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!

Magic in Tokyo

 

So Tokyo.

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

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

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

Subway Spaghetti

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

The Harajuku Girls and Me

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

The Dancing Elvis’s

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

Magic at the Joker Bar

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

Visit the New Seven Wonders of the World

In 300 BC, a guy named Herodotus thought it would be just swell to compile a list of the Seven Wonders of the World.   These seven sites were so utterly wonderful that humanity has since gone on to destroy all of them save one, the Pyramids of Giza – only because nobody could figure out what to do with two million 80 ton blocks.

2300 years later, a guy named Bernard Weber thought the list needed an update, and guess what, the new7wonders.com domain name was still available.  While Herodotus traded on his historian credentials, Bernard was armed with online marketing savvy and contacts within the tourism industry.  The decision as to what these new wonders would be rested with the mouse-click of the masses, and a quasi-regulated online vote. Swept into hysteria, the world (or rather, those countries who managed to mobilize their digerati) declared our “new” seven wonders at a gala event hosted by Hilary Swank and the guy who played Gandhi.  UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, the buck-stops-here for this sort of thing, distanced themselves from the spectacle, stating:  “This initiative cannot, in any significant and sustainable manner, contribute to the preservation of sites elected by this public.”  Ouch.  Since I’ve somehow managed to drag myself to all the winning wonders, here are short reviews of what to expect.

Chichen Itsa

Chichen Itsa

Not to be confused with Chicken Pizza, which in Mexico, often leads to Montezuma’s Revenge.     The Maya were a clever lot who designed intricate jungle pyramids for calendars, ancient cosmic ball courts, and other sites of magic at this must-see in the Yucatan.   The largest of several pyramids and ruins in the area, I was disappointed to learn that tourists can no longer climb Chichen Itsa’s steps (which severed heads once rolled down) due to an elderly American tourist who slipped and killed herself, subsequently ruining it for the rest of us.   I did however pick up a free wireless signal just outside the mandatory gift shop, which may explain why Chichen Itsa, and not Tikal in Guatemala, gathered enough online votes to be included as a new Wonder of the World.

Great Wall of China


Great Wall of China

There’s little controversy with this one, since there’s really nothing little about a 4000-mile wall that many people mistakenly believe can be seen from space.   Most tourists in Beijing visit a nearby carefully manicured chunk of wall, struggling to take a photo clear of domestic package tours.  I joined a more adventurous lot to drive three hours outside of the city, barely escaping the choking pollution, to a section known as Jinshangling.  From here, it’s a tough yet thoroughly rewarding 7-mile hike to Simatai, crossing 67 watchtowers.   Parts of the wall are immaculate, others crumbling under the weight of history, but rest assured there’s usually an enterprising local selling cold beers at the next watchtower.  Legend has it over one million people died building the wall, with bodies mixed into cement or buried in the wall itself.  Built by a succession of several dynasties, the world’s longest man-made structure is the ultimate symbol of our desire to keep things out, or in.  Mao famously said:  “You’re not a real man if you haven’t climbed the Great Wall.”

Petra’s Treasury

The Treasury in Petra

You saw it in Indiana Jones, and it’s tough to stop whistling Indy’s theme song walking down the magnificent path to this 2000-year old Nabatean ruin.   Jordan’s most popular attraction is actually a tomb, misnamed by treasure hunters, glowing red in the late afternoon sun. It’s the highlight of a vast ancient city with much to explore, like the Urn Tomb, which delivered one of my best flying photos ever.   Decent hotels, fresh humus, the smell of camel – it’s not exactly Indiana Jones’s last crusade, but deservedly takes its place on the list.

Chris the Redeemer

Christ the Redeemer

This 40m cement statue must have been a sour pickle for Bernard to swallow.  On the one hand, it mobilized millions of Brazilians behind a campaign of nationalistic fervour, with telco’s sponsoring free SMS voting, and politicians loudly samba-beating their chests.  On the other, there is no hot-damn way it belongs anywhere near this list.  The Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House – more famously distinct modern landmarks are stewing in blasphemy.  Having lost my camera a few days prior, I recall the sparkling view of Rio, the swishing acai shake in my gut, and the niggling doubt that I should have ditched Cocovaro Mountain for Sugarloaf Mountain instead.   As much as I love Brazil, and Rio in particular, putting this statue in the company of ancient feats of mysterious genius is kind of like listing Turkmenistan as a global centre of finance.

The Coliseum

The Coliseum 

Many years ago  I was a skinny 18 year-old McLovin, frenetically touring Europe with some buddies on one of those “If it’s Tuesday, we’re in Luxembourg” tours.   By the time we arrived in Italy, I was stewed in beer, pickled in vodka, and under the complete influence of some older Australian blokes who could drink a horse under the stable.   I remember, vaguely, stealing hotel towels for a toga party, and also getting slightly jealous when smooth Italian boys on Vespas made advances on the too-few girls on our tour.   When we visited the Colosseum, built between 70AD and 80AD and once capable of seating some 50,000 people, I was hungover, drunk, or possibly both.  There was a lot of scaffolding at the time, a curse one should expect when visiting ancient landmarks.   Being 18 years old and stupid, or drunk (possibly both) I didn’t appreciate it so much as one more step before we could return to a bar so I could unsuccessfully pursue girls, of whom the Italian variety interested me greatly.   The Colosseum was used for over 500 years as the venue for gladiator battles, circuses and all manner of public spectacles.  Including teenage tourists incapable of holding their liquor.

 

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

 

The famed Inca Trail really does live up to its hype, especially since you arrive at Machu Picchu early in the morning, before buses of tourists arrive to make your photos look like you’re  in Japan.   It takes four days of hiking at altitude through the majestic Andes before you earn the right to have the Lost City of the Incas all to yourself, but it’s well worth it.  Porters, their legs ripped of steel, carry all the supplies, cook up delicious meals, even pitch your tent. We slowly hiked past old Incan forts and terraces, peaking at Dead Woman’s Pass, where the uphill slog and altitude left me squeezing my lungs for air. My group, aged 18 – 57, displayed inspiring camaraderie, led by two upbeat Peruvian guides, all the while looking forward to that moment, when you cross Sun Gate, and see Machu Picchu lit up in the morning sun.  Few moments are quite like it, even when the buses pull up.

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal

It’s a monument to love that sparkles in the sun, and ransoms your imagination.  A marble structure of such physical perfection and detail it could only have been constructed from the heart.  I had one day left in Delhi before flying to Bangkok, so decided to take a quick trip to Agra to see the Taj.   Taking a quick trip anywhere in India is laughably optimistic. It took hours to navigate the scams at Pahar Ganj train station, as touts tried to sell me fake tickets to fake Taj’s.   Finally on the right train, leaving at the wrong time, I arrived in Agra at the mercy of taxi drivers licking their lips like hungry hyenas.   To the Taj, only a few hours to spare, but the line-up stretched half a mile.   “No problem Sir follow me Sir” and a kid leads me to an empty side entrance for a decent tip.   Then I have to pay the special tourist price of $25, equivalent to three days food and accommodation.  Then the security guard confiscates the tiny calculator in my daypack, for no reason neither he nor I can discern.   Finally I get in, through the gate, just in time to watch the sun light up the Taj Mahal like a neon sign in an Indian restaurant. I take several dozen photos, from every angle possible. It’s already been a long day, so I kiss this monument to love goodbye and hit the train station, where a young girl pees on the floor next to me and armed soldiers become my BFF’s. One day visiting the Taj Mahal symbolized my entire month in India, a wonder unto itself.

Giza, Cairo

Actually, since the Pyramids were part of the last list, Bernard figured they were exempted from this list.   Well, there are two ways to anger an Egyptian, and one of them is to deny the lasting legacy of its pyramids (the other results in generational blood feuds, so I’ll keep that under wraps).  After bitter protests, Bernard decided the Pyramids would be   “Honorary Candidates,” an undisputed 8th wonder, and removed them from the vote anyway.  This tells you all you need to know about the scientific legitimacy of this poll.

***

Where is Cambodia’s Angkor, by far the most amazing ancient city I have ever seen? Ephesus, Stonehenge, Easter Island, or the empty crevice inside Paris Hilton’s head?    Travel is personal, for one man’s Taj Mahal is another woman’s symbol of oppression.    In the end, the New Seven Wonders promotion was a harmless marketing exercise, so long as we appreciate the amazing work organizations like UNESCO do to restore and preserve our greatest achievements. If the original Seven Wonders tell us anything, it’s easier to build historical monuments to mankind, than preserve them.   

 

 

10 Tips for Healthy Travel in India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A World of Bucket List Spa Experiences

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

The Goa Rub Down

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

The Fire Doctor of Taiwan

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

Balinese Massage

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

The Communal Thai

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

The Georgian Backwalk

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

Something afoot in Shanghai

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

Hungarian Healing

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

A Spa for Two

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

The World’s Bucket List Casinos

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

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

Casino de Monte-Carlo

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

Marina Bay Sands

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

The Bellagio

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

Casino de Montréal

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

Casino Baden-Baden

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

Venetian Macau

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

Atlantis Paradise Island

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

Warm Lakes and Rock Tombs in Turkey

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

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

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

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

 

More Bucket List Destinations in Turkey

  • Istanbul

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

  • Cappadocia

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

  • Olu Deniz

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

  • Ephesus

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

  • Mount Nemrut

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

A Consultation with Doctor Fish

You’ll find these doctors in spas from Croatia to Singapore, Belgium to China. My own consultation was in Seoul, South Korea where several dozen little fish were gleefully dining on my feet.   Literally, chomping down with gusto, hold the mayo, extra toe jam please. They’re called Doctor Fish, also known as “nibble” or “kangal” fish, although the scientific community calls them garra rufa. Originating in Turkey, these bottom feeders are sought the world over by sufferers of psoriasis, an icky skin condition.   Reason being, they just love to to eat flaky dead skin cells, rejuvenating your feet in the process to leave them soft and shiny.

Unlike piranhas, which have trouble distinguishing disposable edibles from your essential body parts, Dr. Fish have evolved to only nibble what you don’t need, attracted to dead skin, calluses, corns, and other delightful things you like to share with your neighbours in the local public pool. Although they don’t heal skin conditions, they are known to relieve the symptoms. Lord knows I’ve eaten enough fish in my time, so it was time to give something back to a species that has given me so much.

Like many spas in Seoul, the Sea La La Spa and Waterpark is a haven of relaxation. There’s various types of saunas, dozens of jet pools, steam baths, pools, Jacuzzis, meditation rooms, even coffin-sized private caverns where you can slide inside and doze off free of distraction (unless you choose the caverns with the TV sets and DVD players). The Dr Fish pool is located at the back of the giant indoor pool plaza, and costs about $10 for a 15-minute soak. There are two ponds, one containing the garra rufa, and another containing a larger species of fish called Chin Chin.   Although the spa claims both eat your dead skin, I subsequently learn that Chin Chin (or kissing fish) are impostors, nibbling away without actually giving any of the medicinal benefits. In fact, some experts reckon they could actually spread diseases instead, which makes sense considering they spend their days kissing complete strangers.   I approach the garra rufa pond, sit down, dip my feet in the water, and wait for the feast.

Flaked Esrock is all the rage in underwater culinary circles. After an initial tasting by one bold fish (who must have been an important food critic), dozens proceed to munch away, selecting the heel, toe or underside the way we might select a cut of steak. The sensation is one third pins and needles, one third tickle, and one third “holy crap, I’m being eaten alive by tiny hungry fish.”   It’s important to remain still, after all, we don’t like it when our dinner plate moves around either.   When your time is up, your feet are left refreshed, radiant, free of excess dead skin, corns, and other itchy conditions you might find in a locker room.

The Chin Chin in the other pool may not be real Dr Fish, but this species of tilapia actually have teeth, which means their bite is worse than their, em, blow?     They approach my feet like bandits, and this time I practically hit the roof as they attack.   I haven’t squirmed this much since I mistakenly told a Bolivian political leader his wife looked like goat cheese (it was a slight mispronunciation).   The real Dr Fish (who display their medical certificates proudly underwater against the pond tiles) are far more professional in their poolside manner.

I once knew a real Dr Fish, and I was mentally spiralling out of control at the prospect of a dermatologist named Dr Fish treating his patients with Dr Fish.   Turkey passed a law protecting garra rufa from “commercial exploitation” over fears of they’d be exploited, but it’s not as simple as filling your bath tub with the fish to start a spa. Conditions, ranging from water temperature to diet, have to be ideal before the garra rafa will want to feed on your scales.   Spas in Asia and Europe are faster to act, stocking their pools with Dr Fish before they’ve even had time to earn their medical degree (much less pay off their student loans).   I left Sea La La with glistening feet, nigh a cell of toe jam, and wondered if I could somehow charge this consultation to my medical insurance plan.

A Postcard from Phnom Penh

It had to be the AK-47.   Sure, the M16 looked kinda slick, and who hasn’t thought about firing off an old fashioned Tommy gun?   But the AK-47 is the weapon of the revolutionary, the tool of liberation, bloodshed, freedom, and all the misery that comes with it.     Plus, it only cost 100AED to fire off a magazine, whereas a rocket launcher would have set me back 800AED!    I put on the camouflage jacket and followed a young guy into a dark, narrow room.   A target was stapled about 30 feet away.    I put on my tight orange ear guards, took a seat at a table, too busy feeling the cold weapon in my hands to listen to the advice on how to shoot the damn thing.  Loaded, cocked, point, aim and fire.   The shooting range, located outside Phnom Penh, had a menu with pump action shot guns, hand grenades, RPG’s, Coca-Cola and Fanta (sorry, no pictures allowed).    Ten minutes away was the site of one of the worst massacres in modern history.   Cambodia, it appears, is heavy on the contrasts.

Torn between the forces of communist Vietnam and US-backed Thailand, Cambodia’s modern history is literally a minefield.      At the heart of one the worst genocides in history lay Pol Pot, a ruthless dictator who built an army of brainwashed kids committed to returning the country to the Stone Age.   Genocide, famine, civil war – Cambodia in the 1970’s became synonymous with everything wrong with humanity.   Scarred by the past, it has come a long way.

Riding on the back of a “moto taxi”, I saw children playing on the dusty streets of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Smiling and waving, the motorbike zipped past shacks located next to brand new furniture stores, alongside street vendors selling fruit and vegetables late into the night.   My guesthouse was located along the Beong Kak Lake, its deck built onto the lake itself, complete with hammocks, pool table, DVD library, music, and fresh cooked, excellent food.   I paid less than $10 a night, but the sunsets over the lake were priceless.

There are not many must-dos for the traveller in Phnom Penh.   Its main temple, with its famous Silver Pagoda, is beautiful, but most visitors come through Bangkok, and having seen the Thai capital’s magnificent Grand Palace, the Silver Pagoda feels like a lesser, if still stunning imitation. Guesthouses and tour operators sell packages consisting of one full day with a guide and a tuk-tuk that includes a popular if somewhat distasteful shooting range, the Silver Pagoda, the National Museum, and two of the most disturbing attractions for a traveller anywhere; the Killing Fields, and the Genocide Museum at Tuol Sleng.

Ruling for four, bloody years, the Khmer Rouge outlawed money and religion, closed schools, disrobed monks, destroyed temples, took over all farms and businesses, and created an army of brainwashed children.  Phnom Penh was forcibly evacuated and became a ghost town, while refugees flooded to the borders.  Intellectuals, politicians, teachers, students, doctors and professionals were rounded up and butchered.   Reliving the horrors of Pol Pot and the Killing Fields is not easy. Most of my group was reduced to tears, staring at row after row of skulls, innocent victims who had been bludgeoned to death with bamboo sticks to save bullets.   Whereas the Nazis had managed to destroy much of their evidence before the allies liberated the camps, the Khmer Rouge were caught off-guard by a liberating Vietnamese army.   The thousands of mugshots of young, innocent victims are on display at Tuol Sleng, a high school that was converted into a hell for 20,000 people. Only seven people walked out alive.

It estimated that two million people lost their lives in the four years of Pol Pot. After the horrors of the World War II, the world promised it would never happen again, and yet it did.   I was staring at a cabinet piled with 8000 bludgeoned skulls to prove it.    That it took place just three decades ago meant anyone over forty in Cambodia today was either a victim, or a perpetrator, and so it was surprising to find how friendly Cambodians were.   Locals are warm and generous to a steadily increasing flow of tourists, and despite legendary corruption, there is much hope for Cambodia’s future.   Phnom Penh might be considered by many to be a poorer version of Bangkok, but the legacy of its tragic history, coupled with its beauty and bizarre activities, will fascinate those looking to learn from the world in which they travel.