Monday, 30 October 2017

Panama City – a cultural cocktail of contrasts

By Brett Goulston 

After a three-day visit to Panama City, I can confirm that Panama is NOT just about the Canal!  Panama City is the most cosmopolitan capital in Central America where many worlds co-exist and create a dynamic anything goes attitude.  While the city itself is unflinchingly urban with its gleaming Miami-esque skyline, escape is never far away with a variety of thoroughly enjoyable day-trips offering diversion.

Fabio, my guide, arrives at the hotel and off we head. First thing I learn is that I don’t need to exchange currency. The US dollar has been used in Panama for over 100 years. Easy!

Day 1 we head to Portobelo on the Atlantic side of the country, about 90 minutes from Panama City. I notice the 1950s-style school buses everywhere and learn the Americans gave these away to the developing nations in the region as a gesture of goodwill.  In Panama, there’s a love/hate relationship with the US. The locals sided with them in the early 1900’s in an effort to gain independence from Colombia but as the years passed and the Panama Canal generated large sums of money, the locals resented the US owning the land and taking much of the profits. 

Portobelo is a pretty and small town with a famous black Jesus carved from wood in the local Church. The recently restored customs’ building next door is an amazing example of the colonial past.  Inside, there’s a small museum to learn about the pirate Morgan, who came to steal gold and other valuables from the Spanish … who stole it from the Incas in South America and stored it in Portobelo. Then we walk among the ruins of the UNESCO-listed Spanish fortress.  

After a fabulous lunch in nearby Colon at a local restaurant, we visit the San Lorenzo National Park and the UNESCO-listed fortress walls built over 400 years ago. You can’t help but sense history all around as you walk through what is left of the fortress – allow a good 45 minutes to soak it up and take fabulous photos. 

Over the next few days we tick off the must-sees of Panama City and surrounds. Gamboa, a national park of thick jungle is really beautiful with heaps of wildlife including three-toed sloths, whose demeanour reminds me of my teenage daughters. Highlights of the city itself – apart from famous Panama Beach – include the Biomuseo with its highly controversial architectural design by Frank Gehry. Casco Viejo, the cobblestoned historic centre, is famed for wonderful Spanish colonial buildings mixed with art deco, and bougainvillea-filled plazas lined with cafés and bars. There’s at least a half-day’s entertainment in this area where having a meal in one of the many great restaurants is a must!

Keen to travel to South America? Blue Dot Travel offer small group tours which travel to Panama and visit both Panama City and Panama Canal - click here if you would like more information.  

Monday, 23 October 2017

Chasing cherry blossom in Japan

Chasing cherry blossom in Japan is well worth it

Take a tour named Japan in Spring and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect to see cherry blossom ... and lots of it. What I didn’t expect was the fervour that came with the pursuit – I can now identify with those crazy tornado chasers in the southern USA! We certainly didn’t put our lives at risk but many of us were surprised at the lengths to which we considered going so as to not leave Japan without experiencing cherry blossom.

Arriving in Tokyo we learnt we weren’t too late – the sakura buds were still curled up on the trees, barely starting to wake. In former capital Kamekura, warmer weather had brought full bloom on some trees and we were content we were on course. 

Chasing cherry blossom sneaks up on you. To start with, it’s not that important – something to tick it off the list ... bragging rights ... no doubt pretty but not exactly life changing – but the chase takes on far more importance as the local frenzy builds. Cherry-blossom-flavoured everything is for sale and we lent our full support – ice cream, tea, chocolate, lollies. A pop-up TV channel reports 24/7 on the current status of the bloom AND its predicted progress across the nation. It’s all tied to the weather – sunshine and warmth are good; cold slows progress; wind and rain are bad as they can ruin the bloom in an instant.  A few days before we arrive in Kyoto, hoping to see the trees lining Philosopher’s Walk groaning under their load of blooms, official predictions were looking positive and we were looking smug.

But how ephemeral the ephemeral can be. Just like those pesky tornadoes in the US, we got ahead of the game and the bloom was now chasing us ... we were too early! We were walking a weather knife edge: with no blossom yet in Kyoto, news broke that Tokyo’s already-full bloom wouldn’t last long enough for us to see it ... we would be too late!  We looked into cutting short our stay in Tokyo at tour-end to return to Kyoto. We investigated changing flights, buying bullet train tickets and booking hotel rooms. The thought processes of sensible adults went … well … silly.

We started to come to terms with the disappointment that was probably to be our lot. We could come back … what we’d seen already was still very pretty … who likes cherry blossom anyway? And then we returned to Tokyo.  

Into the city’s beautiful Shinjuku Gyoen park we went and the chase was over: ahead lay some 400 somei yoshino trees, boughs heavy with sakura. You instinctively look upwards – not a single green leaf on the 8-10m tall trees … just endless puffs of tiny, delicate pale pink and white petals, straight out of a fairy tale. But don’t forget to look down – beneath the trees lies a soft dusting of the petals that have already let go. Wander underneath the floral arbour to enter a different space; wander on the surrounding manicured grass and look in from the outside. Every perspective is breathtaking – and well worth the chase.  

It’s a very special experience to be immersed in such natural beauty while cradled in the arms of the world’s most populous metropolis. Such is the wonder and striking contrast of travel to Japan.

Blue Dot Travel offers Japan tours for small groups and families. Our next trip to Japan will be in 2019 and coincide with the Rugby World Cup.  Click here to see the brochure for the family tour which can depart at a time to suit you.

Blue Dot Travel offers Japan tours for small groups and families. Our next small group tour to Japan will be in 2019 and coincide with the Rugby World Cup.  Click here to see the brochure for the family tour which can depart at a time to suit you.

Disappointed!! We were too early into Kyoto - not a single blossom along The Philosopher's Walk

We could only imagine how beautiful this tree in Kyoto would look in full bloom - too early by a couple of days!
Things were on the improve in Kanazawa with more blooms at the castle

More than enough for a traditional wedding photos

Full bloom in Shinjuku Gyoen park - FINALLY!
The fallen petals lay a pretty carpet under the trees

Tokyo comes out to enjoy this special time of year when the sakura blooms

Monday, 16 October 2017

What to do in NYC … with teenage girls

Kate, Marnie & Holly Goulston
Story and photos by Brett Goulston 

I still have my “L” plates on when it comes to parenting my teenage daughters.  At 13 and 15 they are into stuff that, well, I simply will never understand. Thankfully, my wife Kate, “gets” them but even so, we still had to work out what to do with teenagers in the Big Apple. The four of us arrive into JFK Airport late one evening. We grab a cab for the ride to our 6th Avenue apartment in Chelsea, which we have rented for the week (cheaper than two hotel rooms for the same period). 

Over the week I learn that travelling teenage girls just want to do one thing – shop … and shop … and shop … and this is particularly the case in NYC.  It’s all about clothes, make-up and stuff for their hair.  Icons like the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge pale into insignificance when shops like H&M, American Apparel, Sephora and Brandy Melville are calling. 

At one point we stand on Broadway and stare at the iconic, triangular-shaped Flatiron building built in the early 1900’s. I tell the girls it’s a masterpiece in architectural design, one of the Big Apple’s most iconic sights. They laugh at me!  Teenage girls just don’t care about this stuff. They want to shop. How dumb of me not to know this. 

By Day 4, it’s dropped to 0 degrees Celcius and on occasions, it snows. We take cabs everywhere because it’s too cold to walk or even to get the subway. We are not really prepared for the intensity of December’s freeze as we’d arrived from the tropics and our cold weather clothes are simply inadequate.  The answer to such cold is … more shopping of course! The kids can even rationalise this practicality – the shops are heated! 

Food is the only hobby I can share with them in this great city. My 13-year-old loves the burgers, the 99c pizza and Starbucks. We Google the latter’s name and find over 200 of them on Manhattan alone. The 15-year-old is into a healthier, vegetarian diet so she sources salad cafés (yes – they do exist) and we also visit a vegan restaurant. Between us, we have some great family times together over food. 

When it’s time to go home (read: stop shopping), the girls tell me they loved their NY experience and can’t wait to come back. I guess as they get older they will appreciate more than just the shopping.  But then again …

If New York is not your thing, Blue Dot Travel offers a range of fully-guided, family-friendly, 2-week trips to exciting destinations off the beaten path. Click here for more information on our family tours.  

Marnie, Holly and Kate Goulston

Monday, 9 October 2017

Namibia is a jewel of a country - Part 2

An old bull elephant in Damaraland

Story and photos By Margaret Farrell

Damaraland is a huge, untamed and ruggedly beautiful region in Namibia. We stayed at the Mowani Mountain Camp, hidden among some of the region's massive red granite boulders. The scene was set for us by the enthusiastic welcome we received at the gate, a joyous atmosphere which continued throughout our stay. Nothing was too much trouble and the emphasis was on enjoyment.

Our first safari in Namibia took place here when we headed out at dawn to track one of two elephant groups that live in the incredibly scenic area. We found plenty of evidence of elephants – fresh tracks and dung everywhere – but despite their large size, these cunning beasts are skilled at concealing themselves. To add insult to injury, when we headed back we found elephant tracks overlaying our own tyre tracks! Eventually we caught up with a solitary bull who obligingly posed for us as he scratched himself against a Mopani tree. He was what they call a “desert adapted” elephant, with longer legs and bigger feet than the savannah elephants.

Heading north we reached Etosha National Park, close to the Angolan border and regarded as an elite destination for watching wildlife. It lived up to its reputation, offering plenty of elephants along with large numbers of giraffe, zebra and deer of all descriptions. Most amusing were the antics of giraffes trying to drink, almost doing rather ungainly splits to get down low enough. We even saw a rare black rhino on a very full day of criss-crossing the park in an open-top four-wheel drive Toyota.

Our Namibia travel guide went totally out of her way to ensure we saw lions. We waited patiently at one waterhole near where lions had been sighted. Another sighting was reported, sign-posted by a herd of zebra all looking in the one direction. Imelda spotted the raised heads of three lionesses and one male among the grasses and low bushes and after a quick check to ensure no other vehicles were in sight, we dashed cross country, bouncing over tussocks and scattering zebra in all directions before finally stopping about 10m from the pride. A few quick photos and we raced back to the road before our lawless activity was spotted.

While the positives of safaris are obvious and emotive, do prepare yourself for what can be an incredibly cold pre-dawn departure in an open vehicle. The rugs provided do help but your face can take a beating as the wind whistles past. While the dust can be uncomfortable, witnessing such magnificent creatures in their natural and extraordinary Namibian habitat is indeed a rare privilege. Namibia's scenic natural beauty and remote wilderness is captivating and when combined with its great numbers of wildlife and interesting history, it makes for a wonderful and adventurous destination.

Blue Dot Travel's small group tours to southern Africa include going on safari in Namibia. Need more info - click here. 

Namibia sits in the south west of the Africa continent
Desert elephants in Damaraland

Zebra at a watering hole can be a sign of lion nearby

Desert lions in Etosha National Park

Those long legs making eating the treetops easy ... but getting a drink is another matter!

Deer abound in Etosha

Monday, 2 October 2017

Namibia is a jewel of a country - Part 1

Red sand dunes of Sossusvlei

Story and photos by Margaret Farrell


Sometimes described as Africa for beginners, Namibia unexpectedly assembles in one place many iconic experiences: the highest sand dunes in the world; the deepest canyon in Africa; one of Africa's richest historic art sites; the world's oldest, driest desert; abundant wild life. Our trip to Namibia did not disappoint. The people are friendly with lots of laughter. There is NO rubbish anywhere, either in the towns or the countryside, perhaps because there are heavy fines for littering. Even remote rural shanties are neatly fenced and their beaten earth surroundings scrupulously clean. There is an overall air of order and prosperity. Towns like Swakopmund and Walvis Bay are well set out with an abundance of good looking houses. We were told that most properties are owned by locals although Swakop attracts a lot of German retirees.

From Windhoek International Airport, we headed south-west towards Sossusvlei. Gravel roads predominate but they are wide, unexpectedly smooth and very well maintained, most coming with a 100kph speed limit.

The sand dune country is iconic: Sossusvlei is a large ephemeral pan set amid red sand dunes that reach 325m above the valley floor. Unfortunately we arrived in the middle of some very strong winds - and sand and wind are not good in combination. We regretfully declined the offer of sunrise/sunset tours of the heart of Sossusvlei as both excursions meant a 90-minute plus drive in open 4X4 vehicles with wind whipping our faces ... and camera equipment! We drove on, admiring the colourful dunes along the way. Dune 45, featured on many of Namibia’s travel brochures, was approachable. It looked magnificent with a plume of sand whipping off its crest.

Opinions vary as to whether the Skeleton Coast gained its name from the litter of shipwrecks or from the bones that were found amid the sand. The dunes march all the way to the coast and approaching the British-founded town of Walvis Bay was akin to driving through a giant sandbox. We headed north from there to the German settlement of Swakopmund on a sealed road that separated the sea from the mobile dunes. The sand here is of the usual light colour.

Swakop is pleasant enough with its German heritage evident in the buildings. We stayed at the Atlantic Villa, about 8 kms north of the town centre. ALL the accommodation in Namibia has been first class. There was no fault to be found at the pristine Atlantic Villa – and I’ve always been able to find faults in even the most luxurious accommodation.

Deciding we had exhausted the town’s shopping and sightseeing opportunities within the first few hours, we elected to take a scenic flight back over the Sossusvlei dunes and Skeleton Coast. A word of warning: the pilots of these joy flights are usually young jocks trying to accumulate flying hours towards a commercial licence for an airline. We passed over a couple of ship wrecks high and dry amid the sand dunes but there was no chance to photograph them as they were gone in the briefest moment.

From the sandy wastes of the Skeleton Coast we headed north into Damara country, the highlight of our Namibian jaunt. The landscapes are beautiful with their subtle colouring – vast seas of wheat-coloured grasses from which amazing rock formations arise. There are enormous piles of huge granite boulders, sandstone mesas and basalt hills dotted throughout with occasional trees.

The story of Namibia's people is a complicated one of colonial settlement and oppression mixed with the culture and customs of its traditional people. Damaraland is home to two very unusual tribes who provided us with memorable Namibian moments. The Herero ladies wear costumes based on those worn by Victorian-era German missionaries – multiple petticoats under a long dress teamed with a distinctive cloth headdress. The Himba people, an off-shoot of the Herero, have gone in the opposite direction. They wear little clothing and the women cover themselves with a mixture of red ochre and animal fat, which gives their skin a reddish tinge. They also anoint their hair with the mixture.

Blue Dot Travel offers small group tours to southern Africa, including Namibia safari tours.  To find out more click here
Map showing location of Namibia
An amazing country with sweeping landscapes

Wreck of a classic car in Namibia

Left - Himba tribes woman -        Right - Herero lady wearing Victorian costume

Wonderful landscapes in Namibia

Wreck of a classic car in the desert town of Solitaire Namibia