Thursday, April 21, 2022

Birmingham & West Midlands' Travel App

Broadway Tower, Broadway, Worcestershire. ©AP

I love Britain's West Midlands in the heart of England, especially patchwork fields, walking trails, history, castles, villages, gardens, all things Shakespeare and the glorious countryside. My heart skips a beat whenever I see the sinuous outline of the Malvern Hills (the Sleeping Dragon) and to walk on them is magical. 

But in researching and developing my travel App, Birmingham & West Midlands, I've also channelled some family roots that are firmly planted in the heart of the industrial Midlands.

These include Quarry Bank, Brierley Hill and Dudley in the industrial Black Country where you'll find the fascinating Black Country Living Museum – think Peaky Blinders and much more. Also Coventry, a recent City of Culture.  

Food? Yes, I'm a fan of the countryside's fresh produce, farm shops, great pubs, lively cafes plus the brilliant multicultural cuisine of Birmingham. Artisan distilleries, craft breweries and vineyards are outstanding in this region. I love Morgan cars, too! 

Morgan Roadster, Morgan Motor Company, Malvern. ©AP

Foodie Ludlow in Shropshire is a great place to visit, especially on market days, while the entire Welsh border country is dreamy and atmospheric – perfect for country drives and exploring. 

My App dives into industrial heritage, leads you to vintage transport collections so symbolic of the Midlands, as well as many specialist museums, energised with interactive displays and dynamic exhibitions.  Some such as the Almonry (below) are significant buildings and treasure troves in themselves, recording fascinating local history including the destruction of Evesham's great abbey.

In England I am based close to Evesham, the North Cotswold village of Broadway and just a stone's throw from Stratford-upon-Avon.  I love the black and white architecture and thatched cottages of the Midlands as well as the honey-coloured stone houses of the Cotswolds. 

The Almonry, Evesham.©AP

I'm also a short drive from  Coventry, now emphasising its heritage with landmarks including the Telegraph newspaper building repurposed as hotels and accommodation, as well as heritage walks, the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum and the Coventry Music Museum. Coventry Cathedral has a very special place in my heart – my father was born in Coventry and loved the old cathedral, so sadly destroyed. 

Meanwhile, Birmingham has been busy regenerating its city centre with impressive buildings such as The Cube, home to Hotel Indigo Birmingham and Marco Pierre White's Steakhouse, Bar & Grill (think modern comfort food and champagne). Dishoom Birmingham promises Irani/Bombay fusion, all welcome. Bakeries and cafes reflect the mix of influences and there's fine dining, too. Vegans and vegetarians, so often neglected in the past, can travel and eat well.

The Cube, home of Hotel Indigo Birmingham.©IHG Hotels

The Library of Birmingham, affectionately called the 'Wedding Cake' opened in 2013 and is one of centre's signature buildings, while the Bullring & Grand Central shopping centres combine to create the largest city centre shopping complex in the UK. The Jewellery Quarter is historic but it's also the home of 100 or so diamond dealers and jewellers, also cafes, bars and restaurants – multicultural Birmingham really loves its food!

The Library of Birmingham.©Visit Birmingham

The Garrick pub, Stratford-upon-Avon.©AP

I might be the only one to think this, but I'm quite taken with the echoes I see in the Library of Birmingham's decorative exterior patterns and those of The Garrick pub in Stratford-upon-Avon, thought to be the oldest in town. Shakespeare himself may well have imbibed at the Garrick as it is very close to th recently re-vamped New Place where he lived in his later years until he died. Of course Stratford-upon-Avon is a key Midlands' attraction, with much ado about Shakespeare and the beautiful houses associated with him and his family including Anne Hathaway's Cottage and Shakespeare's Birthplace. 

Anne Hathaway's Cottage, Shottery, Stratford-upon-Avon.©AP

Major Rivers in the Midlands include the Trent, Tame, Avon, Severn and Wye (forming the English/ Welsh border for much of its length) and the area is linked by a network of canals built to carry freight at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Canal boat holidays are a rewarding way to travel through the countryside and right into the heart of towns and cities including Birmingham, Stourport-on-Severn, Stoke-on-Trent, Stratford-upon-Avon, Upton-upon-Severn. 

The Hatton Flight of locks, Warwickshire.©AP

Canal boat on the River Avon.©AP

And those castles, gardens, villages and stunning views? I've a real feeling that many people are craving a comforting sense of place and history right now and the West Midlands delivers. Visiting English country gardens in their many seasons is one of life's pleasures ...

Bourton House Garden. ©AP

... as is standing on vantage points such as the Malvern, Shropshire and Cotswold Hills to admire the patchwork fields and views across middle England. Broadway Tower is just one of my favourites.

Please download my Travel App to enjoy much more of the West Midlands, plan a trip, see the sights.


Published by TouchScreen Travels.

My thanks to all who have helped me including the West Midlands Growth Company, Visit Britain, local businesses and attractions, PR and marketing companies, friends, family and associates and, especially, TouchScreen Travels.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Slingology – the new art of Raffles' Singapore Sling cocktail, now refreshed with craft ingredients and sustainability

Recently enjoying an extensive restoration, Raffles Hotel Singapore has gone to great lengths to retain the ambience and service so loved by its devoted clientele while appealing to those who are yet to experience its charms. Cosy social spaces and courtyards, new restaurants and bars are all part of the recipe along with treasured venues including the Long Bar, the mention of which triggered a fond memory.

The Sling at the Long Bar. © Raffles Hotel Singapore

My last visit to the hotel a few years ago was to attend an intimate, luxurious wedding reception in a private dining room. Between copious intriguing courses I was whisked away on a tour of some timber walkways framed by arches. My guide (a fellow wedding guest) hurried me along and I lost a heel from one of my slingback shoes on the way – I planned to return in daylight to look for it but that didn't happen. Despite my not being well-heeled, we all had a last drink in the Long Bar after the reception dinner. Inevitably, the group decision was that a Singapore Sling would make up for my loss!

Star of the Long Bar 

It's too late to retrace those exact steps now, but happily the Long Bar remains, complete with the iconic Singapore Sling now revitalised after its own makeover. Using craft ingredients, the cocktail's taste has been refreshed to suit modern palates while the use of ecoSPIRITS makes it more sustainable and environmentally-friendly.

New delivery for the Singapore Sling. ©Raffles Hotel Singapore.

Adding to its accolades, the Singapore Sling has become the forerunner for Raffles Hotel Singapore in its move to reduce single-use waste and the carbon footprint. Working with Proof & Company and patent-pending ecoSPIRITS technology, key ingredients Widges Gin, Luxardo Cherry Sanque Morlacco and Ferrand Dry CuraƧao are delivered to Long Bar in patent-pending ecoTOTETM format, saving tens of thousands of glass bottles each year. 

Single-use plastic straws have been replaced with biodegradable versions made with potato starch. Also furthering the sustainability profile, the Luxardo Maraschino Cherries and Long Bar exclusive Scrappy’s Spiced Plantation Bitters are shipped in low-waste formats, eliminating several thousand kilograms of packaging waste. Estimates using the ecoSPIRITS Carbon Calculator, developed by consulting firm Deloitte, the Singapore Sling saves the equivalent of 200g of CO2 emission per serving.

Under the ecoSPIRITS Forest Program, Raffles Hotel Singapore is planting one native tree in the Kalimantan or Sumatran rainforest for every 25 Singapore Slings ordered, leaving a permanent legacy of carbon reduction and reforestation of endangered wild areas. Discover Raffles Hotel Singapore’s contribution through the live digital forest.


Cocktail in Disguise

Originally created in 1915 by Ngiam Tong Boon, a Hainanese bartender at Raffles Hotel Singapore, the Singapore Sling cleverly disguised a cocktail as fruit juice. Why? Etiquette required that ladies shouldn't consume alcohol in public, so their choice of beverage was limited to tea and fruit juices. Ngiam Tong Boon saw an opportunity, creating a cocktail that looked like a fruit juice but was actually infused with gin and other liqueurs. It was a hit!

He used pineapple and lime juices for a tropical flavour and cleverly masked it in pink with grenadine syrup to give it a feminine flair, leading people to think it was a socially acceptable drink for women. Today the Sling continues to delight and inspire with its rich heritage and now a fresh taste. It's also the subject of a new Slingology cocktail bar collaboration in Singapore.


More about Raffles Hotel Singapore:

Long Bar

Source: Press Release 

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Forelle Ensemble plays its way through NSW/ACT in Austrian "Schubertiaden" style.

How lovely is this? Celebrating 200 years of an Austrian musical tradition, the Forelle Ensemble is currently travelling through NSW/ACT in the spirit of Franz Schubert whose Lieder (songs) were played to small groups of friends in intimate musical soirees that became known as "Schubertiaden”. The Forelle Ensemble will perform 10 concerts, taking listeners on a musical journey to Austria in Bowral, Canberra, Albury, Young and the gorgeous setting of the Hunter Valley's Winmark Wines.

Forelle is the brain-child of James Armstrong, winner of the ‘Austria Scholarship’ granted by Sydney Youth Orchestras and Austrian National Tourist Office. Visiting Vienna and Salzburg in early 2020, James fell in love with Austrian chamber music, especially the music of Franz Schubert. 


The Forelle Ensemble.©

To honour Schubert and as a reference to one of the composer’s most famous chamber music pieces ‘Forellenquintett’ (Trout Quintet), James Armstrong formed the Forelle Ensemble with four fellow students of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Members include Lilly Bennett (double bass), James Armstrong (violin), Angela Shin (cello), Estelle Shircore Barker (piano) and Aisha Goodman (viola).

The first documented Schubertiade took place 200 years ago in 1821 and the term still refers to intimate concerts and festivals around the world, in all kinds of settings. Most famous is the Schubertiade Festival in Austria's Alpine province Vorarlberg with around 80 events and 35,000 visitors annually, making it the biggest Schubert Festival in the world. 

Musicians Schubertiade, Bregenzerwald, Vorarlberg. (Bregenzerwald Tourism, Christopher Lingg.)

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to be able to play this beautiful repertoire of Schubert’s music. We can reimagine it in the sense that we are performing music which was composed in the Austrian countryside and we are bringing it to the countryside here in NSW and ACT.”, says James Armstrong. “The works on the program are very colourful, each in their own way, to the extent that I imagine each piece as a postcard of Austria. The music intimately reflects the landscape and lifestyle - from the elegant and lavish decor of Viennese salons to the striking snow-capped Alps and lush green fields of the countryside. Schubert’s music illustrates these settings so sublimely.”

“James Armstrong stole the hearts of the Viennese with both his incredible talent as a young violinist but also with his curiosity and interest in Austrian classical music and culture during his time in Vienna early last year,” says Astrid Gruchmann-Licht, Director of the Austrian National Tourist Office in Sydney. “This year we were delighted to find out that James wanted to share his passion for Schubert - and for Austria - with Australian audiences in regional NSW and ACT and we partnered with the Forelle Ensemble to bring this project to life. I view it as a true collaboration and love the idea of an Australian Schubertiade”. 

James Armstrong performing Chamber Music at Hotel Sacher, Vienna, above, and enjoying beautiful Vienna, below. (ANTO, Marion Carniel.)


Tour Dates 

Friday 11th June, 6.30pm: Schubertiade Opening Concert, Sydney 

Sunday 20th June, 2.30pm*E: St Jude’s Church, Bowral 

Wednesday 23rd June: Residence of the Austrian Ambassador, Canberra 

Thursday 24th June: Hausmusik event at private residence, Albury 

Friday 25th June, 7.00pm*E: St Matthew’s Church, Albury 

Saturday 26th June: Hausmusik event at private residence, Young 

Sunday 27th June, 12.00pm*: Ballinaclash Orchard and Cellardoor, Young 

Tuesday 29th June, 6.00pm*E: Young Regional School of Music, Young 

Friday 2nd July, 6.00pm*E: Winmark Wines, Hunter Valley 

James Armstrong  with Astrid Gruchmann-Licht, Director of the Austrian National Tourist Office in Sydney, at a Viennese Kaffehaus. (ANTO, Marion Carniel.)

* Public events: tickets and more information are available on Eventbrite (E) or via the venue website

Winmark Wines

Austria information

Source: Austria National Tourism news release

Friday, April 2, 2021

Amara dining opens to non-residents at Spicers Sangoma Retreat, Blue Mountains, NSW

Here's exciting news for those in search of exclusive dining experiences – Restaurant Amara at Spicers Sangoma Retreat in the Blue Mountains is now taking a small number of outside bookings. So now you don't have to be an in-house guest to experience the highly creative degustation menus by head chef Will Houia, but you'll wish you were!

Restaurant Amara
Amara - Eggplant taco shell, smoked mushroom and pea flowers

Amara is the Zulu word for grace and the restaurant's philosophy is to provide a graceful dining experience, drawing on an ecosystem of local producers and sustainable on-site practices reflecting the natural bushland surrounds. 

Amara - King Edward potato, marigold, sage and basil

Amara - Squid confit stuffed with chicken and tarragon mousse, fennel, chicken broth

The daily seven course dinner degustation menu and five course lunches on Friday to Sunday are all based on the freshest organic and seasonal  produce available within 100km of Sangoma, including the Hawkesbury region. Amara's ‘Harvest Menu’ shared lunch concept, offered on Monday to Thursday, focuses on one succulent protein and four of the freshest organic vegetables, mostly sourced from local friends at Harvest Farms, followed by dessert.

Amara - Milk skins, hazelnut praline, smoked ice cream, raspberries, dulche

Chef Will Houia prefers traditional cooking techniques with charcoal and fire and the use of controlled dehydration to prepare fruit and veggies, as well as indigenous ingredients to add subtle layers of flavour.  Why not stay for a week and have Will cook for you every day?

Amara - Head Chef Will Houia

Restaurant Amara, Spicers Sangoma Retreat

70 Grandview Lane, Bowen Mountain NSW 2753

Amara dining only guests - an intimate fine-dining experience by appointment

Dinner - 7 course degustation. 7 days 6pm-9pm $125pp

Lunch - 5 course degustation. Friday to Sunday 12.30pm-2.00pm $105pp

Lunch – Harvest Menu. Monday to Thursday 12.30pm-2.00pm $85pp

Please advise any dietaries at the time of booking

In-house guests dine 7 days

Breakfast, Harvest Menu Lunch Mon-Thurs & 5 Course Lunch Fri-Sun, 7 Course Dinner

Spicers Sangoma Retreat, Blue Mountains, NSW

Photos courtesy of Restaurant Amara, Spicers Sangoma Retreat, Blue Mountains.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Midnight Oil, Makaratta Project at Hope Estate, Hunter Valley, NSW

Peter Garrett and Midnight Oil, Hope Estate. Image © AP

What a thrill to be at Hope Estate, Hunter Valley, NSW, for Midnight Oil's Makaratta Project. The moving and engaging welcome to Wonnarua Country was followed by powerful performances from Alice Skye, Troy Cassar-Daley and the mighty force of Peter Garrett/Midnight Oil and guests. What a show, what a message for reconciliation. 

The Welcome to Wonnarua Country. Video © AP

Midnight Oil onstage, Hope Estate. Image © AP

Troy Cassar-Daley and the crowd we were part of at Hope Estate. Image ©AP

Alice Skye's quiet, awesome ownership of a stage set up for a phenomenal rock band still sends shivers down my spine. Playing piano and accompanied by twins on guitar and drums, Alice, a Wergaia/Wemba Wemba person from Horsham, Victoria, played her heartfelt songs including her own I Feel Better, but I Don't Feel Good, also Terror Australia , written by Peter Garrett and Bones Hillman (Wayne Stevens) who sadly died in November 2020.

Alice Skye at Hope Estate, Image © AP

Hopefully heading out of Covid are we going back to a better, more thoughtful world?

Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp: Virtual field trips for children in lockdown

How good is this? School children in lockdown around the world can hook up with a live personal call to see elephants in their natural jungle habitat in Northern Thailand at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort.

Virtual field trips at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp © Anantara

The complimentary service offers virtual participation in a jungle field trip including the resort’s Walking With Giants experience to get to know the elephants and develop a connection with them. The community initiative follows the success of Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation’s (GTAEF) live streams of rescued elephants walking in the jungle and taking a mud bath in the Ruak River. 

In Northern Thailand in the 'Golden Triangle' where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet, the luxury Anantara resort is famous for its elephant camp, set up with the GTAEF in 2003 to help street begging elephants and others in need of help.  Over 60 elephants have been rescued and 23 now live in the resort's  jungle environment along with their mahout (carer) families.


During the livestream, children are introduced to elephants and join them on their daily walks accompanied by the mahouts and either a veterinarian or biologist to offer insights into how these intelligent creatures think and behave. Each virtual field trip is customised to meet the needs and curriculum of the students.


The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation can coordinate complimentary virtual field trips with elephants for online school classes that take place during Thailand daylight hours.  For more information or to reserve a live virtual fieldtrip spot, contact Mr John Roberts, Anantara’s Group Director of Sustainability & Conservation, on email  or telephone +66 53 784 084.


The Anantara portfolio specialises in authentic destination luxury, with over 40 properties located in Thailand, the Maldives, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Mozambique, Zambia, the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Portugal, with future properties planned across Asia, the Indian Ocean, Middle East, Africa and South America.


Source: Press release

Monday, January 18, 2021

Oh, Barmah! Tales from the riverbanks of the mighty Murray River (Dhungala) in Yorta Yorta country

We're in Victoria's Sun Country region at Barmah, looking at maps showing off-road tracks, significant wetlands and camping spots along Dhungala, the Murray River, Australia's longest and the third longest navigable river in the world. With or without the impressive statistics, this particular area is quite simply stunning, too good not to share. 

Dhungala, the mighty Murray River. (Image ©AP)

This is an assignment that's brought us to the wider region without a fixed prior plan and it's a luxury to go as we please, choosing accommodation to suit. Barmah, the only Victorian town north of the Murray (I still haven't worked that out!) is on our radar as it is beside the river with a connecting bridge to NSW.  The Barmah Bridge Caravan Park has cabins and the kind owners give us the spotless Cockatoo cabin a short walk from both the riverside and the Barmah Hotel –  we're just in time for dinner at 6pm. The hotel bar/dining room has historic photos around the walls and it seems that bushranger Ned Kelly played cards here. We're masked up because of Covid – maybe cause for a philosophical discussion with Ned here?

There's hardly anyone about as the VIC/NSW border only opened the day before we arrived so we're beating the crowds, lucky to find this place to stay ahead of what is shaping up to be a huge weekend for camp grounds and accommodation along the river. Nine hours' drive from Sydney via Wagga Wagga and along back roads through plains of golden wheat fields – it's been long day reaching the heartland of Yorta Yorta country, but there's still time to wander by the river at dusk, to the tune of a cacophony of corellas!

Pre-dawn we're heading in to the Barmah National Park where the Barmah-Millewa river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) forests meet the Moira and Barmah Lakes systems.  There's movement in the trees and a group of brumbies appears, ghostly shapes blending effortlessly into the setting, as do the kangaroos and emus we see along the way. The brumbies have had a reprieve from the planned muster the following weekend, cancelled due to Covid. The heritage listed Muster Yards stand empty. 

Tracks to the left lead to flooded areas but we hope to drive the loop road without incident. No such luck, the road ahead is closed, even to our rugged 4x4 with an intrepid driver! Backtracking we follow loops and turns to the river, where camp sites beckon and the idea of settling in to camp for a few nights is extremely tempting. There are huge trees and everywhere a sense of calm, as if every part of this place is sacred and protected, which it obviously is. There are canoe and shield trees, scarred trees, markers, cooking mounds and ceremonial and burial grounds. Signs for an interpretive walking track from the Dharnya Aboriginal Centre (closed) help visitors focus on details it would be easy to overlook, such as how the burls on the huge river red gums are formed.

Brumbies and burls. (Image ©AP)
Self-guided trails. (Image ©AP)

Still looking for the lake system we try several tracks, finding car parks on the edge of the river but still no lake. Parts of the forest are flooded, the dark waters reflecting the trees in a mesmerising fashion, like a mystical/magical film setting. Backtracking again we follow another side road and find a large group of fishermen poised to launch their boats. This is Barmah Lake and it's sensational, the river widening, lined with beaches and reed beds, reflecting the clouds from its calm surface. 

Stunning Barmah Lake. (Image ©AP)

Following tracks back beside the river we pass named points that are obviously favourite camping spots, a few occupied with campers looking decidedly happy and relaxed. No doubt they'll have the luxury of time to experience the fascinating features of these significant freshwater wetlands, recognised under the international Ramsar convention and home to around 550 plant species, more than 200 species of birds including Superb Parrots, mammals, frogs, native fish, turtles and much more. 

Reluctantly we leave the park for our next location at Moama in NSW opposite the historic VIC river port of Echuca. Our choice for the next two nights is a yurt at the eco-friendly Talo Retreat, the glamping section of the large Moama on Murray Resort offering, the Talo Retreat video says, an experience you will never forget. Biking and canoeing are options or just lazing, swinging in a hammock, looking out for parrots and kangaroos. But there's no relaxing for us today as we must be elsewhere and leave as the place fills up with a film crew and two media groups. Luxury glamping facilities are among the future plans for the resort, we're told.
Yurt at Talo Retreat. (Image ©AP)

Barmah Hotel. (Image ©AP)
After a busy couple of days we're due to head north again, but somehow we're drawn back to the Barmah National Park and happily there's a vacancy for one more night at Cockatoo cabin! I'm not sure why I feel so elated but we'll have another opportunity to enjoy the great bacon and egg rolls at the Barmah Post Office/store and it's like going home for a meal again at the Barmah Hotel, experiencing that timeless sense of reality that country Australia has to offer if you can slow down a bit and tune in to the surroundings. It's all so uncomplicated, very simple and very real. 

Back on the tracks, driving through the river red gum forest beside the Murray, we again experience the sense of peace and presence and an atmosphere of wellbeing that will definitely not be forgotten.

All words, photos and video © Alison Plummer. 

The annual World Wetlands Day on 2 February celebrates extraordinary places like this.

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