Trendsetter Jetsetter: Australia

There’s nothing like Australia. Between vast expanses of seemingly nothing but arid land, there are world-class cities, as well as many amazing World Heritage Listed Sites. Australia is physically the size of the United States, but has a population equivalent to that of Los Angeles County. There’s a lot there, but not a lot of people.

The two main islands of New Zealand are lush, mountainous and volcanic. The cities are compact and have an easy pace to them. Distances are reasonable—you can travel from Auckland to Rotorua in a few hours, and still have time to go to the spa. New Zealand has an easy-going sophistication, and a physical beauty to the landscape that dominates every aspect.

And to make your vacation even more special, my favorite properties across Australia and New Zealand are part of ALTOUR Hotel Collection so you will always receive that added value and extra goodies.

I’ve been to these countries nearly 40 times. I am in love with both. Let me share some of my favorite experiences with you.

To book your next vacation, please contact Judith at Judith.kitzes@altour.com or 310-683-0149


Judith Kitzes

Australia

Australia’s cities have everything you want, and Sydney is the largest with the most beautiful natural harbor in the world. Iconic features like the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge are easy to love. Melbourne is filled with lovely hidden passages with cafés and designers. Adelaide is one mile square, and as a city, really lives for the Arts. Hobart, Perth, Darwin, Cairns and Brisbane all have charm and appeal, and I could wax poetic on every one of these cities. But my heart is in the unique, remote places that are worth the effort to experience.

 

Emirates One & Only Wolgan Valley, The Blue Mountains, New South Wales (an AHC property)

Emirates One & Only Wolgan Valley Resort is about 2 1⁄2 hours outside of Sydney, located in the Blue Mountains. The resort is on 7000 acres of a conservation and wildlife reserve and is 100% carbon-neutral. There are 40 free-standing suites that all overlook this native bushland, surrounded by towering escarpments. Everything about the resort feels like part of the land. They offer a variety of engaging activities and have an amazing spa as well. But the real experience is in wildlife spotting, and a well-known, endangered tree.

Albino animals are rare in the wild. In Wolgan Valley, there are six albino wallabies and one albino wombat. The Valley reminds me a bit of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania where animals never leave because there is ample water and food. Wolgan Valley, while not a crater, creates a similar set of conditions, with plenty of resources. While I was out on safari, I saw three of the six albino wallabies; the wombat remained elusive.

The tree, the Wollemi Pine, was presumed extinct, but a little over 16 years ago, a bushwalker discovered a grove not far from where the resort is located. The actual location is kept secret and used for research only. The rediscovery of this grove led to the Greater Blue Mountains National Park being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As part of the recovery program, a few groves have been planted around the 7000 acres that make up the grounds of the resort. The tree is beautiful and ancient and seeing it for the first time was like stepping into the Jurassic period. In the original grove, there are trees 130 feet high with trunks 3 1⁄2 feet around. Rare and beautiful.

The resort has the feel of an historic station, but in all the most important ways, clearly 21st century. The suites are comfortable, cozy and elegant.

Native timbers and dark tones make up the interiors, soothing and local. They all have a private pool, double-sided fireplaces, a deck, and views into the natural beauty that surround the property. The dining room and spa are in the main house. This remote section of The Blue Mountains is the perfect place to begin your trip in Australia. Get off the plane, transfer by car or helicopter to a place of nature and be restored for a few days.

Judith Kitzes

Southern Ocean Lodge, Kangaroo Island, South Australia (an AHC Property)

Southern Ocean Lodge sits on Kangaroo Island’s limestone cliffs overlooking the Southern Ocean. There is nothing else between the lodge and Antarctica. Each of the 21 suites has breathtaking ocean views and, in season, of Southern Right Whales as they migrate past. Kangaroo Island is effectively Australia’s Galapagos.

A magical place, Kangaroo Island is Australia’s third largest island and has a diverse landscape: hardy farmers who have ventured into vineyards and wineries, some of the best cheeses and honey in Australia, former whaling villages and an artist colony. Seal Beach is home to a colony of sea lions and you can walk out on the beach among the animals. Admiral’s Arch, a wind-swept, sea-carved limestone arch, is home to a colony of New Zealand fur seals. Kangaroo Island kangaroos are an endemic species, and can be seen lazing about in grasslands. There are healthy koalas, Tamar Valley wallabies, echidnas and more. Remarkable Rocks are a feature of large sandstone boulders that have been eroded by the elements into fantastical sculptures of great beauty.

Walking out on Seal Beach in a ranger-led, small group is like entering another world altogether. The Sea Lion Colony is large and healthy. They normally ignore humans, but one juvenile male seemed to take a liking to my curly hair. He kept looking for me. We would move in a group and he’d adjust for a better view. When I finally hid behind the tallest person in the group, the sea lion snorted a big harrumph, turned, and waddled out for a swim.

After a day of exploring, coming back to the open and minimalist structures of Southern Ocean Lodge is like coming back to a sanctuary. They use windows to their best advantage, walls are all white and wood is light-colored and made from local material. The lodge is Kangaroo Island.

Judith Kitzes

Bamurru Plains, Northern Territory

Bamurru Plains is on the Mary River Flood Plains, a permanent wetlands and mecca for birdwatching and fishing. The vast savannah reminds me of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. The lodge is also part of a large working station which has water buffalo. It’s close to Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park, and private tours to view rock art and learn about the Australia’s indigenous people can be arranged. There is plenty to do on the property with daily safaris, air boat touring on the wetlands, or a cruise on the Mary River.

Wild Bush Luxury best describes the experience. The main lodge is a combination living room/dining room. An infinity pool looks out over the savannah. On either side of the main building, there are five stand-alone permanent tents. The tents are open on three sides, covered only by a fine mesh to keep out the bugs, giving unobstructed views over the savannah. Guests are instructed to not walk in front of the line of structures for both privacy and safety. The ensuite bathrooms are charming: the rain shower head is held up by a tree sapling. No internet connection, no cell service and no television. It’s a long drive from Darwin, or a fairly short private plane ride that lands on a dirt airstrip.

My first night I was awakened by snuffling, munching and hopping. Looking out the screened side, I saw the buffalo grazing next to my tent on both sides. Hopping amongst them were Agile Wallabies, also grazing. As dawn broke, I dressed and went outside to watch them all walk past me, across the savannah to the wetlands to graze in the heat of the day. On a sundowner cruise on the Mary River I saw a huge saltwater crocodile leap out and take a bird—it happened so fast, only about four people on the boat saw it.

Another morning, just before breakfast, wallabies started stampeding toward the main building. Later I saw two healthy looking dingoes loping across the grass, hunting. This area is truly wild and incredibly beautiful. The birds alone are remarkable. I saw two jabiru, misnamed now as black and white storks; they aren’t actually black and white. Their dark plumage is iridescent teal blue, and their eyes look like jewels.

This part of the Northern Territory has my heart and soul. I fell in love with this land on my very first trip to Australia, and every trip since has only deepened my love. Three nights at Bamurru Plains might help you understand why.

 

Qualia, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland (an AHC Property)

Hamilton Island, in the Whitsunday Islands, is a lovely island with several options for accommodation; qualia is the jewel in the crown. Guests get their own golf cart and have full priority access to everything on the island including the Hamilton Island Golf Course. But only qualia guests have access to this resort and spa.

It was my first stop on a whirlwind trip. I flew from Los Angeles to Sydney, and then connected to Hamilton Island where I was met by a golf cart and someone who took my luggage. Check-in is in the main building, over tea and nibbles, and then I was whisked to my windward pavilion with a private plunge pool. Everything here is designed toward mindfulness and relaxation.

Dinner was in the main dining room, and delicious. This is a place of mindful indulgence, a place to treat your senses to the best. After a delightful evening meal and conversation, I returned to my pavilion and went to bed. Early morning “alarm clock” was a small wallaby that had hopped onto my deck, and I spotted another in the native bush surrounding my suite.

A helicopter flight over Whitehaven Beach and Heart Reef was wonderful. The beach is pure white—miles and miles of pure, talcum powder white. Picnics can be arranged; they can drop you by boat or helicopter, and at a specific time, return for you. Sunscreen is mandatory. It is one of the most perfect beaches in the world, and scuba and snorkeling trips to the outer reef can also be arranged.

There is a small town on Hamilton Island, with a few restaurant options for those who want to try something else. Three quarters of the island is set aside as national park land, with ample hiking trails and a healthy variety of wildlife.

Judith Kitzes

Saffire-Freycinet, Tasmania (an AHC Property)

Tasmania, Australia’s Island State, is gorgeous. It has a sad history as a penal colony. The British had convicts build their own prison at Port Arthur, but the convicts also cut stone and built beautiful bridges around the island. Tasmania has beautiful walking tracks, incredible mountains, gorgeous beaches and rugged coastlines. There are wonderful vineyards, boutique places that produce delicious wines in such small quantities that they don’t export.

Tasmania has some of the cleanest air in the world. What Tasmania lacked was a true luxury lodge until Saffire-Freycinet opened a few years ago.

Saffire is an architectural beauty. From the air, it looks like a sting-ray with wings spread. Gorgeous. From within, it makes brilliant use of warm wood tones and glass, embracing the light and the view over Great Oyster Bay. Set amongst the Hazards Mountains, the Freycinet Peninsula and the bay, the lodge feels like a part of the landscape. All 20 suites are alike, overlooking native bushland toward the bay.

The head chef has created brilliance out of local produce: seafood, fruits and veggies, poultry and beef. Guests can enjoy the spa, bushwalking, kayaking, or visiting the deserted islands. One of their included experiences is great fun: after getting fitted out in hip waders early in the morning, guests go out to the oyster beds and harvest oysters. Next you get to eat your just-caught feast at a table set with a white tablecloth and a selection of wine, while standing in the water. Nothing fresher.

Tasmania is home to the endangered Tasmanian Devil. Saffire offers a wonderful experience to see these animals in their natural habitat. They have an open-range enclosure where you can observe them without risk of transmitting disease to them, and your guide talks about the efforts to find a cure for the Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor Disease which has brought them to the brink of extinction.


New Zealand

Wharekauhau Country Estate, Palliser Bay, North Island (an AHC Property)

Wharekauhau is my favorite place in New Zealand. The lodge is set on an active sheep and cattle station of about 5500 acres, with breathtaking views over the bay. The farm itself has a series of natural boundaries that keep the livestock in place. It has been a successful farm since the late 1880’s. The entire concept and feel is that you’re a guest on the farm, where you’re treated as a welcome, invited visitor, rather than a transient client staying in a hotel. It is all personal, without being intrusive.

A farm tour with a sheep-shearing demonstration is included. Dinner is in the main house, and it is a gorgeous affair. In fact, the first night was so good, I asked for a recipe. They gave me a cookbook and history of the property!
There is horse trekking, golf and clay pigeon shooting, but the real draw of the region, in addition to the farm itself, is the wine region that surrounds the farm. It is the best Pinot Noir region in New Zealand. They also offer cooking classes. The region is food and wine-centric, and everyone dives in. When it was time to go, there were hugs and kisses all around. I felt like I’d gained a family.

New Zealand is a jewel. Visitors can enjoy the volcanic North Island with its active thermal areas and gorgeous bays, the majestic Southern Alps on the South Island, and the sub-tropical rainforests; all contribute to the natural beauty of this country. New Zealand needs to be experienced. The cities are wonderful, and compact. Auckland is the largest city. Wellington, the Capital, is a tiny sophisticate with a great café society and restaurant selection. Christchurch, risen from a devastating earthquake 8 years ago, is quintessentially British in look and feel. Queenstown is a wonderful ski town. But again, my heart is not in the cities, but rather in the remote but exquisite lodges.

 

Huka Lodge, Taupo, North Island (An AHC Property)

Huka Lodge has transformed from a gentleman’s fishing lodge into a world- class retreat. Yes, they still have fishing because the Tongariro River is one of the best in the world for fly fishing, but now they have so much more. The lodge is in a beautifully forested area, and boasts lovingly tended gardens; the setting is idyllic. Just outside of Taupo, ten minutes from Lake Taupo, near volcanoes, and about an hour from the geothermal region of Rotorua, Huka Lodge is close to everything and guests can enjoy hiking, biking, fishing, boating, horseback riding, helicopter flights and kayaking.

I stayed in a Lodge Suite. Three sides are protected by the native bush and the front opens to the Waikato River. Early morning fog rises from the river, surrounding the old growth trees in mist, and casting a meditative quiet over the grounds.

A great thrill is the helicopter flight over Mt. Tarawera, which last erupted in 1886 and buried a village. After Mt. Tarawera, I boarded another helicopter where I went on to White Island (Wakaari), which has been erupting constantly since about 2001. I’m fascinated by the power of this earth.

Judith Kitzes

Blanket Bay, Glenorchy, South Island (An AHC Property)

Blanket Bay is about 45 minutes out of Queenstown toward the town of Glenorchy, on the north tip of Lake Wakatipu. It’s a true alpine resort in the heart of the Southern Alps that define the South Island. Blanket Bay is away from the hustle and bustle of Queenstown, which is always packed with visitors. It gives you a wonderful place to regroup, and still participate in all the activities.

The region was the backdrop for many of the films in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit Trilogies. The rugged high country provides the trailheads for three of New Zealand’s Great Walks: the Routeburn, Greenstone, and Rees/ Dart Tracks. It is also located near the Hollyford Track, as well as the famous Milford Track. There are many one-day hikes that can be experienced, with or without a guide. The Lodge is four kilometers from the country town of Glenorchy, with an assortment of cafés, shops and a General Store. Quaint, unlike the busier city of Queenstown, it’s a logging, gold mining and farming town.

Experiencing Milford Sound from Blanket Bay is brilliant. The drive from the lodge to Milford Sound would be about five hours each way, so they provide a two-hour helicopter experience that gives you a bird’s eye view of the sound and the waterfalls. You land on a glacier at one point, and have the opportunity to get out and experience the ancient ice. They also offer an excursion that gets you there by helicopter, allows you to do the public boat cruise and then helicopter back. I prefer the helicopter only experience because I saw so much more.

The Main Lodge houses all the public areas, and then there are five Lodge rooms, as well as seven Lodge and Chalet Suites. The Great Room is resplendent with antiques and high-beamed ceilings. The accommodations are lavish, comfortable and spacious. Spectacular views to the lake and the mountains. No children under 10.

Judith Kitzes

Otahuna Lodge, Christchurch, South Island (An AHC Property)

Otahuna Lodge is the loving restoration of New Zealand’s oldest private residence and turned into a small private hotel. It has five suites and two master suites, and a 30-acre botanic garden restored to its original splendor.

The owners, Miles Refo and Hall Cannon, did tremendous research when they purchased it, both into the interior of the home, as well as the gardens. The love these gentlemen put into their property shows in every detail.

The location is perfect. 20 minutes outside of Christchurch city center, it is the ideal base for exploring the Canterbury region. The region boasts wineries, restaurants, golf, fishing, and, nearby in Akaroa, boat trips to see Hector’s Dolphins, the world’s rarest and smallest. It’s a great place to experience the Tranz Alpine Express, a scenic train from Christchurch to Arthur’s Pass for the most beautiful portion of the journey. Otahuna offers hands on cooking classes as well, and since most of the produce is from the property, it’s a treat! Fresh is fresh.

But the draw of this property is the gardens. After abundant research, the 118- year old garden was restored to the vision and beauty of the original owner. There are several other amazing gardens to tour in the region. Christchurch has the nickname “Garden City” because there are so many.

There are helicopter tours that are spectacular; the Kaikoura Whale Watch by helicopter is breathtaking. Seeing sperm whales from the air gives you a sense of their size differently than viewing them from the boat. The boat trip is amazing but can be choppy, and since there are so many people on the boat, you do have to jockey for position. The helicopter limits how many people are with you, and everyone has an exceptional view.

The property opened for guests in 2006. In the 10 years it has been open, it continues to glow. It is certainly worth a visit.

Judith Kitzes, CTC, ACC