Book, stay, enjoy. That's

Friday 29 April 2016

A cute little cafe in country Victoria

Anyone driving from Melbourne to Great Western or the Grampians will want to break the journey for a coffee or a bite to eat; and I can heartily recommend cute and quirky Sparrows in the hamlet of Beaufort. 

Owned by former Melbourne food and wine operative Cameron Russell, Sparrows serves good food, coffee and has a selection of local Pyrenees and Western Victorian wine by the glass. 

The vibe in this former garage space is shabby chic and food is hale and hearty; pumpkin soup, toasted sandwiches or maybe a tasty beef empanada with a simple salad. 

The welcome is warm - and the wines are good. 

Sparrows Cafe, 29 Neil St (Western Highway), Beaufort, Victoria.

Thursday 28 April 2016

Airline food that comes as a pleasant surprise

Unless you are flying at the pointy end of the plane, most airline food is pretty awful.

We've all suffered from stale rolls, rubbery omelets and dishes that bear very little resemblance to their description. 

On short hauls, some airlines (hands up Virgin Australia), have given up - handing over 30 grams of mixed nuts to see you through your one or two hours in the air.

On almost all airlines in economy class you'll get what you are given unless you make a special request in advance for a vegetarian or Halal option (which aren't always available). 

That's why I'm a great fan of the food offering on Air Asia and Air Asia X. You pay for it, sure, but there is a good choice of dishes that can be selected online before you fly, or once you are on board. 

Think food of the quality you'd get from a good suburban takeaway specialising in Asian dishes and you have a good idea of what to expect. 

There is the same choice whether you are flying in economy or business and having sampled three different dishes on both long and short legs this month I was extremely impressed. 

The food came hot; it was tasty and on each occasion I ate every mouthful. I can't say that very often on full-fare carriers. 

The dishes I tried, pictured below, are the chicken satay, moist and juicy with tangy peanut sauce, the nasi lemak, not as visually appealing but spicy and interesting, and - the star of the show - nasi daging (long-grain rice with coconut milk, fenugreek and shallots, served with a chicken curry and a mixed vegetable pickle. Outstanding. 

To be fair, the western food I have had on Air Asia has been less impressive. I'd stick to the Asian dishes. 

AirAsia X flies daily to Kuala Lumpur from Sydney, Melbourne, Gold Coast and Perth with up to 11 daily connecting flights to Bangkok, as well as Pattaya and other Thai airports. A range of over 100 destinations across 23 countries are serviced by AirAsia, including a Fly-Thru service to a range of destinations whereby they can connect with a single booking, have luggage transfers included and not have to clear immigration. For bookings or further information visit


Wednesday 27 April 2016

An oasis in which to escape the bustle of Bangkok

It struck me that the Anantara Riverside Bangkok was a little familiar. Then the penny dropped. I'd stayed here a decade ago when it was a Marriott property - and had reviewed it favourably. 

It has, of course, been impressively tarted up by Anantara but it remains what it was back then; a delightful oasis on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, a real resort in the city. 

Bangkok is one of Asia's most vibrant cities; a sprawling, bustling metropolis that's always on the move. It is a kaleidoscope of sounds, sights and aromas, day and night. 

But Bangkok can sometimes be just a little bit too full on, which is why it can be great to escape from the bedlam to somewhere that is cool and gracious.

It's just a 15-minute river transfer by the resort's quick and efficient river ferry to the Skytrain, which gets you downtown within minutes. 

If you are on a stopover you may choose not to leave the resort at all. It is fun to sit back and watch the barges and longtail boats go by. The pool is a typical resort affair (you could easily be in Phuket or Koh Samui) and there is a delightful torch-lighting ceremony each night. 

There are myriad dining options, too, from long-time favourite Trader Vic's with its Pan-Asian cuisine to Japanese steakhouse Benihana (part eatery/part theatre); Tuscan cuisine in Brio, a world buffet at the Riverside Terrace and buffet breakfasts in The Market, which is just too big and sprawling to be much fun (you feel like you've walked a marathon by the time your get back to your table with your toast).

There is also an impressive range of bars from the clubby Elephant Bar to the Longtail Bar by the river; Loy Nam for poolside drinks and snacks and Numero Uno for morning coffees and pastries.

There is a range of Manohra cruises departing from the hotel's own jetty - including dinner cruises - and the on-site attractions range from the lovely Anantara Spa (with a bewildering array of treatments) and Silver Spoons cooking school to the hotel's own Muay Thai kickboxing school. 

As this is an Anantara, the service is spectacularly good; seamless, multilingual and understated. The free wi-fi works and there is a business centre with helpful staff, along with a fitness centre and kids' club.

The rooms (try to get one overlooking the river) are extremely well equipped and come with a nifty smart phone that includes free local calls and wi-fi and can be used throughout your stay. There is a brand new shopping centre that's part of new Avani Riverside property next door.   

This is a grown-up sort of place; the perfect destination to enjoy the tropics for a few days. 

Anantara Bangkok Riverside Resort, 2571-3 Charoennakorn Road, Thonburi, Bangkok. +66 2 476 0022.

Monday 25 April 2016

Ten top things to do in Phnom Penh

The Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh is a fascinating place with a macabre history - but it is possible to have fun, too. 

1. Monumental interest
The Independence Monument, built in 1958 to celebrate Cambodia's independence from France in 1953, stands at the intersection of Norodom and Sihanouk boulevards, one of the city's busiest intersections. It is a high-rise lotus-shape structure that has been modelled on the central tower of Angkor Wat.
2. National Museum
There is a lot more to Khmer history than the recent Khmer Rouge atrocities - and this is the best place to learn about the culture of the local people. A red-sandstone building of colonial Khmer design, it is home to sculptures, ceramics, textiles, glass, pottery and bronzes dating back as far as the 12th century. The building was designed by renowned French architect George Groslier under the direction of King Sisowath, who wanted to preserve Khmer cultural heritage.
3. The killing fields
Choeung Ek, a 35-minute drive out of Phnom Penh, is the hamlet where Pol Pot's murderous Khmer Rouge slaughtered thousands of Cambodians and buried them in mass shallow graves between 1975 and 1979. Many of them were bludgeoned to death to save the cost of a bullet. Formerly an orchard and Chinese cemetery, Choeung Ek is today an eerie place where the remains of almost 9000 were discovered and more remain underground. It is estimated up to 20,000 people died here. Human bones can be seen protruding from the ground in some places and skulls of many of the victims are stored in a macabre memorial tower. Choeung Ek is the best known of more than 300 killing fields throughout Cambodia. 
4. Local flavours
Khmer cuisine tends to be flavoursome without being overly spicy. Kampot pepper is more prevalent than chillies, which tend to appear as a side dish - good news for those who don't like their food too hot. Rice-noodle soups, stir-fries and curries are common and you'll occasionally find frog's legs, reminiscent of French colonial days. Sit at local roadside cafes and pay just a couple of dollars. 
5. Toul Sleng 
The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia for less than four years but this short chapter devastated the country and those who survived Pol Pot's reign of terror. Toul Sleng, on the fringes of downtown Phnom Penh, is a former high school that became known as S21, a centre of torture and interrogation of political prisoners that is now a genocide museum showing in graphic detail the beatings and humiliations dealt out to more than 17,000 who passed through the doors. Some history books say that only seven people survived, and one of them, Chum Mey, can be found in the grounds selling a book written about his horrific experiences. S21 remains exactly as it was, surrounded by barbed wire.
6. Cyclo rides
Cyclos, better known as cycle rickshaws, are dying out throughout south-east Asia, replaced by motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Some do survive, however, usually ridden by cyclists from poor country families, who sleep in their cyclos at night. Tour companies such as Footsteps in Asia, which custom-designs tours of Cambodia and Vietnam, use cyclos supported by Cyclo Centre, a non-government organisation that is helping keep the tradition alive. A cyclo ride gives a close-up view of the city and its people without anything to obscure the sights, sounds and smells. A one-hour ride can cover many highlights, including Wat Phnom, the Central Post Office, palaces and museums. The passing parade can be absolutely fascinating.
7. Wat Phnom
Set atop a 27-metre-high artificial hill, Wat Phnom (Temple Hill) is the capital's tallest temple and a gathering place during the annual Pchum Ben, the festival of the dead. Legend says the temple was built in 1373 to house several Buddha statues found washed up on the banks of the Mekong by a woman named Penh. Today, the gardens surrounding the temple are popular with locals, who use them for family gatherings, and with visitors, who use the benches as picnic areas.
8. Royal Palace
Dramatic both inside and out, the Royal Palace dates back to the late 1860s and is noteworthy for its classic Khmer architecture, elaborate gilding, soaring spires and golden temple nagas (carvings of mythical reptilian creatures). The palace is an oasis of peace in the middle of an increasingly frenetic Phnom Penh city centre and its lush French-style gardens house life-size sculptures of Khmer warriors and Buddhas reclining in a range of poses. Don't miss the Silver Pagoda, also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha; its floors are covered with more than 4000 silver tiles. It was rebuilt in 1962 and houses religious and cultural artefacts.

9. Market shopping
Phnom Penh is full of bustling street markets, all of which merit leisurely exploration even if you have no intention of buying anything. Bargaining is de rigueur, although you will still pay a "foreigner's price", and expect to be bumped into on occasion. Among the major markets are Psar Thmei (Central Market), Psar Tuol Tom Pong (Russian Market), Psar Chas (Old Market) and O Russei, the most modern of them all. Pick up gifts such as local coloured check scarves known as kramas, Kampot pepper and silk purses.
10. Dine with Friends
Friends is a charity-run eatery that trains Phnom Penh street kids in restaurant skills (kitchen, front-of-house, waiting etc) so they can find jobs in hospitality. Friends specialises in what it calls Western and Cambodian-style tapas and frozen daiquiris (think Khmer glass-noodle salad with fish cake slices and fresh herbs or Cambodian chicken curry). The service is charming and your dollars go a long way to improving someone's life. Profits from the restaurant help 800 kids each day. 

Sunday 24 April 2016

How an old-school winemaker turned into a hipster

Barossa winemaker Rick Burge is eloquent, urbane and knowledgeable on many matters. But I doubt that anyone has ever accused him of being a hipster. 

For a start, he doesn't have a beard and his wines are made in a very traditional way.

Nothing hipster about them; no weird blends, funky "out there" labels, silly names or murkiness in the bottle. 

"I'm way too old to even resemble a hipster, even in low lighting, but part of me still feels young occasionally," he jokes. 

But Burge has just released his Burge Family Winemakers 2013 The Hipster red blend; a wine with an interesting story behind it. 

It was inspired by a story on hipster wines in a wine magazine. "The notion that some young Turks are producing wines that equally hip marketers and sommeliers are foisting onto the market as 'hipster wines' intrigued me," he said. 

"So, possibly as a consequence as a reoccurring fear of missing out, I decided to make one.

"We had already released The Spanner, a tempranillo/grenache blend which had garnered some complimentary reviews, but I felt we could go one better by incorporating some monastrell (aka mourvedre/mataro). 

"Instant success. An instant hipster wine. Geez, I thought, this is easy, even if I couldn't maintain any cloudiness that seems a pre-requisite of the hipster style."

The end result is The Hipster 2013, a blend of garnacha (42%), monastrell (31%) and tempranillo (27%) - using the Spanish names, rather than the French. 

It was matured in older Alliers barriques, but it is largely the fruit doing the talking. It is a soft and savoury wine, described by those with which I shared it as "bloody delicious". You can't really ask for much more for $25 a bottle. Oh, and it blossoms when given some air. 

It's well worth a try for anyone aching to be hip - and a lot easier than growing a ridiculous beard. 

Friday 22 April 2016

Celebrating 20 years of Orange wine

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Orange appellation in Central Western New South Wales being both recognised as a wine-growing region and accorded formal cool-climate status by the international Geographic Indicator Committee.

While official recognition was provided in 1996, family vineyards have been planted in the region since the first European settlers in the 1840s. Italian migrant families moving into the region a hundred years later in the 1940s then commenced the first commercial wine production in the region.

The first contemporary vineyard plantings were pioneered in the late 1980s - inspiring an entirely new generation of wine growers and winemakers to flock to the region.

The Orange region now has over 80 vineyards, with around 40 cellar doors, and is regarded as one of the finest cool regions in Australia.

“Orange is currently gaining significant traction with its reputation as *the* cool climate region of New South Wales, with a distinct and elevated terroir producing elegant and sophisticated wines,” says David Crawley, President of the Orange Region Vignerons Association (ORVA).

“Not only is it emerging into the national consciousness as one of Australia’s finest wine regions, but it is also on the cusp of stepping onto the world stage as an aspirational food and wine destination.”

One of the world’s leading winemakers calls the region home. Former head winemaker for Rosemount Wines, Philip Shaw, established his own vineyard and label in Orange in 1989 after searching Australia for years to find the best possible site in an emerging wine-growing region.

The charm and the strength of the Orange region lies in its close-knit community of high-quality and family-owned boutique wineries and cellar doors. The altitude also plays a key role.

From a recent batch of wines from Orange and surrounds, several aromatic whites impressed me.

There were rieslings from a new name to me; a producer named after one of the prettiest towns in Alsace: Colmar Estate. The 2015 Single Vineyard Riesling was expressive and delicious; floral, crisp and pure.

Another new name was Carillion, whose 2014 The Crystals Chardonnay, a single block wine, is elegant with cool-climate persistence.

The 2015 Panther's Patch Sauvignon Blanc has a decidedly odd label but makes up for that with its zingy, grassy freshness. It's made from fruit grown at 750m above sea level.

A more familiar name is Printhie, one of the original flagbearers, whose 2015 Sauvignon Blanc is engagingly aromatic and fruity, but with a zingy finish.

The third annual Taste Orange @ Watsons Bay festival event is on at Robertson Park in Watsons Bay on Sunday, May 22, with wineries including Angullong, Cargo Road, Gilbert by Simon Gilbert, Logan, Patina, Philip Shaw Wines, Patina and Ross Hill featured. Tickets cost $40.  

Key Orange dates: 
  • Orange Wine Festival is coming up Friday 14 to Sunday 30 October, 2016 and;
  • Orange F.O.O.D Week will run from Friday 31 March to Sunday 9 April, 2017

Thursday 21 April 2016

Just how do you avoid getting allocated the worst seat on the plane?

It is a mantra for just about any frequent flyer. Avoid the middle seat; particularly on long-haul flights.

You can get stuck between two non-stop talkers; two fatties (sorry, two people with weight issues), or, even worse, a couple who booked the window and the aisle in the hope of getting an empty spot between them. They'll talk across you for the whole flight. 
The New York Times reported recently that as planes fly at full capacity and new cabin configurations aim to squeeze in ever more passengers, airlines are, intentionally or not, nudging flyers into paying extra to avoid drawing the proverbial short straw.

So how do you avoid getting stuck in the middle? 

Many high-value frequent flyers get allocated their favoured aisle or window seats, usually near the front of the plane, as a matter of course. That's a lot of good seats gone.

Other canny flyers try to secure their seat when they book their flight; sometimes paying for the privilege.

Seat selection is a perk, so choose airlines that let you select your seat in advance and avoid playing musical chairs. 

But the crunch has left some travellers taking extreme measures to avoid getting stuck in the middle.

The New York Times reported flyers offering fellow travellers money or drinks to switch seats, who paid a fee to upgrade to a premium or an exit row, feigned illness or switched flights. Some travellers even reported buying two seats, just to have an empty one next to them.

Getting to the airport as early as possible, when the check-in agent still has room to switch people around, might just boost your chances of avoiding a middle seat. 

But the reality is someone has to sit there - and some passengers will go to extreme lengths to avoid it being them. Among the favoured plays is saying you have a stomach upset and need to be in an aisle seat - but that could result in you being denied boarding because you are "unwell".

Probably the best use of airline points, if you have any, is to upgrade to an exit row, a premium cabin or business class to avoid the dreaded middle seat (or a seat next to the toilet, another option to be avoided).  

But if you see someone in tears at check-in then they might well have just been given a middle seat from Sydney to Dallas-Fort Worth. A fate worse than death. 

Wednesday 20 April 2016

A beginners' guide to eating and drinking in the Huon Valley

If it were not for the Gourmet Farmer, the Huon Valley in the deep south of Tasmania might have remained a well-kept secret rather than one of Australia's fastest-emerging wine and food destinations.

But Matthew Evans chose the Huon Valley as the base for his successful series of TV shows and books (and currently has a restaurant under construction at Fat Pig Farm) and word has spread.

Today the Huon, the valley that put the apples into the Apple Isle, is home to a booming cider industry, boutique wineries whose artisan bottlings you'll find on the lists at trendy wine bars in Sydney and Melbourne, and cute country cafes specialising in local produce.

Whether you are looking for saffron, fresh berries, locally grown mushrooms, or beef from Huon Valley Meats, you've come to the right place – and the Huon is only a 30-minute drive south of Hobart, making it an ideal day trip or weekend destination.

There are no traffic lights here. No McDonald’s; no chain hotels. You will find wild rivers, orchards, forests and farmers selling produce from honesty stalls at their farm gates.

The local council recently launched some ambitious region branding “Product of the Huon” with a vow to one day see the valley regarded among the top gourmet destinations in the country. [].


The hamlet of Cygnet, population 1000 or so, is the foodie capital of the Huon, dotted with eateries and surrounded by vineyards, apple orchards and berry farms. It is populated by an intriguing mix of traditional farmers and newcomers with an artistic bent. The hills surrounding Cygnet produce strawberries in abundance, apples for the locally-made Pagan cider, organic vegetables from Alex Taylor at Golden Valley Farm and saffron for Tas-Saff. These and mushrooms from Cygnet Mushroom Farm and goat cheese from Tongola Goat Farm make their way onto the menus of Hobart's trendiest eateries. Locally, the award-winning Red Velvet Lounge is something of an icon, with chef Steve Cumper serving up dishes with a swagger of local chic using ingredients like Huon Valley Berkshires free-range pork. Fresh, usually organic, produce is also the driving force behind the menus at the rustic Lotus Eaters Cafe, which always has vegan and vegeterian-friendly menu choices. Newcomer Port Cygnet Diner sees chef Asher Gilding serving high-end burgers and fish and chips featuring local flathead. There's good coffee and country food at the Schoolhouse Coffee Shop.The biggest winery in the region, Panorama, recently sold and its cellar door is currently closed but you can taste at Hartzview, where liqueurs like cassis are the speciality, and at Two Bud Spur (weekends only). Also look out for brands like Chatto (the personal label of Mount Pleasant winemaker Jim Chatto) and Sailor Seeks Horse, by rising stars Paul and Gilli Lipscombe. Chatto says: “This part of the world has the potential to be among the most exciting sites for pinot noir anywhere in Australia.” Those with a sweet tooth will want to pop in to Cygneture Chocolates, where Gillian Ryan uses fresh local fruits in her creations. Many of the local small farmers sell their produce at the Cygnet Market (first and third Sundays of the month), or you can pick up High Flint's home-made hummus, Cygnet exotic mushrooms and hot Huon Valley kitchen pies at the Cygnet Garden Larder on the main street.


On the road into Huonville, the largest town in the region, you can't miss The Apple Shed at Grove, home of Willie Smiths Organic Cider, and the venue for the Huon Valley MidWinter Festival. A range of ciders is available for tasting and there is appetising local produce and a museum devoted to the region's apple-growing history. A Tasmanian version of the apple brandy calvados is in production. In town, artisan chocolatier The Cat's Tongue and cafe The Local (with the best coffee in town), are popular with local foodies and just outside town, at Ranelagh, you'll Home Hill Wines. Home Hill won the Jimmy Watson Trophy at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show for its 2014 Kelly's Reserve Pinot Noir, and is also home to an excellent restaurant overlooking the vines. Boutique winemaker Kate Hill is based in a rustic nearby shed, and the town is also home to food writer Michelle Crawford. The Huon is also about to get its first craft brewery at Ranelagh with former home brewer Bradley Churchill expecting to launch his opening salvo of Church Hill brews next week. Also check out the Summer Kitchen bakery in Ranelagh and long-time favourite Huon Manor restaurant in Huonville.

SoHu (south of Huonville]

The Huon Highway meanders south of Huonville until it runs out at Southport. Next stop Antarctica. Turn left to find Huon Aquaculture at Hideaway Bay, producers of a wide range of salmon and trout goods that are sold globally and employers of close to 500 locals. Check the the attractive villages of Franklin, Port Huon, Geeveston and Dover. Franklin is home to Frank's Cider (where tastings are conducted in a former church) and the re-born Aqua Grill waterfront restaurant where two Italian chefs have revamped the menu. At Port Huon, also overlooking the river, Sass at the Kermandie Hotel is one of the few reliable places for eating seven days a week, while in Geeveston you'll find arguably the best sushi in Tasmania at Masaaki's – a hole-in-the-wall spot where chef Masaaki Koyama opens just on Fridays and Saturdays and is often sold out by 1.30pm. Bookings are essential – but he's also at the Hobart Farm Gate Market every Sunday. You can pick berries fresh from the hedgerows in season or maybe fish for river trout. You'll pass turn-offs for Heriot's Point and Wombat Springs -but will need an appointment for a wine tasting.

Where to stay

The Kermandie Hotel, overlooking the Huon and a marina at Port Huon, offers comfortable modern rooms. 

Frenchman's River comprises two new luxury cottages; the Writer's House and the Helmsman's House, in the hills above Cygnet launched this month by author and former McLeod's Daughters and Hi-5 creator Posie Graeme-Evans. 

# This is edited version of a story that first appeared in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald 

Tuesday 19 April 2016

Get ready for Tasmania's first "calvados"

First it was wine, then whisky, then cider. Now Tasmania is set to produce its first commercial volumes of apple brandy, known in France as calvados. 

In a new page in the history of artisan Tasmanian distilling, Huon Valley cider producer Willie Smith's has unveiled the first Australia-built Alembic Still that will be used to make apple brandy. 

It's a $200,000 investment to further value-add to the Tasmanian apple industry and build on Willie Smith's reputation as a producer of quality hand-crafted beverages.

Approximately 180 people attended the official launch at The Apple Shed in Grove on Tuesday night, conducted by the `godfather' of Tasmania's whisky and spirits industry, Bill Lark.

The event included a barrel filling ceremony, with Lark filling the first 100-litre sherry
barrel - a product that will be released in three years' time.

Willie Smith’s head cider maker, and now distiller, Dr Tim Jones, said he was extremely
pleased with the initial spirit run saying "the spirit is smooth and fine, with creamy complexity and apple aromas – it expresses the characteristics of the cider we produce for this spirit and is also the result of this wonderfully designed and built still.

"It's a process of patience, but we think it will be well worth the wait!''

In the shorter-term Willie Smith’s is already selling Apple Schnapps and will be releasing Pear and Cherry Schnapps made with the still in the next couple of months.

Peter Bailly from Knapp Lewer Contracting crafted the copper still in Tasmania.

It is the first purpose-built Alembic copper still in Tasmania and probably Australia.

Willie Smith's co-owner, Sam Reid, said Tasmania now has 15 distilleries. 

"We feel that this will be another boost for tourism in the Huon Valley and Southern Tasmania and give people even more of a reason to visit our great region,'' he said.

"There are viewing windows from where you can watch the still in operation along with tours at set times planned for the future."

The Charentais alembic still was designed in the early 16th century in the Cognac region of France, where it is still used for fine cognac production. To this day, it is the preferred still of choice for calvados producers in Normandy in France.

Monday 18 April 2016

Unlikely alliance proves a festival winner

It is an unlikely combination that works.

Celebrating its sixth year, Pyrmont Festival returns in 2016 with a 10-day program to showcase the best of the Mudgee Region and Pyrmont. Country cool meets city funk. 

The country folk hit the big smoke and get together with the inner-city hipsters for a festival that celebrates wine, food and fun, including wine dinners and tastings, photographic exhibitions and art displays.

Participating Mudgee wineries include Burrundulla Wines, Robert Stein Vineyard, Huntington Estate and Petersen’s, Mudgee Ridge, Moothi Estate, Walter Wines, Burnbrae Wines and Manners Wines. 

Pyrmont eateries featured are Blue Eye Dragon, Café Morso, Flying Fish, Bar Zini, The Apprentice, Brio, The Persian Room, Zebra Lounge, Le Trader, Quarryman Hotel, Dunkirk Hotel, Ovolo 1888, Gourmandise de Paris and Pyrmont Point Hotel, showcasing the best of their dining experiences with Mudgee wines to match at lunches, dinners and tastings across the 10 days.

The highlight of the festival will be a two-day free headliner event in the City’s award winning Pirrama Park on Saturday and Sunday, May 14-15. 

An event designed for the whole family, with live music, local and Mudgee region artists showcasing sculptures, rides and children’s entertainment and approximately 100 stalls where guests can meet winemakers, participate in tastings and sample a broad range of fine foods.

Pyrmont Festival is a product of industry collaboration with Mudgee Region Tourism, Mid-Western Regional Council and Mudgee Wine Grape Growers Inc, presented by Pyrmont Ultimo Chamber of Commerce with the City of Sydney. 

It is an opportunity for Pyrmont, just two kilometres from the CBD, to demonstrate its position as one of Sydney’s fastest-growing tourist, creative, cultural and dining precincts.

The Mudgee Region is the third largest grape-growing region in NSW and is three hours west of Sydney (on a good day). 

For more event information and accommodation, or for a chance to win a luxury Mudgee Region Sensory Escape, go to

Sunday 17 April 2016

Whisky, vodka and gin are old hat. Now Australia has its first rakia

Australian artisans have enjoyed huge recent success with whiskies, gins, vodkas and other spirits. Now an enterprising pair of Adelaide brothers has launched the country's first rakia. 

Rakia originates from the Balkans region of Eastern Europe and is a fruit brandy. It is widely considered to be the national drink of Macedonia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia. 

Now Jon and Con Lioulios have distilled and launched the only new-age rakia to be licensed and sold in Australia; 36 Short.

The name is a tribute to Jon and Con’s Macedonian-born father, Pando, who bought the recipe to Australia almost 50 years ago. It refers, somewhat obscurely, to his suit size.

The Lioulios brothers are primarily known for their successful, fresh, vegetable produce business Quality Lines, but have branched out in a new direction.

Con Lioulios said: “Recent trends and statistics tell us that young and old people alike are experimenting with spirits and liquors more than ever before and we wanted to share our very own rakia with their sophisticated palates."

“Dad dedicated a lot of time, energy, love and patience to distilling, and with four generations who all had the same passion for distilling rakia preceding him, now it is our turn to do the same.”

So how to use this mysterious spirit? 

“Rakia can be served straight before a meal and be accompanied with pickled vegetables as well as cured and barbequed meats," says John Lioulios. "Our white Rakia can be used to make various cocktails."

Yes, you read that right. Not content with making on rakia; the brothers have made both a white and a gold version, both made from grape juice distilled with star anise.

The White is viscous and refreshing with a hint of aniseed, smooth, refreshing ideal for cocktails, while the aged gold is more complex and spicy and ideal for enjoying on the rocks. Neither is for the faint-hearted. Both weigh in at 45% alcohol. 

Individually bottled and batched, the rakia is hand finished with the closure dipped in a glossy wax, which I found fiddly and annoying. It should probably be re-thought.

Both 36 Short White and Gold have recommended retail prices of $70 and are available online at as well as selected bottle shops, hotels and bars in Adelaide including Electra House, Edinburgh Cellars, Udaberri, Mr. Good Bar and Thrift Shop.

Thursday 14 April 2016

There's a new scam in town

From the same people who brought you the "temple is closed" yarn and the "hotel fully booked" scam comes a new rort that leaves hapless tourists with nowhere to turn.

This scam involves a well-dressed couple with a happy child dancing alongside them on a busy city sidewalk.

No one would give them a second glance.

Except the child collides with you, quickly, deftly, snatching your wallet, or in my case my iPhone, from my pocket.

Fortunately I was on to them. The child still had my iPhone in its hand.

The parents, of course, expressed sorrow and amazement that such a thing could have occurred. They spoke faux sternly to the child, who handed back my phone.

It is close to being the perfect scam. If they get away with it they are home free. If the angry tourist rounds on them they plead innocence. 

And if the tourist manages to call the police then they can hardly change a four-year-old who made "a mistake".

Ingenious. And one to watch out for. Bangkok today, who knows where tomorrow? 

Wednesday 13 April 2016

A quiet celebration to mark 20 years of Margan Wines

Andrew and Lisa Margan are among my favourite wine people. 

Not only do they produce a fine range of wines from the Hunter Valley at sensible prices, they are operate a great cellar door and eatery in a dramatically beautiful setting.

They experiment with different grape varieties, grow their own produce for their restaurant and always seem to be having a great time. 

And, while bringing up a young family, they also seem to have discovered the secret of eternal youth. They just don't change. 

Margan Family Wines celebrates its 20th birthday in May, with a series of events and a new range of wines to mark the milestone.

The Margan story began two decades ago when young Tyrrell’s winemaker Andrew Margan decided to have a go himself and make wine under his own name. His parents had a vineyard in the Hunter Valley in the 1970s so there was already wine in his DNA. 

Armed with a purchase order from a wine club he was able to fund the costs for the first wines. After that he and wife Lisa, were on their own. 

Today, Andrew Margan is chief winemaker and viticulturist, while Lisa is executive chef, develops the ‘estate grown’ projects (lambs, bees, garden and deli goods) and manages the Margan Restaurant and Cellar Door. 

There is now a team of 30 staff across the business spanning winery sales, vineyard, cellar door, restaurant and admin.

The wines, restaurant and cellar door have picked up numerous awards, with Andrew Margan being named Viticulturist of the Year and Lisa Margan being awarded Excellence in Food Tourism at the National Tourism Awards, both last year.

And now the next generation is also coming through, with the couple's eldest son Ollie just about to finish a double degree in winemaking and viticultural science at the University of Adelaide. Daughter Alessa is studying communications at UTS while working in wine and food PR (and provided much of the info for this story) and their other son, James, is studying economics at Sydney University.

Today the Margan family owns 100 hectares of its own vineyards – including icon Hunter varieties semillon and shiraz and pioneering varieties including barbera and albarino (yes, real albarino, not savagnin). 

Production has grown to around 30,000 cases a year with the new "Breaking Ground" range featuring an albarino and a tempranillo graciano shiraz launched on May 1 to mark the 20th birthday milestone. The albarino is a stunner

There was a fabulous tasting and lunch on May 26 to mark the birthday, with vertical tastings of aged semillons and shirazes, shiraz mourvedre blends, botrytis semillopns and the "first-ever" Hunter tasting of barbera..

It was, as you would expect, a fun affair. 

For more details see 

A lovely hotel where you can avoid the excesses of Pattaya

The notorious Thai resort town of Pattaya has a stench about it it; both literally and metaphorically. 

The drains in downtown Pattaya City stink to high heaven, particularly on warm days (of which there are many). Think the combined aromas of warm shit, stale beer, perfume, urine and drowned cigarette stubs.

Walking Street is worth avoiding
Pattaya City is a playground for tourists, largely from Russia and China, and it is common to see middle-aged men walking hand-in-hand with teenage girls en route to places called "Bone Club" or "the Little Hole." It's not a place for families, or young lovers.

Walking Street, Pattaya's most notorious strip of bars, go-go establishments and massage parlours, has its own stench - one of desperation. Here you can find girls with families to support urgently seeking a tourist to buy them a drink - and with whom to establish a deep and meaningful friendship within 15 minutes.

To be fair you'll find the same thing in Bangkok, Phuket or Koh Samui, but Pattaya just seems so much more tawdry. In the rest of Thailand there is an edge of humour, here just desolation. 

Witness the overweight 40-something Mauy Thai boxers, well past their prime, trying to put on a show for the tourists by punching and kicking each other in a bar on Walking Street. 

Maybe I caught Pattaya City on a bad day, or maybe it caught me on a bad day - but going to Thailand and opting to stay in central Pattaya strikes me as a bit like going to England and opting to stay in Hull, or choosing Toulon as your lone destination in France. 

To be fair, the area surrounding Pattaya has many world-class attractions and you are just 75 minutes from Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport; there are clean, sandy beaches rather than the oil-slicked ones on the resort strip; world-class golf courses and impressive spa facilities.
The beachfront pool at the Movenpick 

Many visitors will probably want to visit Pattaya City at least once during their stay, maybe for shopping or a massage, but my tip is to stay away from the hustle and bustle - and hustlers - by finding a hotel at Na Jomtien Beach; a new resort strip that is just a 20-30-minute shuttle ride away.

Choose carefully; not all of these hotels are suitable for Westerners; some cater exclusively for Russian and Chinese guests. 

I just spent three days at an outstanding new five-star property right on south Na Jomtien Beach, the Swiss-owned Movenpick Siam Hotel Pattaya. 

Why the owners have opted to use the name Pattaya in their hotel name is mystery - it will surely only scare lots of family vacationers away. 

Which is a pity as the Movenpick, open only two months, is a very fine property indeed, modern and efficient with terrific staff and great facilities.

Movenpick rooms are delightfully stylish 
Dining options, for instance, range from T55, a New York-style steak house; Twist, an all-day dining option with both Thai and western dishes; the La Costa Pool Bar (excellent for a cold beer and a chicken satay) and snacks in the Red Coral Lounge (think a global wine list and artisan gins). A tapas-style eatery is close to completion, and there is also an excellent executive lounge. 
Waldorf Salad as an artwork at T55
Wifi is fast and free throughout the high-rise property and Wave Spa is a lovely, and peaceful, spa facility. For a property that has only been open a short time things work remarkably smoothly and the buffet breakfast has to be in the top five I have seen in terms of both range and quality. 

The buffet breakfast is outstanding
The pool overlooks the pristine beach and is delightful; there is a well-equipped fitness centre and rooms mostly have ocean views.

The Ocean Marina Yacht Club is just a short stroll along the beach and the three golf courses at the Siam Country Club are just a short drive away as is the Phoenix Golf Country Club as well as temples and theme parks. 

There are 256 guest rooms, suites and pool villas, all well-thought-out and luxurious, and younger guests will enjoy a free chocolate and desserts buffet served every day from 4-5pm as well as the kids club and kayaks on the beach.

There are also shuttles four times daily from the resort to Pattaya City. But let's not go there. 

Movenpick Siam Hotel Pattaya, 55 Moo 2 Sukhumvit Road, Na Jomtien, Sattahip, Chonburi, Thailand. +66 33 078 888.