We get a lot of Indian families during Diwali,” says Andrew Wood, our ebullient tour guide at Tropical Fruit World, on the Tweed Coast of Australia’s New South Wales. It’s not surprising—your parents may refuse to even peek into bars or restaurants that serve beef or pork but no multi-generational family would have a problem with something as wholesome as fruit. Spread over 200 acres, and growing 500 species of exotic fruit, Tropical Fruit World offers two-and-a-half-hour tours by boat or train. Children can have birthday parties there and see kangaroos and emus.
It all ends with a fruit-tasting session. There are familiar fruits like mango, banana, papaya, jackfruit and moringa, over a dozen varieties of the nutritionally dense avocado, as well as exotics such as the Mexican black sapote, aptly called the “chocolate pudding” fruit. It tastes as sinful as its name but you can feel virtuous while eating it—it’s a fruit, after all.
At the end of the tour, we stand on the edge of the property to take in the sunset. In front of us is the beautiful Tweed Valley, formed when Mount Warning, or Wollumbin, as it was known traditionally, erupted some 25 million years ago. The caldera, or cauldron-like crater, is now verdant green, with hectares of sugarcane. Behind us lies the Pacific Ocean.
I am on the Tweed Coast, a little-known part of East Australia, an hour north of Sydney by flight.
I am staying at the Peppers Salt Resort & Spa, an Australian resort chain in Kingscliff, an hour’s drive from Ballina, where I landed from Sydney. With spacious suites that include a washer-dryer, a stove, utensils and a dishwasher, this would suit an Indian family that travels with packaged MTR food. The service is unfussy yet efficient and there are two heated pools. The pristine Salt Beach is a 10-minute walk and over the next three days, I snorkel with turtles, visit a rum distillery, take a boat trip and dine at great restaurants.
Dinner on Day 1 is at Jodha Bai Retreat in Terranora, owned by an India-crazy couple, Cliff and Susan Peiffer, both intrepid travellers. Susan is Anglo-Indian, and together, over the last seven years, they have recreated an Indian palace, inspired by the Fatehpur Sikri complex, complete with 300 tonnes of red sandstone. It is a mind-boggling exercise and we talk about it during dinner—not Indian but a charcuterie board with olives, bread, hummus, cheese and barbecued meat. Cliff loves Australian wine and pours us several glasses of his favourite varietals.
Snorkelling with turtles: The next morning, we are up early. Watersports Guru (no India connection) takes tourists out into the ocean to Cook Island, itself shaped like a turtle. After a short drive from our Kingscliff hotel, we set off down the Tweed river that gives the area its name. From the boat, we spot groups of dolphins, and soon, we are at the Cook Island Aquatic Reserve. We jump into the cold water, wearing wet suits, flippers and snorkelling masks. We spot giant green turtles that let us swim close enough to touch, and the loggerhead turtles that are more shy and stay close to the corals. Half an hour later, we are back on the boat because the skipper has spotted whales. To our delight, we see three or four whales—one cresting the waves, another flipping its tail, and, best of all, a baby whale learning to “breach”, or launch its body above the water line. For us landlubbers, whales remain a largely unknown species, inhabiting the depths and having their own language of song.
Lunch is at Halcyon House, a 21-room boutique hotel owned by two sisters from Brisbane. With a fine wine list, innovative cocktails, a terrific spa, three cupboards full of locally sourced gin, and a view of the Coral Sea, Halcyon House proves restorative after a morning of splashy excitement. The flavourful menu includes Wagyu cheeseburger, prawns, rock oysters and roasted artichoke.
Sip colour-changing gin: After sampling the gins at Halcyon House and hearing about Ink Gin, famous in this part of the world, I decide to visit a distillery. A trip to Husk Distillers in Tumbulgum (I love these musical names) provides answers about the deep purple-coloured gin. The source of this hue is a flower common to many Indian gardens—the shankha pushpa, or butterfly pea flower.
Our tour guide demonstrates by dropping a few dried flowers into water. Shake or stir and you get a deep indigo colour. Add tonic water and it transforms to pink. “Ours is the world’s first and only colour-changing gin,” says our guide at the distillery. This flower is a key botanical in Ink Gin, along with juniper berries, locally grown lemon myrtle leaves, Tasmanian pepper berry and other ingredients.
While gin is their calling card, rum is what they are passionate about. Having grown up on Old Monk, to me rum is more about nostalgia than taste. The rum here, with the rather unfortunate name of Bam Bam, is a revelation. We see how the sugarcane is cut, squeezed into juice and fermented in giant vats to extract the spirit and flavours, before it is matured in oak barrels. The result is a golden liquid. Rich with botanicals—native ginger, golden berry, roasted wattleseed, orange peel, vanilla and cinnamon—it tasted good with just two cubes of ice.
Storytelling on a boat: As Indians, we are used to traditional welcomes with garlands and dances. It’s not very different here. Tweed Escapes, a local operator that organises boat trips with a twist, welcomed us aboard a boat on the Tweed river with smoke and a traditional aboriginal dance of the Bundjalung Nation by young bare-chested boys with yellow mud smeared on their bodies.
We sat cross-legged and had a picnic (organised by Blue Ginger) of locally sourced bread, croissants, jams, olive oil, dips and chips while local storyteller Franck Rasna told us about the indigenous Australians, how they lived, and their sustained efforts to preserve their way of life. He recounted folk tales of how the birds got their colours and showed us local plants used for health and healing. Before we knew it, two hours had flown by and it was time to disembark.
A boutique experience: Routinely listed as one of the top Australian boutique hotels, Raes on Wategos lies in the Byron Bay area. The restaurant gets booked out months in advance, and, after tasting the food, I can see why. We choose a tasting menu with paired wine. Every course is chef Jason Saxby’s ode to Australia’s fresh produce, seafood and meat. He uses flowers, leaves and fermentation techniques, and his Yellowfin tuna crudo, prosciutto dashi jelly, onion, capers and mustard leaves is not to be missed.
We head to the Byron Bay lighthouse afterwards—set at the edge of a cliff, with water all around. In the distance, whales make the annual migration to their breeding grounds.
Most Indians think cricket when they think of Australia. But I saw a quieter side of this vast continent—sparkling seas, boutique restaurants, excellent produce and a friendly people that made other, better-known destinations pale in comparison. Most striking of all were the aboriginal influences obvious everywhere I visited, bringing up a shared and connected past when all of us inhabited what was then Gondwanaland.
Shoba Narayan writes the Bangalore Talkies for Hindustan Times and has been a long-time contributor and columnist for Mint.