Australia

Hunter Valley

 

 

David Whitley returns to Australia’s Hunter Valley wine region and shamelessly plumps for exactly what he did three years ago.

 

 

As a general rule, travel is about the thrill of the new. Exploring new horizons, sampling new experiences and making discoveries is generally where the thrill comes from. But sometimes a bit of what’s familiar can be just as rewarding.

 

One of my favourite places in the world is a small (but very stylish) bed and breakfast in the middle of Australia’s Hunter Valley. The Hunter Valley Cooperage (huntervalleycooperage.com) sits right in amongst the vines, and I’ve found few greater pleasures than tucking into Gay and Warren’s top grade breakfasts as the morning sun bathes the vineyard in that fresh, happy light of a new Australian day.

 

 

We first stayed there in 2008, and fell in love with ‘The Retreat’ – something of a wooden upstairs barn decked out with random shells and owls as well as all the mod cons. Returning to the Hunter Valley this time, we possibly should have experimented by staying elsewhere, but frankly we didn’t want to. In fact, we did pretty much exactly what we did three years ago. And if that’s not cool, then so be it – cool’s overrated. 

 

You can’t go to the Hunter without tasting lots of wine (or rather, you can, but you really are missing the point tremendously). It’s Australia’s oldest remaining wine region (not the first – the first Aussie vineyards were in Parramatta, Western Sydney), and there’s a wonderfully unsnobby attitude at the cellar doors. Again, we could have done things differently, but elected to head out with Peter Kane from Aussie Wine Tours (aussiewinetours.com.au). Most wine tours in the Hunter involve being trailed around the usual suspect big wineries in a tour bus on a pre-ordained route. Pete specialises in taking couples and private small groups around, however, and he picks the wineries according to the tastes of his passengers.

 

It’s a brilliant way of doing it – he asks about what sort of wines you like, what sort of wineries you fancy visiting and generally what floats your boat. He then plots out the itinerary as he goes along, accommodating awkward requests to taste viogniers, zinfandels and grapes that only really exist in Narnia.He really knows his stuff, and while we’re tasting he’s clearly working – chatting to the staff and winemakers, keeping his finger on the pulse of what’s happening where. It’s an impressive display of schmoozemanship.

 

The other massive bonus to going on a small private tour is that you can get into the wineries that won’t allow the big tour buses in. And, frankly, I wouldn’t have found Piggs Peake otherwise. Winemaker Steve Langham clearly doesn’t go in too much for etiquette; he doesn’t enter wine shows or pay fees to be listed in wine guides. He just makes extraordinarily good wines (with a little help from Junior the Alsatian) and people come to him. 

 

There’s no stinginess with the samples either – we end up ploughing through 11 or 12 different glasses, of which at least seven are a level above anything else we have tasted or will taste all day. If it wasn’t for customs allowances, we’d have wandered out with case after case. Better still, we were invited back behind the cellar door to have a look at the grapes fermenting in giant vats. Don’t tell health and safety, but we were allowed to dip our fingers in and taste the juice. If it never gets made into wine, they could still make a fortune by selling the juice as a soft drink.

 

By the time we’re dropped back at the Cooperage, we’ve got deliriously happy smiles on our faces. We’ve done what we know, repeated a winning formula from three years ago yet still managed to make a fabulous new discovery. It doesn’t get much better than that...

 

 

Wombats

 

David Whitley attempts to conquer the rapids in Kangaroo Valley, hoping he can add a wombat to his collection of goannas.

 

 

You have to admire the Australian attitude towards health and safety at times. Sat in a car park by the castle-like Hampden Bridge, I’m told that I shouldn’t take anything valuable in the kayak with me. “The bit at the back isn’t 100% waterproof,” I’m instructed. But what on earth should I do with my car keys? “Leave ‘em on top of the back tyre. No-one will nick it round here.”

 

It’s fitting that this advice comes from a man who’s about to rent me his kayak, let me head downriver for a few kilometres, battle the odd rapid and meet him at a camping ground at the other end. Anywhere else, I’d be asked if I’d used a kayak before, given some level of instruction and gently babied through the rapids by an experience guide. In Kangaroo Valley (a couple of hours south of Sydney), I’m allowed to pay when I return, and just go and enjoy myself.

 

Pushing off into the Kangaroo River, it becomes immediately clear what an excellent idea this is. The current will probably take me all the way to the designated meeting point without me lifting a finger. The paddle quickly becomes an object reserved for making sure I’m facing the right direction and the occasional guilt-prompted sliver of tokenistic exercise.

 

The river is just beautiful. Trees clamber up the steep hills to either side, and large boulders make incursions from the banks. They’re worth paying closer attention to. While there may not be any kangaroos living by the river, there are plenty of enormous lizards. I double-take as I see my first one – a chunky great goanna, sat with his head up in meerkat-ish alertness, basking in the sun’s warmth. I’m consumed with glee, thinking I’ve seen something special. It quickly turns out that I haven’t. There’s a big goanna on pretty much every rock as I paddle slowly downstream. There are some slightly - but not much – smaller lizards scuttling along the banks and there’s even the odd snake taking a swim in the water.

 

I appear to have entered a reptile wonderland, but the creature I’m really interested in is being rather elusive. Wombats – the tank-like furry pig-bears with a penchant for shuffling about and generally looking extremely clumsy – are nocturnal creatures. If you spot them during the day, they’re probably poorly or dead by the side of the road. But, from the river, the traces of them are easily identifiable. Wombats are the biggest burrowing animals on the planet, and their holes make sizable dents in the river bank. There are scores of them, tunnelled into the earth, and I keep pulling over to see if I can catch a glimpse of a wombat inside. On several occasions I think I may have got a peek at one having a sleep, but I’m never quite certain. I wish they’d come and swim alongside the kayak rather than the snakes...

 

Of course, it all gets rather more interesting when I hit the rapids. They’re only baby rapids but the water’s still flowing pretty fast, and there are all manner of rocks to crash into and scrape the bottom of the kayak along. It comes as something of a jolt. I’m going to have to paddle and steer hard to avoid coming a cropper. I splash away frantically, trying to forge some sort of safe course without clattering into an enormous boulder. It just about works, but that I’ve been allowed to tackle this through trial and error is astonishing.

 

It’s quite the experience, however. Sun out, wildlife on the banks, and a spot of adrenalin rolled into the tranquillity – I’d be hard-pushed to find a more perfect way to spend the morning.

 

 

 

By David Whitley

 

Meat pies

 

 

 

Driving up the Pacific Highway from Sydney to Byron Bay is like taking a snapshot of a country in transition. Back in the day, small towns and businesses were built to cater for the heavy traffic heading up and down the coast. Kilometre by kilometre these towns have dried up, now just little off-road ramps as the government has put in safer roads and built bypasses along he highway.

 

There are, however still some towns left standing along the highway that will give you a window into regional Australian life. In Frederickson, you'll pass single storey weatherboard homes with wrap around verandas that are raised off the ground to combat the flooding that creeps through the town every few years. Jacaranda trees will bloom in the front yard, carpeting the ground in purple flowers, and dairy fields will roll around the valley and hills, dotted with black and white coloured cattle. There's an old dairy next to the highway, an old cheese factory attached to the dairy.

 

Frederickson is six hours from wither Sydney or Brisbane, making it the perfect rest break if you’re driving up the highway. But the one thing that has cars pulling up on either side of the highway and people running across the road dodging traffic is a humble little pie shop called Fredo's.  There are some things that define Australia, and the humble meat pie is one of them. The meat pie has always been the classic working mans meal, the gourmet highlight of trips to the football and the ultimate on the go Australian snack. Traditionally the Australian meat pie has consisted of beef mince in thick tasty gravy encased in a thin golden pastry with a crunchy, flaked pastry top.

 

In the early 1990s, a small general store along the highway in Frederickson started selling a dozen or so homemade meat pies during the winter to travellers that were sick of the usual soulless hamburger and hot chips style fast food on offer at most petrol stations. Today, Fredo’s is a Pacific highway icon, offering over 50 different types of savoury pie per day from a rotating menu of 160 different pies. Walk into the tiny shopfront and you’ll glimpse beef & burgundy, steak &onion, apricot chicken, lamb & mint, curry, steak & kidney pies, as well as fresh sausage rolls pulled straight from the oven.

 

Some of the pies on offer are a little left of the centre.  Along with your usual suspects, there’s a kangaroo pie, one made of emu, and their most famous creation: the croc pie, made out of crocodile meat. While I’ve never been game enough to give these pies a go, it’s partly because my favourite pie- the steak & onion is simply so good, with it’s thick tender chunks of beef in a thick onion gravy. The hardest part once you’ve picked your pie is working your way through the three deep queue to the front counter to pay.

 

The pies have been named some of the best in Australia and while it’s a fairly contentious title, Fredo’s has to over 70 regional and national awards to back up its claim to the throne. The pies are a local operation, and where possible, ingredients are sourced from the local area, generating income for what is a tiny community. Even the beef in the pies comes from cattle grazed on the fields around Frederickson.

 

Most people eat their pie standing up outside, and there’s always a bit of traffic chaos around Frederickson for your dining entertainment as the truckies pull up and run in to stock up on pies for their long haul run. But the best entertainment is the pie shop’s next door neighbour. Living next door to the pie shop is a giant overweight Rottweiler. The dog is a real ham, using his powerful puppy dog eyes to beg for a bit of your pie just as you’re down to the last, satisfying bite.

 

Judging by the size of his belly, a sucker is born every day. In my experience though, he’s had to suffer through with just a pat. These pies are just too good to share.

 

 

By Shaney Hudson

 

In search of the sea dragons

 

 

In Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay, David Whitley goes looking for some very weird fish

The mercury may be well over the 40 degree mark, but Jacqui insists we put on the wetsuits. “The water in the bay is about 19 degrees and, trust me, you’ll feel it.”

The Great Barrier Reef may be Australia’s conventional snorkelling hotspot, but the stretch of Port Phillip Bay just off Portsea’s beach has something that Queensland can’t rustle up. It is home to a small colony of phyllopteryx taeniolatus – more colloquially known as the weedy sea dragon. Cousins of the seahorse, these little fellas grow to about 40cm long and look about as bizarre as it’s possible for a fish to get.

Through the wonders of evolution, they’ve developed things that aren’t quite polyps, aren’t quite fins and aren’t quite humps. Whatever they are, they protrude from the body, cunningly making them look like seaweed.

Subsequently, they can be rather hard to spot, even when you’re floating above them, keeping an intent lookout.

From the beach, we swim over to the buoy that marks the outer edge of the mini-marina. A small reef lined with luxuriant eel grass makes this area a prime habitat for all manner of temperate weather-loving fish, and a fair few stingrays that hang out on the bottom minding their own business.

The secret to spotting the weedy sea dragons, we’re told, is to stay still and just fix your gaze on a patch of grass. They’re most easily seen when they move across a patch that’s otherwise staying still.

And it’s using this technique that one’s cover is blown. It uses its slender body in a wave-like motion, gently gliding above the seabed.

From the top, they look entirely black, but duck down and it’s possible to see the vivid pinks and yellows that make up their bodies.

But these are not mighty dragons. In fact, they’re extraordinary weak – and hopeless swimmers. They can’t fight swells as waves come into the beach and are helplessly pushed along by them. That’s why they seek peaceful, secluded spots to live in.

Portsea, historically, has been one such spot. But a decision to dredge parts of the bay a few years ago has had character-changing effects. Now surf occasionally gets up, hitting the shore much harder than it once did.

This means its eroding much faster than it once did, and walls of sandbags are piled up alongside the slowly-shrinking beach. There are fears over the future of the village pub, which sits on top of a hillock right above the sea.

 

But the sea dragons may be in trouble too. Jacqui Younger, who guides the snorkelling tours for Bayplay Adventures. “If we’re honest, we don’t know what will happen to them. But the dredging has not been a good thing for Portsea.”

We finish off by swimming over to the pier, where seemingly hundreds of children are jumping off - partly to keep cool and partly to show off to their friends. Under the pier, crabs run up the wooden support poles and shoals of puffer fish flock around them like intimidatory gangs. But Jacqui spots what she’s been after.

“Here he is,” she says. “It’s the last one.” The dragon has some caviar-like blobs on its back.

“They’re eggs, and this is the only one that is still carrying them this season. The female will lay them on his back, and he’s the one that looks after them.”

Hopefully, when they do hatch, they manage to find a way to beat the ever larger waves.

 

 

Disclosure: David was a guest of Tourism Australia and Tourism Victoria

Picture credit 12

Handily, you can get Melbourne included as a stopover (plus get another 9 around the world) on a Navigator RTW We also love Australia (Go Aussies!) and sell very well priced breaks in Victoria

by David Whitley

  

Melbourne

 



David Whitley looks with older eyes at Melbourne’s city centre – and finds that it has rediscovered its soul.

 

My hazy recollections of Melbourne’s city centre are not all that favourable. Back in 2002, I trawled the rigid grid delivering magazines every week, and found it all a little dispiriting. There were a few decent pubs and Chinatown was mildly diverting but central Melbourne always struck me as having a dull functionality and little heart.

 

 

Melbourne, after all, was all about the scene in the various suburbs – St Kilda, Fitzroy and Carlton were the places to be, while a long list of other suburbs each had their own scene. It was a city that rewarded those who gave it time and explored at a relaxed pace – and many coming through from Sydney would turn their nose up after a couple of days in the wrong places before moving on.

 

Eight years later, and Melbourne’s city centre seems remarkably different. This may be a case of looking through different eyes – I want a little more than just the cheapest beer prices these days – but a big change has clearly taken place. I think the tourist board would like us to believe that Melbourne has always been a hive of laneways packed with cool independent shops, fascinating bars and restaurants plying cuisine from all over the world. To a certain extent, this is probably the case, but it’s undeniable that this scene has undergone a massive expansion in the last decade.

 

It has been a case of noticing that the whole character-packed laneways thing is popular and running with it. The cramped little back streets between the vast thoroughfares on the main grid are now promoted heavily, and are clearly thriving.

 

They’re fascinating to poke around, too. They’re anything but identikit. Some bars are too cool by half (and have prices to match), others are laid-back, cosy and a little grungy. Some of the more unpromising alleys will have a sweet, family-run coffee shop at the end, while on others you’ll run a gauntlet of touts between restaurant terraces. Each is keen to entice you into theirs with the best deal or most expensive free drink. 

 

On my first afternoon this time round, I had time to kill before meeting my fiancée at the airport. I got in touch with another writer who I’ve only previously known electronically, and we ended up at a bizarre place that seemed to have a million floors, each with a bar or a theatre on it. It felt typical of the new Melbourne – the top floor was a fairly rough and ready rooftop bar selling burgers and pies from a small shack. On the first floor, it was boutique beers, upmarket platters and serving staff with Shoreditch hair.

 

The next day, we explored properly, and I kept coming across things I hadn’t seen before. And not just in terms of bars and coffee shops – the stream of odd public artworks around the Docklands and South Bank, the shiny new towers and the weird little stores struck me as new additions. As I say, I may have been blind to it before, but Melbourne’s city centre has undergone a remarkable transformation. It’s now a genuinely cool place to be – and possesses a life and character that would be the envy of any city in the world. 

 

More photos here