The Wizardess of Oz

An American's Adventures in Australia and Beyond

Tag: Food (page 1 of 2)

Living the High Life in Saigon

If it hadn’t been for the Vietnamese on the signs that lined the frenetic streets, I could have mistaken it for New York. High rises towered above, streets clogged with motor and foot traffic, men in business suits bustled down sidewalks, and neon signs advertised everything from Coca Cola to the evening news.

Sure, there were still the markers of a large Asian city: Banh Mi and Pho street carts, alleyways full of stalls bursting with fresh produce, live poultry and very dead, yet-to-be-butchered pigs.

But Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), was a mad mix of it’s Vietnamese roots and it’s love affair with the West. Perhaps because it was home to many American soldiers during the Vietnam War, perhaps because of it’s proximity to economic giant China, or perhaps because Westerners are flocking toward the opportunity in Asia, Saigon was a surprise.

I was lucky to have a host for my time the city, a friend I had worked with in Seattle who had moved here to continue his career in advertising. After two months in Asia, I decided to take a (little) break from Asian food, and so we set out to eat and drink our way through this glittering metropolis.

Where We Ate: 

Saffron
Cuisine: Mediterranean
Price: $20 – $35 USD for appetizer, main, and wine.
Walk into this cozy, tasteful little bistro, and expect an immediate and effusive greeting from either the lovely staff or the French-Vietnamese owner. Upon sitting, you’ll be brought a glass of champagne (gratis!) and an overview of the specials for the day. They take their food very seriously, and have a menu that will leave you struggling to make a decision. I dined entirely off the specials menu, which consisted of a baked brie appetizer (I hadn’t had cheese in ages!) and a seafood paella that was very delicious. I also was finally able to indulge in red wine! To end the meal, a limoncello shot and a fragrant flower bracelet. By Vietnamese standards, it was a ‘splash out’ meal, but for less than $40 USD I was stuffed, tipsy, and definitely happy.

Baked Brie

Finally… CHEESE!

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The roof inside Saffron – clay pots

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Urban Kitchen + Bar
Cuisine: Vietnamese-Western Fusion
Price: $12 – $18 for brunch
The interior of this industrial space made me feel tres chic as I sipped my Vietnamese coffee in a desperate attempt to rid myself of a hangover. We had come for their weekend brunch, and I dug into my baked eggs and bacon hash with gusto as coffee after coffee disappeared. This was a locals place if ever there was one – in the heart of Japan Town, surrounded by upper-class Vietnamese and other expats, with a menu to match. It apparently also does a good business as a late-night cocktail and snacks bar, too.

YUMMY Hangover Brunch @ Urban Kitchen

YUMMY Hangover Brunch @ Urban Kitchen

L’Usine
Cuisine: French Bistro
Price: $7 – 14 for lunch
The hipster movement hasn’t left Vietnam untouched, if this boutique/home goods shop/bistro is any indication. It’s the sort of place I’d park with my laptop all day, ordering Croque Madames and coffees and pretending I was penning the next great American (Vietnamese?) novel. The shop has all sorts of interesting and adorable trinkets that would make very unique souvenirs or gifts for friends and family back home. Just beware, the price of goods within the shop match American prices – no deals here!

So French! So Creative!

So French! So Creative!

Secret Garden
Cuisine: Vietnamese
Price: $10 – $12 for dinner
I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least one Vietnamese restaurant in my culinary tour of HCMC. Set in a pretty courtyard on the top floor of an easily-missed building in a laneway, this one is worth seeking out. It’s authentic, it’s not flashy, and the food is delicious. And it’s cheap! Maybe not street-cart cheap, but inexpensive enough to miss on your credit statement.

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Where We Drank:

Glow Skybar
What’s a big weekend out without an evening on a rooftop? Here I started off with a (strong) martini, and the rest of night got fuzzy pretty soon thereafter. If you want to avoid the backpacker scene and see what a weekend out would look like if you lived and worked here, this is place to go. It’s a see-and-be-seen sort of spot where the locals always seem to run into a friend or two.

Just getting the night started...

Just getting the night started…

Chill
Another rooftop bar? These seem to be the the thing to do for the business crowd of this city. This one is a little flashier, and little more colorful, but also with good cocktails and service.

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Lush
I’ll be honest: My memory of this place is pretty fuzzy. I recall a huge bar in the middle of the place, a luxe VIP area and bottle service with some heavy-hitters in the Saigon advertising scene, dancing in a cage for a few minutes, and little else. But I’m assured by my guide that it is indeed one of the more fun places to visit, if you aren’t white girl wasted like I was.

It's a cage. But it's fuzzy, like we were by this point in the night...

It’s a cage. But it’s fuzzy, like we were by this point in the night…

After only a few days in the city, I could almost see myself living there. With so much influence from the US and Europe, many of the creature comforts of home are readily catered to, and with a booming economy, opportunity abounds. Don’t be surprised if Ho Chi Minh City is the next ‘it’ place for city-lovers to live in Southeast Asia.

Bangkok 2.0

The first time I ever met Bangkok, I wasn’t quite ready for the pandemonium he brought to bear. But I fell in love with his crazy ass anyway.

I drank in the whirling neon, the steam from the street vendors and the asphalt beneath my feet, the skin-tingling relief at the slightest hint of a breeze, the cacophony of raw fish, spice and sizzling meat. This time, I couldn’t wait to show him off to my sister, and maybe get to know another layer of his personality.

We decided to stay near Khao San Road this time, both for the cheap accommodation in abundance in the area, and because I loved it’s messy, touristy, hedonistic vibe the first time I’d visited. Rather than stay right on that street, we opted for a room on Soi Rambuttri, a smaller, quieter street just across the road.

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Not wanting to waste a moment, we tore ourselves away from the air conditioning and found our way to the center of the city to get on a bus to Amphawa, to one of the most famous floating markets in the area. Once there, we slowly made our way through the stalls, sampling a little of this, a little of that until we were full to bursting and still a little unsure of exactly what we had just eaten. We cruised the river for an hour after that, checking out a community that revolved nearly entirely around the waterways – a dock for every home.

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The next day, we took a spin past the famous Reclining Buddha and explored the temple grounds of Wat Pho. After that, it was time to jump onto another local bus across town (for $0.80!) to get to the Chatuchak weekend market — a place where everything from paper lanterns to puppies are sold. The amount of stalls and wares was absolutely staggering, so much so that we got ‘buyer paralysis’ and actually had a hard time finding anything to buy!

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After weeks of sticking to the cheap, we decided we wanted to see more than just Bangkok’s touristy epicenter, so we showered, got dressed up and headed to the Bai Yoke Sky Hotel to have a rooftop cocktail. While Beth and were both a little taken aback by the chintzy scene and terrible cocktails in the bar, we did make it up to the revolving roof deck and were able to take in the lights of BKK from the tallest building in the city.

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After the disappointment of Bai Yoke as a cocktail destination, we headed to Silom Road, a place that’s popular with the business traveler and expat set in the city. We had dinner at a place called Scarlett, a wine bar in the Pullman hotel. After weeks of beer, I was so ready for a good glass of red. And I absolutely fell in love with the restaurant. Not only did they have wine for $3/glass, they had a cheese and charcuterie bar (yes!), where you could choose which you wanted on your platter by walking up and pointing. Plus they were serving oysters, the ambiance was great, we were surrounded by well-heeled office workers of various backgrounds out for post-work dinner and drinks. It was the same Bangkok I had fallen in love with the first time, but this one was wearing cologne and had his hair slicked back. Utterly dashing.

The next night, we decided we wanted to see a little more of this well-groomed Bangkok we’d met the night before, so we went to the rooftop bar at Lebua, which you might remember from a movie called The Hangover 2. Teetering over the whirling streets of the city, with a bright red sun sinking down behind the skyscrapers and a New York-priced cocktail, it definitely felt like a first-world country to me. We continued on to Cabbages and Condoms, a restaurant that’s famous both for it’s art made out of latex condoms and it’s contributions to family planning in Thailand.

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But we knew we couldn’t leave without a proper farewell to the shaggy, crazy, mildly unhinged heart of this city. And so we found ourselves strolling down Khao San Road at 1 a.m., stopping for some live music and watching the neon bounce off the whirl of faces that filed past. The steam of the street vendors enveloped us like a parting hug, and we faded out of that great metropolis and into the jungles of the north.

 

Ubud

I had a good feeling about Ubud, before I even set foot into it.

I’m not one of those travelers who insists on traveling only to ‘off the beaten track’ locations, haughtily turning my nose up an anything that’s ‘just so done,‘ and sprinting in the opposite direction of places that would be deemed touristy. So, despite the Elizabeth Gilbert Eat/Pray/Love cloud that hung over the place, I bargained with my sister to spend at least a couple of nights in the interior of Bali, instead of focusing solely on the beaches.

And in so doing, I found one of my favorite places in the world.

Ubud is definitely firmly planted on the tourist track in Bali, much to the lament of many people who ‘came here before it was cool.’ The village center is a bustling line of shops and restaurants that cater to the tourists that pass through. The prices are definitely not Asia prices. And it’s a wonderful place.

After a couple of months of crashing on couches and in low-cost hostels, my sister and I decided to splash out a bit and booked ourselves into a room at the Greenfield Hotel. We absolutely loved the grounds, the room, and the staff. And the price wasn’t necessarily a budget-buster, even if it wasn’t what would qualify as ‘budget.’ And rather than try to push the agenda as ‘travelers’ instead of ‘tourists,’ we threw ourselves into being tourists with gusto.

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We feasted like queens, trying out delicious local food at Cafe Wayan, dined in a rice paddy at 3 Monkeys, and participated in the most wonderful cooking class through Paon Cooking. Our teacher “Auntie Puspa” was a riot, cracking jokes and vogue-ing for photos like Cindy Crawford.

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We shopped at the stalls and stores in town, picking up batik fabrics, Bali pants and trinkets for our future niece.

We explored the natural side of Ubud, marveling at the Tagallalang Rice Terraces, fighting over the contents of our purses with the monkeys of the Monkey Forest (not always winning the battle), and cycling through the small villages the dot the rice fields outside of the town, waving hello to the children that shouted as we passed.

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We treated ourselves to a spa day, getting massages, body scrubs and skin treatments right next to a river in a beautiful hotel.

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And everywhere we went, we were greeted with hospitality and a generosity of spirit that is unique to the Balinese. By the end of our four days in town, I was already scheming ways to come back more permanently. Sometimes, being a tourist isn’t as overrated as travelers make it out to be.

The Wines of Marlborough

After tasting our way through Waiheke near Auckland and Central Otago near Queenstown, we knew we couldn’t miss the most famous of wine regions in New Zealand: Marlborough.

With an overnight in Picton, gateway to Marlborough and the place to catch the ferry from the south island to the north, we decided our best bet to fill the one day we had there was (once again) wine. So we went to the local i-Site and signed ourselves up for a ferry trip and a wine tour, and off we went!

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Marlborough is most famous for it’s Sauvignon Blanc; you’ll see it on wine menus the world over. We were lucky enough to explore a little deeper than this acidic white. Here’s where we went:

Hunters

This is one of the more famous vineyards in the region, and the Hunter family is credited with putting the Marlborough region on the map. Sadly, Ernie Hunter, who founded the winery with his wife, Jane, died in a motor accident shortly after they ‘made it,’ leaving his wife to tirelessly carry on the legacy. She is now a VIP in the wine world, and her wines are sold all over the world. We made our way through a couple of Chardonnays, a Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc (obviously), and a Pinot Noir that was actually our favorite. But that could partly be because, after living in Australia for 3 years, I was Sauv-Blanc-ed out.

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Drylands

This place was like a wine emporium; a variety of labels lined the shelves. We tasted from Drylands itself, with the Sauvignon Blanc winning the day with its fruit and balanced acidity. The tasting room was nicely laid out for purchasing a variety of wine-related accouterments, and they were in the process of adding more space when we visited.

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Forrest

This vineyard had the prettiest cellar door, and a very knowledgeable staff who took us out into the vines and explained the process they use to grow, trim, and maintain the vines. There are few labels under the Forrest umbrella, and we tasted from Forrest and The Doctors (an homage to the owners’ former profession). At this point, we suffered a bit from overtasting (and we weren’t spitting), so it’s hard to remember what to recommend here, though I do recall being impressed with the reds from the Doctor’s line.

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Eradus

Our final wine stop was a small, Dutch-family run cellar door that wasn’t on the premises of the vineyard itself. We were able to taste their entire range, which was made up of a Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Rose, Pinot Noir, and dessert wine called Sticky Mickey, in honor of the owner of the vineyard. We decided to bring a bottle of the Pinot Noir back with us to have with dinner, but the whites were good as well.

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By the end, the older ladies were coming up to us with shining eyes and commenting on how we were tasting everything, and not spitting. We just smiled and admitted that we’re lushes, but I think everyone on our tour was a little tipsy. We’d had enough to think twerking next to our tour bus was a good idea…

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So when our tour guide suggested a stop off at a Chocolate Factory, there was a resounding cheer from the bus. After a serious sampling session, we were dropped back at our hostel with a package of dark chocolate and a bottle of Pinot Noir, and decided that a cheese and meat plate was just what the doctor ordered for dinner.

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And this concluded our wine tour of New Zealand!

The Wines of Central Otago

Continuing our trend set our first few days in Waiheke, we decided a wine tasting of the Otago Valley was definitely order. Because Pinot Noir. Because it’s our favorite red, and it grows like no other in the cooler climate of southern NZ. Because the country outside Queenstown is some of the most beautiful in the world, and what better way to see it than with a glass of wine in hand?

After a little investigation into pre-organized wine tours, we discovered that the cost for the three of us would have easily been nearly $200, so we hatched a plan. Amanda posted on a Facebook forum for Queenstown locals to see if anyone would like to supply a vehicle and sobriety for a day. We would supply $100 NZD, lunch, gas, and sparkling (if slurry) conversation. In no time, we had dozens of offers.

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We were picked up in time to make it to the first winery by the time the tasting room had opened. Our itinerary was as follows:

Peregrine:

The wine here was good, but not memorable. The huge barrel room directly behind you as you taste certainly is, though! After a wander through the barrels and a careful consideration of two Rieslings, a Sauvignon Blanc, and two Pinot Noirs, we picked up a bottle of their easy drinking 2013 Saddleback Pinot Noir to drink later, because it was both our favorite and the cheapest! Those two things weren’t linked, I promise. Okay, maybe they were.
Tasting Cost: Free; bottle purchase recommended

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Wooing Tree: 

The wines here were all enjoyable. We started with a chardonnay that didn’t win any fans, then tasted our way through three Pinot Noirs, 2013, 2011, and 2010. We finished with a dessert Rose made from Pinot Noir grapes that we all absolutely adored, so much so that we bought a bottle. It’s cutesy name Tickled Pink was adored when tipsy, but groan-worthy once sober. Either way, it was delicious!
Tasting Cost: $5 without bottle purchase; free with purchase.

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Mt. Difficulty:

We stopped here for lunch, a couple of meat and cheese platters that had us swooning (though I rarely meet a meat and cheese platter I don’t like). We did a tasting to see what glass we should have with lunch, and opted for a delicate, light 2014 Chenin Blanc. The view from the vineyard was also stunning, looking out over several different vineyards that populate the Bannockburn region of the Central Otago Valley.
Tasting Cost: Free

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Chard Farm:

The drive to this vineyard is pure New Zealand: a dusty, one-lane road carved into a mountainside, falling steeply to a fluorescent blue river. Across the highway, bungee jumpers are braving a free fall off an old bridge. After a few nail-biting minutes, rows of vines cradle you until you arrive safely at the tasting room. There, you’re rewarded with some of the juiciest pinot noirs in the area. Try them all, but stick to the reds if you’re trying to avoid getting wine drunk. My favorite is the Mata Au, but i haven’t tried the single vineyard varieties yet. They also have great deals on pre-selected boxes of their favorite bottles. Not to be missed!
Tasting Cost: Free

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Magical Queenstown

There’s a certain kind of magic that hangs around Queenstown that’s apparent from the moment you step off the plane and gape at the Remarkables mountain range towering overhead. Scratch that, it’s apparent before your plane even touches down, as you see the mountain peaks approaching and can see the deep blue lake stretching out in the valley, with a small town hugging one end.

Since I had been here before, I held back on any remark after our arrival, to see if my sister felt the same thing I felt any time I was here. As we trudged through the airport parking lot, I heard a ‘Wow…” and turned to see her snapping photos of those same mountains that had stunned me the first time I laid eyes on them, and at every subsequent viewing since.

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The feeling doesn’t stop once you’re in town – cafes, bars, shops, and beautiful hotels line the streets of ‘downtown,’ if it can be called that. It’s a perfect-sized town; enough variety to keep things interesting, small enough for you to get your bearings within 24 hours. It’s clean, beautiful, and full of happy people. Because how can anyone be surrounded by those mountains and that lake and not be happy?

We used Queenstown as our base to explore the surrounding area, and stayed with our friend Dan, who I met through Amanda, who I met when I hosted her in Sydney through CouchSurfing. They had chosen to settle down in Queenstown for several months to work, replenish bank accounts, and just enjoy the awesomeness that is QT. Needless to say, Dan and his roommates were all awesome, especially Toa, the sweet Staffie who shared the couch with me on a particularly cold night.

My Amazing Hosts

My Amazing Hosts

Toa, My Love

Toa, My Love

We spent a few nights getting acquainted with the bars of Queenstown. Since we were with ‘locals,’ we skipped the touristy attractions such as Ice Bar and instead made for places like Rhinos, The Find, and Vinyl, where we rocked out to a band that specialized in early 2000s pop punk with a mini guitar as a prop. And of course the famous Ferg Burger factored in as a dinner once or twice as well (Insider tip: you can call in your order and skip the hour long line at the window). The first time I came to Queenstown (on a slightly bigger budget), Eichardts and Botswana Butchery topped the list of pricier places to eat and drink.

Getting Cray with the Ukelele

Getting Cray with the Ukelele

FERG!

FERG!

We also visited the gondola and downhill luge at Skyline on the mountain above town, and even hiked up to the Ben Lomond saddle behind the tourist complex. What we thought might be a relatively easy 3 hour hike turned out to be a grueling 4 hours up a steep incline that left us sore for days. But what a view from the other side!

Luging

Luging

Before We Knew What We Were Getting Into

Before We Knew What We Were Getting Into

Struggle Street

Struggle Street

We Made It!

We Made It!

The Payoff

The Payoff

When it was time to say goodbye, my sister and I both didn’t want to leave. But who wants to leave such a beautiful place? But glaciers, national parks, and other adventures beckoned, so off we went!

The Wines of Waiheke

The first time I went to New Zealand, I visited Auckland for a couple of days. Everyone told me to get out as quickly as possible, that there isn’t much in Auckland worth sticking around for. But since we had an overnight there anyway, I went exploring and found Waiheke Island.

On my second round of New Zealand exploring, I knew it was the best place to spend the couple of days we had on either side of our flights. Why do I love Waiheke? A few reasons: The relaxed beachy vibe, the beautiful vistas from the hilltops, the friendliness of the locals. But the biggest reason? WINE. There are vineyards all over Waiheke (pronounced WAI-heck-ay), which appreciates a little warmer and more stable climates than Auckland.

We spent a total of four days on Waiheke Island between the start and end of our trips, and we had a very good sampling of the vineyards on the island. I have outlined our experience below:

Mudbrick:
http://www.mudbrick.co.nz/

This is my hands-down favorite. It’s not necessarily the wine that’s my favorite, but the vineyard is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever set foot on. It looks a bit like a French country home, with a vegetable and herb garden out front, beautiful flowers blooming out of wine barrels, bougainvillea climbing the walls, and a showstopping view of downtown Auckland over the water. When you think of a vineyard wedding, you think of a vineyard like Mudbrick. The wine is decent, but nothing that’s ever made me swoon. But that view… now that is swoon-worthy.
Tasting Fee: $10 / 5 ‘standard’ wines, $15 / 5 ‘premium’ wines
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Cable Bay:
http://cablebay.co.nz/

I’d venture that this is the most famous vineyard on the island, and it’s just a 5 minute walk from Mudbrick. Thus, it boasts a beautiful view as well, but not as good as the view from Mudbrick. It’s a sleeker and more modern building, which to me makes it feel like it lacks a little bit of soul. But to each his own! We tasted a very good sauvignon blanc here, but the reds that were on the tasting menu didn’t leave an impression.
Tasting Fee: $10 / 5 wines
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Stony Ridge:
http://www.stonyridge.co.nz/Home 

This is one of the oldest vineyards on the island. It’s tucked into a valley, with the tasting house and restaurant surrounded by it’s vines. It was very busy when we got there, but since we were getting lunch we decided to take our tasting in the restaurant. It’s famous for it’s Bordeaux-style reds (the Larose being the most famous), and they are certainly delicious! The food here wasn’t too bad either, fresh oysters and a cheese platter stacked with yummy trimmings.
Tasting Fee: $3 – $18 NZD per tasting, depending on the wine. Often have sets of reds or whites for $15 – $25, depending on the season.
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Te Motu:
http://www.temotu.co.nz/

The tasting room of Te Motu is set in a casual garden full of edibles for the restaurant’s kitchen. Cats laze about, glasses clink, and olive trees stretch out in the distance. This is just a short walk from Stony Ridge, so if you visit one, you should visit both. Te Motu is small, and the limited production is reflected in the prices for a glass or bottle, or even a tasting flight. But the wine is good, the food is adventurous, and it’s a great little spot to spend a couple of hours educating your tastebuds.
Tasting Fee: $20 / 5 ‘Heritage’ wines, occasionally flights of their less expensive label, Dunleavy for less.
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Casita Miro:
http://www.casitamiro.co.nz/

This pretty spot is an homage to the Spanish artist Miro, with mosaic tiling reminiscent of his style found all over the grounds. On this side of the island, they say there is a ‘wine trail’ that allows you to hike between Miro, Obsidian, Stony Ridge and Te Motu. We tried to take it and ended up getting lost and traipsing through some fields of wildflowers and sharp pricklers. But perhaps you might have better luck! Either way, you can walk between Miro and Obsidian. There is a beautiful little terrace above the restaurant that has a beautiful view out to sea, and the restaurant serves tapas.
Tasting Fee: $15 / 5 wines
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Obsidian:
http://www.obsidian.co.nz/

Last, but certainly not least, is Obsidian. This tasting room is no-frills: there are no glasses for sale (they don’t the license), there is no restaurant, but this had my favorite wine on the island. They had a 2012 Tempranillo and a 2010 Cab blend that I couldn’t say no to. I bought a bottle of each, and an extra Cab for a wine loving friend. Everything we tried from this small vineyard was delicious, but those two stood head and shoulders above everything I tried in our grand tour of the vineyards of Waiheke.
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If you’d like to have your own tour of Waiheke, there are no shortage of tour operators who would be happy to drive you around on a scheduled tour. If you prefer a little more freedom, the transport company Fullers offers hop-on-hop-off Vineyard Hopper bus tickets, and you can get a deal on these if you take the Fullers ferry to the island. Just purchase at the ferry terminal in Auckland.

If one day just isn’t enough (it seriously isn’t!), there are lots of really cute AirBnB listings all over the island. It’s a popular place for weekend & holiday homes, which means plenty of options that aren’t in a hotel! You’ll likely want to stay closer to Oneroa, the main town on the island, but Onetangi beach on the other end is a beautiful day trip, especially if you combine it with a visit to Obsidian!

Thankful

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted my third and final Thanksgiving as an expatriate (at least an expatriate in Australia). Having the opportunity to bring this American tradition to foreign shores has been an annual highlight of each holiday season I’ve spent here in Australia. It’s been an opportunity to take a step back and reflect, and benchmark upon which I can measure how my life and social circle have grown and been enriched.

My first Thanksgiving was a harried and hurried affair, cooked on a hangover and with a few friends and a few people I had only just met, the day after an all-day music festival.

My second Thanksgiving stood out in stark contrast to the last – surrounded by new friends, a new love, and an overwhelming gratitude that my first year in Australia hadn’t been quite as bad as I’d let myself believe.

And this Thanksgiving was a fitting cap to the tradition. The turkey was a success (whew!), all the necessary accouterments were laid out, nearly everyone who had been at that first small table in my apartment in Bondi was able to make a reappearance, and many of the friends from last year’s feast had been able to attend as well.

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As we went around the table of 18 and said what we were thankful for, I couldn’t help but get a lump in my throat as I told everyone the story of the small table at my first Thanksgiving, and how more than anything I was thankful that I had been put in the path of so many amazing people who wanted to share this tradition with me. I was thankful for a partner who had been nothing but supportive about packing up my life, leaving him with my dog and taking off without him for 6+ months, and to my first friend in Australia, Annie, without whom that first year would have been drastically more difficult.

American Girls!

American Girls!

This Thanksgiving celebration was the first time it really hit me that I’m leaving. I’d been happily plunking my head into the sand, in denial that anything was really going to change. And now here was the end of a tradition in my new home that I’d started, ready to be passed on to another of my American friends who was staying. And as much as I’m looking forward with excitement to whatever is coming next, I’m also desperately sad to be leaving behind such wonderful people and such a beautiful place. And though my feelings about my time in Seattle and Sydney are very different, I can still echo the sentiment I felt  in one of my earliest blogs about leaving the city I’d called home for a while:

How Lucky I Am

Til next time, xoxo

The Wizardess

The ULTIMATE Guide to Sydney

One of the most common questions I get is, “What should I see while I’m in Sydney?” I’ve decided to write up a guide, in case anyone stumbling across the interwebs happens to Google: What should I do in Sydney? This is my own personal guide, so if you love amazing food prepared by the masters, a good drink, and nature and the outdoors, read on!

In and Around Sydney:

Cockatoo Island:
Just in the middle of Sydney Harbour is Cockatoo Island – a quick ferry from Circular Quay. On weekends in summer they have The Island Bar – an outdoor bar where you can day drink and enjoy the sun. You can also go glamping if you’d like to stay overnight!

Sydney Harbour Bridge:
You can walk over this for free, or pay hundreds of dollars to do the Bridge Climb. If you walk from North to South, you land in the Rocks – grab beers at Lord Nelson Brewery.

Museums:
Sydney doesn’t really have anything on Europe when it comes to art, but the Art Gallery of NSW usually has some decent exhibitions.

St. Mary’s and the Royal Botanic Gardens:
You can check out the impressive St. Mary’s Cathedral in Hyde Park if you like old churches, then walk north from there to the Royal Botanic Gardens & Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair. It’s a huge park right on the Harbour, really beautiful and great views of the Opera House with the Harbour Bridge behind it.

Beaches:
The day itineraries below have all the beaches you could ever want to see around Sydney. If you don’t have a whole day, you can still get to these within 20/30 minutes from CBD. The main beaches to see are: Bondi, Manly, Bronte, Tamarama, Balmoral, Watsons Bay. Secret Beaches are: Red Leaf Beach, Milk Beach, Store Beach (reachable only by kayak/boat!). Note that beaches in italics are Harbour Beaches, which means no getting your surf on here.

 

Special Events Worth Checking Out:

Sculptures by the Sea:
Usually in late October/early November for about 3 weeks, Sculptures by the Sea gets PACKED on the weekends. If you’re able, go on a weekday and take your time looking at art in the most beautiful gallery in the world: the Bondi to Bronte Coastal Walk. If you are caught in the crowds, I recommend starting in Bronte and ending in Bondi with a meal or a Gelato Messina on trendy Hall St.

Good Food Month:
Put on by the major newspapers in each major city, Good Food Month for Sydney is in July and October, usually. This means you can go to some insanely expensive restaurants for lunch or dinner, and pay a flat cost for a 3 course meal at a fraction of what you normally would pay. The menus are more limited, but the chefs are the best in Australia, and arguably the world. It’s a great way to try some five-star dining on a budget. This also hosts the Night Noodle Markets in Hyde Park – a great evening of cheap food stalls worth exploring.

The Sydney Royal Easter Show:
Set in the 3 weeks surrounding Easter in March/April, the Sydney Royal Easter Show is a spectacle that you can’t miss if you are a lover of fairs. There is something for everyone here – petting baby farm animals, checking out the best livestock in the country, carnival rides, rodeos, dirt biking competitions, all sorts of horsemanship competitions – it’s really something to behold.

Festival of the Winds:
If you’re able to time your visit to Bondi with the Festival of the Winds [usually in September], you will be treated to a sky full of incredible wind-borne colors and creatures. I stumbled across this on accident my first few months in Australia and was delighted!

Sydney Festival:
Art installations pop up in the city after the New Year, and you know the Sydney Festival is on its way. Theater, circus, opera, modern music, and more, this is where Sydney does what she does best: Preens in all her glorious, artistic and hipster glory.

Vivid Festival:
Light, Music, and Ideas is what this festival is all about. Usually held in May or June, you’ll get to see iconic Sydney landmarks lit up with incredible light projected art, there are musical performances, TED-like talks and panels, and the whole city comes alive at night.

Day Itineraries:

Eastern Beaches:
Go to breakfast at Three Blue Ducks in Bronte (go early or on a weekday, very popular), then make your way down to the beach. You can hang out there for a bit, or jump on the coastal walk to the left of the beach when you’re facing the ocean and walk past Tamarama Beach and up into Bondi. If you do this in the beginning of November you’ll be able to catch the Sculptures by the Sea art installation along the walkway. It ends in famous Bondi Beach; grab lunch/dinner at Bondi Hardware on Hall St and finish off with a Gelato Messina about a block away.

Northern Beaches:
Take a ferry from Circular Quay (right by the Opera House) up to Manly Beach. Best and cheapest way to see the Opera House and Harbor Bridge from the water. Once in Manly, take a right out of the ferry building and go to Four Pines Brewery for lunch and local beers. Walk down the Corso to the beach and spend some time there. They do beach volleyball if you happen to play. You can also do a hike around the point; the pathway starts on the right of the beach when you’re facing the ocean and goes all the way around to harbour.

Blue Mountains:
‘Mountains’ here are kind of a joke (more like big hills), but it’s an interesting way to see some of the wilderness around Sydney. There are a lot of tour companies that will pick you up in Sydney and take you around; I went with Oz Trails on the Blue Mountains Special Tour and it was a good day. Their itinerary covers off pretty much everything worth checking out over there. Here’s my trip to the Mountains if you’re interested.

Hunter Valley:
This is a famous wine region outside Sydney famous for its Semillion and Shiraz. You can do a day trip here, but a weekend would work as well. If you go, you have to make sure you stop at Tallavera Grove for a tasting. The wine is good, and the view is one of the most amazing in the valley. If you go with a tour they will probably drop you off at Tempus Two, but it’s not really that great – just a lineup of tasting rooms and restaurants & a bit of a theme-park vibe. I’m a wine snob though so I like to taste it where they grow it – you may not mind! If you do an overnight, go for brunch at Peterson’s Champagne House. Click here to read about my trip to the Hunter.

Palm Beach:
About an hour north of Sydney is Palm Beach and Summer Bay. They film a show here called Home and Away that is very famous in Australia and the UK, but no one from the US has ever heard of it! The beach here is great, as is the bay. You could rent Kayaks, SUPs, or a boat in the bay and hang out there during the day. The restaurant up there is the Boathouse.

 

Restaurants:

If you want to splash out big:
Rockpool Bar & Grill on Hunter Street [NOT the Bridge Street one]:
Famous for their burger and steak, amazing food all around, wine list that will blow your mind. In an old bank so the architecture is pretty cool too. Ask for a table on the second level.

The Cut in the Rocks:
Also amazing steak, some say better than Rockpool. It’s hard to pick a winner so just go to both.

Aria or Quay:
Both white tablecloth, internationally renowned restaurants from some of Sydneys best-known chefs. Pick the one with the menu that appeals to you more.

Guillaume in Paddington:
This guy was running the restaurant in Bennelong at the Opera House and just opened up a new place in my neighborhood. I haven’t made it in yet, but it’s high on my list.

The Bridge Room:
Best lunch I’ve ever had in Sydney [and I work in advertising, I go to a lot of lunches!]

Tetsuya:
Famous Japanese food in a really cool heritage building in the city. Go for the degustation so you can get a taste of everything.

If you want good food but not as big of a bill:
Movida in Surry Hills:
Tapas; I’m told their Melbourne location is better, but not sure how that’s possible.

Felix Restaurant:
French; Great value for money; oysters are amazing, the wine list is long, and everything on their menu is good.

Apollo:
Greek; Some of the best Greek food you will ever have. If you go with a group, ask for the chef’s table in the kitchen.

Toko:
Japanese Fusion; Really interesting menu – combines flavors you wouldn’t think about and manages to pull it off. A little pricy so you could put it in the ‘splash out’ list.

FourFourteen:
Australian; A friend of mine works in the kitchen here – just really good, hearty food in the heart of Surry Hills.

Mr. Wongs:
Chinese; A classic for a good advertising lunch, amazing Chinese food. Duck pancakes and pork dishes that will make you very, very happy.

If you aren’t in the mood to splash out:

Hamburger Mary’s:
Burgers; Booze, burgers, and live music. A very fun place in a cool neighborhood most tourists don’t usually see [Newtown].

There are so many great smaller cafes/restaurants it’s hard to pick; I’d suggest checking out Broadsheet Sydney or TimeOut Sydney for their recommendations.

 

Best Pubs/Bars:

The Clock in Surry Hills; fun for a night out right in the heart of Surry Hills.

The Royal Hotel in Paddington; best for day-drinking. Go to the roof for a great view.

Cliff Dive in Darlinghurst: late night; go here for a Sydney version of a dive bar.

The Glenmore in the Rocks: arguably the best roof deck in Sydney

The Beresford Hotel in Surry Hills; a massive bars-within-a-bar complex, this has a pub, a restaurant, an outdoor bar, and dancing on the second floor. You can spend an entire evening in here and feel like you’ve been on a pub crawl.

Shady Pines Saloon: down an alleyway in Darlinghurst/Surry Hills border off Oxford St.; a fun way to see how Australia does an American bar. They have PBR signs on the walls but sadly don’t sell it. However, they do have an impressive local beer list.

The Baxter Inn: Whiskey and Bourbon heaven, with really knowledgeable bartenders. In a basement and full of dark wood and green velvet; free peanuts for all. A really cool spot.

Four in Hand: On Sundays they do a Sunday roast [pork belly or roast beef, usually] with a full plate of really good food for about $24. They also do Toss the Boss, where you flip the bartender heads or tails to see who pays for that round of drinks.

Palmer and Co.: A bit pretentious, but classic speakeasy style where the bartenders and waiters/waitresses all dress in 40s style. Good prohibition-era cocktails too. Also in a basement.

The Opera Bar: right next to the Opera House, a bit touristy but kind of a must-do if you haven’t been to Sydney before.

 

Weekenders Near Sydney:

DRIVES:

Jervis Bay & Hyams Beach:
Rent a house in Hyams Beach for an overnight and stay at the whitest beach in Australia for a couple of days. There isn’t a ton to do other than relax, but the beach is incredible and you’ll feel like you’re on a tropical island. There is a national park with a hike/walk at the right end of the beach when you’re facing the ocean. It’s a 3 hour drive south of Sydney.

Seal Rocks:
An on-beach campground with campsites and cabins you can rent, it’s a great place to surf and hang out on the beach. I camped there last year and saw my first wild dingo! It’s about 3 hours north of Sydney.

Kangaroo Valley & Berry:
The epitome of Aussie countryside, there are some stunning outlooks and a very cute small town in Berry to explore. Check AirBnB for adorable farmstays; we stayed at the Dairy at Beauridge Farm for a weekend and absolutely LOVED it. This is a 2 hour drive south of Sydney.

FLIGHTS:

Cheap airlines in AU are Jetstar and Tiger Airways, but Tiger tends to have an unexpected cancellation problem & isn’t as reliable. Virgin Australia also sometimes has deals. Follow them on Facebook or sign up for their emails if you want to know when they have sales!

Some suggested places:

  • Byron Bay [airport: Ballina Byron]
  • The Whitsundays [airport: Hamilton Island, Mackay Island] You can see the Barrier Reef from the Whitsundays
  • Uluru/Ayers Rock [airport: Uluru]
  • Noosa [airport: Sunshine Coast/Maroochydore]
  • Melbourne [airport: Tullamarine and Avalon]

Okay friends and fellow travelers, what have I left out of this Ultimate Guide to Sydney?

xoxo, The Wizardess

Melbourne, Part Deux

Anzac Day is the national celebration of the Australian military (ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), similar to what we in the US would call Memorial Day. Rather than be snugly fit onto a Friday or Monday like Memorial Day, it’s a fixed date: April 25th, the day the Anzacs landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey during World War I. This year, that date was a Thursday. But this year, my company kindly offered us the Friday off as well.

So naturally, whenever an uninterrupted chain of free days presents itself, I immediately started researching plane tickets. My funds weren’t quite extravagant enough to allow for a jaunt to Tasmania or New Zealand, but flights to Melbourne were still pretty cheap even just a week before, so I booked a flight to see my cousin and explore the city a bit more.

My flight was in the evening, which meant I was able to spend the day at a packed Clovelly Hotel on a gorgeous, warm Sydney autumn day. The Anzac tradition is to drink copiously (very Australian), and play a game called Two-Up. The rules are pretty simple: Choose how much you wish to bet. Gambling is massive in Australia, so usually +$20 per round is the norm. If you want to bet heads, tap the bill to your head and shout “Fifty on heads!” until someone who is willing to bet $50 on tails hands you their $50. The person betting heads holds both bets while one person in the center of the mob uses a wooden paddle to flip to bottle caps into the air. If they both land on the same side, heads or tails, the bet is won by whomever placed that bet, and you either keep the cash or hand it over. If they are opposites, the round is re-tossed.

Two-Up at Clovelly

The Scene at Clovelly

A few hours of this and I jumped in a cab for the airport, sufficiently unsober. Somehow I made it through security without triggering any alarms, but the motherly Indian woman sitting next to me on the plane shot a few disapproving glances from the corner of her eye, likely thanks to my beer/cider breath.

And then, I was in Melbourne. I had planned this trip out a little better than my last one, and we had plans.

Plans started with a day at the Melbourne Zoo. We brought along the kids my cousin nannies and some of their friends, because seeing things like zebras and giraffes with young kids helps you reawaken the amazed six-year-old in yourself. And because we thought it would be a nice thing to do for Kelly’s host family since they were letting me stay with them for the weekend. I’m proud to say I navigated five children in a packed zoo with a hangover quite well. Maybe I could be a parent someday.

Butterfly Sanctuary in the Zoo

Butterflies at the Zoo

That evening, Kelly and I charted out our exploration of the city. We started at Las Laneways Fiesta, a mashup of art, delicious Mexican food, and a bar of margaritas (duh). After inhaling four of the best tacos I’ve had in months, we decided to start our bar crawl. To sum it up: Absinthe at Bar Ampere – served in the classic 1930s fashion and not the on-fire shot format common in Ibiza. Then we went over to Fitzroy on advice of our very kind bartender at Bar Ampere and tried a cocktail each at Kodiak Club. We finished up with the most incredible cucumber and jalapeno martini I have ever, ever had (and it wasn’t just because it was my fifth drink of the evening) at Little Blood, just upstairs. Apple Maps failed us when we tried to find the Everleigh, which we took as a sign we should scurry home so as not to waste a beautiful Melbourne day on a hangover.

Margaritas and Tacos in the Laneways

Cuzzies in the Laneways

The next day we hoovered an amazing breakfast at Two Birds One Stone in Kelly’s hood of South Yarra to fuel us up for a day traipsing St. Kilda, eating ice cream and checking out the Vintage Markets at the RSL. In one of those amazing universe alignments that rarely happen, a friend from home happened to be in Melbourne for this exact weekend, mostly because his job is to travel the world and take amazing photos of everything he sees (you should go buy some). So he met up with us and we all went to a footy (Australian Rules Football, or AFL) game. The beers started flowing, and soon enough we were all at Cookie, a four-story drinking and dancing extravaganza in the middle of the city taking shots of tequila.

Vintage Markets

The Vintage Markets
California Kids in Melbs

California Kids in Melbs

Footy Game

After a Few Carltons…

We poured ourselves into bed somewhere around 3 a.m., and a few short hours later I was up and in a taxi on my way to the airport, since it appears I can no longer take a flight without being desperately hungover.

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