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28. May, 2012

The Gold Coast: A mecca for adrenalin rush & super-heroes

Australia’s Gold Coast boasts an endless playground for families and has become a mecca for theme-park addicts.  If you’re looking to brave some of the world’s tallest & fastest rides, interact with nature’s finest animals or simply looking for some aquatic adventure, you won’t be disappointed.

Australia’s theme park capital boasts the Southern Hemisphere’s largest and most varied selection of theme parks. Stroll with a Bengal Tiger, defy laws of gravity or swim with dolphins. The Gold Coast’s array of choices for fun and adventure are endless and promises to leave you with long memories and even bigger smiles.  Here’s my overview of what’s on offer.

Dreamworld

Wipeout

Hold onto your breakfast as you tackle the “Big 7”. You’ll need nerves of steel and conquer your fear to tackle Australia’s tallest and fastest thrill rides. To earn your rite of passage, you’ll scream louder than you have ever done before and need the courage of an astronaut on a mission to the moon. You’ll defy gravity as you dangle upside down, be propelled faster than a bullet and plunge from the sky at breakneck speeds.

If white knuckle rides are not your “cup of tea”, stroll through the new DreamWorks Experience for as many themed rides, live stage shows and attractions as your excited little ones can bear. Meet Shrek, Princess Fiona & Puss in Boots in Shrek’s Faire Faire Away. Join in the fun as King Julien rules over his kingdom in Madagascar Madness or catch the legendary Po in Po’s Garden.

Animal lovers can watch a Bengal Tiger scale 6 metre high trees or catapult 3 metres in the air as they demonstrate their remarkable agility. With 2 daily presentations at Tiger Island you’ll be able to observe the tigers up close as they swim, play and wrestle with their handlers.

Location: 17 kms north of Surfers Paradise; admission: Adults – AUD 79.99 Children – AUD 49.99
Website: www.dreamworld.com.au

Sea World

Imagine - Sea World

Discover an aquatic world of fun and frolics at Sea World. Dare to swim with sharks in Shark Bay in the world’s largest man-made lagoon system for sharks. Grab a photo with sea-lions Buddy & Clawde, the mischievous stars in “Fish Detectives”. Witness  the dolphins’ grace and agility as they playfully interact with the audience or get up close with the world’s largest land meat-eaters in Polar Bear Shores. There’s also Penguin Encounter, Ray Reef and much more to ensure that you have an action packed day observing our friends from the ocean!

Location: 2.8kms north of Surfers Paradise; admission: Adults – AUD 79.99 Children – AUD 49.99
Website: www.seaworld.myfun.com.au

White Water World

Super Tubes Hydro Coaster - photo courtesy of Whitewater World

Pack your Speedos, “Boardies” or “swimmers” and get ready for a day of “flesh meets fibreglass” at White Water World.  Join the long line of teenage lemmings as the trap door on White Water World’s latest ride, “The Wedgie”, opens and sends bodies plummeting 5 storeys vertically.

Hope for a little “Irish luck” as your 4 leaf clover tube propels you into a super-sized funnel in “The Green Room” or get caught up in the tentacles of the world’s only eight lane Octopus Racer. The Blue Ringed Octopus (or more affectionately known as BRO to the locals) will transform you and your and friends into frenzied competitors as you race to glory. If you’re scared of the dark save your best high pitched shrieks for The Little Rippers. Close your eyes and feel the force of a water propelled corkscrew ride before plunging into the awaiting pool.

White Water World also caters for the less adventurous and budding water stunt artists. Wiggle Bay provides a safe & wet haven for young protégés to let off steam on the water cannons and mini water-slides as they splash and play under the watchful eyes of lifeguards.

Location: 17 kms north of Surfers Paradise; admission: Adults – AUD 49.99 Children – AUD 29.99
Website: www.whitewaterworld.com.au

Warner Bros Movie World

Meet your favourite super-heroes and film stars in a world of fun and fantasy. Strap yourself in and hang on to your hats as Warner Bros. Movie World challenges the faintest of hearts. Combat your darkest fears and brace yourself for a stomach churning ride as you encounter The Joker on Arkham Asylum. Experience the Southern Hemisphere’s steepest drop on The Green Lantern or accelerate to 100 kilometres per hour in less than 2 seconds on Superman Escape.

Superman Escape

Mingle with Bugs Bunnyand other Loony Tunes characters as you wander through Movie World’s Kids’ WB Fun Zone. Jump aboard a Tijuana Taxi, hop aboard Yosemite Sam or ride on Australia’s only family roller-coaster. Don’t miss the smell of burned rubber or sound of screeching brakes in Hollywood Stunt Drive as you join the set of alive Hollywood movie production. Feel the danger and sense of adventure as you take a 4D Journey to The Centre of the Earth.

Location: 13kms north of Surfers Paradise; admission: Adults – AUD 79.99 Children – AUD 49.99
Website:www.movieworld.myfun.com.au

Wet n Wild

Begin your adventure on a rubber tube on a slow flowing river as you lazily circumnavigate your way round the park’s sub-tropical gardens. Kick off your shoes on Calypso Beach before racing over to Aqua Loop to experience an exhilarating vertical descent into transparent looping slides.

Tackle the Rocky Mountains as you slide down The River Rapids or experience a wipe-out on Surfrider or if you need a bigger adrenalin rush plunge 11 metres at 50 kilometres per hour on the Kamikaze. Blast 40 metres into The Tornado as you wrestle in the eye of a storm or challenge the 200 metres of twist and turns on the Mach 5 sidewinders.

Buccaneer Bay - photo courtesy of Wet n Wild

Little pirates can hoist their sails in Buccaneer Bay. Based on a pirate theme, children enter their own aquatic world of imagination and excitement. Parents beware – stay alert for the giant bucket which frequently spills its load onto the scores of mischievous and giggling children beneath it.

Location: 13 kms north of Surfers Paradise; admission: Adults – AUD 59.99 Children – AUD 34.99
Website: www.wetnwild.myfun.com.au

 

It’s easy to see why the Gold Coast is a popular choice for families and thrill-seekers. It dares you to have fun. It invites you to interact with its wildlife and it encourages you to confront your fears. Discover its charm for yourself.

21. Apr, 2012

All’s fair in love and war on King Tutt’s Putt Putt mini-golf courses

“Mine’s the orange one” Cerys demands with a mischievous cheeky smile.“I’ll have the lilac one” adds Cerys’ friend Laura. The remaining choice hangs in the balance and my wife Karen saves me some embarrassment as she grabs the “hot-pink” ball and leaves me with the more masculine mustard yellow one.
King Tutt’s Putt Putt is in bustling Surfers Paradise on Australia’s Gold Coast and offers the perfect respite from a day at the beach or a heart-pumping afternoon on roller-coasters.  54 holes of mini-golf may not scream “classy” to most people.  But my competition has been issuing me ultimatums all day. We take our mini-golf seriously in our family!

Laura assures us that she hasn’t played mini-golf for ages.  I feel confident. I kn0w Karen is only playing to keep the peace, so that leaves my arch-rival Cerys, who shares the same competitive gene as me. “Keep your head straight and your knees slightly bent” I whisper to myself–certain that I’ll have a head start on my teenage daughter.

Laura’s “alleged” first game in ages, sees her overcoming King Tutankhamen’s curse as she sinks a short putt for a par on the 1st hole. “This’ll be more difficult than I thought” I mumble to myself.

Over the next 12 holes Cerys and Laura both sink hole-in-ones. I suddenly recall Aesop’s hare and the tortoise fable. “Stay patient” I motivate myself. It works.  We enter the Egyptian course’s “glow-in-the dark” tombs.

Perhaps it’s the dark spaces and King Tutankhamen’s loyal cobra that causes my adversaries to drop shots. It might be my playful coughing and spluttering just as they stoop to take their shots. I’m not ashamed – I’ve a game to win!

King Tutt’s Putt Putt has 2 indoor courses and 1 outside challenge.  I retain some pride on their 18 holes Egyptian course with a 5 over par 41. Now it’s time to challenge the world of dinosaurs and exploration in Jurassic park.

Almost immediately I have to start thinking hard about shot selection. “Play through or around the piping” and “should I bank left or right” I mutter, as well as wondering how I’d avoid T-Rex’s imposing stare.  But no-one listens.  My competition is not giving up any secrets and they want revenge.

For the next 18 holes we trade holes-in-one and some idle chit-chat about the life-like models and statues under the watchful gaze of prehistoric dinosaurs. I’m sure there is a little cheating going on. The mandatory one-club head relief from an obstacle becomes three on several occasions and I’m sure that scores are being “adjusted”.  But no-one says a word.  We aren’t playing normal golf rules – we are on holiday.  Or so I thought.

Cerys demands a recount. Karen insists that her adding up is as good as any A grade year 13 student and insists that her decision is final. My hole-in-one on the 17th ensured that I pulled a stroke back and tie with Cerys on 42 – 6 over par.

This is not the Australian Open. There will be no play-off, sponsor cheques to collect, nor lines of autograph hunters awaiting me – only shouts of “can we go home now please?” I accept that 36 holes are enough for one night and settle for a customary “19thhole” refreshment.

There’s plenty of parking at King Tutt’s Putt Putt, the courses are well designed and will suit all ages, and the 54 holes won’t leave a big hole in your pocket. I know I’ll never be good enough to join Tiger Woods on the professional circuit but I’ll continue to indulge in a little more family rivalry.  And I’ll keep a close eye on my daughter’s ball tampering!

17. Apr, 2012

Thrills, spills and a bad hair day with Paradise Jet Boating

I’m just a few minutes into 25 kilometres of heart pumping adventure and I think I know how James Bond must have felt careering down the Thames in The World Is Not Enough.  But I am not in London.  I am in Surfers Paradise on Australia’s Gold Coast.

“Welcome to Paradise Jet Boating” Lisa greets us as we prepare for 55 minutes of adrenalin pumped exhilaration.  “Grab a waterproof jacket if you’d like one” she later adds.  I decline – a decision I’d later regret!

Under an autumnal blue sky, we’re soon clambering aboard Paradise 1 like lambs to the slaughter and for the next hour we’ll be in the hands of Scott.

Forget queuing for 40 minutes at a theme park to get a 20 second adrenalin rush.  Paradise Jet Boating offers more spins, loops and turns than any roller-coaster ride.  Jet boating has really risen in the ranks of adventure activities since first being discovered in New Zealand many years ago.  If you want to play safe, take up knitting!

On the Gold Coast,there are 4 operators and we chose Paradise Jet Boating for their more extensive itinerary and numerous tourism nominations.

Powered by a massive 5.8 litres turbo engine, Scott heightens our anticipation as our 20 seat aluminium beast purrs at 6 kilometres per hour past the congested moored yachts and dinghies.  We soon accelerate and propel up the Broadwater, zigzagging past buoys, partially submerged tree trunks and in and out of wholemeal flour coloured sandbanks.  The azure water seems too shallow as we slam into white foaming wakes left by jet-skiers and vessels.  I imagine being on set of a Leonardo Di Caprio & Kate Winslett blockbuster and our hull being torn apart.  But these enormous beasts can turn on a sixpence in as little as 10 centimetres of water.

The fun really starts when the water is deep enough for Scott to lunge us into 360 degree spins. Huge waves of water rise like wild white stallions as they clamber to be the first to transform us from dry land-lubbers to soaked thrill-seekers. My cotton sweat shirt and board-shorts absorb the majority and I assume that my chivalry protects my fellow adventurers from the ignominy of also looking like drowned rats.

Scott was just playing with us.  More sharp turns, 360 degree spins and hair raising manoeuvres play havoc with those with finely coiffured holiday haircuts. Fortunately, I don’t need to worry in that department but sea-salt crusts on my lips from endless sea spray and does nothing to quell my hunger.  I imagine the taste of salt on some “fush and chips” from one of the excellent local chippies.  I have never understood why Aussies pronounce fish differently to the rest of us.  However, the quality of their fish and their warm hospitality can never be disputed.

“That one cost the owner $26 million, has a titanium roof that cost $1.2m, revolving master bedroom and has a basement garage for 15 cars” Scott declares as we glide past Sovereign Island’s exclusive plush waterfront mansions.

Hunter-gatherer fisherman wade knee deep as they wait patiently for their spoils on the banks of South Stradbrooke Island.  I can’t help wonder if they know that Scott has seen sharks on similar trips at least 3 times per week over the last month.  Small family boats are anchored and bob up and down like ducks in a tombola stall as their owners build sand castles or collect shells with their children and enjoy the good weather.

We make our way back to Paradise Jet Boating‘s HQ with the same G-force ferocity, bolting and swerving between water depth markers and mangroves, avoiding harm’s way at the very last moment.  It’s an adrenalin rush and is seriously liberating.

I’m a self-confessed pacifist when it comes to theme parks.  I prefer to be propelled forwards and horizontally, rather than being thrust 120 metres upwards like a NASA space pilot; or trying to keep my breakfast down on a gyrating roller-coaster – although Scott did his best to defy gravity at times.

A jet boat ride was pretty high on my wish-list on this trip to the Gold Coast.  I managed to keep my breakfast down, share a post-code with the rich and famous for a few seconds and survive a fully clothed shower – all for AUD 63.  Next time, I’ll be first in line for a water-proof jacket!

Getting there:  Paradise Jet Boating is situated at Mariners Cove Marina, 60 Sea World Drive, Main Beach, Gold Coast.  Jet Boat adventures run hourly from 09:00 to 17:00 every day.

 

 

 

29. Mar, 2012

Huka Prawn Park: Giant Malayasian River Prawns Evade Capture

Our mission was simple.  I would lead a small task force of seafood lovers and infiltrate Huka Prawn Park to snatch as many prawns as we could in 3 hours and return to base.  Codenamed “Operation Huka Prawn Park Hunt” we knew the risks.  We’d strike deep into the world’s only geo-thermal prawn park and use all of our stealth and patience to snatch our “targets” under the watchful eyes of scores of families and visitors.

Intelligence informed us that the prawn population was huge in both size and number and occupied 6 hectares.  “We believe that there are up to a quarter of a million Macrobrachium Rosenbergii in the area and they’re causing mayhem” our Commanding Officer, Sue Currie, announced.  “We’ve seen large numbers of parents with their children congregating in the area between 09:30 & 17:00 every day, except on Christmas Day” she added.  “And they all seem to be having way too much fun”.

We were keen to get the job done.  Rachel greeted us and briefed us on what to expect from our adversaries.  She shared her knowledge of the park’s layout and our amphibious foes’ lifecycle and breeding habits.  “Giant Malaysian River Prawns grow rapidly and are ready to harvest at 8 months” she advised.  “We also know that they are very fond of ox heart” she added as she encouraged us to hand feed some baby prawns in the Nursery & Hatchery.

“You’ll need to remain calm and patient as they are known to hide under rocks and at the bottom of the pools” she added.  Knowing that we may be in for a long haul, we applied sunscreen, hats and sunglasses and then grabbed our weapons – bamboo canes with line and hooks.  With watches synchronised at 13:30, we descended on the park.

Rachel had briefed us well.  She’d told us to expect distractions and obstacles.  Our first task was to feed the Trout to keep them from alerting anyone.  The Treasure Hunt was a breeze and we successfully negotiated the Bush Walk by hugging the Waikato River’s water’s edge.  “So far, so good” my daughter whispered to my wife.  The Adventure Walkway would be a challenge.  Would “The Gauntlet” cause our undoing, I pondered.  And was the Water Piano & Water Compass a trap?  We weren’t weary but the covered Geothermal Foot Baths provided a welcome opportunity to stop for reconnaissance.

Children were shouting excitedly, so we knew we were close.

Our rods slipped silently into the water.  Patience would be imperative.

“I’ve caught one” shrieks Cerys sporting a smile that only a 13 year old trying to upstage their parents can have.  This is going to be easier than I thought, I told myself.  I was wrong.

Our solitary captive, who Cerys named Percy the Prawn, refused to reveal where other prawns were hiding.  I respected that and was willing to release him.  Too late!  Cerys had other thoughts – she’d popped him in the pot and said he tasted delicious!

Percy must have been a lone rebel as our attempt to capture other renegades was futile.  With our mission aborted, we returned to base with empty stomachs.  We discovered that we weren’t the only task force sent out today.  A battalion of children were proudly parading bucketfuls of their captives.  Overcoming our shattered pride, we headed straight to the park’s restaurant.

“We may have lost this encounter, but we have won the day” I thought.  We may not have given the residing prawn population a run for their money but we did have several hours of fun as a family.  Huka Prawn Park’s prawns haven’t seen the last of me yet!  Rest In Peace Percy!

Mark Gwilliam is a regular contributor to www.thenewzealandtravelguide.com

© Mark David Gwilliam

25. Jan, 2012

Singapore At Its Best: 3 Reasons to Visit

Travelling in Asia will never be complete if you have not visited the beautiful city of Singapore. Don’t be fooled by its size because although this country may be small, it is the most advanced metropolis in Southeast Asia. In fact, the capital city (also named Singapore) comprises one-third of the mainland making it almost the whole country in itself. The city has continuously flourished over the past century.

Being hopelessly addicted to travelling, my itchy feet have time and again led me to this glorious city that so many people enthuse about.

I am completely amazed by the discipline of its people and the efficiency of its government. In Singapore you won’t need a car or a cab even if you are a tourist because with Singapore’s low crime rate and impressively clean and unpolluted environment you can leisurely walk to your destination without any worries.

Buses and trains are always on time and are extremely organised & they even have maps situated at each station in case you get confused. It is not at all surprising why this place has become an epitome for developing nations. These factors have made the country economically wealthy and an attraction hub to tourists who want to have a good time by experiencing Singapore at its best.

Singaporean culture is a result of different influences that came from the Chinese, Indians, English, and Malays. Because of this curious blend, the whole country has easily adapted to different lifestyles resulting in a wide variety of food choices, luxurious and classy accommodation, interesting parks and attractions, and highly technological developments.

I found these things to be true because the three main elements that have made my stay fun, exciting, and pleasurable are the food, the shopping centres and establishments, and the amusement parks.

Let’s start with the food.

If you want to perk your taste buds with aromatic Indian delicacies, it’s not a problem because you can easily go to Little India. If you crave Chinese food, take a quick bus ride to China Town and enjoy their dumplings and noodles.

All the food that I have tasted in the city are scrumptious and savoury but nothing beats the zesty chilli crab, an authentic Singaporean specialty since the 50s. Try the East Coast Seafood Centre to get a full experience of this dish. I was pleased to find the place teeming with seafood delights much to my heart’s content! The chilli crab did not disappoint me.

The spiciness of the sauce complimented the sweetness of the crabmeat, intensifying the richness of its flavour, making me want for more.

Let it all digest while you take a sip of the refreshing Singapore Sling, an enticing local cocktail created in the early 1900s that consists of pineapple juice, cherry liqueur, gin, and some lemon juice. Never leave Singapore without tasting this exotic concoction.

Let’s move on to the next best thing to do in Singapore – shop!

Yes, you got that right. Singapore is known for its sprawling shopping centres located in Orchard Road.

They offer only the best designer products such as Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Gucci, Chanel, and so much more! The place also houses all the latest developments and up-to-date gizmos that you can ever dream of. They even have quarterly programs and festivities that are solely dedicated to information technology.

And you know what? Tourists can refund their taxes up to 7% for a minimum purchase of SGD 200! That is one huge discount making shopping in the city all the more fun and exciting.

Lastly, sightseeing in Singapore is quite an experience.

If you are looking for a heart-stopping adventure, the Universal Studios will certainly provide this, as it is one of the best amusement parks in Asia.

Enjoy a relaxing trip with nature by enjoying the underwater world as you watch dolphins and other unique species in Sentosa. Treat yourself in a five-star hotel and play at the casino of the Marina Bay Sands or simply revel at the scenic beauty of the city in the infinity pool located at the rooftop.

You can also visit the heart of Singapore in Merlion Park where Merlion, a mythical creature that symbolizes the country’s origins, is proudly erected for everyone to see and marvel. Finally, finish your day off by unwinding at the Singapore Flyer, the world’s biggest Ferris wheel.

Marina Bay SandsFor the past four decades, Singapore has astonishingly sustained its success by developing its strengths without being overpowered by its fast economic growth. The mix of western culture and eastern lifestyle has become a perfect balance that has made the whole country efficient, comfortable, and convenient to both worlds.

Experiencing Singapore has led me to believe this, so if you want a safe and stress-free holiday in the Orient, then I would highly recommend you to visit the stunningly quaint city of Singapore, a place that you will surely enjoy.

 

 

08. Jan, 2012

Maori History, Dolphins & Breath Taking Scenery in Paihia

The Bay of Islands has been a favourite holiday spot for generations of Kiwi families.  At its heart, lies the picturesque seaside village of Paihia, which offers a relaxed pace for locals and tourists alike.  During the summer months, visitors use it as a base to explore the area’s enchanting 144 islands and experience its rich history.

Needing to wind-down from a hectic Christmas, I organised a short get-away at the Club Paihia timeshare resort, which nestles conveniently in the hills overlooking Paihia’s waterfront.

Arriving mid-morning from the scenic 3 hour drive from our home in Auckland, my wife, 13 year old daughter and I excitedly checked in and immediately switched to “adventure mode”.  The walk to the wharf takes less than 5 minutes – giving us enough time to discuss the scope of what adventures lay in store for us.

Explore NZ’s Ocean Adventure

We dart from one tour operator’s office to another.  Won over by Explore NZ’s friendly staff, we quickly book the last 3 seats available on Ocean Adventure for an afternoon’s adrenalin rush.  We hastily make our way over to the berth, where Darren, the boat’s skipper greets us.  His hornet coloured rigid-hulled inflatable looks all set to put us through our paces with speeds up to 70 knots per hour.

Explore NZ Ocean Adventure, Bay of Islands

He promised us that afternoon sea swells would ensure that passengers on the bow would experience a bumpy and wet ride.  Cerys responded like any 13 year old at a theme-park – she nestled into one of the available seats at the front!

“C’mon Mum, it’ll be fun” was not what Karen wanted to hear as she nervously strapped herself in next to Cerys and I.

Our adventure begins with Darren keeping to the compulsory 5 knots per hour cruising limit as we leave the safety of wharf behind.  200 metres later, and with engines fully revved, we bounce up and down on the ocean.  Nervous laughs and groans rang out everywhere.  To my left, Cerys sported a grin from ear to ear.  Karen was not so happy!

En route to the Hole-In-The-Rock (“Motukokako”), we briefly stop at Cook’s Cove on Roberton Island.  Captain Cook first anchored here in 1769 during his first circumnavigation of New Zealand and a bronze plaque commemorates his visit.  The island also has a darker side.  In 1839, a young Maori became the first person to be hanged under New Zealand Law for killing the entire Roberton family after falling in love with their daughter and cultural differences preventing him from pursuing his love.

Darren edges us inside Cathedral Cave to reveal a giant sea cave, with 40 metre walls, where Maori warriors used to practice their haka (“war chants”) in the Cave’s 360 degree acoustic surrounds.  For a moment, we keep their tradition alive as we tested the capacity of our own lungs!

Hole in the Rock, Bay of Islands

The Hole in the Rock has been carved out over centuries by wind and the ocean and is another exquisite piece of Mother Nature’s architecture.  We cruise excitedly through it – like threading cotton through the eye of a needle.

Explore NZ promised us an exhilarating afternoon of fun and adventure on the ocean and we were not disappointed.  The early morning drive from Auckland and the afternoon’s sea air ensured the 3 of us slept soundly this evening.

Wakas, dolphins and tranquility

Waitangi’s Treaty Grounds holds a very special place in New Zealand history and is regarded as a national gathering place to be shared by all New Zealanders.  The Treaty of Waitangi (New Zealand’s founding document) was signed on February 6 1840 between Great Britain and many Maori Chiefs.

Te Whare Runanga, Bay of Islands (photo courtesy of the Waitangi Trust)

As we enter the treaty grounds on our 2nd day in the Bay of Islands, we feel a sense of pride.  The grounds are immaculately manicured and the impressive 35 metre-long Ngatokimatawhaorua waka (Maori ceremonial war canoe) takes pride of place on the oceanfront.

Te Whare Runanga is a meeting house built to commemorate the 1940 Treaty Centenary Celebrations and is symbol of Maori involvement in signing the Treaty.  We remove our shoes and explore its exquisite carvings, depicting Maori mythology and history.

Discover the Bay Cruise

Dolphin Discovery V pulls out of the wharf a little after 13:30.  It’s a purpose built boat and our home for 4 hours as we cruise around looking for dolphins and witnessing some incredible scenery.  The skipper and his crew run through a safety briefing and we nestle into our seats with hot coffee and muffins.

30 minutes into our cruise, and we’ve already experienced coves with charming names such as Twin Lagoon; Good-fellows Bay and Honeymoon Bay.  Then we spot our first bottle-nose dolphin; then another.  Soon we’re surrounded by dolphins playing in the boat’s bow waves.  It’s easy to understand why our fellow passengers and us are fascinated by them.

Twin Lagoons, Bay of Islands

Urupukapuka Island is beautiful.  The largest of the Bay Of Island’s 144 islands, it is steeped in Maori & European history, where visitors also discover wonderful beaches, walks and opportunities to snorkel & kayak in crystal clear waters.  It’s not surprising that a wedding party group has gathered in Otehei Bay to celebrate the special day of friends and family.  Our brief stop allows us enough time to enjoy the fine white sand between our toes and a drink overlooking the stunning bay.

We zig-zag our way around a few smaller yachts moored for the evening.  Sting-rays resembling large black diamond kites glide effortlessly in the shallow waters.  Dolphin Discovery V meanders her way slowly back to Paihia and we reflect on a wonderful afternoon.

Paihia is a great option for those looking to explore this beautiful region.  Its sub-tropical climate and location makes it a perfect starting point for exploring the Bay of Islands and gaining an insight into Maori culture.  Take a journey with Explore NZ and soak up its scattered islands or cross an item off your bucket list by swimming with dolphins.  If you’re looking for a way to surprise someone special, Paihia is the perfect place!

29. Dec, 2011

10 Bars, Restaurants & Cafes With Stunning Views

What could be more appealing than sipping cocktails or “fine-dining” on a roof-top bar or restaurant that has the most amazing killer views?  Whether you’re perched, eagle like, above a neon-lit city; absorbing 360 degree views; soaking up panoramic views of sun-kissed coastlines; or experiencing a sun set over ancient ruins, some bars & restaurants leave a indelible image long after the ice cubes have melted and the credit card statements have arrived home.

Here are 10 of my favourite roof-top bars & restaurants.  For one reason or another, all of them have left a life long impression on me.

Skyline Restaurant, Queenstown, New Zealand

Skyline Restaurant Queenstown

Queenstown, on New Zealand’s South Island, is often labelled as the Southern Hemisphere’s adventure capital.  And no trip to Queenstown could ever be complete without taking the heart-pounding 730 metres Gondola ride to the Skyline Complex.

Work up a healthy appetite as your metabolism works over time as you thunder around death-defying bends on the 800m track in a specially designed Luge. I have to admit that the food is not amongst the greatest I’ve ever had.  But the restaurant’s views over-looking Lake Wakatipu, steeped in Maori legend, & Queenstown’s Remarkables Mountain range more than make up for it.  These post-card views corner ensure that it remains a firm favourite in our family.

Second Sin, Delhi

Second Sin

Think of Delhi and you probably imagine noise, hustle & bustle.  I recently visited Delhi with my son, Rhys, and our hosts from UOR Travels had planned a surprise for his pending Birthday.  Led out onto the restaurant’s newly refurbished roof top Kebab Terrace, we’d been given exclusive use before its official opening one week later.

The terrace boasts a very surprisingly relaxed setting and views over the entire city.  As chefs prepare the most succulent chicken kebabs with delicate Indian spices you’ll ever taste, Second Sin offers a peaceful haven away from Delhi’s constant sprawling populace.

Dionysos Zonars, Athens

Dionysos Zonars

I was lucky enough to work in Athens a few years ago and still hold fond memories of this ancient city.  There are of course many restaurants that offer views of the Acropolis.

But Dionysos Zonars combines unobstructed views, great ambience & first class food and an unhurried atmosphere.  Why settle for anything less in the “City of Gods?” Eating traditional Greek Moussaka and sipping some belly-warming Ouzo whilst sitting watch the sun set over the Parthenon is a truly magical experience.

It’s not hard to imagine the pride that the ancient Greek gods would have had as they watched over this awesome piece of history.

QDeck, Gold Coast Australia

QDeck

After 43 ear-popping seconds in the lift to reach the Observation Bar on the 77th floor, I was ready for a drink and something to eat to steady my nerves!

At the top of one of the World’s tallest residential buildings, The Q1 attracts the shorts & jandals “brigade” as well as the more discerning tourist, happy to pay a premium for a drink with a view. Stepping out of the lift, I was greeted by 360 degree views of Australia’s playground.

As the sun sets over the Hinterland and the Gold Coast’s theme parks, the network of waterways & multi-million dollar waterfront homes began to sparkle like tinsel-town.  Surfers trying to catch one last “aerial” or “a 360″ as the waves break on Surfers Paradise’s famous golden beaches probably explains why the golden tanned barman was a little too polite for my liking.

Sky Tower, Auckland, New Zealand

Sky Tower, Auckland

I have included Orbit’s revolving restaurant in my top 10, as it’s in my home city, Auckland.  Actually it’s more than a restaurant.  Reaching a height of 190 metres, it’s part of Auckland’s iconic Sky Tower – the tallest man-made structure in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Orbit has become a firm favourite with my 12-year-old daughter who has seen it as a “right of passage” to celebrate many of her Birthdays!  With a polite request, reservations can be made to ensure guests are strategically placed to gaze out over Auckland’s aquatic playgrounds – the Waitemata Harbour and Hauraki Gulf – and then watch the sun set over the Waitakere Rainforest.

By the time dessert arrives, the restaurant begins its 2nd revolution, the sun disappears, and Auckland transforms into a neon metropolis right before your eyes.  It’s not difficult to see why reservations need to be made in advance.

Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Bay Sands

Singapore will always be a special for me.  I was born there but moved to the UK when I was 3 and have made several visits since. On a recent “stop-over” to India, I was curious what the new cloud-piercing structure was in Singapore’s Marina Bay water-front.

The recently opened and aptly named Marina Bay Sands reaches nearly 200 metres and features 3 cascading hotel towers.  One of its “jewels in the crown” is its rooftop – a breath-taking “sky park” with panoramic views of the entire city.  Visitors have no trouble finding a quiet spot to enjoy a drink on one of its many observation decks.

The hotel is a far cry from the days when I sipped (allegedly!) my Dad’s Tiger Beer on the Padang in downtown Singapore!

Real Café, Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid

Real Café

I’m sure that some may say that this is an odd choice to be in a top 10.  But as a football aficionado who has worked in Madrid, I can vouch for the fantastic panoramic views that the Real Cafe Santiago Bernabeu boasts.

The Santiago Bernabéu Stadium is home to Real Madrid football club.  On match day 92,000 fans wearing replica white jerseys cheer as their ‘madrileno’ icons display their skills on an immaculate bowling-green like playing surface 80 metres below.  Whether toasting a Real victory or drowning out the disappointment of defeat against arch-rivals, Barcelona, the bar & restaurant is the perfect place to grab a San Miguel and tapas before and after a game.

Hotel do Chiado Lisbon, Portugal

Hotel do Chiado Lisbon

Lisbon is nothing short of a lovely city.  I have many happy memories of family holidays in Portugal and it’s an area that I miss since moving to New Zealand.

One of Lisbon’s most reputable rooftop locations is at the Hotel do Chaido, which overlooks the charming & historical capital city.  It boasts outstanding views of Lisbon, Castelo de Sao Jorge & the River Tagus and is an excellent location to “people-watch” or simply enjoy Lisbon’s mild all year round climate.

Panoramic Bar, Paris, France

Panoramic Bar

I frequently reminisce about the amazing view of the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur from the office I shared with colleagues in Paris.  I am not a great fan of Paris, per se, but have to admit that its sky-line at night has to be one of the most spectacular in Europe. The Panoramic Bar, on Concorde La Fayette’s 34th floor, conjures up unforgettable views of the Eiffel Tower and Parisian nightlife.  And what view would be complete without the unmistakeable Arc de Triumph, which is also visible from the bar?

Panoramic Bar’s view will take your breath away the second you set foot inside the bar.  Large floor to ceiling windows frame the city lights in all their splendour.  Relax on leather bar stools and indulge in one of France’s ubiquitous offerings – champagne!

Shahpura House , Jaipur,

Shahpura House

Sitting in the courtyard at Shahpura House it’s easy to imagine India in her days of Maharajas and Rajputs.  With views of Amber Fort and the surrounding Aravali Hills, the restaurant offers a perfect place to unwind with a bottle of Kingfisher after a busy day of exploring Jaipur.

Hidden in one of Jaipur’s affluent residential areas, Shahpura House offers the opportunity to feast on sumptuous Mughal cuisine under candle-lights, stars and soft music.  The well maintained gardens & water fountains mean that no-one is forced to rush off after finishing their meals.

Do you have a personal favourite to share?  I’d love to hear your feedback or for you to share your own experience of a roof top restaurant or bar where spectacular views are always on the menu!

01. Nov, 2011

Encounter whales gorging on Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf’s seafood buffet

Many whale-watching excursions result in nothing more than sunburn, disappointment and a wasted day.  My recent whale-watching trip with Auckland’s Whale & Dolphin Safari certainly dispelled that myth.

With 6 weeks of Rugby World Cup 2011 ending 6 days ago, Auckland has returned to a cosmopolitan lifestyle city offering more than just rugby.  With a Sunday ahead with no sport, and a “child free opportunity”, my wife and I boarded the Dolphin Explorer with a small party of eager people in search of whales in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf Marine Reserve.

There’s something uniquely awesome about seeing a mammal, weighing 20 tonnes and growing up to 15 metres, glide gracefully in and out of the ocean.  It’s common to see Bryde’s Whales all year round in Auckland’s sparkling waters.  Seeing one so close in my own “back-yard” has been on my “bucket list” for a while and a close encounter with one is such an intimate and humbling experience.

As the vessel’s skipper Andy, first mates Rob & Sonia welcomed us aboard, I’m sure that our fellow passengers were hoping to experience once-in-a-lifetime memories and endless photographs for their albums.

With the comfort of Rob’s short safety briefing, The Dolphin Explorer purred out into Auckland’s Waitemata (meaning “sparkling waters” in the Maori language) Harbour and immediately into the Hauraki Gulf.

“Keep your eyes peeled folks as there’s a good chance you’ll see dolphins and other sea-life in the next few minutes.  We often see Orcas in the Harbour” Andy enthused.  Inspired by such exclamations, we immediately honed our senses.  “We’re not sure where the whales will be this morning, so we’ll head out a few kilometres to see if we can spot some” Andy added.  And within a few minutes, pods of dolphins were playing in the vessels’ bow waves and Little Blue Penguins appear, like torpedoes, on the port-side.

“The Hauraki Gulf Marine Reserve  covers 1.2 million hectares and is home to a wide range of cetaceans & also occasionally, seals.  Our waters are rich feeding grounds and provide a massive seafood buffet for Bottlenose Dolphins, Common Dolphins, Orcas (Killer Whales), Bryde’s Whales and many seabirds who all spend much of their lives in Auckland’s waters” the quick witted Rob declares.  “So obviously, we can’t be 100% sure of seeing whales” he added.

We were on the look-out for Brydes Whales, New Zealand’s most common whales.  Andy’s clear instructions about what to look for – shiny grey “foot prints” on the water’s surface and the unmistakable “blows” as they surface to breath – meant we’d be vying for bragging rights to proclaim that “I saw it first”.

For the first 40 minutes, we scanned the horizon.  We were rewarded for our enthusiasm.  Scores of dolphins entertained us with their acrobatic frolicking.  In the distance, hundreds of Australian Gannets resembling Kamikaze pilots plummeted from the sky to gorge on the shoals of pilchards being rounded up by the dolphins.  We were assured that this feeding frenzy was an excellent sign.

A solitary black shadow appears, and glides for a few seconds with its back arched before disappearing.  That’s what makes sighting a whale so exciting – the expectation and the excitement of the chase.  Perhaps lady luck and timing had a helping hand today.

Moments later 2 more giants emerge and our excitement was now heightened.  Passengers scramble to the vessel’s bow and grab the railings with a collective chorus of gasps and shrieks.  The Dolphin Explorer is substantial with more than enough room for everyone on its 2 viewing decks.  Cameras and binoculars were now focused to capture the show that these magnificent creatures were putting on for us.

Suddenly, and silently, another cast member appears from nowhere just 10 metres in front of us.  The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits vessels from approaching to within 50 metres from whales.  But even an extremely conscientious skipper like Andy can do very little when a curious mammal 4 times the size of an African elephant decides to approach us.

Even for veterans like Andy, the excitement was still strong.  Our “show” in Auckland’s marine playground continues for another 15 minutes and then without any sign of an encore, our giant friends vanish.   We continue to second guess which direction they’re heading to and when they’ll resurface for air.  But alas, the creatures of the deep have disappeared to the depths.

Reluctantly, we head back to Auckland’s terra firma.  We are accompanied most of the way by inquisitive, playful dolphins.  “I’ve had an amazing experience in New Zealand for the last 19 days and this one is no different” Herbert, from Malaysia insisted with a grin that confirmed his obvious joy.  Undoubtedly, our trip was worth the 08:30 start on a warm Auckland spring morning.  Our aquatic performers did everything but jump into our boat and I have enough memories to cross whale watching off my bucket list.

Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf offers one enormous seafood buffet – if you’re a Bryde’s whale with a healthy appetite for plankton!

Plan your unique experience, in Auckland’s crystal clear marine reserve, observing some of our planet’s largest and playful creatures.  Auckland’s Whale & Dolphin Safari offers all-year round trips and virtually guarantees that you’ll see dolphins and whales on every trip.  Call them now on 0800 397 567 or visit their website.  Book early, as places fill up quickly.  An adult fare costs $160; children $105 and family discounts are available.

19. Sep, 2011

Sun, Sea & Sangria In My Favourite Cities

I was recently asked what my favourite city was.  What a tough question!  I’ve been privileged to travel to many places. To me, the beauty of travelling is seeing new places for the first time and experiencing different cultures.

Experiences like those will be influenced by many things: The people, the weather, the stage of life you’ve reached and much more.

Often, during our globe-trotting – be it business or pleasure – a place just sticks in our mind.  Maybe you’ve had an amazing experience recently; or have a burning desire to try somewhere new.  Perhaps you lived somewhere and moved on but feel that you’ve never left there at all.  We’re all different.  What cities would be on your list?

Here’s my list, in alphabetical order.  How did I choose them?  I didn’t use any hard and fast rule – I followed my heart!  I’ve included them because I’ve been there more than once; have lived there; or would like to live there one day.

AGRA

I’d read about it.  I’d seen it on TV.  And I’d heard stories from people who’d been there.  But nothing can compare to actually being there.  It’s one unique place and is the only city that boasts 3 UNESCO sites!

The Taj Mahal

Of course, the jewel in its crown is the Taj Mahal, which needs no introduction.  And I don’t have enough room here to write about how stunning it is.  I first visited The Taj Mahal in 2009 but went again earlier this year with my son and we celebrated his 17th Birthday watching the sun rise on the Taj’s steps.

The 2 other UNESCO sites are well worth a visit:  Agra Fort (also, called the Red Fort is a powerful red sandstone fortress with 2.5-km-long enclosure walls) and Fatehpur Sikri (the imperial city built by the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, between 1571 and 1584).

I can truly say that I could go and see these over and over again.  But if it wasn’t for these 3 sites, Agra city would not make my top 500.  It’s dirty, crowded, and noisy.  But truly memorable!

Highlights: The Taj Mahal and sharing my son’s 17th Birthday; Agra Fort & Fatehpur Sikri

AUCKLAND

Auckland is blessed with so many natural assets that there is no reason to ever be bored there.  Being the only city in the world to boast two harbours, it’s no wonder that the “City of Sails” offers some of the best boating and fishing in the world.

Common Dolphins

If I’m not taking a lunch-time stroll along Takapuna beach (or one of so many others within 5 kms of my home) looking for a convenient spot to throw my towel down and read a book whilst listening to the waves break, I’m probably sitting in my home office, planning what to do next.  I love Auckland’s open spaces, mild all year round climate, fresh air and excellent choice of wine and seafood.  Living on Auckland’s North Shore, in less than an hour I can be in the Waitakere Rainforest swimming under a waterfall; or hopping on a ferry to one of Auckland’s idyllic islands in the Hauraki Gulf; or driving the short 20 minute coastline route to soak in naturally heated thermal hot-pools.

I’m proud to call Auckland “home” since moving here in 2001.  But don’t just take my word for it.  Auckland is repeatedly ranked as one of the top 10 most liveable cities in the world.  I can’t think of a better place to raise a family.

Highlights: BBQs with friends & families; Dolphin Explorer; All Blacks games at Eden park; Christmas morning on Castor Bay beach.

CARDIFF

The Millennium Stadium

When I think of Cardiff, I think of belting out Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (“Land Of My Fathers”) at the top of my voice on match day at the Millennium Stadium.  On match day, Cardiff transforms into a sea of red jerseys, large inflatable leeks & daffodils and non-stop singing.  Anyone who knows me will know that I’m extremely proud of my Welsh heritage.

Cardiff is a city that’s proud of its culture, language and history.  Welsh is the oldest surviving language in Europe and also boasts the oldest flag (although the Danes dispute this).  It’s the capital and most populated city in Wales & the 10th largest city the UK.

Cardiff Castle, with a proud 2,000 year history, sits impressively in the city centre, close to Millennium Stadium (the national stadium) and the River Taff.  But Cardiff isn’t all about rugby, singing and castles.  Its recently developed Cardiff Bay has been transformed from Docklands and now boasts world class waterfront bars & restaurants.

Highlights: Match day at the Millennium Stadium and pre-match wander around the castle; visiting friends and family in nearby Bridgend.

DUBLIN

O'Connell Street

Dublin, the capital of Ireland, has a population of approximately 1.2 million.  Three words spring to mind when I think about Ireland: Green, friendly & Guinness.

The Irish rank as one of the friendliest people on earth.  I found navigating in and around Dublin to be extremely easy and the city boasts of having more park area per square kilometre than any other European capital.  The Temple Bar area is worth a visit to sample a pint or two of Black Gold.

Highlights: The people; freshly pulled Guinness at St James Gate brewery

GOLD COAST

With its catch-phrase of “Beautiful one day; perfect the next!” I’ve never doubted Queensland’s jewel in its crown.  Bathed in 300+ days of glorious sunshine each year, the Gold Coast’s subtropical climate is perfect for enjoying 57 kilometres of golden sun-kissed beaches, theme-parks and abundant night-life.

I’ve been several times.  I’ve witnessed my children progress from playing in paddling pools & on carousels to become adrenalin junkies kamikaze down Wet ‘n’ Wild’s Mammoth Falls; and defy gravity on Movie World’s Lethal Weapon.

But the Gold Coast isn’t just a wallet sapping myriad theme parks and beaches.

A short drive away, you can enjoy the Gold Coast Hinterland, where three national parks, mountains, waterfalls and natural rock formations add to the menu of activities.  And an easy 40km drive north is Brisbane, the capital of Queensland.  Brisbane, centred on its river, offers an extremely laid back and friendly city life – it even has city centre man-made beach for a lunch-time dip!

It’s not surprising that the Gold Coast is a favourite overseas destination for Kiwis.  I’m certainly looking forward to my next trip.

Highlights: Cuddling koalas at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary; a trip on a Cloud 9 seaplane; strolls along Brisbane River; hand feeding kangaroos at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary; Wet ‘n’ Wild; Shark bay at Sea World.

HAMBURG

The Inner Alster Lakes

I used to commute to Hamburg once or twice per month for 2 years on business, so I’m pretty familiar with Germany’s second largest city.  It’s cosmopolitan and affluent and certainly has a lot to offer.

Hamburg has a unique maritime charm and combines this cleverly with wide open spaces and abundant greenery.  The city boasts an array of quaint canals but its centrepiece has to be its lakes, the inner and outer Alster Lakes, which provide the perfect meeting point.  At Christmas, a huge Christmas tree is lavishly decorated and erected in the middle of the inner lake.  The city’s Town Hall (The Rathaus) is an impressive building and survived unscathed from bombing in WWII and shoulders the many canals.

I recall shopping in the Mönckebergstrasse shopping precinct (how could I forget that name); hailing down cream coloured Mercedes Benz taxis, and vast quantities of German beer.  I also recall Hamburg being where I first announced to colleagues that I was emigrating to the other side of the world.

Highlights: “Working hard & playing harder” with colleagues; walking around the city in the evenings.

JAIPUR

Amber Fort, Jaipur

Amber Fort, Jaipur

Jaipur – the 3rd link in India’s “Golden Triangle” – must be the dictionary definition of “Melting Pot”.  I have a love-hate relationship with Jaipur, having been twice.  It’s fast, congested & noisy but easily makes up for it with some of the most spectacular monuments and cuisine in a country full of superlatives and surprises.

Dubbed the “Pink City” because so many of its buildings are made from orange-pink sandstone, Jaipur is both a fort and palace connoisseur’s paradise.  It’s easy to get “drunk” on the sheer scale and size of Amber, Jaigarh and Nahargarh Forts.

I vividly recall my first “traffic-jam” In Jaipur.  Waiting to cross a roundabout, my driver and I were jockeying 4 to a lane with streams of rickshaws, scooters, bicycles, buses with people hanging off/on top of, peddlers carrying their wares and even camels and elephants.  You had to be there to believe it!

Highlights: An elephant ride to Amber Fort and the fort itself; Choki Dhani Cultural Village; and the food!

MADRID

La Plaza Mayor

Madrid is easily my favourite European city and possibly my favourite city in the world.  Spain is a remarkable country and one I miss since moving to New Zealand.  I was fortunate to have worked in Madrid a few years ago, in my corporate days, and it still evokes strong memories to this very day.  It’s a city full of colour, wide streets and atmosphere.

I recall the long, leisurely, lunches (“la comida”) that Spaniards are renowned for – a chance to meet with colleagues over several courses of typical Spanish food, accompanied by a glass or two of vino tinto.  The food is nothing short of remarkable.

I found that Madrid is an easy city to walk around but was thankful for its excellent Metro and bus system on hot sticky summer days.  I particularly enjoyed strolling around Madrid with no real destination in mind.  Whether ambling up the impressive Gran Via, meandering through courtyards, back-streets or squares, Madrid is steeped with history, culture and impressive monuments.

I did pluck up the courage to see a bull-fight in Las Ventas bull-ring.  It wouldn’t be everyone’s “cup-of-tea” but at least I can say that I’ve been – I’m not sure I’ll do it again though.  As a football fan, watching FIFA’s “Team of the 20th Century” Real Madrid in front of 92,000 screaming madrileños was always worth the ticket price.

Madrid is a special place and I can’t wait to return.

Highlights: Sipping wine and eating tapas in Plaza Mayor; strolling through El Retiro Park.

MEXICO CITY

Teotihuacan

Mexico City has much more to offer than a stop-over destination for Mexico’s beach resorts.

It’s the oldest city in the Americas and is perched 2,240 metres above sea level and has few rivals for its rich history.  Ruled by The Aztecs before the Spanish conquered it, the city has a chequered history.

I arrived in Mexico City in 1993 and it was a total novelty as I didn’t know anyone who had been – many of my friends and family were still booking holidays to Spain, Portugal or Greece for summer holidays.  But I wanted to be different.  It finds its way on to my list, as I spent the first few days of my honeymoon there!

I vividly recall the thousands of iconic green VW Beetle taxis (“Los Vochos”), chillies for breakfast and exploring the ancient Aztec ruins.

Highlights: The ancient city of Teotihuacán; The Zocalo

PALMA DE MALLORCA

La Seu

I’ve already mentioned my love of Spain and for those who didn’t know, Palma de Mallorca is the main city on the Balearic island of Majorca, off the east coast of Spain.  I don’t recall how many times I’ve been – many – and I still dream of living there one day.  Perhaps during a New Zealand winter.

Palma is a city of modern hotels, chic bars & restaurants and up-market shops and yet retains its old architecture.  I’ve lost count of the number of steps I’ve walked on its narrow cobbled streets, packed with charm and full of character.

I recall the scenic single track train journeys to Sóller and can still smell the fruit and nuts as the train climbed and wound its way through the Serra de Tramuntanthe and surrounding orange & almond groves.  I still carry a photo in my wallet of Karen & me with our 5 month old son, Rhys, on our laps on one of those journeys.

Palma Cathedral (La Seu) dominates the City and offers an amazing introduction as you drive into the city.  Palma is such a warm & friendly city; the food is amazing and it’s a perfect location for a family holiday.

Spain’s national dish, Paella, is particularly good here and is one of my all-time favourites, which is why I cook it every Christmas Day on the BBQ at home!

Highlights: Getting “lost” around the back streets; lunch-time Paella and a bottle of chilled San Miguel.

QUEENSTOWN

The first time I visited Queenstown was in September 2001 for a conference.  I’d only been in New Zealand for 3 months so didn’t know what to expect in the depths of New Zealand’s South Island.  I needn’t have worried.   I was hooked from the very first moment.  Queenstown is probably my favourite holiday destination on the planet!

Lake Wakatipu & The Remarkables

Queenstown isn’t technically a ‘city’ but anyone who has been there will know why I couldn’t leave it out!  Billed the Southern Hemisphere’s “adventure capital” it has so much to do – rain or shine; summer or winter.  But it’s not all about bungy jumping, jet-boating, para-gliding and skiing.  Its compact little centre, on the shores of the majestic Lake Wakatipu, is ideal for a gentle stroll before a dip in the crystal clear lake; or a game of free Frisbee Golf in the Botanical Gardens.

I’m not much of a skier, so we generally fly down to our timeshare that overlooks the lake for some serious “R&R” during our summer holidays in January.  It’s a perfect base to explore the surrounding picture-postcard scenery that Queenstown is famous for.  With both Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound within a day’s drive, Queenstown really is the ultimate lake & alpine destination.

Highlights: Sitting in the spa with a glass of wine watching the sun set over the Remarkables Mountain range; a fly/cruise trip to Milford Sound; and the views overlooking Lake Wakatipu.

SINGAPORE CITY

Merlion

Singapore was probably the 1st city I sub-consciously added to my list – I was born there!

I have visited several times since and just can’t get enough of the place.  On a recent stop-over from Mumbai to Auckland, I quickly compared it to Mumbai’s chaos, poverty and noise – Singapore is the exact opposite!  The city is spotlessly clean, surprisingly green and openly affluent.

Its atmosphere, cuisine & cultural diversity make it a special place and evidence that people of all religions can live together peacefully.  Its excellent Mass Rapid Transport (MRT) system ensures that everyone has easy access to all areas of the city.  And the MRT also provides welcome relief from the hot and humid weather!

Clark & Robertson Quays are a great way to while away a few hours in the evening.  I’ve witnessed many changes to the Lion City over the years –  Sentosa Island has been transformed from a sleepy annex to the city to a resort style destination, complete with hotels, casinos and theme park.

As a child, I watched repeated slide-shows as my Dad poured slide after slide into his projector.  I dreamed of what Singapore was really like, as I turned page after page in my parents’ photo-albums.  I don’t have HG Well’s time-machine.  But I’m sure that both the old and modern day Singapore is/was a wonderful place to grow up.

Highlights: China Town, Night Safari, Kranji War Memorial , and of course enjoying a Singapore Slings at Raffles

I hope you enjoyed my list of favourite cities around the world.   Maybe you’ve been to some of them; perhaps some are on your own wish list.  We can’t buy experience – sometimes you just have to ‘give it a go’.  Grab yourself a globe, spin it and choose your next destination and then book your tickets.  Who knows, maybe your favourite city is out there just waiting to be discovered!

17. Feb, 2011

Auckland’s Whale & Dolphin Safari Promises To “Make Dreams Come True”

I will admit that, since I was a freckle faced child, I’ve been fascinated with the grace and beauty of dolphins.  Ancient Greeks recognised their beauty and killing one was considered sacrilegious and punishable by death – they were called “hieros ichthys” or “sacred fish”.

And so, exploiting a rare window of opportunity of “father and daughter” time, Auckland’s Whale & Dolphin Safari would now host 2 more adventure seekers for the afternoon.  Somehow Cerys’ seemingly never ending school holiday programme of: window-shopping, boogie-boarding on Auckland’s sun-kissed beaches and “chillaxing” with her friends would have to wait another 24 hours!

Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour & Hauraki Gulf Marine Park are world renowned for being a “yachtie’s” and “boatie’s” playground.  But, for many, they have a much broader appeal.  The crystal clear, calm, waters are home to a diverse marine environment, where dolphins and whales are spotted all year round.  Due to abundant food rich waters, dolphins and whales have occupied New Zealand’s ocean supermarkets for many centuries – long before Auckland was inhabited by the indigenous Maori people. 

With a typical azure-blue Auckland January sky, interrupted only by scatterings of ribbons of cotton wool clouds, and brilliant sunshine forecasted, we applied a generous layer of sunscreen.

Andy, our Skipper for the day, delivered a short but comprehensive safety briefing interspersed with typical Kiwi humour and gently slid the throttle forward.  Slowly winding out of the Viaduct Basin, and the hustle and bustle of downtown Auckland, Andy edged the boat into the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park’s sparkling waters.  It wasn’t difficult to notice Cerys’ hair softly fluttering in the gentle north-westerly breeze, revealing a healthy glow that most Kiwi school children sport midway through their extended school summer break. 

The “Dolphin Explorer” is a sleek, purpose built, luxury 20m high speed catamaran offering comfortable seating on its spacious upper and lower decks as well as limited catering and toilets.  But it’s more than just an excuse to spend time viewing dolphins.  Dolphin Explorer plays an important role in marine research.  It provides hands-on experience and opportunities for marine students and graduates (most have either a Masters Degree or PhD) to collect essential data about Auckland’s marine environment to help research and protect the marine population.

Cruising out past the iconic Rangitoto Island and popular Waiheke Island, it was obvious that Andy and his crew were passionate about their work.  They were walking A-Z encyclopaedias on marine life and its conservation and it wasn’t hard to imagine that Auckland’s marine life was in safe hands.

It wasn’t long before an athletic looking middle aged woman gesticulated and pointed with the enthusiasm of someone a quarter of her age.  A concert of “ooohs” and aaahs” echoed around the boat as the first battleship grey coloured Common Dolphin was spotted frolicking in the boat’s bow waves.  Fellow aquatic adventurers, including a family from Argentina, 2 back-packers called Tomas and Maria who hailed from Germany & Uruguay respectively, several Europeans and scores of New Zealand families with small children quickly stir into camera clicking frenzy. 

In a rush of fatherly excitement (and a tinge of paternal frustration), I convince Cerys that life wouldn’t end if she didn’t immediately return her friend’s text message!  I need not have worried.  As I fumbled with my 4 year old Canon Powershot, she converts her credit card sized instant messaging communication accessory to camera function with lightening speed and clicks away – capturing “Flipper’s” silk like body as “he” resurfaced.  I barely caught his shadow and felt as deflated as a 3 day old party balloon!

And then, in chorus like precision, 3 more appeared from nowhere and playfully joined the orchestra.  There’s such a tangible feeling of joy watching a school of dolphins perform for its audience.

To our starboard, almost close enough to hand feed, we observe other dolphins feeding.  With tight military precision, they form tight knit circles around schools of fish and drive their prey to the surface where they compete with voracious Australasian Gannets for the spoils of an all you can eat ocean buffet. 

As The Dolphin Explorer Team continues to carefully survey the area, everyone scans the same area as if our lives depended upon it awaiting the moment when more of these highly intelligent animals surface.  We didn’t have to wait long. 

Auckland’s Whale & Safari confidently state that dolphins are seen on 90% of the trips.  As the afternoon progresses, we’ve became “hawk-like” and much better at spotting torpedo shaped dolphins propelling towards us.  Whilst dolphins are the “main attraction”, we also see Little Blue Penguins, Cormorants and scores of other sea birds.  The Skipper also confirms a sighting of a solitary Hammerhead Shark. 

The brochure also says that whales are spotted on 75% of the trips.  Bryde’s Whales & Orcas (which are actually members of the dolphin family) are regularly spotted gracing this maritime playground.  I wondered – would we be lucky enough to see one? 

Andy enthusiastically bellows “Whale spume (spray from their blowholes) spotted 100 metres to our starboard” over the boat’s tannoy system.  And with this, everyone carefully scans the ocean’s surface with the knowledge that our eyesight (although inferior to our feathered accomplices) was more accustomed to spotting our “prey”. 

As whales often submerge for up to 30 minutes at a time, we all pray that we’d not missed this powerful, yet humble, creature.   We wait for another cloud of bubbles or another spray and eagerly wait for the whale to surface again.  And there it was…a whoosh of air and water blasting skywards and the sea seemed to suddenly part as a walnut brown shadow gracefully emerged about 75 metres in front of us.  The Bryde’s Whale (pronounced “Brooders”) curves its back and within seconds dives and slides majestically back into the calm turquoise ocean. 

We didn’t expect to see it again.  But with another unmistakeable spume, it appears again, momentarily, before disappearing silently back to the depths.  No “spy-hopping”, “lob-tailing” or “flipper slapping” like its bigger cousins, but impressive, nonetheless.    

When I read in their brochure that “Dreams can come true” I thought that it sounded a little cliché for an old cynic like me.  But as we pulled back into Auckland’s Viaduct Basin, with the imposing Sky Tower in the background, the scores of restaurants & bars’ terraces were already full with patrons, soaking up the late afternoon sun.  But I am sure that for those of us who had experienced an afternoon with the monarchs of the ocean, the excursion was a truly memorable, possibly a once in a lifetime, experience.  For Cerys and me, we’re proud to call Auckland our home and to share it with such majestic creatures.