A patch of Pacific bliss called Pele

Carefree Pacific tunes waft under the palms, capturing the essence of Pele Island. This is where the locals go to get away from the traffic noise and bustle of Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu.

Pele island "chief"

Welcome to Pele

To reach Pele I first catch a bus to the north of Efate Island and, on the way, have superb views of Mele Bay, a popular dive location.

From Emua Wharf in the north it’s a short boat ride across the Natasiriki Passage to the island of Pele. A nascent village-based tourism initiative on this and the neighbouring island of Nguna mean there’s rudimentary overnight accommodation, but no electricity or hot water.

You need take a torch, mosquito repellent and anything else you think you might need because all there is to buy on Pele are coconut shell souvenirs and seed necklaces. It’s a great idea to take pens, pencils and notebooks for the kids at the island kindergarten and primary school.

IMG_0490Piliura beach is the spot most day trippers visit and there are masks and flippers available. A boat takes me out to snorkel above coral in gin-clear water some 200 metres offshore. An abundance of colourful fish hover among the various corals and dart through submarine canyons. But I also see lots of crown-of-thorns starfish. The encroachment of these coral killing creatures is a scourge that Pele’s villagers battle constantly.

Piliura has a thatched dining area with kitchen and two western-style toilets, a couple of crude concrete houses and a secluded bungalow among trees further along the beach. Visitors may also stay at Worasifiu village, in the island’s south, where Napanga Bungalows owner Kenneth Talang provides meals of fish, coconut and fruit for those renting his has two brightly painted cottages. There are two more guest bungalows at nearby Laonamoa and another at Worearu on the island’s northwest tip with views of Nguna.

IMG_0501While wandering along a deserted beach I notice this warning sign in Pidgin nailed to a coconut palm. It says “Don’t kill turtles!” Both the hawksbill and green turtle are reportedly in decline in Vanuatu.

Pele and Nguna are Marine Protected Areas with certain sections of village-owned reefs off-limits to fishing.

Grassroots conservation also protects mangrove forests, inter-tidal lagoons and sea grass beds and each community plays a role in surveying reefs, protecting coral and tagging turtles.

Pele’s intrinsic charm is a total absence of agenda. Once here it’s do as you wish …. laze about, doze in the shade, ramble, meet the locals, paddle a canoe, swim and snorkle. There’s only one rule on the island: take it easy.

The island band

The island band

* The cheapest way to reach Pele Island is via public transport to Emua Wharf, departing every week day afternoon from the Hua Store in Port Vila (near the police station). The truck and subsequent boat ride costs about 1000 vatu (approx $11).

* An enterprising indigenous tour company offers day trips to Pele including snorkeling and lunch. Contact Evergreen Vanuatu, Phone +678 25418, fax: +678 23045, email: sales@evergreen.com.vu




Hot wheels Arabia

Abu Dhabi V&TWaves of superheated air shimmer above the surrounding ocean of sand as our 4WD ploughs along the flank of a massive dune, wheels churning, throwing a red-ochre spray in our wake. Outside our air-conditioned comfort is a desert baked by a blistering Arabian sun.

From the air, our vehicle is a tiny, dazzling white dot cast adrift on swells of powdery golden-orange sand. We’ve driven across the dusty flats of the emirate of Sharjah then on into sandy wastes flanking the mountain ridges of Oman. Outcrops of razor-edged black shale punctuate the sunbaked landscape.

We’re skirting the farthest eastern edge of the Empty Quarter, the Rub `al-Khali, a merciless 650,000 square kilometres of dunes and broken rock stretching way out west beyond the bounds of the imagination.

It’s said the Rub`al-Khali contains more than 16,000 cubic kilometres of sand among which sand mountains rise 300 metres. Legend talks of a land of jinns and demons. There are many tales of those who probed deep into the Empty Quarter only to disappear forever. Our venture, thankfully, is of a milder scale, merely a day’s excursion.

By mid-morning, the temperature in the shade nudges 43°C  (109F). In mid-summer, July and August, desert temperatures can top 54°C (129F) but during the Arabian autumn, from September to November, it’s possible to explore shifting dunes, superheated rocky outcrops and parched wadis of the Arabian peninsula in some degree of climate-controlled comfort.

Abu Dhabi V&T

Speed and thrills on the dunes

Several hours of desert driving bring us beneath a range of pale, blistered limestone cliffs and a vast pool of dense golden sand surrounding a craggy outcrop called Camel Rock. The Landcruiser stops on the lip of a gigantic dune. It’s time to sand ski.

Sand is not a slick as snow but a dune slalom is thrilling all the same. Tackling these gritty slopes is an amusing diversion when “wadi-bashing” – ex-pat jargon for charging about a desert in a vehicle.

In his 1992 novel The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje writes that, “in the desert you have time to look everywhere, to theorize on the choreography of all things around you.” In such emptiness he writes, “you are always surrounded by lost history.”

Desert 3

Falconer in the desert

Who knows what lies beneath the dunes we’ve raced over?  I do know is this: spend any time within such a vast and unremitting landscape certainly alters one’s perceptions. Such experiences are best told, like Ondaatje, in terms of the poetic and the spiritual.

Chilling out in Vietnam

IMG_0809I’m woken by melodic birdsong and when I throw open the wooden shutters of my bedroom window my view is obscured by swirling mist. A crisp breeze fans my face. I’m spending a few days visiting what could be considered, both figuratively and literally, the coolest place in Vietnam.

I’m in the resort town of Dalat in the country’s central highlands. Although it’s only a few hours drive north of sweltering Saigon, the average temperature in Dalat is a mild 18C (64F).

Back in 1893, when first he visited, French doctor Alexandre Yersin, a disciple of Louis Pasteur, thought Dalat ticked all the right boxes. Yersin was so impressed by the salubrious mountain climate that he proposed a sanatorium be established to restore his fellow countrymen sapped by the humidity and heat of the coast.

To this day, Dalat has retained it’s status of being a pretty “cool” place to visit, popular with both domestic and foreign travellers.

I watch from my window as the sun rises above the horizon and starts to disperse the mist. The outlines of the town, valley and surrounding hills are slowly revealed. The sight of a former Franciscan monastery and a Catholic church spire suggest I might almost be in Europe.

_MG_0670As a guest of the Dalat Palace Hotel I am most definitely staying at the coolest address in town. Constructed in 1922 as the Langbien Palace – named after Dalat’s highest mountain – this art deco mansion on a hill with its manicured gardens belonged to the French administration of that time. Many wealthy foreigners subsequently built holiday villas in the surrounding countryside, all of which led to Dalat be called “le petite Paris”. By the late 1930s, when the railway station was finally completed, there were several hundred villas set among Dalat’s forested hills.

Vietnam’s last emperor Bao Dai had a summer palace here. He went into exile in France in 1954 and died there in 1997. His palace is now a museum filled with furniture and artifacts. A few decrepit villas have been restored for use as offices or rental apartments and 17 are now part of the luxurious Ana Mandara Dalat Resort & Spa.

The best place for local colour is Dalat’s central market with local specialties such as artichoke tea, fabulous strawberry jam and a dizzying selection of candied fruits. I go really early to get the best photos of the fresh flower stalls before stocks are depleted. Among the crowd are indigenous hill-tribe men and women called montagnards (French for “mountain people”), easily identified by their distinctive woollen caps and padded jackets. The montagnards generally keep to themselves but come to market to sell woven cloth and other handicrafts.

Dalat Railway Station, VietnamDalat’s defunct railway station is an art deco gem, long abandoned yet its clocks still work and show the time in various cities around the globe. There’s a tourist steam train that occasionally puffs along 17km of track to Trai Mat and the Linh Phuoc pagoda.

Dalat is hugely popular as a honeymoon destination. I see plenty of Vietnamese newlyweds at the Lake of Sighs and the Valley of Love, a picnic park and lake where cuddling couples paddle contentedly in little pedalos and pose for photos beside brightly-coloured plaster animals.  Dalat’s Flower Garden is another popular location for wedding photos.

Pagodas, temples, lakes, waterfalls and forests in the surrounding Lam Dong area offer tranquil moments, especially Tuyen Nam Lake with its Buddhist pagoda at the water’s edge. The Truc Lam Monastery above the lake is the largest in Vietnam, and the Dam Ri waterfalls are the highest in the region.

At Datania Falls I ride a toboggan on rails down the mountainside, sweeping around tight curves as it plunges through the forest. And after chilling out beside the falls you can be hauled back up the slopes. How cool is that?

Doing Vancouver in style

Vancouver is a jaw dropper thanks to its enviable geographical location, twixt sea and mountains, and thanks also to its cutting edge in style. This city continues to impress in terms of sheer liveability and smart looks.  I take every chance I get to scour the streets and brush up on what’s happening at the cutting edge.

Yaletown and Gastown are two renowned crucibles of sharp fashion. Idiosyncratic clothing and jewellery boutiques are found in SoMa (South Main) between 20 and 25th Avenues. South Granville is peppered with small art galleries and intriguing designer shops.

It's hard to beat local styling!

It’s hard to beat local styling!

When it comes to looking good, name dropping is par for the course. So here’s a few places and brands (with web links) that got me excited.

Vancouver’s celebrated cobbler John Fluevog has been creating “unique soles for unique souls” for more than 40 years. His design studio and retail outlet occupies a converted warehouse at 65 Water Street, Gastown. Vogs are made in Poland and Portugal with limited editions made in Vancouver. Phone (604) 688 6228 Fluevog


New from Fluevog

Roden Gray at 8 Water Street in Gastown (phone 604 689 7302) has Wings + Horn shirts, pre-shrunk tiger fleece hoodies and sweatshirts as well as Sans Vanite T-shirts (both Vancouver designers) along with 18 Waits jewellery, T-shirts and accessories from Ontario. You’ll also find Nom de Guerre clothing from the US and US label Band of Outsiders. See Roden Gray

Brooklyn Clothing Co, 418 Davie St, Yaletown (phone 604-683-2929) has Hardi Hood (Vancouver) hoodies and t-shirts (Hardi Hood), Matt and Nat (Vancouver) faux leather bags and murses (man-purses) (Matt and Nat), and Mackage (Montreal) leather double jackets and fronted half coats.

In demand locally-fashioned accessories include recycled bicycle chain belt buckles and silver jewellery by Pyrrha. Half and full length parkas, bomber jackets with coyote fur hood trim and gloves are a winter hit from Canada Goose. Brooklyn also carries an expansive range of denim from Europe and US including Nudie, True Religion and G-Star.

CG golves

Canada Goose gloves

One of Vancouver’s best-known exports is lululemon athletica, which started 11 years ago in the Kitsilano neighbourhood near Granville Island. It now has stores all over Canada, the US and in Australia.

Two of a Few, 356 Water Street Gastown, phone (604) 605 0685, has select shoes and apparel for women and men. Dream: Apparel and Articles for People, 311 West Cordova, Gastown (phone 604 683 7326) was voted best local designer store in a Georgia Straight poll. It’s just around the corner from Two of a Few.

And if you intend to dress well, then it follows that you might also want to eat well. A few suggestions:

Joe Fortes Seafood and Chop House, 777 Thurlow Street, (phone 604 669 1940) is a city icon that’s been wowing diners for 25 years with its sheer panache. A grand, theatrical room with central brass bar and curving brass staircase sets the tone for a feast served by savvy waiters in classic white jackets.
The Greedy Pig, 307 Cordova Street, Gastown, (phone 604 669 4991) highlights local artisan products such as pulled pork, truffle roast beef, pig pot pie with whisky and bourbon cocktails and precise wine list.
Cioppino’s, 1133 Hamilton Street, Yaletown (phone 604 688 7466) is rated for both its Italian fare and extensive wine list.
C restaurant, 1600 Howe Street (phone 604 681 1164) represents the acme of power dining Vancouver style. It’s top dog in a triumvirate run by restaurateur Harry Kambiolis, his other outlets being Nu and Raincity Grill.