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: http://malapascua.net/.
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.
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.
Zorbing 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.
SkyDiving “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.
Bodyflying 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.
Swoop 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.
Luge 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.
In which our writer exits a snake pit in search of authentic Mexico….
Apparently, some posh hotels in Cancun will tell you that Cancun means “end of the rainbow.” In Mayan, Cancun actually means “snake pit”, and I can see why. My airport shuttle scuttles past major brand resorts and a dozen hotels that look exactly like them (although one did look tremendously, and somewhat appropriately, phallic). In my airport transfer van are four couples on honeymoon. Using non-existent Spanish, I ask the driver if he knows the weather forecast. This involves me making splashing sounds, blowing wind, and pretending to sunbathe, badly. My fellow passengers do their best to ignore me. “Senor,” says Jose, for that is the name on his badge, ” it will rain for 11 days.” The shuttle lovers react like someone has punched them in the armpit. “Good thing I’m leaving in the morning then,” I say proudly, irritating the lovers no end. No disrespect to the desires of honeymooners, but this month, I came to experience some real Mexico.
I want to see the Yucatan, and the real Yucatan is out of Cancun. You’ll get a small taste of it when you get on an air-conditioned bus, blown away by the badly dubbed American action movie blaring at top volume. Then you’ll stop at the global bucket list landmark of Chichen Itsa: that giant Mayan pyramid sitting in a jungle clearing as an incredibly accurate cosmic calendar. We’re in Mayan country, still the largest indigenous group in Mexico, although a shadow of the mighty empire that ruled these parts before the Spanish invasion. Besides their astronomy, city-states, and massive stone temples, Mayans also invented a precursor to soccer, basketball, and tennis called Pok-Atok – the sound of a ball against their long, walled ball courts. The captain of the winning team would be sacrificed, a rather strange incentive to compete. They also sacrificed children born on August 6-10, once they reached the age of 4 to 12. Happy birthday, now… we rip your heart out!
Human sacrifice was viewed by Mayans as an honour, but history points to a large, lowly population working for an elite class of priests who forbade them to look at the stars (they had to use mirror pools of water) or even to use the wheel. Sacrifice kept the masses in place, with lucky heads rolling down the steps of the pyramids, and evidence suggests that bodies dumped into the nearby water sinkholes, or cenotes, ultimately poisoned the community’s drinking supply. People were dying, so to appease the gods more people were sacrificed, their bodies dumped into the wells, and soon enough everyone is either dying or being sacrificed, and it’s hasta luego to the powerful empire that once ruled Chichen Itsa.
Any visit to the region has to include the other cenotes, found outside the disarmingly charming colonial city of Merida. These cave pools are sparklingly clean, and outrageously fun to swim in. To find them, I take a one-hour bus ride, passing small Mayan villages where heat bakes the earth, and toothy kids play traditional games in the streets. Nobody appears taller than 5ft, and the tallest buildings are bright, white churches. From the bus stop, it’s an adventurous horse ride along a narrow gauge rail to the first sinkhole, warm and clear, where I see catfish swimming below. A wooden platform lets visitors dive into the blue water, as deep and bright as if someone has poured in that colour therapy bath stuff you buy at hippy stores. I visit three different cenotes, scaling the walls of each cave as stalactites slowly drip their way from the ceiling. Giant roots from a tree above descend through the limestone, and one cave has a small opening for a 12m plummet into the dark water below. Perfect for thrill-seeking and rock jumping, just mind your cajones!
Montezuma’s Revenge be damned! Tacos, enchiladas, milanesas, hundreds of varieties of chili, and you can’t go wrong with food in the Yucatan. I finally learn the difference between a burrito and an enchilada. Enchiladas are made with corn wraps and burritos with flour wraps. Now you know too.
Compared to Chichen Itsa, the jungle ruins of Palenque feel more authentic, a tad more Indiana Jones, a little less Disney. The view of the surrounding jungle from atop Palenque sets it apart. Here I learn more about Mayan rituals and practices, including head flattening, and the Mongolian Spot – a birthmark linking Mayans to Mongolian nomads. Another loud bus ride drops me off in St Cristobal de las Casas, once a volatile Zapatista stronghold, now a leafy, colourful postcard. This is the launch pad to visit the Mayan villages of Chamula and Zinacantan for a fascinating cultural encounter. Where else will you see live chickens sacrificed in a church, or Coca-Cola worshipped along with the Saints? The bizarre evolution and integration of Christianity into Mayan paganism has created a spectacle, to be witnessed respectfully (or else shamans will confiscate your cameras).
Late night salsa dancing in the bars, taco-gorging in cheap taco-joints – you can drown me in swamps of guacamole and flash-floods of lime-soaked beer, but not in the Rio Grande. One final adventure has me speeding its waters on a boat beneath the 1km high cliffs of the dramatic Sumidero Canyon. Mayans once jumped off the edges here rather than being slaves to the Spanish, and it’s a long, long way down. I see a large crocodile swimming just 50m upriver from children playing in the river. The cocodrillo is clearly not into Mexican food the way I am. A guide is machine-gunning facts in Spanish, so I sit back, and just appreciate that I’m out of the hotel bubble, exposed to a culture unique to the world, and surrounded by a beauty that is authentically, and distinctly, Mexico.
Every time I return from a small ship excursion to some remarkable part of the world, I think: now that’s the way to travel. These are not cruise ships, those massive floating hotels with thousands of passengers gorging on buffets, although there are similarities. Small ships also have amenities like fantastic food, wonderful service, evening entertainment and comfortable staterooms. Yet the experience is more intimate and exotic, the company more accessible, and the locations really shine through. A more accurate headline for this post is: my best small ship experiences. I hope my list continues to grow with exceptional ships, top-notch operators, and bucket list itineraries around the world.
Star Clipper’s Star Flyer
My most recent adventure was one of my best: sailing on a tall ship in the Caribbean. Sweden’s Star Clippers have several ships which represent the largest passenger clippers in the world. With four massive masts and sixteen massive sails, the Star Flyers drops the jaw of both sailing enthusiasts and newbies, exploring coves, beaches and island communities where big ships simply cannot go. It accommodates up to 160 passengers, served by attentive 74 crew, and combines luxury (think polished mahogany and brass interiors) with adventure (climb the mast and feel that wind!) My favourite spot was the bowsprit, a thick netting at the front of the boat where I felt the spray of the ocean, and spotted some curious dolphins beneath me. I shared a table with cruise veterans who had been on dozens of ships around the world. Not surprisingly, they told me the Star Flyer had been their favourite ship of all. Sailing is just a different way to do it, and burning just 15% of the fuel of a similar sized ship, it’s an eco-friendly way to cruise as well. Star Clippers also offer itineraries on their Royal Clipper, which holds the Guinness World Record as the world’s largest square-rigged ship in service.
I wanted to explore the Amazon, but I didn’t want to deal with back-breaking hammocks on rickety old river boats, sweaty decks and unstoppable bugs. Introducing the Aria Amazon, a luxury river barge that departs from the jungle town of Iquitos, Peru. It has 16-air-conditioned rooms with floor to ceiling windows, king size beds, modern bathrooms, spotless viewing decks, a stocked cocktail bar and hot tub to relax under the stars. Each day we’d hop into a skiff to explore tributaries, looking for colourful wildlife at the water’s edge like monkeys, sloths, birds and lizards. The Amazon is hostile, so it was always a pleasure to return to the boat, greeted with a cool face cloth and a pisco sour. Now this is the way to do the hot and sticky jungle! Peru has perhaps the best culinary scene in South America, and the incredible meals served on-board – many using Amazon fruits and vegetables you’ve never heard – were also a highlight of the trip.
Exploring the Galapagos, one of the most incredible natural attractions on the planet, can only be done right by boat. There are plenty of options to cruise around the archipelago, and they span the budget spectrum. I found myself on board the catamaran Ocean Spray, then operated by Haugan Cruises – who have since upgraded to the Camila luxury trimaran– and now operated by Golden Galapagos Cruises. The spacious, 124-ft Ocean Spray hosts 16 passengers with gorgeous staterooms and private balconies, and beautiful deck with stylish interior lounges. Staff were fantastic, the food was terrific. The Ocean Spray would be a wonderful boat to explore anywhere in the world. Put it in the Galapagos, among the marine iguanas and penguins, soaring frigates and blue-footed boobies, breaching sea lions and manta rays, and it’s as memorable a bucket list experience as any you’ll ever have.
Nobody can see it all and if they claim they have, they’re full of crap. I thought I’d seen a lot, and then I got to Antarctica. The elusive seventh continent is an icy, rocky universe unto itself, and the best way to explore it is on a small expedition. This one is bittersweet for me because my ship, a Russian-flagged research vessel operated by a Canadian expedition company, is no longer in operation*. Comfortable while somewhat spartan, the ship was an important character in my journey, full of quirks, mysteries and secrets. The brusque Russian ship crew were contrasted by the friendly North American tour staff, but it was all part of the adventure. I recall my nights under the midnight sun soaking in the hot tub, and the dissonance of eating and drinking so abundantly while being immersed in such a hostile, remote environment. The ship is gone but there are other fantastic ships waiting to take you to Antarctica, operated by Scenic, Lindblad, Hurtigruten, and Ponant.
Yangtze River Cruise
China is so much more than just Beijing, Shanghai, and the greatest of walls. I really got a taste of this cruising on a riverboat up the Yangtze on the Yangtze Star from Wuhan to Chongqing (two cities with more people than most countries). The Yangtze Star is 79 metres long and 16 metres wide, and I shared a small but comfortable cabin with a 6ft 8 inch Dane who convinced me to visit Sri Lanka (which I did) and the poshest of British hotels Clivedon House (which I did as well). There’s plenty of boats to choose from when it comes to sailing up the longest river in Asia. All visit impressive gorges, historical fishing villages, and the massive locks of the Three Gorges Dam. There was a lot of feasting and fire water, which explains these scribbles from my notebook “Last night I got married to some poor crew member in some sort of demonstration ceremony. Then I did kung-fu, poorly . I am volunteering for everything and anything. I saw hanging coffins dangling from a cliff. People are talking about tofu construction because buildings are going up so quickly that they’re falling apart.” The overall experience was a little manicured, but was nonetheless a fascinating and entertaining glimpse into the explosive growth of China and Chinese tourism.
This is only a two-day overnight excursion into Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world that makes school kids giggle. Two modern catamarans, the M.T.S Consuelo and Santa Rita, have comfortable double staterooms, panoramic windows, a library, viewing deck and dining room for candlelit meals and dancing. It’s also heated, which you appreciate when you’re this high up on a cool spring night. You’ll visit traditional Aymara villages, hop on a large reed boat, check out mummies in a museum, get blessed by a priest in a traditional ceremony, drink from the fountain of youth, and visit the Island of the Sun. I remember drinking Bolivian wine (yes, that’s a thing), star gazing at the Milky Way, and dancing with some fun Bolivian tourists from La Paz. It must have made a strong impression, because I went back to Lake Titicaca a few years later and did it all over again, this time with a TV crew. It was just as magical. The catamarans leave from Copacabana, and provide a wonderful vessel to get about the lake, learning about its Incan history and culture.
The 1470 square-kilometre wilderness of British Columbia’s Gwaii Haanas National Park can only be accessed by floatplane or boat. I boarded Bluewater Adventure’s 68-foot ketch, the Island Roamer, for a bucket list week sailing an archipelago that has rightly been called the Galapagos of the North. We visited the five Haida National Heritage village sites, and explored islands with giant old growth forests of western red cedar, Sitka spruce and hemlock. Humpback whales sprayed mist on the horizon, bald eagles soared overhead, and we could see the largest black bears in Canada feast on migrating salmon. This is the untamed west coast of Canada, uniquely protected from the seabed to the mountain peaks, and guarded by the proud Haida nation. SGang Gwaii on Anthony Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has faded, carved mortuary poles facing the sea breeze. It gave me the same buzz as Maccu Piccu, or Petra, or Angkor – places on Earth that lure us with history, beauty, mystery, and undeniable significance. The Roamer itself was cozy, the food fresh, the company wonderful. Haida Gwaii was one of only four Canadian experiences that migrated from my Canadian Bucket List to my Global Bucket List. You can watch a video from my experience here.
Still in British Columbia, I recall the memorable days I spent on the Pacific Yellowfin, a historic passenger and freight vessel built in 1943 for the US military. This is a boat with a long history of adventure, beautifully restored and maintained, and operated by an enthusiastic crew that welcome, according to their website “millionaires, mischief-makers and rapscallions.” I certainly fell into those last two categories. We cruised around Desolation Sound, spotting humpbacks and orca whales in the shadow of snow-capped mountains and forests. It was too cold to bust out the 40-inch inflatable slide, but there was a supply of costumes for an on-board party. Staterooms are full of character, every floorboard has a story. World-famous rock stars charter the boat for private family getaways, and so can you (assuming you can afford the rock star price tag).
*I also cruised the Northwest Passage on the same Russian expedition ship that was recalled to Vladivostok as a possible submarine hunter (like I said, mysteries and secrets). The Arctic is melting at a staggering rate, opening up shipping channels, and allowing polar expedition companies to send ships across the roof of the world. It’s a remarkable part of the world, and you can see some images from my trip here.
Another runner-up: I also took my mom and daughter on a bucket list small cruise around Atlantic Canada on the ill-fated RCGS Resolute, which soon found itself in trouble when the company that owned it went under, and the ship had a run-in with the Venezuelan navy, sinking a warship in the process. I really loved that wonderful boat, which is running under a new name somewhere with new owners. Unfortunately, my Northwest Passage and Fins and Fiddle trips remain truly once-in-a-lifetime.
In the coming years, I look forward to growing my curated list of the world’s best small ship cruise experiences, boarding ships and boats as memorable as the experience itself.
It is known as Australia’s Titanic, and one of the world’s great maritime mysteries.
On March 14, 1911, a luxury passenger steam ship en-route from Melbourne to Cairns hit a Category 5 cyclone and vanished with 122 people on board. The SS Yongala had almost one hundred successful voyages under its belt, and as it departed Mackay, it failed to see last-minute flag warnings that it was headed into a monster storm (the ship’s new wireless transmitter had yet to arrive from England). After the storm, wreckage began washing up along the coast, the ship was declared lost, and an unsuccessful rescue effort launched. No ship or survivors were found. While a navy minesweeper detected a mysterious shoal in the area during World II, it was not until 1958 that the Yongala was officially discovered by salvage divers, along with the skeletons of passengers washed into the bow. More than half a century later, the SS Yongala is the largest, most-intact wreck in Australia. Located within the protected waters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the ship’s main structure remains largely intact, lilting starboard just 14-metres deep at the top and 28-metres deep on the sand. The result is an artificial reef disco-dancing with marine life, and a sure-fire bucket list adventure for novices and experienced divers. Although I’ve had the opportunity to dive in Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Cook Islands and off the cold dark waters of Vancouver Island, I count myself firmly in the former, but the promise of the Yongala had me at bucket list.
Based on Alva Beach about fifteen minutes from the town of Ayr, Yongala Dive is the best and closest operator to the wreck, with a full dive centre offering certification, equipment rentals, and daily two-dive excursions. Boarding from the beach, their powerful skiff heads out into today’s lightly choppy seas, and I try to imagine the twenty-metre swells and cyclone winds that would have sunk the 110-metre Yongala. It’s a forty-minute cruise to the buoys that mark its burial site, and we’re briefed about the dive. We must remain alongside the wreck and no entry is permitted. The wreck is heritage-protected, subject to deterioration, and nobody wants to add more bones to the many that have been relocated to the inaccessible bow. Strong currents are common, and all descents and ascents must on the safety line. Since I am here in April, we can expect visibility to be around 10-15 metres. Yongala Dive is an advanced Eco-Tourism operator; no touching the wreck, coral or wildlife. We will use a backwards roll entry, turn around at 120 bar in our tanks, and must exit, by Queensland law, with 50 bar remaining in the tank. The average dive time will be forty minutes, with an hour-long interval before the second dive. Our group of divers from Australia, Germany and the US display the nervous fizzy energy of people on the cusp of a bucket list experience. The sky is blue, the currents are calm, the waters clear. Large batfish and a Hawksbill turtle breach the surface around us. The SS Yongala patiently awaits.
As with all wildlife excursions, you never know what you’re going to get, but let me assure you, you will see a lot of fish. More fish in one place than any of us – hardcore divers included – have ever seen. Coral cod and orange-pink coral trout, bluespine unicorns and banded angelfish, luminous blue and yellow fusiliers and huge schools of stripey snapper. Giant trevally and red bass, moray eels, bullet-quick tuna, barracuda, anemone, and we’re just getting started! Green and hawksbill turtles, guitar, ray and bull sharks, venomous banded and curious olive sea snakes, flowery cod, round face bat fish, colourful Maori wrasse, eagle and manta rays, and too many more. For over a century, the Yongala has become an island of life amidst a stretch of sandy ocean desert. It is an important feeding and cleaning station, a reef with soft and hard coral that has penetrated just about every nook and cranny. No sooner do I leave the line than a large and bizarrely shaped guitar shark cruises by. An olive sea snake dances below, and out of the corner of my eye, I spot a submarine approaching me. Only, this submarine has big eyes and rubber lips and dozens of fish hanging off it like thugs surrounding a Mafioso boss. It’s an enormous Queensland grouper, and barring sharks, easily the biggest fish I have ever seen. All this within the first five minutes, mind you. Open water certified divers are assigned a divemaster, and Trent guides over the collapsed aft mast. I peer into the engine room, the coral encrusted galley, at the decks slowly losing all semblance of manmade metal. The Yongala nameplate is no longer visible, but I do peer into a glass port window, and spot a blackened toilet. Large schools of small cardinals are everywhere, with giant silver trevally and black turrum snatching them out of their safety in numbers. Several times I find myself disorientated, encircled by shimmering schools. There are red emperors, damsels, darktail snappers, java rabbitfish, blackspot tuskfish, estuary cod, mangrove jacks, small and large mouth nannygai. After two safety stops, we surface for an hour, snack on cakes and fruit, and prepare for our second dive. This time I’m more relaxed, more familiar with the lay of the wreck. In the shadows of the bow and stern hide the massive, 500-pound groupers, not the least bit perturbed by our presence.
Several dive reports call the Yongala an open-water aquarium, and easily one of the world’s greatest dives. Back at the dive shop, our group shares the experience, and concurs . Of course, this is a dive story, and divers tend to exaggerate. That grouper, was it two, no three, no four metres? Did you see the manta ray, the black tip reef shark, or was it a bull shark? Bringing this diversity of marine life together is the wreck that divers the world over dream about. The going theory is that the Yongala hit a reef, quickly took on water, and in the fierce storm, sank so abruptly no life saving vessels were deployed. In the ensuing tragedy, this ship and so many lives simply vanished. Many generations later, all is not lost. Australia’s bucket list wreck remains off the coast of Queensland, waiting to be discovered.
It is said there are three simple steps to happiness: find something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to. I might add: find yourself a bike. One day, on my way to the office, an unlicensed driver ignored a stop sign, drove through an intersection, and crashed into my bike. I hobbled away with a broken knee-cap, a $20,000 insurance settlement, and the powerful reminder that life is precious, time is limited, and I’ll really miss my knees when they’re gone. I quite my job and went travelling around the world on a Quixotic quest to tick off my bucket list. All of which brings me to the dusty Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama. For an outpost on the edge of the world’s driest non-polar desert, the town offers fine hotels, gourmet restaurants, and excursions into a truly remarkable slice of South America. One such activity is to rent a bike and peddle thirteen kilometres west into the Valley of the Moon, a protected nature sanctuary famous for its stark, lunar landscape. I arrive at the park gates with my front tire wobbling with all the stability of a Central African government. Parched for oil, my chain clatters in desperation. I make a note that from now on I will check the condition of any bike before I rent it. Sound advice, and I could have used some more, for example: under no circumstances must you leave your bike on the side of the road to hike around looking for better views of the volcanoes. Soon enough, I am lost in the desert without any form of communication, directions, food, or warmth. It is late afternoon in March, and the baking day will soon transform into a chilly night. My last update to my family was last week in Bolivia. Not a single person on the planet knows where I am.
Before I set out on my journey, a friend asked what I hoped to achieve. My mates were settling down, building careers and starting families, so why would I choose to be that one older guy you typically meet in backpacker hostels? You know, the one who looks a little out of joint, has great stories, and often smells like Marmite. My reply: at some point during my adventure I will stumble into a transcendent moment of pure isolation, a challenge that can only be surmounted with deep soul-searching, and personal inner strength. My friend looked at me askew, so I followed up with: there will also be copious amounts of beer and beautiful women.
Just a few months after that conversation, there is neither beer nor babe for miles as I desperately scan the sprawling Atacama Desert for my rickety rental bike. Panic begins to tickle my throat. It appears that my Moment of Zen has arrived. I sit down on a slab of rock and breathe it in. The dusky sun casts a pink glow over perfect pyramid-shaped volcanoes. Early evening stars begin to glitter. A cool breeze sprouts goosebumps on the back of my neck, along with my long-awaited epiphany. I am here for a reason. Everythinghappens for a reason. The bike accident, the decision to travel, the dodgy rental bike, the walk into the desert. Wherever I am, is where I am supposed to be. Slowly, I relax into the fear and excitement, slipping into the moment the way one cautiously eases into a too-hot bubble bath. Then I hear a voice. A Japanese backpacker had seen my bike on the side of the road and figured there must be something to see. Soon enough, he got lost too, but somehow he found me just as I was busy finding myself. As the night sky vanquished the peach-fuzz sunset, we see headlights in the distance. Relieved, we find our way to the road, recover our bikes, and pedal in darkness back to San Pedro. That night we get blindingly drunk to celebrate our good fortune, and I have my second epiphany: it is the people we meet who create the paradise we find.
Ten years and one hundred countries later, there have several other moments of life-affirming clarity. As for those three simple steps, they sorted themselves out beyond my wildest dreams. Whenever I find myself lost, at home or on the road, I simply remind myself: wherever you are, is where you’re supposed to be.
In 2019, a UK lottery company surveyed two thousand people
about what experiences top their bucket list.
Number 1: see the Northern
Lights. What makes this interesting
is that a similar survey held by a different company in 2013 came to the same
conclusion, as did another media survey in 2017. Travel tastes may change and destinations flow
in and out of fashion, but the aurora borealis endures as the numero uno-big
kahuna-grandaddy of sought-after peak experiences.
Canadians don’t have to fly halfway around the world to see
these legendary polar flares, just north to the capital of the Northwest
Territories. Yellowknife sits beneath a
halo-like ring known as the aurora oval, where fall and winter conditions are
ideal for a particularly bright and intense show. With
few geographical obstructions, minimal precipitation and a high percentage of
clear winter nights, the lights here are particularly active from mid-November
to mid-April, which is high season of aurora viewing. The further one travels from city lights or
physical obstructions, the greater your chances of seeing nature’s fireworks. Having ventured north nearly a dozen times in
the winter months, I can’t overstate the importance of stacking the odds in
your favour. For there’s no guarantee
you’ll witness brilliant hues in the night sky any more than there’s a
guarantee you’ll see lions hunt gazelle while you’re on safari. Nature operates on its own time and with its
own pace, and each aurora adventure will undoubtedly be as unique as the lights
An aspect of aurora viewing that is often overlooked is physical
comfort. Remember, you’ll be heading
north during a frigid, dark time of year. What’s more, the northern lights typically
pop in the early hours of the morning. Great
Canadian Trails’ Northern Lights Eco-Escape takes all this and so much more
into consideration. For starters, it
whisks you away by bush-plane to an eco-lodge far removed from light pollution or
buildings. As I learned one year in
Hay’s River, even a street lamp can diminish the experience! Immersing you in pristine northern
wilderness, your aurora-viewing lodge is accessible by plane only, operating
off-grid and powered primarily by solar and wind. Expansive, open sky views surround you, which
means you’ll be able to see the lights from the deck, the lounge, your room,
and even the hot tub (talk about physical comfort!) Depending on the season, your short days
might be filled with snowshoeing, skating, skiing, igloo-building or fat
biking, but you’re really here for the nights.
Rested, satiated on a delicious meal, and warmed up by bubbles or
bubbly, the show is about to begin.
Beyond its heat and light, the sun also blasts solar winds
across the galaxy, humming with the energy of protons and electrons. If the solar winds are strong enough, they
slam into the Earth’s magnetic field, funneled to the north and south poles by
forces of magnetism. Once these winds
interact with gases and particles in our atmosphere, they release energy that results
in shimmering displays of light. We call
this the aurora borealis in the north, and the lesser known (and harder
to access) aurora australis in the south. While we may think of a kaleidoscope of
colours, it really depends on what gases are prominent in the atmosphere, as
well as the overall strength of the solar wind.
Oxygen results in the reds and greens, while nitrogen causes a blue
light. Of all the colours on the
spectrum, our eyes are adapted to see green more clearly, which is why it’s
most common to experience the northern lights as a green, ghostly hue. It’s also why aurora operators vigorously consult
solar wind and weather reports: the
stronger the winds and the clearer the skies, the bigger the spectacle.
One of the most important tips of travel advice anyone can
ever give you is this: temper your
expectations. Forget Instagram photos
that took days or weeks to capture, or those epic magazine images that relied
on a slow-shutter and specialized equipment.
There are all sorts of tips and techniques for
capturing the northern lights on camera, patience being the biggest
one. If the lights are firing with
enthusiasm, you’ll have plenty of time to snap your proof, although as with
images of fireworks, a photo does little justice. First and foremost, my advice is to take a
breath. Let your eyes accustom to the sky. You’ll see lights that appear organic, like
flames licking around a campfire, or ocean waves washing upon a shore. Appearing with no warning, ghostly clouds
will flicker and dance, playing tricks on your mind in the icy temperatures of
the northern night.
Flying back to Yellowknife, and then onwards
still, one can be forgiven if the entire experience feels like a dream. Although the next time you read a survey
about the world’s most sought-after experiences, you’ll know exactly why the northern
lights top many a list. The aurora borealis may be ephemeral, but our desire to
see them remains strong as steel. Along
with the comforts of a bush lodge eco-adventure, your northern escape is
Choosing the world’s best islands is like choosing the best songs of the 20th century. There are so many hits, and there are so many incredible islands, blessed with fine white powder sand, turquoise water, pin-up palm trees. Many are unoccupied or scarcely visited, while others, jammed with tourists, hold an unforgettable charm in our memories. I selected these islands because they’re exquisite, unique, popular, and would do in any Greatest Island Hits compilation. Post-Covid, it will be interesting to see how these destinations recover, and what other islands will make it onto the list.
It’s a small island with a big reputation for beauty,
atmosphere, beaches, and cultural ceremonies.
Incredibly popular until the tragic terrorist attacks in 2002, Bali has
thankfully recovered (2008 saw record numbers of visitors) because its people
are optimistic, and you just can’t keep a good island down. Blessed with terrific weather and a history
that goes back 4000 years, the temples and rituals of the islands predominantly
Hindu population are intoxicatingly exotic.
Beaches throughout the island, like the long stretch of Sanur located
just minutes from the capital of Denpasar, offer a true glimpse of paradise.
Greece presents many images, but none stay so firmly
in my mind as the view over the nearby sunken volcanic island from my small,
chalky-white hotel. The most famed and
most beautiful of the Greek Islands, a
big sky radiates off blue-domed churches and narrow streets, the smell of olive
oil, wine, lavender and mint in the air. With a cheap bottle of good wine, I’d
sit on my little deck and watch a perfect sunset every evening, a bouzouki
playing in the distance, the wind warm and nourishing. Crammed into the steep volcanic hills, there
are thousands of such decks and tiny, excellent hotels in Santorini, and
somehow privacy and romance is perfectly maintained. Never mind its history, cuisine or beaches. You come to Santorini for the views, and your
heart stays for a lifetime.
Those who love Hawaii will argue for their personal favourites, the less discovered isles, those that might be more
dynamic. Either way you cannot exclude
Hawaii on this list, and according the various polls, Kauai beats out Maui, but
only just. Whenever I meet someone from
Hawaii, there’s this twang of jealousy.
I grew up watching Magnum PI, and figured everyone must drive a red
Ferarri, have hairy chests, and jet around in helicopters. Not so the case, but the oldest of Hawaii’s
islands does have an unparalleled reputation for lifestyle and beauty. Striking canyons and mountains in the
interior, surrounded with soft sandy beaches, the island might not have the
bustle of Maui, but even Higgins would approve.
The South Pacific is littered with paradise
islands. Palm trees and squeaky white
beaches, turquoise water, feasts of seafood – the only real difference between
one or the other is where you’ve actually been, and the experience you’ve
had. I spent a week in New Caledonia,
which is governed out of Paris as a department of France, and is therefore
uniquely French. Something about
coupling freshly baked baguettes and Bordeaux wine (cheap, given the transport
costs) with reggae-inspired views and tropical island beauty made me
wonder: If you can live in paradise
(where everything works), earn a strong currency pegged to the euro (for
freedom to travel), and live a lifestyle pegged to Robinson Crusoe (because we
all need 18 hours of sleep a day), isn’t that epitome of island life?
How could I not include the Galapagos Islands, 1000km
west of Ecuador, in a list such as this?
The entire chain, straddling the equator, is a UNESCO World Heritage
site, heaving with animal and marine life you’ll find nowhere else on the
planet. It’s famously said that animals
in the Galapagos have not evolved a natural fear of man, and the
approachability of its natural species – from giant tortoises to hammerhead
sharks – suggests a world where nature and man are finally in harmony. Only one of the 14 islands allows is open to
human habitation, and the preservation and protection of Darwin’s playground
has ensured that anyone who visits, especially children, will leave inspired
and profoundly connected to the natural world.
As islands go, few hold the mystery and fascination of
Rapa Nui, an island in the southeast Pacific, once home to a rich and
prosperous civilization of the same name.
The monuments of their decline are the massive stone statues (moai) that
peer eerily across the barren landscape, a landscape that was once lush and
fertile. As Jared Diamond argues in his
excellent book Collapse, if we paid heed to the lessons of Easter Island, we
can see how a society disintegrates due to greed, war, superstition, and most
importantly, misuse of abundant natural resources. For those lucky enough to visit the island, a
territory of Chile, standing amongst the spooky, eternal moai is not only
brazenly exotic, it forces us to think about the very traits that shape our
Tropical islands attract the mega-rich, and the mega
rich have long been attracted to Bermuda.
St John, St Lucia, Nevis, Anguilla, and other islands in the Caribbean
island don’t slack in the wealth department either, but Bermuda’s history,
offshore financial havens, and influx of tourism gives it one of the highest
gross national incomes in the world. With no taxes, the cost of living here is
amongst the highest in the world too.
But they did give us Bermuda shorts!
Home to numerous celebrities, the island offers the pre-requisite
stunning pink-sand beaches, fine diving, fine dining, hotels , fishing and
golf, with the old school colonial charm in the Town of St George. Is Bermuda
better than other islands in the Caribbean?
Probably not, but it certainly aspires to be.
Vancouver Island / Cape Breton, Canada
With all these tropical islands, it’s telling that our
own Vancouver Island and Cape Breton Island repeatedly make it into high-end
travel magazines. Conde Nast Traveler
readers have ranked Vancouver Island as the top North American island since
2000, and it’s not because all their readers live in Victoria. The size, remoteness, pristine tranquility
and infrastructure of Canada’s best known islands set them apart, so while
there’s always room for white sandy stretches, you’ll be hard pressed to find
something as incredible as storm watching on Tofino’s Long Beach. Not to be
outdone, Cape Breton topped Travel + Leisure’s Best Island to Visit in the
USA/Canada in 2008, drawn to its natural character, wealth of outdoors
activities, and unmistakable local colour.
I stood outside the modest stone apartment where
Freddie Mercury was born, and Stone Town, like the island itself, had rocked me
indeed. Located off the coast of
Tanzania, this large island has a turbulent history, including the world’s
shortest war, and being the centre of the spice and slave trade. Ruled by Sultans from their magnificent House
of Wonders, the lush tropical islands offer the modern visitor gorgeous
beaches, spices, fruits, and more than a pepper shaker of African chaos. Stone Town’s narrow streets feel like a movie
set, the grime of a sordid yet rich history adding to the adventure. Before
hotels and resorts took hold, I was able to camp in the northern powder beach
of Nungwi, spending hours in the bath warm Indian Ocean, soaking up its unique
Not so much an island as a chain of 45
limestone jewels, El Nido sits at the north of the province of Palawan, the
largest island in the island nation known as the Philippines. This is the region that inspired the movie
and book “The Beach” even though both were set in Thailand. With some of the world’s best diving,
crystal water ,and environmentally friendly hotels, El Nido is an affordable
paradise. Best of all, you can sea kayak
or get dropped off by traditional boat at your own island for a day. Your own island? Surely that’s one that will quickly race to
the top of your own list of the World’s Best Islands.
A big Esrock shout out to to:
Bora Bora, Langkawi (Malaysia), Borneo, Hvar (Croatia), the Seychelles,
Roatan (Honduras), Sicily (Italy), Mauritius, the Great Barrier Reef Islands
(Australia), Phi Phi (Thailand), and the Maldives!
Before the advent of blogs or digital photos, my travel journals contained:
Random thoughts and observations
Flight stubs and train tickets
Napkins with names and address of people I’d never see again
Stickers, brochures and hand-outs
A smattering of ketchup (hopefully) or blood (likely)
I once travelled with a guy who kept the same journal for almost a decade. He’d tape additional books together and write in tiny script. This impressive travel diary was his Bible, an invaluable historical record of his complete life adventures. It was stolen, along with his backpack, off the roof of a bus somewhere between Transylvania and Budapest. What the hell does this have to do with Victoria Falls? Well, I once had a journal, and it contained the most incredible photograph of me jumping off the very lip of the world’s largest waterfall. Twice the height and width of Niagara Falls, more water falls into the chasm dividing Zambia and Zimbabwe than anywhere else. It’s not the world’s highest waterfall (that’s Angel Falls in Venezuela), nor even the widest (that’s Khone Falls, Laos). Yet the sheer volume of the mighty Zambezi has attracted Bucket Listers for centuries, drawn to a place the locals call “thesmoke that thunders”. Traditionally, most tourists to Vic Falls stay in colonial hotels on the Zimbabwean side, but with the country’s political and economic collapse, many now prefer the Zambian side. Hotels and tour operators in both countries are known to gouge their guests for the privilege of seeing this natural wonder, including a day-visa which allows you to cross borders for the views, at a price of around 40,000 Zambian kwachas, or ten gazillion Zimbabwe dollars. Actually, Zimbabwe’s currency was abandoned altogether, rendering all its notes worthless. Inflation reached 89,700,000,000,000,000,000,000% in 2008. And I didn’t even make that number up. In both countries, where the US greenback goes very far, you’ll pay up to $80 just to see Victoria Falls. No more bitching about prices to cruise under Horseshoe Falls in Niagara.
I visited the Zambian side in December, the tail end of dry season. With the Zambezi flowing at low volume, you can walk to Livingstone Island, and then make your way to the Devil’s Pool. Here, a rock barrier creates a pool right at the very edge of the falls. Much to the horror of tourists on the Zimbabwe side, you can even go rock jumping. Across the chasm, tourists can’t see the pool, and must therefore watch what appear to be tourists committing suicide. This close to the edge, you don’t have to worry about crocodiles or strong currents, although the occasional tourist has gotten a bit overzealous, missed the pool, and found themselves visiting Zimbabwe without a visa, or a heartbeat. If swimming to the edge of the world’s largest waterfall isn’t enough of a thrill, you can also bungee jump 111-metres off Victoria Falls Bridge, once the highest commercial bungee in the world. Or spend $500 a night at the Royal Livingstone, a hotel bill that is sure to give you a heart attack. Zimbabwe is a country with abundant natural resources, and a country that once promised much hope for sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, a corrupt, crackpot dictator bled it dry. A common joke in South Africa: Where is the capital of Zimbabwe? Geneva.
I’d love to illustrate this chapter with that epic, once-in-a-lifetime photo of me rock jumping into the Devil’s Pool. We set it up so it looks like I’m actually leaping off Victoria Falls itself. Much like Zimbabwe’s economy, that travel journal mysteriously vanished, along with the photos, the writing, contacts and splotches of ketchup. It pains me to even think about it. Fortunately, you’ll never forget Victoria Falls, even if you do lose your journal. Nor should you forget any of the Bucket List adventures in this book, although you might want to keep an online blog and back up your photos all the same.
In 300 BC, a guy named Herodotus thought it would be just swell to compile a list of the Seven Wonders of the World. These seven sites were so utterly wonderful that humanity has since gone on to destroy all of them save one, the Pyramids of Giza – only because nobody could figure out what to do with two million 80 ton blocks.
2300 years later, a guy named Bernard Weber thought the list needed an update, and guess what, the new7wonders.com domain name was still available. While Herodotus traded on his historian credentials, Bernard was armed with online marketing savvy and contacts within the tourism industry. The decision as to what these new wonders would be rested with the mouse-click of the masses, and a quasi-regulated online vote. Swept into hysteria, the world (or rather, those countries who managed to mobilize their digerati) declared our “new” seven wonders at a gala event hosted by Hilary Swank and the guy who played Gandhi. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, the buck-stops-here for this sort of thing, distanced themselves from the spectacle, stating: “This initiative cannot, in any significant and sustainable manner, contribute to the preservation of sites elected by this public.” Ouch. Since I’ve somehow managed to drag myself to all the winning wonders, here are short reviews of what to expect.
Not to be confused with Chicken Pizza, which in Mexico, often leads to Montezuma’s Revenge. The Maya were a clever lot who designed intricate jungle pyramids for calendars, ancient cosmic ball courts, and other sites of magic at this must-see in the Yucatan. The largest of several pyramids and ruins in the area, I was disappointed to learn that tourists can no longer climb Chichen Itsa’s steps (which severed heads once rolled down) due to an elderly American tourist who slipped and killed herself, subsequently ruining it for the rest of us. I did however pick up a free wireless signal just outside the mandatory gift shop, which may explain why Chichen Itsa, and not Tikal in Guatemala, gathered enough online votes to be included as a new Wonder of the World.
Great Wall of China
There’s little controversy with this one, since there’s really nothing little about a 4000-mile wall that many people mistakenly believe can be seen from space. Most tourists in Beijing visit a nearby carefully manicured chunk of wall, struggling to take a photo clear of domestic package tours. I joined a more adventurous lot to drive three hours outside of the city, barely escaping the choking pollution, to a section known as Jinshangling. From here, it’s a tough yet thoroughly rewarding 7-mile hike to Simatai, crossing 67 watchtowers. Parts of the wall are immaculate, others crumbling under the weight of history, but rest assured there’s usually an enterprising local selling cold beers at the next watchtower. Legend has it over one million people died building the wall, with bodies mixed into cement or buried in the wall itself. Built by a succession of several dynasties, the world’s longest man-made structure is the ultimate symbol of our desire to keep things out, or in. Mao famously said: “You’re not a real man if you haven’t climbed the Great Wall.”
The Treasury in Petra
You saw it in Indiana Jones, and it’s tough to stop whistling Indy’s theme song walking down the magnificent path to this 2000-year old Nabatean ruin. Jordan’s most popular attraction is actually a tomb, misnamed by treasure hunters, glowing red in the late afternoon sun. It’s the highlight of a vast ancient city with much to explore, like the Urn Tomb, which delivered one of my best flying photos ever. Decent hotels, fresh humus, the smell of camel – it’s not exactly Indiana Jones’s last crusade, but deservedly takes its place on the list.
Christ the Redeemer
This 40m cement statue must have been a sour pickle for Bernard to swallow. On the one hand, it mobilized millions of Brazilians behind a campaign of nationalistic fervour, with telco’s sponsoring free SMS voting, and politicians loudly samba-beating their chests. On the other, there is no hot-damn way it belongs anywhere near this list. The Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House – more famously distinct modern landmarks are stewing in blasphemy. Having lost my camera a few days prior, I recall the sparkling view of Rio, the swishing acai shake in my gut, and the niggling doubt that I should have ditched Cocovaro Mountain for Sugarloaf Mountain instead. As much as I love Brazil, and Rio in particular, putting this statue in the company of ancient feats of mysterious genius is kind of like listing Turkmenistan as a global centre of finance.
Many years ago I was a skinny 18 year-old McLovin, frenetically touring Europe with some buddies on one of those “If it’s Tuesday, we’re in Luxembourg” tours. By the time we arrived in Italy, I was stewed in beer, pickled in vodka, and under the complete influence of some older Australian blokes who could drink a horse under the stable. I remember, vaguely, stealing hotel towels for a toga party, and also getting slightly jealous when smooth Italian boys on Vespas made advances on the too-few girls on our tour. When we visited the Colosseum, built between 70AD and 80AD and once capable of seating some 50,000 people, I was hungover, drunk, or possibly both. There was a lot of scaffolding at the time, a curse one should expect when visiting ancient landmarks. Being 18 years old and stupid, or drunk (possibly both) I didn’t appreciate it so much as one more step before we could return to a bar so I could unsuccessfully pursue girls, of whom the Italian variety interested me greatly. The Colosseum was used for over 500 years as the venue for gladiator battles, circuses and all manner of public spectacles. Including teenage tourists incapable of holding their liquor.
The famed Inca Trail really does live up to its hype, especially since you arrive at Machu Picchu early in the morning, before buses of tourists arrive to make your photos look like you’re in Japan. It takes four days of hiking at altitude through the majestic Andes before you earn the right to have the Lost City of the Incas all to yourself, but it’s well worth it. Porters, their legs ripped of steel, carry all the supplies, cook up delicious meals, even pitch your tent. We slowly hiked past old Incan forts and terraces, peaking at Dead Woman’s Pass, where the uphill slog and altitude left me squeezing my lungs for air. My group, aged 18 – 57, displayed inspiring camaraderie, led by two upbeat Peruvian guides, all the while looking forward to that moment, when you cross Sun Gate, and see Machu Picchu lit up in the morning sun. Few moments are quite like it, even when the buses pull up.
The Taj Mahal
It’s a monument to love that sparkles in the sun, and ransoms your imagination. A marble structure of such physical perfection and detail it could only have been constructed from the heart. I had one day left in Delhi before flying to Bangkok, so decided to take a quick trip to Agra to see the Taj. Taking a quick trip anywhere in India is laughably optimistic. It took hours to navigate the scams at Pahar Ganj train station, as touts tried to sell me fake tickets to fake Taj’s. Finally on the right train, leaving at the wrong time, I arrived in Agra at the mercy of taxi drivers licking their lips like hungry hyenas. To the Taj, only a few hours to spare, but the line-up stretched half a mile. “No problem Sir follow me Sir” and a kid leads me to an empty side entrance for a decent tip. Then I have to pay the special tourist price of $25, equivalent to three days food and accommodation. Then the security guard confiscates the tiny calculator in my daypack, for no reason neither he nor I can discern. Finally I get in, through the gate, just in time to watch the sun light up the Taj Mahal like a neon sign in an Indian restaurant. I take several dozen photos, from every angle possible. It’s already been a long day, so I kiss this monument to love goodbye and hit the train station, where a young girl pees on the floor next to me and armed soldiers become my BFF’s. One day visiting the Taj Mahal symbolized my entire month in India, a wonder unto itself.
Actually, since the Pyramids were part of the last list, Bernard figured they were exempted from this list. Well, there are two ways to anger an Egyptian, and one of them is to deny the lasting legacy of its pyramids (the other results in generational blood feuds, so I’ll keep that under wraps). After bitter protests, Bernard decided the Pyramids would be “Honorary Candidates,” an undisputed 8th wonder, and removed them from the vote anyway. This tells you all you need to know about the scientific legitimacy of this poll.
Where is Cambodia’s Angkor, by far the most amazing ancient city I have ever seen? Ephesus, Stonehenge, Easter Island, or the empty crevice inside Paris Hilton’s head? Travel is personal, for one man’s Taj Mahal is another woman’s symbol of oppression. In the end, the New Seven Wonders promotion was a harmless marketing exercise, so long as we appreciate the amazing work organizations like UNESCO do to restore and preserve our greatest achievements. If the original Seven Wonders tell us anything, it’s easier to build historical monuments to mankind, than preserve them.
Divemaster Sabine Templeton, a native of Washington DC, surveys the spacious lower deck of the 48ft Anela Kai. She’s been working for Seasport Divers – a multiple award-winning dive shop headquartered in Kauai’s Poipu Beach – for three years. As usual, it’s a mostly male affair, with 11 guys from the mainland, a fellow divermaster Ryan, and Captain Andrew, a skipper who has navigated these warm Pacific waters for over 16 years. I amble up to Sabine:
“I might not look like it, but I’m actually a Scuba Diver Girl.”
“Those girls are awesome,” she replies excitedly, “but wait, you’re a guy!”
“Maybe, but since Margo and Stephanie taught me everything I know underwater, I dive like a Scuba Diver Girl.”
“Oh, then you’ll have more fun then.”
It takes 2.5 hours with the swell for the boat to make its way along the west Kauai coastline towards the islands Ni’ihau and Lehua. Fellow divers tell me that it doesn’t get any better in all Hawaii. Some of them are repeat customers from years past. The islands and reef have few indigenous inhabitants, and are protected and revered. Seascape only runs excursions to Ni’ihau from late spring to early fall, when the swells and currents get too strong. Today is the last run of the season, and due to surge, entry and exit will be drift dives. Everyone will be using Nitrox, allowing us to go longer and deeper than normal air. It’s both my first drift and Nitrox dive, and I couldn’t wait to get underwater.
First site, the Lehua Ledge, sitting off the small island Lehua adjacent to the much larger Niihau. Seconds in the water, I’m being stared at by a large monk seal, an endangered pinniped that lives around these waters. As I descend, I encounter a huge school of colorful Pyramid Butterfly Fish. Below me on the shelf, I see the shadow of a large Sand Bar shark, gracefully vanishing into the shadows. Other highlights on the first dive: A Yellow Margin Moray, Tritan’s Trumpet, a Crown of Thorns, and endemic Bandit Angels.
The next dive is at a pinnacle known as Vertical Awareness. My Nitrox is at 32%, and I am relieved that it tastes just like regular air. I descend to 90ft, making my way around the large outcrop. Sabine had told me to expect amazing topography, and she wasn’t fibbing. We see Pennant Butterflies, a Stout Moray, a huge Titan Scorpion Fish, an endemic Hawaiian Lionfish, and a cool red-striped nudibranch. Although the water is a comfy 79 degrees, I pass through some cold thermoclines, as a powerful surge sweeps me along. There’s a reason why this dive is seasonal. Captain Andrew sees me not far from Sabine’s bright orange safety sausage, and picks me up as divers continue to pop up all over the surface.
Lunch is a fresh spread of meats, veggies and salads, as divers share obligatory tales. Sabine tells me she’s had some clients who look down on a female divemaster, but that everyone is usually respectful when it comes down to it.
The best is saved for last, a drift dive to a spot called Pu’u Mu’u. It’s my introduction to underwater caves, and while one diver ends his dive early with claustrophobia, I absolutely love it. Reflective bubbles of air gather on the cave ceiling like mercury, as my flashlight reveals so much life and color. Black coral hangs from the walls, along with Cauliflower and Leather coral. Deeper into the rock, Purple Spiny Lobster and big Tiger Cowry shells are amazing to see, as I ebb towards a series of spectacular swimthroughs. It has not been long since the SDG introduced me to the life aquatic in Papua New Guinea, but I’m continually amazed at the diversity and inspiration every dive seems to deliver.
The swells pick up as we return to Poipu, even as Bottlenose and Spinner dolphins gather around the boat. It will be another season before Seasport resume this incredible dive, but there’s plenty of others on Kauai to keep them, and us, busy in the meantime.
Seasport Divers are located on in Poipu Beach, on the southern side of Kauai. They have been in operation for 25 years, and founder Marvin Otsuji is a local diving legend. Dives to Ni’ihau run twice a week late spring to early autumn.