Book, stay, enjoy. That's

Saturday 29 November 2014

A chic seaside getaway that's perfect for a romantic weekend

There can be few seaside towns as pretty as Port Fairy, at the far end of Victoria's Great Ocean Road. 

A long-time summer holiday favourite for farming families and Melbourne high-flyers, this little gem of a town is famous for its annual folk festival. Port Fairy is popular with surfers, fishermen, cyclists and, increasingly, gourmets and luxury seekers. 
Port Fairy is a tranquil spot  

Around 290 kilometres west of Melbourne, at the point where the Moyne River enters the Southern Ocean, Port Fairy and is home to over 50 19th-century buildings classified by the National Trust. 

With a population of under 3,000, it is the home port for one of Victoria's largest fishing fleets and has been named as one of the world's most liveable small cities. 

It is also increasingly popular with lovers of fine food and wine with dining options ranging from the atmospheric Merrijig Kitchen (with one of Australia's most intriguing country wine lists); The Stag, L'Edera, Bella Claire, pizzas and cocktails at newcomer Coffin Sally or maybe a beer or two at The Caledonian Inn, the oldest continually licensed hotel in Victoria.

At the Merrijig Kitchen sample delights like Skipton smoked eel on oatcakes with kimchi and labna; grilled quail marinated in miso with daikon salad, local abalone and crispy quail; and maybe char-grilled lamb shoulder with a cous cous salad and cabbage roll. Hearty, satisfying and clever food.

And just outside town is the Basalt Wines cellar door, which serves brilliant little tapas-style meals. 

Now Port Fairy also has accommodation to satisfy even the fussiest of travellers; the adults-only luxury guest house known as Drift House. 

This beautifully restored old home just a block from the water with four luxurious suites in different styles. It is beautifully furnished and equipped (think a maxibar of gourmet treats rather than a mini bar) and within walking distance of all the restaurants and pubs.

Opened in December 2013, it is part boutique hotel, part bed and breakfast, part furnished apartment with colourful motifs, salvaged timber and bathrooms decorated with Japanese tiles. 

I stayed in suite one, which occupies the entire ground floor of the original bluestone building and has exclusive use of the verandah spanning the front of the property. 

This is just perfect for a weekend away with a loved one; featuring an open fire place, sexy bathroom with shower, solid stone bath and king-sized bed, along with kitchen facilities, a relaxing lounge area and that maxi bar with local treats. Fast wi-fi is complimentary and each suite also has a TV, DVD player, radio, iPod dock, bathrobes and coffee machine. Drift House is like a mini five-star hotel with personality. 

A breakfast hamper with eggs, bread, yoghurt and muesli, (dropped off each morning) is a great way to start the day and it is hard to resist the yo-yo biscuits found in each suite. 

There are some nice personal touches from the owners. too, like personal notes listing their favourite local eateries and attractions.

While the front of the house has an 1850s Victorian facade, the building is a clever mix of old and new - and there's an outdoor pool for summer days - although the beach is just a short walk away. 

Drift House was recently the winner of the best luxury accommodation award at the RACV Victorian Tourism Awards for 2014.

Drift House, 98 Gipps Street, Port Fairy. 0439 969 281.  Rates start from $345 per night with a special offer of a free bottle of local Basalt riesling or pinot noir for those booking through the Mr and Mrs Smith website.  

Friday 28 November 2014

Room rage: What to do when an online booking goes horribly wrong

What are your options when the "luxury" hotel you have booked online turns out to be anything but?
It was not an auspicious start. The lift containing myself and two French guests was standing stock still on the ground floor, refusing to budge.
After much pressing of buttons and bemused Gallic shrugs, it finally jerked its way into action, depositing me on the fourth floor, where the carpet looked as if AC/DC and Cold Chisel had been partying on it for the past few weeks.
My room was not much better than that carpet. Although I had requested a double room when booking, I had been allocated a hostel-style room with four single beds, covered with tired '60s-style quilts. And with no air conditioning, or fan, the room was insufferably stuffy. The choice was to open the window and let in the considerable street noise, or eventually expire from lack of oxygen.
While the bedroom was minimalist at best, the bathroom was worse; the shower had virtually zero pressure and I was left standing under a few dribbles of water. Not happy.
All this was, to a certain extent, my own fault. I'd left a free night in my London schedule and made a late booking on without taking the precaution of checking the hotel out on
But as the website claimed the rack rate for this rundown hotel in a trendy quarter of London was £500 and described the place as "luxurious", the £128.85 I paid should have made it a bargain.
It wasn't. The room was grotty, plain and simple, with free wi-fi just about the only saving grace.
And the "direct walkway" between Paddington Station and the hotel that featured in the online description was non-existent.
I've stayed in plenty of cheap hotels in my time but by leaving it late to book in an unfamiliar city that was hosting several conventions I'd put myself at the mercy of the market (lesson learned) - and a handwritten "hotel full" sign in the window told me it would be pointless asking to switch rooms.
Other rooms in the hotel may, to be fair, be much better but I wasn't going to let this disappointment pass without seeking some reimbursement.
In addition to Tweeting about my experience, and doing a TripAdvisor report, I emailed the booking service with my comments.
The initial response was not encouraging.
"It's really disappointing to hear that the service you received from Hotel [Abominable] did not meet your expectations. I'll make sure that your feedback is passed on to the hotel's management to raise their awareness. The product manager responsible for this region has also been made aware of this matter and your comments will be recorded for our future reference. If we were to find a recurring issue, the hotel's listing on our website would certainly be reviewed."
There was also the usual verbiage about how much they appreciated customer feedback etc, etc.
My email reply was to the point: "Not good enough. As I stated in my complaint, several of the statements on your website are misleading and deceptive and I demand some recompense."
I was then assured: "I have passed your email onto our Customer Relations department so they can look into this matter further."
A further Tweet finally jolted them into serious action a week later, with an email saying: "The property has confirmed if you had advised upon your arrival that you were not satisfied with the room allocated, they would have been happy to provide you with other room options. (As mentioned, the sign said they were full). Hotel management have confirmed they are in the process of updating the carpets in every room and expect to have new carpets in every room shortly. (It was the carpet in the corridor I was more concerned about)."
The email said the old building made water pressure an issue, but confirmed the hotel did not have direct access to the station via a footbridge. I was then offered a 50 per cent refund "due to the inconvenience caused".
So I got £62 back - probably paying what the room was worth. And the website removed references to "luxurious" and the non-existent footbridge from its website listing. The hotel is no longer listed.
This was a few years back and the hotel in question now claims "every room has been thoughtfully decorated to give a fresh, relaxing and warm homely atmosphere". So things may have looked up. And rooms online seem to now start from a reasonable £70 - although a TripAdvisor ranking of 828 of 1,064 hotels in London still doesn't sound too good.
Consumer advocacy group Choice advises making sure you have as much evidence as possible (photographs, conflicts between what was advertised and what was provided) before complaining.
They say you should be firm and polite with your complaint and try to get it resolved at the time, as making a complaint to Consumer Affairs can be "long and drawn out". Choice says saying exactly what you want; a refund, or a free night, gives a hotel a way out of the impasse. If you get an inadequate response you should then threaten to escalate the complaint to the hotel owner, or chain.
Choice says many hotels and restaurants make advertising claims that are "not justifiable" and the group has called for a travel industry ombudsman. "A complaints process dedicated to the travel industry would be very useful." 
Using social media to get your point home also puts pressure on the service provider as they are no doubt keen to avoid criticism in a public arena.
As it stands, anyone using an online booking service to secure accommodation overseas has very little recourse if things go wrong.
While contacting consumer affairs, or the local tourist board, might work in Australia (or at least get you heard), it is much harder once you have returned from overseas.
The British Government website DirectGov advises any items sold must be "of satisfactory quality", "fit for purpose" and "as described". The hotel clearly failed those guidelines but it would be a long and complicated process to gain satisfaction from the other side of the globe.
Similarly, you could contact your credit card provider and stop payment, saying it was "in dispute". Again, a tiresome fight would ensue.
My advice is to complain long and loud at the hotel if things are not up to scratch, or to keep the pressure up on your online booking service if they don't appear willing to resolve matters to your satisfaction. It certainly pays to stand up for your rights. 

Sunday 23 November 2014

A chic city centre hotel for $80 a night? Believe it.

City centre hotels in Australia tend to be expensive. Particularly in major cities like Sydney and Melbourne. where you can easily spend $250-300 a night. 

Hobart, the delightfully laid-back capital of Tasmania, is rather more affordable, with choices like the Hotel Collins and Grand Chancellor often available at on line booking sites like for around $135-145 in the off-peak seasons. 

During peak times, including the Taste of Tasmania Festival, MOFO and the Wooden Boat Festival, it can be hard to find anywhere to stay at all - let alone on a budget.

Which is why anyone visiting Hobart, or Tasmanian locals who don't want to have to drive home after a big night out, should mark The Alabama Hotel into their little black books. 

The Alabama has been open for around 12 months now - and its virtues have largely been spread by word of mouth. Rooms here start from $80 a night and larger, more comfortable rooms cost $100. That's a flat rate, so it pays to book early before the Alabama gets booked out, as it often does. 

In Liverpool Street, in the city centre, the Alabama re-opened late in 2013 after being closed for a decade. The building was erected in the late 1830s but didn’t open as a hotel until 1867, while the art deco facade was probably added in the 1930s.

It describes itself as a "boutique budget hotel" filling the gap in the accommodation market between a backpackers' hostel and a chain hotel. 

There are 17 rooms, each different, styled with original artworks, vintage touches and very comfortable beds. The retro-chic rooms are clean, comfortable and secure, but don't expect flat-screen TVs, iPod docks and fluffy robes. 

"By keeping the layout as it is, we can keep our rates lower for guests and maintain our “boutique budget” descriptor," the owners say. 

There is, however, fast and free wi-fi, a very comfortable lounge and bar area and helpful staff. The lounge bar, with a lovely balcony, serves quality beers, wines and spirits but does not sell cocktails or shots and closes at 9pm. It's a great spot for a pre-dinner drink. 

The setback, and you knew there was one coming, is that there are no en suite bathrooms - but shower and toilet facilities are shared - which, in my book, is fine for one or two nights is less than ideal for a week. 

Cosy standard queen-bed rooms are priced at $80 per night, twin rooms at $90 and deluxe queens, with a view down Liverpool Street, are $100. There's no suites. The rooms overlooking the street can be a little noisy, so it pays to choose your room with care. 

I loved the vibe of the place, its location and the obvious pride the staff have. It's a little gem if you can live without your own bathroom, and want to spend less money on a bed and more on Tasmania's outstanding food and wine.

Alabama Hotel, Level 1, 72 Liverpool Street, Hobart, Tasmania. 0499 987 698.


Friday 21 November 2014

People of the Vines: What you need to know about Launceston and the Tamar Valley

Drive up to the Holm Oak cellar door and you might well find it deserted. Hang around for a few minutes and winemaker Bec Duffy may wander in after blending some parcels of pinot noir. Or you may have to hit your car horn a couple of times to alert her viticulturist husband Tim, who will drive in from the vineyards on his tractor.
The Tamar Valley is one of Australia's most relaxed wine regions, where everything moves at a country Tasmanian pace. Or has – until now.
Holm Oak cellar door
During the 2014 vintage, a traumatic one with reduced yields for most grape growers, a TV crew led by wine writer Tyson Stelzer ranged around the district following the trials, tribulations and triumphs of six winemaking teams; Natalie Fryar at Jansz (who has since departed), Bec and Tim Duffy at Holm Oak, Fran Austin and her husband Shane Holloway from Delamere, former first-class cricketer Joe Holyman from Stoney Rise, Jeremy Dineen from Josef Chromy and Tom Wallace from Tamar Ridge.
The Tamar Valley Wine Region is actually three regions in one – all of which are a short drive from Tasmania's second city of Launceston. The Tamar Valley lies to the north, Pipers River to the north-east and Relbia to the south.
Although there are plenty of cellar doors and a handful of winery restaurants, the Tamar is largely undeveloped in terms of mass tourism. There are no chain hotels or mass-market fast food restaurants outside Launceston city.
“People now are starting to get a good understanding about food and wine tourism in regional Tasmania, and it’s a whole new ball game for smaller vineyards,” says Shane Holloway of Delamere. “We have no idea what changes, if any, may follow the screening of this program.”
Where there is a reality TV show, tourists follow, however, and there is much to enjoy in and around the vineyards and the city of Launceston itself.
The biggest cellar doors in the region include Tamar Ridge, Josef Chromy, Bay of Fires, the Jansz Wine Room and Pipers Brook Vineyard but there are also several smaller, family-owned producers worth visiting.
As the Tamar is a cool-climate region, visitors can expect to find sparkling wines, chardonnays, pinot noirs, and aromatic whites like sauvignon blanc, riesling and pinot gris.
Moores Hill, Goaty Hill, Leaning Church, Delamere, Sinapius, Stoney Rise, Marion's Vineyard, Native Point, Holm Oak and Winter Brook all offer boutique hospitality, while it is worth making an appointment to visit idiosyncratic Grey Sands. New producers Wines for Joanie opened this week.
Cellar door pening times can vary seasonally, so it does pay to check ahead whether the tasting room you want to visit will be open.
Visitors can follow around 170 kilometres of trails marked by yellow and blue “Wine Route” road signage and several small producers, including Gryphonwood, Sharmans and Humbug Reach, offer tastings at the award-winning Harvest Market held every Saturday morning.
People from the Tamar and surrounding farming regions sell gourmet cheeses, locally-grown organic vegetables, fruit, herbs, flowers and plants, pasture-raised pork and farmed rabbits.
Josef Chromy, with a top-notch restaurant specialising in Tasmanian produce; Velo Wines, with a delightful vineyard cafe; and Tamar Ridge's Rosevears cellar door, offering local platters, are the best places to break your journey for a meal.
Settled in 1806, Launceston is one of Australia's oldest cities and is home to many historic buildings. It was named after Launceston in Cornwall and retains a very English feel. Many of the buildings in the CBD date back to the 19th and early 20th centuries and there are several well-preserved Victorian and Georgian homes. Low-rise buildings dominate and there are many leafy, and sometimes hilly, side streets.
The Seaport precinct on the CBD fringe is lively with its marina, cafes, restaurants and river boardwalk, while spectacular Cataract Gorge, with its chairlift rides, the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery and City Park with its Japanese macaque monkeys are all popular leisure destinations.

Launceston is home to several excellent restaurants including Stillwater, Black Cow Bistro (which specialises in Tasmanian grass-fed steaks), Pierre's, Smokey Joe's Creole Cafe, Mud, Brisbane Street Bistro, Me Wah and the Terrace at Country Club Tasmania.
For kicking back and relaxing, PX Tapas, Burger Got Soul, Elaia Cafe, the Red Brick Cider House and Saint John are all popular with locals, while the James Boag Centre for beer lovers offers regular brewery tours and tastings. Garden of Vegan and Fresh offer vegetarian options.
Josef Chromy Wines
Launceston is also home to one of Australia's most quirky gourmet stores; Davies Grand Central, where you can buy petrol and papers, deli goods and local wines 24 hours a day. So if you need a slice of quiche, or a good bottle of Tamar Valley pinot noir at 3am, no problem.
Another top destination for visitors wanting to take a few bottles home is the Pinot Shop, which features a wide range of boutique Tasmanian wines – including the producers featured on the show.
Launceston Travel & Information Centre. 1800 651 827.
Tamar Valley Wine Route:
The Hatherley Birrell Collection offers a choice of five styles of luxury apartments in Launceston, within a short drive of the vineyards. All are beautifully decorated and offer the most upmarket accommodation in town. Check out the two chic new garden pavilions. Other good options include the Hotel Charles, Peppers Seaport and Balmoral on York. 
People of the Vines is broadcast nationally on TEN at 1pm on Saturdays. 
# The writer was assisted by Tourism Tasmania and hosted by the Hatherley Birrell Collection and a version of this story originally appeared at

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Back on the rails: One of Tasmania's most dramatic travel experiences

After months of uncertainty, followed by grindingly slow bureaucratic meanderings, Tasmania’s West Coast Wilderness Railway is moving full steam ahead in time for the peak summer tourism season. 

The steam train, which travels between the coastal fishing port of Strahan and the mining town of Queenstown of Tasmania's west coast, has launched two new itineraries for passengers keen to explore the rugged and largely untamed countryside - and the steepest rail line in the Southern Hemisphere. 

A restoration of the Mount Lyell Mining line built in 1896 to export copper from Queenstown, the 34.5 kilometre line was a feat of remarkable engineering but was closed in 1969. 

Reopened as tourist attraction in 2002, it features new carriages fitted out with Tasmanian native timbers and modelled on the original carriages.
It closed again last year after the operators handed in their license following damage to part of the track. 
Now backed by the state government, the Wilderness Railway boasts four steam locomotives, including ABT 1, which dates back to 1896. 
They are used to pull the train, which crosses the King River and several dramatic rainforest gorges, using a rack-and-pinion system to conquer the steep gradients.
The journey has been described as one of the world’s few remaining authentic railway experiences and passengers are able to disembark at fascinating old mining settlements.

From December 15, the Queenstown Explorer will depart on Mondays and Tuesday mornings from Strahan’s original harbourside Regatta Point station returning to Strahan around 6pm.

During the trip, guests will have the chance to explore the historic mining town of Queenstown and to try their luck panning for gold. 

The Queenstown Explorer experience is available for $149 per adult and $65 per child or $335 for a family of up to two adults and two children in a heritage carriage.

More upmarket are the wilderness carriages, which cost $195 per adult and $110 per child with sparkling wine on arrival, morning tea, buffet lunch and afternoon tea. 

For visitors looking for a shorter journey, the new half day River and Rainforest experience starts operation on December 17. 

This afternoon journey, available Wednesday to Friday, offers a relaxing ride from Strahan (pictured below), taking in harbour views as the locomotive follows the foreshore and then the river as it journeys deep into the wilderness. 

Heritage carriage tickets are available for $95 per adult and $40 per child or $220 for a family of up to two adults and two children. 

Or guests can enjoy the luxury of a first-class experience for $135 per adult and $70 per child which includes seats in a balcony carriage, sparkling wine or juice on arrival and a delicious high tea served during the journey.

West Coast Wilderness Railway general manager Michael Saville said the new experiences follow an extensive upgrade of the track.

“We are thrilled to be able to offer passengers the chance to experience the complete railway experience which makes up an important historical part of Tasmania’s West Coast," he said, pinpointing an injection of around $12 million from the former Federal Government and the Tasmanian State Government. 

Around 12,000 sleepers, many kilometres of track and one of the 40 bridges have been replaced. Having enjoyed the journey in the railway's previous incarnation I can strongly recommend it. 

For information and bookings on the West Coast Wilderness Railway phone (03) 6471 0100, visit, or email

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Every gourmet region needs a boutique hotel like this one

Choosing a boutique hotel in a gourmet region of country Australia can be a process fraught with danger. 

Many rural Australian properties promise a lot more than they can deliver; sometimes offering untrained staff, rooms that need a good renovation (although they look good on the website) and restaurants that are only open on certain days of the week, or when guest numbers are high enough. Otherwise it can be pub grub or no grub. 

That's why staying at Lindenwarrah in Milawa, north-east Victoria, last weekend, was such a pleasure - and pleasant surprise.

From a cheerful check-in to excellent buffet breakfast and well-equipped rooms, thoughtful touches like a personalised greeting card in the rooms, jars of colourful macarons and umbrellas at the ready when it was raining, this is a boutique hotel that gets the details right.

Part of the Lancemore Group, Lindenwarrah was opened across the road from Brown Brothers in 2001. It is an ideal base from which to explore the Milawa Gourmet Region and the neighbouring King Valley - and is less than three hours' drive from Melbourne and just a short detour from the Hume Highway linking Melbourne and Sydney. 

There are 40 guest rooms here, an on-site restaurant and bar, a swimming pool and day spa. The reception staff are a fount of local knowledge and can recommend the best local cellar doors and eateries.

Staff are generally alert. I noticed the breakfast buffet was constantly being monitored to make sure nothing ran out, and a request for an extra bath towel proved no problem. 

The only complaint I had was a very minor one; insufficient morning newspapers when the hotel was busy at the weekend. 

Restaurant Merlot, overlooking vineyards, is open daily for breakfast (which runs until 10am at weekends) and for dinner every night bar Monday serving "modern Australian cuisine". There is a range of local wines by the glass. 

The buffet breakfasts were excellent (the mushrooms are outstanding) and there are bicycles for hire to work off any excesses.

There is free wi-fi throughout the property (great to see) and a good selection of brochures and travel magazines. 

Rooms overlook either the vines or a garden with ponds; and several share a balcony area with chairs that are perfect for taking in the sunset with a good book. All have king-size beds, high ceilings and modern furniture, writing desks, flat-screen TVs and mini bars. 

Lindenwarrah, Milawa-Bobinawarrah Road, Milawa, Victoria. 
(03) 5720 5777.



Monday 17 November 2014

A new Bali resort offers bargain introductory rates

A brand new luxury hotel in Bali for around $80 per couple per night, including all taxes? 

Usually if something something sounds too good to be true that means it is too good to be true, but this offer comes from the respected Accor group, so I am passing on the info without having reviewed the hotel. 

Mercure Bali Legian is the largest four-star hotel in Legian Kelod and opens for business on December 7 with an opening rate of 888,000 IDR per night per room, including 21% taxes

That's around $80 per couple per night at current exchange rates, making the first night virtually free following the abolition of the absurd rip-off that was the Visa on Arrival scheme for Australians. 

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

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

Some of the 321 rooms have their own private plunge pools while others come with over-sized decks overlooking either the lobby sculpture or pool area.

Upgrade to a Deluxe room for only 200,000 IDR (around $20 at current exchange rates) during the opening special period and get a room with large private balcony.

The hotel also offers free wi-fi, a fitness centre, kids club, spa and business centre and each room has international power sockets, air conditioning, tea and coffee making facilities and in-room safe.

There is a free hop on-hop off shuttle service to key Bali drop-off points.

Rooms cost from 888,000 IDR or with breakfast for two for 908.000 IDR. I'm told the prices are low because the hotel is not yet on the Accor booking system and is being promoted largely by social media and word of mouth.  

For special pre-opening “Mates Rates” that can be booked until March 31, 2015, email directly to

As an exclusive offer to the first 100 Australians that book this “Mates Rate” they will get a free 20-minute Balinese massage or a foot massage in the Lavare Spa. 

Bookings can be made from now until March 31 for travel until June 2015 with some black-out dates over Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

Thursday 13 November 2014

Hobart gets a new dining hot spot with a South American accent

It has been open for less than two weeks but Hobart's latest dining sensation, Frank, is packed to the rafters and rocking the town with South American-style dishes and a stylish global wine list. 

Kif Weber, one of the brains behind Smolt, and originally Launceston's Mud, says: "If we are going to have a go at this we are going to have a proper go." And this place with its modern decor and buzzing atmosphere has taken off in a hurry.

Frank is situated on Franklin Wharf, across the road from Fish Frenzy and T42, and is open seven days a week for both lunch and dinner. The better tables have water views, but it doesn't really matter where you sit. The vibe is the thing. 

Unlike many Hobart restaurants, Frank will keep its kitchen open until 11pm most nights, offering a rare late-night dining experience, but locals are just as welcome to pop in for a pre-dinner scallop empanada and a glass of refreshing torrontes. 

Frank aims to cater for a wide range of tastes; and on the evidence of our Wednesday night visit it is likely to please most of them. 

The service is friendly and slick, the waitrons make every effort to accurately describe unfamiliar dishes and the with early Led Zep on the sound system the place is cranking. Tables range from a well-known food reviewer for the national paper, a Hobart city alderman and his group of four and a family who look like infrequent diners out but are clearly having a ball. 

On the advice of the astute duo from we got there as soon as we could - and were told the place has been busy from day one. So make sure to book. 
The seafood ceviche is a standout
Asado - grilled meats - and Australian/South American fusion dishes are the go-to items here with their sweet, smoky flavours. 

Several of the dishes are designed to be shared, but we opted for traditional starters and mains. The prawn, scallop and white fish ceviche with "leche de tigre" - lime juice, fish juice and spices ($21) - was outstanding; a melt in the mouth experience. 

While a tad chewy, the grilled octopus with "causa, pebre salsa and coriander" ($20) was flavoursome and interesting. The Peruvian dish causa is apparently a cold mashed potato salad.

When it comes to mains, the focus is firmly on grass-fed Cape Grimm beef (and maybe soon some free-range, organically-raised Huon Valley beasts), using some of the lesser-known cuts that are much appreciated in Argentina and Uruguay. 
Rich, juicy beef cuts are a speciality

We opted for two rich cuts, a small hanger steak ($21.50) and a flat-iron steak ($27), each rich and textural and demanding some chewing action. Both were served with spicy chimichurri and salsa picante sauces. 

The crispy potatoes with salsa criolla ($8), proved a mighty accompaniment and while our charred vegetables, tomatillo and apple salsa with goat curd turned into a green salad, it didn't seem to matter that much. Frank is that sort of place - you just go with the flow. 

There is an an excellent wine, selection, too. Beers and cocktails as well; served with spiced mixed nuts that are dangerously moreish. 

There are the funky wines from producers like Jauma and Taras Ochota for those so inclined, but also an excellent selection of both Tasmanian and South American selections, along with options like Bowen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon for those looking for something more mainstream. 

Check out whites like the Don David 2013 Torrontes, or the Catena 2012 Chardonnay, both from Mendoza in Argentina, or a selection of malbecs and carmeneres from Argentina and Chile, or opt, maybe, for a Glaetzer-Dixon 2013 Mon Pere Shiraz. 

With so many great choices by the glass, we hardly bothered to look at the well-considered bottle list. 

Next time. And there definitely will be a next time. 

Frank, 1 Franklin Wharf, Hobart. (03) 6231 5005. 


Wednesday 12 November 2014

Hotels and resorts find another way to rip off their guests

"Resort fees."

It sounds an innocuous enough phrase but it is the latest way for US hotels and resorts to rip off their guests - legally.

If you book into one of the major hotels in Las Vegas, for instance, you will be quoted a price for the room for the night. Say $250.

Except that you will also be slugged up to $28 per night, every night, for what the hotels call "resort fees".

These charges cover wi-fi access, local telephone calls, newspapers, and use of the hotels’ pools and fitness centres. The fee is non-negotiable, even if a guest does not use any of the services, the Los Angeles Times reports.

So even if you don't want wi-fi, or don't intend to swim in the pool: tough luck. You'll be paying whether you want it or not.

Unlike US airlines, which now must include the total price, including taxes and fees upfront, hotels along the Las Vegas strip continue to display a base price that’s lower than what a guest eventually pays. The rort started in the 1990s and is now common in Florida, Hawaii and the Caribbean, as well as in Nevada.

It's all unadvertised, hidden away in the small print and totally legal. And what happens in the US eventually spreads around the world, right?

The resort fee will now be $25 per room per night at all eight properties under the Caesars Entertainment banner, and is $28 at properties such as Aria, Bellagio and Delano, the LA Times says.

Stay a week, and add in the outrageousness of being expected to tip up to 20% to every waiter or bellboy that comes within cooee and that US holiday is suddenly looking a whole lot more expensive.

The official Las Vegas website says: "In Vegas, 15 to 20 percent of the total bill is a good rule of thumb for tipping." 

But punch the words "resort fees" into the website search box and nothing appears. Zilch.

It's a dirty little secret no one wants to talk about.

And to think the hotel industry used to be called "the hospitality industry".

Friday 7 November 2014

A small Tasmanian family wine label is taking on the big guys - and winning

It is a little known fact that a small family-owned vineyard in the Derwent Valley, just north of Hobart, is the major provider of chardonnay for the iconic Penfolds Yattarna, which retails for around $120 a bottle. 

The Hanigan family, who have farmed their Mt Nassau property at Granton for five generations, cannot ask that kind of money for their Derwent Estate wines just yet - but they are closing in quickly with the new-release Calcaire 2011 Chardonnay retailing for $65. 

Andrew Hanigan in the new winery 

The unveiling of a new range of "reserve" wines completes a remarkable two years for Trevor and Pat Hanigan and their viticulturist son Andrew. 

The Hanigans have been working the land since 1913; farming sheep and cattle, growing vegetables, seed crops, poppies and quarrying for lime. They only planted grapes in 1993 and found the limestone-based alluvial soils and riverbank micro-climate proved ideal for producing top quality fruit. 

Planted with pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling, pinot gris and sauvignon blanc, their vineyards are treated with minimal intervention; insecticides and invasive pesticides are avoided whenever possible.
Much of the fruit from their vines was initially sold to mainland companies; including Penfolds, McWilliam’s and Accolade Wines, but they are now keeping more and more grapes for their own labels as they struggle to meet demand for their cool-climate wines. 

The Hanigans last week held an open day to mark the official opening of their new 600 square metre straw-bale winery and barrel room which was first used for the 2014 vintage after experienced winemaker John Schuts joined the team as a business partner.  
The Derwent Estate vineyards are spectacular
The family do all the vineyard work themselves; hand pruning, shoot thinning and hand picking in a bid to ensure maximum quality. The wines were initially made at Winemaking Tasmania by Schuts, but now everything is done in house. "We have total control," says Andrew Hanigan.
A cellar door tasting facility and a possible conference venue are next in the pipeline - and will offer superb views over the Derwent Valley. 
The new Calcaire range, named after the vineyard's calcareous soil, comprises a pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling from the stellar 2011 vintage. 
"We went the whole way," says Andrew Hanigan. "We took extra care at pruning, threw in extra shoot thinning passes, we cut off 30% of the fruit, we leaf plucked to allow extra sunlight penetration, we trimmed any green wings off every bunch at veraison, carefully hand harvesting, and hand sorting every bunch to remove anything that wasn't 100% perfect."

The new chardonnay has already shone on the show circuit, scoring 97 points and being named best Tasmanian Chardonnay at the 2013 James Halliday Chardonnay Challenge. 
With just 10 hectares of vines at the moment, Derwent Estate is in the fortunate position of demand outstripping supply right now. And a cider range, known as Ebenezer, has been added to the range of drinks on offer.
"It is an exciting time," says Andrew Hanigan with a degree of understatement. 

Monday 3 November 2014

A beginners' guide to Ljubljana: one of Europe's most fascinating capitals

I'm sitting at one of several dozen riverside cafes sipping on a large, cold glass of Human Fish, one of the very tasty local boutique beers. I'm surrounded by a young, laid back crowd, many enjoying white wine made from local pinela or zelen grapes, or taking advantage of the city-wide free wi-fi.

They are a friendly crowd, and happy to offer some tips to a visitor. No one seems in a hurry.

It may be hard to spell and even more difficult to pronounce, but Ljubljana is one of Europe's prettiest and most accessible cities. Home to just under 300,000 people, nearly all of its major attractions are found in an easily traversed pedestrianised zone on the banks of the delightful Ljubljanica River.

Slovenia's urbane capital, which is this year celebrating its 2000th birthday, reminds one of Prague before the crowds descended, or perhaps Vienna. That's no coincidence as all three cities bear the imprint of the Slovenian architect and urban planner Joze Plecnik.

This historic and lively city (there are more than 50,000 student residents) is dotted with cafes, riverside eateries and markets and has long been a trade crossroads of Central Europe.
Founded in Roman times as the settlement of Emona, Ljubljana is today one of the most progressive cities in the former Yugoslavia (Slovenia has been independent since 1991) and was recently named as European Green Capital for 2016 by the European Commission.

It could also be a contender for hippest capital thanks to innovations like Metelkova, a notorious former squat that is now an alternative nightlife venue in the style of Berlin, the award-winning new Vander Urbani Hotel with a rooftop plunge pool overlooking the rooftops of the old city, and Hostel Celica, budget accommodation in what was previously a military prison, bars on the doors and all.

What hits first-timers to Ljubljana is how easy it is to get to – and how relaxed the vibe is. Nearly everyone seems to speak English and have time for a coffee or a beer in this old city full of vibrant young people (the average age is just 30).

Many of those sitting at the cafes this sunny afternoon are heading off to a free open-air classical music performance (one of many held during summer). Most have arrived on foot or by bike, this being a very environmentally friendly city.

Ljubljana is easy to get around - and the old city is mercifully quiet with all motor vehicles banned; except for motorised golf carts that transport the old and infirm. It also feels very safe and that free wi-fi is invaluable for those who wish to Tweet, Facebook and Instagram their experiences.

The iconic Ljubljana Castle, with elements dating back to the 12th and 15th centuries, towers over the city and is most easily reached via a funicular railway with its base in Krek's Square. The castle offers spectacular views for those willing to climb a few stairs to the belvedere tower.

The National Museum of Slovenia was founded in 1821 and is also worth a visit, but Ljubljana, with its mix of Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture, is also a city that rewards the casual stroller or cyclists, who can get around on a bike using the Bicikelj bike-sharing system.

Walk or cycle along the banks of the Ljubljanica River and admire arts and crafts that local artists sell from makeshift stalls. I picked up some delightful pottery figures by Igor Spreizer, who describes himself as an “outsider artist”.

Visit the outdoor and indoor parts of the central market to buy some local gourmet treats, or pick up a boat at the Breg Riverbank in the city and enjoy a relaxing river cruise past many of the city’s major sites (make sure to see the historic Dragon Bridge and the Triple bridges, the centre-point of the old city).

Regular guided tours featuring all the city's highlights depart from in front of the Town Hall and are conducted in Slovenian and English. Also make time to visit Tivoli Park, which extends right into the city and is home to several museums and galleries.

One thing is certain: visitors will eat heartily in Ljubljana. The locals are fond of sausages, schnitzels and other warming Central European dishes, while breads, cakes, soups and dumplings all play major roles on local menus.

Try the historic restaurant Spajza (eat inside in one of several small rooms, or outside in a delightful garden) for dishes including an appetiser of cheek of young colt (maybe not for everyone but horse is a staple in Slovenia, along with boiled beef tongue and frog legs).

More mainstream choices are smoked trout with horseradish terrine and veal medallions with local mushrooms (another staple). Also make time for some struklji, local dumplings made in over 80 different styles, both sweet and savoury, but typically using cottage cheese or baked apples.
If time is tight, a range of Slovenian dishes and drinks can be enjoyed at the “Open Kitchen” Market (left), an al fresco market held every Friday at Pogańćarjev trg next to the river.

Wine lovers will enjoy the Vinoteka Movia wine bar and the Dvorni, both ideal places to sample a range of local wines (there are three separate wine regions in Slovenia, while other good eating options include TODZ Cafe, Compa, AS Aperitivno, JB, Taverna Tatjana and the quite touristy but very welcoming Julija.

For suggestions, grab hold of a copy of the English language booklet Taste Ljubljana, which traces the history of cuisine in the city and surrounding areas, with stories behind individual dishes, and their recipes, or join a visit to several foodie spots organised by Ljubljana Food Tour ( for E35.

Each year the city hosts over 10,000 cultural events and Ljubljana is home to 14 museums, 45 galleries, 10 theatres and four professional orchestras but is far from staid. There is a lively ambiance just about everywhere you go and you are just as likely to find a Deep Purple or rap concert as an opera performance. Ljubljana has been accurately described as “a small city with the facilities of a metropolis”.

Ljubljana is within a few hours drive of major cities including Venice, Munich, Vienna and Zagreb, making it a short side trip for anyone visiting neighbouring Italy, Croatia, Austria or Hungary, while the surrounding countryside ranges from snow-capped peaks to wild green-blue rivers, with a short coastline on the Adriatic sea. Something for everyone.

How to get there

Emirates flies from Australia to Dubai 84 times per week, with daily onward connections to 35 European destinations. 1300 303 777 or
Where to stay

Probably the funkiest address is the Vander Urbani Resort in the heart of the old town (pictured below) A good budget option outside the city centre is the modern Plaza Hotel

Essential reading

Head to or for up-to-date local info.

# The author was assisted by Visit Slovenia and the Plaza Hotel. This is a version of a story that originally appeared in Sunday Life magazine.