Monday, 30 September 2013

Big rich reds and warm hospitality in the Barossa

The Barossa Valley is one of the best-known wine regions in the world, rated up there with Bordeaux, Tuscany and the Napa Valley in terms of high-quality wine tourism.

Home to globally-known wine producers like Penfolds, Henschke, Yalumba and Jacob’s Creek, the Barossa has been named on the New York Times’ list of “must-see” destinations in Australia – and is just a short drive north of Adelaide.

Schild Estate vines
The entire Barossa region, which also takes in the cooler Eden Valley, is a gourmet’s delight with its superb wines, food and German heritage – and while it is a popular destination it remains a friendly one.

The Barossa is synonymous with big, gutsy red wines of style and substance, usually made from shiraz and grenache, while the Eden Valley is best known for stellar, long-lived rieslings. 

Some of the grape vines here are among the oldest surviving anywhere - many of them planted several years before Abraham Lincoln began his political career.

The Barossa was established in the 1800s by German-speaking families fleeing trouble-torn central Europe. A successful commercial wine industry was established by the late 1800s - Penfolds was founded in 1844; as visitors are reminded by a large sign as they enter the valley, and many of today’s winemakers can track their heritage back six generations.

That heritage can be seen in the several small towns that make up the Barossa region; Tanunda, Nuriootpa, Greenock, Angaston and Lyndoch are among the more prominent. In many of them, the region’s German roots are underlined by the bakeries and sausage shops, as well as in the names of many of the wine producers; Glaetzer, Schulz, Kalleske, Lehmann, Kaesler, Tscharke, Teusner and Schwarz among them.

While history lives on there is plenty of new tourism infrastructure to meet the demands of the growing numbers of tourists from around the world. the Butcher, Baker, Winemaker Trail guides visitors to stops including the Lyndoch Lavender Farm and Café, Maggie Beer's Farm Shop and the Barossa Valley Cheese Company.

Leading wineries include Penfolds, Hardy’s, Wolf Blass, Yalumba, Jacob’s Creek, St Hallett, Peter Lehmann and Grant Burge along with smaller, boutique producers like Elderton, Turkey Flat, Charles Melton, Schild Estate and Torbreck.


Among the cellar doors that should be on any wine lover's list is Artisans of Barossa (above); a co-op tasting facility shared by some of the region’s most talented winemakers, many of whom have not previously had a tasting/sales outlet. The Artisans of Barossa are Hobbs, John Duval, Massena, Schwarz Wine Company, Sons of Eden, Spinifex and Teusner and leading regional chef Mark McNamara is behind the food offerings. There are also several art installations.

Penfolds winery and cellar door at Nuriootpa allows guests to put on white coats and enter the Winemakers' Laboratory where they can blend a wine from grenache, shiraz and mourvedre grapes. The wine is then bottled for them to take home with their name on the label as assistant winemaker.

Jacob’s Creek Visitor’s Centre demonstration vineyard at Rowland Flat features rows of several different grape varieties and it is fascinating to see their similarities and differences. Inside, enjoy a casual or structured wine tasting or participate in a sensory workshop, learn more about the history of Jacob’s Creek in an interpretative gallery or lunch at Jacob’s Restaurant (below).

Seppeltsfield Estate at Marananga is one of the region’s iconic wineries with a collection of fortified wines dating back to 1878. There is a collection of historic buildings and immaculately tended gardens here and the team from much-vaunted restaurant Fino at Willunga in McLaren Vale is soon to open on site. In the meantime, local produce platters are on offer.

The Peter Lehmann cellar door is set in lovely grounds on the banks of the Para River. The staff is knowledgeable and helpful and local produce platters can be enjoyed on the veranda.
Pindarie, where an old stone farm shed has been beautifully restored, was recently named best regional cellar door and is set on a working farm. 

Also try wines from Charles Melton, Elderton, Grant Burge @ Krondorf, Henschke, Langmeil, Irvine, Chateau Tanunda, Yelland and Papps, Murray Street Vineyard, Schild Estate, St Hallett, Sorby Adams, Rockford, Tscharke’s Place, Two Hands, Kellermeister, Yalumba Wine Room, TeAro Estate Tasting Room, Thorne Clarke, Rugabellus and Rolf Binder @ Veritas Winery.        

There are several good eateries in the Barossa, the best of which is probably
Appellation, part of the luxury The Louise complex and is regarded as one of the best regional restaurants in Australia. New head chef Ryan Edwards uses local produce when possible and the wine list has been named as the best in the state. 

The Pan-Asian eatery FermentAsian is a big favourite with local winemakers with Vietnamese-born chef Tuio Do serving delicious dishes like Saigon sugar-cane prawns with peanut dipping sauce.

The boutique Hentley Farm cellar door restaurant offers two set menus for lunch Thursday-Sunday and Saturday for dinner. Both change regularly to reflect what fresh produce is available locally. Chef Lachlan Colwill made his name at Adelaide institution The Manse. 

Taste Eden Valley, Jacob’s Restaurant, Salters at Saltram, Maggie Beer Farm Shop, Roaring 40s Cafe, Vintners Bar and Grill, 1918 Bistro and Grill, Cafe Y at Chateau Yaldara, Lyndoch Hill, Wanera Wine Bar, The Clubhouse, Two Fat Indians are all good options..  

When it comes to accommodation, The Louise (right), overlooking the vines at Seppeltsfield, is one of Australia’s most luxurious vineyard retreats. The resort has 15 suites designed to appeal to lovers of fine food and wine. Rooms 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. 

Kingsford Homestead is a new luxury all-inclusive country retreat on the edge of the Barossa that was once the home of TV program McLeod's Daughters – when it was known as Drover’s Run. It is now a delightful rural getaway with top-notch service and peaceful country ambience. 

Seppeltsfield Vineyard Cottage is a beautifully appointed heritage cottage in the heart of the Barossa vines. Owners Peter Milhinch and Sharyn Rogers make their own wines and the cottage has an appealing rustic chic ambience. There are also modern luxuries on hand, including a Bose entertainment system, iPod docking station and espresso machine. It even has its own wine cellar. It pays to book well in advance here. From $490 a night.
The Kirche, part of the Charles Melton Wines complex, features vineyard accommodation in the original Krondorf village church, which dates back 145 years. The former Lutheran Church (Kirche is German for church) has been transformed into a stylish two-bedroom retreat. From $370 per night.
Novotel Barossa Valley Resort offers some of the most affordable accommodation in the region and has 140 recently refurbished rooms with deluxe queen or king beds, iPod docking stations, LCD TVs and balconies with views across the valley. Other resort facilities include a swimming pool and barbeque area and outdoor pool table. From $179.

If you enjoy festivals, the Barossa Vintage Festival runs from late March to early April, while the annual Barossa Gourmet Weekend is held each August. Gourmets will also enjoy the slow-paced Barossa Farmers’ Markets from 7.30-11.30am each Saturday morning at Angaston.

The Barossa Visitor Centre is at 66-68 Murray Street, Tanunda. (08) 8563 0600. See www.barossa.com

Friday, 27 September 2013

Saffire: a very special Tasmanian retreat

Cast your mind back just a few years and Tasmania was a culinary wasteland with just a handful of mediocre restaurants and a few struggling vignerons. 

But times, and fashions, change and today the island state is a gourmet hot spot dotted with world-class eateries and producing cool-climate wine that are much sought-after by sommeliers and aficionados worldwide.

Saffire, at beautiful Coles Bay on the Freycinet Peninsula, is one of the stunning highlights of the island state - the ultimate boutique getaway for those with cash to flash.
The $32 million resort, strikingly designed to look like a stingray from the air, has just 20 suites, all with remarkable views over white sandy beaches and Great Oyster Bay to the Hazards, a granite range that rises sharply from the peninsula.

The suites are furnished with state-of-the-art audio, visual and communications technology and have high-tech bathrooms and private decks.

At 140 square metres, the four premier suites are larger than many suburban homes; and boast their own plunge pools.

The Palate restaurant showcases Tasmania’s fresh produce with Hugh Whitehouse, formerly of the two-hat Darley’s at Lilianfels in the NSW Blue Mountains, in charge - and also conducting custom-designed cooking classes. Think dishes like carpaccio of local scallops with shima wasabi and baby fennel, or ragout of rabbit and roasted chestnuts wrapped in Tunisian pastry, although the menu changes daily.

The wine list highlights some of the state’s best drops – names like Stefano Lubiana, Craigow, Moorilla and Home Hill – with all wines served in Riedel glasses.

Several activities, meals and drinks are built in to the all-inclusive tariffs - which means guests must  select their options carefully to get maximum enjoyment from their stay, including a visit to the award-winning spa.

Inclusive options range from a quad bike wetlands excursion, an up-close visit to a marine farm ending with a tasting of local oysters and mussels accompanied by fine Tassie sparkling wine (below); a wilderness walk to Wineglass Bay – one of the world’s most beautiful beaches – or maybe a treatment in Spa Saffire, or an afternoon learning archery.

The resort also has its own luxury motor launch for exploring nearby bays and islands.

For wine lovers, the resort is on the doorstep of fine East Coast producers - including Freycinet and Spring Vale – and an impressive in-house list is served by a slick, knowledgeable team of sommeliers.

Saffire is certainly not cheap - but there is currently a "stay four nights pay for three" offer that considerably eases the pain.

# Saffire has just been named as Australia’s best resort-style accommodation by the Australian Hotels Association for the second straight year. 

Saffire is 2.5 hours from both Hobart and Launceston. Prices for the deluxe suites start at $1800 per suite per night including breakfast, lunch, degustation dinner and beverages, complimentary mini bar, free experiences and a $100 spa voucher. 

Luxury suites cost from $2000 per night and premium suites $2450 per night. See www.saffire-freycinet.com.au  Phone: (03) 6256 7888. 

Norfolk Island attracts a new generation of gastronomes

Norfolk Island has long been seen a vacation destination for seniors; and for those looking for somewhere quiet to get away from it all. 

It's still a quiet spot, make no mistake, but Australia's own South Pacific hideaway now has plenty to offer epicurean visitors looking for a younger, hipper gourmet destination. 

First there is The Tin Sheds (right), the first five-star accommodation option on the island. It's so funky each of the three luxury villas comes with its own colour-coded Fiat 500 convertible. 

The spacious and contemporary apartments here are surrounded by beautifully landscaped private courtyards and equipped with all mod cons. There is on-site plunge pool, massage and sauna facility, gym - even a Nespresso machine in each villa.

Just down the road, check out Minibar, Norfolk's funkiest bar, based on an eclectic Berlin style-bar built and furnished from Norfolk found objects. It's a great spot for a late-night cocktail. 

Then there's the restaurants; focusing on local produce and serving fish so fresh it was swimming in the Pacific earlier in the day or maybe serving locally produced cheese from the Christian Bothers (yes, that really is their name).


The best eateries include casual Dino’s at Bomboras (where the pizzas are excellent), Norfolk Blue, where the focus is dishes made from beef grown on the owners’ farm, and the terrific Hilli Restaurant and Wine Bar, where you can eat indoors or al fresco and the fish (below) is very good, as is the wine list. 

The Rock is a very good steak and seafood restaurant, while La Perouse serves French-accented cuisine and Bailey’s features terrific lunch specials for $10 that are brilliant value. 
.   
Good local lunch spots include The Olive Cafe, the bustling Golden Orb (which is also a bookshop and is set in a sub-tropical garden) and Sublime Cafe with its, well, sublime views.

Discovered by Captain Cook in 1774 after first being settled by Polynesians, Norfolk Island is a small scenically beautiful island located in the Pacific Ocean between Australia and New Zealand. It's a former penal colony and home to many descendants of the mutineers from The Bounty. 

It has a sub-tropical climate with temperatures rarely over 28 degrees or under 10 degrees and from the air it looks much like Fiji. It covers just 8 kilometres by 5 kilometres and New Caledonia, 770 kilometres away, is the nearest inhabited neighbouring island.

The mood here is ultra laidback. Cows have right of way on the roads and feral chickens roam everywhere. There are between 1,800 and 2,800 residents, depending on the season and there are no chain hotels, fast-food restaurants, public transport or traffic lights – and only one roundabout.

Because it is never cold here, tropical fruits like bananas and guavas thrive. There are tiny farmers’ markets selling fresh local produce, several very good restaurants with a local focus, a winery – and even a local liqueur producer .
The markets are held on Saturday mornings next to the Visitor Information Centre and on Sundays there is an arts and crafts market – the ideal place to pick up a local memento or two.

Epicureans are well catered for with the Norfolk Island Blue beef and a cooking school at Mastering Taste Chef School and Garden Tour, where students can pick many of the ingredients from the potager.

Rodrick McAlpine at Two Chimneys Winery is about to release his first wines made using local grapes; until his vines became mature he has been using fruit from the mainland. Two Chimneys offers tastings and serves excellent local platters (below).


Also check out the tasting rooms at Norfolk Island Liqueurs, where local fruits are used in products made in a German still; including macadamia nut, guava and banana liqueurs, beautifully presented and absolutely delicious. Also make time to visit the Anson Bay coffee plantation of Fred Wong, who also offers tastings and tours.

There's history galore here - including four museums - but other attractions include great beaches, trips over the reef in glass-bottomed boats, one of Australia's oldest golf courses and fishing. Trumpeter, snapper, yellowfin tuna, kingfish and wahoo abound.

Norfolk Island was once regarded as “a place of ultimate punishment” but I can’t think of many better destinations to wine and dine, and wind down, for a few days.

For more details on holidays on Norfolk Island visit www.norfolkisland.com.au. A passport is needed to enter Norfolk Island.


Air New Zealand flies direct to Norfolk Island twice a week from both Sydney and Brisbane. To book visit www.airnewzealand.com.au.  




  

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

There's gourmet gold to be found in Central Western NSW

The restaurants are funky, the local produce stunning, the wine lists appealing.

Welcome to Orange in the Central West of New South Wales, a former gold rush region that is building a formidable reputation for the quality of both its food and wine.

Orange, along with the neighbouring towns of Mudgee, Cowra and Canowindra, is dotted with fine restaurants showcasing local produce – many of which are recommended in the Sydney Morning Herald 2014 Good Food Guide.
That’s quite remarkable given Orange has a population of less than 40,000, and Mudgee around half that, while Cowra and Canowindra are considerably smaller.

Orange alone boasts the excellent Racine @ La Colline (below), the iconic Lolli Redini, popular Bistro Ceello and weekend favourite Tonic at nearby Millthorpe along with other good options including the funky Union Bank Wine Bar (above, and now operated by the team from Swinging Bridge Wines). 

Other choices include Sister’s Rock at Borrodell on the Mount, Sweet Sour Salt and the Rocking Horse Lounge.

Many of the eateries feature local produce like Mandagery Creek venison and Ross Hill farmed snails.

This entire area is one of New South Wales’s most beautiful food bowls. Visit the Orange Regional Farmers’ Market, held on the second Saturday of each month, to taste and buy the massive range of gourmet goodies produced locally.

The Orange region - 3 ½ hours west of Sydney - has long been known for its fruit production; apples, cherries and stone fruit all thrive but it was not until the early 1980s that wine grapes were planted commercially.

Pioneering wineries include Bloodwood and Cargo Road while other standouts are Belgravia, Canobolas-Smith, Ross Hill, Mayfield Vineyard, Patina, Word of Mouth, Printhie, Philip Shaw, Brangyane, Dindima, Angullong and Cumulus, which produces wines under both the Rolling and Climbing labels. Whites, particularly, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, tend to be standouts.

There are plenty of accommodation options in town with the de Russie Suites the most upmarket option and Cotehele a very popular B&B in the traditional style.

Like Orange, Canowindra is home to several boutique wineries – and a great weekend destination. It’s thriving at a time when many small country towns are dying.

Canowindra is the Australian capital of hot air ballooning and has several art galleries along with The Age of Fishes Museum, which celebrates one of the world’s greatest fossil discoveries. Bushranger Ben Hall reputedly once held locals hostage in the Royal Hotel - where you can still enjoy a cold beer and a feed.
Taste Canowindra is a facility in the town that offers the chance to sample up to 50 local wines from 10 local vineyards, while Swinging Bridge has a lovely tasting facility in a former general store.

While Cowra and Canowindra’s wine reputation was built on the quality of chardonnay, the new generation of wineries, including Mulyan, Windowrie, Swinging Bridge, Wallington, Rosnay, Tom’s Waterhole, Hamilton’s Bluff and Cowra Estate have received a number of national trophies and awards for varieties including shiraz, sangiovese and shiraz viognier blends. Cowra’s star eatery is long-time favourite Neila and it also home to the famous Japanese Gardens.

Mudgee, meanwhile, has been transformed over the past decade and is riding a wine-tourism-led boom.

There are chic boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts, almost 40 cellar doors in the region, and an ever-increasing number of cafes and restaurants. At weekends, Mudgee is alive with tourists, particularly the busy little downtown precinct with its sidewalk eateries and stores selling local produce.

Wine grapes have been grown in Mudgee (Aboriginal for “nest in the hills”) since 1858 but it is only in recent years that the region has blossomed; helped by a diversity of soils and climates that ensure a wide range of wine styles; from cool-climate styles at high-altitude Rylstone to the traditional hearty reds from warmer vineyards on the edge of town.

Almost 25,000 people live in Mudgee and the surrounding towns of Gulgong, Kandos and Rylstone, making for a vibrant country community.

Popular cellar doors include Bunnamagoo Estate, owned by the Paspaley family, who are among Australia’s most prominent pearl producers; di Lusso, which produces a range of Italian-accented wines, and Logan Wines, which sources fruit from both Orange and Mudgee.

Also check out Robert Stein, with attractions including an art gallery, a vintage motorcycle museum and a deck over the dam, the Lowe Wine Company, which hosts regular tastings and dinners, Huntington Estate, Burnbrae, Skimstone, Thistle Hill, Botobolar, Mongrel, Frog Rock and Robert Oatley.

Among the best places to eat are Sajo’s Restaurant and Lounge Bar, the casual Market Street Cafe (right), Wineglass Bar and Grill at the Cobb and Co Court Hotel, long-time favourite Elton’s, the Blue Wren and the Butcher Shop Cafe.

The hot newcomer is the Pipeclay Pumphouse at the Robert Stein cellar door, an eatery specialising in home-grown and locally sourced ingredients.  

For a good drink, try Roth’s Wine Bar and the beers at Mudgee Brewing Company, while the best places to rest a weary head after a long day include Evanslea on the River, The Tannery, Mudgee Homestead, Cobb & Co Court and River Lane Bed & Breakfast.



Monday, 23 September 2013

Learn how to lime like a pro: Welcome to Trinidad

ONE of the world’s biggest and best street carnivals, great music and rum, lots of rum. What’s not to like about a trip to Trinidad and Tobago?

Trinidad, just 11 kilometres off the coast of Venezuela and geographically originally part of South America, not only has an ideal climate for producing rum, a product of ripe sugar cane, but also has a reputation as a cultural melting pot of people who love to party.

Trinidad is by far the largest and most populated of the two islands while quieter Tobago, with its many resorts, is a 20-minute flight, or 2 ½-hour ferry ride away.

Trinidad was a Spanish colony from the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1498 until taken over by the English in 1797. It declared independence from Britain in 1962 and is today dotted with gracious colonial buildings in various states of disrepair.

Both islands move to a musical beat with Trinidad the birthplace of steel pan, calypso, soca and chutney, all intensely individualistic musical styles – and while there is wealth from the local oil boom, life here moves at a leisurely pace.

The locals – particularly over the carnival period in February - operate in a sociable semi inebriated state they call “liming” – a state induced by the excellent local Angostura rums and fine Trinibagonian brews.

Carnival, a bacchanalian celebration of music and bare flesh, sees many participants wear masks, or “play mas” in the local dialect, dancing all day under the blazing hot Caribbean sun.

For those who associate Trinidad and Tobago with sun, sand and surf it may come as a surprise that the waterfront capital of Port of Spain does not actually have any beaches. It’s got cafes, bars, cricket pitches, calypso musicians, steel bands, limbo, the annual carnival and the Angostura rum distillery – but no beaches.


So you hire a car, get on a bus, or jump in a taxi, and a few minutes later - after a spectacular ride through tropical scenery - you find yourself at Maracas Bay, a world-class beach to match anything you’d find in Thailand or Tropical North Queensland. Think a semi-circular sandy beach populated by beautiful people and surrounded by steep cliffs covered in tropical green.

Many of the visitors are not at Maracas Bay (right)  for sunbathing and a wave or two, however – they come here to eat. The beachfront is dotted with stalls selling a local speciality known as bake and shark.

Bake and shark is the favourite local fast food; a fillet of shark meat prepared with island herbs and spices, ginger and pepper, then deep fried and served in a sugary bun with a selection of salads, including tamarind, pineapple and an exquisitely hot pepper sauce.

Pair one with a Carib or Stag beer, or a Planter’s Punch of Angostura bitters, fresh fruit juice and rum, and you have a feast fit for a prince at a pauper’s price.  Locals argue over which is the best bake and shark stall, but the longest lines seem to be at Richard’s – where you create your own sandwich by adding as many salad items and condiments as you wish.

For other authentic experiences visit the Port Authority Canteen on the edge of the harbour - a favourite with local workers – or stop at one of the stalls that dot the road between Port of Spain and Maracas Bay and sample some fresh coconut, or dried tropical fruits.

Other specialities include roti, an Indian flatbread, served with a variety of spicy curry dishes, Trini curry shrimp, a spicy rice dish known as pelau and the Creole-style dishes like callaloo (spinach and coconut) soup and the crab and shrimp fritters served at the upmarket Veni Mangé restaurant in the capital.
 
Trinidad’s many cultures-– African, Indian, South American, British and Spanish – have melded to create a unique cuisine – although it is also said there are more KFC shops per head of population than anywhere on earth. 

One “must do” is a visit to Angostura, which makes both aromatic bitters and world-class rums and is synonymous with Trinidad and Tobago. Tourists are welcome to visit its distillery and museum in the Port of Spain suburb of Laventille.

The bitters have been made from the same original (and secret) recipe of herbs and spices since 1824. They are used as a food additive, as well as for adding an extra element to cocktails like pink gins, Singapore Slings, mojitos and Champagne cocktails.

Rum is a newer venture but Angostura produces around 7-8 million cases a year – including two that have gained popularity in Australia: the 1919 and the 1824 (a tribute to the year the company was founded). See www.angostura.com for details.

Despite the booze, and local herbal cigarettes, the friendliness of the islanders - and their lack of aggression - is noticeable. Put several thousand Australians under the sun all day with plenty of alcohol and pretty girls, as is the case during Carnival, and you would have a very different result. 

Bake and Shark
That said; the Trinibagonians are immensely competitive. Whether it be steel pan bands competing for honours, or chutney singers (a mixture of Indian music and traditional Trinidadian soca sounds), there are island championships galore – Angostura even conducts an annual Global Cocktail Challenge.

It is this atmosphere that has produced such great sportsmen as Brian  Lara – “the Prince of Port of Spain” – and former Sydney FC striker Dwight Yorke, after whom a stadium has been named on Tobago.

Trinidad is gritty and real; Tobago dotted with more typical Caribbean resorts. But Trinidad has quality accommodation, including the Hyatt Regency on the waterfront - the ideal base from which to sample the many bars and cafes on Ariapita Avenue – or the Trinidad Hilton, built on a hillside overlooking the city and the green expanse of the Queen’s Park Savannah, a vast parkland that comes alive during Carnival.


Cruise ships visit here in their dozens from November to April while yachties congregate in Chaguaramas, just outside the capital, and explore the many nearby islands.

Carnival, a riotous parade of bands and masqueraders through the streets, is the best time to visit, but Port of Spain residents will tell you: “Carnival is a 12-month state of mind here.”

Qantas operates daily services from Brisbane and Sydney to Dallas Fort Worth, and regular flights to Los Angeles, with onward connections to Miami and Port of Spain with code share partner American Airlines. To book visit www.qantas.com.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Vancouver: a city with something for everyone

Vancouver, which hosted the Winter Olympics in 2010, is one of the most spectacular cities in the world. The Games may be long over, but the Canadian city remains a drawcard for tourists from around the globe. 

The largest city in British Columbia is a place where you can paddle in the Pacific Ocean in the morning, go snowboarding in the Coast Mountains in the afternoon and be back in town in time for a fine dining experience in the evening.

This bustling port is a departure point for dozens of cruise ships heading for the Arctic and wherever you go you are confronted by interesting choices; where to eat, where to shop, even where to exercise.

Vancouver is the third largest city in Canada, behind Toronto and Montreal, and is a young, vibrant place that has been listed among the top 10 destinations in the world by travel bible Conde Nast Traveler magazine.

Despite the nearby mountains and ski resorts, Vancouver has a largely mild climate. It is bordered by Burrard Inlet, the city’s main harbour, to the north, English Bay to the west and the Fraser River, so the water plays a key role in locals’ lives.

There’s a real sense of vibrancy in this conurbation of 2 ¼ million people, whether you are at the bustling Granville Island Public Markets, much beloved by local gourmets, or among the joggers and cyclists in leafy Stanley Park and along the waterfront seawall.

Stanley Park, a beautiful green oasis close on over 1,000 acres that's the largest urban park in North America, is close to the bustling Denman Street restaurant strip and the West End, and is lovely at any time of the year. You can take a tour on a horse-driven carriage in the summer months, hire a bicycle, pop into the Vancouver Aquarium or admire the First Nations’ totem poles at Brockton Point (right). 

Over the Christmas holidays the park is transformed into a winter wonderland with more than a million sparkling lights and roast chestnuts on sale.

The waterfront area has a feel very much like Sydney with small passenger ferries operating from False Creek providing commuter services to Granville Island and the affluent Kitsilano neighbourhood.

Canada Place, originally the Canadian pavilion for World Expo 86, is a striking waterfront building topped by white fibreglass sails. It now serves as the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre – and as the city’s cruise terminal.

Also downtown is the Harbour Centre Tower, which offers 360-degree views of the metropolis and beyond, while Grouse Mountain, just minutes from downtown and reached via an aerial tram system, also has great panoramas.

Each of the neighbourhoods has its own individual ambiance. Gastown, with its cobbled streets, steam-powered clock,  trendy boutiques and restaurants, is edgy and on the edge of the city’s Skid Row, while Yaletown, a gentrified warehouse district, has a more yuppie feel (think coffee shops and chic boutiques) and the lively West End quarter is full of students and budget bars and eateries.

Davie Village, on Davie Street, is popular with late-nighters, while Commercial Drive is the district for ethnic food, eclectic fashions and tiny coffee shops.

Across the Lions Gate Bridge, West Vancouver is an affluent suburb with spectacular city views.

Probably the best way to quickly get a feel for the city is either to take a hop on-hop off tour on the Big Bus, which visits most of the major attractions, or a 20-minute scenic flight on one of Harbour Air or West Coast Air’s seaplanes. 

Vancouver is sports mad. In addition to hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, it is home to the Vancouver Canucks ice hockey team, the BC Lions football team and the Vancouver Whitecaps soccer team.

The city was first settled in the 1860s due to the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush. It blossomed after the transcontinental railway arrived in 1887. Forestry, mining, fishing and agriculture were the traditional industries, but today tourism is a major income-earner and Vancouver has become the third-largest film production centre in North America.

It is full of museums, parks and art galleries, and diverse cultures and is also known as a tolerant city, hosting the gay community’s annual Pride Parade and being the birthplace of Greenpeace.

The city's population is now around a third Asian, which means Chinese, Japanese and Indian cuisines are particularly well represented in the lively dining scene. Chinatown is one of the biggest in North America.

Shoppers are well catered for with upscale Robson Street dotted with high-fashion stores, expensive boutiques and jewellery shops. Nearby South Granville Street is the spot for art and antiques, as well as small design studios.

Granville Island, home of the market, is a former industrial area that also contains arts and crafts studios and theatres. It attracts buskers at the weekend.

Among the restaurant stars are Salt Tasting Room (right), which offers tastings of artisanal cheeses, small-batch cured meats and great wines at communal tables in Gastown and waterfront favourite C Restaurant, which serves inventive seafood dishes. All the seafood here comes direct from local fishermen.

You don’t need to spend a fortune to eat well, either. Stop by one of the several Japadog stands dotted around the city to sample Kurubota pork hot dogs served with Japanese mayonnaise, nori, teriyaki sauce, and fried onions. Strange, but delicious! And so popular a Japadog cart has now opened in New York City.

# Air Canada flies non-stop from Sydney to Vancouver. Phone 1300 655 767 or see www.aircanada.com. For details see www.tourismvancouver.com and www.hellobc.com.


Friday, 20 September 2013

10 top travel tips if you are heading for London

London, like New York, is a city that never sleeps. With major sporting events, trade fairs and festivals throughout the year it is never too early to start planning for the trip of a lifetime - whether that be for Wimbledon, the Notting Hill Carnival or the last night of the Proms.  

Here are 10 tips to ensure your London visit goes swimmingly.
1. It is never too soon to secure flights and accommodation. July and August are peak holiday times in Europe and flights are invariably full at that time of the year - as they are at Christmas/New Year because of family reunions. Book and confirm your flights as soon as possible to make sure you are not disappointed – and try to select your preferred seats in advance if that service is offered by your airline. Consider flying from Australia to other destinations in Europe and then using rail or budget airlines to get to London if that is cheaper. When it comes to accommodation, do as much research as possible before making a payment. Check out the www.tripadvisor.com website for reviews and try to get friends to take a look at your choice. There can be many untruths on websites and it is all too easy to turn up to a luxury hotel and find there is a building site next door, or the promised room refurbishments are still underway. 

2. Turn off data roaming on your mobile phone and do not turn it back on again until you are safely back on Australian soil. Data roaming charges can come to thousands of dollars on just a short overseas trip if you send a few emails and check a few times for local news. Look at the possibility of getting a British or global roaming SIM card and leave a message bank notification for anyone calling you that they should ring your new number.  Even a handful of calls and a few SMSs made in the UK can add hundreds to your bill. Companies like TravelSIM (www.travelsim.net.au) or GoSIM.com issue you with a new SIM card that simply replaces your regular Telstra, Optus or Vodafone SIM. If your service is locked, however, you will need to contact your service provider to get it unlocked so it will accept another SIM. Do this well in advance, however. 

3. If you are arriving at Heathrow Airport, as most Australians do, splurge on the Heathrow Express train. If you are tired and jet-lagged you are an easy target, so it pays to avoid traffic jams, taxis queues or a long trek into town with commuters on the tube. The express train travels between Heathrow and central London's Paddington Station in just 15 minutes. Trains leave every quarter of an hour and you can even buy a ticket on board. www.heathrowexpress.com.

4. Look at commuting from regional areas to London to save money. There are several attractive region cities with direct rail access to central London within a one or two-hour commute. Attractive towns within an hour of London on the train include St Albans, Canterbury, Tunbridge Wells, Brighton and Oxford. Find a hotel or rental accommodation that’s close to a station and you will spend as little time travelling as someone crossing from one side of London to the other. Rail fares in Britain are best booked as far in advance as possible, and rise dramatically for travel on the same day as you book – but most can be booked online. Many of the trains have free, or affordable, pay as you go wi-fi so you can send some emails or catch up on what has been happening back home on the internet.

5. Be prepared for transport delays and plan ahead. While the London Transport system has been much improved and offers seamless links between bus, underground and overground, there can be works going on, particularly at weekends, with lines sometimes completely closed. There are usually alternative routes available, but it can take time. Allow plenty of time if you absolutely, positively have to be anywhere at a specific time - and suss out an alternative route in advance.   

6. Don’t be afraid of fast food. There are several fast food outlets in Britain that offer affordable and palatable meals without breaking the bank. The sandwich chain Pret a Manger has outlets all over London and while its sandwiches are wrapped in plastic they are, in fact, made on site at each restaurant every day and choices like Tandoori chicken and cucumber with yogurt sauce are actually quite tasty. Fish and chips, although it can be hard to find the traditional cod, is also often a good choice, while kebab restaurants are another good option – with London having a large Turkish population. 
7. Do your research as it can be hard to find internet cafes. They are often hidden up dodgy-looking stairways or in gloomy basements, but when you discover one they usually offer an hour of internet access for between £1 and £2. Often, however, the printer will not work, or the guy manning the facility will have minimal English. Britain is using a lot of imported labour from places like Poland and Estonia. The good news is that you can find a lot of free wi-fi, sometimes offered by local councils. Fast-food outlets like Starbucks and McDonalds offer free wi-fi, so you can check your emails for the price of a cup of coffee, or use software like Skype to phone home. Also check out tourism offices and local libraries. Many will offer free internet access (usually limited to an hour) to visitors.

8, Look out for lunchtime specials – and don’t be afraid to try hotel restaurants.  Many British restaurants offer lunchtime deals, or set menus at far below the cost of dinner, so it can pay to have your main meal in the middle of the day. Good pubs often serve very palatable food food to their lunchtime clientele, while good hotels often offer bargain dining. 

9. Unless you have several suitcases or are in a screaming rush avoid traditional London black cabs. While they are clean and fast and the drivers are wizards at avoiding traffic black spots or hold ups, nothing can burn a hole in your budget like a couple of trips in a cab – particularly at night. A trip from central London to a suburb like Southfields can cost £35 or more – and the underground stops just after midnight. Buy a pre-paid Oyster card which works on all buses, underground and overground trains and saves you money on standard fares. Oyster cards be recharged at most stations and can also be used on the very useful all-night bus services. And despite what you might have heard, public transport in London is quicker and more efficient  than you might imagine – just don’t expect a smile in the morning from your fellow travellers.

10. Get online and download maps, apps and more to your phone or laptop before you leave Australia. Not all London hotels are expensive – it just essential to pick the right one. My current favourites are The Capital Hotel (right) and The Athenaeum at the top end and Tune Hotels for a budget experience. It's all down to research - and also make sure you have the apps you need before leaving Australia. Trying to download a new app at Maccas will not be fun. 

# Qantas operates direct daily services from Sydney to London. To book visit www.qantas.com or call 13 13 13. 

Why the Hilton Adelaide was a huge disappointment

Oh dear, oh dear. You can learn a lot about a hotel when you stay for five nights - and what I learnt about the Hilton Adelaide was far from impressive. 

And this used to be a terrific hotel; a temple of gastronomy with great staff and a terrific location. 
I learnt, for a start, that hotel personnel are not all being trained properly. 

When I asked the doorman where the business centre was, he directed me to the first floor - where I found a computer that was unmanned and locked. I followed the instructions on the desk to ring the operator and was told someone was on the way. 

Ten minutes later a surly fellow arrived and told me I was in the wrong place. I should have been on the ground floor. He had no answer when I asked why the doorman and the telephone operator had been unable to relay that information to me. 

When I did finally get to the business centre it contained sluggish machines and no printer - so I had to find an internet cafe to print out my boarding pass in any case. 

If this was just one example of a hotel that seems to have lost its way then it would have been fair enough - but similar issues were endemic. It was surprising to find such lethargy in a hotel brand that has a global reputation for excellence.  

The lifts were a point in case. One was out of action almost from the moment we arrived and at one stage all the public lifts failed simultaneously. Sheepish staff had to direct guests to scruffy service elevators until the problem was fixed. 

And as the hotel appeared to be full there were long waits even when the lifts were in operation. 

Then there was the room functionality - where you actually had to get out of bed to reach the switch to turn the bedside light off. Who designs things like that? 

And the servicing of the room. The two face cloths I used in my first 24 hours never reappeared for the remainder of my stay. The bathroom amenities were not replaced even when they had clearly been used. 

After three days I wanted my towels replaced so I put them on the bathroom floor as instructed by an in-room leaflet. When I returned that night all had just been hung up again, toothpaste stains and all. I'm as green as the next guy but if I want my towels changed surely that shouldn't be an issue. 

Also, if you come down later than 9.30am all the newspapers that are stacked in front of the concierge desk will have gone. I wasn't offered one delivered to the room.  

Throw in the wifi: $27 for a 24-hour period; it was clunky and slow. And this is a city which has announced free wifi in the city core; which will ultimately eliminate such blatant gouging.

The bathrooms are cramped, too, but the beds are comfortable and there are windows that open to let in fresh air - a rare bonus.  

The Hilton used to be home to restaurants such as Cheong Liew's iconic The Grange Restaurant (from 1995 to last year) and to creatives including Simon Bryant, who was executive chef for here for 10 years.

Today the hotel's only food outlet is The Basserie, a cafe-cum-restaurant where a request by one of my colleagues for freshly made bacon at breakfast was rejected. From haute cuisine to $25 set lunches in 12 months. 

Fortunately I was in Adelaide for the excellent Savour wine event as a guest of the Pernod-Ricard group. If I'd been spending my own money I'd have been seriously unimpressed. One company executive did talk to the general manager about the unsatisfactory service but received no real explanation. 

That said, service in the Lobby Lounge and the Collins Bar was brisk and friendly, but the gouging continues with a 1.5% surcharge of any payments with a credit card - apparently a national Hilton policy. And $34 for valet parking. 

There were plenty of porters in evidence during the day, but none to be seen later, when many guests check in.

There's further bad news in that Adelaide is very much a building a site at the moment. The once very attractive Queen Victoria Square, which the Hilton overlooks, has been ripped apart and is now only worth avoiding, while down the road Rundle Mall is also a 24-hour hive of demolition and construction activity. 

No doubt this is progress. But the Hilton itself is also, in my humble opinion, in need of a serious makeover. 

The Hilton Adelaide, 233 Victoria Square, Adelaide. (08) 8217 2000. www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/south-australia/hilton-adelaide-hotel-ADLHITW/index.html

UPDATE: Here is the reply I received from the Hilton, which I do not believe addresses any of my criticisms. You be the judge. 

Dear Mr Dobbin,

Thank you for taking the time to pass on your feedback regarding your recent stay with us.

I appreciate your positive comments regarding the service you received in the Lobby Lounge and the Collins Bar however I am sorry that you found certain aspects of your stay disappointing. 

At Hilton Adelaide we are committed to exceeding the expectations of our guests, I therefore apologise for the disappointment experienced on this occasion.

I acknowledge the need for some training requirements which will be discussed with the Department Managers concerned and steps will be taken to improve these areas of the operation. 

Mr Dobbin, once again I do apologise that we were unable to meet your expectations and for any resulting inconvenience on this occasion.

I hope you will allow me the opportunity of welcoming you back again in the future.