This post was sponsored by Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG). All opinions expressed are my own.
In just over a decade, the concept of a bucket list has exploded worldwide. It’s a catchphrase popularized by a film far more influential than its box-office return, and a catchphrase that somehow transcends ages, interests, language and cultures. I believe it’s because we all desire to see certain places and do certain things before kicking the proverbial bucket. It’s an important part of the human condition, one that just needed a special term to encapsulate it.
A new survey by Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG) revealed that 6 in 10 Canadians either have or have plans to make a bucket list, with the number as much as 8 in 10 for those aged 35 and under. Clearly, bucket lists are not a fad having met people ticking off their lists on the four corners of the planet, I can assure you that bucket lists are a global phenomenon, a trend here to stay.
The survey revealed that almost 8 out of 10 Canadians with or planning to make bucket lists are interested in Canadian experiences, and so it made perfect sense for me to partner with IHG and suggest what those experiences might be. As I write in my books, I believe a bucket list experience should tick off several subjective boxes:
IHG’s survey also showed that 91% of Canadian bucket listers have difficulties making their goals a reality. For many, costs and work responsibilities appear overwhelming, even as the aspirational goal to achieve a lifelong dream (and experience something new) is universally recognized. As a writer, broadcaster and speaker, my goal has always been to inspire everyone do those things we’ve always wanted to do, breaking through the boundaries that stand in our way.
Here are some practical tips on how to tick off your Canadian Bucket List.
Begin with a place or activity you’ve always wanted to experience in your town, city or province, and grow it from there. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or threatened by a bucket list, you’re probably being overly ambitious. Start with a shortlist of 10 aspirational goals, and grow it slowly over time. Each successful tick motivates another. If your list is too long, it might prove to be insurmountable.
Make it Physical
Research has shown that writing or visualizing your goals really helps make them a reality. Read books about the places you want to go (may I suggest, ahem, The Great Canadian Bucket List), put up calendars, and most importantly, write down your list. You might look back in several years to discover you managed to tick it off after all.
Dream big, but be practical
Bucket lists should be inspiring, fun, and realistic too. If you’re counting on winning the lottery or meeting a celebrity, you’re in for a disappointment (and perhaps a restraining order!) Consider your resources and health. If you don’t like flying, look at road trips. Break your list down into short and long-term goals, and goals that are easier to achieve than others. If they are all difficult to accomplish, you may get discouraged because you’re not making progress as quickly as you like.
Be an Individual
Life is not a race; nobody should judge your dreams. It’s perfectly acceptable for your bucket list to include a local museum or festival, or just fixing the garden shed. Many of the wonders in our Canadian backyard are as remarkable as the wonders you keep hearing about abroad. Bucket lists, like travel itself, should be intrinsically personal.
To kick things off, I partnered with some of the 177 Canadian IHG hotels (which include Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza) to suggest ideas for your Canadian Bucket List. From tracking beavers in Hinton to the world’s largest salmon migration outside of Kamloops; ice canoeing in Quebec City to saluting the RCMP in Regina, there’s a little something for everybody, and lots to get started with.
Bucket lists give us something to look forward (a fact confirmed by 61% of those surveyed). They are aspirational, engaging, and can be as quirky as they can be dreamy. Mine started when a car accident reminded me that life is too short to put off my dreams any longer. Ticking off one experience after another, I’ve continued to grow my interests, and my bucket list continues to evolve too. As Morgan Freeman asks Jack Nicholson in the film The Bucket List: “Well…what are you waiting for?”
Having broken in my hostel chops around the world, I've identified factors that, combined with creativity, would result in the Perfect Hostel. It is a given, naturally, that any hostel today has no curfew, no lockout, a reception, security and lockers. These are still touted as if they are features when in effect, who wants to stay at some dodgy dump that won't let you in after 10pm. Those days are gone, and fortunately, most hostels now conform to international standards, and in many cases, international or regional associations. Below are my essentials, in no particular order, and they would be appreciated by just about anyone traipsing around the world with a backpack and a budget. Hosteliers and hoteliers, take note!
Staff & People
It's all about the people. A friendly patron can quickly make you forget about the other 33 points listed below, with advice, patience and all round enthusiasm for hospitality. Of course, you could have the Perfect Hostel with an asshole at reception. Assholes are usually broke foreigners who act as if they are doing you a favour when they buzz you in. Staff are the condiments, but the meat of the matter are the people you share your dorm with if they're loud, discourteous, obnoxious, snorers, smokers and stealers, even the Perfect Hostel will suck.
Given the cost of the Internet, and the fact that many hostels offer it as a free service, it irks me when hostels charge for a basic traveling service, nay necessity! More so, they tend to charge double what the Internet cafe charges on the corner. It's taking advantage and it's unnecessary. You will get more traffic, more recommendations and more happy clients if you have two machines available, with a 15-minute max usage if someone is waiting. A USB port so that people can download their photos wouldn't hurt either.
Hooks in the bathroom
Amazing how many places think that your towel, clothes and toilet bag belong on a wet floor full of someone else's pubic hair. Put up some hooks! And while you at it, plugs in the sink for shaving, and a mirror won't hurt either.
Everyone who travels has to put their alarm clock somewhere, as well as some keys, or a book, some water, or even a wallet. One hostel had a neat little lockable wooden cabinet by each bed for your essentials. Otherwise, it's dump everything on the floor and let people trip all over it, and if the guy on the top bunk needs water during the night, as he probably will, be prepared to be woken up with him falling all over you.
Lockers (under bed)
Lockers are so essential that if you have no place where people can secure their daybags (with cameras, iPods, moneybelts etc), stop calling yourself a hostel immediately. Lockers come in all shapes and sizes, but they should be roomy enough for a daypack, and close to the bunks. The best I've seen were on wheels under the bunks, and could fit entire backpacks so that the room was free of clutter and even your clothes were safely locked away.
Most, if not all travelers are using the Internet to find and research hostels. Hostels.com, hostelworld.com and others have valuable rating systems and booking facilities, and keep hostels on their toes. I usually find something interesting and then Google their website to find out more. A good site almost always means a good hostel. If it's ugly, slow and scary, it says something about the hostel. There have been exceptions, but even if your site is simple, make sure the information is current and includes everything a prospective patron needs to know, ie: location, cost, directions, facilities, services.
This one is surprisingly simple and rarely down well. You've just come off a long flight/night bus/delayed train. You're in a strange, new country, with a strange new currency and language. The directions to the hostel on the website say "Go to the east side of the station, catch the 41 bus south, walk up Flecheschmefer Road and you'll find us". Make the directions as easy and simple to follow as possible. Use signs and landmarks. What is the colour of the building? Which direction do I take bus 41? And who the hell is traveling with a compass to know where south or east is? Sometimes it is fun to find places, but not when you're tired, confused, and walking around town with all your valuables.
The key to a good night's sleep. When they wear down, get new ones. They are not too expensive, and in the price of board is it not too much to expect a pillow that's thicker than a folded towel?
Clean linen, including sheets for the blankets or duvet. If we have sleeping bags, which a lot of us don't, it's great to use them as little as possible. Also, linen helps with bed bugs!
Every once in a while, mattresses should be checked for bed bugs, dips and humps, smell and wear and tear. You know, just in case someone wanted to actually sleep. I've seen bed bud scars, and backs with bunkboard splinters through the mattress. Use foam if you're cheap.
"How was Vienna?"
"Oh, the shower was amazing!"
That's how much an impact showers have on dirty budget travelers. A good shower means getting clean and feeling good. If I want to stand under a broken cold water tap, I will stand under a cold water tap. Just don't call it a shower.
In the bathroom, in the dorms. We go out, we want to see what we look like.
Cheap IKEA lamps so that the person in bunk 12 can read if the person in bunk 7 is sleeping. One hostel had lamps built into the headboards. If you get back late and everyone's sleeping, you also need to see where your stuff is, how to open your locker, find that bottle of water. Lamps at least allow everyone in a dorm to operate independently; this "I must sleep we all must sleep" nonsense is unnecessary.
We're traveling with digital cameras, iPods, cellphones, laptops, video cameras. And there is, maybe, one plug in the room. Each room should have a charging station, or better yet, each bed should have its own plug to charge while you sleep (the other plug can be used for a reading lamp or pluglight). It is not an option having a charged battery or being afraid to leave it downstairs next to the toaster where you just know someone is going to steal.
This is a given. Just because we're budget travelers doesn't mean we want to sleep, eat and clean ourselves in your shitty house, where the garbage is overflowing, ashtrays are in the sinks and the toilets have last year's skid marks.
Pool, Foozball, Games
A hostel is largely a social hub. The main difference between hostel and hotel is the "s", which stands for "social." Social games make people meet and talk and that's where the fun is. In a hotel, the only people you meet are other losers like yourselves in the bar. Here, you can play ping pong with a professor or find yourself playing Uno with two gay couples and a pair of monks. And if you do have a pool or ping pong table, try keep it in shape. We don't mind putting a deposit down to ensure that nobody wrecks the equipment.
Non-essential, but fun in a hostel. Again, it's a social place to meet interesting people and make new friends from around the world. Do it over liquor. It doesn't have to be cheap, but it should be cheaper than bars in the town. You can make a lot of money at the same time too.
2-Ply Toilet Paper
Such a small difference, but oh so preferable to wiping with recycled half-ply tissue paper. We don't have our own bathrooms, but at least give us the luxury of pretending we do. Also, have back-up rolls always available in the loos, and keep a tab on how low they get. A toilet without paper is a sad toilet.
Nobody likes going anywhere with a wet towel in their backpack. And the hostel, hopefully, are doing linen laundry anyway. Even a tea towel is better than using my beach towel
Crucial to anyone who travels is having something to read. A few long flights, bus or train journeys can see you knock back a book every couple of days. Book exchanges are not uncommon, they just don't have much thought. Typically it is two books for one, or one for one plus a couple dollars. Some guys in Bolivia had the right idea. As readers, they could make judgment calls on the quality of books. The first shelf were airline reads. The second better. The third best. One for one to me is fair, providing the books are of equal quality, according to the hostel. People reading good books can swap for good books, or maybe two craps for one goodie. Be creative, build a library, save our boredom!
Nightclub shuttle / promotions
Why this doesn't happen more is beyond me. You have a hostel with dozens of interesting, dare I say attractive travelers looking to rip it. Any bar or club in the city would give you special deals, VIP access, maybe 2-1 drinks, for bringing in a bunch of foreigners. It adds spice to the club, plus we travel with dollars and euros! Who wants to go out in a city to line-up for four hours and be treated like shit. Cut some deals with your favourite clubs and bars, and make a win-win for everyone. Shuttles also encourage just about everyone to go out. Make it easy and people will party!
A hostel with everything mentioned here is great, but not if it's located amongst the crack houses of downtown's worst area, or a bus, tram and taxi away. The best hostels are within (safe) walking distance of the city's attractions , be it central squares, shopping, strips, bars and restaurants, the beach. Packers are prepared to walk, but it's got to be reasonable. As in all real estate: Location, location, location!
Many hostels offer a kitchen, which is great because you can cook up with a few people and save considerable bucks. Some of them, however, don't offer anything to cook with, or have one rusty small pot, a banged up pan and a spoon to scrape away any non-stick that might be left. The best have everything you need (especially pasta strainers, pots, pans, washing up liquid and sponges, sharp knives, cutting boards) and the very best have basic ingredients that don't cost much in bulk, but no traveler wants to buy a big tube of salt and pepper for one meal.
I always feel ripped off having to pay additional fees to leave my backpack at a hostel, especially those in major cities where day or two-day trips are common. Usually we come back to stay another night, and in any case, it costs nothing to throw a few backpacks in a locked room.
The best way to spend a slow afternoon with a good book. At the very least, some deck chairs or garden furniture or someplace when we can lounge in the sun and chill out.
Private Rooms & Dorms
Nice to have both options available at a budget price, but not essential. Sometimes, privacy becomes an issue, especially with intense short-term intimate friendships (aka one night stands) being quite common in this environment and lifestyle. I came up with an idea that each hostel should have a "Love Room", a closet that can be rented out by the hour for late night trysts. Take out the junk, put in a foam mattress with a red light bulb and start counting the extra dollars!
Laundry is offered free in many Eastern European hostels, while in others it costs a fortune. If sheets and towels are washed in-house, backpackers would salivate at the opportunity to wash their smelly clothes. Obviously, free and folded laundry is a service in my Perfect Hostel.
Perhaps the greatest scam in the entire hospitality industry is the so-called free breakfast. Usually this means a bun, some butter, and some jam, which somehow justifies hotels and hostels tacking on a few dollars for this service. Unless the breakfast has eggs or fruit, I decline this breakfast and see if I can get a few bucks knocked off the price, which I can then use to buy a real breakfast should I actually be awake to need one (which is hardly ever). Packers go out late and sleep late, so the free breakfast that ends at 9am gets very few takers and is part of the scam. Good breakfasts should end at least at 11am, which shows a good understanding of the needs of backpacking clientele.
Library of Guidebooks
A nice little extra to have up-to-date guidebooks available for Packers to read and refer to in the common room. They could be signed out to avoid theft.
Fans and Heat
A dark room with 12 people and bad ventilation does not make a peaceful nights sleep. Ceiling or standing fans are essential in summer, as are heaters in winter. This is especially needed in places with harsh climates.
Tips and Noticeboard
Get your staff to compile their favorite hangouts, bars, pastimes etc on a slow day. Create your own guide, because chances are it will be far better than the Lonely Planet. Your hostel will probably determine whether someone enjoys your city or not, so give us some help. Tips can include: places to eat, bad restaurants and scams to look out for, good nights at various clubs, current movies and exhibitions, transport and easy directions, must-sees, weather, even current events (a printout of the daily headlines will interest just about everyone). Give us a space to give our own advice to others, such as good places to stay in other countries or regions, things for sale, lifts etc etc.
Construction Sites & Traffic Noise
OK, I know this is often beyond anyone's control, but I went 2 weeks staying five hostels and everyone of them was in earth-shattering distance to a jack hammer.
Which always, as a rule, crank up at 6am. Perhaps this is an unwritten rule for all hostels. Lots of hostels also find themselves on busy streets where traffic is outrageous. If so, have cheap foam ear-plugs for sale. The same if you're above an industrial techno club. The best hostel is on a quiet street where the only noise I hear are the birds, chirping like angels in the trees.
Drop the Youth
Hostels are no longer only for youth. They are for budget travelers, of whatever age, and those that enjoy a social aspect to their travels. The sooner we dispel the "youth" aspect, the sooner hostels will get busier with a whole range of fascinating people looking to meet each other, and drink lots of beer.
Music and DVD's
A hi-fi playing some tunes, even better if travelers can jack in their iPods and play DJ. Without music, where is the vibe? I know some guys think a TV kills a social atmosphere, but a DVD Player and TV is also a great way to relax, spend a night in and save money. Ideally in a seperate room so those who want to party can do so, and those who want to watch a few movies can do so too. Have a couple of classic DVD's (they can be signed out), which doesn't cost much in any blackmarket.
The full-face mask is the snorkel’s first improvement in decades, and allows the user to breathe and speak without anything in their mouths. There’s a bunch of them on Amazon. I bought this one, ready to introduce my daughter to the wonders of marine life. Raquel and I board Maui Dive Shop’s Ali’i Nui catamaran in Ma’alaea Harbour for a 3-hour snorkel expedition. Some strong winds derail the planned sailing to Turtle Point, so we sail to up the coast to a protected reef. Raquel went bananas on the trampoline-like canopy at the fore of the ship, jumping around like a lunatic. She ate a piece of celery from the rib n’wings buffet. We suited up and hopped into the water with a kickboard and life vest. I help her with the mask, she takes one look down, and that was the end of my plans for the mask. Not interested.. I don’t care if Humu the tropical fish is dancing the cha-cha down there, I am not putting on that mask again. Raquel has a way of saying all this with her eyes. To her credit, I get her into the water a couple times, but she refuses to look down, and only lasts a few minutes. So we spent a couple hours on a catamaran, playing with a feisty Brazilian granny and her grandkids, talking about what Daddy does and how to take photographs. I’ve snorkelled the world over, Maui can wait. Advice for parents: If you plan on actually seeing or doing anything while with your toddler, you’re in for a disappointment. If you plan on just hanging out with your happy bouncing kid, it’s smooth sailing all the way.
Ka'anapali Beach Hotel
Further up the coast, about a half hour’s drive from Wailea is the second oldest hotel, and certainly the oldest-looking hotel, on the popular Kaanapali beach strip, the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel. It bills itself as Maui’s most Hawaiian hotel, which means it is independently owned, has pioneered various cultural programs, and is far removed from the spit-polished gloss of the Fairmont. While the rooms look and feel like a throwback to the 1970’s, the location is steps away from the beach, its whale-shaped pool a hit with the kids, and the well-kept gardens are full of native plumerias bursting with flowers. Sure the shower drain was blocked and the screen door unhinged, the bathroom tiny and the pillows a little lumpy, but the KBH is far more realistic for our budget, and as Raquel bounced between the two beds, she yelled “Daddy, this is even better than the last hotel!” The needs of a toddler are tremendously simple: if you can jump between two beds, life is grand. Staff at the KBH were lovely and their KBH Aloha Passport kids program kept Raquel busy with Hula and ukulele lessons.
The on-site Legends of Ka'anapali Lu'au was fabulous, and it didn’t take long for Raquel to get up on stage and participate. Our meal in the Tiki Terrace was memorable, we self catered in the handy covered pavilion, and our Ocean Front room was literally steps from the shallow break of Ka'anapali’s famous sandy beach. Raquel quickly found a few friends, including a 5 –year old boy named Floras from The Hague, who she simply called “My boy!” They played for hours in the pool while his Dad and I got sunburned. Gali awoke at 5:30am one morning so I took him for a walk along the path, past the glitzy Whalers mall and the Marriott and Hyatt mega resorts. There was a surprising amount of people on the trail. Many of them were pushing strollers. We aloha’d each other, sharing the camaraderie of exhaustion and elation to be beachside at sunrise.
I wanted to treat my wife with something different. Spas are the typical go-to, but massages tend to blend into each other, a short-term fix. Catching your first wave on a surfboard however is something you never forget. I looked after both kids while Ana took a surf lesson with Goofy Foot Surf School in Lahaina. She used to be a dancer so I figured her first lesson would be way more successful than my first lesson, which consisted of non-stop wipeouts in the cold waters of Tofino, BC. With Gali teething and especially clingy, I think Ana would have enjoyed two hours alone in a closet. I dealt with the kids while she paddled out to a small break where all the surf schools gather. And there we watched her not only get up the first time, but stay up over and over again, graduating to a few bigger waves. She was as thrilled as I’d hoped she would be, immediately regretting that she’d waited so long to surf, considering she grew up on a beach in Rio. Nobody should ever say no to a massage, but if you want to treat your wife in Maui, give her a challenge to overcome in the healing waters of the ocean. And a break from the kids, of course.
Napili Kai Beach Resort
By our third hop, we’d realized, as most travellers do, just how much we packed that we simply didn’t need. We could blame the kids, but the reality is we can only blame ourselves. Having gone through the worst Vancouver winter in 33 years, we’d quickly forgotten what warm weather feels like, that all we’d need is bathing suits and flip-flops (and diapers, wipes, toys and teddies) . We packed up and headed north up the coast to the Napili Kai Beach Resort, framing a perfect crescent-shaped, reef-protected beach with toddler friendly waves. Steps away from the ocean is the resort’s large pool, a hot tub, and a 27-hole putting green course Raquel couldn’t get enough of. If you enjoy infinity pools like I do, you’ll appreciate that Room 232 in Napili Kai’s Puna Two building has an infinity patio. The view from the bedroom and kitchen is all ocean, so much so that it feels you’re on a cruise ship.
Meanwhile, the fully equipped modern kitchen quickly taught us this: if you’re travelling with toddlers, a kitchen is gold. Oatmeal porridge at 3pm? A cheese sandwich at midnight? No problem! Raquel helped me with the groceries for several nights of simple meals – spaghetti, oven fish, rotisserie chicken, and we saved a bundle. We even had a blender and ice-maker to craft our own pina coladas. After 12 days of sunshine, a tropical storm hit with sheets of raining falling for 36 hours. Confined to a room, we were relieved it was this one, where we could watch Netflix movies on TV (thanks to a handy HDMI cable connected to my laptop), stare at the ocean, and let Gali nap in his own space. Of course, there was still time to play on the beach, explore the grounds, bury Raquel in sand, make sand castles, and splash in the pool. All three resorts were great, but the self catering flexibility of Napili Kai, and the proximity of its facilities, worked best for our kids.
Relaxed, finally in the flow and on a schedule that works for the kids, it’s time to dynamite it all to hell. Air Canada’s return flight from Maui is a red-eye (they don’t call it their Air Canada Rouge service for nothing). We arrived at the airport two hours early and barely made check-in. Line-ups, heat, frustration, delays, wrong seat assignments – every hour that dripped by eroded the pleasant memories of Maui. Finally on the plane, the kids are caged monkeys, eventually collapsing in exhaustion on the unspoken condition that we don’t. Ana bends herself into a pretzel on the floor with one kid using her as a pillow and the other as a footrest. Raquel has a full thermonuclear meltdown on arrival, and by the time we get home, she climbs on the couch, puts a blanket over her head, and we don’t hear from her for six hours. She’s never done this before, and it’s quite impressive.
A few days later, the colours of Maui are fading (along with Raquel’s mysterious rash) , but our experiences on the island remain bright, the photographs sealing in the memories with a varnish that will only improve and become more valuable with time. I pick up Raquel from daycare, and ask her: “Did you tell everyone about Maui?”
“No,” she replies. “I forgot to.”
She might be over it, but I believe our two weeks on the Valley Isle hardcoded our children with a love for the ocean, island life, the aloha spirit of Hawaii, and an appreciation for warm, sincere hospitality. It definitely hard-coded a love for travel, for the next sentence out of Raquel’s mouth is: “Where are we going next?”
A special mahalo to Tourism Hawaii, Tourism Maui, Theresa Betty, the Fairmont Kea Lani, Kaanapali Beach Hotel and Napali Kai Resort. Click here for more info about visiting Maui.
I’ve cage dived with crocodiles, hung off the side of holy mountains in China, and vacationed in Chernobyl, but here’s the truth: the thought of travelling for the first time with my 4 year old daughter Raquel and 9-month old son Galileo terrified me. Curly-haired Raquel seems to have fallen Obelix-like into a cauldron of Red Bull, she’s a T4 bull in a china shop of tranquillity. Gali is newly teething, crawling, and hasn’t seen a hazard he hasn’t wanted to wrap his gums or baby carrot fingers around. Still, it’s time to break them in, because with a Dad like me, travel is in their future. So I thought I’d start somewhere easy and beautiful, spreading a couple weeks over a range of accommodation options. Expectations are the death of travel, and yet toddlers are particularly gifted when it comes to ensuring that no high hope is trampled under the weight of their hyper-emotional little piggies.
No matter how great your toddler vacation is, the reality is it will be bookended by a plane ride three stories up from hell. I fly a lot. It’s my chance to work, read, watch a movie, daydream at altitude. A six-hour direct flight from Vancouver to Maui should be nothing. If the kids sleep. To stack the odds in my favour, I reached out to Fly-Tot, who sell an inflatable legroom pillows. We’d be flying in late at night. How bad could it be? Bad. Real bad. Gali is chewing on the tray tables and seatbelts (and you know how often they get cleaned). Raquel is vibrating with kicks and punches. Rather than sleeping, the kids are using the Fly-Tot as a trampoline. Playing Frozen on the iPad worked, but it only worked once, and then Raquel... let it go. Like condemned prisoners at a public hanging, my wife and I gaze into the eyes of fellow toddler parents, dealing with the trauma of their own journey. Each minute of each hour has the weight of a cannonball. So frazzled by the experience, I commit a cardinal travel sin and forget our two bottles of duty free liquor – blessed late night Scotch/Baileys escape - on the plane. Air Canada’s cleaning staff relieve us of the bottles no more than five minutes after we deplane and I remember the forgotten bag. “Sorry sir, our cleaners didn’t find anything.” Aloha to them.
Welcome to Maui! Grab our bags and shuttle to the car rental, and spend 45 minutes in a late night line-up. Now the kids want to sleep. I push two chairs together and Raquel passes out. I feel like Parent of the Year. Get the van, install the car seats, strap in the kids, load in the luggage. It’s a 45-minute late night drive in the rain to Wailea. Could anything be worth this?
The Fairmont Kea Lani
Yes, waking up on the 7th floor in a Deluxe Ocean View suite at the Fairmont Kea Lani is definitely worth it. The sun sparkles off the Pacific. Koi swim in ponds amidst manicured gardens and clear azure pools. Coconut trees rustling in warm tropical air as sweet as nectar. Stripped of the jeans and hoodies we won’t see for the next two weeks, the family hums with travel buzz. We chomping at the bit of a beach vacation. Out feet touch the reddish sand of Polo Beach, and then it starts:
“I don’t want to go to the sea Daddy!” Oh look, Gali has a fistful of sand in his mouth. “It’s too hot Daddy!” “It’s too cold Daddy!” “I’m hungry!” “I’m not hungry!” “Where’s my blue spade?” “I want a red spade!” “I want what that other girl has!” “Pick me up!” “Put me down!” “This rock is scary!” “I want to go to the pool!” Toddlers are complex algorithms that dance to a convoluted rhythm only they can hear. The first chance we have to relax is much later that night when both kids are asleep. No late night walks on the beach for us, but we do sip cocktails on our patio, beneath a planetarium of stars, a scene scored by the soporific sound of crashing waves. The flight is a distant memory. Aloha Maui. Finally, aloha.
Buffet breakfasts have ruined us. Raquel quickly gets used to her one mouthful of a dozen different dishes, and miso soup is now a breakfast staple. We tag team feeding both kids as Gali singlehandedly supports the birdlife of Hawaii who gather beneath the snow of egg that falls from his high chair. Staff give us crayons for the kids each morning, and Gali’s favourite breakfast dish becomes the colour Red. Hours turn to days as we rotate between the pool, suite and beach. Raquel is too young for Kea Lani’s Keiki Kids Club, but she can drop into the stocked daycare-like facilities in the afternoon, when Gali is napping and the sun is too strong. There were so many toys I almost cried when we walked into the room for the first time. We explore the grounds, make a run to the nearest supermarket, buy the only two things we didn’t pack while realizing we won’t need most of the things we did.
The family dines at the sensational Ko restaurant downstairs, a romantic meal of dreams invaded by our overtired, overhungry kids who care little for the chef’s inspired creations. Before the appies arrive, out come the iPad apps. My wife is afraid to let me go to the bathroom because she thinks I might run away.
Every time I meet a Dad or Mom in the knee high, pee-warm toddler pool, where Raquel spends most of her time (beaches be damned) we sport our 1000-yard stares, shrug our shoulders, and let the giggles and laughs of our kids melt our hearts. There is an Adults Only section at the Kea Lani, and I wonder how many hearts are melting with the ice in the umbrella-topped pina coladas. The Fairmont was our high-end option, a refuge of stunning views that fluff your eyes like pillows at turn down service. It’s the other end of cheap. One morning, as Gali stands up in his hotel crib beaming a two-tooth smile, he says “Dadda” for the first time. I pick him up, step out onto the balcony, and together we smile at the dreamy world before us. Cost of that, and so many other Fairmont moments: Priceless.
The bucket list drive in Maui is the road to Hana, a hairpin-winding track alongside soaring ocean cliffs. We made three turns and turned around, avoiding the projectile backseat vomit we knew would follow. This pretty much ruled out a drive to the Haleakala volcano crater too, which I’ll have to get to once the kids are a little older. We did drive to Makena Beach where Raquel flew a kite for the first time. I brought it from home and she didn’t want to do anything except fly that kite. She flew it for exactly 34 seconds, and never wanted to see it again. We drove up to Twin Falls and got some great photos amidst the giant bamboo and dual cascades. The Banyen Tree in Lahaina is unlike any tree I’ve ever seen, sporting 16 trunks and a block-wide canopy. We ate lunch in the Flatbread Company in Paia, after which I lost my wife and daughter in the shops. Raquel was having an allergic to reaction to her all-natural sunblock or the heat or the seawater, or something the Internet told us could probably be treated with a little Benedryl. New parents would spend a day in a local hospital, only to be told to use a little Benedryl. Fortunately we’re over the paranoia and worry that accompanies the firstborn. Instead we visit Baby Beach where the full-face snorkel mask I bought for Raquel is thoroughly enjoyed by all other kids on the beach. They tell me it works like a charm.
Up Next: Pt 2, featuring Kaanapali, Napili, and a Treat for Mom.
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.
“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.
Glamping, short form for glamorous camping, promises all the rugged adventure of the outdoors, with the velvet luxury touch of high-end comfort. A growing trend in the world of modern travel, here’s my first round of picks from Canada and around the world:
Lets kick off on Vancouver Island’s Clayoquot Wilderness Resort (pictured above), which offers 20 luxury tents, connected by cedar boardwalk under a rainforest canopy. Each tent has antique furniture, thick rugs, wood stoves, and a shower house, blending opulence and wilderness at the mouth of the Bedwell River.
It was a stormy, cold night when I arrived at Rockwater Secret Cove, so I appreciated the heated slate floors, glowing fireplace, terry cloth robes and hydrotherapy soaker tub. All the more so because I was staying in a tent, and these are not things one normally associates with tent accommodation. Located on the Sunshine Coast, Rockwater’s tent accommodations sit off a wooden boardwalk , illuminated at night like a runway, with beautiful views of the Malaspina Strait.
Le Camp, France
Located in the countryside of southwestern France, Le Camp offers six two-bedroom luxury canvas tents, and private yurts located deep in the woodland. Each tent looks out over the countryside, and comes with handmade beds, solar lighting, composting toilets, and an indoor/outdoor shower. Private luxury for couples, or big enough to accommodate whole families, Le Camp has space to roam, explore or relax. You will however have to share the 20m natural swimming pool. Your company: butterflies, dragonflies and frogs.
Spicers Canopy, Australia
An hour and half from Brisbane, Splicers Canopy offers glampers a back-to-nature experience atop a plateau, and an 8000-acre private reserve. Accommodating 20 guests, each tent has king size beds with fine linen, polished floorboards, luxurious armchairs and covered deck. Gourmet meals are included, as are guided walkabouts into the Main Range National Park. Dining is communal, taking places around a large stone fireplace, under stars sparkling above the clear air of the plateau.
Three Camel Lodge, Mongolia
Perhaps the most exotic destination for today's glamper, the Three Camel Lodge is an environmentally sustainable development built in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Accommodation comes in the form of luxury gers, the traditional circular tents used by Mongolian nomads. Felt and canvas cover a wooden frame that can be dismantled easily, with a wood stove keeping everyone warm in the middle. Three Camel’s gers have handpainted furniture, a private bathroom, king size beds, and Mongolian style bathrobes and slippers. The lodge features a restaurant, and Dino House, built in the style of a traditional temple, for evening entertainment.
If you've read the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, you'll know that "42" is the meaning of life. It's also the number of 3-night trips Fairmont Hotels is offering, plus cash and cameras, to winners of their new My Destination competition. The Grand Prize is a 7-night stay for two at any Fairmont North American property, including flights and $700 for food and beverage. These are prizes with meaning!
All you have to do is submit a short creative clip of your favourite destination, hidden gems or unusual experience. 42 Go Pro Heroes will be announced for the 3-day prize, handed snazzy new Go Pros for their stays, and then asked to capture some magic during their stay to qualify for the Grand Prize. As Fairmont's Go Pro Ambassador, I'm going to be judging. Unlike the entire cabinet of North Korea, I am not susceptible to bribery, but happy to give tips via Twitter (@robinesrock). Make sure you hashtag: #mydestinationstory.
The contest begins on August 1, 2014, with 42 Destination GoPro Heroes chosen by October 1, 2014. Trips will be taken between October 2 and December 15, 2014, and on December 19, all 42 finalist videos will be loaded to the contest site, MyDestinationStory.com. The postcard sweepstakes runs between August 1, 2014 and January 30, 2015. The Grand Prize winner will be announced on January 31, 2015. Visit MyDestinationStory.com to enter.
"I'd love to stay in Fairmont's Le Chateau Frontenac," said Everybody, Everywhere.
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.