Friday 25 August 2017

Australia Zoo: Animals on the Sunshine Coast

I was hosted on this trip by Visit Sunshine Coast.

I've just visited Queensland's Sunshine Coast for the annual convention of the Australian Society of Travel Writers. As part of the event we go on short media tours before and after the formal proceedings, so the local tourism organisation can show off its attractions.

On Sunday a group of us made a quick visit to Australia Zoo, made famous by its founder, the late Steve Irwin. We started at the attached animal hospital, where injured animals are regularly brought in by rescuers. Visitors to the zoo can also enter the hospital and see how it works for a small additional fee.

This was a possum which had just been brought in, and was being looked after by a carer:


Inside the main zoo, we started at the koala enclosure, where a number of the animals were dozing in the branches. I know exactly how this guy feels on a Sunday morning:


A large open kangaroo area led past a red panda to Bindi's Island, where there were hard-to-photograph lemurs.



Then we zipped back to the, ahem, Crocoseum for the midday show. This started with birds of prey and progressed to saltwater crocodiles. As our hosts explained the habits and hazards of the croc, a saltie was released into the water at their feet and lurked ominously nearby.



That was a scary creature to watch as it moved in its purposeful reptilian way. I wonder if there's a race memory stuck away at the back of our minds when it comes to these crocs, telling us to BEWARE?

In any case I shot a short video clip of the croc grabbing the meat it was offered by the handler, generously passing up him and the white bird which was hanging around suicidally nearby.

Here's the clip:

At the end of the day we took part in a special session where we met several animals up close, including a wombat, macaw, lizard, snake and koala. It made for good photos:




It was a great day out among the animals and the surrounding greenery. Australia Zoo was much bigger than I expected, and there's food available onsite, so if I returned on my own I'd make a full day of it.

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:

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:


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


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:


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.


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.