Sunday, 30 March 2014

Heartbeat of the rainbow nation: visiting Johannesburg and Soweto

Johannesburg and Soweto are two of the most fascinating and vibrant destinations on the planet.

From flashy shopping malls to shanty towns, from leafy green suburbs to scrubby bushland; world-class restaurants to home-brewed township beers and Soweto city slickers to witch doctors, these are cities of stark contrast.

And the biggest conurbation in the rainbow nation of South Africa is one of the hottest destinations of 2014, particularly as it is one of the most affordable places on the planet right now.

This country of around 50 million people has blossomed since the end of the apartheid era, emerging as an African nation with a European accent. Johannesburg is South Africa in microcosm. Rich in cultural and political history, it is a metropolis built on gold mining and now a vibrant mixing pot that’s known variously as Joburg, Jozi, Joeys or Egoli and is the capital of the Gauteng region.

Johannesburg, including the sprawling South Western Townships (known as Soweto), is a lively beast, inherently ugly with its many mine dumps, but the richest city on the continent with the edgy, bustling vibe of a metropolis in transition.

Here businessmen in suits share the sidewalks with tribesmen clad in animal skin, and models shop alongside women with bowls of fruit balanced on their heads. Rich and poor live cheek by jowl (the rich often behind high-rise fences and razor wire), and BMWs park next to street vendors’ trolleys. 
Johannesburg is the biggest city on the planet (13 million people in the conurbation and counting) that is not on an ocean, river or lake. 

The downtown area is rough and ready with pavement market stalls, many deserted buildings awaiting gentrification, piles of rubbish (sometimes burning) – and its denizens range from major gold mining companies to faith healers offering off-the-street consultations and shops selling traditional “muti” or medicines.

Newspaper adverts offer witch doctor services ranging from “bring back lost lover” to “rats to put money in the house” and "get a bigger penis".

Township jazz music belts out from cheap speakers and crazed drivers of the minibuses that serve as taxis to and from the townships toot their horns relentlessly in a bid to drum up business. There may be makeshift barbecues selling tripe to passers by, or bloody buckets with the eviscerated remains of an unfortunate goat; perhaps chickens in makeshift pens waiting for a buyer. This is Africa in the raw.

You’ll find gargantuan, and sometimes soulless, shopping malls dotted throughout the northern suburbs, home to the wealthy and glamorous of all shades. Today’s popular slogan is: “It’s the face, not the race”.

The ultra-modern Gautrain links downtown with the northern suburbs in just a few minutes – but you’ll need to take a tour to Soweto (below) with its contrasting mansions in Diepkloof West and poverty in the squatter camps.

A day in Soweto, with its funky cafes and shebeens, is a must. Visit Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world to have been home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners (Nelson Mandela and Dr Desmond Tutu), or shop at the street markets and marvel at the lively vibe.

Contrary to what you might expect, Soweto is home to malls, world class football stadiums (Soccer City was the venue for the 2010 World Cup final), and even a golf course – much like any other suburb really. Today, Soweto is welcoming new restaurants and bed and breakfasts and tourism is a valuable source of income to the locals. Crime is no longer such a problem as the local businessmen want visitors to be safe.

Must-do Jo’burg activities include the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill (a former prison now housing the constitutional court) to find out more about South Africa’s turbulent past; and a meal in Nelson Mandela Square with its world-class restaurants.

A hop on-hop off bus tour with City Sightseeing Johannesburg is a good way to get to grips with the city and its environs with stops including the Gold City Reef Theme Park, the Apartheid Museum (left), the mining precinct and downtown. A one-day pass costs R150 (around $15) and the same company also operates minibus and walking tours of Soweto, including the Hector Pieterson Memorial, remembering a young man who was one of many killed in the anti-apartheid struggle.

MainStreetWalks offers walking tours of the inner city, or take in the views from the top of the Carlton Centre, the tallest building in Africa.

To enjoy this pulsating city at its best, also visit the resurgent Maboneng precinct – close to downtown and alive with restaurants and cafes (15 in all), bars, art galleries, loft apartments, the first micro brewery in the city and vibrant young people of all creeds and colours.

You eat well in Johannesburg, from the outstanding Thai food at Wangthai at Nelson Mandela Square to the huge steaks at places like The Local Grill in Parktown and The Butcher Shop & Grill in Sandton.

South Africans generally love their red meat, whether it comes as steak, frikkadels (meatballs), or in gourmet dishes featuring such curiosities as antelope or other boks. The traditional national dish is the braaivlies, which features barbecued meats usually served with maize meal and chakalaka, a spicy vegetable relish.

For fine dining, you can’t go past the the Five Hundred fine dining restaurant at The Saxon Hotel (below), renowned as one of the best in Africa. Chef David Higgs was recently named Chef of the Year for his innovative cuisine. Five Hundred has no fewer than five sommeliers on its team – and an extensive wine cellar.

More casual is the Winehouse eatery at Ten Bompas, where comfort food like coq au riesling and shepherd’s pie is on the menu – and there is once again a terrific wine cellar.

And what of Joburg’s much-debated crime levels? I never once felt threatened during a week of exploration, although I avoided the urban areas of Hillbrow and Berea at night. Be sensible and use an accredited guide when visiting townships and you should be fine.

The Facts:
South African Airways, Africa’s most awarded airline, operates to 40 destinations worldwide, and has daily flights to/from Johannesburg from Perth, with connections to Sydney and other East Coast cities. For more information call 1300 435 972 or see www.flysaa.com.au.

The Saxon Hotel, a luxury boutique hotel in the Johannesburg suburb of Sandhurst, has several times been named best small hotel in the world. It is known as a temple of African gastronomy, with its Qunu Grill, specialising in grilled meats, named after the home town of one of its most famous guests, Nelson Mandela, who wrote his autobiography while in residence. The hotel is also home to the high-end five hundred restaurant and the Saxon’s culinary philosophy is to use only the freshest seasonal ingredients. The hotel has its own herb and vegetable garden. The Saxon is set in private grounds ensuring security and peace and quiet – and the service levels are outstanding (think butlers, high teas and a cigar lounge). The on-site spa offers a range of massages, sound therapy and an eight-hour head-to-toe treatment for the truly indulgent. +27 11 292 6000. www.saxon.co.za.

Ten Bompas (right), a secluded boutique hotel in the leafy Johannesburg suburb of Dunkeld West, is super chic with just 10 individually-designed suites, combining contemporary style with space and light. Suites have lounges, fireplaces, steam baths and complimentary minibar and each was styled by a different designer. There is an excellent on-site restaurant, and the hotel has an extensive wine cellar. Dining by the pool is a delight in summer and the staff are extremely helpful. Book through Mr and Mrs Smith to score a free bottle of wine. www.mrandmrssmith.com/luxury-hotels/ten-bompas

See www.southafricanholidays.com.au and www.southafrica.net websites or call South African Tourism on (02) 9261 5000.





Friday, 28 March 2014

One of Tasmania's best gourmet experiences: Old Cable Station

Take a historic building, a passionate foodie and superb local wine and produce and you have one of Tasmania's best gourmet experiences.

Old Cable Station at Stanley, on the remote north-west corner of the island state, hosts four annual seasonal producers' weekends, with the next three scheduled as follows: Autumn: April 12-13; Winter: July 19-20 and Spring: October 11-12.


The Old Cable Station, a former telecommunications centre that linked the Apple Isle to mainland Australia, is today a country guest house and restaurant with views of Bass Strait.

It specialises in local dishes like char-grilled octopus, local scallops, oysters, abalone and Cape Grim beef and is a great destination for a country weekend away at any time of the year.

The quarterly seasonal producers lunches and dinners, however, are a draw for foodies throughout Tasmania - and it pays to book early.

Talented cook Charlotte Brown and her team pull out all the stops for the degustation events, with each course matched to wines from a local producer; maybe Chartley Estate or Delamere.

These are traditional long, lazy lunches and dinners often with the unique selling point that guests get a chance to chat with farmers and fishermen while enjoying their produce; making it a fabulous foodie experience.

Diners taste the produce from, and mingle with, the producers of the likes of Hursey Seafoods, Shipwreck Point Oysters, Tasmanian Abalone, Tasmanian Farmed Rabbit, Johnston Gourmet Meats from Smithton, Montagu Berries and Brandsema of Turners Beach, whose tomatoes are a throwback to a previous generation.

Each season brings new producers and taste sensations. 

Karen Goodwin-Roberts of Elizabeth Street Food & Wine in Hobart has designed the menu and will be cooking the dishes for the autumn event.

Her ethos on eating is to buy locally sourced, seasonal fresh food and the menu will feature smoked King Island beef tonnato; chicken liver parfait with lobster bisque; apple fritter with parsnip ice cream, among others.

The menu will also feature lamb and mutton bird sourced from Flinders Island alongside the King Island dairy and beef. Wines from Delamere Vineyard and Iron House boutique brews complete the line-up. The price is $175 per person (all inclusive).  

Call (03) 6458 1312 for bookings or email stay@oldcablestation.com.au 
See: www.oldcablestation.com.au.


Thursday, 27 March 2014

Changi is top of the pops but other airports fail to measure up

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has flown through Singapore's Changi Airport recently that it has just been voted the world’s best airport for the second year in a row at the SKYTRAX World Airport Awards. 

It is the fifth time Changi Airport has been awarded the coveted title. 

The three terminals at Changi offer travellers a range of experiences and services, including a rooftop swimming pool, movie theatres, themed garden spaces, a free city tour service, and the world’s tallest indoor slide – all linked via a free, inter-terminal Skytrain. 

With connections to more than 250 cities, Changi Airport is the ultimate stopover en-route to Europe and it is certainly no hardship to spend a few hours there on a layover. 

Here is the list of the top 10 airports, as announced by SKYTRAX

1. Singapore Changi Airport 

2. Incheon International Airport 

3. Munich Airport

4. Hong Kong International Airport 

5. Amsterdam Schiphol Airport 

6. Tokyo International Airport (Haneda) 

7. Beijing Capital International Airport 

8. Zurich Airport

9. Vancouver International Airport 

10. London Heathrow Airport

I've used most of those airports over the years (Incheon and Beijing being the exceptions) and have found all excellent except Heathrow, a palace of bedlam staffed by graduates from the International School of Rudeness.

I would advise canny travellers to avoid Heathrow, if possible. And I'd also throw in the ghastly and chaotic Los Angeles International (LAX), the queue-filled Miami  Airport and departures from both Sydney and Melbourne, where the airport authorities seem unable to estimate how many staff are needed to process those exiting Australia. 

Both Sydney and Melbourne,  of course, are actually duty free shopping malls that also happen to double as airports, as are Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Another shopping complex that offers flights is Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, where guests get to walk several kilometers (great exercise) between gates.

Suvarnabhumi immigration and security staff are pretty gruff, too, (strange in a nation known as the "land of smiles") but the top prize for rude, unhelpful staff surely goes to Johannesburg's OR Tambo Airport, where travellers are treated with disdain and seen as an impediment to the lifestyle of the staff. 

# The World Airport Awards are voted by customers in the largest, annual global airport customer satisfaction survey. The survey and awards process is totally independent and guaranteed free of any airport influence or interference in final results. www.worldairportawards.com

To find out what to do at Changi Airport see http://hausmann.com.au/changi/

Thursday, 20 March 2014

A quiet oasis in frenetic Shanghai

The sun has only just risen above the Shanghai skyline but already thousands of locals have descended on Fuxing Park - the leafy backyard for many apartment dwellers in this sprawling city.

There is an eccentric collection of Shanghainese going through their workout regimes, which range from swordplay to tai chi; ballroom dancing, kite-flying to head-butting a tree; playing musical instruments and card games.


All age groups are involved; some of the dancers appear to be in their 80s. Some move energetically, others more languidly. Some are dancing to traditional Chinese music blaring from portable loudspeakers, others to 1940s big-band tunes.

The tai chi devotees are similarly diverse. Some move with considerable vigour, others barely at all, although all stay well out of the way of their active compatriots who are waving swords.

There are a few joggers, a makeshift stand where locals are queuing to have their blood pressure tested, two choirs practising and one man fast asleep on his motorbike.

A trio of elderly gentlemen playing saxophones combine to create something of a cacophony, while on an open expanse of grass, a small group is doing what looks like maypole dancing. A lone elderly man, meanwhile, works on his calligraphy skills. 
All take their pursuits seriously and are scrupulously polite about getting out of each other's way but the mahjong devotees appear to be pretty intense and aren't too keen on being watched.

This beautiful setting seems to attract people of all ages and interests and is a part of the city that is not seen by many tourists.

Fuxing Park - known as French Park until 1949 - covers about 10 hectares in the former French Concession district and is designed in a classic French style, with a central lake, several fountains, fish ponds and flower beds. It is just a 15-minute taxi ride to here from downtown (taxis are cheap here - and even take public transport pre-paid cards as payment), or a short ride on the ultra-modern subway.

If you are taking a taxi, it pays to have the name of your destination written down, as few drivers speak English. But getting around Shanghai is surprisingly easy, from the high-speed Maglev train from the airport to a busy subway system that puts those of Paris and London to shame for cleanliness and ease of use.

At any time of the day, Shanghai's green expanses are reached easily, offering the chance of a stroll away from the manic pace of one of Asia's fastest-growing cities.

Shanghai is very much on the move, with high-rise office blocks and apartment buildings sprouting at an amazing rate but there are oases to be found.


Around the corner from Fuxing Park is the former residence of Sun Yat-sen, modern China's founding father. His house, now a museum, gives the visitor an idea of what Shanghai was like during its first heyday as a trading post.

Another island of greenery, People's Park, provides a different window into modern China, where a growing shortage of eligible women poses a problem for upwardly mobile parents.

Every weekend, anxious parents set up shop with flyers, photos and resumes and try to find the perfect match for their offspring. Trees, benches and walls are covered with ads posted by parents spruiking the merits of their sons and, occasionally, daughters.

It's called zhenghun: marriage seeding. This open-air marriage bureau is another unique slice of local life. Head for People's Park Gate 5 off Nanjing Xi Lu, across from the Grand Theatre, on Saturday and Sundays from noon. You can't miss the hubbub.

Another link to the past can be found at the Dongtai Road Antique Market, which is perfect for browsing for communist artefacts, Buddhist statues or even opium pipes.

While many traditions survive, Shanghai's new wave of upwardly mobile thirtysomethings are thriving - and enjoying decidedly Western pleasures.

This growing tribe - witness the number of Lamborghini and Bentley dealerships opening up all over town - populates new nightlife and dining precincts, such as Xintiandi and Cool Docks.

Xintiandi proper is a new pedestrian-only shopping, eating and entertainment district created in an area of reconstituted traditional houses on narrow alleys, some adjoining newer houses that now serve as bookstores, cafes, restaurants and shopping malls.

This is an active nightlife area, frequented by rich locals and expats who enjoy dining alfresco, while the surrounding areas are a typically Chinese mix of old and new and the streets and laneways are well worth exploring. 

Cool Docks, on Zhaongshan Road, an extension of the main thoroughfare The Bund, is the city's newest cross-cultural hot spot, with a combination of restaurants, cafes, bars, boutiques and massage shops.

With about 20 million people to do battle with for pavement space and subway seats, a massage just might be the best investment you could make.

It's been said that being in Shanghai is to experience where the world is heading. If that's true, our lives are going to be pretty frantic.
Qantas has daily flights from Sydney to Shanghai. See www.qantas.com.au 

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Bangkok: bombs and barricades?

I have just spent five days in one of my favourite cities in the world; the pulsating Thai capital of Bangkok.
It was a trip I was initially very nervous about taking. All of us have read about the ongoing political demonstrations in Thailand; road blocks, physical clashes and even a grenade attack that left a woman and a child dead in a Bangkok shopping district last month. 

Thailand has seen months of anti-government rallies aimed at ousting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's embattled administration - and much negative publicity in Australian and other media.

My local contacts assured me that Bangkok was perfectly safe, but I nonetheless arrived expecting to find tight security, and a heightened sense of unease as red shirts and yellow shirts prepared for more battles. 

What has received far less coverage than the recent clashes, however, is the fact that all the demonstrators who were blocking major intersections have now based themselves in one spot: Lumphini Park. Avoid Lumphini and chances are that you, just like myself, will see absolutely no signs that anything is amiss. 

There are a few security checkpoints near major intersections; manned by smiling military, but I've seen tighter security at a Harare steak house. At the airport: nothing out of the ordinary; at my hotel, the excellent Pullman Hotel G, nothing at all. At the busy and popular Mango Tree restaurant; zero, zilch. 

So what is it safe to do right now in Bangkok? Providing you take routine precautions that you'd take in just about any foreign city (and pay attention to Department of Foreign Affairs advice), I'd say just about anything that you would normally do.

From the Wat Po (reclining buddha) Temple, to the Pak Klong fruit, vegetable and flower markets, all was normal. Right down to monks clutching iPhones (above). 

We headed out to the Town in Town district for some mouth-numbing southern Thai dishes at Junhom with Mango Tree founder and celebrity chef Pitaya Phanphensophon. No sign of any unrest. We visited the site of the new Thai Heritage Trail and Yodpiman River Walk tourism complex. It was business as usual.  

The Sky Train was operating as normal; the Patpong Night Market was alive as always. Shopping venues, from the swish malls to the weekend Chatuchak Market, all appeared to be operating as normal. 
Catching public ferries on the busy Chao Phraya River; visiting David Thompson's superb Nahm restaurant (recently voted No.1 in Asia), having foot massages, Thai massages and head massages and enjoying cocktails at Scarlett, the 37th-floor bar of the Pullman G, it was clear that life (for now anyway) is pretty much back to normal. 

And the good news for tourists is that with numbers right down for the moment (the city attracts close to 20 million tourists a year), there are plenty of great hotel deals to be had - and flights are easy to book. 


Thai Airways International flies 40 times a week from Australia to Bangkok with connections domestic Thailand, Asia, India and Europe, South Africa and Los Angeles. See THAI’s World Sale Fares in Economy and Royal Silk Business class start from $876 return; or from $3456 return to Thailand.  Book by March 28 2014, travel until October  2014. Companion Fares to Thailand start from $819 return.    For more information, quotes and bookings visit thaiairways.com.au.

Thai Airways International is a founding member of the Star Alliance, the world’s largest airline alliance.   For member rewards and entitlements, visit staralliance.com.
     

Friday, 7 March 2014

Portugal: one of Europe's best-kept secrets

When considering where to vacation in Europe, most of us probably think first of Britain, France and Italy. The Greek islands are in there, too, along with Spain, Austrian ski resorts and destinations like Prague and Budapest.

Somewhere that is not usually front of mind is Portugal, which remains something of a well-kept secret despite its fine food and wine culture, historic cities and affordable prices. 

We are sitting at a cafe in the fishing village of Ericeira (below), overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. We’re feasting on deliciously fresh grilled sardines, a bottle of chilled vinho verde and some crisp, fresh bread. The sun is shining – all is well with the world.

From the historic capital of Lisbon, 2500 years old, to the famous vineyards outside Porto, home to the fortified wine we know as port, to the beautiful island of Madeira, home to the majority of Australians of Portuguese heritage, there is much to discover and much to savour.

Portugal, with a population of just 11 million, is located on the western part of the Iberian Peninsula and is bordered to the east by Spain with the Atlantic Ocean to the west.
Lisbon is one of Europe’s most atmospheric capitals with its old buildings and busy waterfront – but it is not an easy city to traverse, given its many hills. The rattling trams, many dating back to the 1930s, are a great way to get around the westernmost capital in mainland Europe
There’s history galore here; the city was under Roman rule from 205 BC, when it was already well established. It has been ruled at various times by Germanic tribes and the Moors from North Africa before the Crusaders re-conquered the city in the 12th century and it became the major political, economic and cultural centre of Portugal.

The good news for potential visitors is that Lisbon has a Mediterranean climate that makes it one of the mildest capitals in Europe. It is sunny throughout the year – although the city is certainly at its best in summer when the locals dine on terraces late into the night. Visitors should make sure to visit a fado club to hear the traditional mournful songs of Portugal and the soundtrack of the city.
Many of the fado venues are in Alfama, the old part of town, between the Castle of Lisbon, one of dozens of historical buildings, and the Tejo River.
Visitors should also check out the Bairro Alto, or upper quarter, an extremely hip district of restaurants and bars – many of them featuring live entertainment. The Bairro is best reached by funicular railway as it is among the highest of Lisbon’s seven hills.
Just outside central Lisbon is the Belem quarter, from where explorers including Vasco da Gama set out on their voyages of discovery.
Sports fans, too are well catered for here, with two of Europe’s leading soccer clubs, Benfica and Sporting Club, based in Lisbon – meaning there can be big games a couple of times a week during the season.
Perfect for day trips out of Lisbon are the seaside towns of Cascais and Estoril, once sleepy fishing ports but now busy resort towns with myriad attractions, including a casino in Estoril, and the fishing and surfing centre of Ericeira, although it, too, is becoming rapidly developed.
Visiting the hilltop town of Sintra (right) and making a pilgrimage to Fatima are also highly recommended.

Wherever you go in Portugal you will be assured of eating and drinking well.


In addition to the refreshing vinhos verdes (young wines made in a green style) and ports, Portugal is also making some absolutely outstanding red wines at very affordable prices. Quinta do Crasto is a label to look out for.
Traditional dishes worth sampling include the ubiquitous bacalhau (dried cod) which is served in hundreds of different ways, grilled sardines and caldeirada, a potato based stew with either fish or meat.
Grilled meat served on skewers, known as espetadas, are also popular, particularly on the island of Madeira, in the Atlantic Ocean.
Madeira (below) is particularly popular with British retirees and is home to Reid’s Palace Hotel, one of the most famous in the world. It is a fascinating place to visit because of its maritime history, the production of sweet Madeira wine and the many levadas, or aqueducts, which have created a fascinating range of walking tracks that offer amazing island views. 
The capital of Funchal is a lovely little town – well worth a stay for a few days.
Back on the mainland there is Porto, the country’s second city on the Douro River and one of the world’s great wine capitals. Porto is a UNESCO world heritage site and a city of immense charm – one of many in a country that is currently offering great value right now.
So many possibilities, so little time. 
Thai Airways International flies 40 times a week from Australia to Bangkok with connections domestic Thailand, Asia, India, South Africa,  the US and Europe, including Lisbon as a code share with TAP. For more information, quotes and bookings visit www.thaiairways.com.au.


   

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

How Australian macadamia nuts are taking the world by storm

Macadamia nuts are an Australian product that are tasty, healthy and affordable, so no wonder a small producer in the Byron Bay hinterland is making huge inroads into international markets. 
While most of us choose to snack on crisps and peanuts while enjoying a cold beer, macadamia nuts offer a local alternative and the newly-released It's The Duck's Nuts range comes in 80 gram packs that are perfect for a post-work snack (or as a coffee accompaniment).
Grown in plantations at Newrybar, just off the Pacific Highway, there are eight flavour variations in the new brand: honey roasted, roasted and sea salted, hickory, roasted garlic, wasabi, dark and milk chocolate and, bizarrely, abalone (a big seller in China and Hong Kong). 
The range is made using the same ingredients as its parent Duck Creek Macadamias - including premium couverture dark and milk chocolate and pure local honey. Kernel size is the point of difference - snack macs use either half or a smaller full kernels, which keeps the price to $6.90 per portion.
Duck Creek, founded in 1987, already sells macadamias to markets in Europe and Asia and has just launched a big push into Singapore, making it an Australian success story. It also produces cold-pressed macadamia oil, macadamia honey and macadamia nut spreads. 
So what exactly is a macadamia? It is a genus of four species of trees indigenous to Australia and constituting part of the plant family Proteaceae. Macadamias grow naturally in north eastern New South Wales and central and south-eastern Queensland
They grow as small-to-large evergreen trees 2-12 metres and the fruit is a very hard, woody, follicle containing one or two seeds
Macadamias are also grown in Hawaii, South Africa, Brazil, California, Costa Rica, Israel, Kenya, Bolivia, New Zealand, Colombia, Guatemala and Malawi but Australia is now the world's largest commercial producer - accounting for roughly 40% of the production. 
Compared to other common edible seeds such as almonds and cashews, macadamias are high in fat and low in protein (a high energy natural whole food) - but don't let.your dogs eat any. Macadamias are toxic to dogs. 

PS: The honey-roasted nuts were my favourite. Delcious! 
For details and stockists visit http://duck-creek.com.au/


Monday, 3 March 2014

How a fat, sweaty bloke survived (and thrived) on the Maria Island Walk

Truth be told, I'm not much of a camping kind of guy. I like my comforts. Composting toilets, tents, mosquito nets and rocks that need to be climbed are not usually on my agenda.

The four-day Maria Island Walk, an internationally acclaimed guided walk off the east coast of Tasmania, loomed as something of a challenge, then, even if it is billed as a gourmet experience.

Small groups – a maximum of 10 guests and two guides – enjoy a combination of wilderness, heritage and Tasmanian food and wine.

Along the way you'll encounter wombats, pademelons, all manner of bird life including Cape Barren geese, kangaroos and maybe even a Tasmanian devil or two. Dolphins and migrating whales are sometimes spotted from the largely deserted beaches.

The Maria Island Walk is billed as “a gentle and relaxing journey” through one of Australia’s most beautiful and tranquil national parks and has been described as “one of the world's great walks”. I found it less than relaxing (you are carrying heavy backpacks, after all) – but it was certainly exhilarating.

The guides are chosen for their knowledge of Maria Island, including the birds, native plants and animals. They’ve studied the history and stories and can also cook, pour a wine and are infinitely patient with slow, sweating walkers. Our pair - Sarah and Jessie – were both charming and frighteningly capable.

A bus ride from Hobart to Triabunna is followed by a short boat crossing of Mercury Passage (quite calm in both directions) to remote Shoal Bay beach where we were dumped with a cheery “see you in four days”. It was noticeable that ours were the only footprints in the sand.

After a short walk we arrived at Casuarina Beach camp with its tented village tucked away in the bush. Welcome to an eco-friendly, minimal intervention world of no electricity and no hot water – although the ocean makes for a pretty fine swimming pool and it is lovely to watch the stars emerge as the sun sets.

Post-walk, our group savoured local wines, beers and a dinner of tomato bruschetta, followed by local scallops with soba noodles, shiitake mushrooms, wakame and oyster sauce. It was restaurant quality – as was virtually every meal on the trip. That was no mean feat given cooking facilities are rudimentary, to say the least.

The next day temperatures soared to 35 degrees – and it was the longest day on the road. Except the road comprised delightful bush tracks and gorgeous deserted beaches before a final couple of kilometres that really strained the muscles.

The third day takes in a “gentle” inland track to Hopgrounds Beach and the Painted Cliffs (below) – dramatically formed by crashing waves. There is also an option to climb Mount Maria and take in the 360-degree views – if the weather is kind.

Maria Island pre-dates Port Arthur as a convict settlement and was also home to short-lived silk-making and cement manufacturing ventures that were part of a bold but failed vision of an ambitious Italian entrepreneur, Diego Bernacchi.

On the final night, walkers stay in Bernacchi's gracious old home – which has toilets, showers, comfortable beds and a full-equipped kitchen. They can then explore the remains of colonial Darlington on their final morning.

The facts: Maria Island Walks operate from October to the end of April and the price is $2,300 per person inclusive. Walkers are advised to equip themselves with walking boots and warm clothing but backpacks, sleeping bags and bedding are provided. Phone (03) 6234 2999. www.mariaislandwalk.com.au.