Friday, 28 August 2015

Big Surprise at the Vie Hotel, Bangkok

I don't often complain about my job, but one of the truths of travel writing is this:
The more spectacular the hotel room, the less time you'll have to enjoy it.
Take the Vie Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand.

I was hosted by this classy contemporary hotel for one night in March this year, checking out the next day in order to board the Eastern & Oriental Express train to Singapore.

I arrived in the late evening, tired after two flights and wanting to get straight to my room. I didn't pay much attention to what the hotel staff were saying about the room, so when I got to the 25th floor I was surprised to see how big it was.

And by big, I mean BIG.

Let me give you a video tour of my humble Grand Duplex Suite:

Though I didn't pay for the room on this occasion, I'm impressed by its relative affordability - judging from the hotel's website, this 145 square metre suite (over twice the size of my apartment in Melbourne) can sometimes be secured for less than $800 per night.

Given that it has two full-size bedrooms, that price could make it a good 'special occasions' splurge for two couples travelling together.

For me, it was a surprisingly spacious place to lay my head before rushing out again in the morning. I did have a chance to swim in the pool though, which is high above the city streets and has a transparent wall at one end.

So that was fun.

Disclosure: I was hosted by the Vie Hotel for my one night in Bangkok.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Wildlife of Ballarat

I've been to Ballarat, a regional city 100km west of Melbourne, many times.

I'm a history graduate who focused on Australian history, so it's not surprising that Ballarat would appeal to me. As the site of the massive 1850s gold rush which led to the Eureka Stockade rebellion of 1854, when miners resisted the corruption and authoritarian rule of the goldfields authorities, the city has a prominent place in history books.

As a result, I've always focused on the historic and cutural attractions of the place: the Ballarat Art Gallery, the historical village at Sovereign Hill, and the Museum of Australian Democracy (MADE) at the Eureka site.

Not far down the road from MADE, however, is the Ballarat Wildlife Park. Basically nestled in the Ballarat suburbs, it's an open zoo featuring Australian native animals.

I was surprised by just how open it was. Firstly, as I was walking toward the koala enclosure, I met this kangaroo dozing on the walkway:

Then I found I could get quite close to the koalas as they slept in their open-air zone (sharing it with some quokkas who wandered around at ground level):

By chance I'd arrived at the koala enclosure at 2pm, when one of the staff feeds the creatures milk supplements and answers questions from visitors:

While I was standing there, the kangaroo I'd passed earlier came up and sniffed around my pockets. He could smell the animal food I'd obtained at reception, a mix of grains. So I fed him some, as he stood up and hung onto my hand for balance. This was definitely a highlight of the visit:

Further on, I passed through a big open grassy area with gum trees, which sloped down to a lake. There were dozens of kangaroos here, with no barriers at all between them and the human passers-by:

There were a couple more memorable Aussie animals of the visit. First, Tasmanian Devils, well named as they have demonic teeth and an eerie growl...

... and finally, the wombat. You can't go past a wombat for solid good-natured cuteness. And it's related to the koala, one of the staff told me. I can see the resemblance.

Disclosure: I was a guest of Ballarat Regional Tourism and V/Line.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Quirky Signs of New York

They don't call it the Big Apple for nothing. Actually, why do they call it the Big Apple?

Strike that. Instead, check out these weird and/or intriguing signs I spotted on the streets of New York City last year...

I saw the above sign on a wall in Greenwich Village, and wondered if it was a joke. Nope. I found out later that there was once a network of fallout shelters throughout the USA, for use during a nuclear war.

This is the cheery sign outside the entrance of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in the Gowanus neighbourhood of Brooklyn, which opened in 2014. The institution focuses on the art surrounding death, so fair enough I guess.

I spotted the above outside a design studio in Bushwick, part of Brooklyn. Do we see a macabre theme emerging?

One of the more outlandish subway platform signs, at this station serving Little Italy and Chinatown. Love the ear.

Lower East Side ramen joint. Hey, even the Dark Knight has to eat sometimes.

Finally, I saw this on a pinboard in a Bushwick cafe. Go Harlan!

Disclosure: I paid for my own travel to New York, but received discounted accommodation at the Z Hotel NYC and the Novotel Times Square. For info about the city's attractions, check out

Friday, 7 August 2015

In the Wilds of British Columbia at the Great Bear Lodge (Part 2)

Last week I detailed my first nature-spotting excursion at the Great Bear Lodge in northern British Columbia, Canada in August 2013. Lots of wildlife, but no bears. Could I do better? Read on...

By the evening of day three we've had a fairly low bear count - we've seen perhaps three, assuming some of them weren't duplicates.

The best encounter was when a young male bear wandered quite close to the hide we were sitting in (pictured above) - then suddenly realised we were there and dashed off.

The estuary seems a dud at this point. It's likely the bears have moved upstream to fish; so we're driven this time to a newly constructed open platform.

This is a much more impressive vantage point than the hut-like hides - we're out in the open, river right below us and trees all around us, making us very aware of the wild nature we're immersed in. And of potential bears.

The Lodge's co-owner Tom tells us that bears have been here earlier in the day. We can see the proof just to the right of the platform, in the form of a large bear dropping.

So we wait, dressed in waterproof gear in case of rain, falling into a reverie as the water flows past the rocky bar opposite, in the river beyond the trees.

Strangely, this waiting is in no way boring - the rhythmic sound of the water lulls the mind into a pleasant dreamy trance.

It's amazing how quickly we adjust to having our Internet access and work routines taken away, as if our minds are longing for some rest from the incessant chatter.

Suddenly, halfway through the session, there's a murmur of excitement as we see a bear approach and cross the river. Then it disappears and we relax once more.

Not long after this, members of our group on the left detect some movement behind the bushes in the centre of the river, and there's a surprising burst of growling.

I wonder if there might be an aggressive encounter taking place on the other side of the bushes, but in due course a bear emerges - tailed by two cubs.

We're absolutely delighted to see the trio walk left to right across the rocky shore right in our field of view, the cubs trailing the mother as they poke their heads into nooks and crannies along the way. We're breathless, trying to keep our noise to a minimum while taking as many shots as we can.

Though after I've taken some photos, I remind myself to put the camera down and just take the scene in with my eyes.

It's great. The stillness of nature all around, the water, the greenery, and three bears making their way across the twilight theatre.

Disclosure: On this trip I was hosted by the Great Bear Lodge and the Canadian Tourism Commission.

Monday, 3 August 2015

In the Wilds of British Columbia at the Great Bear Lodge (Part 1)

In August 2013, Narrelle Harris and I stayed for three nights at the Great Bear Lodge in the northern wilderness of British Columbia, Canada, hosted by the lodge and the Canadian Tourism Commission. Here's what we saw...

The twice daily Wildlife Safari at the Great Bear Lodge involves either a viewing session within hides, or a boat trip out into the estuary.

The boat trip is the more impressive of the two, though it takes longer to prepare for.

On the outside deck we're fully kitted out with wet weather gear - overalls, a heavy rain jacket, a waterproof hat and gumboots.

It's not that easy to move under all this gear, I find, but once I'm in the boat there's no way I'm going to get wet from the sporadic rain.

It's also surprisingly comfortable, given I'm seated in a small rowboat and will be there for three hours.

The water is smooth as glass, the outboard motor is set to slow, and we're each sitting on a small folding camp seat which gives some back support.

Any lingering discomfort (perhaps enhanced from overdoing the excellent breakfast) is overridden by the beautiful scenery.

Once out of sight of the lodge around an island, there are no humans in sight and no evidence of human activity.

What we do have is nature at its most pristine and spectacular - towering tree-covered mountains running down to perfectly still water which throws up perfect reflections of everyting above.

Here and there, stands of sedge run down to the water on low exposed promontories, the sort of places we might spot bear.

In the end, we don't see a bear this morning. But we do see plenty of other interesting wildlife: a troop of otters swimming past to climb the opposite bank and disappear among the trees.

Not far away are a gang of seals lounging around on a centrally located log. They're wary of grizzlies, says our guide and pilot Emma, as the bears will eat seals if they can catch them.

As far as birds go, we see our old friend the bald eagle, and several gulls - which Emma reminds us should not be called seagulls in the Australian style. There's also a kingfisher.

The star of the show, really, is the landscape. I've never seen anything so utterly beautifully arranged - but with no human hand involved. It's astonishing to see how well nature manages for itself when left alone...

Next post: Bears!