Best feeding frenzy

Rarotonga

About 300m offshore from the Fruits of Rarotonga, a Cook Islands landmark that sells tropical jam, the lagoon is always warm, inviting and full of reef fish. To see them you can join a cruise from nearby Muri Beach and peer over the side. Better still, grab a mask and snorkel and swim towards the reef. For an added thrill — and a nervy spectacle — pack some barbecue leftovers in your togs. There are always lots of colourful fish mooching round the coral. The party pack is certain to bring out the big critters. We had the remains of a sausage feast and leftover steak. Hungry trevally — teeth bared and in a take-no-prisoners mood — came from nowhere in top gear. They circled us in a gluttonous school, determined to chomp on anything. One of our party had his dreads chewed. The encounter was swift, satisfying and a little scary. One way to shake up a Raro break.

— Andrew Stone

Best interaction with a farmyard animal

Scotland

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I was halfway through the eighth and final day of the West Highland Way, a 150km walk from Glasgow to Fort William in Scotland. I'd not had a proper conversation in a week. Perhaps I was lonely, perhaps demob-giddy, but I didn't think there was anything wrong with talking to a sheep. It was, after all, a lonely landscape of glens and burns and big, cloudy sky. We, well I, talked about the weather, the softness of its fleece, the usual. Only when I turned for the gate through which lay the final 12km did I realise another tramper was resting, out of sight. I said, "Erm, don't suppose you heard me talking to that sheep did you?" He said, "Yes. I was going to clear my throat to let you know I was here but you were having such a good time I didn't want to interrupt." I said goodbye. — Chris Reed

Best DIY barramundi fishing getaway

Tropical North Queensland

Murray Kirkness with a barramundi in Australia. Photo / Murray Kirkness
Murray Kirkness with a barramundi in Australia. Photo / Murray Kirkness

Pack your fishing gear, some boardies and a couple of T-shirts. Drive to Auckland Airport. Fly direct to Cairns, Far North Queensland. Hire a car. Drive south to Cardwell — it takes about two hours. Stay in digs that suit your style and budget — we went for a self-contained cabin at the Cardwell Beachcomber Motel Tourist Park with fantastic views over Hinchinbrook Island and the channel. Hire a boat, or find a guide. Head up the Hinchinbrook Channel and into one of the mangrove-lined creeks. Find some dirty water and start casting. All being well, a barramundi will turn up. If it doesn't, you'll still be in paradise. Just look out for crocs. (Queensland's east coast is closed to barramundi fishing from November to February.)

— Murray Kirkness

Best sighting of cuddly, dozing national icon

Pandas, Guangzhou

If adorable goofiness is what it takes to get an animal off the endangered list and into zoos, reclaimed nature reserves and — finally — the wilderness, then pandas are going to live forever. I saw my first panda at Chimelong Safari Park, on a family visit to the amazing city of Guangzhou, and with their floppy, knockabout nature, it was easy to see how they got on to the endangered list in the first place. They loll about, they scratch their bellies and shovel bamboo into their gobs.

Panda having its favorite meal in China Cheung Lung Zoo. Photo / Getty Images
Panda having its favorite meal in China Cheung Lung Zoo. Photo / Getty Images

They flop down, leg draped unaesthetically over the side of their elevated platform whilst snoozing in the face of their admiring hordes of visitors. I've seen a lot of animals, but I've never seen one give less of a damn about anything.

— Winston Aldworth

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Best aquarium

Cairns Aquarium, Queensland

The only facility in the world to exclusively showcase the stunning aquatic wildlife from Tropical North Queensland's two World Heritage-listed areas — the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics Rainforest — Cairns Aquarium has more than 15,000 animals from 10 different ecosystems. There's guaranteed interaction with some of the rarest and most elusive creatures on Earth, from a kaleidoscope of tropical fish to snakes, turtles, rays and sharks.

Cairns Aquarium, Queensland. Photo / Supplied
Cairns Aquarium, Queensland. Photo / Supplied

The aquarium is open every day of the year, and free Wi-Fi means you can upload your stunning snaps to Instagram before you even leave the building.

— Lorna Subritsky

Best place to witness a (near) monkey mugging

Bali

The Ubud Monkey Forest is one of Bali's top tourist destinations; a sprawling complex with close to 750 grey-haired and long-tailed Balinese macaques. Dropping us off, our driver gives stern advice. Leave behind anything loose — hat, sunglasses. Take out earrings and keep a firm hold on your phone. Signs by the ticketing area show cartoon depictions of what not to do — large red crosses beside pictures of a hapless tourist making eye contact, petting a baby and being pick-pocketed. There's fun in watching as visitors push their luck. One Japanese man edges his preschool-aged daughter closer and closer to a monkey, another English backpacker encourages one to climb over his back. Our closest call comes when one of our group reaches for a vine to steady himself, only to realise his hand is closing in on a tail. Its owner turns and bares its teeth in warning. A close call, and signal for us to leave.

— Nicholas Jones

Best animal encounter (aquatic)

Humpbacks in Ha'apai, Tonga

The baby is so close, I can almost touch her, but I don't. It seems an invasion of its space. As I stare at her, and she stares back, we are interrupted by the mother, rising up from the depths. She is about 15m long and about 30 tonnes. She glides up close to me, her 5m pectoral fin like an arm, stretched out, as if to say, "that's close enough, thanks". She settles next to her baby, and looks right at me. We are just off the island of Ha'apai, where these magnificent creatures mate, birth, party and prepare for the long trip south, to Antarctica. There's a group of rambunctious males, breaching spectacularly and diving like torpedoes, and the mother and her baby. We are privileged guests in their world. Our small group returns to the wooden boat, our eyes all wide with the wonder of it.

Sarah Daniell, in Tonga. Photo / Sarah Daniell
Sarah Daniell, in Tonga. Photo / Sarah Daniell

I have dived with predators and mammals around the Pacific Ocean. But nothing comes close to our close encounter with the humpbacks.

— Sarah Daniell

Best swim with parrotfish

Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef

If there's one wonder worth seeing in this lifetime, the Great Barrier Reef is highly recommended. Take the hour-long charter flight from Cairns Airport to Lizard Island where the hotel manager and chef are Kiwis. A visit is not complete without a snorkel in the reef. The picturesque Clam Gardens is a short swim from the main beach at Watsons Bay, and you can also jump on a boat and get among the reef's wonders. I was mesmerised by vivid schools of fish and aquatic life, particularly a few dozen friendly parrotfish brushing past me. It's also a chance to learn about the serious side of the reef's beauty — coral conservation is highly regarded here, and a trip to the nearby Lizard Island Research Station is a must.

— Dan Ahwa

Best shark diving experience

El Nido, Philippines

Living an hour off the coast of one of Southeast Asia's most up-and-coming spots, El Nido, is the colossal whale shark. Local tour boats take you out for the experience of a lifetime: swimming with, and just metres from, the world's largest known fish species in open water. Curious, calm and docile, our 5m friend spent half an hour hanging out with us before returning to the depths of the Pacific Ocean. An experience never to be forgotten.

— Jordan Bond

The best bellhop (marsupial class)

Park outside your chalet at O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat in Lamington National Park and you could be greeted by a friendly pademelon (smallest member of the kangaroo family), who'll guide you down the pathway to your digs. If the door's open, as mine was, he'll even poke his nose inside to check all's well before bounding into the bush. He doesn't hang around with his paw out, waiting for a tip.

— Ewan McDonald