Friday 28 February 2020

Friday Night in Freo

On this trip I was hosted by Tourism Western Australia and Journey Beyond.

When I was a schoolkid in Perth, I used to visit Fremantle on weekend leave from my boarding school. As an adult, I lived there for a while. In recent years, I've visited it as a travel writer and sometimes wondered "Why did I leave?"

As you might have guessed, it's a magic place. Quite unlike its flashy upriver cousin, the Perth CBD, Freo is a harmonious collection of 19th century colonial architecture.

It was a small port town that became prosperous without building too high, then went through hard times before becoming prosperous again.

Last Friday night I was in Fremantle once more, spending a night there before heading to East Perth to join the 50th anniversary journey of the Indian Pacific train to Sydney.

It was a very Freo evening.

It started at the rooftop of the National Hotel, a historic pub which was burnt out over a decade ago, but was painstakingly restored and reopened by new owners. It has accommodation now, above the bar and restaurant, and above that is a marvellous rooftop bar, where I drank the spectacular gin and tonic pictured above.

The bar is a great space, a broad deck which is high enough in this low-rise port city to give a view of almost every part of Fremantle: the handsome sandstone-faced buildings, the thrusting Port Authority tower, the curving Maritime Museum, the riverside docks and their cranes, the Indian Ocean with a glimpse of Rottnest Island beyond.

After my drink I had dinner at the Capri, an Italian restaurant which has been open on this spot (and looking much the same) since 1954. I had a great view from its front window over South Terrace...

Once I'd finished dinner, I walked back to my bed at the pub and marvelled at how little central Freo had changed in all the years since I'd lived there. So many of the businesses had been there for twenty years or more: Mexican Kitchen, Nick's Place (souvlaki), Dome café, Sandrino (pizza), the Newport Hotel.

There was even a Timezone video game arcade, damn it. What was this, 1989?

When I woke up the following morning, I was rewarded with this view of marvellous High Street, with its collection of beautiful colonial architecture stretching down to the 1831 Round House, the settlement's first prison.

To be frank, I wasn't sure if Freo's lack of change was a product of pride in its heritage, or of economic malaise. But I was glad it had retained its charms. At last so I can keep going back and wondering what might have been.

Thanks for reading. For news of an important change regarding the future of this blog, come back next week!

Friday 21 February 2020

A Cornish Day Gone Wrong... Then Right

On this trip I was hosted by Visit Britain.

Everyone has a day on their travels that doesn't go to plan. Many days, possibly. Even travel writers have days that don't go to plan - we have a self-mocking expression for it on Twitter: "I'm a travel expert, ask me anything!"

One day that didn't go to plan for me was in late May, in Cornwall, UK. I'd arrived in Penzance the previous day by train from London, and the day before that I'd taken trains all the way from Zürich to London, via Paris.

Unfortunately I'd brought something with me from Switzerland - a nasty cold. So I set out by foot from my hotel in Marazion, outside Penzance, hoping I could shrug it off as I walked to the big local attraction, St Michael's Mount - which I could see from my hotel, the Mount Haven:

It was a pleasant stroll through the village, down to the shore, then across the stone causeway which is accessible at low tide:

Once I was on the island, I pottered around looking at displays about its history, from its medieval monastery era through to the present day. I then sat down on the grass in the sunshine, bracing myself to ascend the uneven stone steps which led to the castle at the top of the island.

Except... I couldn't. Sitting on the grass in the sun, listening to storytellers telling kids about the legend of the mythical giant of the island, I realised I felt far too ill to clamber up the steps, especially on this busy long weekend when there was a long wait time to proceed through the castle's decorative interiors.

So I wandered around to the gardens on the far side of the island instead, enjoyed the sloping greenery as best I could, then walked to the harbour to catch a boat back to the mainland with a bunch of Brits and a dog.

I felt a bit defeated by my inability to fully explore the island, but I also felt sorry for myself for being ill. Then, on the way back to the Mount Haven, I passed a pub which was far enough from the Mount to be outside the tourist crush - the Fire Engine Inn:

I couldn't have asked for a better place to heal. I took a comfortable seat facing the bar, was served fish & chips and beer by the friendly staff, and sat quietly; still feeling ill, but less harrowed by crowds.

It was good. Sometimes a British pub is the best place in the world to be.

Monday 10 February 2020

Vancouver Movie Month Competition! And the City's Curious Places...

It's Vancouver Movie Month here in Melbourne, Australia, and the Rooftop Cinema is screening a selection of the many movies shot in the Canadian city. You can see the movies here - marked with "Made in Vancouver".

As part of the event, Tourism Vancouver has kindly provided a free double pass to any of the Vancouver Movie Month screenings, to be won by one of my readers.

To enter, read the post below then leave your name and email address (or phone number, if you prefer) in the comments field below it by 5pm Melbourne time on Tuesday 11 February 2020. Don't worry, I'll keep your contact info confidential rather than publishing it to the world.

I'll print them out, place all the valid entries in a hat, and Narrelle Harris will ably assist as designated barrel girl to draw the winner. I'll then pass your contact details to the Tourism Vancouver PR team who will contact you with your prize.

Good luck! And now for something rather curious: an article I wrote after my first visit to Vancouver some years ago, hosted by Destination Canada. With updated details where necessary, I give you...

Curious Vancouver

“In like Flynn!”

It’s an expression that beautifully sums up Errol Flynn’s attitude to life. Not only did the Tasmanian-born actor become one of Hollywood’s leading men in a series of action movies in the 1930s, but he also lived the rollicking life of a bad boy star.

Then he ended up dead on a slab in Vancouver.

I know this because I’m standing in the former autopsy room that’s part of the Canadian city’s Police Museum.

On one wall is a macabre display of human body sections preserved in formaldehyde, with notes explaining how each victim died. Adjacent to these is a portrait of Flynn, with a replica of his autopsy report beside him.

Vancouver has a distinctly colourful past, having begun life as a wild logging town in the 19th century. As I wander its streets, I find even more curious items...

Steam Clock. This odd piece of street furniture is located in Gastown - the oldest part of Vancouver’s downtown area. At all hours of the day, you’ll find tourists snapping shots of this tall fixture which resembles Big Ben’s clock tower with steam pouring out of its top. It’s undeniablly appealing kitsch.
Corner of Water & Cambie Streets

Japadog. In front of the Sutton Place Hotel is the original location of Japadog, a hotdog stand selling Japanese-style dogs, topped with ingredients such as dried seaweed. The most popular dog is the beef terimayo, but I opt for the kurobuta terimayo (“Most highly prized pork!”). It’s tasty, and the seaweed adds a... unique flavour.
Corner Burrard and Smithe Streets, and other locations.

Blood Alley. Depending on who you talk to, this laneway got its name from a) executions; b) butchers’ shops; or c) a clever marketing idea. Whatever the truth, it’s full of rough-edged character as I walk along it, past brick walls and rusting fire escapes. Then, unwittingly, I stumble across Salt Tasting Room, a smooth wine bar serving fine Canadian wine from the Okanagan Valley and beyond, with a view of the alley through its windows.
Blood Alley runs parallel to and between Water Street and W Cordova Street.

Jimi Hendrix Shrine. The late rocker may be remembered as a famous New Yorker, but he also spent time in Vancouver as a boy, living with his grandmother. His Canadian connection is commemorated in this shrine and its small adjacent garden, filled with Hendrix memorabilia.
209 Union St; currently closed pending renovation, scheduled to reopen 2022.

Exotic World Museum. In the back of an antiques shop, this curious collection of faded captioned photos, animal bones and wooden masks was assembled by the late Harold and Barbara Morgan over decades of travel. They’re still with the collection in spirit; I give a friendly nod to Harold and Barbara’s ashes, which I discover are housed in ornate boxes on a shelf above my head.
Inside Alexander Lamb Antiques, 3271 Main Street (Note: I've been unable to verify this museum still exists in 2020.)

Sins of the City. Strolling through Chinatown and the seedy Downtown Eastside, members of this history walking tour hear commentary about gambling, opium dens, prostitution... and a captivating post-mortem tale about Errol Flynn’s body, which is unfortunately not suitable for readers who might be eating. I’ll leave you to discover the disgusting truth for yourself.
From 240 East Cordova St.

OK... it's time to enter the competition for those two Vancouver Movie Month tickets! Post your name and email address (and/or phone number) in the comments field below by 5pm Melbourne time on Tuesday 11 February 2020, and I'll post the successful winner's name here after it's drawn from a hat. Good luck and bonne chance!

Friday 7 February 2020

Darwin Under Fire

A few years ago I caught The Ghan train south from Darwin, courtesy of Tourism NT and Great Southern Rail. 

Before I left the city, however, I visited its Defence of Darwin Experience. As the resulting newspaper story is no longer online, I've re-presented it below for your enjoyment...

I’m standing in front of a lone doorway, propped up with beams to stop it falling. Beyond it is the shell of a stone building, the fragments of its walls blackened with age.

This ruin, standing in a beautiful patch of lawn, could easily pass as a remnant of the Roman Empire. But it’s actually the remains of Darwin’s Old Town Hall, an 1883 structure which was totalled by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. Once a civic landmark, it stands now as a reminder to the ferocious power of nature.

However, 1974 was not the only time that Darwin was devastated from the air. In the morning of 19 February 1942, just ten weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbour, a huge force of Japanese aircraft bombed and strafed the unprepared town.

The bombing of Darwin was for many years obscured by the larger events of World War II, but in recent times has shot up several points in the national consciousness. In February 2012 the 70th anniversary of the attack gained wide media coverage; and people as diverse as Australia director Baz Luhrmann and former US President Barack Obama have drawn attention to it.

The concrete culmination of this awareness is the Defence of Darwin Experience, a high-tech facility at the Darwin Military Museum at East Point, north of the city centre. Comparing the new building to the museum’s existing exhibits is like comparing chalk and cheese – the outdoors military hardware with its neat captions is outshone by the richness of the new interactive experience within.

At the museum I ask director Dr Tom Lewis why the bombing of Darwin and subsequent Japanese raids were so important.

“It was the first time we had enemy attacks made on Australian soil - the first time they’d come and bombed the hell out of us in our own country,” says Dr Lewis. “Some of the raids penetrated as far south as Katherine, that’s 300 kilometres inland.”

Was the bombing a precursor to invasion? Dr Lewis thinks not. “They were basically designed to knock us off balance and to keep us busy defending. If we’re busy defending, we can’t attack. They thought they’d knock us out, they’d knock us back, the Americans wouldn’t come in strength and that would be enough. In the end they turned out to be wrong.”

Even so, it must have been a terrifying time in the remote town that was Darwin in 1942.

As I enter the Experience, I’m struck by the stark red, white and black colour scheme. The red carries a strong suggestion of conflict, but the first section focuses on the diversity of daily life in the pre-war town, with exhibited items such as a Chinese business sign, pearl-shell ornaments and a section of the vital submarine telegraph which linked Australia to the wider world.

There’s some fine use of oral history here, with screens replaying comments from locals who lived through those days, such as then shop assistant Alec Fong Lim. This is repeated throughout the museum, often with the same people giving their personal take on history.

The next room covers the build-up to war. The daunting scale of the preparations is neatly captured by the reminiscences of John Cassidy, a maritime engineer who offered his services to the Northern Territory Patrol Service in 1937, only to discover its headquarters was a tin shed.

A wall is taken up by a series of interactive video clips detailing Japan’s militarisation and expansion up to 1942. This is an excellent way to present essential background information, with plenty of illustrative images and maps, letting the viewer jump back and forth along the timeline and rewatch segments where necessary.

The stage is now set for the big event, the 19 February bombing. The key exhibit here is a large table at waist-height, on which is projected a huge photographic map of Darwin and its harbour.

As Japanese planes fly across the map and begin bombing, visitors can tap smaller screens on the edge of the table to activate audio reminiscences from people who were present. As they speak, a thick red line magically snakes across the map to highlight where they were standing as the bombs dropped.

There are some gripping stories here, including Able Seaman Bill Chapman’s terrifying account of his ship being bombed, and the devastation that followed.

This has all been very impressive; but the best is yet to come. Every 20 minutes a siren and flashing light activates above the entrance to the final large exhibition room, and its doors slide shut. Within this space a huge animated film, the Bombing of Darwin Experience, is projected across a series of glass panels. It’s brilliantly done, mixing cutting-edge computer graphics with period photography and an urgent soundscape.

One of the most memorable moments in the film is one of quiet contrast, however, as the Japanese pilots find their targets and their bombs begin to quietly drop through the blue sky as music plays softly in the background. This abruptly shifts to a crescendo of bomb blasts as a February morning is transformed into chaos and destruction.

It’s remarkably moving, an immersive experience which rolls back the decades and gives the viewer a sense of what it was like to stand in Darwin on that darkest of days. The film, like the museum it’s housed in, adds new meaning to the phrase “Lest we forget”.

Dr Lewis agrees. “There’s an awakening of the debt that we owe to World War II Australians. I call 1942 the year we nearly went out, because we were having disaster after disaster. The Darwin attack was only three months into the war, but for the first time Australians and Americans were standing shoulder to shoulder.”

The Defence of Darwin Experience is at 5434 Alec Fong Lim Drive, East Point, Darwin, Australia. Adult entry $20. Find more details at the museum's website.