It's wonderful to be back in Tasmania. The last time I was here, in early 2006, I was at the tail-end of backpacking the world, a very different sort of traveller on a very different sort of mission. At the time, I remember it being unusual to visit Tasmania. Most backpackers I'd meet were beelining it for Gold Coast and Cairns, but something about going in the other direction has always appealed to me. Hobart was sleepy, but it reminded me a lot of Victoria back in British Columbia, a city renowned for its population of the newly wed and the newly dead. Arriving in Hobart, I hooked onto an backpacker island tour with a company that no longer seems to exist, and ticked off some of Tasmania's greatest hits - Mount Wellington, Port Arthur, Wineglass Bay, Maria Island the Blow Hole, penguins, roadkill and hilarious locals in Bicheno. The odds on me becoming a full time travel writer, much less one that would return a dozen years later on assignment, were rather slim. And if you would have told me I'd return with my wife and two kids in tow, I'd ask what you've been adding to your scallop pie.
I ended up writing about Tasmania for a few publications around the world, and it's one of three Australian chapters in my Great Global Bucket List. Beyond the attractions and beauty of the island - which sell themselves rather nicely - I always felt indebted to Tasmania for rewarding yet another bold decision to go in the opposite direction. It also gifted me my first cover story, with me on the cover too! These days, tourism in Tasmania has exploded. On a whiskey tasting tour at Sullivans Cove, a small local distillery that won the World's Best Single Malt award in 2014, Joel from Sydney tells me such the tour didn't exist when he visited few years ago. The prospect of Hobart being home to MONA, surely one of the most incredible art museums in the world, would have seemed as bonkers as the museum is itself. Yet I've met so many Australians across the nation who have told me that Tasmania is their favourite place, and the emergence of world-class restaurants, hotels and attractions is there to prove their point.
This time round I'm on a mission to tick off the Australian Bucket List, and write about travelling with young kids. I've lined up some of the classics - biking down Mount Wellington, Wineglass Bay, Maria Island - and many new experiences too. I'm working with amazing companies like World Expeditions to hike, bike and kayak up the east coast for six days. Discovery Parks are hosting us in Cradle Mountain, Hobart and Devonport. We're getting around in a powerful sunset red Ford Everest, pulling a Move Yourself trailer, and thanks to Jetstar for getting us here too.
I guess it's not always true that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Walking around Port Arthur, so much has happened in the past 12 years it felt like I was in a new place altogether, albeit one with the haze of familiarity. After the heat, dust and drama of Western Australia, the cool breeze of Tassie still weaves a wonderful spell, vindicating former and present life decisions, and keeping that big pancake-rock smile on my face.
There's never a bad time to travel, but there certainly are seasons. Let's look at low season first:
Five Reasons Why I Hate Travelling in Low Season
Many years ago, before I set out on my first round-the-world adventure, I was faced with an intimidating challenge:
How do you pack for 12 months on the road, travelling across the diverse landscapes and climates of 24 countries?
I knew I’d have to pack light, remaining nimble for the opportunities while avoiding excessive weight, unwanted attention, and painful waiting at airport arrivals. I knew I’d have to be prepared for any situation. I knew my clothing would have to be lightweight, high performance, and work in any number of combinations.
I knew all this, and still I got it all wrong.
The last-minute jeans I threw into my backpack (at the insistence of my Mom) were used more than other garment in my possession. My colour combinations were horrific. Gray pants and gray shirts? My hiking boots were too heavy and I had to buy cheap sneakers on the road that quickly fell apart. I brought way too many medications and toiletries when I could have just picked up what I needed when I needed it. And I did not heed the sound advice from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, that the only thing a traveller really needs is a good towel. And despite reading that one should pack everything and then halve it, I packed way too much, not accounting for the stuff I’d inevitable buy along the way (Indian hippie-threads! Thai pants! Souvenir T-Shirts!) to cram into my overstuffed backpack.
In the years since, I’ve became much more adept at packing, so much so that I can usually pack an hour before leaving for the airport. Two very solid pieces of advice have always stuck with me:
Some of the most impressive travellers I’ve met pack everything they need for a two week hot climate adventure in their day pack. Personally, I’m not one for hard-core packing sacrifices. I’d rather pack at least a week’s worth of clothing than scrub one of two pairs of underwear every night. Still, you can stuff a lot into your carry-on, or my spanking new, lightweight 69-litre wheeled duffel.
For my family’s upcoming 10-month adventure to four countries, I’m heeding all these words of advice. Victorinox (Swiss Army) have provided us with outstanding luggage options, from wheeled duffels to medium sized hard cases for the kids. Travelling with children, of course, is a different ball game. They can burn through clothing like a pyro with a matchbox, oblivious to the time and effort cost of laundering clothes covered in yoghurt, snot, mud, cream cheese, blood, drool, vomit, or any combination of the above. They’re also a lot less amenable to clothes choices. My daughter already insists on wearing her stained Elsa princess shirt for every and any occasion.
A dozen years of professional travel has certainly taken the panic out of the process. The same rules apply, as they always have, even if we’re packing diapers and wipes, stuffies and bedtime books. You lay it all out on the bed. Pack the best combinations for that one incredible day where anything can happen. And while anything you forget can be replaced or picked up on the road, the most important packing tip comes from within: Wherever you go, it’s essential to pack the right state of mind.
There is A LOT of information about travel. Out there, On line. So much so that I don’t need to SCREAM. In just a few tip-taps on your keyboard, you can find where to stay, where to eat, how much things cost, when to go, and occasionally, what odour the tour guide reeked of (garlic usually, Marmite on occasion). As websites, blogs and platforms like TripAdvisor have blown up - incinerating guidebooks along the way - the flood of information has been overwhelming. Several years ago, I recognized that before anyone decides to take on an activity or destination, they’ll probably need to know why they should do it in the first place. Information is important, but inspiration must come first. And meaningful inspiration, the kind sprouts a seed in your soul, requires more than a thumb-flip on Instagram. It requires real stories told by real people doing real things that you can actually do.
This was the logic behind my first project – The Great Canadian Bucket List. It consisted of a book grounded in personal experience, full of characters, history, humour, striking photography and gee-whizz trivia. I felt that narrative inspiration could best be enjoyed in print (or an e-book), linking to an extensive informational-based companion site, with a full deck of social media channels, a regular blog, and dozens of fun videos too. In four years, we’ve sold over 60,000 copies, attracted over 80,000 social followers, and about 40,000 unique visitors a month visit www.canadianbucketlist.com. My bucket list generated enormous media interest and led to expanded new editions, which topped Canada’s Travel category for years. On Amazon, it took poll position in the History, Arts and Photography and yes, Guidebook charts as well. Ironic, because guidebooks are full of information, and this is a book of stories. It is a brick of inspiration to inspire meaningful journeys and magnificent bucket lists. And now it is coming to Australia.
After brisk sales of my next book – The Great Global Bucket List – I was approached with an offer to apply the same model to the mythical land down under. I turned it down. With two young kids, I simply could not leave home for the lengthy research trip it would require to do the project any justice. But Australia’s fastest growing publisher, Affirm Press, sees opportunities where others stumble on hurdles. Said Affirm: what if I bring my family along for the journey, and write a second book about surviving bucket list travel with the kids? There’s few titles out there like it, and would it not make an inspiring, useful, and hilariously honest tale? A book and digital platform with the potential to inspire parents far beyond the shores of Australia?
Fate, listening behind the wall with a glass pressed to its furry ear, decided this would be a tremendous idea.
From early December to June 2018, the Esrocks –Ana, Raquel, li’l Galileo, myself and our wonderful production partner Cat - will be travelling to every state and territory to share the experiences one must do, and can only do, in Australia before kicking the bucket. The Great Australian Bucket List book and website will launch in October 2018, and while the family travel book will only hit the shelves in 2019, you’ll be able to follow us from Day One on the EsrockingKids digital channels listed below.
Since modern publishing advances would barely get us to Sydney, we approached terrific sponsors and partners to help make the Australian Bucket List a reality. I’ve been a proud Ford Motors ambassador for several years, and am delighted to have Ford Australia as our presenting partner, allowing us to Go Further than we could ever have imagined. Jetstar Airways is helping us get around the country in the limited time we have, as they do with smart locals and visitors every day. For accommodation, we sought a national partner that understands the importance of comfort, space and location. Look no further than Oaks Hotels and Resorts, who have 46 outstanding properties across the continent (and New Zealand too, where we’ll be popping in for a week). I’ve worked with World Expeditions for several years, a visionary outdoor adventure agency that specialize in bucket list hikes, bikes, treks and kayaks. I’ve been wearing and swearing by Keen shoes since the start of my career, and they are continuing to help us follow our feet. Our eyes will conquer the bright Australian sun thanks to the outrageously cool Sunshades Eyewear, and we’ll be dressed for adventure thanks to the folks at Rip Curl, Lululemon and Under Armour. Travelling as light as we are, the aptly named Move Yourself is providing trailers for our gear, including a pop-up screen for inspiring bucket list presentations wherever we go. And special thanks to Victorinox Swiss Army for providing the right kind of baggage to see us through.
At this point, I’m just going to scream out the window in a blend of excitement, anxiety, terror, and joy (the kids are the primary reason behind the anxiety and terror part, but as any parent knows, will make up a significant amount of the joy too). [………………]
Thank you, I’m back.
I expect to write lines like: “Only the journey allows you to ultimately recognize the destination” and “Gali is picking the nose of a dead kangaroo" and "scuba diving a sinkhole in Victoria, pure bucket list!" and "Raquel is riding a Huntsman spider like a bronc horse.” We look forward to discovering the landscape, mysteries, history, culture, food, quirks and characters of Australia. And I look forward to sharing our adventures with you in the online passenger seat.
Launching December 10th:
Instagram: @AusBucketList, @EsrockingKids
Twitter: @AusBucketList, @EsrockingKids, @RobinEsrock
www.esrockingkids.com - our daily family travel scrapbook
Launching October 2018:
Just when I thought I’d seen something of the world, along comes a book about 45 remarkable places… and I’ve been to exactly one of them. Chris Fitch, a senior staff writer at the Royal Geographical Society’s Geographical magazine, has assembled an impressive collection of little known spots from all seven continents, divided into sections of Extreme Environments, Untouched Lands, Human Activity, Weird Worlds, Isolated Realms and Nature’s Wilderness. Illustrated with clear maps and black and white photography, it is an atlas of destinations so remote, rugged and bizarre that many chapters could be describing locations on alien planets.
A mysterious lake appears out of nowhere in the Tunisian desert. Off the coast of Croatia, a steep rocky island consisting almost entirely of volcanic magnetite sends navigational equipment haywire, and more than few sailors to their doom. In China, the world’s largest tidal bore draws thousands of people each year to watch a wall of water racing up the Qiantang estuary. On North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Islands, an uncontacted tribe of hostile islanders continue to shower arrows (and occasionally death) on anyone who approaches their shores. The world’s largest cave system in Georgia, an accidental coal fire that burns beneath a town in Pennsylvania, the -93°C extremes of Dome Argus Antarctica, a hidden valley of impenetrable rainforest in Borneo – most of the short chapters had me reaching for Wikipedia and falling down an online rabbit hole. Google Mount Mabu Rainforest in Mozambique, Mexico’s Cave of Crystals, or Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal Refuge, and try not to annoy your friends by dropping the tremendous trivia of your discoveries.
This is the kind of book that inspires lunatics like me to actually run off and find these places. Sure, it could all be researched online (along with similar books like Atlas Obscura), but it does take a twisted genius to assemble these untamed places into something cohesive, and talent to write concise chapters that explain just enough to make you scratch your head, say “Whoa!” and desire to know more. As for the one place in the book I’ve actually visited? Chernobyl’s Zone of Alienation, a chapter in my own book, The Great Global Bucket List. Books like these, which belong on the coffee table of the more eclectic traveller, forever ensuring that your bucket list continues to grow.
Atlas of Untamed Places
By Chris Fitch
with maps by Martin Brown
Published by Aurum Press
US$29.99 / $38.99 CAN
Buy it on Amazon.
A local tells me, “there is Moscow, and there is the rest of Russia,” and just a few steps off a slow, four-day train from Siberia, I can see why. The full glory of Mother Russia is on display – grand architecture engraved with hammers and sickles designed to awe the individual with the power of the state. Communism might have collapsed, but the fossils of its power are impressive. Meanwhile, the backwardness of rural Siberia undeniably gives way to a modern European capital of hip fashion and dazzling culture.
With only a few days to explore Moscow, I couldn’t wait three hours in a line-up to see Lenin’s stuffed corpse in Red Square. So I did as the locals do, bribed someone who bribed someone else, strolled to the front of the line, winked at the guard, and walked in. Red Square got its name from old red bricks that once lay there, and holds most of Moscow’s best landmarks. St Basil’s Cathedral looks like giant ice cream sundaes striped with raspberry and blueberry swirls, while the 500-year old Kremlin fort has gigantic brick walls that belie their age. As Russia feverishly embraces a free-market economy, the fact that thousands of tourists line up to see Lenin is somewhat embarrassing to the new government, not to mention the communist paraphernalia available in every street market. When Stalin fell out of favour, his stuffed body was removed from Lenin’s side in the mausoleum and buried outside the walls of the Kremlin. Lenin might join him in the future, but for now, the founder of communism lies peacefully, glowing like uranium in a dark room.
Over coffee, I meet some young Russians who tell me President Putin is immensely popular, and that Muscovites truly see themselves apart from the rest of the country. Growing up with cold war movies, the overall atmosphere here was neither as controlled nor suspicious as I’d imagined it to be. But how could I not get a buzz exploring the ballroom metros of Moscow, pretending I was a secret agent making a drop-off beneath the opulent chandeliers? Built in the 1930’s, each metro stop seemed grander than the next, with huge statues, mosaics, and tall, hand-carved ceilings. Tourists follow guides from one train to the next, while locals look on with stares of classic Russian grimness. The metro’s long escalators seem like they descend all the way to hell itself, and trains pull off with a savage abruptness - the epitome of brutal Russian efficiency. It’s easy to spot tourists because they’re constantly thrown around by the sudden stops and starts of the train, desperately clutching the limbs of unimpressed locals to steady themselves.
I head off to the Moscow State Circus, because tickets are cheap and it’s where Cirque du Soleil finds many of its star performers. The acrobatics were jaw dropping, and a gorgeous contortionist twisted every man’s imagination into knots. After checking out a sensational open-air travel photo exhibition (outdoor art decorates the city), and lining up to see the Kremlin (lining up in Russia appears to be a way of life), I boarded a night train for the jewel in Russia’s crown, St Petersburg.
Combine the striking churches of Prague with the beautiful buildings that sit alongside the Danube in Budapest, add the canals of Amsterdam with the colour of Copenhagen, and welcome to St Petersburg, truly one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Amongst Bohemian bars and decadent restaurants, I ponder that pristine St Pete’s was the scene of Word War Two’s most horrific siege. The 900-day Nazi blockade of Leningrad (as it was known) killed over a million people in the city. How so many magnificent cathedrals and palaces survived is a miracle, more so as post-war communists turned many of these magnificent structures into warehouses. After cleaning up for the G8 summit in 2006, the city today looks the best it has in its turbulent history. The main strip of Nevsky Prospekt bustles, the old town’s canals sparkle alongside bright painted buildings, and the morbidly named Church of Spilled Blood poses for pictures like a supermodel. The Hermitage, arguably the Louvre’s only rival, houses 3 million pieces of art, or six years of your life if stared at every piece for three seconds. I often judge a city by the amount of time I can walk around before getting bored. Discovering one amazing sight after another, I walked St Petersburg until I got blisters.
Having broken in my hostel chops around the world, I've identified factors that, combined with creativity, would result in the Perfect Hostel. It is a given, naturally, that any hostel today has no curfew, no lockout, a reception, security and lockers. These are still touted as if they are features when in effect, who wants to stay at some dodgy dump that won't let you in after 10pm. Those days are gone, and fortunately, most hostels now conform to international standards, and in many cases, international or regional associations. Below are my essentials, in no particular order, and they would be appreciated by just about anyone traipsing around the world with a backpack and a budget. Hosteliers and hoteliers, take note!
Staff & People
It's all about the people. A friendly patron can quickly make you forget about the other 33 points listed below, with advice, patience and all round enthusiasm for hospitality. Of course, you could have the Perfect Hostel with an asshole at reception. Assholes are usually broke foreigners who act as if they are doing you a favour when they buzz you in. Staff are the condiments, but the meat of the matter are the people you share your dorm with if they're loud, discourteous, obnoxious, snorers, smokers and stealers, even the Perfect Hostel will suck.
Given the cost of the Internet, and the fact that many hostels offer it as a free service, it irks me when hostels charge for a basic traveling service, nay necessity! More so, they tend to charge double what the Internet cafe charges on the corner. It's taking advantage and it's unnecessary. You will get more traffic, more recommendations and more happy clients if you have two machines available, with a 15-minute max usage if someone is waiting. A USB port so that people can download their photos wouldn't hurt either.
Hooks in the bathroom
Amazing how many places think that your towel, clothes and toilet bag belong on a wet floor full of someone else's pubic hair. Put up some hooks! And while you at it, plugs in the sink for shaving, and a mirror won't hurt either.
Everyone who travels has to put their alarm clock somewhere, as well as some keys, or a book, some water, or even a wallet. One hostel had a neat little lockable wooden cabinet by each bed for your essentials. Otherwise, it's dump everything on the floor and let people trip all over it, and if the guy on the top bunk needs water during the night, as he probably will, be prepared to be woken up with him falling all over you.
Lockers (under bed)
Lockers are so essential that if you have no place where people can secure their daybags (with cameras, iPods, moneybelts etc), stop calling yourself a hostel immediately. Lockers come in all shapes and sizes, but they should be roomy enough for a daypack, and close to the bunks. The best I've seen were on wheels under the bunks, and could fit entire backpacks so that the room was free of clutter and even your clothes were safely locked away.
Most, if not all travelers are using the Internet to find and research hostels. Hostels.com, hostelworld.com and others have valuable rating systems and booking facilities, and keep hostels on their toes. I usually find something interesting and then Google their website to find out more. A good site almost always means a good hostel. If it's ugly, slow and scary, it says something about the hostel. There have been exceptions, but even if your site is simple, make sure the information is current and includes everything a prospective patron needs to know, ie: location, cost, directions, facilities, services.
This one is surprisingly simple and rarely down well. You've just come off a long flight/night bus/delayed train. You're in a strange, new country, with a strange new currency and language. The directions to the hostel on the website say "Go to the east side of the station, catch the 41 bus south, walk up Flecheschmefer Road and you'll find us". Make the directions as easy and simple to follow as possible. Use signs and landmarks. What is the colour of the building? Which direction do I take bus 41? And who the hell is traveling with a compass to know where south or east is? Sometimes it is fun to find places, but not when you're tired, confused, and walking around town with all your valuables.
The key to a good night's sleep. When they wear down, get new ones. They are not too expensive, and in the price of board is it not too much to expect a pillow that's thicker than a folded towel?
Clean linen, including sheets for the blankets or duvet. If we have sleeping bags, which a lot of us don't, it's great to use them as little as possible. Also, linen helps with bed bugs!
Every once in a while, mattresses should be checked for bed bugs, dips and humps, smell and wear and tear. You know, just in case someone wanted to actually sleep. I've seen bed bud scars, and backs with bunkboard splinters through the mattress. Use foam if you're cheap.
"How was Vienna?"
"Oh, the shower was amazing!"
That's how much an impact showers have on dirty budget travelers. A good shower means getting clean and feeling good. If I want to stand under a broken cold water tap, I will stand under a cold water tap. Just don't call it a shower.
In the bathroom, in the dorms. We go out, we want to see what we look like.
Cheap IKEA lamps so that the person in bunk 12 can read if the person in bunk 7 is sleeping. One hostel had lamps built into the headboards. If you get back late and everyone's sleeping, you also need to see where your stuff is, how to open your locker, find that bottle of water. Lamps at least allow everyone in a dorm to operate independently; this "I must sleep we all must sleep" nonsense is unnecessary.
We're traveling with digital cameras, iPods, cellphones, laptops, video cameras. And there is, maybe, one plug in the room. Each room should have a charging station, or better yet, each bed should have its own plug to charge while you sleep (the other plug can be used for a reading lamp or pluglight). It is not an option having a charged battery or being afraid to leave it downstairs next to the toaster where you just know someone is going to steal.
This is a given. Just because we're budget travelers doesn't mean we want to sleep, eat and clean ourselves in your shitty house, where the garbage is overflowing, ashtrays are in the sinks and the toilets have last year's skid marks.
Pool, Foozball, Games
A hostel is largely a social hub. The main difference between hostel and hotel is the "s", which stands for "social." Social games make people meet and talk and that's where the fun is. In a hotel, the only people you meet are other losers like yourselves in the bar. Here, you can play ping pong with a professor or find yourself playing Uno with two gay couples and a pair of monks. And if you do have a pool or ping pong table, try keep it in shape. We don't mind putting a deposit down to ensure that nobody wrecks the equipment.
Non-essential, but fun in a hostel. Again, it's a social place to meet interesting people and make new friends from around the world. Do it over liquor. It doesn't have to be cheap, but it should be cheaper than bars in the town. You can make a lot of money at the same time too.
2-Ply Toilet Paper
Such a small difference, but oh so preferable to wiping with recycled half-ply tissue paper. We don't have our own bathrooms, but at least give us the luxury of pretending we do. Also, have back-up rolls always available in the loos, and keep a tab on how low they get. A toilet without paper is a sad toilet.
Nobody likes going anywhere with a wet towel in their backpack. And the hostel, hopefully, are doing linen laundry anyway. Even a tea towel is better than using my beach towel
Crucial to anyone who travels is having something to read. A few long flights, bus or train journeys can see you knock back a book every couple of days. Book exchanges are not uncommon, they just don't have much thought. Typically it is two books for one, or one for one plus a couple dollars. Some guys in Bolivia had the right idea. As readers, they could make judgment calls on the quality of books. The first shelf were airline reads. The second better. The third best. One for one to me is fair, providing the books are of equal quality, according to the hostel. People reading good books can swap for good books, or maybe two craps for one goodie. Be creative, build a library, save our boredom!
Nightclub shuttle / promotions
Why this doesn't happen more is beyond me. You have a hostel with dozens of interesting, dare I say attractive travelers looking to rip it. Any bar or club in the city would give you special deals, VIP access, maybe 2-1 drinks, for bringing in a bunch of foreigners. It adds spice to the club, plus we travel with dollars and euros! Who wants to go out in a city to line-up for four hours and be treated like shit. Cut some deals with your favourite clubs and bars, and make a win-win for everyone. Shuttles also encourage just about everyone to go out. Make it easy and people will party!
A hostel with everything mentioned here is great, but not if it's located amongst the crack houses of downtown's worst area, or a bus, tram and taxi away. The best hostels are within (safe) walking distance of the city's attractions , be it central squares, shopping, strips, bars and restaurants, the beach. Packers are prepared to walk, but it's got to be reasonable. As in all real estate: Location, location, location!
Many hostels offer a kitchen, which is great because you can cook up with a few people and save considerable bucks. Some of them, however, don't offer anything to cook with, or have one rusty small pot, a banged up pan and a spoon to scrape away any non-stick that might be left. The best have everything you need (especially pasta strainers, pots, pans, washing up liquid and sponges, sharp knives, cutting boards) and the very best have basic ingredients that don't cost much in bulk, but no traveler wants to buy a big tube of salt and pepper for one meal.
I always feel ripped off having to pay additional fees to leave my backpack at a hostel, especially those in major cities where day or two-day trips are common. Usually we come back to stay another night, and in any case, it costs nothing to throw a few backpacks in a locked room.
The best way to spend a slow afternoon with a good book. At the very least, some deck chairs or garden furniture or someplace when we can lounge in the sun and chill out.
Private Rooms & Dorms
Nice to have both options available at a budget price, but not essential. Sometimes, privacy becomes an issue, especially with intense short-term intimate friendships (aka one night stands) being quite common in this environment and lifestyle. I came up with an idea that each hostel should have a "Love Room", a closet that can be rented out by the hour for late night trysts. Take out the junk, put in a foam mattress with a red light bulb and start counting the extra dollars!
Laundry is offered free in many Eastern European hostels, while in others it costs a fortune. If sheets and towels are washed in-house, backpackers would salivate at the opportunity to wash their smelly clothes. Obviously, free and folded laundry is a service in my Perfect Hostel.
Perhaps the greatest scam in the entire hospitality industry is the so-called free breakfast. Usually this means a bun, some butter, and some jam, which somehow justifies hotels and hostels tacking on a few dollars for this service. Unless the breakfast has eggs or fruit, I decline this breakfast and see if I can get a few bucks knocked off the price, which I can then use to buy a real breakfast should I actually be awake to need one (which is hardly ever). Packers go out late and sleep late, so the free breakfast that ends at 9am gets very few takers and is part of the scam. Good breakfasts should end at least at 11am, which shows a good understanding of the needs of backpacking clientele.
Library of Guidebooks
A nice little extra to have up-to-date guidebooks available for Packers to read and refer to in the common room. They could be signed out to avoid theft.
Fans and Heat
A dark room with 12 people and bad ventilation does not make a peaceful nights sleep. Ceiling or standing fans are essential in summer, as are heaters in winter. This is especially needed in places with harsh climates.
Tips and Noticeboard
Get your staff to compile their favorite hangouts, bars, pastimes etc on a slow day. Create your own guide, because chances are it will be far better than the Lonely Planet. Your hostel will probably determine whether someone enjoys your city or not, so give us some help. Tips can include: places to eat, bad restaurants and scams to look out for, good nights at various clubs, current movies and exhibitions, transport and easy directions, must-sees, weather, even current events (a printout of the daily headlines will interest just about everyone). Give us a space to give our own advice to others, such as good places to stay in other countries or regions, things for sale, lifts etc etc.
Construction Sites & Traffic Noise
OK, I know this is often beyond anyone's control, but I went 2 weeks staying five hostels and everyone of them was in earth-shattering distance to a jack hammer.
Which always, as a rule, crank up at 6am. Perhaps this is an unwritten rule for all hostels. Lots of hostels also find themselves on busy streets where traffic is outrageous. If so, have cheap foam ear-plugs for sale. The same if you're above an industrial techno club. The best hostel is on a quiet street where the only noise I hear are the birds, chirping like angels in the trees.
Drop the Youth
Hostels are no longer only for youth. They are for budget travelers, of whatever age, and those that enjoy a social aspect to their travels. The sooner we dispel the "youth" aspect, the sooner hostels will get busier with a whole range of fascinating people looking to meet each other, and drink lots of beer.
Music and DVD's
A hi-fi playing some tunes, even better if travelers can jack in their iPods and play DJ. Without music, where is the vibe? I know some guys think a TV kills a social atmosphere, but a DVD Player and TV is also a great way to relax, spend a night in and save money. Ideally in a seperate room so those who want to party can do so, and those who want to watch a few movies can do so too. Have a couple of classic DVD's (they can be signed out), which doesn't cost much in any blackmarket.
As we've established, I usually travel with a small bottle of hot sauce. When applied liberally, it can save any meal (even boiled cabbage in Siberia, although you might need more than one bottle). Fortunately, there are some destinations where carrying my hot sauce is completely unnecessary. These are the places where the Mighty Chilli roams free, and pity the fool traveller who shows it disrespect.
The Thai’s don’t cook. They paint a masterpiece on your palate, with colours of sweet, salty, sour and spice. The chilli in question is known locally as “mouse droppings”, since it is small and shrivelled. Thailand’s famous red curry is made with these dried, crushed chillis. Yellow curry, the least spicy, is made with spices like turmeric. The most spicy is green curry, with the potent seeds left in. The Thai chilli realizes its full potential in tom yum soup, combined with lime, fish sauce, ginger and lemongrass. When the ingredients are mixed just right, it will make you salivate just thinking about it for years to come (as I am doing just typing this).
A good, strong Indian curry will make your eyeballs sweat. Traditionally, the spiciest Indian dish is the vindaloo, inspired by Portuguese visitors but perfected in India with a variety of chillies and peppers. I find that drinking lightly carbonated Indian beer soothes an extra hot vindaloo’s burn to something almost bearable. But I’d still place a roll of toilet paper in the fridge before you go to bed, for it is well known that strong curries always burn twice.
The African birds-eye chilli was spread around the world by Portuguese seafarers, and for good reason. Known as peri peri, the small birds-eye releases a chemical that has been proven to trigger a sort of culinary buzz. You can’t get addicted, but after years of craving a steady fix, I believe I’ve come pretty close. You can also chase the peri-peri burn in Portugal, Brazil, and at a top notch South African franchise called Nandos Chicken worldwide.
Lets hit the bayou with a little fixin’ of some of Louisiana’s finest. Tabasco brand pepper sauce is found around the world, and “blackened Cajun” rub has become a staple in many fish restaurants. But the USA seems to have excelled in the manufacture and marketing of outrageous sauces, with quirky names like Satan’s Blood and Blair’s Mega Death Sauce. One of the world’s spiciest dishes was traced to a shrimp cocktail in Indianapolis (heavy on the horseradish), while one restaurant in Chicago insists diners sign a waiver before sampling its XXX Hot Wings. American food scientists have extracted the capsaicin compound that gives chilli peppers its kick. It’s more a weapon than a food group.
The best fish I’ve ever had was on the Jamaican south coast, spiced with the wonderful Caribbean concoction popularly known as jerk. Fish or meat is dry rubbed with a mixture of scallions, nutmeg, garlic, herbs, and the secret ingredient, the Scotch Bonnet Pepper. Closely related to the habanero, the most fierce of household chillies, the Scotch Pepper is small and unassuming, like a nuclear bomb in a suitcase. When combined in the right combination, it creates a jerk sensation, a mouth-watering blend of heat and taste.
Chinese cuisine is not afraid to use chillies, but the region most famous for its culinary heat is the Szechuan Province. Perhaps its most famous dish is the hot pot, whereby different ingredients are added to a pot until everything is just right. A locally grown “flower” pepper adds the heat the region is famous for.
Jalapeno peppers are renowned the world over, although on the Scoville Scale they barely register. Consider it has a rating of just 2500 to 8000, while the habanero lies somewhere between 100,000 and 350,000. Mexicans tamed the habanero, a monster of a pepper, now used in most gimmicky hot sauces. Fortunately it is used in Mexican kitchens sparingly, where moles (sauces) are prepared with that special combination of tomato, cilantro, lime, pepper, and sometimes chocolate.
SIDE NOTE: The World’s Spiciest Dish
Phaal curry is made from various peppers, but there’s only one you should worry about. The bhut jolokia, aka the nala jokolia, aka the ghost pepper, aka you-have-to-be-out-of- your-mind-to-eat-this-pepper pepper. It’s been certified by the Guinness Book of Records as being the strongest pepper known to man, with a Scoville rating of over 1,000,000! The thick Phaal curry is served in India and Pakistan, to diners who will shortly lose all communication with their oral cavity.
We are just minutes into the rally, and I’m clutching onto some key advice:
Dave, my rally Obi-Wan, is a case in point. He’s the owner of over a dozen classic cars, including a pre-war Bentley and Rolls Royce. That’s pre World War 1. A 25-year rally veteran, Dave’s run the Peking to Paris (twice), along with rallies in Australia, New Zealand and Europe. For the Northwest Classic, open to pre-1981 collector cars, Dave’s selected his reliable 356 Porsche. He explains it will allow him to focus on the race, as opposed to keeping the car going. Race is not exactly the right word. It’s more like a Sunday drive, with two hundred good friends, and a purpose.
Crawling along the I5 to Portland, Dave gives me the basics of time-speed-distance rallying. Drivers and navigators are given instructions that must be followed to the letter, and to the second. Each car is spaced one minute apart, driving at suggested speeds to enable us to reach, say, a particular stop sign in exactly 2:43 seconds, or a right turn at 7:29. Teams calibrate their odometers, and must factor traffic and rally rules. We never exceed the speed limit, unless we’re running late, in which case, well, these are classic sport cars.
The Rally Master adds traps designed to bamboozle even the most alert navigator, steering us off course, resulting in time penalties or lost minutes. Each day might feature up to 10 stages, comprised of a start, finish, and time check by a team of volunteer marshals hidden somewhere along the route. Dave warns me that it doesn’t help to follow the car in front of us. They could just as easily lead us off a cliff as to the next checkpoint.
As a first time navigator, I am determined not to let my driver down. Dave’s wife, who normally takes the navigator role, has already warned me: Whatever is said in the car doesn’t count. Things can get heated when the pressure is on, and a slight navigator omission can send our car rallying down the rankings. There’s even a tongue-in-cheek award, the Flying Clipboard, for the team most notably cracking at the seams.
Still, don’t hold your breath waiting for road rage. Vintage rallies are first and foremost about the cars, the driving, and the community it brings together. Owners come from all walks of life, taking pride in their aging Alpha Romeos, MG’s, Fords, Mercs, Saabs, Porches and other models. The average car at the race might cost around $30K - $50K, but there are some standouts, like a 1963 AC Cobra, worth a cool half a million dollars. Laurie and Verna own a dozen collector cars. “I got my first MG at 21 years old, and it was all downhill from there,” explains Laurie. Vintage cars sound like an addiction. Another racer from Coquitlam tells me there are two events he would never miss: The Northwest Classic, and BC’s Spring Thaw. He speaks of them with the reverence of a family Christmas.
I’ve nicknamed Dave’s Porsche The Silver Bullet, because its classic, capsule-shaped, and could probably kill a werewolf. A 1600cc engine with 90 horsepower, it’s no speed demon, but that’s why Dave likes it. It’s not about getting from A to B on an air-conditioned cloud. Our Porsche has no computers, plush leather, or cruise control. We sit low to the ground, on worn leather, feeling the growl of the engine. 50 mph never felt so cool.
As we scoot around Oregon’s coastal farm roads, I tick off checkpoints, calculate our times, watching out for traps. I’ve had to familiarize myself with rally terminology: CAST: Change Average Speed To. SAP: Straight as Possible. ITIS: If There Is Such. At the close of the first day, we’ve lost just 2 minutes off the pace, placing 16th out of a field of 113. I’m a rally virgin kicking butt.
During stage 6 on the final day,I confuse an ONTO/TOWARD instruction and lead us straight into a trap. Dave remains supernaturally zen about my screw-up, even as we slip down the rankings to finish 31st overall. At least we didn’t receive The Hook, awarded to the car that needs a tow truck. That honour belongs to another Porsche 356, not quite as reliable as our Silver Bullet.
The Northwest Classic is just one of dozens of rallies that take place around the continent, drawing collectors, enthusiasts, and members of various motor clubs. Some are competitive, others more social. When we line up our cars – on a downtown Portland street or stage meeting lot – crowds gather to ogle at rows of spit-polished cars on display. Owners get an obvious buzz showing off their pride and joy, and might even barter for new acquisitions. War stories are traded, from those that have braved the grueling frozen roads of the ALCAN 5000, to the pot-holed corruption of South American rallies. Road trips have always been one the best ways to see a country, especially in your favourite car. You’ll definitely find yourself on roads less travelled.
I notice that many teams are husband/wife couples, or retirees enjoying the good-life adventure. “We’re all growing old,” says Dave, “together with our cars”. Younger drivers are definitely welcome, so long as they have a qualifying car and a driver’s license. Rally entrance fees range from $500 for the Northwest Classic to $2900 for the ALCAN, so you don’t have to be a millionaire to participate, or even a competitor. Many rallies now have touring groups with no rules or time trials.
Dave lets me take the wheel on our long drive back to Vancouver. This time, we’re taking the longer, scenic route to avoid the traffic on the highway. The Porsche hums along the coast, reflecting tree tunnels, turning heads. There’s no power steering, no air con, and no CD Player to distract me from the act of driving itself. Classic cars are all about the experience. Much like the rally events that bring them together.
A recent article brought to light hilarious predictions of travel in the future that didn't come true. I've made my own. Flying to fashion, entertainment to passports, here's my crystal ball of what the future of travel could look like.
I’m on a 15-hour direct flight from Sydney to Vancouver, an impossible flight twenty five years ago. Lighter aircraft using better technology means we can fly further and cheaper than ever before. Through the curtain a few rows up, I see business class passengers (the lucky bastards) fully reclined in their cubicles. Comfort and on-board entertainment is leaping forward. Perhaps one day we’ll see flying cruise ships, where it will be possible to reach anywhere in unimagined comfort. Perhaps we’ll have floating hotels, or stopovers in the sky. New environmentally friendly fuels generate power at a fraction of the cost, as the world becomes increasingly smaller, even for us here in Economy Class.
I remember backpacking through Europe many years ago, completely bewildered by the array and diversity of currencies. Not one to dwell on the socio-political impact of the euro (or the sinister whisperings around the so-called amero) but there’s no doubt it has made travelling easier. A worldwide currency? These days I use my credit card as much as I can, or withdraw local currency from global banking networks. Imagine a world where one card carries everything you could possibly need. Some people might argue we’re already there, but then some people should visit the developing world before making such assumptions.
The cameras get smaller, the memory gets bigger, the pictures get clearer. Here’s a device that fits via a radio frequency onto the cornea of your eye. All you have to do is blink, and a perfect HD video or high-resolution photo is recorded, and immediately sorted according to a voice command. Virtual visual experiences, like the ones featured in the classic underrated sci-fi movie Strange Days, could take you on lifelike adventures to foreign shores without leaving your living room. Until someone invents such a device, you’re stuck with travel writers like me.
James Bond zips around the world, looking fantastic, carrying nothing so much as a cell phone charger, yet with a different pair of sunglasses in every destination. Maybe Q invented a pair of sunglasses that double as video monitors, connected to a 10 terabyte harddrive the size of a pinhead. It’s loaded with movies, TV, guidebooks, a global cellphone, e-books, GPS maps, music, photos, translators, wireless in-ear receivers and recipes for gin martinis. James Bond doesn’t have time to go the movies, pick up a book, or carry an cellphone. One pair of shades, and we’ve got everything we need. Including an electronic locater, when we inevitably lose them at the backseat of a taxi.
In our increasingly digital age, it’s almost quaint to think we travel with a little book that is absolutely essential for our safe passage. Be it immigration officials or dodgy police officers who want to see our papers, our ID’s can instead be written in our very bodies, from our fingerprints to our retinas. Biometric scanners should be able to tag us wherever we are, although the potential for a ruthless big brother scenario is just as probable as the potential for less hassle.
Our safety is of such concern that we’ve been reduced to confiscating toothpaste on airplanes, or blowing up suspicious items like someone’s forgotten shopping bag. Unhackable E-passports should help lock down the bad guys, but if there’s a will there’s a way. That’s why X-ray vision capable of identifying weapons and contagious illnesses will hone in on everyone getting on a bus, plane or subway (privacy advocates will ensure it is not subject to abuse.). Meanwhile, political or environment turbulence will be analyzed information and quickly distributed by a panel of professionals, trained to avoid disseminating panic and fear. Hey, I can dream…
Besides the sunglasses equipped with every gadget you can think of (the failure of Google Glasses notwithstanding), I look forward to clothes with integrated nanobots that automatically refresh, clean and kill all foreign bacteria. Furthermore, one item of clothing will be able to change colour, shape and style depending on what you need it for. Surely this is what our favourite superspies Bourne and Bond use. Nanotechnology will also give us a hat that stretches into a hammock or cot, a belt that transforms into a sleeping bag, and while we’re at it, a jacket that turns into an indestructible mobile panic room, should you find yourself needing a sudden emergency exit.
The Final Frontier
Space tourism has already started, and much like tourism in its very early days, the final frontier is reserved for those of incredible wealth and means. At some point in the future, major hotel chains will open on the moon, and Vegas-style space stations will follow. After all, what goes on in Space, stays in Space. The discovery that quantum physics and string theory can bend the space-time continuum will open up new planets for brave explorers, and a few months later, name-tagged package tours. “Off the beaten track” will make way for the “off the chartered galaxy”, and expect a series of guidebooks, Lonely Universe, to shepherd budget-minded earthlings to the seven corners of the galaxy.