Friday 27 January 2017

NSW Summer Series: Northern Rivers

Through January, I'm running a series of my previously published print articles about New South Wales. 

In 2010 I visited the Northern Rivers region of the state, courtesy of Northern Rivers Tourism. This is what I found...

When American author Norman Maclean wrote A River Runs Through It in the 1970s, he had in mind the US state of Montana. But his book’s title could well be applied to the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales.

Stretching from the broad banks of the Clarence River up to the Queensland border, this green region is threaded by numerous waterways, from humble creeks to mighty rivers.

It’s famous for its sandy Pacific coastline, which contains popular beach holiday towns such as Byron Bay. These places, though no longer sleepy, offer all the usual Aussie beach holiday pursuits of swimming, surfing, sunbathing... and sitting outside a pub with a drink at hand, not doing much at all.

However, the region’s interior is less crowded and also worth exploring, with its mix of subtropical rainforest, craggy mountains formed from ancient volcanoes, and small towns that have been re-energised in recent years by an influx of creative types seeking tree changes at an affordable price. As a result, they’re littered with good food outlets, quality accommodation and quirky shops.

With that pick-and-mix contrast of subtropical weather, interesting towns and extensive beach frontage, the region sounds like a good place to go in search for greenery, relaxation and good food.


I've safely traversed the quirky iron bridge that soars above the Clarence River, before taking an unexpected bend as it angles down toward this inland city.

After that small adrenalin rush, I have an agreeable dose of calm here in the garden courtyard of Georgie’s, a restaurant within the Grafton Regional Gallery (158 Fitzroy St).

This 1880 building was once a doctor’s residence and a small hospital, the residence up front and the hospital at the rear. There’s currently a Ken Done exhibition within the gallery, which seems fitting as the artist lived in the area as a kid.

I’m more focused at the moment on the art of food, served to my table in the courtyard. On this balmy evening it’s an extremely mellow space, with a pleasant breeze wafting through the dimly-lit dining area, and fairy lights arranged around its perimeter. There are tables indoors, but why would you want to sit there on a night like this?

The food is a pleasant surprise. It wasn’t that long ago that it was hard to get a high quality meal in a country town this size, but the kitchen turns out a succession of dishes the equal of any city restaurant, with an emphasis on produce from the region. On today’s menu, there are prawns from coastal Yamba, haloumi from the Tweed Valley, and oysters from the Nambucca River.


Everyone knows about the popular beachside town Byron Bay, but fewer have heard of Bangalow. Byron Bay’s more sedate sister is located just a few kilometres inland, but has a completely different feel to the hedonistic coastal bustle of Byron.

The main street, once part of the Pacific Highway but now pleasantly unhurried, is lined with attractive buildings that mostly look as though they were built sometime between the late 19th century and the mid-20th.

Everything you’d expect of a village is present - a red-brick post office, an old pub, even some surviving red wooden phone boxes.

Though it does have regular shops serving local residents, Bangalow is also littered with the fancy little boutiques associated with upmarket holiday towns. As one local resident tells me, it gives visitors to Byron Bay something to do on rainy days.

Among the retail therapy options are Indian furniture emporium Wax Jambu (19b Byron St), and the art-dealing Barebones Art Space (44 Byron St).

Byron Bay

And finally to Byron. The first impression I have of this town is of bustle - actually a mixture of bustle and informality, as the streets are packed with people wearing not much more than bathers and thongs.

They’re bustling, but at a measured pace (if that makes sense).

To be honest, the town isn’t much to look at, as its streetscape is overwhelmed with commercial signage on fairly featureless modern buildings. But at the end of the main street is Byron Bay’s chief asset, its fine sandy beach, and this has been worth waiting for.

It’s a cracker, a long curling stretch of sand between prominent headlands, one of which is topped with Byron’s postcard-happy lighthouse. Loads of people are swimming and sunbathing today, and there’s an air of mellowness about the place.

Lunch is at the Beach Byron Bay (Clarkes Beach, Lawson St). It was once a humble beachside shack that went to seed, then was regenerated into a modern restaurant with a view directly onto the beach. The food is excellent, with yet more seafood and an emphasis on share plates.

The sharing concept is clearly a hit, as there are a lot of groups dining together on the deck section of the eatery. There’s something very “modern Australian” about this scene, the way the place melds beach informality with the craft of fine food.

I like it; in fact I’d say there’s a wave of relaxation breaking over me right now.

Friday 20 January 2017

NSW Summer Series: Sydney Light Rail (Part 2)

Through January, I'm running a series of my previously published print articles about New South Wales. 

Last post, I started on a trip along Sydney's light rail line in 2011. Now the journey continues...

Tram Stop: Fish Market

As I step out of the tram, I can smell the faint aroma of seafood wafting up from the Sydney Fish Market. It’s a fascinating place, still a working market but also a place for visitors to drop by to enjoy a meal.

Its perimeter is dotted with shops both selling seafood to take home, and serving fish meals. On the waterfront, Claudio’s (Bank St) is packed with people browsing large trays of prawns on ice, oysters, and other marine edibles.

A nearby boardwalk runs along Blackwattle Bay, where stubby floating quays serve serious-looking fishing boats decked out with crates and nets.

The boardwalk is set with fixed tables in front of a strip of eateries, and dotted with people eating, and taking in the bay and the industrial relics along the shoreline. I’m struck by the array of dishes they’re sharing, from straightforward fish and chips, to meals best tackled with chopsticks.

The market’s a pleasant spot to visit, but I’m pleased to see it’s not as tarted up as similar precincts throughout the world; there’s still a rough-edged authenticity to the place. 

Tram Stop: Paddy’s Markets

As the name suggests, this stop serves the famous markets which have been located in Haymarket since the early 19th century.

On the other side of the rails, however, is Sydney’s Chinatown, and I’m interested in trying out a regional cuisine I’ve never before encountered.

Following busy Dixon Street through Chinatown to its quieter northern end brings me to Uighur Cuisine (2 Dixon St), a restaurant serving dishes from China’s northwestern Xinjiang province.

Being largely Muslim and connected by cultural ties to Central Asia, this part of China is quite different to the eastern regions that Australians are more familiar with. The Uighurs have produced a cuisine that’s distinctly different from what we usually think of as Chinese food.

The interior of the restaurant is that of a suburban ethnic eatery, down to the stark lighting, plastic vine leaves strung across the ceiling, and a bouquet of artificial flowers on the paper “cloth” across my table.

The images on the menu have an emphasis on lamb dishes, and so I order the goshnan, a kind of lamb mince pie, along with a salad of transparent noodles threaded with capsicum slices and a spicy red sauce. With a dash of vinegar or soy sauce from the bottles on the table, it’s a tasty meal.

As exotic music plays over the restaurant’s speakers, I chew happily while watching spectacular flashes of flame occasionally light up the open kitchen.

Other Attractions

There are many other sights located along the Metro Light Rail line, including the Capitol Theatre (tram stop: Capitol Square); the Powerhouse Museum (tram stop: Paddy’s Markets); the Chinese Garden (tram stop: Exhibition Centre); Darling Harbour restaurants, shops and museums (tram stops: Convention and Pyrmont Bay); and the casino (tram stop: The Star).

For more information about Sydney's light rail service, visit this section of the Transport NSW site.

Friday 13 January 2017

NSW Summer Series: Sydney Light Rail (Part 1)

Over the rest of January, I'll be running two of my previously published print articles about New South Wales, Australia.

This article was first published in 2011, so some details may have changed. However, as Sydney is currently in the process of expanding its single tram line into a larger network, it seems apt to revisit attractions along the route of the existing light rail service...

“He shot through like a Bondi tram!”

It’s fading now, but this colourful expression was part of the Australian idiom for many decades, meaning to depart at high speed. Whether Sydney trams were ever that fast is another question; but since the city’s tramways were closed in the 1960s, there’s been little chance to find out.

Which is a pity, as around the world trams are back in fashion for their environmental positives. They’re also a tourist attraction in themselves, in cities as diverse as San Francisco, Lisbon and Melbourne.

There is, however, one exception - Sydney’s Light Rail, which opened in 1997 and runs along the route of a disused goods line that once snaked through the industrial suburbs of the inner west.

Though overshadowed by the big-ticket tourist attractions on Sydney Harbour, the tram line is a microcosm of Sydney, taking in restaurants, tourist districts, cultural attractions, neighbourhood shopping strips and suburban parks.

It’d appeal to anyone who’s been to Sydney more than once and is looking for something new - and today, that’s me. Stepping aboard at Central Station, I set out to discover some of the city’s lesser-known attractions at the stops along the way.

Tram Stop: John Street Square

Passing up the restaurants and museums by the tram line’s initial stops, I head onward to Pyrmont, to a cafe I’ve been told is a great place to have breakfast.

At this point the line lies within a deep cutting, and its rough-hewn stone walls add an unexpected dash of grandeur.

At the top of a steep flight of stairs (where I belatedly discover a lift) is Harris Street, an appealing collection of weathered buildings that speak of Pyrmont’s working-class past.

On one corner there’s a dilapidated old shopfront with a pitched roof, and opposite it is the atmospheric facade of the Terminus Hotel, clearly closed for decades and covered with old beer ads and a tracery of ivy.

A few doors down from these relics is Bar Zini (78 Harris St), a symbol of the gentrification of this area. Slotted into a narrow shopfront, it’s a light modern space with dark timber furniture, exposed floorboards and a long counter, a modern Australian take on the classic Italian cafe.

From the short breakfast menu I choose a panino filled with double smoked ham, tomato, fontina cheese, basil and tomato salsa. It’s basically a fancy version of a toasted ham and cheese sandwich - and it’s very tasty.

Tram Stop: Jubilee Park

From this stop I have a great view over a suburban gem that tourists seldom visit - the perfect circle of Jubilee Park, an old-fashioned cricket ground with a white picket fence and dainty pavilion, nestled within the curve of the old railway viaduct which carries the tram line.

Beyond the park is Rozelle Bay, one of the many nooks of Sydney Harbour. It’s a pleasant walk past the cricket ground and through Bicentennial Park, a former industrial space that was redeveloped as waterside parkland in recent years.

The view from the waterline is a snapshot of the area’s history, with neatly manicured greenery on one shore and a collection of shipyards and old factories on the other, including huge silos in the direction of the modern ANZAC Bridge. I sit on a bench with a view over the water, enjoying this haven, a quiet space on a weekday morning.

Tram Stop: Glebe

Backtracking, I step out at Glebe, whose tram stop opens onto a fascinating streetscape of sandstone ex-warehouses beneath a narrow park set into a cut, with a row of terrace houses high above.

A short walk away is Glebe Point Road, an attractive shopping strip lined with genteel terrace houses and lush gardens on one side, and shops on the other.

In the 19th century shopfronts there’s both the old and new: retro furniture shops, classy fashion boutiques, sushi outlets, Thai restaurants, discount stores, antiques emporiums and day spas. It has a village atmosphere, but one updated for the 21st century.

I walk along to Gleebooks (49 Glebe Point Rd), a renowned independent bookshop that’s a veteran of the strip and the host to many literary events. Inside, the lofty interior is crammed with volumes, the shelves taking up every part of the shop floor that isn’t necessary for customer access.

Browsing the stock, I’m pleased to spot two novels by my favourite British humorist, PG Wodehouse. In the self-help section in the centre, my eye is drawn to titles such as Hamlet’s Blackberry and Why We Lie; and I can’t help smiling at a copy of Stuff White People Like, a humorous poke at the tastes of people who live in gentrified suburbs just like Glebe.

[Next post: Fish out of water, and dishes of the East...] 

Friday 6 January 2017

What's Hot in Travel in 2017 (Entirely According to Me)

Well, it worked all right last year. So So here's my Hot List for Travel in 2017, randomly based on my recent travel experiences. All items tenuously included because, well, I like them.

1. Lviv is the new Kraków. Seriously people, why aren't you in this Ukrainian city right now? If I didn't have other commitments after my May visit, I'd still be there.

As I said in this blog in June 2016, I love Lviv. It's a beautiful city of faded but glamorous baroque architecture, it has a thriving coffee scene, and it's incredibly cheap right now - as in "tram tickets cost ten cents" cheap.

It's also just over the Polish border and a long way from the Russian-backed insurgency in the east; about 1200km from troubled Donetsk, for example.

Lviv feels exactly like what it is - a piece of Central Europe that's come adrift and ended up in Eastern Europe (it was previously part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Poland). Go there. You'll thank me.

2. Los Angeles is more than Hollywood and Disneyland. In 2016 I visited LA for the fourth year in a row, and as usual I discovered a plethora of interesting attractions beyond the city's stereotypical drawcards.

I visited a bunch of great science museums; visited late-night comedy clubs; ate tasty cheap food in the Downtown; and saw a musical in a beautiful old 1920s theatre.

I also hung around cool neighbourhoods such as Silver Lake and Echo Park, and joined an intriguing true crime tour about an infamous unsolved murder.

And that was just 2016! If you scroll down through my North America travel stories here, you'll find loads more quirky LA attractions I've visited over the past few years. Yes it can be difficult to get around, but Uber and the city's expanding Metro rail network can help with that.

3. Polish food and drink. It's come a long way from cabbage and dumplings (though those pierogi are still great). As I wrote here last May, there's an affordable and tasty range of food experiences to be enjoyed across Poland.

These range of the retro delights of communist-era milk bars, enjoying a hipster resurgence in popularity; to interesting fusions of traditional Polish cooking with international ingredients and flavours such as I enjoyed at the Gothic Restaurant within Malbork Castle.

Polish beer and vodka have always been good, but the classics have been joined by an explosion of craft beers. I even enjoyed great Polish cider while in Warsaw. As a local explained to me, when the Russians banned Polish food imports, Poles had to find something to do with the excess fruit. Russia's loss is our refreshing gain.

4. All-inclusive luxury rail journeys. I wrote about rail "cruises" in my 2016 list, but I've recently travelled aboard the Indian Pacific and that's reinforced the appeal of long-distance rail travel.

I hadn't taken this epic 4400km train journey from Sydney to Perth for five years, and in the meantime it's evolved into a truly impressive travel experience.

The food has has become very good indeed, often including ingredients from the region through which the train is travelling; alcoholic drinks are now included with the fare; and the off-train excursions have greatly improved.

Rather than a so-so bus tour or two, the excursions now include, for example, a wine tasting tour and dinner in the Barossa Valley outside Adelaide; and dinner at sunset at a remote Outback siding in Western Australia.

I wrote more about the Indian Pacific journey when I returned east from Perth to Adelaide.

5. Venturing beyond obvious cities and sights. As adventurous as Australian travellers are, I still meet a lot of people whose trips to Europe involve the obvious big-ticket sights and never venture east. Sure it's nice to glimpse the Mona Lisa, but if we spread around to include less-visited places we'd all feel less crowded and more stimulated.

I wrote about this for Fairfax's Traveller site in December, suggesting alternatives to the most popular (and most crowded) European hotspots. Hey, if I can spend a night in Chernobyl, you can dare to visit Budapest.

6. Hotels with windows that open. I can't stand sealed windows in hotel rooms, as sleeping under enforced air-conditioning gives me a headache. I resolve to spend 2017 requesting rooms with opening windows, and I hope you'll join me in that.

7. Airlines upsizing their Economy seating for a proportionate fee. Say, 20% more space for a 20% higher fare. OK, this is more of a wish list item than reality. But we can dream, can't we?