Author Archives: Lisa

Kakadu National Park – Northern Territory, Australia

Over the Top Down Under

On the world radar of superior wilderness areas, the 8,000-square-mile Kakadu National Park is a small but significant blip, still remote and little known despite its use as the outback location for Crocodile Dundee.

For now, its frontier freshness remains intact, and the resident population of 15-foot “saltie” and “freshie” crocodiles (the latter unique to these parts) still laze undisturbed in the shal­lows of the pristine river and marshland ecosystem.

In 1981 Kakadu received the rare double honor of being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its natural wonders as well as for the 5,000 rock paintings that grace its sandstone caves—“the greatest body of rock art in the world,” according to the local museum.

The paintings can be classified into three distinct periods of Aboriginal history, and date back from 30 to more than 25,000 years. Ubirr, 27 miles north of park headquar­ters, is one of the most visited outcrops; in its cavelike “galleries,” images record life from the Stone Age to the 20th century.

Seven Spirit Bay – Cobourg Peninsula, Northern Territory, Australia

A Top-End Juxtaposition of Wilderness and Luxury

With thousands of acres of untouched bush, mangrove, and jungle behind it and gorgeous waters and deserted beaches in front, this exceptional wilderness habitat is located in northern Australia’s “lop End” within the 50,000-year-old homeland of some of the last Aboriginal tribes still leading a tradi­tional life.

Vast tracts of their land have been leased to the state to be managed as Gurig National Park, except for this resort and the land that surrounds it on the tip of the Coburg Peninsula, a finger of land pointing north toward Indonesia.

Accessible only by air, this remote pocket of comfort and civilization demon­strates an environmental sensitivity everywhere—the simple buildings, for example, are made of natural materials. Resident guides take guests fishing, and on bush walks and coastal tours. Or take a predawn hike to celebrate something as simple and magical as a sunrise.

Seven Spirit Bay takes its name from the cycle of seven seasons in northern Australian Aboriginal tra­dition: lightning, thundering, rainmaking, greening, wind storming, fire raging, and cloudless blue. If you’re lucky, every day will be cloudless blue.

Ayers Rock and the Olgas – Northern Territory, Australia

Spiritual Shrines of the Aborigines

Never mind how many times it’s appeared in movies or on postcards, the great red monolith of Ayers Rock, the world’s largest, still stirs the spirits of those who visit it. Revered as a spiritual center of power by the Aborigines, whose ancestors are believed to have lived here as much as 20,000 years ago, Ayers Rock constantly changes color, and at sunrise and sunset becomes such an amazing visual experience that you’ll soon understand why a world of mythology has been woven around it.

Otherwise known by its Aboriginal name Uluru, “Giant Pebble,” the rock rises 1,142 feet above the featureless plain and has a circumference of about 5 miles. Rich deposits of iron are the source of its orange-red color—Ayers Rock actually rusts when it rains.

Climbing it is not prohibited, although because of its religious significance it is qui­etly discouraged by the Aborigines, who have managed the surrounding 511-square-mile national park since 1985. The strenuous one-hour trek up a single path is not for the faint of heart nor weak of knee. Many prefer the walk around it, at the base.

About 30 miles west of Ayers Rock are the Olgas, thirty-six gigantic rock domes, some reaching 1,800 feet, separated by chasms and valleys and spread out over an area of 15 square miles. Even more significant to today’s Aborigines than Uluru, the area’s name in their language is Kata Tjuta, or Many Heads. Public access is limited to the “Valley of the Winds” walk, a 4-mile loop best experienced in the absence of afternoon tour-bus caravans.

Arnhem Land – Northern Territory, Australia

Guests in an Ancient Land

A vast area five times the size of Great Britain, Arnhem Land is a special place of pristine bush, eucalyptus forests, coastal wilderness, and abun­dant wildlife, owned and managed by the Gummulkbun Aboriginal people, whose home it has been for 65,000 years.

It is one of Australia’s most restricted areas, only recently opened to tourism (via Aboriginal-owned and -operated tour agencies). Cultural safaris allow small groups of visitors to share the wonders of the rich indigenous heritage, and to understand the meanings and mythology behind the ancient rock art that adorns the walls and ceilings of the caves and rock shelters throughout the area.

Your hosts are Brian Rooke, an Aborigine from the Bass Strait Islands, and his wife, Phyllis. He has lived in the Arnhem Land region for twenty-five years and has an intimate knowledge of the country and culture. Home is a traditional safari-style tent deep in the Mudjeegarrdart bush, a quarter of a million acres that belongs to Phyllis’s tribal family.

The seasons and guests’ interests determine your activities, whether it’s a day trip or an extended camping tour. Identify traditional foods and medicines, visit the sites of cave paintings, explore the abundant bird life, cool off with a swim in a billibong (a natural water hole), or go fishing or crab spearing and have your catch prepared for dinner.

The operative word is “tradition,” which you will observe and appreciate in the company of local guides with a natural affinity for their ancestral homeland and its people.

Sydney Opera House and the Harbor – New South Wales, Australia

A Beloved Icon and a Luxe Hotel Overlooking the Waterfront

Sydney is Australia’s largest, oldest, liveliest and brashest city, and its Opera House—initially reviled for its startlingly modern design (resembling a cluster of billowing white “sails”)—has come to be as emblematic of the city as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris.

Chosen from more than 200 designs submitted in 1957 by the world’s most prominent architects, the project was instantly controversial. The building took fifteen years to complete, during which time its disillusioned Danish creator, Joern Utzon, removed himself from the project, never to see it finished.

Today the opera house, perfectly situated on Sydney’s busy and picturesque harbor, is the cultural heartbeat of the city. Numerous opera, sym­phony, ballet, and theater productions take place in its Opera Theater and Concert House (both of which pride themselves on perfect acoustics).

If you want the experience without the music, the Opera House’s Bennelong Restaurant, located in one of its most dra­matic spaces, offers an elegantly spare menu amid magnificent harbor views.

For a view from the outside, you can’t do better than the elegant Four Seasons Hotel, from whose upper floors you can view the Opera House to your right, the Harbour Bridge to your left, and the glistening expanse of the harbor filling out the vista all around. Its marble lobby isn’t a bad spot for other kinds of views, either: Nearly every celebrity who visits Sydney passes through at some point.

The hotel’s coveted waterside loca­tion—near the spot where Australia was born—is the nucleus of the most popular tourist attractions: Circular Quay is the spot from which hundreds of ships zigzag their way across Sydney Harbour, and the 70-acre green oasis of the Royal Botanic Gardens offers some of the finest walks in town. If you want opera tickets, the Four Season’s concierge is almost guaranteed to find you a seat.

Sydney’s historical waterfront district, The Rocks, is close by, nestled next to the Harbour Bridge. Once the haunt of braw­ling sailors and ex-convicts, it has now been gentrified and made respectable, with restau­rants, shopping, galleries, and exhibition spaces. Only the Lord Nelson, the city’s oldest continuously operating pub, evokes the area’s early days.

The Hunter Valley Wine Region – New South Wales, Australia

Premier Vineyards Down Under

The Hunter Valley conjures up visions of horse and cattle breeding and of mining, but for the most part Australians associate it with the grape, since the area is home to more than fifty wineries and dozens of restaurants.

Visitors may recognize such international labels as Rosemount or Lindemans, while smaller, limited-production operations are much respected at home. An easy two-hour drive from Sydney—making it the most pop­ular and well-known of Australia’s four wine regions—Hunter Valley is best avoided on weekends; on weekdays you’ll find the roads quiet and dinner reservations easy to come by.

Gourmands who like charming country hotels should head for the Pepper Tree, a magnificent complex in the heart of the valley. Hotel-restaurant combinations don’t get any more idyllic: lovely accommodations are in a tum-of-the-century former convent, where your elegant suite may be a former kindergarten or music room.

The hotel’s multiple-award-winning Robert’s restaurant serves long and leisurely meals in an 1876 settler’s cot­tage, accompanied by vintages from vines you can reach out and touch. Even if you don’t stay for dinner, stop by to pick up a gourmet hamper for a lunch under the trees down by the creek.

New South Wales, Australia

The Blue Mountains and Lilianfels

Microscopic droplets of oil from the leaves of dense eucalyptus forests hang in the air, refracting the sunlight to create the misty blue haze that gave this park its name. Just ninety minutes from Sydney, the Blue Mountains are a glorious playground of twenty-six small townships that offer every­thing from antiques shopping to bushwalking.

The mountains are not even really mountains but a vast sandstone tableland whose dra­matic eroded scenery is best enjoyed from lookouts like Govett’s Leap. Echo Point is the best place to view the park’s famous sandstone pillars, the Three Sisters.

Just west of here are two of the park’s highlights: The Scenic Skyway, Australia’s only gondola ride, travels 1,000 feet above the canyon, and the Katoomba Scenic Railway, an open-sided cog­rail incline, descends at 52 degrees but feels twice as steep. If they’re not hairy’ enough for you, there’s still the Zig-Zag railway near the town of Lithgow, an engineering marvel of switchbacks and bridges built in the 1860s.

You can catch a highlight or two on a day trip from Sydney, but the area really deserves a longer stay, and for that, the 19th-century Lilianfels hotel is hard to beat. It’s one of Australia’s best getaway destinations, with a fantastic setting, magnificent panoramas, and Darley’s, a smart, award-winning restaurant where the ingredients of your traditional meal come from the surrounding country.

Looking every bit like a gracious European home, the hotel is perched 3,300 feet above sea level, almost at the edge of the cliff at Echo Point, with the canyons and ravines of the Jamison Valley below. After all the outdoor adventure, you can sit by one of the hotel’s inviting fire­places (even on summer evenings the air is crisp), or enjoy a proper afternoon tea served on a veranda overlooking acres of English gar­dens and the misty eucalyptus forests. Full spa facilities further tempt one to cocoon.

Cape Tribulation – Queensland, Australia

Where the Oldest Living Rain Forest on Earth Meets the Great Barrier Reef

Two of Australia’s World Heritage sites, the Wet Tropics Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef, come together at Cape Tribulation, so named in 1770 by a peeved Captain James Cook “because here began all my troubles” when his ship hit a coral bed.

Protected within the Cape Tribulation and Daintree National Parks and believed to have been the evolu­tionary cradle for much of Australia’s unique wildlife, the cape’s rain forest contains trees that are 3000 years old, and many can be traced back over 120 million years. Dinosaurs have disappeared, but little else seems to have changed.

To immerse yourself entirely in this jungle exotica, choose from two outstanding eco-tourism properties that comfortably coexist within miles of each other. Progressive fore­runners in the design of environmental lodges, both Silky Oaks and Coconut Beach Lodge are swathed in their own private jungle. Naturalists on staff will point out the unique ecology’, and a concentration of flora and fauna species that has no parallel on earth.

Taxco – Guerrero, Mexico

The Charm of Old Mexico in a Hilltop Silver Capital

Silver-hungry tourists make a beeline for this delightful colonial-era hill town, whose zigzag streets are lined with more than 250 silver shops. The shop-till-you-drop group won’t be disappointed by the quantity and refined quality of Taxco’s silver objects and jewelry, but sightseers will also find a charming town of red-roofed, whitewashed houses piled on top of one another.

Cobblestone streets lead to the Plaza Borda, the main square, named after the town’s 18th-century benefactor, a miner who inaugurated Taxco’s second silver boom (the first happened with the 16th-century arrival of the conquistadores). In gratitude for the bounty (since depleted) that made him wealthy, the French-born Borda financed the construction of a Baroque twin-towered church, Iglesia de Santa Prisca, in the square.

It is considered one of the most elaborate examples of the extravagant churrigueresque architecture in Mexico—no expense was spared either for the exquisitely carved pink-stone facade or for the interior, where twelve gilded altarpieces vie for attention.

The church and plaza are at the heart of Taxco’s renowned Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions, the most compelling in Mexico—self-flagellating, black-hooded, bare-torsoed penitents are only part of the lavish spectacle that involves the entire town.

Take advantage of Taxco’s mag­nificent views, especially romantic at night, from the top-notch restaurant and Mexican-style bungalows that make up the beautifully landscaped hilltop Hacienda del Solar.

Acapulco Bay – Guerrero, Mexico

Among the Most Romantic Views on Earth

Much of Acapulco’s sultry reputation as Hollywood’s south-of-the-border beach club has been shattered by a groundswell of tourism, but the heart-stopping beauty of the bay is eternal. With physical endowments that have often been compared to those of Rio de Janeiro, Acapulco also features unbeatable sunsets over its 7-mile horseshoe-shaped bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Avoid the package tourists and revel in unparalleled water views by checking in at the Hotel Las Brisas, the leg­endary hilltop grande dame that has shared Acapulco’s fame and high profile for more than three decades. Every day is a honeymoon here: Secluded fuchsia- and bougainvillea-draped casitas boast pri­vate pools filled with floating hibis­cus flowers and breathtaking views of the bay. The hotels Bella Vista alfresco restaurant is aptly named.

Most guests never leave Las Brisas’s 750 tropical acres on the lush moun­tainside, but those who do jump in one of the hotel’s hallmark pink-and-white-striped jeeps and head 6 miles north to the nearby fishing village of Pie de la Cuesta, a laid-back spot where a hammock and the roar of the surf evoke a long-ago Acapulco.