet and comfortable with all apartments and suites overlooking courtyard swimming pools.
With tropical rainforests and some of the most beautiful dive sites in the world right on your doorstep, you also have the dramatic Four Mile Beach, unspoiled by high-rise developments, just 150 metres away.  

And while Tropical North Queensland is probably better known for blue seas, scuba diving, sand and sunshine than for its cuisine, the region also produces a wide range of gourmet goodies; from coffee and cheeses to tropical fruits and artisan rums.

Restaurants including Harrison’s, bel cibo and 2 Fish in Port Douglas produce top-notch dishes featuring local ingredients while the Atherton Tablelands grows a plethora of fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices and nuts. No wonder the local producers’ group calls itself Taste Paradise.

It was at Salsa Bar & Grill, a huge favourite with the locals, that former US President Bill Clinton was dining when he was advised of the September 11 attacks. Our meal was thankfully not so dramatic.

Harrison’s (right is the local restaurant du jour with award-winning chef Spencer Patrick, one-time holder of a Michelin star, cooking up some terrific and innovative European-influenced cuisine in a smart but relaxed atmosphere.

Other favourites include Bucci, Bazaar at the QT Resort and Seabean Cafe. 

Alternatively, watch the passing parade from the deck of Zinc, a restaurant, bar and cafe that serves breakfasts, brunches, lunches, dinners and snacks throughout the day. Situated on the Port’s main intersection, it’s a lively, casual spot that’s an ideal meeting place.

2 Fish, as the name would indicate, specialises in seafood, while we loved Italian-accented bel cibo, where you dine on a deck overlooking the main street. The lunch specials here offer great value, while the pizzas are thin and authentic and there is a good wine list. There’s also the venerable Nautilus, which was the first restaurant in town when it opened back in 1955.

The service in these parts is generally of a laid-back style, and often from backpackers – nothing happens too quickly – and there are no traffic lights or parking meters. The Sunday Markets in Anzac Park (left), with views of the mountain ranges and the Coral Sea, are a lively affair with a great selection of foods and artisan products.
Port Douglas is a rare beast that is both indulgent and invigorating - just match your pace to that of the locals.

The Facts
Virgin Blue and Qantas both fly from Sydney to Cairns. Exemplar provides coach and minibus transfers from Cairns to Port Douglas.

Shantara Port Douglas Resort and Spa: www.shantara.com.au.

For more details see:  www.tpdd.com.au.





Friday, 26 July 2013

New-look for an old favourite

It's a case of "all change" at the transformed Mercure Sydney International Airport, which is celebrating a new name and a new look. 

Located just minutes from Sydney Airport's frenetic international terminal, the Mercure Sydney International Airport (formerly known as Mercure Sydney Airport) is a quiet oasis to calm the nerves of frazzled travellers. 

Among the activities to help banish jet lag is bushwalking in the Wolli Creek Valley - which is directly opposite the hotel. 

With marble floors imported from Turkey and comfortable lounge chairs filling the space, the brand new lobby is light-filled and modern with a redesigned check-in desk aimed at speeding up the processing of arrivals and departures. 

Guest rooms have been given a contemporary makeover with modern furnishing - including new glass-top work desks, comfortable chairs and sofas an those two "must haves" for any self-respecting hotel room: iPod docking stations and flat-screen televisions. 

There are king-size beds (and extremely comfortable they are) and new fittings in all of the bathrooms. 

On my stay in late July there were still a few cosmetic changes to be finalised but the staff were helpful and happily stored a suitcase for me, while the burger in the bar was excellent if you don't want to extend to a full meal in Seasons restaurant.  

Ensuring the family market is well catered for, the hotel’s family suites, which comfortably sleep up to five people, are spacious and feature views of the airport and surrounding parklands.

The plenty on on-site parking, the hotel caters for travellers who need to drive a distance 
to reach the airport. The misnamed Sydney Super Shuttle (which is far from super) offers regular transfers from the hotel to both international and domestic terminals. 

To mark its new status, Mercure Sydney International Airport is offering guests a special Stay, Park and Fly package from $231, which includes overnight accommodation, return airport 
shuttle service for two people and up to seven nights of on-site car parking. 

For more information and bookings see www.mercuresydneyairport.com.au.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Head north: There's more to Tasmania than just Hobart

Many visitors to Tasmania spend all of their time in and around Hobart. The state capital is a wonderful city, well worth exploring, but there is a lot more to discover if you head north. 


Exploring tranquil northern Tasmania is like being handed the keys to a giant larder full of gourmet goodies.

From the exquisite cool-climate wines of the Tamar Valley to the artisan cheeses of Ashgrove and Yondover Farm  to the house-smoked salmon and rillettes from 41 Degrees South, there’s an awful lot to tempt the tastebuds.

With a chilly climate in winter, plenty of sunlight in summer and four seasons; the region surrounding the second city of Launceston has seen an explosion of quality boutique wine and food producers.
Outside Launceston you’ll find excellent wineries on both sides of the Tamar River and particularly at Pipers River, on the way to Bridport, home to sparkling wines like Jansz and House of Arras. Chardonnays, rieslings, bubblies and pinots noir all shine in this environment.

The major appeal of the Tamar Valley Wine Route is the fact that many of the wineries are family-owned, so you will usually be served at cellar door by someone intimately involved with the wines. The region remains small, friendly and largely undeveloped in terms of mass tourism.

Velo Wines, though, has opened a new architect-designed café and tasting facility (below) that has quickly become a favourite with both locals and visitors.
Other cellar doors that should be on your list include Josef Chromy, Tamar Ridge Kayena Vineyard, Pipers Brook, the Jansz Wine Room, Holm Oak, Bay of Fires, and Leaning Church, Marion’s Vineyard, Dalrymple Estate, Sinapius, Delamere, Bay of Fires, Three Wishes, Iron Pot Bay, Goaty Hill, Moores Hill, Stoney Rise, Winter Brook, Ninth Island, Native Point, Providence, Sharmans and  Bass Fine Wine (an urban winery housed in a Launceston industrial complex),

Some cellar doors are only open at weekends, or during the warmer months, so it pays to check before setting off on a day of exploration. Others, including Grey Sands, Clover Hill, Waterton and Humbug Reach, require a prior appointment.

Visitors can follow around 170 kilometres of trails marked by yellow and blue “Wine Route” road signage and the route was named one of the best 10 in the world by the UK’s Essential Travel magazine last year.

There are over 30 local boutique producers, some of whose wines you can taste and purchase at the award-winning Harvest Producers Market held every Saturday morning in Launceston (below), or at specialist retailers like The Pinot Shop and Davies Grand Central.
Just down the road the Pipers River and Lilydale wineries is one Australia’s top golf courses, Barnbougle Dunes, and its new sibling The Lost Farm.

Launceston, Tasmania’s second city, is two hours’ drive north of Hobart, it’s in a valley surrounded by hills and is home to the dramatic Cataract Gorge, just a short distance from the downtown area. Try brunch at the Basin Café, which has superb views.

Launceston has some outstanding restaurants including Stillwater at Ritchie’s Mill, with a terrific selection of wines by the glass, and outstanding steak house the Black Cow Bistro. 

Also check out Novaro’s, Pierre’s, Me Wah, the Terrace at Country Club Tasmania and Mud. For simpler fare try The Jailhouse Grill and Burger Got Soul, while the Dickens Cider House offers a good range of local tipples. 

The Old Seaport is something of a local hotspot, particularly at weekends. Home to the swish Peppers Seaport Hotel (although the service here leaves a little to be desired), overlooking the junction of the North and South Esk rivers, the complex is home to several riverside dining establishments that draw visitors and locals in equal numbers.  

For lovers of amber fluid, Boag’s Centre for Beer Lovers is an obvious destination.

Gourmets will find it worth a detour to check out the superb salmon and ginseng products at 41 Degrees South aquaculture, outside Deloraine, the excellent English-style cheeses at Ashgrove Cheese near Elizabeth Town and the mouth-watering products at the Christmas Hill Raspberry Farm, also at Elizabeth Town.

In the small hamlet of Perth, near Launceston Airport, UtSi Café serves delicious meals using sustainably produced ingredients. 

If you’ve got time, the two-hour drive from Launceston for a stay at Peppers Cradle Mountain Lodge (below) is a must. The Highland restaurant is excellent - and you can walk off all your excesses in the spectacularly beautiful Cradle Mountain Lake St Clair National Park.
Launceston itself has several good hotels at various price points. Among the best are the affordable and central Mercure Hotel, the waterfront Peppers Seaport, friendly Balmoral on York, Country Club Tasmania, The Sebel and the Hotel Charles. The luxury apartments at TwoFourTwo and the Hatherley-Birrell Collection are also very good, while if you want to stay among the vines, The River House is a luxury, boutique B&B in two hectares of bush overlooking the Tamar River at Dilston

For more details visit www.tamarvalleywineroute.com.auwww.tamarvalleywineroute.com.au  or www.discovertasmania.com.au




  

Monday, 22 July 2013

Rutland: England's best-kept secret?

Mention Rutland to many urbane, well-travelled English people and you’ll see a flicker of uncertainty in their eyes. They’ve heard of Rutland, of course. They are just not sure where it is.

Which is quite remarkable as Rutland has been described as “the Cotswolds without the crowds” and remains a slice of England that could easily serve as a movie set – and sometimes does.

It’s a bite-sized slice of leafy countryside where probably you’ll need to avoid wild deer and pheasants as you walk, drive or cycle down deserted country lanes heading in search of one of the many authentic country pubs.
Within its 150 square miles (there are plenty of farms in Australia that are far bigger) you can discover a rural idyll that it sometimes seems time forgot. There are no fast food outlets, no chain hotels and it’s hard to find even a single “disenfranchised yoof” – the slouching, scowling young denizens so evident in many British cities.

Rutland is unashamedly comfortable, and comfortably middle-class, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have plenty to offer; from one of the biggest inland reservoirs in Europe, Rutland Water, to museums, country markets and the aforementioned pubs, Rutland is a place for slowing down and taking life easy – it’s Midsomer without the murders.

Rutland Water, beneath which are the remains of the former villages of Nether Hambleton and Middle Hambleton, is popular with sailors, fishermen and ornithologists (it is a major breeding area for ospreys) and in summer many visitors cycle and eat their way around the 40 kilometres of shoreline, popping in at various pubs and cafes along the way. 

It’s also possible to walk across the entire county, England's smallest, in well under a day. Bordered by Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, it measures just 27.4 kilometres from west to east at its widest point and is almost exactly the geographic heart of England.

The extremely pretty county town (or capital) of Oakham, population a shade under 10,000. No wonder Rutland is England’s most rural county, recently described by The Times as “small but perfectly farmed”. 


Local menus feature delicacies such as local pheasant and hare, bread from the artisanal Hambleton Bakery (visitors are welcome to see how all the breads and pastries are hand-made and baked), Jollydale Cider and beers from the local Grainstore Brewery, which is popular with lovers of traditional British ales.

The pubs are full of life, many of them with top-notch restaurants, and are centres of community activities. The landscapes feature church spires, village greens, hedgerows and classic green fields. 

The best known pub, and it is absolutely delightful, is The Olive Branch in Clipsham (below), a hamlet of maybe two dozen houses surrounded by quintessentially English countryside, stone cottages, bridleways and public footpaths and narrow country lanes where you are more likely to find horse riders than another car. Fox hunting and pheasant shooting remain popular here.

Although the hounds now run after a scent rather than a live fox, locals say, with a nod and a wink, that there is nothing they can do should the hounds just happen to catch the scent of a live fox.

The Olive Branch was originally three labourers’ cottages, which were joined together in 1890. It was renovated and revitalised in 1999 and accommodation across the road at Beech House was added in 2006 - with open fires, antique furnishings, Egyptian cotton sheets and power showers offering urban chic in contrast to the rural surrounds. My bed was so absurdly comfortable it took a real effort to get up in the morning, even though I knew more eating and drinking was on the agenda.

Beech House has just six very attractive individually furnished rooms with en-suite bathrooms – and free wi-fi. It pays to book well in advance.

The Olive Branch’s restaurant has a national reputation but it is also very much a local hangout with villagers enjoying roasted chestnuts and a log fire in winter and a beer garden in summer.

Choose al a carte or from a blackboard menu that changes daily ; a wine list that flits from France and Italy to South Africa, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina to more familiar offerings from Tasmania to McLaren Vale and over a dozen available by the glass; a selection of regional real ales and seasonal drinks like sloe gin, damson vodka and mulled wine.

Also highly recommended is Barnsdale Lodge (below), a former 17th-century farmhouse that has been converted into a country house-style hotel that is open to non-residents for breakfasts, morning tea, lunch, afternoon teas and dinner.

Some of the 44 rooms (all with free wi-fi) have views over the croquet lawn to Rutland Water, but the lodge is most famous for its restaurant, which specialises in local, seasonal food, prepared fresh each day, using ingredients like local trout, pike or partridge.

The hotel is part of the Exton Park Estate, which has been the home of the Earl of Gainsborough since 1760. The property is also dog friendly, should you be travelling with a furry friend.

The brochure Eat Drink Rutland, available at tourism offices, contains a full list of local eateries and pubs. Oakham, which is known for its many art galleries, hosts a local street market on Wednesdays and Saturdays and many vendors will proffer tastings of their berries or local cheeses. The County Museum offers a fascinating (no, really) insight into Rutland’s history with its unusual exhibits including a real gallows.

Oakham Castle dates back to the 12th century. Admission to both the museum and castle is free and the town has its own heritage trail. As you wander the town, you are able to enjoy a small sample of England as she might have been before the Industrial Revolution; clean, neat and totally charming.    

# The writer was a guest of Discover Rutland. 

THE FACTS
Getting there:
Qantas operates direct daily services from Sydney to London. To book visit www.qantas.com or call 13 13 13. Fares vary seasonally. The railway station at Oakham has direct services to London.
Staying there:
Beech House at The Olive Branch, Main Street, Clipsham. +44 1780 410355. www.theolivebranchpub.com.    
Bairnsdale Lodge, The Avenue, Exton, near Oakham. +44 1572 724678. www.bairnsdalelodge.co.uk
For more details:
Discover Rutland the local tourist information centre: Catmose, Oakham. +44 1572 722577. www.discover-rutland.co.uk.


Saturday, 20 July 2013

Aleenta Phuket Phang Nga - the perfect place to get away from it all

There are some resorts that have the perfect vibe: places where it is easy to switch off, do as little as possible and re-charge the batteries. 

Aleenta Resort and Spa Pukhet-Koh Phang Nga (below) is just such a spot - remote and unspoiled but just a 20-25 minute-drive from Phuket International Airport.
It's the antithesis of Patong - which is  big and brash, loud and lively - but within easy striking distance should you fancy a night on the town. 

Here you’ll find girlie bars in their hundreds, transvestite cabarets, touts encouraging you to enter drinking establishments of dubious repute and tuk-tuk drivers all too willing to rip you off.

It’s boisterous and a lot of fun – as are bustling Phuket Town and the Fantasea theme park, while the world-class Blue Canyon golf course is also close by.

My bet, however, is once you settle in at Aleenta you won't want to stray too far away. 


This is an all-suite eco-friendly property offering a range of suites and villas all facing Natai Beach on the Andaman Sea, which has been awarded five stars for cleanliness and water quality.
All the suites, all of which have direct access to a pool, and the villas, which have their own private pools and butlers, are in private settings. At this time of the year, the wet season, the beach is all but deserted. 
On-site facilities include Spa IV, a holistic health and well-being centre where the massages leave you floating, the award-winning Level 3 restaurant with stylish European cuisine, casual all-day dining with Thai specialties at 33Mu5, or The Edge lounge right on the beach offering drinks and snacks throughout the day. There is also a fully equipped gym and (my favourite) complimentary wi-fi internet access throughout the resort. 
There is also an excellent cooking school - and you can visit the local markets to pick up fresh produce. 
I shared Grand Villa Satis (below), a luxurious four-bedroom villa with all modern amenities and full western kitchen facilities, with a couple of other visiting journalists. The open-plan villa overlooks a pool and outdoor lounge area with a huge deck with sun loungers and umbrellas and has a grassed area for playing games as well as a barbecue area where guests can enjoy cocktails served by their own barman.
Think Egyptian cotton sheets, a pillow menu and the chance to release a turtle back into the wild at the nearby Koh Kloi Turtle Sanctuary, supported by Aleenta’s Pure Blue Foundation. A chef can come in to cook for you if you don't want to schlep to the main resort. It's hot and cold running luxury, I tell you. 
The rates for the villa start at around $1200 per night. Have four couples or a family group who enjoy sharing and you have yourself a real bargain. Suites start at around $220 per night including breakfasts for two depending on the time of year.      
Aleenta Phuket Phang Nga has a range of villa packages known as "Great Mates Escapes" that can be tailored to any visitor's own specifications - and marketing manager Paul Counihan wants me to get the message out to my readers, who need to just quote the code "Winsor" to get a special deal.  
You might want to go out and explore on the resort's complimentary mountain bikes, or hire one of the resort's flashy BMWs (with driver) to take you out exploring, take a cooking class (my fish cakes turned out rather well)  or maybe do tai chi and yoga, both available on site.
The Phang Nga Bay national park, one of southern Thailand's most scenic areas, Similan Island National Park and Khao Sok National Park are right on the doorstep and the resort can arrange for the rental of a variety of sail boats, with or without crew. 
As is so often the case, however, it is the smiling, efficient staff that make the family-owned Aleenta stand out from the crowd. It's as if nothing is too much trouble for them. 
Aleenta Resort and Spa Phuket Phang Nga, 33 Moo 5, Tambon Kok-Kloy, Amphur Takua-Tung, Phang Nga 82140.  Bookings: http://www.aleenta.com/phuket/ or email reservation@aleenta.com. For a special deal email director of sales and marketing Paul Counihan at paul@ahmshotels.com 


Thai Airways International, Asia’s largest full-service carrier, flies 40 times a week from Australia to Thailand with easy connections to a network within Thailand and to over 70 destinations worldwide.Visit thaiairways.com.au for the latest special deals and promotions or ask your travel agent. Travellers from Western Australia can take advantage of non-stop flights between Perth and Phuket until Oct 19 2013.  THAI’s Winter Escape Sale is on now until the end of August with fares to Bangkok starting from $880 return from the East Coast ($794 ex Perth) or $890 return to Phuket ($802 ex Perth).  Discounts also apply for travel in pairs with Companion Fares from $861 return to Bangkok (book by August 31, travel by November 30).

Friday, 19 July 2013

A seven-day cruise for $379? Yes, it is possible.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that earlier this year I cruised the Mediterranean on the MSC Preziosa and was very pleasantly surprised at what an enjoyable experience it was. 

I learned that the key to enjoying a cruise is to choose one that visits exciting ports that you really want to explore (sorry Mackay and Rockhampton, that counts you out).
  
Well, MSC Cruises on Tuesday launches its 96-hour sale on selected itineraries - the last major sale for the 2013 European summer cruising season.
MSC Cruises is now the world’s third-largest cruise company and is offering discounts of up to 46% on cruises that include ports in Europe, the Middle East and the Caribbean from just $379 per person for a seven-night cruise, including all meals. 

The sale will include a variety of itineraries including 2013 Mediterranean cruises from Venice, Rome, Barcelona and Genoa. There are also cruises on sale from Rio de Janeiro to Genoa on-board MSC Orchestra, or MSC Musica's Caribbean to Mediterranean cruises in 2014.

Caribbean cruises from Miami on-board MSC Divina also feature, starting from $429. 

The sale runs from 9am on July  23 to 9am July 27 (AEST).  The cruise I did on the Preziosa starts from $1,099 with a twin-share balcony cabin and is much cheaper with an interior cabin. 

God bless the baby cheeses: enjoying unsullied King Island

There can be few places in the world where you’d be invited to help yourself to all the facilities of a waterfront restaurant – including the kitchen – and to then walk away after making a small, and voluntary, donation.

But King Island, off the north-west coast of Tasmania, midway to Victoria, marches to a very different beat to the mainland.

The restaurant in question is The Boathouse where you bring your own. Bring your own everything. Drinks, food and chef. It’s known as “the restaurant with no food”. 

The Boathouse (below) has a barbecue, outdoor tables and chairs and several tables inside a cottage with a jaunty nautical theme. Anyone is welcome to use the facilities, including plates, glasses and cutlery, as long as they clean up after themselves.
The Boathouse was rebuilt a couple of years ago after the original burned down – and is maintained by local artist Caroline Kininmonth, who also runs a gallery on the island.

And cooking ingredients are not hard to find: this windswept 64-kilometre by 27-kilometre island is foodie heaven – and an environmental jewel. The population of King Island is around 1500 and you can travel from the northern tip to the southern extremities in around 90 minutes – but it is one of the world’s great gourmet destinations, famous for its shellfish, cheese, beef and bottled rain water that’s served in some of the greatest restaurants around the globe.

Situated off the north-west coast of Tasmania and accessible by air from Melbourne, Launceston and Burnie/Wynyard, King Island has some of the cleanest air in the world thanks to the Roaring Forties winds in Bass Strait. Shellfish, particularly abalone, flourish on its wild and tempestuous coastline - one of the world’s last remaining unspoilt marine environments.

Only around 5000 visitors a year make it to King Island, ensuring it remains almost untouched by pollution. 

Some of the finest crayfish in the world, for instance, are caught in the waters off King Island. The small fishing fleet is based at Currie (right), the island’s biggest town (population 500 odd) and visitors are welcome to see them being unloaded when the boats come in. Within 24 hours the crays have been flown halfway across the world and are on sale at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market. 

Pick one up to cook yourself, or, if you are on a budget, pop into the local Currie bakery and enjoy a crayfish pie for lunch. You’ll pay around $12 depending on the season.

There are an estimated 100,000 head of cattle, which provide not only the famous King Island beef, but also milk for King Island Dairy, one of Australia’s best-known cheese brands.

“If you have a pristine environment like this, with fresh air and clean water, you cannot help but get quality milk – the key ingredient of great cheeses,” says Ueli Berger, the Swiss technical director of King Island Dairy (below), which produces a wide range of gourmet cheeses, creams and yoghurts.

The southernmost point of King Island is called Stokes Point and the northernmost Cape Wickham – both of which are names for two of the many gourmet cheeses produced on the island, along with Surprise Bay Cheddar, Roaring Forties Blue and many others.

The rain water, branded as King Island Cloud Juice, is regarded as among the cleanest on the planet and has been listed on the lists of globally renowned restaurants including el Bulli in Spain and hotels like Claridge’s and various Mandarin Orientals.

But you’ll also find that very same water being served at the Grassy Club, one of the island’s pubs, and in its Kings Cuisine restaurant, which specialises in local steaks and char-grilled local octopus.   

Chef Stephen Russell at the Grassy Club uses local produce like the grass-fed beef, which can be purchased at Russell’s Butchery in Currie and is regarded among the best in the Australia. Also try the local kangaroo apples (berry-like fruits which are not apples or eaten by kangaroos), and King Island bush pepper.

Even for those not obsessed by food, King Island has plenty to offer. Tour guide Ian Johnson, who runs King Island Holiday Village and 4WD tours, says: “King Island may be small, but it is also one of the most diverse destinations in Australia.”

The coastline is dotted with over 100 shipwrecks, involving the loss of over 2,000 lives and many King Islanders are descendants of shipwreck survivors. On the Cataraqui, which foundered in 1845, 400 people died – Australia’s worst peacetime maritime disaster. 

Cape Wickham, heritage-listed and built in 1861, is the tallest lighthouse in the southern hemisphere – and the location of a proposed luxury golf resort, one of two in the planning stage on the island – the other is just outside Currie. In the meantime, there is the nine-hole King Island Golf Club links course adjacent to the Southern Ocean that is rated among the best in the country.

Cape Wickham is a great spot for a picnic, as are Penny’s Lagoon, a beautiful and often deserted freshwater lake, and Martha Lavinia beach, a favourite with some of the world’s top surfers because of its remarkable breaks. Here, your footprints may well be the only ones on the sand.

Seal Rocks has magnificent views of the malevolent churning waters below, and you’ll find penguin and mutton bird colonies here, with baby penguins sometimes sheltering beneath the wooden walking track.

Adjacent to Currie lighthouse is a fascinating local history and maritime museum with many shipwreck relics, while it is also fascinating to watch the kelp harvesters in action and view their drying racks.

Also don’t miss the calcified forest to the south of the island, where a short walk will take you to the moonscape of the remains of a 7000-year-old forest that have been preserved by lime-laden sand. It is an eerie scene.

Take a 4WD tour to get onto rarely visited beaches for the perfect get-away-from-it-all picnic; do a tasting of the entire cheese range at King Island Dairy (open six days a week but closed on Saturdays) or take a twilight trip to check out little penguins in their natural habitat.

Portside Links has holiday units and bed and breakfast accommodation and is also home to a local arts and crafts gallery, while fishermen will relish throwing in a line and catching abundant kingfish, salmon, gummy shark and mullet.

The pleasures here are simple ones.

Getting there: Sharp Airlines flies to King Island from Melbourne, Launceston and Burnie/Wynyard. 1300 556 694, www.sharpairlines.com.au, while Rex Airlines has regular flights from Melbourne. 13 17 13. www.rex.com.au.

Staying there: King Island Holiday Village features a range of self-catering and motel style accommodation and is able to arrange bespoke tours in purpose-built 4WD all-terrain vehicles. The King Island Cooking School will be launched later this year. (03) 6461 1177. www.kingislandholidayvillage.com.au.

For more details: www.kingisland.org.au.



Friday, 12 July 2013

An airport hotel that's fun to stay in

There is something about airport hotels. They tend to be full of stressed people; rushing to check out to make sure they catch their next flight; suffering from jet lag or heading to meetings in an unfamiliar time zone.

What a pleasure, then, to come across the Stamford Plaza Hotel at Sydney Airport - an airport hotel that's actually close to the airport (not a 20-minute drive away) and where the smiling staff do their best to make sure your stay is more enjoyable than fraught.

The Stamford is actually more like a resort than an airport hotel, although travel buffs will be happy with one of the rooms actually overlooking the runways and aircraft hangers - and you can easily walk to or from from the domestic terminals in around 5-10 minutes.

There's no aircraft noise to bother those desperately needing sleep; the sound-proofing and blackout curtains do their jobs - and the wake-up calls are reliable (not something that can be said for every airport hostelry). 

It comes as no surprise, then, to find the hotel has been voted best airport hotel in Australia by Skytrax for three years in a row; there's quality feel here, along with  facilities including a large gym and outdoor swimming pool. The panoramic sound-proof windows offer guests the thrill of plane watching, with views of Botany Bay.

The Stamford has 315 luxury rooms including nine Raffles suites, each featuring a large master bedroom, with separate living area and spacious luxury bathroom. 
The Grove restaurant is a casual eatery with helpful stuff, the highlight of which, for me, is the large selection of Singaporean/Asian dishes on the menu, including beef rendang, a traditional Indonesian dish of slow-cooked beef in a mildly spiced coconut curry served with roti and steamed rice; and nasi goreng – fried rice with chicken, shrimp and Asian greens, topped with fried egg and prawn crackers. 

There's also the AV8 Bar and Cafe with gourmet pizzas, burgers, fresh pastas and steak and a lobby bar. 

Winter Warmer packages start from $167 per night, with buffet breakfasts a dollar more, while Park and Fly packages include overnight accommodation, car parking for up to seven nights and a return shuttle bus transfer to either the domestic or international terminals with Sydney Super Shuttle.

For details, current prices and bookings see Stamford.com.au/ssa 

  





 
     

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

A Melbourne hotel with a whimsical magic of its own

In a world of cookie-cutter, homogeneous hotels it is always refreshing to check in somewhere that has a personality; a point of difference. 

Melbourne's Blackman Hotel, the third in the Art Series group, is as individual as the artist after whom it was named: Charles Blackman, who is famous for his Alice in Wonderland works. 
 Set behind the heritage-listed Airlie Mansion just off St Kilda Road, the hotel is 2.5km from the Melbourne CBD and five minutes by tram from St Kilda Beach.

The many Blackman replicas that dot the lobby are just a hint of the playful nature of the rooms, of which there are 209, although there is a definite boutique feel shared with fellow Art Series hotels The Olsen and The Cullen

All three are being given a push with the new "Find your inner muse" campaign.  

Colours and furnishings throughout the hotel are in bright jewel box colours as a reference to Blackman’s artworks.

The king and queen suites are generous in size with balconies - and there are two glorious penthouses on the upper level. 

The rooms come equipped for pleasure, or leisure, with wireless & broadband internet connections, 24-hour reception and helpful staff able to organise anything from a business meeting to a hot-air balloon ride over the city. 

There are two on-site restaurants, buzzy French bakery Depot de Pain (where the breakfasts are outstanding) or the Italian-style Classico. 

There is a complimentary shuttle to the CBD and a state-of-the-art gymnasium I managed to completely ignore. 

For art lovers, in-house curator tours are available, while guests still receive that delightful luxury - a complementary morning newspaper delivered to the room.

There is an iPod docking station, a super-comfortable bed, pillow menu and luxury bathroom amenities, although my bathroom was frustratingly small. The windows actually open and the blackout curtains make sleeping in a doddle. 

The Art Series Hotels concept is the brainchild of Melbourne dynamo Will Deague, who has several more hotels on the drawing board. Having enjoyed a previous stay at The Olsen I now only need to sample The Cullen to complete my dance card. 

Art Series [The Blackman] Melbourne, 452 St Kilda Road, Melbourne 3182. (03) 9039 1444.
www.artserieshotels.com. Rooms start from around $220 per night. 

Monday, 1 July 2013

Off the beaten track: one of South Africa's best gourmet destinations

It may be a little off the well-worn Cape winelands track but a detour to The Robertson Small Hotel is certainly worthwhile. 

Around two hours drive out of Cape Town in the charming Breede River Valley, part of Robertson wine region, you’ll find this delightful boutique hotel that has been named as South Africa’s best luxury country hotel for the second successive year.  The town itself is dusty and sleepy but there are several excellent cellar doors within a short drive.
Located between the Langeberg and Riviersonderend mountain ranges (not so easy to say), the Robertson Wine Valley Wine Route was founded in 1983 and currently comprises 48 wineries in the towns of Bonnievale, McGregor, Ashton and Robertson.

Although the region is less well known than Stellensbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek, it has 14.25% of South Africa's total area under vine and is home to standout producers with cellar doors including De Wetshof (for excellent chardonnays), Bon Courage, Kranskop, Van Loveren and Viljoensdrift.    

The hotel is one of those places where it is easy to settle in for a day or two and just kick back enjoying local wines and fine local cuisine – particularly as there is a world-class restaurant on site: Reuben’s at The Robertson, an outpost of South African celebrity chef Reuben Riffel. 

His chilli salted squid and crispy pork belly with pickled cabbage are both standouts.

Guests can choose from 10 luxurious suites, either Manor House suites, Stable suites or Poolside suites. All have king-sized beds, mini bars, en suite bathrooms, IPod docks and international plugs. 

The staff are both friendly and amazingly helpful, so it is all too easy to sip on a glass of local pinotage and some tapas while sitting beside one of the two swimming pools. There’s a mix of chic sophistication and country charm here. 

The main building is the former home of a one-time ostrich baron – a gracious manor house that dates back over 100 years. 

The Robertson Small Hotel +27 23 626 7200. www.therobertsonsmallhotel.com