I’m a journalist, travel writer, editor and copywriter based in Melbourne, Australia. I write pacy travel features, edit edifying websites and fashion flamboyant copy. My articles and photographs have appeared in publications worldwide, from inflight to interior design: I’ve visited every continent, and have lived in three. Want to work together? Drop me a line… 



Traveller: Takeoff travel news 20 July 2014

AIRLINE: Fresh bite of the Big Apple

Our passionate affair with New York gets
extra oomph when China Southern Airlines starts flying to the Big Apple via
Guangzhou, in southern China, from August 6. The service will run four times a
week on new generation Boeing B777-300ER aircraft to JFK airport, featuring cutting-edge
touchscreens in the pointy end and a new Premium Economy class with a 38-inch seat
pitch, up from the 32-inch pitch on standard economy seats. Use any layover
time to explore old Canton/new Guangzhou with its new
free 72-hour transit visas. China Southern now has two US hubs, New York and
LA, and codeshares with Delta from LA to eight cities including Atlanta, Boston,
Fort Lauderdale and Honolulu. The airline says the US is ‘earmarked for
expansion’. Stay tuned. 1300 889 628, csair.com.au.

KIT: Soft-shoe shuffle

If you’ve ever used ‘too bulky’ as a
reason not to pack runners, your lame excuse is no longer valid with
the discovery of Skechers GOwalk 2 travel shoes. A pair of average woman’s size
7 weighs just 226 grams and the mesh upper lets them squish down to fit even in
your carry-on, with no need for socks, so there’s more packing space for
shopping finds. Flexible and lightweight, the slip-ons are suitable for walking
the town and ideal for foxing airport x-ray scanners and shimmying down the
aisle on long-haul flights. Available in women’s, children’s and the men’s
GOwalk 2 – Maine. $99.95. 1800 655 154, skechers.com.au.

SITES: Road warriors
World Heritage Sites buffs should have
Peru in their sights as it now has 12 sites on its books, following the
addition of the Incan Great Trail to Machu Picchu. The UNESCO-listed Qhapaq Ñan (literally, ‘beautiful road’)
was the Incan empire’s super-highway, running 30,000km along the spine of the
Andes. Archeologists have also recently uncovered another ancient road leading
to Machu Picchu, opening up new views (think: new camera angles!) of the
citadel, which was built around 1450 but remained hidden until its rediscovery
by a US historian in 1911. Other sites in Peru’s top 12 include the sacred city
of Caral-Supe and the Chavín Archaeological Site. peru.travel.

KIDS: Marking time 
the kids to draw on the walls at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, on
St Kilda Rd. In the dynamic Pastello – Draw Act playroom, kids can strap on helmets or shoes loaded with crayons and
run at the (paper-covered) walls to leave their anarchic
mark. There are also gigantic crayon pendulums and
a long drawing table with ‘cutlery crayons’ for small-scale masterpieces. The focus is on the movement and the act of drawing, not the
outcome, say Pastello’s creators, Italian design duo Erika Zorzi and
Matteo Sangalli. The interactive play space is also a
good time-out space for tattered tots. Open daily, 10am-5pm, until August 31. Free.

FOOD: State on a plate 
Put your city on a plate with the new Tapastry concept by feted chef and Pullman culinary ambassador Justin North. The sharing plates, devised by
North and the five-star hotels’ executive chefs, showcase
regional ingredients: we’re
talking Hawkesbury calamari, slow-cooked pork belly from the Northern Rivers or
single-origin chocolate by Zokoko, in the Blue Mountains. If you’re not leaving town, taste Tapastry at the Pullman Quay Grand Sydney Harbour or
Sydney Olympic Park, or go further afield at the Pullman Palm Cove Sea Temple
Resort in Palm Cove or Sails in the Desert, in Ayres Rock. The Tapastry concept is being rolled out
throughout the group’s 12 Australian five-star properties. 1300 656 565, pullmanhotels.com.

GADGET: Cool runnings 
You’re always running late, and your friends
know it. Skip the tedious ‘I’m on the train’ mobile call and give them get a
glimpse of your ETA with glimpse.com. The travel tracker pops your headshot up
on a dynamic, real-time map that you can share with nominated friends from
email, text, Facebook or Twitter. The info is available only for a designated
amount of time, up to four hours maximum, for added security. Best of all, the
app is free, with no accounts, passwords or logins, and you don’t even need to
have it installed to receive a glimpse.  Available
for iPhone, Android, and Blackberry users and now updated for Windows Phone 8.

FAMILY TRAVEL: Fiji for Teens
Kids too big for kids’ club? Let your teens explore Fiji
with the locals at the eco-friendly, five-star Jean-Michel Cousteau
Resort, recently voted best overseas family resort by Luxury Travel
magazine. The resort is up in the country’s wild northern island, Vanua
Levu, which teens can explore with a “buddy” from the activities
staff. Make a billi billi (bamboo raft) and head off swimming, hike
through the rainforest, go river tubing or snorkelling and finish off
with a beach bonfire. Free for teen guests 13 years and up. Stays cost
from $372 a person, twin share on a six-night stay from October 6 until
March 31 (excluding Christmas). 1300 306 171, fijiresort.com.

You may have noticed there are no deals on my website lately – I’m now writing the travel news for the Sun-Herald‘s Traveller section each week. To keep an eye on great deals, visit smh.com.au/travel 

Neutral territory: hotel review of Alto on Bourke, Melbourne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The writer stayed as a guest of Alto on Bourke.

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

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

Crossing the Maldives (while also dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s’)

Photo: Belinda Jackson

Endless beautiful islands, endless sun (except for the occasional monsoon), endless luxury. Immerse in all this fabulousness, it’s easy to miss Maldivian culture when you’re holidaying on the exclusive isles in the Laccadive Sea.
So here’s a quick fact hit: the local language
of the Maldives is Dhivehi. It draws on Arabic, Urdu and Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese. The alphabet, when printed on official signs, looks as though
someone’s been too lazy to finish writing their Arabic script, and not
imaginative enough to make it decorative. To the untrained eye, it could even
resemble a series of punctuation marks.

But what words you can create with its
25-letter alphabet! We’re trying to jump from the luxury resort of
Cocoa Island by COMO, famed for its diving, to its new sister property, Maalifushi by COMO, further
south and an up-and-coming star in the surf arena. If we had a sea plane, we
could skip between the two in a matter of hours.
But we don’t. 

Instead, we take Cocoa’s boat
40 minutes up to the capital Male’s airport, where we will take a commercial
flight south to Thimarafushi, and then another boat to Maalifushi. Lost yet?

(Incidentally, the island of Male is so
small, at just 4sqm, and so densely populated, with around 200,000 people – about half the nation’s population – that the airport is on the next island,
and linked by a taxi rank of public dhonis (local boats), who charge 15 rufiyya, or US$1, to
cross the water.)
Photo: Belinda Jackson
At Male airport, we learn that Thimarafushi airport 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.”
For a Maldivian to say something’s low, it
must be very, very low indeed. The highest point in the Maldives, incidentally,
is a towering 2.4m. The lowest official point is 1.5m. I’m tipping that point
is somewhere near Thimarafushi airport. 
So, back to language, instead of aiming for Thimarafushi,
we’re going to Kadhdhoo Kaadedhdhoo airport. Or so we think. Then we learn
we’re actually going to Kadhdhoo Kooddoo airport. 
Imagine trying to do a Maldivian crossword!

Down on the farm, Bhutan style

My farmhouse, Phobjike valley
It’s seven o’clock at night and the family has sat down for dinner. I can’t say the Jones
family, because Bhutanese don’t use surnames. But to draw you a picture,
there’s four generations in the room: granny and grandpa, mum and dad, their
daughter, her two-year-old daughter and seven-year-old niece.
They sit in a large circle that includes me, my guide Tshering and driver Tensing.
There are no tables or chairs in the Bhutanese house. Everyone sits on thin mats around the bhukhari (wood stove), and I admire the effortless half-lotus position that the 79-year-old grandfather, Tshewangla, adopts for his light dinner.
The white rice is sticky and is rolled with your hand into a tight ball and daubed with chilli cooked in
cheese sauce. Chilli is not a flavouring, chilli is a vegetable to be eaten at every meal, including breakfast.
Until 18 months ago, the women did all the cooking on a two-ring gas burner and on the wood stove. There was some light from the solar panels, but electricity has
changed all that. The warm kitchen is all very comfortable, with a fluorescent light above and a home-grown soapie on tv. A little cat sleeps by the wood
stove, and I spot a rice cooker, microwave, toaster and fridge. Butter and cheese are still often wrapped in rhododendron leaves to stop it from going hard.
Namgay Pem and her husband Phub Gaytshey.
“Electricity has changed our lives,” says Namgay Pem, the mother of the house. It’s helped them to have better sanitation and everyone loves the soap opera, which won an international award for its role in educating people about the dangers of HIV.
That night, as a special guest in a full house, I sleep in the altar room. Namgay’s husband, Phub Gaytshey, is a lay monk, and the room’s walls are covered in
elaborate paintings that pulsate with colour. One complete wall is taken up with a deep altar which Phub attends carefully each morning.
After Phub demonstrates his ritual of offering tea, incense, water and three prostrations to the altar, the two little girls show me their new three-day-old calf, safe
in a manger attached to the kitchen, and we pop a few arrows: archery is Bhutan’s national sport, and their obsession is comparable to, say, the AFL or English league.
We clamber in the 4WD to slip and slide up the muddy driveway, waving to the family. There is no word for ‘goodbye’ in Dzongkha, only ‘see you again’.

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