Light shines on Red Centre

Australia’s Red Centre is the dictionary definition of remote – scattered hamlets of humanity, vast cattle stations and long, open drives. Perfect for the baby roadtripper.

No, really.

It’s just a three-hour drive on sealed roads between Uluru and Ayres Rock Resort to Kings Canyon, add on another leg and you’ve hit the heady delights of our favourite outback town, Alice Springs.

If it piques your interest, take a look at my story for BNE magazine  on the Red Centre Way, a classic route for a cruisy long-weekender roadtrip, which can easily stretch out for a week.

Click here to read more.

Whales, worship and weird cabaret: the Tongan triumvirate

Humpback whales bring their (very big) babies into the
safe waters of Tonga each year, from July to October.
Photo: Belle Jackson

We’ve all been lamenting the devastation in Fiji from the recent Cyclone Winston, but spare a thought for Tonga, which was in the cyclone’s frontline, and is still picking up the pieces. 

The Vava’u archipelago, where I spent most of my time on my recent Tongan visit, was hardest hit.

So if you’re not a Fiji aficionado, preferring something a little more laid back and – to use the word of the decade- ‘authentic’, why not skip one country further east from Australia for whale swimming, a spot of choral singing and the funniest drag shows I’ve seen for many a year.

And if you are a Fiji fan, from this month (April 2016) you can now fly from Australia to Nadi (Fiji) for a little five-star R&R, then fly Nadi direct to Vava’u (Tonga) for said pleasures, with Fiji Airways.

You can read my story about whales, worship and weird cabaret in Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper’s Traveller section by clicking here.

Connect the dots: art in the Tiwi Islands, Northern Territory, Australia

Bathurst Island Lodge.
 Photo: Belinda Jackson

Crocodiles and canvas make for a potent mix in the Tiwi Islands.

  
 

The speed boat tears down the broad
brown river, and I feel 1000 non-human eyes watching us from the
primordial mangrove-lined banks.

   

“Can you smell the flying fox?”
asks Kathy. It’s the first time I’ve been asked the question, and it
distracts me from the earlier statement that a sneaky, opportunistic
little croc lurks around the boat ramp where we boarded.

  
 

Thick and shining, the river cuts
deep into Bathurst Island. Together with its much larger neighbour,
Melville Island, and nine little uninhabited islands to the south, they
make up the Tiwi Islands 15-minute flight or 2 1/2-hour cruise north of
Darwin. Once, they were part of the landbridge that linked us to the
super-continent, Gondwanaland. Now, they’re broken and fragmented: a
giant’s lonely, lovely footprint in the Timor Sea.

   

Melville Island airport. 
Photo: Belinda Jackson

The Tiwis are but a blip on the
tourism radar. Until now, barramundi hunters and football selectors have
been pretty hushhush about their fertile hunting grounds, but a new
culture tour has lured our party of five onto the islands. We fly over
from Darwin in a Cessna 402C: the plane is so small that we all get a
window seat, and you can count the number of seats on two hands, pilot
included.

  
 

From above, the land is low, flat
and surprisingly large; Melville is our largest island after Tasmania.
The airport, however, is not large. But the first thing I see is a sign
that the Essendon Football Club proudly supports the Tiwi Bombers. It’s
unsurprising, given Kathy’s brother, Michael Long, is a Bombers’ legend,
while her son, Cyril Rioli, is a Hawthorn midfielder.

  
 

The second most striking feature of
the airport is the small concrete block that is the main building.
Actually, it’s the only building. It is painted in wildly beautiful
yellow, black and red Indigenous designs that sets the tone for the next
few days: the Tiwi art scene is strong and all pervasive. The whole
building is

about the size of a small public
loo. No ticket collectors, no customs officials, no taxi stand. Just the
humidity and silence, broken only by the arrival of our minibus and the
departure of our plane. Welcome!

  
 

Art is everywhere, on the public
building walls and in the burial grounds, where carved ironwood totems
hold the spirits of those who have died. 

Traditional art is even worn in
the supermarket, where the older Tiwi women sport rainbow-bright prints
designed and woven by the town’s “spiderwomen”, a dwindling number of
weavers and printers who now find themselves head-tohead with cheap
Chinese imports.

   

Woodcarver and artist Mario Munkara,
Tiwi Designs.
 Photo: Belinda Jackson

A quick drive through the town of
Wurrumiyanga (called Nguiu until 2010) reveals an orderly society.
There’s Meals on Wheels, a small hospital, Asian takeaway, school and
the social club, where all the island gossip is exchanged and the only
public place you can buy a drink. There’s a pool for croc-free swimming,
opened by Olympic swimmer Leisel Jones and her mum, a church and
Ngaruwanajirri, the Keeping House, a “bush cathedral” with a curved
ceiling covered in a glorious riot of the Tiwis’ distinctive,

geometric mulypinyini pwanga (lines and dots).

  
 

This art hub is where disabled
artists meet to sculpt, paint, print and sell their wares: carvings,
batik silk scarves, lino block prints

and paintings using natural ochres.
This morning, a group of men sit outside, carving elegant, long-necked
birds from dense ironwood which they’ll then paint and sell to keep the
place going, essential now its limited funding has been cut.

    

“We started this program 20 years
ago, but we’ve been unfunded the last three years, so I’m now a
volunteer,” says John Naden, a former art teacher who runs The Keeping
House with his wife Joy,

also a dedicated teacher. There’s a
small display room and the art is priced cheaply to keep it turning over
and to keep the artists busy. After all, who wants to be a starving
artist, recognised only in death? The prized artworks are sent out to be
celebrated across Australia and abroad.

  
 

Nearby, the town’s art stalwart,
Tiwi Designs, is now in its fourth decade. When we enter, we’re ushered
past racks of painted canvases and stacks of sculptured birds, past the
silk printing tables and woven baskets, and out the back to a small
fire, which is smoking with green eucalyptus leaves.

  
 

“Obviously, you ladies are from the
mainland. We don’t know what spirits you bring,” explains Vivian
Warlapinni Kerinauia delicately, waving thick smoke over us with a leafy
branch. A group of men and women dance around the smoking fire, telling
of their totems or dreaming group of crocodile, shark, warship, turtle
or buffalo. The men jump and twist, the women are more subtle, elderly
hands graceful and evocative.

   

“Now you have a good spirit,” says Vivian. “It will guide you, give you an open mind.”

   

Artist Alan John Kerinaiua at Tiwi Designs Photo: Belinda Jackson

After we are cleansed by smoke, the
artists return to their tasks. Shy and calm, Alan John Kerinaiua sits
back down by his large canvas and picks up his fine brushes, his plastic
pots the trinity of the Tiwi palette – red, white and yellow ochre
mixed with PVC glue, a fixer for flexibility and longevity.

  
 
The tour’s pace is slow, there is no
dashing in and out. We drink tea and eat hot, fresh damper, graze from
spectacular lunch boxes, chat with the artists and watch Tiwi Designs
manager Steve Anderson and gentle Vivian handprint a

spectacular, nine-metre fall of gold
silk for a Byron Bay client. After lunch, it’s our turn, and Vivian and
I imprint a drop of red cotton with a beautiful print by senior artist
Jock Puautjimi. It’s my souvenir, it’s my new heartthrob.

  
 

There’s plenty to love: Tiwi art is an absolute crowd pleaser, whether you like wood carvings, sculpture, hand-printed fabric,

ochre and acrylic on canvas, or
tunga, delicately woven bark baskets. Pinned up on the walls are photos
of famous admirers of Tiwi style, including Whoopi Goldberg and Boy
George, while the art world’s admirers include the British Museum, which
hangs several of its most celebrated artists, such as Jean Baptiste
Apuatimi, who worked here for many years before she died in 2013.

   

It’s another short plane hop to the
larger Melville Island, and once again, the Tiwis’ inherent artistic
nature greets you at another extremely modest airport.

  
 

Photo: Belinda Jackson

The men’s and women’s loos are

hand-painted in the local style:
ladies with their dilly bags, men with their spears. At Jilamara Arts
& Craft Association in Milikapiti, the happiest man on Melville
Island, Brian Farmer, endures and answers our questions with a massive
smile through his grey beard, felt cowboy hat stuffed firmly on his
head. 

“Every artist tells a story passed on by our forefathers,” he
says. ‘‘Their country, the stars, the universe … You know the stars
guide us when we’re in the dugout canoe. We follow them back to our
campsites. It’s all written there,” says Brian, who also runs a weekly
school program about the dreaming, passing it on to

the local schoolchildren.

   

“If you lose that, you lose your identity,” he says.

  
 

The light, airy gallery is full of
weavings and bark paintings, canvases including one of the Tiwis’ best
known artists, Kitty Kantilla (Kutuwalumi Purawarrumpatu). Each work is
stamped with the artist’s name, their skin and their dance – where they
fit in close-knit society. For every item of artwork sold at the Tiwis’
art centres, the bulk of the money is returned to the artist and the
remainder is put back into the operations of the Tiwi Art Network.

  
 

Over lunch at the nearby Melville Island Fishing Lodge, there are croc jokes a-plenty. A

Johnny Horton fan in Milikapiti has
named a local croc Bismarck, and Bismarck is ‘‘into dog control’’. 

There
are plans to launch a new tour that takes you to the islands’
freshwater pools (where you can definitely swim without crocs) or a spot
of spear fishing (where you’ve got to be ‘‘cautious,’’ says local
master of the understatement, Junior Guy). The big fellas are respected
for their cunning and their sheer power.

  
 

On the journey home, I unwrap my
printed fabric from Tiwi Designs and a card falls into my lap. It is a
stencil of a crocodile. Simple, sparse lines convey his lethal, sinuous
curve. In both nature and danger, there is beauty. 

 

The art is in capturing it.
FIVE OTHER ABORIGINAL ART TOURS
1  ROCK ART Kakadu-born
Sab Lord and his knowledgeable indigenous team take you into Gunbalaya,
Arnhem Land, to view its ancient rock art at Injalak Hill and the
rich Injalak Arts & Crafts centre. Day tours from Darwin cost $270
adults, $195 children, (08) 8948 2200, lords-safaris.com.
2  SOUTHERN WONDER Guests
staying at Longitude 131, overlooking Uluru, can take a rare, exclusive
Ernabella Arts Tour into the APY lands of northern South Australia. The
full-day tour costs $1000 per person, maximum 4 guests, (02) 9918 4355,
longitude131.com.au.
3  GO BUSH NSW’s Kur-ring-gai
Chase National Park has more than 1000 Aboriginal Heritage sites. Visit
them by land and water, with a 2.5 scenic cruise, a Welcome to Country
ceremony and bush-tucker inspired lunch, $199 adults, $149 children,
(02) 9099 4249, sydneyoutback.com.au.
4  GALLERY OF STARS View
magnificent rock art galleries on tiny islands off the Kimberley
coastline on the Kimberley Ultimate tour on the luxury True North
cruise, from $17,995, (08) 91921 829, northstarcruises.com.au.
5  BARK ART Journey
deep into Maningrida, in Arnhem Land, to see woven sculpture, painted
hollow logs and bark paintings. Costs from $789 a person, based on 4
sharing, including flight from Darwin, (08) 8985 3266, artconnections.com.au.

TRIP NOTES
MORE INFORMATION travelnt.com
GETTING AROUND The
three-day Ultimate Tiwi Island Tour runs until 11 September 2015. Costs
from $2425 a person, including SeaLink ferry transfers or flights from
Darwin, scenic flight to Melville Island, accommodation, meals and
non-alcoholic beverages and all tour activities (art workshop with local
artists, walking tour, wilderness adventure cruise, fishing options,
turtle tour, and a museum and art centre tour). A three night/four day
Tiwi Island tour costs from $3225 per person. Day trips to the island
run Thursdays and Fridays until December 1, cost $319, Phone 1300 130
679; see sealinknt.com.au.

VISITING ART CENTRES Jilamara
Arts & Crafts Association is in Milikapiti, Melville Island, see
jilamara.com. Tiwi Designs is in Wurrimiyanga, Bathurst Island, see tiwidesigns.com, a short distance from Ngaruwanajirri (‘helping one
another’) at The Keeping House.

Belinda Jackson was a guest of Sealink NT and Northern Territory Tourism. 


This feature was published in Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper’s Traveller section.

Seven wonders, by the road: Australia road trips to natural wonders

A great view from the road: World Heritage-listed Uluru in
Australia’s Northern Territory. Photo: Steven Siewert

Seven great icons, seven great road trips, Belinda Jackson discovers that the journey becomes the destination.

Australia’s icons come with plenty of drama – the world’s oldest rainforest, world’s biggest monolith and it’s not called the Good
Barrier Reef, is it?

With some of the planet’s best scenery outside
your window, switch off the phone and seize the moment to explore our
most photographed beaches, our most frequently painted mountain ranges
or go it alone in the strange, remote deserts of the continent’s
interior – often easily seen through your car window. There’s no
hardship: eat our national coat of arms in South Australia, fill the
Esky on the Great Ocean Road or shop for a glass of wine at day’s end in
Tassie​. Read on to discover seven natural icons found on seven great
road trips, where the journey becomes the destination.

The icon: Great Ocean Road, Victoria

Great Ocean Road: the Twelve Apostles. Photo: Damien White

The flavour of the trip: From Torquay to Allansford,
near Warrnambool, the winding road curves along Victoria’s southern
coastline. The road was built by returned soldiers from WWI and
commemorates their fallen mates.
Get the picture: You’re
doing it to see the 12 Apostles, right? But make time to visit
Australia’s capital of surf, Torquay’s Bells Beach, spot wild koalas and
feed the parrots at little Kennett Creek. Plan a cafe and ice-cream run
at Lorne and fill the Esky from Timboon’s providores for a picnic at
Cape Otway.
Leave from: Melbourne. Torquay, the starting point, is 100km west of the capital’s CBD.

How much time to take: You can drive the GOR
straight in five hours, but why bother? Allow at least two nights to
explore. Double your driving time allowance if you’re doing it in the
summer school holidays.
Distance: 243km with plenty of hairpin bends and most of it is speed limited to 80km/hour.
See visitgreatoceanroad.org.au.

The icon: Alice Springs to Uluru, Northern Territory

The flavour of the trip: You’ve seen the ads: blood-red desert sands flank long, straight stretches of highway.
Get the picture:
Sacred Uluru is the undoubtable drawcard, but add to the list Kata
Tjuta​ (the Olgas) and Atila (Mt Connor, aka Fool-uru), another
spectacular monolith that rises up on the southern side of Lasseter
Highway: the rookie mistake is thinking it’s Uluru. To visit Atila, book
through Curtain Springs Station (curtinsprings.com)
Leave from:
Fly in to either Alice Springs or Ayres Rock airport and hire a camper
or standard car (you won’t need a 4WD if you don’t stray from the
highway). For the full immersion, drive 1500km from Darwin.
How much time to take:
Six hours without stops, but savour it with an overnighter​ en route.
It’s speed limited at up to 130km/hr, so you can put your foot down, but
don’t drive at night: you won’t see anything except that roo, camel,
cow or emu coming through the windscreen.
Distance: 462km down the Stuart Highway, then chuck a sharp right at Erldunda Roadhouse onto the Lasseter Highway. See travelnt.com.

The icon: Flinders Ranges, South Australia

The flavour of the trip: A gentle introduction to
the outback (though flashes of aquamarine waters of the Spencer Gulf
always come as a surprise). It’s hard to keep your eyes off the
watercoloured​ ranges, but watch for wild donkeys on the road.
Get the picture: Stop for a FMG (“feral mixed grill”) at the Prairie Hotel, Parachilna (prairiehotel.com.au) and a wedge-tailed eagle’s view of the ranges with a light aircraft flight from Wilpena Pound Resort (wilpenapound.com.au).
Stay overnight at tiny Arkaroola village and wilderness sanctuary to
spot elusive yellow-footed rock wallabies, take a 4WD tagalong tour and
visit the astronomical observatories (arkaroola.com.au).
Leave from: Hawker is 400km from Adelaide on the A1, which finishes at Darwin.
How much time to take: Four nights will fit in the basics, but it deserves a week’s exploration.
Distance: The
classic Flinders circuit is 230km, from Hawker to Blinman, across to
Parachilna and back to Hawker. Add on a round-trip from Hawker up to
Arkaroola, about three hours from Parachilna. See roadtrips.southaustralia.com.

The icon: Mungo National Park, New South Wales  

Big skies and bigger stories: Mungo National Park. Photo: Quentin Jones

The flavour of the trip: This is ancient land:
people have been living around Mungo for 50,000 years – gear up for big
deserts, big rivers, big skies and even bigger stories.
Get the picture:
See the skeletons of ghosts past, when Australia’s massive inland sea
receded at the end of the last ice age. Mungo Man, Australia’s oldest
human remains, were discovered here, and plan for sunset and sunrise
looking to the dramatic Walls of China. You can do a 2.5-hour tagalong
driving tour of the national park with Aboriginal Discovery Rangers and
learn about the megafauna – giant kangaroos, wombats, lions and emus –
who lived here.
Leave from: Sydney via Goulburn
and Wagga, with eyes peeled for emus on the Hay plains. Otherwise,
award-winning Echidna Walkabout Nature Tours runs tours from Melbourne
(echidnawalkabout.com.au).
How much time to take: Allow
two days to reach Mungo. If desert camping is too extreme for you,
pitch your tent by the Murrumbidgee in Balranald, 130km from Mungo, or
take a motel room in Wentworth and visit the red dunes outside the town,
148km from Mungo.
Distance: 875km from Sydney. See visitmungo.com.au.

The icon: Daintree, Queensland

The flavour of the trip: A sunny drive up the scenic
Queensland coast to visit the world’s oldest surviving tropical
rainforest, with the Great Barrier Reef served up on the side.
Get the picture:
Beach camping, twice-daily swims, sunset barbies: it’s the great
Australian holiday. For a change of scenery, take the byroads through
the lush Atherton Tablelands.
Leave from: Townsville.
The drive up to the Daintree and nearby Cape Tribulation is around
500km. Determined roadtrippers​ could start out in Brissy for an 1800km
one-way journey.
How much time to take: Allow a
week to soak up the Cairns vibe and let yourself be diverted from the
road on a boat trip out onto the reef off Townsville, staying at luxe
Orpheus Island (orpheus.com.au) or friendly Magnetic Island (magnetic-island.com.au).
Distance: 470km. See queensland.com.

The icon: Freycinet Peninsula, Tasmania

The flavour of the trip: A slow drive up Tasmania’s
sleepy east coast with a day’s detour on the foot passenger ferry to the
former convict colony of Maria Bay.
Get the picture:
Constantly featured in “Top 10 world’s best beaches”, the perfect curve
of Wineglass Bay is best appreciated from its lookout.  Don’t miss the
chance to stock up on local wine on the way (winetasmania.com.au)
and make time for a short walk down to Hazards Beach on the Freycinet
Peninsula. Keep the camera ready for white-bellied sea-eagles and
adorable little paddymelons.
Leave from: Hobart via Sorrel, Orford and Swansea.
How much time to take: Three days minimum, unless you really like seafood and cool-climate wines.
Distance: 400km for a round-trip circuit. See discovertasmania.com.au.

The icon: Bungle Bungle Range, Western Australia

The flavour of the trip: Lonesome and lovely, this
drive through the Kimberley is the dictionary definition of the word
“remote”. Mind you, the Gibb River Rd does become a bit crowded in peak
(winter) season.
Get the picture: The sandstone
“beehives” known as the Bungle Bungles are in Purnululu National Park,
weathered away over 350 million years. Book a scenic flight over them
from the local caravan park (bunglebunglecaravanpark.com.au). Take a dip
in Cathedral Gorge, but stay clear of the waters of Windjana Gorge –
it’s croc territory.
Leave from: Broome and turn due east.
How much time to take:
Seven days minimum – you’re on bush time now and the roads into
Purnululu are slow. But you could fall in love with the Kimberley and
never leave.
Distance: 1100km via the Gibb River Rd. You could leave from Perth, but that is a 3000km drive, one way. See westernaustralia.com.

This article brought to you in association with Avis.

This feature by Belinda Jackson was published on Fairfax Media’s Traveller website.

The Maldives travel guide and things to do: 20 reasons to visit

The world’s first underwater spa is in the Maldives,
at Huvafen Fushi resort.

1.    HAIL THE TAXI

Usually other countries’ taxis are a source of great rip-off tales
for travellers. Taxis here are jaunty public ferries linking the
islands: most foreigners will use only the route between the airport on
Hulhulé Island and the capital, Male. Possibly the world’s most scenic
airport taxi rank, it’s a strip of turquoise water teeming with luxury
yachts, picturesque dhonis (sailboats) and bright tropical fish. The
10-minute trip costs   $1.30 but the people-watching is free. The
seaplane taxis offer another spectacular perspective on the Maldives.

2.    FISHY BUSINESS 

Male’s fish markets are an eye-opener, but not for the squeamish.
Giant tuna are laid out in slabs while choosy buyers shop for home and
the resorts. Once you see the fishmongers at work, you’ll pray you never
meet a cranky one in a dark alley. Expect to pay around 45 rufiyaa 
($3.80) for a kilo of quality tuna meat caught that morning. Go early –
it’s clean but refrigeration is scant.

3.    UNDERWATER DINING

Admire fish both on and off the plate at Ithaa, the world’s first
underwater restaurant at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island resort. The
14-seater glass dome sits five metres under the sea and serves plenty of
fish, while the wine cellar is dug  two metre down into the island’s
depths (hilton.com). Nearby Kihavah Anantara resort has followed suit
with the four-level Sea.Fire.Salt.Sky, where Sky is a rooftop bar and
Sea is under water (anantara.com)

Ithaa, the world’s first underwater
restaurant at the Conrad Maldives
Rangali Island resort. 

4.    ISLAND FARE

Rated the Maldives’ top restaurant, Ufaa is on Cocoa Island by COMO,
in the Kaafu Atoll, 30 minutes by seaplane south of Male. New
Zealand-born chef Shane Avan serves fish fresh off the boat in a blend
of Maldives-Mediterranean-Asian fusion. Book ahead if you’re planning to
drop by from another hotel (comohotels.com). Reethi Restaurant, in the One & Only Reethi Rah, on the North Male Atoll, is often quoted as its closest rival (oneandonlyresorts.com)

5.    SHARK PARK

The Maldives became a shark sanctuary in 2010 when it banned all
shark fishing: take a night dive with grey reef sharks, go hammerhead
spotting or watch whale sharks. There’s no defined season for the big
fellas,  local marine biologists, say. They just appear around bait
balls, which are great rolling masses of small, tasty fish. Check out
the snorkelling trips in the South Ari Atoll
(maldiveswhalesharkresearch.org). If paddling with predators ain’t your
thing, most lagoons are shark nurseries, and harmless baby grey tips and
little lemon sharks are easily spotted on your walk on the jetty to the
overwater spa.

6.    SCREENSAVER SCENERY

You know that picture that comes pre-loaded on your new laptop? Yes,
the one with the palm trees and toothpaste-white beaches. It’s probably
photographed in the Maldives. Add a hammock, umbrella and icy drink and
you’ll know why the little country is high up on the world’s
must-visit list. The Maldives straddles the Equator, so temps don’t
fluctuate much from the annual average of 30 degrees.

Sea.Fire.Salt.Sky at Kihavah Anantara resort. 

7.    SLEEPING OVER WATER  

Of the almost 1200 islands in the Maldivian archipelago, only about
300 are inhabited, and all with the teensiest land masses. The solution?
Sleeping over water is de rigueur here. Generally pricier than garden
rooms, you can dive straight into a blue lagoon from your over-water
living room.

8.    SENSATIONAL SPAS

Most Maldivian resort spas are over water, preferably with a glass
floor so you can watch baby sharks gambol while you’re face-down on the
massage table. Spa Cenvaree at the new adults-only Centara Ras Fushi
Resort Maldives was named  Best Luxury Emerging Spa in the Indian
Ocean at the recent 2014 World Luxury Spa Awards
(centarahotelsresorts.com), while the  Ayurvedic treatments at Six
Senses Spa Laamu (sixsenses.com) and Banyan Tree’s luxury Spa Vabbinfaru (banyantree.com) also took home silverware. And you can’t go wrong at the One & Only Reethi Rah’s ESPA (reethirah.oneandonlyresorts.com/spa.aspx) or the Jiva Grande Spa at the Taj Exotica (tajhotels.com). Of course, the world’s first underwater spa is in the Maldives, at Huvafen Fushi resort (huvafenfushi.peraquum.com).

9.    SPICE SHOPPING

Opposite the Male fish market is a real local’s market: walk past the
fishing boats and dhoni along the harbour wall till you come across
boxes and boxes of ripe papayas, chillis and enormous bunches of green
bananas slung around a rough building. Must-buy items include local
spice mixes for heart-warming curries and proto-Golden Roughs: coconut
and palm sugar rolled up in dried leaves like cigars for a quick
pick-me-up if you’re flagging in the midday heat.

One & Only Reethi Rah Spa. 

10.    ELITE RESORTS

The first tourists arrived in the Maldives in only 1972, but all the
world’s major hotel brands are now here. Recent openings include
Maalifushi by COMO by wellness pioneer Christina Ong (see comohotels.com), Club Med’s new luxury face with 52 villas (clubmed.com.au) and Atmosphere Kanifushi Maldives’ 150 villas and suites (atmosphere-kanifushi.com).
Expect royalty and rock stars at two newcomers in the Noonu Atoll,
exclusive 45-villa Cheval Blanc Randheli from the owners of Louis
Vuitton and Moet (chevalblanc.com) and super-luxe Velaa Private island, with Michelin-starred restaurants and a golf academy by José María Olazábal’s (velaaprivateisland.com). Elite, yes, but more cater to families than you’d first think.

11.    SUPERB SNORKELLING

You don’t have to kit up to the hilt to enjoy the Maldives’
spectacular marine life. Even the scardest snorkeller can spot
spectacular lionfish, parrotfish, a range of rays and weird unicorn fish
as well as oriental sweetlips and clownfish, which are endemic to the
Maldives. The archipelago is a transit zone for fish life, so expect
plenty of variety and a rainbow of colours in even the shallowest
waters.

12.    SLEEPING WITH THE LOCALS

Traditionally, the Maldives’ 300-odd inhabited islands have been
split between resort islands and local islands. The government recently
launched its new integrated resort development project, with the first
guest house islands occurring in the Laamu Atoll, in northern Maldives.
The aim is for 2100 new guesthouse beds on offer by 2017, which is good
news for travellers on lean budgets and those seeking a deeper cultural
experience.

Ari Atoll, Maldives. 
Photo: Alamy

13.    SURF’S UP

It’s all about reef breaks here, and the best-known are in Male’s
Atolls, which can get a tad crowded. The recent 2014 Asian Surfing
Championships were held at Sultan’s Point, near the Four Seasons, and
the inaugural Maldives Open 2014 ran on September 3-7 at Lohis Point, a
long, consistent lefthander near the Adaaran Hudhuran Fushi Resort. Take
a surf safari through your resort or off a live-aboard boat. Luxe surf
safari outfit Tropic Surf has set up a surf shack at the new Maalifushi
by COMO resort in the relatively unexplored Thaa Atoll, deep in the
south-west of the country. It lists Farms as its most requested break in
the area, but is still discovering new breaks (tropicsurf.net). The peak surf season runs May to October, beginning earlier in the southernmost atolls.

14.    GOING DOWN

With more than a thousand species of fish here, the Maldives’ diving
is famed. The dive season runs from January to April, with clear water,
little wind and up to 30 metres’ visibility, but year-round is still
very good. Expect it all: steep drop-offs, caves, wrecks, reefs,
channels, soft and hard corals. North and South Ari Atolls get a mention
for great manta ray and whale shark action, while quiet Lamuu Atoll is
shaping up as the new go-to spot, say the divers from theperfectdive.com.au.

15.    SHORT EATS

Get down with the locals and tuck into Maldivian snack food. While
super-spicy tuna curry tops the menu, cafes dish up short eats or
snacks, to get you over the afternoon slump. Order up on maas roshi
(little tuna and coconut patties) and kaashi bokibaa (coconut, rosewater
and palm sugar balls).

Locals fishing
 Photo: Belinda Jackson

16.    ON THE LINE

Maldivians surely can fish before they can walk. Net fishing is
illegal even for commercial operations: the locals use pole and line
fishing, as they have done for centuries, catching one fish at a time.
Make no mistake, they can bring the fish in at speed, but sustainably
and without the environmental damage of net dragging. You can chase the
big game on a tag-and-release fishing safari on liveaboard boats or
through your resort.

17.    DOLPHIN SPOTTING

One of the great joys of the Maldives are its little spinner
dolphins. They earn their names for their antics: in the late afternoon,
as they make their way out of the lagoons and into the deep ocean to
hunt, the dolphins will leap into the air to spin, just for the sheer
joy, it would appear. They’ll happily follow your boat, but don’t jump
on command.

18.    STYLE FILE

The Maldives has its own, laid-back tropical style. Expect sandy
floors in chic restaurants, open-air lobbies, thatch roofs overhead and
the swish of an overhead fan ruffling the white curtains on your rustic
timber four-poster bed. The colour scheme is turquoise lagoons, white
sandy beaches, baby-blue skies and yellow, for the big sun and the lemon
curl in your martini glass.

19.    THE BIG FIVE

Spot the Maldives’ marine Big Five: manta and eagle rays, sea
turtles, dolphins and sharks, including whale sharks. On the protected
species list are turtles, great clams, whale sharks and conch shells.
Endangered marine species  such as the whale shark, turtles, dolphins,
as well as corals, are  all protected by law.

Public taxi
 Photo: Belinda Jackson

20.    SPEAK EASY

Does your airline ticket send you to Kadhdhoo Kaadedhdhoo or Kadhdhoo
Kooddoo? The Maldivian language is Dhivehi, a mix of Arabic, Urdu and
Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese, and the script is called Thanna. To the untrained
eye, the alphabet could even resemble a series of punctuation marks.
Here’s all you need: “fushi” means “island”, and “Hingadhaan!” means
“Let’s go!”

The writer was a guest of Como Hotels & Resorts and Conrad Maldives Rangali Island.


This feature by Belinda Jackson was published in Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper’s Traveller section.

Switch to island time: Escape to the South Pacific

Balmy nights, glo-bright beaches, lush greenery, and
welcoming people: the reasons for a South Pacific island holiday are as
clear as its aquamarine waters. Just follow our South Pacific island
travel guide for travelling like a pro.

The hotspots

While Fiji and Vanuatu are permanent favourites for Australian
holidaymakers, we’re now starting to discover upcoming stars, such as
the secretive Solomon Islands and PNG, while the Cook Islands and French
influences of New Caledonia are enjoying a renaissance. No matter if
you’re a diver, beachcomber or dedicated lounge lizard, it all boils
down to the beach. Kick start your island dreams at South Pacific Tourism Organisation.

Flying there

The main airlines linking the South Pacific include Fiji Airways (formerly Air Pacific,) Qantas, Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia. Smaller national carriers such as PNG’s Air Niugini, Air Vanuatu , New Caledonia’s Air Calin and Solomon Airlines
hook Australia up to its nearest neighbours. Keep an eye out for sales
and you might snap up a flight from east-coast Australia to Nadi, Fiji
for around $650 return, and $250 return for kids under 12. During the
low season (November to May), $600 will get you to Noumea in New
Caledonia. Put skyscanner on your must-visit list, to compare flight prices and dates.

Cruising there

The South Pacific is our most popular cruise destination, with New
Caledonia’s Isle of Pines and Vanuatu’s Champagne Beach providing the
classic postcard backdrop to a South Pacific cruise. Choose your style:
from champagne luxury to party ships or the range of exploratory small
ships that are now discovering the hidden corners of thousands of
islands. P&O Cruises
offers wallet-friendly seven-night cruises departing Australia for New
Caledonia from $899, quad share in an interior room, which is always
cheapest, compared with $1999 a person for a suite. A good jumping-off
point for cruise comparisons is cruiseabout.

Getting around

What’s your tribe? The fly-and-flop brigade, who are content to be
spoilt poolside, or do you get out amongst the locals? The Pacific
islands each have their own special mode of transport: from PNG’s banana
boats that skip between its islands to Vanuatu’s little island-hopping
planes to the many live aboard boats that let you sleep on board,
stopping to visit a local village, get the snorkel on or take a dive. A
three-night cruise through Fiji’s Yasawa islands aboard Captain Cook Cruises
live aboard MV Reef Endeavour costs from $980 a person, twin share.
Island-hopping plane transfers are usually priced into packages. If
you’re booking them yourself, get in early as the small planes fill
quickly.

Staying there

Nothing kicks off romance like a glowing sunset over calm waters.
South Pacific island holidays have more than their fair share of
super-luxe hideaways. Fiji’s top resorts can command over $1000 a night
for a slice of private paradise. For some spectacular beach island
eye-candy, check out the all-inclusive, complete island hire at Dolphin Island and Wadigi Island, or the luxe resorts at Likuliku Lagoon and Matagi Island.

For flight-hotel packages from glam to fam, check out Creative Holidays
Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Cook Islands packages: you can pay
around $2000 a person for a week’s stay in the glam Raratonga Beach
Resort & Spa, with international flights, kids’ crèche and clubs,
daily cocktail parties and activities. Sleepy Samoa, as yet undeveloped
by the big international chains, offers good value, while going local in
a PNG village stay costs from $60 a night. Bookings.com and skyscanner.com yield unusual finds for those who prefer to wing it.

Hip pocket talk

As a rule of thumb, flight-and-hotel packages in the South Pacific
offer the best value, thanks to the big travel companies’ muscular
buying power. Check the fine print for meal packages, pay-seven,
stay-five deals and other bonuses. Kids under 12 can usually stay and
eat free when sharing with their parents, and many of the airlines offer
very reasonable kids’ air fares. Bargain hunters can slip into the
fringe of the wet, windy season to score a deal. Traditionally, the
South Pacific’s hot, rainy season runs from November to April, while May
to October is peak season, thanks to clear skies and lower humidity,
however climate change does throw a few curve balls.

Prices correct at time of publishing.

This article by Belinda Jackson was published on Art of Money blog by GE Money.

Getting snappy in the Arctic, trans-Australian training: Takeoff travel news

It’s been extremely quiet on the blog front, so excuse me while I drag the last couple of Takeoff columns up online. In particular, this photography competition, which will win you a $10,000 polar adventure, closes soon. So make it snappy!

Cold snaps

If ice is the spice of your life, enter Aurora
Expeditions’ new Facebook photography competition as the adventure company hunts
for its next Official Arctic Photographer. Open to all comers, from phone
snappers to professional photographers, the winner will sail from Scotland to
Spitsbergen spotting great whales and polar bears, massive icebergs and wild
landforms on a 14-day adventure. The prize includes airfares, an expedition
cruise and all expenses paid, worth $10,000. To enter, ‘like’ Aurora
Expeditions’ Facebook page, add your best travel photo and write 50 words  on why you should become the official Arctic
photographer. Entries close March 3. See facebook.com/auroraex.

GEAR 
Pack for
adventure

Sometimes, hard-shell suitcases just won’t cut it when
you’re strapped for space: such as when you’re boating or taking a light plane. Hit
the road with Australian company Paklite, whose new Escape rolling duffle bags
are practical and sturdy, ideal for the traveller who likes to pack in plenty
of adventure. The bags come in three sizes for overnighters (1.9kg, 32l),
weekends away (2.4kg, 50l) and longer getaways (2.kg, 72l) in Spring Green,
Rust and black. Each has a lockable trolley handle and wheels, and the smaller
bags can slot over the handle of the larger case, to keep one hand free. Cost
from $159-$199. See paklite.com.au.

TRAINS

Cross country
Central Australia is on show with a new advertising
campaign for the cross-continent trains The Ghan, the Indian Pacific and The
Overland, which links Adelaide and Melbourne. The campaign, ‘Journey Beyond,’
took a year to create and urges travellers to explore some of Australia’s most
evocative and remote landscapes, such as Coober Pedy in South Australia and the
Northern Territory’s Katherine Gorge. “We welcome you to step off the train in the middle of
nowhere to witness an Outback sunrise,” says Steve Kernaghan of Great Southern
Rail. “You can dig for opals, take a river cruise, linger over a long lunch,
board a scenic flight to Uluru.” Current specials include saving up to $992 on
an eight-day Wildman Kakadu Adventure package or a Perth and Margaret River
package on its all-inclusive Gold Service. Book by February 28 for travel from
May 1, 2015 to March 31, 2016. To watch the new TV advertisment, see http://youtu.be/57ZjnxL5eUI, greatsouthernrail.com.au.

WILDLIFE

Songs of the ocean
If you’ve swum with sharks, tuna or seals, it’s time to
play with the big boys, whales, on the first sing-and-swim tour in Tonga. This
tour is the first of its kind to combine swimming with humpback whales and
Tonga’s singing culture. Led by Sydney choir director Stuart Davis, who has
conducted singing tours to Cuba, Morocco and Spain, the 12-day adventure
includes a traditional Tongan song workshop, beach feast, listening and joining
village church choirs as well as five days in the water with the singing
whales. “Their song is ancient and resounds through all your senses,” says
Stuart. “If you are above them, you can experience the sound vibrating through
your body – it’s truly unforgettable. And even the male humpbacks sing.” The tour departs September 9-22 and costs
$3108, twin share, which includes 12 nights’ accommodation. Budget around $1000
for airfares: Virgin Airlines flies direct from Sydney to the Tongan capital,
Nuku’alofa. Contact Stuart Davis on 0403 869 405, singup@optusnet.com.au.
AIRLINE
Kits that means
business
Qantas has brought Australian luxury leathergoods
designer Oroton on board with a collaboration on its new business class
inflight amenity kit. Available only on Qantas flights to Asia, the pro-Australian kits are packed with Aurora Spa ASPAR
toiletries and Qantas pyjamas by Peter Morrissey,
emblazoned with the airline’s logo. Oroton, which has been creating
envy-inducing handbags since 1938, designed the limited edition Business Sleep
Collection kit to help celebrate Qantas’ new A330 business suites. 
These were designed by another key Australian designer, Marc Newson. If your budget hasn’t
stretched up a class, economy passengers travelling on the
refurbished A330s also get broader seats with
power, 11-inch screens and, as across the rest of its aircraft, larger
meals with more dining choices. The A330 aircraft refits are being undertaken
by more than 200 staff in Qantas’ Brisbane hangar and are expected to be
complete by end 2016. Qantas also recently announced it will conduct one-off
flights from Sydney to Istanbul via Perth for the ANZAC centenary
commemorations at Gallipoli. Flights depart April 21, returning April 28. See qantas.com.au.  

TECH
Austria
shells out
If Vienna isn’t within your reach right now, cheat and
see the best of the city here in Sydney, or online. On February 4, the Sydney
Opera House will host a classic Viennese tradition,  a free public concert. Conducted by Ola Rudner
and featuring soprano  Elisabeth Flechl,
the Sydney Symphony Orchestra will play the Greatest Hits from Vienna, with
works by  Mozart, Strauss, Beethoven and
Schubert. During the second half of the concert, our opera house’s sails will
be transformed by scenes of Vienna and artworks such as Gustav Klimt’s The Tree of Life. Watch the concert with
ticketed seats inside, enjoy the the free concert from a public viewing area at
Campbells Cove, near Circular Quay station, or watch it live online from 8.30-10.15pm,
at visions.vienna.info. Upload and tag your photos with #VisionsOfVienna to
enter a competition to win a week in Vienna, with flights by Emirates Airline.

Edited by Belinda Jackson, Takeoff is published in the Sun-Herald‘s Traveller section every Sunday.  

Ferry trip to northern Tasmania: The spirit of Tasmania

The Nut at Stanley, Tasmania
The
little french bulldog rolls its great eyes, a young german shepherd starts to
howl, the ship shakes free of its moorings, and we’re off.  If you thought
you had to get to the Mediterranean to go sailing, you’ve forgotten about our
own modest sea crossing, from Melbourne to Tasmania. 
Sure, you
can fly to Tassie – it’s just two hours from Sydney and but an hour from
Melbourne to Launceston. But the luxury of time and the convenience of driving
your own car obviously appeals to many, for tonight’s sailing on the Spirit of
Tasmania is a busy one. There holidaymakers with their fur families (hence all
the hounds in the hold), caravanners with kids’ car seats and those who, like
us, have a few empty eskies  waiting to be filled with Tassie’s spectacular
produce.
We set
sail on the Spirit just in time for dinner, and already the message is clear:
you’ll never starve on this island. The ship’s yet to clear Melbourne’s Port
Phillip Bay and already our dining table in the ship’s Leatherwood restaurant
is laden with smoked quail, brandied chicken pate, ocean trout all from the
island state – and that’s just entrees. The exploration of Tasmania’s 60-plus
vineyards also starts here, with a handy list of cellar doors and wines
including Ghost Rock’s hard-to-get, sparkling wine, the Catherine, and a cheery
MacForbes Riesling, both from northern Tasmania. 
Our gang
of three shares a four-berth cabin: it’s compact and comfortable with two sets
of bunk beds, and the ship rocks gently across the Bass Strait to arrive in
Devonport just on sunrise. The information booth hands out leaflets on the best
breakfast cafes open at this ungodly hour, and the recommendation is for
Anvers’ Chocolate Factory, in nearby LaTrobe (anvers-chocolate.com.au).
Bingo.
The plan
is to drive from east to west along the north coast in just a few days, seeking
out its hamlets and beauty spots, avoiding the (relatively) big smoke of
Launceston, the Bass Strait keeping us company all the way. 
I have
already drawn up a shopping list for our three-day getaway, and it’s
embarrassingly food-oriented: raspberry jam from Christmas Hills in Elizabeth
Town (raspberryfarmcafe.com),
Hellyers’ single malt whiskey in Burnie (hellyersroaddistillery.com.au),
Tasmanian wagyu pies in Devonport (wagyupiecompany.com). There are scallop pies to
be devoured, wine and cider to be drunk, berry ice-cream to be licked. Lucky
I’m also sailing home: the airlines surely would charge me excess baggage on
the return journey.
A word on
driving in Tassie:  a hundred kilometres will not take an hour: there be
many corners, there be wild animals on the road, there be the cutest little
beach just right for paddling, a pick-your-own berry farm or a glorious vista
begging to jump onto your Instagram feed. 
Scallops at Lost Farm

On the
drive east of Devonport, our journey comes to a screeching halt at a crossroad
on the B82, amid  a cluster of Australia’s top sparkling producers,
including Jansz and Piper’s Brook, and we celebrate our find with a glass of
bubbles. 

Further
along, at Bridport, the diversion is a sweet little local bakery followed by a
walk through the rolling sand dunes that stretch out in front of our room for
the night at Barnbougle Dunes, whose  golf course, The Dunes, is rated
11th in the world. We snicker at road signs warning of kangaroos and golfers, and
play “what’s that funny name”  when passing Squeaking Point and
The Dazzler Range.
Driving
west of Devonport, the diversions are many and fabulous, such as the hamlet of
Turners Beach, notable for its kid-friendly beach and the welcoming La Mar
cafe, which packs together a dinner for our night’s stay in the self-catering
The Winged House. 
Further
on, at Penguin, we stop to admire a giant (concrete) penguin, penguins painted
on shop walls and the town’s rubbish bins garnished with penguin sculptures.
The actual penguins are absent, although a smiling woman at Cocoon, one of
Penguin’s brace of remarkable homewares shops, tells me she spent the morning
watching a baby whale frolic in the warm coastal waters with its mum. It’s
lunchtime so the  order is for a couple of scallop pies from the town’s
bakery and, like every other time I’ve eaten them, I’m surprised all over again
that the fat scallops are baked in a curry sauce so thick it’s almost rigid.
Not Thai or Indian or some exotic curry, but more like a super-yellow,
English-love-it Keen’s-curry-powder curry, and I just can’t help but feel a
little sad.
La Mar cafe at Turners Beach
With a
population of 20,000, it feels like we’ve hit the big smoke at Burnie, which
has more than its fair share of great finds, including the best little drive-in
boozer in the north, with rare and wonderful ciders galore, set beside the
recently renovated Ikon Hotel, with great family-sized apartments. But if you
had to make but one stop along this coast road, make it Burnie’s Maker’s
Workshop. 
The town
is packed with art deco architecture thanks to a cash injection via the
Australian Pulp and Paper Mill in 1938, yet the Makers’ Workshop is a
super-modern construct of glass and steel, built in 2009 on the waterfront. At
any time, up to five “makers” will be creating anything from
jewellery to baskets, paintings to glassware and I strike up a conversation
with a peg dolly maker and a felt maker. 
The glass-fronted cafe lets you watch
the working waterfront from a cosy perch. The tourist information centre is
comprehensive and its gift shop, selling Tasmania’s artisan wares, really is
worth saving your pennies for. While the paper mill has since closed, they’re
still making paper here – but this time, it’s from wombat poo or apple pulp and
visitors can turn their hand to making it on the frequent paper-making tours.
But  it’s not all scones and cappuccinos. There’s also a monstrous, yellow
Elphinstone underground loader in the foyer, a reminder that Burnie is also the
home to a Caterpillar factory and the former mechanic and the state’s richest
man, Dean Elphinstone. 
The Winged House, Table Cape

Table
Cape is best known for its tulip farm, but it’s out of season, and no vivid
strips of flowers to be seen. From our architecturally intriguing  home
for the night, The Winged House, the coastline disappears into the mists, first
mapped by Matthew Flinders with his surgeon friend, George Bass, in 1798. To
the west is The Nut at Stanley and further on, Robbins Island and Cape Grim,
said to have the world’s most pure air. It’s a delight to learn that the IGA
supermarket at nearby Wynyard  does what a franchise is supposed to do,
and stocks local scallops, whole Tassie salmon fillets and the famed beef from
Cape Grim.

It’s
 invigorating here on this headland, with the Roaring Forties living up to
its name. So after photographing the coastline from the island’s last working
lighthouse, we push on to Boat Harbour, which a Tassie friend tips as a
must-visit. She’s not wrong. The tiny harbour has a sunny cafe-cum-surf
life-saving club, set on a sandy beach that curves sweetly into the headland,
every one of the village’s beach shacks has commanding water views. It’s the
same story at nearby Sisters Beach, where sea-changers and retirees are
providing brisk business for the local tradies and real estate agents. 
Despite
its location on the north-west edge of Tasmania, little Stanley is terribly
chic. Sure you can hike or catch the chairlift to the top of The Nut, a rough
volcanic bluff  but it also sports a genuinely boutique hotel, @ VDL
Stanley,  upmarket fish-and-chipperies, more fabulous homewares shops and
cafes with a dash of city slickery. 
Next time,
I’m going to juggle my days better to hit the Sunday markets at Penguin and
pretty Ulverstone, I’m going back to funny little Tomahawk to pitch my tent
once again, and I’m going to finally hike in the Tarkine wilderness.
  
On the
way home, a vivid super-moon lights the ship’s decks and I score an upgrade to
a vast deluxe cabin with a double bed, right at the very front of the ship.
Instead of portholes, there are panoramic windows, just the spot to sit and
write that list for the return journey. 
TRIP
NOTES
MORE
INFORMATION
See discovertasmania.com.au.
The
Spirit of Tasmania sails from Melbourne into Devonport. Children travel free
between March 6 and September 13, book by February 28. Costs from $96 adults in
an ocean recliner, or from $258 for two adults and two children in a four-berth
cabin, one-way. See spiritoftasmania.com.au. Virgin Australia (virginaustralia.com),
Jetstar (jetstar.com)
and Qantas (qantas.com.au)
fly from Sydney and Melbourne to Launceston. Rex Airlines flies Melbourne to
Burnie (rex.com.au
STAYING
THERE
Barnbougle
Dunes in Bridport costs from $190 a night. Phone (03) 6356 0094, see barnbougledunes.com.au.
The Winged House at Table Cape costs from $360 a night,  Table Cape. See thewingedhouse.com.au.
Ikon Hotel, Burnie  costs from $170 a night. Phone (03) 6432 4566, see ikonhotel.com.au.
EATING
THERE
Create
your own foodie drive across northern Tasmania, see cradletocoasttastingtrail.com.au
or  the food review app, see tasmanianfoodguide.com.au.
WHILE
YOU’RE THERE
Makers
Workshop, Burnie, makersworkshop.com.au is a must-see. 
FIVE MORE
GREAT TASSIE DRIVES
East
Coast
Hobart to
St Helens.
Explore
some of the island’s  best national parks, including Bay of Fires and
Maria Island. Distance: 295km.
Convict
Trail:
Hobart to
Port Arthur via Richmond. Discover our picturesque, yet brutal colonial
history. Distance: 205km.
Cradle
Country:

Devonport to Cradle Mountain. Balance farmgate snacking and shopping with
world-class hiking. Distance: 226km.
Due
South:
Hobart
to Cockle Creek. Camp at Cockle Creek and take a short walk to South East Cape,
the most southerly point on the island. Distance: 148km.
Wild
West:
Burnie
to Strahan. Drive through Australia’s largest rainforest, the Tarkine
wilderness, via Waratah to the remote west coast. Distance: 180km.


The
writer was a guest of the Spirit of Tasmania, Barnbougle Dunes and the Winged
House.  
This feature by Belinda Jackson was published in the Sun-Herald’s Traveller section.

Como Maalifushi Maldives: Pint-sized paradise

This new, luxury resort in the Maldives delivers a world of
pleasure, writes Belinda Jackson.
It took me three days to realise I’d lost my shoes. I’d kicked
them off the day I hit the Maldives and never put them back on again until I
crash-landed into the howling winds of a Melbourne winter, tragic in glittery,
strappy sandals. I think the shoes are still on Maalifushi, a remote island
resort in the south-west of the remote island nation.
Let me share some fashion advice about packing for the
Maldives. The first point is: don’t bother bringing heels. They get stuck in
the sand, and every resort worth its sea salt has a sand floor restaurant, lobby
or walkway. The second fashion tip is: unless you’re going to sweat it out on a
treadmill, leave your runners behind, too. Preferred sports on these balmy
isles are barefoot – swimming, yoga and messing about in boats.
 The new Maalifushi by COMO is the Singaporean hotel group’s
second Maldivian resort. The first, Cocoa Island by COMO, is 40 minutes by
speedboat from Male airport, past a plethora of single-resort islands. In
comparison, Maalifushi is the only hotel in the isolated Thaa Atoll, deep in
the vast Indian Ocean.
An aerial view of the tiny resort. 
Getting to Maalifushi is half the adventure. At Male airport,
we learn that the closest airport, Thimarafushi, is closed because ocean swells
have engulfed the runway. “It’s a very, very low atoll,” a local
tells me. “Very good for surfing, very bad for flying.”
Instead, we fly to tiny Kadhdhoo airport then board a very
white, very luxurious pleasure cruiser. Flying fish skip alongside the boat,
and the water changes abruptly from deep ocean blue to pinch-me-I’m-dreaming
turquoise as, after two hours, we pull up at the island. It is a study in green
coconut palms and raked yellow sand, tiny crabs scattering at our footfalls.
Maalifushi is tiny: even by Sydney standards, 800 by 200
metres ain’t a lot of real estate. To compensate, the spa’s eight treatment
rooms, Japanese restaurant Tai and 33 suites and villas are off land and over
water, connected by timber boardwalks. Absolute beachfront is claimed by 22
suites and the two-bedroom, 296-metre-square COMO residence, at almost $7000 a
night in peak season.
My room is, quite simply, breathtaking. Forget shiny surfaces,
this is a decorating exercise in island chic. White curtains billow from the
four-poster bed, the high-pitched ceiling is thatched, the deep bath is
unpolished marble, and the timber deck leads out to a thatched bale beside my
plunge pool. There are indoor and outdoor rain showers, daybeds and sofas. In
fact, there are so many places to sit, I don’t know where to start. Ripping off
clothes and leaping into the pool seems a good start. Shy? Think twice about
skinny-dipping – the deck’s not as private as you’d first think.
Island chic decor sets the tone for a blissful break.

Banish any notion that all this gorgeousness is reserved only
for lovestruck couples. The kids’ club is a jaunty affair with swings and
climbing apparatus, and there are six very private garden suites targeted at
families who don’t want to mix young children and plunge pools. The
well-equipped dive centre has quality Japanese masks for all shapes and sizes,
and the kitchen promises to cater for all tastes and dietary persuasions.

The COMO brand is all about luxury pampering: the signature
scent is a cool blend of peppermint and eucalyptus best served on cold towels.
The spa is a palatial affair and COMO’s signature Shambala spa cuisine offers
an array of organic deliciousness featuring seed breads, healthful juices and
sublime local raw fish, which is unsurprising given the country’s national fish
is the yellowfin tuna, its national tree the coconut palm. The weekly seafood
barbecue is an extravaganza of local lobster, a carpaccio of kingfish, trout
and tuna, and sweet rock shrimp.
Unfortunately, I realise the food is actually too good, when
breakfast comprises saffron-poached pears with papaya and lime, watermelon
juice, eggwhite omelette, French toast with fresh mango and a lavish porridge
made from crushed almonds. It’s all healthy, I tell myself (OK, maybe not the
French toast).
I try burning off the excess with a healing, Shambala
signature massage and join marine biologist Francesco on a tiny speedboat to
play with happy little spinner dolphins who gambol alongside us, occasionally
thrusting into the air to spin once, twice, thrice, just for sheer joy. There’s
talk of year-round whale shark spotting.
One evening, three of us take a pre-dinner night snorkelling
safari. It’s a first for all of us, and we lower ourselves gingerly into the
dark water. Call me unAustralian, but the marine life in the Maldives makes our
reef look like a jaded nightclub at the end of the night, just a few old
groupers hanging out, trying their tired old lines. A young green turtle glides
beneath us, which I find slightly disconcerting but completely exhilarating.
Nocturnal surgeonfish are everywhere and the most beautiful purple spotted
starfish are surely the mirrorballs of the Maldivian seas.
Marine life aside, the big drawcard for Maalifushi is its surf
breaks. The luxury surf safari group TropicSurf has a shack on the island and
the staff are constantly discovering new reef breaks. Farms is the best-known,
which TropicSurf calls “the perfect right-hander” in peak season,
from April to October.
Back on my villa’s deck, I discover a set of stairs that lead
down into the island’s lagoon. Moments later, I’m swimming with some rather
nonchalant little black-and-white striped reef fish called Moorish idols.
Professor Google tells me Africa’s Moors considered them “bringers of
happiness”. The sky overhead is clear and blue, the water I’m swimming in
is clear and blue. Their mission is accomplished.
The writer travelled as a guest of COMO Hotels.
TRIP NOTES 
GETTING THERE There are no direct flights from Australia to the Maldives.
Fly via Kuala Lumpur or Singapore with Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines or
Virgin Australia. Australians are issued a free visa on their arrival in the
Maldives. See malaysiaairlines.com, singaporeair.com, virginaustralia.com.
GETTING AROUND Maalifushi is a 50-minute flight from Male Airport to
Thimarafushi, followed by a 25-minute boat ride. COMO Resorts plans to operate
a seaplane between its two resorts.
STAYING THERE Maalifushi’s “soft-opening” special allows for
low-season rates until December 26. Garden suites from $820 a night, water
suites from $1400 a night. COMO Villas are open for bookings. See website
(left).
MORE INFORMATION visitmaldives.comcomohotels.com.
This feature by Belinda Jackson was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers.

Neutral territory: hotel review of Alto on Bourke, Melbourne

One of the city’s boutique hotels is staking its claim as one of Australia’s greenest hotels, writes Belinda Jackson.

When I slip into the conversation that I’m staying in
Melbourne’s only carbon-neutral hotel, everybody is clueless. Yet it’s
in the centre of the city and has been there for a decade, making Alto
on Bourke the original sleeper hit.

As Australia’s first carbon-neutral hotel, its fans include
some of the greenest people on the planet – Bob Brown and David Suzuki –
and being Sunday night, it’s almost full.

But don’t expect ostentation. The reception at the 50-room
hotel is tiny, though the front-desk staff helpful, and we check in
without fuss to our two-bedroom apartment, which includes a kitchen with
dishwasher and a full set of crockery and glassware.

The main bedroom looks down Bourke Street, though the second
bedroom has only a skylight. The hotel’s linens were all recently redone
– my room’s cushions and bed runners are in a smart green Marimekko
print.

Originally the Victorian Railways Union building, built in
1917, with a set of offices added much later on, the result is some
quirkily shaped rooms, yet with a six-star energy rating.

The Alto Hotel, just a few steps from Southern Cross Station.

Eco-warriors hunting for “greenwash”, or deceptive PR spin of
their environmental claims, would have to hunt hard – the cleaning gear
and toiletries (from fixed dispensers) is all earth-friendly, the
lighting and heating switch on and off via the room’s key and Alto is
the first in Melbourne to offer Foxtel’s full 88 channels via its new
low-power LED televisions.

The hotel runs on 100 per cent renewable energy; its carbon
footprint is half the average hotel room, and the rest is offset. Like
any business that wants to manage its bottom-line profitability, some
decisions are no-brainers.

Harvesting all its own rainwater and using gas and
electricity-saving mechanisms saves the hotel about $20,000 a year, says
the hotel’s unassuming general manager, Gary Stickland, who is surely
the font of all eco-tourism knowledge.

At breakfast, honey is from the hives on the hotel’s
rooftops, the coffee is organic and fair trade, and the eggs benedict is
very, very good. The beverages list is also green, with a healthy
showing of Victorian craft beers, including the super-local Hawthorn
Pilsner and Abbotsford Mountain Goat beer.

Wi-Fi is free, and there is free fair-trade coffee all day in
the cafe and library, which has a book-share program, with a healthy
showing of German and Spanish titles, as well as a kids’ section. I grab
something to read and end up with the latest GQ and Treadlie, an
oh-so-cute Melbourne magazine “for people of bikerly persuasions”.

Bowls of green apples sit in the foyer for guests to grab for
a snack on their way out, and there’s a little relaxation room with two
massage chairs that seals you off from the clang and chatter of the
city. If you turn up in an electric or hybrid car, they’ll give you free
parking and recharging, and the staff get in on the enviro-action, too –
their latest project is helping recycle cigarette butts into fertiliser
and plastic street furniture with Brisbane eco-start-up TerraCycle.

Some of the green technology is cutting-edge, such as the
aircon’s movement sensors that switch off if there’s nobody in the room.
There are slow-flow showers and taps, energy-efficient globes, plus the
simplest things – the refuse bin in the room has a recycling section.
“The hardest part is usually changing people’s behaviours, but that’s
already been done,” says Stickland. “We all recycle at home, why not in
our hotels?”

With its location down the Spencer Street end of town, two minutes
from Southern Cross Station and the airport bus, and walking distance to
Etihad Stadium, it’s a wise choice for AFL fans and those chasing the
big music gigs.

Alto on Bourke is a hotel first, an environmentally friendly
hotel second. “If you’re not a good hotel first up, the environmental
factor is redundant,” says Stickland.

The writer stayed as a guest of Alto on Bourke.

TRIP NOTES
WHERE Alto on Bourke, 636 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 1800 135 123.
HOW MUCH From $166 for a studio room, midweek.
TOP MARKS The hotel donates its old blankets to the Salvation Army’s
winter appeal, and free Wi-Fi and all-day tea and espresso coffee are
available in the hotel’s cafe.
BLACK MARK The coffee machine was cleaned straight after breakfast
finished at 10am, just when lazy, late diners were hoping for a second
cup.
MORE INFORMATION altohotel.com.au.


This article by Belinda Jackson was published in Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper.