Saturday, 28 February 2015

Affordable luxury - an impressive new hotel option in Legian

It usually takes a brand new hotel several months to get into its stride.

There are staff to be trained, procedures to be developed and wrinkles to be ironed out. 

Which means that a hotel that only opened in December should still be very much on its training wheels.

It is a testimony, then, to the team at the new Mercure Bali Legian, that just about everything works so well. 

There is still a fourth-floor swimming pool and bar to be completed and finishing touches are still being applied to some rooms. Oh and the restaurant staff need to learn to seat screaming children away from couples (there is plenty of space). 

Some new fans for the restaurant might also be nice - and the choice of TV channels is disappointing (easily fixed). 

But the plus points far outweigh the minuses. The beds are comfortable, there is fast and efficient free wifi, a great pool and uniformly smiling staff who cannot do enough for guests. That friendliness alone sets the property apart.

The location is central for shopping and clubbing and just a 300-meter walk from Legian beach. For me the property over-delivers for a Mercure, delivering quality more like a Grand Mercure or M Gallery experience.

And the price is right: at around $80 per night including taxes (although more if you want a spiffy room with its own private plunge pool - see image below). 

The eco-friendly Mercure is set back from the quiet end of Legian beach, but in the heart of the boutiques, markets, restaurants, bars and warungs that make the area so popular. 

The hotel features natural timber finishes, open-air terraces, an infinity pool deck and bar on the fourth floor and that large leafy pool area outside Ancak restaurant. 

It has an impressive water feature in the lobby, a fitness centre, kids club, spa and complimentary computers in a quiet area for those needing to do business. Each room has international power sockets, air conditioning, tea and coffee making facilities and in-room safe

The buffet breakfasts here are particularly good, too, making the hotel as good for children as it is for partygoers.

Mercure Bali Legian, Jl. Legian No. 328, Legian Kelod, Bali 80361, Indonesia. +62 361 9386100. 

# The author was a guest of Accor Hotels and travelled with assistance from AirAsia  

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Bali on a budget: How to feast on local cuisine for $4 per person

There are two distinct sides to Bali. 

There is the island of the beautiful people, affordable luxury and authentic experiences.

Then there are the tattooed bogans of Kuta, the chaos of Denpasar's lamentable Ngurah Rai airport, lunatics on motorbikes and dodgy money changers.

But whether you are staying in a beachfront backpackers or a high-end hotel you are probably looking for an authentic dining experience. 

Let me introduce you to Warung Yogya, a hole-in-the-wall place in the backstreets of Legian that serves tasty local dishes (made by an all-woman kitchen team) and charges an absolute pittance.

Warung Yogya seats around 30 people, which means you may have to wait in line at peak times). It is clean but basic (recently refurbed in fact), with a menu choice of around a dozen dishes. 

The "go to" dish of nasi campur was not available on our most recent visit, so we splurged on three dishes and a bowl of rice, along with two banana juices and were left with a bill for $4 each. 

Our choices were a fragrant chicken curry in a spicy, herbal broth (melt-in-the-mouth tender it was, too), a nasi goreng (fried rice) dish with a chicken garnish and a huge gado gado (a traditional mixture of cooked and raw vegetables served with tempeh), with a side dish of ubiquitous peanut sauce. 

The nasi goreng needed a secret ingredient to bring it to life - the dish of sambal on each table. This condiment has a real kick to it. 

A bottle of Bintang beer seems an extravagance at $2.50 but goes brilliant with both the curry and the nasi goreng. 

The service is perfunctory at best, the drinks list limited. But the food is good and tasty and ridiculously affordable. Eat here one night and splurge at Mama San the next. 

Warung Yogya, Jalanl Padma Utara No. 79, Legian, Bali. 0361-750835 

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

A stylish new way to learn about organic, biodynamic and natural wines

Richie Harkham is a talented young man; a successful actor, businessman, philanthropist and maker of kosher and natural wines at Harkham Wines in the Hunter Valley. 

Richie is running a little late because it is vintage, but he's still keen to talk about how his natural wines offer something different in the marketplace and Harkham says it made the first 100% preservative-free wine in the region. It is also the only certified kosher winery in the southern hemisphere and all the wines are unfined and unfiltered.
Richie Harkham conducts a private tasting

Harkham Wines, where all the fruit is hand-picked and hand sorted, is a genuine boutique operation, and just one of the stops on a brand new two-day tour devised by wine educator and freelance writer Daniel Honan focusing on organic, biodynamic and natural wine producers in the region.

Guests on The Wine Idealist Tours learn first-hand the differences between the three winemaker styles; touring the vineyards with viticulturists, tasting with winemakers and eating local organic produce along the way. 

The new tours take in the Hunter Valley’s best natural, organic and biodynamic producers, including Tamburlaine, Macquariedale, Krinklewood and Harkham Wines.
George Francisco in the Circa 1876 kitchen gardens

Honan has designed an itinerary that goes well beyond the standard bus tour and taste, it's a hands-on experience that includes overnight Accommodation at Harkham Windarra Lodge, all meals – including lunch at Restaurant Eighty Eight at Peppers Convent and a special winegrowers dinner at Circa 1876. 

Both are cooked by executive chef George Francisco from ethically-sourced and local organic produce. 

A tour of the kitchen garden is also included.

There are also gourmet picnics on the lawns at Krinklewood and organic breakfasts provided by Organic Feast and Momo.  

The dinner at Circa 1876 gives guests the chance to question sustainable winemakers on their philosophies one-on-one while consuming the various wines featured along with food. 

During the two days guests get the chance to see grapes fermenting, to do barrel tastings and learn insider secrets, as well as tasting grapes from the vine if the season is right and learning what cows and the moon have to do with fine wine. 
Mark Davidson in the Tamburlaine vineyards

Transport around the valley is provided by Hunter Valley Boutique Wine Tours in comfortable vehicles. 

The Hunter Valley is Australia's oldest wine region. James Busby planted the first vines here back in 1824 - but innovation is alive and well. 

Honan is an unashamed advocate for sustainable winemaking and his enthusiasm shines through on his guided tours, which comprise either two-day all-inclusive tour or a special one-day bespoke tour. 

The tours will run twice seasonally, eight times a year, and prices start from $899 all inclusive for bookings made before March 31. 

Book now or miss out on one of Australia's gourmet highlights

The Hunter Valley is looking pretty good right now. It's lush and green and most wineries believe they've dodged a vintage bullet after ill-timed rain stopped just in time. 

Over the next few weeks, the Hunter will host several concerts; including Rod Stewart. It remains, as ever, Sydney's playground. 

But the vignerons of the Hunter would like you to turn your thoughts towards winter; and an open fire, glass of shiraz in hand on a crisp evening. 

Hunter Valley Wine & Food Month is on the horizon and judging from previous years it pays to book in advance or risk missing out on some of the highlights. 

Last week I was lucky enough to join talented young chef Troy Rhoades-Brown, of Muse and Muse Kitchen, and rising winemaking superstar Gwyneth Olsen of Briar Ridge for a sneak peek at their collaboration on June 14 for the month-long series of themed activities throughout June.

The menu featured dishes like sashimi with verjuice, pickled gingerdashi and whitebait, paired with two 2014 Briar Ridge whites; the stunning Dairy Hill semillon and The Briar vineyard blend. 

That was followed by pressed Berkshire pork neck and jamon with pickled mussels, black garlic, flowers, wild fennel and buttermilk, paired with a 2014 Briar Hill Chardonnay. 

Next came Mandagery Creek venison with the 2013 HRB Shiraz Pinot Noir, which shone with the dish, followed by pink Milly Hill lamb with Briar Ridge 2013 Shiraz. The night ended with a remarkably - and very pretty - coconut dessert.

The menu may be tweaked between now and then but what is certain is that the Dine with the Dynamic Duo lunch will be held at Muse at Hungerford Hill with a four-course menu designed to match the Briar Ridge wines for an all-inclusive price of $125 per person. 

If you miss out on this particular delight, the program offers several choices to wam away the winter blues and wine and dine with leading Hunter Valley winemakers and chefs, take part in interactive classes to fine-tune your culinary skills, or just curl up beside a fire with a glass of Hunter wine and a cheese plate.

Here are some of the other Hunter Valley Wine and Food Month program highlights:

Tuesday June 2 at Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley

Come and view the showdown as the Hunter Region takes on the Southern Highlands with the best chefs form each of these culinary regions battling it out. Hosted by Matt Kemp. 

Saturday  June 6 at Whispering Brook Winery

The annual Whispering Brook Olive Long Table Luncheon features a Mediterranean-inspired menu prepared by Andy Wright, wine, live music, a tutored walking tour in the olive grove and a special guest speaker to talk about the properties and applications of extra virgin olive oil. 

Saturdays during June & Sundays by appointment for groups of 12 or more

Start your day with a Tour of First Creek Wines with seafood duo and wine to match then travel by bus between another three of the Hunter Valley's leading venues, sampling Hunter wines paired with tasty morsels prepared by renowned local chef Matt Dillow. 

Saturday June 6, 13 and 27 at Il Cacciatore Restaurant

A fun, hands-on gnocchi making class followed by a two-course lunch with a small group who enjoy Italian food, wine, a fun time and don’t mind getting down and dirty. 

Daily throughout June at Margan Estate

The original Margan 100-Metre Meal is back! Enjoy estate-grown Suffolk lamb served with heirloom garden vegetables and accompanied with a glass of White Label Barbera. Everything is grown on site within 100 metres of the restaurant! 

Every Friday in June at Hunter Resort 

Each Friday a different Hunter winemaker will be on hand to host a four-course dinner limited to 20 guests. June 5: Andrew Margan, June 12: Lisa McGuigan, June 19: Andrew Thomas, June 26: Matt Polin. 

A full calendar of events is available online at

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Coup de cœur: falling in love with French style

In another life I used to drive a red BMW 318i with fat tyres, a sun roof and a whole lot of grunt. I think I imagined myself as a shorter, fatter, hairier version of Don Johnson from Miami Vice. 

I'm now just as short, fatter than ever, hairier, too, and I drive a four-wheel-drive with plenty of kilometres on the clock. I like it because there is room in the back for bales of hay and sacks of chicken feed. 
Taking in the views on Merewether Beach

The only time I get to drive a car that is either new or interesting is when I pick up a hire car; and they are more often than not reliable but bland beasts. 

Last week I was offered the chance to drive a Peugeot on a trip to discover revitalised Newcastle and the vineyards of the Hunter Valley. I expected a tidy 207, or maybe a fun 307. What I was given was something completely different. 

"How would you like to try a Peugeot RCZ 1.6 Turbo 147?" I was asked. I had absolutely no idea what I was being offered, but I smiled enthusiastically. 

What I know about cars could comfortably be written on the back of a postage stamp, but "turbo-charged electric multi point direct fuel injection with variable valve timing on inlet and exhaust valves" sounded pretty good.

And then I saw her; she was sleek, she was black, she was beautiful. It was love at first sight. 

Everywhere I went, from Darby Street in Newcastle to the back roads of Pokolbin, she attracted admiring glances. I hit 130kmh on the Hunter Freeway without even trying, and quickly reeled her back in. 
Looking sharp outside Peppers Convent in the Hunter
Reading my brochure, I discovered this is the fastest production car Peugeot has ever built.

She had a superb turning circle and took off like the wind. Fingers crossed I didn't pick up any speeding tickets before I was able to set the speed limiter to 110.

Yes, there is a speed limiter, a built-in GPS, a thunderous sound system, extremely comfortable adjustable leather seats, excellent headlights and that essential accessory; an adjustable spoiler. 

Apparently she goes from 0-100kmh in 5.9 seconds - although I didn't test it. I did however, check out the surprisingly large boot - capable of carrying several cases of wine. It's a sports car, though, perfect for two; crowded for four (at least the two at the back).  

The driveaway price is around $65,000, which seems more than fair. What a pity I can't afford it. But it was nice to feel special for a week.

If you'd like more information (or even information that makes sense) contact your local Peugeot dealer or the Sime Darby Motors Group (Australia) Pty Ltd, Heritage Building A, Campus Business Park, 350 Parramatta Road, Homebush, NSW, 2140.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Tasmania's best new luxury adventure

Imagine an adventure holiday on which you climb several challenging peaks on impossibly picturesque islands and stroll some of Australia's most spectacular sandy beaches.

Consider a cruise on a 75-foot luxury yacht that sails alongside pods of dolphins off the Tasmanian coast and offers en suite cabins with double beds, bathrooms and five-star facilities. With the chance to learn how to sail and maybe even take the wheel.

Or maybe think about a gourmet journey that features fresh Tasmanian produce, cheeses, wines and boutique beers.

Perhaps a nature trek on which you can get up close and personal with Tasmanian devils, wombats, Cape Barren geese, sea eagles, the fur seal colony on the Isle de Phoques and maybe, if you are really lucky, a humpback whale or two along the journey.

All these elements are part of the new Wineglass Bay Sail Walk, launched last month (November) by the Tasmanian Walking Company, the people behind the Bay of Fires and Cradle Mountain Huts walks.

The itineraries feature four- and six-day trips taking in Maria Island, Schouten Island and Wineglass Bay/the Freycinet Peninsula off the east coast of Tasmania – and the longer cruises also take in the Tasman Peninsula. Both trips start and end in Hobart.

Unlike most multi-day walks, where you carry your earthly belongings in a large backpack each day, you only have to walk your gear in or out once – all your equipment can be stored in your cabin for the duration of the trip and you need only take a day pack and some water with you as you climb.

But having sailed on the maiden Wineglass Bay Sail Walk of the Lady Eugenie, I can confirm this is not a holiday for dilettantes, or those who think walking the dog for 20 minutes a day keeps them perfectly fit.

There are some steep, arduous climbs on the agenda, including the 630-metre Bishop and Clerk peak on Maria Island (which involves some scrambling at the top), and a 9-kilometre climb up Mt Graham, a 6-7 hour round trip for the fitter members of the group. The landscapes range from rocky outcrops to button grass heathland and blue gum forests.

For the less energetically inclined there are myriad options ranging from exploring Maria Island's convict history to beach strolls, wildlife spotting to fishing from the deck for flathead or squid, listening to music on the ketch's Bose sound system, or maybe just enjoying some solitude with a book while the wind ruffles your hair.

This is a holiday break that is all about options. You can decide each morning whether you feel like walking, a day afloat or even just exploring Wineglass Bay, one of the most beautiful in the world, with its opportunities to search for orchids, bird watching, photography or maybe a dip in the chilly waters, where you may be accompanied by inquisitive dolphins.

My companions were a fit crowd – who left me behind after just a couple of kilometres on the first day on Maria Island. But the guides give everyone a good briefing, so guests are aware of the activities they can choose from should they become short of breath – as I did on more than one occasion.

But there are rewards at the end of the day, no matter how active or inactive you elect to be.

The 20-year-old Lady Eugenie boasts two decks in which to relax and enjoy maybe a platter of Tasmanian cheeses at the end of the day, or perhaps an espresso from a new Italian machine in the fully equipped galley. Not your average walking experience.

All meals on board are of restaurant standard – think breakfasts like cereals, yoghurt and toast from Hobart's Pigeon Whole Bakery followed by spicy beans and chorizo served with herb muffins.

Or a dinner featuring dishes like potato and leek soup with crumbed fetta, toasted almonds, pangrattato and truffle oil; confit pork belly from leading Hobart butcher Boks with apple puree, red onion pickle and herbed polenta (served with a choice of salads) and panna cotta with fresh strawberries and berry coulis.

Treats like fresh fruit, chocolate cookies, muesli bars and florentines are always available and the packed lunches are both healthy and tasty. Despite the walking there is a chance you might return from this trip heavier than when you started.
Then there's the wine list; featuring choices each day from leading Tasmanian labels including Apogee, Goaty Hill, Spring Vale, Josef Chromy's Pepik, Pipers Brook and Holm Oak, or a cooling ale from Cascade or James Boag, with micro brews soon to be introduced.

One of the highlights of the trip is a beach supper (think tablecloths and fine cutlery) with freshly shucked oysters, crayfish pate and barbecued Tasmanian salmon served with vintage Apogee bubbles. Life just doesn't get any better. Or maybe it did when a mother whale and her offspring decided to breach just a couple of hundred metres from our craft – providing a good hour of sunset entertainment.

As this was the maiden voyage there were a couple of glitches with the timings of food service but the friendly crew generally did a superb job of keeping their guests informed on matters from culinary to local flora and fauna.

"TWC already operates two of the seven great walks of Australia," says co-owner Brett Godfrey. "And we had been looking for some time to find a new expedition to complement those existing experiences. We believe the Wineglass Bay Sail Walk does just that, giving walkers the perfect opportunity to discover the spectacular islands and peninsulas of Tasmania’s east coast national parks by foot and by water.”

A warning or two: make sure you do not over-estimate your fitness. What can be described as a moderate climb may turn out to be a vertical hike. And make sure you take your seasickness tablets. For three days of our trip the waters were mill-pond like. The other day they were not. Which either adds to or detracts from your experience depending on how good a sailor you are.

The trip ends with a bus ride and visit to the Coal Valley Vineyard for a wine tasting, a range of local nibbles and the chance to decant your walking gear from backpacks to your suitcase.

Everything is included in the fares; you don't need to put your hand in your pocket from the time you depart to your return to Hobart. Other than to retrieve your camera, that is.

The Wineglass Bay Sail Walk operates with a maximum of eight or 10 guests in five cabins on board the 75-foot ketch Lady Eugenie, all with private showers, toilets and power points. Four-day Wineglass Bay Sail Walk starts from $2,990 per person, while the six-day itinerary starts from $3,990 on a twin-share basis. Phone 03 6392 2211 or visit

The Salamanca Inn, 10 Gladstone Street, Battery Point. 03 6223 3300. is the official hotel but other good choices in Hobart include The Henry Jones Art Hotel and Islington Hotel, while budget options include Montacute and The Alabama Hotel.

# This is a version of a story that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. 

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Australia's continuing love affair with Asian destinations

What is the favourite holiday destination for Australia tourists? No surprise that the Indonesian island of Bali remained in the No.1 spot for 2014, according to a  poll conducted by website
Amarterra Villas in Nusa Dua, Bali 

The poll also revealed a resurgence in the popularity of Thailand, with the west-coast beach town of Patong on Phuket and the Thai capital of Bangkok both finishing among the top 10 most popular international destinations for Aussie travellers.

New York, the most popular destination in 2013, dropped to second spot and could face a further fall given the ongoing weakness of the Australian dollar against the greenback. 

Singapore held its position as the third most popular international destination for Aussies, while London held on to fourth spot and Tokyo moved up two spots to fifth position followed by Hong Kong.

The resurgent popularity of Asian destinations has largely come at the cost of US destinations: New York and Honolulu were the only two US cities to make it to the top 10, while even the bright lights of Las Vegas lost their shine, dropping seven places to 12th place.

The HPI captures hotel prices in major destinations across the world and is based on bookings made on
Commenting on the report, Katherine Cole, regional director for Australia, New Zealand & Singapore, said the figures showed Australians are becoming savvier with their spending and are looking for better value-for-money destinations closer to home.