Thursday, 30 January 2014

A Bali resort with something for everyone

Some beach resorts are perfect for romantic stays, others for family holidays, or perhaps for those who enjoy their sporting activities.
It's rare to discover a resort that does all three well, but Conrad Bali, right on the beachfront at Tanjung Benoa, offers a traditional family-friendly resort with a touch of luxury for its more hedonistic habitues.  
The 353-room hotel, which also has a separate wing of 55 adult-only suites, offers water sports, open-air massages, morning yoga sessions, gym, free business centre, shopping village, several pools, tennis courts and three restaurants in seven hectares of beautifully manicured gardens (look out, that might be a coconut above your head). 

The rooms feature either ocean, lagoon or garden views with designer amenities and Balinese decor with all modern facilities. There is wi-fi throughout the property,  too, a nice modern touch. 

The suites offer a private pool, lounge and entrance - making them ideal for those seeking romance, or peace and quiet. 
The hotel is centred on 350 metres of beachfront - you can walk along the beach for 40 minutes all the way to Nusa Dua and activities on offer include para-sailing, banana boat rides, jet ski hire and kayaking. There's a kid's club with trained staff for parents who want to take some time out; maybe at the excellent Jiwa Spa, which offers several treatment and relaxation zones, a wide range of treatments and its own 25-metre pool.

The food in the Mediterranean-style beachfront Eight Degrees South is excellent (think clever dishes like watermelon gazpacho with onion confit, roasted red pepper and honeydew jelly; or pan-roasted Balinese prawns with green mango salsa). Desserts may feature locally sourced artisan chocolate. There's a focus on local organic and biodynamic produce where possible, says well-travelled executive chef David Laval - and on local seafood like sea bass and red snapper.   
Other dining choices include Rin, for Japanese cuisine, Suku for Bailinese and Pan-Asian flavours (with traditional dancing some nights) and East for snacks and cocktails. There's a good selection of wines available and some pretty potent cocktails at Azure bar by the lagoon pool.
There’s a multinational clientele here and the service is excellent. Several bespoke tours are available from the resort concierge desk (think elephant trekking, white water rafting or visits to the aforementioned local artisan organic chocolate producer), but there is so much to do here you could easily spend a week without leaving the grounds. 
And if you want to head out there are several local stores, shop-front massage joints and local restaurants right on the doorstep. 
Conrad Bali, Jalan Pratama 168, Tanjung Benoa, Bali 80363. +62 361 778 788. www.conradbali.com.    

How Australians can grab a bottle of wine for free: No catch

Fancy a bottle of wine for free? Who doesn't? 

But on February 15 free wine will be a reality for Australian wine lovers thanks to a new initiative known as the Fifth Leg Bad Taste Amnesty. 

The smart marketing people at Fifth Leg wines say that "life is simply too short to drink bad wine" so are offering the chance to swap a bottle of disgusting plonk for a bottle of Fifth Leg of your choice, free.

So if you've had a ghastly bottle of retsina lurking under your bed, or if there's a $5 nasty that's been living in your kitchen but is too awful to even add to a casserole, here is your chance. 

From 1-5pm on February 15, all First Choice liquor outlets nationally (except in Tasmania, where there aren't any) will house "swap zones" where wine lovers can drop off a bottle of dubious vinous appeal and swap it for a bottle of Fifth Leg. 

Anyone aged over 18 can participate - and there is a limit of one bottle per customer. 

Simply bring in an unopened and undamaged bottle of bad wine and swap it for your choice of Fifth Leg Crisp Chardonnay, Fifth Leg Semillon Sauvignon Blanc, Fifth Leg Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz Merlot, Fifth Leg Rosé or Fifth Leg Shiraz, which normally retail for around $16.99. 

Fifth Leg is the quirky offshoot of well-known Margaret River winery Devil’s Lair and I'm told this is the second year of the program. 

Find out more at www.fifthleg.com.au.


Wednesday, 29 January 2014

A journey to Tasmania's wild west

For a tiny town in the wild west of Tasmania, Strahan packs a mighty tourism punch. 

With a population of just 700, this fishing village is the base for several major attractions, including cruises on the Gordon River, cruises to Bonnet Island, one of the best places in the world to get up close and personal with fairy penguins, and (sometimes) the West Coast Wilderness Railway.

A 4.5-hour drive from Hobart and a 3-hour drive from Devonport, Strahan was originally developed as a port for the many mining settlements in the area. It  has also played a key role in the timber industry.

Today, it is the gateway to Tasmania’s largely deserted south-west wilderness, where many locals believe that Tasmanian tigers still roam, with boats, planes and helicopters using the settlement as their base. 

Strahan is the departure point for boat trips to Sarah Island, the notorious penal settlement that earned a reputation as the harshest in the Australian colonies. It also home to the Round Earth Theatre Company, which conducts tours of Sarah Island and also created the play The Ship That Never Was, which is Australia’s longest-running theatre production.

The hamlet is a harbour-side village with a dark and fascinating convict past set on the edge of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Nestled on the shores of massive Macquarie Harbour, it is the gateway to the World Heritage listed Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park 

Despite its history of convicts, these days Strahan is a laid-back destination with shops selling artisan wares and eateries serving up delicious local produce (including crayfish). There's no shortage of activities, from jet boat rides and gentle kayak journeys to a seaplane adventure for an incredible bird's-eye view, Google Earth style.

There are also long stretches of wild ocean beach to explore, massive sand dunes to conquer and forest adventures to be had in all-terrain vehicles.

While there are some independent bed and breakfasts and a handful of motels, most of Strahan was owned and run by Pure Tasmania, which operated the up-market accommodation at Strahan Village, overlooking the pretty hamlet and its crayfish fleet, as well as a wide range of self-catering accommodation including some delightful cottages. It recently was acquired by the RACT.

Hamers Hotel (above), one of only two pubs in town, is also owned by Pure Tasmania and is a popular gathering point for both locals and visitors.

The West Coast Wilderness Railway, which usually travels the rugged and largely untamed country between Strahan and the mining town of Queenstown, recently resumed operation, but only one section of the track is currently being used, meaning a trip on the winding road to Queenstown is currently a necessity. 

A restoration of the Mount Lyell Mining line built in 1896 to export copper from Queenstown, it was a feat of remarkable engineering but was closed in 1969. Reopened as tourist attraction in 2000, it features new carriages fitted out with Tasmanian native timbers and modelled on the original carriages.

Four steam locomotives, including ABT 1, which dates back to 1896, are used to pull the train, which crosses the King River and several dramatic rainforest gorges, using a rack-and-pinion system to conquer the steep gradients.

The journey has been described as one of the world’s few remaining authentic railway experiences and passengers are able to disembark at old mining settlements, and even pan for gold.

A cruise up the Gordon River is equally relaxing – and there is the chance to stretch your legs and gaze at the 200-year-old Huon pines at Heritage Landing and on a guided tour of Sarah Island.

The rainforest surrounding the Gordon River has in most places remained undisturbed for thousands of years making the cruise an awe-inspiring experience. It seems strange to think that three decades ago activists had to fight tooth and nail to prevent the Gordon and Franklin rivers being flooded to create a dam.

The Bonnet Island Experience, meanwhile, is popular with animal lovers. This rocky outcrop just before “Hell’s Gate” - the entry to Macquarie Harbour - looks unremarkable when we sail past it on board the fast runabout the Sophia just before dusk.

There is a lone lighthouse, built in 1892 but unmanned for decades, and next stop: South America. Or, if you turn left you are en route for Antarctica.

As darkness descends, however, Bonnet Island comes alive with around 250 fairy penguins (left) that go out looking for food during the day, but return to their island home at night, sharing the island with short-tailed shearwaters.

Guests are given a lantern to enable them to avoid tumbling in the darkness – and help locate the shy birds before they scurry into their burrows, apparently nonplussed by the invaders.

As for nightlife, there is none. Strahan is not that sort of place. But I suspect the sea air nonetheless will ensure most visitors sleep well.

Strahan Village offers a range of styles of accommodation.   See www.strahanvillage.com.au/

The 2 ½-hour Bonnet Island Experience runs nightly from Strahan at dusk, while Gordon River Cruises sail daily with guided tours of Sarah Island included. 

For full details on visiting Tasmania, go to the new Tourism Tasmania website:www.discovertasmania.com.au.









Friday, 24 January 2014

Martinborough: small town, huge reputation

Martinborough is a tiny New Zealand town with a very big reputation on the global wine stage. 
With a population of just 1300 permanent residents, Martinborough is situated in the southern Wairarapa region on the southern tip of the North Island and is hugely popular as a weekend getaway for residents of the capital of Wellington, which is just a one-hour drive away.

Martinborough has established itself as a European-style “wine village” producing some of the best pinot noir in the country - and some very decent chardonnays. Riesling and pinot gris also do well but the region produces less than three percent of New Zealand’s wines - because it is dominated by small family-owned wineries.

Nonetheless, its cellar doors are often full to the brim on sunny weekends and the main square, laid out in the shape of a union jack in 1881, is very much the centre of activities.

Martinborough pinot noir, particularly from producers like Ata Rangi, Escarpment and Martinborough Vineyard is outstanding, but chardonnay also thrives, as does riesling, which is generally made in a sweeter style, pinot gris and sauvignon blanc.

In and around town, wineries to note include Palliser Estate, Murdoch James, Martinborough Vineyard, Ata Rangi (right), Vynfields, Te Kairanga, Tirohana Estate, Dry River, Alana Estate and Schubert.

Although several of the best cellar doors are within walking distance of each other, the greater Wairarapa wine region extends well out of the town into Masterton, Gladstone and other hamlets worth exploring.

Palliser Estate was part of the first wave of wineries to become established in Martinborough with first plantings in 1984 and continues to be one of the regional leaders. 

Ata Rangi is one of New Zealand’s most famous wineries and offers an excellent tasting experience in a leafy setting with friendly and extremely knowledgeable cellar door staff. It has been a Martinborough style leader for over 30 years.

Murdoch James is a familiar name with Australian wine buyers and it is one of the Martinborough region’s most popular cellar doors, offering “Grape to Glass” tours that include the winery and barrel cave. Roger and Jill Fraser were regional pioneers and the company is expanding after Chinese investment.

Cambridge Road is one of the newest producers in Martinborough – and young vigneron Lance Redgwell is making some outstanding wines, particularly pinot noir and syrah, grown in tiny quantities using biodynamic principles. Open weekends or by appointment.

Martinborough Vineyard (below) is regularly listed among New Zealand’s leading producers and has won an award for the world’s best pinot noir a couple of years ago. It has a friendly cellar door with a wide range of styles available for tastings. Platters are offered during summer.
The much-loved Wendy Campbell’s French Bistro/Café, a regular award winner, closed a couple of years ago, but there are still several good dining options.

Bloom at Murdoch James Estate offers spectacular views and a lovely ambience just a short drive out of town. The menu matches dishes like confit chicken leg with roasted new potatoes and coq au vin garnish with wines by the glass. Desserts are a speciality and sitting on the deck is most enjoyable during summer months.

Tirohana Estate restaurant offers both fine dining and casual meals at lunch and dinner. There is an open fire in winter and vineyard views. Think dishes like lamb shank on bubble and squeak with wilted spinach and wine jus, or confit duck and chorizo cassoulet with rocket and red onion salad.

Cool Change is a café and bar on the main square that’s popular with local winemakers. The dining room features booth seating, an open fire, period lighting and retro wallpaper. Italian-inspired cuisine is the drawcard here.

Poppies Martinborough, the brainchild of former Dry River winemaker Poppy Hammond and her husband Shayne, offers "fine wine and fantastic food in a relaxed, boutique vineyard setting”.

Also try Micro Wine Bar, Circus, Pinocchio, Vynfields Café and Wine Bar, Taste Vine @ Margrain, and Trio Café at Coney Wines.

Accommodation options range from Peppers Parehua Country Estate, one the leading resorts in the region and just a short walk from Martinborough village, to the The Martinborough Hotel (right), where the verandah rooms are in the original 1882 building, while the courtyard houses seven spacious garden rooms furnished in rustic style.

The Petit Hotel, Aylestone Retreat and The Claremont are all popular, while Pinot Villas is just off the main square and features self-contained one- and two-bedroom villas and suites, while Margrain Vineyard Villas are surrounded by vines and offer a country ambience just a stroll from downtown.

Wharekauhau Country Estate is one of New Zealand’s best known luxury lodges, overlooking Palliser Bay on a working farm on the fringe of the Martinborough vineyards. Facilities include an indoor pool, fitness centre, spa treatments, tennis, croquet, pétanque and archery.

The Toast Martinborough wine festival, which increases the population to 10,000, is held annually on the third Sunday in November.

The surrounding Wairarapa region is dotted with small vineyards and wineries. Look out for Gladstone Vineyard (the lunches are terrific), Clear River Estate, Paddy Borthwick, Paper Road, Loopline Vineyard and Urlar.

Greytown is a lovely spot to stop and browse through antique stores and boutiques and is also home to the Wairarapa Wine Centre, with a wide variety of local boutique offerings. Golfing, horse trekking, boating, coastal walks and fishing are all popular local pastimes.

Qantas and Air New Zealand both have regular daily flights to Wellington. www.qantas.com, www.airnewzealand.com.au.

All major car hire companies have desks at the airport. Martinborough is 65 kilometres north-east of Wellington over the Rimatuka Range (beware: this is a twisting drive on narrow roads).

www.martinborough.com, www.martinboroughnz.com, www.winesfrommartinborough.com.




Monday, 20 January 2014

A US holiday offer that sounds too good to be true


A free holiday in the United States with vehicle and accommodation thrown in? Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it - particularly with US$500 of fuel to sweeten the deal.

But on this occasion the unlikely seems to be reality - although it obviously pays to read the terms and conditions very carefully. 

Here's the deal: During April, May and June, US-based motorhome hire company Apollo Motorhome Holidays is offering up to 18 nights’ free rental for travellers in order to have a number of brand-new motorhomes re-located from the manufacturing plant in Iowa to Apollo branches in Denver, San Francisco, Las Vegas or Los Angeles. And April pick-ups also include up to US$500 free fuel. 

Travellers can relocate the motorhome of their choice from the new fleet, subject to availability and run of fleet. A maximum of four travellers and up to 4023km  free travel is allowed per vehicle. 

So if you've ever dreamed of exploring the US Midwest, getting up close with Nebraska, or maybe visiting Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone National Park and Oregon this sounds like the perfect opportunity. 

Or maybe you fancy a trip through Kansas, New Mexico and Arizona before hitting the bright lights of Las Vegas.
A minimum US$500 deposit is payable on booking and the total bond required on pick-up is US$1000. All hires include taxes and one-way fee free of charge, a kitchen kit and two bedding kits. GPS, additional bedding kits and other extras are available for hire should you require them.

The set pick up dates are: March 31-April 5, May 6-9 and June 2-6. Up to US$500 for fuel will be provided for April pick-ups only, on presentation of fuel receipts. 

OK. Now here's the snag. It's up to all participants to make their own away to the factory in Forest City, Iowa, which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. In fact, Forest City is located approximately 240 kilometres south of Minneapolis St Paul International Airport. Which is quite a long bus ride. 

I haven't taken advantage of this offer (although I'm very tempted) so cannot endorse it. I am merely passing on the information for what it is worth - although Apollo is a massive and well-regarded organisation. 

Fees, terms and conditions and administration fees apply. Full details and pre-bookings are available at http://www.apollorv.com/factory-special, Call 1800 777 779 or email info@apollocamper.com.





recommend your readers carefully peruse the ts and cs.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Take the road less travelled to the delightful Clare Valley


The Clare Valley is one of Australia's greatest wine regions - and also one of the prettiest. Strangely, it is also one of the least visited. A two-hour drive north of Adelaide, high in the Mount Lofty Ranges, the Clare is often overshadowed by rival South Australian wine districts such as the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale. But it is home to many of our best family-owned wineries and produces arguably Australia's best dry rieslings.
The first vines were planted in the Clare in 1842 and many of the families have been making wines for generations - the Mitchells and Pikes among them. At many of the cellar doors you'll be greeted by a family member, if not the winemaker himself. 
The Pikes vineyard 
This is a quintessentially Australian region - and unmistakably rural, with majestic gum trees, rolling hills and valleys. The many small townships along the Main North Road are dotted with rustic pubs and quaint stone cottages.

There are no chain hotels here; you are more likely to lay your head in a rustic pub, a bed and breakfast or vineyard cottage. 
One "must do" for any visiting wine lover is the Sevenhill complex, where you will find Jesuits tending to their grapevines, just as their order has done for more than 160 years. The historic winery, cellars and cellar door, St Aloysius Church, are all worth exploring. The wines have traditionally been made by Jesuit Brothers but the current winemaker is the first woman to have the role - Liz Heidenreich.
Riesling specialist Pikes has a beautiful 1870s cellar door overlooking vines in the Polish Hill River valley - and it is also home to a small art gallery. It is open seven days a week and has grazing plates of local produce on offer. 
Heritage-listed Quelltaler is one of the region's oldest wineries, dating to 1863, and is the headquarters for the Annie's Lane operation. There is an on-site winemaking museum and art gallery and the extensive grounds host A Day on the Green concerts. 


The modern O'Leary Walker cellar door (below) has spectacular views of the Watervale vineyards and features both indoor and outdoor seating with local produce platters, seasonal specials, cakes and coffees.
 
Kirrihill Wines has already enjoyed an increase in customer numbers and sales since moving to its new main road site at the southern entrance to Clare. Kirrihill is a co-tenant with the Clare Rise Bakery at the former Last Word Inn.
Taylors at Auburn offers winery tours, while other big names include Jim Barry, Knappstein, Kilikanoon, Paulett, Mount Horrocks, Clos Clare, Mitchell, Claymore, Greg Cooley Wines, Reilly's, Penna Lane, Tim Gramp, Tim Adams, Mt Surmon, Eyre Creek, Stone Bridge Wines and Eldredge.
Skillogalee (below) is one of Australia's most-loved winery restaurants and those who like to dine outdoors will love the English-style gardens. Open for lunches 363 days a year, this family-owned and run stalwart of 20-plus years also has several bed-and-breakfast options.
Wild Saffron gourmet cafe in Clare village is licensed and has a range of meals to eat in or take away - perfect for anyone staying in a self-catering cottage. The menu changes daily and breakfasts are available at weekends.
The Little Red Grape is a bakery, cellar door and home wares store in Sevenhill village. The bakery is open seven days and the hungry can choose from meat pies, artisan breads, muffins and fruit tarts, while sandwiches and baguettes are available to eat on a lawn area or to take away.


At Artisan's Table Wine Bar and Bistro in Clare, chef Roger Graham is known for his passion for local produce. It is one of the few restaurants to offer dinner, while Mr Mick's Kitchen's menu features tapas-style dishes that range from pan-fried haloumi with rocket, pear and caramelised onion to crisp-fried soft-shell baby mudcrab. 
Also try Mellers of Auburn (formerly Cygnet's), Penna Lane's Country Kitchen (weekends only), Reilly's, the Rising Sun Hotel, the Sevenhill Hotel and newcomer Terroir Auburn, which has a locavore philosophy.
The Clare has five subregions: Auburn, Watervale, Polish Hill River, Sevenhill and Clare, with subtle differences between them - but most producers concentrate on rieslings and shiraz as well as cabernet sauvignon.
Wendouree makes some of Australia's longest-living reds and has cult status with aficionados, while Jeffrey Grosset is regarded as Australia's pre-eminent riesling producer. For budget choices, try the wines of Kirrihill and those under Tim Adams's new Mr Mick label. For rarer varieties, sample pinot gris at Tim Adams or malbec from the Matchbox Wine Co. 
Rock-music lovers will enjoy wines from Claymore with names including Joshua Tree Riesling, the Walk on the Wild Side Shiraz Viognier and the Dark Side of the Moon Shiraz.
 Thorn Park by the Vines specialises in luxury boutique accommodation and fine food, with residential cooking classes available by appointment. There are only two rooms, making it a perfect escape for two couples. 
Clare Country Club has 45 rooms and suites, all with en suite bathrooms with spa baths. All overlook the adjacent golf course and Inchiquin Lake. Conners Restaurant serves dinner seven nights a week. 
The Rising Sun Hotel 
Mintaro Mews, which is a converted former grain store and stables, is one of the most atmospheric places to stay in the area, with cosy, inexpensive en suite accommodation in a lovely little hamlet. Many guests pop over the road for a drink at the Magpie & Stump Hotel, a typical Australian country pub. 
Active visitors will not want to miss the Riesling Trail, a 34-kilometre track along a former railway line that links several villages and passes many of the most famous vineyards. It takes about three hours to cycle the entire length and several local businesses have bikes for hire, including Cogwebs at Auburn.
The Clare Valley Visitor Information Centre is on the corner of Main North Road and Spring Gully Road, Clare. 1800 242 131. www.clarevalley.com.au.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Albi: a delightful escape that's one of France's lesser-known gems

Paris will be on the itinerary of just about everyone visiting France. Nice, Cannes and the French Riviera are de rigueur for the chic set, while the vineyards of Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy are irresistible. Provence has its many fans, too, as does the Dordogne.
Spread your wings a little wider, however, and there is a very different France waiting to be discovered: a France in which the menus are not printed in six languages and the daily markets are not over-run by busloads of tourists playing “if this is Monday it must be Marseille”.

Exploring La France Profonde – the real France – takes a bit more time and effort, but there are some amazing cities and great wine and food to be savoured. 


Albi, just a short drive from the major city of Toulouse in the Midi-Pyrenees region, is one of France’s great remaining secrets. The birthplace of the artist Toulouse Lautrec and explorer Jean-Francois de la Perouse, it is home to a remarkable cathedral, superb museums and historic buildings. The city centre was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 2010. 

Even better, Albi is surrounded by vineyards (think names like Gaillac and Cotes du Frontonnais), and is also home to one of France’s hottest chefs. 
Albi’s history dates back to the Bronze Age, but it blossomed after 51 BC following the Roman conquest of Gaul. The building of the Pont Vieux (Old Bridge) in 1040 saw the city expand and construction of the Cathedral of Sainte-Cecile began in 1282 (although it was not completed until the 16th century). It is the largest brick cathedral in the world.

Unlike many French cities, Albi’s rich architectural heritage has been retained and a walk around town is a step back in time with the Old Bridge still in use after almost a millennium. Today, the town has a population of around 52,000 and is thriving.


Older than the much better known Palais des Papes in Avignon, the Palais de la Berbie, which was once the bishop’s palace, was completed in the 13th century. One of the best preserved castles in the country, it is now the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, home to over 1000 works of art.

For those who wish to explore at a slow pace – and Albi is a town that lends itself to leisurely exploration – you can easily cover most attractions on foot or on the petit train (small tourist trains on wheels that are ubiquitous throughout France). The town is served by two train stations on the line from Toulouse to Rodez, with Gare d’Albi Ville the most central. 

The Echappée Verte (Green Escape) includes three kilometres of walking tracks along the Tarn and Caussels rivers  and offers several great views of the city, while there are several river cruises on offer on the Tarn using gabarres, flat-bottomed barges once used by local merchants. Choose between a 30-minute trip or a two-hour journey to Aiguelèze (June to September only).


Despite Albi not yet being a mainstream tourism destination, there are over 20 hotels in and around the town, including the Hotel la Reserve, a luxury Relais & Chateaux property on the road to Cordes, the Grand Hotel d’Orleans and the Hotel Saint-Clair, a member of the reliable and affordable Logis de France group. There are also several chain options, including a Mercure and an Etap.

When it comes to dining, you can’t go past the delightful L’Esprit du Vin where rising star David Enjalran has earned a Michelin star for dishes like pigeon stuffed with pig’s trotter and oysters. 


Local boy Enjalran is known for his use of luxury ingredients like black truffles and foie gras, but also shines with simple dishes like a ‘gazpacho’ of wild strawberries. Lunch here is an absolute bargain for 29€ and, as the name suggests, there is a good list of local wines. 


There’s a covered market in Albi open Thursday-Sunday and an open-air one in Place LaPerouse six days a week (closed Mondays), where visitors can try local specialities like pastries called janots, gimblettes and navettes, or perhaps radishes with salted pork liver. 


France as she used to be. 

Qantas operates regular services to European destinations To book visit www.qantas.com or call 13 13 13


Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Languedoc - a perfect destination for gourmets and wine lovers

It is market day in the beautiful old town of Pézenas (below). Locals are sampling gourmet goodies; cheeses, sausages, hearty fougasse breads and the local petits pâtés de Pézenas, small sweet/savoury pockets that were the original mince tarts. Many are sampling wines made from grapes grown in the surrounding Languedoc-Roussillon region. 
While Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone produce some of the finest wines in the world it is actually Languedoc, in the deep south of the country, that is France’s most productive wine district.
There are three times as many vineyards here as there are in Bordeaux and nine times as many vines as in Burgundy. One in every 10 bottles of wine sold worldwide comes from here – and around 30% of all French wine – and quality is rising.
Pézenas, a charming country town with city facilities known as the Versailles of Languedoc, is a great base from which to explore larger towns in the region, including perennial favourites Carcassonne, Narbonne, Montpellier and Beziers – and the many surrounding vineyards.
The old town centre, with many artisans operating out of old studios, is dotted with narrow streets and grand town houses from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, when Pézenas was the seat of the Governors of Languedoc.
It’s been (briefly) home to the playwright Moliere and is the base of Alain Robert, the climber of the world’s highest buildings who has been dubbed Spiderman. 

There are several excellent places to dine with the best probably being the Restaurant L’Entre Pots, rustic and charming and a favourite with local vignerons for its sophisticated use of local produce. There are daily menus featuring dishes like skewered prawns and ginger with a tomato gazpacho and lemon/ginger ice cream, and local veal chop with mashed potato.
Just across town is the delightful Hotel de Vigniamont, a privately owned guest house with delightfully rustic and atmospheric rooms set in a beautiful 17th-century townhouse. 

La DorDine, a friendly B&B in the historic old Jewish quarter is another affordable accommodation option and also offers authentic local cuisine as well as having its own wine tasting cellar.
Among the most familiar wine regions nearby are Corbieres, Minervois, Banyuls, Fitoux, Limoux, St Chinian and Coteaux de Languedoc, although many wines are just labelled Vin de Pays d’Oc or Languedoc AC.
The Languedoc traditionally produces carignan and grenache but there are more recent plantings of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, viognier, cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot. This is a warm region, with temperatures similar to Australia's Riverland, producing medium-bodied wines with slightly more alcohol than elsewhere in France – which makes them appealing in New World markets.
I still make French wines, but I make them using New World philosophies,” says Jean-Claude Mas, the innovative local winemaker who has matched Australians at their own game, modernised and who exports over 100,000 cases under the Arrogant Frog and Paul Mas labels in to Australia. 

Mas is one of the few local winemakers to operate cellar door tasting facilities, in his case at Mas Domaine Nicole, outside Pézenas.
The Mediterranean climate here makes it popular with holidaymakers, particularly seaside resorts like Sete and the lively university town of Montpellier.
Vinipolis in the town of Florensac is a good place to taste local drops, while if you visit Lezignan in Corbieres you’ll find one of the local cafes, Bar Brasserie 79, is owned by former French rugby league captain Hugues Ratier – and the locals are happy to chat about wine or league.
But wine is far from the only gourmet treat in the region. More than 10% of all France’s oysters come from the waters around Bouzigues, Sete and Meze, where there are 2800+ oyster beds.
If you are lucky a local fisherman will take you out on one of their punts to the Bassin de Thau for a close-up look.
Cheese-lovers, too, are well catered for. A drive over the Millau Viaduct, the world’s highest bridge and a remarkable feat of engineering, brings you to the small town of Roquefort sur Soulzon in the Aveyron, where the world’s most famous blue cheese is matured in limestone caves.
Companies like Societe, the biggest producer, and Papillon, conduct fascinating regular tours and tastings.
The other highlights are many and varied. There’s the many attractions of Carcassonne, the tranquility of Canal du Midi and the restored old fortress village of La Couvertoirade built by Knights Templars in the 12th and 13th century. Wherever you go you are surrounded by history.
The Pont du Gard aqueduct (below) dates back to Roman times. Carcassonne, a magnificent walled city, hosts several festivals and expos during the year and is home to star restaurants like Franck Putelat at Le Parc and La Barbacane at the superb, chic and ultra-expensive, Hôtel de La Cité.


The seaside town of Marseillan is home to a lovely restaurant Le Chateau du Port (owned by the Pourcel brothers who also have the two Michelin-starred Le Jardin de Sens in Montpellier) and is the headquarters of Noilly Prat, the dry herb vermouth that has been made here for two centuries. Daily cellar tours and tastings are offered.
Also worth visiting is the bustling seaside town of Sete, where locals engage in regular nautical jousting competitions (a huge tourist drawcard) on the Grand Canal. Rowing boats charge at each other, the jouster trying to knock his opponent into the canal with a lance.
For those seeking a more peaceful rustic retreat, the lovely, peaceful hilltop town of Uzes, is dotted with cute cafes and boutiques and is home to a terrific wine shop at which you can stock up on some still-undiscovered local gems to bring home.
Qantas flies regularly to Paris via Hong Kong and Singapore. See www.qantas.com.au

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

A Bali resort ideal for surfers - or lovers

Sun-drenched Bali remains a firm favourite with Australian visitors: political issues aside. 
And for those who yearn for almost-deserted beaches, great surf breaks and a place away from the crowds, then Anantaru Uluwatu might fit the bill. 
It's not a resort for everyone, but if you really want to get away from it (there are no shops to stroll to, no shopfront massage joints just outside the gate), then you will almost certainly enjoy yourself. 
The setting, for one, is spectacular. 
Situated on a cliff-top terrace overlooking one of the island’s best surf beaches, the Anantara offers a range of hotel suites and villas with great views. 
It is located above Impossible Beach, aptly named for its surf, hard-to-access limestone cliffs and secret caves. 
The recently opened resort is close by several other Indian Ocean surf beaches and one of the island’s most ancient temples, which hosts nightly traditional dance performances. 
Enjoy great sunsets and solitude, treatments at the Anantara Spa and dine on Mediterranean cuisine, or poolside, but beware: there are several dozen steep steps to be negotiated in each direction en route from the main building to the pool - making the on-site gym superfluous. 
As stated, the property is isolated and transport options limited, making a car obligatory for anyone planning to stay more than a couple of days. 
That remoteness also has its pluses, however. Look out for the cheeky monkeys that often parade through the resort. 
Surfers can chose from Padang Padang, Impossible, Bingin and Uluwatu beaches and the resort is currently offering a three-day package in an ocean view suite including breakfasts for two, complimentary shuttle to three of the surf beaches, dinner or lunch twice for two; two 60-minute massages, sparkling wine and return airport transfers for $US999 plus taxes. 
Perfect for couples or lovers, the resort can arrange excursions including trips to local villages, or maybe lunch by a volcanic lake. Yoga and cooking classes are available on-site, or perhaps you'd prefer to go elephant trekking.
Even the entry level rooms boast Bose hi-fi home entertainment systems, plasma TVs and iPod docks - and there is a library with computers for guests to use.
The food is pretty good, too, with the choice of the Mediterranean-style dining (with some Indonesian specialties also available) high above the water at 360, casual food at the Splash Pool Cliff Dining Retreat, Japanese at SONO Teppenyaki, or in-room dining.  
There is also the delightful Anantara Spa with a wide selection of wellness and beauty treatments from charming practitioners. 
The views have that wow factor but service standards still need some attention - and anyone without full mobility should look elsewhere. 
Anantara Bali Uluwatu Resort and Spa. +62 361 895 7555. www.anantara.com



Friday, 10 January 2014

Six of Australia's best vineyard retreats

CHATEAU YERING, YARRA VALLEY
Take a step back to a far more gracious time at Chateau Yering, a heritage-listed Victorian mansion on over 120-hectares with English-themed gardens – but within walking distance to several Yarra cellar doors. There’s a country house-style ambiance, and an initial sense you should lower your voice and keep eyes to the ground, but the staff are very welcoming. There will be guests enjoying a quiet pot of tea but while the surroundings are old-world and a little grand, dinner in Eleonore’s restaurant, where chef Mathew Macartney has an Age Good Food Guide hat, is a thoroughly modern affair. Built in 1854 and a luxury hotel with a country house feel since 1997, Chateau Yering has just 32 suites – making it a true boutique experience. (03) 9237 3333. www.chateauyering.com.au.

MONA PAVILIONS, TASMANIA
Not only do the eight high-tech pavilions, which look like something from a science-fiction movie, offer the most luxurious vineyard accommodation in the Hobart region (and adult toys like double spa baths and heated lap pools), they are part of the MONA museum complex – where the Red Queen exhibition is showing. The Source restaurant, where French chef Philippe Leban handles the pans, is perfect for leisurely lunches and extravagant dinners overlooking the Moorilla vineyards and the Derwent River. Guests can also taste the Moorilla wines and Moo Brew beers – but many may prefer to just take in the stunning Tasmanian views or browse the eclectic artworks from the personal collection of owner David Walsh that decorate each pavilion. (03) 6277 9900. www.mona.net.au.

THE LOUISE, BAROSSA VALLEY
If it is position, position, position that floats your boat then this luxury retreat with sweeping views of the Barossa vines will be your choice over myriad options in the region. One of Australia's top boutique vineyard retreats boasts a comprehensive program of wine-related experiences available exclusively to its in-house guests but it is the warmth and enthusiasm of the staff for all things Barossa that set it apart. The suites feature king beds with crisp linen and all city comforts in the heart of the country. The outdoor showers are a nice touch on hot summer days. Also, Appellation chef Ryan Edwards hasn’t missed a beat since taking over from local legend Mark McNamara, offering superb nightly menus matched to rare local bottles. (08) 8562 2722. www.thelouise.com.au.

CAPE LODGE, MARGARET RIVER
You might well be in Stellenbosch or Franschhoek looking at this secluded Cape Dutch-style lodge from the outside - but the welcome is very Australian. This regular award-winner sits on its own vineyard within 20 hectares of manicured grounds on the edge of a small forest. It’s a haven from some of the bustling cellar doors nearby. Choose from suites, a two-bedroom self-contained cottage and a private residence. The on-site restaurant boasts a 14,000-bottle wine cellar and the lodge hosts regular cooking classes and culinary weekends. Ideal for couples looking to rekindle romance; and the sort of place where an afternoon snooze might be on the agenda. (08) 9755 6311. www.capelodge.com.au.

CASA LUNA, NORTH-EAST VICTORIA
Milawa and the King Valley offer a treasure trove of gourmet discoveries. This little gem at Myrrhee is deep in the country, fairly isolated to be honest, but features affordable, stylish luxury in just two queen and two king suites. With views over the Symphonia vineyards, this mini guesthouse is close to several cellar doors. Host Gwenda Canty serves sumptuous three-course dinners on request (and they are well worth requesting) and the breakfasts of free-range eggs, smoked bacon, vine-ripened tomatoes and home-made preserves are legendary. Perfect for couples looking to wind down with a glass of prosecco in front of an open fire. (03) 5729 7650. www.casaluna.com.au

SPICERS VINEYARDS ESTATE, HUNTER VALLEY
A laidback retreat in bushland and vineyard surroundings, Spicers is on the doorstep of the Hunter’s many wineries, cellar doors and golf courses and is known for its friendly service. Four new luxury spa suites make a total of 12 rooms (so you’ll never feel too crowded) and the newly built Spa Anise facility offers massage, beauty and therapeutic treatments if all that wine tasting becomes too much. An outdoor pool and spa are popular in summer, while dinner at Botanica Restaurant – a favourite with in-the-know Hunter locals - features mod Oz cuisine paired with a wine list that highlights local boutique offerings and some enticing imports. 1300 192 868. www.spicersgroup.com.au.