Saturday, October 15, 2011


It would be fair to say that Montreal is far from a pretty city. The Ste-Catherine St. shopping promenade and Old Montreal & the port are cool and St. Laurent and St. Denis streets have their appeal, but decades of corruption in city hall has left Montreal a broken city that, at face value, looks like it is emerging from half a century of communist rule.

Nevertheless, Montreal has a reputation as being the New Orleans of Canada. Not bright and shiny, but packed with spirit and FUN! People come to Montreal to party! This works to Montreal's benefit because Toronto resembles Washington - lots of culture and corporate bigwigs but very boring. Toronto is a Lexus sedan. Montreal is a corvette. Visitors that want to wine & dine and then shake it until the wee hours of the morning tend to converge on Montreal as other party cities like Miami, Las Vegas and even Chicago are beyond driving distance from the northeast for a weekend away.

Flinders Street Station
Melbourne is similar to Montreal in this respect. My second visit to Melbourne left me with the same impression as the first time I visited in 1995. It is not a pretty city, although boardwalks along the either side of the Yarra river are nice. However, the place comes alive after dark and I remember from my first visit that if you're traveling with a local, the nightlife is great!

St. Paul's Cathedral
As a visitor during the middle of the winter with a family in tow, I could not recommend a visit to Melbourne unless you had plans to visit other parts of Victoria. Playing the role as the used but fun city doesn't work for Melbourne as it pales beside Sydney that has absolutely everything and is arguably the best city in the world.

Federation Square
But the real reason we came to Melbourne was to visit our old friends Will & Soph and their family. I met Sophie while backpacking around Europe in 1991. We met again in 1995 when I visited her in Melbourne and I met Will for the first time. During a visit to North America before having a family, Will & Soph came to our wedding in 1998. We hadn't seen them since then and had never met any of their three children.

The Baldry's & the Dobbyn's
It was interesting to remark that despite living 17,000 km away from us, their lives have evolved in a similar fashion to ours. Their lives revolve around their kids. They spend the weekends at different sports fields, although have substituted footie (Aussie rules football) for hockey, and spend Friday and Saturday nights with friends, wine and take out food. They tinker with their house and talk about making sacrifices for their kids' education. They sound exactly like us!

The itinerary of our trip to Melbourne was neither exhaustive nor exciting, but the point wasn't to see Melbourne. It was to visit with Will & Soph.

On Friday night, we stayed in and wiled away the evening over a few bottles of wine and take out Szechuan food. Our guests were busy shuttling between different sports matches for most of Saturday so we set out to see some of Melbourne. The weather was uncooperative, the kids were not in the mood to walk around another city in the rain and Trish was under the weather, so after a brief walk around the CBD and lunch at Southgate, we spent the rest of the afternoon at the Melbourne Aquarium. Reunited for supper, the Dobbyn's took us to one of their favorite local eateries, La Porchetta.

My favorite part of our visit was going to see their son Nick's footie game on a crisp sunny Sunday morning. It was cool to learn about the game that dominates the sporting scene in southern Australia and watch the parents cheering from the sidelines. With our flight back home to Canada less than a week away, it felt very much like home, although they have better coffee.

After a BBQ lunch, we said our goodbyes and I think both sides wondered how many years would roll by before the Baldry's and the Dobbyn's were reunited again.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Great Barrier Reef: One of the Seven Wonders of the World

One of our dive sites on the Great Barrier Reef

On the morning of July 27th, we set out for a 2 day trip out to the Great Barrier Reef where we would sleep out at sea. Based on reviews on Trip Advisor, I chose leaving out of Cairns. Their boats are among the more ragged in the port, but the staff were excellent. After some negative publicity affecting other dive companies who accidentally left passengers out on the reef (gulp!), I found the security measures on our boats extremely thorough. They required a signature from every passenger at the termination of every dive, before the boat moved position and at nighttime. There was a diveguard on top of the boat as well as several crew and a safety boat in the water for every dive.

A pair of humpback whales off our bow
We left Cairns on Reef Experience, the company's day boat, early in the morning. We spent most of the two hour trip out to the reef on the top deck enjoying the sunshine and a complimentary breakfast. We were lucky enough to meet up with a pod of humpback whales who were happy to put on a show for us.

Once we got out to the reef, the crew transferred our bag from Reef Experience to Reef Encounter, ReefTrip's floating hotel. Once on board, we were shown to our rooms and given a short orientation about the plan for the next two days. Many of the crew were college age kids on Australian vacations who were working on the boat (usually in housekeeping or the kitchen) in exchange for free dives around the Great Barrier Reef. A couple of German guys who arrived the same day we did were working on the boat in exchange for scuba certification. They seemed to work long hard hours, but were able to participate in about 50% of the dives.

Reef Encounter
There were 4 dives a day and a harrowing night dive for the scuba group. The boat moved to a new dive site a couple of times per day. Overall, I loved it! We only snorkeled as the minimum age for diving is 12 in Queensland, however the experience was still incredible. Throughout this post, I use the term 'dive' loosely as we were always on the surface. The underwater pictures below don't really represent the actual experience. From the moment you put your mask under the water, it's hard not to be impressed by the thousands and thousands of fish in continuous motion all around you.

This carpet of green was shimmering in the current

Thousands of colorful fish

Of course, there are many small fish (up to 2 foot long) and I think I saw the entire cast of Finding Nemo, except the sharks.

Reclusive and solitary Moorish Idol
We saw a couple of rays and a sea turtle. The scuba group saw some reef sharks, but to Harrison's disappointment, no sharks for us. I was however lucky enough to scare a group of around 20 Giant Sweetlips (4-5 feet long, probably over 80 lbs) out from under a ledge

Giant Sweetlips (about 80lbs each)

All of us got in the water during our trip. Harrison and I never missed a dive and Cassandra came in for most of them. However, I was also proud of Trish (who is a reluctant swimmer) and Mackenzie (who was too young to use a snorkel) for venturing into the ocean a few times to experience one of the seven natural wonders of the world. 

Cassandra under the sea
Harrison, still uber-cool even while swimming!
The first dive with Mackenzie only lasted a few minutes. She went out with me towing her on a noodle, but her goggles fogged up immediately and she caught a swell in the face when she removed them to clean them off. That was it for day one. We never actually made it from the boat to the reef.

After the late afternoon dive, the bar opened but most of the passengers were exhausted after spending the day in the ocean, so there wasn't much drinking going on. I think almost everyone was napping. The kids settled into watching some ocean-themed animated movie (they had them all!) and shortly after dinner we all retired to our rooms. Even I was asleep by 10:00pm.

Sunset to close my 42nd year
The next day was my 43rd birthday! It started with my family, supported by a bunch of the other passengers and crew, singing happy birthday to me over a danish, anointed with whipped cream and a birthday candle. It was amusing to hear a constellation of European accents singing 'Happy Birthday to mumble mumble mumble, Happy Birthday to you'. A German guy gave me some Vegemite.

With the formalities finished by 8:30am, it was time for more dives. Thankfully, Mackenzie had recanted her threat to never go in the ocean again and had psyched herself up for another visit to the reef. The crew had suggested using a life ring instead of a noodle which added 360 degree support. It did the trick. She did great out there ... and loved the fish!

Mackenzie giving it another shot
With everyone in good spirits, one of ReefTrip's underwater photographers captured one of the best shots of our entire trip.

After lunch, we transferred back to Reef Experience to eventually make our way back to Cairns. The girls decided that they'd had enough diving for that day, so it was only Harrison and I that went in for the last afternoon dive. Given that is was almost 30C outside, we decided to leave our wetsuits behind against the recommendations of the crew. We were too far out to sea for box jellyfish to be a threat and they were several months out of season. Without the buoyancy of the wetsuit, we were able to dive to the bottom to get a much closer look at the fish and our movements were much less restricted.

Harrison and Nemo
A closer look
Giant clam
Purple stick coral and butterflyfish
Abandoned anchor
Back in Cairns, after a shower and a short rest, we headed out for a birthday dinner at the Raw Prawn on the Esplanade. We started with an assortment of Australian bush meats. Kangaroo steak was delicious, closely resembling venison. We had less stellar reviews of the emu which tasted like a gamey turkey and the crocodile was described alternatively as 'disgusting' and 'never again'.

Harrison with his mud crab fresh from the tank
For the main dish, I treated myself to a steamed mud crab. With all of the entitlement that a 10 year old can muster, Harrison decided to treat himself as well. Unlike abandoning the wetsuits, this was not a good idea. They were delicious, but the shell on these monsters was so hard that the standard lobster tools just didn't do the job. At the end of 2 hours, my bleeding and battered hands were barely able to lift the lukewarm crab meat to my mouth. Harrison was much more sensible. At the 45 minute mark, he sent his back to the kitchen to receive a few blows from a large hammer.

By the end of the ordeal, Mackenzie and Cassandra were asleep on the table, but despite the lengthy wait, the meal was great and a fitting close to an outstanding birthday.

The next morning, we were off to spend the weekend with our old friends Sophie and Will and their family in Melbourne.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Cairns and the Daintree Rainforest

We arrived in Cairns in Northern Queensland just in time for lunch on July 25, 2011. I was a bit apprehensive because after making all our reservations, I had heard that in choosing between Cairns (for the closest airport) and Port Douglas (a resort town 1 hour north), almost everyone opted for Port Douglas. A colleague at work even went so far as saying that Cairns was a "bit of a dive". I couldn't change our reservations as our two day cruise to the Great Barrier Reef was leaving from Cairns.

Appalling weather during a Cairns winter day
Our stay started on the right foot when Eurocar gave us a free upgrade to an Audi A6. Score! After checking into our hotel, the Getaway on Grafton, we headed into town to grab lunch at Perrotta's at The Gallery. We all had a guilty smile on our faces as we sat back and enjoyed the delicious sandwiches and warm weather in the middle of Australian winter.

Cairns' Esplanade boardwalk
I think the reason Cairns has a bad reputation is that in a region known for its spectacular beaches, Cairns simply doesn't have one. In its place is a lagoon and at low tide, there is about a 100 yard stretch of mud flats between the Esplanade boardwalk and the ocean's edge. It's not as bad as it sounds. The city has done a great job of making the waterfront attractive. The Esplanade stretches for a few kilometers north of the port and is a big draw for strolling tourists and athletic locals alike. Muddy's Playground is a great (and free) activity center for hot kids and tired parents. There must be over a dozen different paddling pools and sprinklers that kept a legion of kids entertained while their parents relaxed at the cafe.

Ten minutes down the Esplanade is the Cairns Lagoon, a freely accessible 4800 sq meter salt water swimming pool surrounded in part by an artificial beach. It's quite spectacular with fountains and monuments integrated into the pool to add visual appeal. Our kids couldn't resist the water but ultimately preferred the 30C air to the 15C water.

Cairns Lagoon
We capped off our tour of the CBD with a bit of shopping and while Trish and the girls succumbed to the allure of the local mall, I yielded to our couch and a bottle of Sauvigon Blanc. Our first day in Cairns concluded with a dinner at Bushfire Flame Grill, a Brazilian-style Churrasco restaurant where the waiters continuously circulate with skewers of roasted pork, beef, lamb, chicken, sausage and pineapple.

Breakfast with the Birds at Port Douglas' Wildlife Habitat
On Tuesday, July 26, we set out early to drive one hour north along the ocean to the resort town of Port Douglas at the foot of the Daintree Rainforest. Our first stop was Wildlife Habitat, an animal park ideal for kids: lots of opportunities to feed, touch and learn about many of Australia's indigenous creatures. We got there in time for their "Breakfast with the Birds" where various species of birds, loosely kept in an open aviary, compete with you for that last morsel of toast on your plate. For the most part, we easily kept the birds away from our breakfasts, although one goose felt that Cassandra's measly bum was worth not one but three pecks.

Learning about snakes
We spent the morning wandering around the covered walkways and attending the rangers' information sessions. There were plenty of opportunities for pictures with snakes, koalas and baby crocodiles.

No animal park in Queensland would be worth its salt without a crocodile exhibit. This one went one step further in having three different types of crocs in separate pens. The slumbering giant reptiles held the kids attention a few seconds before they noticed that the kangaroo and emu petting zoo was in direct continuity with the crocodile pen. (Oh, yes - I did crack a smile thinking about the havoc that would ensue should a wily croc manage to wiggle free from their enclosure) The crocodiles didn't shed any tears as our three kids tore away from the croc exhibit to lavish affection and pre-purchased snacks on the bloated kangaroos and their joeys.

One more check on the To Do list: See a Kangaroo
In the afternoon, we headed north to Daintree Village to take a crocodile cruise along the Daintree River. I'd gone on one of these once before in Kakadu National Park a few years ago and it was pretty much the same thing: a few sleepy crocs sunning themselves on muddy river banks, but it was good for the kids to appreciate how huge these animals can be and the tour guide kept us entertained for the one hour cruise. We were fortunate to see three or four big males along the way, but no crocs in the water (not sure we would really want to see these).

I had originally considered heading further north to Cape Tribulation, but it was already late afternoon, and the masses (Trish and the kids) easily outvoted me and we were soon on our way back to Cairns.

Nameless deserted Queensland beach
After a quick dinner at the Sushi Train, we all turned in early because we had an early start the next morning to board our expedition to the Great Barrier Reef.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Gold Coast

It took us a couple of days to get used to the rhythm of Bali, but once we found the groove, we really enjoyed the waves, our fabulous villa and a couple of excellent visits to Ku De Ta. Well-replenished, we were ready for the next step of our adventure: Australia.

We caught the red-eye flight from Singapore to Sydney and finally arrived at the Gold Coast at 9:00am. No one really slept on the plane. With over 200 movies available on Singapore Air, Harrison was way too busy to even try to catch any shuteye.

Our friends Tino and Lynn were at the airport to pick us up. They used to live near us in Beaconsfield, but abruptly resettled to the Gold Coast 3 years ago. It was impossible for me not to turn green with envy at their setup.

Surfer's Paradise
They live in a beautiful house on a quiet ocean inlet and spend a ton of time out on the water. Instead of using bikes or mopeds, their son Jonathon and his friends travel from one place to another by JetSki! How cool is that?

Too many movies on the flight to the Gold Coast!
Despite the lack of sleep, Lynn & Tino plied us with just enough food and alcohol to keep us going throughout the day. The 28C Sunday afternoon in the middle of winter helped as well. When it came time to drive Jono back to boarding school to start the week, the implication was drive in a boat. Sweet!

It was an amazing afternoon for cruising around the waterways near Surfer's Paradise and ogling the many multimillion dollar houses along the way, several of which had heli-pads set out beside the multi-story boat houses. Wow! My mind started to churn: could the Baldry's arrange to live in Queensland ...

We capped off our way-too-short 24 hour visit with lots of red wine and red meat. Lynn and Tino seemed as curious about our life back in Canada as we were about their new life in Australia, but when it comes time to pull our boots on and slog through the slush and snow, no one will have any doubt about the great decision they made three years ago.

The next day we were off to Cairns and Northern Queensland to visit the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Bali - the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Sunset at Ku De Ta over Seminyak Beach
It's hard to know what to write about Bali. The beaches are gorgeous, there are temples everywhere and the prices are unbelievable!

Batuan Village Temple
Sounds too good to be true? It is. The towns are extraordinarily ugly, hawkers hassle you continuously and the beauty of the beach isn't enough to make Bali worthwhile for anyone except people on a really tight budget. At least, that's our assessment in a nutshell.

Mackenzie frolicking in the waves
Are we happy we visited? Yes. It took a couple of days to get adjusted to the chaos, but we eventually settled into a super-relaxing sun-soaked vacation. We stayed in Seminyak, two towns north of the backpacker party capital of Kuta. This is what our travel guide says about Seminyak:
The next town north of Legian, Seminyak is more upmarket with mostly luxury accommodation and fashionable high-end restaurants and bars. The atmosphere is much more sophisticated and laid-back than Kuta, and the beach in particular is quieter during the day. Seminyak is also the high end spa and boutique shopping capital of Bali. Nowhere is the upscaling of Bali in recent years more obvious than here.
Uhh ... were we staying in the same place?

Challenges in navigating the streets
I would limit it to saying that there are signs that the area is improving. There are a couple of high-end hotels (Legian, Oberoi, Samaya) scattered along the main strip. There are two small shopping plazas with stores that have more modern construction but selling surf apparel and local jewellery. Somehow there are 3 Polo Ralph Lauren stores. However, there is a narrow sidewalk (tight for two people to walk side-by-side) on only one side of the street and this is virtually unnavigable between the 18-inch sized holes that lead to the untreated sewage system that flows underneath to the countless number of scooters that use the sidewalks as parking spots or even as accessory lanes to the impossibly congested roads. 

Seminyak sidewalk with untreated sewage flowing underneath
The restaurants along the strip are older with mostly mediocre food. We did have excellent meals at Kuni's (Japanese), Breeze at the Samaya Hotel (amazing view!) and of course Ku De Ta.

Cassandra modeling her new bikini next to our private plunge pool
Our trip was saved by our accommodations at Bermimpi Villas. Our villa was Villa Ogi, along the lane way directly adjacent to the Oberoi Hotel. Beach access was past the armed guards standing at the entrance of the Ku De Ta restaurant, about 3 minutes walk from our front door. Ari and her staff were amazing! 

Villa Ogi
You are really made to feel important when on arrival there is a staff of 4 people to welcome you and the manager makes a personal visit every day to help you organize your trip. The two floor villa is immaculately decorated with plenty of modern amenities. Orchid petals were scattered across our bedspread and bedroom floor every day and the kids loved our private plunge pool. 
The villa was so comfortable that we spent most of our trip lounging in the recliners by the pool or drifting into the open living room for a nap or a snack. We might spend a morning at the beach and then spend sunny afternoons intermittently snoozing, eating, drinking and swimming. It was very 
relaxing and was almost enough to make us forget the chaos and ugliness just outside our door.
Worshipers at the Pura Taman Saraswati temple
Ari, the manager, organized an outing for us to see Ubud and some of the Hindu temples in the countryside. We set out around 8:00am and our driver (don't even consider driving here - it's insane!) picked us up and brought us through southern and central Bali. Looking at a map of our route, you would imagine that once past the capital city of Denpasar, we would travel through the Balinese countryside dotted with quaint villages. 

Rice paddies
Alas, thwarted again! The urban sprawl of Denpasar extended along our entire 7 hour itinerary and glimpses of unpopulated Balinese land were few and far between. There was one fringe benefit to being in a 7 hour traffic jam. Many of the roads are lined with the ateliers of Bali's many craftsmen. Hand-crafted furniture makers, stone masons & iron sculptors all had their products on display by the side of the road. The furniture in particular looked fantastic. If we had have thought to bring our own shipping container, we could have really cleaned up.

All decked out to go into the Batuan temple. Yes - Harrison is trying to hide.
We stopped at Batuan to check out the temple. Indonesia is the largest (by population) Muslim country in the world, but the Balinese are largely Hindu. As such, every village and every household must have a place of worship. Many of the village temples are very large, featuring at least 20 different alters. 

Pura Taman Saraswati temple
Ubud is in central Bali and has long been a hub for Balinese artists and craftsmen. Our first stop was a little out of town at the Forest Monkey Sanctuary where a huge troupe of macaques grudgingly shares the sculpted walkways and bridges with human visitors.

Ubud Monkey Forest Sanctuary
Next, it was off to the main village of Ubud. Our first priority was cooling off at the Starbucks. Along with the usual North American fare, you could pick up a Black Sesame Green Tea Frappaccino. I enjoyed all 1200 calories!

Next door to the Starbucks was the impressive Pura Taman Saraswati temple, although the mandatory sarong put off everyone but me.

Down the road, we walked around the colorful but impossibly crammed stalls of the huge marketplace Pasar Ubud. After haggling with a vendor for 20 minutes, a 10" statue of Ganesha made its way into our luggage.

Balinese woman preparing floral prayer baskets
Spice table
Bangles at the market
Finally, we roamed across the road to Puri Saren, Ubud's Royal Palace, although most of the grounds were closed for a ceremonial occasion. It seemed like someone important had died as the locals were building a giant funeral procession for the coming weeks.

Harrison taking on big waves off Bali
We spent the last few nights of our stay much the same as the first two, sleepily drifting between beach, pool, couch and fridge.

We celebrated our last night at the fabulous Ku De Ta restaurant which distinguishes itself with its ultra-chic locale overlooking Seminyak Beach, its LA-beautiful clientele and its Manhattan prices. Despite the $400 price tag for a dinner for 5, the sunset was unforgettable, the meal exceptional and the whole experience totally worth it.

Overall, we enjoyed Bali. After an exhausting 48 hours in Singapore, we relaxed big time before tackling a heavy travel schedule in Australia. However, I expected better and we were all a little disappointed. To take a bit of Kiwi vernacular, I would have been guttered if I had traveled all the way from Canada to visit Bali. There are many beach scenes which are FAR better in most every way than what we experienced in Bali.

Next up: Australia!