Sydney Airport – my old friend

Hello old friend we meet again. I’m sitting in the departures hall surrounded by people speaking languages I don’t understand. Happy travellers returning home or starting their next adventure?

Check in and security completed with a minimum of fuss, although note to self – the boots with the metal trims? Don’t wear them next time! Rooky error! I’ve streamlined my packing and look smuggly at those who are wrestling with their hand luggage to get out all the liquids while I pop my prepackaged plastic ziplock in the tray. Hazar! Travel Ninga status restored

I have 90 more minutes to waste and I’m wishing I hadn’t had that extra glass of cheap wine to help me sleep! My stomach is a little squeamish. Is that nerves or a hangover. Both, no doubt. I do hope it isn’t the slightly under heated lamb shank I had last night at the hotel.

How things have changed in the years since I took my first international flight. That flight, to Italy, was my first time ever on a plane. It was January 1982. After leaving Sydney we stopped in Melbourne then Perth then Singapore then Bahrain, and finally Rome. Mechanical repairs at Bahrain meant we sat on the tarmac for six hours, air con off, no food, no water. Thirty. six. hours. Thirty of those confined to a tiny seat. Thankfully I was small and could curl up cat-like. Thankfully, I was travelling with someone I could lounge against without concern. The invisible force field surrounding the chair could be extended – a little. The toilets became blocked. The plane remained in that state until we got off in Rome.

Back in those days international travel was a novelty. At least for my family and friends who hailed from more or less working class roots. My brother had been to London a couple of years before but unless you count Lord Howe Island, my parents had never left Australia. The ex’s dad worked for Qantas, so his family flew frequently on staff tickets. Cheap travel sure, but you didn’t count your chickens until the door was closed and cross checked because you could get off loaded if another paying passenger needed the seat.

“Seeing a friend off” was a social occasion. Your friendship group would drive you to the Airport and as payment, you would shout them a few drinks at the Airport Bar before racing to the gate. I don’t remember if there was any security screening but I do remember that your friends could come right up to the departure gate where there were many teary goodbyes.

In 1982 the decor vibe was timber paneling and 70’s orange. Since then, it’s undergone many, many renovations. Every time I come here there are hoardings covering up more promised improvements. It’s bright and airy with charging points and interesting seating nooks. Tom Hanks’ character could live here quite happily.

It’s beginning to brighten up outside as Sydney starts it’s day. Jets have started to leave as the curfew is lifted. Come on Iain, it’s time to move to the gate.

Iain! It’s a bit early!

Small group tours

These days I do much of my travel “solo”.  I plan my own itinerary and book my own accommodation and activities.

Whilst I enjoy solo travel, small group tours, that is those with less than 16 people, are also a good vacation option.  I have been on four small group tours, three with Intrepid Travel (Italy (2007), Thailand (2012) and Vietnam (2015)) and one with Peregrine Adventures (Myanmar (2006)).  I have booked a small group walking tour with About Argyll Walking Tours for my upcoming (2019) trip to Scotland.

Intrepid and Peregrine are run by the same parent company and while I have nothing to compare them with (yet) I recommend them both as tour operators. (BTW this post is NOT sponsored by any of the tour companies mentioned.)

Small group tours are not for everyone, but in my opinion, they offer a good balance and as you can see from my pros and cons table, the pros outweigh the cons.

Pros and cons of small group tours

Pros Cons
  • You don’t have to organise anything except getting there.
  • The tour company sorts everything out in regards to local travel and activities.
  • You get to visit the highlights of a particular area efficiently
  • The accommodation has been well researched and is good quality
  • The tour guide has great local knowledge and knows the best restaurants, bars and attractions.
  • Smaller groups means access to more places that you could not visit with a big coachload of people.
  • The tour often includes some sort of social payback to the area you visit such as a visit to an orphanage, school, social enterprise or charity.
  • It’s a safer way to travel in places which may be otherwise a bit risky. This may be especially so for women
  • You meet new and interesting people but you are not overwhelmed by 30 – 40 people on a larger tour.
  • You don’t have to organise anything! As I said in a previous post I LOVE the planning!
  • You mostly stick to the tried and true pathways visiting the same tourists spots everyone else does.
  • You can’t make detours or stay longer in a place that you find interesting.
  • You have to spend a lot of time with the “new and interesting” people you meet and not all of them may be people you want to spend time with.
  • They are probably more expensive than sorting things out by yourself or going on a bigger group tour although it’s likely they get some sort of discounts for repeat bookings.

I think it’s the “new and interesting”  people that puts most people off small group tours. If you are travelling alone and you don’t pay the single supplement, you end up sharing with someone you don’t know. Luckily, this has only happened to me once as most people travel with a friend and I have been the odd one out on all but one of the tours, so I get to listen to my own snoring and not someone else’s! 🙂

I suggest that you make careful choices about the tours you book and the companies you travel with, so that you end up with the “right” sort of people.  The price will dictate the sorts of people you share your time with so don’t expect the jet-set on a budget tour.

Also make sure you pay attention to the ratings the tour company makes in relation to physical activity and the theme of the tour (family, active, foodie etc, Peregrine’s themes are here) . In my albeit limited experience, high levels of physical activity and the active themes puts me with “my tribe” more closely than those with lower levels. It will be different for you.

Burma with Peregrine Adventures

It’s hard to believe my first small group tour experience to  Burma (Myanmar) was more than a decade ago. Back in 2006, the country was only just starting to embrace tourism and things did not go smoothly, even for the tour operators.

A scheduled overnight train trip from Rangoon (Yangon) to Mandalay had to be substituted at the last minute by an internal flight because of some undisclosed problem.

The tour leader was on the phone for hours trying to sort things out. It would have been difficult to manage this as an independent traveller. He also warned us about where we could and couldn’t take photos. His entreaties not to take photos of certain buildings seemed very genuine.

 

Intrepid Travel Walking Tour – Amalfi Coast

I wrote about the interesting dynamic that developed on my trip to Italy in my post about “Footpath to the Gods”. In this case, an international group of eight – comprising three husband-wife couples  from Scotland, America and New Zealand and a single Aussie female and myself, joined up for a walking tour of the Amalfi Coast. Although the trip was rated for very high levels of physical activity, the two Americans were morbidly obese and not regular exercisers. They struggled with the walking  and this caused issues. They clearly did not heed the advice about the activity level. While most of trip was harmonious, tempers flared on the last night, almost resulting in a fist fight.

Tribal Thailand – Intrepid Travel

The Tribal Thailand tour included a 3 day trek through the jungle near Chiang Mai. Slashing vines, clambering over fallen trees and hearing the lonely calls of gibbons made it a truly enjoyable experience. The combination of heat, humidity, the weight of our packs and biting insects made it a physically challenging  experience. Sleeping on wooden floors and eating with local families in their simple kitchens made it a humbling experience. Despite the fact that, on reflection, I am pretty sure we walked around in circles not far from a main road for the three days, I would heartily recommend it! I was the second oldest on the tour (but not the least fit I am pleased to say). I still keep in touch with two younger women from this group via Facebook. We even had a reprise trip the year after, where 6 of the 7 of us did a hiking trip along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia.

Vietnam – North to South with Intrepid Travel

The trip to Vietnam had six people – two couples and a single, elderly man. It was rated with low levels of physical activity and the people were much older than the Thailand tour. On this trip I was the second youngest and at 52 that’s saying something! It was still fun and I spent most of my time with Debra and Phil from Wales. On this tour, the “interesting person” was a barrister from the UK travelling with his lovely wife. Even though he was probably the wealthiest amongst us, he owed us all money by the end of the trip because he didn’t ever seem to have “the right change” when he needed to pay his share of the taxi/hotel/restaurant bill. It was funny at first but became a bit of a sore point by the end of the 12 day tour. Debra and Phil, by the way, run a pub in Wales. It looks pretty good and one day I’ll visit them!

All these these small group tours have given me great memories and photo books full of images. Overall, they have been very positive. Even the negatives are positive, in that they give you some great dinner party stories.

My advice is to keep an open heart and open mind, know that it’s only for a short period and be friendly and easy going. Don’t sweat the small stuff and if worse comes to worse, treat it as an interesting social experiment. That way  you can sit back and learn about the world both from the country you visit and the people you share the bus with.

 

Travelling Light!

This post is the first in an occasional series of Travel Tip Tuesday Posts. It will be a quick and easy read and include links to (hopefully) useful sites.


I have been on the road enough times that I have some travel hacks sorted out. I know it’s easier to take the ipad and not worry about a computer because you don’t have to put it in a separate tray when you go through the security check. I know you need a different adapter for the UK compared to the US. I take my own extension lead and power board that way I only need one adapter but can plug in all my Aussie devices at once. I know it makes sense to use packing cubes to make organising your suitcase easier. I even have those roll up vacuum bags that you can squeeze the air out of. I know about putting things inside your shoes. I know about making sure you are well dressed when you go to the airport to increase your chance of an upgrade. I know about having my carry-on bathroom stuff in a see-through bag. I know about wearing your heavy clothes on the plane.

This stuff I know!

It’s not the mechanics of packing I have a problem with. What I am not good at is taking the right amount of the right stuff. I always, always always overpack and end up bringing things home clean and pristine, albeit a little wrinkled. I end up wearing the same few things and lamenting my poor choices of what I thought I would wear. I pick up a particular jumper and think to myself “when did I think I was EVER going to wear that. Why didn’t I bring XYZ jumper instead!”

I have learned I don’t need something different to wear everyday but I still take too much. Viz a viz

  • The nice outfit in case I get an invitation to a fancy dinner (hasn’t happened yet!).

  • The fancy shoes to match the nice dress for the yet to materialize dinner invitation.

  • The extra pair of pj’s in case you can’t wash…I have always been able to find some way to wash my clothes, it’s not like I am going to the moon!

  • The 6 changes of shorts/pants/skirts – 4 would probably be plenty

  • The 10 T-shirt’s/shirts/tops – 6 would definitely be enough

  • The jacket and the wet weather jacket – I could get a wet weather jacket that looked ok to wear anytime

  • The hiking boots and runners – I don’t think I can cut down on these. I can’t run in hiking boots and my runners are not sturdy enough to hike in.

It’s not just  the ‘wasted” outfits that are a problem. As a solo traveller I have to be able to manage all that stuff on my own and still be able to fit it and me into a toilet cubicle!

(Just an aside I think that is one of the main hassles of travelling alone – going to the bathroom and having no-one to watch your stuff!)

To date my method is to pile everything up on the spare bed and then only take half – it’s still too much!

I need to be able to hoike that suitcase into the back of the car, onto the train, up the stairs by myself.

For my next trip (to Scotland – I’m excited) I have set a challenge to take just one 15kg checked bag and no carry on other than a backpack. (I will have an overnight layover, so need a change of clothes)  That will give me 8 kg of wiggle room if I end up buying anything.

I have a few months to get organised and I have decided to base my travel wardrobe on the “capsule” theory of a few outfits you can mix and match. 14 items –  30 outfits. That sort of thing. You’ve seen them no doubt.

That’s what I am going to do! You will be my accountability partners!  I will limit myself to 15 items (not including underwear etc) and 4 pairs of shoes. Two of which will be runners and the hiking boots.

Let’s see how I go! I will post again when I am packed.

Here are a few links I will be using to help me out.

https://www.momondo.com.au/discover/article/packing-tips-solo-travel

https://www.skyscanner.net/news/15-best-ever-packing-tips

https://pin.it/b7arfwfydz6gft

https://pin.it/lgomjp46vuzxby

BTW it’s going to have to be a big backpack!

Maine: Closed for the Season?

a closed sign on a road

On the Maine Road

In April this year, I took a trip to the USA. I took two completely different routes: the Fast Lane and the Maine Road.  Three weeks in New York, a city that’s always open and humming, book-ended a five day road trip to Maine, which I discovered, was mostly “closed-for-the-season”.

My plan for Maine was to take in few hikes in Acadia National Park,  do some serious lighthouse spotting and sample authentic lobster rolls in their natural setting. I knew it would be a bit chilly but that didn’t matter after all, spring had sprung!

It should have twigged as I was tried to book accommodation. Most of the AirBnB listings said they were unavailable for the dates I was trying to book. I naively thought they must be just be very busy. I kept scrolling until I found someone taking bookings.  I ignored the small print; “We re-open on April 14th”  I would be there from April 7 – April 11th. A few days shouldn’t make that much difference? Should it?

some peeblesin the foreground and a small lighthouse in the background
Kittery Point – Whaleback Light

Being from the mild subtropics, I didn’t understand how comprehensively closed everything in Maine would be. The larger cities of Portsmouth and Portland were business as usual, but the small beach-side towns in between, were in fact, “closed” except for the local grocers and a few cafes. In the end, this only added to the appeal of an impossibly “Pinterest” worthy coastline which I enjoyed without crowds. My loves for quiet hiking, quaint architecture and lighthouses were well served.  The iconic lobster roll, on the other hand, was well and truly off the menu as a summer only delicacy.

Day 1: New York, New York to Kittery, Maine. (454 km)

Picking up the rental car from Laguardia Airport on a Saturday morning was a good idea. I missed the weekday traffic heading out of the city and I got a better deal compared to getting it in Manhattan. I caught the M60 bus  bus from Harlem and then the free shuttle bus from the airport concourse to the rental car office.

Once on the road, it was a compromise between the scenic coastal route and getting to Kittery before dark.  I headed east through Connecticut and Rhode Island, turned North on the I395 at New London up to Worcester, Massachusetts, then through New Hampshire and finally Kittery, Maine.

Six states in less than a day! Trying doing that in Australia!

My first attempt to photograph a lighthouse was foiled by a gated estate! I could see the Old Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse on the headland, but couldn’t figure out how to get to it as it was surrounded by private homes and a large golf course with big warning signs!

Old Saybrook
Old Saybrook

The tiny town of Kittery, on the New Hampshire-Maine border is the oldest town in Maine. Already around 5 pm by the time I arrived, I just managed to snag photos of the sun setting behind a bridge that looked just like the Sydney Harbour Bridge (the Piscataqua River Bridge).  My accommodation for the night, a  stylish AirBnB was right on the banks of the Piscataqua River.  I chose to stay on the Kittery side because it was considerably cheaper than the Portsmouth side. An easy stroll across the Memorial Bridge took me into the commercial heart of Portsmouth within a few minutes so no harm done by saving money. I wandered around the quiet streets, looking for food and settled on Fat Belly’s Bar and Grill because it looked friendly and cosy. Turns out they make a mean veggie burger and serve nice cold wheat beer!

Day 2: Kittery to Mt Desert (360 km)

The next morning I headed out for the Whaleback Lighthouse on Kittery Point and  discovered it must be the chicken’s day off!

4 turkeys crossing a road
Chickens Day off?
Slow sign
Good advice – Kittery

My first attempt at a lobster roll was at Lobster Cove, York.

“No, honey” the waitress said, “NOT at this time of year!” Eyes rolling as if I should have known better. No lobster in Lobster Cove?

Empty car parks with massive capacity and tourist shops with boarded windows made it obvious that this town was used to big crowds. I was one of the few who braved the weak spring sunshine and the stiff wind that held squawking gulls in one spot, despite their flapping wings.

Meh…I am not much into shopping and the scenery was still open, so I was happy!

The Nubble Lighthouse at Cape Neddick was resplendent and Ogunquit quaint beyond belief with adirondack chairs chained to scenic spots. The main inconvenience? Closed shops = closed public toilets!

2 blue adirondack chairs near the ocean
Nice view!
a small white cottage and lighthouse
Nubble Light -Cape Neddick

As I headed further north the piles of deep snow became more frequent and I kept my jacket-gloves-scarf-hat combo at the ready.

Old Orchard Beach reminded me of an aging, overblown gigolo with its fairground, ferris wheel and tall-legged wooden pier. The temperature reminded me of Antarctica!

Once again – no lobster roll.

“No Ma’am” pffffft… “only in the summer!”

I made good with half a sandwich and soup. I’d been in America long enough to know a ½ sandwich would be enough!

I picked up groceries for my two night stay on Mt Desert Island and settled in for a frosty night in a old colonial cabin right on the edge of the Acadia National Park.

Day 3: Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor.

Another early start had  me crunching along the snow covered carriageway, past logs dripping in icicles and the rustling of turkeys hidden somewhere in the scrub. Acadia National Park had been described to me as one of the most beautiful parks in America but it was here that my (wilful) ignorance of the seasonal closures proved to be  the most inconvenient.

The Park has a loop road, the majority of  which was closed. I was restricted to a few limited sections. This did not deter me from a long walk around Eagle Lake after jumping a low fence. I had a lingering guilt  that I had not paid the entrance fee suspecting I should have, to someone,  somewhere, even though the booths were closed. I half expected to find my wheels clamped when I got back to the car.

It was sunny and  -6ºC. I was well dressed with thermals, fleecy hiking pants, a merino wool jumper, goose down jacket, woolly socks, two pairs of gloves, scarf, balaclava and beanie.

A woman in thick winter clothing sitting on a fence surrounded by snow
Rugged up in Acadia National Park

This Aussie knew there was no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes! I picked my way through the snow like the Michelin Man,  feeling a tad overdressed when some locals walked past in three less layers than me. After three hours walking around Eagle Lake, I headed into the town of Bar Harbor for lunch. This time I was determined to find the now elusive lobster roll. Haven’t they heard of a freezer up here? Five cafes and another hour later, I settled for – you guessed it – soup and ½ a sandwich.

Day Four: Bar Harbor to Portland. (260 km)

Today was the day for “THE lighthouse”. The Bass Point Light which perches on craggy, often snow covered rocks with frozen waterfalls bedecking the plinth on which it sits. On attempt No 1 I found the carpark alright, but couldn’t find a path down to the rocks below. I figured that you could only reach it by boat. The boat tours, were of course, “closed for the season”. Never mind, I thought,  next time I’m in Maine! I headed off to a nearby town for a warming coffee at Sips Cafe. I told the cafe owner about my predicament and she kindly explained where the path was:

“From the car park, look to your left.  Find the dirt path hidden behind the toilets and follow it down as far as you can go.”

At attempt No 2, THE lighthouse mission was accomplished. Tick!  Another photography subject off the bucket list!

a small light house high up on a rocky ledge
Bass Point Lighthouse

Next, another hike took me around Wonderland followed by the Jordan Pond Shore Trail (Acadia NP) before hightailing it back to Portland for the sunset. Low clouds and a pink sky gave a perfect backdrop for the Portland Head Light at Cape Elizabeth

a white lighthouse on a stony headland with pink sky
The Portland Head Light

My night’s lodging, an AirBnB in Preble Street, was a large, rambling early 20thC  Eastlake and Stick style home, with six bedrooms, several bathrooms,  a pool room, a music room, a huge kitchen and at least three cats. The owner had texted me from Mexico, with the code to open the door and insisted I make myself at home. So I did; by having  a good (but respectful) poke around looking at all the art and artifacts which covered nearly every surface. After a busy day walking and driving I was happy to snuggle up and read a book I had found on the shelf  eating Italian take away with one of the super friendly cats on my lap.   By this time, I had abandoned the idea of lobster entirely and was extolling the virtues of AirBnB via Facebook to my friends back in Oz.

Day 5: Portland to New York.

With a late flight out, I had all day to take in Portland and started off with a self-guided architectural walking tour around the Weston Boulevard neighbourhood before heading downtown to check out the Art Gallery.

Portland, Maine is a town full of beards and while apparently not as Hipster (with a capital H) as Portland, Oregon it certainly had a small h hipster feel to it. The Sisters Gourmet Deli, a case in point. Fabulous food with modern (retro) styling.

Three more lighthouses, the Bug Lighthouse, the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse and the Ram Island Ledge Light finished things off nicely before I headed out to the airport for my flight back to New York.

You’ll be pleased to know, I finally got a lobster roll.  A mini one; as part of High Tea at the Plaza Hotel in New York. It was OK but I’m kinda glad it was only mini sized!

Over-rated; lobster, if you ask me…

As it turns out, the “season” re-opens mid-April, so perhaps it would have been better if I had gone a week later when the Park was fully open. But then I would have missed the ice and snow and the beaches which I shared with those squawking, stationary gulls.  

A large red carved wooden model of a lobster holds an ice cream
Closest I got to eating lobster – Bar Harbor

Canada – just like Australia but with mountains and bears

Shot from the lake looking up at a huge waterfall.

I have just finished watching Series 2 of the Handmaids’ Tale.  While the show itself is fantastic, if not a little bleak, I wonder if it was made by the Canadian Tourist Bureau. It certainly highlights some of the good political and social features of Canada! What is doesn’t show us is the beauty.

In 2016 I did a solo travel adventure to Canada. I flew into Vancouver and drove from there to Calgary and then flew over to the east coast visiting Toronto and Ottawa. As an Old Chook travelling alone, I would really recommend it as a safe and fun destination with plenty to see and do.

I have put together this short photo essay on Adobe Spark Page. It’s an experimental post to see how blending these two platforms works. Clicking on the picture will take you to an Adobe page. Then scroll through to look at the photos.

Why would any (sensible) Australian ever want to go to Canada?

Through the back of a camera.

Photographers view life a little differently to other people. They can imagine it cordoned off into that small field of view at the back of a camera. Even smaller when it’s held up to your eye. It is for the most part, a solitary pursuit. Well at least the sort of photography I do is. I don’t do portraits but rather document the world around me. Landscape and urban. Big and small. Horizons and minutia.

I spend my photography time wandering the streets or road tripping in search of the things that catch my eye. I’d hate to be driving behind me when I’m on a road trip! I stop all the time, careening off the side of the road and doing illegal U turns all to capture that nice little view between trees or whatever it happens to be.

untitled-1710349

I wander around cities all day. Sometimes standing around waiting for a person with the right coloured clothes to come into view in front of the wall art I have staked out. Or for the man at the fish shop to put the right size fish on the scales or the woman cooking the flat bread to turn it over with a bit of dramatic flair.

I sometimes deliberately go into the parts of town that are “not so nice” to get gritty street photos. It’s usually OK and I don’t feel unsafe.

P1710418-19

Usually.

Most of the time.

In January this year, while visiting my daughter, I was wandering the streets of Beer Sheva, Israel. It was Saturday, mid-afternoon, so everything was closed. It had been raining and the souk (market) had  puddles of water that were reflecting the grey clouds very nicely. The cracked pavements and general disorder of the place  all adding an ambient grunge.

As I was sizing things up and looking for angles, I noticed a man a few hundred metres off, walking in my direction. I didn’t think much of it. I was out in the open on a public street. There were other people around. I went around the corner in search of more puddles. He followed me. Perhaps he had business here. Judging by his dress he was not Jewish and therefore probably not observing Shabbat. I went around another corner. He followed me a again. I started to get worried. Was he going to steal my camera?

“Hallo” he called in a heavy Eastern Bloc accent.

“G’day mate” I replied and walked on.

“Are you Greek?”

“No mate, Australian” as I put another 10 metres between us. He was about 20 metres away.

I had been training.  He looked unfit. I figured I could outrun him even with my backpack

“Come with me”.

“Ahhh…. No!” I replied.

“Come to my house. I have house upstairs. It is warm.” he said pointing to one of the closed shops.

“No! Mate just leave me alone”

“I will give you money!”

He’ll give me money? He thinks I am a prostitute? Pffft ….I thought to myself. There’s a first time for everything!

With a final firm and loud NO I walked briskly back to the road and kept going without looking back. I took a circuitous route, so in case he had followed me, I was not leading him to where I was staying.

p1710484-2

I had obviously been in the very wrong neighbourhood, and my lack of local and cultural awareness must have put me in the ‘pick up’ zone. Apart from the proposition, he hadn’t try to close the gap I had put between us, so while his intention was not noble, I don’t think he intended me harm.

20150122-Photo 6-01-2015 04 11 10

Another learning experience, fellow travellers! Even when you are concentrating on that view through the small square, keep your eye on the big picture!

PS: I never did get any pictures of those puddles!