Monday, 31 October 2016

One of the most colourful markets in the world

Every Sunday, members of the tribes of the Sacred Valley of the Incas descend on the small, dusty town of Pisac for the local market.

Many walk long distances to reach the market, and several wear traditional custumes. 

The market specialises in local fruits, vegetables and meats, along with local ceramics and items made of alpaca wool. 

It is a riot of colour and I hope you enjoy these photos. 

The author is a guest in Peru of Contours Travel. 

With 40 years of experience, Contours Travel is Australia’s most experienced and longest running Latin American travel wholesaler and agency, specializing in tailor-made, small group itineraries and special interest tours in Mexico, Cuba, Antarctica, South America, Central America and the Caribbean Islands. 

Director Ted Dziadkiewicz first explored the area as an overland bus driver in the mid-1970s, and he maintains a strong, hands-on focus on the business. 

New look for urban Sydney apartments

Like the idea of staying in a New York-style loft apartment?

If so, you'll probably enjoy Mantra 2 Bond Street right in the heart of Sydney, which has just undergone a multi-million dollar refurbishment which has transformed the guest experience into what is aimed to be an "urban oasis".

Award-winning architecture/design firm Arkhefield drew inspiration for the new design from Mantra 2 Bond Street’s urban locale.

More than 120 guest rooms have been rejuvenated with a pendant lighting feature acting as a focal point in the refurbished studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments.

New gourmet kitchens and textured soft furnishings feature throughout, including new lounge chairs, upholstered bedheads and new window furnishings.

Mantra 2 Bond Street general manager Neil McDonald said his team saw a gap in the market to create a sophisticated yet welcoming hotel offering in Sydney’s CBD.

“The hotel’s open-plan rooms are instantly evocative of Manhattan style and the large windows in each apartment bring in lots of natural light and increase the sense of space,” he said.

Mantra Group chief executive officer Bob East said the refurbishment demonstrates the group’s commitment to enhancing the guest experience at their properties through regular upgrades.

“This extensive guest room refurbishment complements the hotel’s new urban fit out of its Memento Bar & Kitchen one year ago,” he said.

Memento also has an American theme with a range of excellent hamburgers - but beware it closes at 8pm early in the week.

Mantra 2 Bond Street occupies a prime location on the corner of George and Bond Streets in Sydney in the heart of the CBD and financial district.

It is extremely well equipped for long or short stays with kitchen facilities and plenty of space, while the location is superb.

A big thumbs down, however, for cheapskate charging for wifi. Otherwise, very impressive.

Rates start from $340 per night in an executive studio apartment, from $400 per night in a one-bedroom deluxe apartment or from $550 per night in a two-bedroom deluxe Apartment.

Call 13 15 17 or visit

Sunday, 30 October 2016

d'Arenberg pushes the boundaries with its new cellar door

Chester Osborn is not a man who does things by halves.

The heir to the d'Arenberg wine dynasty is one of the most colourful characters in the Australian wine industry - but he has excelled himself with the new "cube" he is building in McLaren Vale, South Australia. 

The high-tech new cellar door will open next year but Osborn has alread inveiled key details. 

The five-storey $14 million glass-encased steel and concrete structure inspired by Rubik’s Cube is the realisation of a 13-year dream.

Osborn, 54, is the chief winemaker and futurist for the company his great grandfather Joseph Osborn founded 104 years ago but is equally well known for his love of art and his eclectic and eccentric collection of shirts.

His audacious Cube – an architectural puzzle four modules wide, four high and four deep – is already soaring above the surrounding vineyards in the heart of McLaren Vale, a 40km drive south of Adelaide. 

Due to officially open in May 2017, the Cube promises to offer an assault on the senses of anyone who ventures inside.

It will be filled with art installations, a “wine fog room”, flagons connected to bicycle horns to ‘beep’ the smell, wine tasting rooms, a restaurant, and a top balcony made of two-tonne glass panels.

Stay tuned. 

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Faces of Peru offer a warm welcome

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and as I head into the Amazon for a couple of days without electricity and wifi I hope you enjoy some of these smiling faces. 

Our Contours Travel group spent today exploring the Peruvian capital of Lima and I was struck by how welcoming everyone was to tourists. 

From riot police to museum workers and security guards everyone had a warm smile to offer. 

I hope you all enjoy these pictures from just one day of exploration. 

New name and new standards for South American carrier

When I travelled to Argentina a couple of years ago with what was then called LAN, I was seriously underwhelmed by the economy class offering. 

LAN is now rebranded as LATAM following a merger with TAM, and bills itself as "the leading carrier to and from South America" with the largest network and unparalleled connectivity throughout the region:

LATAM flies from Sydney via Auckland to Santiago, the gateway to South America, seven days a week with onward connections to over 115 South American destinations, including Argentina, Peru (where I am heading this time with Contours Travel), Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Venezuela, Uruguay and Brazil.

The merger brings together South America’s two leading airlines (LAN was Chilean based and TAM Brazilian based). 

The new brand has a fresh logo inspired by the identity and heritage of the region and the rebranding roll-out also includes a new look across airports, aircraft, webpages and uniforms.

Passengers flying with LATAM en route to South America will experience the Boeing 787-9, which the airline says provides "greater comfort, security, and efficiency". 

Remarkably enough, the hype is true. Even in economy on the 787-9 there is plenty of space, a good selection of entertainment and decent food (my veal casserole was excellent). The Chilean cabernet sauvignon was juicy and fun and the post-dinner slug of Ballantine's most generous. Unlike on my previous LAN flights the crew were happy and helpful.  

Fingers crissed the return journey is as good at the back of the plane. (Update: it was, apart from that uncomfortable moment when a dickhead decided to sit himself in the empty seat next to me).

Premium Business Class on board the LATAM 787-9 includes larger auto-dimming windows, dynamic lighting, more storage space at ground level as well as spacious seats with six-way adjustments, including reclining and full-flat positions.

LATAM operates daily flights from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, via Auckland, with onward connections to Lima. LATAM also offers non-stop flights between Sydney and Santiago four times per week in a codeshare partnership. 

Call LATAM reservations on 1800 126 038, visit your local travel agent or go to

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

A most satisfactory first night in Lima

I had zero expectations for the El Lobby restaurant at the El Pardo Doubletree by Hilton in Lima.

It's a nice enough hotel, but it is a chain hotel in the tourist district of Miraflores. I was thinking tourist food at tourist prices,  particularly as I am travelling with a group. 

Instead, we got flavoursome, interesting food with a local accent; beautifully presented and served by helpful, multilingual staff. 

First up, an amuse bouche of chicken mousse, served with "welcome drink of Pisco Sour - the local speciality. 

Then a tasty octopus carpaccio with a traditional tapenade sauce, followed by local corvina fish in a bisque with potato cakes, then a selection of local pastries. 

All in all, very impressive. This trip with Contours Travel is off to a good start. 

El Pardo Doubletree by Hilton, 141 Calle Independencia, Miraflores, Lima. 

Monday, 24 October 2016

Food is high on the agenda in Montreal

Montreal is one of the great cities of North America, combining Canadian charm with a French accent - and the food here is always outstanding.

From the superb Jean-Talon Market to eateries across a range of cuisines, it is hard to eat poorly here.

The Montreal food festival, MTLàTABLE, is back for a 5th edition from November 3 to November 13 and a total of 150 restaurants will be offering table d’hôte dinner menus at set prices of $21, $31 or $41).

The festival encourages foodies to explore different Montréal neighbourhoods and discover new cuisines.

Montréal’s downtown business and cultural centre is a good place to start.

The upmarket suburbs of Mount Royal, Outremont and Westmount are home to spectacular Victorian homes, alleyways, manicured gardens and French dining icons, while The Plateau and the Mile End are where hip artists and ambitious young business owners mingle among the old-school immigrant population.

Old Montréal and the Old Port are chic neighbourhoods popular with tourists, and offer a range of cuisines from around the world.

Quartier du Canal is actually made up of three neighbourhoods that stretch four kilometres along the Lachine Canal. There’s Griffintown, Little Burgundy and Saint-Henri. 

Then there's the Gay Village, Villeray, Little Italy and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, the suburbs of Pole des Rapides and east and north of the island.

So many neighbourhoods, so little time.

    For details visit

Sunday, 23 October 2016

How good are the views from this new Bangkok hotel?

Some months ago I was invited to take a look at a new Bangkok hotel: the AVANI Riverside.

Unfortunately, I arrived a little too early to see the hotel at its best. Putting it bluntly, it was still a bit of a building site.

That said, I could not help but be impressed by the spectacular views from the 26th-floor swimming pool and ultra-chic Attitude Bar.

Tucked away in a quiet part of town, just behind sister hotel the Anantara Riverside, most of the rooms offer spectacular views of the Chao Phraya River.  

The first purpose-designed AVANI hotel has a very cool blend of contemporary decor, superb poolside food (the sliders are excellent) and those stunning views.

On arrival, guests are immediately greeted by another arresting view of the river from the 11th-floor lobby. The open-plan design blends reception, lounge, meeting, chill out and restaurant spaces. 

AVANI Riverside bills itself as "a place to relax and unwind". 

The Long Bar serves a variety of refreshments, while guests can enjoy breakfast or sunset dinner at Skyline and The Pantry offers a mix of comfort food and artisan deli snacks around the clock. 

All of the hotel’s 248 stylish guest rooms and suites have either city or river views and feature rain showers, dedicated work stations with free wi-fi, and a media hub docking station. 

The rooftop infinity pool is undoubtedly the star turn, and a multi-purpose sunken lounge area located in the middle of the terrace has a retractable roof providing sunlight or shade, depending on the desired mood. 

At the opposite end of the terrace, Attitude is achingly hip. Different areas of the restaurant and bar are designed for socialising or being seen and include an indoor lounge with a DJ booth, an open kitchen, wine wall and outdoor lounge-style restaurant and bar. 

Cocktails are the highlight, like the Molecule of Love, a blend of Chambord liqueur, Malibu and strawberry-flavoured caviar pearls to make it pop.

There is a gym with views and a spa, as well as conference facilities. 

The hotel’s riverside location means it offers a shuttle boat service to the Asiatique night market and entertainment complex, and also the BTS Skytrain at the central Saphan Taksin pier. 

Rates start from around $300 a night - and there is a shopping mall below the hotel. 

AVANI Riverside Bangkok, 257 Charoennakorn Road, Thon Buri, Bangkok 10600. 
+66 2 431 9100.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Trip Advisor slam dunk for the Hunter Valley

The Hunter Valley outshone all its rivals after being named with two of the top three restaurants in the country in the new TripAdvisor Travellers' Choice listing of the best restaurants in Australia.

Now TripAdvisor can be flaky and its advice can easily be manipulated, but two out of three is a tremendous result for the Hunter.

Muse Restaurant at Hungerford Hill (above), run by husband and wife team Troy and Megan Rhoades-Brown. was given the No.1 position in Australia and 15 in the world, while Restaurant Botanica (below) was named No.3 in Australia.

I've eaten in both establishments and they are world class.

"With growing tourism numbers both from domestic and international sources, the Hunter Valley has a lot to boast about: premium restaurants; a full range of accommodation; spectacular attractions; golf resorts; and the wines and their cellar doors," said George Souris, chairman of the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association (HVWTA), who specialises in boring quotes.

The Travellers' Choice awards reflect reviews made by travellers and diners on TripAdvisor.

This year's awards recognise 528 restaurants overall, including the top 25 fine dining in the world and dedicated lists for Asia, Canada, Europe, India, Mexico, South America, South Pacific, the UK and the US.

Award winners were determined using an algorithm that took into account the quantity and quality of reviews for restaurants around the world, gathered over a 12-month period.

"Hunter Valley Wine Country, only two hours north of Sydney and right on the doorstep of Australia's gateway city, has gained recognition as a premier wine and food destination," Souris said.

Keen observers of the dining scene will note that not one Melbourne restaurant appears on the list (maybe the vote was spread among several standouts), while an upmarket fish and chippery on the Gold Coast obviously made a lot of people very happy.

The Stunned Mullet in Port Macquarie, reviewed here a couple of months ago, also made the list.

Here are the top 10:

1. Muse Restaurant – Pokolbin, New South Wales

2. est. – Sydney, New South Wales

3. Restaurant Botanica – Pokolbin, New South Wales

4. Nobu Japanese Restaurant – Burswood, Perth

5. fermentAsian – Tanunda, South Australia

6. Spirit House – Yandina, Queensland

7. Spice Bar – Mooloolaba, Queensland

8. The Stunned Mullet – Port Macquarie, New South Wales

9. Courgette Restaurant – Canberra, ACT

10. Omeros Bros Seafood Restaurant – Main Beach, Gold Coast

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Iconic Sydney hotel concludes 50th birthday in style

Sofitel Sydney Wentworth and Qantas Airways have teamed up to hold a historic public exhibition to conclude the original Wentworth hotel’s year-long 50th-anniversary celebration.

Inviting guests to step back in time, the exhibition will run from now until December 31 and features a selection of heritage artifacts and imagery stretching from 1966, when the hotel was originally owned and built by Qantas Airways and was Sydney's first five-star hotel. 

The display will feature a photo exhibition of the iconic Wentworth Hotel, from its first days of construction through to fashion highlights and famous celebrities and royal visits.

To demonstrate its intertwined history, guests of Sofitel Sydney Wentworth are invited to explore the hotel’s beginnings as the Qantas Wentworth Hotel via a display of restored objects and mementos, including a miniature hotel model, which was sent around the world to promote the hotel and its convention facilities, a display of original 1960s Qantas uniforms, and a replica business class lounge.

Clive Scott, the first general manager of Sofitel Sydney Wentworth says: “Sofitel Sydney Wentworth is one of the grand old dames of hotels. It will always have pride of place in Sydney and Australia. It has historical significance as a property and landmark in Sydney. Many people across the world have fond memories in their hearts as a special place to stay.”

This free exhibition will be on display in the hotel lobby and on level 3 of the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth located at 61-101 Phillip Street, Sydney. 

Guests are also invited to stay overnight with the hotel’s 50th Anniversary luxury leisure escape package, which includes an anniversary-themed mini High Tea selection upon arrival including Ronnefeldt tea, breakfast served in-room every morning and the "luxury of time" with late check-out until 4pm. 

Discover more and visit or call (02) 9228 9188.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

What, exactly, do those gold stickers mean on your bottle of wine?

You've probably read a story in your local newspaper about how an Australian cabernet or chardonnay was named “best in the world”. But it isn't.
You've almost certainly walked around your local wine store admiring the little shiny stickers on wine labels and believed that a gold medal indicates a wine won its class in a show. It didn't.

Many Australian wine companies are obsessed with their show results, covering their labels with gold, silver and bronze stickers from a multitude of shows.
But while the industry sees stickers as a major sales tool, the reality is that most consumers do not understand how the Australian show system works – and are easily manipulated.
You'd probably imagine that a wine that won a gold medal was first in its class, like at the Olympics, a silver medallist was second and a bronze medallist third. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
In wine shows any wine gaining a score of 18.5 out of 20 (or 95 out of 100) from the judges gets a gold medal. That could be as many as 20% of all the entries. Any entry scoring between 17 to 18.4 and gets a silver, and so on. 

At the 2015 Royal Melbourne Show, to take one random example, 169 gold medals were awarded, 314 silvers and 857 bronzes. Almost half the entries got a medal.
At shows, all the wines are tasted “blind” - without the judges knowing what they are.
The outright winner in any class earns a trophy – which is what you should be looking out for after the judges have finished sipping, swirling, tasting and spitting.
But the problem is that there are still hundreds of trophy winners out there in retail land.

There are over 70 officials wine shows in Australia (some far more important than others), several unofficial regional shows and dozens overseas.
Bigger companies can afford to enter their wines into myriad different shows (it is an expensive and time-consuming business), making themselves almost certain, by the law of averages, to earn some bling to enliven their labels. Others prefer to let their wines stand on their own merits.
You need to look very carefully at those label stickers to determine whether a wine won a bronze medal at Pine Gap Show, some tasting in Moldova, or a trophy at one of the major shows like Sydney or Melbourne.
I receive regular press releases saying: "Our shiraz is the best in Australia after winning the trophy at the [Insert Any Name You Like Here] Wine Show."

Or, if the show is in London, New York or Ljubljana and has an international field: "Our shiraz is the best in the world."

It's all nonsense. Winning a trophy at a wine show does not make your wine the best in Australia, or the world. It makes it the favourite of the small group of judges who tried it at that show. Usually at room temperature, and almost certainly without food.

Most wines, as you know, are enjoyed with food. And the whites and sparkling wines are almost always drunk chilled by consumers.

The reality is that a wine can win a trophy one week, and get a score of 14/20 the next. Different judges; different scores. But no one ever sends out a press release saying: "Our wine wasn't even good enough to win a bronze."

The wine show system in Australia is extremely good, particularly at the regional level, for winemakers to benchmark their wines against others from the same area. And for keen consumers to get to know some new producers who shine against their peers.

If more than a couple of panels (different judges; different shows) award trophies or gold medals to a particular wine then there is a pretty strong basis for assuming that it is a wine of excellent quality that appeals to winemakers, sommeliers and, sometimes, wine writers with educated palates.

If the judges of one show share similar palate opinions to you; excellent news all round. But they may not.

And remember that gold medal does not mean that a wine was the best in a show. It merely means it was in the top bracket.

And bear in mind that many wineries, particularly those in the upper echelons, do not enter their wines into shows. At all.
Penfolds would be on a hiding to nothing entering its benchmark Grange red in shows, only to see a barrage of “better than Grange” press releases from rivals should it fail to win.
Other wineries, particularly small ones, find entering shows is just too expensive. They prefer to persuade wine lovers to try their wines and make up their own minds.

The fact is that a lot of very good people with excellent palates give up a lot of their time to judge at shows "and help improve the breed". I'm in awe of the number of wines they can taste each day.
Stickers help sell wines. And that's the bottom line. But look closely and that gold-coloured sticker on your bottle may just say "Good with fish". Buyer beware.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Australia's leading brandy producer sets its sights on whisky

For almost a century the St Agnes Distillery in Renmark has been producing a range of premium brandies. Not its owners, the Angove family, have set their sights on also producing world-class whisky. 

Richard Angove reported that the Angoves this week distilled what is believed to be the first legal whisky in the Riverland region of South Australia.

Located on the quiet banks of the River Murray, the St Agnes Distillery has been highly regarded for its unique aged expression of super-premium XO Brandies for over 90 years.

In 2016, the distillery continues its evolution of crafting aged spirits with a small batch whisky project.

"Brandy takes time, patience and craft and we see similarities with whisky," said Richard Angove. "Our aim is to produce a super-premium single malt whisky that has character and vibrancy. A whisky that shows the benefits of ageing in small oak and speaks to the history of our historic barrel halls.

"We worked with an iconic South Australian beer producer – Coopers Brewery, to make a classic single-malt beer base. Classic Scottish methods were used with a touch of our unique Australian brandy-making expertise. 

"The whisky was double distilled in copper pot #1 in our 100-year-old distillery."

The fresh whisky spirit will now be transferred to a careful selection of small oak barrels where it will rest, quietly maturing and transforming into distinctive single malt whisky.

"We will be assessing the whisky regularly but it will be a number of years before we will see the release," Angove said. "Oak maturation takes time and patience and we are lucky that we have these.” 

Dr William Angove first established a distillery in Renmark in 1910. 

"We think that Carl Angove would be happy with this little bit of experimentation and evolution, " said St Agnes Distillery chairman John Angove.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Restaurant butterfly emerges from the Sydney rubble

When I attended a wine tasting at The Langham, Sydney, a few weeks back, the luxury hotel was something of a building site.

You could see the frowns on disapproval on the faces of regular guests.

Now the work has finished and Sydney has a new neighbourhood bistro, Bistro Remy, moving into a very competitive space.
Located in the luxury hotel and a short walk from The Rocks, Barangaroo and Walsh Bay, the new bistro's menu has been created by young chef Dave Whitting, who has a most impressive CV.

Whitting was most recently responsible for the new menu at the popular Subiaco Hotel in Western Australia and was Guillaume Brahimi's head chef at his western outpost of Bistro Guillaume in Perth. His experience also includes a stage at the triple Michelin-starred Le Bernardin in New York as well as stints at both Bistro Moncur and Jonah's.

“I like to juxtapose the familiar with the unexpected,” he says. “The menu is produce-led and I enjoy experimenting with the dehydrator. I use ale to re-hydrate the rye sourdough we serve as part of the bistro's heirloom beetroot dish. I use it, as well, for an element of our wild mushroom fricassee served with mushroom custard, smoked hazelnuts and hand-made chestnut cavatelli.

“I'm also a big fan of using our own smoker and use it to smoke Mt Cook Alpine salmon and many of the nuts on the menu. Our twice-cooked gruyere soufflé is a dish known to most but ours is made with veal stock that adds flavour and gives the dish a rich caramel colour.”

Modern reinventions of classic bistro dishes include a tarte tatin made with quince and a surprising pairing of blue cheese and marshmallow.

Signature dishes include black ash tortellini filled with silky potato crème and dressed with Pecorino and watercress; and Golden Plains pork belly accented with apple and potato crème.

The single-page menu also showcases plenty of choice for vegetarians.

Bistro Remy's wine list incudes the likes of the 2015 Chalmers Nero d'Avola from Heathcote and a 2012 Catena Zapata Malbec from Argentina.

Entrées are generally under $20 and there are no mains over $40. Bistro Remy is open for lunch Monday through Friday and for dinner Monday-Saturday. Bookings on (02) 9256 2222.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Food, glorious food. Is this London's best market?

Gloriously ripe, runny Bries; crumbly Caerphillys; specialities from Emilia Romagna and Emmental. Fabulous fromages from around the world.

How many gourmet cheese stalls does one street market need? Apparently a dozen or more. 

If you need evidence of the changing face of London, head for Borough Market; offering myriad gourmet delights on the doorstep of London Bridge Station.

I was on my way to lunch at Aqua Shard; high in the sky, but my attention was diverted to street level and the many market delights.

First opened in 1851 on its current site (and refurbished a decade ago) - it has a history that dates back 1000 years, although it was under recently more a wholesale market that a retail one. Its recent resurgence reflects the gentrification of Southwark and surrounding south-east London suburbs.

Borough Market boasts that it "is a source of quality British and international produce, but it is more than just a place to buy or sell food".

The Market is a place where both locals and tourists come to connect, to share food and fun. 

Today, it is regarded as London's most renowned food and drink market. It has featured in movies from Bridget Jones's Diary to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and even Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Borough Market is located in the heart of central London, easily accessible by train, tube, bus, bike or on foot.

The layout reflects its storied history, with a warren of passageways and open spaces; new discoveries around every corner. The vibe is typically London, with traders exchanging banter with their regulars. 

Three Crown Square, the Market's largest trading area, is devoted to fresh produce, including fruit and veg, meat, fish and cheese, while the spaces around the periphery offer an eclectic blend of foodstuffs and ready-to-eat meals (from pie and mash and jellied eels to soul food). 

Borough Market is open from Monday to Saturday, although the full market only operates Wednesday to Saturday.
For details see