W Hotel in Hong Kong

Kitchen restaurant in W Hotel Hong Kong
Kitchen restaurant in W Hotel Hong Kong

It’s the age-old question when flying back from Europe: to stopover or not to stopover? Do you utilise precious time that could be spent in your destination on a night somewhere along the way that may or may not leave you feeling less zombie-like when you arrive home?

Until recently I’d always subscribed to the straight-through theory don’t muck around with all the hassle of getting to some anonymous airport hotel just hunker down, grin and bear it. And then I stayed in the W Hong Kong.

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Downtown LA’s renaissance

Mural in downtown LA - photo by Rob McFarland
Mural in downtown LA - photo by Rob McFarland

Ten years ago, the view from the corner of 4th and Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles would have been confronting. Hundreds of people lived rough on the streets in a shanty town of cardboard refrigerator boxes. Drugs and crime were rife and the area was a virtual no-go zone for tourists.

In 1999, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance that allowed unused office buildings to be converted into apartments. Developer Tom Gilmore bought up a dilapidated block now known as the Old Bank District and transformed it into trendy lofts.

It revitalised the area and inspired others to do the same.
Cafes, restaurants, bars and art galleries started to open and people followed. Since 2005, the residential population of downtown Los Angeles has boomed up by 20 per cent in two years.

Even some of Hollywood’s stars have descended from the hills Johnny Depp and Kevin Spacey both have apartments downtown.

All of which is great news for visitors because it means you can now safely stroll around the largest historic district in the US.

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Grammy museum in LA

Grammy museum in LA - photo by Rob McFarland
Grammy museum in LA - photo by Rob McFarland

Listening to Amy Winehouse as she would have sounded in the late-1800s is surreal. Hearing her sing “I told you I was trouble. You know that I’m no good” doesn’t have the same impact when it’s coming from a gramophone.

From Mono To Surround is an intriguing exhibit in the recently-opened Grammy Museum that allows you to hear how technological advances have changed the way we listen to music. Select one of four well-known tracks then choose to hear it played through the original Edison wax cylinder phonograph, or stereo LP, compact cassette or high definition 5.1 channel surround sound.

Predictably, there’s a noticeable improvement in quality at each stage. Apart from the last. Switch from surround sound to the format in which most of us now listen to music MP3 through ear buds and there is a stark drop in quality. Technology has made our music more portable but at what price?

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Wet and wild in Tasmania

Tasman Peninsula coastline
Tasman Peninsula coastline

My mother warned me about not getting into cars with strangers. But she never said anything about boats. Which is why I’m hurtling at 60kmh through some of the roughest seas in the world with a man named Mick. Right now, I’m wondering whether I’ll ever see my mother again. I’m also concerned that a full English breakfast wasn’t the smartest choice.

Mick seems to know what he’s doing, though, and the boat is certainly up to the job. Custom-built specifically to take on these sorts of waters, the 12.5-metre inflatable RIB has a military SAS-style hull and is powered by three 300hp Mercury outboards. It’s incredibly manoeuvrable and so fast it inadvertently set a record for crossing the Tasman while it was being delivered.

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Japan’s summer festivals

Kiriko lanterns in the Wajima Taisai festival - photo by Rob McFarland
Kiriko lanterns in the Wajima Taisai festival - photo by Rob McFarland

This is going to end in tears. Fifteen young men with a five-metre high lantern balanced precariously on their shoulders sprint forward, scattering the crowd in their path. Among a crescendo of shrieking and whooping, they start spinning wildly, their bright yellow shirts a blur, feet skidding on the wet slippery road. Four men clinging to guide ropes attached to the top of the lantern are whirled around while desperately trying to stop it toppling over. Finally, exhausted, the group members lower the wooden structure back to the floor, wet hair matted to their grinning faces, and pause to gulp from large bottles of beer.

This is the Japan you rarely see. A giddy, joyous, playful Japan that is so often hidden behind centuries of ritual and reserve. The reason for this exuberance? It’s the Wajima Taisai festival, one of many summer festivals held throughout the country, and it’s an unmissable opportunity to see the Japanese at their most uninhibited.

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Island Paradise – Lord Howe

View of Mount Gower
View of Mount Gower

You know you’ve arrived somewhere a little different when a beaming Qantas representative jumps on the plane and cheerily welcomes you to your destination. He’s clearly happy with his lot on Lord Howe Island and it’s not difficult to see why.

Lord Howe, between Australia’s east coast and Norfolk Island, was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1982 for its “rare collection of plants, birds, marine life and exceptional natural beauty”. The surrounding waters were declared a marine park in 1998.

What this means in real terms is spectacular scenery, unique wildlife and stunning vistas wherever you turn. I lost count of the number of times I was stopped in my tracks by yet another perfect postcard scene.

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Tracing human evolution at Forum Homini, South Africa

Human evolution sculpture at Forum Homini
Human evolution sculpture at Forum Homini

I’m sure if Mrs Ples’s husband had told her that in two million years’ time she’d be splashed across the covers of glossy magazines, she’d have told him to stop being an idiot and go out and kill something tasty for tea.

But having been unearthed in South Africa’s Sterkfontein Caves in 1947, she’s one of the reasons that a 47,000-hectare region 45 minutes from Johannesburg is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The area is known as the Cradle of Humankind and Mrs Ples is the affectionate term for the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus (our ape-man ancestor) ever found in South Africa. Since this seminal find, the region has produced more than 600 hominid fossils, making it one of the world’s most bountiful paleontological sites.

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Bristol’s re-birth

Bristol Harbour - photo by Rob McFarland
Bristol Harbour - photo by Rob McFarland

I creep along a narrow, dimly-lit corridor lined with four-bunk berths. I can hear the ship’s timbers creaking and there is the musty smell of unwashed travellers. Most of the berths are empty but I notice that one has a curtain covering its entrance. Tentatively I draw it back, revealing a sight that makes me jump back in fright. Inside is a woman giving birth. The room is tiny, the conditions are grim and there is little in the way of medical assistance. Welcome to life aboard the SS Great Britain in 1852.

An estimated 2 per cent of Australians are descended from immigrants who were ferried from England aboard the SS Great Britain, a ship designed by daring engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The ship made 32 voyages between 1852 and 1875, transporting 15,000 people looking for a better life. The trip took about 60 days and, for the poor souls travelling in steerage, it was no cruise.

I’ve been assured that giving birth can hurt at the best of times; doing so on a ship in a force eight gale while crossing oceans must have been horrendous.

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Plastic food samples in Japan

Local children making wax candles - photo by Rob McFarland
Local children making wax candles - photo by Rob McFarland

It turns out I’m a better cook than I thought. I’ve just whipped up some delicious-looking prawn tempura in under a minute. Admittedly, it might be a little on the al dente side given it’s made of wax but it certainly looks good enough to eat.

Spend any time in Japan and you will see countless displays of plastic food samples in restaurant windows. It’s a bizarre concept, given the samples don’t necessarily bear any resemblance to the dishes served inside, but that’s Japan for you.

People like to see what they’re going to eat, even if it’s made out of plastic.

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Crusing Australia’s Top End

Sun Princess Lido deck
Sun Princess Lido deck

It was with some trepidation that I accepted an invitation to sail from Darwin to Fremantle aboard Australia’s newest cruise liner, Sun Princess. Being single and under 40, I’m not exactly your typical cruiser.

I said yes for two reasons. The first was the opportunity to experience the biggest and most luxurious liner ever to be based in Australia. Sun Princess was the world’s largest cruise ship when it was launched in 1995. Accommodating 2000 passengers, it’s now been refitted and tailored for the Australian market so the electrics and on-board currency are all Aussie.

The second was the itinerary. Numerous ships visit these shores each year but very few tackle Australia’s north-west coast. Sun Princess would be visiting exotic, far-flung spots I’d only ever read about: Broome, the Kimberley, Exmouth and Geraldton.

I had only one concern: the food. Cruise passengers eat on average 10 to 12 courses every day. I had visions of strolling up the gangplank at Darwin and being rolled back down it in Fremantle. So I set myself a challenge: could I cruise for nine days and not put on any weight?

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Iceland

Jokulsarlon lagoon
Jokulsarlon lagoon

Imagine, just for a moment, a country the size of England. Position it just outside the Arctic Circle so it receives 24 hours of daylight in summer and constant darkness in winter. Liberally sprinkle it with some of the world’s most dramatic geysers, waterfalls and glaciers. Make room for Europe’s largest desert and the world’s third-largest ice cap. Then populate it with 300,000 people descended from Vikings.

You’ve just created Iceland.

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Gourmet Bray

Inside The Hind's Head Hotel - photo by Rob McFarland
Inside The Hind's Head Hotel - photo by Rob McFarland

Few cities, let alone villages, can boast two restaurants awarded three Michelin stars but the quaint 16th-century British hamlet of Bray near Windsor is a veritable cauldron of culinary creativity.

Not only is it home to The Waterside Inn, Michel Roux’s multi-award-winning restaurant that has received three Michelin stars for an astounding 23 years running, but just round the corner is Heston Blumenthal’s equally well-known The Fat Duck.

Blumenthal is famous for his use of molecular gastronomy – a process whereby ingredients are matched according to their chemical make-up. It certainly makes for some unusual pairings – on his tasting menu you’ll find snail porridge, salmon poached in liquorice and egg and bacon ice-cream.

Not that the critics are complaining. The Fat Duck was named best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine in 2005 and came second in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008.

The problem, of course, is that you can’t just pitch up to either of these establishments and expect to get a table. They’re booked out for months in advance and there is the matter of the cost – The Waterside Inn’s tasting menu costs £95 ($241) and The Fat Duck’s is £125.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative.

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Magical Mollies, Auckland

Mollies' dining room
Mollies' dining room

In the genteel Auckland suburb of St Marys Bay, Mollies is the most unashamedly romantic hotel I have ever stayed in. I was there on my own and had to constantly fight the urge to propose to one of the staff.

The hotel is named after the current owner’s mother, who ran it first as a guesthouse and then as a motel.

When Frances and her husband, Stephen, took over in 2001, it was in desperate need of modernisation. They pulled up the ’70s-style cream shagpile carpets, tore down the fake mahogany panelling and threw out the burnt orange and avocado furnishings. Eighteen months and a lot of work later, the hotel reopened as Mollies and has been collecting awards worldwide ever since.

Frances tells us this potted history over pre-dinner drinks in the sitting room where guests congregate among a sea of flickering candles and billowing silk drapes.

It is a beautiful room with polished wooden floors, an imposing marble fireplace and an eclectic range of furnishings including Philippe Starck’s famous transparent Louis Ghost chairs. She makes no apologies for the extravagance, saying with a smile: “I like to make every evening a romantic occasion. I love having far too many candles and far too many flowers.”

It’s a wonderfully relaxed and intimate environment and a great opportunity to mingle with other guests.

The best is yet to come, however. Frances is an experienced opera voice coach who has taught all over the world. She introduces us to Morag Atchison, an opera singer with New Zealand’s national opera company, and an expectant hush descends over the room.

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Touring the new Wembley Stadium

Replica FA Cup in Wembley Stadium - photo by Rob McFarland
Replica FA Cup in Wembley Stadium - photo by Rob McFarland

I leave the England changing room and turn right into the players’ tunnel. I’m now only metres from Wembley’s hallowed turf and my nerves are jangling. The roar of the crowd is deafening – 90,000 people cheering and singing. I take a deep breath and sprint out on to the pitch. The crowd goes wild. In one voice they scream: “Give us an R, give us an O, give us a B …”

OK, so maybe there aren’t 90,000 people and maybe I haven’t just sprinted out on to the pitch but even just walking from the players’ tunnel out into the yawning, cavernous new Wembley Stadium gives you goosebumps.

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Forage & Feast at The Lake House, Daylesford

Trout Meuniere
Trout Meuniere

My teammate spots it first: a handmade sign on the side of the road advertising fresh eggs for $3.50. Perfect. I slam on the brakes and we both jump out and race up the drive. Time is of the essence. We’re already half an hour late and we have no idea where the other team is. On the house’s front porch is a fridge and an honesty box. We need proof, though, so while I pose holding a carton of eggs in one hand and pointing animatedly towards the fridge with the other, he takes a picture with a disposable camera.

This, of course, is when the front door opens. If the owner is in any way fazed by the sight of two grown men taking a picture of her fridge full of eggs, she hides it well.

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White Water Rafting in the Grand Canyon

Rafting the Grand Canyon - photo by Rob McFarland
Rafting the Grand Canyon - photo by Rob McFarland

Winner, 2009 US Travel Association Best US Destination Story

Scotty’s words are still echoing in my head: “Whatever happens, don’t go in the hole.”

It is too late. We are in the hole. A towering wall of water engulfs the kayak and flips it around. Suddenly, we are pointing upstream and being sucked backwards. I glance around to discover my brother is no longer behind me. He has been washed out but has managed to grab the rope at the back. Somehow he hauls himself back in and we paddle like madmen, crashing through a series of huge waves to make it to calmer water.

Scotty is waiting there, smiling and shaking his head. “I told you not to go in the hole.”

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Taipei revisited

Ximending shopping area in Taipei - photo by Rob McFarland
Ximending shopping area in Taipei - photo by Rob McFarland

Taipei 20 years ago wasn’t a very appealing prospect. Dirty, smelly and often choked with traffic, it wasn’t the obvious choice of overseas holiday destination.

Taipei today is a very different proposition. In the space of two decades this adaptable Asian city has cleaned up its act and completely reinvented itself.

Where it was once home to some of the world’s largest manufacturers of cheap consumer goods (think “Made in Taiwan”), Taipei is now a leading technology powerhouse.

Taiwan is now the second biggest producer of semi-conductors in the world, which isn’t a bad effort for an island half the size of Tasmania.

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Da Shan Wu Jia, Taipei

Tuna and salmon sashimi
Tuna and salmon sashimi

Mention to people that you’re heading overseas and you’ll often be bombarded with all manner of advice regarding places you simply must visit while you’re there.

Sometimes these recommendations uncover hidden gems, secret spots you’d never have stumbled across on your own. Other times they turn out to be complete duds. You spend all day hunting them out and it transpires that the place has either closed down, changed hands or never existed in the first place (Mali? Oh, I’m sorry; I thought you said you were going to Bali).

Despite being burned before, I still find it hard to resist the anticipation that accompanies heading to a place that has been scribbled on a scrap of paper and doesn’t appear in any of the guidebooks.

Shortly before a recent trip to Taiwan, I was given a red-hot tip for a restaurant just outside the capital, Taipei. A colleague’s friend had dined there last year and reckoned it was in the same league as Sydney’s Tetsuya’s but one-third of the price. It sounded like an ambitious claim. Last year Tetsuya’s was named as the fifth best restaurant in the world by London’s Restaurant Magazine, and was awarded the top accolade of three chefs hats by The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. It would be fair to say I was curious but sceptical.

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Overnight stay in Fo Guang Shan monastery, Taiwan

Great Buddha Land in Fo Guang Shan, Taiwan - photo by Rob McFarland
Great Buddha Land in Fo Guang Shan, Taiwan - photo by Rob McFarland

It’s a magical, if slightly surreal, moment. We’re standing in the courtyard of the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan, surrounded by 480 identical gold statues of Buddha, listening attentively to the softly spoken words of one of the monks, the Venerable Yi Jih. The early evening light is just starting to fade and there’s not a breath of wind.

Suddenly, a mobile phone rings. Some of us tut disapprovingly and look around accusingly for the culprit. To our amazement, the offender is Yi Jih. She apologises while rummaging comically beneath her flowing orange robes to locate her phone. After a short conversation, she declares that the monastery office is closing soon so we’d better be quick if we want to check our emails.

And there was me thinking that technology was the root of all evil.

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Heavenly Huka Lodge

Dinner in Huka Lodge's Wine Cellar - photo by Rob McFarland
Dinner in Huka Lodge's Wine Cellar - photo by Rob McFarland

It’s not quite the first impression I had hoped to make. Not only do we pull up at the reception of one of the world’s leading resorts in a dented rented Daewoo but two minutes after our arrival the manager comes to tell us they are experiencing what he amusingly describes as a small challenge.

The keys are locked inside the car and did we have a spare set? I sheepishly shake my head. Do not worry, he says, we will take care of it.

Ten minutes later the car is in the car park and our luggage is in our room. Later we discover that the Automobile Association has been called in but no one makes a big deal about it and we are made to feel as if this is the sort of trivial incident they encounter on an hourly basis

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