Monday, June 29, 2009

Hong Kong / Part 2

Next morning we took the Airport Express into Central (Hong Kong Island) and after breakfast boarded the Star Ferry across to Kowloon. This is a Hong Kong institution with the service surviving since the late 1880’s despite recent road and rail tunnels under the harbour. The twelve green and white 1950’s and 60’s diesel powered ferries, manned by crews still wearing old fashioned sailor type uniforms, run a non stop service across Victoria Harbour. Cost? $1.00!

This must be one of the world’s best sightseeing bargains with some of the best views of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island skylines.
We walked a short distance from the Star Ferry wharf Kowloon side to the viewing platform outside the Cultural Centre and absorbed the amazing view.

Then it was back across the harbour to the First Ferry wharf for a trip to the island of Cheung Chau and lunch. Again we preferred the slow boat to the fast catamaran and took the air conditioned option. Leaving the wharf we got a really good view of what may be, when it’s finished, the world’s tallest building, the MTR Tower.

Cheung Chau has the aura of an older more traditional Hong Kong. It used to be an old pirate and fishing haven and if you half close your eyes you can still imagine that with its narrow streets, tiny shops and temples. The harbour is crowded with fishing boats and it is little wonder that the seafood is why most people come here.

The road around the harbour is a mass of eating establishments, many with huge tanks of live fish from which to pick your meal. Which place to choose? First thing we noticed was not too many had English signs or menus. But, being the adventurous food types we are, this was not a problem. My main concern was, yes, you guess it, air conditioning! So we walked along the street looking, all the time being "attacked" by the restaurant touts. Finally, a woman appeared from one and spoke to us in perfect English saying she had the best meals in town. "But do you have aircon?" I asked. "Sure do" she answered and we were hooked. Inside were a mish mash of dilapidated laminex tables and dubious looking non matching plastic chairs and stools. Having eaten in many such places in Asia I assured the co-driver we would (most likely) be fine. Another plus was the place was full of Chinese families noisily enjoying their lunch. With no English menu I was taken outside where a huge number of bamboo steamers full of Dim Sum (dumplings) sat over cauldrons of boiling water. My ‘new friend’ proceeded to open one steamer after another to which I only had to say yes or no. With no idea what anything was this was a gamble but as it turned out they were all delicious. "I suppose you will need a fork" she says. "Nope, chopsticks will do fine" we say. And we have made a friend for life!!!!!

Our Dim Sum starter which could have really been the main meal (Well, I did get carried away with the selection process) was washed down with two huge bottles of beer and followed up by the most delicious steamed scallops and broccoli. And I almost forgot, a big plate of the best fried rice I have had in ages. We sat there completely stuffed with our now mother figure urging us to finish the rice or she would bag it up for us to eat later. "You can waste money" she says "but you can’t waste food!"
Time for the bill. With no knowledge of any of the prices I wondered out loud if we would be taken to the kitchen and forced to wash dishes into the foreseeable future. No need to worry. $40 the lot! So if you are ever in Cheung Chau stop by the "Long Island Restaurant". Turn left after exiting the ferry wharf and it’s about 500m on your right. Look for the blue awning.

Back on Hong Kong Island, we debated whether to call it a day or visit the Mid Level Escalators. This is a series of escalators that run 800m up the steeper parts of northwest Hong Kong Island. Beginning at Central Market it takes in BoHo, SoHo and Hollywood Road. A quarter of a million commuters use the system every day with it running down hill for the morning rush hour, then uphill until midnight.
Things did not start out too well when we decided to catch one of the antique double decker trams that still run along one of the island's major roads. They are small, crowded, not built for someone 6ft tall and very hot. And when we got to the escalators they were down for maintenance! This was a disappointment because the area was full of potentially interesting places to visit including Chinese antique shops and apothecaries and paper offering shops as well as hip bars and restaurants. But in the heat the climb would have done us in.
So that signalled the end of Day 2 exploration and we made a strategic retreat to the hotel bar.

Next morning we headed back into town and took the MTR (subway/underground) to the Mong Kok area which supposedly has the highest population density in the world ie. 130,000 people per km2.
Mong Kok preserves its traditional characteristics with an array of markets, small shops, and food stalls that have already disappeared from other areas in Hong Kong over the past several decades of economic development. Because of this a few of the streets in Mong Kok have acquired interesting nicknames reflecting their own particular specialty. We decided to explore just a few. The Flower Market is a street market with lots of flower shops and street hawkers showing off their colourful displays. The sweet scent of flowers is everywhere and I saw some of the most unusual plants and blooms for sale. Some of the orchid sprays were amazing.

Next was the Bird Garden where hundreds of songbirds in beautifully crafted cages are for sale from around 70 stalls. And not only birds, but all sorts of pet bird extras including of course feed. Apart from the obvious seed, I saw trays of maggots as well as other strange creepy crawlies for sale by weight and live grasshoppers too. One shop was putting around 10 live grasshoppers into small bamboo tubes for sale. I have seen pictures of owners feeding their birds grasshoppers with chopsticks. No such photo-op for me this time.
Then we moved onto Ladies Street, a market many blocks long which specialises in women's clothing, accessories and cosmetics. A block to one side of this street is Fa Yeun Street with many small retailers who sell sports shoes, sporting equipment and clothing. On the other side is Sai Yeung Choi Street selling consumer electronic products, cosmetics, and discount books. Unfortunately they much don't cater for the larger western sizes in clothing and although we saw some bargains, $10 for Ralph Lauren Polos (fakes?), we couldn't take advantage.

After a thorough exploration of this area, we retired to Langham Place which is a typical world standard shopping mall/hotel/office complex full of brand name shops, restaurants of many nationalities, movie theatres, specialty food shops and supermarkets. Here we relaxed, people watching, with a coffee and eventually a late Thai lunch. The atrium in this building had about the longest escalator I have seen.

So our short time in Hong Kong was over. Next morning it was back to the airport for our flight to Singapore. We had intended to spend a few hours in that city before our flight home but we both agreed we had had enough heat and humidity and we were more than happy to spend our time exploring Changi T3. Our next flight to Sydney was to be on the new Airbus A380. I patrolled the airport trying to get a good picture of one but there were always obstacles in the way. The best I could do was from the men’s room through a window above the urinals. Luckily there was no other person in there as I am sure they would have been a bit surprised to see someone suddenly whip out a camera. The flight home was uneventful and really, once you board the A380, it’s like being on any other aircraft.

And our thoughts on Hong Kong?
Five words: crowded, busy, vibrant, energetic, clean.
A special mention should be made about the last item. There is an army of people keeping the city spick and span. There are a myriad of street and building cleaners. On the trains uniformed people appeared and wiped down every hangy strap and pole in the carriage. There were people standing disinfecting the handrails of escalators. Every public toilet we went into had an attendant to keep the place in order. And once, after a short down pour, an army of people appeared and squeegeed off the entire square outside the building we were having a coffee in. And 10 minutes later after another short rainshower, they were there again. Little wonder if you are caught littering, you face a $HK10,000 fine and 6 months in jail.
Despite being under the control of a communist government the former British colony has been allowed to retain its previous economic, political and judicial systems. There certainly are no outward signs of recession with multiple building works in progress and shops and restaurants full of customers. While human rights, universal suffrage and democracy are still grey areas as well as reported socio-economic problems, there appears to be an air of optimism for the future in the place. The people live constitutionally under the Basic Law of Hong Kong and those we met and dealt with were friendly, helpful and hard working. It’s worth a visit just to see how capitalism and communism can work together.
But take our advice and do this in their winter!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Hong Kong / Part 1

I had been to Hong Kong a few times before in another life but had only managed to see the old Kai Tak Airport, my hotel and various conference rooms. Well, now I can actually admit that once I bagged on a day of sessions and snuck off to Macau in the mid 1990’s. And I had been taken to The Peak and the Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Aberdeen Harbour as part of business meeting activities. Now, by redeeming some expiring frequent flyer points, I had the opportunity to see more of the place and get a feel for what had happened since the British handback to China in 1997. And I really wanted to see some of the countryside, especially the offshore islands.

It was a very early morning departure from Sydney Airport with Singapore Airlines with first stop Singapore. We were delayed an hour as there was a ‘no show’ and their bag had to be found and taken off the aircraft. Where do these people go? And why, after checking in, do they not turn up for the flight? Fear of flying suddenly taking over? Sudden sickness? A family emergency? Or asleep in some deserted part of the airport? Guess we will never know, but it happens quite frequently.
Eight hours later we arrived at Changi Terminal 3. This is relatively new addition to Singapore Airport and is very modern and very large. They have driverless electric shuttle trains not only to take you to gates along the various concourses but to the older Terminals 1 and 2 as well. It is also a huge shopping mall, entertainment centre and eatery, almost a tourist destination in itself. After a few hours there, a bit of duty free shopping and eating, we boarded our next plane for another 4 hours to Hong Kong. Chek Lap Kok is another huge but well organised and efficient airport. We ‘passed’ the A(H1N1) test, got through immigration and customs with a minimum of fuss and were whisked away to our accommodation by the hotel shuttle. We had decided to stay near the airport at the newly opened Sky City Marriott because of hard to refuse low introductory tariffs and the offer of free daily return tickets into the city on the lightning fast Airport Express. The room was excellent with everything that opened and shut. And the bathroom had a rain shower which to us, who live with self imposed water restrictions on a daily basis, was absolute luxury.
Next morning we were up bright and early thanks to the two hour time difference, purchased our Octopus Cards (universal cashless transport system) and headed for the township of Tung Chung. We soon had our first taste of typical Hong Kong summer weather: 35° C and 95% humidity.
Here we boarded a cable car for a 6km, 25 minute ride to Ngong Ping to see the Tian Tan Buddha statue and Po Lin Monastery in the mountains of Lantau Island.
The views back over the town and airport were quite spectacular as we climbed to 1000m. But suddenly we were engulfed in cloud as we crossed over the range. And that was the way it would be for our stay there. We never got to see the Buddha apart from a shadowy outline and the climb to the monastery was out of the question.
The Buddha is 34m tall, weighs 250t and is one of the world's tallest outdoor bronze seated Buddhas. Visitors have to climb 268 steps in order to reach the statue. It was clear that the weather conditions were not going to change any time soon. The surrounding village area is basically a cultural theme park and is pretty kitsch so we made the decision to move on. Below is a picture of what we should have seen.
We found the local bus to the small fishing village of Tai O on the far west coast of Lantau Island and headed down the narrow windy mountain road at considerable speed. This is one of the last places in Hong Kong where you can see the traditional stilt housing of southern Chinese fishing villages. They are certainly tiny.

The harbour inside the typhoon shelter was filled with the typical high prow fishing boats found in this area. The narrow streets were filled with stores selling dried and live seafood of every description. The most famous product is a shrimp paste which is made from fermenting shrimp and spices in a barrel in the sun. I guess it is this smell that pervades the whole area; that plus the rows of fish drying in the sun. I was taken by the whole dried shark hanging from the awning of one of the stalls.
The co-driver, ever the quilter, spied some bargain fabric in a small shop so we made a small contribution to the non-piscatorial section of the local economy. We wandered the back streets for quite a while trying to sticky beak subtly into these people’s simple lives. As we were the only westerners around this was not too easily achieved but our stares were met with the odd nod of recognition and the occasional shy smile.
It was now midday and the heat and humidity were getting to us so a decision was made to find another (air conditioned) local bus that would take us to the ferry terminal on the other side of the island where we might find lunch. Another crazy hour’s trip along narrow hilly roads through lush tropical jungle and beside deserted beaches found us in Mui Wo. The slow ferry to Hong Kong was leaving in 10 minutes so lunch was put on hold. And it was here we discovered that ‘premier class’ seating on the ferry included air conditioning. Well worth the extra $1. As it turned out we could have done with some extra clothing on the 45 minute trip. The co-driver commented that it was even colder than our ‘ice cave’ accommodation that I had organised in Sioux City and Tucson. I was NOT complaining!

On the trip across and into Hong Kong Harbour we saw a large number of huge container ships being unloaded onto barges as well as a variety of ferry transport including super fast hydrofoils crisscrossing the busy waterway and then finally into Victoria Harbour and the dramatic skyline of Hong Kong Island.
We headed for the air conditioned comfort of the very tall International Finance Centre building and found a perfect place for our first Asian lunch albeit nearly dinner time…..a hamburger with the works!

Friday, June 26, 2009

A June Update

Winter has arrived well and truly. Cold days with a biting wind blowing off the snow on the Snowy Mountrains a hundred or so kilometers away. They have a great start the skiing season up there with a cover of 50cm made up of natural fall and man made snow. Some days we have had the fire going 24/7.

The other good news is that we have had plenty of consistent rain. It hasn't been heavy but finally I noticed today that the lower paddocks had become a little 'squishy' and there was water lying about. This means the water table is filling up and we will start to get runoff to fill the dams soon. The spring on my boundary as started to flow with a bit more vigour and its little dam is quite full. The local paper was highlighting only this week how so many creeks in the area considered permanent had dried up. Cattle breeders around the area were tapping into town water to keep things going. Those of us not so lucky to have this luxury were thinking of other means to keep our stock watered. But it looks as though now we won't have to worry.
Pruning has been delayed by the weather but we still have plenty of time to get this done.
End of August is my deadline. Global warming has resulted in earlier and earlier bud burst over the last decade so we dont have as long as we used to to get this job done.
We have also had to put our Shoalhaven Coast exploration on hold.
But fear not! As you read this we will be still enjoying our little holiday in Hong Kong and will have, I am sure, a few tales to tell as well as a few pictures to share.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Long Lunch

I met Rosie at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga during our residential schools when we were both studying for our viticulture/oenology degrees in the late 1990's. In fact it was only after a year or two, that we first found out that we lived within 20km or so of each other.
Rosie and her husband Grif owned a pub so they were hospitality industry orientated. But is was always Rosie's dream to own a vineyard, winery and restaurant and do these things in the French way. She is a self confessed Francophile and ran horticultural/garden/wine tours to France for many years. And she is no mean slouch at the language either.
So when they sold the business, they invested in a large tract of land overlooking Burrill Lake with Pigeon House Mountain dominating in the distant Budawang range. This old dairy farm was a perfect setting. Rolling green hills with good soil and drainage, an old farm house suitable for renovating into a B&B and a 1840's stone creamery just right to convert into a tasting room and attach a restaurant to.
They planted 4ha (10 acres) of grapes of mixed variety in various blocks and set about building the restaurant with a huge cellar and winery underneath. The complex was designed so the grapes are processed separately above ground and the juice is gravity fed into tanks and barrels in the cellar below. No pumping needed.
We were there from day one helping to plant thousands of grapevines and at midday sitting in the shade for a lunch of good food and wine. There was always talk then of a time when we could all be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labours. Long lunches and their wine on the veranda watching the world go by.
But as with many dreams it has not been like that. Instead, for them, it has been years of 18 hour days and lots of hard work. The vineyard was planted at the beginning of a five year drought and, anxious to get things started, the best viticultural practices were not always followed. This meant slow vineyard development and initial low yields.
The lack of grapes was no deterrent for Rosie however. Deep down I think she has always been more interested in making wine than growing grapes and her solution was to buy parcels of the best fruit from some of the better vineyard areas in eastern Australia.
This has probably been a blessing in disguise for the business. The chance to use cool climate fruit (as opposed to warm climate in our area) has allowed the production of some excellent wine from a diverse selection of varieties.
I have been 'responsible' over the years for the training and pruning of two blocks of vines, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, that surround the restaurant. These might be considered to be showcase blocks so in true French style they needed to be head trained and cane pruned (double Guyot system) rather than the simpler permanent cordon spur pruned technique. These two blocks are now producing well and as it's winter it is time for pruning. So I spend a few hours a day doing my thing as well as training one of their workers in the 'fine art' of cane pruning. He is a quick learner and hopefully he will be able to take over completely next year.
The other day Rosie was excited to show me and the co driver (who sometimes comes with me and sits in the sun reading while I work) her newest wines plus those that had been maturing for the last year or so. These included straight varietal whites, blended whites, rose's and reds. To me there is nothing better than tasting tank and barrel samples, some only a few months old and unclarified, and discussing the pros, cons and any perceived faults in them one by one , not to mention fruit, tannin and acid levels. These discussions can be quite robust and we are not expected to hold back with any criticism or comment.
So I left my student in full control of the vineyard and we headed for the cellar at 12pm. A few hours later after much sniffing, swirling and tasting and even a little on the spot blending we had finished. Then it was upstairs for lunch and a taste of another group of bottled wines that have just been released for sale.
So this was a long lunch realised.
At 4:30pm, I downed my last drop of cappo and we decided it was time to head home.
A precautionary blow into the breathalyser I keep in the glove box of the car for such occasions showed a reading of 0.054
OOOOPS! Just over the legal limit.
The co driver did the same and was well under. The keys were handed over.
The Cupitt's have worked hard to develop a premium tourist attraction in the area. Nothing has been spared in a effort to make it a state of the art boutique winery, innovative restaurant and informative wine tasting experience. Theirs is a popular venue for locals and visitors for tastings, dinners and lunches, weddings and special celebrations. It's been fun to be part of it all.
Find out more about the winery on their website.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Autumn in Australia

Australia is a pretty big country with a diverse range of climates. In the north there is basically summer and winter, better known as "the wet" and "the dry", but the further south you go, the more noticeable the four seasons become.
Here on the south coast of NSW, we experience a cool temperate climate with the seasons differentiated mainly by day length and temperature. There is no colour change in our native trees. And there are lots of them! Look at the picture of our area.

It's basically green all year round. If it weren't for the exotic deciduous trees that people have planted in their gardens and our grapevines we wouldn't have any 'autumn colour' at all.
Australia has only a a few winter deciduous trees. A number of eucalypts in the tropical north are deciduous in winter for a short period before the wet season, but they are basically drought deciduous. Two other trees that do lose their leaves in winter are the Red Cedar (Toona ciliata) and the White Cedar (Melia azedarach). Both of these grow in the subtropical rainforests of Queensland and New South Wales.
Some Australian trees can be partly deciduous in that they can lose foliage on a half or more of the tree just prior to flowering while retaining it on the other half. The Illawarra Flame Tree (Brachychiton acerifolius) is a good example of this. Sometimes it can be observed on the Silky Oak (Grevillea robusta).

In Tasmania there is a very rare tree called the Deciduous Beech (Nothofagus gunnii). It's the only deciduous native tree in Tasmania and is one of the oldest genera of flowering plants in the world with a fossil record stretching back 80 million years. It's regarded by scientists as one of the keys to understanding how vegetation evolved and migrated throughout the southern hemisphere.
However we can appreciate one of the many Liquid Ambers (Liquidamber styraciflua) the previous owners left in our garden (see above) as well as our vines at this time of year.
This means that pruning time is near and although the Cabernet has yet to lose all its leaves (above), the Semillon, Pinot Noir and Tempranillo already have and are ready for their annual haircut.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Shoalhaven Coast Wine Festival 2009

Every Queen's birthday long weekend, the Shoalhaven Coast Wine Industry Association holds their winter wine festival. Fifteen wineries in the region (plus a few non members who like to get in on the act) throw open their cellar doors to tasters from Canberra, Sydney and the local area over the three days. In addition to wine, each one usually organises some special activity whether it be an exhibition, special food, entertainment, gourmet food stalls or themed dinners and lunches.
It has become very popular over the years.
Down at our end of the region we have three wineries. Cupitts had an Italian theme going with a long table lunch, a "Slow Food" producers' market and boules on the lawn. Murramarang Vineyard had live jazz and a BBQ lunch. Our friends Max and Glenda at Fern Gully Winery offered wine making tours, seafood platters, cheese plates and delicious local gourmet pies (Atlantic salmon & prawns in creamy leek and Chardonnay sauce or Venison, braised in Chambourcin with field mushrooms). Who could refuse one of each on a cool sunny winter's day washed down with one of Max's reds? There was a steady stream of people on all three days obviously with the same thought.

This year the co-driver was asked to display some of her quilts for a few hours each day at Fern Gully. So we were up early each morning hanging ten examples of her work around the tasting room /winery. In the end, no sales but a lot of well deserved compliments.
Luckily the weather was condusive this year for it to be outdoors. In the past, this particular long weekend was always considered to be a bit of a drought breaker. But as we had had three weeks of rain leading up to the event we knew we would be ok this time.
Last year I did the publicity for the event but this time round I was just a visitor. Did I miss the lead up work, meetings, myriad of phone calls, early morning live radio interviews and press briefings?
In a word....nope!
But I will be putting on my publicity hat again for the South Coast Wine Show that takes place in early 2010.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Queens Birthday Long Weekend

The upcoming weekend is a long weekend in most states and territories with a holiday on the Monday. This is to celebrate the Queen’s birthday.
Now, to some, this may come as a surprise.
i)Why would Australia celebrate the Queen of England’s birthday?
ii) And why in June when it’s really the 21st of April?
Australia is a constitutional monarchy with The Queen as Sovereign ie. she is Australia’s head of state.
As a constitutional monarch, The Queen, by convention, is not involved in the day-to-day business of the Australian Government, but continues to play important ceremonial and symbolic roles.
Her relationship to Australia is unique. In all her duties, she speaks and acts as Queen of Australia, and not as Queen of the United Kingdom.
She is represented in Australia by the Governor General and in the states by Governors. These positions are political appointments by the Federal Government of the day not elected ones.
But it is also interesting to note that it was only in 1986, when the Australia Acts finally removed the residual powers of the British government to intervene in the government of Australia or the individual states.
There has been considerable discussion about Australia gaining Republican status with an Australian head of state.
In 1999, a referendum was held to decide whether Australia would remain a constitutional monarchy or become a republic headed by a president. A majority of voters (55:45) expressed a preference to retain the monarchy.
In fact this referendum was a bit of a farce with the Prime Minister of the day (a staunch monarchist) phrasing the question in such a way as to almost ensure its rejection.
So the republic question rumbles on.

The Queen has said ""I have always made it clear that the future of the monarchy in Australia is an issue for you, the Australian people, and you alone, to decide by democratic and constitutional means. It should not be otherwise."
Personally I would like to see us cut our ties completely. But I feel there is a time to do it. The Queen is now 83 and has served the Commonwealth well for 58 years. I think out of respect for her it would be better to wait until a new monarch takes the throne.
And there are obviously more important matters to deal with in the current economic and political climate.
As to the date, the day has been celebrated in Australia since 1788, the year of white settlement, when Governor Arthur Phillip declared a holiday to mark the birthday of King George III. Until 1936 it was held on the actual birthday of the monarch, but after the death of King George V, it was decided to keep the date at mid-year.
So what happens on the weekend?
Most people just enjoy having a day off from work. For many, it is a chance to do something with their family or to visit a sporting event. Some people take advantage of the three-day weekend to make trips a little further afield. Our region sees its fair share of visitors during this time and many local organisations take the opportunity to raise some money by putting on markets, shows and displays.
Traditionally this weekend is seen as the opening weekend of the snow season in Australia, although it is often not possible to really ski for another few weeks.
In the past many public fireworks displays were organised but in recent years, these have been overshadowed by the New Year's Eve displays.
For us the long weekend involves the Shoalhaven Coast Wine Festival. While I have wound down my participation, the co-driver will be at our neighbour’s winery with her quilt display so it won’t be a quiet time for us.