Congratulations! Each decade of your life is an accomplishment. Goals are realized, professions evolve, priorities shift, families grow and experience is gained. This is also reflected in how we choose to travel, and where we choose to go. Celebrating these important milestones, I've gathered inspiring destinations to suit this passage of time. Of course, every journey is unique. You can turn these decades upside down, or mix them up entirely. A bucket list is as special and individual as the person who crafts it, and each life journey is one’s own. As for the passing of the years themselves, I defer to the wisdom of Mark Twain: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter!”
Meeting Boris Becker as an 18 year old at Madame Taussad's in London.
20’s - LET'S PARTY
In our twenties, we travel to relish in the excess. All night parties, camping on beaches, intense relationships – all with a no-holds-barred commitment to the carefree abandon of youth. It's a time to make the kind of mistakes you'll learn from, and sacrifices you'd only make when you're young. Legends of Full Moon parties and all-night desert parties sound particularly appealing, and you don't mind sleeping on floors or eating instant noodles for a month if it means you can get to them. Backpacking across Western Europe is a rite of passage, although it's also very expensive, Stretching your travel dollar, you'll be drawn to budget-travel meccas like Thailand, Central America, India and Laos. You might be drawn to a Kibbutz in Israel or volunteering with animals in Bolivia. Everything and everyone will be particularly vivid and intense, an opportunity to learn and grow and let your hair down. You'll only realize just how big that opportunity was when you're further along your life journey.
Sharing a special sunset in Mauritius
30’s - ROMANCE AND FAMILY
As we grow into our third decade, life might have rearranged itself so that we'd want to visit special places with a special partner who one day will grow a family with us. As we circle the possibility of a major life milestone, a romantic adventure is definitely in order. Bus around Thailand, from the white, sandy beaches in the south to the rich culture of the north. Brave the bungie jumps and wild adventures of New Zealand. Take a tour through Eastern Europe, exploring cobblestone alleys and medieval town squares. Perhaps towards the end of the decade or the start of the next, your partnership has grown. Parents of young kids know that happy kids will always make a happy vacation. Choose a sunny beach resort with lots of activities in Hawaii, Mexico, Barbados, or Jamaica. Introduce your kids to new cultures and cuisines. Slow down and bond with your nearest and dearest, as together you build the memorable traditions of meaningful family vacations.
Here's an idea: let's hire an RV for an epic road trip in the Rockies! So we did!
40’s - IN MOTION
At last, the kids are at summer camp, or old enough to join us on an adventure that's physical, but not too strenuous. As careers stabilize and hobbies strengthen, perhaps it’s time to hike the Inca Trail, trek in Nepal, or spend our well-earned holidays on a multi-day bike ride through the valleys of Italy or France. A fly-in fishing trip in Canada, a multi-day rafting excursion between the Grand Canyon, or maybe just an epic road trip to explore the Oregon coast, Route 66, Yellowstone or Banff National Parks. Consider a few weeks camping across Iceland, or taking a tour to pack in the highlights of Western Europe. Volunteering in a foreign country delivers a rich, rewarding experience. Teaching kids, building wells, looking after rescued animals – making a difference in the lives of others makes a difference for us too. Old enough to know better and yet young enough to go with the flow, the forties is a milestone decade to follow our feet, and safely veer off the beaten track.
Smoked burnt ends and dinosaur bones. This is going to be so bad for me, and so, so very good.
50’s - FOOD AND FESTS
Do you remember when 50 used to be old? Not anymore. Today it’s a time to celebrate our decades of hard work, and the settled income that it has brought us. Now we can appreciate the more expensive bottle of wine, the fine dining restaurant, the outstanding stage play. Forget nightclubs, it’s time to appreciate the spectacle shows and world-class performances on offer in Las Vegas. For something more exotic, we’ll turn to major cultural spectacles like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or Rio’s famous Carnaval. Perhaps a major sporting event is in order, such as Wimbledon, an Olympics or the Superbowl. The very idea of exploring one of the world’s great wine routes – Napa in California, Mendoza in Argentina, Margaret River in Western Australia – is intoxicating. We’ve finally booked to see the world’s largest jazz and comedy festivals in Montreal, the best acts at the Edinburgh Arts Festival, or the latest hits on Broadway. Enjoy the festivals, performances, wine tastings and feasts. You’ve earned it!
You can take my youth, but you can never take my freedom!
60’s - TIME FOR HISTORY
As we usher in the next decade, the allure of history is more fascinating than ever. We begin to see our lives in a greater context, and appreciate the passing of time. Once we might have ticked off the Louvre in a couple hours before racing off to the next Parisian attraction. Now we take our time in the world’s great museums – the Louvre and Hermitage, the Guggenheim, the ROM and the Museum of Natural History. Waterways and rail transports us in comfort to treasures of antiquity: cruise down the Yangtze or Nile Rivers, or along the Mediterranean and Black Sea. Sit back in a viewing carriage to marvel at the Canadian Rockies, the Australian Outback, or the highlands of Scotland. We’ll take our time exploring the ancient temples of Cambodia’s Angkor, the biblical alleys of Jerusalem, the Mayan ruins of Mexico, or the narrow canals of Venice. There is so much to see, and still plenty of time.
Making friends with young Masai warriors in Kenya,
70’s + - BUCKET LIST
We’ve always wanted to go there. We’ve always wanted to do that. As we enter the seventh decade of life, we realize our bucket list destinations are not going anywhere, but we most certainly are. Fortunately, in an age of affordable airfare and such a diverse variety of packages, our dreams are more accessible than ever. Cruise among the islands and abundant wildlife of the Galapagos. On the plains of the Serengeti and the legendary Masai Mara, witness the migration of the wildebeest from the comforts of a luxury, or self-catered bush camp, and make friends with Masai tribesmen. It’s not always easy, but we’ll put up with a sweaty trek for a face-to-face encounter with endangered mountain gorillas in the jungles of Central Africa. Iconic landmarks like the Great Wall of China and the Coliseum, the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal draw us like magnets. Perhaps it’s also time to finally tick off that Alaska or Caribbean cruise, or visit long-lost relatives in the nations of our ancestors. Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come, and appreciate the value of all that is to follow.
Perhaps like you, I first heard about kopi luwak in the film The Bucket List. In fact, I first heard of bucket lists in the The Bucket List (a film which never quite matched its cultural influence with its box office earnings). Jack Nicholson’s curmudgeonly character explains that kopi luwak is the world’s most expensive coffee, with beans gathered from the excrement of a civet – a type of wild cat - found in Indonesia. The beans are collected, cleaned, packaged, and sold for up to $70 per 100g. Yes, this is a thing. In fact, kopi luwak is one of the first things I sought out after arriving in Bali, where “Wild” and “Organic” kopi luwak sells for about $15-20 per 100g. In the throes of high tourist season, I quickly learned that the Balinese are experts in the Art of Separating Tourists from Money, especially the taxi drivers, who are the worst shysters I’ve encountered anywhere. Balinese cunning might explain why stories abound of poor civets being kept in battery cages and force fed coffee berries like geese on their transition to fois gras. Today’s civet suffers greatly in order to meet both tourist and international demand for the bounty of their bowel movements.
The story also goes that the Asian palm civet carefully chooses only the finest coffee berries to eat, the epitome of natural selection. After consumption, the berries receive some rare biological gift in the civet’s digestive tract, are pooped-out whole, and are scooped up, processed and marketed as the world’s finest and expensive coffee. Having procured 100 grams of Organic (says the bag) and Wild (why would they lie?) luwak from a souvenir shop, I reviewed several sites as to the best method to prepare the coffee. We used the French Press we’ve been carrying around the world with us, and prepared the press with the same care the wild civet must have taken when it squeezed the beans out its anus. Gently raising the cup to my nose, it smelled exactly like… coffee. Putting my lips to the black elixir, it tasted exactly like…Angels Singing with Harps in Heaven. Nah, just kidding, it tasted like coffee. Actually, it tasted worse than our regular coffee. A little too thin, a little too complex, and a little too obvious that the only remarkable thing about this coffee is the words written on the package in which it came. Plus, I felt terrible drinking my cup of Joe. I couldn’t help but picture an abused cat trapped in a battery cage, force-fed coffee berries by steely-eyed, clove-smoking men with big sticks. Despite the reassurances of “Wild” and “Organic” providence on the vacuum-sealed baggie, the amount of times I’ve been ripped off in Bali made me question the veracity of the packaging. Taxi drivers doubling the agreed upon rate; meals suddenly costing more; paying to park; paying to relax on the sand; paying to use a floatie by the pool; paying extra; paying more; paying “special price for you.” Can’t really blame these folks, given that tourism accounts for 80% of the island’s economy, bringing in 3.5m people a year, with the Chinese – those bastions of cultural sensitivity – leading the charge, and Australians drunk on the island’s cheap beer and anarchy not far behind.
Prized for its unique rarity, when a peak experience jumps the shark, there’s nothing unique or rare about it any more. Rather, it quickly becomes the domain of the unscrupulous cashing in on a phenomenon. This is the case with the luwak or the kecak dance in Bali, and it is the case worldwide (see: every tourist trap you’ve ever been to). Meanwhile, those poor civets in Indonesia must deeply regret the bloke who first discovered that coffee beans extracted from their faeces taste delicious. They probably wonder why the guy didn’t just eat the coffee beans, crap them out himself, and give that a taste. Perhaps the human digestive tract would have added an extra layer of smoothness too. It certainly would add a layer of complexity to impress the coffee connoisseurs, the same ones that have rated kopi luwak poorly in several blind tastings.
It is my opinion, therefore, to leave the poor civets alone, and release kopi luwak from its dubious claim to be the world’s best cup of coffee. Let the cats live in peace, and let's ignore the bright red coffee berries shining within their scat. A steaming cup of kopi luwak is certainly a unique culinary experience, although is probably better described as a steaming pile of something else.
Living in a country, as opposed to travelling through it, is a form of travel I have long felt missing in my repertoire. My career, after all, has too often involved the ticking off of unique experiences, and then running off to the next destination. After a frenetic 6-month research period in Australia to write my next book, and with my daughter only starting kindergarten at the year-end, it felt like the perfect opportunity to live in a place I've always loved, and in places I've yet to explore. We started with six weeks in Chiang Mai.
I first visited the city 2005, and fell in love with it. Unlike the congested, polluted mess that is Bangkok, Chiang Mai was friendly, peaceful and calm, beaming with golden temples, cheap eats, and guesthouses. I returned a few years later to film an episode of Word Travels, and always thought: “If I had to live anywhere in Asia for a while, this would be the place.” With my family and Amy, our own travelling Mary Poppins-assistant in tow, we found a semi-detached house outside of the Old Town on Air Bnb, and prepared to settle into the neighbourhood. The Thai – at least those outside of heavy tourist zones - are just unbelievably, remarkably, authentically warm and gentle people. They love children. They smile a lot. They are 95% Buddhist. We weren’t off the plane for five minutes and felt reassured by the welcoming nature of the culture. . Our house was at the end of a soi, an alley, off a busy road. Everything was so different, so anything-goes, so jarring, so unlike Australia. Like most Thai houses, ours didn’t have much of a kitchen (a gas burner, a fridge, some basic cutlery and utensils). Like most Thai houses, we wouldn’t be able to flush toilet paper down the toilet. The beds were rock hard, the furniture basic, the shower pressure almost non-existent. A rooster crowed directly across from us all through the night (more on the rooster later). There was blessed air conditioning in the bedrooms, and just a fan downstairs. Mosquitoes and flies patrolled the windows and the wonky screen door. Inside the place was clean, but a little rough around the edges, softened each Monday when the cleaner would come and leave it spotless. When we arrived, my wife looked at me like I was a madman for bringing us here. But at least we wouldn’t have to unpack after a few days, and at least we didn’t have anything in particular to do. We could just be.
It took us about 10 days to get our bearings, to navigate the wild discrepancies between tourist/rich Thai prices, and local/poor Thai prices. After our careful budget in Australia, we leaned heavily towards to the latter. All that beef in Australia disappeared from the menu in Northern Thailand (unless we wanted to pay $50 for a steak in a fancy mall restaurant). Up here, they love pork, pork and smelly fish, rice, pork and rice, and lots of chicken. Prices for food in the big Tesco supermarket were significantly more expensive than Australia. We splurged on olive oil. Cheap plastic toys from China were triple the price.
In fact, everything was more expensive than I anticipated. In the decade since I last visited, Chiang Mai has become a haven for an estimated 3000- 5000 digital nomads – people who can work from anywhere - and Chiang Mai is as good as an anywhere as you’d want to be. A military coup that took place a few years ago in Thailand must be good for business and tourism because the sheer number of visitors and new hotels within Old Town was staggering. Every shop was a guesthouse or tour operator, a massage parlour or restaurant. While we might see one or two westerners wandering about our neighbourhood, once we crossed the old walls into Old Town, gringos were everywhere, still wearing the baggy elephant-imprint pants one can only wear in Thailand without looking ridiculous. At first, we wondered if we made a mistake booking a place so removed from the thick of Old Town, but quickly came to appreciate it. Because we did indeed get to know the community, who embraced us after a couple weeks when they realized we were not the typical transient visitors. We slotted into a lifestyle that was more than just visiting temples, going to overpriced bars and eating pad thai. Although we definitely visited temples and ate pad thai.
Temples and Mobikes
Getting around was affordable and easy, something we really only appreciated when we arrived in Bangkok, where getting around was difficult and comparatively expensive. Mobike, Chiang Mai’s public bicycle system, allowed us to rent bikes with handy baskets in the front, seemingly perfectly designed for the kids to sit up front. Solar powered and blue-tooth operated through a phone app, the bikes could be left anywhere, so we basically just “borrowed” a few to use and permanently kept them outside our heavy sliding green gate. It cost 10 baht (about 50c) for a half hour, although I got a 200 baht ($10) unlimited use for 90 days pass. My fondest memories of Chiang Mai are riding the streets with Raquel or Gali in the basket, stopping at temples, waving to locals. Chiang Mai is mostly flat, and the Mobikes – at least the orange ones we used and not the wonky silver ones – were super comfortable. We never saw any other kids in the baskets, and neither had anyone else, which is why Gali and Raquel were instant rock stars on the Mobikes. Smiles and laughs and waves came from every direction. For further distances, Grab Taxis is the local Uber, and they eliminated the constant haggle and rip off with tuk tuk drivers and taxi drivers. The fare was always fair, and the drivers gave us no nonsense. What a game changer! We took a few tuk tuks, more for the experience, but between the Mobikes and Grab, we could get around wherever we needed to go. On the last week, I hired a scooter, which was super fun, even if we had to wear a helmet primarily to avoid the bribes we’d have to pay at roadblocks (only foreigners get stopped if they don’t have a helmet). Our underpowered bike didn’t make it up every hill, but we had a fun day lunching by a river, feeling the jungle breeze, and braking for elephants. Raquel only fell asleep twice, on the scooter, in heavy traffic. Raquel and I took a bigger bike for a 90-minute ride to the beautiful Sticky Waterfalls. It was quite the adventure I hope she somehow remembers, racing 100 km/hr through the jungles of Northern Thailand, seated between my legs.
One the ladies
“Hi-low Lay-dees!” The local Thai ladies were besotted with the kids, especially Gali. We never got their names and would not be able to remember or pronounce them if we did, so we just called them “the ladies.” On our street, upstairs in an old wooden house was an old lady always sewing. She always smiled and waved, and raced downstairs one day to give the kids handmade Thai clothes. We printed out a picture of her and the kids to say thanks. When we said goodbye, she gave the kids teary hugs and some wooden Buddhas. On our corner was the “chicken fried rice ladies”, working in their gritty local eatery a tourist wouldn’t go near. We must have waved and greeted to them at least six times a day. They made us the fine and tasty chicken fried rice that we ate a couple times a week. Then there was the Thai Ice Tea lady, although we all had our favourite Thai tea lady. The Plastic Lady, who provided us with plastic bins and knick knacks and spoke some English. The Pad Thai ladies, another place tourists wouldn’t blink at but made a great 30 baht ($1.50) pad thai. The Market Ladies, the Fruit Lady, the Temple Lady (above) who always cried when she saw the kids, the Pancake Lady, the Ice Cream Lady. We did cook at home a fair amount and realized how much we miss an oven when we don’t have one. We made do with pasta and deep friend chicken and eggs and toast in the morning, although usually had to watch out for the geckos jumping out of the toaster. My wife took a Thai cooking class and came home to make a fantastic Tom Yum soup. It was often more expensive to buy the ingredients than just grab a pad thai. Without eating pork or stinky fish, it says much about Thai cooking that we ate chicken/rice/noodles in some configuration for 6 weeks without getting tired of it. There was a local vegetable market - more friendly ladies - around the corner, along with a Tesco Express and 7-11 (a mini supermarket), and it all amounted to a situation that became dependably convenient – something we again only appreciated when we left Chiang Mai.
Pity the fool who messes with this 5 year-old
Also around the corner was a gritty local Muay Thai gym – Thai kickboxing. We paid the friendly manager Ratana to give Raquel private lessons on Thursday nights. Ratana and her pretty daughter loved Raquel, who cut the cutest curly-haired figure sparring among sweaty fighters. She learned to keep her fists up, kick, punch and elbow, and survive the massive mosquitoes attacking the gym in the early evening. Ratana took lots of videos, she thought Raquel was just amazing. We hoped the lessons would help burn off some of her energy so there wouldn’t be a prize fight trying to get her to sleep that night.
Although we tried hard not to be tourists, of course we did a few touristy things. Art in Paradise is an interactive art museum that blew us away, putting us in the picture with dinosaurs and masterpieces. The kids loved the Elephant Poo Poo Park, where dung is sustainably converted into paper (it's a lot more interesting than it sounds, and in case you're wondering, doesn't smell at all). We visited a massive waterpark called Tube Trek, the Saturday Night Market, which was so much better than the overcrowded Sunday Night Market. The Ginger Farm, where Gali fell into a muddy trench. He had more luck at the Buak Hard Public Park, which had the only decent playground we could find. Of course there were all the amazing temples, and we had a beautiful moment with an elephant on the road without visiting an expensive and dubiously elephant park. We made friends with wonderful locals and expats (and their kids), celebrated birthdays. Along with the rest of the world, we anxiously watched the dramatic rescue of the schoolboys from a cave located a few hours drive away. We joined hundred of Israelis every Friday night for a Chabad feast, and enjoyed the spectacle of the FIFA World Cup in Russia, washed down with tall bottles of cold Singha beer.
Next door was a Burmese family who prepared rounded fish balls over burning charcoal, the smell of which reliably wafted through the windows each afternoon. Each night, and often during the day, the loud roosters would get started. If they didn’t keep us awake, they invaded our dreams. We spent long nights lying in semi-sleep thinking about how much we’d love to kill those damn birds. I suppose it was revenge for the sheer amount of chicken we ate every day.
Making paper with elephant poo
Art in Paradise
We brake for elephants
The smell of the camphor/citronella mosquito spray. The ants that would snake from the ceiling to the garbage bin in the kitchen. The kids writing with chalk on the patio outside before the daily late afternoon tropical rain would wash their scribbles away. Amy’s ongoing saga with the dodgy dentists of Chiang Mai. The manual washing machine we didn’t use in the back, and the communal washing machines we did down the road. The modern malls and dragon fruit. The homemade ice-lollies with the plastic we bought from the Plastic Lady. To say nothing of Chiang Mai itself, with its bustling markets, and shiny golden Buddhist temples, orange robed monks, crazy traffic, and pungent fish-sauce fragrances. The kids couldn’t enjoy our $15 hour-long massages in the dark but innocent backrooms off the strip next to the Doo Dee Bar, but they sure chomped down the surprisingly good biltong we managed to find, made by a Dutchman, and delivered to our front gate.
We could only appreciate how comfortable we’d become in Chiang Mai when we bid our farewells and arrived in Bangkok for 2 weeks. Our first Air Bnb was such an epic disaster we had to evacuate it after a few hours (with a small refund, thanks Air Bnb). Our second last-minute emergency lodging was called the Paradise Sukhumvit, which was as far from Paradise as you can imagine. Our third attempt was modern and clean and on the 29th floor of a condo in Thonglor, which is where you want to be in sticky, smoggy Bangkok, away from the insane traffic and noise and mayhem. A big city means less smiles, and more issues getting around to do anything. The disparity between expensive “normal” restaurants and cheap street food, between normal Thai and rich Thai/expat, is bewildering and excessive. The traffic can often jam you into a single intersection for 15 minutes. Grab Taxi is double the price here because you’re hardly moving. It’s enough to make you want to lock yourself up in a tower with a swimming pool and air conditioning and hardly venture outside. We did take a couple crazy river boats and visited some of the bigger temples, hooked up an amazing indoor play area in a ritzy mall where a hand bag costs more than several month’s wages. Still, Bangkok offered up some wonderful and vivid moments: riding the loud riverboats up the narrow canals (always preferable to the frustrating gridlock in the back of a taxi). The incredible temples and time well spent in the wonderful condo infinity pool above the snarling traffic on Petchaburi Road; a play date with a family from Vancouver; Raquel conquering the monkey bars for the first time in Lumpini Park, seeing a movie where the audience must stand and sing tribute to the King (I'd say more about the King, but in Thailand that can get you arrested).
Bangkok, oriental city...
We hope Chiang Mai is only the beginning of the amazing experiences to come in Bali and Vietnam (and a side trip to Singapore to see our old dear friends), as opposed to the pinnacle of our Asian adventure. Because if I reminisce about it so fondly after being away from the city for less than a week, memory will likely grow positively and brighter as the months and years pass. My family spent 6 weeks in Thailand. Not travelled in, but lived. It was a culture shock, it was full of big challenges, unforgettable and wonderful moments, lovely people, and everything we hoped it would be. Next up: Bali.
As we've established, I usually travel with a small bottle of hot sauce. When applied liberally, it can save any meal (even boiled cabbage in Siberia, although you might need more than one bottle). Fortunately, there are some destinations where carrying my hot sauce is completely unnecessary. These are the places where the Mighty Chilli roams free, and pity the fool traveller who shows it disrespect.
The Thai’s don’t cook. They paint a masterpiece on your palate, with colours of sweet, salty, sour and spice. The chilli in question is known locally as “mouse droppings”, since it is small and shrivelled. Thailand’s famous red curry is made with these dried, crushed chillis. Yellow curry, the least spicy, is made with spices like turmeric. The most spicy is green curry, with the potent seeds left in. The Thai chilli realizes its full potential in tom yum soup, combined with lime, fish sauce, ginger and lemongrass. When the ingredients are mixed just right, it will make you salivate just thinking about it for years to come (as I am doing just typing this).
A good, strong Indian curry will make your eyeballs sweat. Traditionally, the spiciest Indian dish is the vindaloo, inspired by Portuguese visitors but perfected in India with a variety of chillies and peppers. I find that drinking lightly carbonated Indian beer soothes an extra hot vindaloo’s burn to something almost bearable. But I’d still place a roll of toilet paper in the fridge before you go to bed, for it is well known that strong curries always burn twice.
The African birds-eye chilli was spread around the world by Portuguese seafarers, and for good reason. Known as peri peri, the small birds-eye releases a chemical that has been proven to trigger a sort of culinary buzz. You can’t get addicted, but after years of craving a steady fix, I believe I’ve come pretty close. You can also chase the peri-peri burn in Portugal, Brazil, and at a top notch South African franchise called Nandos Chicken worldwide.
Lets hit the bayou with a little fixin’ of some of Louisiana’s finest. Tabasco brand pepper sauce is found around the world, and “blackened Cajun” rub has become a staple in many fish restaurants. But the USA seems to have excelled in the manufacture and marketing of outrageous sauces, with quirky names like Satan’s Blood and Blair’s Mega Death Sauce. One of the world’s spiciest dishes was traced to a shrimp cocktail in Indianapolis (heavy on the horseradish), while one restaurant in Chicago insists diners sign a waiver before sampling its XXX Hot Wings. American food scientists have extracted the capsaicin compound that gives chilli peppers its kick. It’s more a weapon than a food group.
The best fish I’ve ever had was on the Jamaican south coast, spiced with the wonderful Caribbean concoction popularly known as jerk. Fish or meat is dry rubbed with a mixture of scallions, nutmeg, garlic, herbs, and the secret ingredient, the Scotch Bonnet Pepper. Closely related to the habanero, the most fierce of household chillies, the Scotch Pepper is small and unassuming, like a nuclear bomb in a suitcase. When combined in the right combination, it creates a jerk sensation, a mouth-watering blend of heat and taste.
Chinese cuisine is not afraid to use chillies, but the region most famous for its culinary heat is the Szechuan Province. Perhaps its most famous dish is the hot pot, whereby different ingredients are added to a pot until everything is just right. A locally grown “flower” pepper adds the heat the region is famous for.
Jalapeno peppers are renowned the world over, although on the Scoville Scale they barely register. Consider it has a rating of just 2500 to 8000, while the habanero lies somewhere between 100,000 and 350,000. Mexicans tamed the habanero, a monster of a pepper, now used in most gimmicky hot sauces. Fortunately it is used in Mexican kitchens sparingly, where moles (sauces) are prepared with that special combination of tomato, cilantro, lime, pepper, and sometimes chocolate.
SIDE NOTE: The World’s Spiciest Dish
Phaal curry is made from various peppers, but there’s only one you should worry about. The bhut jolokia, aka the nala jokolia, aka the ghost pepper, aka you-have-to-be-out-of- your-mind-to-eat-this-pepper pepper. It’s been certified by the Guinness Book of Records as being the strongest pepper known to man, with a Scoville rating of over 1,000,000! The thick Phaal curry is served in India and Pakistan, to diners who will shortly lose all communication with their oral cavity.
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!
My Dad and I finally see the light
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.
Unless you're the lead dog, the view's all the same
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).
Easy listening, easy reading
Your lips must touch this gnarly looking toe!
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.”
Feeling good on stage for Coast Hotels
The Wooden Skyscraper of Whitehorse
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.
Drinking in the World
My favourite, and not-so-favourite cocktails from around the globe.
Peru and Chile have long battled over who owns the Pisco Sour, but regardless of its origins, anyone who gets the chance to enjoy it is a winner. The cocktail is made from the clear distilled grape brandy pisco, blended with fresh lemon or lime, egg whites, syrup or sugar, and a dash of bitters. It’s refreshing yet a little sour, much like a margarita, and served in a short whiskey glass, any time of day. The Pisco Sour is the national drink of Peru, who claim that Chile stole the recipe from them during a war in the 1800’s. That being said, the best Pisco Sour I had was in Santiago, from a homemade Chilean recipe. Perhaps it’s time both countries sit down and discuss the issue over a cocktail.
In many parts of the world, locals forego major liquor brands for their own homemade moonshine. Such is the case with raki in Albania. Raki is also found in Turkey, and known as arak in North Africa and the Middle East. Every year in Albania, there are cases of people going blind, or even losing their lives after consuming a particular nasty batch of raki, which is distilled from grapes and flavoured with aniseed. Not that you’ll be able to taste much, as this traditional aperitif disintegrates everything it touches in your mouth and throat. In Albania, homemade raki served in a glass decanter made my mouth burn and my nose run, but fortunately, left my eyesight in tact.
Georgians don’t know which came first: Wine, or the people to drink it. Archaeologists have discovered traces of wine in jars that date back 8000 years, implying that tiny Georgia, bordered by Turkey, Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, is the birthplace of wine the world over. The country has 200 endemic species of grape, producing many types of wine that are found nowhere else. Toastmasting is a proud tradition, as is the cultivation and production of wine in underground casks that date back generations. Saperavi is its most famous red wine, along with the white Rkatsitelli. Both are sweet, almost dessert-like wines, high in sugar and alcohol. At a traditional dinner, I watch four men pour out their lauded toasts, draining at least a dozen bottles without tipping over. France and Italy may make the finest wine, but little known Georgia lives and breathes it.
Legend has it that the powerfully strong mampoer is an able substitute should you run out of battery acid. Known as a type of peach brandy, mampoer can be made from any fruit, including apricots, plums, figs, prickly pear, pineapples and marula. Its origins go back to the Dutch settlers of South Africa, who allowed soft, sweet fruit to rot in barrels for three weeks, before boiling it up a couple times to distil the alcohol from the mash. Mampoer, which is still made by many farmers in South Africa, has an alcohol volume between 60 to 80%. No word on whether they use it to power their tractors.
A drink can only be called tequila if it is produced in the region of Jalisco, in and around the town of Tequila itself. Mexico’s national drink has its roots with the Aztecs, who produced a fermented drink called pulque from the agave plant. When Spanish conquistadors ran dry of their imported liquor, they adopted the native drink to produce mescal, the name still given to a variety of liquor produced from the agave. Tequila is a type of mescal produced only in one region, refined, and perfected, much like cognac is to brandy. Jose Cuervo began production in 1795, and its La Rojena distillery is still in operation today, the oldest in Latin America. Here you can see how tequila is made, learn about its correct consumption (sipped, never shot), and drink from the family’s private cellar, where the smooth, rich sample has the fragrance of tequila, but goes down like liquid velvet.
Fermented Horse Milk
The chief of the nomadic tribe calls me into his traditional circular ger tent. It’s pretty spacious considering it can be dismantled and packed onto horses in just a couple hours. On the walls, made of fabric, are pictures of famous Mongolian wrestlers, embroidery, and cracked mirrors. We sit at a table, and from a porcelain jug, he pours into a small wooden cup some of his most treasured elixir. I smile, maintaining eye contact, and bring the cup to my mouth. A sour odour reaches my nose, the eye-watering stench of ammonia. The liquid touches my lips, burns, the tartness stretching my tongue and forcing a muffled gag reflex. I shoot it back, closing my eyes, somehow keeping it down. I regain focus, breathe out a noxious gas, and silently congratulate myself. The chief is so impressed, he immediately pours me another cup.
There’s nothing quite like seeing South Korean businessmen on a soju binge. This vodka-like drink, produced from rice or other starches like potato or wheat, is poured into a shot glass, and after a toast, consumed in one gulp. Etiquette dictates that you must not fill your own glass, that it must be held with one or two hands depending on status, and poured and received in a particular manner too. With all the rules, dating back to the 1300’s, it’s odd to see basic courtesy go out the window as the soju takes hold, and men descend into a state of alcoholic madness. I saw suits and ties passed out in the bushes on Seoul, or carried unconscious over the shoulder by colleagues, all on a weeknight! Korea’a Alcohol and Liquor Industry reckons each Korean adult drinks more than 90 bottles of soju a year, where it is viewed as a positive energy source for the country.
“Robin Ayers Rock?”
“I’m sorry, did you say Ayers Rock?”
“No, E-S. Rock.”
My grandmother once told me how people from Australia thought she was joking when she gave her surname. It never struck me how similar Esrock is to Ayers Rock, but throw in a few accents here and there, and no wonder locals this week raised an eyebrow. It was something I got used to pretty quick during my visit to Australia, along with the fact that you don’t have to tip, and fast food joints charge you for ketchup pouches.
After the comfortable flight into Brisbane via Auckland on Air New Zealand, well deserved of airlineratings.com Airline of the Year Award, I breathe the warm, tropical coastal air of northern Queensland on my patio at the Thala Beach Resort. Humidity hugs me as I gaze out over the forest canopy and picturesque bay, listening to the songs of birds and frogs. Parrots flutter about in the trees adjacent to the windowless dining room, with the natural assets of tropical north Queensland on full display. My first introduction to the Great Barrier Reef is on Quicksilver’s wave-piercing catamaran, which delivers tourists to a permanent pontoon on the outer barrier reef. Beyond snorkelling, I soak up the time in a semi-submersible boat ride, an underwater observatory, in the skies with a helicopter ride (the view is extraordinary) and my personal highlight - on an underwater platform with a fish-bowl like helmet on my head, petting a friendly and unnervingly large Maori wrasse. Well, that’s one way to experience the reef. Another is by sea kayak, launched the following day from Thala Beach in the early morning hours. Sea turtles pop their heads out the water to see what the fuss is about, but I’m more distracted by the lush costal mountains framing the coastline.
Back to Cairns, which serves as the gateway to the northern barrier reef, I hop on a small plane for an hour-long flight to Lizard Island National Park. Home to an important marine research station, Lizard Island also has glitziest resort on the reef, with 48 luxurious villas facing a turquoise bay and white sandy beaches. Re-opened after two cyclones caused havoc, the resort is the epitome of elegance – white walls, wooden boardwalks, palm trees, an azure pool, fine dining and spa. It’s also on many a diver’s bucket list, especially the Cod Hole, where giant potato cod swim with curious sharks and technicolour fish on the outer reef. It’s my first scuba dive in some time, and as I descend beneath the surface, surrounded by hundreds of barracuda, I’m reminded of previous visits into the weightless underwater wonderland of ocean diving. I chase reef sharks, stare into the eyes of the giant cod, navigate reef canyons. “Damn!” I exclaim back on the dive boat. “The Great Barrier Reef delivers!”
A raucous farewell party on the beach (maintaining my perfect record of skinny dipping in warm oceans at night under the stars), fly to Cairns, fly to Gold Coast, climb a building, storm watch from the 27th floor balcony of the stylish Peppers Broadbeach, and I’m in the co-pilot chair on the 10-seater plane to the most southerly resort island on the barrier reef – Lady Elliot Island. Renowned for the manta rays and turtles that visit the island home year-round, Lady Elliot is the most accessible reef island for Australia’s southern capitals, popular with families, divers, weekenders and daytrippers. I pick up snorkel gear at the dive shop, take a few steps from my cabin into the lagoon, and the reef explodes with life and colour. The small, coral cay island is surrounded by reef, and with excellent visibility, regarded as one of its best dive and snorkel spots. I submerge through the Blue Hole, an underwater tunnel that opens up into marine world beaming with life. Look at the size of that white tipped reef shark! Hello Mr Curious Turtle! Check out the grace of that manta ray! With just one opportunity to dive, I’m deeply jealous of the divers who are here for a week, but grateful to have the opportunity to be here in the first place. Still, snorkelling from the Coral Garden to the Lighthouse is so rich with turtles, coral, fish and manta rays that anyone can enjoy the reef, no scuba certification necessary.
The Great Barrier Reef is not only one of the world’s natural wonders, it’s one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. It’s also surprisingly accessible for a wide range of budgets, and as you can read above, offers a wide range of experiences, some that even allow you go underwater and keep your hair dry. Accommodation and meals are uniformly outstanding, the weather reliably co-operative (even when it rains or is overcast, the reef is open for business!), and the locals famously cheery. Even if your surname sounds like a prank call, that’s something every visitor can appreciate.
This is me opening my fridge to reveal some of my favourite condiments from around the world. Open yours, and let me know what tickles your own taste buds.
The best condiments start with a homemade recipe, and the devoted and addicted sauce-makers who receive so much acclaim from friends and family they dare to dream, what if? Such is the case with Marie Sharp out of the small Central American country of Belize. Combining grapefruit or orange with local habanero peppers has created spicy greatness. One Belizan joked it could be the country’s biggest export. I brought back 14 (!) bottles of Marie Sharps back with me from Belize, which says all you need to know. Beautiful country, beautiful hot sauce.
Kecap Manis ABC Sauce
I know a tiny authentic Indonesian eatery that makes the crispiest veggie spring rolls, served with a thick, dark sauce for dipping. Since discovering it was ABC Sauce, widely available, a bottle has never been far away from my kitchen. This dark soy sauce has been sweetened with palm sugar, giving it the texture of molasses. I use it to sugar up just about any dish, always adding it to my secret BBQ marinade, and a dribble on the side for spring rolls or chicken wings.
It would be simple to describe Pickapeppa as a steak sauce, an HP or Worcester substitute. Condiment connoisseurs know the fruity flavours run much deeper in this brown sauce, brushed with the faint heat of scotch bonnet pepper that lingers on the tongue. Jamaica is famous for its jerk sauce – a sweet and spicy marinade that turns nondescript meat, chicken, veggies and fish into supermodels. Pickapeppa is not a jerk sauce, but the complexity of its ingredients perfectly captures that sweet and spicy world of the Caribbean.
Nandos / Mama Africas / Mrs Balls
Call me biased (I was born and raised in South Africa), or call me a knowing insider. These sauces are now available worldwide and for good reason. Nandos African birds eye peri-peri sauces come in dozens of delicious guises. Their cooking sauces, most notably the Sweet Apricot or Roasted Red Pepper, make casseroles all they can be. Slather the sauces on your order at Nandos restaurants while you're at it, which serves what is hands-down the world's greatest chicken. Mama Africas, which began in a small suburban house, is a thick chili relish of varying heat, and is to a cheese or meat sandwich what air is to our lungs. Finally, Mrs Balls hot or peach chutney is my must-have condiment, as a dip, sauce, or cheese accessory.
Yes, I know there are hundreds of hot sauces available from the US, many with names like “Brain Damage” or “Assblaster”. It’s about flavour, not about heat. I travel with Tabasco because it’s small, the bottle doesn’t break, and I’ve grown so accustomed to its distinctive taste I can literally drink it neat. Unbelievably, I grew up in a house with very little spice, but my mom always sprinkled Tabasco on her famous potato salads, a drop or two in her curries. Today I empty half a bottle in my bloody mary, almost like comfort food.
I was over at a Japanese friend’s house, and she steamed up some gyoza and dribbled a little bulldog over it. Another brown, fruity sauce, Bulldog is somewhat sweeter than Pickapeppa, thicker than HP, and used quite a lot in Japanese restaurants. Try as a dip for edamame, or another special ingredient in your homemade BBQ sauces or stews.
Sweet Chili for Chicken
It is sold in various brand incarnates, but usually described as sweet chili for chicken. Syrupy with subtle garlic undertones, poultry isn’t the only beneficiary of this Southeast Asian staple. Perfect on sandwiches, or for a sweet-spicy kick in a stirfry. Like most hot sauces, it also adds a compatible kick to mayo for a makeshift dipping sauce.
Sriracha Rooster Sauce
Rooster sauce, far more pronounceable than Huy Fong Sriracha, is a common condiment throughout North America. It’s originally from Southeast Asia but produced wherever it is sold. The “rooster” sauce you know is produced in the United States, and used commonly on buffalo wings, even on hot popcorn. With its bright red colouring, it’s not my go-to sauce, but it does have an acceptable heat and consistency for sandwiches, not to mention its best asset – the no-mess easy to squeeze bottle.
When people talk about travelling for" the food", this is what they're referring to.
Nasi Kander - Malaysia
Nasi Kander is a northern Malaysian dish that combines a variety of elements – meat, rice, vegetables – and smothers it with various types of sweet-spicy curry sauces. Served in buffet-type street stalls, the result is a gift to
your taste buds. Eggplant, beef, chicken, squid, peppers, and okra are all flooded with flavour, soaked up by coconut rice and scooped with the right hand.
Ceviche - Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica
You can get ceviche around the world, but not the way they make it here. Raw fish, shrimp and calamari are drowned in limejuice, herbs and spices. The acidity of the lime cooks the fish, creating a mouthwatering delicacy that is served in the finest restaurants, all the way to roadside shacks. In Peru, it is often served with giant corn, and people sometimes order the leftover juice on its own, called Tiger Juice. In Ecuador, and other parts of the continent, ceviche is served with crackers. My favourite ceviche of all time is served out of a big tub in a tiny ice-cream store in Santa Theresa, Costa Rica.
Borscht - Russia
I struggled with the food in the Russia, easily reaching my limit of boiled meat and potato. One thing I never got tired of however was the borscht – a soup made of beetroot, with meats, dill and sour cream. Considering how bland Russian cuisine can be, the complexity of taste in well-prepared borscht is staggering. Sweet, sour, tangy, and always ready to warm you up on a cold day. My favourite borscht was served in Irkutsk, Siberia, where a vegetarian friend and I ordered borscht without the mystery meat, and it still knocked our socks off.
Biltong - South Africa
The easiest way to describe biltong is to compare it to beef jerky, but that’s like comparing a Prius to a Porsche. South Africans have been making biltong for hundreds of years, spicing, salting and hanging strips of raw meat until it dries out, but not too much. No sugar, no preservatives, no neat wafer thin slices. Biltong is served in chunks, sometimes wet (rarer) and sometimes dry (tough). It can be salty, spicy, fatty or lean. Choosing the right piece is part of the fun. It makes the perfect accompaniment to any sports game or road trip.
Farofa - Brazil
If you visit a Brazilian churrascaria, where a never-ending stream of meat is served until you’re ready to explode, you might notice a bowl on the table of something that looks like breadcrumbs. Brazilians eat it with everything – meat, fish, stews, roasts. It’s not breadcrumbs, but rather manioc flour, fried with butter. Somehow it adds something to the dish – more substance, certainly, but also a way to carry the taste a few yards further. It took me a while to get used to it, but these days, when the BBQ is firing, there’s always a bowl of farofa on my dinner table.
Ika Mata - Cook Islands
Cook Islanders have created their own little slice of culinary heaven, using a resource that surrounds them in abundance - fish and coconuts. Similar to ceviche, raw fish is marinated in limejuice and spices, with the addition of coconut milk. It’s not quite as tangy as ceviche, but just as fresh. The coconut milk softens the spices and also tenderizes the fish. It goes down smooth on a hot island day, a rich treat available just about everywhere you go on the islands.
Awaze Tibs and Injera - Ethiopia
Awaze tibs is a lamb or beef stew, cooked with onions, peppers and spiced with awazare, also known as berbere. Berbere, which features in many Ethiopian dishes, is a ground spice made of garlic, chili, ginger, basil, pepper, and fenugreek. The stew is slow cooked and served with injera, a spongy pancake-like flat bread made with teff flour, the taste almost sour. Using your hands, you scoop up the meat and sauce with the injera, creating a perfect blend of flavour.
Pide - Turkey
Kebab shops around the world now serve pide and for good reason. A thin oval bread is covered with ground lamb, and seasoned with tomato paste, red peppers, garlic and spices. It might be topped with eggs, fresh mint, and lemon juice. The pide is baked much like a pizza until the crust is crispy, and cut into strips. It’s so good it’s hard to order only one. Meat, bread and tasty vegetables in every bite.
Roo Burgers - Australia
It’s sometimes difficult for tourists to understand, but kangaroos can be quite a problem for Australians. They breed like rabbits, destroy the countryside, and are often referred to as pests. No surprise then that kangaroo features on the menu, meat that has become increasingly popular in recent years. It tastes gamey, kind of like venison with a touch of rabbit mixed in there as well. Much like ostrich meat, kangaroo meat is healthy and lean. If only they didn’t look so damn cute.
Photo: Renee S
Meat Pies - New Zealand
In New Zealand, every garage station, bakery or corner store sells savory meat pies. They’re cheap, they’re tasty, and they come in surprising varieties: Tandoori Chicken, Bacon and Egg, Thai Beef. With flaky crusts and thick filling, pies are a sense of pride across New Zealand. There are various competitions for the Best Pie, and intense customer loyalty for bakeries and brands. All for under a fiver.
Photos: Robbi Baba
Earlier this year, I headed off to Portugal to taste some it's finest wines, marvel at the ancient vineyards on the terraces of the Doura Valley, and stay in hotels ranging from James Bondesque fortresses to 17th century villas. You know, because someone has to. I've long said Portugal is the best deal going in Western Europe: all the cobblestone without the price of Italy, France and Spain. Just like Portuguese wines are great value, so is the country itself. Below are some images from the trip.
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.