Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hotel - QT Port Douglas


We're escaping the Sydney winter gloom with a long weekend in Far North Queensland at the QT Resort in Port Douglas.

A car from Exemplar coaches and limousines is waiting at Cairns airport to ferry us north along the stunning 1 hour-long coastal drive to Port Douglas.

Wally, our driver, entertains us with his local knowledge and challenging pop quizzes.
It's hard to believe that a 3 hour flight can transport you to a completely different climate with lush tropical vegetation and that gloriously warm sun.

A massive striped black and white lampshade is suspended from the QT entrance giving a hint of the playful design and fit-out featured throughout this new luxury resort.

We check-in and head to our room.
It's large and comfortable with the black and white stripes and happy summer colours theme continuing across the decor.

I love the printed lamp shades.

And we have a relaxing view onto the bush hinterland stretching behind the resort into the mountains.

Our room has an adjoining kitchen, dining and lounge area with another balcony.

... with more playful artwork.

Time to explore the rest of the resort and grab some lunch at Estilo - the QT's relaxed bar and lounge.

A selection of sliders and a crisp chardonnay will do very nicely

... enjoyed near the pool.
With only a few days to see the sights we've booked a same-day ocean sunset sail with Sailaway

Our safety instructions are accompanied with champagne and canap├ęs. Very civilised.

And off we go!

It's quite magical on the water. There's a warm breeze and the air tastes of sea salt as we glide past the wharf.
As we explore the outlying reefs and gently dodge the other boats also enjoying dusk on the water, I think about my fellow Sydney-siders trapped in evening traffic congestion. This is a good time to saviour.

Dinner afterwards is in town at the renowned Harrisons restaurant in their beautiful fairy-light lit garden courtyard overlooking the beach.

The 14-hour slow-cooked lamb shoulder with hay-baked pumpkin, feta and cucumber and mint salad lives up to its legendary reputation. Perfectly matched with a tasty bottle of the local Ambar Hill Reserve chardonnay. We sleep very well that night.
After an invigorating breakfast - including delicious carrot and watermelon shots - I want to explore the QT resort's kitchen garden.

It's tucked away in the car park in raised beds along the fence line to protect the garden from winds and capture as much of that morning sun. The garden is bursting with fresh herbs and winter greens.

Tiny radishes poke through the soil. It will soon be time to put in the summer plantings to add to the restaurant's menu.

QT's kitchen garden is part of its commitment to reducing the environmental impact of the resort's activities and giving guests a taste of locally-sourced produce.  The chefs tend to it themselves and hopefully in time it will expand to allow even more crops to be grown on site.

A short cab drive back into town to soak up a little more of that sun before we fly out tomorrow.
The locals are on the wharf trying their luck with their lines.

Port Douglas is an ideal little hamlet surprisingly untouched by the developer's dollar.

There is an authenticity and simplicity about the place that is beguiling.

I'm already planning my next getaway.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Hawkesbury Houseboat - close to Luxury Afloat


When Sydney-siders fantasise about a dream escape it usually involves palm-fringed beaches in exotic climes, rolling Tuscan fields with crumbling villas or a lightning volt of excitement in Times Square New York.
But fortifying yourself for these jet-setting trips is becoming less attractive.
What with heightened security at airports,  smaller cattle-class seats, endlessly long flights with mind-numbing connections, most of us need another break just to recover from our  overseas 'holiday'.
International travel just doesn't hold the same allure any more.
And with our growing awareness about the environmental havoc our global trekking is causing, more holidaymakers are searching out experiences that tread lightly on the planet and truly leave our batteries recharged at the same time.
Which is why Backyard Travel is becoming the new travel buzz-phrase.

When I suggested to my husband Mark that we explore a holiday destination right on our doorstep, he was understandably sceptical. Holidays mean a change of scenery, something new and novel - where were we going to find that near Sydney? We'd done the beach weekends, the coastal drives, the mountain retreats and the winery crawls. We thought we knew our neck of the woods pretty well. Little did we know.....

After a few internet searches using the key words 'holiday', 'luxury', 'water', 'near Sydney', up popped the last sort of holiday we ever imagined exploring - a houseboat trip on the Hawkesbury River.

There was no denying it ticked most boxes.
It was close to Sydney (only 1 hour by car to Brooklyn where the houseboats were moored in a marina), low environmental impact (the boats run on batteries and diesel but most of the time when you're moored you're not using much energy at all), you take all your own food, drinks and ice with you (extra supplies can be picked up in Brooklyn or from waterside cafes and restaurants) and the boat's taps, showers, foot-pumped toilet, electrical plugs run on a battery and pump system encouraging you to be mindful of your consumption.
And the most attractive box a houseboat holiday on the Hawkesbury ticked?
No airport security to endure.
Within a few minutes we'd sent an email inquiry to a houseboat company with the glamorous title 'Luxury Afloat' and by the next day we were all booked up for our one week adventure.
Only one small problem. We'd never piloted a boat before.

When we arrived at the Kangaroo Point terminal marina, Kieran from Luxury Afloat had our boat the Douglas Mawson fired up and champing at the bit to get out onto the open waterways. The Douglas Mawson was built in the 1980's and had seen better days. It was in sore need of a good lick of paint, some new carpets and curtains - all of which Kieran said was on his to-do list.

But what it lacked in sleek finishes and fittings, it made up for inside with a roomy, comfortable, wooden-panelled interior that certainly captured a life-on-the-high-seas romance.

Our house boat could sleep up to 10 people. Two double beds downstairs, a set of bunk beds next to the kitchen and a dining table nook that cleverly converted to another double bed.

Enough room to sleep two families - making a week away on one of these houseboats an absolute bargain.

I could get used to this.

But there remained the small problem that neither of us had ever operated a houseboat before.

Kieran, a true salty who had spent his childhood holidays on the Hawkesbury and had worked as a fisherman before his family bought Luxury Afloat last year, assured us it was pretty straightforward.
No boating licence was required since his boats had small outboard motors that couldn't splutter past 10 kilometres per hour.
But what about steering and mooring? Ah yes... well that will take a bit of practice says Kieran as he takes us through the safety and operating procedures. It's a bit like driving a brick. Just keep clear of the shoreline and large objects... like that bridge pylon straight ahead !!!!

All under control assures skipper Mark.

But barely 10 minutes after setting out we strike trouble. One on the engines is playing up and the houseboat keeps steering dangerously to the right.

We phone Kieran embarrassed that we've already proved incompetent. Within minutes he and his engineer have boarded our troubled vessel and identified the culprit.

Kieran says it rarely happens but we've managed to get the rope of a crab pot entangled in the propeller of our left motor!

Sadly no crabs are trapped inside. Would have made a great dinner.
 A damaged part in the motor is replaced and we set off again a little shaken that our river adventure could be more hazardous than we had imagined.

Soon we're whirring out into the open channel. It is simply quite breath-taking.

The Hawkesbury River is the main tributary of the Nepean - virtually encircling the entire metropolitan region of Sydney. Given it's mammoth length of nearly 120 kilometres it's extraordinary that the average Sydney resident rarely gives it a thought.

What is even more amazing is that even though the Hawkesbury is so close to Sydney it has virtually remained untouched by development. You can imagine how the original indigenous inhabitants - the Wannungine and Darkinung people - would have experienced it ... endless clear waterways teaming with fish and crustaceans.

Of course the reality is far different.

Storm water pollution from Sydney's suburbs has destroyed many of the oyster farms and fish and prawn stocks are dwindling. Devastating for an estimated $6.3 million fishing industry.

The Sydney Rock oysters from the Hawkesbury are still some of the best oysters you'll find anywhere in the world so lunch - of course - has to be Oysters Kilpatrick. They're squeaky fresh from the fabulous Lifeboat Seafood at Brooklyn topped with crunchy bacon and a dash of Worcestershire sauce.

We're heading to America Bay where we'll moor for the night.
It's a mystical place filled with primordial jellyfish.

A mist is setting in amplifying the colours in the sandstone.

Mooring is trickier than it looks. Particularly when you're un-coordinated. Mark steers the boat gently towards one of the moorings while I use a long hooked pole to snare the mooring rope.Got it! Finally.

At least the seagull seems amused.

Time to throw together a simple prawn paella for dinner

  ..... accompanied by some Tasmanian sparkling.

Other than our crab pot mishap our first day of boating has been crisis-free. No injuries and no-one overboard. Yet. Time to turn in.

I'm up with the first light. This is what people mean when they describe serenity. All I can hear is the water lapping against the hull and a few morning birds calling to their partners.

Soon though the valley is filled with a rising crescendo from a symphony of cicadas. They take turns in a Mexican wave of chorus circling the bay. It's hypnotic.

After breakfast we decide to do a little exploring of nearby bays and inlets.

The clouds are gathering and the winds are creating a bit of chop making steering a challenge.
We chug all the way down to Church Point along Cowan Creek and past the idyllic Little Jerusalem Bay. The river is quiet. Only a few other houseboats and some speedboats cross our path. It will be different once the holiday season hots up. Some of the popular bays can become parking lots of boat moorings.

We pick up a hitchhiker who clearly thinks hanging on for dear life is an easier way to travel than his usual mode of transport.

We motor back to America Bay where we'll moor for the night. It's a popular sheltered bay surrounded by towering wooded sandstone cliffs. There's a picture perfect crescent of sandy beach and even a trickling waterfall.

There's a brass plaque on the beach commemorating one of the great successes in Australia's maritime history. The “KRAIT” set off from here to raid Singapore Harbour in 1943 during the Second World War. Commandoes attached limpet mines to Japanese ships stationed in the harbour sinking or damaging 4 of the fleet.

As the afternoon clears and the air warms its almost impossible to imagine this was the training camp for such a daring raid.

The seriously heavy duty BBQ on the back of the houseboat gets a work out for lunch. Spicy lamb sausages with caramelised onions. The gathering seagulls and hovering sea eagles can smell a feast.

 The houseboat's top sun-deck with piped music from the stereo downstairs is where the afternoon action moves to. Aperol spritzers and chilled glasses of chardonnay with a view to die for.

There is no television or mobile reception here so tonight's entertainment is a DVD. An episode from the Air Crash Investigation box set I bought Mark for Christmas.

As dusk settles a huge youth training sailing ship anchors near us. Its young crew take turns leaping into the warm water exuberantly.

All that energy. I was still recovering from trying to haul myself back on the houseboat after a short dip. With no step ladder I had to rely on my non-existent upper body strength. At least I would sleep well tonight.

We wake to another day in paradise. We're heading to the famous water-access only restaurant at Sunny Corner near Brooklyn,  Peats Bite , that has been a favourite with the likes of Paul Keating, John Singleton and John Laws during its 30 years.

A young lad from Luxury Afloat helps us anchor near the restaurant and we zip across the water to this little palm-tree fringed hideaway.

Peats Bite is run by the inimitable Tammy Miljoen and her family. Their mini-resort consists of a restaurant, marina, accommodation in modern bungalows, and a conference centre. Of course it is a magical location for weddings.

Lunch on Saturdays and Sundays is a ten course $130.00 degustation menu served al fresco under the veranda and palms.

They're expecting a full house today. The marina will soon be crammed with cruisers and yachts, dinghys and speedboats.

First up is a delicious salmon belly ceviche with mango, papaya and chilli

And one of the stand out dishes - corn-fed buttermilk chicken thigh with pickled red cabbage, beetroot and apricot puree. The food is made even more remarkable knowing that every ingredient has had to be brought in fresh by boat.

There's quite a bit of drinking going on. It's a good thing there's a courtesy ferry to take guests back to Brooklyn.

Tammy and her brother were child stars in the 1950s touring Australia and appearing on  numerous TV shows. The entertainment hots up when they start taking requests from patrons.

We luckily have just a short run to our moored houseboat and slip away to recover from the indulgent afternoon. We lie on the top deck tummies full and watch the festivities on the shore continue late into the night.

It's still taking a bit of getting used to sleeping on a boat. The rocking is constant and the water lapping against the hull can sound quite noisy when you're unused to it. But I'm finding that I'm gradually falling into the rhythm of the waves and the water as the days pass.

Today we are letting someone else steer us around the Hawkesbury. We're joining the last Riverboat Postman left in Australia still delivering mail to water-only accessible properties.

 The postal service is operated by Hawkesbury Cruises and leaves from the Brooklyn wharf everyday at 10am returning at 1.15pm.
The Riverboat Postman started it's run in 1910 and still stops at more than 10 isolated settlements from Dangar Island to Marlow.

For tourists the post run is a great way to explore the Hawkesbury's more hidden hamlets and enjoy a highly entertaining and informed commentary from the cruise captain while enjoying a light lunch some wine and home-baked Anzac biscuits.
Some of the sandstone along the shoreline is extraordinary. The sandstone the Sydney Town Hall is constructed from comes from the Hawkesbury. It's so luminous isn't it?

And there are large swathes of mangroves still pristine and providing valuable feeding and breeding grounds for prawns and fish colonies.

Well in one week we've certainly seen a bit of the Hawkesbury.

While its previous role as a transport thoroughfare may have been replaced by road and rail, the Hawkesbury is still a vital link for many isolated communities stretching along her shores.

And ironically if Sydney Harbour had not been developed the Hawkesbury River and its pristine wilderness would no doubt have been developed and largely lost. And the gentle, gliding pace of a houseboat means you can enjoy its true natural beauty the way it is meant to be enjoyed - slowly.

Sometimes experiencing what's on your doorstep is more magical than being anywhere else.

Saucy Onion stayed on the Douglas Mawson houseboat courtesy of Luxury Afloat.

For enquiries: contact Luxury Afloat
Address: Kangaroo Point Cruise Terminal
Pacific Highway (south of Hawkesbury Bridge)
Brooklyn NSW 2083
(02)9985 7344