US Open Tennis and a Bite of the Big Apple 

19 Sep

Stuart and I are suckers for big international sporting events, especially Tennis Grand Slams. With Wimbledon, the Australian Open and Roland Garros in Paris under our belts, that left only Flushing Meadows, New York. This year they were celebrating 20 years of the main stadium dedicated to Arthur Ashe, the first male African-American to win three Grand Slams and a man who became a quiet, relentless social activist until his early death. The Championship was also celebrating the astonishing career of the first female three-time Grand Slam African-American, Althea Gibson, who pre-dated Ashe by several decades.Arrival into New York on the QM2 was timed for the men’s semifinals and the men’s doubles final Friday. I’d bought four Arthur Ashe Stadium tickets (Anne and Charles came too) back in June when they were released on Ticketmaster (USD227 each). A succession of top seeds dropped away through injury; Djokovic, Murray, Nishikori, and Warinka, and then Federer succumbed in the quarter-final to Del Potro. It was looking good for my personal favourite, Rafael Nadal.

During the week of the Atlantic crossing news access was limited, but from what we could glean Rafa was a semifinalist. Huzzah!

 

Our hotel in the Garment District on 35th and 7th Streets was a short walk to Penn Station for the 20 minute Long Island Light Rail trip to the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre.

Penn Station traffic control e-vehicle charging – too cute.


Security and mobile ticket check were swift and crowds light. Besides Arthur Ashe the only scheduled matches were Juniors, Invited Collegiate and wheelchair tennis.

Our program started at midday. A few minutes beforehand we went to find our seats – way up in the gods. As we passed through ticket check in the stands I heard one of the ushers say ‘open seating’. When I queried him he said we could sit in any vacant seats for the first session, the doubles final. We made a dash for seats about ten rows from the baseline. Score!​
You can see how empty it was in this video.

​Horia Tecau and Jean-Julien Rojer despatched 2016 French Open doubles champions Mark Lopez and Feliciano Lopez in two sets. The score doesn’t tell the full story, there was some beautiful play by Lopez and Lopez, but they made way too many unforced errors.

‘Cause you can never have enough US flags in case we forget where we are.


The semis weren’t starting until 4pm, plenty of time for lunch in the sun and to watch some of the other matches on the outside courts.

 

My efforts to buy a memento from the merchandise stands were thwarted by a total lack of anything appealing. Colours, artwork, designs, all were a throwback to the nineties, and not in a good way.

We paid our tespects to the international tennis hall of fame inductees. No question Martina deserves to be there!

Can’t believe they trusted us to get so close to the real championship trophies.

Come kick off we climbed up to row M, seats 1-4 in Section 315 and settled in for the evening. Ashe is a steep stadium that seats 23,771. Take a tumble there and you’re cactus, but the view of the court from all seats is excellent.

What was not excellent was interference from fellow spectators who couldn’t seem to go more than half an hour without pushing past to get a beer, soft drink hot dog, fries, burger, pizza, nachos or some other diabetes-inducing fast food and drink. If they weren’t feeding their faces they were on their mobile phones and scarcely looked at the players. One woman in front was scrolling through two phones, all whilst gossiping with her girlfriend who was similarly engaged. They could have been at Starbucks for all the interest they took in the tennis. I have friends who would give their firstborn to have had those seats.Charles’ gangster hat came in handy – New York was hot that week!
Not much better were the Swiss father and son beside me who talked non-stop. There were a quite a few Swiss who’d followed Federer and were now consoling themselves trash talking the rest of the players.

 

First up for the semis were Kevin Anderson and Pablo Careño Busta. Busta gave Anderson a run around in the first set taking it 6-4, but Anderson grabbed the next three with huge serves and power passes. Anderson was in the final!​

After a short break the moment I’d really been looking forward to arrived. Rafa and Juan Del Potro strode onto court. Game on! My stomach sank when Rafa lost the first set 6:4.

Del Potro may have been tired from his quarter final with Federer, but from the start of the second set Rafa definitely amped up his play, firing off winners down the line and cross court plus some perfect drop shots. Rafa won the next set to love, then the next two 6:3, 6:2. Happy day! Rafa V Anderson for the final was an interesting prospect, albeit to be viewed on telly.​

It was all over by 10:30pm. More than 23,000 people all wanting to get home simultaneously. Maybe we were lucky, but we hustled a bit and were back in our hotel by 11:15pm. The organisation and crowd control were good.

 Would I recommend you go to the trouble and expense of experiencing the US Open? Yes, if you are a diehard live tennis fan you must do it, if only for comparison purposes.

 

For me the hierarchy of Grand Slams is now:

 

No. 1 Wimbledon (well-behaved public garden party with strawberries and cream)

No. 2 Roland Garros (noisy French fashion show with champagne)

No. 3 Melbourne, Australia (family fun day out in the oven)

No. 4 Flushing Meadows (rowdy jingoistic baseball game where you can get your face on the big screen)

 

Note for people who eat healthy food: At Flushing Meadow you can take your own food in. Take away Pret a Manger is a good option for vegans.
The rest of our time in Manhattan was a revisiting of favourite places, Broadway, Central Park, the big department stores (my one purchase was a pair of blinged up sneakers from Macy’s), heritage diners, a piano bar that shall remain nameless and a wonderful Indian dinner at Nirvana on 39th and Lexington.


Saturday afternoon we said goodbye to Anne and Charles and connected with my flamenco friend and NY native, Simonetta. She installed us in her Queens apartment then gave us a short tour of parts of New York we hadn’t seen, starting with the wonderful Hangawi Korean vegan restaurant, then the Highline walk and Chelsea Market.

A weekend drag queen convention made people-watching even more interesting.

Simonetta and Hangawi Restaurant.



View from Simonetta’s Astoria apartment (above).


Back in Queens we shopped for food and made our first home-cooked meal for three weeks. On our final NY morning we walked to a local diner then caught the New Jersey Transit train from Penn Station to Princeton where Alastair, like Charles a friendship forged in the fire of Surrey University, collected us. It was an opportunity to reconnect with nature as Alastair and Lynn live by a river amongst acres of trees and grass with deer grazing and hawks circling.


All too soon it was time to move on. Alastair dropped us at the local rental car agency and we drove to Allentown, Pennsylvania. Sounds like an odd choice but we had arranged to meet up with firm friends we made in Kobe, Japan, when we were both expatriots in the latter half of the 80s with young sons the same age. Even though it had been two decades since we’d last seen each other we picked up right where we left off.


Sue has created around a hundred beautiful quilts. Amazing pieces of useful art.
The next part of our journey had to undergo a rapid rework. We’d wanted to bicycle tour from Savannah to Charleston over the course of a week, however Hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria had other ideas. We looked at the long range weather forecast and found a patch of sunny, warm weather half way between Allentown and our next booked destination, Chicago. I brought up a satellite view and zoomed into a waterside area with lots of beaches, forest and farmland.

 

That’s how we found ourselves beside Lake Michigan in Leelanau County.

Across the Pond with Queen Mary 2: Southampton to New York

16 Sep

A warmly dressed four-year-old boy stands with his older brother between two large red funnels on the ship’s deck. They gaze out to sea. In the distance a shoreline and buildings come into focus. Suddenly the ship’s horn issues an almighty series of blasts. The boy nearly jumps out of his skin. This marks his introduction to New York and the end of his trans-Atlantic crossing on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth in 1955.Stuart and James in Poughkeepsie, NY. 

Yesterday that boy, now a 66-year-old man, embarked on her sister ship, the Queen Mary 2, to repeat the journey. Instead of his parents, their Swedish au pair, his seven-year-old brother James and baby sister Catharine, he’s travelling with his wife (me) and best of British friends, Charles and Anne.

Stuart and the ‘Three Queens’ at the Titanic display at Southampton’s maritime museum (above) and the newly launched QM2 (below).


If not for Stuart’s nostalgic memories of the Queen Elizabeth none of us would be here. I don’t do cruises (the Hurtigruten is not a cruise, she’s a postal and freight line which happens to take passengers up and down Norway’s coast). The QM2 doesn’t make any stops between Southampton and New York, and as such the trip constitutes an ocean passage. A fine distinction I admit, but it overcomes my natural reluctance to board a floating hotel casino/Club Med, albeit an opulent one.The Queen Elizabeth and tug boat.

To make it even stranger we’ve happened upon the second annual Fashion Week crossing, timed to arrive in New York at the start of Fashion Week. None of us are interested in fashion, but hey, whatever floats your boat. Certainly few of our fellow passengers show signs of having given their appearance more than cursory attention. I see plastic sandals, acres of lycra and distressed Tshirts boarding with us. Will they, chrysalis-like, enter their cabins in tatty casual wear and emerge for formal evenings glittering in ball gowns and tuxedos?

Read on for my Ship’s Log of the voyage, hereafter known as the SLog.

 

Thursday August 31, Day One

Arrive for designated 3pm embarkation half an hour early. Not a problem – baggage is dispatched curbside, we’re processed smoothly, pass through a security scan and board the ship at 2:45pm. Find our cabin (called ‘stateroom’ in Cunard-speak) number 1592, amidships portside with balcony (as booked by Anne, thank you very much!) and start unpacking. Charles and Anne are right behind us. Their cabin is next door, so we pause to toast the commencement of the voyage with a flute of sparkling wine, compliments of the Captain.

The obligatory lifeboat drill is a hoot but I manage a straight face at the muster station.


From the stern viewing deck we make out two small dancing figures on the distant dockside (for security reasons non-passengers can’t get close to or board the ship). They are our niece Sally and her husband Nick waving us off. We’d had a delightful departing lunch with them at The Dancing Man Brewery.
By 5pm we’re nudging away from the dock. Ever so slowly we make our way along the estuary passing small yachts and are soon clear of the headlands. We are too far from shore to see Sally and Nick who have relocated to Queens Park for a better view of the ship’s progress out of port. Our course takes us along the eastern side of the Isle of Wight then below the island heading due west.

6pm Stuart lines up at the purser’s office to rent his formal DJ. No reservations allowed, early bird gets best fit.

 

Try to check in with family in Australia but realise the charges for internet connection for the week are equivalent to the deposit for a small house so opt for a digital detox. Good decision as I overhear next day an exasperated Swede complain to the Purser that he’d paid for internet connectivity but got zilch.

8pm We reconvene for the second half bottle of bubbles then find our way to the magnificent Britannia dining room for dinner. We have a designated dinner table for the week and three staff to attend to us. The ratio of staff to passenger is almost one to one. Dinner is pleasant, the chef has concocted vegan dishes for me, and I’m given a wide choice of options for lunch and dinner the next day.Friday September 1, Day Two

Clocks go back an hour in the night. We’re out of English waters and have started our course on the Great Circle Line. We wake early to blue skies, calm seas and walk parts of the ship we haven’t yet seen, bridge room, library, health club and spa. With 13 levels and 345 metres bow to stern it’s easy to clock up 10,000 steps a day passing joggers and speed walkers doing their laps of the deck. We join Charles and Anne and four strangers at a round window table for breakfast (Stuart orders kippers of course!). My nearest neighbour just happens to come from the Gold Coast, only a few kilometres from my parents so we happily swap travel stories. I never see her again. Magically the 2,200 or so passengers disperse throughout the vessel and it never feels crowded.

Frocks for the fashion show stored in the nightclub.

Back in the cabin Stuart spies a smallish dark grey dolphin from the balcony. It’s speeding away from the boat arcing through the air every couple of seconds. It turns and heads back leaping towards us then disappears.

 

10am A line dancing class for me while Stuart and Charles battle it out at paddle tennis and Anne joins the intermediate bridge group. I expected a handful of people for boot scooting but the Queens’ dance floor is full. With clear instructions and demonstrations by the good-humoured young instructor we learn three sequences to three different pieces of music. Too soon our 45 minutes is up. I could have danced all morning! Instead I hit the gym for my own yoga practice. Tucked away behind some huge Swiss balls I can do my own thing while watching the comings and goings. Highly entertaining to watch widely varying fitness routines including the 70-year-old plastic American Barbie doll in pink short shorts and red gloss lipstick who set up her ipad and followed a ‘tapping’ video centimetres away from me. Bizarre.

12md Lunch a deux back in Britannia then a nap.

 

3:30pm Lecture on the life and music of Roy Orbison by former BBC1 producerJohnny Beerling includes insightful interview and studio clips with Roy and details the tragedies that befell him and his family. Roy’s assessment of his voice as ‘not sounding like anybody else’ was typically unassuming. Roy’s voice pierces straight to the heart.

 

4:30pm Gallop down to Queens with Anne to claim a table before the afternoon tea service ends. Darjeeling tea and cucumber sandwiches are lovely accompanied by s string quartet.

 

8pm It’s the first of three formal nights, this one themed ‘The Black & White Ball’. Since I’m travelling for ten weeks with one small case and a daypack I’ve left my ball gowns at home (just kidding, don’t own one). I cobble together something that should get me past the dress inspection at the restaurant entrance. No one gives me a second glance. Stuart’s hired DJ and shirt look spiffing.


The grand ballroom is packed after dinner. The two women who have ignored the black and white code stand out painfully. My favourite is the tiny Japanese woman wearing an exquisitely patterned black and white kimono. Sedate waltzes, a foxtrot and samba give way to a jive. Time to hit the dance floor!

The professionals show us how a Fox Trot should be done.

 

When we’ve had enough of that scene we move next door to the night club where a young, African-American band is playing danceable covers. Grooving in high heels to ‘Happy’ and ‘I will survive’ is made even more challenging by the swell that rolls under the stern. Ship’s clocks go back another hour tonight so we make it a late night.

 

Saturday, September 2, Day Three

Rain in the night and it’s hard to make out the horizon for sea mist. Three metre chopping waves turn the sea white but the ship carves through it all with only a slight roll.

10am Latin Dance Cha Cha lesson for me. I partner Ann from Derby who is travelling solo. She usually dances as the man/lead so I offer to take the lead. We are well matched and pick up the sequence easily. Leave the lesson wanting more.

 

There are plenty of self service laundries – do a quick wash and dry.

 

12md Lunch at the Kings Court buffet which has plenty of vegan options. Nap, then the 2:15pm fashion show, a yawn-inducing collection of business and formal shirts for men and women.

 

3:30pm Tea at Queens Court serenaded by a female harpist playing Debussey and Chopin followed by a yoga session, swim and jacuzzi. The ocean rollers are mirrored by waves in the pool. Odd sensation. All the open decks are closed as we’ve officially hit a Force 8 gale.

Pre-dinner cocktail with the Captain. No hand shaking allowed to keep bugs at bay.

 Sunday, September 3, Day Four

Heavy seas with uncomfortable swell. Grey skies. Makes line dancing interesting! Very glad of anti-seasickness pills. Forgo silver service lunch for the Kings’ Court buffet – salads and vegan sushi are good.Room service breakfast with a smile.

2pm Fashion show of gowns and mens’ formal wear plus a couple of spangles swimsuits by Julien McDonald is at capacity and people are turned away. I expected pouty, strutting models, but they’ve clearly been told to enjoy themselves dancing to the 70s disco music and it makes for a great vibe as they shimmy around the ball room. The gowns are favourites of Beyonce and other curvy celebs. Maximum bling and flesh factor for women and the men’s shirts, jackets and DJs are shiny and tight fitting. Only one female model is too thin. Her shoulders and arms are so bony and her hip bones protrude so painfully it detracts from the gorgeous gowns she wears.

Pre-dinner show is called ‘Warby and Farrell’, two Cockney English pianists who double up on one grand piano. They have a gentle line of banter and are crazily talented. A video camera projected to a big screen shows the intricacy and speed of their hands. Their ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ would win Freddy’s admiration. Anne and I accidentally lose Stu and Charles between the theatre and the Commodores’ Bar at the bow of the boat. A top spot for cocktails with a panoramic view of sunset.Dinner is informal and we go to the big band dance evening. Stuart’s knee is playing up (too much jiving earlier) so we just observe.

 

Monday, September 4, Day Five

Sunshine is back and seas calmer but still need to take pills. Do laps of deck 7 after breakfast then try the Quick Step modern ballroom dance class with my now regular partner, Ann. Again we master the basics easily. Good teaching is the key. A few more laps of the deck then yoga, salad lunch and siesta.

3:30pm Afternoon tea has become a daily ritual and today is a tea dance with a brass band. Some scary looking elderly American women have overdone cosmetic surgery and try as we may to not look at them they hold a terrible fascination. One dances with her equally strange husband, the two of them jerk their way around the dance floor, only her face immobile.

 

The tea cakes are different every day – disaster for those with a sweet tooth.
5pm Line dancing again – we review an earlier dance and learn two more new sequences. It’s great exercise and a good laugh.

 

7:45pm A sunset cocktail at the Commodores’ Bar with whales putting in a passing show, blowing and breaching.

 Informal dinner followed by the 10:30pm Variety Show by Mike Doyle, a Welsh singer-comedian, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth. His voice is strong enough to carry his act but he obviously gets a kick out of taking the mickey whenever he can, his mimicry is spot on.

 

The ballroom tonight is turned over to a contemporary band so I manage a quick boogie before bed. Clocks go back another hour tonight so there’s plenty of time to sleep!Tuesday, September 5, Day Six

Sunny, warm day with light seas, perfect for lapping deck seven four times.

10am Latin Dance lesson is the Rumba, finally! I partner Ann again and we find it even easier than the cha cha cha. The class proceeds at the pace of the slowest learner which is frustrating.

 

11:40am We have a rendezvous with Charles and Anne for shuffleboard cut short by Stuart and Charles’ table tennis tournament so we go our separate ways. Me to buffet lunch, then the pool, laundry and nap. Charles and Stuart have a group of sports’ chums that keep them busy. Deck quoits proves popular.

Dinner is Formal, ‘Roaring Twenties’. All four of us have gone to some trouble to dress the part in our gangster and flapper costumes. When we walk into the cocktail bar people are complimentary. Our dinner table neighbours don’t recognise me wearing a black, short bob wig. Disappointingly only about ten per cent of people have taken the theme seriously. We all have a turn on the floor and I’m invited to dance the Charlston by a dance host, a tiny man called Peter. He’s an excellent lead and we have a lot of fun with it.Wednesday, September 6, Day Seven

Cloudy start and warmer still with light seas. Clocks have gone back a third hour.

 

Today is my chance to try fencing. It’s a 9am class and the other participants have all been attending each day but the instructor, Neil, allows me to try to catch up. I’d watched part of a class earlier in the week and decided it looks like a kind of dance. I can dance and I’ve seen ‘The Princess Bride’, how hard could it be? Once I am kitted up with a canvas protective jacket and face mask I start to feel overheated and claustrophobic. We warm up with an exercise I pick up quickly and I start to feel more comfortable. That lasts only until we start the fencing bouts. The effort of moving rapidly forwards and backwards the full length of the ballroom with lots of lunges is more aerobic than anything I have done recently. Still I acquit myself ok and when it comes to the competition I beat two women before a seventeen-year-old German lad lands two chest blows and I’m out. That’s me with my instructor Neil.

I just have time to recover before the 10am line dancing followed swiftly by the 11am jive class. Stuart partners me for this and we cover the basic steps plus a behind the back turn. Hope to try it on the dance floor tonight.

 

Such an energetic morning calls for a swim, lunch and a long nap.Our final afternoon tea with piano music, then a shuffleboard game and some reading in a deckchair is a civilised way to end the final day.

 

Cocktail hour is a chance to recap the day’s activities. Charles had a golf marathon and was runner up in his comp.

 

Dinner is informal. We chat to our serving staff and give them their tips. Cunard add a daily tip charge to each passenger to cover all the staff except bar staff (not sure of the logic there) but we felt our Filipino waiters and our Ukrainian sommelier gave exceptional service. Early to bed as we have a 4am wake up. We place our suitcases outside the cabin door to be transported to the terminal for collection next morning.

A typical dessert, the iconic English Summer Pudding. 

Thursday, September 7, Day Eight

4:14am Even with the extra hour as the clocks go back for the fifth hour, it feels like a short night when we go on deck in the cold and windy dark to watch the ship pass under the Verezzano Bridge with only four metres to spare. By 5am we can see the solid outline of Manhattan’s lights and the white blob of the Statue of Liberty on the opposite shore. As we get closer and closer and make out the detail of the statue and the buildings it feels surreal, Gotham City-like and quite wonderful. The only thing missing is the two blasts of the ship’s horn. I guess there’s a curfew on such noise.

Ready for anything!​​

6:30am Final breakfast tied up to the Brooklyn Terminal. The unloading of suitcases and loading of supplies begins in earnest with cherry picker type machines and forklifts. 

8am Vacate our cabin and disembark. Again the process of claiming baggage, passing immigration and customs is troublefree and we’re heading to our private transfer minivan by 8:15am. I stop for one final photo of the vast and elegant bow of the ship bathed in New York sunshine.

The QM2 earned my respect with uncompromising quality. Superb fittings and finishes, attention to detail, and the warm professionalism of the staff won me over. I won’t be signing up for another crossing any time soon, but I unreservedly recommend the Southampton to New York trip for anyone wanting to escape reality for a week, celebrate a life milestone or just reconnect with themselves and their partner in luxurious surrounds.

 

Most importantly Stuart enjoyed himself hugely, not a single iceberg was sighted, and we arrived in New York bang on time to see the US  Open Tennis Championships at Flushing Meadows!

 

Photo Essay: Stirling and a Three Loch Weekend, Scotland

13 Sep

With just a long weekend to catch up with Jenny and Tristan (who live in Edinburgh) we wanted somewhere close to Glasgow Airport that was scenic and had good walking.

Arrochar on Loch Long, a sea loch 40 minutes drive from Glasgow, came up in a search. Tris collected us from the Emirates Glasgow flight and we drove via Balmaha and took the ferry to hike Inchailloch then on to stay at the Village Inn, Arrochar. We did two hikes, one short and one long that took in Loch Sloy and Loch Lomond. I’ll let the photos tell the story from here.



Our drive to Edinburgh took us through Stirling in time for a quick stroll to the castle and Holy Rood Church followed by a scrumptious tea at The Smithy.

Next stops London then Southampton to board Queen Mary II.

Recharged and Almost Ready to Go!

11 Aug

Our three-month sojourn back in Brisbane, Australia, ends in one week. Trips to Melbourne and Cairns with family, and a couple of weeks spent renovating Tristan’s Toowong townhouse with Tristan and Jenny (they flew out from Scotland for this DIY project and Cam came up from Melbourne for a weekend) made the weeks go too fast.


Stuart has been working almost full-time planning ‘Gypsy Hill House Mark Three’ so it’s ready for the end of year holidays. The house will be built off site in two sections, trucked down from the Sunshine Coast and assembled on the ridge, after our 200 metres of driveway is complete. You can imagine the degrees of difficulty involved in that enterprise. I try to keep out of it but when it comes to the kitchen I can’t help myself.

Most of this time we’ve been camping at Tristan’s. And when I say camping I mean camping. His house is for sale unfurnished. We can be contacted by the agent with a few hours notice to have it ready for inspection any day, plus two open houses each Saturday. We’ve become adept at removing all traces of our habitation including mattresses on the floor. Kind friends loaned us a minifridge, others have had us to stay a couple of times (TV! Wifi!) and we escaped to Ballina for a few days so it hasn’t been a hardship. About half the planet sits, eats and sleeps on the floor, why not us?

We made a concerted effort, despite disagreements about what goes and what stays, to sort our storage unit. We got rid of a fair bit of excess by recycling, selling and giving things away. There is still far too much to furnish a two-bedroom house however I’ve been over-ruled several times. Who needs 38 china tea cups, saucers and side plates besides a tea shop?!

With Stuart immersed in planning I’ve organised most of the upcoming nine-week trip, a ‘quickie’ by our standards. There’s a dash of nostalgia plus some bucket list items and a fair chunk of family and friend catch ups. It goes something like this:

Melbourne, West Coast Scotland, London, Southampton to board the Queen Mary 2 (travelling with friends) for the Fashion Week crossing to New York, US Open Tennis Men’s Semi Finals, Flushing Meadow, Queens, Princeton, Savannah to Charleston, Chicago, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, for the Celtic Colours festival then back to London and Edinburgh before returning to Melbourne at the end of October.

 

Pretty fabulous wot?! Stuart’s on Atlantic iceberg watch, well he has to worry about something so it might as well be that!

Look, no ski boots, flamenco shoes or hiking boots, just your standard 20s flapper outfit and two other ‘formal’ outfits for the QM 2 plus reading material for my poolside deck chair lazing!

An Evolving Love Affair: Tropical North Queensland Campervan Trip

17 Jul

I have a great affection for Tropical North Queensland that grows with each experience of this unique part of Australia.

Three more visits over the past year have moved it into my top ten places on the planet. Having a sister and niece living here gave me a taste of the insider’s TNQ, but even without the family connection it would have wormed its way into my heart.

This time I organised a two-week winter campervan trip out of Cairns with my two young Melbourne nieces.  This was our three metre high four-berth apartment on wheels.

For the second week my sister, their mum, joined us.

What happens on the road stays on the road, but I think they’ll agree it was pretty special. We sampled life with four kids (five years and under) with my niece and husband on their sugar cane farm, took a day trip with them on their speed boat to Fitzroy Island, hiked and swam at beautiful Behana Gorge, lounged on deserted white sands at Ella Bay, surfed Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas, and spotted salt water crocodiles on The Inlet and The Daintree River. 

We didn’t see an actual cassowary in the wild, but the girls had a great day on Agincourt Reef with their mum and spotted nemo, marlin and a moray eel.



Fitzroy Island

Spotted from the speedboat at The Inlet, Cairns.

Behana Gorge


Four-Mile Beach, Port Douglas

There’s a 3.5 metre croc in the centre of this photo taken on Daintree River.

A day on the southern Atherton Tableland reconnected me to mountain wilderness, ancient trees and the pristine waters of the  crater lakes.

The 500-year-old curtain fig tree called Cathedral Fig. A apt spot to reflect on our puny human lifespan.

Bottom breathing saw backed turtle.


After the Melburnians returned home to work and school I spent a lazy weekend walking and swimming at The Esplanade, eating delicious vegan food, and learning about the diversity of Indigenous art at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair.

With my sister Jo walking The Esplanade.

Mozaic sculpture by Dominic John.

Seu Reef Garden by Torres Strait artists from Erub Arts. An abandoned, deadly fishing net, twine, felt and other materials evoke their beautiful reef teeming with marine life and remind us how precious this natural capital is. If you love it you have to look after it.

Historic Art School above and Flying Monkey Cafe below.

More than ever I’m committed to putting my political weight behind efforts to preserve the natural environment here in the north. We can’t stop cyclones but there’s a heck of a lot we can do, sometimes by ensuring we do nothing.

 

Whether it’s stopping the Adani mine:

 

http://www.stopadani.com 

preventing quarrying at Behana Gorge, http://www.cairnspost.com.au/news/cairns/behana-gorge-struck-off-councils-cairns-plan/news-story/b1d43302d2feb146ab56358151477bc8  

 

beating back the planned mega resort and casino ‘Aquis’ at Yorkey’s Knob:

 

https://www.communityrun.org/petitions/stop-development-approval-for-the-aquis-great-barrier-reef-mega-casino-at-yorkey-s-knob-cairns-1  

 

or minimising manmade damage to The Great Barrier Reef:

 

https://www.fightforourreef.org.au

 

community lobbying can work.

 

One thing I know for sure, politicians are shackled to a short-term view shaped by their own re-election interests, while the natural world operates on its own cycle understood best by the traditional custodians of this country.

Kew, London

21 May

May 20-21, 2017

London is best explored on foot, slowly, along the Thames. We stayed near Kew Bridge and walked in Barnes, Mortlake and Kew.

Plenty of riverside pubs to slake your thirst and fill your stomach.
It was grand to catch up with very old friends.And family too!

The very last half pint of real ale before a long drought.

Tomorrow it’s London-Dubai-Brisbane for us.
Our next project is a refresh of son Tristan’s house in Brisbane which he’ll put on the market in June. 
We’ll still be living out of suitcases but we’ll have paint brushes in our hands. Stuart is also hoping to progress house planning before we take off again in August.
Bye for now!

This Green and Pleasant Land: South Downs, Sussex, England

21 May

16-19 May, 2017
Eurostar Paris to Ashford International Station in Kent was over in a flash. A local train to Eastbourne, where sister-in-law Catharine met us, was followed by a quick stop for lunch and to collect groceries ordered online at Tesco. By 2:30pm we were in situ at Beachy Barn cottage, East Deen.

Sussex Heritage Coast on the south coast of England is a new area to us but a favourite for Catharine, so we were happy to have her plan our three-day stay.

East Deen has to be one of the sweetest English villages, a bit Midsomer Murderish, but lovely nonetheless. The Tiger Pub, Walker’s Rest and Beehive Cafe & Deli sit on three sides of The Green, while the fourth is notable for a rose-covered stone house with a blue plaque. It reads, ‘Consulting Detective and Bee Keeper Sherlock Holmes retired here’. It seems Sir AC Doyle based Sherlock’s final home in the country on this house, now a rental property management office. Art imitating life.

The long evening allowed plenty of time for me to walk from the village to Belle Tout lighthouse and on to Birling Gap. The public footpaths are not as easy to spot in this part of the world but as much of the Downs is treeless there is good line of sight.It’s eerie that I serendipitously read Fay Weldon’s ‘Life and Loves of a She Devil’ when in Britanny only to find that the lighthouse she modelled her ‘tower house’ on, Belle Tout, is a few kilometres down the road. It was moved inland from the crumbling chalk cliff in 1999 but is again uncomfortably close to the cliff edge. It is in private hands with unfriendly ‘KEEP OUT’ signs so I made do with a quick peak.

At 5pm the surf was up at Birling Gap. Wetsuited surfers dashed from the National Trust car park out to the aerial staircase and down the long flight of stairs to the shingle beach. In the distance sheer white cliffs rose and fell as far as the eye could see.

Alfriston was our focus next day starting with coffee at Badger’s. The photos don’t lie, this is a destination tea shop and garden. And Vegan Molly Cake!

Alfriston has a magical bookshop too. New and second hand treasures on two floors with reading nooks.We walked from Alfriston Green via the church and the National Trust’s 14th century Clergy House (the Trust’s very first property) through river meadows to Litlington pub, The Plough and Harrow, where Catherine and I left Stuart to his ale and continued the circular walk back to Alfriston.




Siblings at the Clergy House


On our return we found Stu dozing on the beer garden lawn. It’s a good life!

With changeable weather forecast we visited Michelham Priory at Upper Dicker (stop tittering), before venturing up to a ridge of the South Downs for Catherine and I to walk down to Charleston House to meet Stuart who had the car. As you’ve no doubt guessed Stuart’s knee is still not cooperating. He’s limiting his walking until he gets back to Australia to investigate what’s going on.
Whilst Henry VIII’s reformation emptied its coffers and destroyed many of its 13-16th century buildings, what remains of the Priory, including its water mill, moat and gardens, have been sensitively restored by the Sussex Archaeological Society and opened to the public. It was pure pleasure to explore the house and grounds and meet the staff (in character).



A Witching Jug

From the misting rain of the Downs with only sheep and cattle for company we descended into green farmland near Lewes to take refuge in the tea tent of Charleston House before the heavens opened. A literature festival (Barry Humphries is the star talent on the final evening) was about to kick off, marquees were being erected and extensive building works are in progress to expand the estate. Stuart heard a figure of ten million pounds being spoken of.

With Catharine at The Beacon.

As the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, both post-Impressionist painters, Charleston became a country get away for London’s influential Bloomsbury Set, a friendship with benefits group of artists, writers, critics, economists and philosophers, which the sisters, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Wolf, had been integral to establishing.Charleston is open March to October with entry to the house only by pre-booked guided tour. Entry to the garden, cafe and shop is free, as is the parking. The Charitable Trust operating Charleston has a busy annual program of festivals, workshops and other activities. We’ll return to do it justice some time in the future.

 

Squeezing out the last of the lovely coastal England experience we walked along the esplanade at Eastbourne past the Grand Hotel, the bandstand and down to the recently restored pier.

The Grand Hotel





Then it was goodbye to the seaside as we drove to The Griffin pub restaurant in Fletching for lunch en route to London. The Griffin’s beer garden has to be one of the most picturesque and the food was outstanding.Thank you Catharine for a wonderful introduction to this very special part of Great Britain.

 

Final stop London!