It's October, which means we're going somewhere creepy, and I'm not just referring to the snakes Down Under.
Australian has no shortage of brutal convict history, but there’s a tangible creep factor visiting the cells of the Old Melbourne Gaol. It's unnerving as hell standing before the same gallows that dispatched notorious criminals like Ned Kelly, Frederick Bailey Deeming, and 131 others. Especially at night, when the lights are dimmed, the daytime tourists have cleared out, and writer Trevor Poultney is leading a group of two-dozen tourists. He reassures us that he doesn’t need to make up any silly ghost stories, since the jail has plenty of real-life stories to do the trick. In fact, the jail’s consistent paranormal activity inspired Trevor to start the ghost tours in the first place. Of course, nothing has been proved and there’s no guarantee you’ll actually see anything. I ask two couples in my group why they feel it is a good idea to spend Saturday night in a dark, haunted 19th century prison block. Both reply that it is a birthday present. Price of a Ghost Tour: $38. Scaring the crap out of your spouse: Priceless.
A purple early evening glow still permeates the cellblock when Trevor begins.
“It’s dark in here, and it’s going to get darker. Keep in a tight group, as it’s less likely you’ll be picked off.” He’s joking of course, but he’s also a great storyteller, adding just enough bite to his words to keep everyone on edge. It’s a ninety-minute tour, mostly conducted outside the cells since they are too small, too dark, too claustrophobic and too damn spooky to spend much time in. Trevor begins with the tale of a site supervisor locking up the museum for the night. Suddenly, she felt someone kick her in the leg. Heavy doors began banging, chains rattled, and she heard groans and screams. Apparently, much of the weirdness tends to emanate from Cell 17 on the second level, although no particular record exists as to why this would be the case. Trevor tells us that prisoners were often moved around, documentation has vanished, but conditions were notoriously horrific. At the rear of the first level, we sit around the lit-up death mask of Ned Kelly, the most infamous bushranger in Australian history. Alongside replicas of the handmade armour Ned wore during his famous shoot-out with the law, Ned’s head is the museum’s most famous attraction. Gad is it creepy!
After the lifeless bodies of the condemned were removed from the gallows, it was common practice for prison officials to shave their heads and cast their death mask for research. It was part of a discredited 19th century practice called phrenology, which believed science could physically determine the motivations of criminals and lunatics. Ned’s head looks peaceful enough as Trevor whips out his tablet to show us the three types of ghost photos the jail receives from visitors. There are the fakes, easy to spot and silly to attempt. The second are from people seeing things that simply aren’t there, an easy but sincere mistake given the numerous shadows and effects of using a camera flash.
“You paid good money. It’s an atmospheric building. We’re very suggestible. Of course we want to see a ghost, why else would we be here?” he explains. Out-of-focus blurry zoomed-in photos do make great ghost photos, but the apparition is just about always in the eye of the beholder. But, as my own photo from Savannah testifies, not always. The third photos are the anomalies, the ones with no feasible explanation. Trevor shows us the spectre of a man with a hat standing outside Cell 17. We see the wraiths of a woman and child that can be seen hovering on level three. Other visitors, who have not taken a ghost tour, claim to have physically encountered these people during the day, with some even asking them for directions. At the gallows on the second level, the very spot where 129 men and four women took their last breath, Trevor shows us the one photo that continues to freak him out. His own feet appear at the top of the photo beneath the demonstration rope…only, he was with the visitor who took the photo on the other side of the cell.
“I think it’s a peaceful building,” he whispers. “Do I believe in ghosts? Things happen here, and that’s as far as I’ll go.”
We have fifteen minutes to roam about freely before closing. We’ll enter cells to gaze at the haunting death masks of dispatched prisoners, feeling an icy chill lick our necks. We’ll read about the torrid history and conditions of the prison, which operated between 1842 and 1929. Not many visitors will go as far as to enter Cell 17, because Trevor has done a bang-up job spooking us about it. This is where the belligerent man with the hat appears. Where guests feel something pushing on them. Where breath gets laboured, and electronic devices go on the fritz. This is the one cell where guide dogs refuse to enter. With nervous giggles, a few of us still walk into Cell 17. With our imaginations in overdrive, a sense of dread in the cell is unmistakable. I took plenty of photos, of course, and I’ve poured over them in search of an apparition. As much as I want to believe beyond the shadows, I did not strike ghostly photographic gold in the Melbourne Gaol. I did however encounter a fascinating cultural and architectural history, entertaining stories, unforgettable characters, and a true one-of-a-kind experience. What more could you ask for on a great night out in the city?
Click here for more information about a Melbourne Gaol ghost tour, although as with many other activities in Melbourne and elsewhere, this is something to consider in your post-Covid plans.
In less haunting news, you can read my latest Bucket Listed columns for Can Geo Travel which adds 11 new experiences to my ever-expanding Canadian Bucket List, and reviews the incredible Arctic landscapes in renowned artist Cory Trepanier's new book.
Travel safe, stay inspired, and don't turn into a pumpkin.
The Milestones of Travel
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.
The World's Grossest Food
I compiled this definitive list with two very simple rules:
a) The items mentioned below should be available to members of the paying - and no doubt occasionally insane - public
b) To qualify, the thought of each dish should make my stomach swill over, my throat seize up, my nose twitch, and my eyes rattle.
This list demonstrates that we will devour whatever we are culturally conditioned to consume, and whatever creature with the distasteful misfortune to be around us if we are hungry. Presenting my global menu for those of iron will and titanium gut:
The Sour Toe Cocktail
Lets begin in the Yukon Territory, in the long-past-its-boom town of Dawson City. The Downtown Hotel bar serves up a drink of straight whiskey, with added flavouring from a real life severed human toe. A big, gnarly one too, shrivelled and yellow, with the nail still on. I joined the Sour Toe Cocktail club, and to qualify, the toe must touch your lips. I can still feel it today, like a pickled, phantom limb. Everyone gets the same toe, and in the past, some toes have been swallowed. Feeling icky yet? Just wait…
Duck can be delicious, and eggs can be delicious, so why does it get nasty when you mix the two together? Balut, a popular delicacy in the Philippines, is a fermented duck egg, that is, an egg with a crunchy, sometimes feathery baby duck inside. You peel the shell, slurp up the embryonic fluid, add some salt, and bite hard into the crispy mushy goodness. Apparently, balut goes down really well with cold beer. Slugging back a few bottles might make this gourmet treat go down better, and for that matter, up again too.
Deep Fried Hairy Spiders
Personally, I just didn’t have the stomach for arachnoids when I was travelling by bus through Cambodia. A popular roadside snack, the large spiders are eaten in big bites, or pulled apart, leg by leg, and consumed like French fries. Black bug juice dribbles down the chin as you reach the best part of meal, the pincers and the bulbous back. All the poison is removed when the spiders are fried, and apparently the appeal lies in its crunchy-chewy texture. Along came a spider, and sat down beside her, and so Muffin just ate the damn thing.
Ox Penis Soup
Let us just be grateful that, due to conservation laws and human evolution, it’s no longer Tiger Penis Soup. Some Chinese restaurants serve up this delicacy, known for its mythical and powerfully arousing properties. The broth is serviceable, but the reality of eating ox or deer penis is that it tastes like a hard, impossibly chewy sponge. Tourists wishing to partake in this dish may find themselves forced to spit it out, or swallow it whole.
Fermented Shark (Hákarl)
Moving over to Iceland now, where they like their sharks rotten, stinky, and air-dried out for 5 months. Oozing the odour and taste of powerful ammonia (think urine-scented cleaning products), hákarl is an acquired taste, even in Iceland. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay puked on it, a common reaction for first-timers, who are advised to hold their nose to avoid detecting the disgusting stench they’re about to put in their mouths. Those who eat it are associated as being strong and brave, although I mostly just felt queasy. As someone appalled by the shark fin trade, I reckon anyone who eats the fins of these increasingly endangered fish should be forced to try this Scandinavian delicacy first.
Cats and Dogs
Widely condemned by the West and pet owners everywhere, it’s a sad fact that Fluffy and Fido are still on the menu in parts of Asia. Breeds of dog are raised specifically as food, and as a friend of mine will testify, having adopted and therefore saved one such puppy from the roast, they remain viciously tempered. Dog has been eaten in China for thousands of years, and the meat is famed for medicinal properties. Meanwhile, Singapore’s Strait Times reports that up to 10,000 cats are eaten every day in the Chinese province of Guangdong. Brings a disturbing new meaning to the concept of “cat food”. Hug your Fluffy and Fido a little closer tonight.
I’m back, and in the mood for a little insect caviar! In Mexico, escamoles refers to the larvae of the giant, particularly ferocious Liometopum ant. Its eggs are collected from agave plants, spiced, and served in tacos. Escamole has a cottage cheese texture, and a buttery finish. I’ve eaten ants and termites in various jungles, and they taste surprisingly like walnuts. Perfect for anyone into nuts, or just plain nuts too.
Those who have read this far, and therefore possessed of iron guts, will appreciate the hop over to Sardinia Italy, where we can spread some thick sheep’s cheese onto a slice of toast. Only problem here, it’s been purposely allowed to rot and gather maggots, which adds to the soapy, writhing texture. Next time you have a cheese and wine soiree, think maggots!
Three Squeak Dish
By now, I hope you’re warmed up for the really gross stuff. Although not everyone is convinced this exists, it's just too sick to make up (or leave off this list). Supposedly served in some remote parts of Asia, the Three Squeak Dish is a plate served with three pink, freshly born baby mice. The first squeak is when you pick them up with chopsticks. The second is when you dip them in soy sauce. You can guess what the third squeak is. Apparently they’re easy to chew because the bones have not hardened yet. Excuse me. I have to go to the bathroom now.
Honorary Mentions: Lutifisk is a fish Norwegian weapon of mass culinary destruction. Laos Snake Whiskey is sold with farm-bred cobras at the bottom, some with scorpions for extra zing. We should also leave room for cockroaches, haggis, and cuy (deep-fried guinea pig). And how can I forget my delicious fruit bat stew in beautiful New Caledonia?
Fruit bats ready for the stewing in New Caledonia
Re-assuredly, deep fried guinea pig does not taste like chicken.
In a while, crocodile. Cango Wildlife Park, South Africa
I have entered a cage four times to stare into the eyeballs of four famously dangerous creatures that one is strongly advised – and I cannot emphasize this enough - not to stare into the eyeballs of. Psychologists could unpack a fascinating study behind the motivations of people who choose, willingly and with good money, to get close to animals like sharks, crocodiles and lions. Not that such a study has ever been commissioned, since scientists of all ilk are currently laundering lab coats for more pressing concerns. Since we live in an age of misinformation, I may as well just invent one. According to global peer reviewed research study (*that was neither peer-reviewed, researched nor studied), thousands of people choose to cage-dive with dangerous animals because:
Curiously, 63% of these non-existent participants said they harboured a deep and unexplainable fear of the above-mentioned animals, and 12% said they only signed up having felt guilty for entering the booking office with the sole intention of using the toilet. Whatever floats your boat, and that's where we'll begin, bobbing off the east coast of South Africa on the lookout for man-eating Great White Sharks. Since they are widely known for bearing progressive and egalitarian natures, the Great Whites eat women too.
Nice fishy: Mossel Bay, South Africa
When I entered the cage, I was still between the teeth of the shark phobia that had plagued me since watching Jaws on a hotel movie channel as a 6-year-old on his first beach holiday. Fast forward a few decades, and I’d seen far better movies which highlighted the vital role sharks play in the eco-system, the horrific carnage behind their hunting for shark-fin soup, and their overall misunderstanding within popular culture. Fact is (and this is a real fact): Sharks are amazing. If they wanted to eat people, hundreds of us would be attacked every day, all around the world. In reality, you have more chance of struck by lightning or drowning in a bathtub (this is also true). I jumped into the cage, and had a life-changing experience with a rather large great white who could have attacked me from beneath (where the thick cage inexplicably and unnervingly morphed into a wire-hangar-thin mesh). From that moment, I resolved to learn how to scuba dive, and have since shared an underwater, cage-free space with sharks from Hawaii to the Papua New Guinea. That first cage dive truly changed my life for the better. If you insist and persist on eating shark-fin soup, please look at yourself in the mirror, then jump out a high window. Millions of sharks needlessly massacred each year will thank you.
Swimming with Salties: Crocosaurus Cove, Australia.
Crocodiles are an entirely different beast. For starters, they simply want to eat you. No curiosity here, no meeting of creatures or confusion because you look like a seal. To a crocodile, we look like lunch, which is why they quickly surrounded me in the pool. At Cango Wildlife Ranch in South Africa, I entered a steel cage and was lowered into a pool. At Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin, northern Australia, I was inside a cylindrical Perspex tube with a few too many croc teeth scrapes for comfort. The Nile and Saltwater dinosaurs that decided I looked too delicious to pass up bumped me around a bit, their large orange reptilian eyes gazing deep into my soul. 17% of our fictional survey participants mentioned they enjoyed the sensation of feeling like prey. I, for one, did not. While my shark cage encounter made me want to dive with (admittedly less fierce) sharks in the wild, the croc cages left me twitchy about the Crocodile Warning signs I later encountered at popular swimming holes outside of Darwin and in tropical north Queensland. The mere thought of saltwater crocs patrolling the coast keeps locals off the beaches, and one taxi driver told me about a pet dog that ran to the beach, jumped into the water, and was promptly gobbled up by a lurking croc. According to a BBC Report, the best tip for surviving a crocodile attack is to avoid getting attacked. That's one helpful report, I don't know what we'd do without it.
Somewhere in Bohol, Philippines.
The Burmese python acting as a living sofa above was a roadside in attraction I passed somewhere in the Philippines. Entering its cage seemed like something to do. Once I was seated, I started questioning what on earth they could be feeding this thing. The answer, I hoped, was not dumb tourists who enter snake cages at roadside attractions
Lions 360 at Monarto Zoo, South Australia
Finally, I should mention that I once got into a cage surrounded by hungry lions. Inspired by shark cage dives, the Monarto Zoo in South Australia offers a Lions 360 experience, with feeding time for the zoo’s female pride coinciding with lucky tourists paying a little extra to be in a caged enclosure. The lions, which roam in a very large space that resembles the African bush, get to walk on the cage feet above your head, and close enough for you to smell their aroma, breath, and, if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, their urine. My daughter was five years old at the time, and the lions paid special attention to her, recognizing our group’s weakest link. As well fed as they were, I had little doubt they would have gladly added a curly-haired dessert to their carefully monitored intake of horse (or perhaps kangaroo) meat. For further insight, here's a little video of Lions360 that I made about that experience.
Lions, crocs, snakes, sharks…getting close to dangerous wild animals is always memorable, especially when you’re in an environment designed to ensure you’ll live long enough for the memories. I’ve had close encounters in the wild with hippos (which kill far more people than crocs in Africa), grizzly bears, polar bears, piranha, elephants, orca, cheetahs, baboons, snakes, scorpions, spiders, and far too many mosquitoes (which kill many, many more people each year than any of the above). Every experience left me in awe of nature and the creatures we share this planet with. Except the mosquitoes. Those bastards just left me itchy.
This month sees the publication of my 9th and probably most personal book, 75 Must See Places to Take the Kids (before they don’t want to go). You see, while living and writing The Great Australian Bucket List, I was also travelling with my wife and two kids, aged 2 and 5, writing and researching this one. But family travel, I was learning, is an entirely different beast. We discovered some truly incredible wonders for all ages, gathered priceless memories, and also learned a thing or two. To celebrate the launch of this beautiful, funny, inspiring and honest new book, here’s some of that hard-fought wisdom for parents of young kids, and the people and family who support them. It works for Australia, but it works for everywhere else too.
With due respect, any Mom or Dad who claims to have family travel figured out is delusional, likely fibbing, or paying someone a lot of money to look after their kids. The truth is: young kids do not give a flying crap about your best laid plans and intentions. Rather, they’ll make a crap while you’re flying (probably an explosive one, the kind that just violates a diaper). Children under the age of five are frequently erratic, inefficient, agitated, annoying, moody, and instinctively know how to push your buttons. And this is before you take them on a stressful journey. Of course, you love them more than anything in the world, and there are moments of such tenderness, magic and wonder it makes all other forms of travel – backpacking, honeymooning, grey nomading – pale. But you will work for those moments, and pay for them in blood, sweat, tears and dollars. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
If there’s strategy, we tried it. Not letting the kids nap so they’ll sleep on the plane (they didn’t). Letting them nap so they’d be rested (they weren’t). Buying books, loading up devices, crayons for colouring in…the reality is that some flights are terrible, and some flights are not. Overwhelmingly, we found Jetstar’s crew to be sympathetic and helpful. Fellow passengers meanwhile could be broken down into several categories: a) We’ve been there and Thank God we’re not there any more b) How dare you bring your snotty kids on this plane and ruin my flight c) I’m right there with you and we’d chat but my kid is eating the tray that was last wiped down in 1997 …and d) Every cent I invested in these noise cancelling headphones was worth it. Never will time tick more slowly than when you find yourself on a plane with your screaming, inconsolable, jetlagged and overtired infant and toddler. The best thing that can be said for flying is that it eventually ends, you will land in your destination, it beats spending all those hours in a car, and with devices, flying today is very much easier than it used to be.
We drove almost 20,000 kilometres during our trip, and it definitely helped that we were in a comfortable Ford Everest. With direction from my toddler, I curated a playlist of 100 songs I knew my kids would enjoy, and adults might be able to stomach on endless repeat. We learned that snacks must be instantly accessible, along with wipes, and towels for sudden eruptions of projectile vomit on winding roads (watch for seismic clues like the kids being too quiet, moaning, or turning sepia). Good car seats are essential (we went with Britax) with the advantage of the kids being strapped in. Sometimes strapping them in was an easy process, and sometimes we’d lean in too close to fasten a buckle and get the open-handed slap to the face. Don’t blame the kid, you’re a sitting duck. GPS definitely takes the sting out of getting lost and provides some indication on how long the journey will take, not that this will stop the endless barrage of “Are We There Yet?” Road games help, especially for the older kids. Drugs occasionally help, especially for parents.
The restaurants of Australia seem convinced that the most important food groups for every growing child are chicken nuggets and chips, pizza, mac and cheese, fish and chips, chicken nuggets served with mac and cheese, and pizza served with fish and chips. Basically, all the essential minerals and vitamins one can get. Of course, any time we ordered something that wasn’t from the Kids Menu, the kids would take one bite, and the bill would take a bigger bite. This is why we did a lot of cooking wherever we stayed, which not only saved us money, it also saved our sanity.
Before you depart, resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to pack far more than you need. Imagining every conceivable scenario, you simply can’t help yourself. What if it gets unseasonably hot, cold, wet, dry, or buggy? If it does, you can deal with it with a quick visit to the store, mall or market. Our kids outgrew their shoes twice in 10 months. For almost a year, their wardrobe consisted of a small suitcase that seemed to refresh its garments along the way, when the holes and stains and smells overwhelmed the clothing’s usefulness. Even with a limited selection, our five year old would have meltdowns over her fashion choices, with a favourite dress or shirt cast out from one day to the next. Your best bet is to pack a travel uniform of sorts, with the same garment combo in multiples. Good luck with that.
Self-catering cabins at holiday parks (we had wonderful stays with Discovery Holiday Parks) and two bedroom apartment rentals (we stuck with Oaks Hotels) served us much better than a traditional hotel room. Kids need the space, you need the kitchen, and holiday parks come with jumping pillows, pools, playgrounds, and most importantly, other kids for yours to play with. We used an ultra-light, easy-to-assemble travel crib from Valco Baby which ensured our two year old had consistency. He’s a good sleeper, but our five year-old frequently ended up in our bed, and I frequently ended up in her bed, a sofa, and one time, on the floor in the closet. You do what you got to do. Kids thrive on routine, and travel is all about shaking that routine up. Everyone has to give or take to make it work on the road. By everyone, I refer to parents giving up everything, and the kids taking as much as they can.
I’ve written several “bucket list” books that investigate unique experiences, and I’ve built my career as a writer who chases the extraordinary, a Connoisseur of Fine Experiences. You can visit a beach, wildlife park, waterpark, or museum anywhere, so I had to dig a little deeper for activities that could include my kids. Stuff like standing beneath a snarling lion inside a cage or hand feeding Bluefin tuna in South Australia. Stuff like swimming with baby crocs or in natural jacuzzis (NT), being inside a glass box hanging off a building or panning for gold (VIC), kayaking off Fraser Island or feasting in a shipping container food market (QLD), sailing with dugongs and chasing quokkas (WA), petting stingrays and braving the world’s steepest railcar (NSW) and jumping on modern art and staring down ferocious devils (TAS). Of course, the kids loved the beaches (the Whitsundays, Bondi, Byron Bay), the wildlife parks (Caversham in WA, Cleland in SA, Wildlife Habitat in QLD, the Melbourne Zoo), the museums (Scienceworks and the Melbourne Museum in VIC, Questacon in ACT, the Maritime Museum in Perth) and waterparks (most of the Discovery Holiday Parks we stayed in, the Oaks Oasis). But most of all, they loved ice cream. Because in the end, it didn’t matter what incredible activity or destination we ticked off, the best part was just being together, spending quality time as a family that we’ll always look back on with joy, wonder, and inspiration.
Despite the challenges – the meltdowns, the pukes, the frenetic meals, lack of sleep, intense drives – my family managed to breathe deep, laugh, play, capture memories we might only appreciate later, and celebrate the incredible Australian opportunities that came our way.
You can buy 75 Must-See Places To Take The Kids at most bookshops in Australia and New Zealand, including online at Booktopia and Dymocks, and through Book Depository anywhere in the world.
In a tiny room, crammed with gadgets and monitors, sits a small button. 24 hours a day, an officer monitors the equipment, awaiting a single phone call. On orders, he places a key into a slot, and turns clockwise. Punching in an access code, he takes a breath, and pushes the small white knob. In just over half an hour, a missile carrying a payload of ten thermonuclear warheads hits multiple targets in the United States. In the ensuing carnage, each warhead vaporizes an area of 200 square kilometres, along with every living creature inside it. Millions die instantly, millions more slowly from the release of deadly radiation. Life as we know it ceases to exist, as thousands of similar missiles criss-cross the skies seeing their targets. All it takes is one push of the button, located in a control room 33-metres below the Ukrainian countryside. My finger draws near. My hand starts to shake.
Before its independence in 1991, Ukraine had more nuclear missiles than any other country outside the United States and Russia. Strategically and secretly distributed throughout the countryside, missile units were surrounded by armed guards, 3000-volt electric fences, and protected from attack in deep underground bunker silos built to survive a nuclear war. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly autonomous nation of Ukraine chose to become a nuclear-weapon free zone, and with US support, dismantled its missiles and bases. Today, just three and half hours drive outside of Kiev near the town of Pervomaisk, the legacy of Armageddon is open to the public inside one of the world’s most bone-chilling tourist attractions.
The Museum of Strategic Missile Troops is a former Soviet nuclear missile base that has been opened to the public by the armed forces of Ukraine. Under the guidance of former officers who once operated the base, visitors are led on a tour explaining how large-scale nuclear missiles were managed, maintained, guarded, and later dismantled. Other than several missiles and engines on open display, the location appears innocuous – a few low-rise barracks, a tall radio tower. Massive green transport trucks customized to transport thermonuclear warheads hint at something more sinister. Deep beneath the surface lie the control and missile solos designed to destroy the world. As a thick iron door locks us in, I descend into a long tunnel towards the command silo. Immediately, the atmosphere becomes dense, cold and heavy. Slightly hunched, I am opening the mechanical and electrical toolbox designed to initiate Armageddon.
Former Colonel Mikael Kamenskov had his finger on the button for over a decade. If the orders had come down, as they nearly did on several occasions, he was responsible for pressing the button, launching the missiles, and annihilating entire cities. Moustached and balding, he is serious man, explaining the detailed security measures and base design using scale models and a stick pointer. He describes how a two-man combat crew would take six-hour shifts, capable of surviving in their subterranean silo for up to 48 days without surfacing. The Colonel does not present the face of a cold-stone killer, and yet his actions would directly have resulted in the slaughter of millions.
I remove my Ray Ban sunglasses as we leave the bright sunshine behind and enter the guts of the facility. The air is cool as we walk along a narrow tunnel, once reserved for top-secret military personnel only. Heating, air, plumbing and radiation filters line the walls, while above us, a 120-ton cap protects the giant test-tube shaped silo. The 12-level underground command post silos were built on hydraulic suspensions, to function in the event of earthquake, or more likely, missile attacks. In the eyes of many Soviet soldiers, explains the Colonel, mutually assured nuclear annihilation was not so much an “if”, but a “when”.
We cram into a tiny elevator and descend slowly towards Level 12. A loud ringing accompanies the elevator, along with an old rotary dial telephone in case we get stuck. I open the flap doors to find a small circular room with low ceilings, the air musky and dank. Two bunks are fastened to the walls, a simple airplane-like toilet behind a door. Bleak as a tomb, this was the living quarters for the two officers on duty. An iron ladder takes us up to the next claustrophobic level, the command room. All signs of life are removed. Trees, animals, seas, clouds and cities only exist here in the imagination. I take my seat, and imagine myself on duty, the hotline ringing.
Even though the button is useless and the missiles long since destroyed, it feels like I’m playing with an unloaded gun. I’m thinking about the horrifying photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, displayed in the museum above. Is the barrel empty? My hand shakes. I just cannot bring myself to do it. Some buttons are just not meant to be pushed.
My bones are chilled when we exit the silo, and it takes some time in the hot sun to warm them. I put my sunglasses on, my eyes struggling with the afternoon light. Various missiles are on display outside, including the CC18, a massive black rocket considered to be the most advanced and deadly nuclear missile ever built. NATO dubs this modern Russian-made missile “Satan”, an apt name for pure technological evil, carrying 10 warheads in its cap, each 50 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that exploded over Hiroshima.
The most distressing part of visiting this unique Ukrainian museum is knowing that hundreds of similar bases still exist around the world, its officers on duty, waiting for that phone call. Even as Russia and the USA work to reduce their nuclear stockpiles, other countries are actively seeking their own membership in the nuclear club.
Perhaps one day all nuclear missile bases will be dismantled, and similar museums will demonstrate just how close we came to cleverly engineering our own destruction. Considering Ukraine voluntarily chose to dismantle its substantial nuclear arsenal, turning this tool of “mutually assured destruction” into a vital and chilling museum, there is always reason to hope.
The Museum of Strategic Missile Troops is located 3.5 hours drive from Kiev. It is open daily from 10am to 5pm. Tour operators in Kiev can arrange transport and entrance.
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.
If you've been following me on social media, you've probably realized I'm travelling across Australia doing everything worth doing, research for two upcoming books, The Great Australian Bucket List and Esrocking Travel with the Kids. The journey has kept my family than hyperactive bees, and we kicked it all off in Melbourne. Here's some of the highlights:
Take a Street Art Tour
The laneways and arcades that snake through Melbourne’s CBD’s conceal a hidden city, one that is home to one of the world’s most renowned underground art and culture scenes. You might see glimpses of it walking around, but an organized tour will lead you directly to the most striking art and locations, and reveal the fascinating stories behind them. Once you learn about paste-ups, graffiti, yarn-bombing and blanking out, you’ll never look at any city the same way again.
Old Melbourne Gaol Ghost Tour
It’s a creepy enough building during the day, and that’s when it’s just a historical museum. At night, echo-chamber passageways and thick cells of the Old Gaol reveal a far more disturbing atmosphere, aided by the death mask of Ned Kelly and other convicts hanged on-site. A convincing storyteller tells true-life ghost stories as you tour the cellblocks, walking carefully in the dark or else you might trip over your imagination.
Old world travel has always been romantic. When this narrow-gauge track was decommissioned in the 1950’s, it was reinvented as a volunteer-run leisure railway, with steam locomotives taking visitors through Dandenong Ranges for picnics along the way. On-board, it’s a festive and family-friendly atmosphere, with guests encouraged to sit on the open-air windows with their legs in the breeze. Puffing Billy has become an icon, and a great way to explore nature outside the city.
Eureka Skydeck's The Edge
It’s the highest public viewing deck in the southern hemisphere, and the top 10 floors have 24-carat gold plated windows. The Eureka Skydeck gives visitors stellar 360-views of the sprawling city, and the latest attraction puts the streets (and the Oaks Southbank below) literally beneath your feet. The first of its kind, The Edge is a glass cube that extends out the 88th floor viewing deck, 285 metres above the ground. Sound effects of glass breaking add to the thrill.
Melbourne Zoo’s Roar n’ Snore Overnight Camp
10,000 people a day can pack into the world renowned Melbourne Zoo. Imagine having the place to yourself at night when many of the animals are actually awake. The Roar n’ Snore experience not only allows this to happen, it includes guided behind the scenes tours, dinner and breakfast, early morning sessions with the zookeepers, and your chance to sleep in a canvas tent surrounded by the sounds of exotic animals.
With special thanks to our partners: Ford Motors Australia, Jetstar Airways, Oaks Hotels and Resorts, and Discovery Parks.
Book Review: Atlas of Untamed Places
Just when I thought I’d seen something of the world, along comes a book about 45 remarkable places… and I’ve been to exactly one of them. Chris Fitch, a senior staff writer at the Royal Geographical Society’s Geographical magazine, has assembled an impressive collection of little known spots from all seven continents, divided into sections of Extreme Environments, Untouched Lands, Human Activity, Weird Worlds, Isolated Realms and Nature’s Wilderness. Illustrated with clear maps and black and white photography, it is an atlas of destinations so remote, rugged and bizarre that many chapters could be describing locations on alien planets.
A mysterious lake appears out of nowhere in the Tunisian desert. Off the coast of Croatia, a steep rocky island consisting almost entirely of volcanic magnetite sends navigational equipment haywire, and more than few sailors to their doom. In China, the world’s largest tidal bore draws thousands of people each year to watch a wall of water racing up the Qiantang estuary. On North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Islands, an uncontacted tribe of hostile islanders continue to shower arrows (and occasionally death) on anyone who approaches their shores. The world’s largest cave system in Georgia, an accidental coal fire that burns beneath a town in Pennsylvania, the -93°C extremes of Dome Argus Antarctica, a hidden valley of impenetrable rainforest in Borneo – most of the short chapters had me reaching for Wikipedia and falling down an online rabbit hole. Google Mount Mabu Rainforest in Mozambique, Mexico’s Cave of Crystals, or Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal Refuge, and try not to annoy your friends by dropping the tremendous trivia of your discoveries.
This is the kind of book that inspires lunatics like me to actually run off and find these places. Sure, it could all be researched online (along with similar books like Atlas Obscura), but it does take a twisted genius to assemble these untamed places into something cohesive, and talent to write concise chapters that explain just enough to make you scratch your head, say “Whoa!” and desire to know more. As for the one place in the book I’ve actually visited? Chernobyl’s Zone of Alienation, a chapter in my own book, The Great Global Bucket List. Books like these, which belong on the coffee table of the more eclectic traveller, forever ensuring that your bucket list continues to grow.
Atlas of Untamed Places
By Chris Fitch
with maps by Martin Brown
Published by Aurum Press
US$29.99 / $38.99 CAN
Buy it on Amazon.
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.
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 battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.