Friday, 25 October 2013

TarraWarra Estate - a Yarra Valley jewel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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




Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Southern Highlands: To the manor born

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 20 October 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Saturday, 19 October 2013

The Mornington Peninsula - a gourmet Mecca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENDS 

Thursday, 17 October 2013

A perfectly ordinary place to stay in Melbourne

Sometimes you don't need to stay in a Hyatt, Sofitel or the Crown Metropole. Sometimes, a perfectly ordinary hotel will do the trick for a night or two.

With the Rydges Melbourne Hotel, you don't get bells and whistles. There is no one to greet you as you descend from your taxi, no one to help you carry your bag to your room.

But if you are only staying a night or two, carrying only hand luggage and need somewhere clean, central and comfortable to lay your head, then the recently refurbished Rydges will do just fine. 

Rydges is a 4-star hostelry is right in the centre of the Melbourne CBD. Chinatown is just around the corner and Collins Street, the Bourke Street Mall, the MCG, Etihad Stadium, Rod Laver Arena and Melbourne Park are within a short stroll. 

The staff and check-in and check-out are friendly and personable and there were no queues. I was upgraded, without asking, to a very nice suite that had all the accoutrements you'd expect; minibar, flat screen TV, walk-in robe. And a big bathroom with a shower that provided instant hot water along with a spa bath. 

OK, so the morning paper I'd requested on check-in didn't arrive and they wanted $18 for wifi (less of a rip-off than many other hotels, but a rip-off nonetheless). 

They also want charge you for using a computer terminal ($5 minimum no less), but when I explained I merely wanted to print out a boarding pass the lovely lady at reception did that for me - and stowed my small bag in storage until my afternoon departure. 

My bed was comfortable and there is a rooftop swimming pool and gymnasium, conference facilities and a business centre. On-site facilities also include the Bellabar and the Locanda Italian Steakhouse, although I used neither. 

There are dozens of eateries within walking range (the Shark Fin Inn did a very reasonable Chinese feed) and you are right in the centre of the theatre district should the arts be your thing. 

A quick check on Wotif.com showed rooms start from around $179 (and are much cheaper if you book multiple-night stays). Nothing to complain about there.

Rydges Melbourne, 186 Exhibition Street ,Melbourne. (03) 9662 0511.
www.rydges.com/accommodation/melbourne-vic


Tuesday, 15 October 2013

You meet the most interesting people in Vanuatu

It was a couple of years ago now, but we met Chief Dani Rusa (at least that's what he said his name was, communication was not easy) at the Sunday morning market in Luganville, the major town on the Vanuatu island of Espiritu SantoA wizened but still wiry and proud old man with a long white beard and twinkling eyes, he told us he had walked two days to reach Luganville from his home village that was deep in the mountains and had no road access.
The chief and his offsider

In deference to the more sophisticated locals, he had wrapped a piece of pink cloth around his lower extremities rather than the leaf he traditionally wears to preserve his modesty.

Accompanied by a younger assistant chief, whose name was not disclosed to us, he had made the trek to the big smoke to resolve a dispute with another tribe, a complicated affair involving a native plant being used to place a curse on the local courthouse.

The chief was confident the contretemps could be resolved the next day, after which he planned to return to his mountain people, who were renowned for shooting at US aircraft with wooden bows and arrows during World War II.

Speaking bislama, the local pidgin language, through an interpreter, he told us that he was no stranger to conflict. He smiled as he told us how he fought with notorious rebel leader Jimmy Stevens in the Coconut Rebellion back in 1980. 

It was a would-be coup that made worldwide headlines at the time. "I was one of Stevens' main men," the chief proclaimed.

Stevens is remembered as the leader of a ragtag band of leaf-wearing rebels who staged a coup on Espiritu Santo before the New Hebrides, then jointly ruled by Britain and France, became the independent nation of Vanuatu.

The leader of the Nagriamel movement, Stevens declared the independence of the “State of Vemerana” in June 1980 and referred to himself as the prime minister.

After the Republic of Vanuatu was granted independence in July, Prime Minister Walter Lini deployed Papua New Guinean troops and the revolt was crushed without serious bloodshed.

Stevens died in 1994 but his followers, like Chief Rusa, still wear arm patches signifying membership of the rebel organisation.

On this day, however, Chief Rusa, also wearing a Boston Celtics beanie and a New York, New York necklace, was more interested in shopping than rebellion as the two mountain men perused the yams, pineapples and other fruits and vegetables on offer in the simple market (below).

Life here moves at a slower pace; there are a handful of places to stop in the Santo capital of Luganville, with the hilltop Deco Stop Lodge a pleasant place for a stay, or for lunch beside the pool.

Accessible only by water are the Aore Resort and Bokissa Private Island Resort, both great for lovers of water sports, particularly scuba diving.

Exclusive Bokissa Island is absolutely beautiful and offers daily cruises to Malo Island for snorkelling with turtles, swimming in blue holes and peaceful river inlets, kayaking and a barbecue lunch.

Wherever you go in Vanuatu, but most particularly on Santo, you’ll find links with World War II.
James Michener was inspired to write Tales of the South Pacific while he was stationed on Santo. 

The island is the home of the world's best dive wreck, the SS President Coolidge, a cruise liner turned troop ship that was sunk by the US military’s own mines with 5000 troops on board,. All but two survived.

World War II wreckage
She lies intact on her side and is easily accessible, as is the USS Tucker, off Malo Island
Just down the road from the Coolidge is Million Dollar Point, where the Americans dumped jeeps and other heavy equipment into the ocean at the end of the war. Our guide also took us to the wreck of a World War II bomber slowly being overtaken by the foliage.

Given the sleepy state of Santo today, it is hard to believe that it was once the second-largest US base in the Pacific after Hawaii and was home to over 40,000 troops at any one time. Those troops included Michener and future president John F. Kennedy, while Eleanor Roosevelt visited in her role as ambassador for the Commander In Chief. 

Today, however, Vanuatu is the land time forgot, which makes the 83 tropical islands that make up the nation ideal for getting away from it all. Service can be slow, or haphazard, but you just have to go with the flow.

On Tanna, you’ll find the amazing Yasur volcano, a still fiery cauldron that angrily hurls rocks and lava, and islanders who still live the traditional way, wearing little more than grass skirts and penis sheaths. 

It’s also home to the John Frum Cargo Cult, devoted to US servicemen who visited in World War II, and another tribe who, somewhat bizarrely given his disdain for anyone not wearing a suit, believe that Prince Philip is their saviour.

Pentecost Island is famous for the land diving ritual – the original bungy jump (held each April and May), but most tourists base themselves on the main island of Efate, in and around the somnambulant capital of Port Vila.
Room with a view at Breakas Resort

Here you’ll find duty free stores, a daily market and a handful of top-line restaurants and resorts.

Breakas Beach Resort and Villas offers lovely bungalows and villas and there’s a very good on-site restaurant next to the main swimming pool. www.breakas.com.

Chantilly’s On The Bay offers modern rooms with all amenities within walking distance of downtown Port Vila. There’s an on-site spa and good restaurant. Ideal for anyone who wants to be close to the action. www.chantillysonthebay.com.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Why Sydney's newest hotel has been an instant hit

Sydney’s latest hotel, the vibrant 1888 in Pyrmont, has been a smash hit from day one by getting the basics right: comfortable rooms, top-notch service and free wi-fi. 

Located in an old wool store (and one-time car park), 1888 is just a short stroll from Darling Harbour and the Convention light rail stop. The newest in a group of design hotels launched by boutique hotel operator 8Hotels, it opened in July.


Originally built, you guessed it, in 1888, the building that houses the hotel has undergone a $30-million development over the last two years, emerging as a luxury boutique property that has 90 rooms, including a brightly-coloured attic penthouse apartment overlooking the city. 

The smallest of the rooms, known as "the shoeboxes", start from $139 a night (an absolute bargain in pricey Sydney) but tend to be snapped up quickly, so it pays to book well in advance. 

The aesthetic of the hotel is distinctly Australian, blending the natural elements of reclaimed Iron bark, stark exposed brick and concrete walls, stone and bronze with a five-storey atrium. High ceilings and huge period windows reflect the heritage history, as do old photographs in the lobby lounge, although the overall vibe is very much up to date, with bright young staff who smile and do everything to make your stay as much fun as possible. 

The free wi-fi (and two complimentary Apple computer stations in the lobby) is a nice idea, as are the iPads with hotel info located in each room. The mini bars contain healthy snacks and organic drinks in a nod to wellness.

And as 1888 was also the year Kodak launched its cameras, the hotel offers Instagram-friendly walking maps for the Pyrmont area, a revolving series of Instagram images in the Mac space and a "selfie space" for guests to pap themselves in an old photo frame. It's all good fun, if just a little cheesy - but there's a kicker: 1888 Hotel is offering a complimentary night to any Instagram users with more than 10,000 followers. 

In addition to this, each month the guest who has snapped the best Instagram picture while staying at the hotel will score a free night’s stay to be claimed at any time.

There is no full-service restaurant on site, although dozens are within walking distance, but 1888 Eatery & Bar serves up continental breakfasts (the milk and juices could do with being kept cold, by the way) and rustic, tapas-style shared plates in the evenings. 

The hotel also has a policy of serving 100% Australian wines, beers, ciders and spirits. General manager Roberto Russo and food and beverage supervisor Patrick Rodgers have devised a selection  to ensure guests get an authentic Australian experience.


The list includes beers from artisan brewers such as Murray’s Brewery in Port Stephens and Two Metre Tall in Tasmania, with wines from boutique producers including Narkoojee from Gippsland, Soumah in the Yarra Valley and Derwent Estate in Tasmania, while West Winds from Margaret River and Lark Distillery from Hobart feature heavily on the spirits list.


The major downside for me was car parking. The hotel does not have its own car park and you have to park at the (expensive) Darling Harbour car park across the road.

That said, the 12 "shoebox" rooms are perfectly good for a 2-3 night stay with comfortable beds, flat-screen TVs, a desk and modern bathrooms. I'll certainly be trying to snap up a few nights at the entry rate. The hotel is bright, quiet, functional but fun and the more you spend, the greater space and comfort. I liked the split-level loft rooms ($299) while suites start from $499.

1888 Hotel, 139 Murray Street, Pyrmont. (02) 8586 1888. www.1888hotel.com.au

# Winsor Dobbin was a guest of 8Hotels. 

Thursday, 10 October 2013

A Qantas club with a difference

Neil Perry, Australia's most decorated chef, is in the kitchen cooking up some magic alongside Brett Graham, the wunderkind from Newcastle who has earned two Michelin stars at The Ledbury in London. 

The venue is magical Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa, named Australia's No.1 hotel by TripAdvisor. The wines are by some of the biggest names in the industry: Cullen, Yabby Lake, Grosset and SC Pannell among them. 

The guests are members of a Qantas club. Not THE Qantas Club, but rather members of Qantas epiQure, which has become one of Australia’s most popular wine and food clubs after just two years in existence.


Now with over 40,000 members, epiQure was founded to allow frequent fliers access to wines they were served in business and first class, but has emerged into a social organisation with regular tastings and food and wine functions around the country.

Many wines, including back vintages, are available exclusively for EpiQure members and can be purchased either with cash or frequent flier points. EpiQure events range from the Wolgan Valley extravaganza to simple cheese and wine tastings.

Champagne masterclasses and producers lunches at wineries including Shadowfax and Chapel Hill are also on the itinerary, while wine and seafood tastings with John Susman of Fishtales feature regularly.

“Qantas Frequent Fliers love their food and wine and we offer them experiences that are impossible to replicate,” says Jan Rundle, formerly of Hungerford Hill and now head of Qantas epiQure. 

Chefs who have been involved include the likes of Heston Blumenthal, Rene Redzepi, Guillaume Brahimi and Andrew McConnell - along with Qantas ambassador Perry, who also puts together the menus for those at the pointy end of the planes, and is a regular participant. 

Perry and Graham served a starter of yellow fin tuna tartare with Moroccan eggplant salad, harissa and cumin mayonnaise followed by rich and noble spanner crab with sweet corn congee, anise peanuts and chilli oil (below).
For mains, guests enjoyed fillet of aged Speckle Park beef with celeriac-baked juniper and smoked bone marrow and then a mouth-watering meringue with passionfruit curd, lemon verbena and frozen mandarin juice preceded an over-the-top black forest trifle inspired by The Fat Duck. 

The morning after the Wolgan Valley dinner Perry held a Q and A session for club members and mingled happily with guests, answering their culinary questions. For many, it was a priceless experience.  

“Qantas epiQure is about delivering premium experiences for our members whether it be at home with an exquisite bottle of wine or on a culinary adventure like our escape to Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa," says Rundle, pictured.

Membership costs $99 (including GST) or 13,000 Qantas points. For details of upcoming events visit www.qantasepiqure.com.au

# Winsor Dobbin was a guest of Qantas and Emirates Wolgan Valley