Friday, March 30, 2007

Relaxing in Bintan

Bintan is a 55 minute fast ferry ride from Singapore. But once you arrive, you are in a completely different world. You are also in a different country…Indonesia. We came here for a few days to relax after four very stimulating days in Singapore. 30 years ago. Bintan was primarily jungle. Then a number of expansive luxury resorts and a Club Med were built along the northern shore of the island, with four designer golf courses: Baker Finch, Nicklaus, Greg Norman and the big one, Rua Bintan, designed by Gary Player. Last week, it was the venue for a stop on the Asian Tour.

Once again, we chose our accommodation through Wotif. There were four choices, but we chose Bintan Lagoon Resort, since it had the most stars at the lowest price. The value was quite unbelievable, especially after Singapore. A $S420 deluxe waterfront room, including breakfast cost $S134. That’s about $100 CDN, including taxes. While some portions of the facility needed upgrading, a major renovation program was underway. Overall, it was very comfortable, with a beautiful pool and beach, and just about everything else that we needed.

The buffet breakfasts were excellent with a choice of traditional English, Western, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Indonesian foods. While I must confess that some of the Asian breakfast items seem a bit strange to me, I can only imagine what streaky bacon and baked beans look like to someone who prefers rice and soup! Actually, the thought of baked beans for breakfast is a bit strange for me. But the Brits insist on it, and it has been a regular item on just about every breakfast buffet we have seen since arriving in Fiji three months ago.

I didn’t get to play all the golf courses, but I played enough. I used a golf cart, and as is the custom in this part of the world, played with a caddie. Unfortunately there were not many people golfing, and one afternoon, Sumatra my caddie and I had the entire course to ourselves. I’m sure it’s an experience Sumatra will try to forget!

My favourite part of each day was ‘Happy Hour’. I have never seen so many different coloured cocktails, so Sally and I tried a few. We had to start with Singapore Slings, followed by Bintan Illusions, and Flying Kangaroos. When Sally, and a lovely German couple we had encouraged to join us, found their drinks too sweet, we switched to Margaritas and Kamikazes.

Dinner was another opportunity to try foods we do not normally eat. Local dishes included a variety of spicy noodle dishes, small crabs, lamb, beef, unusual chicken dishes, prawns, and lots of curries. We tried them all, although Sally always had to leave room for that Indonesian favourite…bread and butter pudding. For some reason, wine was very expensive. Wines from nearby Australia that sell for $8 in Melbourne were over $60 in the restaurant. Average wines were over $80. We decided that we had had enough Australian wine for a while.

Throughout our stay we marveled at the happy disposition and good nature of the Indonesian staff who attended to us. We couldn’t help but think how different their lives are compared to those of the guests they serve on a daily basis. As I watched some construction workers in the hot sun chipping away at a concrete walkway with their bare hands, I couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty at our good fortune. But people keep telling me that one has to accept and ‘get used to’ the greater disparity between rich and poor in many parts of Asia, compared to what we generally see in North America.

The irony is that a few hours later, as I toured the vast Duty Free Shopping area in Singapore’s airport, I started to feel like the disadvantaged. I mean, how can so many people buy $300 bottles of whiskey, and even more expensive bottles of cognac? Will someone really buy the $11,400 gold Nikon Camera on sale? Who buys all the ridiculously expensive brand clothing, watches and jewelry that are on display throughout the airport? It’s certainly not us. For one thing, we don’t really want these things; and for another, we can’t carry them. As it is, we are now over our self imposed 20 kilo per person weight limit, although that should change when we plan to drop off the golf clubs in Bangkok. However, there’s a lot to see and do between now and then. We’re off to Malaysia.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Sensational Singapore: a sense of Pride

Sense of pride is something that is very evident around Singapore. While we often hear people ridicule the country for its rules and regulations: no chewing gum in public, no spitting, no littering, etc. the result is the cleanest and one of the safest countries in the world. During our stay, we did not see any litter on the streets, despite the daily handout of flyers, and many street vendors and fast food outlets. There is no graffiti; the streets are beautifully landscaped and maintained; and every street feels like Robson Street on a Friday night. It’s a country consumed with eating and shopping, and our impression is that despite the government control over daily life, most residents feel a genuine sense of pride in the attributes and accomplishments of their country.

To fully understand life in Singapore, one has to know what goes on behind the scenes. We were fortunate in having Warren and Rilla Buckley show us around. This is the same Warren Buckley who helped make the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre an international success. For the past 7 years, he has been CEO of Singapore’s privately owned Suntec International Convention and Exhibition Centre, the largest of its kind in the world. As we drove around, Warren spoke about traffic management and sense of order that takes place on the streets. In an effort to manage congestion, some cars have red license plates that signify they can only be used on weekends. The rest have a box on the dashboard that calculates tolls for using downtown roads at peak hours. If a car breaks down, the driver puts on his 4-way flashers, and people will drive around, without honking or swearing, as they would in most other places.

While we briefly thought about staying at Raffles, at over $700 a night on Wotif, this was not in the cards. Warren suggested the Royal Plaza on Scotts, a recently renovated hotel in the Orchard Road district, owned by the Sultan of Brunei. “There should be a sign pointing to Mecca in your room” he told us. One night after dinner, Sally decided to find it, and she did. There it was, in a bedside table drawer, just under a copy of the Old Testament! Just joking…about the old testament. The sign was there.

I wanted to go to the hotel’s prayer room before we set off for golf at Warren’s club late Sunday morning. But Warren insisted we had to be there on time.“You must experience playing at 1.15 degrees off the equator at high noon”, and so we did. “What’s that?” I asked as a black animal crawled across the fairway. “It’s a lizard” he replied, adding that they’re quite fast. So was my swing.

There were no lizards at the Polo Club, at least not on the field. As we enjoyed cold drinks in the viewing area lounge, I thought this is truly an international place, unlike any other I have ever visited. It’s English, it’s Chinese, it’s ‘other Asian’, and you are constantly seeing and hearing people from every part of the world.

Singapore is an incubator for many urban ideas. Taxis are fitted with speed monitors. If a driver exceeds the limit, a sound goes off in the car, and a light flashes on the roof. Most transit riders have an easy to use pre-paid plastic card. It calculates fares based on the distance traveled, and can be topped up as required. Most people live in housing built by the government, although there is plenty of private housing for the rich.

And there are plenty of rich people. While we were here, a newspaper story reported that the salaries of government ministers and senior officials were falling behind those of the private sector. And so they would be increased, from $S1.2 million to $S2.2 million. Even with the exchange rate, it’s a lot of money (1$S=.76$Cdn.)

As for the price of housing, last week a new project in the Orchard Road district, near our hotel sold for a record $4,000 a square foot. (Thanks be to God)

Since I was here about 10 years ago, there have been many new developments. There is a new Concert Hall, the design of which is inspired by the durian fruit; and some very tall, and high density buildings in the financial district.

While many of the older neighbourhoods have been redeveloped, those that do remain are very interesting, and many are being renovated. I particularly liked the building at the end of this posting, with the coloured shutters.

In talking to Warren and Rilla, we agreed that there are many aspects of life in Singapore that should be transferred to Canada. At the same time, there is a level of government control that we can do without. “There has to be a middle ground” said Rilla, and we agreed. But at the moment, I would gladly accept many of Singapore’s edicts if it would help clean up Vancouver, and bring about the high level of safety, the reduced level of crime, and the overall sense of pride enjoyed by Rilla’s neighbours and the other residents of this sensational city state.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Melbourne…tied for No 1

with Vancouver, as the most livable city in the world. At least, that’s what we’re told in Vancouver. But while most Melbourne residents are aware of their city’s status as the best city in the world in which to live, they aren’t aware of Vancouver’s place on the list. It’s interesting to compare the two cities.
One of the best ways to see Melbourne is from the river, and so we booked a river cruise that took us through the CBD, the port, and out towards some of the parks and gardens.
It’s a very impressive city with a surprising number of grand Victorian and Edwardian buildings and arcades; some exceptionally striking new developments along the riverfront;

four different venues with retractable roofs; a major cultural complex in the city centre; and extensive shopping and park areas. While we were there, it was difficult to arrange accommodation in the city due to the number of events taking place, including an international swimming competition, and the Formula One Car Race. (We experienced the latter when we made a wrong turn trying to return the car to Avis Rentals, and ended up on the track!)

Although it is difficult to assess a city’s ‘livability’ from a brief visit, and despite our pride in Vancouver, we think the judges must have been smoking some pretty good Vancouver weed when they decided our two cities are equal!

We stayed at St. Kilda’s, a vibrant inner-city suburb on the water, a short tram ride from the downtown. Melbourne managed to keep most of its streetcar lines, and we had no difficulty getting around on transit. My only regret is that we didn’t take the dinner tram, which offers fine dining on heritage trams as they travel around the city. Instead, we ate along Fitzroy Street, which in places is a continuous parade of restaurants, mostly with a Mediterranean flavour. (Apparently Melbourne has the largest population of Greeks, outside of Greece!) The temperature was warm, although local residents told us the city can experience four seasons in one day. However, by the sound of things, none of them are similar to Vancouver in March 07!

We would like to have spent more time visiting the various neighbourhoods and the galleries, but we were eager to get to Singapore. So after a couple of hours of eating and drinking exceptional Australian wines in the Emirates lounge, we boarded the 7 ½ hour flight at 8:30 in the evening. I couldn’t understand why we were leaving so late, until I learned that most of the people on the flight were going to Dubai or London. But at 1:30 in the morning, we were happy to get off in Singapore, and into a waiting black Mercedes organized by Emirates, and headed off into the bright lights of the city. But we didn’t go too fast, since some Singapore taxis are fitted with a rooftop light that flashes if the vehicle is driving too quickly.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Happy Birthday, Jim

I hope these bronzed Aussies will help you celebrate this special day. I also hope you don't mind sharing your present with some of our friends.

Queenscliff-where time has stood still

Queenscliff was established for the pilot boats that steered ships through treacherous Port Phillip Heads, one of the most dangerous seaways in the world. It’s known as ‘The Rip’ and the coast is littered with over 200 shipwrecks. In the 19th century, it was a favoured holiday town for wealthy Melburnians with extravagant hotels and guesthouses. Some of these remain with their elegant lobbies and dining rooms. Unfortunately, they are not all open on a Tuesday night in March. We stayed at one of the old guesthouses on the Esplanade, overlooking the beach. The guests’ lounge was a very elegant room. In the corner was a table with a silver tray and three crystal decanters, full of whiskey, sherry, and port. I found that the Australian sherry was improved with a touch of whiskey, but the port was just fine on its own.

We had dinner in the dining room of the gracious Hotel Vue Grand. We then returned to our guesthouse, since everything else was closed. The next morning, we met a couple visiting from Sydney, and joined them on the ferry crossing to Sorrento. On our way to the ferry, we reluctantly drove by the entrance to the golf course. The course itself was on an island, part of a military reserve. To get to it, you had to go through security, and along two very long causeways, connecting the island to the mainland. We had investigated playing, but decided to wait until next time. And there will be a next time.

While we spent six days traveling from Adelaide to Melbourne, we really only got a small glimpse of this part of Australia. There is so much more to see. As we were leaving Kingston a few days ago, we chatted briefly to a fellow I noticed wearing a Seattle Mariners shirt. It turned out this was his 21st visit to Australia. While we are too old for 19 more visits, we will definitely be back to revisit Queenscliff, and the coast outside Melbourne.

The Great Ocean Road

One of the main reasons we had flown to Adelaide was to drive the Great Ocean Road along the coast towards Melbourne. It is considered Australia’s most scenic coastal drive, and one of the top ten in the world. (I wonder if the Sea to Sky Highway is on the list. If so, it’s probably off now that it has been straightened.) The road was completed in 1932, and in many places is carved out of the limestone rock. In other places, it runs through forests and very barren landscapes. For a while, we thought we might not get through since the brush along the road was smoldering. But we subsequently learned this could have been the result of controlled fires. (The irony is that the smell of smoke remained in our car for days, and I was concerned I might be charged the $500 penalty for which renters are liable, if it is determined they were smoking in the car!)

Along the way are numerous viewing areas, but the most famous is the Twelve Apostles, referring to twelve giant rocks in the ocean. Unfortunately, one of the Apostles collapsed in 2005, so now there are only eleven left, but who’s counting. (It’s difficult to see them all at the same time, anyway.) To enhance the viewing experience, the State government has built a small information centre and underpass beneath the highway. It is really quite well done, with the centre’s metal roof a coloured patchwork to match the surrounding vegetation.

We arrived as the sun was setting, but didn’t want to stay for the sunset, since we still had an hour’s drive to Apollo Bay, our destination for the night. Sally doesn’t like driving at night in Australia. It’s because of the kangaroos and wambats. They come out in the evening and hang around the middle of the road. People who do a lot of night driving often have large ‘Roo Bars’ mounted on the front of their vehicles. But our new red Camry was not so equipped. So we missed more dramatic sunsets, but managed to make it to Apollo Bay before all of the rooms were booked, and before all the restaurants had closed. People tend to eat much earlier in this part of Australia.

We had planned to leave immediately after breakfast, so we would have plenty of time to explore the many sights along the road. But before setting off, I went to buy some postcards. I found one of the town…with a golf course featured prominently along the ocean. The course was off the main road, so we had missed it when we arrived. The newsagent told us it was only nine holes, and that was all we needed to hear. We joined Frances and Noelle from Melbourne. Noelle said she didn’t play golf, she just enjoyed the walk. Sally said she was the same. But when Noelle didn’t tee off, we realized she wasn’t joking. She really was along just for the walk.

Interestingly, as visitors we were not allowed to play the same tee boxes as the members. Frances explained that this is common on some courses in Australia with small tee boxes. Otherwise, too much wear and tear interferes with the members’ enjoyment of the course. While the layout didn’t compare with Port Fairy, it did have scenic views and was time well spent.

From Apollo Bay we drove to Lorne, which was very disappointing. Developers have ruined much of the waterfront. We then drove through other small communities, eventually arriving at our destination, the historic town of Queenscliff. As you will soon see, time has stood relatively still in Queenscliff.

Port Fairy Golf Club

To our few non-golfing readers, I’m sure it must seem rather sad that some people can get so excited about where and when they play golf. But we must tell you about the Port Fairy Golf Course. I was initially attracted by a description in a magazine. It said it was ‘consistently rated highly in the list of top public courses in Australia. But hit straight, or bring a snorkel!’ Many of the holes are set in the sand dunes overlooking the ocean.It’s not a fancy place; the green fees are $28 for 18 holes. But it is one of the most dramatic golfing experiences we have ever enjoyed. Some of the holes compare favourably to those found at the magnificent ocean courses in Hawaii, or, closer to home, the 14th hole at Furry Creek. I am including a few photos, (although they don’t do the course justice) in the hope that you will check it out, if you are in the area.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fleurieu Peninsula and the Limestone Coast

When we were in Brisbane, we met a delightful couple on the river ferry. They were carrying umbrellas, and I had to tease them. “What are you doing with those? It hasn’t rained here for 500 days.” An hour later, it was raining! As we left the ferry together, we started to chat and it turned out that that they were Philip and Helen, visiting from just outside Adelaide. Philip had worked as a cardiologist in UK in the 70’s, and he and Sally started to reminisce about old friends. After five minutes, we were invited to stay at their beach house in Port Willunga outside of Adelaide. And so we did!

Port Willunga is a small community on the coast near the wine region of McLaren Vale. We had a wonderful evening meeting some of their friends and hearing about life in and around Adelaide. Philip was passionate about Australian wines, and like many people our age, they were searching for a new home. They had sold their large Adelaide property since it was ‘getting too big’, and the grass tennis court required too much maintenance. Early the next morning, I flipped through plans of homes they had bid on at auction, and wondered whether this sales approach will catch on in Vancouver. As we were leaving, we exchanged email addresses and planned to meet up in Vancouver next year.

After we left, Sally and I commented on our different attitude to ‘meeting strangers’ while traveling. Since leaving Vancouver, we have started talking to many people we would not normally chat to back in Vancouver. And everyone has a fascinating story. Late one evening in Adelaide, after attending the Fringe Festival, we started to chat to a couple as we were leaving a restaurant. It turned out he was a property developer who had built some apartments we had noticed that morning at Glenelg. Within no time, they were inviting us to a party at their Adelaide Hills home the next evening in their 10 acre Heritage Garden. Unfortunately, we had to decline, since we were off to see Helen and Philip. We hope that we can be more open to meeting people we don’t know when we return home.

From Port Willunga, we went into the quaint town of Willunga for a round of golf. Fortunately, the course was using reclaimed water, so teeing up wasn’t mandatory. That’s right. On some courses in South Australia and Victoria, the ground is now so dry you have to tee up every shot in order to help preserve the fairways.

We then drove a short distance to Victor Harbour, a lovely waterfront town, and decided to stay. We found accommodation at the McCracken Golf Resort, and at dusk set out along a long causeway (which during the day is traversed by a horse drawn cart) to find penguins. We learned why you must use red lights, not white lights or camera flashes (they disorient the penguins, and cause them to regurgitate the food they have been gathering for their young), but eventually we left for a roast dinner and entertainment at the local pub.

The next morning, I rose early to play in the regular Saturday Men’s ‘Comp’ while Sally went browsing in the town. She doesn’t actually shop, since she doesn’t want to carry the extra weight! I then went on a search for a suitably raunchy Australian birthday card for a specialfriend who will be turning 60 in Vancouver. Then it was off to the Limestone Coast, in search of fishing villages and fresh craws (lobsters).

We decided to stay at Kingston, since the northern entrance to the town is dominated by a 18 metre high lobster, fondly known as Larry. (If you have read Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country, you’ll know that Australians have a fascination with big things.)

The next morning, after a crayfish dinner, and a visit to the local fish market to buy one for the road, we were off. With no destination in mind we drove slowly along the Limestone Coast. If you want to know why it is called the Limestone Coast, it’s quite obvious as you drive along. We stopped at Mount Gambier’s Blue Lake, only to be told that it was a shame we weren’t there a few weeks ago, when the water was really blue. (It looked pretty blue to us!)

Around 7 pm we arrived in the old town of Port Fairy. If you want to know why it is called Port Fairy….well it’s not that obvious! It was named by Captain Wishart when he anchored his cutter “Fairy” in the early 1800’s.

We pulled into an ordinary looking motel to use the internet to book accommodation for the night, only to discover that it had some marvelous contemporary two level units with giant shower heads and plasma tv’s hidden in the back. So that’s where we stayed, especially since next door was the oldest licensed hotel in Australia. Remembering that we had had dinner at the oldest licensed hotel in New Zealand, it seemed fitting that we should eat and drink there too. But beforehand, we had to wander around the town to take photographs of a very amazing sunset!