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Friday 30 January 2015

Slovenia: A rewarding destination for beer lovers

I am sitting at one of the many open-air bars and cafés overlooking the Ljubljanica river, sipping on a glass of delicious Human Fish pale ale.

It is one of several boutique brews to be found in the postage stamp-sized Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, which is attracting more and more beer lovers.

Ljubljana offers a diverse selection of domestic and foreign beers in its numerous beer bars, pubs and specialised shops and while it is not yet a rival to Munich, it is a very agreeable spot in which to enjoy a brew or two.

Although wine is the favoured beverage in this tiny country, the Slovenian tradition of brewing and beer bars dates back to the 17th century and the popular Union Brewery celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2014.

Union is one of the two largest breweries in Slovenia with its own brewery museum, which is one of the largest in Europe. The other is Lasko, which is under the same ownership but is brewed in the town of Lasko and is more popular in country areas

Other craft producers include Human Fish, Kratochwill, Pelicon and Bevog.

Started in 2008 by Australian native Matthew Charlesworth, Human Fish is Slovenia’s first and foremost craft brewer. The name comes from a creature that dwells in the subterranean waters of the country's famous karst caves. It is based in the town of Slovenj Gradec, north of Ljubljana.

Visitors can enjoy local beers in any of the numerous pubs in the bustling Ljubljana city centre or join up with the Ljubljananjam group and discover the latest bars and beer nooks in the capital.

There are several micro breweries in and around Ljubljana and the city also has a specialised beer shop in Pivoljub; featuring beers from around the world, including from Belgium, Scotland, the Netherlands, the US and Germany.

The Union brewery established its museum in 1987 and is in the attic of an old malt house. It is open on weekdays between 8am-1pm - and that's an early start even for most beer lovers. 

For more information on visiting Slovenia and Ljubljana go to or see  

Wednesday 28 January 2015

A Melbourne hotel that's right at the centre of the party action

The initial signs were not good. The shrieking and giggling from down the corridor suggested a group of teens had decided that rooms at the Crown Metropol Hotel were the perfect location for their party. 

But once I closed my bedroom door, the soundproofing proved more than adequate, shutting out not only the pubescent party-goers but also any noise from people traversing the corridors on their way to and from the adjacent Crown Casino. 

The operators of the Crown Metropole not only have location, location, location on their side, but also understand that there is a time for partying and a time for sleeping. No sounds from the next door bathroom - and blackout curtains that make it possible to doze at any time of the day or night. 

Truth be told I'm not a huge fan of large corporate hotels. Many of them can be soulless and sterile. But I've stayed at the Crown Metropol on four or five occasions now and it does the job pretty well.

Described as "urban oasis", Crown Metropol is on the Southbank, well positioned for shopping, gambling, eating out or football at the Docklands Stadium. 

It is home to the ISIKA day spa, expensive like most Australian hotel spa facilities, but offering a wide range of treatments. There is also a sizeable swimming pool.  

Crown Metropol tests the patience by charging for in-room wi-fi, an anachronism nowadays, but appears to have resolved its check-in/check-out issues, which have been chaotic in the past but were a breeze this time. 

Less impressive was the fact I had to alert staff to the fact someone (possibly an over-excited teen) had left a hefty deposit of pavement pizza in the lift foyer area on level 11. The detritus did not look fresh, either. 

Mr Hive Kitchen and Bar, a relaxed fun space with casual food, is the signature restaurant for Crown Metropol but there are countless choices nearby, including Guillaume for French food, Rockpool Bar and Grill (try the wagyu burger with a glass of pinot), Nobu and Spice Temple - and Heston Blumenthal is on his way (yawn). There is also a food court with all the usual suspects.

Try to gain entrance to Level 28, home of the Skybar and where some lucky residents get to enjoy free pre-dinner drinks each evening in a clubby atmosphere. 

Not that the Crown complex is short of bars - but the views from level 28 are pretty spectacular. 

The bedrooms at Crown Metropol are very comfortable in a bland, five-star kind of way. Big beds, chunky pillows, good bathrooms with separate toilet and shower (although no bath in my room), good selection of TV channels and a desk with plenty of workspace. No turndown service, however.

There are 658 rooms and suites over 25 levels in total (with not quite enough lifts at peak times), starting from $268 a night. Staff are friendly and helpful, so that's not a bad deal.  

Crown Metropol, 8 Whiteman Street, Crown Towers, Southbank, VIC 3006. (03) 9292 8888.


Monday 26 January 2015

How much is too much for a fast-food meal combo?

The last time I visited McDonald's - which is not something I do particularly often - I was a little taken aback. The cost of a Big Mac combo meal, with a medium fries and a medium coke, is now nudging $10. 

And while the food at Macca's may be fast - that doesn't make it all that cheap. It's maybe just as well I only visit a handful of times a year, while seldom venturing into a Hungry Jacks's (that's what they call Burger King in Australia) or snacking on the delights of a fattened battery chicken at KFC; although I must confess an occasional craving for Nando's. 

The other night in Melbourne, however, I'd had a long day and was keen to get back to my hotel room to catch the tail-end of a tennis match at the Australian Open on TV. 

That meant I was in a hurry and did not want to stray outside the Crown complex where I was staying. 

And that, too, was OK because the food court had a new name to me: Schnitz. 

Schnitz was founded by restaurateur and café owner Roman Dyduk in Melbourne eight years ago and he and his family and are now "spreading the Schnitz love to the rest of Australia and eventually the world". 

Good idea. 

The Schnitz brochure proclaims that all the company's schnitzels, served in rolls or wraps, are hand-made in store using 100% real meat, pan-fried in "fresh, cholesterol-free vegetable oil" and that there is no use of microwaves at all.

The menu runs from sandwiches to salads, schnitzel meals and snacks and salads. 

I opted for a Hawaii Five-O roll, which comprised schnitzel, tasty cheese, rindless bacon, pineapple and barbecue relish, which cost $11.90. But throw in a small combo of 300mls of soft drink and a small chips for $5.50 and $1 for a small tub of sweet chilly mayo and I was handed a bill for $18.40 - and given just small change from a lobster (local slang for a $20 note).

That seemed a lot for a fast food meal where you sit in a food court and are given plastic knives and forks, even if your meal is brought to you when cooked.

The sandwich wasn't bad, although it could have been delivered a little warmer. The chips, described as "diamond-cut and beer-battered Tasmanian russet potatoes", were flavoursome enough but a little soggy. 

All in all I felt it was a very reasonable meal, but I was more than a little taken aback by the price tag. Or maybe I'm just old-fashioned and $20 is the new $10 when it comes to fast food. 

The Schnitz people must be doing something right. There are currently 32 Australian outlets, almost all in Victoria, but with expansion into New South Wales on the way. Franchises are being sold, international outlets have been talked about.

Rolls and wraps start at $9.50 for the basic model, and then range through the likes of "the American Dream", "Swiss Schnitz" and the wonderfully cross cultural "Fiery Turban" to the top-of-the-range "Protein-Packed" at $15.90, which takes you way over the $20 mark for a meal combo. 

With many of the outlets fully licensed, it is clear the market is adults as much as children. 

I will be fascinated to see whether expansion continues apace as there is clearly a hungry market for chicken, beef, fish and even vegetarian schnitzels. Whether there will be price resistance remains to be seen - after all you can buy a small schnitzel for $1 at many butcher's shops. 

For more information visit



Friday 23 January 2015

Some countries do free and fast wi-fi well; but not Australia or the US

If you've stayed in an Australian hotel recently you'll probably be aware that the wi-fi probably isn't free, and almost certainly isn't fast. 

It is still common in Australia for hotels and motels to charge up to $30 a day for access to wi-fi that is marginally faster than dial-up speed. 

Slowly but surely, more hotels, from chains like Rydges and Hyatt to boutiques like the Balmoral on York in Launceston, are offering free wif-fi for all guests. But it has been a long, slow road with much resistance from hoteliers. 

And the news is no better in the United States. According to a new survey announced by HotelWiFiTest this week, most countries have higher quality hotel wi-fi than the US. 

In this report, wi-fi quality is expressed by the percentage of hotels that offer adequate wi-fi quality in a given geographical area. For most travellers, having super-fast and consistently stable wi-fi is a bonus, but their first priority is that basic quality expectations for Internet access are met.
The free w-fi percentage is calculated as a ratio of hotels that offer free in-room. Hotels that offer free wi-fi only in public areas are not counted as hotels with free wi-fi.
So which country comes out on top from this global survey? South Korea. It is the leader in hotel wi-fi quality (92%) by a healthy margin of 7.1% to the second-best country: Japan.
In terms of quality then come Ukraine, Switzerland, Romania, Hong Kong, Sweden, Norway, Taiwan and Hungary. 
And if you want to be almost certain that you are not going to be hit with wi-fi charges, then Scandinavia is your best bet of the 50 major nations surveyed, with 92.4% of hotels in Norway and 91% in Sweden offering in room wi-fi free of charge. 
And how does Australia rate? Not well, as you might expect. It comes in 24th of 50 with quality at just over 50% and availability of free wi-fi rated at a surprisingly high 42.1%. 
That compares extremely unfavourably with places like Thailand (72.4%) and Vietnam, where an all-nations high of 95.2% of hotels offer free wi-fi. 
If you are looking for both quality and free wi-fi, Stockholm and Budapest are among your best bets.
Unfortunately, in Australia (and the US, where quality hovers around 40%) we still have a very long way to go to match South-East Asia, where free wi-fi in hotels and cafes, often very fast, is almost de rigueur.
“Internet connectivity is no longer an amenity. It has become an integral part of travellers’ daily lives and a basic expectation,” says Hyatt vice-president of brands, Kristine Rose, whose chain will have free wi-fi globally by next month. 
“Travellers shouldn't have to remember which brands or locations offer it for free or the strings attached to get it.”
Amen to that.   

Wednesday 21 January 2015

What the hell is "natural" wine? And will you like it?

A couple of visiting friends were dining at one of Tasmania's icon restaurants recently. They loved the food but were bewildered by the wine list.

“Why?” they asked, were there so few Tasmanian wines on the list. I had to advise them that this particular restaurant (and it is a growing trend globally) has a list composed almost entirely of “natural” wines.

Now natural wines are an acquired taste; some can taste “funky” or “oxidised” or “flat”, or maybe exciting, depending on your viewpoint. 

Many sommeliers consider them to be the peak of vinous chic and cram as many obscure examples from around the world onto their lists as possible.

This can make choosing wine a minefield for the unwary. An easy solution would be to have a separate section on each list for devotees, but that doesn't happen so much.

The rise in popularity of natural wines, as evidenced by over 13,000 people attending last year's Rootstock festival in Sydney, is the next step on from organic and biodynamic production.

While there is no official definition, "natural" wine is generally understood to be made with minimal chemical or technological interference from the winemaker; containing no added acid or yeast, colouring or oak chips or anything else that is used to artificially bolster flavour. They contain less sulphur dioxide than more conventionally made wine and the wines are often unclarified.

The natural wine movement is gaining momentum, particularly in France and Italy, and the recent Real Wine Show in London, celebrating natural, organic and biodynamic wines, attracted huge crowds. 

Natural wines, usually made in tiny quantities by committed artisan producers, can by their very nature sometimes be volatile, but their fans say they have greater texture.

Closely allied to natural wines are so-called “skin-contact” or “orange” wines. These are white wines made in the same way as traditional red wines. 

The simple definition of the style has white wines left to macerate on their skins for longer periods of time than usual, anywhere from a few days to in some cases, months, says respected wine commentator Mike Bennie, an advocate of the style, who says this winemaking approach ”enhances aspects of texture and flavour”.

Orange wines range in colour from pale gold through to deep ambers and in some cases ruddier, rouge-tinted hues – sometimes they are even named "amber" rather than "orange",” Bennie says.

Orange wine history dates back several thousand years with Georgian winemakers having placed grapes in large vessels, usually clay amphorae, to give them an oxidative character.

The question now is whether both natural and orange wines will remain a novelty, or gain mainstream acceptance. 

Should you be fascinated by foudre fermentations go ahead and try some labels like Jauma, d'Meure or Shobbrook, imports from the likes of Italian producer Radikon, or the growing number of producers brought into Australia by Hobart company Living Wines. 

Alternatively, you may be in the camp that considers natural wines to taste "faulty”.

It is a debate destined to last a long time.

Tuesday 20 January 2015

Five fantastic Tasmanian culinary experiences

Tasmania is Australia's gourmet state; full of great wine and food experiences. Here are five of the best. 

The Agrarian Kitchen
A sustainable farm-based cooking school situated in a cute 19th-century schoolhouse at Lachlan, 45 minutes from Hobart in the Derwent Valley, the Agrarian Kitchen can sometimes be booked out for months in advance.

It was established by Rodney Dunn and his French wife Séverine, who moved from Sydney to Tasmania in 2007 to transform the schoolhouse into Tasmania’s first hands-on, farm-based school.

Set on five acres, it incorporates a vegetable garden, orchard, berry patch and herb garden, all grown using organic principles. Also in residence are Wessex saddleback pigs, Barnevelder chickens, Alpine goats and a flock of geese.

650 Lachlan Road, Lachlan. (03) 6261 1099.

Bruny Island Cheese
Gourmets will be in their element on Bruny Island, a short ferry ride from Kettering, south of Hobart.

It is here that colourful television personality and cheese master Nick Haddow produces some of Australia's finest cheeses, hand-made from local milk. 

Visitors are invited to do a tasting, check out the cheesery or sample a selection of artisan cheeses and wood-fired breads among the eucalyptus gum trees in the Bruny Island Cheese gardens. The cheeses are all made and matured using traditional techniques.

Tiny Bruny Island is a mini gourmet paradise and is also home to freshly shucked oysters from Get Shucked, wines from Bruny Island Premium Wines, Australia’s southernmost vineyard, the Bruny Island Smokehouse and the Bruny Island Berry Farm.
1807 Bruny Island Main Rd, Great Bay, Bruny Island. (03) 6260 6353.

Launceston Harvest Market
Fancy sampling some hand-crafted Tasmanian cheeses from Red Cow Dairies, Yondover Farmhouse or Elgaar Organic Dairy? Or some new-season apricot jam, or perhaps some juicy fresh tomatoes direct from the Tamar Valley?

Maybe some organic pork and beef from Mount Gnomon Farm, some salmon from 41 Degrees South salmon farm, interesting cuts of rabbit meat, or some new-vintage local wines from boutique producers Sharmans or Humbug Reach?

Many of the best producers in the north of the state are at Launceston’s Harvest Farmers’ Market, held every Saturday morning rain or shine and one of the best examples of Tasmania’s growing producer-to-punter food culture.

71 Cimitiere St, Launceston. 0417 352 780.

Lark Distillery
The Lark Distillery Whisky Bar and Café in downtown Hobart offers the chance to learn all about, and taste, a range of local whiskies and brandies in a relaxed atmosphere.

Lark, established by local businessman Bill Lark, and also offers a range of fully escorted tours including a one-day and two-day tour taking in local peat bogs, as well as the Ultimate Whisky Experience four-day tour.

The whiskies are made in small batches, exclusively from Tasmanian ingredients and are matured in small barrels before being hand bottled.

14 Davey Street, Hobart. (03) 6231 9088.

Freycinet Marine Farm
Pacific oysters, native oysters and Tasmanian blue mussels all thrive in the pristine waters of the Greater Swanport river estuary and marine zones are off shore from Freycinet National Park.

Visitors to the Freycinet Marine Farm are able to don rubber wading boots and join group tours, learning how oysters and mussels are grown and harvested.

All tours includes a tasting of oysters and mussels fresh from the sea, as well as providing an overview of oyster farming in the state.

1784 Coles Bay Road, Coles Bay. (03) 62570140.

For more information about tourism and wine destinations in Tasmania visit: and

Saturday 17 January 2015

The wine legend behind a reliably good hotel in Launceston

Veteran businessman Josef Chromy is something of a legend in Tasmania. 
Chromy fled his Czech homeland in 1950 as a penniless 20-year-old but became one of the most influential men in the Tasmanian wine industry.
The migrant first made millions through smallgoods and later started several of the state’s leading wineries, including Tamar Ridge and Josef Chromy Wines. He is now also in the hotel business. 

Just a few kilometres from his spectacular cellar door facility and on-site restaurant at Relbia, just down the road from Launceston Airport, you'll find the Hotel Charles in Launceston, on the fringe of the CBD. 
With many of its rooms offering views of the Tamar River this is a reliably good address that won't break the bank. And it is the perfect gateway to the Tamar Valley and northern Tasmania.
Part of a new complex on the site of what was an old hospital, the building has an Art Deco exterior with modern, well-equipped rooms and apartments at sensible prices. 
On-site facilities include a restaurant, guest lounge, function/conference room (for up to 100 delegates), private dining room and boardroom - all with wi-fi/internet connections. The rooms are comfortable and the service extremely helpful. There is also free parking.
The on-site Restaurant Esca specialises in using local produce when possible –think dishes like charred venison with sweet potato, garlic and eggplant, or maybe Togarashi-spiced crispy skin salmon with spanner crab, sweet corn and nishiki rice.  

Alternatively, the Charles Street café strip with several dining options is just a short stroll away. 
Luxurious leather couches and chairs around the fireplace in the hotel lobby provide the ideal spot for a casual meeting, afternoon coffee or evening wine from the predominantly Tasmanian wine list - and there are meeting and conference rooms available for those seeking privacy.
The Charles is one of a number of good Tasmanian addresses owned by Chromy's companies. Also check out the Hotel Collins in Hobart and Franklin Manor in Strahan.  
Hotel Charles, 287 Charles Street, Launceston. (03) 6337 4100.

Thursday 15 January 2015

What really gets on your nerves when you are travelling?

What really annoys you about holiday travel? For me, it is poor service, hotels that fail to deliver on their promises and being gouged.

I also hate delayed flights, chaotic boarding procedures, people who bring on ridiculous amounts of carry-on luggage, inefficient car hire companies, screaming children, accommodation providers who don't offer free wi-fi, absurd visa charges and long queues at immigration. 
Airport queues can be enough to drive a saint to distraction

And stupid people at security check points and....well, you get the picture. 

Yet, according to a recent survey conducting by web booking site most travellers are not the slightest bit concerned by any of these things.

According to the 6,900 Australians surveyed, tipping troubles and rude locals don’t annoy us as much as unpacking and doing the laundry when we get home. Which I find downright amazing. spokesperson Kirsty La Bruniy said coming back from holidays to domestic chores was an annoying reality check, with more than one in four travellers revealing that emptying the suitcase and doing the laundry was their top travel gripe.

“Often the most annoying part of going on a holiday isn’t the delays and travel mishaps you may encounter along the way, but returning and spending the day unpacking and doing loads of washing,” Ms La Bruniy said. 

“Doing the laundry was higher on the travel annoyance radar than having to tip, rude locals, paying to use toilets and language barriers.

“When I'm on holidays things don’t get to me anywhere near as much as when I’m at home, and this seems to be true for a lot of Australian travellerswith 21.8% of people saying nothing annoys them while travelling.”

What? An amazing 21.9% of Australian travellers are saintly figures who are completely unconcerned by airport chaos, smoking Russians or incontinent kids.

Ms La Bruniy suggested "if you really want to avoid getting into a spin with the post-holiday laundry, it can pay to take advantage of the hotel's laundry service before you return.” 

Yep, that's a great tip if you want to return home completely broke. Most hotels I stay in charge more for laundry and dry cleaning one item than anything in my suitcase is worth. 

Here are the top six travel annoyances according to Wotif, who I suspect may not have offered all the right options in their survey.

Having to unpack and do the laundry when I get back: 27.3%,  
Nothing annoys me when I'm travelling: 21.8%          
Having to tip: 12.8%            
Rude locals: 10.9%          
Having to pay for toilets: 10.5%                   
Language barrier: 5.2%         
Not being able to find my favourite foods: 1.5% 

And the latest figures issued by New South Wales state fair trading minister Matthew Mason-Cox suggest travellers have plenty to complain about - with a 7% rise in complaints to NSW Fair Trading about motels, hotels and resorts. 

“It’s important that consumers know they have rights if something goes wrong with their holiday accommodation and that they have options to deal with disputes,” he said.
Mason-Cox said one complaint involved a mystery destination accommodation package.
“The hotel on the Gold Coast was supposed to come with an ocean view, but instead overlooked a construction zone,” he said. “There was mould throughout the bathroom, the pool and the spa were dirty, and the tennis court was out of service. After the consumer complained to the regulator, NSW Fair Trading negotiated a partial refund with the trader.”
Mason-Cox encouraged consumers to stand up for a fair deal, saying: “Know your rights under the Australian consumer law. Goods and services must be of an acceptable quality and match the description, sample or demonstration provided. It is equally important that hotel operators do the right thing by consumers and properly display all terms and conditions, as well as provide accurate information about the quality and service of the hotel.
"Australian consumer law is clear – it is an offence to make false and misleading representations about a product and service. The same laws apply to hotel operators."

So, if you are staying in New South Wales, you know where to turn. In most other cases you are on your own.  

Wednesday 14 January 2015

Calypso, cricket, bitters and rum; lots of rum

The twin Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago are synonymous with calypso, cricket, carnival and rum. Lots of rum.
And while the local Angostura rums are omnipresent in Port-of-Spain and surrounds, the global rum industry is a highly competitive one. That’s why Angostura works so hard to link imagery of its rums to the magic of the West Indies.

The Angostura distillery in Trinidad
Angostura bitters storage container

The House of Angostura today also owns distillers in the United States, Canada, the Bahamas and Surinam, as well as Cognac house Hine, which it took over in 2003.
Not only does Angostura invite key sales people, distributors and media to Port of Spain each February/March to enjoy the raucous carnival – it also hosts the annual Global Cocktail Challenge, bringing in mixologists from around the world to work with not only rums, but also the company’s even better known product – Angostura aromatic bitters.
While all the Angostura products are now produced in a large distillery in Laventille, a Port of Spain suburb, the brand was actually founded in what was then the town of Angostura, now known as Ciudad Bolivar, in Venezuela.
Dr Johann Gottlieb Siegert, a German doctor, was the surgeon general in Angostura during the war of independence in Venezuela, treating soldiers who fought for Simon Bolivar’s army.
He found gentian root and other herbs gathered locally were effective in treating chronic stomach ailments – and thus Angostura aromatic bitters were created.
The same original recipe from 1824 – and the same blend of herbs and spices – is used today – and it remains a secret, much like the Colonel’s herbs and spices and the make-up of Coca-Cola. The same oversized label, once named as the worst packaging in the world, also remains in place to this day.
Today, bitters are used as a food dressing as well as for adding an extra element to cocktails like the late Queen Mother’s beloved pink gins, Singapore Slings, mojitos and Champagne cocktails among many more.
After the death of Siegert in 1870, his brother and son took over the company and moved it to Trinidad in 1876.
They began producing Siegert's Bouguet Rum infused with bitters and by the turn of the century, the company ventured into the rum market, at first just in bottling bulk rum from other distillers.
After many years of intensive research into fermentation and distillation processes, the company purchased a distillery called Trinidad Distiller's Limited, which was installed with a state-of-the-art distillery in 1945 and named a wholly owned subsidiary of Angostura Limited. This heralded the company's entry into the production of rum on a major scale.
Molasses arrives to make rum 
In 1973, Angostura purchased another well-known Trinidad distillery owned by J.B. Fernandes.
Today the Angostura facility is the largest distillery in the English-speaking Caribbean and notable for the rich molasses aroma that envelopes it. The distillery produces both bitters and around 7-8 million cases of rum a year under a range of different labels. 

Other Trinidad rum brands include Moet Hennessey’s 10 Cane and Zaya, but Angostura dominates the marketplace.
Sign in the Angostura factory
The cultural melting pot of Trinidad, which lies in the southern Caribbean just 12 kilometres off the coast of Venezuela, has an ideal climate for producing world-class rum, a product of ripe sugar cane.
Angostura’s rums are aged in barrel for a minimum of two years – there is no maximum for maturation - and some develop for 10 or more years.
The two Angostura rums currently popular in Australia are the 1919 (named for the year rum producer Fernandes was founded), which is a lighter style rum aged between 5-10 years that is designed for drinking on its own; and the 1824 (a tribute to the year the company was founded), a 12-year-old run with spice and dried fruit characters that is noted for its cleanliness and balance.
Domestically, Angostura’s White Oak white rum is hugely popular.
The thing about rum is that it is so versatile,” says Angostura chief blender John Georges. “You can have so many different experiences; but for me the ultimate is a glass of Angostura 1824 and a fine cigar.”

Sunday 11 January 2015

Imagine if combining cruises was completely seamless

There is no doubt as to what is the worst part of any cruise: embarking and disembarking. 
The queues; the interminable waiting around, are in stark contrast to the joys of being afloat. 
Imagine, then, if you could combine two, three or four cruise itineraries into one voyage.
The new MSC Grand Tours package enables guests to combine cruise itineraries in either the Mediterranean or Northern Europe - with a number of innovations that make the process almost seamless.
MSC Cruises will arrange free transfers between ships as well as delivering all luggage between ships for a seamless, stress-free changeover. 
And passengers booked on a grand tour including more than one ship will enjoy priority check-in from the second cruise onwards.
Every MSC grand tour package also includes discounted on-board laundry services and free shore excursions in selected ports. 
I did an MSC cruise of the Mediterranean in 2013, loving the new MSC Preziosa and becoming a cruise convert. Adding a second or third cruise during one trip to Europe has great appeal.
“We are very excited to be launching this extraordinary product, allowing our passengers to gain even greater value from their MSC experience” says Lynne Clarke, managing director of MSC Cruises Australia/New Zealand.

With seven tours to choose from, MSC Grand Mediterranean Tours, combining ports in the east and west Mediterranean, offer a choice between 14, 21 or 28 nights and start from only $1880 per person, twin share.
MSC Cruises has also released its first MSC Grand Northern Europe Tour as a 14-night voyage through Northern Europe, covering the cities of Kiel, Bergen, Hellesylt/Geiranger, Flaam, Stavanger, Stockholm, Tallinn, St Petersburg and Helsinki, starting from only $1990 per person, twin share.
MSC bills itself as the market leader in the Mediterranean, South Africa and Brazil, sailing year-round in the Mediterranean. Its seasonal itineraries cover northern Europe, the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean and French Antilles, South America, southern Africa, as well as the Emirates and Oman.
MSC Cruises was born in the Mediterranean and its fleet comprises 12 modern ships: MSC Preziosa; MSC Divina; MSC Splendida; MSC Fantasia; MSC Magnifica; MSC Poesia; MSC Orchestra; MSC Musica; MSC Sinfonia; MSC Armonia; MSC Opera and MSC Lirica.
For more information visit or call 1300 028 502.

Friday 9 January 2015

Four fabulous English country pubs that are well worth a detour

There is nothing more quintessentially English than a pint or two of bitter, some rustic grub and a game of darts in a country pub. Here are a few of my favourites: 

Clipsham, a tiny hamlet in the small county of Rutland, has maybe two dozen houses surrounded by rolling countryside populated largely by pheasants but the one pub - The Olive Branch - attracts visitors from around the country. 

They mingle happily with villagers, who are pleased that their “local”, which was closed for several years, is back in operation.

The Olive Branch (above) was originally three labourers’ cottages, which were joined together in 1890. It was renovated and revitalised in 1999 and accommodation across the road at Beech House was added in 2006 - with open fires, antique furnishings, Egyptian cotton sheets and power showers offering urban chic in rural surrounds.

The Olive Branch has a Michelin hat for its food but it is also very much a local hangout, with villagers enjoying roasted chestnuts and a log fire in winter and a beer garden in summer.

Chef Sean Hope’s menu combines gourmet pub grub with fine dining.

Think dishes like pan-fried fillets of red mullet with herb polenta and tempura vegetables; or game casserole with buttered mash and roasted root vegetables. Throw in apple pie with clotted cream or quince and mascarpone tart and you have a feast.

There is also a blackboard menu that changes daily; a wine list that flits from France and Italy to South Africa, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina to more familiar offerings from Tasmania to McLaren Vale with over a dozen available by the glass; seasonal drinks like sloe gin, damson vodka and mulled wine, as well as locally brewed real ales and farmhouse bottled ciders.

Known as the childhood home of writer George Orwell, the delightful Suffolk seaside resort of Southwold is the base of Adnams, brewers of traditional ales, and in more recent years wine merchants of renown.

Adnams own and operate several local pubs with The Crown and The Swan vying for supremacy. I opted for the 350-year-old The Swan (below), which is endearingly old fashioned and has a warm bar, a traditional al a carte menu and 42 rooms, which are being refurbished.

The menu features dishes like roulade of Dingley Dell pork shoulder, or roast sea bass with Jerusalem artichoke, mussels, fondant potato, ceps and truffle oil and there is an excellent selection of Adnams’ ales on tap. The Old Ale was named champion beer of East Anglia, with Explorer finishing third.

The next county further north is Norfolk – and the North Norfolk coastline boasts undisturbed beaches, small seaside resorts and coastal walks. It’s dotted with fishing villages and traditional pubs.

Titchwell Manor, dating back to 1896, is a boutique hotel cum pub with just 27 rooms and a superb on-site restaurant that has become a gourmet destination thanks to chef Eric Snaith’s modern English menus.

Dishes like partridge breast and leg with fruit and nut bulgar wheat and red cabbage, or maybe halibut with cauliflower, white chocolate, caviar, couscous and hazelnut are stunning and while self-saucing fishcake with caviar, lemon and dill or fillet of wild sea bass with mussels, bacon, fingerling potatoes and wild mushrooms are more mainstream, everything is very stylish.

All main courses are affordable and there is an excellent wine list along with several local ales.

Known for its many 17th-century stone buildings, the market town of Stamford in Lincolnshire is home to the William Cecil Hotel (right), reopened a couple of years ago after a complete refurbishment.

There’s a very welcoming bar, some extremely comfortable rooms and the relaxed restaurant features local and seasonal produce. Think dishes like venison Scotch egg, dandelion salad, radish and English mustard, or pan-fried halibut with persilade potatoes.

Or, of course, you could just pop in for a quick half pint.


The Olive Branch, Main Street, Clipsham, Rutland. +44 1780

The Swan Hotel, Market Place, Southwold, Suffolk. +44 1502 727256.

Titchwell Manor, Titchwell, near Brancaster, Norfolk. +44 1485 210221.

William Cecil, High Street, St Martins, Stamford, Lincolnshire. +44 1780

Qantas operates direct daily services from Sydney to London. To book visit or call 13 13 13. 

Wednesday 7 January 2015

Cullen leads the pack in biodynamic wine and food

It was only in the 1960s that vines were first planted in Margaret River in Western Australia – a district that is now regarded as one of Australia's leading premium wine regions.

The first two wine producers in the region were Vasse Felix and Cullen Wines – and Cullen is today regarded as one of the pioneers of Australian organic and biodynamic viticulture, as well as being the first vineyard and winery in the country to be certified carbon neutral and be naturally powered.

Cullen vineyards
Founders Kevin and Diana Cullen, whose names are honoured by the winery's flagship red and white wines, handed over the reins to their daughter Vanya, who made her first vintage in 1983 and is regarded as one of the pre-eminent global experts on biodynamic wine farming.

Diana and Kevin Cullen planted a trial vineyard on their Wilyabrup property in 1966 and, pleased by the results, planted a further 17 acres of vineyards in 1971, vowing to use minimum chemical intervention right from the start.

Today, Cullen Wines produces around 20,000 cases of premium wines, which can be found on wine lists of some of the world's greatest restaurants.
Cullen vines and restaurant

Vanya Cullen, a qualified zoologist and keen surfer, was named Australian Winemaker of the Year in 2000 and Woman of the Year by UK-based wine magazine The Drinks Business in 2008, becoming the first Australian to receive the award.

Cullen Wines has been run according to biodynamic principles since 2003 after having adopted organic methods in 1998. 

“The role of the winemaker is to be a custodian of the land,” Vanya Cullen says.
The on-site restaurant at the winery also serves only biodynamically-produced foods with many of the vegetables coming from the property's own potager.

Put simply, biodynamic viticulture is a philosophy combining the maintenance of sustainable soil fertility and the recognition of the link between plant growth and the rhythms of the cosmos,” she says.

It is a method of farming that treats the vineyard as a living system, which interacts with the environment to build a healthy living soil that helps to nourish the vines and general environment.”

It is a message that she spreads relentlessly – and many would argue that Cullen is today one of the most influential women in the world of wine.
Qantas tasting panel Steve Pannell, Vanya Cullen and Tom Carson

She has judged wine shows throughout Australia and is one of three winemakers on the Qantas tasting panel. In 2011 she was named “Green Personality of the Year” for her commitment to the wine industry and for demonstrating that you can operate a successful business while looking after the environment.

Whether Vanya has time to talk to a visiting journalist may depend on the position of the moon in relation to the planets. Planting and picking on the right days of the biodynamic calendar are paramount for her.

Biodynamics relies on a series of preparations based in mineral, plant and animal substances rather than the traditional potentially toxic chemicals and sprays.” she says. “In the Cullen vineyards, this involves firstly the enhancement of the soil structure through the addition of homeopathic preparations, specially prepared composts and various fish and other emulsions and also the use of nitrogen-enhancing cover crops.

The resulting increase in humus in the soil leads to greater microbial activity and improved aeration and retention of moisture around the roots of the vines.

While we embrace the beneficial effects of using new technology in the winery, we remain acutely aware that certain traditional methods still produce the best outcomes, including: enhanced expression of fruit, minerality and integration of flavours; lower alcohol, lower sugar and higher acidity; expression of terroir from vineyard to bottle and elegant wine styles that are better balanced.”

Cullen's tasting notes make sure everyone knows her philosophy, with lines like “harvested over full moon fruit days.”

Whatever your thoughts on organics and biodynamics, however, the proof is in the bottle.

It is impossible to single out any particular [Cullen] wine from the top echelon,” says James Halliday in his 2015 Wine Companion annual, the Australian wine bible. “All are superb.”

Cullen Wines recognised Kevin’s pioneering contribution by naming its premium chardonnay “Kevin John”, twinning it with the Diana Madeline, the flagship cabernet blend named in honour of his late wife.

While these two wines represent the pinnacle of the company's production, other red wines produced include a more affordable Bordeaux-style blend called Mangan, while the range also includes two outstanding single-vineyard sauvignon blanc-semillon blends and a preservative-free malbec. 

Cullen Wines: