Beasts of sea and land in Lyme Regis

Rumours of a food-fuelled town, the recent discovery one our favourite London restaurant chains had opened a B&B and the promise of some primate fun incentivised Becky and I to spend 24 hours by the sea in Lyme Regis.

Fruits of the sea

The grand feature of Hix Oyster and Fishhouse has to be the view. It looks out over the harbour, for reassurance of minimum food miles, and the rest of Lyme Bay. The adopted name of The Jurassic Coast for this stretch of Dorset is, I assume, more down to anomyte fossils on the beaches, but it could easily be down to the cliffs, from which I could easily picture any number of terodactyls swooping off. We speculated on this over a negroni and an english sparkling white with radishes with celery salt. I’d normally be a bit sceptical of a vegetable-flavoured condiment, but this worked well and added tang to a simple appetiser.

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There’s no doubt where the main effort goes into in the kitchen. The Hake head, below, was visually impressive and also a great dish with clams and a white wine sauce going well with muscular fish. My John Dory didn’t have quite so much box office appeal, though was cooked perfectly and paired well with a Mendoza Sauvignon Blanc. This variety was better with food than a typical New Zealand or European equivalent grape and far nicer than the more typical Torrentes White from Argentina which doesn’t seem an essential part of any occasion.

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Service at Hix has attracted the odd comment of late. We found it to the slower side of OK and perfectly acceptable for a seaside weekend – though there were a few rumbles of discontent elsewhere in the restaurant. I think there’s a tacit acceptance the vista and a bit of time to enjoy the wine is actually part of the routine here, which might not work for everyone.

Picnics in the townhouse

We were sleeping in Hix as well, his first restaurant now paired with a very convenient B&B Hix Townhouse. As art is a big feature of all the restaurants, the gaff is stylishly decorated, albeit with the odd lapsed detail such as a few plastering cracks in the bathroom, resplendent with authentic 70’s lino. Nothing that would affect your enjoyment though, and more than offset by the pufferfish light shade spied in another room and the antique one armed-bandit in the lobby.

A thing I’ve noticed a couple of times in B&Bs now is an absence of a sit down cooked breakfast, replaced by a delivery at your room, a feature here as well. Given Hix’ fishy prowess, a picnic basket with smoked salmon and rye with fruit and muesli got the morning off to a super-food fuelled start. It must be a fairly easy thing for your average B&B owner to fix, but decent coffees and teas, of which there were around ten here, is certainly more agreeable than the Nescafé I was offered at almost every turn in Glasgow recently.

Beasts of the trees

Being a bank holiday weekend, a park with 100 plus apes was expectedly rammed full of children sqeaking. The park was a bit of a contrast to Panda and Orangutan conservation establishments we’d been to recently in that it was quite a lot more condensed for human amusement. It does, though, mean you get to see a lot of them very close up, although with very close proximity to human apes at the same time. Orangutans and Gibbons the winner, but I was starting to devise a game deriving an index from multiplying the distance away people were ramming camera phones to the animals by how many prison tattoos they had or how many KGs overweight they were. The park was good fun, and clearly conservation is the aim, but it’s slightly overrun by a crowd seeking faeces-slinging primate fun.

Chengdu: Pandas and 78 beers

WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE YOU WANT TO GO AND YOU HAVEN’T GOT THE ADDRESS WRITTEN DOWN, ARE YOU CRAZY? I presume the taxi driver shrieked this at us when we presented our hotel address in Roman alphabet at the Airport. As friendly welcomes to China go I suppose it was different, but presented the first lesson of visiting China – have your maps and addresses printed off in Chinese. It’s a big shock to the senses visiting from Sydney though, huge expanses of concrete, communal housing, grey from low cloud and pollution. It’s not a great welcome, and an important thing to bear in mind when people in the West bleat about China’s great wealth, it isn’t jelly and ice cream for everyone.

Chengdu is either the fourth or fifth biggest city in China, depending on how you count, with 13 million people packed into tall buildings everywhere. The Crowne Plaza we stayed at typified this with a marble clad, seven story high reception. The weight of opinion on reviews was accurate for us here. It was well meaning and efficient but Chinese wine, solid and square bacon and a slight language problem leading to an order for 78 beers were ambiguous features.

Pandas on the rise

Of course, one visits Chengdu for few reasons other than the Pandas, native to this region and the only area in the world where you can see any more than a handful of them in captivity. Notoriously lazy and hungry, the best time to catch them is over breakfast so getting to the expansive Panda Research Base at 8am is a must to see 40 or 50 of them chomping immense amounts of bamboo. The noise they make eating is something difficult to capture through film of photo, think train wheels over tracks when seven or eight of them are eating.

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The park, like Chengdu itself, seems on its way to better things and is currently in a state of transition with various bits being developed with others abandoned. It would be easy to think the park faces a choice between aiming for a more profitable enterprise or one based around better conservation. The ‘hold a panda’ experience at £200 a shot, though, illustrated something. Rebuilding put paid to our plans, but it’s hard to see this exercise being shelved for too long, there will always be a market for the fat yet photogenic bears so profitability and conservation could go hand in hand.

Downtown

The Panda Park takes about 3-4 hours for a good visit, so you can easily take in downtown Chengdu in the same day. Tianfu square, a typical communist effort, occupies the hypo-centre, albeit with vast underground and overground shopping centres. Compared to Shanghai or Hong Kong, however, it is much calmer. Walking through Renmin Park and Jin Li street, for tea gardens, spicy meat sticks and cheap souvenirs respectively, reinforce this with a good mix of the authentic and fun for tourists.

It doesn’t, though, make things easy to find. I remain committed to return to Chengdu to take in Grandma’s Mabo Tofu (main ingredient Tofu yet fierce chilli oil – Is it masculine?), which sadly remained hidden through development and poor mapping. Every cloud though, duck skin and fat in tea, cold rice, orange fish sticks and chicken bones can be found easily for less than £5!

Glasgow 7s: Comic book heros at the rugby

Quick trip up to Glasgow to catch the seven a side rugby tournament there with a few ales and a different dress code. Flying and getting the train to Glasgow from London takes roughly the same amount of time, though if you are relaxed about the state of the environment and have a Silver BA card, free lounge food and drink and choice of seating takes all the edge of the journey. It’s easily done after work.

I was staying at the Marriott in Glasgow City Centre with three rugby veteran pals from back home. Normally, the hotel would be unremarkable, thought this one was above par, it did have the bonus of being the base for all 16 teams at the tournament with us floor sharing with the Welsh and Australians. There is the odd downside to sharing hotels with rugby teams, even though the days of setting the curtains on fire are largely over. Intimidation in the pool for one, and them getting up early means it’s a bit harder to sleep off fruity Brew Dog beers from the bar.

The IRB 7s is two days of seven-a-side rugby, held over nine global venues. The point of difference is the main action is socially-based in the stands, this time with a comic book hero theme as evidenced below. The fancy dress makes one pretty notorious, we took great pleasure being greeted out of the lifts With “hey He-Man, Bananaman” by the world famous Fijian sevens entertainers – irony being we were really there to see them. image

Thoughts from the games, however:

Argentina v Japan: Probably decent, was in the queue. Bananaman and He Man have no clout in suburban Glasgow. Argentina fail to ground the ball after the try line, always a good laugh!

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England v Australia: 17 all draw. Draw against the Aussies = getting a blow job off a tranny.

Russia v France: Best so far, IGOR! Innovative play the ball technique by a big Russian, half yoga, half grazing giraffe.

South Africa v Samoa: Bit dull. Finished my coffee, beer soon.

NZ v Kenya: Best team and best crowd respectively. Caledonian Best Bitter, decent drop.

Fiji v Wales: Fiji unload a bit of a dicking on Wales, they’re much better. NZ and Fiji will be there at the end, by far the best and, in sevens crucially important, the quickest.

Scotland v Portugal: Good support and a piper for the home team, just saw off Portugal.

England v Russia: Race for points, emphatic 43-7 for England. Good booing from the Scots.

South Africa v Kenya: Kenyans look a bit fat. It cost them here, running out of puff in the 2nd half, ahead in the first.

NZ v Samoa: Same! Samoans on the lard this time

Scotland v Wales: Bit emotional, correspondingly a bit crap but worth it for the final play seeing six of seven Welsh players lying on the floor.

Canada v Japan: Bit of a kicking for the Brave Blossoms, redeemed by a totally unchallenged knock on by Candian with the line at his mercy. Excellent. Selfie sticks are out.

Australia v Russia: “Australia have knocked on so it’s Russia’s Putin”

England v France: Very tense. Did England get enough points? Everyone too drunk to remember.

Kenya v Samoa:Fatty Derby. Kenya less fat.

NZ v South Africa: Lots of good stuff here. Skills. Starting to force down the beer, might have to switch to champagne.

Scotland v Fiji: Bit of an atmosphere killer, Fiji way too good, 45-7.

Second day: Too emotionally overcome to recall, analyse or scribe anything. Fiji win.

Apres Rugby

Sauchiehall Street in the City Centre is perfect for an evening out in fancy dress and created plenty of attention. The biggest mistaken identity came from a waitress at the Karma Sutra Indian who shooed us into a birthday party attended by women of a certain age. Inevitably He-Man, resplendent with wig and prosthetic pants, is mistaken as a stripper. The sight of He-Man, Bananaman, The Green Cross Code man and Hong Kong Phooey scarpering to shouts of “GET THEM OFF” provides a humiliating conclusion.

Sydney: Economically booming, socially thriving

Gnocci, empty bars, armadillos and a lack of coffee in Australia’s not capital.

Big cities in decent weather with beaches are probably my favourite holiday destination, so I was excited to be heading to Sydney from Auckland.  LAN Chile do a useful and relatively cheap business class product from Auckland, forming the last leg of a Santiago to Sydney mega haul flight. Leaving at 6AM and winning two hours back on time difference, you get a full day at Sydney and with a fully flat bed, the chance to grab more sleep. There’s some recognition of this by LAN, the bed was the only real USP of the flight. Of the four long-haul business class products I’ve used (Cathay Pacific, BA and American Airlines the others) this was the leanest service.

This gave time for a good mooch around the Central Business District (CBD) at rush hour. I’m still surprised Sydney has never been the capital of Australia, Canberra holds that title with Melbourne before 1927, yet a walk around at 9AM leaves no doubt Sydney is Australia’s economic and financial hub. Most multi-nationals seem to have their own glass-clad skyscraper with people were scurrying into them via a boutique coffee shop on every corner. I’d previously been here in 2003, though perspectives change, it seems wealthier and more business-oriented here than before. The coffee scene is definitely new, though I’m shamed to admit the treacly blend and flat whites ubiquitous here aren’t really to my taste.

Boats and beaches

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Manly Beach isn’t the closest to central Sydney, being on the other side of the harbour, but unlike Bondi, it has a spectacular journey to get there. The ferry from Cicular Quay takes in, almost immediately, the opera house in all it’s armadillo-esque glory, the CBD and the harbour bridge (see Becky obscuring the Opera House above, not obscuring below). There is allegedly a nudist beach en route as well, though you must need keen eyes for this – I searched like a hawk and couldn’t see a thing. Manly itself is far enough away from CBD to be far more chilled out and with a fish and chip lunch and surf shops, it ‘s reminiscent of a European seaside resort, though, again unlike my previous visit, a lot more upmarket now. It still gets my vote over characterless Bondi and the distant Coggee.

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Less great views at the cricket

Sydney cricket ground is another architectural highlight of the city and we were able to take in an England game, versus Pakistan, before the Cricket World Cup. There was an experimental, contrived feel to the game (can’t moan, it was free) so the main experience was the 1920s members stands we were watching from. A similar ‘complaint’ could be made when watching a game from the pavilion at Lords: From the best stand you can’t see the best view of the ground. The photo below gives the best angle I could get of the members stand, from the far edge of the ladies pavilion. Useful tip: If you want short bar queues, go to a game with a heavy Pakistani contingent. I had a choice of barman for each of my four beers. image

Michelin star in a red light district

I’d exclusively dined on pies here during 2003, so eating on the second evening at Gastro Park was a a quite significant step up. The seven course taster menu covers all tastes, most interesting was a gnocchi in consume that was actually “exploding liquid balls of Parmesan and Pumpkin Soup”, a huge surprise to the palate. Almost as surprising was the location. Gastro Park is nestled in Paddington, still thriving as the red light district of Sydney, though in quite tame and kitsch way. It seems mainly cover for excessive boozing, my priority in 2003. An evening of great contrast!

After three fantastic days, a quite amusing piece of schadenfreude finished things off. A minor delay at a luggage carousel was time enough to witness an all out war between a family of five over lost train tickets. Every one of the family had a rant at everyone else, which was really quite spectacular. Bogans are still about and with all the shouting, a good warm up for China.

Coromandel and Napier: Malcolm and Anita get hitched

If Auckland was a modern yet easy paced metropolis, The Coromandel was more in step with my initial expectations of New Zealand: Spectacular rugged landscape and sparsely populated. The peninsula was stunning in most places and really the preserve of holiday homes and fishing. It wasn’t always this way though, perhaps a result of the volcanic topography, gold mining had been a significant industry and, latterly, as Wikipedia quotes, “has become popular for those seeking an alternative lifestyle”. I think this means stoners like it there.

Wedding of the year

The whole two and a half week trip really revolved around our friends wedding in Matarangi, on the beach surrounded by pine trees. Seeking an alternative lifestyle seems appropriate, unlike most weddings, with wedding planners and paraphernalia, Malcolm and Anita had organised the venue and the event from scratch. The result was definitely one of the more creative events I’d seen, totally free of the stuffiness created from stately venues and the first with giant Jenga.

Of course, with an event of 100 people and starting from a blank piece of paper, there was plenty to do and set up. A huge crew of the happy couple’s friends had worked tremendously hard to get the venue ready, testimony really to their popularity. It was worth it – they both seemed to have a great time, Anita looked great and Malcolm looked and behaved the best I had seen. It did seem appropriate to tip a load of red wine over his finely detailed wedding shirt though, after he ripped my shirt to pieces at my wedding six months previously. Cheers! My photography was lame, I link to source material:

http://www.perspectives.co.nz/photo/matarangi-wedding-photos-malcolm-anita/?fb_action_ids=10152680458866644&fb_action_types=og.comments

Hot water talk

Hot water springs are part of the trade off for living in volcanic areas and Coromandel has one with a difference. You have to make it yourself. After a fantastic brunch, courtesy of Malcolm’s family, we set off for Hot Water Beach where water of about sixty degrees bubbles straight out of the sand. We’d made the trip over with wedding grafter Simon and a spade, aiming to dig a hole to wallow in, topping up with cold water as you go.

It never quite worked, mainly due to scarcity of hot water, but the sight of hundreds of meters of deserted beach then 200 people crammed into 20 square meters of it was some compensation. It was, though, a great social activity, trading digging tips and spades while trying to avoid the occasionally boiling water. I suspect its appeal is as much social than as relaxation.

Art Deco and wine

“The Art Deco Capital of the Universe”, Napier, was next stop after a drive that also took in Lake Taupo. A 1931 earthquake meant the town was rebuilt in the style of the time and it remains the only place I’ve seen with an Art Deco Starbucks. Our hotel here, The Masonic, below, was perhaps most representative and in my opinion the only place in town to stay – especially after they upgraded us to the room NEXT TO where the Queen stayed in the fifties. Dinner and wine were very refined, providing the first taste of Hawke’s Bay wine

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It very definitely wasn’t the last though. A day of botched planning with a few early morning car  logistical issues ended up with throwing a load of cash at a Taxi to the superb ‘On Yer Bike’ a winery that doubles up as bike rental, allowing you to potter around 270 k of cycling paths connecting Hawke’s Bay wineries. Note Becky’s studious attention to bike safety, below, after tasting number one.

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Abbey Cellars I think typified the experience. A tasting session was facilitated by a phlegmatic guy who had lived and worked in Bordeaux, brewed IPAs on the side and provided the only Reisling on the circuit, for no reason other than he liked it. The chat made it the highlight of the six wineries, though 36 tasters on the five or so mile route no doubt blunted conversation a bit. It seemed a very NZ thing to do for the last day of our lightning-quick visit. I know we’ll be back.

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Auckland: Teams old and new

“Eh, Buck, when you got your nutsack rucked out, did you see who did it?” Of course, one of New Zealand’s best USPs is rugby and within 24 hours of arriving in Auckland we were already shaking hands, asking questions of and spilling the beer of Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford, former All Black Captain and instigator of the modern Haka. He took it in his stride and wandered off to have his picture taken with his kids, preferable to having four drunks leering at him.

After a pretty dreadful flight over from Melbourne the evening before, complete with being sent to the back of the customs queue, (Mike’s visa tip #2, UK passport holders DO need to fill out an exit card for Aus) we’d got down to a soaked Auckland. The weather, or threat of it, had put paid to a trip to Waiheke Island, one of the many volcanic eruptions that shape Auckland and the bay around it, so we eventually wandered around the city on a guidebook-prescribed walking tour.

This Lonely Planet tour was actually great, however, and unearthed several gems off the beaten track. Probably most surprising was the discovery NZ was the first country to give women the vote in 1893, a whole 25 years before the UK. This was observed from a street mural, though most of the women depicted looked like blokes. You could almost use this example to describe Auckland now. On first impressions I found it an egalitarian, progressive, diverse and thoroughly modern city.

Old team mates

The evening was reserved for catching up with two pals from my rugby club in Tokyo, ten years after I last played for Tokyo Gaijin RFC. The craft beer revolution is alive and well in Auckland, several of these oiled conversation nicely in 16 Tun. It was actually a full decade since I last saw Chuckie, Blake I’d seen only twice since 2005 in London and Tokyo, though conversation oiling wasn’t really necessary. It’s a long-standing cliche that socialising après rugby, is the best part of the game. The Gaijin epitomises this and I’ve stayed in touch with most of the 2004/05 Tokyo Cup team – despite huge distances . I include the most blurred, rubbish photo I could find in order to accurately represent my memory of a ‘night’ that inevitably ended up being kicked out the pub while it was still light – our new found All Black friend looking on. Blake is on the left.

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A new team mate

Catching up up with a team of a different sense was the activity for the next morning with my colleague Mara and her family coming into town to see us. My colleagues in Auckland get a terrific view of the city, the islands, the bay and several more volcano cones, including One Tree Hill, as crooned about by U2, from 20-odd floors up. Auckland is well worth a view from the air, more so than most cities, albeit from within a ‘toilet seat’. I still carry the shame from being utterly incapable of coherent speech though, apologies again Mara. It’s another reminder of the huge amount of good will in my current team. I’ve been grateful for calling on this a few times in the last few months, hopefully reciprocating, while  working on a huge change project. I hope there will be more to come.

Speaking of goodwill, I used a reserve from Becky who drove me to Coromandel Peninsula that day while I carried out my ablutions from the passenger seat window. It must have put me close to overdraft limit – probably not the best way to prepare for a wedding.

Melbourne and Yarra Valley: Getting used to a different pace

Melbourne is a funny place to go to after four busy work weeks in London and 18 frantic hours visa-hunting in Hong Kong. It took a good two days to properly calm down, excellently spent chilling in botanical gardens, the war memorial, ‘laneways’ with hordes of boho coffee joints and graffiti.

Our guide in Melbourne town was Becky’s mate Nicky, from St Albans, where they both worked in the seemingly cut-throat environment of Tescos. Nicky had moved to Australia four years earlier and with Aussie citizenship now seems thoroughly at home in South Yarra, full social life, active yet at peace. In other words, quite what you’d expect from a move from London. Grateful to her for showing us about, must have tested her patience to have two pasty Brits recovering from 24 hours travelling to shuffle around.

After a mere 48 hours in Melbourne, (I’m sure is too short, I suspect you need longer to see the best of life there) we headed off to Healesville in Yarra Valley. There was an excellent animal sanctuary with the full set of Aussie animals; Dingos, Platypusses, Koalas and Kangaroos and the like. With Kangaroo feeding, makes a pleasant little diversion though it did seem quite expensive. Conservation is an expensive thing in a time of urbanisation though, I think most would be happy to pay up if conservation is the ultimate aim.

The real reason for us visiting the Yarra Valley is the wine though. In the seven years I’ve been with or married to Becky, some of the best times we’ve had have been rambling or shambling between vineyards to taste and buy in places such as Bordeaux, Argentina and Lisbon. Yarra is renowned for Pinot Noirs, though some of the nicest surprises here were the Whites and Roses -types I’d never before been a big consumer of before.

First stop on a day of five was the commercial-yet-friendly Yering Station. We had a guide here too, though it was in the form of comprehensive notes from my colleague Clare. She moved the other way from Nicky, swapping Melbourne for a European investment bank, and had previously worked in marketing for Yering. Thinking about it now, the contrast between those two moves is interesting and a good illustration of the great benefits and relative ease in moving around the world to live and work. Like Hong Kong and China’s economic relationship, it’s a win win for people and the global economy.

I’m sure influenced by this tip off, Becky bought a crate here, half shown below, for shipping back to the UK. I’m sure it was only a partially alcohol-influenced decision – the full range at Yering was excellent. image

Walking and cycling to four more wineries in the rest of the afternoon was relatively straightforward – though slightly painful. I can see where the cliche of the cork-rimmed hats in Aussie came from, the flies were merciless and several times I picked one out of my nose or ears. I also continued to hone my skill of leaving one patch of flesh exposed to the sun. A sunburnt right calf irritated me for the rest of the two week trip, though the promise of torrential rain in next stop Auckland did offer some compromise! –