The night before we leave Australia I get jammed up in a dream. I’m in a small plane flying low to the water, face pressed against a small oval window. All I can see are receding tracks of sunlight lit like diamonds in our wake, as if they are being dropped from the hold. The plane isn’t one we’ve taken on the trip that’s just about to end, though it’s similar to the prop we flew from Auckland to Napier which landed on tarmac edged with wild grass just after dawn, breaking through warm summer rain clouds to reveal a landscape that was achingly beautiful, primeval. My dream plane doesn’t touch down and there is no land is sight. I wake up in a dark hotel room in Sydney trying to make sense of a journey that I realize has already begun its inexorable fade into anecdote and history.
Travel is heightened life, a high without drugs (though in our case fueled with a more than sufficient amount of alcohol). The three of us travel much as we live ~ Lukka in command of all the boats, planes and automobiles, me booking the views and cherry picking the restaurants, Daniel plunging off the road to forage plants and flowers, name birds. Except for Singapore (a conundrum of a city) everything we chanced upon in Fremantle, Margaret River, Rottnest Island, Hawkes Bay, Waiheke Island and finally Sydney ~ the people, the landscape, even the notoriously fickle weather ~ opened its arms to us.
As it turned out, because we were chasing summer, we ended up in regions built around food, wine and farming, some caught up in a busy wedding season, all hammered by tourists. Without consciously planning it we’d traveled around the world to drop into communities much like our own. Except they weren’t. While we could discerningly judge the varietals, deconstruct the meals, wheedle our way into kitchens by proffering a parallel connection to craft, we were strangers in a strange land.
There are over 700 varieties of Eucalyptus in Australia, wherever we traveled the air seemed scented with them. "Exotic" flowers like protea, melaleuca, grevillea grow wild, gorgeously colored parrots don't just congregate in the forests but come out at dusk in ordinary neighborhoods, filling the trees. Stories of shark attacks, while only rarely true, keep the white sand beaches crowded but the sparkling sapphire sea relatively empty of swimmers. Nothing stops surfers. Nothing to stop you, if you decide to just throw caution to the wind, a big beautiful ocean awaits. Kangaroos are curious but shy; snakes, a constant worry, are almost always venomous. The answer we received (more than once) when asked what the protocol was if we got bitten was "just lay back and enjoy your last few minutes." Sage advice? Sarcasm? From the little I gleaned into Aussie nature, a combination of both.
On the North Island of New Zealand there is less that can kill you and the landscape is even more compelling; an ancient terrain suffused with an indelible English gentility, a new world sense of humor. Here, small telling details resonate. In the Hawkes Bay appellation a curtain wall of closely planted trees and vines become towering roadside hedges. Great dining happens at lunch (as it did in Margaret Riverl) where you dine only a few feet from what you're drinking (and often, what you're eating). Wine tasting is done before you are seated, so in effect you get to play your own sommelier. Every winery has a billboard at its entry that forces you to ask the question, “who is the skipper?”
In both countries you don’t need to inquire where the lamb or beef or fish comes from. Local sourcing isn’t a sales pitch, it’s a way of life. And remarkably, during our entire stay in rural areas in Australia and New Zealand, not one service professional we came across launched into a rote presentation about the wine or food or ‘their’ way of life. The Aussies are in general a bit more up front, the Kiwis more laid back, but both seem innately comfortable in their bones. It reflects in the conversations you share and ultimately what you take away. It’s hard to stay fresh when you work in hospitality, what is genuine the first dozen times you say it can’t help but get stale. Part of the game we seemed to be playing with all our interactions was shifting that paradigm. It was fun.
A small epiphany came while driving through the countryside in Hawkes Bay. Gorgeous vineyards, many sheathed in pale netting, followed the contours of gently rolling hills, but grapes weren’t the first thing you noticed. Pastured animals, olive groves, apple orchards, vegetable, fruit and flower farms ~ all were as prevalent as vineyards. Make no mistake, these are world famous wine communities justly proud of what they produce. To a great extent wine drives vital parts of the economy, yet it seems to do so without permeating everything else. It struck me that perhaps, in the grand impulse to turn everything good we invent, grow, or stumble upon into a successful business model, Americans lose the plot of why we came to loving or needing a thing in the first place. We lose the balance. If we’ve relearned anything these past few years it’s the reminder that Nature is all about balance, human and otherwise.
This conversation about diversity is an important one for us to be having in Sonoma County right now, especially in Healdsburg as we figure out how to manage our incredible appeal as a travel destination while deftly trying to balance the quality of life issues which made us want to live here in the first place. Investing in a sustainable future that encourages diversity isn’t just a way to celebrate the past, but to take it with us as we invariably change and grow. Talk is good, but let's keep it interesting (and yes, listening is even better.) It’s great to be home.
Fremantle ~ Perth ~ Rottnest Island
In Fremantle we stayed with my great friend (thankfully still crazy after all these years) artist and children's book illustratorFrané Lessac and her husband, the writer, historian and gemologist Mark Greenwood, so we have no hotel recommendations to pass on though I’m sure they abound as it’s a terrific town. Mark spent childhood summers on Rottnest, which is how Frané came to fall in love with it, and boy am I glad we didn’t just go for the day. The island was discovered in the Stone Age by Noongar Aboriginals who named it Wadjemup, "the place across the water.” It had a sad history for centuries, first used by the Dutch as an Aboriginal prison, then a reform school for bad boys, and finally as an internment camp during WW2. But it’s a story with a happy ending after the Australian Government took it over at the turn of the 20th century ~ since then three generations of families have spent summers there. The accommodations are marginally rehabed reform school cabins, but while they are as far from lux as you get, who cares? There are no cars allowed on Rotto, you just tootle around on bikes until you find a small white sand beach to your liking. Surrounded by miles of ocean with only the wind and bird cries to fill your brain, time spent is like taking a Spartan cure. The spell of Wadjemup is especially magical at dusk when the Quokkas come out to play, and late at night when you don’t need a telescope to chart the stars. Cabins are booked first come first served (we lucked out with the lighthouse keepers) but most have functioning kitchens and a place to BBQ. (oh yee- it’s Australia after all.)The Best Meal we had in Fremantle (not counting Chez Lessac-Greenwood) was at Bread in Common. Everything about this laid back kitchen/bakery was wonderful, especially the lamb ribs with chili, mint and black garlic ~ high praise in a country that is rightly known for all things lamb. The Best Meal we ate in Perth was at Print Hall. It's located in the heritage listed Old Newspaper House on St. George Terrace, but the menu is anything but old-fashioned. Under executive chef Shane Watson there is considerable talent in the kitchen here. The Blue Manna crab with curried egg and Avruga caviar was a standout, as was a wood fire grilled Cape Grim beef sirloin with faro, shimeji and smoked onion. Service was Grand Guignol, but the food was remarkable. Definitely worth a visit (which sadly, Nobu was not ~ a soulless meal, served by a joyless staff. Didn’t help that it’s located in a casino). There is a long list of great microbreweries Down Under, but few have the definitive range of Little Creatures where we did a fantastic beer tasting.
Margaret River NSW
Great hotels in Margaret River are tres cher (the best are over a grand a night) so we checked out Australia’s answer to Airbnb, called Stayz, and found an amazing property called Ooi House that was everything we wanted and more. Modern in the best sense of the word ~ think IM Pei Glass House meets rammed earth and you’re there. Very cool kitchen, DVD library in a sunken viewing room with a fireplace, three bedrooms, and best of all, deep decks overlooking the property which was only a few minutes walk to the river through eucalyptus woods filled with Galah parrots and a mob of kangaroos (and their joeys!)
Lunches were long affairs, each one phenomenal. Shout out to the folks at Voyager Estate who carried Frané’s books in their shop and were kind enough to share roses from their gardens with Daniel, who did the knock out arrangements for a cocktail party we threw at Ooi to celebrate the publication of Frané and Mark's new children’s book, Midnight. Vasse Felix ~ the food and the wine ~ was also a standout.
In a serendipitous move I still can’t explain I had rearranged our entire trip around a stay at Black Barn Vineyards; it turned out to be one of the highlights. Black Barn is thoughtful diversification personified. The property grows and produces its own wine, is the location for Hawkes Bay’s seasonal farmer's market, boasts a stunning outdoor amphitheater for live music and film, AND has a stand alone art gallery that specializes in NZ artists. Last, but certainly not least, it supports a brilliant restaurant and tasting room.
We stayed in Black Barn’s namesake cottage smack dab in the middle of vineyards heavy with grapes as it was getting on for late summer. On one side of our cottage sheep wandered through olive groves, on the other the biodynamic skin company Weleda grazes long horn bulls.
Four partners own Black Barn, but the man responsible for the exquisite design of the buildings and the remarkable landscaping is one Andy Coltart. In true NZ style, once he learned of our interest in all things related to food and design he invited us on a hike down to the Tuki Tuki river, followed by dinner with his lovely wife Susan at their home. We enjoyed the time spent with him immensely, not least because of a long conversation we had about how to encourage selective development. Turns out Hawkes Bay is grappling with some of the same issues "popularity" has brought to Sonoma County and Coltart, who loves to build things, is looking for the sweet spot. FYI: Black Barn has gorgeous places to rent across the north island.
On the last leg of our journey we took a car ferry from Auckland to Waiheke Island, landing on the busiest weekend of their summer. It's a small island but incredibly, there were five weddings in play at the larger wineries. The kind folks at Lavender Hill took pity on us and rented us a small room in the manager's cottage, which happily commanded one of the most exquisite views of the trip (it was hard to beat Rottnest). Then again, every view on Waiheke is commanding. If the cicadas don't drive you crazy and you can find a property with a well (water is a problem) you could retire here or do a winter for summer exchange if island life is your thing. Thanks to an accommodating waitress at Batch Winery where we did a tasting and enjoyed (incongruously) high tea, we finagled a table at Oyster Inn, the hottest dinner reservation in town. As it turned out, we never got to the table because sitting at the bar was so much fun. The lovely Tamarah, a native, filled us in on all things Waiheke as she and her crew rocked it, knocking off cocktail after cocktail. Tipsy wedding guests wandered in from various parts of the island and were gently sent on their way, the dress code went from formal to board shorts and flip flops, the crowd at the door never let up. We had quite a few Dealer's Choice cocktails, then a bottle of white to wash down incredibly delicious local oysters, whole grilled flounder, and a kick ass Lemon Tart which, if memory serves me, Daniel and I fought over. A great night.
I first stayed at Establishment Hotel years ago and it’s an even better choice now that the hottest Chinese Restaurant in town, Mr. Wong, has taken up residence right next door. Located down a difficult to find mews street (ok, alley) in the heart of the Market St. business district, Establishment is spare and moody, with dark wood beams and distressed floors. The bathrooms are big and most of them have tubs, which is becoming a rarity. Mr. Wong does not take reservations but if you are staying at Establishment they will call over and snag you a table. Though dinner was delicious, hands down the best meal we had in Sydney was (again) at lunch, at Kitchen by Mike, which takes up part of the industrial hanger-like space Koskela expanded into with its move from Surry Hills. Koskela is a collection of arts, crafts and furniture from all over New Zealand. Kitchen by Mike is a take off on an English worker's canteen, though Mike McEnearney, former executive chef at Rockpool, is as far from a cafeteria chef as it’s possible to be. The sourcing was impeccable, the dishes inventive, bread and coffee (which they also sell along with a range of condiments) the best we had on the trip. Mike once worked for the Conran group in London, which may explain how easily the design and food concept live together here. How did we find Kitchen by Mike at Koskela? We asked a lovely saleswoman who was selling me a sweater in The Standard Store in Surry Hills. She ‘looked’ like she’d know. She did. Seek and you shall find!
You can book Establishment Hotel on their website, but I used Tablet Hotels because that’s where I first found it. It’s not fair to find hotels on ‘good’ travel sites (and Tablet is one of the best) and not use them to book!