Tag Archives: australia

Melbourne – less is more

Day 17 – Saturday, January 31

When you’re travelling it’s nice to push the culinary boat out occasionally, but it’s just as rewarding to eat simply – as the locals do – to get under the real skin of a city.

Strolling through Melbourne’s main shopping precinct on Bourke Street on a busy Saturday, we wandered off into the maze of more atmospheric laneways and narrow covered malls.

 

Within earshot of an ageing accordionist playing hackneyed but romantic old tunes, we ate in a tiny and basic cafe, hunched up at a narrow counter and surrounded by industrial-size bags of quinoa and enough coffee beans to keep neighbourly barista Simon Ware grinding away for a year or two.

Delicious, healthy and generous portions of chicken waldorf and pumpkin & chickpea salads were just $6.90 each, about £7 for both, eaten reading the local Melburnian newspapers, listening to the old accordionist and people-watching.

In the evening, we ended up climbing the dingy stairs off a dark alleyway between Bourke and Little Collins Streets to eat at The Waiters Restaurant. Opened in 1947 – and with decor, tables and curtains barely changed since then – this humble eaterie was once a place for Italian & Spanish waiters to unwind after work. Anyone can go now, but the simple ethos remains the same.

No wine list, just red or white offered verbally. We had a couple of glasses of excellent Shiraz in petrol-station giveaway tumblers.

No menu, just a blackboard of regular dishes and one with the specials.  We both had pasta, with garlic bread on the side. Honest, wholesome food delivered without pretension. Buonissimo! And all for A$60/£30.

The service was equally simple, but friendly, from two young English girls…one from The Wirrall, studying at St Kildas for a year as part of her International Business degree course in Leeds; the other from Stamford, having fun and with no idea how the rest of her life would unfold.

The Aussie boss wandered amiably around, until huddled by the side of the radio blaring out by the open kitchen counter……The Socceroos were in the final of the Asian Cup against South Korea, and were 2 minutes from glory when the Koreans equalised. The food might have suffered from that point on…..*

Earlier in the day, we had done the official Neighbours tour. Gill is ever so slightly addicted to this Aussie soap, and this was a small price to pay for inflicting 3 days of tennis on her.

It was a fun way to spend a few hours, but somehow the functional, small street (actually suburban Pin Oak Court) and outdoor sets back in the Fremantle Media TV studio lot undermined the glossy vision of what end up on our TV screens. Another dream shattered….

But fortunately the subsequent dining experiences, as humble as they were, reinvigorated the soul.

Less is definitely very much more.

* the Aussies scored again in extra time to win the Asian Cup. Phew!

Melbourne – all strung out

Day 16 – Friday, January 30

Midnight in Melbourne and just back from an epic day at the Australian Open tennis tournament.

 We were there for the twilight session as part of our package today, compared with the night session yesterday when we saw Andy Murray edge past Tomas Berdych to reach his 4th AO Open final.

The afternoon part of today’s order of play gave us a mixed doubles semi final and the ladies doubles final, both on the Rod Laver Arena main show court. Good tennis in both matches, but lacking in atmosphere with a huge number of empty seats….which did at least allow us to creep down to the posh seats just a few rows back from the court.

The main event was the 2nd mens semi final between defending champion, Stan Wawrinka, and the current world no. 1 Novak Djokovich. True to recent form between these two, they served up a 5 set epic. It somehow epitomised the ebb and flow of life….one moment you think you have life figured out and with your goal in sight, but if you take your eye off the ball for a brief moment – BAM – you’re behind the curve again, have to re-energise, refocus and steel your nerves for another monumental effort to reach the winning post.

As I saw it, Novak would win in the end thanks to his remarkable consistency, and defensive retrieving ability. I haven’t seen the stats, but I can’t imagine he made that many unforced errors. Stan, conversely, has a backhand as pure as unrefined silk and can fire off outrageous winners at will. But he is prone to making too many errors.

Another classic.

Just maybe Novak has lost some of the gas from his legs as a result of tonight’s long and emotionally draining match, but I still fear he’ll have the edge over Andy Murray in the final on Sunday. And he’s already beaten him in two AO finals.

But I’d like to be wrong………

 

Melbourne – a circular city

Day 14 – Wednesday, January 28

Orientation day for us in Melbourne today. A city sandwich, between a tennis hors d’oeuvres session yesterday and our main course on Thursday & Friday, the Aussie Open semi-finals, out at Melbourne Park.

Smug from our morning gym & swim session in the posh Langham’s spa, on the 9th floor and with a rather spectacular view across the Yarra to the skyscrapers on the north bank, we strolled across one of the many bridges at about 11 am, in warmer temperatures than yesterday and almost cloudless skies. Thinking about the wintry conditions back home and snowmageddon forecast for the east coast in the US, obviously.

We’d been impressed by the free city buses and trams in Adelaide, now we were hopping on the free trams trundling along Flinders Street, past the historic station, seemingly every few minutes.

 

The plan was to ride number 35, which does a full circuit of the inner city, to get our Melburnian bearings. But we eventually realised that doesn’t run until 12 pm, so jumped on the next one heading west and ended up at the Waterfront area, by the impressive Etihad stadium. These Etihads seem to be taking over the world…or sponsoring it, at least.

The Waterfront and Dockland areas were rammed with office workers heading out for a smoke or early lunch at the many eateries. New apartment blocks pierce the skies and shiny bling-boats bob around in the water as evidence of an affluent economy.

We successfully hopped onto a number 35, differentiated from the other trams by its period livery and enlightening on-board tourist commentary on points of interest around the route.

Heading east, we trundled along the length of La Trobe Street, past Flagstaff Gardens where we had Airbnb’d our first night, near Queen Victoria market to the north (on the list for later), past the imposing State Library of Victoria building, close to the Old Melbourne Gaol before hitting Carlton Gardens for the turn south.

Spontaneously we jumped off at the impressive Parliament building on Spring Street, wanting to roam the city’s innards on foot, like feral animals looking for rich pickings away from the main feeding grounds.

We’d heard about Melbourne’s famous laneways, the smaller streets tucked away off the main intersections, so we zigged and we zagged our way south and west. We were rewarded with the city’s treasures….boutiques, restaurants and bars concealed down atmospheric alleyways, or in well-preserved covered Victorian malls, like the famous Block Arcade.

But we ventured east again, and south, to Gazi’s at the junction of Exhibition and Flinders Streets, for a late lunch. Why? Because we’re sad Masterchef fans and the owner George Calombaris is one of the Aussie version’s star presenters……the bald Greek one who can cook. Like a more talented Greg Wallace.

Gazi’s is a cool, relatively new restaurant in a cavernous, shabby chic space. The menu has dirty Greek food as one section. Apparently that’s a good thing, and we enjoyed the waiter’s suggestion of combining calamari (with pine nuts, capers, cucumber & grilled apricots) and grilled saganaki cheese (with balsamic honey and lemon). Greek tapas…social & sharing. But we also wanted some clean anti-social nourishment so we added chicken souvlaki (with parsley, onion, and mustard mayo) and roasted beetroot salad (with hommus, goat’s curd, purple carrot, toursi red onion and cherry dressing). Washed down with a couple of glasses at rose……at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Outrageous behaviour.

All lovely, thanks George….I think we’ll put you through to the next round.

Just about time to complete the circuit – by foot – back to Flinders Street station and then across the river to see the movie Wild at the Crown complex.

Phew. Thanks, Melbourne….I think we’re going to like you.

Later, at the al fresco riverside Foxtel set-up, we saw the final set of Novak Djokovich sweeping aside the young Raonic as if extricating a small piece of grit from his eye.

So the main course is now ready to eat…..Murray v  Berdych tomorrow, Wawrinka v Djokovich on Friday. Mouth-watering.

 

Melbourne Park – The Aussie Open

Day 13 – Tuesday, January 27

Checked into our rather posh Melbourne hotel – The Langham – late morning, and I was as bouncy as a kangaroo on speed to be handed our welcome pack from Sportsnet by the liveried concierge.

I’d booked the tennis and hotel package almost a year ago, and wasn’t expecting much more than the tickets for the semi-final sessions on Thursday and Friday.

But in our sumptuous 19th floor room, overlooking the mighty Yarra river, we unearthed a quality rucksack each,  baseball caps, sunscreen, folding seats for those sensitive Pom bums, a poshly printed itinerary, our Myki visitor value pack for exploring the city….and a rather fetching leatherette man-bag containing the all-important tickets and dangly lanyard thingies.  Strewth mate, welcome to the Aussie Open.

I’d also joined the official AO body a while back, which gave us general access to the grounds and outside courts for 1 day….so we ambled in the direction of Melbourne Park, crossing the river and dodging energetic joggers and cyclists at the same time as dozens of rowing crews were put through their paces by megaphoned coaches on the other bank. Sporty bunch, these Aussies.

We enjoyed a cracking few hours introduction to the Open, watching some snippets of games on outside courts as well as on a couple of the show courts, seeing Sharapova The Grunter outclass young Ms Bouchard on the big screen as we munched through dodgy hot dogs, and then witnessed the sad demise of Rafa Nadal at the hands of Berdych, from the comfort of the Game, Set & Match suite, courtesy of the AO membership.

A good warm up for the day’s main event, young Aussie pretender Nick Kyrgios taking on our very own – well, Scotland’s – Andy Murray, being played out in the night session on the main Rod Laver Arena.

We ended up watching that start in the Crown Riverside area, cold tinnies in hand, and conclude back in the comfort of our hotel suite. Andy Murray played really well to squash the hopes of the young pretender – and the entire Australian nation – and we’re really excited that we’ll be at the Rod Laver Arena to see him play against Berdych for a place in the final. Andy, not Rod.

 

Adelaide to Melbourne

Day 12 – Monday, January 26

Australia Day, and we’re spending most of it on a train covering the 828 km from Adelaide to Melbourne.

Not just any train though…The Overland, operating since 1887 and a chance to see some of the real Australian landscape in relative comfort. Much slower and more expensive than flying, but it’s better to travel than to arrive, right?

An early start with an 07:40 departure from Adelaide, arriving in Melbourne at 18:50 after moving the clock 30 minutes forward for a time change difference between South Australia and Victoria.

The Overland train is a bit of a functional relic from the past but retains a faded charm. It’s not overloaded with contemporary facilities but its few carriages are wide and each seat has enough legroom for the Harlem Globetrotters. And we’ve upgraded to Blue Premium, whatever that means….

The train trundles, wheezes and squeaks through mile after mile of stark Aussie landscape, the scrub-like plains enlivened only by the more fertile, rolling hills outside Adelaide, and when we cross the mighty Murray River on a historic, rickety bridge. Otherwise there’s not much evidence of anything other than industrial-strength agriculture.

At Nhill, the hamlet is dominated by wheat and sheep, and the train rumbles past the largest grain silo in the northern hemisphere, built way back in the 1920s.

What houses there are along the entire route look flimsy, and everyone seems to collect rusting second-hand cars and obsolete fridges behind their corrugated iron fences.

There’s a driver change in Dimboola, a wheat town on the Wimmera river and pretty much halfway to our Victorian destination.

The onboard train staff are friendly and informative and, thanks to our upgrade, we’re served regular meals and refreshments at our seats…although it’s good to stretch the ageing legs by exploring the adjacent dining car a couple of times.

Sadly we only spot 1 kangaroo in the entire 828 km….although we may have been dozing for approximately 414 km. He was bouncing along a starkly bare field, in splendid isolation and looking for all the world as though he was late for an appointment.

In the carriage, our immediate neighbour for the whole journey was a menacing-looking, wiry middle-aged Aussie. He could have been the love child of genial Harry Grout, the gimley-eyed fixer in Porridge’s Slade Prison, and a tethered British bulldog. Evil tattoos etched on his punching hands; short, muscled neck; gold earring glistening on his left lobe; chunky knuckle-duster rings on his pinky fingers; sunglasses perched on top of his tanned, almost bald head. I let him use the toilet first.

We pulled into Melbourne station a few minutes ahead of schedule, despite taking almost 45 minutes to trundle through its sprawling, graffitied suburbs. A short walk later we were meeting Linda Pk and being taken up 21 floors to her apartment on 350 William Street….ours for 1 night only, thanks to the miracle of Airbnb.

I just about noticed the spectacular unrestricted views from the balcony, across the north and western suburbs of the city,  before collapsing in bed from the sore throat and flu bug that had lurked for a couple of days.

No Australia Day fireworks for me, I’m afraid, but still looking forward to a week in multicultural Melbourne and especially to the Aussie Open, the raison d’etre of the Grand Slam Down Under Tour.

 

Adelaide – the final stage

Day 11 – Sunday, January 25

A fitting finale for our last full day in Adelaide, as it’s also the 6th & final stage of this year’s Tour Down Under, the first UCI World Tour event of the year where the pros shake the cobwebs off their almost weightless machines and start gearing up for the main European Tours later in the year.

This is a big day for the city and for South Australia. The TDU brings in significant tourist dollars, judging from the number of lycra-clad amateur pedallers we’ve seen on the roads, in cafes and in our hotel lobby and lifts over the last week.

This final stage is based entirely in the city, with 20 laps of a fast 4.5 km circuit, heading up and down the main artery of a now tram-free King William Street, with a scarily tight turn by the Tour Village in Victoria Square, and then a loop around the iconic Adelaide Oval sports stadium. The expected time of 2 hours gives you an idea of the fitness and speed these guys have under their belts.

Some roads have been closed since 6 am and there’s already a carnival atmosphere when Gill and I leave the hotel to plan our TDU day. Young kids are hurtling around their own timed mini circuit; a costumed kangaroo mascot high fives keen spectators, already in place by the railings, his outsize wobbly bottom following some time later; sponsors hand out freebies from gaudy vehicles in the nearby parade ground car park; the tannoy system churns out endless information about the race and riders, alongside inspirational music.

Rohan Dennis, the young Aussie rider with the BMC team, leads SKY’s Richie Porte by a whole 2 seconds after an epic hill climb on yesterday’s stage failed to close the gap completely. Cadel Evans lies 3rd, the legendary Aussie rider competing in his penultimate pro event before hanging up his bicycle clips. He remains the only Aussie to have won the Tour de France so far.

Gill and I are accosted by a crew representing the South Australia Tourist Board and, after being professionally mic’d up, are happy to talk to camera about how much we’ve enjoyed SA, Adelaide and the TDU. In that much overused phrase….what’s not to like?

We watch the first couple of laps by the barrier near the start on King William Street, before walking to join friends John, Eileen and Dot who are watching the race unfold on a big screen in the seated and shaded comfort of the Tour Village on Victoria Square.

It’s scary, the speed and proximity with which over 100 whippet-like cyclists propel their machines on the fast downward stretch of King William Street. Their racing etiquette and level of mutual trust must be nigh on perfect to avoid more frequent serious accidents.

As expected, given the nature and relative shortness of this final stage, there are a few token breakaways from the peloton, all reeled in, a sprint finish won by the the Dutch rider Wouter Wippert, and no change to the overall top 3 standings. 37 year-old Cadel Evans anoints Rohan Dennis, BMC team-mate and fellow Aussie, as his worthy successor.

We jump on the tram to Glenelg to join John, Eileen, Dot & Suzanne for an end-of-tour supper at their favourite place and cyclist’s hangout, the Europa.

Glenelg is awash with late evening sunshine and youthful hormones (not ours). Local lads cruise the streets in their throaty restored American vintage limos, as the girls totter on vertiginous heels towards the current hot bar. short tight skirts clinging to their tanned legs like my brother to his wallet.

A great piece of barramundi fish, some local wines, emotional farewells and the first leg of our Grand Slam tour is almost at an end.

Tomorrow is Australia Day and we’ll head to Melbourne, where I believe some tennis is being played……

South Australia – Road Trip 2

Days 9 & 10 – Friday, January 23 & Saturday, January 24

Another road trip from our Adelaide city base, another hire car. To Wallaroo, a couple of hours north west from Adelaide and on the top edge of the Yorke Peninsula, staring out into the turquoise water of the Spencer Gulf.

Why Wallaroo? To see Gill’s Aunt Margaret, last seen in the UK about 10 years ago; Gill’s cousin Sharon, last seen in the UK in 1964, aged 11 months and just before her parents set sail for Down Under; other cousins and partners and children of cousins who Gill had never met before.

We made a quick detour to the Barossa Valley en route to Wallaroo, loving Tanunda, the sleepy main town of the glorious grape-growing region, vine after vine tumbling down gently rolling hillscapes and responding to the perfect climatic conditions.

We sipped a couple of chilled, crisp whites at the Seppeltsfield Winery Cellar Door, accompanied by a glorious platter of local meats and cheeses and eaten under the watchful eye of a hungry kookaburra bird.

After endless miles of Roman-straight almost completely traffic-free roads (delayed only by a freight train with 106 carriages, roughly the length of Surrey), the rolling hills gave way to flat dusty plains and we arrived in Wallaroo to a warm welcome from Margaret.  Later, we were joined by several of the family for a fun night at the local Hotel/Pub for generous Aussie suppers and a couple of welcome cold ones.

Back at Margaret’s, Gill shared photos of the expanding UK branch of the family and pieced together the different strands of the Aussie clan on a makeshift family tree.

On Saturday, Margaret took us on a tour to nearby Port Hughes, where she and Bill had built their first home in Australia, as well as to beautiful beaches at Simms Cove and Moonta Bay. Then more family meetings in Kadina and Moonta in a whirlwind version of Who Do You Think You Are?

Huge thanks to Margaret for her amazing hospitality towards a couple of strange Poms, and for the rest of the family in making us so welcome. A great, if brief, road trip that hopefully means Gill and her Aussie rellies will be just that little bit closer, emotionally if not physically.

 

Adelaide – market mooching

Day 8 – Thursday, January 22

A quiet day for our Grand Slam tour, after a full-on week exploring Adelaide and its environs.

To the famous Central Market this morning, South Australia’s main food hub for over 140 years. A covered market with more than 250 stalls, this fills the memory bank of most local people, either as reluctant children or practical parents.

It’s got a typically laid back Aussie vibe, but also bustles with commercial imperative.

We sat down at the legendary Zuma’s cafe for coffee and breakfast. The official Zuma’s half breakfast – toast, eggs, mushrooms and enough bacon to start a Middle Eastern war – sated both Gill and me. Healthy appetites, these Aussies.

Artisan cheeses and breads. Fresh fruit and veg stalls. Fish, with scary barramundi eyes staring straight at you. Dry goods. Novelty t-shirt shop – why do I need GOOGLE when I have my wife? Asian influenced produce from nearby Chinatown. The market is a feast of all the senses….smell, dribble, touch, taste, eat until you can take no more.

And then sit down with a coffee from The Grind, blending beans from Kenya, Colombia and Costa Rica in their espresso, and serving in a pop-up al fresco cafe on Grote Street today, as well as on their market stall.

We took the easy option and bought something for lunch at one counter, rather than concocting our own multi-stalled picnic. Leek and gruyere quiche, sweetcorn and feta fritter, salads of mung bean in ginger & soy and mango and black-eyed beans were savoured in 30c heat, under the welcome shade of a tree down by the river, exotic birds squawking and screeching around us, flashing plumages of vivid blue and green.

We ventured further, to the part of North Adelaide we hadn’t seen before, via the imposing statue of Colonel William Light, looking down from the highest point of the city that he designed in the 1830s. Not sure what he’d have made of the recently expanded Oval, but he should be very proud of the beautiful and enduring city he imagined.

We’re off on our next road trip now, visiting Gill’s family up-country in Wallaroo, about 2 hours on the coast north west of the city….with a pit-stop at the famous Barossa Valley wine district, obviously. Look for a final update on the Adelaide leg of our Grand Slam Tour Down Under on Sunday.

 

South Australia – Road Trip 1 (continued)

Day 7 – Wednesday, January 21

Built in Belfast in 1868 the 3-masted iron ship, Star of Greece, ran into a violent storm off Port Willunga in the early hours of July 13, 1888. She was a regular visitor to Adelaide and bound for England with her cargo of wheat when disaster struck. There’s some confusion but most reckon that at least 17 poor souls perished that day.

Every cloud….., as they say. The Star of Greece bistro now commemorates the unfortunate ship, and is perched shyly on the shallow cliffs above the shimmering waters of Gulf St Vincent, off the west coast of South Australia below Adelaide.

Gill and I dropped into the cafe on a whim, late one afternoon on our road trip of the Fleurieu Peninsula as we headed back to Adelaide. They were fully booked but found us a spot on the balcony outside, directly overlooking the picture-perfect beach and in Pom-searing heat, despite the lateness of the hour. The service was so considerate that they conjured up a couple of wide-brimmed hats to protect our already burnt northern hemisphere faces from further punishment.

1 Southern Ocean kingfish sashimi with smoked Goolwa cockles, 1 serving of Spencer Gulf king prawns with green chilli and lime salsa, 1 Kangaroo Island salt & pepper squid with Yuzu mayo, 1 barramundi fish with a quinoa crust, and a couple of exquisitely chilled glasses of wine later, and we were really missing home. Really.

Earlier in the day, we had headed south from our overnight base in the affluent McLaren Vale wine area towards Victor Harbor (yes, spelt the dodgy US way) towards the southern tip of the Peninsula. But that town felt a bit too kiss-me-quick for our Surrey sensitivities, its Victorian heritage undone by a few more recent town planners.

My abiding memory of Victor Harbor will be John, a  sprightly weather-beaten host at the Tourist Office. He went to the UK and mainland Europe for the global Scout Jamboree in 1957, as a 21 year-old . He was away from Australia for 6 months, of which 2 were spent on a boat, forced around the southern tip of Africa on the way out because of the Suez crisis. He preferred Denmark to England, but has never returned to either. Yet.

We liked the sleepy nearby hamlet of Goolwa, with its local Steam Exchange Brewery serving small tasters of excellent ales and Hector’s, a sea shanty-like cafe right on the water in the shadow of the Hindmarsh Island bridge, but serving sophisticated food with a relaxed marine ambience.

Returning north our jaws dropped at the string of long, sandy and almost deserted beaches lining the Gulf’s coastline. Locals drive their roo-busting 4 WD wagons straight onto the sand, but we wandered down on foot and dipped our white toes into the cooling water of Sellicks Beach, before slurping ice creams on the path above Aldinga Conservation Park, its boardwalk descending to the water like the elongating ladder from a toy truck.

We’d like to have explored Kangaroo Island too whilst in South Australia but with another road trip to see Gill’s family in nearby Wallaroo to come, we’d run out of time. But a couple of days exploring the McLaren Vale and Fleurieu Peninsula were a good option. And the image of those beaches and the view from the Star of Greece cafe will stay long in the memory.

South Australia – Road Trip 1

Day 6 – Tuesday, January 20

After a few days in Adelaide, it was time to head out of the city and explore the wide open spaces of South Australia.

An old Aussie work mate from the UK, Bruce – yes, that really is his name – recommended we have lunch at D’Arry’s Verandah Restaurant on the D’Arenberg winery in the McLaren Vale area, south of Adelaide.

So we hopped, kangaroo-like, into our rented Toyota and headed to epicurean and oenophile paradise.

The D’Arenberg winery cellar door and restaurant are classy but understated, in a typically Aussie way. And the ambience encouraged us to push the metaphorical boat out. You know when you’re all relaxed and think that you might as well do something bold and outrageous, just in case you’re struck down by a flying wombat, or gobbled up by a Great White Shark…..

The 8 course degustation menu, with matching wines, would brook no denial. For the next 4 hours we indulged in course after course of exquisite food, washed down with 2 wines – yes, 2 – for each dish.

It all became a bit of a self-indulgent blur but stand-out dishes were the signature lobster medallion with blue swimmer crab & prawn tortellini, and lobster bisque; and the pink gin cured salmon with beetroot rye toast, cucumber jelly, fried capers and keta caviar. The puddings – passion fruit souffle with cream, and soft centred chocolate pudding with chocolate ice cream – were none too shabby either.

The D’Arenberg wines have jolly names like The Money Spider Roussanne, The Hermit Crab Viognier or The Noble Wrinkled Riesling but strewth mate, do they taste bonzer.

With outstanding but friendly service this was a great way to spend a few hours in a hopefully long life. It would have eaten up all our holiday dosh had it not been for a generous contribution from my Mum & Dad, but it was worth every Aussie Dollar. Theirs and ours. And thanks to Bruce for the recommendation.

Later, back at The Retreat on Chapel Hills winery estate, we went for a short stroll in the adjacent Onkaparinga National Park. As the shadows lengthened and the tinder-dry grass crunched under our sated bodies, we saw our first kangaroos bouncing around in the wild. Or did we? We’d got through a fair few gallons of wine, mate…..