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Thursday 30 October 2014

How a cocktail mixologist from Los Angeles found his way home to Thailand

He's a Los Angeles-born and -raised hipster with a degree in psychology from UCLA who has worked as a bartender in some of the coolest joints in California.

So what, then, is the man who goes by the name of Golffy doing creating exotic tipples like a New York Thymes - complete with its own mini newspaper - at one of Phuket's hippest resorts? 
New York Thymes complete with paper

It's a long story, but mix-master Golffy is also Dhasan Prabhanandan, American to the core but the son of Thai parents.

A short vacation to explore his roots in Thailand in 2007 ignited a passion for his parent's homeland and an urge to explore Asia. Shortly thereafter, Golffy packed his bags and moved to Bangkok, establishing himself as a cocktail and culinary consultant. 

Just last month, the "Conceptual Beverage Designer" moved to Indigo Pearl, in the quieter north of Phuket, where he is creating liquid artworks in the resort's Dirty Monstera cocktail bar and the more laid back Rebar in the same hotel complex. 

His signature New York Thymes is a combination of Ketel One vodka, vanilla bean, cranberry juice, aromatic lemon thyme and citrus air. And while it may sound pretentious, it tastes delicious. 
Mixmaster Golffy

Golffy sources as many rare and unusual ingredients for his cocktails as possible, drawing on his experience at venues such as The Beverly Hilton, The Standard, Koi and Geisha House. 

He says it was while working as a bartender in LA that he began to develop an interest, and then a passion, for mixology.

"It was curiosity at first," Golffy says. "I wanted to know more and I've always had a creative streak and I just became fascinated by the untapped possibilities of mixology and of combining that with my knowledge of food and flavours."

Along with the New York Thymes, I also sampled a Call Me A Cab, named because most people need one after sampling a couple of glasses of this potent but lip-smackingly good combination of calvados, Captain Morgan spiced rum, Amaretto, Demerara sugar and Angostura bitters.
The dangerous Call Me a Cab

While Golffy can mostly be found behind the bar at Dirty Monstera with LA-style leather booths and clubby upholstered chairs, he can occasionally can found strolling around the resort with what might be mistaken for a shoeshine box or a picnic hamper. In fact, he's turned himself into a one-man walking wet bar.

"This is an innovation I'm proud of," he says. "I can stop and make impromptu bespoke cocktails anywhere on the property, with whatever ingredients are fresh and in season. It's a great way to connect with guests and give them something to remember." 

Indigo Pearl Resort is situated within its own tropical gardens just 10 minutes from Phuket International Airport.

# The writer was a guest of Indigo Pearl 

Tuesday 28 October 2014

How Jetstar launched a special offer and alienated thousands of travellers

It seemed a simple enough idea from Jetstar's point of view. Counter an introductory offer of a $99 each way flight between Melbourne and Denpasar in Bali from AirAsia with an even cheaper offer of flights from $88. 

At around 5pm on Monday night, Jetstar sent emails to those in its database offering the $88 flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane and Darwin to Denpasar on a range of dates in 2015. The trick was you had to book within 30 hours. 

When you clicked onto the site, you discovered that return flights from Bali were available for $28. Great! 
The internet offer that sparked chaos

This was Jetstar so would-be-travellers knew they would be up for extras like checked luggage, but it was still a great deal and an offer that would surely generate much goodwill for Jetstar, which has been known to have its critics. 

Except for the fact that Jetstar had not thought through the logistics. Its website was not able to handle the volume of traffic that the offer engendered. 

I spent from 5.30pm until midnight trying to book a cheap holiday for my wife and myself. 

The website simply didn't work; either stalling, timing out or simply offering an error message.

And I wasn't alone. Right across Australia thousands of other potential customers were having the same problems; and taking to social media to express their anger and frustration. 

Twitter was hit by an avalanche of vitriol; Jetstar's Facebook page was swamped with abuse (over 10,000 complaints at the latest count). 

What had been a positive publicity opportunity turned into a heap of dung. I went ahead and booked the slightly more expensive flights on AirAsia, whose website worked perfectly. reported that "a Jetstar spokesman said the system had been placed 'under stress' by the fare offer but was unable to provide further details of the crash." 

But don't expect to read too much about this debacle in the mainstream media. Remember that Jetstar are major advertisers and MSM media will not want to upset them too much in case it damages their revenue stream. 



Sunday 26 October 2014

And now for something completely different: A Japanese restaurant breaks the rules

Doing something different can be a double-edged sword for restaurateurs; either people flock to the new offering, or they are disappointed not to find what they expect and stay away in droves. 

So imagine what bafflement a Japanese restaurant that doesn't regularly serve sushi, sashimi, gyozas, soba or ramen noodles, tempura, tonkatsu, okonomiyaki or even steamed rice has caused in the conservative restaurant environment of Hobart, Tasmania.

In a brave attempt to serve "Japanese food like people would eat in Japan" Three Japanese Charcoal Grill dishes up a six-course set menu for $60 on Friday and Saturday nights - and you can be pretty sure none of the traditional favourites will make an appearance. 

We open with a plate of three appetisers served with 30ml of chilled sake; the selection of pickles is outstanding, the other two dishes unfamiliar but interesting (prawn and asparagus on pickled eggs; and pumpkin salad). I'm told the selection of "amuse" changes regularly. 
Next comes chawanmushi, a delicious savoury duck egg custard with dashi and sea urchin that offers a kaleidoscope of different flavours and textures with just a hint of chilli punch. 

That's followed by "today's special", which turns out to be some rather chewy and over-cooked tuna in breadcrumbs.The flavour is fine but the dish fails to thrill and is replaced by a stunning dish of eggplant painted with sweet miso and crunchy vegetable crumbs. Brilliant! 

The main course is "5-skewers" - five skewered meat dishes cooked on the charcoal grill. Strangely, four are chicken dishes (including chicken heart and chicken cartilage), which might be a little confronting for the squeamish.The fifth skewer was baby tomatoes.

I'd be keen to see a little more variety here, and maybe some sauces and/or wasabi/soy. 

The final savoury dish is yakinogiri chazuke, a rice ball in a kelp and bonito broth.One of us loves it, the other not so much. 

Dessert comprised little green tea madeleines, cute but restrained in the flavour department. Strangely, we were not offered green tea. 

Earlier in the week there is an al a carte menu, but sushi and sashimi only appear when the chef is happy with their freshness (usually on Wednesdays when Mark Eather's fishing boat docks). 

And apparently tempura does also make an occasional guest appearance. 

There is a small wine list with a Tasmanian focus (the 2014 Chartley Estate Pinot Gris was a good buy for $38), and a range of cold sakes.

The service is brisk and helpful and business was good on a Saturday night, but not so that anyone had to be turned away. 

If you enjoy challenging flavours and textures, it is well worth a visit. 

Three Japanese is a casual place where it's easy to kick back for an hour or two and enjoy something different, but the prices are definitely up there for Hobart, where the locals are used to their Asian restaurants (Me Wah excepted) being in the "cheap and cheerful" category.

Three Japanese Charcoal Grill, 133 Elizabeth Street, Hobart. (03) 6231 8035. Monday-Saturday from 5.30 pm. 




Thursday 23 October 2014

Why the wine industry is obsessed by little gold stickers

They arrive in my email in-box with meticulous, monotonous regularity.

After just about every wine show (and there are now more than 70 official shows in Australia and several others that hand out accolades) I receive a barrage of press releases saying that: "Our chardonnay 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." 

Just to put the record straight: 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. At a certain 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 reality is 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 punters to get to know some new producers. 

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. 

A gold medal, meanwhile, does not mean that a wine was the best in a show. It merely means it was in the top bracket. Maybe 15% of entries at any one show might reach the gold standard. 

And please bear in mind that many wineries, particularly those in the upper echelons, do not enter their wines into shows. At all. Other wineries, often small ones, find entering shows is just too expensive.

If they do enter, big brands are on a hiding to nothing and potential headlines like: "$15 shiraz is better than Penfolds Grange". 

The fact is that a lot of very good people with palates far better than mine 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.

There is also the fact that consumers love the little gold, silver and bronze stickers awarded to wines that are successful at the show level. Stickers help sell wines. And that's the bottom line. But look closely and that gold-coloured sticker may just say "Good with fish".   

So please, next time you are thinking of proclaiming your trophy-winning gruner veltliner as the best in Australia, maybe think twice.    

Monday 20 October 2014

Business class on a budget airline: one of the great travel bargains

It can cost up to $10,000 to fly business class between Australia and Europe. But a business class seat between Australia and Kuala Lumpur can cost as little as an extra $300 on top of the budget fare. 

I'm talking the AirAsiaX version of business class - which does not have all the bells and whistles of Singapore Airlines or Emirates but does provide a lay flat bed and the possibility of grabbing seven hours of precious sleep. 

A comfortable night of sleep in business class 

I'm a bit of a fan of Air Asia, although I always tend to invest in a premium seat for extra leg room and one in a "quiet zone" if available. 

If you prepare well for budget flying then the low fares throughout Asia are a big money saver. 

So when I read this blurb I was immediately keen to try the new, re-branded business class: "Indulge in complete comfort and stretch out with a spacious seat that reclines to unveil a full flat bed in our business class cabin. Our business class thoughtfully features a universal power socket, a personalised reading light, and a foldaway table for maximum productivity and convenience. Adjustable head and foot rests make it easy for you to arrive at your destination feeling more refreshed and ready to go."

I knew I wasn't going to get Champagne or a menu devised by Neil Perry, but I did get an extra baggage allowance (a whopping 40 kilograms), priority boarding, two complimentary hot meals (the Asian dishes are a better bet than the western options), a fluffy pillow and blanket/duvet. 

And there was plenty of room on the Airbus A330 to stretch out - I slept almost the entire way, missing out on breakfast. While the bed is lie-flat is doesn't extend 180 degrees, but it is a million miles away from economy - and I could charge my laptop while sleeping, always a bonus. 

The air crew on my flight were charming and helpful - and bottled water kept coming at regular intervals. 

My fear is that business class may eventually become too popular. There are currently only two rows (12 seats in total) on A330s.

The cost to upgrade to business is MYR 899 ($313 at today's exchange rate) on flights from Australia to Kuala Lumpur and MYR 499 from Kuala Lumpur to destinations like China, Korea and Saudi Arabia.
Landing at Sydney Airport

And if you simply want extra leg room, or a seat in the quiet zone, you will pay an extra MYR 119 on top of the budget fare, or included as part of Air Asia's new premium flex package, which also allows changes of schedule. 

AirAsia Group Head of Ancillary, Kenny Wong, said: “There is growing demand for business travel and we are excited to offer a truly relevant and high-valued travel experience deeply appreciated by business travellers."

With flights now landing and departing at Kuala Lumpur's swish new KLIA2 terminal rather than the decrepit LCC Terminal, AirAsia and AirAsia X also have 139 Fly-Thru routes that eliminate the need for multiple check-ins, transit visas and tiresome baggage transfers.

Fly-Thru guests are also able to enjoy guaranteed connections in event of delays. 

Air Asia X flies from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Gold Coast and Darwin to Kuala Lumpur with connections to the likes of Phuket (five times a day) and Krabi (three times a day) as well as destinations in China, Japan, South Korea and other Asian cities. For details and fares see  Current offers include Sydney-Kuala Lumpur from $189 one way and Sydney-Bangkok from $199 one way.

# The writer was a guest of AirAsia  

Saturday 18 October 2014

For how long can you cellar Tasmanian pinot noir? An intriguing wine tasting

How well will cool-climate Tasmanian pinot noir cellar? As the wine industry is a relatively new one on Australia's island state and many of the vineyards are still young, there have been precious few opportunities for vertical tastings of wines dating back 20 years or more. 

That's why this week's chance to taste wines from tiny Milford Vineyard in the Coal River Valley was such a great opportunity - and the verdict was very positive. 

Milford Vineyard comprises just 1.2 hectares but when it was planted 30 years ago it was the third-largest vineyard in the region.

The vines, all pinot noir, are on a 150-hectare grazing property that has been in the family of part-owner Charlie Lewis since 1830. Lewis and his wife Robyn, of fame, run the tiny business in partnership with several passionate friends. 

With a water frontage to the tidal estuary of the Coal River, the vineyard is on sand over a clay base with lime influence. 

Since the first vintage in 1992 (it took the partners eight years to get up and running), the wines have always been made at what is now Frogmore Creek, first by Andrew Hood and then by Alain Rousseau, briefly, Nick Glaetzer. 

Charlie Lewis and his partners, fans of aged wines, have always believed that Tasmanian pinots age better than those from cool-climate Victoria, so this tasting was both a 30th birthday celebration and an exercise in self-belief. 

Ironically there was a lot of debate before the vineyard was planted as to whether pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon would do best. "Fortunately, we chose the right one," Lewis said.  

The wines were tasted from youngest to oldest and included the 1996 that won gold at the Royal Hobart Wine Show. No pinot noir was made in 2012, when the fruit was used for a sparkling wine, or in 2002 and 2003 when the bird netting failed. 

"It is our belief that while Tasmanian pinot noir is delicious while young, much of it is drunk far too early," said Lewis. "Many pinots from New Zealand, Oregon and even Victoria can fall apart after a few years, so we are pleased with the longevity of our wines."

There were several stand outs in the tasting, but also a remarkable degree of consistency given the Tasmanian climate. The wines were generally medium-bodied with 2-3 year-old oak playing a supporting role and never intruding. Some had slight hints of mint and on the whole were more slick welterweight than mainland light-heavyweight. 

My favourites, in order of vintage:

2013: The current vintage and a wine with beautiful balance between red fruits and earthiness. Deliciously drinkable with an RRP of $33.

2011:  Lovely lightness of being and bright berry fruit characters allied to intensity on the palate. A beautifully composed wine. 

2007: Still very youthful with impressive complexity and weight. 

2005:  The first vintage under screw cap and and wine of lovely balance and sophistication. 

1998: The wine of the day for me. Still aromatic with ripe strawberry/raspberry notes from a fine vintage. 

1992: Definitely pinot and looking good 22 years down the track. Some sediment and surprising power.  

Some of the older wines had been frowned upon by the cork gods, but there was still plenty of evidence to suggest that well-made Tasmanian pinot using quality fruit can be enjoyed for 20 years or more. 

# The writer was a guest of Milford Vineyard 

Wednesday 15 October 2014

A new Thai urban resort that's cool, calm and connected; and very affordable

Veteran hotelier Wolfgang Grimm is one of the smartest cookies in the hospitality industry, so when he puts his heart and soul into a new property you can bet it will be something special. 

Grimm is the driving force behind the new Alisea Hotel in Aonang, a resort town in Krabi, Thailand. He describes the Art Deco-style building with Med and Moroccan touches as an "urban resort" - and it offers quite ridiculous value for money right now. 

Grimm, for those not familiar with the name, is a legendary figure in the hotel industry. He was for many years the general manager of the InterContinental Hotel in Sydney in the days when that property was perhaps the finest in the city (1989-1997). He later oversaw the Pier One Parkroyal and was vice-president of InterContinental Hotels Asia-Pacific. 

He established the The Hotel School InterContinental, which became part of Southern Cross University, led Tourism New South Wales and for several years ran his own vineyard and wine label, Domain Grimm, in the Hunter Valley, gaining applause for his unique semillon that was blended with a touch of Tumbarumba sauvignon blanc. 

Grimm's wife, Bo 
Lorchaiwet, still owns and operates the Oishii restaurant in the Tempus Two complex in the Hunter, but for the past two years the couple has been overseeing two properties in Thailand, the Aonang Cliff Resort in Aonang and the Crown Lanta Resort on Koh Lanta, helping to lift standards and occupancy rates. 

But Grimm's latest passion is the Alisea, his re-imagined version of the former Alis Hotel, a rundown property a couple of hundred metres back from the beach that he has completely re-imagined as a chic adults-only property that he expects will appeal to couples both young and old. 

The Alisea is still in its soft opening phase right now; hence a remarkable offer to readers of this blog: For bookings made before October 26, using the special code "tapas", double rooms will cost just BHT 1500 for bed and breakfast - that's around $53. Bookings have to be made at

Rates at this 3-star plus property will generally be around $105-120 Australian, so this is a generous saving. 

I stayed at the Alisea last week while final work was being completed but I loved the location, just around the corner from lively shops and bars, and the ultra-cool vibe. 

Grimm describes the hotel as "cool, calm and connected" - and, yes, there is free wi-fi throughout, as well as access to the hotel's own eco-friendly Anadamana Beach Club, a short complimentary shuttle ride away with its own longtail boats for sunset cruises and a Muay Thai gym for those looking to keep fit. 

The newly refurbed Alisea is a boutique property with 26 superior rooms, eight loft suites (each with their own chillout deck and open-air Japanese onsen-style baths) and one honeymoon suite.

All rooms have air-conditioning, new LED TVs with international channels (including the Australia Plus network), minibars, environmentally friendly in-room toiletries and very comfortable beds. 
There's a small but lovely infinity swimming pool that offers great sunset views, electric bikes for hire and delightfully helpful staff (as you'd expect with such an experienced hotelier at the helm). 

Grimm says he loves the chance to share the Thai culture with Australian and other visitors and has instituted a Eurasian breakfast buffet and a Thai afternoon tea featuring a range of local snacks and sweets (think khanom lookchub candy balls, steamed salapao buns and khanom tum cakes. 

There is also a very affordable Asian tapas bar (think Thai and Japanese snacks) and lounge with live night-time entertainment - the band performing last week was extremely good.

There will be no formal restaurant - Aonang offers plenty of dining options within a short stroll - but the Dahlia massage and herbal spa will open by the end of the month.

"I love the opportunities to showcase Thai culture to our Australian guests," says Grimm, hence the use of indigenous flowers and decorations throughout the hotel, which also has its own billiards room and a private cinema that will be used to host telecasts of major sporting events.

Lots of fun - and a real bargain right now. And down the road the wine list might even feature some Grimms Domain semillon and shiraz. 

Alisea Boutique Hotel, Aonang Beach, Krabi, Thailand. +66 75 638 000.

AirAsia X, together with AirAsia, links 100 destinations across 23 countries including Krabi.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

A Tasmanian room with a view - and what a view it is

Looking for somewhere to stay in the Tasmanian countryside but not too far from Hobart? 

Prefer somewhere luxurious, but not too expensive, with sweeping views and easy access to the water? 

Like somewhere that would be a good base from which to explore the food and wine delights of the Huon Valley the d'Entrecasteaux Channel? And with easy access to the ferry over to Bruny Island? 

Let me introduce you to Woodbridge Hill Hideaway, which is home to four delightful cabins sitting high on a hill in remote country above the tree line. 

The cabins all overlook the d'Entrecasteaux Channel, Bruny Island and across to the Tasman Peninsula. They are far more comfortable and roomy than they appear from the outside. 

With the Channel and Huon home to orchards, boutique wine producers, cheese-makers and cider producers there are plenty of opportunities to pick up gourmet picnic provisions, while nearby Woodbridge and Cygnet are lovely villages with art galleries and cafes.
These cabins offer a perfect couples getaway with decks offering spectacular views and barbecues for summer, or a two-person spa with amazing views and wood fire ideal for a winter snuggle up.

All are extremely well equipped with full catering facilities and the makings of smashing country breakfast, along with LCD TVs, DVD player, binoculars for enjoying the views and fast wi-fi. There are also comfy reclining leather chairs and a thoughtful gift of local gourmet chocolates.
The bathrooms are a delight, with heated floors and towel rails and a triple shower; and guests can select a bottle from a mini wine cellar. There is even an indoor swimming pool on site. Five-star facilities in the bush.

It would be easy to spend a day or two on the balcony enjoying the hammock, reading a book, watching the local bird life or taking in the views, but there are 100 acres of gardens and bush to be explored and beach walks to be enjoyed at Woodbridge village, where you will find the Peppermint Bay restaurant. 

The cost is $300 per night per couple including breakfast provisions - but wait! 

There is a special winter deal until October 31 with a discounted rate of $400 for two nights. This is valid for any of the four cabins. 

Breakfast provisions are included and guests will receive free access to the indoor heated pool. Bookings must be made directly on 0457 714 325 pr (03) 6295 1518 or via email. You must use the booking deal codes- Winter Deal WHHWS15. 

Woodbridge Hill Hideaway, 369 Woodbridge Hill Road, Woodbridge, Tasmania 7126.
Phone: 0457 714 325. 

Sunday 12 October 2014

Sleep, sleep and more sleep at one of Thailand's top resorts

At a time when executives are more stressed than ever before and some parents badly need a few days break from their children to re-calibrate, one of Thailand's most luxurious resorts has launched a holiday packaging offering the burned out and frustrated the chance to spend a holiday fast asleep.

Indigo Pearl, a shimmering sanctuary just a short drive from Phuket Airport (but with zero aircraft noise), offers week-long escapes devoted entirely to the 'Art of Sleep'.

Would-be Rip van Winkles are given the opportunity to iron out modern life's wrinkles using the restorative properties of the most natural wellness therapy of all. 

General manager Chris Oakes says he's been inundated with guests wanting to spend a week of blissful uninterrupted nights, languorous lie-ins, brunches in bed, cat naps, power naps and lazy afternoon siestas, 

Available until Christmas, although likely to be extended, the 'Art of Sleep' offers eight days and seven nights in an Indigo Pearl suite, along with additions like a guaranteed early check in and 'beeline for bed'; daily in-suite Sparkling Chandon Breakfast, available at whatever times guests wish; a 60-minute couples spa treatment in the signature Coqoon Nest spa facility and a 30-minute evening stress relief massage for two each evening. 

The offer also includes a selection of newspapers; magazines and books in suite, a choice of DVD movies;  a pillow menu and selection of aromatic oils and a guaranteed late check out until 6pm to help remove any travel stress that might remain within over-achievers and workaholics. 
“Sleep has become the great casualty of modern life, stolen by the stresses of work and family and the round-the-clock connectivity imposed by the internet age,” GM Oakes says. 

"This could be the escape of your dreams – and the best thing you ever did for yourself, your partner and your family.”

And having just spent four nights at Indigo Pearl, just behind the sweeping beach at Nai Yang and Phuket's only national park, I can recommend its restorative powers. I loved the place and will be writing more about it down the track.  

It is a modernist resort from design maestro Bill Bensley, who has drawn on the island's tin mining history for his inspiration; creating a glittering self-contained world of industrial installations combined with greenery, three pools (two for adults only), a large range of food and beverage options and a luxurious spa. 

“Indigo Pearl is the heart and soul of North Phuket – which is the 'real' Phuket,” Oakes says.

“It's more relaxed, steeped in the fascinating history of the island's tin mining past and is an ideal place to slumber, doze and dream between long walks on unspoiled beaches and hikes through forests." 

Indigo Pearl is a member of both Design Hotels and Mr and Mrs Smith and is and all villa and suite property with 177 accommodation choices, seven restaurants and bars, library, gym, tennis courts, kids’ club and Thai cooking school. 

The 'Art of Sleep' Package starts from THB49,500 per couple (around $A1,750) for the week) in a suite. Three-night packages are also being introduced.

Indigo Pearl, Nai Yang Beach, Phuket, Thailand.
+66 76 327 006. 

# The writer was a guest of Indigo Pearl and AirAsia. 
AirAsia X, together with AirAsia, links 100 destinations across 23 countries.

Thursday 2 October 2014

Out and about in rural Slovenia: a rare treat

To say Slovenia flies under the radar as European holiday destination would be a gross understatement. 

Even savvy travellers would be hard pressed to locate the former Yugoslav republic on a map – and this small but beautiful nation, independent since 1991, is often confused with Slovakia, which is hundreds of kilometres away. 

For a small country – the population is just two million people – Slovenia is remarkably diverse. The capital of Ljubljana, overseen by an historic castle, has an old town that looks like something from a fairytale and is mercifully vehicle free. 

Bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia is the tiniest and most affluent of the former Yugoslav republics – and visitors are made to feel very welcome. I lost count of the number of market vendors who enticed me to try a mouthful of everything from strudel to potent local home-made liquors. 

Slovenia offers the chance to be taking in some rays on the Mediterranean at the medieval seaside resort of Piran in the morning, and scaling mountains in the afternoon. This crossroads of Europe is often described as the country where the Adriatic meets the Alps and while the cities are sophisticated (nearly everyone in Ljubljana speaks English), the country areas are delightfully rustic.  

Ljubljana is within a few hours’ drive of several major European cities including Venice, Munich, Vienna and Zagreb, making getting here a breeze, by car, bus or air and there are amazing photo opportunities here with snowy mountain tops and wild green-blue rivers competing for the attention of photo buffs. 

The town of Lipice, not far from the Italian border, has been home to the famous white Lippizaner horses for over 400 years, well before Vienna. 

The beautiful alpine resort of Bled, around an hour north of Ljubljana, is home to a famous lake with an island that is among Europe’s most photographed attractions, while the massive stalactites and stalagmites in the Postojna caves are also well worth a visit. Ancient graffiti found here indicates that the first visitors arrived in 1213. 

Just a 30-minute drive outside Ljubljana, and a short drive from the historic town of Kamnik, is the unique recreation area known as Velika Planina, a popular destination for walkers, hikers and mountain bikers. 

This mountain plateau in the heart of the Kamnik Alps is not easy to reach – but is worth the effort. First you take a cable car to the base station and then walk a steep path for around an hour to the green pastures where local shepherds graze their dairy cattle in summer, but are covered with snow in the winter months. 

Some of the local shepherds here still wear traditional costumes and hand craft hard cheeses called trnic, which they sell to tourists. The plateau is also a starting point for the hikes onto the higher summits in the Kamnik Alps and is popular with cross-country skiers in winter. 

The food here is hearty (think sausages and dumplings) but to work off any excesses (and Slovenians wines are pretty good, too), over one third of the country is made up of national and regional parks. There are 28,000 kilometres of rivers (including the wild waters of the dramatic Soca River) and more than 1300 lakes. 

Everywhere you go you see remarkably fit looking hikers, many of them aged in their 80s and 90s. There must be something about the air.  

Whether you are a gourmet, art lover or outdoor adventurer, there is something here for just about everyone – and nowhere in the country is more than a day trip from the capital. 

Getting There
Emirates Airlines flies from Australia to Dubai 84 times per week, with daily onward connections to 35 European destinations including Istanbul, where you can connect with Adria Airlines for the flight to Ljubljana. 1300-303-777; 

Further Information 

# This is an abbreviated version of a story from Vacations & Travel Magazine: 

Wednesday 1 October 2014

So is the new Penfolds Grange as good as you've heard?

Sometimes I love my job. 

Once a year the Penfolds team invites wine writers and critics from around Australia and New Zealand to sample its new-release premium wines – including the iconic Grange.

It is invariably a swish affair. meticulously organised and attended by the great and good of wine writing (somehow I managed to snag an invite). 

So there we all were last week, sitting in reverent silence at a very swish Melbourne function space, tasting wines that most people would dream of having access to. It was an exercise in extreme indulgence - and a privilege.  

This year, for reasons I will explain, there were two Grange releases; the 2009 earlier this year and the much-vaunted 2010 – which will hit the stores on October 16.

And to help us tune our palates there were three Granges for us to taste on this occasion, the 2008, 2009 and 2010. 

The Grange is the undoubted star of the new Penfolds Collection, which is the umbrella name for the Bin Series, previously released each March, and the Luxury Collection, which used to be released each May. 

The date change, says Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago, frees up winemakers during what was a clash between vintage and the previous release dates, means the wines are more readily available to be shipped in cooler weather and will be available to consumers in the run-up to key festive periods including Christmas. And winemakers will not be diverted away from making wine to host launches around the world. 

“It is a better calendar from both a winemaking point of view and for commercial reasons, so we are delighted,” Gago says.

Leading the release is the 60th release of Grange, along with eight red wines from the stellar 2012 vintage – noted for its concentrated flavours – which is very welcome after some key wines were not released from the disappointing 2011 South Australian vintage.

Gago describes the new Grange, with his customary hyperbole, as “a kaleidoscopic sensorial unfolding” from a year “in which absolutely nothing went wrong”.

And it is undoubtedly a star: 

Penfolds 2010 Grange $785

If you've ever been tempted to splash out on a bottle of Grange as a present for someone special, or wanted to get a few mates together in a syndicate then you won't go wrong with the stunning 2010 – a wine that is quite simply spectacular, even in its youth. It is intense but marvellously balanced with a stylish dark flavour profile with blue and black fruits to the fore, beautifully integrated American oak and that superb track record for cellaring. A blend of 96 per cent shiraz and 4 per cent cabernet from five different regions in South Australia. I scored it 99/100. or maybe 99.5 on a good day.

But there are plenty of other shining light among the Bin releases – including a stunning new Yattarna Chardonnay from 2012. 

Many underline the mastery of Gago and his team in blending components from many different regions and multiple vineyards; and not all are expensive; the 2014 Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling ($30) is perfumed and has lime juice and lemon curd notes, while the Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz ($40) is a big, brooding beast, meaty, oaky and chocolatey.

The 2012 Yattarna, a blend of Tasmanian, Henty and Adelaide Hills fruit, is certainly a thing of beauty; immaculately composed with great length and depth and pristine cool-climate fruit, as you'd expect for $150.
Also check out the 2010 Bin 389 Shiraz Cabernet ($95), one that shows immense promise but needs decanting and cellaring for a decade or more. 

Other red highlights include a juicy, blackberry fruity but complex 2012 Bin 150 Marananga Shiraz ($80), a dark, intense 2012 Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon ($80) and the chic and elegant 30th vintage of Magill Estate, which is a single vineyard wine made from just 5.2 hectares of shiraz vines and is eminently cellar worthy ($150). “If only we could make more!” says Gago. 

A very special collection, then, although there was one wine that disappointed me; the Penfolds 2011 St Henri Shiraz ($80), a rather thin and weedy wine that was a reflection of its very difficult vintage. 

Concentrate on the 10s and 12s and you won't go wrong.