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Three Days in Freycinet – Amanda Fry @onebreathfrombelieving

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Before I had even left the tarmac I knew this trip to Tasmania was going to be different. The guy seated next to me on the flight, who incidentally was wearing a ridiculous amount of ski clothing from his Sydney shopping spree, introduced himself and started chatting away about this big move to Tasmania a few years before. The plane was not even taxing and I had learnt he was married with three kids, all of whom lived in a ghost town in the west country of Gormanston on the slopes of Mount Owen. With a population of around 150 it was ready to explode, so he was building a Mad Hatters Café, fixing up his house that he bought for under $20,000 and raising goats with the plan of doing mountain tours. Crazy and inspiring, all in the first five minutes. Tasmania had me intrigued and the 90 minute flight from Sydney to Hobart had not even started.

He did say, or more accurately chuckled, one thing that really stuck in my mind as we moved in and out of hot topics like forestry, native species extinction, politics and tourism – “in Tassie you are either green or fluoro, nothing in between”. Living in Sydney you forget how raw, open and friendly country Australians can be, and quite frankly I miss it. I was not heading for the west coast, however, I was bound for a small bay on the east coast with a similar size population of about 200 permanent residents. Containing my excitement was now near impossible as I willed the flight to be over.

My destination was Saffire Freycinet positioned on the edge of Great Oyster Bay looking over the water to the granite mountains known as the Hazards and the entrance to the world renowned Freycinet National Park. I knew by its reputation as a member of Luxury Lodges of Australian that I was in for an incredible stay, but what I was not expecting was the brilliance of the landscape and architecture that greeted me.

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The 125km drive north from Hobart takes around two and a half hours and the scenery is varied and engaging. Winding roads take you through lush temperate forest, rocky cliffs, small towns then you meander to the coast with views out over the Tasman Sea. Initially you snake your way along the Prosser River, pass through Orford and Triabunna, the gateway to the UNESCO listed ruins on Maria Island. Then it’s onto Swansea which is worth a stop just for its seafood, fresh produce and accessibility to Tasmania’s boutique wine country. Continue north to Oyster Bay and you’ll notice a distinct change in the landscape as rugged cliffs turn into the pink hued granite peaks of the Hazards, framed perfectly with the crystal clear waters of Coles Bay below.

Prepare to catch your breath…..the first glimpse is mesmerising. Connection with place is essential to being included as a Luxury Lodge of Australia, and Saffire has this in spades.

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Freycinet is Australia’s oldest park and it occupies a large part of the Freycinet Penisula named after the French Navigator Louis de Freycinet. The area is known not only for its pink feldspar which gives the mountains and coastline their characteristic tint, but also the famous secluded beach of Wineglass Bay. The area averages 300 days of sunshine annually and is home to over 40 Tasmanian endemic species including the Tasmanian Devil. The area also attracts Southern Right and Humpback Whales, as well as Bottlenose Dolphins who use the bay to feed, calve or take rests. It’s a wilderness that beckons exploration and straight away I knew three days would not be enough.

Arriving at Saffire Freycinet, we pulled into the car park and were immediately welcomed by the warm and friendly faces of Tobias and Russell, the guest services managers. Our luggage was whisked away to our rooms as we were escorted up the entrance ramp and into the main foyer of the lodge. Before I even stepped inside the red wall tiles caught my eye and my obsession with Robert Morris Nunn’s structure began.

Since my first big adventure overseas in my twenties I have carried a copy of Dorothy Mackellar’s poem My Country with me and these tiles were the incarnation of “I love a sunburnt country” and the instant association with the word ‘home’. I needed to know more and what I learnt was fascinating. Firstly, these tiles were made for the building as the Hazards are no longer mined, and they are engineered to look like burnt red, deep pink granite through a lengthy process that involves custom cutting the tiles, sand blasting, acid etching, resin injection and dye. Not only are they the most expensive single item at Saffire, they are not found anywhere else in the world. It was at this moment when the staff had researched and found answers to my inquiry that I realised what Saffire was really all about: everything is considered – from the turn down service in the suites with your organic tea tray – to the placement of the glass viewing platform in the foyer. And it’s the details that make Saffire a stand out for the experienced traveller.

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The building has won numerous awards for lighting, but to my eye it’s the architecture that is the true hero. From the curved Tasmanian wood beam ceilings, to the low reflectivity of the glass to ensure the view of the Hazards during both day and night from the restaurant and bar. Even the individual suites bring the view in and offer both classic and contemporary furnishings that make you want to re-design your entire house just to replicate them. On day three I found myself, camera in hand, walking around the lodge taking in all the smaller elements of the design I had at first overlooked.

Our stay also included activities, the most fun and delicious of which, was the Marine Farm Tour. If you love oysters then put this on your bucket list as they are best you will ever taste. Our guide took us by mini van to Freycinet Bay at the base of the Swan River, a short drive from the lodge. On the way we saw some very active wombats and a large fenced-off natural habitat for the Tasmanian Devils to protect the local species from a deadly tumour that is devastating their population numbers. Once you put your waders on and walk around the corner to the water’s edge the panorama hits you. You see long low flat coastal country sprinkled with oyster beds and the water stretches as far as the eye can see on two sides. We waded in giggling as our feet sunk into the mud lake floor and learnt about marine farming, taking turns at shucking our own oysters and, of course, devouring them fresh with wedges of lime and a great bottle of local sparking. For this alone I will be back to Saffire.

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There are some great walks in the National Park, both long and short, with the must-do climb being to the lookout over Wineglass Bay. It’s a steep uphill trail that only takes about 30 minutes, so not too taxing on those less fit, but well worth it not only for the view at the top but also the fauna and geology on the way. It’s a surprising area of Tasmania that I knew little about before this trip, but one that offers so many experiences from wine tasting, canoeing, bird watching to water cruises.

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And let’s not forget the all important spa visit to really help you disconnect form the rest of the world. It’s so wonderful emerging from a wellbeing treatment refreshed and revitalised. And even more delightful to discover new products to satisfy every indulgence. I feel in love with the Saffire dust and ended up bringing home half the signature range.

No holiday to Tasmania would be complete without delving into the local produce and the entire dining experience at Saffire is about the local farms, wines made at the vineyard over the hill and seafood harvested from the bay each day. The first night I sampled the al la carte offering, starting with smoked eel with fried oysters, black tip abalone, green rice, seaweed and celeriac followed by Cape Grimm Beef Fillet with peppercorn sauce and finishing with a chocolate soufflé washed down with a glass of local Botrytis. And by day two I got brave and worked my way through the degustation menu…wow it was incredible with the citrus vacharin at the end a show-stopper. What is not to love about lemon curd, meringue and citrus flavours woven together?

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The staff, the people, the weather, the wine and waking up to the Hazards each day as you open the blinds of your suite from the remote beside your king size bed to reveal your own personal slideshow of nature……I have been spoilt and I loved it. Invest in yourself and take a few days to visit Saffire Freycinet, it’s worth it.

On the drive back we had some time so ventured into Hobart to visit the Salamanca Markets near the wharves. Well worth an explore with a few must-do favourites – Bruny Island Cheese is sensational, Tasmanian honey an necessary indulgence, the salmon burgers at Silver Hill Fisch have won awards for a reason as have the local whiskey selections, all very easy to find amongst the hundreds of produce, book and beverage stalls. Great afternoon of wandering to get ready for the return trip back to the real world.

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They certainly nailed the slogan at Tasmanian Tourism- Bigger on the Inside – there is so much to do and so many varied regions to uncover I feel like I have just scratched the surface of this island.

 

 

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The Enchantment of Galapagos – Amanda Fry @onebreathfrombelieving

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Some of us will go to all four corners of the planet for a wildlife encounter. I have sat with silverback gorillas on the volcanic slopes of Rwanda, followed wild dogs for two days through grasslands of South Africa, hiked in the Sumatran jungle for a glimpse of an orangutan and sat in the dark as dawn broke just to hear the black gibbon song in North Vietnam. So Galapagos for me was a bucket list adventure. And now that I have been I would say to anyone who wants to listen – make it a must do trip for you as well. There is something for everyone from guided wildlife walks, zodiacs, kayaking to snorkeling, diving, swimming or just bobbing in the water off the beach. And at every turn there is a nature encounter as species as diverse as marine iguana’s, penguins, boobies, sea lions and giant tortoises’ wander freely through the volcanic landscape. You can explore beaches of black, green and red sand or just lie in the sun on your boat.

When Charles Darwin first sailed in the Galapagos Archipelago aboard the HMS Beagle in 1831 he knew he had discovered something extraordinary. As history tells us it was this magical group of 19 islands, in the Pacific Ocean off Ecuador that inspired his theory of evolution which he later published in The Origin of Species. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site the Galapagos Archipelago, once known as the Enchanted Islands by Spanish sailors during 15th Century when fog would make the islands disappear, is an eco tourism wonderland.

I was lucky enough to spend eight days exploring the western islands with Ecoventura on the first hybrid yacht in Galapagos known as Eric, whose solar panels and wind generators have lead the way in sustainable tourism in the region. Ecoventura also work with the local communities to help them manage the natural resources of the islands by establishing the Galapagos Marine Biodiversity Fund in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund as well as the Ecology Project International that works with high school students around the globe.

I had one of those once in a lifetime trips that left me with no doubt that my love affair with Galapagos had only just begun. My first day on the boat I was kissed by sea lion and by the end of the week I had swam with penguins, watched green sea turtles mate in the surf, danced with a few blue-footed boobies and encountered my first hammerhead shark!

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On my first morning, our 28 metre cruiser ‘Eric’ seemed dwarfed by the size of Leon Dormido (more commonly known as Kicker Rock) rising over 100 metres out of the Pacific Ocean. It was just after 7am and daybreak offered a magical light display as we watched frigates, gulls, pelicans and petrels go about their business on its grassy tuff. This incredible rock formation on the north east tip of San Cristobal Island is a nesting site for many birds including the blue-footed booby whose mating dance is high on my encounter wish list. For over thirty minutes our boat circled this giant landmark before we moved inside for breakfast.

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With a hot meal in our stomach and cameras at the ready we jumped in our panga and headed for the white coral beach called Warlock Hill (Cerro Brujo) eagerly awaiting our first look at the endemic species of Galapagos. A visual feast awaited us.

Sea lions were sleeping between the volcanic rock and tide line, marine iguanas roam completely unaware of our arrival and ghost crabs pop in and out of their sandy homes as waves gently wash up and down the soft and silky beach. A gentle walk revealed marine green turtle tracks where a female had come to shore the night before and laid around 150 eggs in the hope that in a few months some of her young would survive the treacherous journey to the sea where birds, crabs and iguanas waited, wanting a tasty treat.

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We then settled down on the beach for some snorkeling. The water was crystal clear, warm and salty offering great buoyancy and I got my first personal taste of the delight of swimming with sea lions. One cheeky rascal swam around me, gave me a few graceful acrobatic movements and then came right up to my mask, whiskers and all, eye to eye. I was hooked.

The next five days was a series of land and sea adventures that all had something fresh and different to share. Espanola – which is uninhabited by man and the oldest, southern most Island of the Galapagos – has one of the largest endemic marine iguana populations and Gardner’s Bay is home to what the locals call Sea Lion Kindergarten. Here in the protected shallow pools sea lion females teach their young pups how to swim, fish and survive. Nothing equals the playfulness of sea lion pups and if we had done nothing else all day I would have been more than satisfied but this was only the beginning of what this beautiful wildness would show us. The rocks were covered with marine ‘christmas’ iguanas, crabs, Galapagos doves, Darwin finches, lava lizards, frigates, mockingbirds and Nasca boobies, literally in the hundreds. No matter where you looked something in nature was unfolding – a Galapagos Hawk stalking their prey or green and red coloured male iguana’s fighting for the attention of females.

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Next stop was Floreana one of the four human inhabited islands of Galapagos with the smallest population of around 144 people. We jumped out of our pangas on a rich green sand beach covered in sea lions in search of the Greater Pink Flamingo in the islands brackish lagoon. We only managed to find two flamingos so spent the half an hour calf deep in the surf watching two sea turtles keep the population thriving!! Two days later on Bartolome, after spending our morning with the penguin population, we stumbled upon four more flamingos feeding on algae right beside the water line meaning we were able to get within a metre of them. And being the pinkest of the species their plumage is breathtaking.

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That afternoon was spent snorkeling in the clear crystal waters off Pinnacle Rock and whilst I was following a school of fish a small curious face appeared in front of me. This particular penguin was also following fish, ducking and diving after them as they kept changing direction to avoid him. He stopped for a moment, saw me directly in his path and then continued following his dinner, which by this stage meant he swam around my stomach in two circles and disappeared between my legs. It was brilliant. The next forty five minutes was the best snorkeling yet with sea stars, octopus, reef sharks, mantra rays, sea turtles, sea lions, hundreds of tropical fish, a black stingray and plenty of diving penguins. It’s days like this that make you want to stay here forever.

We also visited South Plaza and the tiny island of North Seymour where land iguanas and their marine cousins thrive as well as gulls, frigates and boobies. It’s here that you get up close and personal with the birds and walk beside their nesting sites watching them feed and care for their young chicks. In April the Albatross arrive and start their six month stay mating and covering the cliff tops in young chicks eager to learn about the world.

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No trip to Galapagos would be complete without the Giant Land Tortoise from which the islands derived their name. They are gentle giants who live an estimated 150 years and can grow as large as 200kg. Despite hundreds of years of pillaging by buccaneers and sailors, which wiped out many island populations in the region not to mention the Norwegian canning factory, some species survive and are now thriving. Darwin Station is also a must do to really get a full picture of the chequered history and positive future outlook of these volcanic islands.

I did not even see half what Galapagos has to offer but I would endure twenty seven hours of airtime in a heart beat just to see to the blue-footed booby dance on the cliffs of North Seymour once again.

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Sultanate of Oman with Lauren Bath

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We sent one of our favourite grammers Lauren Bath to Oman with helloworld and we were rewarded with stunning imagery of the beautiful Sultanate’s amazing landscapes and culture – and a sudden desire to plan our next trip .

Oman has been on my bucket list for a while so when helloworld invited me to explore this incredible country, I happily let them plan my itinerary. And their expertise shone through – its was as I hoped, all and more.

After landing in Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman I had to pinch myself to make sure I was really here. To my surprise it’s quite a hilly city with very few high-rise buildings but with arabic features on the dwelling such as a dome or window that portray the Omani tradition. I board a yacht in the historic port of Old Muscat and we pass fishermen catching dinner along the beaches of Shatti Al-Qurum which is just a small section of the sand that stretches from the capital to the border of the United Arab Emirates, just over 200 kilometres away. Muscat has been and still is, an important port where many cruise ships moor for the day and tourists add to the already booming economy which, although dominated by trade and petroleum, enjoys having visitors from around the world. Often referred to as the walled city, the main part of Muscat is the site of royal palaces, the citadel and the Matrah Souq or market place. At the largest food stall, I buy hummus and dried figs to nibble on while I walk around the mazed aisles full of souvenirs and home made wares.

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With only three million people, Oman is a country of 310 square kilometres with the most diverse landscape.   It’s one of my favourite countries for its striking mountain scenery, desert dunes, beaches, beautiful rocky coastlines and the knock out looking capital.

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A new international airport is due for completion soon as well as a new city marina and ten integrated resort developments in various parts of the country.With more than 500 forts, towers and castles in differing architectural styles, the past is well displayed and activities such as dolphin watching and four wheel driving through desert sand dunes are real hits.

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After exploring Muscat now I’m ready for the long drive to Jabal Shams (Mountain of the Sun). At 3075 metres, it’s the highest mountain in the country with a view into Wadi Ghul which lies alongside. This steep valley is known locally as the Grand Canyon of Arabia and I can understand why when I peer at the spectacular vertical cliffs that reach up to 1000 metres. Fortunately for me and my guide Salim, an iron railing has been erected to illustrate the deepest spots where it was once possible to drive directly into the chasm. Salim assures me it’s safe as we carefully make our way around the rim stopping at some of the best viewpoints. In one area I’m pestered, although nicely, to buy a carpet from a seller who appears out of nowhere carrying stocks of rugs, mostly made from goat hair. I buy a small red and black door mat which is not too heavy and perfect as a reminder of how the weaving industry in this area is often the livelihood for locals..

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Many of the roads in Oman have been recently constructed and we reach Nizwa after a smooth, easy drive. The famous fort and citadel are crowned by a massive tower and sitting in the shade under a huge tree, I see a man selling pomegranates, one of the staple fruits in this part of the world and used profusely in salads, oftenwith quinoa.

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I explore a date plantation with an intricate, ancient irrigation system that keeps the date palms watered year round. I linger over a most memorable sight of the sun setting behind the mountains in what is a fascinating country full of incredible museums, exquisite architecture and vibrant, hospitable people. Oman I will be back for more.

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Cruising along the canal in St Petersburg at sunset

Exploring the Baltic States with freelance writer Pamela Wright

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We have been blessed with the adorable Pamela working at the Holysmoke office for the last few weeks so we asked her to pen a blog on one of her favourite trips. She has done many but loved St Petersburg by night so she choose the Baltic States.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are three small but outstanding countries which have become Europe’s tourist surprises. The old medieval towns in each capital have vibrant night life, cobbled streets, colourful painted houses and are far from the drab and dull Soviet republics some people still believe them to be.

Having never been on a long coach tour, I decide that 16 days through the Baltic States via Belarus to St Petersburg, covering 1,000 kilometres, will be ideal. As much as a coach can be upmarket, this is first class with comfortable reclining seats and enormous windows. All tours and meals are thrown in so this is going to be a breeze.

The tour director, Pommy Johnny, welcomes us on board in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. Now living in St Petersburg, his knowledge of the area, the history and the language turns out to be a major plus.

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The Hill of Crosses in northern Lithuania

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are members of the European Union,” he explains “and are a gentle introduction to the area. “Belarus is somewhat stuck in the past but is representative of the real Soviet Union and then there’s St Petersburg, the most beautiful city in the world but I’m biased.”

Vilnius, with its gothic and baroque old town is not bad itself. The skyline’s full of centuries old Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches The cafes, in the narrow winding streets, are especially good for people-watching. In this part of the world, people smile back, even at the somewhat serious site of The Hill of Crosses in northern Lithuania.

On the road, Pommy Johnny, in between jokes, brings us up to date on the next country with geography, history, politics, salaries, costs, exchange rates and a travel journal. Nothing left to know. It’s great.

Once in Riga, Latvia’s capital, I instantly determine that this revitalised and magnetic city lives up to expectations. It definitely rivals Prague as another of Europe’s most popular cities. With large, open parks, an historic section, its own Art Nouveau architecture and great nightlife, it’s no surprise to discover that the people have a determination to leave behind the old Soviet image. While holding on to its historic charm, it’s evident by the new glassy and glossy buildings springing up and the amount of new Mercs, BMWs and Volvos strutting their stuff, that Riga’s economy is in good shape.

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An old house in Riga, Latvia

As the smallest of all three Baltic States, Estonia has the longest coastline, with lots of spa resorts, where taking a sauna is a national pastime. The capital, Tallinn, a cruise ship port, has set a strong trend in fashion and design. This enchanting city, with great views from Toompea Hill, is a blend of old medieval and ultra-modern buildings like the very stylish shopping centre, Viru where passengers spend serious Estonian Kroon. The café culture is thriving and the coffee’s as good as anywhere. Art deco buildings are being restored, new trendy cars are in the streets and the people are prosperous. Another great place to people watch.

This is where Johnny’s knowledge of Russian and its people comes in handy. As we sit in the coach at the Estonia/Russia border, having handed over our passports, Johnny spends over two hours arguing, or so it seems, with custom officers. After checking and rechecking various passport stamps and matching photos to passengers, we cross into Russia. No smiles here. I’ll never know if Johnny helped or not but it would’ve taken lots longer had he not known the language he claims. I expect, no matter what, it’s never a quick or straightforward border crossing.

At sunset in St Petersburg, we relax on a barge cruise, sailing under some of the 342 bridges and past the sheer grandeur of Russia’s imperial capital, a dazzling metropolis, showcasing mansions and palaces all undoubtedly housing a treasure trove of art and culture.

A visit to the Hermitage for half a day is far too short. How can you see such a display of bewildering artifacts from Egyptian mummies to Picassos to exquisite furniture in a few hours? They reckon there’s something like three million items here. And then there’s the Russian Museum, spread over four palaces, with the best collection of Russian art in the world.

And the elaborate Petrodvorets, often referred to as the “Russian Versailles” and the fortress of St Peter and Paul all must be seen. The whole city is a magical open air museum. It’s bewildering all right. I think I’ll learn Russian and go back – still so many places to see.

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Tallinn, the capital of Estonia

* travelfacts

  • Visas are required for Russia
  • ATMs are readily available for local money.
  • Best time to visit Russia and Eastern Europe is May-June or September- October to avoid crowds and miss winter.

* Photography: Pamela Wright