Billabong Retreat is just 60 minutes from Sydney CBD but feels a world away. It's all about peace and tranquility, with the focus on yoga and meditation. It also offers lovely bush views and bush walks (around a billabong of course), a magnesium-rich swimming pool, thoughtful vegetarian home-cooked food, a wellness centre, wonderful roaring fire on the deck, and dedicated staff. You can be as social or as solitary as you like amongst the birdsong and cicadas.
My husband and I stayed in a treehouse cabin - a simple but comfortable room with it's own balcony. I loved the sign on the bathroom suggesting you keep showers to three minutes as they have limited water and gas. This frugality is what makes Billabong so special. There's no ostentation, wastefulness or over-stated luxury. It's all about reconnecting with yourself and nature.
Four classes are offered daily - at 7.30am, 9.30am, 3.30pm, 7.30pm. These switch between yoga and meditation, or are a bit of a mixture. The yoga classes are fairly straight-forward, beginner-level, while the meditation sessions actually teach you"how" to meditate, rather than just doing guided meditations.
Like a day spa, this offers remedial massage, and the best facial I have ever had.
There's also a relaxing lounge and a large deck with roaring wood fire.
The natural looking outdoor swimming pool contains magnesium which is great for relaxing muscles and inducing sleep.
A lot of love goes into the simple, organic and locally-sourced vegetarian meals. They are tasty and offer a range of vegetables plus whole grains and lovely sauces like the green tahini sauce. Example meals are chia seed porridge with nuts and seeds for breakfast, a brown rice and asian vegetarian bowl for lunch, and Indian or Mexican for dinner. Dessert might be a cacao and quinoa pudding. There is no alcohol, though I did notice instant coffee along with the huge array of herbal teas.
The price for two people, for three nights in a treehouse cabin was very reasonable - $1650 including accommodation, food and all activities/classes. There are also deluxe rooms which offer a sitting area and a bath on the balcony.
If you're looking to re-charge your batteries and don't want to go far, look no further than Billabong Retreat.
Exotic...edgy...exciting...these may not be the words that spring to mind when thinking of Auckland as a holiday destination, but it actually has a lot to offer, and may well surprise you. A three hour flight (and getting out of Australia) is a fairly compelling reason to go there, but if you need more, try stunning wild scenery, a brilliant cafe culture, great shopping, fabulous vineyards and water everywhere.
As I grew up there I may be a little biased, but I did leave it nearly 20 years ago, and each time I go back to visit I'm more enthralled with this city. It's quite diverse, incredibly relaxing and the people are ridiculously friendly. Below are pics and tips from my last visit.
First stop: Waiheke Island
Only 30 mins by glorious ferry from downtown Auckland, this little island has seduced people for decades. Originally only inhabited by hippies and alternative people (with long-drop toilets!), Waiheke has become a little gentrified with many Aucklanders having holiday houses there. However, it still has a reasonable permanent population and hasn't lost any of it's charm - just gained a few more cool cafes.
You can take the car ferry over from a different part of Auckland, but no need when there are buses to take you all over the island, or do what I did and hire an electric bike from Oneroa village (or non-electric of course if you like steep hills).
The plethora of vineyards is reason enough to visit Waiheke, and there are special buses that take you around, vineyard-hopping. They all offer incredible food, as well as wine tasting of course. Below is our pick that day - Stonyridge Vineyard in Onetangi - la ovely view over olive groves and one of the best platters I've ever eaten.
Did I mention beaches? Think deep green water and huge pohutakawa trees leaning over the sand offering shade. The top beaches are Oneroa, Onetangi, and Palm Beach (all on the northern side of the island).
At Oneroa Beach they even give you a bucket with everything you need for cooking and cleaning the BBQ - how thoughtful!
Next stop: Titirangi
Set in the bush and full of creative, nature-loving people, Titirangi is only a 25 minute drive from Auckland CBD, but feels a million miles away. It's surrounded by dense bush and birdsong, and has a buzzing little village with lots of shops and cafes. Our pick that day fro breakfast was Deco Eatery in the historic Lopdell House building. Fairly new, the interior has been transformed, and is a cross between Turkish and Scandinavian - may sound strange but really works! Patterned aqua tiles, oak and marble interact beautifully, and my Turkish breakfast was pretty good too, served out of interesting earthenware and metal platters.
Sumptuous Food at Deco Eatery and the decor makes you feel like you're in a cool part of Istanbul
Loving the tiles, oak and marble at Deco Eatery
After breakfast, duck next door to the contemporary art gallery - Te Uru. There was a wonderful James Cousins exhibition on, plus some beautiful ceramics.
Last stop: CBD
I didn't visit the CBD this time so don't have any pics, but it's a pretty good place to base yourself as you're near the ferry and transport links. Not just a soulless CBD, the Britomart area has been rejuvenated and has some great shopping and restaurants. I've enjoyed delicious Vietnamese meals at Cafe Hanoi.
There is also a lovely waterfront area stretching along Tamaki Drive to the east and to the Viaduct Harbour to the west. Re-developed in 200 when the America's Cup Yacht race was hosted in Auckland, The Viaduct, and Beaumont Quarter next to it, offer a huge array of restaurants and bars overlooking the marina. Or you can feel the thrill of sailing on an America's Cup yacht for the day.
Nearby is Ponsonby Road with it's cool cafes and bars (SPQR never fails) and Newmarket for great shopping. The Auckland Museum in the Domain has a wonderful Maori cultural show and spine-tingling haka, on daily.
So if you're visiting New Zealand but are planning to head straight to the South Island, think again. Likewise if you're planning a long weekend away and love food, wine, scenery and shopping, look at going to Auckland. There are wonderful experiences to be had, almost on your doorstep.
Just returned from a brilliant family holiday in Amsterdam - and the 2 degree days didn't stop us cycling around. It's such a cool city - striking architecture and beautiful canals are the backdrop to designer shops, cosy bars, soulful cafes. Yes winter is freezing but they make up for it with a stunning display of lights and illuminations installed all along the canals.
Recommend staying in an apartment rather than a hotel - you really feel like a local. We stayed in one we found on Airbnb - very centrally located and beautifully designed and decorated airbnb.com.au/rooms/8999669
Lots of cool bars and cafes near our location on Herenstraat, and all throughout the Jordaan and Centrum areas.
Lots of quirky one-off designer shops in an area called "9 streets" just south of Jordaan
Highly recommend a visit to the Van Gogh museum - currently there's a brilliant and interesting exhibition comparing his works with Edvard Munch.
Anne Frank Museum is a must - a calm, thought-provoking place.
Make sure you hire bikes - we used Green Bikes but there are plenty of bike hire places.
Quite different to Pantone's colours for 2016 is the Dulux Colour of the Year - Cherished Gold. A continuation of last year's Dulux colour Copper Blush, Cherished Gold is a warm, earthy tone that will work beautifully with metallics and wood tones.
If you not keen on a huge hit of Cherished Gold on your walls, go for splashes of it in accessories such as cushions. Check out a couple of gorgeous, on-trend cushion options from Yellow Front Door that you can buy online, with free delivery.
It’s nice to see a change from various tones of white and neutral – Pantone have declared Rose Quartz and Serenity to be their colours for 2016. Rose Quartz is a subtle shade of pale shell pink, while Serenity is a pale mauve/blue.
If you love these colours, but painting your walls is a bit too bold for you, Yellow Front Door has another way of introducing hints of these colours to your wall, through wall art.