Travel deals: Indonesia’s Gili islands

Flying to Fiji’s Mamanucas with the kids.

Those looking beyond Bali into the rest of Indonesia’s archipelago are finding themselves in the Gili Islands off the coast of Lombok, a two-hour fast ferry from Bali. Otherwise, we love Noos-aaah or pootling around Fiji by seaplane. 

If you’d prefer to play winter princess, check out a tour from Helsinki to St Petersburg, WWI battlefields or (dare we say it) Victoria’s Philip Island? It’s all here, in this week’s best international and domestic travel deals.
GO NOW
QUEENSLAND
Get two nights free when you book a seven-night holiday,
worth $950, at the absolute beachfront apartments at Seahaven Noosa until July
31. The 4.5-star property includes four heated pools, spa, gym and bbq. From $2375,
seven nights. (07) 5447 3422, seahavennoosa.com.au.
RUSSIA
Travel by coach and rail from Helsinki to St Petersburg
and Moscow on the nine-day Tsar Route tour and save $225. Includes transport,
accommodation in first-class hotels, breakfast and sightseeing. Available  August-September 2014. Costs $1891 a person,
twin share. 1300 668 844, eetbtravel.com.
The glamour of the Russian empire
GO SOON
VICTORIA
Take a
break on Phillip Island and get $200 of extras including dinner, wine and a
three-parks pass that includes the Penguin Parade when you stay two nights in a
studio spa room at the Ramada Resort Phillip Island. Costs $484, two nights,
until August 31. (03) 5952 8000, ramadaphillipisland.com.au.
The new Karma Reef hotel on Gili Meno, Lombok
INDONESIA
Tiny Gili Meno is one of a trio of hip isles of the coast
of Lombok, two hours by boat from Bali. The new boutique resort Karma Reef’s low-season
special runs from October 1, 2014 – March 31, 2015 (excludes Christmas).
Normally $315 a night, from $170 B&B for two. +62 370 642 340,
karmaroyalgroup.com.
GO LATER
NEW SOUTH WALES
Celebrate
spring by reconnecting with nature at the eco-accredited Paperbark Camp near
Jervis Bay, and save up to $440 throughout September and midweek
(Sunday-Thursday) in October. From $500, two nights, with gourmet breakfast,
bikes, kayaks and stand-up paddling. 1300 668 167, paperbarkcamp.com.au.
JORDAN
Discover the Roman ruins, Crusader castles and ancient
Nabataen civilisation of Petra on an 11-night tour through this beautiful
desert country. Book by September 30 and receive all entrance fees to sites
free. Departs March 30, 2015. From $4989 a person, twin share. (07) 3372
4833,  gypsiantours.com.au
KIDS
FIFO TO FIJI
Petra, Jordan
Travel is half the adventure, especially when you catch a
family fly-in, fly-out package to Fiji’s Castaway Island in the Mamanucas. The
five-night offer includes helicopter and sea plane transfers for two adults and
two kids from Nadi airport to the island. There’s also plenty of water action,
with snorkelling, a dolphin safari, sunset cruise and a ride on a banana boat
included. From $5470 for a family of four, available until March 31, 2015. +679 666 1233, castawayfiji.com
TOURWATCH
BATTLEFIELD TOUR
Follow a soldier’s footsteps on a guided tour of Europe’s
most poignant battlefields during the centenary years of WWI. The 12-day tour travels from London to Amsterdam
via France and Belgium to the D-Day landing beaches of Normandy, the
battlefields of the Somme and Ypres’ Menin Gate. Highlights include the new
First World War Galleries in the Imperial War Museum in London, and lighter
moments are found in a wine tasting in Reims and dinner in a local’s home in
Amsterdam. From $3775 a person, twin share. 1300
663 043, trafalgar.com.

This travel deals column by Belinda Jackson is published in Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper every Sunday.

Dead in the Water (or, How I Caught a Cold in the Name of Work)

I had to do it, even though it is the middle of winter. I had to swim in the Dead Sea, then cover myself in a thick black mud and then sit on one of Jordan’s cold, unsunny, stony beach to wait for the mud to dry till it cracked on my skin and fell off like eczema flakes. In all, not a pretty sight. I did it for you…

Dead Sea mud is supposed to be the oldest elixir of youth. Certainly the water in it is as old as time. The creation story goes that once there was a large ocean covering this part of the Middle East and as the land changed, it split into the Mediterranean Ocean, the Black, Red and Dead Seas and a series of lakes and rivers linking the ancient waterway.

The Dead Sea is fed by a stream from the River Jordan, mixing new water with the ancient brine that is so salty that you do indeed bob like a cork. Logic has it that the Dead Sea would taste disgusting. So why do we insist on tasting it? I tasted it. Absolutely gut-wrenchingly gross, a weird mix of sea salt and a deep, medicinal taste of stale water.

I walked into the water fearing for the old paper cuts running across four fingers, but they must have closed over because they didn’t sting like I expected they would. Then, while musing this unexpected wonder, I tripped on a stone and grazed my toes. People, I can report that yes it hurts like buggery when the salt gets in.

But it’s weird: you know when you swim in a really salty sea, you can see the salt crystals clinging to your skin while you dry? When you waddle out of the Dead Sea, the water clings like an oily film to your skin, which is not unpleasant.

I slathered on the black mud, kept company only by the lifeguard – smart tourists were staying off the chilly beach this morning, and that was fine with me. Until, to my mortification, a super-conservative Indian/US Muslim family came down to the water’s edge. It is a mark to the wife’s gregarious nature that we struck up a lovely conversation: she in her 18th-century bonnet and long skirts, me in nothing but a grubby bikini and slick of black mud.

I am still bewildered as to where the mud actually comes from. I didn’t see any pits but the local boys bring it up each morning to the public beaches and a few dollars will see you smearing yourself with thick, black primordial ooze. Yes, ok. I paid for it. And then I cruised the gift shops so I could pay for it again, but in nicer packaging than a large dirty bucket.

The most fashionable lable for Dead Sea cosmetics (face moisturisers, hair masks, eye gel, foot scrubs and yes, just straight bags of mud) is Rivage, a Jordanian-French enterprise with chic packaging and good marketing. There are plenty of B-grade labels, but really, how will packaging make me look 14 again, I ask?

What you didn’t know about Jordan..


The Dead Sea is 400 meters below sea level, the lowest point on earth.

Jordanian wine is actually very palatable.

Cheap labour comes from Egyptians.

In winter, racing camels are rugged up with a poncho with a hole cut out for the hump to slip through.

Jordan is actually the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, ruled by King Abdullah.

King Abdullah II’s father looked like Sean Connery and his son like Harry Potter. The king’s mother is Scottish.

Lawrence of Arabia lived in Wadi Rum, in southern Jordan..

A donkey can set you back US$500.

The Dead Sea is oily.

Quick biblical facts on events in Jordan:

Jesus was baptised.

John the Baptist was decapitated.

Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt, and still stands.

Moses died.

Salome danced the dance of the Seven Veils in front of King Herod.

And finallly, if you were looking for it, Jordan is the site of the original Sin City, Sodom & Gomorrah.

Temple fatigue

I admit it: I have been avoiding Jordan. After a solid effort schlepping around Egypt’s antiquities, not to mention those of Morocco and Iran, I thought the ancient city of Petra, built around the first century BC, would be just wasted on me.

I was suffering a serious case of temple burn-out. Show me another Roman ruin, hear me scream.

Last night, I finally faced my fears and visited the jewel of Jordan, Petra, by night. The ruins are fabulously intact, and lit by hundreds of candles, an international group gathered at 8.30pm to walk down to the most amazing building, the Treasury.

The rules were clear: no mobile phones, no photos and, incredibly, no talking.

Silence is the key, as you walk through the Siq, the crack in the canyon that leads into this secretive building.

“Please walk in single file, but couples can walk hand-in-hand, and we wish our singles the best of luck,” said the organisers in their opening spiel.

Unfortunately, none of the Spaniards in the group (and there were many) heard the instructions because…well, they were all talking. I realised early on in the piece that I’d have to isolate myself from the Continental types and hitch up with the law-abiding northern Europeans and Anglos. Worked like a charm.

The canyon’s walls rise up to 80 meters high, dwarfing us in darkness as we followed the trail of candles. When we reached the 2000-year old Treasury building, performers played traditional instruments, eerie in the night air.

I spent the whole day today in Petra by daylight, and after walking about 20km, with help from a few trotting horses and plenty of sugar-fuelled sage-infused tea from charming Bedouin women, I’m suffering temple fatigue, again.

Jordan: of magic and the ownership of miracles

“And this is where Jesus was baptised,” said the guide, pointing at a dry riverbed. The empty creek is an arm of the River Jordan. From our position in the far west of Jordan, we could see the skyline of Jericho, and later, when the sun went down, the lights of Jerusalem.

A short walk along a tree-lined path took us to the river proper, the natural border between Jordan and Israel and Palestine. I splashed cool water at Israel and admired the new buildings on the opposite side of the river. The baptismal site of Jesus is recorded in the Bible, in mosaics on the floor of the ancient church by the site and from writings by travellers of the day. However, there are some who maintain that the baptismal site is actually on the other side of the river, on the Israeli side. The guide told me there is, in fact, only one country making the allegations. Sure you can work it out.

Today, we also wandered around the fabulous citadel that rests on one of the seven hills of Amman. It’s suggested the Roman temple was dedicated to Hercules, the find of a massive clenched fist amongst the excavated rubble being a dead giveaway. Fingers the size of an average-sized Jordanian woman.

In Madaba, I visited the Basilica of St George to see its world-famous mosaic floor, featuring a map of the world at the time. The resident guide talked me through it all: Egypt here, Bethlehem there, Jerusalem up a bit…

“It’s an historical map, not a geographic map,” said the guide mildly when I queried the fact that Egypt was on the wrong side of the Red Sea. Moses was lost for 40 years on the Sinai peninsula, it would have been longer if he was using this map.

Speaking of Moses, the man who led his people to the Promised Land featured prominently today, as I walked up Mt Nebo, where he died and ascended into Heaven – no body was ever found.

I’m going to go into a bit of religious theory here, so hang on: one of the fundamentals of Islam is the belief in the prophets, of which there were many, and Moses (or Musa in Arabic) is one of the biggies. So, implicit in the religion is the belief he spent four decades lost in the wilderness, had a hotline to God and shot up to heaven when his time was up.

“Sure I believe,” said a devout friend of mine recently. “It was a time of magic on earth, but that time has ended.”

And so ends my first day in Jordan. Tomorrow: hopefully shimmy past Sodom & Gomorrah, the ruins of Petra and, if I’m up early, a wallow in Dead Sea mud.

Experiences of Jordan

The cultural custard that is the world is painfully evident in Amman at 4am today, as I decamp from Bangkok for a four-hour killer stopover till Cairo. The toilet attendant is Egyptian, the woman naughtily smoking in the loos and chatting with her is Iranian, but gets her Australian citizenship in April. The Starbucks is the only place open, playing trad jazz and while it won’t accept American Express credit cards, will take (and give change in) US dollars and the bored baristas are all perfectly fluent in English…

One of the ways to kill time is playing with this blog so I’ve changed the colours and thrown my hand open to something about ‘followers’. Painful, I know. Don’t make me suffer the embarrassment of having to invent false followers:) I’ve also made it easier to make comments after a couple of you said you couldn’t give out to me publicly online;) Go sick, people.