Travel: The Best Walks in the Grampians

What is it that makes us want to climb mountains? It’s a really universal urge, I feel. I’m getting really into hiking lately, partly inspired by my fitness focus (I’ve been all about the bootcamp, surprisingly). Not to mention that I happen to live in such a beautiful place, surrounded by gorgeous walks. This weekend was my second trip to the Grampians and this time we focused on staying to the south and centre, rather than the north.

Grampians Mt Rosea

On Sunday we spent the day clambering up Mt Rosea, which is one of the longer and more challenging day hikes in the Grampians National Park. I’d really recommend this for anyone looking for a more challenging walk away from the crowds. We started by heading up Stony Creek Road from the Mt Rosea carpark, which is definitely the best direction to challenge this loop as you get to clamber up and then take an easier walk down again. It should take around 2 hours to reach the top via the Gate of the East Wind. Any aches and grumbles will soon be silenced by the unbelievable views that greet you once you reach the top. These are widely agreed to be among the best in the Grampians and the great news is that the difficult climb means you’ll get to enjoy them in peace, without the crowds of families that can be found on some of the easier walks.



From the top, you need to make sure you turn left from the summit towards Burma Track, an old 4WD track. Be careful though as the signage isn’t great and the path itself is a little overgrown. Just make sure you turn left at any intersection and you’ll reach your original destination eventually. Also I came pretty close to being bitten by a snake, so watch your feet! After jumping at a noise, I turned to notice a large black snake slithering in the other direction. I couldn’t help but wonder how far away the nearest snake bite kit would be.

Other walks I really recommend include:

  • Mt Sturgeon for panoramic views to the south
  • Wonderland Carpark to the Pinnacle for iconic views and a challenging climb
  • Mt Difficult for a really challenging walk with waterfalls






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.

best 3

best 7

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.

best 6

best 9

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

best 5

Style: The Weekly Beautiful


There’s nothing like good friends, food and fresh, sea air to bring you out of a slump. I had a bit of a bad start to the weekend after having a mini crisis of confidence in my new writing class (putting myself out there + public speaking= no fun). Luckily things ended on a much better note with wine and sunset gazing at the beautiful pier in Albert Park. It’s nights like these that make me realise how much I love living in Australia. Even when you’re at your lowest, you’ll come across something so heart-stoppingly stunning that you realise how small your problems really are.






I also got to check out Carsten Höller and Jean Paul Gaultier at The National Gallery of Victoria. Getting stuck into a bottle of bubbles in the tea room meant we were super late for the exhibition and were the last ones in. Being a stickler for schedule, I was anxious for everyone to get a move on but as it turned out, this meant we got the place to ourselves and even spotted model Andreja Pejić having a low-key moment with her family. Sometimes a plan falling apart is the most wonderful stroke of luck!





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.

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.











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.


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…


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.


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.


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.

Florence back streets

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.


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.




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.


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).



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.




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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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


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.

Travel: Iquitos and the Amazon [Part One]

For a London girl, living and travelling in South America can sometimes be frustrating. Forget your expectations of service or efficiency. This is Peru and nothing works the way it should.

Packaged food is always a year out of date and that´s just the way it is. Order off a menu and the first five items will receive a response of ¨no tenemos¨. Also, those prices are from 2007. The bathroom is flooded in your hotel room? It´s a feature. Public transport never gets anywhere less than 3 hours late and don´t even bother asking anyone to explain why. Lots of things are just a little bit shit, so it´s best to just accept it.

But I didn´t come here for the table service. Spending four days camping in the middle of the Amazon rainforest was enough to snap me out of my spoilt city attitude.


A streetview in the floating village of Belen

We started from Iquitos, the largest city in the world inaccessible by road, smack in the middle of the jungle. Iquitos is like every other Peruvian city; crowded, loud and suffocatingly polluted. In fact, because of its isolation, there are few cars on the road, but 25,000 mototaxis turn the streets into a demolition derby, with the fumes to match.

Ex-pats and locals live side by side; the former, pilgrims looking for a friendly city where life moves at half the pace; the latter, some Amazon Indians moved to the big smoke to sell handicrafts or tout tours, some refugees seeking shelter from their Andean or coastal cities wracked by terrorism in the 1990s.


A family at home in Belen.

The rubber boom of the 1900s that put the former Jesuit mission of Iquitos on the world map is a mere spectre. Once the grande proof of the superlative wealth of the city, delapidated Portuguese-tiled manors now house government paper-pushers, and French mansions lie vacant next to shoe-shops. The ‘Casa de Fierro‘ (Iron House) built by Gustave Eiffel is now a pharmacy.

From the main square, you could be in any city in the Americas. But walk down an alley and you´re on the Amazon river. It´s all you can see to the horizon. Watching the sun setting over the floodlands, it´s impossible to give a monkey´s about the little irritations that sometimes make long-term travelling a chore. This is why I came to Peru.


Potions for what ails you, in el Mercado de Belen

Before heading into the jungle, we spend a day exploring Iquitos’ Mercado de Belen and extending from it, the floating village of Belen. The market is a shaman’s supermarket and an animal rights activist’s nightmare. The Amazonian Diagon Alley that sells everything from potions to improve sexual virility, to dried boa skins for use in black magic rituals, ayahuasca (an hallucinogenic plant extract held sacred by brujas and Gringos on their gap-year), live monkeys, and illegally poached wild animal meat. We see turtles, snakes, capybara (a giant jungle rodent) and black caiman diced, sliced and ready for sale. None of the stall-owners seem to mind us taking pictures, which is surprising given their merch.

An enormous section of the market is essentially a slaughterhouse. Your everyday livestock is sold here; pigs, cows, poultry, plus fish and seafood. Every part of every animal is sold. Each stall has sections for every kind of inside bit: offal, testicles, eyes, skin, you name it, they’ve sliced it off. As we walk in, towards a loud crunching noise, we see a man with his meat cleaver stuck in the brow of a skinned bulls’s head.


Waste not, want not, in el Mercado de Belen

Feeling slightly queasy, we’re lead by our guide through the meat section, to the dock to catch a boat to Belen village. Other than the fact that it’s a village under (or rather on top of) water for one half of the year, Belen functions like any other. Kids play in the street, women visit friends in the next house, young people return from work. Except they do it in canoes. The school, pub, petrol station, shops, church and houses all float, and people go about their business on the water. The kids are particularly adept at rowing.

Some houses are solid, with two floors above the water, electricity and lighting. Many houses lie empty, dilapidated and partially submerged. Our guide tells us some houses go up quick to accommodate people that travel from inside the jungle with a big load to sell. They sell and move on. The houses aren’t built to last. For others, maybe they start to make more money. They improve their houses and stay in Belen. It’s poor here, but many love it too much to leave.


Se vende: Gasolina, en the floating village of Belen

From Iquitos, there is only one road out, which cuts through dense jungle to the small town of Nauta, the second largest settlement on the Amazon river. From there it´s an hour and 45 minutes by motor-canoe to the Amazon lodge, where we would spend our first night in the rainforest. Tiny hamlets of houses on stilts pepper the banks. This is flood season and we are in the lowlands. If you live here, your house is either on the water or under it.

This is part one of two, to be continued…

Photos: Alan Chant // // @bonchant

Travel: The Rasta House, Salento, Colombia


Banging on the window to get the attention of the driver, we drag our backpacks off the bus onto a bridge four miles downhill from Salento, a small cowboy town in the Colombian department of Quindio. We’re at ‘Camping Monteroca’, a campground offering ‘exotic lodgings’ in a nature reserve on the Río Quindío in La Zona Cafeteria; the coffee region.

“Do you have any tents available?” we ask in basic Spanish of a curt Colombian gent who greets us at the entrance. “Hrrmph” he grunts with effort. Then finally, “Si”. While he goes off to find the owner, my boyfriend and I exchange a look. We thought this place seemed a bit more groovy from the website. After half a year backpacking in Central and South America, staying in hostels where guests are herded in and out like cattle, we were looking for a truly unique experience.

“Hey guys, welcome to my place! You’re gonna love it.” Ah. This is more like it. Al Pacino in camos bounds up to shake our hands and slap us on the back. This is the owner Jorge. And Camping Monteroca is his baby.

One of Jorge’s staff shows us to our lodgings and leaves us to settle in. We’re in ‘American Camping’, a roomy Cherokee Indian-themed tent with built-in toilet, double waterbed, kitchen and a fridge painted with a mural of the plains of North America. Dreamcatchers hang from the ceiling and the walls are adorned with animal skins, warrior masks and Native American paintings. Not a detail has been spared.


“Hey guys, you like my place?” Jorge is suddenly at the door of our tent. “What you wanna do? You wanna smoke a little?” This is more hospitality than we’ve come to expect from a proprietor. Jorge lights a pre-rolled joint from his top pocket, stands tall on his heels and claps his hands, animated suddenly. “I’m gonna show you around.”

For the next half hour we stomp across Jorge’s acre or so, passing lodgings under wax palms and lime trees, up steep ravines and over a waterfall. Jorge stops now and again to admire a flower, tease his giant Mastiff puppy Fiona, or rub a fistful of fire ants on my boyfriend’s hand (“good for the vitiligo”). There is room for 200 campers here; perhaps optimistic, but with real promise to be the next new discovery in a newly-safe country now realising its potential as a backpacker haven.

There are 12 themed lodges, from ‘Safari’, to the 70’s psychedelic vibes of the ‘Hippie Hilton’. A couple of the tents give the feeling they’ve been built with your better drug-taking experience in mind. “You take some LSD in here and things go CRAZY”, he tells us as he turns on the blacklight in the brain-themed Synapsis tent.

Pulling back vines on the side of a hill, he leads us through to a jewel in his crown; ‘Polar Expedition’. Hidden from view by wild plants is a treehouse adorned with stag heads and thick anchor chains, dressed up like an Arctic explorer’s lodge. On one wall is an enormous polar bear skin, killed in Alaska in 1950. The hunter’s son donated it to Jorge, not knowing what else to do with it.


Creating an authentic experience for his guests is everything to Jorge. He’s spent the last 15 years building and growing, adding piece by piece the small details that create the magic. “Oops, missed one”, he says, yanking off the only claw left on the bear. “Don’t want people hurting themselves.” He’s not hung up on the relics in his lodgings getting nicked. He just wants people to love them as much as he does.

The next morning Jorge is back at our tent. “Come on guys, I gotta show you something GREAT!” Today he’s less Al Pacino, more Willy Wonka, the military cap and hippie shades replaced with a wide-brimmed straw sun hat and loose shirt, yesterday’s peppy zing replaced by a cool repose. We follow him into his den, find a perch on a couple of antique chairs and he opens a giant jar of jelly sweets, dropping handfuls into our laps. A DVD of ‘Vangelis’ ‘Music for the NASA Mission: 2001 Mars Odyssey’ is on at full volume and he’s enraptured. The music fades out and he inhales deeply and shakes himself out of his trance. “WOOO! Can you believe that? WOW.”

And then quite suddenly, there’s one more thing we have to see. His magnum opus, just finished. Overlooking the rest of his lodges up the steepest hill is ‘The Rasta House’. A cabin decorated from floor to ceiling with Bob Marley memorabilia, Marley family tree, hanging double bed and an enormous mahogany marijuana leaf mounted above it. And the fridge mural? Bob Marley smoking in the moonlight of course.

[nggallery id=17]

Photos: Alan Chant // // @bonchant

Blog: A Western woman’s musings on travelling in the Middle East

He only smokes Camels

I’ve recently returned from a trip to the Middle East. I was in Israel and Jordan; in places where there are many Westerners as tourists – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Petra – but also in places where a woman would probably not go out alone without a male chaperone – Downtown Amman.

Arriving in Downtown Amman, late at night, fresh off the plane (not fresh-feeling, ‘Easyjet’ is synonymous with ‘greedy bleedin’ bastards’ for me) and mildly stunned by our taxi driver’s ability to run over a cat without it making a sound, I immediately became the focus of unwelcome stares from men. I had dressed modestly in a mid-calf length skirt, long sleeves and tights as I knew I was going to a Muslim country, but I was not prepared for how I felt despite my unusually demure dress; ashamed of my body and suddenly very aware of my womanliness.

I don’t know whether the stares were because I was a tourist and this wasn’t a touristy area or simply because I was out late (albeit with my ‘chaperone’ and with a fake ring on my wedding finger). But stares is what I got, there’s no denying it.

All I could think about was “I’m a woman.” “Should I not be here?” I didn’t want my boyfriend to let me out of his sight. I didn’t feel frightened; I’m rarely scared of any place, but I couldn’t help feeling uneasy in the company of so many big groups of men and the only woman visible anywhere. It is a potent feeling, being that visible. And not in a nice way. Suddenly I was all breasts, all waist, all legs.

Since my trip, I can’t stop thinking about the burkah/niqab and how my feelings towards it have become complicated. I’ll be honest, as a right-on liberal feminist-type (eurgh, pass me the Guardian), I have struggled to find my place with it. I hate to admit it, but I’ve often thought “What am I supposed to think about it?” I just didn’t know what fitted with my belief in a world where everyone should be free to dress as they please and worship freely, but where women should never be subjugated or defined as sexual objects.

If you asked me before my trip how I felt about it, I’d probably say it is their choice to wear it and it is not my concern. And I can only speak hypothetically. If I lived in a country where I was told to cover not only my hair, but every part of my body apart from my hands and face, you’d better believe I’d put up a fight. Rolling my sleeves up in the overheated airport, I couldn’t help looking at every woman’s wrists, covered by a thin cotton-mix, usually white,top worn under their clothes that doesn’t reach all the way down the arm. Why can’t they roll their sleeves up? Is it because it is shameful to show a feminine wrist? Can’t a wrist be functional as well as sexy?

A jarring experience towards the end of the trip was a return to Downtown Amman, this time during the day. Having spent a week travelling around two countries, slobbing in a rental car and slumming in tacky hostels, my clothes were sandy and damp. A mid-calf length skirt that is sheer, bar a short under-skirt, was my only clean clothing. I hadn’t even considered it risqué and since I was in a large upmarket hotel with travellers from all over world at that point, I’d simply forgotten to change to go outside. A group of women gasped, pointed and laughed and I wanted the ground to swallow me up. Far worse than a man judging me by my clothing, was my own sex condemning me to feel totally naked in public.

On the flight home I spotted five women wearing the full niqab, which is the full veil pulled over the face. These had no eye slits. They were in black, with their hands in black gloves. I imagine they could see through mesh, but you could not see in and they were being led by their husbands. I was shocked. There was no sign they were female, male, black, white. Not a single part of their body was visible. These women were being led by men, who had to do everything for them. And they appeared to be struggling to walk through the busy concourse. I felt that the extremity of the covering shamed everybody; it shamed the women for being women and for apparently inviting males to look at them as sexual objects and it shamed the men for having to cover their wives from the stares of other men.

I don’t really know how to conclude this blog. I’ve spent about a week going back to it and thinking of deleting it because I felt like I was channeling the spirit of Liz Jones. But why can’t I speak for women? And I can talk about how I felt. I love the Middle East by the way, in case you were wondering…