.

September 22, 2008

STEEL YOURSELF FOR THIS ISLAND IN THE SUN…

david ellis

I ASK my wife to pinch me, drawing one of those long-suffering looks that can be conjured up only by long-suffering wives.

"It's just to know that I've not died and gone to heaven," I tell her.

We're gazing across from breakfast on the deck of our little cruise ship to a minute speck of land called Mayreau in the Caribbean's Grenadines, an emerald mermaid garlanded with a necklace of white as she floats in the bluest of blue seas.

Mayreau looks convincingly straight out of the Garden of Eden, and we're told that in fact, at under four square kilometres, it is one of the tiniest dots in all of the jumbled patchwork of islands and cays that make up the Caribbean.

Cameras clatter endlessly and our anchor breaks the glass-flat surface of the bay with barely a splash. Ship's engines sigh to a halt; it's quiet, unbelievably quiet. Just the faint whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of the radar scanner, the squawk of a lone sea-bird overhead, the hint of flags flapping in a zephyr of a breeze, distant laughter from one of the half-dozen yachts at anchor in this tiny aquatic paradise…

Half an hour later we're landing ashore from our ship's tender… just 110 of us on Day 6 of a 7-day cruise from San Juan to Barbados. And ninety-five crew – nearly one for every one of us – many of whom are already ashore preparing a grand day of beach games, splashing in the water, hiking a bush trail, snorkelling the reef, and wining and dinning on our own reserved stretch of talcum white sand.

Mayreau is peopled by just 300 of some of the Caribbean's friendliest and most extraordinarily polite souls who live in a hillside village that's simply called The Village.

They have no airport, no communal electricity, and no running water, and between them own just four motorized vehicles – and they've a ban on jet skis and similar annoyingly noisy playthings.

There's a Catholic church, a few guesthouses and a private resort tucked away in the bush.

All overlook the bay with those half dozen yachts displaying flags from America, Canada, Europe... and our own little cruise ship, the 55-couples SeaDream II that with her sister SeaDream I are the only cruisers small enough to slip into this peaceful haven from November to April – the big fellas must cruise right-on by.

Ancient volcanic peaks of surrounding islands claw their way up into wispy strands of clouds that float overhead with a languidness unique to the tropics.

And as the vegetation is as green and lush as the beaches are golden and white, we realise why Hollywood chose this maze of islands that was the bolt-hole of many a pirate captain in days of yore, to film Pirates of the Caribbean.

The few restaurants and bars feature West Indian cuisine – loads of chillies, garlic, onions and spices tossed into frying pans of fresh local seafoods, poultry and tropical fruits and vegetables – and cater to visiting yachties and a smattering of tourists who come by ferry from neighbouring islands for a day in paradise.

For today our own private stretch of beach has been swept clean by our Mayreauan hosts, and our ship's crew soon have rainbows of cocktails (including their own unique rum-based PainKiller) passing amongst us; bottled waters, soft drinks, beers and wines (that are all included from the bars and at meal-times throughout our week's cruise) appear from ice boxes, table-cloths are laid, crockery and cutlery spread, beach umbrellas pop up like lollipops...

And while the butts of beef, the pork ribs, sausages, hamburgers, shrimps and chicken drumsticks sizzle over charcoal barbecues, salads, desserts, fresh-baked cakes and fruit platters are spread along tables under the trees and a huge thatch-roofed gazebo.

And somehow a local steel band materialises out of the bush and is soon banging out Never on Sunday, Lambada, Hot Hot Hot,  My Way… and of course a foot-tapping Island In The Sun.

I again ask my wife to pinch me. I really do need to know that I've not died and gone to heaven…

(To find out more about cruising to the Caribbean's Mayreau see your favourite travel agent or check-out www.seadream.com)
                                                          …………….



[] SEADREAM II joins cruising yachties off tiny Mayreau Island in the Caribbean – only the smallest of cruise ships can get in here.



[] BUBBLY on the beach for lucky visitors to this part of the Caribbean.



[] TOE-tapping steel band that "materialised from the bush" during lunch break on idyllic Mayreau.

September 19, 2008

OMAN’S GATEWAY TO AUTHENTIC ARABIA


DISCOVER THE QUIET ELEGANCE AND CULTURE OF MUSCAT

Before 1970 the Sultanate of Oman’s elegant capital, Muscat, locked its fortress-styled gates at night, a curfew was imposed from sunset to sunrise and its citizens only travelled with kerosene lanterns when walking after dark. But 38 years ago, an extraordinary change took place under the leadership of the country’s new and charismatic ruler, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

Along with developing a progressively modern and united country - though with the quiet cultural rhythms of Islam and Omani nationalism instilled in his people - His Majesty symbolically unlocked Muscat’s ancient Kabir Gate (Bab al Kabir) one evening and led Oman into the 21st Century.

Today, the city remains one of the most beautiful metropolitan destinations in the Arabian Peninsula. Overlooking the azure waters of the Gulf of Oman and gracefully nestled beneath impregnable jagged hills, Muscat’s white and sand coloured mix of classic buildings and modern Islamic architectural lines create a montage of picturesque charm. Also one of the world’s cleanest cities - located a short distance from its U.A.E. neighbours, Abu Dhabi and Dubai - Muscat has been declared the gateway to ‘authentic Arabia’.

Although Muscat’s origins date back to the 1st Century, A.D. the city primarily remained a vital maritime port. As the country prospered, Oman’s merchant and naval fleet eventually helped create an empire that included East Africa, with Zanzibar named as the second capital of Oman in 1832. Yet it was 250 years earlier when events and architectural designs in Muscat truly became interesting.

MUSCAT’S FORTS:

During the late 16th century the Portuguese, who occupied the city for 150 years, constructed Oman’s most resplendent fortresses. Built on two serrated hills overlooking Muscat’s harbour the paired forts – Al Jalali to the east and Al Miranito the west - were used to oust Portuguese and Ottoman invaders a century later. Now guarding majestic Al Alam Palace - the ceremonial palace of H.M. Sultan, Qaboos - when bathed in the alluring twilight the forts resemble a mythical citadel from a dreamy Arabian tale.

Muscat’s Old Town, located at the eastern end of Greater Muscat Area between Muttrah and Sidab, allows visitors to step back in time into old-world Arabia. Much of the city’s rich history and heritage has been preserved, including remnants of Muscat’s original clay wall and three-access gates - Bab al Matha'eeb, Bab al Saghir and Bab al Waljat - which for centuries fortified the capital.

Easily accessible by foot, visitors can also observe the distinctive gold and turquoise exteriors of Al Alam Palace before visiting Al Zawawi Mosque, Muscat Gate Museum, Bab al Kabir and the Omani French Museum.

Also close by is Bait al Zubair, one of Muscat’s finest interactive museums. Occupying an old Omani dwelling, the main gallery displays a fascinating collection of weaponry, photographs, jewels and costumes. For cultural voyeurs, there is also an outdoor reproduction of a classic Omani Village, complete with souqs, a burasti house, fishing boats and a flowing falaj.

To discover the soul of Muscat visitors should spend a day at Muttrah, which winds along the Corniche, the city’s verdant waterfront. A place to watch fishermen roll their nets at dusk, Muttrah is also a colourful tapestry of fresh produce marketplaces, Indian and Arab restaurants and vibrant souqs. At dusk, visitors can charter a classic dhow at the Corniche and sail straight into an Arabian storybook, sharing some seafaring adventures with Sinbad the Sailor of the Thousand and One Nights.

The oldest marketplace in the capital is Muttrah Souq, where bartering with gusto is considered de rigueur. Opened all year round except public holidays visitors enter beneath a palm leafed entrance located behind Muttrah Corniche, into a labyrinth of tightly-packed, narrow lanes which sell pure Arabic exotica –gold, silver, textiles, pottery and dates, together with piquant aromas of incense, spices, frankincense and sandalwood.

Also encircled by white-fringed beaches and an eye-catching harbour that fans out to an equally dazzling coastline, Muscat offers a wealth of adventure sports, with major diving sites and marinas providing plenty of sideline activities, from catamaran and dhow cruises, snorkelling, fishing and kayaking to whale and dolphin watching. There are also Muscat’s luxurious beachfront resorts, which offer superlative spa and wellness treatments; Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa featuring three hotels - the six star Al Husn, the 5 star Al Bandar and the five star Al Waha, The Chedi Muscat, also a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, and InterContinental Hotel Group’s six-star flagship property, Al Bustan Palace, built on a grand scale to host the leaders of the six members of the Gulf Co-Operative Council (G.C.C.) and currently undergoing a multi-million dollar refurbishment. And for retail therapy, the neighbourhoods of Qurm and Ruwi offer colourful Indian markets, souqs and shopping complexes.

A dual carriageway leading into central Muscat directs visitors to the diplomatic district of Al Khuwair, also home to several museums including the national heritage-theme Oman Museum and the fascinating Sultan’s Armed Forces Museum at Bait Al Falaj Fort in Ruwi. For children, there’s the Science Museum also known as the Children’s Museum at Qurm and the brilliant Natural History Museum at Al Khuwair, a great place to get acquainted with Oman’s diverse topography and archaeological history.

Islam’s beauty is splendidly unveiled at Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, north of Muttrah at Ghubrah. Upon entering the Mosque’s massive, white-marble courtyard an imposing wooden doorway featuring carved verses from the Koran leads visitors to five towering minarets that symbolise the Five Pillars of Islam (with the highest soaring over 90 metres) and a prayer hall lit by 35 Swarovski crystal chandeliers. Accommodating over 6,000 worshippers, the Prayer Hall also features gilded murals, a gold-painted mihrab (facing Mecca) and an enormous prayer mat. Taking over four years to make and 600 Iranian weavers to tie 1.7 million knots in 28 different colours, the mat spreads across 4,200 square metres and weighs 21 tonnes.

With its spectacular harbour, world-class museums, ancient gates and forts and vibrant streetscape, Muscat is Arabia’s gateway to a wealth of new experiences.

MUSEUMS / GRAND MOSQUE INFORMATION:
  • Bait Al Zubair (as featured on page one) is open Saturday-Thursday, 9.00AM-1.00PM and 4.00-7.00PM. Entrance: 1OMR (A$2.80)
  • The Muscat Gate House Museum provides an illustrated history of Oman including Muscat and the Royal Family and its rooftop provides visitors with panoramic views of Old Muscat and Muttrah Harbour. The museum is open Saturday-Thursday, 9.00AM-1.00PM and 4.30-7.00PM. Entrance is free.
  • The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is opened from 8.00 –11.00AM, excluding Fridays to visitors.


For further information on the Sultanate of Oman, email info@omantourism.com.au
Visit: www.omantourism.gov.om

September 15, 2008

A VINTAGE TALE FROM THE VIENNA WOODS


david ellis

IT's best known for St.Stephan's Cathedral, the Schönbrunn Castle, it's  Boys' Choir, the Danube, and something about Tales in its Woods. But David Ellis discovers there's another side to Vienna: it's the only capital city in the world with a thriving commercial wine industry within its city limits.

It takes less than 20 minutes from Vienna's CBD to get amongst the vines and the cute vineyard villages of Neustift am Walde and Grinzing, in the foothills of the beech-tree'd Vienna Woods on Vienna's outskirts.

Window boxes in the historic main street are dripping with red and pink pelargoniums when we arrive, and the wine taverns (known as Heuriger) are already open for tastings and sales, with many also serving hearty traditional Heuriger platters piled with ham, roast chicken, crumbed pork, vegetables and salads.

The lot is washed down with the local specialty white wine Gruben Veltliner, or Sturm (a cloudy, potent drop extracted midway through fermentation and allegedly taken for its digestive qualities.)

There are 700 hectare of vines here within the city limits, managed by 320 winemaker families, and the taverns' are a-buzz now and year-round with tourists and locals alike seeking a taste of authentic Viennese wining and dining.

A genuine friendliness is the essence of life among the grape growers and winemakers, and during harvest many set up small cabins on the roadside to share a drop with neighbours and friends. And visitors, too: simply stop and they'll invite you to join-in a free taste.

Most Viennese wine is made for immediate drinking rather than cellaring, so come August and September the SALE signs go up to ensure plenty of empty barrels are on hand for the new crush.

And on November 11 each year there's Wein Taufe – 'Wine Baptism' that brings the community together for a knees-up few days to celebrate the release of the new season's wine.

And across the Danube River we discover another vineyard community  Stammersdorf, but this one's rarely visited by tourists.

We ask to meet some winemakers and find ourselves whisked off to the roughly-paved hillside Kellergasse (Cellar Street) with its own uniquely-styled roadside shacks-cum-wine cellars, and as in France are referred to as 'caves.'

Petershof is one such 'cave' and owned by Swiss-born former architect Peter Ullreich, a charismatic winemaker fast garnering gold medals at local regional shows.

He takes us up onto the living grass roof of his 'cave' to overlook neighbouring vineyards, and through the power pylons Vienna, and lap-up unexpectedly good wines in the late afternoon sun… while on the other side of the road, a colleague starts a motor mower, to trim not his lawn, but the grass roof of his cellar…)

Peter offers a prized 2003 Chardonnay he's had tucked away and talks of winemaking here and back to the early times of the Roman Empire. And he takes us to another of his vineyards to try his red wines, a 2m-diameter barrel sunk into the grass making our table as the sun disappears and a full moon rises.

This is connectivity with nature, Peter says, also pointing out the strip of native vegetation he preserves between some of his rows of vines for the bees, wild boars and deer.

His Merlot slips down as mellow as the twilight as he talks of how a new breed of winemaker is moving on from producing simply quaffables, to employing sophisticated technologies that are helping take Viennese wines to the world.

One such is Wieninger, also in Stammersdorf that now exports to 19 countries. Along with other winemakers including Rainer Christ, Michael Edlmoser and Richard Zahel, its owner Fritz Wieninger in 2006 helped create a group called "WIENWEIN" to pursue the art of making high quality Viennese wine.

We're coerced into another round of samples (this time Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs and a Riesling,) before reluctantly accepting that its time for our driver to get us back to dinner commitments at our Hotel Europa.

But we assure Peter and Fritz and the others that it's not the last they've seen of us, and that another day we'll be back.

See www.wienerwein.at and check out Tempo Holidays 1300 558 987, www.tempoholidays.com for its Taste of Vienna packages, hotels and local tours.

                                                      …………………….

PHOTO CAPTIONS:

. A COLOURFUL wine tavern in Vienna's Grinzing wine 'suburb.'

. VIENNA'S vineyard's are a stone's throw from the CBD.

. WINES from Vienna are now being enjoyed around the world.

PHOTOS: Courtesy of Tempo Holidays

South Africa

John Savage

Just a short update on the last trip. Former footballers, Dave Jolly, Tim Pickup, Tim’s two daughters Carly and Loren and I flew to South Africa to watch some Rugby and take on the scenery, wines, food and people. It was an outstanding success arriving home last night after two nights in BKK.

Nelson Mandela, I am pleased to say is still the number one personality in South Africa among both black, white and coloured races and most structures in every airport, shopping centre and Park in the cities and regional areas are named after this magnificent man. (I spent 15 mins with him one on one when he came to Australia in 2000) With a shocking 42% unemployment and immeasurable other problems, on the surface the country is moving ahead and most people of all races are very friendly. Things will get worse before they get better and that is a sad fact of life.

Flew into Cape Town. Waterfront dining, Table Mountain, a trip to the Ghettos and Robben Island (where Mandela was incarcerated for 18 of the 24 years) plus high tea at the famous Mount Nelson Hotel were the highlights along with the socializing pre and après the Kiwi versus S A game.

We set off from Cape Town in a dodgy VW luxury Kombi heading the 1774 K’s to Durban on the Garden Route, enjoying some wine and getting close and cuddly with the Cheetahs at Stellenboch then on to Hermanus for the night where we had sensational accommodation and a view of the Whales as they choreographed a personal show for us in the harbour next morning. Next stop literally although it wasn’t planned was in the middle of the main street of Mossell Bay at the centre of roadworks when the clutch on the VW snapped. Three hours later a replacement VW from George and on our way to stay overnight in Knysna where the seafood restaurants are prolific and Ooh the Oysters and cheap!!! And the wines are a good quality and price. Port Albert, Port St John and Anazimtoti were our overnights prior to Durban. Half day tour gave a great insight into this great city. With the Indian influence in Durban it was appropriate to eat that fare after the Wallabies defeated SA.

The highlight of our flying trip to the Victoria Falls was the Chopper ride over the falls and the one night at the 1904 built Victoria Falls Hotel. The lowlight was the lack of aviation fuel in Zimbabwe which meant a 10 min flight from Vic Falls to Livingston for a re fuelling stop which meant we missed our connection in Joburg to Kruger National Park but South African Airways came to the rescue with complimentary accommodation and meals at the new Casino complex near the airport. That was good and bad for our crew as most of us donated to the Casino cause. (We should know not to take another card on 16!!!)

Luxury tent accommodation in Kruger after a communications mix up (there were a few of them) Those non luxury get close to nature tents would certainly have been a challenge for we older guys (the rats were a worry) In the massive park we saw four of the big five, no lions much to the girls disappointment. One of the guides did say it was unusual to come across the Lions. That made us feel a little better.

Back through Joburg airport again (six times in all) so we were on first name terms with security there. Stayed in Sandton the up market part of Joburg, did a Soweto and downtown tour with former political prisoner as a guide. Went to footy to witness the continuance of the Ellis Park hoodoo they have now not been beaten there by the Wallabies for 46 years.

Verdict on South Africa: I’ve kept some Rand for the next trip.

Jol and I stopped in Bangkok on our return and visited three of the cities tallest buildings. Vertigo Restaurant in the Banyan Tree hotel (to celebrate my birthday and you don’t want to see the photograph) the plus was the rib eye steak and oysters. The others were on the river, the Hilton Millennium and the State Tower, Sky Bar all with sensational views of the city and well worth an early evening viewing.

Home until 04 October and then driving one of the buses for the Interlude Europe spectacular for five weeks. Jeanette is getting sick of all this gallivanting around but we already have three trips booked and a couple on the drawing board for next year…oh well tone it down in 2010.

SLIPPERY CONVICT BOTTLED-UP AT LAST

david ellis

WHEN the colourful convict Moondyne Joe was sentenced to Fremantle Prison in 1871, the authorities reckoned that despite having escaped more times than anyone else from prisons and lock-ups, Joe had finally met his match.

In fact so positive was Western Australia's Governor Hampton that his newly revamped prison was escape-proof, he promised if Moondyne Joe escaped, he would personally grant him his freedom.

Joe did escape, and swallowing his pride Governor Hampton granted him a Ticket of Leave to work at the Convict Depot at Busselton in WA's south-west, and a Pardon if he stayed out of trouble for a further four years.

Sadly Joe couldn't help himself and was soon back behind bars, and would doubtless get a kick out of knowing that this month major historic Western Australian winery, Houghton's has honoured his memory on a trio of new wines – even though it was for trying to rob their winery in 1869 that earned Joe one of his many stints in the clanger.

Joseph Bolitho (Moondyne Joe) Johns and a mate were transported to Australia for stealing several cheeses, three loaves of bread, some bacon and a shoulder of mutton from a house in Wales in 1848.

After arriving in Fremantle and getting his Ticket of Leave, Joe headed off to the Darling Range just east of Perth and got work trapping stray stock around what the local Aborigines called Moondyne Springs.

He stayed out of trouble until charged with horse stealing in 1861 and remanded in a local lock-up, but escaped on the horse he had been accused of pinching and which was being held as evidence – and to make matters worse, with the saddle of the magistrate who'd sentenced him.

Not surprisingly, when quickly recaptured Joe got a three year sentence, and soon after being released was charged with illegally killing an ox and got another ten years.

Assigned to a work party on the Canning Flats, Joe escaped after just one week – and for this got an extra year in irons, and when caught trying to escape yet again earned another six months, but escaped once more with two other convicts and held up a country store that won him a further five years.

One of Joe's Fremantle Prison tasks was breaking rocks for road-making, and he soon had a mound of the stuff a couple of metres high that greatly impressed his jailers – until they discovered too late that the-now nick-named Moondyne Joe was also digging a hole in the prison wall out of sight behind his rock pile.

He slipped through the hole into the Prison Superintendent's vegie garden, walked out through his front gate and remained free for two years until a remarkable stroke of bad luck in 1869.

With a healthy thirst upon him, Joe had donned a wheat sack with two 9-litre barrels tied to the front and back, wrapped his boots in sheepskins to cover his tracks, and broken into the Houghton Winery in the Swan Valley.

He was still taking a glass in the cellar at 1am when a police party investigating a nearby drowning was offered a rewarding drop by the winery owner.

Hearing them arrive Joe made a stumble for freedom but ran straight into the arms of the surprised troopers; he got a further twelve months in irons, and when caught making a key to his cell door two years later was sent to the revamped "escape proof" Fremantle Prison where he was promised his freedom if he managed to escape.

Moondyne Joe was declared a free man in 1873, married a lady half his age when well into his 50s, and stayed crime-free. Sadly at 69 he was committed to the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum where he died in August 1900, and is buried in Fremantle Cemetery's Pauper Grave 580A.

Houghton Wines has now released three wines in memory of Moondyne Joe, who had tried to rob their Swan River Cellar all those years ago: The Bandit 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Pinot Gris, The Bandit 2008 Chardonnay Viognier and The Bandit 2007 Shiraz Tempranillo are priced at $19.95 each.

Try them at the winery's Cellar Door in Dale Road, Middle Swan that's 40-minutes from Perth and open daily 10am-5pm.

                                                          ………………

PHOTO CAPTIONS:

. MOONDYNE Joe Johns – convict escapologist extraordinaire

. HOUGHTON's Cellar Door today: it was trying to rob the historic winery that landed Moondyne Joe in gaol... yet-again

. THE Bandit Sauvignon Blanc Pinot Gris – one of Houghton's new trio in memory of Moondyne Joe.


Vila: The happiest place on Earth

A hammock strung between two palm trees (tick), some wild concoction in hand (tick), kicking back and watching the palm fronds sway in the breeze (tick): a tropical island getaway a little over three hours from Australia? Confirmed.

Recently voted the happiest place on Earth, it’s no wonder that Vanuatu draws more and more visitors every year. This little South Pacific gem is truly beginning to come into its own, and it’s a pleasure to watch the developments progress.

Most international travellers will spend much of their time in Vila, the capital city as this is where all the international carriers hub through, though there is a movement to begin to draw travellers out to experience further out in the archipelago – after all there are 65 inhabited islands to choose from.

Vila though, has its own charm, while its roads may not be graded and the cars travelling along them have seen much better days, the town centre is relaxed and doesn’t incorporate any pretentions of grandeur.

Here’s a tip, hit the markets in the morning or in the late afternoon, it’s almost like all the 40,000 locals are out loading up on their supplies of coconut, grapefruit, taro, papaw and the like. Feeling adventurous? Join in the fray and grab some fruit, just remember there’s no bargaining so the figure the shopkeeper throws at you is it.

After the sweat and activity of the markets, check out the surrounds, many of the general stores in the area are actually owned by Vietnamese and Chinese traders who’ve been on the island for decades, and the many of the goods themselves in the store have French labels – harking back to the joint French and British rule earlier in the century.

Of course one of the best things about staying in Vila is its proximity to everything, nothing is too far and everywhere needs ten minutes to get to – at least it does if you speak to a local. And catching the local bus is a must, while slightly more costly for tourists it still ends up being between $1 and $3. Flag one down where ever you see a minibus with a red ‘B’ on the licence plate, and if they have a spot (and are going in the direction you are) they’ll stop, if not, they’ll at least wave back.

This just touches on the charm of the local Melanesian people. While they may not have an 80" flat screen television or ultra fast broadband, they’re ready with a smile and a greeting when you walk down the street or need some directions.

And if Vila isn’t enough, day trippers can take advantage of various even smaller islands nearby for a day trip, such as the privately held Iririki, which was leased to the British for 99 years in 1913, or Hideaway, the location of the only known underwater post office in the world, where you put on flippers and a snorkel to post your postcard.

For those with even more time, Vanuatu can only be really understood if you move beyond the island of Efate. Walk up the edge of an active volcano, dive into reef-filed oceans, or simply sit back and watch the land-divers plummet down an assembled wooden tower attached only by the vines on their feet. Of course it’s not perfect, after all it still is a third world country, but take the time to get to know this little nation, and you may just find the secret to happiness.

HOW BRAZIL HELPED FIRE UP OUR HISTORY


david ellis


MOST of us believe it's a fair bet that when Captain Arthur Phillip and his officers, civil servants and their families celebrated the arrival of their First Fleet in Port Jackson in January of 1788, they raised glasses filled with rum or brandy.

After all, they'd hadn't put around 3500 litres of the stuff aboard their eleven ships in Portsmouth the previous May for simply medicinal purposes.

But researchers now believe its also likely taht another fiery drop helped fuel that first-ever booze-up by Europeans on Australian shores – a cheaper sugar-cane-based firewater called cachaca that Phillip had come upon during the Fleet's re-victualling stop-over in Rio de Janeiro.

Yet ironically while cachaca may well have played such a distinguished role in our history all those years ago, apart from amongst our expatriate South American population, it's never really taken off here as a major drink of choice.

And that's something that one of Brazil's premier makers of upmarket cachaca, a company called Sagatiba, now wants to turn around: this month it embarked on an Australia-wide marketing blitz to make us more aware of just what cachaca is – and how it can be used not only as a drink in countless forms, but in a whole range of mouth-watering dishes on the table from entrees to main courses and desserts.

Cachaca is big business in Brazil. Annual production of the stuff is around 2-billion litres bottled under some 5000 different brands, and with 400-million litres of this being exported, it leaves the enthusiastic Brazilians to toss the remaining 1.6-billion litres of their "national drink" down their own throats… that's 11-litres (around 3.5-gallons) every year for every man, woman and child in the country.

Just how cachaca came into being is unclear, but most believe it followed the introduction of sugar-cane farming into Brazil around 1550: slaves forced to work the plantations discovered that by secreting some of the crop from their masters and fermenting it, they had a potent drop that could help cure most things from sore throats to colds and minor wounds… and if imbibed with gusto, bring a glow to their miserable lives.

And while it was long considered the drink of the lower classes and referred to by Brazil's elite as "cat choker" (and sometimes worse,) cachaca is now a highly desired drop amongst all levels of Brazilian society.

Many people mistakenly refer to it as a rum as it is made by fermenting sugar-cane with a variety of cereals, but in fact it is classified as a brandy.

In its countless mixed forms it is called caipirinha and can be mixed with anything from fruit juice to soft drinks, crème liqueurs, milk, coffee and even power drinks, and drunk as an aperitif, a martini, a long drink, as a form of Bloody Mary, frozen or as a hot drink.

And as anyone who has been to Brazil will tell you, it's equally at home in the kitchen where it can be blended into a dressing or a dip, drizzled over green salads, used as a marinade for seafood, to infuse with poultry or meat dishes, and to add zest to such desserts as millfeuille, parfaits or panna cottas.

If you're visiting Rio de Janeiro, you'll discover hundreds upon hundreds of restaurants and bars from Academia de Cachaca to Zuka that specialise in dishes and drinks using cachaca.

Academia de Cachaca is at 26 Rua Conde de Bernadotte Leblon where the dining is upmarket in a laid-back ambience, and whose extraordinary bar staff can whip up any of 500 different cachaca-based drinks without a moments hesitation, while the chefs there flavours every one of their North East Brazilian-dishes with a loving dash of the stuff.

Work – or perhaps stumble – your way through the list until you happen upon Zuka at 233 Rua dias Ferreira, a unique eatery in which diner's tables are grouped around a sunken kitchen, so you can look down on the team of chefs creating dishes that are a fusion of the best flavours of Italy, Brazil and Asia.

To get an idea of how to use cachaca as a basis for summery drinks and in unusual and inspired dining, go to www.sagatiba.com 

And as they say in Brazil – VIVA!
                                                  ……………………..

PHOTO CAPTIONS:

MODERN day Brazil – slaves who once worked sugar-cane farms here created the country's "national drink" called cachaca.

CACHACA is the basis for untold numbers of drinks both short and tall.

AND it can be used in dishes such as this fish with cachaca, herbs and ratatouille.

(PHOTOS – Sagatiba Distillers)