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LUXURY RESORTS: Spicers Tamarind Retreat, Maleny, AUSTRALIA 

After weeks of near perfect skies, my wilting garden finally gets the drinks it needs. While my newly sprouting peas look perky, I'm less so, the inclement weather clouding my spirits a little as I head off for my first child-free weekend away in ages.

My mood soon lifts as I discover if you absolutely have to retreat indoors for two days, Spicers Tamarind is the perfect place to hide.

seating area
seating area
fresh ingrediants
cooking lesson
forest walk

For starters the drive up from Brisbane to the rolling hills of the Sunshine Coast hinterland- about 90 minutes north of the Queensland capital Brisbane, is particularly pleasant especially once you turn off the Bruce Highway and head along Steve Irwin Way. Craggy peaks of the iconic Glass House Mountains, a magnet for hikers and climbers and named by Australia's discoverer Captain James Cook, soar above. Forests and farms line the roadside. Here you'll also find Australia Zoo, home of the infamous Crocodile Hunter, the late Steve Irwin, - a must-stop if you're travelling with the family. Continuing on through Landsborough the road climbs sharply but at the top (if the mist lifts) hit the brakes to soak up some spectacular vistas stretching along the coast and Pacific Ocean.

The roads winding around the peaks of the Blackall Ranges sink and soar with the Hinterland views. Nestled beside pockets of subtropical rainforest and verdant pastures where cows graze, is an array of B&Bs and guesthouses and a plethora of antique shops, art and craft galleries, tea rooms, winery and cheese shop and abundant natural wonders to keep guests amused.

Spicers Tamarind is tucked into a quiet country lane on the outskirts of the small township of Maleny and is one of seven luxury Spicers Retreats, Hotels & Lodges in Queensland and NSW established by Graham and Jude Turner. Following their success with the Top Deck and Flight Centre travel brands, the business couple have returned to their country roots with a series of boutique and 'intimately unique' getaways designed to let us 'get back to nature' while enjoying the very best in dining and accommodation.

Opened August 2010, Spicers Tamarind's accommodation is spread across 18 acres within 12 luxury villas - five feature one-bedroom and their own outdoor cedar hot tub, while seven new 'forest pavilions', have been designed for larger groups of up to four adults and longer stays with two-bedrooms with king beds, lounge with wood-burning fireplace and outdoor deck with king-sized day bed. This is the most serene spot to sit and listen to the birds and the rushing waters of nearby Gardners Falls.

Each open-plan villa gels with the location and the seasons due to the smart use of natural finishes, comfortable fabrics and an easy-on-the-eye colour palette. Those New Zealand wool throws for example, don't just make a design statement but become useful in the cooler months. Ultimately, the villas are contemporary but still cosy with all the luxe amenities you'd demand.

Idle hours were spent watching a movie on the large flat screen TV from the modular lounge with chaise or in bed or with card games or puzzles. Placed thoughtfully around each villa (and public areas) were coffee table books on a wide variety of topics including art, architecture and interior design, gardening, travel, and wine although curiosity had me thumbing the pages of one titled What To Do About Everything.

Place of choice to review author Barbara Toner's thoughts, musings and advice on how to solve life's daily problems and challenges, was my large en suite bathroom. Well lit (and heated) and featuring floor to ceiling windows framing a private outdoor terrace, double shower, and twin vanities (sporting the all-natural range of Lather toiletries) the gorgeous centrepiece was an egg-shaped bath that was long, generously deep and came with its own book, wine glass and soap rest as well as a sachet of relaxing bath salts.

Kitchen duties are usually put aside on weekends such as this but for convenience sake a small kitchenette linking the lounge and sleeping areas provided crockery and cutlery, microwave, fully stocked mini bar and a De Longhi espresso machine with selection of coffee pods to keep the discerning coffee drinker happy. Tea connoisseurs can choose from the Teadrop range of black, herbal and fruit infused teas in pretty little silk pyramid bags.

Dining in the restaurant is a must - even if you have to dodge raindrops to cover the short distance from telly to candlelit table.

Regular visitors to the Sunshine Coast will be familiar with The Tamarind. The award-winning fully licensed onsite restaurant which lends its name to the retreat was here long before the Turners rebranded, refurbished and expanded the existing property. The interiors (and adjacent outdoor lounge overlooking a lotus pond) hints at its Asian influence which comes from the retreat's original owner, chef Paul Blain who first established Master Chef status (and his love of modern Thai cuisine) at Sydney's famed Darley Street Thai under the direction of mentor David Thompson, and his own Chilli Jam Cafe in the Sunshine Coast's coastal haven of Noosa.

Blain and his wife sold their small 10-year-old gourmet retreat to the Turners when the couple split.

While Paul initially stayed on as GM, the reins of the kitchen were handed to Daniel Jarrett (former head chef at the award-winning Ebb Waterfront Dining & Cellar in nearby Maroochydore) and talented sous chef Josh Gordon. Blain has since returned to Thailand to travel (but not before sharing some of his secrets).

Although, like Paul, Daniel is trained in the French traditions of cooking, he has stayed loyal to Tamarind's oldest fans putting his own spin on Blain's classic Thai dishes and creating new one based on his recent trips to China and Malaysia.

The result is a memorable blend of healthy Asian flavours and regional produce that is oh so 'moreish' and definitely deserving of its most recent accolades including Best New Restaurant on the Sunshine Coast in the 2011 HOSTPLUS Restaurant & Catering awards, and a Chef's Hat in this year's Queensland Good Food Awards.

Available for lunch (Fri to Sun 12-3pm) and dinner (Tues-Sun from 6pm) and always evolving, the menu is offered a la carte, traditional banquet style or as a five-course degustation giving diners the flexibility to selfishly indulge in their favourite dishes (like the popular signature Massamum curry or whole crispy fried fish), share with friends or discover some new faves (like my seared bug tails with chestnut noodles, choy sum, braised shitake, Asian broth and chilli and garlic relish; steamed duck and foie gras dumplings; or five-spiced roasted pork belly).

Fans keen to learn the chef's secrets can at the retreat's equally renowned cooking school adjacent to the restaurant. Five hour classes (including lunch) for groups of up to 12 people are held on Wednesdays and Saturdays and conducted by either Daniel or Josh. Those with even the most basic cooking skills like me will find themselves more than up to the challenge.

Josh quietly hovered and expertly guided our teams of two through the provided recipes and foreign ingredients. New friendships were made as we sliced and diced, pounded chillies and spices into paste, learned to lightly sear beef in the wok and balance salty and sour tastes.

The result was a restaurant-standard five-course modern Asian banquet which we enjoyed with a glass of wine and bush views.

Staff wash up which means your afternoon is free to unwind as you please.

If rain hampers you plans to burn off a big lunch on mountain bikes (free to hire from the retreat) or on foot (there is a pleasant walking track by the falls), or nap by the outdoor pool, there's always the retreat's stunning Day Spa to help you look and feel fabulous - which is where I headed. Situated at the opposite end of the retreat to the restaurant and cooking school, the newly built Spa Anise pampers across four treatment rooms (three catering for couples, one with disabled access) and a hydrotherapy room complete with therapeutic spa, rain shower and steam room. Treatments range from 60 minutes (like my remedial massage) to a five-hour total indulgence package which includes Spa Cuisine lunch with champagne on the covered deck overlooking the gardens. All treatments start with a complimentary foot bath - which didn't just help me unwind but gave me a chance to discuss health issues with my therapist and choose my Spa music. While tempting as it was, I felt no need to rush back to my villa's hearth (although I especially loved that it was just a minute's gentle stroll away)- the relaxation lounge with its wave-like chaises and cosy double-sided fireplace, providing ample comfort and quiet to bury my nose in another colourful book.

Check in: 88 Obi Lane South, Maleny, Qld 4552

Ultimate Luxury:  Part of the original retreat, the five renovated one-bedroom villas are the top spot to rekindle a romance with new cedar hot tubs overlooking the rainforest.

Most Indulgent Moment: A five-course degustation dinner (with matching wines) at The Tamarind or an afternoon's pampering in Spa Anise. A day's shopping in Montville.

Insider Secrets: The Blain's former residence is now the venue for the cooking school. The stone basins in the Spa were imported from Spain. Water in the hydrotherapy room is sourced from a deep mineral spring onsite. Chef's pick their fruit from the retreat's orchard featuring two dozen lime trees as well as other fruit varieties. The Turners hope to link Spicers Tamarind with sister property, Clovelly Estate in nearby Montville as an extension of the Great Walk, a 58km trail that already exists between Mapleton and Lake Baroon.

The Little Things: Wood fires are prepared ready to light each day; umbrellas are kept handy; a delicious set breakfast, featuring hot and cold dishes, juice tea and coffee is included in your stay and can be enjoyed in your villa on request. Cheese and antipasto platters and BBQ packs (Thai-style and Aussie-style with salads and condiments) are also available on request. A mini Weber is provided.

Junior Luxies: The new two bedroom villasare perfect for families with common and private spaces. Children aged from 10 years can participate in cooking schools. Other popular activities include bushwalks, swimming in the resort pool or nearby rock pools insummer. Babysitting is available. Children are welcome but not specifically catered for in the restaurant. Kids can keep a lookout for the family of echidnas which recently set up home near the main lawn. A platypus has also been seen at the Falls. Families can also 'get back to nature' on a Maleny Dairies farm tour.

Dress code: Keep it comfortable and casual and all-weather proof. This is a high rainfall area.
Dent in the platinum:
Luxury Resorts Link: www.spicersgroup.com.au

Debbie Neilson-Hunter 2/7/12

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