Travel Diaries: Gosford - Byron Bay - Labuan - Bali
Gosford - Byron Bay - Labuan - Bali
A view of the Hawkesbury river from the train to Gosford
Air Asia has a new non-stop flight from Denpasar to Sydney with a relatively cheap business class (full flat bed), three times a week. I availed myself of this new deal to have a winter holiday in Sydney, my favourite city in Asia, and my old home town. Sydney is fabulous in the winter: the weather is generally dry, the skies clear and the air crisp — a relief after 40 years sweating non-stop in the tropics! I stayed with friends in Paddington, on the Rushcutters Bay side, and every morning walked five minutes to Rushcutters Bay Park to admire the world’s most exquisite harbour and to have breakfast at the tennis club café. As a youth I used to spend a lot of time at White City tennis club across the road from the park. Old memories of ball-boying for the likes of Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, and Margaret Smith came flooding back. Meanwhile in Sydney I had the great fortune to visit former Australian of the Year Dr. John Yu, whose amazing South East Asian textile collection is often on loan to the Art Gallery of NSW’s Asia pavilion.
Beautiful Rushcutter’s Bay, Sydney
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In Paddington I visited the Australian Centre for Photography with its delightful boutique exhibition rooms, and, next door, the Paddington markets now in their 40th year. There one can sample some of the best street food from all over the world.
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All the beaches near Gosford have fabulous walks
Top & Bottom: Avoca Beach, near Gosford
One day I hopped on an express train to Brisbane Waters, near Gosford — 45 minutes north of Sydney — to explore the bays and beaches around the banks of the Hawkesbury River, and the Pacific Ocean beaches beyond. Former camping grounds have been transformed into a retiree and commuter paradise, complete with beach cafes, yacht clubs, and gourmet delis. One can swim there in the winter in a heated pool next to the yacht club. A string of exquisite beaches and picturesque backwaters have been cleverly preserved — everywhere there are nature trails and cliff walks to help one better enjoy the areas stunning natural assets. I stayed at the Crown Plaza at Avoca Beach — arguably the best beach hotel on the coast. The service was good (many Balinese workers!), and the seafood meals were amazing. Brisbane waters is a great laid-back destination where one can quickly shake off the Jakarta Blues (concrete jungle fever) and commune with nature. And when one tires of all the fresh air and niceness, the Hunter Valley wine district is just a short drive away: it’s Sydney’s answer to the Napa Valley.
The great Australian outdoor education experience: Bangalow Public school
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From Gosford I went to Sydney to catch a Virgin Australia flight to Ballina — I needed to visit friends in Byron Bay, nearby. The Virgin lounge at Sydney domestic is totally amazing; it even has its own entrance from the street. The hinterland west of Byron Bay is hauntingly beautiful. Many of the towns —Bangalore, Newrybar, Federal — once rather feral and Hicksville, now sport smart cafes and boutiques. The Domo garden café (Japanese) in Federal (pop. 2000) is my favourite. Byron Bay even hosts an arthouse cinema complex — as if Australia’s most beautiful beach was not enough.
Domo Garden Café, Federal
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Air Asia also has non-stop flights to Kota Kinabalu (K.K.) from both Jakarta and Bali. I have work in Labuan — the island off K.K. sustained by the Bruneian oil industry — which is knee-deep in Southern rednecks and pickled expats. K.K. is the gateway to Sabah, which offers some of the best diving and trekking in South East Asia. The atmosphere is delightfully pre-mass tourism and very Malay: the local tribespeople, relatives of the Austronesian tribes who first inhabited the region — such as the Iban and the Dayak — are incredibly hospitable and friendly. Mainland/peninsula Malaysians tend to be gruffer, I have found — perhaps too many cloverleaf highways.
Labuan Island beauty, Mary-Christine Withers
The house I designed in Labuan, Sabah, Malaysia, on Labuan’s West Coast
If you are not an adventure tourist there’s not a lot to do in Sabah; but, like Gosford, it’s an easy escape destination if one is in need of some downtown time close by.
Typical Labuan Beach scene — friendly locals
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For an upbeat holiday you still can’t beat Bali. Despite recent bad press, the beachside suburbs are booming. Sanur and Seminyak have become foodie heaven, with smart new restaurants opening every week. Last month was ceremonial season: I joined a flock of Jakarta socialites at the soul-purification rites of one of Indonesia’s great tourism pioneers, Bapak Ida Bagus Kompiang of Segara Village Hotel in Sanur. It was an occasion of unspeakable beauty.
I am working on a small book: ‘Musings from the end of the groyne — My Mertasari Beach Diaries.’ Here’s a sample from this morning’s entry (5 September 2015):
Mertasari Beach , Sanur, at Sunrise
Every Sunday morning at Mertasari Beach one sports group or another wheels in a massive sound system and blasts the suburb with ghastly heavy metal music. This morning it’s the kite festival again and it’s Iwal Fals — there's a giant photo of my neighbour, Tunas Jaya founder Madeg's son, a local politico, welcoming people to the noise — and a hundred giant flags. The atmosphere is Ben Hur meets Joan Baez. Canoe enthusiasts paddle in the bay. All the regular hotties stay home on Sunday — it’s a day for the naff and the chubby. And thousands of kite enthusiasts in an hour’s time, in Mad Max outfits and attitudes.
Dunki (fisherman's bag) maker in Renon
Irma Bugis dog walker
I am still recovering from all the processions I joined yesterday — from Denpasar to Sanur to Sayan. The highlights were Pedanda Istri Karang and her sister-in-law. Pedanda Istri splashing water from a high pavilion as 300 Puspalingga filed past below — precision filing, exquisite drop-dead beauty. Next high moment was the 300 white umbrellas gathered at the feet of the giant Catur Muka statue and fountain as the Tapakgangsul brahmans, gold and white Padmasari bier and spirited marching band headed south on a closed Jalan Veteran at 8 a. m.
Pedanda Istri Karang (the former Mrs Ida Bagus Kompiang) blesses the 300 spirit effigies before they depart for the 10K trek to Sanur
The Penileman procession to Sanur
Three brothers on the stairs to the grandstand of the gods, grandsons of the late Ida Pedanda Gede Ngurah Karang
Joining the Penileman procession
The spunk-rat scavengers on Sanur Beach provided the next high moment — they descend like vultures on celebrants wading into the waves at Padanggalak, in search of bounty (gold leaves and Chinese coins). The festival-winning Sayan Bleganjur marching band at the Ngerit cremation was the next moment of amazement — boy! do they know how to lift the roof off a cremation ground. It took two hours of Scrabble in Sidakarya for me to settle down — oh, the bliss of ceremonial Bali.
Drummer in Sayan village’s famous bleganjur marching band