Friday, October 29, 2010

55 hours in London

I’ve been fortunate to visit London 3 times in the past 12 months so I felt no urgency to do the tourist thing…you know…Tower of London, Museum of Natural History, Buckingham…well, all those places that visitors usually flock to.   They’re all places I enjoy but have only recently visited.  With a mere 55 hours on the ground, I decided to make the most of this great city but try to relax as well and get a little Christmas shopping out of the way.   People either love London or hate it.    I belong to the former group.   There is always something to do, somewhere to go, something to see – the list is endless.

We landed at Heathrow, checked in to our hotel, Grosvenor House on Park Lane, Mayfair and then walked down to Oxford Street – a 10 minute stroll.   Grosvenor House is a rather grand hotel as you’d expect with an address straight out of a game of Monopoly.   (I still remember how expensive those Mayfair hotels were to buy!) Our room was rather large by London standards and tastefully decorated.   Crisp white linen monogrammed sheets and fluffy pillows with décor of yellow, green, burgundy and white.

Our niece, Hannah, had recently taken up a position as Nanny to an English family living in Wimbledon so we’d organised to meet her at TBG’s ‘local’ when he’s in London.   Most London pubs have a certain charm and The Audley was a warm and inviting place on a cold autumn evening to meet with Hannah and catch up on her new life in England.    The Audley boasts “Good British Pub Food” and after a couple of drinks and some good music we decided to stay on for dinner.    So how would I define good British pub food - uncomplicated and reminiscent of childhood – fish & chips, hearty pies, roasts with Yorkshire pudding – nothing too fancy but filling and comforting on a cool evening.   We had a fun night with our beautiful niece – by the time we returned to our hotel a touch of jetlag had hit and those fluffy pillows were much appreciated.  
Come 3.30am, as expected, we were up and had begun our day.   Over the years I’ve learnt not to try to fight my body clock and it’s just as easy to get up, make a cup of tea and catch up on emails, news or read a book until the sun comes up and the city begins to awaken.

We walked down to Oxford Street and had a typical English breakfast which was far more substantial than I’m used to and ruined my appetite for the rest of the day – perhaps that was a good thing!    There are a few rituals we have in London and one of them is visiting Foyles, the famous bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Foyles is a London institution.  If you’re a lover of books then walk through the doors and you’ll think you’ve gone to book heaven.   Imagine your favourite subject and you’ll often find that there won’t be just one or two shelves devoted to it, but a whole room!   Floor upon floor of books on everything from the latest fiction (many newly signed first-editions), to art, history, design, science, languages – you name it, I’m sure there’ll be something for you.   We spent a couple of hours here, including a coffee in their delightful café.   

I have to admit that I rarely buy books in shops these days, preferring to support Better World Books - an online company devoted to improving literacy in third world countries.   I also love to buy second-hand books, when possible, because they turn up in brown wrap, usually from another part of the world and I find it intriguing to think that they’ve had a previous life and I’ve saved them from becoming landfill. 
Do you ever buy second-hand?  You should think about giving an old book a new home.   Unfortunately I tend to hoard books (amongst other things) and can’t bear to part with one.  I hope when I go to that big library in the sky my own books will be loved by one of my children or grandchildren.  Anyway I digress…a signed first-edition copy of the latest offering from historic novelist Phillipa Gregory, The Red Queen (19 GBP), caught my eye and I couldn’t resist.     There’s something special about walking out of Foyles swinging one of their red bags containing a treasure!

Covent Garden was our next destination and the place was buzzing.   Londoners and tourists alike were out in force enjoying a perfect autumn afternoon watching buskers, eating in the cafes and restaurants, drinking in the bars and visiting the shops and markets filled with antiques, souvenirs, exquisite gifts and art.   Still without hunger, we settled for afternoon tea however I did find the huge pans of paella being cooked in the open very tempting.    It was a pleasant way of spending a relaxing afternoon.   I loved the string quartet busking outside one of the cafes - their music was beautiful.

From Covent Garden we made our way to Kensington and Harrod’s. I like to pretend that I can afford to shop there but the truth is I only ever buy their food. Walking through their food hall is an experience.  Nobody does food like Harrods.   The displays are works of art.   Here you can buy amazing produce from every corner of the globe.  In the photo below ‘wild prawns’ from Africa at $69 GBP per kilo sit next to ‘wild octopus’ from Cornwall at a more reasonable $13.95 GBP per kilo.   The one treat I always buy there is fudge which is creamy and heavenly.  My girls and I are addicted.     In summer, choosing one of their filled baguettes and taking  it down to the banks of the Thames or Serpentine is a also a treat.   

Like the food hall, Harrods source quality goods from every part of the world however gone are the days when you can purchase a live tiger (thank goodness).  Floor upon floor of every conceivable item from rugs & furniture to designer clothes & bags are on offer to those who can afford them! I remember years ago I took my daughters there for their Santa photo and whilst the queue was long the girls were kept entertained by the beautiful fairies and pixies that fed them treats and danced and sang.    Ah Harrods, I can pretend but back home I’ll still shop in DJs where the prices are more affordable – after all, ‘There’s no other store…’  
By this time the sun was beginning to set and we dashed to High Street Kensington to do a bit of shopping for our son.  We called in to a quaint little pub called ‘The Greyhound’ to rest our feet and quench our thirst and whilst there it became apparent that we were both beginning to ‘fade’ after our 3.30am start.  Did I want to go out for dinner?   Pass.   So it was off to ‘Whole Foods Market’ to pick up some hot food and take back to our hotel.  Whole Foods sells delicious organic, natural food and they have a wonderful selection of self-serve, take home dishes.
I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Looking out my window this morning showed a vastly different London to the previous day – cold, grey, wet and windy but hey, I mustn’t forget that this IS autumn in Great Britain!   After a baguette & coffee at Pret in Oxford Street we once again braved the rain and wind and made our way to Tate Modern.  

Have you ever noticed other people looking at art?   If you asked 100 people to give their interpretation of a work you would get 100 different answers.   Many artists refuse to explain the meaning behind their work as this defines the piece and leaves no room for the individual’s imagination – no mystery.   I love to watch people’s expressions as they stand and contemplate or sometimes eavesdrop on a conversation (quite by accident of course).   As for me, I like to make my own mind up but then I always cheat and read what’s written next to the work or listen to the audio tour …and that’s what I did today.     Whilst flash photography is forbidden in the gallery for obvious reasons, you can still take images.   Today I wanted to capture not just a shot of the artist’s work - a nice momento of the visit - but I also wanted to capture people contemplating the work.    
I love watching kids as they stand before art.  The piece below was quite dark and confronting with the bodies of two birds pinned to the wall with arrows.   The little girl stood for quite a while before declaring, “Yuk! Dead birds. That’s sad!”  I think that was probably a simplistic view of what most people would have first thought but didn’t audibly express. 

Next time you’re in a gallery, try watching people watching art.   It’s both interesting and amusing – I’m sure the artists would love to have the opportunity to be ‘a fly on the wall’ and watch them too.

After leaving Tate we once again braved the bad weather and made our way across the Millennium Bridge and the choppy waters of the Thames below.   A good old British pie with mushy peas and mash was TBG’s comforting late lunch – mine was an edible veggie roll that filled the spot and then it was back to the hotel to pack and make our way to the airport.

So here I write, 33,000 feet above northern Afghanistan – 6 hours since take-off, another 4 hours until we reach Bangkok.   Below the scenery is spectacular.   As far as the eye can see there is nothing but rugged mountain ranges that appear devoid of vegetation and human life.   The land looks inhospitable and uninhabitable – the word ‘barren’ comes to mind.  Forces deep inside the earth millions of years ago pushed the land together like a giant concertina and the result is breathtaking.  As winter approaches I have no doubt that the brown ranges will turn white with snow.   The further south we fly, evidence of human life begins to appear.   I can see rectangular shapes that look like animal enclosures as well as roads and small villages with huts the same colour as the landscape.  I wonder what their lives are like?  I have no doubt that existing in this landscape would be difficult and so very different from my own life in a little seaside town in Australia.

I might try to catch a little sleep before we land in Bangkok.

More images at

Bye for now…


Annie  x

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

24 hours in Hong Kong

24 hours in Hong Kong

We landed at 6.30am, Saturday, at Hong Kong International Airport on the island of  Lantau.   From there it was a pleasant trip to Hong Kong Island,  hopping over a series of islands via super long bridges – amazing feats of engineering and tunnels under the sea. Our hotel, The Regal Hong Kong,  felt like it should have been in Rome rather than Asia with its Roman statues and ornate chandeliers - it seemed a little out of context! Our 2-room suite was large and comfortable with views over the city and I did appreciate the spa that evening after a long day exploring the city.

Shortly after we hit the streets of  bustling down town Hong Kong.  Every available space seemed to be filled with colour and sent the senses reeling at first.  If you can find a place to stop in the crowded streets it’s worth briefly closing your eyes and letting your other senses take over – it’s only then that you can focus on the sounds and the smells of this city that seems to marry the old with the new. The sounds of traffic mix with an unfamiliar tongue as people go about their daily lives – and people, there are many!   This was Saturday morning and with offices closed, people were out in force making the most of their weekend in the markets, shops, restaurants and sunshine.

Cooking on the sidewalk - as you walk by you can choose from an array of different foods and eat on the run!  This particular stall offered pork buns and satay sticks.
There is an abundance of ways you can satiate your appetite from 3-star Michelin restaurants to the street hawkers with their carts filled with pork buns and other delicacies.   TBG is a regular traveller to Hong Kong  so we decided to have our brunch at one of the little Asian cafés he frequents near our hotel.  TBG is addicted to pho soup – a spicy Asian broth often filled with a variety of meat including beef, tripe and spicy sausage although you can get vegetarian varieties as well.   To the pho you can add bean sprouts, chillis and different herbs.  I opted to begin with fresh spring rolls & dipping sauce followed by a pad thai filled with prawns & chicken.    Including a plate of chicken sticks, the meal cost $20 AUD and was excellent value.   

Pho soup - a beef broth filled with different meats, vegetables, spices and noodles
Our tummies full, we  headed down to the Central Pier to catch one of the iconic Star Ferries across to the China mainland.   For .30 cents AUD you can board the ferry for the short ride – a great way to see the harbour first-hand with it’s luxury liners and junks sharing the waves.    It’s also a good way to get a different perspective of the city.     I was hoping the usual Hong Kong smog would disappear however it wasn’t to be!  The city was shrouded in a veil of white making photography a little disappointing.  Still, this is the real Hong Kong and smog is part of it!

Another of Star ferry glides past.  A ride across the harbour costs 30 cents.
Alongside towering space-age highrise buildings with their mirror windows sit much older apartment buildings with their washing hanging precariously from poles over the streets below.  I was glad that Hong Kong hadn't become as sterile as Singapore.  Don't get me wrong, I love Singapore however it's nice to get a glimpse of how life was in Hong Kong in years gone by.

After our brief journey to the other island we made our way to Mong Kok and the famous ‘Ladies Markets’ with street upon street of stalls selling everything from designer bags (copies of course) to jewellery, jade and clothing.   Being Saturday, the markets were packed.  I’d also hoped to visit the bird and fish markets – both are prized as pets as they don’t take up much space – however we were running out of time and I wanted to make it to the famous Peak before the sun set behind the island and a photo op would be lost.

The 'Ladies' market - Mong Kok
There are a few different options for getting to The Peak however the most popular by far is by the Peak Tram which has been in operation since May 1888 (and never had an accident I believe).   We queued for about half an hour before boarding however it was an interesting wait as you walk alongside a museum-style history of the Tram with artefacts from the days when it was operated by coal-fired steam boilers.   These days it is powered by a microprocessor-controlled electric drive system but even so, it almost groans at times as it strives to reach the Peak on some of the inclines.  

Hong Kong city shrouded in smog - taken from The Peak
Once at the top you can visit the Peak Tower which is basically a modern building filled with shops and restaurants however a viewing platform on the roof, 428 metres above sea level, affords 360 degree views of the island and across the water to the outer lying islands of Cheung Chau, Lamma and Lantau.  Oh how I wish the smog had disappeared!  We did manage to get the last rays of sunlight on the buildings before the sun disappeared behind the mountain. The photos I took do not do this beautiful city justice.

After visiting The Peak we walked (mostly downhill) to the Soho district of the island with it’s many bars, cafes and restaurants.    Soho clings to the mountain-side and one of the longest escalators in the world runs down the centre of the district allowing easy access to the various streets.    Two years ago when I visited Hong Kong we did a ‘tapas crawl’ starting at the bottom of the escalator and getting on and off when we spied a bar that appealed as it crept up the mountain.    Tonight, however, we returned to the Bacar Wine Brasserie for a large glass of French beer and a platter of dips - hommus, tabbouli and Lebanese bread, to begin our evening.   After a long walk in the warm Hong Kong air, an icy Kronenbourg was most welcome.  I must say that we were very fortunate weather-wise.   The temperature, in the high 20’s, was perfect and the humidity was bearable.

French beer was appreciated.
TGB enjoys his tapas and wanted to take me to one of his favourite Spanish restaurants called Rico's.  We ordered 4 plates of tapas which was probably 2 plates too many as servings were very generous.    First to arrive was the Ensalada de Jamonera Con Queso Manchego – a plate of ‘refreshing Autumn salad consisting of Jamon de Serrano, Manchego cheese, roasted bell pepper and artichoke hearts’.    Delicious even though the bell peppers were served raw rather than roasted.  

 The thin slices of beef with a pepper sauce were tender and we named the chicken dish ‘Death by Garlic’ – so tasty however we felt for those people in close proximity on our flight to London!   

My favourite dish was the whole roasted red bell pepper stuffed with mushrooms and garlic – yep, more garlic.     We ordered a jug of Sangria to compliment the meal. 
After dinner I decided we needed to walk off some of the tapas – “I have no idea why they invented these damn trams going past because nobody obviously uses them!”  TBG mumbled.  Well, people do…just not us.   With a 4.50am call in the morning for our flight to London, we fell into bed (after my spa of course) and slept soundly … until the phone rang to say… time to get up and another adventure begins.    Why don’t you come with me to London…

Monday, October 25, 2010

24 hours in Melbourne ...

There has always been a friendly rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne.   I must say that my allegiance lies with Sydney, the town of my birth.   I love the beaches, great restaurants, beautiful weather, strolling around the quirky streets of Paddington, Surrey Hills, The Rocks, and nothing beats a ferry ride on the sparkling waters of our harbour on a Summer’s day.  I never tire of capturing these places with my Nikon. Melbourne, on the other hand, offers the visitor a certain sophistication that Sydney (supposedly) lacks.  Melbourne’s architecture, public art, restaurants & theatre make it an exciting to visit.  To VISIT I say!   It is, seriously, a beautiful city and so my decision as to how to spend a brief 24-hour stopover was a challenge – the pressure!
The Yarra (nice day for a stroll along Southbank)
The last time I touched down in Melbourne was on a girls’ shopping weekend.   One of the highlights of that particular visit was doing a ‘Chocoholic Tour’ of the CBD – I do not jest!   So with my two slim chocoholic friends we were guided around Melbourne town by a woman whose life revolved around that rich, brown, creamy delight that tends to touch my lips and go straight to my hips!   I must admit that it was an interesting and delicious way to explore the many arcades that would have perhaps remained hidden except for this tour. I also enjoyed learning more about the history of the CBD in between visiting chocolate institutions like Lindt Chocolat Café, Haigh's Chocolates, The Chocolate Box , Kennedy & Wilson Chocolates and Koko Black.  $35 for a 2 hour tour, numerous tastings and afternoon tea.  With another 9 days of restaurant food I decided that chocolate was off the list this time.

Melbourne greeted us with clear blue skies and warm weather.  I kept remembering that Melbourne has a reputation for 4 seasons in one day however today was Spring through and through.

Our hotel, the Hilton on the Park is located next to the MCG and opposite Fitzroy Gardens.   After a drink in the Park Lounge we decided to stroll through the Gardens into the centre of the city.   Firtzroy Gardens were set aside as a public reserve in 1848 and contains the historic Cook's Cottage.   We decided to take a closer look at the childhood home of the famous explorer Captain James Cook.

Cook's Cottage
The cottage was originally built in the village of Great Ayton, in Yorkshire Great Britain.  It was purchased for the sum of 800 pounds.  To move the cottage, it had to be dismantled and then each brick numbered, put into 253 cases and 40 barrels/crates and shipped to Melbourne, where it arrived in April 1934. The cottage was then rebuilt in the heritage-listed Fitzroy Gardens and opened to the public on 15 October 1934.
One of the bedrooms complete with Gazunda (the green thing that 'Goes Under' the bed)
Whilst the rooms were small I can imagine it was quite a good-sized home in it's day.  Expectations in  England back then were far different from today.

Only meters away is The Conservatory built in 1930 and home to the most stunning floral display.  
From there we walked to the famous Lygon Street in Carlton for dinner.    So many restaurants to choose from - mostly Italian.    As you walk along the street Italian gentlemen try to entice you with their descriptions of food and explaining why their pasta, pizza, steaks are far superior to the one next door.  We finally settled on a restaurant that first opened its doors in 1985, La Notte.    This one was the most popular so we thought it must be good!    With such beautiful weather we decided to dine al fresco.    We started with the antipasti - a platter laden with marinated vegetables, meats, cheeses - delicious!
I enjoyed the mushrooms and frittata - well, I actually enjoyed it all to be honest.   David chose a very different main described as: Fresh asparagus wrapped in prosciutto  with grilled prawns, mango, caramelised onion and a poached egg salad with a balsamic emulsion.    So many of his favourite things on one plate!   Whilst it seemed a bit of an eclectic mix he said it worked very well.
I chose the risotto - if you can't get a good risotto in Lygon Street, there's something wrong.    My risotto was tossed in a creamy sauce with feta, chicken, leeks, toasted pine nuts and roasted pumpkin. 
This is a great restaurant if you're looking for good, honest Italian food.  

We caught a taxi back to the hotel and started talking to the maintenance man in the lift.  He invited us up to the roof to take some photos.  Breathtaking view and totally wasted on an air conditioning plant!
The next morning we skipped breakfast and ate brunch in a little Asian restaurant called CoCo Rice.  Nothing like a curry to get you up and going in the morning.  From there we walked through the city to Federation Square (still not a fan of the architecture - will keep giving it a go) and on to the National Gallery of Victoria (without too many groans from TBG).

I'd missed the Masters' Exhibition however the Gallery has an amazing permanent collection that can captivate for hours.

Our next stop was Southbank and some cold drinks before returning to the Hilton and a snooze before call.    Such a short trip but we managed to enjoy every moment.   Thank you Melbourne for the beautiful weather.   Shame you don't have a magnificent harbour - the brown waters of the Yarra don't quite cut it (Sorry, had to get that last friendly dig in xxx). 

The Bear Brass - Southbank
Around midnight we bid adieu to the beautiful city of Melbourne and an 8 hour flight north.

Why not join me in Hong Kong for 24 hours!




Saturday, October 2, 2010

Cotton Duck - Holt Street, Surrey Hills

The address sounded familiar - my sons once had a design studio on an upper floor of this renovated warehouse however I didn't recognise anything about the new ground floor.  Gone is the drab street front and replacing it is something quite sophisticated and exciting.  Cotton Duck is the latest venture of Jared Ingersoll following the success of Waterloo's Danks Street Depot.   Polished concrete floors and exposed bricks give a hint to the original building and the  internal dividers of stark concrete housing living gardens are an interesting feature.  If I had to describe the interior in 3 words I'd choose 'fresh, innovative and stylish' - these words are also reflected in the menu.   

There is a theme of blending old with new and whilst we noticed many innovative features of this restaurant, some great traditions have returned such as making reservations.  Don't laugh!   It's refreshing when you arrive at 8 with a party of 4  and your table is waiting!  I also liked the fact that we were blissfully unaware of the number of people sharing the restaurant - good acoustics and relaxed spacing.

Cotton Duck lighting - more like a work of art - I later discovered that it was.  This lighting once adorned the Powerhouse Museum, created for a special Eat Green Design dinner by Hannah Tribe.   Once again these lights illuminate dishes made from fresh and sustainable produce.  

Newly opened in mid-September my eldest son & his girlfriend had already dined at Cotton Duck. They were so impressed that when they heard I was coming to Sydney they decided that I had to try it too.

As we walked through the door the waiter recognised David and Emma from the previous week and there was a little friendly banter which sounded like old friends were being welcomed back.

I've heard the menu described as a "DIY degustation menu" with 2 courses for $55 or 4 for $85. We all chose the $55 option and whilst the servings are modest I must say that after the 2 courses plus bread, a tiny starter and a shared dessert I left feeling more than satisfied. Mind you, some with a heartier appetite might do well to order the 4 courses - how lucky to sample even more of this delicious menu.
A slice of organic pork sausage with celeriac remoulade
Dinner commenced with this beautifully prepared morsel of organic pork - deliciously spiced and complimented by a crispy yet creamy celeriac remoulade - a perfect way to prepare the taste buds!

Tuna Tartare - tuna, cured salmon and beetroot chips
David's first choice was the Tuna Tartare which comprised 2 types of fish with crispy beetroot chips.   As a photographer I'm drawn to the aesthetics of food - for me it's not only about taste but equally about the beauty of the food and its aroma.    Presentation at Cotton Duck is a priority.

Emma's choice - Hiramasa Kingfish poached in butter and served with spring vegetables

Mushroom vol-au-vent:   king browns, shiitake with chicken and heart jus

Bryan and I both chose the Mushroom Vol-au-vent. I was wondering if it was going to be a bit of a nostalgic return to the 70s however Cotton Duck's dish bore no resemblance. The emphasis is on the filling - gone is the sauce.  A light pastry case brimming with king brown and shiitake mushrooms and chicken.

For my vegetarian son, this course was made with mushrooms only.   If there is one suggestion I'd make it would be to offer a vegetarian choice.  Having said that, Bryan's request was met in an obliging way.   He also enjoyed the peas and beans in parmesan jus.

Peas and beans - a plate of spring peas and broad beans in a parmesan jus

Organic pork with sweet vinegar tomatoes, fennel seed and soubise - a rich, velvety sauce made by combining bechamel with pureed cooked onions and sometimes a small amount of cream

Emma and Davy ordered the organic pork - a dish they both enjoyed although preferred the pork belly they'd ordered the previous week (not available on this night).

The open kitchen allows you to see Cotton Duck chefs cooking and creating

Now I have to say that by this stage,  everyone felt satisfied.  Did we need dessert?  No.  Did we want dessert?  1/3 of the menu is desserts and they looked so tempting.   We decided to share the chocolate and raspberry tart.  Well, 3 of us did.   Youngest son was adament he didn't even want a spoonful - that was until he heard and saw our reactions.    In front of us was placed a baked chocolate case filled with creamy raspberry mouse and fresh, organic raspberries.  The chocolate base was delightfully thin and crisp.   The sweet and tart sauce was then poured into the centre.   Bryan couldn't resist and whilst he's not a fan of the fruit - these fresh berries impressed.    Amazing how a single tart can make a table smile.  :)

Chocolate and Raspberry tart - baked chocolate with a raspberry mousse

Cotton Duck offers a good list of wines and boutique beers.   Whilst the sons stuck to the 'Pigs Fly' pilsner, Emma and I shared a 2009 Word Of Mouth reisling.     Before we left a plate of warm citrus flavoured madeleines were offered.   Cotton Duck isn't just a restaurant - it's a dining experience for all senses.

50 Holt Street
Surry Hills
Sydney NSW 2010

p: 02 8399 0250
e: /

Open for lunch on Thursdays and Fridays, 12pm - 3pm and dinner, Tuesdays through to Saturdays from 6pm.

Photography and blog by Ann McLeod

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