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.
As we've established, I usually travel with a small bottle of hot sauce. When applied liberally, it can save any meal (even boiled cabbage in Siberia, although you might need more than one bottle). Fortunately, there are some destinations where carrying my hot sauce is completely unnecessary. These are the places where the Mighty Chilli roams free, and pity the fool traveller who shows it disrespect.
The Thai’s don’t cook. They paint a masterpiece on your palate, with colours of sweet, salty, sour and spice. The chilli in question is known locally as “mouse droppings”, since it is small and shrivelled. Thailand’s famous red curry is made with these dried, crushed chillis. Yellow curry, the least spicy, is made with spices like turmeric. The most spicy is green curry, with the potent seeds left in. The Thai chilli realizes its full potential in tom yum soup, combined with lime, fish sauce, ginger and lemongrass. When the ingredients are mixed just right, it will make you salivate just thinking about it for years to come (as I am doing just typing this).
A good, strong Indian curry will make your eyeballs sweat. Traditionally, the spiciest Indian dish is the vindaloo, inspired by Portuguese visitors but perfected in India with a variety of chillies and peppers. I find that drinking lightly carbonated Indian beer soothes an extra hot vindaloo’s burn to something almost bearable. But I’d still place a roll of toilet paper in the fridge before you go to bed, for it is well known that strong curries always burn twice.
The African birds-eye chilli was spread around the world by Portuguese seafarers, and for good reason. Known as peri peri, the small birds-eye releases a chemical that has been proven to trigger a sort of culinary buzz. You can’t get addicted, but after years of craving a steady fix, I believe I’ve come pretty close. You can also chase the peri-peri burn in Portugal, Brazil, and at a top notch South African franchise called Nandos Chicken worldwide.
Lets hit the bayou with a little fixin’ of some of Louisiana’s finest. Tabasco brand pepper sauce is found around the world, and “blackened Cajun” rub has become a staple in many fish restaurants. But the USA seems to have excelled in the manufacture and marketing of outrageous sauces, with quirky names like Satan’s Blood and Blair’s Mega Death Sauce. One of the world’s spiciest dishes was traced to a shrimp cocktail in Indianapolis (heavy on the horseradish), while one restaurant in Chicago insists diners sign a waiver before sampling its XXX Hot Wings. American food scientists have extracted the capsaicin compound that gives chilli peppers its kick. It’s more a weapon than a food group.
The best fish I’ve ever had was on the Jamaican south coast, spiced with the wonderful Caribbean concoction popularly known as jerk. Fish or meat is dry rubbed with a mixture of scallions, nutmeg, garlic, herbs, and the secret ingredient, the Scotch Bonnet Pepper. Closely related to the habanero, the most fierce of household chillies, the Scotch Pepper is small and unassuming, like a nuclear bomb in a suitcase. When combined in the right combination, it creates a jerk sensation, a mouth-watering blend of heat and taste.
Chinese cuisine is not afraid to use chillies, but the region most famous for its culinary heat is the Szechuan Province. Perhaps its most famous dish is the hot pot, whereby different ingredients are added to a pot until everything is just right. A locally grown “flower” pepper adds the heat the region is famous for.
Jalapeno peppers are renowned the world over, although on the Scoville Scale they barely register. Consider it has a rating of just 2500 to 8000, while the habanero lies somewhere between 100,000 and 350,000. Mexicans tamed the habanero, a monster of a pepper, now used in most gimmicky hot sauces. Fortunately it is used in Mexican kitchens sparingly, where moles (sauces) are prepared with that special combination of tomato, cilantro, lime, pepper, and sometimes chocolate.
SIDE NOTE: The World’s Spiciest Dish
Phaal curry is made from various peppers, but there’s only one you should worry about. The bhut jolokia, aka the nala jokolia, aka the ghost pepper, aka you-have-to-be-out-of- your-mind-to-eat-this-pepper pepper. It’s been certified by the Guinness Book of Records as being the strongest pepper known to man, with a Scoville rating of over 1,000,000! The thick Phaal curry is served in India and Pakistan, to diners who will shortly lose all communication with their oral cavity.
We are just minutes into the rally, and I’m clutching onto some key advice:
Dave, my rally Obi-Wan, is a case in point. He’s the owner of over a dozen classic cars, including a pre-war Bentley and Rolls Royce. That’s pre World War 1. A 25-year rally veteran, Dave’s run the Peking to Paris (twice), along with rallies in Australia, New Zealand and Europe. For the Northwest Classic, open to pre-1981 collector cars, Dave’s selected his reliable 356 Porsche. He explains it will allow him to focus on the race, as opposed to keeping the car going. Race is not exactly the right word. It’s more like a Sunday drive, with two hundred good friends, and a purpose.
Crawling along the I5 to Portland, Dave gives me the basics of time-speed-distance rallying. Drivers and navigators are given instructions that must be followed to the letter, and to the second. Each car is spaced one minute apart, driving at suggested speeds to enable us to reach, say, a particular stop sign in exactly 2:43 seconds, or a right turn at 7:29. Teams calibrate their odometers, and must factor traffic and rally rules. We never exceed the speed limit, unless we’re running late, in which case, well, these are classic sport cars.
The Rally Master adds traps designed to bamboozle even the most alert navigator, steering us off course, resulting in time penalties or lost minutes. Each day might feature up to 10 stages, comprised of a start, finish, and time check by a team of volunteer marshals hidden somewhere along the route. Dave warns me that it doesn’t help to follow the car in front of us. They could just as easily lead us off a cliff as to the next checkpoint.
As a first time navigator, I am determined not to let my driver down. Dave’s wife, who normally takes the navigator role, has already warned me: Whatever is said in the car doesn’t count. Things can get heated when the pressure is on, and a slight navigator omission can send our car rallying down the rankings. There’s even a tongue-in-cheek award, the Flying Clipboard, for the team most notably cracking at the seams.
Still, don’t hold your breath waiting for road rage. Vintage rallies are first and foremost about the cars, the driving, and the community it brings together. Owners come from all walks of life, taking pride in their aging Alpha Romeos, MG’s, Fords, Mercs, Saabs, Porches and other models. The average car at the race might cost around $30K - $50K, but there are some standouts, like a 1963 AC Cobra, worth a cool half a million dollars. Laurie and Verna own a dozen collector cars. “I got my first MG at 21 years old, and it was all downhill from there,” explains Laurie. Vintage cars sound like an addiction. Another racer from Coquitlam tells me there are two events he would never miss: The Northwest Classic, and BC’s Spring Thaw. He speaks of them with the reverence of a family Christmas.
I’ve nicknamed Dave’s Porsche The Silver Bullet, because its classic, capsule-shaped, and could probably kill a werewolf. A 1600cc engine with 90 horsepower, it’s no speed demon, but that’s why Dave likes it. It’s not about getting from A to B on an air-conditioned cloud. Our Porsche has no computers, plush leather, or cruise control. We sit low to the ground, on worn leather, feeling the growl of the engine. 50 mph never felt so cool.
As we scoot around Oregon’s coastal farm roads, I tick off checkpoints, calculate our times, watching out for traps. I’ve had to familiarize myself with rally terminology: CAST: Change Average Speed To. SAP: Straight as Possible. ITIS: If There Is Such. At the close of the first day, we’ve lost just 2 minutes off the pace, placing 16th out of a field of 113. I’m a rally virgin kicking butt.
During stage 6 on the final day,I confuse an ONTO/TOWARD instruction and lead us straight into a trap. Dave remains supernaturally zen about my screw-up, even as we slip down the rankings to finish 31st overall. At least we didn’t receive The Hook, awarded to the car that needs a tow truck. That honour belongs to another Porsche 356, not quite as reliable as our Silver Bullet.
The Northwest Classic is just one of dozens of rallies that take place around the continent, drawing collectors, enthusiasts, and members of various motor clubs. Some are competitive, others more social. When we line up our cars – on a downtown Portland street or stage meeting lot – crowds gather to ogle at rows of spit-polished cars on display. Owners get an obvious buzz showing off their pride and joy, and might even barter for new acquisitions. War stories are traded, from those that have braved the grueling frozen roads of the ALCAN 5000, to the pot-holed corruption of South American rallies. Road trips have always been one the best ways to see a country, especially in your favourite car. You’ll definitely find yourself on roads less travelled.
I notice that many teams are husband/wife couples, or retirees enjoying the good-life adventure. “We’re all growing old,” says Dave, “together with our cars”. Younger drivers are definitely welcome, so long as they have a qualifying car and a driver’s license. Rally entrance fees range from $500 for the Northwest Classic to $2900 for the ALCAN, so you don’t have to be a millionaire to participate, or even a competitor. Many rallies now have touring groups with no rules or time trials.
Dave lets me take the wheel on our long drive back to Vancouver. This time, we’re taking the longer, scenic route to avoid the traffic on the highway. The Porsche hums along the coast, reflecting tree tunnels, turning heads. There’s no power steering, no air con, and no CD Player to distract me from the act of driving itself. Classic cars are all about the experience. Much like the rally events that bring them together.
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.
The shenanigans of summer have subsided, the seasons have changed and autumn is upon us. For many, this is the best time of year to travel. Crowds thin, prices drop, foliage explodes, and the temperature dances on the Goldilocks stage of not too hot, not too cold, aaah...just right. Maybe you should consider:
Welcome to the ultimate fall destination. They even advertise it on the flag. Visitors come from all over the world to experience the colours of our foliage as they explode into shades of red, orange and yellow. There are highlights coast to coast: Ontario’s Algonquin Park, Niagara Parkway and Bruce Peninsular. The Laurentian Mountains in Quebec. Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, Nova Scotia’s Cabot Trail, New Brunswick’s Fundy Coastal Drive, the rolling forests and hills of Prince Edward Island and British Columbia – there’s no shortage of trees in Canada, and autumn is easily the best time of year to enjoy them.
The United States
Similarly, the Eastern Seaboard of the United States lights up in the colours of autumn from mid-September to the end of October. There’s plenty of charming road trips in the states of Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, where a gentle paced traveller can appreciate the change of season through small villages, farms, and seaside towns along the way. Michigan and Wisconsin are also known for their fabulous fall colours.
I have a particular fondness for the English countryside in autumn, having enjoyed epic road trips to the New Forest, Cotswolds and Cornwall in the past. Rolling, misty countryside and quaint stone villages add a particular coziness to the adventure. Other autumn faves in the UK include the National Forest in Leicestershire, along with Beacon Hill and the supernatural sounding Outwoods. There are also great trails outside of Cardiff in Wales, and plenty of walks and bike adventures in the Scottish Highlands.
China is so vast and there’s plenty to see away from the usual tourist hot spots of Beijing and Shanghai. With temperatures cooling pleasantly, consider the south-western Sichuan province where the maple and birch trees strut their colours. Domestic Chinese tourists love visiting places like Miyalou in October to enjoy the views, along with the Juizhai Vallley, where tranquil blue lakes compliment the “kingdom of colours”.
Spain is much more than a beach holiday destination, especially as the sizzling summer temperatures begin to drop and the Mediterranean starts to cool. It’s a great time to head south where it us perfectly warm and pleasant, and the cities of Granada, Cordoba and Seville are waiting to be explored. Those summer crowds have dispensed, so it’s far easier to get around without making reservations, getting that great table on the patio instead of spending hours lining up. Further north begins to get a little chilly around October.
The forests of Bavaria are brushed from the same autumn palette, with the added bonus of the wild, 16-day Oktoberfest taking place each year in Munich. Once you’ve saturated yourself on beer, hit the Autobahn for a drive along the Rhine, taking in the Black Forest, medieval castles, and the looming Alps.
Just because things are cooling down, doesn’t mean you need to pack a coat. French Polynesia enjoys its best season in August to October, after the heat of the sweltering months, but before the rains kick in. Tahiti, Bora Bora, the Society Islands – there’s no shortage of escapes where you can find your own beach paradise. You might want to stay clear of the Disappointment Islands though. They really need to do something about that name.
When the going gets tough, the tough get wet. Presenting 10 of the world's mightiest rivers for bucket list rafters. Paddle up, there's rapids ahead!
The Nahanni, Canada
Rafting UNESCO’s first ever World Heritage Site is one of the grand Canadian adventures. From Virginia Falls, where a 90m cascade plummets in to the river, canoe and kayak trips typically spend a week paddling downriver through huge canyons and pristine wilderness.
The Colorado, USA
Spend a week in a motorized raft (or two weeks with paddles) floating down the Colorado River, through one the world’s true natural wonders, the Grand Canyon. Thrilling rapids, epic geology, waterfalls, creeks and companionship await.
The Zambezi, Zimbabwe
Regarded as perhaps the world’s best one-day whitewater rafting experience, conquer the mighty Zambezi River at the foot of Victoria Falls. The most thrilling runs take place during low water between February and July, when the rapids are so rough as to be almost unpassable. Do your best to stay on board, and watch out for the small (harmless) crocodiles.
Enjoy the staggering scenery of Patagonia aboard a whitewater raft, as you navigate the Class 3 to 5 rapids of the Futaleufu River. You don’t have to rough it during this week-long journey: Earth River Expeditions have permanent camps with hot showers, stone hot tubs and comfortable beds.
The Ganges, India
Raft the Ganges from outside the town of Rishikesh, as the river bursts forth from the Himalayas, safe from the pollution it gathers further down. Rafting trips run from hours to days, starting October through June, although it can get pretty chilly around December/January.
White Nile, Uganda
Flowing through the heart of Africa, the Nile is a mystical river with a storied history. Its source was the subject of doomed expeditions and controversy. You won’t be thinking about any of it as you crash through a series of Class 4 and 5 rapids. Half and full day tours depart from the town of Jinja, located about 80km northeast of Kampala.
Kaituna, New Zealand
It’s not the Ganges or the Nile, but the lush Kaituna River does allow you to experience the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. There’s a 50/50 chance your raft will flip as you plummet over the 7m high falls, but that’s all part of the fun.
The Yangtze, Nepal
The Big Bend of China’s Yangtze River flows through a dramatic 10,000 foot deep gorge. That’s almost twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. A 10-day rafting tour runs 120 miles through the bend, crossing Class 4 rapids aplenty. Along the way you’ll get the chance to explore rural villages, and do some serious hiking too.
The Saint Lawrence River, Quebec
You don’t have to travel far to challenge the Saint Lawrence. Located close to downtown Montreal adjacent to Habitat 67, the Lachine rapids offer some of the world’s largest standing waves. Various class of rapids means even kids can conquer this mighty river.
Sharing its borders with Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, Iguazu is well known for its spectacular waterfalls. You can also climb into a raft to conquer the river from below, spending an hour crossing Class 3 rapids amidst the dense vegetation and exotic wildlife found in Iguazu National Park.
It's not every day you find yourself walking the streets of a Bavarian town located deep in the Cascadia mountains of eastern Washington State. Mind you, it’s not the first time I’ve seen a German village manifest thousands of miles from Europe. In Brazil, there’s a town called Blumenau which has a similar look and feel of Washington’s Leavensworth, but a far more German-ey sounding name. Both towns have a manicured appearance and attractions that is somewhat charming and a little sinister. My friend Jon described Leavensworth as “a Joseph Goebbels designed Disneyland.” Fortunately, we’re not here for the schnitzel, which regrettably, wasn’t worth writing about anyway. We’re on a road trip to the Channeled Scablands, site of what once the planet’s largest-ever waterfall.
Picture a five-foot brick wall. Place a penny on it, and that would be the size of Niagara Falls compared to the cataclysm of water that flooded Dry Falls during the last ice age. There are a number of theories as to what caused this massive flood, and it took decades for one particularly determined geologist named J Harlen Bretz to convince the scientific community that the aquatic destruction in northern Idaho, northwest Montana and southern Washington was simply unprecedented. Did the walls of an ice dam break, unleashing the flood? Did a comet strafe the polar ice caps, causing a sudden melt that not only resulted in the world’s largest waterfalls, but inspired the ancient stories of Noah's Ark and Atlantis? I contemplate this standing on an extended viewing point overlooking Dry Falls, a canyon stretching 3.5 miles wide and dropping 400 feet. Ten thousand years ago, the surf was up. When it comes to geological wonders, you have to use your imagination, although illustrations in the adjacent visitor centre paint a vivid picture of 100ft waves smashing into the plains. Water picked up giant rocks and dropped them like seeds hundreds of miles away. Incredibly, people and animals were living in this area at the time. If any survived, how would they have described such an event? The end of the world? Punishment from the gods? There are over a dozen Native American flood myths which describe exactly that. Some of them include a great ship built by an honest and noble man to save two of every animal. Sound familiar?
Exploring the side roads of the Scablands
Dry Falls, site of the biggest flood in history
In search of cherries
One of my favourite authors, Graham Hancock, visited the Scablands and makes an excellent argument in his new book about the tell-tale signs of a lost civilization, forgotten to history due to a cosmic cataclysm. New research does indeed point to some form of celestially-inspired impact - a comet or asteroid - triggering massive floods about 10,000 years ago, pretty much rebooting humanity. Survivors of an advanced civilization might have well regressed back to the Stone Age. The geological evidence is on show in the Scablands. It’s fascinating stuff, and the theories are way too intricate to get into here. But it did inspire me to come and have a look at the Scablands for myself. Unlike the badlands of Saskatchewan and Alberta in Canada (or Montana and Wyoming in the US), the Scablands resemble streaks of havoc through fertile, largely flat farmlands. It makes for an exceptional road trip from Seattle, Portland or Vancouver, crossing mountain passes and gorgeous forests until you arrive in the fruit-growing region of Washington, and press onto the stark, cracked and dry Scablands. Along the way expect to see some unusual roadside attractions, like:
The road is long, with many a winding turn
Checking out land ripples
Dry Falls is a Washington State Park Heritage Area, and the small but useful interpretation centre is a roadside attraction for bikers, RV'ers, and curious bucket listers. The viewpoint, as you can see below, is well worth the pit stop. It doesn’t really surprise me that many people who live in the region don’t know about the fascinating, historically significant and scenically stunning Scablands. My efforts to contact anyone who actually serves to promote tourism in Washington were as fruitless as the pock-mocked Scablands themselves. Not too far away however, plump apples and pears are bursting in the groves that line the highway. There is always hope.
To find the best beaches, you usually have to get as far out of urban centres as possible. But some cities are blessed with amazing beaches of their own. These are cities with large populations, business, traffic – and long golden sandy stretches that make you feel like you’ve entered a holiday resort. Here’s my favourites:
Ipanema, Rio de Janiero
White sand and blue water frames Rio’s most famous neighbourhoods, Copacabana and Ipanema. While Copacabana enjoyed much of the world’s attention in the past, it has been surpassed by the energy of Ipanema. Ipanema Beach is signposted by the famous “postos” lifeguard stations, which helps find your way on a beach that is generally packed all year round. Stroll up, rent a chair and umbrella, and have your own beach waiter serve you cold beer, fresh fruit, and snacks throughout the day. Striking mountains rise further down the beach, and there’s usually a friendly game of volleyball on the go (or foot volleyball, which is terrific fun to watch). There’s also a parading flea market as polite vendors roll through selling bikinis, hats, and towels. With so much skin and beauty on display, it’s no wonder Ipanema is one of Rio’s most expensive neighbourhoods. An interesting note: topless bathing is prohibited.
Clifton, Cape Town
Cape Town is blessed with extraordinary natural beauty, and it’s best beaches are in the upmarket suburb of Clifton. Driving up from Sea Point, cars line the side of the road early, and parking is seldom easy. It’s a walk down the stairs until you hit the fine white sand. There are four beaches in Clifton, separated by rocks, and attracting different crowds. All four beaches are protected by rocks and spared the strong winds that blow through the city. As a teenager I used to walk between beaches to see where the action was. Today, the most popular beach is Fourth Beach, which has the calmest waves. First Beach gets the biggest waves and is popular with surfers. Third Beach is a popular gay hangout. Second beach continues to attract teenagers and students on the prowl for love. Capetonians and tourists soak up the sun, and since the water is a frisky 12-16C, a dip in the sea is truly refreshing.
Bondi Beach, Sydney
During my first visit to Bondi Beach, the temperature in Sydney cracked 50C. Bondi Beach, a beach that has spawned a hit TV series (Bondi Rescue) was absolutely chockers (full). The odd part was there was nigh an umbrella in sight, here in a country with one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world. Sydney is surrounded by fantastic beaches, but Bondi is its flagship. A perfect 1km crescent, reliable waves for surfing and body boarding, pubs, shops and cheap eats right across the road. It attracts the city’s most beautiful people, showing off their most beautiful bodies. With Sydney’s weather, there’s always people on the beach, with crowds picking up in the afternoon post work, and young couples pushing babies on the promenade. When people fall in love with Sydney, it’s usually Bondi on their mind.
In the late 1990’s, my brother and I decided to immigrate to Vancouver. He went first, putting in his papers, without visiting the city first. I was working in England at the time, and the mountains, forests and beaches of British Columbia were very far away. I had a good job, and was second guessing Canada, until one day, my brother sent me an email with a picture from Kitsalano. He had found a two-bedroom apartment two blocks from the beach, and summer was in full swing. The subject was: Wish You Were Here. The sand wasn’t fine and white, but it was fine enough. People were stacked up against scattered logs. In this distance was a towering mountain, the tree tops of Stanley Park, and some of the apartment blocks of English Bay. Having grown up in a big, landlocked city, I couldn’t believe people could live in a city like this. I wished I was there too. Six months later, I arrived as an immigrant and beelined straight for Kitsalano.
Photo: jenschapter 3
Waikiki Beach, Honolulu
The surf is usually up at Waikiki Beach, once the playden of Hawaiian royalty, now a hotel and surfing mecca. Waikiki has attracted all the major hotel chains and serves as a centre of tourism in Hawaii, but lets not forget it’s also a terrific beach, with a great view of the striking Diamond Head - all that’s left of a massive volcano and one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Waikiki actually refers to several beaches chained together, usually crowded with tourists pouring out the adjacent hotels. A good chunk of the beach is reserved strictly for surfers. The neighbourhood is abuzz with open-air bars, restaurants, volleyball and beach sport, and most days it’s just a perfect spot to watch yet another gorgeous sunset.
Venice Beach, Los Angeles
What I love most about Venice Beach is its sheer character. Only Los Angeles could churn out the bizarre folks who seem to hang around the Venice Beach Ocean Front Walk. There’s weird guy with the guitar, punky guy with the Mohawk, body building guy on rollerblades – each seemingly the star of their own mental TV show. You might catch the stars on the promenade too: Nicholas Cage, Christian Bale, Elijah Wood and Viggo Mortenson are all residents of Venice. Regardless, there’s plenty of eye candy to look at. The streetball on Venice Beach is reported to be the best in the country, the starting block for future NBA stars. Hard bodies pump iron at the outdoor gymnasium on Muscle Beach, and there’s great surfing off the piers. If the whole thing looks like a TV show, it’s because Baywatch was set and sometimes filmed here. Who knew a show featuring actors in red bathing suits running in slow motion would become the most watched TV show in history?
South Beach, Miami
The beaches of Miami vibrate with action, and South Beach (or SoBe) is its heart. With hundreds of clubs, bars and restaurants, South Beach is the city’s entertainment district, popular with locals and tourists alike. There’s a real multicultural element to the neighbourhood. Brazilians, Cubans, Israelis, people from the Caribbean, and a large contingent of Canadians too, escaping the northern winter. Famous Art Deco hotels look over the white sandy beach, one of the reasons why SoBe is also known as the American Riviera. Picture flashy cars cruising past flashy shops, while toned bodies run along the water. The atmosphere is festive year round.
Metzitzim Beach, Tel Aviv
Not many people know that Tel Aviv is a true beach city. Fine sand, decent waves, clean water, all in a city that never sleeps. The promenade even resembles the Copacabana, with its mosaic patterns. There are several beaches along the strip, but Metzitzim, also known as the Sheraton Beach, consistently wins the accolades as the city’s best beach. It’s definitely the most trendy, a place for fit young Israelis to bare their olive skin (as opposed to Nordau Beach further down, which is where religious Jews go for the separate male and female areas). Metzitzim, which means “peeking” in Hebrew, is close to the Old Port which has recently been upgraded into a hip area of restaurants, bars and clubs
Barceloneta Beach, Barcelona
Sticking to the Mediterranean, Barcelona is blessed with 4.2km of golden beaches, close to the city centre. Barceloneta, the first beach along the boardwalk, has long been called one of the best urban beaches in the world. Besides its wide open space, it has a vibrant atmosphere and gets packed with locals and tourists. While it is Barcelona’s most popular beach, thanks largely to its location, it does get some criticism for the quality of sand, which some say is mixed with cement. But the weird artwork, atmosphere, local characters and buzz make up for it. Close to the port, it's also the best place for fresh seafood in the city.
Scarborough Beach, Perth
Perth may be amongst the most isolated major cities in the world, but it consistently ranks in the Top 10 for lifestyle and quality of life polls. That might have something do with its beautiful beaches located a short drive from the city centre, like Scarborough, 15 minutes away. The sand is white, the Indian Ocean is a clear blue, and the weather sizzling. Restaurants, hotels, ice cream shops bars and clubs attract locals and tourists, giving Scarborough a famously laid back coastal holiday town atmosphere. Families picnic in adjacent grass areas, enjoying the clear views all the way to an island 20km away. Perth has other well-known city beaches nearby, like Trigg and Cottesloe, but “Scarbie” remains a local favourite
Los Angeles traffic feels like a stuffy nose. Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 405, or the 10, or the 91, you start wishing for a cosmic tissue to blow away the insufferable congestion. Eventually the jams peter out on the I-15, disappearing on Highway 79 South altogether. At last, some tumbleweed! My car slices through rolling brown hills that seem familiar from Hollywood westerns. Up ahead is the Warner Springs Airstrip, a saloon for modern sky sailors. We are here to tick off sailplaning, or sky sailing, or soaring, or whatever you want to use to describe the act of gliding a fibreglass dragonfly in the dreamy California sky.
Lining the airstrip are white coffin-shaped boxes containing easy-to-assemble sailplanes. Although fixed-wing gliding has been around since the Wright Brothers, the aircraft took off recreationally after World War II, when Germans were restricted to flying non-powered planes. Modern German-built gliders, withstand more pressure than fighter jets, have reached over 13,000 metres in altitude, and covered an incredible 2250 kilometres. It is said that the best pilots in the world are avid gliders, capable of feeling the winds beneath their wings. Case in point: when a section of a fuselage blew out, a pilot named Dave Cronin credited his gliding skills with saving all aboard his Boeing 747. Good to know as I cram into my seat behind the sailplane pilot. We are connected to a small prop plane with a sixty-metre metal tow wire. It’s a bumpy take-off, the glider rattling and flexing on the ground with the grace of a running swan. My nerves start to shake with the seat. Unless one is prepared to invest $300,000 for a new state-of-the-art Stemme, most gliders are designed for thrills over comfort. Before the tow-plane even leaves tarmac, our glider lifts gently into the air, tuned up and eager for altitude. The swan elegantly takes flight. Once we reach one thousand metres, the pilot signals me to pull a lever and cut our umbilical cord to the plane. Suddenly, I am inside the eye of an albatross.
Much like hanggliding or paragliding, sailplane pilots hunt warm pockets of air called thermals in order to gain elevation. Each pocket of warm air results in a dramatic upwards swing. Safely strapped in, there’s not enough room in the cockpit for too much bouncing around from the turbulence. Air gushes in from breathing holes on the sides, which I open up all the way in case of motion sickness. This increases the noise level, but takes nothing away the thrill of pure flight. No engines, no fuel – just air currents, speed and grace.
“Do you want to see what this baby can do?” asks the pilot.
That’s usually a rhetorical question, one I’ve been asked several times researching this Bucket List, and one I have never yet answered in the affirmative. Dave Cronin suddenly nosedives the sailplane and there is so much blood rushing to my head it might just explode. He's pulling a David Cronenberg!
You know that moment when you’re on a rollercoaster and wonder if you’re going to fall out? When you pull tricks in a sailplane, that moment doesn’t stop. The speed and pressure is incredible, increased as the pilot points the nose upwards, giving us the sensation of negative G-force. Weightless for a moment, his walkie-talkie floats above our heads. Worth noting at this point is the volume of my screaming, and the fact that I am wondering if vomit can cleanly squeeze through the diameter of the breathing holes. We level out, and after a twenty-five minute ride, land on the runway, speed along to the main office, and come to an abrupt stop. Gravity feels especially heavy, but there’s some relief when my feet touch the ground. Unfortunately, I’ll have to use those feet for the drive back to Los Angeles, where soaring is strictly reserved for the imaginations of would-be starlets.
For more info, including directions, weather and rates, visit: www.skysailing.com
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.