ON a sassy Southampton Saturday evening, I am stalking screen siren Sophia Loren. Let me repeat that. I am stalking Sophia Loren, the acclaimed Italian actress. Sure, it’s not my usual Saturday night, back in Brisbane, clutching a bottle of shiraz and what’s left of my dignity while I watch Disney movies, but life as a travel writer sometimes takes you to the most unusual places, where you are plunged into the most unlikely scenarios, and on this particular Saturday night, this is precisely where I find myself.
I am in the UK, at Southampton Port, to be precise, covering the launch of the world’s newest cruise liner, MSC Bellissima which claims to be the most beautiful ship in the world. And I am sitting front row of the media throng, on the dock, having just watched Andrea Bocelli and his son Mateo perform on stage. The gargantuan ship sits in the background, attempting to provide a buffer from the gale-force winds that have whipped up on this evening. But just as Ms Loren is about to appear on stage, and cut the all-important ribbon before a bottle of champagne is smashed against the hull (a waste of plonk, in my humble opinion), all 2000 guests in the marquee are told to urgently evacuate themselves back onto the ship. The winds have become wicked, and a little dangerous in this tent, and so we “Brexit” back onto the boat. I am reminded of one of Ms Loren’s famous quotes: “Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti”. We have so much in common.
Amid the confusion, my new Kiwi mate and I make some swift decisions. Turn left and we follow the confused crowd. Turn right, and we are in a mad mosh pit of VIPS. We take a sharp right, and walk straight past a waiting Mercedes Benz. The windows are dark but we know who is in there. It’s Ms Loren, but we have no time to loiter as the crowd shuffles us in the rain and wind, back onto the boat. We snatch a champagne from the bar while we contemplate our brief brush with fame. Meanwhile the heads of this Italian shipping company, bless them, rise to the occasion.
“Everybody, have a drink,” they declare as only Italians (and possibly Aussies) in an emergency can, and 2000 people scatter among the ship, awaiting details on what to do next. I stand with my Kiwi mate, hoping to catch a glimpse in the distance of Sophia and strategizing as only two desperate Antipodeans can, on where we think she’ll do the launch.
I am dressed to impress, in a faux fur I’ve bought online from China. But I was no longer worried about embarrassing myself. The previous day, I locked myself out of my cruise cabin wearing nothing but my QANTAS pyjamas. Shoe-less and bra-less, I complete the shuffle-of-shame to the ship’s lift, descend five decks below, and saunter through a bar full of well-dressed Europeans to reception to order a new key. In order to stop my breasts from jiggling, I cross my arms over my chest, as if I’m about to abandon ship and jump into the seas below. Hell, who needs a bra when God has given me two perfectly good arms? What was I thinking all these years?
On this evening of Ms Loren, I am wearing a bra, shoes and my fur and impressively, in less than 15 minutes since the disruption, the show is ready to resume. If you can judge a cruise company on how it handles an emergency, MSC comes up trumps. I am pondering all of this when something spectacular happens. Inexplicably, I turn around. And right behind me, within hugging distance, there she is, in all of her Italian glory. She’s 84 and as elegant as ever, in a shimmering gold gown and giant crucifix. I frantically snap shots as she saunters past. She sashays and steals centre stage, mid ship. The “godmother” of MSC Cruises, she makes some comments about the beauty of cruising, before she heads back my way. I want to reach out and touch her, tell her that Australia loves her, but I simply stand there in giddy adoration. A month before, a fortune cookie I had eaten during a Chinese New Year celebration in Sydney had predicted “Your life will soon be graced with the presence of stardom.” And there she was.
One day, when I’m 84, the age that Sophia is now, I’m sure I’ll be telling these tales to unbelieving ears. By then, I’m pretty sure I will also be wearing QANTAS pyjamas full time and locking myself out of my room on a regular basis. Who will ever comprehend that I flew to Europe for less than a week, jumped aboard the world’s newest cruise liner, and bumped into Sophia Loren? Such is the crazy life of a travel writer. Amid all of the fog of jetlag, those long, lonely hours on the road, the anxiety of deadlines, the uncertainty of where the next word or pay cheque may come from, come these magical moments. A good mate recently reminded me that as travel writers, we have a backstage pass to the world. And if my job has taught me anything, it’s this: just like this ship launch on this wild, windy evening, life never works out as you had planned. But sometimes, it can be better. So travel as much as you can, turn right when you should turn left, and wait for the wonderful.
The Global Goddess was a guest of MSC Bellissima – http://www.msccruises.com.au
THIRTY years ago I experienced my first encounter with a European train and was instantly hooked. I had just journeyed some 36 hours from Australia on what was also my first ever plane ride anywhere, and arrived in Frankfurt to catch the train to Hamburg to meet what would be my new German “family” for the next three months. It was winter, I was wearing an entirely unsuitable pink tracksuit and ugg boots for a Queensland teenager who’d never even seen snow (I mean, who do you think introduced Europe to the ugg boot?). As I alighted the train they asked me about my journey. “I’ve been travelling for 36 clocks,” I declared, delighted to finally practice my high school German on real-life Germans.
Despite murdering their language, somehow they fell in love with me and I with them, as well as travelling by rail around Europe. The only other train I’d ever been on before then was the Ipswich Line from Ipswich to Brisbane, or the “big smoke” as we called it back in 1970s country Queensland. Apart from that, my transport options had been limited to the gold Kingswood family station wagon for our annual holidays to Coolangatta. Oh yes, we were living the dream back then. As the youngest of four children, I even got the best bed in our two-bedroom holiday flat…two seats pushed together. And they wonder why I’m bitter. So imagine my delight when not just one, but many countries I’d only read about in books instantly opened up to me with the flourish of a rail ticket.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, European trains have run late over the years, which isn’t great news when you are backpacker on a strict budget and need to snaffle that last hostel bed in Vienna or sleep at the station. Then there was the time back in the days Aussies needed visas to cross almost every bloody border in Europe, a conductor had unwittingly taken mine out of my passport as we nicked the corner of a country, only to attempt to arrive in the Czech Republic a week later to find not only did I not have a visa, but was considered a criminal. My passport was taken, I was forced to sit in a room for 12 hours without food, and I cried hysterically (yes, because crying always helps) until a train arrived late that night forcing me back into Poland that I had attempted to leave. Believe me, it was a long journey at midnight with a bunch of gypsies in my carriage asking for money every five minutes as the train headed towards Germany, and I was a little exhausted from all that crying. But it has become one of my best travel stories over the years.
And that’s what travelling by train around Europe is all about, as regular readers have seen in my most recent blog posts. It’s real and it’s romantic. Nothing used to beat the glee only an impoverished Aussie backpacker can feel at catching an overnight train in one European country (hence saving on a night’s accommodation), only to wake up in the next. One night, on a train journey from Munich to Hamburg, my boyfriend at the time and I even covered our backpacks with sheets and pillows and pretended they were two extra people in our carriage to ensure we had the compartment to ourselves.
And now, fellow Aussie bloggers have the chance to win their own Rail Europe adventure. Looking for creativity and inspiration? This is your big opportunity to unplug and daydream. Simply enter the #TailsOnRail competition at http://www.raileurope.com.au/deals/talesonrail and you, too, could be enjoying a trip to Europe. This is a great prize, which includes a flight to Paris, and a one-week train journey with Rail Europe from France to Switzerland. That’s right, flights, hotels, food and your rail tickets are included. Check it out, it could be your chance of a lifetime.
For those who don’t win, or are considering a trip with Rail Europe, here’s some benefits to travelling by train around one of the truly great continents. By the way, Australia is the top-selling country for Rail Europe tickets.
1. No check-in queues, meaning you can rock up 10 minutes before the train departs (unless it’s the Eurostar, which requires a little bit more time).
2. City centre to city centre connections – no expensive cab charges and traffic.
3. Comfortable and spacious seats in all classes plus lots of legroom.
4. Power points for charging electronic devices – tablet, laptop, camera or phone.
5. No baggage limit, meaning great for shopping, though it’s not advisable to bring on too much or more than you can carry to ensure a comfortable journey for all.
6. Exposed to Europe’s stunning scenery throughout the journey.
7. Go wherever, whenever – a lot of flexibility with Passes.
8. High-speed services often trump flying or driving (no traffic, no queues plus all of the other benefits listed here).
But wait…there’s more!
9. Cost efficient – tickets are cheap, especially when bought in advance – up to 70% off the regular price, bookable up to 120 days in advance.
10. Family friendly – certain trains have kid friendly carriages. In Switzerland, children under 16yo travel for free when accompanied by an adult and on the Eurail Pass, children under 11yo travel for free with a guardian.
11. Environmentally friendly – a lot less carbon emission than air travel or driving.
12. Convenient for day trips to neighbouring towns or wine region (no worries about drinking and driving!).
13. Travel overnight (save on hotel costs).
14. See Europe off the beaten track (with 240,000km of track, rail reaches to almost every corner of Europe that’s not accessible by road).
15. Great way to meet locals – Europe has an extremely efficient rail system used by most locals.
16. Good onboard dining services.
17. A wide of discounts and bonuses come along with the passes (check online).
To find our more, go to http://www.raileurope.com.au. All photos used in this blog are courtesy of Rail Europe.
QUELLE horreur! The first shock of my day comes when I realise I am on a flight to Cairns, not Cannes, as I had originally hoped. But I am quick to recover from this minor detail, Tropical North Queensland being, after all, one of my favourite destinations on the planet with frankly far better beaches than in France.
It does, however, take me the entire 2.5 hour flight from Brisbane to come to grips with the fact that somewhere along the line, someone at Qantas appears to have made the incredulous decision to cancel its inflight love-song dedication channel “From the Heart”. Now many people wouldn’t understand but over the years it has formed the highlight of my Qantas flights, the channel to which sad singles like me have long aspired to hear our names.
Oh yes, I’ve spent the best part of the past decade bouncing around this big brown land with the flying kangaroo hearing Peter dedicate something schmoopy to Pam, all the while fantasising that one day that girl would be me. I do note, however, that Qantas does now offer in-seat messaging and I surreptitiously turn mine on to see if anyone is interested in communicating with the girl in 11C. They aren’t. To entertain myself, I spend the rest of the flight staring at the inner thigh of the 30-something man in shorts sitting two seats over.
I’m in Cairns for business, but it never feels like work when you’re in the tropics, what with World Heritage Listed Rainforest to my left and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to my right (which frankly beats the usual clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right), as I drive north. I’ve hired a car for my brief visit and even the bloke at Europcar is so jovial when I tell him my plans that he suggests we both keep driving and head across the Nullabor, on some kind of bizarre Thelma and Louise meets Wolf Creek scenario. I reject his invitation, as lovely as that sounds, and drive along the Coral Sea, quite happily alone.
I am headed for Thala Beach Nature Reserve 15 minutes south of Port Douglas, but first I stop in Port for a pie. It’s not any pie I’m after, but a crocodile pie from Mocka’s Pies. Yes, plonk me in cane and croc country and all of a sudden I turn into Bear Grylls picturing myself all woman versus wild as I hand over my $5.80, and imagine tackling this beasty boy with my bare hands. I ask the woman with a soupy Greek accent behind the counter where the croc has come from and become excited when I think she says “the bush”. “The bush!” I squeal back. “No, the butcher,” she replies, deadpan. But it takes more than that to deflate me and fully sated I head on to Thala. Me: 1; Croc: 0.
Now, at this point, I should mention it has occurred to me that the very next day I am going to be sea kayaking in croc territory, and I wonder how long it takes for a croc pie to pass through one’s system and for no trace, no scent of this sucker to remain. I can just imagine a float of angry crocodiles splashing around my sea kayak, stalking me to the death. But when I arrive at Thala I discover my tour has been cancelled due to high winds. Me: 2; Croc 0.
I soon discover there’s plenty of other wildlife at this eco-tourism establishment to admire as I embark on a nature tour with the head gardener. One of the highlights of a nature tour is you learn about all of God’s creatures on the property. One of the lowlights is that you now know too much and I soon replace my ridiculous fear of crocs with an ill-founded worry about other things that go bump in the night. Me: 2; Other Critters: 1; Croc: 0.
But I have nothing to worry about, not even the giant carpet python I hear of lurking five doors down outside Cabin 42. For I am in the tropics, and while there is plenty of wildlife, there’s not much that is going to kill you and I’ve got more chance of dying of boredom back in Brisbane on a bad day than anything here. Me: 3; Other Critters: 1; Croc: 0.
In fact, the nature tour turns out to be the highlight of my stay, and I spend almost three hours with Head Gardener Brett Kelly as he takes me around this 58ha property pointing out spiders, butterflies, birds and plants. We end the tour at Oak Beach where Brett combines an element of one of the many other tours, the Coconut Odyssey, and husks a coconut for me to drink. Now, it’s not often a man husks a coconut just a basic spike and his bare hands and I find myself off in fantasy land again, this time picturing the man of my dreams, clad only in loin cloth, presenting me with a husked coconut. If there’s anything to get a city woman’s loins racing it’s the thought of a fella going all primal. I think Brett senses something is amiss and we end the tour shortly after the coconut husking. Me: 4; Other Critters: 1; Manly Men: 1; Croc: 0.
I head back down to the beach and sit at Herbie’s Shack, where I have ordered a picnic basket ploughman’s lunch and ice-cold beer. Fully sated, I crawl into a hammock slung between two coconut trees and listen to the waves. I can’t see him, but I just know there’s a croc out there somewhere. Waiting and watching. Me: 5: Other Critters: 1; Manly Men: 1; Croc: 1.
The Global Goddess stayed as a guest of Thala Beach Nature Reserve. To book your own stay, go to http://www.thalabeach.com.au
THE Global Goddess is not just about strong, smart, sexy and spiritual women, but ALSO the great men who love us. And love us, it seems they do. While women have primarily been purchasing Destination Desire – The Global Goddess, a single woman’s journey, the men in their lives have been stealing it to read. Then there’s those brave blokes who have contacted me directly for a copy, wanting to learn as much about the minds of women as they can. (Don’t ask me, we’re beautifully complicated!). The fellas have been flocking to buy this book, from as far away as Dubai, Geneva and France (thank you, eBook!), and closer to home all the way up the east coast of Australia to my beloved Brisbane. So I thought I’d ask the boys what they thought about my new book, and here’s what they had to say.
“I laughed that hard I didn’t know which to wipe first: my eyes or my…errr… nose. Hope Santa brings you something nice in his sack GG,” Mike, Yamba
“Destination Desire – The Global Goddess, a single woman’s journey opened my eyes to a different kind of travel. A more humanistic, emotional and raw way of travelling that only someone like The Goddess is able to do, yet something we should all try once in a while. As a gay man, this is the Sex and the City of my generation. Much respect to single women travellers. And for all you men hunting for a quick and easy holiday fling: be afraid. Be very afraid.” Peter, Sydney
Even from as far away as France, Gerard sent this pic (he said it was too cold to go outside).
“Most travel narratives write a wishy-washy account, but The Global Goddess has no issues with telling in detail everything – from the scenic view to the sneaky peek at an attractive passer-by. If you’re looking for a woman with a great sense of humour, plenty of stories to tell, and isn’t afraid to talk about all types of topics (from wink-wink to heart-heavy), this is the book for you,” Gerard, France
Thank you to everyone for supporting The Global Goddess this year. And what a year it’s been! I’m taking a few days off (stalking blokes is exhausting), but will be back bolder and brighter in early 2014. I have some exciting plans ahead for the Goddess, so please continue with me on this journey. Wishing you and yours a magical season, filled with love, of course.
Destination Desire – The Global Goddess, a single woman’s journey is available as an eBook via Amazon for $4.99 or a limited-edition hard copy for $14.99 (plus postage and handling) from The Goddess herself at Christine.firstname.lastname@example.org
PAVAROTTI was in the Opera Suite, a Peugeot was parked in the lobby, there was a bottle of Moet behind every door, and if I didn’t know any better, I had stepped straight into a game of Cluedo. (Meet me on the Club Floor with the candelabra). If indeed this was Cluedo, it wasn’t a bad way to start, as normally, when it comes to the end of the working week, I’m pretty clueless. Sure, there’s always a cask of Chateau Cardboard (I’ll have a flagon of your finest red under $10, thanks) but no Italian operatic tenors hiding behind my bedroom door.
It’s a French Friday, but Paris this is not. Rather Brisbane, or the Sofitel Brisbane, to be exact. And thus begins my sultry Staycation, where I have precisely 17 hours to indulge in an affair to remember with my own city. And where better to begin than smack bang in the heart, above Central Station?
Don’t get me wrong. Normally I kick off a Friday night full of optimism. What’s not to love about the thought of no work for two whole days and the possibility of meeting a passionate paramour? I’m reminded of this by a piece of art in the Sofitel lobby art gallery. Yes, I too, start every Friday night feeling like a Foo Fighter.
I begin my journey with a short tour of the hotel which has undertaken a major refurbishment since last July. There are now six different room types, aimed at “infusing French elegance with local Brisbane culture”. The décor is fresh and sophisticated and is designed to provide a sense of coming home to your Parisian apartment. Even the colour of the carpet is a little ooh, la, la – it’s not just blue, it’s peacock blue, or was that green? I can’t really remember, as I said earlier, there was someone behind every door, with a bottle of something French and fizzy.
Up on the Club Floor (with the candelabra, remember?), the art-décor elegance continues, as do the unforgettable views of the city. If you want to feel a little French and smug, this is the place to sit and watch all the harangued office workers – of which you are normally one – rush to catch their trains home at the end of the working day.
Back on the ground floor, at the gracious Prive249 restaurant, the French flair continues with an Amuse Bouche of Poached Prawn with Herbed Aioli and Apple; Spanner Crab with Celeriac and Rhubarb Textures Entrée; Vanilla Confit Duck with Petit Pois a la Francasie Main; and Chocolate, Mint and Tonka Bean Cream Dessert.
After dinner my thoughts turn back to the Opera Suite, but not of the terrific tenor (I’m not sure about a man who returns from the dead), but of a photograph I took while I was there. Blame the bubbly if you must, but it looks like a couple enjoying the nocturnal activity for which the French are most famous.
I retreat to my room where I’d love to report that my affair to remember ended with a naughty nightcap, but the thought of curling up on my own in the Sofitel’s famed MyBed’s – all soft and squishy like you’ve been swallowed by a giant marshmallow – was enough for me. Frankly, that bed could have been packed with the North Queensland Cowboys, who I was reliably informed were staying on Floors 17, 25 and 26, and I wouldn’t have noticed.
And so, my sultry Staycation came to an end. This morning, predictably after so much Moet, I looked more like this creature I also found on the walls of the Sofitel’s lobby art gallery. Never let it be said that I don’t suffer for my art.
The Global Goddess was a guest of the Sofitel Brisbane. To create your own affair to remember go to http://www.sofitel.com/Brisbane