Friday, 18 August 2017

The Real Mai Tai of Honolulu, Hawaii

On this 2014 trip I travelled courtesy of Hawaii Tourism, the Oahu Visitors Bureau, and the Outrigger Waikiki.

The evening after I changed Honolulu hotels, moving into a room at the Outrigger Waikiki, I decided to go for a walk through the adjacent resorts.

As I was researching Honolulu bars for an article, I was aiming to enjoy an authentic Mai Tai at the aptly-named Mai Tai Bar at The Royal Hawaiian.

But by night it's easy to take a wrong turn and end up at somewhere quite different.

So when I finally found the bar I thought I was looking for, it turned out to be somewhere else altogether: the Rum Fire bar at the Sheraton Waikiki.

Oh well, that's a mistake anyone could make. And the Rum Fire was a fun place to hang out, with cool red and black decor and a lively crowd on that warm evening.

And though it was the wrong bar, I did get to enjoy an authentic Mai Tai; in fact, far more authentic than the sweet concoctions that usually go by that name.

Barman Joe, who was born in the Philippines and had lived in Hawaii from age 7, happily made up an off-menu version of the Mai Tai, which I jotted down thus in my notes:
1944 Mai Tai
Lime juice
Orgeat / Rock candy syrup
Triple sec
Meyers rum
Parrot Bay rum
Not sure about the amounts of each, but Joe said this was basically the original 1944 Trader Vic's Mai Tai. I liked it a lot - it seemed much less sweet than other versions I'd sampled, especially since the only juice in it was lime.

This Mai Tai tasted like a real cocktail, not sweet alcoholic fruit juice. What a revelation. I knew Trader Vic was tougher than that.

I had to ask for it - and it cost US$18 - but it was well worth it. Though it spoiled me permanently for any other Mai Tai. Thanks Joe.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Buddhist for a Night: South Korea Temple Stay


When I visited South Korea in 2014, courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organisation, I spent a lot of time in Seoul. The capital turned out to be a fascinating city, defying its stereotype of bland modernity.

The one big trip I took to the countryside was to stay overnight with a media group at the 9th century Haeinsa Temple, located in the leafy southern interior of the country.


It was an unconventional travel experience: wearing special pyjama-like clothing, getting up at 3am for chanting and bowing, and sleeping on thin mattresses upon heated floors in gender-segregated dorms.

One activity which my companions disliked was eating a vegetarian dinner in complete silence in the communal dining room.

For some reason though, I thoroughly enjoyed this. Maybe I do so much talking, that it felt refreshing to have an enforced break from it.

It was an interesting sleepover, though I was in two minds about some elements of the experience.

On one hand it was stimulating, taking place within an ancient temple in a beautiful natural setting.

We learned a fair amount about Buddhism, via an early Q&A session with a monk.

On the other hand, our subsequent 'training' sessions with the monk felt as if we were pretending to be Buddhists for the night, basically spiritual impostors.

It was an interesting tension, forcing some reflection on spirituality.

And I was glad I'd had the opportunity to visit the temple, especially to see its 700 year old collection of Buddhist texts on wooden printers' blocks.

The one big negative of the experience is that was that I managed to catch a hideous fast-acting sinus infection from a random pilgrim.

It stayed with me for months, through the rest of this trip and a subsequent trip to Oman.

Buddhists would no doubt tell me that such physical suffering is an inevitable part of existence; and a hazard of frequent travel.

Find out more about South Korea's Templestay program at its website: eng.templestay.com.

Friday, 4 August 2017

A Day in Jasper, Canada

On this trip I was a guest of Destination Canada and Tourism Jasper.

During my recent trip to Canada I had a day free in Jasper, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. This period was dictated by the timetables of two VIA Rail trains I was catching - The Canadian up from Vancouver, then the train northwest to Prince Rupert. So I hadn't thought much in advance about what I'd do in the town.

Turned out there were plenty of options. As Jasper is a popular holiday town in a beautiful location, there are lots of short tours and eating choices for visitors. Here's what I did with my day in the mountains.

1. Motorbike tour. In the middle of town is the base of Jasper Motorcycle Tours. It takes visitors on tours to nearby lakes and lookouts, perched on the back of, or in the sidecar of a Harley-Davidson.

There was a certain amount of theatrical dress-up involved, as the guest gets kitted out in leathers first:

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Then it was off into the mountains outside town for a while, for a taste of the open road and some impressive scenery:

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2. To the heights. After my motorcycle jaunt, I headed to the base station of the Jasper Skytram, a cable car that runs to the top of Whistlers Mountain (and whose staff seemed mostly Aussies!). From the top there are great views of the township and the surrounding mountains:

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3. Dinner in the woods. To finish off the day, I had an excellent dinner in the atmospheric dining room of Tekarra Lodge, just outside town.

A set of cabins built in the 1940s, the Lodge has a certain retro charm. I was also told that its restaurant was haunted (but maybe just by the ghost of that deer on the wall...). There was certainly a Twin Peaks vibe to the decor.

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I didn't meet any ghosts after dark, but the intersection of the Miette and Athabasca Rivers seemed a good place at which to finish my Jasper day. The next morning, I had a train to catch.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Train Stations of Canada's Jasper-Prince Rupert Line

On this trip I was hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission, Destination British Columbia (HelloBC.com) and VIA Rail.

On my recent trip to Canada, I rode the railway from Jasper to Prince Rupert for the first time.

Though the route is lesser-known than that of The Canadian train which links Vancouver and Toronto, it's impressively scenic as it runs between several mountain ranges on its way to British Columbia's northern port.

I'll be writing about the journey in more depth for one of my outlets, so here I'm just going to focus on one element: the stations along the way.

We started at Jasper station around lunchtime on the first day. Being at the junction of two passenger routes, it's an impressive structure. It opened in 1926, replacing its predecessor which was lost in a fire the previous year.




Further along we paused at Dunster station, which opened in 1913. This is a "flag stop", which means trains don't stop here unless hailed by passengers.

It's a fine example of the standard station type which once existed along this line. Most have been demolished, but luckily locals bought this from the railway company and have restored it from a dilapidated state. So it stands as a great example of railway architecture from a century ago, and also fulfils a useful role as a general store.


Farther on, we stopped at McBride. This is another classic station, dating from 1919. As with Dunster station, it was adopted by locals and is now the home of the town's visitor information centre. I was able to hop out briefly to take a photo of this old CNR carriage standing nearby.

 

The major station on this line is at Prince George, the largest city in northern BC, where passengers spend a night before resuming the journey to Prince Rupert. No heritage building here - its relative significance means that it merits a modern concrete box:


The next day we were back on the rails, pausing briefly at the delightfully named Vanderhoof station, named after an early railway worker...


... before reaching Smithers station, opened 1918 and situated at the start of one of the most scenic stretches of the line. Babine Mountains Provincial Park is accessed from here, and the town is surrounded by four mountain ranges.



Running very late because of delays due to passing freight trains, we were able to alight for 15 minutes or so at Terrace station (while we waited for yet another freight train to go past).

An attractive timber building containing a visitor centre, this was once the family home of Terrace's founder, George Little. In 2003 it was relocated to this location and refurbished, to act as an anchor for the town's downtown heart. It was certainly the nicest station we encountered that day, especially as we had time to enter it and explore.


I'd show you the station we arrived at in Prince Rupert, which we reached over three hours late at 11.45pm, but there isn't one - instead the train drops passengers off at the BC Ferries terminal.

Near the site of the city's original station, nostalgics can visit the Kwinitsa Railway Museum. Originally a working station, it was floated down the Skeena River in 1985 to be installed here as a museum dedicated to the story of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Which seems fitting, as it was that railway which gave birth to the city of Prince Rupert.


As for the original Prince Rupert station which stands nearby, it's sadly now closed and boarded up. I like to feel it'll be used again one day by passengers; if only for the reason that it's in a much more convenient central location. Here's hoping!

Friday, 21 July 2017

Creature Comforts: Animals & Hot Springs in Whitehorse, Yukon

On this trip I was hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission and Travel Yukon.

I've just returned from Whitehorse, capital of Canada's Yukon Territory. Although many visitors use the city as a jumping-off point for places even more remote, such as Dawson City, there are plenty of things to see and do locally.

There's a cluster of attractions just outside town, along Takhini Springs Road, that I spent a day exploring courtesy of Who What Where Whitehorse Tours.

First stop was the Yukon Wildlife Preserve. If you haven't had any luck spotting the territory's distinctive animals in the wild, you're sure to see some in this spacious open zoo.

For a start, there are these mule deer with their impressive antlers:

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... and stone sheep with their frankly demonic horns:

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... a lynx which sat still just long enough for this much-zoomed shot:

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... and even a bison. That means I've now met both European bison and North America bison (collect the set!)

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After I left the Preserve, I headed a short distance along the road to the Takhini Hot Springs. These thermal springs bubble up from beneath the earth and are directed into two adjoining baths, one kept at 36°C and the other at 42°.

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I can only imagine what it must be like to take a dip here in the midst of winter, in sub-zero temperatures. I'm told if you get out of the pool mid-winter and shake your hair, it'll freeze in place!

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After sampling the springs, I had lunch at the excelent Café Balzam, which is located in the same complex. Though it's a creperie, I opted for the day's special: a savoury waffle with cheese, spinach, pecan, egg and salmon. Tasty.

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For dessert I chose La Chevronnée: a goat's cheese crepe topped with blackcurrant preserve. That's the kind of dessert I favour, not too sweet.

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My conclusion? Whitehorse may be a frontier town in many ways, but it doesn't lack creature comforts. Nor interesting creatures.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

The Curious Case of Juneau, Alaska

In Juneau I was hosted by Travel Juneau, and I travelled there courtesy of the Alaska Marine Highway.

I've just spent three nights in one of the oddest little cities I've ever visited: Juneau, located in the southeast strip of Alaska that stretches alongside Canada's province of British Columbia.

Why is it such a curious delight? Let me give you some examples.

1. You can't drive to Juneau.

Although it's Alaska's second-largest city, you can only reach it by air or sea - the mountains around it have so far proved impenetrable to road-builders. So I arrived aboard the ship you can see below, the MV Matanuska. Built in the 1960s, it's one of the vessels of the Alaska Marine Highway, a network of ferry routes which stretches from Washington state all the the way north and west to the far-flung Aleutian Islands.

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2. The gardens grow upside-down.

Well, not exactly. But at Glacier Gardens just outside Juneau, the gardeners have utilised upturned old tree trunks to create these strangely alluring elevated flower beds. It's also worth visiting for the golf cart tour they offer, heading high up along the slopes of the surrounding rainforest.

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3. It's the political hub of Alaska.

Although Juneau can't be reached by road, and is located in the far southeast of the state, the city is the capital of Alaska. It's held that status since the 19th century, though there have been attempts to move the seat of government elsewhere. For the time being though, the State Capitol stands proudly in the heart of the city - a city often visited by bears in the middle of the night.

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4. Its location used to be in Russia.

In the late 19th century, concerned about the vulnerability of its North American possession, the Russian Empire agreed to sell Alaska to the USA. In 1867 the territory was handed over with due ceremony in the Russian-era capital of Sitka - an event duly recorded in the exhibitions of the Alaska State Museum in Juneau (see below).

Naturally, as the museum notes, the indigenous Native Alaskans protested the sale; as the Russians were giving away a place they had never fully conquered, and which had seen millennia of prior occupancy.

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5. The Russian presence lingers.

Across southeastern Alaska there are traces of Russia's time in Alaska, most visibly the presence of Russian Orthodox churches. The oldest still standing is St Nicholas' Church in Juneau, a picturesque timber structure above the city's commercial core.

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6. There's a shop selling a comprehensive range of Hawaiian goods.

I don't even begin to understand this. But here it is.

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Friday, 7 July 2017

Masterworks at Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology

On this trip I was hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission, Destination British Columbia (HelloBC.com) and Tourism Vancouver.

I've been to Vancouver three times, but never before made the minor trek out to the University of BC campus for the Museum of Anthropology. The recent opening of its Gallery of Northwest Coast Masterworks prompted me to finally get there, and I'm very glad I did.

The museum itself is excellent. Its focus is on works created by the First Nations peoples of Canada, particularly those of British Columbia. Thus the entrance leads down a ramp to a big airy space containing totem poles and other large carved pieces.

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On a sunny Sunday, with natural light illuminating the room, it was an impressive place to be; far removed from the stereotypical austere museum space.

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This central hall leads to several smaller rooms with various exhibitions. One of the most interesting to me contained a single work by the late Bill Reid. This big timber sculpture depicts a creation myth of the region, in which the raven discovers mankind within a clamshell and lets them out (reminding me of the legend of Pandora's Box!).

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My favourite room was the new gallery, which has a very clever and specific idea behind its set-up.

During the colonial years of the 19th century, as traditional cultural practices were disrupted, many First Nations artworks were acquired by private collectors and public institutions such as museums.

Over a century later, the provenance and precise significance of such objects has often been lost. So in this gallery, First Nations artists of today comment on these objects from the past, using their knowledge of both craft and culture to shine a light on each item's construction and meaning.

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It's a brilliant concept, which breathes life into what could otherwise seem dusty museum pieces. The artists' commentary, both in written form and audio, is warm and inclusive, often illustrated with personal stories which add context. You can literally feel the emotion these pieces spark within their creative desendants, and that's a marvellous thing to be able to share in.

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It's also respectful to the current-day First Nations people of BC, a reminder that they are survivors and their culture has endured. I'd love to see this approach used in every museum where indigenous cultures are featured.

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I know in my own city, Museums Victoria worked with the people of the Kulin Nation in the set-up of the Bunjilaka section of Melbourne Museum, which is devoted to Indigenous culture. Perhaps even more can be done to bring forth the voices of creation from past and present.

The Museum of Anthropology is located at 6393 NW Marine Drive, Vancouver. Check out its website for admission fees and opening hours.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Walking Tours of San Francisco

I stayed in San Francisco as a guest of Railbookers.com and San Francisco Travel, and paid my own airfare to the USA.

When I visited San Francisco in 2015,  I joined some great (and quirky) tours, and researched several others. Here's a list for you to consider the next time you're heading to SF...


North Beach Underground. Covering the Kerouac trail in the neighbourhood most closely associated with the Beat Poets. The tour visits the Beat Museum but also expands to take in the district's rough-and tumble history, from the 19th century Sydney Ducks gang to the illicit pleasures of the Prohibition era. See walksftours.com. [Note: I wrote an article about this tour for The Age.]


Emperor Norton’s Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine. Fun tour of memorable and unusual moments in the city's history, led by a guide impersonating one of its greatest eccentrics. See emperornortontour.com.

Mural Tour. Learn about the murals of the Mission district covering six blocks from Balmy Alley, in the company of an experienced muralist. See precitaeyes.org.

Chinatown Alleyway Tour. Walk through the back streets of this vibrant neighbourhood, hearing about the trials and triumphs of the city’s Chinese community. See chinatownalleywaytours.org.

Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour. Set the controls for the 1960s in this tour of the hippie-era hub, epicentre of the Summer of Love. See haightashburytour.com.

Gold & Guns in Downtown SF. Take a journey back to the rough-and-tumble gold rush era, when San Francisco’s waterfront was dodgy and dangerous. Includes cocktails. See walksftours.com.

And finally, finish your tour day with the fun of Beach Blanket Babylon, the long-running satirical musical revue staged in North Beach. Here's my report on the big-hatted fun.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Jjimjilbang! The Traditional Baths of South Korea

I travelled to South Korea courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organisation.

There's nothing like getting naked and in hot water as a way of, er, immersing yourself in another culture.

So when I visited South Korea in 2014, I couldn't wait to try out a jjimjilbang, the traditional local bathhouse.

As I expected, these places are amazing. Firstly men and women bathe in separate areas, in baths of differing temperatures and compositions.

The compulsory nudity in the bath areas deters some overseas visitors, which is partly why it's remained an authentically Korean experience.


It's accessible to foreigners but still very much dominated by locals, who see these places as a leisure hangout.

In the bath area of a multi-storey jjimjilbang I visited in central Seoul, an attendant gave me the world's most efficient, energetic and somewhat brutal body scrub, removing what seemed kilos of excess skin.

The baths are relaxing, but it's the communal areas visited afterward which are the most fun.

There are people of all ages hanging about there in the pyjama-like tops and shorts we're all issued with.

Patrons can enjoy a range of facilities - snack bars, pools, ice-cold rooms, kiln-heated rooms, computer gaming rooms.

The cost for the additional services you use or food you purchase is recorded on your electronic wristband, and you settle the bill on the way out.

And there's always a sleeping room with simple beds, and big heated floor area where people can sleep - all night if they want to.

It was great fun to experience these baths on my first Seoul visit, joining locals in an activity which turned out to be both memorable and relaxing.

If I lived in Seoul I'd be tempted to visit one of these facilities every Sunday (especially in winter).

After a soothing bath, I could imagine spending hours relaxing, reading a book and, um, chilling out.

Recommended: Dragon Hill Spa, 40-712, Hangangno 3-ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul. Adult entry $14-$18, depending on time of day.