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.
T’was a time when chasing a bucket list did not necessitate cracking an Enigma code of shifting Covid tests and requirements, juggling what’s needed to board a plane, to enter a country, to embark on a boat, to disembark, to return in transit. T’was a time recently where nobody was allowed to travel at all, but it looks like we’re finally done with that bit. There’s still too much friction when it comes to global travel, the legacy of Covid lingering like a suds stain around a student’s bathtub. The good news is that much of the world has collectively decided to move on, focusing efforts on protecting the vulnerable while living with Covid the way we live with other problematic viruses. It just took time and money, which tends to solve most problems. The better news: last month I returned to both my Canadian and Global Bucket List after too long a hiatus, and I returned in style. I’ve always wanted to sail in the Caribbean, and I’ve waited over a decade to once again experience to the deep virgin snow of backcountry skiing. March presented the opportunities, and so I grasped them, tightly, with the wind at my sails, and a smooth path from peak to gully.
Part One: The Caribbean
It started with a thought about sailing as an eco-friendlier form of cruising. Then I got lost in the fascinating real-life history of pirates, and distracted by the pool-clear waters of the Caribbean. Putting it altogether, I found the perfect itinerary on board one of the world’s largest passenger sail boats, a towering old-world tall ship operated by Swedish-owned, Malta-flagged Star Clippers. My experience will get its full due in an upcoming issue of the Vancouver Sun, but I will say this: Star Flyer – a 4-masted tall ship that swivels the head of even the saltiest sailor – is out of this world. It carries up to 166 passengers served by 74 crew, sailing the trade winds and ocean currents in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Central America and across the Atlantic. Unlike cruising, you feel the ocean (sometimes a little more than you’d like, but that’s part of the adventure), visiting bays, islands and beaches beyond reach of the cruise ships. It’s a luxury sailing adventure for those who don’t know anyone with a luxury sailboat, which I’m assuming describes most of us.
Staff and service is fantastic, the meals top notch, the cocktails smooth and the onboard amenities (two pools, a massage therapist, deck chairs, an open bridge, stocked library, water sports etc) most accommodating. Time slows down, and people read books, not feeds. You can do bucket list things like hang out on the bowsprit, sprawled on the netting as it dips over rolling waves above playful dolphins (yep, that happened). You can climb up the rope ladder to an 18m-high viewing platform, gazing over islands and ocean. You can bake in the sun like those fried European passengers who don’t seem to know about skin cancer. You can dance at night, request tunes from the pianist, dress like a pirate, or ask a thousand questions of the patient crew as they pull ropes and release topsails with special names that I forgot the moment I heard them. Pop into the Caribbean’s most legendary beach bars (the Soggy Dollar, Foxy’s etc) for a souvenir headache, nap in your cabin, listen to stories of fellow passengers, snorkel into sea caves, paddle-board, ogle at super yachts parking in St Barts. It’s everything one would expect the good life to be, and a very different kind of cruise experience. The more I travel on a small ship – a luxury river barge in the Amazon, a catamaran in the Galapagos, an expedition ship in the Antarctica – the more I fall in love with boats as a bucket list form of travel. If you can burn just 15% of the fuel of a regular ship, as the Star Flyer does under sail, it feels like the future of cruising, and the responsible way to go. As time progresses, I hope to add more small ships to my growing, curated bucket list cruise collection.
Part Two: Catskiing in the Skeena
The last and only time I cat-skied was on a private mountain in Chile. We were filming an episode of Word Travels, and my single biggest memory of that adventure is nervously watching our cameraman Sean ski backwards while he filmed my descent with a large six-figure camera on his shoulder. It was the only true bluebird ski day I’ve ever had, when the sky is crystal clear after a big dump of white snow. Skeena Cat Skiing in BC would be my second, and this time I wouldn’t have to worry about my TV show crashing with a wipeout (I can do that all by myself, thank you).
I had one day to switch my Caribbean bag for my snow gear, catching a prop flight north from Vancouver to the town of Smithers BC. Here I met a group of elite ski journalists, gathering at the helipad for our memorable ride into base camp. Any day you get to ride a helicopter is a good day. Skeena Cat Skiing is a family-run affair and clearly a passion project of immense love and hard work. Many hours away from anything, guests stay in heated dome tents buried in snow, which is a cool experience unto itself. The comfy, wood-fired heated lodge tent is loaded with fine beer, snacks, worn couches, and a friendly chef who prepared outstanding hearty dinners and desserts. We’re surrounded by the Thomlinson and Gail Creek mountains, 30,000 hectares of fresh powder and skiable glades in every direction. Our ski chair is a customized Piston Bully snow grader, with a large heated cabin for 14 passengers on the back. This ‘cat’ can go anywhere and everywhere it pleases, and it does. Skirting a steep ride, it deposited us at the top of runs that funnel into valleys where we would be collected by the cat for another ascent. Backcountry safety is taken seriously: we’re all equipped with avalanche kits, air bags, walkie-talkies, and given a tutorial in rescue. Veteran guides know what they’re doing and accidents are rare to non-existent. Any nerves dissipate after the first run, replaced with elation and joy and wowzers because this is the skiing you dream about, every time you strap in, and every time you head up a mountain. I was easily the weakest boarder of the group, and I’m no slopestyle expert (especially in the company of Olympic skier Yuki Tsubota). But even at my own pace, I was able to keep up, sharing the pinnacle of what snow sport can deliver. Cat skiing is more affordable than heli-skiing, and you can read more about both in my Bucket Listed column for Can Geo Travel. Suffice to say: it’s going to be hard going up a local ski hill again, but there’s always something to aspire to, and something to look forward to next time.
Say what you will about the value of guidebooks, but I’d never have found Köycegiz if I’d had one with me in Turkey. To be fair, this small Aegean town peppered against a large, warm, freshwater lake does get a mention in most Turkish guides - usually a throwaway paragraph with words like “sleepy” and “quiet” and “nice for lunch”. It’s just one of several signposts you’ll pass en-route from the infamous ruins at Ephesus to the Mediterranean beach resorts around Fethiye. But stop inside, look around, and you’ll find it as sweet as the sugar in Turkish tea, as chilled as a penguin guzzling down some flash-frozen baba ghanouj.
I got the hot tip about Köycegiz from a New Zealander named Alison who ran a guesthouse in Selcuk. She had married herself a Turk, settled in for a life of olives and fruit orchids, and was only too happy to share the secret of the lake with me. Since I had no real urgency to be anywhere else, I asked the Selcuk-Fethiye bus driver to let me out on the highway outside the town. A couple of other travellers looked on with mild curiosity, and who could blame them? Why is this guy getting off in the middle of nowhere? Alison suggested I hit a local hostel and after walking through the quiet, sleepy, nice-for-lunch town, I was pleased to find the Tango welcoming and comfortable. Large mattresses were covered in rugs and pillows, interspersed with hammocks, a bar and a DJ booth. There were just a straggling of backpackers, but the owner Sahin assured me things would pick up when the Fez Bus pulled in. The Fez is a hop-on hop-off backpacker bus with the deserved reputation of being a moving party. In anticipation, Sahin had organized a booze cruise on the lake for that evening. Enjoying the calm before the storm, I walked down to the lakefront and was blasted by a fresh breeze, the gentle lapping of water, the view of towering mountains in the distance. The lake, also called Köycegiz, connects with the Mediterranean through a channel called the Dalyan Delta, and cruising through large bulrushes to the sea is a popular activity for Turkish tourists. I see a couple guys playing tavla, which we know as backgammon, and gradually readjusted to the pace of a fishing village where not much happens and people prefer it that way. Here is the real Turkey away from the bustle of the tourist circle, and with it of course, real Turkish hospitality. People smile, invite you for tea, quiz your origins, all with a genuine sincerity and warmth. Sometimes they’ll try sell you a rug too.
Well equipped with a headache the following morning, I awake to find the Tango Inn empty, the Fez Bus departed, and another delightful Turkish sunny day. Hopping aboard a wooden boat crammed with local tourists on their way to the beach, I am the only foreigner and relish the enthusiastic hospitality. I am ploughed with homemade food and polite questions by new found friends. Along the canals, we pass imposing 2000-year-old Lyceum rock tombs carved into the cliffs above us. History is never far away in Turkey. After stopping off for a refreshing dip in the lake, we arrive at a long sandy beach, and the crystal blue Mediterranean. I end up playing Frisbee with a some brothers from the boat, eating local delicacies, enjoying my spontaneous off the beaten path adventure. The boats slowly makes its way back to Köycegiz at sunset, humid wind in my fingertips, the notes of a tanbur floating out the speakers up front. These are the moments in life when you stop, look around, and believe that somehow, everything, for everybody, is going to work out just fine.
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 love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.