Arkell's advice in Australia
UK-based wine writer Julia Arkell has filed the following report on her recent trip to Australia. Purple pager Ned Goodwin of Japan adds this supplementary note:
Travelling regularly and being in the business, I would argue that Sydney is one of the most exciting destinations in the world for serious food lovers.
The ubiquity of Italian food in Melbourne is a given, but if Julie had perused the Good Food Guide or merely asked somebody in the know, she would have seen that Thai food is the staple take-away and casual nosh in Sydney; Melbourne-style Italian simplicity is rare; sushi exists but not en masse à la New York; and that restaurants such as EST, LONGRAIN, CLAUDES, TETSUYAS and the sublime PIER are some of the finest of their ilk. Uniquely, all are also capable of sating guests in suits as well as those straight from the beach with sand still between the toes - a true Sydney experience. Cheers, Ned
Serviced apartment hotels in Sydney and Melbourne
It's a marvellous concept. You retain all of the traditional hotel services (most importantly the daily housekeeping service and clean towels), yet you also have the space, amenities and perceived independence of a rented apartment. Furthermore, they can offer great value for money compared with standard hotels.
I can thoroughly recommend the SAHs listed below. The Paramount in Melbourne was discovered only after a long trawl of the internet. The Sydney hotels were booked via www.hotelclub.net, a site I wished I'd unearthed earlier. [see note below]
Somerset Darling Harbour, 252 Sussex Street www.the-ascott.com
Location: three minutes' walk from Darling Harbour, on the city side; walking distance to monorail station and major shops.
Accommodation: combined living room/dining area/kitchen; bedroom; bathroom (shower only); balcony; parking; sauna/spa; pool; gymnasium.
Facilities: air conditioning; telephone; high speed data connection; washing machine; tumble dryer; ironing board and iron; fully-equipped kitchen (including dishwasher, microwave, fridge, etc.); mini bar; cable television; in-room safe; complimentary sachets of coffee, tea, sugar, dishwasher powder, washing-up-liquid and washing powder; complimentary cosmetic items (including tissues and shampoo); hairdryer; reasonable wardrobe space.
Extra plus points: on-site licensed restaurant.
Criticisms: no free breakfast; only one teaspoon!
Location: in the heart of The Rocks; four minutes' walk to Circular Quay.
Accommodation: historic, two-storey, terraced cottage; living room; kitchen/dining room; bedroom; bathroom (shower only); pool; sauna/spa; gymnasium; laundry (AU$5).
Facilities: air conditioning; telephone; ironing board and iron; fully-equipped kitchen (including dishwasher, microwave, fridge, etc.); television; in-room safe; complimentary sachets of coffee, tea, sugar, dishwasher powder, washing-up-liquid; complimentary cosmetic items (including tissues and shampoo); hairdryer; reasonable wardrobe space.
Extra plus points: free continental breakfast.
Criticisms: no in-apartment laundry facilities which was not made clear on the website.
Paramount Serviced Apartments, 181 Exhibition Street www.theparamount.com.au
Location: on the edge of the CBD; very close to free Circle tram and other tram routes, and walking distance to shops, restaurants, etc..
Accommodation: combined living room/dining area/kitchen; study; bedroom; bathroom (with bath and shower); private balcony; free parking; sauna; pool and spa; gymnasium; tennis court.
Facilities: air conditioning; telephone; washing machine; tumble dryer; ironing board and iron; fully-equipped kitchen (including dishwasher, microwave, fridge, etc.); cable television; DVD player; complimentary sachets of coffee, tea, sugar, dishwasher powder and washing-up-liquid; complimentary cosmetic items (including tissues and shampoo); hairdryer; towelling robes; masses of cupboard space, including a walk-in wardrobe.
Extra plus points: free continental breakfast (worth $5.50 each) in nearby food court.
Criticisms: complicated lift system.
Eating out in Sydney and Melbourne
It is strangely difficult to find a really good restaurant in either Sydney or Melbourne if you are aiming to avoid sushi bars and the relentless Italian cuisine to which both cities appear slavishly devoted. It was frustrating, therefore, to discover the following recommendations only towards the end of our recent holiday (in January/February 2004).
Nick's Seafood Restaurant, The Promenade, Cockle Bay Wharf, Darling Harbour Tel: (02)92641212. Booking is advisable
Restaurateur Nick Manettas takes great pride in the quality and freshness of his food, receiving no less than two deliveries of fresh seafood daily, some flown in from places such as Tasmania. All lobsters, for example, including their 'monster lobsters' (between 2.5 and 3 kilos), are local, live and are cooked to order.
The crab ravioli, grilled barramundi fillet and Moreton Bay bugs (don't let the bug bit put you off) were outstanding, all matched perfectly by a bottle of Mad Fish Chardonnay (we could have chosen from one of three vintages of Penfolds Grange given enough funds, such is the quality of the wine list) and all delivered with impeccable service. Nevertheless, we experienced belated regrets about not having ordered the seafood platter for two (lobster, steamed mussels, fried calamari, catch of the day, king prawns, Blue Swimmer crab, freshly shucked oysters and avocado). It looked magnificent on someone else's table.
Festival Café, Shop 437, Harbourside, Darling Harbour Tel: (02)92818727
This is a super spot for lunch, especially on a warm, dry, sunny day when you can sit on the terrace and enjoy the stunning view over Darling Harbour (if you are lucky enough to bag a table). I can't comment on the hot food (though the home-made pizza spied on a neighbouring table certainly looked the part), but the wraps and baguettes are really tasty. Also try their fizzy lemon squash one of the most refreshing soft drinks that has ever passed these lips.
CityExtra, Shop E4, Circular Quay Tel: (02)92411422
A word of advice if you happen to be in Sydney during January with a shoulder injury. Think very carefully before venturing anywhere near Circular Quay on Australia Day (the 26th). This is undoubtedly one of the best places to be on this much-celebrated occasion, but it's also one of the busiest. Take it from me that the sheer volume of crowds, and all the jostling that goes with them, is definitely not good for creaky joints. So busy was it, in fact, that we thought we would have trouble finding somewhere to eat come dinner time. Fortunately, the focus of the evening festivities shifted to Darling Harbour and it was thus with relative ease that we slid into unreserved seats at CityExtra.
This is run by a very dedicated team, the first to hold a 24-hour liquor licence in Australia. Yes, this restaurant, and its sister in Parramatta, is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The snacks and breakfast specials (that you can have for dinner if you wish) reflect this, but the menu features plenty of other, more cosmopolitan (and more substantial) goodies. The only disappointment was the rather pedestrian wine selection, though, let's face it, it's very hard to drink a really poor glass of wine in Australia.
Caffé Cortilé, 30 Block Place Tel: (03)96501564
So good we went there twice. Tucked away in one of Melbourne's attractive shopping arcades, Caffé (sic) Cortilé offers modern, innovative cuisine based largely on fish and seafood (their squid dishes are sensational). The wine list is small but neat and they are very generous about allowing you to have a taste before ordering. Be warned that if you need the loo, you must climb a vertiginous and seemingly endless flight of stairs.
Rail travel in Australia
As a confessed addict of impossibly long train journeys, I would have loved to have been on board The Ghan when it made its historic inaugural journey from Adelaide to Darwin during our stay in Australia in February 2004. Unfortunately, we were nowhere near Adelaide or Darwin at the time.
This did not mean that we failed to take advantage of the country's rail network. Indeed, we travelled by train from Melbourne to Sydney, and then from Sydney to Brisbane, which says much about the saintliness of my husband who indulged my whim for such ventures by putting up with terrible food and hours and hours of chug-along. To give you some kind of perspective, the flight from Sydney to Brisbane takes about an hour; the train takes over 16!
What no plane can offer, however, is a close-up, train-eye view of the countryside. It doesn't really matter if it doesn't really change that much along the way: it's wonderful to look at and proves a point about the vast continent that is Australia.
One convenient feature (or so I thought at first) is the ability to check in two pieces of luggage per person. The downside to this is the strictly-enforced 25kg weight restriction per item (20kg in New South Wales). Having flown out to Australia with generous Business Class allowances, I found myself doing some desperate, last-minute repacking and was left wondering if it wouldn't have been easier just to have humped our (heavy) suitcases into our carriage.
Back to the terrible food. Trains on these routes carry a buffet car that serves hot meals alongside a selection of snacks and drinks. I would urge you, though, to think about packing a sustaining picnic instead and certainly to avoid their Railway Pie. Say no more.
Finally, how to buy tickets. I booked on-line at www.countrylink.info and established an exchange of emails with someone called Geoff who could not have been more helpful. The upshot was that I delayed making any booking until the new timetable was out and was also able to take advantage of Advance Purchase fares that knocked about 50 per cent off the advertised prices. We travelled First Class for very reasonable rates, though First Class doesn't seem to mean much beyond the ability to recline your seat to a greater angle. We chose to travel during the day, but sleeper services are available on selected routes.
It is worth noting that, for some crazy reason, there are no luggage trolleys at Sydney's Central station.