+

A fork of bliss

There’s nothing extraordinary about being someone who loves to eat— most of us do. I love food, but I can’t eat unless I’m hungry. I flew from Honolulu to LAX late in the afternoon, and American Airlines didn’t provide a meal. By the time the plane pulled in at LAX, I had an hour before my connecting flight, and I was starved. I’d never been to LAX and it was almost midnight when I arrived. I ran through the empty maze of tunnels from one terminal to the next, growing hungrier by the minute, but nervous about finding the right gate. With a little help I finally arrived at the gate, and had forty-five minutes till I could board. Perfect! Just enough time to source some food, or so I thought. So close to midnight, many food places had closed, but there was a bistro style cafeteria brightly lit up and smelling great. I selected a dry looking beef casserole with brownish coloured mashed potatoes, as most of the hot food had been sold, and I didn’t fancy a gutful of curry right before a six-hour flight. I sat down with my food and a bottle of water, warily eyeing off the people around me. I was nervous. Small time Aussie girl in Los Angeles airport alone, at midnight, and I was feeling a bit anxious. I couldn’t tell if those around me were male or female. Everything was different; clothes, style, accents, body language. I was exhausted and emotional. 

With the first mouthful of my dinner, everything changed. That was no dried out beef casserole and dodgy mash; that was bliss on a fork. The casserole was rich and meaty, and the potatoes were thick and buttery. I groaned at how delicious the combination was. I wanted to call out to someone, “You must try this casserole!”, but it wasn’t the right crowd. No one at LAX cared about how much the white, middle-aged, average woman was enjoying her dinner. Once I polished that off and boarded my flight, I remembered that I was in America, and food in America is good. 

+

Cowboys and Hash Browns

The first time I saw a real life American cowboy was in Waffle House, Charlotte, North Carolina. Jim picked me up from the airport after a gruelling night of flying, and I’m pretty sure my first word was, coffee.

He drove his pick-up truck into the car park, led me inside my first Waffle House, and we slid into a booth. Ah … so this is what American diners are like, I thought. The menu was plastic coated and extensive, and although Jim was ravenous, I couldn’t bear the thought of food. The cheery waitress with bright red lipstick and big hair greeted us, and poured me a large mug of steaming hot coffee. It smelt delicious, but the first mouthful made me gag. It was horrid— bitter and strong. I was having a whine about it to Jim who sipped his coffee happily, when in walked a cowboy. He must have been about 70. He was wearing blue jeans, a checked flannel shirt, a vest, boots, and a large cowboy hat. He had a thick grey mustache, and as he confidently greeted the girls by name, and sat in what was obviously his regular spot, I couldn’t help but stare. In fact I did more than stare; I was downright creepy and took a photo of him as I wanted to keep a record of my first official cowboy sighting.

My head was filled with wild stories about his cowboy life and whilst I still complained about the coffee, I had to admit that the caffeine was doing its job, and that was good enough. Jim ordered scrambled eggs, toast and hash potatoes, and encouraged me to eat something. Oh no, I can’t—it’s way too early for me. As usual, my preconceived idea about how Jim’s breakfast would be, was wrong. I pictured hash browns McDonalds in Australia style, and I am not a fan. Greasy pockets of gross. Jim’s breakfast arrived and it was a breakfast of champions. He politely asked if I wanted to share. Just a taste I said, but those hash potatoes were something else! They were shredded potatoes made into a pancake style shape, and fried till crispy on the outside, and they were soft and creamy on the inside. The eggs were light and fluffy, and I marvelled. As I ate Jim’s breakfast, (isn’t that what girls do?), while he watched on hungrily, I kept my eye on the old cowboy. He sat comfortably eating his breakfast, stopping occasionally to chat to the girls as they refilled his coffee. It felt a little like I was in a movie scene. 

It was an unusual experience. I was sitting across from my love, sharing breakfast, and despite his American accent which I barely even notice anymore, it all felt as though we could have been in a fast food cafe in Australia. But every time I looked up at the cowboy sitting at the counter, and took another mouthful of the delicious hash potatoes, I was reminded that I was in North Carolina, and it was amazing!

Continue reading “Cowboys and Hash Browns”
+

In A While Crocodile

I flew up to Cairns, Far Northern Queensland, in winter, and was accosted by the heat to such an extent that I had to shed off layers of clothing at the closest public bathrooms— it was overwhelming. When I had left rural NSW, it was 3 degrees celsius with a windchill that felt like minus ten. In Cairns it felt like I was in a kiln.

The rich and famous spend their days at Port Douglas, about fifty minutes north of the airport. I on the other hand, am neither rich, nor famous, so I hired a tiny little three cylinder car that threatened to black out everytime the air conditioning went on, and I stayed at Palm Cove. Palm Cove is beautiful, and it’s also pricey, but I think it has more character than Port Douglas, without the price tag. My accommodation was budgetish, so a few streets away from the beachfront, and only a short walk in the stifling humidity. I was not there to swim; there are crocodiles and stingers in the water in Far Northern Queensland, and while the winter keeps the stingers at bay, it does nothing to deter the crocs. The beach at Palm Cove has a small area netted off for swimming which is designed to keep the crocs out, but last time I checked, crocodiles have legs and are more than capable of walking along the beach (which they do at night), and entering the netted area. In fact it’s the perfect way for them to be guaranteed a quick and easy meal— wait until the tourists trustingly enter the netted area and wham! Breakfast, lunch and dinner all in one. As is my way, I became fascinated with the crocs.

The reason for my trip was to see the Daintree Rainforest— the oldest subtropical rainforest in the world, reputed to be older than the Amazon. Despite the heat and the small motor, that tiny little car faithfully puttered along for many hundreds of kilometres. From Cairns, it is almost a 300 kilometre round trip through the Daintree, to Cape Tribulation. Cape Tribulation is within the Daintree National Park, and is where the sealed road ends, with further travel requiring a 4WD. I left early in the morning and made my way up through some of the most incredible coastline I have ever seen. White sandy beaches, mesmerising blue waters, all empty of course, because crocs and stingers. I should explain stingers to you, just in case you’re not Australian and are not familiar with them. The correct name for them is Irukandji Jellyfish, and they are one of the deadliest creatures in the world. You can survive a sting if you are treated correctly and quickly, but they are usually fatal. It is reported that after being stung the symptoms can include cramping, nausea and a feeling of impending doom. Um, probably because there is impending doom is my guess? You are advised to NOT enter the water from November through to March without a stinger suit, but my advice is better, just stay out of the water full stop! Crocs AND stingers? How about, NO!

As I drove up the coast I would occasionally pull over to some of the empty beaches, and there were always signs warning you to stay out of the water. Even small waterways and canals have the warning— if there’s water, there may be crocs. As is human nature, people don’t always listen and they have been killed by the crocs. I must admit, it’s such a temptation. It is so stifling hot, and the water so blue and beautiful; what could it hurt to take just a quick dip? I didn’t want to find out so I stayed on shore.

There was so much to see and do on the way up the coast. Hartley’s Crocodile Farm was so wonderful I also went back the following day, and then a quick stop at the Mossman Gorge. My plan was to drive up to Cape Tribulation, through the Daintree Rainforest, and then return to Palm Cove for the night. It was a huge undertaking, but achievable.

Once you reach the Daintree River there is a ferry you drive your car onto, to cross to the other side and drive up to Cape Tribulation. While waiting for the ferry there are signs warning you to stay in your car because of the crocodiles, and I sat eagerly, hoping to catch a glimpse or two of killers. Nothing. 

Words cannot express the magnificence of the Daintree. It was like being in a different world. I drove through the canopy and it was gloomy and overcast, with ancient ferns and palms hanging over the road. I unwound my window so I could hear the sounds of the frogs and birds, most of them native to this part of the world. I felt so alone and vulnerable there; nothing around but pure rainforest wilderness, and the foliage was thick and green like a jungle. As I slowly turned a corner I was forced to break hard, an elusive, and rare creature slowly crossed the road in front of me— it was a cassowary! Cassowaries are incredibly beautiful, prehistoric looking birds that can be quite deadly when disturbed. They are the third tallest, second heaviest, and most dangerous birds in the world, and are rarely seen in the wild. I was mesmerised by the sight, but also desperately trying to find my camera. I managed to get a few photos of the blue-headed, long eye-lashed creature heading back to the bush, and incredibly, saw another smaller one not far from it. It was a moment I’ll never forget.

I made a number of stops along the way, and then finally reached Cape Tribulation, and despite all of the crocodile and cassowary warnings, I just had to take a walk along the beach. It was so utterly remote, it was unnerving. An older couple sat on beach chairs near the entrance to the beach, feeding the greedy bush turkeys, and once I turned the corner, stood on the sand and looked at the endless stretch of coastline in front of me, I felt such a pang of aloneness, it scared me. There I was, looking out to the Great Barrier Reef in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and so far from anywhere familiar. I took photos, walked for a while, watched out cautiously for crocodiles, and then quietly made my way back to the car. It was a haunting experience.

The humidity was in the eighties so when I saw a sign for The Daintree Icecream Company, I couldn’t get my car down the long driveway quickly enough. The driveway was tree-lined, but not any old trees— each one was a different, exotic, tropical fruit tree. Many I had never heard of. Soon enough I sat in the shade eating two tropical fruit flavoured scoops of icecream, and admiring the tea bushes. 

By the time I reached Port Douglas I was ravenous, so Mocka’s Pies was a sight for sore eyes. They had row upon row of pies to choose from, but for me it was a no-brainer— I had the crocodile pie! It seemed so fitting; they eat us and we eat them— the perfect life cycle! I know this sounds cliched, but it’s true— the delicious crocodile pie tasted like slightly fishy chicken in a light mornay style gravy. It was a real treat and the only way my day could have improved any more would have been if I could have bought a pair of crocodile skin shoes.  

I have done a lot of travelling in my life, but my trip through the Daintree is up there as one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. The sheer remoteness, the beauty, and the incredible landscapes have stayed alive in my memory. Whenever I even think about Far North Queensland I picture myself on the beach at Cape Tribulation, feeling so alone and so small, yet so incredibly joyful to have experienced such an incredible part of the world.

+

Wanna taco bout it?

Back in the eighties tacos made a sudden appearance in my home. Not good tacos mind you, but tacos all the same. I hated them.

My mother was always keen to try something new, so she’d pull these hard, bland corn shells out of a box and stuff them with spaghetti mince, salad, grated cheese and sour cream. The problem was the taco shell. It was hard and flavourless, thick and cardboard tasting. It made me gag. So even though tacos kept evolving in Australia, becoming more and more authentic, I was scarred from my youth.

Taco Bill was the first Mexican restaurant to open in Australia in 1967, by a Californian named Bill Chillcote. The first was opened on the Gold Coast in Queensland before I was born, but even though they established many more restaurants, I had never heard of them as a child. I was too in love with the Sunday roast and spaghetti bolognaise. Eventually my palate developed a taste for nachos and enchiladas, but that took time. I could not lose the image of the cardboard shells I grew up with, so tacos were off the menu indefinitely.

In my thirties and forties I started eating tacos again. The shells had become lighter and tastier, and guacamole was a thing; a very good thing. I found a new appreciation for Mexican food and it eventually became one of my favourite style of foods, albeit Australian Mexican. Little did I know that a farewell dinner at El Camino Cantina Tex Mex was about to change my life.

El Camino Cantina had an all you can eat tacos special for $10, the catch being that you had to order a $20 frozen margarita, and everyone at the table had to have the same deal. No problem— the huge strawberry margarita was delicious and I ordered a plate of cheeseburger tacos. I wasn’t expecting much. What happened next was the stuff of movies— a huge platter of soft shell tacos filled with minced beef, a bit of salsa, and drizzled with a blue cheese sauce. I expected the shells to be chewy and tough, but they melted in my mouth. I ate about six of those things, possibly more. I ate too fast to count, and thus began my love of tacos.

In North Carolina Jim took me to his favourite Mexican restaurant; Chile Verde. The menu was enormous. I was keen to try the tacos but Jim kept pointing out a range of different things that are delicious so I decided to just order a variety and try them all. Can I tell you that Australian Mexican and American Mexican food are really different! Great different. Everything I tried was utterly delicious. The tacos came with beans and rice but my plan was to give that a miss as my experience with Mexican beans and rice is that they are dry and flavourless. Wrong again— utterly delicious. So much flavour and not slightly dry. The complementary basket of tortilla chips were hot and crisp and I ordered an extra serve of queso, sour cream, and salsa. The waiter looked confused and informed me that my meal came with queso and sour cream, but I always know best. Not. In Australia, when you order a condiment or dipping sauce, you’re lucky to get a tablespoon on the side. Normally you have to order two or three serves as you just don’t get enough. The queso came in a soup bowl as did the sour cream, and I poured it and dipped it liberally over everything. I was eating it with a spoon straight from the bowl and I still couldn’t finish it. The tacos were good, with hot, fluffy shells, and Jim’s Chile Verde had so much flavour it was amazing. I ate till I was stuffed, and I couldn’t finish it all. Despite everything I ordered (Jim ordered one thing and I ordered the rest) the meal was under $25 USD. I couldn’t believe it. The beans and rice were undoubtedly the best I’ve had, and I can’t wait to go back there and just get those— well, with a serve of tortilla chips, queso and sour cream of course!

I had made the mistake of assuming that food is the same all around the world. As though the Chinese food here is the same in China, or Europe, or Africa. It’s simply not true.These foods are adapted to suit the local palate, so each country will have their own variation. I now am obsessed with American Mexican food. It is entirely different from what I’m used to and I can understand why Taco Tuesdays are a thing. In fact Taco Everyday should be a thing.

+

Choosing Cheese Tarts

When I flew down to Sydney for a long weekend about four years ago, I discovered a little Japanese cheese tart shop in an arcade in George Street. I’d never tried one before but as I love eggy, sweet, custardy cheese tarts, I bought one. It was luscious. Unfortunately I was on my way to the airport and had a mountain of bags and parcels from all the shopping I’d done, so I didn’t have the opportunity to buy more. 

Fast forward four years and I’m still talking about the cheese tart. I love that it was subtle and mildly sweet, and so decadent. When it comes to desserts, if it’s not melted chocolate, it has to be a sweet cheese tart or cheesecake. Actually I’m lying. It just has to contain sugar and I love it. I had gone back to Sydney a couple of months ago but I couldn’t find the arcade again, and I was only there for a day. 

Last week I was in Brisbane city doing some shopping in Queen Street, and on the way out of an arcade I was confronted with a cheese tart store. I stopped dead in my tracks. I had to check that I hadn’t time travelled back to Sydney as this cheese tart store was new. My loving daughter was delighted as she’s put up with my moaning about the cheese tarts for four long years. She grabbed all of the shopping bags from me and physically pushed me into the store. “Buy a whole box of them”, she insisted. I bought two tarts. They were still warm. 

The first bite was a reliving of the Sydney experience. Blissful. It’s funny that food memories can be so powerful. I saved the second one for the next day, and even cold, it was delicious. The downside is that I was so excited I cannot remember which arcade it was in. I’m now going to have to hop on the river cat and get back to Queen Street soon, and pop into every arcade until I find it. It’s worth it!

If you want to enjoy this experience but don’t have a Cheese Tart store near you, here’s a copy cat recipe for you to try at home.

+

Savage Singapore

I decided to go to Singapore on a whim. A friend had just booked a trip to Singapore with her husband, and couldn’t stop raving about the amazing deal they’d scored. She was right— it was a bargain, so I hopped online and booked a two-week vacation in Singapore, knowing very little about the country.

It was September when I arrived, and it was stifling hot, even at night. It was late, so a shuttle bus took me straight to my hotel, and I went straight to sleep. I’d booked a bus tour for the first half of the day, as I like to see as much as I can of the local area, and learn about the best places to go. We had a fun tour-guide, a small Singaporean man who not only showed us around China Town, Little India and some great hawker stands, but he warned us of some more unusual laws we would need to be careful of. Some of these are pretty awesome in my opinion!

One:

Chewing gum is illegal and it carries heavy fines and the possibility of a jail sentence. Not only can you not chew gum, but you cannot buy it or sell it. Even if you do manage to get some on the black market, do not even think about spitting it out— that is considered even more serious than chewing it. However, nicotine gum and sugar-free gum can be purchased from pharmacies, but be very careful about where you dispose of it!

Two:

Leaving a public toilet unflushed carries a fine of $150. Officials will randomly check that toilets are flushed and if you’re caught out, you will be fined. I for one hate being faced with someone’s dinner in the bottom of the bowl, because they were too lazy to flush. Seriously— how hard is it to press the button on top to remove your waste? The fine should be heavier in my opinion. 

Three:

It’s illegal to urinate in an elevator, which to me, is 101. Why would you need to urinate in an elevator? Unless of course you’re stuck in one for a couple of hours, but that’s not the point of this law. Many lifts in Singapore are fitted with devices to detect urine, and once urine is detected, an alarm goes off and the elevator doors will remain closed until police arrive. That’s serious stuff.

Four:

It is considered indecency to be seen by another person, walking around your house naked. If reported and prosecuted, you can fail jail time and a fine of $2,000 as you are considered a public nuisance. You can forget about no-pants Fridays in Singapore.

Five:

Littering is a serious offence which can attract fines of $300 for a first offence of a candy wrapper or the like, but throwing a drink can or bottle will have you in very hot water. Singapore is one of the cleanest countries on earth, and in order to keep it this way, they take littering very seriously. People caught throwing a drink can are considered defiant and have to appear in court. Punishment normally involves a Corrective Work Order in which offenders have to wear a fluoro green vest and clean up trash. Public shaming works wonders!

Six:

Penalties for vandalism, including spray painting, and affixing placards or banners without owner’s consent, both for public and private property come in the form of fines, jail and public flogging with a cane. This includes damaging and stealing property as well. 

Caning is widely accepted as a form of discipline in Singapore and canes are sold in grocery stores for 50c. Discipline is important in Singapore, as is corporate punishment, so if that’s something you disagree with, then stay away. These laws don’t just apply to the locals, they apply to visitors and tourists as well. Singapore is a beautiful, clean, and safe country to visit. I went out every evening on foot, dining at hawker stands, like Newtown Circus, and wandered around the night markets. The people were friendly and helpful, and couldn’t do enough to make my visit special.

Even though these Singaporean laws sound amusing and in some cases, harsh, they are not difficult to obey, unless urinating in elevators is a hobby of yours. Every country has some laws that seem unusual and unnecessary to visitors, but it’s another one of the joys of travelling. The important thing to remember here is to do your homework before you visit another country (unlike me who went in totally clueless), and be prepared.

+

Cheesy Choices

I used to enjoy watching Big Bang Theory. Penny was always talking about wanting to leave her job at The Cheesecake Factory, and I assumed that it was a made-up cheesecake store, for the sake of the show. Then I found out that there really is a Cheesecake Factory and they don’t just serve cheesecakes, and I was shocked to say the least!

My daughter, Rose, went to Hawaii and whilst there, she visited The Cheesecake Factory a few times, and raved about it ever since. She’d relay wondrous tales of an endless menu containing dishes too wonderful to imagine, and she’d give me play by play descriptions of the different meals she ate. I would drool— literally, and occasionally I’d look up the menu online, planning what I’d try when I finally had the opportunity to go there. I wrote out a list of my favourite meals, and even looked up knock-off recipes on Pinterest. Not because I wanted to make them, but because I wanted to be able to imagine the wonderful meals properly. Dining at The Cheesecake Factory was on my bucket list, and finally I was able to tick it  off.

We flew into Honolulu on a steamy morning, waited way too long for our bags and finally hit the streets of Hawaii. We couldn’t check into our Airbnb until 5 pm, and as it was still morning we had a lot of time to kill. We caught a cab to Waikiki and dropped our massive load of suitcases at a holding place, for a small fortune of course, but who cares? It’s Hawaii! It was then I laid eyes on The Cheesecake Factory— the real thing, on the same strip as Waikiki Beach. It was too early for lunch but it was a done deal; I’d soon be gorging at this dream destination. 

Waikiki Beach was gorgeous. There’s nothing quite like dipping your jet-lagged feet into the ocean after a long flight, with the sun on your skin, and iPhone snapping shots every which way. I love Hawaii, no doubt, but back to the food. Finally it was an appropriate time to eat lunch, so off we went to the gleaming star of the USA, and found ourselves in a dark booth with a menu like a small telephone directory. A million choices, and whilst that was exciting, I found myself unable to choose. I had waited so long for the moment and when it finally arrived, I had stage fright— I felt so much pressure to get it right that I didn’t know what to order. I also was intimidated by the sheer size of the servings being brought out. A family of ten in India wouldn’t eat that much food in a day. I had been dreaming of a meat dish with a creamy sauce, but instead, I ordered a salad. Please don’t judge me! Let me just tell you that it was no ordinary salad. It was the salad of kings; a salad so indulgent that a man on death row would truly consider it for his last meal. And this is where I noticed something else startlingly wonderful about America— you can change the order! You can actually do whatever you want to it and they will bring it to you. An example, “Can I please order the house salad, but can you hold the vegetables, add a leg of lamb, crack ten eggs on it, add strawberry puree, and give me a side of biscuits?” The answer is ALWAYS, no problem ma’am! It doesn’t even have to make any sense, they’ll give it to you. Australia is just not like that. If they give you the wrong order and you have a severe allergy to it, you eat it, pay for it, and thank them profusely for their kind gesture in calling you an ambulance. Some restaurants and cafes have a note in the menu telling you that you cannot change the dishes. And even worse, if you order a burger for example, and ask for no meat or cheese, but want extra sauce, they’ll charge you extra for the sauce and give you no discount for having no filling! It’s crazy. I deal with this constantly at cafes. 

The Cheesecake Factory allowed me to mix up my salad a great deal. I removed the bits I didn’t like and added more of what I did like. It was served with a beautiful piece of grilled salmon on top and it was so delicious I couldn’t believe it. No doubt it was one of the best salads I have had. I was pretty disappointed that I didn’t have the gumption to try a larger meal, so I went back on my last night and had a spectacular Thai curry. I don’t know how they packed so much flavour and spice into one meal, but it was incredibly tasty. The downside is that the meals are so enormous that even the thought of trying their famous cheesecake was too much for me. I needed to run back to our room and lie down after the curry. 

I am still just as excited about The Cheesecake Factory now, as I was before I tried it. In fact, now that I know how good the food is I can’t wait to get back and work my way through the entire menu. I am thinking that I will go there just for cheesecake one day. The coffee there is awful— up there with the worst coffee I’ve ever had, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not The Coffee House— it’s The Cheesecake Factory, and I am a fan for life!

+

Let’s talk about toilets

Some people find it offensive to talk about toilets, but I’m not one of them. In fact, I think it’s important to talk about them and to have an understanding of toilets and toiletting habits around the world. As a traveller I like to be prepared, and in some countries you truly need to be prepared before nature calls.

We generally don’t think too much about bathrooms. We all have them and we tend to know where local and shopping centre restrooms are located, but when road-tripping we plan bathroom stops and we think ahead. No one wants to be stuck with a crampy stomach 100 kilometres from the nearest public toilet. One of the challenges when travelling overseas is to plan bathroom stops as we don’t know where they are, and if they’re going to be hygienic enough to use.

I wrote a previous blog article about my bathroom experience in Malaysia, which was downright horrific. I had to pay to use a hole in the ground and clean myself with an excrement encrusted hose. But I get it! Different cultures and different norms. It’s just not what I was used to. Many public bathrooms in Australia’s national parks and picnic areas are no better but have the added indignity of poisonous spiders lurking around. 

I was very pleasantly surprised by the restrooms in America. They are spacious and mostly self-flushing, which is an added hygiene measure. In one of the malls in Waikiki in Hawaii, the toilets had bidets which were fantastic. I’ve been obsessed with them ever since. I also like that the water level in the toilets in the US is very high. Australian toilets only have a small amount of water in the bottom, and as they mostly have water saving devices you need to flush them fifteen times to remove toilet paper. I don’t see the point. The only strange thing about American restrooms is the huge gap at either side of the doors. What’s that about? There are no gaps in our doors in Australia and I can tell you that when one is using a toilet, privacy is king. 

When driving through NSW a few years ago I stopped at Fitzroy Falls for a walk and to use the restrooms. They have the scariest toilets I have ever seen. You need to keep the lid closed when you’re not on it as they have a vacuum style system of removing waste, which goes down to a large tank underneath the floor. When you look into the bowl it’s black and you cannot see the bottom. It’s like a pit of despair. There are signs warning you to not drop stuff into the toilet and to supervise small children. That’s nightmarish stuff; having your toddler sucked into a pit of muck. Ugh. It’s bad enough to lose your car keys in the pit, but to lose your children as well is just a bit too frightening for me. Those are toilets I could never use again and the Malaysian hole in the ground would be preferable. They both smell as bad as the other so I’ll go for squatting rather than drowning. 

When I drove along the Seward Highway in Alaska I stopped at public bathrooms at the side of the road. I vigilantly looked for bears as I bee-lined to the bathrooms, and was surprised at how clean they were. Much cleaner than the restrooms inside a service station which sold hot food, on the way to Valdez. They needed to be burnt down to purify them. 

Having been to many different countries and experiencing all sorts of public restrooms, my advice is to simply be prepared. Don’t go into it thinking that the bathrooms will be the same as what you are used to at your local mall. Every country has different sewerage systems and bathroom cultures. Take a roll of toilet paper or wipes in your bag. Disinfectant wipes can ensure you can quickly clean up a not so hygienic toilet, and many restrooms don’t provide hand soap, even here in Australia. I make my own hand sanitiser with essential oils and aloe gel, and I keep it in my bag with some wipes. I’ve had way too many bad bathroom experiences to be unprepared. Some bathrooms I’ve been to are so foul that I’ve had to hang on to a full bladder for another hour just to get to a toilet that is usable. 

What this has all proven, is that even toilet experiences add to your travel memories. Even bad toilet experiences give you something to laugh about and talk about. So get out there with your wipes and sanitiser, and use a public restroom.

+

Malasada Magic

 When I was planning my trip to Hawaii, the first thing I researched was food. Naturally. I wasn’t keen to try the spam which is considered a popular, local food, nor the poke (I really don’t like raw fish), but there were a couple of things I was very excited about. The main one being malasadas. For those of you who haven’t tried one, I am truly sad for you, but probably sadder for myself as I have loved them, and then had to let them go. I’m yet to find malasadas here in Brisbane. 

Malasadas are a Portuguese donut; a donut without a hole, deep fried until golden and crisp, and dusted in sugar. As a lover of all things donutty, I was determined to have one, and to have it at Leonard’s Bakery. I passed Leonard’s on the way from Honolulu airport to our accommodation. The cab driver took us along the strip of restaurants that were made famous by Guy Fieri and pointed out each one he thought we should visit. I was delighted to see Leonard’s in the strip, but I’d just hopped off a ten hour flight and didn’t feel quite ready to stop at Leonard’s. Silly me. 

It was a couple of days later that I finally stopped at the Leonard’s Food Truck and I almost sprinted from the car to the truck. I knew without a doubt that I was going to stuff myself silly with them. I ordered a box of six. Three plain and three custard filled. I love anything stuffed with custard, but I was worried it wouldn’t be nice custard and I’d be stuck with six. Second mistake. 

My first malasada experience was beautiful. I bit into the warm, sugary crispness, followed by a soft, cloud like doughyness, and then I bit into the most delectable, warm vanilla centre imagineable. I was concerned it would be too sweet a combination, but it wasn’t. The vanilla custard was creamy and delicious. Just like grandma used to make, but heaps better of course because it was stuffed inside a donut! I ate one at lightning speed and started on a second. My son-in-law, who had assured me he didn’t want a malasada, changed his mind. He decided to try one, and four and a half malasadas later, declared them to be utterly delicious, and I had none left. I tried to get back to Leonard’s on my trip, but every day was filled with a billion other things to do, and a billion other food items I’d stuffed myself on. 

Needless to say, I love malasadas, but I’ve decided that we do not give Portugal the credit they deserve. Malasadas are Portuguese as I’ve mentioned, and they also invented the Portuguese Tart. That’s another delicious custard and pastry delight. I’ve been planning another trip to Hawaii just so I can go back to Leonard’s Bakery, but now I’m wondering if I should instead go directly to the Motherland— Portugal.

+

Ten Ways To Kill Time At The Airport

Who doesn’t love a list? Especially a list that gives you great travel ideas. Well this list is helpful for the start of your vacation as it helps you not only kill the time, but actually enjoy yourself at the airport, whilst waiting for your flight. 

1. Always start at the book shop. Not only can you check out a fantastic range of books, but they have journals, note books, pens, cards, and magazines. Buy something! You’re on vacation so buy something fabulous.

2. Cruise the coffee scene. Work your way around the airport and find a nice little coffee nook. Somewhere that not only serves good coffee, but has a comfortable place for you to sit and sip a latte while flicking through your new magazine. 

3. Eat! Need I say more? Airports have so many great choices of places to eat. Try to choose something local. You can get McDonalds anywhere, so look for something a bit different with fresh, local ingredients. Enjoy a meal in one of the restaurants and order something you wouldn’t normally try. 

4. Have dessert. Even if it’s just a hot donut or a cookie, have dessert. Nothing says vacation like throwing that diet out of the window. Eat something that will make you happy. 

5. Do some souvenir shopping. You don’t have to buy a $50 t-shirt to enjoy souvenir shopping at the airport. Buy a postcard, a pen, or a fridge magnet. It’s all about the memory that postcard will give you every time you see it. 

6. Sit and chat to people who are also waiting. When I’m at an airport in another country, I listen out for Australian accents. When I hear them, I make a beeline to introduce myself and have a chat. It’s amazing how excited to meet you another Australian at Vancouver Airport will be. 

7. People watch. This is always a good one. I try to imagine where people are going and what they may be doing. I create some fantastic scenarios in my head. 

8. Go for a long walk and stretch those legs before your flight. You certainly won’t regret it when those legs are cramping up five hours into your fourteen-hour flight. 

9. Enjoy the moment. It’s not often we have the opportunity to just sit and relax. Life is so busy we forget that it’s actually good for us to be still for a while. 

10. Buy a bunch of postcards and write them to your friends and family. You can post them once you get to your destination and if you’re lucky, they’ll beat you home! 

+

The Fine Print

I am one of those people who is insured for pretty much everything because I know that anything that can go wrong, probably will. It makes sense to be insured. Travel insurance fits into this category, but even with the care I take with the policies, I have still been caught out.

It was the end of summer when I went to Alaska and it was cold for a Queenslander. The leaves were starting to change colour, the days were growing cooler and I thought I’d freeze to death. We were staying at Eagle River in a house that backed onto Fire Lake, and the landscape was spectacular. Our friends wanted to show us the American bonfire experience with ’Smores and the trimmings, so a night was planned with friends and beers by the lake.

Earlier in the day I thought I’d scope things out and nervously walked down to the jetty at the back of the property— I was on bear watch. Doesn’t matter how many times I was assured that there would be no bears in the backyard, I simply didn’t believe it. I did a quick lap around the yard, made sure it was wildlife free, and headed back up the steep grassy incline to the house. The grass was soft and lush, but slippery, and I fell forward onto my face and my hand. Those reflexes aren’t quite what they used to be and my hand was awkwardly trapped under me when I fell. Despite my utter humiliation of face-planting, my face had no damage, but my hand did. The pinkie finger on my right hand was broken and stuck out awkwardly on a 45 degree angle. I could not make it sit properly, so I iced it and bandaged it into place. A quick call to the travel insurance company hotline confirmed that my inadequate policy meant that yes, I could most certainly make a trip to the emergency room or a doctor, and have some x-rays done, but I’d have to pay for it myself. Once I returned to Australia I would have to hand in my receipts with a medical certificate from an Australian doctor to confirm that the injury had not happened before I flew to Alaska. I tried to explain that I would not break my hand and finger, strap it up, fly to another country and then decide to have it treated there. It seemed too ridiculous to be true. A few calls were then made to a radiology company and a medical surgery, and it was going to cost over $1000 USD to have an x-ray and my hand strapped. No thanks, I’d deal with it myself.

I strapped my hand tightly, which effectively meant I had to tie the pinkie to the rest of my hand as it would not sit in place. My hand was bruised and painful, throbbing constantly, and I am not one to take pharmaceutical pain relief if it can be helped. The next day we took a road trip to Talkeetna and I stopped in at the dispensary. Not any old dispensary, but a cannabis dispensary. Marijuana is legal in Alaska and as a result, they have a large array of medical products for all sorts of ailments. The dispensary was beautiful; all timber and glass cabinets. Clean, well-designed, and the staff were friendly and knowledgeable. I was asked what I needed and what I needed it for. I explained that I’d fallen up a hill, and broken my hand, and without a beat I was given a small jar of CBD oil capsules. CBD oil has brilliant healing and anti-inflammatory properties. They also had melatonin in them so I was told to have one a couple of hours before bed, and they would help me with the pain, the inflammation and help me sleep. I hadn’t been able to sleep as my hand throbbed constantly. Those CBD oil capsules were incredible. Not only did they help my hand, but they also cleared up a lagging chest infection I had. I slept beautifully, and my hand healed very quickly. When I arrived back in Australia I continued to strap my hand but didn’t need any further medical intervention. I was delighted despite having to leave the incredible capsules in Alaska as I couldn’t bring them into Australia.

But getting back to travel insurance. Since that trip I have been very careful to properly examine the insurance policy paperwork before I commit to buying it. I’m happy to pay a bit extra and know that if I have an accident in another country that I won’t have to fork out a billion dollars for treatment. Did I have $1000 USD to pay for my medical costs? Yes I did, but I refused to pay for it on principle. I wouldn’t have been quite so stubborn if I’d had a leg sawn off I can assure you, but the broken hand was treatable and my now pinkie obediently sits in place. It’s one of those things I had to learn the hard way.

+

Outta This World

I work as a writer for a luxury, bespoke travel company. Our clients are extremely wealthy and educated, wanting beautiful, but more unusual travel experiences. Our philosophy is, if you can dream it, we can organise it. Not only do I research and write about exotic locations all over the globe, but I have to find them. I’m always on the hunt for somewhere a little bit different, but something that can be turned into pure indulgence for the discerning traveller. It’s not just about finding somewhere exotic— it’s also about how we can turn an unusual location (or any location really) into a vacation that will not only blow your socks off, but will make your friends green with envy. 

One of the best parts of being a travel writer is that I’m always learning something new, and my boss, who is extraordinarily well travelled, is full of great ideas and travel destinations, but when she told me she wanted me to write an article on space travel, I thought she’d gone mad!

I really did think she was a bit mad and I was sure it was impossible, but before telling her that, I did some research and discovered that space travel is a real thing! People have actually paid to book their seats to fly into outer space— before the flight is even ready, and that’s mind-boggling. Space travel is not for the faint-of-heart, or those short of a buck. A ticket costs about $250,000 USD. Virgin Galactic, headed by Sir Richard Branson, has the mission of developing and operating space vehicles to make ‘space’ accessible for everyone. Well everyone with a quarter of a million dollars that is. I can understand that pioneering spirit that would make people cough up a lot of money for a flight that may not take off in their lifetime, but I’m not one of them.

The idea of travelling into space fills me with dread. It’s one thing to find yourself stranded in Marrakesh because of a pick-pocket, or to lose your passport in Milan, but the sheer volume of things that could go wrong on a trip to Mars is way too much to comprehend. There’s no getting off if you’re hit by horrific travel sickness or claustrophobia, and what if you’re stuck next to a crying baby for one hundred and fifty light years? Yes, I know, that wouldn’t happen and I don’t even know what light years are, but you get my point. Too much can go wrong.

What I have found interesting is that over the last quarter, four hundred people put down deposits to fly on the future tourist space-plane. Considering the state of the world during the COVID-19 lock-down, people are still putting money on the futuristic flight. Whilst I was initially surprised by it, I came to realise that space travel during the pandemic makes so much sense. All the borders are closed, but not the borders into space! Mars isn’t in lock-down either. Social distancing is covered with those space suits and oxygen tanks so it really is the perfect way to travel. Now if only I had $250,000 to spare …

+

Destination Nowhere

I love airports— they are full of promise. I had to learn to love them as I’ve spent so much time waiting for my flights, and now the wait is one of my favourite parts of the trip. For me, the moment I leave home for the airport, my trip has begun— I am in tourist mode, even when I’m just travelling interstate for the day for work. I refuse to drive myself to the airport. I normally catch a shuttle which is jam-packed with another six or seven people juggling bags and umbrellas and newspapers. It seems that everyone in a shuttle is in holiday mode and they’re all chatty and excited. Especially me. I have made friends for life on those shuttles— well it seemed that way but I forget to maintain contact after a few days.

I arrive extra early as I’m always delayed in security— I have dark hair so I am explosives checked every time. Maybe I just look dodgy? I’m not sure— I tell myself it’s because of my foreign looks. Once I get through security the fun begins; I am free to explore every inch of the airport. Not quite— I don’t stray too far from my terminal, but I do have a nice little routine.

Firstly, it’s about coffee, but before I select the cafe, I need to go to the magazine store and buy a new journal and pen. I am obsessed with notebooks, and I tell myself that writers must have a notebook and pen on them at all times. It’s a lie. I save every idea in my phone, but that doesn’t stop me from buying a new journal or notebook. The paper has to be just right. I don’t even care too much about the cover, as long as the paper is thick, with beautiful lines, and the book itself must open fully so I can lay it flat on a surface to write. The pen nib must be neither too thick, nor too thin. Then it’s coffee time.

I have these romantic notions about myself sitting in a coffee lounge in the airport sipping a flat white and writing frantically what will become the next best-seller, but that’s far from the truth. Airport coffee shops produce some fantastic coffee so the reality is me sitting there chugging through three espressos, running back and forth from the bathrooms as coffee is a diuretic, and writing a shopping list in my $30 dollar notebook. But it doesn’t matter— when one is at the airport it is about what could be, not what is.

After the three coffees I’m normally wired so I decide it’s time to stretch my legs. The feet attached to those legs are usually wearing heels as I travel a lot for work, so the walk becomes a limp after the first 400 metres or so. But I refuse to sit right before a flight as I know I’ll be cramped uncomfortably in a seat only big enough for a ten-year-old child for the next couple of hours, so in my heels I kind of lean on a wall and change feet occasionally. Heels and a pencil skirt are part of the romantic notion I regret every time, especially when I’m freezing to death mid-flight and I attempt to wrap my blazer around my feet to stop the chilblains.

Then there’s the food at the airport. I love airport food— so many little nooks to try. Overpriced nooks, but exciting ones. Chicken nuggets taste divine at an airport, especially the cheesy nuggets. I have eaten those more times than I dare to count, but I also try a range of other places. When at airports in other countries, I always try a restaurant or cafe with local food. At Phoenix airport I had the best blackened shrimp. In Hawaii I ate their pulled pork with pineapple. In Vancouver I had Tim Hortons. My imagination really kicks in and I pull out my new notebook and pen, packed into my bag with ten other notebooks and pens, and I write about my meal. I take photos as well, imagining that one day I will have a world-class food blog, but once my stomach is full and I leave the restaurant, all is forgotten. I still have one more thing to do— go to the little airport convenience store.

I love airport convenience stores. I can stock up on packets of tissues, mints, hand lotion, another pen and notebook, some local t-shirts that are always too small when I get them home, a cap with I Heart Hawaii on it, the occasional psychology book that I’ll never read, a magazine and newspaper, and various other bits and pieces that I simply must have. It’s like I lose my mind in those stores. I know I can get the tissues for $1 at the supermarket, but they look so special under the bright airport lights and worth the $6 I paid. They must pump stupidity through the air conditioning at airports and I’m particularly vulnerable to it.

I spend so much time on my airport routines that I have been very close to missing my flight a few times. I’m normally the last one to board and on the way back from Honolulu in February, someone had incorrectly assumed my seat was free and had set himself up quite comfortably in it. My stern look and bulging bag of airport goodies was all the warning he needed to move along.

I don’t think it would be possible to enjoy my travels as much if it wasn’t for the sheer joy I derive from the airport— a veritable playground. Admittedly, they’re not so fun on a six-hour layover after a 13 hour flight and another 4 hours ahead, but even then, a long nap across a row of airport seats makes for a decent snooze. It’s all about how you imagine it!