Catching dreams

It’s mid-winter in Sydney. And as anyone close to me knows, I don’t like the cold. That’s putting it mildly. Each morning I tie my scarf tight, pull my jacket close and cycle (mostly uphill), precariously balancing camera, lenses and laptop against the chilly wind to get to college. Yet when the warm burst of classroom air hits me and I find my seat in the lecture hall, it’s not lost on me for a moment how grateful I am to finally be doing what I love. Read More

Ever since the summer of 1866 when a man with the unforgettable name of Audrey harvested his first wine crops, the picturesque valley in the Hunter region of New South Wales has been gilded the poetic name “wine country”. As the decades passed and the grapes fattened, the once quaint village has ripened into a thriving tourist community. As home to some of Australia’s most refined wines, it made sense to add cheese and olives to the platter and today, the fresh produce grown and crafted in the Hunter creates one of the best-loved and full-bellied weekend getaways. We’d rather call it the happy valley.

A relaxed two and a half hour drive north of Sydney meandering through grassy hilltops, vineyards and dairy farms, the Hunter Valley has more bed and breakfasts than cellar doors. A good thing too, because an overnight stay in a fluffy king-sized bed after a few generous splashes of homegrown wine is as highly prized as a 2014 merlot. By weight of character, if the Hunter Valley was New York, then the central parish of Pokolbin would be SOHO. Full of corporate escapees turned foodies and families who have grown up on the land, it’s a stylish blend of contemporary providores, locally grown produce and down to earth hospitality. There are more than 160 wineries, 65 restaurants and 180 places to stay, so we’ve put together our tour guide to give you your best Hunter Valley weekend getaway.

Breathe. Take it slow. Savour the taste. Appreciating a good wine with a “less is more” sentiment is a great way to approach your time in the Hunter. With two full days at your disposal, you can explore Polkobin staying just one night but ideally, two will give you more time to unwind and a second chance to enjoy the wholesome generous breakfasts. Pokolbin is home to world-renowned hotel brands and family-run boutique bed and breakfasts. Adjacent to many of the wineries and coupled with chocolate factories and fresh food growers, the views are spectacular and the treats plenty. If its bright lights and a resort holiday you’re after, you’d head to Sydney, rather the provincial if not plentiful township of Pokolbin. Think Air BNB, bed and breakfasts and smaller lodge accommodations for a warm welcome and home away from home.

Known for varietals such as Semillon and Shiraz, the Hunter region treasures numerous wineries including Roche Estate, Lindemans, Hope and Mount Pleasant among its more well-known names. But as you’re ambling along a country road and looking out at the patchwork of vineyards criss-crossing the hillside, there are many smaller. more intimate cellar doors with stories to tell and aperitifs to sample. Most wineries allow you to taste 6 of their wines from Chardonnay, Shiraz to a sweeter Moscato for $5 per head, often reimbursed if you purchase a bottle. In 2 days, you’ll have to pick carefully as it’s advised to do no more than 3-4 wineries a day. One of the easiest ways is to jump on a wine tour. Two Fat Blokes will take you on a half or a full day tour of their favourite wineries (which changes every tour) and finish up at their lip-smackingly delicious cheese shop where they’ll match a cheese for every wine sampled. It’s a fun bus ride for around 10 people, their commentary is cheerful and back at the ranch, their halloumi fries are the next best thing to come out of wine country.

Its the generosity of the Hunter that can make it tricky to know where to start; everything is so good and apart from satisfying your food cravings, there’s much to do and see. Just opposite Roche Estate (which used to be Tempus Two and who have fortunately retained a cellar door) is The Hunter Valley Gardens. Created by the Roche family in 1999, the sprawling acreage of the gardens is more like a nature lovers theme park. The garden features 10 themed display gardens from a childlike nursery rhyme garden to Chinese pergola with cherry blossoms, an Italian Grotto and evergreen English border garden missing only Mr Darcy. During winter and Christmas, there are spectacular light shows and holiday entertainment for the kids, but for grown ups all year round, a walk or mini train ride through the rambling garden scenery is like being a part of a landscaped mural. From here, it’s only a 5-minute walk to the serenely set out market village with a gorgeous selection of locally made wares and produce. From vibrant handwoven alpaca wooden capes, chilli liqueurs, honeypots and handmade chocolates, you’ll pick up some gorgeous local collectables.

There’s both a decadence and simplicity to the Hunter Valley, a romance experienced magnificently from the lofty heights of a balloon ride. The big open sky, rolling countryside, the earthiness of fruit picking plus the piles of fresh produce on offer at modish cafes, make the region so vastly distinct as a weekend getaway. It’s kind of a collision of natural beauty, modern food favourites and the age-old recipe written for the love of wine-making. So, back to a man named Audrey and the Wilkinson Winery, one of the oldest and most elegant, with sweeping views of the valleys that must make it to your list of stops for day 2. It’s enchanting history and sincere dedication to the craft, create one of the most wholesome and gentle tasting wines and a beautiful way to round off the weekend.

Tour Guide Tips For Hunter Valley

Mid-winter sunshine casts long shadows in the crisp breezy afternoons. The sky is a pale cobalt blue and the sun at noon pierces the chill of Sydney in July. Locals will tell you it’s freezing, but that’s only because if we can’t swim in the ocean, we’ll recite with great drama, how this is the coldest winter in 116.5 years. Sydney siders are crazy about the sunshine, and to be fair, it is almost always shining. And so one of the many reasons why a mid-winter break in one of the world’s prettiest harbours, reveals it’s sparkling self. With so much to do and see, we’ve packed our top sightseeing ideas into this quick guide, so you can pack a weekend in Sydney, full of destination favourites.

Because the cities beaming skyline edges into the expansive Harbour, walking the shoreline makes for a congenial introduction to Sydney. As you walk from Circular Quay around the gentle bend towards the Opera House, open-air restaurants, cafes and souvenir stores spill over onto the crowded walkways. Unlike many signature landmarks, the approach to the steps of the Opera House lift the creamy arches into the sky and create a statuesque architectural impression. There are tours running daily and a menu of Australian theatre productions to experience, but as the first stop on your Sydney weekender, a bite to eat at the Opera Bar or Opera Kitchen is a must do. It will take around half an hour to meander back past the ferries and the Museum of Contemporary Art to reach Sydney’s heritage Rocks Village. On Saturday mornings, the Rocks Markets are bursting with local produce and gorgeous locally crafted collectables. 

By now, it’s about halfway through the day and time to head a little out of the city to see the broader coastline and some of the many bays and beaches. Just a 20-minute drive east of Sydney the road curves downhill to face the horizon of Bondi Beach. The crest of blue sky and the deeper blue ocean is as iconic as the Surfers who take on the waves all year round. Something happens when you reach Bondi Beach; it instantly becomes summer. A chilly mid-winter morning doesn’t stand a chance against the off the shoulder loose tops, ripped denim shorts and bare midriffs, all suddenly bronzed. To the southern end of the beach, a jagged pathway past Bondi Icebergs emerges and hugs the undulating coastline. The walk takes you to Bronte and Tamarama Beaches, but a stop at Bronte and a fresh juice or cold beer before heading back to Bondi by foot gives you a taste of the great outdoors. If daylight allows, take a drive down New South Head Road towards Watsons Bay with a photo op at the sparkling Macquarie Lighthouse. The Sydney Hop on Hop off bus will also take you along this route.

Late afternoon brings a cool change and by 5.00pm the night is creeping in. Dinner by the water with the city lights shimmering on the harbour at one of Sydney’s favourite waterside precincts, Darling Harbour, is packed with open eateries and swish boardwalk cafes. Greek-inspired seafood, spicy dumplings, fresh sushi hubs create plenty of spacious dining options. The foodie reprieve gives you a chance to consider how you’ll spend your second day in Sydney. Heading west will take you to the scenic Blue Mountains, or if its more of the big blue you’re after there are ferries, cruises and jet boats zig-zagging the harbour. It’s also halfway through the whale migration season that extends from May to October so a perfect time to experience one of natures most spectacular shows.

As the boat skips across the waves and the swell becomes more buoyant, darting eyes fix on the frothy surface. White spray jets into the air and the whales are close by. Though it is possible you’ll have the magnificent experience of seeing a whale breach, more likely will be the sightings of their smooth curved backs arching silently through the water alongside the boat. Even this is a thrill, knowing that beneath you whales carve through the deep on the way to warmer climates and filling the waters with song. Check for cruise times as these vary from weekend to weekdays.

Having walked the harbour foreshore, cruised the bays and beaches you get a taste for the breadth of coastline that characterises Sydney. It’s such a broad sprawling city, but if you’re exploring the centre, experiencing it from on high is as exciting as it is dramatic. By seaplane or helicopter, flying along the jagged cliff faces with the foamy waves crashing into the craggy sides is spectacular. From Bondi to the Blue Mountains, the neat roofs and green parks stretch alongside hilly streets and like this, Sydney looks serene and orderly. The chopper rides depart from Sydney Airport and are a quick 15-minute ride, but there’s something whimsical about boarding a seaplane and hearing the motors chug across the water to take off.

Many visitors use Sydney as a base before they take off to the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru or Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. So to make the most of your stay, try and fly in the night before. To get from the airport into the city, you can either hop on the Sydney Airport Link Train which takes 15 minutes and costs $17 or jump on a shuttle bus. Remember to get yourself an Opal Card which is a smart card you top up so that you can pay your fares on trains, buses, ferries and light rail. Really, the best way to see Sydney is by foot with several of Sydney’s best-loved highlights enjoyed for free simply by walking around in the winter sunshine.

My first solo trip overseas was to India. On reflection, I couldn’t have picked anywhere more exotic and yet more troublesome for a westerner. Having landed in the parallel universe that was Delhi and after grappling with the chaos for a month, my departure too was anything but ordinary. With my seat not confirmed, I spent the early hours of a cold January morning with scarcely a rupee to my name, waiting to see if the airline would give this weary hippy chic a ride home. Over the years, with all our miles of travelling, we’ve collected some valuable tips that help make travel as peachy as it is meant to be.

Prep your passport make sure your passport has the minimum 6-month validity on it required to get a visa at your travel destination. Even if you’re a day or two short, some airlines won’t permit you to fly though you’ll have your ticket ready to go.

Best seat in the house getting a great spot on your fight is not a lottery, you can decide by looking at a seating chart online and choosing the seats that work best for you. Opt for the seats with greater legroom near the emergency exit if you can. On short haul flights, aisle seats are best but for long haul, select the window where available.

Early bird booking in advance will get a better deal and most hotels as well as airlines, allow you to be flexible. For a small fee, most airlines will change your ticket no matter the type you’ve purchased. The same goes for hotels.

Your best accessory will always be a smile. When you can’t speak like the locals, a smile speaks volumes. Carry it along with an open mind and a willingness to go out of your comfort zone. 

Nom nom! Ever wondered why some meals on a flight seem to arrive ahead of everyone else and look just that little bit better? Pre-selecting a “special” meal widens your menu enormously and gives you a delicious sample of the country you’re heading to.

Checked! Check in online within 24 hours of your scheduled flight and your time at the airport will be better spent than waiting in a queue. You can simply drop off your luggage as you’ll already have your boarding pass. Most airlines will allow you to prioritise your luggage for a nominal charge, so it comes out first making your post-flight smoother too.

Loyalty pays It’s worth having a loyalty card with your preferred airline and don’t forget to consider accommodation that gives you points toward that card. Sometimes it can also be cheaper to buy more points to subsidise your airfare rather than paying full price.

There’s an app for that don’t forget to download important apps like Uber, maps, zomato, yelp, XE Currency, accuweather and itranslate to help you stay informed and give you access to the relevant information at the tap of a finger.

Make small talk ask locals as well as hotel staff where they like to hang out, how to find the best coffee spot and where to get the best local food. 

Stay connected being online while you travel gives you huge access to an otherwise unknown world. Sites like tripadvisor and expedia will give you access to favourite local tourist attractions and the reviews can be really helpful.

Walk the talk joining a 3 or 4-hour walking tour is an interesting way to feed your curiosity. You’ll get a view of the city’s past, present and future, hear some great stories and find out some of the best hideaways. 

The way to everyone’s heart when you sample local flavours and eat the produce of the area, you have to be a little adventurous to enjoy the authentic experience of where you are in the world. Watching how the local favourites are cooked up and learning the region’s spices, gives you some take-home treats too.

Pack smart sunscreen, a notepad and pen, a torch, extra socks, a spare lock, some clear plastic bags, portable phone charger, medicines, extra credit card, a hat and a list of all your emergency numbers might seem like a random assemblage, but they all have a good use.

Grab a guidebook even on a short getaway make the most of your time by researching ahead some of the local sightseeing and tourist spots. Carry a guidebook for the times that 4G doesn’t work. If you’re travelling to a non-English speaking country, hiring a local guide can be a great go-to point and you often get to see so even more than the guidebooks show you.

Grab a history book it helps to know a little more about the place you’re visiting if you know about its past too. Especially when you’re visiting temples and palaces, a little bit of familiarity can go a long way.

Get familiar as one of the first stops, visit the local Tourism / Info centre. Not only will you gather some of the best seasonal tourist attraction ideas but you’ll get to know the character of the city and what to watch out for.

Back it up take copies of all of your important travel documents, tickets and ID. Give a copy to someone back home also.

“Perched on the tip of India’s southern coast, the city of Cochin has watched the rise and fall of empires passing along the spice route for centuries. From the Arabic and Portuguese traders travelling in the 15th century, the Dutch invasion of the 1650’s and her union to the British in the years of the Raj, Kerala wears her illustrious history well. Today Cochin is a thriving modern city and home to Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Jews who all share a great affection for this jewel of the Arabian Sea.”

Thank you to Global Grasshopper for sharing the most enigmatic reasons to explore Cochin:



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