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… 

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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.


Taking a break in Shanghai, lounging like a lizard, Townske launches: Takeoff travel news


NEWS

Lounge on Lizard Island
The luxurious
Lizard Island opens its doors on Tuesday to reveal a multi-million dollar
refurbishment. The resort, located 240km north of Cairns in the Great Barrier
Reef, has been closed since it was damaged extensively by Cyclone Ita in April
2014. New to the island is The Villa, a two-bedroom, 95-square-meter ridge-top
eerie, as well as a new restaurant, new bar and a wine room with menu by wine
critic Jeremy Oliver. There are more private plunge pools, more panoramic view
points and the Essentia Day Spa has partnered with Parisian apothecary La
Biosthetique What hasn’t changed are the 24 white-sand beaches and proximity to
one of the world’s top dive sites, Cod Hole. Garden rooms start from $1699 a
night while The Villa will set you back from $5200 a night. The resort, reached
only by private aircraft, will be all systems go from April 1. See lizardisland.com.au.
GEAR
Sightseeing on the run
Oh you were so good
last night! You evicted yourself from that exotic bar before midnight so you
could explore the quiet streets of this new city with a morning run. Give your
early morning a little help with Salomon’s newest city trail runner, the Sense
Mantra 3, which has a breathable mesh upper, cushioning for pavement pounding
and comes in various colours, including this sunshine-bright version.
Originating in post-war France, Salomon focuses on light weight – the women’s British
size 5.5 Sense Mantra 3 weighs just 250g – and its ENdofit technology wraps the
foot for a stable, protected yet natural stride. The Sense Mantra 3
is available in women’s and men’s fits, RRP $179.99. Kids’ sizes are available
in some ranges. See salomon.com.
TECH
Guide to glory
Not a backpacker or flashpacker, a tourist or traveller?
So you don’t fit the mould for a million travel guides? Find a guide that
grooves to your own style of travel on Townske, a new social media outlet that
lets you follow like-minded locals or become a guide yourself. Just emerging
from its soft-launch cocoon, Townske is the brainchild of the luggage/trend
aficionados behind Rushfaster.com. It’s already attracted guides sharing
spectacular photography from the top of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers bridge
climbers, proffering dinner tips in Paris or revealing the best of Stockholm
metro’s architecture, all on the one site. It’s ever changing, just like our
world. See townske.com.
TRAVEL WRITING
Get on track
Sick of reading others’ fabulous travel memoirs when you
could do so much better? Let award-winning travel writer Rob McFarland coax out
your inner Kerouac with
his travel writing workshops. McFarland, who writes for Traveller, conducts his
workshops in Sydney and also has a correspondence version, if you’re already on
the road. He also offers a story review service for those who have already
penned On The Road Mark II. The intensive
two-day course is limited to 12 students and runs on March 21 and 28 at Vibe
Hotel, 111 Goulburn St Sydney. Costs $599, or $549 for Sun-Herald readers. See robmcfarland.org.
FOOD
Hop in to a feast
Australia’s third-largest
island, Kangaroo Island, is laying the tables for its 2015 food celebration,
FEASTival. The annual festival is headed up by kitchen doyenne Stephanie
Alexander, who harvests her kitchen garden to help create the signature SeaLink
Enchanted Garden launch dinner. Other highlights of the nine-day food festival
include gin-making, French and Italian cuisine masterclasses, riverside picnics
and a family day in Kingscote with music, cooking demos, a farmer’s market and
food stalls. KI is famed for its wildlife, so there are also pop-up wilderness
events around the island, including Breakfast with the Birds, a bush brekky at
dawn with local wildlife experts and wildlife artist Janet Ayliffe. The island is
connected to Adelaide by short flights with Rex Airlines or by ferry from Cape
Jervis, two hours’ drive from Adelaide. FEASTival runs from May 1-8. See tourkangarooisland.com.au/kifeastival,
rex.com.au and sealink.com.au.
KIDS
Shanghai’s art of
glass
If you thought kids and glass didn’t mix, you’re wrong.
At least, you’re wrong in Shanghai, where the new Kids Museum of Glass has
recently opened. Aimed at 4-10 year-olds, kids can watch and play with glass
art, magic mirrors and rainbows in its DIY Creative Workshops, learning all
about glass through play. Attached to the Shanghai Museum of Glass, it’s a
little haven in a big city, with a chic cafe, lockers and wi-fi for your
Instagram uploads of cute kids doing wonderful things with glass blowing and
sand blasting. Costs 48RMB ($10) for a child under 1.3m (one parent goes free)
or 88RMB which gives entrance to both the kids’ and main museum and a Hot Glass performance. Open daily except
Mondays. See kmog.org.
The Takeoff travel news, by Belinda Jackson, is published every Sunday in Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper’s Traveller section. 


FIJI: Suva’s white lady sees in a new century

The Grand Pacific Hotel Photo: Belinda Jackson

In search of Suva’s old colonial soul, Belinda Jackson
pays homage to the centenarian Grand Pacific Hotel, now celebrating a
makeover that’s 22 years late.

She was dubbed “The Raffles of the South Pacific”, and her title, the
Grand Pacific Hotel, is suitably eminent. But to the locals, Suva’s
distinguished colonial hotel is simply the GPH. The GPH has always been
here, as far as living memory goes back. It’s the dictionary definition
of colonial style: deep verandas, nattily dressed doormen and a starring
role in the history of a nation. 

When the hotel first opened, on
May 23, 1914, Fiji had been a British colony for 40 years, an official
cannibal-free zone for 38 years and Suva its capital for just 32 years.
The hotel’s original layout included an array of extremely specific
rooms; for dining, smoking, playing billiards, writing and drinking.
There were electric lights and fans, and “the first-floor bedrooms have
bathrooms with both hot and cold salt and fresh water baths,” early
advertisements boasted.

Unfortunately, just a few months after
its opening, World War I broke out, stymieing its position as the
eminent Pacific hotel during the grand era of steamer-ship travel. But
the hotel regrouped and capitalised on its location on the edge of Suva
Harbour, the country’s premier port.

Queen Elizabeth II has
dropped in not once, but three times. The first time, in 1953, she was a
dewy-eyed girl, fresh to the demands of the crown, and locals sailed
traditional canoes (camakau) into Suva Harbour to meet the royal yacht,
Britannia. The Queen stayed in what is now known – unsurprisingly – as
the Queen Elizabeth suite. If she was expecting grand ocean views, she’d
have been disappointed. Her suite faces Victoria Parade, with a
massive, private balcony that juts out over the entrance, just the spot
where a beautiful, young queen could wave to her rapturous audience,
who, in return, would sing their sweet farewell song, Isa Lei, back to her.

Yes,
there is a photo wall where the hotel displays its list of visiting
celebrities, who include actor Burt Lancaster and author Somerset
Maugham and our own Dame Nellie Melba, who swanned in during World War
I. In 1928, aviator Charles Kingsford Smith popped in on his way across
the Pacific, flying 36 hours from Hawaii and forcing the locals to cut
two rows of trees in Albert Park, adjacent to the hotel, to accommodate
his landing. And yes, there’s the current prime minister, Frank
Bainimarama, in between them all.

GPH personifies the era of
travelling with trunks, of Grand Tours and afternoons at leisure. Most
of the early managers were retired steamer stewards and its 35 rooms
were never enough to satisfy demand. The American author James A
Michener wrote in his 1992 memoir that “the barefoot Indians who served
the meals had a grace that few hotels in the world could offer and none
surpass”. Michener had stayed in the hotel as a US soldier during WWII,
when it was turned over to the army, and returned after the war.

The
Fifties did nothing good for the GPH: it turned an ignoble shade of
pink, following the lead of The Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach,
also built in in the 1920s and dubbed “the Pink Palace of the Pacific”.
The period is captured in highly coloured postcards, an aquamarine pool
surrounded by groovers and beach umbrellas, male waiters serving in
sulus, the Fijian sarong and official uniform.  And the Eighties were
even worse: by 1992, the GPH was abandoned even by the army, left to the
mercy of scrap metal dealers and a corrosive tropical climate. Having a
volatile parliament house didn’t help, either.

But, like the
Queen, the GPH is a stayer, this year celebrating her centenary. A
three-year, $90 million redevelopment has bulldozed any signs of the
GPH’s ageing, funded by a consortium of superannuation funds from PNG,
New Zealand and Fiji.

Once again the gracious hostess, this
Friday night, GPH is the place to be seen in Suva. The massive new
ballroom is hosting Fiji Fashion Week, and the island’s most influential
women are trooping through the doors in an array of glamorous gowns.

But
it’s really all happening on the terrace, where a local band has set
the pace, with a racy sprint through the early evening set before
slowing down to flip into Lovesongs-and-Memories mode. Did you know that
Lionel Richie has actually been reborn as a Fijian crooner? And the
crowd loves it.
It all starts with a bang – well, the ringing of a
large bell – at 6pm, when the first of the night’s two happy hours
kicks off. The first happy hour runs for two hours, then the drinkers
and bar staff have a break until the second happy hour kicks the night
along from 10pm.

Fashionistas, local movers and shakers, a few
tourists and plenty of expats lounge on white cane chairs ordering long,
frosty glasses of Fiji Bitter. The general manager, Swiss-born Eugene
Diethelm, now on his 16th hotel opening, estimates the crowd at between
500 and 600 people each Friday night.

There’s formal dining inside
in the air-con, filling bar snacks out by the pool. This being Fiji,
where imported wine and red meat come at a premium, the best buy on the
menu is excellent local fish, that is wahoo, walu or mahimahi. However,
if you came over all traditional, you could call for a saddle of venison
with red cabbage and brussels sprouts, or go nouveau-riche with a cut
of beef from exclusive Wakaya Island, off Suva’s coast. The view from
the terrace is of the long infinity pool, lit royal blue against the
darkening sky, and swathes of perfect lawn with the backdrop of Laucala
Bay. And because this is family-friendly Fiji, that perfect lawn is
dotted, without irony, with a set of plastic swings and slides.

The
original building has 10 suites, and the pick of the bunch is
undoubtedly No. 1, the largest Royal Suite and the only one with ocean
views. All the other original suites overlook the gardens and Suva’s
low-slung skyline, best seen from a rattan chair on the wide, private
verandah, cool drink in hand.

The rest of the accommodation is one
side in two new wings. There are 103 new rooms ranging from the most
economical, the Grand Pacific Deluxe Room rooms in its Kingsford Smith
garden wing, up to the Royal Club Rooms, in the New Wing. Yes, all the
rooms in the New Wing have views over the pool or ocean, with lush Pure
Fiji toiletries, a fruit platter, complimentary neck massage in the
little spa and a sweet present from the sparkling new Swiss bakery.
However, architecturally, this is the hotel’s downfall. From the
exterior, the new wing could be any airport hotel in any part of the
world. And while the interior is comfortable, it’s just not channelling
heritage chic.

If your budget can stretch to it – and from $720 a
night, it is a stretch – the suites capture the essence of the hotel.
If it’s an ocean view and modern luxury you’re after, you can save a
couple hundred dollars and opt for the vast Royal Club rooms, with
uninterrupted ocean views.

On a quick drive down Victoria
Parade, it’s easy to spot the GPH’s contemporaries. The Law Court,
Government  Buildings and the city’s Carnegie Library all show the same
hallmarks of the architectural era: once-white facades, gracious arches
and date stamps over the entrances.
Many of the city’s Grade A
heritage buildings are also being renovated, perhaps spiked by the
interest in GPH. Already the bridal market has thrown its bouquet into
the ring to declare it best the place for a chic, city wedding, which
comes with a night in the Queen Elizabeth suite.

Chances are the
GPH will become a destination hotel, though it certainly doesn’t come
cheap. But Suva seems to come without the hard-edged hustle of its
western rival, Nadi. Well, at least on the days there’s not a cruise
ship in town. What is undeniable is the local pride in Suva’s gleaming
white hotel, which, after a generation of neglect, has made the
transition from eyesore to elegance.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION fiji.travel.
GETTING THERE Fiji Airways flies direct to Nadi from Sydney and Melbourne daily, and flies Sydney to Suva twice a week. fijiairways.com
STAYING THERE Rooms cost from $390/deluxe room (garden views) to $500/Royal Club
room for (ocean-facing). Heritage suites cost from $720 to $1000 a
night. See grandpacifichotel.com.fj. 
THINGS TO SEE & DO Five minutes’ walk will take you to the Museum of Fiji and the
Presidential Palace. Other Suva highlights include the local markets,
selling tropical flowers and the Pure Fiji natural cosmetics and spa.
The hotel also has a small, exclusive collection of shops selling Fijian
pearls and fashion. 

The writer was a guest of Fiji Airways

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


The ever-growing travel list: lodges to love in Peru, Tanzania, and Brando in French Polynesia

I’ve confessed already to being a list tragic, and now I have yet another new travel list, thanks to National Geographic
Their new Unique Lodges of
the World collection has 24 good reasons to get out of town and head for the wilderness. 
I stayed in Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, at the foot of the Tiger’s Nest  monastery in Bhutan, and it’s absolutely charming, with the most spectacular views from its windows, as you can see. Minimalists would have a hard time in this hotel, which is decorated in wildly colourful Bhutanese motifs, and built in amongst the rooms is a temple made from 450-year-old timbers from the Gangtey Monastery, and its resident monk. It’s also the country’s sole 100 percent locally owned five-star hotel.  
It’s also pleasing to note that Australia is punching well above its weight, with three beautiful properties on board. 

The full list of lodges is:
 

·      
Fogo Island Inn, Canada
·      
Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, South Africa
·      
Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, Peru
·      
Kapari Natural Resort, Greece
·      
Kasbah du Toubkal, Morocco
·      
Lapa Rios Eco Lodge, Costa Rica
·      
Lizard Island, Australia
·      
Longitude 131°, Australia
·      
Mashpi Lodge, Ecuador
·      
Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort, Canada
·      
Pacuare Lodge, Costa Rica
·      
Rosalie Bay Resort, Dominica
·      
Rubondo Island Camp, Tanzania
·      
Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge, South Africa
·      
Sayari Camp, Tanzania
·      
Southern Ocean Lodge, Australia
·      
Sukau Rainforest Lodge, Malaysian Borneo
·      
The Brando, French Polynesia
·      
The Ranch at Rock Creek, Montana, United
States
·      
Three Camel Lodge, Mongolia
·      
Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa, Chile
·      
Tierra Patagonia Hotel & Spa, Chile
·      
Tswalu Kalahari, South Africa
·      
Zhiwa Ling Hotel, Bhutan

For more
information about National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, visit www.nationalgeographiclodges.com.  


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.

Search for the glow: Norway’s Northern Lights

The Aurora throws out a curtain.


EDIT: I am very pleased to note that this feature, originally
published in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, has won the Australian Society of Travel
Writers’ 2014 award for Best Cruise feature.

Dodging trolls and and black ice, Belinda Jackson rugs up to hunt the Northern Lights. 

Boarding the MS Midnatsol, the first thing we see is a tall
Norwegian woman welcoming us on to the ship. The second spectacle is of a
tall English woman being stretchered off the ship.

“She slipped and fell on the ice,” reports one of the crew.
Instinctively, I want to crawl. Happily, the lady reappears several days
later, smiling but in a wheelchair. Norwegian winter cruising, it
appears, has a touch of the blood sport about it. Forget bikinis and sun
loungers: there’s a layer of difficulty travelling in the far northern
winter.

Actually, there are many layers. Going outside for anything more than
a quick photo on the promenade deck becomes an epic exercise in
wrestling with thermal underwear. And two pairs of socks. Fleece.
Waterproof jacket. And the boots with ice grips (hmmmm – the casualty).

Crown it all with a tight beanie that will resist the wind’s
insistent fingers. Some people even pull on a balaclava, but that’s all
just a little too Douglas Mawson for me, though I am sporting a dangling
pompom that holds a 90-degree angle to my head in prevailing winds.

We do it because we’re hunting the light: the Northern
Lights. Yes, there’s reindeer sledding, midnight concerts and hot
tubbing on the top deck while it snows. But right now, our sun is in the
midst of exceptional solar activity, and boffins say that this winter
and next are the best in a decade to see the elusive Aurora Borealis.

Norway is one of the world’s top viewing locations and
doesn’t require frostbitten fingers, drinking sterilised wee or eating
your own dogs to get there.

Light-hearted: the Aurora from the deck of the Midnatsol.
Photo: Bob Stephan

In fact, it’s all rather civilised on the Midnatsol, one of
12 Hurtigruten ships that undertake an 11-day round trip that traverses
the length of the Norwegian coastline. A ship sails every day.

The coastal express mail and goods run started in 1893, with
passengers hopping on and off between farming villages and port towns.
Norwegians still use the Hurtigruten as public transport, but they are
now outnumbered dramatically by tourists keen to cruise the fiords and
wild coastline as the ship pushes up into the Arctic Circle. There’s a
healthy showing of Aussies among them, forsaking a southern summer for
temperatures so low, the locals don’t even bother to say “minus”.

You can pick the Norwegians: they’re the ones glued to the
live chess tournaments on the television in the main lounge, silently
sculling black coffee from tall thermo-mugs. The rest of us have our
noses stuck to the ship’s panoramic windows, waving at fishing trawlers
and making such blindingly obvious statements as “Gosh, it’s cold!”.

Doing nothing to dispel opinions of Norwegians as a teensy
bit boring, Norway’s national TV station NRK’s home-grown programs
includes 12-hour documentaries on stacking firewood, knitting and a
minute-by-minute program of the Hurtigruten journeying down the
Norwegian coastline, from Bergen to Kirkenes. It was a 134-hour,
non-stop broadcast, and it rated!

“Did you see the program?” the urbane concierge at Oslo’s
beautiful Grand Hotel asked me several days before boarding. “It was
great!” His patriotism makes me almost forgive Norway for being so
expensive that it makes my muscular Aussie dollars wimper and
hyperventilate.

Back on the ship, it’s time to throw out all my cruising
expectations: there are no little towel animals at the end of the bed
each night, the theatre hosts astronomy lectures instead of chorus
girls, and all the staff are locals.

It’s a dramatic change from the United Nations of staff that
you meet on most cruise ships, and it’s lovely to have locals’
experience and advice (“It’s Sunday night. This town is dead. Don’t
bother getting off.”)

But hey, it does a mean buffet. Scandinavians invented the
smorgasbord. The Norwegianised breakfast buffet features caramelised
cheese, mustard herrings and salmon done three ways (roasted, smoked,
cured) every morning. There’s reindeer pate and cloudberries at
lunchtime and a local salmon served, classically, with dill steamed
potatoes at dinner. And yes, there is a gift shop, full of hideously
misshapen trolls and heart-breakingly expensive snowflake knits. The
Hurtigruten is undeniably Norwegian.

The total journey from Kirkenes to Bergen is 2465 kilometres,
stopping in at 33 ports, some as little as 15 minutes, just long enough
to sling a crate of parcels overboard. After a few days, we slip into
the routine of busy mornings exploring towns and afternoons of quiet
contemplation and panoramic viewing.

It’s dark by 4pm but we don’t care: we’re here to see the
light. The Japanese say a baby conceived beneath the lights is a special
child. The Sami believe the lights are a trail left by a fox scampering
across the sky. Everyone from ancient Chinese to American Indians have a
theory: the lights are souls, they’re a bridge to heaven, a good omen, a
bad omen.

But let me blow a few myths: if you were standing on deck in
sub-zero temperatures at midnight waiting for a ray of green light to
zap you between the eyes, you’d be waiting a long time. Guest lecturer
and British astronomer Dr John Mason says most of the colours in the
Northern Lights are invisible to our eyes: we just can’t see the red and
turquoise bands with the naked eye.

MS Midnatsol

“You probably won’t see colour, but
you will see movement.” Green is the most apparent colour, followed by
violet, but even then they’ll most likely show up as a hazy grey cloud
against the clear black sky, he warns.

Point a camera at the grey clouds and you’ll see the eerie
green rays appear in your final photo – and even then only when you open
the lens for up to 15 seconds or more.

To see the lights, the sky has to be dark, with no light
pollution. You also need a cloudless sky and your eyes also need to be
dark adapted, which can take up to 10 minutes, which is a long time on a
windswept ship’s deck in the black of a polar night. “When the lights
appear, we’ll make the announcements over the ship’s PA, and you have to
hurry,” Dr Mason says. “We don’t know how long they’ll last – You’ve
got to be ready.” We’re all so ready.

“We’ve been on six nights, from Bergen, and haven’t seen
anything yet,” says glass artist Bob Stephan, from North Carolina. Armed
with a fish-eye lens and balaclava, he helps me lash my camera to a
deck chair in lieu of my lost tripod.

There are two important things to note from this
conversation: one is that most tourists tend to stay on the ship for the
entire 11-day round journey, from Bergen up to Kirkenes and back again.
The second is that the Northern Lights are fickle.

But we strike it lucky: second night on board, and the show
is on. The deck is jam-packed as people point cameras to the sky. The
sky swirls and a soft grey-green light gusts and drifts into view. It’s
not the “hit-me” colours of the brochures, or a white night. But the
wild wind, the snow gusts and the dancing sky leave us light-hearted and
light-headed: we are but mesmerised little people dwarfed by the glory
above.

The Lofoten archipelago.

The serious photographers are rugged up and settled in for
the night, but the crowd drifts off after an hour or so. The next night,
the lights show even longer, a static display that has the astronomers
scratching their heads, though the ship is pitching wildly.

It’s also cold enough to bite your nose off.

We dash down below decks to thaw out, when one of the
astronomy tour members, Patch, pulls out his phone. The Aurora Australis
has been putting on a spectacular show in Tasmania, just an hour and
$100 from my Melbourne home. Groans from we Australians. Tasmania?
That’s next year’s plan.

The writer was a guest of Bentours.

AHOY! Norwegian Getaway has a three-storey sports complex that includes an eight-foot over-sea “walk the plank”.

FIVE MORE GREAT PLACES TO HUNT THE AURORAS
TASMANIA The Aurora Australis has been seen as close to Hobart as
Seven-Mile Beach (near Hobart Airport), on the Overland Track and Bruny
Island. Get viewing tip-offs from this local alerts page facebook.com/groups/215002295201328/.
ALASKA Fairbanks and nearby Denali National Park are Alaska’s
playground for aurora hunting, and boast an 80 per cent chance of
spotting the lights from August to April, see explorefairbanks.com.
ICELAND Make sure you’re in the glassed-in bar of the Ion Hotel when
the lights deign to shine. The new eco-hotel is an hour’s drive from
Reykjavik, see ioniceland.is.
CANADA Head for Whitehorse, Yukon, on the edge of the wilderness and
hunker down in a yurt while you wait for the performance to begin, see arcticrange.com.
FINLAND Tuck up in a snow igloo in Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, in Finnish Lapland, a thousand kilometres north of Helsinki, see kakslauttanen.fi.

TRIP NOTES
GETTING THERE Fly Sydney to Oslo via Bangkok with Thai Airways or via London with British Airways (britishairways.com). From London or Bangkok, book early to catch Norwegian Air’s cheap flights (norwegian.com).
CRUISING THERE The nine-day Best of Norway Cruise departs daily from Bergen
or Kirkenes, with astronomy tours available in winter. From $2877, twin
share (winter) to $4448 (summer), 1800 221 712, see bentours.com.au.
MORE INFORMATION visitnorway.com.


Bunker down in top Tassie style, eat Paris or cycle New Zealand: travel deals January 26, 2014

Oh we love any excuse to look at a photo of Paris, even this improbably perfect one of the Eiffel Tower. Snap up a little city stay in the City of Light, cycle New Zealand or see how we Aussies do serious luxury. For something a little more laid back, it’s sun loungers in Caloundra, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

Go now: New
Zealand
Cycle the world and save 10 percent on 21 journeys including
the Queenstown Otago Rail Trail, stretching 150km from Queenstown to
Christchurch or Dunedin. Book by March 15 for travel until December 31. From $1197
a person, twin share. 1300 720 000, worldcyclejourneys.com.
Go sooner:
Tasmania
Voted Australia’s top luxury lodge, stay four nights and
pay for three at the lush Saffire Freycinet, from March 1 until November 30. Free
activities include fishing, mountain biking, cocktail mixing or the gentle art
of hammocking. From $5400 for four nights. (03) 6256 7888,
saffire-freycinet.com.au.
Go later: France
Book a five-day Taste of Paris by March 16 and save 20
percent. The tours, which run from July 27 to August 30, include four nights in
a Left Bank hotel, sightseeing and transport passes and airport transfers. From
$533 a person, twin share. 1300 558 987,
tempoholidays.com.
KIDS
Go now: Queensland
Want water slides without the mania and price tag of a
theme park?  Check in to the Oaks Oasis
on the Sunshine Coast  and check out its
new water play park, with slides, fountains and a giant tipping bucket. For
those inclined to recline, there are also sunloungers aplenty. The newly
refurbished accommodation  ranges
from  hotel rooms to apartments and villas,
and is walking distance to the beach, 
close by Australia Zoo and one hour’s drive from Brisbane. From $40 a
person in a family room (sleeps four) until March 31. 1300 031 963,
oakshotelsresorts.com/oaks-oasis.

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

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