Before borders closed: Why the last destination you visited matters
Travel has never been only about the actual experience. There are surely three pleasures embodied in every journey: the planning and anticipation of it beforehand, the enjoyment of doing it, and the happy recollections afterwards.
One of these joys – obviously the greatest – has been put on indefinite hold, which is challenging for those with a love of travel in their sinews. Nevertheless, they’ve kept their passion alive, not by wallowing in the mud of self-pity (well, perhaps a little), but by cheerful splashing through their memories.
Travel in the mind is all we have at the moment, at least in its international form, but it still has limitless boundaries and the power to make us smile. In that spirit, we asked five of our writers about their last overseas trip before borders closed, and how it inspired them.
MONKEY BUSINESS IN MALAYSIA
By Ute Junker
I wonder what the monkeys have been up to? Oh, who am I kidding – I know exactly what they have been up to. I watched them scampering around the edge of the glamorous pool, leaping over unoccupied deckchairs before scuttling up the impossibly straight trunks of the nearby palm trees.
If they were that cheeky in my presence, you can just imagine the hijinks they’ve been getting up to without any guests around. Wouldn’t surprise me to learn that, while the resort was closed, they raided the towel cupboard and spread them out on the deckchairs for a softer landing.
I made it back from Malaysia’s Desaru Coast just before the borders shut – and just days before the new One & Only Resort was to have its official opening. I had flown over to inspect the luxurious seaside resort – think sumptuous villas, indulgent spa, indulgent dining, glamorous beach club – and also to explore this under-visited part of Malaysia.
I travelled through this corner of the country 20 years ago on a low-budget odyssey through Asia; I was keen to see whether it held much promise for a more cashed-up traveller.
We took early-morning trips to find the white-handed gibbon in the nearby forest, tried our hands at the local martial art, Silat Melayu, and even gave tall-tree climbing a red-hot go (well, some of us did; I took on cheerleading duties). And we lay by that picture-perfect pool, watching the monkeys put on their sideshow.
GOING OUT ON A HIGH IN AUSTRIA
Scenic picture-postcard view of famous Hallstatt mountain village in the Austrian Alps. Photo: iStock
By Catherine Marshall
Snow conceals everything: the fir trees, the slanted rooftops, the churchyards’ tombstones, the coming plague.
It’s late January 2020, and the virginal slopes of Austria’s Arlberg region foretell a fresh beginning; they’re iced thick as wedding cakes in the flume of winter’s snow storms – heaven for skiers drawn compulsively to this cradle of alpine skiing.
But the ambience is unreliable, a disquieting calm before the tempest brewing even as I glide high above fairy-tale snowfields in the Flexenbahn gondola. Below me, skiers fly off-piste, inscribing dreamy, devil-may-care squiggles into the packed snow (I’m a hopeless skier myself, better suited to eating käsespätzle or, at most, snowshoeing through powder).
Jammed into the valleys, the villages of St Anton am Arlberg, Stuben, St Christoph, Lech and Zürs are lifted from the pages of a storybook: church spires, cobblestoned streets, horses drawing open carriages. Two summers earlier, I’d hiked through wildflower-filled meadows in Vorarlberg, one mountain range over.
Back home in Australia, the pandemic will clarify my travel objectives: to do so purposefully rather than for the sake of it; to never take travel for granted. It will inspire me to return to the places I’ve visited already, only this time in memoriam.
I’ll imagine myself dangling above that ocean of foam in the Arlberg, skiers sailing across it as though making a dash for freedom. I’m certain the view from up here will change; the snow will melt, eventually, and the wildflowers will bloom.
LAST TANGO IN BUENOS AIRES
A mural in the San Telmo neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo: iStock
By Anthony Dennis
Ah, those were the days. When masks were something you donned only in Venice during Carnevale; when physical distancing meant a surprise upgrade to business class; when caseloads involved the excess baggage fee with which you were slapped prior to departure (except when flying business class).
My last foreign destination seems an eternity ago. Nine months or so ago, in event-heavy, lockdown-laden, pandemic terms can feel like 90 years. But my passport, as underused these days as a Trump exit strategy, buried beneath stuff, lots of stuff, does reveal that my last international destination was, yes: Buenos Aires, Argentina.
It was my extended stopping off point following an extraordinary luxury cruise to Antarctica on the Scenic Eclipse. It was the penultimate one, in fact, before the pathogens, to which we were then largely oblivious, hijacked our lives, all 8 billion of ’em. How innocent we were.
Much of my time in BA was spent visiting some of the 70 or so “bares notables”, the Argentine capital’s ornate historic cafes and bars, many more than a century old, that have been protected by a visionary city council. One of my favourites was the splendid art nouveau Las Violetas with its Italian marble flooring, bronze chandeliers, stained glass and furnishings from Paris.
In between time I even managed, badly lapsed Catholic that I am, to fit in a Pope Francis tour of his native Buenos Aires. Perhaps only after Maradona Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Il Papa’s real name) is Argentina’s favoured son though some still question his role during the military regime of the 1970s.
The tour included a visit to Bergoglio’s old Catholic primary school where outside there’s a heart-wrenching plaque dedicated to a teacher who became one of “the disappeared”.
Throughout my few, glorious days in BA there was the common trepidation of being mugged there, coupled with the unsettling, creeping, unease of an approaching, at that point little-understood thing called a pandemic.
Soberingly, the other day Argentina overall recorded nearly 5500 new cases of COVID-19 with the total number of cases now at nearly 1.25 million with 35,000 deaths. That makes it the nation with the seventh worst record on earth. Do cry for Argentina.
DOING IT EASY IN SULAWESI
A Coral Expeditions cruise ship in Tinabo Island, Sulawesi. Photo: Coral Expeditions/David Li
By Brian Johnston
I came close to not getting home from Sulawesi earlier this year, as flights were cancelled and borders slammed shut. I was on a Coral Expeditions cruise from Darwin deep into the Indonesian islands on an increasingly disrupted itinerary but, for all that, one I’m glad I didn’t miss.
I still think back to sea breezes stirring equatorial heat, the sequined shimmer of turquoise seas, islands mohawked with coconut palms. In pearly mornings and virulent orange evenings I strode the decks and admired flying fish and brooding volcanoes.
Komodo was brown and crumpled, Flores cascading rice terraces and jungle. We snorkelled off tiny atolls in an hallucination of multi-coloured, improbable-looking fish.
We met fishermen and traditional shipwrights, national park guides and market women grinning through gold teeth. Sometimes we met nobody at all, on Lost World islands with just our own footprints on the sand, and verdant valleys that might still hide dinosaurs.
Just remembering it makes me feel happy. Indonesia, our nearest neighbour, is bemusingly underestimated by Australians, who seldom see beyond Bali. But with uncountable islands, multiple cultures, gobsmacking scenery, distinctive wildlife and outstanding reefs, this is a destination I always gladly return to – and I know I will again.
As for commentators who gleefully anticipate cruising’s demise, they’re simply ignorant of its many permutations. Mega-ships will certainly change, but I’m very confident that small, carefully run ships in the luxury and expedition categories have a viable future.
More than ever, travellers will be looking for controlled environments, small-group experiences and less-crowded destinations. Meanwhile, remote communities will hope for some form of tourism that provides a source of income but a light footprint. I know that whenever such cruises resume in Indonesia, I’ll be first up the gangplank.
ROMAN HOLIDAY FROM HELL
Roscioli Salumeria con Cucina deli in Rome, Italy. Photo: Maurizio Camagna
By Ben Groundwater
The world changed sometime between pasta and dessert. It would never be the same again. My partner and I had gone out to eat with friends at Salumeria Roscioli, an upmarket trattoria near Campo de’ Fiori in central Rome.
We’d taken a table down in the wine cellar, where there’s no phone reception, no connection to the outside world. Periodically we would walk upstairs to check for messages from our babysitter, but mostly we were ensconced in this perfect world of pasta and wine and friendship.
We ordered mortadella with Parmigiano to start; we moved to carbonara, amatriciana, fried gnocchi, and pasta with butter and more cheese. We drank Langhe Nebbiolo. We ate sweet biscuits dipped in chocolate. We sipped decaf espressos. And then finally we emerged onto that busy street outside to find nobody. Not a soul.
We checked our phones: Italy had just gone into full lockdown. We needed to escape. Now. My last holiday before COVID-19 was at the epicentre of the outbreak, in Italy. My little family had planned to spend six weeks in Rome; we made it through four and a half. We kept telling ourselves we were safe as the outbreak increased.
We still took our “cafe e cornetto” every morning at Pasticceria Barberini, even as the world began to panic. We still shopped at Mercato di Testaccio for vegetables and pasta and eggs. We still took the bus to the Centro Storico to wander those amazing, history-filled streets.
But then one day the world changed, sometime between pasta and dessert. I miss Rome, despite those dramas. The Eternal City holds eternal appeal, and I plan to be one of the first to return, as soon as we’re able. Until then I cook my own carbonara and brew my own coffee and think how lucky we were to make it home.
FLIGHT PLANS: I CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK TO…
A herd of Giraffes herd in the savannah of Africa. Photo: mantaphoto
The one thing I’ll be taking with me when I start travelling again is a more expansive sense of personal space – and that rules out many of my favourite travel experiences. So where does that leave me? Fortunately, one of my very favourite travel experiences is built around wide-open spaces. Yep, I get the feeling there’s an African safari in my not-too-distant future. UJ
I was due to visit Sudan, this conflicted North African nation, later this year, to cross the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile and expand on my fledgling knowledge of a region whose aridity is starkly juxtaposed with the antiquities crowding it. Until I can journey there I will travel through books like Jamal Mahjoub’s A Line in the River and Veronique Olmi’s Bakhita: A Novel of the Saint of Sudan. CM
The potential for the next travel bubbles after New Zealand (c’mon Jacinda, courage) and the Pacific being all relatively well-performed COVID-19 Asia nations such as Singapore, South Korea, Japan and, Taiwan suits me just fine: the people, the cities, the sights, the food, the service. For me Asia has everything and then some. AD
The village of Zermatt with the peak of the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. Photo: Supplied
It’s not that I need efficient trains, geraniums or Gruyère cheese right now, although that would be nice. But I’m desperate for mountains. I miss mountains more than ever this year, since they’re always guaranteed to provide some perspective on life’s problems, and to soothe the soul. Swiss mountains make me feel happy, with their snowy peaks, too-cute chalets, bell-clanking cows and flowery alpine meadows. BJ
Take me back to Latin America: to Bolivia, Argentina, Peru. Take to me those pristine landscapes, those culture-filled cities, those chaotic roads. Show me those arms-flailing, chest-beating, life-embracing people. Take me to family barbecues, to the beachside idyll, hiking trails that reach to the sky. Take me on an adventure; take me on a journey. I’m ready. BG