Life in ruins: Mexico

Karen Kissane digs through the complex layers of Mexico’s modern life and discovers ancient mystery and wonder.

The young man with gelled hair and artfully torn jeans leaves his girlfriend on the sidelines of the dance floor and takes up with his little sister. He holds himself proudly, with the machismo of the Latino, as his hands move her and spin her around. She is half his height but holds herself like a princess, concentrating so as not to miss a step, her face alight.Near them is a small Mayan man in black pants so old they have shiny patches. In his pork-pie hat he wears a jaunty feather. He holds his stout wife as she snake-hips her way through the salsa. Beside them is a four-year-old with her mother and grandmother, swaying to the music, her gaze distant, her body moving with the rhythms of the band.They all dance under a simple awning erected in the square outside one of Oaxaca’s churches. The Mexican evening is warm and benevolent, like the mood of the people sitting in rows of plastic seats to watch and clap and gossip. Oaxaca is a big town but this is a village moment; when communal happiness seems a simple thing, easily grasped.Two weeks later, when I was long gone, charming Oaxaca exploded into riots quelled with troops and tear gas. The riots are linked to those of last year when teachers went on strike and “occupied” the centre of town. Back then, gunmen allegedly killed three people and the federal government sent in 3000 troops to end the protest by force. The clampdown saw several protesters killed and fuelled local fury about social inequity.

As with so much of Mexico, the beautiful city of Oaxaca is bewitching and deeply volatile. This is a country in which history may be built upon or even subsumed, but it is rarely forgotten; in which a sense of injustice at oppression runs deep, through many layers of society; and in which death is celebrated in a way that makes life more vivid.

The ancient ruins are magnificent, the modern plumbing erratic. The humour comes dry and the margaritas come in goblets the size of fishbowls. For the Western tourist seeking relief from Anglo blandness, it doesn’t get much better than Mexico.

It didn’t seem like that at first. My first stop, Mexico City, or Distro Federal, is grey and crowded. The severe architecture of its huge square, the Plaza de la Constitucion (known as the Zocalo), bounded by the presidential palace and the cathedral, is grand but dour. The charm of the shops in its historic precinct is compromised more than a little by the security guards with submachine-guns lounging in doorways – not just in the high-end shops such as jewellers but even in chemists and bakeries.

One night, when I’m tucked in bed with a guidebook, the reason for the tight security becomes clear. Mugging and carjacking are common in Mexico City, and on regional roads whole busloads have been hijacked. A decade ago the country was also notorious for its kidnappings, though these have been reined in.

So I fear the worst when woken at 3am by gunfire and police sirens in the square outside. Another member of the tour pokes his head out a window and is confused by the sight of someone sitting in a fold-up chair in the middle of the chaos outside. We ask about it at the front desk next morning and are left feeling sheepish; it had been the shooting of a TV show. That is the closest any of us – six Australians travelling with a local guide, a driver and minivan – come to a crime over 15 days and 3800 kilometres in Mexico.

I learn that Mexico City wears its colours on the inside. Behind many of those dark facades of fume-stained stone is a riot of decoration – Moorish Spanish colonial tiles and arches, ironwork, fountains, paintings, balustrades.

The city holds fast to its sense of history. A statue near the hotel depicts the story of the city’s founding. The Aztecs had a legend that they would establish a great civilisation in a marshy area where they would see a cactus growing out of a rock and, perched on the cactus, an eagle eating a snake. Their priests saw this when they first arrived here and in the 14th century the Aztecs built Tenochtitlan, which is now Mexico City. Today the eagle, cactus and serpent appear on Mexican paper money.

As I am here on a tour of ancient sites I start to wonder about the interweaving of this old world I would visit with the modern Mexico that is all around me.

At the graceful art deco Palacio de Bellas Artes there is an exhibition of the work of Frida Kahlo, the tortured artist who painted bluntly and beautifully about unlovely things: her miscarriages, her operations, a friend’s suicide. Here, I learn about the Mexican passion for colour and for life.

At the city’s world-renowned museum of anthropology I lay my hand on a huge carved stone with a scooped-out centre in which the ancient Aztecs burned the hearts of enemies and those of their own who were sacrificed to the gods. I learn about blood-lust and the belief that death for some brings life to others.

At the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Catholic Mexico’s holiest shrine, I learn that it was once the site of Aztec worship of the mother of all the gods, Tonantzin, who was identified with the moon. The church is believed to be on the exact spot where her pyramid once stood. Some anthropologists believe that the Virgin, who is said to have appeared in visions to a native Mexican 450 years ago and left her image on a cloth, is a “christianised” Tonantzin and that this is an example of how ancient Aztec beliefs have blended with Catholicism.

Tonantzin, too, had an immaculate conception: she picked up a special feather and found herself pregnant with a magical child.

The Virgin is now a potent symbol of national identity. “Many Mexicans despise the government,” says our guide. “They change the words of the national anthem, or don’t sing it at all. But everyone stands tall and proud to sing the hymn of the Virgin of Guadalupe.”

In common with its pyramids, which can have many levels of buildings from different eras, one on top of the other, Mexico has layers.

The pyramids aren’t really pyramids, the guidebooks will tell you, because they are flat-topped and were not built as graves. Then the guidebooks tell you the pyramid of the sun at Teotihuacan, the pre-Aztec city, is the world’s third-largest pyramid.

It is more than an hour’s drive to get there, past kilometres of grey, boxy houses in the poverty-ridden outer circles of the smoky sprawl that is Mexico City. Many have steel reinforcing rods sticking up out of their flat roofs in hope of a second storey, a triumph of optimism over income.

The Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon are unprepossessing from a distance and extraordinary close up, when their scale and proportions leave humans feeling like ants. The steps on the pyramids are narrow and deep; they had to be in order for the pyramids to rise. Halfway up the smaller Pyramid of the Moon, vertigo gets the better of me. I sit down and gaze out at the temple remains that line the imposing Avenue of Death that leads to the Pyramid of the Sun. The surrounding plain stretches to the horizon.

The view is commanding. I feel like lord of all I survey. “This,” I think, “must be what it feels like to hold power. Heady. Fierce. Invincible.”

The hubris lasts right up until the baking heat makes me want to get down, a task that requires me to abandon all dignity and step sideways at a snail’s pace.

Several days a year, the sun’s trajectory sends the Moon pyramid black and lights the Sun pyramid golden. The ancients who built this city 2000 years ago, who knew so much about the sun and the moon and the stars, must have thought they would be here forever. Now we don’t even know their people’s name.

The dark stone and severe lines of Teotihuacan give it a grim, brooding air. At the paler mountain-top ruins of Monte Alban near Oaxaca, the mood is peaceful and reflective. Its height gives it a sense of stillness and solitude, as do the 360-degree views of valleys and distant hills.

These ancients were into blood sports. Their ritual ball games resulted in death. In some cities it was the death of the loser, in others, the decapitation of the winner. Human sacrifice was also important to propitiate the gods and to give dead royals company on the path to the next world.

At Uxmal in Yucatan I ask if I can be photographed on a stone throne in the middle of a quadrangle. “If you sit on it we must sacrifice,” the guide says. I take that for a no.

The most impressive archaeological site in Mexico is said to be the huge Mayan city of Chichen Itza, voted one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in a recent internet poll.

It has a deep well in which the bones of 800 men, women and children have been found – they were sacrifices to rain god Chaac. Its enormous central pyramid is an embodiment of the mathematics of the Mayan calendar and, twice a year, the position of the sun causes the shadow of a serpent to slither up and then down one of its sides.

For me, though, the most beautiful spot is Palenque, also in Yucatan. The graceful ruins here have only recently been taken back from the jungle and 80 per cent of it is yet to be uncovered. This is the site that feels most like a city, its buildings close together, surrounded on one side by jungle and trees wrapped in thick vines, and on the other by views across a valley.

As we stand at the highest point a toucan lollops its way brilliantly across the sky, its bright yellow beak a flash of gold against the blue. The heaviness of the beak puts the bird permanently off-balance but those beating wings keep it moving despite its ups and downs.

Palenque is a place for lingering. It is haunting. I leave after the others do, tearing myself away.

The exit path curves and twists in hairpin bends, down through Palenque’s jungle. I walk alone in the steaming heat surrounded by vines and moss-covered trees with giant tangled roots. The sky is obliterated by a thick green canopy and all around is the the noise of jungle life – cawing, croaking, trilling and a big-cat kind of roar, from the howler monkeys.

At the end of the trip I want to bring home something to remind me of all the things I love about Mexico: the waterfalls and volcanoes, the bright colours of every building whose owners could afford paint, the manicured squares at the heart of towns, the insistence of even the poorest people that life should still have colour and music.

I find it in Oaxaca. There, in one of its craft shops, sits a wooden triptych with nine images of self-portraits by Frida Kahlo, whose life was an expression of her art. When her final exhibition opened she was too ill to leave her sickbed, so she had it moved to the gallery and accepted accolades while lying in it.

The frame of the triptych is painted with joyful Mexican extravagance. Over-the-top flowers are scattered all over its edges and it is topped with carved pink roses. From nine squares within it, the uncompromising Kahlo stares out with her slanting gaze. As with the layers inside the pyramids and the goddess behind the Virgin, the painter whose work used the folk art of her people has now, in her turn, been subsumed back into folk art.

Karen Kissane travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures on its Mexico in Depth tour.


Getting there: Qantas flies non-stop from Melbourne and Sydney to Los Angeles, then non-stop to Mexico City with Mexicana from $2199, plus tax of about $620. Air New Zealand has fares from $2142 plus tax via Auckland and Los Angeles. LAN Airlines flies from Sydney to Santiago in Chile via Auckland, then to Mexico City or Cancun. This fare is $2299 from Sydney and $2399 from Melbourne, with a Qantas connection to Sydney. On this fare it is possible to stop in Tahiti, Easter Island and/or Santiago. Fares from Cancun to Mexico City start at $216 plus tax one-way. Conditions apply and taxes vary depending on itinerary, destination and exchange rates.

The tour: Peregrine’s 15-day Mexico in Depth trip begins in Mexico City and includes stops at Teotihuacan to see the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, the city of Oaxaca, the towns of Merida and San Cristobal, the Mayan ruins of Palenque and the ruins at Chichen Itza. The trip finishes on the beaches of Playa del Carmen, near Cancun. Prices start at $2595 a person twin share and include a tour leader and local guides, accommodation, breakfasts, transport, sightseeing and entrance fees. Phone Peregrine Adventures, 1300 854 500, or see .

First published in The Age.

How the other half relax



InterContinental, Sydney
The basics
The eye-candy was pretty, if a little surreal, in the lift lobby on my floor. The young men were handsome, square-jawed, solidly built. They greeted each other with masculine grunts or silent salutes of the water bottles they always carried.
But they were curiously attired. Waiting for a lift, I studied their running shoes, their shorts and the muscles bulging under incongruously bright, shiny Lycra leggings, and said demurely, “Theme party, is it?”
They looked back at me blankly. Banter was not their game; some kind of footy was. I was later told that I had probably been speaking to Wallabies, who were also staying at the InterContinental Hotel in Sydney that week. The hotel’s demographic catchment, then, is wide, because it was also hosting international authors such as Naomi Wolf for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, plus many local literati.
The bar and restaurant seemed mainly patronised by wealthy Americans dressed in mid-western low fashion, but it is not always so. High-profile guests in the past have included Cate Blanchett, Cher, Rod Stewart, kd lang, Powderfinger, Luciano Pavarotti and Condi Rice. I was about to discover how the other .00001 per cent live – and it’s very comfortably indeed.
For us, the best thing about the hotel was the Cortile, a cafe and bar in a large, atrium-like space on the ground floor, surrounded on two sides by three storeys of historic brick and sandstone balconies (the hotel is built around the old Treasury building) and flooded with light. It is a stylish but comfortable space, where you are free to browse through the Saturday papers for as long as you like. Its crowning glory is a centrepiece of a gilded urn filled with a metres-high display of Australian dried flowers (with apologies to Carmen Miranda).
The service
This is one lovely pub. The service during my four-day stay was perfect: cheerful and attentive, with not a flutter of an eyelid to suggest the staff were disappointed by my determined non-tipping. Every little request was dealt with swiftly: when I realised I had left my mobile phone charger at home, housekeeping dispatched a young man with a box of chargers that had been left behind by other guests. He found one that fitted but it had an American plug. Undeterred, he took off and then reappeared wheeling a trolley with something the size of a small toaster that weighed a helluva lot more. He had found me a transformer. In the courtyard bar and cafe, the waiter did not miss a beat when I told him one night that I was too tired for food or drink but wanted to stay and people-watch. “Can I bring you an iced water?” he suggested courteously. The housemaids found my note requesting peppermint tea bags and silently left them for me; the young men looking after cars and luggage were quick and pleasant but never ingratiating. The only glitch was that after check-in my luggage did not make it to my room as promised, but it arrived five minutes after my follow-up phone call.
The rooms
This was the largest and most comfortable room I have ever had in an Australian five-star hotel. It gave me glimpses of Sydney Harbour and was stylish and simply furnished but full of small comforts. The bed, decorated like the rest of the room in stone and aubergine, was as big as some high-density backyards. There was a generous table set up as a desk, with a proper reading lamp, and four desk-height electrical outlets for executives trying to set up laptops and modems – no undignified crawling around the floor looking for outlets here. At the foot of the bed was a chaise longue, and the room also had a window seat on which one could sit with a glass of champers and watch the sparkly lights at night. No sad nylon curtains – there was a shade-blind and a nifty electric night blind that zipped up and down via a button beside the bed. The room had a well-stocked mini-bar and coffee and tea-making facilities.
The bathrooms
Check out the Harry Potter mirror. Run a hot steamy shower; the mirror will mist up except for a portrait-sized square in the centre, which stays immaculately clear and ready for make-up or shaving (or both, I suppose, for those of us with more complex grooming needs). The water was hot and there was lots of it; the granite surrounds of the basin had been cleverly designed with a ledge all round that will cater for even the most compulsive collector of paintpots and perfume bottles. The towels and bathrobes were thick and fluffy and the toiletries, by Audleys of London, elegantly packaged.
The food
Much of the fare here was out of my range, so this is a very limited comment. Favouring breakfasts around the $10 mark, I had a pleasant time with my “medley of muffins” (two) and hot chocolate in the Cortile cafe. The steak sandwich one lunch-time was a bit of disappointment – the meat was tender but lukewarm and gristly, and the chips weren’t hot either. It might have been because the chefs were preparing for high tea, a silver-service affair with little cakes and savoury tarts, clotted cream and freshly made crepes. A late-night room-service pizza was soggy – too generous a hand with the cheese.
The location
For anyone holidaying in the city of Sydney, the hotel is brilliantly placed, only a block from the water. Out the front door and round to the right is Circular Quay, with its ferries (both tourist and commuter types) and its views. On one side is the matronly glory of the Opera House, on the other the industrial grandeur of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The pretty walk from one to the other is along the water’s edge, passing a historic three-masted schooner (available for sailing) and the stylish Doyle’s seafood restaurant. The historic Rocks area is only a 20-minute stride away.
The hotel has 509 rooms and suites, high-speed internet access, voicemail, several dining rooms, 14 function rooms, a business centre, gym and pool, as well as a day spa that offers hair, beauty and massage treatments.
The place
InterContinental Sydney, corner of Bridge and Phillip streets, Sydney. Telephone (02) 9253 9000;;
The lowest internet rate is $251 (advance purchase 14 days/no cancellation). A standard city-view room starts from $295 (including buffet breakfast for two in Cafe Opera). A Club InterContinental package of $365 a day includes deluxe breakfast, high tea, and evening drinks with canapes, as well as spectacular views of the harbour from the rooftop lounge. All packages include complimentary use of the gymnasium and indoor heated pool. Check-in is 3pm and check-out is 11am. — KAREN KISSANE
All short breaks and city breaks are conducted anonymously and paid for.
A luxurious, pampering cocoon. Perhaps the hotel is best described in the words of a young man walking around the lobby with his over-awed sweetheart. Responding to her murmured praise of the place, he preened. Like a sentimental bloke with his Doreen, he then said, in a fine piece of Australian understatement: “Bit’uv orright, inn’t?”First published in The Age.

Magnificent Maldon

SHORT BREAKS – Calder House

Karen Kissane

Back in the ’60s, when prime-time television was awash with goodness and niceness, there was a show called Petticoat Junction. It was about a cheerfully harried middle-aged widow running a rustic hotel with her three perky daughters, Bobbie Jo, Billie Jo and Betty Jo (yes, yes, only in America). It was a family business, and guests always got to know the family’s business.
That’s the thing about a country bed-and-breakfast place. It’s up close and personal. If it’s the real McCoy, you get to hear your hosts’ life story (reciprocation, thankfully, is not required).
Which is why I can tell you about Gaylia Lowe’s first kiss. She told us all about it while engaged in a long and tangled explanation about why she would not be here to cook our dinner. “It was long and sweet and gentle,” she says, her voice dreamy but her eyes full of mischief. Before explaining that she (and her husband George) would shortly be off to celebrate the 50th birthday of the man with whom she had shared it.
Gaylia was anxious to reassure us (and herself) that our dinner was in good hands. Her three adult daughters – Tyler, Cassie and Nadine – would take over: one waiting front of house, one cooking, and one, as her sister so beautifully expressed it to us later, playing “dish pig”.
We were privy to all this because we had rather taken to the chesterfields, the music system and the free port – a deeply happy combination – in the guest drawing room at Calder House. The Lowes run a bed-and-breakfast in this lushly restored historic home, built in the 1860s, in the former goldfields town of Maldon. The grandeur of the drawing room – high ceilings, delicately painted cornices, rich wallpaper and ornate dressers – contrasted sweetly with the domesticity of the bulletins delivered by various female heads popping around the door on their way to or from the kitchen, which happened to be nearby.
On a winter’s weekend, Calder House would be a perfectly comfortable hidey hole for curling up with a book or music or a game of chess. On a warm day, it is even nicer; there is a choice of the chesterfields or of the cushioned wicker chairs and tables on the broad veranda that overlooks the sunny cottage garden. Failing that, the largest bedroom, “Elizabeth’s room”, is a generous bed-sitting room that has two couches and a small table and chairs as well as a prettily dressed four-poster bed. There are nice little touches; an almost-bridal spray of fresh flowers sits on the table, and the antique dresser has heart-shaped mirrors.
Downstairs in the drawing room, there is a folder with a history of the house and on the walls are photographs of the family of Thomas Calder, the local businessman who built the house. The two grand front rooms – one of which is now Ruby’s Restaurant – were built to accommodate the governor-general who visited the house in 1884, and it has also offered hospitality to the writer Henry Handel Richardson, who was a friend of the Calders.
The little town in which it sits has broad curved streets and shops with wide, old-fashioned veranda fronts. Whatever it once might have been – at its peak, during the gold rush of the 1880s, it had a population bigger than Melbourne’s – Maldon is now a tourist town: it is lined with cafes, arts and crafts and bric-a-brac shops, a motor museum and the kind of old-fashioned lolly shop found in country towns aspiring to an air of old-world charm. It also has Cherry’s Ice Creamery, whose existence is more than justified by the lusciousness of its cherry-ripe ice-cream. Forget sharing with your partner; buy your own.
Having no children with us, we could pass on a browse of the teddy-bear shop and a ride on the Maldon-Castlemaine steam train. We decided against the local wineries and took off for something we hadn’t known existed: Porcupine Township on the outskirts of Maldon. “Recreated 1850s ghost town. Offers hands-on experience of the goldfields era” reads the ad in the tourist magazine.
It felt like a ghost town all right. Once past the ticket-seller, Porcupine village was utterly devoid of life other than our own, perhaps because we went on a hot afternoon. It turns out to be a collection of rough timber and clay buildings, some moved from other sites and some recreated, to mimic a goldfield’s shanty town. It does give a sense of the hardships of life back then; the buildings are small and primitive, with hessian bags for curtains and rough or no flooring. On this hot day they are stifling and buzzing with flies.
At the “undertaker’s”, a small child’s coffin has the words “Our darling” engraved in silver on the lid. Several buildings have old carriages and descriptions of their purpose: brougham, landau, sulky. The “doctor’s surgery” has a notice explaining that a doctor on the goldfields would nail his flag to a post instead of hanging up a shingle, and that he would probably charge more than doctors in London. I puzzled over the reason for a mallet in the doctor’s surgery. My partner raises an eyebrow. “Anaesthetic?” he suggests.
Back at Ruby’s for dinner that night, we get the more comfortable side of colonial times: balloon-backed chairs, linen tablecloths and a view of the English-style garden. The menu is simple and hearty – oysters Kilpatrick, rabbit wontons, steak, lamb shank – and the service quietly attentive.
Gaylia needn’t have worried: her girls did her proud.
The verdict
Calder House is pretty, atmospheric, comfortable and beautifully run. Book the largest room – it is only $20 more – and have dinner at the restaurant.
The Place: Calder House, 44 High Street, Maldon (opposite the visitor’s centre).
Price: Weekend accommodation starts at $120 a room a night including full cooked breakfast. Two nights’ accommodation in the best room – Elizabeth’s room – with a three-course dinner for two, including wine, on the Saturday night costs $410.
Contact details: Phone: 5475 2912. Email: Website:
Getting there: Maldon is 135 kilometres north-west of Melbourne on the Calder Highway.
Break the journey with dinner at the The Stables gourmet pizzeria in Malmsbury (behind the bakery). Calder House has no off-street parking.

First published in The Age.

Rag-trade to riches

CITY BREAKS – Adelphi Hotel, Melbourne

Once a rag-trade warehouse, the hip Adelphi Hotel is now the epitome of sleek, city style, writes Karen Kissane.

THE Adelphi Hotel is so lean and linear that those of us who are not feel rather like we have strayed onto a Quentin Tarantino set. The Adelphi is cool. Its staff of beautiful young things wear black on black. The doorman’s hair is slicked back like John Travolta’s in Pulp Fiction. The furniture is sleek and edgy, in hard straight lines and dark shades but with phallic blocks in strong ’90s colours – the yellow of the posts on the Tullamarine Freeway, the red of the “zipper” pillars on the approach to the Bolte Bridge.
The general ambience is dark, to the point of noirish. Bedrooms are carpeted in charcoal with bed coverlets in black. At night, the bar is so dimly lit that complete newcomers reveal their virginal status with a query about whether it is, in fact, still open. The barman can no doubt pick the “tourists”.
The Adelphi is probably more often patronised by those in the know: biznoids, fashionistas and the arts cognoscenti. Model-turned-crime-author Tara Moss had her hen’s night there, and Pat Rafter was thrown into its pool during a fashion launch. Opera Australia launched its 2005 season at the Adelphi. You would almost have to be in the know to find it; it is an unobtrusive presence in Flinders Lane, only two doors up from St Paul’s Cathedral, with a street frontage of less than eight metres.
The phrase “boutique hotel” can cover a multitude of lacks, allowing any imperfections to be relabelled as quirky charms. The Adelphi was built in 1938 and spent much of its life as a rag-trade warehouse before being converted to a hotel in 1993. Its proportions, therefore, are not generous. The reception area is a corner with a desk, the cafe is not large enough to set out buffet breakfasts, and the corridors between bedrooms are low-ceilinged and narrow. It leaves the accommodation areas with rather an industrial feel.
But, within those constraints, it is cleverly designed. The roof-top pool (heated, salt-water) is a triumph of style over expansiveness. It is a 25-metre lap pool, the equivalent of only two lanes wide, but is saved from mediocrity by ingenious engineering at one end. The final metre of the pool is cantilevered over Flinders Lane, and swimmers not subject to fear of heights can gaze through its glass floor to study the watery outlines of the street below. (Not recommended for those already woozy from a hangover, and the same could be said for the sauna.)
The nearby “gym” is worth only a glance unless you’re desperate for a workout: it’s a small room with only a half-dozen motley machines, including a treadmill, a bike and a couple of benches with weights.
The bedrooms themselves, though, are large, with king-size beds and generous bathrooms (also minimalist, with stainless-steel double handbasins, black tiling, and pistachio green glass walls, but with two thick cotton bathrobes and Bulgari toiletries in the kind of small plastic bottles useful for future travelling. The extra towels packed in the wardrobe for pool users come in handy when mopping up the water that overflows from the shower base).
The bedroom view might not be much – in our case, the side of a warehouse wall a few metres across an alley – but with the blinds down, the room took on that relaxing cocoon-like quality of the anonymous rented space in which time can be suspended. It needs to be suspended largely from the bed, however, as the too-clever-by-half couch, with its snappy design and severe lines, is not comfy for cosying up with either a book or a partner.
We missed out on one of the Adelphi’s big attractions. Its restaurant, Ezards, was established by Teague Ezard, the Age Good Food Guide chef of the year in 2003. It has “Australian free-style” fine dining influenced by Chinese and Thai flavours. Heavily booked ahead, it had a wait-list of 14 the night we stayed (none of whom made it in). If you would like a room and a meal, you will need to plan in advance.
That forced us into the happy discovery of the Bokchoy Tang, a stylish, upmarket Chinese restaurant in nearby Federation Square, where the delicately flavoured food was based on the cuisine of the Yangtze and Yellow River regions.
Late that night, we finally made it to the 10th-floor bar back at the Adelphi. We found a window table, and suddenly the dim lighting was explained. It enhanced the view. Outside, staid old Melbourne, like a woman of a certain age transformed by soft lighting, was at its loveliest. The spires of St Paul’s next door were lit up in all their glory, as was Flinders Street, Crown Casino and the flashing Arts Centre spire. It felt literally like a night on the town.
But the cold light of day brought a disappointing breakfast. The “light breakfast” was a meagre choice of supermarket cereal OR canteen-style fruit salad (large lumps of melons, unripe pineapple, and no sign of the summer stonefruits now in abundance); tea or coffee and “toast”, in the form of sourdough bread, muffin, fruitbread or croissant. I missed my morning fruit juice (an extra, at $8 a freshly squeezed glassful), but the waitress did make a perfect hot chocolate.
The verdict
Not for those who equate comfort with plushness. But it is, in fact, comfortable, and an evening drink over the city views and a morning swim in the lap pool make it a treat.
Address: Adelphi Hotel, 187 Flinders Lane, 9650 7555. Email; website Weekend staff cannot give you details about packages, so for inquiries phone Monday to Friday.
Prices: Double rooms start from $265, which includes a free glass of wine on arrival, a light breakfast and a morning paper. With a cooked breakfast, it’s $295. An Overnight Indulgence package with a deluxe room and three-course dinner at Ezard’s (no beverages) is $535. Prices increase on holiday weekends and peak times such as the tennis. Check-in is at 1pm and check-out at 11am. Discount parking of $13 a night is available nearby.

First published in The Age.


Immerse In The Yarra Valley
1548 Melba Highway, Dixons Creek, 3775
(PO Box 481,Yarra Glen, 3775)
Phone (03) 5965 2444 Fax (03) 5965 2441
There is a large triangular tub with spa jets in the bathroom. It looks inviting until you turn around and see the note on the wall reminding you to be careful with water; it is the country, after all, and there is a drought. So much for the weekend of guilt-free indulgence. There is still something hedonistic about the showers, though, which have to be taken in the middle of said large tub, leaving you feeling rather like a statue of a nymph in a fountain – a fountain open to private viewings, as the glass in the bathroom doors leaves little to the imagination of whoever happens to be sitting in the adjoining living room.
The gripes end there. This cottage suite at the Immerse spa in the Yarra Valley is a cosy nest for those who wish to venture no further, with a luxuriously fitted out bedroom, pleasant sitting room and small balcony, perfect for the consumption of trashy detective novels and endless cups of tea in the sun. A short stagger up the path is the spa, where prices about 40 per cent higher than those common in town will buy a pummelling massage or a gentle facial, as well as more esoteric services
(I shall go to my grave wondering about the red wine bath and the aromatherapy salt glow). The restaurant has imaginative brekkies and standard yuppie dinners (salmon fillets and sticky date pudding).
It is all very pleasant and urban middle-class; a bit of city luxury dropped into the countryside. This is what is happening all over the Yarra Valley, where modest farms are interspersed now with wineries and flash restaurants.
Immerse has its own paddocks behind the vineyards where you can have a walk that leaves you suitably mud-encrusted. But for a real rural experience, try the parklands and footy oval of the nearby town of Yarra Glen. The younger sheilas might be picking their way delicately through the mud on high heels, but the rest of the locals are made of sterner stuff. They stand rugged up in coats and scarves, eating pies and sauce and roaring abuse and encouragement; several of the players have pot bellies; the utes have kelpies in the back.
Now that’s a weekend in the country.
Cost: various weekend packages available, from $240 a double per night. This reviewer’s package, $549 a double per night (includes cooked breakfast; $50 spa pass; wine tasting and bottle of wine; two-course dinner for two with wine; full-day winery tour with Yarra Valley Winery Tours, including lunch).
Distance: 65 kilometres (an hour’s drive) from Melbourne.
Accommodation: guesthouse with five double rooms (two king, three queen)
and a two-bedroom cottage (sleeps six).
Features: spa with beauty and massage treatments, cafe, gourmet picnic hampers, cellar-door wine-tastings.
Nearby: Yarra Valley wineries and restaurants, national park, ballooning, the Healesville animal sanctuary, Maroondah Dam.
Bookings: two months ahead.
Children: in the cottage only.
Wheelchair access: yes.

First published in The Age.

Parental bliss in the sun

Club Med takes a little getting used to. But it’s God’s gift to the exhausted parent, writes KAREN KISSANE.

THE captain of the catamaran swooshing us to Club Med, Lindeman Island, radioed ahead that we would be there in minutes. The girls at the other end of the line let loose with party whoops and hollers. I felt like the woman watching Meg Ryan fake an orgasm at a restaurant table in the movie `When Harry Met Sally’: “I’ll have some of what they’re having.”

The girls’ pleasure may well have been no more real than Meg Ryan’s.

Club Med is that kind of place: a virtual-reality village. Nothing is quite what it seems, from the staff to the resort itself. The only palm trees on an island of Australian scrub have been planted by landscapers; the air has no scent; the apparently friendly staff are under instruction to socialise with guests as part of their duties.

It is a strange world, like an artificial womb, providing all that is needed for life and comfort with no effort from its occupants.

Consequently, it is also God’s gift to the exhausted parent.

It didn’t seem so at first. Our children Will, 5, and Alice, 2, had left home for the airport with us at 7.30 that morning. We got to our room on Lindeman at six in the evening. In between, we’d struggled with three airline meals for four people (not realising the plane would not cater for Alice, we hadn’t packed the peanut butter sandwiches), a hot two-hour wait on Hamilton Island after missing a connection, and the aggravation of a lost bag.

Will, who loves the water so much that he sleeps with his bathers under his pillow, arrived on Lindeman without any. Would his Snoopy Y- fronts be up to it, we wondered? Cross and bedraggled, we tumbled into reception, winced as Alice spilled her welcoming watermelon cocktail over the pale blue upholstery of the furniture, and snarled our way down the 77 steps to beach level, which had to be negotiated at toddler pace. We felt defeated by logistics – a familiar state for parents of small children – and exasperated by a barrage of information: beach towels could be had only with a $30 deposit at the sailing shack; the phone could not be used until we had obtained a
pin number from reception; drinks could not be bought with cash but only with “bar beads”; the washing machines took only $1 coins; babysitters could not be guaranteed, having to be booked 24 hours ahead; and we were basically forbidden to take children into meals.

Like Alice in Wonderland, we had fallen into a maddening three-dimensional board game where we could make no move without first knowing the rules. Everyone hates their first 24 hours at a Club Med, a staff member told us later, because it takes that long to work out how to do things. The resort that comes with everything included doesn’t include user-friendly instruction sheets.

Our seduction began the next morning. We took Will to Mini Club, the child-care centre for four-to-seven-year-olds (Kids’ Club is for older children, up to the age of 12). He looked around in disbelief, not sure where to start: the adventure playground; the bright room full of toys and books; the kids’ tennis court or their two pools, one toddler-depth, the other an almost drown-proof 70 centimetres deep.

Both pools were sheltered by huge swathes of shadecloth and surrounded by child-proof fencing. The final touch – mini deck chairs and banana lounges. Who says money can’t buy happiness? It certainly bought Will’s.

Watchful of how he would be in even the best strange environment on his own and a tad guilty at the idea of leaving him – aren’t holidays family time? – we told him daily that he had only to say so if he wanted a day messing about with us or preferred to be picked up early.

Forget it. He wanted the full Mini Club day, 9am to 9pm, every day, and was restless to be back all through the evening break from 5 to 6.30.

Will crammed more into that five days than he would have experienced in a string of summer holidays with us. He had his first tennis lessons, his first try at darts – he won the bronze – and his first attempts at snorkelling, surf-paddling and windsurfing (Mini Club has kid-size sailboards in the pool).

He painted T-shirts, baked cakes, swam at the beach – safely encased in a little life-jacket – charged through riotous treasure hunts and joked and riddled his noisy way through the children’s special sittings in the restaurant. (In the civilised fashion of the British aristocracy, “the smalls” at Club Med are fed an hour before the adults, supervised by the child-care staff.) And, on only his second night, he made his stage debut.

I had been reluctant about his performance in the guests’ show when first asked, thinking he needed an early night after the trip up. But he had already learned his part and said, with the air of one explaining to an idiot: “Mum, they need me.”
That night we sat in the front row of the theatre. Will had said he was to be a clown, but when he bounced out of the wings he was almost unrecognisable. It wasn’t the gold lame vest, the wig or the makeup; it was the sang-froid. He waited for his cue, calm and focused. Then he cheerily blew raspberries, threw himself on his back and wiggled his legs in the air, and danced with the other clowns.

The kids’ cast then sat in the wings and watched the rest of the show, transfixed by their first taste of the footlights. They came back on for the big finale and I was beside myself. There he was, dancing right up the front with the stars – the woman in the blonde wig miming to Olivia Newton-John and the guy in black being John Travolta – and I had no more film in the camera to capture it. Move over, Mrs Temple.

For mothers, their Club Med stay was often the first real holiday since the children came. I had the mornings to myself and used them to cross the last great divide into the middle class: I took tennis lessons. (The lean, tanned, French instructor, Pascal, stunned by my inability to hit the ball, inquired gently: “Karen, this is your first time?” I blushed like a virgin: “Yes, Pascal.”) In the afternoon, minding Alice while she slept and my husband sailed, I sat and watched the sea, letting the peace soak in. The only necessity that punctuated our day was turning up in time for meals, huge gourmet buffets that transformed the main restaurant into a foodie’s Aladdin’s cave. Only the rain on the last day made leaving at all bearable.

Will came home with the usual child’s holiday treasures: shiny medals on blue ribbons, a monkey-up-a-palm-tree swizzle stick, and the crab claw, whiffy by now, that his Dad had stolen from the buffet for him.

But he also brought with him a new sense of himself. At the end of his stage show, as the audience of suckered Mums and Dads applauded, he whipped off his hat and bowed. My little man, now  a man of the world.
Karen Kissane was a guest of Club Med.

First published in The Age.