Milton, Mollymook, Batemans Bay, Mogo, Moruya, Narooma, Tilba, Bermagui, Bega, Merimbula, Eden…these are some of the towns along the NSW South Coast we have visited in the past 3 years, either driving along the Princes Highway for a weekend getaway or flying down to the farthest reach close to the Victorian border for a longer break. Its beautiful coastline, green and lush pastures and unspoilt surfing beaches keep us coming down every year, as do many people during the holidays.

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Off Lake Conjola, NSW

We had planned for a while to fly down to Merimbula for New Year and show the region around to visiting friends. The early onset of bushfires along the coast in August however had us keeping our plans in limbo and monitoring the conditions for months. Daily checks of the NSW Fires Near Me app, showed fires up the north coast and out west in the blue mountains during spring season, then with the arrival of summer mother nature turned its fury towards the south east of Australia, engulfing the whole region into a furnace.

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Needless to say that we didn’t fly to the Sapphire coast as intended, and like most people we watched in horror as the bush fires wrecked so much devastation across the whole region. As I write, the loss of human lives, wildlife and stock is astronomical. So is the number of homes destroyed and businesses lost.

Close to my heart are Roman Leathergoods and Milstons Past and Presents, both shops in Mogo, near Batemans Bay. I remember leaving Mr T at our hotel downtown and driving to Mogo for a bit of “me” time, wandering around the quirky shops the village used to be famous for. There I purchased beautiful handmade leather belts and purses from Roman and chatted with his wife, Lorena, while finding a rare book at Leah Milstons bookstore next door. That was over a year ago. They, along with the entire town, have been reduced to ashes in the NYE blaze.

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Milstons Past and Presents, Mogo, NSW

Unfortunately, they are two of hundreds, if not thousands of families and businesses, affected by the bush fires along the East coast of Australia in the last few weeks.

While the state of emergency/disaster both in NSW and Victoria is now lifted, thanks to easing weather conditions, the full extent of the devastation reveals itself daily on our screens. Not every properties were destroyed, some people were lucky and spared. I am relieved to see that some of the establishments we visited in the past came out unscathed, though the loss of income from the NYE “Tourist Ban” is a crucial blow to these businesses that rely on the summer holiday season to see them thru the rest of the year. With entire communities shaken to their core, the rebuilding becomes everyones’ focus.

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Remnants of previous bush fires on Holmes Lookout, Batemans Bay, NSW 

The urge to help is compelling, either by donating or collecting and most of you would by now be aware of the many options available to help ( from globally known Red Cross, to government agencies such as NSW RFS, or grassroots organisations like Treading Lightly Inc…). Social media campaigns such as Instagram @emptyesky and @spendwiththem are another great way to contribute towards the recovery effort, encouraging city folks like us to take on a road trip to fire affected areas, once safe to do so, and buy from local business. Options range from services, to wine, fresh produce… I can personally relate to this kind of initiative, always keen on a road trip I don’t need much incentive to pack up and go, especially when it is for a good cause !

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Tilba post office, NSW

So as I happily add a South Coast getaway to this year’s travel plans, I thought I’d share with you some of our favourite spots, visited pre-fire season… Beautiful then, and always.

 

Mollymook/Ulladulla

Milton

 

Merimbula

Batemans Bay

Eden

 

Bermagui/Tathra

Christmas 2019

It’s been a while since I wrote a Christmas post, mainly because the past couple of years have been hectic leading up to the holidays. While busy, this year, has been a little quieter, allowing more time for planning and now writing.

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As always Christmas celebrations stretched over 2 days, courtesy of our dual nationalities. I insist on the French tradition of Le Reveillon, Christmas Eve dinner, which for me makes it the biggest cooking day of the year. The family comes over, we exchange gifts and celebrates then they go home before midnight to cook their Aussie Christmas the next day. My Christmas day is then quite relaxed. We have a casual breakfast with the kids and bar a couple of hours dish washing and cleaning the mess from the night before, the rest of the day is spent lazing around ( a.k.a napping ) until it is time to go to Christmas dinner at Shelley’s place.

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This year’s Christmas Eve menu featured the traditional entrees of seafood trio of oysters, prawns and smoked salmon.

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I wake up to the sound of shrieking magpies right outside our bedroom windows. This is not that unusual, we have a whole colony of these living in the tree next door, kept and fed by our neighbour who treats them as pets. They routinely use our roof to dance, court, play and fight in a very vocal fashion which would not bother us if they didn’t leave traces of their passage by way of droppings all over our deck…Should we leave a door or window open, the creatures will venture inside and make themselves at home, until one of us shoo them away. 

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So imagine my reaction, when I walked down to the kitchen and discover what I thought is one of these buggers inside a bowl of corn chips left on the bench the night before!

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It is the morning after our Halloween family gathering, and the house looks very much haunted and decrepit, left to the black birds and the rodents… Just the effect I was after and worked on yesterday, but not so appealing now as I face the prospect of cleaning up before tradesmen arrive for a painting job we arranged days ago ( what a timing! )

This is the third year hosting what seems to have become a ritual Halloween dinner. It also coincides with Mr T’s son, Craig’s, birthday, so the poor guy has no chance of flying under the radar with a quiet celebration. This year’s theme was loaded with nostalgia, with a few of us ( not me ) hooked on shows like Stranger Things or going back to retro style of cooking. So with guests asked to “come as their teen-selves and bring their favourite childhood dishes”, this multi-cultural-generational family gathering of ours was always going to be interesting.

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Setting up the house took a few days, mostly clearing up all the junk accumulated during the year and negotiating my way around Mr T’s renovation projects. In the process, I dug out old toys and games which at any other times would have ended up given away but made perfect props for that particular occasion: vintage Barbie dolls found a new life with Hannah and the Monopoly game had the boys enthralled for a while. Old Mexican glassware gifted by Mr T’s sister a few years ago made a great excuse to set up a pina colada station manned by Marc.

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When it came to dressing up, Mr T didn’t really try. He was planning to wear board shorts and flip flops, as he would have coming back from a day surfing. The weather was too chilly for him however, so he swapped the beach attire for tracksuit pants and a dark t-shirt instead. I called him a daggy old teen.
Marc and Anne being teenagers, had their work cut out appearing as themselves.
Danielle and I brought the 80s back, her with bright lipstick and neon loop earrings, me wearing a half up half down hairdo and a vintage red jumpsuit that used to fit me much better at 16 than it does at 53! Unbeknownst to me, this looked like the costume worn by the characters in the horror movie US, which caused the younger kids to do a double take, never imagining I could be so on point.
The 90’s were well represented with lots of black grungy clothing and resurrected old band T-shirts.

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The best costumes would have to be the younger ones though. Not old enough to know about nostalgia, they embraced the full dress up concept: Cooper and Jesse nailed the Hopper look in Stranger Things with their Hawaiian shirts, while Harry could have been Dustin ( I am not really sure ) and Hannah was the spookiest Annabelle.

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As always, the party spread from the kitchen to the verandah. The adults caught up all the gossip ( and boy, did we have a lot of news to share!! ) while the kids slipped out of their costume to jump in the swimming pool for the first swim of the season. Until the sun disappeared and everyone retired inside, squeezing around the dinner table and piling up plates.

Foodwise, the menu covered a few decades with dishes bringing back memories of dinner parties in the 80’s or afterschool snacks in the 90’s.

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Our starters ranged from food on sticks, to Twisties,

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and spinach dip in a cob…

Asked about his favourite childhood food memory, Mr T mentioned a chips sandwich, also known as chip butty.

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It is basically a whole lot of french fries stuffed into a buttered bread roll, smothered with tomato sauce and much enjoyed after a long surfing session. It wasn’t just popular in the 60s, the Gen Y amongst us remembered devouring a few of them too! I guess, everyone likes a carb-on-carb treat.

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My french version of food in a bread roll, is a Quatre-Heures, a sweet afterschool treat made of a bar of chocolate slipped into a buttered bread roll. The bread roll has to be a french baguette style for it to work, it then kind of tastes like a chocolate croissant and loads you with enough sugar to keep going for hours…
Mains were a mix of old classic ( spaghetti and meatballs ), crowd favourites ( marinated chicken wings and caesar salad),

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vegetables must haves ( baked cauliflower )

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and a funny take on a fish burger with soft shell crabs instead.

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Death by sauce made a surprise guest appearance, leading to some hilarious food tasting.

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Dessert nearly didn’t happen: I had 3 guests charged with bringing a sweet each, and unfortunately 2 of them cancelled the night before. This left Carolyn who already said she would bring a cheesecake. She was our last hope, though I didn’t tell her because I was afraid she’d be spooked under pressure. Instead, I embarked on an exercise of making fruity snacks and chocolate truffles, so we would have sweets to nibble on. I needn’t have worried so much, Carolyn’s vanilla cheesecake turned out perfect, dressed with berries and a few candles, it made the daintiest birthday cake!!

Below are recipes for the sweet snacks should you look for inspiration. Happy Halloween!!!

Mandarin Pumpkins

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I can’t claim credit for this one, it is all Lorraine’s from Not Quite Nigella. I was after a way to present fruits with a Halloween twist, and saw this recipe on her blog. So here is to simple and easy party food that is healthy too!

Serve 12

Ingredients

12 mandarins
12 small sticks of celery

  1. Peel the mandarins and stick a piece of celery in the middle to make it resemble a pumpkin.

Strawberry stars

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Once again, the inspiration comes from Lorraine, as above, who posted a recipe for Demogorgon Monster strawberries. I set out to make these, then realised I had white chocolate instead of dark, and not enough of it to make the whole recipe. With no time to run to the shops and buy more, I used what I had on hand and improvised. This is the result. Make sure to keep it in the fridge until ready to serve, as the chocolate layer is fairly thin and softens quickly at room temperature.

Serve 18

Ingredients

45 strawberries (3 punnets will do)
360g white chocolate
18 blueberries

  1. Wash and dry the strawberries thoroughly. Hull and halve them horizontally.
  2. Melt the white chocolate. I used the microwave, 20s at a time, stirring every time.
  3. Line 3 trays with parchment paper. Spread out 6 circles of melted chocolate on each tray.
  4. Working quickly, place 5 strawberry halves on each circle to form a star. Plop a blueberry in the centre.
  5. Refrigerate to set and keep in the fridge until ready to serve.

Chocolate coated skulls

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I first wanted to make traditional chocolate truffles, as they were my favourite sweets as a child. Then came up with this Halloween twist, except that the usual soft chocolate ganache would not work in the hull silicone mold. The problem was easily overcome by encasing the ganache in a hard chocolate shell. While it is very easy to do, it takes more time than the ordinary truffle, not the least because my silicone mold only makes 7 pieces at a time which is a hassle when you have to prepare a big batch. Now that I know how delicious they are and how easy it is to make them, I am on the lookout for a bigger mold. Or start a few days ahead, since these keep in the fridge for a while.

Makes 21 skulls/truffles

Ingredients

225g dark chocolate ( 70% or higher) for the casing
200g dark chocolate (70% or higher) for the filling
100ml double/thickened cream

  1. Melt the chocolate for the casing: Place 90% of the chocolate in a microwave and heat on full power for 30s. It will be sightly melted. Stir with a spoon and return to the microwave for another 20s. Stir again, zap for another 20s. Repeat the process, 20s at a time until melted, add the remaining 10% of the chocolate and stir until all melted.
  2. Make the chocolate shells: pour about 1 teaspoon of the melted chocolate into each skull. Rotate the mold on various angles until all the indentations are fully coated. You can also use a tiny paintbrush to cover all angles. Use a syringe to “suck”any excess chocolate and put back into the bowl for later. Put the mold in the fridge for 15-20mn until set
  3. Make the ganache filling: In a small saucepan, heat the thickened cream until it is about to boil. Remove from the heat and add chocolate. Stir constantly until the mixture is smooth. Cool down in the fridge for a few minutes.
  4. Fill up the skulls: when the chocolate casings are fully set, fill each one with the ganache almost to the top using a teaspoon or a piping bag. Pour the leftover melted chocolate used for the casing over the truffle and scrape with a flat knife or a pastry scraper to achieve a smooth finish. Keep in the fridge to set completely.
  5. Once set, ease the skulls out of the mold and place in individual cases ( patty pans or muffin cases are ideal ). Keep covered in the fridge until ready to serve.

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Because our last few days in Paris were marked by stressful encounters with crowds and tight schedules, Mr T made me promise that our 4 days stopover in Bangkok would be a relaxing break.

While Anne and I have never been, he used to visit Thailand regularly during his working life in SE Asia years ago. His memory of Bangkok is of a fun and carefree yet chaotic and hazy city. “I am not looking forward to the traffic” he tells me gloomingly.

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We arrive at lunch time at the beginning of a long weekend in celebration of Thailand’s new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn (otherwise known as Rama X) ‘s coronation. We didn’t plan this, but with 3 days of ceremonies involving processions and public audiences, it means that some landmarks and roads are closed near the palace and other popular areas of the city where the royal party is in residence. So, while our program needs slight modifications, the upside is that a lot of the locals have left town for the holiday making traffic a breeze by Bangkok standard. Mr T is pleasantly surprised!

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We are staying at the Ramada Plaza Menam Riverside on the riverfront. The hotel location is ideal for us, close enough to town but in a quieter area by the water. A free shuttle boat takes guests from the hotel wharf to the main pier 10mn away. From there we could catch the train/transit all over Bangkok if we want to. We never get around to do that, however, preferring to stick to water travel (no traffic on the river!)

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Our first day is spent recovering from our 15-hour flight from Paris. We’re made to wait a couple of hours before our room is ready, whiling away the time in the executive club with offers of cakes and snacks. Still, by the time we’re settled in, it takes a bit of coercing to go out and explore our surroundings. Admittedly our “room” is a spacious 2-bedroom suite with 2 bathrooms, a lounge room big enough to host a party of 50 and most importantly, a lovely view over the Phraya river and south Bangkok.

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Anne and Mr T would be happy to laze around in the air-conditioning but it turns out that we are a 5mn walk from Asiatique the Riverfront, á night bazaar and a mall all rolled into one with more than a dozen eating places ranging from high end dining to street food stalls.

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We end up buying prawns skewers, pad thai, some fried rice, and samples of grilled meats and retreat to the cool comfort of our suite.

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Sleep comes easy that night.

The next morning, Anne and I hop on a tour bus at dawn to visit the ancient city of Ayutthaya while Mr T elects to sleep in and later chill by the pool. We don’t often split that way, but the prospect of “being herded along other tourists in 35C heat thru countless temples” is just too much to bear for him so we agree to disagree and go our own way. Turns out to be a wise decision, as it ends up being a very long day of driving, sightseeing and eating for us girls, and while we enjoyed it immensely, I know that Mr T would have hated it. By the time we return, late afternoon, he is waiting for us by the pool, a beer in his hand, his mood improved tenfold courtesy of a leisurely walk around his old haunting grounds and an in-house massage.

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His appetite is back and he is really keen on a buffet dinner at the hotel. As Anne and I have just finished a buffet lunch earlier on the tour, the least we feel like is eating again, but we don’t have the heart to say no and guess what? Somehow we find the room to fit another buffet dinner! We just can’t resist these curries…

Jet lag kicks in with a vengeance the next day and it is my turn to ask to take it easy. Making the most of the in-house spa and massages, we laze around the swimming pool until we realise we should at least check out some part of downtown Bangkok. So we take the boat shuttle to the main pier, and walk along Chareon Krung Road.

This is the oldest road in Bangkok, running parallel to the river and home to 5-star hotels, antique shops, jewellers and cheap and cheerful food vendors. It leads north to the so called Creative District, an area hailed as a place where “the old meets the new, east meets west“ anchored around the Thai Creative and Design Centre. We don’t make it that far though, browsing at the Roberston’s mall instead, where Anne and I try to make sense of all the various Asian cosmetics on offer (white snail mask anyone?).

Mr T paces patiently, then declares it’s Happy Hour and we need to find a bar. “We’re in luck”, I say. “The Sky Bar is right around the corner! “We’re talking about the rooftop bar located on the 63rd floor of the Sky Tower building, made famous in The Hangover movie and notorious for offering some of the best views of the city.

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We’re down for it, but unfortunately, we don’t even make it past the elevator. The dress code gets us: no shorts for men (what else would you wear in 35C heat?), no flip flops for ladies, no backpacks and no shopping bags (well, that rules us out, with my leather backpack and Anne’s shopping!) We’re annoyed but not that upset, looking at the bright side we’re glad to save ourselves spending mega dollars on cocktails and apparently, they don’t serve beer. Imagine that!

So we’re back on the boat shuttle and decide to try our luck at Asiatique again.

This time, we wander leisurely around the bazaar (that’s how it feels) before settling down at Baan Khanitha for dinner.

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This restaurant offers traditional Thai food in sophisticated colonial-style settings. Rooms are decorated with wood-panelled furniture, delicate wood carvings and colorful orchids. The menu is extensive and it takes us quite a while to decide, eventually asking our waitress for recommendations.

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We start with the mixed appetisers, playing it safe with a platter of deep-fried shrimp cakes, fish cakes, spring rolls and chicken wrapped in pandanus leaves. Yes, everything deep fried, though they each come with their own separate dipping sauces (soy and sesame, plum, chili garlic and fish sauce).

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Our mains arrive all together: stir fried salt and pepper pork, deep fried sea bass smothered in sweet and sour sauce, pineapple special fried rice and a red curry with crispy mushrooms. While the first 3 dishes are familiar flavours, not very different to any Thai takeaway we’d find in Sydney, the latter dish is intriguing: it is a cross between a soup and a stew, full of flavour from the red curry, betel leaves and bamboo shoots but what blows me away is the texture of the mushrooms. They actually pop in your mouth, with a crunchy texture on the outside but soft and sweet inside. Called “hed poh” or Thai puffball mushrooms, these are wild fungi that only grow in Northern Thailand and are available during the rainy season. I make a mental note to look for them back in Australia, maybe in a can?

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We decide to skip dessert, not only because we feel fairly full but Anne has spotted a gelato van further down the mall.

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Annette Tuktuk sells handmade ice creams out of a custom built tuktuk. The gelato on sticks come with a variety of flavours and quirky designs. Each look like small toys, and Anne can’t resist the coconut cool cat. In fact, she enjoys it so much, she grins like a cheshire cat all the way back to the hotel. It was a fun night, though quite pricey by local standards.

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There is no doubt that Asiatique is aimed at the tourists that we are, it feels like Disneyland with its large Ferris wheel, kids rides and souvenir shops. It’s all clean and organised, leaving Mr T in some sort of shock, wondering what happened to the traffic clogged city of his youth.  Maybe times have changed. Or it is only temporary, being a long weekend…

Which brings me to our last day. The holiday weekend over, river access to the area around the Grand Palace is restored so I grab the opportunity to hop on one last river cruise. The Chao Phraya Tourist boat leaves from the main pier and runs a hop-on-hop-off service all day, stopping at 9 piers along the way, each one allowing access to different districts in the city. With a few hours before our flight home to Sydney, my plan is to catch the first boat out and cruise up to the Grand Palace then walk our way back down to the Pak Klong Taladd flower market before heading south back to the hotel.

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I cannot believe how easy it is to travel by boat in this city. Traffic is light, bar a few longtail boats and river taxis. There are hardly a dozen people onboard and most get off at the Grand Palace, as we do. It is not a long walk from the pier to the Palace, however it is long enough to have hustlers offering their services as guides and when we decline, telling us we won’t get in as Anne is wearing shorts. Dress code again!

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We both decide we’d rather stay outside the palace and walk along Maha Rat Road, mixing with locals instead of tourists. The road runs along the perimeter of Bangkok’s most revered historical attractions such as the Grand Palace, the temples of Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew, as well as the old learning centre Wat Mahatat.

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While we can’t enter the premises, we certainly get a glimpse of the magnificent architecture and any disappointment we may have quickly dissipates as we wander down the wide tree lined avenues, pass traditional street food vendors, never mind that we get lost in the odd back alley…

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That’s my fault, the flower market is further than I thought from the Grand Palace, and the lack of public transport makes it difficult to travel in the heat. We end up finding Tha Thien pier where we cross the river to Wat Arun, another landmark temple high on the tourists’ lists but we don’t have time for a visit, as we are already running to make the ferry to the flower market.

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Pak Klong Taladd is the largest fresh flower market in Bangkok. It is at its busiest in the early hours of the morning, when flower traders from all over the country convene to offload their blossoms in bulk. It is rather sleepy when we arrive mid-morning, we obviously missed the trading action.

But that means a relaxed stroll amongst a kaleidoscope of colours and a heady mix of fragrances from chrysanthemums to orchids.

Behind the markets are dozens of tiny shops, stocked up with fresh produce. Now, this is the busiest I have seen Bangkok so far;

IMG_9079men loading their scooters with bags of fresh garlic,

vfFBja6MQY2EiNw%M%+N6Ahuman sized baskets filled with green leaves,

GcoeqoShTh2cwtjhDOX9bwand chiles shining like jewels, …

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I wish I didn’t have a plane to catch so I could follow them. But time is a funny concept here. With a couple of hours to spare, I feel that’s enough to explore Chinatown up the road and possibly fit in some shopping while still returning to the hotel on time. However, Anne reminds me of our propensity to lose ourselves and taking one look at the busy traffic, I decide to be a responsible parent and cautious traveller.

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We walk through the Yodpiman River Walk, while waiting for the ferry, which is running late. The complex is relatively new, consisting mainly of tourist shops and a few restaurants.

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Not much happens here during the day, the place is almost empty of visitors and after visiting a couple of jewellery shops we end up sitting in the waiting area, being serenaded by the local busker and enjoying the view of Wat Arun across the river.

I think of the many “unmissable” sights we could have fitted in, had we been prepared to hit the ground running faster than we have, but in the end, leisurely watching the world go by on the Chao Phraya seems a pretty fitting conclusion to our relaxing stopover.

A Thai friend, Vida, said before we left “3 days in Bangkok is not enough! ”. Now I know she was right.

Octopus.

For a very long time, this large cephalopod mollusc was a mystery. Some strange beast endowed with a horny beak on its head and 8 suckers lined tentacles. Add the fact that it must be beaten for a long time to tenderise its flesh, then blanched before use and you have me staying away from cooking it !

My parents must have thought the same, as growing up as a child, I can’t recall it ever being served at home. Not even the school canteen would offer it for lunch.

It would take me moving to Australia to experience my first cephalopod. It was a squid, also referred to as calamari, the octopus smaller cousin. Easier to cook and more tender, my first taste of it was as a heaped plate of deep fried calamari rings. It was love at first bite, and I have since sampled quite a few of these. Variations have included salt and pepper squids, marinated and barbecued squids, squids in salads…At some point, baby octopus was introduced to my plate ( probably sharing the same grilled fate as its calamari friend ) and became another regular on the seafood menu though I always preferred to order it in restaurants rather than cook it myself.

It wasn’t until well into our cruising days that I was “gifted” a freshly caught octopus and faced with the challenge of cooking it from scratch. We were laying at anchor in a small atoll in the Tuamotus, French Polynesia and we were supposed to go lobster hunting with the local fisherman. Bad weather conditions precluded us from doing so, and he kindly offered us an octopus instead that he’d just speared off the beach. That’s when I learnt to cook octopus.

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