AS a travel writer, it’s natural for me to focus on the destinations in which I find myself, but for my last blog of 2017, I wish to highlight the people behind those places I was incredibly fortunate to visit this year. When you’re out in the world, hunting and gathering stories and photographs, it can be a bit of a lonely place, particularly if you’re travelling alone, as has been my strategy in recent years. Until you meet your guide. This year, I was blessed to have the most generous souls cross my path as I wandered around the planet, people who went above and beyond their roles as tour guides or tourism staff, many of whom became friends.
My travels started in February, at beautiful Noosa, on the Sunshine Coast. It was as hot as hell that weekend, where I partook in my first mountain bike tour with Bike On Australia. The next day, I kayaked the Noosa Everglades with Kanu Kapers Australia and both of my female guides were encouraging and taught me new techniques in both adventures, but above all, were the strong, smart women I so admire. Later that same month, I visited the remote Australian territory of Norfolk Island. Here, I met Tania from Norfolk Island Tourism, who introduced me to this destination’s incredible history, local food and wine, and the rugged landscape. I don’t have a snap of Tania, but I took plenty of the cows which inhabit this place, and which outnumber residents.
March was devoted to my home-state of Queensland, firstly visiting Tropical North Queensland’s Port Douglas and the Daintree. Here I ambled among the world’s oldest rainforest, Mother Nature being a particularly good guide on this trip, and snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef, reminding me of why I love living in this part of the world so much. Two weeks later I was in Bundaberg for a series of stories, where among my great guides, I met Suzie from Bundy Food Tours. Mother Nature made another big impact on this trip, introducing me for the first time to her turtle hatchlings on Mon Repos beach. It was so beautiful, I cried.
I encountered one of my favourite guides all year in the Cook Islands, when I met Aunty Nane. Aunty’s laugh was a cross between a gecko and an erupting volcano, and epitomised the soul and spirit of these proud Pacific Islanders. Aunty loved to eat and talk, and we spent 10 days doing just that, enjoying the spoils of the tropics. Aunty was convinced I would find a husband if I accompanied her to church, so off we trotted. I never found a bloke, but the singing gave me goose bumps. On an outlying island I also met Aunty Mii, who told me she spent her days trying to avoid her husband because he was “stupid”. You can’t win ‘em all.
In May, I was in Fiji for the wedding of my beautiful friend Saskia who married her Fijian warrior Pauliasi. The Fijians are great and gentle guides, who teach you much without even knowing it. It’s all about Fiji time up here, learning to slow down, that things don’t always go to plan, but you can always find a reason to smile. It’s a lesson which was carried into later that month when I visited the Whitsundays, which was rebuilding after Cyclone Debbie. Resilience? These people have it in shades, and again, amid the destruction, there were still smiles.
In June, I was up at Noosa again, gathering some last-minute stories for an urgent deadline, but my biggest teacher in both June and July was my wild eastern Australian carpet python, Sylvia. For a few weeks every winter, if the stars align, I try to slow down, stay home, go to yoga and try to find some balance. It’s not an easy fit for someone like me with such an active mind, but it’s crucial if I am to continue a hectic travel schedule for the rest of the year. Sylvia, my beloved snake, taught me the importance of hibernation, to follow the natural rhythms of the seasons, and to just be, at least for a few weeks. And so I did.
By August I was ready to go again, and after a brief trip to northern New South Wales, I attended the Australian Society of Travel Writers’ annual convention, which was this time held on the Sunshine Coast. On a beautiful winter day, while cycling along Caloundra, I bumped into these bathing beauties, who taught me you’re never too old and it’s never too cold, to swim, or laugh.
September was hectic, but also delicious. First, I flew to Canada where I fulfilled a story wish to snorkel with the salmon over at Vancouver Island on the Campbell River. My guide, Jamie, from Destiny River Adventures, was a little hard core, and proved to be scarier than the unexpected rapids into which I was flung and told to “fly like a superhero” to avoid being injured by rocks. But in the end, Jamie and I became friends, particularly when I emerged from the 14 degree rapids, smiling and shouting “that was awesome.” I was back in Brisbane for only four nights before it was off to Hong Kong, where I met another of my favourite guides, Vivian. I was hunting a story about fortune tellers, and Vivian and I trekked the streets of Hong Kong, while I indulged in “villain hitting” (to banish former boyfriends) and having everything from my face to my tarot read. I also popped over to Macau on this trip, where the guide really understood my need, mid-tour, to pop into the local bottle shop to pick up a drop of the local Portuguese wine.
I spent two weeks in October in Morocco where I was fortunate to have Khaled as my guide as we trekked, on an Intrepid Tour with 13 others, across this incredible country. It was here that I really sat back and observed how tough it is to be a guide, dealing with 13 different personalities, three distinct nationalities, long distances and tiring days. But Khaled never faltered, always finding the positive in every situation, doing his best to secure a glass of wine for us at the end of the day, and at one point, turning up at my door with a can of cold Casablanca beer after listening to my endless observations about how warm the beer was in Morocco.
In November, it was off to Bawah Island, a luxury new destination half way between Malaysia and Borneo, and three hours from Singapore. In terms of guides, it was an unusual week for me, as I spent it with a group of men, mostly part of the management team from Singapore, who were putting the final touches on this beautiful resort. With five men from different destinations, all of whom spoke at least two languages, conversations were colourful and entertaining. One of my favourite guides was the Italian dive instructor Paulo, with whom I would book in a morning snorkel straight after breakfast, and whose enthusiasm for Bawah’s underwater beauty was infectious.
Which brings me to December where I have just returned from a trip to the North Pole to interview Santa. I’d love to say Santa was my best guide, but he was hugely overshadowed by the kind and eccentric Irene, an artist who makes amazing things out of reindeer parts. Irene also talks to her house elves (one of which is currently being naughty and getting naked while Irene is in her studio), which made her one of the most interesting interviews I had all year. I headed further north in Lapland and stayed at Beana Lapponia Wilderness Lodge, where I met Tony, the husky handler, and he was also an incredible guide, teaching me not only how to harness huskies, but how to drive the husky sled through the snow.
It’s been another incredible year and I’d like to thank all of the tourism and travel operators, local communities, kind random strangers, PR people, publishers, editors and fellow writers, who I met on this incredible journey that was 2017. See you out there in 2018.
And to my beloved readers, thank you for supporting me. Wishing you peace on earth.
10,000 years old, 100 staff, and 1 guest. Me. This is how I spent last week, ensconced on a luxury eco resort in Indonesia, half way between Malaysia and Borneo. So exotic is this location, it was part of the Sunda Land which linked up Peninsula Malaysia, Cambodia, Java and Sumatra, during the last Ice Age. Now, you’ll find the newly-opened and breathtakingly beautiful Bawah Island, just three hours from Singapore. Yes, last week I died and went to heaven…and the angels were serving cold Bintang on the beach.
Here’s 10 reasons Bawah Island is the new Maldives for Aussies…at only half the travel time.
1. It has luscious lagoons
Sporting not one, but three lagoons, Bawah Island is plonked in Indonesia’s Anambas group of islands. Bawah, which means “lower” or “southern”, denotes its position and because of its remote (yet accessible) location, you can expect unspoilt, crystal-clear waters. Spend your days snorkelling or diving the aqua ocean, or sailing, paddle-boarding and kayaking. The passionate Paulo, an enthusiastic Italian who runs these activities, will happily be your snorkelling buddy, provide you with gear, and introduce you to Bawah’s underwater wonders.
2. Life is sweet in your overwater suite
They don’t call these bungalows here, but suites, as this is luxe plus. Saunter along a walkway which splits into your own private jetty, where your name is etched in sand on a timber board (which you get to keep). Perched over the lagoon, your suite comes replete with a huge deck and stairs which lead directly into the water. Inside, the bed is draped evocatively in fabric and the bedroom is air-conditioned. The bathroom is all louvres and Indonesian timber, with a gorgeous copper bath and separate shower. There’s also a walk-in robe and separate toilet. This island boasts 21 beach, 11 overwater, and three garden suites.
3. The food is five-star
Apart from breakfast, where you can choose from the likes of coconut scrambled eggs from the a-la-carte menu, dining here is akin to having your own private chef, with menus based on the fresh produce produced on the island and your personal tastes. Before each meal, the chef will discuss your preferences before disappearing to craft creative plates. For fine dining, head to Treetops restaurant, 88 stairs to the top. The Jules Verne Bar is up here too, up a timber and rope spiral staircase. The Grouper Bar, at the end of the jetty, is an ideal place for a casual drink while The Boat House is perfect for feet-in-the-sand barbecues. Want to learn how to cook amazing Indonesian fare? You can do that here too.
4. The service is superior
Want something? Just ask. This travel writer has a habit of drinking the local beer wherever she goes. (Hey, I like to assimilate). When the island informed her there was no Bintang left for lunch (you are remote, remember that) but there were plenty of other beers, wines and cocktails from which to choose, by dinner, two cold cartons of the local brew had magically arrived. Yes, the staff had disappeared in their speedboat, 45 minutes each way to a neighbouring island, to bring back this liquid gold. Now, that’s service.
5. You can enjoy your own private beach
There’s 13 beaches here, and with only a maximum of 70 guests at any one time, chances are, you won’t be bumping into anyone else anytime soon. Staff will happily pack an esky and deposit you, and your picnic, at an exclusive enclave. And if there’s anything an Aussie loves, it’s being left alone on a beach. Think along the likes of beaches such as Coconut, Lizard and Turtle, christened after their flora and fauna inhabitants. Sipping champagne in the warm waters? Oh, OK, if I must.
6. Mother Nature sparkles
Fling open the curtains of your overwater suite, laze back in bed and watch the sun rise over a neighbouring island (there’s 5 in this group). At sunset, head to the Jules Verne Bar for a cheeky cocktail. And if you’re lucky, just after dawn, witness the harmless black-tipped reef sharks circle the shallows. There’s plenty of butterflies, birds and giant monitor lizards on this island too. Walk one of the three marked trails for great views of the island. And on a clear night, look up. There’s more stars here than at the Oscars.
7. It’s eco-friendly
The island’s Permaculturalist Joe Semo, who calls himself “the green pirate of Bawah” is working on making the island so self-sufficient that it grows around 80 per cent of its own vegetables and 60 per cent of its own fruit. Where possible, the island trades seeds for food with neighbouring villages. Water is a coveted resource here and comes from three sources: rain, wells and a reverse osmosis system. And you won’t find any plastic bottles, guests are supplied with endless glass bottles of sparkling or still water.
8. It embraces the local community
The island has established the Bawah Anambas Foundation (BAF) which focuses on initiatives to make above (the rainforest), below (the ocean) and beyond (local communities) more sustainable and ethical. The big issues throughout all of Indonesia have been over-fishing and waste disposal and through BAF, local communities are being engaged and encouraged to look at alternatives that will not only address these issues, but ensure long-term employment for future generations. Around 45 per cent of staff on Bawah hail from local villages.
9. The spa is sublime
In the name of research for this story, I took one for the team and experienced a treatment every day. At Bawah’s wellness centre, Aura, you’ll find a spa and yoga pavilion. Select from a magical menu of mind and body treatments. I started my week with a 60-minute Garden of Deep Calm, continued the next day with a 60 Minute Aura Lost Treasure, followed by 60 Minutes of Facial Yoga and finished with 60 Minutes of Foot Mapping, or reflexology, by the pool.
10. You can mix with the staff
Bawah has captured Indonesia’s laid-back vibe that Aussies love so much, and paired it perfectly with five-star service. Unlike other luxury resorts, guests are invited and encouraged to tour back-of-house where you can witness how this property maximises its resources and see where its workers live. A highlight of my week was dining in the staff canteen as well as attending an English class for employees.
HOW TO GET THERE
Start your journey to this exotic locale in style, flying with Singapore Airlines Business Class. This award-winning carrier, which is renowned for its superior service, has just introduced its Book the Cook service from Brisbane for its Business and Premium Economy Class customers. Under Book the Cook, customers can pre-order a main meal from a selection of options, with creations inspired by the Airline’s International Culinary Panel of chefs, including Australian celebrity chef Matt Moran.
Due to airline connections, you may need to stopover in Singapore either before or after your Bawah adventure, or both, as was the case for me. On this journey, I experienced the Royal Plaza on Scotts – a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts https://preferredhotels.com – which has just been awarded its 10th win as Asia Pacific’s Best Independent Hotel. Inside, enjoy Singapore’s first 100 per cent smoke-free hotel, outside you are mere metres from Orchard Road.
Bawah will arrange for a limousine to collect you from your Singapore hotel and transfer you to Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal where you will board the Majestic Ferry to Batam Centre in Indonesia. From there, you will be met by Bawah staff for VIP fast-track through Indonesian Immigration and Customs, and driven to the airport where you will board a seaplane and taken to the island.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Bawah Island; Singapore Airlines Business Class; and Royal Plaza on Scotts Singapore.