You can Yucatan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merida at night

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

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

The ruins of Palenque

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

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.  

Travel Books that Take You Places

Robin Esrock's favourite travel books

Until the vaccines win the race against the virus, we’re not going to be travelling like we could.  But we can travel in our imaginations, and certainly through the pages of some of my favourite all-time travel books. Although isn’t every book a “travel book?”   Transporting us to places near and far, across dimensions in time and space?   I confess my library is not nearly the wealth of knowledge it should be, but hopefully this will inspire just the start of your journey into the world of travel literature. 

Travel Books to Make You Laugh

Molvania – A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry
By Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Stitch

Anyone who has ever clutched a Lonely Planet will wet themselves visiting the fictitious eastern European country of Molvania.  This Spinal Tap for guidebooks looks at hotels (“what it lacks in charm it makes up in concrete”), towns (“Vajana is a small city divided into quarters, of which there are three”), food  (“this thick liquor is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted, unless you’ve swallowed fabric conditioner”) and activities.   A follow up guidebook,Phaic Tan: Sunstroke on a Shoestring roasts a Southeast Asian country in similar fashion, as does San Sombrero which skewers Latin America .   Hilarious.

Our Dumb World – The Onion Atlas of the Planet Earth / The Daily Show Presents: Earth
Every country in the world gets punished in this gut-busting atlas and compendium that crunches stereotypes with typical Onion and Daily Show wit.  Politically incorrect at its best, we learn and laugh at the world, including the “Countries you thought were in Africa”, Czech Republic (Where People Go to Say They’ve Been), and Canada, which in the Onion Atlas is titled: “For the United States, See Pages 9-22.”  Sharp, ruthless, and essential humour with a global twist.


Travel Books to Understand a New World

A Fine Balance – By Rohinton Mistry
Midnight’s Children – By Salman Rushdie
Shantaram – By Gregory David Roberts

India is such an immense place, bursting with stories and sagas that define the human condition. There is a vast cannon of fantastic Indian literature, but my three favourite books are these above, drowning in characters that tunnel into your mind and heart. All epic in scope, by the time you put down these pages you will have transported your senses into the sub-continent, taste its spice on your tongue, smell the stenches in your nostrils. It’s not always fun, and the novels often take tragic twists that bring tears to the eyes, but the reward is the hope and unlikely beauty that manages to stay alive, on the pages, and in India itself.

Travel Books for the Adventurous

Dark Summit – By Nick Heil,
For everyone who enjoyed Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (and there’s a lot of you), the true-life drama atop Mount Everest continues in this excellent read, recounting the eventful 2006 season in which more lives were tragically lost. Heil paints a stark mountain that seduces characters from around the world – seeking adventure, but receiving more than they bargained for. As more climbers continue to challenge Everest every year, gripping books like this bring us along for the journey, thankfully removed from the frostbite, avalanches, and dirty mountain politics.

The Beach – By Alex Garland
There’s a reason this book spawned a hit movie with Leonardo di Caprio. An English backpacker (Americanized for the movie) gets swept up in the search for the last untouched paradise island, a backpacker utopia, hidden from the masses. As we follow Richard’s adventure into love and life, things begin to unravel into a Lords-of-the-Flies-like mess, complete with psycho leaders, armed drug runners, hungry sharks and jealous boyfriends. Inspired by the islands in the Philippines, it has the fun edge of a thriller, while tapping into our desire to leave the beaten path, and go wherever the adventure leads us. Alex Garland has moved on and is now an accomplished film director, behind the thought-provoking sci-fi hits Ex Machina, Sunshine and Annihilation.

Full Moon over Noah’s Ark – By Rick Antonson
I live in a neighbourhood that’s inspired by explorers (with names like Cartier, Champlain, Explorers Walk, Compass Point etc). Across the road from me lived Rick Antonson, formerly the CEO of Tourism Vancouver, but these days a very well travelled and accomplished travel writer. Rick’s a fine and affable literary guide to take you on a journey to Timbuktu, Route 66, or in his latest book, Mount Ararat and beyond. Sadly, Rick moved out the neighbourhood a few years ago, but I’ll diligently hold his beer until he returns.

 

Travel Books to Inspire Knowledge

A Short History of Nearly Everything – By Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is one of the most popular and beloved travel writers today, and you can’t really go wrong picking up any of his books. He’s also a terrific linguistics teacher (see his Mother Tongue), and a wonderful science teacher in this all-encompassing love letter to knowledge. Trust a travel writer to make learning about biology, geography, astronomy and other sciences accessible, engaging, and full of quirky characters. This book was a deserved hit years ago, but if you still haven’t read it, it’s well worth doing so.

Magicians of the Gods / The Sign and the Seal – By Graham Hancock
If there’s any one writer I have to credit with making me want to learn about the world, it’s this modern day academic Indiana Jones. A former writer for the Economist, Hancock has always been held in skeptic esteem for his bestselling theories about ancient civilizations (Magicians of the Gods / Fingerprints of the Gods), and the search for the biblical Ark of the Covenant (Sign and the Seal). Reading about his adventures, following his interviews and thorough research, it fired me up to want to visit South America and Ethiopia. Many historians scoff at Hancock’s theories of an “alternative history”, but he has inspired millions to learn more, challenge conventional wisdom, and book tickets to exotic destinations to find out more for ourselves. Myself very much included.

Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari
A monster non-fiction hit, an Israeli professor unpacks the history of humanity with a striking clarity of thought, explaining big history and bigger concepts in a clear, concise and jarringly direct fashion (all the more remarkable since Harari is writing in his second language). If aliens land in the distant future and find this book buried in the ashes of what was once our civilization, it will likely explain everything. His follow up books, Homo Deux and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century are excellent reads too.

The Silk Road – By Peter Frankopan
I read a lot of history, and that’s another post altogether. The Silk Road makes it onto this list because it explains how geo-politics plays the long game, putting our current and brief time on Earth in a bigger context. Trade is being re-organized and powers are waxing and waning. China’s incredibly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative is going to re-score the soundtrack of our planet. But it all has its routes on an ancient trade route that led to the birth and explosion of civilization as we know it. A terrific read.

Packing for Mars – Mary Roach
If you’ve yet to come across Mary Roach, you’re in for a treat. Writing first person with a breezy wit and insatiable curiosity (something I can truly appreciate), Mary has tackled some fascinating topics with her various books, including Bonk (sex), Stiff (human cadavers), Grunt (war) and Spook (the afterlife). Packing for Mars unpacks the nuts and bolts reality of space travel, which isn’t nearly as Star Trek as you imagine, and wilder than you’d think. Mary interviews experts and characters, digs deep into space poo and practicalities, and should be required reading for anyone with their head in the stars.

 

Travel Books to Escape

Jitterbug Perfume / Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas – By Tom Robbins
Put me on a long hot journey into some wild, parched land. Give me some water, a charged iPod, and a beaten Tom Robbins paperback, and you’ve rocked the Esrock.  With his unique approach to language, sharp wit, profound wisdom, and devotion to not taking things too seriously, Robbins is one of my favourite writers. His books usually follow a similar template: a brave (usually sexy) soul heads into the world to discover about life, the universe and anything, with aid from thinly disguised gurus, gods, and in some cases, inanimate objects. Creativity bursts from his pages, the turns of phrase stop you in your literal tracks. Wherever I find myself, reading and re-reading a Robbins novels inspires me to read more, write more, and most importantly, live more.

100 Years of Solitude / Love in the Time of Cholera – By Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Maybe it’s cliché to throw in these classics of South American magic realism, and if I had space I’d certainly add some Paulo Coelho and more Salman Rushdie. I’d pop in Kerouac’s On the Road for its impact on road trips, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and include some gifted modern travel writers like Pico Iyer, Bruce Chatwin, Rolf Potts, Tim Moore, and Colin Angus. Robert Kaplan, Glenn Dixon, Jules Verne, hell, throw in Ernest Hemingway and Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries while we’re there. And where on this list is space for two of my biggest travel writing influences, Hunter S Thompson and PJ O’ Rourke?

Writing any book is no easy task. I salute the efforts of anyone who strives to write about exciting new worlds, and to all those that choose to read their hard-spun efforts.
And since we’re on the topic, I should also suggest my favourite all time, most inspiring, life-changing travel books. I include them here without any bias whatsoever. Maybe a little.

Statues and Circus in Riga

Eight hundred thousand people live in the Latvian capital of Riga, and just about all of them dress like rock stars. Besides the stylish leather boots and new-wave haircuts, it’s as if someone poured a bucket of blonde paint over their heads, etched in sharp angles for cheekbones, and used only the tallest canvas for the portrait of a typical Latvian. If the locals look good, the buildings do too. Riga is the capital of Art Nouveau, the 18th century art and architecture movement that aspired to break rules. Although much was damaged during World War II, today the city has the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings anywhere. I’ve never been a massive building nut, so my expectations were less than stellar when I heard that legendary Russian filmmaker Sergey Eisenstein’s dad built one of the most ambitious Art Nouveau buildings ever. Until I saw it.

What possesses a Victorian-era aristocrat to design a building with such unusual vision, laden with science-fiction motifs amongst archways and sculptures time-warped in from the future?   What made him sculpt the large heads of a King and Queen, staring into opposite corners, sitting above the building as if it were merely a chess piece? And who, in their right mind, would pony up the cash for this grand, far-fetched creative endeavour? I’m awed by the modern architectural thought behind Dubai’s developments, but they don’t compete with the sheer wackiness on display in Riga. On Albert Street, admiring the attention to detail caused my neck to ache, staring at the sphinxes, naked muses, or even faces screaming in agony. With the right lighting, Albert Street would be a perfect set for Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Metropolis and Batman – at the same time, without changing any of the facades. As it stands, many of these buildings are mere apartment blocks, with “For Rent” sales displayed outside. Some are crumbling with time; some are magnificently restored (including the Irish, French and Russian Embassies). Building-watching provides a good morning out, only slightly eclipsed by that other passion of mine – people watching.

A great place for that was at one of the world’s oldest running circuses.   For well over a century, the Riga Circus has been housed in a somewhat decrepit old building permeated with a century of laughter, acrobatics, and animal tricks.   It’s not very politically correct to talk about the circus these days, but I believe there are bad people and there are good people, and there are bad circuses and there are good circuses, the latter treating what few animals they still employ with utmost love and respect in a mutually beneficial relationship. The only way I could find out if Riga Circus fits into this category was to go and see it.

A highlight was meeting Aleksandrs Slaugotnis, a legendary Russian clown who has been wearing face paint for 37 years. He was trained by Oleg Popov, which in Clown World is the equivalent of saying you were trained by Michelangelo. Watching Aleksandrs apply his smile and red makeup to his nose (“I don’t need a clown’s nose, my face is funny enough,” he tells me) was a special, privileged glimpse into the mysterious shadow world of the circus. A man in full Arabian prince regalia walks past, together with a breathtaking blonde woman in a matching pink outfit. The King and Queen of the Carnival are a regal sight to behold.

Soon enough, the ringmaster announces the performance, and a sizeable crowd has gathered, mostly local kids with their parents. Together we laugh and yell and ooh and aah, eat peanut crepes and stare at mammoth hairy camels. Despite the age of the circus, the dogs, llamas, camels and monkeys glow with health and enthusiasm, and the two-hour show is awash in laughs and thrills. Aleksandrs is particularly a hit, as deft with slapstick as he is on a tightrope. High-pitched blonde kids scream in approval. It’s as Aleksandrs says: “People will always need clowns, and people will always need the circus.”

Robin’s famous Gonzo jump in Riga

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.

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.

Wined and Dined in the Douro

Portugal’s Douro Valley offers discerning bucket listers more than just fine wines. Explore ancient vineyards on misty terraces, stroll through historic towns, dine like royalty and stay in hotels ranging from modern fortresses to 17th century villas. I’ve long said Portugal is the best deal going in Western Europe: all the cobblestone without the price of Italy, France or Spain. Portuguese wines offer great value, and so is the country itself. Below are some images from my visit to tick this one off The Great Global Bucket List:

View from the town
of Amarante.

And yes, the place does look EXACTLY like a postcard.

The manicured garden at the stunning and historic Hotel Casa da Insua. The swans came to say hello.

Autumn Grapes: The leaves change colour with the season, but the grapes stay ripe and juicy.

Walking amongst the organic grapes at Solar de Merufe

98 Points! 16 glasses in one wine tasting sitting at Paço dos Cunhas de Santar

Cobblestone glory:
A cold fall night through the narrow streets on the way to Paço dos Cunhas de Santa.

Billionaire Playboy Ken Hegan approaches the light under a canopy of vines.

Terraces in the Doura Valley. Because of their design and age, all the grapes in the region are hand picked.

Two hours off the red-eye from Toronto to Lisbon, lunch is served in the dining room at Quinta de Azevedo in the Vinho Verde region.

Soft sheep cheese, fresh fruit, great wine, and get a load of the weird faces in the vase here at Quinta da Fata

Quinta do Noval makes some of the finest port money can buy. And like many other producers in the region, all their grapes are crushed by foot in rooms much like this.

I spent Halloween night with the old world elegance of Hotel Casa da Insua, complete with its spooky old chapel.

I can not get the Six Senses Douro Valley out of my head. A stylish modern wing is attached to a more traditional hotel overlooking the Douro. I remember concrete and low lit decor, fantastic artwork, stylish rooms, a magical fountain indoor pool and subtle fragrance seeping from the tunnel like hallways. It’s been called one of the best hotels in the world, and certainly left that impression on me.

Click here for more information on visiting Portugal’s Douro Valley.

Bucket List Journeys for the Soul

It has been said that the first tourists in the world were pilgrims, religious folk making their way through exotic deserts and across foreign shores on a holy journey. They didn’t have digital cameras or blogs, but their journeys were as much about the soul as about discovering new cultures, cuisines and adventure. Today, there are just as many spiritual destinations for us to discover, whatever faith we choose to follow.

Buddhist Temple, South Korea.

Buddhism

Buddhism is a path, a way of life that tunes its followers towards the road to nirvana. Lets start by heading over to South Korea for an authentic Temple Stay in a Buddhist monastery, developed to introduce foreigners to the concepts of Zen Buddhism. Here you’ll don grey robes, eat strictly vegetarian meals, learn about meditation and the worthiness of chores in a relaxed, tranquil environment. Thailand (and many other countries) offers 10-day Buddhist meditation retreats, where silence and reflection is revered. Tibetan Buddhism has its centre nowadays in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala. Here you can take Buddhist classes (in various languages), and meditate in the crowded presence of the Dalai Lama. Incredible temples devoted to the Buddha abound throughout Southeast Asia, and consider climbing the magnificent Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, where legend states you can find the footprint of the Buddha himself.

Lalibela, Ethiopia

Christianity

Biblical Tourism is booming in North America, as Christians of various denominations book tours to discover Biblical sites in Israel and beyond. For an alternative, consider the11th century rock churches of Ethiopia’s Lalibela, built to mirror Jerusalem. Israel is ground zero for Biblical tourism, as busloads of foreigners visit sites like Bethlehem, the Red Sea, and the Sea of Galilee. Amongst old ruins and beautiful landmarks, you can hear the echoes of Jesus and his followers. Turkey, known as the “other holy land”, is rich with Biblical history, especially in the east. Here you can find villages like Harran, mentioned in the Bible, regarded as the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world. Christians also make annual pilgrimages to the resting places or shrines of saints, such as the shrine of St Francis Xavier in Goa, India, the Marian centres of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, or churches like Lourdes in France.

Jama Masjid, India

Islam

Foreigners are denied entry into Mecca, site of the holy pilgrimage, or hajj, mentioned as one of the cornerstones of Islamic faith. Muslims undertaking the journey describe it as unforgettable and transcendent, and millions undertake the hajj each year. Following in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammed has always drawn followers of the faith, through countries like Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Travellers of any faith are overwhelmed by the majesty and grandeur of the great mosques in Istanbul – the 16th century Blue Mosque, the Suleyman Mosque, and the basis of them all, the 6th century Hagia Sofia (originally a church of Eastern Orthodoxy). Ancient mosques, holy sites and pilgrimages can also be found throughout Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq. Jerusalem, a holy city to all three monotheistic faiths, has many important destinations for Muslims, such the magnificent Dome of the Rock.

Kataragama Festival, Sri Lanka

Hinduism

Hindu festivals, as befits the religion itself, are renowned to be colourful, vibrant, and thrillingly jovial. A blend of worship, celebration, spectacle and processions, festivals like Diwali, Esala or Durga have been delighting travellers and Hindus alike for millennia. Along the banks of the holy Ganges in India, ashrams sound bells in Rishikesh to signal the puja, a ceremony of worship, bursting with dancing and music. In Sri Lanka, I bore witness to a stunning spectacle at the annual Esala festival in Kataragama, where men demonstrated their faith by dragging loads behind them with hooks in their back, or piercing parts of the body in vows of devotion. Today, many westerners depart on yoga retreats throughout India, a chance to grow both mind and body. Ashrams, under the guidance of gurus and masters, are full of foreigners seeking answers to the burning questions of life.

Jerusalem, Israel

Judaism

Jews around the world are emotionally tied to the Holy Land of Israel, their spiritual and political home. The famous Western Wall in Jerusalem, all that remains of the grand Temple from Biblical times, sweeps most visitors away with the raw emotion on display. Walking the city streets of Haifa, Tiberius or Jerusalem reconnects modern Jews to their ancient legacy. Climbing Masada in the desert symbolizes the eternal struggle and courage of Jewish ancestors. In eastern Turkey, visitors to Sanilurfa can visit Biblical sites like the cave where Abraham, the father of all three monotheistic religions, was born. In Prague, the Old New Synagogue dates back to the 11th century, and Jewish visitors to the mostly decimated Jewish Quarters of post World War Europe – Krakow, Budapest, Vilnius and others – are both fascinated, and horrified, by the not-too distant past.

Confucianism, Bahai, Jainism, Zoroastrianism – whatever your faith, visiting historical roots, festivals and holy centres offers incredible rewards for the modern traveller. And for all the unfortunate tragedies of history demonstrating otherwise, it will always be worth noting that every prophet, teacher and religious path urges us to treat one another as we would treat ourselves.

8 Ancient Cities to Visit Today

Sanilurfa
Sanilurfa

Urfa, Turkey

Once known as Sanilurfa, this city in eastern Turkey is steeped in history. From a patio restaurant, gaze upon the Citadel, a complex that makes mincemeat out of European historical centres. From one vantage point, you can see a 13-century mosque, a 6th-century church, a 2nd-century ruin, a 1st-century castle wall, and the cave where Abraham, founder of all three monotheistic religions, is said to be born. It’s still possible to enter the cave, where you can reverently drink from the fountain that inspired his legendary longevity. Thousands of years of history, crammed into the city’s natural amphitheater.

Xian
Xian

Xi’an, China

For millennia, Xi’an was the seat of China’s powerful ruling dynasties. Today, the bustling city of over 8 million people is a launch pad for tourists to see the Terracotta Warriors, but the city has its plenty to see. A 13km long fortress wall dating back to the 14th century rings the old city. Hire a bike or take a stroll to the various exhibits along the way, brought to life by historical re-enactors. It is a world away from the chaos and traffic of Beijing and Shanghai.

Dwarka
Dwarka

Dwarka, India

Located in the state of Gujarat, Dwarka is one of the seven most ancient cities in India. It is one of the holiest places in Hinduism, as it all that remains of the dwelling place of Lord Krishna. The city is home to famous shrines and temples, including the 5-storied, 16th-century Jagatmandir temple. Most sites can be visited in a day, including Bet Dwarka, where Krishna was said to live.

Rome
Rome

Rome, Italy

There was a time when all roads led to Rome. The mighty Roman Empire, stretching across Europe, Asia and North Africa, was the centre of power, art, fashion, science and commerce. Modern Rome still courts such a description, albeit for the smaller nation of Italy. On the other hand, there’s ancient history wherever you look. Besides the Coliseum, there’s the Trevi Fountain (throw a coin over your shoulder for luck), Piazza Navona, and of course, the Vatican. It’s not hard to imagine togas, centurions, and chariots, although in the heat of high-season summer, you’ll be just as happy to imagine an ice cream and air conditioning!

Jerusalem
Jerusalem

Jerusalem, Israel

It’s hard to believe that modern Jerusalem is the Jerusalem mentioned in the Bible, a holy place for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. So much history has passed through the city it can be intoxicating (sometimes literally, as in the case of the Messiah Complex). Old Town Jerusalem, circled by ancient walls and thick gates, is a labyrinth of narrow alleys, markets, sounds and smells. Jews gather at the Western Wall and Tomb of King David, Muslims at the Dome of the Rock, Christians at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Byzantium Church on the hill where Jesus was said to have been crucified. Whether you’re religious or not, it’s a powerful display of emotions, in a city that has captured our imaginations for millennia.

Rhodes
Rhodes

Rhodes, Greece

A Greek island in the Aegean Sea, Rhodes has been inhabited since 4000BC, but its major claim to fame is when the Romans developed the city into a leading centre of art and science over 2000 years ago. To celebrate a victory over the Cypriots, they also constructed the tallest statue of its time, the Colossus of Rhodes, which stood over 30m tall and was one of the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World. It stood for less than 60 years before an earthquake destroyed it, but you can still visit Rhodes today (population 80,000), and stroll amongst the Citadel, one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. Visit old medieval castles, and take in stunning island views.

Kandy
Kandy

Kandy, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s second largest city was the seat of kings for around four centuries, up until the early 19th century, when the last ruling dynasty recognized the British as conquerors. It is particularly scenic, located on plateau between hills of tea plantations and tropical jungle, and a vital Buddhist centre. Every August, it holds the country’s most celebrated festival, Perahera, where hundreds of thousands of people gather to watch parades and make pilgrimages to the beautiful Temple of the Tooth, which contains a tooth of Buddha. With its historical and religious significance, Kandy is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Stone Town
Stone Town

Stone Town, Zanzibar

Although the capital of Zanzibar, a small island off the coast of Tanzania, was only settled 1000 years ago, walking the streets of Stone Town gives the distinct impression that its history stretches back further. With Moorish, Indian, and African influences, narrow alleys snake between blackened stone houses, leading to bustling street markets. Facing the ocean is the grand House of Wonders, built by the Sultanate of Oman, which ruled Zanzibar for centuries as the centre of its spice and slave trade. Watch dhows sail at sunset, visit a spice farm, or taste the delights at the open-air markets.