Never too much of a good thing

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Sunrise in the country

Poor us – we had to stay here for 4 whole days!

Let me set the scene. It has been 8 years since we met on Santorini and went on our first date. To celebrate this anniversary, we took ourselves to wine country. This isn’t really a surprise to anyone who knows us, as we both love wine, and have certainly made similar jaunts in the past. This time, we headed to the stunning Barossa Valley in South Australia. That’s right, home to some of the finest wine in the world – for 4 days and three nights. As I said, poor us, right?

If you look really closely at this photo, you will see where we stayed int he background. This is the view from the top of the hill that I climbed each morning as the sun was coming up – just one of the glorious details that made the weekend sublime. On arrival back at the homestead each morning, a freshly baked breakfast was waiting. The first morning it was muffins, the next was home-made toasted muesli, and the last, homemade bread with homemade jam. Our host was really into homemade.

We stayed at a little farm we found on airbnb. If you haven’t yet heard of airbnb, then he’s a quick and dirty: it’s a website listing homestays all over the world. Some are a room, some are are whole house. Typically, airbnbers host only one guest, or couple, or family of guests at a time. Ben stayed in the heart of Amsterdam once, and together we have stayed in three wine regions now – Napa, Yarra Valley and Barossa.

This stay was quite unique. We stayed in the farm’s original outer buildings – with three rooms side-by-side, each with a door to the outside. It’s the first time I have had to go outside from my sleeping quarters to get to the bathroom since I ran tours in Europe – but far nicer. Though in Europe, I typically didn’t have to chance stepping in geese poop – well, except maybe in Rome and that is a whole ‘nother story.

This is the view along the veranda:

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one kitty

This was our bed:

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grandma’s feather bed

It wasn’t actually a feather bed, but we did use the mosquito net – country living, after all. Lots of critters.

This was the just one corner of the bathroom, which was the biggest room of all – our host is a woman with her priorities straight. And that tub was glorious.

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Epic tub

On the second day, we were joined in the bathroom by a creature of the arachnid variety. Ben, who has yet to encounter one of those hand-sized huntsmen says, “Now I can say I’ve seen one of those giant Australian spiders.” This was my (slightly) patronising reply: “Actually, now you can say that you’ve seen one of a giant Australian spider’s babies.” (It wasn’t very big – maybe three centimeters across).

“And you know what is worse than finding a spider in your bathroom?” I asked my now concerned boyfriend. He shook his head. Like the tough Aussie chick I am, I must have impressed him with this important nugget, “Knowing there’s a spider in your bathroom, but not being able to see where it went. If it goes out of sight, check your towel before you use it.”

Ahhhh, country life. I should say that we spent a great deal of time in the outdoor room, fending off puppy dog eyes, so we didn’t have to share our spoils.

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scavengers

 

 

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Audrey Hepburn

Yes, that is actually the dog’s name. And while she is called something regal and she looks quite regal in this photo, she’s usually covered in dirt and the saliva of her two male counterparts. In truth, she’s a little slapper.

Here are some other shots from around the farm:

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sunrise
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still runs
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glam rockers

How cool are these horses’ manes?

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trail

Oh, and I nearly forgot. There was wine! Barossa is not just a beautiful location, they have wine there too.

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vines

We did our first taste the morning we arrived – late morning – we are not total lushes. And did our last taste the morning we left (again, late morning). Henschke was a highlight, as was Pindarie. I think we reached saturation point, however, when we got to the end of the third day, and were tasting what was probably a very nice Riesling. I looked at Ben and said, “I can’t tell if this is good or not. I think my palette is tired. And my brain is definitely tired.” He felt the same, so we excused ourselves and quit for the day.

We developed a set of subtle cues to tell each other that we didn’t really care for the wine without insulting the person two feet away who was pouring it for us. “Thank you, but I can only try one or two, I’m driving,” I said on numerous occasions. If Ben agreed, he’d follow up with, “We’re over limit on our luggage at the moment, but can we find your wine in Melbourne?”

Of course, if we loved something, we bought it and then we shipped it all back. A cool tip: there are about 15 wineries that will ship a mixed case for $15. That is, if you buy one or two of their bottles, they will ship a case that’s completed from other peoples’ wine. Ask at the cellar door, and if they don’t do it, ask who does. They will likely have a list. Penfolds doesn’t by the way.

Of course, there was also incredible food – not just at the farm-stay, but at little pubs and restaurants that dot the picturesque towns of the valley. We were impressed with the selections, along with the incredible produce.

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picture perfect

All in all, the trip was exactly what we’d hoped it would be – relaxing, enjoyable, a feast for the eyes and the stomach, and a long-anticipated visit to somewhere new.

Happy anniversary, Ben. I can’t wait for our next adventure!

NZ ’13

I was a lucky bugger and I won a trip – an all-expenses-paid trip – to New Zealand. 25 words or less on who I would take to NZ and why, and a couple of months later Ben and I were winging our way to Wellington. This is a retrospective of our 7 night, 8 day adventure along the New Zealand Classic Wine Trail. Kia Ora, New Zealand!!

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We arrived in Wellington where it was a little windy and wet and the locals kept apologising for the weather. Settled in at the Wellesley Hotel rather quickly, we then made our way to the Te Papa museum for a private tour. At both places we were expected and were greeted with, “Are you Sandy and Ben?” We decided that we could get used to this treatment, which we received at many of the places on the rest of the trip – others seemed to have forgotten that we were coming (oops). Either way, though, the Kiwis are lovely and gracious people and we were generally treated like the rock stars that we think we are.

Te Papa, by the way, is phenomenal – NZ’s history, culture and natural wonders encapsulated in one impressive structure. I was particularly struck by the Colossal Squid exhibit.

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official photograph (not mine)

The next morning, we drove north-east for about 4 hours to the Hawke’s Bay region.

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The sun was high in the sky as we pulled into Ash Ridge winery for lunch – the first of MANY wineries.

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After lunch it was into Napier, a town on Hawke’s Bay that was destroyed in 1931 by and earthquake and completely rebuilt. It has one of the world’s finest collections of Art Deco buildings and architecture. We were taken on a walking tour of the town by the Art Deco Society.

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Back at their HQ, the Art Deco Society showed us a film about the town – with footage from the ’30s and gifted us with some souvenirs. How lovely!

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The next day we were driven out to Cape Kidnapper’s to see the gannets. Actually, when we arrived at the appointed time, we waited (and waited) and finally decided to call our contact. Her immediate response when we said we had arrived for the gannet tour was, “But the gannets are gone!” Then she realised that we were “Sandy and Ben – the prize winners” and roused her hubby out of bed to drive us out there anyway.

We were on private property most of the way – it’s a working farm and golf course owned by an American billionaire. The views are ridiculous. And there were a few gannets waiting for us at the cape – the late bloomers who had yet to depart for the winter.

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Gannets
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This little guy kept a close eye on us.

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After Cape Kidnapper’s (so-called because when Cook arrived, the Maoris mistook one of his crew, a Tahitian, for one of their own and kidnapped him. Cook and his crew got him back and sailed off around this cape and he named it at that time), we were due to collect bike for a 1/2-day ride, but instead we found Clearview winery.

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We were greeted by a lovely lady who took us on a guided tour of their tasting menu and then deviated from it a few times. She and her partner had found a couple of unlabelled cases the day before – and ’00 cabernet and an ’02 cabernet-merlot – and she gave us a pour. Holy guacamole. She said she would price them while we had lunch – which we thoroughly enjoyed – and we bought a bottle of the ’02. Pricey, but we’ll save that for a special occasion.

We did end up grabbing the bikes for a couple of hours when we got back to Napier. We rode 8kms to the closest wineries – Mission Estate and Church Road – and bought a bottle from Church Road (a Riesling). It is easy to excuse yourself from buying when you’re on bikes. And it is a little harder than you might think to ride back into town after tasting at only two wineries – not that we were too tiddly, but after a few days of no exercise, lots of sitting and lots of wine, the body can protest a 40 minute bike ride (each way).

The next day we drove south, heading towards Greytown where we would have $100 to spend at Schoc chocolates.

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At a place where the 75g bars are $11, this took less time than you might think, but we tasted our way through their menu too – and found some great selections. Dark chocolate rose – yum.

And on the way we saw some cool stuff, including 2 giant kiwis and a Viking (for Ben’s mum, who barracks for the Minnesota Vikings – and for Ben, who is descended from them).

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We even met this little gal, at Loopline, one of the first wineries you will come to heading south on the 2, just before Greytown.

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She rushed out to greet us at this beautiful  place.

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It has a simple tasting room, where you’ll meet the winemaker and his lovely dog, whose name we never caught. Still, we bought a bottle of their Riesling, because it was dry and delicious.

Into Martinborough, which is a lovely town reminiscent of small towns in the south-west of Australia, like Bridgetown, we were shown to a spectacular suite, which had an equally spectacular bathroom.

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We just had a night there, and popped across the road to the local where we had great wine, and great food – and met the locals! Packing the next morning was a little tricky – we had a kilo of chocolate, 5 bottles of wine, we still had Marlborough to go, and we were getting on a ferry that afternoon.

We headed towards Wellington, and miscalculated the arrival time at the (not so) stunning ferry terminal, so got to spend 3 hours there. On the ferry we were treated to the executive lounge, and had a lovely late lunch and wine as we headed to Picton on the South Island. The views were rather gorgeous.

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That night and the next we were at the Marlborough Vintner’s Hotel, where we woke up both mornings to stunning sunrises over the vineyards.

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Our full day in Marlborough we were treated to a private winery tour, with our guide (other) Ben. He took us out to Cloudy Bay.

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And then he took us to Cloudy Bay.

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We got private tours and tastings at 6 wineries, and stopped for lunch at Wither Hills, where – again – we bought the Riesling. Seeing a trend??

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The next day – my birthday – we returned via ferry to Wellington (back to the Wellesley), where we were greeted with champagne and a Devonshire Tea. Did someone mention it was my birthday? We decided to skip Zealandia, which was supposed to be our afternoon activity, but the weather was not great for an outdoor nature experience, and we really just wanted to go shopping. Wellington is a hip city, reminiscent in many ways of Seattle, although (sorry Seattle-ites) the Wellingtonians dress FAR better than the average Seattleite. The 40 and 50-somethings had the coolest style. Diggin’ the Kiwi vibe.

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That night we decided on a cocktail (no more wine, please!!!) at Matterhorn and then dinner at Monsoon Poon. Both places gifted me with a complimentary cocktail (thanks!) and the salmon at Monsoon Poon was crazy good. We even got a massive booth, with some cool signatures lining the walls.

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How’s that for a cross section of celebs? Sachin Tendulkar, Nora Jones, and Gordon Ramsay.

The next morning, we began the long journey home.

Thank you as always to my darling travel companion, Ben, with whom I row merrily.

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Road Trip

“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” Robert Louis Stevenson

This quote is taped to my desk at work – at eye level. I see it every day, and every day I think to myself, ‘How true.” Or mostly true, for me. Robert and I differ in the ‘not to go anywhere’ part, because I often travel to specifically go somewhere, but like R.L.S., I also travel just to move. Moving, going, leaving, arriving, this global kinetic energy that I partake of and contribute to, is part of my internal rhythm.

And this type of energy is heightened in a particular kind of travel: The Road Trip.

R.L.S. died in 1894, so it is safe to say that he never went on a road trip. Not really. Not the kind we take today, in cars, and on actual roads. He never knew the pleasure hitting the open road, with plans and expectations crammed in the mind, like the maps and brochures are crammed into the glove box.

But, as I climbed into a hire car in San Francisco earlier this week, I knew he would have approved. After all, ‘…the great affair is to move’, and the first leg of my trip with Ben, was the same trip Stevenson shared with his new bride in 1880: a journey north to the Napa Valley.

San Francisco is nothing like I imagined, basing my extensive expectations on remembered episodes of Full House and Party of Five, but it did not disappoint. In fact, our 44 hour stint there, our taster of a great city to which we will someday return, was so full that it is a whole post of its own. Soon. I promise.

This journey starts in SanFran, and ends in Seattle. It encompasses the Napa Valley, the northern Californian coast, Oregon’s coast, Portland, Oregon’s capital, and everywhere in between.

To the Napa Valley

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge is cool. It is huge and iconic and brightly burnt orange, and crossing it for the first time means, “I have been to San Francisco.” Even though Ben and I had been traversing the streets of the city for two days, this was the moment when it sank in that I was actually there – and we were leaving.

Golden Gate Crossing

The drive to Napa Valley is just over an hour. This is not a long drive, unless you are dying to pee and arrive in Yountville. Yountville is one of many small towns dotted along Highway 29, and is just north of Napa. It is beautiful and pristine and apparently people who visit have no bathroom needs (there are no public toilets). After an excruciating reconnaissance of the town, which oddly was shut at 10:30 in the morning, I hobbled to a roadside porta potty. Back in the car, my mood lifted (Ben is a master of patiently bearing the desperate cries and angry rants that accompany this state of being), and we drove on to Chandon Estate.

Chandon Estate

Chandon sparkling white is a staple for me and my friends when we attend the horseracing carnivals in Sydney, so I was looking forward to visiting the Napa estate. The grounds and building were beautifully situated, and there was a reverent hush in the air. We were directed to a tasting bar, and Ben ordered a flight of wines – three half flutes, each wine distinctive and delicious (offered sips were gratefully accepted).
A taste of California
I ordered a sparkling rose, just released, and drank slowly as I drank in my surroundings. It was a perfect
California day: cloudless blue skies and 26°. We drove on.

I had done my homework and knew I wanted to go to Rubicon Estate, not far to the north. I could not remember why my reading had triggered this desire, until we pulled into the grand gates of Rubicon, valeted the car and walked up the steps onto a red carpet. “Ah, yes,” I said, “now I remember,” a large sign jogging my memory. The estate is owned by Francis Ford Coppola, and it is majestic.

Rubicon Estate

A $25 fee would buy us a three-day passport, which included 5 tastings, tours and, well, just being there. An orientation tour fed us the history of Rubicon, which was once owned by a Russian visionary called Niebaum. Niebaum envisioned the tasting rooms and cellar door culture that is now ubiquitous in wine regions worldwide. He produced exceptional wines, which were served exclusively at the White House and on exclusive trans-Atlantic cruises. In purchasing the winery and making vast, restorative improvements, Coppola has paid homage to its history and has restored its wine-making prestige.

Neibaum and Coppola

We tasted a flight of five wines, including a Sauvignon Blanc and a Syrah, and culminating in the 2004 Rubicon. The first three wines are only available at the cellar door, and Ben bought a bottle of the Syrah – it is outstanding. We would love to have bought a bottle of the Rubicon, but at $125, it is a little out of our price range.
Rubicon 2004
We enjoyed the ambiance and the banter with the older gentleman pouring our wine, and bid farewell to Rubicon, glad we had made the pilgrimage there.

We back tracked to Yountville; we knew there were many choices for lunch, having done our ‘reckie’ hours earlier. We ate at Bistro Jeanty, a French style Bistro on the main street. The food was prompt, and tasty, although I burned my mouth on the excruciatingly hot French onion soup. It made me a little grumpy, because how do you taste wine when your taste buds have been seared off?

I downed healing water as we drove on to Mumm. Mmm, Mumm. We were greeted by a warm woman, who put the officious staff at Chandon to shame. We seated ourselves on the patio overlooking the vineyard, and I presented a 2 for 1 coupon I downloaded from the net (wine tasting in Napa can be pricey).
Mumm
Our hostess brought us two flutes of yumm, I mean, Mumm. “Hey,” she said, conspiratorially, “would you like to try our signature pour? While we’re not busy.” She brought us a taste of DVX, nearly full flutes and we sipped that along with our Blanc de Noir. Both delicious, but sipping and sitting in the sun was going to my head. Ben took his tiddly girl back to the car, and we drove on to
St. Helena, where we would stay that night in a B+B. We arrived at 4, after a day of sun, sips and sighs of pleasure. Ahhh, Napa.

Next post:

St Helena to the land of the giants.