Thrills and Chills in Queenstown, New Zealand

After a bit of culture — coffee and otherwise — in Wellington, it was time to get back into the great outdoors. I almost didn’t come to Queenstown, but everyone I spoke to told me I was mad to come to New Zealand and not visit the South Island, so I ended up booking three nights in the self-proclaimed ‘adventure capital’ of the world. There had been snow overnight — very late in the season as it’s almost summer — and the landing into Queenstown Airport was beautiful, with the mountain range known as The Remarkables looking particularly spectacular with more than a dusting of snow on top.

There are airport shuttles into town, but you can also take the public bus, number 11, run by Ritchies. I found this a bit confusing to use and ended up walking half a mile outside the airport, directed by Google Maps, to a bus stop, which cost $7.50 to travel into the centre of town. On the way back, a ticket to the airport cost $12, although dropped off right outside the terminal. There is supposed to be a bus stop for the Queenstown bus outside the terminal, which would be more convenient if you don’t mind paying $4.50 more to have a shorter walk and can find it.

I stayed at the YHA Queenstown Lakefront, a 15-minute walk from the CBD along the beautiful esplanade along Lake Wakatipu. I thought I’d booked a private single en suite room, but it actually shared a (large and clean) bathroom with three other private rooms. The hostel has recently been renovated and both the bedroom and other facilities were in good condition. My room was tiny but I could catch a glimpse of the lake from the window if I tried hard.

The town is small but attractive, surrounded by mountains and with the glistening Lake Wakatipu at its centre. There are lots of hikes and bike rides in and around Queenstown and nearby Wanaka and Arrowtown, and plenty of good cafés, bars and eateries. When I saw that many of these were open long after midnight, I was glad to be staying in the more peaceful lakefront hostel. Numerous opportunities to do adventurous and/or thrill-seeking activities are available from the myriad tour agencies in town, so fear not if you haven’t already booked your adrenaline rush.
Skyline Queenstown
It was a glorious day when I arrived: crisp but sunny and with clear blue skies. As such, I headed straight from my hostel to the Skyline Queenstown, a scenic gondola ride that takes you up Ben Lomond. It costs $35 for a return gondola ride, but you can also combine your ticket with various other activities, including the luge. I paid an extra $17 to have three rides on the luge — you have to go on the ‘novice’ track on your first ride, so you’ll probably want to book at least two — and then headed on up. The views from the top were absolutely stunning and I took hundreds of photos.

To get to the top of the luge track, you have to take a chair lift (you can also walk but it takes a bit longer). Once you’ve got your helmet on and have been given some basic instructions, off you go. I really enjoyed riding the luge and my North Island road trip driving experience came in useful for some of the tightest bends. I met a guy who was taking part in a contest where he had to submit as many photos as possible of his Queenstown Marathon race number in scenic places in town, and as I helped him with a few photos, he gave me his extra luge tickets, so I had a couple more rides, before heading back down to town.

Milford Sound
Although the Milford Sound fiord — named for its Milford Haven namesake and once described by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth wonder of the world — lies only about 50 miles northwest of Queenstown, to go by road, you have to go the long way, via Te Anau, a journey of about five hours (including a few stops). I wouldn’t usually want to spend so much time on a coach just to do a 90-minute cruise but the journey is also extremely scenic. I booked in with Cruise Milford, mainly because I got a discount through my car rental agency, and paid about $175 for the cruise and coach transfer. I was impressed that our driver made the whole journey by himself and that he does the same trip most days. We were picked up from near the hostel at 6:50 am and made it back to Queenstown just before 7:00 pm.

The 2.5-hour journey to Te Anau was itself pretty impressive by anyone else’s standards, but it was the second part of the journey that was really beautiful. The heavy snowfall on Tuesday night meant that the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound was closed on Wednesday, although the people on the tour only found that out when they got to Te Anau, and had to come back on our group’s tour on Thursday. We were treated to a rainbow on the lakefront in Te Anau, which I spent so much time photographing that I missed the chance to try some Roar Coffee, apparently the world’s most southern roasted coffee. Alas.

We lost the sunshine almost as soon as we lost mobile phone reception on leaving Te Anau, and it was grey and rainy for most of our time in the Fiordland National Park. The steep, winding roads through the snow-capped mountains were still very beautiful, though, and the numerous waterfalls were on particularly good form. We made a few stops along the way, including in the Eglinton Valley, the Mirror Lakes (sadly not very reflective that day) and a series of powerful waterfalls in the woods called The Chasm. We saw quite a few friendly kea — mountain parrots — in the Chasm car park.

We got to Milford at about 12:30 pm, and boarded our boat, which departed about 1:00 pm. Cruise Milford has smaller boats than some of the other operators — there were about 80 of us on board that day — and the enthusiastic staff were really great, pointing out geological, historical and ecological points of interest along the way. The outside deck had a glass roof, which offered some shelter from the rain, although not from the constant waterfall spray (especially when we drove through one — for fun!), and although a jolly in the sunshine might have been more pleasant, the views of the fjord’s sides and of the waterfalls were dramatic and impressive.

If you didn’t face the five-hour return journey, you could upgrade to a helicopter option. I didn’t ask the price but I figured it was probably way out of my budget. Besides, I enjoyed the coach journey, even if I dozed off during the most scenic part.

I thought I should challenge myself to do at least one extreme activity while in New Zealand, and tandem skydiving appealed more than bungee jumping — not least because the experience lasts longer. I booked with NZone Skydive, and arrived at their CBD office just before my allocated 8:30 am check-in time. I’d booked a 12,000-feet drop but on a penultimate-day-of-the-holiday whim upgraded to the 15,000-feet option ($349 vs $449). And of course, you’ll want photos to help you remember the fear and exhilaration, right? The cheapest package, which includes both photos and videos from your tandem master’s two GoPros, costs another $189.
The weather had been so bad last week that there had been a lot of cancellations so it wasn’t until I suited up and boarded the small plane at the drop zone, a few miles out of town, that I knew for sure I’d be jumping. There was quite a lot of hanging around — an hour at the office and another hour in the drop zone — which didn’t help my nerves, but was, I suppose, unavoidable. We got to watch the tiny plane taking off and landing a few times and a few other skydivers landing.

I then met my lovely tandem master Mike, who took great care of me. We, along with another Brit and his tandem master, were the only ones in our group going to 15,000 feet, which meant we got to watch everyone else go first. The flight on the plane was great fun — and quite something not to be wearing seat belts or anything like that, although we were all wedged in pretty tightly — and had fantastic views of Lake Wakatipi and The Remarkables. At 15,000 feet, we had to put on an oxygen mask to prevent hypoxia, and it took a few minutes for the pilot to get us to a safe jumping point.

I was pretty cool and collected right up until it was our turn to go, when I did feel a stab of panic, but once I told Mike I was ready, it was pretty much out of my hands, and before I knew it, he’d rolled us out of the door and we were freefalling for about 60 seconds. For the first few seconds, I was very scared, but then I began to enjoy it, although as the video shows, Mike had to pull my hands off the straps to get me to ‘fly’ (I’d tried myself, but I’m not sure if it was my survival instinct or gravity that brought my hands back to the straps).

Before I knew it, the chute came up and then we were gliding, which was probably more fun, if less literally breath-taking. Mike let me take the reins briefly, until we hit a spot of turbulence (it’s never a good sign when your tandem master starts saying, “oh shit”), but before I knew it, we were landing at the NZone drop zone.

There was a bit of a wait for a shuttle back to town, but I was so revved up and happy that I didn’t mind. I hadn’t pre-warned my friends or family that I was doing this (not least because, given the weather, I wasn’t sure I would be able to) and for a few hours, only the few strangers in the plane and I knew what I had done. I loved the whole experience and although I wouldn’t do it again tomorrow, say, I don’t think this will be the last time I skydive either.

Mike’s 200-odd photos and the video were great. Most of the freefall photos were hugely unflattering but they do capture the fear, excitement and joy I experienced very well. And despite my doubts about whether I’d actually watch the video or show it to anyone, I suspect I will indeed look back on that day when I challenged myself to do something really scary. It was also fun to take off over the drop zone on my flight to Auckland the following day and snap a few photos from the window seat.

On my last afternoon in Queenstown, after a thrilling morning of skydiving, I wanted to go for a run to help me unwind. The staff at the hostel suggested I go to Sunshine Bay, an easy 30-minute (allow an hour if you’re walking) round trip route from the hostel, along a path that hugs the lakefront. It’s a little steep in places, although nothing by Queenstown standards, and there are some great viewpoints, including from Sunshine Bay itself, where the sun was indeed shining.

One evening, I also walked through the Queenstown Gardens, the botanical gardens that fill the small peninsula that sticks out of the southern part of the town centre’s waterfront. There’s frisbee golf, plenty of rope swings and some nice trails for a short, relatively flat walk. It’s particularly nice at sunset. 

Food and Drink
There are many dining options in Queenstown from fast food and cheap eats, to fine dining, although some are a bit overpriced — the curse of the resort town. As much of my budget for this stage of the trip went on activities, I tried to limit my food and drinks expenses, stocking up with breakfast and picnic food and snacks at the Fresh Choice supermarket a short walk from the CBD, and making most of my coffee in my Aeropress.
I’d heard from several sources that Shotover Street burger joint Fergburger was worth a visit and there was always a queue outside (it’s open from 8:00 am until 5:00 am, and at peak times, you’ll probably wait about 10 minutes to place your order and another 15 or so to receive it). For both convenience and financial reasons, I ate there twice: the Ferg Deluxe (bacon cheeseburger) was pretty good, although the Codfather (cod tempura) was less impressive, not least because the fish barely filled the huge bun. For under $20 for a burger and fries, it wasn’t cheap but it was tasty and good value.

I almost went to FergBurger again on my last night but did a quick bit of Google Map searching instead and came across Ivy & Lola’s, a bar and bistro on the waterfront. The menu had slightly creative, Asian-influenced modern New Zealand cuisine, and I ordered a really nice grilled salmon with various interesting accoutrements. I also had a martini made with a New Zealand gin called Black Robin, which was very nice.

After my skydive, I treated myself to a ridiculous and beautiful brunch at Bespoke Kitchen. I had the vegan cinnamon pancakes with poached apple, berry compôte, chia clusters and coconut cream. I don’t normally go for sweet brunch options but I felt like I needed a bit of a sugar rush. The coffee, from Allpress, was pretty decent too.

Spiders and Pumpkins: A Halloween Party

Every October, I pull out the Halloween goodies and decorate the house with childlike delight. When the boys were small, I put up spooky trees and iced spider web cookies, loving every moment. One year, I froze punch in surgical gloves, and when I peeled them, icy fingers adorned the punch bowl. On Halloween night, I always made chili–with chili dogs for the boys–and we'd watch a movie marathon. All these years later, I still enjoy the playful side of Halloween. I'm not the only one–this week, I'm partying with a group of darling, talented bloggers for a Halloween Tablescape Blog Hop.Continue Reading »

New Zealand North Island Road Trip II: Rotorua, Taupo, Waitomo and Hamilton

At the end of the first installment of my New Zealand North Island road trip, I had just arrived in Rotorua. Unfortunately, the beautiful sunshine of the Coromandel Peninsula shifted into grey skies and persistent rain that didn’t stop until I left Rotorua three days later. I didn’t let the weather get in the way of my enjoyment, though; having a car of my own also helped me to stay as dry as possible. Here’s what I did in the second part of my road trip.

I must confess that I was a little underwhelmed by Rotorua when I first arrived. The rain didn’t help, of course, but I had thought that the small city, located on the shores of a lake of the same name, would be prettier. Before long, though, I warmed to the place — and not just because of the thermal springs, geysers and other geothermal activity in the area. The people were friendly and very welcoming and it was a nice base for a relaxing few days. I stayed at the Six on Union motel, a short walk from the city centre. The hosts were very friendly and the room was large and comfortable, if rather dated and with the worst hotel wifi I’ve ever had (worse than the Atlantis in Melbourne; most of the time, I couldn’t even connect to the network and when I could, even Google wouldn’t load most of the time).

Most of Rotorua’s attractions lie outside the city centre but there are a few things to do in town. Unfortunately, but understandably, the Rotorua museum is closed for earthquake strengthening work, but I enjoyed a stroll through the Government Gardens that surround it.

Nearby, you can also visit the Polynesian Spa, a series of mostly open-air mineral bathing pools of various (hot) temperatures, some of which allegedly help aches and pains while others are said to yield ageless beauty. I don’t know about that, but after two visits, my skin did feel very soft. Entrance to the adult pools is $30, plus $5 if you need a towel and $5 if you want a locker (most people leave their belongings in the boxes freely available for all visitors). I went first early on a Friday evening and there were several big groups there, although it quietened out after 6:30 pm. Locals used to be able to visit any time of day for a monthly fee but now have to pay extra in the evenings so it is quieter then than it used to be. I also went at lunchtime on a rainy Saturday and it was much quieter and more relaxing — I loved the feeling of the cool rain on my face while I soaked in the hot water.

If you want a free bit of geothermal action in the city centre, head to Kuirau Park, where you can watch the mud pools bubble and there’s also a hot foot bath. If you drive south on Fenton Street, you might also catch a glimpse of Pohutu Geyser, which erupts frequently but sporadically.

Initially, I decided against booking a cultural experience at one of the Maori villages in the area as I was concerned it would be too cheesy and touristy. Instead, I was planning to go to Hells Gate for a mud bath, but after reading some of the reviews, I felt that a Maori experience would be more rewarding. I booked an evening village experience at the family-run Mitai Village. It cost $116, including minibus transfer and an authentic earth-cooked hangi dinner. I ended up really enjoying the evening and learned a lot about the history and culture of the Maori people in general and the Mitai family in particular. We watched a haka and various traditional songs and dances, and after dinner, we went for a short bushwalk, looking at the traditional buildings, as well  impossibly clear Fairy Springs and even a few glow worms.

A few miles south of Rotorua is the Whakarewarewa Redwoods Forest, which has a number of different walking and biking trails. The day I went, it was pouring with rain so, I opted for my wine-selection strategy and picked the second-shortest walk, which took about an hour. I’d hoped that the rain would abate but it didn’t. Still, the redwoods were perhaps even more beautiful in the rain and I did at least have most of the paths to myself.

I was trying to eat and drink cheaply while in Rotorua (it helped, perhaps, that there wasn’t any good speciality coffee that I found, which meant I was self-caffeinating by brewing up the Kenyan coffee I bought from Reformatory Caffeine Lab in Sydney). On Thursday evenings, there is a street-food market on Tukiterangi Street. Despite the rain, it was bustling and the food I tried was cheap and generally pretty tasty. Most of the more interesting restaurants are on a covered section of Tukiterangi Street called Eat Streat. I had dinner one night at a lovely restaurant called Atticus Finch. I had the Harper Lee cocktail (of course) and some chicken with lentil salad and spinach. The menu has various interesting small and large sharing plates, and the staff were really welcoming.

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Park
Perhaps my favourite activity of my stay in Rotorua was my visit to Wai-O-Tapu, a thermal park about 20 miles south of Rotorua. The region’s geothermal activity is highlighted in technicolour here, and you can take one of three linked walks through the stunningly beautiful park. The longest takes about 1h15, although it took me longer because I stopped to take so many photos. Entrance costs $32, but I thought this was well worth it.

There’s a geyser, Lady Knox, that is ‘helped’ to erupt each day at 10:15 am with a little surfectant — it does erupt if left to its own devices but less predictably. If you want to see the show, you’re advised to arrive at 9:30 am, drive in to the visitor centre, pick up a ticket and then drive back to the Lady Knox car park. While perhaps not as dramatic as Strokkur in Iceland, it was still quite impressive, and the story of the discovery of the geyser given by the guide was quite entertaining.

Even more enjoyable was the walk through the rest of the park. In places, the colours were so vivid and vibrant, whereas in others (the ‘devil’s ink pots’ and the mud pools near the entrance), it almost looked like I’d taken my photos in black and white.

My favourites were (in order below): the multicoloured ‘artist’s palette’, the bubbling ‘champagne pool’, and the lime green (that day, at least; it changes depending on the climatic conditions) ‘devil’s bath’. Even the trees and other plants seemed more vivid and colourful than usual, and I spotted a lone bird wading optimistically in one of the pools (they have to fly elsewhere to find food as the pools are too acidic for anything much to survive).

When planning my road trip, I thought about staying the night in Taupo, a town on Lake Taupo with views of the nearby volcanic mountains of Tongariro National Park, which has some excellent climbing and walking. There are lots of outdoor activities in the town itself, from jet boat rides to skydiving, but as I was saving some of those for Queenstown, I figured that I didn’t need a whole day in Taupo. Instead, I spent the afternoon there after visiting Wai-O-Tapu, which is about halfway along the one-hour drive from Rotorua. I suspect Lake Taupo is probably prettier in the sunshine, but I strolled briefly along the esplanade and then went for brunch at a hipster spot called The Storehouse. They serve Kokako coffee, and I had both a piccolo and a V60 pourover, which were both pretty decent, as well as some fried chicken sliders. There’s a small lifestyle boutique inside and it was a bustling, lively café.

After lunch, I tried to find another potential coffee spot, Volcanic Coffee, but Google Maps was misinformed about its location and as I wasn’t entirely sure whether it was trade-only anyway, I gave it a miss. Instead, I visited the small but good Taupo Museum and Art Gallery ($5), which had lots of information about the region’s cultural, natural and geological history. A few miles out of town is Huka Falls. I hadn’t read up on the sight in advance and so was expecting something taller but it was, nonetheless, very impressive to see the impossibly clear turquoise waters of New Zealand’s longest river, the Waikato, as they crashed over the rocks. There are a couple of walks you can take, one a round-trip and one back into Taupo, but it was still raining and starting to get a bit dark, so I headed back to Rotorua instead.

About two hours’ drive west of Rotorua, the small village of Waitomo is best known for its series of caves, some of which are famous for their impressive glow worms. I didn’t quite experience four seasons on the drive over, but the heavy rain often gave way to clear blue skies. By the time I got to Waitomo, the grey drizzle had returned. I booked tickets online for both the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves and Ruakuri Cave (a combo ticket cost $91) and I was glad I did because when I reached the visitor centre at noon, there was a three-hour wait for the next Glow Worm Caves tour. By the time my Glow Worm Caves tour started at 3:30 pm, they were sold out for the rest of the day.

Although less famous than the Glow Worm Caves, Ruakuri Cave is, in many ways, much more interesting. The two-hour tour was led by the enthusiastic and knowledgeable Pippin, who grew up nearby and was exploring the caves practically as soon as she could crawl. There were hundreds of fascinating geological formations, from curtains of ‘cave bacon’ (I guess it’s a bit like a streaky bacon rasher) and ‘cave coral’, to underground lakes, holes in the process of forming, fossilised scallops and oysters, and, of course, many stalactites and stalagmites.

There were also some glow worms in this cave and unlike in the Glow Worm Caves, we could take photos here. My photos didn’t really convey the beauty of these arguably rather brutal bioluminescent creatures, but they were lovely to look at and we got to study a few of them catching their prey in their sticky ‘fishing lines’. Entry to Ruakuri Cave is through an illuminated, sloping spiral walkway — the acoustics of the chamber are so good that they’ve held concerts here, including Dame Kiri herself.

The shorter, 45-minute tour of the Glow Worm Caves was also impressive, although mainly for the 10-minute boat ride on an underground river under a ceiling of thousands and thousands of glow worms. The Maori word for glow worm is titiwai, which means something like ‘stars reflected in water, and riding through this cave, you could see why. It was a shame not to be able to take a photo but it probably wouldn’t have come out well anyway and it was far better to experience the ride in serene silence, untroubled by camera flashes and selfie sticks.

It was another one-hour drive on to Hamilton, where I was staying for the night. I’d hoped to be able to spend a day in Hamilton itself, which I’d heard had some good shops, eateries and coffee spots, but unless I wanted to completely rearrange my whole itinerary, the only feasible day to do this would have been Sunday, when a lot of places are closed. Arriving on Sunday at 5:30 pm at my motel — the comfortable and well-appointed Camelot on Ulster, a few blocks north of the CBD — I thought the town had already gone to sleep. I went for a walk along the Waikato River — wider and less turquoise than in Taupo, but still pretty and with some amazing houses on its banks.

Wondering if I was going to find anywhere decent open for dinner, I happened upon a second-hand bookshop called Browsers. After browsing for a while, I bought a book and then spotted a ‘Neat Places: Hamilton’ map and guide on the counter and picked up a copy. There were a couple of dozen independent shops, restaurants, cafés and bars listed inside, some of them closed on Sundays or after 4 pm, but happily, I found a restaurant a few blocks down called Dough Bros. Not only was it open, but it was also bustling and had live music (a once monthly occurrence). I sat at the bar and ordered a sourdough pizza and a ‘seasonal shrub’ cocktail, which involved tangelo, Cointreau and — usually — vodka, but the friendly bar tender made me a gin version and it was delicious. The pizza was good too and I also gorged on doughnuts, served with caramel and homemade dukkah. It was such a friendly restaurant — a great neighbourhood spot.

The Neat Places guide also forced me to reconsider my morning plans because there were some great-looking coffee and breakfast spots so I decided to try to fit one in before heading back to Auckland Airport, where I had to drop off my car at 10 am. On Twitter, The Black Chapel suggested I try Needle in the Hay, but they don’t open on Mondays and although SL28, just next to Browsers, opened at 8 am, I settled on visiting the Rocket Coffee roastery, which was slightly closer to my hotel. They also opened at 8 am, and as it was a 1h45 drive to the airport in the morning rush hour, I drove down to save a few minutes. I still didn’t have time to try one of their single-origin pourovers but I had the best piccolo of my stay in New Zealand thus far. I loved the cosy, retro interiors of the café–roastery too.

The drive back to the airport was a bit slow in places and less picturesque than the rest of the trip but not too bad — and despite the roadworks and traffic, I arrived within one minute of Google’s projected arrival time. I had originally hoped to drive all the way down to Wellington but dropping off the car there would have more than doubled the price of the rental (with Go Rentals, I paid $196 for a Toyota Corolla for six days) and as I was also a bit pushed for time, I decided to fly. On my road trip, I drove just over 600 miles during my trip and had to refill twice (about three-quarters of the tank each time, both of which cost about $63). Although internal flights are cheap, fast and frequent in New Zealand and long-distance bus travel is relatively convenient, I was glad I rented a car for this section of my trip because of the flexibility it afforded me — particularly important on such a tight schedule.

Lessons from Nature

"Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience."– Ralph Waldo Emerson
The speed of modern life makes it easy to overlook mysteries and magic in my own backyard. But when I bend close to the rock wall, I am amazed by the pluck and perseverance of moss. It is rootless, yet it grows in the most inhospitable places, on rocks and rooftops, impervious to the elements. Continue Reading »

16 Great Speciality Coffee Spots in Sydney

After the speciality coffee free-for-all that was my trip to Melbourne, I had about a week to recover before arriving in Sydney. My coffee to-do list was shorter for Sydney than for Melbourne and I also had more time — five full days, as it turned out — but I was staying with friends who are as into their coffee as I am, which meant that my list ended up growing considerably. Another challenge was that of the two biggest neighbourhoods for speciality coffee — Surry Hills and the CBD — the latter’s coffee shops tend to close at the weekends. And when planning, do also bear in mind that many Australian coffee shops close at 3 pm — sometimes even earlier.

In the end, I managed to visit 16 speciality coffee shops during my trip — coincidentally, the same number as in Melbourne — plus a couple of concessions at Sydney Airport, which I’m not counting separately but which will be mentioned below. I’ve organised everything by neighbourhood; some cafés have multiple locations, in which case I’ve noted this below. As usual, spots marked in purple in my map below are my particular favourites. I hope you find this guide useful if you are also planning a coffee-focused visit to Sydney.

AnnandaleTrafalgar St EspressoA lovely sunny neighbourhood coffee shop serving espresso from The Little Marionette, Trafalgar Street Espresso is, as its name suggests, a particularly good spot for espresso-based drinks. You can also buy beans from The Little Marionette, which come in particularly cute packaging (the ‘house blend’ features a house, for instance). If you’re in the market for a pie, this is also a good place to try one — they source them from Black Star Pastry, and they are delicious.

Trafalgar St Espresso is located at 18 Trafalgar Street, Annandale. Facebook.
CBDBRCAfter locating a large, architectural wooden pod at 200 George Street, I thought I had come to Dutch Smuggler (see below) but it turned out that they were in the pod’s ‘downstairs’. The upstairs used to be operated by Edition Coffee Roasters, but the barista told me that their name is BRC. I couldn’t find any more information about them online — whether they are connected to Edition, for example — but the piccolo I had with espresso from Stitch Coffee was very well made. NB: it’s cash only here.

BRC is located at 200 George Street, Sydney (upstairs from Dutch Smuggler).
Cabrito Coffee TradersOnly a short walk from BRC and Dutch Smuggler, Cabrito Coffee Traders occupies a millennial pink building on bustling Bulletin Place. Inside, it’s dark and busy but fret not: once you’ve placed your order, you can take your designated toy animal and pick a table outside in the sunshine.

There were two Ethiopian coffees available as a V60 pourover and, on the recommendation of the barista, I went for the Celinga Yirgacheffe, which was incredibly fruity, particularly as it cooled. I had to wait a while but it was very busy and the barista told me he’d had to make it again as he wasn’t happy with the first one — always a good sign, in my view, and in this case, the second version was very good indeed.

Cabrito Coffee Traders is located at 10-14 Bulletin Place, Sydney. Website. Instagram.
Dutch SmugglerDutch Smuggler, located in the downstairs section of the pod at 200 George Street, does a roaring trade in coffees and toasties of a morning. I wasn’t yet in the mood for a toastie, but I did spot a good bargain: banana bread and a coffee for $6.50. Initially, I thought they were doing take-out only but spotted the gorgeous ceramic cups on the coffee machine just in time and asked for my piccolo to drink in, ‘in’ being one of the tables in the busy courtyard next to the EY office.

The piccolo was very well made and I really liked the cup it came in. The banana bread was good too, so I’ll now just have to find a way back to sample the toasties…

Dutch Smuggler is located at 200 George Sreett, Sydney. Website. Twitter. Instagram.
Gumption by Coffee AlchemyI didn’t have time to visit Coffee Alchemy’s Marrickville roastery but luckily, they also have a coffee bar called Gumption inside the historic Strand Arcade in the CBD. Better still, it’s open unusually late — until 5:30 pm most days and until 7:15 pm on Thursdays — which meant I could stop by after spending the afternoon in Manly.

They had three single-origin filter coffees available as pourovers in the tiny, ever-busy shop and I went for one from Panama, which was so beautifully brewed, with super-juicy blueberry and cherry notes, that I wanted to buy a bag of the beans. But unfortunately, they had sold out. If you’re in the CBD and looking for a hand-brewed filter coffee — particularly after 3 pm — Gumption is a really good place to try.

Gumption is located at Shop 11, The Strand Arcade, 412-414 George Street, Sydney. Website. Twitter. Instagram.
Normcore Coffee RoastersThe Normcore team are coffee perfectionists and their minimalist coffee bar on Castlereagh Street is a great place to stop for both espresso-based and filter-coffee drinks. I went for a magic (when in Australia…) and it was immaculately brewed, tasting smooth and well-balanced. They also sell beans with their suitably normcore packaging.

Normcore Coffee Roasters is located at 209 Castlereagh Street, Sydney. Facebook. Instagram.
Pablo & Rusty’sWith its sleek, spacious, high-ceilinged cafe on Castlereagh Street, Pablo & Rusty’s is a beautiful place for coffee, breakfast or lunch. Having had too many piccolos (I can’t drink too much milk), I was in the mood for a filter coffee but ended up mis-ordering. I’d thought a ‘slow drip’ meant a pourover but, of course, it refers to coffee made in a Japanese slow-drip cold coffee brewer. I don’t usually like to have cold brew as the first coffee I try in a new-to-me coffee shop, but Pablo & Rusty’s was very well made and it had lovely mandarin notes. Moreover, it was 32C outside and the prospect of cold coffee was rather appealing. They don’t, as it turns out, serve pourover coffee, although there was a batch-brew filter coffee available.

I also ordered a spot of brunch. Note: you won’t find a classic avocado toast or eggs Benedict on the breakfast or lunch menus at Pablo & Rusty’s. Instead, they offer creative dishes with unexpected twists. Still grumpy about my cancelled Qantas flight, I was actually in the mood for something classic and went for the most classic item on the menu: a bacon and egg-salad roll, which was really good. You can also buy bags of coffee beans here, and there’s an attached-but-separate espresso bar for takeaway orders.

Pablo & Rusty’s is located at 161 Castlereagh Street, Sydney (and other locations). Website. Twitter. Instagram.
Single OSingle O has long been a stalwart of the Sydney speciality coffee scene — they developed their signature Reservoir blend, named for the street where their Surry Hills espresso bar is located, in 2003. I first came across Single O at The New Black in London last year and was keen to visit one of their coffee bars. I didn’t make it to Reservoir Street but I did stop by their CBD espresso bar for a piccolo and an almond croissant after my run one morning. The coffee was very nice, which was particularly impressive given the constant stream of customers, some placing rather large orders, at this busy York Street location during the morning peak.

Single O is located at 89 York Street, Sydney (and other locations). Website. Twitter. Instagram.
ChippendaleToby’s EstateIf Single O was a roaster I discovered in London, I first sampled Toby’s Estate coffee at their Flatiron location in Manhattan in 2014, following up the year after with a visit to their Williamsburg roastery. Although lots of cafés throughout Australia serve Toby’s coffee, there are only four ‘signature cafés, including two in Sydney. We went to the Chippendale branch in search of air conditioning and hand-brewed filter coffee. When we asked what they had on the brew bar, we both stopped listening after the server told us that they had a coffee from Myanmar as part of their ‘underdogs’ series, which celebrates coffee from less well-known origins.

The coffee was really good! My friend put it best describing the smooth mandarin notes as being like an Old Fashioned. If you get the chance to try one of Toby’s underdogs, I’d highly recommend it. We had other brunch plans, but you can also get a top-notch brunch here.

There are also several Toby’s coffee bars at Sydney Airport, in the Domestic and International Terminals (both before and after security at the International Terminal). They serve espresso-based drinks and batch-brew filter coffee only, and I had a rather good piccolo at the International Terminal.

Toby’s Estate is located at 32-36 City Road, Chippendale (and other locations — including Sydney Airport). Website. Twitter. Instagram.
NewtownCampos CoffeeSomehow Campos Coffee had escaped my notice so I was very glad when my friend suggested that we pay a visit to their Newtown coffee bar. Colourful bags of coffee beans — each country of origin gets its own colour — line the counter, along with various yummy sweet treats. The coffee menu was similarly impressive: three espressos (two single origin and a blend), four single-origin filter coffees, and a cold drip. My friend and I both spotted the speciality auction lot Esmeralda Geisha from Panama on the list and although at $12, it was more than twice the price of a typical pourover in Sydney, I could smell the delicious apricot and orange notes even before the server but the tray down on my table. It tasted even better.

There is a Campos espresso bar inside Sydney Airport’s International Terminal, after security. I had a pretty decent piccolo there, which could make Sydney the only airport in the world (that I know of) that has two good speciality coffee options.

Campos Coffee is located at 193 Missenden Road, Newtown (and other locations — including Sydney Airport). Website. Twitter. Instagram.
St PetersSample Coffee Pro ShopSample’s original coffee bar is in Surry Hills but as we were in St Peters anyway to visit Precinct 75, we decided to pay a visit to the zen, minimalist Sample Pro Shop and roastery. I had a piccolo made expertly with the chocolatey Pacemaker blend, which I really enjoyed. My friend had the single-origin espresso of the day. I forget what it was but she really liked it.

Sample Coffee Pro Shop is located at 75 Mary St, St Peters (and other locations). Website. Twitter. Instagram.
Surry HillsArtificer Specialty Coffee BarSpeaking of minimalist coffee bars, Artificer’s airy Surry Hills space is light, airy and with the focus given solely to the preparation of excellent coffee drinks: espresso-based, hand-brewed filter, cold brew and cascara. I’d already had two pourovers in the previous hour so switched things up, opting for a piccolo. The resulting drink was one of the best piccolos I had in Sydney, and my friends’ espressos went down just as well.

Artificer is located at 547 Bourke Street, Surry Hills. Website. Twitter. Instagram.
Haven: Tailoring Coffee JoyouslyPossibly the best-named café in Sydney, Haven: Tailoring Coffee Joyously is also a beautiful spot serving excellent coffee and creative brunch dishes. When you order an espresso or a filter coffee, you can opt for a fruity, nutty or chocolatey flavour profile. Your coffee will then be served with a small dish containing a sample of the relevant accompaniment — currants, almonds and (I assume) chocolate.

I was going to go fruity with my pourover but then switched at the last minute to the coffee of the day, a Colombian Geisha La Pradera. I can’t say that I agreed with the ‘nutty’ characterisation (I was getting more citrusy notes) but I did enjoy the almonds. If you like waffles and unusual flavour combinations, I would also recommend the Amazing Kimcheese egg waffles with kimchi, parmesan, sesame and vanilla bean ice cream from the all-day menu. It was very weird but strangely compelling.

Haven is located at 30-34 Chalmers Street, Surry Hills. Website. Twitter. Instagram.
Paramount Coffee ProjectWe had planned our whole Saturday of caffeination around a late breakfast at Paramount…only to discover, on consulting their Instagram, that they had been closed for a couple of weeks for renovations and would only reopen on the morning I left for Auckland. As they are located quite close to Central Station, through which I would be transiting, I did actually consider going on the way to the airport but decided against it in the end. Qantas had other plans, though, and although when they cancelled by 10:15 am flight, putting me on a 7:25 pm one instead, I was pretty hacked off, it did mean that I got the chance to visit Paramount.

A collaboration between Paramount House and the owners of Seven Seeds and Reuben Hills, the Paramount Coffee Project is a beautifully designed and spacious café in the heart of Surry Hills. The design extends to the menus as well as to the interiors: everything looks gorgeous. The all-day menu sounded great too — the fried chicken waffle, in particular, and I had serious food envy when another customer ordered it — but my disrupted travel plans had affected my appetite. Instead, I ‘just’ had the espresso and peanut banana bread, which came toasted with chocolate butter. It was as delicious as it sounds.

As for the coffee, I went for the filter of the day, a chocolatey Honduran Choacapa from Reuben Hills, which went perfectly with the banana bread. All of the espresso-based drinks I saw coming from the counter looked really good too. If you happen to be in LA, they now have a café there too.

Paramount Coffee Project is located at 80 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills. Website. Twitter. Instagram.
Reuben HillsAfter discovering that Paramount was closed last Saturday, we went for our late breakfast/early brunch at its sister company Reuben Hills instead. Although the cool, industrial-chic café was busy, we got there early enough that we only had to queue briefly for a table.

There were two espressos on offer — the house blend and the single origin du jour (the same Honduran variety I tried as a filter at Paramount) — as well as an Ethiopian Gelana Abaya served through the JET 6, and a Guatemalan Geisha La Reforma, served as a pourover. I went for the latter and really enjoyed the fruity apricot and strawberry notes that came through nicely…

…until my super-spicy broken omelette brunch dish arrived. In the interests of not ruining my coffee, I drank it as quickly as I could before getting started on my food. Note to self: don’t order spicy food until you have finished caffeinating for the day! Both the food and the coffee were very good, though.

Reuben Hills is located at 61 Albion Street, Surry Hills. WebsiteTwitterInstagram.
The Reformatory Caffeine LabLast but by no means least — and undoubtedly the coolest venue on my list — the Reformatory Caffeine Lab takes coffee geekery to a new level. With its mad scientist/graphic-novel-inspired décor, the sleek, slim espresso bar should be on every coffee lover’s Sydney list. You also need to be really careful when you are ordering because some of the particularly special coffees can be quite expensive: I had a $15 honey-processed 90+ Panama Gesha Juliette, for example. It was very well brewed and had lovely floral notes and on this occasion, I do think it was worth the price. If this coffee isn’t to your taste, they have 11 other single-origin filter coffees on offer, from seven different countries; only two others are 90+, while the others are a bit cheaper.

My friends tried the ‘legendary’ Colombian Geshsa as an espresso ($20), which they said was superb. None of the flavour notes are given on the extensive coffee menu but if you chat to the friendly, knowledgeable baristas, they will help you find something that’s right for you.

The Reformatory Caffeine Lab also sells an extensive range of coffee beans with their signature mad-coffee-scientist packaging. I bought a bag of $18 Kenyan beans to brew up in my Aeropress on the New Zealand section of my holiday, but again, caution is needed because one of the bags at the other end of the counter sells for $100. I’m sure such a coffee would be excellent in the right hands, but I’m not sure I’d trust myself to brew it well enough — particularly when on the road and with so many variables to manage.

The Reformatory Caffeine Lab is located at 17-51 Foveaux Street, Surry Hills. Website. Instagram.

Five Days in Sydney: Things To Do, Places to Eat & Drink

Sydney has been on my travel to-do list for as long as I can remember and it was always going to feature prominently in my Australian itinerary. I had planned to spend five nights (four-and-a-half days) in the city, but Qantas had other ideas. They cancelled my flight to Auckland on Monday morning and rebooked me on a much later one. Although I wasn’t exactly unhappy to have more time in Sydney, it was unfortunate that I then lost half a day from my much briefer stay in Auckland.

I spent three nights staying with some very good friends of mine who have lived in Sydney for several years and who acted as excellent tour guides — conducting me to all of the best food and (especially) coffee the city has to offer. For my first two nights, I stayed at the Sydney Harbour YHA in the Rocks. My private en suite room was the most expensive of my entire trip and, although large and clean, was pretty basic. However, I could see the Sydney Opera House from my window (if I stood on tiptoes; I’m short) and the view from the rooftop was even more impressive. Its location in the historic Rocks neighbourhood was good too, particularly for the central attractions around Sydney Harbour and Circular Quay, although like many parts of central Sydney, it is pretty hilly and has plenty of small passageways and unexpected staircases.

Things to do
As will soon become apparent — and goes without saying for regular readers — I spent a lot of time in Sydney visiting speciality coffee shops and enjoying Sydney’s culinary delights. I will be producing a separate post about the coffee, and you can scroll on down to see where I ate and drank other things. Here’s what else I got up to while I was in town.

Sydney Harbour and the Harbour Bridge
I took the airport train into Circular Quay, the not quite circular quay that serves as a launchpad for many of the city’s ferry services and that offers the closest views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House. It was pouring with rain but by the time I’d checked into my lodgings and headed back out, the rain had stopped and a glorious sunset was in progress. I took dozens of photos of the bridge, the Opera House and the harbour, roping an unsuspecting local into taking a photo of me leaping.

You can walk across the bridge (indeed, I ran across one morning) and scale the southeastern Pylon Lookout for wonderful views across the harbour, but I booked a ticket for BridgeClimb Sydney, a three-and-a-half-hour experience where you are kitted out, given a safety briefing and, as part of a group, allowed to climb up to the top of the bridge. This is expensive, particularly if you opt for one of the ‘dusk’ sessions as I did (I paid $363), but I wanted to treat myself. After agonising for a week over the weather, I booked a ticket for Thursday evening and then, of course, a massive thunderstorm was predicted to hit right in the middle of my climb. 

The climb wasn’t cancelled but the BridgeClimb folks allowed me to reschedule for Sunday (this entailed an additional $20 weekend charge) and I was so glad because the weather on Sunday was wonderful and the sunset was absolutely glorious. Note: you can’t take your phone or a camera and although you get one free printed group photo, if you want any more photos, you have to buy them. In a moment of weakness, I paid $25 for one additional photo of me, although the USB stick also included a ‘free’ 8-second video they took of me. Finally, you also get a free ticket to go up to the top of the Pylon Lookout (‘where you can take as many photos as you want’), so if you’re planning to do that too, wait until after your bridge climb. Was the whole thing worth $383? I would say yes, but we were really lucky with the weather and sunset; I may have been more sceptical had it been a grey, rainy night.

A few miles to the northeast of central Sydney, the small town of Manly is an easy ferry ride from Circular Quay. The ferry ride itself (and you can take one of the iconic yellow and green ferries, which take 30 minutes and cost $7.10 (you can use the Opal card that also works on buses and trains), or a Manly Fast Ferry, which cost $8.70 and take 20 minutes) is part of the fun as you get fantastic views of Sydney’s eastern harbour. Try to sit at the front of the boat (on the right on your way out and left on the way back, for the best Opera House views).

In Manly, you can stroll to the main beach or to Shelly Beach (keep an eye out for little penguins on the rocks), where you can surf, swim or sunbathe. I got takeaway fish and chips from The Boathouse, which I ate on the beach. I didn’t swim because my kit was in the wash, but I did follow the Manly Clifftop Walk, a beautiful ramble up and over the clifftops overlooking the sea and the city. I ended up going all the way to North Head, which took me a couple of hours, and then took the shorter (40-minute) but less scenic road back to the harbour.

Bondi Beach

I’d planned to go to Bondi Beach on a weekday when I thought it might be quieter but neither Thursday nor Friday had suitable beach weather, so I caught the bus over on Saturday afternoon (both the 333 and the 380 take about 35 minutes from the CBD). Although it wasn’t hot by Sydney standards, it was warm enough to sunbathe and take a dip. The waves were pretty huge, though, so it was better suited to body-surfing and wave-jumping than swimming. The Qantas cock-up that left me with an extra day in Sydney on Monday, happened to occur on an extremely hot day — the mercury hit 36C in the afternoon — and so I headed back to Bondi to try to cool off. The sea was a bit calmer and I also visited the Bondi Icebergs Ocean Pool to do some proper swimming.

From Bondi, you can follow a four-mile walk along the coastal path south to Coogee Beach via several other beaches. It’s a stunning piece of the coast and if you get too hot along the way, you can always cool off in the sea. At the moment, an annual art exhibition called Sculpture by the Sea is in progress, which means you can see dozens of interesting art works while you walk.

Australian Museum
I didn’t manage to fit in a walking tour but I enjoyed my visit to the interesting and well-organised Australian Museum. The focus is on Australian natural history and anthropology, and there are some fascinating exhibitions on Australia’s first people and its diverse flora and fauna. The Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year exhibition was taking place too, and there were dozens of stunning photographs that made me want to explore even more of this beautiful country.

White Rabbit Gallery
The White Rabbit Gallery has been described as one of the world’s best collections of contemporary Chinese art. There were some varied and thought-provoking pieces on display, from a ‘bondage cathedral’ (!) to video work. We spent an hour or so wandering through the well-curated rooms.

Food and drink
As I mentioned before, a separate speciality coffee post is forthcoming, but I’ve included below coffee shops and cafés where I also had particularly good breakfast and/or brunch.

Rising Sun Workshop (Newtown) — excellent ramen in a motorbike workshop.

Reuben Hills (Surry Hills) — superb coffee and kickin’, Latin-influenced all-day food menu. I had a ‘broken omelette roll’, which was spicy, filling and delicious.

Haven: Tailoring Coffee Joyously (Surry Hills) — a stone’s throw from Central Station, this wonderfully named speciality coffee shop also tailors brunch dishes joyfully, adding an Asian — and often inventive — twist to classics. I had a creative take on an eggs Benedict, but my friend’s Amazing Kimcheese — egg waffles with kimchi, parmesan, sesame and vanilla ice cream — had to be tasted to be believed. It was actually delicious and strangely compelling.

Trafalgar St Espresso (Annandale) — the espresso (from The Little Marionette) is great here, but we came for the pies, which are from Black Star Pastry, one of Sydney’s best. My braised beef and beer pie was delicious.

Bourke Street Bakery (Surry Hills) — great for sweet treats, pies, sausage rolls and other baked goods.

Maybe Frank (Surry Hills) — I’d run out of planning momentum on my first evening in Sydney but luckily, I’d preloaded my Google Map with plenty of diverse eateries for precisely this reason. I settled on Neapolitan pizza and cocktail joint Maybe Frank, which was a 30-minute walk from Circular Quay. The pizza was very good and the cocktails — some Italian classics and some quirkier, like the Fish Outta Water that I tried — were also well-done.

BL Burgers (Darlinghurst and Parramatta) — on the way to Maybe Frank, I passed this burger bar and made a note to investigate further. As it happened, I returned just before heading back to the airport, and had their award-winning Blame Canada burger, an unabashed, maple-bacon and poutine-filled construction that was as delicious as it was gluttonous.

Spice I Am (Surry Hills) — there’s usually a line at this popular, cash-only, BYOB Thai restaurant. Three of us shared three dishes — one (pork belly) extremely spicy, and the other two slightly less so — and everything tasted superb. It’s not a fancy place but the food is great.

Acme (Rushcutters Bay) — Italian-influenced starters and delicious, creative pastas are the order of the day at Acme. After a few meaty starters, we ordered three pastas between the three of us: one with roast garlic and burned chilli, one with pumpkin and coffee, and one with black squid-ink and prawns. Each dish was immaculately prepared and the restaurant is cool but relaxed.

Automata (Chippendale) — if you’re struggling with decision fatigue, a tasting menu can be your saviour. I had no regrets with any of the five delicious courses at Automata. There’s a Japanese influence in the cuisine but the theme is really just simple but perfectly paired and prepared food. The minimalist décor and super service make this a lovely place for a special meal.

Gin Lane (Chippendale) — we popped down Gin Lane for a cocktail before heading to dinner at Automata across the street. Although the music was a little out of place, the cocktails were good and my cucumber, rose and gin drink came served in a snow globe. Because why not?

Bulletin Place (CBD) — tucked away on an upper floor on bustling Bulletin Place, this titular cocktail bar has a regularly evolving menu of cocktails in general and martinis in particular. Our drinks were well made and it’s a small and fun but still intimate spot.

Love, Tilly Devine (Darlinghurst) — cosy wine bar with excellent snacks and sharing platters.
I didn’t end up doing a lot of shopping in Sydney, although had a few gifts to buy. The stretch of Oxford Street that runs from Paddington to Darlinghurst and Surry Hills, and some of surrounding streets, had the best range of independent shops and boutiques. Workshop Makery is a good bet for locally produced and themed gifts.

There are also a few design stores on George Street in the Rocks, like Shab & Shadi. Most of the big Australian and international brands and chains can be found in the CBD, in and around George, Pitt, Castlereagh and Elizabeth Streets. There’s a big Westfield Mall, although the Strand Arcade and Queen Victoria Building offer a more historic and visually appealing shopping environment.

One afternoon, we also headed down to Precinct 75, a collection of warehouses in St Peters selling, well, their wares — there’s a particular focus on homewares and interiors. If you’re in need of refreshments after your shopping, there’s a branch of Sample Coffee Roasters within the complex.

November Notes

"November comes
      And November goes,
      With the last red berries
      And the first white snows.
With night coming early,
      And dawn coming late,
      And ice in the bucket
      And frost by the gate.
The fires burn
      And the kettles sing,
      And earth sinks to rest
Until next spring."— Elizabeth Coatsworth (1893–1986)Continue Reading »

Brunch and the Beach in Byron Bay

Of all the places on my Australia and New Zealand itinerary, Byron Bay was the one I was considering dropping if I felt I was being over-ambitious. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to visit but one of the main reasons for going there is the wonderful beach with sand so soft it squeaks between your toes and world-class surfing. I’ve been to great beaches before, though, and they don’t have the uniqueness of Melbourne’s coffee scene, for example, or the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest, or of Sydney.

Somehow, though, within an hour of arriving in the small, sleepy New South Wales town on Sunday lunchtime, I was already thinking about swapping my flight to Sydney for a later one. It helped that the weather was — one brief storm notwithstanding — beautiful: temperatures in the mid-20s and sunny, with a light breeze, making a pleasant change from the storms and humidity of tropical North Queensland. It also helped that my hotel — the Byron Beach Resort — was two minutes’ walk to beautiful Belongil Beach, which leads all the way down to the main beach in the CBD.

Byron Bay is about much more than the beach, though. To use an overtired expression: it’s a way of life. People come here for a holiday and stay forever, taken with the beauty of the area, the pleasant climate, the friendly, close-knit community, and the restaurant and café scene. Vegetarians, vegans and those with other dietary restrictions are well-catered-for here, and it may even be easier to find a nut-milk beetroot or turmeric latte here than a really good flat white. The whole town often seems to be bathed in a millennial pink glow, whether it’s the food, the cocktails or the sunsets. Talk about Instagram-ready!

Surfing and the beach
I did spend a lot of time on the beach — usually Belongil Beach, as it was so close to my hotel and on the way into town — sunbathing, wave-jumping (the sea is too rough here to swim easily), sunset- and whale-watching, and surfing.

Although I’ve boogie boarded before, most recently in Massachusetts, I had never surfed and figured that Byron Bay would be a great place to start to learn. I booked in for 3.5-hour group lesson with Black Dog Surfing ($65, although I got a $10 discount for booking in person) on Monday afternoon. On Monday morning, though, I got a call from the ever-cheerful and friendly Tam from Black Dog asking to start the lesson an hour earlier because of the brewing storm. If not, Tam suggested I rebook for Tuesday when the forecast was better.

In the end, I went with the rainy option, which meant that our group of five, instructed by the excellent Stu, didn’t have too much company in the waves, and got plenty of one-on-one instruction. I was thrilled to be able to stand up from my first wave — although needed a little booster push by Stu. It took much longer for me to start to get to grips with picking a suitable wave and then paddling hard enough to catch it on my own (the first attempt resulted in a nose-dive and the board hitting me on the head; oof!). Just when we were getting into it, lightning struck and we had to leave the beach early. Tam offered us either a $25 refund, $25 off board hire or $25 off another group lesson. The three of us who were still in Byron on Tuesday all opted for the latter option, of course.

The weather was much nicer on the second day and our group had doubled in size. While Stu worked with the first-lessoners, Jamie gave the rest of us a bit more tailored tuition. By the end, I had grown in confidence and was able to catch some waves on my own and ride them into shore with some success. Of course, I still need much more practice. As the beach was much, much busier that day, it was hard to find enough space, so I was glad that I had my first lesson on the quieter rainy day.

By the end of the second session, I was exhausted, aching, battered and scraped but very happy. I don’t think this will be my last surfing experience. If you’re in Byron Bay, I’d highly recommend a lesson with Black Dog. It’s a well-run company, Tam was lovely and Stu and Jamie were great.

Cape Byron
A couple of miles east of Byron Bay, a headland called Cape Byron forms the most eastern point of mainland Australia. There is a walking/jogging path from the main beach, although be warned (in case, like me, you decide to go for a casual early-morning jog): the path to the Cape Byron Lighthouse is really steep and makes for hot work. I spotted lizards and a kookaburra on the way up, and the views over Byron Bay and the nearby Tweed Mountains, are spectacular. At this time of year, whales and dolphins are migrating south, and I saw several whales and some baby dolphins, which was very exciting; unfortunately, I only had my phone not my camera with me so I didn’t get any good photos.

There is a small museum inside the lighthouse and you can also take a guided tour to visit the top. There’s a cafe near the lighthouse and another closer to sea level at The Pass, in case you’re in need of refreshment after your jaunt.

On my last day in Byron Bay, I got up at 5:15 am and ran back up to Cape Byron to watch the sunrise. There weren’t any whales or dolphins in sight but nature did put on a rather lovely sunrise for me, and I really felt I’d earned my view.

Coffee, Food and Drink
The only coffee shop I visited that was just a coffee shop was Barefoot Brew Bar, a tiny hole-in-the-wall spot operated by Barefoot Roasters. Although they do serve Aeropress-brewed coffee, I only had five minutes before my surfing lesson so I had a piccolo with a Colombian single-origin coffee, which was very nice. There isn’t a lot of seating room — just a handful of stools on the pavement — but it’s a great spot and the coffee was good. You can also buy beans to take home.

Coffee with breakfast and/or brunch
Bayleaf Cafe
I only managed to visit Bayleaf on my last morning in Byron — my surfing lesson weren’t compatible with its opening hours, but when I showed up, post-run, at 7:00 am, it was already bustling. As well as all-day brunch (I had some excellent scrambled eggs on sourdough), they serve coffee from Marvell Street Coffee Roasters, who roast on the industrial estate in town. I had an Ethiopian Konga coffee brewed through the Aeropress and it was delicious with gorgeous apricot and bergamot notes. It was so nice, I may even have bought a bag of beans… The ceramic cups were beautiful too (apparently they sell out immediately after they come in).

Although very close from my hotel as the crow flies, the road to Folk is much longer-winded and not exactly attractive — there’s a lot of construction going on. It was well worth the effort, though: the relaxed café is beautifully decorated with interiors done out in wood and with green and plant accents; the covered garden, meanwhile, is a delightful respite. The coffee is from Duke’s Coffee Roasters in Melbourne, and the best piccolo of my stay in Byron Bay was made at Folk using Duke’s seasonal blend. The organic, ethically sourced, vegetarian all-day menu is creative, and everything comes beautifully prepared. My avocado toast came with homemade dukkah, local baby greens, grilled citrus and toasted seeds, and almost looked too good to eat.

I popped into Combi for a very late post-surfing brunch — actually, my second brunch (and my second avocado toast, as it turned out), of the day. There are a lot vegetarian and vegan options on both the food and drink menu at Combi — I dislike feta so I went for the ‘vegan avocado toast’, which came without it. The coffee was nice too: an Ethiopian, Colombian and Papua New Guinean blend roasted in the Yarra Valley near Melbourne.

Top Shop
A popular spot for a spot of pre- or post-beach brekkie, Top Shop is located at the eastern end of the CBD, a short walk from Clarkes Beach. I had a much-needed brekkie burger (bacon, egg, hash brown, avocado, lettuce, cheese…probably other things too; it was delicious!) and fortifying piccolo after my morning run. At busy times — probably most of the time — you may have to wait, but there is plenty of seating inside and outside the beach-shack-style cafe.

Lunch and Dinner
Main Street Burger Bar
I’d been waiting all holiday for a burger, so I was glad I had the opportunity in Byron Bay (most places that aren’t exclusively burger joints only seem to serve burgers at lunchtimes). I had a very good cheeseburger and some perfectly crisp sweet potato fries at this cool, casual restaurant on Byron’s main drag, Jonson Street. I also had a beautiful and delicious gin cocktail, which was pink (in honour of #DinePink) and came with edible flowers.

Treehouse on Belongil
Located next to my hotel, The Treehouse was buzzing every night (thankfully, it did quieten down after 11 pm; yes, I am old and boring). I went for pizza one night and the Capri pizza I went for was pretty good and reasonably priced.