A new year means new travel plans. I’m busy making mine, and hope you are too!
After reviewing my past year, and the past decade, I found there were some favourite experiences that really stood out for me. Those sometimes unexpected places, people or “pinch me” moments that will stay with me for years to come. Some were in Australia, others in far-flung places, and in some cases from longer ago.
This isn’t a list that’s based on trends or “what’s hot” or “where you should go”, it’s simply some places and experiences that have resonated strongly with me personally. So here, in no particular order, are some ideas to provide some inspiration for your own travel planning in 2020.
Take a road trip through Morocco
Morocco is one of the most colourful destinations you’ll ever visit. My recommendation is to spend a few days in Marrakech and then hit the road to explore the rest of the country. The cities are wonderful, but there’s a lot to see in small villages and coastal fishing ports throughout Morocco. We spent three weeks on a driving tour devised by Sydney-based Morocco specialists By Prior Arrangement, and were astounded by the diversity of the countryside. With a car and driver, it’s possible to go wherever you like, with hotels and tours pre-booked to take the drama out of it.
Pretend you’re a Hobbit in New Zealand
Fans of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit books – or the movies that Sir Peter Jackson created from them, will love Hobbiton, the storybook village that was created as the set for the films. Hobbiton is on private farmland on the outskirts of the small town of Matamata, south of Auckland. You can only visit on a guided tour, but don’t let that deter you – it’s a fabulous experience. There are 44 Hobbit holes, some of which you can enter, and plenty of chances for a bit of escapism. Allow about three hours, including lunch at The Green Dragon pub. This was one tour that exceeded my expectations.
Help save a turtle on the Great Barrier Reef
If you’ve been diving or snorkelling during your visit to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef, make sure you include a trip to Fitzroy Island, just a half-hour boat trip from downtown Cairns. Not only are the chances of seeing a turtle while you’re snorkelling off the island very high, but you can also help the less fortunate ones. The Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre on Fitzroy Island houses sick and injured turtles with a variety of conditions, many of them caused by human activity. Centre co-founder Jennie Gilbert and a team of 60 volunteers run tours two or three times a day (or you can stay longer and volunteer). The Great Barrier Reef is home to six of the world’s seven species of marine turtles. Since 2000 the centre has treated and released more than 170 turtles.
Explore the Tasmanian wilderness
Fly or take the overnight ferry from Melbourne, to explore one of Australia’s great wilderness areas. From Tasmania’s capital, Hobart, it’s easy to get around because the island is so small – you can easily drive the length of it in a day, but there’s so much to see that would be madness. Getting off the beaten track is well worth it, and two of my favourite Tasmanian experiences have been wild and wonderful. If you have time, take six days to walk the Overland Track. One of my greatest travel regrets is being “too busy” to do the whole walk, and organising a pick-up after four days. After the first day, I wanted to do it all – but there was no way to change the plan. The other place to digitally-detox is The Tarkine, the largest cool rainforest area in Australia, and a place of breathtaking beauty.
Meet an endangered iguana in Fiji
On the lovely Malolo Island in Fiji’s Mamanuca group, two resorts are helping to save the critically endangered Fijian crested iguana. Guests at the luxury Likuliku Lagoon Resort, and sister property Malolo Island Resort can meet the small small captive breeding population of these reptiles, endemic to the island, and learn about the efforts being made to save them from extinction. Likuliku runs the breeding program and other activities designed to bring the iguana numbers back and release them into the wild. Guests at both resorts can visit the iguana enclosures and take part in tree planting and nocturnal iguana-spotting walks. Getting involved in activities that can make your tourist dollars count brings its own satisfaction.
Stay in an Australian Outback retreat
Australia’s Outback regions are well worth the effort in getting there. Love a road trip? Pack up your rental car and head inland for the experience of a lifetime. The Outback offers a completely different perspective on this vast country than you will get on the coast, and is often considered the heart and soul of Australia. My most recent outback experience was at the gorgeous Mount Mulligan Lodge, about two hours drive west of Cairns, in tropical north Queensland, where from my tin bath-tub on the verandah I was able to watch young wallabies boxing each other’s ears in play.
Meet a husky in Lapland
Finland sits high on my list of favourite countries. So many experiences that are “unforgettable”. You must spend time in the elegant capital, Helsinki, but then I recommend heading to the far north, to Lapland. There, you can sleep in a glass igloo at the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, and meet friendly blue-eyed huskies. My stay included a visit to a husky farm, and while I had some reservations about the whole set-up, the dogs were gorgeous. I went in early winter, there was snow on the ground, and a magical quality to it all. Eat reindeer stew, visit Santa’s house, take a sled ride, look for the Northern Lights. Finland – put it on your list!
Take a cargo ship to one of the world’s most remote islands
Pitcairn Island is famed as the place where the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives remained undiscovered for 18 years. Today this rocky outcrop in the Pacific is home to only about 50 people, most of them direct descendants of the mutineers. There’s not much to do there, but if you enjoy nature, hikes and conversation, or just some quiet space to read or write, and if you want to “tick off” one of the most remote places in the world, put it on your list. For me, part of the fascination was in getting there. Fly to Tahiti, then to the Gambier Islands in French Polynesia, before boarding the cargo ship bound for Pitcairn with the island’s supplies. It’s a long trip, but one that you’ll never forget.
Sleep overnight in the Sahara
While you’re in Morocco, don’t miss the chance to spend at least one night – more if you can – in the Sahara Desert. It’s essential to hire a driver/guide, but well worth it. As you traverse the desert and the dunes, passing camels along the way, you’ll realise why. We stayed at the fabulous Azalai Camp, where desert chic meant large white tents furnished with deep rugs, comfy armchairs, an ornate iron bed, and ensuite bathrooms. Climb the dunes to watch the sunset, then descend for a mint tea and pastries, and a candle-lit dinner under the stars. To organise this or other Moroccan adventures, contact By Prior Arrangement.
Visit one of the world’s most beautiful monasteries
On a tour from London to Paris via the Channel Islands with Back Roads Touring, I visited Mont St Michel in Normandy, France, and instantly fell in love with this magnificent place, which is one of the most beautiful places I have been. Once an island, the abbey of the Mont-Saint-Michel is now, sadly, attached to the mainland by a causeway along which buses carry tourists. But despite the many visitors, above the “village” at the bottom, the ramparts and gardens, and the abbey itself are peaceful and lovely. Try to time your visit for midday mass in the abbey for a peaceful and spiritual experience.
Drive across Australia on the “longest short-cut”
One of the most epic drives on this vast continent, the Outback Way is a 2,700km (1,678 miles) road trip on which you’ll meet creative characters, hear tall tales and true, pass ambling cows and thundering road-trains, and see plenty of wildlife. Whether you tackle it east to west, as I did, or in the opposite direction, it’s a drive that you’ll never forget. If you want a real adventure, do it now, in a 4WD, before the whole route is sealed (a task already underway). Technically, the Outback Way runs between Winton, in Queensland and Laverton, in Western Australia, but you’ll most likely drive coast-to-coast, or fly to the nearest airports (Longreach, two hours’ drive from Winton, or Kalgoorlie, 300km (186 miles) from Laverton). Read more about my trip here or elsewhere on this blog.
Watch whales on their annual migration
From North America to Australia, there are places all over the world where you can see Humpback whales on their migration paths. I’m lucky enough to live close to the Australian east coast, where the “Humpback highway” is busy with whales from May to October each year. Some of the best places in Australia to see them include Queensland’s Fraser Island and Moreton Bay, off Brisbane, and the Sapphire Coast in New South Wales, where the town of Eden has an annual Whale Festival and a fascinating whale museum.
Get up close and personal with elephants in Thailand
Everybody loves elephants and one of the best places to see them is in Thailand. Make sure you do some research to find a place that operates under ethical practices (that means, among other things, no elephant rides or “tricks” like painting or other performance). One place that left a big impression on me was Elephant Hills. There are two camps, The Elephant Camp and the floating Rainforest Camp, both in Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand, and I have stayed at both. They are within easy reach of places like Phuket, Khao Lak, Khanom, Krabi and Koh Samui. Elephant Hills offers the chance to wash, feed and interact with these magnificent creatures, and since 2017 has been one of the only chain-free elephant parks in the world.
Wander through an old cemetery
I am a self-confessed taphophile. That means that I love graveyards. To me, they are full of stories, both personal and about the wider story of the place I am visiting. So I love nothing more than a spare hour or so to have a stroll through a historic cemetery – and that is something that you can do in most places. I’ve done it over the past couple of years in New Zealand, Morocco, Austria, England, and more places in Australia than I care to count. One of the most interesting was the Rakowicki Cemetery, in Krakow, Poland, which is full of ornate statues and memorials. If you are in Kraków on All Saints Day (1 November), a national public holiday also known as ‘the Day of the Dead’, the candlelit cemetery is worth seeing.
Discover an ancient Nabatean city in Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may not be top of your “must visit” list, but the recent opening up to tourism has put it back on mine. After living there for two years during the late 1980s, I’m very curious to see how it has changed and developed in the intervening years. During that time, I was lucky enough to visit one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen, the 1st century AD Nabatean settlement of Mada’in Saleh in the kingdom’s north-west. Arriving at night on a camping trip, I woke the next morning to be dazzled by the enormous sandstone outcrops, carved to create ornamental tombs. I gave up counting at about 70 – in fact, there are 131 of the carved facades. In 2008, Mada’in Saleh became Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, officially known as Al-Hijr Archaeological Site. After Petra in Jordan, this is the world’s largest remaining Nabatean settlement. It’s firmly on my “must go back” list now that it might just be possible.
Stay in an art hotel
There are hotels, and there are art hotels. Why stay in a hotel that looks like all the others when you can stay in one that’s crammed with artworks and where every wall has something new to admire or exclaim over? I’m a big fan of art hotels, large and small, so I always love it when the hotel has let an artist – or more than one – go wild. In Australia, the aptly named Art Series Hotel Group has eight hotels around the country and I’ve stayed in quite a few of them. Each is dedicated to the work of a well-known Australian artist. I think my favourite is The Olsen in Melbourne, but it’s a tough call because I also love The Fantauzzo in Brisbane.
Attend a cultural festival
For colour and costume, music and movement, you can’t beat a cultural festival. When planning your next trip, do some research and find out what festivals or cultural events are being held there, in case you can see one while you’re there. Two of the best I’ve seen are in Papua New Guinea: the Mount Hagen Show and the Sepik Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, both held every August. Australia’s indigenous festival are equally colourful, and one not to miss is the Laura Dance Festival, held every second year (including 2020), which I’ve written about before on this blog.
Sleep with the animals inside a zoo
Tigers prowling outside your bathroom, curious giraffes poking their heads over your balcony, or the biggest in-room fish-tank you can imagine…these are all things you’ll find at Jamala Wildlife Lodge, in the grounds of the National Zoo & Aquarium in the Australian national capital, Canberra. Guests are given two free guided walks through the zoo, one on arrival and another the next morning. The morning walk is a back-of-house tour on which you can pat a white rhino and have close encounters with other animals. For an extra cost, you can also feed a cheetah, lion or tiger. Expensive, but so worth it!
Help Australia’s wildlife recover from the bushfires
Australia has been in the headlines worldwide over the past month or so, for all the worst reasons. As bushfires have ravaged large parts of this country, among the many victims have been Australia’s unique wildlife. Kangaroos, wallabies, koalas and other smaller and less well-known species, including birds, snakes and other reptiles, have either perished or lost their habitat in the fires. But there are still plenty of safe places to visit, all over the country, so please – keep your travel plans and come and see for yourself. Plan to visit places where your entrance fees and donations will go towards helping our animals.
In New South Wales, the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital is caring for around 60 koalas, more than half of them suffering burns. The hospital will soon launch the world’s first wild koala breeding program to help rebuild the population.
In Queensland, you can tour wildlife hospitals at the Irwin family’s Australia Zoo and at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary on the Gold Coast. In the Cairns and Great Barrier Reef region, there are koala breeding programs at Rainforestation Nature Park near Kuranda and at Wildlife Habitat in Port Douglas. Dreamworld theme park on the Gold Coast also has a koala breeding program.
In Victoria, don’t miss the wonderful Moonlit Sanctuary on the Mornington Peninsula, Healesville Sanctuary outside Melbourne, and the Koala Reserve on Phillip Island. In Tasmania, head to Trowunna Wildlife Sanctuary and Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary near Hobart.
Snorkel or dive with manta rays
OK, I’ll confess…I haven’t actually done this yet. But I am booked to do it this weekend and I can’t wait! I’ve heard of this in many other places in the world, from Mexico to Hawaii, Thailand to Fiji, Indonesia, even South America (do some research if you’re not in my part of the world). What I didn’t realise until a few weeks ago was that I could find this incredible experience right in my own backyard. My manta ray snorkel trip will be off Minjerrabah (North Stradbroke Island)in Queensland’s Moreton Bay, just an hour’s drive and then a 30 minute boat ride from my Brisbane home.
Do you already have travel plans for 2020? Or a favourite place that I should check out? I’d love to add to my wish list!