Chicago: Michelle

Greeted by friendly staff as we checked in to Air New Zealand's newly refurbished lounge prior to our flight we were treated to a range of delicious food and drinks. Coffee promptly delivered after ordering with the ipad self-service system. Sleek design which is open and spacious yet offering enough privacy to unwind before flight.

This design theme continues as we stepped on board our 777-300 wide body aircraft to Auckland. Operating 3 cabins - business, premium economy and economy. Business class set out with the inverted seat pattern to offer every seat an aisle access and fully lie flat seats. I was struck mostly by how much bigger the seats in premium economy were. Leather seats set out in a spacious 2-3-2 configuration provide much more width (19.3 inch) and pitch (41 inch) than I had envisioned.

Transferring through Auckland Airport to our next flight was a breeze and we were soon stepping on board the new Dreamliner to Chicago, Air NZ’s newest direct route. This flight operates 3 times a week with seats available in business, premium economy and economy. Economy also has the added benefit of Air New Zealand's SkyCouch which is well worth the upgrade, especially if you are travelling with kids!

15 hours later we landed in the Windy City (which isn’t windy at all) of Chicago. Our hotel of choice was The Viceroy, located in the upscale neighbourhood known as the Gold Coast. With its stately homes and high rise apartment buildings it proved as a great base to further explore this enigmatic city. The Viceroy Chicago is housed in a 120 year old, art deco building with a rooftop pool & bar offering city skyline and lake Michigan views. Boutique style accommodation provide spacious, well appointed, retro chic décor giving us everything you would expect from a 5 star accommodation.

After a quick nespresso (offered in room amenity) we were ready to hit the town (surprisingly I know after such a long flight!!) We headed to Chicago’s most famous steak house, Gibson’s Bar & Steakhouse, known for their larger than life steaks and old school hospitality (all male waiters.) After dinner we continued on to yet another famous location, this time known for its music - Kingston Mines, the largest and oldest operating Blues club in Chicago.

After a refreshing sleep and hearty breakfast at the Pancake House located steps from the hotel, our first day in Chicago started with enjoying the panoramic views of the city from Sky Deck Chicago. Buzzing up the 103 floors in less than 60 seconds you definitely feel on top of the world. If you’re game you can step out onto the “Ledge”, a glassed in platform hanging out over the city skyline of Chicago. A great way to gain a birds eye view of the city and structure a plan on best how to fit everything in!

A stop at the Chicago Theatre we were guided through a building steeped in history on the daily tour operating at midday from the lobby. Next, time for lunch at Pizano’s Pizza & Pasta on the Chicago Loop for Chicago’s famous deep dish pizza. Invented in Chicago this pizza is more like a pie by Australian standards with toppings piling up inches in the deep pan.

Our afternoon was spent on Segways exploring the city with Absolutely Chicago Segway Tours. As a complete Segway novice it didn’t take long to gain confidence with the instruction and pre tour Segway practice with our friendly guide. We then scooted out to explore Grant Park and Buckingham Fountain before buzzing back though Michigan Avenue famous for its outdoor art installations, statues and monuments on our 2 hour tour.

After a much deserved break from too much fun we ventured back to our hotel to get ready for our visit to yet another icon The Green Mill. Heaving with people even on a Thursday night we found ourselves a booth and a couple of drinks to sit back and enjoy the tunes from the 30’s and 40’s jazz era while watching couples of all capabilities dance the night away in what used to be the club of choice for the infamous Al Capone.

To commence our second day we started with a visit to the historic hotel – Palmer House. Built by Potter Palmer for his wife Bertha back in 1871, only to burn down 13 days later and be rebuilt again as the most luxurious hotel of its time. Operating the first ever elevators not only does the hotel boast it’s proud history of architectural feats but also the long stream of past presidents, performers and authors (Oscar Wilde stayed here). A timeless hotel with the walls adorned with original paintings from Monet (Bertha and he were friends) it definitely has the wow factor to impress as you enter the lobby with the most amazing ceiling fresco. Rooms (all 1641 of them) are well appointed and offer a glimpse into the past while giving the guest all the modern conveniences they are accustomed to.

To continue on with the art them of the day we walked to the nearby Art Institute of Chicago, passing past the Historic Route 66 Sign for a quick phot opportunity. Across the road we entered and were greeted by our guide for our tour of one of the oldest and largest art museums in the USA. Soaking up all the information our guide was divulging upon us we visited the institutes American art wing, modern & contemporary wing & impressionist wing. A full day could easily be spent here and highly recommend the Public Tour. Alternatively you can do a self-guided tour with headsets available to give you the insight into the numerous masterpieces curated by the gallery.

Moving on from the Art Institute we spent the afternoon on our free Chicago Greeter Tour of Millennium Park. By registering at least 10 days prior (they are busy), Greeter visits as they are known are operated by enthusiastic volunteers and totally customisable on what part of Chicago you most want to see. With our Tour of Millennium Park our Greeter first met us in the Chicago Cultural Centre to show us it’s two beautiful stained glass domes before stepping across the road the Millennium Park. The park hosts free music events in the summer of an evening along with open air cinemas. Filled with all sorts of gatherings it is a lively town square with a difference. The most notable of attractions here is the Cloud Gate structure affectionately called “The Bean” by locals. The sculpture reflects the skyline of Chicago in its mirrored appearance while visitors try to get the best selfie picture.

Another night, another show to attend. This city really doesn’t sleep with all the clubs, bars, music venues, theatre performances (Broadway shows have their pre performances here) there is so much to see and do! We went to a late night improv show (starting at 11pm) at the Second City. Having never attended an improv show before I was totally in hysterics during the 60 minutes of witty humour and highly recommend.

Day three was focusing primarily on Chicago’s architecture. A quick trip up to another observation tower, this time 360 Chicago and Tilt. Instead of standing on a glass platform at height over Chicago to get your kicks you can tilt outward from the John Hancock building, 1000ft over Magnificent Mile!

Chicago is a city of firsts and you soon learn how it’s history has shaped how most of our cities operate today. With its uplifting architecture you soon realize why it is regarded as “the most beautiful city in the world” as it is absolutely astounding! To experience the history and appreciate all these man made beauties we set out on the Chicago Foundation’s Architectural River Cruise. Named in the top 10 tours of the USA this was a definite highlight to my time in Chicago. The 75 minute cruise along the Chicago River educates you on the history of Chicago and how it was rebuilt after the Chicago fires. Our expert guide informed us on the varied architectural wonders as we wound our way down the river. Noting that the first high rise was designed by a native Chicagoan after the fires with its steel frame, buildings from here on could only go up as you gaze in wonderment at so many unique and beautiful buildings.

To finish off our day we geared up our tastebuds to discover a local foodie paradise in Chicago’s West Loop on the Chicago Food Planet’s – Gateway to the West Loop Food Tour. With its chequered history this neighbourhood is now well known as the hottest place in cuisine and also the home of Facebook, Google and where Harpo Studios (Opera) used to be based. Offering a great insight into the neighbourhood (used to be a rough meatpacking district) our guide introduced us to some of the best restaurants and food I have experienced. Catering for palates the West Loop is definitely the place to go for foodies. If you don’t do the Food Tour I really recommend venturing here as it houses the best restaurants in Chicago.

Restaurants recommended are;

Bonci Pizza - Rome-based Italian import selling scissor-cut slices featuring distinctive toppings, sold by weight.

161 N Sangamon St, Chicago, IL 60607, USA

Kuma's Corner - Owners Mike and Rick combined three of their favorite things: burgers, beer and metal. Their ethos is simple: Support Your Community. Eat Beef. Band Your Head.

852 W Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607, USA

Nonna's & Formento's - Owner John Ross and Executive Chef Todd Stein bring a sense of warmth, family and unforgettable food that is reminiscent of Sunday family dinners at Ross' grandma's house.

925 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60607, USA

Cemitas Puebla- Family owned restaurant specializing in traditional Poblano foods, using recipes that can be traced back to Tony Anteliz’s family in Puebla, Mexico

817 W Fulton Market

While in town your stay wouldn’t be complete without seeing either a hockey or basketball game. We watched the Chicago Bulls play at the United Centre for a great sporting experience filled with entertainment and what you would expect from a sporting arena.

For our last day in Chicago we were treated to a unique gospel experience at the House of Blues. The Gospel brunch included local talent performing both traditional and contemporary songs. Before and during the show there is the endless buffet of food and complimentary mimosas! Don’t miss the signature chicken and waffles which are more delicious than you would expect. Dance it all off as you wave your napkins in the air throughout the highly energetic and engaging performance.

Overall the time spent in Chicago was a whirlwind and you could easily spend 4-5 days here whether it be connecting through to another destination or as a stay in its own right. The easy accessibility with the direct flight on Air New Zealand will increase numbers to this fabulous city as word gets out on how truly special it is.

Fiji: Ceri

HILTON FIJI BEACH RESORT – Denarau

Large resort spreading along the coastline of Denarau Island – perfect for one or two night pre or post Mamanuca or Yasawa Island visit as closet location to Port Denarau and only 20 mins from the airport.

Caters to families (includes on site kids club catering to children 3- 12 years) , couples and small groups of friends. Plenty of facilities and  a variety of entertainment,  sports and activities offered on a daily basis

Bbq provided and full kitchen – the resort can provide meat packs on request.  

First floor accommodation has the better views, though must be noted that it is all stair access, no lift. Large balcony full sea view with day bed and loungers – suggest requesting rooms 2000 and above – newly refurbished – spacious rooms with bath that can be screened off or left open into the room

Adult only restaurant ‘Koro’ opens out to an to adults only pool. The spa is also located in this complex.

CASTAWAY ISLAND

This resort has not changed significantly in the many years it has been here, which is part of its appeal. Totally Barefoot luxury – VERY high level of service – all staff used our individual names straight after arrival.

The whole ethos is to disconnect from everything electronic and re-connect with your family

The resort Bures, all looking like a traditional Fiji Village, are  all the same size taking a maximum of two adults in a king size bed screened off from two coaches that can accommodate two children. Small bathroom separate shower and toilet – basic décor but adequate. There are hammocks outside each bure which was a nice tropical touch!

Should be noted that as part of their efforts to disconnect, there are no WIFI, phones or TV’s in the Bure’s.

The resort does offer a tranquil adult pool and also a child friendly pool next to the kids club. The Kids Club itself is also unique as modelled on a Fijian village with no technology but lessons in replanting of the coral and environmental sustainability a big focus, open 0900hrs until 2200hrs .

The resort offers 4 restaurant choices with ‘1808’ winning the Egon Ronay award in 2018. Sunset Bar a very pleasant area for the relaxing and olbligatory sundowner, also has a Pizza Oven , if you elect not to move from here. No room service offered though a Pizza Box can be taken back to guests rooms if required.

A courtesy Bure, with a large bathroom located  close to the Kids club is offered to accommodate early arrival and late departure of guests.

Spa Bure offering massage, manicure and pedicure.

North Beach has the softer sand and snorkelling water activities straight off the beach – South Beach has  a small beach with steps into the water for snorkelling.

TROPICA Island Resort

Located on Malolo Island – (adjacent to Six Senses Resort) – Tropica is an adults only resort  with private pool villa accommodation. Fijian conical shell and refreshing iced ginger tea welcome as guests arrive. Together with foot massage for each guest – nice touch.

Should be noted that the beach is not great and reef shoes are essential.

Cute swinging seat on each balcony where couples can watch the sunset with a sundowner. Décor a little basic but perfectly adequate and terrific if the island is not pitching itself too high

Main resort restaurant and pool area at the centre of the resort,  clean white and more modern minimalist in style.

MALOLO Island resort

An ideal affordable family friendly island. Visually on arrival not as attractive as others as the local village is to the right of the arrival pier. Definitely an Island that grows on you I feel as the main building where the restaurant and public areas are located , which is set back from the beach, are housed in an impressive large white colonial looking building.

Bures are large and very well equipped – clean white and mostly beach front – high ceilings with ceiling fans in both the bedroom and living area. The family Bure is a terrific size with two separate bedrooms with king beds and 3 couches that convert to single beds sleeping up to a maximum of 7 guests.

The island offers watersports, a kids club and a weekly Managers cocktail party on a Saturday night where the children are encouraged to preform the traditional Fijian dance taught at the Kids Club.

Beach predominantly coral not soft sand – reef shoes necessary – good snorkelling off the rocks at the left of the resort.

Again WIFI not encouraged and only available near the beach bar. Stepping away from technology the ethos and one of the main focuses for a stay here.

LIKULIKU

Absolutely loved this resort - everything from the welcome on arrival in a little separate bar area attached to the pier to the tastefully decorated restaurant,  where  a wonderful choice of buffet and A La carte breakfast was served. Visually they have achieved perfection with spectacular entry to the resort across a bridge astride the lagoon where they are replanting coral.

Bures are private, with rich timber furnishings, a large king size bed and each comes with a private plunge pool and day bed located just steps from the water. The Overwater Bungalows also spacious with an indoor bath that has clear sea views – snorkelling available from each Bungalow via private steps from the terrace. Each has a glass floor panel for watching the water from the privacy of your room - no Bungalow overlooks any other.

Guests at Likuliku could walk to Malolo resort at low tide – Likuliku does not permit the opposite!

Smaller resort than I had previously thought though very pleasantly surprised. Adult only, high standard, that would suit Honeymooners and couples that appreciate a high level of service.

SIX SENSES FIJI

When it comes to ‘wow’ factor this property has it all – the arrival via the resort private Motor Yacht at a modern private Marina sets the tone for the property.

Located on a sweeping stretch of sandy beach undoubtably the best island beach in Fiji.

The resort is built to replicate a traditional Fijian Village with thatched roofs, though all with solar panels which makes the resort completely sustainable, and follows the sustainable tourism focus that Six Senses pride themselves on worldwide .

Without doubt the most stunning Villa accommodation with contempory Fijian décor. Each Villa is assigned a Butler who explains the touch point electronic control of all elements in the room and bathroom. Large bathroom, gorgeous fixtures and fitting, heated underfloor tiles and Japanese style heated toilet. Outdoor bathroom with large bath and shower – simply stunning.

Central resort area with spacious bar and restaurant overlooking the resort pool and beach – open kitchen with locally grown produce used predominantly in the resort. Kombucha produced at the resort is served at breakfast daily (I liked that!)

Six Senses Spa is outstanding and of a world class standard with an extensive spa menu to choose from. Individual Spa Huts offer single of couple treatment rooms.

I would point out that the Kids Club, outdoor Gym and chicken coop are all located quite a distance from the main resort building and I wonder how many parents would be happy to leave their children here, seemed a strange choice.

The resort shop and fine dining restaurant (closed when we were there) is also quite a distance from the accommodation and again seems a strange choice of location. 

The staff at Six Senses did not seem very cohesive  either – the western management team were terrific but this did not seem to filter to the waiting staff – I felt it all seemed a little too new or something.

There is still also a lot of construction of more residences which is ongoing for a while and can be a little off putting in terms of noise.

Maldives: Hugh

COMO Cocoa Island

We arrived by speedboat (45mins from Male airport) in the dead of night. The temperature was pleasantly muggy but in the dark it was very hard to get a sense of where we were. After a very brief and pleasantly informal check in, bleary eyed we weren’t capable of taking much in! We were escorted from the pier to a long wooden walkway stretching out in to the bay. Arranged along this were a string of overwater bungalows - the only type of accommodation at this uniquely small property - all of varying size and a few shaped like the local Dhoni boat. It took a bit of concentration, whilst gawping at our surrounds, not to fall in to the water! First impressions on entering my room were definitely wow. It was enormous, with a bathroom (indoor and out) on the left and a huge double height living area at the end of the entryway. From here a set of glass doors opened out on an oversized deck, replete with the obligatory sunlounger and steps down in to the water. Upstairs was a mezzanine bedroom with a very welcoming super king size bed as well as another small powder room.

One of the reasons we love Como properties so much is their understated approach to health and wellbeing. Breakfast is a combination of buffet and a la carte, all served in an airy and open pavilion which they also use as the main space for lunch and dinner. No limp and overcooked bain-marie here! The selection of buffet pastries is baked freshly on site, the juices are freshly squeezed and the a la carte options cooked to order are simply divine. The fruits, strangely enough, are imported from Australia. You can check out some of their COMO Shambhala Cuisine recipes here and perhaps try your hand at recreating something at home:

http://www.comoshambhala.com/cuisine/special-recipes

Our first day was a little overcast; December should traditionally be a safe bet for weather (peak season runs from November to April) but these days you never can tell! Fortunately, this didn’t hinder our first activity which was a turtle snorkelling trip by boat. The two girls who led our group were fantastically enthusiastic about island life and their incredible job. After getting familiar with the difference between Green Sea Turtles (larger & rarer in these parts) and Hawksbill Turtles (bearing a very distinctive curved beak) we headed out about 30mins from the resort to a drop off point and promptly dived off in to the deep. Sadly, both turtles are categorised as ‘threatened’, and in the Hawksbills case, critically endangered. So, it was a real privilege to see them gently going about their lives in this pristine environment. You’re not allowed to chase them or hover above if you can help it, but they seemed quite happy to go about their business and didn’t appear in the least bit shy.

We had planned on a sandbank picnic lunch which did sound pretty fabulous but unfortunately this was relocated inside due to the inclement weather. Luckily the weather soon cleared up for us to partake in a hotel inspection; being such a tiny island this was a much less involved task than normal! We were shown around the beautiful spa centre (which features a very impressive hydrotherapy pool – a picture required to do it justice!)

As well as a visit to some of the other room types. From the lead in Dhoni Suite which is a more intimate (and single level) version of the ones that were comfortably ensconced in, the Loft Villas. Through to the two-bedroom Como Villas, one of which you will find located at one end of the boardwalk (for sunrise) and at the other end (for sunset.)

This property has an extraordinarily high repeat client business (while we were there a guest was in residence on their 40-somethingth visit!!) and from touring the island you can see why. There are only 33 overwater suites and villas and a charming, barefoot lux vibe. This is the kind of place where the staff know your name but are never intrusive. And from the first few hours with your toes in the sand you already feel a million miles away from home.

That afternoon we had a gentle hatha yoga session with the sounds of the sea gently lapping somewhere behind the palm trees. Bliss. Followed by their signature ginger tea and a short stroll out along the sandbank to check out the amazing contrasting blues surrounding you on the atoll. Perhaps the best thing that we did though was to snorkel just off the deck of our own room. Around 100ms from the steps was the most incredible drop off point where the atoll meets the sea. Surrounded here by hundreds of infinitely coloured and interesting fish (and the odd shark) it was like bobbing around in a real life aquarium!

In the evening we enjoyed a candlelit seafood feast on the beach.

After breakfast we headed out by boat to a nearby floating platform where we hopped on the efficient Maldivian seaplane service for our 50min flight south to Maalifushi. I didn’t realise there was a time zone difference in the Maldives, so we set off at the same time as our arrival. Maximising our time spent on the beach!

From the air you can clearly get a sense of the remoteness that comes with a stay this far out in the Indian Ocean. The Maldives is made up of 26 ring shaped atolls, harbouring more than 1,000 coral islands.

COMO Maalifushi

Maalifushi is currently the only resort located on the unspoilt Thaa Atoll, which is one of the most southerly. Well regarded for its diving and the opportunities to surf (season from April to October) its also just a great place to get away from it all!

First impressions; it’s a very different proposition to Cocoa! For a start it’s very much larger. With an island footprint that eclipses that of its more established northerly neighbour and around double the room capacity. They gift you with a bicycle on arrival that you use to get around (though you also have the use of a buggy which is only ever a summons away if you don’t fancy peddling.) My jaw dropped when I was shown to my room; a Water Villa. It was gigantic with a free-flowing living area, bedroom and bathroom all configured around an inviting sundeck (replete with private pool.) As well as unimaginably inviting views of the azure water and various islands scattered beyond. It really does have to be seen to be believed.

After some time to enjoy our rooms we had a briefing at the dive centre and I almost burst with excitement when I realised that Whale Shark diving is an opportunity here. Which we of course promptly signed up for. Rather unusually they do the dives at night when the sharks are drawn up to the surface by fishing lights in order to feed. It’s by no means a guaranteed sighting, I believe in general it happens once or so a week. But just in case, the dive team set aside your gear and equip you with an old school Nokia phone which you are to keep on you at all times in case of a call out (between 1900hrs and 2300hrs.) Suffice to say the phone never left my side! For lunch we dined at their informal Thila Bar. And in the evening we were hosted for yet another delicious seafood BBQ dinner, in the main restaurant Madi, which was of course perfection.

The following morning the indulgence continued with a sixty-minute COMO Shambhala Massage. I was only sad that I spent most of the time with my face down as the environment of the treatment room was beyond amazing and the water views were somewhat wasted on me! My masseuse was a lovely lady from Indonesia (by way of the COMO Parrot Cay property) with a deft touch that sorted out any remaining stress.

Following this we were led out by boat to a nearby island (which belongs to the resort) where they had set up just for us an elaborate picnic lunch. Picnic being an understatement.

Once we were sufficiently satiated with lunch and massages, we had a resort inspection to check out anything we hadn’t yet experienced. The highlight of which was definitely for us the chance to check out the Como Villa which was an extraordinarily beautiful two-bedroom space of gargantuan (4392sq ft) proportions.

The rest of the day was largely ours at leisure. Then dinner this evening took place at Tai, the specialist Japanese restaurant.

The next morning the sun was shining yet again (after that first day of slightly inclement conditions the weather had been very kind) so we headed out by boat around the island for another turtle dive. The conditions were a little on the choppy side and the snorkel itself was in deeper water but the things we got to see made it so worthwhile; from turtles to sharks, rays, giant clams and even a reclusive moray eel.

In the evening, as the sun was setting, we headed out yet again on the water - this time amongst the luxurious surrounds of the 68ft house yacht “Cameron.” We were out to spot Spinner dolphins but we were completely unprepared for the unbridled glory of seeing hundreds of them surrounding the yacht as we cruised along, waking up from a day of rest and leaping out of the water. Nobody knows for certain why they do it but it makes for a most impressive site!

Thailand: Hugh

COMO Metropolitan Bangkok

I spent my birthday here at the always fab Como Met Bangkok (coincidentally my second visit to the same hotel in the space of a year!) Great location for access by rail to all the city has to offer - yet offering a perfect respite from the hustle and bustle. Decor follows the modern / clean lined approach which reflects the COMO groups approach to everything. The fresh and healthy breakfasts here are a real highlight (as was dinner at Nahm; just recently awarded a Michelin star for the second year running.) And you cannot visit without experiencing the Shambhala Spa, their signature treatment is amazing!!

We then flew south, for a stay at the sister property; COMO Point Yamu, Phuket.

Everything about this resort is just glorious. Easily accessed from the airport (20-30mins), the property sits on a promontory overlooking the Andaman Sea and the dramatic limestones of Phang Nga Bay. We were lucky enough to be ensconced in our own personal Bay Pool Suites; massively oversized accommodation with a personal plunge pool and a divine outlook over the Bay. The gigantic main pool area was the perfect location to take in sunsets. And the dining options - La Sirena and Nahmyaa - offer the finest, most moreish cuisine along the same lines of the Como Met.

We didn’t leave the resort (other than to spend a day on their private Como Beach Club island) but if you are inclined to venture out, Phuket Town is only 40mins away by car and Patong a similar distance.

Our final destination is part of the exclusive ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World’ group; Pimalai Resort & Spa. Krabi.

A more traditional Thai style property, with the most gracious management and attentive staff. There aren’t many places in the world that can boast such a sublime setting. The hotel and villas are spread out over the tropical hillside offering complete privacy. And being the only property in the region the beach is virtually your own. They offer buggies to get around as it really is a massive (and hilly) complex. Though good to get in a bit of excercise after all the feasting. The spa centre here was magical; immersed in the jungle and offering a heady dose of relaxation even before the massage and treatments had begun. Bliss!

We flew with Thai Airways, the best full-service airline for Thailand.

They offer direct flights of course in and out of Bangkok. And convenient connections through to Phuket and from Krabi. Fortunately we got to experience both economy and business. The food for both was a real highlight as were the friendly, discreet staff. Since we travelled they now operate a brand new Airbus A350 aircraft with a completely new fitout.

Britain: Hugh

This year I was fortunate enough to return "home" - my first visit back during the months of summer since I emigrated to Australia (a long time ago!) 

The emphasis for this trip was predominantly to catch up with friends and family. Though we also squeezed in a two week self-drive exploration of previously unexplored parts of both England & Wales. 

Some of the highlights from our first few days in the South were the fabulous Bombay Sapphire Distillery, just outside the picturesque village of Whitchurch - on the River Test. The self guided tour here is highly recommended (pre-booking essential) and at the end you'll be rewarded with a custom created cocktail! 

And a quick stop at Stonehenge - which is always an otherworldly experience. 

From here we stayed in the Welsh village of Laugharne (home to the famous Welsh poet Dylan Thomas), the seaside town Tenby (so pretty that I took a couple of hundred photos here alone!!) and of course my home town of Abergavenny

Definite highlights in this region were the pilgrimage site of St Davids - home to our patron saint (St David) and a pretty unique Cathedral. As an added bonus, the drive here along the ragged coast was spectacular.

The friendly town of Pembroke, with it's magnificent castle. And the little chapel of Saint Govan's - tucked deep in to the cliff side of a sometimes inaccessible Ministry of Defence piece of land. Well worth the trouble to reach it! 

I achieved a life long dream (nerd alert) of finally visiting Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (home to some pretty amazing characters - and of course some equally amazing gardens.) It didn't disappoint. And neither did the surrounding countryside which was amongst some of the loveliest that we encountered on our whole trip. Luckily our time here coincided with a great exhibition "House Style", featuring five centuries of fashion and adornment at Chatsworth. 

We were staying in nearby Youlegreave. And of course (being a notorious glutton) made time to stop in at Bakewell, just down the road, for some famous Bakewell pudding. 

Continuing our journey north we spent some time in the incomparable Lake District. The walks were incredible - and the pub lunches after a just reward! If you encounter a rainy day here and walking is not such an option I could definitely recommend the charming art deco cinema in Bowness Windermere. It's been in operation for over 90 years!! 

The home (and garden) of Beatrix Potter at Hill Top was a lovely pit stop on the way to Yorkshire. As was Holker Hall - another property belonging to the Devonshire family (of Chatsworth fame.) We stopped there for a lovely lunch in the sunshine, and then an independent ramble around the Hall and gardens. 

Our base in Yorkshire was the village of Grassington. And I wouldn't stay anywhere else. From here you are easily able to access walks in all directions across the Yorkshire Dales. We took a leisurely stroll from here to Burnsall, a quintessential taste of this part of the country. And it's a good position to access the larger town of Skipton (30mins away) for a change of pace if you've had enough of village life. Again, my nerd factor is in evidence - I got to visit the Haworth Parsonage (home to the Bronte sisters.) Google took us on a rather circuitous (but interesting route) through some nail biting back streets (how these are supposed to accommodate more than one car is beyond me!) Especially at 60 miles per hour. The Parsonage was exceptional and would be a must see for fans and non fans alike - if only for the sneak peek in to Victorian life. 

We dropped our car off in Leeds and took the train back in to London. Based in the hip suburb of Stoke Newington (Hackney) offered a different aspect of the city from my previous time here. Loved visiting the local L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele (an offshoot of the Italian pizzeria of "Eat Pray Love" fame) as well as the usual city sights (National Gallery, Hyde Park etc etc) 

Until next time! 

Lord Howe Island

I've had Lord Howe on my wish list to visit for many years, and my recent stay more than lived up to expectations.

UNESCO listed Lord Howe, located in the Pacific 600 kms east of Sydney, represents the most pristine of Australian Island's with just 320 residents who all work together as conservationists to maintain the unique flora and fauna and the most southern of our Coral Reefs unusual to be found in such a temperate climate, which ranges from 22-26 most days during summer.

Just 11kms long and 2kms at the widest point the island only accommodates a maximum of 400 guests at any one time, mostly in 70's motel style self catering accommodation clean and comfortable, but very little choice if something more contemporary is required.

The island board of governors insists that the accommodation is discreetly hidden behind foliage dense and subtropical, the Kentia Palm is prolific and a major export for the island, along with stunning Banyan Trees and fragrant Frangipani it reminded me a lot of Hawaii.

Old  Settlement is the central point of the island with most of the accommodation within easy access of the General Store located here where provisions have been available since 1927 - quite sure nothing has changed here since it opened, an icon.

There is also an island co-op manned by locals from 11am until 5pm daily selling locally produced goods, the icecream is highly recommended .

Generally food provisions are pricey as the majority of goods are brought in by ship fortnightly and variety very limited getting close to the arrival of the ship.

The Anchorage restaurant is open daily for breakfast through to dinner, and also doubles as the island bakery where delicious cakes and breads freshly baked are a highlight and must visit for my daily coffee and muffin - yum!

The only other cafe is located within the museum complex, a must visit for a very comprehensive detailed history of the island .

Dinner on the island is offered by the various accommodation not on a daily basis and I soon worked out Sunday was Hamburgers, Monday Fish and chip night at Milky Way, Tuesday Beachcomber served an a la carte dinner, and this was my favourite a high standard with good choices. Dinner generally is around $28- $38 for a main course

What is unique to Lord Howe is that your accommodation offers transport to the various dinner venues at 630pm, and the venue returns you to your accommodation following dinner. This in reality meant we were always home by 9pm. Lord Howe is not for anyone looking for any kind of nightlife, as no street lights, bars or anything other than the Anchorage Restaurant open past 9pm!!

The island is stunningly beautiful, especially the green and blue waters of the Lagoon, with the backdrop of Mount Gower, dramatic when the weather changed following a 3 month drought. The locals were thrilled but this stopped our ability to participate in several of the scenic walks as the tracks were muddy and slippery.

Transport for tourists is on foot or bicycle- easily hired at a cost of $55.00 for a week and a fun way to get around though our accommodation was at the top of a significant hill - push bike was right!! 

Settlement Beach and Neds beach were fabulous for snorkelling with Turtle viewing at high tide a highlight at Settlement beach.

I participated in a  snorkelling /Turtle / wildlife tour operated by Islander Cruises in a glass bottom boat, good value at $60.00 p person for 3 hours. Peter the owner operator was very informative on every aspect of Lord Howe, fishing, sealife, birdlife and politics and fiercely proud of his island. A nice touch was the serving of tea or coffee with his wife's chocolate cake - appreciated after 30 minutes snorkelling and served in a pleasant picnic spot at North Beach.

I would thoroughly recommend my choice of accommodation at Earls Anchorage; the complex of 6 large 1 and 2 bedroom villas with spacious living area, large well equipped galley kitchen, spacious separate bedroom with king bed and equally spacious bathroom with shower and the added bonus of a washing machine. Pleasant private outdoor deck and bbq ensured everything necessary for a relaxing comfortable holiday. The villa unit was serviced daily with Twinings Tea and plunger coffee replaced as necessary.

A highlight for me was the discovery of Stevens Reserve accessed from our accommodation enabling a pleasant natural bushland walk taking approx 12 minutes to the lagoon and Old Settlement village - once found this was a daily highlight for me.

Another bonus of staying at Earls Anchorage is the ability to charge back from the Anchorage restaurant.

During my stay I also visited Capella Boutique Hotel, located in a cleared farm area of the island, adjoining  the island 9 hole golf course. The views from the restaurant and small infinity pool towards Mount Gower are stunning. Mark, the very laid back manager of the Hotel showed me through the public areas which has a fabulous bare foot luxury feel to it and comes highly recommended.

The location near the airport and approx. 15 minute bike ride from old settlement village easy access by the push bikes provided by the hotel for active clients.

Capella does not open its restaurant to anyone other than guests. 

Arajillo is the other luxury Hotel on the island, and arguably in a better location at Settlement Beach, walking distance to the village. The accommodation is very well appointed however I was surprised at the block of accommodation which detracted from the overall luxury feel of the property. Hidden amongst the dense vegetation too, therefore no views. 

Arajillo boasts a fine dining restaurant with a 4 course dinner at $95.00 per person. They will take a waitlist for dinner reservations confirmed only if their residents chose not to eat in; known as the best restaurant on the island yet unfortunately I didn't have the opportunity to dine here.

Another unique aspect of Lord Howe is the virtually non existent levels of crime! Not any of the properties have door locks - took a little while for me to become comfortable  with this before  leaving valuables in our villa. There is a police station and the major felony is fining those tourists who don't wear bicycle helmets!

Lord Howe is a perfect destination for more active clients who can appreciate the many walking opportunities. Comprehensive maps are available with all walks graded from 1-5 Mount Gower being 5 and only available as an escorted guided walk with an official guide. Families with young children can also enjoy the laid back holiday experience with safe calm waters and little or no WIFI allowing a complete step away from busy lifestyles.

Many of the guests return year after year. I spoke with an elderly gentleman who was enjoying his 22nd visit!! 

Be prepared for delays in travelling here, as the tiny airstrip and small Qantas prop jet aircraft servicing the island is very much weather determined. Often flights can leave Sydney but unable to land on the island and turn around mid flight with an unplanned overnight in Sydney quite common, and extra nights on the island also quite usual to accommodate this.

Currently Qantas cover the costs for one nights delay, more than this is at clients own expense therefore good travel insurance is a must for this destination.

ROUTEBURN TRACK: HUGH

32kms doesn't sound like an overly intimidating challenge but the reality of tackling this Great Walk turned out much harder than it had appeared on paper! Though of course it was worth every blister, stumble, scramble and brush with almost catastrophe.  It was harder but also incomparably more enjoyable than anything we had anticipated.

It started off with a scenic (everything in NZ, particularly the Fjordland region, is scenic) transfer overland from Queenstown, via Paradise (an actual place!!) to the Routeburn Shelter.

Day 1 from the Shelter to the Routeburn Falls Hut - was relatively easygoing. You begin a steady climb through a wooded valley, before descending to the valley floor and a vast expanse of grassland. From here it was an uphill climb over rocky terrain to the Hut. They have a lodge up here for the more discerning traveller. We were 'roughing' it in the Hut bunkhouse. Which was clean, comfortable (byo sleeping bags but mattresses are provided) and fully equipped (large communal kitchen area and spotless facilities.) Bookings are required in the summer months, and each evening a ranger addresses that days walkers with an update on weather etc. This took place around 8pm, and pretty soon after we were in bed. Exhausted and gearing up for an early start (to beat the forecast storm.) Note; though our dehydrated meals were light and easy to pack we did look with envy on those (no doubt wiser and more experienced) who had thought to bring along cheese, nibbles and drinks!

Day 2 from the Routeburn Falls Hut to Lake Mackenzie - this is where we had our brush with 'catastrophe' (only a slight exaggeration I promise!) The storm was forecast to hit around midday so we were up and out before anyone else has stirred to try and beat it to the pass. The first couple of hours we were treated to some exceptional scenery. So different from the day before, the grassland and forests gave way to a truly wild environment as you navigate the route through the top of the mountains. Unfortunately the storm decided to join us, just as we were making our way along the most precarious bit of narrow mountainside. We took shelter in an abandoned hut (after getting a thorough drenching - we were woefully poorly outfitted for the occasion!!) Fortunately as wild and as quickly as the thunder and lighting had arrived did it also leave. In a break in the weather we had the chance to crawl up to Conical "Hill" (don't let the name fool you!!) This was quite a tricky side-trip. But so worth it for the jaw-dropping view above the clouds.

We then scurried down the side of the mountain and took more shelter, as the storm made a return appearance, in the ancient wooded and otherworldly moss covered terrain that sits above the lake - our destination. It's very hard to explain without using the word magical just what this part of the walk was like. We tried to take photos of the hanging moss and lush green trees but gave up after a while as nothing could do it justice. When we eventually stumbled out of here we went straight to bed (to warm up and dry off.) After a few hours sleep, we dragged our exhausted selves outside to be greeted by sunshine and the stunning lake aspect (hidden to us on arrival.) There were about 20-30 other walkers who had joined us by this stage. All with clothes strewn over grass and bush to try and dry them off. We all gathered around the lake to bask in the afternoon sun and later in the dining hall for another early dinner.

Day 3 from Lake Mackenzie to the Divide - bliss. This day was almost all on relatively level ground which was a welcome relief after the previous two days. It was another full day of walking, though yet more diverse landscapes unlike any we had yet encountered. By late afternoon we popped out in to the Divide where we were met by our friendly driver for the long journey back to Queenstown. Where we were booked in to a nice hotel for the evening - a well deserved and still happily reminisced about treat after a solid few days of "tramping" across the New Zealand wilderness. 

 

COCOS KEELING ISLANDS: SIAN

I think that this beautiful island paradise is quite possibly Australia's best kept travel secret. There are no locks on the houses, and  car keys are left in the ignition... It's the kind of place where you can go to completely escape the hustle and bustle of regular city life. 

West Island. Photo: Sian Pritchard

West Island. Photo: Sian Pritchard

With only 150 residents on West Island, it is a very small and extremely friendly Island. Everyone will come up and say hello, and before you know it you feel like you're part of their community. The locals couldn't be more accommodating, and they definitely run on 'island time'. There's only 1 supermarket, 1 pub; the Cocos Club, 1 café called Maxi's which thankfully has great coffee but closes at 1pm (what was I saying about island time?), and 1 restaurant, so you're not going to find any cosmopolitan or trendy dining options... but I think that is all part of its charm. With plenty of houses to rent you can easily self-cater for most of your stay if you prefer. It's the perfect beach escape if you want something a little bit different.

View of our transport from Prison Island. Photo: Sian Pritchard

View of our transport from Prison Island. Photo: Sian Pritchard

The temperature is set to a perfect 27 - 30 degrees all year round, and there's no rainy season, so any time of the year is a good time to visit. Cocos has a windy season from July to September making it extremely popular with kite surfers and wind surfers for the reliable weather conditions at this time. There's also fabulous diving and snorkelling opportunities on the many reefs throughout the year. And if you want the crystal clear glass-like water then December and January is the best time to go.

Turquoise water near Direction Island. Photo: Sian Pritchard

Turquoise water near Direction Island. Photo: Sian Pritchard

Direction Island. Photo: Sian Pritchard

Direction Island. Photo: Sian Pritchard

The highlight for me was visiting Direction Island or D.I as it's affectionately called by the locals. This is where the water is the brightest turquoise I've ever seen. We travelled over to the island with Geoff on his glass bottom boat, seeing turtles and reef sharks en-route. There's nothing better than dropping the anchor and jumping off the side of the boat to go snorkelling in this environment. A real highlight! You can explore many beaches on the various island's and barely see anyone else, giving you that wonderful feeling of complete isolation - like you're special to be the only ones there.

We also did a fab motorised Canoe tour with Kylie and Ash from Cocos Island's Adventure Tours. The early 6am start was instantly softened by a lovely champagne breakfast. The tour took us to the Southern Islands which felt like a scene out of Survivor. More swimming, snorkelling and canoeing resulted in a great morning and one I would highly recommend.  

South Island. Photo: Sian Pritchard

South Island. Photo: Sian Pritchard

The Old Jetty, West Island. Photo: Sian Pritchard

The Old Jetty, West Island. Photo: Sian Pritchard

Cocos Keeling Islands have an interesting history. From first settlement in 1826, through decades of rule by the Clunies-Ross dynasty, most island inhabitants had little contact with the outside world. The people of the Cocos Keeling Islands voted to become part of Australia in 1984.

We bumped into Johnny Clunies-Ross at the Cocos Club who is the 6th generation of his family and now the only family member to still live in Cocos. He was incredibly funny, sharp and a real joy to have a chat with. His love of the island was really evident which he put down to the tight knit community that live there; people are constantly lending each other a hand which is really humbling. Old fashioned community values! The Clunies-Ross family homestead located on Home Island has been purchased by a lovely Perth couple who are restoring the house and now provide accommodation on-site. I would love to stay there to chat to Avril for hours... such an amazing woman with many wonderful stories to tell, not to mention the atmospheric historical surrounds.

Getting there:

Virgin Australia fly twice weekly (Saturday & Tuesday) from Perth, with the flight also continuing to Christmas Island (a stay on Christmas Island is also recommended). Due to the flight times, overnight is required in Perth in both directions when travelling from Melbourne.

Where we stayed:

Cocos Homestead; a lovely 4 bedroom, 2 bathroom house that caters to a maximum of 6 guests. Perfect for families or groups of friend's.

Sunset at Trannies Beach. Photo: Sian Pritchard

Sunset at Trannies Beach. Photo: Sian Pritchard

 

 

MARLBOROUGH, NZ: CERI

I travelled Qantas economy from Melbourne and Wellington and was as always very impressed with the Qantas service and their pleasant, friendly crew.

Great selection of inflight entertainment and a lovely full lunch served with three options. Very unusual in economy! Business class old style of seat and only first few rows of cabin so arguably not worth the additional cost on this short 3 hour flight.

The sector between Wellington and Blenheim was operated by Air New Zealand on a 20 seater prop jet - not for the faint hearted but amazing views of the stunning Marlborough Sounds on this 35 minute flight. A comfortable quick option between North and South Island. 

Blenheim is a quiet town whose claim to fame is its location in the heart of the Marlborough wine region. Several motels on the fringe of the city square.

Our hotel - the D’Urville, named after the French explorer who came here after Captain Cook. Terrific central location housed in the original Bank Trust Building (atmospheric.) With just 11 bedrooms hidden behind enormous original bank vault steel doors which have been refurbished with antique beds, furnishings and a smattering of quaint artwork complete the look. No lift but luggage readily taken to the room by pleasant helpful front office staff.

Minimal public areas but pleasant indoor / outdoor bar restaurant area and fine dining restaurant. Excellent menu delicious food and wines. We did find the restaurant service a little slow though. Complimentary port a nice touch for a nightcap!

Breakfast was of the continental variety; buffet of fresh fruit, cereals, cheese, cold meats, juice and toast. Adequate and good value at $15 per person.

Marlborough Food and Wine festival held at the extensive grounds of Bancroft winery and this event now in its 30th year of operation.

8000 people through the gates and the whole event ran so smoothly. Wonderful wines showcased by the best of the regions Winery's average pricing $3.00 per tasting and $5.00 per glass. Premier Winery's ie cloudy Bay charging more.

Cooking demonstrations from world famous chefs throughout the day and marvellous displays of the fresh local produce and cuisine typical of the area. Highly recommend this day showcasing the best of the region in a fun safe and orderly manner. I especially liked the people walking around with tanks of water on their backs filling up empty glasses to keep the crowd hydrated!! Good touch

Full day winery tour operated by Na Clachan Wine Tours. Chris our driver guide provided a terrific full day tour where we visited 8 of the mostly lesser known Marlborough Wineries, with a highlight being Rockferry an organic wine producer where grapes are handpicked. Unusual in this area where machine harvesting is the norm for the Sauvignon Blanc grape variety.

The wines were superior to many and the restaurant offered a varied menu with high quality well priced choices. Another highlight was Framingham; delicious wines and this winery offers a free forwarding to Australia service for a purchase of 12-15 bottles. The wine forwarding is offered generally at a cost of NZD80. With the purchase of 15 bottles of your choice from any of the wineries here. Our included lunch was at Alan Scott winery, my least favourite wine tasting but a great restaurant in a pleasant indoor/ outdoor restaurant setting. Our tour companions numbered 6 in the morning increasing to 10 for the afternoon tastings filling the 10 seater mini bus. Like minded group enjoying the tastings and discussions on the various wines. Highly recommended.

Gateway to the stunning Marlborough Sound area and point of entry for anyone taking the regular ferry from Wellington on the North Island. Relaxed holiday feel here with plenty of good eating outlets and typical motel style of accommodation.

The ferry is used by Hikers keen to walk the Queen Charlotte Track and enables portions of the track to be covered in just one day for anyone not wishing to walk the complete 4 day Trek.

Bay of many Coves was the resort I visited, located approx. 40 minutes from Picton Marina, and in my opinion very worthy of its small luxury hotels affiliation. Comfortable one, two or 3 bedroom units immaculately furnished in tones in keeping with the environment and all offering stunning views across the Marlborough Sounds.

The resort does not have a no child policy but my general feeling I would not recommend this to those clients travelling with children as the pier access and no beach would be too limiting. The resort has a small restaurant on the pier for day visitors and a private dining room again with stunning views for hotel guests only. I enjoyed a delicious lunch here with a marvellous wine list and boutique New Zealand beers offered to compliment the menu.

A 3 night stay here would be perfect for the more active client, enabling a combination of day walks on the Queen Charlotte Track and high quality accommodation, and cuisine to relax in at night Complimentary kayaks included too as an alternative active sightseeing option while staying at the resort.