Arid scrubland, dramatic dunes, otherworldly expanses of red sand and mountainous outcrops are all part of the Namib Desert – the world’s oldest. Operating for more than 25 years, Namib Sky Balloon Safaris is a family-run business helping intrepid visitors see regions of the Namib-Naukluft National Park that are otherwise off-limits to the public. Flights leave at the crack of dawn, so you’re high in the sky as the sun’s first rays illuminate the ochre dunes. After an hour of drifting with the wind, the experienced pilots bring you back to the ground for a sumptuous champagne breakfast. In stark contrast to the scorched surroundings, the decadent buffet of cured meats, cheeses and fresh fruit is set on a crisp tablecloth. A one-hour flight with Namib Sky Balloon Safaris costs about AU$585. balloon-safaris.com
Historic highs Aosta Valley, Italy
Next-door neighbour to Switzerland and France, the rugged Aosta Valley is the most sparsely populated of all of Italy’s regions. Here, instead, Mother Nature reigns supreme. Strewn with ragged mountains, silver fir trees and vistas largely unblemished by humans, this Alpine landscape is a veritable playground for cool climate fans. To get better acquainted with Europe’s highest peaks, including Mont Blanc among others, take to the skies. With more than 30 years’ experience under their belts, the team at Charbonnier Mongolfiere will expertly glide you past these famed pinnacles. Keep your eyes peeled for the valley’s wildlife as you rise and descend, but when you’re up high it’s just you, your basket and the mountains. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these balloons soar higher than any other on the continent, reaching between 1800 and 3050 metres. A one-hour ride with Charbonnier Mongolfiere starts at AU$277. mongolfiere.it
Urban cruise Melbourne, Australia
There aren’t many major cities in the world that you can survey from a hot air balloon. Luckily, Melbourne is an exception, and jaunts with award-winning Global Ballooning Australia take you over the world’s most liveable city. The company encourages guests to get involved in everything balloon-related (from inflation to deflation), as well as providing in-flight commentary. Prepare to see Melbourne’s icons from a whole new perspective. Float above the hallowed turf of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, admire the green lung that is the Royal Botanic Gardens, spot the towering spire of the Arts Centre and follow the Yarra River that snakes into the heart of the CBD, from where you can see all the way to Port Phillip Bay. The balloon will rise before the sun, offering views of skyscrapers twinkling in the dark as the city awakens. Flights are carbon neutral and a one-hour trip costs AU$440, or $470 with a champagne breakfast. globalballooning.com.au
Jungle flight Alajuela, Costa Rica
Existing in droves, canopy walks on hanging bridges are one of the more vanilla ways to spy on Costa Rica’s resident flora and fauna. For something a little more exceptional, fire up the burners and set sail over the cloud forest canopy on one of Serendipity Adventures’ scenic flights. The operator’s launch site is located close to the mighty Arenal Volcano, which is notorious for hiding its crest above a blanket of clouds. By balloon you’ll see parts of this active behemoth that remain out of view for many visitors. The real drawcard, however, is the opportunity to cast your eyes over the country’s rich landscapes – some of the most biodiverse on the planet. You’ll fly low over small rivers, vast fields and steaming forests that bristle with monkeys, iguanas and all kinds of feathered friends. A one-hour flight with Serendipity Adventures Costa Rica leads in from around AU$513. serendipityadventures.com
Known as the Rose Garden of Rajasthan, Pushkar is one of the most sacred sites for devout Hindus in India, and one of the country’s oldest cities. The best time to visit is during the annual Pushkar Fair, a congregation of almost half a million pilgrims and merchants with tens of thousands of bejewelled camels in tow. While cultural performances, camel beauty contests and cattle races thrum on the ground hot air balloons take to the sky. Venture 365 metres into the air at sunrise to gaze over the ships of the desert crawling across the ground like ants returning to a nest. From the basket you’ll get an eyeful of the city’s holy lake and Hindu devotees perched on stone ghats (steps) leading down to the water. Countless temples speckle the land, but none more prominently than the famous Brahma Temple, dedicated to the creator of the universe, Lord Brahma. As the sun spills golden light across Pushkar the experience is almost spiritual. A one-hour balloon trip with Adventure Nation starts at AU$235. adventurenation.com
Every country has its fair share of tacky, guidebook attractions. But sometimes these spots do stack up and can genuinely surprise us.
RECLINING BUDDHA Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok has so many opportunities for visitors to see a whole variety of attractions. Some of these offer a great insight into the Kingdom’s rich culture and Thai traditions, while others provide a glimpse into the seedier side of humanity. We recommend avoiding the popular ping-pong balls and instead head to one of Bangkok’s more salubrious tourist attractions, Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha).
Located in the Phra Nakhon District, Wat Pho is on Rattanakosin Island, directly south of the Grand Palace. It’s one the oldest and largest temples in the city and the star attraction is the Reclining Buddha. This majestic monument is the largest in Thailand, measuring more than 45-metres in length.
Walking through the temples and gardens of Wat Pho you’ll be able to gain a greater appreciation of Thailand through the rich tapestry of art, culture and history on show. Along with the famous Reclining Buddha, it features 394 other Buddha statues which are spread out between four temples.
If that’s not enough to shoot this place straight to the top of your must-visit list, in addition to being a place of worship, Wat Pho is also an education centre that focuses on traditional medicine. You’re guaranteed one of the best Thai massages in the city here.
We recommend visiting early to avoid crowds, dressing respectfully, engaging a knowledgeable guide who can share further details and, most importantly, bringing a wide angle lens if you have one. Price of admission is only AU$5 and that includes a bottle of water.
BOND WORLD Schilthorn, Switzerland
Does a James Bond-themed revolving restaurant at a height of almost 3,000 metres float your boat? It may sound a little touristy, but located atop the stunning mountain of Schilthorn, this interactive 007 experience – which houses both a museum and cinema – is far from naff.
You’ll start with a one-hour gondola trip through the picturesque Lauterbrunnen Valley and Bernese Alps. The summit was the location for the sixt film in the Bond franchise, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s fair to editorialise and say that this installment wasn’t one of the better films in the series, but it also happened to feature the Australian model George Lazenby. With no acting credits to his name, George was chosen as the replacement for Sean Connery.
Both the Skyline Walk and Thrill Walk offer guests an adrenaline-inducing experience on a glass platform that dangles high above a precipice, providing a panoramic view of the snow-covered Jungfrau massif.
Spectacular views of the Eiger and Mönch also await and you can follow in James Bond’s footsteps at the interactive Bond World exhibition or the 007 Walk of Fame. Highlights include gazing upon the original screenplay, enjoying a simulator flight in the original chassis of a decommissioned Air Glaciers Alouette III helicopter and creating your own Bond chase montage in a bobsleigh.
So do you need to be a James Bond fan to enjoy this experience?
It certainly helps, but the Schilthorn is such an incredible location in itself that it wouldn’t really matter what the exhibits were.
So grab yourself a martini, (shaked, not stirred, of course), from the revolving restaurant, and if you’re visiting in winter you can really get into character by strapping on your skis and tackling the black run from the movie while pretending to outrun the baddies.
It’s one of the most iconic bridges in the world, overlooking one of the most recognisable and picturesque harbours in the world. Should you bite the bullet and climb the Coathanger for an eagle’s view? We say, absolutely.
Traversing the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge is a must, and climbs are available from dawn until dusk.
While it can be quite challenging to climb you don’t have to be a trained mountaineer to get to the top and you’ll be assisted every step of the way. And as you take in the extraordinary views you’ll be plied with interesting facts about the bridge by a laconic Aussie guide with a decent sense of humour and pathos.
There are several climbs available that range in time lengths, but all offer fantastic vantage points for looking out over gorgeous locations such as Milson’s Point, Lavender Bay, McMahons Point, Luna Park, the North Sydney Olympic Pool and Kirribilli.
If the view from the top is always different, what’s the opportune time to climb? Dawn would be our choice, but there are limited departures so book well in advance.
It’s the official drink of Irish people right across the world, and even if you aren’t a fan of Guinness, chances are someone you know is.
But does the idea of spending an entire afternoon in a seven-storey visitor centre dedicated to the dark drop tickle your tastebuds? We know that sounds like a long stretch for any museum, even one filled with beer. However, we can assure you that even if you don’t love the rich, malty good stuff, you’ll still enjoy a visit to the Storehouse.
Located at Dublin’s St James Gate Brewery, the Storehouse is a shrine to all things Guinness. Think interactive exhibits, old brewing equipment and an incredible collection of artefacts, historical records and ad campaigns. You can even learn the fine art of pouring the perfect pint. According to the master brewers, to produce the perfect ratio of the dark liquid draught and cream-coloured head it takes exactly 119.53 seconds for the beer to settle between the first and second pours. So if your bartender serves up a pint with a huge head of foam, it just isn’t a proper Guinness.
Finish your tour in the Gravity Bar where you’ll be treated to panoramic views over the city while enjoying a complimentary, perfectly poured, Dublin-brewed Guinness.
When visiting San Francisco one of the most touristy activities you can do is jump on a cable car and ride it right down to the harbour, where you’ll look across to the now shuttered penitentiary of Alcatraz.
To visit or not to visit?
We say no trip to Frisco is complete without venturing across the bay to Alcatraz, and whatever hype you’ve heard about it being a tourist trap should be taken with a grain of salt. The Alcatraz tour offers a riveting and fascinating insight into one of the world’s most notorious jails.
Starting from the ferry ride to the island you’ll take in some stunning views of the city including both the Bay and Golden Gate bridges. Upon arrival it’s pretty clear you’ll get unparalleled access to the site and can pretty much explore as you wish without a single velvet rope in sight.
While wandering around the prison you’ll sense an eerie melancholy and hear stories about infamous inmates such as Al Capone, The Birdman of Alcatraz and Machine Gun Kelly. You’ll also learn about the 1969 Native Occupation of Alcatraz. Your journey is narrated by ex-guards or prisoners, and the chequered history will genuinely make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. For a truly immersive experience, you can also be locked up in one of the cells to get that nasty, claustrophobic feeling of incarceration.
Those looking for a fright are encouraged to take the night tour which is not for the faint of heart.
The verdict? Yes, Alcatraz is a major tourist attraction, but you will get a massive return-on-investment with this one.
If you’re reading this there’s a good chance you’ve recently checked the expiry date on your passport and have googled your eligibility for that all-important magic shot in the arm. Just like you, we really miss travelling. We also miss all the reasons for travelling. Here’s 48 of the world’s greatest travel experiences and why we MUST travel again:
BLOW THE BUDGET
Because if we could spend every cent on travel, we probably would.
1... watching the greatest lightshow on earth.
The Mayans thought a total solar eclipse meant the end of the world was coming, but we all know that basically happened when we had to stop travelling last year. This rare, solar occurrence will next happen over Antarctica on 4 December around the South Orkney Islands. Hurtigruten is offering front-row seats to the spectacle – alongside astronomers and photographers – as part of their 23-day expedition at AU$22,250pp. Lock it in because it will be another 400 years before it happens here again.
Narwhals are nature’s reminder that it still has some surprises up its sleeve. On this Arctic safari to the sea melts of Nunavut, you’ll be able to seek and find the elusive tusked whale, potentially in a pod of hundreds. If you’re game, the trip also offers glacial snorkelling. Get the cheque book ready, because eight days up in northern Canada looking for the mythical Narwhal will set you back AU$23,335pp.
COVID-19 brought us closer to the apocalypse than we’ve ever been before, which has led to a serious rethink of life choices for lots of us. For example, the chance to combine every snowboarding dream we’ve ever had in a single trip now ranks right up there. The Powder Triangle Snowboard Safari in Canada is an off-piste rider’s dream, with guided stops (and personal coaching) in Fernie, Revelstoke, Red Mountain and Kicking Horse. This one is AU$7,100pp, but you do cover some serious ground over two weeks.
In Corona times it’s probably not unusual for some of us to have spent an entire two weeks in bed, but when John Lennon and Yoko Ono did it at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal (in the name of world peace) it was big news. Stage your own version of a ‘Bed-In-For-Peace’ in the newly refurbished Suite 1742 for a cool AU$3,050pn.
The Akagera National Park in Rwanda has a healthy lion population after an intense reintroduction program in 2015. We think a lion’s roar is also guaranteed to sound better through a thin sheet of canvas. At the luxurious Magashi Camp, six individual African safari tents sit effortlessly on the edge of Lake Rwanyakazinga and the main communal areas come complete with a pool, viewing deck, open bar and fire pit. A week of glamping at Magashi is not outrageous, but after what you’ll need to shell out to get here you’ll want to spend at least a week. That’s when it gets pricey. From AU$1,000pp/pn.
Ever wanted to sleep at a latitude of 90 degrees south? What about camping when it’s minus 60 degrees Celsius outside? To be honest, we’d not given it much thought either until we found out you can do both in style, for just one evening. This epic adventure does give you six full days in Antarctica but only one at the South Pole, and includes a special visit to the Amundsen-Scott Research Station. Definitely worth it at AU$70,600pp.
These iconic spots have already been through plagues and world wars. When they bounce back this time, we’ll be ready.
7...to drink in the romance of Paris.
Drinking cocktails in a tiny hidden bar in the Marais district gets us excited in all the right places. Is there anywhere more romantic for us to visit when this is all over? We recommend your first stop be the hidden Candeleria. It’s a very French speakeasy tucked behind an unmarked door of a very not-so French taqueria.
Everyone loves a New York City rooftop and drinking on one in the Big Apple is just as ubiquitous as munching on a dirty-water dog when you’re in Midtown. We can’t wait to try the new rooftop at the Box House Hotel in Brooklyn, which offers almost 1,000 square metres of panoramic views over Manhattan’s skyline and the East River.
There are pubs in this world and then there are London pubs. They number in their thousands in this historical city, and the euphoria that one gets from an afternoon of sipping a brown ale on a cobblestoned corner is unmatched. Take us back to the Churchill Arms, a pub where a love of the great wartime prime minister is as colourful as the flowers dripping from its famous facade.
With a population of nearly 20-million, from the minute you step off the plane, Mumbai slaps you in the face like a hard wake up call. With 20,000 people crammed into every square kilometre — many of which are in slums — we still miss the freneticism of this city, the assault on the senses and the persistent smell of body odour mixed with fish curry. Take us back to a city that reminds us we are still alive.
Days in the Andalusían city of Seville start slowly. Lunch is at 3pm and dinner won’t be until after 10pm. But that’s fine by us because eating out here is a progressive experience of tapas and cerveza best enjoyed at a few different places, so you can drink in the city’s famous nightlife. We’re dreaming of a time when social distancing was rude and we could rub our sweaty shoulders with a Sevilliano at Bodega Santa Cruz.
There are two religions in our favourite South American metropolis of Buenos Aires, Catholicism and beef. You can’t get a bad steak anywhere in this city which is why we’re itching for those famous late-night, Latin American meat sweats.
There’s a queue of Aussies at the door (us included!) waiting to get to the South Pacific once the bubble opens, but what we’re most excited about getting back to is swimming with humpback whales in Tonga. On this new eight-day eco-tour on the island of Uoleva, you’ll have your own beachfront fale, access to kayaks and daily dips with an underwater giant.
Whether it’s raw, still moving or just the best curry on the planet, it all tastes like travel to us.
14...by drinking wine in the home of wine.
It’s no wonder that wine is so intertwined with life in Georgia, as they’ve been making it here for at least 8,000 years. Vino Underground in Tbilisi is an intimate and dimly-lit brick-lined cellar filled with the best natural wines from top artisan winemakers around the country.
Usually we prefer our food cooked. If it’s not cooked – for example sushi – we prefer it doesn’t wriggle or move. Sannakji is a raw Korean octopus dish most famous for being served while still moving. Technically it’s dead, but the excess nerve energy keeps the tentacles wriggling around your lips as you slurp it down.
16...in a hidden izakaya.
It’s hard not to have a good time eating cooked meat sticks and drinking creamy-topped Asahi off a tap in Tokyo. Saddle up next to a drunk salaryman at Dry Dock in the neighbourhood of Shinbashi, where all of the drinking holes are quite literally stuffed under the arches of criss-crossed train bridges.
It won’t shock you to hear that even Vladimir Putin has had a beer at Zhiguli Bar. Popular among Muscovites, it is everything you would expect from a drinking den that harks back to the Soviet Union. There’s a room for rich men and a dining hall for the working-class folk who arrive with their hammer and sickle.
Cheese made in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca is unrivalled. It is the protagonist of just about every Mexican meal, including the empanada. And the best empanada can be found at a place called Empanadas Carmelita, which you’ll need to hunt for in San Antonino Castillo Velasco on the southern outskirts of Oaxaca City.
19...with a barbecue like no other.
We’ve had good grilled meat in Texas, but nothing compares to Khan’s Barbeque in Arusha, Tanzania. This unique barbecue joint in the country’s second largest city draws travellers from all over Africa. Mechanic by day, makeshift restaurant by night, juicy African chicken and beef is cooked on several open fires, some of which are set in the engine blocks of discarded cars.
Both nutritious and intoxicating, this delicacy known as ‘Mad Honey’ is found in mountainous areas around the world, but most famously in Nepal. It’s collected by brave apiarists who cling to the side of cliffs to harvest this psychedelic sweet stuff. The honey is made by bees that feed on the rhododendron flower which contains a natural toxin that can bring on hallucinations. Be careful, too much can be dangerous.
Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is tough going and while thousands attempt the 3,500-kilometre journey, only about one-in-four make it all the way. The ‘A.T.’ snakes its way from Maine all the way down to Georgia.
23...taking one of the world’s great train trips.
The Trans-Manchurian doesn’t get as much press as the more popular Trans-Siberian rail journey, but this trip actually skips Mongolia and runs to Beijing via the northern-Chinese city of Harbin. The mountain scenery along this less touristy route is breathtaking.
24...traversing a normally uncharted stretch of ocean.
Cross the Bering Sea from Katmai in Alaska to Kamchatka in Russia on a working expedition ship. Join a Lindblad National Geographic Expedition on a 22-day journey where you’ll witness smoking volcanoes along the Pacific Ring of Fire and also get up close to walrus.
Let’s face it, New Zealand is likely to be the first country most of us can visit when this nightmare with no travel is all over. A three-day rafting journey on the Rangitikei River will be high on our list with grade-five white water, huge canyons and stunning North Island scenery.
26...soaking in the architecture of the ancient Silk Road.
The ancient city of Bukhara – now in modern Uzbekistan – was once the collision point of expanding cultures from the East and West. A key trading stop along the famous Silk Road, the city came under siege from Genghis Khan in 1220 AD, when he ravaged the local population and buildings for 15 days. Very little survived the Khan’s fury except for the Kalon Minaret. Built in 1121 AD, it is alleged that when the great Khan saw it he was so taken by its beauty that he ordered it be spared while the rest of the city was destroyed around it.
The only way to travel is in the direction of our fears.
27...by skiing with monsters.
There are only a few spots in Japan where ‘Juhyo’ – more commonly referred to as ‘snow monsters’ – are as accessible as they are in Zao Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture. These ice-covered trees at the summit of this hidden ski resort in northern Honshu can be reached by a gondola and are at their most menacing when lit up at night.
We love it when a tour company tells us to “go-big-or-go-home”. The Go Big Namibia self-drive safari takes you through two of the country’s ancient deserts, the Kalahari and the Namib. It’s the perfect option for first-time thrill seekers visiting Africa. Across 13-days you’ll tackle Fish River Canyon, the coastal town of Swakopmund and Etosha National Park.
Strap yourself in with this one, quite literally. But first you’ll have to put on a wingsuit because this new bungee experience in the Japanese city of Gifu is so high (at 215 metres) you have enough time to fly like a bird before the slack of your tether rips you back to reality.
Canyoning is one of those adventure experiences you decide to leap into when you realise life is no longer a rehearsal. Behana Canyon is an adrenaline junkie’s paradise where experienced guides from Cairns Canyoning will take you to a gorge filled with waterfalls where you can abseil, cliff jump, slide and swim your way to the bottom.
The Mongolian Steppe is silent and treeless, and traversing this eerily vast land is best done on horseback. The Huns and Genghis Khan were among the first to establish this proud equine tradition, which continues today like a cultural transportation time capsule for adventurous tourists. Sleep on the Steppe in a traditional yurt with nomadic families caring for their herds.
The massive cavernous Cave of Swallows in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, is so large that it would completely swallow Melbourne’s Eureka Tower. At a height of 370 metres to the bottom, crazy daredevils come from around the world to use it for base jumping, abseiling and rock climbing. Tours now run to the edge of the cave, where you can peer into the bird-filled abyss. The spot was made famous by the 2011 film, Sanctum, which was stacked with some of our favourite Aussie actors including Richard Roxburgh.
Drop a pin on most French, Spanish or Italian islands in the central Mediterranean and there’s a good chance they’ll be holding a secret beach party. Calvi on the Rocks is the festival of choice for the Parisian-chic crowd. The flavour here on the island of Corsica is bikinis, sunglasses, beach shacks and dancing for hours in turquoise-coloured waves.
Hot Mediterranean nights, an endless coastline and a mix of locals and international visitors has made Tel Aviv a party capital. It also helps that Israeli’s have a much more relaxed attitude to alcohol consumption than their other Arab neighbours. Not to mention a population that was vaccinated against COVID-19 quicker than anywhere else in the world.
European festivals always draw the biggest names, and with the pandemic putting a stop to most big gigs last year, there’s a pent-up demand from both stars and punters. Mad Cool Madrid is a Spanish rock, indie and pop festival held each summer and will this year feature The Killers, Cardi B, Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Deftones.
36...in a city that punches well above its weight.
It might be small, but Reykjavik is mighty when it comes to late-night drinking and hedonism. Every venue – most of which are on Laugavegur Street – are within walking distance. Be sure to dress to impress, as Icelanders like to look fancy and the city is small so the bars and clubs can be picky about who they let in.
Because what is better than travelling? Helping the world.
37...by countering overtourism.
When we can go, we’re going to look for destinations where we can really get away from other people. Not just because the pandemic has us spooked, but because places like Greenland are undertouristed gems with very few footprints. During its last two August peak seasons (2018 and 2019), there were just 17,000 international visitors. Compare this to Iceland, which had a little over two million.
Ever had a hankering to help those in need? A dream of being a real-life superhero? You can do both on the Costa Rica Superheroes Volunteer trip, where you’ll help out in the mountainous region of Alajuela in San Ramon. You’ll be making a sustainable impact on the lives of local children by assisting in a classroom or daycare centre and contributing to community outreach projects. In your downtime you can explore the Costa Rican rainforests and beaches, and hang with the locals.
39...by spending touristy dollars with someone who really needs it.
For Jenny Adams of Kiah Wilderness Kayak Tours in Eden, on the NSW Sapphire Coast, 2020 was a year to forget. First came the bushfires that nearly destroyed all her equipment, followed by a pandemic that brought a full year of cancelled bookings. Jenny runs incredible sunrise, full-day and family-friendly kayaking adventures.
40...by taking responsibility for an entire island.
Maatsuyker Island is the southernmost island group on the Australian continental shelf. You can apply to live here for six months (with no other human contact) as part of the island’s unique caretaker program.
41...by remembering history, so it’s never repeated.
The Nkyinkyim installation is a thought-provoking art project by Ghanian artist and social activist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. Located in a field in Nuhalenya Ada, a town outside the Ghanian capital of Accra, it features thousands of concrete heads in the ground that aim to bring awareness to 400 years of enslavement and human trafficking in West Africa.
After a difficult year, we all deserve some time to fill our cups.
42...by living like ancient European royalty.
Those Italians sure knew how to live their best lives back in the 15th century. The jaw-droppingly gorgeous Villa Mangiacane is set among the rolling green hills and bountiful vines of the Tuscan winemaking region of Chianti. This 10-bedroom, eight-bathroom palazzo – complete with a pool, sauna and steam bath, sculpture garden and views of the Duomo in Florence – is like a Renaissance painting come to life. Bellissima!
Master the ancient art of Shaolin Kung Fu with an intensive, full-time course at Taizu Shaolin Kung Fu International School in Handan, China. Under the watchful eye of actual Shaolin monks you’ll complete personalised, one-on-one training focusing on your core, flexibility, agility and explosive strength, while also practicing meditation techniques, starting every day with a Tai Chi class and nourishing your body with wholesome, organic food.
44...by visiting the world’s newest overwater tropical villa.
There’s luxury, then there’s this: the new overwater villas at Soneva Jani in the Maldives. Part of the Chapter Two expansion of the resort, the villas are accessible via a long, winding boardwalk and range from one-bedroom bungalows to four-bedroom mansions – which are among the largest of their kind in the world. All feature insanely cool things like a water slide, gym and outdoor bathroom, but the best part is getting to experience Soneva Unlimited – an indulgent offering that allows guests to experience every facet of the resort (think dining options, spa treatments and the personal butler service) within the price of the villa.
45...by unwinding on that last undiscovered beach.
You know a beach is going to be secluded when the only way to access it is with your surfboard strapped to the top of a tuk tuk. Gurubebila is just outside the heaving surf village of Weligama in Sri Lanka, yet this local’s spot lacks the annoying and usual tourist fanfare. Lion’s Rest is the only upscale digs here, while the rest of the accommodation and restaurants are modest and right on the beach. On Wednesday evenings join in on a local cricket match, dodge cows between the wickets and watch the sunset behind a field of palm trees and the Indian Ocean.
Introducing the newest buzz word (sorry, we had to) to hit the travel scene: apitourism. Originating in Slovenia, it’s all about showcasing bee-based adventures, supporting local beekeepers and highlighting the crucial role bees play within nature. In Kozjak, you can even spend the night in a domestic apiary. Doze off to the sound of thousands of buzzing bees, treat yourself to a honey massage or try beehive aerosol inhalation – a therapy that involves breathing in air directly from the apiary through a mask. Apparently it boosts the immune system, reduces stress and helps treat respiratory illnesses. Unbeelievable, right?
After the year we’ve all had, running away to live in the wilds of some far-flung destination without any contact from the outside world actually sounds pretty appealing. So why not get a taste of life off the grid with a stay at Awasi Patagonia. Situated on the very edge of Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, it’s home to just 14 uber-private cabins and one main lodge, and days are spent exploring the mountains, lakes and forests as you please, or soaking in your very own hot tub and cosying up by the fire. Iso never looked so good.
If you’re the type of person who freaks out if a teeny bit of seaweed touches you in the ocean, then this probably isn’t for you. Everyone else, strip down and prepare for a very special kind of bath. At Voya Seaweed Baths, located in the picturesque coastal town of Strandhill, in Ireland’s County Sligo, the signature treatment is – you guessed it – a luxurious, steaming bath of wild, organic seaweed and fresh seawater. It’s an age-old tradition that can improve the suppleness and elasticity of the skin, promote healing and increase circulation. A bathing sesh lasts 50 minutes, and all seaweed is hand-harvested from the pristine Atlantic Coast.
In 1774 when Captain Cook was charting the archipelago of Vanuatu, it was apparently the enigmatic red glow of the Mount Yasur volcano that first led him to the island of Tanna.
Today, the same magma continues to light up the night sky like an endless sunset. But after an adventurous flight from Port Vila, dodging monsoon clouds, and a bumpy two-hour ride through rugged terrain on the back of a ute, it was something else that captured my attention.
The verdant foliage parted to reveal a hidden garden amongst the tropical rainforest. Fred George, custodian of Tanna Tree Top Lodge, chuckled proudly: “There is the penthouse suite, my friend!” There, sitting six metres off the ground amongst the tangled canopy was the manifestation of my childhood dreams: the ultimate tree house.
Excited, I climbed the airy staircase to the rustic but cosy bungalow, and sat on the balcony to admire the most unique vista on Tanna Island. Beyond the twisting branches of the tree rose the ashen crater of Mount Yasur.
That afternoon I found myself nervously following my ever-smiling guide, Phil, up Yasar.
Arriving at the crater’s edge, I looked on warily, as the land shook around us and the sun disappeared into a glowing ashen haze beyond the heaving pit of magma. In between blasts from the deep, Phil briefed us on volcano safety. “OK, please you have to be careful because tourists who have not listened have died here!” As if to confirm his point, Yasur immediately belched a cluster of liquid rock high into the air. A stray piece of ordnance landed with a slap several hundred metres below.
A group of local kids scurried down to the rapidly solidifying rock and carried it back to the top using wooden poles like giant chopsticks.
Over the next few days, the charm of Tanna grew on me. I savoured the local food and went reef snorkelling in nearby Port Resolution. I visited a sacred waterfall and swimming hole, and I watched with amusement as people attempted ashboarding the dunes on Yasur’s western slope. For me though nothing could beat ending the day in the ‘Faraway Tree’, with numb lips and a head swimming pleasantly with kava as I drank in my private view of the ever-glowing, rumbling Mount Yasur.
Melbourne’s gridded centre might feel small compared to metropolises like New York and London, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in experiences.
Still, you’ll struggle to conquer the CBD of Australia’s unofficial capital of culture in one outing – with more restaurants, bars and performances than a person can physically absorb in a single evening. Melbourne has become a poster child for the successful management of COVID across the globe, and locals are not taking it for granted. It’s always safety first whether you’re sipping champagne or belting out karaoke, but all it takes is a night out on the town to see that the blood is pumping through Melbourne’s veins once more.
Start early – you have so much Melbourne to explore tonight. Begin by getting your bearings cruising along the Yarra River on a Scandinavian-built picnic GoBoat. You don’t need a license and anyone can play captain, so long as you’re a minimum of 18 years old and sober (which is why we’re starting here). For a one-hour trip, chug upstream to Richmond, passing Southgate on your right and the outdoor Arbory Bar and Flinders Street Station on your left. You’ll be treated to views of Birrarung Marr park beside Federation Square, Deborah Halpern’s abstract Ophelia and Angel sculptures, Melbourne’s iconic sporting grounds and the verdant edge of the Royal Botanic Gardens. On the return journey you’ll head straight towards that stunner of a skyline. BYO food (try D.O.C Pizza & Mozzarella Bar, 150 metres away), booze (check restrictions) and even dogs.
You have 1.2 kilometers to walk off those sea legs en route to Patient Wolf, named after a quote from Hollywood actress Lana Turner, “A gentleman is simply a patient wolf.” Although inspired by post-prohibition glamour, the venue is more New York red-brick warehouse, with a brass-topped bar and colour palette pinched from juniper berries. Sip your way through a tasting flight of three gins and a G&T or spritz over a 45-minute masterclass for $50 per person, inhaling botanicals in their whole form as you go. The custom 220-litre Müller copper still is on display, too. If you like your martini dirty in a frosty glass, this will be one of the best you’ve tasted. Ask the knowledgeable bar staff about the intricate process.
Mr Brownie is just 750 meters away, so you conceivably have time for a quick drink and snack before your next stop. Make a beeline for the rooftop terrace of the four-storey Indian-British pub. The butter chicken pie is the pick if you’re hungry, while the ultimate refreshers come in the form of frozen margaritas and the ‘healthy disaster’ cocktail (Calle 23 Tequila Blanco, matcha, elderflower, lemon and honey). Alternatively, choose from 16 mostly-Victorian tap beers or one of around 1,000 beers. Poke your head into the basement bar and check
out the bottle shop on the ground floor.
Allow 15 minutes to catch an Uber into the guts of the city, where you have a show to catch at Comedy Republic, upstairs on Bourke Street. Built by comedians for comedians in 2020, the 145-seat theatre balances fresh talent with some of Melbourne’s big names. Depending on when you visit, you might encounter a 60-minute line up of four short and sweet funny honeys, someone famous testing out new material or a special one-off act. Stick to the theme and order a Laughing Matter pale ale from the bar, brewed locally by Stomping Ground in Collingwood, or a Best Medicine cocktail made with Aussie whiskey, Campari, orange and native pepperberry.
By now you would’ve burnt some calories in fits of giggles, but we’re not yet halfway through the evening. Walk around the corner to refuel at Musashi Ramen, a late-night izakaya strung with lanterns and festoon lights where the tonkotsu broth is rich, the noodles are springy and the gyoza have crisp ‘wings’. There are bowls upon bowls to choose from, some with stock tinted midnight by black garlic, others blanketed in M9+ Wagyu that’s torched tableside. I love the tsukemen, where noodles are separated from the broth for dipping and slurping.
With your stomach now full, walk west along Little Bourke Street through Melbourne’s Chinatown, the longest continuous Chinese settlement in the western world. The bustle dried up when Labor introduced the White Australia policy in 1901, and things didn’t pick up again until the mid 1900s when the immigration laws eased. At the start of 2020, Chinatown receded like the sea before a tsunami, a sign that COVID was coming. Now the foot traffic is increasing and its late-night restaurants are starting to stay open later again. It remains a hub of ornate archways, red lanterns, neon, restaurants, arcades and laneways just begging to be explored.
Little Bourke Street, Melbourne
After walking about 700 metres west downhill you’ll cross over Elizabeth Street. Resist the atmosphere and eateries of pedestrian-only Hardware Lane (unless you absolutely must stop for one of Melbourne’s best gelatos at Piccolina on the corner) and turn right into Goldie Place. You will have pre-booked tickets for a 9.30pm session at the Paris Cat Jazz Club, a three-storey, dimly-lit warehouse with a basement stage down the bottom and a Parisian loft up top. You might catch a tribute to the foremost female soul vocalists throughout the ages, cool-cat quartets or every genre of jazz from French cabaret to Ethio. See what’s on via the website.
Time to backtrack a little over a kilometre to the top end of the CBD, where Nick & Nora’s is an art deco inspired bar washed in golden light and opulence. Despite seating 240 people, it still manages to feel intimate, spread over multiple rooms, nooks, balconies and a lavish marble bar. The joint is named after the murder-solving couple from The Thin Man, who knew how to throw an extravagant party. The cocktail menu – split into sections with names like the Femme Fatale and Bon Vivant – continues the storytelling, while the extensive champagne list stretches from $17 a glass to $2,400 a bottle. To eat there are fancy canapés, lobster rolls, charcuterie and cheese boards. Oh, and don’t forget the caviar.
It’s that time of the night where you have to give yourself an ultimatum: to sleep, or to karaoke? Night owls will jump in an Uber and head to Kono, a coin-operated karaoke arcade a couple of kilometres away that closes at 3am on Friday and Saturday nights. Set over two storeys, it has 14 booths flush up against each other and a small stage upstairs; the latter a better option if you have more than four people. Once you’re in, it’s easy enough to navigate past the Korean text to English options and flick through the laminated song bible. It’s $2 a song and the machine takes notes. There’s no booze, just a soft drink vending machine, but you’ve probably had enough by now, anyway. My strong recommendation is start with either a Taylor Swift or Beyonce cover and the tone of the evening will set itself from there.
It doesn’t matter what time you finish singing the house down, because Food Hall never closes. A kilometre from Kono, straight down colourful King Street at a dead end near the Melbourne Aquarium, it’s a gritty glass box of a restaurant beneath an overpass that feels more Bangkok than Melbourne. When the train passes overhead, it’s so loud you’re forced to pause conversation. Food Hall has five tiny kitchens in one space: Thai, Japanese, Indonesian-Malaysian, Korean and Italian. It’s a little dingy, but it adds character. Try the pad see ew noodles, nasi lemak, kimchi dumplings and Korean fried chicken. Look for the red neon and outdoor area decorated with festoon lights, street art and sectioned off from traffic by colourful concrete blocks. And if you happen to swing by earlier, beers are just $5 between 11am and 7pm.
Sometimes, you just need to look up,” Chris Tugwell tells me, as I sit in the lounge room of his 350-acre property overlooking the ancient Murray River and sunlit, vibrant red cliffs of Big Bend.
I’m here learning about how the 3,200 square kilometre stretch of land in the Mid Murray region of South Australia came to be discovered as one of the darkest places on Earth. Chris, who was the driving force behind the area earning its 2019 gold tier accreditation as just one of 15 International Dark Sky Reserves in the world and the only one in Australia, shares just how much work it took to, in his words, “heritage list the sky”.
A team of astronomers and local volunteers dedicated four years to record data and measurements of the light in the region – or, in this case, the lack thereof – using a Sky Quality Metre (SQM) and photographic evidence.
Despite its proximity to the city lights of Adelaide, the data collected within the area – spanning Mannum and Blanchetown, along with a section of the Murray River and the foothills to the west – recorded readings as high as 21.9 SQM.
“The highest darkness reading possible is 22 SQM,” Chris tells me, before sharing that some recordings within their findings may challenge this and that there are polarising differences between our skies and those in other International Dark Sky Reserves further north.
“Andrew [who recorded the light measurements] took a series of readings over one night here. He drew up a graph and the measurements shot up to 21.96 SQM at about midnight, and then it gradually started to get brighter.
“What we realised was it was actually the Milky Way rising that was making it brighter. The fact that it’s so dark that the starlight is having an impact is something that just doesn’t happen in the Northern Hemisphere,” he tells me, proudly.
It’s at this moment we turn our attention to some brightly coloured parrots that perch themselves on the eaves, just next to where we are sitting.
“See,” Chris says, interrupting the moment of silence and nodding his head toward the rainbow coloured feathers. “You don’t always need fancy equipment or a telescope. Sometimes, you can just simply lie back and look up.”
I ponder the simplicity of this concept for a moment.
For many, the world over, a starry sky is as good as a few luminous dots scattered scarcely through a navy canvas. The systems of stars, dust and dark matter are reserved for imagery and movies of galaxies far, far, away. Orion’s Belt, the Southern Cross, and even our galaxy, the Milky Way, are stargazing terms we all know but rarely see as a result of the increasing spread of light pollution.
But here, just 1.5 hours away from the twinkling city lights of Adelaide’s CBD, nestled among sweeping plains and the rolling hills of the Mount Lofty Ranges, we’re granted the opportunity to walk on ancient lands beneath a night sky that remains largely unchanged to that which was visible thousands of years ago.
At a nearby Aboriginal site, Ngaut Ngaut Conservation Park, a unique insight into the Nganguraku people and their connection to the land and the skies are shared through private tours, and I’m curious to discover how the preservation of the night sky can open up opportunities to learn about the Traditional Custodians of this region.
“Learning those stories… you begin to look at it [the night sky] differently,” Chris says.
It’s still light out when Kelly Kuhn, Director of Juggle House Experiences, arrives at Mannum Motel to pick me up for the stargazing tour. We’re heading to the Ngaut Ngaut Aboriginal Site, which sits just outside of Nildottie, before meeting up with local astronomer Tony Hoskings for astronomy lessons at Maynards Lookout in Walker Flat.
We board the Juggle House tour van, dubbed ‘The Entertainer’, a luxurious van that resembles more of a limousine inside. Kelly, aided by the owner of the motel and local photographer David Hartley, guides me through the region, as we stop at several lookouts before crossing on the free ferry towards Nildottie.
I’m in awe of the vastness of the land out here. From sandy cliffs that change from reds and yellows to creams and browns, to the flowing water of the Murray and the desert-like flatlands and grassy floodplains that frame the occasional cluster of river homes and farmhouses, the landscape seems ever-changing and metamorphic in nature.
The warmth of the day is starting to recede with the sun when we arrive at Ngaut Ngaut.
It’s here that Herbert Hale and Norman Tindale conducted the first rock shelter excavation in Australia in 1929, confirming the long history of Nganguraku people living around the Murray River; radiocarbon-dated deposits found they had been there for more than 6,000 years.
We’re met at the top of the conservation park by our Ngaut Ngaut Aboriginal Tour guides, Ivy Campbell and Sam Stewart, both local Nganguraku people who quickly introduce themselves before launching into light-hearted banter.
“This here,” Ivy says, holding up a hammer. “This is an ancient tool I’ve used to knock into the fence so you guys don’t need to jump it,” she jokes.
It turns out she wasn’t entirely kidding. We navigate the barbed wire fence through a hole created by Ivy’s ‘ancient tool’.
At Ngaut Ngaut’s top site, Sam introduces us to the area. As we stand atop the reddish earth, surrounded by Sam and Ivy’s efforts at revegetation, he introduces us to Nganguraku country, which is part of the Ngarrindjeri nation. Nganguraku country, he explains, lies east of the Mount Lofty Ranges, and along the river near Murray Bridge.
“Where we’re standing,” Sam says, “used to be where visiting tribes would set set up camp.” He points to a flat surface of land that’s scattered with white and charcoaled rocks, where tribes from the desert would visit when their waters ran dry. The white stone, he teaches us, was also used for ceremonial sites. We wander just a few metres to our left to an area where the stones look as if they’ve been thrown at random and the earth is scarred with what appears to be plough marks. A reminder of colonisation, he explains.
“All these white stones that are scattered everywhere, this was a ceremonial site. They were placed in a certain pattern, but by the time the land was given back to us it had all been destroyed, and now there isn’t enough knowledge for us to come back to this campsite and put these white stones back to their original pattern.”
The loss of knowledge is evident in this area, and there’s a heaviness in Sam’s voice when he discusses this impact. But the duo have dedicated their time and lives to strengthening the culture and understanding of the history of the region.
“For our tribe, we can’t do nothing about the past, we can’t do nothing about yesterday, but we can do something about today. And today is all about coming together and sharing. If we don’t do that here today in Australia, what will be left for our younger generation? Hopefully, one day, we can walk side-by-side into the future,” Sam says.
“If you call yourself Australian, this is part of yours as well, but the protection of it falls to us,” Ivy goes on to add.
I’m absorbing the words they’re speaking, as Sam talks us through various plants that are used as bush food and medicine. My eyes are darting down and back, and left and right. We suddenly come to a stop.
“If you just look up,” Sam says.
I raise my eyeline from the dusty floor to see the unfurling curves and bends of the flowing ribbon-like river, reflecting the final moments of light from the sun.
“And look into the distance over there,” he continues. “That’s the township of Nildottie, which is the word for ‘Smoke Signal Hill’. When a tribe would come to this land, they’d have to send a smoke signal to let us know they were passing through… Nowadays, we have a mobile phone.”
The afternoon is full of as many laughs as it is important educational lessons.
I’m again struck by the immensity of the horizon, which seems like it never ends. It hits me harder when Sam explains that his community shares the responsibility of protecting the land with the Peramangk tribe from the Adelaide Hills.
“We’re only a small tribe, but if you look out in front of you, you’ll see it’s a big country to look after.”
We wander down the boardwalk, which meanders alongside the cliffs and the banks of the Murray. The majestic sandstone and limestone cliffs, which are reminiscent of a wave, are adorned with oyster shells, sea urchins and shark teeth fossilised into the sea beds that formed them eons ago. Rock art in the form of engravings are carved into the sides of cliffs that are dated arguably somewhere between six-and 20-million-years old.
As we reach the bottom of the boardwalk, Ivy rejoins our small group. Directly ahead of us, at the banks of the Murray, a shelter tree stands tall. Once solid, its insides were carved and burnt out generations ago to create a hollow centre, while the top of the tree continues to flourish. “That tree is very special to us because that’s where all the women gave birth to their babies. It’s a birthing tree,” Sam tells us before Ivy interrupts, dubbing it the ‘love shack’.
Ivy talks us through the women’s and men’s sites, where the Nganguraku people once camped, and teaches the history, stories and engravings. She comes to an etching of the sun, the symbol for women, and a moon, the symbol for men. Dots appear alongside the major symbols, which may be connected to the moon’s phases.
The carvings are evidence of a deep connection to astronomy and the night sky.
“The sky was used for travelling, they follow a certain star, and they use the sky as a GPS or map,” Ivy shares.
“The night sky tells us which way we need to go. You want to get there, you’ve got to look up for the right stars and also feel your way to where you need to be.” The stories of creation are also passed down through the generations, but fragments of the cultural education have been lost to the history of invasion.
“I’m a land person,” she says. “I was taught more about the land than I was the sky, but I can share the stories of the Seven Sisters, and the Emu in the Sky.”
Ivy instructs me to look for a dark circular shape to the left of the Southern Cross – the head of an emu, whose body lies across the centre of the Milky Way. As we leave Ngaut Ngaut the stars have already started to twinkle like fairy lights.
I comment on the prettiness of it when David interrupts, “The sky isn’t dark enough yet.”
I wonder how much darker it could get.
As we pull up to Maynards Lookout, Tony is already there waiting for us, set up with his Orion XX12g American-made telescope, of which I’m told there are only three in Australia. We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature to properly experience one of the darkest skies on Earth, and we’re thankfully blessed with a clear, cloudless night on this occasion.
Tony, who has been an astronomer for decades, points out various stargazing sights, but it’s the Emu I’m most interested to find.
He coordinates the telescope into the dark patch that is the Emu’s head, which he points to with a super-strength laser beam. I look through the telescope to discover the spot is not a dark patch at all, but the Coalsack Nebula, an interstellar cloud of dust and gas.
“Oh wow. Cool. Awesome,” are all the words I can muster over the two-hours at the lookout.
The Milky Way is the clearest I’ve ever seen it and before the night’s end, I’m able to identify Orion’s Belt, the Southern Cross and Taurus, amongst other constellations that have names more akin to a Star Wars spacecraft.
Tony tells me that some of the stars we can see may have burned out but are more than 10,000 light-years away, meaning their light will appear in our skies for thousands of years after the star itself has faded.
I ask if what we’re seeing today in the sky would be any different to the skies seen by Traditional Owners thousands of years ago. “No,” he responds. “There may be very minor differences and movement, but the sky you’re looking up at today is the same as people who walked here all that time ago.”
I’m humbled by the knowledge of just how small our existence is in the universe, and that the spirits in the sky hold memories of Earth we’re yet to uncover.
Before we leave, a shooting star darts across the sky. It’s a good thing on this trip I’ve learnt to look up.
It's early morning, not long after sunrise, but the searing heat has already zapped my energy, sending me in search of fresh young coconuts and a banyan tree to sip them under. The sound of peacocks crooning fills the morning air, dragonflies buzz over lily-dotted ponds, spotted deer totter clumsily across the dewy ground, and tufted grey langur monkeys preen in tree branches, occasionally letting out a howl when another tribe member gets too close. We’re well and truly in the tropics here, wandering through historical relics amid thermals that are as fiery as the country’s cuisine.
We’ve arrived in Polonnaruwa on two wheels, pedalling around the central plains of Sri Lanka at the only pace this weather permits: slow. Less than 80 kilometres away is Anuradhapura, the country’s ancient capital and the site where Buddhism was introduced to the locals. Between 377 BCE and 1017 CE it was the most important place on the island, and kings built temples and statues and worshipped sacred trees here.
Anuradhapura’s crowning glory is an enormous fig known as Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, thought to be the oldest living tree planted by humans. It began its life in 288 BCE as a clipping from the Indian Bodhi tree under which Buddha sat to gain enlightenment. It’s kind of a big deal. Understandably, locals are fiercely protective of this gracious green-topped gem, whose branches reach skywards like gnarly fingers. There’s a total development ban around it, lest ruthless digging damage its roots.
Polonnaruwa was also ruled by royalty some 800 years ago, when it was a thriving cultural and religious centre. Nobles commanded the erection of massive stupas and vast temple complexes across the city, not to mention a 14-metre prone statue of Buddha carved into granite cliffs. Most of the archaeological treasures here are remarkably well preserved, offering even the most casual observer a vivid perspective of how this World Heritage Site would have looked in its heyday. Sri Lanka’s other eight UNESCO attractions are in equally good condition – you’d be hard pressed to find another destination on the planet that has so many protected wonders packed into such a small area.
My journey around Sri Lanka begins, as most journeys here do, in Colombo, a heavenly accumulation of wide-open spaces, tree-lined avenues, chaotic traffic and whitewashed villas. The charming capital was one of the reasons why, in late 2018, Lonely Planet named the teardrop-shaped island it calls home the number-one place to visit for the following year. Six months later, on Easter Sunday, 259 people were killed across the city in a series of coordinated terrorist suicide bombings.
The devastating attacks came almost a decade after the end of Sri Lanka’s protracted 26-year civil war with Tamil separatists. Visitor numbers had jumped to record highs during that decade, only to be slashed back down by a seemingly impossible 186 per cent year-on-year decline, with more cancellations than new bookings, according to Reuters. “The people hurt; I didn’t work for three months,” says my guide George, visibly upset by the impact of the tragedy.
It isn’t the only disaster to have hit this fragile slip in the Indian Ocean: in 2004, the Boxing Day tsunami resulted in more than 30,000 fatalities along the country’s southern shore. It has been heartbreak after heartbreak. Add in a pandemic where tourism again ground to a halt and it’s incredible how resilient these places – these people – are.
The past devastation lends a certain sharpness to the great beauty of the island, adding a dusting of charisma to the time-warp capital, where so many images seem to be drawn straight from a Graham Greene novel. Like the sarong-clad man riding an antique bike through a downpour, his back ramrod-straight as he holds aloft a battered black umbrella. Or the waiters in crisp white jackets at the Galle Face Hotel, who decorously call me madame as they serve cocktails on the sea-facing veranda. It’s this quiet beauty and unassuming hospitality that draws me back again and again. Then there’s the unquiet beauty.
The drive northeast toward the island’s heart is a bit like playing Tetris with animate (and inanimate) objects. We dodge dozy dogs sprawled in the middle of the skinny single-lane highway, scoot around overladen motorbikes and tuk-tuks, then slot back into traffic behind horn-blasting public buses painted in a rainbow of colours and packed with more people than it’s possible to count.
In a stroke of genius, someone high up in the country’s transport ministry decided to give these colourful chariots “personalities”: we pass one called Dam Rajina (Purple Queen), amused by the decidedly un-bus-like eponymous plum-hued exterior. Another is known as Monara Patikki (Little Peacock), for the regal plumage painted across her iron bodice. Some of these buses have become so popular they have their own Facebook pages; others come with disco lights and top-end sound systems.
We’re a fringe away from roadside stalls hocking prickly durian, pineapples and bananas. And there are school children everywhere, dressed in inexplicably white starched uniforms – girls flick long glossy braids over their shoulders, boys gather around whoever has a mobile phone. The factories of outer Colombo give way to palm plantations and fields of fragrant mango trees, so heavy with ripe fruit their branches almost touch the ground.
Amid it all is Aliya Resort & Spa, its paradisiacal pool plonked into the middle of the jungle. Villas and open-air public spaces envelop the water, each taking design inspiration from the elephants that thrive in nearby Minneriya National Park. The retreat’s backdrop is the twin rock formations of Sigiriya and Pidurangala. We tackle the latter at sunset, clambering over boulders worn smooth by thousands of flip-flop–wearing adventurers.
The former we explore at sunrise, when mist lies low over lily-lined moats and water gardens that sit at the foot of vertiginous staircases. Before reaching the summit, formed by magma from an extinct volcano, we encounter remarkable frescoes and a pair of colossal lion’s paws carved into the bedrock. The ruins at the pinnacle are like Sri Lanka’s answer to Machu Picchu: a somewhat inconceivable assemblage of structures that was the fortress of Mauryan king Kashyapa I between 477 and 495 BCE.
Sri Lanka’s other sacred Buddhist shrine – one with an even more personal connection to Siddhartha Gautama than his fig – lies 80 kilometres south in Kandy. The city’s willow-lined lake and grand mansions nod to the region’s colonial heritage. The British came here in the nineteenth century, planting the rolling countryside with tea. The first tea factory opened in 1872 and, within a century, the nation had become the world’s biggest exporter of the leaf.
Remnants of the English colonial years, when the country was known as Ceylon, remain in its language, architecture and industry. Original processing factories survive, with machines running on belt drives and light dappling the wooden floors. In plantation-style bars, wooden fans whir overhead and dapper bow-tied waiters deliver icy gin and tonics.
It has been a day full of history lessons – only hours earlier we visited the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which, admittedly, doesn’t leave much to the imagination in its name. Within Kandy’s royal palace lies a vaulted, heavily protected pavilion, said to enclose a relic of Buddha’s tooth. Said to because you don’t actually get to see the tooth when you visit. But that doesn’t stop piles of pilgrims from lining the marbled temple confines, worshipping, humming, meditating.
The rail journey from Kandy south to Nuwara Eliya is as bone jangling as it is fun, our train click-clacking its way uphill into countryside where tea plantations cling to mist-draped mountains. From afar, deft-footed female pickers in pastel saris look like jewels embedded in an undulating emerald crown. Up close, you can see the struggle they endure walking the steep paths, filling baskets strapped to their heads with leaves and buds.
This part of Sri Lanka is dubbed Little England for obvious reasons. The landscape is cooler here and is embellished with colonial-era bungalows, Tudor-style hotels, fragrant rose gardens, golf courses, dense cloud forest with tumbling waterfalls and butterfly sanctuaries. The train continues on to the tiny backpacker-loved town of Ella, crossing over the spectacular Nine Arch Bridge along the way. Architectural ingenuity aside, this construction spanning the jungle is postcard pretty – small wonder it’s popular with selfie-stick wielding visitors in the minutes leading up to the train’s crossing.
Ella’s primary allure is its wilderness hikes up Little Adam’s Peak (1,141 metres) and (big) Adam’s Peak (2,243 metres). Both walks offer respite from the humid climes of Sri Lanka’s lower levels, with views that instantly ease you off the travel accelerator. And when we clamber back down, bamboo-built restaurants and bars await, where we toast our efforts. Our group orders sour fish curry with eggplant pickle, and espresso martinis dusted with toasted young coconut. It’s a flavour clash somewhat analogous to just about every encounter I’ve had on this island: unexpected bites of fire are tempered by head-swirling cool highs; piercing heat pairs with soul-reviving sweet; Asia meets Europe; ancient meets modern; disaster begets recovery.
As with everything on this trip, it happens unexpectedly. We tack into the wind, our boom swings violently, the main sail catches a gust and I suddenly find myself standing in the wrong spot.
The timber handrail which was there moments earlier has done a disappearing act and I’m now clutching at the air with an obvious look of panic in my eyes.
Without missing a beat, I’m quickly hoisted back into the safety of the cabin by the experienced crew of the Helsal IV – our 62-foot cruising yacht – just as the wind and Southern Ocean whips up again so ferociously it stings my face before I can sit down.
“You didn’t go in and that’s definitely something to be happy about,” our captain, Mark Stranger says to me as he navigates the wheel with just a couple fingers while peering up at his sails.
I can’t tell if it’s the lack of blood in my head or the towering dolerite pillars of Cape Raoul behind me, but right now I feel small and vulnerable.
“Let’s trim that main, guys,” Mark barks his orders over the noise of the wind and waves.
We’re finally clear of the angry, claw-shaped cape and Mark’s crew scatter across the deck like worker ants pulling lines and grinding winches and doing it all with an effortless grace that makes my near overboard tumble all the more embarrassing.
As we set out across the notorious Storm Bay in southeast Tasmania at about 10 knots, it’s not lost on me that we’re in a spot well known for chewing up and spitting out timber boats.
We tear across the bay and our yacht heels at 45 degrees in the water and unexpectedly (here we go again) we go from sailboat to semi-submersible. Water pours over the deck of the yacht and Jimmy Emms, our first mate/chef/photographer, exclaims to the rest of the crew, “Now we’re really burying the rail!”
But with no engine noise, the sun on my face and our sails full of wind, my vulnerability shifts to excitement. Underneath the hood of my Mountain Designs jacket, I can’t wipe the smile from my face.
The funny thing is I’m not even supposed to be on this boat. Instead, I’d planned to be gently sailing down the east coast of Tasmania in a predictable and slow vintage tall ship. That was until I received a call the day I arrived in Tasmania to say an engineering fault had rendered that particular boat unsafe.
A few hours (and frantic phone calls) later I stumbled upon Mark Stranger from Hobart Yachts, who said he was willing to take me on a similar itinerary – albeit on a smaller boat – but with the promise of a much more exhilarating adventure.
The one-time forest ranger, surfer and former government PR man bought the Helsal IV with wife Marsha a decade ago when a university grant (and subsequent job) fell through. The couple rented out their home, moved on board and decided they would use their love of sailing to start a charter business.
They now take groups on gentle River Derwent breakfast cruises as well as multi-day charters along the wildest sections of Australia’s coastline.
I meet the Strangers at Kings Pier Marina in Hobart before my trip and there’s an uneasy calmness about their demeanor. Just looking at their boat I already know this isn’t going to be anything like I had planned, but I would learn over the next few days that steadfast calmness from a sailor is the only antidote to a roaring and unpredictable Southern Ocean.
As we push out of Hobart and into the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, alongside our motley crew of sailors and expert fisherman there are four other guests on board yet our yacht and its common areas still feel spacious and luxurious with its restored timber finishes. The dozen bottles of Tasmanian pinot noir being shovelled into the galley by Jimmy certainly adds an aura of regalness and sophistication.
The Helsal IV is a famous cruising yacht that has competed in three Sydney to Hobart races in its lifetime and is well accustomed to navigating these waters. But our transition out of the channel’s brief calmness is sudden and violent. Here we go again.
Within an instant the backs of dolphins playing off our bow are replaced with sea spray and rapid-fire wind gusts that Mark calls ‘bullets’.
I’m learning an entirely new language on this trip: bullets, windage, jibs, port, starboard, cunninghams, headsails and travellers.
That’s the beauty of being on a working sail boat like the Helsal IV. You don’t just sit and sail with a glass of pinot noir because when the weather changes you literally become entangled in the drama.
The gusts force us to change course and we seek refuge for the night in Mark’s favourite safe moorage on Bruny Island. As we motor the final stretch to his secret spot, he ominously points out a nearby reef and calmly tells the tale of a convict ship that became wrecked here on its way to Port Arthur in 1835. The 133 people confined to the ship’s hold were left by their commanding officers to die.
Moments later, I’m coincidently sitting below deck when I hear a crackle over the radio: “Pan pan, Pan pan – this is Tas Marine,” the voice says. “We have two POB [persons over board] from a capsized boat off north Bruny Island, are there any vessels in the vicinity?”
According to Mark we’re too far away to help and a Pan pan is not a mayday. He assures us they’ll be okay but that doesn’t stop my eyes scanning for my nearest escape hatch and it’s yet another reminder of the unpredictability of these waters.
After a dinner of freshly caught fish and a bottle of pinot, we settle into our cabins for the evening. A day earlier, orcas had been spotted in the channel not far from here and as I drift off to sleep I press my ear against the timber hull, picturing them frolicking just on the other side.
The next morning we make our way to a spot called the Friars, a well-known seal colony and playground in the Actaeon Island Group. The Friars are four steep dolerite rocks that punch angrily out of the sea and act as the perfect basking spot for big bull seals; the more playful females wave at us from the water as they circle our dinghy.
This is the same dinghy which is slowly taking on water. It suffered a cosmetic tear in the poor weather and I’m now holding onto the fuel tank in shin-deep water.
The skipper can sense I’m nervous.
“Risk taking is a catalyst for living in the moment and that’s what sailors and surfers are so good at,” Mark says to me with a smile once we’re back safely on board.
His innate ability to throw caution to the wind had actually been his PhD topic at the University of Tasmania, where he wrote a thesis on risk taking in surfing culture.
We settle in for another night in one of the fairytale coves of Recherche Bay and drop a craypot over the edge and hope for the best. These waters are teeming with fresh lobster.
Morning arrives and we bathe in the icy tannin-tinged waters by swinging from a tether off the mast. I pull myself up the swing ladder and Jimmy hands me a steaming cup of coffee, but before I dry off properly I take one of the kayaks ashore.
Finally on dry land, I look back at the boat. There’s nothing but thick scrub behind me and it’s as if I’ve been completely swallowed by the Tasmanian wilderness and my only tether back to civilisation is the Helsal IV, now a white dot in the distance.
On our final evening we motor into Port Arthur at dusk. There’s a stillness in the air I haven’t felt for several days, which exacerbates the chill down my spine as we move past Point Puer – the notorious child prison where nine and ten-year-old boys were separated from the older male criminals.
As we round the corner and the sun drops further, the Penitentiary ruins come into focus. The colour of the sandstone building changes by the second, but that’s not even the most magical part.
I should’ve guessed it, but the magic comes from the complete unexpected yet again – as it has done this entire journey.
I’m here walking the ruins of Port Arthur all alone.
On any normal visit I might actually enjoy a middle-aged tour guide showing me around while telling generic stories, but this visit with Hobart Yachts means tonight I have the place all to myself.
As I wander around the site, I come to terms with how I’ve just arrived here by boat. The very same way thousands of convicts had arrived here hundreds of years earlier.
The prison grounds and asylum are equal parts harrowing and beautiful in complete silence. And like those thousands of convicts marooned here before me, I feel a yearning to get back onto the boat.
Except unlike those convicts, I can see Jimmy’s silhouette in a porthole of the Helsal IV and I know I’ve got fresh lobster and a pinot noir waiting for me.
Say the words ‘the sounds of summer’ and there’s nary an Australian who wouldn’t instantly think of cicadas.
You rarely see the little varmints, such is their quality of camouflage, but their mating calls indicate warmer days have finally arrived in the southern hemisphere.
Scientists think they gather together and sing to avoid predators – the collective decibels produced are both painful and confusing for birds, spiders and bats who would otherwise feast on their crunchy carcasses.
As we pedal through a gully not far from Beechworth, the noise from the cicadas is almost deafening. They are, after all, the loudest insect on Earth.
There’s no need for the cicadas’ call, however, to know summer has well and truly arrived. It is still relatively early in the morning but the temperature has already spiked into the mid-30s.
Normally, the Tour de Vines crew travelling through Victoria’s High Country for a weekend of rail trail exploration would partake in a leisurely lie-in and breakfast. Not this morning. When we’d gathered the previous evening at Bridge Road Brewers for a meet-and-greet fuelled by pizza and beer, a group decision had been made: we’d leave early in an attempt to get a decent chunk of the day’s 43 kilometres done before the mercury reached 40ºC.
Our other concession to the heat is four of our group of six, including Tour de Vines owner and the weekend’s guide Damian Cerini, have decided less pedalling and more cruising might be the order of the day.
We’d gathered at the Old Beechworth Gaol, adjusted the seats and taken our e-bikes for a test ride around the car park. After all, this weekend isn’t about how fast you ride or who makes it to the next destination first; it’s about enjoying the landscape, meeting new people, eating well, tasting the local wines and breathing in the fresh air. Even more so on this weekend, just weeks after Melbourne finally came out of another lockdown.
As we depart, cruising slowly through the still-waking town, cockatoos feasting on ripe cherry plums form a screeching guard of honour overhead. This first stretch, once we pass the old Beechworth railway station, is all downhill, with the King Valley spread out all around us. Golden fields are dotted with huge cylindrical straw bales. Cows lift their heads as we pass. The group soon spreads out, each person travelling at a speed to suit their fitness.
At a drink stop at Everton Station, a group of MAMILs – middle-aged men in lycra -– breezes past in a peloton. A few minutes later, a young guy on a bike laden with what seems like all his earthly possessions rolls slowly towards us. He stops to ask how much further till Beechworth.
“It’s not that far but it’s all uphill,” one of the guys answers with a shrug.
Our lone traveller has come from Wangaratta, some 27 kilometres down the track. He looks wrecked, and there’s still another 15 kilometres – all of them in full sunshine – to go before he reaches his destination. He takes a swig from a water bottle and lifts his hand in a limp wave. We’ve only got water and essentials in our panniers (our luggage has gone on to Myrtleford in a minibus), but I’m already grateful for the e-bike decision.
There’s a map on the wall, showing all the directions you could explore. This particular trail, Damian explains, opened in the early 2000s, following the routes of a number of past train lines that moved everything from humans and gold to other precious resources.
The section between Myrtleford and Bright – the part we’ll be riding tomorrow – once transported timber, while it was a tourist train that rolled between Bright and Mount Buffalo; both closed in the 1980s.
This is already Australia’s longest sealed rail trail, but an extension from Beechworth to Yackandandah is due to open at the end of 2021.
“Before we head off, I need to tell you about the wildlife,” says Damian, as we’re sticking bottles back into bags. “There are lots of echidnas in the next section.” This piece of information elicits a few oohs and ahhs.
“Once we cross over into the Alpine Valleys there’s an explosion in the numbers of kangaroos.” He pauses for a moment: “But one thing to watch out for is snakes.”
After a long winter, the reptiles love the heat that comes off the sealed trail and often lie across it, soaking up the sun.
“You won’t see them till you’re on top of them so don’t brake and don’t swerve,” he warns. “Just go straight over the top of them.”
As we ride on, down through Tiger Alley, it takes me a moment to realise that the person who knocked up the sign on a tree probably wasn’t warning about roving Richmond football fans.
The leg from Everton contains the one and only proper hill of the journey. It’s a long climb up a gradual hill then a steep final push to Taylors Gap. We’ve been told to go at our own pace, to stop for water if needed and to stay at the top under the shelter until everyone regroups.
I’ve tucked myself in behind Rick, one of the men who’s chosen to do the hard work on a proper bike. He’s going at quite a pace, so I push a button and add a little more grunt to the e-bike’s muscle. Then we hit the big hill, so I turn the bike up to full power. Rick’s up off his seat and putting in the big ones; I rotate the pedals about seven times to reach the top. Easy does it.
Taylors Gap has quite a history. There was once a hotel here where stage coaches would stop to change horses on the way to Beechworth. In 1878, Ned Kelly and his gang escaped through the gap after they’d ambushed the police camp at Stringybark Creek. All we’re escaping today is the heat and, as the group reassembles, we take to the shade.
Of course, one of the greatest aspects of the Murray to Mountains trail is the feeling of freedom, as the wind rus… Just kidding. It’s actually that this is a wine region and dotted along your path, whichever town you’re heading towards, are a number of cellar doors.
We finally meet a tiny echidna – she ignores us and heads to a burrow – just before pulling into Gapsted Wines, home of a cheeky little prosecco and an array of other Italian varietals I can’t wait to try.
The staff have saved us a table on the edge of the terrace, overlooking the vines and in front of an enormous misting fan. We’re far from the only ones here. There are groups lying on the lawn, people with kids and dogs, and others seeking out respite from the heat.
A little wine tasting is rolled out, including a glass of the limited-release saperavi, as well as a grazing plate of local cheese, dips, olive, pickles, chicken and bread. It’s enough to get us back on the bike, but thankfully not enough to impair riding skills.
The roll into Myrtleford is short and sweet. We drop the bikes at the motel and wander into town to taste what’s on offer at Billy Button. Winemaker Jo Marsh uses grapes from across the Alpine Valleys, but to keep things simple this cellar door has opened on the edge of town. We’re welcomed into the air-conditioned space and are soon sipping on arneis, tempranillo and an interesting chardonnay mistelle that was created using the only grapes that could be salvaged after the previous summer’s bushfires.
The next day dawns bright – appropriate since that is the name of where we’re heading – and not nearly as hot. The mercury is going to max out at just 25ºC, which is far more civilised.
Today there are also plenty of places to visit along the way. Just out of Myrtleford we stop at Pepo Farms, where Sharan and Jay Rivett grow styrian pumpkins, an heirloom variety from Austria and Slovenia, whose seeds can be eaten without being processed. We taste roasted pumpkin seeds, along with ones that have been smoked, dipped in Cajun spices or coated in chocolate.
Which is a shame because we’ve only pedalled on for a few minutes before arriving at Buffalo Berry Farm, where the berry cup has tayberries, boysenberries and blueberries, with soft serve and berry syrup. Like complete troopers we reluctantly force them down.
If you’ve never visited this part of northeast Victoria, it is beautiful. The landscape is lush, there are old tobacco drying sheds near olive groves, and the trail follows the fast-flowing Ovens River as it weaves through the countryside. And, at decent intervals along the whole route, there are excellent wineries.
At the Ringer Reef cellar door, high on a hill outside Porepunkah, I ask Damian if that’s why he chose this particular trail to launch Tour de Vines about 15 years ago. The company has since added winery routes in South Australia, NSW’s Mudgee region and Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand, among others. “It’s really about the trails,” he says. “It’s just fortuitous that they also tend to be places with wineries.”
After lunch, we stop on the river’s edge in Porepunkah among the picnickers and watch what seems to be half the townsfolk splashing in a huge waterhole. We’ve only just got on the bikes again when we arrive at the big ‘Welcome to Bright’ sign. We weave through the traffic and down to Howitt Park, where the minibus awaits to ferry us back to Beechworth.
Beneath the trees, ice cream in hand and surrounded by kids roller skating and family groups congregating, it’s hard to believe that just a few weeks earlier I had only been able to travel five kilometres from my home.
The sun is dipping in the sky and its rays filter through high branches. There’s no sound of cicadas; instead their song is being drowned out by a band playing outside Bright Brewery. It’s the perfect ending for our long ride, and a great start for the summer to come.
The small town of Raglan is one of the coolest little spots in New Zealand’s North Island and one of the country’s best kept secrets for foodies and adventure lovers.
Only two-hours from big city Auckland, Raglan is a great option for those looking for a little bit of bohemian luxury in rugged, natural surroundings while also being a haven for surf enthusiasts.
With a population of less than 4,000, Raglan retains a strong community feel, while openly welcoming the surfers, backpackers and tourists who come seeking a more unique New Zealand experience.
Before arriving in Raglan, the magic begins by taking a little detour on the way to Waireinga, otherwise known as Bridal Veil falls. The 55-metre waterfall is only a ten-minute walk through lush native bush and the view from the bottom is worth every step.
But once you’re in town, there is no shortage of delicious cafes and coffee spots to keep you fuelled for the day. The Shack is a sunny café on the main street corner offering a wide variety of classic Kiwi brunch options with a modern twist. Or you can head to the hole in the wall café, Raglan Roast which has now become famous in Aotearoa for its deliciously smooth coffee.
No Raglan visit is complete without popping into Jet, an institution in the town which has been operating as an artist collective for roughly 20 years. The small, funky store has an array of artworks, souvenirs and clothing, made by local designers and artists who take turns running the shop selling their wares.
Meandering on down to Te Kopua beach you will find Raglan’s much loved foot bridge, which at high tide during summertime will be filled with Raglanites, hurling themselves over the railings to see who can make the biggest splash into the water below.
If you’re not feeling brave enough to do as the locals do and take the plunge, head to Raglan Backpackers and pick up a kayak for the day to explore the town’s highly underrated Pancake Rocks on the opposite side of the harbour. From there you can paddle your way to lunch down the stream to Rock-It Kitchen, a popular café in a renovated barn with designated spots for kayakers to come ashore.
The food here is fresh with a variety of options to suit either the health conscious or those wanting to indulge in a gourmet burger and chips. With an enclosed backyard it is the perfect place to let kids run wild while the grown-ups relax.
When it’s time for a rest, Three Streams Retreat located a short drive outside of the town centre, is the perfect spot to check-in and chill-out. Ideal for either families or those looking for a romantic getaway, the self-contained, stylishly designed accommodation provides all the comforts of home with the luxuries of a glamourous BnB. With a wide-open living plan, two bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen and a romantic outdoor bath, Three Streams Retreat is the kind of place you could easily stay for a week and not get homesick or restless.
When the sun is shining, it’s worth heading to Raglan’s famous beaches. Manu Bay is a popular spot for surfers, while Ngarunui is more swimmer-friendly and provides a stunning west coast sunset in the evening.
For even more epic views, take a slow drive on a gravel road to the Te Toto Gorge lookout.
A must do for foodies is new kid on the block Ulo’s Kitchen. This funky, family-run Japanese restaurant is undoubtedly the trendiest place to eat in the region, with a DJ deck, eclectic décor, fresh food, local craft beer and a diverse team of friendly wait staff. Although it has only been open a year, it’s fast becoming a favourite spot for locals looking for fresh, international food.
La La Land is a must visit for sweet tooths and dessert lovers. Digging into one of their heavenly homemade mellow puffs should be your first priority, but the boutique chocolate café has an array of European style sweet treats and pastries that will keep you coming back for more.
If you’re looking for all the best things that Aotearoa has to offer in one tiny town, make sure you add Raglan to your list of must-see destinations.