How To Fiesta In Alicante


Alicante isn’t a city that’s known for its looks; nor is it a place that I would call ‘pretty’. My anticipation for a picturesque, cute Spanish old town was quickly let down once I realized it was run amok with nightclubs, drunken hen do’s and ugly, decrepit buildings. In fact, you might be wondering what’s so great about this typical English holiday destination with little to see aside from the sea. A fiesta with the locals of course!

As the locals do at Mercado Central, Alicante

As the locals do at Mercado Central, Alicante

Alicante is a small city on the Costa Blanca with a great foodie scene at a fraction of the cost of the larger tourist cities like Barcelona and Madrid. While aside from the monstrous Moorish Castillo de Santa Barbara that towers over the popular beach Playa del Postiguet, there aren’t many massive tourist sites to see (although I do recommend making the time for this one and it’s stunning coastal views). That’s okay though when it’s sunny year-round, there’s plenty of paellas to keep you full (try Dársena on the waterfront) and there’s, of course, a party around every corner.

Where to fiesta in Alicante:

Hogueras de San Juan: We witnessed the start of the summer’s most important festival, the celebration of the arrival of the summer solstice. We were lucky to see the Artistic Fiesta Lights in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento and the parade of natives dressed in traditional garments, impressively some sporting large paper mâché heads whilst on stilts. Unfortunately, we missed the best bit of the festival, on the 24th of June is the Night of Burning or “Noche de la Cremà”, when 200 large satirical paper mâché statues are lit on fire.

Hogueras de San Juan

Hogueras de San Juan

Mercado Central: On a Saturday afternoon locals gather around midday at the epicenter of the city, the central market. After roaming the meat, cheese, fruit, veg, and fish stalls, a common shopping place for regulars (don’t forget to hold your nose from the stench), everyone orders a small plate of pre-cut Iberico Jamon from one of the vendors, grabs an unlabeled beer from the booze stall, and stands in the sun outside catching up with friends before starting their Saturday night. We too took part in the tradition which was one of the highlights of our trip, chatting with amicable locals to the sound of chants for the forthcoming football match and trying different varieties of Spanish ham and cheese…and of course, beer.

Choosing our Jamon platter in Mercado Central

Choosing our Jamon platter in Mercado Central

Devouring Jamon in Mercado Central in Cambridge Graduation (Dr!) hat!

Devouring Jamon in Mercado Central in Cambridge Graduation (Dr!) hat!

Carrer Castanos: If you like generously free poured gin and tonics in large round glasses, shisha’s and salsa dancing at any hour of the day, this is your spot. Bar Ten10 offers all of the above, and we couldn’t help ourselves to a midafternoon boogie after indulging a few too many beers outside Mercado Central. For a safer option, take a turn on Calle San Francisco for a variety of cute tapas restaurants, sit alfresco and enjoy fresh squid, fried green peppers and so much more. El Rebujito Taperia was highly recommended, although the squid didn’t live up to its expectations.

Jules with Al Fonso and Davide

Jules with Al Fonso and Davide

Football: The Champions League Final 2017 took place whilst we were in town, Real Madrid vs. Juventus, and without a question, the city supported their famous neighbor Madrid. Pubs and tabernas put their TV’s outside, as everyone under the sun gathered to witness the epic match. We were lucky to find a spot to sip Aperol spritz perched on the ledge outside Amapola Pub, to observe the locals go nuts in the frenzy watching Real Madrid defend their UEFA Champions League title. Even better, next door, Taberna San Pascual served the best aubergine lasagna and Spanish meatballs; one of our best meals in the city.

Champions League Final at Amapola Pub

Champions League Final at Amapola Pub

Il Barrio: If you’re 18 and want to party, Il Barrio on a Friday and Saturday night is where it happens. Who would have thought we were too old for it? The youngins poured onto the streets out from upbeat discotheques to rock metal clubs. Instead, we chose to dance our hearts out at Havana Club, one of the few places that played both Spanish and Top 20 English-speaking dance beats. For a few hours, we were the only ones on the dance floor, sangria in hand, rocking out as if we were anywhere in the world. Plus, if you venture during the day there’s always spots like La Tasca del Barrio to keep you busy with their killer tapas and wine selection.

Jamon from La Tasca del Barrio

Jamon from La Tasca del Barrio

So there you have it! If it’s simply the sun, sangria and tapas you are seeking, shared with friendly locals and a stunning coastline, leave your tourist map at home because you’re still in for a treat. In fact, there are no hawkers to chase you down, some even need to go find their English speaking friend to help. And whilst we were slightly off season, I can’t comment on the mega beach and pool parties that sculpt the classic summer sesh. So would I go back? Likely not, but for a quick and cheap holiday in the sun I certainly don’t regret going either.

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Languedoc wine region

A Rosé Holiday in Montpellier


The student-centric city of Montpellier is not what one assumes when you say you’re jetting off to the south of France. Typically, the exotic beaches of the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera), Nice, Cannes and Saint-Tropez fit the bill but for me and my crew, a short jaunt to the 8th largest city in France to sip rosé in the sun is just what the doctor ordered.

To start, Montpellier is perfectly located to get a quick taste of the fabulous Languedoc wine route. We started off with a half-day tour led by the friendly and knowledgeable Karina from Montpellier Wine Tours to visit two medieval, family-owned estates.

Montpellier Wine TourSet at the base of Pic Saint-Loup, Château La Roque’s entire biodynamic selection was perfect on the palate and we couldn’t escape without two bottles of Château La Roque Rosé 2015 in tow. Followed by Château de Lascaux, sitting amongst the dated stone walls in an old monastery, set the scene perfectly for our second tasting.

Château La Roque VineyardA short train ride from the city is the unpretentious colorful port town of Sète. Narrow canals create a maze around the old town, surprisingly busy for a Sunday when the rest of France shuts down. Families enjoyed ice-creams, as we parked ourselves in front of the foodie mecca Les Halles, to sip more rosé in the sun to the sound of locals playing music in the street out front.

Languedoc coastAfter a scenic walk along the Languedoc coast, we discovered a small, quiet beach. It was an ideal and unsuspecting place to grab a baguette, some cured ham and cheese to picnic, coupled with a light, refreshing rosé in the scorching heat. On our way back to town, it was only necessary to sit along the canal to soak up the last of the day’s sun and try the big fat locally farmed oysters, king prawns and mussels.

Seafood platter in SèteThe best part of Montpellier is not only the short 14k proximity to a stunning coastline but cycling there! A paved path with fit runners, wild horses and fishermen hug the lush green river Lez, topped with Lilly pads and flamingos and lined with bright purple, yellow and white flowers mixed with bright red poppies. We let our skirts flow with the wind as we rode hired bikes along the pathway to its mouth Palavas-les-Flots, and stopped along the way for yet again another indulging picnic and bottle of rosé to reward ourselves for the day’s efforts.

Cycling to Palavas-les-Flots

Montpellier wild horsesMontpellier is an interesting city for sure. A friend asked why go? There’s nothing there, he said. But if you like great wine, fresh seafood and fantastic weather, there’s nothing not to like. It’s a quirky and charming place, tattoo and piercing shops nestle up next to century-old buildings; student friendly cheap eats, kabab and bagel shops rival Michelin recommended bistros while street performers, hippies and homeless dogs roam the streets.

Place de la Comédie“Summer is for tourists, wine country is for locals,” Karina said. And I’d like to pretend just for a weekend I was both. Even better, Montpellier turned Sophie from a rosé sceptic to a convert. Nothing beats a rosé holiday!

We loved:
Glouglou: A cute wine bar with a large range of taste-to-pour varietals. The glouglou platter of oysters, salmon, cured ham, cheese and foie gras was a perfect snack to share post-wine tasting.

glouglouThym Et Romarin: An awesome recommendation from Karina, we had our favorite meal in town here with excellent service by Jean. The confit duck and baked camembert were a dream.

The Beehive Pub: Set in a charming square where local townsfolk enjoy a beer at any time of day, the selection of over 40 whiskies gave us no reason to apologize for enjoying a few post-dinner aperitifs at an English pub in France (gasp!).

Le Pré Vert: This beautiful brunch location has the most enormous, delicious salads. Think goat cheese on toast with orange slices and almonds; smoked salmon and trout with mixed vegetables; or pesto chicken and fresh mozzarella.

Grand Hotel du Midi:  Just on the cusp of the old town, this funky contemporary hotel was perfectly situated in buzzing Place de la Comédie in the heart of the city. Service was great, free-Wi-Fi, a friendly bar with a great selection and small balconies to enjoy the morning sun.

Grand Hotel du Midi

 

Pintxos Fever in San Sebastián ​


I must have gained 10 lbs at least. Pintxos for breakfast, pintxos for lunch and more pintxos for dinner. I’m not complaining though. I certainly would call my first visit to San Sebastián in Basque Country Spain a success.

Pintxos, San Sebastian

Pintxos, San Sebastian

Pintxos are sort of a form of tapas, bite-sized snacks typically served on a small piece of crusty bread in northern Spain. It’s common ground for both locals and tourists to stand at the bar, napkins thrown on the floor, as you help yourself from wooden boards sitting out on the countertop with everything from Jamon (cured Spanish ham), gambas (shrimp), anchovies, croquettes, imitation crab meat and goats cheese to some really interesting and unique ones, each place having its own specialty and recipes. They are best paired with a local vino tinto (red wine) from neighboring Rioja or a garagardo (Basque for beer).

Some places are really good at the honor system and keep track of what you’ve taken while you munch away, while others you must first show your plate to the bartender then pay before taking a seat. Once we finally arrived in the pintxos capital of the world San Sebastián it was non-stop snacking.

I met my Australian bestie Nidya in the industrial port city of Bilbao, as it was an easy place to sync up. I was just a short flight from London but Nidya made the long journey from Brisbane to Singapore to Zurich then finally Bilbao. Hotel Abando was perfectly situated for our one night stop off. It gave us an opportunity to catch up and get our first taste of the famed Basque delicacy of pintxos at notorious Café Iruña, then a few others along Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea, a foodie’s dream street, before making the hour journey north the following morning.

Nidya and Lisa selfie at Pintxos bar on Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea

Nidya and Lisa selfie at Pintxos bar on Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea

In Basque they speak their own language Euskal Herria so Nidya’s native Spanish from growing up in Peru didn’t necessarily always get us far. She even admitted it’s not what it used to be as it’s now more of a form of Span-glish, but it still was a big help which defaulted her the role of interpreter at times.

Pension Goiko, in the heart of the compact streets of Old Town (Parte Viaje), San Sebastian was a cross between a hostel and budget hotel suitable for both backpackers and couples. The location was unquestionable. The beach was just a short stroll away as well. One thing that didn’t go unnoticed is the noise from the alcohol-fuelled night owls who filled the streets till the early morning. I’d argue however that you would likely get the same problem anywhere in Old Town so just bring ear plugs and enjoy being in the thick of it.

Unfortunately it rained all weekend but we still managed a walk along the beach and through the picturesque port. We were delighted to come across  fresh oysters in the middle of yet another rain storm, but we weren’t too fussed as it was a great excuse to escape the cold, wet weather. I can only imagine how beautiful the sea would look on a sunny day as the town is known as a surfer’s paradise.

The city was a lot larger than I imagined, with Old Town, two beaches, and the local neighborhoods, there was plenty to do. Known for it’s Michelin starred restaurants, we couldn’t get in so last minute so we stuck to the narrow cobblestone streets of Old Town. My favorite pintxos bars were La Cepa for their melt in your mouth Jamon – seriously it was the most magical and sensory thing I’ve ever eaten; Casa Alcalde for their house vino tinto, and Nagusia Lau for their great pintxos selection including morcilla and fresh octopus. Other popular spots include Taberna Gandarias, La Cuchara de San Telmo, and Bar Nestor although we were so caught up we never made it to those.

San Sebastián Old Town

San Sebastián Old Town

Atari was the real deal when it came to a more formal dinner. Ordering off their raciones (small portions) menu we stuffed ourselves with beef cheek, local fish of hake, and squid with black squid ink. All the tables were fully booked ahead but we were lucky one came free just as we arrived. Even better, the bar turns into one of the hottest after dinner spots in town, as both locals and tourists take their Aperol spritz on to the steps of neighboring church Iglesia de Santa Maria to mingle under the stars.

When the rain finally cleared the following day we stumbled across Mercado de la Bretxa on the cusp of Old Town. On Saturdays the fruit and produce vendors are out, replaced by craftsman on Sundays. Luckily for us, there was a fundraiser taking place for a few hours that we passed by with just chance. We watched a gastronomic cook-off on one side of the market, amateur chefs competing on who makes the best salsa-verde. On the other side, they were dishing out local beer Keller accompanied by merluza (fresh hake fish, lightly battered and fried). A local informed us this was the real deal in terms of authenticity, as two seconds later a small marching band formed, strumming and blowing their horns to traditional Basque songs. 

 

As the San Sebastián Film Festival was on that weekend it made for some interesting additional fun. Later that afternoon our noses lead us to the Japanese pop up Cinema Caravan. We sat out on the wet stone steps of a schoolyard sipping sake and eating takoyaki (fried octopus balls) while watching a video installation against the old walls and jamming along to the DJ set. Later that night while sipping Basque craft beer we chatted to Bertrand from Bordeaux. He was in town for the film festival and gave Nidya some insider tips for her next stop in Barcelona while I sat trying to make sense of his broken english, Spanish with a french accent, and Nidya’s translations.

Port of San Sebastian

Port of San Sebastian

Our luck would have it that on our final day the sun finally came out! It gave us the perfect reason to walk off all our pintxos calories as we hiked to the top of Monte Urgell to witness the famed Statue of Jesus, and stunning views over the sea.

So the biggest question remains, when can I go back?

 

What I Learned in Malta


Blue lagoon, Comino Island, MaltaStepping off of the plane at midnight to 75 degree weather was a welcoming change to this dreary London summer. “Ah, it smells like I’m going to get tan!” I claimed with confidence after feeling the heat; taking in that unmistakable holiday feeling you get in the Mediterranean climate.

So here we were in Malta, 3 work mates on a mission for sun, food and an escape from city living. The funny thing is none of us knew anything about Malta. I naturally read the guidebook in advance but somehow still completely underestimated the small island between Sicily and Africa.

That’s the key difference. Yes it’s an island but it’s also an entire country! Naively I assumed the whole thing was walkable and hopping from each point of interest would be a breeze. Oh how wrong I was, but luckily the touristy hop on/hop off bus became both our saving grace and best friend.

Gozo Sightseeing Bus

Gozo Sightseeing Bus

As we sat on the top of the bus in our bikinis soaking up the rays we were immediately wowed by the ancient city of Valetta, stopping off to tour through the “Kings Landing” of the show Game of Thrones lookalike for a wander and to sip a few of our new drink of choice, Aperol Spritz!

The old stone walls, reminiscent of the footprint England left up until 1964 when Malta gained independence was obvious, but countered by the magnificently clear blue bays that appeared around every corner you’d turn. Like stepping back in time,  I questioned the entire time if this is what Sicily really is like. Gelato shops filled the quiet streets but on the flip side English is the second and most commonly spoken language.

Gelateria, Malta

Gelateria, Malta

We stayed in the posh bit though, Saint Julian’s Bay. It was magnificent! The Cavalieri Art Hotel was perfect for our needs; high end and trendy yet not over priced, with a large saltwater pool overlooking the bay with access to hop right into the salty sea, beautiful restaurants on our doorstep and accessible to the nightlife in Paceville, which we quickly learned our first night was a MUCH younger crowd.

Cavalieri Art Hotel

Cavalieri Art Hotel

We grew impatient with the self-termed “Maltese minute” whilst sailing with Supreme Cruises to the famed jewel the Blue Lagoon off of the small neighbouring island of Comino. Beautiful but so overcrowded and over priced, the best move we made was paying a fiver for a ride to Santa Marija Bay, a small secluded beach on the far side of the island which provided tranquillity with local beers, sun chairs and a clear inlet to swim in. Even better, a small tin shack owned by tat-bearing hippies served great homemade sandwiches on Maltese bread to keep us satisfied.

Blue Lagoon, Comino Island

Blue Lagoon, Comino Island

At night after a few Aperol Spritz sundowners (spritz o’clock) we’d be in search for the best meal in town, be it fresh fish in the seaside fishing village of Marsaxlokk, Italian pastas, or the local delicacy of rabbit. Dining at Piccolo Padre was by far our best meal. With a stunning view over St Julian’s Bay, we sat on the balcony of an old stone farmhouse with weathered blue shutters, now termed “Penny’s House” in her desire to live there one day, listening to the water lapping and sharing fresh Gorgonzola and salmon dips before divulging in the famed rabbit. Sophie was served the lung and therefore it was only polite for us to try a bit of the tiny soft and rich mush. It was the best service we had yet.

And then I fell in love with Gozo. A desolate place, dry, simple and quiet. The farthest of the 3 islands, vineyards grow in the dry dirt and cactus border the dusty roads.

It was surreal walking the empty streets in the scorching heat. So quiet the only sound was our flip flops against the pavement, stopping only to try some fresh fruit or pick a cactus flower. The mussels at Ta’ Pennellu in the picturesque seaside town of Marsalforn where we stopped for lunch were the best I’ve ever had.

3 full days just wasn’t nearly enough time. We did so much, yet were never rushed at all and felt totally chilled. Luckily I was travelling with a stellar group of girls for our first time. Sun sisters! Happy to soak up the rays and up for anything, be it a glass of local wine at 2 am (and hopelessly trying a trick in the hotel room to open the bottle with a shoe and key), to taking the long walk home to hear canons go off for the neighbouring fair (fate), or sharing a shisha at night, a nod to the Arabic influence. Because why not, we’re on holidays after all.

Talofa Beautiful Samoa


Did you know that Duane “The Rock” Johnson is Samoan? I didn’t but then again, I’ll never forget it, as the locals in Samoa are never too shy to remind you.

Samoa is magical. A far-far away place likely the most remote I’ve been to. Flights are infrequent and limited to Brisbane, Sydney, Auckland, Fiji or Hawaii. And that’s hard even if you live on that side of the world! But imagine the jetlag traveling there from Europe or the east coast of the US? Luckily for Steph and I it was only about 3.5 hours from Auckland.

I hadn’t witnessed anywhere as untouched and desolate anywhere before. Samoa is like a terrarium. It’s lush and green, simple and natural on one hand and then on the other you’ve got the mist of the sea, the turquoise landscape of the Pacific Ocean.

Local Samoan house on Upulou

Local Samoan house on Upulou

Each year traveling over Easter holidays to the South Pacific there is always a risk of cyclones or other natural disasters. Two out of the last five years I had to cancel trips to Fiji and Vanuatu last minute, but yet again, I took another gamble with booking a flight to Samoa this year. No regrets here.

“Talofa”, Captain Pati of Saletoga Sands greeted us at Apia International Airport with a huge smile and a fresh coconut for each of us. That was the beginning of my new found appreciation for fresh coconuts, and Samoans of course. As his wife sat silently in the passenger seat, chatty Pati educated us the entire hour to our remote resort on the far side of the island. We learned about Samoan customs, key phrases, and free things to do at the resort; but most importantly we learned about Duane “The Rock” Johnson.

Our beach front ‘fala’ was just what we pictured for our 3-day relaxation escape from reality. We were given a complimentary sandwich and a foot massage voucher on arrival, shown our private outside rainfall shower, and were grateful of a full menu that didn’t rely on meal times and a cheesy buffet.

Beachfront fala at Saletoga Sandsa

Steph at our Beachfront fala at Saletoga Sandsa

Waking up to the ocean lapping outside our hut with a strong sea breeze in the air, we spent time gazing out to sea on our ocean front recliners, kayaking and stand up paddle boarding in the afternoons, then doing water aerobics which gave us an excuse to go to happy hour in the swim up bar and get messages in the spa.

Stand up paddle boarding, Saletoga Sands, Samoa

Steph stand up paddle boarding, Saletoga Sands, Samoa

As I lay with my book staring out at the overwhelmingly surreal landscape, towering palm trees provided shade from the blistering heat and staff with hibiscus in their ears kept the resort pristine, I finally felt truly relaxed and content.  This was just what I needed.

On the second day I received my one month valid Samoan drivers license. Sounds scary as I properly haven’t driven in too many years but I was confident in the fact that there were only about 3 roads on the entire island. This isn’t the type of island either where there are tourists everywhere driving around causing a havoc of holiday making, this is Samoa and literally the only people who are around are the locals, dogs and wild pigs roaming alongside the road.

 

I never thought I would said my best day would be anything other than lying in the sun, but our afternoon adventuring around the island was something I’d recommend to any visitor.

Church on Upulou, Samoa

Church on Upulou, Samoa

As we left the resort and skittishly laughed over the unkempt, bumpy road, we were in awe at how lush the landscape was. Now we properly were shown why there was a reason to go beyond our 4-star resort. Around each bend came a new small town. The locals walked alongside the road, played soccer in their front gardens, or sat in their open air, windowless houses going about their daily lives. We witnessed so much from a simple car window.

But we got out outside exploring too. We visited a Togitogiga Waterfall in O Le Pupu Pue National Park; we walked along the beach where true backpackers slept amongst the stars in basic falas; and I wished we did it, even just for one night.

Togitogiga Waterfall

Togitogiga Waterfall

As things caught our eye I’d simply pull over to snap a picture – of churches, colourful houses, the memorising ocean and neighbouring islands and even the chickens that slowly crossed the road. At one point two wild horses began galloping at our car, so I stopped, screamed, then laughed harder than I had in such a long time. Only in Samoa.

I have a confession though. There was one thing that brought me to Samoa and it was Tu Sua Trench.

Tu Sua Trench

Tu Sua Trench

But at first it wasn’t what I expected. We turned down a not well marked gravel road to a simple car park with the ocean not too far off in the distance. We paid our 20 tala entry fee then were standing in the middle of manicured lawns, floral gardens and long steps down overlooking the rocky ocean cliffs. But then I saw it!

A massive whole in the ground of green. Tu Sua literally means giant swimming hole and is definitely the most unique natural wonder I’ve experienced. A collapsed volcanic lava hole, this is now Samoa’s most famous tourist attraction and rightfully so.

Steph and I were lucky though, it was the end of the day and there were only a few people left swimming in the hole. We missed the daily resort tours and school children. But first, we had to get down the 30 meter long ladder and that was scarier than I ever imaged it would be.

So there was Steph, floating in the waters below as I snapped a few pics and stood at the top of the ladder yelling down that I was unsure if I could do it. Of course I would though, this was my ultimate Samoan dream. I clung to each wrung of the ladder, holding on so tight, carefully stepping down to feel my own weight before letting go. This was a serious task and I’m surprised more people aren’t injured. Or maybe they are.

I finally got to the bottom and reached the dock, took one look down and all the sudden the gap between the water and dock seemed a lot deeper than it looked above. I was scared again. Eyes closed, nose held I jumped into the warm sea water to greet my friend.

We were lucky as a few minutes later the last group left and there we were, just Steph and I floating around in the middle of a volcanic crater the colour of jade. I couldn’t help but smile with glee – it was in the very thing I had shown my friends photos of in the weeks leading up to my trip, and it looked just like the pictures despite some being skeptical it actually would! Even more so as when we left we took one final picture from above, when it was quiet and still and all of the visitors were gone for the day.

To Sua Ocean Trench empty

To Sua Ocean Trench empty

On our last afternoon we moved on to Aggie Greys, a Sheraton resort less than 5 minutes from the airport. I was overwhelming surprised. This was by far the best view we’ve had our whole time in Samoa! The perks are limited to the view and proximity to the airport as there is the drawback of it’s nature being family friendly, large and over priced. In the end though it did the trick for a night but I’d recommend exploring the island further for longer stays.

Aggie Greys, Samoa

Aggie Greys, Samoa

One things for sure, Samoa is the place to go before it’s a “thing”. Everyone smiles and waves, it’s so peaceful and untouched and the remoteness speaks for itself, let’s hope it stays that way.

 

 

Twelve Apostles

Adventuring the Great Ocean Road


“Iconic Australia,” they say. “Car stopping scenery,” they’ve boasted. “Breathtaking natural wonders,” I read.

And it’s all true. The 243-kilometer stretch of road along Victoria’s Southeast coast is certainly to be admired. Even better, as a first timer I learned that what I like to lazily refer to as the GOR (Great Ocean Road) is the world’s longest war memorial; built from 1919 to 1932 in remembrance of those who died in WWI by it’s own returning soldiers.

Just like them we had a plan. Luckily though we averaged more than 3 kilometers a month. Leaving early on a Saturday morning we took the highway coupled with some back roads and traveled inland for about 4 hours directly to Warrnambool, the largest city along the Road just near its start. From there, we slowly made our way along the coast back toward Melbourne while seeing what was on offer.

Great Ocean Roadtrip

Great Ocean Roadtrip

And as far as Warrnambool is concerned I’ll tell you what’s on offer. Kermond’s Hamburgers is its biggest claim to fame and rightfully so! This old-school joint, still serving thick malted milkshakes in white aprons, was packed to the rafters. They keep the menu simple: burger, fried onions and bun. Customize it with normal stuff: tomatoes, lettuce, cheese or Aussie add-ons i.e. fried egg, beetroot, mayo. “Every bite of that vinegar jalapeno was like heaven in my mouth,” my Aussie travel companion slash foodie Nidya, slurred with her last bite.

We left excited to officially start our GOR journey but were quickly disappointed once we entered Allansford Cheese World. With a name such as Cheese World they set pretty high expectations. I mean, we practically did a 180 to get there as one would assume according to their advertising that there would be a monumental amount of cheese coupled with delicate wine tasting. What we experienced though was a service station, fast-food restaurant, Yellowtail retailer and tourist shop rolled into one. In the back, in the small room labeled Cheese, we were resurrected by delectable aged cheddars and somehow walked away with a varietal of 5 hefty wedges to consume over the weekend.

Cheese World

Cheese World

We traveled on and just as we began to smell the salty sea air and the coast came into view the sky turned overcast and it began to drizzle. We pulled off at the first few scenic lookouts to get some early snaps in a foggy view of the cerulean ocean contrasted against amazing limestone formations. I was starting to panic that my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to snap the much anticipated – the whole reason we drove for hours and hours – this is not really happening I’m sure it will clear up any second – no really, is it seriously raining – iconic rock formations would be ruined by fowl weather.

Finally we reached the holy grail of Port Campbell, home to the famed Twelve Apostles (now actually ten) and “heart of the Great Ocean Road”. The tourist buses lined the parking lot and the selfie sticks were endless. I was thankful that I canceled the tour I booked six months ago and was here on my terms, or at least in a small group of intimate friends thanks to Wes’ amazing patience and driving skills.

But we were fast about it while still taking it all in. My head unknowingly blocked endless selfies and my hair whipped against my face causing a uni-brow in nearly every picture. Just as we were about to depart and began walking away the clouds cleared and the sun shimmered causing the right light on the striking water. It was stunning. Camera out, I finally got my shots. We could conclusively rest for the evening.

In Apollo Bay, our 4-bed lofted studio at Coastal Motel offered the right mix of comfort and location just across from the beach and walking distance to all of the charming restaurants and shops in town. Even better, we had a heap of cheese to consume along with boutique wine and beers we brought with us. In fact, the week prior I had just won a case of 14% (ABV) Jumping the Shark (Hungarian oak barrel-aged saffron’d imperial red ale aka intense) from Melbourne craft brewers Moon Dog and needed a team to consume them with. The Fonz couldn’t have done it alone either.

Sunday morning we were back on the road heading inland to explore Great Otway National Park and the Otway Fly Treetop Adventures. Word to the wise, the winding, twisting, I-was-near-vomiting curves of the road to get there are to be cautioned about. But for real, my window was rolled down and my head was hanging out like a fatigued dog. $25 is a steep fare to walk on steel structures at the top of some trees and better value if you opted for their zip lining tours albeit for a much heftier price. We proudly boasted that between four of us we had zip lined in South Africa, Peru, and Laos so gave that a pass. But at 25 meters above the ground, the lush rainforest and distinct natural fauna made for a unique walk and we had no regrets for the experience, despite us nauseatingly needing to snake back the way we came once in the car.

Further along the coast sat the most amazing pub in the small town of Wye River. Wye Beach Hotel is more than just a charismatic beachfront bar and restaurant. Its exquisite food, coupled with an unexpected local beer selection and epicurean wine list was remarkable. For a true quiet holiday off the grid I’d recommend staying at one of the small hillside lodges. We closed our evening off with a curry back at local yet upmarket Apollo Bay Hotel before our final stretch home the following day.

Some of the best and curviest parts of the drive are around the quintessential beach town of Lorne. Shopping, restaurants, bars and beach – this popular spot with Melbournians was very busy on the sunny Monday. Luckily we were able to snag a table for breakfast at Lorne Beach Pavilion overlooking the beautiful sea to the sweet sound of children running and crying everywhere. Full on avocado smash, we parked ourselves at the edge of the sand and took in a few rays before continuing on and passing under the famed Great Ocean Road sign.

Now here’s the best part of coming home. We missed out, or actually intentionally avoided the popular seaside towns of Anglesea, Torquay, Jan Juc and others on our way back to the city in order to side track to the Bellarine Peninsula just outside of Geelong.

Terindah Estate and Jack Rabbit Vineyard share both a driveway and the coastline offering picturesque backdrops of vine against sea to sip against yet are two separate wineries. Applause to Will at Terindah for an exquisite presentation of their wines and scoring us a seat in the fully booked out restaurant to taste beautiful kangaroo, dory and lamb. Terindah was an all around standout! Their Chardonnay soft and buttery, Pinot Gris and Sauv Blanc surprisingly untraditional and their Shiraz/Viognier and Pinot Noir no brainers. I bought them all and want to come back again and again and again. So I will…

Terindah Estate Group Shot

Terindah Estate Group Shot

Christmas in South Australia


Port Neill Bay

My first Christmas in Australia, what can I say. Simply put I was sold on the promise I was going to shear a sheep.

Christmas away from home will never replace Christmas as I know it, nor should it try to.  But at a minimum this Christmas gave me insight into a new Australia. I wanted to avoid the feeling of Christmas but in the end I walked away with more than I could have anticipated.

I flew to South Australia the evening before Christmas Eve to spend the holidays with my flat mate Wes and his family. All I knew about where I was going is that I would first fly the hour to Adelaide, then get on a small commuter plane and after arriving in Port Lincoln drive another hour north. Tell that to any Australian and they nod, “ah the middle of nowhere”.

Peering out of the window before landing in the Eyre Peninsula, farmland stretched for hundreds of miles then hit the sea. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the contrast of country and sea smashed against each other. I started picturing mermaid sheep.  Mer-sheep? But once I arrived I was greeted with such gracious hospitality that didn’t stop until I boarded the plane back to Melbourne.

Rockeby Farm Pantry

Rockeby Farm Pantry

I spent that first evening on Rockeby Farm, the family farm Wes grew up on. Driving down the pitch-black dirt roads late at night, the air quiet, I squirmed at the thought of knowing that there was no one around for miles. Everyone knows I’m scared of the dark. But the old farmhouse, built in early 1900s, was warm and I spent a few hours getting to know his parents, Sue and Mark, who kindly taught me a bit about their farm properties as we sipped a few wines. We spent only that first night on the country farm though and were off to the beach in Port Neill for the next few days.

But first Wes took me to town. We spent Christmas Eve morning sitting on the Tumby Bay pier eating fresh chicken sandwiches from Ritz Café, watching a young boy expertly fish alone off of the side, as Wes told me stories about growing up in such a small, rural area. Tumby as it’s known, is a good 30 minutes from the farm and is where he went to school – one school for all children from kindergarten to 12th grade. There were 46 kids in his grade when he started; he graduated with 16 and was only one of 6 to go to university. Talk about small town ambition.

He then whisked me away to Boston Bay Wines, a small boutique vineyard and cellar door set on a hill where the vines overlook the ocean, just outside of Port Lincoln. We sampled the gamut and stocked up for Christmas with their Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and award winning Riesling.

There was no stopping us there, so we were off to Delacolline Estate next. Stepping out of the car we were greeted with the sound of hundreds of bees chatting away over their afternoon lunch.  I was so ecstatic at the thought of visiting my first lavender farm, the sweet scent overwhelmed the property and the fields of purple snuggled next to the vines made for a beautiful backdrop. Not to mention the 2005 Riesling was a stand out and we also couldn’t resist a bottle of Sparkling Shiraz, as it’s an Aussie Christmas tradition after all.

The Eyre Peninsula is known to be one of the purest seas in the world. Remote and desolate, with many untouched bays it makes for pristine fishing grounds. It’s a region that prides itself on sustainability and is where seafood such as oysters, abalone, tuna, prawns and more is exported from daily.  Of course I had to try some. Sarin’s Restaurant in the Port Lincoln Hotel is the best spot in town to devour the famous Coffin Bay oysters, which is exactly what we did before stopping off in quiet and stunning Coffin Bay itself.

We stayed at the beach house for the next few nights, and that evening I accompanied his parents and siblings to the local pub. Wes unfortunately had an emergency oyster spew on our ride home so recovered in bed alone. In a town of 300 people, the one pub is where everyone, and I mean everyone, goes for a social gathering; parents, grandparents and small children included. I felt a treat being introduced as the foreigner from far away America and giggled to myself as it seemed every second person was named Hannah.

I woke up Christmas morning to a quiet house and decided to start the day with a run on the beach. As I approached the half-moon bay of Port Neill, Mark’s words at the pub the night before couldn’t ring in any truer. He told me, “Why go to a beach with lots of people? If there’s people, just go to the next one”.  I told him I never knew such a luxury.

Port Neill Beach

Port Neill Beach

As I began to run, I saw the sand ahead, the water clear blue to my right and the sun beaming down against it; and that’s when I got emotional. I think it hit me all at once. The sparkling water and unexpected beauty really let the distance and pure remoteness sink in. Christmas, and this couldn’t be any more of a contrast of what I’d be doing at home. It’s exactly what I asked for if I couldn’t have the real thing. In that moment I felt the luckiest person in the world, and it was a moment for me that was incredibility awesome.

Even more awesome was when I got back to the house I had eggs and bacon waiting for me. We then exchanged a few gifts. I was overjoyed for the generous touch of perfume from my flat mate and homemade heating pad Sue made with grain from the farm, a gift I had been secretly hoping for. Even more special was the Christmas-themed box and stocking that made its way from the US then onto the plane with me so I could open a gift from my family on Christmas morning. The day followed with an impromptu game of tennis in the sun, some reading and sunbathing and the enjoyment of our wine purchases from the day prior.

Wes watering flowers in the sun

Watering flowers

Boxing Day, while still very casual and relaxed, was celebrated with even more grandeur as all of Wes’ 3 siblings and their partners, as well as his grandparents attended at the beach house for a traditional seafood lunch feast.  As I cracked open my popper, I found myself realizing I’ve picked up some Aussie slang like the common contradictory response of “yea, no”. The outback must have gotten to me.

Before getting too settled in Mark had myself, Wes’ brother Lewis and girlfriend Chelsea out on his boat at dusk to catch the next day’s lunch. Chelsea and I caught 7 snoek between the two of us, a great success as it was her first time fishing.

On my final day Mark, Wes and I headed back to the farm. Unfortunately due to the holidays there wasn’t enough time to get the sheep ready for shearing. Mark made up for it though and gave me a full tour of the farm. First he emptied the trough, and then Wes and I hopped out of the cab of the truck to herd 340 lambs from one paddock to the other. We simply walked along through the fields, both casually and slowly, and those fools just kept running away…right where we wanted them to go. My deed was done.

That evening we BBQ’d the most exquisite, uhum, lamb for dinner then ended in the late hours laughing till I cried playing the vulgar game Cards Against Humanity the Australian edition with the family.

Thank you Wes, Sue, Mark, Lewis, Karl and Hannah for your amazing hospitality, beautiful homes and an amazing holiday adventure!