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Great hotels, fab food and diving with humpbacks; what’s new in Australia

A chat with one of the world’s top chefs. And a ton of great information about fabulous things to do in one of the world’s favourite destinations.

I was lucky enough to attend the annual Australia Tourism Summit in Pasadena, California last week. I came away a pound or so heavier, and a lot more wise to what makes Australia such a wonderful place for a visit.

I started my two-day summit with a great chat with Luke Mangan, who started cooking at age 15 and now runs around 20 restaurants worldwide, including hot spots in Australia, Singapore, Japan and Indonesia. He’s also the official chef for Virgin Australia airlines. We all make fun of airline food, so I asked Chef Mangan what makes for a great meal in the sky.

“At 35,000 feet you need more zing,” he said. “We lose something like 30 per cent of our taste at that altitude so you have to adjust your cooking.”

luke mangan

Chef Mangan said he likes to use a bit of citrus, or perhaps a splash of vinegar for high-altitude zip. He also uses meats with a bit fat, as lean cuts can get dried out in the air.

At home in Sydney, he’s happy to cook up some lamb chops or, yes, fresh fish on the barbie.

He’s got lots of company in Sydney these days, and around Australia. Australia Tourism’s Jane Whitehead (Vice President, The Americas) told the summit that inbound visits from the U.S. were up a whopping 16% last year, while visits from Canada were up 7%. That’s probably not surprising, as a Skyscanner study issued earlier this year found that as many Canadians want to visit Australia this year as head south to Mexico, a traditional hot spot for north-of-the-border travellers.

Whitehead said visitors spent $99 billion in Australia last year. The goal is to double that figure to $200 billion by 2030.

harbour bridge sydney
Australia has now passed the 100,000 hotel rooms mark, with another 5,000 expected this year. Included in that are new W and Ritz Carlton hotels, both part of the Marriott group, she noted.

The summit also veered into other great topics. Wendy Sowers of Boeing talked about new planes that major airlines will have at their disposal in the next couple years will allow direct flights to Sydney or Brisbane from Toronto and New York. Right now folks in eastern North America have to make a stop, often in Los Angeles or Vancouver. But the new planes will have a longer range, making stopovers a thing of the past for some lucky folks and giving visitors more time on the ground in Australia.

taronga park zoo sydney
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On the summit’s final day we got short updates from a number of Australian states and territories. A few of the highlights are listed below.

WESTERN AUSTRALIA

Many Canadians (me included) make it to the east coast and sometimes a little further inland. But not so many make it to Australia’s westernmost state. Which is a shame, as it sounds brilliant. You can go swimming with whale sharks and now even Humpback whales on the Ningaloo Reef, which has brilliant diving and snorkelling but is only steps from the beach (the better known Great Barrier Reef off Australia’s east coast usually requires a sizeable boat ride). They’ve had great rains in the northern part of the state the past few months, which means that waterfalls in The Kimberley area will be even more epic than usual. On top of that, Perth is building new hotels and restaurants every day, and the Margaret River area in the south part of the state is celebrating 50 years of winemaking this year. I love their Cabernet Sauvignon.

ningaloo reef

SOUTH AUSTRALIA

Adelaide is another city that continually is adding trendy new places to stay, eat and drink. It doesn’t get as much PR as Melbourne or Sydney but it’s quite cosmopolitan, yet small enough that you can get out of the city and into Australia’s famous countryside in no time. The Barossa Valley, Australia’s top wine-growing region, is only a short drive away. You also can head north and get into the Outback quite quickly. You can stay at an underground hotel in the town of Coober Pedy, an opal mining area. There also are tremendous nature opportunities on Kangaroo Island, including new coastal walks. Not your thing? Try a river cruise or walking expedition along the Murray River.

kangaroo island

NORTHERN TERRITORY

Folks have been flocking here in record numbers to see the famous “Red Centre,” which includes Uluru/Ayers Rock. If you’ve never been, you’re missing what I think is the essence of Australia; a mystical place where aboriginal lead magical tours of shimmering, ancient rocks that overpower your senses. A visit to Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) and the nearby Kata Tjuta park is like nothing I’ve ever seen. I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting, but I’m mesmerized by the photos I’ve seen of Nitmiluk National Park south of Darwin, in the far north of the NT. The waterfalls and red rock canyons look like nothing I’ve ever seen, and I’m dying to visit. Darwin also looks pretty cool; a small city that’s far closer to Indonesia than it is to Sydney.

uluru australia

QUEENSLAND

Brisbane is another city that’s growing by leaps and bounds. They’ll host the Commonwealth Games in 2018, which should bring in plenty of Brits, Canadians and New Zealanders. I visited the area for the Australia Tourism Exchange last year and had a great time walking the coast, eating local seafood and drinking craft beer from the area. I also got to trek north to the Fraser Coast, where I rode in a van on the hard-packed beach, rode an inner tube down a freshwater creek and admired an old wreck that’s washed up on the sand. I also got a full day on Lady Elliot Island on the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef. We got in a lovely snorkelling trip and also spotted a series of graceful manta rays and turtles in the blue-green water.

lady elliot island

NEW SOUTH WALES

It’s hard to keep up with what’s new in Sydney as the city is such a vibrant, cosmopolitan spot. A tourism spokesperson mentioned several new hotels, including The Old Clare. It’s built on the site of a former brewery, and it’s a glorious, hip hotel. I had the pleasure of staying there last year, and loved the trendy décor and cool rooms. The food also is excellent. Vivid Sydney? Fans of U.S. college football might want to head down to check out the game between Stanford and Rice universities in late August of next year. They’ve also added some new apartments that visitors can stay in on Lord Howe Island, a small island about a third of the way between Australia and New Zealand. I had the distinct honour of staying a couple nights several years ago and found it absolutely magical; with an Australia meets Tahiti feel.

lord howe island

VICTORIA

Perhaps the biggest news for Victoria is that direct flights will soon begin from Los Angeles to Melbourne. Virgin Australia will fly the route five times a week, which is great news for folks down Melbourne way and for visitors who want to explore Melbourne’s food scene or take in the Great Ocean Road. I also recommend the wineries up around the Yarra Valley. I haven’t been, but the pictures I’ve seen of the Mornington Peninsula south of Melbourne and the coast around Portsea look sensational. Melbourne will host 50 of the world’s best sommeliers in early April as part of their celebration of the World’s Best 50 Restaurants Awards event, slated for April 5. Among those in attendance will be Carl-Villeneuve-Lepage of Toque! Restaurant in Montreal whihch is consistently rated one of the best places to dine in Canada.

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