Journey through three ‘Stans: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan & Turkmenistan

Registan Square, Samarkand

I have just spent six days on the Golden Eagle – a private train travelling along the web of Silk Road routes, from Almaty in Kazakhstan though Uzbekistan and to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.

I’ve long wanted to visit the ‘Stans, but as the song goes, it was just that the timing was wrong. So the chance to visit aboard a luxury train couldn’t be passed up.

Travelling along the Silk Road, my journey from Almaty to Ashgabat.

Of all the stops on this journey – Almaty, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and Ashgabat, the winner of the beauty prize is Samarkand.

Its Registan Square, pictured above, is just so big, and so awe inspiring, it’s almost overwhelming to try to take in all its beauty in one day, let alone in one photo.

However, it was the quieter, more secretive streets of Khiva that possibly caught my attention. Even though its historic Old City isn’t lived in anymore, it just seemed to have more life. Maybe it was the fact it had more scarf and textile shops, each tucked into a picturesque niche lined with Uzbekistan’s trademark turquoise tiles.

This part of the world is no stranger to travellers – these oasis towns have been receiving new ideas, cultures, languages and religions since time began.

But they’ve slipped off the radar in recent decades, only to be coaxed back on by new, more lenient visa requirements and our desire – and ability – to explore further, with international flights now into all the major cities.

A few details:

I flew into Almaty and out of Ashgabat via Dubai with its low-cost carrier, fly Dubai.

The Golden Eagle is a luxury private train that started its great rail journeys on the iconic Trans-Siberian route across Russia, www.goldeneagleluxurytrains.com

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains.

 

 

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).
 

 

Ski Victoria, prison sleeps and luxe trains in Ireland: Takeoff travel news

SNOW: Winter is coming

Victoria’s ski season opened on the
Queen’s Birthday long weekend (June 6), with more bang for its buck. The
state’s most popular resort, Mount Buller, begins with fireworks and
new snowmakers pumping out up to 30 per cent more snow (mtbuller.com.au) while nearby Mount Stirling’s renovated Nordic Centre ramps up its cross-country gear offerings (mtstirling.com.au). Mount Hotham has new two-hour ski and snowboard masterclasses and is
now linked with nearby Dinner Plain by the 12-kilometre Brabralung
Indigenous Interpretation Trail, a crosscountry ski trail that follows
an ancient route of the ‘‘first peoples’’ of the Alps (mthotham.com.au). Dinner Plain also has a new tubing Snow Park with night tubing,
while family-friendly Lake Mountain has expanded its Snowman’s Village,
with a fourth toboggan slope and new snowshoeing trails. Finally,
Victoria’s largest ski resort, Falls Creek, hosts the 25th year of the
annual Kangaroo Hoppet cross-country event on August 22 (fallscreek.com.au).
 


HOSTEL: Sleep tight in Freo’s lock-up

Spend the night behind bars and pay
for the privilege. However, you won’t have to rob a bank to sleep at the
new Fremantle Prison YHA, which costs from just $28 a night in a 10-bed
dorm (and half-price throughout May – that’s $14). 

The 19th-century jail first opened in 1855 and is World Heritage-listed, with the last prisoners checking out in 1991. 

You can sleep in a cell, still with
locks, spyholes, original walls and floors, in an eight-bed guard’s
cottage or in the (more spacious) new extension. Rooms range from
private twin and family rooms with en suites to dorms, with a
selfcatering

kitchen, Wi-Fi, laundry and games
rooms for all. There are also plans afoot for outdoor movie nights, a
volleyball court and giant chess. Twin-bed cells cost from $68, $120 for
a double with en suite, or $140 for family rooms. Phone (08) 9433 4305, see
yha.com.au.
 


TRAIN: The green miles

Are trains the new cruise ships?
Glide through the greenery of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern
Ireland on the Belmond Grand Hibernian, the country’s first luxury
train, which is now taking bookings for its inaugural season, in 2016.
Aboard, there are just 40 guests in 20 en suite cabins, with restaurant
and observation bar cars, kitted up for two-, four- or six-night
itineraries.

  
The train visits the island’s beautiful cities, pausing for such quintessential experiences as

kissing the Blarney Stone, catching
traditional Irish music and visiting renowned castle gardens. Like a
cruise itinerary, you can also add

extensions to the journey, such as a day on the green for a round of golf or a tour of cultural Dublin. The two-night Realm of Giants tour,
from Dublin to Belfast and Portrush, costs from $4470 a person,
including all meals, drinks and excursions including the

Giant’s Causeway and Titanic Experience. Phone 1800 000 395, see
belmond.com/grandhibernian.
 

GEAR: Keep cool with military precision

You don’t muck around getting food
from the supermarket, do you? You’re more a hunt-and-gather type,
snagging barra, snaring crabs or chasing calamari. This new bin from the hard guys of gear, Pelican Products, is a prince among wheeled portable coolers. The new elite cooler can roll over the toughest terrain with its two large wheels and sturdy pull-along handle. It has a 75.7-litre capacity with a
built-in bottle opener and a fish measure that is moulded into the lid,
so you can ensure your catch is legal. Want more tough talk? 

Its military-grade insulation is
guaranteed to keep drinks at polar temps, it’s also certified grizzly
bear resistant (though we don’t know how it would stack up against our
koalas) and comes with a lifetime guarantee. Ideal for the boat, the

beach or heading into the outback. The Pelican ProGear™ Elite 80QT Cooler costs $649.95. See
PelicanProGear.com.au.
 


TECH: Fickle pick-and-mix travellers can triple dip

Brand loyalty is so last century:
today’s travellers shop for the best prices and experiences across
brands and across the world. However, the pick-and-mix approach makes it
tough to rack up points on loyalty cards. Travel company Expedia has
launched its own loyalty program, Expedia+, which lets you collect
points on bookings made through its website. It also means you can still
claim points with your frequent flyer programs and also your credit
cards – effectively a points triple dip. Expedia+ members can get
benefits such as bar or spa discounts at hotels, and it promises to
price match lower quotes on flights, car hire, hotels, cruises and
packages. Book through its mobile app and snap up the launch promotion
of triple points. See
expedia.com.au.

KIDS: Littlest lifesavers

Teach your kids essential skills
with a First Aid for Kids class that could save your life. The one-hour
classes are hands-on to hold short attention spans, and are tailored for
kids as young as kinder age up to 13 years. Run by First Aid instructors (many of

whom are also parents), kids learn about dialing 000, managing asthma, what to do for bites or stings, CPR and blood loss. Trainers are based in all capital
cities and come to your location to teach groups (minimum 10 children).
There’s also a superhero certificate and stickers at the end of the
course. “Our age-specific kids’ courses give them self-confidence and
teach important development skills,” says director Mary Dawes. Ideal
preparation for the big round-Australia trip or backyard escapades. Costs $12 a child. Phone 1300 853 050, see
firstaidforyou.com.au. 

Singapore slings, Mystical India and train travel in Tassie: Takeoff travel news

West Coast Wilderness Railway

Recently, I had to sling a Singapore Sling in the historic bar of Raffles Hotel, and the history was palpable. From the ‘last tiger in Singapore found under the pool table’ stories to the gracious verandahs with their rattan chairs and high teas. It’s 100 years since the Sling was first slung – scroll down to find out more. 

TRAIN
Full steam ahead
Explore Tasmania’s remote, mountainous west coast on the restored
steam trains of the newly reopened West Coast Wilderness Railway. The copper mining
rail line closed down in 1963 before reopening as a tourist train for a decade
until 2013. A recent $12m government investment has since seen 12,000 sleepers
replaced on what is the steepest railway in the southern hemisphere, and the
full 34.5km length of the original track, from Strahan to Queenstown, is open
once again. The historical railway was built with hard labour in the 1890s by
teams of Irish workers, and serves up plenty of juicy historical tales of feuds
and swindling. You don’t have to be a trainspotter to appreciate the beauty of
the three locomotives, which date back to 1896. Choose between full or half-day
journeys through old-growth rainforest and over King River Gorge, from
$95/adult, $40 children or $220 families in the Heritage carriage, or fully
catered with High Tea and Tasmanian sparkling wine in the Wilderness Carriage. Phone
(03) 6471 0100, see wcwr.com.au

India’s mystical Brahmaputra River.
TOURS
Mystical India
Explore busy tea markets, visit silk sari weavers and sleep
on the world’s largest inhabited river island, Majuili, amidst the dramatic
Brahmaputra River on a journey through north-eastern India. The 14-day tour
begins in Guwahati and visits the tribal lands and spots the exotic wildlife of
Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. “It is the least explored, but easily the most
exotic part of India,” says John Zubrzycki, a foreign correspondent and author who
has set several historical biographies in India. Zubrzycki, a self-confessed
Indiaphile, leads the first-time Hidden Lands, Forgotten Frontiers tour from
November 19-December 3, 2015, departing from Kolkata. Costs from $7835 a person
(excluding international airfares), includes a $200 donation to the boat
medical clinics on the Brahmaputra River. travelonq.com.au.
The Singapore Sling
FOOD
Celebrating the
centenary
Singapore is in serious birthday mode: the little country
turns just 50 this year, but its national drink, the Singapore Sling, is twice
its age, celebrating 100 years since it was first slung. The pink drink was
concocted in 1915 in the Long Bar of Raffles hotel by barman Ngiam Tong Boon,
and is now served on the nation’s airlines and in bars across the city. Mix
snacking and shaking in a Singapore Sling Masterclass in the Long Bar, where
you’ll learn how to blend gin Dom Benedictine and Cointreau, snack on satay and
take home a Singapore Sling glass. Costs $83 a person. Otherwise, grab a slice
of the new SlingaPore cake – lime sponge with pineapple mousse, Singapore Sling
marmalade and cherry jelly – in the hotel’s Ah Teng Bakery. See raffles.com/Singapore.

KIDS
Iced escapades
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most practical, like
this Dripstick, which does exactly what it says on the tin – stops that lurid,
bubble-gum flavoured ice-cream from slopping down the back of the car seat. The
Dripstick’s plastic holder lets kids get a better grip on their iced treats and the
internal funnel fits pointed cones, great when the cone’s base inevitably dissolves.
But wait, there’s more: fill the hollow handle with juice and slip in the
accompanying popsicle stick, freeze and you’ve got home-made ices. An added
bonus – it’s made from BPA-free, recyclable plastic. Available in six colours,
$12. See thanksmum.com.au.

  
Papua New Guinea adventure on True North.
TECH
Online cruising
We Australians are avid cruisers, with cruising of all
persuasions the fastest-growing sector of our tourism market. Luxury travel
company Abercrombie & Kent has just launched a new cruise website in demand
for what it describes as consistent double-digit growth over the last few
years. Choose from a Papua New Guinea adventure on True North (pictured), a French barge holiday, an expedition cruise through the
High Arctic or a small-ship exploration of the Amazon. According to A&K’s
Sujata Raman, the polar regions are their guests’ most popular choice, followed
by Myanmar river cruising and the Galapagos Islands, for premier wildlife
viewing. The company’s newest product is the small luxury Sanctuary Ananda on
the Ayeyarwady river in Myanmar. See akcruising.com.au.
 
The historic foyer of The Victoria Hotel, Melbourne
HOTEL
The Vic gets slick
It’s been overrun by American troops, been a booze-free Temperance
League stronghold and been on business tycoon Christopher Skase’s assets list.
Now Australia’s largest 3.5-star hotel, the Victoria Hotel on Melbourne’s
Little Collins St, has had a $20 million facelift. Unusually, the number of
rooms in The Vic has decreased, from 464 down to 370 larger rooms, all with
free wi-fi in a tidy refurbishment across the entire hotel, including the
historic lobby and public bar (which replaced beef tea with bellinis in the
60s). The hotel turns 135 this year and kicked off Melbourne’s laneways coffee
scene as the Victoria Coffee Palace back in 1880. It joined Accor’s budget-conscious
Ibis Styles brand two years ago and is owned by the Schwartz Family Company,
who is also developing the Sofitel on Darling Harbour, to open in 2017. Rooms in
the Victoria Hotel cost from $98 a night when booked 20 days in advance. Quote
‘early booking offer’. Phone 1800 331 147, see victoriahotel.com.au.

The Takeoff travel news column by Belinda Jackson is published each Sunday in Sydney’s Sun-Herald Traveller section. 

Weekend in Kosovo, off to the Olympics, secrets of the Big Apple: Takeoff travel news

Palenque ruins, Mexico

ADVENTURE

Into
the obscure
Fancy a weekend in Kosovo?  There are few corners of the globe that are
not comprehensively explored, but Intrepid Travel has revealed four new
destinations it says will sate the appetite of the most adventurous explorer.
The tours are the first wave of unusual locations in its new Expedition range,
which could see you uncover your inner Indiana Jones in a southern Mexican
jungle, hike in the Svaneti region of the former Soviet republic of Georgia,
get in the thick of the Rabaul Mask Festival in Papua New Guinea or sail the
ancient Lake Ohrid on a journey through Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia. The 15-day journey
through the Balkan states costs from $1795 a person and departs September 5. See intrepidtravel.com/theme/expeditions.

GEAR
Crumpler off to
the Olympics
Melbourne luggage brand Crumpler is packing its bags for Rio and
joining our athletes as the official supplier of luggage to the 2016 Australian
Olympic Team. It will be kitting the team out with the Vis-à-Vis trunk
78 centimetre trunk, a hard-shell case bound by sturdy fabric belts and handle for easy,
secure hauling. Currently, the Vis-à-Vis range comes in a black shell, with red,
lime, black or clear handles. The Olympic colour range is yet to be revealed, and
will tie in with the team’s formal uniforms, designed for the seventh time by Sportscraft.
The competition and training uniforms, footwear and casual clothing will again
be designed by Adidas. Expect the big reveal around mid-2016. Crumpler’s
Vis-à-Vis range comes with a lifetime warranty, and the range also includes a 68-centimetre trunk, a 55-centimetre cabin bag and an
attaché case. The 78-centimetre trunk costs $545. See crumpler.com.au.

KIDS

Best seat in the
house
Intrepid families will love this simple bag, which is
designed to pack up your kid’s car seat and protect it when you’re on the move.
The bag is padded on all sides so you can include the car seat as checked-in luggage,
and is made from water-resistant fabric. It can also be worn as backpack for a
hassle-free, hands-free trek through the airport when you’ve run out of arms
pushing trolleys and reining in children. Great for those who prefer to
BYO car seat on driving holidays, the bag measures 45cm W x34cm H x45cm D. The
JL Childress Black Ultimate Car Seat Travel Bag costs $69.95. See
thestorknest.com.au.
FOOD/TRAIN
Silver service, gold-rush route
The scenery is fabulous in the Canadian Rockies, but the food can
be great, too. The Rocky Mountaineer train network is adding 840 SilverLeaf
Service seats to its Rainforest to Gold Rush route, which journeys deep into
the Canadian Rockies. This train route deviates from the best-known Rockies
route from Vancouver to Toronto, and instead veers north to visit the ski mecca
of Whistler and Jasper via the gold-panning city of Quesnel. The SilverLeaf
class lets you dine in style, with local beers and wines from the British
Colombia’s Okanagan Valley. A two-day rail journey from Whistler to Jasper (or in reverse)
costs from $1865 a person. See rockymountaineer.com.
HOTEL
Northern newcomer
Brisbane’s CBD is currently enjoying a wave of new hotel
openings and the latest, Capri by Fraser, threw open its doors on April 1. The
Albert St property blends hotel and residence with 239 studios and one-bed apartments,
pool and gym as well as a restaurant bar and cafe by celebrity chef and paleo
poster boy, Pete Evans.  Expect design
touches including vertical garden walls and art installations as well as
ergonomic workspaces in the rooms. E-travellers can check-in by iPad and the
e-Concierge, while the rest of us will appreciate the 24-hour gym, in-room kitchenettes,
room service and laundry with Xbox Kinect. This is Fraser Hospitality’s fourth
Australian property, with Fraser Suites in Sydney and Perth and Fraser Place in
Melbourne. Capri by Fraser’s opening special costs from $179 a night, which
includes wi-fi and parking (Friday – Sunday nights) on stays until June 30.
Located at 80 Albert St, Brisbane. Phone 1800 110 800, see capribyfraser.com.
BOOK
Big Apple secrets
If you, like half the world, have a passionate affair with
Manhattan, tuck this modest book under your arm before you decamp to New York.
Its title is self-explanatory; Seeking
New York: the stories behind the historic architecture of Manhattan – One Building at a Time
. The book is based on the blog Daytonian in Manhattan, written by Tom Miller, a NY police inspector
originally from Daytonia, Ohio. His curious mind digs into the histories of 55 of
the borough’s buildings (there are many, many more on his blog), describing property
speculation in 1820s Canal Street, the impoverished Lower East Side at the turn
of the 20th century, great real estate coups and architectural
intricacies. There are grand triumphs and small stories: it’s also a history of
the people that made the city. “Never stop being a tourist, never stop looking
up,” says Miller. Costs $29.99. See allenandunwin.com.

The Takeoff travel news column by Belinda Jackson is published each Sunday in Sydney’s Sun-Herald Traveller section. 

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.  

Boasters with the mostest: ultimate travel experiences

The world’s highest bar, Ozone, in the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong

 Biggest, highest, most blindingly expensive. Belinda Jackson
rounds up the ultimate travel experiences, from super-luxe to just plain
boastful. 

LAND
Longest walking track

The Pacific Crest Trail runs 4264 kilometres from the US-Mexico
border to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington. Budget five
months to walk it entirely, or you can jump a pony, as the trail is also
open to equestrians. Yep, there are bears in there (pcta.org).

Longest train journey
The legendary Trans-Siberian generally wins this category,
with the 9289km journey from Moscow to Vladivostok via Lake Baikal
taking seven days. But as train guru the Man in Seat 61 points out (seat61.com),
the honour for the longest continual journey should go to the No. 53
Kharkiv (Ukraine)-Vladivostok route, about 9714km, another seven-day
epic.

The world’s highest train journey, on the Qinghai-Tibet railway

Highest train journey
More than 550km of the 1956km Qinghai-Tibet railway is laid
on permafrost. Every train has a doctor and enough oxygen for every
passenger, and the highest point is Tanggula Pass, at 5072m. It also
passes through the world’s highest and longest rail tunnels.

Highest bar

Drink in the views of Victoria Harbour at Ozone bar in the
Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong, Kowloon side. Set on level 118, it’s 468.8
metres above sea level (ritzcarlton.com).

Biggest building
Dubai’s Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building at 828
metres, with 124 levels. It also has the world’s fastest elevators and
highest restaurant (At.mosphere on level 122, 442m) (burjkhalifa.ae).

It holds the crown until 2018, when the 1000-metre Kingdom Tower in
Jeddah, in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, is complete. Another design by
Burj architect Adrian Smith, expect fewer nightclubs (kingdomtowerskyscraper.com).

Noma restaurant, Copenhagen

Best restaurant
Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant (noma.dk)
is back on top, bumping Spain’s El Celler de Can Roca off the perch as
the 2014 winner of the authoritative San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants (theworlds50best.com). Judges name the winter potato cooked in fermented barley as chef-owner Rene Redzepi’s standout dish.


Best ethical travel destination
The Bahamas has been named Ethical Traveler’s greenest
destination, taking into account its environmental protection, social
welfare and human rights.
Others in the top 10 include Chile, Latvia and Mauritius (ethicaltraveler.org).


Most expensive tours
With a spare million dollars, you can spot 18 endangered
species in 12 countries, with one-tenth going toward conservation
projects (naturalworldsafaris.com). Otherwise, $1.5 million will let couples visit all 962 UNESCO
World Heritage sites. Put aside two years. Its other tours include the
10 best photo spots, for $130,000 (includes cameras), and the 10 most
luxurious suites in 21 days for $359,000 (veryfirstto.com).


AIR
Biggest airport
The busiest airport by passenger numbers is
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, US, handling 92
million travellers a year, but yet again, Dubai gets in on the act: on
completion in 2027, its $32-billion Al-Maktoum International airport
will be able to accommodate 160 million passengers a year (dwc.ae).

Best airport
Singapore’s Changi airport consistently rates one of the
world’s best, taking out first place in Skytrax 2014 World Airport
Awards, followed by Incheon (Seoul) and Munich airports.
Sydney Airport was ranked Australia’s best, at No. 21 (worldairportawards.com).

Best airline
Air New Zealand was named AirlineRatings.com’s 2014 airline
of the year, with Qantas the best economy airline, while Skytrax 2013
World Airline Awards rates Emirates as the world’s best, followed by
Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines, with Qantas coming in at No. 10. (worldairlineawards.com).

Safest airline
Qantas holds the record as the world’s safest airline, with a
fatality-free record since 1951, says airlineratings.com, rivalled by
Air New Zealand, according to jacdec.de.

Most luxurious airline lounge
For those of us fortunate enough to get a look in, Lufthansa
first class lounges were named the world’s best first-class lounges
while Qatar Airways took the business class gong at Skytrax’ 2013 World
Airline Awards (worldairlineawards.com).

Longest flight
Like to watch movies? Qantas’ ultra long-haul flight from Sydney-Dallas is the longest flight by distance, at 13,804km (qantas.com.au).
Should Turkish Airlines enact its plans for an Istanbul-Sydney route,
it would take the crown for its 17-hour, 14,956km flight (turkishairlines.com).

Ultimate airline travel experience: A three-hour flight on
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo will cost $260,000, taking you 100km
above the earth, travelling at three times the speed of sound. Includes three days’ space training (virgingalactic.com). For a more modest $128,300, you can fly around the world in 24 days on Four Seasons’ new Boeing 757 private jets (fourseasons.com/jet).

SEA

Allure of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean International ship

Biggest cruise ship
The godmother of Allure of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean International ship, is super-sized Shrek ogress Princess Fiona. At 362 metres long and more than 225,000 tonnes, it can take
6295 passengers. The liner has 24 elevators, the first Starbucks at sea
and Broadway hit Chicago on show.
Its position will be usurped by another RCI ship, as yet unnamed, in 2016 (royalcaribbean.com).

Largest superyacht
With two helipads and a missile defence system, you can hire
Eclipse, owned by Russian oligarch and Chelsea football club owner Roman
Abramovich, for $2 million a week, excluding running costs.
At 162.5 metres, it’s the world’s second-biggest private
yacht after UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s new
180-metre yacht, Azzam, complete with armour-plated master suite.
The Azzam is not for hire.

Best beach
Brazil’s Sancho Bay on the remote island of Fernando de Noronha wins best beach, according to TripAdvisor.com.

Longest beach
Brazil wins again, with the 241km Praia do Cassino Beach. Gippsland’s Ninety-Mile Beach comes in fourth place. Whitest sand beach in the world: One for the home team,
according to the Guinness Book of Records, the whitest beach is Hyams
Beach in Jervis Bay, 2½ hours from Sydney.

Hyams Beach, Jervis Bay, NSW Australia

Best island
If money is your measure, you can rent the Caribbean’s
Calivigny Island in Grenada, for a cool $1.55 million a week. Sleeping
50 guests, it comes with a 173-metre yacht for your use (calivigny-island.com).More accessibly, the TripAdvisor community has voted Ambergris Caye, in Belize, its top island for the second year running (tripadvisor.com).

World’s highest pool
The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong’s pool, is the world’s highest at 490 metres (ritzcarlton.com), towering over Marina Bay Sands’ dizzying infinity pool, 55 storeys, or 198 metres, above Singapore (marinabaysands.com).

World’s biggest pool
Running alongside the ocean, the lagoon pool at the San
Alfonso del Mar resort, in Valparaiso, Chile, is 1013 metres long,
earning its Guinness Book of Records entry. The 8 hectare, 250
million-litre saltwater pool is a pleasant 26 degrees and has a
100-metre waterslide (sanalfonso.cl).
Its sister lagoon, in the Egyptian resort city Sharm el-Sheikh,
reportedly covers 12 hectares and a Dubai project, under way, will cover
40 hectares.

The world’s largest pool, San Alfonsa del Mar, Chile

BEDS
Largest hotel
By room count, the three-star Izmailovo Hotel in Moscow,
Russia, with 7500 rooms, is largest. Most of the world’s mega-hotels,
with 4000-plus rooms, are in Las Vegas.

Most expensive hotel room
At $73,177 a night, the Royal Penthouse Suite at the Hotel
President Wilson is on the banks of Lake Geneva, with views of Mont
Blanc. There are 12 rooms, 12 bathrooms, a Steinway grand piano and yes,
it’s bulletproof. More modest rooms start at $483 (hotelpresidentwilson.com).

Tallest hotel
Six of the top 10 tallest hotels are in Dubai, including the tallest, the JW Marriott Marquis Dubai, which tops 355 metres (marriott.com). At 488 metres, the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong is taller but is ruled out as the building is not solely a hotel.

Smallest hotel
Central Hotel, Copenhagen, 2.4m by 3m, including a minibar and photos of Ronnie Barker (the owner’s a fan), $360 a night. (centralhotelogcafe.dk).


This article by Belinda Jackson was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers.

Sustainable Melbourne

EDIT: I am very pleased to note that this feature, originally published in Honda Magazine, has won the Australian Society of Travel Writers’ 2014 award for Best Responsible Tourism feature.

Little Hunter, 195 Little Collins St, Melbourne

Travel
can be a guilty pleasure for the green-minded, but Melbourne shows how to blend
ecology and exploration without stinting on the good times, discovers Belinda
Jackson.



SHOP SUSTAINABLY
For
clothes with karma, vintage clothing is the classic sustainable fashion option:
what goes around, comes around.  Forget
fusty, Melbourne’s top shops yield fabulous finds. Check out one of Australia’s
largest vintage stores, Retrostar,
in the equally vintage Nicholas Building (1st floor, Nicholas Building,
37 Swanston St), while Shag finds all its clothing in
Melbourne (Centreway Arcade) and Circa
Vintage
has fashion dating from the Victorian era (1st Floor, Mitchell House, 358 Lonsdale St). 
Serious hunters, book your spot on a Melbourne Op Shop tour (0421 431 2780421 431 278, melbourneopshoptours.com.au).
Don’t want to wear clothes made by small children or
workers in life-threatening factories? Melbourne’s Etiko sources eco-friendly range of footwear and clothing from
owner co-ops in Argentina and Pakistani micro-businesses, so you can look good
outside and feel good inside. Shop online or see etiko.com.au for stockists.
Lisa Gorman designs
You can go green with current fashion: each season, top
Melbourne designer Lisa Gorman releases her gorman organic range, which uses organic and sustainably produced
fabrics produced without pesticides or with non-chemical processing (GPO Melbourne, Bourke
St Mall, gormanshop.com.au).
Out of the CBD grid, make like a Melburnian and jump a
tram for the fashion label, shop and café that is Social Studio for limited-edition garments handmade from reclaimed
and up-cycled material (126-128 Smith St, Collingwood, thesocialstudio.org).  On Saturdays, dig for handmade treasures at
the artists’ haven of Rose Street
Markets
(60 Rose St, Fitzroy).
ON THE TABLE
You know organic
and sustainable production are on trend when the quest takes you to some of the
city’s top tables, including Vue de
Monde
, for its salt-cured wallaby (Level 55, Rialto, 525 Collins St) and the signature smoked trout broth at Attica,
recently voted number 21 in the world’s top restaurants (74 Glen Eira Rd,
Ripponlea). Even old-school can go new school, as Italian dining staple Cecconi’s has demonstrated, becoming
the first restaurant to compost its food waste through the Closed Loop system:
the compost is used to grow vegetables on its Bellarine Peninsula farm (61
Flinders La).
Head underground to a recent Melbourne edition, Little Hunter, tucked away beneath city
streets, and order up on beef from the remote Tasmanian locations of Cape Grim and Robbin
Island or tiny Chatham Island’s Blue Cod with seagrasses.
Chef Gavin Baker sources all produces from farmers committed to organic
production and humane treatment (downstairs, 195 Little Collins St)
Melbourne’s café
scene is justly famous: check out the winner of the 2012 Tourism Victoria
Sustainability award, Silo by Joost, a
café that doesn’t have garbage bin. Everything is recycled, renewed or
composted, including the bench you’re sitting at (123 Hardware St, 03 9600
0588). Meanwhile, newcomer Dukes
Coffee Roasters
is pushing toward a carbon-neutrality with its emphasis on
minimising waste and off-set power, with organic and ethically produced
products. What does that mean for you? Seriously fine coffee (247 Flinders La).
And shoppers at Melbourne Central can grab a cuppa at social enterprise STREAT Café, which has so far trained
60 young homeless and at-risk kids into a hospitality career (Cnr Elizabeth
& La Trobe St and 5 McKillop St).
Kinfolk cafe, 673 Bourke St, Melbourne
Kinfolk is a rare bird: it is environmentally sustainable and also socially
responsible, its staff training volunteers to run serve local, organic,
good-tasting food. A private enterprise by young entrepreneur Jarrod Briffa,
its high overheads are eased by the generosity of its patrons: coffee is
donated by crop-to-cup pioneers Di Bella, while meat is from renowned Barossa
organic producer Saskia Beer (673 Bourke St).


And
finally, self-caterers can find local produce at Queen Victoria Markets, which also has a section devoted to organic
fresh fruit and vegies (513 Elizabeth St).
PLAY NICELY
A night
on the town can also be good for your conscience when you start (or end) with a
drink at Shebeen, Australia’s first
not-for-profit bar. All profits go back to the countries where their drinks are
sourced: think Chilean wines, Sri Lankan beer, South African cider, (36
Manchester Lane).
Melbourne is also a playground for ‘green’ brewers. Pope Joan pours beers from Victorian independent
breweries such as Victoria’s Secret Hoppy Wheat Beer from North Melbourne and
Moondog ‘Love Tap’ Double Lager from Abbotsford (77 Nicholson St, Brunswick
East). Get on your bike into the Mountain
Goat Brewery
for real beer and pizza (Wednesdays & Fridays, 80 North
St, Richmond) or tram it to Monkey  for local, organic and biodynamic wine, beer and
cheese (181 St Georges Rd, Fitzroy North).
Alto on Bourke hotel
ECO-EXPLORE

Take a walking tour of the
city to orientate yourself (1300 311 0811300 311 081, melbournebyfoot.com)
and uncover the city’s vivid street art scene (03 9328 555603 9328 5556, melbournestreettours.com) or to get under the city’s skin, through its literature and laneways
(0407 380 9690407 380 969,meltours.com.au) Hit the shops with hunters of high quirk
(03 9663 335803 9663 3358, hiddensecretstours.com) or discover the city’s Aboriginal heart
(03 8622 260003 8622 2600, koorieheritagetrust.com)

SLEEP EASY

Alto on Bourke is Australia’s first carbon-neutral hotel
and winner of domestic and international sustainability awards. The 4-star
hotel uses 100 per cent renewable energy, harvests its rainwater, recycles and
uses energy-efficient cars. There are even beehives on the roof, as part of
Melbourne’s rooftop honey project: see the results on the breakfast buffet
alongside the fairtrade coffee (rooftophoney.com.au) There are 50 hotel rooms from petites to
three-bedroom apartments with full kitchenettes, employing the best environmentally
aware technology including LED lighting, low-water showerheads and an electric
Goget hire car on site, with free parking for all hybrid cars  (1800 135 1231800 135 123, altohotel.com.au)

GETTING AROUND GREEN
The best start to a green escape is to offset your airline flight, which
costs around $2 per flight. Melbourne’s CBD grid is a walker’s paradise: you
can cross the city by foot in about 20 minutes. Otherwise, it’s a short tram or
bus ride: the red Number 86 City Circle
tram
does free tours, as does the Melbourne
Shuttle Bus
(131 638, thatsmelbourne.com.au) If you need a car, consider a green car, which can be hired by the
hour from $15 (try flexicar.com.au,  greensharecar.com.au
or goget.com.au) or go
luxe with an eco-limo (ecolimo.com.au) Melbourne
Bike Share
hires bike for 30 minutes for free (1300 71 5901300 71 590, melbournebikeshare.co.au)

DIARY DATE
Keep a day free for the 2014 Sustainable Living Festival,
held annually in Melbourne. Expect fabulous fashion, thoughtful thinktanks,
green markets, gardening and art. Now on until 23 February, 2014, slf.org.au.
This article was published in Honda magazine. 

Go underground, go outback, go AWOL: travel deals 19 January 2014

Hanging around at Kamalaya,
Koh Samui, Thailand

Take a Thai spa, check into a cave hotel, rail across Australia or get the kids’ skates on with new Skoot luggage.

Go now: Turkey
Explore Istanbul’s palaces, the limestone terraces of
Pamukkale and sleep in a Cappadocian cave hotel on a 10-day Turkish Delights
tour. Book by February 28 for travel until March and save $100. From $970 a
person, twin share. 131 398, travelscene.net.au.
Go sooner:
Thailand
Get a post-Christmas detox and save 20 percent at
Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary & Holistic Spa, on Koh Samui. Stay five nights,
pay for four, with free yoga, tai chi, qi gong, pilates and a body analysis
included, from March 1-April 30. From $955 a person, five nights.  +66 77 429 800, kamalaya.com.
Go later:
Trans-Australia
Save 20 percent on 10 holiday packages on The Ghan train
journey from Adelaide to Darwin, including the Rock & Rail tour, which adds
in two nights and tours in Alice Springs. Book by February 28, travel May 1-October
31. From $1741 a person, twin share. 1800 725 993, greatsouthernrail.com.au.
KIDS
Scoot cute
Cute kids’ luggage abounds, but is it useful? The Skoot
is a 13-litre suitcase, a boredom buster and a mode of transport in busy
airports. 
The shoulder strap allows parents to sling the scooter over their
shoulder and it doubles as a pull cord to rein in recalitrant cruisers. The
ride-on hard case also fits most cabin luggage requirements. Suitable for kids
from 3-6 years. $79.95, (03) 9824 6770,  littlegulliver.com.au.

This feature by Belinda Jackson was published in the Sun-Herald newspaper.