Tag Archives: wine

Champoluc ski trip

Just back from a very enjoyable week skiing in virgin territory for us, Champoluc in the beautiful Aosta valley in Italy.

A group of local friends went there last year and enjoyed the village and the skiing. So when old Kentish friends Nigel & Julie Cripps mentioned at a recent reunion that they were heading there in early January, it somehow seemed like fate that we should join them. Whether they wanted us to, or not.

Nigel & Julie are old Champoluc hands, lauding its quietness, beauty, friendliness and good value.

And now we’re converts too.

The skiing domain – even when fully open – is not vast. comprising 45 lifts, 95 slopes and 4 valleys in the total Monte Rosa area. And after the warm snow-free start to the season, hardly any of that capacity was accessible over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Fortunately for us, the white stuff began to fall early in 2016….and at the moment, it just keeps on coming. So we went from the sublime – skiing on decent snow in bright sunshine and good conditions on our first day – to the frankly ridiculous. On our last day, so much fresh powder had fallen overnight that we had to push our way through a snowdrift as we jumped off the chairlift from the base of Frachey.

In a continuing blizzard, on-piste was off-piste and goggles fogged up faster than Sepp Blatter’s memory.

In decent conditions between those extremes, we loved the long intermediate red runs – and occasionally more challenging black ones – spread out above the Champoluc, Frachey and Gressoney villages

It’s hard to find words that capture the simple pleasure of skiing on a quiet mountain in such a beautiful area. Whatever the conditions.

It’s easier to describe the gluttony we indulged in, every night during our hotel’s challenging 4 course dinners and, during the day, at some buonissimi mountain restaurants. Enjoy a freshly baked pizza and a couple of glasses of local vino rosso for lunch, at 2,700 metres, whilst a blizzard rages outside, and somehow your senses feel sharper than the edges of an Italian suit.

And back in Champoluc, the village is a charming enclave of local artisan shops, traditional houses and friendly people, sitting happily alongside the tourist bars, hotels and ski lifts. Long may that comfortable marriage remain…it would be a shame if over-development spoiled the essence of this gentle place.

Pine Cottage Supper Club – entertainment

Well, my head still hurts and today is a very slow Saturday, after last night’s Tuesley Lane neighbourly shindig at Snoo Powell’s Pine Cottage Supper Club in Hydestile.

For better or for worse, we asked everyone to provide a short piece of inter-course entertainment. On a strictly voluntary basis. It helped the evening whizz by. As did the alcohol.

My own humble offering is reproduced below. It wrapped up the evening. It wasn’t funny but it came from the heart.

Numbers and Words

65 million people living in the UK.

22,000 in Godalming.

19 bottles of wine.

12 people.

3 courses.

1 host.

Numbers….functional, precise, unemotional.

But numbers can’t describe the friendships forged between 12 people over the gentle effluxion of time, initially neighbours but becoming so much more with each passing year.

You need words to describe the simple pleasure of those people sharing birthday celebrations; a bike ride on a grey winter morning; a walk across harvested fields in the full glare of a late summer sun.

18 years of marriage. But how can a stark number begin to convey the depth of love, affection and respect forged in that period, through times of work, stress and leisure alike?

Words are needed to portray a child’s love and memory of their parents, prompted as simply perhaps as by running a finger over the well burnished handle of an over-used garden tool.

5 holidays in 12 months, but only words can allow family and friends to share and understand the cultural differences experienced in an alien land, the exhilaration of seeing an Oriental sun rise at dawn from a volcanic crater rim, or the taste of a freshly cooked blacktip trevally, redolent still of the Indian Ocean waters.

4 countries in 16 years, but words are needed to give depth to the multi-layered emotions of expatriate life..the unalloyed pleasure of meeting new friends from a foreign culture; freedom from the straitjacket of domestic routine; the thrill of spontaneous weekends in another country. But all the while, an invisible force pulls you back to the home you left, as surely as a foraging bird returns to the nest.

19 bottles of wine. 2 colours. 5 countries. But that gives no sense of the soil from which the vines eased upwards, the passionate, nurturing hands of the winegrowers, the patient fermentation process in oak barrels as old as the estate owner’s grandfather.

1 host. Well, 2. But neither number can begin to tell of the generosity of spirit from Snoo and Gary in opening up the doors of Pine Cottage to 12 complete strangers. Nor of the flexibility and friendliness. Nor of the brilliant food and hospitality. Thank you, Pine Cottage….thank you, Chef Snoo & sous chef Gary.

Thank you, words.


Paris – 5 more things to do off the well-trodden tourist track

Below is an article I’ve just written on Hidden Paris for Silver Travel Advisor, a travel website for people of a certain age…..


What do you think of when someone mentions Paris? The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, the Moulin Rouge….and 50 other sights, or museums, or galleries or bistros that everyone has on their must-do list?

But scratch the Gallic surface and you can really get to know the city, and feel that you’re seeing it more as a shoulder-shrugging local than as a Nikon-toting tourist.

Here are a few more ideas for you from a recent trip I made to this glorious city (with 5 others in an earlier article). Some I stumbled upon myself and some I was led to by a great book (Quiet Paris by Siobhan Wall). I explored them all, in the interests of helping other Silver Travellers get off the well-beaten Parisian track:

1. La Grande Epicerie – rue du Bac and rue de Sèvres, 6th/7th arrondissements
Shopping and me are poor bedfellows. Normally, I’d rather carve a rustic pattern on my index finger with a Swiss army knife than go shopping on holiday.
But – quelle surprise – la Grande Epicerie du Bon Marché in Paris is retail heaven, even for a disbeliever like me, and drew me into its foodie bosom like a hungry child to its tea.
First opened in 1923 as the food counter for neighbouring legendary department store du Bon Marché, it has now – since an impressive makeover in 1999 – become “an unmissable treat, an unadulterated delight and a unique experience”. How true. With a scarcely believable 3,000 square metres of retail space, from which they sell 30,000 gourmet products, la Grande Epicerie is a cross between Selfridges and Harrods, but more chic and without the bling factor.
The entire ground floor groans with exquisite fresh produce – seafood, cheeses, vegetables, meats, fruit, bread, patisseries – and posh groceries, beers and ciders. Affluent Parisians shop here, but Silver Travellers can sit at one of the high tables, dotted discreetly around the emporium, and indulge in a dozen oysters, or an éclair crafted with as much love as Heloise showed Abelard.
Downstairs is the wine cellar, together with an intimate champagne bar and apparently “further hidden treasures in the vaults for more devoted connoisseurs”. I obviously wasn’t devoted enough to find those.
And on the 1st Floor you can drool over kitchen equipment, gleaming crystal and silverware that would adorn Versailles as fittingly as a small maison in Montmartre. There’s also a beautifully light and airy bistro, should all that food browsing whet your appetite for a lunch befitting the surroundings.
It was like a religious conversion for me, so I hope you’d enjoy this off-the-beaten-track gastronomic temple too.
2. The Montparnasse Tower – Avenue du Maine, 15th arrondissement
The Eiffel Tower draws tourists to it, “comme des abeilles à un pot de miel”. Not surprising, given its iconic design and closeness to the Seine.
But the lesser known “Tour Montparnasse” arguably provides better views across the whole of Paris, being located right next to the Montparnasse station in the 15th arrondissement. And definitely has shorter queues. What a shame it’s such an ugly structure, causing so much public outrage that building regulations were subsequently changed.
Completed in 1973, it stands 689 feet high and contains office space for over 5,000 Parisian workers. Visitors can pay €15 for the exhilarating 38 second lift ride up to the 56th Floor, where the whole city is spread out below you like a table-cloth for a picnic. And after a short walk up to the 59th Floor you can access the highest roof terrace in Paris.
Zut alors, what amazing views.
The graphic boards really help with orientation, although it’s quite strange trying to spot such large iconic landmarks as the Sacre-Coeur and Notre-Dame on the flattened horizon.
The size of the Montparnasse Cemetery took my breath away, as did the beauty and structure of the Jardin du Luxembourg. And you can also eyeball the Eiffel Tower to the north west, each structure co-existing like Cinderella and a Very Ugly Sister.
3. Musée de la Vie Romantique – rue Chaptal, 9th arrondissement
Far from the madding crowd, enjoy an hour in quiet exploration of this tiny piece of historic and artistic Parisian life.
Tucked away, down a narrow cobbled street in the southern foothills of Montmartre – in a district known as “New Athens” – is an exquisite property that was the home of the Dutch artist Ary Scheffer throughout the first half of the 19th century. He hosted Friday salons, with guests including Delacroix, Liszt and Rossini.
Two of his most regular visitors were George Sand and her lover Frédéric Chopin. Somewhat bizarrely, you can see a plaster cast of her right arm – and the musician’s left hand – in one of the 8 small rooms forming this understated museum.
Don’t expect the Louvre. You’ll see a collection of Ary’s paintings, some sculptures from his contemporaries and a collection of personal memorabilia for George Sand.
But free entry (although not always the case, according to Trip Advisor), an insight into genteel 19th century society in this interesting Paris location, and a delightfully peaceful tea garden make this a worthwhile detour en route to the more touristy Moulin Rouge or Montmartre.
4. Seb’on – rue d’Orsel, 18th arrondissement
Fancy a piece of real French cooking, in a small restaurant in the heart of Montmartre, with amazing food and none of the “hauteur” you get in more famous bistros?
Then head for Seb’on. Only open for 6 months, Sebastien in the kitchen, and Dorota out front, have worked culinary magic in the rue d’Orsel since opening just 6 months ago. They do everything themselves and already seem to have created a well-oiled, finely-tuned culinary machine.
In a narrow dining room with only 11 tables, the décor is simple. White-washed plaster and brick walls, a couple of mirrors, an old plaster “cabinet” displaying some wooden skittles, fire sticks, wooden balls and a glass lamp. And a couple of blackboards with the all-important – and often-changing – menu.
There are only three choices for each course. Here’s what I chose and really enjoyed on my final night in the city:
  • lentil salad with veal, a foie gras crumble and honey vinaigrette
  • supreme of chicken fermier with violette mustard, smashed potatoes with mushrooms and a (divine) chicken juice/gravy
How can such a humble chicken be elevated to such giddy, satisfying heights? And as moist as the crowd’s eyes after the guillotine has fallen on another innocent head? The smashed spud (écrasée sounds so much more exciting) – is superbly textured against smoothness of the fowl’s flesh, and is infused by a sauce that delivers a warm, satisfying depth of flavour beyond anything I’ve ever put over our Sunday roast at home.
After a few days of foodie excess, I stepped away from the sweets but those options were:
  • green lemon meringue
  • caramel and cream cake
  • mascarpone and lemon cream biscuit
Dorota speaks excellent English and there’s an English printed menu if you don’t want to fumble your way through the French blackboards.
My total bill, including a generous glass of vin rouge and a palate-stripping espresso was a reasonable €43. Magnifique.
5. Un Dimanche A Paris – Cour du Commerce St André, 6th arrondissement
Head here, in the heart of bohemian Saint-Germain, to worship at the altar of chocolate.
Tucked away, in an almost hidden cobbled street more famous for le Procope – the oldest bistro in paris – is this chocolate heaven.
Part laboratory, part shop and part restaurant, it oozes class from every sweet pore.
I was there too early for lunch, and succumbed only to a large thimble of hot chocolate so rich and perfect it should be illegal. Or used as an incentive for recalcitrant Parisian youths. Just €2.20 for a petit morceau of heaven.


Restaurant review – The Coach, Marlow

Padstow is famously known as PadStein, thanks to the proliferation of eateries owned there by Rick Stein, the TV chef who seems to know a thing or two about fish.

Tom Kerridge opened The Hand and Flowers in Marlow in 2003.

12 years later, it is renowned as the only pub in England to have been awarded 2 Michelin stars, and is so popular that you have to carve TOM on your left wrist with ox’s blood, and H&F on the right, just to reserve a table for 3:30 on a Monday afternoon in 6 months time.

Now, the good middle-class burghers of genteel Marlow-on-Thames are not huge fans of body art, and wouldn’t stoop so low just for a bit of Tom’s pub grub and a pint.

The answer? Open up another pub in Marlow. With no booking policy, so you can just walk in and enjoy some decent nosh without all that planning malarkey. Keeps everyone happy. Well, everyone in Marlow. Not so great if you travel up from Padstow for lunch and the place is rammed by 12:15.

Gill, my lovely missus, treated me to a meal at The Hand and Flowers a couple of years ago. Marriage is all about give-and-take, I’m told, so I thought it would be worth a few matrimonial brownie points to take her for lunch at The Coach.

On a glorious, sunny Friday in February, we turned up at The Coach, outside its inconspicuous looking facade in the town’s West Street. At 11:30, just to be safe. The strategy was to  grab a coffee, check out the menu and decide if it was worth staying around…there are plenty of other good options for a decent bit of lunch in Marlow. If you believe Trip Advisor.

We beat the rush…but only just. Welcomed by several of the friendly young crew, we were given the option of sitting at a more conventional – and slightly too cosy – table, or in some slightly barber-shop looking high swivel chairs at the bar. Good to be different, right, so we went for the bar stools.


Great decision.

And even better, we were at the far end overlooking the kitchen, the team prepping away in anticipation of a busy lunch service, lamb loins churning away slowly on the gleaming new rotisserie, and Tom’s lieutenant Nick Beardshaw doing something clever with a piece of offal – or was it shellfish? – right in front of us.

We were hooked. The welcome, the way the pub has been fitted out, the service for coffee and a birthday Bloody Mary, and a quick glance through the menu and we were going nowhere for a couple of hours. Screw those Johnny-come-latelies from Padstow, or Henley, or just round the corner.

The concept at The Coach is great food – presumably inspired by Tom and executed by Nick and the team – served in small portions. Not quite tapas, but certainly not a conventional 3 course meal. And it’s all the better for it, to my 5-weeks-in-Australia overfed belly way of thinking.

The unfussy lunch and dinner menu is split into Meat, No Meat and Sweet sections. Simples, eh?

The Nice Man Behind The Bar was patient with us. First up, we ordered just a pukka Caesar salad (£4) and potted Cornish crab with a cucumber chutney (£7.50). The chutney punched way above its sweet yet acidic weight, and elevated the crab in the same way that Beth has probably helped Tom to achieve all he has over the last 12 years.

We were getting into the swing of this and wanted more. All the food is freshly cooked as ordered and, with the place now rocking, Nick was pulling at the strings of the kitchen brigade like a master puppeteer. But in a sotto voce non-shouty way, as different from a certain Mr Ramsey as a Russian dissident is to Vladimir Putin.

So be patient and don’t go to The Coach if you’re looking for a quick sarnie and a couple of pickled onions in your 25 minute lunch break. Immerse yourself in the experience and let the culinary juices work their magic.

Another bonus of sitting at the bar, by the kitchen, was seeing all the dishes roll off the metaphorical conveyor belt, moulding your thinking about what to have next.

Gill went for the Chicken Kiev with maple glazed squash (£12), I liked the look – and sound – of the venison chilli with toasted rice cream, red wine and chocolate.

Ding dong, to plagiarise dear old Lesley Phillips. The richness and depth of flavour in the chilli, combined with the crunchy texture of the rice cream and the subtle chocolate, nearly had me falling off the barber’s chair.

Rounding off the birthday treat with a rather nice Spiced Plum Fool with brandy ice cream, we were sated. Well, nearly. We could have had more but – damn it – we had to leave room for the birthday cake with Gill’s Mum & Dad on the way home.  And the birthday buns with Gill’s sister after that.

We would both like to have tried everything on the menu. Really. It was hard to step away from the crispy pig’s head with piccalilli. Or the rotisserie beetroot with goat’s cheese, horseradish and apple. Some of our bar-stool neighbours were eulogising over the The Coach Burger with Lincolnshire Poacher. And the lady next to me almost had her own When Harry Met Sally moment with the Brixham Plaice, brown shrimp and Calcot onion.

So next time we go to Kerridge-on-Thames – or whatever Marlow soon becomes known as, when Tom inevitably expands his empire à la Rick – we’ll get there early again, to make sure we get some more barber’s chairs.

Actually, they’re open for breakfast. Perhaps we’ll make a day of it, grazing our way through the entire breakfast and lunch menu, like vultures picking lazily over their prey.

Thanks, Tom. Thanks, Nick. Thanks, Nice Man Behind The Bar. Gill had a great birthday lunch, thanks to The Coach. And my wrists are tattoo-free.

(photos courtesy of The Hand and Flowers and The Coach websites)





Tasmania – Tassie Truckin’

Monday, February 02 to Friday, February 13


10 days in a camper van. 1,900 km trekking to all four windswept Tasmanian  coasts, across isolated bushland and wilderness, into alpine national parks, through declining mining communities and genteel Victorian towns.

And virtually no internet connectivity across Tassie until we’re back in Hobart now for the final few days of our epic Aussie adventure.

A few highlights:

  • 1st night’s camp site on remote South Bruny Island, after a ferry ride from Kettering on the mainland. Not advertised anywhere. Owned by Phil, the mad axeman. We had an astonishingly beautiful lagoon and white sandy beach all to ourselves, just a few short steps through towering eucalyptus trees. Shame it rained on the camp fire
  • sharing our barbecued supper with a family of wallabies – or were they pademelons (small wallaby like creatures, rather than Irish soft fruits) – at the eco camp Huon Bush Retreats in the Huon Valley

  • walking around Dove Lake, in the shadow of the iconic Cradle Mountain. A bit too popular with Nikon-toting Asian tourists for our liking, but undeniably picturesque

  • the unplanned time we spent at Strahan, on the remote west coast. Taking to the stage in Australia’s longest running play, The Ship That Never Was, about the brutal penal colony on nearby Sarah Island between 1822 & 1833. I was the drunken captain overthrown by the final 10 convicts who had built the Frederick ship from local materials, fearful of being transferred to the new penitentiary at Port Arthur, like the rest of the Sarah Island felons. Gill was the helmsman who sailed it 10,000 miles to Chile. An amazing true story of hard times told with a sense of humour, and with a lot of audience participation

  • an amazing boat trip from Strahan the following day, to Hell’s Gates which shelter Macquarie Harbour from more dangerous open waters, to the mouth of the iconic Gordon River and to Sarah Island, for an evocative tour which brought to life the brutality of the regime run there, before the final escape we had seen dramatised so entertainingly

  • motoring up the Tamar Valley from Launceston to remote Greens Beach on the windswept northern extremity, and enjoying a leisurely lunch and wine tasting at Velo, a winery owned by Micheal Wilson, a Tasmanian who cycled in the Olympics and competed in the Tour de France a couple of times, as well as in the other European Grand Tours, while living in France and Italy for 10 years

  • time spent at Bicheno, a small east coast seaside community, especially seeing the fairy penguins migrating at dusk from the nearby Governor Island sanctuary to their sandy onshore rookeries, just a few feet away from us

  • looking down at Wineglass Bay from the famous lookout point on the picturesque Freycinet Peninsula …and then spending time sunbathing on the almost deserted wide crescent of squeaky white sand as a school of 5 of 6 dolphins played lazily in the bay

  • the last night’s camp site, a spontaneous turn off the east coast road to Gumleaves, a 40 acre wildlife retreat where the wallabies bounced, the kookaburras laughed as our alarm call, and where an over-zealous possum scratched at the door of the only other camper van on the site….and then tried to climb in the vent on their roof . And where a poisonous 4 foot long tiger snake was lurking

And a couple of lowlights:

  • a scary 30 km+ camper van journey up and down vertiginous unprotected forested mountain tracks – gravel, not tarmac – in search of Pyengana, the place of happy cows and great cheese and ice cream. Apparently. We never made it. We got completely lost, a bit scared….and I almost turned the truck over in remote woodland, with no phone or internet signals and no hope of survival
  • passing through sad mining communities like Queenstown and Zeehan on the west coast, which had thrived a century ago but which now cling proudly to their industrial heritage whilst suffering from a much changed economy and a different way of life

Tassie is a place of incredible natural beauty, indigenous wildlife and remote communities. If we come again, there are some places I’d like to revisit, some I would miss out..and some we didn’t manage to see this time, like the Tasman Peninsula.

But what an adventure. Thanks to Gill for an epic 10 days – and camper van nights – in Tassie. That hot shower and soft bed in the Hobart hotel sure will feel good, though…..

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!

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.


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…..



Adelaide – a good day for lycra

Day 3 – Saturday, January 17

A day of sunshine, friends, family, community and sport…..Australia in a nutshell.

Our old neighbours and friends from Godalming, John & Eileen Geoghegan, emigrated to Queensland several years ago to be close to their son and new grandchildren. Inveterate cyclists for many decades, they – John & Eileen, not the grandchildren – make the annual pilgrimage to Adelaide in January for the Tour Down Under.

For the last couple of years, they have also met up with their old UK cycling club friend Dot, now living in Glenelg, a beach suburb of Adelaide. Dot emigrated to be close to her own daughter, Suzanne.

Suzanne and her husband are very keen and inhumanly fit amateur cyclists, having recently conquered the hardest climb of the Giro d’Italia in the Dolomites, and thinking nothing of pedalling a quick 150 km on a training ride around the rolling Adelaide hills.

You get the picture….age-defying mentalities, lycra, adrenaline.

Gill and I, on the other hand, are not cyclists. Well, only if 2 miles on a Boris Bike in the rush hour counts.

But on a warm, sunny Saturday morning we jumped on the excellent Adelaide tram in the middle of the city and rode to the end of the line at laid back Glenelg for brunch and excellent coffee (no surprises there) at one of the many cafes clustered around the Jetty Road square to meet up with John, Eileen and Dot, all living the Aussie dream.

Later, we all soaked up the atmosphere – and the beer – with 5,000 other cycle-heads at the TDU’s expo and meet-the-teams extravaganza in Victoria Square. This Tour is clearly a Big Deal Down Under….world class pro cyclists pedalling around South Australia for 6 days, setting the scene for their Grand Tour ambitions later in the year.

John loves the informality of the TDU compared with the hullabaloo surrounding the Tour de France, and being able to approach and chat with his idols in their Hilton Hotel base, or at a restaurant. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport and each rider also added real flavour to this jamboree for us lesser cycling mortals.

The perfect bookend to this energetic day was dinner at a lively, unpretentious Italian restaurant back on Gouger Street, discussing cycling, Australia, family, friends and life over carbo-loading pasta and a couple of bottles of full-bodied Shiraz from the nearby McLaren Vale D’Arenberg winery.

Thanks to John, Eileen, Dot and Suzanne for a memorable lycra-clad day. Our own Aussie dream continues.