In our final summer recap, we look back on the highlights from our trips further afield in 2012 - from the Amazon to Abu Dhabi, Hollywood to Hong Kong, last year the world was our oyster.
Adding a lone Kiwi of English extraction to a coachload of American tourists would seem a trekking timebomb - there is, after all, only a certain amount of y'alls, oh-my-gawds and gee-blimey-Glenys-es that any man can take.
And yet a Rome-to-Rome tour via Pisa, Siena, Florence, Venice, Verona and Assisi is great way to learn more about two great civilisations, one which mastered the known world for nigh-on 1000 years and a more recent upstart which seems to be teetering at the top after a mere seven decades.
The absolute highlight was the glorious 85-year-old-Joe-from-Queens, who took every opportunity to deride a guide or stress a waitress and whose reaction to Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel masterpiece was to sit, with head in hands, marvelling at the marbling below: "You've got to hand it to these Italians - they know their floor tiles. I was in flooring for 30 years and I couldn't have done anything like this. Not even with vinyl."
You can gaze all you like at basilicas, piazzas and temples - it's the folk you meet on your travels which stay with you longest, and Joe was a real classic.
Harbour breeze, Hong Kong
My first day in Hong Kong was a washout. But after a day of perpetual rain, it's a refreshing change to wake up on day two to see the sun shining. The humidity has abated but it's still hot so we seek a cooling breeze out on the water of Victoria Harbour. Cruising on the Duk Ling - a restored junk boat, originally owned by a Chinese fisherman - I feel like a celebrity thanks to the countless tourists taking photos of this impressive vessel. The red sails and dark wood against Hong Kong's steel and glass skyscraper backdrop are irresistibly photogenic. The hour cruise has no commentary from the crew so you'll have to work out the local landmarks for yourself, but it's a great way to get some peace and contemplation time, away from Hong Kong's crowded streets and subways.
Boulevard of dreams, USA
Our biggest star spot in West Hollywood is at our hotel, Sunset Marquis. We're loitering in the lobby when a lanky fellow with shorts, long socks and a shirt strides past. It's Jeff Goldblum. He could either be a guest at the hotel or a diner, as Sunset Marquis is somewhat legendary for its celebrity presence. Even if you're a nobody you feel important here. Sunset Marquis, located just off Sunset Boulevard (which is populated by famous bars and clubs), was the only hotel where tour buses could park so it was a favourite for bands like U2, Aerosmith and countless others. Their presence lines a hallway with signed posters from the rockers. The celebrity treatment continues beyond the lobby. Walking through the grounds it feels like you're traipsing through some movie star's sprawling property. There are water features, bridges and stairs leading through the garden setting - walking to my room feels like a maze. Dinner is on site at Restaurant, where an asparagus salad (the asparagus stands up like a gate surrounding beetroot and goat's cheese) and California peach and nectarine tart tartin are thoroughly enjoyed.
Dazzling legacy, Abu Dhabi
The sun is starting to set behind the minarets, columns and towers of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. So big it can be seen for miles around, the mosque opened in 2007 after 11 years of construction. It was the vision and most tangible legacy of Sheik Zayed, who died in 2004 - indeed, the first ceremony held here was his funeral. The numbers involved are staggering: 40,000 worshippers can fit within its walls; the 17,000 square metre courtyard is said to be the largest marble mosaic in the world; its seven chandeliers from Germany feature millions of Swarovski crystals, and the carpet in the main prayer hall, made from New Zealand and Iranian wool, is also the largest in the world. The cost? An estimated $600 million.
To enter we must don an abaya - full-length black cloaks and a head scarf. Racks of them are available at the entrance. Against their monochromatic pall, the columns of white marble and their inlays of semi-precious stones and mother of pearl forming designs of flowers and plant life are even more dazzling, helped by the constant flash of cameras.
Latin loving, Argentina
Love was certainly in the air on Air New Zealand's inaugural charter to Buenos Aires, organised to mark Argentina's arrival in the Investec Rugby Championship. The romance began almost as soon as the plane lifted off.
Bolstered by some Dutch courage, Auckland man Peter Murray got down on one knee in the aisle and proposed to Brisbane-based Kiwi Denise Maitland-Armstrong. They'd met a year earlier at the Rugby World Cup. Others simply fell in love with Buenos Aires itself. A colleague raved about Buenos Aires so much I thought he was going to tear up his passport and seek asylum.
And me? I'd rate the Argentinian capital as one of the top three cities I've visited. Its architecture is up there with the capitals of Europe and its people are friendly, but it's the grimy, edgy aspects that give Buenos Aires its character - the pop-up shanties next to motorways and railway tracks, the broken sidewalks, the homeless children performing in traffic.
After all, who wants perfection in a lover?
Taste of Los Angeles, USA
I'd intended an early dinner back at the hotel cafe but once we reach the end of Huntington Beach's 565m-long pier, we strike gold. We walk into Ruby's Diner, which sits right on the end of the pier, and I feel like I'm in an episode of Happy Days, but in a much nicer location. Glossy red upholstered booths, shining formica table tops, wait staff dressed as you'd expect wait staff at a 1940s or 50s diner to be dressed. It's brilliant. The menu is huge and so are the meals. Crispy fried chicken tenderloins are delivered to my kids in a cone-like metal structure with three different sauces, and my classic cheeseburger and fries is everything you'd hope a classic cheeseburger and fries to be. For our first taste of Los Angeles, it's an absolute winner.
The next morning we catch a cab a couple of miles down the road to the Banzai Surfing School where my boys are booked in for their first-ever surfing lesson. They wriggle into wetsuits then head to the waves with their boards and instructors, Brenda and Bryce. I'm sitting this one out: my one and only attempt at surfing 15 years ago ended in embarrassment, sunstroke and about three glorious seconds out of 90 tortuous minutes actually riding a wave. Here I learn another invaluable lesson about parenting: never underestimate your kids. My eldest son, whom I was expecting to take after his mother, is standing up by his third go and over the next hour catches a tonne of waves, with accompanying high-fives from Bryce. By the end of the lesson they're as pooped as they are exhilarated and they are both demanding surfboards for their next birthdays.
Fearsome feasting, Bali
Chef Heinz von Holzen runs endurance marathons, cycles across deserts and scares the bejesus out of the guests attending his justifiably famous Bumbu Bali cooking school. He is, it seems, fearless and fearsome in equal parts. But this Swiss chef with a classical French background and Heston Blumenthal obsession is a hero in these parts for his work in recording and promoting Balinese cuisine and ingredients. During the day-long cooking classes you'll visit the somewhat confronting Jimbaran village market and nearby fish market then spend several hours in the open-air kitchen in the serene garden compound of Bumbu Bali.
We all took turns in preparing scores of dishes, including basic spice pastes, grilled chicken in banana leaf, satays, a green papaya salad, pork in sweet soy sauce and the unexpectedly luscious snack of sweet corn with grated coconut. Then we all sat down to eat them. A great - and fascinating - day's work.
Driving is a leisurely affair in Samoa where the speed limit is 56kmh on the open road and the only things rushing down the hills to the southern coast where we are staying at Sinalei Reef Resort, are the rocky streams that tumble out of the rainforest.
Sinalei straddles two golden sand beaches separated by a small promontory with a pier, and all of the accommodation is in individual bungalows, each opening to its own spacious deck.
Samoan families have a long tradition of massage, with the skill handed down from mothers to daughters. The massage rooms at Sinalei are at the water's edge with windows that open on to the lagoon. You can choose from a wide range of treatments, including the "barefoot Samoan", which involves the masseuse pummelling you with the soles of her feet, although I choose to have my aches and pains banished with firmly applied hands, knuckles and elbows, to the soothing sound of the waves breaking over the reef on the far side of the lagoon.
After an hour of bliss I am revived with a glass of lemon and passionfruit juice served with ice and mint and as the sun begins to set I head to the bar for pre-dinner cocktails.
Gardener's world, San Francisco, USA
My considerable liking for San Francisco became a full-blown passion after discovering the botanic beauty of the Japanese Tea Garden. Whether that was because of the squirrel playing in the Zen garden, the scarlet and gold pagoda or the moon bridge mirrored in the koi pond below, I'm not sure. It's also said fortune cookies were invented here back in 1914 in an early incarnation of the teahouse that's still operating today. Paths wind up and down, around ponds and streams, over bridges and under a giant Buddha over the garden's two hectares of Japanese and Chinese plants and trees. Time your visit for March or April, when the cherry trees are in blossom. This garden is sublimely peaceful, calm and beautiful - it's a San Francisco must.
Moor memories, England
On a guided holiday with Trafalgar, the great British summer is nowhere to be seen. But the rain and mist prove the perfect accompaniment to an evening optional excursion, visiting the wild, rugged isolation of Devon's Dartmoor - a place which has evidence of human habitation dating back 4000 years. Stopping in the village of Princetown to pick up local guide Peter, we make our way by coach to the remote Dartmoor Inn, a cosy, low-beamed, thatched roof pub which is apparently haunted by three ghosts.
We tuck into a traditional English pub meal and get to know our fellow Trafalgar passengers. Although the age of the other guests is undeniably on the senior side of the spectrum, chatting to some of them over dinner it's clear we all have one thing in common: a love of travel. After sharing stories of our own, we huddle around the inn's blazing log fire while Peter captivates us with tales of highwaymen and ghostly figures roaming the moors. He talks of the tradition of storytelling and how fireside tales have been passed down through the generations, keeping the rich British history alive. We are spellbound, the brooding weather outside providing easy inspiration for our imaginations. Driving back through the fog, I watch the rain on the window and once more reminisce about previous holidays, making a mental note to keep my family history alive, too.
Sands of time, Dubai
"The Empty Quarter" is, our Arabian Adventures driver tells us, the largest sand desert in the world. He lets the air out of the tyres to handle the soft ground - and I start screaming. Dune bashing is not for the fainthearted.
Our modern day caravan of 30-plus four-wheel-drives screams up and down hills, stopping for a demonstration of falconry (female peregrines can hit flying speeds of 360kmh and it feels like we're not far behind) and an awe-inspiring sunset, before we reach a faux Bedouin camp. The camel ride is not compulsory but the photo opportunity is too good to miss.
We queue for pita bread and kebabs. I've given up trying to keep the sand out of my shoes as I head to the bar for a beer. My 24 hours in Dubai is almost over and it's finally cool enough to raise an armpit to this strange but fascinating place.
Hawaiian Highlights, USA Shangri La Hotel
Just 10 minutes beyond Waikiki and in the shadow of Diamond Head sits the former home of Doris Duke, the American heiress once dubbed the richest girl in the world. After their honeymoon, Duke and husband washed up in Honolulu in 1935 and in a way, she never really left. (The husband, however, very quickly became an afterthought.) She bought this piece of prime coastal real estate and, over nearly 60 years, gathered what is now a stunningly beautiful and culturally significant repository of Islamic art and decoration, including priceless furniture, carpets, panels, ceilings, tiles and mosaics; even whole rooms. Her legacy is also most poignantly seen in what's not there: an empty hole on a wall featuring a collection of decorative tiles. Duke liked to regularly change the tiles but died on the mainland before choosing a tile for the hole. It's been left empty ever since.
The North Shore
There's a collective sigh on our bus as we come through the tunnel to Oahu's northern coast. With a view of jagged mountains edged by a beautiful coast, it's hard to believe I'd left my 18th floor hotel room on Waikiki only 25 minutes earlier. Here, roadside vendors sell pineapples, bananas and nuts; primrose yellow wild hibiscus - Hawaii's state flower - and monkey paw trees fringe the road. This is the coast surfers travel the world to visit in winter, when huge swells ripple down the Pacific from the north, causing the kind of waves that sort out the surfing men from the boys. It's also where turtles head in summer to take up residence at Laniakea Beach. Further along the coast you'll find Haleiwa town, notable for the world-famous-in-Hawaii snow cones from Matsumoto Shave Ice. There's usually a queue stretching down the road for one of these incredibly sweet confections of powder-soft shaved ice and syrups in dozens of flavours. Haleiwa is also about three minutes from where the plane crashed in the television series Lost. Yes indeed, in the words of every tour bus driver in this area, if only they'd kept walking.
Living it up in Las Vegas, USA
It's impossible to see and do it all in Las Vegas. Around stints at the sevens, consider what we squeeze in to just three days: We drive the track-ready Ferrari F430 GT as part of the Dream Racing "Five Star" Experience. I'm no petrolhead, but it's hard to fault this activity, from the expert tuition to the purpose-built track and the fabulous vehicles which had me hurtling down the straight with a mere twitch of the foot, at close to 200kmh. My heart is pounding at the end of six laps - in a good way.
We are pampered at Caesar's Palace, following a super-sized breakfast at Serendipity 3, with a tour of the suite used in the first of The Hangover films, and then a spa experience in the Men's Zone at Caesar's Qua Baths and Spa. My barbershop treatment is almost as soothing as the steady conversation from Vegas lifer and boxing aficionado Sal.
We also take in a show - the polished (and topless) Fantasy at Luxor; have two nightclub visits; eat the most splendid food I've ever had and puff on stogies and drink vintage whisky at Monte Carlo's Andre's Cigar Lounge.
It is all superb. Vegas has morphed into somewhat of a fine dining mecca and the three restaurants we eat at - Fiamma Trattoria at MGM, Jean Georges Steakhouse at Aria, and Stack at the Mirage - are of the highest quality. The steaks at JGS were of Flintstone proportions, Fiamma is Italian chic and Stack is far off the mark set by the others.
But dinner should not end your night. Vegas has become notorious for its high-end nightclubs, and though it will cost you a small fortune to do it in anything resembling celebrity style, it's definitely worth the hit if you can wheedle your way inside.
Walking with beasts, Mauritius
Graeme Bristow of Adventure Safari is a third-generation lion keeper and breeder, who moved his operation from Zimbabwe to Mauritius in 2007. He also keeps cheetahs and tigers at the 400-hectare Casela Nature Park in mid-west Mauritius, but it's the Big Cat encounters that really draw the crowds.
Our hour-long stroll is with Mulatsi, a rare white lion (Bristow says there are only 300 in the world), and tawny lioness Zia.
Today four Kiwis and two lions are accompanied by five handlers, and our nervous giggles soon give way to the thrill of being so close to such amazing beasts. They stop often to clamber up a tree, chew a branch or bat each other with those huge paws. They are so laid-back it's easy to forget how dangerous they are as they drop to the grass in front of me and playfight like kittens.
There are no heart-stopping moments, even when we pat them and they good-naturedly let us hold their tails as they stroll along.
Then comes the Kodak moment. Mulatsi sits still long enough for us to crouch behind him, four Kiwi girls posing for a once-in-a lifetime, "You won't believe what I did today", "No, it wasn't terrifying at all" photograph.
Food frenzy, Palm Springs, USA
Our refuge from the hot Palm Springs desert comes from The Saguaro (pronounced "suh-war-oh"), a hotel that is a fury of colour against the light browns of the earth and mountains that encapsulate the city.
Upon check-in, the staff, who wear neon polo shirts, hand us neon pink towels to use in the neon blue pool. Inside my room the colour saturation continues, with a bright-red feature wall and orange splashes in the shapes of a desk, mirror frame, drawers, curtains and headboard, and there's a bowl of mandarins for good measure.
The hotel's rainbow rooms represent the hues of local desert flowers. It certainly makes for a memorable stay. We indulged in the summer prix-fixe menu at The Saguaro's restaurant, Tinto. Iron Chef Jose Garces is at the helm here and he gives a modern kick to his menu, which is inspired by southern France and the Basque region of Northern Spain.
I begin with a mini chicken kebab with grapes that comes dipped in a shooter glass with garbanzo puree and truffle jus. From then it's a blur of crockery and cured meat. Andalusian mountain cured ham, serrano ham-wrapped figs, duck confit with serrano ham and black cherry. Countless sharing dishes pass through my hands, with much of the contents somehow ending up on my plate. This food frenzy ends with bunuelos - donuts with date jam, spiced honey and date olive oil icecream.
Tokyo on a plate, Japan
Like Hong Kong, Tokyo is a city obsessed with food. At the legendary Tsukiji fish market, the world's largest, you need to watch for the crowds of foodie tourists, Tokyo Lonely Planets in hand, as much as you do the turret trucks that fly around this 23-hectare area at breakneck speed. We have breakfast at one of the dozens of sushi restaurants that line the lanes around the market and know we will never again eat sashimi so fresh. One of our group stops at a stall where yakitori skewers are cooking on a charcoal burner. It's whale. He buys one and somehow eats it. "It's like liver," he reports back. He has no desire for another.
The night before we'd eaten at the Pandora steak house, down an alley and up a few flights of stairs in the Shinjuko district. This restaurant has occupied this same spot for 40 years and as a result looks well lived in, in a good way. We take our seats at one end of a teppanyaki grill about the size of a ping-pong table. At the other end is a couple who, we discover, have been dining here almost weekly for 30 years and the chef cooking for us tonight is the same chef who has cooked for them every other night of those past 30 years. They smoke constantly throughout their meal and remind me of Jack and Vera from Coronation Street. Plates come and go of perfectly cooked seafood, vegetables and wagyu beef, washed down with pints of Sapporo. It's a perfect meal for a chilly night.
The next night we take the train to the Tsukishima district and Monja St, home to the 60-plus restaurants here that all specialise in monjayaki, a kind of fried pancake-like batter with different kinds of ingredients - steak, seafood, noodles, vegetables, etc. We're shown how to prepare one on the hot plates in front of us then it's up to us to look after ourselves. The restaurants are all pretty much identical in size and appearance so odds are you're guaranteed a good and relatively inexpensive time at whichever one you end up at.
A night at the Mandarin Oriental is far from inexpensive but for an amazing culinary experience in one of the most stupendous dining rooms imaginable, it's hard to beat. On the 38th floor of this luxurious and achingly stylish hotel, where the lights of Tokyo stretch in all directions as far as the eye can see, is the Tapas Molecular Bar. Here, plates of stunning food are served sushi-bar style with the chefs creating these marvels right before you. I thought I'd tired of the whole molecular gastronomy schtick but no - this was fresh, exciting and fun. And the bathrooms, with floor to ceiling windows, are, quite simply, the best ever.
Resort romance, Cook Islands
After a flight from New Zealand which arrives in the middle of the night, we get to Crown Beach Resort and Spa tired, hot, sticky and a bit grumpy after staying up way past our bedtime, but it takes only one look at our courtyard villa's private plunge pool to get us back in the right frame of mind. There are many good things about this resort: the proximity to the beach; being on the sunset side of the island; the spacious, stylish, high-ceilinged villas; the on-site spa where I will have the best massage of my life.
But the private pool is by far the best thing of all and we waste no time trying it out. So what if it's past 2am? The cool water under the light of a full moon and millions of stars is more refreshing than any shower could ever be.
Those stars become our nightly entertainment. The television in our villa remains unwatched for the duration of our stay. Instead, each night after dinner we sit on sunloungers at the beach and drink wine while we stargaze and contemplate our place in the universe.
That beach will always be special to me and that trip one of my most memorable - it was the week when Boyfriend asked if he could become Fiance, on the sand under the stars with the roar of the Pacific Ocean as the soundtrack. They don't call it Romantic Raro for nothing.
Back-street meat, Italy
Stubbled faces, white singlets and - surely my rose-tinted memory is not embellishing this detail - red-checked tea towels tucked into their waistbands. A back street in Florence, a night off from tour bus party politeness, and meat. Great, gleaming hunks of rare, on the bone, meat. In Italy, you eat pasta. In Florence, you must try the steak. Better travelled foodies than I probably knew this, but in a province where peasant food prevails (bread soup tastes better than it sounds) a Steak Florentine was a revelation, heightened by candles, a carafe of red, complimentary limoncello and the two sweaty cooks who threw open the doors on a searingly hot wood-fired oven and grinned for a photo.
Fast cars, Disneyland, USA
Disney reportedly spent $US4 billion and five years redeveloping its California Adventure Park. And about US$200 million of that was spent on the Radiator Springs Raceway ride at the heart of the all-new, 4.8ha Cars Land, making it one of the most expensive theme park rides ever. On opening weekend, people were queuing for up to five hours; it's down to about two hours now.
The redevelopment includes a new entrance (Buena Vista St), an imagining of Walt Disney's Los Angeles. It's hugely charming. But for us, and the tens of thousands of others on those first days after its June 15 opening, all roads led to Cars Land. It's brilliant, magical, fun and thrilling - it's Disneyland! - but don't take just my word for it . . .
Max, six: "On Radiator Springs Raceway at Cars Land it felt like I was in the movie. We went there four days after it opened so it was really busy. Frank, the combine harvester, was scary but it was great to see Luigi and Guido - they changed the tyres on our car. We were in a red car and we raced a green car. The green car just beat us. It was great to see the Cozy Cone motel - we saw Lightning McQueen and Mater there and we went to Flo's Cafe twice. I had macaroni and cheese for lunch, it came with grapes and peas and baby carrots. Cars Land felt real to me. I loved it."
Amazonian woman, Peru
In the Amazon Rainforest, you'd expect to be impressed with the abundance of plant and animal life on display. And I was. Where else could you possibly hope to spot such natural wonders as glossy pink river dolphins, vibrant blue macaws, and giant green lilypads in only three days?
But it is the indigenous people of this magnificent ecosystem who left the biggest impression on me - it is them I picture when I think back on my journey to the Peruvian Amazon, a place that seems so distant and magical my trip there could almost have been a dream.
People like our genial guide, Julio, a short, solid Peruvian with the straight, white teeth of a Hollywood star; the San Francisco village children who giggle with fascination as they study their own image in our digital camera screens; and Gustave, the wise-eyed village shaman who talks proudly of the power of his ancient craft.
It is these memories that make the six sets of vaccinations, the course of anti-malaria tablets, the 20-hour flight and the countless mosquito bites all, without a doubt, worthwhile.
On my last day, we sat in small boats while the sun went down, drinking pisco sours and snacking on "monkey brain" nuts (so called because of their appearance). Our guides from the MV Aria, a boutique river cruise boat, led us in a few moments' silence. Not because anyone had died, but because the Aria crew wanted us to soak up the rainforest atmosphere so we could remember that moment forever.
I closed my eyes and listened to the unusual, enchanting sounds of nature all around me - the cicadas, the tree frogs, the birds and monkey calls creating a jungle cacophony I will never forget. Being so immersed in nature was an overwhelmingly awe-inspiring experience and I would recommend it to everyone. Just remember to take a lot of insect repellent, sensible walking shoes and an open mind.
Cheese please, France
More than once our guide Laurent refers to the French as being "unhappy Italians". "We're always miserable," he says, his face doing its best to project an air of Gallic discontent. But how can this be? This is a country where the best food and wine are part of their cultural fabric, their fibre, their being. Can they really take all that for granted? I know I can't.
In the town of Tournon, I pop into a convenience store to buy toothpaste and am immediately overwhelmed by the aroma of freshly baked bread. The stand next to the shop counter is weighed down with cans of foie gras, not chips and chocolate. The next day in Lyon, at the gorgeous Les Halles Paul Bocuse food market, the doors swoosh open and I'm engulfed by a stinky cheese fug. This is not a bad thing. Here cheeses are displayed like the most beautiful cakes while the cakes further along are on show like jewels in Tiffany's.
At Avignon's Les Halles indoor market I find La Cabanne d'Oleron, a little oyster bar with a handful of tables tucked into the furthest reaches of the market. I initially walk past, not intending to stop, but notice the look of serene contentment on the face of the sole diner there as he slides an oyster into his mouth and follows it with a sip of wine. In minutes I'm following suit: half a dozen freshly shucked oysters, a couple of wedges of lemon, two slices of perfect bread, a pat of unsalted butter and a glass of muscadet. This little taste of heaven sets me back just € 8.7 ($13).
- © Fairfax NZ News
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