My world from up above

2016 has been a spectacular year for me as a traveller (a detailed round-up post coming up next) – but one of the highlights was the bird’s eye view I got of some stunning natural and man-made wonders on chopper rides.

From the Grand Canyon in the USA to twice in Canada, over the Niagara Falls and over the Rockies, recently the 12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road in Australia from the vantage point of a helicopter.

Then the familiar landmarks of Dubai from a seaplane, and the very intriguing Nazca Lines in Peru from a light aircraft, it has been an amazing ride.

Here, a few of my favourite memories of the world I saw from above:

The dozen brown hues of the Grand Canyon

The magnificence of Niagara from the Canadian side

Up above the snowy Rockies

The mystery of the outstretched hands over Nazca

Fringes of the Palm and soaring tower of Burj

The 12 Apostles, shipwreck magnets from the past

Roos of the game

Lighthouse

I so want the life Tim Williams has. He drives people around Kangaroo Island, showing them the local colour that comes in the shape of kangaroos and koalas, seals and sea lions. He takes off from work every Wednesday to go sailing with friends. He stops the jeep every few miles to check on his beehives and coo lovingly over his pet bees. And he owns a home by the beachfront, where he watches the parade of the penguins every night.

Yeah, so I want that life. And the penguins; above all, I want a daily penguin adda in my backyard.

I know all this within an hour of being on Kangaroo Island. I have just got there after a terrifying half hour flight from Adelaide on a wobbly 34-seater. Tim, my tour guide from Exceptional Kangaroo Island, meets me at the tiny airport. Just as we drive out, two kangaroos cross the road in front of us. They look startled for a moment – just as startled as I feel – and then scamper into the bushes. Of course, when I say scamper, I mean they go hop, hop, hop like a couple of awkward but adorable kids on pogo sticks.

kids on pogo sticks

I can’t hope for a better welcome. And I am sold on Kangaroo Island. Or KI, as I have begun to think of it. Just like a local.

KI is Australia’s third largest island, spread over 4400 square kilometres, with 4500 residents (and according to unsubstantiated reports, over 70,000 kangaroos). Tim keeps up a steady commentary as we drive along deserted roads, pointing out wallabies hiding in the bushes and koalas dozing on tops of trees, young ones tightly tucked into their pockets. We also stop for the occasional kangaroo; marsupials have right of way on these roads.

KI roads

koala

One third of all land on KI is devoted to National and Conservation Parks. And Tim is taking me on a tour of some of them. First stop, Lathami Conservation Park. KI is home to over 250 avian species but they dedicate the Lathami Park towards the protection of one single subspecies: the Glossy Black Cockatoo, of which less than 250 remain. You cannot say Kangaroo Islanders don’t take their birds and animals seriously. Sadly, the Cockatoos are all in hiding but I spot my first echidna, the local “fast tongue” anteater, with its deceptively glossy blonde spines.

On to Seal Bay, where over 1000 Australian sea lions are working on their tan on the powder white sands. The gulls keep up a steady cacophony, descending and taking off in a big flock. But nothing disturbs the siesta of this colony of sea lions. If they were nearly hunted to extinction on the 19th century, today they are protected and admired from a distance. Although Tim takes me down to the beach, visitors are usually allowed to watch only from the viewing platforms on the boardwalk. A few pups are frolicking in the water in the manner of young ones everywhere. Watching them at play, I find it hard to believe that sea lions can get aggressive.

Seal Bay1

Sleeping seals

Sea lion

Later that evening, I sit with a drink at the Great Room of the Southern Ocean Lodge looking out at the giant waves crashing below. There are plenty of lounge chairs scattered around this large circular room with floor to ceiling glass windows, directly overlooking the Southern Ocean. And an open bar. I think life cannot get better than this.

Southern Ocean

Dinner at SOL

Ditto for my suite – not quite circular but think infinite sea views stretching all the way to Antarctica. And a minibar stocked with wine from local vineyards and champagne. Like the other 20 in the Lodge, this suite is named after a shipwreck that occurred on this once highly turbulent coast. Someone with a macabre sense of humour but also a classy sense of style has been at work here; along with the sophisticated music system and luxury spa products, there are books on these shipwrecks. Not ideal bedtime reading, so I fall asleep to the sounds of the ocean.

Suite at SOL

In the morning, I find it tough to drag myself out of the daybed on the terrace but Tim tells me that more roos await. And some Remarkable Rocks. These weirdly shaped enormous granite boulders are one of the main attractions at Flinders Chase National Park. Eroded by natural forces over five hundred million years, they now look like something designed by Salvador Dali specifically for the South Australia Tourism Department.

Remarkable Rocks

Down the road, at Cape du Couedic, Tim points to the lighthouse built over a century ago. “You can stay here at one of the keeper’s cottages, but chances are, you won’t see any shipwrecks these days,” he says with a straight face. However, naval disasters are not on the minds of modern day visitors to the Cape du Couedic. They come to see the Admiral’s Arch and the colony of New Zealand fur seals nestling on the rocks below. Admiral’s Arch is stunning, with stalactites hanging from the roof, framing the ocean for those perfect photo-ops.

To my untrained eye, the New Zealand fur seals, also native to Australia, look similar to the sea lions at Seal Bay. Tim says their fur is much finer and thicker, which made them the target for hunters till conservationists raised the alarm. Since I am not about the stroke their necks to verify this, I take his word for it. My other learning from this seal watching session is that during the summer months – peak breeding season – fierce territorial battles take place. But right now, there seem to be enough rocks to go around.

Fur seals

KI also prides itself on being the original land of milk and honey within Australia. Of the local population, most of those who are not directly engaged in the tourist trade are producers or traders of cheese, milk, honey, wine, meat and fish. At the Southern Ocean Lodge, every meal consists almost exclusively of local gourmet produce. At breakfast, I feel like I am in a scene out of a Wodehouse novel, as I tuck into “eggs laid by contended hens” à la Bertie Wooster.

I leave KI clutching a small bottle of Hooroo, a local Ligurian honey, a farewell gift from the Lodge. The accompanying note says that Hooroo! is Aussie-speak for goodbye, see you later. Oh well then, Hooroo to you too, Roo Island.

THE INFORMATION

Getting there

Fly Qantas to Adelaide from Mumbai or Delhi (approx. Rs. 62,000) and connect to KI on Regional Express. Or take the cheaper 2½ hours drive and ferry option.

Visas

Tourist visas can be obtained from the Australia Visa Application Centre, managed by the VFS at various cities; visa fee Rs. 8600, allow two weeks for processing.

Explore

Exceptional Kangaroo Island offers a range of tours – including a food safari and a ‘KI for kids’ tour – on 4W drive vehicles with experienced guides. If you are out exploring on your own, look for Eat Local signs to enjoy the best of local food.

Where to stay

The Southern Ocean Lodge is undoubtedly KI’s most luxurious and exclusive option (suites from AUD 1050 per person per night, inclusive of all meals and beverages). If you are looking for a unique experience, stay at one of the cottages at the Cape du Couedic Lighthouse.

***
This was published in the special Australia issue of Outlook Traveller in May 2014.

Down Underdog

Riverside walks? Check. Masterchef quality dining? Check. Charming downtown area? Check. Cosmopolitan vibe? Check. Friendly people? Check.

Melbourne today seems to effortlessly tick all the right boxes. It wasn’t always this way. Founded nearly a century after Sydney, Melbourne thrived on the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s and ‘60s. When the gold fever abated by the early 1890s, the city stopped being ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ and found itself back in the shadows of Sydney’s gleaming beauty. From there to being consistently voted among the “world’s most livable cities” is a testament to the power of the underdog. Recollect the iconic 1960s advertising campaign of Avis car rentals – “We’re No. 2, so we try harder” – that is what Melbourne did too.

And what it lacked in spectacular landmarks that have graced a million postcards out of Sydney – the man-made Opera House and the natural Great Barrier Reef – it has made up for with a buzzing food, arts, and culture scene. The magnificent Great Ocean Drive. And that temple to sport, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, or the G, as Melburnians call it.

For me, Melbourne’s charm is entirely in its easygoing European feel – cobblestoned lanes, alfresco cafés, and large green spaces in the middle of the city. Friends tell me that the “inner city” – the Central Business District – is the best place to begin my exploration of Melbourne.

So one morning, I find myself at the open space in front of Federation Square, that sits between two old and elegant buildings: the Flinders Street train station and St. Paul’s Cathedral. The former is a brick red and muted yellow Edwardian structure from the early 1900s and the latter also a dull red, with tall spires; both of them are in stark contrast to the sharp lines and angles of Federation Square. I remember reading that the Federation Square building has 16 restaurants and pubs and several cultural spaces including the Ian Potter gallery and Australian Center for Moving Images. So it is no surprise that all of Melbourne heads there to hang out whenever possible.

Flinder's Street

Federation Square

I am waiting for my guide for the ‘Lanes and Arcades’ tour organized by a local walking tours company. The walk begins from the Square, and takes me through narrow alleys filled with shops and cafés spilling on to the road. Speaking of which, wherever I turn, I see cafés crowded with people chatting over coffee and cupcakes: happy couples, young men and women in business suits, mothers with their babies on strollers parked close to them and of course, dozens of tourists with their cameras.

The tour itself is superb, offering glimpses into the history of the city and leading me through some of the truly hidden secrets that I would never have found on my own. We wander among tiny shops selling everything from dozens of flavours of locally produced honey and beautiful handmade stationery, to varieties of coloured buttons and witchcraft paraphernalia. Most of these little shops are managed by the owners themselves, all friendly and chatty. And did I mention the chocolates and cupcakes? I haven’t seen so much of these being consumed without a thought to those pesky things called calories anywhere other than in Vienna.

Macaroons

Curiosity shops

Matryoshka dolls

Sean, my guide for this walk, shares with us so much trivia about Melbourne that it gets difficult to follow him after a while. It is obvious that he really loves his city and expects all visitors to. When we walk through the arcade now known as Howey’s Place, he narrates the delightful life story of Edward William Cole. This eccentric entrepreneur started a small book business in 1865 and in eight years, grew it enough to open a large store near Little Collins Street. Cole was a pioneer in marketing and found himself not just new customers but also a wife “neat in dress and not extravagant or absurd” through a newspaper advertisement.

His seemed to have been the kind of bookstore I love; people were encouraged to walk in, browse and even read there. The more I hear about Cole, the more I find myself liking him (I already think of him as good old Ed). Apart from stocking a huge collection of books, he authored many for children, called ‘Funny Picture Books.’ Another name: Instructor to Delight the Children and Make Home Happier.

My absolute favourite in this walk though, is the old GPO, with its high ceilings and large atrium dating back to 1859. After a major fire accident in 2001, the GPO was converted into a shopping mall for swanky brands, with more cafés in the cheerful atrium area. Sean says that Melburnians treasure this as a heritage spot and that road distances to and from the city are still measured from here.

GPO

Graffiti

Another unique aspect of Melbourne’s inner city circle is how its once unsightly graffiti has been curbed and turned into attractive street art. Really, how many cities do you know of that have state managed graffiti monitoring and mentoring systems in place? So once dirty and unsafe side alleys are now famous for their graffiti and the city now attracts artists like Banksy.

I can see where Sean’s joy and pride in his city come from. And I know for sure that for me too, Melbourne is one of the world’s most livable cities.

***
For more information on the Lanes and Arcades Tour, visit the Hidden Secrets Tour website.

This article was originally published in Atelier Diva as Southern Sojourn.

Where the ‘roos rule

Untouched by ‘civilization’, this exotic island is an explorer’s getaway

“So are there kangaroos on Kangaroo Island?” I asked hopefully as soon I stepped into the car at the airport. Tim from Exceptional Kangaroo Island Tours, my guide for the next two days gave me a withering look. I was all set to tell him defensively about how Bombay duck is not a duck and how there is no Mysore in the Mysore masala dosa, but then I decided to save my breath. We were already on the road by then, and Tim was talking about going koala spotting. He had keen ears and eyes and extensive knowledge of the island: 20 years of doing this and a lifetime of living there.

We duly spotted koalas clinging for dear life high up on the trees and inside the Lathami Conservation Park. “Tread very carefully and make no noise,” Tim said, seeing an adult and baby kangaroo snoozing in the mild Australian sun. If I still had any doubts whether Kangaroo Islanders loved their fauna, the Lathami Park, an area set aside and maintained entirely for the survival of one kind of the cockatoo, dispelled them. On this large island, seven times the size of Singapore, conservation is a keyword.

The two roos

Koala bear

Seals sunning themselves

Islander WineryA quick tour and tasting session at the Islander winery later, I made my (slightly tipsy) way to the picnic lunch that Tim had set up inside a gazebo in an open farm. Out came the bread, cheese, pasta, salads and dessert and of course, local wines to go with all this. After lunch, we headed to Seal Bay, home to thousands of Australian seals. It was hot by then and the seals were all spread out on the beach, the males keeping half an eye open for competition and ears closed to the cacophony of the seagulls.

Kangaroo Island is Australia’s third largest island and just a short flight away (or is the word ‘hop’) from Adelaide. And so far, thankfully, it has managed to stay away from the tourist radar and therefore preserve its natural wild habitats. We drove for miles and hours on the first day on the inner roads without spotting another vehicle although several wallabies kept running across the road. It does have a stunning coastline but the main attraction here is its rugged beauty and chance encounters with local wildlife (there are ‘kangaroo crossing’ boards everywhere on the roads).

Dinner was at the super-luxury Southern Ocean Lodge where I was staying. It was a pleasant experience to have the entire staff remember and greet you by first name each time but then, there are only 21 suites on this property. The lodge, indeed the entire island, prides itself on using as much local produce as possible (they sneer when they say ‘mainland’) – honey, wines, seafood, cheese. My guide Tim himself is a beekeeper and kept stopping to check his hives all along the way.

The next morning, we drove through the Flinders Chase National Park heading to the accurately, if unimaginatively named Remarkable Rocks. These are reddish brown granite rocks of intriguing shapes formed over 500 million years of exposure to the elements. Next on the whirlwind tour agenda was the other spot where seals – these ones from New Zealand – sunbathed, down near Admiral’s Arch where the rocks formed, well, an arch. I was done with seals very soon this time (really, how long can you watch them?) and lunch beckoned.

Remarkable Rocks

Cliffs near Admiral's Arch

Clifftop lunchThis time Tim (I never did learn his full name) pulled out an absolute wonder from his hat, a hidden spot high in the cliff nearby, looking down at the aquamarine waters. Food does taste better alfresco and the wine headier. Lots more to do and see on Kangaroo Island, I am told – coastal hikes, sailing, surfing and scuba diving, exploring old caves and new nature trails but there are others for all that. Me, it was time for a nap.

For more information, visit Tourism Kangaroo Island.

INFORMATION

Getting there and around: Fly into Adelaide on Qantas or Singapore Airlines, and then take the Regional Express (Rex) flight to KI. It is best to book through a local tour company, which would provide a vehicle and guide through your trip.

Stay: Indulge with a room at the Southern Ocean Lodge, set on the cliff with dramatic views of the sea. There are also homestays and B&Bs scattered through the island at much lesser rates.

***
Published in Bangalore Mirror, December 02, 2012

Hotels I love: Southern Ocean Lodge, Kangaroo Island

I know I’ve said this before – but I am not a budget traveller. For me, the physical aspect of the travel is an important part of the entire experience. Which means, no roughing it out in overnight buses and cheap hostels. In fact, both my husband and I love to stay in unusual properties, sometimes just to enjoy that experience. I have been thinking of blogging about a few of the special places I have stayed in – and this is a beginning. Perhaps the most special place I have ever spent a night in.

Southern Ocean Lodge – it sits dramatically on a cliff overlooking the Southern Ocean, in Australia’s Kangaroo Island. The island itself is off the beaten track for most travellers to the country and this luxury lodge, located at one end of the island, all the way across from the small airport is truly a ‘get-away-from-it-all’ experience.

The lodge had only 21 suites, each of them with the entire outer wall in glass – including the bathroom and shower area – giving gorgeous views of the sea and its ever changing colours. There is a small sitting area outside and the room comes with a fully stocked minibar, complete with champagne and chocolates.

In fact, the entire common space in the hotel has glass walls and a small terrace leading out from the main bar / reading area, the perfect place for a tall, cool drink at sunset. All meals are included in the tariff (at those rates, they better be!) and the lodge prides itself on using produce sourced locally from within the island – the honey, cheese, wine, all of it are Kangaroo Island’s own.

The SOL experience is about splendid isolation and pampering – there are walkways leading to small tables looking out on to the sea, organized walks and treks and a spa where I got a massage from a magician who made my muscles sing in relief. A honeymoon or just a special indulgence holiday? Here is where I would recommend you head for.

***
Also read: A guide to Kangaroo Island – published in Conde Nast Traveller, July 05, 2012

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