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Your next weekend away in the Dandenong Ranges

The pretty Dandenong Ranges have long been a quick escape for Melburnians. Now a rise in eclectic eateries, contemporary cooking schools and modern interior design classes has seen this Victorian corner become a hotspot of creativity, says Jocelyn Pride

Rolling hills of fertile chocolatey soil, dense temperate rainforests, teeming populations of wildlife, the Dandenong Ranges (that’s ‘the Dandenongs’ for short, not to be confused with Melbourne suburb Dandenong) has been a place of abundance since the Bunurong and Woiworung people first began hunting here, in summers long ago.

Settling Europeans recognised its lure too, its tall timber trees an attractive proposition for nearby booming 1840s Melbourne town. By the turn of the 20th century the Dandenongs had attracted yet another group – Melbourne’s artists, poets, musicians and dreamers, who turned it into what it is today. Visit and you’ll find charming cottages, the smells of baking, and romantic names like Olinda, Sassafras, Kallista and Emerald (monikers of the small, European-flavoured villages here), which dot the map between the area’s 35 square-kilometres of national parks.

But for all its small-town charms, there are big things happening in this little enclave. We won’t call it an awakening – the creative set took care of that long ago – but there’s a renewal underway; one of those cyclical revivals that seem to happen in towns where tastemakers congregate.

Vue de Monde culinary mastermind Shannon Bennett didn’t start the trend, but his new sustainable hotel/upscale restaurant/casual café and eatery project, currently underway on the heritage Burnham Beeches property, has certainly cemented the movement’s presence – especially now that stage one of the venture is well and truly up and running. But more on that in a moment…

1. What to do in the Dandenong Ranges
2. The best of where to eat in the Dandenong Ranges
3. The best places to stay in the Dandenong Ranges

How to get there: Dandenong Ranges

As the Dandenong Ranges is only 47 kilometres south-east of Melbourne, it takes less than an hour from the CBD or a little more from the airport. Once off the highway you’ll head uphill, breathe in the fresh mountain air and hear the laughter of kookaburras. Covering a large area, the region takes in many villages like Ferntree Gully, Sassafras, Olinda, Belgrave, Monbulk, Emerald, Kallista and Kalorama. It’s also easily accessed by metro train and there’s a regular bus service linking the villages.


Four tips from TripAdvisor for traveling with pets

On a long journey by car, remember your pets will need to stretch their legs every so often.

AFP Relaxnews

Heading off on vacation? Taking your four-legged friend is certainly the best solution for your pet's wellbeing. Here are some tips from the TripAdvisor community on how to get organized when traveling with pets.

Pack medical records

When travelling abroad, an electronic microchip is the best option for your pet. This will allow vets or authorities to identify your animal using a worldwide database of contact information, if need be. You should also pack medical records and other important paperwork containing essential information about your pet. If there's a problem, the vet will need to know your pet's medical history, such as vaccinations and previous illnesses or surgery.

Pick a soft carrier for the plane

Get a comfortable carry case for your cat or dog when traveling by plane. The journey can be long, so look for a soft bag carrier that's big enough for your pet to move around in, so they won't end up going numb. What's more, it's advisable to buy the carrier several weeks before you leave, so that your pet can get used to it and mark it as their territory. Leave the bag out at home for your pet to explore. Before booking a flight, contact the airline to find out whether they carry animals on board. For international travel, your pet will need a passport.

Take plenty of breaks on car journeys

Dogs will need to stretch their legs on long journeys, even if there's plenty of room in the back of the car. During each break, take your dog for a short walk and give your pet a dish of cool water to drink. Drivers should never put four-legged friends in the trunk, where there won't be enough fresh air. Plus, it's been said before, but don't forget that dogs can die when left locked in hot cars, especially on very sunny, warm days. It really is a matter of life and death. Finally, cats shouldn't be allowed to roam free inside vehicles, but should always travel inside a suitable carrier.

Keep dogs on leads when out and about

TripAdvisor reminds dog owners to keep their four-legged friends on a leash when exploring national parks. For off-leash walks, keep an eye on your pet at all times so as to foresee any potential problems. Vacations usually mean more trips out and can be more physically demanding for dogs. Let your dog get used to the new pace of life gradually, especially with older dogs or pets who aren't usually so active.

Is It Safe to Stay in a Home Rental in Brazil?

With the explosion of vacation rentals across the globe, travelers may wonder if it's safe to stay in a home rental. In Brazil, there are many types of home rentals available on vacation rental sites. From luxurious penthouses and waterfront mansions to room rentals in city-center apartments, there are still hundreds of properties available for rent in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Here are some safety tips for home rentals in Rio de Janeiro:

Choose an appropriate neighborhood:

There are many neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, some of which are quieter and safer than others. You can't go wrong with the established waterfront areas of Copacabana, Ipanema, and quieter Leblon, but do some research into the area if you choose a neighborhood that you are not familiar with.

Read the reviews:

Established vacation rental sites have standards and expectations regarding safety which help keep travelers safe when staying in a stranger's home.

The most important thing for users to know is that vacation rental sites like Airbnb and HomeAway use verified reviews to allow users to know what really happens at each property.

According to HomeAway spokesperson Melanie Fish, it's important to read the reviews when searching for a property in Rio. She states, "These will give a better idea of what the property and the neighborhood is really like based on travelers’ experiences." If a property does not have a review, you can see if the host has reviews based on other properties; if not, that may mean that the property is newly listed, and you can try reaching out to the host directly to get more information.

Communicate with the owner:

Once you've chosen a potential rental, Fish reminds us to talk to the homeowner directly. The homeowner is the best resource when it comes to answering questions you may have about the house itself or the surrounding area. Use the messaging service offered through the vacation rental website. For example, Airbnb allows users to message the homeowner directly. Before booking, use the messaging system to make sure to clarify details. Ask questions about specific amenities and house rules, whether other people share the same space, home safety (e.g. alarm system, smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector, etc.), and the safety of the neighborhood.

Homeowners are also great resources for information about the area. Because they are locals, they know the best Rio de Janeiro restaurants, cafes, bars, shopping centers, etc. Ask them if they have a list of recommended places near the home and if they are located near public transportation. Many homeowners leave guides for your use, but if not, they may be able to send you information before you arrive.

Final details:

Get the rental contract in writing before you pay, and ask for the owner to include details about check-in/out times, cancellations, and refund policies. If it’s in writing, there will likely be no misunderstandings. In addition, Melanie Fish, HomeAway's spokesperson, suggests getting the name and number of an on-site contact or property manager who can help you in case of an emergency or if any issues arise.


Make sure to pay online. This is absolutely the safest way to make a transaction. On, use the filter “Accepts Credit Cards on HomeAway” to find owners that accept online payments through HomeAway’s payment platform. If an owner asks you to wire money, consider it a red flag and move on to a different property.


Get acquainted with the area: where is the nearest hospital? How can you call emergency services if needed? How can you contact the homeowner, and are there neighbors nearby? Let your friends and/or family know exactly where you will be staying in case someone needs to find you. And look into getting travel insurance.
While there, follow common sense travel safety tips for Rio de Janeiro. Avoid going out at night alone, take taxis at night when possible, avoid secluded areas or beaches at night, and don't flaunt valuables such as expensive cameras or flashy jewelry.


Visiting Paris in the Winter: A Complete Guide

The winter months in Paris have a bad rap for being gloomy, dark, perpetually rainy and low-key, but with holiday festivities taking the city by storm for a good part of the season, Paris literally lights up more than ever. What's more, if you enjoy indoor activities such as visiting museums and cathedrals or spending a few hours reading peacefully in a traditional Parisian cafe while nursing a good cafe creme or chocolat chaud, or perhaps ice-skating in the open air, a winter sojourn in Paris may in fact be ideal for you.

Why to Love It: The Pros Column

  • Winter festivities and decorations bring a surreal magic to the city, making for especially picturesque evenings out with the whole family (and can serve as a romantic backdrop for couples, too). See details on holiday events by scrolling down.
  • It's low season in Paris, meaning you'll have more of the city to yourself and won't have to compete with hordes of tourists for entry to exhibits, monuments or when making restaurant reservations. Not to mention the fact that air and train fares are lower than in peak season.

    And Now The Cons:

  • The cold, often rainy conditions and short days can admittedly be a bit discouraging (Read related: Paris Weather Averages, Month by Month). You may find yourself spending more time indoors than you'd prefer when travelling.
  • Certain attractions and monuments are closed during low season. I recommend checking opening dates and annual closures ahead of time to avoid disappointment. However, this is often overstated: in reality, the summer tends to be the time when you see the most businesses close, as Parisians go off on vacation.

What to See and Do During the Winter?

Despite appearances, there's plenty to do during your winter trip. As I mention above, many of these activities will be indoors, but provided that you pack correctly and bundle up, and it's not too wet out, a wintery walk through a gorgeous Parisian park or an evening stroll around the brilliantly lit streets can be mesmerizing and peaceful.

Visiting Paris in the Summer: What to See and Do?

In many ways, Paris in the summertime is the least Parisian of times in the city of lights. Since French people generally have several weeks of paid vacation a year, huge numbers of locals flee town for vacations in the South of France or elsewhere, and the influx of visitors turns the city into a perpetual Babel, with foreign languages heard just as frequently as French in metro cars or cafes.

The pace slows, the streets are calmer, the nights longer, and summer festivals and special events promise some fun days and nights out in the warm (or muggy) air.

Why to Love It? (The Pros)

Summer might not strike every traveler as the ideal time to visit, but for some, it'll strike all the right chords.
It's a prime time for festivals and great open-air events, and many of these, including the Paris Street Music Festival (Fete de la Musique), or the open-air cinema at the Villette park in the city's north, are entirely free.

Visitors rule the city during the summer: Paris is always geared toward tourists, who flock here in the millions year-round.

But in the summer, since most Parisians are gone, you can truly enjoy the city on your own terms. Meeting people from around the world is another fun prospect, especially for student travelers who may be using the summer break to explore the city.

The atmosphere is relaxed and carefree, and opportunities for great nightlife in Paris abound. Sprawl out and have a picnic at one of Paris's elegant parks and gardens or along the banks of the Seine, or have an all-nighter by hopping between some great Parisian nightclubs. 

And Now, the Cons:

It can be prohibitively expensive. A spike in airfares during peak season means reserving well ahead is a must (Look for a travel package and book direct via TripAdvisor). If you're taking the train, book tickets well ahead (Buy direct at Rail Europe). 

It's not for the crowd-shy. Tourism peaks between May and early October most years in Paris, so you're going to have to accept having...erm, lots of company during your visits to Notre Dame Cathedral or the Eiffel Tower. The metro is generally crowded, and often, hot and congested, so make sure to wear layers even if it's relatively cool out.

The weather can be erratic and unpredictable. Spells of rain or intense heat waves can ruin plans for outdoor activities-- and extreme heat can be dangerous for elderly or young visitors. Make sure to bring lots of water with you on long excursions, and dress appropriately (again, I recommend layers to make sure you're prepared for sudden rain or heat spells).

What to Do?

Summer is festival season, and with the extra-long days and (generally) warm nights, you'll have no trouble finding things to keep your schedule full and exciting. Here are just a few ideas for what to do-- click through to explore these in detail:
  • Boat tours of the Seine and Canals
  • City walking tours
  • Celebrate Bastille Day in Paris
  • Top Summer Festivals in Paris
  • Paris Plage (Paris Beach)
  • Paris Gay Pride
  • Open-Air Theatre at the Shakespeare Garden (Bois de Boulogne)
  • Rock en Seine (3-day outdoor rock festival)

Month-by-Month Guides to Paris in the Summer:

  • Paris in June Weather Outlook, Packing Guide, and Highlights
  • June Events in Paris
  • Paris in July Weather Outlook, Packing Guide, and Highlights
  • July Events in Paris
  • Paris un August Weather Outlook, Packing Guide, and Highlights
  • August Events in Paris

Book Your Summer Trip to the City of Light:

As I said earlier, it's really crucial to book well ahead for a summer trip to the city of light, lest you get stuck with sky-high fares or hotel rooms that are only second-rate.


There's Another New England

When you think of "New England," you think of Boston, Hartford and Providence. You think of bone-chilling winters, brilliant fall colors, wet springs and way-too-short summers. You think of Paul Revere, lob-stah and Family Guy. You think of lighthouses, churches and the New England Patriots.

You probably don't think of kangaroos – but in the case of one particular "New England," you probably should. (Yes, that's a major hint about where this New England is located.)

Where is New England, Australia?

Nearly 10,000 miles from the cobbled streets of Boston, you'll find the proverbial "other" New England, located in the northern part of Australia's New South Wales state, which is also home to Sydney. Also known as the "Northern Tablelands" and/or the "Northwest Slopes," New England, Australia sits about 35 miles inland from the ocean, a major fact that separates it from its decidedly maritime North American cousin.

Interestingly, while New England remains officially undefined (in geographic terms), it has been pursuing official Australian statehood for quite some time, seeking to separate itself from surrounding New South Wales.

If the movement succeeds, it would be yet another fact about the region that sets it apart from its cousin in North America, even if it would still remain less easy to define in every other way – more on that in a moment.

What's the Story of New England, Australia?

The history of New England, Australia not surprisingly dates back to some English explorers, although they arrived here a couple centuries after their forefathers landed at Plymouth Rock. Specifically, it was in the mid-19th century that English sailors such as John Oxley and Allan Cunningham began to map out the region that would eventually be known as "New England."

Initially, New England served as little more that a timber factory, owing to its large reserves of Australian red cedar trees. Over time, however, industry in the area expanded into gold and copper mining, and with the arrival of railroads in the late 19th century, permanent populations began to settle in cities like Tamworth and Armidale, which these days enjoy regular air service and connections to multiple highways. Rail service here, as is the case in much of Australia these days, leaves a lot to be desired.

Is There Anything to See in New England, Australia?

I first learned about New England, Australia from a friend of mine who hails there, a fellow travel writer whose blog hinges heavily on Australian identity. "Nothing," he said bluntly, when I asked him what there was to see and/or do in New England, Australia, or if there was any reason – save for novelty – that someone might voluntarily visit the region.

My independent research has led me to a different conclusion – well, sort of. While I can't claim that the rolling green mountains and rocky ridges of New England, Australia are unique enough in and of themselves to warrant a visit there, it does seem that the region is interesting enough for local residents and for travelers who happen to be in the area, for instance in the world-renowned beaches at Coffs Harbour or Byron Bay.
For example, Australia's New England is home to nearly 30 national parks, including Cathedral Rock National Park, Guy Fawkes River National Park and, perhaps least surprisingly, New England National Park. You can easily spot iconic Australian wildlife (namely, kangaroos) throughout the region, to say nothing of the diverse and abundant flora.

You won't walk the cosmopolitan streets of world-class cities like Boston, and you won't be able to enjoy the delicious lobster you can on the coast of Maine (at least not without paying the hefty price to import it), but you can say the most important thing there is to say when it comes to visiting somewhere: I was here! In New England, Australia.

The World's Coldest Cities

For most of us, cold means having to turn up the heat or bundling up in extra layers. There are a few places on Earth, however, that take our understanding of cold to a whole new level. According to Guinness World Records, the coldest permanently lived-in human settlement is the remote village of Oymyakon in Russian Siberia, where temperatures dropped to a bone-chilling -90ºF/ -68ºC in 1933. This article takes a look at some of the world’s coldest cities, ranked from warmest to coldest, based on average January temperatures.

Astana, Kazakhstan

Average January temperature: 6.4 °F/ -14.2°C
Although the summer months are warm, winters in Astana are long, dry, and exceptionally cold. Extreme lows of -61°F/ -51.5°C have been recorded, although the monthly average for January is 6.4 °F/ -14.2°C. Most years, the city’s river remains frozen over from mid-November to early April. With plenty of indoor attractions in which to escape from the weather, winter visitors do not need to fear the cold.

Astana is a modern city defined by futuristic architecture, glittering mosques and a wealth of shopping and entertainment centers.

International Falls, Minnesota, United States

Average January temperature: 4.4°F/-15°C
This northern Minnesotan city calls itself The Icebox of the Nation, and with record lows of -55 °F/ -48 °C and an average seasonal snowfall of 71.6 inches, that claim is well-justified. International Falls has the most days per year with high temperatures below freezing of any incorporated city in the contiguous U.S.—not to mention some spectacular night skies.

 It is best known for its Canadian border crossing, and as the gateway to nearby Voyageurs National Park. The park is popular for kayaking and hiking in summer, and for cross-country skiing and ice-fishing in winter.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Average January temperature:  -11.2ºF/-24.6ºC
Perched 4,430 feet above sea level on the edge of the Mongolian steppes, Ulaanbaatar is the world’s coldest national capital. The city experiences extreme seasons with recorded summer highs of 102°F/ 39°C; however, plunging lows of -44°F/ -42°C during the long winter months give Ulaanbaatar an average annual mean temperature that hovers just below freezing.

The capital’s chaotic weather shouldn’t deter potential visitors, however. As well as being the international gateway to Mongolia’s spectacular wilderness areas, Ulaanbaatar boasts a bevy of rich cultural sights ranging from Tibetan-style Buddhist temples to fascinating modern art galleries.

Barrow, United States

Average January temperature: -13ºF/-25ºC
Located above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, Barrow is the northernmost city in the United States. It has the lowest average temperature of all Alaskan cities, exacerbated by frequent cloud cover and extreme winds of up to 60 miles/ hour. The sun remains below the horizon for 65 days each year, while on average, only 120 days of the year experience high temperatures that are above freezing.

However, despite record lows of -56ºF/ -49ºC, there are plenty of reasons to visit Barrow. These include its rich Iñupiat culture, the beauty of the surrounding tundra and the opportunity to witness the northern lights.

Yellowknife, Canada

Average January temperature:-18.2°F/-27.9°C

The capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories lies 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and  is a city of superlatives according to a survey by Environment Canada. Of 100 Canadian cities, Yellowknife is the coldest year round, has the coldest winter, the most extreme windchill and the longest snow cover season. The lowest temperature ever recorded was -60 °F/ -51°C, and yet ironically, it also boasts the sunniest Canadian summer.

Rich in gold-rush history, Yellowknife is a mecca for adventurers, offering activities ranging from hiking beneath the midnight sun to dog-sledding, snowmobiling and spotting the northern lights.

By Jess Macdonald,

Opening the book on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands fairytale

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are a secret you won’t want to share. Just tell everyone you went to Bali
It is rare, in this day and age, to come upon a place so delightful in both looks and temperament that, on the very first sighting, one’s jaw does genuinely drop. But it’s hard not to promise that a visit to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands will elicit such a response. 

Locally referred to as ‘Cocos’, these 27 islands stand alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean in an almost-perfect circle, halfway between Perth and the Maldives in more ways than one. 

Don’t feel too surprised, though, that you’ve never heard of this place. Though the Cocos (Keeling) Islands – so named because both ‘The Cocos Islands’ and ‘The Keeling Islands’ are acceptable terms – have been an Australian territory since the ’80s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that commercial flights opened them up to tourists.

The end result is the kind of fairytale place that belongs in a picture book: a freak blip of paradise so special and untouched it deserves a spot on anyone’s wish list.

Finding paradise

People have been blowing in and out of here in typical castaway style since the islands were first discovered by William Keeling in 1609. But the key arrival to Cocos took place in the year 1814, when a Scotsman by the name of Captain John Clunies-Ross fell in love with the islands (not too difficult, one might imagine) during a brief stop here on the way to India.
He vowed to return and make them his own and though, two years later, that is precisely what he did, his triumphant homecoming was marred by an unhappy discovery. An equally ambitious Englishman, Alexander Hare, had already installed himself on one of the islands… accompanied by a harem of 40 Malay women. (Like we said: ambitious.)

An instant animosity between the two sprang up; Clunies-Ross retreating to the opposite side of the atoll from which he glowered until a few years later when Hare, having watched his female companions desert his clutches for the arms of Clunies-Ross’ sailors one by one, eventually departed the islands all together.

Clunies-Ross would prevail as king of the islands from then onwards with his sons, and their sons in turn, styling themselves as kings of the atoll until modern-day politics eventually came knocking. By 1978, the Australian government had purchased the islands from the Clunies-Ross family for $6.25 million; in 1984 an independent, UN-sanctioned vote saw the population choose to become an integrated part of Australia.

But that is not the end of the story – not at all. Visit that same island today (Home Island, as it’s known, or Pulau Selma in the Cocos Malay dialect) and you’ll find descendants of Captain Clunies-Ross and his inherited harem thriving; the tiny, 450-strong population upholding an extraordinary cultural heritage of Malaysian road signs, Scottish jigs and broad Australian accents, and all clothed in the traditional garb of Sunni Muslims.

In comparison to West Island – the only other developed island on the atoll, and home to 150-odd ‘mainlanders’ (the Australians who’ve relocated here in recent years) – and its impossibly soft aqua, framed by the thousands upon thousands of perfectly lined palms waving glossy fronds at the sky, a more delightful clash of contrasts would be hard to find.

A million miles from home

If it’s all feeling rather exotic and hard to get to (a trip here requires a flight from Perth, via Christmas Island), a chat with local, Dieter Gerhard, will set you straight. Compared to the old days, it’s easy to travel here, he says – in fact, when Australia first acquired this place, it was virtually unreachable for the average antipodean.

“There used to be just one flight per week here, for 42 weeks of the year, and it was only for government custom agents and their friends and family,” he recalls. “You used to have to sign a form if you wanted to bring along a friend or relative, declaring that you knew them. The ultimate government junket, really.”

Gerhard, who first came here in ’89 as one such public servant, found himself compelled to “sell my house in Cairns and turn it into a dive boat” when the islands opened up to tourism, moving here in 1993.

“It’s changed a lot in those 25 years, but tourism is still relatively new here,” he comments. “It’s a new destination.”

That much is evident in the clarity of the water alone, which twinkles like a pale sapphire as we fly over its surface to our first dive location. Now the island’s local dive master, Gerhard’s daily office includes some of the world’s most spectacular dive sites, like Winter Wall, a seemingly endless mass of colours that dance with the sway of the tide, and Cannons, so named for World War battle remnants now found on the ocean floor.
From 20 metres down the water is crayola blue, deep and austere, and twinkling with sunlight, and as we creep around the whirling bommies of technicolour there are natural encounters of every variety to be had.

Manta rays, reef sharks, turtles, dolphins, enormous gorgonian fans, corals of every size and hue; even a lone dugong named Kat lives here, with her comical bulldog face and graceful dancer’s body, and spotting each of these things is all the more wondrous for the incredible clarity and temperate water.

Later, Gerhard all but pushes us in the water near a pod of bottlenose dolphins, complete with baby, as they jump and dive under and around us in the gummy-bear-blue wake of the swirling boat. Under the dome of sparkling light sky, encircled by distant islands in almost every direction, it is too easy to forget about the real world back home.

Not a worry in the world

Speaking of the real world (and that doesn’t happen often, what with the time difference causing the 6pm news to be screened at 4:30 in the afternoon here), the same rules don’t always apply. If that weren’t obvious from the moment you step onto the tarmac – which is the only international runway we’ve ever known to also be part of an 18-hole golf course – you’ll have deduced as much by the time you’ve located your rental car.

“The general rule is to always leave your keys in the ignition,” explains Colin Bloomberg, another holiday-maker-turned-local.

“Before we moved here permanently, we came over with the kids, and hired a car for the holiday. The kids went out to the car and came back inside saying, ‘Dad, someone’s taken the car’, which I didn’t believe. But I went outside and sure enough, the car had disappeared. A few hours later it was back, but whoever it was obviously decided they needed it more than we did at that time.”

Cars aren’t used terribly often here, with the local petrol station only open between 1pm and 2pm on Fridays; indeed if you’re staying at Cocos Castaway – a collection of basic-but-cute beach cottages a shell’s throw from the shoreline – you’ll literally walk across the road from the runway and open your front door. (Forget planes keeping you up at night – a grand total of two flights land here each week.)

Indeed, locals make such little use of their cars that “one night, the Mantas organised to roll the Morays’ cars out of their driveways and over to the other side of the airport runway,” grins Jules Bush, the local bus driver-slash-tourism marketing manager.

The Mantas and Morays she’s referring to aren’t sea-dwelling creatures, but rather the names of the two teams that divide the entire West Island population (each resident takes up the colours of either team and takes part in the island’s annual ‘Cocos Olympics’, alongside much good-humoured ribbing in the lead up).
“It was brilliant when everyone woke up,” she says, though there was only one problem with the prank: “Some people didn’t actually notice their cars were missing.”

The luxury of simplicity

Of course, some realities have encroached on this 600-strong population. Wi-fi internet, if not the fastest in the world, is readily available here. Groceries are expensive to buy (“We call it a paradise tax,” offers tour guide Ray Marshall), but there’s still a fairly surprising array of options.

‘About 20 per cent’ of people order chai lattes at local café Dory’s, according to owner Jo Clifford. On her menu you’ll find things like fresh fish wraps and tropical salads; who’d ever have thought you could travel somewhere so crazy-remote and have your soy latte and gluten-free cake, too?

Not surprisingly, other evidence of modernisation has long since begun to sprinkle itself about the islands. Though much of the accommodation is fairly basic – “there’s no gold taps or anything like that, it’s just the way we treat people I s’pose,” muses Susan Marshall, owner of the Cocos Seaview beach shacks, this year’s ‘best accommodation’ – you’ll find a spot of luxury at ninetysixeast, a recently opened B&B that wouldn’t be out of place on the beachfront streets of Byron Bay.

And, of course, there are the many natural luxuries. Take the ferry over to uninhabited Direction Island – usually described as ‘the best island for swimming’, though that’s probably inconsequential here – and find the castaway fantasy in all its flawless glory, complete with squeaky white beaches and aqua surrounds in hues that can’t be captured in a photograph.

Take a motorised canoe tour with local couple Ash and Kylie James around the southern half of the atoll, and stop for a champagne breakfast on a floating, purpose-built pontoon in the sheltered curve of island Pulu Belan Madar. Wander forests of lush, whispering palm trees, bare feet cupped in soft white sand, and listen to the many sounds of silence.

Or pull up a sunset chair at the golf club, and enjoy a stubbie with locals who know that being in thongs and a cossie is the greatest equaliser of all.

“The rest is not what’s important,” agrees 51-year-old Terry Morley, a Fremantle resident who first holidayed here six years ago. “It’s nice to be reminded of that.”


Diving head first into Orpheus Island luxury

While Orpheus Island offers an unparalleled sense of understated luxury, diving from this national park affords you another kind of privilege: having the Great Barrier Reef all to yourself, writes Dan Down.
Twenty metres below the surface my dive guide, Ashley, is doing a fist-pumping motion, looking wide-eyed at me through her mask. 

I wonder if it’s some emergency hand signal I’m not aware of; perhaps my tank has sprung a disastrous leak, or there’s a big shark looming up behind me. But then the rasping noise of my breathing is interrupted by a haunting, drawn-out horn of a sound. 

It happens again, and I realise that we can hear humpback whales conversing. My guide is expressing her sheer excitement at the sound of these magnificent beasts as we glide along, light filtering down from the surface and dancing off spectacular coral gardens.

The Great Barrier Reef, one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, is in our own backyard. Yes you can don a snorkel and float above it, but diving let’s you become a part of it.

It would be the equivalent of flying a small plane above that other biodiversity hotspot, the Amazon; spectacular, certainly, but put on a pair of hiking boots and you can get in the thick of it, see its denizens up close.
And away from the reef’s busy tourist hop-off points of Cairns and Townsville, diving from the exclusive Orpheus Island Resort and its namesake island, one of the Barrier Reef’s stunning natural havens, affords another kind of luxury that’s so often missing on our easily accessible planet: seclusion.

Flying above the Barrier Reef

Making your way to Orpheus is an adventure in itself, and two days earlier I’m boarding a helicopter at Townsville Airport. We rise over Nautilus Aviation’s impressive heritage-listed hangar, a vast wood and steel structure where American bombers were once stationed for operations against the Japanese.

Gaining altitude, we head straight out towards the Coral Sea’s many islands that comprise the inner reef region of the Great Barrier Reef. I would be diving off one of these spectacular slices of green before heading to the outer reef, the Serengeti of the Barrier Reef, if you will, where large ocean-dwelling species like to patrol.

We haven’t even reached our destination before the bonanza of wildlife begins. “Whale!” exclaims pilot Matt over the radio. I can’t see anything, but he’s spotted the tell-tale smudge of a humpback hundreds of metres below.

He pulls the joystick to the right and we’re swooping down to get a better look at it. A nervous air passenger at the best of times, I hold on for dear life before noticing a large Navy vessel.

“What happens if we get too close to that warship?” I yell over the noise of the rotors. I can almost picture its large cannon pivoting towards us; a subordinate’s hand poised over a red button waiting for the order. “They’d radio in and tell us to move on,” says Matt.

The whale apparently saw us coming, so we reset our course for Orpheus; a sailor’s hand relaxes.

Orpheus’s island neighbours

The islands here are steeped in the kind of curious histories only Australia seems able to produce.
We fly over Magnetic Island, so-called for messing with Captain Cook’s compass, before passing Palm Island, home to an indigenous community that hunts for crayfish off the surrounding islets as well as, controversially, sea turtles.

On my last day on Orpheus, en route to a snorkelling spot, I would exchange waves with two skiffs of indigenous Palm Islanders, jetting off at high speed, perhaps in search of their quarry.

Then there’s Fantome Island, which remarkably was a leper colony right up until 1973, whereupon it was completely incinerated to destroy any trace of the disease (they moved everyone off first).

Aboriginals call this island Goolboddi, but in 1887 it was named after the ship HMS Orpheus, which had sunk off the coast of New Zealand. Orpheus is an 11-kilometre-long stretch of bush comprising 1368 square kilometres of national park.

The secret station

James Cook University has a small research station here, to study the 1100 or so species of fish and the hundreds of types of coral found in its waters but, approaching from the air, the only sign of human habitation is its luxury resort.

A fine base of operations for any expedition to the reef if ever there was one, its villas sit perched along the white crescent beach of Hazard Bay, interrupted invariably by leaning palms and bisected by a timber jetty leading out to a beautiful white boatshed.

A straight channel was carved through the bay’s coral in the ’70s to allow boats access to the island paradise; horrifying to modern-day sensitivities but thankfully our attitudes have changed somewhat since.
Nowhere is this more evident than with the resort’s enthusiastic dive team, who have backgrounds in marine biology and an encyclopaedic knowledge of life on the reef.

After making a Hollywood star’s entrance and being introduced to the resort’s talented chefs beside an awesome slab of an infinity pool, it would be very easy to do nothing for a few hours.

Seemingly the staff know you by first name immediately and are more than happy to serve cocktails at a lazy, beachside bar, or get you straight out on the waters surrounding this remarkable place. I’m here for the latter, and it’s not long before the dive team of Ashley and Tegan are fitting me out with scuba gear in the resort’s quaint dive shop and we’re heading out to sea.

Wild waters

There’s commotion on the boat; humpbacks have been spotted, a mother and calf, their dark backs glistening in the sun as they arc just above the surface off one of Orpheus’s beaches. It’s exhilarating to think that I’d soon be sharing the water with them, diving along a fringe reef off adjacent Curacoa Island.

Later that night over dinner, the ship’s skipper, Ashley, would tell me that she once had to slam the engines into reverse as a humpback rose up suddenly, arrowing out of the water directly in their path. Wildlife here doesn’t care much for personal boundaries.

A relatively shallow dive of about 15 metres’ depth, Tegan and I are cruising along the face of a vast coral cliff just off Curacoa’s shore. A dream sport for the lazy, diving is all about being as relaxed as possible, trying not to exert oneself in order to conserve air. Here I’m finding that difficult. There is such an abundance of life that it’s hard not to let the heartbeat quicken.

On the towering wall of coral to our right Tegan points out masses of finger-like anemones; the branching forms of staghorn corals; primary-coloured Christmas Tree worms, their fan-like tentacles catching what they can before disappearing in a flash if you get too close; and the occasional psychedelic patterning of a nudibranch, the vibrant sea slugs of the reef.

Layered on all of this are striking angel fish; a shoal of juvenile barracuda; a very large barracuda, its fearsome head keeping an eye on us; and countless multicoloured damsel fish darting in and out of the protective coral. It’s all topped off by the biggest lionfish I’ve ever seen, nonchalantly hanging in the water, surrounded by its elegant, but highly toxic, spiny fins.

Having lost track of time and all sense of location, absorbed in this underwater Eden, we’re greeted at the surface by a cacophony of birdsong coming from the island, its golden beach and dense forest beyond. It’s a startling transition from one spectacular natural world to another.

“If you thought that was good, you won’t believe tomorrow,” says Tegan back on the boat.

Secluded reefs

Orpheus is very good at making you do absolutely nothing, but with access to such plentiful waters it’s geared up for you to do everything from kayaking to snorkelling and sailing. But diving from such an exclusive resort means you have access to reefs that aren’t on the radar of the big tourist boats.

It was this sense of seclusion that I experienced the next day following a very sound sleep in a vast, modern beachside apartment. There’s an understated seaside charm to the rooms; a pair of oars adorn a terrace, while inside big black-and-white photos of people frolicking here in the ’50s betray the resort’s rich heritage.
I wake early and enjoy a breakfast served on the half-hour journey out to Bramble Reef, one of the outer reefs of the Coral Sea.

Tegan’s optimistic prediction was spot on. To a whale-song soundtrack I drift along with Ashley, my fist-pumping guide, admiring the multi-tiered platforms of colourful table coral and the silhouettes of net-like fan corals.

As I hang suspended in the water, the slightest kick of a flipper sends me forward effortlessly, such is the unique feeling of scuba diving. I look out into the blue abyss trying to imagine the giant animals making that sound, but instead catch sight of a rather skittish green turtle that immediately darts for cover.

Ashley later explains that they’re perhaps more nervous around humans here because of the proximity of Palm Island and its traditional hunting practices.

On our return to Orpheus, a huge humpback breaches in the distance and the crew change course to try and get closer. With the engines off I’m scanning the surface for the whale but instead catch the rather horrifying sight of a large pale worm wriggling across the surface straight towards the boat. It’s a metre-and-a-half long and thick – as chunky as my wrist.

“What the hell is that?” I shout. “Oh, it’s a sea snake,” says skipper Paul. “They’re highly poisonous, but in the water you can play with them; they’re quite friendly, really.”

I watch intently as the creature suddenly dives, disappearing from view. After a fine dinner looking out over Hazard Bay, the jetty lit by flaming torches, I take a walk up to a lookout at the crest of Orpheus Island. With torch in hand I make my way through the bush, disturbing the occasional echidna.

From the top I survey the Coral Sea, and imagine all the forms of life I’d seen over the previous days living under its inky black surface. On Orpheus you can have moments like this to yourself, on land or at sea.

The Details: Orpheus Island

Getting there: Flights to Townsville leave regularly from all major cities. Transfer to Orpheus via a 30-minute helicopter flight with Nautilus Aviation ($275 per person one way).

Staying there: Accommodation, which includes all alcohol, meals, and a daily nature-based experience, starts from $1200 a night for a South Room which sleeps two, up to $2800 a night for the North Beachfront Villa, sleeping four.

The hotel room with no walls or ceiling - but you'll still want to stay there

By Hugh Morris, The Telegraph

The first incarnation of this hotel was a zero-star offering in an underground nuclear bunker, but its second has more stars than any other in the world.

This summer the Null Stern Hotel, holiday accommodation in art form, opens its only room, without walls or a ceiling, beneath the night sky on a mountain-side in Graubünden in Switzerland. In 2008 it was in a bunker in St Gallen.

The double "room", bookable on a seasonal basis from $201 per night, is the brainchild of conceptual artists Frank and Patrik Riklin and hospitality professional Daniel Charbonnier, who hope is will be the first of many across Switzerland that will showcase the country’s landscapes.

“Even though this version is radically different from the first one in the nuclear bunker, the essence and the spirit of the concept remains the same,” said Charbonnier. “To put the guest at the centre of the experience and to focus on the intangible by reducing everything else to the minimum.”

He added that Switzerland “will be the first country to become a hotel”.

And that hotel comes with a butler, replete with white gloves and a bow tie, to ensure each guest receive a warm welcome, though they might need a little more in the way of warmth with thunderstorms forecast next week for the region where the bed is, Safiental. However, reservations can be cancelled at short notice due to poor weather.

The butler will also be on hand to serve warming shots of Röteli and cuts of saucisson.

There is no bathroom, as such, but guests are able to use facilities at a public bathroom 10 minutes from the bed.


Tucked into one of those unique Sunshine Coast black holes that doesn’t allow for too much development, Rainbow Beach’s Strandhaus is one of those places that shows us what all those Queenslanders mean by “beautiful one day, perfect the next”. And although it’s German for “beach house”, there’s something unmistakably Australian about the setting for Strandhaus, around two hours north of Noosa. 

Enclosed by thick bush on every side, the two-storey, three-bedroom, open-plan home has wonderful high ceilings designed to make the most of slightest sea breezes, a generous kitchen, indoor and outdoor dining and living areas and is clean and simple throughout. Multiple levels of back decking lead straight to a narrow bush pathway, which in turn vanishes through the woods only to reappear 300m later at Cooloola Beach. 

All the wonders of a Fraser Island day tour are yours to be had just a few kilometres up the road, while the Great Sandy National Park is directly to the south if you fancy a bushwalk or a spot of camping. 



Blue Mountains accommodation that will blow your mind

Here are five utterly distinctive places to stay in Sydney’s rarefied Blue Mountains; accommodation so unique that it will blow your mind and make your long weekend. By Megan Arkinstall 

1. For romantics – Eagle View Escape, Rydal

This stunning 40-hectare property has five boutique self-contained suites perfect for couples. Each of the Eagle View suites has views of the surrounding valley and/or lake, cosy gas log fires and spa baths; although self-contained, guests can order breakfast hampers and special dining packages including cheese and wine, and fondue for two… so there’s no reason to leave the comfort of your room. Wink, wink. 

2. For design devotees – Angel Wing, Ganbenang

This stunning contemporary home is perched high on a hill, with breathtaking panoramic views of the valley. Ideal for a group of friends or a family, the four-bedroom house was designed by award-winning architect Peter Stutchbury: Angel Wing has an open-plan minimalistic design, floor-to-ceiling windows and skylight for natural lighting, and, to keep completely cosy on those cool mountain nights, an open fireplace, outdoor firepit and underfloor heating. 

3. For adventurers – Love Cabins, Wollemi

Relive your childhood at Love Cabins, a collection of unique accommodation options set on 240 hectares of private bushland. Our two favourites are the (very grown-up) Treehouse, set high in the treetops and resplendent in natural woods, and the primitive-style Enchanted Cave, which is carved out of bedrock. Both have gorgeous views of the vast property, which is home to gorges, creeks, mountains and rainforests.

4. For nostalgics – Hydro Majestic, Medlow Bath

Teetering on the edge of an escarpment, with breathtaking views of Megalong Valley, Hydro Majestic is the mountain’s most iconic stay. Reopening in 2014 after many years of abandonment, the historic hotel has (thankfully) been restored to its former glory of the Art Deco era. It’s well worth a nostalgic visit, even if only to enjoy high tea in the Wintergarden or a cocktail in the notorious Cat’s Alley.

5. For luxury lovers – Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley

Touted as one of the country’s most luxurious stays, Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley is located on more than 2800 private hectares of rugged and peaceful bushland, of which the Wolgan River cuts through. Managed by uber luxurious resort group One&Only, Wolgan Valley offers outstanding accommodation; its well-appointed freestanding villas all feature a fireplace, verandah and private pool (naturally). Not to mention extremely attentive staff, exceptional cuisine which, delightfully, is all inclusive, and a host of incredible activities such as archery and horse riding.


5 things you don’t know about BridgeClimb Sydney

BridgeClimb Sydney is one of the go-to attractions for visitors to the city, but there are a few things you won’t know about the harbour city icon. 

1. Climbs go around the clock

Except for one day of the year, on New Year’s Eve, the BridgeClimb keeps climbing. Catch the sunrise, sunset and watch the city skyline light up in the middle of the night, or even add a little extra excitement to your Christmas Day with a climb. 

2. Sky high dates

BridgeClimb gets involved in the fun of all kinds of special events during the year, including Chinese New Year, Vivid and Mardi Gras. And for those looking for nuptials with a difference, you can even get married on the Bridge!

3. Be spontaneous

While you can book a BridgeClimb for anytime of the day or year, reservations aren’t essential, meaning you can decide to climb at any time. So be spontaneous and surprise a friend with a weekend climb.

4. There’s more than one way to the top

The original climb has been a popular choice since BridgeClimb began in 1998, but if you’re pressed for time, you can take the BridgeClimb Express. The classic route follows the outer arches, while the faster climb heads through the heart of the bridge before reaching the summit. If you’re not a lover of heights, the 90-minute BridgeClimb Sampler is for you.

5. It’s a celebrity affair

Many a celebrity has ticked the BridgeClimb off their Sydney bucket list while Down Under, among the more recent climbers has been Katy Perry and a few members of Modern Family. Drop into BridgeClimb’s Climb Base to check out which celebrities have enjoyed climbing one of Australia’s best-known icons.


Hayman Island Spa refreshes its ‘wellbeing’

If, like us, you spend far too many days eating lunch a la desk and far too many nights scrolling your social media pages… this will Pinterest, ah, we mean interest you. 

Hayman Island Spa – aka the 2012 Best Hotel Spa in Australasia, according to Tripadvisor – has launched an entire new roster of ‘wellbeing’ services, which means if you need an actual break, and by that we mean a few days of doing nothing more strenuous than deciding which pool to lie by, then this is it. 

Yoga, island walks, meditation, ocean exercise, Tai chi, pilates… and happily, not a juice fast, pasta-ban or bootcamp instructor in sight. 

Being dutiful journalists we checked it out ourselves and we’re happy to report, this is a worthwhile exercise in self-spoiling. 

Don’t miss morning yoga outdoors amongst the palm trees – it truly is a lovely way to wake up.