Monday, 31 July 2017

The Panama Canal

By Brett Goulston

Since I was a small kid, I’d always wanted to visit Panama and see the Panama Canal.  The notion of watching huge cargo ships glide through the nearly 80km of a man-made waterway in between the two Americas and linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans had always fascinated me.  I thought it was perhaps a boy thing but in reality, as one of mankind’s biggest engineering achievements it has broad and magical appeal.  The idea of creating a water passage across the isthmus (a very cool word indeed!) of Panama dates back to the 1500s.  At the time it was deemed impossible but the idea remained tantalising as a potential short cut from Europe to Eastern Asia. The French failed in the 1880s to build the canal and US commenced construction in 1904 and opened the canal a decade later.

I was fortunate to be in the region on a research trip for our travel business and took the chance to fulfill that boyhood dream of mine, with three days in Panama City and environs. Day One was all about the Canal.

Driving or taking the train in either direction between Colon and Panama City pretty much follows the canal. On the Atlantic side, the canal forms part of the man-made Lake Gatun which is very wide in parts. I’d always thought the Canal was one long, narrow passage – wrong! There are three locks over the 80-odd kilometres – Gatun, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores – which lift the ships up and down as much as 26 metres because certain sections of the mountainous landscape are not at sea level.  Ships take around 8 hours to travel the entire canal, making it nearly 13,000kms shorter and a whole lot faster than the 8 – 10 weeks it takes to go around the bottom of South America!

About 30 ships pass through each day in both directions. It now operates 24/7 so capacity has increased to the point the canal delivers more than half the country’s revenue!

We watched from the observation centre as a large cargo ship passed through the Miraflores lock with the entire process taking only about 20 minutes. The 10-minute educational video helped my understanding of how it all works – well worth enduring the freezing air conditioning! We also crossed the canal on a barge near the San Lorenzo National Park entrance. There’s an enormous bridge under construction nearby that will allow ships to pass under and vehicles to cross over much more quickly than our 40-minute barge experience.

The Panama Canal is an amazing sight that didn’t disappoint. You can’t help to be in awe of the engineering, the size of the project and its mind-blowing statistics, the huge ships passing through and its history.  Sadly I didn’t have the time for the 5-hour Panama Canal cruise experience so I plan to return one day and live that final part of the dream.

Keen to visit Panama?  Join our
Blue Dot Travel small group tour to Panama and Colombia, you won't be disappointed.  Click here for details.
The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans
The observation deck at Miraflores Lock

The biggest of ships can fit comfortably through the canal

The train runs alongside the canal between Colon and Panama City

Three locks over the canal's 80kms lift ships up or down about 26 metres

Ships take about 8 hours to navigate the lengthg of Panama Canal

The new enormous bridge under construction near San Lorenzo National Park

Monday, 24 July 2017

Tehran – it’s not what you think

Photos & story by Brett Goulston 

I cannot recall visiting any country in any part of the world where the people are more welcoming than in Iran. This might sound like a big statement but it’s true. Within my first 24 hours in Tehran I was invited to play table tennis, asked where I was from on numerous occasions and frequently stopped with a smile, an out-stretched hand and a thickly accented and sincere, “you are welcome in Iran”. I had heard that the people were friendly but now I can confirm this is so very true and a key part of what makes travel to Iran so rewarding.  

Tehran is a thriving metropolis. The Tehran population is around 10 million people with another 2 million coming in to work each day. I’m told the city is most famous for two things – pollution and chaotic traffic – but don’t let this put you off. It’s a gem of a city for travelers with so many things to see and do … way too many to list here so I’m not even going to try! 

Nestled against the lower slopes of the towering snow-capped Alborz mountains, Tehran is in fact Iran’s most secular and liberal city but nonetheless, I was expecting it to be ultra-religious, a little backwards and perhaps even scary. This is certainly what our media will have us think while a certain US president would also have us believe the place is full of terrorists but this could not be further from the truth. Apart from the head coverings which all women must wear in public, Tehran could be any other modern cosmopolitan city with its shops, cafés, fast food outlets and international brands everywhere you look … but in this case, all set against more than 250 years of fascinating Iranian history.  

The city is clearly divided into two. The north could be Toorak or Woollahra with beautiful streets lined with trees and expensive houses and apartments. And I mean really, really expensive – our guide tells us some of the apartments have lifts for the cars so the owners can get into their car on their own level! The south of the city is closer to what I expected but certainly not down and out. Tehran is not immediately the country’s most inviting city but those who tour Iran and take a closer look will be well rewarded.

Blue Dot Travel offers escorted three-week Iran tours for small groups. Click here for more details about our itineraries.  Get in touch if you would like to register your interest in our next tour in 2019.  

 Tehran lies in Iran's north, near the Caspian Sea

One of the many characterful faces to be seen in West Asia's most populous city

 The decorative art work is stunning and tels many historic tales

Interesting and beautiful architecture abounds 

 East meets West as two Blue Dotters mix it with the locals

The city's south is very densely populated 

 Brett simply can't go by a coffee shop without stopping!

 Some local students on an art excursion

Monday, 17 July 2017

Why you simply must visit Israel

The Western Wall, Wailing Wall or Kotel is an ancient limestone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem

Story and photos by Brett Goulston
Israel has many unofficial names including The Jewish State, The Promised Land and the Land of Milk and Honey. But it could also be called Iswowl! There is so much packed into this small country.

Jerusalem’s Old City an ideal starting point for any and all Israel tours. The city has an ultra-rich heritage from its role over the centuries as a spiritual home to Jews, Muslims and Christians. A trip to the Western Wall is nothing less than fascinating. You’ll witness hundreds of Jews at any time, from the Secular to the ultra Orthodox (and every sect in between) praying vigorously. It’s a sight to behold and it’s been going on for thousands of years!  You need at least three days to see the city’s best. Make sure you organise a guide - I can’t think of any city where such knowledge is more essential.  

Close by but so very different is Tel Aviv. If Jerusalem is the spiritual home and capital, Tel Aviv is the “happening” and modern city. Fabulous hotels and beaches line the Mediterranean, cafés and restaurants abound and fast cars and fashionable young people are everywhere. It’s kind of like Santa Monica meets the Cote d’Azur if that makes sense.  A walk from the hotel area to the old port city of Jaffa (pronounced Yafa) is a highly enjoyable and must-do experience if you wish to experience the local Tel Aviv way of life. 

I’d read about how the Israelis turned much of their arid land into lush, green, orchards and vegetable farms. I’d seen it in documentaries too but nothing prepared me for witnessing it first-hand. Thousands of acres in every direction see Israel move well beyond self-sufficient to being a major exporter. The result is fabulous, fresh food wherever you go (except for the holy days).

Most people travel to Israel for the history and with dozens of ancient sites around the country you simply can’t be disappointed. Tourism is one of Israel’s largest industries but leading-edge technology is its most important. Technology hubs with many start-up companies have appeared across the country. Today, many countries around the world use Israeli-born technology across dozens of categories including agriculture, science, medicine, engineering and computers.

Anyone who loves to travel simply must visit Israel. Its hundreds of villages, towns and cities not only deliver on the history front but across so many other dimensions as well. To join one of Blue Dot Travel’s small group tours of Israel and Jordan click here for more information.

Map of Israel & Jordan

Dinner in Tel-Aviv

Brett samples the “best ever” baklava!

     Tower of David and the walls of Old Jerusalem

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem     

     Ultra-Orthodox children

     The fascinating ancient ruins of Beit She'an

Israel’s flag flies high on Masada

Palestinian man in Old Jerusalem     

     The Negev desert covers much of Israel’s south

 The Bell Caves   

 The Dead Sea   

Monday, 10 July 2017

Two of the best in Jordan

The ancient city of Petra

Story & photos by Brett Goulston

Often it’s a country’s capital city that offers a tourist the best things to see and do with the most important places of interest usually located there. This is not the case with Jordan. While Amman certainly provides an interesting day trip, there are far more impressive sights to see outside of the capital. Here are two of the best … 

Petra is UNESCO-listed and chosen as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It’s not only Jordan’s most valuable treasure … it truly is one of the great places in the world to visit. This vast, unique city was carved into the sheer, dusky rose-pink rock face about 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans, Arabs originally from Africa. You can see it on TV and the web or read about it in books and magazines but nothing prepares you for this spectacular gem which is best witnessed first-hand for yourself. 

To properly absorb this ancient city described as half as old as time, plan on spending about 5 hours or so. Start early in the day to beat both the heat and the crowds – with around 1 million travelers passing through its gates each year, don’t expect to be there on your own! If time is at a premium, a walk to the Treasury site is a good option.

Wadi Rumthe Valley of the Moon – is a vast desert landscape virtually untouched by humans. This magnificent site with eye-catching rock formations offers up many good reasons for its popularity …  the 2-hour drive in a 4WD makes for a great adventure, there are many canyons to explore, ancient graffiti to ponder and even the occasional Bedouin tent serving cups of tea … but the main attraction is simply the stunning scenery. Laurence of Arabia called this region vast, echoing and god-like and it’s hard to disagree. Whatever you do don’t forget your comfortable walking shoes, water, a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses!
Join Blue Dot Travel's Israel and Jordan tours with small groups of up to 16.  Click here for more information. 

Map of Jordan


Camels have made Bedouin life in the desert possible

Wadi Rum

Brett Goulston Blue Dot Travel in Wadi Rum

Beware the camel spits!  

Monday, 3 July 2017

Gdansk - A true gem of Poland

Gdansk on the waterways of the Vistula River

By Brett Goulston 

In the north of Poland on the Baltic Sea lies the beautiful city of Gdansk. Take at least a full day - more if you prefer to move at a leisurely pace - this gem of a city which offers as much at night as it does in the day. The lights in the streets and the main square are simply stunning and create the scene of a fairy tale. And if you enjoy eating outside in a square as opposed to inside in a restaurant, there may be no better place than Gdansk’s Old Town.  

With its medieval port crane at the centre, the city’s harbour makes for excellent photo opportunities with reflections, passing ships and quaint architecture galore. The Old Town's streets are lined with many beautiful buildings of about 5 or 6 stories tall, painted in co-ordinating colours. In fact, if you like taking photos of architecture, Gdansk must rate among the best places in northern Europe.  

Like much of this region of Europe, Gdansk has a complex and turbulent history and is reluctantly known for where WWII’s first shots were fired. There were many Germans living in Gdansk at the outbreak of war and Hitler used this as an excuse to protect his citizens. 

While in town, visit St Mary’s Cathedral which is impossible to miss and which is amazing from both inside and out. Also get to the Long Markets in Long Lane for – well, just about everything Polish! Regardless of whether you are a museum-goer or not, you’ll need to visit the solidarity museum, not just to learn about the history of the solidarity movement but to see a stunning example of architecture and the views of the working port from the rooftop. 
We hope that our Poland travel tips are useful to you.  If you are not sure where to travel in Poland why not join Blue Dot Travel. Click here for our small-group Baltic tour itinerary.

Map of Baltic countries

An old Baltic beauty

Wonderful reflections of Gdansk

Gdansk - as beautiful at night as in the day so allow time for both

Cobblestone streets and colourful houses

The working harbour of Gdansk

Coffee anyone?