Our week in Sydney had been plagued by stress and sleepless nights. While Peter’s immune system took a dive along with the stock market, my last minute manuscript corrections for my latest book, “Losing Sight Of The Shore” had me thinking of chapters and verses until the early hours of the morning. Come the weekend, we had the energy levels of gnats and we were both in dire need of a break. Time to check out our own backyard. The South Coast of NSW is hard to beat. A moderate drive away from Sydney, it is blessed with a spectacular coastline and lined with the lushest undulating hills, peppered with grazing cows. Our destination was the ever charming Bannisters at Mollymook. With the promise of an amazing meal at Rick’s, we packed with great anticipation. “How many meals should we have at Rick’s. Two dinners? Or two dinners and one lunch?” “I think two dinner in a row will be plenty, Peter. I think that three meals at the same place is overkill.” Yes, Peter and I are die hard fans of Rick’s. Who’s Rick, you ask. Rick Stein! Is there any other? We would have just about taped and watched every program available on the English celebrity chef. With a lack of hype, pomposity and attitude, we share in his passion for seafood, fresh ingredients and unfussy preparations. We looked forward to getting as close to him as we could get, without actually meeting him in person, by eating at his restaurant. And so we set off in my new white Honda Civic, Bluetooth Audio blasting all my favorite hits from my iPhone. Stopping midway for a delightful lunch at The Blue Swimmer Restaurant at Gerroa, we were pulling into Bannisters an hour and a half later.
“Sorry, Rick Stein’s is closed this evening.”, Emma from reception commiserated. “We thought Rick Stein’s would be open for dinner 7 days!”, Peter exclaimed. “It’s what we came for!” “We have a lovely pool bar that is open, and they serve very good food there.”, Emma offered. “What about lunch at Rick’s tomorrow.”, Peter persisted. “It’s closed for lunch too.”, Emma said. “Oh no! Is it open on Monday night?” “Yes, the restaurant is open on Monday night.” “Oh thank God!”, Peter exhaled. “So what type of food is served in the pool bar?” “Gourmet pizzas, fish tacos, fresh salads. There’s live music as well. Otherwise, you can go into town. There are several little eateries there.” “No! No more driving today. We’ll check out the pool bar.”, I said.
Dealing with our “No-Rick” disappointment as we unpacked our bags in the cozy designer decorated rooms complete with private balcony and stunning ocean views, we walked around the scenic perimeters of Bannisters before heading down a nature reserve that led to the water. After hours in the car, it was good to ground in the earth and surrounding landscape. “Vic, what’s that noise. Did you bring your mobile phone with you?”, Peter asked as we strolled. “No, luv. Those are called birds.”
After tackling a painfully slow internet connection back at the room - “Peter, this is driving me nuts! I need to do a last minute check on my manuscript!” - I surrendered to fate and decided to have long hot shower instead. Despite my brave attempts to wash the day away, however, the live singer at the pool bar reminded me with great regularity that he was there as his percussion reverberated around the frameless shower screen. “Vic, I hope the music isn’t going to be too loud.”, said Peter, head pounding from a head cold. “If we can hear it from here, then chances are that it will be.”, I said. “Somehow I don’t think that it’ll go on for too long, though.” Arriving at the delightfully atmospheric pool bar, our eyes traveled across the intimate little pockets, dotted by tea light candles. What should have been a relaxed and easy ambience, however, was slightly marred by the over-amplified music. Talented as the singer was, the volume was overpowering for such a small space. “Is there perhaps a separate area that we can sit at? It’s a bit hard for us to chat with the loud music.”, I asked a gracious waiter, Leroy, as he approached. “Yes there is. Follow me.”, he said. Showing us to an intimate glassed in area, we lounged back in quieter comfort while still being able to see the goings on around the pool bar. Ordering fish tacos (me) and gourmet pumpkin and goats cheese pizza (Peter), the food was every bit as fresh and flavorsome as Emma had indicated. Devouring our meal over a couple of glasses of wine, we managed to enjoy our pool bar experience, thanks to the impeccable service and pleasant demeanor of Leroy. We relished the tranquility even more when the loud music stopped at 8 pm, allowing us to hear the heavenly sound of waves crashing on the rocks. Our escape to the separate room had not been lost on our ponytailed vocalist, who played a recording of Dancing Queen by Abba on the sound system just as we were about to leave. “I’ll bet this is the best thing you’ve heard all night.”, he called out facetiously, offended by our apparent indifference to his music. No offense, man. We loved your style and soul. But we’d just driven 4 hours to get away from the chaos of Sydney. A little less on the percussion and amps and more on the gentle ballads would not have gone astray.
Awaking to the beep-beep sounds of a delivery truck, it seemed like tranquility was eluding us. Thanks goodness for the high quality mattresses and crisp sheets on Bannister's beds, which afforded us both a sound night’s sleep. Showered and dressed by 8:30, we made haste to the breakfast room, where a caffeine hit awaited us. As Nora Jones trilled in the back ground, we sat on the terrace and enjoyed the fresh air and sounds of nature. The aroma of freshly toasted bread and ground coffee stirred our salivary glands as a relaxed and efficient young waiter in a blue chambray and white striped shirt took our breakfast order. A crisp morning and peaceful start to the day, this is what we came to Bannisters for. Our entertainment for the morning was kindly provided by a good natured gentleman who walked into the glass wall. “I nearly did that too this morning!” I called out to him as we both chuckled. He eventually found the door.
Exploring Mollymook Beach after breakfast, we breathed in the sweet sea air and aroma of sea weed fermenting on the sandy shores. The craggy headlands of either side of the horizon looked like giant pillars holding up the cerulean sky, feathered clouds meeting the sea shades of indigo, turquoise and jade. As I took in the sun, Peter went in for a quick dip. On Leroy’s recommendation, we headed over to Pilgrim’s for lunch in the tiny town of Milton. Now, I don’t have anything against the dreadlocked mung-bean-eating hairy-armpit brigade that I associate with vegetarian restaurants, but lentil burgers and falafel give me gas. However, based on the recommendations of our not-a-hair-out-of-place and neat-as-a-pin Bannisters waiter, Leroy, we decided to give Pilgrim’s a shot. “What can I get you.”, barked the no-nonsense, singlet-donning, muscle bound cropped-haired woman behind the counter. Picking the first vegie burger and fruit squeeze on the chalk board menu without hesitation, I was too scared to dawdle over choices. Peter settled for the same. “Eating here or taking away?”, she interrogated. “Eating here, please.” Studying the ingredients of my meal choice afterwards - Vegie Burger had lentil, avocado, tabouleh, caramelized onions, cheese and a peanut sate sauce, while the “Bombie” fresh squeeze had beetroot, carrot, celery, ginger - I figured that, at the very least, my digestion would be stimulated and my meal choice would be “good for me”. Picking a seat indoors with some pleasant crosswinds, we waited for our orders to arrive. It was too hot a day to sit outside. Our burgers arrived in good time, accompanied by nothing more than a wax wrap. No trimmings. No lettuce leaves or garnishes. Oh well. Peter had booked us a massage at Bannisters at 2:20 so we had to eat up. Wrapping my fingers around the bun, I studied it momentarily before biting into it. While our lunch may not have looked like much, the flavors in the Vegie Burger literally danced on my palate, a symphony of sweet and savory. Barely speaking, Peter and I relished every mouthful in silence and salvaged every morsel that fell on the plate. It was too good to waste. Pilgrims was indeed a revelation and we’d been converted. With food like this, I could almost turn vegetarian. Almost.
2:20 arrived and it was time for our massages back at Bannisters. While Peter settled on a deep tissue, I indulged in the “Sandman Package.” Relaxing in the lavender scented darkened comfort of the treatment room, the eastern chanting that floated from an invisible sound system had me drifting off into la-la land in no time. Donna began my massage with a lemon myrtle and macadamia sugar scrub. Followed by a quick shower, she then used joya crystals to knead my tired muscles with a lemon, lavender and mandarin oil. Relaxed and skin feeling like velvet by the time that Donna finished with me, I was ready for our date with Rick.
“Vic! The internet connection is much better here!”, Peter exclaimed from the lounge area of Rick Stein’s restaurant, where he’d been seated for an hour with his laptop. “That’s great. But I think you’d better head to the room and get dressed. You can’t have dinner in shorts and a T-shirt.” Not realizing the time, he jumped up and hightailed it to our room for a shower and change of clothes. Ordering a glass of Chardonnay from the maitre d’, I leisurely gazed around the room. With a decidedly beachy vibe in the choice of blonde wood furniture, the white tablecloths and tea light candles added a certain formality to the restaurant’s ambience. Spotting the portrait of Rick’s dearly departed pooch, Chalky, lovingly positioned on the library shelf, I selected a coffee table book on the late tenor Pavarotti before luxuriating on the immense couch with my chilled wine. After Peter arrived, we were escorted to our table for our date with Rick. Starting with an exquisite sourdough made on the premises, freshly shucked oysters from Port Stephens (Mid North Coast of NSW) followed. Served with two dressings on miniature side plates - soy, lime and ginger in one and an eschallot vinaigrette in the other - the oysters were just as delicious on their own with a squeeze of lemon. Sharing a plate of stir fried squid with red chili, bean sprouts, cucumber and watercress, Peter and I mmm-ed and ahhh-ed in unison. But the evening belonged to the Chargrilled Fillet of Snapper, with a tomato, butter and vanilla vinaigrette. Cooked to perfection, it was succulent and sublime. Served by a lovely server from Essex (UK) named Gemma, our evening could not have been more perfect. All of a sudden, the 4-hour drive, vociferous minstrel and choked internet connection paled into insignificance. Sated and serene, we vowed to return in June, when we would have the pleasure of meeting Rick in person at Bannisters.