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.

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.  

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.

3 Less Travelled Islands in Thailand

The postcard islands of Thailand offer the paradise of our imaginations.  Yet alongside the coconut trees and squeaky white beaches, expect to find hordes of tourists.  Thanks to direct flights from Bangkok, the crowds, and the businesses that compete for them, can be somewhat overwhelming. If you’re looking for alternatives to hotspots like Koh Phi Phi and Phuket, put these less-known islands on your radar.  

A little bit of shade on Koh Ngai

Koh Ngai

With no roads, motorbikes or cars,  Koh Ngai is a small island on Thailand’s west coast, surrounded by coral and known for its long sandy beaches and turquoise sea water.  It’s an ideal spot for relaxing on less-crowded beaches, sea kayaking, snorkelling along the coral, or enjoying a coconut cocktail in the rustic thatched beachfront restaurants.  Inland from the beach are some great jungle hikes in pristine forest.  There are a few good resorts on the east coast of the island, overlooking jagged limestone outcrops that make for spectacular sunrises. The must-see island excursion is popping on a boat to the nearby Emerald Cave, known as one of the seven wonders of Thailand. 

Koh Lanta Image by Andrew Jones

Koh Lanta

This long, narrow island, located in the Krabi Province off the Andaman Coast,  is known as a quieter, more relaxing destination for sun and sand seekers.   Its white sandy beaches and outstanding snorkelling and diving, coupled with affordable guesthouses and hotels make it one of the Thailand’s kept secrets, although in recent years it has been getting more popular.   Koh Lanta is made up of an archipelago of some 50 uninhabited islands (a boon for marine life), culminating in the Mu Ko Lanta Marine Park located in the southern end of the island.   The local population is known to be more conservative than on other islands, and together with their conservation-minded outlook, and the calm, tranquil seas, Koh Lanta radiates a peaceful ambience and family-friendly vibe. 

Koh Tao Image by Carl Porter

Koh Tao

Koh Tao’s past is as colourful as its turquoise waters and emerald jungles.  Long a fishing post, it was also pirate hideaway, and later, a prison for political prisoners.  Today, it’s a prison most visitors will be sad to leave.   Koh Tao literally means Turtle Island, and it’s the abundance of marine life that makes this southern Gulf Coast island one of the best diving spots in Southeast Asia.   Keeping the environment pristine is taken seriously, which is why you’ll find no plastic bags on the island.   Rent a scooter to explore some of the fantastic beaches and viewpoints around the island, or explore various trails and sea kayak routes.   An important breeding area for marine turtles, Koh Tao’s diving reputation makes it the ideal spot to get your PADI certification, or simply snorkel out from its many white sandy beaches. 

The World’s Best Small Ship Experiences

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.

Get more info about the Star Flyer and Star Clippers

Aqua Amazon Peru 

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.

Get more info about the Aria and its sister ship, the Aria Nera

Galapagos: The Ocean Spray

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.

Get more info about the Ocean Spray


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.   

Get more info about cruising along the Yangtze

Lake Titicaca on a Catamaran

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.

More info about the Lake Titicaca Catamaran Cruise.

Sailing in Haida Gwaii

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.

More info about sailing in Haida Gwaii.

The Pacific Yellowfin

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).

More info about the Pacific Yellowfin

*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.   

The World’s Best Islands

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.

Bali, Indonesia

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.

Santorini, Greece

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. 


Kauai, Hawaii

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. 

New Caledonia

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. 

Easter Island

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 humanity.  


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 spice-infused atmosphere. 

El Nido

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!

Magic in Tokyo


So Tokyo.

In the largest urban area in the world, 38 million people run riot in a pop culture explosion, and everyone dresses absolutely, utterly, fantastic.  With my backpack and jeans, I felt like I crashed a wedding, but instead, I had just arrived in Tokyo.

As the airport bus made its way over snaking bridge highways into the city, I peered into the square windows of endless office buildings.   Every floor was full of desks, and every desk was full of people. Uniforms of black suits and ties looked mandatory. Even with its bizarre, techno-fantasy sub-cultures, with haircuts that ascend to works of art, the Japanese are distinctly homogenous.  Everyone I met seemed to loved baseball, vending machines, gadgets, toilets with buttons, and soy sauce.

Instead of Bill Murray advertising Suntory Whiskey (as he did in the movie Lost in Translation) I saw billboards plastered with an airbrushed, distinguished Richard Gere peddling a hotel chain.    Taxi drivers wore white gloves, opened the door for me, and turned off the meter if they got lost.   People donned surgical masks because they have colds, and don’t want others to get their germs.  For the bustling, busiest city on earth, it is bewildering to discover how considerate everyone is.    No garbage, no horns, no rough-shouldering, low crime.   Nobody makes eye contact, except for foreigners, who kept looking at me like I’d stumbled into a restaurant above my station.      Politeness, calm, order, Tokyo offers every modern convenience you can think of, and all the ones you can’t.

Subway Spaghetti

After an earthquake practically destroyed the city in 1923, the rebuilt Tokyo was practically destroyed again by US bombers in WW2.  Modern Tokyo spawned forth with little planning and direction, as buildings sprung up wherever there was space, although this time, most were equipped to deal with another earthquake.   As such, the Tokyo skyline is full of random skyscrapers, and you’re just as likely to find a Vivian Westwood boutique in an alley as a garbage dump.   This makes exploring the city so much fun; from the intensely crowded boulevards to the narrow streets that cut behind the buildings, you can stumble across anything. Galleries, restaurants, gadget shops, boutiques, hair-stylists, markets, “men’s clubs” – all carefully designed, well-lit, modern and addicted to neon signage.

The Harajuku Girls and Me

Tokyo’s subway system is famously labyrinthine, and at rush hour it felt like all 26 million people were trying to get on the same train. Conductors physically cram people into the carriage before the train pulls off. I decided to visit the famous Harajuku girls, who come in from the suburbs dressed in their finest gothic-S&M-punkware. Unabashed creative expression was everywhere; leather-clad dancing Elvis’s, teenage bands at Yoyogi Park, pom-pom schoolgirls, not to mention the thousands of themed karaoke bars.   Even the ubiquitous vending machines looked like colorful forms of public art. Tradition is still on display at beautiful temples around the city, the oldest being the Sensoji Temple, built in 628. The Emperor’s Palace meanwhile, is a green lung breathing zen tranquility into the urban mayhem that surrounds it.

The Dancing Elvis’s

Buildings have floors of bars, restaurants and private clubs, many off-limits to geijins, as foreigners are called. I discovered one linen closet called the Joker Bar, in which the bar staff performed magic tricks for a tiny rotating clientele.  The cover charge was only slightly more than a ticket to see David Copperfield in Vegas.  With space at a premium, Tokyo doesn’t come cheap. And good luck with asking for help in English. You would think the language barrier would be low in such a cosmopolitan city, but I found most signs, menus, and people, to be strictly Japanese.

Magic at the Joker Bar

While they have adopted many customs of the west and are clearly fascinated with American culture in particular, the Japanese have added their quirks and beliefs to create a modern, stylish world unlike any other. Next visit however, I’ll make sure to dress for the occasion.

Visit the New Seven Wonders of the World

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.

Chichen Itsa

Chichen Itsa

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

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.”

Petra’s Treasury

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.

Chris the Redeemer

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.

The Coliseum

The Coliseum 

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.


Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu


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

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.

Giza, Cairo

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.   



10 Tips for Healthy Travel in India

If the thought of squatting over a hole for days on end is holding you back on one of the most incredible journeys of your life, I urge you to read this. For it is possible to travel extensively in India and not get a case of Delhi (or Rishikesh, or Anjuna, or anywhere) Belly. What’s more, you’ll be able to eat some of the best food on the planet. I know this because I spent a month in the country, and while travellers around me seemed to drop like flies, I remained healthy. This is not because I have a superhero gut of steel. It’s because I took some basic precautions, and stuck to them. Our digestive system just isn’t ready for the onslaught of foreign microbes you’ll find on the sub-continent. Over time, it will adjust, but for travellers, here’s Robin’s 10-step plan to prevent a messy disaster:

1. Don’t drink tap water: Obviously, enough said. Don’t freak out too much about that scene in Slumdog Millionaire where tourists buy bottled water straight out of the tap. Most packaged water is fine, just check the cap to make sure it’s sealed. Keep a bottle of drinking water handy for brushing your teeth. And importantly, watch out for ice in drinks.

2. Don’t eat meat: India is a country of vegetarians, where cooking vegetables has been elevated to an art. You’re not going to miss beef, pork or chicken, even though it is widely available. Relish the veggie curries, and stay clear of potentially contaminated meats.

3. Don’t eat uncooked cheese:  Cheese is heaven for nasty microbes. A friend of mine was doing great until she sprinkled some Parmesan on a pasta dish and spent the next 72 hours expelling fluids from every orifice. Paneer is fine – it’s an Indian cheese cooked in many amazing curries. And pizza should be OK, so long as the cheese has boiled at some point.

4. Don’t eat eggs:  Leave the sunny-side-up for treats back home. An undercooked egg will probably tie your intestine into a sailor knot.

5. Don’t drink milk:  For some reason, most travellers deal well with lassi, the delicious yoghurt-based drink. It has been known to be mixed with tap water and ice, so use your judgement. Since dairy farming refrigeration is sometimes not up the standards you’re used to, milk is a risky business. Do your gut a favour, take your coffee black.

6. Don’t eat fish unless you see it caught and cooked: On the coast, fish doesn’t come fresher, although you may want to make sure that’s the case first. Uncooked or fish left standing in the heat too long is going to mount an all out attack on your immune system.

7. Don’t eat uncooked vegetables, peel your fruit: Fortunately, most vegetables are cooked in curries so delicious your taste buds will dance a Bollywood musical. Peeling fruit is a wise choice. If you’re washing stuff, make sure you do it with packaged water.

8. Eat in restaurants that cater to tourists/wealthier Indians: A place with a good reputation and steady clientele usually knows the value of good hygiene, and the importance of keeping itself recommended in the guidebooks. When it comes to dining out, it pays to follow the advice of those who have come before you. The only time I ate meat was at a famous international hotel and it was fine. I know you’re dying to eat street food like the locals, just be aware that locals can handle things in their tummies you probably can’t.

9. Wash/sanitize your hands regularly, and especially before eating: Just like your momma taught you.

10. Trust Your Gut: You could follow all of this religiously and still get sick. Or you can meet travellers who don’t follow any of this and do just fine. Everyone’s system is different. However, being paranoid about what you’re eating will definitely rob you of having an awesome experience. India is no place for Nervous Nellies. The best way to deal with the sensory overload of color, smell, noise and people is to relax, be patient, keep a sense of humour, and listen to what your gut is telling you.

A World of Bucket List Spa Experiences

For thousands of years, people have been travelling for the therapeutic benefits of spas, springs and massage therapies. Today, just about every major resort offers spa services, for relaxation, sport injuries, or romance. Over the years, I’ve had some unusual spa treatments. Perhaps these will inspire you to do the same.

The Goa Rub Down

A cramped, overnight train ride from Mumbai resulted in stiff muscles and one achy Esrock. Walking on a dusty road in the village of Arambol, I saw a sign: Ayurvedic Massage, 1 Hour, $8. Anytime I see a massage that cheap, I pay attention. I was ushered into a small, steaming room. Three men poured a bucket of warm, herbal oil over me, and got to work. Kneading, squeezing, and rubbing my skin with such concentration that sweat dripped from their brows. For thousands of years, Ayurvedic medicine and massage has helped people in India, and now around the world. One thing is for sure: An hour later, I was relaxed, loosened up, and in the perfect mood to explore the beautiful beach towns of Goa.

The Fire Doctor of Taiwan

In Taipei, I found myself sprawled on a massage bench in the office of Master Hsieh Ching-long. For more than a dozen years, this fire doctor has been using open flame to untie the knots and heal the muscles of Taiwanese sports and movie stars. He tells me it took years of martial arts training to channel his inner energy so he can use his hands like iron. Lying on my stomach, he pasted herbal goo on my back, doused it with alcohol, and took out a blowtorch. I felt a quick burst of heat, after which the Fire Doctor used his bare hands to spread the flame around. Something smelled like burning skin. My burning skin! Still, with his iron fists, the Fire Doctor hammered out my stiff worries, creaked here, twisted there, and wished me well. Out of the frying pan, and into a scorching summer Taipei day.

Balinese Massage

Balinese massage is a mix of aromatherapy, acupressure, stretches, kneading and skin rolling. At the fantastic Hotel Nikko in Bali, we were treated to a family spa that relaxed our muscles, put big smiles on your faces, and literally head-massaged my youngest into a blissful slumber. While friendly attendants painted my five year old daughter’s nails, my wife and I became puddles during our couples massage, and while little Gali continued to dream, we transferred him to the bench and us to the large adjacent outdoor bubble bath.

The Communal Thai

In Thailand, massages are as a cheap as a beer back home. Small, lithe masseuses twist and crack joints, often chattering away as they do so. Off Khao San Road, where thousands of backpackers flock to cheap hotels, bars and markets, the massage shops might pack a dozen clients into a single room. Here you can chat to your friends too, in a rather social environment, all the while having your body subjected to the type of pain and discomfort that can only be good for you. Thai massages are heavy on the elbows and knees, penetrating deep into the tissue. Off resort, at $6 to $10 an hour, the price is always right, especially on the beach.

The Georgian Backwalk

In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, you must visit the famous 17th century Orbeliani bathhouses. Blue tile lines old eggshell domes, housing hot sulfur springs that have been revered for their healing properties for centuries. After my dip, I was shown to an adjacent room and told to lie down naked on a marble slab. A man wearing naught but a small towel came over in the steam and poured a barrel of boiling water over me. He then proceeded to give me a rub down using rough hessian rope, scraping away layers of skin with a thick, foamy soap. It hurt, but not as bad as the sulfuric water poured on afterwards, or when he started walking up and down my back. There is a separate bathhouse for women, but not, alas, for the Georgian Rugby Team, who joined me in the baths shortly afterwards.

Something afoot in Shanghai

I had wandered a couple blocks from my hotel looking to experience traditional Chinese acupressure. Based on the same idea as acupuncture, acupressure uses hands, elbows or props to stimulate various pressure points, which help with circulation and energy balance. In a small shop, I was shown to a chair. My feet were scrubbed clean, and then a tiny lady with iron clamps for hands got to work. Pushing and probing, she honed in on my sensitive pressure points, and proceeded to punish them with vigour. My ears were throbbing, my lower back was sweating, my armpits were singing – I don’t know what she was doing, but when she finally stopped, the relief was well worth the agony.

Hungarian Healing

Budapest sits above a sea of natural thermal baths, which Turk conquerors once developed into exquisite palaces of swimming pools. There are still several enormous bathing complexes, exhibiting grand architecture, and well-maintained baths. For about $15 you get a locker, and access to dozens of baths of various temperatures, along with saunas, spas, whirlpools, showers, and for a few bucks more, massages. I spent the afternoon at the Szechenayi Baths, amazed there could be so many options to enjoy. Hot, cold, big, small, indoors, outdoors. A large, sour masseuse however, ensured my massage was as tranquil as a Soviet prison.

A Spa for Two

Occasionally I’m lucky enough to travel with my wife. Many resorts offer couples spas as relaxing alternatives to long walks on the beach, or in the mountains. The wonderful Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Banff Springs offers various couples packages, encompassing rose-infused side-by-side scrubs, rubs, and baths. In South Africa, we soaked up our pampering at the luxurious Gary Player Health Spa, getting matching facials to enhance our romantic glow. You don’t have to be on your honeymoon to treat yourself to a couples massage. Although after you experience one, you’ll feel like it anyway.

The World’s Bucket List Casinos

Let’s face it, casinos have passed their Golden Age. There was a time when tuxedos and cocktails and dressing up for entertainment carried a lot more glitz and glam than the modern, corporate, and slick operations in place today, carefully designed to part both high and low rollers from their cash. Between the pokies and slots, flashy lights, loud noises, mazes of machines, and game tables prowled by pros looking for easy marks, it’s no wonder online gaming has become so popular. Still, there are some casinos that transcend their purpose and become destinations, full of history and opulence, and still popular on many a bucket list.

Here is our Global Bucket List of some of the greatest casino destinations from around the world.

Casino de Monte-Carlo

Casino de Monte-Carlo is the sort of casino you assume only exists in novels and films. It is almost like a palace in both its beauty and size. One of the older functioning casinos in the world, it is one of the true highlights of Monte-Carlo, which happens to be a city full of opulent gems. It’s a rather exclusive environment when you get down to the actual games, and it’s one of not too many casinos in the world where you’re still expected to dress like a movie star – but it’s worth the trouble of visiting if only to wander around the gaming floors.

Marina Bay Sands

If you’re looking for a casino that will simply take your breath away when you look at it – and which is every bit as fun as it looks – there’s the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. It’s getting some great publicity lately as one of the top sights in the hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, and it’s a wonder it hasn’t been used as a major film set before. While it’s a massive casino and hotel with all kinds of attractions, its signature is the rooftop bar, which features an infinity pool overlooking the entire city.

The Bellagio

We’d still give Casino de Monte-Carlo the award for the world’s most classic casino, but the Bellagio is certainly on the list, and is one of the most famous establishments on the planet to boot. Famous for decades and further immortalized in 2001’s Ocean’s 11 remake, it’s everything people love about a more vintage version of Vegas. It’s not one of the newer casinos in town, but it’s still known for luxurious accommodations and one of the best poker rooms anywhere. Plus, the fountains in front of the hotel are a legend unto themselves.

Casino de Montréal

Canada doesn’t get quite as much attention for its casinos as some places around the world, and even in America it may be better known for its online activity. Americans cross the border to take advantage of online games and different bookmaker sites that allow for sports betting.  Canada has some great in-person casinos, and Casino de Montréal tops the list. It’s a gigantic casino complex with several floors’ worth of gaming, and a place that would be right at home in a casino Mecca like Las Vegas or Macau.

Casino Baden-Baden

Baden-Baden, Germany was once known as the summer residence of Europe, in large part because this very casino was only open during the summer months, and would attract visitors from around the continent. It’s almost a little bit like Casino de Monte-Carlo in its old-world charms and extravagance, though it’s slightly more understated from the outside. If you’re interested in the history of casinos, it should most certainly make your bucket list.

Venetian Macau

Truthfully you could just about take your pick of casinos in Macau, because as mentioned regarding Casino de Montréal, Macau has joined Las Vegas as the world’s other true casino Mecca. There are several extravagant resorts in the area, many of them sister venues to Las Vegas establishments. But the Venetian Macau is probably the most incredible of them – an absolutely sprawling casino complex that, like the Venetian in Vegas, imitates the city of Venice.

Atlantis Paradise Island

Some find Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas to be a little bit too gimmicky, but there’s something to be said for a casino that doubles as a fun filled resort. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, such that in addition to having all the gaming options you could possibly hope for, it prides itself on a massive beachside waterpark. Sure it’s very clearly a tourist trap, but Atlantis is also pure fun, and it’s arguably the most impressive casino you can find on a tropical island.

Warm Lakes and Rock Tombs in Turkey

Say what you will about the value of guidebooks, but I’d never have found Köycegiz if I’d had one with me in Turkey.   To be fair, this small Aegean town peppered against a large, warm, freshwater lake does get a mention in most Turkish guides – usually a throwaway paragraph with words like “sleepy” and “quiet” and “nice for lunch”.   It’s just one of several signposts you’ll pass en-route from the infamous ruins at Ephesus to the Mediterranean beach resorts around Fethiye. But stop inside, look around, and you’ll find it as sweet as the sugar in Turkish tea.

I got the hot tip about Köycegiz from a New Zealander named Alison who ran a guesthouse in Selcuk. She had married herself a Turk, settled in for a life of olives and fruit orchids, and was only too happy to share the secret of the lake with me.   Since I had no real urgency to be anywhere else, I asked the Selcuk-Fethiye bus driver to let me out on the highway outside the town. A couple of other travellers looked on with mild curiosity, and who could blame them? After walking through the quiet, sleepy, nice-for-lunch town, I was pleased to find one of the best backpackers I’ve seen anywhere, called the Tango Inn.   Large mattresses were covered in rugs and pillows, interspersed with hammocks, a bar and a DJ booth. There were just a straggling of people, but the owner Sahin assured me things would pick up when the Fez Bus pulled in.   The Fez is a hop-on hop-off tour bus that travels throughout western Turkey. In anticipation, Sahin had organized a cruise on the lake for that evening.   Enjoying the calm before the storm, I walked down the lakefront and was blasted by a fresh breeze, the gentle lapping of water, and the view of towering mountains in the distance.     The lake, also called Köycegiz, connects with the Mediterranean through a channel called the Dalyan Delta, and cruising through large bulrushes to the sea is a popular activity for Turkish tourists.   I see a couple guys playing tavla, which I know as backgammon, and gradually readjusted to the pace of a fishing village where not much happens and people prefer it that way. Here is the real Turkey, and with it of course, real Turkish hospitality.   People smile, invite you for tea, quiz your origins, all with a genuine sincerity and warmth.

The Fez Bus pulls in, and it doesn’t take long for some Australians to rally the troops and get everyone along to the boat for sunset. We board a traditional wooden boat that heads out into the dusk.   Music is playing, inflatable pool toys emerge out of nowhere. Mix a party boat with a warm lake and a full moon and before long people are guaranteed to be swimming amongst the catfish.

The following morning, I awake to find the Tango Inn empty, the Fez Bus gone, and another delightful Turkish sunny day. Hopping aboard a wooden boat crammed with local tourists on their way to the beach, I am the only foreigner and relish the enthusiastic hospitality. I am attacked with homemade food and polite questions by my new found friends. Along the canals, we pass spectacular 2000-year-old Lyceum rock tombs carved into the cliffs above us. History is never far away in Turkey.   After stopping off for a refreshing dip in the lake, we arrive at a long sandy beach, and the crystal blue Mediterranean.   I end up playing Frisbee with some brothers from the boat, eating local homemade delicacies, enjoying my spontaneous off the beaten path adventure.   The boat slowly makes its way back to Köycegiz at sunset, humid wind in my fingertips, the notes of a tanbur floating out the speakers up front.   These are the moments in life when you stop, look around, and believe that somehow, everything, for everybody, is going to work out just fine.   Losing the guidebook and listening to locals, it’s towns like Köycegiz that prove how off the beaten track is sometimes right on the money.


More Bucket List Destinations in Turkey

  • Istanbul

The bridge between Europe and Asia.   Stand between the 6th century Hagia Sofia and the 16th Century Blue Mosque and let your goosebumps riot.

  • Cappadocia

Strange rock formations and striking landscapes, where else can you stay you stay in your very own cave while exploring fairy chimneys?

  • Olu Deniz

There’s no doubting the beauty of the Mediterranean beaches, but the real reason to visit this overcrowded resort town is for the once-in-a-lifetime paragliding.

  • Ephesus

History buffs will flip out at the ruins of this ancient Greek city, mentioned in the Bible, with the coliseum and library allowing you to walk in the steps of the ancients.

  • Mount Nemrut

Fly east for the surreal landscape of this World Heritage Site, where giant 2000-year old giant statues watch spectacular sunrises.