Airline review: FlyDubai to the Silk Road city of Almaty, Kazakhstan

It might seem weird posting a flight review in the midst of a global lockdown, but irrepressible travellers are already looking and booking deals around the world for travel late in 2020 and throughout 2021.

If it’s not on your radar, FlyDubai operates a fleet of Boeing 737-800s out of Dubai Airport’s Terminal 2. It’s currently still on the ground, but when in the skies, its destination list includes some intriguing cities including Prague, Naples and Dubrovnik in Europe, Tbilisi in Georgia and its new route from Dubai to Finland’s fun little capital, Helsinki. It also services the ancient cities along the Silk Road including the Turkmenistan capital Ashgabat and Almaty in Kazakhstan, which is where I was headed on this journey.

The UAE is already opening back up, with sister airline Emirates flying from its Dubai base to Sydney and Melbourne, sprinkling hygiene kits around its cabins, which includes masks, gloves, wipes and hand santiser. Like Emirates, FlyDubai is owned by the Dubai government, and the two often codeshare.

Click here to read my review, published in the Traveller section of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers. The print edition is currently in slumber, dreaming of its next destination.

How to go camping (and love it): tips & tricks

Easter in Australia is traditionally spent camping – I know Victoria looks forward to what’s usually our last gasp of good weather. I had every intention of going camping this long weekend: the trip to Vietnam had been cancelled for months, to be replaced with a bit of camping on our roadtrip up northern NSW.

Before the virus hit the fan, I interviewed a camping pro from outdoor gear supplier Anaconda: you might think, why are we talking about camping when we can’t go anywhere? For those of us lucky enough to have a back yard, there’s your campsite right there! And some of camping pro Damian Kennedy’s tips are still perfectly relevant, such as buying the right tent with the right accessories. I’m a big fan of balconies that hang from the apex of the tent, so you can reach up and grab your torch when you (inevitably) hear something go bump in the night.

So treat this time to dust off the tent, get your pegging practise in and start planning when life eventually returns to normality.

Click here to read Damian’s top tips on how to go camping and love it, published in the Traveller section of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers. The print section is currently in slumber, dreaming of its next destination.

 

Bringing Finnish Lapland to Helsinki, Finland

Lapland Hotel Bulevardi

During winter, snow-laden winds sweep across lakes and tundras of Finnish Lapland, freezing all in their wake. Reindeer forage for lichen in the chilled earth, and the brief minutes the sun rises above the horizon are bookended by a deep blue twilight that heralds the return of the polar night.

A thousand kilometres south, there’s no snow on the footpaths of the Finnish capital, Helsinki, but it retains its connection with the drama of the deep north through Lapland Hotel Bulevardi, in the chic Design District.

Let me tell you: breakfast buffets, I’ve had a few. But this one – inspired by the food of Lapland – is one of the most intriguing.

To read my story, published by Essentials Magazine, click here

Growing up with the Mornington Peninsula

Beach boxes, Mornington

There’s a photo that’s always in my kitchen, faded by sun and decades. It’s of my dad – long gone now – sitting on the chairlift that climbs to Arthur’s Seat, a beauty spot with views over the Mornington Peninsula.

You can still catch a chairlift up Arthur’s Seat, only now it’s a far safer carrier in a more precarious world. The new Eagle gondolas still skim the top of the eucalypts. You can still spy kangaroos, and hear the birds calling to each other in the state forest below. I always wanted to live in one of the houses hidden among the trees, but I was never homeless on the peninsula. My young mum took me on my first holiday here, at our family’s beach house on Safety Beach.

I still go to Safety Beach, and when I can’t, I miss it. But everyone goes there now. They’re chasing hatted chefs, renowned winemakers, that little artisan bakery… I guess I can’t blame them. The peninsula of my youth has grown up, as have I.

You can read my full story, which was published in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend, here.

Notes from a zombie zone: Turkmenistan’s Ashgabat airport

Ashgabat Airport

To get through the departure gates at Ashgabat airport, in the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan, I had to have my passport scanned.

And my fingerprints.

And my thumbprints.

And my retinas.

They’re taking no chances in this airport. Not that there would be many me look-alikes here. There just aren’t that many people, full stop. And most of the women are swanning about with impossibly high headdresses and long, vivid gowns that sweep the already immaculate white marble floors.

Should you find yourself in Ashgabat any time soon, click here to read my review in the Traveller section of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers.

Tips for visiting Cairo’s Pyramids: Egypt

Each year, I return to Egypt for so many reasons – family, kunafa, fresh, chunky mango juice and a hit of history.

This year, I teamed up with Ahmed Aziz, an Egyptologist with tour company Abercrombie & Kent, who I’ve been working with for years in Egypt. Ahmed’s been a guide through Egypt’s sites for 16 years, and together, we delved into the newly opened Bent Pyramid in Dahshour, about an hour from Cairo.

He shared some excellent advice for visitors to the Memphis necropolis, which includes the Pyramids of Giza, Saqqara and the lesser-known, little visited Dahshour, including the best places to stay, when to visit and keeping a stash of small notes to tip the haras (the temple guardians, who are drawn from the neighbouring villages).

Click here to read the full story, which appeared in the Traveller section in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers.

See abercrombiekent.com.au

Tips for exploring Punta Arenas, Chile

Street art in Punta Arenas

Down the bottom of Chile, looking south toward Antarctica, Punta Arenas is at the confluence of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, and has a subpolar, oceanic climate. Its average daytime temperature is 15 degrees and the surrounding ocean water is typically 2 degrees: no wonder no-one is swimming.

It’s the jumping off point north to the popular Patagonian adventures in Torres del Paine National Park and south to the Antarctic peninsula.

Thanks to our fabulous guide with Quasar Expeditions, we managed briefly to slip under the skin of this frontier town – where puffer jackets dominate the fashion scene, guanaco is on the menu, the waterfront wharves are covered in murals and the houses are painted bright pinks and yellows to counteract the heavy, grey skies.

To read my story, published in the Traveller section of The Age/Sydney Morning Herald newspapers, click here.

Best hotel breakfast buffet 2019: Helsinki, Finland

Breakfast buffets, I’ve had a few in this job. But this morning’s buffet at the Lapland Hotels Bulevardi, in Helsinki, was one of the best.

I’m currently in the Finnish capital, about to head even further north to Kuusamo, on the border of Russia and Lapland, which is why I chose to stay in this new hotel in Helsinki – to warm up to the Lappish way of life.

It was a mix of the stylish, handmade ceramics by Anu Pentik, the moody setting with its reindeer pelts and the exciting food – much of it drawn from Lapland, where the group is dominant – that makes it an absolute standout.

Top of the list was the most humble dish, an exceptional organic oatmeal porridge, slow cooked in the oven for three hours: I’m not usually a salty porridge girl, but with cherry jam and a swish of Lappish honey, it sung to me.

I couldn’t eat it all, I had to leave space for the spruce sprout smoothie and the sea buckthorn smoothie, the warm smoked salmon and the ice-cellar pickled salmon. Then the smoked reindeer and oyster mushroom omelette, a little of the reindeer blood sausage with lingonberry jam, cloudberries, blackberries, blueberries from Muonio, lingonberry pie and smoked cheeses from Kuusamo (where we head tomorrow). It took a while.

Small Girl tested the mini cinnamon rolls (korvapuusti) and hot chocolate, and declared them perfect.

The chef on the breakfast shift admitted that Lappish cuisine is protein-heavy. “Hearty,” was his diplomatic word for the array of meats, fish, cheeses and cakes that lined the buffet.

The devastating news is that because we are leaving so early tomorrow, we will miss breakfast, which rolls in until 1pm on Sundays.

No wonder Finns are so happy.

Pumas of Patagonia: wildlife experiences in Chile

Puma of Patagonia

A perfect day in Torres del Paine, Patagonia from sunrise to sunset, starts with dawn with the dirtiest Jeep, and continues with chasing guanacos through the highlands, nose running while clinging to a bolting horse tearing across icy plains, and all day watching snow clouds gather through the towers and teeth of the Paine massif on a winter adventure.

But the real reason we’re here is for the pumas of Patagonia. Nicknamed ‘ghost cats’ because they’re so elusive, they’re the reason we’re braving sub-zero temperatures, snowy afternoons and chill winds that tear down the Patagonian ice fields to claw at our faces.

I’m lucky enough to be able to say that it’s my second time in Torres del Paine national park, and my third time visiting Patagonia, twice on the Chilean side, and once on the Argentinean side.

This time, I travelled with Quasar Expeditions,

My story on the pumas of Patagonia is this Saturday’s cover story in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers, and online at traveller.com.au

If you’re after a chilly, nose-running read on spotting these beautiful pumas, click here and (hopefully) enjoy!

 

Quasar Expeditions runs five-day Secret Season itineraries from $4300 a person. Puma-tracking itineraries cost from $5540, including a tracking fee and four- or five-star accommodation. See quasarex.com

Putting Egypt’s pyramids into perspective

Bent Pyramid, Egypt

I’m not great with tunnels – I don’t like the idea of the weight above me. So I was pretty surprised that I was so keen to get into the Bent Pyramid, the earliest of Egypt’s smooth-sided pyramids, out in the deserts past Cairo.

The tunnel down into the heart of the pyramid is 79 metres long, double the distance of the tunnel in the Great Pyramid. It was so low that I actually scraped my spine, as I was so doubled over.

The pyramid was a practice run ordered by the pharoah Sneferu, father of Cheops (who went on to build the Great Pyramid in nearby Giza). It earned its sobriquet because the architect in charge of its construction realised that the calculations of a 55-degree angle for the pyramid was wrong, and changed it half-way through construction, for a rather wonky look, as you can see.

Still sporting much of the white stone cladding that would have let it shine in the desert, the Bent Pyramid recently reopened for the first time in 53 years, and with Saqqara and Giza, makes up what is known as the Memphis Necropolis, a royal burial ground for Egypt’s kings, queens and nobility (also, lots of sacred bulls, just FYI).

Click here to read about the three burial sites, and how they all link in, in my story published in the Traveller section of the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age newspapers. Enjoy!