Get up close and personal with elephants, learn kitchen secrets from a chef, hurl yourself down a snowy mountainside, paraglide into paradise – if you're after an eye-opening, mind-expanding or pulse-quickening experience, these are the hotels for you…
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Vietnam’s hinterland cradles ruins of old empires, captivating Unesco-listed sites and fertile terraces of verdant paddy-fields. River-straddling Hoi An charms with an intoxicating mix of 19th-century merchant houses, ancient temples and alluring stretches of sand. Ho Chi Min City is the South’s pulsing metropolis, replete with labyrinthine streets, boutique-lined boulevards and unbeatable eats. Slow the pace down on serene white sands – untouched and authentic Phan Thiet gets our vote – or commune with nature on out-of-the-way Con Dao; secluded beaches, lush green mountains and rare wildlife make this archipelago one of the country’s best kept secrets.
You’ll find to-die-for green curries and wok-fresh pad thais at every street corner, but no visit to Thailand is complete without sampling its flavourful regional cuisine and lesser-known culinary gems. Fiery papaya salads, larb laced with holy basil, salted fish straight off a charcoal grill and all manners of delicious morsels wrapped in banana leaves are there for the tasting; one notch above a street stall, Chote Chitr may well serve the best meek rob (crispy noodles) and wing bean salad in Bangkok. David Thompson’s celebrated Nahm tops every epicurean’s to-do list with treats such as jungle curry with freshwater fish. Don’t miss the rainbow of salty-sweet Thai desserts: pumpkin-steamed custards, honey mangos with sticky rice and piping hot banana roti are worth the loosening of belts.
Board the Searoad car ferry at Sorrento Pier on the Mornington Peninsula for the 40-minute voyage across Port Phillip Bay to Queenscliff. Once there, Phil Spencer recommends ‘checking out the surfing Meccas of Torquay and Bells Beach.’ Bells is home to Easter’s iconic Rip Curl Pro competition, but you can watch surfers here any day. ‘From Bells, the drive to Lorne is simply breathtaking, as around every bend there are amazing views of pristine beaches and stunning cliffs,’ says Phil. Turn in at Grey River Road, in Kennett River, to see koalas snoozing in the gum trees; to enjoy aerial views yourself, hightail it to Otway Fly Treetop Adventures, which boasts ‘uplifting’ canopy walks and zip line thrills.
Driving the Great Ocean Road takes about five hours, but rather than rushing it stop off along the way. Cape Otway’s Great Ocean Ecolodge offers guided walks at twilight to spy wild kangaroos and koalas, and whips up hearty meals with homegrown produce. Fancy self-catering? Rustic Allenvale at Lorne is a good bet for night one; for a second night, Smith recommends designer den Moonlight Escape near surf-lashed Johanna Beach or Anchors’ contemporary cabins at Port Campbell, ideal for viewing the jaw-dropping 12 Apostles offshore rock stacks at sunrise or sunset and dramatic Loch Ard Gorge. Handy pit stops include the Bottle of Milk at Lorne, the Wye General Store at Wye River and Wickens Provedore at Apollo Bay. ‘Port Fairy is a charming fishing village just past Warrnambool,’ adds Phil. ‘It has a great little beach, café culture and laid-back vibe, as well as a fantastic folk festival in March. Call in at Basalt Wines in Killarney en route.’
Spotting the signature safari stars is de rigeur in South Africa and the Big Five roll call includes rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo. Less shouted about, but often just as fascinating, are the Little Five. The buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise, ant lion and rhino beetle are all much tinier than the big beasts after which they’re named, but well worth getting up close and personal with via any of our safari hotels. For the ultimate souvenir, stay at Marataba and enlist the services of wildlife photographer Pete Oxford to ensure you get the ultimate mementoes of your trip.
Step off the grid in Sabah, an island where crystal-clear waters, primeval rainforest and untamed fauna beckon the wild at heart.
With its untouched, dramatic landscape, this north-eastern pocket of Malaysian Borneo is a place for adventurers. Idling the days away on pristine beaches and in bath-warm waters may be tempting, but its vast wilderness lies waiting to be explored. This is a playground for eco-adventurers: active types can enjoy river cruises, white-water rafting and caving. Don a snorkel from the dive shop at Bunga Raya or pick up a PADI license to explore the reefs around the islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park (+60 (0)88 523 500), which is home to jungle-clad Gaya Island where you can spy giant clams and blue-spotted rays. Back on dry land, hang out with gentle ginger giants at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (+60 (0)89 531 180), see pygmy elephants at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve (+60 (0)88 267 266) or trek up the daunting, Unesco-protected slopes of Mount Kinabalu.
Underwater explorers will love Gayana Eco Resort's coral-dotted, marine-reserve dive centre (the treks into the Borneo jungle won't disappoint, either). Bali's Alila Manggis is splashing distance from seven of the globe's best dive sites and is edged by sublime snorkeling waters. Sumba, an hour's flight from Bali, is a hush-hush travellers' secret, and at Nihiwatu you'll sample the island's best: incredible ocean views, breeze-cooled outdoor living and world-class surf breaks in reach. A speedboat ride from Amanzoe, a marble-hewn hilltop haven in southern Greece, is the island of Dokos, whose diver-drawing coast lays claim to the world's oldest known shipwreck.
Beachfront Fusion Maia Resort has stylish lodgings and smart dining down pat. Set within tropical gardens, its day spa is the largest in Hoi An and, irresistibly, all pampering sessions are included in the rate.
An Lam Saigon River is a quiet sanctuary of leafy gardens, river-watching rooms and zingy Vietnamese food. Make your lantern-lit entrance at dusk; the boat can whoosh you back to central Ho Chi Minh City in just 15 minutes.
Rustic but undeniably luxurious, Six Senses Ninh Van Bay’s boulder-perched villas are set in a secluded crescent-shaped bay; dive, spa or simply laze at this dreamy eco-friendly Nha Trang getaway.
Anantara Mui Ne Resort & Spa spawls across three heavenly seafront hectares; expect angelic masseuses, vanilla-infused cocktails and endless white sands at beachy, off the radar Mui Ne.
Criss-crossed with canals, a mighty river and a handy Skytrain, Bangkok is a city of mega-malls, historic royal temples and gold-leafed pagodas. It’s also surprisingly easy going and affordable: indulge in sumptuous day spas, exquisite dining and on-the-hoof street snacks. To the north, Chiang Mai (Burmese-style temples, boho-chic boutiques and lots of elephants) and Chiang Rai (sleepy backstreets, mist-shrouded hills and, yes, elephant-packed too) are gateways to densely packed jungle, glittering waterways and local hill communities. To the south, Thailand’s party beaches, sybaritic islands and crystal-clear waters beckon: hop on a long-tail boat to under-the-radar Koh Kood, carefree Koh Samui or spectacular Phang Nga bay.
I would love to mount an expedition looking for the night parrot. This small and secretive bird is ground-dwelling and nocturnal, and was thought to be extinct until a handful of confirmed recent sightings. It’s the definition of enigmatic and even if we didn’t find it, all that time searching in the dead of the night in the bush would be bound to reveal plenty of other amazing species. On a more practical note, I’d love to see and swim with the gentle whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, home to shoreside, safari-style stay Sal Salis.
With fabulous hawker fare and bags of colonial charm, there are plenty of reasons to visit Penang. Soak up the fragrant flavours of the Straits with a culinary tour.
You’d be remiss not to sample Georgetown’s celebrated street food: Malaysians flock here from across the country to pull up a plastic chair in atmospheric Chinatown. Tastebud-tingling Nyonya cuisine is the star of the show: wander down brash, neon-lit New Lane and pick the most appetising hawker stall. Tuck into char koay teow, a deceptively simple dish of smoky stir-fried noodles studded with juicy prawns, or try fresh popiah rolls and chargrilled stingray.
Missed out on Malaysia’s national dish? Sample award-winning satay in First and Business Class on Malaysia Airlines and order tender braised lamb shank, moreish tandoori prawns or delicate cod from its Chef on Call service. Gourmet Economy travellers can also upgrade to six fine-dining meals including Japanese, Malay and Western treats.