In a dream, around-the-world trip that rarely happens, Austinite Wes Marshall shares his dynamic insider happenings in Australia and Asia where we think will inspire your own round trip experiences to see the globe like never before.
By Wes Marshall Photography Courtesy of Wes Marshall, Archival Photography
When last we met, I was sharing the story of our trip around the world. We had started in Barcelona, home of Gaudi’s fabulous architecture, the finest Spanish cuisine, the richest Cava and the most opulent red Priorat wines. From there we traveled to India, where we had the chance to wander the back alleyways of old Delhi with our extraordinary guide, Srinivasan Rajendran, aka Raj. We also discovered what was in our experience one of the finest hotels on earth, the Aman. After a life-transforming experience in the town of Agra visiting the Taj Mahal, we jetted off on the next leg of our tour. Our destination this time: Australia and Ho Chi Minh City, better known in America as Saigon.
AUSTRAILIA: HEAVEN ON EARTH
First, Australia. But before we get to the glories of one of the world’s great countries, let me extol the virtues of the best airlines of the trip. The flights we had between Barcelona, New Delhi, Saigon and Australia were sheer luxury. Singapore Air especially, but also Thai and Swiss airlines, offered supreme service and excellent accommodations. Everything from their clubs to the on-flight cuisine and wines were well-considered and worthwhile. We flew Qantas all over Australia, but I don’t recommend them. Do yourself a favor and fly Virgin. Our flight home on United was uninspiring, especially when you can fly Emirates or Korean Air.
Australia was to take the lion’s share of the trip because we had three major stops. The single most important to me was Kangaroo Island, my version of Heaven on Earth. Little was I to know that it would be several days later that I almost made a phone call to the family with the simple instruction to sell everything because I was going to stay forevermore in my new favorite city. But that story ensues.
Kangaroo Island is a short 200 km from Adelaide. It is a well-protected area abundant with kangaroos, Tammar wallabies, koalas, penguins, New Zealand Fur seals, Australian Sea-lions, and (yummy) earth’s last known pure Ligurian honey bees. This is also the home of the giant crawfish the size of Maine lobster called the Marron. More importantly for our needs, Kangaroo Island is also where you will find the most delightful small luxury hotel in my experience, the Southern Ocean Lodge. There are just 21 suites and the happy, friendly staff outnumbers the relaxed occupants. Once ensconced, virtually everything is included in the price of admission, including a very nice collection of Australian wines to drink at your abandon.
Each room has been designed to have a massively private view of the Southern Ocean and the entire hotel is a juxtaposition of both modern and rustic art. Kangaroo Island is also the home of guides, Exceptional Kangaroo Island. I’ve worked with two, Craig Wickham, its owner, and Ron Swan. Now, to get an idea, imagine Clark Gable in Great White Hunter attire, zooming up in some big Jeep. Only they know all about all the flora and fauna, and they cook you a gourmet lunch on white table cloth out in the sticks. They can also take you to some incredible wineries, my favorite being Hazy Blur and The Islander. Don’t miss Kangaroo Island.
Adelaide is a delightful town with excellent restaurants and no good hotels. It is, however, surrounded by some of the world’s great vineyards. The prosaically named Life’s a Cabernet provides a good guide named Ralf Hadzic to take you to the best of McLaren Vail, Barossa and the Adelaide Hills and since he’s driving, you don’t go to jail. He was also a long time resident of Texas and was friends with Roy Orbison, so he is got some fun stories.
We ended our trip in Sydney, and this is where I almost had the family sell everything and ship the proceeds to us. Yes, it was that great. To get an idea Sydney’s magic, imagine the beauty of a city with so many beaches and cliffs, and still with such a gorgeous, sprawling urban center.
Like Barcelona, I wanted to try two distinctively different hotels. We started at the Darling (love that name), the luxury hotel at the Star Casino. Even the small rooms are glorious and if you are feeling billionaire-ish, the penthouse suites will live up to your expectations. Of course, it was appropriate that Leonardo DiCaprio was ensconced in one of those suites while in Sydney filming The Great Gatsby. We ran into him at dinner in the hotel at Black by Ezard, something that lit my wife’s rockets. I found it even more fascinating that we were seated next to 14 members of the Court of Master Sommeliers, who, like me, thought Black a more interesting place to dine than the vastly more famous Momofuku which is also in the hotel.
Our next hotel was The Establishment. This place is ideally located right downtown. It is very hip and modern with fun bathrooms and platform beds in the middle of the rooms. Unfortunately, the only rooms with king sized beds are the penthouse rooms. Warning: The dinner establishment, EST, is quite famous, but, to mirror its use of caps, it is aweful and expensive. Oh well….
But now, hand over heart, I must tell you about one of the top dining experiences of my life. I am a food and wine writer by trade, so I have more experience in fine dining establishments than most people. I’ve eaten at dozens of Michelin 3-star restaurants all over the world. Yes, famous winemakers have taken me to their favorite little out of the way treasures. I’m not trying to brag, I just want you to know that I have some experience when I tell you that if you are ever anywhere within Southeast Asia or Australasia, it will be worth your while to travel to Sydney just to eat at Marque. I won’t even endeavor to describe Chef Mark Best’s magic other than to say he uses French techniques on Australian food. Every single course surprised me and every single course was better than its predecessor. I left feeling it was among the top five meals of my entire life. I now believe it is among the top three. Perhaps I hit the restaurant on a particularly good night. Just to make sure I’m not putting too delicate a point on this, if there is better food being made in the world right now, please, someone, let me know where.
We had another fantastic food find in Sydney, Jonah’s Whale Beach, which has been one of Sydney’s top luxury destinations for 80 years. For a decadently extravagant touch, we took a chartered classic Beaver seaplane operated by Sydney Seaplanes as our limousine service from Sydney’s seaplane base to Jonah’s Palm Beach dock. This allowed us stunning views of the city, its famous opera house, and its many beaches and craggy cliffs. We arrived to a window-side table, inventive seafood, a great domestic wine list, and a happy three-hour lunch. If we had chosen, like many a rock star and movie legend, to just stay planted, we would have been happy to know we were in the only Relais & Chateaux hotel in Sydney.
A final note on guides. One might think that guides wouldn’t be necessary in a city as thoroughly covered as Sydney. After all, there must be a thousand guidebooks, right? Well, not so fast. We found three worth your time. Tops was Isobel Johnston of Sydney Art Tours. Instead of merely showing us museums, Isobel took us to all the private galleries. After ascertaining our tastes, she took us to several galleries. In each case, she knew all the owners and was able to get us private showings of their best pieces. Her introductions were priceless and we never once were put under the slightest pressure to buy a single thing. We also enjoyed a thoroughly offbeat trip with Richard Graham from My Sydney Detour in a classic EH Holden auto going to coffee shops, architect studios and other unexpected treats. We capped the night with Simon McGoram, also known as the Booze Braggart from Sydney Bar Tours, who walked us through several of Sydney’s underground craft bars which were places even most natives don’t know about.
SAIGON’S FRENCH GLAM
Saigon looks nothing like the dusty, dead Communist camps portrayed in so many 1950’s cold war scare brochures. Instead, it is a vibrant combo of early Twentieth Century French Indochine exoticism and 21st century Parisian opulence. Arriving in Saigon, the first thing you will notice is thousands of people on small motorcycles. Often, you will see whole families on a single motorcycle. These bikes cost about $1,000 and are treated with the same pride we treat our cars. It is funny to see hundreds of the vehicles pulled up at every stop light, some with five or six people aboard. But that is their culture. Don not be surprised if some cute young thing pulls up next to you on a hot red Honda wearing an equally hot piccalilli Miu Miu pant suit. It can happen.
We chose the InterContinental Asiana Saigon Hotel. It is lovely, centrally located and quite luxurious, with suites up to 2,200 square feet. Like its sister hotels scattered throughout southeast Asia, it caters to a clientele that seeks to be coddled without being overcharged. It has Mercedes limos and all the modern conveniences, but it’s lacking the castle-like entrance of the Sheraton or the Apocalypse Now history of the Caravelle. What the Intercontinental has is a secret weapon that is worth more than any fancy lobby: it has the best concierge staff in town.
Here’s the proof. I mentioned in our last installment that sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. Purely by accident, I had booked us into Saigon during Tet. The Vietnamese New Year celebration. is their biggest holiday of the year, When we arrived at the airport, our limo snaked us through the city streets. Everywhere we looked there were celebratory lights, monumental flower arrangements, woven dragons, and festive natives. The next night was akin to our New Year’s Eve and was to culminate in a huge fireworks display over the Sông Sài Gòn river. The A-list spot in town for the pyrotechnics was at the penthouse balcony at one of Saigon’s most chichi restaurants, Shri on the 23rd floor rooftop of the Centec building overlooking the river. To say this was the hardest reservation to get in the country is an understatement. One day before, we got an 11PM outdoor balcony-side table, looking directly at the fireworks. The explosions were amazing in the way only Asians can do. It was breathtaking, phantasmagorical, and simply magical.
That is why we stayed at the Intercontinental. Of course, when I made the reservations, I only knew that the head concierge was a foodie and knew every good restaurant in town. Now, I can tell you, they work miracles there. Never underestimate the power of a good concierge. We could spend this whole article on the remarkable restaurants they guided us to, but two require a mention. The Temple Club is a holdover from the French Indochine days. Besides great food, it was so classic, I kept expecting to see Catherine Deneuve at the next table. The other was Hoà Túc, a back alley place that was a foodie haven.
Despite its cosmopolitan exterior, Saigon’s back streets still remain an Asian city filled with intrigue and exoticism and just like New Delhi, I wouldn’t recommend trying it without a guide. After scouring the possibilities, I chose Loc Nguyen Viet Bao (he goes by Loc, as in that which secures a door). He is 31, a college graduate, self-employed, and a full time guide. His English is accented but impeccable. After he understood what I wanted – food, history, to see how the common folks live, and to get away from tourists – he designed a perfect two-day program just for us. Yours will be different, but our highlights included happening upon a bridal party in full majesty on those pesky Honda cycles and an incredible day-long boat ride up the Mekong Delta that sailed back into the jungle for a feast on delightful elephant ear fish and an opportunity to see how both rich and poor lived. It was fascinating.
A quick word about the war. They refer to it as The American War and most of them have no feelings about it at all. The young people only know what they are taught in school, and apparently, their grandparents don’t talk about it at all. There are a good number of American men in the 60-70 year age range safely wandering the area, mostly with far younger Vietnamese wives, and the Communist Party’s policy seems to be to allow capitalism to thrive. The streets were safe, other than a reported pick pocket or two in the crowded markets. In a city three times the size of Houston, that is not too bad.
At this point, more than a month had passed on our global jaunt. We had managed to cram a lifetime’s experiences into one trip around the world. My wife and I were both still healthy and happy. But we also craved a little Texas air, an icy Cerveza and a slab of Franklin barbecue brisket. It was time to come home. Until, of course, when the next adventure beckons.