Traveller writers on the five destinations they're fantasising about returning to

Imagine this: that you could click your fingers and be taken back to a favourite overseas travel destination at this very moment. That is the fantasy we put to our top writers who, like everyone else, have been starved of travel sustenance.

Their responses are gratifying, not only because they reflect Australians' undiminished enthusiasm and yearning for travel, but because they showcase our world's enormous diversity, which we all long to rediscover.

While some dream of animal encounters, others are eager for urban culture. Some wish to be whisked back to Europe, others to Africa or Asia. They want to be amid India's densely-packed streets; in remote, tiddly St Helena; or even, in spite of all the recent negativity, on a cruise ship once more, squinting at a sparkling ocean.

We hope this inspires you to think of your own fantasy, and all the many places you still long to experience. As COVID vaccines bring a glimmer of hope that international travel is on the horizon, it's time to revitalise our travel dreams.

THE SHOCK OF THE NEW

By Craig Tansley

the famous hofburg building in vienna - austria SatJan30Cover

Fantasy lands

Photos: iStock/Alamy

Vienna's Hofburg Palace. Photo: iStock

The other day I caught myself marvelling at the history of a 1960s fishing shack that developers were pulling down to put up a new set of condos where I live on Queensland's Gold Coast. As I gaped at six decades of memories in those crumbling fibro walls as if it was the Colosseum in Rome, I realised: I really miss old things.

Australia may be home to the planet's oldest culture, but unless we're fortunate enough to leave our cities for Indigenous sites, everything feels…well…new.

That got me thinking about the time I met an Austrian girl at a bus-stop in Sydney, packed up my life and moved to Vienna. I'd love to be transported back to that city again, even just for a few days.

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I couldn't speak a single word of German, so I just wandered … for 14 months. I felt invisible there, I'd daydream and lose entire weeks riding the tram round and round The Ring, a four-kilometre long circle that encloses Vienna's oldest district.

I'd stare out the window at those baroque mansions and grand Italian Renaissance buildings and try to imagine how life was for those who came before me.

I never did take a tour in any of the famous buildings of Vienna's First District, like the Hofburg Palace, the headquarters of the Hapsburg empire for seven centuries, or the Schonbrunn Palace where Mozart played when he was six.

In Vienna, I felt I should just roam, watching life play out around me. "The greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time," author Bill Bryson says. I'd sit for hours at 300-year-old coffee-houses, served by waiters in waistcoats and bow-ties in buildings with marble columns and chandeliers. Or I'd opt for wine, even if it was morning since everyone else was.

Nothing felt contrived in this city, just romantic – buskers played violin and dressed in tuxedos, pigeons fornicating in the street looked like they were making love. I'd love to transport myself there, especially come summer when locals leave their apartments and don't return for three months, lost in a non-stop carnival of festivals, concerts and fairs. For those glorious mid-year months, there's nowhere you'd rather be.

JEEPEST, DARKEST AFRICA

By Rob McFarland

Sunset with safari car silhouette at Serengeti. 
SatJan30Cover

Fantasy lands 

Photos: iStock/Alamy

Photo: iStock

It was still dark when we trundled slowly out of camp. Bleary-eyed from our 5am alarm, I sat in the back of the Jeep, smothered in blankets and cradling a strong coffee. It wouldn't get light for another hour but this was the best time to see leopards, in the biting chill of early morning as they prowled the plains looking for prey.

Patrick, our local tracker, sat precariously on the front of the bonnet. Like a metronome, he swept his torch rhythmically from side to side, searching for the tell-tale reflection of a pair of eyes in the undergrowth. I miss this. The excitement. The anticipation. The wonder at what spellbinding encounter the day might bring.

Yesterday a baby elephant comically charged the Jeep. The day before two chocolate-maned lions walked regally side by side across the savannah at sunset. But there was still one big cat I'd yet to see in the wild and Brett, my guide, was determined to find me one.

Life at the lodge was a taxing regime of extravagant feasts interspersed with naps and swims. I miss the lavish four-course dinners featuring impala carpaccio and hoisin-glazed roast duck served around a roaring fire.

The elaborate spreads of fruits, salads and home-cooked pastries for breakfast and lunch. The genuine struggle of trying to find room for a freshly-baked scone at afternoon tea.

We continued rumbling through a scorched landscape of low scrub dotted with acacia trees. As the sun eased over the horizon, it was heralded by a cacophony of birdsong – a veritable orchestra of whoops, shrieks, whistles and beeps. Silhouetted against the dawn, five giraffes galloped across a distant plain, a graceful ballet of improbable limbs. From a muddy watering hole, a lone male buffalo regarded us with visible disdain.

Suddenly, Patrick held up his hand and Brett slammed on the brakes. After studying the dusty trail, he said something in Zulu and motioned left into the bush. Brett turned to me and grinned. "Leopard tracks." Take me back to Africa, to an open-top Jeep, searching for leopards at dawn. I miss that.

A THRONG IN MY HEART

By Ute Junker

Calcutta, India - January 4, 2014:  Flower market in Calcutta. High angle view on flower market where Indian every day buy flowers for the Hindu ceremony. They love particularly garlands made of yellow or orange marigold flower heads. Very colorful sight. SatJan30Cover

Fantasy lands

Photos: iStock/Alamy

Photos: Getty Images

I never thought I'd miss it. The pull of the crowd, ebbing and flowing – and sometimes jostling – around me, a river of people flowing down the street (pre the pandemic and social distancing, of course).

The constant soundtrack of voices, chattering and hectoring and joking and arguing. The blare of car horns and the dizzying swirl of smells: frying oil and mangoes and sewage.

I love India. I love the way it stimulates all my senses. I love the streets that double as living rooms, the gaudy peacock colours, the ancient traditions that live on in modern cities. I even love the way that complete strangers habitually quiz you on the most private subjects, and look surprised when you hesitate over your answer.

What I'm not so keen on, however, is the complete absence of personal space. I know that's the way it is, I prepare myself in advance, I go with the flow for a couple of days – until I find myself holed up in my hotel room, exhausted by the constant onslaught of people, by the inability to enjoy a moment of solitude as I walk down a street.

Now, however, it's different. After a year of social distancing, I'm ready to plunge right in. I want to throw myself into the biggest crowd I can find. I'll brave the morning crush in the flower markets, where huge numbers of buyers press their way past vertiginous, perfumed piles of jasmine and marigolds.

I'll even submit myself to rush hour at Mumbai's Victoria Terminus, arguably the most extravagant railway station in the world, and certainly the busiest. I'll delight in the fact that the streets are never deserted, not even in the pre-dawn hours.

I want to enjoy a chai at a roadside stall, sipping it from an unfired terracotta cup as I chat with the other customers. I want to stop every block or so and graze on a different type of street food: dosas or samosas or those crunchy spiced corn flakes that I could eat by the kilo.

I want to exhaust myself with engagement, let myself be overwhelmed with friendliness – and then I want to wake up and do it all over again.

MY ISLAND HOME AWAY FROM HOME

By Catherine Marshall

EJ09DD St. Helena, United Kingdom, UK, south Atlantic, island, isle, cliff, islands, isles, reef, Great Hollow, sea SatJan30Cover

Fantasy lands

Photos: iStock/Alamy

Photo: Alamy

The pantropical dolphins are carousing down in the South Atlantic Ocean. They leap and twirl, soar and belly flop, dive and rise again from that blue-ink cauldron, ribbons of water trailing behind them like diamante capes.

This fathomless ocean is all theirs; nothing exists beyond it within sight or memory, except for the volcanic rock levitating precipitously behind them, a solemn backdrop to their merriment: St Helena Island, that inescapable place to which Napoleon was exiled in 1815.

Social distancing is second nature to the people who live here, for this miniscule island – around eight kilometres from top to bottom and 16 kilometres at its breadth – is one of the most isolated in the world, a chunk of basaltic lava marooned between the far-distant shores of Africa and South America.

But how I long to return, for despite its remoteness, the originally uninhabited island is imprinted with the legacy of five centuries' worth of traffic: explorers and exiles and shipwrecked sailors, traders and slaves and POWs from the Anglo-Boer War.

Today it comprises a designated British Overseas Territory along with far-off Ascension and Tristan da Cunha islands. This rich cultural and ethnic mishmash has given rise to the Saints, as locals are known, a people devoid of artifice or swagger.

They befriend me on the streets, invite me into their homes, share with me the extraordinary topographical diversity crammed into the confines of their island home.

From the water, where the dolphins are joined by whale sharks from January to March each year, we trace the jagged rise of peaks and the tight ebb of valleys smudged green with prickly pears and lemon trees.

Inland, we rise along switchback roads from the Georgian settlement of Jamestown, pressed like Lego into the valley, into pillowy pastureland; we pass through desert moonscapes and across black lava beaches, and hike through cloud forest to the island's highest point, Diana's Peak. Beyond us stretches the Atlantic Ocean, still and infinite.

There was no way for Napoleon to escape this exile; indeed; this is where he died in 1821. Such quarantine has served the Saints well, too, for thus far their island has been untouched by COVID; that fathomless ocean has kept the plague far at bay.

HI HO SILVER SPIRIT

By Brian Johnston

Pool & Jacuzzi Area, Silver Spirit SatJan30Cover

Fantasy lands

Photos: iStock/Alamy

I was aboard Silver Spirit early last year, just before the cruise world was becalmed, and I'd opt to be back on the ship in a flash. Its aura of calm, unobtrusive luxury and muted colour palettes would be soothing right now.

I dream of a cruise ship that transports me to a tranquil place where I don't have to think about anything except an unhurried lunch, a soak in a hot tub that overlooks the ocean, and a long drink in a suave piano lounge. I can hear the rattle of a cocktail shaker in my mind. And the gurgle of the water as I insinuate myself into the swimming pool.

This last year has all been about doing everything myself in my own house, so I'd happily let my Silversea butler take over. Laundry, ironing, towel folding, shoe polishing, cold beers and elegant canapés that just appear at my elbow. And oh, how I'm tired of cooking.

I imagine being back in Atlantide, one of my favourite restaurants at sea, eating elegant fish off Villeroy & Boch china, and dithering over dessert.

Otherwise, I could be settling in for a big, fat pork chop at The Grill, cooked on a hot rock at a table under the stars. I can hear the wine sloshing into my glass, the water sloshing in the swimming pool, the murmur of contented conversation.

After a year of my own cuisine, I could wander into any of Silver Spirit's eight dining venues. Asian-spiced short ribs one day, Maine lobster the next. Grand Marnier soufflé, or a coffee gelato.

I'd love to be magicked back to my suite, with its mood lighting, luxurious fabrics and smoky-grey Italian marble in the bathroom. Or the Observation Library, with its wraparound windows that would have me glancing up from my book. Or the Panorama Lounge, swallowed up in a comfy blue armchair, nursing a gin and listening to the jazz band. Or simply standing on the deck, with all the peacock blues and emerald greens of the Philippines or Polynesia drifting past. Perfect.

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