Finding Myself Lost in the Atacama

Lost among the pink volcanoes of the Atacama.

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

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

That road has to be here somewhere…

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

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

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!

Swimming in the Devil’s Pool over Victoria Falls

Credit: Flickr CC Joep yrek-Flickr-CC—flic.kr_p_dDAkks

I once travelled with a guy who kept the same journal for almost a decade. He’d tape additional books together and write in tiny script. This impressive travel diary was his Bible, an invaluable historical record of his complete life adventures. It was stolen, along with his backpack, off the roof of a bus somewhere between Transylvania and Budapest. What the hell does this have to do with Victoria Falls? Well, I once had a journal, and it contained the most incredible photograph of me jumping off the very lip of the world’s largest waterfall. Twice the height and width of Niagara Falls, more water falls into the chasm dividing Zambia and Zimbabwe than anywhere else. It’s not the world’s highest waterfall (that’s Angel Falls in Venezuela), nor even the widest (that’s Khone Falls, Laos). Yet the sheer volume of the mighty Zambezi has attracted Bucket Listers for centuries, drawn to a place the locals call “the smoke that thunders”. Traditionally, most tourists to Vic Falls stay in colonial hotels on the Zimbabwean side, but with the country’s political and economic collapse, many now prefer the Zambian side. Hotels and tour operators in both countries are known to gouge their guests for the privilege of seeing this natural wonder, including a day-visa which allows you to cross borders for the views, at a price of around 40,000 Zambian kwachas, or ten gazillion Zimbabwe dollars. Actually, Zimbabwe’s currency was abandoned altogether, rendering all its notes worthless. Inflation reached 89,700,000,000,000,000,000,000% in 2008. And I didn’t even make that number up. In both countries, where the US greenback goes very far, you’ll pay up to $80 just to see Victoria Falls. No more bitching about prices to cruise under Horseshoe Falls in Niagara.

I visited the Zambian side in December, the tail end of dry season. With the Zambezi flowing at low volume, you can walk to Livingstone Island, and then make your way to the Devil’s Pool. Here, a rock barrier creates a pool right at the very edge of the falls. Much to the horror of tourists on the Zimbabwe side, you can even go rock jumping. Across the chasm, tourists can’t see the pool, and must therefore watch what appear to be tourists committing suicide. This close to the edge, you don’t have to worry about crocodiles or strong currents, although the occasional tourist has gotten a bit overzealous, missed the pool, and found themselves visiting Zimbabwe without a visa, or a heartbeat. If swimming to the edge of the world’s largest waterfall isn’t enough of a thrill, you can also bungee jump 111-metres off Victoria Falls Bridge, once the highest commercial bungee in the world. Or spend $500 a night at the Royal Livingstone, a hotel bill that is sure to give you a heart attack. Zimbabwe is a country with abundant natural resources, and a country that once promised much hope for sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, a corrupt, crackpot dictator bled it dry. A common joke: Where is the capital of Zimbabwe? Geneva.

I’d love to illustrate this post with an epic, once-in-a-lifetime photo of me rock jumping into the Devil’s Pool. We set it up so it looks like I’m actually leaping off Victoria Falls itself. Unfortunately, much like Zimbabwe’s economy, that travel journal mysteriously vanished, along with the photo in question (and so many more), the writing, and contacts of new travel friends. It pains me to even think about it. Fortunately, you’ll never forget Victoria Falls, even if you do lose your journal. Nor should you forget any of the Bucket List adventures on this site, although you might want to keep an online blog and back up your photos all the same.

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.

Canyoneering in Costa Rica

Arenal Volcano – Costa Rica

Most visitors to Costa Rica inevitably find themselves in the small town of La Fortuna, in hopes of seeing molten rock tumbling down the steep cone of Arenal Volcano. There are few sights to scare the hell out of you quite like an active volcano, but what the brochures conveniently fail to mention is that Arenal is clouded over for much of the year, and many visitors spend days looking at cloud when they’d much rather be baking on the sandy beaches along the Pacific coast. So as I waited for the clouds to lift and reveal the Mount Doom-like volcano in all its glory, I discovered the unusual but thoroughly thrilling sport of canyoneering. Thus I found myself dangling 60m above the ground like a fly wrapped in dental floss, soaked to the bone, beneath a recently discovered waterfall.

Canyoneering combines aspects of climbing (ropes, abseiling), hiking, and where applicable, swimming.   The idea, simply, is that you climb, walk and slide your way down a canyon, often on your butt. In this particular case, alongside stunning waterfalls and thick jungle foliage.   Former adventure guide Christine Larson and her husband Suresh Krishnan call it “The Lost Canyon” because they only discovered it a few years ago, clearing the canyon of natural rubble, and preparing wooden platforms from which to abseil.   Every effort was made to conserve the rich eco-system, while at the same time allowing inexperienced climbers to rappel down two large waterfalls.   Climbers like myself – the last time I abseiled I caught one of my testicles in the harness, arriving back on solid ground well capable of reaching Michael Jackson’s high notes.   Through Christine and Suresh’s adventure company Desafio,  I joined a dozen other nervous tourists for a short drive from the town and a quick lesson in safety. Being one of the first groups to visit this rediscovered canyon meant extra precautions, and amongst the group was canyoneering legend Rich Hall – a certifier from the American Canyoneering Association. Rich, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the late actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, told me about the time he got lost for three days and almost died in a canyon. This calmed my nerves the way hot cheese cools your mouth. After a few small practice rappels, we arrived at the first major drop.   A wooden platform had been built alongside a tree, and the idea was to jump off it into the ravine below.   I swung myself around the last safety pole, leaned back (making sure my family jewels were well positioned), and slid down into the lush canyon below. I could whoop in joy without a high-pitched falsetto.

Kitted out with gloves, helmet and harness, the group slowly made our way into the ravine.   Even with my camera in a plastic bag, I was nervous about wading through the rock pools, preferring to remain relatively dry by pulling Spiderman manoeuvres along the narrow canyon walls.   This made no difference once I descended over another 60m drop, since Suresh, guiding below, swung the rope directly into the waterfall – a thrilling natural baptism that defied photographs anyway.     Safely at the bottom, I joined the rest of the group, all wearing the “did I really just do that?” expression one finds in similar thrilling activities, like skydiving, or not paying traffic fines.   With the jungle teeming with life around us – toucans, lizards, bugs – Suresh explained the exhaustive work it took to clear out old logs, wood and muck, and also to navigate Costa Rican politics.   The country has strict laws when it comes to protecting its natural assets, and it’s no accident Costa Rica has become one of the best places on earth for eco-tourism.

After three hours, we reached a narrow exit point, unprepared but ready for a short, steep hike up the canyon to the road. Everyone had a rosy watermelon smile at the end, perfect to fit the fresh-cut watermelon waiting for us after the steep climb out. Rich gave the experience two-thumbs up, and so did I.   The cloud over Arenal never did clear up. Some days you win, some days you discover canyoneering.

Watersport with a Bajan Legend

Yes, please! It says much about Barbadians, or Bajans, if you prefer, that their be-all, end-all answer to a question, a statement, a polite request or a loud proclamation is “Yes, please!” The sovereign country has a history stretching back to the 1550s, and a proud culture that has developed through the constant movement of people, tossed together like the soup a surfer might find within the big waves of Bathsheba— a history of slavery, religion, colonialism, uprisings, cricket and roundabouts. Today, a dreamy blue ocean continues to crash against some of the world’s most exclusive resorts and luxurious homes built for the rich and famous. All well and good, but our bucket list is looking for character, which brings us to Bajan national hero, world-champion freestyle windsurfer and island legend Brian Talma.

Having the shaggy-haired, bright-eyed and deeply tanned Brian Talma teach us watersports is like having Tiger Woods give us putting tips. Wide smiles are cracked across the island at the mention of Talma’s name. And when Talma himself smiles, which is just about all the time, his teeth twinkle like piano keys in a New Orleans jazz bar. Over the course of his 25-year career on the worldwide pro circuit, Talma has become the go-to guy for anyone delving into beach culture. At home in Barbados, he operates de Action, a brightly painted little surf shop offering rentals, lessons and a sweet place to catch the action on Silver Sands Beach.
“Action!” It’s Talma’s mantra, bookending his sentences. “Action! We should always choose a life of action!” I’m motivated to learn about new trends in watersport from this living legend, swept up in his wave of enthusiasm. When I tell him that I hope to freestyle windsurf (never tried), kitesurf (never tried) and stand-up paddleboard (never tried) on the same day, he plays a toothy tune with those ivories, followed by a deep belly laugh. Action is definitely in the winds.

Full disclosure: I have been on a windsurfer before. At the age of five, I would lie between my dad’s legs on his long board at the local dam. My dad embraced windsurfing when it first arrived on the scene, and every weekend, I’d spread out at the back of his board, a true windsurfer’s child. Shortly afterwards, my dad moved onto his next fad, cycling. The windsurfer gathered dust in the garage.
Cut to Brian, a man who has windsurfed some of the world’s biggest waves, showing me how to pull up a sail. Roger Federer might as well explain how to hold a tennis racket. I barely stand up and immediately the wind hits the sail, blowing me toward the next island of St. Lucia. Brian swims after me, laughing loudly, ready to gather me up when I inevitably wipe out. Whatever. Windsurfing is old news. On the beach are Canadians learning how to kitesurf, an exploding sport fast gaining converts around the world. Silver Sands Beach, they tell me, is one of the best kitesurfing destinations in the world. Talma, of course, mastered the sport years ago.

When kitesurfing, you’re connected via a harness to a large stunt kite, capable of rocketing you across the waves and launching you 9 metres into the air. All you need is a board, a power kite, waves, wind and a certain amount of lunacy. I know three friends mad about kitesurfing. They’ve all broken bones and twisted knees, yet continue to love it.
Controlling and harnessing the wind, directing the kite, relaunching from a crash and cresting over waves is not something you learn to do in a couple of hours. Kitesurfing enthusiasts in Barbados typically spend two weeks—renting houses or staying in hotels around Silver Sands Beach—learning just the basics.

Brian explains the appeal of the sport: “Action! You can do anything you want, man, there’s no limit when it comes to kitesurfing. Ready for your crash course? Action!”
He starts me off on a small stunt kite, showing me how to swing it in a figure eight to get power, keeping it steady directly above me, sort of like neutral gear in a car. I barely get the hang of it as the midday sun, my sweat and my cheap sunblock stings my corneas. Brian brings out the big kite with the hesitancy of a Ferrari owner slipping the keys to a learner driver. I watch as he demonstrates his control, the big kite powerful enough to blow him to Bridgetown. It costs $1,500 for the kite alone, so he’s rightfully worried I will end up slamming into a building in the nation’s capital. Brian hooks me into the harness, and within seconds I crash the kite hard into the beach, feeling the bone-cringing slam of material on sand. Fortunately, these kites can take a pounding. We launch it again, and I crash it again. It’s disheartening to be so uncool next to the coolest cat on the island.

When I finally get the kite under control, I try a figure eight and immediately get dragged across the white sand, like an ant holding onto dental floss in a hurricane. Twisted on the ground, I turn to Brian.
“I’m sure your local emergency room is busy enough. Let’s move onto stand-up paddleboarding.”
Heck, everybody’s stand-up paddleboarding! Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Aniston, Pierce Brosnan, Matt Damon, Kate Hudson, Owen Wilson, Sting. Perhaps it’s a prerequisite to look like a movie star. The sport involves standing on a long, customized surfboard, oar in hand, riding offshore currents and surfing onshore waves.

Brian demonstrates. Relaxed, his back is straight and shoulders are square. He looks as comfortable standing on water as he does on land. I hoist myself up, bent over like a hunchback, slipping and sliding, wobbling and wiping—much to the amusement of all on the beach. I hope they laugh at those damn celebrities too.
Nobody in their right mind should attempt to learn three watersports in one day, let alone sports that require hours of practice just to reach beginner level. But it did provide a great excuse to hang out with a legendary character like Brian Talma. If you’re looking to tick a few watersports off your bucket list, Silver Sands Beach, Barbados and Brian’s de Action shack will put the wind in your sails.

The Best Winter Experiences in Canada

Canadians don’t let snow, ice and freezing rain get in the way of a good adventure. Travelling to every province and territory to research our sister book, The Great Canadian Bucket List, I discovered exceptional winter experiences to add to the list of things to do in Canada – or anywhere else – before you die. Here’s my round-up of the best winter experiences in Canada:

Skoki Lodge, Alberta

Winter guests cross-country ski a challenging 11km to reach Western Canada’s oldest backcountry lodge. No roads, no 4×4’s – just a path through pristine wilderness inside the Lake Louise Ski Resort, located within Banff National Park. Awaiting you is the rustic wooden Skoki Lodge, built in 1931 and selected by early mountaineers for its remoteness, scenic beauty, and access to exceptional ski trails. No running water, no electricity, no bathrooms either – just a homely throwback to yesteryear, where friends and strangers explore the outdoor beauty of winter, indulge in fabulous meals, then gather round the fire with great stories and a cup of hot chocolate.

Polar Bear Safari, Manitoba

Each fall, the outpost town of Churchill receives unusual guests. Among them are scientists, researchers, and wildlife enthusiasts armed with cameras. Nearly one thousand visitors are polar bears, waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze in order to head north and feast after their long, summer fast. The world’s most southerly population of polar bears migrate around Churchill, which is why the town has closed-circuit cameras, bear traps, and a bear jail for bears that get a little too close. It also has tour operators like Frontiers North and Churchill Wild, with customized elevated tundra buggies that take you safely into the tundra to get up close and personal with the world’s largest carnivore. Having a polar bear fog up your camera lens with its hot breath is definitely one for the Bucket List.

Heli-Sking, British Columbia

When a helicopter becomes your own personal ski chair, dropping you on top of mountains with deep, virgin powder stretching in every direction, it’s hard to go back to your local hill. CMH Heli Skiing’s 11 lodges, operating in BC’s Columbia Mountains, attract eager clients from around the world. Joining a group of Americans, Brits and Australians, I quickly understood why. Averaging about 12 runs a day through terrain that freezes a grin to your face, powder skiing or riding is the closest activity I’ve experienced to flying – and I’ve paraglided on 4 continents. It takes a while to get the hang of deep powder, and strong winds and avalanches can ground both helicopters and skiers, so you’ll want to book at least three to five days to tick this one off your Bucket List. Admittedly your whirlybird ski-chair does not come cheap, but with a guaranteed amount of untracked vertical feet, the exhilaration is worth it.

Winter Carnival, Quebec

Shake your booty at Rio’s Carnaval, collect your beads in New Orleans, but whatever you do, don’t miss out on the world’s largest winter festival. For over half a century, Quebec City’s annual Winter Carnival has attracted millions of revellers to its celebration of snow, ice, and sub-zero temperatures. Festive parades, snow carving, slides, rides and competitions greet visitors to the city’s Battlefields Park, where locals and guests wear the traditional ceinture fléchée, a colourful French-Canadian sash. Stroll down Grande Allée and pull up to an ice-bar for some caribou – a hot mulled wine with whiskey. When the thermometer plummets below -15°C and crowds are still on the streets cheering acrobats on decorated floats, you can feel the chill of winter shrivel.

See the Northern Lights, Northwest Territories

In a UK poll that asked 22 million people what destinations or activities top their Bucket List, 27% (the second highest percentage) said they want to see the northern lights. One of the best places in the world to do this is in Yellowknife. The city lies beneath a halo-like ring known as the aurora oval, where lights flare in the sky with an increased intensity. With few geographical obstructions, and a high percentage of clear winter nights, the northern lights are particularly active from mid-November to mid-April. Experience aurora watching in comfort thanks to tour operators like Aurora Village and Yellowknife Outdoor Adventures, who provide heated viewing decks, hot drinks, and comfortable chairs in cabins removed from local light sources. Watching green, red and blue lights dance across a clear northern sky is a natural spectacle that belongs on Canada’s Bucket List too.

Go Dogsledding, Yukon

The huskies, labradors and tough-as-nails Yukon mutts found in Whitehorse’s Muktuk Kennels are the happiest dogs I’ve ever seen. Lovingly named, cared for and exercised, the kennel’s 125 dogs can’t wait to you pull you on a sled into the surrounding valley. You’ll quickly learn that dogsledding is all about teamwork. If the dogs are not happy, you’re not going anywhere. Fortunately, Muktuk’s friendly mushers are there to guide you. As for your team, they’ll reward you with licks, howls and even cuddles. Muktuk’s dogs make loyal, well-trained pets, and runs an adoption program for their retired dogs. It was -30°C the afternoon I spent sledding with eight delighted northern dogs, but some experiences will forever warm the soul.