Lee Atkinson says a heartfelt 'yes' to the gourmet produce and passionate locals in the Tweed Valley.
It's the perfect time and place for a proposal. We've been walking through the rainforest and have happened upon a clearing beneath an ancient strangler fig where there is, encircled by flaming torches, a white linen-draped table set with champagne glasses, a bucket of ice and a bottle of Moet, a dozen long-stemmed red roses and, the perfect finishing touch, a heart shape of carefully strewn rose petals outlined on the rainforest floor.
Setting the scene for utterly romantic, how-could-you-possibly-refuse wedding proposals is a speciality, it seems, of the staff at Crystal Creek Rainforest Retreat, a couples-only getaway hidden deep in the rainforest hinterland of the Tweed Valley on the NSW side of the Queensland border, where walking trails lead to crystal creeks (just like the name says) and hammocks are strung above the water between overhanging trees in places where you least expect them. Accommodation is in self-contained bungalows with wall-to-ceiling glass on three sides, which makes you feel as if you are really in the middle of the forest. As do the fearless brush turkeys that swoop down to steal your breakfast off the table on the deck the moment your back is turned.
But secret hammocks and romantic tables-for-two are not the only hidden surprises we stumble across during our time in the Tweed Valley. The next day we decide to explore the surrounding area - the valley is actually the crater of a massive volcano or, more technically, a caldera, more than 1000 metres deep, 40 kilometres wide and long-since extinct - and we soon find ourselves in Chillingham, just up the road, passing the time of day with a local farmer, Buck Buchanan, at his roadside Banana Cabana and Bush Tucker Farm.
From the road, it looks just like a farm gate fruit stall - albeit a very big, overcrowded one - and it's packed with all sorts of tropical fruits and a surprising range of cosmetics, soaps, shampoos and lotions made from exotic organic produce such as yuzu, a Japanese citrus that is not only a popular ingredient on TV's Iron Chef but apparently is also very good for your hair and skin. They also do a mean frozen chocolate-coated banana on a stick here, too.
The perennially barefoot Buck ("I only wear shoes at weddings, funerals or if I'm working where I know there are death adders lurking, although they are making me wear shoes now when I take my produce to the markets in Brisbane, because they reckon it's a safety issue") is one of the country's biggest growers of native finger limes, a tiny finger-sized cylindrical lime that when split open reveals a mass of intensely lime-flavoured translucent balls, like a very zingy caviar.
Buck's organic finger limes are a favourite with many of the country's leading chefs, including Tetsuya and Star City's Sean Connolly, as are his yuzu and he supplies almost every major Japanese restaurant in the country. Yuzu are delicious, Buck says, steamed and filled with crabmeat. He has about 10,000 citrus trees on his property, although he admits to being better at growing them than counting them, so he's not really sure. However, his passion for the produce is clear. He'll take you on a tour of his farm for nothing, as long as you call the day before.
Back on the road we continue west, through tiny hamlets such as Limpinwood, named after local timber-getter Richard Wood, who, we later learn, lost a leg in an accident in the late 19th century. Originally called Hopping Dick, it was deemed a little too unseemly by the ladies of the region so the name was altered to the rather more polite one it has today. It's a gorgeous valley and forest drive and you get a real sense of the caldera as the top of the ridge fans out to the left and right in a clear semicircle.
At tiny, too-cute Tyalgum, we stop to stretch our legs. The 100-year-old general store is more like a museum than a shop, although it stocks all the essentials and doubles as the post office, and the old weatherboard bakery and butcher's have been transformed into rather twee gift shops. Against my better judgment we hunt out refreshments in the Flutterbies Cottage Cafe, which despite the cutesy shopfront actually has a very nice garden courtyard out the back and serves the most delicious home-made lemonade and cream-filled cupcakes.
More sophisticated but just as unexpected, given the unlikely location and homely name, is our lunch at Mavis's Kitchen. This restaurant, in a classic old white Queenslander, used to be the Harley Street Brasserie in Labrador on the Gold Coast until it was cut in three and moved to its present location, virtually in a paddock in the middle of nowhere, with knockout views of Mount Warning.
The paddock is actually a 10-hectare farm and what can't be grown in the biodynamic organic vegetable garden is sourced locally, so food miles are low. The menu is deceptively simple and the food exceptionally good, with locally cured ham salad, a Sunday roast and organic mango mousse the big hits at our table.
We leave the five-hour climb to the top of Mount Warning for another day when we're not so loaded up with food and circle back to Crystal Creek, wondering who finally popped the question, along with the champagne cork in the forest, and whether she, or he, said yes.
The writer was a guest of Northern Rivers Tourism.
Crystal Creek Rainforest Retreat is 19 kilometres from Murwillumbah, 48 kilometres south of Gold Coast Airport.
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