Travel: A long fly but big gains to be made Down Under
Beware the Sydney Stone, read the line in the email. My friend went on to warn how he had seen the unwitting succumb to the portions and flavours of the Australian metropolis and return to the northern hemisphere after a working holiday with more girth to their pasty Irish hides.
On the ground in the state of New South Wales, whether out in the lush vineyards of the Hunter Valley or in the culinary alleyways of Sydney's central business district, his point presents itself not so much as a cold fact as a warm, aromatic and succulent one.
Besides a coffee culture that rules the urban thoroughfares, and a hearty appreciation for craft ale, Australia has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to satisfying tongues, bellies and constitutions. A variety of climates and soil types means that today it produces an overwhelming majority of its own food.
I form a spiritual affinity over my three-week trip with the ever-grazing grey kangaroos that we float past during an early-morning hot-air balloon ride with Wine Country Ballooning. Nonchalantly, the herbivores munch back at our floating yellow bulb from a landscape at odds with the red deserts and tumbleweed the continent is more famed for. This is the Hunter Valley.
It is a vividly lush part of the planet. High up, between the Brokenback Range and the Werakata National Park, you gawp down at drills of vines marching through the pastoral beauty. When it was discovered by Europeans in 1793, the area quickly became the main food-producing region for the colonists, thus easing pressure on the old empire to ship supplies down.
By 1820, introduced vines began to be cultivated but it wasn't until the legendary Maurice O'Shea (the son of an Irish immigrant wine merchant) mastered the craft of winemaking that the Hunter Valley became known as one of the world's great wine regions, particularly for Semillon and Shiraz. It is also the centre of the industry that exports 750m litres from across Australia's 70-plus wine regions.
The history is related to me by the very good folk of McWilliams Mount Pleasant, one of a host of vineyards and cellar doors I visit over two beautiful (and frankly tipsy) days exploring the area with Boutique Tours Australia.
Founded by O'Shea in 1921, Mount Pleasant still produces wine from vines he planted there nearly a century ago. After swirling and sipping my way through yet another tasting, I'm invited to try a 2005 Shiraz named after my esteemed fellow countryman. Cue raised eyebrows, goosebumps and the taking of a credit card from my wallet.
Where wine appreciation exists, so too will aficionados of other delicacies. So it is in the Hunter Valley, where the bravely named Smelly Cheese Shop shows off the best of the area's solid food produce such as rich and rare cheeses, gourmet chocolate, breads and gelato.
Naturally, I don't have much trouble sleeping that night. Between its quiet, sparsely forested surrounds and muted colour scheme, Spicers Vineyards Estate is a great example of a boutique hotel slipping seamlessly into its surrounds and relying solely on the quality of its product to draw custom.
Its eight huge suites are all indulgent, five-star affairs – beds you disappear into, granite bathrooms and open wood fires. The receptionist had said the mini-bar was complimentary for the first night. After I examine the gourmet libations and treats within, I have to double check that I heard her correctly. A nod and a smile is her reply.
Sydney itself is no slouch when it comes to being spoiled. It's wintertime, so Bondi Beach is not the usual carnival of boozed-up backpackers and surf bums when I check into the newly built Adina Hotel close to the waterfront. Here, the accommodation is both a swanky hotel suite with all mod-cons and a self-catering apartment, all with a hint of art deco styling. Out on the quiet streets, locals pad up the pavement in wetsuits with boards under their arms while drier associates sip lattes in quiet spots like the gorgeous Gertrude & Alice Cafe Bookstore.
Australia is renowned as a meat-eater's heaven (Down Under, vegetables are what your food eats) but seafood is treated with a special reverence too. Therefore, what looks like a chipper on Bondi promenade is actually an expansive fishmonger's with cooking facilities, meaning fish and chips a cut above the norm. You'd also have to be very unlucky to find sushi that was less than perfect.
Sydney's multiculturalism is one of its most attractive qualities, and many ethnic cuisines are as good as it gets. Turn off George St, the city centre's main arterial avenue, and you find Australia's largest Chinatown. Yebisu Izakaya is a swinging Japanese diner as authentic as any in downtown Tokyo. You peruse the menu and order by iPad, while smiling waitresses ring bells and push trolleys, warbling loudly across the room at each other as they go.
With excuses suddenly being found to crow-bar an extra meal-time or two per day, the dreaded Sydney Stone would begin to loom unless we took ourselves in hand. This we decided over a succulent Turkish kebab and a schooner of Tasmanian ale, I might add. Luckily, Sydney's prettiness lends itself to stretching the legs.
A sunrise walk around the waterfront is a great way to grasp the lay of the land before the hordes wake up. Beginning at the affluent waterside apartments of Piermont, we walk through Darling Harbour past swarms of joggers and up on to the Rocks, Sydney's oldest and classiest city quarter. By the time we reach the iconic bivalve crests of the Opera House, the joggers are starting to be replaced by commuters and the Manly Ferry is crawling back and forth to Circular Quay.
It takes half an hour to get out to Manly's beach-front suburb. There, we meet up with Manly Ocean Adventures to watch migrating humpback whales via speedboat before hiking up over the headlands above rusty cliff faces. Across the water, we can see the city's spires of commerce protruding in the distance.
With a culture that places huge emphasis on quality of life, while also having a strong and efficient work ethic, it is no wonder that Australia has become a byword for prosperity and opportunity, especially for the Irish Diaspora.
A word of caution, however, for those paying a short visit; prices have soared in an economy that is swelling due to a lucrative mining industry and bubbling property prices. Australia is now a pricey holiday destination, with Sydney ranking in the top-five most expensive cities on earth. While a beer – a beverage without which the country would presumably grind to a halt – will set you back around €5.50/€6, some bars will charge up to €7.
It's a long way to fly so, if you are serious about your food and wine, you'll have done your homework and will be able to avoid the major price traps. Anyway, it's much more fun worrying about that Sydney Stone.
Wine Country Ballooning
It takes a couple of minutes to get used to the idea of floating in a basket hundreds of metres above the ground, but once you do you understand why people have been viewing the world this way since 1783. Silent, gentle and offering stunning views over the Hunter Valley, there is no better way to appreciate a premiere wine region and a lush landscape. Champagne and chocolates await you on landing. hunterballoonrides.com.au
Spicers Vineyards Estate
Should you end up travelling out to the Hunter Valley with the superb team at Boutique Tours Australia (boutiquetoursaustralia. com. au), try to overnight in this pulse-lowering five-star guesthouse located among the eucalyptuses. Tasteful, subtly luxuriant and unassuming, this is a perfect resting place for pickled brain cells after a day's wine tasting.
Sydney Sunrise Stroll
Make it your business while in Sydney to get up early one morning and walk the simple route around the city shoreline between Piermont and the Botanic Gardens. Apart from health-conscious citizens jogging past, you will have the views of the Rocks, Harbour Bridge, CBD and Opera House all to yourself, all served up with fruit bat squawks and the blush of sunrise.
Emirates departs daily from Dublin to Dubai and connects onwards to Sydney. From September 1st, it will operate two daily flights from Dublin.
Flights from Dublin to Sydney are from €811 Economy Class and €3,703 Business Class (Return flight prices inclusive of all taxes and charges). See www.emirates.ie or visit the Emirates reservations office on Hume Street, Dublin 2. Tel: (01) 779 4777
Stay at the new Adina Bondi located within walking distance of the iconic Bondi Beach. adinahotels.com.au For more information: australia.com winecountry.com.au
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