Bath: A Speciality Coffee Tour

Other than the obligatory school history and Latin trips, my only other visit to the city of Bath was in summer 2002, on a pre-university weekend trip with my then boyfriend. I was working in a sandwich/coffee shop at the time and had begun to get into good coffee, but no memories of Bath’s coffee — good or bad — have stood the test of time. Fifteen years later and Bath has become quite the speciality coffee destination. So much so that when a barista in one of the coffee shops I visited on Friday asked a customer about a new opening in the city centre, the customer suggested that Bath’s coffee market was already saturated.

I have been wanting to return to Bath for several years but every time I look at the train ticket prices — even booking several weeks or months in advance — I haven’t been able to find a day return for under £60. But I had some annual leave to use by the end of December and realised I had probably had my fill of international travel for the year, and got myself organised and nabbed a £29 day return nine weeks in advance.

I didn’t just go to Bath for the coffee — and I’ll highlight some of the other things I got up to in a separate post — but I did manage to visit five coffee shops, four of which I’ve written up below (one was somewhat underwhelming so I’m leaving it off until I get the chance to give it another go). Unfortunately, I couldn’t go to one of the coffee spots I had hoped to visit, Hunter & Sons, as it is only open from 9–11 am on Fridays. As well as speciality coffee, they specialise in craft beer and have a kitchen, so I assumed they’d be open all day, but sadly, this was not the case.

Mokoko Coffee, Southgate
By the time my train pulled in to Bath Spa station, just after 10:30 am, I was in dire need of a second coffee. Luckily, Mokoko Coffee’s Dorchester Street coffee bar is mere steps from the station forecourt. Mokoko wasn’t on my radar before I started researching this trip, but I’m glad I found the small but lovely coffee spot, which has a slightly larger sister branch near the abbey.

There were three single-origins available on espresso and four on filter. Knowing that I wanted a piccolo helped me to narrow down the selection, and the Ethiopian Guji from James Gourmet Coffee jumped right out (it was also what the barista was about to recommend before I interrupted him). You know it’s going to be a really delicious coffee when you can smell the flavour notes — rose and strawberry milkshake, in this case — as soon as the coffee has been ground. Indeed, my mouth was watering by the time the piccolo (£2.70) arrived. It tasted as good as it smelled and although I had been considering ordering one of the sweet treats on offer (probably the peanut banana bread), I wanted to savour the taste of this coffee a little longer.

The Dorchester Street café is small with only a few stools at the window inside, and a few more seats on a covered section of the pavement. It’s clear, though, that a lot of thought and care have gone into the coffee shop and into each cup of coffee brewed. There was also a good selection of beans for sale, including some from James and from Dark Arts Coffee. Don’t rush away from the station too quickly or your might miss this gem.

Mokoko Coffee is located at 7 Dorchester Street, Bath, BA1 1SS (their other Bath branch is at 6 Abbey Churchyard, Bath, BA1 1LY) Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Colonna & Small’s
Although Bath has more than enough coffee shops for one day’s caffeination, Colonna & Small’s is the one that no bona fide coffee lover can miss. Walk in through the pastel blue shopfront on Chapel Row, admiring the framed homage to some of the world’s best roasters and make your way to the long, wooden counter.

The décor is minimalist with light blue and green accents to the light wood and white walls. It’s surprisingly bright inside, even when it’s grey and snowy outside, and there is a variety of seating from armchairs near the door to the rustic wooden benches towards the back. When I arrived, it was bustling and the only available seats were at the stools perched in front of the brew bar, which suited me just fine.

I started off with a filter coffee, struggling to choose among the three single-origin coffees available as filter. In the end, I opted for the Huatusco Coe washed from Mexico, with notes of red apple, brown sugar and pink peppercorn. Had I been reading the names of the estates more closely than the flavour profiles, I might have opted for the Hartmann’s Estate instead, but my coffee was very well brewed through the siphon (£3) and the flavours came through beautifully.

Next up, I went for a piccolo (£2.60) and again, there were three espresso varieties available. I thought that the Guatemalan washed La Cumbre sounded nicest with milk, and indeed, it was beautifully prepared, and wonderfully sweet and smooth. Although I was tempted to stock up on some Colonna merch (the titular Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood was around and so signed copies of his books were possible), but instead spent my pennies on some beans: 150g of a ‘rare’ La Negrita Geisha from Colombia, whose lime and tropical fruit notes I’m looking forward to sampling.

Whether you are a coffee geek, coffee curious or somewhere in between, you will be equally welcomed at Colonna & Small’s, as the knowledgeable, friendly baristas help you decide what to order and then work their socks off to produce a really excellent drink. All of the rumours were true: Colonna & Small’s is one of the UK’s best coffee shops.

Colonna & Small’s is located at 8 Chapel Row, Bath, BA1 1HN. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Society Café, Kingsmead Square
Since Society Café opened in Oxford last year, it has been my first port of call each time I am in town to stay with my parents. Society has two cafés in Bath (and one in Bristol) but with just one day to spend in the city, I decided to pick one, the original on Kingsmead Square. It’s only a few minutes’ walk from Colonna & Small’s and when I walked past the first time, a small street-food market was getting started in the square. Later, when I returned for coffee at Society Café, the square was absolutely heaving but inside, it was a peaceful oasis.

If you’ve been to the Oxford café before, the Kingsmead Square décor will be familiar: there’s a beautiful turquoise espresso machine on the counter, colourful local art on the walls and a bright, relaxed seating area in the back. The coffee selection was familiar too: most of the ‘house’ espresso and filter varieties were from Origin, although a lone Nude coffee sat on the counter.

I’d reached my filter limit for the day, so I went for the house espresso, a San Antonio Lot 32 coffee from El Salvador, brewed as a piccolo (£2.40). The coffee was very nicely brewed and its toffee and pineapple notes paired well with the white chocolate and peanut butter blondie (£3.50) I ordered as an accompaniment. I enjoyed my refreshments with the latest issue of Caffeine Magazine sitting at one of the large, communal tables in the back room. There is also plenty of seating at the raised bench that runs along the side of the café and more space downstairs. It wasn’t too busy late on a Friday afternoon but I suspect that it may be elbow-room only during peak hours.

Society Café is located at 4–5 Kingsmead Square, Bath, BA1 2AB (their other Bath café is at 19 High Street, The Corridor, Bath, BA1 5AJ). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Picnic Coffee
Once I found out that Hunter & Sons was closed, I had ‘space’ for one more coffee and as I had been shopping in some of the excellent independent stores on and around Walcot Street, Picnic made the perfect pit-stop. Located on Saracen Street, the small café had steamed up from the damp December air when I arrived. Inside, though, it was cosy and colourful and there was a great range of coffee on offer.

With two espresso varieties available, as well as two filters (one for Aeropress and one for V60), it took me a few minutes to decide what to order. Actually, though, I recognised the lavender and lime flavour notes of the V60 coffee as the Dhilgee Lot 4 from Origin that was in my hopper at home. It’s a great coffee but I wanted to try something different, so I went for the Kenyan Nyeri variety, which I think was also from Origin, brewed through the Aeropress (£3). The house espresso was Origin’s Pathfinder blend, while the guest was from Union. There were various bags of Union and Round Hill beans for sale too.

I took a seat in a cosy nook — I’d arrived just after the lunch rush and there weren’t many tables free — right next to a bookshelf full of travel books. I picked up a Peru guidebook, hoping to make a start on some planning for my big trip next year, but it was a 2006 edition, so I didn’t make much progress. The coffee, though, was very good: well balanced and flavoursome. And if you’re in the mood for more than coffee, Picnic also serve sandwiches, cakes and alcoholic drinks.

Picnic Coffee is located at 9 Saracen Street, Bath, BA1 5BR. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Christmas in the Breakfast Room

Last Christmas, the house was completely decorated by early December. I'm taking an unhurried approach this year, and I'm enjoying the process. Over the weekend, I drank hot cocoa and watched Season 2 of "The Crown," which I highly recommend. Then I puttered around the breakfast room.Continue Reading »

The Caffeine Chronicles: Over Under Coffee, Soho

Since talking to the good folks of Assembly Coffee at the London Coffee Festival in the spring, Over Under Coffee in Earl’s Court has been on my coffee to-do list. I knew it would take me some time to find an opportunity to go that far west, however, and so it was fortunate that Over Under opened a second, more central location instead. I have often used Ham Yard as a cut-through between Great Windmill and Denman Streets just north of Piccadilly Circus, and as a over Over Under II, I now have an excuse to linger there instead of rushing through.

The Soho Over Under opened a few weeks ago while I was out of the country and it made the perfect pit-stop during my West End Christmas shopping on Saturday. As well as the Ham Yard Hotel, where I’ve been for a few meetings and events, there are some lovely shops in sleek, understated Ham Yard.  Over Under is on the right-hand side as you amble up from Denman Street.

The coffee shop is small inside, with just a dozen or so seats along a comfortable cushioned bench along one wall, and a couple of tables too cold to sit in on the day I visited. My eye was drawn immediately to the décor: the beautiful, beach prints took me right back to Sydney and Bondi and the Great Barrier Reef, where I was relaxing just over a month ago. I also loved the cheery pops of yellow behind the counter, on the bench and in the yellow cups sitting on top of the sleek Slayer machine.

The food also echoed my recent antipodean trip, with diverse breakfast bowls, toasts and sandwiches on offer. Another time, I’ll have to come back to try the avocado toast, simply because I can’t resist menu clickbait like “micro coriander”. There are plenty of vegetarian, vegan and dairy- and gluten-free choices on the menu. I had already eaten but found room for two mini toffee cakes (£1 a pop), which were sweet and just indulgent enough.

And as for the coffee, it’s from Assembly, of course, and tastes fantastic. The new Colombian espresso, which I’d sampled at Lumberjack the week before, wasn’t in the hopper, but my piccolo (£2.40) was absolutely beautifully brewed, with a perfect swan floating elegantly on top. It tasted great too, and was complimented well by my toffee-pudding shooters.

With its friendly staff and laid-back, beautiful café, Over Under is relaxing spot for an excellent coffee away from the Soho crowds. I still plan to visit the Earl’s Court original…it just might take a while.

Over Under Coffee. 4 Ham Yard Hotel, London, W1D 7DT (Tube: Piccadilly Circus). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Gone to the Dogs

My 90-year old mother claims that I was raised by a dog–a Weimaraner named Cindy. Mom wasn't kidding. During my childhood, Cindy was my protector and companion, and if I whimpered, she'd dash off and find my mom. Dear Cindy bestowed a life-long love of anything with four paws (even three–in the 70s, we adopted a Chihuahua who'd lost her leg in an accident). So it's no wonder that I chose a dog theme for my Christmas tablescape.Continue Reading »

New Zealand North Island Road Trip I: Coromandel Peninsula

I commenced my first New Zealand trip in Auckland — later than planned thanks to Qantas incompetence — but I’ll be returning there before I fly home next week, so for now, I’m skipping ahead to the next section: a short North Island road trip. I rented a car from central Auckland (it was under $200 NZD for a Toyota Corolla for six days) and was soon heading south on State Highway 1. Here is what I got up to along the way.

Coromandel Peninsula
Although the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula is accessible by public transport or by tour, it’s more convenient if you have your own transportation because then you can stop at whichever scenic spots and small towns take your fancy. There isn’t much to do in most of the towns and villages, especially this early in the season, so it was nice to have the flexibility to stop off, have a wander, grab a coffee and then hit the road again.

I headed first for the small town of Thames — hey, I’m from Oxford and live very close to the river now — which took about 90 minutes from Auckland. The roads were good and it was an easy drive. I stopped for a rather good Coffee Supreme piccolo at Coco Coffee Bar, walked up and down the high street (there was a cool indoor marketplace called The Depot with various independent shops and eateries) and then continued. There’s also a small town museum and a mining museum, but not much else.

From Thames, I followed the SH 25 north along the western side of the peninsula. Navigating was easy, partly because I was using Google Maps on my iPhone and partly because there is generally only one road. The roads, however, quite quickly became rather precarious, although they afford splendid views of the sea as they weave along the coast and inch up the steep, verdant mountains. Most of the trickiest bends have handy suggested-speed indicators, which helped in judging the severity, and I soon got used to the concept of one-way bridges. Although I occasionally got stuck behind a slow vehicle or, more often, frustrated other drivers for sticking to the speed limit, it was a decent drive.

I stopped for lunch an hour later at Coromandel Town, which, like Thames, is a small mining town that was less picturesque than I had expected, although had a bunch of quirky independent shops and plenty of character. I should have stopped for seafood at the Coromandel Mussel Kitchen just outside town but missed the turn and instead was left with the main street offerings. I ended up having a decent Allpress piccolo and scrambled eggs on sourdough at a place called Wharf Road (on Wharf Road).

I wasn’t sure I’d have time to go all the way to the top of the peninsula so I cut east to Whitianga instead. There are two routes — the southern is ‘less travelled and legendary’ (according to the Lonely Planet) but sounded like a more challenging drive, so I went for the northern route, which had some steep climbs and fantastic sea views. I stopped briefly at a couple of beaches on the way, one (pictured below and at the very top) primarily because I saw a penguin ‘warning’ sign. There weren’t any penguins, unfortunately (I’m beginning to think they’re as mythical as goats in trees in Morocco, which I didn’t see either), but the beach was gorgeous. I found out later that it’s called New Chum Beach, and has been voted one of the most beautiful beaches in New Zealand. 

I arrived in Whitianga about 45 minutes later but there was little there to divert me longer than it took to walk down to the esplanade and back.

Hahei, where I stayed for the night, is only a short boat ride from Whitianga, but by car, you have to go the long way round which takes about 30 minutes (longer if they are resurfacing the road, which they seemed to be doing in large parts of the North Island during my trip). Hahei itself is a tiny but pretty village, with a handful of shops and eateries, and a few hundred residents. There are two main attractions nearby, which I’ll get to shortly, but both require specific tide timings, which I’d missed. As it was a sunny afternoon, I went for a stroll on the beautiful Hahei Beach, and then hiked up to the Te Pare Reserve, which had great views down over the bay — it reminded me a little of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

I stayed at Tatahi Lodge in Hahei, in a private room in their backpackers’ lodge. The lodge was comfortable, clean and thoughtfully appointed, even if it did feel a bit like sleeping in a particularly nice shed (especially when it poured with rain overnight). I went for dinner at The Pour House, a local craft brewery and pub. I had the fish and chips, which was really good. I even had a sample of one of the beers brewed on site (the Easy Rider, which the bar tender was recommending to most customers), although it was rather too beery for me (I don’t like beer).

In the morning, I rose early and headed out to Cathedral Cove, one of Hahei’s two main sights. It’s about a 50-minute walk from central Hahei, but I decided to jog instead. Note, though, that it’s an extremely steep route, although has great views. I was rewarded when I got to Cathedral Cove beach and found it deserted, which meant I got the iconic view through the cathedral-like hole in the cliff face of the ship-shaped Te Hoho rock to myself for a few minutes before a group arrived. It was such a beautiful and peaceful place. Try to go in the morning (it’s east-facing and so the light is better) and at low tide (otherwise you might not be able to walk through the cave).

I returned to my hotel to shower and check-out and to borrow a beach towel and a spade from the owners. It was almost low tide and I was headed to Hot Water Beach, a ten-minute drive from Hahei. For two hours around low tide, you can dig yourself a hole on the beach that fills with warm to hot water, depending on your spot. I got there about 45 minutes before low tide and the beach was already busy. The Germans had, of course, already found the best spots. There was a lot of asking around as to how hot everyone’s water was. Mine wasn’t the hottest but I dug it by myself and the water was indeed pretty hot. A fun, if somewhat tiring, activity. I ran into the (rather cooler but still tolerable) sea to clean off and then, after dropping off my spade and towel at the hotel, got on my way.

Wairere Falls

My destination was Rotorua, a three-hour drive from Hahei. I was hoping to find a nice cafe or roadside eatery to stop at for lunch, but although the drive was beautiful (again, many steep, winding mountain and coastal roads), there wasn’t much along the way. However, passing near Matamata (most famous for its Hobbiton attractions; I’m from Oxford, though, so there’s only one Shire for me), I saw a sign for Wairere Falls and, in an effort to be more spontaneous, I took the turning. There was nothing about it in my Lonely Planet but at 153m, it’s the tallest waterfall on the North Island, and you can either take a 40-minute hike to the viewing platform, about halfway up, or climb to the summit if you have three hours or so to make the round trip. Having not had lunch and having done a steep jog at Cathedral Cove, I stuck to the shorter walk, which was a relatively easy if steep hike. The views of the falls at the top were well worth the detour.

And before I knew it, I was approaching the outskirts of Rotorua, of which more in my next blog post.

My Dining Room: Two Years Later

I've lived in the ranch house for two years, and I've just now started working on the dining room. In my old age, it takes me forever to pull the trigger. I'm less willing to start over with new furniture, mainly because of the memories associated with certain pieces. Yet the fallow interim can seem like a big, fat stall. We all know that stalling can lead to self doubt, and self doubt can make you question every idea.Despite the caveats, I'm glad I waited.Continue Reading »

48 Hours in Wellington, New Zealand

As soon as the plane came over the mountains and landed next to the clear turquoise waters of the Cook Strait at Wellington Airport, I knew two days would not be enough time in New Zealand’s capital. I fell hard for Wellington in a way I never really did with Auckland, although the latter has another day to win me over tomorrow. Small but sprawling and surrounded by mountain, forests and water, Wellington seems to have it all. After a first glance, it reminded me of a smaller Vancouver: it has cool restaurants and shops, great coffee, culture and a healthy, outdoor lifestyle that many city-dwellers can only dream of.

Within 45 minutes of landing, I had collected my suitcase, taken the 91 Airport Flyer bus into the city and checked into my hotel, The Cambridge Hotel. I picked the hotel for its central location and was a bit worried about night-time noise, but I thought I’d be OK because I was staying on Monday and Tuesday nights. Unfortunately, the downstairs bar and gaming room played very loud music until half-midnight on both nights making sleep before then impossible (Tuesday, of course, was the blasted Melbourne Cup). Otherwise, my bed was comfy, but it was a very small and dark room, in great need of an update. I wish I’d paid a bit more to stay somewhere quieter and more modern.

Anyway, I didn’t spend much time at the hotel, and I was extremely lucky that coffee-loving Wellington local Tim (@coffeelater on Twitter and Instagram) contacted me when he found out I would be visiting his city and offered to show me around. He’d discovered my blog while investigating the Kiwi credentials of Red Lion Coffee Co in New Cross when he was visiting London. Tim was an excellent ambassador for Wellington and its coffee scene — I’ll be covering the latter in a separate post — and a wonderful host, driving me all over the city to visit coffee shops and stop at the best viewpoints, and imparting a wide array of local knowledge. I’m so pleased he got in touch and we had a fun couple of days. Thanks, Tim!

Heights and sights
I flew in to Wellington on a clear morning and the views from the window seat were fantastic and also helped me to get my bearings. I think the SimCity 2000 custom map builder must have enjoyed designing the topography and landscape of Wellington because there are many hills and mountains and an almost fractal-like bounty of bays. Tim first drove me up to the Mount Victoria Lookout, which saved me a very steep walk. The lookout offers panoramic views and if you’re there on a clear day, it’s well worth the walk or ride to the top.

Another place to get a great view of the city and the Cook Strait is by taking the Wellington Cable Car, which runs from Lambton Quay, a central shopping street, to the hilly suburb of Kelburn. The funicular railway, which just celebrated its 115th birthday, runs every 10 minutes and a return ticket costs $7.50 (if you’re planning to walk back down, a one-way ticket is $4). There are various activities at the top, including the Botanic Garden.

Closer to sea level, there are dozens of walks, jogs or bike rides you can do. Just east of the CBD is Oriental Bay, which has a small beach and good views back to the city, and if you continue on round, you’ll get to Evans Bay, where there are some nice rocky beaches and some seriously fancy houses, some of which have their own cable car, a source of endless delight for me. I was short on time while jogging and so cut back inland through Hataitai (I skipped the Mount Victoria Lookout, but it was still very steep).

Further round is Peter Jackson’s film hub, Miramar, which Tim took me past on our drive. I didn’t have time to do anything film-related, like the Weta Studio Tour, but I did stop to take a picture of the Wellywood Sign. We continued south to Lyall Bay, stopping to look at the surf club/popular local favourite Maranui Café although it was too late to get a coffee with a spectacular ocean view, and then over to Island Bay (the small, titular island is called Taputeranga), where you can see over to the South Island on a clear day. We could — just about!

There is a good bus network in Wellington, but it’s a lot easier to explore more of these places if you have your own vehicle — particularly given all the hills.

Arts and culture
You could spend all day at Te Papa Tongarewa, the excellent New Zealand Museum, but I had less than two hours. I focused my time on the natural history and cultural/anthropological history floors, and the permanent exhibitions were informative, interactive and very well put together; it’s also free to visit. There’s also a bush walk and a cave walk just outside that you can visit, where I saw my first tui bird of the trip.

I didn’t have time to do any more museums, but I did soak up some of the city’s public art. It’s not quite up there with Melbourne on the street art front, but there were some cool murals. There’s also a curious bucket fountain on the mostly pedestrianised Cuba Street, which seems to excite everyone.

I didn’t do very much shopping while in town, but I did visit the excellent book shop, Unity Books. You can also pick up a Wellington writers’ walk map from Unity or the tourist information centre.

Eating and drinking
Wellington’s drinking and dining scene is such that although the annual Wellington on a Plate (‘eat, drink and be Welly’) food festival takes place in the winter, it’s now one of the busiest times of year to visit. I was a little overwhelmed by choice and was also mindful of having already spent a large amount of money on food and coffee on this trip so far. There are a few restaurants and bars in Wellington that have London spin-offs — Noble Rot, for example — but on my first night, I ended up accidentally going to a Kiwi spin-off of one of my favourite London restaurants, Polpo. The Wellington version is called Ombra and both the concept and the décor are very similar. I wanted Italian comfort food and that’s what I got, as well as a very fine martini.

The following night, I followed Tim’s recommendation and went to Wholesale Boot Company (WBC). This also has a connection to a London favourite of mine, Providores, in my former Marylebone neighbourhood. The menu includes small and large plates that combine modern New Zealand cuisine with various Asian twists. I sat at the bar and there was a wonderful atmosphere and attentive service. I started with a bee’s knees cocktail and a quartet of New Zealand oysters, which were delicious (I loved the muffin tin presentation too). I then had spicy kung pao venison and chicken karaage (a Japanese-style fried chicken), which were very tasty. I was too full to order any more food, which was a shame because there were so many other dishes on the menu that I wanted to try.

Had WBC been full, my back-up was to go to Little Penang, another recommendation of Tim’s, which does top-notch Malaysian food in a casual setting. I was disappointed not to be able to try the ramen at The Ramen Shop in Newtown, which Tim also suggested — we drove past and it looked great.

Although I’ll cover coffee in another post, I did squeeze in brunch at two of the coffee shops I visited. First, I had a great (if rather filling) bacon cheeseburger with duck-fat fries at Acme & Co HQ, Prefab Café, and I also enjoyed the scrambled eggs on sourdough at Mojo’s waterfront cafe. You won’t struggle to find good brunch in Wellington, though, wherever you are.

Wellington is a very characterful city — reminiscent of Portland, Oregon, in some ways — and so there are plenty of fun things to spot around town. I didn’t go out in search of any Lord of the Rings sights, but came across the Hobbit Hideaway, which is just off the Hataitai–town centre walkway, on my run. Although I grew up in Oxford and used to sell Tolkien tours at the tourist information there, I’m not a LOTR fan, and yet I found myself sitting in the hideaway to take a selfie. It’s definitely not very hobbity to run 6.5 miles and climb over 50 floors before breakfast!

Tim also pointed out a miniature library in a bus stop and, after I’d had my first “quite windy” day (it was extremely windy), he awarded me with my very own Wellington badge.

Finally, the shells here are awesome. If you go to the beach at the right time, you can collect gorgeous, iridescent paua shells, cleaned-up versions of which are also sold for a princely sum in gift shops. I found this small collection while running — aren’t the colours amazing? — but I left them where they were for others to enjoy or the sea to take back.

Christmas Notebook

 I'm way behind on decking the halls. Tyler and I couldn't agree how to hang the live garlands on the windows, so we looked at last year's photos. We decided to wire two garlands together for a fuller look, then we set up the tree. So far, that's our progress. We "only" have 2-1/2 trees to go.Continue Reading »

How To Spend Four Weeks in Australia and New Zealand

I’ve only been back from my month-long trip to Australia and New Zealand for ten days and I’m already missing both countries. I blogged on the road about the places I visited — Australia here and New Zealand here — and have posted some of my favourite photos on Flickr — Australia here and New Zealand here — but I also wanted to report back on my overall itinerary: where I stayed, how I got there and how I spent my time. I had 28 full days so this is a very long article and you may wish to make a cup of coffee before you dive in.

Four weeks isn’t nearly enough time to spend just in either Australia or New Zealand, but although I toyed with the idea of spending my month-long sabbatical in one country, I couldn’t choose. I’ve long wanted to visit both and I don’t know when I’ll next have the opportunity to return, so I opted for a taster of both countries. As I devoured my Lonely Planet Australia and New Zealand guidebooks and began my online research back in January, I wasn’t sure how I would ever manage to narrow down my long-list and build an itinerary, but I got there in the end, deciding to focus on East Coast Australia and the North Island of New Zealand.

I booked my international flights six months in advance, paying about £800 for Singapore Airlines flights from London to Melbourne, returning from Auckland to London, with a 3-hour stop in Singapore both ways. I was excited to visit Changi Airport (I visited a butterfly garden, had a foot massage and ate at a Hawker-style food court on the way out, and had a swim and jacuzzi on the way back) and Singapore Airlines’ reputation for service and comfort won me over.

The flight times also suited me, contributing to my lack of jet lag. Outbound, I flew out of London at 10 pm on Friday, landed in Singapore at 6 pm on Saturday, took off for Melbourne at 9 pm on Saturday, and landed in Melbourne at 7 am on Sunday. I slept well on both overnight flights and managed a full day of coffee, brunch and sightseeing in Melbourne on the Sunday. The return flights were just as convenient and comfortable, taking off from Auckland at 1:15 am on Sunday and landing in London at 3 pm on Sunday, after a stop at Changi. I stayed up until bedtime on Sunday and woke to my alarm in the morning. I thought about a longer layover in Singapore but didn’t want to sacrifice a night of my trip, and the itineraries with eight-hour layovers were considerably more expensive.

Once I’d booked the flights, it was time to plan the rest of the itinerary. Given that I was visiting in the late spring, I figured I would go to Australia first and then, by November, the weather might be better in New Zealand. I’ll talk about the weather in more detail later on, but this wasn’t quite right. I booked most of my hotels and internal flights in August, adding a few days in Queenstown in New Zealand’s South Island to the end, after strongly worded advice from many friends.

Skip to:  Australia    New Zealand    Itinerary    Accommodation    Packing & weather

Day 1: Arrive in Melbourne
I landed in Melbourne just after 7 am and just over an hour later, I had cleared immigration (as a UK citizen, I could apply in advance for an e-visa), collected my suitcase and took the SkyBus into the city. My hotel, The Atlantis, was a short walk from the SkyBus terminal and various tram lines, and there were plenty of good coffee shops nearby (not difficult in Melbourne). I paid about £52 per night for my city-view room, which was fairly spacious, clean, comfortable and quiet. The wifi was free but shockingly slow. There was a swimming pool in the basement, which I used once.

I spent my first day getting my bearings by exploring on foot, visiting Queen Victoria Market, Federation Square, the Ian Potter Centre, the riverfront and South Melbourne Market, as well as numerous coffee shops and eateries.

Day 2–3: Speciality coffee shops, street art and St Kilda
One of my main reasons for visiting Melbourne was to explore its incredible speciality coffee scene and I spent a lot of time checking out coffee shops and cafés. I also took an excellent walking tour with Melbourne by Foot. I walked almost everywhere but I bought a Myki card and took the tram down to St Kilda to spend the afternoon on the beach.

Day 4: Fly to Cairns, shuttle to Port Douglas
I had the whole morning in Melbourne before taking the SkyBus back to Tullamarine Airport for my 2:30 pm flight to Cairns. I paid about £145 for my Jetstar flight and although I had concerns about the airline’s reputation for delays, my 3h20 flight was fine. Alas, the weather in Cairns was less fine. It was raining torrentially with a storm threatened, in fact, although at least it was warm.

There is no public transport from Cairns to Port Douglas, but numerous tour companies run shuttles. I booked with Port Douglas Bus, who offer a discount if you buy a return ticket, and I paid £40 return for the one-hour trip.

Port Douglas also suffers from a dearth of mid-range accommodation. I booked a queen room with a private bathroom at the Port Douglas Backpackers, which cost about £59 per night. My room was clean and reasonably big but very basic. The wifi was OK and I did, at least, have a kettle and fridge so that I could brew my own coffee. It was generally pretty quiet for a hostel, the staff were friendly and the common areas seemed nice. There was an outdoor pool but because it barely stopped raining for my entire stay, I didn’t use it. The hostel’s location is good: it’s a five-minute walk from Four Mile Beach, the Reef Marina and the small CBD.

Day 5–6: Port Douglas
I had two full days in Port Douglas, and headed out to the Outer Great Barrier Reef for a snorkelling trip with Wavelength (whom I highly recommend) on the day with the best weather forecast. It was still stormy in Port when our boat left and the boat ride was rough on the way out but it was calmer and occasionally even sunny out on the reef. I wasn’t worried about getting wet, for obvious reasons, so much as the visibility underwater. Actually, though, it was good and I saw a wide variety of coral, fish and animal species.

The next day, I took a small-group tour to the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation with Tony’s Tropical Tours. Although rain shouldn’t spoil your fun in the  rain forest, it might have been more pleasant if the rain had eased off at some point. But I still had a great time; the scenery is beautiful, even in the rain, and I learned a lot.

Day 7: Port Douglas and shuttle to Cairns
I couldn’t find accommodation for my final night in Port Douglas — I later found out that the Great Barrier Reef Marathon was taking place the following day — so I booked a hotel in Cairns. This was also more convenient for my flight from Cairns Airport the following morning. Before taking the shuttle at 3 pm, I spent some time on Four Mile Beach, and then did a little window-shopping on Port Douglas’s main drag, Macrossan Street. It even stopped raining, briefly!

I got to Cairns in the late afternoon and the town wasn’t looking its best in the pouring rain. I wandered along the esplanade and browsed a few shops, searching in vain for a clownfish magnet (did Pixar ban them all?). I was tired and damp and my heart wasn’t in it so I grabbed a quick dinner and went back to my hotel. Although dated, my room at the Coral Tree Inn was large with two double beds, a separate living area and kitchen, and a balcony, and I paid £64 for one night. It was a comfortable place to spend the night and a short walk from the CBD. The wifi was the best hotel wifi of the trip and the staff were lovely.

Day 8: Fly to Gold Coast, shuttle to Byron Bay
I took an Uber to the airport, which was slightly cheaper ($12) and much faster (15 minutes) than a shuttle bus. Although Ballina Airport is closer to Byron Bay, there are fewer flights so I flew to Gold Coast Airport with Jetstar for about £110. Again, there is no public transport so I booked the Byron Easy Bus shuttle for £50 return. The journey to Byron Bay takes about an hour. Confusingly, just after leaving the airport, I crossed from Queensland (which doesn’t observe daylight savings time) into New South Wales (which does) and lost an hour, and the reverse happened on the way back, of course.

I stayed at the Byron Beach Resort, a two-minute walk from beautiful Belongil Beach, which you can walk along into Byron Bay (15 minutes). It’s a sort of hostel meets budget-hotel meets resort and there are rooms to suit all budgets, from dorms to whole cottages. I paid about £53 per night for a (small) standard en suite double. It was a bit noisy from the adjacent Treehouse restaurant, but the noise stopped early and I slept fine. The wifi was pretty good (I paid $10 for a one-week pass as only your first hour is free).

I arrived just after lunch and I spent the whole afternoon on the beach, eventually walking into the CBD to get dinner, and then returning to my hotel.

Days 9–10: Byron Bay beach
I had three days in Byron and although it was enough, I wished I had had an extra day of R&R on the beach. The weather was generally very nice — early to mid-twenties and sunny — other than the thunderstorm that hit in my surfing lesson with Black Dog Surfing. I’d planned to spend my second full day relaxing on the beach but because my first surfing lesson got cancelled early, I was able to book a second lesson for a reduced price. When not in the — rough — sea or on the beach, I was jogging up the hill to the Cape Byron Lighthouse, looking out for dolphins and watching the sunrise. There are also some great brunch spots in town.

Day 11: Fly to Sydney
After a final morning on the beach, I took the shuttle back to the airport and waited to board my Virgin Australia flight to Sydney. I had over two hours to kill at Gold Coast, where there’s little to do or eat, as a result of the Byron Easy Bus schedule, but used the time to catch up on my writing and photo organisation. My flight cost about £60 and took about 1h30.

In Sydney, I acquired an Opal card, topped it up with $20 and rode the train into the city. I stayed two nights at the Sydney Harbour YHA in The Rocks, paying a whopping £115 per night for my double en suite room. That said, I could see the Sydney Opera House from my bedroom window (the views of the harbour from the large rooftop terrace were even more impressive), the room itself was comfortable, well-appointed and quiet, and the location was excellent. It’s a big, busy but well-run hostel. Although the free wifi only works in public areas, I paid about $10 for two or three days’ access to the private wifi, which worked well.

I arrived in the rain just after 5 pm, but by the time I’d checked into the hostel, visited the rooftop and headed back out, the it had dried up. I went down to the harbour, where there was a glorious sunset before walking to Surry Hills for dinner.

Days 12–15: Sydney
As the weather was uncertain on my first full day in Sydney, I decided to take the ferry to Manly to do the clifftop walk rather than go to Bondi. I was supposed to do the Sydney Harbour BridgeClimb at sunset but there was a storm forecast so I rescheduled, getting an incredible sunset second time around.

For my final three nights in Sydney, I stayed with my good friends who live near the University of Sydney and it was fantastic to spend so much time with them. We spent a lot of time visiting coffee shops — they love coffee as much as I do — and restaurants, although we also went to the Australian Museum and the White Rabbit Gallery and did some shopping. I also went to Bondi Beach and did the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk, which was wonderful.

Day 16: Fly to Auckland (eventually)
I was supposed to fly with Qantas at around 10 am, arriving in Auckland at 3 pm, but they cancelled my flight about an hour before I was going to leave for the airport and rebooked me onto the 7:25 pm flight that got into Auckland at 00:25 am. I was not impressed but the other flights were already full and there was no prospect of compensation. I paid £157 for this flight, not including pain and suffering.

In any case, I made the most of my extra day in Sydney — it was 36C so after storing my suitcase at central station and visiting a few final coffee shops, I headed back to Bondi Beach. Much later than planned, I took the train back to Sydney’s excellent airport (where you can find both Campos and Toby’s Estate coffee).

We landed late, my suitcase was one of the last to arrive and I had a sudden bout of paranoia that the Kiwis would confiscate my lovely Melbourne and Sydney coffee (I declared it but they didn’t). The SkyBus does run that late but it was a slow journey. I’d booked a motel in the Ponsonby area but wasn’t planning to have to make the hilly 30-minute walk at 2:15 am with my luggage. I stayed for two nights at Abaco on Jervois, paying about £78 per night for the cheapest double room, but it was nice, comfortable and had a kitchenette. The owner, whom I met later, was lovely and had left an envelope on the reception door with my key card inside (ah, New Zealand…). The wifi was good and if you’re keen to explore Ponsonby, the motel is in a great location.

Day 17: Auckland
I was supposed to have had the previous afternoon and evening to get my Auckland bearings but arriving so much later than planned meant that I slept in until 10 am, before heading, unrested, into Ponsonby. It was a bright, mild day but my heart wasn’t in it as I sampled coffees of varying quality and did a self-guided walking tour in the city centre. Later, I dined at Ponsonby Central but you are spoiled for choice for eateries in this area.

Day 18: Drive to the Coromandel Peninsula, stay at Hahei
With a fair amount of driving to do, I headed to Go Rentals for 9 am. I paid about £100 to rent a Toyota Corolla for six days, picking it up in Auckland city centre and dropping it off at the airport. You can read more about my itinerary for the day here, but I drove to the Coromandel Peninsula, stopping at Thames, Coromandel town, Whitianga and various beaches and viewpoints, until I reached Hahei where I stayed for the night.

I stayed in a private double room with a bathroom shared with two other private rooms at Tatahi Lodge, which cost about £50 for one night. The lodge was beautiful, comfortable and — Hahei being a small village — right next to the few shops and places to eat and a short walk from the beach. There was no free wifi but I paid about £2 for a few hundred Mb mainly so that I could publish the blog posts I’d been working on.

It wasn’t the right time to visit Cathedral Cove or Hot Water Beach, so I walked down to Hahei’s lovely beach and explored the Te Pare reserve there instead, taking dinner at the only pub (and brewery) in town, The Pour House.

Day 19: Cathedral Cove, Hot Water Beach and Drive to Rotorua.
I headed to Cathedral Cove first thing and then, after checking out of my hotel, I borrowed a spade and a beach towel and made the short drive to Hot Water Beach. I got there about an hour before low tide and the beach was already busy with people digging their own hot-water spa pools. Check the tide times because you need to be there within two hours of low tide.

It took three hours to drive to Rotorua, although I made an impulsive, one-hour pitstop at Wairere Falls, near Matamata, to hike to the viewpoint. In Rotorua, I stayed at the Six on Union motel, a short walk south of the CBD. I paid about £55 per night for a large room with a kitchenette. The décor was dated and the wifi was appallingly slow and flaky — they gave me 20 Gb worth of wifi vouchers to use but I only managed 0.02 Gb in three days, not through want of trying! — but the room was comfortable, meticulously clean and generally quiet.

Later, I visited the street food market that runs on Tutanekai Street on Thursday evenings and went spent a couple of hours relaxing in the thermal mineral pools of the Polynesian Spa.

Days 20–21: Rotorua
I had two full days in Rotorua and it rained on both. One day, I drove to the Wai-o-Tapu thermal park, which was breathtakingly beautiful, even in the rain, and one of my favourite activities of my trip. As Wai-o-Tapu is about halfway to Taupo, I then drove on to the lakeside town and spent the afternoon there.

On my second day, I made the short drive to the Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest. There are lots of walking and bike trails of varying lengths — the hour-long walk was enough for me in the rain and it was very beautiful. I did some errands in the afternoon — unfortunately, not as much itinerary planning as I’d hoped thanks to the motel wifi — and then visited the Mitai Maori Village for an interesting evening cultural experience.

Day 22: Rotorua to Hamilton, via the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves
It’s a two-hour drive from Rotorua to Waitomo, famous for its underground caves. I booked a combo ticket for both the Glow Worm Cave and Ruakuri Cave in advance online. I’d strongly recommend booking if you want to avoid a long wait in a place with little other diversions or risk the tickets selling out. I’d suggest doing at least two cave visits to make it worth your while; I got a lot more out of the two-hour guided tour of Ruakuri tour, although the boat ride under a canopy of bioluminescence in the Glow Worm Cave was quite something.

I drove on to Hamilton, a town I picked mainly because it was within easy reach of both Waitomo and Auckland, where I had to drop off my rental car in the morning. I stayed at the Camelot on Ulster Motel, a mile north of the CBD. I paid about £60 for one night, and had a very comfortable, quiet and well-appointed room, with functional wifi. The staff were really friendly too.

I walked along the Waikato River into the town centre, serendipitously stumbling upon an excellent used bookstore, Browsers, where I picked up a free copy of the Neat Places: Hamilton, which contained dozens of great independent shops, eateries and coffee shops.

Day 23: Hamilton to Auckland Airport to Wellington
I rose early so I could visit Rocket Coffee before hitting the road. It took 1h45 to drive to Auckland Airport in the morning rush. I dropped off my car (as well as the £100 I paid to rent the car, I spent about £65 on petrol, having driven over 600 miles) and took a shuttle to the terminal. I paid £170 for three internal flights with Air New Zealand (this one, Wellington to Queenstown and Queenstown to Auckland). My flight to Wellington was short, and I got from the gate at the airport to my hotel in under 45 minutes. I took the public bus 91 into the city centre, which stopped around the corner from my hotel.

I stayed at the Cambridge Hotel, which cost about £53 per night and which was the most disappointing accommodation of my trip. My room was tiny, had dated furnishings and — worst of all — was incredibly noisy with loud music from the bar below playing until after 1 am, even on a Monday night and despite my earplugs. You get an hour of free (OK) wifi, after which there’s a charge. I complained about the noise at the same time as asking to purchase some wifi time and, spotting the easy win, the receptionist gave me 24 hours of free wifi. I would not recommend this hotel unless you’re a very heavy sleeper or plan to go out partying yourself.

After checking in, I headed straight out for brunch, and spent the afternoon visiting various coffee shops and scenic locations, such as the Mount Victoria Lookout, with Tim, before taking dinner at one of the many restaurants on Cuba Street.

Day 24: Wellington
On my only full day in Wellington, I went for a morning run along the waterfront and over one of the hills, running in to Lord of the Rings tours on the way. I visited quite a few more coffee shops, did a bit of shopping, visited the excellent Te Papa museum and rode the Wellington cable car.

Day 25: Wellington to Queenstown
I visited a few final coffee shops before taking the bus back to the airport (there’s decent coffee there too). The short flight put me in Queenstown just after lunch and after a little confusion over the airport bus, I was soon strolling along beautiful Lake Wakatipu and all was well.

I stayed at the YHA Queenstown Lakefront and paid about £40 for a small, basic single room with a shared bathroom (NB ‘private single’ means private room with a shared bathroom). The hostel itself is newly renovated with a huge kitchen and a big common room. The wifi was terrible, even in the common areas. The staff, however, were really friendly and helpful and the peaceful location, a 15-minute stroll along the lake from the CBD, was a big selling point for me as I wasn’t in Queenstown to party. It was a beautiful day, so after checking in, I went straight up to the Skyline Queenstown.

Days 26–27: Queenstown
On the first of my two full days in Queenstown, I took a coach tour to Milford Sound with Cruise Milford. It was a long day — I was picked up before 7 am, and it was almost 7 pm by the time we returned — but Milford Sound was stunning, even in the rain, and the journey itself extremely beautiful.

The next day, I did a tandem skydive with NZone Skydive, which was AMAZING. This took most of the morning, and I spent the afternoon brunching, shopping and pottering, before going for a jog down to Sunshine Bay, and then taking dinner on the lakefront. It took doing a skydive for me to award myself a few hours of downtime!

Day 28: Queenstown to Auckland
My flight to Auckland arrived just before noon and after a few issues, my SkyBus got me into the CBD by 1:30 pm. I didn’t have to catch a bus back to the airport until 10 pm, so I had most of the day in the city. I shopped around the High Street, coffee-shop hopped in Parnell and took a ferry out to Devonport. Later, I had dinner at the wonderful Coco’s Cantina, a fabulous last supper of the trip.

Overall itinerary thoughts
I accomplished everything I wanted to do but the tight scheduling meant that a) there was little time for relaxing and b) had the weather been less kind, I might have missed out on weather-dependent activities like skydiving. An extra day in each place would have given me this breathing space, but if I’d had an extra week, I know I would have added another stop to my itinerary.

I also took a lot of internal flights, which was quite tiring and sometimes resulted in expensive airport transportation fees. Originally, I planned to spend my time in New Zealand doing a longer North Island road trip, dropping the car off in Wellington and flying to Queenstown. However, it would have been three times more expensive to drop off the car in a different city and some of the extra stops on the east coast weren’t must dos, so I decided against this.

Despite the busy-ness of my schedule, I think I managed a good balance between cities, beaches and other outdoor activities. I do not for one moment regret visiting both countries in my four weeks. If you are a similar type of traveller to me, please don’t be put off by snippy responses to requests for itinerary help on travel forums that tell you that you are foolish to even try fitting in both countries in four weeks. You know best what will be the most fulfilling itinerary for your own travel style and so if you want to see a few highlights from both countries, I say go for it.

Accommodation thoughts
On such a long trip, I had to stick a tight budget, particularly for accommodation. My goal was spend an average of £50–55 per night, which I managed only when counting the three nights I stayed with friends. I booked all of my accommodation 1–2 months in advance, sometimes taking advantage of discount codes and sometimes booking direct. After years of travelling in Asia and Central America with a similar budget, it was hard not to be a little disappointed with the quality of accommodation. Nowhere I stayed was terrible but most weren’t that special and had at least one major flaw.

In case it’s not obvious from my comments above, you should not rely on any hotel or lodging in Australia or New Zealand having fast, reliable wifi. It was OK at best — usually when there was a charge attached (advertised ‘free wifi’ sometimes also means ‘for an hour of usage (per day)’). Most airports I visited had decent wifi, though, so I ended up doing a lot of my photo-uploading and blogging from there. If you really need good wifi, look into getting a local sim card with data. Finally, check-out is almost universally 10 am in Australia and New Zealand. This wasn’t a problem for me — my itinerary was too packed for lie-ins — but it’s worth bearing in mind.

Packing and weather
Overall, I was happy with the packing choices I made. I wore everything at least once and didn’t really want for anything, with the possible exceptional of a rain coat but I didn’t have room for two jackets and guessed (correctly) that my down jacket would be more useful. It did rain heavily on two days but I made do with a poncho and a brolly. I could probably have left one of my four dresses and my ballet pumps at home — I tended to live in shorts (Australia) or jeans (New Zealand) and trainers or flip flops. For the majority of my trip, it was warm (~25C in Australia and ~19C in Zealand) and generally sunny, but the temperature did range from 36C one day in Sydney to 3C in Queenstown, and I experienced rain, thunder and even an exceptionally late snowfall. My travel wardrobe was able to accommodate all of these variations rather well.

I had a little room in my suitcase, most of which I filled with bags of coffee beans, although I bought a few items of clothing for myself, as well as a number of — generally small, packable — gifts. Given the amount of moving from place to place, I was really glad I didn’t have a bigger, heavier suitcase with me.

One Pot Meals: Southern-Style Pinto Beans

When crisp, chilly October days arrive in Tennessee, I start dreaming of one-pot meals. They're for homebodies. However, one-pot meals aren't for exhausted cooks. When you are frayed and weary, the thing to do is have food brought to you–pizza or take-out Sweet and Sour Pork. But for cooks with a tad of energy, a pot of pinto beans can be a salvation. Dress them up with a loaf of deli bread and a tossed salad. Serve a cobbler and red wine if you'd like a fancy touch. Either way, you can't lose.Continue Reading »