Brisbane – Overlooked City of Australia

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The Brisbane riverside at night. (By Bachya Byrne via Wikimedia Commons)
Brisbane is Australia’s overlooked city. It was my last stop Down Under before heading back to the United States. Though I knew little about Brisbane, it became one of my favorite cities.

We arrived with barely any plans. Our first mission was to look for cheap Brisbane hotels. We picked a bad time to wait until the last minute because of a city-wide festival about to begin. We got lucky, though, and found an affordable place near the Queen Street Mall. That put us across the street from the apartment of some friends who lived in Australia at the time.

So what’s cool about Brisbane?

First off, the Brisbane Festival in September. It begins with a crazy fireworks display called Riverfire. In 2007, the fireworks started when F-111 jet fighter-bombers screeched over the city at sub-skyscraper altitude, flames from their afterburners casting a glow over the city. Australia no longer flies the F-111, so I’m not sure how Riverfire launches now. The weeks-long festival showcases art in all its forms. We had no clue about the festival when we arrived in Brisbane, but left blown away by its scope and quality.

Then, we did what we always do in an unfamiliar city: We walked. One of the better finds? The Queensland Museum. Since we like science and nature, we found a lot to enjoy. I always approach museums with caution – some are weighted heavily toward the kids. The Queensland Museum’s literature and displays had a nice balance – simple enough for younger visitors, but thorough enough for adults.

A look inside the Queensland Museum.

Then there’s the Queen Street Mall, an open-air thoroughfare of shops and dining. I didn’t do much shopping. I was there just to stroll around and enjoy the Brisbane ambiance. But I could’ve found anything from the usual touristy items to pretty much any clothes or sportswear – especially if it’s rugby, cricket or Australian Football League-related!

We also found a brewery called The Brewhouse. The selection wasn’t huge back in 2007 – but craft brewing was still filtering through Australia at the time. It’s a nice place to hang out and have a chocolate porter.

And I know this might be routine for some people -- but for a desert dweller like me, a ride down the Brisbane River on the CityCat is a lot of fun. Any amount of standing water gets me excited. Embarrassing, I know! It just continues the Australia theme of good public transportation by rail, boat or bus.

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Jeju Love Land – Craziest Attraction in Korea

This sculpture is one of the high points of the Jeju Love Land lineup. She’d be perfect for a role in “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman.”

Jeju Love Land rises to the top as one of the strangest tourist attractions in Korea.

OK, I got that out of my system. Well, kind of. Give me 10 minutes and I’ll be good to go again.

A Visit to Jeju Love Land

So what is this Jeju Love Land thing? It bills itself as an erotic sculpture garden. Sure enough, there are plenty of beyond-life-sized sculptures of the nude form. But some attractions shrink to a soaked-in-cold-water micro scale, with dioramas that are an odd blend of instruction, humor and flat-out “WTF?”

The male form – albeit somewhat squished.

We visited Jeju Love Land during the late evening, way too close to closing time. We’d already seen the natural wonders of Jeju Island, from Manjanggul Lava Tube  to Mount Halla to Seongsan Ilchulbong. I wasn’t sure what we’d find at a Korean erotic sculpture garden. Korea has an odd mix of propriety and in-your-face attitude where sex is concerned.

Tying into South Korean Culture

On one hand, couples living in multigenerational homes need to flee to love hotels for a bit of fun. Yet some billboards and establishments with names like “Club Tits” (and I’m not joking about that one) leave little to the imagination.

Look closely, scratch your head, shrug and smile.

The crowd at Jeju Love Land reinforced that duality. We spied more than a few blushing, giggling younger couples. And a few steps behind them? A full family, right down to toddlers. And nobody batted an eye.

We had more than a few amused chuckles and could’ve taken our time for more fun.

The admission fee of 9,000 won is about $18 per person. A little stiff if you plan to be quick about it. But make a few hours of it, and you’ll be satisfied with the trip. Seriously, this was the best and most-unexpected of everything we did in Jeju.

Taking one for a test ride.

Sky Harbor Responds to “International Flight” Criticism

Welcome to Sky Harbor – small planes, small goals.

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport isn’t happy with a post that hints that its staff lags in securing intercontinental routes and airlines.The recent “addition” of another British Airways flight didn’t impress me. More accurately, this will bring Phoenix back to seven flights a week from the current six; (seven years ago, the British Airways flight went from daily to six days a week, a fact The Arizona Republic skipped in its rush to cheerfully ralph up the city press release).

So, there’s little net gain. Sky Harbor is just back where it was seven years ago. Contrast that to Denver International Airport, which just made hay by snagging seasonal direct service to Iceland. Nice score for an outdoorsy metro area! It puts this snippy, defensive reply to my post from unnamed Sky Harbor personnel into perspective:

We have seen your blog in response to the added British Airways flight. Your disappointment in the number of international flights is concerning. Please be advised that airports compete heavily for air service and airlines make business decisions about where to fly based on the estimated profitability of the flight. This begins with the number of passengers that will fly daily in full-fare first and business class seats, followed by the number of additional passengers in full-fare and discount economy seats. Under the direction of the Mayor, Council and City Manager, the Aviation Department actively evaluates this local market and presents competitive information to airlines to encourage them to consider Phoenix. If you have research about the areas you mention in your blog such as Asia and Europe and evidence of 150-200+ people per day in the Valley who would buy seats on these flights, please share it with us. We would appreciate any such information that would assist the airlines in making what amounts to a multi-million dollar investment in our market and more international flights for the Valley. 
Thank you in advance for any information you can provide.

Customer Service
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport

So, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport wants me to do its job. It wants me to do what its staff can’t –  compete with competition like Denver International Airport. Sounds to me like Denver and its staff researched areas where 150-200+ people might make it worthwhile for an airline to make a multi-million-dollar investment in their market for international flights. Denver displayed the initiative, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport crew lacks. The score? Denver International Airport – 4 new Icelandair flights, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport – 1 “sort-of-new” British Airways flight.

My response:

Dear Customer Service,

Thanks for your response. I would be happy to help Sky Harbor in its mission to add intercontinental routes and carriers. We can approach it two ways: A per-hour consulting fee of $150, or a retainer for up to 20 hours of research per month. You could also arrange a panel of local travelers representing leisure and business segments to determine what routes are worth your thought. Finally, you could poll Sky Harbor travelers with questions related to their thoughts on intercontinental routes – a sample of about 3,000 is enough to be statistically relevant. 
Or, and I’m just spitballing here, you can encourage the people already on the city’s payroll to display initiative, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.
Here’s a bit of free advice: Study the number of Phoenix travelers who have to fly to Los Angeles International, Chicago O’Hare, San Francisco International, Newark, John F. Kennedy and Houston Intercontinental to transfer to flights abroad. Determine the top destinations. Court those airlines and routes heavily. Just off the top of my head, I know that United Airlines – possibly as a punitive punishment over a squabble for international flights – cancelled the soon-to-be-implemented 787 service from Houston to Auckland (word is it was an excuse to put the 787 on a route to Japan instead, while also sticking it to the Houston City Council). Now, if I were a Sky Harbor employee tasked with attracting new routes, I’d look into pitching 787 service from Phoenix to Auckland starting at four flights a week. Such a flight would pull passengers from the Qantas and Air New Zealand flights from LAX and possibly SFO. Name a passenger who loves flying from LAX … oh, that’s right: Nobody likes flying from LAX. Other aspects to consider: New Zealand is an English-speaking country that makes a convenient travel experience for American travelers. And the U.S. dollar is strong next to the Kiwi dollar. Plus filling up a 787 on this route wouldn’t be as difficult as a 777 or 747, which is the 787’s mission – long, thin routes. 
Here’s something else I’d add – consider what Phoenix Sky Harbor could offer travelers seeking intercontinental routes. Phoenix Sky Harbor has a compact footprint, and it will be even easier to navigate with the opening of the rail system that will connect each terminal. That will make a connecting experience far better than the mad scrambles of airports like LAX. That means quicker, easier connections and less stress. Sell that hard.
I will be out of the country starting next week until mid July. Feel free to contact me to further discuss a consulting arrangement. 

I’m curious: Why does Sky Harbor care what one blogger thinks about international flights? Why acknowledge me at all instead of crowing about the “new” British Airways flight?

I know attracting new routes and airlines isn’t easy. They don’t appear overnight with the wave of a magic travel wand. But … nothing new in seven years? Is this really the best Phoenix can do?

The Kangaroo – A Spotter’s Guide

Hold still, Skippy! My one half-decent wild kangaroo shot. And I’m not even convinced it’s not actually a wallaby.

A kangaroo in the wild is nothing like what you see in the zoo.

Stealth and speed kept me from getting many good kangaroo photos. I tried hard, everywhere from Kakadu National Park to the Atherton Table Lands.

First off, imagine the setting: Forest lands, often dotted with termite mounds. When you scan the terrain, you’ll see the trees. And you’ll see the termite mounds. Things get interesting, though, when a group of "termite mounds" starts to move. Fast. Their body shape at rest is an amazing camouflage.

From a distance, a good-sized kangaroo can look like a big ol’ termite mound.

Now, just set aside your notions of how a kangaroo moves when it’s hell-bent to get away from you. Forget everything you imagine about a placid, languid bounce.

Instead, imagine a furry missile streaking over the land. From what I could see, they fold their upper bodies parallel to the ground. They push off with their hind legs and project their considerable power back rather than up. The result is a tremendous burst of speed – and little chance for the camera I carried at the time to catch any action: My Fuji superzoom was great for landscape, but was just overmatched for trying to catch a fast, quick, camera-shy creature.

So if you want to photograph Skippy, remember these tips:

  • Be quiet
  • Be patient
  • Use an SLR
  • Bring a big, honkin’ lens, no less than 200 millimeters.

British Airways Adds Extra Flight to Phoenix Sky Harbor

Sky Harbor needs more than a daily flight from London to make Arizona a major air travel player.

British Airways will increase the number of flights from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to London Heathrow Airport from six a week to daily.

Phoenix city officials are aflutter about the extra flight, which starts Dec. 5.

“Intercontinental flights are huge contributors to the success of our Phoenix airport system, our city’s economy and our region’s overall economic future,” says Mayor Greg Stanton in a press release. The same release claims that British Airways flights to Phoenix Sky Harbor put $100 million into the local economy.

Even if we take that figure at face value (and I’m skeptical), let’s curb our enthusiasm: The mayor’s overstatement of economic impact belies typical Phoenix thinking – measuring success against its own past rather than against cities of similar size.

If I were the mayor, this would be my quote.

“This is a minuscule step in the right direction. The Valley of the Sun is far too populous an area to be served by only one airline that connects us to but one intercontinental destination. It’s an embarrassment that residents need to stop in other cities to reach international centers for business and leisure travel. Phoenix Sky Harbor must connect to the world – for commerce and for tourism – if we are to grow beyond being the nation’s largest small town.”

The press release includes a quote from David Cavazos, city manager: “My goal is to continue to gain additional international routes, while ensuring that this British Airways flight remains successful.”

I hope that’s in his annual review with measurable expectations of success. In my time here, Phoenix Sky Harbor has done a pitiful job of being “international” in anything more than name (remember the Lufthansa service to Frankfurt? R.I.P.). Of course, Cavazos says “international,” which could mean more routes in North and Central America. Big deal.

This extra British Airways flight is nice. But those charged with pursuing new routes and airlines should be cautious about patting themselves on the back before Phoenix Sky Harbor connects non-stop – at a minimum! – to Asia, Oceania and continental Europe.

Vanuatu – Upcoming South Pacific Destination

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Mount Yasur in Vanuatu shows the contrast of lush rain forest and volcanic landscape. (photo by Stefan Heinrich via Wikimedia Commons)
Vanuatu wasn’t a destination I’d ever thought about until I read the Cash Peters book Naked in Dangerous Places. The author paints a very self-deprecating portrait of himself as a non-adventurous sort of character dragged deep into world travel by his heels. One chapter revolves around the South Pacific volcano called Mount Yasur.

Right then, Vanuatu forced its way onto my travel list. It’s one of many destinations in the South Pacific that offer cheap holiday deals. But its famous resident volcano set it apart. The chance to see volcanic landscapes was a huge part of the reason for my trips to New Zealand and Iceland – and neither disappointed. And its just one of many Vanuatu holiday ideas for adventurous travelers.

Vanuatu shares the volcanic allure, but with a few other interesting bits I cadged from Peters’ book. He depicts it as having just that right amount of development: Western travelers will have the basic amenities, but they won’t drown in touristy kitsch. At the moment, it seems like travel bloggers are overlooking it. So if you get there before I do, tell some good travel stories and watch curious volcano-and-tropics seekers roll right in.

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Mount Yasur shows its frisky side to appeal to adventurous travelers. (photo by Rolf Cosar via Wikimedia Commons)
As for Mount Yasur, I discovered a few tidbits that set it apart from any garden-variety volcano:

  • The glow from one of its eruptions brought it to the attention of Captain James Cook, who was the first European to visit.
  • Mount Yasur is central to the beliefs of the John Frum cargo cult. Never heard of a cargo cult? Imagine a pre-industrial civilization meeting an industrial civilization for the first time, the influx of manufactured goods and the deification who brought all this wonderful new stuff. There are at least three other cargo cults scattered across Vanuatu, and many others throughout the South Pacific.
  • Mount Yasur is easily accessible. But heed the local warning system, which ranges from 1-4 (the most dangerous).

What you have is a South Pacific holiday destination that’s cheap, interesting and adventurous. And since it’s still an up-and-coming destination, the odds are good that you’ll be one of the few people at any gathering telling travel stories about Vanuatu.

This post contains links to supporters that can help you create your own South Pacific adventure. 


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Mountain Bike Repair – It’s OK to Ask for Help

"He's weird, but the creep can fix bikes."

Running isn’t really my thing. But if I want to snag a decent time at the Midnight Sun Runin Norway, I have to train. That’s what led to me, coated in a layer of sweat, encountering a couple on mountain bikes at the end of the run.

The guy had his mountain bike upside down. I popped an earbud out and asked if everything was under control. The guy replied with the perfunctory “yes, all’s well” sort of message.

“Except he has a problem with his brake,” said his special lady friend, “and he can’t get the wheel back on.”

Less than a minute later, I had the wheel back on and the brake problem diagnosed – Hydraulic Disc Brake Rule #1 … don’t squeeze the lever when the wheel is off. It’s an easy fix for a mountain bike nerd with a pair of needle-nose pliers and a flathead screwdriver, a confounding game-killer for most others. And when you want to put your rear wheel back on, make it easier by shifting into the highest gear and lining the chain up with the smallest gear.

But that’s not even the point: If you have a bike problem and someone offers help … take it, whether you have a flat tire, a broken chain or a bent rim. You’ll be back on your way sooner, and you might learn something.

Olympic Games Gone Wrong: The Brand Exclusion Zone

The Olympic Games have gone off their rocker.

The games once celebrated the common bonds nations and their people could find in sport. Sure, jingoism and politics sometimes derailed that goal. But largely, it brought people together and gave a platform to the more obscure sport events.

But now?

Commercialism in its worst form -- a strain of product-hawking lunacy that’s crossed the line into stemming the flow of ideas. Olympic Games organizers call it the “Brand Exclusion Zone.”

If you’re in this Brand Exclusion Zone, don’t show up to a venue with your ticket and your Nike shirt. See, adidas is a sponsor. So they have exclusive rights, apparently, to be the only sports apparel seen in the Brand Exclusion Zone.

Oh, and I hope you like McDonald’s. It will be the only “branded food outlet” in the Brand Exclusion Zone. Kind of an odd pairing with the Olympic Games, right?

Here’s the logic: Brands like adidas and McDonald’s pay big bucks to sponsor the Olympics. Therefor, brands who don’t pony up shouldn’t reap any benefits. This, you get an abomination of the logic/decency continuum like the Olympic Games Brand Exclusion Zone.

The London Olympics Committee is not intelligent to realize something: Heavy-handed attempts to control people results in backlash. There will be guerrilla protests, and you will see a lot of creative people thwart the attempted thought control of Olympic organizers. The Olympics Games and its “Brand Police” will look like wanna be-totalitarian buffoons – Advertising Age has already written that its restrictions are worse than those enacted by China at the last Summer Olympic Games.

And you’ll see those of us who won’t be there do something worse: We’ll forgo tuning into the 2012 Olympic Games.

Look, Olympic poo-bahs and honchos … I’m not asking for a return to naked oiled-up dudes wrestling. But I want sport and culture to come first. I want marketing to come in dead last. If that means less pomp and ceremony, so be it.

I’ll be back when you get it right. And not a second sooner.

Olympic Games of Ancient History – Visiting Olympia

Get back to the original Olympic Games with a holiday in Greece.

The Olympic Games are nearly here. If you want to avoid the swirling mass of commercialism in London but still have a love for the Olympics, there’s an alternative: Greece.

The Greek town of Olympia gave its name to today’s Olympic Games. And you can still visit and get a taste of the Olympics in their original form – before the games morphed into the pursuit of sponsorship dollars and media overkill. Here are three sites to get your holidays in Greece started.

The Archaeological Museum of Olympia
It’s not one of the biggest museums in Greece, but visitors will tell you it’s a must-see. Bronze and terra cotta sculptures are some of the highlights. You can also check out the Sanctuary of Zeus -- as the ancient Greek father of man and gods alike, he’s kind of a big deal: Ancient Greeks organized the Olympic Games to honor him. Tickets top out at 9 Euros for the most extensive package – but you can take advantage of free admission days throughout the year.

The entrance to the Stadium of Olympia. (photo by Olecorre via Wikimedia Commons)
The entrance to the Stadium of Olympia. (photo by Olecorre via Wikimedia Commons)

Ancient Olympia Archaeological Site
Walk in the footsteps of the Olympic Games’ first competitors. Don’t worry, though: You can stay clothed, unlike the first athletes who competed in nothing but a good coat of olive oil. You’ll be able to see where the athletes trained for at least one month, and can even run at the Stadium of Olympia where they once laid it one the line for the pride of their city-states. There’s also the Hippodrome and the Palaestra (a wrestling school).

Olympia Land Winery
There’s only so many ruins and museums I can handle in any stretch of time. After I hit that number, it’s time for a change of pace. Visitors to the Olympia area will find that at the Olympia Land Winery. Being more of a craft beer guy than a wine lover, I’ll have to trust its reputation. Word is that its whites and reds – both on the dry side of the spectrum – are high-quality stuff. You can get into an organized tasting for 10 Euros. According to the winery’s website, it’s free for kids under 12. I have to assume kids only get to dig into the feta, salami, olives and bread that accompany the wine tasting. But hey, you never know.

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Scandinavia – My Travel Packing List

Epic trips require epic backpacks. Store that away for a rainy day, eh?

Scandinavia is less than a month away. Well, same for Finland, which is really a Nordic country. No matter what you call this trip, it’s time to mentally pack my bags for a trip through Sweden, Finland, Norway and possibly a bit of Estonia.

We like camping and hiking when we travel, which adds challenges people who go on laid-back beach vacations won’t ever encounter. So, what’s on the packing list for Scandinavia? Pretty much the same stuff I brought to Iceland with a few new additions …

  • Cook stove (MSR Whisperlite International) – I’ll never go on a camping vacation without it after seeing a French family whip up a gourmet meal with one -- while I choked down a cold military MRE pack. It sounds like bottles and fuel are readily available in Scandinavia. There’s no reason to eat bad when you travel!
  • t-shirts and underwear (tasc Performance) – I wind up wearing the same stuff for many days. The bamboo blend of the tasc Performance gear resists funky stench. And it’s super-comfortable. tasc sent me some of its latest bamboo/merino wool blends to test out above the Arctic circle. It’s not on the tasc website yet, but you can check here for other tasc goodies. Watch for a full review later. I expect they’ll be great for hiking and camping.
  • Shirts (Kuhl Breakaway Cafe) – These follow the "no stink allowed" theme. They’re made from something called Coffeenna, which incorporates recycled coffee grounds to beat the stink. Also comfortable to the max. I flogged them without mercy in the humidity of Asia and stayed fresh the whole while. A perfect travel shirt.

I’ll also bring a few packets of freeze-dried foods to get us started. But we may switch to canned stuff once we’re on the ground … I imagine all sorts of canned fish products in Scandinavia. Lutefisk, anyone?

And my travel pillow stays home this time. I’ll bring an inflatable pillow instead, and use a stuff sack as either a pillowcase or a second pillow. I might also skip my infamous hat and just roll with a decent stocking cap instead. But that should do it for the big Scandinavia trip.