Reef, Rainforest and Rain in Port Douglas

From sunny Melbourne, I flew to tropical North Queensland to enjoy some R and R. In this part of the world, that means ‘reef and rainforest’, although I also got a large amount of a third R: rain. Travelling to various Antipodean locations in one trip makes it hard to find the perfect time of year weather-wise for them all. Te wet season in Queensland (as opposed to the slightly-less-wet season) isn’t supposed to start until the end of November, so I thought I might be OK.

But we landed at Cairns Airport in a tropical storm that lasted several days and it rained for about 80% of my time in the area. Such is life. Rather than staying in busy party town Cairns, I based myself in Port Douglas, some 40 miles to the north. Once a small fishing village, Port (as the locals call it) still only has about 3,000 residents, but most nights they are joined by some 13,000 visitors. Smaller and quieter, if also more expensive, Port Douglas has plenty of good restaurants, boutiques and even some speciality coffee. It’s also closer to the Great Barrier Reef’s Outer Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, both of which had long been on my bucket list.

There is no public transport from Cairns Airport to Port Douglas, so I booked a shuttle for $66 return with Port Douglas Bus. The journey takes about 1h15 and the coastal road is stunning (look out for the fields of kangaroos as well as the beach and rainforest vistas), but arriving just before nightfall and in a storm meant I didn’t quite appreciate it as much as on the way back when the rain had slowed to a heavy drizzle.

I booked a private ensuite room at the Port Douglas Backpackers. There are a lot of smart hotels and fancy resorts in the CBD and along Four Mile Beach, which runs south down the town’s eastern shore. These were all out of my price range and after checking out the budget hotel accommodation, I thought I’d be better off staying in a hostel. The room still cost $95 per night but it was clean, comfortable and relatively quiet. Crucially, the hostel was only five minutes’ walk from Four Mile Beach, the Reef Marina and Macrossan Street, the town’s main shopping and eating street. I was in my room for so little time that all I really needed was a place to crash, and the Port Douglas Backpackers is pleasant and well-run.

Great Barrier Reef
I waited as late as possible before booking my Great Barrier Reef trip, mainly because the weather forecast was so bad that I was holding out for the least-bad option. Myriad boat operators offer dive and/or snorkel trips to various parts of the Outer Reef. I learned to dive15 years ago and have long wanted to dive on the Great Barrier Reef but I’ve been having some problems with my ears and I didn’t want to risk ruining the rest of my holiday. As I knew that sites frequented by both divers and snorkelers would likely be less good for the latter — apprentice divers who can’t yet control their buoyancy can inadvertently damage the coral closer to the surface — I went for a snorkelling-only operator.

I booked in with Wavelength mainly because the company is run by marine biologists and there is a big focus during the day on education about the reef ecosystem, biodiversity and the recent catastrophic coral bleaching events. I paid about $240 and we had three 1–1.5-hour snorkelling trips during the day. The guides were excellent — knowledgeable, friendly and experienced— and I would highly recommend Wavelength if you’re looking to snorkel on the reef. There were about 40 of us on board but the sites were large enough that everyone could explore without it being too crowded.
The journey out to Opal Reef was rather bumpy but it was calmer once we reached the reef, which offers some protection against the wind. I’d been hoping for a clear, sunny day for optimum visibility and in the end we got some sunny spells and a little rain in the afternoon. Our guides later told us that those perfect sunny, wind- and rain-free days (there are about 20 per year) are the ones that contribute most to coral damage, so it was hard to mind much.

Across the three sites we visited — Ray Ban (owing to its sunglasses-like shape), Mojo and Bashful Bommie (‘bommie’ being an abbreviation of bombora) — I saw dozens of beautiful, colourful tropical fish species (including the clownfish, AKA ‘Nemo’), three turtles, a cowtail stingray and a reef shark.

Despite the bleaching, the sites we visited were in relatively good condition and I loved swimming through the beautiful coral gardens, marvelling at the diversity.

Mossman Gorge, the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation
A short drive from Port Douglas lies the UNESCO-listed Daintree Rainforest, one of the most ancient and diverse rainforests in the world. There are various sights and activities in and around the rainforest and if you don’t have a car, the easiest way to see them all in a short space of time is by taking a tour. Following the recommendation of my Lonely Planet guidebook, I booked in on a small-group tour with Tony’s Tropical Tours. The full-day tour costs $190 and so isn’t cheap but it was a very well-organised day and our guide, Steve, was excellent — a fountain of knowledge about the history, culture, ecology and zoology of the area.

We started off with a walk through the rainforest at Mossman Gorge. It was, of course, raining, although the rainforest canopy provided some shelter. We saw many species of plant and tree, most of which had incredible adaptations to a low-light ecosystem. We also spotted a brush turkey, a forest dragon lizard, and many colourful birds and butterflies. We walked along the river, which is normally crystal clear and swimmable but following the downpours, it was rough and muddy, and frankly, we were wet enough already!

Next up was a boat ride along the Daintree River. We were on the hunt for crocodiles but didn’t spot any — it was high tide and the river condition weren’t optimal. Our guide did point out a tree snake (I wish he hadn’t!) and a colony of roosting bats. Towards the end, it began to really throw it down with rain, so I can’t say that I was devastated to leave the boat despite the lack of croc sightings.

After a barbecue lunch, we went for another walk through a privately owned estate in the Daintree rainforest. Again, we saw all sorts of weird and wonderful plant species, including a Rebecca fern, which, of course, I had to photograph! We had hoped to see the elusive cassowary — a five-foot-tall, flightless bird with a bright blue neck, which looks more like a feathered dinosaur than a modern bird. We didn’t spot any on our walk, but we did catch a glimpse of a skittish female while driving up to Cape Tribulation (she ran away before I could get a photo; the males, who look after the eggs and rear the young, are apparently less nervous).

Cape Tribulation was named by Captain Cook during his first voyage in 1770. He’d been having a rough time, you see, after his boat got stuck on what is now known as Endeavour Reef. The beach at Cape Trib is the only place on Earth where two UNESCO World Heritage sites meet — the Daintree and the Great Barrier Reef. The rain stopped for just long enough for me to pose for a leaping photo on the beach, although I soon had the poncho on again. Even in better climes, the beach isn’t a great place to swim as there are sometimes estuarine crocodiles and, in some seasons, stingers. If you do get stung, there is free vinegar available at the car park.

Port Douglas

There isn’t a huge amount to do in Port Douglas itself — you can take a crocodile-spotting river cruise or visit the beach, though. It only stopped raining for long enough for me to get to the beach on my last day and although the sun wasn’t shining it was at least a warm day. Four Mile beach is pretty — fringed with palm trees and with the moody mountains looming in the distance. There’s a patrolled swimming area close to the Macrossan Street entrance. It isn’t yet stinger season, but after hearing various crocodile-related horror stories, I was very careful to swim between the flags. I did go for a jog along the soft sand, though. It was extremely humid, which gave me great respect for the runners taking part in the Great Barrier Reef Marathon in Port Douglas yesterday.

Coffee, Food and DrinkAfter gorging on many top-notch meals while in Melbourne, I tried to limit my eating out budget while in Port Douglas. There are some nice restaurants in town — 2 Fish, On the Inlet, Salsa and Watergate all came recommended, for example — but this being a resort town, the prices were similar to those in Melbourne and I wasn’t convinced they would compare favourably. Moreover, most of the café-style eateries close at 3 pm or 4 pm, which isn’t much use if you are out on excursions all day. Food-wise, I stuck mainly to cheaper Asian eateries — I had a decent Thai meal and some good pho at a Vietnamese spot.

There are several speciality coffee shops in town. The best was Origin Espresso on Grant Street, the café of Port Douglas-based Four Mile Roasters. They serve espresso-based drinks and doughnuts from Duke’s (if you get there early enough). I had a piccolo made with a Brazilian/Indonesian espresso blend, which was really good.

On Macrossan Street, Sparrow is another good option. They have a beautiful turquoise La Marzocco machine and serve Allpress coffee. I had a nice piccolo, although missed out on the doughnuts, which sell out by 7 am on Fridays!

On my last day in town, I had brunch at Betty’s Bohemian Beach Cafe on Macrossan Street. I had a very good piccolo made with espresso from Cairns-based Blackbird Espresso, as well as delicious scrambled eggs on toast with a side of bacon.

Inside the excellent Whileaway Bookshop, there’s a small espresso bar serving espresso from Sydney-based Single O. My piccolo was decent, although a little hot and slightly under-extracted. I didn’t go to The Little Larder café, but they serve coffee from Toby’s Estate, so it may be worth a visit if you’re in the market for a decent cup of coffee.

I went for a pre-dinner cocktail one night at Jimmy Rum’s Mixing Lounge on Macrossan Street. It’s a sleek bar with an extensive cocktail list — and about as close as you will get to a New York-style speakeasy in Port Douglas. I had an excellent martini with Australian Four Pillars gin. Be warned, though (as I was not when I ordered): if you order a drink with ‘premium’ spirits, you’ll pay a lot more: my martini was $24 instead of the $15 price for a regular martini. If I’d been told when ordering, I might have been less annoyed when the bill came. Otherwise, though, Jimmy Rum’s is a great bar.

Despite its petite size, Port Douglas has a huge number of shops. There’s a particular focus on lifestyle and clothing boutiques, and sports and swimwear shops.

Some of the places I liked included: Floral Edge (Macrossan Street; flowers, gifts and accessories); Spring Court (Macrossan Street; upscale men’s and women’s fashions); Ahoy Trader (Macrosssan Street (next to Sparrow); clothing, accessories and gifts); With Sugar (Macrossan Street; gifts and homewares); Pebble (Wharf Street; minimalist homewares); Seafolly (Macrossan Street) upscale Australian swimwear brand) and Lorna Jane (Macrossan Street; Lululemon-esque activewear).

I didn’t plan to stay in Cairns but the aforementioned Great Barrier Reef Marathon in Port Douglas meant I couldn’t find an affordable room for Saturday night. Instead, I took a shuttle down to Cairns and stayed at the Coral Tree Inn. The décor was rather tired but my room was huge, with a separate living room and kitchen and two balconies, and well-appointed. There was a small swimming pool although I wasn’t there long enough to use it. It was a ten-minute walk into the CBD.

By the time I got to Cairns on Saturday afternoon, the speciality coffee possibilities I’d identified (Blackbird Espresso, Caffeind and Sing Sing Espresso) had already closed. Cairns doesn’t have a natural beach in the city centre but there is a free public swimming pool right on the esplanade. The rain made this a less appealing prospect. Instead, I went for a wander in the Cairns CBD but after an hour, I’d had my fill of large, rowdy bars and clubs and tourist gift shops. The Cairns Art Gallery had already closed, and the new aquarium’s entry fee was a rather cynically priced $42.

My Lonely Planet guidebook highly recommended a restaurant called Ganbaranba on Spence Street, so I went there for dinner. This cash-only ramen joint serves some really delicious ramen. I slurped away at my bowl — comfort food at its best.

The airport is under 3 miles from the CBD and I was tempted to walk, but the road is quite dangerous and not well-suited to pedestrians. Instead, I took an Uber, which cost $13 — only slightly cheaper than the various airport shuttles, but the journey took less than 10 minutes, whereas in the shuttles, you can end up spending 30 minutes driving between various other hotels.

16 Great Speciality Coffee Spots in Melbourne

One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Melbourne was to explore the city’s extensive and diverse speciality coffee scene. Italian-style espresso coffee and espresso-bar culture first reached the city in the 1950s, although took another couple of decades to take off. Now, almost every block in the CBD has at least one speciality coffee shop and there are numerous roasters and micro-roasters based in the city.

I decided to make Melbourne the first stop of my trip because I knew that I would be needing a lot of coffee to fend off the jet lag (it worked!), although with hindsight, finishing my trip in Melbourne would have meant that I could have bought many more packages of coffee beans to bring home with me.

Of course, even four days of hard (coffee) drinking meant I could barely scratch the surface of Melbourne’s myriad speciality coffee shops, roasteries and cafés, but I managed to visit 18 coffee spots. Two of these were underwhelming and I haven’t included them in this post, but I have listed the other 16 below and in my new Melbourne speciality coffee map. Please scroll to the end to find out my favourite piccolo, favourite filter coffee, favourite brunch dish and favourite sweet treat of my visit!

Seven Seeds
Located on quiet Berkeley Street, near Melbourne University, this relaxed, spacious warehouse-style café serves great espresso-based and hand-brewed filter coffee, as well as an extensive brunch menu. I had to return for a second visit to try the eggs and waffle Benedict, which was delicious. Both of my coffees — an Ethiopian Kokola pourover and a piccolo with the Seven Seeds seasonal blend — were excellent. You can also buy retail bags of Seven Seeds coffee.

Seven Seeds is located at 114 Berkeley Street, Carlton. (and other locations). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Brother Baba BudanSeven Seeds’ CBD espresso bar is a small space, with little in the way of seating (there are, however, many seats attached to the ceiling!). The friendly staff kept on top of the constant stream of morning customers — many regulars — and my Seasonal Blend piccolo was very good. Unlike at the Carlton Seven Seeds, there isn’t a kitchen here, but they serve a few morning pastries. I had a gorgeous almond croissant, which, to my surprise, was filled with custard. Still, I’d just been for a run so I had earned it!

Brother Baba Budan is located at 359 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne. Website. TwitterInstagram.

Duke’s Coffee Roasters
My Melbourne by Foot guide suggested that Duke’s on Flinders Lane would be a good place to try the magic coffee (so-called because the double ristretto with steamed milk, served in a special 260 ml tulip cup, is supposed to be a magic ratio of coffee and milk). It was really busy when I dropped by, most customers opting to take away (almost all of them bringing their own reusable coffee cups), although there are a few seats. My magic was very well conjured and tasted great, although the drink is a little too milky for me to consume on a regular basis. They sell bags of house-roasted beans too, which have gorgeous packaging.

Duke’s Coffee Roasters is located at 247 Flinders Lane, Melbourne. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Everyday Midtown 
I arrived at peak coffee-break time at this minimalist espresso bar on Little Collins Street. As such it took a while for my Ethiopian Abiyot Boru pourover to arrive but I wasn’t in a rush and it was worth the wait with its delicate, black-tea notes coming through nicely. The sweet treats here are great too: I had a chocolate and lavender cookie; other flavours, in a rainbow of pastel shades, are also available. The metallic-accented bags of retail beans are attractive too.

Everyday Midtown is located at 213 Little Collins Street, Melbourne (and other locations). Website. TwitterInstagram.

Patricia Coffee Brewers
It’s standing-room-only — elbow-room-only, in fact — at petite Patricia Coffee Brewers on Little William Street. They stick pages from the day’s newspapers to the wall because there’s no room to hold them up. I ordered a piccolo, made with Patricia’s Ethiopian Guji/Colombian blend (they were also serving a Small Batch single-origin but I’ve tried Small Batch coffee before), which was excellent. The honey and pistachio bun was amazing too, and the staff were incredibly friendly.

Patricia Coffee Brewers is located on the corner of Little Bourke and Little William Street, Melbourne. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Sensory LabBack when the London speciality coffee scene was in its infancy, an early adopter — and the first in my then-neighbourhood of Marylebone — was Sensory Lab on Wigmore Street. That café has morphed into Workshop, now, and moved around the corner, but I had to make a pilgrimage to the Melbourne original. There are several CBD branches and I went to the one on Little Collins Street, inside David Jones, mainly because it was open after 4 pm — a rarity for Melbourne. I sampled a piccolo, with the Steadfast blend, which was lovely, and had a gorgeous chocolate, pretzel and peanut butter slice. The café is sleek and minimalist and they sell their own beans and assorted coffee kit. 

Sensory Lab is located at 297 Little Collins Street, Melbourne (and other locations). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Vacation CoffeeOne of the prettiest espresso bars I visited, Vacation is an Instagrammer’s dream with its millennial pink and navy blue accents. The coffee is great too: I had a piccolo with their Fourshore blend. Their coffee-bean packaging is adorable too.

Vacation Coffee is located at 1 Exhibition Street, Melbourne. Website. Instagram.

White MojoI selected White Mojo as the destination for my last brunch in Melbourne. The brunch menu sounded great but I wanted somewhere with good coffee too, and the piccolo I tried was very well prepared. They also had a vegan ‘black latte’ on the menu with soy and honey, but I wanted something with more (any) caffeine. The large, airy café is beautifully designed, and I had a delicious brunch dish: double cheese chilli scrambled eggs with bacon on a black brioche bun.

White Mojo is located at 115 Hardware Street, Melbourne. Website. TwitterInstagram.

Proud Mary and Aunty Peg’s
Proud Mary was one of the cafés I was most looking forward to visiting. Collingwood is a bit of a walk from the CBD but you can always hop on a tram. The spacious and attractive café on Oxford Street serves both espresso-based drinks from the beautiful, blue espresso machine, and provers from the brew bar. There were three Pacamara coffees on the brew bar while I was there, including the Panamanian Maragogipe, which was described as ‘jazzy’ and ‘intensely fruity’ so of course I went for it. It was delicious with amazing mango notes; not a coffee for every day, perhaps, but it was great to try. I made sure I’d finished my coffee before sampling the intense flavours of the salmon ceviche dish I had for lunch. The brunch menu is creative, diverse and has dishes for al appetites.

A couple of blocks east on Wellington Street is the Proud Mary roastery and brew bar known as Aunty Peg’s. I didn’t have time to stop for another pourover but I did buy some beans to brew in my Aeropress as I continued my trip — I asked for something a little less intense than the Pacamara and followed the barista’s suggestion of a Honduran variety. 

Proud Mary is located at 172 Oxford Street, Collingwood, and Aunty Peg’s at 200 Wellington Street, Collingwood. Websites here and here. Twitter. Instagram.

North Melbourne
Code BlackThe closest speciality coffee spot to my hotel on my list that was open before 9 am on a Sunday morning, Code Black’s Brunswick café and roastery serves great coffee and brunch. I was in need of a strong black coffee and as there weren’t any pourovers on the menu, I had an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe batch-brew filter coffee, which tasted great and soon eased away the pains of 20 hours’ of flights. I only planned to have a pastry for breakfast but was wooed by the mother of all avocado toasts on the brunch menu, which was delicious and looked beautiful. You can take a seat in the spacious, warehouse-style café or, on sunny days, on one of the tables on the pavement.

Code Black is located at 15–17 Weston Street, Brunswick. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Market Lane CoffeeThere are a few branches of Market Lane Coffee in Melbourne but I went to the concession inside the gourmet food hall section of Queen Victoria Market. The coffee bar was doing a roaring trade on Sunday morning, and there were four single-origin coffees available as pourovers at the brew bar, as well as espresso-based drinks. I went for a Kenyan Kiambui pourover coffee and enjoyed watching the skilful baristas at work as I waited at the brew bar. This location is take-away only, but there’s another, bigger branch a few minutes’ walk away on Therry Street if you’d prefer to sit in.

Market Lane Coffee is located at Queen Victoria Market (shop 73-76, Dairy Produce Hall), Melbourne (and other locations). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

South Melbourne 
Clement CoffeeNamed for a Pope and not the weather, Clement Coffee is a small, colourful espresso bar located on the eastern side of South Melbourne Market. They roast their own coffee and I had a nice piccolo (albeit sans latte art) with their Beaufort espresso — a smooth, chocolatey blend of Colombian and Brazilian coffees. There are a few tables on the pavement for drinking in or you can take your coffee for a walk inside the market proper.

Clement Coffee is located at Stall 89, South Melbourne Market, 116 Cecil Street, South Melbourne. Website. TwitterInstagram.

The Kettle BlackOn the day I arrived in Melbourne, I had my first brunch just before 9 am at Code Black, but by 1 pm, I knew it was time for a second brunch. Luckily, I had just left the Shrine of Resemblance and on checking my custom Google Map, discovered that The Kettle Black was nearby. The beautiful, airy restaurant occupies a stark white Victorian townhouse, and although brunch is the main reason for going, the coffee, which they roast themselves, is great too. Had I not already had two pourovers that day, I would have been tempted to try their Ethiopian Adado filter coffee, but instead settled on a piccolo. It wasn’t the prettiest of the trip, but it was very well balanced and was the perfect complement to my miso-cured-salmon brunch.

The Kettle Black is located at 50 Albert Road, South Melbourne. Website. TwitterInstagram.

Padre CoffeeThe first time I swept by Padre Coffee’s South Melbourne Market coffee bar it was really busy and I’d already had a lot of coffee that day. As with other businesses inside the market, Padre is only open on certain days so you’ll need to check before visiting. I went back on Wednesday morning and despite the early hour, it was already bustling. I managed to nab a seat a the communal table that sits outside the small shop (whose tiled counter and grey-accented décor gave it an attractive minimalist aesthetic). My piccolo was very well prepared too, albeit on the longer side. Even some visiting Italians, who were sitting next to me, were impressed by their first Melbourne speciality coffee experience. “Forte ma mi piace” (strong but I like it), they said of the flat whites they were drinking.

Padre Coffee is located at Stall 33, South Melbourne Market, Coventry Street, South Melbourne (and other locations). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Slater Street BenchJC from the London branch of The Penny Drop recommended that I visit Slater Street Bench, a minimalist coffee bar on St Kilda Road, and it turned out to be at the perfect stop-off point as I walked back from the beach to the city centre. I was relieved that they still had sandwiches left (it was late afternoon and I hadn’t had lunch), and enjoyed my chicken and pesto baguette. As for the coffee, my piccolo — made with the Seasonal Blend, which combines two Guatemalan varieties — was very good. The coffee had a sweet, nutty taste. The staff were all super-welcoming and if you aren’t seeking air conditioning after an afternoon on the beach, you might like to sit at one of the tables on the sunny, tree-lined pavement. Instead, I sat at one of the benches that run along the side of the coffee shop, opposite the sleek central coffee bar.

Slater Street Bench is located at Shop 8, 431 St Kilda Road, South Melbourne (and other locations). Website. TwitterInstagram.

St AliAs with Sensory Lab, St Ali was another coffee pilgrimage for me. The sadly now-defunct Workshop café on Clerkenwell Road was originally called St Ali and, like the Melbourne original, specialised in speciality coffee and brunch. The warehouse-style café is large and spacious with plenty of seating. The tiled coffee bar is particularly cool.

I was a little disappointed that no pourover coffees were available but there were two batch-brew filter coffees: a Sitio Colina from Brazil and an Ethiopian Wonberta. I went for the latter and it was really good, with lovely blueberry notes. I also really liked the ceramic cups. If you have had less coffee than I had that day, you may also like to try the ‘barista breakfast’ ($10), which includes espresso, cappuccino and filter coffee, or the ‘coffee adventure’ ($21), which includes ‘six coffees highlighting the best of what we have to offer’. Another time, perhaps. If you’re there on a Tuesday, you can take a latte art class with latte art champion Shin Fukayama, but alas, he was competing at the Coffee Masters in New York the week I was there.

St Ali is located at 12-18 Yarra Place, South Melbourne. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Favourites of the trip. Favourite white coffee: the piccolo at Patricia. Favourite black coffee: the amazingly fruity Pacamara Maragogipe at Proud Mary. Favourite sweet treat: salted honey and pistachio pastry at Patricia. Favourite brunch dish: the egg and waffle Benedict at Seven Seeds.

A note on pricing. Generally, espresso-based drinks are priced as either ‘white’ or ‘black’, which means piccolo drinkers like me get a bit of a rough deal. I’d say the average piccolo cost $4–4.50, while most pourovers were $5–6 ($8 being the most I paid, but it was also the best of the trip). Piccolos tended to be served on the shorter side, which suited me fine, although a couple veered towards flat white territory.

A note on Small Batch Coffee. Although their roastery is located in Carlton, just north of the CBD, they don’t have a café or brew bar — yet, the person I spoke to when I walked by on the off-chance that I could come in and have a coffee.p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 11.0px ‘Helvetica Neue’; color: #000000; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 11.0px ‘Helvetica Neue’; color: #000000; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000; min-height: 13.0px} p.p3 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 11.0px ‘Helvetica Neue’; color: #000000; -webkit-text-stroke: #000000; min-height: 12.0px} span.s1 {text-decoration: underline ; font-kerning: none} span.s2 {font-kerning: none}

She Shed Diaries: The Ugly Wall

I've always liked exterior brick walls. They are downright pretty, adding texture and subtle color, creating a pleasing backdrop to vines, hydrangeas, or trellises. Also, they can be wonderfully neutral. Never in my life did I think about sprucing up an exterior wall, not until I began working on the She Shed.Continue Reading »

My Antipodean Adventure: Four Weeks in Australia and New Zealand

I’m off travelling again today. Regular readers will know that this is hardly news for me; I tend to take one or two foreign trips each month. This one is special, however. I will be away for a whole month, which is the longest I’ve been able to take off work at one time since I started my career in publishing 11 years ago. I decided to take advantage of my company’s sabbatical policy to book in a four-week trip to Australia and New Zealand, both of which have been on my travel to-do list for over 15 years.

I’ve been planning (and saving!) hard since January and booked my flights from and to London back in April, nailing down the rest of my itinerary over the summer. As always, I found the Lonely Planet guidebooks an invaluable resource. I used their 2015 Australia guide (there is a new edition coming out next month) and their 2016 New Zealand North Island guide, knowing that I would be focusing most of my attention on this part of the country on this trip.

A note on my itinerary and my decision to visit both countries in four weeks: I know that it isn’t possible to ‘do’ either country (or even a small part of Australia) in one month, but I also don’t know when I will next get the opportunity to visit this part of the world — after all, it took me almost 34 years to schedule my first trip — and I wanted to have a taster for both countries. Moreover, for me, one of the best parts of travelling is that sense of excitement and wonder I get when I first arrive in a new city. I love revisiting favourite destinations, but I’ll never tire of the thrill of discovery.

Excluding my international flights, I have 28 full days and am splitting this time about evenly between the east coast of Australia and New Zealand’s North Island. Rather than taking the hefty Lonely Planet Australia guide, I was planning to buy a copy of the more portable East Coast Australia guidethe new edition isn’t out until next month, however, and I am very grateful to Lonely Planet who provided me with a review copy, which will be a major point of reference during the first half of my trip.

I have a packed itinerary, which includes several cities, the Great Barrier Reef, some beach time and a road trip around New Zealand’s North Island. Being me, a key focus will be speciality coffee. I already have an unfeasibly large coffee to-do list for both Melbourne (my first stop) and Sydney, but to help me sift through the many possibilities, I would really welcome any recommendations — please let me know in the comments or on Twitter (non-coffee-related suggestions are also welcome!). I’m also on the look-out for coffee (and other) tips for Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand.

As usual, I am packing light: I am taking my Rimowa Salsa Air carry-on suitcase (frustratingly, most of my internal flights have a 7kg carry-on limit, which will mean checking my case), my TUMI Halle Backpack and, as a handbag, my purple small Longchamp Le Pliage tote. During the Antipodean late spring, the weather is likely to range from warm to hot (by British standards, anyway), and I’m taking four dresses, two pairs of shorts, one pair of jeans, enough tops and underwear for ten days, three sweaters, my Uniqlo ultralight down jacket, running kit, two bikinis, a pair of running shoes, sandals, flip flops and ballet pumps. Technology-wise, I’m taking my MacBook Air and Kindle, and decided to downsize my camera kit and take just my compact camera (I bought the Canon Powershot G7X Mark II a few months ago, and I’ve been really happy with it) and my Nikon waterproof camera.

I won’t have room to bring much coffee home, but I’m taking my trusty Aeropress with me so I can brew some fine Antipodean coffee while I’m there. I’m also delighted to report that the Made by Knock Aergrind, which I backed on KickStarter some months ago, arrived just in the knick of time and will be coming with me. Alas, it didn’t come with any instructions, so I’ll have to re-read Brian’s great review on the Coffee Spot.

This month is partly about giving myself a break from my hectic day job in the busy press office of a major scientific journal, but while I’m away, as a minimum, I am planning to produce one post about each destination I visit and one speciality coffee update for each relevant city.

A Taco Feast at El Pastór, London Bridge

You wait an age for a great taco joint to arrive in SE1 and then two come along at once. After my recent visit to Santo Remedio on Tooley Street, on Saturday I finally got to try out El Pastór, a taquería located in a railway arch on Borough Market’s Stoney Street.

El Pastór is often busy but they have a very amenable queuing system, whereby you can leave your name and they will text you once you are second in line. There are, of course, a plethora of pubs and bars in and around Borough Market for counting down the minutes until taco time over a pint. When my brother, his wife and our friend arrived just after 12:30 on Saturday lunchtime, however, there was no line and we were ushered straight in to a table at the back of the slender restaurant.

The décor is industrial-chic: exposed-brick walls, metal shelving and pendant lighting, accented with turquoise tables and even some foliage. The tables run along the length of the restaurant and you can also perch at the mezcal bar near the entrance. Our table offered a view of the kitchen and the spit-grilled meat that goes into the tacos al al pastór, which give the restaurant its name.

While we perused the menu, we ordered some cocktails. My frozen margarita (£7.50) was very good; alas, I wasn’t quite feeling up to the Negroni al Pastor (£8), which sounded awesome. There are also beers, wines and an extensive and impressive mezcal list.

And so to the food… We ordered a couple of portions of guacamole (£6.50) between the four of us, one with a side of totopos (tortilla chips) and one with chicharrón (light, crispy fried pork belly). I prefer my guac a bit chunkier but it tasted great and I enjoyed both accoutrements.

The tacos are served two to a portion and advised by my brother that one taco twosome might not be enough, we all ordered two pairs. First out of the gate was the tacos al pastór (£6.50), which three of us went for. The juicy marinated pork shoulder combined perfectly with the sharp sweetness of the caramelised pineapple, and it was nice to have a bit of bonus guac on the tacos.

All four of us also ordered the deconstructed carnitas tacos (£7 per person for a minimum of two people to share). Dishes of confit pork, vinegar-pickled pork rind, crumbled chicharrón, salsa, coriander and onion were placed on the table, along with a warming dish of soft corn tortillas. We then got to build our own tacos. Perhaps we were being conservative with our taco loading, but we ended up running out of tortillas before we finished with the fillings, and the wait staff brought us some more. We probably each had three or four tacos. These tasted great and it was fun to construct them ourselves, but I still think the tacos al pastór were my favourites.

With a couple of sides (including some delicious grilled corn-on-the-cob (£4.50) and frijoles charros (£5.50)), and a couple of drinks per person, the bill came to £38 each, including service. This isn’t cheap for tacos, but the food was really good and there was more than enough to fill four hungry diners. I certainly didn’t have room for the ‘Bounty Bar’ on the dessert menu, unfortunately. One for next time…

El Pastór. 6–7a Stoney Street, London, SE1 9AA (Tube: London Bridge). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

London Film Festival 2017 Part II: Battle of the Sexes

My second — and sadly final — 2017 London Film Festival screening was for Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Battle of the Sexes. The ‘it’s not really about tennis’ story of a 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and former tennis champion turned hustler and self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig, Bobby Riggs.

Many of the cast and crew were out on the red carpet on Leicester Square last night, as well as assorted ball boys and girls and other tennis-related paraphernalia. I spotted Dayton and Faris posing together first, and then Emma Stone and later Elisabeth Shue and Heather Watson. Alas, I was ushered on into the cinema before Billie Jean King herself appeared.

Once festival director Clare Stewart got things started, however, we got to hear from various actors and crew members. Producers Danny Boyle and Christian Colson, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and both directors came onstage to talk about their work on the film — and how they were all terrified that King would hate the end result.; “we wanted to do her justice,” Faris explained. As it turned out, they did and King was delighted to be depicted by Emma Stone, urging the audience members to keep fighting for equality and freedom.

And so to the film… I wasn’t aware of the titular battle until I started reading about the film and although I tried to avoid finding out the outcome, I didn’t succeed. This didn’t really matter, though, because as the directors, Boyle, Beaufoy and Stone all noted, Battle of the Sexes is much more of a love story with elements of political drama than a sports movie. As the film opens, Billy Jean King (Stone) has just won a tennis championship but finds out that at another upcoming tournament, the men’s champion will receive a prize eight times greater than the female winner. She and Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), a fellow advocate of the women’s tennis game, protest to Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), who has just issued a press release for the US Lawn Tennis Association about this news, but he doesn’t see the problem. “The men are more exciting to watch, faster, stronger… It’s just biology,” he says.

King decides to found a separate Women’s Tennis Association, signing up some of her fellow female players, including Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) and Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), and creating a women’s only tennis circuit, to Kramer’s consternation. King’s husband Larry (Austin Stowell) remains at home for much of the tour to avoid distracting her, and one day she meets and soon forms a friendship with hair stylist Marilynn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough; in reality, Barnett was King’s personal secretary). Before long, her feelings for Marilynn develop into something more and the two become lovers, despite her own anguish and warnings from some of her friends, including the players’ wardrobe master (the ever-wonderful Alan Cumming).

Meanwhile, after enjoying much success as a tennis star in his youth, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) has fallen into a cycle of hustling and gambling. He wins a Rolls Royce, which turns out to be the final straw that leads his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) to kick him out. He needs one big, final gambit to win her back and soothe his aching ego, and decides that playing King in a televised tennis match is the way to do this. In 1973, King was 29 and at the top of her game, while Riggs was 55 and no longer quite as good as he would like to think. King refuses to accept the challenge for some time — she sees it for the spectacle that it is. But eventually, she gives in when she realises that it may be her best opportunity to prove not that women can be as good at tennis as men, but that women deserve to be treated fairly and equally. Will it all backfire or will the time Riggs dedicates to being parodically sexist, arrogant and obnoxious prevent him from practising enough?

I enjoyed Battle of the Sexes — it is entertaining and uplifting, and while Stone’s performance as King stood out, Carell deserves kudos for being quite so pitiable. It’s Pullman’s Kramer who seems the more insidious character, however; as King points out during the film, Riggs is just putting on an act for the attention, but Kramer genuinely seems to believe that women belong in the kitchen and the bedroom and sees King and her ‘women’s lib’ compatriots to be a danger for the game of tennis. I think the film would have been stronger had it been a broader biopic of King, focusing less on the pantomimish Riggs, whose story consumed all too much of the film. The best scenes were between King and Barnett, and the subtler scenes between King and her husband. Although Larry tells Marilynn that they are both just sideshows and that “tennis is her first love,” actually, it’s her love for these two important people in her life that comes through most strongly.

Autumn Casts a Spell

"There is no season when such pleasant and sunny spots may be lighted on, and produce so pleasant an effect on the feelings, as now in October." — Nathaniel HawthorneThe slightest breeze sends great drifts of leaves falling in the back yard. I wouldn't dream of sweeping them away–that's the same as sweeping away charm. I am enchanted by October, hoping to savor every leaf.Continue Reading »