Dining across the Cultural Divide
Vancouver is a world-class city increasingly recognized for its world-class cuisine. In late 2022, eight restaurants received the city’s first distinguished Michelin-stars. These were the Quebecois inspired St Lawrence, the Chinese iDen & QuanJuDe Beijing Duck House, the Japanese Masayoshi, and contemporary restaurants Public on Main, AnnaLena, Barbara, and Burdock and Co. As one might expect, all use premium, locally-sourced ingredients, but other than showcasing B.C’s outstanding seafood, would any be out of place in Quebec, China, Japan, or among other fine dining restaurants worldwide? No. If you’re looking for food of the land, food of the people, and food for thought, the restaurant to put on your bucket list is Salmon n’ Bannock. Take a seat inside the only Indigenous restaurant in Vancouver, and stop and smell the sage bush.
Located on West Broadway and tastefully decorated with Indigenous artwork, there’s a big heart at the centre of this small restaurant, and a story with every dish. It starts with a one-year-old girl swept up in the 60’s Scoop – a horrendous era when government authorities forcibly removed Indigenous kids from their homes. Inez Cook was taken from her Nuxalk community in Bella Coola and placed within foster care. Raised by loving white parents, she grew up with little connection to her Indigenous roots. As a flight attendant, she lived and travelled around the world, falling in love with cuisine, while nurturing a growing curiosity to learn more of her past. Salmon ‘n Bannock, inspired by a road sign and a dream, is the result.
When the restaurant launched in 2010, Inez was welcomed back by the Nuxalk, and has used great food to bring people together ever since. It’s a bold and confident act of what she calls reconcilli-action. Her friendly staff and kitchen crew serve up a unique menu of dishes native to the region, creatively adapted for discerning and adventurous urban palettes.
“Indigenous people used what was locally available,” she tells me over an alluring plate of appetizers. “Farm-to-table, the 100-mile diet, we were the OG trendsetters!”
With glowing reviews and profiles in global media including the New York Times, CNN and BBC, Salmon n’ Bannock is a fantastic story that literally breaks bread across the cultural divide. That said, you can’t eat a story, so what’s on the plate?
Hot smoked candied salmon with maple, cracked pepper, and delicate sweetgrass-infused cherries. Light elk salami and rich duck terrine. Citrusy salmon ceviche, double smoked cheese, homemade pickles, and the #addicitive wild BBQ salmon mousse. Baked bannock - which Inez corrects me rhymes with panic - makes a wonderful cracker, smothered with her updated version of traditional pemmican: smoked bison with sage-infused blueberries and cream cheese. I wash it down with a refreshing Bella Coola soda, infused with hibiscus, rosehips, orange and apple. No chance I’ll get to the bison pot roast, game sausage, Anishinaabe risotto, smoked sablefish, or urban sage-smoked salmon burger. One visit simply won’t cut it.
It’s healthy, sustainable and delicious, so when will Indigenous cuisine share a food court with Mexican, Thai, Greek, Vietnamese, Chinese, and other international cuisines? This is not a theme, Inez reminds me. “It gets me from zero to a thousand in lividness when we’re called a theme restaurant. Japanese or Italian food is not a theme. Indigenous is not a theme. We are living cultures.”
There are only a handful of Indigenous restaurants across Western Canada, but they’re winning both fans and awards. Scott Jonathan Iserhoff’s Pei Pei Chew Ow café in Edmonton won Best Trailblazer in enRoute’s list of Canada’s Best New Restaurants. You’ll find the Kekuli Café in Merritt and West Kelowna, Bear and Bone Burger Co in Golden, the Ktunaxa Grill at the Ainsworth Hot Springs and several others. Those flying out of Vancouver can leave with a taste too: Salmon n’ Bannock opened up their second location inside the international departures lounge of YVR. Business is strong, but there are still plenty of challenges.
“You might have bad Chinese food one day, but that won’t stop you ever eating Chinese food again. People have to get familiar with our food. We only get one shot, and I want to build everybody up,” she says.
Oh yes, Vancouver is blessed with dozens of fantastic restaurants (and we don’t need Michelin to tell us that either). Yet crafting great food through an Indigenous lens and doing it responsibly with the full support of the community, suggests we’re heading towards a promising, and uniquely regional, culinary future. Enjoy the feast.
Here’s an actual conversation with my six-year-old on the final day of our eventful spring break.
“Well, what was your favourite part of our trip? Was it visiting the Statue of Liberty that you so desperately wanted to see? Was it the American Museum of Natural History, or that hilarious show we saw on Broadway? Was it hanging out with your aunt in Central Park, or taking the busy subway around the city? Was it spending a week playing in the big waves of Copacabana? Was it the cable car to Sugar Loaf Mountain to get that incredible view of Rio? Maybe it was the Wishing Tree and the monkeys we saw at the top of the mountain? Was it climbing on massive floats and dressing up in carnival costumes to dance with a beautiful samba princess? Maybe it was the sharks and stingrays we saw at the aquarium, or eating beach corn, grilled queijo and drinking coconuts at the beach? Playing with your cute Brazilian cousins, riding a bike along the beach, or spending time with your grandparents who spoiled you rotten with candy and cakes?”
Galileo thought about all this for a half a second, and replied:
“My favourite part was taking the airplane.”
I write these words during our final flight home after two-and-a-half weeks abroad. After a ten-hour overnight leg from Rio to Houston, we spent 90 minutes in line-ups to clear US customs and airport security. Removing friction from travel is a primary driver for tourism growth. Adding friction and making life difficult for passengers is the domain of government security and regulations, which has built nonsensical layers of procedure atop unnecessary layers of bureaucracy that make no sense to anyone. Are we still removing our shoes because one idiot unsuccessfully tried to blow up a plane with his shoelaces twenty-five years ago? Are we still confiscating perfume because liquids over 100ml are deadly? Are we still getting grilled by customs while connecting through a transit bubble, and going through security again even though we never left the sealed-off arrivals hall? Which is why, if you have anything less than a two-hour international connection these days, you’re playing with fire. All this said, our planes took off on time, United Airlines staff have been lovely, and even though they misplaced one of our suitcases for 48 hours, the system somehow worked well enough for little Galileo to have the time of his life, both on the plane and off it.
I’ve never been a particular fan of New York. I’ve visited the city a half dozen times, mostly for professional reasons, and I've always got the sense it's a frenetic place for those in ivory towers, and the overworked masses who support them. How does it go: Live in New York but leave before you become too hard, and live in LA but leave before you become too soft. New York tends to be city utterly swept up in the sense of its own self-importance. This is not the centre of the Earth (geographically that’s somewhere in Turkey). Being rude to strangers is not charming, it’s just being rude. Perhaps when I was in my twenties, I’d have more fire and energy to take on The Big Apple, a zest I’d exhausted in late 1990’s London (The Big Smoke). Age has now mellowed me, and nature holds infinitely more appeal than nightclubs or fancy restaurants. On this trip, I found the subways exhausting, the line-ups at the attractions intense, the people brusque. Times Square was a violent display of overwhelming advertising and grift. I certainly enjoyed visiting the Statue of Liberty and American Museum of Natural History with my kids. Both world-class attractions are transitioning from Covid protocols and were somewhat chaotic. We used a CityPASS which saved us a few bucks, and a company called TodayTix to get heavily discounted Broadway show tickets. I took the family to see The Play That Goes Wrong, which had all ages in stitches and was the perfect family-friendly live theatre experience, especially for kids who have never seen this level of professional theatre before. We caught a lovely sunny day at Central Park, and my daughter’s birthday present was a visit to the goopy Sloomoo Institute, which will get its own sloppy sticky story in due course. We stayed with relatives downtown, and as always, reconnecting with family proved to be the best highlight of all.
It's been almost a decade since I visited Rio de Janeiro, presently emerging with the rest of Brazil from dark political days. Just about all my time would be spent with family in Copacabana, staying with my in-laws who live one block from one of the most famous beaches in the world. Heading into fall, the weather was spectacular: 30℃ blue skies, crashing waves, not a drop of rain in a month that could just as easily be a washout. Little stalls along the beach offer chairs, umbrellas, drinks and food, and with a caipirinha in hand I was content to watch the kids play in the waves while an endless stream of touts made the rounds offering everything from bolinho de bacalhau (cod fish cakes) to loud shirts and Bluetooth speakers. I don’t recall Copacabana being this clean, lovely and safe, especially in the evening. New waste treatment plants have made the water safe to swim in, tourism police and lifeguards patrol the shores, locals wear their teeny-weenie bathing suits, and you can happily spend all day doing nothing (the Brazilian way). The neighbourhood was also noticeably LGBTQ-friendly. My kids got to know some local characters, relished their acai bowls, street food, Brazilian family, shopping excursions and night markets (the Canadian dollar goes far here).
Of course, we still had time for the sensational views atop Sugar Loaf Mountain and the AquaRio, the largest aquarium in South America. We also took a braziliant tour called Carnaval Experience, taking us backstage at Samba City to learn about the city’s legendary festival. Staying relatively put – by my standards anyway – I was reminded of the months my family spent in Chiang Mai and Hoi An, which allowed us to get under the skin of a different place and culture. Like New York, the traffic and chaos of Rio can get a little much, but since my goals were modest, it was a joy to reconnect with our Brazilian family on these too-few, too-rare occasions, allowing the kids to immerse themselves in the culture of their mother’s heritage. Ipanema, Santa Theresa, Lapa, heck the rest of Brazil would have been fantastic. Maybe next time... or maybe I won’t get too far from the beach again. Either way, the friction of six airports, the white-knuckle taxis, the financial expense, the subways, the heat, the rain, the packing, the crowds, the jetlag…it’s all worth it, and it always is.
When The World Reaches Out
Two hundred and fifty CEOs, fifty-two ministers of tourism, three hundred travel journalists, and nearly three thousand professionals have gathered to redefine tourism in the post-pandemic era, selecting a rather controversial venue for the occasion. The annual World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit has also attracted movie stars like Edward Norton, prominent international TV anchors and a spattering of supermodels, some of whom no doubt shared my unease flying into Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. With its torrid reputation for human rights and on-going diplomatic spat with Canada, friends and family were genuinely concerned for my well-being. Despite the kingdom’s attempt to reinvent itself as a tourism mecca guided by the vision of its millennial Crown Prince, travel advisories cautioned me to log out of social media apps, avoid government buildings, and adhere to strict local customs. My wife also advised me to please keep my mouth shut, knowing full well I have an inherent incapacity to do so. Supplied with a new Saudi tourist visa and with an invitation for the conference, I had no idea what to expect.
I didn’t need pyro-drones topping off a multi-million-dollar fireworks show to witness Saudi Arabia’s eye-boggling investment in tourism. It was immediately evident pulling up to Riyadh’s palatial Ritz Carlton Hotel and Conference Centre. The production values of the WTTC event were staggering, along with impressive showcases for Saudi Arabia’s four high-profile giga-projects – developments that aspire to create entire cities out of thin air. The CEOs of Marriott, Hilton, Carnival, Accor, Hertz and Hyatt were on stage, along with dignitaries from Portugal, Austria, South Africa, Costa Rica, the USA, the UK and Australia. CNN’s combative host Richard Quest grilled them about how the tourism industry intends to pay more than just lip service to sustainability, a major theme throughout the two-day conference. With great fanfare, the WTTC released the first-ever report to measure tourism’s impact on global carbon emissions. The conclusion is that airfare, hotels, cruises and the like account for 8.1%, less than the previously estimated 11%. Reporters questioning the report’s methodology were reassured that the numbers would be scrutinized by governments and NGOs around the world. After the scourge of over-tourism and the challenges Covid, a revitalized industry is taking responsibility seriously.
Buzz words and catchphrases flowed thick and fast: community engagement, greenwashing, decarbonization, revenge tourism, zero gravity urbanism, follow the data with next generation artificial intelligence. “We are not in the service industry, we are in the care industry,” said Hyatt Hotels CEO Mark Hoplamazian. Above all, there was a lot of overall optimism. Despite a labour crisis, inflation, China’s iffy recovery and the tragic war in Ukraine, global tourism’s pandemic recovery has been faster and fiercer than anyone expected (Destination Canada revised and shortened its own tourism recovery projections too). Demand is quite simply outstripping supply, bringing with it opportunities and issues. Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon voiced his frustration that government climate initiatives were lagging, supermodels Elle McPherson and Adriana Lima launched new Awards for Sustainability, the WTTC released various economic reports, and multiple newsworthy deals and announcements were made. Corporate tourism is a massive industry so I won’t bore you with the details, but it was hard to ignore the rather large elephant in the room. An elephant called Saudi Arabia.
“I want women in Canada to know that our lives here are not what they think our lives are,” explained Alhanouf Aldrees, a cultural manager at Riyadh’s spectacularly restored Diriyah UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’d made a point to engage with as many Saudis as I could, asking thorny questions so I could hear their side of the story. What they shared left me in little doubt that the country is experiencing neck-bracing social change, reminding me of how quickly everything transformed when I lived through the fall of Apartheid. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (popularly known as MBS) is smashing traditions with an iron fist, breaking both glass ceilings - and political opponents - in his goal to modernize and restore his kingdom after decades of conservative religious isolation. Supported by Ivy League-educated staff and enjoying widespread domestic support from a youthful population, MBS wants to spearhead a new global economic landscape.
You’ve likely heard about the plight of Saudi women, the persecution and murder of Saudi opposition (including a prominent US-based Saudi journalist in grisly fashion), the brutal proxy war in Yemen, mass beheadings of local activists, and the infamous 2017 Royal purge that took place in the same Ritz Carlton hosting the WTTC event. You probably have not heard about the legal reforms assuring Saudi women of their independent right to drive, work, remove their abaya, marry, divorce and travel. We don’t hear how hardline religious authorities have been stripped of their influence and power, or that MBS has denounced the hardcore Wahhabism that Saudi Arabia has traditionally used to promote Islamic extremism. We certainly don’t hear much about Saudi Arabia’s striking skyscrapers and sprawling neon malls, busy late-night highway traffic and massive shopping palaces. The news doesn’t cover MDL Beast Soundstorm, an annual desert concert that attracts more than two hundred thousand people from around the globe (this year headlined by Bruno Mars, Post Malone and a dozen electronica superstars). Did you know that this year’s Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah screened LGBTQ+ movies, celebrated women in cinema, hosted a conversation with Spike Lee, promoted movies that challenged Islamic practices, and claimed zero censorship? Cinemas were unbanned just five years ago, and yes, homosexuality is still illegal.
I’m struggling with the contradictions too, but before you fire up your outrage, consider speaking to the people who live here. Tourism has always transcended politics and media.
“If Saudi Arabia reaches out,” WTTC CEO Julia Simpson tells me, “our job in tourism is to reach back.” This is why WTTC members are investing around US$10.5 billion into the country, opening major hotels, resorts, air routes, cruise terminals and dozens of commercial developments. Princess Haifa Al Saud, the kingdom’s impressive Vice Minister of Tourism, says that one hundred thousand Saudis are being trained in hospitality to work in fully sustainable resorts. It is Dubai all over again, employing the latest technology, and doubling down on ambition.
The four giga-projects are too mind-boggling to get into too much detail. A 170 km-long, 500m-high, 200m-wide mirrored skyscraper city for nine million people? Watch the promo video for The Line and I dare you not to gasp. There are massive tourism developments on the Red Sea, in Riyadh, and in the rocky desert of AlUla. Neom’s Ewok-fashioned ski resort, Trojena, looks like something out of a science fiction movie, and all of it boasts “next generation AI” so as to be “fully sustainable” with “cutting-edge design” from “the world’s leading architects.” If you build it, they will come, and the Saudis are building big, spending an estimated US$1 trillion to build a global tourism economy, and increase its non-oil GDP from 16% to 50% within a decade.
The world’s largest desalination plants water the desert, and the world’s largest airport (under construction) hopes to welcome 100 million visitors by 2030 - all paid for by the world’s second-largest oil reserves. And here lies the elephant in the room. Pumping millions of barrels of oil to pay for sustainable mega-projects, admirable as they may be, does little to mitigate global climate change. Climate scientists are imploring nations to keep the carbon in the ground, including Canada, which has the world’s third largest oil reserves. I cannot help but wonder if Saudi Arabia’s jaw-dropping showcase developments – built by migrant workers in the scorching desert heat – might end up serving the mega-rich as escape pods for climate disaster. At Riyadh’s wild exhibition for The Line, I ask a proud guide who will clean the dishes, or pick up the garbage. “There will be no blue-collar workers here,” he replies. What about crime? “There will be no crime in The Line.” Next generation AI and robots will take care of all of it. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before. The line between utopia and dystopia feels very thin indeed.
“Travel is all about faces, not places,” says my cheerful Riyadh guide Ali, and he’s right. Plenty of mega-developments across the Middle East look to redefine the region in a post-oil future, but it’s the Saudis themselves who offer something truly unique. Their warm hospitality is genuine and delightful. I experience “welcome welcome!” everywhere, accompanied by smiles, handshakes, curious questions, and gratitude for visiting. I relish the fragrant, blonde Saudi coffee served with sweet dates at every entrance, enjoying the smell of exotic spice in the desert breeze. Locals insisted on buying me a $20 mocktail at a Jareed Hotel bar, although bar is the wrong word. Alcohol remains strictly illegal in the kingdom, a major hurdle if the kingdom hopes to attract legions of international holidaymakers. One step at a time.
I end up speaking to almost a dozen local women in Riyadh and the coastal city of Jeddah, admittedly a small sample size, but I have drawn conclusions from fewer interactions before. These women were highly educated (tertiary education is free) and well-travelled, staking out prominent positions in politics, culture and business, stepping into the light with their new-found legal independence. A minority of Saudi ‘liberals’ are dispensing with religious traditions altogether, adopting modest western clothing, although still adhering to rules like separate recreational areas. Most continue to embrace Islamic traditions and culture with great pride and surprising flexibility within the Koran’s interpretative framework. One asks me: “Why do women in Canada feel they can speak for my rights? Why do they think I’m oppressed? Do they know my life?” Even with the best intentions, we can’t claim to always know what is in someone else’s best interest, especially if we don’t engage and listen to them first.
As for the WTTC Global Summit, any event that brings together such a diverse group of people, cultures, companies and ideas can only be a good thing. Tourism breaks down stereotypes, facilitates dialogue, promotes engagement, and builds on generous hospitality. Next year the WTTC Global Summit is in Rwanda, another country with a problematic past, and tremendous tourism potential. If the world reaches out, we should always reach back.
Our robot overlords are coming, and they’ve got some travel tips. We recently saw the launch of ChatGPT, the most advanced AI chatbot engine yet, capable of churning out articles and stories in seconds, and freely available to test drive. “Looks like you’ll soon be out of a job,” texted a friend. If that’s the case, I thought it would be fun to let ChatGPT write a blog post. As you can see below, it does a perfectly acceptable, albeit mind-numbingly dull job, the kind of stuff you’d find on crappy SEO-web traps that feel like they’ve been created by robots anyway. Bear in mind, these stories were generated in mere seconds.
There are many things that could be on a Canadian bucket list, as Canada is a vast and diverse country with a lot to offer. Some possible items that could be on a Canadian bucket list include:
Canada offers many unique travel experiences, due to its vast and diverse landscapes, rich culture, and abundant natural beauty. Some of the most unique travel experiences in Canada could include:
That’s a decent variety GPT, but travel writers like myself write stories, so let’s try one of those:
Once upon a time, a couple decided to take a trip to Canada to explore the beautiful landscapes and rich culture of the country. They packed their bags and set off on an adventure that they would never forget.
As they flew over the vast expanse of the Canadian wilderness, they were awestruck by the stunning views of snow-capped mountains, deep forests, and crystal clear lakes. They landed in Toronto, a bustling city known for its vibrant arts and culture scene. They spent their first few days in Toronto exploring the city’s many attractions. They visited the CN Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world, and enjoyed breathtaking views of the city from the observation deck. They also visited the Royal Ontario Museum, where they marveled at the vast collection of artifacts and exhibits.
After a few days in Toronto, they decided to rent a car and drive west to the beautiful province of Alberta. As they drove through the countryside, they were mesmerized by the stunning views of the Rocky Mountains and the vast expanses of untouched wilderness.
In Alberta, they spent their days hiking in the mountains, marveling at the breathtaking beauty of the landscape. They also visited Banff National Park, where they saw stunning glaciers, waterfalls, and wildlife.
After a week in Alberta, they continued their journey east to the province of Quebec. In Quebec, they were enchanted by the charming French-Canadian culture and the beautiful architecture of the old city of Quebec. They spent their days wandering the cobbled streets and enjoying delicious French cuisine. Their trip to Canada was an unforgettable adventure that they would always cherish. They returned home with a newfound appreciation for the beauty and diversity of the country, and a desire to explore more of its wonders in the future.
Once a upon a… zzzzz. Only a robot that never sleeps would drive from Toronto to Alberta and then head to Quebec City. Check your itinerary ChatGPT! Where’s the colour, where’s the personality, where’s the real-life funny stuff? So I asked ChatGPT to have another go.
There was once a group of friends who decided to embark on a journey to complete their Canadian bucket list. The first item on their list was to visit Niagara Falls and take a boat tour through the spectacular Niagara Gorge.
As they arrived at the falls, they were greeted by a gruff and weather-beaten tour guide who seemed to have seen it all. “Welcome to the Mighty Niagara Falls!” he boomed. “Are you ready to experience the thrill of a lifetime?”
The friends nodded eagerly, eager to get started on their adventure. The tour guide led them to a small boat that was moored at the edge of the falls. As they climbed aboard, the tour guide gave them each a yellow raincoat and a safety briefing.
“Now listen up!” he yelled over the roar of the falls. “If you fall out of the boat, don’t panic! Just grab hold of one of the life rings and we’ll fish you out!”
The friends exchanged nervous glances as they donned their raincoats and prepared for the ride of their lives. The tour guide revved up the engine and the boat set off into the heart of the Niagara Gorge. As they made their way through the swirling mists and roaring waters, the friends were awestruck by the beauty of the falls. They cheered and shouted with excitement as they passed under the powerful Horseshoe Falls, getting drenched by the mist and spray.
But just as they were beginning to relax and enjoy the ride, disaster struck. A sudden gust of wind caught hold of one of the life rings, sending it flying out of the boat and into the raging waters below. Without hesitation, the tour guide leapt into action. “Man overboard!” he yelled, diving into the water after the life ring. The friends watched in amazement as the tour guide fought against the powerful current, finally emerging triumphantly with the life ring in hand. “And that, my friends,” he said with a grin, “is how you survive a tour of the Niagara Falls!”
The friends laughed and cheered as the tour guide helped them back aboard the boat, grateful for their brush with disaster and the unforgettable experience of a lifetime.
Holy maple syrup, that’s a lot more exciting than my visit to Niagara Falls! Never mind the rapids, readers of that story must be careful to avoid drowning in thick and deadly cliches.
This has been an entertaining exercise to reassure myself that real writers add authentic, creative flair to their stories, the kind of unpredictable twists that AI bots – no matter how sophisticated – will always struggle with. We will either become more valued as a result, or future advances in the technology will be able to mimic our voices to make us redundant.
As a travel writer, I have had the opportunity to visit many amazing destinations around the world. But there is one country that always manages to surprise and delight me, no matter how many times I visit: Canada.
From the breathtaking natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the Bay of Fundy, to the vibrant culture and history of its cities, Canada has something for everyone.
One of my favourite things about Canada is its diverse landscape, which ranges from icy tundra in the north to lush rainforests in the west. This diversity is reflected in the wide variety of outdoor activities that are available, from skiing and snowboarding in the winter to hiking and fishing in the summer.
But Canada is more than just a paradise for nature lovers. It is also home to some of the most vibrant and exciting cities in the world, such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. These cities offer a wide range of cultural attractions, from world-class museums and galleries to lively music and arts scenes.
But what really sets Canada apart from other destinations is the warmth and hospitality of its people. Canadians are known for their friendly and welcoming attitude, and they are always happy to share their country’s rich history and culture with visitors.
Whether you are looking for adventure or relaxation, Canada has something to offer. So pack your bags and head north to experience all that this amazing country has to offer.
With that generically vanilla, paint-drying editorial effort, I think my job is safe. For now.
A World Cup in Saudi Arabia
I’m not a particularly big fan of soccer, but I love the FIFA World Cup. Every four years, countries clash on the football pitch in a proxy war for cultural supremacy, creating a spectacle that delivers controversy, thrills, and the illusion that the world can truly come together every once in a while, even if only to focus on a beautiful game. When would the nations of Denmark and Tunisia join together over anything, much less Mexico and Poland, Switzerland and Cameroon, Uruguay and Korea, Portugal and Ghana? That was only in the first round.
Imagine if Ukraine could play Russia on the pitch, or Israel kick-off against Iran? The matches themselves run back and forth on the spectrum of boredom and excitement. This year Canada made the finals for the first time since 1986, announcing itself as a true soccer nation (alongside other underrated teams like Australia and the USA). It was a close opener, losing to the world’s #2 ranked Belgium. Our second match was against Croatia, and I tuned in from 35,000feet on a Lufthansa flight that screened the game live. Technology, eh? When Alfonso Davies scored Canada’s first ever World Cup goal in the opening minutes, I screamed "YES!" scaring the crap out of my fellow Airbus 330 passengers, the vast majority of whom had little interest in this particular game. We were, after all, en-route to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
It's not a country I ever thought I’d visit, but I received an invite to the prestigious WTTC Global Tourism Summit, and an opportunity to explore some of Riyadh and Jeddah in the process. Yes, I’m fully aware of the problematic international reputation of Saudi Arabia, just as I’m fully aware that what we hear in the media can differ starkly from reality on the ground. Among critical news coverage are whispers of a great cultural reformation, a dialling back of religious extremism, and a massive investment in mega-projects to attract international tourism. I’ve written more about that in an article I hope someone will publish, which gets into the contradictions and controversies. Here, I thought I’d focus on moments and vignettes without getting too much into the weeds. I expect some readers will take offence regardless.
As a Jewish journalist, I was a little nervous heading to the highly-controlled kingdom, of course, but I had been provided with a new online tourist visa, and an invitation. I was greeted with the first of many small cups of Saudi coffee, a blonde elixir spiced with cardamom, saffron, ginger, and others spices, and always served with sweet dates. Saudi Arabia is trying to get its coffee tradition recognized by UNESCO as a unique cultural heritage, a similar designation as baguettes to France or Balsamic vinegar to Italy. My first impression leaving the airport was similar to my first impression visiting Dubai. Endlessly straight, flat roads lined with neon malls, minarets, unusual skyscrapers, and heavy traffic. I see a large neon sign advertising the Human Rights Commission, as if proudly defying international criticism. There’s Starbucks, H&M, Dunkin' Donuts, major hotel chains, gas stations (about 80c a litre, in case you’re wondering). We pass the world’s largest female-only university, villas and palaces, glitzy car dealerships. My hotel room at the Jareed Hotel was huge and modern, surrounded by upscale restaurants, and overlooking two giant screens showing the World Cup. A bottle of wine with fruit sat at the foot of the bed, only the wine bottle held Italian sparkling water. There would be no wine, beer or spirits this week, and it would take some getting used to. Although I’m told there is a black market, alcohol is illegal across the kingdom, and so it will be a rare, dry week of hot, exotic travel.
I grab an excellent burger from a nearby food truck, and sit with the locals as Spain draws with Germany. Mostly men, but women too, some of whom wear the full abaya, others just a headscarf, and a few with no head covering at all. Under the leadership of the millennial Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salmon (simply called MBS), the regime is stepping away from the hardcore extremist Islam that denied women rights, and locked up the kingdom to western visitors. They don’t call it modernization, they call it restoration, and while culture still dictates very conservative values, the kingdom has passed laws to allow freedoms unthinkable a decade ago, and religious authorities have had their wings clipped. In the hotel, I bump into a young Canadian kid here for Middle Beast, a massive desert rave that will attract some 200,000 people, with acts including Carl Cox, Swedish House Mafia, Nervo, Eric Prydz, DJ Khaled, and other electronica superstars. Sounds too good to be sober. “Oh, there will be drugs and alcohol,” he tells me confidently. “Possession is okay, you just don’t want to be caught selling it.” Not for the first time, I catch myself saying: are we in Saudi Arabia?
The Chair of the Royal Geographical Society’s Younger Member Committee and I wander up to the Hollywood actor Ed Norton, who is at the travel conference to speak truth to sustainability bullshit. We have a great conversation about my first impressions of the kingdom. He reassures me that it's very different to what most people see and hear in the news. We trade details, which is when I discover that Ed Norton is actually an affable British venture capitalist named Justin Cooke. The real Ed Norton is on stage tomorrow, and turns out he’s a travel ambassador for Kenya, who knew? Just about everyone I speak to at the luxe World Travel and Tourism Council Global Summit is interesting and worth the words. This includes Carnival Cruises CEO Arnold Donald (a name that just rolls off the tongue) and Mexico’s former Minister of Tourism and now Special Tourism Advisor to Saudi Arabia Gloria Guevara. I ask her if she’s supporting Mexico or Saudi Arabia in the World Cup, and like an experienced politician, she doesn’t provide a definitive art.
Walking the palatial and fragrant hallways of the Ritz-Carlton Convention Centre among traditionally robed Arabs, Asians, Africans and Europeans leaves me feeling optimistic. It’s a true melting pot of culture, gathered to tackle major issues in the realm of hospitality. I expect it must feel the same at COP Climate Conferences, or the United Nations, except with 250 CEOS and 52 Ministers of Tourism in attendance, something concrete might actually get accomplished here. Canada is notably not in attendance, likely because of an on-going diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia. This intersection of tourism, politics and commerce can be controversial. Although I expect I’ll be heavily criticized for visiting the kingdom, I’m here with an open mind, and an open heart, full of questions which I’m not afraid to ask. Over the course of the week, I have a dozen terrific conversations with Saudi men and women, all of whom speak of a country transforming itself at rapid speed, eager to modernize, and ready to welcome the world.
We fly to Jeddah, the Saudia Airlines in-flight entertainment interrupted when we fly over Mecca for a special prayer. There are R-rated movies in the system, in case you were wondering. Jeddah is hot and humid, and the traffic is bonkers, especially at night when Saudi Arabia comes alive. Our business hotel is opposite the Red Sea, with a wide lane for bike and walking traffic, and concessions on the beach. Most women are fully covered up in their abayas, some not.
I had picked up a SIM card at the airport, and unlike China, all foreign media is available, including articles highly critical of the regime. Reading about beheadings, death squads and brutal royal purges makes for disturbing reading. MBS sounds like an ambitious guy you simply do not want to cross. He also sounds like an autocrat who will do whatever it takes to realize his goal of reaching 50% GDP from non-oil revenues by 2030. He’s also a millennial, so I wonder what show he’s currently binging on Netflix. You can go down Saudi Arabia's Vision2030 rabbithole here. The giga-projects are mind-blowing.
Huge public art exhibits line the highways, and the glitz of the Jeddah Ritz Carlton is staggering. The Royal guest house looks bigger than Buckingham Palace. We dine in fantastic restaurants, visit a floating mosque, and then skip a museum to watch Canada play Morocco on an outdoor big screen, with a pro-Morocco crowd gathering on hundreds of bean bags. The crescent moon is out, the sea breeze is warm, the mosque is lit up behind us…it’s one of those unexpected choice travel moments. Along with fellow Canadian journalists we cheer for our team, but it doesn’t help. Canada loses all three group stage matches, and crashes out of the World Cup with its beaver tail between its legs. Locals are friendly though, somewhat bewildered by the fact that a group of Canadian tourists are here in the first place. At least tonight, because we’re alongside a Formula One race track, and Jeddah already receives millions of tourists a year on their way to make the Hajj and Umrah in Mecca, located about an hour’s drive away. That’s still off limits to non-Muslims, at least for now.
For all the construction and moonshot tourism developments (check out this wild vision for The Line), my week’s highlights are the old towns of Jeddah and Riyadh, which feel more authentic with their wooden windows, mud-houses, souks, galleries and mosques. I learn about Saudi clothing, their customs, coffee ceremony, their homes and lavish feasts. Gradually, my overall discomfort with the regime gives way to the truth of all travel, which rears up whether you’re visiting a highly-controlled regime or permissive democracy: cultures are different, and not every culture wishes to emulate our own. Where we see oppression, they see tradition; where we see a gin and tonic, they see decadence. Neither has the right to judge and convict, but we all have the right to engage, listen, and learn. In sha’Allah, we can all come together – men, women and children - over coffee and glazed dates, with mutual respect and understanding of our differences.
In sha’Allah, may tourism continue to drive positive change on the planet we all call home.
Now, let’s get back to the football.
Bucket List Gift Guide 2022
Welcome to my annual Bucket List Gift Guide, in which I recommend an eclectic range of products that have made a positive impact on my travels, my mind, my meals and my life. Some of them are very simple, most of them are inexpensive, and some of them could even save your life. In no particular order, let’s light it up:
The 5-Second Fire Starter
You only have to battle once to start a campfire in the rain to appreciate a better mousetrap. Here’s a very simple, yet very effective fire starter. Put wood over it, pull the string, and voila, you have a fire. You don’t need matches, you don’t need kindling, you don’t need your crazy brother in-law squirting lighter fluid. Pull Start Fire is rainproof, windproof, safe to cook over, and burns for about 30 minutes. The wood should be well on its way by then, if not, building a fire is definitely not for you.
$20 for a 3 pack, available here or in Canada at Canadian Tire.
Belt it Out
I enjoy telling airport security that my elastic, clip-belt contains no metal whatsoever, so just let me play my part in this charade and get on with it already! I also enjoy wearing a belt that fits perfectly every time (although is easily adjustable after losing weight in Asia or putting it on after a cruise). And I’ve saved like, hours of my life with the quick clip as opposed to fumbling with the belt hole, loop and tuck manoeuvre. The Arcade belt looks good in my jeans, hiking and ski pants, is super light, and can be thrown in the wash with the pants.
From $37.95 at https://arcadebelts.ca/
One Charger to Rule them All
There are many different types of chargers, and ports are increasingly hard to come by on the latest laptops (I still use a 2013 Macbook Pro because I’m terrified of losing things like SD Cards, USB ports, and a device that hasn’t failed me yet. Please touch wood on my behalf). Along comes the EZ Quest, which is jammed with all the ports you need to charge your phone, tablet, earphones, camera, e-reader, massage gun and whatever else the modern traveller feels compelled to travel with. It’s got over-current, over-voltage, over-temperature, and short-circuit protection, and charges devices three times quicker than standard wall chargers. It will also charge your laptop, although regrettably not my own, because I’m still using an old school Mac charger that is literally held together with duct tape.
Various prices depending on the charger configuration. Available on Amazon
A Solid Pair of Winter Boots
Here comes the rain, snow and slush, and here is a fine Canadian-made boot to meet it. Kodiak has been making serious work and lifestyle boots since 1910. The Magog Waterproof Boot is sturdy, stylish, warm and padded with a memory-foam in-sole, comfortable to wear all day. It also doubles as my 'fancy' shoes for live presentations, because travel writers need to be uniquely equipped to go from keynote stage to muddy forest in a moment's notice. When Americans hear Canadians saying 'aboot' all the time, this is what they're talking about.
From $190 in Fossil, Brown or Black. Available Online
Hotel-Feeling Linen at Home
My bed has a 3-inch memory foam topper that should get its own item on this list, primarily because it single-handedly solved my lower back pain every morning. Even with extra-large fitted sheets, my erratic sleeping habits (I sleep with the peace and stillness of an exploding volcano) constantly bunched the bedsheet, pulling them off the corners, forcing constant tugging and pulling to get that clean, smooth-sheet feel you find in a great hotel bed. Then I discovered the BedBand, which is so simple and so brilliant someone had to think of it. Easy to apply when you change your linen, the bands grip the corners snugly, holds the sheet in place. Now every night is a great hotel bed night.
From $20 in various colours (not that anyone will ever see them). I use the BenBandXL which is 50% longer and perfect for a king-size Bed. Available on Amazon
As much as I love life and want it to flourish, mosquitoes should just die die die. At the very least, stay out of my home during summer, and stop eating my kid. The same kid, I should add, who busted up our sliding screen door by walking and running into it repeatedly. Introducing another product that will have you saying: “where have you been all my life?” TheFitLife Fibreglass Magnetic Screen Door is a heavy duty mesh curtain with magnets that snap shut automatically. Essentially, it’s a screen door kids and pets can run through over and over again without it breaking, and without the bugs getting inside. It is easy to put up with no tools needed (although do your measurements) and while it might need an occasional poke for the magnets to click, it’s infinitely better than bug bites and kids slamming into doors on their way to the garden.
From $29. Available on Amazon
Drink from the River
“Back in the old days son, we’d go on long hikes in big forests, and if we ran out of water, we’d fill up our bottles in the streams or rivers, but we’d have to use these disgusting iodine tablets to kill the bacteria and microbes that might make us sick.”
“Wow Dad, you mean you couldn’t just take a straw and drink directly from the river or lake?”“No son, that only came about much later with the LifeStraw Personal Water Filter, which could filter parasites, bacteria and micro-plastics from up to 4000 litres of contaminated water with no iodine, chlorine, or moving parts. It was super light and easy to carry and the water tasted great too. For hikers or anyone needing fresh drinking water, we called that ‘A Gamechanger.’”
From $30 Available on Amazon
For the Person Who Has Everything: The Ember Smart Mug
You make yourself the perfect cup of coffee and you’re ready to start your day. Then you get a flurry of emails, and by the time you take your first sip, your perfect cup is bitter and cold. How about a mug that keeps your drink at the perfect temperature, as programmed by an app on your phone? The mug keeps your drink toasty for up to 80 minutes in the cup or all day in the special charger coaster. The mug is so smart it turns itself off if you forget about it to save battery life, and it has an LED light to let you know when your beverage is ready to go. Always hand wash, and I suggest going with the black to avoid coffee stains on this expensive, but rather clever coffee mug.
From $179. Available on Amazon
The Stealth Reading Lamp
Believe me when I say I tried a half-dozen reading lamps before finding the one that worked. I need to read before I go to sleep. It’s my melatonin. My wife needs darkness, and she’s not into eye-masks. I toyed with various lamps clipped on and off the book, but it’s not the light or brightness that bothers her, it’s the colour of the light itself. This small, flexible, USB-charged light clip has three brightness settings and a handy 90-degree swivel, while a compact frame and zero cables make it a perfect travel companion. Still, it’s the orange Sleep Aid Light option that is the real winner, washing a small light footprint in a warm, non-obtrusive glow that helps me read as long as I want, and my wife to finally get a good night’s sleep. At least, until I start snoring.
From $14. Available on Amazon
This Year’s Condiment: Trader Joe’s Crunchy Chili Onion
I’m doing a Trader Joe’s run across the border because for some inexplicable reason, we don’t have Trader Joe’s in Canada and this is simply devastating for those of us into top quality condiments. I’m buying one of everything: their excellent Peri-Peri Sauce, the Incredisauce, the Magnifisauce, the creamy Jalapeno Sauce, the Truffle Hot Sauce. Then I see a fellow Canadian condiment load up her cart with two dozen 6-ounce jars of Crunchy Chili Onion. All natural ingredients: olive oil, dried onion, dried garlic, salt, paprika, crushed chili and red pepper. “I take it that one’s a winner?” I ask.
“Oh, you’ll see, “ she replies.
I buy three of the small jars, and now I regret not filling up my cart too. Well played Trader Joes. Well played…yet again.
Currently trading at $4.29. Available at Trader Joes.
How to Hike the Lions
The mountains overlooking Vancouver have several rockstars. There are the three ski resorts, the gondolas of Grouse, and the choppy crest of Crown. Perhaps the most distinctive peaks are The Lions, named in the 1880s because they resemble two sleeping lions (and because nobody back then deferred to Indigenous names). The East and West Lion peaks (reaching 5269ft and 5400ft respectively) inspired the BC Lions football team, Lions Gate Bridge, Lions Gate Hospital, and Lions Gate Entertainment. They also inspire ambitious hikers to brave a knee-punishing ascent with a memorable day-hike or overnight trek, complete with a challenging summit free climb. I am not an ambitious hiker, but conquering the Lions has been on my bucket list for years. This year, all my excuses finally ran out.
Before we get to the hike, it’s important to recognize that these are not Lions at all, they’re actually twin sisters. According to the Squamish people, the Twin Sisters are markers of peace between the Squamish and Haida, formed by the Creator to honour a treaty, or as a result of twin Squamish sisters captured by a Haida raiding party. Dismissing Indigenous legends and name places to honour colonial heroes and symbols has fortunately run its course, so this blog post would like to acknowledge that it takes place on the unceeded territory of the Squamish people, and is grateful for the opportunity to visit the hallowed peaks that mean so much more than a great view and a hiking adventure. I’ll call them Lions moving forward, but continue to pay my respects to the Twin Sisters and their cultural legacy.
There are two ways to hike the Lions. Park at Cypress Mountain Ski Resort and hike up and across the mountains, or park in Lions Bay and hike up… and up…and up. The Cypress route adds a few kilometres and requires some parking and driving coordination, especially if you’re descending on a one-way route through Lions Bay. The Lions Bay route requires a lucky parking spot in the few public spots available at the trail head, or get ready to add some asphalt road ascent to your journey. Be on the lookout for unimpressed NIMBY Lions Head neighbours who don’t appreciate hikers visiting their secluded mountain community. At least they didn’t seem to appreciate me, perhaps because I had arranged a parking pass and my Kia brought down property values for a day. Signs at the trail head to West Lion make no mistake what’s in store: Difficulty: Strenuous. Only be attempted by properly equipped and experienced hikers. The sign states it is 15km round-trip to the summit, with a hefty 1525m elevation gain. It suggests you budget an ambitious 7 to 8 hours. There are also bears in the area, along with cougars, bobcats, coyotes, lynx and even snakes (although the local snakes are harmless). As I started up the trail, encountering any wildlife would instantly become the least of my concern.
Up we go. And up. And up. And up further still. Ah, what’s this? A flat section! Through fairy beds of green moss and lush tree tunnels, beautiful, I needed that welcome breather, and…. nope, it’s up again. And up, up, and up further still. Poles are essential, as are frequent water breaks (I slugged through 2.5 litres of water on my hike, and I don’t drink that much). Loose rocks are waiting to roll your ankle, and slippery roots waiting to trip you up. We cross a bridge over a fetching cascade, which invites a cool dip in the rock pools, but there’s no time to dally. It’s an unseasonal warm and dry October, which means a lovely cool temperature and few bugs, but also shorter days. We were on the trail by 7:45am. The parking lot, incidentally, was already full.
The West Lions is a popular hike, and everyone I passed seemed in better physical and mental shape to do it. A group of bro’s (shirtless, tanned, bleached hair, ripped, backward baseball caps) were already on their descent. These are BC’s hiking equivalent to California’s surfing dudes. I encounter groups and couples, and a quick-footed solo teenage boy with parents that should be proud and worried. Up and up, over and up, until almost 4 hours in, we crest at a viewpoint and finally see the mighty Lions up close. Solid rock (hornblende diorite for you geologists), the two peaks are more imposing and intimidating when you stand beneath them, casting a shadow into the valley below. As we continue our ascent, the rocks become bigger and more challenging, remnants of several millennia of rockslides. Tears are flowing from my knees, and I’m cursing the weight of snacks I thought I’d need in my daypack. Finally, we reach a large outcrop where most sane people stop to enjoy the incredible 360-view of the Lions, the Howe Sound, and on a clear day, Vancouver far below. Most sane people will reach this point, say they’ve hiked the West Lion, and call it a day. The rest of us might continue on the 29-kilometre Howe Sound Crest Trail from Cypress Mountain to Porteau Cove, or decide it’s worth the risky free-climb up the rock to the West Lion summit. Cramping legs, blistered ankles, heavy breathing, no fitness whatsoever…of course I’m going for the top.
Other than one handy rope to assist with a 5 metre drop at the start, there are no chain ladders or ropes. I had to navigate up and over sheer rock face, balancing on narrow ledges while desperately searching for rock holds, doing my best not to think about the 30m – 50m plummet below. Some hikers brought helmets and climbing shoes. I had a flask of rum. Remember: three points of contact! It’s been a while since a physical challenge intersected so concisely with my mental fear, and several times I paused to breathe, stay calm, and recollect myself in that special place we all visit sometimes. It doesn’t take very long to get to the summit, but after a challenging 5-hour ascent, it’s tough as hell. My thighs cramped up just in time to collapse in a heap by the West Lion’s rock cairn, the only sign that you are indeed, as high as you can go. Oh, and the sweeping, spectacular view that surrounds you. It’s almost enough to make me forget that I now have to scale down the dangerous rock, and then hike down a trail so steep it could snap a shock absorber.
A few Band-aids, a swig of rum, some yummy sandwiches, painkillers, candy and nuts, and we’re on our way down. It’s always much quicker hiking down than up, but it’s also hell on your knees and tricky for your ankles. Yet with fine company, fine weather, and the intangible joy that accompanies any sense of accomplishment, we slowly made our way down to Lions Bay. You do not want to descend this trail in the dark, but we timed it perfectly, arriving at the parking lot at 5:45pm. With plenty of breaks and time to enjoy the views (and factoring the state of my fitness), it was a very long, 10-hour hike, and the second most challenging hike of my life (here’s looking at you West Coast Trail).
It took a few days for me to stop walking like a stepped-on spider, and yes, it definitely would have helped to have prepared with more than just a few games of pickleball. There’s plenty of reviews of the West Lion hike on various hiking sites, and yes, I can confirm the last scramble is as challenging as everyone says it is. Unless you’re that ten-year old girl who passed us on the way down, carrying her stuffy Snow Leopard.
As I lay in bed that night groaning with stiffness, my wife asked me why on earth anybody would ever want to do this to themselves? My reply was simple: “Every time I see those Lions, I can think ‘I’ve been to the top of that!’ It’s a personal accomplishment that just keeps on giving.”
Special thanks to Jon, Revelie, Mike and Stephanie.
Slovenia - Under the Radar
Canadians know that any country sitting in the shadow of a more popular neighbour is often overlooked. Spare a thought for Slovenia, that small nation in Central Europe within sight – quite literally – of Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. While international visitors to Europe might beeline to nearby Venice or Milan, Salzburg, Budapest or even Zagreb, many would be hard pressed to locate Ljubljana on the map, much less be able to pronounce it. Slovenia lacks the attention of its more famous neighbours, but discovering its historical capital, frosted peaks, glimmering lakes and lush countryside, it’s clear this modest nation can compete with all of them.
With its central location and abundant natural beauty, Slovenia was considered a prize territory for the conquering armies of Rome, Austria-Hungary, Croatia, Germany, Serbia, Italy, and finally, the Communists who incorporated it into Yugoslavia. Claiming its independence with an impressive lack of political turmoil in 1991, Slovenia officially joined the European Union in 2004, adopting the euro but keeping its identity intact. The nation of two million people has quietly got on with the business of becoming one of the most prosperous, stable, and successful of all the post-Soviet states. It frequently ranks among Europe’s best economies, scores big in lifestyle indexes, and it really wants you to not confuse it with Slovakia, a different (and take it from me, less impressive) country altogether.
As I wander the streets and canals of old Ljubljana (say it with me: Yoo-bli-yana), I’m reminded of Copenhagen, Stockholm and Budapest. Yet Ljubljana feels cleaner and more civilized than those capitals, immaculately maintained with arty cafes, old world architecture, copper Church steeples, ample bike lanes and manicured parks. Locals roam about, stylishly dressed in that casual, modern European manner of looking fantastic without much effort. I take care not to trip on the city’s polished cobblestone for fear of cutting myself on those striking Slavic cheekbones. Students bike across the Games of Thrones-ish Dragon Bridge and distinctive Triple Bridge, the public art is impressive, and even the urban graffiti is tasteful. Overlooked by the 900-year-old Ljubljana Castle, the capital is a template for any great European capital, with half the tourists.
I expect to find more visitor’s at Slovenia’s premier tourist attraction, historic Lake Bled. Sitting at the foothills of the towering Julian Alps, you might have seen images of the lake on screensavers or Instagram or any platform hoping to illicit a ‘wow, where the hell is that?’ response. It had taken me less than an hour to drive the smooth highway from Ljubljana, and ‘WOW’ got cap-locked when Lake Bled came into view. Framed by mountains and thick forest, the placid, emerald-coloured water has a small island in the centre with a notable European landmark. The gothic Church of Mary the Queen was first consecrated in the twelfth century, and restored to its current state in the seventeenth century. “Europe,” as Eddie Izzard remarks, “where History comes from.” Long before the island became a site of Christian pilgrimage, it was a cult centre for Slavs to worship the Goddess of Love and Fertility. Fittingly, couples flock from around Europe for destination weddings in one of several grand lakeside hotels, the remains of former royal palaces. Tradition holds that grooms must carry their bride up ninety-nine steps to the chapel, and ring the famous bell three times for good luck. Judging by the strain I see on the flummoxed faces of several men, carrying anyone up ninety-nine steep steps and then ringing a heavy bell is more difficult than it appears. The rest of us will just fall in love with the warm, azure water, four-hundred-year-old rowboat transportation (called pletnas), lovely ambiance and a location so striking you’d think it had been airbrushed onto the cover of a romance novel.
Visitors to Slovenia often complain they should have allotted more time. More time to explore the notably affordable all-season mountain resorts. More time to hike, fish, bike, raft, and enjoy the country’s abundant outdoor splendor. More time to visit Lipica, the ‘cradle of the race’ of the unicorn-white Lipizzaner horse that have dazzled dressage events for centuries. More time for show caves, the world’s deepest underground canyon, the robber-thief Predjama Castle, or visits to old churches and abbeys. The country is compact and easy to get around, English is widely spoken, and the local cuisine draws heavily on the best traditions of its neighbours: outstanding beer influenced by Hungary; pizza, gelato and coffee by Italy; schnitzels and pastries by Austria.
Yes, we know all about living in the rain shadow of a more famous country that soaks up the world’s attention. This is why Canadians will particularly appreciate that quiet, overlooked and underrated Slovenia might just be the most enticing country in all of Europe – east, west, and otherwise.
EVolving the Roadtrip
I’m late to this particular highway, but I expect that many readers are. With sky-high gas prices and increasingly dire climate projections, I can’t help but look at electric vehicles with increasing curiosity. There’s little doubt EV’s are the future of automobiles, with everyone from Volkswagen to Volvo ditching gas to go all electric. Yet there’s as many misconceptions as there are die-hard acolytes, fanatics on both side of the fossil fuel divide. I figured there was only one way to get to the bottom of it: do some research, and get behind the wheel.
I’ve worked with Ford Motors over the years (they sponsored a couple of my speaking tours as well as my 22,000km drive around Australia to tick off The Great Australian Bucket List) so naturally I reached out to them first: would it be possible to take an EV for a spin? My 6 year-old son is also crazy about Mustangs, which he confused for whatever yellow muscle car Bumblebee happened to be during his short but intense Transformers phase.
This is how I came to fly into Montreal and hop behind the wheel of a 2022 Ford Mustang Mach-E: a 346 horsepower fully electric sports car that rockets from 0 to 100 km/hr in 3.7 seconds. There’s no space for 346 horses on the Mustang logo, just one, but plenty of space for myself, two kids, 3 carry-on suitcases, our day packs, and the various crap that stick to parents like Velcro on any family road trip. Barf bags for the 6-year-old included.
There’s bells, whistles, and then there’s the settings in a Mustang Mach-E. A huge 15.5 inch swipe screen sits in the middle, serving as an on-board super-computer to power all the sensors. I don’t know how the roof camera works to provide a birds-eye view when I reverse, or the rain-sensing wipers, or how they get the handle-less doors to Star Trek swish when they open. It’s a neat trick that the car parks itself, and it has a Co-Pilot system that allows the vehicle to drive itself on the highway (although another sensor pinged when I took my hands off the steering wheel for longer than a few seconds).
The feel and response of the accelerator made the biggest first impression. Instead of braking, I could just decelerate into a full stop, although later I discovered an option to drive with the brake like a typical car. By that stage, I’d become quite accustomed to just using one pedal, and the intense boost of speed at my disposal. It was difficult to stick within Quebec’s 90 - 100 km/hr speed limits, and I used the intelligent adaptive cruise-control feature to drive with my hands more than I usually would. No combustion engine means more cargo space, an unnervingly quiet ride (great for wildlife stops when we spotted deer) and all sorts of other car stuff you’re welcome to geek out with if that’s your jam. But let’s get to the misconceptions:
1. If you’re burning fossil fuels to create electricity, how can an EV be good for the planet?
True, if you’re in a country or region that predominately burns coal to generate electricity. In Canada this is not the case. Quebec generates 94% of its power through hydro sources. BC is at 87%. Manitoba 97%, Newfoundland and Labrador 96%. Ontario’s system is 94% emissions free. In these cases, you’re using clean energy to power your vehicle, which is very good for the planet. On the other hand, your EV vehicle uses steel, silicon, and all sorts of rare minerals needed to create today’s computers and sensors. There’s always a cost. But in terms of emissions and climate action, driving an EV in Canada is a sustainable bet, as opposed to Australia where the electrical grid is just 24% clean, India (14%) or China (43.5%). Encouragingly, renewable clean energy sources continue to make dramatic in-roads worldwide.
2. It’s OK for the city, but I can’t go on a big road trip in a remote region, I’m going to run out of juice!
This is exactly why I chose my first EV road trip to be in the Lanaudière region of Quebec, spending a week exploring less-trafficked country roads, small towns, parks and lakeside resorts. Even with our souped-up Mustang’s projected 445km range, I fully expected to be searching for chargers wherever we went. This proved to be the case, but more out of curiosity than necessity. Just about everywhere we stopped, there were chargers. Most hotels, attractions and resorts offered free Level 2 charging stations for guests, which charges about 30 km per hour, or fully charges in 6 to 14 hours if left overnight. There were even chargers in La Mauricie National Park at the most popular beaches and attractions.
Fast Level 3 chargers (which charge 100 km per 30 minutes, or fully charges the battery to 100% in 1 to 4 hours), were also available along the major routes. Quebec has over 7000 public chargers, more than any other province, with more are being added every day. The one time we actually needed power, it took just one hour over dinner to charge from 40% to 100%, and cost a whopping $20 on a sliding scale after we hit 80%. Given the savings, it was odd to find the Fast Charger at a Shell gas station.
Admittedly, there’s a slight mental adjustment watching the car battery drain like it does on your cell phone, as well as getting over the distrust of deteriorating cell phone battery life, largely due to the ridiculous “planned obsolescence” strategy of Apple, Google and Samsung that essentially update your phone until it bricks and you have to buy a new one. Given the cost, EV batteries are designed to last the life of the vehicle, which is about 10 years, but that’s how long most owners now keep their vehicles anyway. You can charge your batteries at any point, and while there are simple tips to increase your battery life, don’t let it stop you from a road trip.
I met an EV owner who drove from Ottawa to Vancouver in a Nissan Leaf with no problems whatsoever. We got chatting with a happy Hyundai Evoque 5 owner at the two free guest chargers outside the outstanding Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations in Quebec City. There’s a lot of interest and curiosity in EVs, and the Mustang sure turned a lot of heads. There were always chargers available, but I expect it will get interesting when there’s more EV’s on the road then there are chargers. If you’re pulling into a public lot and four chargers are being used for an indefinite charging period, it would be understandably frustrating and problematic. Charging would have to be limited to 80%, etiquette would have to give way to formal restrictions, and of course, there would have to be more superchargers to accommodate the demand. And all this will be happening as better battery technology makes charging faster and more efficient.
My conclusion: You can certainly go on an EV road trip now, and most definitely in the future. If you’re in Canada or anywhere running on hydro, wind, solar, tidal or nuclear energy, you’re not killing one forest to save another. The Quebec region of Lanaudière and La Mauricie between Montreal and Quebec City is simply gorgeous. The Mustang Mach-E had plenty space for the road tripping family, and is altogether one impressive steed. My son, who gets car sick playing with Hot Wheels, never complained once about needing to puke, confirming his approval for the smooth ride. My current car is not an electric vehicle. My next one will be.
Note: Thanks to Ford Canada for providing the Mustang Mach-E. The company did not review or approve of this story.
Read my Bucket Listed column in Can Geo Travel for more about what we discovered during our electric road trip adventure in Quebec.
Dining on the Road with Young Kids
A few years ago, my wife and I took our 4-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son on a 6-month adventure across Australia. We did this because I was writing two books about travel Down Under, and because we are insane.
Since our hard-earned experience might be of use to other parents, I thought I'd share some of the practical sections from my bestselling Australian book: 75 Must-See Places to Take the Kids (before they don't want to go). It might save your soul and sanity, and no matter how old your kids are, will likely make you laugh.
Food has always been a vital component of travel. Every meal is an opportunity to saviour new cuisines, sparking conversation and connection. It’s a special time to sit back, relax, and indulge. When you’re travelling with young children, forget all that.
The rule of thumb is that the more expensive the restaurant, the less likely your children will actually eat anything of nutritional value, and the more likely they will throw a full-tilt meltdown because their crayon isn’t the right shade of forest green.
The formula of your typical family travel meal:
Location: A small town restaurant with a fridge buzzing at an almost intolerable volume, but which the owners don’t seem to hear or mind. Air-conditioning a plus.
Enter: Family of four, two kids under five. After walking around looking for somewhere to eat for twenty minutes, if you even suggest finding somewhere else, your partner will call a divorce lawyer, or possibly, a hit man.
High Chair: Available in wood or plastic, with dried brown stains of mysterious culinary origin.
Kids Menu: All major food groups represented, including fried chicken nuggets, fried fish, hamburgers, frozen pizza, grilled cheese sandwiches, and most importantly, chips. Apple juice is from concentrate and somehow contains both sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
Cost: Exactly one-third more than you’d expect to pay, but the kids’ meal comes with milk or apple juice, and that sounds healthy.
Order: Nuggets for the one kid, grilled cheese sandwich for the other. Order placed immediately to get the kids fed as soon as possible.
The Wait: Interminable. What are they doing, processing the fake cheese, looking for a bird to slaughter? Whines increase in volume and frequency until breaking point.
Length of time used up for washing hands: Twenty minutes convincing your kid to do it, eight seconds when they actually do.
Length of time used up for colouring books: Four minutes and twelve seconds, including one full minute of your two year-old chewing on the crayon before you notice.
Length of time used up for reading books: Forty-five seconds.
Length of time used up with apps on phone or tablet: No, don’t do it yet, wait until it gets really bad, or you need your hands to eat.
The Food Pt 1: As your kids will gladly explain in high-pitched screams to everyone within the zoning district, they now want hamburgers and pizza, not chicken nuggets and grilled cheese sandwiches. No amount of cajoling convinces them otherwise, including threats of starvation, boarding school, or withholding stuffies at night - all of which amounts to more punishment for you than for them. Eventually you order the pizza and hamburger and realize that yet again, your partner and yourself will be dining on chicken nuggets and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Reaction of Restaurant and Other Customers: A coin toss between heaven-sent patience (they have kids or grandkids) and barely contained annoyance (they don’t).
The Food Pt 2: Ignored by both kids since by now they have raided the crackers and fruit you carry in the snack bag, and they are no longer hungry. On the plus side, they had a healthier lunch than the restaurant menu anyway, plus you can always bag their food for later, when it can be enjoyed cold and soggy, just the way no kid on Earth likes it.
The Screen: OK, use it, do it, just get a few minutes to shove that terrible food into your face so you don’t become over-hungry and lose whatever patience you still cling to.
The Bill: Never comes quick enough, always costs more, and always makes you question why restaurants don’t put carrots, crackers and apple on their menus because that’s all kids want to eat anyway – at least until they see that on a menu, in which case carrots, crackers and apples will become instantly toxic.
Length of Ordeal: 30 to 45 minutes, during which time you can count on at least one potty break, one diaper change, one smashed toy, and possibly, a broken marriage.
Remember: sit back, relax, and indulge in the cultural connections of new cuisines.
There, isn’t that better?
During our journey, we ambitiously took our kids to some wonderful restaurants, especially around Melbourne and Sydney’s Darling Harbour. It was our sincere hope we’d be able to expand our kids’ culinary horizons, allowing them to graduate to mild spices and unusual dishes. How proud I was when my daughter sampled crocodile, emu and kangaroo meats at the Adelaide Central Market (she drew her understandable limits at sampling citrus-nutty green ants from the Northern Territory).
“This is dill-lish-shiss!” or a hearty “Mmmmmmm!” were not uncommon words out of her mouth. We definitely had memorable meals, although we often deployed the screen to keep the kids occupied long enough for all of us to enjoy it. Between eating in and eating out, it’s important to treat yourselves every once in a while and budget a little extra for good food. At the end of the day, good food keeps you healthy, if the kids are behaving, meals can indeed be the highlight of the day.
Tip: We found food delivery services to be a family travel revelation, combining the ease of going out with the ease of staying in.
Wherever possible, we preferred preparing our own meals in our holiday park cabins, Air Bnb’s and rental apartments. Even though we had to shop, cook and clean up, dinners are just simpler at home. We can feed the kids meals they’d actually eat, keep ourselves conveniently close to bathtubs, toys, paper towels, toilets, and TV shows on ABC Kids. Always on the move, we travelled with a box of condiments and staples, pickings up fresh produce wherever we went (our kids are constantly snacking on fruit and vegetables, which are abundant and excellent in Australia). Breakfasts are particularly important, and given our schedule, were often rushed. Cereal, smashed avocado toast, Uncle Toby’s porridge, Milo, eggs… and out the door.
Lunches were usually eaten out, hence the overflow of nuggets, sandwiches and chips, with pies coming to the rescue on more than one occasion. Home cooking have given our kids a taste for asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and other vegetables I rejected as a child. Butter, lemon, salt and garlic pretty much saves the day with every veggie, along with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Our kids love butter chicken, schnitzel, warm bread to dip into olive oil, hummus, and absolutely anything to do with cheese. Don’t they all? We didn’t always have time to prepare elaborate meals, but did have some go-to dishes, and pasta or rotisserie chicken available always in a pinch. There’s much to be said for the quality of packaged meats, chicken and salads available from supermarkets these days. In our household, Dad does the cooking, Mom does the baking, and everyone cleans up. There were occasional BBQ’s but unless you’re travelling with your own, they’re often a pain to clean up.
If you need to make omelettes for dinner, do it. If you need to eat leftover chicken for breakfast, do it.
Do whatever you need to, because any food in the belly pays dividends when you avoid hangry meltdowns in an hour or two.
Bon voyage and bon appetit!
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.