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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.