Sunday 23 March 2008

Gastro-tourism: Make Mine a Large One

The India Times published a piece last week looking at the unexploited potential of gastro-tourism - food tourism to you and me - in the subcontinent.

Which made me think what a large part food and drink plays in my own travel. One doesn't like to sound greedy by admitting that one has an overt interest in gourmet treats overseas.

But I must admit there's been more than a few foodie highlights in my travels. Off the top of my head:

1. Sipping incredibly potent grappa, an Italian alcoholic drink created from the skins of grapes left over after winemaking. It wasn't the grappa per se, but the fact we were drinking it in San Gimignano, a beautiful hilltop town in Tuscany.

Narrelle and I had wandered away from the tourist haunts, admiring the medieval towers and picture-perfect green countryside below the city walls, when we'd stumbled across a little place that had grappa on the menu.

Wandering around the narrow quiet streets afterward,admiring the architecture while unexpectedly intoxicated from a single glass each, was loads of fun.

2. Drinking żubrówka vodka where the żubry hang out. In the far east of Poland, along the border with Belarus, sits the little village of Białowieża. Once the home of the Russian Tsar's hunting lodge, it's now the gateway to the UNESCO-listed reserve nearby, in which you'll find the only wild herd of European bison.

A bison in Polish is żubr, plural żubry, and they gave their name to the famous żubrówka vodka, which contains a blade of bison grass favoured by the animals. Drinking this in the area associated with it, after eating a traditional dish containing egg, bacon, game meat and mushrooms served up in a frying pan, gave it an extra savour.

3. Sitting at an outdoor table at a restaurant on Easter Island on a Sunday, eating a tuna carpaccio containing fresh raw deep sea tuna. It's about the only dish you can eat fresh on the island, as most other foodstuffs are shipped in from Chile. But again, it was the surroundings that added the extra flavour.

As it was most people's day off on Rapa Nui, there was a soccer game going on in the park opposite, motorbikes zipping around, and young guys galloping their horses up and down the street. And just over to the right, there was one of the island's famous enigmatic statues, perched on a plinth above the fishing port.

In the end, it's not just about eating and drinking, is it? It's about being more deeply embedded in the culture, by enjoying the food and drink the locals do; and maybe understanding their culture a little better beceause of it.

Monday 17 March 2008

Viva BrisVegas 2: The Case of the Missing Phone

It had to happen. I've been buzzing along happily through Brisbane this week, sampling the cool cafe districts and going on a bunch of unusual tours... including a ghost tour through the old Toowong Cemetery with a suspiciously vampiric host.

All was going swimmingly. So of course, as PG Wodehouse would put it, Fate was waiting around the next corner with a piece of lead piping, ready to do her worst.

On Friday evening I caught a taxi from the Emporium Hotel in lively Fortitude Valley to the Powerhouse arts venue in nearby New Farm, for opening drinks at a freelance writers' conference.

Later in the evening, after another cab ride, we ended up in the Valley's hyperactive, ever so edgy Brunswick Street Mall (my patented definition of 'edgy' as applied to city neighbourhoods: lively, with a mild sense of danger).

We ate, we drank, we watched happy people wander toward live music venues. Then, back at the hotel, I discovered my phone was missing.

It was a small mishap really, but it set off a tedious bout of phone calls to cab companies, venues, insurance companies and the police over the next few days.

Interestingly, for most of the following day I was quietly enjoying not having a phone; in the 21st century, there's something a bit wicked about not being constantly in touch. But then it sank in that I'd lost something valuable that I rely on, and I felt a bit vulnerable. Silly really, as no-one had stolen it - it had mostly likely dropped onto the roadway upon getting out of a taxi.

But still, it felt disturbing. Especially since I'd never lost anything significant while travelling before, despite the endless opportunities. It was interesting too, to see how your psychological security in a new place can so easily flip from relaxed to unsettled via such a minor event.

And I keep wondering where the hell the phone is now... it's been blocked from outgoing calls and it isn't answering, so I guess I'll never know.

So... what have you lost while travelling? Anything important, essential, or deeply sentimental? And how did it affect your state of mind?

Tim Richards travelled with the assistance of Tourism Queensland and local hotels.

Wednesday 12 March 2008

Viva BrisVegas 1: The Artificial Beach

En route to Brisbane on my current travel writing trip, the recorded safety announcement aboard my flight included the line "Can you reach the seat in front of you?".

What a question. I'm on a Boeing 737-400; not only can I reach the seat in front of me, but my knees are in an intimate relationship with it and may soon be required to do the decent thing and buy it an engagement ring.

Who the hell can't reach the seat in front of them? (ah, business class passengers, of course)

But you have to admit, when you glance out the departure lounge window and realise you've drawn the 737 short straw, that this plane is a marvellous thing. Imagine - an entirely functional, extremely accurate replica of a real aeroplane, exactly 70% of its size in every respect.

You have to marvel (and I did) at the precision. Perhaps it belonged to an advanced but now extinct Lilliputian race from prehistory that left it behind when they vanished.

But oh well, what can you do. And Brisbane, Australia (hence to be known as BrisVegas in deference to popular usage) has turned out to be rather good, once you get the hang of it. There's not much street signage and the public transport is notably user-unfriendly, but the thing I've enjoyed most is the thing I thought would be most tacky: the artificial beach just off the Brisbane River in South Bank.

You heard me right: it's a large artificial lagoon full of sparkling clean water lapping up to a stretch of imported sand on which sits a real live surf lifesaver, atop a red tower. Palm trees at neat intervals offer some shade, and if you swim to the deep side you can prop yourself up on the concrete rim and look over the river and the central city.

All of which, strangely, turned out to be rather delightful. I'd spent the morning researching Boundary Street in West End, a former dirt poor working class suburb which is now home to some very cool cafes (I tried out The Gunshop and Espressohead), then walked across to South Bank.

Now I was bobbing in the pool, no, lagoon, and taking it all in. People were sunbathing, the lifesaver was invigilating, and a couple of twentysomething guys were mucking around with a football in a way that was likely to injure someone before too long (why are these guys always present at a beach?). I swam toward the deep edge, encountering a bit of pebbly surface which had lost its sand covering along the way, then scraped my knee unexpectedly as the depth suddenly diminished near the wall.

Then I leaned on it and took in the view. It really is impressive: the blue water of the lagoon contrasts with the brown water of the river just beyond, and a row of mangroves sits at the far side beneath a busy major road. Then the city's glass and steel skyscrapers loom up over it all. It's a striking feature of BrisVegas, the way the tall buildings come right down to the water's edge in places.

Brisbane's reputation for being a city of glitz is not without basis, but that's redeemed by its citizens' relaxed, slightly self-deprecatory good nature about things like the lagoon; locals later shared my smile when talking about it, knowing it was a bit silly but liking it all the same. My first impression is that Brisbane has a lot in common visually with Sydney, but is more laid back and doesn't take itself quite so seriously. Which is all to the good.

Tim Richards travelled with the assistance of Tourism Queensland and local hotels.

Thursday 6 March 2008

What Makes a Top Airport?

According to eTurboNews, a survey by the Airports Council International has named the top three airports in the world as:
  1. Seoul Incheon, South Korea
  2. Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia
  3. Changi Airport, Singapore
The rankings were derived from a survey of 34 service aspects of airports, from check-in to departure, as judged by 200,000 respondents.

The only one of these airports I've experienced personally is Changi, many many times in transit between Australia and Europe.

Although the range of its facilities is impressive, it slipped considerably in my personal ratings last year, due to its annoying new rule that all cabin luggage has to be taken out of a plane in transit.

So, en route from Melbourne to London on the same aircraft, we had to drag everything out into the airport, then go through the laborious metal detector screening etc to get it back on again... even though it had been thoroughly screened in Melbourne.

Not only was this security overkill, but it didn't help the passenger's enjoyment of Changi's facilities, or the profitability of its shops.

When you're hauling around 8 to 10 kilograms of cabin luggage, you can't be bothered to walk too far - so most passengers just left the aircraft, entered the terminal, then stepped straight back into the queue to be rescreened so they could sit into the transit lounge to wait for re-boarding.

On the way back from Europe, my plane transited in the decade-old Hong Kong International Airport, a first for me.

Although the transit area had a slightly muddled, bureaucratic feeling - with dozens of smiling female staff members handing out lapel stickers which had something to do with your flight which was never explained - the airport officials felt relaxed enough to let our cabin luggage stay on board, freeing us up for a bit of a stroll.

And it's a great airport for that, with expansive views through huge plate glass windows, very welcome when you've been cooped up on a plane for 15 hours. And the natural light probably helped the body clock readjust a bit.

So what do you look for in an airport? The quickest way out, perhaps? Or are some actually worth spending time in? What's your favourite aerohaveno, and why?