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.

Cruise with Margaret Atwood, train bar in Melbourne, discover Aboriginal Sydney: Takeoff travel news

CRUISE: The Arctic explorer’s tale

Fans of The Handmaid’s Tale, The
Robber Bride and a dozen other novels, as well as short fiction, poetry
and children’s books, can sail through the Northwest Passage with the
celebrated Canadian author Margaret Atwood.
The cruise departs Kugluktuk, in
Nunavut, Canada, following explorers’ footsteps to one the northernmost
towns in the world, Qaannaq, Greenland. 

Other (non-human) guests include
polar bears and possibly the “unicorn of the sea”, the narwhal, a
tusked whale that lives in the Arctic waters. Highlights including
visiting Inuit communities, iceberg spotting and crossing the Arctic
Circle. “And it’s always a delight to see
the more foolhardy among us take a plunge into subzero Arctic waters,”
says Atwood, a dedicated conservationist and twitcher. This is her ninth
journey with Adventure Canada. The 17-day cruise departs September 5 and costs from $US8995 ($11,650) a person.
See
adventurecanada.com.
 



FOOD: Top spot for trainspotters

Love trains? Love Melbourne? Then
you’ll adore one of the city’s newest bars, in a Hitachi train carriage
perched atop a city block in the innercity suburb of Collingwood.
Easey’s dishes up burgers and coffee on the ground floor, but climb up
to the fifth floor into the train carriage and it’s bottoms up with
skyline views. The new burger bar is one of the few to have Melbourne
Bitter on tap, fresh from its neighbour, Carlton United Brewery. It also
serves local craft brews including

Holgate, from Woodend, and Mountain
Goat, brewed in nearby Richmond, as well as Victorian spirits such as
Melbourne Gin Company. The carriage ran on the Pakenham-Dandenong line
from 1972 until its retirement in 2012. The bar’s owner and art curator
Jeremy Gaschk says graffiti artists loved these silver Hitachi train
carriages, so it’s only fitting the train’s resting point is in the
midst of Melbourne’s street art heartland, 48 Easey St, Collingwood. See
easeys.com.au
 

TECH: Airport face-off

TripAdvisor contributors will have a
new target in their sights as the rate-and-review site launches its
airport pages this month. 
First off the ranks is Singapore’s
Changi airport, often ranked the world’s best for its shopping
galleries, efficiency and cleanliness. 

It will be followed by New York’s
John F. Kennedy and London Heathrow airports, to launch this Tuesday,
along with 10 Australian airports including regionals

Townsville, Launceston and Cairns.
In total, TripAdvisor aims to
include 200 major airports across the world on its website and app. The
company says more than 3 billion people use airports each year, with an
average time spent in them of 150 minutes. The site aims to help travellers
occupy that time with its “Near Me Now” feature, which uses the
phone’s GPS to hook you up with the airports’ facilities. See tripadvisor.com

GEAR: Real-time life in the frame

The next generation of compact
cameras makes it easy to dazzle your Instagram followers. With built-in
Wi-Fi, the new 16MP Canon PowerShot lets you snap, share to your phone
and upload instantly. It’s 50x optical zoom gets you up close and
personal, and even stretches out to 100x digital zoom, its ‘‘lock’’
function helping minimise camera shake (though a baby tripod never goes
astray). On the cute gimmick side, flip over to fish-eye mode, go
totally automatic, or take full control in the manual setting, and it’s a
one-button operation to start shooting 1080p Full HD video.

  
Hook your camera into your phone,

computer, printer or even your TV
via Wi-Fi or near field communication technology (NFC). Although it
weighs 128g, it’s 12x8cm, so it’s not a pocket camera, but will tuck
into a small handbag, and Canon also gives you 10GB in its new image
storage cloud,
irista.com 
. The PowerShot SX530 HS costs around $426.99. See canon.com.
 


TOUR: Secret treasures of our backyard

Did you know that Ku-ring-gai Chase
National Park has the world’s most concentrated collection of Indigenous
artefacts? Discover its secrets with local Aboriginal guides on a new
tour by Sydney OutBack, including the most famous, The Emu in the Sky.
The sophisticated level of Aboriginal

astronomy sees an emu carved in
sandstone match a constellation in the sky every autumn, when it’s time
to gather emu eggs. “The Guringai people were wiped out by a smallpox
epidemic in just 10 years,” Sydney OutBack’s Paul Pickering says, “but
they’ve left us a legacy to tell their story.” The full-day “Wilderness &
Aboriginal” explorer tour cruises on a private 15-metre motor cruiser
through the setting of The Secret River, the Kate Grenville novel and
recent ABC drama (film buffs note: it was filmed mostly in East
Gippsland’s untouched Lake Tyers). Cost $199 adults/ $149 concession
including Sydney CBD transfers and a bush tucker-inspired lunch. Phone (02) 9099 4249. See
sydneyoutback.com.au.
 


KIDS: Big fish meet small fry

A week into school holidays and out
of ideas? New zookeeper workshops let kids feed crocodiles and pat
pythons at the Australian Reptile Park at Somersby, on the Central
Coast, (see
reptilepark.com.au) while in the Hunter Valley, kids as young as six weeks have tickled
three-metre tawny nurse sharks at Irukandji Shark & Ray Encounters,
all served up with a strong conservation message (from
$29.50/$19.50/$95, see
sharkencounters.com.au). If you’re on the Gold Coast, Whales in Paradise runs three trips a
day to witness the annual migration of 20,000 whales (from $99/$69/$267
family,
whalesinparadise.com.au), and humpbacks, minke and southern right whales are now holidaying
along the South Coast. Jervis Bay Wild runs two whale-watching tours
each day, seven days a week, departing from Huskisson, 2.5 hours from
Sydney ($65/$28/$165,
jervisbaywild.com.au).
 

 

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.

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.

Catch your own fresh seafood: food adventures in Australia

Surrounded by sea, and with lakes and rivers aplenty,
Australia is a fisherman’s heaven.

Kiss the fish,  eat the fish: your call. If you’re dropping in to drop a line in, here are a few tips for fishing in Aus, part of Tourism Australia‘s campaign to invite the world to dinner with Restaurant Australia

Surrounded by sea, Australia is one of the world’s largest islands
and has more than 8,000 smaller islands around it, which means it’s a
fisherman’s heaven. Drop a line in a quiet brook, cast for trout across a
calm river or chase the big ocean fish – marlin and tuna. The locals
say you’ve got to think like a barramundi to catch Australia’s craftiest
fish. Hunt for lobster and crabs or go rock-hopping on the pools along
the continent’s shore. Seafood lovers or catch-and-release sports
fishermen, the choice is yours.

Black Marlin, Cairns, Queensland

North Queensland is the home of the legendary Black Marlin, the
fighting fish of the ocean that is found on the fringes of the Great
Barrier Reef. Departing from Cairns’ busy marina, head out for a day’s
fishing or sleep on a boat to squeeze every minute out of your holiday.
Lovers of serious luxury should snap up Cairns Reef Charters’
package that includes a stay at Lizard Island Lodge during September to
December, when the marlin are in town. Curious anglers may also be keen
to try saltwater fly fishing on the reef.

Trout and salmon fishing, Tarraleah, Tasmania

Swap the buzz of the city for the serenity of Tasmania’s highlands.
Listen to the singing of the line on the lake as you indulge in some of
the world’s best freshwater fishing.
Discover secret beauty spots where Atlantic salmon as well as brown,
rainbow and American brook trout can be found. The brown trout season
runs August to May, with early December the peak period.

Tiwi Adventures, Tiwi Islands, Northern Territory

Most anglers make the journey to chase the mighty barramundi, Australia’s great sporting fish.

If your idea of a holiday is somewhere less inhabited and remote, the Tiwi Islands
are the place. A 30-minute flight from Darwin, most anglers make the
journey to chase the mighty barramundi, Australia’s great sporting fish.
Other species that will give you a run include blue salmon, saratoga,
mangrove jacks and estuary cod. Off-shore the waters teem with another
great fighting fish, queenfish, as well as jewfish and snapper.
Australia’s first barramundi base, Bathurst Island Lodge, reopened in
March 2013. There are two other lodges on the Tiwi Islands, which are
also famous for their indigenous art and culture.

Trout Fishing, Snowy Mountains, NSW

Fishing in Western Australia, Facebook photo by True North Mark

Learn to fly fish in rivers and streams, pick up the tricks of
trolling, spin the lakes and hear the secrets of the best lures for
trout with fish guru Steve Williamson,
who has been fishing the waterways of the Snowy Mountains for 25 years.
Williamson is based in Jindabyne, two hours’ drive from Canberra. From
beginner fishing lessons to weekend adventures, it’s a year-round
fishing destination, but best during summer when the brown, rainbow and
brook trout come out to play.

Lobster Shack tours, Cervantes, Western Australia

Watch the skipper pull lobster pots from the deep blue sea and cook it up for your lunch. Lobster Shack Tours
launch from Cervantes, two hours’ drive north of Perth, to sail into
the Jurien Bay Marine Park to the isolated Cervantes Islands, home to
colonies of raucous sea lions and pods of dolphins. The locals have been
fishing these waters for generations, and are happy to share their
favourite beach fishing spots including Hangover Bay and Thirsty Point;
or just drop a line off Cervantes jetty.

Hunt and Gather Tour, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia

You reap what you sow on this tour
on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula. Dive for abalone, fish for salmon
straight from the beach, hunt for oysters and gather ‘pipis’ – sweet
little shellfish found on the seashore. Your personal chef will prepare
the catch of the day on this safari, staying at waterfront accommodation
in Coffin Bay. Too tame? Add a cage dive with a Great White shark, swim
with Blue Fin tuna, sea lions and dolphins, or head into the outback,
flying over Lake Eyre and the remote Oodnadatta Track.

Queenscliff fishing, Victoria

“Life’s short, fish hard” say the fishermen of the Bass Strait, the
stretch of sea that separates mainland Australia from Tasmania. Game Rec’s
charters depart from Queenscliff and Sorrento, either side of the bay
that encircles Melbourne, and your hook should snare seriously big
snapper, kingfish, barracouta and squid, not to mention delicious local
flathead. They’ll clean your catch ready for the barbecue, or you can
kiss the fish and send it back to sea.

 This story by Belinda Jackson was first published by Tourism Australia, who is inviting the world to dinner. 

To read more about Australia’s fantastic food culture, best restaurants, wineries and producers, visit the brand, spanking new Restaurant Australia website.