“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.
“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.
Glamping, short form for glamorous camping, promises all the rugged adventure of the outdoors, with the velvet luxury touch of high-end comfort. A growing trend in the world of modern travel, here’s my first round of picks from Canada and around the world:
Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, BC
Lets kick off on Vancouver Island’s Clayoquot Wilderness Resort (pictured above), which offers 20 luxury tents, connected by cedar boardwalk under a rainforest canopy. Each tent has antique furniture, thick rugs, wood stoves, and a shower house, blending opulence and wilderness at the mouth of the Bedwell River.
Rockwater Secret Cove, BC
It was a stormy, cold night when I arrived at Rockwater Secret Cove, so I appreciated the heated slate floors, glowing fireplace, terry cloth robes and hydrotherapy soaker tub. All the more so because I was staying in a tent, and these are not things one normally associates with tent accommodation. Located on the Sunshine Coast, Rockwater’s tent accommodations sit off a wooden boardwalk , illuminated at night like a runway, with beautiful views of the Malaspina Strait.
Le Camp, France
Located in the countryside of southwestern France, Le Camp offers six two-bedroom luxury canvas tents, and private yurts located deep in the woodland. Each tent looks out over the countryside, and comes with handmade beds, solar lighting, composting toilets, and an indoor/outdoor shower. Private luxury for couples, or big enough to accommodate whole families, Le Camp has space to roam, explore or relax. You will however have to share the 20m natural swimming pool. Your company: butterflies, dragonflies and frogs.
Spicers Canopy, Australia
An hour and half from Brisbane, Splicers Canopy offers glampers a back-to-nature experience atop a plateau, and an 8000-acre private reserve. Accommodating 20 guests, each tent has king size beds with fine linen, polished floorboards, luxurious armchairs and covered deck. Gourmet meals are included, as are guided walkabouts into the Main Range National Park. Dining is communal, taking places around a large stone fireplace, under stars sparkling above the clear air of the plateau.
Three Camel Lodge, Mongolia
Perhaps the most exotic destination for today's glamper, the Three Camel Lodge is an environmentally sustainable development built in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Accommodation comes in the form of luxury gers, the traditional circular tents used by Mongolian nomads. Felt and canvas cover a wooden frame that can be dismantled easily, with a wood stove keeping everyone warm in the middle. Three Camel’s gers have handpainted furniture, a private bathroom, king size beds, and Mongolian style bathrobes and slippers. The lodge features a restaurant, and Dino House, built in the style of a traditional temple, for evening entertainment.
If you've read the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, you'll know that "42" is the meaning of life. It's also the number of 3-night trips Fairmont Hotels is offering, plus cash and cameras, to winners of their new My Destination competition. The Grand Prize is a 7-night stay for two at any Fairmont North American property, including flights and $700 for food and beverage. These are prizes with meaning!
All you have to do is submit a short creative clip of your favourite destination, hidden gems or unusual experience. 42 Go Pro Heroes will be announced for the 3-day prize, handed snazzy new Go Pros for their stays, and then asked to capture some magic during their stay to qualify for the Grand Prize. As Fairmont's Go Pro Ambassador, I'm going to be judging. Unlike the entire cabinet of North Korea, I am not susceptible to bribery, but happy to give tips via Twitter (@robinesrock). Make sure you hashtag: #mydestinationstory.
The contest begins on August 1, 2014, with 42 Destination GoPro Heroes chosen by October 1, 2014. Trips will be taken between October 2 and December 15, 2014, and on December 19, all 42 finalist videos will be loaded to the contest site, MyDestinationStory.com. The postcard sweepstakes runs between August 1, 2014 and January 30, 2015. The Grand Prize winner will be announced on January 31, 2015. Visit MyDestinationStory.com to enter.