3 Less Travelled Islands in Thailand

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

A little bit of shade on Koh Ngai

Koh Ngai

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

Koh Lanta Image by Andrew Jones

Koh Lanta

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

Koh Tao Image by Carl Porter

Koh Tao

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

You can Yucatan

In which our writer exits a snake pit in search of authentic Mexico….

Apparently, some posh hotels in Cancun will tell you that Cancun means “end of the rainbow.”  In Mayan, Cancun actually means “snake pit”, and I can see why.   My airport shuttle scuttles past major brand resorts and a dozen hotels that look exactly like them (although one did look tremendously, and somewhat appropriately, phallic). In my airport transfer van are four couples on honeymoon.  Using non-existent Spanish, I ask the driver if he knows the weather forecast. This involves me making splashing sounds, blowing wind, and pretending to sunbathe, badly. My fellow passengers do their best to ignore me. “Senor,” says Jose, for that is the name on his badge, ” it will rain for 11 days.” The shuttle lovers react like someone has punched them in the armpit. “Good thing I’m leaving in the morning then,” I say proudly, irritating the lovers no end.    No disrespect to the desires of honeymooners, but this month, I came to experience some real Mexico.

I want to see the Yucatan, and the real Yucatan is out of Cancun.   You’ll get a small taste of it when you get on an air-conditioned bus, blown away by the  badly dubbed American action movie blaring at top volume.   Then you’ll stop at the global bucket list landmark of Chichen Itsa: that giant Mayan pyramid sitting in a jungle clearing as an incredibly accurate cosmic calendar.   We’re in Mayan country, still the largest indigenous group in Mexico, although a shadow of the mighty empire that ruled these parts before the Spanish invasion.     Besides their astronomy, city-states, and massive stone temples, Mayans also invented a precursor to soccer, basketball, and tennis called Pok-Atok –  the sound of a ball against their long, walled ball courts.   The captain of the winning team would be sacrificed, a rather strange incentive to compete. They also sacrificed children born on August 6-10, once they reached the age of 4 to 12.  Happy birthday, now… we rip your heart out!  

Pok-Atok: a precursor to basketball, with less bounce and more human sacrifice

Human sacrifice was viewed by Mayans as an honour, but history points to a large, lowly population working for an elite class of priests who forbade them to look at the stars (they had to use mirror pools of water) or even to use the wheel. Sacrifice kept the masses in place, with lucky heads rolling down the steps of the pyramids, and evidence suggests that bodies dumped into the nearby water sinkholes, or cenotes, ultimately poisoned the community’s drinking supply.  People were dying, so to appease the gods more people were sacrificed, their bodies dumped into the wells, and soon enough everyone is either dying or being sacrificed, and it’s hasta luego to the powerful empire that once ruled Chichen Itsa. 

Any visit to the region has to include the other cenotes, found outside the disarmingly charming colonial city of Merida.   These cave pools are sparklingly clean, and outrageously fun to swim in.  To find them, I take a one-hour bus ride, passing small Mayan villages where heat bakes the earth, and toothy kids play traditional games in the streets.   Nobody appears taller than 5ft, and the tallest buildings are bright, white churches.     From the bus stop, it’s an adventurous horse ride along a narrow gauge rail to the first sinkhole, warm and clear, where I see catfish swimming below.  A wooden platform lets visitors dive into the blue water, as deep and bright as if someone has poured in that colour therapy bath stuff you buy at hippy stores.    I visit three different cenotes, scaling the walls of each cave as stalactites slowly drip their way from the ceiling.  Giant roots from a tree above descend through the limestone, and one cave has a small opening for a 12m plummet into the dark water below. Perfect for thrill-seeking and rock jumping, just mind your cajones!

Merida at night

Montezuma’s Revenge be damned! Tacos, enchiladas, milanesas, hundreds of varieties of chili, and you can’t go wrong with food in the Yucatan. I finally learn the difference between a burrito and an enchilada. Enchiladas are made with corn wraps and burritos with flour wraps. Now you know too.

Compared to Chichen Itsa, the jungle ruins of Palenque feel more authentic, a tad more Indiana Jones, a little less Disney. The view of the surrounding jungle from atop Palenque sets it apart.  Here I learn more about Mayan rituals and practices, including head flattening, and the Mongolian Spot – a birthmark linking Mayans to Mongolian nomads.  Another loud bus ride drops me off in St Cristobal de las Casas, once a volatile Zapatista stronghold, now a leafy, colourful postcard.  This is the launch pad to visit the Mayan villages of Chamula and Zinacantan for a fascinating cultural encounter.   Where else will you see live chickens sacrificed in a church, or Coca-Cola worshipped along with the Saints?    The bizarre evolution and integration of Christianity into Mayan paganism has created a spectacle, to be witnessed respectfully (or else shamans will confiscate your cameras).

The ruins of Palenque

Late night salsa dancing in the bars, taco-gorging in cheap taco-joints – you can drown me in swamps of guacamole and flash-floods of lime-soaked beer, but not in the Rio Grande.   One final adventure has me speeding its waters on a boat beneath the 1km high cliffs of the dramatic Sumidero Canyon.  Mayans once jumped off the edges here rather than being slaves to the Spanish, and it’s a long, long way down.   I see a large crocodile swimming just 50m upriver from children playing in the river. The cocodrillo is clearly not into Mexican food the way I am.  A guide is machine-gunning facts in Spanish, so I sit back, and just appreciate that I’m out of the hotel bubble, exposed to a culture unique to the world, and surrounded by a beauty that is authentically, and distinctly, Mexico.

The World’s Best Small Ship Experiences

Every time I return from a small ship excursion to some remarkable part of the world, I think:  now that’s the way to travel.  These are not cruise ships, those massive floating hotels with thousands of passengers gorging on buffets, although there are similarities. Small ships also have amenities like fantastic food, wonderful service, evening entertainment and comfortable staterooms. Yet the experience is more intimate and exotic,  the company more accessible, and the locations really shine through.   A more accurate headline for this post is:  my best small ship experiences.  I hope my list continues to grow with exceptional ships, top-notch operators, and bucket list itineraries around the world.

Star Clipper’s Star Flyer

My most recent adventure was one of my best: sailing on a tall ship in the Caribbean.  Sweden’s Star Clippers have several ships which represent the largest passenger clippers in the world. With four massive masts and sixteen massive sails, the Star Flyers drops the jaw of both sailing enthusiasts and newbies, exploring coves, beaches and island communities where big ships simply cannot go.  It accommodates up to 160 passengers, served by attentive 74 crew, and combines luxury (think polished mahogany and brass interiors) with adventure (climb the mast and feel that wind!) My favourite spot was the bowsprit, a thick netting at the front of the boat where I felt the spray of the ocean, and spotted some curious dolphins beneath me.  I shared a table with cruise veterans who had been on dozens of ships around the world.  Not surprisingly, they told me the Star Flyer had been their favourite ship of all.  Sailing is just a different way to do it, and burning just 15% of the fuel of a similar sized ship, it’s an eco-friendly way to cruise as well.  Star Clippers also offer itineraries on their Royal Clipper, which holds the Guinness World Record as the world’s largest square-rigged ship in service.

Get more info about the Star Flyer and Star Clippers

Aqua Amazon Peru 

I wanted to explore the Amazon, but I didn’t want to deal with back-breaking hammocks on rickety old river boats, sweaty decks and unstoppable bugs.  Introducing the Aria Amazon, a luxury river barge that departs from the jungle town of Iquitos, Peru.  It has 16-air-conditioned rooms with floor to ceiling windows, king size beds, modern bathrooms, spotless viewing decks, a stocked cocktail bar and hot tub to relax under the stars.  Each day we’d hop into a skiff to explore tributaries, looking for colourful wildlife at the water’s edge like monkeys, sloths, birds and lizards.  The Amazon is hostile, so it was always a pleasure to return to the boat, greeted with a cool face cloth and a pisco sour.  Now this is the way to do the hot and sticky jungle!  Peru has perhaps the best culinary scene in South America, and the incredible meals served on-board – many using Amazon fruits and vegetables you’ve never heard – were also a highlight of the trip.

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

Galapagos: The Ocean Spray

Exploring the Galapagos, one of the most incredible natural attractions on the planet, can only be done right by boat.  There are plenty of options to cruise around the archipelago, and they span the budget spectrum.  I found myself on board the catamaran Ocean Spray, then operated by Haugan Cruises – who have since upgraded to the Camila luxury trimaran–  and now operated by Golden Galapagos Cruises.  The spacious, 124-ft Ocean Spray hosts 16 passengers with gorgeous staterooms and private balconies, and beautiful deck with stylish interior lounges.  Staff were fantastic, the food was terrific.  The Ocean Spray would be a wonderful boat to explore anywhere in the world.  Put it in the Galapagos, among the marine iguanas and penguins, soaring frigates and blue-footed boobies, breaching sea lions and manta rays, and it’s as memorable a bucket list experience as any you’ll ever have.

Get more info about the Ocean Spray

Antarctica

Nobody can see it all and if they claim they have, they’re full of crap. I thought I’d seen a lot, and then I got to Antarctica.  The elusive seventh continent is an icy, rocky universe unto itself, and the best way to explore it is on a small expedition.  This one is bittersweet for me because my ship, a Russian-flagged research vessel operated by a Canadian expedition company, is no longer in operation*.  Comfortable while somewhat spartan, the ship was an important character in my journey, full of quirks, mysteries and secrets. The brusque Russian ship crew were contrasted by the friendly North American tour staff, but it was all part of the adventure.  I recall my nights under the midnight sun soaking in the hot tub, and the dissonance of eating and drinking so abundantly while being immersed in such a hostile, remote environment.   The ship is gone but there are other fantastic ships waiting to take you to Antarctica, operated by Scenic, Lindblad, Hurtigruten, and Ponant.  

Yangtze River Cruise

China is so much more than just Beijing, Shanghai, and the greatest of walls.  I really got a taste of this cruising on a riverboat up the Yangtze on the Yangtze Star from Wuhan to Chongqing (two cities with more people than most countries).   The Yangtze Star is 79 metres long and 16 metres wide, and I shared a small but comfortable cabin with a 6ft 8 inch Dane who convinced me to visit Sri Lanka (which I did) and the poshest of British hotels Clivedon House (which I did as well).  There’s plenty of boats to choose from when it comes to sailing up the longest river in Asia. All visit impressive gorges, historical fishing villages, and the massive locks of the Three Gorges Dam.   There was a lot of feasting and fire water, which explains these scribbles from my notebook “Last night I got married to some poor crew member in some sort of demonstration ceremony.  Then I did kung-fu, poorly . I am volunteering for everything and anything. I saw hanging coffins dangling from a cliff.  People are talking about tofu construction because buildings are going up so quickly that they’re falling apart.”  The overall experience was a little manicured, but was nonetheless a fascinating and entertaining glimpse into the explosive growth of China and Chinese tourism.   

Get more info about cruising along the Yangtze

Lake Titicaca on a Catamaran

This is only a two-day overnight excursion into Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world that makes school kids giggle.  Two modern catamarans, the M.T.S Consuelo and Santa Rita, have comfortable double staterooms, panoramic windows, a library, viewing deck and dining room for candlelit meals and dancing. It’s also heated, which you appreciate when you’re this high up on a cool spring night.   You’ll visit traditional Aymara villages, hop on a large reed boat, check out mummies in a museum, get blessed by a priest in a traditional ceremony, drink from the fountain of youth, and visit the Island of the Sun.   I remember drinking Bolivian wine (yes, that’s a thing), star gazing at the Milky Way, and dancing with some fun Bolivian tourists from La Paz.  It must have made a strong impression, because I went back to Lake Titicaca a few years later and did it all over again, this time with a TV crew.  It was just as magical.   The catamarans leave from Copacabana, and provide a wonderful vessel to get about the lake, learning about its Incan history and culture.

More info about the Lake Titicaca Catamaran Cruise.

Sailing in Haida Gwaii

The 1470 square-kilometre wilderness of British Columbia’s Gwaii Haanas National Park can only be accessed by floatplane or boat.     I boarded Bluewater Adventure’s 68-foot ketch, the Island Roamer, for a bucket list week sailing an archipelago that has rightly been called the Galapagos of the North. We visited the five Haida National Heritage village sites, and explored islands with giant old growth forests of western red cedar, Sitka spruce and hemlock.  Humpback whales sprayed mist on the horizon, bald eagles soared overhead, and we could see the largest black bears in Canada feast on migrating salmon.   This is the untamed west coast of Canada, uniquely protected from the seabed to the mountain peaks, and guarded by the proud Haida nation.  SGang Gwaii on Anthony Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has faded, carved mortuary poles facing the sea breeze.  It gave me the same buzz as Maccu Piccu, or Petra, or Angkor – places on Earth that lure us with history, beauty, mystery, and undeniable significance.  The Roamer itself was cozy, the food fresh, the company wonderful.   Haida Gwaii was one of only four Canadian experiences that migrated from my Canadian Bucket List to my Global Bucket List.  You can watch a video from my experience here.

More info about sailing in Haida Gwaii.

The Pacific Yellowfin

Still in British Columbia, I recall the memorable days I spent on the Pacific Yellowfin, a historic passenger and freight vessel built in 1943 for the US military.  This is a boat with a long history of adventure, beautifully restored and maintained, and operated by an enthusiastic crew that welcome, according to their website “millionaires, mischief-makers and rapscallions.”  I certainly fell into those last two categories.  We cruised around Desolation Sound, spotting humpbacks and orca whales in the shadow of snow-capped mountains and forests. It was too cold to bust out the 40-inch inflatable slide, but there was a supply of costumes for an on-board party.  Staterooms are full of character, every floorboard has a story.  World-famous rock stars charter the boat for private family getaways, and so can you (assuming you can afford the rock star price tag).

More info about the Pacific Yellowfin

*I also cruised the Northwest Passage on the same Russian expedition ship that was recalled to Vladivostok as a possible submarine hunter (like I said, mysteries and secrets).  The Arctic is melting at a staggering rate, opening up shipping channels, and allowing polar expedition companies to send ships across the roof of the world.  It’s a remarkable part of the world, and you can see some images from my trip here.  

Another runner-up:  I also took my mom and daughter on a bucket list small cruise around Atlantic Canada on the ill-fated RCGS Resolute, which soon found itself in trouble when the company that owned it went under, and the ship had a run-in with the Venezuelan navy, sinking a warship in the process.  I really loved that wonderful boat, which is running under a new name somewhere with new owners.  Unfortunately, my Northwest Passage and Fins and Fiddle trips remain truly once-in-a-lifetime.  

In the coming years, I look forward to growing my curated list of the world’s best small ship cruise experiences, boarding ships and boats as memorable as the experience itself.   

Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” – Albert Einstein

We’re all shocked by Russia’s war with Ukraine, although war would imply two nations going at each other, not one attacking another’s sovereignty while the other – weaker in all respects – desperately fights for survival. Not since Iraq invaded Kuwait has one country tried to increase its land border and resources at the expense of another. Not since World War II. Ukraine is a country of proud people, landscape and culture. Despite Putin’s horrifying ambitions, it is not part of Russia. It is Ukraine. I’m reminded of my time there, exploring modern Kiev, learning of the horrors of Chernobyl, and how Ukraine turned over all its nukes after the Cold War to become a peaceful, independent country. Nuclear weapons are now being armed, risking millions of lives. It’s timely to share this report from deep within the former Soviet nuclear machine: a machine currently being fired up in Russia.

The button looks innocent enough.    In a tiny room, crammed with gadgets, gauges and monitors, it is just one small button on a control panel of many.   24 hours a day, an officer sits harnessed in a chair, monitoring the equipment, and awaiting a phone call.   On orders, he places a key into a slot, and turns clockwise.   Punching in an access code, he takes a breath, and pushes the small white knob.  In just over half an hour, a missile carrying a payload of ten thermonuclear warheads would hit multiple targets in the United States.    In the ensuing carnage, each warhead would vaporize an area of 200 square kilometres, along with every living creature inside it.   Millions of people would die, millions more from the release of deadly radiation.   Life as we know it would cease to exist, as thousands of similar missiles would criss-cross the skies to seek out their targets.  All it takes is one push of this seemingly innocent button, located in a control room 40-metres below the Ukrainian countryside.   My finger draws near.   My hand starts to shake.  

Before its independence in 1991, Ukraine had more nuclear missiles than any other country outside the United States and Russia.   Strategically and secretly distributed throughout the country, missile units were surrounded by armed guards and 3000-volt electric fences, and protected from attack in deep underground bunker silos built to survive a nuclear war.   With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the autonomous nation of Ukraine chose to become a nuclear-weapon free zone, and with US support, dismantled its missiles and bases.   Today, just three and half hours drive outside of Kiev near the town of Pervomaisk, the legacy of Armageddon is open to the public inside one of the world’s most bone-chilling tourist attractions. 

The Museum of Strategic Missile Troops is a former Soviet nuclear missile base that has been opened to the public by the armed forces of Ukraine.   Under the guidance of former officers who once operated the base, visitors are led on a tour explaining how large-scale nuclear missiles were managed, maintained, guarded, and later dismantled.  Other than several missiles and engines on open display, the location appears innocuous – a few low-rise barracks, a tall radio tower.  Massive green transport trucks customized to transport thermonuclear warheads hint at something more sinister.   Deep beneath the surface lie the control and missile solos designed to destroy the world.    As a thick iron door locks us in, I descend into a long tunnel towards the command silo.  Immediately, the sealed in atmosphere becomes dense, cold and heavy.  Slightly hunched, I am opening the mechanical and electrical toolbox designed to initiate Armageddon.

Former Colonel Mikael Kamenskov had his finger on the button for over a decade.   If the orders had come down, as they very nearly did, he was responsible for pressing the button, launching the missiles, and annihilating entire cities of the enemy.   Moustached and balding, he is serious man, explaining the detailed security measures and base design using scale models and a pool stick pointer.  He describes how a two-man combat crew would take six-hour shifts, capable of surviving in their subterranean silo for up to 48 days without surfacing.   The Colonel does not present the face of a cold-stone killer, and yet his actions would directly have resulted in the slaughter of millions.   Did he get scared?   The severity of the situation is terrifying for anybody, but he tells me he would push the button, he would follow orders, as that is what he was trained to do.  My translator Sergey explains that officers were carefully screened and profiled.  Any sign of moral anguish or doubt would result in an immediate transfer.  

The air is cool as we walk along a narrow tunnel, once reserved for top-secret military personnel only.  Guards were instructed to kill anyone caught within the security zone that surrounds the base.   How does the Colonel feel now that he guides tourists from over 100 countries along the same restricted tunnel?  “It is not a secret anymore,” he says, as we arrive at three more massive thick iron doors protecting the command silo.   Heating, air, plumbing and radiation filters line the walls, and above us, a 120-ton cap protects the giant test-tube shaped silo.  The 12-level underground command post silos were built on hydraulic suspensions, to function in the event of earthquake, or more likely, missile attacks.  In the eyes of many Soviet soldiers, explains the Colonel, mutually assured nuclear annihilation was not so much an “if”, but a “when”. 

We cram into a tiny elevator and descend slowly towards Level 12.    A loud ringing accompanies the elevator, along with an old rotary dial telephone in case we get stuck.   I open the flap doors to find a small circular room with low ceilings, the air musky and dank.   Two bunks are fastened to the walls, a simple airplane-like toilet behind a door.  Bleak as a tomb, this is the living quarters for the two officers on duty.   An iron ladder takes us up to the next claustrophobic level, the command room.   All signs of life are removed.  Trees, animals, seas, clouds and cities can only exist here in the imagination.  The boredom of such a post would be interminable, the doom pressing heavy on the shoulders of soldiers.  There is purpose in its design, as if ending the world would be a relief, an escape from such a sterile and soulless environment.    The Colonel makes a point of refusing to sit in one of the officer chairs.  That life, he swallows hard, is behind him.   I take my seat, and imagine myself on duty, the hotline ringing. 

Have you ever played with an unloaded firearm?   Even though you know there are no bullets, even though you know the chamber is empty, placing the gun to your temple and squeezing the trigger is more than most sane people can handle.   I envision the sickening photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, displayed in the museum above, demonstrating the horror and devastation of nuclear warfare. My hand shakes.  There are no nuclear missiles in Ukraine, the silos were long ago filled with cement.   Yet I cannot bring myself to do it.  Some buttons are just not meant to be pressed.  

My bones are chilled when we exit the silo, and it takes some time in the hot summer sun to warm them.   The Colonel walks me over to a former missile silo, pointing out the protected radar and satellite receiver that allowed the missiles to be launched remotely.  Devices to measure radiation would alert the officers below when it would be safe to emerge as some of the few survivors of an apocalyptic nightmare.  Various missiles are also on display, including the CC18, a massive black rocket considered to be the most advanced and deadly nuclear missile ever built.  Capable of flying through a mushroom cloud, and being controlled from orbit, NATO dubs this modern Russian-made missile “Satan”.  It is pure mechanical evil, carrying 10 warheads in its cap, each 50 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that exploded over Hiroshima.  Walking alongside this mother of all bullets, the ink black missile radiates death.   The nickname is apt, but the same could be applied to any nuclear, chemical or biological weapon.  

In 1963, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought humanity to the edge of extinction.   Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba were armed and ready to attack US cities, while US counterparts were poised in Turkey, ready to wipe the world’s largest country off the map.   Lesser known, there have been at least four incidents that had the superpowers on nuclear high alert, caused by technical glitches, and averted through the caution of just a few single men. All had officers like Colonel Kamenskov, around the world, poised to push the button. 

Some scholars argue that mutually assured destruction has actually saved the world, that the terrifying consequences of nuclear annihilation is a deterrent strong enough to prevent any large scale conflict in the future.   Either way, the most distressing part of visiting this unique Ukrainian museum is knowing that hundreds of similar bases still exist, its officers on duty, waiting for that phone call.  Within minutes, everything humanity has accomplished over millennia will be burned to ash, the atomic fire indiscriminate of our faith, hopes and dreams.  While Russia and the US reduce their nuclear stockpiles, other countries are actively seeking their own membership in the nuclear club. 

Perhaps one day all nuclear missile bases will be dismantled, and similar museums in the United States, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Great Britain and North Korea will demonstrate just how close we came to cleverly engineering our own destruction. Considering Ukraine voluntarily chose to dismantle its substantial nuclear arsenal, turning this site of a former death zone into a vital and chilling museum, there is always reason to hope. 

Postscript: Several months ago, nuclear nations, North Korea excepted, came together with the agreed understanding that nobody could possibly win in a nuclear war. It was seen as a victory for nuclear non-proliferation, perhaps the first step in the further reduction of stockpiles. This week Putin vaguely threatened the entire planet and armed his warheads. What insanity. What selfishness. Perhaps one of his children will remind him that innocent lives are not his to take. That the world needs Russia, but doesn’t need another Hitler. Perhaps he’ll come to his senses. In the meantime, we stand with Ukraine, hold the nation in our thoughts, and continue to cling to hope.

Diving Australia’s Titanic

Photo Courtesy Yongala Dive

It is known as Australia’s Titanic, and one of the world’s great maritime mysteries. 

On March 14, 1911, a luxury passenger steam ship en-route from Melbourne to Cairns hit a Category 5 cyclone and vanished with 122 people on board.   The SS Yongala had almost one hundred successful voyages under its belt, and as it departed Mackay, it failed to see last-minute flag warnings that it was headed into a monster storm (the ship’s new wireless transmitter had yet to arrive from England). After the storm, wreckage began washing up along the coast, the ship was declared lost, and an unsuccessful rescue effort launched.  No ship or survivors were found.   While a navy minesweeper detected a mysterious shoal in the area during World II, it was not until 1958 that the Yongala was officially discovered by salvage divers, along with the skeletons of passengers washed into the bow.  More than half a century later, the SS Yongala is the largest, most-intact wreck in Australia. Located within the protected waters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the ship’s main structure remains largely intact, lilting starboard just 14-metres deep at the top and 28-metres deep on the sand.   The result is an artificial reef disco-dancing with marine life, and a sure-fire bucket list adventure for novices and experienced divers.   Although I’ve had the opportunity to dive in Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Cook Islands and off the cold dark waters of Vancouver Island, I count myself firmly in the former, but the promise of the Yongala had me at bucket list.

Based on Alva Beach about fifteen minutes from the town of Ayr, Yongala Dive is the best and closest operator to the wreck, with a full dive centre offering certification, equipment rentals, and daily two-dive excursions.  Boarding from the beach, their powerful skiff heads out into today’s lightly choppy seas, and I try to imagine the twenty-metre swells and cyclone winds that would have sunk the 110-metre Yongala.  It’s a forty-minute cruise to the buoys that mark its burial site, and we’re briefed about the dive.  We must remain alongside the wreck and no entry is permitted.  The wreck is heritage-protected, subject to deterioration, and nobody wants to add more bones to the many that have been relocated to the inaccessible bow.  Strong currents are common, and all descents and ascents must on the safety line.  Since I am here in April, we can expect visibility to be around 10-15 metres.  Yongala Dive is an advanced Eco-Tourism operator; no touching the wreck, coral or wildlife.    We will use a backwards roll entry, turn around at 120 bar in our tanks, and must exit, by Queensland law, with 50 bar remaining in the tank. The average dive time will be forty minutes, with an hour-long interval before the second dive.   Our group of divers from Australia, Germany and the US display the nervous fizzy energy of people on the cusp of a bucket list experience.   The sky is blue, the currents are calm, the waters clear.  Large batfish and a Hawksbill turtle breach the surface around us.  The SS Yongala patiently awaits.

As with all wildlife excursions, you never know what you’re going to get, but let me assure you, you will see a lot of fish.  More fish in one place than any of us – hardcore divers included – have ever seen.   Coral cod and orange-pink coral trout, bluespine unicorns and banded angelfish, luminous blue and yellow fusiliers and huge schools of stripey snapper. Giant trevally and red bass, moray eels, bullet-quick tuna, barracuda, anemone, and we’re just getting started!   Green and hawksbill turtles, guitar, ray and bull sharks, venomous banded and curious olive sea snakes, flowery cod, round face bat fish, colourful Maori wrasse, eagle and manta rays, and too many more.   For over a century, the Yongala has become an island of life amidst a stretch of sandy ocean desert.  It is an important feeding and cleaning station, a reef with soft and hard coral that has penetrated just about every nook and cranny.   No sooner do I leave the line than a large and bizarrely shaped guitar shark cruises by.  An olive sea snake dances below, and out of the corner of my eye, I spot a submarine approaching me.  Only, this submarine has big eyes and rubber lips and dozens of fish hanging off it like thugs surrounding a Mafioso boss.  It’s an enormous Queensland grouper, and barring sharks, easily the biggest fish I have ever seen.   All this within the first five minutes, mind you.  Open water certified divers are assigned a divemaster, and Trent guides over the collapsed aft mast. I peer into the engine room, the coral encrusted galley, at the decks slowly losing all semblance of manmade metal.   The Yongala nameplate is no longer visible, but I do peer into a glass port window, and spot a blackened toilet.  Large schools of small cardinals are everywhere, with giant silver trevally and black turrum snatching them out of their safety in numbers.   Several times I find myself disorientated, encircled by shimmering schools.  There are red emperors, damsels, darktail snappers, java rabbitfish, blackspot tuskfish, estuary cod, mangrove jacks, small and large mouth nannygai. After two safety stops, we surface for an hour, snack on cakes and fruit, and prepare for our second dive.   This time I’m more relaxed, more familiar with the lay of the wreck.  In the shadows of the bow and stern hide the massive, 500-pound groupers, not the least bit perturbed by our presence. 

Photo Courtesy Yongala Dive

Several dive reports call the Yongala an open-water aquarium, and easily one of the world’s greatest dives.    Back at the dive shop, our group shares the experience, and concurs . Of course, this is a dive story, and divers tend to exaggerate.  That grouper, was it two, no three, no four metres?  Did you see the manta ray, the black tip reef shark, or was it a bull shark?  Bringing this diversity of marine life together is the wreck that divers the world over dream about.  The going theory is that the Yongala hit a reef, quickly took on water, and in the fierce storm, sank so abruptly no life saving vessels were deployed.  In the ensuing tragedy, this ship and so many lives simply vanished.  Many generations later, all is not lost.  Australia’s bucket list wreck remains off the coast of Queensland, waiting to be discovered.  

Finding Myself Lost in the Atacama

Lost among the pink volcanoes of the Atacama.

It is said there are three simple steps to happiness: find something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.  I might add: find yourself a bike.  One day, on my way to the office, an unlicensed driver ignored a stop sign, drove through an intersection, and crashed into my bike.  I hobbled away with a broken knee-cap, a $20,000 insurance settlement, and the powerful reminder that life is precious, time is limited, and I’ll really miss my knees when they’re gone. I quite my job and went travelling around the world on a Quixotic quest to tick off my bucket list.  All of which brings me to the dusty Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama.  For an outpost on the edge of the world’s driest non-polar desert, the town offers fine hotels, gourmet restaurants, and excursions into a truly remarkable slice of South America.  One such activity is to rent a bike and peddle thirteen kilometres west into the Valley of the Moon, a protected nature sanctuary famous for its stark, lunar landscape.   I arrive at the park gates with my front tire wobbling with all the stability of a Central African government.  Parched for oil, my chain clatters in desperation.  I make a note that from now on I will check the condition of any bike before I rent it.  Sound advice, and I could have used some more, for example: under no circumstances must you leave your bike on the side of the road to hike around looking for better views of the volcanoes.  Soon enough, I am lost in the desert without any form of communication, directions, food, or warmth. It is late afternoon in March, and the baking day will soon transform into a chilly night.   My last update to my family was last week in Bolivia. Not a single person on the planet knows where I am.

Before I set out on my journey, a friend asked what I hoped to achieve.  My mates were settling down, building careers and starting families, so why would I choose to be that one older guy you typically meet in backpacker hostels?  You know, the one who looks a little out of joint, has great stories, and often smells like Marmite.    My reply:  at some point during my adventure I will stumble into a transcendent moment of pure isolation, a challenge that can only be surmounted with deep soul-searching, and personal inner strength. My friend looked at me askew, so I followed up with:  there will also be copious amounts of beer and beautiful women.   

That road has to be here somewhere…

Just a few months after that conversation, there is neither beer nor babe for miles as I desperately scan the sprawling Atacama Desert for my rickety rental bike. Panic begins to tickle my throat.  It appears that my Moment of Zen has arrived. I sit down on a slab of rock and breathe it in. The dusky sun casts a pink glow over perfect pyramid-shaped volcanoes.  Early evening stars begin to glitter.  A cool breeze sprouts goosebumps on the back of my neck, along with my long-awaited epiphany.  I am here for a reasonEverything happens for a reason.   The bike accident, the decision to travel, the dodgy rental bike, the walk into the desert.  Wherever I am, is where I am supposed to be.  Slowly, I relax into the fear and excitement, slipping into the moment the way one cautiously eases into a too-hot bubble bath.   Then I hear a voice.  A Japanese backpacker had seen my bike on the side of the road and figured there must be something to see.  Soon enough, he got lost too, but somehow he found me just as I was busy finding myself.  As the night sky vanquished the peach-fuzz sunset, we see headlights in the distance. Relieved, we find our way to the road, recover our bikes, and pedal in darkness back to San Pedro.  That night we get blindingly drunk to celebrate our good fortune, and I have my second epiphany: it is the people we meet who create the paradise we find. 

Ten years and one hundred countries later, there have several other moments of life-affirming clarity.  As for those three simple steps, they sorted themselves out beyond my wildest dreams.  Whenever I find myself lost, at home or on the road, I simply remind myself:  wherever you are, is where you’re supposed to be.

Top of the World, Top of the List

In 2019, a UK lottery company surveyed two thousand people about what experiences top their bucket list.   Number 1:   see the Northern Lights.     What makes this interesting is that a similar survey held by a different company in 2013 came to the same conclusion, as did another media survey in 2017.   Travel tastes may change and destinations flow in and out of fashion, but the aurora borealis endures as the numero uno-big kahuna-grandaddy of sought-after peak experiences.   

Canadians don’t have to fly halfway around the world to see these legendary polar flares, just north to the capital of the Northwest Territories.   Yellowknife sits beneath a halo-like ring known as the aurora oval, where fall and winter conditions are ideal for a particularly bright and intense show.    With few geographical obstructions, minimal precipitation and a high percentage of clear winter nights, the lights here are particularly active from mid-November to mid-April, which is high season of aurora viewing.  The further one travels from city lights or physical obstructions, the greater your chances of seeing nature’s fireworks.   Having ventured north nearly a dozen times in the winter months, I can’t overstate the importance of stacking the odds in your favour.   For there’s no guarantee you’ll witness brilliant hues in the night sky any more than there’s a guarantee you’ll see lions hunt gazelle while you’re on safari.   Nature operates on its own time and with its own pace, and each aurora adventure will undoubtedly be as unique as the lights themselves.    

An aspect of aurora viewing that is often overlooked is physical comfort.  Remember, you’ll be heading north during a frigid, dark time of year. What’s more, the northern lights typically pop in the early hours of the morning.   Great Canadian Trails’ Northern Lights Eco-Escape takes all this and so much more into consideration.  For starters, it whisks you away by bush-plane to an eco-lodge far removed from light pollution or buildings.  As I learned one year in Hay’s River, even a street lamp can diminish the experience!   Immersing you in pristine northern wilderness, your aurora-viewing lodge is accessible by plane only, operating off-grid and powered primarily by solar and wind.  Expansive, open sky views surround you, which means you’ll be able to see the lights from the deck, the lounge, your room, and even the hot tub (talk about physical comfort!)  Depending on the season, your short days might be filled with snowshoeing, skating, skiing, igloo-building or fat biking, but you’re really here for the nights.  Rested, satiated on a delicious meal, and warmed up by bubbles or bubbly, the show is about to begin.

Beyond its heat and light, the sun also blasts solar winds across the galaxy, humming with the energy of protons and electrons.  If the solar winds are strong enough, they slam into the Earth’s magnetic field, funneled to the north and south poles by forces of magnetism.  Once these winds interact with gases and particles in our atmosphere, they release energy that results in shimmering displays of light.  We call this the aurora borealis in the north, and the lesser known (and harder to access) aurora australis in the south.    While we may think of a kaleidoscope of colours, it really depends on what gases are prominent in the atmosphere, as well as the overall strength of the solar wind.  Oxygen results in the reds and greens, while nitrogen causes a blue light.  Of all the colours on the spectrum, our eyes are adapted to see green more clearly, which is why it’s most common to experience the northern lights as a green, ghostly hue.   It’s also why aurora operators vigorously consult solar wind and weather reports:  the stronger the winds and the clearer the skies, the bigger the spectacle. 

One of the most important tips of travel advice anyone can ever give you is this:  temper your expectations.  Forget Instagram photos that took days or weeks to capture, or those epic magazine images that relied on a slow-shutter and specialized equipment.  There are all sorts of tips and techniques for capturing the northern lights on camera, patience being the biggest one.   If the lights are firing with enthusiasm, you’ll have plenty of time to snap your proof, although as with images of fireworks, a photo does little justice.  First and foremost, my advice is to take a breath.  Let your eyes accustom to the sky.  You’ll see lights that appear organic, like flames licking around a campfire, or ocean waves washing upon a shore.   Appearing with no warning, ghostly clouds will flicker and dance, playing tricks on your mind in the icy temperatures of the northern night. Flying back to Yellowknife, and then onwards still, one can be forgiven if the entire experience feels like a dream.  Although the next time you read a survey about the world’s most sought-after experiences, you’ll know exactly why the northern lights top many a list. The aurora borealis may be ephemeral, but our desire to see them remains strong as steel.  Along with the comforts of a bush lodge eco-adventure, your northern escape is waiting.  

Visit The Little Mermaid

Once upon a time, a Danish writer named Hans Christian Anderson entertained Scandinavian children with fantastic stories.  Some of these: The Emperor’s New Clothes, Princess and the Pea, The Tin Soldier became so popular they soon spread around the world.  His most popular story however was The Little Mermaid, a story about a mermaid who falls in love with a man.  So celebrated was this tale (and the tail itself) that in 1913, the city of Copenhagen dedicated a small statue to its honour.  Sitting just 4ft on an unremarkable rock off the Langelinie promenade, The Little Mermaid has become an icon of the city. 75% of all visitors to the city pay her a visit, especially on her birthday on August 23.    This year she turns 100 years old.  Although it has been vandalized and restored many times, the statue continues to symbolize the dream of love, and lonely it is to be a fish out of water. 

  • Quick Facts: Best Time to Visit:  June to August
  • Worst Time to Visit: January to March
  • Do:  Watch the sunset from the Langelinie promenade.  
  • Don’t: Expect to see Ariel from Disney’s Little Mermaid.

Top 10 Experiences in Copenhagen

  1. Visit Th Little Mermaid at sunset
  2. Take a ride inside the famous Tivoli Gardens
  3. Enjoy the shopping at Strøget, the world’s longest pedestrian street.
  4. Watch the guards on duty at the royal Amalienborg Palace
  5. Ride the wooden rollercoaster at Bakken, the world’s oldest amusement park
  6. With over 3000 animals, Copenhagen’s Zoo is one of the world’s best
  7. Watch the stars from the Round Tower observatory, built in 1642
  8. Roam the colourful streets of Christiania
  9. Visit Noma, rated in 2021 as the world’s best restaurant
  10. Rent a bike to explore the city.

Meanwhile, in Canada…

Inspired by The Little Mermaid, Vancouver has its own girl perched on a harbour rock.  The Girl in the Wetsuit is located on the north side of Stanley Park.   Inspired by The Little Mermaid, sculptor Elek Imredy’s statue was unveiled in 1972.

The World’s Best Islands

Choosing the world’s best islands is like choosing the best songs of the 20th century.   There are so many hits, and there are so many incredible islands, blessed with fine white powder sand, turquoise water, pin-up palm trees.   Many are unoccupied or scarcely visited, while others, jammed with tourists, hold an unforgettable charm in our memories.  I selected these islands because they’re exquisite, unique, popular, and would do in any Greatest Island Hits compilation.    Post-Covid, it will be interesting to see how these destinations recover, and what other islands will make it onto the list.

Bali, Indonesia

It’s a small island with a big reputation for beauty, atmosphere, beaches, and cultural ceremonies.   Incredibly popular until the tragic terrorist attacks in 2002, Bali has thankfully recovered (2008 saw record numbers of visitors) because its people are optimistic, and you just can’t keep a good island down.   Blessed with terrific weather and a history that goes back 4000 years, the temples and rituals of the islands predominantly Hindu population are intoxicatingly exotic.   Beaches throughout the island, like the long stretch of Sanur located just minutes from the capital of Denpasar, offer a true glimpse of paradise.

Santorini, Greece

Greece presents many images, but none stay so firmly in my mind as the view over the nearby sunken volcanic island from my small, chalky-white hotel.  The most famed and most beautiful of the Greek Islands,  a big sky radiates off blue-domed churches and narrow streets, the smell of olive oil, wine, lavender and mint in the air. With a cheap bottle of good wine, I’d sit on my little deck and watch a perfect sunset every evening, a bouzouki playing in the distance, the wind warm and nourishing.  Crammed into the steep volcanic hills, there are thousands of such decks and tiny, excellent hotels in Santorini, and somehow privacy and romance is perfectly maintained.  Never mind its history, cuisine or beaches.  You come to Santorini for the views, and your heart stays for a lifetime. 

Kauai

Kauai, Hawaii

Those who love Hawaii will argue for their personal favourites, the less discovered isles, those that might be more dynamic.   Either way you cannot exclude Hawaii on this list, and according the various polls, Kauai beats out Maui, but only just.   Whenever I meet someone from Hawaii, there’s this twang of jealousy.   I grew up watching Magnum PI, and figured everyone must drive a red Ferarri, have hairy chests, and jet around in helicopters.    Not so the case, but the oldest of Hawaii’s islands does have an unparalleled reputation for lifestyle and beauty.  Striking canyons and mountains in the interior, surrounded with soft sandy beaches, the island might not have the bustle of Maui, but even Higgins would approve. 

New Caledonia

The South Pacific is littered with paradise islands.   Palm trees and squeaky white beaches, turquoise water, feasts of seafood – the only real difference between one or the other is where you’ve actually been, and the experience you’ve had.  I spent a week in New Caledonia, which is governed out of Paris as a department of France, and is therefore uniquely French.   Something about coupling freshly baked baguettes and Bordeaux wine (cheap, given the transport costs) with reggae-inspired views and tropical island beauty made me wonder:   If you can live in paradise (where everything works), earn a strong currency pegged to the euro (for freedom to travel), and live a lifestyle pegged to Robinson Crusoe (because we all need 18 hours of sleep a day), isn’t that epitome of island life?

Galapagos

How could I not include the Galapagos Islands, 1000km west of Ecuador, in a list such as this?   The entire chain, straddling the equator, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, heaving with animal and marine life you’ll find nowhere else on the planet.  It’s famously said that animals in the Galapagos have not evolved a natural fear of man, and the approachability of its natural species – from giant tortoises to hammerhead sharks – suggests a world where nature and man are finally in harmony.   Only one of the 14 islands allows is open to human habitation, and the preservation and protection of Darwin’s playground has ensured that anyone who visits, especially children, will leave inspired and profoundly connected to the natural world. 

Easter Island

As islands go, few hold the mystery and fascination of Rapa Nui, an island in the southeast Pacific, once home to a rich and prosperous civilization of the same name.   The monuments of their decline are the massive stone statues (moai) that peer eerily across the barren landscape, a landscape that was once lush and fertile.   As Jared Diamond argues in his excellent book Collapse, if we paid heed to the lessons of Easter Island, we can see how a society disintegrates due to greed, war, superstition, and most importantly, misuse of abundant natural resources.  For those lucky enough to visit the island, a territory of Chile, standing amongst the spooky, eternal moai is not only brazenly exotic, it forces us to think about the very traits that shape our humanity.  

Bermuda

Tropical islands attract the mega-rich, and the mega rich have long been attracted to Bermuda.   St John, St Lucia, Nevis, Anguilla, and other islands in the Caribbean island don’t slack in the wealth department either, but Bermuda’s history, offshore financial havens, and influx of tourism gives it one of the highest gross national incomes in the world. With no taxes, the cost of living here is amongst the highest in the world too.  But they did give us Bermuda shorts!    Home to numerous celebrities, the island offers the pre-requisite stunning pink-sand beaches, fine diving, fine dining, hotels , fishing and golf, with the old school colonial charm in the Town of St George. Is Bermuda better than other islands in the Caribbean?  Probably not, but it certainly aspires to be. 

Vancouver Island / Cape Breton, Canada

With all these tropical islands, it’s telling that our own Vancouver Island and Cape Breton Island repeatedly make it into high-end travel magazines.  Conde Nast Traveler readers have ranked Vancouver Island as the top North American island since 2000, and it’s not because all their readers live in Victoria.   The size, remoteness, pristine tranquility and infrastructure of Canada’s best known islands set them apart, so while there’s always room for white sandy stretches, you’ll be hard pressed to find something as incredible as storm watching on Tofino’s Long Beach. Not to be outdone, Cape Breton topped Travel + Leisure’s Best Island to Visit in the USA/Canada in 2008, drawn to its natural character, wealth of outdoors activities, and unmistakable local colour.

Zanzibar

I stood outside the modest stone apartment where Freddie Mercury was born, and Stone Town, like the island itself, had rocked me indeed.   Located off the coast of Tanzania, this large island has a turbulent history, including the world’s shortest war, and being the centre of the spice and slave trade.  Ruled by Sultans from their magnificent House of Wonders, the lush tropical islands offer the modern visitor gorgeous beaches, spices, fruits, and more than a pepper shaker of African chaos.  Stone Town’s narrow streets feel like a movie set, the grime of a sordid yet rich history adding to the adventure. Before hotels and resorts took hold, I was able to camp in the northern powder beach of Nungwi, spending hours in the bath warm Indian Ocean, soaking up its unique spice-infused atmosphere. 

El Nido

Not so much an island as a chain of 45 limestone jewels, El Nido sits at the north of the province of Palawan, the largest island in the island nation known as the Philippines.  This is the region that inspired the movie and book “The Beach” even though both were set in Thailand.   With some of the world’s best diving, crystal water ,and environmentally friendly hotels, El Nido is an affordable paradise.  Best of all, you can sea kayak or get dropped off by traditional boat at your own island for a day.   Your own island?  Surely that’s one that will quickly race to the top of your own list of the World’s Best Islands. 

A big Esrock shout out to  to:  Bora Bora, Langkawi (Malaysia), Borneo, Hvar (Croatia), the Seychelles, Roatan (Honduras), Sicily (Italy), Mauritius, the Great Barrier Reef Islands (Australia), Phi Phi (Thailand), and the Maldives!