Wednesday, March 18, 2015

GranMonte Wine: The Aussie Connection

When Adelaide University student Nikki Lohitnavy returned to her native Thailand after graduation, she received a surprise gift from her parents - her own winery! The first (and only) Thai national to receive a Bachelor degree in Oenology (with Honours in Viticulture) in Australia, Nikki is now head winemaker at the family-run vineyard GranMonte, located in the beautiful Asoke Valley in the foothills of Khao Yai National Park.

"When I returned from Australia, I found all these steel tanks waiting outside. I then had to set up the wine-making facility from scratch. There are some things they just don't teach you at university!" she jokes.

Nikki Lohitnavy, Thailand's first female winemaker 

Fast forward six years, and Nikki is arguably Thailand's most respected winemaker, consulting for international vineyards as well as leading Thailand's charge to produce world-standard wines. She is also the only female winemaker in the country, and a great inspiration for other ambitious young women.

Nikki has inherited her passion for wine from her father Visooth, who first purchased the 16-hectare former cornfield in 1999. At the time, there were several small vineyards in the Khao Yai area, a Royal Project established decades earlier having already recognised the area's potential as a wine-growing region.

The GranMonte vines, just after harvest 

Of course, producing grapes in the tropics requires adaptation of traditional growing methods; but through experimentation, consultation and the use of a microclimate monitoring system, Visooth soon learnt what varieties would flourish during tropical storms, monsoons and searing summer heat.

Things really took off, however, after Nikki returned to Thailand with internships at Browns Brothers and Wolf Blass wineries under her belt. The vineyard now has the capacity to produce 120,000 bottles a year, which it should meet within two or three years.
GranMonte vineyard 

And trust me, GranMonte makes a fine drop, from its rich, award-winning Syrah, to its light and fruity rose made from Syrah grapes, named after Nikki's mother, Sakura. The wines have won over 100 awards in the past four years, and are the most decorated wines of Thailand.

Some of the many awards that GranMonte has won

As Khao Yai has become more popular as a weekend escape from Bangkok, so the winery has flourished into a full-blown tourist operation, with a stylish cellar door and tasting room, a charming restaurant serving delicious European-style food and a guest house offering seven rooms. Sixty thousand visitors pass through the cellar doors annually, with around 10,000 of those joining a winery tour.
Linguine with prawns, basil and olives in white wine from VinCotta Restaurant 

GranMonte cellar door 
Tours are held three times a day, and include wine tasting at a cost 270 baht per adult.

For more information, visit

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Paddling with a Legend: John Gray's Sea Canoe

"Sometimes I think I'm responsible for what Phuket has become," John Gray sighs as we stare out at limestone cliffs looming on the horizon. "It was so quiet and beautiful when I started here in the '80s. That's the problem with being successful."

With his full white beard and hulking physique, 70-year-old John Gray cuts an imposing figure, the sort of man who makes an impact wherever he goes. Affectionately known as Ling Yai (meaning 'Big Monkey' - not 'ugly monkey' as I mistakenly thought!) by his Thai crew, Gray is indeed a legend, a name synonymous with the island of Phuket. His sea kayaking tours through the 'hongs' of Phang Nga Bay are one of the most popular day trips out of Phuket - a classic Thai experience that, in my mind, should be on every traveller's bucketlist.

Myself and John Gray on board his tour boat

John Gray's Sea Canoe tours have been part of the Phuket experience since 2001, when this Californian-born adventurer decided to expand his successful Hawaiian sea kayaking business into South East Asia. "I started the business on just 700 baht," he recalls. From the start, the focus was on the environment, with Gray keen to share his love of nature, science and low-impact exploration. He was the first to delve the caves and hongs of Phang Nga Bay, discovering hidden openings into the magical and surreal world inside the limestone karst islands; but, of course, many since have followed in his wake.

"Did you know there's no such thing as a sea canoe?" Gray asks me. "They are kayaks, of course. I just registered the same 'sea canoe' to throw off imitators. It didn't really work!" he laughs.

The yellow kayaks used by John Gray

Today there are several other operators offering "sea canoe" trips from Phuket; Gray is the only one, however, using the distinctive yellow SOTAR kayaks, safe and untippable rafts which can be easily manoeuvered through tight cave openings. Gray's tours are also recognised for their safety, use of local guides and for the quality of food - which is indeed excellent.

Gray himself tries to join at least three or four trips a week, with his clients always keen to hear his stories, ranging from riding huge waves in Hawaii, to kayaking in a typhoon, to hand-rearing a sea eagle that one day flew away to freedom - a tale that leaves the big man fighting back tears. But on the days he can't personally join the tours, his guests can rest assured that his all-Thai team are doing a great job, being personally trained by Gray in safety, environmental practices and eco-tourism.

John Gray explaining the geography of the 'hong'

The day of our tour is a landmark occasion for Gray - it's the first time he's paddled his own kayak in five years, with arthritis, a knee injury and a blood clot to the brain as recently as last year rendering him less-than-fit.

It's also one of the first times his company has hosted a baby under the age of one - my granddaughter Ellie.

I must admit to some nerves before our tour: tiny lifejackets don't seem to exist in Thailand, with the smallest being suitable for three-year-olds; while the Hong by Starlight tour is a long day for a baby, setting out from our hotel at 11.30am and not returning until 9pm.

After lengthy consultation with Gray, however, I was assured Ellie would be safe. We could bring along her pram for her to nap in on board the mothership, while Gray promised to allocated a dedicated staff member to her care and attention. So while her parents Jo and Nic paddled off on the first kayak excursion, I stayed on board with guide Toy, watching Ellie snooze in her pram during her afternoon nap.

Ellie with Toy

On the second kayak outing, however, Nic decided that holding Ellie would be quite safe; and indeed it was wonderful to watch her bouncing in his arms with excitement, leaning over to touch the water and fascinated with the sounds and sights inside the hong.

Ellie enjoying the kayak experience

"Who knows, maybe she'll grow up with a great love of caves and the water," Gray reflects afterwards. "Hopefully, subliminally, she'll retain a memory of this. Wouldn't that be incredible?"

I have to agree...

Happy baby! Pics: Julie Miller

Further information:

Monday, February 23, 2015

XANA Beach Club: Where Family is Cool

Sexy, cool, sophisticated, chilled, place-to-be-seen: these are words synonymous with Phuket's Beach Club scene. "Family" and "babies" are not.

But having a child doesn't automatically exclude you from the beautiful people. In fact, at XANA, Phuket's most stylish beach club, kids are as welcome as adults at the Sunday Fun Brunch, with special activities for small folk.

And as we recently discovered, it's also the perfect place to recover from jetlag.

There's only four hour's difference between Sydney and Thailand, but that's enough to mess with your body clock and leave you dozing at inconvenient times during the first few days of your holiday. And if you're only 11-months-old like my granddaughter Ellie ... well, forget trying to stick to regular sleep patterns!

So when we were offered passes to XANA Beach Club for our first full day in Phuket, we snapped them up, with the notion of chilling by a beachfront pool very tempting indeed.

Coco Jamboo at XANA Beach Club

The Sunday Fun Brunch is a recent addition to XANA's impressive lineup of entertainment (which includes sets by leading international DJs, including Ministry of Sound alumni, Paul Oakenfold, Paul Harris and the Black-Eyed Peas' Featuring the dulcet tones of Grammy Award-winning saxophonist Coco Jamboo, the brunch kicks off at 11.30am, with a fabulous array of food cooked up fresh at live stations. There's fresh seafood, sushi, several huge woks sizzling with noodles, a salad bar, tandoori station, pasta - you name it. The dessert station is equally delectable, with a cotton candy machine for the kids (big and little). Diners can choose a "free flow" drink deal or order by the glass, while children under the age of 6 dine for free.

The noodle station at the Sunday Fun Brunch

Ellie enjoying her lunch

Dessert station

After lunch, we retreat poolside to a double day bed under a red umbrella, big enough for all four of us. After a dip in the infinity pool, Ellie snoozes in her pram while the adults drink at the swim-up bar, walk along the beach or join the baby in slumber. It's truly blissful, so ridiculously relaxing with the gentle sea breeze, perfect sunshine and the sound of the waves lapping the shore.

Jo, Nic and Ellie in XANA's pool

Relaxing poolside

Meanwhile, children are entertained in a tent at the far end of the property (well away from the adults) with face painting, hair braiding and sand sculpture. At 3pm, Nam Chok, Angsara Resort's resident baby elephant, pays a visit, much to the wide-eyed astonishment of our own little Ellie, who doesn't quite know what to make of this huge beast! 

I hope this beautiful little person retains the memory of meeting her namesake, feeling its rough skin and experiencing that incredible sensation of a long trunk gently stroking her arm.

Ellie meets Nam Chok

XANA'S Sunday Fun Brunch is held every Sunday from 11:30am – 3:30pm.
Price: THB 1,450++ for brunch
THB 2,250++ including free flow of house wine, sparkling wine, beer, & signature cocktails
Kids below 6 dine free with 50% savings from 6-12 years.

Make reservations at or call 076 324 101.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Sunwing Kamala: Where Babies Rule

As I discovered this week, travelling with a baby is a huge undertaking. Packing light is near-impossible, you have to compromise your itinerary to negotiate sleeps and feed times, and some activities just aren't practical when you have a small one in tow.

Even accommodation choices needs to be carefully considered. I don't mind roughing it if I'm travelling solo - but I shudder to think how I would have coped with some of my more rustic beds if I was concerned for the comfort of a child.

On our first "inter-generational" family holiday, my daughter, son-in-law, grand-daughter and myself stayed at Sunwing Kamala Beach. This large, beachfront resort is not just your standard family resort - its main focus is young kids, specifically babies. As well as spacious two-bedroom family suites, it also features 30 Happy Baby Studios which come with everything you could possibly need for your little one - a cot, high chair, Bumbo, play mat, change mat, baby bath and potty. There are clean tiled floors for baby to crawl on, kitchen facilities for heating up bottles and washing dishes, and a fenced play area with a locking gate to prevent wayward toddlers from stumbling into the pool area. There are even thoughtful touches such as protectors on the edge of the coffee table to save baby from bumping her chin.

Ellie enjoying her Bumbo

Best of all was the use of a pram - and not just a cheap, fold-up stroller either, but a proper pram with shade-cover, adjustable seating, seatbelts and brakes. The pram is yours for the duration of your stay and can be taken off the premises during family outings.

Ellie, Jo and Nic with a Happy Baby Studio pram

Sunwing's Happy Baby Studios easily accommodate a couple and bubs; adding granny was a bit of a squeeze, but the lounge doubles as a comfy single bed if you don't mind living in clutter.

While there is an active kids' club at the resort, it's more suitable for older children who enjoy time away from their parents. The resort mascots Lollo and Bernie (oddly enough a giraffe and bear ... not exactly Thai, though the children trailing along behind them didn't seem to care!) make twice-daily appearances. The playroom seemed adequately equipped (if slightly soul-less), while outside there is a sandpit area as well as seven (yes, count them!) pools, four of which have water slides.

Ellie looks a little unimpressed with the resort mascot

On check-in, families are given a sheet listing children's (and adults) activities. Unfortunately, none of these reflected Thai culture whatsoever - it would have been nice to see activities such as Thai dance, martial arts or even cooking on the agenda. Even their evening program seemed more about pandering to the largely Scandinavian clientele, with an Abba tribute show and some thankfully brief caterwauling resembling bad Scandi rock ... best avoided.

Kids' entertainment at Sunwing Kamala

The Thai staff at the resort, however, were simply delightful, and treated our 11-month-old like a princess. She had cuddles galore, and was greeted daily with cries of "Ellie! Ellie!" The ladies in the massage sala were particularly smitten, taking Ellie off our hands while Jo and I indulged in some much appreciated relaxation.

Massage staffer looking after Ellie. Pics: Julie Miller

Other ticks for this resort include an expansive breakfast buffet and its family-friendly beachside restaurant Fino, which provides complimentary main meals for under 12s.

While we seemed to be the only Aussies staying at Sunwing Kamala during our visit (which fell outside of school holidays), this resort should certainly be on the radar for Australians travelling to Phuket with small children.

For more information, visit

*NB - the writer travelled as a guest of Sunwing Kamala.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Travelling with Baby to Thailand

The countdown is on to my first family holiday in Thailand with my 10-month-old granddaughter! This will also be Ellie's first plane flight, baby daddy Nic's first overseas trip as an adult, and my daughter Jo's last week of freedom before returning to work after a year's maternity leave.

Can't wait to spend time in Thailand with this little poppet!

Needless to say, it's a big deal, requiring a lot more forethought and planning than a holiday travelling alone or as a couple.

We'll be spending a week at Sunwing Resort in Kamala Beach, Phuket - a dedicated family resort, which offers special baby packages for young families. I'll be reporting further on that in the coming weeks: but first, we need to get there!

The second I'd booked cheap flights on Jetstar I regretted it - by the time you add checked baggage fees, and any extras such as meals and entertainment for the flight, it doesn't turn out cheap at all!

We are of course not looking forward to a nine hour flight with a cheeky monkey, one that hates sitting still and is quite vocal when she's restrained! Beware, fellow passengers - we'll be THOSE people, the ones with the annoying baby! But trust me, we're hoping she'll be quiet and happy too for the entire flight too - we don't want to deal with a crying child any more than our fellow passengers.

Ellie practising to sit in a big plane seat!

For parents travelling with young babies, here are a few considerations and tips:

- Jetstar has changed its carry-on baggage limit to 7kg, as of 28 October 2104. Fortunately, we booked prior to that date so have 10kg each (everyone except the baby, of course, who has no luggage allowance at all!). Between the three adults, we'll need to carry all the essentials for nine hours with baby - disposable nappies, creams, formula, snacks and distractions. Plus our own toiletries, change of clothes and food!

- Passengers travelling with babies are exempt from the 100ml restriction for liquids. Here is what the Australian Government site states: "Passengers travelling with an infant or toddler are permitted to carry a reasonable quantity of liquid, aerosol or gel (LAGs) products for the infant or toddler onboard for the duration of the flight and any delays that might occur. The security screening officer has the final say about what a ‘reasonable quantity’ is.

Baby products may include, but are not limited to:

baby milk, including breast milk;
sterilised water;
baby food in liquid, gel or paste form; and
disposable wipes.
Products such as baby milk powder that are not liquids, aerosols or gels can be taken onboard."

- Since our resort provides a pram (as well as bedding items, high chair etc) for the baby, we will not be travelling with our own. Parents are permitted to take their prams as far as the plane, but then must pack it away in the hold. On Jetstar, baby items such as strollers, porta cots and bedding, infant car seats and portable high chairs can be checked in, free of excess baggage charges and regardless of fare.

- One of us will be wearing the Baby Bjorn carrier, this should be exempt from luggage as it's technically an item of clothing! However, this cannot be used during the flight, so will need to be placed in the overhead locker.

- The airline provides baby seat belts for children travelling on your lap, which connects to your seatbelt and must be used when the seatbelt sign is on.

- Tiny babies can be carried on-board in a car seat, but you must inform the airline prior to check-in if you are planning to travel with one.

- I've loaded up the laptop with 30 episodes of Peppa Pig, a last-resort distraction!

Wish us luck! I'll keep you posted...

Friday, January 9, 2015

Get Festive: Events in Thailand, 2015

Another year, another excuse to travel to Thailand! I'm looking forward to spending more time in my favourite destination in 2015, with my first trip coming up at the end of this month - bring it on!

Of course, it doesn't take much for Thais to slip into party mode - they'll celebrate everything from the full moon, to no moon, to the dawning of the day. But if you want to tailor your travels around a major event, here's a rundown of what's on in Thailand in the coming months:

Feb 6-8: Chiang Mai Flower Festival
February is a gorgeous time of year in Chiang Mai, with glorious weather and a riot of floral colour, celebrated annually in Thailand's biggest flower show. The festival includes a parade with floats made of flowers, beauty contests (of course!) and activities at the Ratchaphruek Flower Gardens.

Pic: Julie Miller

Mar 13: National Elephant Day
This is a day when the focus is on Thailand's beloved pachyderms, with feasts and parades to celebrate the contribution they have made to Thailand's history and culture. Elephant parks and sanctuaries around the country hold Buddhist rituals where the elephants are bathed and blessed, followed by a fruity feast which the elephants devour with relish.

Pic: Julie Miller

April 13-15: Songkran
The most famous Thai festival is one big water fight, celebrating Thai New Year and the coming of the wet season. Expect a lot of noise, fireworks and of course, water - there's no way you won't get wet!

May 8-10: Bun Bang Fai Rocket Festival, Yasothon
This ancient local festival in Isaan is dedicated to the god of rain, who is appeased by colourful fireworks sent up to the heavens in his honour. Any excuse to make noise, really!

June 7: Phuket International Marathon
Why anyone would want to run in the steamy heat of June amazes me, but every year, around 4000 runners compete in the 42km marathon, 21km half-marathon or 10k fun run at Laguna complex on Bang Bao Bay. It's actually a great community event and fund raiser for the Developing Sustainable Schools program.

Pic: Julie Miller

June 26-28: Phi Ta Khon Ghost Festival, Dan Sai province
One of Thailand's most bizarre festivals, this celebration of demons and ghosts is held in the north-eastern region of Loei near the Laos border. Before the parade, men smother themselves in mud along the riverbank then don scary masks.

Oct 12-21: Phuket Vegetarian Festival
During the nine-day event, participants stick to a strict vegetarian diet which is believed to spiritually cleanse the soul of devotees. The festival is said to bring good luck to participants and the wider community.

Oct 26-27: Naga Fireball Festival, Nong Khai
Once a year, a restless underwater serpent that lives in the Mekong River throws up mysterious fireballs to the amazement of onlookers gathered on the river banks.

Nov 24-26: Loi Krathong
The most beautiful of all festivals, this celebration of light is celebrated throughout Thailand, but is most spectacular in Chiang Mai where it coincides with Yee Peng, marked by release of thousands of khom loi lanterns into the night sky.

Pic: Julie Miller