Living on a tropical island: Australian expats' expert tips

Tropical islands are bewitching; balmy weather, blue seas and hypnotic sunsets with palm trees silhouetted by a flaming sky. For some, an island holiday is never enough. Something pulls them back. Some feel such sadness at the thought of leaving, they return at every opportunity.

Soon one month turns into two; the next year it's six months here and six months there. Despite all the reasons why living on an island doesn't make sense, they can't let go. Before they know it, they've handed in their resignation, packed up their house, farewelled friends and family and are heading off to give island life a chance.

For some, the reasons are simple: a better lifestyle, warmer weather, the chance to start the day with a swim in the sea and drift off to sleep to the sound of waves. Who doesn't want to feel as if they're permanently on holiday? For others, it's the opportunity to reinvent themselves, do something completely new, embrace a foreign culture and look at life through a different lens.

Here, six Australian expatriates share what first drew them to their island home, what they love about living there and why it's impossible to leave.


Cecilia Jensen, owner-operator of boutique travel agency, Sri Journeys (originally from Sydney).

We always joke that there are no traffic jams; you only have to watch out for buffaloes crossing.

Narelle McMurtrie

MY ISLAND HOME Sri Lanka was never on my travel radar. All I knew about this gorgeous island was cricket and tea. An expiring Indian visa brought me to Sri Lanka as a detour after a year of travel. I found an idyllic island paradise and love.

For a tiny island, I continually marvel about the diversity: beautiful beaches, incredible wildlife, consuming culture and stunning scenery. Our guests, many who return yearly, as well as family and friends, all agree.

My partner, Sashika, had an established family travel business when we met. He arranged short and long-term accommodation and island tours. Since I had a background in travel we decided to base ourselves close to Galle to share our passion for Sri Lanka to travellers. We have seen a growth in visitors during the past six years, which fortunately has not swamped the island like it has other destinations. Even during peak season, you can find empty beaches and have ancient ruins to yourself. We love the unspoiled nature of Sri Lanka and respect its optimism in rebuilding after the long civil war, which ended a few days prior to my first visit.

Living a short distance from historic Galle Fort, we have the surf on our doorstep, as well as natural Jacuzzi rock pools. We have the best of both worlds - restaurants and activities in Galle, balanced by the village lifestyle of Dalawella.


SEE + DO Being an island, Sri Lanka is a country of bays and coves. We love Arugam Bay for its surf and laid-back style. Mirissa, with its whales and palm-fringed beaches, is also a favourite. Sri Lanka's national parks, from the well-known Yala to secluded Gal Oya, offer the opportunity to see elephants, leopards, sloth bear, buffalo and an incredible variety of birds.

Evidence of Sri Lanka's ancient and colonial history is everywhere. There are verdant tea estates in the hill country, tropical beach drives, open savannah plains, and thickly forested jungles. If you prefer a quieter pace, enjoy a cookery class or time on a tea estate. Visit Galle in January for the Literary Festival. A villa stay is a great way to experience Sri Lankan hospitality. It might just tempt you to return and stay.

INSIDER TIP Learn a couple of words of Sinhala, and brush up on your cricket. It's tempting to think that you can cover all of Sri Lanka in a short time, but a better idea is to base yourself in one place. Galle is a great option, but it is but one of many possibilities.

ESSENTIALS Singapore Airlines operates daily connections to Colombo, Sri Lanka's largest city, from Sydney and Melbourne via Singapore. See Stay at Alfie's Beach House from $381 a night,, or Ramparts Villa from $516 a night,; See;


Narelle McMurtrie,  hotelier, restaurateur and gallery owner (from Old Junee, NSW).

MY ISLAND HOME Langkawi [off the far north-west coast of Malaysia) is paradise to me, and has been for 21 years. During that time little has changed. I opened Bon Ton Restaurant and Resort in Langkawi in 1994. The resort slowly evolved as antique wooden houses were moved and rebuilt on-site, but our animal shelter developed at a faster pace. We've been trapping, neutering and releasing ever since, under the foundation, Langkawi Animal Shelter &  Sanctuary (LASSie).

In 2008, we opened Temple Tree Resort, featuring grand wooden heritage houses sourced from cities across Malaysia, and covering all ethnic styles. Of course there has been change, but at a much slower pace compared to Bali or Phuket. People are friendly, helpful and laid-back. It's genuine and comes from the heart.

Many guests are repeat visitors; some have come as many as 20 times. The local people remember them so it feels like their second home. With the pace of life being so slow, you have no choice but to relax. We always joke that there are no traffic jams; you only have to watch out for buffaloes crossing.

Four years ago I set up China House, a restaurant, cafe and gallery space in three heritage buildings in George Town, Penang but Langkawi is still home. Its pace suits me perfectly, particularly as I'm a night owl. Great food can still be had on the streets until 3am, while many shops stay open till 11pm. The minute I step off the plane in Langkawi, peace and calm prevail, even though my workload is exactly the same.

SEE + DO Rent a car. It's cheap (about  $35 a day) and you can explore the whole island, which takes around four hours to circumnavigate. You can visit beaches, drive through beautiful villages and stop for food by the roadside.

A nature trip, kayaking in the mangroves, taking a jungle walk or an island tour is a must. Langkawi has 99 magical islands. To get the feel of how the locals eat, try the night market. It changes location nightly and offers terrific food. Also be sure to try a local lunch. Langkawi is predominantly populated by Malays who have their main meal at noon. Across the island small cafes offer between 10 and 70 dishes laid out buffet style.

Walk along the main beach of Cenang in the early evening. The shops, bars and restaurants will remind you of Bali and Phuket before the crowds.

INSIDER TIP Langkawi is a duty-free island, which means shopping is extremely cheap. You can do all your Christmas shopping, and the money you save will practically pay for your airfare.

And make use of the local laundries. You can return home with a suitcase full of clean, pressed clothes for next to nix.

ESSENTIALS Qantas and Singapore Airlines fly from Sydney and Melbourne to Singapore with connecting flights to Langkawi with Silkair. Or fly Air AsiaX via Kuala Lumpur. See;; Stay at Bon Ton or Temple Tree Resort from $270 a night. See;;


Jay Whyte, managing director, Sigatoka River Safari (from Hornsby, NSW). 

MY ISLAND HOME I came to live here as a result of my first trip to Fiji when I was 13. A security guard at the resort we stayed at, befriended me and invited my family to journey into the interior of Viti Levu to see his village, Draiba. We were welcomed like long lost family. This day changed my life as I fell in love with Fiji: swimming in the river, going by horseback to a waterfall and spending time as a Fijian captivated my young mind and I knew then that I wanted to live and work in Fiji. In 2006 I returned to Fiji to start the dream that is Sigatoka River Safari.

I love living in Fiji as I get to share my passion for the country with others and am able to make a positive difference to the people who I love. Visiting Fiji teaches people to live in the moment, while the Fijians themselves make the experience all the more special.

SEE + DO Definitely see the interior of the island, which is the heart and soul of Fiji. Discover the people who make this area so special, spend time with the Koi Yata or Kai Colo (mountain people) and learn the way of life that has kept them so happy for centuries. On the Sigatoka River Safari you travel in jet boats along the Sigatoka River to visit authentic Fijian villages and experience a life of the real "kaiviti" (Fijian). On the Off Road Cave Safari you cross the river on a "push-push punt" and then head further inland by custom-built Land Rovers to the Naihehe Cave where you learn about Fiji's cannibal history. The Sigatoka Sand Dunes and swimming at Biausevu Waterfalls are other must-dos.

INSIDER TIP Fiji is only four hours flying time from Sydney and the official language of Fiji is English. Fijians are second to none when it comes to making you feel welcome, so don't be shy and say "bula" to everyone!

ESSENTIALS Fiji Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Nadi. Direct Sydney-Suva flights are offered twice weekly. See All-inclusive rates at Nanuka at Pacific Harbour start from $930 a night; or from $534 a room, a night at Malolo Island Resort. See;;;


Mark Simmons, VP sales and marketing, Outrigger Resorts, Asia Pacific (from Sydney).

MY ISLAND HOME Working for Outrigger Resorts, means I've called Phuket, a large Thai island in the Andaman Sea, home for two years now. I come from a hotel family and prior to living and working in Phuket, spent several years working in Sydney, Cairns, Bangkok, Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong. As a base, Phuket offers a terrific lifestyle balanced between a beautiful natural environment, the gentle and engaging Thai culture, and a high living standard with excellent medical and educational facilities. If you pursue an active lifestyle, it's the ideal place to live. I enjoy diving and some of the best sites can be found around the Similan Islands north-west of Phuket.

SEE + DO Phang Nga Bay is unique. A distinctive feature of the bay are the sheer limestone cliffs that jut vertically out of emerald green waters. Phuket town offers excellent restaurants and an insight into Phuket's roots. Sino-Portuguese architecture from the 19th century coupled with authentic shopping can be found in the heart of Phuket's sleepy provincial capital. Wat Chalong is one of Phuket's most important and historically interesting temples – it's the spiritual heart of the island. Phuket also has six excellent golf courses.

INSIDER TIP Phuket is a year-round destination with wonderful islands, beautiful beaches, natural beauty and sensational sunsets. Don't miss sunset at Promthep Cape, and make sure you sample all the wonderful Thai food.

ESSENTIALS Thai Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Bangkok, with connecting flights from Bangkok to Phuket. See Stay at the Outrigger Laguna Phuket Beach Resort from $166 in a deluxe seaview room, or from $540 a night at the Anantara Phuket Villas. See;;


Amanda Wilson, cluster director of spa for Anantara Resorts Maldives (from Melbourne).

MY ISLAND HOME The Maldives is total inspiration, with a lifestyle I love. Every resort in the Maldives is on its own private island. I live on the island Anantara Veli Resort and Spa, a 30-minute speedboat ride from Male, the capital, and the international airport. The Maldives is made up of coral atolls. There are roughly 1200 islands, of which 200 are inhabited and 100 are resorts. It's a dreamy, magical place with brilliant sunshine, pure white sand, crystal blue waters and thriving underwater life. There are balmy evenings and spectacular sunsets. At night, the stars light up the sky like diamonds. The Maldivian people are proud, friendly and welcoming, and Maldivian food is addictive. Fish and coconuts are in abundance and Maldivians love spice.

With more than 100 resorts to choose from, it's also one of the world's most sophisticated holiday destinations. I love to go resort-hopping for barefoot fine dining, international DJ's and dancing under the stars.

SEE + DO Try surfing at Prewitt's Left next to Anantara Dhigu Resort in South Male Atoll. Take a traditional dhoni sunset cruise with cocktails, snorkel at Seventh Heaven reef in the South Ari Atoll or dive with giant manta rays at Manta Point Baa Atoll. Enjoy grilled fish under the stars on the Virgin Islands, visit the resident ayurvedic doctor at the SUNDARI Ayurveda Spa on Anantara Veli, and catch a seaplane with barefoot pilots for stunning views of the atolls.

INSIDER TIP Visit a local island and chat to the villagers who fish for a living and build their own homes - just ensure you gain permission from the island chief. Or spend a day in Male, the world's most crowded capital city, for a multi-coloured high-rise adventure.

ESSENTIALS Fly from Australia to Singapore with Qantas and connect with Sri Lankan Airlines to Male, via Colombo. See Stay at Anantara Veli Resort and Spa from $1030 a night or from $US419 at the Outrigger Konotta Maldives Resort which opens August 1. See;


Penelope Williams, executive chef and director, Bali Asli (from Mosman, NSW)

MY ISLAND HOME In 2007 I had a phone call from Amanda Pummer, then general manager of the Alila Hotel in Manggis, East Bali, asking if I'd be interested in an executive chef position. After a "masterChef" style interview and four-day trial, I landed the position. I thrust myself headlong into the Alila adventure: a new country, culture, language and cuisine. The Balinese are so in touch with what Mother Nature has to offer; it is impossible not to be inspired. My food at Alila paid homage to the amazing produce at my fingertips, and the people who fished, farmed and foraged for it. My inspiration was also shared with students in Alila's cooking classes. Now I have my own restaurant, Bali Asli, surrounded by paddy fields at the foothill of Mount Agung,  Bali's most revered volcano.

SEE + DO A day trip is the best way to escape the hustle and bustle of Ubud, Seminyak and Kuta, and immerse yourself in some of the rich culture that is still alive in north-east Bali.

Karangasem, where Bali Asli is located, is a terrific place to base yourself for exploring the real Bali, whether it is trekking, diving, snorkelling, biking, temple hunting, meditation, drawing, photography or yoga; it's all here.

INSIDER TIP Pull yourself away from the shops and bars. Attend a ceremony, walk with a local guide through his village, have morning tea with his family, help make offerings, harvest or plant rice, taste the local moonshine and the cuisine, cooked using traditional cooking equipment, just as we do at Bali Asli.

ESSENTIALS Garuda Indonesia flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Bali. See A superior room at Alila Manggis starts from $279 a night, or from $389 at the new Maya Sanur. See;;;