Our adventures in Australia begin in Melbourne, a southern harbor city with a passion for coffee, Asian Fusion food and a raging bar scene. As you rub elbows with the thousands of twenty-something hipsters who pack the upscale waterfront bars, déjà vu could set in and you might start thinking that you’re in Seattle or San Francisco before all those pesky troubles of the world started drawing your attention away from your next pick up line. Wayne and I, who had plenty of good times in San Francisco back in the day, arrived in Melbourne in February—mid-summer—and just as damp and chilly as summertime in the city where Tony Bennet left his heart. We zipped our fleece jackets up over our aloha shirts and set out to see the sights.
Our cooler-than-cool walking tour guide sported a Ned Kelly haircut and beard and directed us to several good Melbourne eateries. For those of us not in the know, Ned Kelly was an Australian bush ranger/bandit/anti-hero of Irish descent shot by the cops in a famous stand-off and later hanged in 1880 at the Old Melbourne Gaol. We viewed a 1909 movie depicting Ned’s final exploits in Melbourne’s beautiful Old Treasury Building, now an interactive museum.
While in Melbourne we also enjoyed lunch at Maha, a lovely contemporary Middle Eastern restaurant located in a basement off a side street, (21 Bond Street.) We chose the six course lunch, which they were happy to prepare as a vegetarian meal for me. Wayne preferred the meat version, which included calamari with saffron and tomato, pomegranate braised beef cheeks, and a duck preparation with pomegranate, cumin roasted carrots, and Persian aged rice with barberries and almonds. I was delighted by the local olives, baba ghanoush (cooked, mashed and flavored eggplant), and smoked hummus. Dessert was a fanciful baklava “cigar” with spiced syrup and honey ice cream. Maha also offers a “Bar Special” lunch that features a pomegranate glazed pork burger, with pickled red cabbage, and coriander peanut butter hummus, served with an Almaza Pilsner beer.
Before leaving Melbourne, we visited Gewurzhaus Herb and Spice Merchants (gewurzhaus.com.au) at the massive Queen Victoria Market. At seventeen acres, the Queen Victoria, established in 1878, is the largest open air market in the Southern Hemisphere. After viewing row after row of meats, fish, shellfish and vegetables of every kind, we came upon the Gewurzhaus, a friendly place that sells chocolates and cooking equipment as well as a huge assortment of spices, many imported, but ground and prepared in Melbourne. We purchased little jars of White Truffle Salt and Black Truffle Salt to take home as gifts, and some luscious chocolate bars for ourselves. The Milk Chocolate with Black Truffle Salt has a deep, earthy flavor, and other enticing combinations are available, such as Merlot Salt Dark Chocolate and Chipotle Chili Dark Chocolate.
We flew from chilly Melbourne to sweltering Uluru, (previously named Ayer’s Rock,) passing through a time warp into pre-historic Australia. Pre-historic is a European concept, as the indigenous people who held this huge monolithic stone sacred, had chronological memories that went back millennia to the “Dreamtime,” a period of early human civilization before recorded history. Human beings settled around Uluru about 10,000 years ago, and the Pitjantjatjara tribe, with members still living in the area, believes that Uluru was formed by ancestral beings during the Dreamtime.
We left the Outback for Queensland in northern Australia, where more natural wonders formed moments of joy and lasting memories for me and for Wayne. We took an hour and a half catamaran ride from Port Douglas to the Great Barrier Reef where Wayne realized a life-long dream of scuba diving on the reef where he swam among the corals and bright tropical fish. I stayed on the boat and viewed sea turtles from the underwater observatory and saw dolphins swimming past the deck. Also in Queensland, we visited the town of Kurunda in the rainforest where we were allowed to hold a Koala, (carefully supervised by the fuzzy little darling’s doting caretaker.)
Undaunted after a sweaty cruise of the harbor, we took a “foodie tour” of some of the local favorites. First we visited P. R. Raineri’s Delicatessen, a happy, family-owned Italian place run by Peter and his wife Sarina for over thirty-five years. We were offered generous samplings of cheeses, antipasto, olives and olive oils. The staff, many of whom seemed to be related, couldn’t have been more welcoming, and Peter’s offers an excellent selection of best quality Italian foods. Then we were off to the Sydney Fish Market where we indulged in Fish and Chips amid a mind-boggling array of every sort of edible sea creature, including lobster-like crustaceans called “bugs” in Australia.
Gelato Messina, our final stop, was more than good fun. It was manna from heaven on a hot summer day when only ice cream will do. Australia’s favorite gelato shop, with four locations in Sydney, offers a stunning array of gelato and sorbet, from the familiar to the innovative. Some of the choices we found especially intriguing were: poached figs in marsala, Italian nougat, milk chocolate with chocolate peanut fudge, salted caramel and white chocolate (the top seller,) dulce de leche and apple pie, and pear and rhubarb. Oh, which to choose?
Throughout our travels in Australia, we stopped to visit nature preserves where we had priceless opportunities to interact with this isolated continent’s unique animals. Our final animal experience was at Featherdale Wildlife Park, north of Sydney. Not exactly a zoo, at this park the animals are relatively free to wander as they wish, and the visitors can feed them, pet them and observe them face to face. Here we enjoyed petting the koalas, feeding the kangaroos, wallabies and wombats, admired a rather aloof and regal dingo and marveled at an array of lovely birds, including penguins, cockatoos and owls. We believe that our lives are profoundly enriched by the very presence of these rare animals who share our world.
The Palace awaited. This sweet little shop offers a classic British- style Afternoon Tea with seating either inside the Tea Room or out on the galleria. We chose inside seating at a lovely marble table (white tablecloths seem to have disappeared from Australian tea parties.) There was a good tea selection available—Wayne chose Licorice-Ginger, and I had Paris Vanilla Spice, both quite good, and even better because they were served in pretty individual teapots in the Wedgwood Cuckoo pattern, a colorful design of flowers and birds. Two-tiered servers of the same pattern also presented our excellent freshly baked scones with mixed berry jam and just-made sandwiches, which included egg salad, spicy crab salad, and savory “cookie” sandwiches. The generous array of sweets included mocha macarons, chocolate mousse petits fours, very special home-made lime marshmallows, tiny banana cream tarts, and mini vanilla cupcakes with cream cheese icing.
For those of you not quite ready to let go of that pleasant feeling of wellbeing our time in Australia has evoked, turn to Afternoon Tea for Our Elders in the Special Occasions section of myteaplanner.com. This menu celebrates the classic tea experience and features one of our all-time favorite desserts: Sticky Date Pudding with Caramel Sauce. Another trusted recipe from Gourmet magazine, this 1997 offering from Australia’s island state, Tasmania, produces a rich golden cake, studded with chopped dates and smothered with warm, buttery, home-made caramel topping. In either hemisphere, this tea time favorite will keep us smiling for a very long time.