Moonshine Shack

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An interesting  visit to Bắc Hà which is part of the rural district of Lào Cai Province in Northeast Vietnam. Here in this rustic little kitchen, we tasted the top grade Moonshine produced by a H’mong villager made from Corn harvested from his own backyard. 


Nikko’s Tamozawa

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This is the first hall we see upon entering Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memorial Park. A lesser known gem, it is hidden right smack in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture in Japan.

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Tamozawa Imperial Villa (田母沢御用邸, Tamozawa Goyōtei) was constructed in 1899 for Prince Yoshihito (later Emperor Taisho) as a retreat & it was also used by 3 other emperors & 3 princes until 1947. The residence was enlarged into a summer residence & retreat for the Imperial family but suffered great neglect after WWII.

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This is the  largest surviving  wooden imperial residence erected during  the Meiji & Taisho eras. It comprises 3 sections merged together, with representations of the best feature of Japanese architecture  from the Edo, Meiji & Taisho eras respectively.

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These Fusuma-e (襖) are painted-paper sliding doors mounted on Cedar board frames which  were transferred from the Edo-naka-yashiki residence of Kishu Tokugawa family in Tokyo. There are 2 pairs of decorated sliding doors such as these installed at the northern side of the Study area & 9 other pairs found on the 1st & 2nd floors of the villa.

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A beautiful floral motif gold-gilded sliding door holder with the Chrysanthemum Imperial crest or Kamon (家紋) in the centre. Heraldic crests were used widely to indicate one’s origins, family lineage, bloodline, ancestry & status especially  in ancient times.

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This Billard Room was added during the major Taisho-era renovation carried out between 1918 to 1921. It is noted that from the early days of the Meiji era, the Imperial family enjoyed playing Billards & especially the game of “Four Balls” on this very table.

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In restoring Tamozawa Imperial Villa, the Tochigi Prefecture government had a team of experts, modern architects & artisans conduct a study on the techniques of each era, to authenticate & supervise the renovations closely.  Have a closer look at the Roof, the tiles & the stylised eave details.

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This section was added during the major Taisho era renovation & it is the Audience Chamber where the emperor would receive official visitors. Notice the chandeliers & carpeted flooring which is a curious mix of Japanese & Western styles blended together in the interior.

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An interesting Japanese fan-shaped window with gold-gilded ornamentation on the lacquered wooden frame.

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I love the arabesque motifs & the finesse in the workmanship involved in crafting each individual piece & note yet again the presence of the Imperial Seal of Japan the Chrysanthemum morifoilum kamon in the middle.

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In the Lavatory  is an Ofuro – cedar soaking tub & a latrine bucket, in the advent of the flushing system we are accustomed to today.

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A touch of the West here with French Sliding  doors in the Study Room that open up to a panoramic view of the wide sprawling gardens.

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This round feature window is the only one of its kind in the entire villa & it is perhaps the most picturesque with a view of the 400 year old Weeping Cherry Tree (Shidarezakura-Prunus pendula ‘Pendula Rosea’) behind the Dining Room, the stone lantern & the lovely garden in one sweep.

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Looking out of the window from the 2nd floor Waiting Room area & was originally part of the main 3-storey section of the Akasaka Detached Palace, Hana Goten. This Edo Feudal Residence was presented to the Imperial household in 1872 by the Kishu Tokugawa clan & transported from Tokyo to Nikko.

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A long corridor like this links many smaller rooms in Tamozawa which numbers about 106 in total. Japanese Cedar Cyrptomeria japonica,  better known as sugi  is mainly used in the villa’s construction.

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This is the most important room in the villa where the emperor executed his imperial duties & spent the most time  when he was in residence.

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The manicured gardens surrounding the villa makes a pleasant stroll & the maple trees would be blazing in their Autumn hues  come late October & early November.

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This is the Dining Room where the Imperial family had their meals & where banquets were hosted for visiting dignitaries on official visits.

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The Empress’ bedchambers are devoid of furnishing as with all the other rooms throughout the villa, so you would just have to use a bit of imagination when seeing all these living spaces. This room is laid with traditional  tatami (畳) mats which rose to its peak of development during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Prior to the mid 16th century, only the ruling nobility & samurai slept on tatami or woven mats called goza (茣蓙) whilst commoners used straw mats or loose straw for bedding.

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The remnants of Spring – Delicate single-petalled Sakura. The Cherry blossom together with the Chrysanthemum are considered national flowers of Japan. Mono no aware (物の哀れ) literally “the pathos of things”  is a  wistful sadness & awareness of impermanence & the transience of life which the Sakura is seen by the Japanese, to embody.

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The beautiful garden is full of ancient trees & there is even a winding stream  that flows through the grounds of Tamozawa Imperial Villa.

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It is interesting how most of the other flowering trees & shrubs lay bare, safe for this Weeping Sakura tree characterised by drooping branches that  blooms in its full glory in April.

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This is Training & Study Room No 7 at Tamozawa Imperial Villa which I like best. It has a little private enclosure with a miniature waterfall & landscaping.  I can imagine reading here with birds chirping, gurgling waters & the occasional rustling of the trees in the gentle breeze.

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This little rock tied in twine is called a Sekimori ishi (関守石)I wondered at first if it had any spiritual significance till I found out that it was a boundary guard stone. These stones are usually seen  in Japanese gardens particularly those with teahouses, to guide visitors along a prescribed path. A smallish rock that sits well is preferred & the cord makes moving the stone easier. This is a tacit agreement, not a command or order for one not to enter the grounds & it is really  genteel gestures such as this in the Japanese culture that fascinates me to no end.

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Tamozawa Imperial Villa (田母沢御用邸, Tamozawa Goyōteiwas neglected after WWII & re-opened to the public after extensive restoration was completed in year 2000.

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Tamozawa Imperial Villa is truly impressive in scale & grandeur even though it is only a third the size of the original area. It is now a Museum as well as memorial park with a well-kept Japanese style garden & a wooded area.

We assigned 2 full days to Nikko so that we could  include a visit to Tamozawa Imperial Villa. This beautiful space with clean streamlined architecture holds an interesting place in history that awaits to be discovered & enjoyed by the visitor & it is well worth the ¥500 admission.


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The anticipated day finally arrived, as we waited eagerly for our morning transfer from our hotel to the luxury van that would take us on the 4 hr journey from Hanoi City to Halong Bay. I heard stories from travellers who have been there on how rough & bumpy the ride was but we were fortunate enough to sink into comfortable reclining seats & to top it off… free wifi which helped in entertaining  us as we watched music videos endlessly. There was a brief stopover midway at a souvenir place  where we grabbed coffee & snacks & for the road trip.

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We arrived at Hon Gai Port around mid-day & the skies were a little over-cast & though we got there earlier than some other groups, we were strangely the last of the lot to board our vessel. Tinier bum-boats took us out to where the Huong Hai Sealife was anchored off the pier for the start of our 2 Days & 1 night tour of Halong Bay.

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As we sailed away from the pier, I was pleasantly surprised to see this giant ferris wheel at the top of the hill which was not visible from the winding road down to  Hon Gai Port & also the clear blue sky behind us.

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My room on the 3rd floor has a tiny balcony & a large window that offers spectacular views of the surrounding rock & island formations plus the beautiful expanse of blue sky.

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Climbing to the top is the sun deck which is a great spot for sunbathing, chilling & imbibing  a long drink whilst watching the setting sun. If you are an early bird & would fancy some exercise you can join the organised Tai Chi sessions  for passengers at 6am in the morning. The 360° view up here is simply marvellous & you really have to see it to believe it!

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Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site & it is a popular tourist destination in Quảng Ninh Province in Vietnam. It is sits in the middle of 2 other zones, namely the Bái Tử Long Bay to the Northeast & Càt Bà Island to the Southwest all of which  share the same geological, geographical, climatic  & cultural characteristics.

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Halong Bay covers an extensive area of 1,553km² that includes nearly 2000 islets but the core of the bay with denser saturation of around 775 islets stretches about 334km².

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After landing on Hon Co Island or Grass Island, we climbed some 60-80 steps up to the entrance of Co Cave also known as Thien Canh Son Cave, where this delightful vista welcomed us.

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Thien Canh Son Cave is situated in the protected area of Cong Do which is part of the Bái Tử Long Bay area. This cave is not very large compared to some others I have been to but it is still interesting & unspoiled.  Allow your imagination to run wild a little & you would perhaps see semblances of animals or beings amongst the stalactites & stalagmites.

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I love this particular shot as it feels so much like something taken from an Indian Jones set. Escaping from danger, running towards the light… into safety & freedom! Exiting Thien Canh Son Cave the same way we entered.

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Hon Co Island stands out because it has thick vegetation & grasses growing, compared to most other barer karst formations & it is also lesser known & visited. This is the perfect place to escape  crowds & enjoy the lovely, white sandy beaches & crystal clear waters where you can swim, sunbathe or kayak.

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Calm waters, stillness & tranquillity – my soul feels rested & refreshed as I blend in with nature.

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Geologists tell us that this amazing landscape evolved over 500 millions years ago & the limestone in this bay had undergone the impact of tropical wet climate resulting in these fantastic karst formations.

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This is the second kayak adventure of my  life. I was both nervous & gung-ho at the same time but in the end my thirst for thrills triumphed over whatever reservations I had. It is completely safe & great fun if you fasten your life vest properly, can swim & do not try to stand up whilst kayaking midways. It is a little tricky getting in & out of the kayak though & you must literally not ‘rock the boat’ too much or it would keel over & capsize easily.

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We took the kayak around an islet not realising that it would take much longer to transverse & even hit a section where the currents were strong & we had to paddle hard.  Thankfully we spotted our boat, the Huong Hai Sealife after turning the 4th corner. Dusk was approaching & we were the last kayak to return to the vessel.

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The Bay turned pitch dark soon after  & all we could see outside were the lights of other boats that were moored close by. We enjoyed a scrumptious 4 course dinner whilst being entertained in song & dance by our versatile boat crew who played multiple roles during the entire trip from porters, waiters, concierge, chef to guide.  It was great fun learning how to make, wrap & finally  taste the yummiest  freshly fried Vietnamese rice rolls.

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I woke up to this awesome view on the 2nd day morning, exclaiming “WOW”!!!  As the ship sailed quietly in the bay, the scenery from my bedside window was just like a picturesque, moving gallery. These karst formations range anywhere from 50m to over 100m in height.

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As we approached Vung Vieng Village I spotted this boat that was decked out neatly with provisions on sale. This is the first time I see a floating provision shop as I am more accustomed to seeing those ‘hole in the wall’ ones run by Indians in Singapore. They never fail to amaze me as they seem to have what you want stashed away somewhere in that super tiny space along the five footways of old buildings.

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We were cutting through emerald-green waters on a special rowboat that has a flat, tarred woven bamboo bottom & carefully manoeuvred around these gray limestone monoliths.

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This is the defunct floating school that the children in Vung Vieng Fishing Village used to attend. We were told that they moved the school to mainland as the teachers found it arduous to travel 24km back & forth daily & it was safer during the Monsoon season.

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Vung Vieng Fishing Village is located in the heart of Bái Tử Long Bay & is an idyllic village that thrives on fishing as a way of life.

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Passing the colourful fishermen’s houses & fishing boats where their casting nets & other implements are seen. These simple wooden houses of Vung Vieng are built on floating structures such as these buoyed by huge fibreglass drums. Being situated in an area surrounded by karst formations they are sheltered during storms & bad weather.

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This peaceful location has a charming landscape & it is a great place to discover the culture & life of the fishermen & gather insight from the community that has settled here for several generations.

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This is the area where they implant & cultivate Halong pearls.

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We rowed towards this natural bridge which seem to delineate the    village from the open sea. 

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Our boatman took us under Circle Cave (Hang Vòng) to have a closer look at the limestone formation before continuing our journey  back to the Tourist Point of Departure platform.

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It is such a lovely morning & a great way to enjoy the natural beauty of the limestone formations & the vegetation that tenaciously spring to life from the crevices.

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We are back at the Tourist Point of Departure after an interesting visit to Vung Vieng Fishing Village before a smaller vessel from Huong Hai Sealife ferried us back to the main ship.

Halong Bay is a ‘must do’ on your checklist if you have come this far to Hanoi, Vietnam. This UNESCO site not only has rich geo-diversity which includes a tropical evergreen bio-system, oceanic & seashore bio-system, it is also home to 14 endemic floral & 60 endemic faunal species.

Whats more, it has a stunning landscape made more memorable by cruising & a host of exciting activities to be experienced first hand. Cave exploration, island-hopping, kayaking, swimming, sunbathing, fishing, floating village visits,  cooking lessons  or just plain lepaking; there is something for everyone young & old to enjoy!


Dolphin Watch

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I based myself at the Best Western Apollo International Hotel in Charlestown, New South Wales & it was a good start-point to tour the Hunter Valley, Newcastle & Port Stephens. It took about an hour to drive to Nelson Bay & for most of the way the road was just straight, running parallel to the coastline.

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I encountered some glitches with my online reservations & instead of getting on a catamaran which I originally booked for; I literally ‘jumped on board’ another boat when I found out minutes before departure time that the catamaran was not running that morning due to maintenance work being done.

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This photo should be aptly captioned as… “Calm before the storm” as it was taken minutes before I made a beeline for the last pier in desperation to board  the cruise. Other than this little unhappy episode, it was a lovely morning where I was able to watch the seagulls take flight & capture  them in motion.

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D’Albora Marinas at Nelson Bay is a nice pier area with shops & restaurants & this is where the Imagine Cruises Booking office is situated. This is the embarkation  point for the Dolphin & Whale watching tours.

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After a mad scramble;  jumping & waving,  I managed to get on the Moonshadow V Supercat  that was just pulling out from the pier.  Phew….it was embarrassing to say the least but I really did not want to miss this exciting opportunity of seeing the dolphins which was an almost guaranteed sighting & mess up my plans for the day. A phone call by the Boat Manager was all it took to sort out the ticketing issue & all was good, so that I could continue with the Sand Dunes tour at Stockton beach  in the afternoon.

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After about 20 mins as the boat sailed towards the open sea, a school of curious dolphins visited us. It takes trained eyes to spot them in the distance but the Boat Captain was really helpful in pointing them out to us.

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At first, all I could see were their dorsal fins as they surfaced about 200-300 m away. If I was not in the know, it would have been easy to mistake them for sharks. But then again if you observe their swim patterns you would notice that the dolphins frolic in the water, diving in & out rather playfully in comparison  to the straight cruising sharks.

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Everyone on board was ecstatic to be this close to the dolphins & I was just musing about how it might have been the reverse  –  where the dolphins  have come to observe this crazy bunch of people get all excited,  clamouring to get the best spot on the bow, busy taking selfies/ wefies & trying  to keep their balance on the rocking boat without dropping their mobiles or cameras into the sea!

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It must have been entertaining for the dolphins as much as it was for us homo-sapiens in this friendly encounter.

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This vessel has a Twist & Twirl Water-slide with a huge boom net for ultimate fun during their 2 hour Splash & Slide Dolphin Watch Cruise which operates during mid Nov till early May.

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Just passing the Nelson Head Lighthouse Reserve where the water is clear & an attractive  turquoise blue but be careful in these parts as the currents are strong & I observed some sections where  the waters was  swirling agitatedly.

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At the upper deck of the Supercat with a good view of the pointy  Mount Yacaaba in the background.

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Nelson Bay, New South Wales, Australia

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Our hour & a half cruise seemed to end all too soon as we headed  back to D’Albora Marinas after all that euphoria.

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After expanding some energy sand boarding at the Stockton Bight Sand dunes, it was time to replenish & we drove up to Nelson Head Light where I was told there is a charming cafe with splendid views of Mount Yacaaba, Boondebah Island & Mount Tomaree.

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The Inner Light Tea Room is such a sweet spot to have breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea & the panoramic view is…priceless!

I had a scrumptious  Chicken Salad which came in a generous portion.

My sweet tooth beckoned…could not resist their lovely Scones paired with Strawberry jam & cream.

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The first light was installed in 1872 & the cottage built 3 years later. It was occupied by the Maritime Services Board until 1985. Since 1990 the Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol has been appointed as trustees.

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The Nelson Head Light is different from others as it does not have a tower. Light is shone through the windows of the octagonal  lantern room but it was later mounted outside. In 1946 the light was electrified & evetually  in 1984 it was automated. The original light was just a kerosene lamp mounted on a wooden tower. It was maintained &  lit every evening by Mr William Glover who was also the Telegraph Operator. The light was a white red white sector lamp

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The Inner Light was built on Nelson Head to guide vessels through the Yacaaba & Tomaree Headlands. Before the commencement of the lighthouse in 1875 entering Port Stephens was extremely dangerous. There were records of 44 shipwrecks & at least 40 lives lost as a result.

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We see here a Dolphin Watch cruiser in Port Stephens & can catch glimpses of the occasional dolphins leaping out of the water, delighting the spectators on board. The fishermen in Port Stephens estimate that there are about 160 dolphins living in this bay area which is why dolphin sightings is a common occurence.

If you are anywhere near Port Stephens, remember to do a Dolphin or Whale Watching tour depending on the season. I have seen dolphins following our ship at Milford Sound in New Zealand which was nice but the dolphins pods here at Port Stephens are highly sociable,  love meeting people & actually swim towards the vessels to ‘say hello’!

Postcard from Pokolbin

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Spent the morning wandering around  Hunter Valley Gardens,  then feasting on the gastronomic Degustation luncheon at Bimbadgen Winery.  After which a little shopping at Hunter Valley Chocolate Company & Pokolbin Village before a cheese platter sampling at Hunter Valley Cheese Co in the late afternoon. What a fitting end to a splendid day out at Pokolbin as we witnessed this beautiful sunset. This photo was taken along Broke Road in New South Wales, Australia. And as darkness finally engulfed, we headed to Muse Restaurant for yet another fine-dining experience!