Wednesday, December 21, 2011

So Frenchy, So Chic comes to town in 2012

Busy, busy, busy, wrapping presents and finishing up those straggling pieces of work .... to keep myself in the festive mood, this is what I'm listening to: So Frenchy So Chic 2012 from the fine team at Cartell Music hits all the right notes yet again! The latest installment in this popular series has finally arrived and it's jam packed - as always! - with the freshest, coolest music to come out of France. And with 2 discs, I'm well set for a slinky summer soundtrack. I adore the SFSC albums, always the perfect background noise at dinner parties or for afternoon cocktail sessions with friends, or just when I'm in the mood for a lazy Sunday morning - just the right amount of quirky chic from some seriously good performers. 
Keen to sample it for real? Get yourself along to the Park at Werribee Mansion in Melbourne on Sunday 15 January in the new year and you can see some of the brilliant acts live in concert, including Moriarty, Féfé and Nouvelle Vague. Visit the Cartell website for more details! 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Editor's Choice: Bangkok to Koh Samui, Thailand's got the love

Muse Hotel - Bangkok

We've just had our two editors - Tanya Joslin and Rhonda Bannister - return from another fantastic trip to Thailand. They've come home all refreshed with that post-Thailand glow ... and after hearing all about the amazing places they visited and stayed at, we know why!

Rhonda Bannister starts off the tales of their whirlwind visit in one of her favourite cities in the world - bustling, crazy exciting Bangkok. Great to hear this great city is well on the way to a full recovery after the shut down of tourism due to the recent floods ... 

Bangkok is back in business!

Rhonda says: "From shopping extravaganzas in the city's ubiquitous markets and glamorous shopping malls to marvellous cultural experiences - Bangkok has the lot and it's open for business and waiting for you to return - there is no water in the city at all - never has been - so come on, start planning your next trip to the Land of Smiles.

We started our visit to Bangkok with a surprise stop at the Qantas First Class Lounge at Sydney's international terminal and I've got to say it was - well, first class in every way. For instance Veuve Cliquot and Bollinger are the Champagnes on offer and the restaurant quality menu created by Neil Perry is almost like dining at Rockpool Restaurant. And then there's the dedicated spa where you can pop in for a massage or facial ... oh to be a Gold or Platinum Frequent Flyer member.

Mind you our business class flight was fabulous with the best food and wine served by friendly and highly professional staff offering the sort of service that has made Qantas an Australian icon - surely it couldn't be that much better in first class (although I'll probably never know!). 

Bangkok is a bold and exciting city of chaotic sights and sounds that assault the senses and send the mind reeling and you'll either love it or hate it - I love everything about it but only because I get out and enjoy as much as I can on every trip and now there's a skytrain, getting around is simple - although taxis are really cheap and the traffic is not so bad outside of peak hours - just like any major city really. 

On the streets you'll find sleek, sophisticated shopping malls and department stores, small shops brimming over with bargain fashion buys and some wonderful bustling street markets. Then there's the gi-normous Chatuchak weekend market which takes up entire blocks and is so big you couldn't even get around it all in two days - but we gave it our best shot on one day and bought some amazing things - even a fish tank. Now think about getting that home as excess baggage! 

After shopping all day we'd pop in to a spa just down the road from our hotel and for the princely sum of $10 enjoy an hour-long leg and foot massage. These spas are all over the city so make sure you indulge at least once a day because it really leaves you feeling on top of the world and ready to face the shopping excursion again that night.

The bar and dining scene in Bangkok is amazing with quite a few bars and restaurants perched at dizzying heights on top of skyscrapers. We've been to a few on previous visits but on this trip we splurged and took ourselves off to Mezzaluna Restaurant at The Dome at Lebua to enjoy both the sparkling view from the 64th floor and the exquisite tastes of the six-course chef's tasting menu prepared by the very talented brotherly cooking duo, Mathias and Thomas Suhring. This is without doubt the BEST meal I have ever had and I now understand the whole 'foodie' thing. The wines were a perfect match and it was interesting to note how the right wine can enhance the taste of a particular food. Don't miss this fabulous dining event - it's expensive but worth every cent! Little wonder that Mezzaluna picked up the coveted 'Restaurant of the Year (The Best in Asia)' award at the recent Hospitality Asia Platinum Awards 2011- 2012 - as well as three platinum awards including 'Thailand's Best Restaurant', 'Most Unique F&B Concept' and 'Most Exquisite Dining Experience, Western Cuisine'. Pretty impressive, wouldn't you say?!

You'll find all the top name hotel chains in Bangkok and believe me, some of these places are seriously gorgeous - all sleek marble and crystal chandeliers but for this trip we stayed at a brand new, boutique hotel which is part of the MGallery Collection of unique hotels.  Hotel Muse is located on prestigious Langsuan Road, a quiet residential part of this sprawling city, just around the corner from the American Embassy and Lumpini Park, Bangkok's oldest and largest park gifted by King Rama VI in 1920 to his people. Elegant, seductive and leading-edge interior design makes this hotel a very hip place to stay - check out the images and you'll see what I mean. The bedrooms are spacious and beautifully furnished, the service is fast and efficient and the ambience is - well quite frankly - sensual - with moody, opulent interiors throughout, including the restaurants and bars . And if your favourite cuisines include traditional Italian and Thai, this will be your temple to taste sensations - check out the their two great restaurants and the exclusive The Speakeasy bar occupying the entire 24th and 25th level of Hotel Muse ... truly sensational!

Heading south from Bangkok to the island escape of Koh Samui, it was time to get a dose of tropical luxe in the Gulf of Thailand. Tongsai Bay has been a favourite place to escape to when we are on the island, and our editor Tanya Joslin says this charming resort remains as beautiful and stunning as ever! 

Tongsai Bay - Koh Samui

Tanya says: "We recently returned to one of our favourite islands in South East Asia - Koh Samui.  Samui first captured the attention of young backpackers twenty or so years ago, but today it is the perfect blend of international sophistication and the real Thailand. We're yet to meet somebody not charmed by Samui, and while the island has seen a swarm of international brand hotels set up shop here, one of the original luxury getaways still holds a special place in the collective heart of the Holidays for Couples team. 

Tongsai Bay - they advertise themselves as Samui's most romantic retreat, we'll tell you a bit about it and then you can do your own research to decide if you agree. Us? We were sold on Tongsai Bay around 10 years ago, and having recently returned, we are pleased to say some things don't change!

Flanked by pristine tropical jungle with the turquoise waters of a private bay lapping its shores, Tongsai Bay Resort  is sheer honeymoon bliss - although, to be honest, you don't have to be on honeymoon to bliss out here - take it from us, we were 'working' (somebody has to research these places!) and managed to slip away to a state of absolute relaxation within about ten minutes of checking into our Grand Villa. It is partly the connection to nature you feel while here - the whole resort has been sensitively designed to respect and preserve the surrounding wilderness – without skimping on five-star luxuries – Tongsai Bay is committed to both the natural environment and the pleasure and comfort of its pampered guests. 

Back to those villas. Tucked discreetly away on a hillside, the indulgent Grand Villas and Pool Villas are the ideal honeymoon choices with features like outdoor spa baths, sweeping decks, relaxing day beds and private plunge pools. There are some that even boast their own private pool, our pool had views to die for!  The sense of privacy extends beyond the villas though - and this is one of the beautiful things about Tongsai Bay, the fact that you're tucked away in this enclave, surrounded by two headland peaks (so while it is not actually legal to say you have a private beach on Samui, one would have to go to a great effort to get to Tongsai's beach!), enjoying a serene enviornment where nature dominates the view regardless of which way you look, with only resort guests or the few outside visitors who come to enjoy the incredible restaurant. sharing this privileged space.

Active honeymooners can head into the buzzy Koh Samui township of Chaweng, just a ten or fifteen minute drive away, to shop, dine and party. Or you can easily enjoy a day trip to one of the picturesque neighbouring islands like Koh Phangan and Koh Tao.

Chef Choms serves authentic Thai cuisine and the fabulous Po-Lad, situated on the beach and boasting a new chef that is creating a bit of a stir on the Samui dining scene (and believe us, the island may be laid back but the dining is world-class!), is the perfect place to enjoy a casual lunch or a gorgeous candle-lit dinner. And don't miss the Prana Spa which offers a range of decadent treatments including a romantic 'Return to Prana' couples experience. 

However, from our experience there's really no need to leave the peaceful confines of the resort. That’s if you don’t mind the idea of spending your days lazing on the beach, swimming in the gorgeous bay, dining on fresh Thai cuisine and surrendering to yet more spa indulgence! It's the perfect place to fall in love all over again. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Take Lebua's famous Sky Bar cocktails home with you this summer!

The breathtaking views over glittering Bangkok and the Chao Phraya River at Sky Bar, Lebua, provide the perfect backdrop to Italian mixologist Alex Holzer's famous cocktail creations. And while a return visit to the gravity defying night spot is on our 'must-do' list for the next trip to Bangkok, we are lucky enough to have on hand his fabulous cocktail recipes to indulge in for the summer party season at home. Here's our three of our favourite cocktails, direct from the Sky Bar for you all to share!

The Havana Pearl – a perfect accompaniment to the Sky Bar scene which features a zesty combination of award-winning amber rum, pineapple juice, ginger and lime – for a flavour which is fresh and fragrant, with an edge. 

Havana Seleccion de Maestros 1.0 oz
Pineapple Juice 2.5 oz
Canton Ginger Liquor 1.5 oz
Fresh Ginger 3 slices
Fresh Lime 2-3 dashes

Blend ingredients until foam appears, combine with ice & garnish with grated lime.

Cool as a Cucumber - as refreshing as its name implies, combining gin infused with botanicals, sour flavours, lavender extract and fresh ginger, and finished with molecular cucumber pearls.

Fresh Ginger 20 grams
Fresh Cucumber 0.4 grams
Lavender Extract 0.6 oz
Fresh Lime Juice 0.5 oz
Cucumber Infused Gin 1.5 oz
Molecular Cucumber Pearls 15

Muddle fresh ginger and cucumber, combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake well. Double strain into a Martini glass and top with cucumber pearls.

Green Tea Rosemary Martini - simple but refined, boasting an elegant blend of green tea liqueur, Chivas Regal, rosemary-infused honey and apple juice. 

Green Tea Liqueur 1 oz
Chivas Regal 1 oz
Rosemary Infused Honey 0.3 oz
Apple Juice 0.3 oz

Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into martini glass. Garnish with Rosemary sprigs.

Lebua is the place to be seen when in Bangkok, and right there - in a lounge perched high above the Bangkok skyline - is where you'll find us on our next visit ... cocktail in hand!

Sky high sophistication at Lebua State Tower, Bangkok

Lebua State Tower Bangkok is one of the sexiest 5 star hotels in the City of Angels. We're talking full blown opulence and sophistication ... the rooms here are some of the biggest and finest you will find in all of Thailand, with views to die for of the glittering Bangkok skyline! Lebua is also home to the world class Sky Bar and the dining and entertainment hub 'The Dome'.  

Distill - part smoking lounge with its outdoor cigar terrace, part DJ spin and part restaurant with its own oyster bar, is famous for its extensive range of premium malt whiskies, vodkas and Cognacs. But the bar with arguably the city's biggest WOW factor has to be Skybar. Come for the jazz, the views or just to be seen and mingle with Bangkok's chic set at one of the city's coolest hang-outs.

After undergoing a complete revamp, Mezzaluna is firmly placed as one of Asia's most inspired prestigious restaurants. Famous 'twin chefs' Thomas and Mathias Suhring have created an incredible six-course chef's tasting menu, which can be complemented with wines if you wish. This is an experience that is priceless, yet, considering the prestige of the restaurant and its location, pricing is very fair and as it will be a night the two of you do not forget, well worth including on any couple's Bangkok getaway. And, as the menu changes according to produce available, it is unlikely that you will enjoy the same meal twice here. The ambience is ... dare we say it?... romantic. The service is slick. And those views - you're at 'The Dome', next to the famous Skybar, 65 floors above Bangkok with glass walls. Need we say more? 

Inspiring Journeys new itineraries for Australia & New Zealand

After launching in Australia in 2011, experiential small group operator, Inspiring Journeys, is creating even more incredible stories by expanding its horizons to include three spectacular journeys in New Zealand and also adding experiences to its Australian journeys in 2012/13. Travelling in a small group of on average just 12-16 travellers and in luxury 4WD Mercedes Benz vehicles, the groups travel to areas inaccessible by coaches which means travellers have the opportunity to see and do more in an intimate setting. 

We are loving how their itineraries all have a special emphasis on accommodation that connects to its environment, with things like locally produced meals inspired by flavours of the destination and many exciting ways for travellers to choose how they, discover, explore, learn and of course, relax.

Three New Zealand itineraries have been introduced, The Endless Shores six-day journey through the North Island, The Southern Drift eight-day journey which takes in the South Island and The Long White Cloud 13-day journey which explores New Zealand from North to South.  

In Australia, Inspiring Journeys has also expanded, with the new The Secret South eight-day journey, which navigates South Australia's Flinders Ranges and the Clare Valley. Experiences on offer include a 4WD tour of a working cattle station in the Flinders Ranges and staying at the award-winning wildlife sanctuary, Arkaroola Wilderness Lodge. A choice of adventurous optional activities are also available such as a scenic flight over Lake Eyre, a hot air balloon ride over the Flinders Ranges or mountain bike ride through Wilpena Pound, plus so much more.

In New Zealand, special accommodation has been sourced, such as the intimate Franz Josef Glacier Retreat on the South Island, which is focused on relaxation and rejuvenation or the Puka Park, Coromandel Ranges on the North Island, where travellers stay in Tree Hut chalets at Pauanui Beach. Travellers even stay overnight on a magical cruise on Milford Sound.

Take a scenic flight over Milford Sound's picturesque fiords, glaciers, alpine lakes and waterfalls; Learn and get up close with the marine life of the Bay of Islands, Explore and hit the road on a 4WD safari incorporating scenes from The Lord of the Rings; or Relax and experience a blissful state of pure relaxation in the thermal springs of Rotorua.

Choose your adventure!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Diving along Bali's North East coastline (in style!)

I've been wanting to learn how to scuba dive for years and, I think, it's the right time to dive on in (pardon the pun!), brought about by a recent visit to Bali where I had the pleasure of seeing some really fabulous resorts that cater to dive enthusiasts of every level, from beginners to the hard core. One of the most popular areas for this is in the north east coastline of Bali, well away from the maddening crowds of Kuta and the shopping and nightlife of Seminyak - up over the hills, past the delightful village life of Candi Dasa to a place far removed, where peace and complete serenity prevail. 

Two resorts in particular stand out as a go-to for beachside bungalows, reef excursions and offshore diving in a rustic and beautiful setting. Not forsaking any kind of comfort whilst you're there though - take Siddhartha Dive Resort & Spa (pictured above) as a fantastic example of a luxury boutique-style hotel where stunning architecture, great dining and a really divine spa make for the perfect ambience. Situated under the shadows of Bali's sacred Mount Agung, in the small village of Kubu on a terrace-style tropical estate, Siddhartha is informal and relaxed for those mad keen on enjoying the very best that the reefs of north-eastern Bali have to offer. It offers the highest quality Dive Centre, run by divers for divers, and now under the management of Barbara Ebel and Stefan Brand. And it's also become increasingly popular with honeymooners, and couples seeking out a resort for their destination wedding that also offers an adventure-filled honeymoon! And it has a great spa where treatments offer ample blissed out moments following a day of diving on the offshore reefs!

Choose from the Superior bungalows, the Deluxe bungalows or one of five oceanfront Deluxe bungalows, or the dreamy "Santai" and "Pantai" villas which have their own private swimming pools. Siddhartha Dive Resort & Spa is a part of the collection of hotels and resorts by local diving legend Werner Lau - he also created the Alam Anda Dive & Spa Resort (pictured below) which is a scenic drive (aprox. 30 minutes) further along from Siddhartha. 

Alam Anda has been an insider's tip for many years and today, it's almost got a cult status among the diving crowd. Hidden behind the coconut and orange plantations with a picture perfect seaside location, Alam Anda consists of nine Seafront bungalows, twelve Deluxe Garden bungalows, two Losmen, the double bungalow Ambu Ambu, two Behari villas and the villas Lumba Lumba and Purnama. 

Tulamben is only 40 minutes by car, where you can dive off the wreck of the Liberty or the coral gardens and the spectacular Tulamben Drop Off, a lush overgrown sea wall that drops down to 60 metres.

I honestly don't know which resort suits my style more - the beautiful, boutique style of Siddhartha Dive Resort & Spa, or the more rustic and tropical style of Alam Anda Dive Resort & Spa. Might just have to make my next Bali trip extra long, and try them both out for good measure! 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Helen Wong's Tours pre-Christmas special -14 day China Wonders

In the lead up to Christmas, leading tour specialist Helen Wong’s Tours has unwrapped six 14-day China Wonders group tours for early 2012 – priced from a bargain $2880.

The limited tours – between February 17 and April 4, 2012 – showcase cosmopolitan Shanghai, the canal city of Suzhou and the heavenly beauty of Hangzhou before moving to Xian for the tour party to see the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang and ultimately, the capital Beijing to visit the Forbidden City and climb the Great Wall.

Price is based on per person, twin share, and includes a host of features such as return Air China flights from Sydney or Melbourne, China domestic flights and 12 nights’ accommodation in four to five-star hotels.

Daily breakfast and lunch with five dinners are also included along with three evening cultural shows, transfers, sightseeing and entrance fees where specified, China visa for Australian passport holders, English-speaking guide, a travel kit with 424-page Odyssey China book and cabin bag, and departure taxes, security charges and fuel surcharges (subject to change).

Seriously great value for an incredible journey through ancient - and modern day - China! Phone Helen Wong's Tours on 13001300 788 or head to Helen's website for more details.

Romance on the Reef at qualia this Valentines Day

It's never too early to start planning a extra special, romantic surprise for Valentine's Day. We heard about this amazing offer from the stunning qualia on Hamilton Island and simply had to share it with you - could there be a more spectacular location to make romantic memories together then right here, in one of the most beautiful locations in the world - sun-drenched Hamilton Island, on the Great Barrier Reef?! 

qualia resort has announced a special Valentine's package - and, whether it's used as a surprise mid-summer getaway, or given as a gift on 14 February that can be used year-round, the trip is sure to provide a welcome romantic retreat.

qualia, (pronounced kwah-lee ah) recently included in the UK Condé Nast Traveller Gold List, is located on the secluded northern-most point of Hamilton Island.  This stunningly beautiful luxury resort features 60 elegant one bedroom pavilions and a Beach house with postcard views of the blue green waters of the Coral Sea in the Whitsunday Islands.
With its sense of calm and sophisticated, yet casual style, qualia offers a private and relaxing experience where couples can be as active or relaxed as they wish.  As the main gateway for visiting the Great Barrier Reef, Hamilton Island offers a full complement of recreational activities including a new Yacht Club, Golf Club and two spas.  

One of the highlights of the package is a one and half hour helicopter trip to Whitehaven Beach where the couple is "dropped" off for a romantic picnic lunch on the 7km stretch of white silica sand beach.
Priced from $4,218 AUD per pavilion* (twin share), the 'Romance on the Reef' package includes:
• 3 nights accommodation at qualia resort
• A la carte breakfast, dinner and non-alcoholic beverages consumed at qualia
• Whitehaven Beach by helicopter including a picnic and sparkling wine
• VIP Return Hamilton Island airport/marina to hotel transfers
• VIP chauffeur service around Hamilton Island
• A two-seater electric golf buggy for use on the Island
• Use of non-motorised watercraft
• Beach drop-offs to selected local beaches and surrounding islands
• Sunset cruise on the Coral Sea on the "Atomic" - qualia's luxury power boat

*This package is not available as a bed and breakfast option. Prices are based on twin share. The 'from price' above is for a Leeward pavilion. Valid for travel: 1 Apr 2011 - 31 Mar 2012. Prices are in AUD. For new rates from 1 Apr 2012 onwards, please view their website for more details. Blackout dates: Festive Season: 22 Dec 2011 - 4 Jan 2012 inclusive.

For more information or to make reservations, visit the qualia website, or contact the Luxury Specialist team.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Star Clippers 'Malta to Athens' cruise price cut

Fancy a European cruise aboard the majestic Star Clipper luxury tall ship? Well check out their latest special offer - a one-off cruise  from Malta to Athens via Sicily and the Greek Isles has been reduced by 35 percent for early bookings!

Discounted cabins start at $2069 per person twin share if booked before January 31 for the seven-night rare sailing cruise as Star Clipper relocates from the Caribbean to Athens for the European Mediterranean summer. The price includes port charges and all meals and entertainment on board.  

The cruise starts in Valetta (Malta) on April 28 to Syracuse in Sicily, then the picturesque seaside town of Katakolon in Greece followed by famed Mykonos and Hydra before berthing in Athens.

From its summer home port in Athens, Star Clipper will operate 23 cruises mainly to the Greek Isles but with some special cruises to Venice and Istanbul.

On October 20 the ship leaves Athens for a 35-night westwards repositioning cruise through the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic to St Maarten in the Caribbean. Segments of this great ocean crossing are sold separately offering the opportunity to visit Spain, Morocco and the Canary islands.

Star Clippers operates three of the world’s largest and tallest sailing vessels visiting ports often untouched by larger cruise ships with passengers experiencing the activities, amenities and atmosphere of a private yacht. And, having travelled aboard one of these incredible ships before, we can tell you it is a journey like no other - travelling on the high seas on one of the finest tall ships in the world is an experience that makes for incredible memories!

All three ships have expansive teak decks, swimming pools, informal dining, a convivial Tropical Bar on deck, a comfortable piano bar and first class accommodation and dining. The two smaller ships, Star Flyer and Star Clipper, take 170 passengers each, with a crew of 70, and Royal Clipper carries 227 with a crew of 106.

For reservations contact your travel agent or Star Clippers on 1300 362 599 or You can get more information at their website.