There is an ad running on most English language TV channels these days promoting the virtues of Australia as a tourist destination. For most of us – with no experience of life Down Under – the ad is something of a revelation: wildlife, beaches, reefs, canyons, massages, fine dining, small planes flying past beautiful locations and spectacular cityscapes. There are no large men in shorts wearing silly hats and drinking beer, no aggressive Australian cricketers and certainly, no hapless Indian students recovering from injuries sustained on the streets of Melbourne.
The truth, I guess, is that there are many Australias. There is the old Australia of caricature: of swagmen, Crocodile Dundee, Sir Les Patterson, the Australian ‘cultural attache’, of Ricky Ponting and his mates sledging rival teams and of the White Australia immigration policy that endured till the Seventies. And there is a new Australia: vibrant, sophisticated, and multi-cultural.
On my first night in Sydney, my driver explained the change to me. He was from Lebanon, he said, and his family had moved to Australia in the Seventies. At first, he explained, it was difficult fitting in. As a schoolboy, he was constantly taunted and subjected to racial slurs. “They called me ‘wog’ or ‘Lebbo,’” he said. “They made fun of everything to do with my culture. When they saw what was in my lunch box, they laughed at me for eating ‘Lebbo’ food.”
But he’s had the last laugh. “Now I see the same guys sitting in fancy Mediterranean restaurants, ordering the food I used to eat for lunch and paying lots and lots of money for it. And I think, ‘that was my lunch, you idiots. That’s the same food you made so much fun of when we were in school. Now you’re paying through your noses for ‘Lebbo’ food!’”
Stunning: The Great Barrier Reef is so extraordinary that I don’t think words can do it justice
Other ethnic minorities have similar stories to tell. I met people from all over the Third World who had come to Australia as children – once the White Australia policy was lifted – and faced racial abuse. “I used to tell them at school,” said one such person, “that at least my parents and I came here on a jumbo jet. Your ancestors came here in chains as convicts exiled by the English.”
But, in nearly every case, these stories were set in the past. The people who told them had prospered in the New Australia, some had married white Australians and all of them were proud of their Australian identity. They never thought of wherever they had originally come from as ‘home’ and their children were determinedly Australian.
Even the old jokes about convict settlements now seem flat and curiously out of date. Though, there was one moment, while filling out my landing card before arriving in Sydney, that I paused briefly at the question which asked whether I had been convicted of a criminal offence. Was this, I wondered wanly, still a necessary precondition for entry?
But no matter which Australia we talk about, the old White Australia which was essentially a celebration of British working class culture, or the new vibrant, sophisticated, multi-cultural Australia which welcomes the world and is proud of its position at the edge of Asia, there is no getting around one fact: this is an astonishingly beautiful country. It has everything you would ever want to see, from unusual wildlife to the jaw-droppingly stunning Great Barrier Reef, to the shimmering Blue Mountains to some of the world’s finest beaches.
Hayman Island is one of Australia’s most famous resorts, with villas that are actually on the beach
What’s even better is that though Australia’s cities are modern, sophisticated First World conglomerations with great international dining, trendy hotels and impressive buildings – the Sydney Opera House must rank as one of the wonders of the modern world – they seem well-planned and aesthetically pleasing. The landscape is left largely untouched and the hideous urban sprawl that characterises much of Asia is nowhere to be seen.
I landed at Sydney airport early one morning and was whisked off to the Wolgan Valley Resort, a relatively new hotel set among 4,000 acres of a wildlife sanctuary. The helicopter took me over the Blue Mountains which – much to my surprise – do actually seem enveloped in a shimmering blue haze. Apparently the trees on the densely forested hills are a breed of eucalyptus which emits an oil that turns into a blue gas. (Don’t ask me how. I don’t fully understand it either.)
The Wolgan Valley Resort is small, with around 50 individual villas, each designed to give a residential – rather than hotel-like – feel (to the extent that any villa with its own pool can seem like a residence for most of us) with functioning gas fireplaces, shelves full of books, comfortable chairs and lots of space to hang your clothes.
Because it is less than an hour from Sydney by copter (the most popular means of getting there), the resort has become a favourite weekend getaway. From my perspective however, it was a perfect way to recover from jet lag, to discover the wonders of Australian produce and to be introduced to the country’s unusual wildlife.
I saw a wombat while driving to the villa and then, on various nature drives, I saw scores of kangaroos and wallabies (smaller versions of kangaroos).
Pouch that: However many pictures you’ve seen of kangaroos, nothing actually prepares you for the sight of mobs of them hopping past your jeep
However many pictures you’ve seen of kangaroos, nothing actually prepares you for the sight of mobs of them hopping past your jeep or for your first sighting of one with a baby (called a ‘joey’) in her pouch. These are things we read about in school but seeing them up close feels both thrilling and different.
Australians are justly proud of their food and wine so Wolgan Valley follows a policy of sourcing everything within a 180 km radius of the resort. The chef Anston Fivaz is a South African who has worked in London and Dubai, so he transforms local lamb, beef and seafood into sophisticated dishes. The rate is all inclusive and includes as much food as you can eat plus endless glasses of 15 different local wines (all quite drinkable).
I drove through the Blue Mountains, past the famous Three Sisters rock formation to Sydney (about three hours by car) and to The Darling, the city’s newest trendy hotel, done up in a style that can best be described as Ian Schrager-goes-to-Shanghai. The Darling is Sydney’s happening hotel right now: Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire stayed there while filming The Great Gatsby and Slash (formerly of Guns n’ Roses) was in the hotel while I was there. The Darling is part of the Star casino complex which includes a less trendy sister hotel, a high-end arcade (Chanel, Bottega etc.) and a host of fancy restaurants including the first Momofuku (booked solid for weeks) that David Chang has opened outside of New York.
Creature comforts: The Darling hotel is part of a complex that includes a host of fancy restaurants including the first Momofuku outside New York
I wrote about Sydney’s dining scene a couple of weeks ago so I won’t say much more except to add that I was disappointed when I ran through the lists of the city’s best restaurants, as rated by local guides and publications, to find so few Indian restaurants represented. Given that I know of so many talented Indian chefs who have emigrated to Australia, I’m a little surprised that they have not caused more of a stir.
Sydney is one of Australia’s most famous cities and, after my four days there, among my favourite cities in the world. I saw it in every way possible – on foot, walking through Paddington and lingering at the Saturday market (like the Camden Market in London); by chopper, flying out to its edges; by speedboat, going out to Manly, Balmain and its other gentrified suburbs; and by seaplane, checking out Bondi beach and hovering over the iconic Harbour Bridge.
I did most of the touristy things including a tour of the Opera House (awesome!) and even took a water-taxi (Sydney is a bit like Venice in the way that you can use water routes to get around) to the zoo, which is perched on a cliff, and is designed in a modern, no-cages style that allows you to see uniquely Australian animals including the Tasmanian devil and the platypus up close. The highlight for me though were the koalas about whom I discovered two things: a) they are not bears by species even though they look like soft toy teddy bears and b) all they do is eat and then sleep for 20 hours out of 24 (my kind of guys!).
Sydney is not actually that far from India. If you shop around, the airfare can be lower than the fare to London though the distance is vaster: like India-New York rather than India-Europe. Most airlines will let you break journey in Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or wherever, making it an attractive holiday option.
I flew from Sydney to Hamilton Island, which is the airport used by Hayman Island, one of Australia’s most famous resorts. Hayman was built in the 1950s, has gone through various owners, and has been razed to the ground and rebuilt more than once. The current avatar, which has Malaysian-Chinese owners, is the most sophisticated yet. There is a main building with rooms but there are also several Kerry Hill-designed beach villas. Unlike other resorts, these villas are actually on the beach. You walk five steps from your door and your feet are on the sand.
Hayman is a self-contained resort but unlike similar resorts in the Maldives, for instance, it is a real island, complete with hills, vegetation and wild animals. It does not have Maldives or Hawaii-style water bungalows but it does have a proper beach (not a small strip of sand), a lagoon with clear water and opportunities to go cycling or trekking on the island. (Plus it is cheaper than equivalent Maldives resorts where prices are now sky-high).
The emphasis is on high-end luxury combined with natural beauty. For instance, though airport transfers resemble a cruise in a deluxe yacht, the highlight of each transfer is the number of whales you spot on your way. (I saw two engaged in a courting dance!) The villas themselves are brilliantly designed – possibly the most impressive beach villas I have ever stayed in, with a sense of space, luxury and indoor pools heated to near bath-tub temperatures!
Impressive: Australia’s cities are modern, sophisticated conglomerations with great international dining, trendy hotels and impressive buildings such as the Sydney Opera House
I was only there for a full day but I made the most of it, taking a chopper to Whitehaven beach on a nearby island where the sand was like soft white powder and then to the Great Barrier Reef, a formation in the water that is so extraordinary that I don’t think words can do it justice.
Unusually, for a resort that pays Australian salaries and is bound by Australian trade union rules, Hayman has Asian levels of service that easily match anything you might find in Bali or the Maldives. Plus the resort has several restaurants, ranging from molecular-influenced fine dining to Indian curries, cooked by a chef from Delhi, for anyone who wants them.
I left Australia via Brisbane, a city about which I knew little but which seemed bustling and prosperous. The part I stayed in was full of coffee bars and Japanese restaurants but it is hard to generalise on the basis of one night. I did, however, encounter the best and worst of my trip to Australia. The worst was my hotel, the Brisbane Marriott, possibly one of the most terrible hotels I’ve stayed in for many years and a disgrace to Marriott’s reputation, such as it is.
The best, however, was Esquire, a new restaurant where I had dinner. I’ll write about it at length another time but this was easily the best meal I ate in Australia, better even than the great meals that Sydney’s famous chefs had to offer. How fitting that it should have been my last supper in the country.
Last supper? Well, for this trip, anyway. Now that I’ve discovered Australia. I’m certainly going back.
From HT Brunch, September 23
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