Monday, 20 November 2017

Sipping wine in Georgia

With 8,000 years of history in winemaking, even the French regard Georgia as the home of viticulture
Story by Brod Brennan

Situated in the crossroads between East and West, the ancient country of Georgia is bordered by the Black Sea to the west while the Caucasus Mountains separate it from Russia to the north. Until 1991, Georgia was part of the Soviet Socialist Republic.

Following a recent trip to Bordeaux, I had the opportunity to visit Le Cite du Vin, a hub for wine veneration in this wonderful south western city of France. While there I was surprised to learn the French consider Georgia to be the home of viticulture. The oldest traces of wine dating back to the 6th millennium BC can be found in the archaeological items discovered in Georgia's Kartli region. Interestingly, these relics reveal that even back then, wine was made in much the same way as it is nowadays. 

Wine is an integral part of Georgian life. As our wonderful tour operator in Tbilisi says, In Georgia there is almost no meal without wine … and vice versa. 

For fans of natural winemaking, Georgia may well be the ultimate destination. Many of the vineyards have never had any synthetic chemicals sprayed on them; wines are often fermented and matured in huge clay amphoras – qvevri – buried up to their necks in the ground but perhaps most importantly, no additions whatsoever are made during the winemaking process. No yeast, no acid, no enzymes … just grapes! And come bottling, there is no fining, filtration or preservatives. It certainly tastes quite rustic to our palate but equally, full of charm and vitality.

This region also saw the discovery of fossils of the first hominid found outside Africa. Greek mythology has the Caucasus as the home of the Golden Fleece from Jason and the Argonauts while Christian history places Georgia as one of the first countries to convert to Christianity in the world in the early 4th century. 

If you love ancient history and enjoy a fine wine too, join Blue Dot Travel on our next small group tour to the Caucasus including Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. To find out more, click here.  When on one of our private tours to Georgia including Armenia and Azerbaijan, you may wish to try some of these wonderful wines.

Map of The Caucasus with Georgia to the north

Sighnaghi is in Georgia's easternmost region of Kakheti, a key winemaking area
Georgian wine is often fermented in huge clay amphora called qvevri

The qvevri are buried up to their necks in the ground for fermentation and maturation
Qvevri buried in the floor of the wine cellar
Chateau Mukhrani was founded 1878 by the Prince of Mukhrani of Georgia's royal family
Abandoned during the former Soviet Union, the castle and domain was completely renewed in 2003
In Georgia, there is almost no meal without wine ... and vice versa!

Monday, 13 November 2017

Etosha National Park, Namibia

Story and photos by Brett Goulston 

Many people who have travelled to Namibia’s Etosha National Park rate it as the best wildlife-spotting destination in Southern Africa. Having recently taken a trip to Namibia with a small group myself, I have to agree.  

Etosha is an enormous National Park – about 22,000 square kms, or about 1/3 the size of Tasmania. To see the park properly and to ensure you have the best chance to experience the variety of wildlife, you do need to move around. There are a few safari lodges on both the eastern and western sides of the park and a hamlet in the middle called Hilali. Over three nights, we stayed in all three different regions and while the effort in moving each day is a bit of a hassle, the rewards were, without any doubt, totally worth it.  

Over three days in September, which is the dry season, we spotted all the major wildlife attractions we had hoped to see ... and in abundance. This included elephants galore, inquisitive giraffes who didn’t mind us getting close, many lions (including one with a cub), rhinos, leopards, kudu, dik-dik, wildebeest, zebra, springboks, jackals, hyenas and the list goes on.  

However, the highlight, thanks to our amazing Namibia travel guide, was getting close to a cheetah. This  was my first sighting in the wild of this magnificent big cat and, in fact, it was a highlight for all us. 
With binoculars in hand, our guide spotted a lone male about 2kms away (they have an amazing eye for this kind of thing). We were watching a lion when he said… “everyone sit, we have to go now”. We weren’t sure what was going on but a few bumpy minutes later and we had ourselves a cheetah – up close!  

Namibia is a wonderful, unique country. There are many great things to see and do but for me, the wildlife at Etosha – and the cheetah in particular – were the highlights.   

Place it on your bucket list. Join Blue Dot Travel on our small group tour to Victoria Falls, Botswana, Namibia and Cape Town.  Click here to find out details for our next tour in May 2018.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Cuba - a little piece of socialism in the Caribbean

 Holidays in Cuba are colourful to say the least

Many tourists come to Cuba to seek out the gorgeous beaches on the north coast but for me, it was the unique vibrancy of the people that drew me to this little piece of socialism in the Caribbean. Cubans have a real sense of pride in their country’s defiance of the American capitalists who sit a mere 90 miles away from Havana’s harbour.

Despite the lifting of some travel embargoes by the US administration, Cuba is still very much an emerging tourism destination. Spanish money has flowed into the capital vacuum created by the Americans and the Spaniards have done a wonderful job renovating some of the luxurious historic hotels such as the Hotel Sevilla. Set in the Old Town in a 1908 Moorish-style building, this elegant hotel is a minute's walk from Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana-Cuba and 3 minutes on foot from the Museum of the Revolution. You get a wild Humphrey Bogart flashback in this kind of place and having a drink at the bar is just a wonderful experience. 

Recent changes to private ownership laws has seen a flourishing of small businesses and as a result, the country is rife with experimentation. Homes are being opened up for home stays and others turned into family-run restaurants. Large 1950s-era Buicks roam the streets of Old Town Havana seeking out anyone needing a lift. There are no seat belts or meters and in a world so wrapped up in regulation, the freedom is liberating. From rural Viñales to urban Havana, it’s as if the whole country is slowly awakening from a deep slumber. There’s rarely been a better time to join a Blue Dot Travel small group tour to travel Cuba.  We also include Costa Rica, Guatemala & Honduras when exploring this region. To find out more click here

 Blue Dot Travel tour map
A salute to Che Guevara

The Conversation, by French sculptor Etienne, Plaza San Francisco de Asisi

Old Cuban bus

Vinales Valley in western Cuba

Beautiful old cars in Cuba

Cobblestone streets of Trinidad east of Havana Cuba

Old Cuban architecture

Take a ride in an old Buick

Monday, 30 October 2017

Panama City – a cultural cocktail of contrasts

By Brett Goulston 

After a three-day visit to Panama City, I can confirm that Panama is NOT just about the Canal!  Panama City is the most cosmopolitan capital in Central America where many worlds co-exist and create a dynamic anything goes attitude.  While the city itself is unflinchingly urban with its gleaming Miami-esque skyline, escape is never far away with a variety of thoroughly enjoyable day-trips offering diversion.

Fabio, my guide, arrives at the hotel and off we head. First thing I learn is that I don’t need to exchange currency. The US dollar has been used in Panama for over 100 years. Easy!

Day 1 we head to Portobelo on the Atlantic side of the country, about 90 minutes from Panama City. I notice the 1950s-style school buses everywhere and learn the Americans gave these away to the developing nations in the region as a gesture of goodwill.  In Panama, there’s a love/hate relationship with the US. The locals sided with them in the early 1900’s in an effort to gain independence from Colombia but as the years passed and the Panama Canal generated large sums of money, the locals resented the US owning the land and taking much of the profits. 

Portobelo is a pretty and small town with a famous black Jesus carved from wood in the local Church. The recently restored customs’ building next door is an amazing example of the colonial past.  Inside, there’s a small museum to learn about the pirate Morgan, who came to steal gold and other valuables from the Spanish … who stole it from the Incas in South America and stored it in Portobelo. Then we walk among the ruins of the UNESCO-listed Spanish fortress.  

After a fabulous lunch in nearby Colon at a local restaurant, we visit the San Lorenzo National Park and the UNESCO-listed fortress walls built over 400 years ago. You can’t help but sense history all around as you walk through what is left of the fortress – allow a good 45 minutes to soak it up and take fabulous photos. 

Over the next few days we tick off the must-sees of Panama City and surrounds. Gamboa, a national park of thick jungle is really beautiful with heaps of wildlife including three-toed sloths, whose demeanour reminds me of my teenage daughters. Highlights of the city itself – apart from famous Panama Beach – include the Biomuseo with its highly controversial architectural design by Frank Gehry. Casco Viejo, the cobblestoned historic centre, is famed for wonderful Spanish colonial buildings mixed with art deco, and bougainvillea-filled plazas lined with cafés and bars. There’s at least a half-day’s entertainment in this area where having a meal in one of the many great restaurants is a must!

Keen to travel to South America? Blue Dot Travel offer small group tours which travel to Panama and visit both Panama City and Panama Canal - click here if you would like more information.  

Monday, 23 October 2017

Chasing cherry blossom in Japan

Chasing cherry blossom in Japan is well worth it

Take a tour named Japan in Spring and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect to see cherry blossom ... and lots of it. What I didn’t expect was the fervour that came with the pursuit – I can now identify with those crazy tornado chasers in the southern USA! We certainly didn’t put our lives at risk but many of us were surprised at the lengths to which we considered going so as to not leave Japan without experiencing cherry blossom.

Arriving in Tokyo we learnt we weren’t too late – the sakura buds were still curled up on the trees, barely starting to wake. In former capital Kamekura, warmer weather had brought full bloom on some trees and we were content we were on course. 

Chasing cherry blossom sneaks up on you. To start with, it’s not that important – something to tick it off the list ... bragging rights ... no doubt pretty but not exactly life changing – but the chase takes on far more importance as the local frenzy builds. Cherry-blossom-flavoured everything is for sale and we lent our full support – ice cream, tea, chocolate, lollies. A pop-up TV channel reports 24/7 on the current status of the bloom AND its predicted progress across the nation. It’s all tied to the weather – sunshine and warmth are good; cold slows progress; wind and rain are bad as they can ruin the bloom in an instant.  A few days before we arrive in Kyoto, hoping to see the trees lining Philosopher’s Walk groaning under their load of blooms, official predictions were looking positive and we were looking smug.

But how ephemeral the ephemeral can be. Just like those pesky tornadoes in the US, we got ahead of the game and the bloom was now chasing us ... we were too early! We were walking a weather knife edge: with no blossom yet in Kyoto, news broke that Tokyo’s already-full bloom wouldn’t last long enough for us to see it ... we would be too late!  We looked into cutting short our stay in Tokyo at tour-end to return to Kyoto. We investigated changing flights, buying bullet train tickets and booking hotel rooms. The thought processes of sensible adults went … well … silly.

We started to come to terms with the disappointment that was probably to be our lot. We could come back … what we’d seen already was still very pretty … who likes cherry blossom anyway? And then we returned to Tokyo.  

Into the city’s beautiful Shinjuku Gyoen park we went and the chase was over: ahead lay some 400 somei yoshino trees, boughs heavy with sakura. You instinctively look upwards – not a single green leaf on the 8-10m tall trees … just endless puffs of tiny, delicate pale pink and white petals, straight out of a fairy tale. But don’t forget to look down – beneath the trees lies a soft dusting of the petals that have already let go. Wander underneath the floral arbour to enter a different space; wander on the surrounding manicured grass and look in from the outside. Every perspective is breathtaking – and well worth the chase.  

It’s a very special experience to be immersed in such natural beauty while cradled in the arms of the world’s most populous metropolis. Such is the wonder and striking contrast of travel to Japan.

Blue Dot Travel offers Japan tours for small groups and families. Our next trip to Japan will be in 2019 and coincide with the Rugby World Cup.  Click here to see the brochure for the family tour which can depart at a time to suit you.

Blue Dot Travel offers Japan tours for small groups and families. Our next small group tour to Japan will be in 2019 and coincide with the Rugby World Cup.  Click here to see the brochure for the family tour which can depart at a time to suit you.

Disappointed!! We were too early into Kyoto - not a single blossom along The Philosopher's Walk

We could only imagine how beautiful this tree in Kyoto would look in full bloom - too early by a couple of days!
Things were on the improve in Kanazawa with more blooms at the castle

More than enough for a traditional wedding photos

Full bloom in Shinjuku Gyoen park - FINALLY!
The fallen petals lay a pretty carpet under the trees

Tokyo comes out to enjoy this special time of year when the sakura blooms

Monday, 16 October 2017

What to do in NYC … with teenage girls

Kate, Marnie & Holly Goulston
Story and photos by Brett Goulston 

I still have my “L” plates on when it comes to parenting my teenage daughters.  At 13 and 15 they are into stuff that, well, I simply will never understand. Thankfully, my wife Kate, “gets” them but even so, we still had to work out what to do with teenagers in the Big Apple. The four of us arrive into JFK Airport late one evening. We grab a cab for the ride to our 6th Avenue apartment in Chelsea, which we have rented for the week (cheaper than two hotel rooms for the same period). 

Over the week I learn that travelling teenage girls just want to do one thing – shop … and shop … and shop … and this is particularly the case in NYC.  It’s all about clothes, make-up and stuff for their hair.  Icons like the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge pale into insignificance when shops like H&M, American Apparel, Sephora and Brandy Melville are calling. 

At one point we stand on Broadway and stare at the iconic, triangular-shaped Flatiron building built in the early 1900’s. I tell the girls it’s a masterpiece in architectural design, one of the Big Apple’s most iconic sights. They laugh at me!  Teenage girls just don’t care about this stuff. They want to shop. How dumb of me not to know this. 

By Day 4, it’s dropped to 0 degrees Celcius and on occasions, it snows. We take cabs everywhere because it’s too cold to walk or even to get the subway. We are not really prepared for the intensity of December’s freeze as we’d arrived from the tropics and our cold weather clothes are simply inadequate.  The answer to such cold is … more shopping of course! The kids can even rationalise this practicality – the shops are heated! 

Food is the only hobby I can share with them in this great city. My 13-year-old loves the burgers, the 99c pizza and Starbucks. We Google the latter’s name and find over 200 of them on Manhattan alone. The 15-year-old is into a healthier, vegetarian diet so she sources salad cafés (yes – they do exist) and we also visit a vegan restaurant. Between us, we have some great family times together over food. 

When it’s time to go home (read: stop shopping), the girls tell me they loved their NY experience and can’t wait to come back. I guess as they get older they will appreciate more than just the shopping.  But then again …

If New York is not your thing, Blue Dot Travel offers a range of fully-guided, family-friendly, 2-week trips to exciting destinations off the beaten path. Click here for more information on our family tours.  

Marnie, Holly and Kate Goulston

Monday, 9 October 2017

Namibia is a jewel of a country - Part 2

An old bull elephant in Damaraland

Story and photos By Margaret Farrell

Damaraland is a huge, untamed and ruggedly beautiful region in Namibia. We stayed at the Mowani Mountain Camp, hidden among some of the region's massive red granite boulders. The scene was set for us by the enthusiastic welcome we received at the gate, a joyous atmosphere which continued throughout our stay. Nothing was too much trouble and the emphasis was on enjoyment.

Our first safari in Namibia took place here when we headed out at dawn to track one of two elephant groups that live in the incredibly scenic area. We found plenty of evidence of elephants – fresh tracks and dung everywhere – but despite their large size, these cunning beasts are skilled at concealing themselves. To add insult to injury, when we headed back we found elephant tracks overlaying our own tyre tracks! Eventually we caught up with a solitary bull who obligingly posed for us as he scratched himself against a Mopani tree. He was what they call a “desert adapted” elephant, with longer legs and bigger feet than the savannah elephants.

Heading north we reached Etosha National Park, close to the Angolan border and regarded as an elite destination for watching wildlife. It lived up to its reputation, offering plenty of elephants along with large numbers of giraffe, zebra and deer of all descriptions. Most amusing were the antics of giraffes trying to drink, almost doing rather ungainly splits to get down low enough. We even saw a rare black rhino on a very full day of criss-crossing the park in an open-top four-wheel drive Toyota.

Our Namibia travel guide went totally out of her way to ensure we saw lions. We waited patiently at one waterhole near where lions had been sighted. Another sighting was reported, sign-posted by a herd of zebra all looking in the one direction. Imelda spotted the raised heads of three lionesses and one male among the grasses and low bushes and after a quick check to ensure no other vehicles were in sight, we dashed cross country, bouncing over tussocks and scattering zebra in all directions before finally stopping about 10m from the pride. A few quick photos and we raced back to the road before our lawless activity was spotted.

While the positives of safaris are obvious and emotive, do prepare yourself for what can be an incredibly cold pre-dawn departure in an open vehicle. The rugs provided do help but your face can take a beating as the wind whistles past. While the dust can be uncomfortable, witnessing such magnificent creatures in their natural and extraordinary Namibian habitat is indeed a rare privilege. Namibia's scenic natural beauty and remote wilderness is captivating and when combined with its great numbers of wildlife and interesting history, it makes for a wonderful and adventurous destination.

Blue Dot Travel's small group tours to southern Africa include going on safari in Namibia. Need more info - click here. 

Namibia sits in the south west of the Africa continent
Desert elephants in Damaraland

Zebra at a watering hole can be a sign of lion nearby

Desert lions in Etosha National Park

Those long legs making eating the treetops easy ... but getting a drink is another matter!

Deer abound in Etosha