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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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!).


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.


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


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Getting a Swagger On

Okay, I’m going to jump right in and throw two things at you that will make you go what, where? Swagger Music Festival, and, Wandiligong. There, I’m right aren’t I.

Let me enlighten you. The Swagger Music Festival is a small, community focused festival featuring independent musicians from the local area, and Australia wide. Many are young up & coming performers, others are a bit more established on the music scene. But all are united in their pleasure to be performing in front of the laid back Swagger audience, made up largely of people, both young and old, who work and/or live in the Alpine Valley and its surrounding mountains.

Wandiligong is a little hamlet 6 kms outside of Bright, and home to Swagger and the Festival organiser. It is also part of my family history, as 86 years ago my Mum spent some 6 months living with her cousin there, and attending Year 7 in nearby Bright. She loved it, and always spoke fondly of that time, and her cousin Agnes. Both Agnes and Mum are gone now, but I was keen to go and see Wandi – as it is affectionately known – for myself and what better excuse than to accompany a girlfriend to a music festival.

I did draw the line at camping at the Festival site however, which is how we found ourselves staying in a little old Airbnb cottage called Lord of the Hill, nestled in a lovely old garden.


I had told our host we were coming for Swagger, and he had thoughtfully made me a flower garland to wear in my hair. Yes, Swagger is a little bit hippy chiccy, and No, I didn’t wear it. But, it was a kind gesture, as were the jars of garden flowers dotted around the cottage (even though he had forgotten to put water in some of the jars).


We unpacked our belongings, then took ourselves off to the Wandi Pub for a cleansing ale, and wine, before hitting the Festival. The pub has legendary status in the area, and was voted Best Regional Pub this year by Time Out. It was the original site of Swagger, until the festival grew too big for a beer garden alone, but you can still hear live music there on a Sunday afternoon.

Suitably refreshed we head up the valley to the Festival site, which is set in fields just past the apple orchards, surrounded by hills. The cows have been moved out for the occasion, but a strict no glass policy is adopted to ensure the safety of cows and people alike. Coloured flags and sun shades dot the hill, as do picnic rugs and fold out chairs. We join the early birds and stake out our territory. This will be our spot for the next three days, as we groove along to some very good music.

The music starts at 6 on a Friday night and keeps going until about 1am. We don’t make it until stumps, forced Home largely by the cold – the beautiful clear skies make for wonderful star gazing but bitingly cold air. I end up wearing every piece of clothing I brought with me but am stilled chilled to the bone, so it is a great relief when I climb into my beautiful old double bed and snuggle down into the doona.

Saturday morning dawns bright and sunny, and we wake to birdsong filling the air. On to our bikes and into Bright we go, seeking a coffee and whatever other delights we can find. What we discover is the Bright Saturday market, and we happily wander the stalls, chatting to stall holders and fellow shoppers alike. You can tell a lot about a town by its market, and this one is telling us that Bright is a friendly, welcoming community – a feeling confirmed by a Queensland couple we get chatting to who now call Bright home. After a bit of retail therapy amongst the local shops we hop on the bikes and pedal back to Wandi, admiring the gorgeous flowering dogwoods along the way.


We have missed the first couple of acts by the time we reach Swagger, but there are still plenty more to come and we stay until around midnight, again in the cold night air and under a sky blazing with stars. Sunday morning is a slow start for many of the festival goers, who may have over imbibed the night before, but the first act is up and playing by 10am. Again, we are blessed with sunshine in which to finish up our festival groove.


It has been a fun weekend. Good music, a beautiful setting, relaxed and friendly vibe. What’s not to like? We definitely got our Swagger on, and look forward to returning to Wandi another time.



The Last Hurrah of the Ski Season

You have been able to tell the skiers amongst us by the smiles on the faces and the funny face tans. This has been a bumper snow season, something that has made many hearts beat faster for several months now. Mine is not amongst them, and I was frankly shocked to hear myself suggest to Himself that we return to the mountains for a last hurrah of skiing. He needed no further persuading, always eager to get out there in the fields of white.

My motivation, apart from my love of all things surrounding and apart from the actual act of skiing – the drive up through the beautiful King Valley; the lovely AAC Dinner Plain Lodge; the food & wine consumed; the beauty of the snow covered landscape – was to see if I could conquer the act of stopping. A crucial skill, and one I had yet to master. My strategy of hurling myself backwards onto my arse is not sustainable, particularly at my age. So if I am to continue joining them on the cross country slopes it is a skill I need to acquire.

The drive up was its usual delight, starting with a coffee and wine purchasing at Fowles Winery.  The King Valley was looking more beautiful than usual thanks to the budding of the multitude of blossom trees, the magnificent magnolias and the camellias and rhododendrons. Don’t just think of Bright for the autumn colour – it also revels in Spring glory.


Bright was our lunch destination this time around, to try out a relative newcomer to the eating scene – Tomahawks  a small shed of a place in Camp Street (just up from the Chinese restaurant on the corner). A funky spot with a small but delectable menu, and staffed with charming young things. We enjoyed our lunch, but should not have indulged in the donut ice cream sandwich with caramel sauce. My guilt stayed with me until the next day, even though I only ate half of this piece of decadence.

There was still snow as far as the eye could see, from Mt Hotham to Dinner Plain. And, as promised by Himself, the snow on the cross country trails was soft and forgiving, so I buckled up for two days of slogging it up and down the trail to Wire Plain. And whilst some small improvements may have been gained, I still found myself backside down in the snow more times than I wanted. It would seem that as soon as any downward momentum is picked up, all rational thought seems to leave my head and panic sets in, making me incapable of sorting out my left from my right  and of achieving any effective inward rolling of the ankle in order to achieve the desired cessation of forward movement. I am left slightly bewildered by the person who ever thought of strapping planks of slippery wood to ones feet and walking up and down hills on them. What was he thinking (as I’m sure it had to be a He).

Thankfully  for my bones and feet (which did not take kindly to the cross country ski boots) our third day dawned wet and windy, and I was allowed a leave pass.  Instead, we climbed into the car and escaped the sleety hail/snow (called sago by those in the know) and travelled down to Omeo and up the Omeo Highway to Anglers Rest and towards Mt Wills. Another lovely, but winding (take note if you are prone to car sickness) valley, following a very full and fast moving river. The wattles were coming into bloom, in all their different hues of yellow.


The valley was once dotted with gold mines and their accompanying townships, most of them well gone by now, although their names remain on the map. Between Glen Valley and Glen Wills we came across the Glen Wills cemetery, the burial spot for some 97 locals between the years 1894 and 1920. 40 of the 97 were infants. A sobering reminder of the hardships of the pioneering life.


After a brief look into the famous Blue Duck Inn at Anglers Rest we returned to Omeo, and enjoyed a tasty home cooked lunch at the Homestead House Cafe, opposite the Golden Age Hotel.

Our entertainment was provided by eavesdropping into the Ladies Golf Club Committee meeting, all 3 of them, as they debated the catering for an upcoming event. One of the three was keen to offer the slices and cakes free of charge. Another took quite some persuading, but grudgingly agreed to give it a try. We also know that sausage rolls, meat pies and dim sims will be available for sale. We were tempted to ask when the event was being held as the post game tucker was sounding quite enticing!

We took a brief detour outside of Omeo, lured by the Winery 16kms sign. It sure didn’t look like grape growing country, so we were intrigued.  Turns out there is a very small acreage at Cassillis, but the wine makers are now semi retired. Their tasting shed is closed and they only sell at local markets. However, the chap who has recently bought the grape vines plans to keep growing the grapes for them, and will have the wine available for tasting and sale on Public Holidays and maybe the occasional weekend. He’ll put out a sandwich board on the Great Alpine Road when he is open for business, so unless there is a board don’t take the turn off the road if wine is what you seek.

Next morning the promised snow showers were a fairly wet affair, but our time had come to leave the mountain. Our drive down to Harrietville was a slow one, thanks to the cloud and wet snow fall –  not much to be seen out of the windscreen.


We rewarded ourselves with a coffee at Sixpence Coffee, a small coffee roasters, cafe and bakery in the backstreets of Bright. Despite the wet and cold day, the little space was packed with people enjoying their lattes and a freshly baked cake or pie.

Then it was onwards to Melbourne. Already my vow to abandon any further attempts at cross country skiing was starting to fade. Like childbirth, you forget the agony and sink into the après ski glow. But hang on, I stopped at one child, so perhaps not the best analogy for me! Will I keep trying to conquer this exasperating sport so I can enjoy all the trappings that go with it? I’ll see how I feel come August next year, and how much of the agony I remember.



My #MIFF2017

People always ask Did you have a good MIFF? And my answer this year is most definitely YES. 40 films seen over 16 days – 23 of which are in the Liked column, a further 11 in the Okay column and only 6 ended up in the Nope pile.

I have finally learnt to pace myself better – no films after 9pm; no more than 3 a day unless absolutely necessary. These rules had me reaching the finish line in reasonable shape, unlike previous years where exhaustion, hunger, and sunlight deprivation took its toll.

And as always MIFF has delighted through the people you encounter, bonded together by a common love of the big screen. There are the regular MIFF tragics, those people I have gotten to know over the successive festivals and only see once a year – we have a year’s worth of news to catch up on. Then there are those you chat to in the queue, or sitting next to you, or even on the train home. Chance encounters, swapping what you’ve seen and liked, and sometimes moving further into more personal territory. It is the people as much as the films that help feed my addiction to the Melbourne International Film Festival.

So, what films have gone into my Liked & Recommended  column?

After much soul searching, first place has gone to Faces Places the latest film (and maybe, sadly, last) from that amazing French film maker Agnes Varda, in collaboration with a young French photographer who goes by the name of JR. The film is quirky, endearing and heart warming. It is my theory that ‘everyone has a story you just have to ask’  brought to life in a masterly fashion. The world needs more people like Agnes in it.

This was followed closely by The Party , Sally Potter’s latest. A laugh out loud skewering of British politics, political correctness and society in general. A stellar cast, with the gorgeous Patricia Clarkson making the most of her marvellous one liners.

Staying with the Brits, I just loved the animated film by the British illustrator Raymond Briggs. Ethel and Ernest traces the life of Raymond’s parents, from courtship to death. There were smiles and tears. I spied the young man next to me wiping his eyes with the sleeve of his jumper, and offered him a tissue. Just lovely.

Then for something completely different I am not a Witch was a visual delight. My first ever Zambian film.

The Songkeepers is a funny and moving documentary about the indigenous people (largely women) keeping the Lutheran hymns learnt on the missions, but translated into their own language, alive. The film follows the choir through rehearsals and then on tour to Germany. The irony that this inspiring group have been brought together, and shown to the world, by an African-American born in South America but raised in Britain and  a young Indian film maker was not lost on me. It takes ‘outsiders’ to recognise the richness and beauty of the culture of our First People.

Staying with Australian films, another doco that won my heart was All for One, about the Orica Green Edge cycling team. Now, the art of cycle racing is a complete mystery to me, but I loved this film. It had it all – tears, laughter, edge of the seat excitement, horror at the crashes, and Aussie pride. It would seem this film captured others as it won the Audience Award for documentaries.

We are lucky to be able to see Harry Dean Stanton in what surely must be his last film, Lucky. We get to spend time with 90 year old Lucky as he goes about his daily routine and confronts, or avoids,  his mortality. David Lynch tries to steal the film as Lucky’s best friend, but this film belongs to Harry Dean.

Corruption was the theme linking several of my favourite films – The Nile Hilton Incident, Glory, A Man of Integrity. The Nile Hilton Incident takes us into the corruption of the Cairo police force, where everything has a price. I got a little confused at the end about who was shafting who, who was aiding and abetting who, but that didn’t matter. Feels almost like a documentary.

Glory takes us into Bulgarian corruption as we sympathise with Tsanko, a solitary railway worker who ends up in a nightmare not of his making, all because of his honesty, and the love of his watch.

A Man of Integrity is another film about a good man battling the system of bribes and officialdom, only to see the system become his undoing. This Iranian film was the Un Certain Regard winner at Cannes. The director, Mohammad Rasoulof, shot the film in secret as his films do not curry favour with the Iranian authorities.

We get a small glimpse of the horror that is Syria in the engrossing film Insyriated, set almost entirely in a bombed apartment in Damascus.

For a complete change of pace I fell in love with Maudie, the bio pic about Maudie Lewis, an artist I had never heard of before, but turns out she is a famous folk artist from Novia Scotia. Sally Hawkins completely inhabits the role. I notice this film is about to come out on General Release, so do go and see it.

I didn’t go in with particularly high hopes for Where You’re Meant to Be, but I thoroughly enjoyed this Scottish doco about Aidan Moffat’s attempts to update traditional Celtic songs. Aidan Moffat was the lead singer of a group I have luckily never heard of, Arab Strap, and is a very funny chappy.

It was good to see Geena Davis, Tim Robbins and the wonderful American theatre actress, Lois Smith, in the intriguing Marjorie Prime – a meditation on grief.

The Lovers was a chance to see another rarely seen American actress, this time Debra Winger. An amusing tale about the boredom of long term marriage and infidelity.

The Russians gave us a very different take on the end of a marriage in Loveless. Given the fact that this was from Russia it should not come as any surprise that the laughs were non existent. Rather, we see the viciousness that can occur when the love is gone, with the child being the innocent victim. Excellent movie making, and it won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year.

Two films from India also took my fancy. Newton takes an amusing swipe at the democratic process in India, whilst Hotel Salvation takes us to Varanasi and death beside the sacred Ganges River.

I wanted to slap Daphne but it is a terrific performance from a lass called Emily Beecham.

Mountain is the follow up documentary by the director of Sherpa. It is definitely not in the same class as Sherpa, but the images of the mountains are awe inspiring and the specially composed soundtrack by Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra provides an excellent framework. The narration, although beautifully spoken by Willem Dafoe, gets a bit schmaltzy. One that definitely needs to be seen on the big screen.

Dina is a fly on the wall documentary looking into the life of Dina and Scott, both on the Autism Spectrum, as they prepare for their upcoming nuptials. Heartwarming.

In the Fade was a predictable piece of story telling, but Diane Kruger eats up the screen in her Cannes winning Best Actress performance.

The latest film from Michael Haneke ends my Liked & Recommended list. Called Happy End you know of course, being Haneke, that the tongue is firmly in the cheek. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, as evidenced by the walk outs, but I found I became completely engaged with the machinations of this extended, dysfunctional family, and the maybe evil 13 year old girl. And I loved the way we see events but can’t hear what is going on, only for it to be revealed later at a pertinent point.

Moving on to my Okay films:

Call me by your Name sits between Liked and Okay, and obviously a lot more people were less conflicted in their reaction to this sultry, coming of age, awakening homosexuality film than I was, as this won the Audience Award.  If it had been 20 minutes shorter it would definitely have been in my Liked List. And oh, to be parents like them.

Song to Song had me both highly frustrated and mesmerised at the same time. But, there were lots of walk outs so I’m guessing highly frustrated won out for many people. Terence Malick is an acquired taste, one I haven’t fully embraced. A bit of a waste of a great cast – Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara and Michael Fassbender – although Patti Smith’s cameo almost stole the show. Also, not enough music for me, given it was based around three major Austin music festivals.

Beatriz at Dinner stars the lovely Selma Hayek, plus a terrific performance by John Lithgow. But, I felt this film just bludgeoned me over the head with its environmental  message. And, if I had drunk as much as her I would have been comatose, or at the very least, slurring my words, not avenging the environment.

I’m being a bit mean about Ali’s Wedding as it is definitely going to be a crowd pleaser. A true story starring the real Ali. If you liked Red Dog you will enjoy Ali’s Wedding, and it got the Age Critic’s Award for the Aussie films on offer.

April’s Daughter won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes but I found it a bit disappointing, but she was definitely one crazy Mumma.

A Fantastic Woman was directed by the chap who gave us that terrific film, Gloria, but this one was not as good. Stars transgender actress Daniela Vega, who I felt  breathed heavily far too frequently in place of acting for my liking. But, turns out she has a fabulous voice.

If you like elephants then you will get some enjoyment out of Pop Aye, a little tale about a disillusioned, middle aged architect who rescues an elephant.

Yourself and Yours is a curious but amusing tale from South Korea, with a sly jab at male expectations of women.

Lover for a Day was very very French. Need I say more?

The Giant was a quirky little film from Sweden that tackles the issue of society’s attitude to people with disabilities. Some nice ideas in this film, but he doesn’t quite pull it off.

The Work was my first film of the Festival. A worthy documentary looking at group therapy in Folsom Prison with hardened criminals and men from the outside world. I found it a bit heavy handed, and a bit of a wasted opportunity.

And my NOPES were:

Claire’s Camera. Yet another outing for the fabulous Isabelle Huppert, who is Claire, but this was largely a bore  with a very slight storyline.

God’s Own Country was billed as a British Brokeback Mountain. Not even close. Brutish Yorkshire lad, living a brutish life, engaging in brutish sex. Goodness knows why the doe eyed Romanian fell in love with him.

The Challenge started off with the most rousing music whilst we watched falcons fluttering around, but this doco about rich male Saudi excess was one big bore. The real challenge was to stay awake.

Until the Birds Return. Three different, unconnected stories set in Algeria. The birds never did return. Plus, there was a random piece of Algerian Bollywood thrown into the middle of it. Go figure.

Let the Sunshine In. Now Juliette Binoche is gorgeous to watch but this latest from Claire Denis just didn’t work for me. Juliette plays a very needy and high maintenance divorcee looking for love. She needed a good spanking, and not of the sexual kind.

Ellipsis is the directorial debut from David Wenham, shot in 10 days with no script. And it shows.