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.  

Bucket List Underwater Attractions

Museums, sculptures, hotels, bars, wildlife – it can all be experienced underwater, allowing you to truly glimpse a different world, whether you decide to get wet or not.  Join us as we dive headfirst into these remarkable Global Bucket List Underwater Attractions. 

Underwater Sculpture Parks

British sculptor Jason de Caires Taylor took his art below sea-level, creating the world’s first underwater gallery in the warm Caribbean waters of Granada. The Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park opened in 2006, accessible by snorkelling, diving or glass-bottom boat. The 65 cement sculptures, mostly of people, covers an 800 square metre area and has been an environmental boon, relieving pressure on surrounding reefs.   Taylor followed this success with his Cancun Underwater Museum, using PH-neutral concrete to create 400 life-size human statues in the shallow waters of Cancun’s National Marine Park.   Both parks have become immensely popular with visiting tourists.

Poseidon Underwater Resort, Fiji

It took a few decades and many a foiled plan, but the world’s first luxury seabed hotel has opened inside a 5000-acre crystal Fijian lagoon. Unlike the research origins of the Jules Lodge, the Poseidon is a no-expense-spared underwater fantasy escape, complete with guests’ private 16-passenger Triton submarine (pilot training included), spas, six underwater restaurants and lounges, shopping, libraries and sports facilities. Elevators shuttle guests 40 feet underwater to 24 underwater suites and one luxury underwater villa. An acrylic viewing window in each room means the ocean literally surrounds you, and if you want to interact with the fish, simply push a button on your control console to automatically feed them. How much will this experience set you back? A special offer on the website currently advertises $15,000 per person for seven days and six nights.

Agnete and the Merman, Copenhagen

I’m drifting on a boat through the canals of Copenhagen on a glorious summer day. Citizens of the Danish capital relish their summer, walking the streets, enjoying a refreshment in the outdoor cafes.   As the boat passes under Højbro bridge, something catches my eye underwater. Could that be?   We stop the boat and reverse so I can get a better look. Originally submerged in 1992, the statue is a Merman and his Seven Sons, awaiting the return of their wife and mother, Agnete. In Danish mythology, she was an earthling who fell in love with a Merman, but went back to the land of her birth, never to return again.   Designed by artist Suste Bonnén, the sculpture is ethereal and distant, just like the characters in the tale it represents, and a wonderful example of underwater art.

Atlantis Submarine

If you fancy exploring the ocean depths without getting wet, then Atlantis Submarines are just for you. The company has safely taken over 13 million customers 150ft below the surface with operations in Hawaii, Guam, and Caribbean destinations like Aruba, the Cayman Islands, Curacao and St.Martin. In Barbados, I entered the white, tubular 48-passenger Atlantis III, eagerly watching the captain seated inside his cockpit bubble, like a character in a Jules Verne novel. With surprising manoeuvrability, we explored an old shipwreck, teeming with fish and marine life. I was fascinated to see how light filters the deeper you go, and how peaceful life below water can be.

 

World’s Best Aquariums

Aquariums are often the only exposure many kids and adults have to the world underwater, serving an important role in conservation, research and biology.   The world’s biggest aquarium is in Atlanta, Georgia, home to 120,000 animals and 500 species, scattered over 60 different animal habitats. Dubai boasts the world’s largest viewing window for its Aquarium, which no surprise, is located in a shopping mall. At the Sydney Aquarium, you can view sharks beneath a glass bottom boat, while London’s Sea Life lets you feed sharks, rays and catfish. Monterey has a million-gallon Outer Bay tank that houses blue-fin tuna, hammerhead sharks, and other creatures from the open ocean.   And let’s not forget the Vancouver Aquarium, consistently rated amongst the world’s best.

 

Underwater Dining, Maldives

Surrounded by the crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives seems like the right spot to find an underwater restaurant. Heck, the islands are only three metres above sea level, to begin with.   Eat with the fish at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island’s Ithaa restaurant, which sits five metres below the sea, enclosed in clear acrylic walls providing patrons with a 270-degree underwater view of the ocean around them. Also in the Maldives, the Anantara Kihavah Resort offers underwater dining in its signature Sea.Fire.Salt.Sky restaurant, which allows guests to also enjoy the sea breeze in a rooftop bar. Meanwhile, the Huvafen Fushi Resort has two of its eight spa treatment rooms underwater, the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

Photo: Nadia Aly

Best Dive Sites

Scuba divers know there’s no shortage of underwater attractions around the world. Just about every site has something to offer, whether it’s shipwrecks, reefs, marine life or caves.   Some of my favourites: Diving the freshwater limestone caves, or cenotes of Mexico is truly another world, with stalactites and stalagmites reflected by sunlight in crystal clear water. The coral reefs surrounding Palau have made the island one of the world’s top scuba destinations. Belize’s Blue Hole is another diver favourite, an almost perfect circular cave that descends 135m into the deep. Diving with the world’s biggest fish – the whale shark – is best done in the Philippines or off Koh Tachai, Thailand. Some of the best wreck diving is off Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Australia. You don’t have to look too far to find sensational diving. The waters off British Columbia offer some of the world’s best cold diving.

Herod’s Harbour, Israel

It’s one thing walking amongst the ruins of ancient temples, but how about swimming through the streets of a 2000-year old city?   King Herod opened his harbour in Caesarea, once the most important cities in the world, in 10 B.C. Today the remains of the great harbour sit six metres underwater. With waterproof maps and a handy guide, snorkelers and divers can visit the 36 numbered exhibits, following ropes tied to poles on the sea bed. You’ll pass giant anchors, ancient marble columns, and even a sunken Roman vessel. From here, head south to the Red Sea Star, located in the resort town of Eilat. This underwater bar and restaurant offer panoramic views of marine life in the Red Sea, and you can stay perfectly dry while you enjoy them.

Underwater Post Office, Vanuatu

I’ve been collecting postcards from my travels for years, but they don’t get more unusual than this. Fifty metres offshore from Hideaway Island near Port Vila is the world’s only underwater post office. Over 100,000 people have swum to this branch to post special waterproof postcards, which are “stamped” underwater using an embossing tool. The branch is manned for an hour each day by one of four scuba-diving postmen.  A flag flies above the underwater booth to let swimmers know when it is open for business. If snorkelers cannot reach the booth, situated 3m underwater, the postmen will gladly retrieve your mail from the surface. Now that’s service!

Bucket List Caves

For millennia, mankind took shelter in caves, so perhaps it’s no accident that we continue to be drawn to these dark, silent spaces. Underground caverns offer a foreboding and mysterious beauty.  From major attractions to truly offbeat adventures, here’s our round-up of bucket list caves.  

 

  1. Matyeshegy Caves, Budapest, Hungary

Millions of years ago, a sea flowed beneath the Hungarian capital, creating a vast network of underground caverns. In Buda, split from Pest by the mighty Danube, it is possible to explore these caves, protected by overalls and guided by a gas-lamp helmet. The Matyeshegy Caves were used as a bomb shelter for citizens in World War II, and while closed to the general public, a company named Barlangaszhat Budapest does take tourists deep into the system. With no wooden boardwalks and few large caverns, prepare to get dirty as you slip through the cracks, and crawl through insanely tight passages.  Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List. 

  1. Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch, Belize

This jungle lodge offers thrilling caving tours beneath and around its 50,000-acre property, sitting atop a foundation of soft limestone perfect for spelunkers. Mayan artefacts have been found deep in the system, and evidence suggests they have been used for centuries. Guests can choose from a variety of caves to explore. The Big Hole lets you abseil 200ft into a sinkhole where you can camp overnight. I opted for the Waterfall Cave, which involves a one-hour hike through stunning caverns to a series of underground waterfalls. Here you can take rock jumping to a whole new subterranean level.  Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List. 

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  1. Cango Caves, South Africa

Only about a quarter of Africa’s best-known show cave is open to tourists, but that’s more than enough. You can choose a Standard tour, or the more challenging Adventure tour, with an exit just under 30cm high. Some of the caverns are massive, eerily lit up with gel spotlights. Expect to encounter spectacular stalactites, stalagmites and huge limestone formations. Walk through the Grand Hall, along The Avenue into Lumbago Alley, which stretches 85m. As in many show caves, names have been given to the most striking rooms and formations, such as Lots Chamber and King Arthur’s Throne. The Cango Caves are located 29km from Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo region.  Don’t miss out on the crocodile cage diving nearby.

  1. Cenotes, Mexico

Any visit to the Yucatan Peninsula should take in the cenotes, the spectacular crystal clear cave pools found outside the colonial city of Merida. Sparklingly clean, the cenotes offer amazing swimming, snorkelling and rock jumping. Tour operators offer daily trips to several caves, located about an hour’s drive outside town. At one cenote, a wooden platform lets you dive into blue water with colour as bright as paint.   I swam in three different cenotes, scaling the walls of each cave as stalactites slowly drip their way from the ceiling. Giant roots from trees above descend through the limestone. One cave has a small opening for a thrilling 12m-rock jump into the dark water below.

  1. Rimarua, Cook Islands

The Burial Cave of Rimarua, on the island of Atiu, is unusual for a number of reasons.   Firstly, Atiu is one of the Cook Islands – a postcard perfect island paradise in the South Pacific more associated with honeymoons, hammocks and dreamy turquoise water. Second, Rimarua contains the bones and skulls of dozens of ancient Maori warriors, dumped into the ground, only to rediscovered many years later, and now curiously gazed upon by tourists. Although it has never been formerly excavated, landowners have given permission for Marshall Humphries, a local operator, to lead small groups into to explore the dark, spooky caves. Here you can literally tread on the skeletons of the past while minding your head on the sharp overhangs.  Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List. 

  1. Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, Philippines

It takes a few hours to drive the potholed road from the city of Puerto Princesa, on the island of Palawan, to the Subterranean River National Park.   A rich ecosystem packed with birds, flora and fauna, the park is one of the island’s two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is also home to the world’s longest navigable underground river, an 8.2km waterway that creeps into a limestone cave. Tourists don hard hats and flashlights, rowing the first kilometre to enjoy the bats and various cave formations.   As the cave mouth slowly disappeared, the acrid smell of guano accompanied a sensation that a beast, complete with rows of stalagmite teeth, was swallowing me.   I reached the cut-off point and gladly turned the boat around. Caves are fun, but not as much fun as seeing light at the end of the tunnel.  Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List.

  1. Batu Caves, Malaysia

The Batu Caves contain a sacred Hindu temple in a large limestone cave on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.   It is guarded by an enormous golden statue of Murugan, the second son of Shiva, which happens to be the largest freestanding Hindu statue in the world.   Every year, during the festival of Thaipoosam, up to a million people come here to make personal vows of devotion.   Climbing up the 272 steps, past curious monkeys, I entered the cave to the sound of Hindi music and the smell of incense. Once inside, I stood beneath a massive ceiling of rock with a round opening towards the back.   The sun was directly overhead, beaming its light through the hole like a spotlight in a theatre.

  1. Abismo Anhumas, Brazil

Caves are plentiful here in Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, which offers a spectacular cave excursion from the region’s adventure capital, Bonito. Tourists must first prove they can physically partake in the activity since they’ll be required to manually climb up a 72m high cave shaft on the way out.   Discovered in 1984, and opened to the public in 1999, the Abismo Anhumas has an unparalleled draw. Inside sits a cave pool 80m deep, lifeless save for tiny fish, but home to massive underwater cave structures that can be explored by scuba or snorkel. Spectacular stalactites drip from above, and some of the conical underwater stalagmites are over 20m tall.   Using a belay device, it’s tough work climbing out, but totally worth it.

  1. Gorome, Turkey

Medieval troglodytes carved churches alongside their homes into the soft tufi rock of central Turkey’s Cappadocia, and ducking into a few rooms, I could smell they carved out toilets too. It’s fascinating to explore the Kaymakli underground city, originally used by the Hittites 2000 years ago, and later by persecuted Christians in the Dark Ages.   I was sceptical about the word “city”, but then I found out that 5000 people lived underground in these vast, man-made caverns.   There were eight levels, with at least one room for every family, linked by low, narrow tunnels and carved out steps.  As a museum, only a small portion is open to the public, but it’s fascinating stepping into the dark, and into the past.

  1. Waitomo, New Zealand

I’m deep in a cave, floating on a rubber tube, my headlamp turned off.   A milky way of glowworms covers the rocks above my head.  It is quiet save for the soft patter of water.   Legs linked in a chain of human doughnuts, we float down the underground river.   Located about an hour from Rotorua, the Waitomo region has over 300 caves, and Blackwater rafting is its most popular guided commercial offering.   Lighting up the dark tunnels, floating beneath thousands of twinkling, green glowworms is one of the most romantic sights I’ve ever seen.  It’s life in space, deep in the earth. Then it was time to leave my tube for the next explorer, climb up the narrow waterfalls, squeeze through the rocky gaps, and experience a rebirth into the light of the day.

14 of the World’s Best Beaches

I did an interview recently and was asked if I’m a beach guy.  Born and raised in a sprawling landlocked city, the beach had a different significance to me than my wife, who grew up a block away from Copacabana Beach in Rio.  Lounging on sand wasn’t part of my culture, but symbolized vacation, a break from the norm, and lots and lots of sand.  I’m too restless to lie back and do nothing for too long.  What makes a magical beach is as much about what surrounds it as it is the beach itself.   A tropical rainforest in Costa Rica, cafes in Barcelona, people watching in Rio, robed monks in Cambodia…here’s 13 memorable beaches from the Global Bucket List. 

 

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Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

 Costa Rica has some pretty sensational beaches along both its Pacific and Caribbean coasts, with long stretches of sandy beach, warm seas, and, ahem, hot bodies . Manuel Antonio was a standout for me because it’s located in a national park, is free of any development whatsoever, and gives the feeling that you’ve just stumbled onto something wild and untouched. Take the monkey warnings seriously, though, the cheeky buggers appear out of nowhere and love snatching whatever they can get their hands on!

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Ipanema Beach, Rio, Brazil

When it comes to Rio, arguably the best beach city around, you’ll want to walk along the Copacabana, but spend your time soaking up the sun and waves at Ipanema.   This perfect sandy beach frames the city, and on a hot mid-week day, you’ll find yourself wondering if anyone in Rio actually works for a living.   Besides the water and beautiful surrounding mountains, Ipanema has plenty of yummy, fit, tanned and ripped Brazilians to look at. There’s no better place to observe the best looking nation on earth in their natural habitat.

 

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Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia

 Sydney is blessed with spectacular beaches – Coogee, Manly, and the most popular of them all, Bondi.   What strikes you is just how pretty this beach is – a perfect semi-circular bay with bluer water than one would expect rushing into a major urban centre.. With some of the highest UV levels around, there’s not an umbrella in sight. Thousands of people bake beneath the sun just about every day. Surfers gather like vultures amongst the waves, Japanese tourists walk about fully clothed, while the babes and hunks of Bondi balance it out with swimwear made of dental floss. As for the lifeguards, they’ve got their own hit reality show, Bondi Rescue, to add even more buzz to this busy beach.

 

Alona Beach, Bohol, The Philippines 

A nation made up of thousands of islands, the Philippines has no shortage of spectacular beaches. Boracay, El Nido, Caramoan, Samal Island…any could belong on a list like this.  Here’s a little one that is fast becoming one of the most popular beaches in the country.    Alona Beach is found about twenty kilometres from the regional capital of Tagbilaran, blessed with milky white sand the azure warm sea of dreams.  One and a half kilometres in length, it is serviced by dive shops, bars, resorts and restaurants, and the snorkelling is sublime.  Cradled by rocky cliffs on either end, there’s a a bustling nightlife and steady stream of international travellers to keep you company.

 

 

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Barceloneta Beach, Spain

Sticking to the Mediterranean, Barcelona is blessed with 4.2km of golden beaches, close to the city centre.   Barceloneta, the first beach along the boardwalk, has long been called one of the best urban beaches in the world.    Besides its wide open space, it has a vibrant atmosphere and gets packed with locals and tourists.    While it is Barcelona’s most popular beach, thanks largely to its location, it does get some criticism for the quality of sand, which some say is mixed with cement.  But the weird artwork, atmosphere, local characters and buzz make up for it.  Close to the port, it’s also the best place for fresh seafood in the city.

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Dhermi, Albania

The Adriatic that rests off Italy and Croatia has some standout beaches, although purists might deduct points for pebbles. Yet the colour, clarity and sparkle of the water more than make up for the slight discomfort of stones. I’ve picked the little known Dhermi in the very off the beaten track Albania because a: I can illustrate what it looks like b: it’s badass to say you’ve been to Albania and c: how many other pristine beaches in Europe can you pitch a tent and just do your thing? Plus it has old abandoned bomb shelters, and some pretty amazing beach bars.

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Waikiki Beach, Honolulu

The surf is usually up at Waikiki Beach, once the playden of Hawaiian royalty, now a hotel and surfing mecca. Waikiki has attracted all the major hotel chains and serves as a centre of tourism in Hawaii, but lets not forget it’s also a terrific beach, with a great view of the striking Diamond Head –  all that’s left of a massive volcano and one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks.   Waikiki actually refers to several beaches chained together, usually crowded with tourists pouring out the adjacent hotels.  A good chunk of the beach is reserved strictly for surfers.  The neighbourhood is abuzz with open-air bars, restaurants, volleyball and beach sport, and most days it’s just a perfect spot to watch yet another gorgeous sunset.

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Goa, India

The entire state of Goa offers wonderful and colourful beaches to explore. Some are rocky, some have red earth, some with white sand. However it’s not uncommon to see a local relieving themselves in the open, and I wouldn’t exactly jump into the Arabian Sea without checking to see if there’s a settlement around the corner. That being said, when you stay in villages like Arambol or the infamous Anjuna, the beach becomes part of your daily life.   You eat on the beach, you party on the beach, you explore the beach.   Extra points for the occasional holy cow wandering about. Deduct three for any stray dogs, and the odd burned out hippie.

 

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Iles des Pins, New Caledonia 

Off the coast of a cigar shaped island named New Caledonia in the South Pacific, the Island of Pines still has, in my experience, the whitest, finest and most powdery sand I’ve seen anywhere, and the calmest, clearest water.   The closest I’ve seen is Nungwe Beach in the north of Zanzibar (sorry, I’m lacking digital photos from that trip).   Both times I picked up sand to take home with me in a bottle, and both times I decided that it looked too much like that other illegal white powder to risk packing in my luggage.

tofino

Long Beach, Tofino, Canada

On the other hand, not every beach needs to have perfect white sand, or even warm blue water. Long Beach, on the west coast of rugged Vancouver Island, borders the Pacific Rim National Park and the wild waters of the Clayoquot Sound.   While surfers play mostly in the summer, the beach exudes magic year-round, including the storm season, when thunder batters the coast and the raw energy of nature crackles in the surrounding forest.   Excellent accommodation sits right on the beach, which stretches for 12 miles and makes for excellent long, slow walks to ponder if life, is in fact, a beach after all.

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Clifton, Cape Town

Cape Town is blessed with extraordinary natural beauty, and it’s best beaches are in the upmarket suburb of Clifton.   Driving up from Sea Point, cars line the side of the road early, and parking is seldom easy. It’s a walk down the stairs until you hit the fine white sand.   There are four beaches in Clifton, separated by rocks, and attracting different crowds.    All four beaches are protected by rocks and spared the strong winds that blow through the city.   First Beach gets the biggest waves and is popular with surfers.  Third Beach is a popular gay hangout.   Second beach continues to attract teenagers and students on the prowl for love.   Capetonians and tourists soak up the sun, and since the water is a frisky 12-16C, a dip in the sea is truly refreshing.

malibu

Malibu, California

Barbie comes from Malibu for a reason.   The coastline of Southern California seems to stretch on as endlessly as Barbie’s disproportionate legs, speckled with the jewelled mansions of the fabulously famous and wealthy.   Sunsets are spectacular, the waves offer great surfing, and the mystique of California Dreaming, – all tan and blonde and healthy – is addictive. I prefer the vibe down the beach in Venice, where whacky characters gather and hard men work out, but in the beauty stakes, Malibu definitely adds something special to our paradise punch.

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Metzitzim Beach, Israel

Not many people know that Tel Aviv is a true beach city.   Fine sand, decent waves, clean water, all in a city that never sleeps. The promenade even resembles the Copacabana, with its mosaic patterns.  There are several beaches along the strip, but Metzitzim, also known as the Sheraton Beach, consistently wins the accolades as the city’s best beach.   It’s definitely the most trendy, a place for fit young Israelis to bare their olive skin (as opposed to Nordau Beach further down, which is where religious Jews go for the separate male and female areas).     Metzitzim, which means “peeking” in Hebrew, is close to the Old Port which has recently been upgraded into a hip area of restaurants, bars and clubs

sihanoukville

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

I arrived in Sihanoukville, a beach town that competes with anything that you’ll find in Thailand, and along stroll two monks in their bright orange robes.   I just managed to snap this photo before they walked past me.   Beach cabins were rustic but improving as more tourists discover the joys of this former war-torn country. Bars play reggae, small ladies offer cheap beach massages, and the beer is always cold.   Surrounding poverty means you do have to be careful with your belongings, but Sihanoukville’s reputation for squeaky beaches and a laid back vibe will hopefully bring more tourists, and prosperity for the locals.

 

The World’s Most Extreme Places

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The World’s Hottest Place

Here’s a contentious category, with various contenders vying for the top hot spot. Historically, the victor was El Aziza in Libya, where the ground temperature was recorded in 1922 at a whopping 58°C. Furnace Creek in California’s Death Valley clocked in at an impressive 56°C, but it was not until satellites could measure thermal temperatures that the true victor could scorch their way to the top. Researchers at the University of Montana analysed infrared satellite data and the results were surprising. According to five years worth of data, the hottest place on Earth is Iran’s Lut Desert, where the land skin temperature was measured at 70.7°C. At that heat, you can fry an egg on your hand!

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The World’s Coldest Place

On November 23, 2010, Alberta recorded temperatures that made it the second coldest place that day on the planet. What’s remarkable about this fact is that it included populated cities like Edmonton and Calgary, where the wind chill cranked the chill to around -41°C. Pollockville, 250km east of Calgary, had to deal with -49°C. But that’s toasty compared to how cold it can get in Antarctica, which reigns supreme for recording the coldest temperatures on Earth. Scientists in Vostok, near the magnetic south pole, recorded land temperatures at a brrrr-isk -89.2°C, measured during the dark winter months of June and July. The coldest permanently inhabited town is said to be Oymyakon in Russia’s northern Sakha Republic, which clocked in at a frisky−71.2 °C.

rain

The World’s Wettest Place

There are half a dozen contenders in this category, with different research methodologies determined to soak up the glory. When I visited Kauai, Hawaii’s Garden Island, I was told by proud locals and guides that Mount Wai-‘ale-‘ale is the wettest spot on Earth, with rain falling between 335 and 360 days a year, drowning in up to 13,000mm each year. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes this achievement, but the US National Climatic Data Center gives the title to Colombia’s Lloro, which receives over 12,000mm a year. Cherrapunji in north-eastern India is another contender, even more remarkable since its annual rainfall (almost 11,000mm) falls mostly in the monsoon months between June and August. Back in Colombia, a freak rainy season in 1974 deposited 26,303mm of rain on the town of Tutunendo. It puts living in rainy Vancouver, where the average annual rainfall is just 1588mm, in perspective.

wind

The World’s Windiest Place

For 75 years, Mount Washington in New Hampshire held the record for the highest wind speeds ever recorded, 231 miles per hour at the top of its peak. It was a freak event, much like the cyclone in Barrow Island, Australia that blew right past the record, clocking in at 253 miles per hour. The most consistent windiest place on the planet is Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica. As for the windiest cities, forget Chicago. Citizens in Wellington New Zealand, Reykjavik Iceland and Cape Town, South Africa would do well to invest in extra strength umbrellas.

dry

The World’s Driest Place

The Atacama Desert stretches across northern Chile into parts of Bolivia and Peru, and is known as the driest place on the planet. Average rainfall is as little as 1mm a year, with some weather stations having never recorded any rain at all. The town of Arica, a launchpad for tourism excursions into the Atacama, did not record any rain for over 15 years! Crossing the Atacama in a 4×4 is one of my highlights of visiting South America, witnessing its otherworldly landscapes and rock structures. Scientists have compared the Atacama to conditions of Mars, which is why NASA test-drove their Mars Rovers here. Oddly enough, the driest continent is Antarctica, which receives less than 2mm rain a year, even though it is primarily made up of compacted snow and ice.

deep

The World’s Deepest Place

James Cameron, director of Avatar and Titanic, broke the world record to become the first human to visit the deepest spot on the earth – the desolate, alien and lunar landscape that sits almost 11km deep at the bottom of the ocean known as the Mariana Trench. Located in the Western Pacific, the 2550km long trench forms the boundary of two tectonic plates. While pressure at the bottom is over 1000 times that found at sea level, researchers have still found life in the form of fish, shrimp and other organisms. Decaying animal skeletons, shells and other organisms give the seabed a yellow colour. Cameron filmed his descent in 3D for a documentary, and collected samples for scientists to shed more light on the darkest of ocean deeps.

high

The World’s Highest Place

The world’s highest mountain is Mount Everest, towering at 8848m above sea level. If you dared to climb atop its dangerous peak, as thousands of climbers do every year, you would not however be the closest to the moon. The planet’s shape is an oblate spheroid, much like the shape of a balloon if you were to sit on it. The result is that mountains close to the equator stick out further than mountains closer to the poles, not in terms of height above sea level, but in terms of its closeness to the stars and distance from the earth’s centre. Cleverer people than I have done the calculations, and determined that the 6310m high Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador lies on the bulge, and as such is about 2.4 km closer to space than Everest!

deadsea

The Deepest Place Below Sea Level

On dry land, you can’t get any lower than visiting the Dead Sea, the salty lake that shares its banks with Israel and Jordan. To get there, you’ll drive along the world’s lowest road, and float in its famously buoyant waters 423 metres below sea level. 67 kilometres long and 18 kilometres wide, this lifeless sea is 8.6 times saltier than the ocean, which is why you can comfortably sit back and read a newspaper during a dip. The health benefits of the mineral waters and thick mud of the Dead Sea have been prized since Biblical days, making it one of the world’s first health resorts. A drop in groundwater and flow of water from the Jordan River has resulted in significant shrinking of the Dead Sea, causing much concern for both the tourism and cosmetic industries that support it.

danger

The World’s Most Dangerous Country

Forbes Magazine went through data looking at crime rates, risk of terrorism and kidnappings, police protection, corruption and political stability to determine the world’s most dangerous countries. Receiving the bronze medal on the podium is Somalia, which has not had a real government for 15 years, where militants run wild and piracy is rampant. The silver medal goes to Iraq, a hotbed of fundamentalism and instability, its citizens living under the constant threat of bombings and deeply corrupt government officials. Winning the gold medal, which will probably make its way to a Swiss bank account faster than I can type this sentence, is Afghanistan. Tribal warfare and corruption is rife, especially on the Pakistan border, where it is estimated that every citizen owns an automatic weapon. And of course, let’s not forget Syria. Hopefully all will one day be in a position to safely add to the Global Bucket List.

young

The Youngest Place on Earth

Iceland, the real land of Fire and Ice (Game of Thrones notwithstanding) boasts the youngest place on the planet with its southern-most point, Surtsey Island. This 1.4 km2 island dramatically emerged from the sea during a volcanic eruption in 1963. The volcano stopped erupting almost four years later, with the intense flow of lava resulting in a new island in the Atlantic. Since then, erosion has whittled away some of the land, but its hard igneous core has remained firm. The island was declared a nature reserve in 1965, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, for its scientific value. Scientists are studying how plant, bird and marine life are evolving on the island, with human impact carefully monitored and kept to a minimum.

A Bucket List of the World’s Best Night Markets

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There’s simply no choice between a mall and a night market.   Instead of food courts, you have local cuisine cooked before your eyes. Instead of multinational clothing chains, you have handmade knits and knock-off fakes.   Instead of sterile hallways, you have cluttered narrow pathways full of smiles, smells, and secrets.   After shopping around, here’s our pick of the best:

  1. Luang Prabang, Laos

Night markets in Asia are usually loud and chaotic, yet my memory of this sleepy city’s night market, located along Sisavangvong Road, is one of calm. There is very little pushing and prodding to buy this or that, in stark contrast to markets found in neighbouring Thailand or Cambodia. Around 300 traders sell a wide range of goods – from pillows and covers to lanterns to cheap Beer Lao T-shirts, the perfect souvenir from Laos. Without the pressure, it’s almost impossible not to spend your kip, the local currency. It’s always advisable to haggle, and don’t expect the best quality.   Open daily, the market closes early at around 10pm.

  1. Queen Victoria Markets, Melbourne Australia

During the summer months, Melbourne has several vibrant night markets, gathering local artists, designers, traders, with food and entertainment from around the world. Every Wednesday November to March at the Queen Victoria Markets, on the corner of Peel and Victoria streets, you can find the popular Suzuki Night Market, with 35 ethnic food stalls, art, clothes, and jewelry traders. On Fridays in late January/February, you can shop away and enjoy the atmosphere at the Geelong Night Market in Johnstone Park.   Besides the stalls, there is also a health and harmony section, and licensed bars to enjoy a cool drink on a warm summer night.

  1. Huaxi Street Tourist Night Market, Taipei, Taiwan

There are six major night markets in hot and sticky Taipei, with the most famous, and most notorious, being Huaxi, also known as Snake Alley. Once a legal red light district, Snake Alley is known for the exotic dishes served by its restaurants and stalls.   These include snake meat, including their blood or even their venom, milked from their fangs. There’s also turtle meat, deer penis soup, and other delicacies that draw tourists. Surrounding the market are stalls selling all manner of goods, proudly Made in Taiwan.

  1. Summer Night Market, Richmond, BC

During summer, some 300 traders set up stalls each weekend in Richmond, one of the growing satellite cities next to Vancouver.   Reflecting the multiculturalism of Richmond’s large immigrant population, the night market features strong Asian, Indian and Latin American influences. Grab yourself a bubble tea and catch a live salsa performance on the 60ft stage, or just roam the alleys looking for bargains on clothing, electronics and souvenirs. The market attracts some two million visitors a year, and often features themed nights, like Taste of Asia, or Chinese Karaoke Night.

  1. Chiang Mai Night Market, Thailand

Crammed into three blocks on Chan Klan Road, the night market and bazaar of Chiang Mai is extremely popular with visitors.   All manner of goods are on sale from traders packed on the sidewalks, or in purpose-built malls. Friendly tailors beckon you into their shops, old ladies fry up noodles, and lanterns cast a soft glow in the night. Operating every night of the year, the market is considered to be amongst the cheapest in the country.   Don’t expect lasting quality from the goods on sale, although I still have various candleholders and even some shirts I bought many years after my visit. Traders will typically start their price at double what you should pay, so remember to bargain.

  1. Batu Ferringhi Night Market, Penang, Malaysia

The Malay word for night market is “pasar malam”, a popular example of which can be found in Penang at Batu Ferringhi (literally, “Foreigner’s Rock”). Vendors in small stalls sell the usual knick knacks – clothes, shoes, accessories, bags, watches, jewelry, and other goods of authentic or dubious origins. The night market draws tourists with the sweet smells of local cuisine, and is close to a beach and pool area as well.   It sets up each day in the late afternoon and operates from 6pm until the customers thin out.  International hotels are located along the beach strip, with some directly facing the market.

  1. Christmas Market, Nuremburg, Germany

Every Xmas, markets pop up all over the Germany, differing from region to region. Frankfurt has the largest Christmas Market in Germany, along with the tallest Christmas tree. But the most famous Christmas market is in the Bavarian city of Nuremburg. This market is a popular place to pick up toys, ornaments and candles, along with treats like biscuits and sausages roasted over wood fires. Located throughout the old town, the market has nearly 200 wooden stalls, many sporting red and white cloth.   They even compete for the most beautiful and tasteful stall award. More than two million people visit it each year.

  1. Temple Street Night Market, Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a legendary destination, and its most popular night market doesn’t disappoint. There’s a wild variety of goods and services on offer, including fortune tellers, palm readers and impromptu Opera street performances. Open from 2pm onwards, the market is located on Temple Street next to the Jordan MTR station in Kowloon. As with most night markets, street food features prominently. Try some of the sticky sweet desserts and browse for electronics, antiques, and lamps. But remember, you break you buy

  1. Marrakech Night Market, Morocco

Enter the Jemaa El Fna night market near the heart of Marrakech’s medina, and you’ll feel like you’ve stumbled onto a set of Indiana Jones. Expect a cacophony of snake charmers and monkey dancers, hagglers and hustlers, juice being freshly pressed over the sounds of salesmen beckoning their next client. Each night, over 100 open kitchens are set up, serving cheap but delicious Moroccan cuisines to patrons seated at long rows of wooden tables. Each kitchen typically serves one dish, and you might want to watch your food being cooked to avoid any tummy upsets later. The night market is open until 2am in summer, and around midnight in winter

  1. Donghuamen Night Market, Beijing, China

Here’s what I like about this particular night market: where else can you find rows of stalls featuring raw insects, scorpions, crickets, centipedes and lizards, ready to be deep fried in wok for your culinary enjoyment?   Sure, you can stick with dumplings, noodles or fresh fruit, but sometimes, you just find yourself craving a deep fried starfish.   All the prices are marked (in case you’re too hungry to haggle) and conveniently displayed in both Mandarin and English.   Don’t know about you, but I’m salivating at the thought of it!

4 Asian Buildings on the Global Bucket List

patronas

The Petronas Towers, Malaysia
A Symbol of the Future

In the 1990’s, Malaysia roared as one for the loudest of the Asian tiger economies. To reflect this, the Petronas Towers were built in downtown Kuala Lumpur – 88-storey twins that towered over the capital’s skyline. Although an economic downturn soon impacted its allure and occupancy, these former tallest buildings in the world remain an incredible sight to behold. With their metallic shells and dramatic spires, the towers seem futuristic and otherworldly. No matter what angle you view them from within the city, it feels like you’ve just stepped into a scene from Blade Runner.

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The Taj Mahal, India
A Symbol of Love

Completed in 1653, there is no greater architectural rose than the Taj Mahal. The beloved favourite wife of a Mughal emperor died at childbirth, and such was his grief that he commissioned 20,000 craftsmen to construct this timeless mausoleum, a feat accomplished in 22 years. My fellow travellers in India were debating whether a visit to the country would be complete without seeing it, so I decided to visit Agra on my last day and see for myself. The 18-hour odyssey it took me to get there and back, battling rip-offs and crowds, was intense, but the beauty of seeing the Taj glow in the sunset was unforgettable. In the end, the heartache and the beauty of my visit came to symbolize my month in India, and the Taj Mahal itself.

taipei101

Taipei 101, Taiwan
A Symbol of Power

Only 23 countries recognize the Republic of China, also known as Taiwan, as an independent country. Taipei 101, with its 101 floors, stands proudly as a symbol of the “other China”, with a booming economy and steadfast democracy. Inspired by the flexibility of bamboo, the building sits in the skyline like a large tack in a corkboard. It is covered in symbols, from massive coins on the exterior for good fortune, to stylized dragon gargoyles for protection. Taipei 101 also has the world’s fastest elevators (60km an hour, you reach the 85th-floor observation deck in just 37 seconds), and four massive damper balls to stabilize the building from strong winds and earthquakes.

burj

The Burj El Arab, Dubai
A Symbol of Wealth

Much has been written about the explosion of Dubai as a boomtown, and without doubt its symbol is the Burj El Arab. Billed as “the world’s only 7-star hotel”, it’s actually a five star hotel that was conceptualized to become a showpiece for the Emirate, much as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris or the Statue of Liberty to New York. Towering on reclaimed land, it is the world’s tallest hotel, and incredibly expensive too – rooms can set you back up to $10,000 a night. The Burj El Arab is also an engineering marvel, although with the construction boom in Dubai, one wonders if it will hold its mystique for much longer. Another Burj, still under construction in Dubai, is already the world’s new tallest building.