Maria Island Walk – A great Australian Gourmet Walk

Bloodstone Beach
What a great way to get away for a few days to catch up with friends without the intrusions of phone, internet, work and children. (But if you are desperate Telstra works.) Day 1  – The walk begins with a briefing and repack of essential gear at 9 am in the Hobart office, fittingly only accessed by a steep flight of stairs. We also meet our two chirpy guides,  Dayna and Claire who look extremely fit. We set off in bright sunshine and 26 degrees to meet our transfer boat at Triabunna and swiftly reach the south of the Island,  still in full view of the Freycinet Peninsula on the Mainland. But truly we could have travelled 1000 kms south given the sudden weather change, from glorious summer’s day to rain squalls and an arctic wind whipping down the beach! My heart sank and I gave thanks to the friend who had advised against leaving the thermals (over dinner at Smolt the previous night). The walk into the first night’s camp  is very short beach walk,  giving us all time to get used to the weight of our packs and make the necessary adjustments to make them seem less heavy. The girls are both carrying packs that seem to dwarf them and given that they contain 3 days of fresh food this is not surprising.  So 10 apprehensive campers arrive at Cascade Camp – 6 canvas boxes nestled into the bush behind the beach.  Glamping this is not, but the tents are comfortable with extra blankets (very necessary as it turns out). The main tent is in contrast a work of clever design with deep storage drawers full of goodies and a great space for cooking and eating.  Most importantly a gas fire to warm up those mad enough to have an invigorating swim instead of settling back with a glass of wine and a good book after the 11 km walk to Haunted Bay.  Dinner was a very good 3 course affair whipped up by Dayna while we were out building up an appetite.

Day 2 -Brought a fabulous dawn (not seen by most) but not a great change in the weather. We tried to put a brave face on it, but it was quite hard to do as we listened to in impassioned lecture on the aboriginal history of the island delivered by Claire as the rain dripped of our hats and stuck like ice to wet thighs! However as was to be the case over the ensuing days, the clouds parted and the sun had an immediate impact on both body and mind. The morning’s walk was along a series of pristine beaches until we tracked inland to French’s farm for morning tea. Up to this point we had really had the island to ourselves, but now had to share it with day trippers on bikes making the 2 hour journey from Darlington at the top of the island where the public ferry comes in. Not many though and soon left behind as we hiked out to the Fleureau Peninsula, once a convict settlement but now home only to Cape Barron Geese patrolling the wind swept hilltops and the black swans in the estuary below. The afternoon brought another 3 beaches, Bloodstone (pictured) among others and then some bush bashing into White Gums Camp tucked away behind the most gorgeous chalk white beach with that exquisite ultramarine blue water. An extravagant afternoon tea of panforte, cheese and dried fruit awaited our arrival. Another great dinner and much wine to warm up the intrepid swimmers with the aid of both gas heaters!
Day 3  – Decision day.  Shall we climb Mt Maria, a tough climb by all accounts done half way with our packs or walk into Darlington to check out our very comfortable accommodation at Benacchi house and have lunch before attacking Bishop and Clarke, the 2nd mountain choice, marginally less high than Mt Maria but reputedly more rewarding. This morning the walking was actually along the main North South road with some stops at a convict quarry and the Painted Cliffs ( pretty striated sandstone ). The arrival into Darlington is spectacular but marred by the ugliest concrete factory silos which are unfortunately a heritage landmark.  So this is where the easy walking finishes. The sensible option would have been to head down to the beach with a good book. But we didn’t come here to pike !  So off we set to to conquer the mountain, a 5 hour return hike by all accounts. The outing was nearly derailed by a torrid encounter with a tiger snake which only gets more frightening in the retelling. Bishop and Clarke is a grade 4 scramble not to be underestimated but we all made it and reached the 2nd summit, a rare event according to our guide. The excitement of our achievement was somewhat dampened by the prospect of getting back down, but this was actually not as hard as anticipated and we were rewarded for our efforts by an encounters with a couple of mother wombats leading their charges across our path. We got back to the house at about 7.30 pm and I have never enjoyed a hot shower so much. Another lovely dinner, but those comfortable beds beckoned.
Day 4 – A self guided tour around the convict buildings and The Fossil Cliffs for some of us and a beach swim for others. The girls then surprised us with champagne to accompany our boxed lunch at the ruined House of  Religious Instruction perfectly positioned overlooking the bay.  A jetty jump is considered to be the done thing before departing, so some of the group obliged!

It was all over too soon. I cannot praise our hardworking guides Dayna and Claire enough for their knowledge, energy and enthusiasm. Everything was so well organised and they were both eternally cheerful. A great trip to do with friends and combine with a trip to Mona which is also fabulous.

Welcome (Not!) to America

After my family’s recent experiene at Los Angeles airport I have to say this must rate as one of the most unnecessarily awful airports in the world. The assumption seems to be that everyone is a ‘ person of interest ‘ to the customs staff. With hundreds of tourists arriving at the same time mainly from non english speaking countries it beggars belief that there was no evidence of Chinese, Korean or Japanese translators to cope with the onslaught of visa problems. Suffice to say that nearly everyone arriving on Qantas and Virgin Australia had missed or was about to miss their connection. The desks for US arrivals were deserted yet no one was being redirected to ease the appalling congestion at the non US (read not really welcome) arrivals. And not only that, many of the allocated desks were not manned ! If ever there was a system in need of overhaul it is this.

Heart of Sicily Tours

We have just released the itinerary for this exclusive small group tour to Sicily, designed and escorted by Lidia Di Costa. If you are interested in cultural immersion, history, some energetic walking and good eating, then this is the tour for you. Limited to 12 participants and departing in Spring when wildflowers cover the countryside. Tour details are on the Small Group Tours tab.

olives and flowers

Misadventure in Thailand


Stranded on Maya Beach!

Stranded on Maya Beach!

A recent holiday to Krabi Ao Nang, whilst not the holiday from hell, highlighted some of the less attractive aspects of  the cheap Asian getaway. It all started with the Holiday Inn Ao Nang which in itself was a well appointed resort aside from the lack of privacy it its design.

Mistake No 1: When a site says, minor renovations, no activities affected – BEWARE – circular saws buzzing and constant hammering from 07.30am – 6.30pm 7 days a week does not seem like a minor inconvenience to me. A panoramic view over a building site and into everyone else’s room was not quite expected either. The not so faint whiff of sewerage emanating from the large drain between this resort and the one next door was also disconcerting.

Why is it that nothing is ever quite finished in Asia? A green gauze netting obscured the beachfront directly outside the hotel, supposedly to prevent the unsuspecting tourist or local from toppling onto the beach where a new rock wall was being built to keep back the tide. Funny thing though, not a workman in sight for the entire week of our stay. The shoreline ( too tidal to be called a beach) itself is stunning with its surrounding verdant hills and limestone outcrops in the water. BUT don’t look down ! The rubbish washed up with every tide was disgusting, not just plastics but flotsam of toothpaste tubes and other household garbage.

Mistake No 2: The 4 Islands Snorkel Tour  widely promoted as the best snorkelling experience was in fact one of the worst examples of over exploitation that I have ever experienced. Unsuspecting tourists gathered from all the local hotels to a central point, left waiting for nearly an hour and then herded in groups of 45 onto waiting boats with 3 massive outboard motors each. Once packed in like sardines , our trusty Thai escort (guard) then held up a sign to indicate the reboarding time and boat number and strict instructions not to be late, otherwise we would be left behind to be picked up at the same time the following day. First stop Bamboo Island. It soon became apparent why the boat number was so important as 20 other boats pulled up in quick succession to disgorge their occupants onto this small beach with one small roped off area for snorkelling, the rest of the beach being deemed out of bounds because the of the ‘stingers’. A strict 20 minute curfew, then back on the boat, our guard now equipped with a loud hailer to encourage our on time departure. The procession of boats then proceeded to Maya Bay,a picture postcard beach which was in fact not a beach at all, because the tide was in. However this did not dissuade our tour operator from dumping us all onto this treacherous strip for our allocated stop /photo opportunity. Why ? Perhaps so we could walk inland to not use the foulest smelling public toilets?  Loud hailers deployed , and back onto the boat for lunch at Phi Phi Don.  This however was not the Koh Phi Phi renowned for its beautiful beaches but a mandatory lunch stop  in an upstairs refectory above the port with long rows of green plastic tables and chairs. The less said about this the better. The shopping was fun as we had not actually done any to this point and who can say no to a few pairs of $5 Ray Bans. However this was foremost a snorkelling trip, so we set off in hope ! We visited two spots to the south, along with all the other boats. The first spot had some nice fish and mediocre coral and the 2nd spot had neither ! The boat was equipped with masks and snorkels but no fins – why you might ask. No room !  It was then a race home across the bay in the face of a very stiff breeze – thank god no-one was seasick – no provision for that either !

Now just when you are thinking what a whinger, I can say that with a little knowledge goes a long way to getting it right second time round. We went to a local dive shop and arranged another snorkel tour with just 8 people in a single engine long tail boat – snorkellers and divers which visited two rocky outcrops nearby and provided a far more authentic and enjoyable experience for 1/2 the price.

Thailand is also one of those places where children can do things that would be unthinkable at home. And so it was that we found the shooting range – a nondescript shed on the outskirts of town which allowed you to shoot a whole range of guns with live ammunition at targets in a safely controlled environment. Expensive yes, but an absolute wow for teenage boys.  The Krabi Night markets with great local food and ad hoc local entertainment (fire stick entertainers and kids break dancing) were a worthwhile visit and I have it  second hand that the local Kick Boxing tournament was good entertainment. And yes the local food was pretty good and inexpensive, the onstreet eating was great fun especially the banana and condensed milk pancakes made to order at a street-side cart (visited twice).

On balance, I would not go here for the beaches or the snorkelling.  And perhaps Tourism Thailand should direct some funds towards a stricter local authority to regulate the day tour market and fix the issue of rubbish pollution which really does spoil the experience.