Every July 1st, Canada Day rolls around a little quicker than the year before. The long days we’ve waited for all year have an ironic effect of making the season shorter, because winter is great and all, but summer is when the Canadian Bucket List BBQ really starts cooking. The national and provincial parks, the festivals, the lakes, the hiking, biking, canoeing, and other ings you can think of. I missed Canada Day last year as I was on a one-year adventure with my family. We travelled the far and wide of Australia for six months, doing as much as we could for my book, The Great Australian Bucket List. Then we lived for a while in Thailand, Bali and Vietnam (you can read all about that if you wish), popping into Singapore and New Zealand for good measure. I can assure you, you miss Canada when it’s gone.
For all the comments that Australia is Canada with better weather, I discovered this is not at all the case. Are there historical similarities? Most certainly. Both have colonial hangovers, the Australians even more so with the Union Jack still part of their national flag (it’s 2019, don’t you think it’s time to move on, mate?) Both treated their indigenous populations like fodder, and both have done too little and never enough to make that right. Both are surrounded by ocean (especially if you consider the United States an Ocean of Political Disappointment). Both have relatively small populations with relatively gigantic tracts of land. The Canadian Arctic is a pretty hostile environment, as is the Australian Red Centre. One country is famously hot, the other famously cold. One has a marsupials, the other has bears (the koala is certainly not a bear). Both love sport, and both sport endless natural beauty. We have many of the same chocolate bars and burger chains (Hungry Jacks is Burger King, in case you were wondering), the same dominating commercial multinationals, the same insecurity about larger, wealthier and more ambitious geopolitical neighbours (spare a thought for poor New Zealand). I could go on, and one day I probably will.
For now, let me paint why Canada is not Australia, using a broad brush of generalizations. Please don’t look at my strokes too carefully, as you’ll see paint is all over the place…it’s really more of an abstract piece. Because of course Vancouverites are not Newfoundlanders, and those who live in Perth are a different kettle of kangaroo from those who live in Alice Springs. Still, Canadians, by and large, are milder, cool as their weather. Australians are rarely accused of being over-polite, and an Australian will sooner bear hug you than apologize. Canadians are more reserved, and barring the extremes, tend to be a little more reasonable. I was once pulled over by a traffic officer in New Brunswick racing way over the speed limit to chip factory. Did you know one-third of all the commercial French fries used worldwide come from Canadian potatoes? Did you know that up to 90% of all the global mustard seed - the stuff used to create your favourite French Dijon - are Canadian? I pleaded with the cop, and he let me off. The people of New Brunswick are friendly to a fault. Driving north up the remote coast of Western Australia, I was doing the speed limit when a cop appeared out of nowhere and pulled me over. He told me I was ten kilometres over the speed limit because I was pulling a trailer. I told him I’m Canadian and had no idea that was a law, because nobody told me. There wasn’t another car in hours on the bullet straight Bruce Highway, and with kids in the back, I assured him I’d just set the cruise control to ten kilometres slower. He still gave me a hefty ticket. I just know, in my maple leaf bones, no Canadian traffic office would ever have done that. Australians are obsessed with rule of law. Cameras everywhere, enforcers ready to pounce. Both are secure societies with some of the least corruption anywhere in the world. But you feel the law in Australia, and they know it.
I am a South African who wrote a bestselling book about the joys of Canada, and a Canadian who wrote a bestselling book about the joys of Australia. I feel I have a grasp on both these cousin nations, at least as much as my experience allows. I think my parents back in Vancouver were worried that my wife and I would fall in love with Australia, and decide to settle there. Admittedly, we loved Hobart, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth (Melbourne and Sydney were way too busy and far too expensive to even consider). But we’re a faithful lot and have already given our hearts to the country that famously opens it doors to those, like us before them, who seek a better life. Canada is a country that isn’t walling itself off, instead choosing to embrace the global, multicultural spirit of our age. Canada is a country with problems (every country has problems) and a country that can and must do better (every country can and must do better). Canada recognizes the unequivocal right of same-sex couples to marry, that the war on drugs will never be won if you don’t take a different approach, and that no future can be attained without addressing the needs of the past through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Australia isn’t quite there yet, but that’s OK. Each sovereign nation is on its own unique journey. This July 1, I’m just really glad that my own journey is in a country that flies a red maple leaf. Also, and I needn’t remind you, the Raptors.
My cabin is as comfortable as any you’ll find on a train, the bed adorned with soft sheets and pillows, and still I cannot fall asleep. Too much on my mind, too much to process from a day exploring remote underground homes in the world’s opal mining capital, too much fun at the open bar aboard The Ghan. I typically read before bedtime as a way to put my mind to rest, but tonight my eyes are too tired to stay open, and my brain too wired to close. It would be great if someone could read me to sleep, with a safe and soothing voice. As for the story, it should be deliberately and delicately crafted to avoid anything too exciting, and take me on a peaceful journey to Sleepland. Just so happens that Phoebe Smith, soon to be the official sleep storyteller-in-residence for the Calm mindfulness app, is in the cabin right next to mine. I’m sure she’s sleeping like a baby.
With over 40 million downloads, 200,000 5-star reviews, and Best App of the Year Awards from both Apple and Google, the Calm app has hit a cultural bulls eye with sharpened z-shaped arrows. It’s loaded with meditations, ambient music and soundscapes, and dozens of sleep stories narrated by folks like Matthew McConaughey, Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley, and The Wire’s Clarke Peters, who has richer Morgan Freeman voice than Morgan Freeman himself. Millions of satisfied subscribers swear that Calm does exactly as its very name suggests: it calms you down, whether you set-up an easy 15-minute Focus or Anxiety meditation, a fiction or non-fiction story to lull you to sleep, or soothing sounds to massage your ear canal.
“Two million people a month listen to my stories, it’s mind-blowing,” Phoebe tells me. “I admit I was sceptical, until I listened to one of my own stories and quickly fell asleep.” A year has passed since our Ghan adventure across Australia, and she’s in Vancouver on her way up north to explore the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary. Since we ran about Alice Springs trying unsuccessfully to get an epic author photo for my next book, she’s been called the JK Rowling of Sleep Stories, has been profiled in major media, and fine-tuned her craft. We’re in the lobby bar at the Hotel Vancouver, and having just flown in from Brisbane that morning, Phoebe looks like she could use a little sleep herself. Isn’t a 14-hour flight and 17-hour time the enemy of the well rested? “Honestly, travelling with my own pillow has been a game-changer. Your brain associates the scent of your pillow with sleep, and it really works!”
It pays to listen to someone who makes a living devoted to sleep.
Back in the UK where she lives, Phoebe is known for her books and stories about sleeping in unusual, extreme and wild places. I quite like the fact that Calm didn’t hire a scientist or psychologist to methodically bore you to sleep, but rather a storyteller. “Storytelling is such an old tradition, it’s how knowledge and wisdom has been passed down throughout history,” says Phoebe. But hang on, aren’t you essentially writing stories so boring it puts people to sleep? “As a kid, you didn’t want a boring story, but there’s definitely a technique involved. There can’t be too much action or excitement, and it should take you on a journey, which is why trains, boats, rivers and forests work so well. Feedback suggests that most people fall asleep within five to ten minutes, but I get lots of emails from people around the world wanting to know more about the places I write about.” Places like the lavender fields of Provence, the jungles of Madagascar, the Mississippi River and the forgotten forests of Morocco. There are travel stories about oceans and deserts, safaris and night skies.
There are train journeys aboard the Orient Express, the Trans-Siberia, and yes, our adventure aboard The Ghan. We both agree that stories are a far healthier alternative to medication and sleep aids.
“These days, we often treat sleep as an inconvenience,” Phoebe explains. “There’s so much going on and instantly available that we can’t switch off, which only adds to the anxiety.” It’s why she turns off her devices at least an hour before bed, keeps her bedroom free of distractions, and is passionate about sleeping in the wild. “When it gets dark, you sleep, and when the sun rises, you wake up. It’s the natural rhythm of our bodies, and it makes you feel calm and rested.” Unlike Phoebe, the very thought of sleeping outdoors, exposed and alone on say, a mountain top, freaks my poor brain out. So I’ll ignore her advice and keep my iPhone handy, ready to load up a Calm sleep story, and let her words inspire a blissful lullaby.
You can follow Phoebe's extreme sleeps and wild camping here.
Learn more about Calm here.
After so many miles, misadventures and meat pies, I'm delighted to be launching my 9th book, The Great Australian Bucket List , available October 9th online and in bookshops throughout Australia and New Zealand. It's been a very long and very wild ride, packing in years of travel into six crazy months, and years of writing into the same. As for bringing along my family, two kids under five can only make the intense travel and writing easier right? Right.
As with my previous books, I believe that essay-style stories inspire, and are best read on a printed page illustrated with beautiful photography. But I believe that practical information is important too, best accessed online where it can be easily and frequently updated. The Great Australian Bucket List follows this successful formula: a stunning, inspiring book supported by an extensive companion website - www.aussiebucketlist.com
With any luck, both will have the same impact in Australia as the The Great Canadian Bucket List had in Canada: inspiring millions of locals and visitors to explore unique, one-of-a-kind destinations and activities around the nation (and becoming a smash bestseller as a result). From jungle surfing in the world's oldest rainforest to swimming with giant tuna, chasing ghosts in haunted prison cells to hiking the remote outback, Australia has buckets of amazing stuff to explore.
Here's a quick peek at what I got up to:
The book is published by Affirm Press, the fastest growing publisher in Australia, driven by passionate readers who believe in stories as much as I do. I have to give a shout out to my amazing sponsors and partners: Presenting Partner Ford Motors Australia, Oaks Hotels and Resorts, Jetstar Airways, World Expeditions, Journey Beyond, Discovery Holiday Parks, Move Yourself, Sunshades Eyewear, Tourism Tasmania and Queensland Tourism and Events. Thank you!
Check out The Great Australian Bucket List videos on Youtube!
The family travel project was an entirely different trip altogether. You can check it out at the online trip journal we custom-designed to record the adventure: www.esrockingkids.com. Along with our partners above, special thanks to Valco Baby, Keen, Footwear, Britax and Victorinox.
I met so many wonderful people on my journey, and as always, the people I met (and the family I travelled with) shaped my experience. I learned so much about Australia, and myself. This is what travel does: new places stoke new emotions, new people stoke new ideas, new landscapes inspire new life stories.
There's no word as yet if/when The Great Australian Bucket List will be available on shelves outside of Australia and New Zealand. I'd love nothing more than my Canadian, Global and Australian books to find their way to stores worldwide, but that's up to the gods, agents, and the publishing industry. In the meantime, you can buy it online anywhere through Book Depository (with free shipping worldwide) and in Australia online through Booktopia, Dymocks, Collins, Big W, KMart, Newslink, QBD or fine indie bookstores. As always, it's the perfect gift for everyone from kids to grandparents, and will appeal to all ages and interests.
Thanks as ever for the support, and may your travels continue to be rich and fruitful.
If you've been following me on social media, you've probably realized I'm travelling across Australia doing everything worth doing, research for two upcoming books, The Great Australian Bucket List and Esrocking Travel with the Kids. The journey has kept my family than hyperactive bees, and we kicked it all off in Melbourne. Here's some of the highlights:
Take a Street Art Tour
The laneways and arcades that snake through Melbourne’s CBD’s conceal a hidden city, one that is home to one of the world’s most renowned underground art and culture scenes. You might see glimpses of it walking around, but an organized tour will lead you directly to the most striking art and locations, and reveal the fascinating stories behind them. Once you learn about paste-ups, graffiti, yarn-bombing and blanking out, you’ll never look at any city the same way again.
Old Melbourne Gaol Ghost Tour
It’s a creepy enough building during the day, and that’s when it’s just a historical museum. At night, echo-chamber passageways and thick cells of the Old Gaol reveal a far more disturbing atmosphere, aided by the death mask of Ned Kelly and other convicts hanged on-site. A convincing storyteller tells true-life ghost stories as you tour the cellblocks, walking carefully in the dark or else you might trip over your imagination.
Old world travel has always been romantic. When this narrow-gauge track was decommissioned in the 1950’s, it was reinvented as a volunteer-run leisure railway, with steam locomotives taking visitors through Dandenong Ranges for picnics along the way. On-board, it’s a festive and family-friendly atmosphere, with guests encouraged to sit on the open-air windows with their legs in the breeze. Puffing Billy has become an icon, and a great way to explore nature outside the city.
Eureka Skydeck's The Edge
It’s the highest public viewing deck in the southern hemisphere, and the top 10 floors have 24-carat gold plated windows. The Eureka Skydeck gives visitors stellar 360-views of the sprawling city, and the latest attraction puts the streets (and the Oaks Southbank below) literally beneath your feet. The first of its kind, The Edge is a glass cube that extends out the 88th floor viewing deck, 285 metres above the ground. Sound effects of glass breaking add to the thrill.
Melbourne Zoo’s Roar n’ Snore Overnight Camp
10,000 people a day can pack into the world renowned Melbourne Zoo. Imagine having the place to yourself at night when many of the animals are actually awake. The Roar n’ Snore experience not only allows this to happen, it includes guided behind the scenes tours, dinner and breakfast, early morning sessions with the zookeepers, and your chance to sleep in a canvas tent surrounded by the sounds of exotic animals.
With special thanks to our partners: Ford Motors Australia, Jetstar Airways, Oaks Hotels and Resorts, and Discovery Parks.
Modern travellers have developed an insatiable thirst for jet fuel, much to the detriment of previous modes of travel: ships and trains. While ships have evolved into cruising palaces, trains have far more limitations when it comes to the size of their carriages. Yet as a means to discover a new destination in a comfortable, relaxing pace, I'm a sucker for an epic train journey. Sit back and watch the world pass you by as we track down the world’s best train journeys.
The Blue Train
It’s amazing how much comfort you can cram into a carriage rolling along a gauge just 3ft and 6 inches wide. South Africa’s Blue Train is rightly regarded as perhaps the world’s most luxurious rail journey. Butler service, en-suite soundproofed compartments (with gold tinted windows), double beds with down duvets, marble-tiled bathrooms (many with full bath tubs), panoramic observation lounges, gourmet meals – no wonder its known as a moving five star hotel. There are two trains in operation - one catering to 74 guests in 37 suites, the other for 58 guests in 29 suites – operating on the main scheduled route from the administrative capital of Pretoria to Cape Town. Travelling at 90 km/hr, enjoy 27 pampered hours and spectacular scenery until you reach your final station. The Blue Train also operates two other routes: to Durban, and to the malaria-free Pilansberg National Park.
Not to be outdone, India’s Maharajas Express treats its 88 passengers like royalty, literally in the case of the presidential suite, which spans a whole carriage. Recalling an era where India’s grand Maharajas built their own lines to shepherd them in lavish carriages, the Express combines old world luxury with modern conveniences like a business centre, spa and gym. It offers five itineraries, ranging from the seven night Heritage of India, Indian Splendor and Indian Panorama to the three night Treasures and Gems of India. All visit destinations like Jaipur, Ranthambore and Agra, to see the Taj Mahal. My own rail journeys in India (in packed, sticky 2nd Class Sleepers) were memorable, but not for the right reasons. If you’re willing to pay, oh, several thousand times more for a ticket, why not treat yourself like a king?
We live in a large country, but when I took the 4-night, 3-day VIA Rail Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto, I could finally see just how large we’re talking about. Travelling 4466km through the Rockies and Prairies, expect to roll through four time zones, not seeing any signs of civilization for hours. The train’s weekly configuration changes depending on demand, but always has panoramic and double-story panoramic dome cars, excellent meals, clean bathrooms, fun activities and friendly staff. Recalling the 1950’s glory years, the stainless steel carriages have the pastels and feel of another era, especially the rear Park Car, with its distinctive dome and view of the tracks you leave behind. Currently undergoing refurbishments as part of VIA Rail’s almost $1 billion investment, The Canadian is rightly a national treasure, popular with both locals and international visitors.
The Venice Simplon Orient Express / Eastern and Oriental Express
Although these are two separate train journeys exploring two different continents, I’ve put them together because the same company owns them, and once you hear the word “Orient”, it’s easy to get confused. More so since there was an actual train known as the Orient Express, running between Strasbourg and Vienna, but that ceased operation in 2009. The Venice-Simplon is a luxury train operating from London to Venice, in vintage carriages dating back to the 1920’s and 1930’s. Restored to their former glory, cabin suites are heavy on the polished wood, with washbasins, banquette sofas and ever-attentive stewards. Swap out Europe for lush jungles and exotic temples, and hop aboard the more modern The Eastern and Oriental Express, which journeys between Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Laos. With its in-suite bathrooms and airy teak observation cars, itineraries range from 2 to 6 nights, offering various opportunities for temple visits and other excursions.
With its vast distances and sparse population, Australia is tailor made for an epic train journey. The Ghan, named after the late 19th century Afghan cameleers that created the route, traverses almost 3000 kilometres north to south and vice-versa from Adelaide through Alice Springs to Darwin. The 3 day/2 night crossing caters to a range of budgets, from the twin Red Service Sleeper Cabins with their compact lounge chairs (folding into sleeping berths), to the 25 en-suite Platinum Cabins, with in-cabin dining, attentive stewards and twin or double beds. Beginning with the ridges and plains of South Australia, the landscape transforms into the red earth and sweeping skies of the Central Australian outback. Day or multi-day excursions are on offer from Alice Springs, before continuing into the more tropical regions of Northern Australia. The train runs twice a week in each direction June to August, and once a week during the remainder of the year.
China boasts the world’s fastest passenger train, the CRH380A running from Shanghai to Nanjing and Hangzhou at an astonishing 480 km/hr. Think more rollercoaster and less leisurely train journey. For less of a blur but all the thrills, consider the Qinghai-Tibet, an engineering marvel that connects the city of Xining to Lhasa, Tibet. It’s the first railway to navigate the mountains and treacherous terrain that encompasses Tibet. Once you cross the Tanggula Pass at 5072 metres above sea level, you’re officially on the world’s highest railway, rolling through the world’s highest tunnel, and stopping at the world’s highest railway station. With stunning views across the mountains and permafrost, the journey is literally breathtaking. At this altitude, breathing can become an issue, but the cold-resistant carriages were built for such challenging environments, and carry oxygen supplies on board for each passenger, along with an onboard doctor.
The Rocky Mountaineer
Repeatedly named as one of the world’s great train journeys by everyone from National Geographic to Conde Nast Traveler, The Rocky Mountaineer belongs to North America’s largest private rail service, running 1000 km through some of the world’s best scenery. Unlike VIA’s Canadian, which continues onto Toronto, the Rocky Mountaineer is designed to showcase the glorious Rockies in all their glory, with guests seated in two-level glass-domed panoramic dome cars, while interpreters point out wildlife and sites of interest. Guests spend the night in the company’s hotel in Kamloops before continuing their journey from Banff/Jasper to Vancouver, or vice versa. Along with the outstanding meals, let the cocktails flow!
The Trans-Siberia / Trans Mongolian Railway
When creating this list, I erred on this side of luxury, only because I’ve spent many days travelling on some of the world’s more challenging train rides, and while the memories are precious, I wouldn’t necessarily wish them on my readers. Trains are great, but not when they’re scary, like the time I peed at gunpoint on the Russian-Mongolian border. It took me three weeks to journey from Beijing to St Petersburg on two of the world’s most legendary rail networks. Along the way I raced horses in Mongolia, swam in the world’s deepest lake, and was almost tasered by some corrupt cops. Rudimentary carriages were OK, even if the attendants were smuggling starched clothing in our pillows. Meals consisted of instant noodles, instant mash, and anything else we could whip up with graciously provided hot water. I grew to appreciate the sneer of the attendants, and the taste of vodka, which was cheap and plentiful. An incredible adventure, definitely. But not for everyone.
The Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad, more affectionately known as El ChePe, carries locals and tourists over 400 miles through the Sierra Madre mountains and the magnificent Copper Canyon. Departing Los Mochis in the morning and arriving in Chihuahua late in the evening, the train crosses 36 bridges (one at over 1000 feet) and 87 tunnels. It stops at 13 stations along the way, allowing travellers to hop on and off to explore the region. There are two classes to choose from, with the Primero Express offering a dining car as opposed to the Economico’s snack bar, but it’s the scenery that provides the tastiest fodder. Mexico’s most scenic train chugs alongside stunning jungle, mountains, canyons waterfalls, and even high desert.
The Royal Scotsman
The Scottish Highlands are yours for the taking. By yours, I refer to the 36 guests pampered in absolute luxury aboard the Royal Scotsman. The train offers 2 to 7 night itineraries that take in the majestic Highlands, along with themed trips like the 4-night Classic Whisky Journey in conjunction with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Enjoy gourmet bliss in the mahogany-panelled dining car, and make sure to pack a kilt for alternating formal nights (if you forget, you can still hire one). Twin, Double and Single cabins are equipped with in-suite bathrooms, with the plush sofas in the observation car perfect to watch quaint villages and medieval castles pass you by.
I awake at 5am, a blessed night of sleep after a 20-hour+ transit, eager to make my way downtown to participate in the Melbourne Marathon. Well, not the 42km marathon, but the 10km run part of it, my first. I book an Uber for the first time, which is a game-changer (as everyone knows), at least as far as the guy can drive me before the roads are cordoned off approaching Flinders St. My toes still feel the phantom nibbles of the grey rabbit that shared last night’s abode, a friend of a friend’s place, in a neighbourhood in northern Melbourne called Travencore. The rabbit’s name is Tanpopo. There is also a girl who stays up all night listening-watching Celine Dion on Youtube. She was awake listening-watching to Celine Dion when I crashed early at 8:30pm. She was awake listening-watching to Celine Dion on Youtube when I awoke at 5am. She says she is nocturnal.
To find the best beaches, you usually have to get as far out of urban centres as possible. But some cities are blessed with amazing beaches of their own. These are cities with large populations, business, traffic – and long golden sandy stretches that make you feel like you’ve entered a holiday resort. Here’s my favourites:
Ipanema, Rio de Janiero
White sand and blue water frames Rio’s most famous neighbourhoods, Copacabana and Ipanema. While Copacabana enjoyed much of the world’s attention in the past, it has been surpassed by the energy of Ipanema. Ipanema Beach is signposted by the famous “postos” lifeguard stations, which helps find your way on a beach that is generally packed all year round. Stroll up, rent a chair and umbrella, and have your own beach waiter serve you cold beer, fresh fruit, and snacks throughout the day. Striking mountains rise further down the beach, and there’s usually a friendly game of volleyball on the go (or foot volleyball, which is terrific fun to watch). There’s also a parading flea market as polite vendors roll through selling bikinis, hats, and towels. With so much skin and beauty on display, it’s no wonder Ipanema is one of Rio’s most expensive neighbourhoods. An interesting note: topless bathing is prohibited.
Clifton, Cape Town
Cape Town is blessed with extraordinary natural beauty, and it’s best beaches are in the upmarket suburb of Clifton. Driving up from Sea Point, cars line the side of the road early, and parking is seldom easy. It’s a walk down the stairs until you hit the fine white sand. There are four beaches in Clifton, separated by rocks, and attracting different crowds. All four beaches are protected by rocks and spared the strong winds that blow through the city. As a teenager I used to walk between beaches to see where the action was. Today, the most popular beach is Fourth Beach, which has the calmest waves. First Beach gets the biggest waves and is popular with surfers. Third Beach is a popular gay hangout. Second beach continues to attract teenagers and students on the prowl for love. Capetonians and tourists soak up the sun, and since the water is a frisky 12-16C, a dip in the sea is truly refreshing.
Bondi Beach, Sydney
During my first visit to Bondi Beach, the temperature in Sydney cracked 50C. Bondi Beach, a beach that has spawned a hit TV series (Bondi Rescue) was absolutely chockers (full). The odd part was there was nigh an umbrella in sight, here in a country with one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world. Sydney is surrounded by fantastic beaches, but Bondi is its flagship. A perfect 1km crescent, reliable waves for surfing and body boarding, pubs, shops and cheap eats right across the road. It attracts the city’s most beautiful people, showing off their most beautiful bodies. With Sydney’s weather, there’s always people on the beach, with crowds picking up in the afternoon post work, and young couples pushing babies on the promenade. When people fall in love with Sydney, it’s usually Bondi on their mind.
In the late 1990’s, my brother and I decided to immigrate to Vancouver. He went first, putting in his papers, without visiting the city first. I was working in England at the time, and the mountains, forests and beaches of British Columbia were very far away. I had a good job, and was second guessing Canada, until one day, my brother sent me an email with a picture from Kitsalano. He had found a two-bedroom apartment two blocks from the beach, and summer was in full swing. The subject was: Wish You Were Here. The sand wasn’t fine and white, but it was fine enough. People were stacked up against scattered logs. In this distance was a towering mountain, the tree tops of Stanley Park, and some of the apartment blocks of English Bay. Having grown up in a big, landlocked city, I couldn’t believe people could live in a city like this. I wished I was there too. Six months later, I arrived as an immigrant and beelined straight for Kitsalano.
Waikiki Beach, Honolulu
The surf is usually up at Waikiki Beach, once the playden of Hawaiian royalty, now a hotel and surfing mecca. Waikiki has attracted all the major hotel chains and serves as a centre of tourism in Hawaii, but lets not forget it’s also a terrific beach, with a great view of the striking Diamond Head - all that’s left of a massive volcano and one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Waikiki actually refers to several beaches chained together, usually crowded with tourists pouring out the adjacent hotels. A good chunk of the beach is reserved strictly for surfers. The neighbourhood is abuzz with open-air bars, restaurants, volleyball and beach sport, and most days it’s just a perfect spot to watch yet another gorgeous sunset.
Venice Beach, Los Angeles
What I love most about Venice Beach is its sheer character. Only Los Angeles could churn out the bizarre folks who seem to hang around the Venice Beach Ocean Front Walk. There’s weird guy with the guitar, punky guy with the Mohawk, body building guy on rollerblades – each seemingly the star of their own mental TV show. You might catch the stars on the promenade too: Nicholas Cage, Christian Bale, Elijah Wood and Viggo Mortenson are all residents of Venice. Regardless, there’s plenty of eye candy to look at. The streetball on Venice Beach is reported to be the best in the country, the starting block for future NBA stars. Hard bodies pump iron at the outdoor gymnasium on Muscle Beach, and there’s great surfing off the piers. If the whole thing looks like a TV show, it’s because Baywatch was set and sometimes filmed here. Who knew a show featuring actors in red bathing suits running in slow motion would become the most watched TV show in history?
South Beach, Miami
The beaches of Miami vibrate with action, and South Beach (or SoBe) is its heart. With hundreds of clubs, bars and restaurants, South Beach is the city’s entertainment district, popular with locals and tourists alike. There’s a real multicultural element to the neighbourhood. Brazilians, Cubans, Israelis, people from the Caribbean, and a large contingent of Canadians too, escaping the northern winter. Famous Art Deco hotels look over the white sandy beach, one of the reasons why SoBe is also known as the American Riviera. Picture flashy cars cruising past flashy shops, while toned bodies run along the water. The atmosphere is festive year round.
Metzitzim Beach, Tel Aviv
Not many people know that Tel Aviv is a true beach city. Fine sand, decent waves, clean water, all in a city that never sleeps. The promenade even resembles the Copacabana, with its mosaic patterns. There are several beaches along the strip, but Metzitzim, also known as the Sheraton Beach, consistently wins the accolades as the city’s best beach. It’s definitely the most trendy, a place for fit young Israelis to bare their olive skin (as opposed to Nordau Beach further down, which is where religious Jews go for the separate male and female areas). Metzitzim, which means “peeking” in Hebrew, is close to the Old Port which has recently been upgraded into a hip area of restaurants, bars and clubs
Barceloneta Beach, Barcelona
Sticking to the Mediterranean, Barcelona is blessed with 4.2km of golden beaches, close to the city centre. Barceloneta, the first beach along the boardwalk, has long been called one of the best urban beaches in the world. Besides its wide open space, it has a vibrant atmosphere and gets packed with locals and tourists. While it is Barcelona’s most popular beach, thanks largely to its location, it does get some criticism for the quality of sand, which some say is mixed with cement. But the weird artwork, atmosphere, local characters and buzz make up for it. Close to the port, it's also the best place for fresh seafood in the city.
Scarborough Beach, Perth
Perth may be amongst the most isolated major cities in the world, but it consistently ranks in the Top 10 for lifestyle and quality of life polls. That might have something do with its beautiful beaches located a short drive from the city centre, like Scarborough, 15 minutes away. The sand is white, the Indian Ocean is a clear blue, and the weather sizzling. Restaurants, hotels, ice cream shops bars and clubs attract locals and tourists, giving Scarborough a famously laid back coastal holiday town atmosphere. Families picnic in adjacent grass areas, enjoying the clear views all the way to an island 20km away. Perth has other well-known city beaches nearby, like Trigg and Cottesloe, but “Scarbie” remains a local favourite
Thin metal rods are poking out of a giant tree, spiralling up and up (and up) towards a wooden platform, seventy-five metres in the Western Australia sky. These karri trees are among the tallest hardwoods in the world, and this particular tree, the tallest in the forest, was used as a fire lookout for any trouble smoking in the area. It seems like an innocent enough roadside attraction, just fifteen minutes drive from the gas and beef pie pit stop of Pemberton. How often we find Bucket List experiences in the most unlikely places.
I drive into Warren National Park out of curiosity, captivated by a sign directing visitors to the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree. Playing on my iPod is U2, a sign of perfect synchronicity. Dave Evans is the real name of guitarist The Edge, and his namesake tree, a pure coincidence, seems destined to deliver the same.
At the top of this lookout tree sits a large platform weighing two tons. To get there I must climb 130 erratically staggered thin black rods, thrusting myself up between ever widening gaps. From the bottom it looks harmless enough, mostly because one can’t see the top. I start eagerly, one pole at a time, a little unnerved by the thin wire safety net. Good for a falling baseball cap, not the person attached to it. Looking down for the first time, my knees become as wonky as a Central African government.
I clutch the thin poles so tight my arm muscles cramp, my toes clenched so hard you could crack a bullet between them. Higher and higher, and just when I am sure I might absolutely wet myself with fear, I reach a small wooden platform. A truly unhelpful sign reads: "That was the easy bit, mate!" Aussie Aussie Aussie, oy, oy oy…vey.
A sturdy tanned Australian fellow crawls down from above. "C'mon mate, once you're this far, you may as well go all the way to the top," he says, in that typical Australian drawl which makes any stranger seem like an army buddy. It encourages me to continue my climb, cursing ever-present Australian sticky flies, relentlessly crawling into my nostrils and ears. I reach another rest platform, and another, and then another, until at last, I am on top of the tree, dripping in sweat, staring above the dense forest in all directions. The sea casts a blue glow on the horizon. My knees are still swaying, but that might have something to do with the tree itself, dancing to a gentle ballad in the wind. In strong wind, the trunk can sway almost two metres in either direction.
Cautiously, I make my way down, wondering why they don't sell T-Shirts at the bottom. Perhaps: U2 can survive the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree. I wonder how many people have slipped, and if the safety net did its job. I wonder who Dave Evans is, and whether he might be the unfortunate chap who can answer both questions. Assuming the latter was affirmative.
The climb takes about an hour, and trust me, it is far scarier than any tree you ever tackled in your childhood. There isn’t even an official around to call an ambulance should you drop out the sky. Although if there is, he might tell you: “it’s just a tree, mate! We have spiders bigger than this.”
Just as surely as humans have always felt an inexplicably strong desire to erect large buildings (all the way back to Babel, baby!), so a second group follow close behind with the desire to climb to the top of them. A third group wants to jump off with bungee ropes or parachutes, and we call them: lunatics. This post concerns itself with the more agreeable climbing party, including those ascending above the bronzed beach and looping canals of Gold Coast, Australia.
Gold Coast (which is a city, not a coastline) is a tourist mecca in Queensland, buttressed by sandy beaches that stretch on forever. The highest building in the city is the iconic Q1 Resort and Spa Building, and the highest external building climb in the country takes place above the Q1 Observatory. Suited up in grey overalls and a safety harness, I follow my cheery guide to the elevator which bullets climbers to Level 77 in just 42.7 seconds. The Observation Deck offers 360-degre views of the city, the coastline, the information placards and snack bar. Which is why we open the Skypoint Climb door, climb up a ladder, snap in our safety caribiners, and peer down a sheer 270 metre vertical drop (truly, the last place you’d ever want to drop your phone, which is why you’re not allowed to bring cameras or phones with you).
I follow my guide up the 140 stairs to the summit, sliding my safety hook along the angled rails. The breeze is brisk, the heavens blue, and the view extraordinary. Turquoise waves roll into the pretzel-coloured beach with the kind of consistency one would expect in a neighbourhood named Surfers Paradise. Behind and below me are the canals that shape the city’s character, framed by riverfront properties and boat docks.
“Must be fun to swim on those canals?” I inquire.
“Oh, nobody swims in the canals,” replies my guide. “Too many bull sharks.”
Best we keep our pleasure dips to the ocean then, where shark nets protects bathers and surfers from sharks confusing them for something they’d actually enjoy taking a bite of.
On a platform at the summit, I’m invited to lean back, trusting all my weight to the harness. You’d have to weigh as much as a bull to put pressure on the harness, so this is all completely safe, even for those afraid of heights (although the Sky Point website does say that a true acrophobic need not apply). I moonwalk. I ogle. I peer at the row of tall buildings that line the coast, and wonder why nobody thought to climb around the edge of their summits first. Probably because they don’t look nearly as striking as the Q1 Building. We return to the Observation Deck, where I learn more about Gold Coast, lifeguards, the canals, and the Great Barrier Reef. 47.7 seconds after stepping into the elevator, I’m back on the ground, popping my ears, craning my neck to see if I can spot the very top of this 325m building. Another day, and another high, ticking off The Great Global Bucket List.
The SkyPoint Climb lasts around 90 minutes, open to those 12 and up with no debilitating physical conditions. This includes being drunk, which is why they breathalyser you before you go up. Climbers must wear enclosed, rubber-soled shoes (leave the flip flops at the beach). Your valuables are locked up but you can bring sunglasses and prescription eyeware with a provided attachment. Overalls and harnesses are also provided. Parking is complimentary in the Visitors Parking, and your ticket includes access to the Observation Deck. Your guide takes photo and video, which is for sale after the excursion. You can choose a Day Climb, Twilight Climb, an early morning breakfast climb, or one of several Climb and Dine Packages.
For more info, visit: http://www.skypoint.com.au/