Bernadette Chua heads to Australia's Red Centre and explores Uluru in style.
Two ladies sitting in Longitude 131's Dune House are finishing their desserts of coconut pannacotta with macerated berries. The sun has already set over Uluru, the superstar rock that draws so many to this inhospitable part of the country.
The women are on a self-drive holiday and have explored much of the Northern Territory. Now they are lamenting their final night at Longitude with espresso martinis and a Henschke pinot gris.
"By this time of the year, we would already have spent $20,000 on an overseas holiday," one of the ladies tells our host, Tiana.
"Thanks to COVID, we've discovered an amazing place like this."
And it's a similar story for another couple from Sydney's high-end suburb of Mosman. They should have been on a luxury month-long trip to Sri Lanka, followed by a trip to see their son in New York.
Instead, they are making an amazing discovery: the country they live in is one of the world's most desirable destinations.
Longitude 131, just a few kilometres shy of Uluru's shadow, once attracted as much as 50 per cent of its clientele from Asia, Britain, America and Russia. Their absence has restored Australia's Red Centre to the nation's bucket list. And rightly so.
The beauty of Longitude 131 is that you can do the Rock in splendid luxury knowing just about everything is included in the price: top-shelf liquor throughout the day; a la carte breakfast, three-course lunches and four-course dinners; a continuously restocked minibar in your tent; as well as small, daily, guided shore excursions and airport transfers.
We arrive in the afternoon and are greeted by Chris, one of the lodge's managers. While the rest of the passengers on the flight head towards AAT Kings coaches or off on their own self-drive adventures, we're ushered to a small, private bus where we're given refreshing, cold towels and bottles of water. It's a balmy 34 degrees, but the desert heat is a pleasant change from the humidity of the east coast.
Longitude is one of only six resorts in Uluru and is the closest to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Up until the mid-1980s, campers and 4WD enthusiasts could still set up right next to the rock formation. But when the land was finally handed back to the Anangu, the traditional owners of Uluru, strict guidelines were put in place to protect the national park.
Perched on top of the dunes, the ultimate stay on this stunning property is the Dune Pavilion.
This two-bedroom suite has lounge and dining areas, a pool, walk-in wardrobes and two bathrooms. With a starting price of $3400 per night, the Dune Pavilion was perhaps made for those now missing Arab oil sheiks. Or perhaps Kate and Wills (yes, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have stayed at Longitude).
The word "tent" hardly seems to fit the bill for the 15 lavish king-sized Luxury Tents.
Draped in fabric, the sweeping roof canopy evokes the atmosphere of sleeping under canvas. Fitted out with a super king bed, a double vanity in the bathroom, as well as your own minibar, the best feature is the massive balcony with its fireplace, day bed and armchairs. All balconies have a direct view of Uluru.
Every morning, the staff at Longitude will rouse you before the sun rises, so you can see Uluru in all its glory. Of course, at 5:45am, the thought of freshly made coffee and a warm hearty breakfast is also enough to get guests out of bed.
A day at Longitude starts out with your choice of smashed avocado, eggs benedict with fresh damper, as well as freshly made pastries and fruit before a dawn excursion. This is to ensure the early birds don't catch the flies - a bit of a problem at the height of summer.
Excursions usually start at about 6:30am and include a meander around Uluru or a visit to Kata Tjuta. The unique aspect of these experiences is that the guides are well versed in the Indigenous cultural significance of each site and also know the geology of the region.
During the day, guests can escape to the pool or get oiled and pampered at the Spa Kinara. The therapists offer Indigenous-themed treatments starting from $190.
Longitude 131 also offers private day tours to Kings Canyon, scenic helicopter rides and a 10-kilometre circumnavigation of Uluru's base - activities which range in price from $75 to $3600.
Guests can take a motorcycle tour of Uluru, a camel tour to watch the sunset or visit the local art galleries to learn the art of dot painting.
Uluru is much more than what you see in photographs or on the TV. On our first afternoon, we hike a short part of the trail around the base as an introduction. Brogan, our trusty guide, explains the history of the park and shows us caves where we see carvings as old as 35,000 years.
But luxury is never far away. As we round a curve towards one of the waterfalls, Richard, Longitude's bartender, is waiting with canapes and G&Ts - a refreshing sight after a scorching afternoon walk.
Like any expensive resort, service here is impeccable. But true to Australian's laidback nature, the staff make you feel relaxed and there isn't an ounce of stiffness.
Local ingredients and produce are the focus at dinner; it's not unusual to find kangaroo, quandong and lemon myrtle in different dishes. It could come straight from Maggie Beer's pantry. Head chef Tom Saliba migrated north after Longitude's sister lodge, the Kangaroo Island property Southern Ocean, burned down during the bushfires of 2019/2020.
Dinner at Table 131, a crafted experience where guests eat in the open just a few hundred metres from the tents, has only four dining tables. It's a quiet, intimate setting nestled around a cement circle, with a fire pit as the anchor.
As soon as the lemon-myrtle profiteroles are brought out and the fire pit extinguished, Brogan regales us with Dorothea Mackellar poems and Dreamtime stories.
At the end of a very special experience, we are driven in golf buggies to the main property where swags have been fitted and a tray of Baileys, cognac and popcorn await.
As we all climb into our swags, sadly on our last night, to gaze up at the Milky Way, we realise just how lucky the Lucky Country really is.
It's a growing realisation in Australia. We are all learning to understand why Ms Mackellar so aptly wrote: "I love a sunburnt country."
The reality of plane travel in the pandemic.
The flight from Sydney to Ayers Rock Airport is full. I've lost my touch - my travel partner and I are running to the gate. The cabin staff yell at us as we sprint towards Gate 56 (the furthest away in the domestic terminal might I add). My shoelaces are undone and my toiletries are flapping as I wave at the attendants. "We're coming," I yell.
It's been six months since my last flight and I once had it down to a fine art. I would saunter through security like a rockstar, not even breaking a sweat. But today I'm a mess.
And as we walk down the aisle, there are glaring eyes peering at us from over their patterned masks. Travel has changed in a COVID-19 world.
Visitors to the NT need to fill out a declaration form confirming they haven't been in any hotspots in the past 14 days. The forms need to be cleared at departure - something I foolishly didn't check - as well as on arrival. The officials who check your forms clear out about 30 minutes before departure. And of course, we arrive just after they have left. After a lot of pleading and a near anxiety attack, the kind staff at Jetstar let us through.
The three-and-a-half-hour flight is uneventful. Passengers can't purchase food on board and no booze is allowed. But the flight attendants are lovely and encourage passengers to wear masks.
You can tell people have been itching to travel - there is a sense of excitement on board. On approach, there are oohs and aahs as people catch a glimpse of Uluru. It's the first time for many.
We disembark row by row and everyone remains seated until it's their turn. Once inside Ayers Rock Airport, we line up to have addresses and bank statements checked.
"We've seen a lot of online shopping from Melbourne and a lot of Afterpay [which is based in Melbourne]," says the friendly attendant.
"But we normally check their McDonald's receipts to get a better understanding of where they've been. We had one lady who went to McDonald's twice a day for an entire week."
Slightly mortified, we hand over screenshots of our bank statements along with proof of our lease. It's a small price to pay to be able to travel.
Take me there
Fly: Jetstar flies to Ayers Rock Airport from $278 return ex-Syd/Bris and from $258 return from Melbourne. If you're looking at doing a self-drive holiday, Hertz, Avis and Thrifty have desks where you can rent 4WD, utes or sedans.
Stay: Prices at Longitude 131 start from $1700 per person, per night for a Luxury Tent. The two-bedroom Dune Pavilion starts from $3400 per person, per night.
Explore more: discovercentralaustralia.com
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