Friday, 22 September 2017

A Horse! A Horse! In Richard III's Footsteps near Leicester, UK

On my visit to Leicester I was hosted by the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre, the King Richard III Visitor Centre, and the Belmont Hotel.

"A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"

There was a good chance I'd quote Shakespeare's famous line from Richard III at some point, the day I visited the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre. The moment I heard about the marshy ground which had unhorsed him on the day of his final battle, out the words came.

That marsh had long been remembered, but its exact location in this much-drained modern era was uncertain until recently, when a comprehensive survey established precisely where the Battle of Bosworth Field had taken place in 1485.

It turns out that the Heritage Centre, established in the 1970s, is actually on the site of the king's camp rather than the battlefield itself, which stretches down from the site over privately-owned farmland.

However, there are great views from the centre's extensive parkland, which features old and new memorials to this epochal battle which ended the reign of the Plantagenet kings and ushered in the Tudor dynasty...


There's also much to learn from the exhibitions within the buildings of a former farm.


Weaponry is well covered, with a wall of evil devices explained by intelligent captioning. The visitor also learns about the different classes of soldiers present at the battle, and how they would have fought.


There's some useful audio-visual content, including a depiction of the battle, and commentary from characters (a farmer-soldier, a mercenary's wife etc) who might have witnessed the events.

At the end of the exhibition is the interesting story of how the location of the battefield was debated over the decades, and how it was finally decided by a scientific survey which turned up cannon shot and other military debris.

This being England, the task was complicated by the locale also witnessing a battle in the later Civil War, but there was enough period evidence to fix the site once and for all.

Given the significance of the Tudor monarchs' era - including the break with the Catholic church, and the start of Britain's empire - it seems fitting that the place where their reign began should be appropriately marked and remembered.

With the recent rediscovery of King Richard III's remains in nearby Leicester, there's much more for the historically interested to do in the area - starting with a visit to the excellent King Richard III Visitor Centre, followed by a visit to the late monarch's tomb in nearby Leicester Cathedral.

But that's a story I'll expand upon another day. As Shakespeare has Richard say, "An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told."

Friday, 15 September 2017

Review: Jumeirah Carlton Towers, London

Disclosure: I was hosted by the Jumeirah Carlton Towers.

Narrelle and I started this trip with two nights at the Langham Hotel, then yesterday Ubered around to Belgravia for two nights at the Carlton.

The Carlton Towers was not a hotel I knew anything about, and its postwar exterior doesn't do much to catch the eye. But the location, near Knightsbridge Tube station, Harrods and Hyde Park, is appealing; and the rooms are lovely.

This is the interior of our Junior Suite, basically a joined bedroom and sitting room, with a balcony overlooking the leafy Cadogan Place Gardens (a private space, but one that hotel guests have access to)...


The room is very pleasant, the decor a nicely-judged mix of classical elements and modern lines. Very tasteful and soothing, as is the garden view from the balcony.

As for the hotel's public spaces, there's an ambient cafe/lounge off the lobby called the Chinoiserie (whose central tree is re-dressed as each season changes)...


... and a restaurant which is about to undergo a major refurbishment. It's a pleasant spot in which to have breakfast, and there are hints of the hotel's Middle Eastern ownership in the spread: including hommus, labneh, etc.


Other guest facilities include a pool with a view...


... and on the 9th floor, alongside the wellness centre and gym, is The Peak. This is an unexpectedly light-filled space with great views across London to the south. Appealed to me as a great place to sit and write.


The hotel is, as you will have guessed, not cheap. But it's in a great location, and manages to be surprisingly serene in the centre of such a busy city.

The Jumeirah Carlton Towers is located at 1 Cadogan Place, Belgravia, London. Find more info and make bookings at the Jumeirah website.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Art in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland

On this trip I was hosted by Visit Sunshine Coast.

On my recent visit to Queensland's Sunshine Coast, I joined a couple of media tours.

The first one, held before the Australian Society of Travel Writers' annual convention, spurned the region's famous beaches and headed inland.

There's quite a rise in altitude as you head west, and a dramatic change in landscape. Instead of sleepy holiday towns along a strip of beach, you find villages scattered through mountainous green countryside.

The focus of this media tour was art, and I think our small group was fairly dubious about its abilities. We could all write, of course, but our skills at painting and pottery were largely untested.

Our first artistic stop was at the Mary Cairncross Reserve. There's a great view from here of the Glass House Mountains (named by Captain Cook; but I urge you to look up the Aboriginal story of the mountains' formation on Wikipedia, it's fascinating).

Set up on a grassy area next to the visitor centre, and instructed by veteran artist James McKay, we had a go at painting the scene in watercolours...

I think we didn't do too bad for beginners.

The next day, the challenge was clay rather than paint. We dropped into Fried Mudd, a pottery studio near Maleny, to fashion a chicken in only two hours.

Again we were assisted by an expert (thank god), in this case potter Cathy Lawley. Cathy guided us through the process, as we fashioned two 'bowls' from strips of clay, which would then be joined to form the body of the chicken.

Tricky business, especially when we progressed to the finer details of markings, and fashioning the beak and comb. Here's how it went...

And here's what they looked a day later, after they'd been fired and delivered to us at the convention:

I don't think we did a bad job here either, though I was happier with my painting.

But we learnt the basics of the two crafts, had some fun while creating, and saw some beautful scenery on the way.

If you're wondering how we got our two very heavy chickens home to Melbourne, by the way, we didn't.

We gifted them to my colleague Kerry Heaney, who lives in Brisbane, so she could add them to her chicken and have a trio of ceramic chooks in her garden.

And the names of our creations? Dahlia and Agatha. PG Wodehouse fans will know where we got those from.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Seattle's Living Computer Museum

I stayed in Seattle as a guest of Railbookers, Visit Seattle and the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, though I paid my own airfare to the USA.

When I visited Seattle in 2015, I was struck by how many museums it had which referenced either technology or the future (or both).

One exception that referenced both technology and the past was the Living Computer Museum, in the industrial district of SoDo; named in the American style after its location South of Downtown.

Established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the museum is dedicated to presenting the history of computing via working models of computers over the decades, which visitors are welcome to use.

To its credit, it has Apple computers on display as well as PCs.

This is the Apple Lisa, a 1983 computer which was one of the first to feature a graphical interface rather than a simple command line. It was inspired by a then decade-old groundbreaking graphical design by Xerox, which never fully capitalised on this brilliant leap in usability.

A large room at one end held a assortment of huge mainframe computers that looked as though they'd been salvaged from the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey...

... though I most enjoyed sitting down and interacting with the individual computers. This early AT&T machine had a vertical page-shaped monitor. I wonder why that didn't become more of a thing? For writing, it would have made a lot of sense.

I enjoyed a game of Hangman on this DEC VT131 terminal...

... and wrote a note in Notepad on an early IBM PC running Windows 1.0:

And of course, I had to play a game of Pac-Man on one of the early games-based computers, the Atari 400:

There was a lot more to the museum, including guided tours. It may look a bit dry in images, but all the explanatory captioning was very good and it was involving, even for a layman who's merely used computers a lot in his work.

Since I visited, the museum has renamed itself Living Computers Museum + Labs, adding a section dedicated to emerging technologies such as virtual reality and self-driving cars.

But I'll always have a soft spot for these older devices, which helped us in the transition from the hard copy working world, to that dominated by the IT of today.

Living Computers Museum + Labs is located at 2245 First Ave South, Seattle, USA. Entry fee US$12. For opening hours and other details, visit its website.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Australia Zoo: Animals on the Sunshine Coast

I was hosted on this trip by Visit Sunshine Coast.

I've just visited Queensland's Sunshine Coast for the annual convention of the Australian Society of Travel Writers. As part of the event we go on short media tours before and after the formal proceedings, so the local tourism organisation can show off its attractions.

On Sunday a group of us made a quick visit to Australia Zoo, made famous by its founder, the late Steve Irwin. We started at the attached animal hospital, where injured animals are regularly brought in by rescuers. Visitors to the zoo can also enter the hospital and see how it works for a small additional fee.

This was a possum which had just been brought in, and was being looked after by a carer:


Inside the main zoo, we started at the koala enclosure, where a number of the animals were dozing in the branches. I know exactly how this guy feels on a Sunday morning:


A large open kangaroo area led past a red panda to Bindi's Island, where there were hard-to-photograph lemurs.



Then we zipped back to the, ahem, Crocoseum for the midday show. This started with birds of prey and progressed to saltwater crocodiles. As our hosts explained the habits and hazards of the croc, a saltie was released into the water at their feet and lurked ominously nearby.



That was a scary creature to watch as it moved in its purposeful reptilian way. I wonder if there's a race memory stuck away at the back of our minds when it comes to these crocs, telling us to BEWARE?

In any case I shot a short video clip of the croc grabbing the meat it was offered by the handler, generously passing up him and the white bird which was hanging around suicidally nearby.

Here's the clip:

At the end of the day we took part in a special session where we met several animals up close, including a wombat, macaw, lizard, snake and koala. It made for good photos:




It was a great day out among the animals and the surrounding greenery. Australia Zoo was much bigger than I expected, and there's food available onsite, so if I returned on my own I'd make a full day of it.

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Real Mai Tai of Honolulu, Hawaii

On this 2014 trip I travelled courtesy of Hawaii Tourism, the Oahu Visitors Bureau, and the Outrigger Waikiki.

The evening after I changed Honolulu hotels, moving into a room at the Outrigger Waikiki, I decided to go for a walk through the adjacent resorts.

As I was researching Honolulu bars for an article, I was aiming to enjoy an authentic Mai Tai at the aptly-named Mai Tai Bar at The Royal Hawaiian.

But by night it's easy to take a wrong turn and end up at somewhere quite different.

So when I finally found the bar I thought I was looking for, it turned out to be somewhere else altogether: the Rum Fire bar at the Sheraton Waikiki.

Oh well, that's a mistake anyone could make. And the Rum Fire was a fun place to hang out, with cool red and black decor and a lively crowd on that warm evening.

And though it was the wrong bar, I did get to enjoy an authentic Mai Tai; in fact, far more authentic than the sweet concoctions that usually go by that name.

Barman Joe, who was born in the Philippines and had lived in Hawaii from age 7, happily made up an off-menu version of the Mai Tai, which I jotted down thus in my notes:
1944 Mai Tai
Lime juice
Orgeat / Rock candy syrup
Triple sec
Meyers rum
Parrot Bay rum
Not sure about the amounts of each, but Joe said this was basically the original 1944 Trader Vic's Mai Tai. I liked it a lot - it seemed much less sweet than other versions I'd sampled, especially since the only juice in it was lime.

This Mai Tai tasted like a real cocktail, not sweet alcoholic fruit juice. What a revelation. I knew Trader Vic was tougher than that.

I had to ask for it - and it cost US$18 - but it was well worth it. Though it spoiled me permanently for any other Mai Tai. Thanks Joe.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Buddhist for a Night: South Korea Temple Stay

When I visited South Korea in 2014, courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organisation, I spent a lot of time in Seoul. The capital turned out to be a fascinating city, defying its stereotype of bland modernity.

The one big trip I took to the countryside was to stay overnight with a media group at the 9th century Haeinsa Temple, located in the leafy southern interior of the country.

It was an unconventional travel experience: wearing special pyjama-like clothing, getting up at 3am for chanting and bowing, and sleeping on thin mattresses upon heated floors in gender-segregated dorms.

One activity which my companions disliked was eating a vegetarian dinner in complete silence in the communal dining room.

For some reason though, I thoroughly enjoyed this. Maybe I do so much talking, that it felt refreshing to have an enforced break from it.

It was an interesting sleepover, though I was in two minds about some elements of the experience.

On one hand it was stimulating, taking place within an ancient temple in a beautiful natural setting.

We learned a fair amount about Buddhism, via an early Q&A session with a monk.

On the other hand, our subsequent 'training' sessions with the monk felt as if we were pretending to be Buddhists for the night, basically spiritual impostors.

It was an interesting tension, forcing some reflection on spirituality.

And I was glad I'd had the opportunity to visit the temple, especially to see its 700 year old collection of Buddhist texts on wooden printers' blocks.

The one big negative of the experience is that was that I managed to catch a hideous fast-acting sinus infection from a random pilgrim.

It stayed with me for months, through the rest of this trip and a subsequent trip to Oman.

Buddhists would no doubt tell me that such physical suffering is an inevitable part of existence; and a hazard of frequent travel.

Find out more about South Korea's Templestay program at its website:

Friday, 4 August 2017

A Day in Jasper, Canada

On this trip I was a guest of Destination Canada and Tourism Jasper.

During my recent trip to Canada I had a day free in Jasper, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. This period was dictated by the timetables of two VIA Rail trains I was catching - The Canadian up from Vancouver, then the train northwest to Prince Rupert. So I hadn't thought much in advance about what I'd do in the town.

Turned out there were plenty of options. As Jasper is a popular holiday town in a beautiful location, there are lots of short tours and eating choices for visitors. Here's what I did with my day in the mountains.

1. Motorbike tour. In the middle of town is the base of Jasper Motorcycle Tours. It takes visitors on tours to nearby lakes and lookouts, perched on the back of, or in the sidecar of a Harley-Davidson.

There was a certain amount of theatrical dress-up involved, as the guest gets kitted out in leathers first:


Then it was off into the mountains outside town for a while, for a taste of the open road and some impressive scenery:


2. To the heights. After my motorcycle jaunt, I headed to the base station of the Jasper Skytram, a cable car that runs to the top of Whistlers Mountain (and whose staff seemed mostly Aussies!). From the top there are great views of the township and the surrounding mountains:


3. Dinner in the woods. To finish off the day, I had an excellent dinner in the atmospheric dining room of Tekarra Lodge, just outside town.

A set of cabins built in the 1940s, the Lodge has a certain retro charm. I was also told that its restaurant was haunted (but maybe just by the ghost of that deer on the wall...). There was certainly a Twin Peaks vibe to the decor.


I didn't meet any ghosts after dark, but the intersection of the Miette and Athabasca Rivers seemed a good place at which to finish my Jasper day. The next morning, I had a train to catch.