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Walking in the Asturias 

Inntravel call our walk the Picos de Europa, but I feel it is more accurate to call it The Asturias walk, as we turn our backs on that impressive mountain range,  and the Picos National Park, as we walk out of Arenas de Cabrales and into our 6 day walk. The walk will take us from the mountains to the sea, through a verdant green landscape with many ups and downs as we traverse different mountain ranges.

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The name Asturias comes from the region’s Celtic origins, and helps explain the predilection for cider, and the Celtic music that is on repeat in one of the restaurants we visit. Apparently, the local Celts, or Astures, were subdued but never completely conquered by the Romans. Or, indeed the following Moors. The mountains and the rugged life involved was not for the faint hearted of any kind. And that is probably still the case.

However, it has become a very popular area with Spanish holiday makers. The combination of rugged mountains, deep green pastures and beautiful beaches, plus a plethora of stone houses and cabins dotted through the countryside, has resulted in booming local tourism and the buying up of property to restore as holiday houses, or chalets as they tend to be known. We get the impression that there is more money in this region than we have seen elsewhere – villages and hamlets may be quiet and empty but they are not neglected, with many beautiful traditional homes to be seen.

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We spend our days accompanied by the constant harmony of bells – the deeper clang of the cow bells with the goat, sheep and horse bells adding a higher note. We are never far from their clanging, tinkling and jangling. Combined with the mountain backdrop, I keep expecting Heidi and Grandfather to appear round the next bend. But, to my disappointment we see virtually no else on the tracks we follow, however we do come across a lovely Maremma dog guarding a herd of goats one day. He is torn between his desire to say Hello and protecting his flock. The flock won out, and he shepherded them away from the path, so no photo I’m afraid.

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Birdsong is also constant, as there are many forests. I hear my first cuckoo, much to my delight. And birds of prey are often gliding above us, enjoying the updrafts from the valleys.

The tracks we follow are often little more than animal tracks. Compass and close examination of maps is occasionally required. Thank goodness for the detailed walk notes provided by Inntravel, and the bush walking ability of The Husband (except for his spectacular map misreading on one day – more of that later). Some sections we are forced to do battle with gorse bushes and blackberries, and have the scratches to prove it.

The food is probably the only let down of the walk. The Asturians seem to believe in quantity, of very basic meals. The portions are invariably huge, but several times we just push it around our plate and leave most behind. And oh for vegetables.

Day 1: Arenas de Cabrales to Pandiello, 18 kms, total ascent 1108 m, total descent 700m.

Our first day, through birch, oak and sycamore forests, affords us many views back to the Central and Western Massif mountains that make up the Picos. We even manage to get another look at the iconic Naranjo de Bulnes, or Urriello, as the clouds part for us.

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The morning starts with a consistent climb up the hills that we could see in the foreground from our room at Hotel Torrecerredo. In fact, at one point we can spy the hotel from our hilltop.

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We then drop down into the little village of Carreña, where we stop for a coffee, and a slice of cake kindly provided by the owner. He has gone to a lot of trouble decorating his bar, and his pride in the establishment is evident. I had visions of the coffee and cake scenario being repeated on subsequent days, but this proves to be the only village we pass through with either a bar/restaurant, or one that is open. Much to my disappointment. Lucky it was such a nice one then.

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After coffee it is back to walking up again, as we climb towards the top of yet another mountain range. In fact, over the course of the walk I come to dread downs, as I know they will be followed by more ups and I feel I have just wasted all that effort to get the top. But, the reward for the hard slogs uphill are the vistas of the mountains all around us, and later, the sea beyond.

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Our destination for our first night is the tiny hamlet of Pandeillo, perched on the side of a hill and the Casa de Aldea la Portiella del Llosu (the name is almost longer than the village). Our host, José, has meticulously restored an old stone house, and has also been partly responsible for designing the walk.


After showering and changing, we tell José that we are going out to have a walk around the village. He says that he will see us back in 5 minutes, and he is not far off. There is little sign of life, although many of the houses have been lovingly restored. We suspect many of them may be weekenders or holiday homes, as having a chalet (or holiday house) in the Asturias seems very popular.

So, we return to our cosy little hotel and settle in with a bottle of red wine. José cooks an enormous meal that evening, and uncommonly serves it to us at 8pm. Thank goodness, as we are more than ready for bed after the day’s walk.

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Day 2: Pandeillo to Bobia de Arriba, 18 kms, total ascent 803m, total descent 800m

Although this reads like a less strenuous day than yesterday, it was actually much harder going as the climbs were much steeper. I felt at the top that we were in the eagles’ lair itself, with views across to the Bay of Biscay, and mountains everywhere you looked. We were bombarded with colours of green and blue. Beautiful. Breathtaking – in both senses of the word.

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The day started innocently enough with a walk to the next village of Canales. As we walked through the village a car came to a grinding halt. It was Jim, mine host from Hotel Torrecerredo! A quick chat, and off we go in our different directions. Ours takes us up a dirt road, past a disused mine, before we start to rise steadily.

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Our notes warn us that the mid section of the walk, where we tackle the Sierra Gustaselvin, requires good visibility as the tracks are indistinct and the drops down into valleys are vertiginous in parts. Our day is clear blue in all directions, so onwards and upwards we press.

Up at the top we share the view with the Asturias ponies grazing on the pastures, and the birds of prey. We think they are buzzards, but are not sure.

But, all this up makes for a long, slow walk down to our base for the night, Bobia de Arriba and Hotel Rural El Rexacu, and we arrive grubby and weary; falling  upon a glass of wine before tackling the stairs to our room.

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Bobia is a tiny hamlet, made up of two parallel rows of houses, all facing yet another mountain range. Despite its small size, the hotel is relatively substantial – with 15 rooms, a bar and restaurant. That night, it is obvious that the bar is something of a meeting spot for visitors and locals alike. We join in, chatting to a lovely lady who has excellent English thank heavens, as our Spanish continues to be virtually non existent.

Our room has a little sitting area, with views across the village to the distant mountain range. Lovely.

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Day 3: Covadonga Lakes to Bobia de Arriba.

This was the day Himself got it wrong. We were supposed to walk about 14kms, with an ascent of 410m and descent of 1080m. But, we managed to walk 20kms, with an ascent of 910 metres!!!

It all started innocently enough with a 40 minute taxi ride to the Covadonga Lakes. The drive up is windy and steep, and today there was a bike/run/walking race on up the mountainside. I was very very grateful to be doing the climb in the back of a taxi, and not on my feet. Crazy people. The ascent from Covadonga to Los Lagos is a key stage in the Vuelta a España. At 12.6 kms, it has an average gradient of 7.3%. In one section this increases to 15% over 800 metres. This hill climb has broken hearts, little did I know that I was going to join them!

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As the car climbed we caught glimpses of the amazing views we would see once at the top. And then the gorgeous Our Lady of Covadonga Monastery came into view. More wows. The basilica was built to house a statue of Mary that is believed to have helped the Christians defeat the Moors in an 8th century battle. The current Monastery dates back to the 16th century, and is a place of pilgrimage.

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When we finally reach the lakes themselves I am already punch drunk from the beauty we have seen, but there is more to come. Los Lagos de Covadonga consists of two glacial lakes, Enol and Ercina, and are actually in the Picos de Europa National Park. Lake Enol is 1,070 metres above sea level and Ercina tops it at 1,108 metres above sea level. Behind the lakes are snow covered mountains. In the distance is the Bay of Biscay. Stunning.

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We are dropped off beside Enol, and then walk over the lip to Ercina, where we stop into the restaurant for a coffee. It is over coffee that we hatch the plan to abandon the walk notes and take a shortcut up beside Ercina, with the intention of joining back into the intended walk just behind the hill in front of us.

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Our problem is that there are two paths, initially travelling in similar trajectories. We miss seeing the second path and head off, at a brisk pace, away from where we thought we were. And despite me saying, on several occasions, We are doing a lot more climbing than I expected, we keep making like mountain goats ever upwards. As we almost reach the top, Himself calls a halt and we finally agree that we have gone wrong somewhere. Problem is, we are not exactly sure where we are, but we do know we have to go down. So down we go, then regroup in a valley basin.

We finally place our trust in the Maps.Me app and let it guide us down the mountain over non existent tracks. After half an hour we finally get back to the spot we should have been 3 hours earlier. From there it is a slow and very tired trudge down, down, down. I refuse to talk to himself until finally back at the Hotel and have been revived with a very big gin tonic.

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It’s all I can do not to fall asleep in the soup that night. But, it has given us a tale to tell for years to come.

Day 4: Bobia de Arriba to El Allende, 13.5 km, total ascent 580m, total descent 710m.

Thank goodness today was a shorter, easier day as the legs were  feeling a little tired.  We were driven to the hamlet of Cuerres to start walking, which made the section more than manageable.

At one stage we were walking through a eucalypt forest, with a thick carpet of leaves and bark. The smell of gum trees transported us back home, albeit home with the clang of cow bells.

We stopped for our picnic lunch in the small town of Riocalente. Here we sit amongst the cluster of hórreos and a charming sculpture of a market woman, with an attendant, and very hopeful, puppy.


Hórreos are everywhere in the region, and are essentially a wooden food storage shed on a raised platform, supported by 4 pillars, each with a rodent barrier to keep the precious food supplies safe. We have seen them in all states of repair, from derelict to beautifully restored. They are quite beautiful.

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Our home for the night is Casa Rural Montaña Mágica, or Magic Mountain. The source of the name is twofold. One is the view of the Picos we get from our bedroom window. This will be our last view of this magnificent mountain range, so we sit on our lounge chairs and drink in the view. The other influence on the name is the novel Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (not one I’m familiar with).

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The setting is just lovely, but the evening meal is a low point in this culinary journey through the Asturias. I watched as other tables pushed their food around the plate also – a plate of admittedly soft but completely tasteless octopus (boiled perhaps?) with slabs of boiled potato, and an Asturian version of a parma, with soggy chips.

Day 5: El Allende to La Pereda, 19 kms, total ascent 690m, total descent 870m

This was a day of choices as 3 different routes were on offer: a lift to the coast then walk along the coast to Llanes; an easy walk along the valley; or the high route option, up into the hills to reach a pass overlooking the sea. The last route was only recommended in good visibility as once more it was on indistinct paths. As it was to be our last day in the mountains, and the weather was fine, we opted for the high route.

We caught a lift with the luggage down to the village of Vibano, which saved us a 2km descent. We hop out and then stand looking at the map and walk notes, trying to work out where exactly we are. A lady hanging out her washing on her balcony spies us and comes down, in her housecoat and slippers, to ask whether we need help with directions – in Spanish. Somehow, between us, we manage to communicate, with many hand gestures. The one thing I clearly understand, when she works out where we are headed, is Mal camino (bad path). This does not inspire confidence, but it turns out that, although indistinct in parts and we do have to battle gorse and blackberries in a few spots, the path isn’t too mal and we find our way through.

It is a slow but steady climb for several hours, up the hills towards a lovely hidden valley. We pass only one other person along the way – an elderly farmer coming down the hill, using a crutch to help him. His grizzled look tells us he is used to this trek, so we had better man up and stop puffing.

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We use the cabañas, in various states of repair, to help guide us. A cabaña is a stone hut, used as housing by the shepherds and mountain farmers. Some we have seen through this journey have been lovingly restored, probably to be used as weekenders. Others have seen better days. But they make good way markers in the walk notes.

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After about 2 and a half hours of steady ascent, on tracks made by horses and cows, we finally emerged at the very end of the valley and stood at the edge of the cliff face, looking down to the coast spread out before us. Unfortunately, a sea mist blurred the view but it was still a great feeling of achievement.

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The zig zag path down the face of the cliff wasn’t quite so much fun, nor was the hour walk through the slightly spooky forest at the base, riddled as it was by paths made by pesky dirt bikes.

But, we finally made it through the forest and back into civilisation. Tiredness was starting to set in, but spirits revived as the path took us through some charming villages complete with the grand homes of the Indianos. In the late 1800s, early 1900s much of the population emigrated to South America to make their fortune. Having made their money, many then returned to the Asturias and built grand mansions. These returnees were known as the Indianos, and they have left behind a legacy of magnificent houses that are slowly being restored to their former grandeur by a new generation of wealthy migrants to the region.


Our home for the next two nights, Posada del Babel, sits in the charming village of La Pereda, just outside the seaside town of Llanes. It comes as something of a surprise as whilst the main house is a simplified recreation of more traditional architecture, the owner’s home that sits in front, and the separate guest accommodation behind, are a vision of modernity – and well before their time as they were built in 1997.

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The Posada is a delight – simply but beautifully decorated , dotted with some fabulous works of art. There is currently a photographic exhibition on the walls, by a famous Spanish photographer and his daughter. Our hosts are Blanca and Lucas, but sadly Lucas is currently in hospital awaiting surgery. Whilst it is a worrying time for Blanca, she does not let this interfere with being a charming hostess and we are graciously welcomed, muddy boots and all.

Lucas is the chef so evening meals are not currently available. No matter, as Blanca has booked us into their favourite restaurant in Llanes, La Cuiera, for dinner both nights – and acts as our chauffeur there and back. It is in fact the best food we have had since leaving San Sebastián, although I am sorry not to have been able to sample Lucas’s cooking.

“We” has become 4, as another couple had been on the same walk from Bobia. An American couple, originally from Seattle but now retired in Hawaii. Once we established they were card carrying Democrats, we got on fine.

Day 6: La Pereda to Llanes and return, 10km, flat.

Our last day was a day of rest – sleep in, late breakfast and stroll into Llanes for a look and lunch, stroll back. Very pleasant.

The walk in is both easy, and pleasant. Llanes is a fishing town that is making the most of being a tourist attraction for locals and foreigners alike. It is also on the Camino Norde route, so there is the constant tramping through of Camino pilgrims.

We have a good look around the medieval centre, and go down to the port to admire both the fishing boats returning with their catch, and the Cubos de la Memoria – the painted concrete cubes that are part of the breakwater. They were painted by artist Agustin Ibarrola, a now elderly Basque painter and sculptor. We had come across him on our visit to Spain in 2015, as he is the artist that created the Painted Forest of Oma.


Lunch is taken by the river – sharing an anchovy & endive salad and a delicious plate of lightly fried prawns, with crispy, crunchy shells. Washed down with a glass, or two, of vino. An excellent way to finish what has been an interesting, occasionally challenging, walk through yet another region of this diverse and fascinating country.

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And wonder of wonders, apart from the one day of rain when we walked the Cares Gorge, we have managed to do this walk with no rain. That is a miracle for us, particularly given this region is a deep, deep green for a reason. So, I send a big Thank You to the walking Gods. Perhaps the curse has been lifted!

Sail Ho!

The following words were ones I thought I would never hear myself utter, but wonders will never cease and here goes: I spent 3 days and nights on a yacht, and enjoyed it! Himself is the yachtie of the family, taking to the high seas, or more accurately the Bay, each week, but me ….. no thank you very much. So what then changed my mind? It was the lure of the beautiful Sydney waterways that sunk the hook in, and the company I would be doing it in sealed the deal.

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Local friends have taken the plunge (excuse the pun) and bought a yacht, a lovely little DuFour, which was, and still is, moored in Pittwater above Sydney. Captain Janet escapes to it whenever she can, so when I heard she & Best Mate Pete were going to be spending a fair bit of time aboard in January and February I invited ourselves along. Fortunately, they agreed. So it was that we met them at their mooring at Church Point after our Canberra sojourn.

We loaded ourselves on board and after a brief tour of the galley and snug cabins (there are 3) and instructions on how to use the loo (slightly terrifying), off we went. The wind was up so the sail up Pittwater towards Lion Island was brisk. Wednesday afternoon sailing competitions were in full flight, which was how we found ourselves staring down Wild Oats as she whisked across our bow. It was certainly an exhilarating introduction to sailing. I thought the wisest thing was to stay very much out of harm’s way, so installed myself on the so called Princess Seat, pretty much for the duration of the adventure. Perched out of the way I could see everything but not get into any trouble.

We turned left at Lion Island and headed off down Cowan Creek to find a small cove and mooring for lunch. Then ventured further down Cowan Creek towards Bobbin Head for a mooring for the night. The sky was clear, the wind was gentle and the stars were out. Best sleep I’ve ever had, enclosed in the cocoon of the berth and rocked gently to sleep (helped by the fact it was nigh on impossible to wiggle out of the bed, and going to the loo in the middle of the night was out of the question unless I wanted to wake everyone up – amazing how the senior bladder can last when necessity, and fear, demands it).

The morning is still and beautiful. How lovely to be greeted by the sun rising over the eucalyptus adorned hills and lighting up the surrounding forest.

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Breakfast over we return up Cowan Creek to the mouth of the Hawkesbury River. We can only go as far as the Hawkesbury Rail Bridge, just beyond Dangar Island, as the mast won’t fit under the bridge. So, we have a little mosey around before heading back around the island and return to Cowan Creek. Moor, lunch, swim to a little sheltered beach, wander around, swim back to the boat – luckily avoiding the masses of jellyfish that populate parts of Cowan Creek.

Lunch over,  we set sail for Smith’s Creek, deep in the heart of Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park.  The colours of the trees and the variations and shapes of the rocks are stunning. Overhead we admire sea eagles cruising the sky in search of dinner. We see plenty of fish in the clear waters, but only manage to catch one small one who is very grateful, but highly traumatised, to be set free.

Repeat the behaviour from the previous night – drinks and snacks on the deck before an excellent BBQ meal and then early to bed.

Another glorious morning greets us.

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Heading back up Cowan Creek we pass Cottage Point. Apparently the restaurant there is famous, but it is the Cottage Point General Store that is calling to us this morning as I am sure a coffee awaits, and sure enough, coffee can indeed be had (and a cream tea if we had been so inclined). We moor the yacht and clamber into the tender and row across to the General Store. Ah, this is the life.

Back into Palana and we set sail to the Hawkesbury’s mouth and then into Pittwater. We head for Barrenjoey Beach, moor and row to the beach. A short hike through the dunes has us out on Palm Beach, or what younger TV viewers might know as the beach in Home and Away.  We pose for photos before heading back for a swim off the boat and lunch.

It is then a tack down Pittwater and around Scotland Island before landing back at Church Point. Time to wash down the yacht and pack things away before heading off to the Waterfront Store at Church Point Wharf for a cheerful evening meal – excellent pizzas, despite the fact the owners are Nepalese!

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We return to spend the night on the boat and then alas, it is time to pack and leave.  Bye bye Palana, you little beauty.  Thank you so much Janet and Peter for having us aboard.

Culture in Canberra

Who would have thought that I would visit Canberra, the never missed home of my youth, not once but twice in 12 months (and, have plans to visit again later in the year). Wonders will never cease, but then Canberra today bears little resemblance to the place I grew up in. Nowadays there is a good café on almost every corner, terrific restaurants and fabulous exhibitions to explore. It is the latter that brings me to Canberra once more.

I had managed to spy, via my incessant social media trawling, an article about the Seven Sisters Songlines exhibition at the National Museum of Australia – and had noticed, to my horror, that it had been running since September but only had a few weeks remaining. This amazing exhibition did not get the publicity it deserved – certainly , the advertising for it came no where near the saturation heights of say the (over rated) Versailles exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia last year, or have I just been living under a rock for the past few months?

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Never mind. I had seen the article and quickly organised a short break to our nation’s capital. And am I glad I did. The exhibition was wonderful. I am constantly humbled at the richness of the Indigenous culture, and equally cross that their stories and art are not an integral part of our education system. Australia is definitely the poorer for not embracing and revelling in all that our Indigenous people can offer us.

I knew about the Songlines, thanks to the beautiful book (written in 1987) of the same name by the legendary Bruce Chatwin. A songline is a path across the land (or sky) taken by “creator beings”. The songlines are recorded in art, song, dance and stories. Armed with the songline, a person can navigate this land as the words of the song describe landmarks, waterholes, food sources. Australia has a network of songlines that traverse different mobs and hence different languages, but the rhythm of the song is the same. As the exhibition notes explain: “Like the epic poems of the great oral traditions, songlines are a way of holding and passing on knowledge.”  How lovely is that.

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This exhibition tells the songline of the Seven Sisters, a bawdy tale about seven sisters who are fleeing across the country, escaping the licentious interest of  Wati Nyiru and his special companion, a super sized penis. Some things never change, across cultures.

The Seven Sisters tale is told in the exhibition through paintings, weavings, pottery and very clever use of audio visual technology. For us, it was a 3 hour immersion in a major story about our land. Exhausting but exhilarating and I am so grateful to have experienced it. The exhibition finishes on February 25th – so get to Canberra quickly.

We had walked to the Museum from our hotel (The Burbury, in Barton) and there is no doubt that Canberra is a beautiful city – orderly, ringed by the Brindabellas, crammed with trees, anchored by Lake Burley Griffin.  The National Museum of Australia sits perched at the end of the Acton Peninsula, overlooking Commonwealth Bridge and the lake.  The day is hot, our feet are tired and our minds full of all that we have seen, so we quickly make our escape to the nearby Hotel Hotel and its dark but cool (in more ways than one) bar, where we collapse on a couch and order a cold drink and share a sandwich to restore ourselves.

Fortified we Uber it to the National Gallery of Australia, where we are able to squeeze in a quick hour before closing time seeing the HyperReality exhibition – beautiful in parts, weird in others, and occasionally poignant.

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As an old Canberra girl it continues to surprise me that our capital city is no longer the culinary wasteland it once was. In fact, quite the opposite as there is a plethora of good restaurants to choose from – just not on Sunday and Monday nights, which of course is when we are there. However, we had managed to find a couple of places open, and had enjoyed our meal at Agostinis (situated underneath the East hotel in Kingston) on our first night.

Tonight we were again in Kingston, this time at Otis Dining Hall, where my yellowfin tuna and compressed watermelon entree (whatever that is, tasted pretty much like normal watermelon) was both beautiful to look at and gorgeous to eat. And, the Braidwood lamb to follow was also darn good.  Good thing we were walking back to the hotel!

Next morning we returned to Maple + Clove for a scrumptious breakfast, followed by coffee at Hideout which touted itself as the best coffee in Canberra. I’m afraid we disagree – in fact, we both left our coffee sitting on the table unfinished. However, it is certainly a popular spot – with 5 barristers pumping it out, and what I’m sure was an out of work actor calling the names of the take away punters as he had the most fabulous voice, which he was putting to great use. Fascinating to watch.

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Not quite properly caffeinated we then set off to walk to the Australian War Memorial, admiring the various memorials adorning ANZAC Parade leading up to the Museum. Looking through the museum can be a daunting task as it is huge, so we decided to join a tour of the WW2 section, taken by one of the voluntary guides. Apart from the exhibits there is an amazing archive of information held at the War Memorial, which allows people to trace and track their serving family members. All in all it was a sobering experience.

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For a complete change of scene we then took ourselves to the National Portrait Gallery to see the excellent Starstruck exhibition – an exhibition of still photographs from the Australian movie industry. Not only were the photographs terrific, but it was grand reliving all the movies we have seen over the years.

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We then hightailed it back to the hotel for a much needed drink, before dining at Lilotang, one of two restaurants downstairs at The Burbury – delicious and different Japanese food.

Once again, a very successful sojourn in our nation’s capital, with body and soul well satisfied and replete. I shall return.

 

Cool Summer in the High Country

It was purely serendipitous that we managed to escape the run of very hot days in Melbourne during our latest trip to Dinner Plain. The timing of the visit was dictated by the public holiday rather than the weather forecast, but how grateful we were to be in 24C rather than the 37- 41C temperatures that plagued Melbourne.  And, no blackouts up there either. There is no doubt that the mountains are a lovely place to be in the height of summer.

As always, the spirits lift as soon as you leave the Hume Highway, heading off tangentially into the Alpine Valley on the road that runs from Oxley and Milawa, through Myrtleford, Porepunkah, Bright and Harrietville before the steep climb up to Mt Hotham and down to Dinner Plain.  We stop in Bright for lunch at Tomahawks, the funky corrugated iron shed in Camp Street that serves very good dude food that caters to all ages.

From there we pop in to the Billy Button Cellar door (11 Camp Street) to stock up on their very good rosé, a 2017 Nebbiolo Barbera called 2 x 2.  I am rather partial to a good rosé in summer. The cellar door is also a handy spot to pick up some yummy cheeses should you be so inclined.

A walk further up the street where it curves around to become Wills Street and we reach the very newly opened Reed & Co Distillery, which co-exists with Sixpence Coffee. The distillery is the lovechild of Hamish Nugent and Rachel Reed, of Tani fame. They have abandoned the life of chefs and restaurateurs for the still, producing their first batch of Remedy Gin, a heady mixture of juniper and mountain berry, lemon myrtle, finger lime and eucalyptus amongst other things.  A small taster of gin was had, washed down by the excellent Sixpence coffee.

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There is more to see, do, eat and drink in Bright but the mountain calls so off we head. Lucky we did as the heavens opened not long after we arrived at the Australian Alpine Club Dinner Plain Lodge, and we were able to watch the torrent from the comfort of the lodge. Others in our party were not so lucky, and arrived somewhat white knuckled from the drive over Mt Hotham which was doing its best to impersonate a waterfall.  But, the deluge was short lived and occurred like clockwork at 5pm each day we were there – short, sharp, noisy, heavy but gone within an hour.

The forecast of rain and thunderstorms for each day did however influence our walking plans, as no one had any desire to be caught out in heavy rain, lightening and thunder. So, we planned morning walks only, which meant covering familiar ground. But, each time we walk these tracks it is different – the colours, the re-growth from the bushfires, the wild flowers. And always the glorious views.

We lunch both days at The General, the only spot open at Mt Hotham. They’ve reworked the offerings since winter, and what a good job they have done. There are 3 burgers on the menu and only 1 comes with chips – how unAustralian but fabulous is that? The lamb kofta burger comes with a serve of green beans whilst the chicken burger comes with bbq’d corn. Both are delicious. There is also an excellent chargrilled watermelon and pomegranate salad on the menu. Way to go Genny.

The evening of Australia Day (or Invasion Day as we prefer to call it) sees us dragging  bean bags and beach chairs to the beginners ski slope at sunset for Travelling Flickerfest – a road show of international and Australian short films from the Flickerfest competition. In honour of “Invasion Day” the films we see are all Australian made, and all are highly enjoyable (although slightly marred by the blurry projection).

The next night Dinner Plain’s very own brewery, Blizzard Brewery, hosted a live gig. The band, twin brothers from Sweden and their Gippsland pianist, were called Amistat. Foot tapping fun. Thanks Blizzard – a great initiative.

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All too soon our 3 nights are over and our party of 8 disbands. We’ve enjoyed a lot of laughs, some exercise, a bit of culture, an immersion in nature, some great food and a bucketload of wine. Unfortunately, the fisherman in our party failed to bring home the goods, but we did not starve! The workers sadly return to the demands of work, but we are lucky enough to be able to continue the mountain experience by moving on to  neighbouring Falls Creek.

We go the back way, down into Omeo, along the very windy Omeo Highway (not for the car sick inclined) and then into Falls Creek along the Bogong High Plains Rd. But first, a pretty good Sensory Lab coffee in Omeo at the High Country cafe (opposite the art deco Golden Age pub) before we take a detour to visit the historic Hinnomunjie Bridge. Pete tuts and shakes his head at the bad farming practices on display along the Omeo Valley – barely a tree in sight on the rolling hills and the poor cattle have no where to shelter from the blazing sun. Talk about a slash and burn mentality – the land will not thank them for it.

The Hinnomunjie Bridge, built in 1909/1910, is historic because it is the only remaining multiple-truss bridge in Victoria, constructed using hand hewn timber. You can see the broad axe marks on the sturdy timber beams. Those were the days.

The climb up to Falls Creek takes us to the Bogong High Plains, which, like Mt Hotham, were ravaged by terrible bush fires in 2003. The regrowth of the gums is slow but sure, and provides a ghostly beauty of white branches reaching to the sky.

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We are staying for the next 2 nights in the QT hotel. I’m less than happy when I discover that, despite a virtually empty hotel, we have been given a room that looks out over the ….. carpark. Not happy Jan. But, a phone call to Evan the very new GM results in a move to a room with a view down the valley, and a much happier me. The room is very comfortable but could do with closer attention to maintenance – you can’t close the fridge door due to a build up of ice on the small freezer compartment so we attempt to defrost the fridge on their behalf. It is still a work in progress when we leave 2 days later.

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Even though there are very few people staying on the mountain (although apparently the previous 2 nights it had been jam packed with bike riders and dragon boat racers) there are several choices for dinner. We opt for the BE Foodstore, and are very glad we did. We sit out on the deck to make the most of  the balmy evening (meanwhile Melbourne is sweltering in 41C) and enjoy our very good meals, washed down with an excellent Pizzini Sangiovese.

We go back to BE for lunch – the best egg and bacon roll ever – and an excellent coffee (beans from Melbourne’s Proud Mary), before heading off for the Wallace Hut Heritage Walk that takes us to Wallace Hut and then on to Cope Hut on a 5km circuit. Wallace Hut was constructed in 1889 by the 3 Wallace brothers. Each year the Wallaces drove their stock up to the high plains for summer feed, and the hut was built to provide shelter for the cattlemen. The hut is now a refuge for walkers and skiers.

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The gums surrounding the hut are a work of art in themselves.

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Further on we come to Cope Hut, which unlike Wallace Hut, was built expressly as a refuge for cross country skiers in 1929.  The view from the hut is lovely.

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Our walk back to the car takes us past “Maisie’s Plots”.  In the 1940’s a woman called Maisie Fawcett observed the long term damage done to the alpine grasses and flowers by the cattle allowed to craze in the Alpine area, so she conducted an experiment to test her theories on regrowth – or lack thereof.  And guess what, she was right. So, why on earth did we need to study this again, and why do cattlemen and the Liberal Party still deny that crazing cattle do irreparable harm to the natural flora of the Alps?

Walk done we drive past the Rocky Valley Storage ‘lake’ and up to the top of Mount McKay to admire the glorious views across to Mt Feathertop and down the valley to Mount Beauty.

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Next morning, our stay in the High Country is over, and right on cue the rain comes and our view from the hotel is shrouded in cloud. It has been a delightful respite from the heat of the City. We will be back.

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The Queen Charlotte Track

At last the reason we are in New Zealand finally arrives as 11 of Roslyn’s nearest and dearest come together from the “West Island” to celebrate her entry into her 7th decade of a fabulous life. In typical Roz fashion she has chosen an adventure to mark this significant birthday – the intrepid Group Doyle are to walk (or tramp as the Kiwis so quaintly call it) the Queen Charlotte Track, a 71km hike around the Marlborough Sounds (http://www.qctrack.co.nz/).

The advance party attends our walk briefing given by the walk organisers, Wilderness Guides. Marty speaks so quickly that we are all slightly bamboozled by the directions, but between us seem to have grasped the most pertinent points: where the loos are on the track; the ferry taxi departure times; where we can telephone from if travelling faster or slower than anticipated; beware of sandflies; carry water. Clutching the track map and an the instruction to be at the Wilderness Guides office at 8.30am, we return to the motel where the last members of the party have assembled.

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The motel is called the Harbour View for a reason, and we are entertained by watching the ferries from Wellington come and go on a regular basis. We are not so entertained by the drill that seems to work all day and night.

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We are a motley crew, and almost no one knows everyone, which gives us much to talk about over the next 4 days as we interrogate each other about our whys and wherefores. We have experienced walkers and novices amongst us. And, a variety of ailments, including cracked ribs, broken toes, buggered knees, hammer toe, damaged ankle. We are the walking wounded, but chin up and alcohol medicated we shall be fine. The one thing that draws us together – apart from the love of a good laugh, good food, and good wine – is our strong affection for the birthday girl.

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Our first evening together in Picton starts as we mean to go on, bonding over a couple of bottle of bubbles, before we cross over the road to dinner.

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Little did we know that the restaurant owner obviously has a deep love of Christmas and had gone all out decorating the space. So much so that we felt we were dining in Santa’s Cave. Nothing like setting the atmosphere.

 

 

But the night was not just about twinkling lights and Christmas trees. The NZ earth decided to give itself another shake, just to test our mettle. However, the noise around the table was so loud that only a handful of us felt the earth move. A 4.8 this time. The serving staff shrugged their shoulders and carried on; just another day for them.

Aware of the task in front of us the next morning the night was reasonably young when we staggered into bed. Not all were bright and bushy tailed next morning as Craig was felled by either a 24 hour virus or a dose of the dodgy prawn and had been up most of the night. But, trooper that he is, he fronted up to the ferry, slept during the ride then shouldered his day pack and trudged stoically through the 15km required that day.

Meanwhile, the rest of the merry band sat up top in the bright sunshine admiring the views of where we would be walking, whilst listening to the very entertaining patter of the boat’s driver, who, apart from a wide knowledge of the geography and history of the Sounds, had a deep interest in the real estate prices of the bachs dotted along the foreshore.

 

 

Apart from house prices, we heard stories about the salmon farm’s problem with marauding seals (and a seal bobbed up just to prove his point) and were blessed by a group of friendly dolphins riding shotgun for a while. We disembarked in high spirits (Craig aside) at Ship Cove, the start of the track. Ship Cove is famous for being the spot where Captain James Cook anchored over five visits to this area.

 

 

The track starts with a steep climb up from Ship Cove, through regenerating native forest. The Dept of Conservation is undertaking an aggressive policy of trying to eradicate the much hated Australian brush tailed possum, so as well as forest we see lots of wooden traps. There no sympathy for the possum to be found amongst our group.

Once we reach the summit we are rewarded with beautiful views, but of course, after an up comes a down, so it was a steepish descent to Resolution Bay followed by a steady climb back up again to Tawa Bay Saddle, and our picnic lunch stop.

 

 

From here it was a slow descent back to the water’s edge at Endeavour Inlet and our accommodation for the night, Furneaux Lodge. The main house, housing  the all important bar and restaurant, is the original home of one of the early key conservationists of the area. The grounds are lovely, as are the views from the bar, where the group gathers for some cleansing ales and wines before dinner.

 

 

The meal was a bit of a revelation – so much so that we demanded to meet the chef, who was reluctantly dragged forward by the waitress to receive our praise. Turns out she was a young lady who used to be the sous chef at tomorrow night’s lodging, Punga Cove. This is her first head chef gig, and she is definitely kicking goals. The food  was washed down by some lovely New Zealand Sav Blancs and Reds.

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Next morning dawns bright and sunny again and we are able to enjoy a reasonably leisurely start as we only have a relative amble of 12kms today, with no big ascents or descents. We are heading to Punga Cove, which we can see across Endeavour Inlet from Furneaux Lodge as our walk takes us around the coastline of the Inlet.

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The heat of the day makes the day’s tramp a bit harder than anticipated, and our arrival at Punga Cove is a welcome sight, even more so when we realise that the bar is located right on the jetty. The green jersey winners – Sue and me – decide that a jug of Pimms is required to accompany our packed lunch.

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Lunch done, a pat of the orphaned baby goat and into our rooms. The view from ours makes the most of Punga Cove’s location.

 

 

There had been hopes to do some kayaking, but the wind is up and the sea too choppy for any water activity. What a shame, I’ll just have to sit and enjoy the view instead, whilst trying not to worry about the Earthquake Instruction notice in the room.

 

 

There were high hopes again for dinner as we had encountered a fellow guest on the track who had raved about the venison. Most ordered it, but I chose the spaghetti vongole instead and was happy with the choice, getting my venison fix via the venison pâté. I was glad to see venison on the menu as we had seen so many deer farms on our travels but no venison on any menu – I had been wondering where the deer were ending up. And the wine list was terrific, a real added bonus.

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It was an early night for most, after a visit to the glow worm grotto and a failed attempt to see the phospherescence in the water, as we had a long day and an early start (8am) the next day.

Day 3 is our big day – 23km, and we have to be at Torea Bay no later than 4.45pm to catch the water taxi that will whisk us to Lochmara Lodge, our home for the night. No pressure.

Two of our party opt to travel with the water taxi that is transporting the luggage from Punga Cove to Lochmara Lodge, so they cheerily wave us off as we set off to rejoin the Track.

It’s a constant climb up to the ridgeline, which we then traverse – with several steep ups and downs – for most of the day. The day is overcast, and drizzle starts before long, turning into light rain as we slog our way upwards. However, the rain is never heavy, and the overcast skies mean the climbing isn’t as hot as it would have been on the previous days.

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We set a pretty cracking pace, no doubt urged on by the fear of missing the water taxi. We are ahead of schedule by lunchtime, which creates much discussion as to calling the water taxi to ask for an earlier pick up. Stop and smell the roses was the vote. Try a spot of meditation even.

On we go, and the sun decides to come out for the last part of the day. We see mussel farms in the distance, and start salivating at the thought of freshly harvested mussels for dinner. Several were moving slightly stiffly as we made the last descent to the Torea Bay pier and our transport. We were an hour ahead of schedule. Thank heavens the birthday girl had over ridden the vote and made a secret call to the ferry company – we breathed a sigh of relief to see the boat steam into view not long after we arrived at the jetty.

 

 

Lochmara Lodge is a Wildlife Recovery & Arts Centre as well as accommodation, but our focus is on the spa tub to ease aching muscles.

 

 

And then it is repeat the established behaviour – gather for pre-dinner drinks, followed by dinner. Tonight I do choose the venison, and it is beautifully tender (unlike the previous night apparently). The meals have certainly been one of the many pluses of this tramp.

 

 

Our last day starts with a 45 minute climb, past the llama and the weather forecast board,  back up to the ridgeline and the Track.

 

 

But after that the day is largely downhill. 18 km in all, through some lovely pockets of rainforest and native beech trees.

 

 

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Lunch is at Davies Bay, where the blue water beckons to a couple of our intrepid walkers, who take the opportunity to cool off as once more we are walking under a blazing sun. Here we meet a young Canadian woman from the Yukon who is hiking the length of the South Island, on her own. We are in awe of her adventurous spirit.

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We also meet a party of 3, who had also been staying at Lochmara Lodge. They are 85, 82 and 76 respectively. Seriously impressed – and cross our fingers that this will be us when we are their age.

Less than an hour after lunch we reach the end of the Track, where a little green caravan café is cleverly positioned. Very enterprising.

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Despite injuries, we are all in good spirits, proud as punch that we’ve done it. The views have been magnificent. The lodgings were lovely, and the food terrific. We’ve gotten to know each other, and many laughs were enjoyed along the way. What a wonderful way to celebrate turning 60. Thank you for the opportunity young Roz.

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Kaikoura

A year ago the ground under Kaikoura decided it had had enough and threw a major tantrum. One of the many results of this was that the Coast Highway from Christchurch to Blenheim, through Kaikoura, was closed in numerous spots, isolating the locals from the rest of NZ for some time. Now, the coast road to Kaikoura from Christchurch is only open from Friday to Monday – and even then with lots of Stop/Go points – but from Kaikoura onwards the road remains closed. Word is that it will open on the 15th December, but no one is holding their breath.

Luckily for us, it is Monday, so it’s up the coast we head. Lucky not only because it is a lovely drive but also lucky as it takes us past Black Estate Winery, which I have earmarked as the perfect lunch spot thanks to Jeremy & Clare’s recommendation. I’m not sure why it is called Black Estate but they have adopted the colour with gusto – from the cellar door and restaurant to the labels.

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We do a spot of tasting first, purely to decide on what wine to have with lunch of course. The wines are proudly organic, and are quite delicious I must say. Pete & I have never been one for Pinot Noir but since coming to NZ we have changed our mind (Daryl Morris are you listening!), and the Black Estate pinots reinforce this. And their Chardonnay and Reisling are also excellent. What to choose??

Settling back at our table we drink in the view across the vineyards to the rolling green patchwork hills beyond. And the food proves to be as delicious as their wine (although I am slightly miffed to find that when I ask for a bit more bread to finish off my duck parfait that I am charged $12 for a serve of ciabatta bread – not a generous act).

Back into the car well fed and wined, and ready to tackle the road. I can tell you that the two manufacturing businesses to be involved with in NZ are making orange road cones, and,  Hi Vis vests. The cones are constant along all the roads we have travelled on – I suspect they are breeding.  And Hi Vis vests have become the fashion de jour, thanks to all the road workers. The occupations for your sons and daughters to be in are engineering, construction, surveying, and road building. The employment levels must be 100% judging by the number of men and women working on road reconstruction alone.

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We are stopped so many times on our journey that we have ample time to chat to the Stop/Go people. One was a young engineering student from India, who seemed somewhat nonplussed to find himself standing in the scorching sun turning a sign backwards and forwards – or, was he confused by the crazy woman chatting to him from the stopped vehicle?! And I don’t know whether it is part of the customer service, boredom or simple friendliness but all of them give a wave as you pass by. Our hands are quite tired by the time we finally reach Kaikoura; I know just how the Queen must feel.

But, lightheartedness aside, the devastation wrought by the earthquake is still so very apparent, and so very frustrating for the locals, especially those who rely on the tourist dollar. The scenery surrounding Kaikoura is simply stunning, but the township itself wears a mixed mantle. Some places are up and running. Some businesses and homes are proudly displaying their brand spanking new premises, but others sit forlornly lopsided, crumbled, and empty. Surrounded by fencing and branded with stickers that say Restricted or No Access. What you want is a Can Be Used sticker.

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Susan, our Airbnb host, tells us a little about the night. The earthquake struck on the night of a super moon, and was fierce from the beginning. They had a guest staying – fortunately she sat up in bed as the large painting above the bed fell off the wall and smashed. Susan was upstairs, her husband downstairs. The house swayed and shook wildly. Bill downstairs watched the massive oven shake violently from side to side as paintings smashed to the floor. Susan clung to the side of the bed as was shaken from side to side. She said she stayed in the same clothes for 3 days because she was too frightened to return upstairs. When she finally changed out of her clothes she discovered her whole left side was black and blue from being buffeted against the side of the bed. They fled from the house into the car. The directive is that you have 3 minutes to get to higher ground in case of a tsunami, so it is go, go, go. Of course, everyone is doing the same thing so the roads are gridlocked. Susan says she still does not feel comfortable sitting in their enclosed verandah upstairs. Perhaps she never will.

But, her B & B is lovely. A charming old weatherboard house set in a beautiful garden. Called Blue Heron House. No herons to be seen but it is a blue colour. The front of the house is devoted to guests. There are 2 bedrooms, with a guest sitting room. Both bedrooms open via French doors onto a wide verandah. And the house is full of beautiful artefacts and textiles gathered over the course of their well travelled lives.

The coastline of Kaikoura is stunning. Blue waters against the backdrop of steep snow capped mountains. Glorious. The beach doesn’t invite us, thanks to the black sand and rocks. But, the water is a beautiful blue, and since the earthquake the seabed is now a meter higher so it is a gentle slope, and warmer due to shallower water.

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We dine at the Pier Hotel, one of the town’s orgininal establishments (although in a different spot to the original – when they moved the pier they also moved the pub!). Nothing to write home about. Half the tables are reserved for the NCITR. We spend the night trying to guess what it stands for. The local paper provides the answer – North Canterbury Infrastructure and Transport Recovery. And NCITR workers are everywhere. The accommodation and food businesses that survived the earthquake are certainly reaping the benefits of reconstruction – almost all the motels are full, and all the restaurants are on the roster to provide the evening meals.  It is wall to wall Hi Vis vests. It is ironic that business is booming for some.

The beautiful weather continues so our walk around the peninsula the next day is under blazing blue skies. But of course we have to have a coffee first. The café recommended in Lonely Planet, a coffee roaster, is no more. Another casualty of the earthquake. Apparently the building’s owner expected them to organise and pay for repairs. So, we settle for Cafe Encounter instead, where a very cheeky sparrow steals my complimentary piece of fudge that was served with the coffee!

Our walk is about 10km in all and allows us to admire the views both up and down the coast. We also get to watch the seals sun themselves on the rocks, play in the water and get out of the way of the stupid tourists, both in the water and on the rocks. Taking tourists to swim with the seals and dolphins is big business here, and some obviously don’t get the Don’t approach, let them come to you message.  There is also a big whale watching business,and there was much relief in town when both the whales and seals returned after the earthquake. We decide watching it all from atop the cliff face is enough for us.

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Descending from the cliff top we come across the Kaikoura Seafood BBQ stall, and we are starving so we put in our order for the seafood platter for 2 and take a seat, not before warned to be VERY mindful of the thieving seagulls. And how right they were, the rats of the air were like stealth bombers. Pete was ready to punch them in the beak.

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The platter was bountiful – whitebait fritter, cray fritter (the Kiwis are fond of fritters), mussels, scallops, prawns and grilled fish. The only problem was that they had cooked the fish to an inch of its life. But, never mind, it was fresh, and beside the waterside, in the sun. So, not to worry.

Then keep walking back into town and a wander around the little village of Kaikoura before having a glass of bubbles at the recently repaired and reopened Kaikoura Boutique Hotel (where the only choice by the glass is  Mumm, wankers!), and returning to our delightful B&B for rest and recuperation.

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We decide on the local Thai for dinner, despite Susan and Bill’s hesitation in recommending it, and are pleasantly surprised. Whilst not what we would class as great, it was flavoursome and the heat level was pretty good. The place was packed with Hi Vis vests, and the sole waitress was skipping around the tables doing her best to charm and placate everyone. And, she succeeded. We bumped into her the next day and she thanked us for our patience, bless her.

Next day we wave Susan & Bill goodbye (not before Bill has a chance to tell Pete about a 3 month ride he should do from Canada to Mexico!!!) and tackle the inland route to Murchison, stopping at Hamner Springs for lunch.

It turns out to be a slow and nail biting journey due to the constant roadworks. Closer to Kaikoura this can be explained by the earthquake, but further away it would seem the damage to the road is being done by the significantly increased traffic. Since the closure of the coast road from Blenheim to Christchurch all cars and trucks have to come via the inland route. Apparently the road was not made for this level, and weight of traffic. So, there is a never ending job of filling holes and resurfacing, resulting in almost constant loose gravel covering the newly sealed road surfaces. But, this does not slow the trucks down, and our hire car is continually sprayed with gravel. How we managed to get the car back to Picton with an intact windscreen is a minor miracle.

We spend the night in Murchison, at the Murchison Lodge, which a week ago was taken over by its eager young owners, Phillip and Daphne. Phillip is from Switzerland, Daphne from Germany and owning and running this B & B is their next big adventure in life. They have quite a task in front of them as there are 5 rooms and large grounds, and they are doing it all themselves – cleaning, gardening, making breakfast, welcoming guests. Good luck to them.

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We dine at the Lazy Cow pizza joint behind the Backpackers Hostel, where you can design your own pizza and bring in your own alcohol from the pub over the road. Everyone is sitting out in the garden as it’s 26 degrees at 7pm, amazing. We get chatting to the other tables and end up having a very social evening. A charming way to end our road tour.

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Off to the East Coast

Christchurch is our next destination so it is across to the east coast we go, climbing into the mountains before descending to the Canterbury Plains. There are small patches of snow on the mountain summits, but I struggle to imagine how it would look covered in white.

The changes in the terrain as we head up, up, up, then slowly down, down, down is fascinating. Even the flowers have changed, with wild foxgloves giving way to beautiful wild lupins, and then patches of yellow gorse.

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The thought that men carved through these mountains by sheer physical labour boggles the mind; and vestiges of the old Cart track can be glimpsed.

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Lord of the Rings has been a bonanza for tourism operators throughout this land, with every opportunity to exploit the link grabbed with gusto, as we discover as we arrive at Otira.

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Descending from Arthur’s Pass the hills change character again, becoming an interesting montage of dirt, gravel and hardy grasses and the occasional rocky outcrop.

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As we approach Christchurch the land is completely flat, our hill climb but a memory. But not for long, as we are actually staying in Governors Bay, so must climb the rim of the crater that surrounds the bay. The whole area is in fact a series of (hopefully) extinct volcanoes, with the various craters merging together like honeycomb. It is a crazy cyclist’s dream as there are an endless number of steep hills to climb, with gradients that would break many a heart. The local car hoons and motorbike riders are also in their element as they attack the curves and steep ascents and descents with gusto, and noise.

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Before Governors Bay we stop off in Lyttelton, a township that suffered badly in the 2011 earthquake, which was centred just outside the township. The port seems to be back in full swing, as containers line the wharf and trucks beetle back and forth, and London Street is definitely open for business, with new funky cafes and shops, but it has been a hard struggle back, and many properties are still waiting to be repaired.

The road from Lyttleton snakes around the bayline to Governors Bay. Sitting pride of place is the Governors Bay Hotel (  http://www.governorsbayhotel.co.nz/)  owned by friends of ours from Elwood Primary days, Jeremy & Clare. They have turned what was once a down at heel hotel into a thriving gastro pub, catering to very happy locals and tourists alike. As we arrive on a hot Friday afternoon, the locals are gathering, eager to end their week on the lawns, enjoying the Bay breeze and the bay views. Clare and Jeremy dispense drinks and food with a welcoming smile for all; making all the hard work look effortless.

The hotel has 7 rooms upstairs, 4 of which open out, through French doors, onto the upstairs verandah and the views across the bay to Quail Island. The pub does a pretty good accommodation trade, and the verandah can often resemble the United Nations, with a variety of accents holding forth.

We join the crowd on the deck, and soak up the warmth, the views, the wine and the excellent food. Joined eventually by the exhausted mine hosts, ready to share a cleansing glass or two.

Next day is devoted to exploring Christchurch, which is still a building site. But slowly, a new city is emerging from the horror of the 2010/2011 earthquakes. And one day it will be lovely again as they seem to have planned in a lot of open space, and inner city living.

As always my eye is taken by the street art; many walls have been given over to large street murals.

We visit the temporary cathedral, and the White Chair memorial to those who lost their lives. And, the remains of the old Cathedral, where a lively Korean Festival is taking place.

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Lunch is at Madame Woo, providing some much needed Asian food for Himself.

Then a visit to The Tannery complex and a mooch around the shops before heading back to the Governor for drinks, and dinner, on the deck.

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Sunday we devote ourselves to exploring the Banks Peninsula, setting out to circumnavigate it in a clockwise direction. As you travel around the coastline you get wonderful views of the crater walls, and the various bays that cluster around the coast.

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Our first stop is Diamond Head, where we discover, to our joy not one but two coffee places to choose from. We choose the one on the left, that may or may not be called Preserved , a Café come home brewery come Cooking school. It has a deck and seats out the back that provide grand stand viewing over the sports oval behind it.  Clare tells us later that she used to watch her sons play sport from the comfort of the cafe. The coffee is made by a biker looking guy who tears himself away from his home brew making, and would you believe it turns out to be the best coffee I’ve had in NZ thus far. He is thrilled when I tell him so.

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We carry on, sticking to the coast road, which turns out to be a winding one lane dirt road until we get to Pigeon Bay. Luckily we only came across one other car, and it was in a spot that he was able to edge across, allowing us to squeeze past ( do hope the rental agreement didn’t mention staying on bitumen only – there’s been a lot of dirt roads on this trip!).

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Pigeon Bay is quite the hive of activity – turns out there is a bitumen road into it from the other side of the peninsula. There is a junior boat race in full swing, and we spy a sign advertising high teas outside the village hall. How can one pass that up? So, we slam on the brakes and hop out. Have we made a booking we are asked. Well, no – who would have thought that one needed to, but it turns out that Deb puts on a highly sought after high tea in the hall on the first Sunday of the month. But, our lack of booking doesn’t prove to be an obstacle as Deb rustles up a table for us, although apologises for the lack of flowers on it.

We get talking to some of the fellow guests. One couple are local farmers, bemoaning the lack of rain. He agrees to stop wishing for rain until the 13th December, which is the day we leave! The other pair work at the nearby luxury accommodation, and since Googling it, do I mean LUXURY (check out Annandale Luxury Villas), and one of them is from Melbourne and used to work at Zartowa, Elwood’s very first café. How’s that for coincidence!

The high tea is a delight, and Himself is in heaven with the clotted cream.

Happily full, and with just a little bit of a sugar rush, we head off for Akaroa, a small French settlement, and major tourist attraction, on the peninsula. The cruise ships that used to dock at Lyttleton pre earthquake have defected to Akaroa, so at times it can be absolutely heaving with tourists.

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We wander up the street as far as the lighthouse, before heading back to the car and the return journey.

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That evening we dine, with Jeremy & Clare, at their son’s bar, Civil & Naval, in Lyttelton. Louis has been one of the pioneers of the revitalised Lyttelton, and the bar is abuzz with customers. The staff are all young and groovy; the vibe is laid back. There are almost more dogs than people, as all the locals seem to bring their dog with them, and one of the staff also has a dog. Add into the mix a resident cat and things can get quite rowdy!

The menu is small and designed around sharing, and everything we try is delicious. An excellent way to end our Christchurch sojourn, even if it does make me feel ancient to think that I last saw Louis as a small boy and here he is running a very successful establishment.

 

West Coast, NZ

As we leave Nelson the grey clouds are gathering – we are moving further south just at the right time. For the first hour the scenery is pretty ordinary as we travel through large swathes of pine forests, and pass trucks hauling the timber away. Things change when we get to Big Bush Pass and finally enter areas of native forest.

Apparently both the Maori and the Europeans had a field day felling the native forests, until finally even the Government became alarmed. After 15 months of negotiation, the Tasman Accord was signed in 1989, whereby the forestry companies agreed to no more logging of native timber on Crown land and the preservation of some 30,000 hectares of native forest. Thank heavens, as the native forests are a delight with their wide variety of trees, hence colours and textures. Now the drive gets more interesting.

Not native but lovely nonetheless are the wild foxgloves that can be seen everywhere, mainly purple, occasionally white. Must be a very strong plant as it is literally everywhere, probably technically a weed, but a very decorative one.

We arrive in Murchison, hanging out for a coffee. At first glance it appears a township we could easily dismiss but there is a quirky humour on display, starting with the pie van and its sign (mind you, the owner and baker is a Yorkshireman). We can’t resist the sign, so settle on the picnic table with a bacon & egg pie.

Then the sign in the award winning butcher shop takes my fancy. Convenient, and timely given the new law just passed in Victoria!

Then there is the plaque commemorating the irate farmer who blew himself up:

And, the ladies loo sign:

We will be back in Murchison on our return to Picton so shall check out more of the town’s delights then but now it is on towards the coast. Just out of Murchison we come to the Buller Gorge Suspension Bridge – apparently the longest swing bridge in New Zealand – so in we go. Lord knows why, as I’m terrified of heights, even more so when the surface is moving back and forth. But, I bravely go forth. I do decline however the invitation to return by zip line!

After this excitement we travel towards the coast, turning south just before Westport, however the No Fuel for 90kms sign has us turning back to Westport to stock up, given we only had enough fuel in the tank for 90kms.

Our next stop is Punakaiki to see the famous ‘pancake rocks’ – rock formations that resemble layer upon layer of crepes. Geologists are unsure how the formations were made, but they certainly draw the crowds, and we must admit they are pretty impressive. As is the subtropical forest lining the coast.

The day is marching on so we scamper past the outskirts of Greymouth, heading for our home for the next two nights, Hokitika. Not a lot is happening in Hokitika when we arrive around 6pm. It’s like any quiet country town – wide, empty streets, with nondescript houses neatly lined up on either side of the road.

Our Airbnb cottage, Fantail Cottage – full of fantail bird decorations, but no sign of the actual bird – is cosy albeit a bit twee, sitting on the outskirts of town but still an easy 3 blocks from the centre.

We dump our gear and walk into town in search of food. After a quick look at the beach we order a pizza at Fat Pipi Pizza, which we take to the West Coast Wine Bar which allows, in fact encourages, BYO food. We are the only customers, apart from one other couple who leave before we do.

We get off to a slow start next morning. A late breakfast in the cottage then into town for a coffee and a wander around. Both Lonely Planet and our landlady recommend Ramble & Ritual for our coffee so it’s where we head. And wouldn’t you know it but our coffee is made by an English lass. I swear there are no Kiwis actually in NZ! The coffee is okay but I think their beans are not really to our taste, quite unusual flavour but a charming little spot.

Hokitaki is a fascinating town, dotted by grand buildings that hint of a very different past. Turns out that it was the epicentre of the gold rush, and became a major, but very dangerous, port, welcoming prospectors from all around the world. In turn, business followed. Apparently in its heyday 80 hotels lined Revell St alone.

Time for sightseeing further afield so we hop in the car and head out of town to visit Hokitika Gorge. In the distance we can see the snow capped mountains.

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On the way we pass the memorial erected to commemorate the site of New Zealand’s first mass murder committed by yet another psycho farmer. The memorial is dedicated to the police, both official and voluntary, who died. The gun barrel in the middle is aimed at the farmhouse site where the massacre occurred. I did however love the mention of Graham suffering an irrational conniption.

The glorious turquoise water of Hokitika Gorge is certainly worth the drive out. Really takes you by surprise as you come out of the tropical forest that surrounds the Gorge. Something to do with limestone I gather. And, another swing bridge – yeah!

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Leaving the Gorge is slightly delayed by the young tourist who managed to get his van stuck down a culvert and needed towing out by a local farmer. An entertaining diversion for us but not for the very embarrassed young man.

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We returned back to Hokitaki via Lake Kaniere and a quick visit to Dorothy Falls, displaying a completely different colour of lovely, pristine water.

A late but yummy lunch back at Ramble & Ritual before a final walk along the old quay and beachfront, learning more about the town from the information boards dotted along the river’s edge. We bump into various locals along the way, all of whom love a bit of a chat. Hokitika is, all in all, quite charming.

We end our night in Hokitika with a walk to the glow worm dell just outside of town. It is like a magical cave, but you will have to take my word for it as the glow is not strong enough to be captured by the IPhone camera.

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South Island Bound

The weather gods smile upon us as we board the Interislander ferry from Wellington, bound for Picton on the South Island – the water is flat and calm. Hallelujah, as Cook Strait can be like a very agitated washing machine more often than not. People of all ages and nationalities cram aboard, eager to nab a seat with a view. Down below, the queue of camper vans inch slowly forward – what is it about New Zealand and RVs??

We settle ourselves in for 3 and a half hour voyage, sharing our table with a lonely Kiwi who is heading over to the South Island for 3 months touring around in the van he brought back from Europe. Heading towards the Heads we are briefly joined by a small pod of dolphins, frolicking in the ferry’s bow waves.

Once across the Strait we manoeuvre through the sounds, with beautiful views to right and left. Everyone is out on deck, jostling for the perfect photograph.

Before we know it, Picton hoves into sight, and the Interislander settles in beside the Bluebridge ferry that departed Wellington half an hour earlier. We trudge off, wait for our luggage to appear on the carousel, then join the car hire collection queue. Eventually we are all sorted and heading out of Picton towards Nelson in our little silver Toyota Corolla.

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We take the scenic coast road which weaves it’s way along the coast to Nelson. After a stop in Havelock for a not very good coffee and an even worse local mussel pie, and many stops for roadworks, we finally reach Nelson around 4 o’clock. We have booked into Arrow Apartment via Airbnb, and are thrilled to find it is even better than the photos. Just look at our view.

We are reluctant to leave, so stock up on food and wine and eat in for the next two nights. How can you not when that loveliness is spread out before you, and the apartment caters for all your creature comforts. Over the two nights we get to admire the setting sun in all its glory.

The centre of Nelson is an interesting architectural mix, with reminders of both the Wild West and New England, or early Boston. We spend a pleasant hour walking the streets.

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An exploration further up the coastline now calls. We do a circuit, stopping at Waimea Estates Cellar Door for lunch in the garden before circumnavigating Rabbit Island and then on to Mapua before circling back to Nelson. It is lovely countryside, subject to vast tidal fluctuations. The tides are out as we drive through, exposing large areas of marshland. How different it would look when the tides are in.

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Much of the hills are covered in pine plantations; sort of attractive when covered with trees but very unappealing when logged. So sad to think of the native forests that once stood there. Our path through the hills winds back and forth; hairpin curves and a gravel road. Luckily there is no other traffic. We arrive back in Nelson in time to purchase oysters and locally caught fish from the Nelson quay. Back to the apartment, and that wonderful view. Onwards and upwards, or actually downwards, tomorrow.

Windy Wellington

Flying into Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, can be a pretty hair raising affair as the plane skims across the often white capped water, squeezing between the hills surrounding the airstrip suspended in the strait. The slight anxiety was not helped by Pete’s dentist telling him the day before our flight that Wellington is one of the more dangerous airfields for landings due to the vagaries of the crosswinds. But, all’s well. Our only issue now is to front up to Customs with our hiking boots and poles, as all hiking/camping equipment needs to be inspected. My shoes are whisked off to be washed, and we are then cleared to go.

I am always charmed by this city, with its eclectic mix of architecture, and the homes strung around the coastline, all jostling for a Bay view. The lovely gothic wooden homes remind me of San Francisco, but many of the modern buildings are not to my taste. Currently several of the newer CBD buildings are covered in scaffolding, or in some cases, abandoned, thanks to last year’s earthquake, which definitely rattled the rafters.

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We are staying with friends in the Aro Valley, an easy 20 minute walk to the quay area, and just around the corner from buzzing Cuba Street. We celebrate our arrival with a couple of glasses of local wines before heading up the street to Rita , a new eatery in Aro Street that is already packing in the punters.

  • This is the place for the decision challenged as there is almost no choice. You are told what you will be eating, but you can add an extra starter and/or a pasta between entree and main and/or extra vegetables. The basic 3 course meal is $65, then you add the rest. Tonight we have kahawai (which is a New Zealand fish) with the freshest peas I have ever tasted, followed by lamb (and we added in a cos lettuce side) and finished with rum baba for dessert.

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The food is simple, with super fresh produce and beautifully cooked. The only downside is the noise, which is close to deafening. A small space, wooden floors, packed with happy customers. Bursting out into the street brings blessed relief to the ears, but we were certainly well fed.

Fall into bed, it’s been a long day.

We ease into Saturday; venturing forth after a leisurely breakfast. Cuba Street is our first destination, with its vintage shops and cafes. Thought this suit at Hunters and Collectors would be perfect for Pete.

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Time for coffee, so we head into Memphis Belle, where the young man persuades me to try their soy milk with the promise that if I didn’t like it I wouldn’t pay. And he’s right – the first soy outside of Bonsoy that doesn’t overpower the coffee. But, it is all the way from Denmark, or was it Norway – hardly good food miles. We rock along to Bye Bye Miss American pie whilst we sip away.

Wandering the laneways, full of street art, is reminiscent of Melbourne. As are all the cafés- Wellingtonians like their food, and coffee, as much as we do.

We spy an artisan chocolate factory and detour for a quick taste, and of course some buying – purely for emergency hiking supplies of course.

Then its down to the quay for a wander before hopping into the car for an explore of some of the Wellington coastline.

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Shelly Bay, with its views back to the city, and its array of old warehouses, is currently in hot dispute as to its future. Needless to say the developers have their beady eyes on it, but currently artists are happy to call the old sheds home. There is also a bustling seafood cafe, Chocolate Fish, famous for its fish sandwiches. After a poke around a couple of galleries and a chat to one of the charming resident artists, we find a table out of the wind to sample the fare. And, the grilled fish sandwiched between fresh white bread is surprisingly good, but perhaps my hunger helped.

Back into the car for more sightseeing, ending up on top of Mt Victoria for a quick overview of the city. The brisk wind makes this a short visit, but it’s time now to buy dinner supplies. We head into Moore Wilson’s and my heart skips a beat – what a fabulous food store, bursting with an amazing array of goodies. I could stay in there forever. Instead, we load the basket with wines, cheese, salmon and asparagus and head home for a feast.

Sunday has been earmarked for a visit to Te Papa but first we stop for a coffee, this time at Midnight Expresso, and a mosey through the Cuba Street shops.

Te Papa has a very moving exhibition about Gallipoli; the highlight being giant sized but incredibly realistic models of various soldiers, and one nurse, together with their stories. The conditions these men fought in, and the human carnage, is difficult to comprehend, no matter how many times you hear the story. Such a terrible waste of, usually young, lives. How terrified they must have been. Heartbreaking.

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Time for lunch. On a recommendation we seek out Charley Noble, only to find it closed tight. Not open for lunch on Saturday and Sunday. Go figure. But, rescue is at hand with, also recommended (thank you Clare), Shed 5. We make ourselves comfortable and watch the constant parade of passing people, whilst we enjoy the wine and food.

A quick pop into the Wellington Museum to check out their artisan’s market – nothing here to make us linger – then on to see the remains of  Plimmer’s Ark, a 150 year old wooden sailing ship that was discovered during the renovations of the Old Bank Arcade.

Followed by a meander through a few more shops as we wend our way back to Aro Street, where we have a cleansing ale at the local brew house, Garage Project. Wellington is awash with coffee shops and craft breweries; both very popular pursuits with locals and tourists alike. The small Garage Project Bar is pumping. We squeeze in and make our choice from the array of beers on offer – White Mischief for him, Petit Mort for me.

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Refreshed, it is a short walk back to ‘home’, and we end our stay with yet another beautiful meal cooked by Rochelle and Dean, washed down with more lovely NZ wines.

The night ends with a very Wellington experience – a 4.5 earthquake rattle, which wakes us with a start in the small hours of the morning. It is the loud noise that startles us more than the movement. Luckily Rochelle had warned us, so we knew what it was. Didn’t last longer than a minute, with some small shudders to follow. Talk about finishing our visit with a bang, but no damage done.

Thankyou Wellington, it’s been grand.

 

 

My British Film Festival 2017

Ten films. 6 of them based on real people and real life events. 2 of them featuring Jamie Bell (who has certainly grown up from Billy Elliot) and 2 with Kelly McDonald. 2 are pure nostalgia for me, tapping as they do into my childhood love of books – in this case, A.A. Milne and Arthur Ransome. 2 are starring vehicles for two of my acting heroes – Annette Benning and Patricia Clarkson. 2 of them star the sons of beloved UK actors. 2 of them were the late John Hurt’s final performances. And 2 feature Australian actors. What’s not to love about the British Film Festival? And, I love the fact that funds from the National Lottery are what keeps the British Film industry powering on – something good comes out of people hoping to win the elusive pot of lottery gold.

I’ll take you through the films in the order I saw them, starting with The Journey which was totally entertaining, and occasionally laugh out loud funny. This is the story of the meeting between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness to reach the historic peace deal between the warring factions in Ireland. Martin McGuinness, and Tony Blair, provide the laughs. Timothy Spall, playing the Rev. Ian Paisley was not quite as convincing, transfixed as I was by his false teeth (and, he was much too small to play the physically dominating Paisley). This is one of the two films featuring John Hurt, playing a wily but hopeful Head of the Secret Service. Highly recommended.

Nostalgia No 1 was next, with Goodbye Christopher Robin. I don’t know about you, but I can still recite many of the poems from When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. However, I was aware that being immortalised by his father had made the real Christopher Robin very unhappy – and it is this territory that the film explores. Brendon Gleeson’s son, the very beautiful Domhnall Gleeson, plays A.A. Milne, whilst our very own, and also very beautiful, Margot Robbie plays the mother, with Kelly McDonald as the loving and supportive nanny. A sweet film for all Pooh lovers.

Film Stars don’t die in Liverpool came next and was a highlight for me due to the very wonderful Annette Benning – and Jamie Bell was pretty darn good also as her much younger lover – as the Academy award winning actress Gloria Grahame. A terrific film about a feisty film star at the end of her life.

The ageing star theme, this time of the writing kind, was continued with That Good Night , which is John Hurt’s final film. This was originally a stage play, and the film does feel somewhat stagey, and almost awkward, especially initially. Devotees of The Bridge will recognise Saga (Sofia Helin), who plays the famous writer’s younger, second wife, but she doesn’t seem comfortable in the role. Enjoyable enough.

I was almost sick to death of Breathe before I saw it, thanks to the continual showing of the trailer before each film, however, it was an engaging and involving, feel good true story of polio sufferer Robin Cavendish and his wife Diana. The sort of sweeping drama and love story that the Brits do so well. Not a dry eye in the house at the end. Excellent performance by Andrew Garfield.

Nostalgia No 2 was Swallows and Amazons (the other Kelly McDonald vehicle, and also featuring Timothy Spall’s son Rafe Spall as the baddie but goodie). I suspect you might need to be a Swallows and Amazons fan to fully enjoy this one as it is very of it’s time, and book. All very jolly hockey sticks and Famous Five. Marvellous.

On Chesil Beach was terrific; the look of the film was gorgeous, the acting was excellent, especially Saorise Ronan, and the pacing worked. I will have to go back and read the book again as I suspect some filmic licence was taken with the story as I have no recollection of a quite crucial piece of very subtly conveyed information. Highly recommended.

My British Film Festival finished with a gallop – 3 films on one day, starting with what I thought was an overblown Mary Shelley. The very lovely Elle Fanning plays the title role, a headstrong, intelligent and free spirited young girl of 16 or 17 who ties her fate to the beguiling young poet, Percy Shelley. The end result being the now famous novel written by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.

A decided change of pace and mood was 6 Days, a re-enactment of the Iranian embassy siege in London in 1980. This was the second vehicle for Jamie Bell, playing an SAS operative, but the hero of the hour was Max Vernon, the police superintendent who is thrust into the negotiating position. The insights into the political machinations involved was fascinating. Our Abby Cornish plays BBC reporter Kate Adie, whose live coverage of the final hour of the siege is television history. Gripping, even when you know the outcome.

The quaint, curious The Bookshop finished off my British Film Festival. This film is based on a Penelope Lively novel of the same name, and is a quiet, leisurely film, covering grief, kindness, loneliness, courage and small town politics and meanness. An all star cast of Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson. I saw that one reviewer had referred to it as a rumination. Exactly. Wish I’d thought of that first. Gentle and eventually beguiling.

Oh, as a final word. Cunard was one of the major sponsors of the Festival, for which I am truly grateful, but please, shoot me if I ever start muttering about going on a cruise, especially one that seems to require lots of diamonds and ball gowns.