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Welcome to ESP Squared

This is a BLOG dedicated to savouring life: food, wine  travelling and adventures.  I am new to this BLOGGING caper, so bear with me, as I share my personal adventures that hopefully inspire others to make the most of life, every day, enjoying the moment.

Why ESP Squared , well it is about Extra Special Places to Eat, Stay and Play.

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Doing what I do best, falling asleep in the sun with a glass of wine in hand. Hans Herzog.

 

Cambodia a Cultural Experience Like No Other

I recently spent two weeks in Cambodia with my sister and although, in retrospect, we concluded that it was a good trip, we would describe it more of a ‘cultural experience’ rather than a holiday. This blog is a summary of our learnings, experiences and recommendations for travelling in Cambodia.

Our Cambodia trip comprised 11 days in total starting with 4 nights in Phnom Penh followed by 3 nights in Siem Reap, 1 night in Phnom Penh, 2 nights in Mondulkiri and then one final night in Phnom Penh.  We opted to start and end our trip in the capital, Phnom Penh, owing to its good flight connections to Singapore.

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The Basics

Visa and Currency

Visitors from most countries are required to obtain a visa to enter Cambodia.  We opted to obtain our visa on arrival rather than doing an eVisa.  It was no hassle and the visas were processed relatively swiftly at the cost of USD$30.00.  This was our first exposure to the US dollar and the realisation that this was not going to be a cheap holiday as we had been led to believe.  Although Cambodia has a local currency, your options are quite limited and most transactions will be in US dollars.  Also, unless you are eating in more upmarket restaurants, no one takes credit cards.  I also had the most distressing situation of not being able to withdraw cash from the local cash machines as I stupidly took an Australia Post travel card.  It simply would not work.  My sister took great delight in giving me a nightly run-down of traveller posts who, like me, had regrettably gone overseas with an Australia Post travel card.  It actually made for a pretty stressful trip as I only had USD$600 in notes but somehow I managed to scrape through with this amount of cash and a couple of credit cards.

Airport Transfers

The trip did not get off to the best start when our accommodation failed to send a driver to collect us from Phnom Penh International Airport.  We sat out the front of the Airport for a long period before we came to the sad realisation that noone was coming for us.  So if you are presented with a depressingly similar situation, there are two options for getting into central Phnom Penh; taxi or tuk tuk.  For some crazy reason we went with the tuk tuk option.  It was only USD$9.00 and took about 45 minutes to putt and sputter along the ridiculously congested roads to our accommodation in BKK1.  At one stage, when navigating a motorway overpass incline, we thought we would have to get out and push.  We managed to survive the trip, albeit slightly asphyxiated from the traffic fumes!!

Accommodation

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is full-on and we got a good sense of just how full-on it was going to be in the tuk-tuk ride from the Airport.  Our first accommodation in Phnom Penh was a small expat hotel in the BKK1 district.  It was  cheap and cheerful and the staff was very friendly (although not so friendly as to make sure we got picked up from the Airport).  A deluxe balcony room will set you back US$47 for a double including breakfast.  Would I stay here again, probably not but BKK1 is my favourite part of Phnom Penh and I would recommend it as it is interesting, fairly safe and has good restaurants.

After returning from Siem Reap, we had two additional nights at The Pavilion in Phnom Penh. The Pavilion is part of the MAADs hotel group and we absolutely loved this place. It was a little piece of calm in a sea of chaos. Once you got through the front gate you instantly felt the stress of the Phnom Penh streets melt away. The room rate also includes a 30 minute massage for each guest during their stay and a cruise on the Mekong River to the MAADs floating restaurant and lounge. Unfortunately, much to my sister’s annoyance, we missed out on the river cruise on account of us being too late on our first night and it not running on our second night due to it being a Sunday.

The Pavilion is a small boutique hotel located just off 240 Street (famous for its boutiques). The hotel has two swimming pools, a day spa and a great restaurant. We had two room types during our stay. The first was a twin room and the second was a deluxe double. Both rooms were great but we really loved the deluxe double as it was roomy and had an enormous balcony overlooking the front swimming pool. Arrange your spa treatments when you check-in as there are only 2 massage therapists and they have 36 rooms to accommodate.

Although Raffles is reported as being the best accommodation in Phnom Penh, we both concluded that we would not have wanted to stay there as it was little tired and located in a really inconvenient part of Phnom Penh.

Siem Reap

We stayed at the Borei Angkor in Siem Reap which is a 5 star hotel on the National Road; the main road going into Siem Reap.  We had a large twin room with a small balcony and a huge bathroom.  Angkor Wat had nearly 2.5 million visitors in 2017 so there is a large number of 5 star hotels in Siem Reap to cater for this and the Borei is pretty much a bog standard 5 star hotel.   One very funny memory of the Borei was the price-list for just about everything in our room including the shower-head and the do not-disturb sign.  The Borei has a booking desk so if like us, you haven’t arranged your tour bookings in advance, you can do this as late as 9pm the night before.

We spent 2 nights at Siem Reap which was not enough.  Two nights is far too rushed as in addition to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, there are many other temples to get around.  I would have preferred to have done the temples at a more leisurely pace in complete luxury.  Accordingly, I would spend 5 nights at the only Aman resort in Cambodia, the Amansara.  The Amansara has its own fleet of tuk-tuks which their guests can use to explore the temples.

Mondulkiri

In Mondulkiri we stayed at the Nature Lodge an eco-lodge comprising a collection of wooden huts in a paddock.  It was fairly basic but the huts had a double bed with clean linen and a basic bathroom with a flushing toilet and running water (although I am not sure where the water was running to!)  It was not my scene but I managed to get through our 2 night stay.  There are not a lot of options for accommodation in this area and the Nature Lodge is probably the best of the bunch and the staff was lovely and very accommodating.

Accommodation recommendation

We only had 11 nights in Cambodia but I felt like this was a bit of a reconnaissance trip and if I did this again I would stay 4-5 nights at The Pavillion Hotel in Phnom Penh, 5 nights at the Amansara at Siem Reap and then I would head to the coast and stay 5-7 nights at the Six Senses at Krabey Island (when it finally opens (reportedly in September 2018)).

Activities

What to do and see in Phnom Penh

There is a lot to see and do in Phnom Penh and we opted for a full-day private cultural tour.  We went with Cambodia Boutique Travel and for USD$98.00, we had a private guide, the delightful G1 (or Mr G as we called him), and a fully-airconditioned Lexus RX-300 with driver.   I would highly recommend doing it this way rather than by tuk-tuk as it is very hot and we were offered chilled water every time we got back in the car.  Our private tour included the Independent Monument, the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, the National Museum, the Genocide Museum, the Killing Fields, the Wat Onalom Pagoda and the Wat Phnom.  The Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum are extremely distressing but to understand the history of Cambodia, must be seen and experienced first hand.

There are a lot of markets that people enjoy in Phnom Penh.  We went to the Russian Market on the day we arrived which is a labyrinth of undercover market stalls but to me, it was hideous and so hot that I couldn’t breath.   I cannot stand buying cheap rubbish that you question when you get home but that’s me and my sister loved the markets.   One thing that we missed out in Phnom Penh was the traditional dance show at the National Museum.  It is on every evening at 7pm and costs USD$15.00.  You can buy tickets on-line at https://experience.cambodianlivingarts.org/book-now/ or from the ticket stall outside the National Museum.

What to see and do in Siem Reap

Angkor Temples

Okay so the most obvious reason for visiting Siem Reap is the Angkor temples and yes, they are simply amazing.  We again opted for a private full day tour which we organised through the booking desk at our hotel.  I think this is pretty standard as there are hundreds of guides.  Most of the temples are located within the Angkor Archaelogical Park and include the most well-known temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm (or the Angelina Jolie temple as it is famously known).  Your guide goes at your own pace which is good as it is baking hot.  We didn’t experience a lot of mosquitoes but I know others that have so I came very prepared wearing long pants, socks and long sleeves.  We only did the one day at the temples but in retrospect, I would recommend two-three days.  For a the private full day tour we paid USD$100 including guide and Lexus RX-300 with driver.  In addition, we paid USD$37 each for the entrance fee to the Angkor Complex.   Angor Wat is the most famous temple and is ridiculously crowded so either get there really early or do it at the end of the day as part of a sunset tour.  Apparently, you have to arrive hours early to secure a spot for the sunset and you cannot take a bottle of champagne into the Angkor Complex so I am not sure what the best option is really.  Also, the queue to climb the main tower will take at least 45 minutes to an hour so be prepared for that.

Kulen Mountain

There are a lot other tour options for Siem Reap and we decided to do a full day tour to the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen which was about a 90 minute drive away.  It is famous for the river of thousand lingas, a huge reclining Buddha and a waterfall.  Mind, everyone on our tour was happy to take a dip in the water but there is no way I would put my big toe in as you just have to see all the rubbish from the surrounding village.  This was at least an 8 hour tour in a small mini-van and we really enjoyed it.

Mondulkiri

Elephant Sanctuary

One of the other places we visited was Mondulkiri to experience elephants in their natural habitat.  Personally, I thought this was a waste of time as it was at least an 8 hour bus trip from Phnom Penh.  It is also extremely sad as you know that with the current rate of deforestation, there will be no forests left very soon which will spell the end of the Cambodian elephant.  My prediction from what I saw, is that there will be nothing left within 5 years with the illegal logging.  Most of the timber is going over the border to Vietnam.  There are a few of these elephant sanctuaries in Mondulkiri and we had an accommodation package which included a day with the elephants.  In reality, it is just a few ex-working elephants that have been taken over by a registered NGO.  You only spend a little of time with the elephants as they actually do not like being petted or touched.  So you should not ever ride an elephant as it is extremely cruel.  We got to feed them bananas which I think they enjoyed and then they were put away in the forest. I think the website shows a girl riding an elephant in the river but this was complete bollocks as you cannot do this and having learnt a few things about elephants, nor would I want to.  It was really nice just being near the elephants and watching them.  This part of the World is also known for its pepper and rubber production.

Getting Around (Transport)

Okay transportation in Cambodia is the root cause of me not enjoying this trip to the greatest extent possible.  There is no rail in Cambodia so your options are road or air.  Most people choose to fly between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap but having read the travel forums on Cambodian air travel, being the nervous flyers that we are, decided against this.  So my sister and I went with the local buses which were nothing short of hideous.  Hideously long, hideously dangerous and just hideous full stop.  We took a Giant Ibis bus to Siem Reap which have 3 departures daily and it takes around 6.5 hours.  Yes, 6.5 hours on a bus.  Mondulkiri is about the same but in a mini-van.  At one stage on our return trip from Siem Reap, I looked over to a young European backpacker to witness him rubbing, what I only assumed to be Opium, into his gums.  It was at this point, that I was started to question what the hell I was doing.  So if I was to do this again, which I wouldn’t but if I did, the only way I would travel around would be by private car.  The whole transportation experience actually ruined the trip as a lot of our time was spent being terrified on gruelling bus trips.

For getting around Phnom Penh, I would recommend downloading the Uber tuk-tuk app.  You can then call an Uber tuk-tuk.  You don’t actually pay upfront and the price is not fixed but at least it gives you a guide and the tuk-tuks are clean and the drivers are not touts.  DO NOT catch tuk-tuks off the street.  Yes they are everywhere but they just never stop pestering you and they just assume you are a millionaire and can pay 10 times the going rate.  Taxis are not the norm but you can order them on Uber tuk-tuk and they are really good.  You can always ask your accommodation to assist with transportation.  One thing to be aware of when in the Phnom Penh is to be on your guard at all times.  My niece, who was living in Phnom Penh at the time of our trip, had her handbag slashed off her by a passing motorcycle.

Eating and drinking

Phnom Penh

My sister is severely allergic to seafood which added to the stress of the trip as fish sauce and shrimp paste are used in most local dishes.  With this in mind, I sought out a lot of up-market vegan cafes.  In Phnom Penh, we loved Farm to Table, Artillery and Lot 369.  I would also recommend Vibe Café, Shop 240 and Backyard Café for vegan/vegetarian.  None of these cafes are cheap but they are extremely good.  We also liked Coriander for good Indian and Irrawaddi for Burmese both of which are located in BKK1.

The other thing you have to do is happy hour at Raffles which we loved.  We did the cliché thing and had the Femme Fatale which is the cocktail created for Jackie Onassis when she visited Cambodia in 1967.  The cocktail glass from which she drank is on display, lipstick marks and all.  Not sure I believe any of this but the cognac and champagne based cocktail is to die for and must be experienced in the Hotel’s Elephant Bar.

We also did Sunday brunch at Raffles which includes unlimited champagne.  It is eye-wateringly expensive but well worth it and I think we were there for a good 6 hours ending up with a few Femme Fatales in the Elephant Bar!  The other place we ate at and you do not need to be a guest was the restaurant at The Pavillion.  The food was really really good and inexpensive.  The restaurant is situated adjacent to the front pool.  We really enjoyed our meals which were a mix of local and international cuisine.

Siem Reap

We only had two nights in Siem Reap and went to Vibe Café one night and the Press Club the other night.  Both were good.  For lunch, we stopped at local restaurants organised by our tours which were fine.  Very basic and very local but the food was good and it didn’t make us unwell.

Summary

So in summary would I recommend Cambodia?  I think you either enjoy this kind of thing or you don’t.  It is not relaxing at all but understanding the history of Cambodia and seeing the Angkor temples was well worth it.  I also got to spend time travelling with my sister.  If there was to be a next time, then I would do it very high-end and add extra days to chill and drink cocktails by the pool.

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Glamping Poronui Style

We were extremely lucky to get a booking at Poronui Lodge over the Christmas break and the only disappointment was that we could not have stayed longer. It is definitely a bucket list destination and a place that ticked all our boxes: fly-fishing, horse-riding and skeet-shooting with a touch of luxury and romance in secluded New Zealand backcountry.

Accommodation

Main Lodge

Poronui Lodge is a luxury hunting and fishing lodge set on 16,000 acres in the north island of New Zealand.  We split our time between the main lodge and the safari camp.  The main lodge accommodation comprises seven large well-appointed guest cabins overlooking the Taharua River.  This is pretty much a standard luxury fishing lodge set-up with communal dining in the main lodge area and like all luxury fishing lodges, the setting is truly spectacular.

Safari Camp

After the main lodge, we then moved into the safari camp.  I was so apprehensive about staying in the safari camp as I really did not know what to expect.  Our expectations were far exceeded and Husband and I voted this one of the best holidays we have ever had and cannot wait to return.

One of my initial misconceived concerns was that we would be sharing the safari camp with other guests.  However, notwithstanding that the safari camp can accommodate up to four guests, when you book the camp, it is exclusive use only.  So we had the whole camp to ourselves which was simply amazing.

My other misconceived concern was the cooking arrangements.  I do not like cooking at the best of times but on holiday it is just not even something I would ever entertain.  At the safari camp you have two options: a private chef can come and prepare your meals or the Lodge chefs can semi-prepare and package meals at the stable complex which they deliver to the camp fresh each day for you to prepare.   We took the second option as we wanted total privacy and Husband promised that he would do all the cooking.  I am so glad we chose this option as not only did it allow us the privacy that we were so seeking, it was actually a lot of fun.  The food was also outstanding and plentiful.

The safari camp is situated on the banks of the Mohaka River about 12 kilometres from the main lodge and is only accessible by four-wheel drive (or helicopter).  The camp is made up of two guest tents, two bathrooms (each with its own shower, toilet and basin) and a bush kitchen hut with a refrigerator (well stocked with beer!!), wood-burning stove, barbecue and kitchen sink.  It was all so perfect with all the comforts of home including luxury linen on the beds, hot and cold running water and most importantly, flushing toilets.

The safari camp was right up our alley as it provided total privacy and seclusion with only the cleaning staff and chef coming in very discreetly each day.  Yes, cleaning staff.  Glamping did not mean roughing it and even our laundry was taken and returned on the same day.  For some, the remoteness may prove difficult as there is no television, no power after dark and no mobile reception.  The only way in and out is by four-wheel drive and the only communication is by two-way radio.

Activities

Horse-riding

The other main attraction is the range of activities that Poronui Lodge has on offer.  It is not just about the fly-fishing and they cater really well for non-fishing partners and children.  For me, the big ticket item was the horse-riding and even Husband got hooked.  The Poronui Lodge horses have their own groom, Olivia, who expertly takes care of their management.  Olivia was just delightful and we had such a pleasant time in her company riding around the property under her experienced guidance.  Olivia can also provide riding lessons and I took advantage of this and took a much-needed jumping lesson.

The fly-fishing is the big attraction as there is limited public access to the rivers and streams flowing through the property giving Poronui Lodge guests the ultimate fishing experience on pristine New Zealand waters.  There is a big emphasis on heli-fishing at Poronui Lodge but we opted to tramp into the river with our guide as we are fairly fit and love the challenge.   Unless you want to take your lucky rod, top quality fishing equipment is supplied and Poronui Lodge can arrange your fishing licence.

Other activities

If fly-fishing and horse-riding are not your thing, there are also other on-site activities to enjoy including spa treatments, guided walks and mountain bike-riding, shooting and archery.  Trophy hunting, as well as the fly-fishing, is the main draw card at Poronui Lodge.  Husband and I do not support hunting for hunting’s sake in any shape or form so there is no way we would unnecessarily kill a live animal.  For those who, like us, enjoy a bit a shoot but do not want to kill anything, Poronui Lodge has an Olympic standard clay range.  Husband was blasting doubles by the end of our session.  There are also off-site activities including Hawkes Bay winery tours and Maori culture tours.

Fact File

Location: Poronui Lodge is a luxury hunting and fishing lodge located 40 minutes from Taupo, 90 minutes from Rotorua, 90 minutes from Napier and 4 hours from Auckland.  Recommendation is to take a domestic flight from Auckland to Taupo.

Food: The daily rate includes all meals, beer, wine and soft drink.  The food and wine were of an excellent standard and provided in abundance.

Equipment: All fishing, riding and shooting equipment is supplied so there is no need to bring a thing.

Safari Camp: Although the safari camp can only be accessed by four-wheel drive there is no need to worry if you haven’t hired such vehicle as we were picked up and dropped off by the attentive staff at no extra cost.

Tips: Although New Zealand has no predators it does have the most annoying sand fly so take a good strength insect repellent for sitting around the safari camp or take long-sleeved tops and pants.  Pack a stack of good books.

Things I loved about this place: The safari camp and the privacy it offered, the range of activities on offer including the guided fly-fishing and horse-riding, the quality of the horses, the amazing setting, the attentive staff and the total flexibility to cater to your needs.

Further details: Further details on Poronui Lodge can be found on their official website: http://www.poronui.com/.

Wanaka Mini-Break

Wanaka is one of those places that just has it all. I visited Wanaka over a bank holiday weekend in late September 2017 and I loved it so much, that by the end of my stay, I had booked a return mini-break in early November.

Where is Wanaka?

Wanaka is an hour’s drive from Queenstown in the South Island of New Zealand and is truly one of the most scenic places I have ever visited.  The town itself is set around Lake Wanaka,  New Zealand’s fourth-largest freshwater lake.  Even the drive from Queenstown over the Crown Ranges is stunning.

Activities

Walking

The obvious thing to do in Wanaka is ski with two good ski areas, Treble Cone and Cardrona, but notwithstanding that skiing is one of my biggest passions, I opted for more passive pursuits on my two trips.  In addition to just relaxing by the fire, I also enjoyed some lovely walks.  There are a lot of good walking tracks in the area including easy tracks along the edges of Lake Wanaka.

If glaciers are more your thing, then you can drive to the start of Rob Roy Glacier which can be reached via Rob Roy Track.  The carpark at the start of the Rob Roy Track is about an hour’s drive from Wanaka which includes 30 kilometres of unsealed road.  Rob Roy Track itself is 10 kilometres and depending on your level of fitness, can take up to 4 hours to navigate.  An easier option is to experience the glacier via helicopter.  There are a number of helicopter operators that can do glacier landings.  Disappointingly, I did not get out in a helicopter during either stay but this will on the list for next time.

Fly-fishing

There is also good fly fishing in the area which Husband enjoyed immensely but he was extremely lucky to be with a bestie who knows the area well but for the less fortunate, I would recommend arranging a guide.  There are a lot of fly-fishing guides that operate in the area but they tend to book up early so make sure you secure your guide before you arrive.  Your accommodation should be able to recommend a guide.  You will also need a fishing licence which you can buy on-line and be aware of the fly-fishing season for each waterway.  Information on applicable seasons is set out in the fact file below.  If you go fly-fishing early in the season, then you are likely to encounter a bit of traffic from fellow anglers so in addition to a professional guide, I would also recommend heli-fishing as you can be dropped into more remote areas.

Wineries

Wanaka is located in the Central Otago wine region which most famously produces cool climate pinot noir.  There are a few wineries in the immediate vicinity of Wanaka but others are a bit further afield.  What we did and something that I would recommend, is to stop at Amisfield Winery enroute to Wanaka.  It is about 10-15 minutes from Queenstown Airport.  They have a bistro which is open 7 days between 11:30am to 8:00pm and bookings are a must.  If you do miss out which we did, you can always enjoy a cheese platter and glass of wine (or bottle) in the garden.

The Central Otago wineries are quite spread out which was really surprising.  There are wine tour operators based in Wanaka that you can use but you may also consider taking State Highway 6 on your return trip to Queenstown.  This will take you through Cromwell, Bannockburn and Gibbston where most of the wineries are located.

My pick of wineries is Rippon in Wanaka which produces fairly good wines but go there just for the setting.  The winery is the most stunning winery I have ever visited with the vines sloping down to the edge of Lake Wanaka.  Unfortunately, they only have a cellar door but in the summer, it would be good to enjoy a picnic lunch with a bottle of wine.  I also liked this tiny organic producer called Aurum located in Cromwell.  Their pinots are to die for and their cellar door is set in a gorgeous cottage garden.  Gibbston Valley Wines, although highly commercial, have good pinots and although it irks me to pay for a tasting, it is worth paying the NZD$15.00 for their premium pinot range.  Gibbston Valley Wines also have a restaurant but my pick would be to eat at Amisfield as it is a classier establishment and just 10 minutes down the road.

One of the other places that I absolutely loved was the Distillery in Cardrona.  They produce a gin, a vodka and an orange liqueur.  They also offer a 75-90 minute tour which includes tasting which may be interesting to some but I like the immediate surrounds and in winter, they have a very welcome open fire where you can sit and enjoy a coffee and muffin.  Their raspberry and white chocolate muffins are to die for.

Horse riding and quad-biking

There are a few horse riding and quad-biking operators.  We went horse riding with Cardrona Horses.  We opted for a morning 2 hour ride through a Merino sheep station which was really relaxing.  They have other rides including a 3.5 hour tour which stops off at the Cardrona Hotel.

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Stay

On both trips, I stayed at Waiorau Homestead located in Cardrona which I could not rate highly enough.  Cardrona is a 20 minute drive from Wanaka.   Waiorau Homestead is like a home away from home.  Just think of incredible scenery, well appointed comfortable rooms, roaring fire, great food and amazing hosts.

Waiorau Homestead is run by Blyth Adams and Ann Lockhart.  Blyth and Ann are a wealth of information on the local area and can provide dining and activity suggestions.  Waiorau Homestead is a good base if you are skiing at Cardrona as it is located at the base of the ski park.  It so happened that it was Guy Fawkes night on my trip with Husband and Ann and Blyth indulged us by allowing Husband and I to light fireworks on their front lawn.

If money is no option and you are a mad keen fly fisher, then I would recommend staying at Minaret Alpine Station Lodge.  I personally have not stayed there but along my travels at other high-end lodges, guests have raved about this place.  It is only accessible by helicopter and the big attraction is the heli-fishing.

Eat

Blyth is a trained chef and in addition to a full gourmet breakfast, Blyth and Ann offer a three course dinner. Every opportunity that Blyth gave me to enjoy his cooking I eagerly took up as he produces the most scrumptous meals.  I have never tasted roast potatoes like Blyth’s.  We also enjoyed the Cardrona Hotel which is a couple of minutes’ drive away.  The pub meals were the best I have ever eaten and they had a well stocked cellar comprising a good seletion of New Zealand wines.  On both occasions, I ate the beef rib eye with Paris butter and hand-cut chips.  Blyth and Ann also gave us a few other dining suggestions for Wanaka but we were happy to eat in-house or at the pub.  If I was going to eat in Wanaka, I would try Kika which gets good reviews on Trip Advisor.

Across the road from the Cardrona Hotel is the General Store which is relatively new and they do lovely sandwiches, sweet treats, scones and coffee.  I quite enjoyed sitting outside in their chairs enjoying the spring sunshine.

We had a lateish return flight to Melbourne.  So I wanted to try Rata in Queenstown for a late lunch / early dinner.  There is nothing on their website to give you any indication, but their kitchen closes at 3pm for lunch.  I was quite disappointed to have missed out but I will be better prepared next time.  Also, I had booked Rata for dinner on my first trip thinking that we could do an early dinner and then drive to Wanaka.  We ended up cancelling as it is not really that safe to be driving from Queenstown to Wanaka over the Crown Ranges at night in early spring.

Fact file:

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The Pawfect Truffle Hunt

The months of July and August in Melbourne are usually pretty bleak and depressing but they are also a joyous occasion in our household as it is truffle season. Last July, we got to share our love of truffles with our much adored and pampered black Labrador, Peggy, by taking her on a Gourmet Paws truffle hunt in regional Victoria.

Our day started early at 8:30am with a doggie meet and greet at an off-leash beach in Port Melbourne.  After a good run and, in the case of our water loving Labrador, a swim all dogs and their owners boarded the Gourmet Paws bus.  Once settled, each dog was given a goodie bag comprising treats and vouchers which was a really nice touch and well received by Peggy.

Morning tea was organised at a park along the way where the dogs could get off the bus for a quick run whilst their owners enjoyed a coffee and a bite to eat.

The truffle hunt was organised at Black Cat Truffles near Creswick in regional Victoria (about 90 minutes’ from Melbourne).  Black Cat Truffles has a 1000 tree trufferie mostly comprising English and French oaks inoculated with black Perigord truffles (Tuber melanosporum).   Upon arrival, owners and dogs disembarked the bus and then proceeded to the Black Cat Truffles’ tasting and sales room where we were given the run down on truffles and the trufferie.  We also got to eat the most exquisite fromager d’Affinois with truffles which we washed down with a glass of sparkling wine.

Following our truffle introduction, we embarked on a truffle hunt with the resident truffle dog leaving our own dogs in the sales and tasting room in the hands of the Gourmet Paws carers.  The truffle hunt was very interesting as we not only got to see a trained truffle dog in action but we also got to see how truffles grow.  We each had the opportunity to dig the truffles from the earth and by the end of the hunt, we had quite an impressive bounty (available for purchase).  Our own dogs were not allowed to participate in the truffle hunt due to the potential to introduce disease but they had their own mock truffle hunt for treats infused with truffle.  Of course our Peggy was an expert in finding her treat in no time and maybe too willingly assisted others in finding theirs.  She is a Labrador after all!

After the doggie truffle hunt, we headed back to the tasting and sales room for a wine tasting and the opportunity to select and purchase the fresh black truffles.  Stocked with our purchases, we boarded the bus and headed to lunch at the Farmers Arms Hotel in Creswick.

Whilst we lunched, our dogs remained on the bus with the Gourmet Paws carers  and enjoyed a movie and massage.  Husband and I were extremely anxious about leaving Peggy but it was clear on our return that she was in excellent care and was happy to relax and take a nap.  After a quick walk, it was back on the bus for our return trip to Melbourne.

Fact File:

Gourmet Paws is a doggie based tour company based in Melbourne and operates truffle hunts in July and August each year.  Our truffle hunt cost AUD$475.90 for two adults and dog and included bus transport, morning tea, trained dog carers , truffle hunt including sparkling wine on arrival and wine tasting, mock doggie truffle hunt including doggie treat, doggie goodie bag and a three course lunch with glass of wine.  We loved the truffle hunt and thought it was very well organised.  Highly recommended.  If truffles are not your thing, Gourmet Paws also operates other doggie tours including winery tours.  Further information can be found at: https://gourmetpawprints.com.au

Black Cat Truffles: Located in Wattle Flat (near Creswick) about 90 minutes’ drive from Melbourne and is open to the public to purchase truffles and truffle products.  Further information can be found at: http://www.blackcattruffles.com.au

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Calling Lovers of Cabernet

Coonawarra Cabernets are my favourite Australian wine varietal.  So when Husband’s Friday wine club organised a weekend trip for the Coonawarra Cellar Dwellers we were extremely excited.  This event is held over the month of July each year and is the time when participating Coonawarra wineries showcase their back vintages.

Where is the Coonawarra?

The Coonawarra is a South Australian wine region comprising 32 wineries dotted across an area of approximately 30 square kilometres (15 kilometres long x 2 kilometres wide).  It happens to be located smack bang between Melbourne and Adelaide.  It is also one of Australia’s oldest wine regions mostly known for its cool climate Cabernet Sauvignon, however, they also produce good Shiraz, Chardonnay and Riesling.

How long does it take and how do you get there?

From Melbourne, the Coonawarra is ridiculously easy for a weekend.  We took the 6:45pm Regional Express flight from Melbourne Airport.  The flight takes just over an hour from Melbourne to Mt Gambier.  Upon arrival at Mt Gambier Airport, we collected our hire car and drove 35 minutes to our accommodation located between Penola and Coonawarra.    This had us arriving in Penola around 8:00pm just in time to join the Cellar Dweller event taking place at Raidis Winery.  They had three back vintages on offer by the glass with music and dancing which was a really fun start to the weekend.

Accommodation

Accommodation options in this region are very slim indeed and we did not love where we stayed so I am not going to disclose the name of it.  My recommendation would be to try the glamping option at Bellwether Winery but only in summer.  They have a number of tents dotted around a sheep property surrounded by the gorgeous old red gums synonymous with this part of Australia.  Better still, since our visit, Kerry and Simon Meares of Coonawarra Experiences have opened their gorgeous two bedroom apartment (refer to fact file below for contact details).

Where to eat?

There are also not a lot of restaurant options in the area and of those options, only two are winery restaurants: Upstairs at Hollicks and Fodder and Ottelia.  We lunched at Upstairs at Hollicks which is located at Hollicks Winery which was very pleasant and the staff were really lovely and very accommodating.  The other restaurant we wanted to try was Pipers of Penola but disappointedly, this was closed during our visit .  There are a few wineries that also do cellar door cheese platters including Balnaves, Rymil, Wynns and DiGiorgio.

 

Are there any recommendations for wine tour operators?

We would highly recommend Coonawarra Experiences which offer full and half day winery tours which can be tailored to your needs.  Full details can be found at: https://www.coonawarraexperiences.com.au/.

As for wineries, there are a lot to choose from and there is no need to worry about how you can get your purchases home as they can all arrange shipment within Australia.

 

 

Fact File:

  • Rental car vendors: Mt Gambier Airport has three hire car options: Avis, Hertz and Budget.
  • Cellar Dwellers: For the month of July each year, the Coonawarra wineries showcase their back vintages which you can taste and buy.  Details can be found at http://www.mountgambierpoint.com.au/events/coonawarra-cellar-dwellers/.  Each year the organisers publish a programme of participating wineries and events.
  • Wine tour operators: Coonawarra Experiences can be found at https://www.coonawarraexperiences.com.au/.
  • Accommodation: Kerry and Simon Meares of Coonawarra Experiences offer a fully self-contained 2 bedroom apartment located in Penola.  Details can be found on Air BNB by searching under ‘A Coonawarra Experience’ (https://www.airbnb.com.au/rooms/21729877).
  • Flights: Regional Express flys from Terminal 4 of Melbourne Airport and has flights every day to Mt Gambier.  Further details can be found at: http://www.rex.com.au
  • Travel tip: If driving from Mt Gambier Airport to the Coonawarra at night, you need to be vigilant for kangaroos as we had been warned by a number of people.

 

 

Hidden Mediterranean Gem

I almost do not want to write this post as I want to keep Nerano my little Italian secret because it holds such a special place in my heart and I never want it to change.  Nerano is a charming little fishing village located between Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast.  From personal observation and experience, it is mostly visited by Italians which suggests that it is relatively unknown to the rest of the World.  This is half the attraction if you want to avoid the summer crowds of Capri, Positano and Amalfi. For us, Nerano is the perfect mix of beach, boating, food, wine and hiking so you can be as inactive or active as the day finds you.

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Setting the scene

The beach at Nerano is called Marina del Cantone and is surrounded by restaurants and beach clubs.  Some of the restaurants are quite famous so it is not surprising to see the arrival of a flotilla of super yachts at around lunch time everyday.  This is fascinating to watch as each restaurant has a fleet of little timber boats with skilled boatmen who exchange passengers from the smaller craft despatched from the super yachts. The passengers are then ferried to the jetty of their chosen restaurant.

Our favourite restaurant in the Marina is Il Cantuccio (meaning ‘the corner’) because, I am guessing, it sits on the most western side of the Marina.   We just love sitting on the restaurant deck perched above the Mediterranean watching all the comings and goings over a few bottles of Rosato.  If you are not a fan of fish, seafood, tomatoes or buffalo mozzarella then you are going to struggle in this part of Italy.  My favourites at Il Cantuccio are the risotto ai frutti di mare and the delizie al limone or the lemon titty cake as it is fondly known in our family as it literally looks like a woman’s breast.

Where to stay

There are a few accommodation options in Nerano from European camp parks, hotels, rooms at restaurants and rental houses/apartments.  If money is no object, I would recommend Villa Costanza which is a luxury 10 bedroom / 10 bathroom house and perfect for wedding parties.  It has an amazing pool and terrace but all this comes at a price (AUD$17,900 per week in July/August).

We always rent an apartment at Casale Villarena and, in or opinion, is the best accommodation in town.  They have a number of apartment options.  This year we stayed in the La Vetara apartment which has two large en suite bedrooms with a kitchen/lounge and a gorgeous terrace overlooking the Marina.  We shared the apartment with our best friends so it is perfect for sharing couples, but a point of note is that you have to walk through one bedroom to get to the other.  This did not worry any of us.   Best thing is the La Vetara terrace has an amazing panorama and is the perfect place for playing endless hands of cards and enjoying aperitivo each evening.  Remember to pack a portable speaker so you can stream music from your phone.

Eating at Casale Villarena – Truly an experience

The apartments all have well-appointed kitchens but Casale Villarena has its own restaurant and the food is incredible.  Apart from breakfast and lunch, we ate in the restaurant 11 evenings out of 13 which speaks volumes.   There is a Michelin starred restaurant less than 500 metres down the road, Quattro Passi, but the food and wine are so good at Casale Villarena that we never felt the need to leave.  You never know what to expect at Casale Villarena, from the wood fired pizza evenings followed by dancing on the terrace, a risotto evening by the pool cooked by a famous local chef (absolutely sublime) and a degustation dinner with local cheese and wines in the cellar.  Nerano has its own speciality pasta dish made of 4 cheeses and zucchini (courgettes), pasta alla Nerano, and Casale Villarena’s take on it is the best we have tasted in the area.

 

How to get from Casale Villarena to the beach?

Casale Villarena is situated about 1 kilometre from Marina del Cantone.  There is a narrow alley way that weaves it way through the village houses but it is quite steep so it is all well and dandy on the way down but after a few bottles of wine at lunch, it is rather a challenge coming home.  Luckily for us we are all extremely fit so enjoyed the challenge but you can always catch the local Sita bus down to the beach and back.   It roughly runs every hour on weekdays and every two hours on the weekend.  There is a bus stop right outside the Casale which is very handy.  If you want to drive down to the beach, there is a car park down at Marina del Cantone.  Word of warning, you cannot park your own car and there is no respect for cars in this part of the World so dents and scratches are “normale”.  Not so great if you have a hire car and do no want to be up for paying the insurance excess.

Where can I buy groceries?

There are two well stocked alimentari (general stores), one run by Olga and the other by Rachele, less than 50 metres from the Casale where you can purchase provisions including fruit and vegetables, milk, yoghurt, coffee, water and bread.  We each had our favourite shop which prompted endless debate amongst our party.  Recommendation, make sure you have plenty of notes in every denomination as both Olga and Rachele were none too pleased at having to give change on larger notes.

If you want more variety, then the closest supermarket is about a 20 minute drive away in Sant’Agata.  Casale Villarena can do breakfast, lunch and dinner so all meals are covered.  Given we had our kitchen and are fussy breakfast eaters, we bought breakfast supplies and prepared breakfast in our apartment.  There is also a great bar right next to one of the alimentari where you can sit with the locals and enjoy a beer or limoncello or in our case, about 10.

Activities / Things to do

One of the things I love about staying at Casale Villarena is the day trips arranged by the owner, Guglielmo.  We love messing about on boats and we were lucky to have two full day trips on a private boat skippered by Guglielmo himself.   Who would not love being on a boat, sipping Prosecco, stopping to swim in secluded coves and caves and lunching in gorgeous villages off the tourist trail?

Well if messing around in boats is not your thing, then there are also many hiking trails many of which are ancient mule tracks.  Our favourite is the trail to Ieranto Bay which usually takes about 45 minutes and is a great place to swim.

This year we were also lucky enough to go on a tour of the Phlegraean Fields, an area to the west of Naples.  Guglielmo organised a private bus and tour guide for the whole day.  We left at 7:30am and returned to the Casale Villarena at 8:30pm.  We visited a live volcano, the Solfatara, the Baia Museo Archeologico Campi Flegrei which houses some important artefacts and sculptures, the ancient ruins of a Roman spa and my faovurite, the Pischin Mirabillis,  a Roman fresh water cistern.

One place we never tire of visiting is Pompeii.  Pompeii is about an hour and 15 minutes from Nerano depending on traffic.  This year we were lucky enough to visit with my niece and her husband.  I recommend using a private guide.  We paid 120 Euros for about 2 hours (excluding entry fee) and it is worth every cent.  If driving,  we always park at the Zeus camping park (http://www.campingzeus.it/en/) and we have had no trouble but we never leave anything of value in the car.  From memory, the car-park is about 1.50 Euro per hour. Also, if you want to avoid the heat and crowds of Pompeii during the day, then you can take a late afternoon tour;  last entry is at 6:00pm and closing at 7:30pm.   Pompeii is also extremely cheap with adult tickets priced at 13 Euros.

Beach Clubs

Okay it wouldn’t be a Mediterranean holiday if it didn’t involve a beach club.  So if taking a bed and umbrella at the beach and reading a book for the day is your thing, then there are plenty of options at Marina del Cantone.  Our favourite beach club is La Perla.  It has great facilities: car park, restaurant, change rooms and all importantly, toilets.  We would wander down about 11:00am and get a bed and umbrella, have a swim, read a book and then take lunch in the restaurant.  The food and wine are really good.    A bed and umbrella will set you back 20 Euros for two and it is an extremely civilised way of going to the beach.

The beach is a pebble beach so a tip is to pick up a pair of beach shoes.  There is a shop at Marina del Cantone that sells inexpensive beach shoes that you can swim in which allows you to get in and out of the water.  According to husband, you can do it but it is a difficult, slow and painful process to get in and out of the water without beach shoes.

The other beach club we sometimes like to go to is Conca del Sogno.  There is a walking track from Marina del Cantone but everyone usually arrives by boat.  It is extremely fancy and you need to book a bed well in advance if going on a weekend.  You cannot get away with wearing bathers in the restaurant and will need to dress up in your best Italian linen shirt and Tods.  They do a gorgeous cold octopus and potato salad which I love. This is the place to be seen, especially coming off your super yacht.

Fact file:

How to get to Nerano:

  •  Arriving from Naples International Airport: Nerano is only about 70 kilometres from Naples International Airport but takes about 90 minutes driving time, depending on traffic.  It is quite hectic, so unless you are experienced in driving in this part of Italy, I would recommend taking a private driver which is about 110 Euros one-way.  Casale Villarena can arrange your private driver.  Other option would be to take the ferry to Sorrento and get a taxi or private driver.  Sorrento is about 30-40 minutes’ drive from Nerano.
  • Arriving from Rome: we flew into Leonardo da Vinci Airport and elected to hire a car and drive down to Nerano.  It only takes about 4 hours as it is freeway once you leave the ring road all the way down to Naples.  It’s an easy drive until you get to Naples.  Other option is to take the train into Rome Termini and get the Frecciarossa train down to Naples.  It only takes 70 minutes.  Then you can get a private driver from Naples.
  • Tip: I am not going to lie, Nerano is a bitch to get to if you are driving as once you leave the motorway and get past three tunnels and reach Vico Equense, it is nothing less than crazy with narrow winding streets.  But once you get to Nerano all is forgiven as it is so worth it.

Where is the nearest ATM?

  • Italians love cash which is a pain in the proverbial when travelling.  There is a private ATM at Marina del Cantone.  As we have the car, we prefer to go to the Deutche Bank ATM in S’ant Agata (Via Vincenzo Casola, 16, Frazione Sant’Agata sui due Golfi, 80061 Massa Lubrense NA, Italy).  This ATM is always reliable.  We also take the opportunity to have a gelato which is in the next street.

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Accommodation: Casale Villarena is located in Nerano and has a number of accommodation options.  They have a restaurant, swimming pool, car park and washing machine.    Further details can be found at: http://www.casalevillarena.com/

Beach club: La Perla is located at via Amerigo Vespucci 24 viale vespoli, 80061 massalubrense NA, Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

Bedarra Bliss

If you are looking for a romantic beach holiday where you can totally check-out in absolute barefoot luxury, then Bedarra Island Resort may just be the ticket.

This was our second trip to Bedarra Island Resort (‘Bedarra’).  Our first trip was in October 2016 for our 25th wedding anniversary and literally within a week of arriving home, we booked another 5 nights over the Easter break.

Bedarra is an adults only resort (massive tick) and accommodates 18 couples in 9 extremely private villas each boasting water views.  The one thing I like about this place is although it is uber luxurious, it is also very low-key in terms of its casualness.  So there is no need to worry about what you are wearing.  In fact, if you wore a sarong or shorts for your entire trip, no-one would bat an eye lid.  I also like the fact that you can be as private as you want.  There is no communal dining which means the only people you really only have to engage with are the staff who are all incredible by the way.

WHO goes to Bedarra? You are probably thinking cashed up old farts but no, it is a good mix of young and old.  On our first trip we had a number of younger couples who got married at the resort, couples on their honeymoon and couples on their 25th wedding anniversary.  On this trip, there were three couples on their ‘babymoon’ as well as couples enjoying the Easter break just like us.

Bedarra is now a privately owned resort having previously been owned by Voyages Hotels and Resorts.  The owners, Sam and Kerri-Ann, are actively involved in the day-to-day running of Bedarra which is fabulous as you can see how much they care about the guests, the staff and the Island.  Sam and Kerri-Ann are supported by a wonderful team including Lance, Geoffrey and Jodee who each contributed to making both of our trips so special and memorable.

WHAT is there to do at Bedarra?  This is a place to totally check-out and sleep, read, swim, eat, drink (maybe a little too much), have a massage, spend quality time with your partner and just take-in the serenity.

For those who want a bit more action, you can help yourself to snorkelling gear, stand-up paddle boards and kayaks and for the more adventurous, take a spin in one of the motorised dinghies.  If the weather is permitting, the staff will provision you up with a picnic lunch complemented with wine, beer and champagne for a day on the high seas exploring the neighbouring islands.

There are also other activities Bedarra can arrange including boat and helicopter excursions to the Great Barrier Reef and fishing adventures.  Husband had his own fishing adventures trying his luck with his fly rod.  While husband was totally absorbed with his fishing early one morning, I decided in all my wisdom to take a kayak out for a bit of a paddle.  After a bit, I thought I would circumnavigate the Island.  Thinking it would only take 20 minutes, it actually took me about 2 hours and needless to say, I arrived back to a very distraught husband who was convinced I had either tried to make a break for it or been taken by sharks!!

WHAT about the accommodation?  The villas are fabulous.  We have stayed in two villas, one nearly on the water so you can hear the waves breaking and the second on the hill with the most amazing panorama.  There is also the option of villas with plunge pools for those seeking absolute privacy.  The villas are well-appointed with music systems, pod espresso machines, crisps, biscuits, bottled water, soft drinks, beer and wine.  This is an all-inclusive resort and there is no scrimping.  It really is incredible.  Before you arrive, you will be given a beverages menu so you can pre-select what you want stocked in your room including French champagne.

One of the things I love about this place is the long breakfasts, the long lunches and the long dinners.  Where else did we need to be?  Every meal is an experience starting with breakfast on the terrace.  I am fussy with breakfast as I like fresh berries and porridge.  This was easily accommodated by the breakfast chef.  They also had coconut water (massive tick).  Breakfast is followed by a two-course lunch, pre-dinner drinks with canapes and a three-course dinner with matched wines including dessert wine.  In addition to the tables on the main terrace, there are three private dining options which you are given the opportunity to dine at throughout your stay.  It is all very romantic.

WHERE is Bedarra?  Bedarra is midway between Cairns and Townsville, approximately 6 miles off Mission Beach.  It is a 2 hour drive south of Cairns to Mission Beach where you can take a boat launch or helicopter to Bedarra.  We choose to take the Bedarra helicopter direct from Cairns Airport which is a 45-60 minute trip depending on weather.  Apart from the fact that we love flying in helicopters and it is our little James Bond moment, it means we are off the plane, in the helicopter and then eating lunch and sipping wine by 2:00pm.  You don’t waste the day.  Whatever transfer you choose, this is all arranged by Bedarra so there is no need to stress, you just get off the plane, collect your luggage and let the Bedarra magic unfold.

Fact file:

  • Bedarra is inclusive of all food, non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages, use of kayaks, stand-up paddle-boards, snorkelling gear and motorised dinghies and laundry service.  More information on Bedarra can be found at: https://www.bedarra.com.au/
  • Who should go to Bedarra?  Couples seeking a romantic island getaway in a relaxed idyllic setting.
  • What to do you need to take?  The answer is not much; swimmers, sunscreen, sunglasses, Panama hat, shorts and a polo shirt.  Most guests will freshen up for dinner but nothing over the top so just exchange your polo shirt for a linen shirt and your Havaianas for Italian leather sandals and all will be good.  Although the weather is extremely temperate,  I always take a wrap for the evenings.
  • Unfortunately there are marine stingers in the warm North Queensland waters.  Do not rely on this information but we have always been told that stinger season is any month with an ‘R’ in it.  We take no chances and wear stinger suits and reef shoes but in the months of October and April you’d have to be extremely unlucky for stingers to be about.  Stinger suits also double as good sun protection and can be purchased on-line.   Good information on marine stingers can be found at: http://www.tourismwhitsundays.com.au/visitor-information/stinger-information.