Coming Home. The Gold Coast, Australia

Visiting the Gold Coast after a 15-year hiatus felt weird. Arriving after a fifteen hour flight from Los Angeles, I strolled the promenade just as the sun was starting its descent. Inhaling the thick sea air, I took in the familiar beach scene and its roar of crashing waves. The red-and-yellow lifeguard flags, symbols of where to plonk the beach towel and go for a safe swim, failed to lure me in — I had no desire to get in the water. Instead, I craved the company of my parents, sisters, and brothers, as well as my godmother, to draw upon memories of this oft-visited part of Queensland associated with our wonder years. Walking alone didn’t feel right.

That’s not to say I didn’t have a good laugh drawing from my own bank of memories: how my sister, Alana, and I had feared for our lives in a pedicab driven by a guy named ‘Spiro’ whose unnecessary hair-pin turns left my own hair standing on end; when I’d been dumped by a wave so hard, it embedded within me a lifelong fear of the deep; and the time a group of us had sneaked into the very same hotel where I was booked for the night —  the former Gold Coast International Hotel, now QT Gold Coast — to visit our new Melburnian “boy friends” (yes, we did get caught). Later, looking down at the pool from the hotel balcony, I noticed the former hotel logo still splashed across its bottom. Directly in front of the QT, the Focus apartment building stands stoic in its cylindrical glory. It’s where we’d holidayed for a number of years, blessed with lots of space, prime ocean views, and across-the-road beach access. Rear Window was a source of inspiration on the balconies of the higher-up apartments, and judging from the number of cranes and condos against the skyline today, such activity looks poised to continue indefinitely.

Apart from the corridor of high-end brand stores like Prada and Louis Vuitton, a tram, a smattering of new hotels, and a couple of outdoor shopping malls, the Gold Coast felt the same to me: slightly dusty and touristy with a penchant for neon lights and thrill-seeking rides that come alive at night.

Looking out from the15th floor of the hotel the next morning, across the beautiful stretch of turquoise and deep blue water along the horizon, I was relieved of the previous day’s racing thoughts and anticipations. I was more at peace. I was in Australia — “home” — and it felt really good to be back.

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Shhhh… Secrets about California’s Wine Country, Sonoma and Napa

We had a great time in Napa and Sonoma, and going in with an open mind, asked a lot about the region that may be obvious to those in the know, but not to us. For example, why does Korbel  use the word “champagne” on its bottles when it’s produced in the Russian River Valley, CA? Same goes for Sonoma’s “port”. And why is there a ban on weddings in Napa?

I found out ten secrets about the region and compiled them here:

http://travelinsider.qantas.com.au/usa/california/interesting-things/california-wine-regions-10-secrets

I hope it helps with your trip to the wine country!

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Catalina Island, California

I’m sprawled on a deck chair on the Relaxation Deck of the Island Spa Catalina. Blissed out after a hot stone spa treatment, I’m sipping champagne and taking in a million-dollar ocean view — I don’t want to move. It’s about four in the afternoon, and being winter, the sun will set within the hour. I call my husband and coax him to laze about with me (he’s in the hotel), before reflecting on the day we’ve had.

It began with a helicopter flight from Long Beach to Catalina Island – a 15-minute trip over the Pacific Ocean, which at this time of year is experiencing a mighty whale migration. (Our pilot spotted one, although it didn’t want to wave its tail at us.)  After touch-down, we woke up over coffee at Pavilion Hotel while absorbing its oceanfront view — an instant way to de-stress. The morning was brisk but by 10am, the West Coast sun had warmed us up, dispelling any notion of winter in January. Psyched for some adventure, we were chauffeured by golf buggy – the standard mode of island transportation — to the zipline camp, where, after scaling heights in a harness and helmet, I’d shown my nerve-wracked, shrieky side. By the fifth go, fears had somewhat subsided but the adrenaline was still pumping. A “spa” lunch of Caesar salad with avocado dressing helped calm the nerves, as did the Sage Stone Purification Ritual in the spa’s luxurious two-storey Silver Peaks Suite. I kid you not, the suite was the size of a big-city condo, and I felt a little like royalty. I snuck a snooze on the ground-level couch before heading out.

Now, my husband’s come to join me, just as the sun is setting behind us; the Carnival cruise ship in front is slowly losing its gleam. He orders a coffee; I ask for some snacks. We revel in the moment. Life doesn’t really get better than this. We talk, laugh, and muse until a chill fills the air, and we reluctantly unravel and head toward our hotel. But all is not lost. Wine and cheese await in the hotel’s library, followed by a dinner of California red trout, diver scallops, and chilled Rusack Sauvignon Blanc at nearby Avalon Grill. We recline by the fire pit and bask in the moment once more.

Island Spa Catalina

Island Spa Catalina

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Zip lining (spot my husband on the line)

Zip lining (spot my husband on the line)

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View from a helicopter

View from a helicopter

Overexposed Malibu, CA

Starting the New Year with the warm sun on my back, a glass full of bubbles, easy conversation, a school of dolphins gliding past the pier, and a twinkly ocean — being by the water is the perfect tonic for a day that’s usually filled with well-intentioned resolutions, unnecessary expectations, people nursing hangovers, and all the trappings associated with the turning of a digit.

It’s not easy to summarise Malibu. I think it’s more a state of mind, which probably explains the overexposed photos. Cheers to a sensational and memorable 2015!

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Chinatown, San Francisco, and Happy 2015!

On our way back home from Napa and Sonoma, we decided to detour via San Francisco’s Chinatown. A happy surprise from veering off the direct route was the drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a beautiful day — any nip from the chill was cured by the sun — and that sense of expansiveness from seeing the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean felt glorious.

Being Christmas Day, Chinatown was alive and lit with colour. Bakeries were packed with people and moon cakes; the alleyways bustled with tourists; and storefronts displayed a motley of knick-knacks: good luck cats, New Year cards, jade bracelets, hologram 2015 calendars. The air resonated with traditional Chinese string music, either from the strum of a solo busker or a quartet.

It was an unplanned side trip but such a happy one. On that note, I wish you all a prosperous and healthful 2015. May it be full of surprise, unexpected detours, and happy outcomes. XO

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

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Grape Expectations — Napa and Sonoma, CA

Having dreamt of northern California’s wine country for so long meant I’d given the area an almost mythical quality. I’d envisioned driving on a dirt track of a quaint town, past rows of gnarled vines backed by undulating hills haloed under a golden sun; stopping at the first winery spotted along the way to sample glasses of red while chatting with the vintner. And so, finally prompted to action, last week my husband and I set off on the 6-hour long drive from Los Angeles to Napa and Sonoma.

Our first morning delivered a low fog that hovered over rolling hills lined with hibernating vines, which looked like the spikes of hair drawn on a bald cartoon head. By mid-morning, the mist had fizzled away, replaced with a soft glow from the winter sun. We followed highways and paved roads navigated by tall signposts with multiple arrows pointing this way to that winery, and that way to those wineries, which only reinforced the sheer size of the region. Sometimes we drove distances of 15 minutes between spots on Napa’s Silverado Trail; on another day, we climbed a sinuous road for just under an hour to reach a cluster of wineries located farther north, in Sonoma county.

Dropping in and chatting with the winemaker really was the stuff of my dreams. Wine samplings ranged from one-on-one tastings with reps (in the less touristy areas of Sonoma), to sharing the tasting bar with a dozen visitors (in better known Napa wineries), to comparing tasting notes in a group after a tour, which turned out to be one of my favourite experiences. HALL Wines in St Helena does a beautiful job of marrying their wine tasting experience with a walk through its “cellar” and indoor-outdoor public areas that are interspersed with modern artworks – sculptures, an LED installation, and Patrick Dougherty’s whimsical wood huts — before heading up to the second-story glass tasting rooms to sample one of the smoothest Pinot Noirs amongst other varietals. (At one point, one of the ladies was so overcome with the Pinot that she was dreaming of steak… at 11 in the morning.)

My anticipatory visions weren’t too far off, yet a new set of stills plays a different story in my mind. The wine country is a myth no more. NB: The photos were taken with my new SAMSUNG NX 300 camera. The auto focus via a touch screen performs at lightning speed.

Chateau Montelena, Napa

Chateau Montelena, Napa

Reflections in the lake at the Japanese garden, Chateau Montelena

Reflections in the lake at the Japanese garden, Chateau Montelena

At MUMM, Napa

At MUMM, Napa

MUMM tasting

MUMM tasting

Patrick Doherty's art installation at HALL Wines

Patrick Dougherty’s art installation at HALL Wines

Vineyards at Hall Wines

Vineyards at Hall Wines in St. Helena

HALL wine tasting

HALL wine tasting

Vines and palms, at HALL Wines

Vines and palms, at HALL Wines

Treetops at Ferrari-Carano winery, Sonoma

Treetops at Ferrari-Carano winery, Sonoma

Vineyards at Ferrari-Carano

Vineyards at Ferrari-Carano

Passing vines at Kenwood, Sonoma

Passing vines at Kenwood, Sonoma

The gardens at Chateau St Jean, Kenwood

The gardens at Chateau St Jean, Kenwood

Wine country Christmas

Wine country Christmas