“Can we tick this one off Dad?” I ask?
“Yes we can.”
And so we did.
I was recently invited to speak at the annual leadership conference for Coast Hotels, which took place at the Coast High Country Inn in Whitehorse. The theme of the event was Bucket List, and so naturally, I felt right at home. Since it’s January, and Whitehorse is the most accessible northern city to see the aurora, especially from Vancouver, I brought my Dad along for the ride. It’s been his dream to see the aurora since watching an 80’s movie called St Elmo’s Fire, which doesn’t feature the lights at all, other than, as I write in my book, the “light going out of Ally Sheedy’s acting career.” No offence to Ally Sheedy. Or Andrew McCarthy, an actor in the movie who is now an editor-at-large for National Geographic. #Everythingisconnected. My Dad and I had previously spent five nights in Yellowknife and saw no lights, but we did kinda-sorta see the aurora (if you squinted just so) in Hay River after flying over with Buffalo Air, but never got the full razzmadaddle. Whitehorse would be another kick at the aurora can. What’s more, Coast had arranged for attendees to tick off a full blown Whitehorse bucket list, including dogsledding with Muktuk Adventures (as featured in my books), slurping back the Sour Toe Cocktail brought down from Dawson City, and dipping in the thermal springs of the Takhini Hot Pools. Throw in some elk sausage and Arctic Char from Burnt Toast, my favourite restaurant in the city, and you’ve got a comprehensive winter Whitehorse bucket list covered!
We arrived via Air North, which is the only airline I know that serves hot baked cookies, refreshments at the gate, and affordable flights to a northern city. Settled into the Coast High Country Inn (which is owned by the same folks who own the Best Western Gold Rush Inn, so they have you covered), we took off for our first shot at seeing the lights at a remote aurora viewing cabin. Fire pits were burning, the tent cabins were heated and cozy, and the sky cleared nicely. The aurora report gave us just a 4/10 chance at seeing a 4/10 display, but sure enough, green waves began to pop on the horizon. No fireworks, but fine enough. That we threaded the needle on our first night in Whitehorse is a testament to Coast marketing director Sarah Kirby-Yung’s delightful optimism trumping my Dad’s northern lights jinx.
“Can we tick this one off Dad?” I ask?
“Yes we can.”
And so we did.
Racing a dogsled on a frozen river is pure bucket list too. I’ve had the good fortune to dogsled with Muktuk Adventures filming an episode for my TV show, and researching a chapter for my book. The happiest puppies on the planet were lined up and rearing to go on our arrival, and off they go, running along the side of the Takhini River, pausing only for breaks and cuddles from Muktuk’s caring staff. Go dog go! It was the highlight of the trip for my Dad, which speaks volumes about the quality of the experience (and perhaps the performance of the aurora as well).
If only I could do all my book signings at a bar, beer in hand. Every attendee received a signed copy of my book at an evening event, soundtracked by a three-piece jazz band, and the arrival of the notorious Sour Toe Cocktail. It’s the fourth time I’ve had someone else’s severed toe in my mouth, although this time I think some of it flaked off and got stuck in my teeth, which continues to make me gag just writing about it. I got my Dad to join the club too, the toe stubbornly refusing to slide down the tumbler of Yukon Jack to touch his lips. As the Toe Captain will tell you: “Drink it fast, or drink it slow, but your lips must touch this gnarly looking toe.”
After finally getting a decent photo of Whitehorse's iconic wooden skyscraper, Tourism Yukon's Jimmy Kemshead drive us along the Alaska Highway to check out the Mount Sima Ski Hill outside of town, and the scenic taiga on the drive to Carcross. Our final night featured a soak in the Takhini Hot Pools, a natural thermal spring located 25 minutes drive from Whitehorse. It was a late night soak, well enjoyed by all and spiced (and chilled) with a half-naked roll in the icy snow. As usual, the travel buzz moment came when I least expected it. Our bus got stuck in the ice in Takhini’s parking lot, and while the driver revved and tried to roll free, the cold night sky burst forth with stars, falling meteorites, and the wispy dance of the aurora herself. Not quite green, but a large distinct light flickering across the dark sky. Eventually we managed to free the bus by lining up and pushing it out in reverse. Rescuing a passenger bus beneath the northern lights in the Yukon? Now that’s bucket list.
Drinking in the World
My favourite, and not-so-favourite cocktails from around the globe.
Peru and Chile have long battled over who owns the Pisco Sour, but regardless of its origins, anyone who gets the chance to enjoy it is a winner. The cocktail is made from the clear distilled grape brandy pisco, blended with fresh lemon or lime, egg whites, syrup or sugar, and a dash of bitters. It’s refreshing yet a little sour, much like a margarita, and served in a short whiskey glass, any time of day. The Pisco Sour is the national drink of Peru, who claim that Chile stole the recipe from them during a war in the 1800’s. That being said, the best Pisco Sour I had was in Santiago, from a homemade Chilean recipe. Perhaps it’s time both countries sit down and discuss the issue over a cocktail.
In many parts of the world, locals forego major liquor brands for their own homemade moonshine. Such is the case with raki in Albania. Raki is also found in Turkey, and known as arak in North Africa and the Middle East. Every year in Albania, there are cases of people going blind, or even losing their lives after consuming a particular nasty batch of raki, which is distilled from grapes and flavoured with aniseed. Not that you’ll be able to taste much, as this traditional aperitif disintegrates everything it touches in your mouth and throat. In Albania, homemade raki served in a glass decanter made my mouth burn and my nose run, but fortunately, left my eyesight in tact.
Georgians don’t know which came first: Wine, or the people to drink it. Archaeologists have discovered traces of wine in jars that date back 8000 years, implying that tiny Georgia, bordered by Turkey, Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, is the birthplace of wine the world over. The country has 200 endemic species of grape, producing many types of wine that are found nowhere else. Toastmasting is a proud tradition, as is the cultivation and production of wine in underground casks that date back generations. Saperavi is its most famous red wine, along with the white Rkatsitelli. Both are sweet, almost dessert-like wines, high in sugar and alcohol. At a traditional dinner, I watch four men pour out their lauded toasts, draining at least a dozen bottles without tipping over. France and Italy may make the finest wine, but little known Georgia lives and breathes it.
Legend has it that the powerfully strong mampoer is an able substitute should you run out of battery acid. Known as a type of peach brandy, mampoer can be made from any fruit, including apricots, plums, figs, prickly pear, pineapples and marula. Its origins go back to the Dutch settlers of South Africa, who allowed soft, sweet fruit to rot in barrels for three weeks, before boiling it up a couple times to distil the alcohol from the mash. Mampoer, which is still made by many farmers in South Africa, has an alcohol volume between 60 to 80%. No word on whether they use it to power their tractors.
A drink can only be called tequila if it is produced in the region of Jalisco, in and around the town of Tequila itself. Mexico’s national drink has its roots with the Aztecs, who produced a fermented drink called pulque from the agave plant. When Spanish conquistadors ran dry of their imported liquor, they adopted the native drink to produce mescal, the name still given to a variety of liquor produced from the agave. Tequila is a type of mescal produced only in one region, refined, and perfected, much like cognac is to brandy. Jose Cuervo began production in 1795, and its La Rojena distillery is still in operation today, the oldest in Latin America. Here you can see how tequila is made, learn about its correct consumption (sipped, never shot), and drink from the family’s private cellar, where the smooth, rich sample has the fragrance of tequila, but goes down like liquid velvet.
Fermented Horse Milk
The chief of the nomadic tribe calls me into his traditional circular ger tent. It’s pretty spacious considering it can be dismantled and packed onto horses in just a couple hours. On the walls, made of fabric, are pictures of famous Mongolian wrestlers, embroidery, and cracked mirrors. We sit at a table, and from a porcelain jug, he pours into a small wooden cup some of his most treasured elixir. I smile, maintaining eye contact, and bring the cup to my mouth. A sour odour reaches my nose, the eye-watering stench of ammonia. The liquid touches my lips, burns, the tartness stretching my tongue and forcing a muffled gag reflex. I shoot it back, closing my eyes, somehow keeping it down. I regain focus, breathe out a noxious gas, and silently congratulate myself. The chief is so impressed, he immediately pours me another cup.
There’s nothing quite like seeing South Korean businessmen on a soju binge. This vodka-like drink, produced from rice or other starches like potato or wheat, is poured into a shot glass, and after a toast, consumed in one gulp. Etiquette dictates that you must not fill your own glass, that it must be held with one or two hands depending on status, and poured and received in a particular manner too. With all the rules, dating back to the 1300’s, it’s odd to see basic courtesy go out the window as the soju takes hold, and men descend into a state of alcoholic madness. I saw suits and ties passed out in the bushes on Seoul, or carried unconscious over the shoulder by colleagues, all on a weeknight! Korea’a Alcohol and Liquor Industry reckons each Korean adult drinks more than 90 bottles of soju a year, where it is viewed as a positive energy source for the country.
“Robin Ayers Rock?”
“I’m sorry, did you say Ayers Rock?”
“No, E-S. Rock.”
My grandmother once told me how people from Australia thought she was joking when she gave her surname. It never struck me how similar Esrock is to Ayers Rock, but throw in a few accents here and there, and no wonder locals this week raised an eyebrow. It was something I got used to pretty quick during my visit to Australia, along with the fact that you don’t have to tip, and fast food joints charge you for ketchup pouches.
After the comfortable flight into Brisbane via Auckland on Air New Zealand, well deserved of airlineratings.com Airline of the Year Award, I breathe the warm, tropical coastal air of northern Queensland on my patio at the Thala Beach Resort. Humidity hugs me as I gaze out over the forest canopy and picturesque bay, listening to the songs of birds and frogs. Parrots flutter about in the trees adjacent to the windowless dining room, with the natural assets of tropical north Queensland on full display. My first introduction to the Great Barrier Reef is on Quicksilver’s wave-piercing catamaran, which delivers tourists to a permanent pontoon on the outer barrier reef. Beyond snorkelling, I soak up the time in a semi-submersible boat ride, an underwater observatory, in the skies with a helicopter ride (the view is extraordinary) and my personal highlight - on an underwater platform with a fish-bowl like helmet on my head, petting a friendly and unnervingly large Maori wrasse. Well, that’s one way to experience the reef. Another is by sea kayak, launched the following day from Thala Beach in the early morning hours. Sea turtles pop their heads out the water to see what the fuss is about, but I’m more distracted by the lush costal mountains framing the coastline.
Back to Cairns, which serves as the gateway to the northern barrier reef, I hop on a small plane for an hour-long flight to Lizard Island National Park. Home to an important marine research station, Lizard Island also has glitziest resort on the reef, with 48 luxurious villas facing a turquoise bay and white sandy beaches. Re-opened after two cyclones caused havoc, the resort is the epitome of elegance – white walls, wooden boardwalks, palm trees, an azure pool, fine dining and spa. It’s also on many a diver’s bucket list, especially the Cod Hole, where giant potato cod swim with curious sharks and technicolour fish on the outer reef. It’s my first scuba dive in some time, and as I descend beneath the surface, surrounded by hundreds of barracuda, I’m reminded of previous visits into the weightless underwater wonderland of ocean diving. I chase reef sharks, stare into the eyes of the giant cod, navigate reef canyons. “Damn!” I exclaim back on the dive boat. “The Great Barrier Reef delivers!”
A raucous farewell party on the beach (maintaining my perfect record of skinny dipping in warm oceans at night under the stars), fly to Cairns, fly to Gold Coast, climb a building, storm watch from the 27th floor balcony of the stylish Peppers Broadbeach, and I’m in the co-pilot chair on the 10-seater plane to the most southerly resort island on the barrier reef – Lady Elliot Island. Renowned for the manta rays and turtles that visit the island home year-round, Lady Elliot is the most accessible reef island for Australia’s southern capitals, popular with families, divers, weekenders and daytrippers. I pick up snorkel gear at the dive shop, take a few steps from my cabin into the lagoon, and the reef explodes with life and colour. The small, coral cay island is surrounded by reef, and with excellent visibility, regarded as one of its best dive and snorkel spots. I submerge through the Blue Hole, an underwater tunnel that opens up into marine world beaming with life. Look at the size of that white tipped reef shark! Hello Mr Curious Turtle! Check out the grace of that manta ray! With just one opportunity to dive, I’m deeply jealous of the divers who are here for a week, but grateful to have the opportunity to be here in the first place. Still, snorkelling from the Coral Garden to the Lighthouse is so rich with turtles, coral, fish and manta rays that anyone can enjoy the reef, no scuba certification necessary.
The Great Barrier Reef is not only one of the world’s natural wonders, it’s one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. It’s also surprisingly accessible for a wide range of budgets, and as you can read above, offers a wide range of experiences, some that even allow you go underwater and keep your hair dry. Accommodation and meals are uniformly outstanding, the weather reliably co-operative (even when it rains or is overcast, the reef is open for business!), and the locals famously cheery. Even if your surname sounds like a prank call, that’s something every visitor can appreciate.
Find out more information about visiting Australia and the Great Barrier Reef.
This is me opening my fridge to reveal some of my favourite condiments from around the world. Open yours, and let me know what tickles your own taste buds.
The best condiments start with a homemade recipe, and the devoted and addicted sauce-makers who receive so much acclaim from friends and family they dare to dream, what if? Such is the case with Marie Sharp out of the small Central American country of Belize. Combining grapefruit or orange with local habanero peppers has created spicy greatness. One Belizan joked it could be the country’s biggest export. I brought back 14 (!) bottles of Marie Sharps back with me from Belize, which says all you need to know. Beautiful country, beautiful hot sauce.
Kecap Manis ABC Sauce
I know a tiny authentic Indonesian eatery that makes the crispiest veggie spring rolls, served with a thick, dark sauce for dipping. Since discovering it was ABC Sauce, widely available, a bottle has never been far away from my kitchen. This dark soy sauce has been sweetened with palm sugar, giving it the texture of molasses. I use it to sugar up just about any dish, always adding it to my secret BBQ marinade, and a dribble on the side for spring rolls or chicken wings.
It would be simple to describe Pickapeppa as a steak sauce, an HP or Worcester substitute. Condiment connoisseurs know the fruity flavours run much deeper in this brown sauce, brushed with the faint heat of scotch bonnet pepper that lingers on the tongue. Jamaica is famous for its jerk sauce – a sweet and spicy marinade that turns nondescript meat, chicken, veggies and fish into supermodels. Pickapeppa is not a jerk sauce, but the complexity of its ingredients perfectly captures that sweet and spicy world of the Caribbean.
Mama Africas / Nandos / Mrs Balls
Call me biased (I was born and raised in South Africa), or call me a knowing insider. These sauces are now available worldwide and for good reason. Mama Africas, which began in a small suburban house, is a thick chili relish of varying heat, and is to a cheese or meat sandwich what air is to our lungs. Nandos African birds eye peri-peri sauces come in dozens of delicious guises. Their cooking sauces, most notably the Sweet Apricot or Roasted Red Pepper, make casseroles all they can be. Finally, Mrs Balls hot or peach chutney is my must-have condiment, as a dip, sauce, or cheese accessory.
Yes, I know there are hundreds of hot sauces available from the US, many with names like “Brain Damage” or “Assblaster”. It’s about flavour, not about heat. I travel with Tabasco because it’s small, the bottle doesn’t break, and I’ve grown so accustomed to its distinctive taste I can literally drink it neat. Unbelievably, I grew up in a house with very little spice, but my mom always sprinkled Tabasco on her famous potato salads, a drop or two in her curries. Today I empty half a bottle in my bloody mary, almost like comfort food.
I was over at a Japanese friend’s house, and she steamed up some gyoza and dribbled a little bulldog over it. Another brown, fruity sauce, Bulldog is somewhat sweeter than Pickapeppa, thicker than HP, and used quite a lot in Japanese restaurants. Try as a dip for edamame, or another special ingredient in your homemade BBQ sauces or stews.
Sweet Chili for Chicken
It is sold in various brand incarnates, but usually described as sweet chili for chicken. Syrupy with subtle garlic undertones, poultry isn’t the only beneficiary of this Southeast Asian staple. Perfect on sandwiches, or for a sweet-spicy kick in a stirfry. Like most hot sauces, it also adds a compatible kick to mayo for a makeshift dipping sauce.
Sriracha Rooster Sauce
Rooster sauce, far more pronounceable than Huy Fong Sriracha, is a common condiment throughout North America. It’s originally from Southeast Asia but produced wherever it is sold. The “rooster” sauce you know is produced in the United States, and used commonly on buffalo wings, even on hot popcorn. With its bright red colouring, it’s not my go-to sauce, but it does have an acceptable heat and consistency for sandwiches, not to mention its best asset – the no-mess easy to squeeze bottle.
When people talk about travelling for" the food", this is what they're referring to.
Nasi Kander - Malaysia
Nasi Kander is a northern Malaysian dish that combines a variety of elements – meat, rice, vegetables – and smothers it with various types of sweet-spicy curry sauces. Served in buffet-type street stalls, the result is a gift to
your taste buds. Eggplant, beef, chicken, squid, peppers, and okra are all flooded with flavour, soaked up by coconut rice and scooped with the right hand.
Ceviche - Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica
You can get ceviche around the world, but not the way they make it here. Raw fish, shrimp and calamari are drowned in limejuice, herbs and spices. The acidity of the lime cooks the fish, creating a mouthwatering delicacy that is served in the finest restaurants, all the way to roadside shacks. In Peru, it is often served with giant corn, and people sometimes order the leftover juice on its own, called Tiger Juice. In Ecuador, and other parts of the continent, ceviche is served with crackers. My favourite ceviche of all time is served out of a big tub in a tiny ice-cream store in Santa Theresa, Costa Rica.
Borscht - Russia
I struggled with the food in the Russia, easily reaching my limit of boiled meat and potato. One thing I never got tired of however was the borscht – a soup made of beetroot, with meats, dill and sour cream. Considering how bland Russian cuisine can be, the complexity of taste in well-prepared borscht is staggering. Sweet, sour, tangy, and always ready to warm you up on a cold day. My favourite borscht was served in Irkutsk, Siberia, where a vegetarian friend and I ordered borscht without the mystery meat, and it still knocked our socks off.
Biltong - South Africa
The easiest way to describe biltong is to compare it to beef jerky, but that’s like comparing a Prius to a Porsche. South Africans have been making biltong for hundreds of years, spicing, salting and hanging strips of raw meat until it dries out, but not too much. No sugar, no preservatives, no neat wafer thin slices. Biltong is served in chunks, sometimes wet (rarer) and sometimes dry (tough). It can be salty, spicy, fatty or lean. Choosing the right piece is part of the fun. It makes the perfect accompaniment to any sports game or road trip.
Farofa - Brazil
If you visit a Brazilian churrascaria, where a never-ending stream of meat is served until you’re ready to explode, you might notice a bowl on the table of something that looks like breadcrumbs. Brazilians eat it with everything – meat, fish, stews, roasts. It’s not breadcrumbs, but rather manioc flour, fried with butter. Somehow it adds something to the dish – more substance, certainly, but also a way to carry the taste a few yards further. It took me a while to get used to it, but these days, when the BBQ is firing, there’s always a bowl of farofa on my dinner table.
Ika Mata - Cook Islands
Cook Islanders have created their own little slice of culinary heaven, using a resource that surrounds them in abundance - fish and coconuts. Similar to ceviche, raw fish is marinated in limejuice and spices, with the addition of coconut milk. It’s not quite as tangy as ceviche, but just as fresh. The coconut milk softens the spices and also tenderizes the fish. It goes down smooth on a hot island day, a rich treat available just about everywhere you go on the islands.
Awaze Tibs and Injera - Ethiopia
Awaze tibs is a lamb or beef stew, cooked with onions, peppers and spiced with awazare, also known as berbere. Berbere, which features in many Ethiopian dishes, is a ground spice made of garlic, chili, ginger, basil, pepper, and fenugreek. The stew is slow cooked and served with injera, a spongy pancake-like flat bread made with teff flour, the taste almost sour. Using your hands, you scoop up the meat and sauce with the injera, creating a perfect blend of flavour.
Pide - Turkey
Kebab shops around the world now serve pide and for good reason. A thin oval bread is covered with ground lamb, and seasoned with tomato paste, red peppers, garlic and spices. It might be topped with eggs, fresh mint, and lemon juice. The pide is baked much like a pizza until the crust is crispy, and cut into strips. It’s so good it’s hard to order only one. Meat, bread and tasty vegetables in every bite.
Roo Burgers - Australia
It’s sometimes difficult for tourists to understand, but kangaroos can be quite a problem for Australians. They breed like rabbits, destroy the countryside, and are often referred to as pests. No surprise then that kangaroo features on the menu, meat that has become increasingly popular in recent years. It tastes gamey, kind of like venison with a touch of rabbit mixed in there as well. Much like ostrich meat, kangaroo meat is healthy and lean. If only they didn’t look so damn cute.
Photo: Renee S
Meat Pies - New Zealand
In New Zealand, every garage station, bakery or corner store sells savory meat pies. They’re cheap, they’re tasty, and they come in surprising varieties: Tandoori Chicken, Bacon and Egg, Thai Beef. With flaky crusts and thick filling, pies are a sense of pride across New Zealand. There are various competitions for the Best Pie, and intense customer loyalty for bakeries and brands. All for under a fiver.
Photos: Robbi Baba
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.