singapore weekend

Global cities are well defined in economic terms. They dominate the trade and commerce of their home countries and beyond; they have global decision-making capabilities, and they are centres of distinction and innovation in education, entertainment and technology.

Global cities to me always had a more visceral definition: larger than life, they know they are different, more important, create a larger vortex. And crucially, they don’t care. They are too busy being a global city to think about it too much, and they certainly don’t care what you think. A visitor to a global city is not required or expected to fall in love with the place, to applaud its many merits and achievements. Citizens of global cities really just want visitors to walk at a decent pace, learn quickly what side of the escalator to stand on, spend their money and generally not get in the way.

As a result, of course, we all adore these places. Never mind that New Yorkers are brash and direct, that the rents are as sky-high as the buildings. Those most critical of US foreign policy or cultural domination will sigh at the mention of New York and declare it their favourite city on earth. Never mind that London is congested and chilly, or that the tube has no air-conditioning, or that Heathrow is a nightmare. Everybody wants to go and live in London in their gap year. It’s the buzz, you see.

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Some people equate Global Cities with something more: on top of the economists’ definitions, they also expect them to be multi-cultural melting pots, intersection points for all the races and cultures of the world. To me, this melting-pot criterion is not necessary: you don’t really get that in Tokyo or Hong Kong, and yet they are true Global Cities.

In the late 1990s some academics in Loughborough University, of all places, made a catalogue of Global Cities. In A++ place were London and New York, naturally. In close second at A+ level were Hong Kong, Paris, Shanghai, Tokyo, Beijing, Sydney, Singapore and Dubai.

According to my definition it’s almost right. Hong Kong may technically be part of China but it will always be, defiantly, just Hong Kong. Similarly, Shanghai’s colonial past sets it a little apart from the rest of China and it has its own unique feel and sub-culture. Beijing is inextricably linked with the rest of China, both culturally and economically, but its citizens remind me more of the people of New York than the people of Xi’an. Come and visit if you like, just keep out of the way.

Paris, is, of course, Paris. Enough said.

But Sydney? To me, Australia’s largest city is still far too self-conscious to be a genuine Global City. Yes, technically its economic and political influence is significant both in Australia and in Asia Pacific, so the Loughborough University definition stands. But it tries too hard to be liked, admired, acknowledged. It’s like the younger sibling of one of the cool kids in high school, hanging around with the big boys, trying to fit in. It’s Sandra Dee, or a young graduate with their first proper job, hiding their lack of self-confidence money and swagger, but little sophistication.

Also, to this Old-Worlder, it’s difficult to see such a young city as a real Global City. To me, Global Cities are simultaneously ancient and new, patched together, organically developed, hectic places where you can almost see the growth rings like those of an old tree.

The chaos is only barely under control; the plumbing and sanitation and road works and public transport survive each day somehow, and everybody heaves a sigh of relief. One unfortunate passenger under a tube train, one set of Manhattan traffic lights on the blink, one Star Ferry running late, and London/New York/Hong Kong teeters on the brink of rush-hour annihilation.

That to me is what a Global City feels like.

A weekend in Singapore, then, was an interesting scenario. This famous city state holds around 6 million citizens in an area about the same size as the Tasman Peninsula in Australia, half of County Dublin or the Isle of Man. There are skyscrapers as far as the eye can see, but those in the central business district are so tall that the “regular” buildings further out don’t seem to warrant the name.

I had few expectations except for tales of humidity, pristine streets and underground shopping malls built to shield Singaporeans from the heat above ground. I looked forward to the biggest observation wheel in the world and plenty of rooftop cocktail bars.

Did it feel like a true Global City? I don’t know. Again, the economic influence is undoubted, and the urban landscape is sensational. The shopping is fantastic, the street food legendary, the coffee alone worth the trip. A smattering of world-class iconic structures make the cityscape interesting: the enormous Singapore Flyer and the Marina Bay Sands, a warped surfboard resting on a wicket.

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But…. It was a little sterile. Of course, Singapore is renowned for its cleanliness and order, rules and regulations: no chewing gum, no littering, no durian fruit on the trains.

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The trains run on time, the people all stand on the correct side of the escalator, and they all walk on the left hand side of the pavement. The result is a little futuristic and surreal, if like me you come from an ancient and chaotic town like Dublin. The people were unfailingly polite, friendly, warm and helpful, which was lovely. Whilst it was an incredibly busy place, there was little of the barely-controlled frenzy you often feel in other huge cities. I liked it, mostly.

The vast warren of inter-connecting underground shopping malls was a real eye-opener. I’m not a bit claustrophobic, but I ended up feeling quite relieved each time we emerged chilled and blinking from that air-conditioned fluorescent netherworld into the tropical sunlight. At any given time, six million Singaporeans are hermetically sealed in vast steel-and-concrete tubes, either horizontally underground or vertically reaching for the sky. It can’t be right.

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The rooftop bars were a delight. No matter where you are in the centre of town, the views are sensational. From the understated sophistication of the seventh floor Lighthouse Bar at the Fullerton, to the de trop ostentation of Ku De Ta atop the Marina Bay Sands, we tried them all (or many of them, anyway).

The Lighthouse was just delightful. “You look beautiful!”, exclaimed the (female) manager to me as I emerged from the lift. I didn’t, but I accepted the compliment graciously. A perfectly made Bombay Sapphire and tonic was the way to enjoy the tacky but entertaining laser show across the water at the Marina Bay Sands. Time your visit for 8pm or 9.30pm (and 11pm on Saturdays) to watch the dancing lights in understated luxury.

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Ku De Ta is of course the place to see and be seen, and they keep away the hoi polloi with plenty of rules: men must wear closed-in shoes (women are good to go in strappy sandals). No shorts, singlets, slippers or tank tops. You’d better book ahead even for drinks (but the minimum spend is quoted as S$80 a head, and you don’t get a seat). The door staff on the ground floor will vet you even before you get to the lifts. The result was a spectacular view, no shelter if it rained, a disappointing drinks list, far too much ice and marmalade (you heard me) in my cocktail, very little space to take it all in and a quick decision to move on to the next bar.

The City Space bar on the 70th floor of the Stamford, on the other hand, may look north away from Marina Bay and That Building, but the atmosphere is relaxed, welcoming and much more grown-up. Karen the manager got to know us by name, scored us window seats every time and brought our “usual” cocktails to us with a smile.

The Lantern on the top of the modern Fullerton Bay is a great spot, not too high but perfectly placed to enjoy the unique Marina Bay skyline. It’s a bit after-worky in the early evening, but a great place to watch the sunset and get in the mood for the night ahead.

So is Singapore on my personal lists of Global Cities? No. Is it a good destination for a weekend break, a spot of shopping, a reason to sip a Singapore Sling by the pool, a chance to overdose on kopi peng (Singaporean iced coffee), an opportunity to dress up and bar-hop with the best of them? Absolutely.

See you next time, Singapore.

 

 

 

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Hobart ramblings

A warm spring evening in Hobart. It’s been a long two days, delivering pre-disaster-season briefings with Julie to a lively bunch of Tasmanian staff and volunteers. We finish a little earlier than expected and I dump the laptop and participant evaluation sheets, change clothes and head out into the late afternoon sunshine.

The Radiance of the Seas cruise ship has dominated the waterfront since we watched her dock at eight this morning. I stroll past, photographing the bulk of her, wanting to board just to have a look around, never to be a passenger.

Past Mures and the moored fish and chip shops at Franklin Wharf, past our favourite Fish Frenzy (The Frenzy of the Fish, as Julie calls it), a fire alarm spilling post-work drinkers, waitresses and short-order cooks out onto the pavement in good-natured bewilderment.

I walk behind three young women, dressed to the nines. One has the dangerously short red lycra dress and the substantial thighs I myself had in my early twenties. The look didn’t look great on me either. Her friend is stick-thin: she is having trouble keeping her tiny tight skirt covering her barely-existent behind. The one in the middle has a few more pounds on her, and a few more acres of fabric. Despite everything, she looks better than the other two who are just trying too hard.

Aurora Australis, the Australian Antarctic Division’s exploration ship has gone south for the summer, leaving a gaping hole at the dock beside Shed Number One on Prince’s Wharf. I head down Castray Esplanade, past the beautiful homes once owned by harbourmasters and ships’ captains. I detour briefly through Prince’ Park and continue on through the historical Battery Point area. The sandstone houses and single-storey artisan cottages transport me back to Dalkey, to Sandymount, to Malahide, to Wicklow Town. These few nineteenth-century streets are part of the reason I love Hobart so well – it reminds me of home.

As I pass the Franklin Dock the Radiance of the Seas gives three long blasts of the ship’s horn. Her engines are going astern, and she is off to the next port. I stand with a young family and a handful of tourists as the mammoth cruise ship floats imperceptiby away from the dock. The captain gives another three blasts of the horn, then another, and finally she is off. I continue along the waterfront towards the Henry Jones Art Hotel, passing lobster fishing boats, back to my hotel to freshen up.

Later I retrace my steps through even larger throngs of people out for the evening. The HoTown crowds are out in force, the balmy evening producing even shorter skirts on the girls and even fancier shirts on the boys. I am stopped by a gang of six women looking for a good place to eat. It’s the third time in twenty-four hours I have been stopped on the street in Hobart and asked for a restaurant recommendation. Luckily, I have plenty of opinions. Salamanca Place is buzzing as I stroll past, and I opt for Ciuccio’s, a frequent haunt of mine and a perfect place for this early summer’s evening.

A couple of glasses of McLaren Vale shiraz and one garlic chill prawn pizza later, I brave the crowds once more. It is after nine at night, not quite dark and still over twenty degrees – not at all typical Hobart November weather. The atmosphere is party-like and the crowds belie the fact that is merely a Wednesday night. It feels more like Christmas Eve.

I wend my way back along the waterfront to my hotel room, feeling lucky that I can visit this town as often as I can and that I am almost always blessed with perfect weather when I do.

a solo half-weekend

An opportunity to spend a little time in Tasmania is always a good thing. And so it was that I organised to stay an extra twenty-four hours in Hobart following a work trip.

It was all going swimmingly until I got sick. I’d had a useful meeting with colleagues, raided the Red Cross second-hand bookshop and even had time for a shot of late-night shopping after work. The weather was unseasonably warm and it promised to be a beautiful evening. But my temperature was soaring and by six o’clock on my free night I was sitting in my hotel room unsure whether I was well enough to venture anywhere.

I took a look at my basic hotel surroundings, and imagined the early-summer evening I was missing outside. This was what I promised myself: an evening out on a date with myself, a good glass of wine and Salamanca Market in the morning. What was I thinking? I dosed myself up with more aspirin, changed, and headed out with a new book.

The evening was beautiful. Dressed head-to-toe in black and wearing boots, I was the odd one out. It was all the clothes I’d brought with me. How was I to know Tasmania would transform into a tropical paradise instead of its usual cool temperate maritime vibe? Young women strolled arm in arm dressed in strapless maxi dresses and strappy sandals. Young men scrubbed up well and sported the latest logo tees and edgy hairstyles. Even the over-sixties tourists sported jaunty spring-summer outfits with their Tevas.

Down by the Elizabeth Street pier a beautiful ketch got ready to cast off, crew on board. The sky turned all colours, then settled on lavenders, pinks and blues as the sun set through the high clouds. I strolled towards Salamanca Market and selected a restaurant. Ciuccio’s in Salamanca Place looked inviting and I craved pasta. I headed inside.

Dining alone is a treat for me. Many people I know dread the thought of eating alone anywhere, whether away on business or even just out at lunch from work. I love it. Since my twenties I’ve loved getting all dressed up and taking myself out to dinner, alone, or sometimes with a good book. I sit at my table, hopefully with a good view of something – the scenery, or other diners, or the world outside, and drink it all in. Whether it is the changing view before me or a chance to people-watch, or perhaps to look like you are people-watching but you are actually in deep thought about something else, there is nothing like it. Sometimes it is a more internal experience, when I open my book and settle in for an evening of good food and wine with my reading. I choose dishes that can be eaten with one hand – risotto and small pasta shapes are perfect – so that I can hold my book with the other. There is no need to compromise on ambience or quality of food just because one is reading.

Just because I was reading, I still had a chance to do a little people-watching. The two men beside me were an enigma. I could not figure out whether they were brothers, father and son, colleagues or a couple. The larger table in front of me was a couple and their respective parents, perhaps meeting for the first time, or certainly their first formal evening out together. The couple to the other side of me were innocuous-looking for the most part, except they’d spent the evening playing noughts and crosses and other children’s games on their paper tablecloth with the crayons provided on each table for just that purpose.

I paid the bill and headed hotelwards not long after nine – well, I was poorly. Salamanca Place was still buzzing and the sun had only just set. Amazingly the temperature still hovered around the high twenties and it felt a little like summer in Dublin. Enjoying the solitude, I picked my way through groups of students congregated on the grass and the odd Hobart Show dropout in all their finery, back past Franklin Wharf and along by the fish places moored in the little enclosed dock.

Next morning after a good night’s sleep, I retraced my steps back to Salamanca Place for the Saturday-morning market. It was a good deal cooler in the morning, so my all-black outfit and sturdy boots looked less out of place. I strolled the aisles, unencumbered by any companions whose interests I had to accommodate. I flitted from jewellery stall to book stall, lingering over pieces that caught my attention without feeling I was delaying anybody. The sizzling of those gourmet sausages seriously tempted me, and this was the only time I felt the loss of a pal: logistically, it was not possible to purchase a currywurst outside and a glass of bubbly inside, and still be sure of a pavement table at which to enjoy it all. As Mena succinctly put it later, I didn’t have anybody to mind my sausage… Defeated, it was back to Salamanca Place where I found a nice “gawky” seat at Barcelona, where a healthier breakfast of eggs florentine awaited.

I sat, book in hand, but this was a much more tempting place to people-watch. A young student entertained us in the centre of the Place with beautiful renditions of operatic arias. People from every cafe and restaurant applauded each piece he sang. The fashions of the young women had not abated since the night before, even though the temperature had. I sat, barely keeping my own body at a decent temperature, watching in fascination as outfits more worthy of a Gold Coast housewife wandered past. Two young children, one dressed as a fairy with a denim jacket, the other in top-to-toe OshKosh, played with a twenty-first century frisbee as their parents waited in the ATM queue. A bunch of young women in one corner of my cafe postured and tinkled with laughter for the sole benefit of a bunch of young men in the other corner.

I didn’t buy much: a small birthday gift for a friend, some chocolate for Orlando, some more chocolate for Orlando, and a little shopping bag to send to Ireland for Annette. It was the browsing I enjoyed, all at my own pace and without the need for conversation or compromise. Yes, even I like silence sometimes, and a solo half-weekend was the perfect time for that.

bfw – Hong Kong

A long weekend in Hong Kong with my oldest friend: what’s not to like? I can’t even remember how it all came about, but one day we were idly talking about a cheeky weekend away together, and the next we were on an overnight flight to Hong Kong for four days at the Langham.

Of course, the planning and plotting lasted much more than four days. We pored over maps, websites and guidebooks. We compared notes on what would be packed, how many pairs of shoes would be brought, what items would be carried on, whether we would consume alcohol on board, what our detailed schedules would be on the day of departure. Pedicure first, or hairdresser? You can have so much more fun at this point in a trip’s incarnation with a woman than you can have with a man.

And so it came to be that we found ourselves sitting in the Qantas Club one evening, sipping a decent glass of red and raiding the cheese board. Nine magical hours later we arrived in Hong Kong, topped up the family Octopus cards and headed off to the Big Lychee.

Arriving at the Langham is so lovely, and not only because we’d just stepped off an overnight flight on a 747. The porters speak better English than I do, the concierge and his team are all-knowing, all-seeing, the seasonal Langham signature fragrance is all-enveloping, the lily centrepiece spectacular. Our tenth floor room is not enormous but it is perfect.

Eileen had already booked us into the day spa for a two-hour (count them) jet lag massage. Our two masseuses pummelled us into submission but it was deeply restorative, even when my lady advised me to breathe through the pain. Apparently I am carrying a lot of tension around in my … er… glutes.

Then, the city beckoned. We walked (and we know this because of Eileen’s pedometer) 45km over the four days, and that is with Eileen straining a tendon on our first day and having her foot strapped up during the day and on ice at night. Can you imagine what Everests we might have climbed otherwise?

In a twist of fate, we walked for over an hour to the new Elements shopping mall and back, to find what I believed to be the only Links of London shop in Hong Kong. Once there we found they couldn’t help us with the repair of a travel clock. Later we discovered another Links of London shop about two hundred paces from our hotel. This, I fear, I shall never be allowed to forget. It already has a name: the Links (of London) Effect.

Friday we went over to Hong Kong Island on the Star Ferry and went up to Victoria Peak. The views, as always, were spectacular.

Mid-afternoon, we wandered in to the Peak Lookout and had a Pimms and a chocolate and almond tart. Marvellous.

Later that evening we went for Peking duck in the Peking Garden, down by the Star Ferry terminal. The concierge had recommended and booked this for us as an alternative to the upmarket but overpriced Hutong restaurant, and we were not disappointed even though all the tables with a view were taken up by a wedding.

A quick trip uptown to the Temple Street Night Market after dinner left us underwhelmed except for the wonderful (deliberately) bad-English fridge magnets we bought. Kept us entertained for ages.

Saturday we got up and caught the local double-decker bus to Stanley Market on the south of Hong Kong Island, and did a  bit of shopping. Lots of Chinesey bags and the usual tourist stuff, plus Eileen bought two lovely “proper” leather handbags.

Back to the hotel to drop off our stuff, then back to HK Island for the evening where we started our evening in Tastings, a great little wine bar with an Enomatic wine tasting system which allows you to taste over 160 different wines from around the world by the glass (150ml), half glass (75ml), or a taste (25ml).

Miraculously we did not linger too long before heading round the corner to Yung Kee, a cavernous Cantonese restaurant famous for its roast goose. And rightfully so: one portion just wasn’t enough.

The rest of Saturday night was spent doing a bit of bar-hopping and cocktail-sipping up along the Central Escalator in Soho, people-watching and discovering new cocktail recipes. It’s a hard life.

Sunday we spent back over in Causeway Bay and Central, down back alleys in all the little markets looking at live fish, hairy ox tails, cheap electronics, more Chinesey bags and cheap Star Wars stuff. That evening was our last night so we got all dressed up in our finery and went for dinner in Aqua, one of the best restaurants in HK. Amazing views over the harbour, and we were there for the laser show at eight o’clock so it was a perfect spot.

The views are exactly as amazing as the website shows and the food was pretty good, especially the dessert: the chocolate fondant gets a special mention.

The weekend was so enjoyable that it has become the inaugural event of an annual BFW. Next stop Shanghai in 2011. Well, where else would two dumpling-obsessed women head for?

 

a weekend in taswegia

I like lastminute.com. Not as a website, but as a lifestyle.

 And so it was when I was sitting in one hotel in one state capital (Sydney), I conspired with Mena to make another trip to another hotel in another state capital. But not any other state capital, our favourite. Hobart.

 Yes, it’s winter. Yes, Hobart is at the same latitude south of the equator as Buffalo, New York is north of the equator. (Buffalo’s mean temperature on 21 February 2010 was -2°C). We didn’t care.

 The main issue was getting up at 4.30am to get a very early flight. Ryanair aren’t the only sub-human airline in the world. The upside of this was that we were parked at our waterfront apartment and already browsing the famous Salamanca Market before eleven in the morning.

The place was hopping, and they weren’t all tourists. Stalls stretched as far as the eye could see from Macquarie Street to Prince’s Park. We tried chilli chutneys, blueberry jams and fresh breads. I bought two brown hats in the space of three minutes. Why not? We gravitated towards trestle tables filled with bric-a-brac and managed to purchase a sum total of no jugs. I told myself I needed no more scarves or necklaces. And then it was lunch-brunch-time.

We wanted to sit down, but outside. I wanted savoury, Mena didn’t mind. There was coffee and doughnuts. No. There was elderberry wine. No. Then I had a brainwave. Two currywursts from the sausage stall, washed down with two glasses of the local bubbly purchased from Irish Murphy’s, which gave us the right to sit at an outdoor table. Marvellous.

When we’d eaten and drunk our fill, bought sufficient headgear and things in jars, the day was half-gone. We wandered vaguely in the direction of the summit of Mount Wellington in search of winter sun and perhaps a snow view or two. A traffic accident made us stop awhile in the Fern Tree tavern, the biggest waste of a bar I’ve ever seen. We sat in a faded  eighties-style café area by a beautiful log fire, drinking coffee and eating very good home-made fruit cake. And that’s all I can say about the place. I think there was a stunning view across Derwent Bay, but at four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon the curtains were closed and the dining room in darkness. I think there was a decent wood-fired pizza oven but you had to walk through a grim pool hall to get to it. No wonder the local convenience store across the road was busy serving many more people. At least they had daylight.

At the summit of The Mountain (at 1,271 metres, only 75 metres lower than Ben Nevis and full 240 metres lower than Carrantuohill in Ireland) the car park was full. Some weird atmospherics mean the remote locking on your car doesn’t work, which doesn’t help when it is blowing a hurricane and you can’t feel your hands. We ventured towards one lookout across a shaky-looking boardwalk, then braved the icy wind and sub-zero temperatures (with wind-chill it was close to -10°C up there) to catch a glimpse of the view across the bay. Despite losing the feeling in my hands, it was stunning, and well worth the Arctic conditions to experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Later, back in Salamanca Place, we settled in to the Ball and Chain Grill with a glass of wine and a half-decent steak, but the free salad bar kept reminding me of the old Pizza Huts in London and sort of put me off in the end. Nevertheless, the food was fine and the atmosphere cosy so we didn’t mind.

Next day, the weather was unseasonably mild and sunny, and we spent a lovely Sunday wandering the country roads of the Tasman peninsula. Seven Mile Beach near the airport was staggeringly beautiful at ten in the morning, with hardly a breath of air, perfect blue skies and a tiny bit of warmth in the spring air. People strolled along the curve of white sand or kayaked in the still bay waters. We stood and drank in the view and listened to the waves and knew we would be back for a longer visit.

Laneway after laneway gave up treasures of stunning view after stunning view. A return visit to Dunalley meant lunch in the wonderful Dunalley Waterfront Café, housed in an old fish cannery right by the little fishing pier. Stunning views over the bay accompanied our lunch of fresh seafood pie washed down by Tasmania’s finest bubbly. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Later in the evening, back at Salamanca Place, we lounged in Cargo pizza place and bar, downing enormous wood-fired pizzas and lashings of wine before retiring to our penthouse apartment with yet another bottle of Ninth Island sparkling wine. This is the life.

Our last day of the long weekend took us north-east along the east coast, in the direction of Freycinet. Yet again, we were stunned by the spectacular views around almost every turn of the road. A tiny laneway took us down to Rheban Beach, a perfect crescent of deserted beach tucked away from view, overlooking Maria Island.

Why doesn’t the tourist board show these amazing views as well as the ever-present Wineglass Bay? We knew we would have to come back to experience even more of this Tasmanian secret.

Back to the airport late in the evening, we stopped in Sorell for an early supper. Heat Pizza across the road from McDonalds was one of only a few places open at seven on a Monday night. We were not disappointed by the light fluffy pizzas with a perfect amount of topping on, served with a smile from the wood-fired oven.

Except, typical Doyle, we ordered too much and had to leave far too many slices behind. As we left, I swear somebody in the town turned off the rest of the lights.

late summer on buller

Orlando and I don’t ski so we have never been to the Victorian High Country. A late summer weekend was the perfect opportunity to visit Mount Buller and see some spectacular scenery without having to don skis and point ourselves downhill. Those of you who know my horror of descending even gentle hills on foot will realise why I shall never ski.

Driving out the Hume Highway on an early Saturday afternoon, we had a four-hour drive ahead of us. The journey took us past the edges of some of the worst of the February bushfires, with Kilmore to our immediate west and the two large complex fire grounds to our east. All along the Hume from the Whittlesea turnoff was a sea of black. The road signs ran like a rollcall of the worst days: Wandong, Kilmore, Whittlesea, Kinglake, Clonbinane. We could see the place where the Hume had been closed on that Saturday afternoon. Houses not far from the highway remained inexplicably untouched by fire amongst blackened forest. Others had not been so lucky, and the rubble was clearly visible from the road.

Again I was touched by the terrible beauty of it. The twisted black tree trunks were interspersed with auburn, the trees which did not burn but were scorched by the heat. At times it was like a beautiful autumn scene until you remembered that these changing colours did not herald a change of season.

Stopping at Yea, I was not sure what to expect. Yea hosted one of the main staging areas into the fire ground, but on this holiday Saturday it was just a regular country town. Bikers lined the streets in search of good coffee. Local families pottered around doing a bit of shopping. We stopped in the local greasy spoon for a spot of breakfast before heading out the road again.

From here the scenery got spectacular. Up through the Strathbogie Ranges we went, along a winding road following the Goulbourn river below. Vineyards nestled in the shadow of the hills. At times it reminded me of Wicklow: Glenasmole, Glendalough. I fell asleep and missed Lake Eildon, a reservoir built in the fifties which has been empty now for a number of years. On our way home I would see that the lake bed had well-worn footpaths, large trees and a thriving ecosystem. I wonder when we will see it filled again.

Mansfield seemed a prosperous enough town, with chichi coffee shops and plenty of ski supplies. This is the last stop before the ascent to Mount  Bulleritself. On our way out of town the landscape turned golden again but for a different reason. This is the real High Country, with rodeos on Saturday nights and mile after mile of grazing land turned yellow-gold by the sun and the drought.  Actually cattle grazing has been banned since around 2002, because it was believed the cattle were damaging the soil and threatening rare alpine flora. As the road stretched straight into the distance and the mountains ahead, I could see why people love this area so much.

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The road up Mount Buller is ten miles long and winding. Hairpin bends had names like Hell Corner. Crazy cyclists descended on racers, full lycra gear and a mad look on their faces. Even more crazy were the ones cycling uphill. Their faces had more of a look of excruciating pain. There was not much of a view because of the forest surrounding us but we could tell we were getting pretty high. Mount Buller is by no means the tallest mountain in Australia or even Victoria, but it is still one and a half times higher than Ben Nevis and almost twice as high as Carauntoohill.

The village of Mount Bulleris almost at the summit. Designed as a ski resort, it centres on a small town square with a clock tower and a bronze statue of a mountain cattleman. There are spectacular views of the alpine national park in every direction. Our resort, the Breathtaker, was on the southside of the town with amazing views south-west along craggy peaks and ridges.

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Not so breathtaking was the tiny one-bedroom apartment witha view of the back of the building, rendered even more inexplicable by the fact that all the rooms with mountain views remained unoccupied for the whole weekend. Never mind: we had a comfortable if compact base and that’s all we needed.

Out on the dodgy hotel mountain bikes for a recce of the town, I almost lost my life a couple of times due to lack of brakes. At every turn another stunning view welcomed us. Above our heads everywhere were ski lifts, all but one closed for the summer season. The remaining open chair lift was mainly for the use of the downhill mountain bikers, which is what Orlando would turn into the following day.

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Back at the hotel we sat on the terrace with an indulgent hot chocolate watching the changing colours of the mountain and making our plan for the following day. As the sun hung low in the sky, we drove quickly to the summit car park and yomped the last steep 500m to the summit, where we were greeted with 360 degree views of mountains and plains draped in mist and sunshine, turning the land alternately blue and reddish-gold. We sat at the fire hut and drank in the views. My mind briefly turned to the bushfires again, as I wondered what the watchman saw unfolding beneath him on the 7th of February. None of the area around Mount Buller was threatened that day, but he would have seen the smoke and possibly the flames of the worst of the fires south of him. This day, though, all was peaceful and beautiful. We sat for an age taking it all in.

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Before we knew it, it was time for dinner at the Black Cockatoo, one of only three restaurants open on the mountain over summer weekends. We presented ourselves at a standard-looking hotel dining room where the antics of the coupleat the next table – a man well into his fifties witha cute little twenty-something on his arm – entertained us for the evening. The food was well-presented and perfectly edible: nothing out of this world but very enjoyable. By none thirty we had extended our evening as much as we could, and headed back to our little hideaway where Orlando very sensibly had brought a laptop of movies to watch. We’ve been caught like this before in small Australian towns on a Saturday night, back in our room at nine in the evening with nothing to do. We make sure we have our own entertainment now.

Next morning after a fresh and tasty breakfast roll in the Cattleman’s Inn, we headed to the day spa for our massages before Orlando hired a mountain bike and tried his hand at the downhill trails. I kept to a gentle stride on the village footpath, stopping every minute to appreciate the view whilst tramping along a quiet and peaceful country pathway. The sun shone and it was warm enough for a mile-high mountain. I savoured the solitude and the scenery.

Once I saw the chairlift stop I waited for Orlando to return at the bike shop, Powerade in hand. He came around the corner like a centaur, full bike helmet on and standing on his pedals. He said the terrain was a bit mad and he had mistakenly gone down the black run instead of the nursery slopes, but despite his horror stories I think he secretly enjoyed the thrill.

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Down at the Arlberg we sat and watched the mountains turn red with a drink in hand. Built like a barn, this place is not designed for comfort or fine dining: it is more a basic skiier’s bar with long trestle tables, Channel 9 on the big screen and cheap and cheerful food. Nonetheless we settled into a couple of sofas in the corner and relaxed for a few hours before heading back to our laptop and more movies in bed.

On the way home next day we took a detour to Healesville to meet Lenford for lunch. Down the Melba Highway we skirted the heart of the two big firegrounds. Kinglake National Park stretched to the west and Toolangi National Park to the east. The edges of the road were a beautiful golden and auburn, the colours echoing a more natural autumnal beauty but born from a more chilling place. Further in, the blackness stretched as far as the eye could see.

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Again, we saw houses surrounded by trees which had survived, whilst others had nothing but the chimney place remaining. Police still stood manning roadblocks. You still cannot go to Kinglake unless you are a local.

Out of the forest we could see the black skeletons of fire-ravaged forest up on the ridges of the hills, whilst vineyards thrived below. A strange mix of life and death everywhere we looked. Yarra Glen was still a bit of a refugee town. The relief centre I visited a few weeks ago is now renamed a community recovery centre, but the old IGA supermarket is still offering goods for free to fire-affected people.

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Healesville on the other hand was buzzing. From the toy railway at the edge of town, you could hardly move for visitors. Many of the tourist attractions in Victoria were donating all their proceeds from the weekend to the Bushfire Appeal, and people had come in their droves. Every cafe tablewas full, every shop overflowed with people. The local economy has nothing to fear if Victorians continue to come in these numbers and spend money.

We did our bit with a leisurely lunch at Innocent Bystander – I bravely took on the cheese platter washed down with a couple of glasses of 2004 Harry’s Monster before we took the last leg of our journey home to Footscray. Another visit to Healesville is planned for winter: a solstice lunch at the lovely Bella Vedere. We shall look forward to our return visit and doing our bit for the local economy whilst enjoying good food and wine with friends.

a mid-week weekend

Two days off and it isn’t even the weekend. Marvellous. How many things do you think I can squeeze into 48 hours off that doesn’t have anything to do with work?

I wake up at the normal time – Orlando still has to get up for work. I lie in bed, savouring the space, the time. A whole day stretches before me.

An hour on the phone with Mum kicks off the social part of my day. She is all excited about Lee coming to visit, and only wants to hear that the bushfires are all fine now, and winding down. I can’t seem to find the ability to get off the sofa. Luckily, I have hours of trashy TV to watch. But hunger calls as usual and I head down to Le Chien in Seddon, a rare weekday treat. I sit in a corner away from the yummy mummies and have my usual: a chicken pide with a weak Irish Breakfast tea. The only other time I’ve been here alone is when Orlando was back in the UK a few years ago, and I had my Christmas cards to write that day. This feels strange, but good.

The rest of the afternoon is all booked up. A visit to the Indian beauty salon to get my eyebrows threaded makes me feel glamorous and well-groomed again – at last. Up in Highpoint, one lady attacks my feet with a sterile blade and some nail polish whilst her colleague french polishes my hands. I leave buffed and fabulous, with striking orange toenails and princess flip flops.

In my new hair salon, I am not sure if the proprietress speaks in a yell all the time, or if the shop is just a bit echoey. It is a nice atmosphere though: the clients all chip in with opinions and stories, and Vicki treats all of her young staff like kids. I am sat at a reclining massage chair by the basin and a moisturising treatment massaged into my scalp. They leave me there for twenty minutes, head wrapped in a towel. I sleep like a baby.

At six o’clock I arrive home, ready for anything, hair glossy, toenails shiny, ready for dinner. A Greek salad, some Irish sausages and a few glasses of Langhorne Creek wine hit the spot. A possum hides in the palm tree outside the house – am I the only person who thinks they look like Wombles?

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I fall asleep in the middle of a conversation with Orlando, and know nothing more until morning.

Even lazier on the second day, more trashy TV fills the morning until I drag myself out for lunch again. Why not fill up on bread – it’s my hobby. A leisurely two hours at The Strand restaurant makes my day – what lovely food.

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Back at home with things heating up seriously, I make several attempts at watching more TV but snooze happily for an hour instead. Orlando, Ossie and Eric put the world to rights with a glass of bubbly while I potter around my favourite food blogs.

My one work thing, a nightly ten o’clock phone call, is not required this evening. We already know we are working through the night. I am off the hook. I pour another glass of Langhorne Creek wine (a 2000 Rosemount Estate cabernet merlot petit verdot) and settle down for the evening. The cool change is coming.