Monday, 24 July 2017

Tehran – it’s not what you think

Photos & story by Brett Goulston 

I cannot recall visiting any country in any part of the world where the people are more welcoming than in Iran. This might sound like a big statement but it’s true. Within my first 24 hours in Tehran I was invited to play table tennis, asked where I was from on numerous occasions and frequently stopped with a smile, an out-stretched hand and a thickly accented and sincere, “you are welcome in Iran”. I had heard that the people were friendly but now I can confirm this is so very true and a key part of what makes travel to Iran so rewarding.  

Tehran is a thriving metropolis. The Tehran population is around 10 million people with another 2 million coming in to work each day. I’m told the city is most famous for two things – pollution and chaotic traffic – but don’t let this put you off. It’s a gem of a city for travelers with so many things to see and do … way too many to list here so I’m not even going to try! 

Nestled against the lower slopes of the towering snow-capped Alborz mountains, Tehran is in fact Iran’s most secular and liberal city but nonetheless, I was expecting it to be ultra-religious, a little backwards and perhaps even scary. This is certainly what our media will have us think while a certain US president would also have us believe the place is full of terrorists but this could not be further from the truth. Apart from the head coverings which all women must wear in public, Tehran could be any other modern cosmopolitan city with its shops, cafés, fast food outlets and international brands everywhere you look … but in this case, all set against more than 250 years of fascinating Iranian history.  

The city is clearly divided into two. The north could be Toorak or Woollahra with beautiful streets lined with trees and expensive houses and apartments. And I mean really, really expensive – our guide tells us some of the apartments have lifts for the cars so the owners can get into their car on their own level! The south of the city is closer to what I expected but certainly not down and out. Tehran is not immediately the country’s most inviting city but those who tour Iran and take a closer look will be well rewarded.

Blue Dot Travel offers escorted three-week Iran tours for small groups. Click here for more details about our itineraries.  Get in touch if you would like to register your interest in our next tour in 2019.  










Monday, 17 July 2017

Why you simply must visit Israel

The Western Wall, Wailing Wall or Kotel is an ancient limestone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem

Story and photos by Brett Goulston
Israel has many unofficial names including The Jewish State, The Promised Land and the Land of Milk and Honey. But it could also be called Iswowl! There is so much packed into this small country.

Jerusalem’s Old City an ideal starting point for any and all Israel tours. The city has an ultra-rich heritage from its role over the centuries as a spiritual home to Jews, Muslims and Christians. A trip to the Western Wall is nothing less than fascinating. You’ll witness hundreds of Jews at any time, from the Secular to the ultra Orthodox (and every sect in between) praying vigorously. It’s a sight to behold and it’s been going on for thousands of years!  You need at least three days to see the city’s best. Make sure you organise a guide - I can’t think of any city where such knowledge is more essential.  

Close by but so very different is Tel Aviv. If Jerusalem is the spiritual home and capital, Tel Aviv is the “happening” and modern city. Fabulous hotels and beaches line the Mediterranean, cafés and restaurants are in abundance and fast cars and fashionable young people are everywhere. It’s kind of like Santa Monica meets the Cote d’Azur if that makes sense.  A walk from the hotel area to the old port city of Jaffa (pronounced Yafa) is a highly enjoyable and must-do experience if you wish to experience the local Tel Aviv way of life. 

I’d read about how the Israelis turned much of their arid land into lush, green, orchards and vegetable farms. I’d seen it in documentaries too but nothing prepared me for witnessing it first-hand. Thousands of acres in every direction see Israel move well beyond self-sufficient to being a major exporter. The result is fabulous, fresh food wherever you go (except for the holy days).

Most people travel to Israel for the history and with dozens of ancient sites around the country you simply can’t be disappointed. Tourism is one of Israel’s largest industries but leading-edge technology is its most important. Technology hubs with many start-up companies have appeared across the country. Today, many countries around the world use Israeli-born technology across dozens of categories including agriculture, science, medicine, engineering and computers.

Anyone who loves to travel simply must visit Israel. Its hundreds of villages, towns and cities not only deliver on the history front but across so many other dimensions as well. To join one of Blue Dot Travel’s small group tours of Israel and Jordan click here for more information.

Map of Israel & Jordan

Dinner in Tel-Aviv

Brett samples the “best ever” baklava!

     Tower of David and the walls of Old Jerusalem

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem     

     Ultra-Orthodox children

     The fascinating ancient ruins of Beit She'an

Israel’s flag flies high on Masada

Palestinian man in Old Jerusalem     

     The Negev desert covers much of Israel’s south

 The Bell Caves   

 The Dead Sea   

Monday, 10 July 2017

Two of the best in Jordan

The ancient city of Petra

Story & photos by Brett Goulston

Often it’s a country’s capital city that offers a tourist the best things to see and do with the most important places of interest usually located there. This is not the case with Jordan. While Amman certainly provides an interesting day trip, there are far more impressive sights to see outside of the capital. Here are two of the best … 

Petra is UNESCO-listed and chosen as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It’s not only Jordan’s most valuable treasure … it truly is one of the great places in the world to visit. This vast, unique city was carved into the sheer, dusky rose-pink rock face about 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans, Arabs originally from Africa. You can see it on TV and the web or read about it in books and magazines but nothing prepares you for this spectacular gem which is best witnessed first-hand for yourself. 

To properly absorb this ancient city described as half as old as time, plan on spending about 5 hours or so. Start early in the day to beat both the heat and the crowds – with around 1 million travelers passing through its gates each year, don’t expect to be there on your own! If time is at a premium, a walk to the Treasury site is a good option.

Wadi Rumthe Valley of the Moon – is a vast desert landscape virtually untouched by humans. This magnificent site with eye-catching rock formations offers up many good reasons for its popularity …  the 2-hour drive in a 4WD makes for a great adventure, there are many canyons to explore, ancient graffiti to ponder and even the occasional Bedouin tent serving cups of tea … but the main attraction is simply the stunning scenery. Laurence of Arabia called this region vast, echoing and god-like and it’s hard to disagree. Whatever you do don’t forget your comfortable walking shoes, water, a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses!
Join Blue Dot Travel's Israel and Jordan tours.  Small groups of up to 16.    Click here for more information. 

Map of Jordan


If not for Camels, Bedouin life in the Desert would have been impossible

Wadi Rum

Brett Goulston Blue Dot Travel in Wadi Rum


Monday, 3 July 2017

Gdansk - A true gem of Poland

Gdansk on the waterways of the Vistula River

By Brett Goulston 

In the north of Poland, on the Baltic Sea, lies the beautiful city of Gdansk. This is a place where you need at least one full day to explore, more if you prefer to take things at a leisurely pace. It’s a city to experience not just during the day, but it must also be enjoyed at night. The lights in the streets and the main square are simply stunning. You will feel like you are in a fairy tale. And, if you enjoy eating outside in a square as opposed to inside in a restaurant, there may be no better place than Gdansk’s old town squares.  

With its medieval port crane at the centre, the city’s harbour makes for excellent photos with reflections, passing ships and quaint architecture galore. The old town has many beautiful buildings of about 5 or 6 stories tall, lining the streets in co-ordinating colours. In fact, if you like taking photos of architecture, Gdansk must rate among the best places in northern Europe.  

It has a complex and turbulent history (as does much of this region of Europe) and is reluctantly known for where WWII’s first shots were fired! There were many Germans living in Gdansk at the outbreak of war and Hitler used this as an excuse to protect his citizens. 

Whilst you are in town, visit St. Mary’s Cathedral which is impossible to miss. It is amazing from both the outside and the inside. Also get to the Long Markets in Long Lane for – well, just about everything Polish! Regardless of whether you are a museum-goer or not, you’ll need to visit the solidarity museum. Not just to learn about the history of the solidarity movement but to see a stunning example of architecture and the views of the working port from the rooftop. 
We hope that our Poland travel tips are useful to you.  If you are not sure where to travel in Poland why not join Blue Dot Travel. Click here for our small group Baltic tour itinerary.

Map of Baltic countries

An old Baltic beauty

Wonderful reflections of Gdansk

Gdansk - beautiful at night

Cobblestone streets

Working harbour of Gdansk

Coffee anyone?

Monday, 26 June 2017

Sacred Ovoo's of Mongolia

Story & photos by Joanne Coughlan - Blue Dot Travel

According to Wiktionary an Ovoo is a shamanistic cairn (pile of rocks) found in Mongolia, usually made from rocks or wood and found on or around mountains.  These large piles of rocks are found on mountain passes, many are just built as markers for distances but most are repositories of offerings for local spirits. 

Upon arriving at an Ovoo, a Mongolian must stop and walk around them clockwise three times, and make an offering.  This offering can be money, lollies, strands from a horses tail, blue skarf (khadag) or another rock would also suffice, and make a wish. The khadag is blue because this is the most sacred colour in Mongolian culture, representing the eternal blue sky. Mongolia is also known as the Land of Blue Heaven.  Shamans were the holy men of the ancient Mongols. They were credited with special powers that allowed them to talk to the gods on behalf of their tribe.

When you come across an Ovoo you should show gratitude and respect, and to honour the spirits of the surrounding land.  Most of the Mongolian people are Buddhist. But the old ways are still among them as you can see in their festivals and customs.

When you visit Mongolia, make sure you circle an Ovoo and leave a khadag to fly in the wind - it's a delightful custom and you will leave a little of yourself in the magnificent country that is Mongolia. 

Blue Dot Travel have their first of two Mongolia tours on 1 July 2018 which includes travelling on the Trans Mongolian Railway from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital - Click here for details.   Our second tour is scheduled just one week later on 7 July 2018 this includes a trip north, close to the Russian border to Lake Hovsgol home of the nomadic reindeer herders.  Click here for details.  Both trips will include a regional Naadam festival. 

Mongolia Map
Ovoo at the Flaming Cliffs in Southern Gobi
Flaming Cliffs in Southern Gobi

Brod Brennan Blue Dot Travel in the Yol Valley with an Ovoo in background

Monday, 19 June 2017

Cape Town - Africa’s Most Beautiful City

Cape Town from Table Mountain aerial cableway

Photos & blog by Brett Goulston

It’s hard to argue about the beauty of this city, at the very bottom of the African continent. With Table Mountain as a backdrop to the harbour, it’s difficult to take a bad photo. Not only does it have natural beauty, it’s packed with things to see and do for all ages. It is not difficult to fill four or five days – or more, sight seeing in Cape Town South Africa. 

Cape Town has become a safe destination for the traveller, providing you stay in the right area. The V&A Harbour precinct (Victoria & Alexander) has a large police and private security presence. The reputation was not great going back 10 years or more but you certainly feel safe these days. 

Most of the tourist action is at V&A which was completely refurbished about 5 years ago. There are many wonderful shops selling local products, markets, great restaurants (complete with views), cafes and buskers galore. People watching is a great pastime in this area, especially given the fact that it is not expensive to sit, eat and drink when compared to home! 

On your trip make sure you take the cable car to the national park at the top of Table Mountain. The views are to die for and there’s some highly enjoyable short walks. A half-day ferry trip to Robben Island where the great Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison is also worth the money and the effort. There are multiple ferry services each day. Plus, Cape Town also has some interesting museums. One worthy of special mention is called  District Six. It documents how the locals (mainly poorer, black citizens) were  forcibly removed from their homes to make way for a new business district in the 1970’s during the apartheid period. 

Leave the city for day trips to the “winelands” where both food and wine will want you coming back for more. Paarl, Franshhoek and Stelenbosch are all worth visiting and can be done together in one day. A full day Cape Town tour is also a great way to see the local region. You’ll see a lot of wildlife (seals, penguins and more) plus pretty colonial towns like Simon's Town which is great for a lunch stop - fish & chips by the water.  

Finally, for the real adventure seekers, shark cage diving at Hermanus – about two hours drive – will get the adrenaline rushing. If you survive, it makes for a great dinner party story!  So you can see there are plenty of things to do in Cape Town. 

Click here for more information about Blue Dot Travel's small group wildlife safari tour which also takes in Cape Town. 

Map of Cape Town and surrounding areas
Cape Town with Table Mountain in background

Table Mountain aerial cableway

Rock hyrax commonly called a dassie

Robben Island with Brett & Holly Goulston

Baboon living in the Table Mountain national park

Cape of Good Hope - the most south-western point of the African continent

Local seal off Simon's Town

Central Hotel Simon's town

African penguin at Simon's Town