Category Archives: Cultural gems

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.

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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

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.

Bruges

Bruges has always been a tourist town, and on a beautiful Saturday in late September it was a little overrun, but our guide managed to find two places I had not been to before, both of them oases of tranquility in what can be a busy place.  The first was an alms house, in off a lane near our hotel.  Gardens in the centre, small cottages around the outside and a peaceful atmosphere, these houses date to the sixteenth century and provided housing to those who needed it most.

 

The second place is the Beguinage. This is a separate community set up by women in the middles ages whose husbands had died, or whom were never married, but came from wealth.  They created a community of housing for women with a shared church, gardens and ensured that people who had less were taken care of.  This community still exists, and is closed from 6 pm to 6 am.  During the day you are able to visit and it is beautiful and peaceful.  The church is worth a look and the trees of the park are beautiful.  If you can time your visit to early spring, the park is a field of daffodils.

 

Bruges offers canal boat trips to see the sights of the city, and is a very walkable city.  Look out for the “old” bridge which is barely 50 years old,  and if you are looking for a snack, the chocolate shops will not disappoint,nor will the waffles – just look for the long lines outside to make sure you are getting the best freshly made waffles.

However you do it #visitbruges.

In Flanders Fields

I spent a week as a guest of #visitflanders at the end of September visiting Brussels, Bruges, the Flanders fields area and finishing in Gent. Although I had visited the cities before ( a very long time ago) it was my first visit to the fields where so many very young Australia, New Zealand, British, Canadian, French, Belgian and German men gave their lives in the war that was supposed to end all wars.

It is difficult to imagine what it would have been like for these young men in the trenches. We were very privileged to see an actual Australian trench that has been rediscovered as a result of an archaeological dig to find the crypt of the Zonnebeke church. It is only open for a few months and will be resealed in November. The neighbouring museum of Passchendaele (#passchendaele100) has a recreation of the trenches, but the real thing is different.

Cold, dank, slightly smelly, the corridors are streaked with blue clay and orange and yellow lines of the minerals the trenches were cut through. It is a bleak place. We were there in September on a lovely day – in the trenches in December mid winter would have been a freezing hell.

There are 600 cemeteries in Flanders Fields. Some are huge – Tyne Cot has almost 12,000 marked graves and thousands more names inscribed on a memorial wall. Far too many are inscribed “A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God.” Some are tiny – a few gravestones at the back of someone’s farm. Some you can see from the road, some you have to search out, as we did visiting Toronto Avenue (named by the Canadians but the only cemetery which is entirely Australian.) You walk through beautiful woods to the end and the cemetery is there, peaceful and beautiful.

We participated in the Menin Gate ceremony,and then were very privileged to attend the 100th commemoration of the Battle of Polygon Wood (#passchendaele100). Even the 1 am start for a 2 am drive to Polygon Wood did not dampen the sense of occasion. The walk through the wood along the path of remembrance took us on a journey telling us about the battle. We saw the short distance between enemy lines; people re-enacted soldiers bringing the wounded back to the dressing station and cooks in the mess tent. We saw Scott’s bunker, taken during the battle and then joined the service. There was music from the army band and a Queensland children’s choir, a viewing of a short film called The Telegram Man which was very moving, and readings from current servicemen about the men who preceded them so long ago, and how the VC winners won their medals. Everyone had their spine chill moment. For me it was the Spirit of Place when an Aboriginal man played the didgeridoo in the darkness, filling the space with a deep thrum from ancient times half way round the world, to bring those men home.

Belgium 448

I do not have a direct family connection to the fields of Flanders to my knowledge, but it does not matter. Anyone and everyone will respond to something about the fields of Flanders. It might be the sheer beauty of the gentle countryside as time has healed many of the wounds inflicted by war. It might be the sense of sacrifice seen in the myriad rows of headstones. It might be the Last Post at Menin Gate, held every night at 8 pm whether there are people there or not. This place is worth your time and your reflection. It might be the place to be on November 11th  2018 when the centenary of the Armistice will take place. Book now.

 

L is for Lichtenstein and Luxembourg

 

It’s a two for one today.  Lichtenstein and Luxembourg are two of what are known as the microstates of Europe, tiny principalities, duchies or city states that are quirky and fascinating to explore.

Lichtenstein, all of twenty five kilometres long, is a principality between Austria and Switzerland.  The capital and only main town is Vaduz where the Prince still lives in the castle – and no, you can’t stay there.  It would be like asking if you could stay in Buckingham Palace!  German speaking, lots of medieval castles and villages linked by walking trails, it is a delightful place to spend a little time getting to know.

Schlossvaduz. Lichtenstein

And like all countries it has its own postal system, so philatelists will love the chance to get their stamps.

Luxembourg is the Lux in the Benelux countries – Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.  A Grand Duchy, Luxembourg is 998 square miles and has a population of just over half a million.  Bordered by France, Germany and Belgium, and a stone’s throw from Trier, the city perches over two steep gorges and is famous for its Casemates du Bock, tunnels and caves now galleries, worked deep into the cliffs, and a lovely medieval town centre.  The Moselle river winds through the duchy and the Chemin du Corniche is a walk with beautiful views to enjoy.

Luxembourg

French is used for legislation, German and the local Luxembourgish are the most widely spoken languages. The French influence is in the fabulous patisseries to be found on almost every corner.

Get your stamps here too.

Along with Monaco, San Marino, Vatican City, Malta and Andorra these little gems are well worth the time.

 

J is for Japan

Japan is a blend of eastern wisdom, culture, effortlessly enhanced natural beauty and style with technologies that lead the world and affect every aspect of modern life.  And it is in this blend that Japan fascinates and beguiles the traveller.

Temple Japan

Big cities can overwhelm the first time traveller.  Expect to get turned around in the Tokyo subway system and don’t be afraid to ask which way is where.  It is all a part of getting to know the city.  Be sure to take a hotel card with you – if all else fails grab a taxi and you will get back to your home base.  Tokyo offers imperial palaces, beautiful gardens and park areas as well as some of the craziest shopping you will experience in the Ginza.  It is possible to live for a week or more just from the vending machines, which will provide everything from pyjamas and toothbrushes and toothpaste to clean underwear and food, and drinks as well as just about anything else you might need.

Ginza

If big cities are not for you, the bullet trains will get you out of the city quickly, and you can explore the countryside and smaller towns which retain a deal of the old Japanese traditional life.  View Mt Fuji from the bullet train, explore the Hakone region, and maybe head south to explore more of the history of this country.

Kyoto was the capital before Tokyo and is home to beautiful wooden castles and graceful Shinto temples.  If you can manage your visit in spring the cherry blossoms are spectacular.

Kyoto also offers some very good ryokans – the traditional Japanese inns.  Not cheap, one night will give you a taste of this other worldly experience.  You receive a traditional Japanese dinner, sleeping accommodations on rooms defined by how many tatami mats it holds, access to the baths where you clean first and then enter the bath, and breakfast in the morning.  You may even get the traditional tea ceremony.

Tea ceremony

The cities of Nara, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are frequently visited as well, for heritage and for the latter two the World War 2 atomic bomb connections.  Osaka, a large and busy city is another gateway to southern Japan.

The trains will get you around safely and efficiently.  For travellers there are two kinds of train passes – the ordinary, which is really all you will need, and the green which is primarily aimed at tourists.  Railpasses come in a range of regions, from all Japan to the western and eastern  Honshu pass for the main island, and passes for each of the main four islands.

There is so much more to Japan than this – skiers will be well catered for in Hokkaido and also in the central mountains of Honshu.  Go find the baboons that keep themselves warm sitting in the hot springs as it snows, taste the noodle soups in the tiny restaurants all over the places – it is all there.

Oh, and practise your bows.