AS a travel writer, it’s natural for me to focus on the destinations in which I find myself, but for my last blog of 2017, I wish to highlight the people behind those places I was incredibly fortunate to visit this year. When you’re out in the world, hunting and gathering stories and photographs, it can be a bit of a lonely place, particularly if you’re travelling alone, as has been my strategy in recent years. Until you meet your guide. This year, I was blessed to have the most generous souls cross my path as I wandered around the planet, people who went above and beyond their roles as tour guides or tourism staff, many of whom became friends.
My travels started in February, at beautiful Noosa, on the Sunshine Coast. It was as hot as hell that weekend, where I partook in my first mountain bike tour with Bike On Australia. The next day, I kayaked the Noosa Everglades with Kanu Kapers Australia and both of my female guides were encouraging and taught me new techniques in both adventures, but above all, were the strong, smart women I so admire. Later that same month, I visited the remote Australian territory of Norfolk Island. Here, I met Tania from Norfolk Island Tourism, who introduced me to this destination’s incredible history, local food and wine, and the rugged landscape. I don’t have a snap of Tania, but I took plenty of the cows which inhabit this place, and which outnumber residents.
March was devoted to my home-state of Queensland, firstly visiting Tropical North Queensland’s Port Douglas and the Daintree. Here I ambled among the world’s oldest rainforest, Mother Nature being a particularly good guide on this trip, and snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef, reminding me of why I love living in this part of the world so much. Two weeks later I was in Bundaberg for a series of stories, where among my great guides, I met Suzie from Bundy Food Tours. Mother Nature made another big impact on this trip, introducing me for the first time to her turtle hatchlings on Mon Repos beach. It was so beautiful, I cried.
I encountered one of my favourite guides all year in the Cook Islands, when I met Aunty Nane. Aunty’s laugh was a cross between a gecko and an erupting volcano, and epitomised the soul and spirit of these proud Pacific Islanders. Aunty loved to eat and talk, and we spent 10 days doing just that, enjoying the spoils of the tropics. Aunty was convinced I would find a husband if I accompanied her to church, so off we trotted. I never found a bloke, but the singing gave me goose bumps. On an outlying island I also met Aunty Mii, who told me she spent her days trying to avoid her husband because he was “stupid”. You can’t win ‘em all.
In May, I was in Fiji for the wedding of my beautiful friend Saskia who married her Fijian warrior Pauliasi. The Fijians are great and gentle guides, who teach you much without even knowing it. It’s all about Fiji time up here, learning to slow down, that things don’t always go to plan, but you can always find a reason to smile. It’s a lesson which was carried into later that month when I visited the Whitsundays, which was rebuilding after Cyclone Debbie. Resilience? These people have it in shades, and again, amid the destruction, there were still smiles.
In June, I was up at Noosa again, gathering some last-minute stories for an urgent deadline, but my biggest teacher in both June and July was my wild eastern Australian carpet python, Sylvia. For a few weeks every winter, if the stars align, I try to slow down, stay home, go to yoga and try to find some balance. It’s not an easy fit for someone like me with such an active mind, but it’s crucial if I am to continue a hectic travel schedule for the rest of the year. Sylvia, my beloved snake, taught me the importance of hibernation, to follow the natural rhythms of the seasons, and to just be, at least for a few weeks. And so I did.
By August I was ready to go again, and after a brief trip to northern New South Wales, I attended the Australian Society of Travel Writers’ annual convention, which was this time held on the Sunshine Coast. On a beautiful winter day, while cycling along Caloundra, I bumped into these bathing beauties, who taught me you’re never too old and it’s never too cold, to swim, or laugh.
September was hectic, but also delicious. First, I flew to Canada where I fulfilled a story wish to snorkel with the salmon over at Vancouver Island on the Campbell River. My guide, Jamie, from Destiny River Adventures, was a little hard core, and proved to be scarier than the unexpected rapids into which I was flung and told to “fly like a superhero” to avoid being injured by rocks. But in the end, Jamie and I became friends, particularly when I emerged from the 14 degree rapids, smiling and shouting “that was awesome.” I was back in Brisbane for only four nights before it was off to Hong Kong, where I met another of my favourite guides, Vivian. I was hunting a story about fortune tellers, and Vivian and I trekked the streets of Hong Kong, while I indulged in “villain hitting” (to banish former boyfriends) and having everything from my face to my tarot read. I also popped over to Macau on this trip, where the guide really understood my need, mid-tour, to pop into the local bottle shop to pick up a drop of the local Portuguese wine.
I spent two weeks in October in Morocco where I was fortunate to have Khaled as my guide as we trekked, on an Intrepid Tour with 13 others, across this incredible country. It was here that I really sat back and observed how tough it is to be a guide, dealing with 13 different personalities, three distinct nationalities, long distances and tiring days. But Khaled never faltered, always finding the positive in every situation, doing his best to secure a glass of wine for us at the end of the day, and at one point, turning up at my door with a can of cold Casablanca beer after listening to my endless observations about how warm the beer was in Morocco.
In November, it was off to Bawah Island, a luxury new destination half way between Malaysia and Borneo, and three hours from Singapore. In terms of guides, it was an unusual week for me, as I spent it with a group of men, mostly part of the management team from Singapore, who were putting the final touches on this beautiful resort. With five men from different destinations, all of whom spoke at least two languages, conversations were colourful and entertaining. One of my favourite guides was the Italian dive instructor Paulo, with whom I would book in a morning snorkel straight after breakfast, and whose enthusiasm for Bawah’s underwater beauty was infectious.
Which brings me to December where I have just returned from a trip to the North Pole to interview Santa. I’d love to say Santa was my best guide, but he was hugely overshadowed by the kind and eccentric Irene, an artist who makes amazing things out of reindeer parts. Irene also talks to her house elves (one of which is currently being naughty and getting naked while Irene is in her studio), which made her one of the most interesting interviews I had all year. I headed further north in Lapland and stayed at Beana Lapponia Wilderness Lodge, where I met Tony, the husky handler, and he was also an incredible guide, teaching me not only how to harness huskies, but how to drive the husky sled through the snow.
It’s been another incredible year and I’d like to thank all of the tourism and travel operators, local communities, kind random strangers, PR people, publishers, editors and fellow writers, who I met on this incredible journey that was 2017. See you out there in 2018.
And to my beloved readers, thank you for supporting me. Wishing you peace on earth.
THIS Finnish fairy tale begins in the home of a Laplander who talks to elves, and ends with an interview with Santa Claus. I am sitting in the north of Finland in the Rovaniemi home of Irene and Ari Kankaanpaa, and Irene is explaining how one of her house elves doesn’t like where it sits, so much so that when Irene comes home from her artist studio, the elf is often naked. I suggest the elf may want to be in the sauna, where all good Finns get naked. Irene agrees. This is a story of Christmas miracles, elves and how I finally met Santa Claus.
And it starts with this eccentric artist who, with her husband Ari, spends her days crafting handicraft out of reindeer horns and other body parts. I learn a lot about reindeer, how up here they are considered the best due to the high calcium in their bones, and how the Finnish use every part for clothes, tools and food. And along the way I learn a little about love, Lapland style.
“We make love and fishing in summer and not so much fishing in winter,” Irene says.
“Lappish men don’t talk much, so don’t be too aggressive. It is a very equal relationship but both sides know their strengths and there is never a question about it.
“Lapland men want to go into nature too and you must let them go.
“If you want something from a man, always ask him when you are in the sauna.”
I tell Irene that I am meeting Santa the next day and that he’s failed in the past 9 years to deliver me a much-coveted boyfriend.
“Have you written to him?” she asks.
Actually no, I haven’t. Instead, I’ve been a typical female, expecting a man (in this case Santa) to be able to read my mind.
“Should Christine ask Santa for a boyfriend?” Irene whispers to her house elf?
The elf says yes. It’s a good sign.
I sleep the night in the exotic Santa’s Igloos Arctic Circle where sublime snow is dumped on my glass ceiling during the night. I’m a tiny figurine inside a Christmas snow dome. I awake, pen my note (tossing in “peace on earth” for good measure), and march through the snow to the nearby Santa Claus Village, where I have the first appointment of the day with Santa.
Santa opens the dialogue, asking me the kind of question a Brisbanite would: whether I live on the “north side or south side” which is a little disturbing, as I feel he should already know this crucial bit of information.
He’s also not so great on meteorology, saying he doesn’t feel the heat in his bulky suit in Brisbane in summer as he arrives at night.
Who is HE kidding? I lay awake in December dressed in far less with a cool face washer on my boiling brow, cursing like a grinch.
Things are off to a shaky start.
But he’s up-to-speed on the no chimney situation in Brisbane, saying he just waltzes through the front door. I ask him whether that constitutes break and enter.
“Who would arrest me on Christmas night in this suit? I’m not breaking and entering, I’m delivering,” he says. (Try explaining that in Brisbane Magistrates Court).
He also wants Aussies to know the days of leaving out a cold beer for him are over “there’s no drinking and driving” and that he’d prefer a water. (Fine, Santa, more beer for me).
“I can promise that you are on the nice list. We don’t take the naughty ones in here at all,” he says.
I ask Santa whether Trump would make his naughty list. Santa quickly shuts me down. International politics are clearly not to be discussed with the big bearded bloke, who has just invoked the Santa Clause.
I move on to the issue at hand. The fact I want to meet a kind, smart and funny man. I personally hand my letter to Santa, having long given up on the efficacy of Australia Post.
“This has been top of the list for many people,” he says, reading my request for love.
“The biggest problem is I have no idea how to park them. Should I put him in a box or roll him up or put him in a sock?”.
I tell Santa to just shove the decent bloke through the front door and I can find him under the Christmas tree. Frankly, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve found a drunk bloke under a tree on my property.
“One problem is we don’t take back presents, there is no guarantee, so you are stuck with them,” he says.
I’m feeling Santa knows much more about Brisbane blokes than I first imagined, so I push him to just try to find me a good one.
“I can try, you never know what is around the next corner. They can just appear sometimes,” he says.
Two weeks to go. I’m waiting Santa. I’m waiting.
Visit Irene and Ari (and their elves) at Hornworks https://hornwork.fi/index.php/english
Stay in Santa’s Igloos Arctic Circle http://www.santashotels.fi/en/hotelsantaclaus/glass-igloos-in-rovaniemi
The Global Goddess travelled a guest of Visit Rovaniemi http://www.visitrovaniemi.fi; 50 Degrees North, an Australian-based company which specialises in tailor-made itineraries for regions beyond the 50th parallel north; https://au.fiftydegreesnorth.com; and Finnair http://www.finnair.com. Fly in style via Singapore or Hong Kong to Helsinki in Finnair Business Class aboard an Airbus A350 XWB. Boasting fully flat-bed seats and Finland’s famous Marimekko-design bedding and accessories, these Nordic-styled cabins come replete with Northern Lights mood lighting