Sunday, 30 October 2011

Christchurch: A City on the Mend

I've spent the past week in New Zealand, and my first stop was Christchurch as part of a group of journalists invited by Tourism New Zealand.

It's been a mere eight months since the major earthquake which devastated its historic city centre, so I was interested to see what the situation was like now, especially for travellers who might like to visit. 

There was little visible evidence of quake damage on the way from the airport through the Christchurch suburbs, but as we reached the centre we started to notice buildings which had bracing applied to their exteriors to stabilise them, awaiting repair.

Here's an example, a building in the Arts Centre which was once part of a university campus (you can see one of its spires sitting on the ground on the right):

Further on, we reached the edge of the 'Red Zone' to which entry is not possible, dotted with buildings awaiting demolition. Here the vista was more startling, with half-collapsed shops in the foreground and the ominous leaning tower of the former Hotel Grand Chancellor at the rear:

However, among the wreckage there are already green buds of hope and renewal. Just after we left Christchurch, a section of shopping mall was reopened in an ingenious set of shipping containers re-engineered as temporary shops. And over the coming months the Red Zone will steadily shrink, to be replaced by a proposed new city centre with a pedestrian-friendly layout and better integration of the Avon River.

Speaking of which, just a short walk from the Red Zone, the famous punting on the river continues to be a popular attraction. We joined a boat, and passed the happy punters you can see below:

Our next stop was the Banks Peninsula, an oval-shaped promontory which juts into the Pacific from the eastern coast of the South Island. On the way we stopped at She Chocolat, a chocolate-making business with a restaurant in a beautiful setting overlooking Governors Bay. Its timber premises had stood up remarkably well to the force of the quake. Here's a (tasty) selection of their output:

The Banks Peninsula is a collection of ancient volcanic craters, smoothed by the passage of time and with some very attractive scenery. Here I am at a popular lookout point:

In the centre of the peninsula, on a long harbour which stretches in from the Pacific, is the town of Akaroa. A beautiful holiday village, it was founded by French settlers in 1840, at almost the same moment that New Zealand was claimed by the British. They stayed on under British rule, and you can still see some French elements about the town:

The next day we headed into the harbour on a dolphin-spotting cruise. As we located them outside the harbour mouth in rougher seas, it was a somewhat queasy experience for me. But hey, the diminutive and rare Hector's Dolphins were cool:

Finally, we climed the hills behind the town to visit the 19th century Giant's House, originally a grand residence for the first bank manager in Akaroa. Over the past few decades its gardens have been transformed by a local artist into a riot of colourful statues with a mosaic finish. It's an amazing place, popular for weekend visits and B&B stays:

Overall it was an interesting few days in and around the quake-rocked city. As the aftershocks have subsided, the city is tackling the damage with great heart; and with less affected places such as Akaroa within reach, Christchurch does seem like a place that travellers can now visit and thus contribute to its return to normality.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of Tourism New Zealand.

Friday, 21 October 2011

The Alphabet Dinners: I is for I Carusi

In The Alphabet Dinners series, I review the cheap restaurants of Melbourne... In alphabetical order.

It's been a while since I reviewed a cheap Melbourne restaurant taken from the Age Cheap Eats guide. That's partly because I was up to the letter I, and there weren't many choices.

Last night, however, I was on my way to sample the wares of the Taco Truck which pops up around suburban Melbourne - yesterday it was parked in North Carlton. But as I boarded the number 1 tram, the rain started falling, and I stayed on past my intended stop to find myself at I Carusi in East Brunswick.

According to the guide, this place has been doing pizzas with "all class but no frills" for over a decade. That said, I'm not surprised I haven't come across it before - its located within an old shopfront on Holmes St, just after the tram does a quick dogleg from the top end of Lygon St. It's a quiet stretch at night, and the lit-up restaurant stood out like a beacon on an overcast evening.

It looked like there were no free tables and I'd be out of luck, but then I was summoned through to the back room, to a little table by the rear door. Not a bad spot really, and the back room was buzzing with a big group at one long table and some smaller groups at others.

It was a pretty simple menu - a long list of pizzas in big and small sizes, with salads and desserts on a blackboard.

First to arrive was my glass of Cavallino Syrah Sicilia, the house red, served in a straightforward glass:

Next, the pizza arrived, breathtakingly quickly given how busy the restaurant was. The menu was replete with arty pizza variants including ones involving broccoli and gorgonzola, but I went for a classic - a small capricciosa with tomato, fiore di latte cheese, ham, mushrooms, olives and anchovies.

It was excellent, a beautiful balance of flavours and textures - a light crisp base, flavoursome tomato, fresh tasty toppings. Apologies for the blurry photo by the way, I'm still getting the hang of the camera on the new iPhone and didn't want to bother fellow diners by using the flash too much:

Alongside the pizza was this salad, with fiore di latte, basil and tomato. Excellent, though it did mean a very cheesy meal (my fault):

All up, the service was friendly and efficient, and the food was excellent. In fact I couldn't help thinking how much better the experience was compared to that at my 'B' restaurant Bande à Part, which isn't far away geographically and offers similar food.

The Bill: $29.50
The Restaurant: 46a Holmes St, East Brunswick; Ph: 03 9386 5522

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Melbourne's Angels & Demons

We're in the last week of the Melbourne Festival, the city's annual big-budget celebration of the arts. Coming hot on the heels of the Melbourne Fringe Festival, it showcases impressive and challenging productions from around the world, as well as locally produced shows of distinction.

Beyond the usual formal venues, the festival usually has one or two outdoor fixtures which grab the populace's attention for the run of the event. This year the standout example is Angels-Demons Parade from Russia. This consists of several bizarre and enormous glossy black statues, which appear to represent babies with the wings and tails of reptilian demons.

Though they may look like diabolical half-breeds, the angel-demon babies appear to be innocents, with playful expressions and postures. They're disturbingly interesting, prompting me to reflect that what we assume to be good or evil, may simply be "other".

I took these photos at night, walking southward from the Melbourne Town Hall, stopping at City Square, St Paul's Cathedral and Federation Square, ending at the Arts Centre where three of the creatures are in residence.

Another less-publicised outdoor event of the festival is Cacophony: The Art of Conflict. It consists of a series of images projected across the external walls of the main Arts Centre building and Hamer Hall (the concert hall), viewed from the square between them.

The 12-minute performance is a lot of fun - the buildings come to life, interacting with each other via music and imagery. My favourite bit is when they carry out a little war, flinging virtual paint bombs at each other. The curved concrete surface of Hamer Hall even dons armour plating before rolling out its cannons...

Angels-Demons Parade and Cacophony: The Art of Conflict continue to Saturday 22 October. See the Melbourne Festival website for more details.

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Unpublished 11: St Kilda by the Bay

I just stumbled across a trial guidebook entry about the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, which I wrote in 2005. 

It was created as part of my application to be included in Lonely Planet's pool of authors; ultimately successful therefore, but never published. 

Here it is now, an overview of the bayside locality's charms...

From the moment an 1841 party of picnickers named St Kilda after their offshore yacht, the Melbourne bayside suburb has been a place devoted to fun. Loved for its entertainment and damned for its vice, it’s never ceased attracting pleasure-seekers.

Despite recent gentrification, St Kilda’s edgier side survives, resulting in bohemian types rubbing shoulders with suited professionals, prostitutes, new-agers, teenagers, tourists and ultra-permed old ladies wedded to Acland St’s famous cake shops.

Its seaside resort history lives on via its entertainment options and classic structures like Luna Park, the St Kilda Sea Baths, and St Kilda Pier, as well as sandy St Kilda Beach with its trademark backdrop of palm trees.

Before that fateful picnic, St Kilda was the home of an indigenous coastal tribe known as the Yalukit-willam, one of the five clans of the Bunurong. They roamed the area between St Kilda and Port Melbourne, and knew the St Kilda area as “Euro-Yroke”, their name for the red-brown sandstone found along the beach.

It wasn’t long, of course, before the bay views attracted another kind of “Euro” altogether: newly-arrived settlers from Britain and beyond. They created a fashionable suburb which quickly acquired mansions, churches, a synagogue, sea baths and posh hotels.

With the advent of the tramways in the 1880s, St Kilda took another dramatic shift. With thousands of everyday people having access to its attractions, it became a bustling seaside town, and the rich folk fled to the greener pastures of South Yarra and Toorak.

They may have tut-tutted at the perceived lowering of tone, but it’s true that St Kilda had its seedier side. The early 20th century saw the building of great entertainment venues like Luna Park, the Palais Theatre and the St Moritz ice-skating rink, but also witnessed a boom in brothels and street prostitution. St Kilda was one of the first Melbourne suburbs to have an apartment boom, with many flats constructed in the 1930s.

World War II brought an invasion of American military personnel in search of a good time, an era captured in local painter Albert Tucker’s moody modernist paintings of soldiers and local girls on a big night out.

After the war, an influx of European migrants added a distinctive flavour to St Kilda’s population and cuisine, the spectacular cake shops of Acland St their most visually appealing legacy.

In the 1960s and '70s, there was growing concern about St Kilda’s illicit massage parlours, drug trafficking and street kids. However, from the 1980s a wave of gentrification began to sweep the area, as house-hunters began to appreciate anew the suburb’s unique bohemian atmosphere and natural advantages.

Luckily, gentrification and increasingly expensive property hasn’t extinguished St Kilda’s raffish charms, and visitors from Melbourne and beyond still flock to its entertainments and attractions year-round. 


Luna Park
Lower Esplanade

This venerable amusement park is the symbol of St Kilda as holiday playground, and was based on the funfairs of the USA’s Coney Island. Though Luna Park is showing its age in places, it still fulfils its function of amusing kids and adults via its various rides. A highlight is the Scenic Railway rollercoaster, the oldest still operating in the world, with impressive views of the bay (if you can concentrate on the horizon while you’re going up and down!).

St Kilda Pier 
Pier Rd

A landmark since 1853, St Kilda Pier stretches into the waters of Port Phillip Bay. At the end was a distinctive century-old kiosk which burned down in 2003, but was rebuilt from the original blueprint. Take a walk along the pier to get a waterside view of the city, and the old port of Williamstown through the forest of nearby yacht masts. From November to April, a daily ferry runs from here to Williamstown and return.

St Kilda Sea Baths
10 Jacka Blvd

Before enclosed public swimming pools existed, the St Kilda Sea Baths were all the rage. After the imposing Moorish structure became run down, it was redeveloped (controversially) as a heath and dining centre. Now it houses a salt water pool, along with a steam room and spa pool.

Catani Gardens 
Beaconsfield Pde

Palm trees were a symbol of the exotic to 19th century folk, and the Catani Gardens are home to dozens of them, lining the gravel paths which lead to a gazebo with an onion-shaped cupola. There's a barbecue and playground at the northern end. On any afternoon you might see people picnicking on the lawns, walking their dogs, or practising their juggling or drumming skills. The park's proximity to busy Fitzroy Street means you can always slip away for a beer once the sunset's been and gone.

The Unpublished is a random series comprising my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Into the Hills on Puffing Billy

In all my travel writing about Melbourne and its environs, I've rarely written about the iconic Puffing Billy steam train (except for entries in my two iPhone/iPad apps, Melbourne Historical and Melbourne Getaways).

In fact I'd only ever been on the train once, and that was in the dining car for a limited distance. So it was time to enjoy the trip the way the average punter does - in one of the open-sided carriages that are pulled by steam power through the attractive greenery of the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne.

It was pretty chilly when we arrived at the narrow-gauge station at Belgrave, with the cool air highlighting the smoke and vapour from the steam engine:

Here's a shot of me in the engine:

And here's the gent who was actually driving the thing:

And we're off! First challenge was to take a decent snap of the train as it curved around and crossed this trestle bridge:

A brief stop at Menzies Creek meant a photo op for these tourists:

It was a very cold ride that day - but the open-sided carriages were a huge plus for photography (and also meant that kids could sit with their legs hanging out the sides of the train if they wanted to). Some beautiful green scenery on the way:

On our way back from Emerald we got to join the attractive dining carriage which was on the return leg of the daily Steam and Cuisine lunch service. Here's Narrelle:

Back at Belgrave at the end of the trip, I realised the First Class dining carriages were each named after a station on the former Tasmanian mining railway which is now known as the West Coast Wilderness Railway (and you can see my blog post from that journey here):

From Belgrave, it was a short dash up the walkway connecting the narrow gauge station to the mainline Belgrave suburban station, then onto an electric train for the trip back to the centre of Melbourne. Faster, certainly, but not as much fun as Puffing Billy.

Disclosure time: On this trip I was hosted by the Puffing Billy Railway. Find details of its timetable and fares by clicking here.