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.

Top of the World, Top of the List

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

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

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

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

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

The World’s Best Islands

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

Bali, Indonesia

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

Santorini, Greece

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

Kauai

Kauai, Hawaii

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

New Caledonia

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

Galapagos

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

Easter Island

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

Bermuda

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

Vancouver Island / Cape Breton, Canada

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

Zanzibar

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

El Nido

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

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

The Best Dives in Kauai



Divemaster Sabine Templeton, a native of Washington DC, surveys the spacious lower deck of the 48ft Anela Kai. She’s been working for Seasport Divers – a multiple award-winning dive shop headquartered in Kauai’s Poipu Beach – for three years. As usual, it’s a mostly male affair, with 11 guys from the mainland, a fellow divermaster Ryan, and Captain Andrew, a skipper who has navigated these warm Pacific waters for over 16 years. I amble up to Sabine:
“I might not look like it, but I’m actually a Scuba Diver Girl.”
“Those girls are awesome,” she replies excitedly, “but wait, you’re a guy!”
“Maybe, but since Margo and Stephanie taught me everything I know underwater, I dive like a Scuba Diver Girl.”
“Oh, then you’ll have more fun then.”


It takes 2.5 hours with the swell for the boat to make its way along the west Kauai coastline towards the islands Ni’ihau and Lehua. Fellow divers tell me that it doesn’t get any better in all Hawaii. Some of them are repeat customers from years past. The islands and reef have few indigenous inhabitants, and are protected and revered. Seascape only runs excursions to Ni’ihau from late spring to early fall, when the swells and currents get too strong. Today is the last run of the season, and due to surge, entry and exit will be drift dives. Everyone will be using Nitrox, allowing us to go longer and deeper than normal air. It’s both my first drift and Nitrox dive, and I couldn’t wait to get underwater.




First site, the Lehua Ledge, sitting off the small island Lehua adjacent to the much larger Niihau. Seconds in the water, I’m being stared at by a large monk seal, an endangered pinniped that lives around these waters. As I descend, I encounter a huge school of colorful Pyramid Butterfly Fish. Below me on the shelf, I see the shadow of a large Sand Bar shark, gracefully vanishing into the shadows. Other highlights on the first dive: A Yellow Margin Moray, Tritan’s Trumpet, a Crown of Thorns, and endemic Bandit Angels.


The next dive is at a pinnacle known as Vertical Awareness. My Nitrox is at 32%, and I am relieved that it tastes just like regular air. I descend to 90ft, making my way around the large outcrop. Sabine had told me to expect amazing topography, and she wasn’t fibbing. We see Pennant Butterflies, a Stout Moray, a huge Titan Scorpion Fish, an endemic Hawaiian Lionfish, and a cool red-striped nudibranch. Although the water is a comfy 79 degrees, I pass through some cold thermoclines, as a powerful surge sweeps me along. There’s a reason why this dive is seasonal. Captain Andrew sees me not far from Sabine’s bright orange safety sausage, and picks me up as divers continue to pop up all over the surface.




Lunch is a fresh spread of meats, veggies and salads, as divers share obligatory tales. Sabine tells me she’s had some clients who look down on a female divemaster, but that everyone is usually respectful when it comes down to it.




The best is saved for last, a drift dive to a spot called Pu’u Mu’u. It’s my introduction to underwater caves, and while one diver ends his dive early with claustrophobia, I absolutely love it. Reflective bubbles of air gather on the cave ceiling like mercury, as my flashlight reveals so much life and color. Black coral hangs from the walls, along with Cauliflower and Leather coral. Deeper into the rock, Purple Spiny Lobster and big Tiger Cowry shells are amazing to see, as I ebb towards a series of spectacular swimthroughs. It has not been long since the SDG introduced me to the life aquatic in Papua New Guinea, but I’m continually amazed at the diversity and inspiration every dive seems to deliver.


The swells pick up as we return to Poipu, even as Bottlenose and Spinner dolphins gather around the boat. It will be another season before Seasport resume this incredible dive, but there’s plenty of others on Kauai to keep them, and us, busy in the meantime.


Seasport Divers are located on in Poipu Beach, on the southern side of Kauai. They have been in operation for 25 years, and founder Marvin Otsuji is a local diving legend. Dives to Ni’ihau run twice a week late spring to early autumn.


Robin used the following gear:

Scuba Pro Classic BC with Air II

MK25 – A700 Scuba Pro Regulator

Oceanic Veo NX Computer

Atomic Full Foot Split Fins

Aqualung Look 2 Mask

A World of Bucket List Spa Experiences

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

The Goa Rub Down

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

The Fire Doctor of Taiwan

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

Balinese Massage

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

The Communal Thai

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

The Georgian Backwalk

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

Something afoot in Shanghai

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

Hungarian Healing

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

A Spa for Two

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

The World’s Bucket List Casinos

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

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

Casino de Monte-Carlo

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

Marina Bay Sands

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

The Bellagio

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

Casino de Montréal

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

Casino Baden-Baden

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

Venetian Macau

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

Atlantis Paradise Island

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

The Best Cities to Explore by Bicycle

There’s no better way to explore a city than by bicycle. You get to see more, smell more, hear more and feel more than any other mode of transport, discovering hidden gems all along the way. But all cities are not created equal when it comes to bike discovery. Hills, traffic, pollution and other challenges are best suited for feet, cars, buses and trams. With a warm sun in the sky, here’s our pick of the best cities to hit the pedals.

1. Amsterdam

In a city with 780,000 residents and over 600,000 bicycles, you know the riding is good, especially in the 17th century city centre, where the narrow lanes and canals don’t really suit cars anyway. Amsterdam has over 400km of bike trails, making it easy and safe to get around, with ample bike racks to secure your bike. This is important to note since there are more bikes stolen per year than bikes in the city – maybe they should just make them all communal! There are plenty of bike rental companies about for visitors, located at hubs by Dam Square, Liedseplein and the Central Station. For about 8 euro a day, you can explore the city, or pedal into the countryside to explore old windmills and farms. Best of all, the city is located just two metres above sea level, so it’s flat all the way.

2. Portland

With over 100km of bike paths, 48km of low-traffic bike boulevards and 283kms of bike lanes, it’s no wonder Portland touts itself as the bike capital of the United States. It holds the country’s highest bike commuter rate, about 10%, and is renowned for its citywide bike programs. Visit the Saturday Market or popular Farmer’s Market for a pitstop of artisan cheese, or pedal up to the Powell Butte Nature Park for a panoramic view of the city. Portland is also known as the City of Bridges, many of which have safe bike lanes. As for the weather, cyclists can rest easy with covered bike parking, like the ones found outside the Hawthorne Boulevard Shopping District.

3. Copenhagen

One summer in Copenhagen, I learned how to ride a bike while drinking beer. Not behaviour to be encouraged, but in a city with 350km of bike paths, and 20km of safely designated bike lanes, I could at least count on avoiding cars. About 40% of the city cycle every day, along bike lanes with their own signal systems, and privileges like going down one-way streets. Copenhagen launched the world’s first communal bike-share program, which has since spread to various cities around the globe, so much so that copenhagenization is a term used in urban planning. Bicycles are the fastest and easiest way to explore the relatively flat city, taking in sights like the Tivoli, the Danish Royal Palaces, and the colourful Nyhavn canal.

4. Berlin

Berlin has a vibrant bike culture. 7 out of 10 residents own a bike , accessing over 800km of bike paths including designated lanes, off-road routes and shared pedestrian/bike sidewalks. What’s more, there are also Fahrradstrassen, roads restricted to bikes and vehicles that travel under 30 km/hr. The public bike program is handy for tourists and locals, who can use their cellphones to unlock the public bikes. Bike rentals are available around the city. Make sure to get a map to explore the various neighbourhoods around the city, or follow the popular Berlin Wall Trail along the old Cold War relic. Like most of the best bike cities, Berlin has no steep hills.

5. Bogota

Every Sunday, visitors to the Colombian capital of Bogota will find major thoroughfares devoid of cars. Welcome Ciclovia, a local tradition that allows cyclists, rollerbladers and pedestrians to roam about the city in safety. The weekly event has proved so popular it has since spread to other cities in South America. Cyclists come together across socio-economic divides in an eco- transportation utopia, a far cry from the city’s unfortunate reputation for crime. While popular tourist spots like Plaza de Bolivar, Palacio de Nariño, and La Catedral are located in hilly Candelaria, Ciclovia is still a great opportunity to experience the heart of the city.

6. Vancouver

Vancouver continues to expand its bicycle lane program, with several new arteries opening up under its current mayor (who famously bikes to City Hall). The city boasts 300km of on and off-road bike routes. If you’re visiting, head down to Denman Street where you can pick up a rental at Cycle BC or Spokes Rentals. From there, you’re just seconds away from the city’s star bicycle attraction, the 22km long Seawall. Flat, paved, and with stunning views of the city and local mountains, you can follow the Seawall around Stanley Park, or continue towards Granville Island, where a handy bike ferry can shepherd you across the inlet.

7. Vienna

Ah, Vienna! Austria’s capital city is large and spread out, but the UNESCO World Heritage historical centre is easy to explore by bike, with most attractions accessible within a half hour. There are ample bicycle lanes and paths, although a map will certainly help you navigate some of the city’s notoriously odd bike paths. Hardcore cyclists often arrive via a bicycle route that follows the Danube from Germany, through Austria and onto Hungary. Fortunately, the rest of us can hire City Bikes (there are over 100 stations in the city) and explore the Sightseeing Bicycle Path Ringstrasse around the old city, where we can enjoy views of the Opera, Burgtheatre and Parliament.

8. Soweto

The largest township in South Africa offers some remarkable guided bicycle tours. While neighbouring Johannesburg has a reputation for violent crime, visitors to Soweto (population 1.7 million) are surprised to find a friendly and safe atmosphere. Soweto Bicycle Tours range from two hours to full days, and take you to historical sites all over the township. Visit the former, humble brick home of Nelson Mandela, the site of the Soweto uprisings, a workers hostel, and even an authentic shebeen, where you can grab a traditional beer and talk to the locals.

9. Helsinki

Exploring a city by bike often reveals far more of a city than by foot or car, but there’s another advantage as well. It’s cheap, which comes in handy when touring a notoriously expensive city like Helsinki. The city has 1100 km of bike routes that are popular with residents as well as visitors. If you get tired, it’s reassuring that transporting your bike on the local trains and metro carry no additional fees. There are 27 Home District routes designed to help you explore key historical, cultural and archaeological areas of interest. Unfortunately, Helsinki recently suspended its City Bike program, but head to Greenbike on Bulevardi, or Ecobike next to the Finnair Stadium, for reasonably priced rentals.

10. Montreal

My first night in Montreal ended up in a karaoke bar. It was a warm night, so at 1am in the morning, a local friend decided to make good on her promise to show me Old Montreal. We borrowed bikes and hit the 15km-long paved bike lane on the Lachine Canal. We continued onto the empty streets of Old Montreal, discovering its secrets around each corner. The cobblestone on Saint-Paul, the neon-blue floodlights of the Notre Dame Basilica, the blue Quebec flag flying over Parisian-style art galleries, cafes and bars. The streets were all but deserted, but the air was tingling with culture. Montreal felt like Salome dropping her veils, just for me. Fortunately you no longer need a local friend to provide the bikes. Montreal has Bixi, a successful public bike program, where you can rent one of 5000 bikes at over 400 stations around the city with the swipe of a credit card.

10. Chiang Mai

I had a blast exploring Chiang Mai with the help of a city bike program called Mobike. Easy to use with an app connecting to the bike via bluetooth (and tracking your rides to record your calorie-burn and carbon-saving), Mobikes are inexpensive, convenient, and a great way to explore the Old City’s amazing temples. There are two types of bikes, and you definitely want to pick out the orange ones with the larger basket. It’s a very smooth ride and comfortable in the saddle. Although they have an automatic night light, the silver ones are much lighter and unstable to ride. With its flat roads and many alleys, Chiang Mai is definitely a city made for biking around.

Cruise Down the Inside Passage

Bigger than the next three largest US states – Texas, California and Montana – combined, Alaska challenges the American consciousness like an unscratchable itch. It’s so massive, so underpopulated, and so untamed, there’s no wonder it attracts everyone from free spirits and survivalists to hardened criminals, hoping to disappear into the snow and under the radar. It also attracts cruise ships, sailing the Inside Passage alongside crystal-blue glaciers, snowcapped mountains, deep fjords, icebergs, whales, and soaring bald eagles. Before we board the Coral Princess, a floating palace of luxe, lets head inland to see the wild for ourselves. It is early September, and the hard sun of summer has lost its shine, but the fall foliage is exploding, as if angels tie-dyed the tundra in honour of a Rastafarian princess.

We trace the Kenai Peninsular, looking for beluga whales at Beluga Point, before making our way along the fjord to the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge. Guy, my well-named guide, downloads information about the area, the wildlife, the culture, the abundant natural wonders. He speaks earnestly and could say anything, because, well, he looks a lot like John Cusack. The scenery is balm for the dry, cracked heel of the soul. We stop at a couple roadside attractions – a visitor centre where we learn about the US Congressmen who vanished without a trace while flying to Juneau; a Conservation Centre where we stare at huge stuffed grizzly bears, elk, caribou, black bears and a couple lynx. With 50,000 grizzlies and even more black bears, bears are a subject of fascination. Just about every local I meet tells me what to do should I encounter one. Be big! Be small! Run! Don’t Run! One would think a bear is sits in wait behind every tree waiting to pounce with a bear hug.

We’re not on the cruise yet, but the service that has made Princess such a successful luxury travel brand is on full display at their lodge. Outstanding food, friendly and efficient service, great company. This evening’s accommodation is the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, one of five inland lodges Princess owns and operates in Alaska. You can leave a wake-up call if North America’s tallest mountain emerges from the cloud, or should the northern lights explode in the night sky. Mount McKinley, known in the native tongue as Denali – The High One – is the only 6000m+ peak in North America, and one of the Seven Summits that challenges all serious mountain climbers. Alaskans proudly point out that McKinley is taller than Everest, if you account for its elevation from sea level.

Denali National Park is the grand attraction for inland Bucket listers, and the adjacent town, Denali, opens only during the summer season. During winter, the one traffic light turns off, the Subway and shops close down, and the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge (Alaska’s largest hotel), shutters up for the freeze. Denali is a launch pad for a national park that covers a staggering 24,585 square km, accessed by only one road. To get a sense of the size, we hop aboard a helicopter for a view from above. Fireweed and foliage erupts with the reds, oranges and yellows of autumn. The taiga, a Russian word to describe the boreal forest that forms the largest biome on Earth, is a palette of colour. The firs, pines and spruce of the taiga only grow several weeks a year, appearing stunted compared to their more temperate cousins. The helicopter glides over purple glaciers, grazing Dall sheep, stark gray mountains, and untamed valleys too remote for human encounters. The fall colours only pop for a couple weeks at the end of summer, an advantage of visiting at the tail end of the season, even as the days and nights become significantly cooler. With little fanfare, the Denali Express that shepherds passengers from the Princess Lodge to their awaiting cruise ship in Whittier has to be among world’s most beautiful short train journeys. Customized cars with panoramic windows, full bar, dining service and affable interpretors roll amongst taiga, rivers, mountains and fjords. It’s a practical means to get passengers from point A to point B, but a worthy journey to make just in itself. Especially when the sun’s rays crack the clouds, beaming a yellow yolk over the luminescence of fall.

Readers might be surprised that I enjoy modern cruiseships. I like that I can travel without moving, that I can actually relax without a million things to do, just like (The shock! The horror!) a real life vacation. Admittedly I view the manicured onshore experiences with a sense of bemusement, but I appreciate the romance of holing up in a stateroom with my wife. It’s fun dressing up for formal nights, and wine can flow far the presence of car keys. Sure, the excess can be overwhelming. The split-level world of passengers indulging in over-abundance served by hard working crew from developing countries is a stark contrast. It is an industry that synchs up the needs of its guests (I want to be treated like kings) with the wants of its crew (I want to make enough money in six months that I can go home and buy a house). The late, great David Foster Wallace wrote about it better than I ever could in a brilliant essay called A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Like all travel, the success of cruising is as much about the people you’re experiencing it with as the ship itself. I’ve been on several cruises, met wonderful people, and had a wonderful time. Worth noting that David Foster Wallace went cruising by himself, spent much of his time alone in his room, and made little effort to connect with anyone around him.

Over the course of the week, my wife and I make fast friends with other couples, and together we dine with the gusto of huns. Andre, the ship’s knowledgeable South African sommelier, pairs each dish with wine that tastes better after his able descriptions. Another South African, Vaughn, takes such delight and enthusiasm in his service it permeates the food. These, and other crew veterans, leave no doubt that they love what they do, year after year, or else they simply wouldn’t be doing it.

On the bridge, we meet the captain, a portly Italian who swings the biggest anchor on board. Below, everything is maximized for space efficiency, but the bridge is spacious, almost minimalist. There is a control panel in the centre, and two identical mini-panels on either side for port docking. Buttons and monitors and gauges and knobs and computers – it looks like something out of Star Trek. It must have inspired the USS Enterprise, as it did the Love Boat, based on a Princess Cruise ship in the Caribbean. The Coral creeps up to the Hubbard Glacier onto Glacier Bay, where massive glaciers tower over the sea, ice calving, creaking and cracking into the waters below. Compressed snow squeezes out the oxygen in the water, giving glacier ice its mint blue tint. We grab our robes, cheese and wine, sit on the balcony, and enjoy the chill in style.

As with all cruise itineraries, there’s a variety of on-shore experiences on our journey south to Vancouver. In Skagway, we take a short ferry to the town of Haines, where a South Carolina implant named Ronnie leads us on Kawasaki Mule convoy up a mountainside. In Juneau, we’re greeted with a magnificent blue-sky day. The locals in the Alaskan capital, accessible only by boat and air, tell us they haven’t seen the sun in weeks. Poor weather kills our on-shore zodiac ride in Ketchikan, or was it a huge night out, culminating in a room party, a late night dip in the private Sanctuary pool area, and a real “holy crap, ain’t life great” moment starboard at Guy’s favourite Deck 8 hangout.

Over thirteen days we’ve seen outrageous natural beauty, undertaken some unforgettable adventures, all the while being wined and dined like only a cruise ship passenger can. Travellers became colleagues and colleagues became friends. As every cruise veteran will tell you: there are big ships, and there are small ships, but the one that truly counts, are friendships.

8 Bucket List Waterfalls

Something inside us resonates when we see a large body of water falling through the air. Some appreciate the velocity, volume and sheer power on display. Others marvel at the mystic beauty and striking diversity of nature’s water show. And what compares to the revitalizing sensation of swimming beneath a natural shower, or being soaked by its mist?   One cannot claim to know the world’s best waterfalls, for that is as personal as defining nature itself. These, however, are my personal favourite bucket list waterfalls.  

Iguazu Falls

Spanning 2.5 miles on the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, Iguazu Falls is the famed gathering of 275 waterfalls, surrounded by lush tropical jungle.   I visited the national park that surrounds it twice, once from the nearby Brazilian town of (Foz de Iguacu) and once from the Argentinean Puerto Iguazu.   Both offer riveting views. Metal walkways allow you to walk over swamp and river to access the most spectacular viewing points, and it is even possible to hop aboard a boat and get soaked near the mouth of the biggest water mass, the Devil’s Throat. Natural beauty, exotic bird life, and sheer scale make Iguazu Falls a must for visitors to South America.

Victoria Falls

When I visited Africa’s biggest tourist attraction, I was armed with a fantastic tip.   Cross the border from Zimbabwe into Zambia, and not only is a ticket to the national park a fraction of the price, but in dry season you can be guided to stable rock pools that sit right on the edge as the mighty Zambezi River crashes into the gorge below.   Like the bedazzled English explorer Stanley Livingston, who named this mile-long drop after Queen Victoria, I swam to the very edge of the Devil’s pool with tourists on the opposing Zimbabwe side watching in shock.   Without seeing the protective rocks, it looked like I was about to go barrelling over.   For more thrills, Victoria Falls also offers one of the world’s highest bungee jumps, excellent river rafting, and microlight flights.

Credit: Franciso Becero/Flickr CC

Angel Falls

With its 979m drop, Venezuela’s Angel Falls holds the title of the world’s highest waterfall.   Located in the Canaima National Park, such is its height that the water turns to mist before hitting the ground.   Remote and difficult to access, it is still one of Venezuela’s most popular tourist attractions, and a mecca for BASE jumpers, who leap off the edge with a parachute.  Angel Falls was named after an American aviator named Jimmy Angel who accidentally discovered them in 1933. Four years later, he returned and crash landed his plane on the top, returning to civilization with tales of high adventure. His somewhat appropriate surname was subsequently given to this spectacular natural attraction.

Misolha Falls

There are several wonderful waterfalls located in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Agua Azul has numerous rocky cascades, where on weekends you’ll find families having a picnic in the surrounding park, with kids swimming in the shallow rock pools.   Misol-ha, further up the road towards Palenque, has a photo-happy 35m drop into clear, sparkling water, perfect for a swim.   The surrounding jungle offers an explorer’s ambiance, and a slippery path leads to a cave behind the waterfall itself.   While not the biggest or most popular falls on my list, here I found the serene opportunity to truly enjoying a waterfall in its natural glory.

Niagara Falls

Tourists have been flocking to North America’s most powerful and striking waterfall since the 1850’s, and this year some 28 million people will visit the Canadian/US border holiday town. Casinos, resorts and theme park attractions have cascaded around the Falls (in contrast to tranquil Iguazu), but there’s no denying the sheer power and beauty of Niagara, along with its value as a source of hydroelectric energy. The Canadian side’s Horseshoe Falls has also attracted daredevils since the early 1900’s, many of whom have climbed into a barrel and gone over the edge. If Superman really existed, he might have been able to rescue them, as he did for Lois Lane, tumbling over the falls in the 1978 hit movie.

Waterfall at Gadur Chatti, Rishikesh

Rishikesh is a town on the holy Ganges River, home to dozens of ashrams, temples, and yoga schools.   Here the Beatles tripped out, and thousands of tourists descend annually searching for enlightenment, peace, and inner joy.   Locals will no doubt tell you about the waterfalls, located about 4km up the road from Laxman Jhula, towards the tiny village of Gadur Chatti. Taking a small path into the jungle, a short hike brings you to a series of waterfalls and wispy cascades, fed by the pure, icy waters of the Himalayas. With only a handful of visitors a day, it’s easy to find bliss with a natural shower in the forest. In a region famous for its meditation and spirituality, temples do not need four walls and a roof.

Credit: Lorena/Flickr CC

Nachi Falls

A forest of cedar and cypress surrounds Japan’s Mount Nachi, and cutting through them are dozens of waterfalls. Located in the Yoshino-Kumano National Park and with a height of over 130m, Nachi Falls is one of three “divine” waterfalls in the country. Colourful wooden pagodas and temples surround the airborne stream, and together with the surrounding forest, it’s easy to see how Nachi Falls earned its sacred status.

Credit: Rich Charles/FlickrCC

Tugela Falls

South Africa’s Tugela Falls is the world’s second highest waterfall, falling 947m through the Drakensberg Mountains. Unlike Angel Falls however, it is far easier to access and can even be viewed from a major highway.   In keeping with the excellent hiking in the region, a series of chain ladders allow you to climb to the summit of Mont-Aux-Sources, the source of the Tugela Falls. My father has some sort of cosmic connection to the Drakensberg, so we’d often head to the Amphitheatre, a spectacular mountain escarpment, from which we could hike and boulder our way above various cascades, with Tugela Falls the ultimate payoff.