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Friday 30 September 2016

When Avis does not try harder

I was in a hurry when I arrived at the Avis car hire counter at London's St Pancras International Station. Eurostar had arrived over 45 minutes late and I was in danger of missing the football match that was the reason for my trip.

There was an agitated fellow in front of me in line but the Avis desk was completely deserted.

All the other car hire company desks were manned by one or two people but there was no one at the Avis counter at all. Not a sign. Nothing. 

After 15 or so minutes the sole operative on duty returned with zero apology, saying he had been attending to another client. 

By now four other renters had joined the line behind me. 

After I was accused of being "impolite" when I criticised the Avis level of service the desk jockey told me staffing had been reduced and someone else was on holiday. So much for "trying harder".

I departed a further 30 minutes late. Try returning your rental vehicle 30 minutes late and see the reception you get! 

Returning the car was equally shambolic. A dude dressed as a mechanic pointed to an empty bay and then disappeared;  never to be seen again. 

There were no signs at all pointing to where the office was, or where keys should be dropped. I'm still waiting for my final account.

Surely guests could be given a map or instructions when they pick up their vehicle. Apparently that would be too hard. Too much effort for Avis.   

I also wanted to tell Avis that the clutch on the almost brand new car needed adjustment. But they can find out for themselves. 

# Avis responded to my complaints with an email apology and 60 Euros worth of discount vouchers which are not valid in Australia, where I live.  

Tuesday 27 September 2016

One of the prettiest villages in England

Pulham Market is the merest speck on the map. Home to just a few hundred people, this cute village is tucked away on side roads in the English county of Norfolk. 

It may not be on the tourism radar, but is one of the prettiest villages I have come across in rural England with thatched cottages and delightfully maintained gardens. It also appeared to be bogan free.

With two pubs and a village shop, all overlooking the village green, Pulham Market is a delightful spot for a picnic or a beer stop. 

Home to the impressive St Mary Magdalene Church, Pulham Market earns just three lines in Wikipedia: 

Pulham Market and its sister village Pulham St Mary are situated approximately 9 miles (14.5 kilometres) north of Diss in Norfolk, England. It covers an area of 12.08 km2 (4.66 sq mi) and had a population of 999 in 443 households as of the 2001 census, the population falling to 977 at the 2011 census. It once had a station on the Waveney Valley Line, which is now closed. 

That's all. 

Except, I learned from a friend that between 1919 and 1930, the region was known as a base for airships, including the R34 that made the first two-way crossing of the Atlantic. Such airships were known as "Pulham Pigs". 

You learn something very day.  

Exploring Tasmania's East Coast wine trail

Tasmania's East Coast is not only breathtakingly beautiful - it is also home to several outstanding wine producers, including Freycinet, Spring Vale, Milton, Devil's Corner, Gala Estate and others. 

So alongside beaches, beautiful landscapes, accessible national parks, and its relaxed pace, it is also an excellent weekend gourmet getaway with cellar doors less visited than those in the Hobart region and on the Tamar Valley Wine Route. 

The East Coast’s fresh, locally grown produce is known globally and the East Coast Wine Trail is a new route designed to further add to the region's renown, 

The East Coast Wine Trail features a range of diverse cellar doors from the ultra-modern Devil's Corner (below) to rustic Gala Estate. 

Sparkling wines shine here, but so do table wines made from pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris and even cabernet sauvignon. 

One of the secrets of the region's success is the fact the growing conditions are similar to many of the great wine regions of Europe - with mild summers and long autumn days creating the perfect ripening conditions for the grapes. 

One astonishing view on the East Coast Wine Trail can be found at Devil’s Corner cellar door and lookout, which overlooks the lush wetlands of Moulting Lagoon and beyond to the ruggedly beautiful Hazards Mountains on the Freycinet Peninsula.
The East Coast Wine Trail follows the path of one of the world’s most spectacular coastal journeys—the Great Eastern Drive.
This drive begins in Orford, in the state’s south, and extends 176 kilometres north to St Helens, near the spectacular Bay of Fires.

For full details see:

Sunday 25 September 2016

Accommodation that is charmingly and rustically English

Walking up the two levels of stairs to the upper rooms of the gorgeous old Swan Hotel it is easy to feel disoriented; as if you have enjoyed one or two glasses of red wine too many. 

The reason is because the stairs are of different sizes, heights and angles - due to the fact they date back to the 1550s. 

Yes, you read that right, the oldest parts of this charming old coaching in the rural county of Norfolk date back almost to the era of King Henry XIII. 

There are 15 rooms in all; some as modern as the 1800s. There are bars, a restaurant, lounge, and quirky charm galore. 

Harleston is a delightful market town around 30 minutes from Norwich and the perfect base from which to explore the beautiful and totally unspoiled Waveney Valley. 

Rooms start from £60 a night and go up to £95 for a four-poster bed and £135 for the honeymoon suite. 

If you like a little slice of England as she used to be you've come to the right place. 

Both the town and the hotel are old school, charming and well worth exploring. And, if you are reading this, the free wifi works well. 

Downsides: poor water pressure, hot water takes a while to arrive and very basic bathroom amenities. 

Those, however, are a very small price to pay for such an authentic experience.

The Swan, The Thoroughfare, Harleston, Norfolk. 01379 852221 

Saturday 24 September 2016

A Paris hotel for those in a towering hurry

The Mercure Paris Centre Eiffel Tower is one of those hotels that actually lives up to its name. 

It is literally two blocks from the Eiffel Tower, on the same street as the Australian Embassy - expensive real estate. 

Being in the perfect location for anyone who wants to get up close and personal with Gustave Eiffel's masterpiece might explain the elevated prices guests pay here. 

A walk up at the hotel last night paid well over €200 for a basic box of a room with a frankly tiny shower and bathroom.  

Those lucky enough to get upgraded to a "privilege" room were rewarded with the use of a bathrobe (which was far too small for me) and complimentary water and soft drinks. Certainly don't expect anyone to help with your bags, or hail you a cab. 

The rooms offered free wifi, iPhone chargers and other basics but were unremarkable other than for their bright decor. 

Now Paris is an expensive city. Understood. And the young staff at the Mercure were keen and multilingual. 

But the prices here (€4.50 for a small bottle of soft drink) mark the hotel as one aimed firmly at the lazy tourism market. 

If you have one night in town and absolutely want to be at the Eiffel Tower then it is perfect. Otherwise....

Mercure Paris Eiffel Tower, 20 rue Jean Rey, Paris 75015. 0825 80 17 17.

Thursday 22 September 2016

A two star Michelin lunch experience

Lunch at La Table de Franck Putelat at Le Parc in Carcassonne, France. 

A slick, suave experience with impressive food and slightly snotty service. I was the guest of a winery, so will focus here on the good experience. 

Chef Putelat has held two Michelin stars since 2012 and although he was not in evidence the kitchen still delivered. 

Almost full on a Wednesday out of peak season. A positive sign. Many guests were no doubt drawn by the excellent-value €40 lunch deal including a glas of wine - but we went the Full Monty. 

A couple of inventive amuse bouche offerings; followed by olive oil with foccacia; then a boullaibausse with duck foie gras, mussels, clams and saffron followed by a wonderfully moist and fresh piece of John Dory served with chewy sea snails, potatoes and parsnips. 

Coffee came with a delightful, and colourful, selection of bite-sized sweet things. 

The set menu offers formidable value even allowing for some slightly shoddy service and an impossibly complicated system to access the wifi. 

Alert, too, for Anglophones: do not be surprised to see dogs sitting at the owners' table. 

La Parc, Table de Franck Putelat, 80 Chemin des Anglais, Carcassonne. 

# The writer was a guest of Domaine Paul Mas. 

Monday 19 September 2016

Seppelt looks forward after 150 years at Great Western

After a short period when it looked as if Seppelt's historic Great Western facility would be closed for good, things are once again looking bright, although the winemaking has been switched to South Australia.

A deal with a local business group means the cellars and 3km of atmospheric underground cellars will remain open to the public – and wine tastings will continue as normal.

It is, in fact, a time of celebration with one of the oldest cellar doors in Australia marking its 150-year anniversary and the 50th release of its iconic old-vines St Peters Shiraz.

Owners Treasury Wine Estates are now including Seppelt as part of their “Regional Gems” initiative announced in January to showcase smaller regional wineries.
Seppelt is one of the oldest wineries in Victoria, with a history dating back to 1865 – but there is nothing old- fashioned about the brand.

Winemaker Adam Carnaby recently showed off an outstanding table wine made from 100% pinot meunier, and announced that future plans involve a gruner veltliner made from the company's cool Drumborg vineyards.
Tours of the property’s underground wine drives — which were hand-carved by miners in the 1800s — will continue, and accommodation and function facilities will remain open.

The heart and soul of the wines is in the vineyards, much more so than where the wines are made,” Carnaby said. “When it comes to the wines, we are custodians of great vineyards.
We’ve got great resources — Drumborg down in south-western Victoria, which is a great cool-climate vineyard, 150 years of winemaking here in the Grampians and also vineyards in central Victoria, so the brand has never been in a better place than in recent times,” he said.
It’s feeling really positive.” 

Founded in 1851, Seppelt sources fruit from Great Western, Henty/Drumborg, and Heathcote. It was one of the first Australian wineries to produce commercial sparkling wines and helped pioneer sparkling shiraz.

Some of Australia's greatest winemakers have worked at the facility, including founder Joseph Best, Hans Irvine, Benno and Karl Seppelt, Colin Preece and Ian McKenzie.   

# The writer was a guest of Seppelt Great Western

Sunday 18 September 2016

Micro brewing booms in North-East Victoria

Three new micro-breweries crafting on-site and serving up a range of handmade ales have joined the four founding members of Victoria's High Country Brewery Trail, which now extends the length and breadth of the region.
The newcomers are Social Bandit Brewing Company in MansfieldBlizzard Brewing Company in Dinner Plain and the Rutherglen Brewery (below). 

They join the four established north-east Victorian craft brewers: the Bright BreweryBlack Dog Brewery in TaminickBridge Road Brewers in Beechworth and Sweetwater Brewing Company in Mount Beauty. 

To  celebrate the new-look trail, all seven brewers will converge on Blizzard Brewing on September 21 to brew a commemorative Belgian Ale under their established High Country Brewery Trail label, Rule #47. 

For the first time, the event will be the focus of a Facebook Live session at 12.30pm when Australian Brews News hosts a live Q&A from Blizzard with two of the High Country brewers, Ben Kraus from @Bridge Road Brewers and James Booth from @Black Dog Brewery.
The Rule #47 brew will be sold in cans (pictured) rather than bottles, as well as on tap at each of the microbreweries around the region.
The High Country Brewery Trail now meanders from Mansfield at the foot of Mt Buller through the picturesque Goulburn Valley to the foot of the Warby Ranges, along the King and Ovens valleys, climbing the Alpine peaks to Dinner Plain, descending to the Kiewa Valley and across the Murray River plains to Rutherglen. It offers a perfect way to explore the entire High Country region.

Rule #47: Life is short, don’t waste it on bad beer.

For details see 

Saturday 17 September 2016

Vietnam resort ready to challenge Thailand

Thailand and Bali. Many Australian travellers s have visited both destinations several times and are looking for somewhere new for their next Asian adventure. 

The operators of The Anam, a new Vietnamese beach resort outside Nha Trang, are betting that Vietnam is the next big thing. 

The Anam is an independently-operated luxurious all-villa five-star resort that aims to set a new benchmark in hospitality at the resort destination.

Looking to combining "colonial-era charm and service with 21st-century design and convenience", The Anam has just undergone a soft opening ahead of a grand opening at the end of the year.

Set on a private beach and staffed with butlers, valets and concierge staff, The Anam aims to hark back to a bygone era of service and style. 

Will it work? I'll hopefully report back later in the year. 

“Vietnam is known for its genuine, warm-hearted people and a dedicated attitude to life. At The Anam we embrace this natural advantage by offering highly discerning levels of service while ensuring guests enjoy uniquely curated destination and resort experiences,” said GM Duncan MacLean. 

“We are extremely proud that despite having only recently opened, The Anam is one of only six hotels and resorts worldwide to be recognised and included in the World Luxury category by Worldhotels,” he added.

Accommodation includes suites and villas, including beachside accommodation with private pools. The on-site Sri Mara Spa, named after the first Cham King, offers a range of private treatment rooms with all the therapists trained in the art of Balinese massage.

A wide range of recreational activities – from water sports to tennis and yoga – plus a fully equipped fitness centre allows guests to create their own agenda each day - and the private beach is patrolled by internationally certified lifeguards trained by Surf Life Saving Australia.

A Beach Club sits right next to the pool and there’s also Satay Bar and the resort’s signature Indochine Café. 

The Anam is located on Northern Cam Ranh Peninsula, just 15 minutes from Cam Ranh International Airport, and 30 minutes from Nha Trang city centre.

To celebrate its four-month soft opening phase until December 21, The Anam is offering a special 40% soft opening discount. 

For more details see:

Friday 16 September 2016

Friday Feasts: Tasmania's new gourmet drawcard

It's a lunch in the country, combined with a farm tour to get up close and personal with the resident pigs, cows, chickens, and vegetables. 

But Tasmania's newest gourmet drawcard is no ordinary lunch, and this is no ordinary farm tour. 

We are at the 70-acre Fat Pig Farm, home of TV's Gourmet Farmer, and the food is cooked in an open kitchen by Matthew Evans himself and some of his trusty helpers, including cookbook author and stylish stylist Michelle Crawford. 

The new restaurant on the Evans farm in the Huon Valley is rustic but delightfully stylish and bookings for the rest of the year are filling fast because meals are served just one day a week - on Fridays. 

This is locavore lunches taken to the extreme. Look, lunch and learn.

All the meat and vegetables are grown, cooked and eaten on the property, and the first wine is from a vineyard that you can see through the window. 

"We are literally driven by the garden, by what is growing each Friday," says Evans, who runs the farm with his partner Sadie Chrestman. 

The lunches - today's was just the third, are held in an informal long-table setting and draw both locals and interstate guests. Evans talks about his ethos and ideas and proudly shows off a rapidly expanding potager to his guests between main course and dessert. Questions are welcome.

The food is simple but delicious. A bacon and bean soup on arrival, followed by ham, pastrami, rhubarb pickle and a radish, paired with wood-oven-baked focaccia and house-churned butter.

Next up; nettle and feta spinach pie in home-made filo served with a salad of Japanese turnips, winter cress, and greens. Good enough to convert the most avid carnivore.

The main course is moist Wessex saddleback roast pork with a mountain of crackling, served with wine-braised leeks, roasted potatoes, carrots, parsnips, pumpkins, and fennel. Help yourself to as much as you can eat, with maybe some extra crackling. 

After our farm tour, where we met young pigs and ultra-healthy looking vegetable plots, we feast on old-school golden syrup dumplings with warm custard served alongside a blackcurrant and gin hot toddy in a camp-style mug. 

Today's drinks include Elsewhere Vineyard 2013 Riesling, Bruny Island Lighthouse Ale and Home Hill Landslide Pinot Noir, but Willie Smith's Cider and wines from the likes of Sailor Seeks Horse also make an appearance depending on the menu. All are made within a half hour of the farm. 

To book for a Friday Feast, farm picnic or cooking class, go to or ring 0415 168 285. Friday Feasts are a fixed price of $130, fully inclusive of the farm tour, long, lazy lunch and matched drinks. 

# The writer was a guest of Fat Pig Farm 


Exploring one of Canada's best leisure destinations

Kingston, Ontario. The odds are pretty good that you have never heard of this pretty town on the shores of Lake Ontario in Canada.

But Kingston and the nearby Thousand Islands waterways are some of Canada's best-kept leisure secrets. 

The region is ideally placed for tourists; located midway between Toronto and Montreal and at the head of the St Lawrence River. Kingston is known for its parks and attractive waterfront.

Originally a French trading post in the 17th-century, almost absurdly picturesque Kingston was Canada's first capital in 1841 and today has a population of 160,000.

Although it soon became far less prominent and the capital moved to Ottawa, Kingston is today known as the "Limestone City" because of the many heritage buildings constructed using local limestone.

But don't let the old buildings fool you; Kingston is a lively spot largely because it is home to both Queen's University, founded in 1841, and the Royal Military College. It has been named one of the "best places to live and work in Canada”.

The city hosts several festivals during the year, including the Kingston WritersFest, Limestone City Blues Festival, the Kingston Canadian Film Festival, Artfest, the Kingston Buskers' Rendezvous, Kingston Jazz Festival, Reelout Film Festival, Feb Fest and the Wolfe Island Music Festival.

The capital of Ottawa is 150km away, Watertown in New York State even closer should you want a day trip to the US. And there are regular trains between Toronto and Montreal stopping at Kingston, although most locals prefer to drive.

Kingston is one of the premier cruising and sailing venues in North America and is known as “the freshwater sailing capital of the world” with easy access to Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, and the Thousand Islands, including the St Lawrence Islands National Park. 

A range of boats can be rented from the Treasure Island Marina (below) - which happens to be owned by my sister and brother-in-law.  

There is a hop-on, hop-off trolley that visits several historic sites, including City Hall, the Royal Military College of Canada, the Fort Henry UNESCO World Heritage site, the Marine and Pumphouse Steam museums, Queen's University, and Springer Square, which hosts farmers markets and is home to restaurants, cafés and boutiques.

The small and very pretty town of Gananoque (28km east of Kingston) is popular with visitors during the summer months.

Whether you are a walker (the town is surrounded by hiking trails), or a beer lover, Gananoque is a lovely spot to kill some time. Just 30-minutes from Kingston, it is a quintessential North American small town with a number of old heritage inns offering tourist accommodation.

Eat at the rustic Socialist Pig, or classy Italian restaurant Riva, go fishing (you need a licence) or enjoy a tasting paddle at the Gananoque Brewing Company (below), set in a refurbished old mill and renowned as one of Ontario's best boutique brewers.


Qantas operates daily services to Los Angeles and Dallas Fort Worth, connecting with partner American Airlines to Toronto. See Kingston can be reached by plane, bus, car or train from Toronto.

Leading hotels include The Delta Kingston Waterfront Hotel, Residence Inn and Best Western Fireside Inn, although many visitors prefer to stay in one of Kingston's historic inns, including the Frontenac Club Inn, Rosemount Inn and Spa and the Secret Garden Inn.

Thursday 15 September 2016

The best time of the year to enjoy gourmet Slovenia

I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Slovenia a couple of years ago; and found it one of the most captivating countries I had visited. 

Slovenia is scenically beautiful, welcoming and largely unspoiled by mass package tourism.

It was also a destination that offered good food and wine experiences; and the European autumn is promoted as the best time to sample local gourmet goods as food from the countryside floods into the Ljubljana central market. 

It is also the time when most traditional culinary and wine events take place in the historic and charming capital.

The Ljubljana Wine Route festival is held on first Saturday in November in the old city centre. 

It marks St. Martin's Day, when, according to Slovenian tradition, grape must officially turns to wine. The event includes tastings of new-vintage wine and culinary delights served from stalls set up in front of the old city centre's bars and restaurants.

November also sees Slovenian Wine Festival and Culinary Festival at the Grand Hotel Union. The two festivals, held simultaneously, offer visitors an excellent opportunity to get to know Slovenian wines and enjoy various culinary delights. 

In the recent years, Slovenia has experienced a culinary boom. Ljubljana's chefs, restaurants and traditional dishes are gaining increasing acclaim and attention all over the world.

Culinary tours and trips include food tastings in various restaurants in the Ljubljana city centre, as well as in the countryside surrounding the city are on offer, and visitors can also attend a Slovenian cooking workshop and a traditional Slovenian evening with dinner, music and dancing. There's also a chocolate festival coming up. 

Ljubljananjam food walks (above) are a three-hour culinary ramble through the city centre, tasting various hot and cold snacks and main dishes while sampling craft beer, wine, tea and coffee.
For full details visit:

Wednesday 14 September 2016

Still time to book for one of Tasmania's best gourmet events

Tastings at the Top, hosted annually by Peppers Cradle Mountain Lodge, is traditionally one of Tasmania's best gourmet events. 

The iconic wilderness lodge has held the event  for 22 years and played a key role in spreading the word about Tasmania's fast-emerging wine and food culture. 

The announcement of this year's event was somewhat delayed, meaning there are still some tickets available for the weekend of September 23-24. 

Tastings at the Top 2016 features a Friday afternoon cocktail/canapes party hosted by general manager Oliver Strickland, while Saturday is devoted to exploring the very best produce that Tasmania has to offer, culminating in a grand dinner on Saturday night. 

Guests have the opportunity when booking to select the culinary activities and options they would like to experience. These include cooking classes or a wine and cheese tasting with local producers and winemakers. 

Hellyers Road Distillery, Red Cow Dairy and wine experts Angus Peel from Devil's Corner and Jeremy Dineen (below) from Josef Chromy Wines are among the star attractions.

The package price includes two nights’ accommodation at Cradle Mountain Lodge, cocktail party, welcome dinner and the grand dinner on the Saturday night, plus breakfast daily and selected activities. 

To book ring 1300 806 192 or email

Tuesday 13 September 2016

New book is a bible for Australian spirits lovers

From a country that was known for mass-produced rums and rudimentary brandies to a nation of high-quality artisan distilleries, the Australian spirits industry has made huge strides in recent decades. 

Over the past 25 years, thanks in no small part to Bill Lark's pioneering efforts in Tasmania, there are now over 50 quality producers of gin, whisky, vodka, brandy and other more exotic spirits spread from the Kimberley in Western Australia to North Queensland.

"And some of them are up there with the best in the world," says Luke McCarthy in his introduction to his new book The Australian Spirits Guide.

This new bible for spirit lovers celebrates the past and present of Australia’s spirits industry and features distillers in all six states, along with some intriguing cocktail recipes. 

The artisan Australian spirits industry has boomed thanks to the efforts of the likes of Lark's Hobart distillery and global successes of brands like West Winds and Four Pillars. 

In the same year that multiple Australian gins won gold medals at international competitions, an Australian single malt whisky was crowned the best in the world. 

Author Luke McCarthy is a writer who has visited distillers and blenders in Scotland, Ireland, the United States, France, Spain, Taiwan and, of course, across Australia. 

His book is a comprehensive guide to a thriving Australian industry. 

The Australian Spirits Guide: Luke McCarthy. Hardie Grant Books. $39.99. Officially released October 2016.