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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mumbai's nightmare: a terror attack on tourism (on innocents abroad - and at home)

Terry and I stayed at the majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai on a trip to India about six years ago or so. We ate dinner at the Indian restaurant that was the scene of a seige by terrorists this week; the restaurant whose chef was one of the first to get shot. And after a sweaty day's sightseeing in the city, we'd cool off with a gin and tonic on the antique swing seat on the elegant terrace by the swimming pool, where this week guests stepped over corpses as they attempted to escape. I spent hours browsing in the hotel's excellent bookshop and took home a dozen or so novels by Indian writers - they were a bargain. If the destruction described in this story in the UK's Telegraph newspaper is indicative of the overall damage to the hotel, the bookshop is probably burnt out. We had lunch at the Oberoi another day, in its chic minimalist Italian restaurant, and I shopped myself silly at the shops there too - all the scene of another bloody rampage. At the Taj Mahal we stayed in the modern tower, as there'd been a mix up with our bookings and all the antique rooms were full, however, we nevertheless got a peek at one and they were as sumptuous as they looked on the hotel website. Having stayed and eaten at the hotels and explored the city streets where this week's horrific attacks took place has made it all the more real to me. Sure I'd been to the World Trade Centre before 9/11, but that was an attack on the USA's financial heart, a symbol of Western capitalism, of greed, of excess. It came as no surprise. That's not to downgrade that tragic event in any way, but there's something more potent about an attack on a hotel (as swish as these two were), a place where tourists and locals are relaxed, at ease, enjoying their leisure time - it's the last place they'd expect to be massaacred. The Taj Mahal Palace was indeed a grand old hotel. I hope it can be saved. But what I hope can be salvaged even more are the lives of the families and friends who lost their loved ones in Mumbai this week. (Read some of the moving first hand accounts of those who survived here.) I leave these Australian native flowers, a rare wattle from the East MacDonnell Ranges near Alice Springs, on the footpath outside the Taj, where Mumbai's destitute used to sleep. I hope they too can find a new home.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Moonshadow Villas: accommodation with more than a little good karma

Do you believe in karma? I do. I believe we're responsible for our actions, that those actions determine our future, and that by making decisions about how we act we create our own destiny. So if we sow goodness, we'll reap goodness. When Moonshadow Villas in Darwin, Australia, was recommended to me when we were looking for somewhere special to stay, the Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam) 1970's song Moonshadow began running through my head: "I'm being followed by a moon shadow... moon shadow, moon shadow... leapin' and hoppin' on a moon shadow, moon shadow, moon shadow..." So I arrived at Moonshadow Villas already in a bit of a hippy head space. Then we discovered our welcome package - fresh mangos, champagne, beers, fresh bread, a jar of locally-made mango jam, chocolates, cereals... and learned that every guest staying in a villa (or apartment; more on those in another post) receives one of these very delicious starter kits. Located in a leafy inner city suburb of Darwin, overlooking the Botanic Gardens and minutes from the beach and city centre, the stylish architecturally designed villas (built by owner Peter and designed by wife Moya) are brimming with these sorts of thoughtful touches - lights automatically switched on as we approached (it was late and dark), air-conditioning and fans were on (Darwin's weather is like Dubai's - sultry), and ambient sounds, aromatic candles and scented incense wafted throughout the tranquil gardens, creating (along with the Buddha statues and fountains) a very serene and almost spiritual vibe. The design - which fuses typically Australian style (outdoor living, plunge pool, polished floor boards, corrugated iron walls, etc) with Asian influences (Chinese and Indonesian furniture, Balinese and Thai artifacts) reflects both Darwin's own multicultural make-up and the passions of Moya and Peter who have travelled extensively. The exquisite attention to detail and personal touches - from the pretty Chinese soaps and heavenly coconut shampoo and conditioner in the bathrooms, to the original art on the walls (much of it by Peter, along with other work they've collected over the years) - once again reflects their thoughtfulness and generosity of spirit. Staying here is like staying at the stylish home of a very good friend. They make you feel so welcome you don't want to leave, and when you do, you're already thinking of ways to return. Maybe if I'm very good...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Ghan: nothing like the romance of train travel to rekindle a love for travel

There's a certain romance about train travel that's hard to imagine if you're sleeping upright in cattle class on an overnight interstate train trip in Australia. Ugh. But Australia now has something that comes close to the likes of the luxurious Venice Simplon Orient Express in the romantic train stakes - the new Platinum class service on The Ghan. Named after the Afghan cameleers who trekked the same route from South Australia to 'the red centre' in the Northern Territory with their camel trains in the 19th century, the shiny silver Ghan takes two days and nights to travel the 3,000 kilometres between Adelaide, Alice Springs, Katherine and Darwin. And then it trundles all the way back again. While you can travel on the Red or Gold Service, sleeping upright or on bunks in a snug sleeper cabin, respectively, the spacious Platinum class rooms (pictured) with flat beds, offer a level of comfort that's incomparable to other trains in Australia - as we were lucky to find out for ourselves recently! I'd spent my birthday working until the wee hours of the morning emailing files and maps to editors in London before we hit the road for a few months, and the next night Terry and I were hastily packing until the wee hours of the morning, trying to anticipate what we were likely to forget - aside from sleep and our senses of humour. So perhaps we appreciated that welcome glass of champagne a little more than the other passengers. And the bedside nightcap after dinner. And the coffee delivered to us in bed soon after dawn. There’s an endearingly old-fashioned restaurant car where three course meals were served with a smile (the staff are incredibly warm and friendly) and a smart-looking lounge bar, but our spacious rooms with private bathroom (including shower and toilet!) were very difficult to leave. Our two single beds were made up and stowed away while we dined, leaving plenty of room for us sit back and put up our feet and take in the changing scenery from either side of the train. Not that we had much time to enjoy it. Whistle-stop tours en route range from an early morning hot air balloon ride across the arid Alice Springs desert to an exhilarating helicopter flight over spectacular Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park. We chose the latter - and it was thrilling! My main complaint about The Ghan? Not enough time on the train; I probably could have done without the tours. I enjoyed gazing at the stars from my bed so much and got a such a kick out of waking up with sunshine in my face, that I would have liked to have spent more time on board and spent longer watching the scenery change.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

In print and online

We're currently on the road in Australia and while our paid writing gigs and other demands have prevented me from posting much over the last month or two (explained here), I can thank a few other travel bloggers for some wonderful online coverage. I did a thought-provoking interview with globetrotting travel blogger Nomadic Matt which you can read over two posts (part 1 and part 2). Jessie from Wandering Educators interviewed me about our recently published Lonely Planet Syria and Lebanon guidebook, a book Terry and I coordinated and for which we wrote the Syria chapter; it was our second edition of that book and the last one we'll write for Lonely Planet. (Jessie is also giving away copies of the book.) The Happy Hotelier included an interview we did among his top 10 posts for October while the Mr and Mrs Smith blog listed Cool Travel Guide among their favorite travel blogs: do check out their other favorites when you get a chance. I'll post a list of my own soon too. Terry and I did manage to squeeze in a few reviews on Dubai for Fodors Hot Lists and you can read those here: September 3 (Westin Dubai), September 16 (Reflet Par Pierre Gagnaire), and October 1 (Dubai Desert Palm). I'll be uploading posts about our Aussie road trip very soon.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Life of a Travel Writer: when the travel writer needs to get 'away' from it all

My life as a travel writer is one I've come to treasure. So when people tell me I've got the ultimate dream job, I normally agree. However, it's been a tough few months, which explains the lack of blog posts. So tough there have been moments when my commitment to the writing career Terry and I have worked so hard to establish has well and truly wavered. So tough there have been times when I've questioned the very meaning of this travelling life. So tough that there have been more than a few periods when I've thought of abandoning everything and getting 'away' from it all. But when the world is our office, where do we get 'away' to? The fact that we didn't have much of a life at all for a few months was a major factor. Our time was spent chained to our desks writing from early morning to late at night seven days a week from August through October. We'd forgotten what it was like to do 'normal' things, to laze around and flick through a magazine, to watch a program on TV, to read a chapter of a book before bed, to go out for drinks with friends. I've been so busy I've missed birthdays; I worked until 2am on my own to meet deadlines. I've neglected family and friends whom I'm geographically close to for the first time in years (we're currently in Australia) and I'm consumed by guilt for not spending enough time with my mum who has gone through a couple of tough years herself following a road accident that left her without an eye and with an array of injuries. All this would be enough to make most people question the life they're leading. But add to that endless technological problems from excruciatingly slow and intermittent internet access and continuous inexplicable email problems (yes, I'm talking about you!) to couriers who deliver important documents to the wrong address and postal systems where send things astray. Trivial by comparison? Not when these communications systems are your main means of dealing with clients around the world. Add to that editors with their own communication and technology problems, editors with ongoing demands that far outweigh the fee they're paying, and editors who simply shouldn't be editors. But every job has its challenges, not all bosses are understanding, and nor are all colleagues easy to get along with. When the world's your office there's bound to be a glitch or two. Or three. And whose going to listen to a travel writer complain, right? Well, we're 'away' from it all now, so I hope to resume regular blogging soon and catch you up on the action-packed adventures we've been having.