I have just spent a week eating my way around Queensland with a group of international food and travel writers.
Some of them travelled 22 hours to get there, and considering my trip was the shortest – only three hours from Auckland – I can't tell you why I haven't visited earlier.
I fell in love with this bountiful Australian state, with its winding rivers, lush hinterlands and coastal settlements. The food I sampled and the hospitality I experienced impressed me so much I am planning a trip back with my family.
My love affair with Queensland began on the Noosa River on the Sunshine Coast, where we enjoyed sundowners, live music and a meal specially prepared for us by 2016 Masterchef Australia runner-up Matt Sinclair.
Matt can usually be found at his beachside eatery, Sum Yung Guys, where Asian cuisine is served shared-platter-style, but on this evening the Queensland food ambassador was cooking for us on board the MV Catalina, Noosa's only floating event space.
The starter, a Fraser Island spanner crab and cucumber toastie with lemongrass mayo, was so delectable I doubt I can ever eat a toastie as I know it (tomato and cheese on Molenberg) again.
A number of us returned to the river the next morning for some stand-up paddleboarding (we discovered our guide once played university rugby with Richie McCaw) and it was beautiful – quite a way to experience the river.
Others took to the coastal walkways at Noosa National Park where you are spoilt for choice with walking tracks and hidden bays to discover.
Our trip was timed to coincide with the Noosa Wine and Food Festival, an event foodies and chefs from all over the country flock to every year.
Chef Matt Wilkinson, of Melbourne's highly regarded Pope Joan restaurant, was in town for it and told us it was the "number-one festival [of its kind] in Australia".
"It's a bit of a chefs' gathering – we do get a bit rowdy," he confided.
"And it's one of the only festivals where you get to see the chefs mixing with the festival-goers."
We attended a handful of festival events, including lunch at Wasabi Restaurant & Bar, Noosa Heads.
Wasabi serves Japanese cuisine with a twist. As one of my companions put it, "it's where Australian bush foods and Japanese style share the plate for an amazing menu".
In keeping with a philosophy followed by authentic Japanese restaurants in Japan, the ingredients are only sourced from the immediate area, giving the cuisine a unique flavour of the Australian bush.
On the day we dropped in, executive chef and co-owner Zeb Gilbert served a 'collaborative' dégustation meal that he'd prepared with the visiting head chef and resident forager (Alastair Waddell and Peter Hardwick) from Harvest restaurant in Newrybar, New South Wales.
Jewfish, a decidedly underrated saltwater fish discovered many moons ago by the Aboriginal people, was the star in the seasonal nigiri.
The entrée was Humpty Doo barramundi cured in Green Ant gin, finger lime (an Australian bush staple) and coastal succulents. The main course consisted of kangaroo loin.
All mouth-wateringly delicious, but the ingredient that enchanted was the 'sugarbag' drizzled on a tiny morsel of goose – this delicately acidic honey was far less sweet in flavour than the honey we are accustomed to, and runnier.
Produced by the Australian native bee, it took Wasabi three years to collect enough to use over a two-month period, because the bees are so tiny.
Wasabi has its own farm, but Noosa's surrounding hinterlands are a rich source of fresh produce, with many thriving farms and market gardens which the local chefs frequent to source their produce.
At The Falls Farm – which grows organic heirloom produce – chefs literally stake their claims on the trees they want to harvest from.
The connection between garden and table couldn't be closer.
At nearby Hinterland Feijoas I'm reminded of home by the neat rows of fragrant feijoa trees, 800 to be precise.
Hosts Peter Heineger and Sally Hookey serve enormous 'long lunches' for guests. – creamy potato bake and slow-roasted pork was on the menu the day we visited. Sally's layered almond meringue cake with honey-lime curd, plums and dark chocolate stole the show.
From the Sunshine Coast it's less than a two-hour drive to Brisbane and you can't visit Queensland without spending time here.
We stayed in the city's hottest new area, Howard Smith Wharves, which is heaving with great bars and eateries.
Tourist operators will tell you, "It's Brisbane's time in the sun," with huge amounts of money being invested in its Queens Wharf riverside development, set to be completed in 2022.
It's an exciting time to visit.
Venture into the heart of the city and you'll find a really enticing cafe scene.
The harder to find, the cooler they are, it seems. Think alleyways lined with bins and unassuming streets – that's where we found coffee houses like the Iconic and Bean.
The baristas are passionate and the locals, I imagine, would prefer to keep their whereabouts secret.
On the other side of town there is King Street Bakery, in Bowen Hills, where Laucke flour is used; it's much kinder on the digestive system for those sensitive to gluten.
The science behind the baking methods in this high-end French boulangerie is so precise that the street temperature is taken before the bakers enter the shop at 3am, so they know what temperature to set the ovens at.
The owner and head chef, Shannon Kellam, hosted us for a dégustation meal at his adjoining restaurant, Montrachet, and we ate like kings and queens – the first course of seared North Queensland venison fillet served chilled with anchoïade dressing, fresh herbs and whipped Dutch cream potato was my favourite.
Two days in Brisbane is not enough, but next on our itinerary was Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast, where I was surprised to find much more than the clichéd sun, surf and sand experience.
We travelled there by helicopter and stopped on the way for lunch at Homage Restaurant at Spicers Hidden Vale, which is perched on a ridge and boasts sweeping mountain views.
Again, it was the starter that impressed me – lightly pickled Murray cod with bush lemon and lettuce picked that day. Light, tasty and beautifully presented.
The property's homestead was destroyed by fire in 2018 due to an electrical fault, but in true pioneering style its owners simply moved the kitchen outdoors and began serving meals in their barns. (The new homestead should be finished by next year.)
The restaurant's whole menu is designed around its outdoor wood-fired style of cooking.
You can stay in cottage-style residences on the property, and as the afternoon shadows draw longer, sip beer from your balcony as you watch the kangaroos hop by.
On the Gold Coast we found some very cool places off the beaten track – 19Karen, a contemporary art space, and The Borrowed Nursery, which is worth a look for any plant lover.
Granddad Jack's is the Gold Coast's first craft gin distillery, built entirely on the story of Granddad Jack, a man born in Timaru in 1919 who saved the family farm (and supported his mother and sisters) by going out to work as a young boy, following the death of his father.
The family-run business was founded by his grandson and great-grandson. We found Granddad Jack's gin to be good and the establishment oozes character.
We also came across The Bam Bam Bakehouse, known for its 'blue lattes', which are not actually coffee-based. The coffee is excellent and so is the food.
At Rick Shores in Burleigh Heads we discovered Moreton Bay bug sliders.
I found an online review where someone actually said, "If I should ever find myself on death row and they ask me what I would like my final meal to be, it would be a Rick Shores Moreton Bay bug roll."
I would have to agree; they are the best thing I have ever eaten. Washed down with a glass or two of bubbles as you take in the gorgeous sea views, life doesn't get much better.
I left Queensland feeling I could have stayed longer – there was so much to do and so much wonderful food to sample. I will definitely be back.
Karyn stayed at: Peppers Noosa Resort & Villas, Noosa Heads; The Fantauzzo, Brisbane; Peppers Soul, Surfers Paradise.
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