January 2012

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The genial Bill Lark with some of his single-malt whiskies. Photo by David Lansing.

I was talking yesterday how I really wanted to get back from the Oyster Lovers Tour (sin oysters) so I could go to the whisky tasting on-board the Orion. The whisky tasting was being done by Bill Lark. He’s another of the guest lecturers on our cruise and is often described as “the grandfather of Australian whisky.” You didn’t know Australia made whisky, did you? I didn’t either. But they do. And Bill makes the best of it. The other night Ross, the Bruny Island pig farmer, and Bill and I shared a table at dinner and Bill brought along several bottles of his Tasmanian whisky, and I have to tell you I was quite impressed. I’ve spent a fair amount of time visiting distilleries in Scotland and writing about them and, as I told Bill, his single malt is as good or better than anything you’ll find on Islay or in Speyside or anywhere else in Scotland.

In fact, Bill has gotten so good at making whisky in Tasmania that he is now called on by Scottish distilleries to act as a consultant. Imagine that: A Tasmanian wild man telling the Scots how to make a good dram.

I asked Bill at dinner how he got into the business. It’s a typical Bill Lark story. Back in 1988, he said, his wife wanted to drag Bill to an auction in Hobart. “It’ll be fun,” she told him. “They’ve got some old chests and beds and lamps and a whisky still.”

Say that again, Bill said.

“What, about the chests and old beds?”

“No the last thing.”

“A whisky still?”

“Let’s go.”

So they went. And for $65, Bill got an old illegal copper still. Mind you, he had no idea what he was going to do with it. But he took it home and started doing a little reading and learned that in order to make whisky you only needed three things: malted barley, yeast, and water. So he started making whisky. And, his friends told him, it wasn’t half bad. A few years passed and he became so competent in making good whisky that he thought, Maybe I should try doing this on a commercial basis.

Only problem was that while there had once been a thriving distillation business in Tasmania back in the day, no one had legally made whisky—or any other spirit—in 139 years. All because of some very complex restrictions that made it virtually impossible to distill spirits unless you were a mammoth concern. Still, Bill thought what the hell. So he applied for a license. Which was denied. So he called up someone in Sydney who was in charge of alcohol and exports and licensing—all the things Bill needed—and after hearing Bill’s story, the bloke told him he’d change the law. Which he did. And in 1992, Bill Lark was granted the first distiller’s license in Tasmania since 1853; this year Bill’s whisky was recognized by whisky expert Jim Murray as one of the top ten whiskies in the world. Not bad for a little guy from Tasmania who started out with nothing more than $65 copper still bought at auction.

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Bob prefers drinking to talkiing when he pours at Spring Vale Winery in Cranbrook. Photo by David Lansing.

There’s more to life than just oysters. There’s also wine. Good wine. Dry wine. To go with the oysters. So our tour dude, Brad, his body half turned to face us while he spins stories about Cole Bay and the Aborigines who first took a liking to the oysters, guns his minibus through the hairpin turns as if he were driving a Ferrari as we all lurch first left and then right, hoping like hell there isn’t another car coming the other way down this twisted country road, delivering us to Spring Vale Winery in Cranbrook.

The first thing everyone does when they exit the minibus is flee for the restrooms. Perhaps to take a pee, more likely to recover from the drive. “My god,” one woman confesses to me, “I thought for sure we were going to die.”

I don’t tell her that one reason Brad the Tour Dude is rushing us is because I took him aside at the oyster farm and told him that we absolutely, positively, without-a-doubt had to finish the tour by four because there was a scheduled whisky tasting on board the Orion at five. Priorities.

After everyone has a little private time in the loos, we gather inside what looks like an old sheep barn that has been converted into the Spring Vale tasting room where we are greeted by…no one. The place is empty.

“Bob must be out in the vineyard,” says Brad the Tour Dude. He walks out to his minibus, thrusts an arm into the open window, and starts honking the horn incessantly. Within a couple of minutes, a balding young man pulls up on a tractor in front of the tasting room. This is Robert Elliot, the vineyard supervisor and, today, in charge of the tasting room. Without saying a word, Bob sets out a dozen tasting glasses on the bar and starts pouring a Riesling. We all stand there, waiting for him to tell us about the wine. But Bob tells us to grab a glass and start drinking.

I don’t like to talk much about the wine, he says. If you’ve got a question, ask it. Otherwise, I’ll just pour and you can just drink.

I like that approach.

Down the hatch go tastings of a sparkling wine, a couple of Reislings, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay. As we’re sampling the Reislings, someone asks Bob what the difference is between the two wines. Bob shrugs. “Some people say one thing and others say another,” he says.

Well, I can’t really tell much difference, says the guy.

“That’s okay,” says Bob, “I can’t either.”

After the whites, we get pours of three different Pinot Noirs and a Cabernet. “Any questions?” asks Bob. No one has any questions. “All-righty, then,” says Bob. And he leaves the tasting room, climbs back on his tractor, and heads back out into the vineyards.

“Time to go,” says Brad the Tour Dude. And we climb back into the minibus for the one-hour tortuous drive back to Cole Bay and our whisky tasting.

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The $125 oyster

Worth their weight in gold--just harvested Cole Bay oysters. Photo by David Lansing.

At the oyster farm there was a little rustic café (just a pass-through window, really, and a half dozen picnic tables outside) where normally they serve customers lots of lots of Cole Bay oysters. Thinking that perhaps they had just a few hidden away, Brad went to the window and asked the owner, Julie, if she didn’t perhaps have a dozen oysters tucked away somewhere. “These people are on a cruise ship and they’re taking the Oyster Lovers Tour and they’d be perfectly happy if they could each just have one little oyster.”

Sorry, said Julie. Sold out. No oysters today.

Well, what are you going to do. Brad ordered several pots of mussels from Julie as well as a couple of bottles of Sauvignon Blanc wine and we sat at two of the picnic tables and shared the mussels and drank the wine from plastic cups and joked about being on an Oyster Lovers Tour with no oysters. We finished up and everyone got back on the minibus except for me. I was wandering around the oyster farm looking at huge piles, four feet tall, of scallop and oyster shells and taking photos when a pickup came up the dirt road and pulled up to the back of the café. Curious, I walked over. Two oyster farmers were unloading three bushel baskets of oysters fresh off the boat. “It’s all we were able to get today,” one told me. “It’s pitiful but we had an obligation to a client we just had to meet one way or the other.”

Brad, back at the minibus, honked the horn and leaned out the window entreating me to get onboard. “We’re waiting for you,” he yelled in the wind. I ignored him and turned to one of the oyster farmers. “Listen,” I said, “I’m on the Orion cruise ship and I’ve just spent a $125 on an Oyster Lovers Tour for which we were told there were no oysters. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to let me have just one, would you?”

“Ah, yeah,” said the farmer. And right there, at the back door of the café, he took an oyster knife out and shucked me the largest oyster in the bushel. “There you go mate.”

I quickly slurped it down while Brad continued to honk his horn.

It was lovely. Smooth and sweet and lightly brined from the most pristine ocean water in Tasmania. It was both the best oyster I’ve ever had as well as the most expensive.

When I climbed back on the minibus everyone wanted to know what I’d been doing in the back of the café.

I got an oyster, I confessed. You didn’t, said the man from Melbourne behind me. I did, I told him.

“And how was it?”

“Better than you’ll ever know.”

Which was a little mean. But also true.

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An oyster tour with no oysters

I figured this photo of oysters at the oyster farm was as close as we were going to get to the little beauties.

A couple of nights ago at dinner I pulled aside Mick, our expedition leader, to see if I couldn’t finagle my way on to the Coles Bay Oyster Lovers Tour in Freycinet. I knew it was a long shot. There were only 12 slots open and those had been filled before the ship even sailed. Still, you’ve got to give something like that a shot—an afternoon spent at the renowned Freycinet Marine Farm slurping just-shucked oysters from the Freycinet National Park which is said to have perhaps the cleanest, most pristine ocean water in the world.

Well, I got lucky. Last night, after dinner, there was an envelope slipped under my door with a message from Mick saying there has been a cancellation and if I still wanted to go, I needed to let him know by eight this morning. Which I did. So shortly after lunch a dozen of us hopped into two of the Zodiacs and were whisked over to Coles Bay where our guide, Brad, a young twentysomething dude with a pony-tail, showed us to his little minibus to begin our tour.

“Right,” said Brad. “Just wanted to let everyone know that there will be no oysters on our oyster tour.”


Not my fault, said Brad, slipping the minibus into gear and heading away from the harbor before anyone could jump ship, as it were. The weather didn’t allow the boats to get out. The oyster farm didn’t have any oysters today. What could he do?

A guy from Melbourne, sitting behind me, said, Well, someone in Cole’s Bay must have some oysters. You need to find them. Brad, sensing that things were going south very, very quickly, got on his cell phone while driving and tried to rustle up some oysters. No luck. Not a single supplier in Coles Bay had even one bivalve. “Look,” said Brad, trying to lighten things up, “we’ll just pop on over to the oyster farm and have some mussels instead. You like mussels don’t you?”

Well, yes, everyone liked mussels and it was generally agreed that if there were no oysters to be had the next best thing would be to at least eat some mussels. So that’s where we’re headed. To the oyster farm, which has no oysters, on the Oyster Lovers Tour to eat mussels.

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A fish thief in Wineglass Bay

The Orion anchored in Wineglass Bay, Tasmania. Photo by David Lansing.

Listen, when you get a cruise brochure and you see all those gorgeous photos of the places you’re going to visit, it gets you pretty excited, right? Golden beaches, deep blue skies, swaying palms. But it’s not always like that, right? Sometimes a little Photoshop is involved but usually it’s just bad luck. Like today. We were anchored in iconic Wineglass Bay in the centre of Freycinet National Park. “You’ll arrive to find the view is spectacular, with dramatic red granite peaks reflecting in clear blue waters and a near-perfect circle of white sand forming the beach of the bay.”

That’s from the description in the daily newsletter Brando, my cabin steward, put on my pillow last night. So heck, I was pretty excited this morning to wake up early and have my first look at “iconic” Wineglass Bay. Except I couldn’t really see it. Because it was raining and the wind was blowing so hard that it was picking up the spray off the white caps and pushing them horizontally over the ocean. Take a look at the photo I took this morning. That’s of one of the Zodiacs headed for our “wet landing” at Wineglass Bay with the Orion in the background. See the “near-perfect circle of white sand forming the beach of the bay”? Me neither.

But here’s the thing: It was great fun anyway. There were twin brothers in my Zodiac, 9-year-olds from Melbourne with their mother, and they couldn’t have had more fun. Just as some spray came up over the bow of the tender and soaked their little heads, up popped a dozen or more dolphins right beside us. They ran along side our Zodiac and in front of us and underneath us and it was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had.

Then, as we were slowly motoring around the bay, a seagull dropped down out of the sky right in front of us and took up a foot-long mackerel. We gasped over that but what came next was even better: Watching all this from a naked limb of an Oyster Bay pine along the shoreline was a white-belly sea eagle who took to the air and then swarmed down like a kamikaze pilot, swiping the still-struggling fish from the beak of the surprised and offended seagull. We watched the sea eagle take the fish back to his perch and commence with his breakfast. Dramatic and unbelievable. And not something you could script. So even when things don’t go exactly as planned, they can turn out bloody interesting. You just have to go with the flow.


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