Luxury in the Rugged Outback
WROTHAM PARK STATION, Queensland | With the exception of a trip to Alice Springs to visit Uluru (Ayer's Rock), the average visitor to Australia clings the coastline, dividing time between comfortable, attractive modern cities and resort hotels on long, sandy beaches. The vast emptiness of the outback beckons, but its comforts, until recently, have been few. And then there's the famously persistent flies, to which most locals are inured. "We just do the Australian salute," they say, giving a lanquid wave in front of the face. Nevertheless, many a hat sports a fly net.
But at Wrotham Park Lodge at the north end of Queensland, 300 kilometres (185 miles) or a 40-minute charter flight west of Cairns, fly nets are out of place.
"No flies here mate," says Cam, the activities guide. "We're five-star. We don't allow 'em."
The lodge, opened in 2004, is an offshoot of Wrotham Park Station, a cattle ranch covering nearly 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres).
Its homestead and 10 satellite guest quarters sit high above the Mitchell River. An air-conditioned sitting room, all dark wood and leather, is lined with gently humming, glass-fronted fridges containing an extensive collection of Australian wines, micro-brewery beers and every cocktail ingredient ever invented.
The lodge receives a maximum of 20 guests at any one time, and a dining table long enough to seat them all gives views across a shockingly blue plunge pool and then the river's canyon to endless vistas of eucalypti. The wrap-around verandah faintly echoes that of many a farmhouse, but there all resemblance to traditional outback conditions ends, lost in luxury.
The glass-fronted but very private cabins provide panoramic sunrise views from bed. Kites float effortlessly on thermals. The odd mob of pink-chested parrots, called galahs, cackles past. Leave the blinds up at night and starlight streams in.
Service is efficient and good-natured, with one staff member for every two guests, including three chefs who produce meals to match the best that Sydney bistros can offer.
Early-morning horse rides splash through the shaded Mitchell, which for much of the year is a series of pools harbouring barramundi, harmless freshwater crocodiles and bull sharks temporarily stranded hundreds of kilometres from the sea. Fishing is never dull.
The lodge is a new source of income for the cattle station, but takes up very little of its space or resources. The station rhythm remains undisturbed by daily visitors from the lodge, who take their chances on observing mustering, vaccinations, dipping or pregnancy testing, depending on the season.
But elegant morning tea beside a spring-fed, lotus-filled lagoon is guaranteed, part of a half-day tour of the station by air-conditioned vehicle. Freshly baked cookies and other delicacies are consumed, observed by hundreds of ghostly pale Brahman cows, bulls and calves, sheltering beneath palms and gum trees at the waters' edge. Before pouring our hot beverage, the guide settles the leaves by swinging the tea-filled billycan round his head in the traditional outback manner.
But it's there that any resemblance to the rough lives of the jackaroos and jillaroos who muster the cattle starts and ends.
Barossa's Cellar Doors Beckon Wine Lovers
ADELAIDE, South Australia | About 70 kilometres northeast of South Australia's capital, Adelaide, country roads lined by feathery gum trees wind through rolling land striped with the vines of one of Australia's oldest wine-growing regions, the Barossa Valley, famous for big, bright, high-alcohol red wines.
The narrow roads weave through hamlets of verandahed wooden houses with shiny tin roofs, between lines of stately date palms and around hillsides stippled with olives and neatly hatched with vines.
More than 70 of the Barossa's vineyards are open to the public year-round, and over half can be visited without an appointment. Since many cellar doors don't open before 11 a.m., there's time for breakfast in Adelaide before a slow, scenic drive through the countryside, enjoying the look of the region before stopping to try its taste.
The Barossa has names of global fame, such as Wolf Blass, Peter Lehmann and Penfolds, but in between the big estates lie many smaller, family-run vineyards selling mainly through the cellar door and offering tastings, free advice and an unpretentious atmosphere.
Tastings are usually free, except for "museum-released" stock of past triumphs and now of limited availability. Some winemakers also sell wine by the glass, as well as offering cheese plates and other accompaniments. Since alcohol volumes often reach 15 per cent, drivers who choose to drink rather than just taste and spit need to be cautious—pausing for a vineyard-produced light lunch is a good idea.
The Pfeiffer family's Whistler Wines produces about 9,000 cases a year from its own grapes, and 70 per cent of this modest production is sold directly to visitors. The winery's weekend concerts are big draws, but the traditional, tin-roofed homestead has comfortable sofas at any time and there's a lawn dotted with sunshades, tables and chairs at which to enjoy a glass of potent Reserve shiraz or a fruity Audrey May semillon.
The cellar door at Eden Valley's Glen Eldon vineyard is a bright metal shed with a wooden walkway up to a quiet tasting room overlooking the vineyard. Downstairs, grapes are crushed and wine fermented, leaving plenty of space upstairs to try the results of these efforts, and especially the flagship shiraz, dark and fruity and likely to taste even better if taken home and left alone for a few years. Visitors typically take half a case, at a modest saving over Adelaide shop prices.
Rockford Wines occupies brick farm buildings from 1857, where Robert O'Callaghan makes wine from the fruit of 30 growers who use traditional hand-rearing methods in keeping with the antique basket presses at the winery. In the Southern Hemisphere's autumn months of March and April these can be seen spewing juice from between their slats. Great lakes of liquid and pulp are stored in century-old vats made from local slate, filling the air with the yeasty smell of fermentation underway.
O'Callaghan not only produces one of Australia's best shirazes, but a wine from the obscure alicante bouschet grape, whose naturally red flesh produces a crisp rosé that makes perfect summer drinking.
But it's only available at the cellar door.
For more information on the Barossa Valley visit the Barossa Grape & Wine Association's website at www.barossa.com.
For information about travel in Australia visit the Tourism Australia website atwww.australia.com
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