- There are too many people and the crowd overwhelms the experience.
- It is too expensive and you feel jilted by the cost.
- The wildlife didn’t turn up because, you know, wildlife.
- The weather sucked, so you’re too busy focusing on how great it would be if the weather didn’t suck.
- You were robbed, fell ill, got hit by a bus, or were press-ganged into slavery aboard a Thai tuna fishing vessel.
It’s been a tumultuous month in the world of bucket list experiences. The New York Times art critic ran a story about the sheer and utter disappointment of seeing the Mona Lisa, glassed away from the masses of crowds expecting something more...transcendent. Asked on national radio about my own experience with Leonardo’s masterpiece, I recalled seeing it many years ago, and feeling distinctly underwhelmed: “I thought there would be God rays and confetti, and angels would be singing with harps.” If I didn’t know it was regarded as the pinnacle of artistic expression, I would have walked past it, marvelling at plenty other works in the Louvre that would better match that description. The subject moved onto travel experiences that are disappointing. Each to their own, but there’s really only a few factors that will make an activity or destination disappointing:
All this to say: The experience did not live up to your expectations. The higher your expectations, the higher the chance that the destination or activity will disappoint you. Reality simply can’t compete with your imagination. And I can’t blame anyone for having an imagination stoked by the most perfect of all scenarios. On television shows, in travel articles, in books (ahem), you rarely see or hear about crowds, costs, and crap weather. The sky is mostly blue, and the animals always show up. It is very rare that everything comes together exactly as it does in the brochures, and yet the marketing of peak experience does no favours to your expectations. You’re being set up for disappointment, so better to have no or limited expectations to begin with.
One of the tools proposed to combat the scourge of overtourism is Responsible Marketing. This would require tour operators and destination marketing organizations to use real people in real situations, not models beneath a Photoshop sky. Imagine if casinos were restricted to responsible marketing? Instead of hot couples smiling as they win at the roulette table, you’d see leathered alcoholics flushing away next month’s rent. Any activity that depends on good weather is particularly vulnerable to unmet expectations. Nobody wants to visit a beach in a hailstorm, ski on a mountain without snow, or get rained on during a parade. My biggest disappointment is the northern lights – a dreamy bucket list experience that is particularly weather dependent. Ten times I should have seen a magical natural fireworks display in the sky, and ten times the sky was overcast, or the solar ions weren't firing, or the sky lit up the day before I arrived, and the day after I left. Ten times in the freezing northern winter, including trips to Whitehorse and Yellowknife during peak aurora-watching season. Eventually I did see the northern lights, but compared to all the alluring photographs and stories, witnessing a slight pulsating green fog in the frigid, early morning sky (few people know that the best time to see the lights is well after midnight) was a let down. At least I hadn’t flown in all the way from Japan, unlike the disappointed aurora-watchers around me.
The global bucket list took another hit this month with the chaos surrounding One Ocean Expeditions. I’ve worked with this Squamish-based company for several years, having visited Antarctica, crossed the Northwest Passage in the high Arctic and more recently taken my mom and daughter to remote islands in the Atlantic on their wonderful boats, guided by their wonderful crew. I’ve recommended the company at dozens of talks and in my books, and was shocked to hear they’ve been shipwrecked with financial difficulties. Passengers were left stranded shortly before an Antarctica sailing, most support staff have left the company, and information from the permanently closed head office to hundreds of out of pocket clients has been cryptic and scarce. The source of the issue appears to have been the damage that occurred to one of their Russian leased vessels in August 2018. There are competing claims as to who was responsible and should foot the bill, and as a result the Russians withdrew their ships from One Ocean’s service. This sent the company scampering to fill exist bookings on their single remaining ship, and in all likelihood broke the sea camel’s back. The company’s mysterious restructuring has been devastating for their amazing staff and crew, many of whom are owed tens of thousands of dollars in wages. It has been devastating for passengers around the world who have footed up to $14,000 per ticket, and have no travel insurance recourse to get their money back. It has been devastating for the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, who benefitted from One Ocean as a major sponsor, and it has been devastating for polar tourism. One Ocean did vital, generous and important work for the Arctic and Antarctica, supporting scientists, educators, communicators and students. I remember telling passengers that One Ocean did not just help us tick Antarctica off our bucket list, the company had helped us become ambassadors for a truly incredible, vulnerable and oft-misunderstood eco-system. Despite hope that a new financial partner will save the day, the damage to the brand and betrayal of trust of both clients and crew is, in all probability, fatal. Despite some wild rumours swirling around, I do believe One Ocean had a wonderful heart. Operating at the mercy of the roughest of natural elements, it just needed a better business brain. Here's hoping for smooth waters and easy sailing ahead for passengers, crew, company and the polar region itself.
You can really get a sense of place by its name. Take Istanbul, Timbuktu, or even Bird Island (where I write these words, off the coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia). Revelstoke, the BC transport hub on the way from Vancouver to Banff, certainly has a name better than most. A town that lets you revel in the stoke? Come on, a high-priced brand agency couldn’t have come up with something that good. The town, population 15,000, got its name from one Lord Revelstoke, an English industrialist who rescued the Canadian Pacific Railway from bankruptcy in 1885. In the shadow of the Selkirk Mountains, sandwiched by the mountainous beauty of Glacier and Mount Revelstoke National Parks, the town also boasts a ski resort with the greatest vertical descent of any ski resort on the continent. Fun for another time. We’re here for a family roadtrip in summer, driving six hours up from Vancouver to explore local activities for all ages, including another tick on my ever-expanding Canadian Bucket List.
After crossing dramatic mountain passes and driving alongside large, scenic lakes, we pull off the Trans Canada Highway to explore The Enchanted Forest and adjacent Skytrek Adventure Park. With various high ropes courses through the tall forest trees, the latter is catnip for kids and adults channelling their inner gibbon. The former is eccentric and certainly bizarre. Dozens of tiny and not so tiny fairy tale houses have been built on the forest floor, complete with a castle, a giant climbing a tree, mermaids, wooden horses, and mischievous forest elves. A passion project that has been a popular, quirky roadside attraction for half a century, my young kids embraced Enchanted Forest with sheer, unadulterated delight. Happy kids, happy parents, and happier still that both these attractions are less than a half hour’s drive from downtown Revelstoke, where our room at the Regent Hotel awaits.
A town that straddles the industries of railway, forestry and tourism, Revelstoke is refreshingly devoid of glitzy retail brands, and oozes small town charm. It is protected from being overrun by its relative isolation from a major city, resulting in the kind of place where locals greet each other at free nightly summer music concerts in Grizzly Plaza, or at the weekend street market bursting with local flavours. Our outstanding meals at Taco Club, Nico’s Pizza, Paramjit’s Kitchen and the exceptional Quartermaster offered funky, homely and fine dining, while a visit to the Aquatic Centre (a must for young kids) made me pine for something similarly inexpensive and less crowded in Vancouver. Toasting outstanding craft beer at Rumpus Beer Co, I admired the moxie of the husband-wife owners chasing their small town dream, and wondered, along with many others I imagine, if Revelstoke is the kind of place where I could chase a dream too. A real sense of community permeates the town, a community that doesn’t mind living ten minutes down the road from a world class ski resort, or two and half hours from Kelowna, the nearest regional airport.
Revelstoke Mountain Resort is famous for the highest vertical run on the continent, but is embracing its four season possibilities. This means world-class mountain biking, and for my bucket list, the longest alpine rollercoaster in Canada. Taking the gondola up to mid-mountain, my family soaked in the stellar mountain views and fanning Columbia River, before hopping into yellow go-cart like contraption connected on a narrow single rail. My wife and I each put a kid in our laps and strapped in for a thrilling 1.4 kilometre descent. The Pipe Mountain Coaster twists, curves and whoops its way 279 metres down the mountain, through forest and breathless dips at speeds of up to 42 km/hr. A simple mechanism allows us to brake and go at our own pace, and most first timers will take it easy. Get the three-ride pass (or more) and you’ll soon dispense with the brakes altogether, hitting the hell-yeah! controlled maximum speed that ensures it’s safe and fun for the whole family. “Faster Daddy!” yelled my daughter, and who am I to argue?
Feet away from the exit point of the coaster is newly opened Aerial Adventure Park, where you can easily spend two hours navigating fifty different balance and height obstacles, rising four stories above the ground. Graded like ski runs into green, blue and black difficulties, climbers are safely harnessed throughout the entire contraption. Watching brave little kids take on swinging rings or a knee-shaking four-story jump should add some pep to your steps. Fortunately, great food and craft beer awaits the victorious in the village regardless (and for the kids, ice-cream).
River rafting is another popular summer activity in Revelstoke, with various companies offering grade three runs. For younger kids, consider Wild Blue Yonder’s River Pirates Tour, complete with pirate costumes, face paint, bush battles and fun tales of yaargh! Downriver from the impressive hydro dam, we drifted on the glass mirror of the Columbia River, listening to Captain Jack’s brogue as he recounted the myth of the man-eating moose. My daughter - made-up with face paint, bandanna’d, and now known as Jolly Lips Sue - had a blast. Nobody got wet, and foam sword battles continued back in our comfortable family suite at the Regent.
Fortunately the sword stayed behind when we checked out the old world Railway Museum, although the knives came out when my three year-old had his thermonuclear meltdown when we told him it was time to leave the large, warm wading pool at the Aquatic Centre. We packed a lot into just three days, and could have easily spent a week exploring this underrated wonder of the BC interior. It’s all right there in the very name of the town, where families can revel in the stoke of it.
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.
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 was recently invited to speak at the annual leadership conference for Coast Hotels, which took place at the Coast High Country Inn in Whitehorse. The theme of the event was Bucket List, and so naturally, I felt right at home. Since it’s January, and Whitehorse is the most accessible northern city to see the aurora, especially from Vancouver, I brought my Dad along for the ride. It’s been his dream to see the aurora since watching an 80’s movie called St Elmo’s Fire, which doesn’t feature the lights at all, other than, as I write in my book, the “light going out of Ally Sheedy’s acting career.” No offence to Ally Sheedy. Or Andrew McCarthy, an actor in the movie who is now an editor-at-large for National Geographic. #Everythingisconnected. My Dad and I had previously spent five nights in Yellowknife and saw no lights, but we did kinda-sorta see the aurora (if you squinted just so) in Hay River after flying over with Buffalo Air, but never got the full razzmadaddle. Whitehorse would be another kick at the aurora can. What’s more, Coast had arranged for attendees to tick off a full blown Whitehorse bucket list, including dogsledding with Muktuk Adventures (as featured in my books), slurping back the Sour Toe Cocktail brought down from Dawson City, and dipping in the thermal springs of the Takhini Hot Pools. Throw in some elk sausage and Arctic Char from Burnt Toast, my favourite restaurant in the city, and you’ve got a comprehensive winter Whitehorse bucket list covered!
We arrived via Air North, which is the only airline I know that serves hot baked cookies, refreshments at the gate, and affordable flights to a northern city. Settled into the Coast High Country Inn (which is owned by the same folks who own the Best Western Gold Rush Inn, so they have you covered), we took off for our first shot at seeing the lights at a remote aurora viewing cabin. Fire pits were burning, the tent cabins were heated and cozy, and the sky cleared nicely. The aurora report gave us just a 4/10 chance at seeing a 4/10 display, but sure enough, green waves began to pop on the horizon. No fireworks, but fine enough. That we threaded the needle on our first night in Whitehorse is a testament to Coast marketing director Sarah Kirby-Yung’s delightful optimism trumping my Dad’s northern lights jinx.
“Can we tick this one off Dad?” I ask?
“Yes we can.”
And so we did.
Racing a dogsled on a frozen river is pure bucket list too. I’ve had the good fortune to dogsled with Muktuk Adventures filming an episode for my TV show, and researching a chapter for my book. The happiest puppies on the planet were lined up and rearing to go on our arrival, and off they go, running along the side of the Takhini River, pausing only for breaks and cuddles from Muktuk’s caring staff. Go dog go! It was the highlight of the trip for my Dad, which speaks volumes about the quality of the experience (and perhaps the performance of the aurora as well).
If only I could do all my book signings at a bar, beer in hand. Every attendee received a signed copy of my book at an evening event, soundtracked by a three-piece jazz band, and the arrival of the notorious Sour Toe Cocktail. It’s the fourth time I’ve had someone else’s severed toe in my mouth, although this time I think some of it flaked off and got stuck in my teeth, which continues to make me gag just writing about it. I got my Dad to join the club too, the toe stubbornly refusing to slide down the tumbler of Yukon Jack to touch his lips. As the Toe Captain will tell you: “Drink it fast, or drink it slow, but your lips must touch this gnarly looking toe.”
After finally getting a decent photo of Whitehorse's iconic wooden skyscraper, Tourism Yukon's Jimmy Kemshead drive us along the Alaska Highway to check out the Mount Sima Ski Hill outside of town, and the scenic taiga on the drive to Carcross. Our final night featured a soak in the Takhini Hot Pools, a natural thermal spring located 25 minutes drive from Whitehorse. It was a late night soak, well enjoyed by all and spiced (and chilled) with a half-naked roll in the icy snow. As usual, the travel buzz moment came when I least expected it. Our bus got stuck in the ice in Takhini’s parking lot, and while the driver revved and tried to roll free, the cold night sky burst forth with stars, falling meteorites, and the wispy dance of the aurora herself. Not quite green, but a large distinct light flickering across the dark sky. Eventually we managed to free the bus by lining up and pushing it out in reverse. Rescuing a passenger bus beneath the northern lights in the Yukon? Now that’s bucket list.
The shenanigans of summer have subsided, the seasons have changed and autumn is upon us. For many, this is the best time of year to travel. Crowds thin, prices drop, foliage explodes, and the temperature dances on the Goldilocks stage of not too hot, not too cold, aaah...just right. Maybe you should consider:
Welcome to the ultimate fall destination. They even advertise it on the flag. Visitors come from all over the world to experience the colours of our foliage as they explode into shades of red, orange and yellow. There are highlights coast to coast: Ontario’s Algonquin Park, Niagara Parkway and Bruce Peninsular. The Laurentian Mountains in Quebec. Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, Nova Scotia’s Cabot Trail, New Brunswick’s Fundy Coastal Drive, the rolling forests and hills of Prince Edward Island and British Columbia – there’s no shortage of trees in Canada, and autumn is easily the best time of year to enjoy them.
The United States
Similarly, the Eastern Seaboard of the United States lights up in the colours of autumn from mid-September to the end of October. There’s plenty of charming road trips in the states of Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, where a gentle paced traveller can appreciate the change of season through small villages, farms, and seaside towns along the way. Michigan and Wisconsin are also known for their fabulous fall colours.
I have a particular fondness for the English countryside in autumn, having enjoyed epic road trips to the New Forest, Cotswolds and Cornwall in the past. Rolling, misty countryside and quaint stone villages add a particular coziness to the adventure. Other autumn faves in the UK include the National Forest in Leicestershire, along with Beacon Hill and the supernatural sounding Outwoods. There are also great trails outside of Cardiff in Wales, and plenty of walks and bike adventures in the Scottish Highlands.
China is so vast and there’s plenty to see away from the usual tourist hot spots of Beijing and Shanghai. With temperatures cooling pleasantly, consider the south-western Sichuan province where the maple and birch trees strut their colours. Domestic Chinese tourists love visiting places like Miyalou in October to enjoy the views, along with the Juizhai Vallley, where tranquil blue lakes compliment the “kingdom of colours”.
Spain is much more than a beach holiday destination, especially as the sizzling summer temperatures begin to drop and the Mediterranean starts to cool. It’s a great time to head south where it us perfectly warm and pleasant, and the cities of Granada, Cordoba and Seville are waiting to be explored. Those summer crowds have dispensed, so it’s far easier to get around without making reservations, getting that great table on the patio instead of spending hours lining up. Further north begins to get a little chilly around October.
The forests of Bavaria are brushed from the same autumn palette, with the added bonus of the wild, 16-day Oktoberfest taking place each year in Munich. Once you’ve saturated yourself on beer, hit the Autobahn for a drive along the Rhine, taking in the Black Forest, medieval castles, and the looming Alps.
Just because things are cooling down, doesn’t mean you need to pack a coat. French Polynesia enjoys its best season in August to October, after the heat of the sweltering months, but before the rains kick in. Tahiti, Bora Bora, the Society Islands – there’s no shortage of escapes where you can find your own beach paradise. You might want to stay clear of the Disappointment Islands though. They really need to do something about that name.
When the going gets tough, the tough get wet. Presenting 10 of the world's mightiest rivers for bucket list rafters. Paddle up, there's rapids ahead!
The Nahanni, Canada
Rafting UNESCO’s first ever World Heritage Site is one of the grand Canadian adventures. From Virginia Falls, where a 90m cascade plummets in to the river, canoe and kayak trips typically spend a week paddling downriver through huge canyons and pristine wilderness.
The Colorado, USA
Spend a week in a motorized raft (or two weeks with paddles) floating down the Colorado River, through one the world’s true natural wonders, the Grand Canyon. Thrilling rapids, epic geology, waterfalls, creeks and companionship await.
The Zambezi, Zimbabwe
Regarded as perhaps the world’s best one-day whitewater rafting experience, conquer the mighty Zambezi River at the foot of Victoria Falls. The most thrilling runs take place during low water between February and July, when the rapids are so rough as to be almost unpassable. Do your best to stay on board, and watch out for the small (harmless) crocodiles.
Enjoy the staggering scenery of Patagonia aboard a whitewater raft, as you navigate the Class 3 to 5 rapids of the Futaleufu River. You don’t have to rough it during this week-long journey: Earth River Expeditions have permanent camps with hot showers, stone hot tubs and comfortable beds.
The Ganges, India
Raft the Ganges from outside the town of Rishikesh, as the river bursts forth from the Himalayas, safe from the pollution it gathers further down. Rafting trips run from hours to days, starting October through June, although it can get pretty chilly around December/January.
White Nile, Uganda
Flowing through the heart of Africa, the Nile is a mystical river with a storied history. Its source was the subject of doomed expeditions and controversy. You won’t be thinking about any of it as you crash through a series of Class 4 and 5 rapids. Half and full day tours depart from the town of Jinja, located about 80km northeast of Kampala.
Kaituna, New Zealand
It’s not the Ganges or the Nile, but the lush Kaituna River does allow you to experience the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. There’s a 50/50 chance your raft will flip as you plummet over the 7m high falls, but that’s all part of the fun.
The Yangtze, Nepal
The Big Bend of China’s Yangtze River flows through a dramatic 10,000 foot deep gorge. That’s almost twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. A 10-day rafting tour runs 120 miles through the bend, crossing Class 4 rapids aplenty. Along the way you’ll get the chance to explore rural villages, and do some serious hiking too.
The Saint Lawrence River, Quebec
You don’t have to travel far to challenge the Saint Lawrence. Located close to downtown Montreal adjacent to Habitat 67, the Lachine rapids offer some of the world’s largest standing waves. Various class of rapids means even kids can conquer this mighty river.
Sharing its borders with Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, Iguazu is well known for its spectacular waterfalls. You can also climb into a raft to conquer the river from below, spending an hour crossing Class 3 rapids amidst the dense vegetation and exotic wildlife found in Iguazu National Park.
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
Hot, cold, dry, wet and windy – there are some places in the world where everything is taken to the extreme. Those craving excitement might put them on the radar. Others should make a mental note to avoid these spots at all costs.
The World’s Hottest Place
Here’s a contentious category, with various contenders vying for the top hot spot. Historically, the victor was El Aziza in Libya, where the ground temperature was recorded in 1922 at a whopping 58°C. Furnace Creek in California’s Death Valley clocked in at an impressive 56°C, but it was not until satellites could measure thermal temperatures that the true victor could scorch their way to the top. Researchers at the University of Montana analysed infrared satellite data and the results were surprising. According to five years worth of data, the hottest place on Earth is Iran’s Lut Desert, where the land skin temperature was measured at 70.7°C. At that heat, you can fry an egg on your hand!
The World’s Coldest Place
On November 23, 2010, Alberta recorded temperatures that made it the second coldest place that day on the planet. What’s remarkable about this fact is that it included populated cities like Edmonton and Calgary, where the wind chill cranked the chill to around -41°C. Pollockville, 250km east of Calgary, had to deal with -49°C. But that’s toasty compared to how cold it can get in Antarctica, which reigns supreme for recording the coldest temperatures on Earth. Scientists in Vostok, near the magnetic south pole, recorded land temperatures at a brrrr-isk -89.2°C, measured during the dark winter months of June and July. The coldest permanently inhabited town is said to be Oymyakon in Russia’s northern Sakha Republic, which clocked in at a frisky−71.2 °C.
The World’s Wettest Place
There are half a dozen contenders in this category, with different research methodologies determined to soak up the glory. When I visited Kauai, Hawaii’s Garden Island, I was told by proud locals and guides that Mount Wai-‘ale-‘ale is the wettest spot on Earth, with rain falling between 335 and 360 days a year, drowning in up to 13,000mm each year. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes this achievement, but the US National Climatic Data Center gives the title to Colombia’s Lloro, which receives over 12,000mm a year. Cherrapunji in north-eastern India is another contender, even more remarkable since its annual rainfall (almost 11,000mm) falls mostly in the monsoon months between June and August. Back in Colombia, a freak rainy season in 1974 deposited 26,303mm of rain on the town of Tutunendo. It puts living in rainy Vancouver, where the average annual rainfall is just 1588mm, in perspective.
The World’s Windiest Place
For 75 years, Mount Washington in New Hampshire held the record for the highest wind speeds ever recorded, 231 miles per hour at the top of its peak. It was a freak event, much like the cyclone in Barrow Island, Australia that blew right past the record, clocking in at 253 miles per hour. The most consistent windiest place on the planet is Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica. As for the windiest cities, forget Chicago. Citizens in Wellington New Zealand, Reykjavik Iceland and Cape Town South Africa would do well to invest in extra strength umbrellas. As for the windiest city in Canada? The title goes to St John’s, Newfoundland.
The World’s Driest Place
The Atacama Desert stretches across northern Chile into parts of Bolivia and Peru, and is known as the driest place on the planet. Average rainfall is as little as 1mm a year, with some weather stations having never recorded any rain at all. The town of Arica, a launchpad for tourism excursions into the Atacama, did not record any rain for over 15 years! Crossing the Atacama in a 4x4 is one of my highlights of visiting South America, witnessing its otherworldly landscapes and rock structures. Scientists have compared the Atacama to conditions of Mars, which is why NASA test-drove their Mars Rovers here. Oddly enough, the driest continent is Antarctica, which receives less than 2mm rain a year, even though it is primarily made up of compacted snow and ice.
The World’s Deepest Place
James Cameron, director of Avatar and Titanic, broke the world record to become the first human to visit the deepest spot on the earth – the desolate, alien and lunar landscape that sits almost 11km deep at the bottom of the ocean known as the Mariana Trench. Located in the Western Pacific, the 2550km long trench forms the boundary of two tectonic plates. While pressure at the bottom is over 1000 times that found at sea level, researchers have still found life in the form of fish, shrimp and other organisms. Decaying animal skeletons, shells and other organisms give the seabed a yellow colour. Cameron filmed his descent in 3D for a documentary, and collected samples for scientists to shed more light on the darkest of ocean deeps.
The World’s Highest Place
The world’s highest mountain is Mount Everest, towering at 8848m above sea level. If you dared to climb atop its dangerous peak, as thousands of climbers do every year, you wouldn’t however be the closest to the moon. The planet’s shape is an oblate spheroid, much like the shape of balloon if you were to sit on it. The result is that mountains close to the equator stick out further than mountains closer to the poles, not in terms of height above sea level, but in terms of its closeness to the stars and distance from the earth’s centre. Cleverer people than I have done the calculations, and determined that the 6310m high Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador lies on the bulge, and as such is about 2.4 km closer to space than Everest!
The Deepest Place Below Sea Level
On dry land, you can’t get any lower than visiting the Dead Sea, the salty lake that shares its banks with Israel and Jordan. To get there, you’ll drive along the world’s lowest road, and float in its famously buoyant waters 423 metres below sea level. 67 kilometres long and 18 kilometres wide, this lifeless sea is 8.6 times saltier than the ocean, which is why you can comfortably sit back and read a newspaper during a dip. The health benefits of the mineral waters and thick mud of the Dead Sea have been prized since Biblical days, making it one of the world’s first health resorts. A drop in groundwater and flow of water from the Jordan River has resulted in significant shrinking of the Dead Sea, causing much concern for both the tourism and cosmetic industries that support it.
The World’s Most Dangerous Country
Forbes Magazine went through data looking at crime rates, risk of terrorism and kidnappings, police protection, corruption and political stability to determine the world’s most dangerous countries. Receiving the bronze medal on the podium is Somalia, which has not had a real government for 15 years, where militants run wild and piracy is rampant. The silver medal goes to Iraq, a hotbed of fundamentalism and instability, its citizens living under the constant threat of bombings and deeply corrupt government officials. Winning the gold medal, which will probably make its way to a Swiss bank account faster than I can type this sentence, is Afghanistan. Tribal warfare and corruption is rife, especially on the Pakistan border, where it is estimated that every citizen owns an automatic weapon.
The Youngest Place on Earth
Iceland, the real land of Fire and Ice (Game of Thrones notwithstanding) boasts the youngest place on the planet with its southern-most point, Surtsey Island. This 1.4 km2 island dramatically emerged from the sea during a volcanic eruption in 1963. The volcano stopped erupting almost four years later, with the intense flow of lava resulting in a newest island in the Atlantic. Since then, erosion has whittled away some of the land, but its hard igneous core has remained firm. The island was declared a nature reserve in 1965, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, for its scientific value. Scientists are studying how plant, bird and marine life are evolving on the island, with human impact carefully monitored and kept to a minimum.
Ten years ago, I set out to backpack the world, chasing a dream of adventure and who-knows-what, with the what turning out to be a career of chasing a dream of adventure. 2015 saw my 10 year Travel Anniversary, and it was a year of candied cherries on the bucket list sundae. I’d publish three new books, all of which would become bestsellers, and at years end my first book would still be the #1 selling Canadian travel title, two years since publication. I’d successfully produce and tick-off a 10-city speaking tour from Toronto to St John’s, driving across the country with my Mom. In the time it took my daughter to become a full-tantrum two-year old toddler, I’d zip around the world (yet again), craft my life’s work, give presentations to hundreds of people in Canada, the US and Mexico, buy a drone, destroy a drone, and celebrate my good fortune with one final tattoo. I crossed the Northwest Passage for hell’s sake. Even a salty dog sailor would be proud.
When I started my original blog, Modern Gonzo, it was selfishly as much for my own recollections as it was for sharing stories. This particular post follows that tradition, a brief look at the year that from a global, professional, and personal perspective.
I welcome the New Year snowboarding down a mountain under the stars, holding a flare in a magical torchlight procession at Sun Peaks Resort. I was about as memorable a new years as one could hope for. In Paris, two gunmen murder 12 people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Shockingly, this would not be the worst atrocity in Paris this year. The East Coast gets pounded with record snowfall. The West Coast is milder than hot dog mustard.
I visit Winnipeg where I tell CBC viewers that you can’t do Canada if you can’t do cold. It’s the coldest snap of the winter, but there’s always a warm welcome at the the Festival du Voyageur, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and Assinniboine Park, where I watch a polar bear stand above my head. Is it blue and black or gold and white? RIP Leonard Nimoy, along far too many innocent victims in Syria, a country that many people felt couldn’t get any worse, until it did, and didn’t stop.
I’ve begun diligently working on The Great Global Bucket List, and planning an epic summer. Meanwhile the planet’s two biggest scumbags – ISIS and Boko Haram – make bloody goo-goo eyes at each other. 20 people are murdered by terrorists at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and ISIS start blowing up Syria’s UNESCO World Heritage Site treasures. A lunatic German pilot decides to commit suicide in the cockpit of a passenger plane, killing 150 people on board. Not a good month for tourism. I have to watch my TEDx talk again to remind myself that people will rather help than hurt you. By year-end, nearly 300,000 people would have done the same.
A random email arrives and next thing you know CBS are flying me to New York for an interview with 60 Minutes Sports about the rise of bucket lists. The following week I’m in Saskatchewan with my brother chasing down mustard seeds and climbing up Canada’s very own Ayers Rock aka Castle Butte in the Big Muddy Badlands. The last week of the month sees my Mom and I fly into Toronto and pick up a saucy royal blue Ford Mustang. With Starwood Hotels looking after us (and by year-end, Marriott Hotels looking after Starwood), I tick off a visit to Casa Loma, surf the standing wave on the Lachine Rapids in Montreal (well attempt to anyway), and plunge in the freezing waters of the Bay of Fundy outside St John. Along the way I give talks in Indigo stores, MEC, for a packed room at World Expeditions in Ottawa, and my personal highlight, for the friendly community of Lindsay, Ontario. Meanwhile, there’s a massive 7.8 earthquake in Nepal, with over 9000 dead. Baltimore is shaking with racial tension after the first of several high profile deaths of African-Americans by police officers. Apple Watch goes on sale (wearables shmarables) and more optimistically, there’s a nuclear deal brewing with Iran and a real thawing between the US and Cuba.
My speaking tour continues to Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and it’s wonderful to be able to show my Mom around Atlantic Canada (even if she does order tea at an Irish Bar on George St in St John’s). Back home, I get to demo Harley Davidson’s new electric motorcycle (it sounds like a Star Wars Speeder Bike) and finally bring my wife along on a mind-blowing bucket list adventure to the Peruvian Amazon on a luxury riverboat. FIFA, a corrupt excuse for a sport governing body, starts to fall apart. John Oliver, who’s weekly Youtube rants are essential, summed it up nicely. There’s a Fight of the Century in boxing, which is something of a has-been sport, with has-been boxers boring the hell out of everyone, even with a has-been scandal. Hundreds of migrants (aka refugees) drown trying to escape the quagmire of Syria, Iraq or Sudan. Even as the Conservatives stay in power in the UK, Ireland legalizes gay marriage.
We didn’t have much of a winter in Vancouver, but it’s sure sweet to see summer. Back from Peru, I pack for a week of hiking and camping 200 km north of the Arctic Circle in beautiful Ivvavik National Park (more people visit Everest Base Camp each year). I also spend a few days in the Western Arctic capital of Inuvik, a frontier town built on permafrost. Showing just how far it has come (despite the Bible-thumping lunatics), the US Supreme Court votes 5-4 in favour of gay marriage. Everyone’s Facebook profile pic gets attacked by rainbows. But it’s not all love and unicorns. Mass shootings in the US continue to shock, the latest (in a Charleston church by a white supremacist) at least serving to finally force the removal of the Confederate Flag (a not-so-secret white supremacist symbol) from government buildings. After missing a debt payment, the Greek economy collapses, again. More tourists are murdered by Islamic fundamentalists in Tunisia, this time on the beach. North America is far more concerned with the fate of Jon Snow (no way he’s dead!?) and a freakshow limelight-addicted reality star changing gender. The FIFA (yuck) Women’s World Cup (yay!) kicks off in stadiums across Canada.
I was a little nervous to visit the Galapagos. How could it possibly live up to the expectations? Well, it did, and then some. Sailing on a luxury catamaran, snorkelling with sea lions, turtles, penguins and marine iguanas, hiking on lava – Darwin’s islands quickly became a highlight in my Global book. The US and Cuba announce full diplomatic relations. Cuba is going to change fast, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Japan didn't stand a chance in the Women’s World Cup Final, but the country does legalize military participation in foreign conflicts for the first time since World War II. For a better handle on geo-politics, this year I turned to podcasts, in particular Intelligence Squared and Dan Carlin’s Common Sense. The world goes gaga for our first glimpses of the ex-planet Pluto. It looks nice, but I wouldn’t want to live there. A douchebag dentist kills a famous lion in Zimbabwe and gets a mouthful of hate on social media. China’s stock market starts to teeter but Vancouver real estate prices respond like a honeybadger (just.don’t.care). Best viral clip of the month has champion surfer Mick Fanning tangling with a shark (and somehow keeping all his toes). More mass shootings in America (cut and paste this line for every month).
Two days before an epic cruise to the Arctic with One Oceans Expeditions, I get a call that sea-ice has trapped the ship and the trip is cancelled. (Tears). Instead, do I want to attempt the Northwest Passage as Writer-in-Residence? (Of. Joy). An unbelievable adventure from Greenland to Baffin Island and following the footsteps of Franklin caps the highlight chapter for my Northern Canada Bucket List. Bonus: that’s me toasting life in a hot tub with icebergs in the background in stories written by Science Editor (and Scotch tutor) Robin McKie for the UK Observer and the Guardian. Although I was on the same boat in Antarctica last December (joined again by the intrepid photographer Jeff Topham) it’s a completely different polar adventure. Having less of a maritime adventure are the hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean to the relative safety of Europe. It’s now the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. How different countries react to the crisis range from inspirational (Germany, and later Canada) to horrifying (Hungary, the Arab states). Also horrifying: ISIS blow up Palmyra, the most famous historical site in Syria. Also horrifying: Donald Trump leads the polls as the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination. The more misogynistic, bigoted, ignorant and frightening his remarks, the more light shines on the dark, scary shadow of the United States. It’s not the best time for Jon Stewart to retire, but he does, choosing young South African comedian Trevor Noah to replace him. In Canada, tension rises for the upcoming election, with the NDP running neck and neck with the Conservative Party.
Let no one tell you that writing a book isn’t a lot of work. My Great Global Bucket List is a monster, so much so that I have to cut 17 chapters for space! And this month is my deadline for both the Northern and Prairie Bucket Lists too. Why write one book when you can write three? Between long writing days, I take my family to a magical place called the Echo Valley Ranch in the BC interior. For a year that includes the Amazon and Galapagos and Greenland, I fondly recall Echo Valley way more than I expected to. Beside the wingnuts lined up at the mall, who gives a crap about the new iPhone when dead kids are washing up on beaches? The world is shocked when the media publishes an image of a drowned toddler washed ashore in Turkey. The refugee crisis is truly staggering: over a million people braving terrible conditions and risks to get away from monsters, some of them arriving to find monsters trumping all over them on arrival. Meanwhile, thousands die in a stampede during the annual Hajj in Saudi Arabia, and Russia starts bombing ISIS and US-backed opposition forces in Syria. Because that’s what the region needs: the possibility of igniting World War III. Volkswagen is revealed to have been cheating omissions tests with software, one of the largest cases of industrial fraud ever. At least they owned up to it. What the hell happened to the NDP? All of a sudden, strategic voting is elevating the Liberals to the neck-and-neck title. Canadian politics may be civil, but this is turning out to be an interesting election that could change the future of the country.
It crunch time for deadlines. When you work by yourself, there’s no office mates to high five when you file a 120,000 word manuscript. Or nail a keynote at a conference on the Mayan Riviera in Mexico, or on stage in Tacoma, or for the BC tourism industry annual gathering. I’m high fiving myself all over the place. On October 19, Canada goes to the polls. I vote on the way to dropping off my daughter at daycare. That afternoon I visit a tattoo artist in Strathcona to permanently ink a reminder of the year’s incredible adventures. If I don’t, I simply would not believe all these adventures had taken place at all. By the time I return home after my five hour sitting, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals have somehow swept to a majority government. It’s the dawning of a new Canada, one that I believe is far more recognizable and in-line with the values of its people. The Conservatives campaigned on fear, the Liberals on hope. By the end of the month, you could taste the optimism in the air. Trudeau appointed a gender-equal cabinet. Trudeau reversed policy decisions on refugees, on climate change, on austerity. The last time I lived through a political honeymoon like this was when Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa. Two decades later, South African politics is in a sorry mess (#zumamustfall), but there’s no denying the “moment” while it lasts. On the world stage, Canada is back. #becauseits2015. A bomb explodes on a Russian commercial jet with 225 passengers shortly after take-off in Egypt. Putin says there will be blood, and promptly starts dropping bombs on innocent Syrian civilians. 32 people die in a Romanian nightclub fight. October 21 is the actual day Marty McFly arrives in the future in Back to the Future II. Our hoverboards have wheels. Our laces still don’t tie themselves. Damn Marty, the future ain’t what it used to be.
No offence November, but you’ve always been the worst month of the Northern Hemisphere year. Winter starts biting, but the festivities of December have yet to begin. And it doesn’t help that it rains, and gets dark at 3pm, and everyone starts coming down with year-end fatigue. Fortunately, there’s always a trip to Tropical North Queensland to dive Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It was a last minute chapter in the book and an opportunity to tick off one of the world’s great natural wonders. I was driving in rental car in Gold Coast, tuned into local radio, and first heard about the massacre in Paris. The news stopped all of us in our tracks. We all know Paris (or of it). We know what it’s like to go to a concert, or chat in a coffee shop. Each attack makes us angrier, and that anger translates into action, and unfortunately, more fear of the other. It’s exactly what these rectal slimebags want. More hatred, more fear, more terror. More yahoo cowboys with bazookas in kindergartens. A religious civil war is sucking the world into its fundamentalist vortex, Allah help us. Turkey shoots down a Russian fighter jet and the old claws of NATO and the Warsaw Pact get sharpened. At least Taiwan and China seem to be moving in the right direction, with the first formal meeting of its leaders. And Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be having her Mandela moment in Burma aka Myanmar. Adele’s new album smashes records in its opening week. It’s full of heartbreak, aching and longing.
I kicked off December with a visit to Chicago to talk about the wonders of Canada to a room of US tour operators. Even more memorable than strolling beneath the Xmas lights on the Magnificent Mile was the fact that, for the first time in my life, I showed up at the airport without my passport. Yep, true story. I hopped into a cab, and with a sympathetic driver (who turned out to be a fan), pushed the limits of a Prius to somehow get home and back to the airport, through customs and security, before the plane took off. Now that was magnificent. For all the bad news in the world (another mass shooting in the US, and another) there was also optimism. For the first time, the world’s nations came together to agree on a plan to move away from fossil fuels. Implementation will be nigh on impossible, but at least there’s a global political consensus that the weather is changing, and unusual droughts, floods, storms and temperatures are not a good thing. 2015 is the hottest year recorded since records began in 1880. For all our current geo-political turmoil, at least we’re not living 12,800 years ago. A fascinating talk (and new book) by one of my favourite authors Graham Hancock convincingly suggests that impending comet strikes sent us back to the Stone Age. And probably will do so again. Oh well, one more reason to start ticking off that bucket list sooner than later.
Some of the better books I read: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari; The Martian by Andy Weir; The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern; Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins; The Girl who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonassen; The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert; One More Thing by BJ Novak and Magicians of the Gods by Graham Hancock.
Some of the better movies and TV shows I saw: Game of Thrones; The Martian; Mad Max Fury Road; Ex Machina; Inside Out; Sicario; The Jinx; Narcos. Of course, there’s a lot I didn’t see, and regrettably. all the superhero stuff just sort of blended into one explosion.
It was a weird year for music. Normally I run through critics list and hunt new tunes and bands with impressive tenacity. This year I just didn’t get it. Everything sounded so…derivative. I must really be getting old. Some of the better songs I listened to (whether they were released in 2015 I’m not sure): 10,000 Emerald Pools by Borns; Every Other Freckle by Alt-J; Kill vs Maim/Flesh without Blood by Grimes; Generate/Mirage by Eric Prydz; Anna Sun by Walk the Moon; Kygo remixes; Trojans by Atlas Genius; Science-Visions by Chvrches; Flash Junk Mind by Milky Chance.