Camping Under the Midnight Sun in Narvik

Midnight Sun

Rain sprayed like bullets the night I found myself camping in an abandoned Nazi bunker, deep in the Arctic Circle.      I had driven 3000 miles up Scandinavia in a station wagon, crossing Denmark, Sweden, and north into Norway.   Everyman’s Right is a Scandinavian law that allows anyone to camp anywhere, so long as it’s not invading someone’s home.   I camped beside highways, in mosquito infested forests, on concrete parking lots – but nothing quite as sinister and spooky as the deep, dark tunnels burrowed into the hills surrounding the port town of Narvik.

Having paid quite a bundle for the visa, I was disappointed to read the sign that I had officially entered Norway.   No checkpoints, no guards, no nothing here in the tundra, where vegetation seldom grows beyond knee height and blue ice forms natural sculptures.  We often had to stop the car to allow reindeer herds to cross the highway.   The reindeer jerky I bought at a gas station did have a reddish tint to it, and I thought guiltily of Rudolph.

Oil rich Norway, once a colony of Denmark, is the wealthiest country in Scandinavia, at one point conducting a study as to how it could distribute its vast cash surplus to its 5-million population without the country’s social structures collapsing.   Subsequently, everything is expensive, and Norwegians are only too happy to enjoy poll position on the podium of a historically competitive region.  It also takes gold in the natural beauty marathon – every corner unpeeling the wrapper of some new eye-popping candy. The dramatic, snowcapped mountains and clear glacier lakes contrast Denmark’s flat, prairie feel and Sweden’s never-ending, pine green forests.      It was June, the height of summer and the only month many of these roads were open.     The first glacial lake was so clean you could drink and swim simultaneously, and I did exactly that.   Twelve seconds later I had swum enough, drunk my fill, and almost frozen to death.      As we made our way south after crossing the border from Sweden, the first town we came to was Narvik, scene of an epic WWII battle between the Nazis and British and Polish troops.   A major iron ore producer, Narvik was strategically important to both sides, and the Nazis quickly fortified its position when it occupied the region early in the war.     The town itself did not offer much, although its war museum created a moving sense of history.   Traveling with Troels, a Danish friend, we picked up supplies (salmon, of course) and drove on narrow roads and narrower bridges looking for somewhere to camp.   That’s when we found the muddy turnoff, overgrown with lush, and followed it towards the fjord.    At the bottom, two paths, one towards a house and another towards the sea.   Twenty feet later, I saw the cannon turrets and the entrance to a bunker.    It was already 8pm with the feel of early morning thanks to the Midnight Sun.  Three months without stars, and you can kiss your moon goodbye.   Of course, Arctic Night deprives the region of sun for four months over winter, so unless you’re a vampire, you don’t look for a tan in northern Scandinavia      We did however have torches, and investigated the labyrinth of tunnels that connected the bunkers.   It was damp, cold and muddy, but surprisingly clean of human occupation, as if it had hid itself from Narvik teenagers all these years.   Rusted barbwire increased the Saving Private Ryan illusion, but it was not until I found a bent spoon with a swastika on the handle that I truly got spooked.  Troels said that bunkers like these were common in Denmark, and suggested we camp here for the night that’s really a day.    We faced a gorgeous fjord, surrounded by steep, icing-frosted mountains, and almost certainly well occupied by the ghosts of 400 Nazis.

Troels could speak Norwegian, which differs from Danish and Swedish and is related more to German.    We went to the house to introduce ourselves to the neighbors, a friendly elderly couple offering tea and biscuits.    Through Troels I learnt that 400 Nazi’s had been based in these bunkers, which ran deeper into the hills than we had realized.   They gave us fresh water and we made dinner over a gas stove in one of the larger bunkers.  I decided to pitch a tent rather than sleep inside.  I have clearly watched way too many X Files.    By one in the morning, it was still mid-afternoon light and I couldn’t sleep, thinking about the irony of a Jew receiving shelter from the rain (and bloodthirsty mosquitoes) beside a Nazi relic.      It stirred up a smorgasbord of emotions.  

It was, ironically, the 21st of June, the longest day of the year.  I drove back into Narvik to visit the war museum, unsuccessfully trying to find more information about our bunker.    Back on the highway, driving south, the scenery continued its spectacle – bigger, sharper mountains roped by deep, turquoise fjords.   Every corner brought another “whoa”, and I stopped taking pictures because they could do no justice.   We drove 170 kilometers that day, every mile a postcard.    The Norwegians are also famous for their tunnels, without which the country would be impassable.   Marvels of engineering, some of these tunnels clocked in at over 5km in length, and by the end of the trip we had passed through over 50 of them, relishing the purity of the darkness it afforded.    Ferries were also commonplace, most of them ferrying 95% of their traffic in these two, short summer months.   Heavy traffic came in the form of camper vans baring English, German and French plates.  The winding, narrow roads kept over-taking strictly in the domain of mostly dead thrill seekers.    We spent our last night in the Arctic Circle in a trailer park, splurging on a wooden cabin that smelt like a Viking’s loincloth.      It had been two weeks since I had seen the night, and I would have completely forgotten what it was like, until I closed my eyes.

Infinity Pools in Anguilla

Whoever invented the infinity pool deserves a Noble Prize, an Academy Award, and the Order of Canada for good measure.   He/She/They married the most magical elements of paradise – views of the ocean, palm trees, azure-blue pools, white beaches – with a wet honeymoon and adjacent cocktail bar.  I’ve chased infinity pools around the world, from the incredible pool located 57 stories high above Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands to the rugged natural pools camping on Vancouver Island.   Imagine my joy arriving at the Viceroy Hotel and Resort on Anguilla, a tiny somewhat off-radar Caribbean island-nation known to attract celebrities, honeymooners, and burned out urban refugees.  The sun is setting exactly where it should be, steaming up the purple-streaked sky, its orb the rich orange of an organic, free-range egg.   Palm trees cast shadows on the few silhouetted couples wading in pool water as calm and dense as mercury.   Angels are blowing warm wind on the back of my neck, and my pina colada is pitch-perfect. Paradise can mean many things to many people, but right now, it means Anguilla.  

There are direct flights from Toronto to San Maarten, and it’s a short 20-minute boat ride to the British Overseas Territory of Anguilla.  The tax haven is only 26km long by 5km wide, with one main road running through the middle.  There are no mountains, and hardly any traffic.  What it does have is 33 mind-blowing beaches, dreamy tropical weather, fat mangos and proudly, no chain hotels, burger joints or branded coffee shops.     “This is what everyone wants the Caribbean to be,” says Patrick Lynch, who owns the delicious Roy’s Bayside Grill.  “White sands with nobody on it.”     

There’s sailing, beach walks, and with 27C water as clear as this, outstanding snorkeling and diving.  Artificial reefs have been created with purposely-sunk ships, attracting divers from around the world. Explore the 200ft wreck of the MV Sarah, play with turtles on the 75ft Oosterdiep wreck, or the lobster, barracuda and countless fish feeding off the MV Commerce. The island’s three dive companies – Shoal Bay ScubaSpecial D and Vigilint – are knowledgeable, professional and fun to hang out with. Locals on Anguilla love what they do, and love where they live.   

Anguilla has three, pricey five-star resorts that are extraordinary:  The ViceroyCap Juluca, and the sprawling CuisinArt, owned by the same chap behind the appliances.  You can rent stunning villas, or stay in more affordable accommodations like the Anacoana Boutique Hotel, centrally located, comfortable and rather less flashy.  Anguilla’s dining options are outstanding, and the island has long been known as an off-radar foodie getaway.    

Regardless of whether you make it to an infinity pool or not, the beaches, dining, people and activities make Anguilla an ideal Caribbean escape, and award well worth giving to yourself.

Before You Go:

Visit the island’s tourism website for accommodation and dining recommendations.  Although the island is blessed with all-year gorgeous weather, its busiest season is during the Canadian winter.   Click here for more info about diving in Anguilla.  

From St Maarten, it’s a short 20-minute boat ride to Anguilla.  Anguilla is a British Overseas Territory. Tourist currency transactions are in US dollars. 

Inside the World’s Most Luxurious Cruise Ship

The Scenic Eclipse’s owner wanted non-billionaire friends to experience the billionaire luxury yacht experience.   Count yourself in.

The chef presents a burrito cigar, filled with chicken, salsa and guacamole, resting on a thick glass ashtray you haven’t seen since 1978.  Next up is a slice of marbled Jack’s Creek Australian steak sizzling on hot pebbles, blow-torched to order, medium rare.  Now the glazed fois gras lollipop, served on candy floss which is melted with chili-infused vinegar spray. There will be ten of these courses, each accompanied by a crystal glass of fine wine from every major wine-producing region.  Am I in one of Vancouver’s new Michelin-star fine dining restaurants?  No, I’m a passenger on the world’s most luxurious passenger yacht cruising off the Pacific coast of South America, and this is not even the most memorable meal of the week. 

In the wake of the pandemic, cruise ships appear to be sailing in two different directions.  There are the massive floating resorts appealing to the masses (MSC’s new Wonder of the Seas can accommodate a record 6988 passengers).  Then there are the small, extravagant vessels that promise comfort and decadence beyond imagination.  With just 114 suites housing 228 guests across five decks, the 168-metre long Scenic Eclipse sails firmly into this harbour, billed as The World’s First Discovery Yacht.  This means it can safely navigate Antarctica and the Northwest Passage just as easily as it can cruise the Mediterranean or South Pacific. It also means that each extra-large, sound-insulated cabin has its own butler, electronically customizable beds, Dyson hair-dryers, all-inclusive mini-bar, balcony, gourmet coffee maker, and oversized rain shower bathroom.

Not your average cruise bathroom, not your average cruise ship.

Boarding the Eclipse in Lima on a 9-day sailing to the Chilean capital of Santiago, the lush expansive lounge, beaming staff and towering bar all look impeccable.   Doting, attentive and highly trained international crew outnumber guests three to one.   The Eclipse was inspired by the Australian owner’s desire to offer his non-billionaire friends the billionaire luxury yacht experience.  Forget the tiresome nickel and dime cruise dance, because everything is included:  all premium alcohol, wifi, offshore excursions, all nine dining options, entertainment, kayaking, paddle-boarding, even your crew and driver tips.  You do however have to pay to ride the two on-board helicopters and comfy submarine, along with expansive spa services that include a range of massage, hair styling and nail services. Considering the pricey rack rates for this bucket list cruise experience, those costs might feel like a drop in the ocean.

Alien landscapes in the Atacama

“Honey, there’s a sperm whale chilling off our balcony!”  My wife is enjoying her long hot shower (the ship desalinates up to 200 tonnes of seawater every day) and misses the unexpected wildlife moment. Gathered for their daily wildlife briefing in the lounge, the ship’s marine biologists, naturalists and guides are suitably impressed.   A sense of discovery, immersion in nature, and taking advantage of the ship’s many toys are baked into the Scenic Eclipse experience.  Our particular itinerary, an annual repositioning called Latin American Delights, offers mostly land-based cultural excursions as the Eclipse makes her way south for another busy Antarctica season.  In Paracas, Peru, zodiacs take us to the Ballestas Islands, where pungent guano is mined for fertilizer and hundreds of thousands of seabirds nest in dramatic cliffs reminiscent of the Galapagos. The following day, flamingos and migrating birds await us in the protected Meija Lagoons, an hour’s drive from the historic town of Matarani.  Relieved to welcome the first cruise ship to visit the port town in two and half years (Covid and political unrest battered regional tourism in Peru), locals pull out all the stops in appreciation.  We dance, drink pisco, and smile for local media.   Sailing into Arica, Chile, we leave the ship to explore the culture and alien landscapes of the Atacama.  Life is in constant battle with the elements in the world’s driest desert.  In a small desert village called Codpa, the resident shaman’s blessing over smoke, sweet wine and coca leaves feels deeply authentic.  Each afternoon, we return by bus to the Eclipse’s decadent bubble of luxury, greeted with hot towels, spotlessly clean rooms, twinkling live piano music, courtly service, and a complementary cocktail bar of dreams. Whatever region of the planet you explore on this striking vessel, expect a jarring contrast onboard to the world you’ll discover onshore.  

There are 135 different types of Scotch and whiskey at the bar, and recognizing the opportunity, I’m determined to taste as many as I can.  Each dinner menu is a conversation starter, each dish over the top.  Even at full passenger capacity, the Eclipse is designed to accentuate opulent space and comfort, hence her ten dining experiences when the outstanding Yacht Club buffet could easily suffice.  Hell, the 24-hour room service menu would easily suffice.  Smiling staff are eager to satisfy any guest request.  Truffle fries at 1am in the morning?  Yes sir!  Changing one of the six types of available pillows before turning in?  Yes sir! 

Expect indulgent French cuisine in Lumiere, melt-in-the-mouth sushi at Kokos, grilled rib-eye steak and lobster in Elements, and expensive wine that just doesn’t stop flowing.  My favourite meal is the Night Market, where a wonderful chef named Strawberry (yes, that’s her real name) exhibits her culinary creativity across eight courses of Indian, Middle-Eastern or Asian-inspired dishes that defy description. Her blueberry folded gelato served with curry-buttered popcorn and compote will haunt my tastebuds forever.  Corporate Executive Chef Tom Götter’scommitment to sustainability and reducing food waste permeates everything:  food scraps like vegetable peels and kitchen castaways are dehydrated and turned into fragrant ‘dusts’ and spices.  All the gelato and baked goods are made onboard, while fresh herbs grow in specialized cabinets inside Epicure, which hosts cooking classes and beverage tastings.  The Eclipse burns low sulphur diesel, and when liquid natural gas starts powering cruise ships, I expect Scenic – which operates luxury river cruises in Europe and has more ocean ships under construction – will be among the early adopters.  Initiatives like digital labels updated daily in guest cabins might eliminate paper, although any readers seeking a sustainable vacation won’t find it on an engine-powered cruise ship, at least for now.

You won’t believe who they let in the bridge these days

As we approach our final port of Valparaiso, heavy wind and high waves pound the ship, so I head to the bridge to see how our affable captain is dealing with it.  The technology and engineering inside the Eclipse is mind-boggling.  Oversize six-metre-long stabilizers have been deployed on either side, large enough to keep passengers steady on much larger ships. There’s no rudder, as each prop can rotate 360-degrees, while the ship can maintain her position without dropping anchor thanks to GPS positioning.  Bridge crew welcome guest visits from 8am to 8pm, patiently explaining to us how the ship works, and allowing the obligatory captain’s chair photo.  I can’t stick around though, I’ve got a manicure booked, and want to iron out my back in the infra-red sauna before tackling a half-dozen fragrant Speysides at the bar.  

“Who the hell lives like this?” I ask my wife, busy scrolling on-demand movie selection on our cabin’s wall-sized flat screen TV.  We need a few hours to digest the 10-course Chef’s Table dinner, featuring that burrito cigar, as well as coconut ceviche, braised BBQ rib, smashed mango-curry lamb chop, and a literal homemade chocolate fudge explosion.   In fact, we’ll need a few years to digest the overall Scenic Eclipse experience.  Together we’ve come a long way from our first cruise onboard a typical floating hotel with packed pools and excessive buffets. Luxury small ships like the Scenic Eclipse cater to a different clientele chasing unique and exclusive experiences.  Pricey it may be, but passengers will delight in that rare opportunity to get far more than what you pay for. 

Visit for more information about Scenic Eclipse itineraries.

Watch the Sunrise at Uluru

“Checking, in, please, my name is Robin Esrock.”
“Excuse me, Robin…Ayers Rock?”
“Yes, Esrock. “
[Blank Stare]
“Oh, I see, that’s cool!”

It’s cool because I’m checking into Ayers Rock Resort, and with an accent, there’s not a lot to discern my last name – of Lithuanian descent – than the name of the resort.   Like the airport that services it, the resort still goes by the name of the most iconic geological formation in the country, the beating red heart at the centre of Australia. Today, Ayers Rock is better known as Uluru, and no Australian Bucket List could possibly be complete without seeing it.  

My first glimpse of this sandstone inselberg (literally, an island mountain) is from the cockpit of a small Cessna.   Towering over the even outback plain and baked in its famous red hues, Uluru struck me as being far bigger than I expected.   It simply struck me in general.   Having seen so many photos and videos over the years, I thought I had a solid grasp on this sacred rock so integral to the traditions of the local Anangu people, and the tourism industry of central Australia.   Yet there it loomed, its surface strafed with flaking red skin, further eroded into distinct holes, caves, ribs and ridges.   Surrounded by the peppercorn-like low scrub of the early-dry season, I could picture the back of a giant rocky creature with head and limbs descending beneath the ground, as if it were crawling on hands and knees in search of something below.  This back, it turns out, is actually the head of a huge slab of arkose sandstone that continues underground for five or six kilometres. It’s the result of hundreds of millions of years of erosion, the impact of a disappearing inland sea and powerful geological thrusts.  Unless you’re into geology, this is less fascinating the sheer experience of seeing Uluru itself, from above or below.  

Ayers Rock Resort is owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation, and managed by its Voyages subsidiary.  An oasis in the desert, 443 kilometres from the nearest centre of Alice Springs,  the resort offers various accommodation that ranges from the plush five star Sails in the Desert to the Ayers Rock Campground.  With a permanent population of around one thousand people, the resort is the fourth largest settlement in the Northern Territory, operating as a small town.  It is located about twenty kilometres from the great rock itself, and fifty kilometres from the domed heads of the lesser-known yet just as magnificent Kata Tjuta (formerly referred to as the Olgas).  In 1994, UNESCO awarded Uluru-Kata Tjuta heritage status for its outstanding natural and cultural status.  With hundreds of thousands of tourists drawn in from around the world, the resort and associated tour operators offer a variety of ways to tackle the iconic formations.   Dine with a view under the stars, take a scenic flight or helicopter ride, hire bicycles, take a guided hike or motorcycle tour, skydive, mount a Segway, pop on a hop-on hop-off bus.   There’s also free daily activities that include a Bush Food Experience, learning about Anangu culture and history, guided nature walks, and indigenous art programs.

The Wintjiri Arts and Museum

The Wintjiri Arts and Museum will tell you everything you need to know about the region, and dining ranges from campground BBQs to high-end restaurants.  Visitors must purchase a park passes, with most choosing the three-day pass that provides ample opportunity to tick off the boxes that appeal to you most.     Having taken in Uluru from the air, I hopped on a bus with SEIT Australia for a tour to the base.  Depending on weather conditions, the bush flies, and your physical ability, you may choose to walk the 10.6-kilometre loop around the base.  I was grateful to have a guide explain the fascinating history of the rock, and it’s spiritual significance.   The Anangu have been living in this region for many thousands of years, with Uluru serving as an important spiritual base for male initiation rites.  The first non-aboriginal visitor was William Gosse in 1873, and other than dingo hunters and gold prospectors, there was little reason for anyone else to visit.   With the opening of a graded dirt road from Alice Springs, the first wave of tourists arrived in the mid-1940s.  Declared a national park in 1958, campgrounds and hotels were originally located closer to the rock, but with increasing interest from tourists, the Yulara town site was selected in the 1970’s.  In 1985, the national park was handed back to its traditional indigenous landowners, who leased the park back to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Services for 99 years.  It continues to employ and support the 300-strong Anangu community – based in a nearby and off-limits settlement – and the Anangu co-administer the park. 

I walk along the Kuniya Walk to the sole watering hole at the base of Uluru, learning how the Anangu travelled the region in search of food, adeptly burning the landscape to ensure fresh growth and the return of animals.  Shaded from the sun inside the Mutitjulu cave, my guide points out rock art that dates back decades to centuries.  Large portions of this art have been damaged by early visitors.   These days, the impact of visitors is carefully considered, although some controversies still remain.  Although the Anangu implore tourists to respect their spiritual traditions and not climb the pathway to the top, some people still do.  Or did.  Climbing Uluru was officially prohibited in October 2019.    

Stargazing is immaculate under the outback sky.  On a must-do Astro Tour, the resort’s resident and visiting astronomer navigate my eye to various constellations and nebula, focusing their telescopes onto the Galilean moons of Jupiter, and reveal the indigenous legends behind the stars.   Like most visitors, I will go to bed early and like most visitors, I will awake with the stars still twinkling above.   The distinctive colours of Uluru and Kata Tjuta are most brilliant at sunrise and sunset, and most tours will be operating early or late to allow you experience the spectacle at dawn or dusk.  I opted for sunrise with Uluru Camel Tours, sitting on a tall shaggy beast with batty eyelids.  As the sky begins to brighten, our camel train is led into the bush, with guides enthusiastically telling stories about the history and impact of camels in the outback.  We park on a dune just in time to watch the morning’s first orange rays strike the iron-rich ribs of Uluru.   They make a big deal about the changing colours of the rock here, and for good reason.  I see the blush of a deflowered maiden, the violence of a blood orange, the rust of an old ambulance siren.   Within a few short minutes, the colour of Uluru has awoken. I feel something shift in the parched desert air, and a bucket list tingle in my bones.   

Camels at sunrise

In 1873, William Gosse ignored the indigenous name of “this immense rock rising abruptly from the plain.”  He named it Ayers Rock, after the Chief Secretary of South Australia, Henry Ayer.   In 1995, Ayers Rock-Mount Olga National Park officially became Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, finally recognizing the Anangu’s ownership and relationship to the area.  Visitors however still fly into Ayers Rock Airport, and stay in the  Ayers Rock Resort.   Perhaps that will change, and future generations of Esrocks won’t get the funny looks when checking in.  As for Uluru, it will forever and always be a standout on both The Great Australian Bucket List and The Great Global Bucket List.

A Meditation Retreat in South Korea

A monk at the Lotus Lantern International Meditation Center: Photo – Robin Esrock

Be it ashrams, retreats or a kibbutz, changing your lifestyle for even a weekend can be as refreshing as sipping cocktails on the beach.  A break in routine, for spiritual realignment or escape, provides a welcome sort of mental holiday.   Such is the case with a temple stay in South Korea, established by the country’s largest Buddhist order.  Leaving behind traffic, cellphones and laptops, I drove a couple of hours outside of Seoul to the Lotus Lantern International Meditation Center, to see if I could find myself.   

The center offers Zen Buddhist teaching and meditation in a beautiful temple surrounded by forest and farms.   It was originally set up for foreigners to discover Buddhism, offering basic but well maintained facilities, including garden pagodas, and a koi pond.   I am given a training uniform of grey pants, T-shirt and waistcoat to be worn at all times.   The overall atmosphere is one of tranquillity, as if the mere act of raising my voice would violate some unspoken rule.  Inside the temple, overlooked by a golden statue of Buddha, a shaved headed Russian monk named Aleksander introduces me to the basic concepts of Buddhism, explaining that enlightenment is the ultimate goal of meditation.  He stresses repeatedly that if I feel physically uncomfortable during any of the practices, I should just relax, and if I have any questions, I should just ask. 

Visitors can choose to stay for the weekend program, an intense week of meditation, or for a longer period of rest.  The  daily schedule involves chanting, meditation, garden work, walks, calligraphy, and several other options for those who need to keep themselves busy.    All meals are vegetarian, eaten in silence, although one of the monk’s cellphone did ring during dinner, leading to a chorus of muffled giggles.  Considering monks eat to sustain themselves on their path to enlightenment, and not for pleasure, the food wasn’t too bad.   I’m told that I must finish everything on my plate, avoiding waste, consuming consciously.   After washing up, I head to the meditation hall for my first lesson.     The trick is to empty your mind, focus on a mantra, becoming aware of how thoughts flow in and out your head.   Aleksander tells the group to count to ten repeatedly, aware of any errant thoughts that enter our minds.   Large mosquitoes cloud about, raining bites on my bare arms.  I ask if mosquitoes constitute a sentient life form, a sly-handed way of inquiring whether it’s OK to squash the buggers in a Buddhist temple.   “Monks do not kill mosquitoes,” says Alexander, waving a couple away from his face.   This could well be the single biggest obstruction to me ever becoming one.

Like learning to play piano, meditating takes time and practice. After a few minutes, I give up and spend the next half hour enjoying the silence, the space to breathe.  A moktak, a traditional wooden instrument, resonates that the session has ended, and we have some free time before lights out at 9:30pm.  Thin mattresses and blankets are provided, and mosquito netting mercifully keeps out the bugs while letting in a cool forest breeze.   I wake at 3:30am to the sound of the moktak, signalling it is time for chanting in the temple. In the glow of candlelight, the monks have gathered to begin chanting.  I try and follow with the helpful English guide provided, but prefer to stare at the slightly closed eyes of the golden Buddha, the smiles on the deity statues that surround him, the bright colours painted on the dragons overhead.  Prostrating oneself is a form of meditation and a sign of devotion, and Korean Zen Buddhism has 108 prostrations, each to a different chant.  Bending down onto your knees, head to the mat, hands turned upwards, stand and repeat – it becomes a strenuous, dizzying physical challenge to keep up with the monks.  I notice that sweat is starting to stain the mat where my forehead touches, but together with the rhythmic sound of the moktak and the chanting, the overall effect is almost hypnotic.  As with everything else, Aleksander tells us that monks become used to this form of prayer and meditation.

Each session it becomes a little easier to focus on my breathing, to see the numbers click over in my imagination.   The outside world floats away, save for the clear calls of birds, the buzz of insects.  Garden work, cleaning, or simply strolling into the surrounding forest, is also viewed as a form of meditation, mostly done in silent mindfulness.  You can even put on a  personal Do Not Disturb sign, in the form of wearable “Quiet Time” tag that asks everyone to respect your vow of silence.   Concluding my overnight stay, I exchange my training uniform for my street clothes, bow my head in thanks to the monks and volunteers.  Rested, as if I’ve been freshly woken from a long deep sleep.

Diving with Thresher Sharks in the Philippines

A plane, another plane, a 4-hour drive, a small boat, a larger boat, another smaller boat, and at last my toes touch the squeaky-white beaches of Malapascua Island. It’s one of the premier diving spots in the Philippines, and with 7000 islands, this is a country that’s full of them.  The water is a balmy 84 degrees, visibility can reach up to 35m, and the Visayan Sea is teeming with life.   For recreational divers in love with big animals, there’s a much bigger hook:  Year round, this is the only place in the world where you can dive with thresher sharks.

At the friendly Exotic Island Dive Resort, I meet my sun-blonde instructors, Jules and Mimi, who make me feel right at home.  Popular with Asian and European divers, Malapascua Island has exploded in the last 10 years thanks to budget flights from Manila.   A Dutch couple founded Exotic Island, the first resort on the island, and are credited with discovering the shoal where the threshers gather. Everything – people, supplies, water – has to come in daily on boats, so I’m amazed with the resort’s exhaustive dining menu, as the girls fill me in on what I can expect. 

“Thresher sharks are different from other sharks.  They’re shiny, with big eyes and that giant tail. And they’re so sweet, I just want to pet them, ” explains Mimi.  Adds Jules: “You have to respect them, but you can’t feel afraid.”    We suit up for a night dive to Lighthouse, just to warm up and enjoy the seahorses, mandarin fish, huge hermit crabs and flamboyant flatworms hanging around a nearby reef.  It’s only my second night dive, and to my delight, the inky ocean feels comfortable and safe.  Bio-luminescence surrounds me on my ascent, as I surface by the traditional wooden outrigger, under a bright crescent moon. I see why they called this Exotic Island.

It’s a 5:30am start to Monad Shoal for my thresher shark encounter. I’m nervous: it’s not every day you swim with big animals, and worse yet, what if they don’t show up?   The best time to see the sharks is at sunrise, when they are drawn to a natural cleaning station on the shoal located about 20 minutes from the resort.   Manta, devil and eagle rays, along with hammerheads, are seasonal visitors too.   We submerge and head to the edge of the shoal. Within minutes, Mimi’s flat hand is on her head.   A 6ft thresher comes into view, appearing out of the depth below us.   It’s distinctive tail looks like an Ottoman sword.   There’s barely time to register before another appears, and another.  Judging Jules’ reaction, I’ve stumbled upon a bumper day on the shoal.  During our hour-long dive, we count about a dozen threshers.   One circles back and eyes me out curiously. That moment instantly converts me into a lifelong macro diver. 

Back on the banka, the traditional outrigger, there’s huge smiles on the faces of a dozen divers. “It was an effort not to see a shark today,” laughs Mimi.  At this remarkable spot in a remarkable country, nobody is going home disappointed

Exotic Island Dive Resort offers daily dives with thresher sharks and other sites around Malapascua Island, with a full PADI training program and fully equipped dive shop.  The resort offers comfy and clean accommodation, free pick-up and drop-off from the mainland, and an excellent restaurant.   Learn more at:  

Brazil Photo Essay

Robin Esrock shares some of his favourite photographs from Brazil, along with his thoughts about why the country is so special.


Rhythm permeates Brazil.   Sometimes I catch myself listening to traffic, and even it carries a tune. Teenagers listen to the same classic bossa nova songs their parents do. MBP, modern Brazilian pop, incorporates many different genres.  Samba is Brazil’s most famous dance, but there are dozens of others, like forro, funk, and axé (pronounced ash-ay), which turns nightclubs into well-choreographed musicals.  Travellers don’t need to know each dance, nor the music that accompanies it.  Your enthusiasm and willingness to enjoy the rhythm goes a long way.


The bio-diversity in Brazil is staggering.  More than one-third of all the world’s species live in the Amazon, including 3000 species of fish.   In the state of Matto Grosso do Sul, birdwatchers discover paradise in the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland.   Jungle safaris have brought me up close and personal with piranhas, anacondas, and this weary caiman. 

Although archaeologists keep discovering new mysteries in the Amazon, Brazil’s history is mainly focused on its colonial past.   The country was tossed and torn in battles between the Spanish, Dutch, British, and Portuguese, who give the country its language.  In the northeast cities of Recife and Salvador (pictured), blackened churches and buildings recall a turbulent time of plantations, wars, religion, wealth, and slavery.

Swing a cat in Brazil and it will land suntanned on a white sandy beach.   With nearly 7500km of coastline and glorious tropical weather, Brazilians have every reason to love their beaches.   The most famous are the long sandy strips in Rio’s Copacabana and Ipanema.   Cabo Frio has the squeaky white sand of the Caribbean.  My favourite is Lopez Mendes, a slice of paradise on the island of Ilha Grande.   Northeast beaches in Natal, Jericoacoara and Morro Do Sao Paulo are well worth travelling for. 

Nothing quite prepares you for the spectacle of Carnaval each February.  The entire country explodes into celebration, ranging from massive parades inside Rio’s Sambadrome to chaotic street parties and festivals.  Carnaval brings Brazilians together across the socio-economic divide, especially after the chaos and restrictions of the pandemic.  What was once Catholic ritual of giving up meat for Lent, is now the biggest, most intense annual party you’ll find anywhere.  Believe the hype.  

I travel for a living, and after 115 countries on 7 continents, I’m always on the lookout for activities that are unique.  There are plenty of places you can climb, or raft, or even fish for piranhas.  Capoeira at sunset? Favela funk parties?    Joining a parade in the Sambadrome – that’s Brazil.  One of my favourite discoveries has been Rio do Plata outside of the eco-tourism hotspot of Bonito.  Float with the current for three hours down a crystal clear stream, snorkelling amongst thousands of freshwater fish.  Simply Braziliant!

The official religion of Brazil is Roman Catholicism.  The actual religion is football.   The country has won the World Cup a record five times.  The game is played and followed on the beaches and streets, in clubs and parks.   The Brazilian style of play is beautiful to watch – full of flamboyant tricks and skill that bamboozle Europe’s clinical style.   A visit to Maracana Stadium in Rio, which holds the official record for a single game attendance (199,854 people at the 1950 World Cup Final) will convert you way before the final whistle blows.

I’m not a fan of the commercially inspired marketing campaign that was “The New Seven Wonders”.   Some might argue that the statue of Christ the Redeemer, a remarkable landmark much like the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty, doesn’t belong on a list with the Great Wall of China or Petra.   But Brazilians got behind the vote and today it is semi-officially regarded as a wonder of our world.   Personally I believe the view of Rio de Janeiro, among the world’s most beautiful cities, is the true wonder here.   Down south, Iguazu Falls was an easy and fitting finalist for the Natural Seven Wonders of the World.

Caju? Cupuaçu? Pitanga? Jaboticaba?   Brazil is blessed with natural tropical fruit rich in vitamins and taste.  People here have long enjoyed the nutritional benefits of acai, even as it becomes a wonder berry in hipster cafes worldwide.  Meanwhile it’s a meat fest in the churrascaria, a uniquely Brazilian concept.  Each diner receives a card. The green side means more, the red side means stop.   Waiters attack with different cuts of meat until you burst.   Staples like beans, rice and farofa (manioc flour) accompany most dishes.   Cheap eats like bolinhos de bacalhau (fish and potato balls) and coxinha de galinha (chicken and potato balls) offer deep fried perfection.

Those who live in the cold northern hemisphere know that special feeling on the first day of summer.   Finally we can put on shorts or that summer dress, feel a warm breeze on our legs, and appreciate that the best time of year has arrived. On that day, we walk around smiling, easily relaxed, infused with positive energy.   In Brazil I have observed locals of all classes, watching crowds on beaches and buses, in malls, restaurants, the slums and on the streets.   Many of them have that same twinkle in their eye, an uplifting smile on their face.  It’s the first day of summer, every single day. 

Visiting Saudi Arabia

I’m not a particularly big fan of soccer, but I love the FIFA World Cup.  Every four years, countries clash on the football pitch in a proxy war for cultural supremacy, creating a spectacle that delivers controversy, thrills, and the illusion that the world can truly come together every once in a while, even if only to focus on a beautiful game.  When would the nations of Denmark and Tunisia join together over anything, much less Mexico and Poland, Switzerland and Cameroon, Uruguay and Korea, Portugal and Ghana?  That was only in the first round. 
Imagine if Ukraine could play Russia on the pitch, or Israel kick-off against Iran?   The matches themselves run back and forth on the spectrum of boredom and excitement.  This year Canada made the finals for the first time since 1986, announcing itself as a true soccer nation (alongside other underrated teams like Australia and the USA).   It was a close opener, losing to the world’s #2 ranked Belgium.  Our second match was against Croatia, and I tuned in from 35,000feet on a Lufthansa flight that screened the game live.  Technology, eh?  When Alfonso Davies scored Canada’s first ever World Cup goal in the opening minutes, I screamed “YES!” scaring the crap out of my fellow Airbus 330 passengers, the vast majority of whom had little interest in this particular game.   We were, after all, en-route to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

It’s not a country I ever thought I’d visit, but I received an invite to the prestigious WTTC Global Tourism Summit, and an opportunity to explore some of Riyadh and Jeddah in the process.  Yes, I’m fully aware of the problematic international reputation of Saudi Arabia, just as I’m fully aware that what we hear in the media can differ starkly from reality on the ground.  Among critical news coverage are whispers of a great cultural reformation, a dialling back of religious extremism, and a massive investment in mega-projects to attract international tourism.   I’ve written more about that in an article I hope someone will publish, which gets into the contradictions and controversies.    Here, I thought I’d focus on moments and vignettes without getting too much into the weeds. I expect some readers will take offence regardless.  
As a Jewish journalist, I was a little nervous heading to the highly-controlled kingdom, of course, but I had been provided with a new online tourist visa, and an invitation.  I was greeted with the first of many small cups of Saudi coffee, a blonde elixir spiced with cardamom, saffron, ginger, and others spices, and always served with sweet dates.  Saudi Arabia is trying to get its coffee tradition recognized by UNESCO as a unique cultural heritage, a similar designation as baguettes to France or Balsamic vinegar to Italy.  My first impression leaving the airport was similar to my first impression visiting Dubai.  Endlessly straight, flat roads lined with neon malls, minarets, unusual skyscrapers, and heavy traffic.  I see a large neon sign advertising the Human Rights Commission, as if proudly defying international criticism.   There’s Starbucks, H&M, Dunkin’ Donuts, major hotel chains, gas stations (about 80c a litre, in case you’re wondering).   We pass the world’s largest female-only university, villas and palaces, glitzy car dealerships.  My hotel room at the Jareed Hotel was huge and modern, surrounded by upscale restaurants, and overlooking two giant screens showing the World Cup.  A bottle of wine with fruit sat at the foot of the bed, only the wine bottle held Italian sparkling water. There would be no wine, beer or spirits this week, and it would take some getting used to. Although I’m told there is a black market, alcohol is illegal across the kingdom, and so it will be a rare, dry week of hot, exotic travel.  

I grab an excellent burger from a nearby food truck, and sit with the locals as Spain draws with Germany. Mostly men, but women too, some of whom wear the full abaya, others just a headscarf, and a few with no head covering at all.   Under the leadership of the millennial Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salmon (simply called MBS), the regime is stepping away from the hardcore extremist Islam that denied women rights, and locked up the kingdom to western visitors.  They don’t call it modernization, they call it restoration, and while culture still dictates very conservative values, the kingdom has passed laws to allow freedoms unthinkable a decade ago, and religious authorities have had their wings clipped. In the hotel, I bump into a young Canadian kid here for Middle Beast, a massive desert rave that will attract some 200,000 people, with acts including Carl Cox, Swedish House Mafia, Nervo, Eric Prydz, DJ Khaled, and other electronica superstars. Sounds too good to be sober.    “Oh, there will be drugs and alcohol,” he tells me confidently.  “Possession is okay, you just don’t want to be caught selling it.”   Not for the first time, I catch myself saying: are we in Saudi Arabia?
The Chair of the Royal Geographical Society’s Younger Member Committee and I wander up to the Hollywood actor Ed Norton, who is at the travel conference to speak truth to sustainability bullshit.  We have a great conversation about my first impressions of the kingdom.  He reassures me that it’s very different to what most people see and hear in the news.  We trade details, which is when I discover that Ed Norton is actually an affable British venture capitalist named Justin Cooke.  The real Ed Norton is on stage tomorrow, and turns out he’s a travel ambassador for Kenya, who knew?  Just about everyone I speak to at the luxe World Travel and Tourism Council Global Summit is interesting and worth the words.  This includes Carnival Cruises CEO Arnold Donald (a name that just rolls off the tongue) and Mexico’s former Minister of Tourism and now Special Tourism Advisor to Saudi Arabia Gloria Guevara. I ask her if she’s supporting Mexico or Saudi Arabia in the World Cup, and like an experienced politician, she doesn’t provide a definitive art.  

​Walking the palatial and fragrant hallways of the Ritz-Carlton Convention Centre among traditionally robed Arabs, Asians, Africans and Europeans leaves me feeling optimistic. It’s a true melting pot of culture, gathered to tackle major issues in the realm of hospitality.  I expect it must feel the same at COP Climate Conferences, or the United Nations, except with 250 CEOS and 52 Ministers of Tourism in attendance, something concrete might actually get accomplished here.  Canada is notably not in attendance, likely because of an on-going diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia.  This intersection of tourism, politics and commerce can be controversial. Although I expect I’ll be heavily criticized for visiting the kingdom, I’m here with an open mind, and an open heart, full of questions which I’m not afraid to ask.  Over the course of the week, I have a dozen terrific conversations with Saudi men and women, all of whom speak of a country transforming itself at rapid speed, eager to modernize, and ready to welcome the world.
We fly to Jeddah, the Saudia Airlines in-flight entertainment interrupted when we fly over Mecca for a special prayer.  There are R-rated movies in the system, in case you were wondering.  Jeddah is hot and humid, and the traffic is bonkers, especially at night when Saudi Arabia comes alive. Our business hotel is opposite the Red Sea, with a wide lane for bike and walking traffic, and concessions on the beach. Most women are fully covered up in their abayas, some not. 
I had picked up a SIM card at the airport, and unlike China, all foreign media is available, including articles highly critical of the regime.  Reading about beheadings, death squads and brutal royal purges makes for disturbing reading. MBS sounds like an ambitious guy you simply do not want to cross.  He also sounds like an autocrat who will do whatever it takes to realize his goal of reaching 50% GDP from non-oil revenues by 2030.  He’s also a millennial, so I wonder what show he’s currently binging on Netflix.  You can go down Saudi Arabia’s Vision2030 rabbithole here.  The giga-projects are mind-blowing. 
Huge public art exhibits line the highways, and the glitz of the Jeddah Ritz Carlton is staggering. The Royal guest house looks bigger than Buckingham Palace. We dine in fantastic restaurants, visit a floating mosque, and then skip a museum to watch Canada play Morocco on an outdoor big screen, with a pro-Morocco crowd gathering on hundreds of bean bags.  The crescent moon is out, the sea breeze is warm, the mosque is lit up behind us…it’s one of those unexpected choice travel moments.   Along with fellow Canadian journalists we cheer for our team, but it doesn’t help. Canada loses all three group stage matches, and crashes out of the World Cup with its beaver tail between its legs.  Locals are friendly though, somewhat bewildered by the fact that a group of Canadian tourists are here in the first place. At least tonight, because we’re alongside a Formula One race track, and Jeddah already receives millions of tourists a year on their way to make the Hajj and Umrah in Mecca, located about an hour’s drive away. That’s still off limits to non-Muslims, at least for now.

​For all the construction and moonshot tourism developments (check out this wild vision for The Line), my week’s highlights are the old towns of Jeddah and Riyadh, which feel more authentic with their wooden windows, mud-houses, souks, galleries and mosques.  I learn about Saudi clothing, their customs, coffee ceremony, their homes and lavish feasts. Gradually, my overall discomfort with the regime gives way to the truth of all travel, which rears up whether you’re visiting a highly-controlled regime or permissive democracy: cultures are different, and not every culture wishes to emulate our own. Where we see oppression, they see tradition; where we see a gin and tonic, they see decadence. Neither has the right to judge and convict, but we all have the right to engage, listen, and learn.    In sha’Allah, we can all come together – men, women and children – over coffee and glazed dates, with mutual respect and understanding of our differences. In sha’Allah, may tourism continue to drive positive change on the planet we all call home.  

Bucket List Strokes for Different Folks

We travel for different reasons, but there’s a bucket list waiting around the world no matter what you’re into. Here’s a round-up of new experiences that fit the bill.

For the Underwater Enthusiast: An Ocean Expedition Off Cape Town’s Coast 

For those who just completed their diving certification, or always watching BBC Earth, discover the extraordinary aquatic world just off Cape Town’s coast, with renowned shark scientist Justin Blake as your guide. The ocean expedition will take you through the Cape Kelp Forests, where you’ll explore the same octopus gardens made famous in the 2020 Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher—plus, snorkel with friendly sharks, explore fascinating sea caves, and discover spectacular views of Cape Town both above and below the water’s surface. Feast on a sustainably sourced seafood picnic created by chef Rudi Riebenberg of the iconic Belmond Mount Nelson hotel. Expect delicacies sourced by ABALOBI, a South African-based social enterprise that supports small-scale fishing communities. 

For the Adrenaline Junkie: A Heli-Skiing Adventure in Greenland 

While heli-skiing is a favorite pastime of the world’s most fearless adventurers, the sport is becoming more popular among a wider set of adventurers than ever before, opening up access to some of the world’s most pristine skiable terrain. In Greenland, the world’s largest island, 80% of the glaciated landscape has never been skied before—which means wide, treeless powdery expanses, snowfields flanking glacier-carved peaks, and conditions ranging from powder to corn. On April 23-30, 2023, US Olympic alpine ski racer Bode Miller—the most decorated male alpine skier in U.S. history— will join an EYOS on a “slope-to-sea” heli-skiing adventure in Greenland aboard the Nansen Explorer. Solo travelers can book single cabins on the yacht, making the exclusive voyage more accessible than ever before. Miller will be joined by ski guide and two-time World Extreme Skiing Champion Chris Davenport and polar pioneer Doug Stoup. The expedition will take adventure lovers to the island of Maniitsoq on the western coast of Greenland, widely considered one of the most remote places in the world to heli-ski, where it’s possible to ski from slope to sea. Originally designed as an Arctic research vessel, the 12-guest Nansen Explorer is specifically equipped for polar waters, with an ice-strengthened hull and a commercially certified heli deck that makes for the ideal launch pad for heli-skiing adventures. Because of the vessel’s ice-crushing power, it’s possible to reach Greenland in time for early spring. 

For the Family Historian: A Genealogical Deep Dive in Ireland 

We all have that one family member who is devoted to tracing the family lineage. If your family has Irish roots, consider a trip to Ireland complete with a stay at a centuries-old castle and a session with a genealogist. Dromoland Castle’s in-house genealogist, Lorna Moloney, will uncover birth records, land deeds, baptisms, marriages, ship logs and other information that will shed light on your family’s history and expose little-known details. One client discovered they were related to the famous female pirate Grace O’Malley, and another discovered her great-great-grandfather had a tattoo of Queen Victoria on his bicep.

For Hard-to-Impress-Teenagers: An Eco-Challenge in Chile  

They don’t need another skateboard or the latest piece of tech. Consider an immersive and educational eco-adventure in Chile. andBeyond’s new WILDchild Eco-guide Challenge in Chile invites one adult and one teen for a four-night, conservation-focused itinerary, with thrilling excursions—horseback riding, catch-and-release fishing, rock-climbing, and much more—and the possibility to win certificates and prizes at a festive ceremony dinner. Teens will also work on a sustainability audit of the lodge and visit the local Mapuche people and a traditional ruka (Mapuche house).

For the Wellness Seeker: A Foraging Excursion in the Brazilian Rainforest 

At UXUA Casa Hotel & Spa in Trancoso, Brazil, in-house doctor Jullian Hamamoto leads custom foraging expeditions through the area’s four different biomes (including the nearby Itapororoca beach, and the 50-acre UXUA ROÇA farm) in search of rare and exotic fruits, roots, and herbs, ingredients, many of which are sacred to Brazil’s Indigeous Pataxó people. Post-excursion, Hamamoto will take guests to VIDA Lab, the on-site nutritional laboratory and medical kitchen, to demonstrate how to transform these ingredients into nutritious juices, essential oils, and even ice cream.At UXUA Casa Hotel & Spa in Trancoso, Brazil, in-house doctor Jullian Hamamoto leads custom foraging expeditions through the area’s four different biomes (including the nearby Itapororoca beach, and the 50-acre UXUA ROÇA farm) in search of rare and exotic fruits, roots, and herbs, ingredients, many of which are sacred to Brazil’s Indigeous Pataxó people. Post-excursion, Hamamoto will take guests to VIDA Lab, the on-site nutritional laboratory and medical kitchen, to demonstrate how to transform these ingredients into nutritious juices, essential oils, and even ice cream.  

For the Time Traveler: A Journey Aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express 

A 1920s Art Deco icon, Venice Simplon-Orient-Express evokes the golden age of travel with its restored vintage carriages, each of which formed part of of the famous, historic trains of the 1920s and 1930s, including Le Train Bleu and the Rome Express. Crisscrossing through Europe, the journeys  whisk travelers to some of Europe’s most beautiful and historic cities including London, Paris, Venice, Prague, Vienna and Budapest. The classic journey is the overnight route to and from London and Venice via Paris, through the Alps and across the Venetian lagoon. A particularly memorable itinerary is the five-night journey between Paris and Istanbul, which is offered just once a year and includes overnight stops in Budapest and Bucharest and daytime halts in Sinaia and Varna for excursions. The next trip will take place September 1, 2023 (from 17,500 EUR per person). Also coming up for 2023 is the unveiling of eight new suites. Two original 1920s and 30s carriages, accommodating just four suites on each car, will be carefully restored, their design inspired by pastoral European landscapes and featuring plush fabrics and furnishings from renowned brands and makers like Majorelle, Dufrene, Leleu, Rousseau, and Lalique. The suites are portals to the golden day of train travel, with luxuries like private marble ensuite bathrooms and lounging areas that transform into either double or twin beds by night. Additional amenities might include personal 24-hour cabin stewards, complimentary kimonos and slippers, and free-flowing champagne.  

Rev your Adventure Engine in Rotorua

Rotorua.  The name sounds like a machine designed to trim the weeds of boredom.  It means “Second Lake” in Maori, a quiet town surrounded by stunning geothermal geysers, forests and crystal lakes.  Kiwis are widely known to love jumping, sliding, biking, swinging, rolling, falling, just about everything-ing, and visitors to Rotorua are invited to join them on the ride.  Located just a few hours from Auckland on the North Island, Rotorua is small with a big heart, with a reputation as an adventure capital to rival Queenstown in the south.    I decided to cram in as much as I could to give you a taste of what to expect.

Let’s build a giant, hollow plastic ball, jump inside it and roll down a hill! Invented in Rotorua, Zorbing was my chance to finally hop inside the tumble dryer (every kid has thought about it – better check on yours now.) Strapped into a safety harness, the Zorb was pushed down a 200m hill as I bounced head over heels, until naturally coming to a stop at the bottom. Green? A few more seconds and I would have decorated the plastic bubble with my lunch. That’s why most Zorbonauts opt for the Hydro Zorb, no harness, and a bucket of warm water in the middle. I managed to stand for about a second before the Zorb tossed me around on its zig-zag course, like that one sock you always lose at the laundry.


“I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer.” So says Moadib in Frank Herbert’s Dune, a mantra I’ve adopted since reading the book as a fearful teenager. I was a little perturbed that Nzone had adopted these wise words into their marketing strategy, but then they know all about conquering fear. Every day of the year, save Xmas, they help people of all ages leap out a plane. Strapped into my gear (and hopefully the tandem instructor), the prop plane with teeth slowly climbed to 12,000ft before the door was opened and I was shown the exit. Calling skydiving a thrill is like calling a Ferrari a boxcar. Nothing beats it. Plummeting at 200km/h for 45 seconds is the fastest way to remind yourself of what living means, as opposed to say, existing.


If I’m going to jump out of planes, I better get some practice in. Bodyflying involves a modified DC-3 prop, rubber padding and catch net to prevent budding flyboys from taking off over the 12 metre-wide platform. This is the only contraption of its kind in the southern hemisphere. I felt like a big magnet repulsed by its opposing pole, pushed and blown like a plastic bag in the wind. The considerable rush from below had me floating in mid-air, although it’s quite a feat to remain front and center for more than a few seconds. The loose fitting overall inflated with air to create the impression, however short, that I really was a superhero, coming to save the day.


I climbed into the canvas cocoon, a hanggliding harness zipped and secured to a crane that was raised until I dangled 40 metres above the ground. It doesn’t sound like much, but believe me, it’s high enough to get the bladder throbbing. Then it’s up to me to pull the ripcord, releasing us into a brief freefall before swinging forward at 130km/hr, as fast as Superman rushing home because he forgot to turn off the stove. The Swoop can take one to three people, so one of the crew joined me for the ride. “Don’t be afraid if I scream like a girl,” I told him, pulling the ripcord. And I did.


Jet Boating
Jet boating was invented by a New Zealander in the 1950’s who wanted to zoom around his farm on shallow river water. Today, it has evolved into a sport with aquatic rocketships, powered by 450 horse-power engines with the acceleration of F-16 fighter planes. I strapped into the Agrojet, the fastest commercial jet boat in New Zealand, able to hit 100km/hr in 4.5 seconds. The 1km purpose-built track did not seem large enough for a normal boat, and it isn’t. For an Agrojet, spinning 360 degrees on the head of a needle, it’s just fine.


4×4 Safari
Putting me in control of a Suzuki 4×4 is dangerous. Allowing me to run wild on a terrain course, and then hurl the jeep off an 80-degree vertical drop, well, that’s just the Kiwi way. Fortunately, Off Road NZ provides fresh underwear back at HQ. Then it was time to Sprint Car, driving the full-sized racing machine like I stole it, which I kind of did for a couple of laps). I hopped aboard a Monster 4×4 with front and rear steering for a wheel-bound rollercoaster, including a descent into a modified mine shaft.


River Rafting
There’s a reason we pulled the raft aside on the Wairoa River to pay respects to the Maori spirits. We were about to descend over a Grade 5, 7-metre waterfall, the world’s highest commercially rafted single vertical drop. This meant a better-than-good chance of being tipped under the fast-flowing Tutea Falls. We paid our respects, attached a silver fern to our lifejackets, and tucked in for trouble. For a few moments, the entire raft of eight had fully submerged, before popping up and barely (barely!) remaining topside. The next group was not as fortunate, resulting in an exciting rescue operation. Between the 17 rapids, forests and canyons, it was worth getting soaked to the bone.


Another world first designed and built in Rotorua, the luge is a small three-wheeled cart with a low centre of gravity and simple steering and braking system. Push back the handles to brake, otherwise, ride these babies down three mountain courses as fast as your nerves can handle. A modified ski lift returns you and your luge to the start of your course. The 2km scenic route looks over the town and lake, but things start getting interesting with the Intermediate and Advanced tracks. This means fun for all ages addicted to all speeds, and can be followed with fine dining at a top-notch restaurant, plus a lovely Gondola ride down to the bottom of the mountain.


Wildlife on the Global Bucket List


Want to see gorillas in your midst?   Lonely Planet Magazine gave Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, located in southwest corner Uganda, its 2010 Best Wildlife Encounter Award.   Surrounded by stunning volcanoes, you trek through dense jungle, tracking a family of huge gorillas.  Watching these powerful beasts interact in the wild, in the company of experts, is no monkey business.   

There are several lion parks scattered around South Africa that gives you the opportunity to play with cubs.  Seeing a pride in the wild is a different experience, especially if you’re lucky enough to see a kill.   My best lion encounter took place in the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya, during the annual migration of the wildebeest.  I’ve also seen lions in action at Nambiti Hills, a wonderful private reserve in South Africa. This photo of a rare white lion cub was taken at Casela, a lion park in Mauritius.   
At the Daniell Cheetah Breeding Project, I meet a beautiful adult cheetah, purring loudly.


Still in South Africa, head to the Eastern Cape to the fantastic Daniell Cheetah Breeding Project.   Cheetah, lion, and other wild cats are bred to be re-introduced into the wild. Here, it’s possible to get real close and personal with the fastest animal on earth, as I did with Ola, an adult female.  Cheetahs purr like cats but don’t have slit eyes. Genetically, cheetahs are a cross between a dog and a cat, but because of their semi-retractable claws, it is classified as a cat.   Either way, meeting a beautiful creature like Ola is something you’ll long remember. 

A herd of elephant cross inches from our car in Addo Elephant National Park. This is not a zoo. If they wanted to, or felt threatened, they could have flattened by grandmother’s old Toyota . We kept quiet, and savoured the moment.


Elephants have the uncanny ability to look right through you.   If you get close enough to see their eyes, you’ll be staring into their unmistakable animal wisdom, even a sense of humour.   My best elephant experience was at the Elephant Nature Park, located outside Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand.  Rescued Asian elephants are rehabilitated, and it’s possible for visitors to feed and wash them.  In South Africa, Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape is famous for its 500 plus elephant.   This photo was taken at Addo as a herd crossed the road right in front of our car.  

We saw four Great Whites in our cage, including a 3.5m monster. Powerful, ugly, and yet you can’t help by come away from the experience with a new appreciation for the species.


Diving with hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos Islands is magic for scuba enthusiasts.   Of course, the grand daddy of all sharks is the Great White Shark, but you’d have to be crazy to be anywhere near them outside the safety of a cage.  I went cage diving with White Shark Africa in Mossel Bay, South Africa.  Watching a huge 3.5m Great White rattle my cage was thrilling, and illuminating too.  This is no monster, just a misunderstood yet frightening predator, vital for the survival of the oceans. 


On Turtle Island, off the coast of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, I waited until midnight for hatchlings to be released into the warm, South China Sea.  Only 1% will eventually survive to adulthood, with females returning to this same island to lay her eggs many decades later.   A conservation project ensures that the Hawksbill turtles are given the best possible shot at survival.   You can also hit the beach with the Barbados Sea Turtle Project, who do similar important work.   Watching a giant turtle lay her eggs at moonlight is pretty special.


Although it’s rare to see a tiger stalking its prey in the jungle, there are dozens of operators who will take you on a tiger safari in India.  Unfortunately, too few Bengal Tigers exist in the wild, but proceeds from photographic expeditions help with the cause.  Tigers can be found in Indian national parks in Ranthambhore, Bandhavgarh, Panna and Kanha.  Good luck spotting a Siberian tiger, the largest Big Cat. There are only a few hundred left in the wilderness of Russia, China, and reportedly North Korea.

Blame James Bond for our fascination with these savage man-eating fish. 
The reality is piranhas are quite common, and seldom attack a human swimming in the water.  At least that’s what I told myself when I swam in Venezuela’s Orinoco Delta.  Piranha are easy enough to catch, and are actually pretty tasty on the grill.   Just throw in a hook, make a small splash, and wait for the nibble.   I caught this guy in Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest wetlands, home to caimans and capybara.
I rode an ostrich, and I can assure you, they’re not horses. These birds are all instinct, but do have natural saddles and a place to hold on to. Highgate demonstrates ostrich racing, and why horses and greyhounds have nothing to worry about.


Early breeders ensured the survival of this large, awkward bird, otherwise it might have gone the way of other flightless birds like the dodo and moa.   In Outshoorn, South Africa, I learned all about ostrich at Highgate Ostrich Farm.  Their eggs are delicious, with one egg being equivalent to 24 chicken eggs.  They’re fun to ride, but could never replace a horse since they function almost entirely on instinct.  Their feathers grow back naturally after being plucked, their meat is super healthy, and they look really, really funny. 


Half of Canada’s Grizzly Bears, a quarter of our Black Bears, and the rare Spirit Bear all roam the forests of British Columbia.  Most bear watching safaris use elevated platforms to watch the bears do their thing, whether it’s roaming in the forest, or hunting salmon by a river. Of course, you could just as easily encounter a bear on the side of a highway (as many B.C residents often do) but its safer and way more interesting to be with a guide, learning about the bears in their natural habitat. 

Where to Find the World’s Most Beautiful Women

Chances are I’ll end up at a bar with a bunch of guys, and most likely the fact that I’ve travelled all over the world will come up, in which case the topic of which countries have the most beautiful women will DEFINITELY come up.  We are men after all, and exotic, foreign beauties have drawn men to travel through the ages just as surely as power and wealth.    In no particular order, this is my personal list of where to find the world’s most beautiful women, and why.  Ladies, bearing in mind the overall silliness of this article, feel free to share your own list of the world’s hottest men. 

Disclaimer: Beauty being subjective, I can assure all readers that every one of the 115 countries I’ve visited has no shortage of beautiful, smart and incredible women, gorgeously represented in an endless variety of wonderful shapes and sizes.

  1. Argentina

Latino girls dressed to kill with an attitude to match, there’s no shortage of head turners in Argentina.  I remember sitting at a coffee shop in Buenos Aires, amazed at the sheer amount of bombshells walking past me.   Where did they all come from? Where do they all go?  I got one warm lead who played me like violin throughout the week.   I should have known better.  I was forewarned that girls in Argentina like their “soup warm”, meaning, they like to keep their dating options open, but are notoriously non-committal. 

  1. Brazil

Well now, everything you’ve heard about Brazilian girls is true I’m afraid.  The way they dress with dental floss, the way they wear their sexuality so openly, the way they brazenly don’t waste any time.    But by far the best aspect of Brazilian girls is the way they move; the way a drum beat shakes their bodies (and their booties) like nowhere else.     They’re also loving, loyal, and wonderfully generous.  I should know…I’m married to one.

That one night in Bogota…
  1. Colombia

My last country in South America is Colombia, which battles with Venezuela for the most internationally recognized beauty queens.    Granted it’s a little strange how acceptable and encouraged cosmetic surgery is,  and a little sad too.  These are beautiful women, no improvements necessary.   At a night club in Bogota I couldn’t believe how genuinely friendly the girls were, and there were plenty of them.   Colombia has a reputation for women outnumbering men by eight to one!

  1. Israel

It’s no surprise to me that Gal Gadot has mesmerized the planet with her beauty.    The women in Israel are not only beautiful, they are fiercely spirited too.   This is natural when you consider that every one of them has spent two full years in the army, learning how to defend themselves, learning to be warriors.   Flirting with a stunning girl in an army uniform, an Uzi swung around her waist, is an interesting, and yet undoubtedly electrifying experience.

  1. Ukraine

Male travellers walking the busy streets of Kiev are forgiven if they stop and stare.  It’s impossible not too.   With cheekbones that could carve a thanksgiving turkey, Ukrainian women dress like they’re going to ballroom dances, at 8am in the morning.   Short skirts, heels so tall they could be stilts…they’ve got it, and they’re determined to use it.     

  1. Romania

Still in Eastern Europe, Romania features on my list because of that hot summer day in Bucharest where it appeared to me that the entire female population had burned their bras.   With the low cut summer dresses displaying a very distracting amount of jiggle, it’s no wonder the men drive like crazy. 

  1. France

A bit of a personal toss-up here between the women of Italy and the women of France.   I went with the French for no other reason than the girls there seem less harassed, and therefore a little more comfortable and natural in public spaces. Italian machismo must drive the ladies crazy…

  1. Japan

Into Asia now, and how I remember the girls of Tokyo!   The eccentric way they dress, their strange customs (if you get a chance, don’t miss the Harajuku girls gathering in all their gothic fantasy glory).   While there’s an unmistakable steeliness behind the cheekbones of Eastern European, in Japan there’s a softness and a gentleness that can be intoxicating, for Japanese men, and for geijins (foreigners) too.

  1. Philippines

Asian women are beautiful, period.   I’m adding Filipino girls because they’ve been wooing men from around the world for centuries, and it was very easy for me to see why.   Petite and friendly, I know there’s a stigma attached to the word cute but I use it (along with all the other adjectives on this page) in its most flattering sense. 

  1. Canada

Ladies of Canada, I salute you.   Neither the Australians, South Africans, the English, nor the women of the United States can compare.   Whether it’s the girls of the West Coast, dressed in their form-fitting yogaware, the feisty prairie girls, the style and sass of Ontario and Quebec, the down home wholesomeness of the East Coast,  guys travelling about in Canada gather in bars and freak the hell out.   “There’s just so many!” said two English guys I met in a downtown Vancouver bar, and they weren’t talking about maple leaf trees.    Canadian women can stand the cold, turn up the heat, and easily rock the runway of any laddish list of this sort.