Friday, 20 July 2018

Review: BNE-YVR in Air Canada Business Class

On this trip I travelled courtesy of Destination Canada, and was upgraded by Air Canada.

Last year I took the 13-hour flight from Brisbane to Vancouver aboard one of Air Canada's Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner planes, right up the front in seat 1D. This is what it was like.

The seat

As expected, there was plenty of space to move in Business Class. My seat was a pod in a central set of two, with the seat angled toward the centre of the plane.

The seat was heavily cushioned though still fairly firm, and could be reconfigured to personal taste by touchscreen controls - all the way down to a lie-flat bed.

Storage space was not as generous as some versions of Business I'd experienced on other airlines, and there were no bins directly above the central seats. However, there were sufficient slots and shelves into which to load my personal belongings.

A personal comfort pack contained toiletries, an eye mask and socks, with a choice of earbuds or quality headphones within a concealed compartment.

The screen

In front of me was a large entertainment screen. Its menus were highly responsive to touch, and contained details of food and drink, as well as shopping options.

Neither the movie nor TV show selections seemed very impressive, and it was difficult to find recent cinema releases. However there were some decent viewing choices among each: cutting edge television comedy such as Atlanta for example, and popular Hollywood movies such as Logan.

Something I hadn't seen before was a Pride category under movies, with critically-acclaimed films with gay themes including Milk and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. A clever innovation was a Personal Favourites menus you could build, then click on to watch.

The eats

Lunch was the first meal of the flight, for which I chose barramundi fillet with ginger-soy glaze and bok choy, which was attractively presented and tasty. It was preceded by an excellent smoked salmon appetiser and a green salad.

Other main courses on the menu were lamb cutlets, braised chicken breast, and a vegetarian pasta. Afterward there was cheese, fruit, blueberry cheesecake, or ice cream.

Snacks were available on request during our journey, including a chicken leek pie, smoked salmon, a tuna sandwich, and hummus. No mere packet of pretzels in Business Class!

Before we landed in the Vancouver morning, we were served brunch with the choice of an omelette, Belgian waffles, or a chicken pasta.

The judgement

Air Canada's Business Class service on the Dreamliner was a comfortable, relaxing experience, providing a good way to arrive in shape on the long trans-Pacific haul. A good choice... if you can afford it.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Art Barracks of Singapore


On this trip I was hosted by the Singapore Tourism Board.

On my 2015 visit to Singapore, I spent an afternoon at Gillman Barracks.

Formerly a British army camp set up in the 1930s, it's now a "contemporary arts cluster", with art galleries strewn throughout the numerous buildings remaining from its military days.


A work by Filipino artist Winner Jumalon, on display at the Yavuz Gallery in March 2015.

There's a focus on contemporary art within its galleries. Though there's plenty of international work, the complex as a whole has an emphasis on emerging Asian artists.

It's a fascinating place, both for the breadth of its contemporary art exhibits, and also for the village-like setting of the barracks.


I had a very pleasant few hours there, eating lunch at one of the onsite restaurants and wandering between galleries.

As it's a gently hilly site with plenty of tropical greenery, there's none of the drabness you might expect of a former military facility.

Instead, it's a relatively quiet corner of Singapore, which allows you to take a breather from the city's usual traffic and crowds, and reflect on art.

For opening hours and other details, visit the Gillman Barracks website.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Great Exhibition of the North, UK

On my Newcastle visit I was assisted by the Newcastle Gateshead Initiative.

From now to the end of September 2018, the UK's sister cities of Newcastle and Gateshead are hosting the Great Exhibition of the North.

It's a big multi-venue event showcasing art, design and innovation.

Drawing on the region’s industrial heritage, three walking trails with those themes link events and venues, including free shows.

When I visited the city last year, I walked along the Tyne’s riverside and visited key locations which are being used for the Great Exhibition.

Here's a look at a couple of them.

The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art is a prominent local landmark.

This imposing former flour mill [pictured left] stands over the other side of the river from Newcastle, across the Millennium Bridge [above] in Gateshead.

I had a wander through its cavernous interiors, perfectly suited to exhibiting large, bold pieces of art.

During the Great Exhibition, the Baltic will house several exhibitions connecting with its themes.

One of the most interesting is Idea of North, a multimedia exploration of local identity.

A key component will be a photo exhibition of women of northeastern England, captured across the decades (including a glimpse of the obscure 'cave rave' scene of the 1990s).

Another interesting nearby space is Sage Gateshead. Within its ultramodern facade, it presents music performances. It certainly stands out in its eye-catching building above the river:


After you've explored these venues, I suggest you step back over the Tyne to Newcastle's Broad Chare pub and support a local brewery by ordering a Wylam beer.


As a writer, I couldn't go past the Writers' Block pale ale. I recommend it. Unlikely to solve that literary affliction, but it tastes good.

For more details of the Great Exhibition of the North, see the event's website.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Nostalgia at the Derwent Pencil Museum, UK

Guest blogger this week is author Narrelle M Harris, whose new book is A Dream to Build a Kiss On: a contemporary Sherlock Holmes/Watson romance told in chapters of 221 words. 

I love a one-note museum – a space dedicated to one just one idea or one thing.

I’ve tasted the peculiar delights of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York, the fossils of the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, a sulphur museum in Poland, and on one memorable occasion, a Hungarian salami museum.

Basically, I can’t resist an oddball museum. When I found I would be near the Derwent Pencil Museum in the Lake District, you bet your best set of coloured pencils I went to see it.

Pencils, whether grey graphite or brightly coloured, have a more intriguing history than you might give them credit for, and this museum in Keswick is all over it.

A special HB Derwent Pencil Museum pencil is yours on paying the entry fee of £4.95.

It's rather a lot for a pencil, admittedly, but my heart still beats a little faster in the presence of a pristine new writing implement, never before pressed to paper.

Visitors can also get a quiz to fill out during their exploration of the museum, which charts the history and social impact of the pencil.

Among the things I learned was that the term ‘black market’ originated with the trade in stolen graphite in the 1700s, when the stuff was worth more than gold and used in munitions as well as writing.

Notorious graphite thieves with names like ‘Black Sal’ and ‘The Dandy Wad Stealer’ are surely deserving of some great swashbuckling novel by a latter-day Robert Louis Stevenson.


I also found that the real-life 'Q', Charles Fraser-Smith, liaised in World War Two with the Cumberland Pencil Company to devise a pencil containing a hidden compass and map which was otherwise indistinguishable from a regular pencil.

The program was so secret that, decades later, Derwent pencil makers had to reverse-engineer how it was done, in a technique that was not as simple as you’d think.

There’s a giant pencil in the museum which holds a Guinness Book of Records award.

There’s also one of only two special pencils made for the Queen’s Jubilee (Queen Elizabeth II has the other one) and case upon case of pencil sets in all their deliciously bright, charming glory.

The Derwent Pencil Museum may appeal to kids, but I can’t help feeling the greatest allure is for adults.

We grown-ups are the ones soaking in the nostalgia of our childhood days of carefree colouring and untrammelled creation, before anyone pronounced judgement about whether we were any good.

The back room of the museum is adorned with beautiful drawings done in Derwent – of animals, landscapes and flora.

Tubs of both ordinary and watercolour pencils sit on tables, along with squares of art paper, inviting all to travel back to the creative days of our youth.

Using a photograph I’d taken of a forbidding looking swan at Windermere the day before, I succumbed to the urge.

I took up my colours and didn’t care that I’m no artist. I drew my little swan and I was happy.

The Derwent Pencil Museum is located at Southey Works, Keswick, UK. Find opening hours and other details at its website.

You can also support Narrelle’s fiction (and get rewards!) at her Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/NarrelleMHarris.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Review: Sage Hotel Melbourne, Ringwood


For this review I was hosted by the Sage Hotel Melbourne, Ringwood.

If you ask inner-city Melburnians what they think of the eastern suburb of Ringwood, be prepared for some wrinkling of noses. The district had a bad rep in years past, of being somewhere poor and dodgy.

So it was with some surprise that I stepped out of Ringwood train station yesterday, to find the area north of the railway had been transformed by the rebuilding of the Eastland shopping centre.

It's still very outer-suburban - a huge mall with plentiful chain stores - but the frontage has been transformed into an attractive public square lined by restaurants with outdoor seating.

Next to this is Realm, a new public building which includes the local library.

And on top of the shopping centre, though entered from the main road, is the new Sage Hotel.

It's an eye-opener. One doesn't expect much from suburban hotels, but the Sage is impressive by any standard.

My room is compact but attractive, with a sleek modern look. The big windows face the Dandenong Ranges, so there's a lot of natural light and a view beyond the nearby suburban streets.

The room has a practical set-up, with a useful desk and a straightforward bathroom area. The hanging zone for clothing is open and a bit constricted, but otherwise there's sufficient space to move.


Where the hotel really stands out is in its public areas. The area beyond reception is one big open space, artfully divided by long open-sided bookshelves stacked with works ranging from art volumes to thriller novels.

The largest area is a combination of lounge, bar and co-working space. Alongside the comfortable lounge chairs is a number of desks which guests can use, and which are also available for hire by business people wanting a temporary workspace.


Opposite the lounge area is the restaurant, Partake. This is another open space, with a range of tables from banquettes to high tables. There's some impressive art on the walls, and even more impressive food on the menu.

To give you an example, last night I had this for dessert: the raspberry and strawberry mess with meringue, crème légère and Persian fairy floss.

It was excellent, and a symbol perhaps of how much Ringwood has changed.

And with its proximity to the Dandenong Ranges and the Yarra Valley, the Sage Hotel has a lot to offer tourists, as well as business people and hungry locals.

The Sage Hotel is located at 211 Maroondah Hwy, Ringwood, Australia. For more info and bookings, visit its website.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Hadrian's Wall by Bus


On this trip I was hosted by Visit Britain.

Last year Narrelle Harris and I visited Hadrian's Wall, constructed in AD 122 by the Roman Empire in order to mark and guard its northernmost border.

You can hike the entire length of the wall, but that's a long way to walk - the trail runs 135 kilometres from eastern Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. And the best section is in the middle, where the hilly country with its lower population has left much of the structure intact.


The solution for us was to catch the seasonal AD122 bus. The bus runs between the railway stations of Haltwhistle (in the west) and Hexham (in the east), with easy connections to Carlisle and Newcastle.

As it stops at key sites along the wall, including museums and former forts, it makes the historic structure accessible to everyone, though there's still some walking to do from the bus stops to the wall itself.

Not everyone's up for a long walk, especially in such hilly country, so it's a good option for travellers who are less mobile.


In the end we did walk a section of the wall, taking a leisurely two hours to stroll up and down the sloping trail west from the fort site now known as Housesteads.

Once we'd had enough of that, we used a farm access road to get back to the main road, where we were happy to flag down the next bus. A day ticket allows multiple rides, and the bus will pick up anywhere that's safe along its route.


The walk was great, but we were happy to get back on the bus and use it to reach the ruins of the former Roman military town south of the wall, Vindolanda [pictured above].

We used it the next day as well, to see some of the wall-related sites closer to Haltwhistle. It was a great way to explore Hadrian's Wall, and allow some walking without exhausting ourselves.

For more details about the AD122 bus, click here.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Mind Your PMQ: Hong Kong's Design Hub

I was hosted on this trip by the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

When I visited Hong Kong last year, I spent an afternoon at PMQ.

Opened in 2014, this arts and design hub is housed within the former Police Married Quarters from the British colonial era.

The complex contains workshops, galleries, pop-up shops and food outlets, housed within two seven-storey blocks remaining from the original institution.

These wings are linked by a modern structure called QUBE, which has a rooftop garden.

It's interesting to wander around the complex, up and down between the floors. There's always something new to see in each shopfront.


For an article I was writing, I talked to some young designers who were able to get a start in otherwise-expensive central Hong Kong by taking on a shop in PMQ.

One, Coney Ko [pictured left], designs and sells jewellery with a retro look reminiscent of Art Deco. Another, Yeung Chi, is an award-winning fashion designer.

It's a fascinating place to visit, both for its outlets and its heritage. To learn more about the latter, you can join a regular free PMQ Heritage Interpretation Guided Tour.

For tour bookings and more information, visit the PMQ website.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Nexus of Change: Gdańsk Shipyard, Poland

I visited Poland in 2016 courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

In 1980, the Solidarity trade union was founded at the Lenin Shipyard (later renamed the Gdańsk Shipyard) in Gdańsk, Poland.

Led by electrician Lech Wałęsa, Solidarity became the first independent trade union recognised in Eastern Europe's communist bloc, after a massive strike forced the Polish government to legalise it.

A decade of struggle, repression and civil disobedience followed, until the collapse of the Berlin Wall and of Europe's communist regimes.

The Wall's collapse can be traced back to Solidarity, its foundation having forced the first cracks into the totalitarian structure.


Nowadays the Gdańsk Shipyard is much reduced as a working facility. On part of its former footprint stands the European Solidarity Centre, opened in 2014 with an exhibition explaining the long struggle for freedom which began here.


I walked through it on my 2016 visit, and for a student of history it was fascinating. From mock-ups of communist-era homes and offices, to chilling details of the surveillance state, it gives a sense of what it was like to live through those times.


At the end of the exhibition is a stylised replica of the circular conference table which negotiated a peaceful end to the regime. I saw it as a symbol of hope. Not every tussle for power has to end in bloody civil war.


In addition to housing the Centre, the shipyard site has hosted major rock concerts to mark Solidarity's struggle, and its distinctive Gate Number Two has become a symbol of freedom.

The gate still stands, and makes an impressive architectural counterpoint to the hyper-modern ESC building.


In a time of political uncertainty across Europe, with democracy seemingly shaky, this site - so crucial in the spread of freedom across the continent - is well worth a visit.

The European Solidarity Centre is open daily from 10am, admission 20zł ($7). For more details, visit its website.

Friday, 25 May 2018

"He Gave Joy": Visiting PG Wodehouse's Grave on Long Island, New York

When Narrelle Harris and I visited New York in September 2014, we spent our last full day out of the city.

Catching a train along the Long Island Railroad on a sunny Sunday morning, we alighted at Speonk station, which serves the locality of Remsenburg.

It was in Remsenburg that our favourite author, PG Wodehouse, had spent his final years, and we wanted to pay tribute to him with a little pilgrimage while we were in the vicinity.

Visiting Wodehouse-related sites as I travel had become something of a hobby. In 2011 I visited the prison in Poland where he had been interned in World War Two; and earlier in 2014 I'd had a drink at the Berlin hotel where he was subsequently quartered. In 2012 I had joined a group of PG Wodehouse Society members on a memorable weekend excursion to Norfolk, UK, visiting places connected with his life and work.

I didn't know what to expect when we arrived at Remsenburg, and was pleasantly surprised to find a cafe in operation next to the train station:


When we stepped inside for coffee, we realised it actually was the station. Or more correctly, had once been the station until replaced by the windswept concrete platform a slight distance west.

The interior was decked out with reminders of its railway past:


When we mentioned our quest to our waitress, she pointed to a section of wall - and we were delighted to discover a framed photograph of Wodehouse (top right), strolling to the local post office to send a manuscript to his publisher:


It was heartening to see that PGW's local fame had not entirely subsided, some four decades after his death.

We walked to the Remsenburg Community Presbyterian Church, an attractive white wooden structure with a modest spire. It was a pleasant 20 minute stroll on a sunny day, along Phillips Avenue to its intersection with Country Road.

Though it was a residential area, there were plenty of trees along the walk, giving the area a serene, semi-rural feel. I could see why Wodehouse had chosen this place as a retreat late in life, after the scarring experience of his imprisonment and manipulation by the German military in World War Two.

As we crossed to the church a pair of cyclists paused courteously to let us pass, then we stopped at the front of the building to examine a large commemorative sign:


Detailing his life and work, it ended with the words "His gentle humour and superb mastery of the English language continue to bring joy to readers all over the world."

In the graveyard behind the church, we found his final resting place:


And on top, to one side, a small figure placed there by a fan, suggesting the Infant Samuel at Prayer. Plaster figures of Samuel are mentioned several times in Wodehouse's short stories and novels, often in an amusing light at odds with their apparent piety.

In my favourite Jeeves and Wooster novel, The Code of the Woosters, Bertie Wooster's Aunt Dahlia uses a figure of Samuel to relieve her anxiety about the possible loss of her superb chef, Anatole:
She rose, and moved restlessly to the mantelpiece. I could see that she was looking for something to break as a relief to her surging emotions – what Jeeves would have called a palliative – and courteously drew her attention to a terra cotta figure of the Infant Samuel at Prayer. She thanked me briefly, and hurled it against the opposite wall.
So it was good to see an approximation of Samuel here, unsmashed and working away at the old stand (as Wodehouse would have put it):


At an initial loss of how to mark the occasion, Narrelle and I decided to read aloud a few of our favourite Wodehousean extracts (thank heaven for the Kindle app on our phones!).

So I read out part of the short story in which Bertie first hires Jeeves, then Narrelle read the funny poem A Pastoral; I continued with part of a Jeeves short story set in New York City; and Narrelle concluded with the amusing poem Good Gnu.

It was fun, and moving, and made us shed a few tears as well.

After a while we started walking back to the station, and met one of the cyclists who'd let us cross earlier. It turned out he was originally from Perth, which surprised me not at all - you find random Australians everywhere around the world, in the seemingly most unlikely places.

Living in the area, he was curious about our mission, and why so many people made the trek out to Long Island to visit Wodehouse's grave. I could tell he was unfamiliar with PGW's work, so I mumbled a few words about enjoying his books and we pushed on.

Looking back, however, I wished I'd expressed myself more fully. All I needed to do was to borrow three words inscribed at the base of his gravestone: "He gave joy."

Friday, 18 May 2018

Signs of South Africa

I've just returned from South Africa with a sizeable dose of jetlag, so please excuse me if this week's post is short and sweet.

While being driven around urban South Africa, I took a photo of the occasional advertisement or other sign on the walls of buildings.

It struck me that the ads in South Africa resemble the country's cities - a melding of African and international. Have a look at these, and see if you agree...







Friday, 11 May 2018

Saving the Rhino in South Africa


Last week our media tour, hosted by South African Tourism, spent two nights at the Madikwe Game Reserve in the far north of the country.

We saw an enthralling array of wild animals, many up close. On one occasion elephants walked right by our vehicle. I made a list of the creatures we saw over our three general nature drives, and it ran like this:

  • Buffalo
  • Lions (with a dead zebra)
  • Elephants
  • Rhinos
  • Giraffes
  • A jackal
  • Wild dogs
  • Impala
  • Kudu
  • Wildebeest
  • Zebra
  • Baboons
  • A crocodile
  • A hyena

But the most impressive drive was the one which focused on one animal only: the rhinoceros.

These big animals are in grave danger of poaching; every year they're illegally hunted in reserves across Africa. One of the ways to forestall this is to create a precise biological record of each rhino, which maximises the chances of a successful prosecution of smugglers and poachers, and thereby acts as a deterrent.

We were told there had recently been a prosecution in nearby Swaziland in which a poacher had received a 29 year prison sentence, his fate sealed by the irrefutable biological evidence trail back to a specific rhino.

In Madikwe this initiative is funded largely by visitors to the reserve's various lodges, who make donations which are dedicated entirely to that purpose.

We were lucky enough to see the program in action.

This is how it worked. First, a helicopter went up to locate an untagged rhino. Then the vet with the team sedated the animal with a tranquilliser dart, and we scrambled to reach it as it went under.

At this point we were allowed to approach the sleeping animal and hand the vet the necessary jars for the samples of horn and blood to be placed into. It was remarkable to stand next to such a large, exotic creature, it seeming something like a small dinosaur at rest.

Once the procedure was over, the vet injected the rhino with an agent to reverse the sedation and it awoke almost instantly, lumbering off through the bush to be reunited with its companions.

It was a special experience, and hopefully one which will help make rhino poaching ever more difficult in South Africa. And it enabled us to get an unusually close look at one of the country's many amazing animals.  

We stayed at Jaci's Lodge, see www.jacislodges.co.za. For general information about Madikwe Game Reserve, see www.madikwegamereserve.co.za

Friday, 4 May 2018

Penguins & Vineyards: Attractions Outside Cape Town, South Africa

I'm currently in South Africa with a media group, courtesy of South African Tourism, and we've started our journey in Cape Town.

It's a great city, with a lively waterfront area and a lot of personality. It's also surrounded by interesting attractions, some of which we visited on our first day in the city.

The Atlantic coast is particularly impressive. We started the day at Maidens Cove, west of the city...


... then ascended to Chapman's Peak, with an equally stunning view. That's not my bike in the photo by the way, I'd never make it up that far! Though there were plenty of cyclists on the road, surprising in such hilly country.


At Boulders Beach we met a colony of African Penguins. They used to be known as jackass penguins due to their braying cry, and we heard plenty of that as they waddled around. They're big birds too, probably twice the size of the famous penguins at Phillip Island near Melbourne.


At Muizenberg we hopped out of the minibus briefly to take a look at the colourful bathing boxes on the beach:


Heading east, we entered wine country. We had an interesting wine tasting session at the Spier winery, matching chocolate with the varietals...


... then lunch at Le Petite Ferme came with this view:


We finished the day with a visit to Drakenstein prison, the final place at which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned before his release by the apartheid-era government after 27 years behind bars. A statue of the great man has been erected outside the facility's entrance, immortalising his triumphant stance upon walking to freedom:


It was an inspirational place at which to finish our day trip. The next day we visited Robben Island, where Mandela spent most of his imprisonment, for a grimmer look at the experience of freedom fighters against apartheid. But that's a story for another day...