A One-of-a-Kind Holiday in One-of-a-Kind Brunei

February 15, 2010 at 10:19 am | Posted in Asia, Brunei | Leave a comment
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by J. Thalia Cunningham

Brunei mosqueOn my last trip, going from Singapore’s mall-mania for the tranquility of Brunei was akin to jiggling out of a tight pair of jeans  in sweltering weather: welcome respite indeed.

Brunei Darussalam (literally “Abode of Peace”) is a small, luxuriant beauty dot adorning the upper lip of Borneo, an island shared by chunks of Indonesia and Malaysia. And tiny though it be — 2,228 square miles (5,770 sq. km) — it packs an impressively diverse wallop of travel options (more on that later).

Besides Oman, Brunei is the world’s sole remaining sultanate, and as with Britain, fascination with all things blue-blooded buffs its mystique.  Unlike Britain, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah (currently the world’s second-richest monarch) and the rest of the royal family do occasionally emerge from their palace to mingle with the hoi polloi;  most locals with whom I spoke had met at least one of the royals.

Islamic Brunei isn’t about bars, nightclubs, and the like; alcohol isn’t generally for sale (one headline during my visit: “Loitering Youths Caught With Beer”  — it was 18 youths and 22 cans of beer) and caning is on the penal menu. On the other hand, this is Islam-lite, filtered through Malaysian culture; females aren’t required to cover their heads, and travelers can bring in their own tipples, declaring at customs. Nothing like sipping a smooth chard on a private balcony, listening to the muezzin’s chants and watching the sun’s gold dome mirroring that of the nearby mosque as it sinks into the sea.

Virtually crime-free, the sultanate is 80-percent blanketed by rainforest, and ecotourism is right on your doorstep, even via day trips. This is eco-luxe, mind you — no slogging with backpacks, wishing you’d brought more  insect repellant and hoping your toilet paper lasts. Instead, a speedboat (dubbed “flying coffins” for their shape rather than their safety records), whisked me from the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, to the mangrove forest in what seemed like the blink of an eye. As our boat sloshed against the shore, the guide pointed out egrets, eagles, king cobras coiled in trees. A large monitor lizard skulked by, thankfully bored by the gaggle of humans, and  I spotted more crocodiles than I’d seen in my many combined trips to Africa and Asia. Meanwhile in the trees, proboscis monkeys (unique to Brunei) chattered and played, performing astounding gymnastic feats. Our guide warned us, though, to avoid getting their urine on our heads, which beyond the obvious yuck factor can both render one bald and attract crocodiles.

Kampong Ayer, BruneiAlso a quick boatride away, Kampong Ayer, a grouping of villages on stilts over the water, is a window into the country’s traditional lifestyle (although despite dating back to the 16th century, its current houses are just 40-60 years old), complete with schools, clinics, and police station. It was fascinating to navigate the wooden walkways and watch people go about their daily lives.  You can venture even farther into the jungle and back in time with an excursion to visit the Iban (covered in this blog this past September). Since migrating from next-door Malaysia in the 1930’s, many still live in traditional wooden longhouses two hours west of Bandar. Though once warlike headhunters, today these folks drive Mitsubishis and Corollas to government jobs, along with rice farming, soldiering, and blue-collar work. All the children go to school, doing homework on the longhouse computer while adults watch television.

Back in the capital I discovered fascinating sites to explore, too. The Brunei Museum traces Brunei’s history with prehistoric earthenware, ancient artifacts, traditional costumes, games, and weaponry. The Jame’ Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque, built by the previous sultan in 1988, sports 14 tons’ worth of gold and crystal chandeliers and is capped by 29 solid 22-carat-gold domes (he was the 29th sultan, you see).

His current majesty’s palace, the world’s largest, is closed to the public, but you can catch a glimpse from the riverside park Jalan Tutong. A quarter-mile long, also with 22-carat domes,  the palace boasts 1,788 rooms,  a banquet hall for 4,000, a sports complex, health clinic, cinema, helipad, and more.  He and the queen meet and greet their subjects here — including a banquet and a gift for everybody — during the Muslim holiday Eid in August or September.

Otherwise, those hankering for a taste of the royal lifestyle have to settle for the Royal Regalia Museum, which houses the sultan’s throne, crown, ceremonial sword, chariot, military and coronation costumes, and wedding and coronation gifts from assorted monarchs and world leaders. After being dazzled by all that gold,  when I came upon MacDonald’s golden arches later day, it was like spotting a over-the-hill hooker at a debutante ball.

Actually, I got an even closer-up taste of royalty by staying at one of Asia’s most singular resorts. A destination in itself, the Empire Hotel & Country Club sprawls across 45 beachside acres (180 hectares) —  the size of Vatican City — and was originally built as a palace for but never occupied by the sultan’s black-sheep brother.  A tiered wedding cake of gleaming white marble frosted with 21 carat gold, it’s got a half-dozen restaurants, several swimming pools, both a stage and movie theater, conference center, shopping arcade, and watersports center with scuba, waterskiing, Jetskiing, parasailing, and boating. The attached country club adds a gym, Jack Nicklaus-designed 18-hole golf course, and full-service spa.  Just entering the towering lobby is a jawdropping experience — shared by the likes of Bill Clinton, Princes Charles, China’s president Hu Jintao, and an A-list roster of celebrities. Yet nightly rates start at just B$250.*

An interesting aside: hotel staff wore  labels reading “Fever Free”; when I asked what was up, I was told that all employees enter through a special thermal-sensitive entrance that checks their temperatures; anyone with a fever is sent home or for physician evaluation.  Now that’s service.

Well, that’s Brunei.

*at press time, approximately US$177; £113; €130; AU$199; NZ$253; R1,368.


Ever Heard of Stewart Island? It’s A Wild Slice of Old New Zealand

January 25, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Posted in ecotourism, New Zealand, Oceania | Leave a comment
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by Fyllis Hockman

Flashlights bobbing in the night as we gingerly picked our way through the bush, all 15 of us switched off at the command of our guide Peter, leaving his the sole illumination, hopping and skipping over the remote, seaweed-strewn beach.

Suddenly there it was, head bobbing up and down, long beak darting in and out of the sand, single-mindedly nibbling on spiders, berries, and crustaceans: the elusive New Zealand kiwi. We waddled in muted tandem behind Peter as he inched us to within 20 feet. Trying not to intrude upon her late-night supper, we were star-struck by this little brown dumpling of a bird. It’s an experience even few Kiwis of the human variety have ever had, outside of a zoo.

You see, Stewart Island, 674 isolated square miles (1,745 sq. km) an hour’s ferry ride south of the South Island, is someplace that very few New Zealanders ever get to — much less outsiders — and is one of the few spots where it’s still possible to spot this iconic native bird.

And there are plenty of other reasons to visit Stewart, too (also sometimes known by its Maori name, Rakiura). Isolated, insular, practically undeveloped, natural, wild — it’s a destination that beckons in a way few these days still do. And yet, there’s a very lived-on, lived-in feel here, of everyday life — though probably not your kind of everyday life. Most locals get by on fishing, a spot of farming — and these days, a modest dollop of tourism. No banks, no doctors (there’s a nurse-staffed clinic, though), and, as a waitress at the Just Café told me, “no stress.” Ask how many live here, and you might hear something like: “Well, 400 at last count – no, wait – Annie just gave birth to the twins and Rupert died last week, so guess that makes 401.”

Tourism infrastructure, meanwhile, has been coming along. Start by checking in at one of a handful digs in tiny Oban town and beyond, from backpacker baracks to upscale B&B’s and rental homes. Take a peek in the Rakiura Museum. Take a glass-bottom boat ride in Half Moon Bay. Have a paddle in a sea kayak.

But Stewart’s main draw is still its primordial nature — 85 percent is covered by NZ’s newest national park, and it’s a magical place to have a tramp and go wildlife (particularly bird) spotting. There are only some 18 miles of road, but 174 miles of walking trails, ranging from 15-minute strolls to three-hour hikes to ten-day treks.

I especially loved the “Maori beach track,” a 15-minute water-taxi ride from Oban. Slogging through practically impenetrable bush or hugging the craggy seaside cliff, we were bombarded in surround sound by  the crashing of waves below and the cries of birds overhead.  Another favorite was wee Ulva Island, also reachable by water taxi — like the “forest primeval” à la Walt Whitman’s famous poem Evangeline. Virtually untouched, predator-free, and primitive, by comparison it makes Stewart feel practically like Manhattan. Sixth-generation Stewart Islander Ulva Amos conducts marvelous tours here, able to distinguish between every caw, chirp, click, creak, twill or whistle from the treetops.

On Stewart Island you’ll find birds, trees and plants otherwise practically extinct, and its hardwood podacorp forest, literally of pre-historic vintage, harbors plant species 350 million years old. Besides the kiwi, other rare birds such as the fernbird, saddleback, rifleman and yellowhead roam the woods like in the old days.

At night, we’d hang out at the South Seas’ bar with stocking-cap-wearing men just off their fishing boats, with long beards and high boots, trying to best each other at billiards and darts. Folks drank with gusto, chortling over town gossip or bemoaning the latest catch. This is not a place that serves a lot of lite beer.

Nearby, have a peek in Glowing Sky, the T-shirt shop owned by Dil Belworthy, a former fisherman who several years ago “saw the writing on the wall, how the fishing industry was going downhill, and how we saw tourism on the horizon.” And so for the last few years, Dil’s’s been turning out gorgeous tees handprinted with native Maori symbols and traditional images.

For sure, I detected a whiff of mixed emotions about this new industry of inviting the outside to their little island sanctuary. But I also got the feeling that it’s unlikely that this relic of a simpler time will lose its charm any time soon. Thank goodness.

More information: StewartIsland.co.nz, Stewart-Island-News.com, StewartIslandExperience.com.

Tripatini Surveys Hot Destinations for 2010

December 28, 2009 at 11:03 am | Posted in Africa, Asia, Barbados, British Columbia, Canada, Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, Central America, Colombia, Croatia, cruising, Cuba, Estonia, Europe, Florida, Honduras, Iceland, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Macau, Mexico, Middle East, Montenegro, New Mexico, Panama, Rwanda, Slovenia, South Africa, South America, Sri Lanka, St. Lucia, Suriname, Turkey, Turks and Caicos, United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe | 2 Comments
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by David Paul Appell

It’s that time when the travel-hungry are scouring the media for word of the coming year’s “it” spots. We can play that game too, so, besides popular perennials, here are 29 we see looming larger on twenty-ten’s worldwide vaycaydar:

For Americans at least, tight times mean Florida will tempt folks sticking closer to home; better deals down south include  Fort Lauderdale and up north the Panhandle. The latter’s now marketed as the “Emerald Coast,” trying to softpedal the “Redneck Riviera” image; comparisons to Sardinia’s glam Costa Smeralda are laughable, but there are some fetching towns, inns, and some interesting attractions — but above all sugary beaches along a stretch including  Destin, Fort Walton, Apalachicola, St. Joe Beach, and Pensacola. Another hotspot due for a boost this year is Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is popping the corks for its 400th anniversary (and while you’re out here, add a couple of days to explore some cool nearby towns like Acoma Pueblo and Gallup.

The big story this year is inevitably the province of British Columbia, with cool cities Vancouver and Victoria, stunning coastal and mountain scenery, eco/adventure tourism, and swell snow sports. The reason is, of course, is the attention focused on Vancouver and ski resort Whistler Blackcomb, hosting this February’s Winter Olympics.

The so-called Maya Riviera, on the Yucatan Peninsula’s Caribbean coast stretching southward from Cancun, continues evolving whether big luxury resorts, mass-market all-inclusives, exquisite small inns, or budget digs. Some also see a bump for Mexico City, whose pollution and security issues can be finessed with some common sense and which offers one of the world’s great urban experiences — and what other burg has not just a stunning Aztec pyramid complex (Teotihuacan) on its outskirts but several right in town — one smack in the middle of downtown?

This winter/spring, more ships come online and cruising is likely to stay strong, thanks to heavy discounting. Beyond the usual suspects, keep your eye on buttoned-down Barbados,  where some resorts and dining spots have been updating of late, and scenic St. Lucia, with luxury properties coming online fairly recently (Jade Mountain, The Landings) or refurbing (Cap Maison); there’s also a movement toward sustainable — and less pricey — town and country tourism. Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos also keeps adding fab resorts without sacrificing its limin’ vibe. Finally, could this be the year for Cuba, when the self-defeating, un-American, yet stubborn travel ban is dropped or relaxed for all U.S. citizens? Hold not thy breath, but anything’s possible, and if it happens, go — unsavory regime notwithstanding, it’s one of the world’s great travel and cultural experiences.

Eastern Europe has been on a major upswing ever since the Berlin Wall fell. But even 20 year later, some destinations are still growing or even just emerging. Examples of the former include Croatia and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. And lately we’re hearing more about Croatia’s neighbors, Slovenia and Montenegro. Both serve up stunning mountains with eco/adventure, historic cities and towns, and Adriatic seacoast with fine beach resorts. And this year, Montenegro welcomes AmanResorts’ fancy-schmancy Sveti Stefan, on an island of medieval architecture. On the western side of things, Icelands a nice land, with its superb eco/adventure, cool capital Reykjavik, short flight time from Europe and New York City, and some of the most affordable prices in years, thanks to the recent economic meltdown.

In Central America, everybody’s jockeying to be “the next Costa Rica” — even El Salvador (who knew?). But watch Honduras; ’09 tourism plummeted due to its political crisis but should be back on track — and hungry — once the new elected government debuts in January. Highlights: Maya ruins, colonial towns, exceptional eco/adventure, world-class diving.  Panama, too, with great rainforest, beaches, one of the hemisphere’s loveliest colonial quarters (Panama City’s Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and barefoot Caribbean isles like Bocas del Toro and the San Blas, home to the autonomous Kuna Indians. In South America, Colombia‘s overall continuing security and economic progress will feed that diverse country’s tourism, especially to another colonial stunner, Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, and happening capital Bogotá (whose colonial quarter’s also nothing to estornudar at). Rising on the radar is the continent’s smallest and only Dutch-speaking country, Suriname, a multi-culti charmer with a cute, sleepy little capital and some of the hemisphere’s most unspoiled eco offerings.

With the steam let out of Dubai, look to UAE capital Abu Dhabi, also developing a-plenty yet without sacrificing traditional culture and flavor. On the Mediterranean, with political crisis at bay for now, Lebanon is still rockin’ the casbah — well, at least Beirut is, while the beach resorts, Roman ruins, and even wine country outside the capital provide a lower-key counterpoint. Up on Turkey‘s “Turquise Coast,” meanwhile, a resort town and region called Dalaman is currently hot, for example outstripping Spain’s Majorca as among the Brits; allures include beaches, soft adventure, nightlife, and historic/archaeological sites.

The tourism offerings in staid ol’ Singapore are getting something of a 2010 shot in the arm, with the elaborate, Vegas-style casino-resort Marina Bay Sands; the also elaborate Fullerton Heritage Complex crammed with shopping, dining, and lodging; and Sentosa Island’s Resorts World, with a Hard Rock Hotel and a Universal Studios theme park. Another “city-state” (now a semi-autonomous part of China) seeing some new action is Macau, where, again, it’s Vegas-style casinos that’ve been complementing the Portuguese colonial architecture and fueling a local boom. On a less glitzy, more laid-back note, since Sri Lanka ended its civil war last May, more travelers will be returning to its historic towns, Buddhist temples, and breathtaking beaches.

From Kruger Park to Cape Town to the winelands, South Africa is on the upswing again, thanks to interest generated by Hollywood hits like Invictus and District 9, and especially June’s soccer World Cup. Lower on the radar, the story of the year may well be the rebirth of safari tourism in Rwanda, 17 years after its genocide, and, believe it or not, Zimbabwe, despite still being a political and economic basket case.

Africa Safaris 101: The Game’s Afoot

November 16, 2009 at 11:49 am | Posted in Africa, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe | 2 Comments
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by Julian Harrison

pic-groups-africa-safaris-istock_000008212126xsmallSwahili for “journey,” the word “safari” originated when Arab slave and ivory traders ventured through wild country where the tribes were least sophisticated and most dangerous — and where the elephants and other trophy animals dwelled. Today, Africa’s most popular photo safari areas are its south and southeast, mainly due to wide-open ecosystems home to countless fauna and flora.

Most itineraries are organized around luxury lodges — some stone and thatch, others large tents akin to canvas suites, with several days at several lodges. For more remote destinations with few or no roads, like northern Botswana and southern Tanzania, fly-in safaris are more common, with small bush planes shuttling guests between lodges.

Many lodges offer walking as an option, but walking safaris have you on foot with an armed guard most or all of the time, sometimes walking each day from one pre-erected camp to another. Canoe trails  are conducted down some of Africa’s great rivers, such as the Zambezi between Zimbabwe and Zambia with small groups of up to eight paddling in two-person canoes from one pre erected camp to another (not recommended for first-timers). Finally, mobile safaris put you in Land Rovers or Toyota Land Cruisers fitted with extra seats, long-range fuel tanks, high canopies, and large windows. Most are self-sufficient camping affairs using a mix of public and private campsites, and sometimes booking into luxury lodges along the way.

Top destinations

Botswana is rainy from late November through February, while June-October is prime game-spotting season.  Mostly small, spread-out tented camps allow for low-density viewing; they’re either luxury tented camps or low-end, with visitors expected to put up their own tents and assist with chores.

One of Africa’s greatest remaining nature sanctuaries, accessed by light aircraft and four-wheel-drive vehicles, its Okavango Delta covers more than 6,000 square miles (almost 16,000  square km) of waterways, palm-filled islands, and lagoons and harbors the most animal and plant species in the southern hemisphere. Activities include game drives in open vehicles, guided island walks, and poling through shallow, reed-lined channels in makoros (dugout canoes).

In East Africa,  Kenya‘s and Tanzania‘s numerous national parks are known for their vast array of species and especially for their annual wildebeest migration. Following the Serengeti’s April/May rains, wildebeest move into its western corridor toward the Mara River, generally staying in Kenya’s Maasai Mara late July to early November before returning to the Serengeti. Rainy seasons are April through early June and November/early December.

National parks and reserves cover over eight percent of Kenya. The “Big Five” (elephant, lion, rhino, buffalo, leopard) can be seen in Masai Mara and Amboseli national parks, amongst others; remote Samburu holds unique species like Beisa oryx, reticulated giraffe, Somali ostrich, gerenuk, and Grevy’s zebra; viewing’s best July through September and January through March. Masai Mara’s undulating hills and rolling grasslands support huge animal populations, including elephants, cheetahs, leopards, Cape buffalos, giraffe, gazelles, Topi antelope, and Africa’s largest lion population; in the Mara River there are also hundreds of hippos and crocodiles.

Top among Tanzania’s extraordinary wildlife and grand landscapes are the year-round snow-capped peaks of majestic Mount Kilimanjaro; mighty, mystical Ngorongoro Crater; and the Serengeti National Park, with more than three million large animals spread across vast.

Semi-desert and one of Africa’s least populated countries, Namibia is all about unspoiled nature, rich wildlife, abundant sunshine, and striking beauty, with a short rainy season in November and the main rains in February and March.

Etosha National Park is mainly saline desert, savannah, and woodlands;  its main feature is the Etosha Pan, a shallow depression stretching some 6,133 square kilometers (about 2,400 square miles). This white “place of dry water” is very different from Africa’s other reserves; some days it’s a shimmering sheet of mirages on which the animals appear to be floating on air. Its more than 110 mammal species include rare endangered species such as black rhino and black-faced impala, the latter unique to northwestern Namibia and southwestern Angola.

In South Africa‘s top wildlife destination, Kruger National Park, annual rains fall late November through February; the rest of the year’s mostly dry. Game-spotting’s good almost year round, but July and August are considered low season, so fewer tourists come to the lodges and you can score some great deals. In actual fact, it’s still a superb time for game viewing.

Many luxury lodges line Kruger’s western boundary in three main areas: Sabi Sands, Timbivati, and Manyaleti. Sabi Sands is best for year-round game; a two- or three-night stay should yield “Big Five” sightings at the very least.

Uganda is where the East African savannah meets the West African jungle, and the only place in Africa where you can watch lions prowling the open plains in the morning, track wild chimpanzees through the rainforest in the afternoon, then the next day navigate tropical channels teeming with hippo and crocodiles before setting off into misty mountains to spend time with Uganda’s stars: its highly endangered mountain gorillas. Seeing these gentle giants up close is as humbling as it is thrilling, particularly when one realizes that there are a mere 700 or so left in the wild, found only in Bwindi National Park and the Virunga Mountains. Heavy rains come March through May, then lighter rains in October/November.

Bigger than Texas, Zambia has big, unspoiled national parks with tremendous game viewing, especially on walking safaris.  It’s rainy, though, so the season’s fairly short;  the best time is June through October, but April/May and November/December also offer decent wildlife spotting.

The 3,500-square-mile (9,000-square-kilometer) Luangwa Valley is one of Africa’s last unspoiled wilderness areas and one of its finest wildlife sanctuaries. The Luangwa River meanders through, and oxbow lagoons, woodlands, and plains harbor huge animal populations, including elephants, buffalos, lions, giraffes, and hippos; Luangwa’s especially well known for leopards.

Finally, Zimbabwe may be a disaster politically and economically, but it’s still top-notch and safe for game viewing, with unspoiled wilderness and outstanding variety of wildlife,  including endangered species which once roamed all Africa.  Dry except during for late November through February; game spotting is good for most of the year, and peak season runs June through October.

Hwange National Park includes vast open palm-fringed plains, acacia woodlands, and mopane forests with elephants, buffalos, sables, roans, giraffe, wildebeests, impalas, and sometimes oryx. It’s also tops for predators — lions, leopards, wild dog, and cheetah, along with the smaller African wildcats, serval, honey badger, civits, and hyenas.

More info: Tripatini’s Africa Safaris group.

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