They are the cutest inhabitants of Wrocław, Poland. More than 400 dwarves live on the streets and squares of the city. They are very friendly and like being photographed. This was just one element that made a Wroclaw visit a complete surprise and quite memorable.
It is the largest city in western Poland but it was almost unknown to us when we arrived by car from Germany. We quickly discover that Wroclaw is Poland’s fourth-largest city and a lively cultural centre, with several theatres, major festivals, rampant nightlife and a large student community.
We had chosen a hotel with a car park close to the centre of town and planned to walk around from there. This worked perfectly and is a strong recommendation to all visitors.
While the central square was a big drawcard, we decide to start sightseeing where Wroclaw was born. To reach there, we walk through Slowacki Park and see the Museum of Architecture, the National Museum and the Panorama building before reaching Bastion Ceglarski with its old fortifications overlooking the Odra River.
It is a lovely walk along the bank of the river and across the Piaskowy Bridge to Sand Island and then across the delightful Tumski Bridge to Cathedral Island. This is the oldest part of Wrocław and there are a number of impressive monuments here. When Cathedral Island was first developed in the 10th century the river created a natural defence.
The most interest today is provided by the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist from the 12th century with its 21 chapels, the loveliest of which is the Italian Baroque Chapel of St Elizabeth. A lift will take you to the top of one of the towers for the best vistas of the city.
You should also see the Church of the Holy Cross which is a unique two-storey brick basilica, and the Botanic Garden with its 11,500 plants in 7.5 hectares, from a diversity of climate zones and environments such as tropical, subtropical, underwater, alpine, and wetland.
Looking across to Cathedral Island
Old City North
It is difficult to leave this delightful area but there is so much more to see. We retrace our route across the two bridges then pay a brief visit to the Produce Market, an historic, traditional indoor market, before walking through the northern section of the Old Town.
We find the Baroque-style main Wrocław University building here. It houses the Wrocław University Museum and the wonderful Oratorium Marianum music hall, which has served as a celebrated concert space for more than two hundred years.
The university, which has produced nine Nobel Prize winners, was founded by the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold in 1702. One of the must-sees is the extravagantly decorated Baroque hall, Aula Leopoldina, with a ceiling fresco, gilded stucco, and sculpted cherubs. Close by is the garrison church which is one of the most important city churches and one of the symbols of Wrocław.
Now it is time to head to the constantly hustling and bustling Market Square, which is the very heart of Wrocław. The centre of the square features the Cloth Hall and the Gothic and Renaissance Old Town Hall, which is now the Museum of the Bourgeois Art. The Old Town Hall is actually a group of Gothic buildings bundled together in one complex. On the Late Gothic east facade, look for the astronomical clock dating to 1580.
In front of its eastern façade stands the faithful copy of the medieval Pillory which was a place of punishment for petty criminals, and in front of the western façade is the Aleksander Fredro Monument to a comic playwright.
Like the rest of the Old Town, the Market Square has almost the same layout as it did when it was planned in the middle of the 13th century.
The square is surrounded by beautiful town houses ranging from Gothic to Art Nouveau. Amazingly, most of the buildings here are replicas of how they used to be as the square was completely rebuilt from the pile of ruins that was Wroclaw after the Second World War.
During summer, the Main Square is a great place to soak up the sun with a local beer at one of the many bars and restaurants, and during winter a large ice rink materialises providing the chance to show off some skating skills. There are often concerts, folk dances, photo exhibitions and much more here as well.
Adjacent to the Market Square is Plac Solny. It has buildings with elaborate reliefs and figurines bursting from the facades and is now a 24-hour flower market.
Market Square at Night
Old City South
The Four Denominations District is situated a little south-west of here. Three churches of different denominations and a synagogue are within 300 metres of each other. The numerous restaurants, cafés, pubs and music clubs situated here make it a popular meeting place for locals and visitors.
The nearby Royal Palace, together with its Baroque-style garden, now houses the Historical Museum of Wrocław. The Museum showcases the history of the city and the royal apartments are also open.
Hydropolis, centre of knowledge about water, was opened in 2015. There are many rooms, each with multimedia tablets with interesting details about discoveries of the underwater world, the nature of water and its use in life. It is in an underground water reservoir built in 1893.
A little outside the Old Town, Szczytnicki Park is the largest park in the city. Set up in 1913, the Japanese Garden remains its key attraction. The park with its arboretum, rose gardens, and Japanese Garden, is heritage listed.
Centennial Hall, with its 69-metre-high dome, opened in 1913 for the 100th anniversary of the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig. It can accommodate 10,000 and was recognised as a significant 20th –century building when it was put on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2006.
But back to the dwarfs. There is an anti-communist protest behind the dwarfs which first appeared in 2001. The first dwarf was displayed in Swidnicka Street, where the anti-communist movement used to gather. Since then many different dwarfs have appeared in the streets and in the front of shops. Visit the tourist office for interesting brochures about them and where to find them all.
Of all the cities we visited on our recent pre-covid19 trip through Europe, Wroclaw was the biggest surprise and we are looking forward to returning and spending more time to get to know the city better.
Images: Phensri Rutledge
Austria has long been a popular destination for visitors from around the world and when international travel returns to some semblance of normality (perhaps not until 2021) Austria is certain to be popular again. The Schafbergbahn began operating again, after a coronavirus shutdown, in early June so if you can get there the experience is available just as it was to us before the shutdown. If you are in this area, you would be mad to miss it.
The steepest, steam cog-railway in Austria has been ascending this mountain since 1893. It takes 35 minutes to reach the summit, climbing 1,190 metres over 5.85 kilometres. Along the way, we pass through forest, rocky terrain and rolling grassland. The views are magical but many of the passengers are concentrating on the little locomotive as it struggles up the track with the help of its cog drive.
The two original cog railway’s steam engines count amongst the oldest working engines in the world as they were built in 1893 and 1892. In 1992, four modern locomotives were built that operate their steam engines with diesel. Older diesel engine locomotives from the 1960s are kept and maintained for emergencies and there are two modern diesel locomotives.
The Schafbergbahn featured in the Sound of Music movie and it is a highly popular day-trip destination among both locals and tourists. The view from the summit (1,783 m) is the most spectacular in this world-famous region. On a clear day, there is a 360-degree panoramic view over the glittering lakes and across the mountains into Germany. All around, the mountains soar majestically, and you have this feeling of being on top of the world.
The rail terminal at the top of the mountain is close to a hotel and several restaurants and it is surrounded by rocky walking paths that test your fitness. Train tickets to the top are purchased for a specific up-hill train, and we learned there is heavy demand for mid-morning departures. For the best views, sit on the left-hand side of the train on the way up and the right-hand side on the way down. You need to book your return journey time once you reach the top.
The construction of the Schafbergbahn dates back to the late 19th century. At that time Viennese aristocrats wanted to spend the summer in the mountains. The railway network had been rapidly developed and an early form of tourism to accommodate the visitors became an important source of income for many locals.
A consortium of investors funded the construction of the mountain railway in 1893. Financial difficulties forced the owners to sell in 1932 then in 1938, it became the property of Nazi-Germany′s Reichsbahn and later of the Austrian National Railway ÖBB. Finally, the Schafbergbahn was sold again in 2006. Since then, it has been owned by the Salzburg AG company and it is operated in association with the boats that cruise Lake Wolfgangsee.
The way down is no less exciting as the engine struggles to control the rate of descent on the steep track. At one point we stop to allow another train to pass and see the train guard feverishly operating the points before we proceed. Finally, it is back to level ground and on to our next adventure.
Hallstatt is some 35 kilometres away. Some regard this as the most beautiful village in the world. The Chinese were so impressed that they produced a replica of it in Guangdong but thousands still flock here to see the original. It is difficult not to be impressed by the real UNESCO-listed version.
From the market square which hosts summer concerts and the Christmas Market, you are just a short walk away from one of the most beautiful photo points in Europe. But it is also the romantic alleyways, cosy cafés, delightful churches and the numerous little souvenir shops that make this place so appealing.
The charnel house or ‘Bone House’ in St. Michael’s Chapel with its unusual collection of over 600 artistically painted skulls is one of the more interesting tourist sites. Because of restricted land area, when an existing grave was reused for a new burial, the old skull or bones were transferred from the grave to the charnel house as part of a second funeral.
The World Heritage Museum is another attraction. Multimedia technology takes you back 7,000 years to the beginnings of this ancient salt mining town. With 3D glasses, you can immerse yourself in the history of old Hallstatt and learn trivia from the beginning of human presence to the elevation of the region to its World Heritage status.
People have been mining salt above Hallstatt for thousands of years and a visit to the mine can be a great experience. You reach it by funicular then enjoy a miner’s slide, a subterranean salt lake and an exciting trip on the mining railway. While here, take a small detour to the Hallstatt Sky Walk. This spectacular viewing platform sits high above the village and offers an idyllic panoramic view of Lake Hallstatt and breathtaking alpine landscape.
Electric boat driving is one of the most popular pastimes on Lake Hallstatt. The fresh air and the beautiful nature of the fjord-like lake combine to provide a relaxing experience. You can either captain the boat yourself or take an experienced driver who will take you to the most beautiful parts of the lake.
Available space is in short supply making parking in the village a problem, so the village centre is traffic-free during the daytime and visitors must park in several car parks nearby. These are within walking distance of all attractions but space is limited and we see late-comers having to queue for spaces as others leave. If you plan to visit, arrive before 9 am if possible.
If You Go: Under ‘normal’ circumstances there are flights from around the world to Vienna, the capital of Austria. Hallstatt and the Schafbergbahn are about 300 kilometres west and are reachable by rental car or train.
Images: Phensri Rutledge
June 22, 2020
Victoria: West is best
Words: Len Rutledge Images: Phensri Rutledge
Travel restrictions still apply to several states but Victoria is generally open for visitors. Our trip was completed before COVID-19 appeared but it should be possible to visit everywhere we did by the end of June, although booking ahead for the wineries and Sovereign Hill may be required. Start planning now because it is a great experience.
A Victorian holiday is always interesting so my wife and I were keen to make the most of our time. Exploring the airline timetables, we discovered an effective way of gaining an extra day. There are evening flights into Melbourne so you can leave after work and begin the holiday that day.
Our flight arrived at Melbourne airport a little after 9pm and by using the Parkroyal Melbourne Airport hotel we could have been eating at the restaurant, drinking at the bar, swimming in the indoor heated pool or exercising in the gym by 9.30. Instead we went to bed!
The Parkroyal proved to be an excellent hotel. Staff were friendly, our room was luxurious, facilities were well maintained and the breakfast buffet was a feast. After checking out we took the elevator downstairs and rented a car for a week from a selection of six operators.
The drive to Ballarat was easy but unexciting. This grand old city was built on gold more than 150 years ago and many dignified buildings still exist from those times. After walking the main street and visiting the outstanding Art Gallery, we drove to Sovereign Hill.
This is probably Australia’s best historical park and it has grown even more impressive since our last visit. We watched the redcoats march and fire their muskets. We photographed the coach ride, the candle making and the metal spinning.
The Red Hill Mine Tour proved to be better than expected and the gold pour showed us what a $150,000 ingot looks like. A short visit to the theatre and a chance to bowl in a 140-year-old manually operated alley saw us looking for somewhere to relax. The Hope Bakery proved to be the perfect place.
|Gold panning at Sovereign Hill|
No visit to Sovereign Hill would be complete without trying our luck gold panning. After 30 minutes my wife had collected gold worth about $5 from the creek.
Next day we reluctantly left Ballarat after spending the morning in the Botanical Gardens by Lake Wendouree. The gardens were established in 1858 and contain a remarkable collection of mature trees and statuaries.
Other highlights are the Prime Ministers Avenue, the Adam Lindsay Gordon Craft Cottage, the ex-POW memorial and the remarkable begonia conservatory. We should have allocated more time here.
Literally dozens of historic and boutique wineries are scattered across undulating western Victoria. Our desire was to visit some of them so we started in Avoca. Here the Blue Pyrenees Winery provided a chance to sample some spicy cabernet sauvignon and other classics before indulging in an excellent lunch.
Then it was on to the historic wine village of Great Western, known as the birthplace of Australian sparkling wine. The iconic Seppelt and Best’s wineries are here using grapes from vineyards that date back to the mid-1800s. Both offer tastings and we didn’t hold back. After selecting a few bottles to take with us, it was off to Stawell.
This historic gold mining town is world famous for its Easter Stawell Gift which was first run in 1878. We viewed the Hall of Fame and did a quick jog on the track which has created so many champions.
For thousands of years the dramatic Grampians mountain ranges have inspired wonder. Now largely covered by the Grampians National Park, the rugged peaks with their rich cultural heritage and breathtaking views are one of Victoria’s most popular destinations.
The area is suitable for everyone. There are hundreds of kilometres of bush walking tracks, excellent paved roads to waterfalls and spectacular lookouts, adventure tours offering kayaking, rock climbing and horse riding, farm gate providores and farmers’ markets, and comfortable accommodation.
We stayed in Halls Gap in a rental house. The cute tourist village is surrounded by remarkable mountain escarpments, forest and wildlife. Kangaroos graze on the football ground and birds are everywhere. There are numerous small cafes and restaurants and a general store and hotel.
We learned about the regions’ Aboriginal culture and history at Brambuk – the National Park and Cultural Centre just outside town. The extraordinary building has a bush food cafe and retail outlet as well as an information centre. A quick trip by car took us to one of five rock art sites that are open to the public.
Photographs: Phensri Rutledge
Parkroyal Melbourne Hotel - http://www.parkroyalhotels.com/en/hotels/australia/melbourne/parkroyal/
Sovereign Hill – www.sovereignhill.com.au
Halls Gap Visitor Centre – www.grampianstravel.com
Brambuk – www.brambuk.com.au
SINGAPORE IS A CULTURAL MELTING POT
The recent Black Lives Matter rallies have dramatically shown the underlying divisions that exist in many countries. Racism has affected many minorities and at times this has been accepted and papered-over. But not all countries suffer these problems. On a recent visit to Singapore I saw that different ethnic communities and religions can harmoniously live side by side. The world should take note.
Multiculturalism comes alive in dynamic Singapore and this is one of the great attractions of this city-state. It is seen on the streets, heard in the restaurants and smelt in the pungent aromas at the hawker centres.
The largest percentage of the population is Chinese but the large populations of Malays and Indians have considerable influence on the country’s lifestyle while British, other Europeans and Eurasians add further to the mix.
Singapore has some of the best hotels and restaurants in the world so it is easy to find the level of luxury that you need. Once you have settled in, I strongly recommend a visit to different areas of the city if you want to fully understand what makes this city so attractive to visitors.
Unfortunately, much of the area was demolished and redeveloped in the 1970s and hence it has lost some of its genuine appeal but some areas have been spared and these today offer a nice mixture of historical structures and restaurants, nightclubs, high-tech businesses and shops. It is safe and accessible, and is a great place for walking.
Strange Chinese medicines, questionable antiques, and cheap souvenirs may tempt you to come here to buy but this is also just an area for wandering. There are many shrines, museums and other cultural buildings, for history or religious buffs. The Chinatown Visitors Centre is a good place to find out all there is to do.
Chinatown is a great place to visit anytime but it takes on a special ambience during Chinese New Year (late January or early February). Most people will dress in red and give children AngPow, a monetary gift in a red packet to bring luck and prosperity. Every household is busy with spring cleaning to get rid of the old and welcome the new.
Houses are decorated in red and people celebrate with fire crackers. It is believed that these chase off evil spirits and awakens the deities and guardian spirits who are the custodians of good health, good fortune and prosperity.
Little India began as a camp for Indian convict workers who were brought in by the British to work on the city’s development. It still has important religious centres and is a hub for traditional businesses which many visitors find fascinating.
Serangoon Road is a wonderful place to wander. There are small restaurants, endless shops and great street scenes to observe. You should try some of the very traditional and economical Indian food and also some of the teas.
You will find a great range of Indian sari cloths which make good wall hangings if you don’t want to wear them, and the metal tiffin sets can be useful and good gifts. This area gets very crowded on a Sunday when immigrant Indian and Bangladeshi labourers descend here en mass.
A highlight here is the Mustafa Centre. This is the place to go if you need a new TV, gold jewellery, new cooking pot or some underwear at 4 a.m. because this place never closes. It has a cult following, is usually crowded and is the best place to go if you’re after a bargain. It is not fancy but it has a great range of items, and good prices to match. It really is a shopping experience unlike any other particularly after midnight.
This is an historic district whose name originates from the Gelam Tree, which once grew abundantly here and was used in ship building. Rows of brightly painted shophouses line several streets, and many of them are occupied by trendy design firms, restaurants, art galleries, and craft and curios shops.
Haji Lane and Arab Street are where Singapore’s early Arab traders settled. This was the centre of the original Muslim section of town, famed for its speciality shops, Muslim restaurants and more. There are many backpacker hostels in this area today.
The area has vibrant colour and is a great place to explore slowly. There are textile stores and outlets selling Persian carpets and you’ll also see leather, perfumes, spices, jewellery, crystal and baskets for sale. It’s easy to spend a couple of hours visiting many of the stores and chatting with the sellers. Quality seems good and prices, once you bargain, are OK too.
Look for the Muslim restaurants, the money-changers and the travel agents who specialise in the travel needs of Muslim pilgrims heading for Mecca. Stop off at a coffee house or browse for traditional games such as Congkak which involves marbles and a wooden board.
This is where Singapore started and it’s a great place for visitors to start their exploration of this fascinating city. There are some stunning British colonial buildings and many of them have been converted to museums and art galleries.
Raffles Hotel is a Singapore institution not to be missed. Enter from Beach Road into the marbled lobby with its plush Persian carpets, note the wonderful Sikh doorman, and find your way to the Long Bar for a Singapore Sling. This famous drink was invented here in 1915 and you can still enjoy the great ambiance despite the ridiculous cost of the drink.
The Chijmes complex is a jewel of quiet courtyards, cobbled paths and fountains. This was once the Catholic Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus from 1840. It is now an elegant dining, shopping and entertainment complex that should not be missed. It is particularly attractive at night.
Down by the river is the Asian Civilisations Museum in a neoclassical building built in 1867 as a Court House. After a major renovation, it opened in its present form in 2003 and is probably the museum I most enjoy in Singapore.
Images: Phensri Rutledge
This story appeared in Getting On Travel in February 2018
Gorgeous sights a magnet for locals
With his flying wings clipped, a grounded Townsville-based travel writer seizes the opportunity to rediscover his own backyard.
s a travel writer, I’m used to traversing the globe, but thanks to international travel bans I’ve turned my focus to some local attractions and pursuits. The easing of restrictions across Queensland provides a wonderful chance to reacquaint myself with the myriad things to do in the region and provide some local businesses with much-needed support.
The bright sun causes the deep blue sea to sparkle as the catamaran picks up speed. White fingers of foam stream behind us as Townsville city drops away. Ahead, tropical Magnetic Island looms large. I see sandy beaches bookended by rocky headlands strewn with huge boulders with forested hills behind.
I’m reminded why my planned 12-month stay in Queensland has turned into 40-something years.
The Nelly Bay terminal is our starting point and this is the departure point for the island’s buses (a day pass costs $7.20) but I am keen on an open-top rental car.
Renting the car is easy and my wife and I are off to walk the iconic jetty at Picnic Bay, follow the Nelly Bay Snorkel Trail, swim at magical Alma Bay, then slip over to Horseshoe Bay for lunch. The Barefoot Art Food Wine Cafe at Horseshoe Bay (barefootartfoodwine.com.au) is where we meet some Townsville friends, so it is perfect to order a seafood platter to share. Wow! Bugs, prawns, Thai fish cakes, salt and pepper squid, fish, chips and salad are enjoyed by all.
After such a feast, we feel the need for some physical activity so after checking out the local water sports options – jet skiing, kayaking, knee boarding, water skiing and tube riding – we park the car in the Forts car park and head out in search of koalas and grand views. Quickly we find both.
The day is fast disappearing but at Geoffrey Bay we spot dozens of rock wallabies amongst the boulders and on the old road. We stop to watch before contemplating dinner plans.
Do we opt for the inviting Peppers Blue on Blue Resort (peppers.com.au) near the ferry terminal or do we return to Townsville and eat at the award-winning Touch of Salt (atouchofsalt.com.au)? A drink at Peppers and dinner at Salt solves this problem.
We rise late, ready to play tourists in Townsville. The Strand and the blue Coral Sea attract us, so we breakfast outdoors on the water’s edge at C-Bar (cbar.com.au). A fresh fruit salad with mango yoghurt and goji berry granola takes my fancy while my wife has crepes filled with grilled mango and bacon, topped with honey ricotta and berry compote.
Determined to get some exercise, we walk the 1.5km to the Rock Pool and back passing the fishing jetty, two lifesaver-patrolled beaches, public exercise gear, artworks and more. It really deserves more time but we plan on heading north to enjoy one of Townsville’s secrets.
Balgal Beach is 50 minutes north of the city. There is a netted area for swimming, great fishing and a nice foreshore park with children’s playground. Best of all there are few people. Gentle waves of variegated turquoise brush against the beach as we chill out. After a lazy couple of hours, we drop into Fisherman’s Landing for some of the best fish and chips in North Queensland.
A little further north, a road leads to the Paluma Range and its World Heritage rainforest. We stop at picturesque Little Crystal Creek then drive on to Paluma township. This secluded mountain retreat has excellent views from McClelland’s Lookout and fabulous rainforest walks.
Another half hour gets us to the Hidden Valley Cabins (hiddenvalleycabins.com.au), where a platypus viewing tour provides us with one of our best wildlife viewing experiences ever.
After the excitement of last night, we enjoy a lazy breakfast at Hidden Valley Cabins before setting our car satnav for Cardwell and its picturesque Cardwell Spa Pool. After recent rains you can swim in the water, which ranges from a bright baby-blue to a milky blue, depending on the time of day and levels of sunlight. The colour is the result of a chemical reaction with the rocks. As we leave Cardwell, we grab a pie from the foreshore pie cart.
At Ingham, we lunch at JK’s Deli (jksdelicatessen.com) before heading for the Tyto Wetlands on the town’s outskirts where pathways allow for close-up bird watching.
Before heading home, we take a turn inland towards the Seaview Range and Wallaman Falls. These sublime falls are Australia’s tallest, tumbling 268m into a 20m deep pool below. They’re an undisputed highlight of Queensland’s Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, and a must-see for visitors and locals alike.
Refreshed and recharged, we return to the city and home. With so much to see and do, you’ll need a very good reason to leave Townsville and this holiday reminds me that I haven’t found one yet.
Australia’s East Coast Highlights
Words: Len Rutledge Images: Phensri Rutledge
Australia continues to attract many visitors because of its animals, lifestyle and sunshine but just about all are surprised at its size. Australia is larger than Europe so don’t expect to be able to see the whole country in one visit unless you are planning on a three month vacation or a two year working holiday. The East Coast is the most populated area so this is not a bad place to start. From Melbourne in the south to Cairns in the north is around 3000 kilometres but there are several great places to visit in between.
We start in the World’s Most Liveable City and quickly see why it has scored this award for several years. Melbourne is Australia’s sporting, coffee, restaurant and arts capital. Depending on your interest you can attend the Australian Tennis Open, the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix, the AFL Football Final Series, the Melbourne Cup Horse Racing Carnival and international cricket tests. A recent study found Melbourne hosts over 60,000 live concerts annually, making it one of the live music capitals of the world. The city has more theatres and performance venues than anywhere else in Australia. There are approximately 5000 cafes and restaurants in the city, the highest per capita in the world. Many are top class.
Flinders Street Railway Station, Melbourne
Australia’s little-known capital is well worth a visit. There is nothing old here but there are modern buildings aplenty. Parliament House, the Australian War Memorial, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Library of Australia, the National Science and Technology Centre, the National Zoo and Aquarium, the National Museum of Australia and more, will have you extending your stay.
Looking towards Parliament House from the Australian War Memorial, Canberra
Located on the East Coast of Australia, Sydney is the oldest and largest of the Australian cities and today the city’s attractions are dominated by the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. There is a guided walking tour of the Opera House and you can join a guided ascent of the bridge. Between these two is Circular Quay, the city’s main ferry terminal and just nearby is The Rocks where more than 100 heritage sites and buildings jostle along the narrow streets. Elsewhere, Darling Harbour is a waterfront pedestrian precinct packed with shops, restaurants, museums, exhibitions, and entertainment venues. Sydney is famous for its beaches from tiny harbourside strips of sand to Bondi, Coogee, Bronte, Tamarama, Maroubra, Manly Collaroy, Dee Why, and Narrabeen on the Pacific Ocean.
Circular Quay with fountain, Opera House and Harbour Bridge, Sydney
Once it was called a big country town but Brisbane has now grown up. Across the river from the CBD, South Bank is home to the Cultural Centre with its world-class galleries and entertainment. You can climb the Storey Bridge, cuddle a koala at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, while Morton Island is the place to feed wild dolphins and snorkel around an old ship wreck. One hundred kilometres to the south is the famous Gold Coast with its excellent beaches, theme parks, restaurants and nightlife. To the north is the Sunshine Coast for more beach activity.
South Bank artificial beach looking towards Brisbane CBD
North Queensland Islands
With rugged coastlines and surrounding reefs bursting with life, you are spoiled for choice when choosing an island off the coast of North Queensland. Many are wholly or partly National Parks and many have nature viewing, snorkelling and sailing opportunities, and bush trails. Quite a few have accommodation. Some are very up-market such as One & Only Hayman, Hamilton, Orpheus, Badarra and Lizard while others have a range of rooms from excellent to budget. Magnetic Island off Townsville is the easiest to reach with ferries and car barges making the crossing multiple times a day.
Visitors to our room on Daydream Island
The Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is blessed with the breathtaking beauty of the world’s largest coral reef. This is one of the seven wonders of the natural world, larger than the Great Wall of China, and the only living thing on earth visible from space. A visitor can enjoy snorkelling, scuba diving, aircraft or helicopter tours, bare boats (self-sail), glass-bottomed boat viewing, semi-submersibles and educational trips, whale watching, and swimming with dolphins. Townsville is the headquarters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and it is home to the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium. Reef trips leave from many other northern towns including Cairns and Port Douglas.
The headquarters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville
It is dark, cold and we are stumbling up a rough mountain goat track at 5 am to try to get a memorable image of sunrise over Laos. Sometimes I wonder about the sanity of travel writers!
But let me start at the beginning. We are in far northern Thailand experiencing the attractions of Chiang Rai Province far from the crowds of Bangkok and Phuket. We spent the night in the border town of Mae Sai where the constant traffic between Thailand and Myanmar creates a booming economy. Thais come here to cross the border on shopping expeditions for cheap Myanmar and Chinese goods but there is limited appeal for foreigners.
The Golden Triangle
Fifty years ago, this was almost a no-go zone as it was controlled by various gangs who turned it into one of the world’s most prolific opium producing areas. Today it is cultivating tourists rather than opium. Its peaceful, untouched landscape has become a draw for visitors and as we passed through vibrant green rice fields and little villages with their golden temples, I understood its appeal.
As we headed southeast, we moved from the plains into rolling hill country and before long we reached the Hall of Opium.
I believe this is one of the best museums in Thailand outside Bangkok and almost certainly the most interesting place to visit in the Golden Triangle.
It exhibits the history of opium around the world, the production process, the devastating effects of opium smoking, and campaigns to eradicate and substitute the crop.
The Hall is something of an opium theme park, with the latest in multimedia exhibits and lots of information in a modern setting. I was impressed! It was built by the royal Doi Tung Foundation, who have been instrumental in changing the lives of the locals in a very positive way.
Where the rivers meet
The main triangle area is a few kilometres south on the Thai riverside near the point where three counties meet. You can look out and see across the Ruak River to Myanmar and across the Mekong River to Laos. This is only mildly interesting for most people, so a series of bizarre attractions have been erected by the riverside to add to the appeal.
There’s a giant golden Buddha on a ship, elephant statues which you can climb, elaborate shrines to the royal family, half a dozen signs announcing you are at the Golden Triangle, and river cruise touts, souvenir shops and various cafes. I must say I was under-whelmed and quickly realised this was a major tourist trap, so we moved on.
Chiang Saen and south
About ten kilometres downstream on the banks of the Mekong is an old Lanna capital, the small but charming Chiang Saen, which is dotted with temples, historic buildings and ruins. Wat Pa Sak was built by King Saen Phu in 1295 when three hundred teak trees were planted here. The temple’s chedi is beautiful in the Chiang Saen-style and the exteriors are elaborately decorated with designs.
Wat Phra That Chedi Luang was built by King Saen Phu, the 3rd ruler of the Lanna kingdom in the early 13th century. The bell-shaped, Lanna-style principal chedi, measuring 88 m in height, is the largest structure in Chiang Saen.
Phu Chi Fah
For the next few hours, we more or less followed the Mekong River downstream but this is not a river drive because you need to pass through some rugged mountains with plenty of winding, steep parts of the road. Little villages dot the hills and corn fields and other crops abound.
Finally, we reached our accommodation in Phu Chi Fah at the Phu Mok Dok Mai Resort which had bungalows with a small bedroom, a private bathroom, and a balcony.
The reason for visiting Phu Chi Fah is to watch the sun rise over the hills in Laos from the top of a mountain range in Thailand. If you are lucky, mists blanket the mountains below, revealing only the jungle-covered peaks in Laos. This is a magical sight.
After settling into the resort, we checked out the town. It was tiny and late afternoon most of the vendors had packed up their stalls so we decided to drive through the Phu Chi Fa Forest Park to the car park to watch the sunset. An hour later we drove down again and enjoyed dinner at the resort.
We were told by the locals that to watch the sunrise transform the skies from dark blue to a pinky-orange, we would need to get to the top of the Phu Chi Fa Forest Park trail way before the actual sunrise.
So, there we were climbing the 760-metre rough dirt path in the dark. We were certainly not the only ones. Flickering lights from mobile phones and torches dotted the hillside.
It was cold at the top with a stiff breeze making it uncomfortable so we were pleased when the first signs of dawn appeared. Slowly the view opened up, revealing forests, hills, valleys, farmland and the mighty Mekong River. Above it all, golden rays turned the sky into a wonderful work of abstract art.
Phu Chi Fah is not only great at sunrise and sunset though; the daytime views are also pretty spectacular. To see the snaking valleys and the rows of endless pristine mountains in Laos makes many visitors stop and contemplate their lives. It could well be Thailand’s greatest view.
How to get there
When the travel situation returns to ‘normal’ there will be flights to Bangkok from many cities around the world. From Bangkok there are many daily flights to Chiang Rai which take about 1 hour 15 minutes.
Most visitors are permitted to stay in Thailand for up to 30 days if entering via an international airport under the Visa Exemption Rule.
Images: Phensri Rutledge
Len is the author of Experience Thailand 2020 available as an e-book or paperback from https://www.amazon.com/Experience-Thailand-2020-Guides-Book-ebook/dp/B082WZZ19G/