Spirits of the West: A Whisky Tour of Perth

 

 

I get the feeling the World of Whisky tour is popular with blokes. There are twelve of us on the tour tonight, standing in the broad plaza outside Perth’s former General Post Office. Presumably women enjoy whisky too, but they’re somewhere else on this Wednesday evening.

No matter, we’re men with a mission – to learn more about the many and varied varieties of whisky. This doubles up as a bar tour, courtesy of the thriving small bar scene in the Western Australian capital. Over the next three hours we’ll be visiting three bars on foot, each with its own speciality spirits.

The first bar our red-shirted guide Rusty leads us to is Varnish, within one of the attractive old buildings on King Street. It’s sporting a classic interior with wood panelling and dim lighting.

This is no pub crawl, we realise, as we’re handed over to barman Yan for an educational session on the history of alcoholic beverages. Leading us from the first fermented mead to the development of distillation, Yan reaches the era of moonshine and bourbon. As he says, it’s a simple calculation: “Moonshine + barrel + time = whisky.”

And American-style whisky is what we’re here for, as we sample three in turn: a bourbon, a Tennessee whisky and a rye. As we sip, Yan shares the intricacies of each type – including the curious fact that rye whiskies always include a green stripe on their labels.

The good thing about the structure of this visit is that we’re not knocking back the spirits, but taking the time to understand and enjoy them. There’s something appealing about tapping into the expertise of professionals as we go, adding a dash of science to our beverage preferences.

Leaving Varnish, we walk through Perth’s Central Business District (CBD for short), ending up on St George’s Terrace. This high-rise office zone used to be dead after dark, but in recent years new bars and restaurants have been added, lending it a livelier vibe.

Rusty shows off some of the new nightlife as we go, taking us through the Brookfield Place development with its numerous places to eat and drink. Then we head down an alleyway off Howard Street, to reach our second stop: Helvetica.

 



Upstairs in a candlelit lounge, we settle into sofas and learn that the bar is indeed named after the ubiquitous typeface. Helvetica specialises in single malts, and has 300 whiskies in stock from around the world.

As we sip four samples, a barman with a fine Irish accent explains the single malt distillation process. Here we’re tasting Australian whiskies produced in Western Australia, Victoria, and Tasmania, each of which have distinctive flavours.

Our final stop of the evening is Canton, an upstairs bar which used to be a Chinese restaurant of the same name. It’s kept the décor of those days, with red lanterns and Chinese-themed artwork.

Given the Asian vibe, it seems apt that we’re going to taste Japanese whisky. As a preliminary, barman Steve takes us through the history of Japanese beverages, including sake. He then explains how the secrets of whisky-making were carried east a century ago by a Japanese man who learned the craft in Scotland.

Then we sample three interesting Japanese whiskies, between bites of prawn crackers and other snacks on the tables.

We’re in a cheerful mood, and tasting these relatively exotic spirits adds a mellow note to the end of the tour. It’s been a good night out… and an education.

 

 

The World of Whisky Tour is offered monthly by tour company Two Feet and a Heartbeat. Fee A$100. For bookings, visit twofeet.com.au

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail.

You can get Perth included as a stopover on a Navigator round the world or on our Discoverer round the world

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sydney’s Martian Embassy

 

It’s startling to step from Redfern Street into the Martian Embassy.

Outside, the architecture is 19th and 20th century shopfronts, the standard look of a shopping strip in inner-city Sydney. Inside, however, it’s… different.

As the name suggests, it feels as if you’ve stepped into a different world, of sinuous alien curves rather than old-fashioned right angles. It’s as though the interior of the shop has been grown from the ground up, decorated with a series of curved wooden panels painted a livid green.

In a cosy seating area at the front, visitors sit around a huge globe of Mars, while browsing such handy books as The Intergalactic Traveller’s Guide to Saturn. Nearby stands a large silver telescope which claims to provide views of street life on the red Planet – if you use your imagination.

On the shelves farther in, past a statue of a Martian emperor,  is a mish-mash of quirky exhibits along with products created specifically for the shop.

Novelties for sale to the discerning space traveller include cans claiming to contain “bite-size” oxygen; melted ice from the Martian polar caps; a reflective Martian cape; gravity created in a factory on Pluto; and emergency space food. There are also T-shirts bearing such timeless messages as “Take me to your leader”.

There is method to this madness, as it turns out. The Martian Embassy is actually a front for the Sydney Story Factory, a non-profit writing centre.

“Our focus is on marginalised young people, with about 25% Aboriginal kids coming in,” says Craig New, one of the organisation’s managers. “Everything we do is focused on creative writing. The kids not only create short stories, poetry and scripts, but also short films and podcasts.

“The products we sell are fun, quirky stuff the kids enjoy as well. We’ve got Martian capes, ‘puny humans’ that Martians might want to eat, spaceship repair kits. My favourite thing in the shop is the tin of gravity. We have long arguments with the kids as to whether there is actually gravity inside it.

“We also use the stuff in the shop as prompts, especially if they’re struggling for what to write about in a workshop: ‘What would happen if my character had a black hole in a tin?’”

 

 

 

 

For the traveller, the Martian Embassy is not only a novel place to shop, but a way to help out – all profits from sales go straight to funding the reading programs. On sale alongside the novelties are books by the kids themselves, with titles like I Met a Martian.

When you’ve finished your extra-terrestrial shopping, Redfern is worth exploring. There’s good coffee and food to be had along the street at Barn Doors (108 Redfern St) and Baffi & Mo (94 Redfern St).

And though Redfern is off the standard tourist trail, its streets are lined by interesting emporia.

“The antiques shop across the road is a bizarre place, it often has a cockatoo sitting in a big wheel out the front,” says Craig. “There’s a place further up selling flowers and antiques, which is full of taxidermied animals. There’s a tradition of weird shops in Redfern already, so we slot into that nicely.”

 

The Martian Embassy is located at 176 Redfern St, Redfern, an easy walk from Redfern train station. Open 10am-5pm Monday to Thursday, 11am-3pm Saturday & Sunday.

 

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Destination NSW and TFE Hotels.

 

 

You can get Sydney included as a stopover on a Navigator round the world or on our Discoverer round the world

 

 

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

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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

  

Dolphin kayaking

 

 
 
David Whitley takes to the ocean at Byron Bay, and finds himself with some rather cute company… 

We ride high on the swell. Another wave is lurching towards us, and it won’t be the last.

There’s something special about being low to the water while the ocean does its thing. Rolling with the rhythms, being transported from mountain to valley, it’s hypnotic.

But while I’m sat paddle across my knees in the kayak, others are taking on a precarious balancing act. They’re stood on their kayaks, acting as lookouts, as the swells roll in.

There’s no need to stand to see most of the scene, however. Behind us and to the left is the stretched out sand of Byron Bay’s Main Beach. The clouds are gathering ominously above it, but we appear to have hogged the one circle of clear blue sky to ourselves. To our right, surfers gather to take on The Pass – apparently one of the top surfing spots in Australia.

In front of us – thousands of miles in front of us, in fact, is Chile. It’s a fair approximation of the world’s end.

But we’re not looking for South America – we’re looking for wildlife. We’re told that turtles are regularly found here. The green turtles are more shy than their loggerhead counterparts. Not surprising, really – the loggerheads are the size of coffee tables.

There are also plenty of sea birds, diving down towards a tasty snack in the water. They’re a good sign; if sea birds are feeding, then our prey might be too. We’re after dolphins; they’re often found playing in the bay, but they’re being curiously elusive this morning.

Just as I’m beginning to get disheartened, however, the shout goes up. A pod has been spotted. This should be our signal to paddle hard and go out to join them, but it looks as if they’re coming towards us.

I try to work out how many there are. It looks like two separate battalions in the same pod. Further out are a couple of fins, rising and falling beneath the wave with synchronicity, but nearer to us, they seem to pop up at random. There’s two – no, three – no, five. Blimey, there might be ten or twelve of them.

Then the magic happens. One lifts itself almost entirely out of the water right in front of my kayak. Its sleek silver curves arc upwards, along and then seamlessly back in. I’m sure it flashes a smile on the way.

But these waves don’t just conceal dolphins. They’re also packed with treachery, as we discover on the way back to shore. There’s a certain craft to paddling a kayak through the breaking waves. You have to ride them straight on, keep paddling through them rather than being tempted into an easy ride. And, if your kayak starts to spin round (as it’s highly likely to), you need to lean hard into the wave, or you’re going to capsize.

Before we make an attempt on the shore, there’s a shuffling of personnel. I swap places with the frankly lazy daughter of a woman in her late fifties. The girl is knackered, and it’s decided that some proper arm power is needed at the back of the older woman’s boat. I become her engine, and her steersman. If it goes wrong, it’s probably my fault.

We thunder in, in line with the wave. We keep going over the top of the wave, but the kayak starts to turn. I lean over, but the lady in front has forgotten. She’s not leaning, damn it. And then she falls in. Failure. I try to stay on board, but the vessel is almost on its side. I tumble over, straight on top of the spluttering woman below. It’s the exact opposite of the grace displayed by the dolphins.


 

Mission Beach

 

 

 

Landlubber David Whitley gets a taste of sailing without leaving the beach in Northern Queensland.

It’s a wonder that everyone in Mission Beach doesn’t have one of these babies. The four villages that make up the area are spread four or five kilometres apart, and the most direct path between them is straight down the 14km-long beach. As I stand on the shore, considering the post-pub transport possibilities in a one taxi town, Chantelle pulls up her Blo-kart. It’s an enormous contraption that she somehow pulled out of a bag half the size of a surfboard. At the bottom, there’s a metal frame with wheels and a seat. On top of that, there’s a big sail.

She seems a little apprehensive. “There is enough wind, although it’s a little flaky,” she says. “It’s possible, but there’s a big but...” What she means is that there’s a big butt. “Well, you saw how fast I was going,” she dithers, eyeing up my somewhat ‘sturdier’ frame. “The problem is that the bigger, heavier and taller you are, the more wind you need.” I’ve come this far, and I’m not backing out now. And if that means trundling across the sand like a pensioner on a stairlift, then so be it. I slide down into the seat, and Chantelle tries to show me the ropes. Or rather, rope. I’ve got one to which controls the sail, plus some bicycle-style handlebars for steering.

 

“There are no brakes, and it’s currently in the stop position, facing directly into the wind,” Chantelle explains. The principles, I’m told, are close to those of sailing. Keep the sail at roughly right angles to the wind direction, and maintain momentum by zig-zagging (or tacking) across the sand. It takes a few episodes of shamefully slumping to a halt before the idea clicks, but before long, I’m carving across the sand, picking up speed and performing hairpin turns. Dog-walkers on the beach shoot looks of abject pity at the slightly slow child attempting to play King Hoon.

 

Everything feels faster than it probably is – in the same way that going 30km/h on a motorbike can feel faster than going 50km/h in a car. But when the wind hits the sail and the kart flies through the wet sand, it’s virtually impossible not to grin like a glee-infused simpleton. It’s fun in the way that a well-made family comedy film is fun, even though instructions inscribed on the sail insist that Blo-karting can be a very dangerous sport. Those wanting a proper hardcore adrenalin activity are advised to look upwards. 

 

At one point, Chantelle plonks a flag in the middle of the beach. I operate under the impression that this is for performing doughnuts around, but she soon indicates that I shouldn’t be going past it. “The skydivers are about to land,” she says. Sure enough, five parachutes are flitting through the air, with Dunk Island in the background. Those who have descended from 14,000ft are pumped-up whooping like the audience on the Jerry Springer Show.They may be getting the rush, but I’m deliriously content with my somewhat unique soft option; tugging on my sail rope, pootling across the sand and making a mental note to steal one in time for the Friday night post-pub taxi scramble.

 

 

David went Blo-Karting with the Mission Beach Adventure Centre (00 61 4 29 469 330). 

 

 

 

By David Whitley