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Travel: Autumn in Tasmania

I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to do a post on my trip to Tasmania. I’m just about ready to organise going on my next one. My hubby is a massive history nerd and had been begging me to go with him so he could check out the old penal colony and see a really important part of Australia’s history. I was also keen to check out MONA and the gorgeous landscape. I have to say Tasmania surpassed all our expectations and more to the point where we’ve officially added it to our ever-expanding list of dream places to run away to.

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One of my favourite things about Australia is how it feels so young, and yet so old at the same time. The frothing surf and rugged cliffs of Wineglass Bay have an almost timeless quality to them. You feel as if you could be there at the dawn of time or the end of the world and it would still look the same. And when you visit the penal colony, it’s so beautiful but you can imagine how oppressive the same sprawling forests and narrow causeways would have felt to a prisoner there, only really held captive by their fear of being lost in the wild. We were only in Tassie for a long weekend but it felt like weeks, I can’t wait to go back.

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Alex in Tasmania

If you’re planning a trip soon – here are some things you can’t miss in and around Hobart:

  • Wine Glass Bay
  • The fish farm / truck just before wine glass bay (look out for signs on the way)
  • Port Arthur
  • Ethos Restaurant
  • MONA

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Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre

Travel: Beautiful Cinque Terre

City breaks may have some serious style and culture appeal but sometimes it takes having absolutely nothing to do to really be on holiday. Not that you can do nothing just anywhere… there’s an art to it. For me sickly sweet cocktails by the pool of a personality-lacking resort just won’t do it. Call it the egomaniac creative in me but I prefer to while-away summer days in a place of serious beauty with lashings of authenticity.

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I could write a guide of things you absolutely must-do in Cinque Terre but wouldn’t that defy the point of taking it easy? I will say this, find a spot by the harbour where you can read a good book with your feet dangling in the water. One sunset a fellow traveller kindly offered to take a picture of me and my hubble sitting on a rock watching the sunset as it struck her as really beautiful. I thanked her but declined feeling that it wouldn’t have been a perfect moment if we’d have taken a picture.

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Florence

Travel: The best food picks in Florence

From its winding streets to its Renaissance masterpieces and incredible food, Florence might just be one of my new favourite places. There’s a real sense of history to the city that I’ve really missed living in Australia. Looking at buildings and streets that have barely changed in hundreds of years, it’s all too easy to let your imagination run wild with the plots, intrigue and decadence this city has seen over the centuries.

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Florence is small enough that you can probably throw away the guide book and lose yourself in the twisting, mostly car-free streets. If you’re a foodie like me though, there’s a few spots you’ll probably want on your radar so here’s my suggestions…

Gelato

Florence is famed for having the best gelato in the world so you won’t be short of options. The only way to fit them all in is to have at least two servings a day, which is alright with me! If in doubt look for a queue and you probably won’t be disappointed but I loved Vestri and Carabé for authentic flavours that live up to the hype.

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Mercato Centrale

On my first day me and the hubby rushed off to the central markets for lunch to check out some local produce and the famed Da Nerborne, which usually has lines around the block. Unfortunately it was shut for the summer holidays (an occupational hazard of Italy in August). As we headed upstairs to console ourselves at the bar we inadvertently found the best pizza we’ve ever tasted from a counter in the food court area. Seriously, I don’t know if it was because we were so downbeat and starving, but it was incredible. Plus the cheeky team of Italian fellas manning the ovens while flirting with the tourists put a smile on my face.

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Late Night Bites

The off-beat Oltrano quarter south of the river is the place to be after dark in Florence. Backpackers and locals grab a bottle of beer and head to the Piazza Santo Spirito to make the most of warm summer evenings. We sampled the best of the city’s spitzs at the neighbourhood bars and ended up at Osteria Santo Spirito for delicious spaghetti vongole served on huge traditional ceramic plates.

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Cathedral Picks

While you’re on-the-go by the cathedral, stop off at one of the adorable sandwich and wine stalls. We grabbed mozzarella and ham paninos at I  Due Fratellini, which is a tiny cubby filled with the freshest ingredients and floor-to-ceiling wine proving that sometimes the simplest things in life are the sweetest.

 

Udaipur India Lake

Travel: Six weeks in India

There’s no preparing for the sensory assault that awaits the incoming traveller at New Delhi airport. As the doors swing open to the arrival terminal, you find yourself simultaneously confronted with a wall of noise and of heat, even in the middle of the night. Hawkers and taxi drivers flood the building, bustling and yelling over each other to drum up business. Welcome to India: the most beautiful, painful, frustrating and life-affirming places you will ever be lucky enough to visit.

Snake charmer in India

When I told people I planned to spend six weeks travelling with my girlfriend to India, the reactions were incredibly polarising. People were either cheerily supportive or bluntly disparaging. “Aren’t you worried you’ll get gang-raped?” one soon-to-be-former acquaintance sneered at me.

Perhaps I could have picked an easier destination for my first attempt at backpacking; somewhere English was more frequently spoken and the path was a little better-trodden but having recently graduated from uni, I was desperate to get out and see the “real world”. And India is nothing if not “real”. Backpacker hostels are few and far between and you’d be hard pressed to find the party bus atmosphere of your more typical gringo-trail spots, but for the brave traveller there are rewards that far make up for the challenges.Udaipur crowd watching ceremony

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You could call me naive for rocking up to a developing country without either a Lonely Planet or local currency to my name. An ATM at the airport quickly solved the first problem but the second would have me kicking myself for the impulsive decision to leave the bulky backpacker’s bible at home while packing. I soon found that without something to point to as I asked for help, people quickly developed selective hearing, opting to offer to take you to their friend’s “tourist office” instead.

In India, never expect the truth from people who stand to gain from your ignorance. A disastrous attempt to navigate New Delhi railway station led to a man in an official-looking uniform ushering us into a conveniently placed rickshaw. In a cramped and faded office full of photos of Princess Di, we found ourselves drinking sugar-laden chai tea and handing over credit cards for vastly inflated train tickets to Agra. An important lesson had been learned; we were going to have to toughen up if we were going to last the trip with enough money to get home.374_529974327895_4179_n

None-the-less we were soon on our way south in a second-class carriage, where a kind travelling salesman offered us daal and roti freshly made by his wife that morning. “No visit to India would be complete without at least one journey by rail”, he told us. “Best train system in the world, absolutely.”

Once a monument to colonial power, now battered by overcrowding and corruption, the country’s trains are a great place to see what life is really like for the people who live here, even if it’s just a glimpse of the packed commuter trains from your slower, safer cross-country route. Anyone who has ever complained about their journey to work gets a serious reality check. Those jokes about people sitting on the roof are not an exaggeration.

In a nation with over a billion people and only precarious law and order, there’s a delicate balance that stops the whole country simmering into chaos. To survive in India, a traveller must quickly learn to adjust their pace of life, slow down and take life as they find it. Trains may leave one, two or three hours behind schedule, your taxi may be stuck in traffic because there’s a cow in the road. Deal with it.

If I achieved anything during my six weeks here, perhaps it was the small assimilation that allowed me to let go of my constant expectations and judgments enough to just enjoy myself.

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Travel: A Day in Regional Victoria

With dusty highways and sun-soaked golden plains; this is a place to get lost in. Jump in a car and escape the city for a drive across the expansive landscape of regional Victoria. From hidden bush walks to family-owned wineries and gold-rush pubs; the area around Daylesford and Kyneton is perfect for savouring the last days of summer.

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It’s not hard to sense ghosts of the past if you’re willing to switch off and open up. While some tourists insist on loud and obnoxious conversations atop Hanging Rock (yes I mean you, you awful Aussie couple who felt the need to recount your whole life story), this is a deeply spiritual place. One to reflect upon and feel your own insignificance.

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A darker, foreboding atmosphere serves as a reminder of the macabre past. Let’s not forget that this is the area where bandits roamed, treasures were hidden and aboriginals were slaughtered. Apparently many aboriginals still find it difficult to visit Hanging Rock due to an uncomfortable sensation of unfinished business. There’s even a waterfall of blood named after the infamous bushranger Mad Dan Morgan (really).

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Lunch at The Royal George Hotel

After flicking through a tired 90s walking guide in a local winery and spotting an image of a paradise-like gorge, we finished the day trekking through Lerderderg State Park. My obsession with True Detective went into overdrive as we started to see creepy structures made of vines and branches. Unsure of whether we were heading towards an evening swim or our grizzly deaths at the hands of a mystic cult, we continued with growing uncertainty. Finally we turned a corner to find the dried up gorge still had a small swimming pool, where we cooled off before making a sharpish exit before the sun went down. That is not somewhere I would want to be lost in the dark.

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Travel: A Weekend in Sydney

I think the measure of a great city is one that changes slightly with each visit. Sydney passes that test with ease, offering previously undiscovered treasures as well as a fresh perspective on those classic views for anyone willing to head off the tourist trail.

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Here are my top picks for cool things to do should you have a few days to spend in Sydney sometime soon.

Cockatoo Island

History geeks and ghost hunters alike will love exploring the bleak warehouses and creepy corners of Cockatoo Island. Sydney often feels like an extremely young city, but Cockatoo Island gives a rare glimpse of the desolate and deadly environment that would have greeted convicts arriving on her shores and the desperately harsh life they would have led.

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A former convict prison camp turned ship building site, the island is dotted with colonial buildings and creepy WW2 tunnels. The best part is that you’re pretty much completely free to explore each building; walking around the old machinery and giving yourself the chills imagining all the lives lost over the years.

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If history and ghosts don’t appeal to you, the island happens to host one of the coolest bars in Sydney, where you can sip rum cocktails on a sun-lounger with a great view of the harbour in the distance. So there’s always that.

Porteño

It’s probably fair to say Porteño is having a bit of a moment. Part traditional South American BBQ joint, part 50s cocktail lounge, Porteño has the good fortune to be set around a beautiful indoor courtyard with a nostalgic, Mexican vibe. Plus the perfectly-quiffed rock-a-billy staff bring just enough retro-cool without being kitsch.

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Despite a long wait for a table when me and Alex went, we were happy to decamp to the bar upstairs, which serves a pretty decent whisky sour. From what I remember after drinking a fair few, the food was pretty good too. Luckily they sent us home with a doggy bag, as by that stage I wasn’t too much help at getting through the BBQ lamb and pork my husband ordered.

The Grounds at Alexandria

My favourite kind of places happen to be those that mix great architecture, design and foodie treats, so The Grounds at Alexandria is always on my list of favourite hang-outs. The kitchen garden and cute market stalls provide a great distraction while you’re waiting for a table in the converted former pie-factory inside.20140219-194521.jpg

Coffee lovers come here for the speciality roasts and space-age machinery but the food refuses to be overshadowed, with beautiful organic breakfasts and an incredible array of freshly baked breads, cakes and pastries.

Bronte and Manly Beaches

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You can’t visit Sydney and not hit the beach. Although not particularly visually appealing, I’ve always found the surf at Manly to be even and reliable and you can rent boards right off the beach. Meanwhile Bronte is one of the city’s most beautiful beaches and also has pretty sweet waves. If surf hopping isn’t your style, why not try Paddle Boarding at Rose Bay instead?20140219-191930.jpg

Honorary mentions:

I also love stuffing my face at Black Star Pastry and Belljar Coffee (both Newtown) and Adriano Zumbo’s cafes.

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Travel: Iquitos and the Amazon [Part Two]

This blog is part two of two. See part one here, with a visit to Iquitos’ Shaman’s market and floating village.

At the rainforest lodge, three hours out of Iquitos by motorboat, my nostrils are in a rapturous state of detox. The rich, damp, earthy smells of the rainforest replace the clug and choke of the city. Hundreds of unique noises from insects, birds and mammals create a singular buzz of sound that becomes an enchanting white noise.

We spend the first afternoon spotting pink river dolphins, who aren´t shy, always appearing in pairs. That night we ease into jungle life, sleeping at the lodge under heavy-duty mosquito nets. Those buggers are the size of flying rice grains here, and they hurt.

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The next morning, with guides Falcon and Eduardo, aka ‘El Catalan’ (kingfisher), and French backpacker Morgaine, we take off in our canoe in search of a camping spot. In a clearing by the water, Falcon pulls down ten metre-long vines, which he strips and cuts into lengths, tying between two trees to use as the frame on which to hang our mosquito nets.

With a hammock inside the net, suspended between two trees, it´s feels surprisingly secure. Add a couple of sticks to hang your rubber boots over, plus plastic sheeting on four branches to keep off the rain and you´ve got a pretty decent night´s sleep.

Beds made, Falcon leads us further into the jungle to explore by moonlight. Walking in the pitch dark, you become a blockade for the monstrous flying things that travel at night, like moths the size of hands, which hit your face with disconcerting regularity.

Once we get used to the traffic, we spot caiman; the Quetzal; Guatemala’s national bird that had eluded us in Central America; a gigantic bloated frog the size of my head; countless fiendish insects. My boyfriend even caught sight of an ocelot just two metres from us.

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Then, hammock time. In the trees above us, night monkeys have frenetic conversations until dawn. Occasionally, an unidentified and probably enormous and man-eating creature sinks below the water metres from my net.

‘El Catalan’ is up before all of us to cook omelettes and heat coffee on the log fire. Inconceivably, I have escaped the mosquitos, at least for the first night in the wild, thanks to actually-illegal-in-Peru-strength deet. After breakfast, Falcon leads us further into the forest to explore in the daylight. The insects seem less bolshy this morning, but maybe that’s because I can see them coming.

We drink from the vine of a tree that is said to cure cancer (apols, I forget the name), hunt hallucinogenic mushrooms and learn about the flora of the rainforest. Frogs have lain spawn in our footprints from last night. A thick, two-metre long snake that looks to me like a boa skids off through the bush to get away from us. Falcon tells us it is highly dangerous (poisonous) and if we had seen it during the night, it would have gone for us.

piranhaA spot of piranha fishing in the afternoon is pleasingly fruitful. I catch five. A nervy experience, given that I am terrified of fish, teeth or otherwise (not dead fish, yum yum). Even so, I am tenacious in my effort to ‘win’ the fishing. Feeling a bite, I whip in my line, hitting my boyfriend in the face with a live piranha, which then vaults, and starts swimming up and down the inch of water at the bottom of the boat, to the concern of neither guide. We eat what we catch for lunch. Piranha meat is surprisingly bland.

As evening sets in, we all take to the canoe to explore coppices deeper in the rainforest and rich with plant life and animals. We come close to three-toed sloths, tamarin and squirrel monkeys, tree rats, and marmosets. Toucans, macaws, and kingfishers fly endlessly overhead. A giant stick insects joins our boat, plus an enormous spider which Falcon flips into the water, saying “Aah! Muy peligroso.” As the sun sets, fisherman bats with three-foot wingspans appear, skimming the water next to our boat.

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On our final morning in the rainforest, the fat, wallowey rain that we’ve had for a short time every day holds off, so that as planned we can swim with the pink river dolphins, where the water from the coffee-coloured Amazon meets the cola-black water from the Rio Negro. Again, terrifying: fish; opaque water; angry dolphins?

The local indigenous community is scared of the river dolphins, and kill them if they swim close to their houses. They call them ‘bufeos'; ‘bu’ being the noise they make and ‘feo’ being Spanish for ‘ugly’.

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There are many legends in the Peruvian Amazon about bufeos eating children, or hunting menstruating women and raping them, creating hideous halfling people with ugly white skin. I was told that sometimes on birth certificates single mothers write ‘bufeo’ under ‘Father’.

Nonetheless, we survived sharing their water, and a couple of bufeos even got quite close. I am so glad I swallowed my fears and jumped in.

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Back in Iquitos, we return to our hostel and start planning our route out of the Amazon. It’s a two day wait for a boat to Yurimaguas, the first town with a road outside the Amazon. Two days later, and we’re on El Bruno, a cargo ship that takes three days up river. We spend the days swinging in our hammocks, reading and awaiting the dinner bell.

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Occasionally the ship stops to deliver supplies to villages on the river banks and kids board selling ice-creams, tamales and fried fish. We spend our evenings watching brilliant sunsets that burn the entire horizon red and orange, and later, gazing at the stars on top of the ship. The Milky Way looks close enough to run my fingers through.

Photos: Alan Chant // alanchant.com // @bonchant