Southwest Australia. Come January, it's cold in the North. All the charm from the flickering LED lights of Christmas retreat as the holiday season officially comes to a close, the realities of winter setting in like an unfortunate rash behind the knees. Which is why I'm fondly recalling the southwest coast of Australia, with its endless soft beaches, wild Indian Ocean waves, and rows of vineyards in the country's premier wine region. I explored places like Margaret River, Augusta, and the world's most isolated major city, Perth. The heat was punishing at times, but the wine was abundant, the pies were delicious, the company lovely, and there wasn't a damn flake of snow to be seen. I also climbed the 75m high Dave Evans Centennial Tree, which tapped my thirst for gonzo adventure, and provided fodder for a story of mine in the New Zealand Herald. Yes, this January, Western Australia will do nicely for all of us.
Earlier this year, I headed off to Portugal to taste some it's finest wines, marvel at the ancient vineyards on the terraces of the Doura Valley, and stay in hotels ranging from James Bondesque fortresses to 17th century villas. You know, because someone has to. I've long said Portugal is the best deal going in Western Europe: all the cobblestone without the price of Italy, France and Spain. Just like Portuguese wines are great value, so is the country itself. Below are some images from the trip.
Twenty years ago, I read a book called Fingerprints of the Gods, which left an indelible impression on me. Author Graham Hancock made a compelling case for the existence of advanced ancient civilizations. He also tapped into the Mayan culture, the bizarre accuracy of their calendar, and their unnerving tendency to predict ice ages and global catastrophes. It is here I first read the date: December 21, 2012. Still a teenager, I decided that I'd damn make sure I live a life well lived before then, and since I had two decades to do it, I wasn't overly concerned. And here we are, at the Week at the End of the World.
Of course, the world's foremost Mayan scholars have frustratingly shrugged their collective shoulders, because the Mayan Armageddon is based on a gross misunderstanding running full speed into media hype and mindblowing misinterpretation. In other words, I intend to sleep late on Saturday morning, December 22.
"The people were so FRIENDLY!" We often hear those CAPS from friends and family returning from abroad, or recollecting an experience many years ago. People do make an impression. Personally, I've found locals to be rather lovely.India, Turkey, Georgia, Laos, Sri Lanka - they certainly rated amongst my most friendly countries. It's a gross generalization, of course, since my experience (like everyone else's) is supremely subjective. Maybe I'm lucky, but it's the reason why one of my maxims is that PEOPLE WILL RATHER HELP YOU THAN HURT YOU. Even in a country like Albania, which has perhaps the worst reputation in Europe, and tops my list as the World's Friendliest Nation. When random strangers go out of their way to show you kindness with no expectations of something in return, that's friendliness. Not to be confused with "I'll help you, now visit my jewelry shop!" or "The time is 11am, now please go away." The least friendly country I visited was Hungary. That being said, I made some wonderful local friends, and in this photo taken in Budapest (above), it doesn't look like I'm a Hungarian Hater at all, does it? Now, now, settle down...
Before travel, I worked in music, and still to this day, at the end of the year, I trawl the music mags, critics and blogs for the tracks I might have missed. I'm on the hunt for those songs that you hear once and think "my life is a better place because someone took the time to write, record and distribute this amazing piece of music." Songs you didn't know existed and yet immediately feel like they've always been there.
Last night I began my search on the two big music mags. Rolling Stone's Best Songs of 2012 and Spin Magazine's Best Songs of 2012. I listened to over 100 songs, and was left mostly bewildered. Taylor Swift? Carly Rae Jepson? Seriously? Interspersed between this Stepford Cheerleader Pop were tuneless, faddish indie scensters so heavy on style and so light on melody I've heard mating coyotes dish out more rhythm. And then there's this year's Macarena, courtesy of South Korea. Just a handful made my own list, which made me feel like I'm finally moving up the ladder to the generation that can only shake our heads, recalling the glory days that never were.
Without further ado, here's a list of the eclectic songs that soundtracked my 2012. Note: Not all of these songs were actually released in 2012, but this is the year I discovered them, rocked out and drowned in them. Let the music play.
Hopefully I'll have a dozen more by the end of the month, but there go, an odd mix to be sure, including one track released in 2008 (Jump in the Pool) and Love on a Train, remixed from Risky Business (when Tom Cruise hit puberty).
Feel free to share the soundtrack of your lives.
My younger brother is off to Southeast Asia in a couple weeks. He was asking for advice on where to go from Bangkok, and I told him it will be really easy to just follow the Gringo Trail. Technically, I'm referring to the Banana Pancake Trail. Along with the "Hippie Trail, these "trails" are well established backpacker routes through Central and South America, SE Asia and India/Nepal. Typically this means there will be easy modes of transport (frequent shared mini-vans, buses), a huge variety of budget hotels and restaurants, likeminded travellers with a similar goals to tick similar boxes, and occasional encounters with people wearing loose fitting clothes who long ago fell off the tour bus of reality. The trails make independent travel much easier, and certainly more social. Some might argue they also flood the same places with too many people, much like the "Lonely Planet" effect. Personally, I'm all for it. You're still on your own, making your own decisions, and seeing the best these regions have to offer. If you're trying to beat a different path, there's plenty of opportunities to do so, and move at your own pace. If you're trying to avoid other travellers, don't go to Southeast Asia, Central America, or India!
This week I was invited to the premiere of The Hobbit, a prequel to the Lord of the Rings, designed at great expense to stretch a short, children's book into three epic Hollywood blockbusters. I agree with most critics: the movie is way too long, the plot too plodding. Peter Jackson seems to have gotten a case of Lucasinitis, when Ego gets in the way of good filmmaking. One aspect that does shine, much like it did in the LOTR trilogy, is the location. New Zealand is beaming, especially in the immersive new 48 frames per second format, where the 3D visuals take a clarity never before seen at the theatre. You may cringe at the artificial sheen on the make-up and props, but prepare for the "wows!" at the mountains, glaciers and forests of the South Island. A couple years ago, I went on a Lord of the Rings jet boat and horse riding tour outside Queenstown, visiting locations seen in the movies. Granted, CGI added all sorts of landmarks that don't exist in the real world, but seeing the ram's head above - at Dart River Stables overlooking the Misty Mountains - it was easy to channel my inner Frodo. Some movies make us want to visit places, some make us want to escape. The Hobbit might not always work as a film, but Middle Earth (aka New Zealand) never looked better.
Facts from the making of The Hobbit
Ilha Grande, Brazil. That's where I took this photo a few years back, around mid-December. It's a lovely little island located a few hours south from Rio, a protected state park where no cars are allowed, and you can head out on all-day hikes along pristine forests and talcum beaches. Like Lopes Mendes, one of the world's great beaches. You typically hike in and boat out late afternoon, but the reward for your morning efforts are worth it, including readily available inexpensive surf boards to rent. During the hike, I met a woman who had been sailing around the world for 30 years, a decade of those on her own. You meet all sorts of inspiring people when you travel in Brazil. Perhaps what I love most about the country is that people will spontaneously dance in the streets, like these folks above, enjoying the warm, fragrant night, and a little moment of December paradise.
The travel industry loves trends, and one of the better ones is the idea of a Mancation, aka Bromance. Resorts, hotels and tour agencies are now reaching out to men with the idea that true bonding can only take place if wives and girlfriends are left at home, no doubt enjoying their own vacation from the hairy beast they share a bed with. I'm currently in Whistler-Blackcomb, North America's best ski resort, on a Bromance. I'll be snowboarding and pub crawling, snowmobiling, bob-sleighing and boozing with six other male journalists I have yet to meet. Bromances are one of a series of deals and packages offered by the resort, great for bachelor parties and corporate getaways - because every woman knows that inside every man there is a little boy who loves to play with his toys. I discuss the rules of a Mancation in this fun clip below, in which my brothers, Dad and I hired an RV and went off to explore the Rockies. We drive, we drink beer, we wear leather chaps, we channel our manliness...while off camera pining like little girls for the lovely ladies who make us the men we are. Time to man up!
A while back, I wrote a column about the World's Top 10 Restrooms. I've always had a love-hate relationship with bathrooms when I travel, and I thought this post was a good one as any to head to the toilet. The worst toilet I've ever experienced was in a Lusaka Bus Station. Lusaka is the capital of Zambia, and at the time, resembled the fermenting armpit of Beelzebub. The public washrooms appeared to constructed out of runny stools, much like the buses themselves. Scandinavia had lovely bathrooms, as spotless and orderly as Lisbeth Salander's hacking skills. Of course, if you got to go, the you gotta go, even if it's the Worst Toilet in Scotland, even if you're on a plane, train, or hang glider. The relief is worth it. Unless you're on a bus. In which case, I'll kindly ask you to wait until the nearest gas station.