Australia/South Pacific Grand Awards 2016
By Andrew Harper
The Hideaway Report | January 4, 2016
Set in the far northwest, the Kimberley is one of the most rugged and remote regions of Australia. Its 135,600 square miles are home to just 35,000 people. Cattle stations take up some of that space, but for the most part, the landscape comprises craggy sienna-hued ranges, emerald forests and wetlands, and forbidding cliffs that plunge into the ocean. Berkeley River Lodge, which opened in 2012, is located on towering sand dunes, two hours from Darwin by light aircraft. The main lodge and the 20 villas had to be specially designed and the materials brought in by barge.
Safari-style vehicles drove us to an airy, triangular pavilion — the best shape for withstanding cyclones, apparently — with floor-to-ceiling windows, polished wood floors, a small library nook and a comfortable bar. One level down, the pool beckoned. Each villa provides an outdoor bath, shower and freestanding soaking tub. Inside, the spacious, air-conditioned room comes with a king-size bed and screened windows, plus a sliding glass door that leads out to a sheltered deck with a 180-degree view.
Daily programs give guests ample opportunities to explore. On a memorable hike, we splashed in freshwater pools and sat beneath thundering waterfalls. On another morning, we went to view Aboriginal pictographs. Later, we ventured up the Berkeley River on a boat cruise beneath towering red cliffs. In the evenings, we enjoyed well-prepared five-course dinners with dishes such as golden snapper with broccolini, croquettes and beurre blanc. At the end of our stay, we left with real regret.
Cape Lodge, Margaret River, Australia
I had long wanted to visit the southwest corner of Australia for its wines, eucalyptus forests, surfing beaches and Mediterranean climate. The town of Margaret River lies three hours’ drive south of Perth, six miles from the sea. Cape Lodge is 20 minutes north of Margaret River on Caves Road, the tree-shaded main thoroughfare of the wine country. Turning onto the property, we found ourselves amid vine-covered hills. Following the winding road, we came to the main lodge, a gabled structure reminiscent of the Cape Dutch architecture of South Africa.
Although the property offers nine attractive Garden Rooms, we had opted for one of the 12 spacious Lake View Suites. This proved one of those felicitous occasions when we loved our room at first glance. Clean lines and a restrained color scheme created an atmosphere of deep tranquility, while a peaked ceiling added an element of drama. Sliding glass doors offered a lake vista. The hotel’s restaurant recently acquired a new chef, Michael Elfwing, who has worked with gastronomic luminaries such as Heston Blumenthal. During our stay, there wasn’t a dish we didn’t enjoy. Among the highlights were a shellfish soup filled with scallops and prawns, and lamb served two ways — as a perfectly cooked rack and a meaty croquette — both with eggplant, organic root vegetables and a flavorful tapenade. In addition to wine tours, the lodge’s concierges can make arrangements for golfing, biking and more. Overall, the whole area reminded me of another favorite place: the wine country north of San Francisco.
Nanuku, Viti Levu, Fiji
Fiji is at its most magical in the outer islands, which, until now, have been home to all of my recommended resorts: Laucala Island, Yasawa Island and The Wakaya Club. However, Auberge Resorts recently opened a property on the south coast of Viti Levu. Curious to see whether Fiji’s main island had finally acquired a luxury hideaway, I flew for 30 minutes across the emerald interior to the resort’s airstrip.
The entire Nanuku development, which comprises an 18-room resort and private villas, stretches along almost two miles of sandy beach. Families tend to stay in one of the six beachfront villas (which offer two or more bedrooms), whereas couples opt for the Vunikau Suites atop a hill. Thatched roofs give all of the buildings traditional profiles and allow them to blend into the palm-studded landscape behind the resort.
It required some effort, but we did leave our exceptionally comfortable suite from time to time, descending the hill in our golf cart (every accommodation includes one). Nanuku organizes daily scheduled activities such as kayaking, yoga and bike rides. We also went on a “food safari,” during which we toured a crab farm and watched a woman fetch prawns from a creek. We enjoyed the crustaceans at dinner that evening, along with kokoda, a ceviche-like appetizer; feta-stuffed pork fillet with wild ota fern and a pumpkin croquette; and a papaya bavarois with passion fruit coulis and coconut sorbet. Viti Levu finally has a resort that I can enthusiastically endorse.
Ratua Private Island, Vanuatu
The 80 islands that make up the archipelago of Vanuatu lie 750 miles west of Fiji. Ratua Private Island is located a 45-minute flight north of the capital, Port Vila. Guests stay in one of 13 striking Indonesian wood farmhouses, estimated to be around 200 years old, which were painstakingly restored by artisans on Bali. Our house had a vaulted thatched roof and a canopy bed festooned with mosquito netting. A furnished terrace faced our private stretch of beach. It all felt thoroughly exotic and beguiling. Much as I enjoyed these accommodations, they are clearly not for everyone. Travelers unwilling to forgo air-conditioning, television or in-room Wi-Fi should look elsewhere.
The Yacht Club is the heart of the resort and the home of the main restaurant, which presents simple but delicious seafood-focused meals accented by local produce. Activities include paddle boarding or kayaking in the channel and snorkeling around the island’s reef. One day, we circumnavigated the island by horseback, riding through its groves of mature coconut palms and patches of mangrove forest. Guests can also take advantage of a spectacular overwater spa with two treatment rooms, one of which has a full-size bathtub hewn from the trunk of a tree.
Service tended to match the quality of the facilities, getting everything right that really mattered. Excursions and transfers went smoothly, and in general, everyone seemed anxious to help. Shyness sometimes prevented proactive service, but this felt like a small price to pay for the experience of a place so thoroughly unique and unspoiled.