Friday 23 November 2012

A Glimpse of Melbourne

One Melbourne attraction often overlooked by travellers is its vibrant independent theatre scene.

The big musical theatre productions are easy to find, courtesy of their plentiful publicity and grand 19th century theatres.

Similarly, the state-owned Arts Centre on the south bank of the Yarra River is a tourist drawcard, staging drama, opera and concerts.

Independent theatre companies have less money for promotion, and their venues are often tucked away in compact premises outside the city centre.

But their productions, often freshly-minted works from local playwrights, can be the most stimulating live fare in town.

One of the the most accessible indie venues is Fortyfivedownstairs, situated inside an multi-level brick commercial building in the central business district's southeast corner. Below its art galleries, the theatre is a large airy space with much flexibility for the staging of live works.

Last week, Narrelle and I saw Glimpse there. Devised by the newly formed Kin Collective company and directed by Laura Maitland and Noni Hazlehurst, Glimpse explores the chance interactions of everyday life which sometimes go nowhere, but which are often significant.

The work is presented as a series of discrete scenes, each focusing on a particular interaction. The first is between two homeless men; another between two nurses; another between argumentative siblings; and so on.

As the work progresses, we see characters recur. One of the homeless men shows up in a church, mourning his long-lost son, for example. In another scene, one of the nurses talks to her lover in a laundromat. There are connections between them, we realise, and start to trace the threads.

A particularly touching scene for me as a frequent traveller, was the brief interaction between one of the siblings bursting into tears at an airport, and a woman who tries to comfort him without being able to speak his language. It's a glimpse of the famous "kindness of strangers" which we rely on more than we realise.

It's a uniformly good cast, with well-defined characters and effective delivery. A standout as the teacher is Marg Downey, best known for her TV comedy work but here a convincing dramatic actor.

There are some excellent design elements in Glimpse. Simple but intriguing are the shades of red and grey which recur in the actors' costumes, a hint perhaps of the extremes of warmth and coldness in human interaction.

Projected onto the wall behind the actors are illustrations neatly depicting the location of each scene, drawn by cartoonist Jason Chatfield, best known as the current artist on the Ginger Meggs comic strip. There's even a dash of animation in some of them, such as revolving bundles of laundry in the laundromat setting.

Glimpse is a fine work, ably illustrating the connections and misconnections which are triggered by human contact. It's well worth seeing if you're in Melbourne over the next week or so.

Glimpse runs until 2 December 2012 at Fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne. Bookings via 03 9662 9966 or the venue's website.

[And with this 50th post for the year, Aerohaveno is taking a break until January 2013. See you then... and happy travels in the meantime!]

Friday 16 November 2012

Life's a Beach (Part 2)

Little Parakeet Bay, Rottnest Island
Last post I shared five great Asia-Pacific and Australian beaches from an article I wrote for the inflight magazine of a now-extinct airline. 

Here are the final six top places to enjoy sand and surf...

Family Beach: St Kilda Beach, Melbourne

From the moment an 1841 party of picnickers named St Kilda after the offshore schooner Lady of St Kilda, the Melbourne bayside suburb has been a place devoted to fun.

Between the century-old Luna Park funfair and the renovated St Kilda Sea Baths is sandy St Kilda Beach. Its sands are backed up by a boardwalk and a path dedicated to cyclists and inline skaters.

As the water is relatively shallow until you’re a fair way out into the bay, it’s a safe place for kids to have a paddle, and there’s a broad grass area behind the beach for ball games and frisbee tossing. A little further along the shore is Catani Gardens, a great location for a picnic after a swim.

Party Beach: Patong Beach, Phuket

If you’re after a place to relax in peace and quiet, don’t head to Patong Beach. If, however, you’re looking for a party zone, you’re in the right place. The most well-known of Phuket’s beaches, Patong has over 3 kilometres of sand. It’s even more famous for the numerous bars and nightclubs centred on nearby Bangla Road and the laneways leading off it.

Some of these side streets, such as Soi Tiger and Soi Seadragon, are completely roofed, so are good places to dodge any downpours. The Aussie Bar is the best family-friendly place along this strip, and the spot to catch sporting events on its big screens.

Secluded Beach: Dream Beach, Bali

Believe it or not, it is possible to escape the holidaying crowds on ever-popular Bali. Just 12 kilometres off the southeast coast of the island is Nusa Lembongan, a much smaller island. Its secluded gem is Dream Beach, a beautiful stretch of white sand with very few touts and plenty of space to relax. The surf is generally too strong for swimming, but it’s a fine place to sunbathe.

Above the beach is the Dream Beach Huts accommodation, which operates a cafe-bar with a view of the sea. You can get to Dream Beach via regular boat services from Sanur Beach on Bali.

Small Beach: Little Parakeet Bay, Rottnest Island, off Perth

In the Indian Ocean a 30 minute cruise from Perth’s port Fremantle, Rottnest Island has long been a special place of relaxation for Western Australians. As cars are restricted on the island, the pace is set by foot or bicycle, and the local bus which does the rounds of the island’s bays.

There are places to eat and drink in The Settlement at Thomson Bay, but the real attraction of Rotto is its natural beauty and wildlife. There are many beaches dotted around the island’s circumference, but one of the best is at Little Parakeet Bay, a small but beautiful stretch of white sand surrounded by rocky outcrops.

Uncrowded Beach: Eighty Mile Beach, Port Hedland to Broome

The lengthy Eighty Mile Beach stretches between Port Hedland and Broome in Western Australia. Given its sprawl, you can always find an uncrowded spot. It’s visited by an astounding number of migratory birds each year, and is also a popular fishing destination. A secluded accommodation option is the Eighty Mile Beach Caravan Park, located about halfway along its length.

Really-getting-away-from-it-all beach: Buccaneer Archipelago, Derby

If you want a beach that’s really remote, you could do worse than hire a boat to take you to the Buccaneer Archipelago in the Indian Ocean off Derby in Western Australia. This collection of hundreds of uninhabited islands is dotted with beautiful unspoiled beaches. Be aware though, that there’s no one to help you out if you strike trouble, so check your boat’s radio gear and first aid supplies before sailing.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Life's a Beach (Part 1)

Streets Beach, Brisbane
Last year I was commissioned to write an article for the inflight magazine of Air Australia, a budget airline which offered flights to leisure destinations. A year later the airline went into liquidation, but luckily I'd been paid by then.

As the airline has departed this mortal coil and its inflight mag is but a fading memory, I thought you might enjoy the piece I wrote for it, featuring beaches across its then network. So sit back, relax, and think of sandy shores...

“All the world’s a stage,” wrote William Shakespeare, but he might as well have said “All the world’s a beach.”

Through Asia, Australia and the Pacific there are beaches of every type, hosting every attraction. Whether you’re after a rest, a meal, a party or a spot of retail action, there’s a sandy shore out there for you. Here’s a selection of the best.

Shopping Beach: Seminyak Beach, Bali

There’s a reason Redgum wrote their famous song I’ve Been to Bali Too back in 1984 - even then, the Indonesian island’s Kuta Beach was a magnet for tourists. But just a little further along the same stretch of coast is Seminyak Beach. It’s not as crowded and beats Kuta hand over fist in one particular area: shopping.

A few hundred metres back from the beach you’ll find Jalan Raya Seminyak, with interesting shops selling clothing and accessories. Some places worth checking out are Biasa for cutting-edge clothing (Jl Raya Seminyak 36), Body & Soul for cool fashion and swimwear (Jl Raya Seminyak 11), and Mario Silver for jewellery (Jl Raya Seminyak 19).

Romantic Beach: Kahala Beach, Hawaii

An alternative to Hawaii’s famous Waikiki Beach is nearby Kahala Beach, in a beautiful location with views of sand, surf, palm trees and a mountainous backdrop. As a popular wedding venue, it’s common to see at least one or two couples tying the knot here over the course of a few hours.

It’s a public beach, but as it’s near the Kahala Hotel & Resort you can dine quite close to the sands. The resort also contains the popular Dolphin Quest attraction, allowing visitors to swim with the dolphins.

City Beach: Streets Beach, Brisbane

Directly across the Brisbane River from the city’s central business district is Southbank, a pleasant zone of culture and public gardens. An unconventional highlight here is Streets Beach. This artificial swimming spot, with its imported sand and lifesavers in red and yellow, is a touch of light-hearted fun in the heart of Brisbane.

Its human-crafted lagoon and sandy shores are generally packed with people enjoying the novelty of being at a riverside beach in the inland capital of a state famous for its coastal beaches. And it has an impressive view of the glass and steel towers soaring above the mangroves on the opposite shoreline.

Surf Beach: Sunset Beach, Hawaii

If you’re a surfer and you’re up for a challenge, head to Sunset Beach on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. One of the world’s great surf beaches, it’s the home of such great competitions as the O'Neill World Cup of Surfing. Winter is the best time for waves, though surfing its mighty breaks is not recommended for inexperienced board riders.

Even without a board, its wide stretch of sand is a great place to sunbathe, and people also snorkel, bodysurf and bodyboard here. And as you’ve guessed, it’s a top spot from which to view a glorious sunset.

Dining Beach: Surin Beach, Phuket

If you’re feeling a bit exhausted by the hawkers and lively activity of most Thai beaches, Surin may be the cure. It’s more secluded than other beaches on Phuket, so is much favoured by local millionaires and visiting celebrities. It’s a pretty beach with white sand and clear water, but one of the best things to do here is eat at its long strip of Thai restaurants.

Three to look out for are Mr Crab (specialising, unsurprisingly, in crab), Twin Brothers, serving international dishes including popular pizzas, and Patcharin Seafood. Further south off Kamala Beach within the Andara Resort is the upmarket Silk, serving Thai dishes in classy premises.

Next post: A party beach, a secluded beach and a really-getting-away-from-it-all beach; but sadly no Gangnam-style beach...

Saturday 3 November 2012

Parramatta Dreaming

I'm in Sydney this weekend - more specifically in Parramatta, researching a travel article about the western suburb. Almost everyone I've mentioned this to says something like "Parramatta! Good god. Why?".

It seems that Parra has a bad reputation, and people know it only as bland or dangerous. Having lobbed in yesterday from Melbourne by plane and train, however, I've been pleasantly surprised.

It's true that there's still a bit of, ahem, edginess about the place, complete with - how shall I put this? - colourful characters idling on park benches or complaining to invisible strangers.

But there's also a lot of colour in the streetscapes and the random art, new and old, found along them. Here are a few examples I spotted on a sunny Friday...

1. Three Ropes Espresso. In an alley off a slightly dodgy street running parallel to the railway line is this new cafe, borrowing a leaf from Melbourne's alleyway cool. The graffiti-esque bird is by a Sydney artist, and the two guys running the place are entertainment in themselves. 

If you drop into the cafe in Darcy Lane, ask Andy to tell you the gruesome story behind the place's name, involving a convict they tried to hang three times...

 2. Church of the Ages. This is the remarkable St John's Church, in a broad square off the Church Street shopping strip. I say remarkable because of its interesting chronology. The original brick church building was constructed in 1803, with its twin towers and steeples not completed until 1819.

A few decades on, however, the original building was demolished and replaced with a stone church completed in 1855. The new church, however, retained the 1819 towers, as you can see here. Reminds me of the axe which had its handle replaced, then its head; was it still the same axe?

 3. The Statue Aquatic. This curious 1983 work by Richard Goodwin outside the old Town Hall reminded Narrelle and I obscurely of rubber-suited monsters we'd seen in old Doctor Who episodes.

An arts brochure from the Discover Parramatta website takes a more sensible view, describing it as "Three figures represent humanity striving against resistance. They are not completely beaten; one is winning his struggle. The water represents the source of life, the Parramatta River." Gloomy or optimistic? Your call.

 4. From One Hundred to Beyond. I was quite delighted to find this outlandish 19th century folly further along Church Street. It was erected in 1888 to mark the centenary of Parramatta's founding, which happened just months after that of Sydney.

To my (twisted?) mind, these Victorian-era monuments look like steampunk space rockets about to lift off for Queen and Empire...

 5. Horses for Courses. This horse was one of two spotted on a commercial building near the monument. There was no explanatory detail to be spotted, but I wouldn't mind betting it used to be a pub...

 6. Eels Above. Further north along Church Street was this striking piece of art, suspended above the centre of the street. The conical shapes represent the eel traps which the local Aboriginal people, the Burramatta, once used to trap the local eels:

 7. Paint Box. And finally, this was a junction box (I assume) on the side of the street. On it was a simple piece of art, easily overlooked, but it transformed a bland everyday thing into a treat for the eye. Which hopefully is the current trajectory for the much maligned Parramatta...

Disclosure time... on this trip I was hosted by the Mantra Parramatta.

Friday 26 October 2012

Hidden London in Context

It's amazing what you can find out by casting a question into the Twitterverse. When I asked my Twitter followers earlier this year about unusual or quirky walking tours of London, one name which popped up was Context.

This tour company employs only tour leaders who are academics or specialists in a particular field, who lead small groups of no more than six people and focus on a city's culture and architecture.

As I despise the vast tour groups which form human obstacles in popular destinations, I liked the sound of this. I also fancied the company's aim of helping "the erudite traveller appreciate and defend the city without overrunning it".

The erudite traveller. That's me, innit? So on a cold wet Monday morning in July, I joined Context's three hour Hidden London tour led by guide Lawrence Owens, an archaeologist and anthropologist when he's not leading tours.

"London is a Roman city," he said, before leading me a vantage point above this remnant of the Roman Empire's ancient fortifications:

"Imagine a big gate right here," he continued. "We're right in the slum area where all the military were camped."

As the rain wafted beneath my umbrella as I tried to take notes without getting the notepad wet, I wasn't having much trouble imagining a grumbling Roman sentry standing guard here and muttering about wanting to be back home in Sicily.

From here we walked past St Bartholomew's Hospital and into the Church of St Bartholomew the Great, founded in 1123 by a gent named Rahere. The interior of this very old church is darkly medieval - except, interestingly, for the colourfully decorated tomb of Prior Rahere:

And here's the decorative restored cloister off the main church, now a very atmospheric cafe:

Lawrence mentioned that the church has had a lot of exposure via television and film, appearing within Four Weddings and a Funeral, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and the 2009 Sherlock Holmes film starring Downey and Law. 

Speaking of Holmes, the roof of the nearby St Bart's Hospital was the place where Benedict Cumberbatch's version of the great detective apparently fell to his death in the recent BBC TV series Sherlock (but did he?).

Out on the streets of Smithfield, we stood in a square near the famous meat market which has operated within its grand Victorian buildings since 1868. 

It's here that a different type of slaughter took place in 1305, when William "Braveheart" Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered for his leadership of a Scottish revolt against King Edward I of England. Presumably this memorial was put up later on in slight embarrassment at such past excesses:

As we walked on, Lawrence segued neatly from the conflicts of the 14th century to more recent times, pointing out a bit of remaining damage from (as I recall) World War II:

We also swung into the Church of St Etheldreda ("One of history's most determined virgins," according to Lawrence). It's remarkable how this 13th century building, one of the oldest in London, is neatly tucked away between more modern structures:

It also has some impressive stained glass windows of modern design, which replaced those blown out by German bomb blasts during the Blitz in WWII:

It wouldn't be a London tour without a pub, so Lawrence led the way to Ye Old Mitre, originally a 16th century pub which was largely rebuilt in the 18th century - not an easy place to find, hidden as it is down a narrow alleyway:

So here we were, in a classic old London pub about noon on a Monday. Not too hard a day at the office:

I had to leave the walk at this point as the flight home to Australia was pending. Before I went, Lawrence told me he usually covers several other points of interest, including the Inns of Court, the London Silver Vaults, the Royal Courts of Justice, Fleet Street and more character-packed old pubs which tourists would never stumble across.

It sounded like a good way to spend a few hours in what Bertie Wooster called "the old metrop".

The Hidden London tour costs £60 per person; info and bookings via Context's website

Disclosure time... I was hosted by Context on this tour.

Friday 19 October 2012

Secrets of the London Underground

On my latest visit to London, I realised I'd picked up a few handy-to-know facts about the Underground over the years.

They're the sort of practical tips you wouldn't find in an online planner or on Harry Beck's iconic Tube map, but they're damned useful just the same.

Let me share them with you here...

1. Airport shuffle

If changing from the District Line to the Piccadilly Line on the way to Heathrow Airport, do it at Hammersmith.

At this station, for some reason, the westbound District Line trains and westbound Piccadilly Line trains share the same island platform; all you have to do on leaving the first train is step lightly across the platform to catch your airport-bound train. No stairs required.

2. Up-down shortcut

If you follow the marked walkway when changing from the Jubilee Line to the Piccadilly Line at Green Park station (perhaps also on the way to Heathrow), you'll experience a very long and frustrating walk. Believe it or not, it's actually easier to ignore the walkway and go up the escalators to the ticket concourse, then down the long escalator to the Piccadilly Line platforms from there.

3. West End stroll

If you've arrived at Leicester Square station via the Northern Line and need to get to Covent Garden, it's quicker to walk between the two places above ground than to bother changing to the Piccadilly Line, as they're so close (only 260 metres separate their platforms down below).

4. Eastern diversion

If staying at Stratford in East London, it seems logical at first glance to catch the Central Line into central London, rather than the more southerly Jubilee Line.

The Central Line is quicker time-wise, but its trains arrive at Stratford from much further out and are invariably crowded. You can almost always get a seat on a Jubilee Line train, as Stratford is its starting point.

5. Metropolitan propinquity

Don't be deterred by the Tube map's lack of interconnection between Warren Street station on the Northern Line, and Euston Square station on the Metropolitan/Circle/Hammersmith & City Lines. There's no direct interchange, but in reality they're only a short walk apart; you can more or less see one station when standing outside the other.

6. Mind the front

And the best tip for last - always ride at the front of Docklands Light Railway trains. They're unmanned, so you can sit right up against the front window and indulge your suppressed train driver fantasies... or maybe that's just me.

Also see these earlier musings about the Tube and related topics:

Monday 8 October 2012

On the Trail of Red Kelly (Part 2)

In the previous post, I described my 2011 journey to the tiny Irish village of Moyglass, courtesy of Tourism Ireland. Moyglass was once the home of John "Red" Kelly, father of bushranger Ned Kelly, before Red was transported to Australia in 1841.

Arriving at the closed Ned Kelly Village Inn, we were pleasantly surprised to encounter the pub's owner. He ushered us inside to have a look, and this is what we saw...

First up, a fine snug. For those unfamiliar with the term, a snug is a separate space within a pub which allows a certain amount of privacy. This one looked very comfortable - and, as you can see, was plastered with information about Ned Kelly and his dramatic life:

Here's a closer view of one wall, with part of the Kelly Gang's story and a facsimile of the reward notice for their capture:

On another wall was a framed photo of Kelly's armour:

And nearby was this little gem - a Ned Kelly Moyglass clock. Lucky I'm not kleptomaniacally inclined, that's all I can say:

Moving on, Terry guided us to the green paddock where Red Kelly's humble house once stood. Beyond it, he pointed out the gently sloping Slievenamon, "Mountain of the Women". According to Terry, in legend this was where warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill (known in English as Finn McCool) decided he would marry the fastest woman to run to its peak:

Another legend was remembered by this sign at the edge of the field:

After this Terry took us to other places which were part of John Kelly's life, including the police station where he was charged. Meandering along the narrow lanes, it was interesting to notice how often the more familiar sounding English locations were mispronunciations of the original Irish placenames:

Finally, we arrived at the Ballysheehan house where John Kelly stole the inauspicious pigs which led to his involuntary Australian residence:

Perched above a broad modern motorway, it's amazing this place survives. But that's Ireland for you - littered with fascinating fragments of the past.

(If you're planning to visit Ireland and are interested in following the Kelly trail, Terry Cunningham's tour is available by prior arrangement, fee negotiable; email him at

This post was sponsored by

Friday 5 October 2012

On the Trail of Red Kelly (Part 1)

When I researched the Ned Kelly Touring Route over four years ago here in Victoria, Australia, I became aware of another significant location related to the story of the infamous bushranger who was hanged in Melbourne in 1880.

The village of Moyglass in County Tipperary, Ireland, was a place that Ned never visited, born as he was in Australia. But in 1840 his father, a poor casual labourer named John "Red" Kelly, lived there.

Yielding to impulse and stealing two pigs from a house in nearby Ballysheehan, Red's fate was sealed - convicted of the theft, he was sentenced to transportation as a convict to Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania).

Freed in 1848, he settled north of Melbourne and fathered seven children - including Ned. The famous saga of the Kelly Gang had begun.

I love piecing together fragments of history in person, so I was delighted to be able to visit Moyglass last year courtesy of Tourism Ireland and my cheerful driver for the day, Frank Moore.

From Dublin we headed to Fethard, an attractive town founded around 1200 in King John's reign, and still in possession of its medieval walls and church:

Here we met up with our guide for the day, local history guru and guide Terry Cunningham:

The old pub we rendezvoused at, McCarthy's, offered a surprisingly broad range of services, as you'll note from the sign...

... and yes, the publican did later assure me they're licensed to act as undertakers should the need arise. I was also interested to notice that, by odd coincidence, the pub was opened the same year that Red nicked those fateful pigs.

Driving through beautiful green countryside of fields bordered by low stone walls, we soon pitched up at Moyglass. Don't get carried away with anticipation of its cosmopolitan bustle, though - it was basically a cemetery and this pub:

But what a pub. The Ned Kelly Village Inn was clearly a shrine to the village's most famous descendant, with Kelly signage all over its exterior.

Here's the pub's rather stylish sign, with Kelly and horse rampant:

And Ned in full armour:

The bushranger's famous last words:

And finally, to dispel any doubts about the Kelly connections with Moyglass, Red's family tree:

Unfortunately the pub was closed at that time of day, so we regretfully had to pass on seeing the interior. Or so we thought. We were just about to get back in the car and move on to our next Kelly location, when the pub's owner showed up to do a bit of maintenance.

"Would you like to look inside?" he asked. Would we? We were in like Flynn, er, Kelly within seconds. And what did we see there? I'll save that for the next instalment... [read it here]

This post was sponsored by

Sunday 23 September 2012

Drinking at Halifax Henry's

What to do on a Friday night in Halifax, Nova Scotia when you've only been in town for a day?

Following a local's tip-off about a bar, I was about to step out of my hotel when I noticed people queuing for entry at a previously unnoticed door.

Above the door was the title "Yuk Yuk's". The apostrophe was a worry, but judging from the board next to the ticket desk it was a comedy club. I wavered a moment; then heard a patron being told it was free to hotel guests.

I was in, and shortly joining a queue for the slowest bar service in the world. Have you ever noticed that people ahead of you who are taking forever to order, will also be paying electronically?

Anyway, it turned out the bar was selling a bottle of Molson's Canadian beer for $4, or (from memory) seven of them for $24 in a small bucket with ice.

Having a laugh

I declined the seven bottle offer, though groups of friends in the audience were keen on the idea. I doubted I'd need seven bottles to enjoy the stand-up comedy. How bad could it be?

Pretty awful, as it turned out. I've never seen such lazy, we've-performed-this-a-thousand-times routines on a live comedy stage. Even the seven-bottle tables were finding it hard to raise much laughter. During the third act, I slipped out to my original destination.

It was only a block away, and Halifax is very pleasant place to walk. The city centre has some marvellous grand timber buildings and I strolled past the neat grounds of Cornwallis Park on the way, with its statue of the city's founder on a plinth. Halifax was a touch foggy that night too, lending a soft, slightly mystical look to its streets.

Henry's hacienda

Then I reached the Henry House at 1222 Barrington St. A grand stone building constructed in 1834, it had belonged to a prominent local. William Alexander Henry was a lawyer, politician, judge and one of the Fathers of Confederation (Canada's unifying moment in the 19th century).

I walked up the steps and through the front door to be met by, of all things, an Australian waiter from Melbourne. He gave me an overview of the house's three levels: a pub on the lower floor, a dining room in the middle and The Drying Room on the top floor.

This last, where I headed, was a gem. A dimly lit space, it had loads of atmosphere - exposed stone walls, big timber beams, and talented cocktail creators leaping around behind the bar. It was a stylish environment and, I imagine, one of the most sophisticated places you might find a drink in Halifax.

The locals are friendly

And full of interesting people. The barman, Scotty, was a part time surf photographer who had lived for a while in New Zealand. He revealed this as he was whipping me up an 1895 New York cocktail called the Corpse Reviver (Scotty: "One brings you back to life. Four and you're back in the grave.").

It contained my favourite cocktail ingredient - absinthe. Oscar Wilde had once stayed nearby in a local inn, so it all seemed to fit.

While I drank it, I chatted with my neighbour at the next stool, a geologist from Alberta who'd once studied in Halifax and was back in town on business. He loved the city, and it turned out he had been to Australia, so there was plenty to talk about.

Smoke gets in your drink

At some stage (the details are blurry) he somehow talked me into ordering a whisky cocktail which was made from scotch and vermouth, passed through a large jug full of smoke which was held in place by the vessel having being chilled beforehand.

Watching it being made was quite entertaining and the result, Scotty's special Hickory Smoked Rob Roy, was excellent. Smooth, very smoky to the taste at first but mellowing to a perfect blend of spirits and the elements.

I was glad I went out after all, rather than turning back to my room after the disappointing comedy. This was more like it - a meld of the small-city friendliness of Halifax with some superb and dedicated cocktail creation.

It seemed the sort of town where you could talk to anyone and share a drink with them. I liked it.

Disclosure time: On this trip I was hosted by Nova Scotia Tourism and the Canadian Tourism Commission.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Digesting the Charlevoix

To the northeast of Quebec City the St Lawrence River, already impressive on its path from Montreal, really opens up and lets itself go.

Broadening, it resembles more an estuary than a river, earning its alternative tag as the St Lawrence Seaway. And as it heads to the Atlantic it passes the Charlevoix region, framed by mountains to the west and the river to the east.

What's interesting is that the fertile Charlevoix was the result of a long-ago meteorite impact, hollowing out the earth in which its towns and greenery now lie. Once you realise this, you can clearly see the contours of the much-eroded crater on the horizon.

That's the macro picture. The micro includes a vast variety of tasty things to eat and drink, several of which I had the pleasure of consuming over the past few days.

For your foodie entertainment (for I suspect you love the foodstuffs when travelling as much as I do), here are a few pics I snapped along the way...

1. I was quite taken by the food at the Hotel La Ferme, the hotel operated by the Le Massif excursion train company at one of its destinations, Baie-St-Paul.

This was my dessert at dinner in its restaurant Les Labours, looking somewhat like an atomic symbol and described intriguingly as "L'extra carotte: biscuit de carotte, tube de crème brûlée au thym et sauce orange".

A tube fashioned from crème brûlée (it had the crunchy bits embedded along its length). What will those crazy food boffins think of next?

2. This was breakfast at the hotel the next morning - a kind of stack of soft brioche-like bread with ham, cheese, and scrambled egg on top of a pile of potatoes. It was like a croque madame that had gone rogue:

3. For lunch, here was Quebec's most infamous dish - poutine, composed of cheese curds, chips and gravy. I say infamous partly because it's impossible to take an attractive photo of it; and also because the concept of it always seems to surpass the actual taste, a kind of gluggy meld of salt and carbs probably best consumed when intoxicated.

Still, an authentic and unavoidable Quebec experience, and the mushrooms lifted this variant at l'Orange bistro in Baie-St-Paul:

4. Had to drop into a cidrerie, given the resurgence in popularity of cider in Australia. This place, Le Pednault, produces a number of beverages which are 80% cider and 20% juice. The most popular (not pictured below) is the pear version.

I was impressed with the prices of the large bottles - $16 including tax. That seems pretty reasonable compared to Australian equivalents at small breweries.

5. This was the homemade breakfast at the B&B, Manoir Hortensia at Saint-Irénée. It was fashioned from Charlevoix ingredients - muesli, apple, cheeses, banana bread, date and almond bread, and cherry jam from the tree in the middle of the accommodation's parking lot:

6. At Laiterie Charlevoix, I got to see these giant wheels of cheese in the course of their production:

7. While nearby at another cheesemaking enterprise, La Maison d’Affinage Maurice Dufour, I encountered one the oddest cheeses I'd ever seen (though it tasted pretty good) - Le Secret de Maurice, liquid cheese encased within a hard shell:

8. Finally, here's a beer at the memorable La Maison du Bootlegger, a kind of beer, burger and live rock venue within a 19th century timber house which once hosted a club which defied Prohibition. And we're not talking about 1920s American Prohibition by the way, but an entirely localised Charlevoix kind. But that's a story, perhaps, for another day...

Disclosure time: On this trip I was hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourisme Québec. For more information on the Charlevoix region, visit the Charlevoix Tourism website.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Montreal Hotel Goes Pop!

I like the idea of an Art Hotel, though obviously it has the potential to be pretentious.

If done well, however, the display of art can create something memorably different from the many generic hotels out there. It also provides a benefit to locals, who can enjoy the exhibits in the public areas of the hotel.

I've just stayed in an impressive example of this concept, LHotel (pronounced "lotel") in Montreal, Canada.

It's housed within a grand 19th century bank building on Rue Saint-Jacques. This street was once the epicentre of Canada's financial system, and so is lined with vast neoclassical temples to banking glory.

The banks have long departed the street, leaving numerous high-ceilinged buildings perfect for upmarket hotels.

The point of difference at LHotel is its owner Georges Marciano, former co-owner and designer of fashion company Guess. A serious collector of pop art and other modern art, Marciano has decked out the hotel with a large number of works from his collection.

Here's a random sample of what I spotted during my stay.

This first pic is of the lounge next to the bar. Beyond the compacted metal piece in the foreground is a giant glowing figure and a portrait of Marciano on the wall:

Here's a famous Andy Warhol piece above the ground floor lift door, based on a photo taken by Neil Armstrong on the moon:

Just opposite is this curious arrangement of works, the right-hand piece by Miro. Is that Ronad Reagan in the ad on the left, by the way? Looks like him:

There was a lesser-known Warhol next to the lift on my floor:

And this was the corridor outside my room:

Finally here's the hotel illuminated at night, seen as I returned from the direction of Places d'Armes after attending an outdoor electronic music event on Île Sainte-Hélène in the St Lawrence River (as you do).

It was taken with the aid of the handy Glif tripod stand for the iPhone, which holds the phone steady and connects to a compact tripod (and this mention is not an ad by the way, I bought my own Glif and recommend it!).

LHotel is well worth dropping into for a drink, even if you're not staying overnight, just to ogle the surprisingly accessible collection.

And as the man said, all you need is

Disclosure time: On this trip I was hosted by Tourisme Montréal and the Canadian Tourism Commission.