Category Archives: A to Z of Countries

R is for Russia

As an avowed non sporting person the whole soccer world cup mania is not my idea of a good time, but the chance to see even a little of Russia is definitely on my to do list.

I have just had clients spend four nights in St Petersburg and they made the most of their time there by booking a personal tour of The Hermitage, the world famous museum where they boast that if you spent one minute in front of every item in the museum it would take you eleven years to see it all.  With over three million things to see your head will spin.  Fortunately only a fraction of the collection is on show.  While there the guided tour of the Treasury is worth a look for the gold room among other things.

Hermitage Museum

St Petersburg offers majestic churches, the Nevsky Prospect to walk along, and trips to Peterhof.  Try to avoid the ship loads of cruise passengers all trying to squeeze into the city of you can.

You can cruise on the river between St Petersburg and Moscow and take in the Golden Ring that takes you to ancient towns and wooden churches and a very different Russia from the two big cities.  The train will also get you between the cities efficiently.

If trains are your thing, the Trans Siberian railway is a once in a lifetime experience.  This will allow you to see the sheer scale of this vast country, meet the locals who depend on the train for communication, supplies and contact, and allow you a glimpse into a very different way of life.

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Q is for Qatar

 

First let me say that the closest I have come to the actual city of Doha is the airport.  I transited there is September last year en route to Europe whilst flying with Qatar Airlines.  Coming down the ramp from the plane the city sits a tantalising distance away on the horizon.

Belgium 112

If like me you did not have time to make Doha a stop, what you will see is Hamad International Airport.

It is huge, very modern, and very expensive.  A small Greek salad and a small orange juice cost me over USD20 so be warned.   If you do have time and you are lucky, you can join a free city tour.  By lucky I mean you cannot pre-book, they only run at set hours and if they are full you can’t go.  If the hours don’t work because of your flight times you are going to get a comprehensive look at the airport facilities.

The trains to the far concourses are fun and will give you something to do after duty free looking gets boring and they do have nap rooms to stretch out in.

If you have a long layover you can book a tour of the city.  The company will pick you up from the airport and you will have a chance see the city.  The free city tour, the museum of Islamic art and the souks will give you a brief introduction to the city.  If you actually make Doha a stop you can obviously see much more.

As with all the Emirati states a trip into the desert will connect you with what is still the heart and soul of the country.  The silence, the vastness of the desert forces you to re-examine your relationship with the natural world.  It is salutary and humbling.

 

P is for Peru

South America as a continent is vast.  To give you a sense of scale, Australia fits inside Brazil which is just one of the many countries in South America.   Peru lies on the west coast of South America and is home to Spanish influenced cites, the Quechua people and the fascinating Inca culture.

Fly into Lima, the capital and you are on the coast of the Pacific.  Try the local seafood restaurants for a range of delicacies from the sea that goes way beyond fish and crustaceans.  The history of Peru, as with much of the continent is strongly influenced by the Spanish conquistadors who came seeking gold and trading opportunities.  They left behind some horrific actions, but some beautiful architecture especially the 16 and 17th century churches. See the royal palace and the main square.

For most people seeing the Amazon is a must, and Peru offers the river at its beginning.  Unlike the famous Manaus wedding of the waters, in Peru you can still see the one side of the river from the other.  Go upstream from Iquitos and stay in one of the jungle lodges and there is a good chance of seeing the pink river dolphins.  Try your hand at pirahna fishing but keep your hands well clear of their teeth.

Pink dolphins Amazon

The jungle is amazing.  Green everywhere,  insects the size of cricket balls and tarantulas the size of the bottom of a bucket.  Birds abound, as do monkeys, snakes and even the occasional jaguar.  It pays to have a very good guide.  If you are lucky you may experience a tropical storm.  Experienced at night, I saw the jungle lit green by lightning.  Incredible.

Jungle lodge Peru

The other must see, and for most the reason to travel to Peru in the first place is to see the Inca culture at Cuzco and Machu Picchu.  Only the most experience pilots fly the Cuzco route and only in daylight – and when you see the airport runway you realise why.  Cuzco perches 11000 feet up in the Andes, surrounded by mountains,  and you need to rest and acclimatize when you arrive.  The city is beautiful – red tiled roofs and stunning drystone walls dating to Quechua times.  On the town tour you will see the stone that has 14 sides and fits perfectly with its  neighbours.  The skill is breathtaking, and it is not just the thin air.  In Cuzco you can try the local speciality of guinea pig – think stringy and quite tough.

Cuzco

From Cuzco the train takes you down 3000 feet through Ollyantaytambo and the sacred valley where the corn is delicious to Aqua Calientes.  This is the town at the bottom of the hill that the once lost city of Machu Picchu sits on.  Undiscovered for several hundred years this spectacularly well preserved ruin raises as many questions as it answers.

machu Picchu

Walk to the Sungate for the view as the locals would have seen it from the Inca trail.  If you want to do the walk make sure you book through a tour company as the numbers are controlled by permit.  The bus takes you up a switchback road to the top.  There are still flower beds planted by the inhabitants that bloom.  And definitely stay overnight so that you have the city at its best in the quiet of early morning and you can explore at your own pace.

There is so much more to see in Peru, but this will have to serve as a taste.  Peru is a smorgasbord to be savoured in all its colours.

O is for Oman

Where do the people of the Arabian Peninsula go for holidays?  To Oman.

And why wouldn’t they?  Oman is a hidden treasure of delight and unexpectedness that beckons travellers with the promise of something truly special.

The capital is Muscat.  Unlike its neighbour to the west Muscat does not have high rise buildings scraping the stratosphere.  In Muscat the buildings may not be taller than the famous towers guarding the city, so it is user friendly and not overwhelming.  The souqs will delight and if you have a platinum card it could get a workout!

Muscat souq

But there is so much more to see than just the capital.  To the north is Musandam.  Explore the mountains here and go on a dhow cruise to visit Telegraph Island and swim in warm waters.  Take the ferry down to Muscat and the cruise is very like the fjords of Norway.

Musandam

South of Muscat you can visit the nesting sites of the green turtles in the right season (September) and south again is Salalah that I will return to.

Most people think of the Arabian Peninsula as desert.  Oman will confound that expectation.  While the Empty Quarter will give you the desert experience (and sleeping under a million stars in the desert sky in a tent having been feasted by the local tribespeople is an experience that will remain with you always),  there is so much more than that.  Oman boasts mountains over 3000 metres high.  Apricots, dates and nuts are grown along with many others and the wadis offer refreshing waters.  Ancient towns like Nizwa with give you an insight to a history that dates back millenia.

Empty quarter Oman

And if that is not enough, Salalah in the south has rainforest!  The place the Muscovites escape to in the heat of summer Salalah offers green vistas and great birdwatching.  It is also home to the frankincense trade that has linked the Arabian Peninsula to Europe.

Boswellia trees frankincense

Bu most of all, Oman offers warm and welcoming hospitality to everyone.  Travellers and tourists will be welcomed, western culture is accepted, and the hotels and resorts are to die for.  Put it on your bucket list now!

N is for New Zealand The North Island

New Zealand offers something for everyone.  Compact enough to see in three weeks, diverse enough to spend six months and still not see everything, it is a treasure trove of things to see, do, experience and explore.  Like Canada, this will be a two parter.

If you are going to visit New Zealand and want to do it over two trips, start with the North Island.  Auckland is the main gateway in ( but not the capital city) and the North Island is beautiful in its own right.  At the top of the island the land stretches into the Pacific Ocean with countless beaches and bays and abundant birdlife.  Most tourists will go as far as the Bay of Islands, known for the Hole in the Rock cruise, dolphin spotting and some very classy getaway homes.  It is also home to the Waitangi treaty grounds where white settlers and Maori people forged an alliance to settle the land and to lovely Russell a ferry ride from Paihia great views and some fabulous craft shops.Hole in the Rock Cruise

The coastline will keep surfers happy and walkers fit.  Try Ninety Mile Beach!

Auckland is set on two bays and is as much about water activities as it is about city living.  Known as the City of Sails you can go for a sail aboard an America’s Cup boat or take the regular ferries to waterside suburbs for a look around the craft shops and a coffee at one of the many cafes.  If you are a thrill seeker have a go at the bungy jump in downtown Auckland.  New Zealand is the adventure capital of the world.

Rotorua is famous the world over for its geothermal activity, hot springs and thermal mud pools.  Soak is natural hot water, have a mud pack or massage at one of the spas, and take in the geysers and mud pools at one of the many areas around town.  This is also where you will experience Maori heritage – sample the hangi feast cooked in the ground as it has been for thousands of years – and delicious.
If you want an authentic and less touristy experience of Maori culture the Eastlands area is 50% Maori and a great place to find Maori art.

rotorua-trilogy

Within a 90 minute drive of Rotorua you will find Mata Mata, home to the setting and filming of The Hobbit and the Hobbiton area for The Lord of the Rings films.  Take a tour and a ride on Gandalf the bus to the filming area and see the period vege patches, the hobbit holes (doorways anyway) and the tree they tied thousands of leaves to, and marvel at the magic of film.

bag-end-hobbiton-movie-set-matamata-nz.ClFWmQ

About the same distance away is Waitomo and its glowworm caves.  There are in fact three caves to explore.  South of Rotorua is Lake Taupo and dominating the landscape Ruapehu /Mt Tongariro.  Walks abound here in this world heritage area, the impressive Huka Falls are worth a look and the activities on the lake are endless.

If you head across to the East Coast from Lake Taupo make sure you fill your tank as there are no fuel stations on the two hour drive across.  Napier on the coast is world renowned for its Art Deco architecture, built after the massive earthquake of 1931 and do take the walking tour which is the best way to see the city.  Birdwatchers will enjoy the gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers and Hawke’s Bay nearby has wineries specialising in cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and merlot.

More wineries further south in the area around Martinborough, but if you take the first road signed to Martinborough from the north you will miss the vineyards.  You will however come across a quirky New Zealand landmark – a southern hemisphere version of Stonehenge  Aotearoa.  Oddly enough it is worth the modest entry fee to see the rest of the site and explore the connections to Egyptian, Babylonian and Indus valley astronomy,  Polynesian navigation and Maori Star lore.

The wineries are well worth exploring.  Surfers will want to visit Taranaki and Surf Highway 45 with 100 kilometres of beach and great breaks.  WOMAD is held in March  in New Plymouth along with garden festivals and sporting events.  Check out the galleries and the Te Rewa Bridge.

South again to the capital city of New Zealand  Wellington.  Known affectionately as the windy city, it is home to the Te Papa Museum – absolutely a must see to learn about the seismic activity of the islands as well as its natural history.  Take the cable car ride to the top of Mount Victoria for great views over the city and to visit the Botanic Gardens.  The Zoo is small enough to enjoy in two to three hours and big enough to keep you interested.  You will be able to see endemic fauna here.  The Beehive building is the New Zealand parliament, and close by is the gorgeous Old St Paul’s church, Gothic revival in style with some beautiful stained glass windows.  Like all capital cities Wellington has arts and culture, sporting venues and a waterfront best explored by bike or on foot.

In keeping with the film culture WETA Cave is the New Zealand’s Hollywood, a must see.  And check out the World of Wearable Art festival that has been running for 25 years.

So much more is on offer in the North Island but that would take another entry.  Get out and enjoy it, and if you need help planning and booking your holiday,  I am an email or phone call away.

 

 

N is for New Zealand -South Island

If you only ever intend to see one island in New Zealand (and both are definitely worth it) then the South Island delivers bang for buck.

Home to the best sauvignon blancs in the world in the Marlborough region, spectacular fjords, glaciers, and some lovely rail journeys, the South Island will give you a good overview of the country and its people.

The crossing from Wellington on the North Island to Picton on the North Island by ferry is three and a half hours of lovely scenery.  If you are hiring a car the car company will take your vehicle used in the north and give you a new one in the south island on arrival, so remember to take all your belongings out of the car.  Exploring Marlborough Sound gives you access to some great coastal walks as well as vineyards and a burgeoning food and wine experience.

Marlborough wine country

Travelling across the island and down will bring you to Greymouth, the end point of the TranzAlpine railway that runs from Christchurch.  Check out the local brewery, and if you are into adventure activities, quad biking is just one of many activities available.

Continuing south along the west coast and you travel through Hokitika, crafts and jade or greenstone country, down to Franz Josef Glacier, one of two on this coast.  The glacier is right by the road so very accessible.  A little further south and Fox Glacier is the second accessible glacier.  Here you can walk on the glacier with crampons after hiking through forest, and the helicopter ride is great fun.  South again and you will need your camera charged as the views to the Tasman Sea unfold on this gorgeous stretch of coast.

Haast Pass takes the road inland towards Queenstown and across the mountains.  Again, the camera will be working overtime as the views around every corner are breathtaking.  Mountains, lakes, valleys – gorgeous.  Wanaka is home to both the lake for which the town is named, and to great skifields.   It is also the site for Warbirds over Wanaka, an airshow of international repute.   Next stop Arrowtown just out of Queenstown.  Adventure seekers will try the jetboats; those preferring less getting drenched and more cultural pursuits will enjoy the local craftshops.

Everyone who goes to Queenstown regrets not staying longer. Plan for at least four nights here.  The town sits between two lakes and is surrounded by mountains and in the winter ski runs.  Filled with great souvenir places, all kinds of different restaurant options, including the restaurant at the top of the chairlift to the top of the mountain, and hub for day tours out of the town, Queenstown is lively, friendly and in the heart of everything.  This is where the bungy jump (using a cord not vines) was born and  it is close to several sites  where Lord of the Rings was filmed.  You can take a four wheel drive tour to Skippers Canyon – not for the fainthearted!  Or if a bygone era is more your style, a trip on the Earnslaw, a steamer boat is a lovely option.

Two hours south is the little town of Te Anau.  If you plan to see Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, consider staying in Te Anau.  It cuts off two hours travel time in each direction and makes for a far more relaxing experience.  Most tourists will see Milford Sound – smaller, more dramatic and closer to Queenstown that Doubtful Sound, but be prepared.  There is generally one good day in four so you are most likely to see it in cloud and with local waterfalls.  On a  good day, the reflections are spectacular of Mitre Peak in the sound.

Milford Sound

Doubtful Sound is less often visited on a first trip, but is a must for a second visit. Bigger than Milford and with a wealth of wildlife, the Sound offers New Zealand fur seals near the ocean, and curious dolphins that follow the ship.  Bird spotters will also be able to check out the local inhabitants here.

This area also has some world famous hiking trails – tramping in New Zealand parlance.  The Milford Track and the Hollyford Tracks are just two – there are many in New Zealand on both islands.

South again brings you to the southernmost part of New Zealand’s South Island.  Invercargill boasts the most consistent weather in New Zealand – permanently cold!  Try fishing, watersports, birdlife and the trip to Stewart Island the most southerly part of the country will give you a chance to see kiwis in their natural habitat.

Across to the east coast and the Scottish-feel city of Dunedin.  University city, home to Cadbury’s Chocolate factory and a brewery, you an also see Lanarch castle – indeed you van stay there is you wish.  Bird watchers will find the Albatross Centre here.

North to the centre of the island and Mount Cook , the highest mountain in New Zealand offers great views on a clear day.  If not, the hot chocolate is good.  Onward to lake Tekapo and the tiny church on the lake’s edge. North again to Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island and renowned for the earthquakes that flattened much of the city including the landmark Christchurch Cathedral.  It is taking some time but the city is rebuilding, and in the meantime see the popup shops and restaurants housed in shipping containers.  Twin city to Adelaide ( my hometown) and planned by the same Colonel William Light, the city has a beautiful park and the River Avon lets you try punting.

If you are flying out of Christchurch and it is an afternoon flight, a great thing to do is visit the Antarctic Museum.  Have a ride on an actual Hagglund vehicle used on the ice, check out the wildlife on the Antarctic and experience a blizzard.  Well worth a couple of hours.

The transcoastal railway runs from Christchurch north.  Just check that earthquake damage has been repaired.  Visit Kaikoura for dolphin encounters – there is a population of dolphins permanently in the bay, whale watching and swimming with seals.   And if relaxation and spoiling yourself is part of the agenda, the mineral and hot springs area of Hamner Springs will soothe and replenish you.

You will need it if you try to do everything New Zealand has to offer!

N is for New Zealand

New Zealand is one of Australia’s nearest neighbours and our links go back to the ANZAC tradition and before.  Regularly referred to as across the ditch, New Zealand is a few hours flight from Australia and one of the greatest places to go for all sorts of reasons.

Showcased by New Zealand director Peter Jackson in the trilogy Lord of the Rings and again in The Hobbit New Zealand is spectacular in scenery, rich in history and Maori culture, is home to the best sauvignon blancs on the planet (just my opinion but I haven’t tried a Marlborough sav blanc I haven’t liked) and home of the adventure and adrenalin junkies best fixes.

bag-end-hobbiton-movie-set-matamata-nz.ClFWmQ

Auckland is the largest city and main gateway, but Wellington in the south of the North Island is its capital.   Auckland is on two harbours and water sports are a way of life.  Take a ferry across the bay and explore a local village neighbourhood.  Take a sail on an America’s Cup boat.  Explore the city on the morning tour and climb an extinct volcano.  Adrenalin seekers can try the Auckland Tower.

North of Auckland is the Bay of Islands area.  Check out the dolphin cruise from Paihia or Russell and view the Hole in the Rock as well as some very upmarket homes.  While in this region visit the Treaty Ground and explore historic Russell, on a island a three minute ferry from Paihia and if you enjoy a walk and don’t mind a bit of a climb, the views from the lookout are spectacular.

Hole in the Rock Cruise

Check out the glowworm caves at Waitomo south of Auckland, and make time to visit not just the main cave, but one of the other two as well.  Two Dogs cave is fascinating as is the history of how they found the cave ( the hint is in the name) and there are glowworms here too.

Rotorua is the centre for Maori culture.  Enjoy a hangi and savour superbly cooked food done in a traditional earth oven – yum.  Visit the thermal centres in the town and also nearby.  See the world the way it was when it was young – New Zealand is relatively young and still quite geothermically active.

rotorua-trilogy

Let the cares of the world wash away in the hot springs and have a mud scrub and massage for relaxation and rejuvenation.

Lake Taupo is the largest lake in New Zealand is there is permanent snow nearby.

If architecture is of interest to you it is worth the drive ( but fill up in Lake Taupo because there are no petrol stations on the road) to Napier on the east coast.  Devastated by earthquake in 1930 the city was rebuilt in Art Deco style and the walking tour is absolutely worth doing.  South after lots of very rural scenery – extremely contented cows and sheep –  is the town of Marlborough, a wine making area worth a look.  If you take the first signpost to the wineries you won’t find the wineries, but you will find a New Zealand quirk – their version of Stonehenge for the southern hemisphere.

Over the pass and south to Wellington.   Capital, affectionately called the windy city,  it is home to a fabulous museum, a sweet little zoo and great views from the cable car top station.  It is quite hilly so be prepared for some climbing or use the lifts that go up the hill usually found in shopping malls.

Wellington city-views

Wellington is the departure point for ferries to the South Island, but I have gone on too long already.  I will keep the South Island for next.