The little town that could

Do you drive past or through small country towns and wonder what on earth sustains them? What keeps them ticking over? Why are they here? A lot of country towns in Australia are doing it tough – thanks to drought; debt; lack of employment opportunities; or simply by being bypassed by the highway. Benalla, in north east Victoria, suffered the highway bypass many years ago and became too easily forgotten by many motorists roaring up and down the Hume Highway (or Freeway as it is now called).

Once upon a time the town was known for its beautiful rose garden, but now, through the initiative of some creative locals, it has seized the mantle as the self proclaimed Street Art Capital of Australia.  In 2015 this group of locals got together, and with the help of generous sponsorship from local businesses and residents, created The Benalla Wall to Wall Street Art Festival. The idea was simple and drew inspiration from towns such as Georgetown in Penang – let’s invite street artists to the town, give them a wall, some paint, accomodation and food and let them loose over a weekend. And the result in that first year was 14 murals created by some of the world’s most renowned street artists. Despite some initial resistance from residents, the street art idea has taken root and the Wall to Wall Festival has become an annual event.  But, it is not just confined to street art. Not to be left out, some of the old wheat silos in the region have also been used as large scale canvases.  So, in short, there is now plenty to see in the little town of Benalla, providing a real reason to detour off the Hume Freeway.

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We launch our latest adventure with lunch at Fowles Winery at Avenel (corner of Hume Freeway and Lambing Gully Rd).  Fowles is a routine coffee stop stop for us when making the 5 hour trip up to Mt Hotham, but it has been a while since we have eaten there. The menu offers plenty to choose from, and it was all yummy, and delightfully washed down with a glass of Fowles wine. The winery is undergoing expansion works so the front looks a little barren, but someone in the landscaping department obviously has grand plans as there is now a monumental wooden archway dissecting the carpark. It will be interesting to follow its progress over the years.

From there it is on to Benalla, but we don’t stop in the town. Rather, we are on the hunt for the newly painted silos. First up is the tiny hamlet of Goorambat (population 347, some 20km beyond Benalla), and the painted silo of the Melbourne street artist Jimmy Beattie, known as Dvate. Dvate’s passion is for endangered species, so his chosen subject is a portrait of Milli, an Australian Barking Owl he met at Healesville Sanctuary. The Barking Owl is the most threatened owl in Victoria but Northeast Victoria remains a stronghold for this endangered species, so the silo seemed like a fitting place to put this image.

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But little Goorambat doesn’t just boast a Dvate artwork on its silo. It also has a beautiful Adnate mural, entitled Sophia and painted during the 2017 Wall to Wall Festival, in its tiny Uniting Church. The Adnate mural has helped create an amazingly beautiful space, both physically and spiritually, in this humble chapel.

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Then it is on to the even smaller town of Devenish and the silos painted by Cam Scale. Cam took as his inspiration the town’s connection to WW1, when one in six of this small community signed up to serve. Of the 50 that went overseas, seven did not return.  The town wanted something to commemorate the centenary of the end of the war, but also hoped for a memorial that might draw tourists to this somewhat down at heel little town. The community raised $20,000 to fund the painting of the silo, and are thrilled with the result.

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There is yet another painted silo a further 23km up the road at the town of Tungamah, but we didn’t find that out until the next day so shall have to leave that for another time. Apparently the Tungamah mural is particularly noteworthy for the fact that the artist, Sobrane, painted the mural freehand, working from a one page sketch (more typically, works of this scale are done using either projection of the image onto the surface, or using grid markings to guide the artist’s hand).

We return to Benalla and arrive at our Airbnb as the cold evening air is beginning to take hold.  We are relieved to discover that our host has already turned on the heater, which has taken the chill from the air. We have decided to dine in as we were reluctant to leave the warmth, and we are very lucky in that decision as we discover the next day that the town’s main restaurant, Georgina’s, is closed due to a fire suffered some 5 weeks earlier. Instead, we enjoy a fireside feast of our own making, complete with a bottle of sparkling and a bottle of The Inception Cabernet from Fowles Wines.

Our beds are comfy and we awake to a crisp but bright sunny day, which is fortuitous as we have booked ourselves into a Street Art walking tour, starting at 10.30am.  After a get me started coffee at Rustik Café, we meet our tour guide, Lindsay from Visit Benalla (visitbenalla.com.au), at the appointed time and place. The place is beside the Benalla Ceramic Mural, and Lindsay tells us a little of its history. The mural was commenced in 1983 but was not completed until 2010. While local artist Judy Lorraine had a big hand in its creation, there are tiles made by residents and school children, as well as people such as the famous cartoonist Leunig.  A bakers oven once stood on the spot, and this too has been captured within the mural. Overall, one can’t help thinking of the whimsical work of the celebrated Catalonian artist , Antoni Gaudi. It certainly rewards time taken to explore its nooks and spiralling crannies.

Lindsay was one of the founding members of the Benalla Wall to Wall Street Art Festival committee, so is well placed to introduce us to the key pieces around town, and to let us into the tales behind both the art works and how the Festival came to be. It is quite fascinating to hear the inside gossip; to hear more about the artists and their way of working; and to learn which murals find favour with the locals and which don’t.  We spend a very enjoyable 2 hours wandering the town and admiring the walls.

At the end we are in need of sustenance so head back to Rustik Café for lunch and a much needed sit down, before crossing over the bridge to look inside the charming Benalla Art Gallery, a small gem of a regional gallery sitting beside the banks of Lake Benalla .

The Gallery has its own café, a small shop and two gallery spaces. The first has an exhibition of works from the collection, entitled Ornament and Subject. One beautifully intricate work particularly takes our fancy (but I forgot to take note of the artist, many apologies to him or her).

The other room is showing works by Peter Waples-Crowe and Megan Evans, entitled Squatters and Savages. The works are clever and visually arresting reflections on the impact of colonisers on our Indigenous people. I found it quite moving.

We finish off our Benalla visit with a quick look around NEA, the North East Artisans store on Bridge Street East. We haven’t seen all Benalla has to offer – the artworks in the nearby Winton Wetlands will have to wait until our next visit – but it is time to climb into the car and make the 2.5 hour trip back to Melbourne. But before I go I take another look at one of my favourite civic buildings – the old Benalla Shire offices, built in 1958 and designed by architects AK Lines, MacFarlane and Marshall, which has thankfully been recognised for the modernist gem it is and beautifully restored and placed on the Victorian Heritage Register.

We have thoroughly enjoyed our time in this town that could take on and own the identity of street art capital of Victoria.

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Out of New York City

Manhattan is an endlessly fascinating city, with so much to see and do, but it is sometimes nice to escape the hustle and bustle, and you are somewhat spoiled for choice as to where to visit away from the city. On this trip I am lucky enough to visit three different spots.

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My first outing is due north for about 130 miles, to a country house sitting on the New York Massachusetts border, surrounded by State Parks.  Getting out of the city on a Saturday morning takes time, and patience, but finally we escape the urban sprawl and are in the countryside. We pass by quaint weatherboard houses surrounded by blossom trees, and often flying the American flag.  It is green everywhere I look, a somewhat unusual sight for an Aussie; the forests are wearing their spring coat, and the grass is verdant. And, everything is so very neat and tidy.

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Our first stop is the charming hamlet of Millerton where we make a beeline for the Irving Farm Coffee Roasters cafe, as we are in desperate need of a coffee (me) and a snack (them).  Choosing the right cake takes time, and we each select a different one, so the potential for cake envy is high. Luckily, we are all satisfied with our choice – the coffee is so so but hey, they are a local roaster done good, with several outlets in Manhattan, so it must be to someone’s taste. But, it is the wonderful Oakhurst Diner in Millerton that really takes my fancy – don’t you just love these wonderful diner buildings?  Never mind the food, just admire the look.

 

The house is all you could wish for in a country home – spacious (i.e room for me), light filled, surrounded by garden and forest, and cosy couches facing a big fireplace.  The fire must however wait as we have to explore.  There are many opportunities for walks but we content ourselves with the short hike to Sunset Rock, in the Taconic State Park. From here the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains are spread before us, just beautiful. I try to ignore the mention of ticks and Lyme disease, but find later that night I am inspecting my clothes and skin more closely than I would like. Not to mention the snake we spy lying sluggishly beside the path – waking up from his winter sleep perhaps. They talk about Australia and all its dangerous animals! I’m just grateful it wasn’t a rattle snake.

 

A visit into nearby Great Barrington allows us to catch the Ruth Bader Ginsberg documentary, excellent, followed by dinner at the now famous (thanks to a glowing New York Times review) Prairie Whale restaurant.  The restaurant name comes from a 19th century term for pigs, after it was discovered lard could be used as a substitute for whale oil to light lamps. The owner is an escapee from Brooklyn, so we feel right at home in this cosy tavern. The food is described as New American, and the serves are generous. We leave full of food and warm hospitality.

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Now it is time for the couch, the roaring fire and introducing my ignorant American ‘family’ to the joy of Eurovision. The next evening when they burst into a version of Rise Like a Phoenix, complete with hand gestures, I know my work here is done and I have made my mark.

I am disappointed not to see a beaver in one of the many lakes and streams, but do see a mighty eagle perched in a tree. I love the names, like Bash Bish Falls, but Bear Mountain sends a slight shudder down my spine.  Of course, all of this area looks completely different in Winter as it is covered in snow – hard to imagine now.  All in all, a lovely neck of the woods as they say.

Mystic, Connecticut

My next foray is to Mystic, Connecticut. You are probably all familiar with the name, thanks to Julia Roberts’ much loved debut film Mystic Pizza.  I do in fact eat at Mystic Pizza but Julia, or anyone resembling her, is no where to be seen.

 

In fact, I do quite a bit of excellent eating during my stay in Mystic, starting with the S&P Oyster Company, where we are lucky to get a table overlooking the Mystic River. The view as the sun sets is lovely, and the food excellent.

 

Oysters are obviously very popular in this part of the country as the other very good restaurant we visit is The Oyster Club. At neither establishment do I actually eat oysters, as I have been promised the cream of oysters during my Newport, RI visit, so I am delaying that pleasure. But, I do enjoy the yummy local fish – can’t get much fresher than this. We begin our night at The Oyster Club by battling the bright young things in the adjoining, and obviously very trendy, Treehouse Bar – thereby raising the average age significantly. Obviously everyone wants to be standing, or sitting, in a treehouse on a warm Memorial Day weekend night, drinking cocktails. We fit right in, except for the age gap!

Next up on the eat your way round the area tour (my kinda tour I have to tell you) is lunch at the quaintly called Dogwatch Cafe in Stonington.  Here my table with a view karma holds good and we are seated beside the dock, where we can admire the $$$ tied up at the moorings. We are comforted, not, by the table of burly coastguard officers sitting at the adjoining table, complete with bullet proof vests and guns on their hips.

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This is followed another day by the famous Lobster Roll at Abbott’s at Noank. I’m sure this was part of the inspiration for our own Andrew McConnell’s now legendary lobster roll at his various establishments in Melbourne. For $18US you get a 1/4 pound of lobster, including  juicy claw flesh, in a brioche bun with a minuscule cup of coleslaw, dill pickle and a bag of crisps. What’s not to like about that? And again, look at the view it comes with.

 

Sticking with the roll theme, I also enjoy a delicious soft shell crab roll at the Old Lyme Country Club.  As you can tell, seafood is both popular and excellent along this coastline, and I’m in heaven.

Now, it wasn’t all about eating. I did get to see some sights too, starting with a leisurely walk around the charming village of Stonington. The town is famous for withstanding a 3 day British bombardment in 1775.  Now it is famous for being very pretty, surrounded as it is by water, with lovingly restored homes lining its quiet, treelined streets.

 

Another outing was to yet another charming village, this time Old Lyme. After admiring the real estate (and the before mentioned soft shell crab roll), we visited the wonderful Florence Griswold museum. I can’t stop thinking of another Griswold family, that of National Lampoon Vacation fame – but this is a very different kettle of fish. The museum consists of the restored Florence Griswold House, and a modern gallery space, housing an impressive collection of American Impressionist paintings, that sits behind the original house on the banks of the Lieutenant River.

Whilst it is interesting to see the paintings, it is the house that particularly takes my fancy. Florence was the youngest daughter of a ship captain. For a time, Florence, her mother and sisters ran a School for Girls but after the death of her father, mother and sister times became difficult so from the late 1800s to make ends meet Florence took in boarders. One of her boarders was the artist Henry Ward Ranger. He loved his time in Lyme and in the boarding house so much that he promised to bring other painters to stay.  Thus, the house became the epicentre of the American Impressionist movement, with a number of artists staying over the years.  As a thank you to Florence and her generosity to this motley crew, who often paid her in paintings, a variety of artists decorated the interior of several of the rooms. The result being some 41 beautiful painted panels in the downstairs rooms. The house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1993, and an extension restoration project was undertaken in 2006/7.

We finish off a perfect the day with a ferry ride across the Connecticut river, and a drive through the lovely forests of beech, birch, maple and oak trees.

 

Newport, Rhode Island

The visit to Newport is distinguished mainly by the women I meet there – all well into their 70s and early 80s, and all funny, intelligent and interesting. I have been lucky enough to have visited Newport previously; this visit is driven largely by practicalities. But, we still find time to see some of the sights, starting with a wander around the old part of town, where history sits on every corner. As well as admiring the architecture, we stop in at the Redwood Library & Athenaeum, which dates back to 1747, and boasts an amazing collection of books and artworks.

The sun beckons, as does lunch, so we treat ourselves to lunch on the terrace at the beautiful Castle Hill hotel, admiring the way the other 10% live.

Continuing with imagining how the minority live, we tackle the famous Cliff Walk, skirting behind the mansions of the rich and famous and looking out to the North Atlantic Ocean. Apart from the America’s Cup, Newport is famous for being the town where New York’s wealthiest built their summer cottages.  The opulence of these so called cottages – mansions to anyone else – is quite staggering. Thanks to the efforts of such organisations as the Preservation Society of Newport County these buildings have been protected and preserved, and many are open to the public during the summer months. Oh, the stories that are told.

I have barely scratched the surface on what Newport has to offer but time has run out and we must leave. But, on the plus side, I am finally rewarded for my oyster patience on our drive back to Mystic, when we stop at the Matunuck Oyster Bar – and rewarded I am indeed. The three different local oysters I try are sweet and succulent, well worth the wait.  The place is pumping, even late on a Thursday afternoon. Apparently, in summer there are queues out the door.

 

 

New York Reflections

This isn’t my first trip to New York.  I started visiting in the 1980’s, thanks to the fact that the man I was living with in London had a sister and niece in NYC. The man is long, long gone but not so his sister and niece, who have come to be considered family – infrequently seen but much loved; the ex outlaws as we call each other.  And, they are the reason for this visit, just to spend time in their beloved company. This is just some random reflections and travel notes from that trip.

The Subway

I haven’t been back to New York for probably 12 years, so it is both familiar and unfamiliar – I have to relearn the subway for a start, those multi coloured arteries that link the different neighbourhoods of this endlessly fascinating city. Being from Australia I envy any city with an underground train system. Sure, it might be a bit grimy down there, but my goodness it is a great way to get around.  I think I cover off a good section of the alphabet this stay. As I am staying in Brooklyn,  the R line is my main focus, but it is the slow boat to China, stopping at all stations and often delayed – or in fact, stopping at only a few stations on the weekends. I learn to leap out and dash across the platform to catch an Express train, hoping like hell I’ve leapt on the right one, but realising that even if I haven’t, as long as I don’t pop my head up gopher like out the subway hole, my Seniors Return fare ticket ($2.75 US)  is good to get me to where I eventually want to go if I need to retrace my steps.

I give up trying to understand what the driver is saying over the intercom. In fact, right from catching the taxi at the airport I have submitted myself to the knowledge that any one involved in transport in this city is virtually unintelligible, at least to me. A fact that results in a couple of embarrassing, on my part, exchanges with people behind glass at ticket counters; and has me studying the subway map clutched in my hand intently as I tick off the stops, as there is not a chance in hell I’m going to understand the verbal recitation of the stops.

I get great pleasure from the busking travelling minstrels on the train, and insist on giving them money, much to the disapproval of my ‘family’. In the course of just a few rides I encounter a mariachi band, a trio of soul singers and a Chinese opera violinist. All bring a smile to the face; well maybe not the Chinese violinist.

The Museums

This city has a museum for everything, and this visit I return to some well loved ones , plus experience some new to me. I start with the Museum of Modern Art; fitting given that our very own NGV has just opened a major exhibition of loaned works from MoMA. This has been achieved in part because MoMA is going through a major renovation and construction to expand the gallery space, which may explain why my visit is not as exciting as others I see this trip. However, I did discover a photographer, Stephen Shore, whom I now Follow in Instagram.

The Guggenheim is virtually closed as they bump in a new exhibition, but the side wing is open and I do a quick whip around a children’s art exhibition and a small exhibition of major pieces from the collection. A warm up to the Met just down the road.

I feel a bit like Hansel & Gretel in The Met, wishing I had breadcrumbs to spread behind me to ensure I actually make it out again. The place is huge. But, my focus is the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination exhibition. The exhibition features “the work of designers who for the most part were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition ……….. most acknowledge its enduring influence on their imaginations”. Cleverly, the garments are displayed throughout the Medieval and Byzantine Art galleries, so you are both forced to reflect on the influence of religious art on the fashion, and to look at items in the collection, not just the garments. All the while, hypnotic music is pulsing through the gallery. Unfortunately I don’t make it uptown to see the the display in the Met Cloisters, but thoroughly enjoy what I do see on Fifth Avenue.

I am eager to see the new Whitney building, a museum that has always held a special place in my heart as it was where I discovered the marvellous Edward Hopper. The Whitney is devoted solely to American art, and there are two highlights here today for me. The first is the exhibition of Grant Wood works. Who I hear you say? Well, you will all know him because he is the artist who painted the iconic American Gothic painting.  But, there is so much more to the man than this work, and I discover that I am a great fan. The second highlight was the small collection of Jacob Lawrence war paintings within the An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection 1940-2017 exhibition.

I have a brief but interesting visit to the National Museum of the American Indian, down in the financial district, but it was my last museum visit that was a particular revelation –  the Museum of Art & Design (MAD). A relatively small space, on Columbus Circle, but a real delight (and I gather the restaurant on the top floor is very good also). It is here I discover the work of pioneering feminist artist Miriam Schapiro, whose aim was to spotlight the artistic merit of the so-called female domestic crafts. She pioneered a painting collage hybrid she called femmage, and they are beautiful.  On the next floor I am introduced to the Negro Motorist Green Book, which was an annual guidebook published between 1936-1967, listing businesses across America that were sympathetic to African American motorists and travellers, thus helping (and hoping) to make their travels safer. The artist Derrick Adams used the Green Book as the inspiration for his work in this exhibition. Fascinating.

Walks

I had two walks on my Must Do This Visit List – the Highline, and the Brooklyn Bridge.

No visit to New York is complete without a walk along the Highline. What a truly brilliant idea this was – a terrific example of innovative urban landscaping that in turn has completely revitalised a once down at heel area. The architecture going up is amazing, and the place buzzes. I walk the length of it (2.3 km or 1.45 miles in their money), starting at the Whitney, and then back again.  As I walk the drizzle stops and the sun comes out, thus the crowds slowly build. I stop half way to enjoy a very yummy panini from one of the food carts, followed a bit further by a magnificent ice cream sandwich to reward my efforts.

We tackled the Brooklyn Bridge from the Brooklyn side, struggling against the steady flow of walkers doing it in reverse. But, the view is so much better our way, as you are walking towards that famous skyline. A word of warning: whichever way you walk it, the path is also a bike path and the local bikers get very very cross at oblivious tourists intent on taking selfies and ignoring the faded lines delineating the bike lane. If you want to avoid an earful, stick to the pedestrian side.

We continued our walk to the site of the World Trade Centre and were unexpectedly moved by the fountain memorial, which captures so much in its simplicity.

Coffee

My morning ritual always includes indulging in a decent coffee in a cafe, and being in New York is no exception however proves trickier to achieve than here in Melbourne (which is, as I instruct mine hosts, the coffee capital of the world).  The search for a good coffee starts each days outing, with mixed success.  I Google Australian cafes in New York, and there are quite a few, especially in Brooklyn but unfortunately not in my end of Brooklyn. Bluestone Lane is one of the originals to conquer NYC, and there are numerous outposts now, including one just near The Guggenheim so I pop in on my Guggenheim Met day, only to see a queue of people waiting to get in. So, I opt for a take away coffee and prop myself up on the bench outside the neighbouring church and people watch. But, I have to admit the coffee was somewhat disappointing – success gone to their heads maybe?

However, I do come to realise over the course of my coffee journey that Americans seem to like a more bitter coffee flavour, or is it a stronger aftertaste, than we are used to in Melbourne. Maybe it is because they have grown up on that stewed bottomless stuff that passes for coffee there.

I find three brands that hit the spot. Gorilla Coffee, an independently owned micro roaster in Brooklyn (472 Bergen St, Brooklyn). Blue Bottle  is a small chain started in the early 2000s in Oakland California – they were purchased by Nestlé in 2017 but still manage to turn out a good brew, despite the rather soulless environment I find in the Park Slope store (although the brown molasses cookie was delicious and still occupies a corner of my taste bud memories). But both were surpassed by my find on my second last day, Birch Coffee, which has 10 outlets in Manhattan. The one I find is a hole in the wall at 884 Ninth Avenue – I managed to secure a stool, and was a very happy girl.  An honorary mention can also go to FIKA, a Swedish brand with outlets across Manhattan – although it was their chocolate rum ball type thing that really got my attention.

But, whist on coffee I couldn’t help but notice just how much plastic and disposable cups are consumed. Even if you are drinking the coffee in you are often given it in a take away cup. Why???  And then there are all the iced tea, smoothie, frappe and whatever else they drink plastic cups – all with straws. My head was filled with images of the landfill that must be generated by this alone. The keep cup concept hasn’t seemed to have caught on yet, but boy does it need to.

Films

Unfortunately I don’t make it to any shows, but we do manage to see three movies which are yet to make an appearance in Australia. The first was a documentary about the amazing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was before this film unknown to me, but I am now a member of her Fan Club. RBG, as she is fondly known, is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and a truly formidable woman who fights fiercely and intelligently for the rights of the American citizen. She is the voice of sense on what is becoming an increasingly right wing court – which will become more so if she dies and Trump is able to make another appointment. Given she is 85 and has had several brushes with cancer, her ongoing health is of concern to all liberal thinkers.

I followed this with another film about a formidable woman, the fading actress Irina Arkadina, played by the wonderful Annette Benning, in The Seagull. In fact everyone in this film of the play was terrific, with a cast including Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Brian Dennehy and Billy Howle. A must see when it comes here.

My last film was not so successful, despite its all star female cast of Dianne Keaton, Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen and Candice Bergen. The latter was wonderful, and provided the only laughs. Without her the film would have been completely woeful. Called The Bookclub – predictable cliché ridden waste of talent.

Friendship

Friendship is what brought me to New York this time, and it is what I leave thinking about. The people we meet along our way; the people we keep. I haven’t seen this lot for maybe 8 years, but I slip back through the crack in time and take up my place within the comfort of their beating family heart. My visit is full of dinners around the kitchen table; of school music recitals; of walking the crazy family dog around the local park whilst admiring the Chinese exercise classes; of getting to know the (grand)kids; of errands and doctors visits. And, I couldn’t be happier. The ties that bind are invisible but strong.

And, I have an added bonus in my two Aussie friends who moved to the Big Apple 14 years ago, and have made a hugely successful life for themselves there. I stay the night in their groovy apartment in the financial district and enjoy dinner at a local institution followed by an amazing milk punch (and no, it wasn’t the warmed milk drink I was imaging but instead a highly lethal but delicious cocktail made with clarified milk among other things). A quick coffee and a final hug on my last day sends me on my way.

Hopefully my next visit will not be so many years away.

 

Revisiting Gippsland

We haven’t been back since we sold the beach house at Waratah Bay, and I have a hankering to see that beautiful stretch of beach once more.  It’s been over 4 years – I wonder what has changed in that time. The weekend of our wedding anniversary provides the perfect excuse for a trip down memory lane, so I scour the internet and find us a cosy “couples retreat” in Fish Creek (although according to Google maps, it is in Buffalo, not Fish Creek) and off we go.

First stop is lunch at Koonwarra Cafe, one of the pioneers of good food in the region. Nothing much has changed, and we enjoy our meals – excellent fish & chips for Himself, and a smoked trout open sandwich for me – before stocking up on their delicious chicken liver paté to have at our leisure.

The sky is grey and the rain has started as we continue on to Meeniyan and boy, is it a revelation.  Where once there was only Moo’s of Meeniyan (established 8 years ago by the convivial Marty) to brighten the gastronomical landscape, there is now almost too much choice – what is apparently an excellent bakery (Pandesal); a local Produce Store (The Meeniyan Store); and a truly mind blowing deli, where a glass of wine and platters on the deck can be had (Meeniyan Square); and the pizza shop has crossed the road and morphed into a fancy wood fired oven pizza place (Trulli).  And I gather the pub isn’t bad either. Plus, there is the local gallery; the jeweller – both of whom have been there for eons – and a new garden sculpture place. So, plenty to explore and marvel at.  If only I had room to eat more, but I had peaked at Koonwarra!

The (much needed) rain is settling in, so we head off to our Airbnb, The Loft. And, it is gorgeous – a studio beside the main house, with stunning views of the Fish Creek valley and simply but stylishly furnished. A wood heater is calling out to be lit, so we snuggle up on the couch, light the fire and open a bottle. Heaven.  In order to make the most of the place, and to avoid driving at night (every time I see a dead wombat by the road with its paws sticking up rigidly in the air I shed a tear; we don’t need to be adding to the carnage), we are self catering for dinner –  a wise, and comfortable,  decision.

We go to sleep with the rain pounding on the roof, and it is overcast and windy the next day, but that does not deter us. Into Fish Creek we go, and it’s buzzing – well, buzzing by Fish Creek standards that is. The local football team is playing a home game, and there are basketball matches in progress.  Again, there are new shops to explore – the Post Office has a little shop now (and a very funky Post Mistress, sporting a gorgeous Dinasour Design ring on her finger); the wonderful children’s author Alison Lester has opened a shop selling her books and illustrations. She has been joined by another children’s author and illustrator, Roland Harvey, and their two shops bookend the town. There are also food and coffee choices – Gecko Gallery has installed a cafe in its space, whilst 9Paddocks has become The Paddock (but still selling excellent coffee, albeit in biodegradable take away cups due to problems with the septic tank and water issues) and The Flying Cow is now Gibsons.  The Wild Goat sculptor is still in residence, with his works of wood and found objects. A large fish weathervane now dominates the streetscape, and joins the famous fish on top of the Fish Creek pub as symbols for the township.  It is a charming spot, full of friendly people.

We continue on our merry way to Foster, stopping to climb to the top of Mt Nicoll to admire the glorious views across to Corner Inlet – not as onerous as it sounds as the local Rotary Club has graded a road to almost the top! Thank you fellas.

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Foster has not enjoyed the same renaissance as Fish Creek and Meeniyan. We arrive at 1pm on Saturday, to find it closed, closed, closed. There is a new gallery on the corner, where once a real estate agent stood. It is open but although we wander in and around we don’t actually see anyone. And the two supermarkets are open – but that is it. Foster is shut up tight. Not that we were actually missing out on anything; the shops still looked like a typical country town’s offering. I would hazard a guess that the marvellous Ahern’s Fruit Emporium remains the highlight of Foster.

Now it is time to check out our beloved Waratah Bay. That beautiful beach is still the same. The vegetation has reclaimed The Gap camping ground, which was the intention of Parks Victoria. There are some new houses along the road leading up to the hill. And our old place has been transformed into a slick green house, with new fences, a landscaped back area and almost no trees out the front. Goodness. Almost unrecognisable, but hopefully still well loved. And thankfully, I am not filled with mourning pangs; the time was right to sell when we did (on that note, amazingly, there is not a single house for sale in the hamlet, which is a turn up for the books).

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A drive through Sandy Point – still the same – and time to head back to our ‘home’ – the fire, a glass of wine and footy on the telly are calling.  It’s been a lovely day down memory lane.

We venture a bit further afield on Sunday, beyond Foster to Toora – a sleepy hollow just waiting to be discovered and rejuvenated like Meeniyan and Fish Creek. The streetscape is virtually intact, with some terrific buildings. Oh, the potential.

Onwards to Port Welshpool, not a lot happening there either, and then Port Albert. The restaurant Wild Fish is still on the pier, hurrah. We join the one other table for lunch (although its fish & chip cafe is doing a roaring trade, much to the delight of the marauding seagulls). The sun comes out as we sit down so we enjoy watching the local sailors whip past in the stiff breeze, and graze on locally caught flathead fishcakes and spicy calamari salad. Washed down with a cheeky riesling from Wild Dog winery in Warragul.

Then, back ‘home’, but not before a detour to Waratah Hills Winery for a tasting and a long and gossipy chat to the owner. I catch up on the local news, whilst enjoying samples of their pinots. The vines were originally planted under the supervision of Phillip Jones, of Bass Phillip fame, so there is a good pedigree at work. The current owners are the third set, and are warm and welcoming hosts. Their winery is a lovely spot to enjoy a glass or two of their very pleasant pinot noir.

It has been a delightful couple of days, and it is hard to drag ourselves away from THAT view the next morning.

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To ease the pain we drop into Loch on the way home. This once thriving little village suffered a decline after the highway bypassed it, but is showing signs of a healthy recovery. The antique shop in the old bank is now a distillery & brewery (open Friday – Sunday). There was a notice about a pop up wine bar on weekends. A produce store and a natural fibre clothing store are currently being constructed. There is a large vintage clothes store next door. And, over the road is Olive at Loch cafe – which, thank the lord is open 7 days a week. Turns out that the proprietor of Olive’s used to own Cuppa Cottage in Sandringham, which was my Mum’s favourite cafe (Mum even donated her bone handled knives to Sandra). And, Sandra and her team are still baking the amazing scones and cakes they produced in Sandy. So, in Mum’s memory I had the magnificent raspberry scone, and thought of her with every bite. It is still just as good as it ever was Mum. Sandra’s other claim to fame is that she is the Mother of Maxy Gawn, the giant from Melbourne Football Club.

We won’t leave our next visit to this beautiful region so long next time; there is plenty to bring us back (including that scone!).

 

 

 

Marimekko and more

The Bendigo Art Gallery is definitely a jewel in Bendigo’s crown, and provides us with a perfect excuse for a mini break in Regional Victoria. We are the intrepid threesome of Hazel, Kitta and Deb; determined to make the most of our 48 hours out of Melbourne. The raison d’être for our trip is to visit the Marimekko exhibition at the Bendigo Art Gallery, but we of course have to add food, shopping and exploring as added extras.

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First stop in our tour is Moto Cafe in Malmsbury for some seriously good coffee. They roast their own beans; who would have thought that would be happening in this sleepy village bypassed by the highway, and have created a welcoming space in which to enjoy it on this somewhat chilly morning. Next time we will also try something from the menu as it sounded very tempting, but for now it is coffee only to get us up and on our way to the gallery.

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We probably should have eaten in Malmsbury, as by the time we reach the Gallery we are ravenous so stampede into the Gallery café without a glance either left or right. The café is full of like minded ladies, all chattering at full strength. The wait staff rush around the space, ferrying plates and glasses at an amazing speed.

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Hunger satiated we are then able to retrace our steps, purchase a ticket for the exhibition and enter the realm of bold colours and simple, striking designs. Even if you think you don’t know Marimekko I’m sure as soon as you see some of their designs you will recognise them. The company was founded in 1951 in Helsinki, Finland and earned international fame in the 60s, when even Jacqui Kennedy wore their designs. Despite its iconic status the brand fell on hard times in the 80s but was rescued in the early 90s by an ex advertising executive who knew a good thing when he saw it and revived and revitalised the famous brand, bringing back some of the old designs as well as nurturing new designers.

The exhibition showcases Marimekko’s designs and designers from the 1950s to the present day through clothing, homewares, and fabrics. You get to see some of the original  art work for the designs, plus the range of colour ways used.  It is fascinating to see a paper design transformed into a fabric swatch and a garment, but we felt the exhibition missed the opportunity to show this progression in more detail – it didn’t successfully bring to life how a design idea, drawn onto a piece of paper, then becomes a printed fabric, nor how the garment designers work with the designs and fabrics to create the clothing. We left lusting to be owners and wearers of Marimekko, but wanting more from the exhibition.

Before exiting the building we had a quick look at the New Histories exhibition, but were left rather scratching our heads with this one. Great idea though – 10 contemporary artists were asked to reimagine  “through the lens of contemporary culture” ten 19th and early 20th centuries works from the collection. Reimagine they certainly did.

Back into the car and a retracing of our steps down the freeway, as far as Kyneton where we had booked an Airbnb for the night. Cowen House proved to be a newly renovated, charming 3 bedroom cottage with comfortable beds, crisp linen and fortunately an efficient central heating system.

We toasted a successful day with rosé and Hazel’s homemade savoury mini scones, before venturing out into the chill night air for dinner at one hatted Source Dining.  As we tumbled through the door, eager to escape the cold, we were warmly greeted by the young man behind the bar – but his charm was the last we were to see. Whilst the room itself was warm and thawed us out, the staff waiting the table set the temperature plummeting. Nary a smile nor friendly word to be seen or heard. I felt I needed to sit up straight, and eat all my greens!  We started with a slice of house baked bread (from a 5 year old starter we are pompously informed), which was delicious – accompanied as it was by some whipped butter – and we would have enjoyed a second slice but that was never going to happen as once entree was finished the bread & butter plates were immediately whisked away.  The meal itself was very pleasant, and excellent value being Thursday Locals’ Night (main, dessert and a generous glass of wine for $49) but marred by the lack of engagement from the people serving it. We are unlikely to return.

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Next morning we browse the shops and enjoy a coffee at Little Swallow Café (again, the food looked excellent, but we had already eaten the continental breakfast supplied by Cowen House), before heading off to Ballan.

Our goal here is the Millrose Quilting Store, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of jewel like fabrics. I wander the shelves, desperately wishing I could sew. Kitta is our quilter, and we happily pour over fabrics helping her to choose just the right shade of background fabric.  It is amazing to find such a treasure trove in Ballan of all places, but word is obviously out amongst quilters as they come to the store from far and wide. Next door is the Millrose Café, and as it had been at least 4 hours since we last ate we felt obliged to step inside.

Fed, watered and stocked up with gorgeous fabrics it is time to hit the road for home. And, time to plan our next adventure.

 

 

Adelaide’s Mad March

For 11 months of the year Adelaide is a relatively quiet town, where nothing much happens, but come March the town explodes into a hyperactive teenager with ADHD. They cram everything into the month – Clipsal 500, which is apparently some Supercar motor racing; the Adelaide Festival; the Adelaide Fringe Festival; WOMAD, and Adelaide Writers Week. Throw in an Ed Sheehan concert, and you have all tastes covered! Mad indeed.

We are here for 4 days to enjoy 3 of those events – the Festival, the Fringe Festival and Writers Week. That is more than enough to keep us busy.

Wednesday

We are off the plane and straight to the hire car desk on Wednesday morning as we have a 1pm play to get to, and of course we must have lunch beforehand. Luckily for us, the play is at Her Majesty’s theatre, just over the road from the Adelaide Central Market. Park the car and high tail it into the Market, where we perch on a stool at the famous Lucia’s and partake of one of their very tasty made to order rolls; washed down with a piccolo of prosecco. An excellent start to our Mad March adventure.

Cross the road to join the crowds surging into Robert Lepage’s show The Far Side of the Moon. The program touts this as “the greatest and most acclaimed work by iconic Canadian auteur, Robert Lepage”. I beg to differ. Having seen The Blue Dragon and 887 at different Melbourne Festivals – and been entranced by both the creative use of multimedia and technology in telling the stories, and the stories themselves – I found The Far Side of the Moon to be, well, to be honest …. slightly boring. Whilst the cleverness of the staging was not in doubt, the story itself was boring, and I failed to grasp the parallels between the space exploration clips and references, and the story of the two brothers. It was also a little bit hard to hear from the back row.

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Down to the other side of town and a quick pop in to see what is happening at Writers’ Week. Nothing much engages us but we do spend a very happy half hour browsing the veritable treasure trove that is the Book Tent and fighting the impulse to load ourselves up with purchases.

Then across the road to the Space Theatre at the Adelaide Festival Centre to see Simon Stone’s Thyestes. What can I say but WOW, WOW, WOW. One hour and 30 minutes of in-your-face, thrilling, funny, horrifying, mesmerising theatre performed by 3 fearless young men. The audience was left gasping at the end. I really need to see it again, now that I understand the play’s structure, to make sense of what unfolded before my eyes. Apparently the play was originally commissioned and produced by the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne – please bring it back Malthouse.

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Breathless and exhilarated we made our way to Osteria Oggi to recover through great food and wine. The place is buzzing so we fit right in. We have grown to 5, so opt to get a variety of dishes and share them. Everything tastes terrific, and we leave for our beds exhausted but very happy with Day 1 of our cultural odyssey.

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Thursday

We have devoted today to the Writers’ Festival but start with a coffee at the charming Lounders Boatshed Cafe by the River Torrens.

Then it is on to the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, where two stages are set up for the week of the Writers’ Festival. Grab a chair and try and find a piece of shade that will remain in shade for the duration of each talk. This proves be a challenge beyond us. Firstly, we have no idea which is the East Stage and which is the West. A quick query at the very friendly information desk sorts that one out. But then we have the problem of working out where the sun will go and how that will impact on the shade we are clinging to. I can attest to the fact we got it wrong every single time, so ended up sweating in the glare of the very hot Adelaide sun by the end of each session.

We start with Sarah Krasnostein and her interesting discussion about writing the Trauma Cleaner, which we have both read. Next up is Kate Cole-Adams talking about her book Anaesthesia, a tome that Heather has bought to take home to her anaesthetist husband.

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Wilting in the heat we decide to repair to the rooftop restaurant 2KW for the panoramic views over the park, and a refreshing cocktail and nourishing bar snacks.  Aah, lovely.

Back then to listen to two articulate, funny and insightful authors discussing their life and work as contemporary Arab women: Manal al-Sharif and Amal Awad. Next up was two female poets, Sarah Holland-Batt and Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner. I’m not a great poetry fan, but both these talented women had me in the palm of their hand reading and discussing their work. We finished the day with the ever chortling and highly delicious Alexander McCall Smith – a prodigious writer of books, and marvellously and unselfconsciously entertaining. Phew, what a day.

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Time for (more) food. Tonight we dine at the wonderful Africola. If this is what African food is like then I’m going! Everything we tried was absolutely delicious. Please open an outpost in Melbourne.

Time to fall into bed once more.

Friday

A leisurely start to the day (at least for me – Heather runs 10km before I am even out of bed).  We have nothing planned for the day so decide to head out of town for lunch and end up at Summertown Aristologist, which had been written up in Epicure a few weeks earlier. It seems to be the epicentre of Summertown – locals, kids, dogs are all hanging out there. Have you got a booking we are asked? No we answer. No sweat – a young couple (who turn out to be local winemakers) shuffle up one of the outdoor tables and make room for us. The vibe is relaxed and easy going, but don’t be fooled. These guys are very serious about both their food – wonderful – and the wine they sell. We are soon joined by another couple, who question the waiter about the chardonnays on offer. Not content with describing them he brings out 3 bottles and gives them a taste of each before they settle on their choice. Now, that’s service. We of course join in, and decide on a glass each also (after our locally made, organic version of an Aperol Spritz to whet the whistle). The menu is described as a guide rather than a menu. Much is left to the imagination, and the tastebuds. I can tell you that the bread and butter alone is worth the drive out there. Plus we share the peppers saltfish, the calamari and the grains, herbs, labne. Yum, yum, yum.

We wend our way back via Stirling, where we ask the local hairdresser for advice on the best coffee in town. She steers us to an unprepossessing spot called The Essence Cafe, but turns out she is right. The coffee is great.

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We get back to the city just in time for our meeting with Heather’s sisters at the Garden of Unearthly Delights; an Adelaide Fringe Festival institution. Theatre tents jostle for space with food tents and trucks. There are rides and games for kids, and a bar for adults. Tables and chairs are dotted around under the trees, which come alive at night with fairy lights. A delight indeed. The heat of the day forces us towards the Pimms tent, and the purchase of a jug of said refreshment. The girls then go off to forage for (more) food and we graze on a weird Indian version of nachos, called Nanchos (!), and some tasty Caribbean chicken and green papaya salad.

Based on a 5 star rating in Thursday’s Advertiser we had procured tickets, somewhat against our better judgement, for a Fringe show called The Worst. Turns out we should have listened to our better judgement. The reviewer needs to be immediately sacked as she was obviously the sister of Clara Cupcakes, or, seriously under the influence of drugs. This show turned out to be very aptly named. It was indeed the worst thing I have ever seen. There were about 18 of us sitting on benches in a small circus tent being “entertained” by a woman with a shrill voice, dressed in a pink leotard as a blonde octopus. We sat through 20 excruciating minutes before she turned her back to the audience and we 4 took the opportunity to get down low, and go, go, go. We burst through the tent entrance like women demented, much to the surprise of the door bitch, who promptly tied up the doorway so no other poor lamb to the slaughter could escape.

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Laughing hysterically with relief at our escape we headed into the streets. A drink was much needed, so we returned to 2KW to admire the evening view and enjoy the now balmy night on the outdoor terrace. The place was rocking with a mainly young clientele, so we enjoyed our drink and returned to the streets in order to admire the Parade of Light – a light display on some of the buildings along North Terrace (a la White Night).

Saturday

We meet our mate Lizzie at Lounders Boatshed Cafe for brunch before returning to the Space theatre, but this time to see a Belgium play entitled Us/Them. Who would think 2 actors on a bare stage, telling a story about the terrorist siege of a school in Beslen, Russia where over 300 women and children died, would be riveting theatre. Both amusing and heartbreaking in equal measure.

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Time to read the papers and catch our breath in the afternoon before heading out for our last Adelaide evening. We start with an early meal at the Social, a quaint local eatery in the suburb of Croydon. Yet another Aperol Spritz to go with a terrific shared pizza and a roast pumpkin salad. Again enjoyed outside as the heat of the day lingers.

Our final theatre experience was at the Holden Street Theatre and recommended by my friend Annie, who had brought her drama students to Adelaide earlier in the week. Her best experience at the Festival she claimed. It was a play called Borders, performed on a completely bare stage by two actors (a bit of a theme of this festival). Thank you for the recommendation Annie – it was indeed an engrossing experience. I was also fascinated to read that the Syrian civil war grew out of graffiti art after Assad had a group of young graffiti artists arrested and tortured for their protest art.

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So, 4 plays – 3 of  which were exceptional, and one okay (and probably much better if you were new to his work). 1 Fringe experience that was truly dreadful. Some fascinating writers. And some wonderful food. I call that a very, very successful Adelaide Festival foray.

A Rutherglen Stopover

I can’t ever see myself being a Grey Nomad. I’m just not made for sitting in a car for long distances. I’m more the I wonder what’s in that town? I’m sure there is somewhere near here with a great restaurant. Are we there yet? type of traveller. The Grey Short Tripper doesn’t have quite the same ring to it though does it. Anyway, the thought of driving from Sydney to Melbourne in one go definitely does not appeal, and why should we – it’s not as though we have to get back for anything. So, where to stop? Ah, I know – Rutherglen, a town I haven’t been to for over 27 years. Time to drop in and reacquaint myself with a favourite stomping ground of my younger days.

But first, a coffee stop in Berrima, and a need to confess. I want to send a heartfelt apology to the café in the courtyard area off the main street. I really didn’t mean to walk off without paying for our coffees, I simply forgot that it had been table service on the verandah and that I hadn’t paid. I didn’t in fact register my omission until we were driving into Jugiong to have lunch at the Long Track Pantry . It wasn’t a very good coffee but that is no excuse. Next time I’m in Berrima I promise to drop by and make amends. Meanwhile, we enjoyed our lunch at Long Track Pantry.

Home for our night in Rutherglen is Carlyle House (www.carlylehouse.com.au) , built in 1896 and once the home of the local GP, but a charming B & B since 1996.  We are warmly greeted by Sharyn, our host, and shown to our room – the Muscat Room, where a complimentary glass of said muscat awaits (from the legendary Chambers Winery no less – and apparently old Bill Chambers is still alive and well). A treat we delay until bedtime.

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Carlyle House is just around the corner from the main street, so we take a stroll up and down to get our bearings. Not much appears different from my last visit, and it is a quiet little spot on this Saturday in mid February. The locals seem to be gathering for some event at the Star Hotel, but our destination is the Thousand Pound Wine Bar (https://www.thousandpound.com.au ), winner of the Best Small Bar in Victoria award in the recent Hotel & Restaurant Catering awards.  I can imagine it must get pretty noisy on a busy night (so what else is new) but it is only half full tonight, and we are in a side room (or old hallway probably more accurately). A small but enticing menu, and interesting wine list. We share the Scallops to start then venture into unknown steak territory.  Himself has the Petite Tender with a Blue Cheese Butter, and I have the Hanger Steak with red wine and shallot butter. Washed down with a Jones Winery Shiraz. Delicious.

Then it is home to the Muscat Room, and our evening night cap of said tipple, and a complimentary chocolate, or two.  Excellent night.

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Next morning we have breakfast on the verandah, and already the day is hotting up. It will reach the mid 30s by noon.

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Our aim is to visit a couple of wineries before heading off.  I promise that we won’t buy anything but a few bottles, as the cellar is full to bursting, but you know how it is – you taste a few and don’t want to offend by not buying.  Our first stop is All Saints as I want to buy a couple of bottles of the delicious (but expensive) rosé I had last night. The magnificent alley of ancient elm trees that leads the way into the winery is just as I remember it, and the castle itself is looking very spick and span, owned now as it is by a branch of the Brown family. I remember the days when George Sutherland Smith, a descendant of the original founder, used to lure young things down the back of the winery to taste directly from the wine barrels. My lovely blonde friend Lyn and I got to try some pretty special wines in those days!  Of course we end up buying just more than the rosé.

Back into town and a stop into Jones Winery, a charming little winery on the outskirts of the township. Mandy Jones is the winemaker, with grapes grown by her brother.  We purchase a few more bottles of the shiraz and promise ourselves to return one day to try out the french inspired restaurant.

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A quick look at the Big Bottle – a clever reimagining of the ubiquitous Australian small town water tower – before a stop at our last winery, Scion.

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Scion is one of the newer entrants into the crowded Rutherglen market, but comes with history as Rowly Milhinch, owner and winemaker, is a member of the Morris family, one of Rutherglen’s royalty.  We were interested to visit as Rowly makes the wines by hand, and has been strongly influenced by France, and his love of food. Sounds like out sort of guy, and my did we love his wines. So much so that we joined up on the spot to be Scion members. Highly recommend a visit to this low key little winery when next you are in Rutherglen – even if it is just to meet Sally, Rowly’s partner, who runs the tasting room with loads of charm.

Our whistle stop tour of Rutherglen certainly ended on a high note and reminded us that we shouldn’t leave a return visit for so long next time.

 

 

Sail Ho!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another glorious morning greets us.

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

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

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

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

Culture in Canberra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cool Summer in the High Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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