Stockholm is no exception of course. Its harbour is one of Europe’s loveliest and the city embraces the surrounding water to maximum benefit for its citizens. A graceful metropolis, small scale despite the fact it’s Scandinavia’s largest, Stockholm is also very pedestrian friendly with an extensive public transport system that’s easy to use.[caption id="attachment_2586" align="alignnone" width="194"] Gamla Stan Stockholm overview[/caption]
I walked everywhere, usually from one museum or cafe or restaurant to another in an effort to keep warm. Stockholm’s most important museums are centrally located, all within easy walking distance.[caption id="attachment_2579" align="alignnone" width="169"] Stern of Vasa ship in Vasa Museum[/caption]
I’d heard about the Vasa Museum but I wasn’t prepared for such a surprise. It’s magnificent. I happily spent a whole day there fascinated by this great ship that never really went anywhere and was lost to time as the centuries passed. (See www.vasamuseet.se)
The Vasa is the only early 17th century ship ever to have been fully restored. With over 95% of the original timber still intact with recreated painted decorations looking as they did the day it launched, it’s like viewing living history. Designed by a Dutch master shipwright to act as Swedish king Gustav 2 Adolf’s flagship, the Vasa (the king’s original family name) was intended to be the deciding factor in the ongoing fight against the Poles for domination of the Baltic Sea. But it was overmanned and over supplied with heavy cannons which caused it to sink on its maiden voyage in 1628 about 1.2 kilometres (in the middle of Stockholm’s harbour) from where it was launched, an ignominious end to an embarrassingly short career.[caption id="attachment_2580" align="alignnone" width="186"] Ship Vasa in its own museum[/caption]
Salvage began in the 1950s and the ship was raised in 1961, its first time above water in 333 years. Restoration took decades of painstaking work. The Vasa Museum opened in 1990. By 2004 a new climate control system was installed throughout the museum to stabilise temperature and humidity to protect the Vasa’s precious integrity.
Seeing the Vasa in its new home is humbling. How can it be otherwise? The beautiful ship can be witnessed as an example of supreme craftsmanship or fine decoration or simply as human folly. They built something too big and overloaded it. Then it sank. Dozens of people drowned. A vast sum of money was wasted. The Swedish king took a huge hit to his prestige as did the Swedish navy.
Wandering the galleries surrounding the ship, I pondered all these facts but my thoughts were interrupted by two young men also discussing the sad fate of the Vasa. ‘It reminds me of Pirates of the Caribbean,’ said one. ‘Yeah, I can see Johnny Depp on the deck,’ added the other.
Another curious fact about humanity: Everyone attempts to create a relative understanding to the extent of their knowledge and experience, in this instance, Disney and a film series about cartoon pirates to a unique ship whose history is absolutely remarkable. So I was brought back to the present moment, a harsh reality. Two dunderheads making loud inane comments caused me to remember how something as grandiose and ill-conceived as the Vasa could have been built. Stupid human pride knows no boundaries does it?
This also reminded me why so many people visit somewhere and immediately make comparisons to what they already know, always looking for a link to what is familiar rather than just enjoying the difference for the sake of difference. ‘Those mountains look just like the ones near our place.’ ‘We’ve got the same stuff at home.’ ‘Why did I come all this way just to see what I see from my front window?’ All phrases I’ve overheard time and again. The repetition makes me sad.
Sadness appears inherent in Scandinavian psyche. Is there a more introspective, sensitive and aloof peoples on Earth?
While Swedes are notoriously depressive personality types, they’re also well recognised for letting their hair down when good food and strong drink are involved.
A trick of the travel trade I regularly put to effective use is to dine at a new city’s most innovative and best restaurant as soon as possible, the first night in town if available. I did just this in Stockholm at Mathias Dahlgren’s eponymous restaurant in the posh Grand Hotel.[caption id="attachment_2581" align="alignnone" width="182"] Grand Hotel in Stockholm[/caption]
The food was divine of course. Two Michelin stars still occasionally mean something worth noticing. Dahlgren’s food delivers cutting-edge Scandinavian cuisine along the lines of Rene Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen, if toned down somewhat to satisfy an average Swede’s natural tendency to conservatism. (See www.mathiasdahlgren.com)[caption id="attachment_2582" align="alignnone" width="346"] Mathias Dahlgren restaurant interior[/caption]
Typically for such a respected restaurant, the waiters were excellent and well-informed. What I’ve learned is to ask the most tuned-in waiter where he or she eats on a night off. Invariably I’m supplied with a short list of a city’s most interesting and un-touristy restaurants/diners and an offer to make a booking on the spot for any subsequent nights I wish.[caption id="attachment_2583" align="alignnone" width="134"] Rolf's Kok restaurant sign, a welcoming sight[/caption]
This is how I found Rolf’s Kok (Rolf’s Kitchen) in central Stockholm. Not as fancy or expensive (not by a long shot) as Mathias Dahlgren but the food was just as good, the service just as friendly and I enjoyed the whole experience even more. (See www.rolfskok.se)[caption id="attachment_2584" align="alignnone" width="120"] Rolf's Kok interior[/caption]
My time in Stockholm was running short. I needed to get to Turku in Finland and then Helsinki to catch a flight onwards. I’d manage to walk the old town, Gamla Stan, from end to end without freezing to death. I’d visited the Royal Palace, the Swedish Economics Museum and the National Museum and I’d learned to use the underground metro trains without getting completely lost.[caption id="attachment_2585" align="alignnone" width="178"] Gamla Stan buildings in Stockholm[/caption]
But the Baltic Sea was still icy. I wondered if I could ferry across it to Turku.
‘Aland, where’s that?’ I ask. ‘An island between Sweden and Finland,’ I’m told by a Swedish tourism bureaucrat while we’re discussing how I’ll travel between the two countries by boat during late winter. She raises her eyebrows at me as if to say, ‘Don’t you know anything?’
Admittedly, I knew next to nothing about Aland and its tiny capital town, Mariehamn, supposedly named after a Russian empress who liked the place so much her husband named the town after her in celebration of her fondness for its location. Later I discovered that wasn’t true.
What is true is that Aland is actually the name for the archipelago comprising some 6,550 tiny islands (many just rocky dots on a map called ‘skerries’) where over 90% of the 28,300 permanent inhabitants live on Fasta Aland (which means ‘Main Island’) where about 90% of those live in the island’s only sizeable town, Mariehamn.
Aland’s name refers to the main island as well as the rest of the archipelago, which is governed by Finland (though it has autonomous status) and where the people speak Swedish.
Confused? I was.
As I learned more about this in-between island called island, I grew increasingly interested.
In my opinion, any in-between place which is part of one country but doesn’t share that country’s language and which has gained semi-independence over the years because of demilitarisation and which now belongs essentially to no single country but is governed by its inhabitants in a quasi autonomous state has a lot to like about it.
Aland is close enough to Stockholm’s important harbour, Finland’s mainland and Russian/Prussian historic battles for domination over the Baltic Sea to have been hard fought over. Strategically, Aland is right in the middle of an old war zone. It was affirmed autonomy by the League of Nations in 1921 and effectively demilitarised shortly thereafter.
And I like the repetitive name: Aland (Island) Island. The root of the name Aland comes from Proto-Norse (Ahvaland) and means ‘Land of Water’.
Aland popped up from the shallow Gulf of Bothnia some 10,000 years ago, the blink of an eye geologically speaking. Fasta Aland is the biggest island in the group, granite in its northern reaches and alluvial sedimentary soil in the south where a bit of rich farming is worked on boggy land. The highest point in all of Aland, also on Fasta Aland, is Orrdals Hill which rises up 129 metres. These are low islands that hug the sea’s horizon, ‘Land of Water’ indeed.[caption id="attachment_2587" align="alignnone" width="336"] View from northern Aland over the Gulf of Bothnia[/caption]
Mariehamn is a tidy town inhabited by comfortably well off residents. You know you’re in wintry Scandinavia when you’re surrounded by folk dressed snugly in goose down coats, fashionable boots and fur hats all looking very self-contained and disdainful as they march unsmilingly to business. Gross annual domestic product on Aland averages at about USD$56,000 per capita, so there’s money to be had in these islands.
You need money to live comfortably here. Goods and services on Aland average roughly 20% more expensive than mainland Sweden, which is already one of the world’s most expensive countries for travellers. Aland is a pricy place. No wonder everyone looks so smug.
Incomes are derived from tourism, shipping and retail profits from VAT free alcohol sales. The Viking Line ferry I was aboard, The Isabella, did a roaring trade in duty-free alcohol sales, the primary reason most of its passengers were travelling between Stockholm and Turku. Almost no one disembarked in Mariehamn. The majority of passengers remained on board ship to do their regular tax-free shopping.
Mariehamn was granted its name in 1861 by Tsar Alexander 2 in honour of his Tsarina. I’ve read that Maria Alexandrovna liked the location. I’ve also read that she never visited the place.
At any rate, the town was planned in Russian style with long boulevards and a waterside esplanade linking the two harbours that sideline the isthmus town’s borders. Streets in between follow a rigid grid pattern, perfect for funneling icy winds blowing straight down from the Arctic.[caption id="attachment_2588" align="alignnone" width="186"] Mariehamn harbour in summer[/caption]
Mariehamn has a small history museum and art gallery that is worth exploring. I spent a couple hours there while idling around town. Admittedly I was the only idler to be seen. Winter is very low season on Aland. The town’s maritime museum is also interesting to gain an understanding of Aland’s quirky political history. The 19th century preserved sailing barque, 'The Pommern' is nearby and is also worth a look, particularly if you’re a sailor or nautical history buff. (See www.visitaland.com for details on the museums and hotel/restaurant recommendations.)
The town’s hotels looked very dour and resolutely unfriendly. According to the exceptionally helpful tourism bureaucrat I spoke with (desperately seeking advice as I’d made no plans and booked no hotel or restaurant), most of the town’s hotels open in winter were overpriced when Euros were measured against value. ‘So where do you recommend to stay,’ I ask?
‘There’s a place on the other side of the island that I recommend,’ she replied.
‘How do I get there?’
‘You go by taxi, there’s one still operating today, I’ll call him for you.’
Within fifteen minutes my bag is in the back seat and I’m driving through spruce forest, around ice cloaked lakes and picturesque little farms. ‘We have to watch for moose, but I don’t get many calls to go there in winter,’ he says, indicating how remote the other side of the island is and how rarely he ventures there. ‘They wander out of the forest at this time of year looking for food.’
I’m surprised moose live on Aland; it’s a long way from the mainland after all. ‘They walked here across the ice,’ he adds just as I was about to ask how moose came to be living on Aland.
I like this taxi driver. He’s friendly and exchanges information about his island home willingly.
‘The hotel you’re going to is supposed to be nice.’
‘You don’t know it,’ I ask?
‘I’ve never stayed there but people seem to like it.’
My one night on Aland takes a turn for the better. I’m not staying in austere and unfriendly appearing Mariehamn. Instead I’m on an adventure and staying at the only hotel on the far-flung northern side of the island thirty-seven kilometres from downtown Mariehamn.
As it happened, I’m glad I did. The Havs Vidden hotel occupies its own little peninsula overlooking the Bothnian Gulf. It’s small, exclusive and surprisingly connected to the whole world considering what I’d been led to believe by the taxi driver and Mariehamn tourist bureaucrats. I was half expecting to sleep in an igloo decked out with furs. Instead the hotel is all Scandinavian Contemporary design, lots of polished wood, fine fittings and simple style. (See www.havsvidden.com)[caption id="attachment_2589" align="alignnone" width="336"] Outside room at Havs Vidden hotel Aland[/caption]
The Japanese and Scandinavians have a lot in common regards hotel room design. Form follows function is the rule. Authenticity is the modus operandi. Nothing is out of place or superfluous or sharp. Colour comes from outside, from the woods, water and sky. The room is wooden beige and I like the way it forces me to look out rather than in.[caption id="attachment_2590" align="alignnone" width="175"] Havs Vidden room interior[/caption]
The Scandinavians have an ingrained affinity with nature. Their art and music is connected to it. To listen to a Sibelius symphony is to listen to the sounds of nature, birds whistling overhead, tree boughs cracking with ice, waves lapping against shoreline. You hear the picture.
My room is a cabin set in a patch of forest overlooking ice, snow and water. I’m all alone but I see no moose.
In this location, where nothing else is around, I’m lucky the hotel chef's cooking is delicious. I’m seated at my table by a lovely waitress who calls me by name. Offered an aperitif, subsequently told I’m to be served a three-course dinner. She sets the printed menu before me and asks if I can eat everything. ‘I think so, I’m hungry,’ I reply. ‘No, I mean have you allergies,’ she asks? ‘Only to bad food,’ which is my standard reply and one she understands.
I drank most of a bottle of Rioja while trying to enjoy my dinner in relative peace. (The owners are in residence, taking their dinner at a table near to mine. They have a child who screams during most of the evening. The father cuddles the child but no one has the sense to remove it from the dining room so other guests can eat in peace.) After dinner I nursed a brandy in the lobby area near an open fire to contemplate life, liberty and the pursuit of demilitarisation far away from the loud spoiled child who should have been served a bowl of pasta in the kitchen and out of earshot. Fortunately, the child’s shrieking didn’t negatively influence how I ultimately felt about the hotel.
Earlier I’d had a swim in the hotel’s indoor pool overlooking the sea. I then sat in the sauna alone for a while, had a cold shower, dressed quickly and ran back across the snow and ice to my cabin and dressed for dinner. I slid-slipped across glistening ice covered wooden pathways to the candlelit dining room in the main building which serves as bar, reception and dining room, where I ate well, wrote notes and read my book.
This was one of those nights when I felt all had gone my way, despite one screaming kid. I’d spent my inheritance on the taxi to nowhere and on one night at the hotel on the edge of beyond just to feel truly far and away on Island Island Aland. I couldn’t have been happier, though the taxi fare back to Mariehamn the next morning was a reality shock.
Following the one night on otherworldly Aland, mid-afternoon I boarded another hardy Viking Line ice-breaking ferry to continue the passage across the lower Gulf of Bothnia to Turku, Finland’s old port, its former window on the world.[caption id="attachment_2597" align="alignnone" width="178"] Turku in winter[/caption]
Previous visits to Finland prepared me for Finnish strangeness. For instance, Finns drink more milk per capita than any other nation, a curious fact. I’ve yet to discover why this is so. Finns love nothing more than to conduct business while slow roasting themselves, nude in tiny wooden huts called saunas. This I understand. Finland in winter is bleak and frigid. To sit naked in a hot box on a frigid winter’s day or night feels good. Finns are notorious for their truly ironic senses of humour. (What’s a Finnish joke? I don’t know, what’s a joke? Get it?) The language is of Finno-Ugraic origin, akin to Basque and Hungarian and therefore incomprehensible to linguistically challenged Romance Language speakers like me.
Finnish history is one of stalwart resistance to larger powers determined to put them out of existence i.e. Russia and Sweden. I admire the fact that Finland has survived as a nation past the 20th century. Finnish diplomacy has always metaphorically walked a tightrope of manipulation, acquiescence and courage under fire.
Finns make the Swedes look almost affable by comparison. Getting a Finn to crack a smile either requires a lot of booze or an innate comic ability akin to evincing a laugh at a North Korean Security Council meeting. Alcohol sold in Finland is horrendously expensive (when not bought VAT free in Aland) so coercing an unprompted laugh from a Finn can be a pricy undertaking.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. Many Finns I’ve met are warm souls keen to interact with strangers. Maybe I’m passing on stereotyped impressions?[caption id="attachment_2592" align="alignnone" width="164"] Park Hotel Turku lobby area[/caption]
I stayed at the Park Hotel in Turku, a small-sized boutique hotel near the old cathedral and central to the old city centre. I liked the Park Hotel. (See www.parkhotelturku.fi) My room was tiny but it was cozy all the same so I felt welcomed by all the hotel employees as an esteemed guest and not as a tax invoice.[caption id="attachment_2591" align="alignnone" width="171"] Park Hotel facade Turku[/caption]
Run by a local family, the mistress of the house gave me invaluable advice on where to dine during my one night in Turku, which is how I found the Rocca restaurant and where I enjoyed as fine a dinner as I had at vastly more expensive restaurants in Stockholm and Oslo. (See www.rocca.fi)[caption id="attachment_2593" align="alignnone" width="192"] Rocca restaurant in Turku facade[/caption]
I really came to Turku to visit the Sibelius Museum. The great composer Jean Sibelius never lived in Turku (you can visit his home ‘Ainola’ outside Helsinki) but he did have a profound affect on the Turku Music Conservatorium which was instrumental in setting up the museum to the Finnish musical hero. (See www.abo.fi/fak/hf/musik/eng/museum/valkommen)[caption id="attachment_2594" align="alignnone" width="172"] Turku cathedral in winter[/caption]
My visit to the Sibelius Museum was wonderful. I paid my 3 Euro entrance fee and chatted amiably to the young man who was running the reception desk. ‘You’re the only visitor,’ he informed me. ‘Do you want to hear anything in particular?’
‘What do you mean,’ I asked?
‘I can play on the loudspeaker system whatever you want to hear.’
Being the only visitor has its privileges obviously.
‘Okay, how about some of his more obscure violin pieces?’
‘Sure, I’ll put some on now,’ which is how it came to pass that I enjoyed the unique pleasure of having the Sibelius Museum all to myself while I wandered its galleries and displays filled with the master composer's instruments and copies of his scores all the while accompanied by a personalised soundtrack.[caption id="attachment_2595" align="alignnone" width="190"] Sibelius Museum Turku facade[/caption]
The greatest cathedral in all Finland is only 150 metres walk from the Sibelius Museum. For an hour, I sat alone in a back pew watching the late winter’s light play shadow tricks on stained glass windows while humming Sibelius tunes to myself.[caption id="attachment_2596" align="alignnone" width="149"] Turku cathedral facade[/caption]
Later that same day I caught a fast train to Helsinki then a bus connection to its airport, allowing plenty of time for rumination on how travelling in Scandinavia during late winter is rather a lovely thing to do.
Tom Neal Tacker visited Stockholm with assistance from Stockholm’s Tourist Authority.
The Viking Line ferries travel daily throughout the year (weather conditions permitting) between Stockholm and Turku with stops at Mariehamn. The trip takes approximately 12 hours, can be broken in half with an overnight stay in Mariehamn and is very scenic. The ship passes through Stockholm’s inner archipelago, its small forested islands sporting the favoured summer homes of the city’s elite. See www.vikingline.com[caption id="attachment_2598" align="alignnone" width="182"] Viking Line ship Isabella plowing through ice[/caption]
Stockholm’s First Hotel Amaranten is a centrally located modern hotel with about as much style as a Greyhound Bus Terminus. My key card opened a room that was already occupied. Open bags were on the bed and a make-up case was in the bathroom. Luckily the guest was not. Back at reception, I handed over the key card and said, ‘You’ve assigned me an occupied room.’ ‘No I haven’t,’ was the curt reply. The receptionist offered no immediate apology and tried to blame me for entering a room that was not mine. Alarmed at the obvious security risk the mistake clearly posed I repeated, ‘You’ve given me a room with someone already in it!’ She checked her computer records and said, ‘You’re correct. I’ll give you another room.’ Still no apology was offered. ‘I’ll upgrade you to another room.’ When I opened the door to the new room it was the same standard size and look as the one I’d be given before which was already occupied. I decided not to pursue the matter further. Sometimes it’s useless to fight a battle that’s already been lost. See www.firsthotels.com[caption id="attachment_2599" align="alignnone" width="169"] First Hotel Amaranten facade[/caption]
Local resident adventure specialist Tomas Bergenfeldt runs a company aptly called Stockholm Adventures specialising in hiking, cycling and kayaking tours around Stockholm’s richly forested hinterland and idyllic inner archipelago. Had I visited Stockholm in spring, summer or autumn instead of winter, I would gladly have spent a couple days seeing Stockholm’s natural wonders from a bicycle or kayak seat as well as on foot. See www.stockholmadventures.com[caption id="attachment_2601" align="alignnone" width="186"] Stockholm Adventures day trip scenery in summer[/caption]
For more information about Stockholm’s many attractions, museums, special exhibitions, concerts, public transport and tickets, see www.visitstockholm.com
For more information about what to do and see in Turku, see www.visitturku.fi
Tiny Onancock, (Pronounced ‘Oh-NAN-cock’. Don’t make the same mistake I did when stopping in a cafe to ask for directions to ‘ON-An-Cock’. I was politely corrected despite being given a harsh look) is Eastern Shore Virginia’s loveliest town. Blessed with a quiet and secluded harbour, two intersecting main streets lined with a small yet interesting assortment of shops, boasting two good restaurants (Bezzotto’s and The Charlotte Hotel restaurant) and graced with lovingly restored Victorian houses, here is where the description ‘quiet backwater’ can be best applied.[caption id="attachment_2635" align="alignnone" width="448"] Onancock Market St at corner of King St[/caption]
Chesapeake charm, too far from the big cities to attract day-tripping crowds and holiday house owners. There’s a strong sense of community here, largely due to this part of Virginia often being ignored by state legislators across the big Bay and far away in Richmond. [caption id="attachment_2648" align="alignnone" width="404"] Onancock harbour authority building[/caption]
At the end of the road at the great bay’s final exit into the Atlantic sits Cape Charles. One of the region’s most historic towns, where history is as common as crab cakes, this is indeed something to boast about. Cape Charles is an excellent place to hang back and relax in the sweetly somnolent atmosphere. It has one of the most extensive arrays of Victorian architecture on the East Coast and is mostly overlooked by the crowds rushing up and down the interstate highways over the Bay to the west.[caption id="attachment_2637" align="alignnone" width="195"] Cape Charles bayside beach[/caption]
In fact, Cape Charles is a good place to watch the sun set over the water, an unusual claim to make on the eastern seaboard of the USA if you're not on Florida's Gulf Coast.The Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center is inviting and useful to gain further insight into the origin of the town. When I ask a center volunteer about Cape Charles’ architectural heritage she hands me a map and tells me to 'Wander around a while and soak in the feel of the town. We’re not like any other place in Virginia. We’re special, kind of remote and most people who find us really want to be here.'[caption id="attachment_2638" align="alignnone" width="177"] Bridge over wetlands at Cape Charles[/caption]
The nearby Virginia National Wildlife Refuge is another jewel in the Chesapeake crown for birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts, as is the Kiptopeke State Park, well known for its population of hawks and waterfowl.
Perhaps Cape Charles is an appropriate town in which to contemplate why Chesapeake Bay exists as it does today. Unlike other drowned river valleys scattered about the globe that make up the world’s great bays, Chesapeake was formed by a cataclysmic event that occurred approximately 35.5 million years ago during the Eocene Epoch. A bolide, (meaning large asteroid or comet), more than a mile wide plunged into the water just off Cape Charles. Travelling at a speed estimated to be 113,000 kilometres per hour, it obliterated all life on the east coast of America at the time. Billions of tonnes of ocean water were propelled upwards and vaporised. Millions of tonnes of rocks and debris were ejected into the atmosphere. The impact crater plunged hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface and remained hidden until scientists discovered it in 1983 when studying satellite images.
Fossil remains have been subjects of fascination since Chesapeake Bay was discovered by Europeans over four hundred years ago. The Algonquin tribes that occupied the region for millennium must have been equally intrigued by the number of prehistoric creatures embedded in calcified rocks sticking out of the Bay’s many cliffs and ledges.[caption id="attachment_2639" align="alignnone" width="179"] Ducks in flight over Chesapeake Bay[/caption]
Chesapeake Bay has had a powerful impact on America, not because it was formed by one of the greatest explosions ever recorded in the history of the Earth, but also because it witnessed the birth of a nation, fed its earliest inhabitants, created untold riches for innumerable families and provided homes to countless species of fish, waterfowl and other animals. The Algonquin people got the name right; it is simply the ‘Greatest Water’.
Naked Sleeps:[caption id="attachment_2640" align="alignnone" width="190"] Inn at Onancock street-facing facade[/caption]
The Inn at Onancock is an absolute delight. Owner operated, immaculately clean, well-appointed and to-die-for breakfasts make this small guesthouse the best place to stay in the whole lower Delmarva Peninsula. The drinks and canapes served each evening provide guests an excellent opportunity to exchange travel tips. The owners are always on hand, offering advice and suggestions about the region. They're a wealth of local knowledge. See www.innatonancock.com [caption id="attachment_2641" align="alignnone" width="209"] Typical guestroom at Inn at Onancock[/caption]
For more information about Chesapeake's national park system and waterways including the Choptank River see www.nps.gov/cajo/
Chesapeake Bay is a year-round destination, though summer is easily the most popular time and consequently very crowded. Winters may be very cold though clear days and nights make it a special season with the least number of visitors. Mid-summer temperatures are often very hot with high humidity but onshore breezes from both the ocean and bay help relieve the heat. Spring and Autumn are typically the best seasons.
The ocean floor plummets over 1,000 metres only a few kilometres from Kaikoura’s beach and tiny harbour. Sperm whales hunt while travellers needn’t venture far offshore to watch them surface in between deep dives for tasty squid and fish.[caption id="attachment_2552" align="alignnone" width="448"] Sperm whale breathing off Kaikoura[/caption]
The huge population of local dusky dolphins and visiting seabirds that inhabit the area taking advantage of the abundance of seafood are added wildlife drawcards.[caption id="attachment_2553" align="alignnone" width="185"] Dusky dolphins leaping[/caption]
In a day, I ventured twice to the waters off Kaikoura’s spectacular coastline, first to mingle during a whale watching tour amongst a pod of young male Sperm whales as they repeatedly sounded between deep dives.[caption id="attachment_2554" align="alignnone" width="448"] Two Sperm whales off Kaikoura[/caption]
The planet’s largest carnivores (Moby Dick should ring a literary note) aren’t as frisky on the surface as Southern Humpback whales but what they may lack in acrobatic skills they make up for in sheer presence. Encountering these ocean wanderers is a rare occurrence. Kaikoura is one of the few places where sightings are dependable (the Azores islands in the mid-Atlantic is another).
Kaikoura is unique in that deep water is so close to shore. In fewer than thirty minutes leaving the town’s harbour, whales are seen lolling at the surface refilling their lungs and oxygenating their blood before the next plunge downwards.[caption id="attachment_2555" align="alignnone" width="448"] Kaikoura coastline[/caption]
While I know Melville’s tale of the great white whale was based on an apocryphal story and likely exaggerated to suit the plot, I loved his book as much for its telling of the mythical whale as I did for the human allegory. ‘Call me Ishmael’ as metaphor but call me Tom when it comes to admiring rare leviathans.
The morning began misty and cool, ideal for whale watching. The weather cleared by midday and the sun appeared for the day’s next excursion, an albatross tour.[caption id="attachment_2556" align="alignnone" width="448"] Beach at Kaikoura before whale watching tour[/caption]
The whale-watching tour boat was crowded and noisy. The smaller albatross watching tour boat was nearly empty and quiet.
What does this say about comparable attractions? Whale watching is big business that has crossed over into mass tourism. Albatross watching is by contrast, new business that caters to aficionados.[caption id="attachment_2557" align="alignnone" width="336"] Feeding time during Albatross tour, with Wandering albatross[/caption]
Sadly, the world’s albatross are at peril. Long-ling fishing continues to decimate global populations (despite improved fishing hooks that release caught albatross) and ongoing loss of habitat due to increased human populations plagues nesting colonies. Global warming and reduced fishing stocks add more pressure to these magnificent birds and their ability to breed fast enough to recover.[caption id="attachment_2558" align="alignnone" width="389"] Young Wandering albatross[/caption]
To see a Wandering albatross in flight is as rare an occurrence as seeing a Sperm whale lift its tail as it dives into the depths.
The Wandering albatross has the longest wingspan of any bird while its body is twice the size of a goose.[caption id="attachment_2559" align="alignnone" width="448"] Wandering albatross in flight[/caption]
In short, it’s a bloody big bird with a menacing hooked beak that could lop off my hand if it came too close.[caption id="attachment_2560" align="alignnone" width="362"] Wandering albatross and other seabirds battling over bait box[/caption]
Just off Kaikoura, it’s possible to get up close and personal with a Sperm whale and a Wandering albatross all in the space of one day.[caption id="attachment_2562" align="alignnone" width="336"] Wandering albatross up close[/caption]
Dusky dolphins in their hundreds also call the waters off Kaikoura home. These acrobats of the water tumble and twirl high into the air, seemingly just for the fun of it.[caption id="attachment_2561" align="alignnone" width="161"] Dusky dolphins[/caption]
The dolphins accompanied both boats, in the morning during the whale watching tour and the afternoon during the albatross watching tour. Each time I saw a dolphin hurl itself out of the water, I smiled and laughed at the same time. My heart soared with them.
Kaikoura is a special place, not only for its incredible wildlife and scenic position where sheer mountains meet narrow green pastures close against deep blue sea.
It’s also home to one of New Zealand’s best cultural experiences.
Lucky for me, I had enough time to enjoy a half day’s outing with Maurice Manawatu of Maori Tours Kaikoura. Maurice and his wife Heather began showing visitors their side of Kaikoura back in 2002. Since then they’ve won numerous awards for their impeccably run family business that shows interested visitors what local Maori culture is all about.[caption id="attachment_2563" align="alignnone" width="336"] Maurice Manawatu sings a welcome at beginning of Maori Tours Kaikoura[/caption]
The tour begins in a forest near the private marae linked to the Manawatu family and their relatives. The marae is private, open by invitation only but Maurice has permission to use the access road to the site with its stunning views over the Kaikoura coastline (you may see a whale or albatross from the cliff).
During a very friendly welcoming ceremony where Maurice allocates each tour member a Maori name, the family history is recounted in an easily comprehended summary, allowing everyone special insight into how Maori culture evolved over the centuries and how this particular family came to live in Kaikoura. It’s a fascinating account of living history interspersed with song and a lot of laughs.[caption id="attachment_2567" align="alignnone" width="156"] Maurice Manawatu greets a guest[/caption]
The tour takes in another favoured Kaikoura spot, parkland near the beach where Maurice and another family member show guests how to weave Maori baskets and other examples of treasured craft making. This could top the kitsch stakes but it doesn’t. Instead it’s a lot of fun, very interesting and interactive as well.
The half day’s tour finishes at Maurice and Heather’s home where guests are treated to a splendid afternoon tea and a chance to mingle with other family members while comparing notes and impressions with other tour guests.
I’ve done a few Maori cultural tours before, most frequently at Rotorua. While Rotorua is Kiwi-central for Maori driven cultural tourism, it’s big business that serves mass tourism, which is done well but often lacks authenticity.
The whole Maori Tours Kaikoura experience is completely authentic, ringing true at each moment. Maori Tours Kaikoura includes these words in its Social Responsibility Statement:
‘We believe in improving communities and play an active role in pursuit of a better place to live. We recognize we have a special obligation to whanau, hapu and iwi and this is reflected in our policies and actions. We care about our staff……..assist in community projects, businesses and individuals where we can; and encourage our staff and whanau to experience the joy of volunteering. We realise it takes commitment to make a difference in our community.’
Their Environmental Policy Statement reads in part:
‘As Maori children we are taught from birth that if we remove the core of ourselves and ruin the fundamental nature of the world we live in, there will be nothing left for our children, their children and the generations to come. We acknowledge the natural environment in which we operate is a valuable resource and we actively support its preservation and conservation which is shown in our policies and actions.’
This could also be read as a mission statement for Kaikoura itself, the town where eco-tourism isn’t merely a catchphrase or a PR stunt to attract tourists.
Kaikoura is a place where a few actions speak volumes of words. Here is where the environment is truly respected not only as a means to livelihood and income but also as the essence of life itself.
Tom Neal Tacker travelled to Kaikoura as a guest of Christchurch/Canterbury Tourism.
See www.maoritours.co.nz for more information about Maurice and Heather Manawatu’s excellent day tours.
For more information about Kaikoura whale sighting tours and bookings, see www.whalewatch.co.nz
For more information about Kaikoura albatross tours and bookings see www.albatrossencounter.co.nz
Kaikoura is approximately 2.5 hours drive north of Christchurch or approximately 2 hours drive south of Picton.
Both cities are frequently served by Air New Zealand. See www.airnewzealand.com
New Zealand does luxury lodges just about better than anywhere else in the world. While in Kaikoura treat yourself to at least one night and one dinner at Hapuku Lodge & Treehouses located approximately ten kilometres north of Kaikoura township on a sprawling coastal property.[caption id="attachment_2568" align="alignnone" width="219"] Hapuku Lodge main building and mountain backdrop[/caption]
My one-bedroom ‘treehouse’ ten metres above the ground sported gob-smacking views over picturesque paddocks, surf-washed beach and nearby mountains.[caption id="attachment_2564" align="alignnone" width="448"] Hapuku Lodge Treehouse interior and view[/caption]
The room was an absolute treat of peace and quiet with all the mod-cons I’d ever need. A full sized spa bath and walk-in shower boasted top-of-the-line locally made toiletries. My bed was perfect, were I a princess the pea would never be discovered and I’d never have anything to complain about.[caption id="attachment_2565" align="alignnone" width="448"] Hapuku Lodge Treehouse one bedroom bed and partial bathroom view[/caption]
Catering at Hapuku Lodge is flawless. I ate my dinner at the kitchen facing bar so as to chat with the chefs, one of whom was visiting from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California (one of the world’s most famous restaurants and the first in America to be organic well before the word became trendy). She kept supplying me with dishes I ‘must try’. Never one to say no to such offers, I was happy as a pig in the proverbial, full with food from the farm, not too heavy, not too light while prepared with skill and devotion to superb locally sourced ingredients. Wines poured by the glass were a bravura mix of Kiwi and imported French and Australian that perfectly matched each course of the degustation.[caption id="attachment_2569" align="alignnone" width="214"] Hapuku Lodge Treehouses[/caption]
Breakfast in the same dining room where I ate dinner was equally good. Had I wanted it served in my ‘treehouse’, it could have been easily arranged.
See www.hapukulodge.com for more information and bookings.
Author Joan Lindsay’s fabulous novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock, which was made into a sensational film by master director Peter Weir in 1975, tells the story of four women lost forever in the labyrinth of Hanging Rock’s rocky slopes. An ancient volcanic plug, (a mammon in geological nomenclature from the word mammary as the rounded shape resembles a breast), the basalt behemoth dominates the plain immediately north of Mount Macedon. A visit here is well worth a detour.[caption id="attachment_2532" align="alignnone" width="299"] Hanging Rock[/caption]
Hike to the summit for great views over the ancient volcanic landscape. Northeast is Mount William, famed by indigenous people throughout all of eastern Australia for the quality of its flint stones which were traded up and down the country. Not a walker? A simple picnic at the rock’s base amongst the gum trees and watchful kookaburras accompanied by one of the local wines may prove a less strenuous option. Tables are scattered through the parklands next to the famous Hanging Rock racecourse.
With thirty-four wineries currently in operation, visitors are treated to a broad array of wines. Be prepared to encounter vinous descriptions ranging from racy and austere to refined and rich (i.e. zesty bone dry or fruity full-bodied). The dominant grape varieties are: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewurtztraminer, Riesling and Shiraz. Scatterings of red Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc are sparsely planted in warmer areas. A Macedon Ranges’ defining geological feature, one of many that make this region unique, is its rich volcanic soil, clearly evident in the colour of the basalt rock formations that are part and parcel of the scenic beauty of the locale. Another is the altitude. All Macedon Ranges wineries are sited above 400 metres, the highest at 700 metres on the northern slopes of Mount Macedon itself.[caption id="attachment_2511" align="alignnone" width="252"] Macedon Ranges scenery[/caption]
John Ellis, the slightly grizzled though still dapper owner/operator of Hanging Rock Winery (www.hangingrock.com.au) has been instrumental in securing international fame for the region. He established his winery in 1983, grapes were planted in 1982. Always an eloquent spokesperson he says, ‘We weren’t the first however. Tom Lazar of Virgin Hills, who began making wines at his property in the 70s encouraged Gordon Knight at Knight’s Granite Hills and a few others to follow suit. There was a bit of a slump from the early 70s till the 80s but the region has been expanding ever since.’
Ellis served as Chairman of the Macedon Ranges Regional Tourism Association for many years, claiming, ‘What separates the Macedon Ranges from others is all of the wineries here are family owned. There are no multi-nationals.’ With further emphasis he explains, ‘We’re all small, different and individualistic. Our wines are basically limited editions.’
In 2002 the Macedon Ranges was granted formal Geographical Indication status. Its 650 hectares of wine producing land is one of Australia’s smallest G. I. recognised regions, a clear indication of its importance in comparison to larger areas of equal renown.
Though best known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay based sparkling wines, made in the same method as Champagne, wineries here produce many styles, from earthy and ethereal reds to both fragrant and full-bodied whites. Popping the cork on a bottle of prime Macedon fizz is to savour a rare treat. But don’t forget to indulge in the region’s other notable wine styles.
With alternative varieties such as Lagrein, Sangiovese and Tempranillo being planted the region is expanding its horizons. Ellis elaborates, ‘One or two vineyards of Lagrein does not a regional specialty make however. Riesling is a superb variety here as are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Macedon Ranges’ Shiraz is interesting too, very peppery and spicy. We all continue to do the best we can in marginal conditions. It’s why Macedon Ranges’ wines are so special.’
Here’s a short list of my other favourite Macedon Ranges wineries.
Granite Hills (www.granitehills.com.au) produces superb Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Shiraz but it’s really famous for successively outstanding vintages of Riesling. Owned and run by the Knight family since its founding in the late 70s, Granite Hills is one of Australia’s most consistent award winning wineries.[caption id="attachment_2512" align="alignnone" width="157"] Granite Hills vineyards[/caption]
Also top-notch is Curly Flat (www.curlyflat.com), whose Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines continually rank amongst the finest in the country.[caption id="attachment_2513" align="alignnone" width="201"] Curly Flat winery building[/caption]
Cobaw Ridge (www.cobawridge.com.au) is really off the beaten track. Here Shiraz and Lagrein grapes are kings of the castle. Cobaw Ridge specialises in long lived wines, full of character and finesse.
Both Zig Zag Road Winery (www.zigzagwines.com.au), for its prize-winning Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon and Midhill Vineyard (www.midhillvineyard.com.au) for its Alsatian style bone-dry Gewurtraminer, complete my short list.
Thirty-four wineries are listed as members of the Macedon Ranges Vigneron’s Association. Their website (www.macedonrangeswine.com.au) is a useful tool when discovering this district as many wineries are open to the public by appointment only. A number of boutique guesthouses are listed in addition to other dining options I've not mentioned below.
West of Mount Macedon is a scattering of small villages and two large towns: Kyneton and Daylesford. Their relative close proximity to Melbourne attracts tree-changers, folks bent on escaping the trials of the big city for a more relaxed back-to-nature country lifestyle. That many end up working harder than they ever did in the city should surprise no one toiling in the hospitality industry. Similarly, running a successful farm or small business in country areas isn’t quite the doddle some naive people may believe.[caption id="attachment_2514" align="alignnone" width="210"] Piper St in Kyneton[/caption]
Drawing in permanent residents and visitors alike is the region’s sophisticated food scene.[caption id="attachment_2515" align="alignnone" width="226"] Royal George Hotel in Piper St Kyneton[/caption]
Kyneton boasts a few outstanding restaurants in its unofficial ‘Eat Street’, Piper St: Annie Smithers’ Bistro (www.anniesmithers.com.au), Mr Carsisi (www.mrcarsisi.com), and the Royal George Hotel (www.royalgeorge.com.au) are each excellent examples of country dining at its best.[caption id="attachment_2526" align="alignnone" width="177"] Piper Street sign[/caption]
The good value Dhaba at The Mill (www.dhaba.com.au), also in Piper St, does authentic curries with house made Indian breads.[caption id="attachment_2525" align="alignnone" width="336"] Daylesford Town Hall facade[/caption]
Over in Daylesford one of Victoria’s best country pubs, the Farmer’s Arms (www.farmersarmsdaylesford.com.au) is run like I’d like to see all Australian country pubs; always friendly, always reliable and always great eating (and drinking).[caption id="attachment_2516" align="alignnone" width="335"] Daylesford butcher shop window, fresh is best![/caption]
Three other restaurants in Daylesford start me salivating as soon as I make a reservation to dine there: the Lake House (www.lakehouse.com.au), Kazuki’s (www.kazukis.com.au) and Mercato @ Daylesford (www.mercatorestaurant.com.au).
The Lake House is already a legend in its own lifetime. When Alla and Allan Wolf-Tasker turned a run down cafe on the shores of a forgotten lake into one of the state’s premier dining destinations, they set in train a taste revolution that all of Daylesford now comprehensively enjoys. Alla Wolf-Tasker once told me, ‘the locals thought we were crazy when we began planting trees on the barren site as they’d spent years pulling them all out.’ Theirs was a task not only consumed by hard physical labour but also one of convincing conservative locals that good food and wine could change hearts and minds too. More than thirty years later, the battle has been won, thanks largely to Alla and Allan Wolf-Tasker’s dedication to excellence.[caption id="attachment_2517" align="alignnone" width="260"] Lake House, service in action[/caption]
Kazuki Tsuya worked as a sous-chef at the Lake House, proving that great training comes full circle. I find it delightful that one of Daylesford’s most interesting restaurants is owned and run by an ex-Lake House employee, further proof that Daylesford has come into its own as a food town given that considering Tsuya’s background and experience, he could have chosen to work anywhere. Instead he chose to remain local. Well done.[caption id="attachment_2527" align="alignnone" width="336"] Daylesford book shop window, wonderful selection of cookbooks here[/caption]
Mercato is such a lovely affair. With owner/chef Richard Mee in the kitchen and his partner, Maree Britt, working the tables, this little shop front fine diner is a consistent winner with locals and visitors alike.[caption id="attachment_2518" align="alignnone" width="336"] Daylesford is full of surprises, including well-loved cars[/caption]
Just up the road from Daylesford is tiny Hepburn Springs. Here is where this region's tourism landed... if on wet feet. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most visitors ‘took the waters’ while seeking cures for ailments from gout to asthma by soaking in the region’s mineral-dense spring water. Though the public baths aren’t what they used to be, one particular hotel, the Peppers Mineral Springs Retreat is the best place to see what the fuss was all about. (www.pepperssprings.com.au or www.theargusdiningroom.com.au)[caption id="attachment_2519" align="alignnone" width="269"] Pepper Mineral Springs Retreat front entrance[/caption]
Owners Wayne Cross and Chris Malden have done a superlative job in fashioning this faded Art Deco palace into a very contemporary and swish contemporary boutique hotel whilst incorporating many of the original features into the refreshed design.
The newly outfitted spa is quite simply stunning. The usual range of treatments is available but here authenticity is the key to success. Hepburn Springs’ waters haven’t changed; it’s still aglow with health giving qualities, which the Mineral Springs Retreat spa makes excellent use of.[caption id="attachment_2520" align="alignnone" width="201"] Peppers Mineral Springs Retreat spa area[/caption]
I loved my floating ‘soft pak float bed’ water bed treatment for instance. Cross and Malden bought two of these nifty German made contraptions for their spa, (the only two operating in Australia I’m told). They’re water beds but you don’t actually get wet. The hour long treatment goes like this: imagine being rubbed down in the nicest way possible with an aromatised native oil of your choice, then plastered with healing ointments, then wrapped cocoon like in warm fluffy towels and then gradually and ever so sweetly settled down into an all enveloping water bed that wraps round you like a lover you never want to let go. After a long nap (sleep is inevitable under these foetal like conditions), I was gently awoken, sponged off and moisturised again. Feeling like a freshly minted fortune, I was then truly ready to tackle any possible stress inducing situation that may come my way. Luckily none did.
Best of all is the refurbished The Argus Dining Room. Banish all memories of execrable hotel food. Embrace instead the refreshing notion that hotel food can be pace-setting and inspiring. Chef David Willcocks is cooking the kind of food I expect to eat at a metropolitan foodie pilgrimage place. In a word, wow! Willcocks spent years working in Spain, primarily Malaga. The Andalucian influence is subtle at The Argus but it’s definitely there. Willcocks combines an intriguing Asian sensitivity and Spanish robustness in his cooking. Remember Adria Ferran of El Bulli fame? Willcocks’ cooking resembles that kind of innovation but without the consternation many diners felt when confronted with foodstuffs they’d never heard of.[caption id="attachment_2521" align="alignnone" width="448"] The Argus: Red Roast Chicken, Oysters, Avruga, Congee and Mushroom entree[/caption]
Service is nigh on flawless at The Argus and the wine list is almost as scintillating as the food.[caption id="attachment_2522" align="alignnone" width="448"] The Argus Sher Wagyu Beef, White Kimchi, Miso Mustard, Pickled Daikon and Kohlrabi[/caption]
Over in Malmsbury is the tiny and funky Small Holdings open kitchen bistro, formerly a church and now a temple to great food. There’s no menu but who cares? The food is rustic, unpretentious but authentically good. Using local produce wherever possible, the team here espouses ‘paddock to plate’ ethos and the customer is the beneficiary. Let the small team cook for you. You’ll be happy they did. (www.smallholdings.com.au)[caption id="attachment_2523" align="alignnone" width="376"] Small Holdings in Malmsbury[/caption]
In Trentham, a lovely village well cared for by its tree-changing inhabitants, try Du Fermier (www.dufermier.com.au) owned and run by Annie Smithers herself (she sold her eponymous Kyneton bistro to Tim and Michelle Foster who’ve done a smashing job maintaining Smithers’ impeccably high standards). Simple Frenchified food done to perfection is the go here.[caption id="attachment_2524" align="alignnone" width="170"] Trentham main street scene[/caption]
Tom Neal Tacker travelled courtesy of Macedon Ranges Regional Tourism Association.
Don’t miss the annual Macedon Ranges wine lovers Budburst Festival in mid-November. See www.budburst.com
The Macedon Ranges is within very easy reach of Melbourne. Less than two hours drive from the city’s CBD will bring visitors to Daylesford or Kyneton. Alternatively, Kyneton is on the main train line from Melbourne north to Bendigo with daily frequent services.
The Marumaru Atua is a double-hulled catamaran of about ten metres length. It sports three russet coloured lateen sails decorated with ancient Polynesian motifs. There is no keel. By riding the four metres long wooden tiller, the ‘vaka’ steers easily enough.[caption id="attachment_2416" align="alignnone" width="448"] Marumaru Atua vaka with sails up[/caption]
A small rattan roofed galley with enough space for two adults sits amidships.[caption id="attachment_2418" align="alignnone" width="371"] Crew member Malik entering Marumaru Atua galley[/caption]
A single toilet with door is positioned in front of the galley facing the bow. A bucket with rope attached is the flushing mechanism.[caption id="attachment_2419" align="alignnone" width="375"] Crew member Erena Young hauling bucket of dunny water[/caption]
The remainder of the deck is open to the elements with two storage compartments that also serve as bench seats. Each hull has enough space for eight bunk beds, sixteen altogether. There’s not enough space below to swing a cat, had one been aboard, creating a cosy arrangement that could make or break friendships.[caption id="attachment_2420" align="alignnone" width="362"] Alex Olon and Thomas Wynne raising mainsail[/caption]
To comply with contemporary insurance regulations, the ‘vaka’ is equipped with a GPS and radio but we don’t rely on either. Running lights, cabin lights and essentials are powered by solar panels fitted to the stern timbers above the transom. During extended periods of cloudy weather a corkscrew propeller generator can be lowered between the hulls through a hatch to add a bit of extra juice. For our short journey, the propeller is lifted and secured underneath the deck.[caption id="attachment_2421" align="alignnone" width="448"] Solar panels on Marumaru Atua with Rarotonga receding in the distance[/caption]
Wind energy is all we need this night. Given the weather conditions, there’s plenty of that.
I’m one of seven lucky passengers, four other writers, one public relations expert and a Pittman family friend who’s checking out the facilities on this maiden ‘tourist’ voyage.[caption id="attachment_2422" align="alignnone" width="424"] Passengers aboard the Marumaru Atua ready to leave Avarua harbour[/caption]
The weather isn’t kind. A strong southeast wind has been pushing waves to threatening heights for three days. The narrow entrance to Aitutaki’s lagoon is closed due to rough seas.
No matter. We’re intent on pursuing the last voyage of 2013 before the cyclone season begins. A bit of nasty weather won’t put off true sailors but land-loving passengers may feel otherwise. A decision is taken to sail the ‘vaka’ in the direction of Aitutaki for approximately seventy nautical miles then turn round and return to Rarotonga, more or less matching the distance of a one-way trip from Rarotonga to Aitutaki.[caption id="attachment_2423" align="alignnone" width="336"] Alex Olon, Tefini Pekapo and Thomas Wynne raising mainsail[/caption]
Two watches are assigned to the crew, the first from sunset until midnight, the second from midnight until dawn. Along with Pittman, another Master Navigator and Captain, Peia Pataia assumes overall command for the safety of the crew and passengers. Pataia, Erena Young, Alex Olon and a young apprentice from a local school, Malik, take the first watch. Tua Pittman, his brother Noel Pittman, Tefini (‘T’) Pekapo and Thomas Wynne take the second.[caption id="attachment_2424" align="alignnone" width="448"] Marumaru Atua crew members. Clockwise from top left: Tefini Pekapo, Malik, Alex Olon, Captain Peia Pataia, Tua Pittman, Erena Young, Noel Pittman and Thomas Wynne[/caption]
The swell reaches four metres once we’re a few nautical miles beyond Rarotonga’s sheltering reef. The Samoan Trench lies underneath. Bottom is over three thousand metres down. Once outside the reef, the water colour gradually changes from tropical aquamarine to a deep steely blue.[caption id="attachment_2426" align="alignnone" width="448"] Rarotonga at a distance on board the Marumaru Atua[/caption]
Three crew members are struck down with seasickness almost immediately, a common malady remedied only by steadfast dedication and gradual physical adaptation. Ginger tablets, Fisherman’s Friend lozenges and anti-nausea drugs may assist in reducing the symptoms of seasickness but they won’t cure it. My fellow passengers alternate between extreme seasickness and mild queasiness.[caption id="attachment_2427" align="alignnone" width="448"] Noel and Tua Pittman leaving Avarua on board Marumaru Atua[/caption]
Another writer, a friend well known for his bushwalking and mountain biking prowess spends the whole fourteen hours voyage either rolled up in the foetal position on the deck or with his head hanging off the side filling the ocean with his stomach contents. By 9pm, all other fellow passengers are either trying to sleep down below on rocking bunks or curled up in blankets on the wet deck. Some hang heads over the side, muttering occasional groans but not me.[caption id="attachment_2472" align="alignnone" width="336"] Marumaru Atua mainsail up[/caption]
This was an experience in which I didn’t want to miss a minute. Requesting permission to sit on either of two stern end navigator’s seats, I happily sat through each seven hour watch, wide awake, often wet as a random wave washed over me, watching moonrise and moonset, gazing at Venus rising as the sun set and later seeing it disappear into the greater celestial panoply. Canopus the Dog Star became a familiar friend. I learned the difference between the false Southern Cross and the real Southern Cross. Orion’s Belt was a constant feature, nearly always highest in the sky and eminently visible.
I knew that if I went below and stretched out in a bunk, the risk of seasickness would be increased. As long as I fixated on the horizon, the stars, the passing clouds and the moon’s position, I’d be fine.
I learnt something that night. Time really does stretch when modern markers are left behind. I lost track of it, was lost in my thoughts and thrilled to be alone. With nearly seven billion humans on this small planet, it’s not often I get to say that. Peia, Erena and Alex were mostly quiet during their watch. Tua, Tefini (‘T’) and Thomas were also very quiet. Noel and Malik were both prostrate with seasickness, passed out on deck. Thomas suffers extreme seasickness but stayed his watch nonetheless. The man is a hero. I watched him sit the tiller in between frequent bouts of retching over the stern. Brief snippets of chat were rare, exchanges of information mostly. Checking position and adjusting the tiller to stay on course doesn’t necessitate a dialogue. I was mesmerised by the silver light dancing on the waves. Occasionally phosphorescence lingered in the tiller’s wake, like a glittering refrain at the end of a rousing speech, though nothing was to be heard other than waves crashing against the wooden hulls and wind ruffling full sails.
A thousand or so years ago, early Polynesians ventured across the planet’s largest ocean in search of new lands. They navigated mostly by the stars, a permanent planetarium seemingly embedded in their brains. These ingenious explorers migrated across huge expanses of uncharted waters without printed maps to guide them.
A few years ago, in commemoration of his ancestors’ remarkable explorations Pittman helped build a ‘vaka’, essentially a large canoe capable of deep sea travelling, at once recreating a vessel that the earliest Polynesians used to circumnavigate the Pacific Ocean well before European pioneers ‘discovered’ the unknown world. In building the ‘vaka’ Pittman and his friends simultaneously reconnected with their heritage.
That recreated canoe, the ‘vaka’ Marumaru Atua (meaning ‘Under the Protection of God’) sailed with six other canoes across the Pacific Ocean through the Golden Gate of San Francisco, proving that it was possible to sail vast distances without the benefit of modern navigation equipment.
Since that voyage in 2011/2012, the Marumaru Atua has been based in the Cook Islands at Rarotonga. Tua Pittman, his crew and benefactors have given the ‘vaka’ to the people of Rarotonga as a reminder of their intrepid past. Managed by Pittman and company, it now runs regular three hour evening trips beyond Rarotonga’s fringing reef, allowing passengers to witness southern stars far away from city lights as the big canoe sails beyond the island’s encircling reef on a short bout of sky tripping.
In March 2014, the Marumaru Atua and crew will begin monthly four day return voyages from Rarotonga to Aitutaki, approximately 180 kilometres north. Leaving late afternoon, the ‘vaka’ sails overnight to Aitutaki reaching the glorious lagoon’s shipping entrance by mid-morning. Passengers will have the choice of staying on board the ‘vaka’ or transferring to other accommodation on the island, returning to Rarotonga two days later.
Our brief trip is the ‘trial run’ in preparation for paying passengers. I’m pleased to report that a cruise on the Marumaru Atua from Rarotonga to Aitutaki is unique and should be on every real traveller’s so-called ‘bucket list’.
Sometimes the travel gods decide to bestow a gift. Fortunate recipients of this gift are well advised to remember it for they have received something both rare and priceless.
It has been my great fortune to be the recipient of random travel beneficence; this voyage beyond Rarotonga on the Marumaru Atua is one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever been lucky enough to experience.
For travellers interested in living Polynesian history, a voyage on the Marumaru Atua is essential.
For inquiries and bookings on the Marumaru Atua’s trips outside Rarotonga’s reef and to Aitutaki, contact Tua Pittman or Carmel Beattie at Island Discoveries via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
If a voyage on a ‘vaka’ doesn’t float your boat, don’t worry, there’s plenty else to discover on a visit to the Cook Islands.[caption id="attachment_2428" align="alignnone" width="336"] Tai's weather rock at Muri beach[/caption]
Best known for its ‘newlywed and nearlydead’ customer base, a recent expansion of Cook Islands’ tourism choices should appeal to visitors not celebrating a marriage nor interested in spending days welded to a banana lounge by a pool next to a white sand beach, though both those options remain very popular.[caption id="attachment_2429" align="alignnone" width="448"] Muri beach and lagoon[/caption]
Rarotonga is basically Cook Islands central. The country’s only international airport is on Rarotonga and it’s the biggest island in the archipelago. Cook Islands’ total population is fewer than 20,000 inhabitants. Approximately 12,000 people live on Rarotonga while approximately 1,800 more call Aitutaki home.[caption id="attachment_2430" align="alignnone" width="448"] Uptown Avarua[/caption]
Rarotonga is a large volcanic island with peaks rising to over 600 metres in its densely forested centre. A double lane road of thirty-two kilometres circles the island. There is no cross-island road as the interior is too steep and rugged. A public bus runs two services, clockwise and anti-clockwise each thirty minutes. Passengers are picked up and dropped off wherever they choose to stop, sometimes only ten metres from one stop to the next. The night bus service runs clockwise only but not on Sundays. Hire car companies operate reliable services, renting small vehicles (Daihatsu mini convertibles are popular) and scooters to qualified drivers. A visitor’s driver’s licence is compulsory and can be purchased at the police station or through the rental agency. Bicycles are very popular transport options as well.[caption id="attachment_2431" align="alignnone" width="448"] Fresh water stream running through Avarua[/caption]
Rarotonga’s best beaches are at Muri and Titikaveka on the southern side. At Nikao and Arorangi on the northwest side more lovely beaches stretch along the lagoon. They’re not quite as gleaming smooth sandy white as those on the southern side but the sunset views are better. Dogs are frequent beach bums. Generally friendly and looking for free entertainment, local dogs have taken to working on behalf of Cook Islands Tourism as semi-official 'meeters and greeters'. A volunteer animal rescue program began working in the Cook Islands earlier this century. Now all animals are vaccinated and 'fixed'. No longer are visitors confronted by the distressing sight of injured and abandoned animals left to fend for themselves. Each dog I met on Rarotonga (there are no dogs on Aitutaki) was very friendly and good company.[caption id="attachment_2432" align="alignnone" width="361"] Friendly dog on Titikaveka beach[/caption]
Little Avarua is the main town where the government meets and the country’s largest market, Punanga Nui, is held each Saturday morning. Rarotonga’s surprisingly active nightlife is centred in Avarua. Check out Trader Jack’s and Whatever! bars on Thursday or Friday nights to see how Rarotongans socialise when they’re not at church or work. Saturday night revelries are a tad quiet, church going starts at 9am and it’s considered socially bad form to turn up nursing a hangover.[caption id="attachment_2433" align="alignnone" width="448"] Trader Jack's bar at Avarua[/caption]
All major Rarotongan resorts sport restaurants and bars, some more lively than others. If your holiday wish list includes lively interactive post dinner activities, be advised to confirm the entertainment options when booking a room.
Aitutaki is much smaller, approximately seven kilometres long by three wide and is a remnant of an extinct volcano with an enormous encircling lagoon. Maungapu, is the highest point at 124 metres. Aitutaki’s lagoon is dotted with over a dozen motu that conjure images of tropical heaven: eye-popping white sand, water comprising every shade of blue, fringing coconut palms and coral gardens enticingly peppered with giant clams, black pearl oysters and an encyclopaedia’s worth of Indo-Pacific fish and crustacean species. I’ve seen quite a few tropical lagoons during my travels but few lagoons rival Aitutaki in terms of sheer blissful perfection.[caption id="attachment_2434" align="alignnone" width="448"] Typical Aitutaki beach and lagoon scene[/caption]
Eleven churches operate on Aitutaki. Considering the population is fewer than 1,800 people, an impressive per capita ratio of proselytising opportunities abound. Christianity rules over all on Aitutaki. A conservative movement to stop all Sunday flights has a strong following.[caption id="attachment_2435" align="alignnone" width="448"] No Sunday Flights Aitutaki protest sign[/caption]
Cook Islands takes up a lot of space, over two million square kilometres, almost all of it water. Fifteen islands comprise the archipelago, eight in the southern group (including Rarotonga and Aitutaki, by far the most visited and populous) and seven in the northern group. Apart from the airports on Rarotonga and Aitutaki serviced by frequent Air Rarotonga flights, most of the other islands in the southern group can be reached only by charter flights. Both Penrhyn and Pukapuka in the northern group can be reached by air, charter flights only.
The Cooks is a mix of volcanic islands ringed by fringing reefs or coral atolls with lagoons of varying sizes. For more information about the whole country including the thirteen islands not often frequented by international travellers, check out www.cookislands.travel[caption id="attachment_2471" align="alignnone" width="448"] Titikaveka beach on Rarotonga[/caption]
My job while on this trip to the Cook Islands was to explore what else there is to do other than get married, honeymoon or lash out on an expensive retirement trip.
That I reconnected with my inner soul during my night on the Marumaru Atua was purely incidental and a trick of lucky fate.
Here’s a list of ‘Must Do’ activities on Rarotonga. I list them in no particular order of importance.
A ‘Navigating Pacific Skies’ progressive dinner with Tua Pittman should be a number one priority for all visitors keen on Polynesian history. As a precursor either to the three hour excursion beyond Rarotonga’s fringing reef or the four day trip to Aitutaki, this dinner in Tua’s excellent company starts at the Waterline restaurant and ends at a private home for dessert and is highly recommended as an introduction to a trip on the Marumaru Atua. Tua chauffeurs guests around the island while pointing out important stars, explaining navigation skills and relating Polynesian history. Inquiries and bookings can be made via email: email@example.com[caption id="attachment_2450" align="alignnone" width="448"] Waiting for sunset during Navigating Pacific Skies tour with Tua Pittman[/caption]
Sunday’s 10am church service at Arorongi’s Cooks Islands Christian church. It’s free and better still, allows a glimpse into local culture in the truest sense. The service I attended was led by the new pastor recently returned to Rarotonga after living in Sydney’s western suburbs. Replete with song and laughter, fire and brimstone, this was old time religion Cook Islands style.[caption id="attachment_2436" align="alignnone" width="448"] Arorongi church service[/caption]
My mobile phone couldn’t lock on to a signal during my first two days on Rarotonga. Frustrated by the lack of connectivity, I resigned myself to be off-grid for at least a week. Seated in a pew on the upper balcony of this church, I listened intently to the first of a number of hymns sung by a group of regular parishioners dressed to the nines looking like they’d won a trip to a prestigious awards event. Apparently, like the Welsh, Tahitians and Samoans, Cook Islanders can carry a tune as if musicality is an inherent genetic trait, they sing like angels. Suddenly, my phone locked on to the local provider and text messages silently beeped their way into the service. Another fellow writer seated beside me, (she’s something of a tech-head), sent me a sideways glance as we both raised our eyes upwards and muttered, ‘Jesus!’ A funny thing happened on the way to church...[caption id="attachment_2437" align="alignnone" width="411"] Arorongi church ladies leaving Sunday service[/caption]
As a matter of particular interest, the preacher made several erroneous comments about ‘Diwali’ infiltrating pure Cook Islands Christianity. A number of Indian Fijian migrants have settled in Rarotonga in search of better paid work than can be secured in Fiji. While I was there Diwali was being celebrated by this vibrant Fijian Indian community. Diwali is one of the most important and cherished holidays during the Hindu year, a commemoration of the goddess of learning and light when children are invited by teachers to visit their schools though the schools are closed for the holiday, often bringing new books to stock the library. As proof that knowledge conquers ignorance, it’s an invaluable teaching aid. Most Hindu homes have candles or lanterns placed in doorways to banish dark evil spirits and to welcome in light and learning. It’s a wonderful holiday, not threatening to Christianity in any way at all, especially in a place as overwhelmingly Christian as the Cook Islands. Though I was upset by the ravings of an ignorant preacher who didn’t know that ‘Diwali’ is a revered Hindu holiday and not a religion of itself, I was interested to observe how the congregation reacted to the sermon. Judging by the looks on people’s faces, the reaction was fairly nonplussed. At the subsequent morning tea when all the congregation and visitors are invited into a nearby public hall to share donated food and non-alcoholic drinks, the talk I overheard was gossipy and fun, not frightful nor fuelled by resentment. I suspect the preacher has since been advised to monitor his hate mongering in public.[caption id="attachment_2438" align="alignnone" width="397"] Arorongi church service, lady enjoying morning tea[/caption]
A Raro Safari 4WD tour of the island’s back roads and mountainous interior is terrific fun. Owned and operated by local environmentally minded enthusiasts of Rarotonga’s soft wilderness areas, this half day trip in an extravagantly decorated open 4WD is a lot of fun as well as insightful. We enjoyed the company of our guide, Mr Useless (many Cook Islanders are best known by their nicknames).[caption id="attachment_2439" align="alignnone" width="448"] Mr Useless of Raro 4WD Safari taking a much needed break[/caption]
Mr Useless was anything but useless though he was occasionally a bit grumpy and difficult to understand, not because of a lack of English but because an absence of teeth often turned his words into unintelligible mumbles.[caption id="attachment_2440" align="alignnone" width="336"] Emergency phone and Needle seen during Raro 4WD safari tour[/caption]
A Raro Safari tour is a fun day out following a somewhat random itinerary. Ask a lot of questions, show keen interest and the tour will certainly evolve into a very educational experience. See www.rarosafaritours.co.ck[caption id="attachment_2441" align="alignnone" width="425"] Rarotonga rooster joins Raro 4WD safari tour[/caption]
Definitely more fun than any of us anticipated was the Koka Lagoon Cruise on Muri’s fabulously picturesque lagoon.[caption id="attachment_2451" align="alignnone" width="448"] Koka Lagoon Cruises boat moored in Muri lagoon[/caption]
Billed as a ‘Glass Bottom Boat Adventure’, I had my doubts about authenticity as a driving force. I was dead wrong about that assumption.[caption id="attachment_2443" align="alignnone" width="448"] Captain Awesome showing off his conch shell[/caption]
The four crew members, Captain Awesome, Captain Amazing, Captain Jack Sparrow and Captain Cook (Captain Cook was the head cook for the afternoon lunch included in the cruise) proved that a day out in a small boat doing very touristy things like snorkelling around a coral renovation project, or snorkelling among large fish looking for a handout can be a wonderful way to pass a day in paradise.[caption id="attachment_2445" align="alignnone" width="448"] Captain Jack Sparrow playing a ukulele[/caption]
Enjoying a picnic lunch on a motu just offshore from Muri’s beach while being entertained by this outstandingly energetic crew who taught us how to climb a coconut palm, how to husk a coconut, how to differentiate coconuts according to maturity, usefulness and flavour, how to plait palm fronds to make a hat or plate and how to play a ukulele made for a very full day. I tipped my old fishing cap to them all.[caption id="attachment_2442" align="alignnone" width="448"] Captain Awesome and Captain Amazing singing during Koka Lagoon cruise[/caption]
These guys could show a seasoned Vegas troupe a thing or three about how to maintain performance enthusiasm. I couldn’t have loved it more. See www.kokalagooncruises.com[caption id="attachment_2444" align="alignnone" width="448"] Captain Awesome hanging off a coconut tree[/caption]
The Cook Islands Whale & Wildlife Centre is a must visit for travellers who are concerned about Cook Islands’ marine environment and its preservation. Owned and run by local heroine Nan Hauser, who is an internationally recognised expert on whales, dolphins and porpoises. Her work on cetacean habitats, their migration routes and how their very existence is now dependent on humans learning to leave them alone to regenerate after the decimations of the past two whaling centuries is widely heralded. As a generalised information facility about cetaceans from around the world, it is invaluable and Cook Islanders are fortunate to have it as a resource and research centre. See www.whaleresearch.org
The Cook Islands National Museum and Library in Avarua’s uptown area at the corner of Victoria Road and Constitution Park is a very small museum that packs a punch. Open Mon-Fri 9am until 4pm. Entry fee is CI$5.[caption id="attachment_2446" align="alignnone" width="124"] Cook Islands National Museum and Library entrance[/caption]
The Saturday market, Punanga Nui in Avarua’s downtown area is where everyone comes to shop or just hang out. Like mixed crafts and produce markets the world over, a visit to this lively site is obligatory for all curious visitors who are intent on gaining insight into what makes the Cook Islands tick.[caption id="attachment_2448" align="alignnone" width="426"] Black pearls on sale at Punanga Nui market stall[/caption]
Top stalls are: Farm Direct Pearls for some of the best and most reputable deals on locally raised black pearls, Rito Cold Pressed Coconut Oil Products for edible flavoured oils, health and beauty products, Tokerau Jim for hand-crafted art objects and jewellery and KMD Ukuleles for its range of expertly made ukuleles from native woods.[caption id="attachment_2447" align="alignnone" width="448"] KMD ukuleles on sale at Punanga Nui market[/caption]
Of course numerous stalls selling fresh juices, fruit smoothies, icy frappes and healthy (or not) small meals and snacks are everywhere. Take your pick and pig out.[caption id="attachment_2449" align="alignnone" width="336"] Punanga Nui market food and juices for sale[/caption]
A visit to Island Living store is highly recommended. Owned and run by Minar Purotu Henderson, this little shop is a gem which sells locally made and designed fabrics and crafts. The noni juice produced from the trees at Island Living’s garden plantation is on sale here. As a cure-all for everything from gout to cancer, the benefits of noni juice are highly regarded by all Cook Islanders.[caption id="attachment_2452" align="alignnone" width="448"] Noni fruit at Island Living garden and plantation[/caption]
Henderson also runs the adjoining Plantation House restaurant which serves a set menu dinner for about twelve guests once a week, usually on Wednesday evenings. She’s a wonderful cook and uses her huge garden to great effect in the preparation of her special feasts. See www.islandlivingshop.com for reservations.[caption id="attachment_2453" align="alignnone" width="448"] Minar Purotu Henderson at entrance to her Island Living shop[/caption]
A Nature Walk with Pa is a unique treat. He’s a local hero and the recent winner of a prestigious tourism award. Pa is over seventy years old, walks barefoot dressed in a loincloth and takes limited numbers of guests on a hike around the Needle, a sharp spire carved by wind and rain from an ancient volcanic plug and into the island’s jungle interior. During the trek Pa also explains the benefits of indigenous plants as curatives and life preservers. He’s living proof of how a good diet and exercise may lead to a long healthy life. See www.pastreks.com[caption id="attachment_2454" align="alignnone" width="448"] The Needle in Rarotonga's interior[/caption]
The sunset cultural tour and show at the Highland Paradise Cook Islands Cultural Centre held two or three times per week is a mixed bag of treats. The marae on the mountain is clearly an important historical site and the talk about it and its significance to Rarotongan culture is really interesting. While emcee Danny, dressed in full Cook Islands chiefly regalia, instructed guests not to cross the boundary to the marae unless invited, a woman accidentally crossed the line into the marae. Within seconds, a very large coconut nearly conked the man standing next to her on his head. Had it struck, he would surely have died. A marae can be a powerfully spooky place. The show and dinner that follows the visit to the adjoining marae is full of great music and dancing but Danny’s incessant patter is hammier than a Porky the Pig cartoon. See www.highlandparadise.co.ck[caption id="attachment_2455" align="alignnone" width="448"] Emcee Danny of Highlands Paradise Cook Islands Cultural Centre[/caption]
On Aitutaki Island these two ‘Must Do’ activities are highly recommended.
The Punarei Village Cultural Tour is an absolute wonder. The small company is owned and managed by Aitutaki born Ngaa Kitai Taria, a trained archaeologist who is now dedicating himself to revivifying Aitutaki culture as it was before Christianity’s impact caused the old ways to nearly disappear.[caption id="attachment_2456" align="alignnone" width="227"] Ngaa Kitai Taria of Punarei Culture Tours[/caption]
The half day tour includes lunch prepared from a do-it-yourself umukai (earth oven), a visit to an ancient marae and Ngaa’s full attention as he escorts visitors around his work-in-progress, Punarei village.[caption id="attachment_2457" align="alignnone" width="448"] Preparing the umukai at Punarei[/caption]
This excellent day out was a highlight of the visit to Aitutaki. I learnt more about Aitutaki’s past (and its future) in a scarce few hours than I ever would have learned traipsing around the island’s eleven churches in search of real or imagined history.
The lunch we helped prepare was actually quite delicious. As the umukai was truly authentic, the pork, chicken and fish tasted of mild smoke from fresh banana leaves layered over the hot rocks. The plantains, pumpkin, cassava and red bananas roasted along side were just as delicious. Fresh mangoes, guava, passionfruits and papayas were served with breadfruit salad and taro greens from the village garden.[caption id="attachment_2458" align="alignnone" width="448"] Lunch of umukai at Punarei[/caption]
We laughed and talked about how much Polynesian culture, politics and society has changed since Captain William Bligh first visited Aitutaki in 1798. The whole experience is both very moving and highly educational. See www.aitutakiculture.com
Aitutaki is rightly famous for its spectacularly beautiful lagoon. You’d be crazy to visit this island without venturing out on the lagoon. For that, you’ll need a boat and a guide.[caption id="attachment_2485" align="alignnone" width="448"] Gaynor Stanley PR expert from PEPR Publicity and Elani of Wet n Wild enjoying a moment in Aitutaki's splendid lagoon[/caption]
Wet and Wild is owned and run by local experts, Quentin and his wife Malea. Their youngest child, daughter Elani accompanied us for the day on the lagoon.[caption id="attachment_2459" align="alignnone" width="347"] Elani joins us for a Wet n Wild Aitutaki lagoon cruise[/caption]
Wet n Wild offers fly fishing trips (bonefish are the fisherman’s dream here) and snorkelling trips around the huge lagoon. I snorkelled over great beds of giant clams, all iridescent blue and green as they filter fed on the sandy lagoon bottom, explored a rope festooned with hanging black pearl oysters strung between coral bommies, had a quick walk around a motu famous for its ‘honeymoon money’ photo opportunities and its preserve as a refuge for red-tailed tropicbirds and other wandering sea birds. The urge to continually jump overboard into the swimming pool like lagoon is irresistible. See www.wetnwild-aitutaki.com[caption id="attachment_2460" align="alignnone" width="448"] Beach hammock at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa[/caption]
Tom Neal Tacker visited the Cook Islands as a guest of Cook Islands Tourism.
The Sunset Resort in Nikao, approximately three kilometres west of Rarotonga’s airport is a well run adults only boutique resort situated on a western facing beach. Two swimming pools delineate two areas of the same resort. The pool nearest the beach is closest to the best rooms. The other pool, despite being larger and slightly more inviting is surrounded by two two-story buildings that are nearer the lobby and reception area. The hotel carpark is also very close to this building. Some rooms in the far side of one of these buildings are very badly positioned, being uncomfortably close to the island’s main road. Unluckily, I was assigned to one of those rooms. Traffic noise was fairly constant, even in relatively sleepy Rarotonga. www.thesunsetresort.com
Over in Muri, on Rarotonga’s southeast facing coast is the Pacific Resort Rarotonga. One of the country’s best resorts, rooms either front a stunning beach or tropical garden area with fish ponds and a swimming pool. Most rooms are decorated in typical Polynesian style with bright colours, boast separate sleeping and living areas and newly renovated granite bathrooms. The hotel’s bar and restaurant are both deservedly popular. www.pacificresort.com[caption id="attachment_2470" align="alignnone" width="448"] Muri beach scene at Pacific Resort Rarotonga[/caption]
My wish list accommodation choice on Rarotonga is the Little Polynesian Resort & Spa. With fewer than twenty rooms, all facing the island’s best beach at Titikaveka, this is the pick of the abundant crop. While Muri beach is lined with small resorts, Titikaveka is mostly undeveloped. I hope it stays that way. www.littlepolynesian.com
The Aitutaki Lagoon Resort occupies its own tiny island just a short ferry ride across a clear running tidal channel separating Akitua from Aitutaki. Beach front bures are the top choice here, though three overwater bungalows are perennial favourites. The little villas all have outside showers and inside bathrooms. Private decks are attached to each villa, perfect for dropping into a beach lounge chair for a spot of navel contemplation. Dinner is fairly ordinary but the breakfast buffet was better than most I prospected in the Cook Islands. www.aitutakilagoonresort.com[caption id="attachment_2461" align="alignnone" width="448"] Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa beach view[/caption]
On Aitutaki’s western side is the very de luxe Pacific Resort Aitutaki (part of the same group that owns the Pacific Resort Rarotonga). The island’s best resort, the most expensive certainly, here the cooking is well above average in a country where too much food preparation is caught somewhere between 80s New Zealand Leagues Club inspiration and London Missionary Society reality. The infinity pool at this resort is one of the most photographed scenes in all the Cook Islands. The beach here, though superb by any concept of reality, is not as fine as the beach at the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort, advantage of occupying your own heavenly island off an island paradise perhaps? Were the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort beach transferred to the Pacific Resort Aitutaki’s superior facilities and style, we’d have a perfect winner. www.pacificresort.com
If the Cook Islands can claim a national dish, it’s probably ika mata, raw fish marinated in coconut milk, lime juice and mixed with chopped onions and/or tomatoes and if you're lucky a bit of chopped coriander. Tahitians, Samoans and Hawaiians prepare raw fish pretty much the same way. The Peruvians do it better and call it ceviche. In Mexico it’s served with more lime, coriander and a bit of chilli and is better still.
When the Cook Islands were occupied in the early 19th century by the London Missionary Society and Catholic church missionaries, local people coincidentally developed a fondness for tinned meats, tinned fruits and bland cooking. Much of that tradition continues today. New Zealanders are the Cook Islands most frequent visitors. Indeed, the Cook Islands are to Kiwis what Florida and Hawaii are to Americans and what Fiji is to Australians. For many Kiwis, their first overseas trip is to the Cook Islands. The influence middle-class Kiwis have had on contemporary Cook Islands cuisine is still a work in progress and appears to have been bogged down in 1980s low-brow cooking. I’ve had many truly excellent meals in New Zealand where innovative chefs winningly marry local produce with the country’s stunning wines. That innovation hasn’t yet fully reached the Cook Islands. This is my first impression. I heard there are several good restaurants on Rarotonga and Aitutaki but I didn’t dine at them.[caption id="attachment_2463" align="alignnone" width="448"] The Moorings Fish Cafe on Rarotonga[/caption]
Unfortunately when I met Minar Purotu Henderson at her Island Living shop, it wasn’t a Wednesday and we weren’t on Rarotonga long enough to dine at her Plantation House. I read the menu at the Little Polynesian Resort & Spa and found it exciting and enticing but again, didn’t have time to dine there.[caption id="attachment_2464" align="alignnone" width="422"] The Moorings Fish Cafe menu[/caption]
At The Moorings Cafe on Rarotonga, I ate a very good spicy fish sandwich and drank a fresh coconut juice (‘Nu’ juice in the Cook Islands). I’d like to go there again.[caption id="attachment_2462" align="alignnone" width="448"] Island Living garden plantation on Rarotonga[/caption]
The umukai I shared during the Aitutaki Punarei Cultural Tour was really good because it was authentic, the ingredients were top quality and the freshness was outstanding. [caption id="attachment_2465" align="alignnone" width="336"] Red bananas in Punarei's garden on Aitutaki[/caption]
Samade On The Beach across the channel from Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa is a lovely cafe/restaurant in a stunning location overlooking the lagoon right at the tip of the Ootu Peninsula. Recently acquired by an ex-Pacific Resorts GM, this place is set for great improvements. The small snack I ate of ika mata, fried calamari and plantain chips was very good and shows promise for better things to come. www.samadebeach.com
Also on Aitutaki is Tupuna’s Restaurant, highly recommended by trusted associates. The chilli crab cooked here has a strong following. Tupuna’s is open Mon-Sat from 6p and can be contacted via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or local telephone: 31 678.
The Cook Islands produce is essentially organic. Farms are small and clearly the soil is very fertile. The use of pesticides and fertilisers is almost unknown. The incredible freshness and flavour inherent in the produce is obvious. It’s a pity so many cooks don’t show innate respect for their ingredients or they’re stuck in a time warp of 80s Kiwi cooking when mayonnaise came out of large jars and curry powder was considered truly exotic.
Here’s hoping to a successfully evolving Cook Islands food culture driven by passionate and informed cooks.
Air New Zealand offers the best connections to Rarotonga. Daily flights operate between Auckland and Rarotonga providing easy one-stop connections with all Australian capital cities and all other New Zealand cities with Air New Zealand domestic services. A once weekly service connects Rarotonga to Sydney non-stop each Saturday. A once weekly non-stop service also connects Rarotonga to Los Angeles. Why Air New Zealand doesn’t do a better job promoting the LAX-Rarotonga-Sydney connection is one of those airline quandaries that puzzle me unceasingly. Imagine the holiday opportunities with that route. www.airnewzealand.co.nz
Virgin Pacific flies regularly between Australia and Rarotonga. www.virginaustralia.com
Air Tahiti operates a once weekly service between Papeete and Rarotonga as a code share arrangement with Air Rarotonga. www.airraro.com
A number of charter services connect all other Cook Islands that have an airstrip. It’s fairly easy, though relatively expensive, to get to Atiu, Mauke and Mangaia in the southern group. Penrhyn’s airstrip is over 1,300 kilometres north of Rarotonga. Charter flights to the northern group of islands that have an airstrip are hellishly expensive. Now that’s a ‘bucket list’ goal to bear in mind.[caption id="attachment_2469" align="alignnone" width="448"] Cook Islands paddling[/caption]
‘My Island Home’ by Helen Henry an ex-Kiwi and island resident, widowed to the nation’s first prime minister’s son. Her story is a fascinating one.
‘The Book of PukaPuka’ and ‘Island of Desire’ by American travel writer Robert Dean Frisbie who came to PukaPuka in 1924, married a local woman and stayed to open a general store.
Finally I'd like to say a big 'Kia Orana' to all my Cook Islands friends!
The Opera Bar on the concourse level is packed. Other waterside cafes do a roaring trade. Buskers cash in on crowds ready to contribute to amateur shows, acrobats on one impromptu stage, didgeridoo players on another. The new wing of the Museum of Contemporary Art is full of admirers or bored hangers-on. Packed ferries wash in and out from their prime-positioned wharves, full of commuters and tourists. Seagulls look fat on chips and meat pie crusts.[caption id="attachment_2252" align="alignnone" width="448"] Museum of Contemporary Art new entry.[/caption]
Random pedestrians take time to read the Writer’s Walk bronze plaques commemorating national and international writers embedded into Circular Quay’s pavements. Comparatively speaking, not many onlookers read the plaques but a few curious travellers with obvious literary interests enjoy the potted histories nonetheless. These plaques are my favourite things on Circular Quay, those and the similarly embedded bronze dotted lines marking the extent of Circular Quay’s historic shoreline.
Sydney’s dress circle is looking great these days. (It will look better when the disastrous elevated section of the Cahill Expressway is removed and the train line is finally shoved underground but that’s a multi-billion dollar project waiting on a forward thinking government willing to commit to a budgetary decision beyond the next election date.)[caption id="attachment_2251" align="alignnone" width="448"] Opera House and ferry.[/caption]
Remember Sydney 2000? The Olympics centre of planet universe? Sydney was the epicentre of sport and media attention combined. Juan Antonio Samaranch (former President of the International Olympic Committee, fondly nicknamed by smart-alecky Sydneysiders as ‘One Tomato Sandwich’) famously declared that ‘Syd-erney’ hosted the best Olympics ever. The city was completely and flagrantly abuzz with entertainment and sports-related activity, most of it free. Lanyard wearing volunteers worked the city streets like seasoned tour guides, greeting complete strangers with entreaties of charitable assistance, happy to help whomever whenever. There was an overriding sense that Sydney’s attractions-loaded gravitational pull had finally become globally irresistible.[caption id="attachment_2253" align="alignnone" width="448"] Harbour Bridge towards Lower North Shore.[/caption]
At the coalface, Sydneysiders exclaimed joy at the surfeit of free parking spaces (me amongst them) in the normally car crowded CBD. Public transport worked better than ever, the cleaner trains actually ran on time. Better still, prime harbour side houses could be rented to visitors at unbelievable prices, even enough to fund a luxury trip to Paris for a month while their owners were keen to avoid the Olympian crowds. Already cashed-up Sydneysiders reaped lucrative rewards.
Those were heady times indeed.
Post Olympics, Sydney tourism slumped. Too many 5-star hotels built for 2000’s rush competed for too few visitors. Tourism Sydney and NSW Tourism PR campaigns were roundly criticised for relying on past glories rather than encouraging newly refreshed repeat business. A lack of imagination on the part of tourism bureaucrats was all too apparent.
Only recently has Sydney begun to emerge from its post-Olympics tourism doldrums.
Fast forward to 2013, an O. Winfrey chat show circus came and went. An E. De Generes chat show circus followed. Different audiences (mostly USA based) expressed renewed interest in visiting old ‘Syder-ney’. More cruise ships than ever are stopping in for a night or two. Most good hotels are registering over 80% capacity despite the Aussie dollar’s strength (its value against the USA dollar has slipped—every bit helps) and more visitors from China, India and the Middle East have taken up the slack left by Europeans and Americans frightened off by high prices and their own moribund economies.
Sydney is one of the world’s favourite cities. That fact hasn’t changed. What has changed is an increase in international visitors. Overall numbers are up again.
Apart from taking in the usual suspects: Bridge, Opera House, Circular Quay being the dress circle stars of the show, why not have a look at a few other sides of Sydney unknown to most visitors?[caption id="attachment_2257" align="alignnone" width="448"] Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park.[/caption]
For instance, a short walk south from the Opera House along Macquarie St to Hyde Park takes in some major historical sights: the New South Wales Parliament building, the Australian Mint, the Hyde Park Barracks and the northern entrance to Hyde Park itself with its marvellous Archibald Fountain serving as the bubbly end point to the fig-tree lined walk south to the ANZAC memorial. Statues of Queen Victoria (glowering as usual) and her Prince Consort Albert (attractive as usual) stand at either end of the small Queen’s Square facing the front of renowned convict architect Francis Greenway’s St. James’ Church.[caption id="attachment_2255" align="alignnone" width="298"] Queen Victoria statue in Queen's Square.[/caption]
It’s a quintessential downtown Sydney historical promenade. What most visitors overlook as they stroll along Macquarie St is the statue of Matthew Flinders in front of the State Library of NSW (The Mitchell Library). The first two volumes of Flinders’ journal concerning his circumnavigation of Australia in 1802 are housed within. A small statue of Flinders’ faithful and beloved cat, Trim, rests on the outside sill of a stained glass window of the library behind the much larger statue of the great navigator himself.[caption id="attachment_2254" align="alignnone" width="336"] Statue of Trim, Matthew Flinders' cat in one of Library of NSW's windows.[/caption]
The plaque under Trim’s statue reads: TO THE MEMORY OF TRIM:The best and most illustrious of his race. The most affectionate of friends, faithful of servants, and best of creatures. He made the tour of the globe, and a voyage to Australia, which he circumnavigated, and was ever the delight and pleasure of his fellow voyagers.
Written by Matthew Flinders in memory of his cat Memorial donated by the North Shore Historical Society
I always pause (paws?) to reflect at this particular point in the brief walk along Sydney’s memory lane. Trim was famous amongst Flinders’ crew for his good nature and tenacity.[caption id="attachment_2256" align="alignnone" width="336"] Matthew Flinders statue-Trim is behind him in the window.[/caption]
Here’s a short list of three off-the-beaten-track excursions, all easily managed in a day and readily accessible on public transport:[caption id="attachment_2266" align="alignnone" width="180"] View over Middle Harbour with Spit Bridge.[/caption]
1) 1) Take a bus across the Harbour Bridge along the lower North Shore to The Spit and hire a kayak. Paddle up Middle Harbour past the Roseville Bridge into Garigal National Park to witness a slice of Australia’s largest city from sea level. If you’re lucky, at the northernmost reaches of Middle Harbour the water will run clear as gin and your only company will be kookaburras flitting in and out of surrounding gum forest while mullets leap from the water around the kayak. The city’s hubbub is completely forgotten. As you paddle over a white sandy bottom remember what Sydney once was before urbanisation obliterated the landscape. Be sure to return the hired kayak before the rental shop closes at 6pm. Also pay attention to the tides. A hard paddle back to The Spit from Garigal National Park takes at least three hours if the tide is running against you.[caption id="attachment_2267" align="alignnone" width="163"] Welcome gate at Cabramatta.[/caption]
2) 2) Take the train to Cabramatta, former heroin distribution capital of NSW and now a reformed example of positive multiculturalism in action. The Southeast Asian community here dominates the atmosphere and the lively vibe is infectious. In summer, street vendors sell freshly pressed sugar cane juice served fresh in plastic cups with a squeeze of lime. AUD$2 is the going price. At any time of year, duck or pork sold from various roasting specialists perfume Cabramatta’s laneways while vegetarian fresh rice paper spring rolls pop up in dozens of stalls at about AUD$3 per roll. Vietnamese Pho soup is served in huge bowls for AUD$10, always a bargain. If a better example of urban renewal exists in Australia, please alert the media.[caption id="attachment_2269" align="alignnone" width="171"] Wendy Whiteley's secret garden.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_2268" align="alignnone" width="174"] Kirribilli House Gate.[/caption]
1) 3) Take the ferry to Kirribilli, five minutes across the Harbour from Circular Quay. Walk to Kirribilli House and Admiralty House along the foreshore besides some fairly non-descript apartment blocks to two of the Harbour’s ultimate chic addresses , both grand residences right on Sydney’s Harbour, the former is the Prime Minister’s residence in Sydney, the latter is the Queen of Australia’s residence when she visits Sydney. Entry without prior invitation to either house or their gardens (that’s you visitor!) is prohibited. Loitering at the wrought iron gate entrance is also discouraged but it’s a fun exercise tempting existential fate. Ask the security goons whether or not the PM is at home and be prepared to accept ‘No’ as the answer. Retrace your steps to the other side of the Bridge to the fantastical Art Deco amusement park Luna Park, skirting its northern edge while making your way across Blues Point Road to Wendy Whiteley’s private garden at McMahon’s Point overlooking Lavender Bay near Clark Park. Wendy Whiteley (widow of famous deceased artist Brett Whiteley) created this delightfully simple garden essentially out of a public dumping ground. Her daughter Arkie (who died of cancer at a young age) and husband Brett’s ashes are buried in the park. Artists are naturally encouraged to linger, perhaps to draw, perhaps to paint or write. Follow the shoreline to Balls Head past the Waverton bowls club at the shore’s edge along Berrys Bay to the last remaining bit of original bushland on this part of Sydney Harbour. Follow the track around the headland to search for an ancient indigenous rock carving of a man inside a whale and various middens. Stop to marvel at the view across the water to Darling Harbour. Walk back up Balls Head Road to Bay Road which leads to the Waverton railway station. Board the train back into the city from here, which is less than ten minutes away by train across the Harbour Bridge via North Sydney.
These three easy excursions provide a slice of Sydney life unknown to most visitors while the day trip to Cabramatta in Sydney’s western outskirts offers a glimpse into where the majority of Sydney’s population actually lives.
A house with a harbour view costs on average more than AUD$3,000,000 these days. Only a minority of residents can afford to live on the water. The other two side trips pack a lot of pizzazz into a day, no wonder Sydneysiders dream of living in a house on the Harbour.
But beyond the Harbour’s glittering shores, life in the suburbs has become harder, traffic is worse than ever according to complaints uttered by commuters making the daily trek into and out of town on over-crowded, late-running trains, ferries and buses. The lack of public transport funding is contentious as always, a side of Sydney most international and domestic visitors almost never see.
A journalist friend with whom I once worked (at a local newspaper) told me she thought Sydney was a ‘wicked step-sister of a city’ a nice way of saying it was a bitch of a place in which to live if money is short. That fact hasn’t changed. Sydney is very expensive, even when compared to the average daily living expenses incurred in well known money-gobbling cities such as New York, London, Tokyo or Paris.
For travellers trying to get by on less than AUD$200 per day, staying in the worst flea pit backpacker hostels and eating two take-away meals per day and walking everywhere, it’s possible but not very nice.
A recent acquaintance (originally from New Zealand) calls Sydney ‘Beyond Thunderdome’. Certainly that’s a description which conveys ‘Mad Max’ memories, applicable to Sydney’s public arena appeal.
But as former PM Paul Keating once quipped, ‘If you’re not living in Sydney, you’re just camping out.’
Personally speaking, I like camping out. Having been a resident of Sydney for more than twenty years, I say with hand on heart that it’s not the be-all-to-end-all Australian city but it’s a very nice place to visit.
Tom Neal Tacker visited Sydney as a guest of Swissotel Sydney.
One of Sydney’s better 5-star hotels is the Swissotel. A recent upgrade of its public facilities has provided even more good reasons to enjoy its restaurant and bar. An in-house spa is one of the city’s top pampering palaces.[caption id="attachment_2260" align="alignnone" width="322"] Swissotel Sydney exterior.[/caption]
The upper two floors offer access to the executive lounge, free breakfast and evening drinks plus snacks for a moderate surcharge. The rooms from these two levels boast great views either over the lower Harbour to the Heads or west all the way to the Blue Mountains and the upper Harbour. A large outdoor heated pool and well equipped gymnasium add more value.[caption id="attachment_2259" align="alignnone" width="448"] Swissotel Executive King room.[/caption]
Service is slick and efficient. It’s a very well run establishment, befitting its Swiss heritage, everything works like well... clockwork. The location in Market Street near the corner of George Street is unbeatable. All the city’s major CBD attractions are within an easy walk.
See www.swissotel.com for more information.
Another hotel I like is the Fraser Suites apartment hotel. It’s a sleek modern tower kind of hidden away in a quiet block of Kent Street near Town Hall. I’ve stayed here a few times and appreciated the in-room kitchens, very large rooms (separate bedroom and lounge room with kitchenette) which provide plenty of space in a crowded city. Though Fraser Suites doesn’t offer the same range of amenities as a truly full service hotel, it’s still a treat staying there as sometimes I like the independence that self-catering offers.
Over three nights during this recent visit to ‘Beyond Thunderdome’ I dined at Tetsuya’s, Est and Sepia in that order, (it’s work and somebody has to do it, which is what I tell everyone who asks me). Tetsuya’s is rightly famous. Since the early 90s ‘Tet’s, (as Tetsuya Wakuda is affectionately known to all persons who’ve crossed his gregariously engaging path) restaurant has evolved into a globally recognised temple of gastronomy. However, in my opinion Tetsuya Wakuda’s cooking these days isn’t nearly as cutting edge as it once was. That’s not a bad thing necessarily (maintaining an excellent standard for so many years is laudable and should be respectfully acknowledged) but during a degustation of more than ten courses, three of them were primarily comprised of very simple sashimi. I like superb quality produce as much as any glutton but those three courses out of ten exhibited a lack of imagination that impaired what should have been a feast of inspiration.
The meal I ate at Est was better than Tetsuya’s. Chef/owner Peter Doyle is one of Sydney’s hero chefs, a long-standing favourite of dedicated diners keen on the pursuit of gastronomic prowess who’s been in the hospitality game for decades. He commands great respect from his peers while customers continue to fall in love with his superlative cooking. A dinner at Est is simply sublime. By the way, both Tetsuya’s and Est provide seamless dining experiences. Wine lists are literally works of encyclopaedic art and service is nothing short of flawless.
That being said, Sepia was the restaurant that knocked off my socks and blew my mind simultaneously.[caption id="attachment_2261" align="alignnone" width="448"] Entrance to Sepia restaurant.[/caption]
Hungry sophisticated travellers will be excited by the whole package at Sepia, one of the city’s most stimulating restaurants. Chef/owner Martin Benn is one of those rare geniuses, whose cooking talents display a level of sophistication that should be encouraged and embraced wholeheartedly by all dedicated gastronomes.
Devouring thirteen courses during a degustation of immense expertise, I admit to being in an element I’d like to call real food heaven for all holy gourmet cynical atheists like me.
While our table was being prepared, we sat in comfy leather lounges at the bar while sipping aperitifs. A Lillet Rose on ice for me, a chilled Floc de Gascogne for my partner in dinner crime.
Gracefully escorted into the slightly dark (sepia tones naturally), rather hushed but not unfriendly dining room, we checked out other diners. Fashion victims out for a big night on the town? Tick. Food bloggers snapping pics of plates while texting friends in HK? Tick. Small groups of family friends dining out at the big end of town? Tick. Date night for couples in the throes of infatuation? Tick.
Another Friday night out in Sydney for people interested in food that may provide conversation in and of itself? Most definitely yes.
To start: freshly shucked Pambula Sydney Rock oysters with lime and sake and a glass of Laurent-Perrier ‘Ultra Brut’ Brut Nature. I’m a total sucker for oysters and Champagne so I fell under the Sepia spell right from the get-go.
But wait there’s more...
Sashimi of Big Eye tuna, steamed Japanese omelette, white soy jelly, dashi onion cream, puffed buckwheat, green apple and nori.
A course that could confound anyone given the surfeit of ingredients but actually it was simplicity personified. The omelette almost melted along side the exquisitely fresh fish while all the other factors just melded into the mix like a magic pudding I never wanted to see end. A matching glass of Umenoyado ‘Gin’ Jinmao-Ginjo sake from Nara was a brilliantly chosen accompaniment.
Following was another sashimi course (Tetsuya’s comparisons are inevitable but Sepia’s two sashimi courses were infinitely better executed) of Bonito, flavours of roasted chicken, umeboshi, upland cress, green tea and nori. This course really rocked.
Crisped chicken skin and raw bonito with sour umeboshi and tannic green tea combined to create an umami driven taste sensation. Paired with an Austrian 2011 Furmint from Wenzel in the Burgenland, by then I had fallen into a state of pure culinary kismet.
A single barely cooked Scampi tail was accompanied with sudachi, parsley root, white miso, nori fried potato and white Linaria flowers. Great to look at, better to eat. Meltingly buttery, slightly sweet scampi was infused by the other salty, bitter flavours, the pretty little flowers adding both piquancy and texture all at once. A 2011 Clos Sainte Magdeleine Marsanne-Clairette-Ugni Blanc-Bourboulenc from Cassis in southern France was another gob-smacking wine match.
A Seared Mandagery Venison, boudin noir, chocolate crumb, macadamia nut yoghurt, blackcurrant and sichimi pepper reads like a bizarre dessert horror story but this incredible treatment of excellent quality venison and surprisingly complementary accompaniments was another perfect dish highlighting outstanding kitchen accomplishment, fully realising an ability to draw a clearly defined line between savoury and sweet without erring on one side or the other. The 2006 Dominio de Alauta Tempranillo from the Ribero del Duero was another example of truly inspired wine/food matching.
The Aged Garrotxa goat cheese, sake and goat milk dumplings, celeriac cream, nashi pear and celery matched with a cider from Suffolk (Aspall ‘Draught’) was yet another revelation. I didn’t think I could eat more protein after the venison but I was happy I did. Those dumplings were a tour-de-force.
The chef threw in a special course of his (becoming famous) Sugar ball with finger lime sorbet encased within. We were offered a special Japanese Yuzu liqueur to accompany that incredibly innovative course. Evidently, Benn worked for over three months to bring the perfectly spherical planet of sweet/sour sorbet freshness to fruition.
A Soft-poached meringue, truffle ice cream, truffle and rosemary honey hazelnut praline with malt second dessert followed. The 2011 Royal Tokaji Wine Company ‘Late Harvest’ Furmint-Harslevelu-Sarga Muscotaly matched that particular indulgence, fascinating to sample two wines (one dry the other sweet) made from the primarily Hungarian grape Furmint in the one meal.
We had three additional courses to the set ten course menu. The first were the Pambula oysters, the dumplings were second and the third was compliments of the chef, the sugar ball encasing finger lime sorbet.
Do yourselves a flavour favour: dine at Sepia to witness greatness in action.Sepia restaurant bar at night.[/caption]
For very general information see www.sydney.com for accommodation tips, public transport information and special events specifically pertaining to Sydney.
For comprehensive NSW state tourism information visit: www.visitnsw.com
Newgrange is one of Europe’s most interesting Stone Age passage tombs. A number of tomb mounds mark the surrounding landscape but Newgrange is the largest and most studied. By all means stop for at least an hour at the excellent visitor centre (there’s a decent cafe here too) and read all there is about ancient Ireland in preparation for exploring Newgrange itself. The tumulus’ (mound) history is entirely fascinating after greater understanding of its origin, purpose and importance to early inhabitants is clearly understood.[caption id="attachment_2207" align="alignnone" width="448"] Newgrange tumulus entrance.[/caption]
Over each winter solstice, dawn sunlight pierces into the long tunnel directly to the burial chamber itself, illuminating both the symbolic importance of the site’s position and the construction’s wonderfully precise alignment with the sunrise in conjunction with the shortest day of the year.
A national lottery is conducted annually which allows a lucky twenty or so visitors access to the tumulus for three days: preceding the solstice, the solstice and the day after, each dawn (if weather permits) opening the tumulus’ greater purpose to the lottery winners. The inner burial chamber is quite small. I’m crowded into it with fewer than fifteen other visitors while we take turns exploring the graves’ positions, wall carvings and the impressive architectural design. The inner chamber is completely dry by the way. No water has ever leaked into the inner chamber, not bad for a roof built over 5,000 years ago by craftsmen using rudimentary tools, even more impressive considering Ireland’s wet weather and harsh climate.
From Newgrange I head further north to Carlingford to dine at the Ghan House hotel’s fine restaurant, sampling some of Ireland’s better country cooking at a heritage hotel in this lovely out-of-the-way town on the border. The dining room is comfortably grand, 19th century furnishings, lots of candles, warm service and a dinner far better than I’m used to eating in rural Ireland.
Carlingford isn’t big enough in which to get lost but a derelict castle in prime position overlooking the loch evokes feelings of times lost to history. Signage at this castle is scant, much of it is barred from exploration and local residents have used it as something of a trysting place, condom wrappers tossed into stony corners indicating that a lonely castle conveniently located close to the town centre also has advantages other than links to historical roots.
From Carlingford I head towards County Monaghan, aiming for Hilton Park, a grand estate where I’m booked to spend a night. The GPS provided by the hire car company is absolutely useless. New roads haven’t been programmed into its system and the border area’s previous political tensions have caused some roads to be purposely left unmarked. I’ve been lost for two hours while searching for Hilton Park. Driven almost mad with frustration at the lack of signage, equipped with a GPS programmed with Irish roads that don’t appear to exist, all the while I’m thinking that if I continue to turn left, an entire circuit of the island nation will be complete, finally reaching my start point. Thoughts of returning to Carlingford's lovely countryside pop into mind. Should I abandon ship, ditch the car and get a bus back to Carlingford? Not willing to admit defeat so early in the trip, I head for Clones again, doubling back the way I just came. [caption id="attachment_1590" align="alignnone" width="337"] Carlingford, County Louth on the way to 'The North'.[/caption] The local postmaster in Clones described the way to Hilton Park an hour earlier. 'You can’t miss it,' he says. 'Well, you could miss it but if you’ve gone past the golf course, you have,' he adds laconically. I return to the car, point it to the road I’ve driven down twice before and decide to try again. I turn haphazardly into a driveway marked by a sign half hidden by dense holly. The lettering has faded into total obscurity. I chance it anyway. The postmaster told me it wasn’t easy to spot, despite having twice gone as far as the golf course he instructed me not to go past. I’m ready for anything now. Five kilometres along a winding unsealed driveway, I come face to face with a drop dead gorgeous Georgian mansion, a Eureka moment. [caption id="attachment_2220" align="alignnone" width="259"] First view of Hilton Park.[/caption] While I park the car, already feeling agog with the grandeur of the place, a young man dressed like a county squire strides across the gravel drive that fronts his family home, Hilton Park. Extending his hand in greeting, he says, 'I’m Fred Madden. You must be Tom. So, you’ve found us. It mustn’t have been easy. How was your trip?' I’ve been driving in and out of Ulster, commonly referred to as ‘The North’ since my late morning departure from Carlingford in County Louth, part of the Republic, commonly referred to as ‘The South’, wandering blithely around County Monaghan and now I’m right up against the border again. Ulster’s County Fermanagh is only a few miles away. Road maps are next to useless in much of this apparently unmarked country. From one minute to the next, I’m never sure if I’m in Ulster, ‘The North’ or in the Republic, ‘The South’. The northern corner of county Monaghan has been off the radar for decades, deemed by most travellers as being too close to ‘The Troubles’, therefore potentially unsafe. The lack of visitors is a common complaint I hear often during my days in off-the-beaten track Ireland. I also visit County Leitrim and County Westmeath, two other counties virtually ignored by the majority of travellers. I’ve been led to believe that here is where the ‘real old Ireland’ still exists. Hilton Park has been in Madden’s family since it was built in 1734. Since ‘The Troubles’ finished, business in County Monaghan has increased. Hilton Park has reached the 21st century in a relatively healthy position. [caption id="attachment_2221" align="alignnone" width="275"] My bedroom at Hilton Park.[/caption] Madden’s mother Lucy writes historical essays for the local newspapers and is something of an expert on all things Hilton Park and the nearby town of Clones. Over breakfast she shares her enthusiasm. 'Tyrone Guthrie, the famous critic and theatrical impresario was born just near here. Oscar Wilde’s two half sisters lived near here too.' Placing a pot of her homemade jam in front of me she continues her summary, 'Clones is a wonderful town. You know the director, Neil Jordan of ‘The Crying Game’ among other films? He comes to stay here regularly, calls Clones his microcosm of the world. If it doesn’t work in Clones, it won’t work anywhere else, he says.' Lucy Madden is a raconteur of distinction, a wonderful example of Irish charm and bonhomie. No wonder Jordan enjoys his stays at Hilton Park. Fred Madden shows me around the 600 acre estate. The park and gardens are like a film set. I understand Jordan’s high regard for the place. Expecting to see ladies wearing bonnets and bustles emerge from behind shrubbery at any moment, gossiping dialogue from a Thackeray novel or reciting lines from one of Wilde’s plays, I wonder how this hidden gem has escaped attention for so long, despite ‘The Troubles’. Though my stay at Hilton Park is brief, it is memorable. [caption id="attachment_2205" align="alignnone" width="336"] A small section of Hilton Park's immense gardens.[/caption] Ireland is internationally famous for its literary giants, Yeats, Beckett, Wilde to name just a few. Though famous in Ireland, Patrick Kavanagh’s work is less known though the study of his works is compulsory in Irish schools. 'But I’ve not heard of him before this week,' I explain to Rosaleen Kearney, manager of the Patrick Kavanagh Centre in Iniskeen, County Monaghan. 'You’re not alone Tom,' she says, 'Patrick Kavanagh is not well known outside Ireland, which is a pity as his poetry is as important to us as Yeats.' With volunteer guide Art Agnew and Kearney, I explore the Kavanagh Trail, a route marked as a self-guided tour funded by the local tourism authority. [caption id="attachment_2203" align="alignnone" width="336"] Rosaleen Kearney and Art Agnew at Kavanagh's grave.[/caption] Kearney and Agnew take turns reciting Kavanagh’s lyrical poetry in their softly burring local accents while we visit Kavanagh’s birthplace, the school he attended, the barn where he waltzed at local dances and finally his grave. 'The Monaghan hills are hard country and folk here have always been poor,' Agnew admits sadly. I imagine the land has changed little since Kavanagh was born in Mucker, a collection of houses just a few kilometres from Iniskeen village. Eldest son of a cobbler and farmer of nine acres, Patrick Kavanagh left school aged thirteen to become a cobbler and farmer like his father. What set him apart was his writing, which he did by candlelight in an upstairs room away from the chaos in the family kitchen. In Kavanagh’s own words from his poem simply entitled ‘Monaghan Hills’, 'Monaghan hills, You have made me the sort of man I am, A fellow who can never care a damn For Everestic thrills' Rough country around Iniskeen and Mucker makes or breaks farmers, more often breaking them. [caption id="attachment_2202" align="alignnone" width="362"] Kavanagh's grave.[/caption] From County Monaghan I venture into County Leitrim, another part of Ireland well off the beaten track. This region suffered massive depopulation during the potato famine and the Great Depression of the 1920s. It’s now one of Ireland’s most sparsely populated counties. Wildlife is making a comeback here, fields have been left fallow for decades and birdlife has returned in large numbers. Leitrim Landscapes Guided Walks owner Nuala McNulty covers the county from an environmental perspective. She knows more about the hidden eco-tourism wonders of this region better than anyone. I’ve been walking with her for two hours while the fickle weather takes a turn for the worse. Driving rain prevents us from climbing a nearby hill for its western views over County Sligo to the Atlantic Ocean. Instead we follow a flooded river down a steep valley, past a waterfall, slipping and sliding on smooth stones, exchanging stories about curious characters we’ve met here and elsewhere on our individual travels. McNulty is quick as a whip with an infectious laugh. Just off the path is a tiny shrine devoted to a holy spring, which I’ve overlooked as it’s invisible behind thick shrubbery. McNulty tells me, 'Springs like this one are scattered about the county and were holy even before St Patrick came along to convert us heathens', she explains, dipping her hands into the running water. The open sided shrine is large enough to shelter a small child, no more. [caption id="attachment_2201" align="alignnone" width="336"] Rob and Nuala at sacred spring in North Leitrim.[/caption] From McNulty I learn that Leitrim is a county even the Irish seemed to have forgotten. She adds, 'No one wanted to live here for ages. Not so now. It’s become something of a new age centre with folk who care about the environment, a good place to live now, not mad like Dublin. People are friendly here.' Though I didn’t find Dubliners unfriendly, the attitudinal difference between people here and those in Dublin is noticeable, the capital is frantically busy in comparison to Leitrim’s peaceful calm. I spend a lovely night in Roscommon at Mary Gleeson's Townhouse, the town's best hostelry conveniently located right in the town's centre. Mary and her husband Eammon run an authentic Irish guesthouse. Comfort and hospitality are king while the small hotel's restaurant does a booming trade with locals and visitors alike. [caption id="attachment_2210" align="alignnone" width="259"] Mary Gleesons Townhouse in Roscommon.[/caption] Hospitality like this is rare. Mary tells me, 'You won't be spending an evening on your own will you? Come join us. We're going to a play, 'The Quare Land'. The actors are staying with us. I'm sure you'll like it.' The play is funny and timely, all about Ireland's recent history of land speculation gone mad. We head to the local pub for refreshment afterwards. Eammon insists I sample a broad range of Irish whisky. I can't say no. [caption id="attachment_2211" align="alignnone" width="201"] Mary Gleeson with a serving of Irish stew.[/caption] The following day I meet artist Helen Conneely at the Celtic Roots Studio in Ballinahown, County Westmeath. Within ten minutes Conneely has me hard at work in her studio, sandpaper in hand polishing a piece of oak bog wood approximately 5,000 years old. From trekking through sodden forests one day to manual labour in a hot workshop the next, this Irish trip has become seriously disjointed. I drank an excess of Irish whiskey the night before arriving late (yet again because I’m lost) at the Celtic Roots Studio and I suspect Conneely has little sympathy for my aching head. 'You’re doing okay with that piece, just rub it a bit harder with this paper and I’ll get some olive oil for you to finish it with,' she says. 'Oh, that looks nice,' she comments, 'Don’t give up your day job though.' [caption id="attachment_2212" align="alignnone" width="276"] Celtic Roots Studio exterior.[/caption] Bog wood is akin to Irish gold. Petrified forests of oak, yew and Scot’s pine sourced underneath ancient blanket bogs are among Ireland’s most important geological treasures. Little authentic bog land still exists. Much of it has for centuries been mined for peat. Conneely explains that, 'Irish craftwork and jewellery are making a comeback due to bog wood. I’ve been working with it for years, as you can see,' she shows me a few of her artfully crafted pieces ranging from necklaces and earrings to lamps and objets d’art, 'and it’s grand to see a part of our heritage come to life again.' In no small part due to her efforts I believe. [caption id="attachment_2213" align="alignnone" width="275"] Helen Conneely of Celtic Roots Studio.[/caption] I make a side trip to Mossfield Organic farm to meet its owners Ralph and Lorraine Haslam, makers of Ireland's finest hard cheese. Ralph invites me on a tour of his highland property, located almost exactly in the geographical heart of Ireland in West Offaly County approximately ten kilometres from Birr. We meet in Birr before so I can follow Ralph to Mossfield farm. Without Ralph's help I never would have found his farm. After over a week in rural Ireland, I've learnt the hard way to rely on local guidance. [caption id="attachment_2208" align="alignnone" width="345"] Ralph Haslam with a few of his prized cows.[/caption] Mossfield cheese is superb. As Ralph explains, 'It's all about the milk and happy cows.' We sample from a number of aged rounds, picking one out of five as the best of a lot. 'You've helped me choose the cheese that's being served for a state banquet during Queen Elizabeth's upcoming visit. I hope she likes it, if not I'm blaming you.' We have a laugh and eat some more delicious cheese. Ralph gives me a few delicately wrapped chunks to take away, typical Irish hospitality. At the farm gate he instructs, 'Turn right at the crossing, go to the next village, turn left and you'll be at the main road. The way to Cashel is marked there.' I never find that main road and it doesn't exist on the GPS either but I do enjoy munching on the cheese when I pull the car over to a wayside to check my useless map once again. [caption id="attachment_2209" align="alignnone" width="274"] Some of Mossfield's prize cheeses.[/caption] My off-beat journey reveals much about the Irish, some of it stereotypical. Is there another European country populated by such colloquial and amiable citizens as Ireland? It’s a country of surprises too. The conflict in the North has taken its emotional and physical toll on many, dour dispositions alternate with ironic humour for good reason, life has been tough here for a very long time. Patrick Kavanagh should have a final say on this peculiarly Irish contrast of moods, from ‘Stony Grey Soil’: ‘O stony grey soil of Monaghan, The laugh from my love you thieved; You took the gay child of my passion And gave me your clod-conceived’ Tom Neal Tacker travelled courtesy of Thai Airways, Aer Lingus and Failte Ireland, the National Tourism Development Authority. Naked Facts: Naked Routes: Thai Airways flies to Europe via Bangkok from most Australian mainland cities. See www.thaiairways.com for details and bookings. Aer Lingus has a comprehensive network connecting Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports to many European and North American cities linked to Thai Airways’ network. See www.aerlingus.com for details and bookings. Naked Sleeps: Ghan House hotel in picturesque Carlingford, County Louth, is a real gem. Great food in a graciously restored 19th century boutique hotel makes tiny Carlingford a real gourmet's destination. For more information and seasonal special deals, see www.ghanhouse.com