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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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Champions in Kingscliff

Kingscliff is a bit like the old Gold Coast – still relatively low rise, with a small set of shops and a thriving bowls club and Surf Life Saving Club. The golden sands of the beach stretch off into the distance, admittedly currently marred by the upgrade and redevelopment that will result in fabulous beach access, and hopefully protect the beach from further ravages by the relentless sea. The vibe is low key and relaxed. And, the sun is shining. What more could you want.

We are Airbnbing here, and this is the true Airbnb experience – genuine people who are keen to meet others and share their beautiful locale. Elizabeth and Steve have Orient by the Sea, which is essentially the downstairs of their two storey town house, in spitting distance of the shops and beach. We have a bedroom, a sitting room, a bathroom and a little kitchenette. We share the front door and entry foyer. You can mix, or not mix. We do both. Our hosts are super friendly and keen to chat and share experiences, but are also aware of letting us have our privacy to do our own thing. That to me is what Airbnb should be all about.

Our focus is on the IRB National Lifesaving Championships, so we spend most of our time standing on the beach. To the initiated, IRB events look chaotic – inflatable rescue boats (IRBs) zooming all about; people in wetsuits running up the beach and flinging themselves into IRBs; people being flung into and out of IRBs; people moving up and down the beach. But, rest assured, it is organised chaos.

 

Movement is constant, as to make things fair, teams move lanes between every event, as there is no controlling the waves and when and where they fall.

Friday the respective state teams compete. There is fierce interstate rivalry, but, at least in Victoria, strong intrastate support. Much to the annoyance of all the other states and their individual teams, the various Victorian teams show strong support for each other, and even have a Victorian chant: We love you because you’re Victorian …… clap, clap, clap, clap.

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The camaraderie is in fact one of the reasons I love watching these championships. The Williamstown crew are a tight knit bunch. It is one for all, and all for one. They suffer for each other, and rejoice in each other’s victories. I am grateful for the care they shower on my highly anxious pre race daughter, cushioning her in their support. As parents we are largely superfluous; we’re not part of the inner circle; we are not the ones they turn to first for the encouraging hug. And, that’s how it should be. I am moved to tears when I see the Team Coach, and chief wrangler, in tears after Abby’s gold medal swim. He has known her since she was 16. They are family.

As always there are dramas – we get disqualified in a couple of events; the rope to start the motor breaks in another so we never get off the beach; a patient isn’t hauled in on the first run in another; and most dramatic of all, a crew member goes flying out of the boat and ends up with a damaged knee. But, despite these obstacles, Williamstown Life Saving Club comes third overall, an excellent achievement.

Our girl and her team win the Gold Medal in her particular event, for the 4th year in a row. The event is called The Tube. Let me talk you through it. The driver and swimmer are on the beach, the starter’s gun goes and they race to the boat. The driver starts the engine, and then the swimmer (Abby) leaps in. They race over the waves towards the patient, who is patiently bobbing about waiting to be rescued. The boat gets to the first can and Abby heaves the rescue Tube into the water, followed by herself. She then swims to the patient, throws the tube at him. He clips the Tube around himself and she then proceeds to swim back to the boat, towing him behind (he is allowed to kick). The boat can’t wait for them at the end of the run – rather must drive off, keep an eye on proceedings and then race back in as the swimmer reaches the end can. The swimmer heaves the patient and then herself back into the boat, and the boat races to the shore. The boat roars up to the sand, the driver leaps out and runs to the finish line. The first driver at the finish line wins. There you have it, the Tube Race. And they won. Hurrah!

The Championships run over three days, so there isn’t much time for anything else. But, we do manage some extra curricular activity. Friday evening as the sun is beginning to set we go walking along the breakwater, and are delighted to see two migrating whales putting on a display of dives and leaps in the middle distance. A thrill to see them.

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Saturday afternoon we get an early mark as racing is called off due to wind and choppy seas. We take the opportunity to visit the Tweed Regional Gallery in nearby Murwillimbah. What a beautiful Gallery it is, making the most of its location in the valley. The current exhibition is an A-Z from the collection – and it is a delight to work out the curator’s thinking behind each choice. And then there is the Margaret Olley Centre attached to the Gallery. They have been blessed by a grant from the Margaret Olley Trust and now house a recreation of Margaret Olley’s home and studio. Plus, a grant from her Trust enables an artist in residence, and a showing of their work. And, on our visit there is an exhibition of Margaret Olley portraits, by herself and others. Wonderful. I am moved to tears by the stories and portraits- there was just something about her face that endears her to you; I feel a connection. All in all, an enchanting experience.

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And of course, nothing is complete without visits to restaurants. We visit two, Fins at the Salt complex in Kingscliff, and Taverna, just a few minutes walk from our accommodation. Fins is jam packed on a Saturday night, and the wait staff are working overtime. They are not helped by an accident in the kitchen involving a knife and stitches, which holds up service. The seafood is delicious, but goodness me, not cheap – with mains around $47, entrees at $26. At those prices I think it is rather rich (excuse the pun) to charge for bread & butter. We decline.

Sunday night at Taverna is Chef’s Table night, which translates to no choice, set meal, $39 a head (dessert and drinks not included). It is a lovely space – white, bright and light. And absolutely packed. Yet the staff manage the tables with grace and efficiency- and the food is delicious. What a bargain. We walk back up the hill very happy campers.

Monday morning the sun is still shining brightly but we must drag ourselves away and begin the journey home. Thank you Kingscliff, we will stay longer next time.

Road Trip to Aussies – Orange to Bellingen

We keep to the back roads on our way further north, with the next leg in our road trip being Orange to dang, dang, dang Tamworth – home of country music. Watching the changes in the landscape keeps us fascinated.

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Just before Tamworth we are intrigued by the white fluff along the roadside. Wool that has been desiccated by the mower? We stop and have a feel and are still unsure. Pete hazards a guess at cotton but we look around at the dry paddocks either side and think, surely not. But, Lo & behold shortly after we pass fields of harvested cotton and HUGE bales of cotton wrapped up in yellow plastic. It would seem that the bales moult as they are transported, leaving a white fluffy carpet beside the road. A mystery solved.

In Tamworth we stay at the rather bizarre Retreat@Froogmoore Park – I couldn’t resist a place that had a Dungeon Room, replete with a whip. Although much to Pete’s disappointment we are in the Madea (Japanese) Room. The interior decoration in this place is interesting to say the least. But, the gardens are beautiful.

My main impressions of Tamworth are a wide, palm lined main street; statues of Australian country singers; a stunning Deco pub; and a very loud and crowded bat colony along the river.

We have a lot to do the next day, so decide to skip breakfast at Froogmoore (never did work out why the odd name) at $25 a head and head to Armidale instead. But, we ended up stopping in the lovely village of Uralla, just before Armidale, and chanced upon the terrific The Alternate Root Café, housed in a beautiful 1908 shopfront with a magnificent old tin roof. Excellent coffee and a very tasty breakfast left us very happy road trippers.

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We merely passed through the outskirts of Armidale, intent as we were on travelling along the poetic sounding Waterfall Way. The name conjured up visions of a lush green landscape, but we were still moving through grazing pasture land. Where were these waterfalls then? 40 kms later we veer slightly off the highway and into the parking area for the Woollombi Gorge. A short walk later we see in front of us a magnificent Gorge and a series of beautiful waterfalls tumbling down the rockface.

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We travel a bit further along Waterfall Way to the minuscule hamlet of Ebor where we discover the beautiful Ebor Falls, Upper and Lower.

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As well as the waterfalls there are panoramic views across the valley. Who would have thought that all this beauty lay just beyond the boundaries of a not very interesting road.

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From here it is on to Dorrigo and its UNESCO World Heritage listed rainforest – a micro climate again tucked just off the Waterfall Way. Unfortunately , we arrive too late to take advantage of the walks on offer, but we do get a feel for this unique environment.

It starts to drizzle as we hop into the car, and so we follow the rainbow into Bellingen, a delightful village nestled into this beautiful valley. Day disappears with a glorious sunset, a fitting end to a day of natural wonders.

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We are staying at the Bellingen Valley Lodge, a motel stuck in the time warp of the 1970s. Good bones but needs some love and care. But, we did have that glorious view of sunset, and the bed is comfortable.

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Dinner is at the newly opened Popla and it is fabulous, one of the most enjoyable meals we have had in a while – great food and charming staff. Worth a trip to Bellingen just to eat there.

Next morning we explore the hippy haven of Bellingen, starting with an excellent coffee at Amelia Franklin – they roast their own beans, and run barista courses, all out of an ex servo in the Main Street. Coffee is followed by breakfast at Black Bear, a cafe recommended by the lass at Popla last night, whom we bump into both at Amelia Franklin and at Black Bear. It is a small place! Breakfast is followed by a quick peruse of the shops before heading to the Pacific Highway and the last push to Kingscliff.

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We stop into Ballina for lunch at the cafe at the Surf Life Saving Club, overlooking the glorious beach. Leaving town, we stock up on local oysters and prawns for our evening feast at our Kingscliff Airbnb. To be washed down with one of our bottles of Orange wine. Sorted. It has been a highly enjoyable road trip. Now on to the next chapter.

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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!

The Picos de Europa

Every time we told people in Australia that we were going to visit the Picos de Europa the response was invariably the same: “Where?”. Compared to say The Dolomites, or The Pyrenees, The Picos are relatively unknown – at least Downunder – but they deserve to be up there with the other mountain ranges as they are stunning, and we have only scratched the surface of what they have to offer.

They are called the Picos de Europa, or Peaks of Europe in English, as they were the first sight of Europe for ships arriving from the Americas. They sit 20km inland from the northern coast of Spain, with the highest peak reaching 2,650 meters. From San Sebastián to Arenas de Cabrales, the main township in the Central Massif, is 288kms. So it took us most of the day to reach Arenas by public transport.


We set off to the San Sebastián bus terminal with plenty of time up our sleeve for coffee before boarding our 9.10am bus to Llanes. We had a 15 minute window of opportunity at Llanes before catching the bus to Arenas. But, as you know, the best laid plans often go astray. We enjoyed our coffee and turned up bright eyed and bushy tailed for the bus. Only problem, no bus. Thirty minutes later a replacement bus screeches into the allotted bay, and a bus load of very agitated passengers pile on board. We know our window of opportunity has been blown out of the water. What can you do? Nada.

The trip is a bit of a milk run, as we stop at what seems like every town between San Sebastián and Llanes. We do not make up time, so are not surprised to see a completely empty bus station when we pull into Llanes. But we were surprised to find the station locked up tight, so no chance for claiming a refund on the ticket. Never mind. We trundle off in search of a taxi, only to find none at the rank. Never mind again. Sheenagh whips out her phone and her Spanish and manages to organize a taxi to take us on the 30 minute journey to Arenas. 10 minutes later we are in the cab and on our way.

We are staying at Hotel Torrecerredo. The hotel website had promised rooms with a view and we are not disappointed. What a view it is.



Arenas de Cabrales is a charming, small, village. Quiet now but it is obviously jam packed in the season. Every second building is either a cafe or a local produce store. After we have finished oh and ahhing at our view we have a wander round the village to get the lie of the land.


The area is famous not only for its mountain range but also for its blue cheese, Queso de Cabrales. Once upon a time, the cheese was made by the shepherds in their small mountain huts and left to mature in the many limestone caves that are dotted through the mountains. The cheese was made from goat and sheep’s milk with a dash of cows milk. Upon maturation, the cheeses would be wrapped in leaves and brought down from the mountains for sale.

But, since the local cheese became recognized as unique to this area and acquired an EU DO (Designation of Origin) status, all the romance has gone from its production. No longer is it made in the small stone huts of the goat herders. No longer is it wrapped in leaves. And no longer is it made predominately from goats milk – rather, it is mainly made from cows milk due to the greater milk production of cows compared to goats or sheep. But, it is still matured for 3-5 months in the caves.



We learn all this from our tour of one of the local cheese makers, where we also get to taste, and smell, the cheese. Which they serve with a dash of the local cider. Luckily, the very kind lady serving us the samples didn’t stay to watch our faces, as the cider was tipped out into the Rio Cares flowing beside the cheesery, and I held my nose whilst tasting the cheese. Blue cheese is one of life’s great dividers and I happen to fall on the hell no side. Sheenagh and Pete however assured me that it was good blue cheese. I’ll take their word for it. All three of us however agreed on the cider – disgusting.


Reconnoiter over, we head back to the terrace of Hotel Torrecerredo to soak up the view and plan tomorrow’s walk, with the help of our very genial English mine host, who knows the region intimately.


We go to bed not only well fed by Jim, mine host, but also with a clear plan of attack for the next day, which dawns with clear blue skies. Our plan is to set out from nearby Poncebos and hike up to Bulnes, then further up again to the Pandebano Pass and over to Sotres. Jim has very kindly offered to drive us to the start of the walk and collect us from the end.

We had originally planned to take the funicular up to Bulnes, but Jim had persuaded us to walk, claiming it was a beautiful hike, and how right he was. A bit of a slog, but oh so worth it.



We were more than ready for a coffee at Bulnes. From some way away we could spy a stone building on high, with what seemed like a terrace and umbrellas. The thought of sitting on the terrace drinking coffee spurred us on. As we got closer we saw that we had a choice to make: a last, steep, climb to the cafe or skip coffee and keep pushing on to Pandebano Pass. Up to coffee was the decision, so we slogged on up. We were greeted at the top by the charming but rather surprised owner of Mirador la Llende – surprised because he wasn’t expecting to see 3 very puffed walkers poke their heads over the embankment of the hill. Turns out that if we had continued straight ahead we would have reached the village of Bulnes and then been able to walk up the paved, albeit steep, road to the cafe, rather than make like goats and scramble up the face of the hill itself! Never mind, as it was well worth the scramble – a fabulous view, a reasonable coffee and we even managed to rustle up a take away tapas picnic lunch from the very obliging host (again, Sheenagh’s Spanish lessons came in very handy).


Legs rested, we hit the trail again for the push up to Pandebano Pass. The hike afforded wonderful views of the iconic Naranjo de Bulnes (otherwise known as Picu Urriellu), a rock climbers dream.



We were more than ready for our picnic lunch when we finally reach the Pass, although the temptation to at first spin around in circles singing the hills are alive or high on the hills lived a lonely goatherd was almost overwhelming. A temptation I, thankfully for the others, resisted.



From here it was a relatively easy one hour walk downhill towards the township of Sotres, via some hungry donkeys who were reluctant to accept No we don’t have any food left, and the remnants of a Roman road (they sure got around, those Romans). As arranged, our lift back to the hotel was waiting as we arrived. I do love it when a plan comes together.



A terrific day’s walk – 14km and an elevation gain of 1,174 metres. Did we sleep well that night.

Next morning the heavens were singing a different song – low cloud and drizzle, with heavier rain forecast for later in the afternoon, continuing into the next day. We bit the bullet and decided to walk the famous Cares Gorge regardless, worried that Thursday’s weather would be worse, and not prepared to leave the Picos without doing this walk. Again, Jim obliged by transporting us back to Poncebos for the start of the walk.


The track runs along the Cares Gorge from Poncebos to Cain, a distance of some 11kms (so, 22kms return). The track is actually the path built to allow for maintenance workers to get to the hydro electric water canal, which was built between 1916 – 1925. The canal, and the path, is an amazing engineering feat, clinging to the side of the rock walls and often burrowing through the rock itself. The Gorge walk is the most popular in the Picos, and even today – a wet weekday at the very beginning of the season – there is a constant parade of fellow walkers (which makes a quick “bush wee” very difficult, and stressful, to achieve!). Even in the wet conditions, the drama of the setting is easy to admire.



Luckily it is only a light drizzle on the way out, but a kilometer out of Cain the rain has become consistent, so we decide to turn back. It is then heads down and just walk, as we get wetter and wetter. No time now for admiring anything. Good thing we had taken all our photos on the way out. Even better that there is a welcoming bar awaiting back at Poncebos, where the staff don’t mind if we leave big pools of water all over their floor.


Imagine how cross we are next morning when we wake to clearer skies and even periods of sunshine. Oh well. The rain does eventually arrive around 3 o’clock, so we would have ended up wet if we had waited to do the walk today. Instead, we enjoyed a late start to the day and another wander around Arenas.


Tomorrow Pete and I start our 7 day hike from here back to Llanes, through what is known as the Asturias, while Sheenagh returns by bus to San Sebastián (fingers crossed for connecting buses). We have put the Picos on our Must Return list, as there is still so much to see. Wish us luck for the next part of our adventure, as this area is verdant green for a reason, and as I finish writing this the rain has closed in and I can no longer see the mountains. Must be gin tonic time then.

Williamstown to Altona on Foot

I was going to call this Secret Melbourne but of course it isn’t a secret to anyone who lives over the Westgate Bridge, only to those of us on the eastern side of Melbourne who rarely go out of our comfort zone. I am very ashamed to say that in all my years of living in this fine city, I have never been to Altona, much less wandered along its coastline. The same is not true for my husband, who regularly saddles up his bike and perambulates round the numerous bike paths that criss cross this city. An overcast Good Friday was the day to rectify my omission, as we walked along the Bay Trail from Williamstown beach to Altona and back – a flat as a tack but fascinating 18.5km all up.


At the start of the Trail is the Jawbone Marine Sanctuary, home to a wide variety of birds and a small harbour for little boats – a scene painted by John Perceval in 1956.


The Trail meanders alongside the Jawbone Conservation Reserve, with birds, reeds and scrubland on the left and houses with uninterrupted views across the bay to the right.


In J.T. Gray Reserve we find a board telling us that this was the site of Melbourne’s first infectious diseases hospital, built in 1884 after an outbreak of smallpox hit the town. For some unexplained reason it was called the Cut Paw Paw Sanitorium. There is no sign now of the Sanitorium, or the adjacent small cemetery (or the cut paw paws for that matter). What a sad place it must have been.


Around the corner along Gray Reserve Road we find a cluster of small shacks at the entrance of  Kororoit Creek, together with the Brunswick City Anglers Club and the Kororoit Creek Boat and Anglers Club.  Despite the Clubhouses and the  mailboxes outside each of the shacks, all of which are connected to electricity, there are almost no signs of life and a general air of neglect is about.


The Trail continues, with Kororoit Creek on the left and Mobil Oil Refinery tanks on the right. The birdlife takes no notice of us, or the factories and warehouses along the Trail. We spot swans, pelicans, ducks, spoonbill herons and many more, happily playing and feeding in the waterway.


Amongst the factories I spy an interesting looking sign and veer off the path to take a closer look. We discover Makers Zoo, and meet the lovely Jeremy, a Kiwi who does shop and café fitouts as well as crafting beautiful custom made furniture. He is busy working on a piece today but comes out for a chat. We joke that he could be putting his coffee machine to good use, serving the many people who use the Trail. The thought has crossed his mind.


We cross over the creek:


and enter the Altona Coastal Park. 


Did you know that there used to be a racecourse here? The Williamstown Racecourse. Which explains why the road is called Racecourse Road! Built in the 1870s, it was hugely popular. Even Phar Lap raced there. But, not surprisingly, the track was prone to flooding and the fences had to have gates in them to release the water. After WWII the grandstand burnt down and that was the end of the Williamstown Racecourse.


Now all that remains is a graffitied concrete block, and a rather attractive sculpture:

Walking round the edge of the Coastal Park we come to dog heaven – the wide, dog friendly, sands of the PA Burns Reserve:


before stumbling into a human heaven – the Altona-Seaholme Boatowners Association’s clubhouse, cleverly disguised as a red brick toilet block in the car park near the Altona boat ramp. We get chatting to a member of 50 years, who is making the most of a brief spell of sunshine – imbibing on his longneck whilst admiring the million dollar views back over to the city. He graciously allows us to take a peek inside the clubhouse. A much loved Sanctuary to the local boat owners.


Altona is now in sight. We amble up the main street and find the Finnish Hall, a beautiful piece of Art Deco hidden away in Altona (apparently it was once the Red Robin Hosiery factory). Turns out that it is a Finnish Festival weekend, and the hall is open and full of happy Finns, eating Finnish food. A young lady kindly invites us in, explaining that this is an annual event for Finns living in Australia and people have come from all over for the festivities. This year it was Altona’s turn to play mine host to our Australian Finns.


It is time now to turn back and retrace our steps. Going back is never as much fun as you’ve seen the sights, and the feet are definitely beginning to tire. But, make it back we do, and reward ourselves with a drink and a toasted panini at The Kiosk next door to the Williamstown Life Saving Club.


It has been a fascinating day. I’ve seen places I’ve never ventured into before, and met some characters along the way. A very good Friday indeed.

Summer in the High Country

I am definitely not a snow bunny. I have never really understood the attraction of risking life and limb hurtling down hill whilst simultaneously throwing wads of cash out of your pocket. And then there is my husband’s predilection, cross country skiing. Why on earth would one want to strap planks of wood to one’s feet and then attempt to walk uphill??? Yes, snow covered hills and trees make for a beautiful landscape, but I am usually sweating (and swearing) so much that there is little time to admire the view.

But, the mountains in summer is a completely different matter, especially when the drive to get there is through the beautiful, and spoiled for choice on where to eat, King Valley. So, it was with a happy heart that I set off for Dinner Plain last week. This happiness was slightly deflated by my realisation an hour out of Melbourne that I had managed to forget to pack any underwear, but a quick trip to the Country Target in Myrtleford solved that hiccup. But, creating more misery was the phone call from the heating engineer we were due to meet at the Lodge the next day – he was at the Lodge TODAY. Goodbye long drawn out lunch at one of the many appealing eateries and hello banana and Golden Gaytime scoffed in the car. Not an auspicious start to our 3 night jaunt.

But, the sun was shining over the hamlet of Dinner Plain, so the spirits couldn’t stay down for long. Dinner Plain always reminds me of a giant’s doll house collection, with its neat cluster of matching grey washed wooden two story buildings, nestled amongst the snow gums.


And even better, we had the whole AAC (Australian Alpine Club) Lodge to ourselves, what luxury. So, we light the barbie, pull a cork (or two) and settle in on the comfy couches – after a stroll around the village to check for any changes since our last visit.


The weather gods were certainly smiling as next day was just glorious – clear blue skies and no wind. Perfect for a hike up The Twins, a camel humped hill on the Alpine Walking Track. But first, a coffee at the cute Mountain Kitchen café, one of the only consistently open places in this semi ghost village (open Wednesday – Sunday in summer):

Caffeinated we are ready to tackle the vertical climb, 600 metres in a little over a kilometre – that got the heart pumping. The start is deceptive, a relative amble along the bushtrack, admiring the wildflowers.

But we are soon off piste and negotiating through what looks to me like unchartered territory, but the experienced bush walker amongst us (aka The Husband) recognises an alpine walking “track” when he sees one. Meanwhile, I am trying not to think about alpine snake life as I clamber over logs.


The fierce bush fires of 2003 and then again in 2013 have dramatically changed the landscape. Regrowth of the trees is happening, but you often feel that you are in the midst of a Fred Williams painting:


On the plus side, the views that are gained as you climb through the “trees” are wonderful:


And become spectacular once you climb above the tree line and reach the top:


As always, the going down is easier, and quicker. Thank goodness. But, it was certainly worth the slog up, and what a gorgeous day for it.


Back to the Lodge and some R& R before the evening’s entertainment – the movies had come to town in the form of the travelling version of Flickerfest, an internationally recognised short film festival (http://flickerfest.com.au). Dinner Plain was lucky enough to be chosen as the first night of this travelling film show, and being Australia Day the screenings were all Australian made. 

An inflatable screen had been erected on the beginner ski slope behind the Village, and kick off was 8.30pm as the sun slowly set.


Patrons came armed with deck chairs, bean bags, picnic blankets and  warm gear to ward off the evening damp and chill. The assembled throng spread themselves out across the slope, and settled in with a free chocolate mousse from the Ramada lodge, and a wine or Blizzard beer. It was a great night. Hopefully one that will be repeated.


Next day a gentler walk was undertaken – a short ramble along Tall Timber track. Which gave us another chance to admire the glorious views:


and to check out the hut at JB Plain:


with its scenically situated outdoor loo:


Before finishing with a cleansing ale at Dinner Plain’s very own brewery- Blizzard Brewery,  which is the highest brewery in Australia, and makes a pretty good beer with the pristine alpine water at its disposal.


See why I love the mountains in Summer?! Definitely worth a visit.

All Quiet on the Western Ghats

There is something quintessentially romantic about that name, The Western Ghats. So, it is with both excitement and anticipation that we set off for our next destination, a small home stay called Banyan Tree, nestled in the foothills of the Western Ghats, near a town called Pollachi.

It is a long drive; we spend some 5 hours in the car. But, the time passes quickly as there is so much to see (and Rajesh keeps up a pretty constant stream of commentary, facts and theories to keep us, and him, entertained).

There is a huge fort atop a granite outcrop. A story about a female leader who held off an invading force was told to us, but the essence of the story was lost to me in a welter of long names and details. Nevertheless, the fort is very impressive.


We pass through village after village full of people going about their daily life. In one we stop so that Raj can have a reviving cup of tea, which gives us a chance to stretch our legs. The bicycle sellers are also having a cup of tea, and a chat, and seeing me taking a picture of their wares ask that I take a picture of them too. They then question Raj about who and what we are – they did not know about Australia, only America!



It seems that in almost every village we pass through there is some kind of celebration going on. It might be for Onam, a 10 day festival that is related to the harvest. Or it might be a wedding, or a new house opening, or whatever else there is to be celebrated. Whatever the reason, it is always loud, cheerful and brightly coloured.


We move into a more fertile agricultural area, and start to see water in the canals and waterways at last. There are rice fields, coconut palms, and various vegetables being grown. Mounds of coconuts are everywhere, and they use every part of the coconut, including the husk, to make rope and coir mats.



But we also notice how much more rubbish litters every village, the waterways and the sides of roads. There is plastic and general refuse everywhere. Outside some of the bars we also see plastic cups added to the heap. Everything just gets thrown onto the ground – which seems to be in complete contrast to their fastidious sweeping up of dirt, leaves and flower petals around their homes, shops and stalls. 

We stop at one bridge to watch the people gathered below. This causes great excitement and much waving. Next thing we know the young boys have run up the hill to meet us and are clamouring to have their photo taken. It proves very difficult to get a shot in focus as they push, shove and wave their arms in sheer exuberance. It is like standing in the middle of a throng of puppies. We eventually break free, after much hand shaking. 



We reach our home stay in time for a late lunch, and are so glad we did as it is delicious (as are all the meals we have there). We then settle onto our verandah to admire the view of the ghats, and the surrounding countryside, before going for a late afternoon stroll with our host, Prabu. Prabu is the 7th generation on this farm, which consists of 4,500 acres. Huge, but it is divided amongst 9 families, all descendants from the original patriarch. The farm is acually run by several managers, but Prabu is very much Lord of the Manor.



The home stay takes its name from the massive old banyan tree standing guard at the entrance to the property, which is way off the beaten track, abutting the Western Ghats. Between it and the mountains is a small wildlife sanctuary, and elephants are a big problem for the farm as they wander in and uproot the coconut palms. In the evening and early morning we hear what we think are gunshots but are in fact firecrackers to scare off the elephants. There are also many leopards in the forest, as well as wild boar, so we think that walking around the property at night is probably not a good idea.


The room is simple but clean and comfortable, and apart from the shriek of the peacocks it is very tranquil. Next day, after a delicious Indian breakfast, we head off in the car with Rajesh to explore the nearby town of Pollachi. It is a market town, so we spend time wandering around the market.


 Once again we are a major source of interest to the locals, who are keen to get their photo taken. So of course we oblige.


After a local coffee, where I watch a man make a vegetable fritter thing that looks very delicious, we head off in the car for Aliyar Dam, which Rajesh says has beautiful gardens and is a very popular local tourist spot. 


Well, he got the last part right – it is a very popular spot, but the gardens are dry and overgrown with weeds. We hike up to the top of the dam wall to admire the view, and again the dryness in Tamil Nadu is evident in the depleted level of the dam. Once again we are asked to pose for photos. We are starting to feel like rock stars!


A quiet afternoon spent on our verandah before we clamber into Prabu’s very ancient jeep for a spin around the property,  accompanied on foot by the 11 year old mongrel Pepper (the younger one, No Name, gave up quite early in the drive). We pass by coconut trees, coco bean trees, mango trees, betel nut trees, drumstick trees and a wide range of vegetables. All the time with that beautiful mountain range standing silent witness.



Dinner that night is not quite as successful as the previous night as Prabu has decided to contribute two of his favourite dishes to the evening meal – an Indian version of shephard’s pie and some sort of pasta and vegetable bake. His Anglo-Indian boarding school background is very evident in these dishes! Fortunately Jayanthi, his lovely wife, has made us drumstick soup (drumstick being a long thin vegetable that grows on trees) and a chicken curry (or, chicken gravy as she calls it). Both of which are yummy. Prabu’ s contributions get pushed around the plate a bit before we cry off being full (however, we do find some room for the Indian dessert).

It has been a peaceful and interesting interlude.