About Rob McFarland

An award-winning travel writer who divides his time between Sydney, the US and the UK.

Review of White City House, London

Rooftop pool at Soho House's White City House - photo by Soho House

Rooftop pool at Soho House’s White City House – photo by Soho House

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Dec 20, 2018

White City House is the latest instalment in Soho House’s global empire of private members’ clubs. In fewer than 25 years the group has blossomed from a single “house” in London’s Soho to a sprawling network of 23 properties, mostly located in Europe and north America. Members are largely from the creative industries (think advertising, music and media) and the atmosphere is emphatically informal – the antithesis of the jacket-and-tie stuffiness of a traditional gentlemen’s club. By definition they’re exclusive, so for non-members there’s an intriguing, I-wonder-what-goes-on-in-there mystique.

What’s not well-publicised is that many houses also have hotels that can be booked by the public.

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Sunset Hummer tour in Moab, Utah

Sunset Hummer tour in Moab, Utah - photo by Rob McFarland

Sunset Hummer tour in Moab, Utah – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Dec 1, 2018

“It’s OK to scream,” says Mike. Good to know because I’m about to start wailing like a teething toddler. Ahead of us is a steeply plunging wall of sandstone and we’re going down it. Fast. I can’t see what’s at the bottom but I’m fairly sure it’s certain death.

We career down the slippery rock, feet braced, knuckles gripped, stomachs lurching. While I shriek uncontrollably, Mike steers nonchalantly with one hand. Finally, we reach the valley floor and he expertly scrubs off speed and brings us to a stop. Everyone lets out a relief-fuelled sigh. No one died … well, except my dignity.

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Tea time in Hong Kong

Tea tasting class at Homeland Tea Garden with May Chan - photo by Rob McFarland

Tea tasting class at Homeland Tea Garden with May Chan – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Nov 24, 2018

As someone who grew up in England, I’m no stranger to tea. The Brits take their tea seriously, using it as a national remedy for almost any stressful event (Lost a leg? You’ll feel better after a nice cuppa). However, they are mere amateurs compared with the Chinese, who’ve elevated the relatively simple act of infusing hot water with tea leaves into a beautiful (and often bewildering) art form.

As one of Asia’s most Western-influenced cities, Hong Kong is caught in the middle. It has experienced the same coffee-culture explosion that’s happened in almost every capital city during the past decade, but it’s also resolutely clung on to its tea-drinking heritage. This is good news for visitors, because it means you can get an insight into this ancient tradition but still find a decent flat white when you reach your lapsang limit.

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America’s best restaurant – Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama

Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama - photo by Rob McFarland

Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sun-Herald, Australia – Nov 18, 2018

According to the James Beard Awards, the prestigious annual celebration of America’s culinary excellence, the US’s best restaurant is not in the gourmet capitals of New York, Chicago or LA, it is in – are you ready? – Birmingham, Alabama.

In May, the awards declared Highlands Bar & Grill to be America’s most Outstanding Restaurant of 2018. It named the restaurant’s pastry chef, Dolester Miles, the best in the country, too.

If you’re tempted to dismiss this as a fluke, think again. Highlands has been a finalist an astonishing nine times. Clearly, they’re doing a lot of things right.

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Cycling the Waterford Greenway, Ireland

Cycling the Waterford Greenway in Ireland - photo by Rob McFarland

Cycling the Waterford Greenway in Ireland – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sun-Herald, Australia – Nov 4, 2018

Few cities are as synonymous with a product as Waterford in south-east Ireland. The renowned crystal maker was based there from 1783 until 2009, when its owning company, Waterford Wedgwood, went into receivership. Hundreds of manufacturing jobs were lost and tourist numbers dwindled.

As Phil Brennan, owner of Waterford Camino Tours, puts it: “The city went through some dark times but it’s starting to come out the other end.”

In an attempt to lure people back, the company’s new owners unveiled an impressive new visitor centre in 2010. It helped but arguably the biggest boost came from the opening in March 2017 of the Waterford Greenway, a 46-kilometre cycle path that follows a disused railway between Waterford and the coastal town of Dungarvan.

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GoBoat trip on Regent’s Canal, London

Exploring Regent's Canal with GoBoat - photo by Rob McFarland

Exploring Regent’s Canal with GoBoat – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sun-Herald, Australia – Oct 28, 2018

“Give way to everything” is the crux of the safety briefing at GoBoat’s headquarters in Paddington Basin. London’s canal system might not be the industrial thoroughfare it once was but there are still plenty of things to trouble the first-time boater. Fortunately, the top speed of the vessel I’ll be captaining is only 6.5 km/h, so even if I do hit something, I shouldn’t do much damage. At least that’s the theory.

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Unclaimed Baggage Centre in Scottsboro, Alabama

Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama - photo by Rob McFarland

Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Oct 27, 2018

Thanks to advances in bag-tracking technology, the amount of checked luggage that fails to reach its destination is now less than half a per cent. But given airlines carried more than four billion bags last year, that still means more than 20 million bags went unclaimed. What happened to them? Where did they end up? The unexpected answer is Scottsboro, Alabama.

Located 165 kilometres northeast of Birmingham, the sleepy town of Scottsboro is home to the only store in the US that buys and sells unclaimed luggage. Every day thousands of bags arrive at the Unclaimed Baggage Centre to be inspected and sorted. Clothes deemed worthy of sale are cleaned in the state’s largest dry-cleaning facility (it launders 50,000 items a month) and all electronic items are tested and wiped of data. About 7000 good-as-new items are transferred daily to the centre’s nearby retail store, which covers an entire city block.

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Five new family-friendly attractions in New York

National Geographic Encounter Ocean Odyssey - photo by Rob McFarland

National Geographic Encounter Ocean Odyssey – photo by Rob McFarland

Escape, Sunday Telegraph, Australia – Oct 7, 2018

New Yorkers have a love/hate relationship with Times Square, the dazzling neon-lit intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue.

On the one hand, it’s home to arguably the world’s most famous theatre district; on the other, it’s a tourist magnet that’s perpetually choked with people.

Until recently, it didn’t have a great deal to offer families (apart from the spectacle of the place itself) but in the last year several exciting new attractions have opened.

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Review of L’Oscar hotel, London

The Bar at L'Oscar hotel in London - photo by L'Oscar

The Bar at L’Oscar hotel in London – photo by L’Oscar

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Sep 22, 2018

It’s safe to assume that when preacher Dr Alexander MacLaren laid the foundation stone for the Baptist Church Headquarters in London in 1901, he never envisaged it would one day become one of the capital’s most decadent hotels. The imposing Grade II-listed building on Southampton Row has had many uses over the years – including office space and a homeless shelter – but in June it became London’s newest five-star hotel after a meticulous 12-year restoration.

To say no expense was spared would be an understatement. L’oscar’s interiors were styled by French designer Jacques Garcia, whose resume includes the Hotel Costes in Paris and restorations at the Palace of Versailles. Taking inspiration from the area’s literary heritage, he set out to create something “profoundly English”.

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Bar tour in Budapest, Hungary

Szimpla ruin bar in Budapest - photo by Rob McFarland

Szimpla ruin bar in Budapest – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sun-Herald, Australia – Aug 19, 2018

“I guess she can drive!” we all cry, clinking our glasses in unison. According to Fanni, our smiling guide from Urban Adventures, this is the closest approximation to “egeszsegedre!” or “cheers!” in Hungarian.

Given Hungary’s location in the heart of Europe, you’d think its language might resemble that of one of its neighbours – Austria or Croatia perhaps? Not a chance. Its closest relative is the equally tongue-troubling Finnish.

Still, with this all-important phrase under my belt, I feel suitably equipped to tackle an evening of bar hopping around Budapest.

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Cruising on the Danube with U by Uniworld

Sailing on the Danube with U by Uniworld - photo by Rob McFarland

Sailing on the Danube with U by Uniworld – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Sep 15, 2018

“Everyone pray for rain so we can make it down the Danube.” Not exactly what you want to hear from the captain at the start of a river cruise. Europe has been basking in a heatwave all summer and the lack of rain means the Danube is perilously low. We’ve just joined the ship at Regensburg in Germany but unless we get more rain we won’t be able to make it over a perennially problematic sandbar near Deggendorf.

This is my first river cruise and I’d naively assumed that itinerary changes were something that only happened on ocean voyages. But according to Caspar, our head guide (or U Host) from the Netherlands, the Danube is particularly susceptible to fluctuating water conditions. “We have to improvise,” he says with typical Dutch pragmatism. “And we will have fun no matter what happens.”

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Six of the best hikes in Hong Kong

Beach on Lamma Island in Hong Kong - photo by Rob McFarland

Beach on Lamma Island in Hong Kong – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Aug 25, 2018

1. LAMMA ISLAND
A 30-minute ferry ride from Central, this car-free oasis offers hikers a rewarding montage of beaches, history and gourmet seafood. Start with a poke around the stores in the laid back township of Yung Shue Wan before following a meandering seven-kilometre trail that offers sweeping coastal views as it passes the white sand Hung Shing Yeh Beach and the city’s first commercial-grade wind turbine. Finish up with a tour of the fish farm at Sok Kwu Wan before tucking into a seafood feast at one of the bay’s many excellent waterfront restaurants.

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Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda

Remembrance wall at Kigali Genocide Memorial - photo by Rob McFarland

Remembrance wall at Kigali Genocide Memorial – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Aug 18, 2018

Visiting a memorial that chillingly describes how a million people were murdered in a 100-day killing spree is probably the last thing you’ll want to do when you arrive in Rwanda. But you should. Firstly, to pay your respects, but also because it might be the only reminder you’ll get. So miraculous has been Rwanda’s recovery since the horrific genocide in 1994, it’s hard to believe the atrocities happened in the same place.

Located in Kigali’s Gisozi district, a 10-minute drive from the centre of the capital, the Kigali Genocide Memorial opened in April 2004 on the 10th anniversary of the genocide. The first section describes the complex series of events that led to the civil war between Rwanda’s two main ethnic groups, the Hutus and Tutsis. Interestingly, the initial distinction between them wasn’t based on ethnicity at all – it was socio-economic.

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Delicious Dublin food tour, Ireland

Inside Camerino bakery in Dublin - photo by Rob McFarland

Inside Camerino bakery in Dublin – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Aug 18, 2018

“I fell in love with Dublin,” says Ketty Quigley, explaining why she relocated to Ireland from France in 2004. “And I fell in love with an Irish man,” she adds with a smile. “What I didn’t fall in love with was Irish food.”

Thankfully, much has changed during the intervening years. The recession in 2008 closed many of the city’s high-end restaurants and those that survived were forced to reinvent themselves. The result was a reinvigorated casual dining scene with a focus on local produce.

Quigley was so impressed that in 2012 she started a food blog called French Foodie in Dublin. Since then, she’s been named the SHEmazing! Food Influencer of the Year, has become a judge for the Irish Restaurant Awards and is one of Tourism Ireland’s Irish food champions. Not bad for something she started as a side project because she was bored at work.

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Review of The Murray hotel, Hong Kong

Bathroom at The Murray hotel, Hong Kong - photo by Rob McFarland

Bathroom at The Murray hotel, Hong Kong – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – June 30, 2018

THE PLACE
The Murray, Hong Kong

THE LOCATION
A prime spot opposite Hong Kong Park in the heart of Hong Kong Island’s busy Central district.

THE SPACE
A modernist masterpiece, The Murray building housed government offices for more than 40 years before being transformed by award-winning architects Foster + Partners into the city’s newest five-star hotel (it opened in January). They’ve kept the building’s grand arches and distinctive recessed windows, cleverly angling each room to make the most of the views over Hong Kong Park and Victoria Harbour. The design of the public spaces is minimalist with extensive use of black and white marble, but colourful artworks and elaborate flower arrangements help soften the mood. A striking rooftop glass pavilion houses the hotel’s signature restaurant, Popinjays, and there’s a spacious wraparound verandah with mesmerising views over Central and the harbour. Throw in a state-of-the-art gym, a soon-to-be opened indoor lap pool and a lavish spa with a steam room and sauna and you might never want to venture outside.

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Six of the best Hong Kong speakeasies

Making a cocktail in The Old Man speakeasy - photo by Rob McFarland

Making a cocktail in The Old Man speakeasy – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – June 23, 2018

THE OLD MAN
In less experienced hands, The Old Man would be just another yawn-inducing addition to the long list of bars dedicated to writer Ernest Hemingway. However, the man behind this upscale establishment is Agung Prabowo, who previously managed the highly-regarded bar at the Mandarin Oriental. The menu features seven cocktails named after Hemingway books (Death in the Afternoon anyone?) plus a selection of the writer’s personal favourites, which includes the surprisingly feminine White Lady (a mixture of gin, Cointreau and lemon juice). Look for the unmarked flight of stairs leading down from Aberdeen Street in Central.

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Contoy Island Tour, Mexico

Contoy Island in Mexico - photo by Rob McFarland

Contoy Island in Mexico – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sun-Herald, Australia – May 13, 2018

“Make some noise for the crew,” bellows an excitable guide. “No noise, no lunch!”

I’m in Cancun, Mexico’s Vegas by the sea, and have signed up for this “Paradise Island” boat tour for what I’d hoped would be a respite from the town’s all-you-can-drink happy hours and pole-dancing waitresses.

But this doesn’t bode well. An armada of minivans has delivered us to a dock north of Cancun where we’ve been divided into groups and allocated boats. I’m in the English/French group and our guide is an enthusiastic Mexican called David.

“Is anyone celebrating anything?” he cries, once we’re all aboard. “No? OK, let’s celebrate being alive!”

I let my head slump onto my life jacket. It’s going to be a long day.

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Semuc Champey, Guatemala

Aerial view of Semuc Champey, Guatemala - photo by Rob McFarland

Aerial view of Semuc Champey, Guatemala – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – May 12, 2018

My guide Sam has just earned himself some serious brownie points. The climb to the El Mirador lookout is a one-kilometre-long thigh-punisher – a relentless series of uneven rocky steps and steep wooden ladders that would be taxing enough on a cool day, let alone in this 33-degree heat and 90 per cent humidity. If I was him, I’d have wished me good luck at the bottom and said, ‘see you when you get down’. But he insists on accompanying me, despite having done it dozens of times before.

By the time we get to the top, I look like I’ve just been spat out of a car wash. Sam, who’s Guatemalan and used to this humidity, has a slight sheen on his forehead.

Why subject yourself to such a torturous trek? For an aerial perspective of what many claim is Guatemala’s most beautiful natural site – a 300-metre-long limestone bridge over the Cahabon River that harbours six cascading turquoise pools.

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Wildwaters Lodge in the White Nile, Uganda

Pool at Wildwaters Lodge in Uganda - photo by Rob McFarland

Pool at Wildwaters Lodge in Uganda – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – Apr 24, 2018

On paper, a private boat transfer sounds like a delightful way to start a holiday on an exclusive island resort. And if the property was in, say, the Maldives or the Seychelles, I’m sure it would be. However, when it’s on an island surrounded by three class six rapids in the middle of Uganda’s raging White Nile, the trip takes on a rather more intrepid feel.

Adding to my concern is that the boat in question is actually a wooden canoe whose engine is a young staff member with a paddle. After carefully loading my luggage into the front, he instructs me to sit in the middle “for balance” and then launches us into the ferocious current.

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New Zealand’s best wine regions

Craggy Range vineyard in Hawkes Bay - photo by Rob McFarland

Craggy Range vineyard in Hawkes Bay – photo by Rob McFarland

Traveller, Sun-Herald, Australia – Apr 15, 2018

It’s hard to believe New Zealand produces less than one per cent of the world’s wine. So ubiquitous is its presence on international wine lists, you’d be forgiven for assuming it was a bigger player. However, in 2014 it ranked a surprising 14th in global wine production, one behind that well-known wine powerhouse, Romania.

Of course, much of NZ’s fame comes courtesy of one region and one varietal – Marlborough sauvignon blanc – and as such it’s tempting to think of it as a one-trick vine. But the country has more than 2000 vineyards, stretching 1600 kilometres from sub-tropical Northland to frosty Central Otago, which between them produce an intriguingly diverse range of wines.

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