Susan Kurozawa, in The Weekend Australian Magazine, 15-16 October 2011
In our big, broad contemporary world of travel, taste and opportunity are everything. One person’s campground is another’s castle, one’s lofty art gallery is another’s high adventure. No list of wonders is definitive; maybe no two travellers’ choices would be the same. In ancient times, the fabled Seven Wonders of the World, from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the Colossus of Rhodes, ultimately proved to be fragile accomplishments. In 2007, a Swiss foundation ran a controversial New Seven Wonders of the World survey and claimed more than 100,000,000 unexamined votes from across the world. In order, the winners were Chichen Itza in Yucatan, Mexico; the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; the Colosseum in Rome; the Great Wall of China; Machu Picchu in Peru; Petra in Jordan; and the Taj Mahal in India.
But journeying is not always about monuments and landscapes. With travel no longer the preserve of the idle rich and the questing adventurer, and with no new frontiers left to cross, increasingly we search for unsung wonders that we can fleetingly claim as our own.
We hug to our chests a sense of discovery, of unscripted encounters and small perfections. So then the wonder lies not in any feat of engineering or craftsmanship, of scale or scope, but the very fact we have chanced upon a place that resonates with our sensibilities. People now talk of bucket lists and construct ambitiously long memoranda of places to tick off. But the final assessment has to be: would you go back there; could you even live there; could you die happily without just one more searching visit? My bucket, as it transpires, is small; yours will be, I am sure, completely different. Here’s how I want to fill it.
1. Aix-en-Provence, France
If, like me, you spent youthful afternoons in art-house cinemas watching French movies, Aix-en-Provence is the screen made real, where everything seems to be in slow motion and sepia. Waiters in long white aprons serve espresso, with a Gallic curl of the lip, at Les Deux Garçons (painter Paul Cézanne’s favourite cafe), cyclists in berets carry baguettes under their arms, fountains splash as if on directors’ cue on the tree-lined Cours Mirabeau boulevard. The flower market at the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville is full of sunflowers, their heads the size of dinner plates.
In imagined homage to Aix-en-Provence habitués Cézanne and Émile Zola, I loiter at streetside cafes and Belle Époque brasseries. I gorge on Mediterranean fish simply grilled and enlivened with squeezed lemon, calissons d’Aix (pastry boats that melt on the tongue), fig tarts and almonds coated in cherry blossom pink icing. On a blazing summer’s day I walk up wavering hills to Atelier Cézanne to see where my favourite artist worked and lived but the high-walled villa’s gate is shut. It is but a jot past noon. It is France. It is lunchtime. Quel dommage.
Do: Check the seasonal opening hours of Atelier Cézanne; shop for gorgeous lavender soaps and Provencal patterned cottons
Stay: Villa Gallici; Hotel 28 à Aix
2. Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver Island, Canada
There’s nothing the Canadians like better than getting kitted up with precisely accessorised costumes, grabbing a bear-repelling stick and lunging into the Great Outdoors. Here, off the wild west coast of delightful Vancouver Island, British Columbia, activities by the truckload converge, from whale- and bear-watching to hiking, kayaking and, at the height of winter, even storm-watching, togged up in gumboots and sou’westers. Clayoquot Sound is a listed UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of resounding clear-aired beauty. Use the quaint little surf town of Tofino as a base, hook up with an adventure operator and launch headlong into the Animal Planet channel. In just one day my ticked checklist includes: black bears, grey whales, humpback whales, sea otters, harbour seals, even the rumour of a cougar. I hibernate in a luxe tent at Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, every small night sound magnified to a bear’s hungry growl, every nerve tingling. Feel resoundingly alive? You bet.
Do: Pack warmly padded clothing; take off from Tofino with a reputable operator such as Remote Passages
Stay: The Clayoquot Wilderness Resort; Wickaninnish Inn, Tofino
3. Golden Pavilion, Kyoto, Japan
Perhaps all of Kyoto’s historic heart could make this list. Temples, shrines, raked gardens and low, shuttered wooden-and-ricepaper buildings… this is calendar Japan. Like exotic goldfish swishing their tails, kimono-clad maiko, or trainee geisha, shuffle on clogs, twirling oil-paper umbrellas through the streets to appointments (arranged by mobile phones tucked in their sashes) at classic teahouses. Every moment is a photo opportunity but pause, please, in the immaculately landscaped grounds of Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion built for a shogun in the 1390s as a retirement villa, its top two levels covered with gold leaf. What you see today is a reconstruction, its gilding five times thicker than that of the original, which was burned down in 1950 by a deranged student monk.
I once spent a melancholy winter’s day in the so-called “strolling gardens” here, reading Yukio Mishima’s novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion cover to cover. About two months earlier the author had committed ritual suicide in Tokyo; the arsonist had also died, of tuberculosis. As I was leaving, a few snowflakes fell; it was eerily quiet, one of those sublime days of solitude and spiritual nourishment that the world occasionally throws your way. That evening, my friend Akemi said she would give anything to move to Australia and change her name to Alice; I laughed. “Japan is just too old,” she huffed, delicately turning the Japanese newspaper I was holding the right way around. We declared a truce over the one shared serve of yaki-tori we could afford.
Do: Visit the temple of Kiyomizu-dera and the Zen rock garden of Ryoanji
Stay: Traditional ryokan such as Tawaraya or Hiiragiya
4. Galle Fort, Sri Lanka
This stone-walled gem, on a sea-facing promontory on Sri Lanka’s south coast, is the kind of time-stalled relic I simply love. “Like a tropical Dubrovnik, cuffed with coral reefs,” I wrote on first sight. And so it still is: enclosed, eccentric and accessible, with a grid of five main streets; it’s almost so far behind that it’s ahead. Galle Fort is as similarly snug as Kerala’s Fort Cochin and Vietnam’s Hoi An. It’s cosy, gossipy, and effortlessly jolly in a ruined colonial way, and one feels just like an extra in a Noël Coward drawing-room play.
In this citadel’s 1800s heyday, when the British assumed control from the Dutch, sea trade was at an all-time high, P&O passengers put up at the New Oriental Hotel (now Amangalla) and mail arrived from Colombo by pigeon post in under an hour.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and important buildings have been restored here with a sympathetic eye, often set in tamarind-shaded courtyards, their street-front façades offering no clues to the treasures beyond. Many a canny investor has transformed spice-scented warehouses and merchants’ mansions into chic lodgings; there are whitewashed villas to let with ceiling fans, four-posters and planters’ chairs. The jump back to the leisured past is but a G&T away.
Do: Fossick for semi-precious gems, loose or set to order, at jewellers in Church Street; stroll the fort’s ramparts at dusk and watch the sun ease into the Indian Ocean
Stay: Galle Fort Hotel; Amangalla
5. Backwaters of Kerala, India
India has been a lifelong passion, ever since I read The Rains Came by Louis Bromfield as a teenager, by torchlight under boarding-school bedclothes, and thought I would stop breathing until a man named Ransome rescued me from the very jaws of a monsoon. So this choice has been the hardest.
I’m torn between the beauty of lakeside Udaipur, in Rajasthan; the game parks of Madhya Pradesh; and the labyrinthine mix of bazaar and battlements that is Old Delhi.
But Kerala, on India’s southwest flank, is my heart-held wonder. The best way to travel is to cruise its coastal latticework of canals, rivers, lakes and lagoons aboard a crewed houseboat. The pace is sufficiently slow to observe the minutiae of life on shore: the early-morning bathing rituals, the scouring of cooking pots outside vividly painted houses. Cruise a loop from Kumarakom across Vembanad Lake, where fishermen pull catches of mussels and glistening fish into coracle-like boats with flour-sack sails that could have sailed straight out of the Old Testament.
Do: Have an Ayurvedic treatment
Stay: Malabar House in Fort Cochin, Kochi; Coconut Lagoon
6. Serengeti, northern Tanzania
Wide horizons punctuated with emblematic flat-topped thorn trees, herds of game stirring up dust that seems to hang, like gauze, for days… this is the safari dream writ large, an Ernest Hemingway adventure minus the guns, full beards and whisky drunk from tin cups. The ultimate mode of travel is the mobile safari wherein tents, supplies and staff move with guests. At the end of a day’s game-viewing, there is a bar set up by a fire, and the cooks have performed miracles in a bush oven. Tents defy the meagreness of the term; these ones come with Persian rugs, proper beds veiled with mosquito netting, and a bucket shower. One’s removal from civilisation is complete; plonk me, please, up near Robanda in the Serengeti National Park, near the Kenyan border but nowhere on the map. There are “climbing” lions in hard, old trees; leopards hanging, as limp as pyjama bags, from thorny branches; warthogs trotting along, their tails as taut as flagpoles.
Do: Take an escorted walking safari early one morning to a waterhole
Stay: A mobile safari from Abercrombie & Kent; Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp
7. Sintra, Portugal
Sitting 30km northwest of Lisbon and high above the long beaches of the Atlantic coast, UNESCO-listed Sintra is a simply perfect hill-station. It’s snooty in its elevation, a cloud-colliding universe, once the summer refuge of Portuguese monarchs and the hang-out of creative wanderers such as Lord Byron, who, holed up in splendour at the 18th-century Lawrence’s Hotel, waxed about “this glorious Eden” while penning Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and praising the scones at afternoon tea.
Sintra’s Moorish castle, the magisterial Palácio Nacional de Sintra and the little settlement’s embellished Iberian hillside villas, painted in party pinks and rinsed greens with ice-white trimmings, seem to hover above the town as if lightly anchored. Its Monserrate botanical gardens thrive with palms and perfumed roses, its cobblestoned lanes and high, stony staircases invite leisurely exploration and, on a clear day, the long views to the sea feel
Do: Buy handmade blue-and-white tiles at A Esquina and linens and lace at Casa Branca; sip vinho verde and eat Sintra’s signature almond pastries at an outdoor cafe on the Praça da República
Stay: The Byron Suite at Lawrence’s Hotel; Tivoli Palácio de Seteais
And the runners up are …
Queenstown, New Zealand: One rarely reads of this exquisite South Island town without the descriptor “adventure hub”. Despite the fact bungy jumping was invented here, and many visitors choose to don unflattering costumes and fling themselves about in unnatural ways, Queenstown has a sedate, almost therapeutic feel, and enjoys the most fortuitous of settings. Plum on Lake Wakatipu, backed by the boldly named Remarkables, its Hobbit-like size is perfect. There is no more convivial base camp for fresh-air adventures.
Do: Visit Amisfield Winery for lunch, on the way to the neighbouring settlement of Arrowtown; sample Central Otago wine, especially pinot noir
Stay: Eichardt’s Private Hotel; Matakauri Lodge
Lana’i, Hawaii: This tiny, comma-shaped island, routinely overlooked in favour of flashy neighbour Maui, offers trail riding with paniolo, or island cowboys; time-stalled plantation-style hotels; and tough, rewarding roads with sudden, sweeping views.
The island, with about 3000 residents, was once the preserve of the Dole Hawaiian Pineapple Company, with plantations in all directions. Lana’i was the favoured fishing spot of the Hawaiian kings (and is where Bill Gates married in 1994; he rented every guestroom on the island to ensure privacy) and is as close as you’ll get to a sense of this island chain’s old aloha-time ways.
Do: Rent a 4WD and check sights as intriguing as Garden of the Gods and Sweetheart Rock (there are no traffic lights)
Stay: Four Seasons Lodge at Koele; Hotel Lanai
Cornwall, England: Headlands and hills, seagulls and semi-tropical plants, and a peninsula that rejoices in the name of Roseland. And there’s something about the clear light here in spring and summer, especially on the southern coast, that makes everything look brushed with gold. Cornwall is the home of my paternal ancestors, the Trevithicks and the Candys, so a pilgrimage here feels blessed with a sense of belonging. There are Gulf Stream gardens with palms and remarkable rhododendrons, agaves and aloes; tiny towns with tongue-curling names that open like funnels to busy ports; and, of course, the Rick Stein effect of fabulously fashionable seafood.
Do: Visit Trebah Garden and the Lost Gardens of Heligan; browse the Tate St Ives art gallery
Stay: Hotel Tresanton, St Mawes; St Edmunds House, Padstow