WHEN IN ROME

Australian House & Garden
On this European bus tour, the sightseeing is not done from the coach or carparks.  It’s all about getting out and lapping up the local lifestyle, writes Vanessa Walker.

LEFT A perfumed rose grows against the the wall of Villa il Poggiale, a historic estate just 10 minutes from downtown Florence. RIGHT The elegant portico of the villa, one of the oldest and most beautiful in San Casciano, Florence. Photography Matthew Lowden.

LEFT A perfumed rose grows against the the wall of Villa il Poggiale, a historic estate just 10 minutes from downtown Florence. RIGHT The elegant portico of the villa, one of the oldest and most beautiful in San Casciano, Florence. Photography Matthew Lowden.

I’m standing in a bustling fresh produce market in Florence’s Sant’Ambrogio – between a woman selling an incredible array of wild strawberries, raspberries and blueberries and a man with pretty boxes full of bright orange clementines – clutching a scrap of paper with the words 1 sedano, 10 pezzi fiori de zucca written on it.

I can’t read or speak Italian and find it hard to believe that in an hour I’m going to be whipping up deliciously rustic Tuscan peasant food with Libero, the owner of I Tre Pini restaurant in the Chianti Classico hills… or not, if I can’t work out what ingredients I’m meant to be buying. I’m in Florence on a European bus tour with a difference. We’re still being ferried from place to place by luxury coach, but the journey is packed with excursions that bring us closer to the locals and their daily lives. Tour operator Trafalgar calls these Be My Guest and Hidden Treasure experiences.

LEFT The charming Old Dining Room in the Villa di Maiano, the main house of Fattoria de Maiano, which was used as a location for the films Tea with Mussolini and A Room with a View. RIGHT Produce sellers at Florence’s Sant’Ambrogio stock an incredible array of fruit and vegies.

LEFT The charming Old Dining Room in the Villa di Maiano, the main house of Fattoria de Maiano, which was used as a location for the films Tea with Mussolini and A Room with
a View
. RIGHT Produce sellers at Florence’s Sant’Ambrogio stock an incredible array of fruit and vegies.

On an Italian tour you might visit an olive estate then share lunch with the aristocratic owners in their centuries-old villa (more on that later). On a tour of Provence, France, you might drop into Le Jardin du Quai to devour one of chef Daniel Hebet’s famous macarons. Daniel made his name at Ladurée, the Parisian macaron shop established in 1862 and, by arrangement, he will let you in on the secrets to his technique. Or, you might stop by a vineyard to meet its vignerons, then slip into the owner’s chateau for canapés. At every stop you’ll venture off the beaten track to a restaurant, a shop or an interesting historic site not found on mainstream tour itineraries.

Back at the market, a sympathetic local points to celery, then holds up ten fingers and proffers zucchini flowers. I’m on my way.

At I Tre Pini, Libero’s cooks teach our group how to make gnocchi from scratch, concoct a divine ribollita (soup), a bread and tomato panzanella (salad) and a castagnaccio (chestnut flour cake). After our food is laid out and mightily supplemented by the kitchen (another authentic Italian touch) and our group sits down to eat, a distinguished-looking gentleman and his guitarist serenade us with a version of That’s Amore that would make Dean Martin proud.

LEFT The lunch spread laid on by the owners, the Miari Fulcis family. RIGHT Succulent fresh tomatoes on sale at the market.

LEFT The lunch spread laid on by the owners, the Miari Fulcis family. RIGHT Succulent fresh tomatoes on sale at the market.

This more intimate approach to coach tours has come straight from the top. The seed was planted when the family who owns Trafalgar was dining in afriend’s lemon grove in Italy. Talk turned to how everyone should enjoy an experience of this quality and that they, of all people, could make it happen. They asked their teams to look around their local regions, and in some cases knock on the doors of small businesses, to develop authentic experiences to share. Italy, with its thriving agriturismi, was particularly fertile ground.

After dessert at I Tre Pini, our group goes to the Accademia Gallery to admire the six tonnes of white Carrara marble that is Michelangelo’s David, and get a fantastic high-speed round-up of Michelangelo’s life “a crazy genius” from our local tour guide Madeleine Fakhouri (who is also an Accademia employee). She sighs at the tour’s end, saying no man can match David’s perfection, that’s why she is still single.

LEFT A worker at Fattoria di Maiano’s olive-oil press enjoys a rest in the sunshine. RIGHT One of the pleasures of visiting Fattoria di Maiano is taking a stroll in its well-tended gardens.

LEFT A worker at Fattoria di Maiano’s olive-oil press enjoys a rest in the sunshine. RIGHT One of the pleasures of visiting Fattoria di Maiano is taking a stroll in its well-tended gardens.

The shops near the Ponte Vecchio live up to their reputation and we snap up the handbags, belts and gloves the city is famous for. After a perfect travel day – place, people, art and shopping – Iretire to my suite in the unbelievable 15th-century Villa il Poggiale.

The next morning I’m charmed to see fruit pickers spread out across the estate plucking olives from the laden trees.

By afternoon we’ve pulled up at Fattoria di Maiano, which sits resplendent on the hills between Fiesole and Florence. This 300-hectare 15th-century estate is owned by Count and Countess Miari Fulcis and produces topnotch organic olive oil. After being shown the opulent villa, the family – who are remarkably shy and humble given their standing – sets out a delicious lunch in the Sala Olivaia, an ancient olive storage room now used for parties.

LEFT An afternoon spent wandering around the shops on the Ponte Vecchio, the shop-lined medieval bridge spanning the Arno river, is the way to enjoy historical Florence. RIGHT The incomparable Libero, owner of I Tre Pini restaurant.

LEFT An afternoon spent wandering around the shops on the Ponte Vecchio, the shop-lined medieval bridge spanning the Arno river, is the way to enjoy historical Florence. RIGHT The incomparable Libero, owner of I Tre Pini restaurant.

We conclude our Italian tour a day later in Rome where, after shopping along the Via del Corso, we enjoy an ebullient late-night feast at a local ristorante.

In an alluring taste of the Paris and Provence tour, we also visit Château la Dorgonne, one of 15 organic wineries in the Luberon – the area made famous by Peter Mayle’s book A Year in

Provence. After some wine tasting, we repair to owner Baudouin Parmentier’s chateau, where he proudly declares, over a lunch of courgette flan, Provençale casserole and Luberon goats’ cheese, that his is one of the few towns to remain free of the hordes of Mayle-ites.

LEFT The villa is a lovely place to hunker down in autumn. RIGHT Olive pickers at work on the grounds of Villa il Poggiale.

LEFT The villa is a lovely place to hunker down in autumn. RIGHT Olive pickers at work on the grounds of Villa il Poggiale.

A tiny restaurant perched above the la-Sorgue river is the setting for our last dinner. Located at the quiet end of the village, Hostellerie le Chateau is a place I’d never have found if I’d been travelling alone. Sitting among chatting locals, for a short time I had the priceless feeling that I belonged.


On tour

10-day Flavours Of Italy First Class At Leisure Guided Holiday, from $2750 per person,
twin share
. This tour takes in the culinary delights of Rome, Florence, Pisa, Fidenza, Parma, Bologna and Venice. Highlights include a Tuscan market and cooking experience and tasting sessions at a wine and olive-oil outlet in Greve, a Be My Guest meal and a dinner in Parma showcasing the region’s cheese and ham specialties.
11-day Paris and Provence At Leisure Guided Holiday, from $3450 per person, twin share. Starting in Paris, travellers are whisked to Provence by TGV fast train. This is followed by visits to Nimes, Arles, Cassis and Nice. Highlights include stops at markets in Aix-En-Provence, a Be My Guest lunch at a family-run winery and a cooking class in Nimes. Go to www.trafalgar.com.

HOW TO GET THERE Etihad flies daily to Milan from Sydney, three times a week from Melbourne and twice weekly from Brisbane. Etihad has twice-daily flights to Paris from Sydney, daily flights from Melbourne and thrice-weekly services from Brisbane. Airfares start from $1900 ex taxes. Go to www.etihadairways.com.

GARDEN EXTRA A short stroll from Florence’s centre is the beautiful Boboli Gardens, once the grounds of the Medici family’s Pitti Palace. Take in the gardens and the views of the city below.

AWAY WITH THE FAIRIES

Australian House & Garden
The wild west coast is where you’ll find the heart and soul of Ireland, writes Vanessa Walker.

Exquisite Kylemore Abbey in Connemara; a remote yet enchanting destination in western Ireland. Photograph from Getty Images.

Exquisite Kylemore Abbey in Connemara; a remote yet enchanting destination in western Ireland. Photograph from Getty Images.

Of the millions who visit Ireland each year, most fly into Dublin, the thriving arts and culture capital. Me? I disembark from my Aer Lingus plane at Shannon Airport and step into a quiet, linoleum-floored terminal where rural families are being reunited. I’m heading away from the crowds to the lesser-known part of Ireland, its wild west coast. 

Accordingly, instead of a cabbie lamenting the country’s dire financial predicament, my driver pipes up about fairies. Not long out of the terminal, on the highway that connects Shannon to Galway, he points out a hawthorn tree that locals hold to be a place where, for millennia, fairies on their way back from battles fought on the country’s west coast have stopped to rest. So strong is this conviction they succeeded in changing the course of the highway in order to protect the tree.

During the drive west the landscape looks every bit the medieval backdrop. Fog crawls over rolling hills, with castles, extant and derelict, glimpsed behind kilometre after kilometre of drystone walls. At the coast, through spitting rain and mist, I arrive at the Cliffs of Moher, eight kilometres of rugged coastline that rise up to 214m from the heaving Atlantic ocean. It’s here that thousands of nesting sea birds, including guillemot (who lay their eggs directly on the ledge; their pointy shapes means they don’t roll off the cliff), razorbill, puffins, kittiwakes and fulmar come to give birth and nurse their chicks. The cliffs are alive with the clamour of new life and it’s lovely to hire some binoculars, pick up an identification chart and watch the birds tending their young.

Out past the cliffs, one can just make out the rocky outcrop of the Aran Islands. I catch a ferry across the roiling sea to Inis Mór, at 14x3.8km the largest of the three islands. It is thought that cable-knit jerseys were invented here more than a century ago by the wives of the island’s fishermen. It’s said they knitted each of their men a distinctive jersey so that if they were lost at sea, when they washed up on the beach, they could be easily identified. Each family had a unique motif that related to life and beliefs on the island – the cable representing the fisherman’s rope, bequeathing safety and good luck at sea. A raw and unsubdued place, you can feel the hidden complexities of life in such a small island, with a population of only 850. Some of the island men, lined up on the pier on ponies and traps are simultaneously friendly and wary. After a walk around the waterfront and, I admit, a cable-knit jersey purchase (diamonds – success and wealth), I head inland to hike up to the remains of Dún Aonghasa Fort. Perched on a precipitous cliff overlooking the ocean the fort was thought to have been erected about 1100BC.

Back on the mainland I make my way to the latest of Ireland’s burgeoning eco-tourism attractions, the Burren. This 260-square-kilometre expanse of grey limestone is, frankly, no oil painting but visiting it is a revelation that draws you into Ireland’s distant past. The guide starts off simply enough, by walking us around pointing out the wild roses, fly orchids and yew plants as well as an abundance of rare species native to Ireland. Then he talks about the mystery that confounds botanists here. Why, alone in all the world, do alpine, arctic and Mediterranean plants – all of which require vastly different climatic zones and soil types – thrive so close to each other? How do lime-loving Burnet rose, carline thistle and mountain avens grow right next to lime-hating heather, lousewort and tormentil? And why does mountain flower gentia flourish here, at sea level? Weirder still, the variety of species is increasing all the time. Visiting the Burren is also a fascinating insight into Ireland’s history – it is denuded because stone-age man stripped the woodlands bare of trees when they began to practise a primitive form of agriculture. We know because the ghostly remains of their lives, including cooking sites, wells, and 90 megalithic tombs they built for their dead, dot the landscape.

I decide to step back into gorgeous scenery and romantic tales by making my way to Kylemore Abbey in Connemara. The road there winds through field and pasture, then quite suddenly the Abbey comes into view; a gorgeous castle nestled into the side of Druchruach Mountain. Built in 1867 by the fabulously wealthy and progressive Englishman Mitchell Henry as a gift to his wife Margaret, it is now home for a dwindling superfluity of Benedictine nuns. It’s a lovely property to stroll around and has a 2.4-hectare walled garden Henry established and planted entirely with species from the Victorian era. By the time I arrive at Galway – the largest city on the west coast – even the stacks of drying peat appear poetic. For hundreds of years the Irish have been digging peat from ancient bogs, drying and shaping it into blocks of fuel. At a pub in Galway that night, two Irish lads stop chatting about Gaelic football long enough to talk fondly of trips back to their parents’ home to help them dig and cut the peat to beat the never-ending chill. It’s a practice as old as the surrounding hills and another tradition that brings the west coast to life for the curious visitor. Along with the landscape and the people, customs are all part of the Irish charm.


When in Galway...

WHAT TO DO Make like a local and head to a pub. If you’re near the village of Ballyvaughan drop into O’Loclainn’s Whiskey Pub. It’s a tiny bar packed full of whisky, spirits and personality. Experience the Burren www.heartofburrenwalks.com. Visit Kylemore Abbeywww.kylemoretourism.ie. For a great selection of
Irish crafts, visit Spiddal Craft and Design Centre in the village of Spiddal (about 15kms from Galway) ceardlann.com.

WHERE TO STAY Western Ireland is replete with grand houses and castles. For a my-home-is-my-castle style castle, try Gregan’s Castle Hotel, a great place to stay when visiting the Burren www.gregans.ie. For a full-blown five-star style castle, try Dromoland Castle, which has a trout-filled lake and waddling ducks, bicycle tracks and a guest list that has included Bill Clinton, John Travolta and George W. Bush www.dromoland.ie. If you arrive in Galway wanting a hit of designer cool, consider the fantastical Philip Treacy-designed G Hotel in Galway. www.theghotel.ie.

HOW TO GET THERE Emirates operates 63 flights per week from Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney to London via Dubai, with onward connections to Shannon with Aer Lingus.  Return economy airfares start from $2277. Call Emirates on 1300 303 777 or go to www.emirates.com/au. Aer Lingus London to Shannon return flights start from $249 www.aerlingus.com.

FREE WHEELING

Australian House & Garden
Biking the backroads of Vietnam reveals a fiercely unique country. Vanessa Walker shares her highlights.

Photograph Nicolas Watt/Bauer Syndication (left), and vanessa walker.

Photograph Nicolas Watt/Bauer Syndication (left), and vanessa walker.

We have pulled over to the side of the road, and are smearing on sunscreen, which promptly melts off in the 85-per-cent humidity, when our Adventure World guide, Vu, asks how much training we’ve done for the 400-odd kilometres, or nine days, of cycling ahead. I tell him I did a 12km ride the weekend before landing in Ho Chi Minh City and note he has perfected the guide’s knack of appearing unfazed. My partner and I are here on a tailor-made, guided, biking holiday for which we are keen but underprepared. Still, we jump on our Trek 4500s and head to the Cu Chi tunnels, north of the city. We ride 20km, past fields of bok choy and betel vines, boys selling snakes and small animals roadside and through a rubber-tree forest, to tunnels that introduce us to the recent history of Vietnam. The Cu Chi tunnels are a 250km network of Vietnamese-body sized passages that the villagers and Viet Cong used to subvert the US army during the 1962-1975 war. They were incredible innovators: tyres salvaged from trucks were fashioned into sandals(designed so the prints were back-to-front); spent bombshells were made into weapons and booby traps; the tunnels housed schools, ammunition storage and first-aid stations. Afterwards, our driver takes us to Phu Binh cafe, a pho shop in bustling Ho Chi Minh that was popular with the US army – unaware its owner, Ngo Toai, was planning the Tet Offensive upstairs.

HOI AN
Had the Thu Bon river not silted up in the late-19th century, stopping ships from accessing the town’s docks, Hoi An would be very different. For 100 years it stayed hidden, until it was inadvertently rediscovered in the 1990s. Thus its character remains preserved; the narrow cobbled streets of this dense village are lined with merchants’ houses, wooden-shuttered tearooms, temples covered in bougainvillea, lane-side herbal-tea sellers, bikes for hire, tailors and banh mi shops. After a day wandering on foot, the next morning we meander by bike through the neighbouring islands and agricultural villages – including Tra Que, which has been supplying coriander, lettuce, spring onion and morning glory to the old town for more than 300 years.

villages of brightly painted houses.

villages of brightly painted houses.

HO CHI MINH TO MUI NE
The next day our driver drops us in Binh Chau, from where we embark on a 50km coastal route, past plots of dragon fruit with its thick wavy tendrils, and cordoned off salt fields, sea side. We ride through villages of brightly painted houses lit up by the iridescent-orange flowers of phoenix’s tail trees (see bottom right), past people working the fields, lying in hammocks, going about daily life. Late afternoon we arrive at Ke Ga, hot and tired, to be revived by a seafood hot pot with green mango, mint and wasabi leaves. A short, air-conditioned drive follows to Mui Ne, a popular weekend getaway for the Saigonese. Deposited at our luxurious beachside villa, we while away the remainder of the day by the pool.

MUI NE TO DA LAT
We set out early. I’m pedalling along happily when the landscape changes from motley roads through open fields to a narrow road that winds its way uphill, bound on each side by pine forests. It becomes silent aside from birdsong as we ride until we reach the plateau. The weather is cooler and cycling easier as we make our way through ramshackle settlements whose economy depends on robusta coffee. After 60km our eyes alight on our parked van, waiting to transfer us to Da Lat. After the southern part of the country, the central highlands are a surprise. At 1500m above sea level, Da Lat is where the French colonialists retreated to at the height of summer. Today it’s prosperous and Alps-like with chalet-style hotels surrounding Xuan Huong lake.

the Hai Van pass with its spectacular views.

the Hai Van pass with its spectacular views.

DA LAT TO NHA TRANG
Up, up, up we bike until we reach the Hon Giao pass. Once or twice I am so dispirited by the relentless hills that Vu assists me with a hand on my back pushing me forwards. After a 50km slog – and as Vu had constantly reminded us – we are rewarded with an awesome 30km downhill stretch, with stunning views into endless deep-green valleys.

HOI AN TO HUE
Our final day entails a 100km ride to the former imperial capital, Hue, over the Hai Van pass with its spectacular views, along the white shore of Lang Co beach, a couple of mountain passes and then, mercifully, a flat coastal road. Our journey ends when we pull up beside our van, enjoy our last sips of oolong iced tea, and depart for the city. Hue is a metropolis bisected by the Perfume River and we enjoy being tourists for a day; swapping our bikes for river boats and backroads for museums and monuments, proof that we must return one day; Vietnam has many layers left to peel.

www.adventureworld.com.au.

GREAT ESCAPES

Australian House & Garden

Photograph Supplied.

Photograph Supplied.

Traditionally, hotels haven’t had much to offer children aside from the lure of pools and breakfast buffets. But a new crop of outside-the-box accommodation is putting uninspiring (for kids) hotel rooms to shame. Leading the way is St Jerome’s – The Hotel, Melbourne’s first luxury-camping accommodation, conveniently set above the Melbourne Central shopping centre in the CBD. Families can hire spacious (separate) canvas tents on the open-air rooftop – and enjoy a night out under the stars in the heart of the city. www.stjeromesthehotel.com.au.
The newest kid on the block is Notel, also in Melbourne, where six 1970s chrome Airstream trailers are fitted out as designer digs for everyone’s enjoyment. Plonked on the roof of a nondescript Melbourne car park, Notel has bragging rights nailed. notelmelbourne.com.au.
And, in news just in, Sydney, where Cockatoo Island glamping has become a rite of passage, will soon boast another harbour island pop-up site, Flash Camp. Up to 22 canvas tents will be clustered on a 1ha Clark Island patch (above) taking in panoramic Sydney Harbour scenes.Registrations now open. www.flashcamp.com.au.

GREAT ESCAPES

Australian House & Garden

Photograph supplied.

Photograph supplied.

Should the latest crop of hip hotels and the opening of new wildlife lodge Jamala fail to convince you to visit Canberra, the annual flower festival, Floriade, will. Opening on September 12, Floriade 2015 is based around the theme ‘Reflection’ to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Anzac landings at Gallipoli. Be sure to catch NightFest (November 23-27) too, where you can explore the flowers after dark, browse the night markets and catch some music. After enjoying all this natural beauty, we recommend retiring to the slick but cosy East Hotel (pictured above) – home to arresting art and colourful designer pieces. We particularly love its magazine policy; select some favourites from the foyer and return them when you’ve finished. Now that’s blooming generous. www.jamalawildlifelodge.com.au, www.floriadeaustralia.com, www.easthotel.com.au.

ROAD LESS TRAVELLED

Australian House & Garden
Renew your spirit by taking a trip to an exotic destination. Vanessa Walker opens the door to 10 faschinating holiday experiences, from the lofty Himalayan peaks to the seductive South Pacific.

Photography by Catherine Sutherland.

Photography by Catherine Sutherland.

MARAKECH EXPRESS
Few places are as exotic and enticing as Marrakech, set against the foothills of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Simply wandering around its labyrinthine medina (old city quarter), with its snake charmers, potters, acrobats, herbalists and spice-sellers, will make your senses come alive. An ancient caravan trading post and imperial city, Marrakech has bucketloads of personality, and the masses of tourists drawn to the city only add to its pulsating colour. The best place to stay is in a riad, one of the traditional homes graced with wrought-iron balconies, mosaics and intricate plasterwork. Designed around private courtyards, they offer a peaceful haven after a heady day spent meandering through local souks (markets). For more information, go to www.ilove-marrakesh.com.

COAST WATCH
Goa, a former Portuguese colony on the south-west coast of India, has long lit up the travel radar because of its fabulous beaches, lush scenery and carnival atmosphere. In this tropical setting, you can hire a thatched hut just steps from the beach for a handful of rupees per day, and spend happy hours patronising open-air restaurants and bars or browsing through craft huts. If you prefer a more cushioned stay, there are five-star resorts that front onto spectacular beaches, including the regal Taj Exotica. Tourists in the know make time on their itinerary for a trip to the Goan state capital Panaji. It’s a showcase for Indo-Portugese architecture, mixed with the vibrancy of Hindu culture. Our Lady of Immaculate Conception church, a huge, white-washed baroque confection, presides over a town where women in colourful saris dot the streets, entire families scoot around clinging on to a single moped, and the laneways are fragrant with the smell of Portugese-influenced cuisine emanating from tiny, candle-lit restaurants. For more information, go to www.goatravelinfo.com.

GOURMET GETAWAY
While the multitudes flow into Queenstown and the Milford Sound, head to the North Island for one of New Zealand’s best-kept secrets. Located on the pituresque Bay of Islands, the town of Kerikeri is famous for its subtropical micro-climate and the lush flowers and produce that flourish in it, complemented by just the right number of galleries, cafes and homeware retailers. It’s a magnet for gourmets, with chocolate shops selling handmade treats, trees dripping with avocadoes and oranges in season and, on Sundays, an excellent farmers’ market. This region has a fascinating and well-documented history. In the 1800s it was the home of Maori chief Hongi Hika. Today, it’s an ideal spot for a short break across the Tasman, especially if you like to be within reach of a good latte. For more information, go to www.kerikeri.co.nz.

In Costa Rica, head in one direction in and you may encounter toucans, capuchin monkeys and giant leatherback turtles; in another, you’ll spot smouldering volcanoes and rivers made for whitewater rafting.

BACK TO NATURE
The development of eco-tourism has elevated Costa Rica to global hot-spot status, and the small republic is increasingly regarded as the jewel in Central America’s crown. Its environmental credentials are based on the fact that about a quarter of the country is given over to protected parks and reserves, containing what may be the greatest density of plant and animal species in the world. This land, three-quarters the size of Tasmania, pulsates with life. Head off in one direction and you may encounter toucans, three-toed sloths, capuchin monkeys and giant leatherback turtles. Take another route and you’re likely to spot smouldering volcanoes, luminous white orchids and rivers made for white-water rafting. If you feel as if the world is caving in, this is the place to restore your perspective. And you can do it with a clear conscience: the Costa Rican government is working to make this the world’s first carbon-neutral nation. For more information, go to www.costaricabureau.com

KINGDOM IN THE CLOUDS
Who could fail to be charmed by a tiny Himalayan kingdom that, by royal decree, promotes gross domestic happiness over gross domestic product? Bhutan is a land of stone monasteries, towering fortresses and ancient rituals that, far from being relics of the past, remain part of daily life. From the glacial mountain peaks and valleys in the north to the central woodlands and the subtropical plains of the south, Bhutan remains one of the most ecologiacally pristine countries around the globe. For the wisdom-seeking traveller, this predominantly Buddhist country is nirvana. For the more athletically inclined, it’s the location of one of the world’s most difficult hiking routes. Following the spine of the Himalyas between Bhutan and Tibet, the Snowman Trek takes about 8 days and has been completed by only a determined few. That alone makes Bhutan one of the best places to gain instant travel credibility. For more information, go to www. bhutan.com.au.

LEFT Masked dancers celebrate a Buddhist festival in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. RIGHT The rich biodiversity of Costa Rica’s rainforests includes several species of toucans. Photography from Photolibrary.

LEFT Masked dancers celebrate a Buddhist festival in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. RIGHT The rich biodiversity of Costa Rica’s rainforests includes several species of toucans. Photography from Photolibrary.

WILDLIFE AND WONDERMENT
If you like to run ahead of the pack, Zambia is the place to go to. The travel attractions of this southern African nation have long centred on the awe-inspiring Vicotria Falls and spectacular wildlife parks. Recently, Zambia has added environmental and culturally sustainable tourism to its portfolio. From the five-star Royal Livingstone resort - a stone’s throw from Victoria Falls on the banks of the Zambezi - and high-end safari houses with designer decor and private guides, to a nascent program of village-based cultural encounters, this is an emerging go-to destination for luxury and independent travellers alike. Of course, travelling in a still-developing tourist destination can involve both pleasure and pain. While catching a ride in a passing car is a common practice and is generally considered safe, there are great distances between towns and not many vehicles. Also as a foreigner you may be treated as a dignitary at traditional festivals, but be prepared to sit through long-winded speeches, local officials being much the same the world over. For more information, go to www.zambiatourism.com.

THE PERFECT CLIMATE
Montenegro, on the Adriatic Sea, is shaping up as one of Europe’s coolest destinations. Having declared independence from Serbia in 2006, the country is busy revitalising itself, most notably in the case of Sveti Stefan. The 500-year-old township was transformed into a luxury resort in the 1950s, retaining its historic streets and facades; a second renovation is currently underway and its completion later in the year will usher in a new age of luxury tourism. In fact, the whole country is a traveller’s dream: it has a long, dry summer that draws sun-worshippers to its 290km of coastline in the south, and a cold, snowy winter season in the north that’s a drawcard for skiers. In between lies the beautiful Zeta valley; the urban attractions of the capital, Podgorica; and testaments to the country’s heritage scattered throughout its scenic districts. Must-sees include the 17th-century Ostrog monastery, the Tara river and canyon, and Skadarsko Jezero, the lake Montenegro shares with neighbouring Albania. For more information, go to www.visit-montenegro.com.

CHINA ORNAMENT
Hainan Island, China’s southernmost land, sits like a resplendent emperor in the aqua waters of the South China Sea. Reminiscent of a less developed Hawaii (think palm-fringed beaches backed by lush vegetation), this small tropical isle is blessed with pleasant temperatures year-round. With a mainly agricultural economy, relaxed beachside temperament and local craftspeople selling handmade wares out of modest huts, Hainan is a calm foil to the mainland manufacturing powerhouse of Guangdong province, to which it’s connected by ferry. Historically, Hainan was a place where out-of-favour mandarins were sent into exile, but these days some of the world’s most opulent resort operators have moved in. The place to go is Sanya, on the southern tip of the island, where the Ritz-Carlton group recently opened a palatial resort, including 33 villas with private pools and 24-hour butler service. A high-end Mandarin Oriental is set to open this year, with a Fairmont property to follow by 2011. For more information, go to www.travel-hainan.com.

LEFT The monastery of Ostrog, established in the 17th century, is built into cliffs near the Montenegrin city of Niksic. RIGHT Find blissful solitude at Amuri beach on Aitutaki. Photography from Photolibrary.

LEFT The monastery of Ostrog, established in the 17th century, is built into cliffs near the Montenegrin city of Niksic. RIGHT Find blissful solitude at Amuri beach on Aitutaki. Photography from Photolibrary.

HISTORIC BEAUTY
Do you yearn to stroll down winding cobbled laneways and glide along romantic canals while gazing at medieval architecture? If so, put Brugge at the top of your travel wish list. The entire centre of this Belgian city is a World Heritage site, replete with jaw-dropping historical buildings, where gargoyles and griffins seem to sprout on every corner. In these exceptional surroundings, even jetlag can be a profound experience: walk the streets early in the morning, around 4am, and you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped back in time to the 15th century. Brugge is a wonderfully sensual city; apart from the self-evident charms of Belgian chocolate and beer, it has also earnt an enviable gastronomic reputation. It’s strong in other facets of culture, too, with a roster of museums that display everything from excavated archaeological artefacts (the city was founded by Vikings in the ninth century) to Flemish Old Master paintings and contemporary artworks. For more information, go to www.brugge.be.

REEF ENCOUNTERS
Rarotonga, gateway to the Cook Islands, holds an embarrassment of scenic riches out of all proportion to its diminutive size. Set in the middle of the South Pacific,the island is surrounded by a shimmering lagoon that extends to a reef, then falls away to deep water, making this a laid-back swimming, snorkelling and boating utopia. For added appeal, it’s only a short flight or sail from here to the island of Aitutaki, even less developed and more sublime than its neighbour. Prime accommodation there is centred on the turquoise lagoon, fringed with coral reefs and dotted with tiny castaway islets. It comes as little surprise, then, to learn that Getaway presenter Catriona Rowntree chose to honeymoon on Aitutaki last year. That must be the ultimate stamp of approval for Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa, which Catriona praised for its over-water bungalows with superb water views. For more information, go to www.cook-islands.com.                                    


Before booking a trip...

Before booking a trip to any unfamiliar destination, check out the Department of Foreign Affairs travel advice website at www.smartraveller.gov.au.

FIND THE PATH TO BLISS

Australian House & Garden
A village-resort in the hills of China’s Hangzhou is a Zen experience like no other, writes Vanessa Walker.

Tea fields and forests surround the resort. Photography from Amanresorts.

Tea fields and forests surround the resort. Photography from Amanresorts.

A gong sounds in the distance, reverberating around the heavily forested hills near West Lake in Hangzhou, southern-eastern China. It’s the call to prayer for monks in one of China’s thriving Buddhist enclaves; a community of seven temples scattered throughout the Wulin Mountains.

The origins of this community have been traced back to 326AD, when an Indian monk came to China and built the Lingyin Si, or Soul’s Retreat, temple. Over the centuries, monasteries were created, with their monks carving numerous Buddhist figures into the escarpment’s niches and grottos.

More than 1685 years later, this religious, serene, atmospheric place swims against the tide of modern China. And today, nestled among the sweet osmanthus, magnolia, camphor and fig trees is a small village established by retired monks and nuns – with some buildings more than a century old – that has been turned into a one-of-a-kind ‘village resort’, called Amanfayun.

Encountering Amanfayun for the first time is like stepping into a Zhang Yimou film (he of Raise the Red Lantern and the Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies fame); my every glance is greeted with a kind of mise en scene; a bright-yellow parasol against the muted stone buildings, a glimpse into an ancient courtyard to someone sweeping away the fallen autumn leaves, a carved inscription in stone framed by lush wet vines. Although I arrive in busy Hangzhou in the afternoon, so thoroughly does the atmosphere change once here that by evening, I feel myself becoming gently untethered from the concerns of the day.

Encountering Amanfayun for the first time is like stepping into a zhang yimou film.

Like many Amanresorts properties, Amanfayun has been renovated from the inside out, with the existing exteriors reshaped by only the lightest of touches; the boundaries of the property are fuzzy, with the intent of being intimate and involved with the cultural life of the community, rather than separating.

The entire resort is situated along each side of the 600m-long Fayun Pathway, which is walked by locals and monks alike. One end of the public path marks the end of Amanfayun’s 14ha and the start of Lingyin Si, scattered across the hills are the Temple of Goodness, the Temple of Purity and the Temple of Reflection, the only nunnery in the region.

The next morning, I open my shutters to see the mist hanging low among the trees. My dwelling, with its camphor-wood walls, stone tiles, latticework windows and elmwood furniture is the height of ‘luxurious austerity’. Because Amanfayun was originally a village, each of the 47 courtyard abodes is unique. I walk along the path, past other courtyards to The Restaurant – one of several eateries within the property then wander along a path beside a stream that was once the focal point of life here, and come across some ancient Buddha statues carved into the cliffs.

LEFT A local musician plays at Fayun Place. RIGHT Fayun Pathway connects each part of the resort; it begins at the reception area and winds its way through the property, ending at the entrance to Lingyin Si.

LEFT A local musician plays at Fayun Place. RIGHT Fayun Pathway connects each part of the resort; it begins at the reception area and winds its way through the property, ending at the entrance to Lingyin Si.

Later, I lunch on delicious noodles at the Steam House, while watching chefs tossing sizzling food around their woks in the open kitchen, before making my way to Fayun Place; two linked courthouses transformed into a spacious place to relax or meet up with other guests. There’s a library, a cigar room, and tatami-style reading rooms and here, every afternoon, sweet treats and lonjin (green) tea are served to each guest. There are also occasional talks on topics ranging from Chinese art to tea rituals.

My stay concludes with a visit to the Tea House. It’s a traditional establishment where calligraphy and hand-drawn sketches adorn the walls and heavy curtains filter the light, just so, on the dark furniture. I am served a plate of delicate cakes and dried fruit along with samples of teas this area is renowned for… just another treasured tradition that elevates my spirits, and my understanding of this culture.


Amanfayun

Prices range from US$700pp (about AUD$673) per night for a Village Room to US$2300pp per night (about A$2215)for Amanfayun Villa; www.amanresorts.com/amanfayun/home.aspx.

HANGZHOU Hangzhou is about an hour by high-speed train from Shanghai. It’s famous for West Lake, a beautiful body of water bounded by pagodas and paths that wrap around and cut through it.

OPERA Do not miss Impression West Lake, a show directed by Zhang Yimou, staged nightly on the lake. Dazzling sets, magnificent lighting and beguiling choreography make this a truly memorable night.

SHOPPING Hangzhou, 20 minutes drive from Amanfayun, is famous for its silk. Xinhua and Jiankang have been the centre of silk production for many centuries.

SPOTLIGHT ON BALI

Australian House & Garden

Photography by Julian Kingma.

Photography by Julian Kingma.

Those who enjoy a mini-break in Bali will love a new one-stop website for luxury rental villas especially tailored to Australians. Booking site Villalet features about 500 hand-picked high-end properties in Bali and beyond, in Thailand, Fiji and Sri Lanka. Founded by an Australian, Villalet has people on the ground in Bali to help with the pesky details that can make or break a family holiday, be it car seats or the need for a nanny. But if a full-service resort is more your speed keep an eye on Uma by Como in Ubud. This year it single-handedly lifted the game of kids’ clubs with The Quest for Answers, its inaugural Discovery Retreat children’s program. Developed and run by educators from Singapore’s Julia Gabriel Centre, in addition to local excursions it offers drama exercises, problem-solving challenges and arts-based activities as well as an exploration of selected literature. In further proof of the archipelago’s expanding horizons, Jetstar has just begun flying direct from Perth to the island of Lombok, the next big short-break destination. www.villalet.com. www.comohotels.com/discoveryretreat. www.jetstar.com.au.

GOOD AS GOLD

Australian House & Garden
A resort stay is the perfect foil to a Gold Coast theme-park weekend, writes Vanessa Walker.

A Lagoon Room at the Sheraton. Photograph by David Hahn.

A Lagoon Room at the Sheraton. Photograph by David Hahn.

There is something deeply gratifying about driving through the high-rise built landscape of Surfers Paradise, the dense concrete jungle that denies the car-bound glimpses of the beach, then pulling into the blessedly low-rise Sheraton Mirage Resort & Spa.

It’s particularly sweet since the property’s recent $26m refurbishment, which wrenched it out of the 1980s and reworked it into a ’50s tropical paradise, where the relaxed breezy decor plays second fiddle to water views and gardens.

Stepping into the lobby all eyes are drawn to the lagoons that fringe the 3.4ha property, then the swimming pools and beyond, to the Coral Sea. Our choice of accommodation is important because other than this sanctuary, we’re here for a total-immersion amusement-park weekend; specifically to ‘do’ Dreamworld and Wet ‘n’ Wild Water Park.

For our children, five and eight, the fun begins the next morning at Terraces Restaurant where they get to choose whatever they want from the expansive breakfast buffet. Tummies full, we drive out on the Pacific Motorway, past other enticing-to-kids worlds, to Dreamworld.

At first we join queues for scary rides only to realise the children don’t reach the minimum height requirements (Zombie Evilution, I’m talking about you). Our luck changes when we find a cluster of family rides. We have a ball on the Escape from Madagascar roller-coaster and the kids love Mad Jungle Jam, an open-air room full of balls, cannons, fountains and towers. As the heat goes out of the afternoon, we hop on the miniature train to Australian Wildlife Experience. It’s a lovely spot and when we’ve had our fill of kangaroos and crocs, we discover the awesome Rocky Hollow Log Ride.

As anticipated, it is particularly lovely to return to the Sheraton where we head back to Terraces for dinner.

The next day we set out for Wet ‘n’ Wild and launch into it on the Super 8 Aqua Racer, a slide you race down on on a foam mat. It’s the mildest ride but I’m petrified. We then haul ourselves up the Constrictor where we pile into a raft and shoot down the slide together.

Buoyed by our successes we climb the stairs of Mammoth Falls, the mother of all rafting rides. We are scared stiff at the top; stepping across the water and into the raft that’s about to be swept ‘downstream’ is a relief. We whirl and twist and sweep up the sides then shoot out the bottom barely a minute later.

By day’s end we’re fully initiated into the world of theme parks. The weekend’s a huge success, thanks to the combination of child-focused fun and grown-up accommodation.


The details
 

The Sheraton Mirage Resort & Spa is the only five-star beachfront resort on the Gold Coast. Rooms start at $270/night; sheraton miragegoldcoast.com. Entry to Dreamworld starts at $110/adult and $80/child; www.dreamworld.com.au. Wet ‘n’ Wild starts at $60/person; wetnwild.com.au. Other attractions include: Sea World, Movie World, there’s even Tropical Fruit World. For a comprehensive list; www.visitgoldcoast.com/things-to-do/amusement-and-theme-parks.

COUNTRY CAPER

Australian House & Garden
There’s gold in the fields of regional Victoria, writes Vanessa Walker.

Ballarat’s Mitchell Harris Cellar Door and Wine Bar is the place to sit and sip of an evening. Be sure to check whether there is an art exhibition on upstairs. Photography by Martina Gemmola.

Ballarat’s Mitchell Harris Cellar Door and Wine Bar is the place to sit and sip of an evening. Be sure to check whether there is an art exhibition on upstairs. Photography by Martina Gemmola.

Golden Plains Shire: could a rural area have a more evocative name? Tucked to the south-west of Ballarat, Victoria, its fields are glowing with canola and wheat, backed by rugged green and brown bush. 

It’s November, and I’m heading from Melbourne to Ballarat, specifically to Mitchell Harris Cellar Door and Wine Bar, the latest after-hours hangout in this former gold-rush city. It’s located in a vast converted warehouse and has an urban cellar-door vibe. I end my day on the road warmed by its fireplace and a bottle of Sabre sparkling wine.  

The next day I breakfast at L’Espresso; the place to be in Ballarat and a former record shop that’s been turned into a cafe. Fuelled by a delicious omelette, I work the shops before driving 19km to Creswick, semi-famous for being home to one of Australia’s last woollen mills. 

This tiny village of about 15 shops is fortunate to have two covetable outlets: Le Péché Gourmand patisserie and 2ndhandShop on the outskirts of town. After perusing the offerings I head back to Ballarat for dinner at The Boatshed on Lake Wendouree, a restaurant perched directly over water, complete with swans that regularly glide by.

LEFT The Art Gallery of Ballarat on Lydiard Street. RIGHT Mitchell Harris Cellar Door and Wine Bar in Ballarat offers the label’s own wines plus other great drops from the region.

LEFT The Art Gallery of Ballarat on Lydiard Street. RIGHT Mitchell Harris Cellar Door and Wine Bar in Ballarat offers the label’s own wines plus other great drops from the region.

My third day starts with a meander past paddocks and the odd pie cart to Maldon, a rural gem with a late 19th-century townscape so well preserved it’s like stepping back in time. 

Bendigo is next on my itinerary, 45 minutes down Fogartys Gap Road. The landscape changes from lush green countryside to parched earth and stringy trees. This regional centre, with wide streets and opulent buildings, is buzzing. I visit Bendigo Art Gallery before dining at Wine Bank, a foodie destination in a heritage-listed 1876 bank.

I return to Melbourne via Castlemaine, a thriving town with more great vintage shops and a pumping foodie culture. I lunch at Togs Place, a friendly, bustling cafe, before ducking in to Mulberry’s deli next door. There I pick up a stash of gourmet treats to take home, a reminder of the languid days I spent exploring country Victoria. 


When in Ballarat...

WHAT TO DO Visit Kylie’s Garden. This privately owned garden in Scarsdale is a wonderful testament to an artistic landscape gardener named Kylie Blake. Using vintage and salvaged materials, she has created a beautiful garden and orchard. Open selected days in spring; 35 Pre-Emptive Road (off Basin Road).

WHERE TO STAY Camellia Cottage - a gorgeous B&B in the town of Buninyong, 10mins’ drive from Ballarat; camellia-cottage.com.au. Allawah Bendigo - stylish maisonettes that have everything covered for a short stay; allawahbendigo.com. Black Cat Cottage - early-1900s farmstay on a truffle orchard outside Creswick; blackcattruffles.com.au.

OPEN ALL HOURS

Australian House & Garden
Small bars, creative hubs and fabulous shopping with a focus on local talent. Perth has officially perked up, writes Vanessa Walker.

The Perth skyline at twilight, with the 46-storey City Square skyscraper that houses BHP Billiton (middle).  Photography by Louis Liu.

The Perth skyline at twilight, with the 46-storey City Square skyscraper that houses BHP Billiton (middle).  Photography by Louis Liu.

Viewed from across the Swan River, Perth’s cityscape is dominated by skyscrapers housing mining giants such as BHP Billiton. At street level, meanwhile, Perth is undergoing a rebirth of cool. 

A revitalisation of historical precincts within the CBD has seen the WC Trustee Building in St Georges Terrace keep its majestic facade, while inside it’s become a beacon for after-hours fun. It’s now home to The Trustee Bar & Bistro, a nose-to-tail style restaurant with industrial-baroque decor run by brother and sister Scott and Angie Taylor, and the Print Hall, a four-level dining and bar precinct that is the last word in urban sophistication. It has the kind of atmosphere and refinement (dress codes!) that makes those who enter feel as though they are part of something trés cool. This is nothing short of a miracle: with the exception of the odd King Street venue, the CBD was known for closing down at 5pm. 

Meanwhile changes to liquor-licensing laws have seen a proliferation of small bars open up in previously neglected laneways. Wander them and you’ll hear the sound of laughter and fun, with patrons sampling artisanal drops in softly lit, intimate spaces. This new-found attention has also led to small expressions of affection in the laneways, be it a historical detail illuminated by a spotlight, an outdoor chandelier, or interesting public art. 

Innovative start-ups are supported and the city benefits from young people populating the city.

As every shopper knows, there’s nothing quite as bleak as an unloved arcade, and Perth reputedly has 3km of them. But affordable rents and pop-up shops such as ephemera-haven Pigeonhole are seeing some innovative outlets emerge among the old-timers. I loved Buzz Hair in Trinity Arcade (it has a standard 1950s fitout, complete with twirling barber shop poles and is staffed by trendy young men doing buzz cuts) and Retro Safari in Plaza Arcade. 

A project called Forgotten Spaces is also bringing creative people into the CBD. City of Perth workers had fanned out across the city identifying nooks and crannies in vacant buildings; the spaces were stripped of their ’80s-boom makeovers, restored and are being offered as studios for small businesses. A film-animation studio, for example, might be housed in the reinvented 1900s Moana Chambers. It’s win-win: innovative start-ups are supported and the city is benefitting from the vitality that comes with young people populating the city. 

For locals, the icing on the cake is Perth City Link, a transport hub/green space/retail and residential area that will run east to west across the city and will include the new Perth Arena. For the first time in a century, the city will be linked to the inner suburb of Northbridge. 

This, coupled with the development of 10ha of Swan River-front land into Elizabeth Quay, which includes shops, venues and landscaped promenades, will finally see the threads of this city woven together into a whole.      

LEFT Conceived as an art gallery, design store, artists’ studios and bar/cafe, Venn is located in a transformed century-old flour mill in the city. Photograph by Joel Barbitta. RIGHT The Venn shop, a mecca for all things designer. Photograph by Angelita Bonetti.

LEFT Conceived as an art gallery, design store, artists’ studios and bar/cafe, Venn is located in a transformed century-old flour mill in the city. Photograph by Joel Barbitta. RIGHT The Venn shop, a mecca for all things designer. Photograph by Angelita Bonetti.


City spots

GETTING THERE H&G booked flights using Webjet, which offers the widest range of flights and more than one million hotel rooms. Go to www.webjet.com.au.

WHERE TO STAY The Richardson Hotel & Spa. A fantastic place to stay a short distance from the CBD, with friendly staff and a beautiful property. It’s also a five-minute walk to Kings Park and on the free CAT bus route. www.therichardson.com.au.

WHAT TO DO Book a Two Feet & A Heartbeat walking tour – its guides know their architecture, pubs, laneways, what’s been and what’s coming. Call 1800 459 388 or go to www.twofeet.com.au

Here are some city addresses worth checking out: The Trustee Bar & Bistro thetrustee.com.au. Print Hall A truly amazing transformation of the former premises (including printing presses) of The West Australian newspaper into a sophisticated bar and dining establishment. www.printhall.com.au. Wolf Lane Find this small bar by looking for the two-storey high Mr Wolf painted on a side of the laneway. The Cheeky Sparrow By day this woodland-style place has great coffee and delicious lunches. By night the lights dim and staff open the cocktail bar. 6/317 Murray Street, (via Wolf Lane). Greenhouse Find this ‘honest-food’ haven by looking for its huge green (ie plant) wall. Its wholewheat stoneground pizza is a game-changer. www.greenhouseperth.com. Venn An art gallery, design shop, artists’ studios and bar/cafe, all housed in a three-level historical building. Perfect for design fiends. 16 Queen Street. www.venn.net. Pigeonhole Browse ephemera and be served by tattoo-sleeved ladies. Shop 7a Shafto Lane. Art Gallery of Western Australia It has recently developed a special relationship with New York’s MOMA; locals and visitors are reaping the benefits. www.artgallery.wa.gov.au.  


So, to the suburbs…

While the CBD has been under-utilised, the suburbs have thrived, with many high streets lined with independent retailers; bookshops, grocers, boutiques that champion local fashion and cafes that turn into small bars at dusk. And, wherever you go there’s a gourmet burger bar within reach (Jus Burgers, The Burger Bistro, Grill’d, to name a few). Here is H&G’s by-no-means exhaustive edit of ‘burbs worth wandering: 

NORTHBRIDGE Be it a couple of kids with a great selection of vintage clothes, a hole-in-the-wall cafe or a small bar, this inner-city suburb is set to fire up. Rummage For theatrical accessories. 282 William St. Miss Brown Vintage Modified vintage clothing. 278 William St. Casual wear, haberdashery, and giftware. 218a William St. Ristretto Coffee Roasters A walk-up window that specialises in in-season coffee. 53 Aberdeen St. Bivouac Canteen & Bar Great for a mid-shopping rest. 198 William St.

LEEDERVILLE Stroll down bohemian Oxford Street for a global mix of shops. From the edgy fashion at Varga Girl to Perth-based Anna Chandler’s riot of colour and Frieda Kahlo-style homewares, there’s every style on offer. Be sure to stop at Snags and Sons for locally sourced sausages. Varga Girl 148 Oxford St. Ambassador de Buenos Aires 626 Newcastle St. Harry & Gretel Cool fashion and select homewares. 133 Oxford St. Anna Chandler Possibly the best door mats ever. 747 Newcastle St. Black Plastic Ironic and unusual cards.  2/226 Carr Pl. Urban Depot A treasure trove of fashion and homewares. 117 Oxford St.

KINGS PARK One of the largest city parks in the world, this is a glorious place to picnic. I loved Greg Nannup’s Indigenous Tours, which brought alive the way this land had been lived in by generations of Aborigines. He’s a fount of knowledge about flora and fauna: www.indigenouswa.com.

SUBIACO An established suburb with some great shops for the seriously moneyed. A delightful place to stroll of an evening, with plenty of alfresco eateries. Ricarda Fashion Objects Stocks international designers’ fashion and homewares. 399 Hay St. Get In The Forrest Objets de art, fashion and ceramics that are utterly covetable. 9 Forrest St. Lexi&Roy Well-selected casual clothes by groovy small fashion labels. My favourite find. Shop 1, 103 Rokeby Rd. Juanita’s An eccentric wine and tapas bar at the back of Gill & Hille Merchants. 341 Rokeby Rd.

FREEMANTLE Walking under the porticos in Freo, 20km south of Perth, you can hear the birds as you shop. There are pubs and backpackers galore as well as banks converted into bookshops with huge tables for reading… it’s that kind of place. Bobby & Olive Local label that makes lovely floaty silk tunics. 1/17 Essex St. Shedwallah Exotic, ethnic wares for the house and garden. 6 Stack St.  Willow and the Bowerbird Everything for the lady, from clothes and bags to beauty products. 78 George St. Megan Salmon This Freo designer mixes rich colours with original prints. 55 Queen Victoria St. Squarepeg Home Mid-century Danish design and contemporary Australian furniture. 17 Blinco St. Old Values ’50s, ’60s and ’70s collectables. Cnr Holland & Onslow Sts. Little Creatures A not-to-be missed dining and beer-swilling experience in a former crocodile farm on the port. It has passionate staff, a bar (with taps connected directly to the beer tanks), a brewery, shop and two levels of dining with a choice of huge tables or cosy vintage couches on the mezzanine level. 40 Mews Rd.                    

WHEELS & DOLLS, BABY

Australian House & Garden
A family campervanning holiday around Tasmania serves up fresh air and old-fashioned fun, writes Vanessa Walker.

Ten kilometres of steep unsealed roads within the Freycinet National Park lead to the Cape Tourville Lighthouse, from where you can see right across the peninsula. Photography by Sean Fennessy. 

Ten kilometres of steep unsealed roads within the Freycinet National Park lead to the Cape Tourville Lighthouse, from where you can see right across the peninsula. Photography by Sean Fennessy. 

Day one
3-hour drive from Hobart to freycinet holiday Park. We’re standing in our Apollo Euro Deluxe campervan at Sorell Woolworths, putting away our groceries and feeling self-conscious that we are doing our chores in the middle of a car park. It’s our first few hours in our mobile home and, once we pull out of the car park, we all experience a thrill as we hit the Tasman Highway, which will take us northwards along the east coast. On one side are beautiful golden fields, broken up by groves of sheoaks and the odd bucolic homestead; on the other, the sparkling blue Tasman Sea. But, after an hour of driving, the kids need a run around so a beach stop is in order. After a head-clearing walk, we go back to the gravel area we’re parked in, flick on the gas, and make a brew. It’s my first ‘cuppa in situ’ experience and I can report it’s uncommonly pleasant to sip hot tea beside the seaside. After rumbling through Swansea – too scared to stop for fear of having to parallel park (despite the backing camera) – we pull up at BIG4 Iluka and settle in alongside a small group of other campervanning families. 

Day two
Big4 Iluka. We slap on our thongs, walk down past the Freycinet Bakery Cafe and hot-foot it across the Esplanade to Muirs Beach at Coles Bay. We spend hours getting gently roasted, clambering over the rocks and dipping our feet into cool ocean pools. Later, we tuck the kids into the fold-down beds and sit down to a game of chess, the silence of the night disturbed only by the odd rumbling of the water pumps in our ‘campervanserai’.   

Day three
2-hour drive to Big4 St Helens Holiday Park. As a fixed-address kind of person I feel proud when we negotiate our first dump point in Bicheno. There were a couple of city slickers in line to empty the toilet tanks – all men, all looking slightly burdened by their proximity to sewage – but we all manage. Spotting a beautiful place to pull over across the road, we walk along a tree-lined coastal track that sees us emerge near the famous Bicheno Blowhole. Numerous Instagram shots later we herd the kids back towards the campervan for an old-fashioned picnic lunch of sandwiches and chocolate milk, after which they fall asleep until we arrive at St Helens.

Day four
4-hour drive to Launceston. Before leaving St Helens, we make our way to Binalong Bay. A series of lay-bys lines the road and gliding into one, we walk down to the beach, which is beautifully rendered in blues, whites and greens. The water is so clear that we can hang over the edge of the boulders and see through the thick kelp to the white sand at the bottom of the sea. After a leg stretch it’s back to the highway, where it dawns on us that while we are oohing and ahhing over the scenery, our children aren’t quite tall enough to peer out the windows. They only have one another to look at, hence the significant amount of argy-bargy. We break the journey by stopping at Pyengana Dairy Company’s Holy Cow Cafe and enjoy gourmet burgers while watching cows meander up to the milking shed. It’s then time to drive to the city, our campervan easily navigating the winding country roads until we suddenly come upon the narrow, vertiginous streets of Launceston. We immediately feel like a bull in a china shop and, instead of stopping for a look, elect to burn rubber to lodgings on the outskirts of town.            

Shakya, Mila, Tsering and Vanessa take in the beauty of Coles Bay on the Freycinet Peninsula, their trusty campervan close at hand.  Photograph by Sean Fennessy.

Shakya, Mila, Tsering and Vanessa take in the beauty of Coles Bay on the Freycinet Peninsula, their trusty campervan close at hand.  Photograph by Sean Fennessy.

Days five & six
2-hour drive to Discovery Holiday Parks, Cradle Mountain. Tazmazia is a weird and wonderful park of hedged mazes in a place called Promised Land, about 20 minutes out of Sheffield, and it’s here where we spend the afternoon getting lost in the mazes (to the sound of semi-lost mothers calling after their semi-lost children). Afterwards, we make for Cradle Mountain, pulling into our clearing in the bush as the sun goes down. By the time we’re cooking dinner, the red eyes of pademelons can be seen surrounding the campervan. The next day a courtesy bus transports us past the white trunks of dead snow gums and crepe myrtles and we take our time on the beautiful Dove Lake loop track. 

Days seven & eight
2-hour drive to Discovery Holiday Parks, Strahan. I have well and truly got my campervan legs; I sway for the first few seconds after I step down onto land. After leaving Cradle Mountain and hitting the Murchison Highway, there’s a shift in atmosphere. This is the wild west coast, home of the once-mighty mining industry. We pass small townships just clinging to existence. After a lovely night at Strahan we catch a coach to nearby Queenstown and board the West Coast Wilderness Railway, a 35km journey through ancient rainforest, along trestle bridges and through the King River Gorge. It's an unforgettable adventure.

Day nine
5-hour drive to Hobart Airport Tourist Park. An hour after waving goodbye to Strahan we come upon a patch of road bounded by scree-covered slopes on one side and sheer drops on the other. It is the scariest sector of the drive but soon enough we are on the open road that borders the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. At Hayes we stop at a roadside diner and end up making do with Chiko rolls before steeling ourselves for the bright lights and traffic of Hobart. For this Sydney family, it’s the end of an incredible Tassie campervan adventure.        


More family getaways: 

”Pre children, I’d wax lyrical about far-flung places... what a goose! Now I’ve had babies, just get me to the destination quickly, give me some options to keep them busy and me sane. At the moment, Sea World has never looked so good, Merimbula on the NSW South Coast is a ripper in any season and Hamilton Island rocks.” Catriona Rowntree

“When I was young, Dad was constantly packing us off on some far flung four-wheel drive trip. We have explored the entire country, from Kakadu to the Red Centre, but the most memorable trips were always to Cape York peninsula – I have since made the trek at least half a dozen times.” discovercapeyork.com.au. Natalie Gruzlewski

TO WIT, TURU Before you embark on a campervan trip, visit turu.com.au, a one-stop shop listing more than 2000 holiday parks around Australia including facilities and prices. 

TOTAL IMMERSION

Australian House & Garden

Photograph by Stu Gibson.

Photograph by Stu Gibson.

Jutting 250m from the shoreline of Tasmania’s iconic Lake St Clair is Australia’s latest (and possibly greatest) wilderness retreat. Set to open on January 1st, Pumphouse Point (right) lies inside the Western Tasmania Wilderness World Heritage Area, at the end of the Overland Track, its spectacular setting allowing guests to immerse themselves in some of the most dramatic natural scenery on the planet. The ‘gently transformed’ Art Deco-era hydro pump station has 12 rooms spread over three levels at the Pumphouse on the lake, and six rooms back at the Lakehouse, on the water’s edge. More than 100km of walks, many through old myrtle forests, are on offer, as well as bike rides, drift boats, fishing, float planes and picnics – but we imagine many guests will simply want to drink in the panoramic views of this ancient landscape and share their awe around the communal table each night. Prices start at $240/night; www.pumphousepoint.com.au.

LAND OF BUDDHAS

Australian House & Garden
With its culture intact and its landscape dotted with spiritual monuments, Myanmar is perfect for the thoughtful traveller, writes Vanessa Walker.

Photography from Getty Images.

Photography from Getty Images.

YANGON
It’s 6am and the air is sticky as locals flock to the 2500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda. Corn cobs blacken over charcoal fires and girls sell frangipani garlands at the eastern entrance of this towering monument, which is as integral to the identity of the Bamar people as the Sydney Opera House is to Australians. After countless steps our group arrives at the base of the shimmering gold stupa. Among the pavilions and religious statuary, monks and nuns meditate, locals arrange offerings of flowers and families congregate on the marble floor. Prayers are recited here, assurances sought, and karma purified by circumambulating the stupa. Myanmar has recently opened to tourists after almost 50 years of military rule and I’ve joined Trafalgar’s inaugural 11-day Secrets of Myanmar tour. Shwedagon Pagoda is a well-chosen introduction to the strength of Buddhist faith in this country. From the pink-robed nuns collecting alms at Bogyoke market to monks sheltering from the sun beneath colourful parasols, the sangha are ubiquitous, as are the pagodas, large and small, new and historical, dotting the landscape in every direction.

BAGAN
From Yangon we travel to Bagan in central Myanmar, a dry plain studded with more than 2000 temples dating back to the 12th century. A stop at the dazzling Shwezigon Pagoda is followed by the frescoed Gu Byauk Gyi, each connected by a road bordered by toddy palms and sesame fields, along which we encounter as many ox-drawn carts as cars. The former capital is known for its lacquerware and we visit a workshop where horse hair and stripped bamboo are woven into concave shapes, then layers of dyed Gluta usitata tree resin applied until beautiful bowls are formed.

Every man is expected to spend two periods of his life in contemplation: once as a novice between the ages of 10 and 20, later as an ordained monk.

HEHO
From Bagan we fly to Heho in Shan state, the gateway to Lake Inle. At 1176m above sea level, Lake Inle is bursting with colour, thanks to the yellow-flowering neem tree and pink bougainvillea. Long-tailed boats ferry us across the 116m2 lake, past some of the 45 small towns and 16 villages that line its shore. Here, life is lived largely on the water. The Intha people tend to floating gardens heavy with tomatoes, cucumbers, gourds and pulses. They harvest seaweed for fertiliser and the fishermen, legs wrapped around oars, set and raise their fishing baskets against picturesque mountain scenery. We explore narrow tributaries lined by stilt houses.

LAKE INLE
At Lake Inle we visit Ywama market, once a floating market but now under shade in the village. Buddhas, jewellery, puppets, jade, fans and all manner of handcrafted trinkets are on sale. After some shopping we gather at a teak stilt house where we are shown how a stick of silver is beaten with a hammer on an anvil to become a rice-offering bowl. Young men spend their days soldering silver wire extruded from a machine into intricate necklaces sold in the market for about $5. An incredible afternoon is spent at Thahara Inle Heritage learning how to cook traditional Myanmar food with chefs from the Inle Heritage Hospitality School, a not-for-profit training centre that prepares locals for careers in hospitality. From the vegetable gardens to the on-site Burmese cat sanctuary; this is the kind of experience that makes it worth joining a guided tour. I wouldn’t have found Thahara without the guidance of our Trafalgar travel director, Nyein Moe.

Photograph by Alicia Taylor.

Photograph by Alicia Taylor.

MANDALAY
In Mandalay, we stroll along the world’s longest teak bridge, the 1.2km U Bein, which crosses Taungthaman lake. A pedestrian bridge – albeit one that is missing a handrail – it is beautifully representative of the colourful lives of the Myanmarese, with men in longyi, women with their faces smeared in white thanakha paste, children on rickety bicycles and solitary monks strolling along its path. One of my favourite stops is the last remaining structure of the Royal Palace of King Mindon, Shwenandaw Monastery. This intricately carved teak building is one of the finest examples of traditional 19th-century wooden monastery buildings in the world and it’s alive with the thrum of faith and history. Just like Myanmar.

In Mandalay, a visit to Tha Kya Di Thar nunnery in Sagaing, where more than 150 nuns live, is on offer. Our group joins them for prayers in the temple, cooking over huge vats in the kitchen, and lining up for the lunch we have offered as part of the Trafalgar Cares initiative. We sit crossed-legged in the dining room among them, enjoying a delicious meal of laphet thoke or vermicelli, curry, salad and pickled tea leaf salad, a favourite national dish. For more, go to www.trafalgar.com.

GREAT SOUTHERN LAND

Australian House & Garden
There’s more to South Africa than lions and rugby. This is a country of extremes and there are gems around every corner, writes Vanessa Walker. 

LEFT See picturesque whitewashed Dutch-colonial buildings nestled among the vines in Franschhoek, a must-stop on South Africa’s gourmet trail. RIGHT Pick up a memento of your trip at St George’s Mall markets in Cape Town. Photograph from Photolibrary.

LEFT See picturesque whitewashed Dutch-colonial buildings nestled among the vines in Franschhoek, a must-stop on South Africa’s gourmet trail. RIGHT Pick up a memento of your trip at St George’s Mall markets in Cape Town. Photograph from Photolibrary.

South Africa seems like a long way away: a distant land of elephants, lions and crocodiles, with exotic tribal cultures and a troubled past. 

For this first-time visitor, the surprise is in the familiar: the divine tropical fruits (the country is mango heaven) and the flora (replete with proteas and frangipani). Then there’s the diversity of holiday experiences that both our countries have to offer.

From the jazz bars and boutiques of Johannesburg (known as Jo’burg) to hot and dusty Kimberley, home of the diamond mines that made De Beers its fortune, to the umbrella-dotted beaches and stunning melange of Victorian, Edwardian, Californian and Art Deco architecture in Cape Town, and the wine country beyond, a trip to South Africa can be almost anything you want it to be.

A trip to South Africa can be almost anything you want it to be. 

We begin at a place no traveller to South Africa should miss: Soweto. It’s in this sprawling township about 15 kilometres from Jo’burg that some of the most shocking events of the apartheid era took place. A visit to the Hector Pieterson Museum is utterly confronting: when I was playing cops and robbers with friends in my suburban backyard in 1976, African children were being shot by police because they were peacefully protesting against the compulsory use of Afrikaans in school lessons. And yet, emerging from the exhibition, it is possible to see a country that is healing, a place where Africans are succeeding. The Soweto stop becomes a reference point for the remainder of the trip, making the journey ahead infinitely more meaningful.

It’s in Soweto that you see daily African life; how the locals hail beaten-up vans (taxis) using hand signals to describe their destination, such as an upturned cupped palm as though holding an orange, for Orange Farm, an ingenious homegrown solution for a country that has 11 official languages. We make our way to historic Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel Prize winners (Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu), and wander quietly through the former marital home of Nelson and his ex-wife, Winnie. 

Jo’burg, South Africa’s largest city, suffers a bad reputation; in the wealthier suburbs, homes sit behind razor-wire fences lined with signs warning of 24-hour armed-response security. Yet many of the suburban shopping strips look and feel like Melbourne’s Toorak or Sydney’s Woollahra. In Melville, a vibrant village where the streets are alive with the chatter of alfresco diners, we stroll past art galleries, bookshops and design stores. We also take in the boutique precinct of 44 Stanley Avenue in Milpark, a mecca of design, eclectic furnishings, independent retailers and groovy cafes. For indigenous artefacts we make our way to the Mall of Rosebank and the African Craft Market, where there are beautiful burnt-bone salad spoons, hand-beaded gauze food covers and porcupine-quill lampshades, all eagerly displayed by persuasive sellers.

LEFT The colourful Malay district in Cape Town. Photograph from Picture Media. RIGHT Young tribal dancers. Photograph from Photolibrary.

LEFT The colourful Malay district in Cape Town. Photograph from Picture Media. RIGHT Young tribal dancers. Photograph from Photolibrary.

From Jo’burg we fly to the central city of Kimberley and drive to Mattanu Private Game Reserve. Soon after entering the property we are treated to the sight of a tower of giraffes languidly munching on a camel thorn tree. Mattanu is owned by wildlife vet Johan Kriek and his family, and their raison d’être is breeding rare animals in a pristine, disease-free environment. I hitch a ride on their helicopter, from which we track a kudu, a type of antelope, bounding through the veld. Johan takes aim and in a split second fires a tranquiliser dart into the animal’s rump. Once we’ve landed and the animal is sedated, we haul it onto a truck and take it to a waterhole, where we give it several vaccinations before releasing it to recover fully and have a replenishing drink. Administering medicine to a large wild beast is amazing for an urbanite like me, and a seemly alternative to the urge to pat the zebras we saw on a game drive earlier in the day. All up, in two days at Mattanu, staying in luxury safari ‘tents’, we’re lucky enough to spot roan, kudu, sable, impala and buffalo as well as several snuffly warthogs and darting jackals. 

If Jo’burg feels a little on edge, Cape Town – a two-hour flight away – is edgy and the height of cosmopolitan cool. Set in a stunning coastal belt, with the beauty of Table Mountain as a backdrop, it’s packed with historic landmarks and museums as well as bars, cafes and boutiques. In true Cape style, we spend the day indulging in the energetic street life before dining at a packed restaurant set up on a sandy (artificial) beach. Like Sydney, this is a city that believes it’s blessed and behaves accordingly (and for reasons why, see Cape Town box). 

A lovely foil to the city vibe is laidback Franschhoek, an hour’s drive east in the Cape winelands. Settled by French Huguenot refugees in 1688 and later colonised by the Dutch, Franschhoek is a charmed valley of vineyards, horse stables and restaurants set in beautiful estates. It’s the heart of South Africa’s gourmet territory, and several of the country’s top-rated restaurants are here. We ride horses through pear, nectarine, plum, apple and pomegranate orchards. I get the cheekiest mount of the lot and have to be on alert for his attempts to snatch the dangling fruit that lines the trail. All around us are beautiful dwellings in the Cape Dutch architectural style: whitewashed homes with ornate gables and thatched roofs. It’s a testament to the picturesque surroundings that I risk my life by loosening my hold on the reins to snap a few photos. 

It’s a testament to the picturesque surroundings that I risk my life by loosening my hold on the reins to snap a few photos. 

An hour’s drive south of Franschhoek is Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, which is dedicated to preserving the region’s fauna in the highest of style. Michael Lutzeyer bought this vast tract of land overlooking Walker Bay to help preserve the fynbos – the narrow belt of native shrubland unique to this part of the Western Cape province. Over the years, Michael and his father diligently recorded every botanical species on the reserve, in the process discovering six species new to science. We stay in stylish eco-villas discreetly built into the landscape and enjoy delicious cuisine at the restaurant, much of it sourced from the reserve’s gardens. A heartening aspect of Grootbos are the programs run for local Africans: the oldest is a one-year horticultural course that has turned out stellar plantspeople who have gone on to be employed either as guides at Grootbos or at nurseries in the area. As Michael says, it gives luxury a purpose if your patronage helps benefit those who need it the most. 

To round off our visit to South Africa we catch the Blue Train from Cape Town back to Jo’burg. It’s the height of old-world luxury. Each passenger has a suite and a butler at their disposal to satisfy the merest of whims. It’s divine to while away a day and a half, soaking in the country, catching glimpses of exotic birds and ordinary people waiting at train stations, in between meeting up with fellow passengers for a gourmet meal in the train’s dining carriage.  

On our last night in Jo’burg, we see a re-emerging culture in South Africa. At Sophiatown Bar Lounge in groovy Newtown, a young African woman with a sky-high afro and pop-star threads is holding court at a table full of laughing friends. They’re exactly the customers brothers Mzwandile and Rasta Thabethe hoped to cater for when they set up Sophiatown. Named in honour of the vibrant, multi-racial township that was demolished by the government soon after the introduction of apartheid, the bar was opened in anticipation of a fabulous new set; middle-to-upper class young South Africans with a future to look forward to.


Johannesburg

WHERE TO STAY For a stately digs in upmarket Sandton, try Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa: www.fairlawns.co.za/ or Raddison Blu Gautrain Hotel: www.radissonblu.com/hotelsandton-johannesburg. 

WHAT TO DO Shop at The Mall of Rosebank (www.themallofrosebank.co.za), 44 Stanley Avenue (www.44stanley.co.za) or the sprawling Nelson Mandela Square at Sandton City (www.nelsonmandelasquare.co.za). Get in the groove at Sophiatown (www.sophiatownbarlounge.co.za). For a choice of Soweto tours, go to www.soweto.co.za.


Cape Town

There are many reasons why Cape Town is consistently voted among the top tourist destinations in the world: 

CITY SIGHTS Nothing beats a Cape Trike tour (www.capetriketours.co.za), which guides you around town by three-seater motorcycle. Be sure to visit the colourful Malay and Cape quarters. Next, spend some time at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, a waterfront complex that has shops galore, taverns, aquariums, mini golf, restaurants and more. From here, board a ferry to Robben Island Museum (www.robben-island.org.za), the former prison where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in captivity. Tours are led by ex-political prisoners who offer rare personal insights. If shopping is your thing, head to lively Greenmarket Square and the Pan African Market, a multi-level store overflowing with carvings and collector’s items.

NATURE HITS The Table Mountain Aerial Cableway (www.tablemountain.net) takes you to the top of this landmark for a panoramic view of the city. The Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is worth a visit too. There are beaches aplenty, from Hout Bay (a favourite with surfers) to Foxy Beach (see African penguin colonies) to Cape Point (spectacular views). If travelling north from Cape Town, take Chapman’s Peak, the scenic route along the Atlantic coast.

ISLAND TIME

Australian House & Garden
A visit to the islands of the South Pacific is all about winding down by degrees, one tiny nation at a time, write Vanessa Walker and Katrina Breen. 

The glorious lagoonat Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, one of the most beautiful islands in the world – and right on Australia’s doorstep. Photograph from Getty Images.

The glorious lagoonat Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, one of the most beautiful islands in the world – and right on Australia’s doorstep. Photograph from Getty Images.

Cook Islands

RAROTONGA
There’s nothing quite like leaving the hustle and bustle of Sydney, flying over thousands of kilometres of unbroken ocean, then coming in low over white sand and coconut palms, and taxiing to a small terminal where the melody of a gentleman playing a ukulele greets you.  

But the really special thing about Rarotonga, capital of the 15 islands that comprise the Cook Islands, and the launching pad for several island hops, is the speed at which visitors can slip into authentic island life.

I arrive at 6am and before long I’ve passed my scooter driving test – by wobbling down a road under the gaze of a rental company man – and am heading, bareheaded like the locals, for the Punanga Nui market. On the way I pass wandering hens and pigs, and goats tethered to hibiscus bushes. The wind is barely ruffling my hair, because speed limits around the island are 30-50km/hr, but I can smell and see the sea from the main road that, conveniently, does a loop around the 32km isle.

When I arrive at the market, many of the islanders are in little clusters, eating ika mata (raw tuna marinated in lemon, ginger, coriander and coconut cream). Open-sided huts do a roaring trade in pawpaw and mango salad, hula skirts and timber carvings of Tangaroa, the Polynesian sea god.

While it seems like the rest of the world is speeding up, a visit to the Cook Islands is all about slowing down. There are few rules other than to observe the conduct of the mainly Christian islanders: treat elders well; if you’re sharing a meal with the locals, say grace; and the rest of the time, go with the flow.

While it seems like the rest of the world is speeding up, a visit to the Cook Islands is all about slowing down. 

This is an island of huge churches and little general stores; a place of five-digit telephone numbers and fish and chips on the beach. In the shops, I find many of the brands remain the same as when I last visted, in 1977. It’s like stepping back in time to see Raro juice powder, plastic containers of Clover honey and castor oil on the face-cream shelf. 

On Sunday morning I join locals at the Ngatangiia Cook Islands Christian Church. In the congregation are women wearing pandanus leaf hats with flamboyant displays of artificial flowers, men in suits and children in their Sunday best. After the minister’s sermon, a man starts up on a synthesiser and the people break into a deafening rendition of Oh God Almighty. It’s an uplifting service, with open windows that look out onto pawpaw trees, fans blowing, children lying on the pews with New Testaments beside them. Afterwards, when everyone goes to the house next door for egg and cucumber sandwiches, the ladies of the church politely enquire about how long I’m here and where I’m from. 

That evening I join a group of locals aboard the SV Southern Cross yacht for a sunset sail. It’s glorious out on the ocean as the sun descends behind the clouds. My island companions regularly break into song as the outline of the island dims to black. When the lights ashore come on, there are surprisingly few – just those of the larger resorts and the huts selling food on the beach.

Dinner is sesame-encrusted tuna on the lawn of the Tamarind House restaurant, the lovely renovated colonial home behind me and breaking waves in front. This is the life, I think. Then… early next morning, I hop on an Air Rarotonga plane and arrive in paradise.

AITUTAKI
A mere 50-minute flight from Raratonga, the fabled almost-atoll of Aitutaki comes into view and it has a unique beauty. The islands – one large and 14 scattered motu, or islets – are in crescent moon formation, with the huge lagoon in the centre a wonderland for tropical fish.

Getaway host Catriona Rowntree has nominated Aitutaki as her favourite destination in the world; it’s also where Rarotongans go for holidays. It’s a hunker-down kind of place that has honeymoon written all over it. From my room at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa I can walk down a few steps and into the water, to wade among striped humbug dacylus, long-nosed butterfly fish and trevally. That afternoon I take a cruise with Te Vaka and snorkel among coral. Later, a hawksbill turtle swims past our boat as we move between several of the motu, feast on barbecued tuna then head back, sunburnt and happy.

It becomes obvious that on Aitutaki there are 100 ways to laze the day away. An activities hut offers pastimes such as crab racing or joining the resort driver on his town run (town being a marketplace, a bank and a police station). I visit Stephanie Joseph, who makes jewellery from recycled glass. The locals drop off the bottles after finishing their drinks – the blue glass is from gin bottles, green from Heineken and clear from windows smashed during Cyclone Pat in 2010; it’s recycling local-style. What could be better than this island, I think, as I embark on another 50-minute flight – to Atiu.

ATIU
And here I find an island I could easily run away to. There are 26 vanilla-sand beaches strewn with exquisite shells and bright white coral, from which to access endless blue water. It’s not as pretty as Aitutaki but it’s completely unadulterated. The lush interior of the island is heavy with wild pawpaw, coconut, pandanus, noni and huge trees among which rimatara lorikeets, chattering kingfishers and Rarotonga flycatchers flitter in the dappled sunlight.

On Aitutaki the only sound is the buzz of small planes flying in. Here it’s bird calls and the sea. There are only two kilometres of sealed road on this island, which is home to less than 500 people. The rest of the ‘roads’ are dirt tracks. I count five huge churches anda few shops. One, the Jumbo Bakery, reveals its priorities: opening hours are 5-7am, and the remainder of the time the owner is out fishing. In the village is a bell that calls the elders together to discuss island affairs. It’s rung at least once a day.

On Aitutaki the only sound is the buzz of small planes flying in. On Atiu, it’s simply bird calls and the sea.

The island people are deeply connected to their past and culture.

My guide, Birdman George, shows me the cove where in 1777 Captain Cook had the Endeavour wait while Joseph Banks and his team came ashore. George paints the scene as though it were yesterday. When I need insect repellant, he forages for some fermented noni fruit; later he picks wild basil for my bites. He’s 53 and blithely shimmies up a palm to gather coconuts for lunch. On the beach, George weaves a basket from coconut palm leaves, uses a noni leaf as a cover and serves pawpaw with grated coconut. The only souls we see are two boys on a mud-crab hunting expedition.

During my stay, there are nine tourists on the island. Some of us go to an island night, where locals sing while playing drums and dancing. One man husks a coconut with his teeth. Children, dressed in fresh flower ‘ei, perform. It’s not overly scripted – at one stage the lead drummer jumps out of his seat to go and tell off the kids outside – but it’s all heart. 

The next day I meet Andrea Eimke, a fibre artist. She and husband Juergen visited the island for two days some 28 years ago, got hooked and moved here for good. They set up a coffee plantation and now export organic, sun-dried Atiun coffee around the world. Andrea also runs Atiu Fibre Arts Studio with a local woman, Moana, and together they sew tivaevae, traditional appliquéd bedcovers. One hand-sewn bedcover takes them 10 weeks and sells for several thousand dollars. And there’s surely no better place to sit, sew and watch the passage of time than on Atiu. 

Paradise, on our doorstep. All we need is the time to explore it.     

LEFT White and pink frangipani are found throughout the Cook Islands. RIGHT A local child wears a fresh ‘ei.

LEFT White and pink frangipani are found throughout the Cook Islands. RIGHT A local child wears a fresh ‘ei.


HOW TO GET THERE Air New Zealand offers direct six-hour flights to Rarotonga from Sydney and via Auckland from Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney six days a week; www.airnewzealand.com.au. Air Rarotonga flies daily from Rarotonga to Aitutaki, with fares from $142 one way. Flights link Aitutaki to Atiu three times weekly, from $164; www.airraro.com.

WHAT TO DO IN... RAROTONGA Take a four-wheel drive tour with Raro Safari Tours; www.raro safaritours.co.ck. Join a sunset cruise with Sail Rarotonga; www.svsoutherncross.co.nz. For delicious dinners, eat at Tamarind House; www.tamarind.co.ck. For high-quality accommodation, try Little Polynesian; www.littlepolynesian.com. For family stays, try Muri Beach Resort; www.muribeachresort.com.

AITUTAKI Take a Te Vaka lagoon cruise; www.aitutaki.net. Try mud crabs at Tupuna’s; tupunasrestaurant@aitutaki.net.ck. Get pampered at Pacific Resort Aituktaki’s spa. It’s about to introduce noni-based products developed by an island-born doctor; www.pacificrestort.com. Stay at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort and Spa; www.aitutakilagoonresort.com.

ATIU Do a Birdman George tour; phone 33047. Go on a coffee plantation and fibre-arts tour with Andrea or Juergen; www.atiu-fibrearts.com. Atiu Villas is the place to stay locally; www.atiuvillas.com.


Tahiti

TAHITI ISLAND
Just over 1000km from the Cook Islands is Tahiti, just as beautiful but, to the outsider, subtly different. The first thing I’m struck by is the smell. I never thought I would remember Tahiti by its scent, but when I’m greeted with a lei at the airport, it smells familiar. The blooms are a Tahitian gardenia, tiare, and over the next few days, its soft and sensual fragrance wafts past me at unexpected times and comes to represent the islands themselves.

Arriving at night, I miss getting a fix on Papeete, although I get the impression that it’s busy and built up. My morning ferry heads for the slower-paced Moorea. 

MOOREA
As the boat nears the shore, a perfect idyll comes into view: roads lined with green foliage, jagged mountains and red bougainvillea set against a lagoon. 

I’m staying at the Intercontinental Resort and Spa Moorea, a hotel with an environmental bent. Surrounded by 11 hectares of vegetation and fronting a 3500-square-metre lagoon with pontoons to protect its perimeter, it is a sanctuary for dolphins and injured turtles, andhome to the Moorea Dolphin Centre. Here, three dolphins – Hina, Lokahi and Kuokoa – are attended by guides who monitor their health and assist guests who want to interact with the dolphins. 

Fish- and ray-feeding demonstrations are another adventure in the offing. It’s a sunny day and I wait on the resort’s pontoon for a lagoon excursion, not realising quite what I’m getting into. The boat is only a little way out when giant rays and black-tipped reef sharks start circling. After gestures from fellow travellers, I realise I’m meant to get into the water and feed them. I’m one of the last ones in and hit the water praying they can’t smell fear. Once in, I relax and am amazed at the way the rays crave attention, coming up so close their slimy skin brushes against my arms and back. 

TAHA'A
Next stop is Taha’a, a more untamed island renowned for its motu. After a short flight, I board a Monaco-esque white boat with navy leather seats and head for a tiny islet where my next stop, Le Taha’a Island Resort and Spa, is. The journey, at sunset, is breathtaking. Behind the twinkling lights of the over-water bungalows, I can see the silhouetted peaks of the famed island of Bora Bora.

Le Taha’a is paradise perched on the Pacific. I’m particularly fond of the aquarium at the end of my bed and take bread back to my room to feed the fish. (I keep the freshly baked baguettes for myself, however; one of the advantages of being at the top of the food chain).

Next day, I tour Champon Pearl Farm. They show me how a grain of sand slips into an oyster that’s attached to a coral reef. Over time, the oyster wraps the grain in layers of aragonite, forming a rare pearl. The process was based on luck until the ’60s, when French Polynesia adopted ‘grafting’ techniques, inserting small pieces of pearl graft tissue into the oysters. They’ve never looked back.

Tahitian pearls take on a variety of colours, from aubergine to green, greyto black. I can’t resist and bring one home (on my ring finger). Exquisite. 


HOW TO GET THERE Air Tahiti Nui offers twice weekly one-stop flights from Australia to Papeete. Go to www.airtahitinui.com.au.

WHAT TO DO IN... MOOREA Explore the island on a four-wheel motorbike, from pineapple plantations to the crater of the volcano where scenes from the film The Bounty were filmed. Travel to the top of Magic Mountain for panoramic views of Cook’s Bay and Opunohu Bay; www.atvmoorea.com. Motu picnics and ray feeding; mooreamahanatours.com. There are resorts and rooms aplenty but the Intercontinental Resort and Spa Moorea is a standout; www.intercontinental.com.

TAHA’A Take a tour of Taha’a, including Champon Pearl Farm; www.tahiti-pearl-online.com. Stay on a motu-based resort. I recommend Le Taha’a Island Resort and Spa; www.letahaa.com.

CLIMB EV’RY MOUNTAIN

Australian House & Garden
Renowned as a winter playground, the Austrian Alps are a breath of fresh air in summer, writes Vanessa Walker.

Fields of flowers bloom during the Austrian summer, carpeting the Inn Valley. Here, the Hohe Munde mountain range towers above a picturesque settlement. Photograph from Photolibrary.

Fields of flowers bloom during the Austrian summer, carpeting the Inn Valley. Here, the Hohe Munde mountain range towers above a picturesque settlement. Photograph from Photolibrary.

There is a kind of wholesome magnificence to Austria’s Innsbruck; a medieval city that sits in the Inn Valley, surrounded by some of Europe’s most spectacular alpine ranges. It’s in the atmosphere and imbued in the lifestyle. Wealthy Europeans flock to the local health clinics, which promote the medical benefits of the very air Innsbruckians breathe. And snow sports are a part of daily life – the Norkettenbahn cable rail car whisks officeworkers from the city to the ski slopes in just 20 minutes – time enough for a downhill run at lunchtime. 

Innsbruck has so distinguished itself as a winter wonderland that it has twice hosted the winter Olympics. So what is there to offer the visitor during summer?

It’s all about the bobsleigh – and all that’s missing is the snow. What you do get is a 60-second rush to the head as you rocket 1.2 kilometres down the u-shaped concrete Olympic track, whizzing up the sides, flashing through the middle, as your pilot steers you (and three others) in a tiny sleigh. Encouraged by the certificate of accomplishment – and the Innsbruckians love a record of achievement – you might want to follow in my footsteps and have a tilt at the Bergisel Olympic ski jump. 

Personally, ski jumping is as appealing as wearing a dirndl, the fitted bodice, full skirt and apron that is the traditional Tyrolean folk dress. The attraction is even less apparent when standing at the top of the 50m-high ramp from where a skier bolts out of the starting block, speeds down the 35-degree slope, reaching a speed of about 92km/hr (controlling direction with minute movements of their toes!) and leaps into the air, folding their body parallel to their skis to lengthen the jump. The view of upturned faces and the Inn Valley spread out before them must be priceless. I make do with gripping the safety rail and occasionally peering over the side. 

But I decide to bolster my thrillseeker credentials by having a go on the Seegrube flying fox, and can attest to the pleasure of flinging oneself off a mountain ridge and careening along 1400 metres above the vast cityscape. Sure, it may only reach speeds of 10m/sec but I still look around for a certificate at the end.   

If you want to fall in with the average Innsbruckian, it’s imperative to take to the hills. There are more than 1200 kilometres of alpine wilderness trails around Innsbruck and most are reached by cable car. I head to the Patscherkofel mountains for a hike among the ancient stone pines and become enchanted by the spicy aroma of the rhododendrons and the low-lying billowy gentians that flower here during summer. 

Because the Innsbruckians are both outdoorsy and urbane, there’s no schlepping along with a heavy backpack, tent and freeze-dried food. You can hike from mountain hut to mountain hut and celebrate a day’s exercise with a feast of cured meats, cheeses and soup followed by a heart-warming tipple of schnapps before you retire to bed. I collect a bronze badge and a stamp in my mountain tour book from my guide for my troubles.  

After all this activity, it’s lovely to take a leisurely stroll through the old city, which has been witness to much of the glory, grandeur and power struggles of Austrian history. Lining the cobbled streets are exquisite examples of gothic, renaissance, rococo and baroque architecture. 

The Golden Roof is one – a three-storey balcony capped with thousands of gilt shingles. It was constructed in the 16th century as a royal box from which Emperor Maximilian I could watch tournaments. If you do visit Innsbruck, be sure to make your way to the nearby Hotel Goldener Adler and reflect in the magnificence of its guest list (engraved on the front of the building), which includes Mozart, Goethe, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. A short walk in the other direction, to the Hofburg Imperial Palace, will reward you with a feast of frescoes and artwork.  

From action sports to art, this town has something for everyone, no matter what the season.


When in the Austrian Alps...

WHAT TO DO Take a drive through some of the 25 villages nestled in the mountains above Innsbruck. I expected the locals to start yodelling, so picturesque are their homes, rosy are their cheeks and colourful are their flowerboxes. Wander through the avant-garde crystal installations at Swarovski Crystal Worlds in Wattens. kristallwelten.swarovski.com. Garner some insights into Austrian history with a visit to Ambras castle. www.khm.at/en/ambras-castle.

WHERE TO EAT Indulge in some good old-fashioned Tyrolean fare at a village gasthäuser. They offer hearty food in typically wood-panelled surroundings. For a sophisticated schnapps and cheese break downtown, go to S’Culinarium in Pfarrgasse. If you fancy some romance take the Nordkettenbahn  to the Seegrube restaurant, where you can toast life at 2000 metres while gazing down on the city lights below. 

WHERE TO STAY For a five-star hotel with an eccentric edge, try the Schlosshotel in Igls (make sure you see room 36; its living area is literally in the turret). www.schlosshotel-igls.com/en/hotel. 

HOW TO GET THERE Emirates operates 63 flights per week from Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney to Vienna via Dubai. Return economy airfares start from $2033. Call Emirates on 1300 303 777 or go to www.emirates.com/au.

LOCAL TIP Make sure you that on your first night in an Innsbruck hotel, you pick up an Innsbruck Card. This entitles you to free public transport the city and free transport and admission to some of its most significant sites (including Swarovski Crystal Worlds), cable cars rides and entrance to all museums and special-interest sites. On your first night at an Innsbruck hotel, pick up an Innsbruck Card, which costs about $37. This entitles you to free public transport including cable car rides, as well as admission to Innsbruck’s most significant museums and special-interest sites (including Swarovski Crystal Worlds). It’s well worth the money.

DRIVE THEM WILD

Australian House & Garden
The Northern Territory is the ideal destination for a road trip, with fond family memories as the ultimate souvenir, writes Vanessa Walker.

Karlu Karlu, or the Devil’s Marbles. According to Aboriginal mythology, these giant boulders were laid by the rainbow serpent. Photograph by alamy.

Karlu Karlu, or the Devil’s Marbles. According to Aboriginal mythology, these giant boulders were laid by the rainbow serpent. Photograph by alamy.

The first clue that we are east coasters new to the Northern Territory comes at Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin. As the handler about to give a croc its lunch asks “who would like to…” – my nine-year-old son’s hand shoots into the air – “be fed to the crocodile?” As he lowers it, I can feel the mirth of the Territorians nearby. The crocodile, Burt, is famous for being the beast Mick Dundee fought in Crocodile Dundee and, as we’re told, his jaws are the equivalent of a 64-tonne truck crushing down upon you. The second clue comes when we pick up the 4WD hire car we will drive from Darwin to Kakadu National Park then down the Stuart Highway to Alice Springs and on to Uluru. When I ask at Britz if there’s an automatic available, everyone behind the counter smirks: no such thing, cityslicker. 

We are here to experience a part of Australia that we are all fascinated by but until now had seemed too far away. In fact, getting here is easy – a smooth four-and-a-half hour flight from Sydney.

Departing Darwin, we roar down the Arnhem Highway in our VW Amarok. At our first stop at the Bark Hut Inn, a former buffalo shooters’ camp, a snake slithers out of the undergrowth; we’re proven newbies again when my six-year-old daughter chases after it.

Checking into our hotel at Jabiru we make for the Ubirr rock art site. Here, over thousands of years, Aboriginal people have painted the world they know; the rainbow serpent Garranga’rreli, a Tasmanian tiger, barramundi, goannas, possums and wallabies. While the age of the art is impressive, what affects me most is its Garden of Eden setting. The art sits beaneath the overhang of a huge escarpment that is surrounded by lush plants, winding tracks and natural nooks and crannies in which to rest. 

Our land has a big story. Sometimes we tell a little bit at a time. Come and hear our stories, see our land. A little bit might stay in your hearts. If you want more, you come back.
— Jacob Nayinggul, Manilakarr clan

The next day we drive past tall termite mounds to Gunlom, a waterhole fed by a high waterfall. It’s boiling hot but a trail leads us up to a swimming spot at the start of the falls. It’s the original infinity pool; a deep clear well of coolness with a magnificent view over the land.

In the morning we rise before sun up for a cruise on the South Alligator River near Cooinda. We are the only ones on the boat and the electric motor allows us to glide silently though the wetlands. Near the shore are plumed whistling-ducks walking their chicks across the water lilies, among the trees we see rufus night herons, and in the open water crocodiles basking, while overhead are rainbow bee eaters, azure kingfishers and white-bellied sea eagles. Even after we leave the boat and drive the few minutes to the lodge we see brumbies grazing in the bush.

Two days is not enough time to see this 20,000km2wonderland but as on all great road trips we must make tracks. We drive to Katherine for a cruise on the Katherine Gorge, which is majestic to Kakadu’s abundance, with sandstone cliffs towering on either side of the freezing black water. We make our way to Mataranka and pull off the highway to Bitter Springs. A walk through the bush leads us to where a subterranean spring pours warm water into the Roper River. We enter the water and the current gently carries us past fan palms into a narrow waterway and down to a spot where it’s easy to get out. A short stroll through the bush takes us back to the start for many repeat performances. 

We continue to Coodardie, a Brahman cattle station owned by Clair and Mike O’Brien. Here, in this big airy homestead, the doors remain unlocked and guests soon feel like part of the family. The O’Briens are fourth-generation farmers who embrace holistic cattle-rearing. Hearing their thoughts about land management and raising healthy stock strikes a chord with my husband and I. The next morning Clair impresses children and adults alike by pulling out the skin of a 4m-long python she shot after finding it strangling her dog.

LEFT The beauty of Uluru. Photograph by Nicholas Watt. RIGHT Mila enjoys a dip at Bitter Springs, Mataranka. Photograph by Khaedup Shakya.

LEFT The beauty of Uluru. Photograph by Nicholas Watt. RIGHT Mila enjoys a dip at Bitter Springs, Mataranka. Photograph by Khaedup Shakya.

We end this part of the trip at Tennant Creek, where we spend a few days. About this time we really start to feel we are in Central Australia; the vistas, past mulga trees and ghost gums, are endless. We drive almost a full day to Alice Springs, stopping in at Karlu Karlu to stare at the huge granite balls that dot the area. Alice itself is surprisingly bohemian, with many alfresco cafes and a laidback atmosphere – we even spot a swami walking by. We spend a morning with an indigenous guide showing us around Alice Springs Desert Park and I come to understand how differently we experience the land to indigenous people. I remain in awe of their knowledge of plant and animal life. I also see my first real boomerang, a large plane of two-tone wood wrought from the bend of an acacia tree. 

We spend the final three days of our trip driving from Alice Springs to Kings Canyon and then Uluru. We can’t believe the landscape is so green – but then, lying beneath the Simpson Desert is the Great Artesian Basin. At Kings Canyon I enjoy a spectacular walk around the rim of the canyon while my family snoozes in our room. From here, on a clear day you can see Uluru. And, when we finally lay eyes on this great rock it is a significant moment for us all. 

It’s a magnetic place, Uluru, and it signifies the end of our trip. That night we join Ayers Rock Resort’s resident astronomer looking through telescopes at the stars. We see the moon so clearly we can make out its craters. For a moment, we connect with the sky with the same intensity that we’ve experienced the land these past days. I have no doubt that this trip will become one of my family’s most-cherished memories. 


When in NT...

We followed the Explorer’s Way route from Darwin, via Kakadu, to Uluru; go to adventurealltheway.com.au/itineraries/explorers-way. For information on NT; travelnt.com.

GREAT PLACES TO STAY Kakadu Cooinda Lodge; www.gagudju-dreaming.com. Katherine Nitmiluk Chalets; www.nitmiluktours.com.au. Mataranka Coodardie Station Stay; www.coodardie.com.au. Alice Springs MacDonnell Range Holiday Park; www.macrange.com.au. Kings Canyon Kings Canyon Resort; www.kingscanyon
resort.com.au. Uluru Sails in the Desert; www.voyages.com.au.

THINGS TO DO Hire a 4WD from Britz; www.britz.com. Darwin Crocosaurus Cove was a great introduction to the region’s wildlife; www.crocosauruscove.com. Kakadu Bowali Visitor Centre will orientate you geographically and culturally at Kakadu National Park; www.environment.gov.au/parks/kakadu. Katherine Gorge Nitmiluk Tours runs boat tours; www.nitmiluktours.com.au. Tennant Creek Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre is a must-visit stop; nyinkkanyunyu.com.au. Alice Springs Pyndan Camel Tracks – a beautiful way to see the ranges; www.cameltracks.com.

ARABIAN SIGHTS

Australian House & Garden
Jordan is a beguiling land steeped in biblical history. Visit and you’ll be rewarded with gracious hospitality and entrancing desert moonscapes, writes Vanessa Walker.

LEFT A back lane in Madaba, which is famous for its mosaics. right Looking through the Siq to the Treasury at Petra. Photography from Getty Images.

LEFT A back lane in Madaba, which is famous for its mosaics. right Looking through the Siq to the Treasury at Petra. Photography from Getty Images.

We are in the women’s quarter of a hand-stitched camel-hair Bedouin tent in Wadi Feynan, a valley about three hours’ drive south of Jordan’s capital, Amman. The sun has set on this unrelentingly rocky landscape, and the traditional sharing of gahwa (coffee), with all of its complex social customs (hint: shake your cup once you’re finished, otherwise the server will keep refilling it), has taken place over two hours in the men’s area. Now, hijab-covered women and our small group of westerners gather together with precious minutes to delve into each other’s lives.

We’re figuring out who is related to whom, and it takes a while to understand that three of the women are the wives of the head of the family. They talk to us about their lives and daily routines, which mainly consist of household chores. When we ask them what they want most in the world, they reply, “Electricity”.

The next day, I rise at 5am in the austere yet beautiful surrounds of Feynan Ecolodge, a five-minute walk from the Bedouin tent and a place where, ironically, electricity is often spurned so that guests can embrace a spartan way of life. I meet Abu Khaleel, the patriarch’s son, and we walk high into the hills while he points out the plants his family uses in their daily life. Across the valley we see a shepherd rallying his goats uphill. Khaleel points out some blue-green stones at our feet, remnants of copper mines where ancient Romans forced enslaved Christians to toil.

Khaleel is a curious mix of traditional and modern. He gets around by donkey, helps his family make money by trading camels and is the recipient of generations worth of medicinal plant knowledge, yet he’s also an avid Facebook fan. Where once the family moved their tent to find fresh land for grazing, he says, now they move to get better mobile reception. And he, too, wants electricity; it will make it so much easier to charge his phone.

To an extent, Khaleel reflects what is special about this desert country: he embraces its traditions, yet they sit lightly on his shoulders. He desires modernity only to the extent that it’s useful. This is a country that has universal education and religious freedom.

The country’s history is enthralling. Amman, with its sprawling dwellings that cling to its seven hills, has evidence of human occupation going back 7000 years in the form of the Citadel. From here it’s possible to look down upon a Roman theatre that’s occasionally still in use. Driving through the country, we see people sitting on the edge of escarpments, sometimes performing their daily prayers or staring out over endless, craggy, sandy valleys.

Every time we stop for lunch we are served the same food in roughly the same order; mint tea, falafel, pita bread, ful medames (stewed beans), fatteh (a layered casserole), hummous and baba ganoush, vine leaves, lamb and chicken. Yet I never tire of it. Instead, I become attuned to the subtle variations between each.

My travels out of Amman take me past olive and apricot groves and roadside fruit vendors to Madaba, a town famous for its 5th century mosaics. On the way I climb Mount Nebo, where according to the Old Testament, Moses and his followers saw the Promised Land. We travel south along the Desert Highway to Petra, a UNESCO World Heritage site and Jordan’s pre-eminent tourist attraction. Here, the ancient Nabataean people carved a city, including temples, obelisks, tombs and homes, into sandstone hills spread over 4km. Masters of water conservation and irrigation, they obviously had a sense of drama as well. To enter this paradise, as frankincense, myrrh, sugar and ivory traders did for centuries, they would have ridden down the Siq, a narrow, 1.2km-long gorge, to emerge at the ornate facade of the Treasury.

Still further south, Wadi Rum is another spectacular stop. It was here that Prince Faisal Bin Hussein andT. E. Lawrence based themselves during the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule in World War I. We ride jeeps roughshod over the desert sand beneath rockscapes that rise up to heights of 1750m, then switch to camels, riding in the heat until we find a modern oasis in the form of an eco hotel.

My last stop is the Dead Sea. On the way there, we see carloads of Jordanians pull over and head into fissures between cliffs to swim in waterholes only they know about. I arrive at one of the sprawling resorts facing the Sea and head to the water. The buoyant, briny water allows you to stand upright without touching the bottom, although for health reasons you can only stay in the water for 10 minutes. And from here, on a clear day, you can look over the sea to the mottled hills of Israel. 


When in Jordan...

AMMAN Head to Alf Layla Wa Layla turkish bath in Al Madina Al Munawarah St, where you’ll be pummelled, exfoliated and massaged, to emerge a more vibrant person. 

FEYNAN ECOLODGE Starkly beautiful, this 26-room environmentally friendly mud-brick lodge is accessed through Wadi Feynan, in the Dana Biosphere nature reserve; www.feynan.com. 

PETRA Attend a Petra By Night event, when the Treasury building is lit by candles and Bedouin musicians play; www.visitjordan.com. We stayed at the Marriott Petra; www.marriott.com. 

DEAD SEA Kempinski Hotel Istar is a stylish and plush place to stay; www.kempinski.com.