Off-the-beaten path Australia: Kangaroo Island

kangaroo island When living in Sydney, Australia, I often took the weekends to explore other parts of the country. One place I vowed to visit was Kangaroo Island, an island in South Australia that I imagined to be full of wildlife and undisturbed nature. I’m glad I went, because my instincts were more than correct.

Know before you go:

Although there are a few luxury options for a visit to Kangaroo Island, such as the Southern Ocean Lodge and Lifetime Private Retreats, I definitely felt it was more of an eco-tourism/adventure destination. Conservation and National parks cover more than one third of the island, so you know you’ll be spending a lot of time exploring the outdoors, flora, and fauna. There are tons of activities in terms of active sports, wildlife interaction, hiking, and experiencing a more rural, laid-back way of life. If you’re the type of person who needs to be connected through technology all of the time, you may have a bit of a struggle here, as cell phone coverage is very limited (my Vodafone didn’t work at all, but I was told Telstra CDMA or 3G work pretty good). If you have friends or family who will worry if they don’t hear from you for a few days, I would definitely give them a heads up about this. One other thing worth mentioning is that there are no taxis on the island or real forms of public transport, so it is worth it to book a tour or rent a car.barossa valley Getting in:

If you have the time, I would recommend spending a couple days in Adelaide first and touring the Barossa Valley vineyards (shown right) and The Toy Factory, which is home to the world’s biggest rocking horse as well as a really fun wildlife park where you can play with birds, kangaroos, sheep, and other animals. From Adelaide, you can take a Regional Express (REX) flight, which will take a little more than 30 minutes. The other option is to catch a Sealink ferry from Cape Jervis to Penshaw on Kangaroo Island.

Where to stay:

My friends and I stayed at the Ozone Seafront Hotel, which had a really great location right on the water in the town of Kingscote, which is the biggest city on the island and has the best selection of restaurants, pubs, and stores while still giving you direct access to nature. This hotel also has a seafront restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating as well as various bars and wine tasting options. While it depends when you go, it is sometimes possible to get rooms here for a little over $100 a night. For backpackers on a budget, there is the Kangaroo Island Central Backpackers Hostel in Kingscote and the Kangaroo Island YHA Hostel in Penneshaw, which overlooks the beautiful Hog Bay.

Do and visit:

Again, I would definitely recommend booking an organized tour or renting a car to do these activities. It isn’t hard to find tours that encompass all or most of these suggestions. Click here to browse the different options. Here were some of the activities that I experienced and would recommend to others visiting Kangaroo Island:

Seal Bay Seal Bay Conservation Park

Seal Bay Conservation Park
is definitely a sight to behold. Visitors get the chance to see hundreds of sea-lions, bulls, females, and pups, in their natural habitat on the beach. You are mandated to take a guided tour, which is actually good because you learn a lot about the seals and their habitat. You will get really close to them, but just be warned, although they are extremely cute they also smell really bad. The cost of the tour is $18 for a child and $30 for an adult.

Scuba diving

Kangaroo Island is well-known for its ideal scuba diving location with an array of unique fish, beautiful Gorgonia coral, and historical shipwrecks. When underwater, you will be enveloped in a rainbow of colors, from red, white, and orange sponges to the florescent Blue Devil fish, neon Harlequin fish, and shiny silver and brown striped truncate coral fish. It is also likely to spot a very strange looking fish called the Leafy Sea Dragon, which literally looks like a bright yellow sea horse morphed with a leaf. Some tour operators that offer dives in the area are Kangaroo Island Dive and Adventures and Adventureland Diving & Sports Service, which you can e-mail at advhost@activ8.net.au or call at (+61) (08) 8553 1072.

kangaroo island Admiral’s Arch and the Remarkable Rocks

Located in Flinders Chase National Park, Admiral’s Arch and the Remarkable Rocks are an impressive sight as well as a vision that defies all laws of nature. Oddly shaped volcanic rock is fun to explore, and you can take loads of interesting illusion photos (who knew you could lift an entire boulder over your head?). Stand before the stalactite-adorned Admiral’s Arch for an unique view of the ocean and Remarkable Rocks, as well as the myriad New Zealand fur seals that live on the rocks below the cliff face. When I was there there were actually so many seals in the colony I had to squint to see them, as they all blended together with the rocks. There are also many hiking trails in the park itself, so it’s a great way to experience the outdoors. To enter the park, you can expect to pay $24.50 per family, $5.50 for a child, $7 for a student, and $9 for an adult.

clifford's honey farm Clifford’s Honey Farm

Coming from Sydney, Clifford’s Honey Farm felt like going back in time to when life was really simple. The farm started as a hobby for Dave Clifford in 1973 but soon became a business in 1993 when the family opened a successful honey shop, which you can still peruse today (and should!). Today, there are more than 300 honey producing hives on the farm, and you will get to see some of them upclose for yourself. With help from the family, Dave can produce up to 20 tons of honey each year, which is probably why there is such an array of products in the shop, from candles to cosmetics to candy to ice cream toppings and salad dressings. The honey flavors come from all different flowers, such as Sugar Gum, Bottle Brush, Mallee, Canola, and more. Make sure to sample the Chocolate Covered Honeycomb before you go, as it is one of the best things I have ever tasted.

Island Pure Sheep Dairy

This was one of my favorite experiences, not only because I got to see first hand what a day in the life of a sheep farmer is and how the sheep milk products are actually made, but because I got to take part in an extensive tasting session. Island Pure makes an array of cheeses that visitors can try, including Kefaltori, a creamy, smooth, semi-matured cheese, Manchego, a cheese with a mellow but rounded flavor, Haloumi (my personal favorite), a “twice cooked” cheese that originates from Cyprus, and Feta, a creamy textured, tangy cheese. You will also get the chance to sample fresh sheep’s milk yogurt. Entry costs are $20 for a family, $4.50 for a student, $4.50 for a child (children under 5 are free), and $5.50 for an adult.

Kangaroo island Emu Ridge Distillery

The Emu Ridge Distillery is more than just wildlife viewing, as it is actually known for its eucalyptus products and wine and cheese tastings. Eucalyptus oil was actually the first true overseas export for Australia, however, Emu Ridge is now the only eucalyptus oil distillery in South Australia and one of the only ones left in the country altogether. The farm itself sits on 650 acres, 250 of which is natural bush. There is a tiny, old post office which is really interesting to see, as well as a craft shop made from recycled materials that sells local handicrafts and eucalytus products. As for wildlife, you will see enormous emus, wallabies, kangaroos on the property as well as baby joeys inside the shop. Emu Ridge Distillery is free to enter, although if you want a guided tour a fee of $15 per child and $30 per adult will apply.

kangaroo island Pelican Feeding

This is a really interesting, slightly disturbing look at how pelicans eat. When “The Pelican Man” feeds fish to the pelicans the birds swallow the meal whole and you can see the fish go down their throats. While you may flinch a bit, the experience is actually pretty educational as The Pelican Man will tell you more about the birds themselves. The feeding takes place daily at 5PM at the Kingscote Wharf behind the Kangaroo Island Marine Center.

For more information on traveling to Kangaroo Island, please visit the Kangaroo Island Tourism Board website.

An ice wine crawl in Niagara-on-the-Lake

I love my family and visit them often, but after a few days at my parents’ house, I’m usually in need of a drink. For many years, my refuge has been the Niagara Wine region, centered around Niagara-on-the-Lake, a well-preserved, picturesque town on Lake Ontario, just minutes away from Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

Over the last decade, the area has exploded from obscurity to a serious wine producing region with nearly seventy wineries, ranging from small, family run estates to major corporate players. The area is best known for its ice wine, in fact, it produces some 80% of the world’s supply of this sweet liquid gold.

A host of regional wineries will take part in the Niagara Ice Wine Festival from January 13-29, so if you don’t mind braving the cold, this would be a great time to visit. If you’re not familiar with ice wine, it’s a syrupy sweet desert wine produced from grapes that are frozen on the vine and harvested when the temperature is about 17 degrees Fahrenheit. There are a lot of different varieties but the taste tends to be intense and even a small sip is a serious treat which doesn’t come cheap. A ton of grapes yields just one-sixth the amount of ice wine as table wine, so prices typically start at about $45 for half bottles, but tastes range from free to about $5.

Two of the most celebrated Niagara wineries, Inniskillin and Jackson Triggs, are owned by Vincor International, a major multinational corporation, but all of my favorites are family owned and operated places that produce superb, affordable wines.
Pillitteri Estates– Founded by an Italian immigrant, Gary Pillitteri, in the early 90’s, Pillitteri is the largest estate producer of ice wines in the world. On a recent visit, I was able to taste a half dozen varieties, one more delicious than the next. The Reisling and Shiraz ice wines were particular favorites.

Reif Estate Winery– The Reif family has been making wines in Germany since the 1600’s; Klaus Reiff opened his winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1982, making this winery one of the veterans on the local scene. Reif produces a wide variety of whites, reds and ice wines, but I was most taken with their Kerner- a rare white varietal that is grown in just a handful of vineyards in Ontario.

Marynissen Estates– If you prefer reds, definitely check out Marynissen, which was founded by Dutch immigrant John Marynissen in the early 50’s. The cabernet franc is terrific, as is the solstice, which is a merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon blend.

Konzelmann– This family run winery, established in 1988, is a bit off the beaten track but is my favorite in the region. I’m particularly fond of their gewürztraminer and pinot blanc, but their ice wines are to die for. A mouthful of their vidal ice wine feels so good on the palate you almost don’t want to swallow it, and when your glass is empty, you immediately crave more. The bartenders here are generous and knowledgeable.

There are numerous companies that offer tours of the wineries, and in the summer, there are also bike tours, which use the Niagara River Recreation Trail, a 35-mile bike path that runs along the Niagara River connecting Niagara-on-the-Lake with Niagara Falls and points beyond. Niagara Falls is a leisurely thirty minute drive on the scenic Niagara Parkway and Toronto is less than two hours to the north east.

Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) is also the home of the Shaw Festival, which presents plays in four beautiful theaters around town from April-October. Architecture buffs will love NOTL’s quiet side streets, which are filled with tidy 19th Century Victorian homes and bed and breakfasts. Many of the shops and restaurants in town are pretty touristy, so on a nice day; I’d take a picnic and eat lakeside at the Queen’s Royal Park. Otherwise, venture a couple miles outside town to the Pie Plate, an outstanding bakery and restaurant which serves fantastic pies, baked goods, soups, sandwiches, salads and pizzas at reasonable prices.

I’ve been to NOTL dozens of times but every time I return there are new discoveries and more wineries to try. George Bernard Shaw once said that alcohol is the “anesthesia by which we endure the operation of life,” and by that token, NOTL is a terrific place to numb the senses.
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Boulder’s mixology scene the place for holiday spirit(s)

mixologyBy now, we’re well into the Third Wave of the mixology craze. Cosmopolitans begat new types of martinis begat the revival of pre-Prohibition-era cocktails (which begat bartenders donning suspenders or dapper suit vests).

The revival of classic cocktails and trending toward intelligent, seasonally-driven mixology made with craft-distilled spirits has been driven by America’s mania for all things artisanal and/or local.

Ignore the pretentious b.s. that muddies the waters of the food and wine et al. industries. You’ll find that most consumers, chefs, farmers, and food artisans are merely interested in the provenance of certain ingredients, and the traditional methods used to produce or prepare products like cheese, charcuterie, boutique wine, craft beer, and distilled spirits. This is a good thing. And, I might add, who doesn’t appreciate a great meal or well-made beverage?

That, in a nutshell, is why Boulder, Colorado has been making headlines as one of America’s most progressive dining destinations. As a former resident, (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I move. A lot.), I can attest that Boulder is on the cutting edge of conscious eating. But where it really shines, in my opinion, is its mixology scene.

Bonus: Boulder’s best drinking spots are located on or just one block off of Pearl Street, which runs through the heart of downtown and the pedestrian mall. This time of year, Pearl is aglow with fairy lights adorning the trees, and (if you’re lucky) snowfall: it’s a wonderful place to spend the holidays. If you like to imbibe, try a glass (or three) of good cheer at any of the restaurant/bars following the jump.

mixologyWhen I first moved to Boulder in 2006, I lamented the shortage of decent watering holes (meaning, places not overrun by frat boys; it is, after all, a college town). Fortunately, the two best restaurants in town, nationally-acclaimed Frasca, and The Kitchen, (in this instance, I refer to its adjacent, second-floor sister spot, [Upstairs]), put the same thought and care into their beer and wine lists and the crafting of cocktails as their food. Thus, I happily spent many nights cozied up to the bar of one or the other.

Frasca has since undergone a remodel and expansion, and last spring opened Pizzeria Locale next door, which has its own impressive beer and wine list. The cocktail progam at Frasca–overseen by bar manager Allison Anderson–is still fantastic, as are the selection of apertifs and digestifs, including premium grappas. For a light, festive holiday drink, try the Promessa d’Italia (Luxardo Maraschino Cherry Liqueur, Blue Gin, and Prosecco).

Former Frasca beverage program director Bryan Dayton opened OAK at Fourteenth with chef/co-owner Steven Redzikowski in November, 2010. The restaurant immediately attracted attention for both its localized New American cuisine focused around the oak-fired oven and grill, as well as Dayton’s stellar mixology program. Sadly, a kitchen fire destroyed the restaurant several months after opening.

But, as they say, every cloud has a (Don Julio) Silver lining. In September, Dayton won Bombay Sapphire’s “Most Inspired Bartender of 2011,” and is currently gracing the cover of 5,000 copies of the December issue of GQ as part of his handsome reward (his winning drink: a “Colorado-inspired blend of juiced pears: simple syrup infused with sage, fennel and juniper; blackberry; Bombay Sapphire East; yellow chartreuse, and lime”).

OAK just celebrated its reopening on December 14th, with a revamped design and slew of inspired takes on classic cocktails, featuring Dayton’s passion for craft spirits. On the menu for the holidays: Oaxacan Winter (Sombra mezcal, Antica Carpano, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, Navan, molé bitters, and agave), and the Oak Martini (Death’s Door Vodka or Gin, Dolin Blanc Vermouth, and grapefruit bitters). New to OAK’s beverage program are house-created and -bottled sodas, in flavors such as kumquat and tarragon or cucumber and basil.

Last June, The Kitchen opened [Next Door], a “community gastropub.” There’s more of the same rustic, localized fare The Kitchen is known for, but you’ll also find an abbreviated selection of beer, wine, and natural sodas served on tap. It’s part of The Kitchen beverage program director Ray Decker’s ongoing commitment to source the best craft beers, boutique wines, and distilled spirits available.
mixology
At The Bitter Bar, located around the corner from The Kitchen, you’ll find a short, appealing American bistroish menu, but mixology is the star of the show just as proprietor/manager Mark Stoddard intended. Thumbs up, too, for the “staff picks” section on the menu listing cocktail and entree pairings.

If late night cocktails are your thing, I suggest making The Bitter Bar your last stop, but be prepared: these drinks pack a wallop. Friendly, informative mixologists serve seasonal cocktails (in warmer weather, some ingredients are sourced from the property’s own herb garden) in vintage crystal stemware–a nice touch. There are always seasonal specials, but don’t dismiss “Bitter Originals” such as The Gunner’s Daughter (Eldorado 5 Year Rum, Smith & Cross Navy Strength Jamaica Rum, Domaine de Canton–a ginger liqueur– Cynar, and Allspice Dram) and the Hokkaido Highball (Yamazaki 12-Year Single Malt Japanese whiskey, elderflower cordial, and apple drinking vinegar). Happy holidays indeed!

Tip: Boulder is located at 5,430 feet, so if you’re not used to the altitude, you should be more concerned with drinking water than alcohol. Remember that one drink is equivalent to two at this elevation. Pace yourself, drink lots of water, and pop a couple of aspirin before you turn in for the night.

From Mark Stoddard at The Bitter Bar comes this sophisticated upgrade on eggnog.
Tom & Jerry
serves 1

1 egg
1 oz. aged rum
1 oz. Cognac
1 oz. hot milk
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 allspice berry, ground
1/2 clove
4 oz. hot water
nutmeg, for garnish

Separate the egg white and yolk into two bowls. In one bowl, add rum and brandy to the yolk and beat together until frothy. In the other bowl, beat the egg white until it forms a peak, and then add milk, sugar, ground allspice, and clove. Fold the rum, Cognac, and yolk into the egg white bowl, and stir. Strain into a tall mug or tempered glass and top with hot water. Garnish with grated nutmeg on top (a microplane zester works well).

[Photo credit: Tom & Jerry; Bryce Clark]

How to Make a Flamed Orange Zest for Cocktails

Gusta: your online community for food events, worldwide

food eventsWhat happens when two former food-loving Airbnb.com employees get together and create a company? You get Gusta, an online global community of chefs, venues, food enthusiasts, and events.

Founders Chris Collins and Carly Chamberlain wanted an outlet for world and armchair travelers to find out about food events and dining locales in specific regions, and enable them to purchase tickets or make reservations directly from their site.

How it works: industry peeps go to Gusta and post events for supper clubs, food tours, food trucks, cheese shops, wine bars, cooking classes, pop-up and traditional restaurants, food festivals, event spaces, or any other creative food endeavors. You go to Gusta, create a free account, select your city of choice, and see what’s going on when you’re in town.

Just looking for a great meal? Use Gusta to find, review, and book dining experiences in your home city and when you travel. Want to automatically receive a $10 coupon for any one event posted on Gusta? Click here. Happy holidays!

January is California Restaurant Month

california restaurantsAs a native Californian and longtime former Bay Area resident, I have to confess there’s no place like home when it comes to the American food/dining/wine scene (New Yorkers, feel free to sharpen your knives…).

California’s always been progressive when it comes to food and drink, from the early days of the vaqueros and Gold Rush-era San Francisco, right up to today’s never-ending parade of talented food artisans, chefs, farmers, and mixologists. It’s only fitting then, to feature a California Restaurant Month.

In January, the second annual statewide celebration is back and better than ever. Presented by Visit California, nearly 30 destinations across the Golden State are creating special restaurant week or month-long promotions and deals, including celebrity chef, prix fixe, and wine pairing dinners, and a series of “Dine and Drive Itineraries” that map out the culinary and scenic highlights of specific regions. Included are “Wine Country Fresh,” “Food Lover’s Classic Coast Drive: San Francisco to L.A.,” and “A Taste of San Diego.” Participating regions for events include cities and counties throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, Central Coast, and Northern and Southern California.

If you’re worried about the calories, California Restaurant Month also offers travel tips on where the best skiing, surfing, hiking, and other outdoor activities are to be found, regardless of your itinerary. And that’s the thing about California. As my dad always said, “What other state offers so much diversity?” Whether bagging peaks, scuba-diving, camping in the desert, or having a blow-out shopping spree is your thing, California’s got it.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Stuck in Customs]