Could an entire town have dodgy service?

Shoal Bay is a beautiful place. But if our experiences and online reviews are to be believed, don’t ever eat there.

Shoal Bay – It’s on Fiji Time

During the week my family has  spent holidaying in the area, we have had three experiences of what I’d call a very laid-back approach to customer service.  Cafes that take that extra ten minutes to offer you a menu, a coffee that took fifteen minutes, fish and chips that took thirty minutes, and the one time we were told that the waitress was setting up for a birthday banquet so we’d have to wait. Huh?

We know some locals here and they suggested a bit of ‘Fiji Time’ was in evidence. It seemed reasonable enough; People who live here – in a cluster of coastal towns two hours from Sydney – don’t watch the clock too closely.

Keep in mind, the Shoal Bay/Fingal Bay community is very small. There are about five food options in Shoal Bay and just one in Fingal Bay. Something here must be worthwhile, I thought. So, I turned to Google and checked out the online reviews. And, oh my gnocchi.

Here’s just a sample…


There were only 4 tables though and it took almost 15 minutes for coffee and juice to come out. Juices are Home Brand and poured straight from the bottle. At $4.50 per glass I was not happy.

via LongBoat Cafe (Fingal Bay).


Myself and my wife attended this restaurant on a Sunday evening in November 2009. I ordered the grilled snapper and as well as the one hour wait for the mains to arrive, the real problem did not hit me until I awoke at 3 am with massive food poisoning. The doctor thought it must have been “cheap takeaway”….unfortunately it was not takeaway and it certainly wasnt cheap.

via Catch at Shoal Bay


Thank goodness our breakfast finally arrived

There are only 2 Italian options on the street and this is the bad one. Absolutely poor management. Service is rude. Pizzas are below average. Wine selection is poor. And they keep coming to ask if you are done even when you are having food, just to make you leave so the ones waiting can fit in.

Once or twice during my night I even got pointed at when I was only less than 3 metres away. I think they were planning what to do with our table …

I could over hear the staff constantly talking about ‘getting rid of this table and getting rid of that table’, to hurry families out of there within the hour, even taking away food while still being eaten and placing bills on tables as people were still receiving their coffees!

Charged an extra $2 because the waitress felt our 2 year old had made a mess in his high chair. It’s only $2 but was a rude thing to do in a ‘family friendly’ place

via Gianni’s Bar-Pizzeria & Ristorante.


From the start the service was terrible. It was 10 mins after we sat down before we were given a menu. The garlic bread we ordered actually went to the table next to us who had ordered after us. So it was a long wait before we got our garlic bread. Next came the disastrous meals which my partner and I categorically describe as THE WORST meals we’ve ever had in a restaurant. After 3 small mouthfuls of my fettucine I pushed my plate away and felt sick and couldn’t eat anymore. It tasted as though they had melted about 250gms of pure butter. I know lobster is quite rich so I don’t know what they were doing in that kitchen! Basically it was inedible! My partner’s pork belly was pathetic. We have done a better job at home ourselves and neither of us are qualified chefs. So this incredibly disappointing and sickening meal cost us $87!!!

The food and service were terrible. When we complained and asked to see the manager about our absolutely inedible meal, rancid in the case of the risotto, we were told to pay up or they would call the police!

We tried to order the hot chocolate that was on the specials board, but was told we couldn’t have it because “it would take too long to construct”. Huh? So we ordered coffee instead, which arrived lukewarm and burnt. Our food arrived relatively quickly, but the reason for this soon became apparent – my Eggs Benedict had eggshell in it, and there were lemon seeds in the hollandaise sauce. … At one point the waitress did come over and asked how our food was, but as we both had our mouths full at the time she managed to disappear because I could swallow and tell her it was mediocre.

via Marco’s Restaurant.

Searching for Australia in Koaland

Shopping for souvenirs in Cairns – a world away  from the nearest koala, emu or sheep.

I enjoyed reading a piece by Nick Bryant on Australia’s national identity and how it has been misshapen through our self-reflective cliches. The way we call ourselves ‘Down Under’ to Americans is cited as one example of how we tend to belittle ourselves. (I would add that our failure to put Americans in their place when they use the term also shows a tendency to ignore our success and pride.)

Nick’s article included this paragraph to help explain our fond attachment to phrases most of us don’t even like or use …

…as the database at the Australian National Dictionary Centre in Canberra reveals, “She’ll be right” gets at least two outings a week in Australian newspapers, while “Tall Poppy Syndrome” has been a weekly fixture for years. As the Centre’s director, Sarah Ogilvie, notes: “People are still using phrases which to an outsider seem anachronistic.”

Nick is a talented journalist whose biography shows he has moved regularly during his time as a foreign correspondent.  Nick’s decision to stay in Australia since 2006 shows, I believe, his admiration for our country, plus some sense of hope in our future. If you thought our best years were behind us, you wouldn’t move here. You would just visit, grab some souvenirs, then head home to where you belong, right?

I have just returned from a week in Cairns, in Far North Queensland, where the souvenirs tend to define a city having its own identity crisis. Stifling nostalgia is passed off as a historical discovery tour. Surreal caricatures of our fauna trivialise any natural beauty that lies outside our cities.  If you subscribe to my Facebook Feed, you would have seen my gallery of the region’s eclectic architecture and other oddities but neither of those begin to explain the schizophrenia  Cairns suffers trying to balance as a home for locals and as an international tourist destination.

As Cairns tries to position itself as the first stop for Asian visitors to our shores – something record airport arrivals would suggest it is doing very well – what greets visitors is a parade of tackiness and a clichéd approach to our emblems, wildlife and culture that presents an Australia unchanged since the 1960s.

Here is what confronted me on my first wander through the town centre; Opals, Ugg boots, koala backpacks and, for when you feel peckish… emu jerky.

Which of these resonates the most with your knowledge or concept of Australia?

Opal shop owners are doing us all a disservice. The romanticised depiction of a man down a mine grabbing a precious stone has kept Sydney’s The Rocks alive for much too long. It’s a tragedy that Cairns is going the same dusty, irrelevant way. Few Australians will ever head to Coober Pedy, and just because even fewer tourists will, doesn’t mean we should shovel such a flawed idea of mining down their bejeweled throats. Yes, we are the world’s largest producer of opal – being responsible for 95% of production – but most of it comes to us not by a rugged man in King Gees and a torch-helmet but like this…

…especially the opals coming out of Queensland.

Ugg boots are a peculiar fashion statement, at best. Wearing Ugg boots in Cairns – as I am told people do when the temperature drops below 20 degrees Celcius – is truly gormless. Trotting out Uggs and sheepskin rugs is also a quaint throwback to an age before polarfleece and cotton blends, when we were all wrapped in wool because there was a shearing shed down the road. But the fantasy must stop that put Australia forward as a sheepish, agricultural economy built on grazing animals for which the export market is rapidly dwindling just as the our ownership of the word ‘Ugg’ is under threat.

No Australian would think of skinning a koala, let alone wearing one on our back. The myth of the ‘Koala Bear’ should really have died off along with Matilda, the winking kangaroo inexplicably wheeled out at the Brisbane Commonwealth Games in 1982. Let’s be honest with our tourists – most people who manage to see a koala find it snoring and if they choose to hug one of the heavily clawed, disinterested beasts, they had better not be in NSW or Victoria where it is illegal in Victoria for anyone other than a Koala’s handler to hold them.

As for emu jerky…

There could be no more superficial Americanisation of Australian wildlife as this. Jerky is a US fascination and employing our national emblems to enjoy a salted chewy treat makes me sick for all number of untreatable reasons.

Cairns used to see most of its tourists arrive from Japan, however China and Germany are now the biggest contributors to the local tourism industry, no doubt due to the relative strength of those two nations. I was surprised to hear German used as the second language after English to give instructions on the Scenic Kuranda Railway.  Likewise, many signs in the town centre are also displayed in Chinese. The local paper, the Cairns Post, reports peak tourism bodies are striving to bring Chinese flights direct into Cairns which would send arrivals from our biggest export market into the tens of thousands per year.

So far, the nation we feel safest putting forward is still tied to the outback and way out-of-touch.

Will we present the world with a decades-old view of our nation’s brightest points; one of a dusty rural paradise where so few drovers actually roam and precious few miners dig for opals by hand, or will it be one that shows off our colours, talent and enthusiasm for life, exhibited in our stunning capital cities and across countless regional centres each with their own appeal? Let’s promote the brands and outfits we stand by, the artists and home-grown designers we know by name. Let’s leave The Kens behind. Ken Duncan and Ken Done, your time has past. Our tourism has become entrenched in a dated value system that elevates our strange marsupials and landscapes above our achievements as a wealthy, warm people who have accepted millions of migrants, built glorious cities, a diverse society and a robust national economy and we will happily share our glorious nature with anyone who visits.  We will even let some of them stay.

Nine of my favourite Blue Mountains activities

Looks like it’s time for me to write something a little more constructive than my last few blogs…

I had a chat with some tree-changers about my recent rant and while they love their new home in the mountains, they were actually yet to embrace what the area offers.

I grew up in the Blue Mountains – a childhood I loved, once I got over the lack of shopping centres and prevalence of gumnut mugs – and since then I have trashed the Blue Mountains for turning too bogan, and for being left to ruin by a council that is too conservative and small-minded .

So now, I am going to prove my deep adoration for the place where I was raised, and explain what you can do with your days if you do choose to move there, or what to do if you’d like to use it as an escape hatch to relieve inner city tension – as I do.

Everyone knows (and many abhor) the Three Sisters experience, the overpriced Scenic World, and the Leura Mall. For now, I’m leaving them to Sunday drivers and tour groups in buses that have koalas painted on the side.

Here are nine great Blue Mountains activities. They are things I enjoy and that you may not know of. Actually, it’s only eight and I want you to add a ninth in the comments…

1) Garage Sales

even hoarders gotts sell up sometime

Oi. You payin' for that?

The community in the mountains has a few humble features you might never discover without scratching the surface; The art being created, the organic food being produced and the garage sales!

Check the local paper – The BM Gazette – on Friday night and line up the best addresses on your GPS. Be ready to go by 8am – the pro’s start even earlier. I often get around to six or eight ten within a couple of hours and usually within just a few suburbs. Most garage sales are chockas with retro bric-a-brac that city stores charge you much, much more for.

Plus, you get to go in strangers’ houses! They don’t mind. Many residents see it as a social event and invite the neighbours over. It’s as if selling their junk is just an excuse to meet people. Get involved.

2) Mount Hay lookout

Hay, not bad

"It's been such an amazing journey" - Every evicted reality TV star

With countless lookouts to choose from, this one is well away from the traffic and tourists but you aren’t at risk of needing a chopper lift you out.  The walk out is pretty splendid too so park your car early and repeat the mantra “It’s all about the journey”  – this is especially useful if you are underwhelmed by wide vistas of mountains that aren’t really that blue.

3) Shop at Frou Fou.

Obviously if there was a bigger pic i would have inserted that one not this one

In the old location. Some might say, vintage.

The owner of this unique store (now on Raymond Road, Springwood) is Parissa, a friend of mine who used to run it out of a tiny space in Lilyfield. Parissa is so aesthetically minded she always looks like she just left a Parisienne street market in the 1950s. That pretty much explains the store too.

4) Wentworth Falls Lake

taken with a Canon 20D by someone better than me

The lake is better than the falls. but both work much better in daylight.

Many long-time residents of the mountains never visit this lake or the slightly less glorious Glenbrook Lagoon. I’ll never understand why. Each offers a much richer experience than those man-made ponds you find in new estates. Expect ducks, playground equipment, more ducks and barbecues.

5) Lily’s Pad Cafe 

pull up a leaf

The barista here is a cross between Michael Franti and Ghandi

Leura has many good quality cafes but the Mall is busy and full of Mosman mothers on the weekend but luckily most people don’t realise this one has the best coffee, the best outdoor area and the food is, well, it’s all about the coffee and the outdoor seating.

6) Birdwood Gully Glow-Worms

dont feed the worms

Everything I want in a bushwalk. Brevity.

How many places in Sydney boast a twilight glowworm bushwalk. Oh boy is this a cool walk, ideal for the young, old or infirm. Ok, maybe not the infirm – a wheelchair wouldn’t get beyond the first few metres. But this is a mostly level wander in a gully just a couple of minutes from Springwood’s town centre It lights up with the Aussie equivalent of fireflies at dusk. You’re all done in under forty minutes. Delightful.

7) Sassafras Gully

Elle not sighted

In Sassafras, no one can hear you ... at all.

Head to the end of Sassafras Gully Road in Springwood to discover the natural water hole made famous by my friend Doug when he initiated ten years worth of camping adventures for me and my friends. It was then made even more famous as the place where Elle Macpherson went skinny-dipping for the film Sirens. It’s about a two-hour round trip. There’s a reasonably steep walk out. Take the whole family or just your backpack – whichever is easiest to get in the car.

8 ) The Carrington

Pull up a sofa

Newspapers circa 1900 cited her as the only rival to Raffles within The Empire. Raffles!

Lay about with a glass of port in the one of the library rooms of Katoomba’s Carrington Hotel. Where else can you wander into a majestic old hotel, pull up a Chesterton lounge and dally for hours, completely unnoticed. The landscaped grounds offer more space to laze about if you get a sunny day. If you want something more high-brow, you could try Lilianfels but I imagine they’d throw you out if you had too much fun.

9) Your turn.

I want to know your secret Blue Mountains experience… PLEASE??!!
Use the comments area below.

Why Jamie Oliver’s Italian will deliver for Sydney

It’s just a restaurant, yes, but if you are a foodie on a budget, the appearance of Jamie’s Italian in Sydney’s Pitt Street should already have you salivating.

My young family and I recently had two meals at the Jamie’s Italian restaurant in Bath, England, a restaurant that combined so many good things that it was one of the most memorable meals in a five-week trip across four countries.

From the outside, it wasn’t much, and in the ancient, historical theme park of Bath, it was disappointingly modern. But once inside, any disappointment waned in response to the clever layout and countless cool touches.

From the entrance, you can already see more meat than your local butcher, framing what appears to be the first of three kitchens. It’s an Italian restaurant – vegetarians are welcome but ignored…

Next delightful touch we saw was a display of fresh bread – like all the pasta used, it was baked daily and on the premises. Not half bad.

The vibe is fast-paced and noisy but the good was quick and the crowd young, so it any kitchen noise seemed intentional – the customers were supposed to notice the food being created, everything designed to give you an immersive food experience.

Next thing we noticed was how well the place took care of kids. The waiters were professional without being uptight, so our spills and demands were all fine. They had a high-chair waiting for us at our table. The waiter fell in love with our son. And then he brought….


Seriously, some joints hate you from the moment you walk in with kids so this was blowing our collective minds. Cafe owners of Sydney take note, if you appreciate and cater to the children, then like adults, they will like you more and be more compliant! It’s not brain surgery.

So our food hadn’t even arrived and we all had huge Dolmio grins.

And then the food did arrive. I can’t recall exactly what it was but each choice delivered and was less than $AU20.

Kids were happy – and drowning in good spicy sauces. We enjoyed the delicate tastes of fresh herbs with Jamie’s flourishes hidden somewhere on every plate.

I should point out that Jamie wasn’t there and staff said he had only ever dropped in once when they chalked his outline on a ready-made wall.

This IS a franchise. Oliver is good at it (he made $30,000/hour last year and he’s about to make a move into Facebook games) and this food chain certainly cashes in on his popularity, but unlike the Tefal saucepans that bear his name yet you can still ruin a meal with them, the restaurants can claim to deliver on a menu that he has created and tasted.

Plus, I believe they deliver on his mantra – good food for everyone, all the time.

He recently established a Ministry of Food – Australia including a centre in Ipswich, Queensland, that will help to ’empower, educate and engage as many people as possible to love and enjoy good food.’

But let’s not forget dessert.

These were also on display as you walked in. So the decision was taken care of earlier on.
Wifey went with a chocolate tart but I loved the sound of baked nectarines sprinkled with brown sugar and nutmeg. I chose it because I thought, “I have all those ingredients, why aren’t I making this?”

And so, Jamie’s Italian had delivered on a third Oliver mantra; ‘Keep Cooking Skills Alive’.

I was inspired, not to eat out more, but to be more creative when cooking at home.

Bish bash bosh, sorted.

Jamie’s Italian is set to open later this year at the location of 107 Pitt Street, Sydney (where Industrie wine bar used to be).

Last night in Paris. I leave astonished.

This is the fifth night in Paris for me and my wife, our 10-month-old and our three-year-old and none of us want to leave.

I just walked to the Pompidou area – an urban, edgy area surrounding the audacious contemporary art museum, Centre Pompidou – and I found it still full of life at 10.30pm. That may not seem odd but keep in mind it is a Monday.

The crowd hanging out in the wide pedestrian plazas was a mix of students, the homeless and adults acting younger than they are. It was all very refreshing and tells me that I have missed out on much before I have even boarded a plane out of here.

The city’s architecture is astonishing. The town planning is a marvel. The cohesion of the population – a truly diverse multitude – makes me feel warm inside, and the art gracing every green space adds a richness to French life that residents appear unable to respond to except with public snogging matches.

I love it all.

Today we visited a compulsory cliche, the Eiffel Tower. It was twilight with a cool breeze starting to bite, the kids were over it (the three-year-old didn’t notice the 300m structure until we were literally under it) yet all that and the throngs of immigrant salesmen bothering us to buy hideous trinkets didn’t diminish the tower’s grand gesture to stay fixed on it throughout the sunset. I had no expectations of the tower and had barely seen it poking up across the city all week, but when we arrived, I found it reached well beyond all the postcard artlessness. I found it majestic.

All week we have been surprised by the French.

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Rollerblading is still cool here and many people are very good at it. A pack of the skaters seem to own the square across from the Louvre, one of the world’s most famous art galleries. Our apartment lies at a corner of the square and the ballet of the skaters performing each afternoon (they start about 1pm, does anyone here work?) is pretty mesmerising. It’s great to watch and not just for the tricks. Locals and tourists all stop. It’s a free show. No one says that about skateboarders in Martin Place. And the cops regularly move them on anyhow.  Here, the police, or ‘gendarmerie’, are more likely to applaud.

From our window yesterday I watched a street washer get into a shouting match with a high-class couple whose shoes he had obviously hosed. They yelled complaints, he yelled back louder no doubt something about having a job to do before they trotted off to tell two policemen nearby. The policemen clearly made them feel better as they left the short chat looking pleased. The police then headed down toward the street washer but passed him by without a word. Huh! I thought. That’s how this city gets along so well. Chilling out is not just encouraged, nor is it a pastime, it is enforced.

Many shops and galleries shut at midday to reopen at 2pm. The parks are everywhere and they are full, all day. And there are free chairs for all. They are quality metal chairs and they are everywhere, provided by the state – gratuit.

Two fire trucks pulled up outside our building last Friday. One had a ladder so it all appeared quite serious. We, on the second floor began gathering our things. A gaggle of young female models at a modelling agency downstairs did no such thing. As firefighters unraveled hoses and strode importantly to and from the fire escape, the agency’s photographer set up on the footpath of the downstairs cafe and resumed his photo shoot.

We now had cafe staff, pedestrians, gawkers, models and a photographer all hindering the firefighters from potentially saving our lives. Did anyone care? Noh. Did the firefighters even complain? Noh.


Why can’t the whole world be as relaxed? Why aren’t we all happy enough to let kids ride in the train  driver’s compartment, to eat three-cheese baguettes for brekky, to pash extravagantly on a park bench or stay out late on a Monday without fear of being moved on. If you’re in Paris, you can, and it’s not like you even have work in the morning.

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