There’s no doubt that these past two years have been a slog. But with Australia set to fully open borders again in a week’s time, let’s hope things are on the path back to normality.
For us, the barometer of ‘normal’ has always been based on travel.
Disasters like 9/11, global financial crises, planes disappearing and now this pandemic have had huge impacts on us, as with many, many people.
So it’s been an exciting past few days for us with meetings about travel, actual travel and having visitors travel to us—as well as a huge travel conference happening in Sydney later this week—it all feels like gears moving in the right direction.
We hope you enjoy this Weekly Edition and that it give you a bit of hope we’ll all be back exploring the world again soon.
Cheers – Jim & Christina xx
Today, we’re excited to be catching up with our excellent friends Peter Hook and Lauren Grounsell from Visit Sunshine Coast.
They’ve organised the first tourism media lunch meeting since before Australia went into lockdown. We’re meeting in the beautifully restored Hinchcliff House a block back from Circular Quay.
The venue is split into three sections on four different floors: Lana, Grana and Apollonia. Appollonia is the basement bar, Grana (or ‘grain’ in Italian) is the ground floor where the kitchen mills its own flour to create among other things incredible baked goods.
But we’re upstairs on the first floor in Lana—Italian for ‘wool’—as this used to be an old wool shed a century or so ago. Its exposed beams and original brick walls provide this space with a wonderful vibe.
The bar at Lana is gin-heavy—just the way we like it. Even better, it’s predominantly Aussie gin up there, including a drop I’ve been fascinated with for ages: Hartshorn Distillery is connected to a sheep farm in Tasmania.
They make chèvre cheese and things like that, but with the whey from the sheep’s milk, this distillery crafts its own gin! I thought it would be a bit weird, but the barstaff let us have a little taste and we’re surprised to discover the gin has a wonderful creamy smooth texture.
Food at Lana is exceptional.
From delicate scallops and pearl barley and crab topped with an egg yolk to ridiculously tasty mussels that come with finely chopped pickled red onion and chilli mayo and perfectly roasted duck breast, lunch is flawless.
Between courses, we hear more about what’s happening in the Sunshine Coast in the past 12 months.
And the answer is: a lot!
New hotels, spas, glamping experiences, submarine tours, restaurants, distilleries, breweries—in fact, the Sunshine Coast has been named Australia’s Craft Beer Capital with the most small breweries per capita.
We’re looking at heading up to Queensland in March, so we’ll tell you more about that down the line.
This afternoon, we’re back in the Hunter Valley! It’s been eight long months since we were here last and it’s so good to be back.
We check into our beautiful hotel suite in Chateau Elan at the Vintage and try not to get too comfortable on huge the balcony overlooking the resort’s golf course or in the living room with its open fire and huge TV.
We’ll have a full review of this beautiful part of the Hunter Valley for you soon, but for now, we have a dinner date to get to!
We’re here at Four Pines at the Farm for a bit of dinner with our excellent friends Katie and Anton.
Four Pines at the Farm is within the impressive bucolic landscape of the Hunter Valley Resort, which has everything from accommodation to horse-riding to rows of grapevines on the doorstep of the homestead.
It’s a family-owned resort, and the guv’nor Phil Hele meets us to take us round the taphouse.
Built to feel like a big country pub with its runaround veranda and long bar, Four Pines at the Farm is a very welcoming sight for the hungry, thirsty traveller. It’s also a bit of a Tardis with multiple rooms, a first floor convention centre and even a big event space tucked away at the back.
Phil has somehow managed the impossible of a spacious yet homely venue.
And then there’s the refreshments.
Focused on modern pub fare—my excellent beef brisket burger is testament to that—and a great selection of brews by the famed Manly brewery Four Pines – hence the name. You can get a four-beer tasting paddle to see which one’s your favourite.
As for the ‘at the farm’ part of this venue, across the vineyard is a smallholding that Phil equates to The Farm in Byron Bay, where livestock and crops grow in harmony.
It’s a magnificent start to our weekend in Australia’s oldest wine region.
It’s an early start this morning. We’re at Glandore Estate, just 10 minutes down the road, to pick grapes for their harvest!
This is the first time either Christina or I have ever done something like this, so it’s with some trepidation that we park up and head to the gathering crowd, and where coffee, bacon rolls and registration are all happening.
We’re welcomed first by some furry friends and then by people friends, who explain what happens and give us our pickers’ shirts.
Then before we know it, we’re hiking to the vines to pick grapes—Chardonnay grapes in fact. How very Hunter.
Before long, the sun’s riding high and we’re fully intrenched in the harvest. As each white bucket fills with grapes, we shout ‘bucket!’ for someone to give us empty tubs and take the full one away.
We’re amazed at how many grapes grow in one place.
You can stand for about 15 minutes harvesting from just one spot sometimes… or maybe we’re just slow. Either way, the 120-strong group of us hit new records with our harvest, bringing in over eight tonnes for the vintage. And that’s just from no more than a dozen rows of vines.
The day culminates in an extravagant luncheon in the heart of the winery amongst the wooden barrels and towering steel fermenter tanks. The food is incredible and the shared experience of the picking day makes everyone in the room instant best mates.
We’re about to make our way back to our suite at the Chateau Elan when we notice directly across from the entrance to Glandore Estate is Oakvale Wines.
We’re just in time to have a quick tasting at this highly regarded winery.
We may or may not have bought quite a lot of wine while we’re here.
Back at our lush pad, we crack open a bottle of wine and settle in for a quiet night with some of the Hunter’s best cheese.
From the Smelly Cheese Shop in Pokolbin, this platter is exactly what the doctor ordered. And that washed rind is absolutely delicious… and definitely gives credence to the name of the shop!
We take it easy this morning and meet Katie and Anton for a leisurely brunch at The Deck Cafe Lovedale, which is part of Gartelmann Wines. It’s a beautiful property and even has a chicken coop and some excellent tiny horses.
With our table looking out over the pond, we all study the menu. Christina chooses the Breakfast Power Plate, which is actually more of a platter for one!
Poached eggs, hummus, avocado, fresh spinach, roasted baby carrots, broccoli, baby beets, mixed seeds and pistachio dukkah descend in front of her, while the rest of us look on approvingly.
For once, I’m not that hungry and ask for something off the menu, which is also very unlike me. But far from being just a small bite to eat, owner-chef Matt Dillow has jazzed up my basic bacon avocado roll to be something I think they should make a permanent menu item. It’s incredible!
Our walk to the cellar door of Gartelmann Wines for our tasting is mercifully short; it’s hot and I’m quite full again.
But we’re graced with Luke Woods’ energy for our tasting (ask for him when you’re here btw) and he leads us through the whole selection Gartelmann has.
Time flies by to the point where it’s almost time to eat again, but we have another cellar door to visit. We pull ourselves away reluctantly. It’s a beautiful spot with some exceptional wines and amazing company.
Our next stop is to meet the legend that is Lisa McGuigan at her new cellar door Vamp.
And it’s a cellar door like no other. Anywhere. In the world.
We’re welcomed to the winery by Lisa herself—a larger-than-life character bubbling over with enthusiasm, creativity, adventure, fun and loveliness.
She’s also fascinatingly humble.
Leading us through her truly unique property, which has more than a hint of gothic to it, she explains how she had the whole vision of this space in her head before she started and how she tried tried to execute it well.
Lisa, my darling. I think you did better than try.
With the help of her superb staff Sara and Rex (and lovely Maggie the cellar door hound of course!), Lisa shows us her wines—each bottle extravagantly labelled and whose contents are dangerously quaffable.
Before long, we’re all chatting, along with a group of other guests who have come in for a tasting.
And that’s the sort of atmosphere Lisa has conjured in this remarkable, luxe sanctum of a cellar door. The Medieval helmets and swords that line the black walls, the giant crystal-decked chandelier above the circular bar, the chainmail-curtains over the private booths—it all somehow manages that tricky line of being quirky yet very likeable.
Lisa is still setting up her kitchen and oyster bar, so she has food brought in from next door—EXP. no less.
She brings us their house-made crumpets, which are good enough on their own. But adding the smooth creamy creme fraiche, smoked salmon caviar pearls and a squeeze of lemon elevates something I’ve only ever put butter on to a whole new realm.
And we get the impression this is the style of fare Lisa will be serving in Vamp pretty soon too.
It was a pretty late night in the end with Lisa, Sara and Rex. It was one of those rare nights that ends up being so much more than you were planning on or expecting.
Another thing we’re not expecting is how good the day spa is at Chateau Elan. The reception room has a cosy, ‘cottage glam’ vibe and the treatment rooms down the corridor offer a dazzling array of pampering experiences.
We’re here for a 50-minute couples massage and the treatment is exquisite. It’s been a busy few days so this is exactly what we need. The room is cool enough to enjoy the warm oils our expert masseuses use and the pinky-blue glow from LED light therapy tubs adds to the room’s relaxing tone.
After our massage, we relax by the Hydro Lounge and Deck area, where you can enjoy the outdoor mineral spas and sun loungers after your treatment.
We spend a while soaking up the morning sun and enjoying a glass of rosé bubbles. This is what life’s about.
Going back to work after this is going to be tricky. But we’ve got some people to see first.
Our first stop is to Bimbadgen to catch up with our friends Belinda, the big boss lady, and Richard, the winery’s head winemaker.
We love this winery and always make sure we pop in to at least say hi. But this time, after chatting to Belinda, Richard takes us round the floor to show us some things.
You can see the winery’s inner workings as you enter Bimbadgen, but we’ve never been down to look at it close up before. We’ve also never been to a winery just after harvest, and Richard lets us taste the fresh grape juice just after it’s been pressed.
It’s so interesting and Richard is so smart, we learn a lot about how the juice evolves and how it happens quite quickly too.
Richard has also started his own wine label—John Wallace Wines—which we’ve talked about before.
He’s now just released two more wines: the ‘Sisters’ Chardonnay and the ‘B.P.D.’ Shiraz. We’ll let you know what they’re like as soon as we get chance to taste them!
And it wouldn’t be a trip to the Hunter without popping in to our favourite winery and whose owners reignited our love for the region: Scarborough Wines.
Their cellar door is now in what was once the family house and looks out over the vines and up to the Broken Back Mountain Range. It’s a stunning place to taste excellent wine.
I think Scarborough does the best wine tasting anywhere. Not only do you get a seat at a proper table with all the notes in front of you and the staff there are amazingly knowledgeable, you also get a matching cheese platter to enjoy.
How good is that?
I don’t know why this hasn’t happened sooner, but we also join the Scarborough Wine Club today, which is really exciting. Not only do you get your choice of a dozen bottles depending on your membership, you also get a bonus bottle to take away and a magnum of their Yellow Label Chardonnay!
Our drive back to Sydney has become very… ‘clinky’!