Friday, 29 January 2016

Pacific Summer Series: Norfolk Island (Part 2)

This is the final January post of my previously published print articles about Pacific islands.

Last post, I was introduced to the unique culture of the Australian territory of Norfolk Island, which I visited in 2007 as a guest of Norfolk Island Tourism. The adventure continues...

Just when you’re getting used to Norfolk’s serene ambience, you’re shaken out of any creeping complacency by its spectacular scenery.

If this is a country town, it’s a country town with a view. Up on Mount Bates, one of Norfolk’s highest points at 320 metres above sea level, there’s a nearly complete view of the Pacific stretching around the horizon in a circle.

It’s a breathtaking vista which takes in the bulky offshore islands of Nepean and Phillip, the blue sea and sky, and scattered dwellings below the slopes.

And everywhere you look there are Norfolk Pines, native to the island but familiar to many Australians as the trees that lined the local footy oval in the town where you grew up.

And it’s not just from the obvious vantage points that the scenery impresses.

On my first night, as I walk home from a fundraising concert to my accommodation along the dimly-lit main road, there’s a brilliant full moon riding high in the sky.

It throws the pine trees’ silhouettes into sharp relief against the sky, and I can hear my footsteps falling in the silence. It’s so simple, that it’s beautiful.

Then a car pulls over and a voice calls out “Do you know where you’re going?”

It’s a local resident, concerned I might be lost and ready to give me a lift. It really is like the fabled friendly town of the golden age (whenever that was), and yes, for the record, Norfolk people do leave their doors unlocked.

By this point, I think I’m getting the hang of Norfolk Island. Quaint old-fashioned townsfolk, contrasting with magnificent Pacific scenery. Got it.

But then I visit Kingston.

As we drive down the hill from Burnt Pine the following day, the landscape opens up below us. What had seemed distant and indistinct from Mount Pitt comes into focus, and I can see a collection of large sandstone buildings scattered on the flat land beneath.

When we arrive, I’m astounded by the extensive ruins of the island’s first township and convict-era centre, in the years before the Bounty’s descendants arrived from Pitcairn Island.

I’m expecting a small cluster of old patched-up buildings, but what I get is a sprawling complex of solid sandstone walls, often without roofs and with grass growing through them as a neat lawn, but big and impressive.

Particularly striking are the remnant walls of the convict jail, whose warders were noted for their brutality towards their inmates.

It’s hard to imagine those times, standing here now.

The sun is shining, the green hills behind Kingston are almost glowing green with their lush grass and pines, and there’s a good-natured crowd gathering at Kingston Jetty, waiting for the Foundation Day reenactment of the island’s first settlement in 1788.

It’s an affair conducted in typical Norfolk relaxed style.

The costumed officers and convicts mill about, are loaded into a rowboat, then rowed out a little way to sea, so they can turn around and be rowed back for the reenactment.

We follow the motley crew as the convicts erect a tent, and the officers drink toasts to the King.

Leaving history behind, I wander off through the ruins toward the placid waters of Emily Bay, where the island’s only swimming beach lies protected by a reef from the turbulent ocean.

It’s a gorgeous setting, with clear blue waters within a gently curving sandy shore, protected by a sandy spit with a single withered pine tree holding on against the salty spray.

In the water, I feel like a Pacific Goldilocks – it’s not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

Which, on reflection, is how I feel about Norfolk Island on the whole. After my swim I head back to the airport with sand still on my feet.

After check-in, it’s possible to slip over road for a beer at the local brewery before take-off. This is how air travel should be.

It’s been a short visit, well less than the usual week visitors stay here, but I'm heading off with a whirl of intriguing images in my mind. Is the island Sleepy Hollow or Pacific Paradise?

Perhaps it's not such a hard question to answer. Maybe, reflecting its inhabitants’ own diverse ancestry, it's a successful blend of both.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Pacific Summer Series: Norfolk Island (Part 1)

For the remainder of January, I'm running a series of my previously published print articles about Pacific islands. 

This week, we're off to the Australian territory of Norfolk Island, which I visited in 2007 as a guest of Norfolk Island Tourism...

"We got everything Tahiti got, we only no got the coconut."

I’m part of a group being serenaded by these immortal words, as the local Rotary Club fires up the barbecue and peels back the clingwrap from plates lining trestle tables at a popular picnic spot.

These Rotarians are an active bunch, bustling between the food and the dining tables set out on the grass, while keeping our glasses topped up.

At first glance, it could be a public gathering in any country town in Australia.

But it’s not.

Beyond the picnic lawns, dotted with pine trees, is a sheer drop down to the ocean, which is a gorgeous deep blue.

Off to the west, the sun is setting spectacularly beyond the line where the Pacific meets the sky, creating a spectacular light show with the scattered clouds and throwing the pines into striking silhouette.

The singer is also interesting. Wearing a bright tropical shirt, and interjecting friendly banter between the lyrics, he keeps up a flow of songs celebrating the history and culture of his home.

His name is Trent Christian, and that surname may have just tipped you off to the fact that I’m on Norfolk Island, where the descendants of Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian and his followers settled in the 1850s.

The dinner location is Puppy's Point, a gorgeous picnic spot wedded to a sheer cliff. It’s a magnificent showcase of the Pacific Ocean, and the ideal place to catch the sunset. These catered outings are held regularly by local tour companies, or you can just stock up a hire car and do it yourself.

Our “fish fry” is a popular activity on Norfolk, and the local fish on the barbie are accompanied by dishes that veer from the everyday to the unusual.

As Christian’s 18th century English sailors married Tahitians, elements of Tahitian cuisine still survive to this day.

In the local pidgin English tongue, for example, yorlye means “all of you”.

On the trestles tables tonight, we find items like pilihi, a moist cake made from plun (banana). And just along the table is a lemon pie just like my mother used to make in the 1970s.

It’s curious and fascinating, this contrast of the exotic and the unexpectedly old-fashioned, but I’m starting to understand that that’s what Norfolk Island’s like: difficult to pin down.

One minute you think it's charmingly old-fashioned, even daggy, the next you're gobsmacked by some amazing sight, or intrigued by unexpected evidence of a different culture.

Take the township of Burnt Pine. No one would accuse this place of being too fast (except, perhaps, the islanders themselves).

Walk along its main street and you’re transported back to an Australian country town of the 1970s, via its old-fashioned shopfronts with their quirky names (“Pete’s Place”, “The House of Scruples”), its minimal traffic, and its RSL clubs advertising cheap meals.

Conversely, there are a number of modern cafes on the strip, including the Norfolk Island Coffee House, a pleasant timber venue which is as cutting-edge as it gets here, supplying all mod cons including home-grown espresso coffee and wireless Internet access.

There’s also the cattle grid surrounding Burnt Pine, which stops cows from wandering into the built-up area.

Cows are an unofficial symbol of the island as they range free around the landscape, grazing as they have done since the early days of the colony.

A piece of trivia that every visitor inevitably learns is that the current fine for killing a cow by collision with your car is at least $300. These wandering bovines are not holy, but they're also not cheap.

The dominant type of accommodation on the island is low-rise cottages or apartments; even the five-star lodgings tend to follow this model, though with enhanced facilities and the island’s best views.

I stay at a place with the kind of rating I’ve been accustomed to over the years, the 3.5 star Channers Corner, a set of self-catering apartments within a lush subtropical garden.

Like everything on Norfolk, it has a historical footnote attached.

It was once owned by a Commander Arthur Channer, whose wife was a former World war I nurse and suffragette who helped found the island’s nursing service.

My accommodation is yet another flashback to a previous decade, as the plentiful pine panelling hints at a bygone style. But it’s simple, neat and well-stocked with cooking utensils for a prolonged stay.

There’s a separate shared lounge with books and games, and a laundry and barbecue as well.

And at night it’s very very quiet. I can’t stress just how quiet it is, for a hardened inner-city resident like me. It takes a bit of getting used to... but it’s good.

But just when you’re getting used to Norfolk’s serene ambience, you’re shaken out of any creeping complacency by the spectacular scenery...

[Next: Mountains, trees, spectacular convict ruins, and an afternoon at the beach...]

Friday, 15 January 2016

Pacific Summer Series: Easter Island (Part 2)

Through January, I'm running a series of my previously published print articles about Pacific islands.  

Last post, I described my first day on Easter Island in 2005. Now the adventure continues...

Now we reach the jackpot: the moai quarry at Rano Raraku, a volcanic crater from whose sides the statues were cut by hand.

This is the sight of the day.

Rano Raraku’s steep slopes are peppered with gigantic stone figures, many buried up to their noses or heads beneath the soil.

There are also unfinished moai, partly carved but never freed entirely from the rock; and a curious early statue with a more realistic head and a kneeling posture, which looks a lot like a statue of Buddha.

Though they’re much younger, the statues remind me strongly of archaeological remains I've seen in Egypt.

There are hundreds of moai here, and hundreds more across the island, carved by hand without the aid of metal tools. Nothing is roped off, and we wander everywhere, astonished at the sheer quantity of abandoned work.

Standing in front of a selection of massive late-period moai, with their curiously distended heads, pointy noses and pouting lips, it's easy to see how theories of alien visitation began.

By now I’m feeling like one does about cathedrals in Europe or obelisks in Egypt: I've had enough for the day. It’s also seven hours since we've eaten. But at our final stop, Anakena Beach, the kiosks have run out of their skewers of barbecued chicken or fish.

It's a beautiful place, however. The one extensive beach on Rapa Nui is a deep swathe of sand bordered by a broad sweep of grass dotted with palms.

Above it are more moai on a sand-swept ahu, marking the spot where the legendary first king of Rapa Nui, Hotu Matua, arrived with his band of Polynesian emigrants.

The moai here had been well-preserved after being immersed in sand, so their faces and the decorative details on heir backs (thought to represent tattoos) stand out clearly.

There are more tours to take, but there’s more to Easter Island than moai. Hanga Roa is a surprisingly pleasant town, though it’s never going to win awards for sheer energy and excitement.

Instead, it’s a great place to chill out, with its quiet streets, slow-moving traffic and laidback restaurants with their outdoor terraces.

As we look out on the Pacific from an eatery near the fishing harbour, a Polynesian horseman comes riding by, shirt off, long hair flying, backpack slung over his shoulders. Then he’s followed by a compact 4WD, a striking contrast of old and new.

With many everyday items being imported from mainland Chile, most restaurants have a similar range of dishes. The standout ingredient is tuna, we realise, as it’s locally caught.

With this in mind, for our late lunch we share a large carpaccio of fresh raw tuna in lemon juice and oil, with a parmesan-like cheese and capers. Exquisito!

The empanada is also a popular local choice. Chilean fast food, it’s a pastry envelope filled with ingredients like beef, tuna, cheese or vegetables, then fried or baked, and served hot.

There are more mysteries to be discovered within Easter Island’s half-forgotten heritage, and more spectacular sights to see.

They include the beautiful freshwater lake in the volcanic crater of Rano Kau; the sacred cave and islands of the Birdman Cult; a wall of misplaced Peruvian-style stonework; the curious symbols of the Rongo-Rongo tablets; and the excellent Anthropological Museum that pieces it all together.

There’s even nightlife, though it’s mostly of the disco and pool table variety.

On our last day, I feel sad to be leaving. The locals are friendly, cars are left unlocked, and tourism’s employment opportunities have removed any need for crime.

In many ways, Easter Island epitomises the romantic view of the island hideaway, where you can shed your troubles and remove yourself from the outside world. On top of this is its intriguing Polynesian culture and its fascinating archaeological sites.

Will time and tourism change all that? It's another mystery to add to all the others.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Pacific Summer Series: Easter Island (Part 1)

Over the rest of January, I'll be running a series of my previously published print articles about Pacific islands.  

This article was first published in 2006, so some details may have changed, though the destination retains its allure. For first up is mysterious Easter Island...

"There are 3,500 people on this island, and 3,500 stories."

Mystery is the essence of Easter Island's attractions: for centuries, its hundreds of massive hand-carved statues (moai) have puzzled and fascinated visitors.

How did people living on such an isolated, food-poor location manage to create these great monuments, then transport them across the landscape to their final destinations?

And what exactly did the statues represent?

But for the moment, there’s a more pressing question right in front of our eyes, as we leave the humble terminal building at the Pacific island’s Mataveri Airport.

Namely, why does the bloke with our names on a board, waiting to transport us to our hotel, have an Aussie accent a mile wide?

It turns out that Bill Howe, the co-owner of the Taura’a Hotel, once worked in the film industry, and came to Easter Island for a job on Kevin Costner’s epic movie Rapa Nui.

He came, he saw, and he ended up marrying a local woman. Now he and Edith run the Taura’a, surfing the increasing tide of tourism washing up on their shores.

Bill may seem an improbable fixture on this remote Polynesian island run by Chile, but then everything seems improbable on Rapa Nui (its Polynesian name).

The triangular island, the product of ancient volcanic eruptions, is only twenty by ten kilometres at its extremes.

Around it stretches nothing but deep blue water, with the nearest inhabited island a whopping 2000 kilometres away. Mainland Chile itself is some 3700 km to the east. 

Just the fact that Polynesian migrants found this speck of land some 1500 years ago, sailing from the diverse archipelagos to the west, seems amazing. But once the new arrivals had adapted to the cooler climate of Rapa Nui, what they achieved is truly staggering.

For this limited population, with finite food sources and no metal tools, created hundreds of giant statues out of the volcanic rock and stood them on ceremonial platforms across the island.

And the moai are, of course, what visitors come to see.

Tantalised by decades-old theories of extraterrestrial intervention and UFOs, or by the more down-to-earth theories of researchers, tourists arrive with alternative theories whirling through their heads, and a burning curiosity.

There are plenty of ways to explore the archaeological sites. Various tours run daily, with full-day and half-day options, in small or large groups.

For a more flexible approach, 4WDs, motorbikes, bikes, taxis and even horses can be hired. Though the island is small, there’s a lot to see, so it’s best to break down the sightseeing over a few days.

We decide to go on one of Bill’s tours; he has a minibus that only takes half a dozen passengers, so we’re guaranteed not to be swamped. I asked him if there'll be any commentary on the tour, and he laughs.

"I give you loads of information," he says, and he’s right – he’s full of speculation, useful information and practical tips.

His personal theories on archaeological and cultural mysteries add colour to the tour; though he's upfront in telling you if his ideas are not shared by the experts. Like he says, there are 3,500 stories on the island, so a few more won’t hurt.

As we leave the island’s only town, Hanga Roa, my first impression is how un-Polynesian the landscape looks. There's little of the lush green vegetation you expect in the South Pacific.

Instead, we see rolling fields covered with short grass, occasional stands of eucalypts, and low stone walls. It could be farming country somewhere in Australia or even Europe, but for the distinctive grey volcanic stone which pokes up everywhere through the eroded soil.

Our first stop is Ahu Vaihu. This ahu (ceremonial platform) has eight toppled moai, lying flat on their faces.

Around the time that European navigators first visited the island, a civil war broke out between Rapa Nui’s tribes, partly prompted by the increasing environmental degradation of the island.

The result was the toppling of all the moai, presumably by raids on the villages they overlooked as ancestral guardians. Many have since been re-stood.

We also stop by a moai face down in the middle of a field, abandoned in the middle of its trip from the quarry to the coast. And the transport methods involved are still the greatest and most hotly-debated mystery.

There are several theories of how it was done; but the traditional belief was that the figures became infused with mana (magic) and walked to their ahu. It's quite a mental image.

Then we reach the jackpot...

[Next: The moai quarry, Anakena Beach, tuna carpaccio, and many more stone heads...]

Saturday, 2 January 2016

What's Hot in Travel in 2016 (Entirely According to Me)

If it's the start of a new year, it's time for an onslaught of "What's Hot" lists. And let's face it, the justifications for the inclusions in these lists can sometimes seem a little... tenuous.

So my friend and colleague Pam Mandel has taken the bull by the horns by publishing a blog post entitled The Only 2016 Hot List You’ll Need is This One. It's a list of items "based only on the fact that I LIKE THEM" (says Pam).

I like this "anything goes" line of thinking. So here's my Hot List for Travel in 2016. All items included because, well, I like them.

1. Warsaw is the New Berlin. I can't say this enough. Mainly because I thought it up when I was in the Polish capital last year, and it sounds like the sort of catchy phrase that should mean something. So I keep repeating it and waiting for it to catch on.

Seriously though, I could see Warsaw taking on the arty-hipster-hub role as Berlin becomes more expensive and old hat.

There are many factors in its favour.

Warsaw is still cheap by standards further west; the city has a weird gritty mix of Renaissance-neoclassical-socialist-21st century architecture all jammed together in a lively fusion; and there's a whole ex-industrial district on the east bank of the Vistula ideal for artists' studios.

It's already happening to some extent; read my article about the Neon Museum at Soho Factory as one example: The Beautiful Bright (Neon) Lights of Warsaw.

2. Rail Travel is the New Cruising. I've always liked travelling by train, but it's only in the last year that I've stepped up the pace of writing about it.

In March I boarded the Eastern and Oriental Express for a lavish journey aboard beautifully decorated carriages from Bangkok to Singapore (read Express Yourself).

In May and June I travelled all over Poland by rail for my latest Lonely Planet guidebook gig (see How to Travel Around Poland by Train).

And in October I travelled from Los Angeles north to Seattle via Amtrak, a trip that will be recounted soon in the magazine Get Up and Go.

Given the regular outbreaks of norovirus aboard big cruise liners, I predict I will continue to choose long-distance rail over cruises.

Some of the rail journeys I fancy doing include Budapest to Istanbul; the line up to frosty Churchill in Canada; a sleeper to the north of Scotland; and more long-distance trips across the USA.

3. Aussie Cafes in Foreign Cities. There's definitely a slow invasion going on out there, as Australian-run and Australian-style cafes pop up in the big cities of the world.

Over the past few years I've written about Aussie cafes in London; Aussie cafes in New York; Aussie-inspired cafes in Singapore; and an Aussie cafe in Los Angeles.

I can confidently predict it'll still be hot to seek out Australian cafes wherever I go.

4. Taking Soap from Hotel Rooms. I have a confession to make - I compulsively take home those little soaps they provide in the bathrooms of five-star hotel rooms.

I don't know why, exactly. If they're really good soaps and I'm only there for a couple of nights, I'll shuttle one cake between sink and shower, so I can slip the other immediately into my toiletries case.

I end up with so many of them, for a year afterward I have fond reminders of my travels whenever I take a shower at home. I particularly like the soaps from Fairmont hotels; they have the ideal balance of fragrance and texture, in my considered opinion.

5. Not Being A Digital Nomad. Some people fetishise the idea of constantly travelling, living out of a suitcase and working online as you move from country to country, never settling in one place.

That concept fills me with horror. I love travelling, but I love being home as well. Melbourne is a great place to live, and I think you need a home base in order to fully appreciate the contrasts offered by being elsewhere.

6. Not Doing Extreme Sports. If it's your thing, fine, but I derive most travel enjoyment by hanging about cities, checking out local neighbourhoods and trying to avoid the sort of tourists who want to go bungee jumping.

7. Not Taking Travel Lists Seriously. Pam said this already: "Any list that takes itself too seriously, show it the way back to 2015." Amen.