Friday, 30 January 2015

Travel Gadget Review 2: High Sierra Access Backpack

The backpack is dead, long live the backpack.

In June, I retired my decade-old High Sierra backpack, which first travelled with me in 2005 across the Pacific to Tahiti, Easter Island and South America.

It was a sad day, and I sent the pack on its way with a heartfelt eulogy.

In its place, High Sierra supplied me with a new backpack to review (the pack was complimentary, but the opinion here is all my own).

The pack in question is the High Sierra Access Laptop Backpack (pictured top right),  the closest design I could find in the current range to my previous pack.


The first thing I noticed is that it's subtly bigger than my old pack, while still keeping it close to the accepted dimensions of airline carry-on luggage.

As a comparison, Qantas' international carry-on dimensions are 56 x 36 x 23cm, while the Access pack's dimensions are 51 x 38 x 24cm. Slightly over in a couple of dimensions, but not enough to cause a fuss.


As far as the internal space is arranged, this pack also seems better designed than my old one. The old pack basically had five areas: a big main section with a large laptop slot; a smaller front "organiser" section containing small pockets and pouches; a flat rear section suitable for documents or an iPad; a tiny upper section; and two side pockets.

The new Access pack has a similar big main section, smaller front "organiser" section and tiny upper section. However, the flat rear section has disappeared in favour of a second, flatter pocket attached to the inner laptop slot. This area has turned out to be great for documents and the iPad, keeping the shape of the backpack flatter rather than having it bulge out at the back.

The large side pockets have been replaced by a single smaller pocket, presumably designed for a phone. But who keeps their phone in their backpack? I actually use this pocket to store my belt until I'm through security, so it won't set off the metal detectors with its buckle.

Out with the old, in with the new...

More areas

What makes up for the disappearance of the side pockets are three new sections, in addition to the ones already mentioned.

Immediately forward of the main section is a secondary storage section, still fairly large, which is just as useful for packing clothing into. This can be handy for storing items you might need to access quickly on a flight, eg a fleece jacket if the cabin is cold.

Ahead of the secondary storage section is yet another smaller section. I find this handy for storing dirty clothing away from other clothing. On that theme, I keep my Scrubba bag permanently stored here in case I need to do some hotel room laundry.

Finally, there's a longitudinal section beneath the base of the backpack, which contains a rain cover for the pack. It's big enough to carry a beverage bottle, though I use it for storing an umbrella.

Additions and subtractions

Other travel aids I keep permanently stored within the backpack are a plastic document wallet in the laptop slot; a small daypack in the big main section; pens and business cards in the front section; and a pen, a combination lock, and padlock keys in the upper section.

I'll sometimes add my foldable bowl to the main section as well.

Even though it was brand new and pristine, the first thing I did to the backpack upon receiving it (High Sierra reps, look away now) was to cut off all the excess straps, such as the sternum strap and tuck-away waist strap. I don't need them, so they just add unnecessary weight and bulk.

Speaking of which, although the pack is bigger than its predecessor, it doesn't seem heavier; I'm still able to keep the light packing down to 7-8kg, around the permissible airline limit for carry-on luggage.

So that's my new backpack. It's already accompanied me to the UK, Belgium, Germany and the USA, and we're very happy with each other. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Disclosure: The High Sierra Access Laptop Backpack was provided to me for review purposes by High Sierra. All opinion above is my own, based on actual on-the-road use.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Adventure in the Fjords of Norway

This week's guest blogger is Jelena Farkić, who last wrote for Aerohaveno about her home city of Novi Sad, Serbia. She recently attended the 2014 International Adventure Conference in Sogndal, Norway. She reports here on the event, and the attractions of that nation's frozen reaches...

Norway’s longest fjord, the Sognefjord, extends to the foot of the Jotunheimen and Jostedalsbreen National Parks.

It’s both a dramatic and hospitable place. The Sognefjord has several distinctive arms winding their way between steep mountains to end in small, picturesque towns.

At the end of November, the town of Sogndal attracted adventure seekers of different backgrounds, from all over the world. What brought them together was a conference with the theme "Adventure in empty lands".

This was an appropriate title, as in late autumn this region enjoys a cold-dry microclimate, with reliable snow cover for several months. Light snowfalls are not unusual from the beginning of November, and the days are at their darkest until the snow makes the landscape a blank white canvas.

Because of its geography, residents and visitors enjoy activities such as sea kayaking, running, mountain biking, fishing, rock climbing and paragliding, in addition to a range of winter sports.

It’s this variety, along with the high number of students in the town, that makes Sogndal an outdoor pursuits centre. At any hour of the day, people are cycling, running, kayaking, or heading up a 30m indoor climbing wall.

Alternative therapies are also popular in the region. Early-rising conference delegates were treated to a ‘mountain yoga’ session, reached along a candlelit path, watching the sun come up over Sogndal and the fjord.

Other conference-related events included glacier exploration, an ice-cave picnic, back-country skiing, sea kayaking, and cooking.

When taken on tour to Jostedalen, the largest glacier in mainland Europe, many of us were surprised how accessible the glacier arms were; and that it could be as warm near the ice as it had been down by the fjord.

During the summer months, some visitors brave a quick swim in the glacial lake at the foot of Nigardsbreen. However, in winter the most popular activities here are ice caving, picnicking, or climbing the bright blue ice.

The conference food was surprisingly memorable, featuring dishes made from local ingredients: including halibut from the fjord, and wild lamb from the land.

In addition to a dark chocolate cake with a coulis made of local berries, a mousse made from the sea-buckthorn plant gave us a taste of an ingredient dating back to the Viking age.

With the Norwegian friluftsliv (roughly translated as “open-air living”) coming to an end, participants were keen to gather again for the next conference in Sheffield, UK, in 2015.

(NB Elements of this post were adapted from Dr Peter Varley’s conference report, by kind permission)

Friday, 16 January 2015

Asia Summer Series: Hua Hin, Thailand (Part 2)

This is the final instalment of my previously published print articles on Asian destinations. Last post, I ventured onto the streets of Hua Hin, a beach resort town in Thailand. Now I reach the railway station...

The railway station is one of the most attractive I’ve ever seen.

Having been built in an age before air-conditioning, it was constructed as an open-air pavilion in a traditional Thai architectural style, with timber beams supporting a gabled tiled roof.

The whole thing is painted red and cream, with red tiles further increasing its brightness. A neat line of parked motorcycles in front of the structure underlines its sense of neat order.

It’s a pleasant building both to look at and walk through, but the real gem here is the second structure along the low platform. In an even more elaborate style, its roof features multiple peaks and small patterned windows punctuating its walls.

Though now unused, for many years this was the Royal Waiting Room, where members of the royal family would wait to board a train (perhaps reluctantly) back to Bangkok. 

In a continuation of the regal theme, across the rails from the station is the Royal Hua Hin Golf Course, laid out in the 1920s by a Scottish railway engineer. The course is open to the public and has some memorable features, including ocean and temple views from its links.

An unusual hazard, though, is the colony of resident monkeys which have occasionally been reported to make off with balls.

Heading back to the coast, I reach a small cove dotted with fishing boats, and several restaurants with timber decks jutting out over the water on wooden piles. It’d be an atmospheric place to have dinner, seated on the open-air deck and looking out at the sea.

The region around Hua Hin has its own royal-themed attractions, so one day I travel north to the nearby city of Phetchaburi to see the palace at Phra Nakhon Khiri.

This set of hills on the edge of town is famous for its beautiful gardens and the 19th centre palace at their centre. It was constructed by King Mongkut, the ruler immortalised by the musical The King and I.

Approached by a funicular railway which hauls visitors up the hill, the palace is a fascinating fusion of styles, with a large dose of European influence.

As I approach its entrance via a terrace lined by large white flowerpots, I feel it could be a villa in Spain or Italy (if the tropical plants were ignored).

From its windows there are fine views of nearby temples and greenery, and it’s interesting to tour the interior and imagine its original occupants’ life in this intersection of Thai culture and the Western world.

Another royalty-tinged attraction within day trip distance from Hua Hin is Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, to the south.

Among its highlights are three caves, the most popular of which can be reached by boat. Within it is a pavilion built for the 19th century King Chulalongkorn, who visited it en route from Bangkok.

Back at my hotel, I ask one of its managers, Jutamas Boonrat, what she thinks is most distinctive about Hua Hin, considering that Thailand has so many beach resorts.

"The best thing is the powdery sand," she replies. "The beach is about five kilometres long from beginning to end, so people can enjoy walking or riding horses. You won’t see motorcycles or four wheel drives along the beach. It’s private and nice and quiet.

"I think the expression ‘less is more’ is perfect for Hua Hin."

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Asia Summer Series: Hua Hin, Thailand (Part 1)

To mid-January this year, I'm running a series of my previously published print articles about Asian destinations. This week's focus is on Hua Hin, a Thai beach town with royal connections...

I’m wading into the Gulf of Thailand when I realise that there’s something surprising about the water - it’s as warm as the contents of a bathtub.

Even back home in Australia on a summer’s day, sea water will usually feel cool at first contact; but here in the tropics, it evidently never gets a chance to cool down.

So I’m soon bobbing in the clear, warm liquid, looking along the shoreline to the point where it meets the horizon. Ranged along it are small groups of sunbathers at rest along the beach, a long stretch of sand interrupted by the odd rocky outcrop.

After my swim I make my way back to my room at the graceful Sofitel Centara Grand, a low-lying collection of accommodation wings in the coastal city of Hua Hin, 200km south of Bangkok.

Soon I’m seated at the cafe in the oldest section of the resort hotel, which opened in 1923. 

Open to the air on each side, it’s not just a place to sit and sip tea in the tropical breeze. The cafe also functions as a small museum devoted to the hotel, with a variety of old artefacts dotted about its interior.

One of them, a polished timber letterbox embellished with painted lettering in both Thai and English, hints at the days when vacationers sent handwritten letters to the folks back home, rather than posting a pic to Facebook.

“So what’s special about Hua Hin?” I wonder as I sip a cup of Earl Grey and look out over the swimming pool below.

Maybe it’s the lack of the energetic party atmosphere that’s often associated with Thai beach resorts, particularly those islands on which backpackers eat, drink and socialise at a frenzied pace.

By contrast, this hotel and Hua Hin itself possess a calmer atmosphere, and it’s clearly a destination for those looking to relax rather than party.

As I walk through the hotel’s gardens on my way to explore the town, past elaborate topiary in the shape of animals, I reach a shrine dedicated to the King of Thailand, featuring a full-length photographic portrait with flags standing to each side.

This royal connection has been a key factor in the Hua Hin's recent history.

When the hotel opened as the Railway Hotel in the 1920s, it attracted Bangkok’s well-to-do to what had previously been an unexceptional fishing village.

Impressed with the new seaside resort and the contrast it provided with the busy capital, King Prajadhipok ordered the construction of a palace here, aptly named Wang Klai Kang Won (“Far from Worries”).

The current monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has kept up the tradition of frequent visits to this summer palace, and there are side benefits for the locals.

Twice a day, the king allows visitors to walk in the palace grounds as exercise; as I’d entered Hua Hin by road the previous day I’d seen numerous people doing just that, walking in brisk circuits through the gardens.

There’s also a shop near the palace, Golden Place, which sells organic fruit and vegetables which have been grown on the king’s farms.

If Hua Hin is regal, it’s also relaxed, something I notice as I walk along Thanon Damnoen Kasem away from the waterfront, toward the railway that the hotel was once named after.

It’s mid-morning and the street has yet to fully wake, but there are people wandering here and there, looking into shops or sitting outside restaurants.

Then I arrive at the railway station...

[Next: The royal waiting room, monkeys on the links, and a palace linked to a musical...]

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Asia Summer Series: Melaka, City of Spice (Part 2)

Over December and January, I've been running a series of my previously published print articles on Asia. Last week I explored the historical remnants of colonial rule in the Malaysian city of Melaka; now it's time to eat...

Lunch is at Restoran Peranakan within Melaka’s Chinatown.

Its interior is a big airy space decked out with lanterns, framed sepia photographs, and large round tables bearing incongruous red-checked tablecloths.

The food is as flavoursome as promised - including spicy red sauces, chilli chicken, and crunchy fish pieces served with vegetables and a sweet and sour sauce.

Other popular Nyonya standards are chicken kapitan, a dry chicken curry, and inchi kabin, a variant of fried chicken.

Given the attractive shop-lined streets of the Chinese quarter, it seems an ideal place for a post-lunch stroll. Turning onto the former Jonker Street, whose Dutch name is still widely used, I pass numerous antique emporiums tucked into small premises.

It’d be easy to spend a few hours here inspecting items and deciding which would look best on the mantelpiece at home, while dickering about the price with the proprietors.

Taking a sharp turn into Jalan Tokong (Temple Street), another narrow curving thoroughfare, I spot the minaret of a mosque up ahead. It’s quite unlike the tapering forms common to its Middle Eastern counterparts, however, looking more like a watchtower with a Chinese-inspired roof.

The call to prayer resounds through the neighbourhood as I step into the nearby Buddhist Xianglin Temple.

It’s an intriguing contrast, listening to the Arabic words as I pass burning joss sticks set in braziers, heading into the temple’s cool interior. An Australian walking into a Buddhist temple in Melaka’s Chinatown while listening to the Muslim call to prayer has to count as multiculturalism personified, I think.

Across the road is the much older Cheng Hoon Teng Temple. Constructed in the 17th century, it’s dedicated to the goddess of mercy Guanyin. There’s a superbly serene atmosphere within, aided by the organic feel of the structure, with its timber ceiling and beams, and the generous use of red and gold in the decor.

My last stop in Melaka is a nod to its first colonial rulers, the Portuguese. Even though they were evicted by the Dutch in 1641, the Portuguese left behind a distinct community of Portuguese-Malay descent, who spoke a unique creole language known as Kristang (from ‘Christian’).

Despite the passing of centuries, Melaka’s Eurasian community has endured, and is centred on Medan Portugis in the city’s east.

When I visit the square on a Saturday afternoon, it’s quiet and nearly empty, but its collection of restaurants and shops are setting up for livelier business later in the evening.

Walking from the square to the waterfront, I stand under a lone palm tree and gaze out over the strait.

I can’t see the island of Sumatra, lying just beyond the horizon.

However, it’s easy to imagine the spice traders of bygone days threading their ships through this body of water, braving pirates and treacherous weather in order to be the first to land their cargoes in far-flung ports.

There’s something attractive about Melaka, I decide, centred on the way it reflects Malaysia’s distinctive blend of cultures, cuisines and languages.

Though it’s a tourism drawcard rather than a spice port today, the city retains the complex flavour of its convoluted history.

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of Malaysia Airlines and Tourism Malaysia.