A LIFE IN TRAVEL: MELISSA LEONG

What do you miss most about travel right now?

So much! Being somewhere new and completely out of my depth; seeing, smelling and tasting a whole new place. I'm even kind of missing airports and air travel a little, too. When we are lucky enough to travel, it can be such an expanding, growing experience, whether that's a road trip or visiting somewhere on the other side of the world.

What are your strongest memories from the first overseas trip you ever took?

My first trip overseas would have been to visit family in Singapore when I was about two. We went back a lot when I was a kid and I remember the sensation of extreme humidity, being covered in relatives, and the amazing food, even from very little.

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What was a standard family holiday like when growing up?

My family came from Singapore, so they were adamant that we get to know the country they chose for us to be born in. We did a lot of road trips to country towns; coastal destinations in the summer and the mountains in the winter, from Goldrush-era towns, to chasing the big things (Aussies do love a huge novelty-sized fruit, veg or animal to denote their town). Whether it was the Big Pineapple on the NSW Northern Rivers, or The Big Merino, it was a great way to see Australia. I'm still a huge fan of the road trip.

Who has most inspired your travels?

As I can remember, I have wanted to see as many parts of the world as I possibly could. Social media is a great way to tag places for future real-life experience, but nothing beats the real deal. Having said that, the late, great Anthony Bourdain had the right idea; digging beneath the surface, discovering culture through food and the stories that keep heritage alive. There's real privilege in being let into other people's worlds.

What is the greatest trip you've ever been on?

Slovenia totally blew my mind, it is truly like a magical fairy-tale come to life with its castles and crystalline alpine streams, lush forests and deep sense of history. At the time, it was very far from any experience I'd had, and I made a lot of great friendships on that trip.

And the worst?

Making a mistake weeks earlier, rushing to fill in a visa application, I arrived in Vietnam and wasn't let in because my date of birth read 1092, not 1982. There was a brief moment of panic, a dodgy situation that I am still unsure to this day involved bribery, and a waiting boat ready to take me down the Mekong. It's also the trip that I found out that MasterChef Australia wanted me to join the show, so it really wasn't all that bad. A tip forever though: ALWAYS check your documents!

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What's your approach to packing for an overseas trip?

I write packing lists and then I try to stick to them. Plan your outfits, leave one or two pieces for luxury, but keep it simple and interchangeable. Having had to travel a lot (and carry my own gear), means you learn what's crucial and what's not.

What is the destination that most surprised you – good or bad?

I loved Morocco so much. I knew I'd like it a lot, but I was not at all prepared for the degree with which it would hit me. The sense of ancient reverence, modern dynamism, colour, noise, soul and generosity… it is unlike anything I have ever experienced in that combination.

Where was your most memorable sunrise/sunset?

Riding a camel in the Agafay Desert in Morocco on the second to last day of the trip was truly magical. We were staying in a luxury desert camp (glamping, for lack of a better term), and it was a total movie moment, watching the sky change colours, and with a glass of Champagne waiting at the end… it's the stuff of lifetime memories.

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What's the first thing you do when you get home from a long trip?

Take a really long shower, just sit under the water and soak up the feeling of being home. After that, I'm a fan of unpacking as soon as possible, otherwise that open suitcase full of stuff just sits there and taunts me.

What do you miss most about home when you travel?

My husband and our cats. Most of my travel is for work and I am not always able to bring him, and definitely not the fluffy ones. I am so grateful for technology so that I can speak to them every day and keep up to date on what's going on.

Where is the one destination you must see in your lifetime?

Iceland. For its nature, its better-than-world-class socioeconomic system, the wildness and culture of it all.

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What's your favourite thing about travel?

That you always return a little wiser and a little bit changed for the better.

MasterChef Australia: Back to Win screens Sundays at 7pm, and Mondays-Wednesdays at 7.30pm on TVNZ2