Secret’s out: Where to find the world’s best beach.

art Grace Bay Turks and Caicos 1 420x0 Secrets out: Where to find the worlds best beach.

The 11km-long Grace Bay Beach in the Caribbean's Turks and Caicos islands was voted the world's best beach two years in a row by TripAdvisor travellers.

It’s a shining jewel that often ranks as the world’s best beach, yet most Aussies don’t know it – or more importantly, where to find it.

Grace Bay Beach, with its white-sand beaches and clear blue water, is a tropical dream floating in the Caribbean. It’s a 90-minute flight from Florida’s Miami, or a three-hour jaunt from New York.

“Grace Bay is a hot button for travelers right now,” says Mona Beeson, general manager of The Sands At Grace Bay.

“A lot of tourists have already been to Hawaii or Mexico, so they want to see something new – and Turks and Caicos is relatively new.”The Caribbean is coming back into people’s awareness.”

The sheer beauty of the place is what makes it so special, especially at sunset. Time to sit under a coconut palm and order cocktails, as a red sun sets over the water.

As Caribbean torches and kerosene lanterns are lit at restaurant tables along the beach, all you can hear is the sound of the waves.

“People often compare us to other Caribbean places, but I always say the beach here is so much better,” Beeson says.

Turks and Caicos attracts about one million visitors per year. Grace Bay Beach, which stretches out for over 11km, was voted the world’s best beach two years in a row by TripAdvisor travellers.

Grace Bay is a popular dive spot, with an incredible 2134-metre deep wall for scuba divers and the world’s third-largest barrier reef.

Luke Santo, from snorkel tour operation Reef Peepers, says divers can see large stingray, sea turtles, barracuda, sharks, snapper, lobster and grouper – and seasonally, dolphins and whales.

“Everything is bigger out there on the wall,” he says.

It’s true. We snorkelled right off Grace Bay and at times were surrounded by 10 to 20 huge fish, which swam so close I could nearly touch them.

Then there is the daily parade of water sports – in the air and along the beach – parasailing, water-skiing, banana boating, fishing, paddle-boarding and kayaking.

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Clear blue water ... Grace Bay is 90 minutes by plane from Miami in Florida.

And there are plenty of day-trip options. Reef Peepers collects us on the beach in their boat for a half-day snorkel adventure to the reef with our nine-year-old son where we see lots of fish and soft coral.

We also visit nearby Iguana Island, inhabited by up to 3000 iguanas, many of which obligingly ran up to pose for our cameras.

And we catch our own lunch – conch (like calamari) – made into salad for lunch on the boat. We take the shells home as a souvenir.

It’s the simple, natural experiences like these that are drawing more tourists to the area, says Beeson.

It’s also a very safe destination for travellers and the British-administered government wants to keep it that way. Grace Bay is being developed as a high-end destination, which now boasts a number of international gourmet chefs.

Celebrities have recently raised the profile of the islands, with Donna Karan, Bruce Willis, Keith Richards and Christie Brinkley owning property on the nearby expensive luxury destination, Parrot Cay.

But Grace Bay Beach is more affordable.

There are weekly hotel music nights, barbecues and bonfires on the beach at Grace Bay, plus golf, shopping and a casino.

You can easily catch a plane to Grand Turk, the capital, to see magnificent historic Caribbean buildings and have a stingray encounter, but be warned – this is where the cruise ships go.

Another option is booking a local ferry to North Caicos to learn how the locals live and see ruins, flamingos and a plantation.

Hotel development on Turks and Caicos stalled for a while due to investor bankruptcy and alleged government corruption. But the pace of life on Grace Bay now seems set to change, with the local Providenciales airport undergoing a $70 million expansion and new hotels on the way.

The Sands At Grace Bay is a stylish mid-range hotel for families, with kitchens, a supermarket shuttle and pools, spa and free snorkel equipment for guests.

But Lonely Planet’s pick is the casually elegant Sibonne Beach Hotel, the first hotel built on Grace Bay in the late 1980s.

At its peaceful plantation-style verandah restaurant, you can eat with your feet in the sand, near hammocks strung up by the pool, underneath the bulging bunches of bananas and coconuts hanging from the palms.

Marie van Rooyen, acting manager at the Sibonne, has worked on the island for seven years and says she fell in love with it “immediately”.

“At times I still sit down for dinner here and find I can’t stop staring at the sunset.”

Written by Shelley Dempsey

Originally Published in The Age

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Vava’u is Tonga’s island paradise

Angela Saurine

668635 euaiki eco resort Vavau is Tongas island paradise

WHEN you are staying on a tropical island with only about a dozen people on it, walking in on one of them naked in the shower is not a good idea. You are sure to have to face them again sooner or later.
When the person you have seen in all their glory is the owner of the resort, your embarrassment is magnified tenfold.??My friend Sonya and I had arrived the day before and the shower in our thatched hut seemed to have only two temperatures – too hot and too cold. I knew the British family who had been staying in the fale (house) next to ours had left that day and on the way to dinner I decided to take a peek inside, partly because I thought I could use that shower next time and partly because I was curious to see if it was bigger than ours.??That’s when I suddenly caught sight of a handsome, rotund, tanned, bearded man and heard a surprised and slightly alarmed “hey!”.
“Sorry!” I cried as I hastily closed the door and returned to my giggling friend on the path from which I should never have strayed. A few minutes later, Mark arrived at dinner and nothing was mentioned of the incident ever again.

They call it home

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Inside a room at the Blue Lagoon Resort.

Mark, an American who spends the off-season running pirate ship adventures for cruise ship passengers in Mexico, took over Euaiki Eco Resort three years ago.

Despite having lived all over the world, he insists they will bury him here. He will happily take you on a ride on the outrigger canoe he has built, or accompany you on a kayaking trip to the island opposite.

His small staff includes a young couple named Chuck and Erin, who had been saving to have a big wedding but after a year in corporate America decided to pack it in and use the money to travel instead. Now they often find themselves going to every shop in town during their visits to the “mainland” to find enough eggs to feed all their guests.

But the young Tongan chef Simione makes the most of what ingredients he has, serving sliced coconut chips as aperitifs, an amazing cabanossi and cheese concoction, garlic prawns and scallops with mashed potato and salad and ice-cream with banana for dessert.

Simione, it turns out, is a bit of a jack of all trades. While we are there he decides to chop down a tree and builds a cabana next to the dining hut. After dinner that night he also treats us to a firedancing performance on the beach, lighting a bonfire at the end. This is only his second show for tourists. He appears in a freshly-made palm tree skirt, with Scooby Doo undies underneath. Despite a couple of false starts and dropping the stick a couple of times, it is an entertaining performance.

Euaiki is one of only three resorts on the outlying islands in the Vava’u island group. Arriving there feels like landing in paradise. Mark’s canoe bobs in the shallow, turquoise water that laps at a long, white stretch of sand lined by a handful of small thatched huts. Unfortunately, we get stuck in a hut on the windy side of the island, but the view out to two of the most picture-postcard perfect tropical islands I have ever seen is a dream.

Euaiki activities
Within minutes of arriving we get the classic “you should have been here yesterday” spiel when Mark tells us that the day before whales had swum by directly out the front.

If you are feeling up to it, you can circumnavigate the island in about an hour, exploring wind-formed caverns along the way. Or you can simply lie back in a hammock and watch the dog catch crabs in the sand.

As soon as you step in the water you are on an incredible reef, with an abundance of angel fish, the biggest blue starfish I have ever seen and coral all the colours of the rainbow.

The resort is a true eco resort. The lighting is solar powered so if it has been a cloudy day you can expect to eat your dinner in the half dark, and the water comes from rain tanks. After a few days of clean living, my hair and skin are silky smooth and I want the feeling to last forever. The bamboo doors on the huts have only a latch for a lock, but there is nobody much around to steal anything any way.

The island next door
We don’t think it can get any better. Then we hop in a boat and move on to The Blue Lagoon Resort on a nearby island. As well as the beautiful lagoon, its biggest selling point is its array of eclectic bungalows, each with its own distinct flavour.

Nature has taken priority here. One has a palm tree growing through its roof, while another has a large rock serving as a coffee table and a bathroom built around a natural rock waterfall.

We are lucky enough to score one of the larger bungalows on the beach overlooking the lagoon, with a splitlevel wooden floor and two double beds draped with mosquito nets.

The bathroom is half outdoors, with a stone-paved shower, and there are no glass windows, just air. Best of all, the showers have water pressure and once you work out what the Chinese writing means, you can regulate the temperature.

My bed has panoramic views of the sheltered lagoon. When I arrive, I pull the lace curtains back and lie down to take it all in. All I can hear is the sound of palm trees blowing in the breeze, water lapping at the shore and parrots tweeting in the trees behind us.

An unusual owner
The resort is run by a bearded German man named Friedl, who wears oval glasses at the end of his nose and can only be described as eccentric.

We have been warned that Friedl has a reputation for being prickly, with a sense of humour that sensitive types (such as myself) may find offensive and I feel nervous before meeting him. But as soon as he learns we are Australian and therefore, naturally, have “an understanding of the outdoors” we are set and I take to him immediately.

Over dinner at night, he regales us with tales of hurricanes he has seen on the island, explaining how the skulls and bones of sperm whales that decorate the restaurant were washed up on the beach outside.

There are no set meal times. The restaurant is open all day so you just rock up when you are hungry and order. As well as his skill at repairing hurricane-damaged fales, Friedl is also a qualified chef, and you can barely see the table at his famous breakfasts because the plates of food cover every square centimetre.
Source: The Australian

 

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Devil and the deep blue sea

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Margaret Turton discovers the dark history of a peaceful island rated among the world’s best-kept secrets.

I’ve always been a sucker for meeting the locals, or at least finding out what makes them tick. The trouble is, Con Dao – which occupies eighth position among Lonely Planet’s “world’s best secret islands” – has few locals to speak of. It has few visitors, too, although that will change.
Access from the mainland has improved with increased direct flights from Ho Chi Minh City from where, in just an hour, I walk through the doors of the new Six Senses resort on Con Son, which is the largest of the 16 islands of the Con Dao archipelago.
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In striking contrast with the fast-paced city formerly known as Saigon, the resort exudes blissful calm. Spacious, private teak villas, each with an infinity pool, face a perfect scallop of sandy beach.
The views are expansive – from the pool, the sea-facing verandah or the bed festooned with nets looped around a bamboo frame.
In crystal-clear water, excellent for diving, there are huge whip coral, brain coral, sea fans, turtles, morays, blue spot rays, eagle rays and large stingrays. Eighty per cent of Con Dao is marine and national park, which is a big drawcard for the small number of Westerners who have already made it here. Yet there’s more to Con Dao than pristine nature.
The island of Con Son was once called the “Devil’s Island of south-east Asia” for its role as a political prison under French colonists, who ruled Indochina from 1862 until 1954.

Con Dao Island 22710151 ConDao island4 Devil and the deep blue sea
The term was borrowed from their other penal colony, the Devil’s Island of French Guiana, infamous in Henri Charriere’s novel, Papillon, and its movie adaptation starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
American advisers took over Con Son’s prisons from 1955 until its inmates were liberated at the end of the Vietnam War. As a penal institution for more than a century, the archipelago avoided development. It wasn’t napalmed, which accounts for the extent of the old-growth forests and unspoilt coral reefs.
The prison’s presence is the reason most visits to date have been brief ones by government-sponsored groups of former inmates returning to remember Vietcong colleagues in the cemetery.
So, with a handful of Westerners, I set off from the resort on the Con Dao historical tour. With us is fellow guest Arlie Schardt, the press secretary to former US vice-president Al Gore. I’m guessing the day won’t be dull.
Con Son town is five kilometres from the resort along the coastal road; mountainous forest-clad interiors on one side, lush, green slopes falling to the South China Sea on the other. Crumbling buildings dating to the French occupation are scattered about.
Once in Con Son town we file through the market, a neat concrete building where household goods, sea shells and Ho Chi Minh souvenirs aimed at the fledgling tourist industry are sold. A lively fresh food and fish market spills onto the streets at the back.
This is a diminutive town with a museum that is housed within the former governor’s residence, a yellow-painted, blue-shuttered, pleasantly down-at-heel relic of France’s fallen empire.
Our guide, Mrs Ngoc, attempts to gather us together but we’re drawn to displays of objects made by prisoners: combs shaped from pieces of aircraft; fans, jewellery, embroidery; exquisite island scenes painted on wood. We wander off and stare at rows of photos of respectable-looking civilians – leaders and thinkers held prisoner here, Mrs Ngoc says.
There’s a list of governors and directors, including Lieutenant Andouard, said to be the cruellest. He was killed here by a prisoner, who was later executed. And there are the photographs of American advisers: visiting the governor’s residence; with hard labour prisoners; inspecting the prisons; planning their expansion. There are weapons and instruments of torture, too. Rarely, if ever, have I seen a small museum illustrate local history with such powerful clarity.
By the look of Mrs Ngoc, she’s not used to undisciplined groups. Such is our level of interest in this museum we’re already behind schedule.
Minutes later she has us at Phu Hai Prison, built in 1862. It held intellectuals opposed to the French, as well as anti-American soldiers and leaders such as the co-founder of the Indochinese Communist Party, Le Duc Tho, later known for negotiating the ceasefire agreement of 1973 and declining the Nobel peace prize that year.
With its tree-lined courtyard dominated by a American-built chapel, Phu Hai Prison doesn’t look like a prison. Once in the cells, though, there’s no doubting what went on. To underscore the point, shackled plaster models demonstrate the prisoners’ conditions.
Next stop are the infamous “tiger cages” of Phu Tuong Prison, built by the French in 1940 and
so-called because they resemble the concrete pits used to cage wild tigers, though here they were used for human prisoners. They were discovered in full operation by a delegation of US congressmen in 1970 and revealed to the world in a Life magazine expose soon afterwards.
News of the windowless cells with bars on the ceiling – through which guards taunted prisoners with sticks and dropped showers of caustic lime – sparked international condemnation until its male and female inmates were moved to other prisons.
We’ve entered the tiger cages at the heels of a small group of former Vietcong servicemen. They melt into the distance, leaving swirling plumes of smoke from cigarettes and incense sticks left in remembrance of their colleagues.
Again, plaster models give an extra edge to the scene. Schardt is visibly shaken. We’re all very quiet, though sometimes there’s a gasp or some sighing.
On it goes, all the way to the adjacent Phu Binh Camp, an American prison built in 1971 with even smaller cells for prisoners.
American journalist Don Luce, who accompanied the 1970 congressional delegation, claims there is a connection between the US-built Phu Binh Camp prison and the isolation cells at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He says the US construction consortium Brown and Root, which built the cells at Phu Binh Camp, became a subsidiary of Halliburton, the controversial conglomerate that built Gitmo’s isolation cells for terrorist suspects.
So, what now for the Devil’s Island of south-east Asia?
When peace came in 1975, some former inmates chose to stay. They formed the core of a tiny permanent population that still clusters around Con Son town’s small harbour and radiates along leafy streets flanked by colonial bungalows. Their lives now move at a slower, gentler pace.
Previously, a twist of fate saved Con Dao from development. Now Six Senses is here with the company’s “slow life” philosophy on sustainable tourism, its fussiness about treading lightly and its mandatory environment-awareness training for staff, which includes a viewing of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
It could be goodbye devil and hello to a clear blue sea.
Margaret Turton travelled courtesy of Travel Indochina.

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FAST FACTS

Getting there

Travel Indochina has a low-season return airfare and accommodation package fare with Vietnam Airlines from Sydney and Melbourne to Con Son for $2320 a person, twin share, including taxes, airport transfers, one night at the InterContinental Asiana Saigon and five nights with breakfast at Six Senses Con Dao. This entails a flight to Ho Chi Minh City (about 9hr) and the overnight stay to connect with a flight to Con Son (45min). Phone Travel Indochina on 1300 367 666; see travelindochina.com.au.
Australians require a visa ($90) for stays of up to 30 days.

Staying there

InterContinental Asiana Saigon has rooms from $91 a person a night, twin share.
Six Senses Con Dao has an ocean-view deluxe villa for $295 a person a night, twin share, booked through Travel Indochina; see travelindochina.com.au and sixsenses.com/sixsensescondao.

Touring there

The Six Senses Con Dao guided historical tour costs 750,000 dong ($35) a person. Also recommended is the self-guided (free) bicycle tour from the resort. Museum entrance of 20,000 dong covers prison entrance. Opening hours are erratic.

 

Source: The Age

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Royal honeymoon: holiday guide to the Seychelles

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The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge first visited the Seychelles, a paradise patch of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean, in 2007 following their break-up five months earlier. Rumour has it the dreamy archipelago is where they vowed to stay together for good and marriage was first mentioned – so it is an apt place to return to for their honeymoon.

While taking over an entire island might be out of most people’s reach, here are some ideas for planning the perfect honeymoon.

The place Prince William and Kate checked in following their kiss and make up back in 2007 is a main contender for the royal honeymoon retreat. It is a private island ringed by 14 kms of white sand and 70 kms of coral reef. There are 23 luxurious beach villas furnished in tasteful cream and wood, each featuring a four-poster bed, outside bathroom and spacious lounge.

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The royal couple, who would most likely stay in the enormous Presidential Villa, could dine in privacy each night on their terrace, or in the lush gardens overlooking the sparkling ocean and pool; a personal chef whips up mouth-watering dishes in the villa’s kitchen while a butler pours the drinks.

North Island (http://www.north-island.com)

Sybarites adore this private island resort, which is one of the most expensive and exclusive getaways in the world (around £14,000 per person for a week’s stay). It’s an A-list favourite, thanks to its incredible beaches and beautiful villas – there are only 11, handcrafted and dotted around the island for complete privacy. Villa 11 is the ultimate honeymoon pad, with a split-level lounge, spa, home entertainment system and library.

Nature-lover William would appreciate the island’s eco credentials, which include the reintroduction of critically endangered Seychelles flora and fauna, such as the legendary coco-de-mer palm. Kate would adore the spa menu, with specialties such as a tension release massage (vital after that wedding) while listening to the lap of the waves. There’s no menu concept here, as the chef speaks to each guest in turn about what their personal food preferences are and develops a daily menu around this, using influences from the Seychelles, France and Southern India.

Cousine (http://www.cousineisland.com)

Another tiny private island that draws the stars – Sir Paul McCartney honeymooned here with Heather Mills (although perhaps this isn’t the best advert for the start of marital bliss) – but much lower-key than neighbouring eco-resort North Island. There’s a choice of four villas each featuring a large bedroom opening straight on to the beach, and a spacious bathroom with twin showers and a Jacuzzi bath. As with many other resorts in the Seychelles, Cousine is also big on conservation, so the royal couple could expect to spot giant tortoises on the white sand beach and see flocks on endangered birds during a stay here.

Frégate Island Private (http://www.fregate.com)

James Bond himself, Pierce Brosnan, has holidayed on this incredibly exclusive hideaway. Frégate has 17 traditional-style villas made from native mahogany and thatch and spread out between the palm trees, offering total privacy. Highlights here include private plunge-pools set beside king-size day beds, and a range of luxurious and indigenous treatments available at the Rock Spa, which is located on a high plateau.

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Mahé

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge flew into Mahé, the international gateway to the Seychelles and home to the country’s main airport and capital Victoria, one of the world’s smallest cities. Although most honeymooners use it as a stepping-stone to other islands, it is a beautiful destination in its own right, which Prince William and Kate would do well to spend a day exploring.

There are lush botanical gardens bursting with tropical blooms, a tea plantation, and interior nature trails along mountainsides which reveal hidden treasures, such as the carnivorous Seychelles pitcher plant, vanilla orchid and rare Jellyfish tree. The south is less populated and boasts spectacular, often deserted, palm-fringed, talcum powder-soft beaches, such as Intendance, a half-mile stretch of powdery white sand considered by many to be the best stretch of sand in the Indian Ocean.

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Maia Luxury Resort & Spa (www.maia.com.sc) lies on the southwest coast and is a honeymoon Mecca. After a welcome glass of Champagne you’re whisked to one of 30 private villas, full of the usual five-star clichés – infinity pool and enormous bed – plus some fabulous extras such as La Prairie products and sunken outdoor double baths.

Praslin

Praslin, which lies just 45 km from Mahé, is the second largest island in the chain and home to not-to-be-missed UNESCO World Heritage site Vallée de Mai, once thought to be the original Garden of Eden, and where the legendary coco-de-mer, the world’s largest nut, grows. Praslin’s other main lure for visitors are its exquisite beaches, such as Anse Lazio and Anse Georgette.

There are several hotels on Praslin, the chicest of which is Constance Lémuria Resort (http://www.lemuriaresort.com) overlooking bright white Anse Kerlan beach. Along with the fabulous presidential villa, perched on a granite outcrop with its three swimming pools and private beach, the other lure here for Prince William and Kate is nature: turtles lay their eggs on the beach and rare black parrots can be spotted in the palms.

La Digue (http://www.ladigue.sc/)

La Digue, the fourth largest island in Seychelles and just a 30-minute boat ride from Praslin, is unmissable. The pace of life is slow and laidback; the two types of transport are ox-cart or bicycle and boats are traditionally made by hand. Here they can catch a glimpse of the Seychelles’ black paradise flycatcher, one of the rarest birds on earth. The island’s forests are filled with giant Indian almond and takamaka trees, vivid hibiscus and bougainvillea flowers. Most visitors to La Digue seek out Anse Source d’Argent, one of the world’s most photographed beaches thanks to its soft white sand edged by giant, smooth granite boulders and caves. It lies at the end of a sand track in the Union Plantation Reserve, where coconut oil is still produced in an old mill surrounded by palms.

Honeymooners check in to La Digue Island Lodge, a rustic idyll lining Anse Reunion beach. If the royal couple decide to eschew celebrity haunts and go local, this is the place to do it. From the delicious Creole cuisine to the thatched beach houses, it is very laid back, although they could spread themselves out in the Yellow House, a National Monument of the Seychelles dating back to 1900, which boasts a spiral staircase and nine double rooms.

Article Source : The Telegraph, London

 

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