The Yarra Valley

November 22, 2008 –

We have just heard news of what happened to our ship, the Volendam, after we disembarked.

The gods must have been smiling when we booked our cruise. It was a repositioning voyage, bringing the Volendam to this part of the world, where it will ply the Tasman Sea until time to sail back to North America for the summer season there. The offer we responded to did not indicate the ship had an Auckland to Sydney run at the end of its cross-Pacific tour. So we were not tempted to stay on the ship, as many did, until it reached Australia.

We disembarked just in time to avoid the Norovirus an Auckland-arriving passenger brought on board. More than a hundred passengers and some of the staff ended up quarantined in their cabins for three days while they recovered from a bug that brings on a short but nasty flu. The whole ship went into disinfection mode.

While the Norovirus still raged, the ship cruised across the Tasman Sea, which is reputed to be one of the roughest sea crossings. There it was hit by 15 to 20 foot waves and pummeled by hurricane-force winds up to 70 mph. Outside decks were closed because of the danger someone might be swept overboard. Several large waves hit the ship so hard that crockery, liquor bottles, and wine glasses flew across the floor. Thank goodness we were wandering around New Zealand when the Tasman lived up to its reputation. Otherwise it might have been my last cruise.

It’s Saturday as I write in a quiet Box Hill home. Darren’s (Robin’s son’s) company is treating employees to a resort weekend so we’re here alone with the dogs. Rain is pelting the city off and on. Not great weather for a weekend getaway, but the water is desperately needed.

Nat holding Lily in the Yarra Valley Dairy's coffee shop
Nat holding Lily in the Yarra Valley Dairy

Nat (Darren’s wife), who’s working one day a week in the city and part time from home, took another day off to drive us to the Yarra Valley, east of Melbourne. As we drove among eucalyptus-lined roads, hilly vineyards, and dairy farms, Robin kept repeating, “This is like the Adelaide Hills.” For him, the rolling landscape and smell of gum (eucalyptus) evoke memories of his childhood in South Australia. For me, Melbourne’s nearby wine area is like the Napa Valley’s quieter stretches.

Yarra Valley, east of Melbourne
Yarra Valley, east of Melbourne

Our first stop was the Yarra Valley Dairy. The ashed goat cheese (see photo) was my favourite, a creamy cheese with a tangy bite. Costly black ash is imported from France to coat the cheese with a moisture-keeping layer. I also liked the milder dill and spicy “hot cow” creamy cheese. All the dairy’s goat and cow cheeses are made with non-animal rennet.

Ashed goat cheese at Yarra Valley dairy
Ashed goat cheese at Yarra Valley dairy

Nat would make a terrific tour guide. She chose three very different wineries for us to visit. De Bortoli Wines has grown from a small family operation, established in 1928 by Vittorio and Giuseppino De Bortoli. Now operated by the third generation of De Bortolis, the winery is one of Australia’s largest private companies.

My palate lacks the sensitivity of an expert oenophile, but I was impressed by the wines we sampled. We also tried the small selection of cheeses, one local (Meredith Dairy) and others from France, Italy, and Switzerland. The woman behind the counter offered us a taste of Saint Agur. I’ve never been a blue cheese fan so declined. She upped the ante – how about a taste of the Saint Agur paired with a sampling of De Bortoli’s Noble One sweet wine?

Sweet wine’s not on my list of must-have’s either, but Nat urged us to accept the kind offer, and I nearly walked out with an empty wallet. The tang of the blue was neatly cut by the sweetness of the Noble One, and my resistance crumbled like, well, like blue cheese.

Chateau Yering
Chateau Yering

Yering Station, our next winery stop, is an interesting mix of old and new. The founders, the Ryrie brothers from Scotland, planted their first vineyard in 1838. They were primarily cattle raisers, but when they sold their 43,000 acres to Paul de Castella in 1850, he shifted the focus to winemaking.

Yering Chateau has been restored as a luxury hotel with a heritage feel. The old barn now houses the wine tasting room and shop. The Wine Bar Restaurant is set in an ultra-modern building with a sweeping view of the Yarra Valley. The grounds around the hotel are a lush garden, while the simpler lawns around the restaurant are background for numerous installations of modern art.

St. Huberts Winery was our last stop. Hubert de Costella started the vineyard in 1862. It’s now part of the giant Foster’s conglomerate, but the wines are still among the best. We stopped there just long enough to pick up a bottle each of their Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

Last stop of the day was back in Melbourne, where Darren joined us so we could become acquainted with the chocoholic’s downfall, Koko Black. One cup of the classic Belgian hot chocolate, topped with cream and chocolate sprinkles, and any other cup of cocoa pales by comparison.

Koko Black's signature Belgian hot chocolate
Koko Black
Nat and Darren and The Glorious Birthday Cake
Nat and Darren and The Glorious Birthday Cake

The rest of the week has sailed by. Sunday after I last wrote was Lily’s (Robin’s first grandchild’s) birthday. Nat created a stunning cake. Friends and family gathered to celebrate, and Lily was her usual sunny, gorgeous self. (That was the 16th. On Lily’s actual birth day, the 20th, Nat included us in a small gathering at…ta da!…another Koko Black. Ahhhhh.)

Lily at her first birthday party
Lily at her first birthday party

We walked in Albert Park on Monday, again with Michelle and Lily. I’m still experimenting with the camera, trying to get better shots of the birds there. No prize winners among those I took, but I’ll include a few of my favourites at the bottom of this post, along with a shot of a rainbow lorikeet munching flowers in the front yard here in Box Hill.

Nat’s step-mother Judy asked me about homesickness. She understands it, having spent years in the States. Other than the one dark day, I’ve been pretty happy here. But Denise, a dear friend in Kelowna, brought me to tears with her keen insight when she wrote, “As I think about your many moves over the past months, and in the upcoming ones, I feel such tenderness about how it must feel not to have a settled ‘home base’. Of course there will be a settled place in your future (your condo awaits, for instance), but the fun of being like a tumbleweed, even when you write about ‘another in the string of ‘best days’’, must necessarily lead to that motherless-child feeling, even for Robin.”

Yes, it does. I wouldn’t trade this time of travel and adventure and new experiences for the comfort of the familiar, but there are many times when I feel like Mole in Wind in the Willows. He loved his adventures with Rat, but, oh, how his heart ached when they passed near his old home, and the smell of it called him sweetly, insistently. I re-read that chapter, “Dulce Domum”, every year at Christmas, when the unrootedness that has characterized most of my adult life makes me long for a settled home.

Cygnet taking a ride on mama's back
Cygnet taking a ride on mama in Albert Park
Days'-old stilt chick
Days-old stilt chick in Albert Park
Proud Popsy giving Lily a bottle
Proud Popsy giving Lily a bottle
Lorikeet in Darren's and Nat's front yard
Rainbow Lorikeet in Darren's and Nat's front yard
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