Another dawn, Mahon Pool

April 2015 Mahon Pool Sunrise BW

We’ve moved to Sydney for 3 months now. In many ways, we’re loving it. Loving the plethora of outdoor opportunities, especially snorkeling and kayaking, activities we don’t get much of a chance to indulge in Chicago. While we haven’t made many new friends, we’re lucky to have friends and family in the city, and they’ve helped ease us in.

I won’t lie – last week was hard. Jeff’s been working crazy long hours at work, a situation we thought would improve now that he’s moved to the Asia office and can keep their hours. Meanwhile, I’ve been cooped up at home. I’m still working remotely for Chicago, but that will end this April. In the meantime, I’ve sent out countless of resumes. Job hunting has been a demoralizing experience so far, and it’s exhausting trying to keep my spirits up in the search.

So it was good that we got to go out this weekend. On Saturday, we visited the Pyrmont Fish Market, and on Sunday, we finally went down to La Perouse for a spot of snorkeling. Even with wetsuits on, the water’s cold! Visibility wasn’t the greatest, maybe 10 feet if that. But hey, I was glad to be outside.

This morning, I got up early for the sunrise, and drove to Mahon Pool. Alas, it was a little too cloudy. Nonetheless, I had fun watching the waves crash over the rocks; it’s hypnotizing. Although it was a brisk morning, there were several hardy souls doing laps in the rock pool – and in just their swimmers, sans wetsuits! I met a couple other photographers who were clambering over the rocks too, and we fell into conversation. One, a lady who is studying Chinese medicine, lives right by the water, and has a fantastic view of the coast from her apartment. Nonetheless, she’s out along the water’s edge every single sunrise. We exchanged numbers; she said to give her a ring the next time I was in the area. Another is an older man, a surfer type who walked around barefoot and with a woolen cap pulled low over his grizzly face. He showed me his surf and wave photography, and they are an inspiration.

April 2015 Mahon Pool Sunrise 1

And the sun did peek through the clouds, eventually.

Wine tasting in Barossa and McLaren Vale

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Over the Easter holidays, we took a short trip down to Adelaide down in South Australia, with the primary aim to check out the different wine regions. We’d planned the itinerary such that we visited Barossa on Thursday, hiked over Good Friday, and visited McLaren Vale on Saturday. Fortuitously so, because when we arrived we learnt that most places shuts down completely on Good Fridays!

Anyway, the point of this post is create a repository of sorts of the wineries we visited, and the standout wines for us. We barely scratched the surface on our exploratory trip. There’s still the whole of Clare Valley, Eden Valley, Adelaide Hills, Coonawarra! But it was a good teaser. While we found Adelaide itself a pretty unremarkable sleepy but green town and its nearby seaside town of Glenelg little more than a tourist trap, the wine regions are world class. The restaurants we hit were all really good as well.

In total, we visited 9 wineries. A few standouts: Greenock Creek, Torbreck, and D’Arenberg. The others had a couple wines that we loved too, but those three had a wide range of well made wines.

The one place whose wines we were quite disappointed with, Kaesler, also happened to be the one place that actually charged us for tasting. They charged us $30 for two people, even though we had elected to share a single glass. Unfortunately, their wines mostly seemed unbalanced, either too hot in the nose or in the mouth, with a bitter sort of finish. It was a letdown, particularly since the wines had come at the recommendation of a wine broker who was the boyfriend of one of Jeff’s acquaintances.

First stop of the trip was Two Hands. We’ve been a fan of their Garden series, but had never tasted the rest of their line up, so we were excited for the opportunity. But although we were the first ones in the cellar door, our host seemed most distracted, pouring our tastings then disappearing into the next room for long minutes before he popped back out to refill our glasses. That kind of put a damper on the experience. In all, we tasted 7 bottles there, with the favorites being:

1. 2013 Samantha’s Garden $60 – velvety tannins, quite restrained

2. 2013 Bella’s Garden $60 – brighter, more fruit that Sam’s. Bigger tannins

3. 2012 Secret Block Moppa Hills Barossa Valley Shiraz $100 – delicious. HUGE nose with silky, silky tannins

We didn’t buy any wines though, in part due to our lukewarm tasting experience.

We stopped at Greenock Creek next, where again we were the first tasters in the cosy cellar. Our host there was much more affable, and enthusiastically talked us through his lineup of 6 wines. Favorites:

1. 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon $38 – capsicum, beautiful tannins, smooth

2. 2012 Apricot Block $38 – the wine was so named because the parcel of land on which it came from used to be an apricot plantation. Anyway, beautiful wine, with smooth tannins and bright fruit. Granite soil

3. Seven Acre Shiraz $48 – really elegant!

4. 2005 Roennfeldt Road Shiraz $200 – HUGE! Big nose of spice. Big body, with a bit of port/prune because of the high alky (17.5%). Looooong finish

It’s interesting to note that Greenock, going forward this year, has decided to revert all their closures back to cork. Previously, they had used stelvin closures for most of their wines intended for domestic consumption, but have since decided that cork is the way to go. We left with their Cab and the Seven Acre. Would have bought more but we wanted to play it safe since we still had a bunch of wineries to visit.

Torbreck was next on our list, where, from their extensive wine list, we picked 12 to taste. We were really taken with 3 bottles in particular:

1. 2011 The Steading (56 Grenache, 23 Shiraz, 21 Mataro) $37.50 – French style, light bodied, smooth tannins

2. 2012 The Pict (100% Mataro, single vineyard, Greenock) $75 – loved the nose. Spicy. Beautiful structure

3. 2012 The Gask (100% Shiraz) – very elegant!!!

At Torbreck, we were also given the opportunity to taste some of their more premium wines alongside their museum collection. :) We are always so appreciative of cellar doors that do so, because we aren’t likely to shell out good money for something we aren’t sure how it tastes! Anyway, we tasted the $125 2012 and 2002 The Factor Shiraz side by side. Both were quite yummy, with notes of blueberries. The 2002 felt like it could still stand a few more years in the bottle! We also tried the $125 2012 Descendant (92 Shiraz, 8 Viognier, co-fermented) – soooo smooth. And the $235 2006 and 2012 Run Rig (97 Shiraz 3 Viognier). While the 2006 had mellowed out to yield notes of blueberries, the still-to-be-released 2012 was still very young and close, albeit with smooth tannins. These were well made wines, but The Pict stood out for us the most, in part because we found it the best bang for the buck. Departed with a bottle of that; would have bought The Steading and The Gask as well, but we were still cautious of how many bottles we wanted to hand carry back.

A brief stop for lunch at FermentAsian to refuel, then we hit up the aforementioned Kaesler. We did like their $150 Alte Reben Shiraz, and found it to be beautifully balanced, especially in comparison with their other wines heh.

Maybe because we were feeling quite sleepy after a full and delicious meal at FermentAsian, but we didn’t feel quite inspired by the wines at Rockford. I mean, we couldn’t find any fault with them, but my notes were mostly scribbled of “nice”. That’s well, pretty sedate as far as recommendations go. But I’d like to think though, they should be in fact quite lovely, especially the $59 2011 Basket Press Shiraz, with its notes of white pepper and spice.

Our last stop in Barossa was at Grant Burge. They didn’t give free tastings of the Meshach (of which we have, and love, the 2002), but we did taste a bunch of their other wines, my favorite of the lot being the $75 2012 1887 Shiraz – smooth tannins and beautiful structure.

Saturday morning, we drove the 45 minutes from Adelaide to McLaren Vale. Compared to Barossa, McLaren Vale is so much more picturesque, with its gentle rolling hills of golden vines. We were again the first customers in the tasting room, this time at D’Arenberg, and enjoyed the attention we were given, especially since the tasting room filled up a half hour into our tasting.

As we started on the whites – of which the winery has a long list for tasting – our host pointed out a stack of cases in the corner. Those were entry level Stump Jump Shiraz meant for export to Sweden, he told us, but the exporter cancelled the order at the last moment. Because they had already slapped on labels designating export to Sweden, the winery couldn’t sell them to domestic retailers here and was thus offloading them at steep discounts to customers. Haha we snapped up a case. It will make for great everyday wine at fantastic value!

We spent over an hour at D’Arenberg. We started off picking a few to taste, but our host kept enthusiastically recommending more to try; who are we to decline?

Our favorites:
1. NV DADD Sparkling $28 – made in the traditional champagne method, a serious bready wine. Yummy. We may have picked up two bottles

2. 2013 The Witches Berry Chardonnay, cellar door exclusive $18 – we picked up a couple. Very clean, with just a hint of wood, refreshing

3. 2013 The Money Spider Roussanne $20 – good lemony, easy to drink

4. 2006 The Twenty Eight Road Mouvedre $40 and 2010 The Twenty Eight Road Mouvedre $29 – we enjoyed both. Lovely berry nose. Bought two back (no holds barred now, since shipping was free haha)

5. The Coppermine Road Cabernet Sauvignon $65 – it is doubly lovely to taste a cab in between all that Shiraz. The backbone and structure that the cab provides is all the more refreshing. Gorgeously balanced. We also tried the 2006 vintage, which would have benefitted from a longer decanting (we opened a new bottle to taste). Still, the tannins were still pretty robust in the 2006, so this is a wine that will keep. Bought a bottle

6. The Blind Tiger Single Vineyard Shiraz $100 – so elegant, so delicious. Floral nose, with notes of blue berries. Super smooth tannins. We tasted this along side The Other Side and The Swinging Malaysian, also single vineyard Shiraz at $100. The other two were more restrained, with grippier tannins, but still quite yummy. Bought a bottle of the Tiger

Popped over to Mollydooker next door after. Their tasting room set up is very different. Instead of a bar that you stand at, we shuffled around long tables set in a rectangle, moving from one bottle to the next. Mollydooker’s Carnival of Love is their signature wine; their 2012 was most recently rated #2 wine of 2014 on WineSpectator. We tasted the 2013 vintages. The Carnival of Love, at $75 a bottle, we found still quite closed. Smooth tannins, but restrained. In comparison, we really liked the Blue Eyed Boy Shiraz ($49). Velvety tannins, lovely dark fruit. Beautifully balanced. Just delicious. Picked up a bottle. Their Gigglepost Cabernet Sauvignon ($49) was a great example of Cab as well.

We decided to take it easy on the wine tasting, and visited one more stop before we drove back into the city for lunch. Coriole was our pick. I’d never heard of the winery before, but chose it after browsing online for suggestions on where to go in McLaren Vale. The winemaker seems partial to Italian grapes. They have wines from Fiano, Barbera, and Sangiovese. Our favorites though, were the 2013 The Dancing Fig Mouvedre Grenache Shiraz ($25 cellar door only wine) and the 2013 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon ($30), both of which we bought. The Dancing Fig was lively and vibrant, with lovely mouthfeel of blueberries. The Cab had a gorgeous smoky and spicy nose. Great structure.

Overall, we were really very impressed with the quality of wines that we tasted – and yes, they were more exciting than the Hunter Valley wines in general. Just have to find another time to visit!

*All prices in AUD btw

Aida on the Sydney Harbor

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Photo credit: Hamilton Lund

 There were three things I really enjoyed about Handa Opera’s Aida, set under a starry night sky against the iconic Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbor Bridge:

1. The gorgeous background. I mean, you see the sun set over the opera house and bridge before the opera begins. And you’ve a great view too of the twinkling lights that come on in the skyscrapers downtown

2. Camels. There were 4 real life camels, including a baby! Radames rode in on one on his triumphant return to Egypt

3. Fireworks in the Second Act. When else, if ever, would you get fireworks during an opera?!?

Unfortunately though, we didn’t really enjoy the musical performance. For one, the orchestra was hidden under the stage and their playing broadcasted – too loudly – over the speakers. For another, given the alfresco staging, the singers were miked. We felt like we were watching a Broadway production of Aida instead of opera, where singers for the most part belted out their arias with no subtlety or beauty of tone. Aida herself put up an impassioned performance. But Radames we felt was too wooden and his voice indistinctive.

Faced with a jammed packed schedule the next morning and a blah musical performance, we decided to leave at intermission. I’ve seen a number of different Aida productions before anyway. Still, we were pleased to have experienced Opera by the Harbor at least once. Now we know what it’s about!

Proud to be Singaporean

Mar 2015 Coogee Sunrise without Sun-10

Last Monday morning, I woke up early to try catch the sunrise at Coogee. It wasn’t to be. The clouds were thick and grey, low over the horizon. For the briefest moment, I saw a silver of orange in the far horizon, then it was obscured.

As I walked back to the car, I glanced at my phone and saw an email from my aunt in DC. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, had passed away at 3:18am Singapore time, about when I was struggling with my camera and the light. The gloomy weather seemed wholly appropriate then.

It’s odd. Along with many other Singaporeans who have taken to online forums, blogs, and social media vocalizing their bereavement this past week, I’ve been surprised at the extent of my sense of loss. I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life now living outside of Singapore, and can’t honestly say that I’ve kept up with politics back home. I took the opportunity though, to re-read his tomes, starting with The Singapore Story. I’ve read it a couple times over the years, but this time I had a much fuller and deeper appreciation of his and his team’s struggle. It took true visionaries to bring Singapore to where it is today, and testament to this fact is the long list of world leaders who have, over the past week, written touching tributes about the full life of Mr. Lee.

Maybe it’s my upbringing in a Chinese school (established by the government in 1956, in the midst of the Chinese Middle School Riots to allow non-communist students to continue their study) that critics’ charges that Mr. Lee and his government was needlessly autocratic never resonated with me. In fact, his government’s policies about the length of young men’s hair or chewing gum paled in comparison to the rules we had to subscribe to in school: girls’ skirts had to be at least an inch below the knee; their bangs had to be an inch above the eyebrows; white canvas school shoes had to be white washed with no stripes; boys had to wear neutral colored underpants. We also had detailed regulations about the type of watches we could wear, down to the specific design and size, as well as bags that we could carry – backpacks, in dark colors and brand patches had to be less than 5% of the surface volume. In any case, my classmates and I survived school, and I can’t say that we were the worse for those rules. If anything, we now chuckle fondly about the times we were punished for the many little infractions we managed to chalk up.

So, last week was a sad week for Singapore and Singaporeans. But, it was also a heart-warming week. In recent years, the online chatter has been that of complaints – about our lack of civil liberties, about the dominant one party, about whatever lah. But last week, the previously silent majority spoke up, and by gosh, the outpouring of acknowledgments and gratitude to his life’s work was phenomenal. Mr. Lee’s life-long dream was to work towards a Singapore where its citizens felt pride as one people, one nation. Last week, we paid tribute to his memory by doing exactly that. I spent many hours poring over the dozens of well written and thoughtful eulogies by world leaders, respected journalists, citizens, and his family.

This week and onwards though, it’s time to put the goodbyes aside. The best way we can honor his memory is to try to live life as he did.

Enjoying Aussie Wines

In our move, from Chicago to Singapore to Sydney temp housing, to our current rental, we have managed to lose our prized collection of waiter’s cockscrews. Boo! Pretty bumped about that, particularly since I had a beloved on that PS got me more than 10 years ago from him study abroad in Paris.

Ah well, on the bright side, Australian wines are mostly screw caps. And that’s mostly what we’ve been drinking. So we haven’t needed to utilize any of our implements at all.

It has been fun tasting our way through wines here. Our huge wine fridge from home has arrived, along with the rest of our furniture, but we’ve been guzzling down wine at a faster pace than we can load up, a good problem to have.

One recent night, we popped open a bottle of Pewsy Single Select Chardonnay, a full bodied, smooth and buttery liquid gold that was such a pleasure to wash down with homemade hearty chicken noodle soup.

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I poured the dregs of it into the saucepan of mince pork and carrots, celery, garlics and onion. Then opened up a bottle of Holm Oak Pinot Noir from Tasmania to round off the dinner.

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My favorite red, and I think I can say this unequivocally, is a silky smooth and soft and blush-red Pinot. With a heady bouquet of freshly turned wet earth, strawberries and chocolate covered cherries. It dances on your tongue, the wine; supple and vivacious. And the finish: quiet but lingering, and you wait for it to fade out before picking up the glass again. This Holm Oak Pinot, while it doesn’t quite get up there on my list of favorites, provides quite a bit of bang for the buck. Yummers.

A swimming, kayaking, and snorkeling weekend

The weather forecast this weekend was somewhat iffy. We weren’t going to let that stop us though. Late afternoon Saturday, we put on our swimmers and headed south to Marouba to check out the tidal pool, Mahon Pool.

The pool itself isn’t large, but wow, is that location gorgeous! The tide was in, so the crashing waves against the rocks into the pool made for a dramatic setting. The water was very brisk, so we kept on the move. After about a half hour though, we quickly toweled off as the sun had started to lose its intensity and a strong breeze picked up. Please don’t let summer be really over yet!

Drove down to La Perouse, where we were meeting some friends for dinner at Driftwood by the Bay. Had a bit of time before sundown, so we walked over to Bare Island again. Haha, again, there was a whole group of wedding and engagement couples scattered about the island, posing this way and that for their teams of photographers and lighting crew. We enjoyed a short stroll around, then lounged at the restaurant and watched the sun set over yet another beautiful day in Sydney.

Mar 2015 La Perouse-15

It was very overcast Sunday morning when we woke up, but we felt hopeful as we made the hour drive up to Clareville near Palm Beach. The sun did peek out intermittently through the clouds though. Small meetup group today, with an even mix of rentals and BYO kayaks.

Mar 2015 Palm Beach Kayak-5

Alas, it was quite gusty out on the water today. Combined with the fact that some members of the group were completely new to kayaking, meant that we abandoned the plan to paddle up to Palm Beach. Instead, we made do with paddling just around the Clareville area. Still, it was nice to be out on the water, and we did get in some workout battling the wind!

After a hearty fish and chips meal with the group, Jeff and I deliberated about whether to head straight home, or stop by Shelly Beach in Manly for a bit of a snorkel. Ultimately, we decided on the latter. Never mind that grey clouds still loomed threateningly overhead. We were already a bit damp anyway!

Awesome decision! The water was quite cold, and the visibility not the best, but we had a blast floating about anyway, looking at all the different species of fish and kelp we’re not familiar with. We saw a gigantic Eastern Blue Groper, a big flat head resting in the sand, a stingray nestled in the sand between the kelp, and a school of little fishes that swayed in the current just at the edge of the kelp. And, as we started finning our way back towards the beach, we spied a meter-long juvenile dusky whaler shark swimming out of the cove, in the direction of a group of shore divers we had just seen moments before. Hehe, both Jeff and I followed its movement with glee, then when it disappeared off into deeper waters, we broke above the surface to whoop and cheer.

Can’t wait to get back into the waters again next weekend!

A Short South Coogee Stroll

Last Sunday afternoon, itching for something to do outside, we decided to head over to Coogee for a short stroll before taking a dip in Wylie’s Pool.

Coogee was definitely a lot more crowded than the first time we visited, especially since it was early morning then and drizzly. It was a glorious day out this time, and the ocean a brilliant blue, filled with surfers and swimmers.

We elected to walk south of Coogee instead, a choice that led us away from the crowds. The view was still spectacular though, and we wondered if the lucky occupants of the luxurious cliff-side homes ever tired of it.

Mar 2015 Coogee Walk-11

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A swimmer at Wylie’s Bath braving the surf at high tide

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Afterwards, we hopped in for a bit of a swim in Wylie’s Baths. Heh this was our first time swimming in a tidal pool, and we weren’t sure what to expect. Certainly not clumps of insidious sea urchins lying about the rocky floor! What was super duper cool though, was the octopus I saw swimming along with me as I stroked my way down the outer edge of the pool. When I dove deeper to have a look, it wedged itself into a crevice, where it stayed for quite a while. I returned to the spot a few more times in between my laps, just to peer again at it winking its suckers at me. :) Now that our stuff from Chicago has finally arrived, including our snorkel gear, we can’t wait to check out more tidal pools. Jeff’s gonna bring his wetsuit and skin suit the next time though; the 22 deg waters was too chilly for him!

Faust at the Sydney Opera House

Caught our first opera of the season, Faust, at the Sydney Opera House. Great evening out! The cast, headed by the young but fast rising American star tenor Michael Fabiano (of the 2007 The Audition fame), was uniformly strong. What a treat! With the exception of Fabiano and Teddy Tahu Rhodes whom we saw as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Lyric, we’d never heard of the rest of the singers before. But we will definitely be watching out for them now!

We enjoyed the visuals too – Jeff preferred this staging to the one we saw in Santa Fe, although it’s hard if not impossible to beat the electric atmosphere that stormy evening in Santa Fe, where the winds were howling and lightning flashing in the background of the backless theatre as Mephistopheles did his dramatic entrance, cape snapping in the wind.

Truth be told, I’ve always found the plot a little problematic. Why does Faust leave Maraguerite if he’s that in love with her? And how does she receive salvation for the murder of her baby in the end? Regardless, the music is its saving grace. I had to consciously stop myself from bobbing my head along at the many catchy arias and choruses.

SMH’s review here:

Faust review: Michael Fabiano leads a devilishly good ensemble
February 18, 2015
Harriet Cunningham

Sex and Religion. It’s a potent combination, and never more so than when amplified by confused 19th century morality and lurid iconography. Add in Gounod’s lush melodies and a no-expenses-spared staging – thank you, Opera Conference – and all you need to achieve ecstasy, be it religious and/or sexual, is a great ensemble cast. Happily, Opera Australia has one, and on opening night they delivered with the grand munificence of a jewel-bearing Mephistopheles.

Faust is a well-trodden tale: man gets old, gets bored, sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a bit more fun. It’s all about pleasure now (and pain later, but let’s ignore that…). In Gounod’s version, based on Goethe’s play, Mephistopheles closes the deal by showing Faust a beautiful young girl – Marguerite – and promising she will be his.

The production’s original director, Sir David McVicar, serves up Gounod’s heavy-handed messages of guilt and redemption with an extravagant but deadpan theatricality – shafts of light, heavenly voices, wings and the ubiquitous organ solo. It’s almost absurd, at times, but then so is the diabolical side of the coin, complete with pitchforks, smoke and flames. What saves it from parody is the underlying setting, evoked by Charles Edwards’ painterly set design. We are in a theatre, Mephistopheles and Faust are in a theatre, church is theatre, and it’s all a grand and deftly handled performance, which invites not just ridicule but also reflection.

Theatricality is everywhere. The chorus revel in their crowd scenes, the audience revels in a picture-perfect ballet sequence plus a generous dose of dirty dancing. Revival choreographer Daphne Strothmann draws electric performances from the colourful troupe of showgirls, furies and demons.

Conductor Guillaume Tourniaire gives a pacy reading of Gounod’s expansive score, holding the many elements together with great facility and drawing a keen, urgent sound from the orchestra which will hopefully find greater focus during the season.

As for the voices, this is luxury casting indeed: Mephistopheles is a gift of a role, and Teddy Tahu Rhodes grabs it whole-heartedly. Physically and vocally, it’s a great match. Nicole Car continues to impress with her even yet passionate tone. Marguerite is a tough challenge, musically and dramatically, but she shatters those top notes with a dazzling but never harsh focus, managing to make grand opera intimate. Giorgio Caoduro, making his role debut as Valentin, stops time with his moving aria ‘Avant de quitter…’, a highlight of the show.

And then there’s American tenor Michael Fabiano as Faust. Fabiano is clearly headed for great things, a magnetic stage presence, convincing in all his myriad guises. His voice is huge and, if anything, it feels like he holds back, hitting the top notes with relative ease but not giving every note full weight. Vocally, his performance grows in intensity and richness towards the end of the opera, but even at the climax I suspect he has plenty in reserve. Watch this space.