Short forays in fascinating places

Last updated 08:57 07/11/2013
Azurra Landscape

SAILING ON THE AZZURA: The Sultanate of Oman has long existed for me as an Arabian Nights fantasy of sheikhs and shebas, frankincense and myrrh, flying carpets and a sailor called Sinbad.

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Savouring Sonoma In the heart of Alaska A quest through the Kimberley Shanghai dining in style A taste of Vietnam

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DOG SLEDDING IN ALASKA By Julietta Jameson

As we fly into the colossal Pacific Coast ranges wilderness of Alaska, the scale is hard to grasp.

Pine forests on gargantuan granite rises look like patches of moss on rocks the size of my palm. Approaching Mendenhall Glacier, the helicopter pilot says, "There's the camp, at about 11 o'clock," and I think those black flecks in the snow must surely be ants.

Then we descend. Quickly. The ants grow until they are visible as what they really are: row upon row of kennels and the happy canines that live in them.

This is a summer camp for Alaskan racing huskies. It's where in the warmer, non-competition months, teams of sled dogs keep in condition by taking tourists for a spin through the snow.

For a dog lover who as a kid adored fairytales about animals that could talk or fly, or lead their humans away from danger, it's a storybook experience. (These dogs talk - to each other and their mushers and wowee, do they fly - and they sure do love to pull their humans around.).

The chopper ride into the glacier (and out) is amazing in itself. But the hour spent learning about the dogs, patting them, and the ultimate thrill - being pulled through the snow by eager teams of them, even helping with the mushing - is nothing short of magical.

The tour, with Temsco Helicopters, is run out of Juneau and is offered as a shore excursion during Alaska cruises with various companies. We did it during our voyage with Silversea.

It's not cheap at about $568-$682 for the experience. But it includes transfers from the Juneau dock, the helicopter return ride and the dog sledding. In the realm of once-in-a-lifetime activities, this one is worth the splurge.

See silversea.com.

The writer was a guest of Silversea Cruises.

SHOPPING IN SHANGHAI By Jane Reddy

I want a tailored jacket, dress and business shirt and I want it in four hours. A fitting challenge in the turbocharged city of Shanghai, population 23 million, air quality questionable, shopping choices endless. A middleman is required.

Enter Emily Minor, from Oklahoma, a sweet-faced expatriate and personal buyer for Shopping Tours Shanghai, who collects me from the hotel, hands me bottles of water and hand wipes while listening patiently to my sartorial fantasies as our taxi revs and honks its way along the Bund to the South Bund Fabric Market.

Four floors of silk, cotton, linen, wool and cashmere is overwhelming but at one of Minor's tailors of choice there's no haggling, no time wasted and within 10 minutes the blue check shirts deal is done (RMB330 - $65 - each) with the promise of delivery to my hotel within 24 hours.

Across the way it's a similar story where racks of designer-inspired jackets hang. Two women dance around with their tapes measuring this broad-shouldered Westerner for a dreamy cream number (RMB444 - $88).

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One floor up I throw Minor a polyester curve ball but she's happy to deviate from the finer fabrics and helps pull a buried bolt of fabric free.

At a preferred leather tailor I'm measured up for a soft brown jacket - satin-lined with sturdy zip - I never knew I needed (RMB770 - $153).

Time is almost up and there's a few RMB to spare so it's into a taxi to the Pearl City complex on Hong Mei Road for a long strand of Gatsbyesque freshwater pearl frippery.

As promised, packages land at the hotel over the following days, all the perfect fit and 12 months on, still going strong.

Private tours cost from RMB400 ($80) an hour; full-day group tour RMB1200 ($239) a person. See shoppingtoursshanghai.com.

The writer travelled courtesy of International Luxury Travel Market

HELIFISHING IN THE KIMBERLEY By Sarah Maguire

The barramundi aren't biting, but it's best not to care.

Who can explain it - our helifishing guide Mike can't, although he has seen it enough times to believe in a link: a grumpy fisherman will not catch a fish; the barra will stay away, preferring to sacrifice themselves to a fisherman who's sending out the good vibes.

Or perhaps that should be fisherwoman: "With 80 per cent of couples, women outfish the husband," says Mike, a bald-headed 20-something with a twin passion for flying helicopters and throwing a line in. "I put it down to the different energy."

On this bend in the Durack River in the East Kimberley, Western Australia, a 15-minute helicopter flight from Home Valley Station, where we are staying and which offers this helifishing tour, we are a couple of city slickers tapping into energy reserves we didn't know we had to not only endure the 40-degree heat but to actually find ourselves enjoying this fishing business, even if it's in a state of semi-delirium, the heat punching at us as we cast line after line and inhale bottle after bottle of water and ionised sports drinks.

It's a tour where you get to stand on a riverbank only 115 kilometres from the continent's northern coast - but you don't stand too close to the water, and never with your back to it, because of saltwater crocs that can come out of the river at you as fast as a car - and take deep breaths of Australia as you hone your fishing skills over several hours, gawping at the paper-bag mouth of a barramundi as it flies out of the water, caught by someone else, but who cares.

The ferocious sun may beat down without mercy, but there are spindly trees that offer tiny yet effective patches of shade, and under which we sit for respite, talking about life, the universe and how freaking hot we are.

OK, so the experience might have benefited from slightly fewer notches on the temperature scale (it is unseasonally scorching - we should rightly be in maximum 32-degree heat). Then again, perhaps not.

There's Richard, from California, who won't get back in the helicopter until he's caught a barrumundi, which proves much easier with freshly caught bait than artificial flies.

There's Mike the guide, who never tires of flying over this landscape: "Every time, I notice something I haven't seen before. Today it was a waterfall and a big waterhole." There's Tom from Tasmania, the second fishing guide, whose tales are tall and endless.

And there's the otherworldliness of being in the middle of the great Australian nowhere, where the heat might kill you, but you wouldn't be dead for quids.

The tour is AUD $490 ($557) a person, see homevalley.com.au.

The writer travelled courtesy of Home Valley Station and Qantas

ISLAND HOPPING IN VIETNAM By Robert Upe

There's a snake wrapped around my neck and every time I try to move its head away from my cheek it tightens its grip. The thick constrictor may be sensing some fear.

But here, on a jungle island in the middle of Vietnam's Mekong Delta, I have more concerns than the edgy snake. A nice lady serving me tea with honey is also hinting at marriage on behalf of her daughter.

It is time to move on and I indicate as much to a guide who is leading me on a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta.

It's a long day, about eight hours, which leaves behind the city's buzzing motorbikes for a floodplain where brown rivers and canals flow by lush islands and rice paddies. After about two hours on the highway, travel is by slow riverboat from the port city of My Tho to a group of small fertile islands in the delta where cottage industries thrive.

There are visits to a coconut candy farm, a bee farm and villages where you can try local fruit, drink from a freshly opened coconut and be entertained by musicians.

At one island we board sampans, put on the traditional conical Vietnamese hats called ''non la'' and float down jungle-fringed canals.

If you dare, at one of the stops there are bottles of snake wine for sale, with a cobra ensconced in the liquid. The label says it is good for ''rheumatism, lumbago and sweat of limbs''. And then, of course, there's the opportunity to put the snake around your neck.

This Mekong Discovery trip is part of Intrepid's worldwide Urban Adventure program and costs from about $60, including an English-speaking guide and lunch at an over-water restaurant with thatched roof.

The whole fish that is served for lunch with other Vietnamese delicacies is delicious but it comes with sharp teeth and spiky scales, looking as mean as a piranha.

This is a tour of the senses - colours, tastes, touch and smells. An overnight extension is possible, bunking in at a homestay.

See urbanadventures.com.

The writer travelled courtesy of Intrepid.

TERRACOTTA WARRIORS IN XI'AN By Stephen Phelan

The terracotta warriors came to Dublin when I was a kid. A small detachment of them, anyway - an exhibition of perhaps 100 life-sized clay soldiers from the thousands that were discovered under a Chinese field by two farmers in the 1970s.

My father took me to see them, and I chose to believe that they were real men who had been turned to stone by some natural or magical calamity.

Decades later, I took an organised day trip from the city of Xi'an to the visitor centre that had since been built around the three main excavation pits.

The underground army of Emperor Qin was now hopelessly surrounded and outnumbered by tourists, including our own group - arriving in two minibuses with a guide who called herself Lady Jiajia.

She was loud and enthusiastic, shouting her way through the crowds to her own favourite of the warriors, a kneeling archer who was still primed to fire long after his wooden bow had rotted away.

He was now encased in glass, his dignity intact even while living idiots mimicked his pose for photographs.

The longer I looked at him, the less aware I was of standing amid a multitude of elbows and flashbulbs. The experience was somehow heightened by the tuning out of all the background noise, and I found myself unspeakably moved by the warrior's fragility and fortitude.

Lady Jiajia led us on to see the vast ranks of infantry and cavalry in pit No.1, all handcrafted by artisan slaves to defend the Emperor in the afterlife. Knowing that they would be killed as soon their work was finished, some cut subtle signatures into the terracotta, in their own modest bids for immortality. And in that sense, I thought, there were real men, and real blood, inside these frozen figures.

Any hotel in Xi'an can arrange for a day tour to the Terracotta Army. We booked through the Shuyuan Hostel for about $50 each.

See hostelxian.com.

SAILING IN OMAN By Kerry van der Jagt

The Sultanate of Oman has long existed for me as an Arabian Nights fantasy of sheikhs and shebas, frankincense and myrrh, flying carpets and a sailor called Sinbad.

Little did I expect to find myself aboard a luxury catamaran, sailing past crumbling forts and swimming alongside sea turtles, all within hours of arriving.

Muscat, the capital of Oman, is perched on the horn of the Persian Gulf, surrounded by 1700 kilometres of coastline. Ocean Blue Oman offers sailing tours and private charters to the uninhabited Dimaniyat Islands and the islands of Bandar Khayran.

From Muscat, the 23-metre Azzura hugs the coastline, passing the sandcastle-like forts of Al-Jalali and Al-Mirani, Muscat's ''hidden harbour'', Port Sultan Qaboos and the glittering Al Alam Reception Palace.

Stretched out on beanbags and sipping fruit juice, we continue past century-old seaside villages, their white houses clinging to the cliffs like rows of crooked teeth, before sailing to Bandar Khayran.

Among the fjord-like islands we snorkel with schools of silvery fish, float over corals of all colours and disturb giant rays on the sandy bottom. The water is warm and luminous as a sapphire gemstone.

Ocean Blue Oman offers five-hour sailing trips, which include water, fruit juice and light snacks, for 45 rial each. See oceanblueoman.com.

The writer was a guest of Oman Tourism

WALKING IN AIX EN PROVENCE By Alison Stewart

Aix en Provence, with its rich heritage and sumptuous culinary landscape, is a distillation of all that is wonderful about Provence.

And a walking tour of Aix's markets is a delightful way to familiarise yourself while indulging gastronomically, to boot.

Four of us join English expatriate Rebecca Engels, of Rebecca's Aix, for a morning meander through Aix's Old Town, Cours Mirabeau and elegant Mazarin Quarter.

While Rebecca shows us myriad ancient cathedrals, fountains and squares, her focus is artisan food shops and the markets, specifically the daily market at the plane tree-shaded Place Richelme and the even bigger farmers' market at the Place des Precheurs. So dizzying are the winding cobbled ways that open into shaded squares, it's just as well we have Rebecca. She's a whiz at finding the best chocolate, cheese, bread, ice cream, olive oil and wine.

"She's brought along picnic gear, including cooler, and she helps us assemble an indulgent picnic lunch - cherries and strawberries, ham off the bone, sweet Provencal tomatoes and fat olives, still warm baguettes, tapenade, handmade chocolates, rich little custardy pastries called canneles and calissons, the traditional Aix almond-fruit concoction and a chilled Provencal rose."

Aix is not well endowed with picnic spots but Rebecca points us to the Pavillon de Vendome, a splendid formal walled garden. Before she leaves she gives up one last secret - Le Millefeuille, a tiny, wonderful tucked-away restaurant where we happily end our big day (of eating) out.

Cost is €30 ($48) a person for four, see shoppingaix.com.

VISITING A DRUZE VILLAGE IN ISRAEL By Diane Armstrong

As our van pulls up outside a cafe in the main street

of a Druze village, a middle-aged man springs on board with a coffee pot in one hand and tiny glasses in the other. ''Hello my cousins! You are welcome!'' he beams as he fills the glasses with his strong brew and passes them around.

Druze hospitality is legendary, and this unexpected roadside encounter sets the tone for our visit to the village of Isfiya, one of four Druze villages in the Galilee region of Israel.

The road to Isfiya, is lined with citrus groves, loquat trees, vineyards and pine forests and, gazing at the lush foliage around us, I recall Mark Twain's reaction when he visited this area in 1860.

It was desolate and he saw only one tree, he complained in Innocents Abroad. At the time, the Turks had cut down the trees for railways to take pilgrims to Mecca. Today Twain would be astonished: the Israelis have planted 240 million trees.

As we drive I notice men with bushy moustaches strolling along the road in baggy Turkish-style trousers and white fez and women in demure, long-sleeved long dresses and white veils that cover their hair but not their faces.

We have come to Isfiya to have lunch in a Druze home. In keeping with their tradition of hospitality, some Druze families in the village have opened their homes to tourists to give them a glimpse of their customs and cuisine. Few outsiders know much about the Druze, so the access is a rare privilege.

Our guide, a young woman in blue jeans called Dwa, who is studying political science at Haifa University, ushers us into a large family home. We are on Mount Carmel and the large windows look out onto the terraced hillsides and emerald fields of the Jezreel Valley. Dwa explains that the Druze are not Muslims.

They are a breakaway sect of Shiite Islam which originated in Egypt in the 11th century but fled persecution to surrounding countries.

Today, 120,000 of them live in Israel. They serve in the army, have members in the Knesset, and believe in gender equality. They don't pray in mosques but in modest meeting places.

At the age of 15, Druze can decide whether to lead religious or secular lives. The religious ones dress traditionally and are later inducted into the secrets of their religion. ''I chose to be secular, that's why I wear jeans and remain ignorant!'' Dwa laughs.

Although the vast majority of the residents in this village are Druze, Muslims, Christians and Jews also live here, making Isfiya one of the most culturally and religiously diverse villages in Israel.

The Druze believe in one god and five prophets. They also believe in reincarnation. When someone dies, their soul goes into a newborn baby, Dwa says.

''Being Druze isn't easy,'' she says. ''We can't convert and must marry within our religion. If I marry someone outside my religion I have to leave this community and I will be disowned by everyone, even by my parents.''

While Dwa talks, the food keeps coming, each platter more delicious than the last. Vine leaves, stuffed zucchini, meat balls with tahini sauce, rice with chicken flavoured with cinnamon, cous cous with chickpeas, pizza with tomatoes and herbs, salads and hot pita bread.

Lunch over, we stroll along the main street, which resembles a colourful bazaar. Cars are pelting down the street and, as we wait in vain for the traffic to slow, a Druze schoolgirl notices our plight.

Without hesitating she steps onto the roadway, signals for the cars to stop and with a smile, motions for us to cross. Our visit ends as it has begun, with Druze kindness to strangers.

For information about tours to the Druze villages, see inisrael.com.

WINE-TASTING IN CALIFORNIA By Julie Miller

''Right pedal, left pedal,'' a crotchety voice crackles over the PA. ''If you want to make your boat work, you kids gotta do it right!''

We're sitting in hired deckchairs on the pebble-lined shore of Russian River, drinking beer and soaking up the ambience of a Brady Bunch holiday, complete with paddle boats, old-school canoes and a geezer who's run the concession since the 1970s.

Retro and stunningly beautiful, Johnson's Beach is a summer playground in the heart of Sonoma County - Northern California's ''other'' wine region. If you want to avoid the crowds, see diverse countryside and enjoy fine wines, bypass Napa - make Sonoma your daytrip of choice from San Francisco.

This is a circuit of many moods: from the wild and misty Pacific Coastline via quaint Bodega Bay (filming location for Hitchcock's The Birds), through majestic redwood forests filtered with dappled light, and into quirky hippy villages like Sebastapol and Santa Rosa (want to stock up on vintage clothing? These towns are thrift shop heaven!)

But it's the opportunity to taste fine wine that lures most daytrippers to Sonoma, with more than 370 wineries offering excellent vintages. The perfect starting point is Sonoma Plaza, a historic town square with 22 individual tasting rooms including Charles Creek Vineyards, Haywood and Sonoma Enoteca, with wines from 10 family wineries.

One of the most impressive Sonoma vineyards is Ledson Winery in Kenwood, where you can taste six wines for about $25; or try a private tasting with paired cheeses for about $56, served in a private suite within the grandiose ''castle''.

See sonomacounty.com.

The writer travelled courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism and United Airlines.

- FFX Aus

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