EVEN as the raindrops fell all around, I was high and dry in the middle of the river.
In front of me was a tasting plate of oyster, octopus, prawn, tuna and caviar just begging to be savoured slowly.
The need to mix business with pleasure in such an idyllic spot was as ironic as the diametrically opposed view – a green belt of mangroves before me and riverside mansions at my back.
Where else in the world, but Noosa, could you have such an intimate lunch in a magical location with an array of ultra-fresh paddock-to-plate and sea-to-plate morsels prepared before your eyes as an introduction to even bigger things to come?
The small gathering of food and travel writers and bloggers from around Australia on board the MV Catalina, moored in Weyba Creek, was privileged to be wined and dined by chefs from iconic Noosa restaurants berardo's and Wasabi in the lead-up to the 8th annual Noosa Food and Wine Festival from May 13-15.
Over three days, the who's who of Australia's kitchens will stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the most idolised chefs on the planet in one place on one weekend – right on our doorstep.
They will combine with celebrated wine palates, learned gourmands and specialist local food producers to educate, inform and entertain everyday home cooks and lovers of fine food and wine – people like you and me.
For one weekend, visitors could almost be forgiven for forgetting Noosa is known the world over for its beautiful beach on picturesque Laguna Bay, its right-hand point breaks and relaxed lifestyle.
Because it will be all about the food. And the wine. And the technique. And the fun. The festival celebrates Australian food and wine and specifically the huge range of produce available in and around the Sunshine Coast region.
Noosa Cruises' MV Catalina herself will be the venue for the festival's sold-out Seafood Afloat Trail, hosted this year by MasterChef's Gary Mehigan.
The $175-a-head event over almost three hours on the Friday will call in to Spanner Crabs Noosa so guests can learn about crab harvesting by owner Jason Sgro and see demonstrations of oyster shucking and fish filleting before sitting down to a sensational seafood lunch prepared by Maurice Esposito, David Pugh and Hajime Horiguchi, paired with Pizzini Wines.
Catalina's sister ship, Rainbow, will be tied up alongside during the lunch to act as the kitchen where all of the dishes are prepared and cooked by the chefs in full view (and earshot) of guests.
“The Seafood Trail just comes up out of the water for me,” a passionate Capt Beven Inwood, who has been involved in this event from the beginning, told us.
“It's one of the unique features of the Seafood Trail you will not get, dare I say, anywhere else in Australia.”
Restaurateur and powerhouse behind the festival, Jim Berardo, said Noosa was fortunate to be able to preach the sea-to-plate and paddock-to-plate philosophy with so many producers on its doorstep and, in some cases, only five minutes from chic Hastings Street.
As a result, a “symbiotic” relationship had developed between chefs and growers, to the benefit of both – not to mention residents and visitors.
But the Seafood Afloat Trail and similarly popular Asian Food Trail are only two of the highlights.
The most exciting new development this year is the Qantas Best Dinner in the World, featuring chefs from seven of the prestigious 2010 San Pellegrino World's Best Restaurants list – three in Australia and four internationally.
And what a food equation – 56 chefs serving only 40 diners, with celebrated wine luminary James Halliday matching premium Australian and old-world wines to the dishes. Alas, even at $695 per person, the seven-course degustation dinner at berardo's restaurant and bar on Sunday, May 15, sold out faster than you could say Yoshihiro Narisawa, of Tokyo's Les Creations de Narisawa (one of the featured chefs at the dinner).
Many festival-goers will start their Noosa Food and Wine Festival with a glass of wine at one of three lifestyle lunches on Friday, May 13. The Top Tastes of Queensland allows guests to try acclaimed Queensland produce with award-winning wines presented by Tony Harper in the company of six of the state's best chefs.
At the Lunch with James Halliday and Friends, guests will learn the art of food and wine pairing, with the help of six top-quality Victorian wines personally selected by Halliday.
Authentic Spanish, French and Italian flavours will feature in this vibrant Mediterranean lunch, presented by chefs Javier Codina, Brad Jolly and Giovanni Pilu.
The Barossa Valley with Maggie and Saskia Beer for lunch will see the two demonstrate three of their favourite dishes using the finest produce from the region while sharing the secrets behind their success, as Darren Cosgrove from Yalumba Wines presents drops to each course. Guest chefs at Noosa restaurants, celebrity chef cooking demonstrations, cook-offs, a produce market, kitchen and homewares expo, food and wine discussions, tastings at food and wine kiosks, an Australian/French degustation dinner, opening concert and welcome party plus live entertainment – it's all in the program. Perhaps its greatest feature, however, is that festival-goers can get so up close and personal with the chefs.
“We're hands-on. Very personal,” Jim said. “You can come up and shake hands, have a glass of wine with them and talk about food.''
About 20,000 took up the offer last year, and Jim said organisers were expecting 25,000 festival-goers this year.
Success has bred success. And after all, who could resist a break from their routine in fabulous Noosa? So from Brisbane's Philip Johnson to Sydney's Tetsuya Wakuda, from Singapore's Andre Chiang to Victoria's Cheong Liew, our own Matt Moran to Southbank Surf Club's Ben O'Donoghue, chefs can't ... won't ... say no.
As Jim said matter-of-factly: “It's not a regional event, it's international.''
I couldn't think of a better way to spend a weekend than to eat, drink and be merry, Noosa-style.
But apparently, I ain't seen nothing yet.
Book tickets on 54554455 or online at www.noosafoodandwine.com.au. Shuttle buses will operate from major parking areas to Hastings Street during the festival. Tickets for the 2012 festival will go on sale mid-January.
WHET YOUR APPETITE
The menu last Saturday:
Entree: Rock oyster with katsuo jelly, hijiki seaweed; Freemantle octopus with bonito and plum; Mooloolaba prawns with black tobiko, batera seaweed; Mooloolaba tuna cured with soy and ginger with edamane and citrus dressing.
Main: Hand-picked Noosa spanner crab, fennel, pink grapefruit, avocado and baby leaves.
Dessert: Vanilla pannacotta, dragonfruit jelly, Queensland berries.