Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Lights

There’s a huge traffic jam just past the airport. It’s 5pm and dark as mid-night—it’s also freezing cold and drizzling rain and car windows are fogging up. Everyone huddles into coats, pulls collars up and beanies down and tucks gloved hands into pockets and sleeves in a vain attempt to keep warm. The streets are packed as families with young children waving bright laser wands meander along the footpath making their way to the beach.

We’re in the north west of England in a rather raunchy and burlesque seaside town; that in general conversation you might say ‘had seen better days’. It’s late October and the traffic and people are here for one reason only—Blackpool Illuminations, known locally as ‘The Lights’.

The Lights’ website proclaims that this is an annual multi-million dollar extravaganza of artificial lights including coloured globes, fibre optics, strobe and search lights, neon and lasers. Some are strung across the promenade and over the road so you drive underneath them and the car’s headlights reflect prisms of colour from the wet road. Other lights decorate the famous Blackpool trams with some converted into rockets and sailing ships that travel slowly and majestically along the 10 kilometres of promenade. More lights illuminate the landaus—the horse-drawn carriages that patrol the promenade for passengers who prefer the slower pace of a bygone era.

On the beach side and facing the road and tramway, enormous fairy-tale tabloids appear animated by a sequence of twinkling lights. There’s Puss in Boots, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty just waking up with a kiss from her Prince, while further along Little Red Riding Hood chats with the wolf. All this stretches along the beachfront—past the three piers and the Tower which is so highly illuminated it’s probably visible from space.

The Lights program includes an orchestrated and minutely choreographed ‘switch-on’ which often includes someone rich or famous, but most likely both, to actually flick the switch. The switch-on concert is free and usually takes place in front of the Tower, with an estimated audience in excess of 10,000. In 2010 the switch was flicked by Robbie Williams (quite obviously rich and famous), and past flickers (or should that be flashers?) include David Tennant, Geri Halliwell (formerly a friend of Posh Becks) and the Bee Gees! The identity of the flicker is kept secret until opening night.

The event first kicked off in 1912 using around 10,000 light globes and the Council estimates that it now costs over $A4.2 million to put on the show each year with equipment worth over $A17.5 million. That’s a lot of light globes.

The Lights run from September to November and extend the summer season by a good eight weeks giving an extra financial boost to the town before it closes for winter. This year it’s estimated that over 3.5 million visitors will pour into Blackpool during the summer season and spend approximately $A482 million during the Lights alone.

Meanwhile the traffic is still bumper to bumper northwards along the Promenade. Past the Disney theme where everyone ooh’s and aah’s at the enormous animated cartoons, and progressing to Hollywood with its larger-than-life movie star entertainment and celebrities old and new. Humphrey Bogart sits alongside Johnny Depp, while Clark Gable takes tea with Emma Watson (nice one Emma—but he really doesn’t give a damn).

Dr Who is up next including the Daleks and the TARDIS, though unfortunately not the afore-mentioned gorgeous Doctor number 10 (who could take me into space to see the Tower anytime he likes), before visiting the underwater Coral Islands teeming with twinkly tropical fish, and on to the finish.

It’s now 7.30pm and the entire drive has taken two and a half hours but at least it’s stopped raining, and with a fish ‘n’ chip supper to look forward to on the way home it’s a good night’s free entertainment.

The writer grew up in the town and still has nightmares about family outings every year to view the Lights. Of course, the gorgeous Doctor wasn’t included then …

In 2012 the Lights will celebrate its centenary.

Three Perfect Days in RAROTONGA

OK—I can hear you all saying it … we wondered how long it would be before Raro got a guernsey.

When I first visited Rarotonga you had to go via Auckland—fine as long as you didn’t have to wait seven hours at Auckland airport. About 18 months ago Australia finally realised that Raro existed and you can now fly direct from Sydney. So come and join me for three days in paradise.

Landing at Raro is like landing in a friend’s back-garden. It’s not the biggest international airport, and as we struggle down the steps and make our way across the tarmac, there’s Jake with his ukulele, singing Maori songs of welcome as we join the queue at customs.

We’ve rented a beach house in Muri for our stay, and hired a car to get us around the island. There is only one road so even though I’m totally navigationally dyslexic, it’s highly unlikely we’ll get lost—although trying to find the house in the dark and without road signs is a tad challenging. But find it we do and the key is under the mat—as promised.

We wake the following morning to the sound of roosters and brilliant sunshine. Walking across the tropical garden, laden with hibiscus and frangipani, we seat ourselves at the huge deck over the beach; gaze across the lagoon; watch the waves crash over the reef, and toss up whether to have a swim or breakfast first. That being the biggest decision we have to make during our stay.

Deli-licious, a little café within a two minute walk, gets the nod, and once there we ponder over whether to go for the Big Breakfast (it’s big …), quiche, or one of the many muffins and pastries on display. We sit in the garden sipping our flat whites and watch the world go by. Later on we walk up the beach and float away the afternoon in the lagoon, before checking out happy hour at the Pacific Resort. A couple of cocktails later we stagger back down the beach and fall into bed.

The following day we pass on breakfast and take our little convertible car (top down) into the main town of Avarua and browse the shops perusing hand-woven bags, hats and fans from Mangaia Island; traditional wood carvings; beautiful hand-made quilts known as tivaevae that tell of family history and stories through their intricate detail, and of course the ever present black pearl jewellery set in silver or gold, and created and designed on the island.

Lunch is at Trader Jacks, where we sit on the deck working our way around plates of salt and pepper calamari with a tropical salad, and watch the fishing boats head towards the reef. We could have chosen pizza at Café Salsa, or Pacific chips (potato, taro and yam) with garlic mayo at the Blue Note Café in Banana Court. Maybe tomorrow …

Our drive back takes us around the island, past the wharf and airport, and through the many villages along the way. We stop at Wigmore’s Superstore to stock up on a few things, and sit outside with divine peanut butter ice creams to cool us down. Further along we pass the Governor-General’s residence (nice), and pull into a beach at Titikaveka where the lagoon gently laps on the sand and there are only a couple of other people in the water.

In the evening we pass on the cocktails and instead pull out the BBQ and cook up some marinated chicken with paw-paw salad which we eat on the deck while sipping a crisp cold white, and watch the sun sink slowly down into the Pacific.

The next day we have an early morning swim as we’ve booked a Captain Tama glass bottom boat cruise which includes lunch. The boat leaves the Sailing Club late morning and takes us along the lagoon around Taakoka motu where we feel the spray from the reef, then along a little further where we drop anchor while you and other passengers jump into the water with snorkeling gear. I stay on the boat and daydream while listening to the crew sing and play their guitars. What a life! Then it’s everyone back in the boat and we turn towards Koromiri Island for a BBQ lunch—once again serenaded by the crew.

Back at the Sailing Club there’s something happening on the beach. There is a red carpet and a large heart of hibiscus flowers set in the sand. It’s a wedding! How gorgeous. So of course we sit and watch. A warrior canoe appears on the lagoon and to the echoing sound of the conch shell the bride and groom are ferried to Koromiri accompanied by Maori singing and chanting, and the bridal party follows in a glass bottom boat. We decide to take in the atmosphere and order two glasses of champagne which we drink sitting on the sand and toast the happy couple.

The following morning finds us back at the airport for our return flights. This time Jake sings songs of farewell and hopes to see us again next year.

You betcha Jake!

The writer flew Air New Zealand (at her own expense), and stayed in accommodation through www.rentraro.com

Three Perfect Days in NEWTOWN

No, not Sydney but Newtown! Newtown is a suburb of Sydney about four kilometres south-west of the CBD, and about five minutes by train, and was originally developed as a farming and residential area in the early 19th century. By 1870 tiny terraced houses were springing up throughout the area—literally two-up, two-down with adjoining walls only one brick thick, most of these houses were only four metres (around 13 feet) wide. Hundreds of these houses remain; many renovated and modernised with only their façade showing their history, while others have developed into the shops and cafés that adorn the main street: King Street. Newtown was subsumed into the City of Sydney in 1949. But Newtown today is so much more than its history shows.

Take a walk with me down King Street. We’ll start at Newtown Station and walk to St Peters.

The street has changed little in design since it was built. The shops all have verandahs extending over the footpath so we can walk in the shade in the summer and shelter from the rain in winter. A thriving café culture provides the opportunity for coffee and cake on the footpath or in the open windows, where we watch the world go by—and what a world we see.

Newtown’s population is a hotch-potch of society including gays and lesbians, and even those somewhere in between; students from the nearby University of Sydney; young public servants and corporate managers; aging hippies who have yet to move on from the 60s, and younger 20 and 30 somethings looking for what the aging hippies once had. All of them pass by our café.

Live music is coming from somewhere down the street. Ah yes, here come the younger hippies in their flowing, flowery dresses and colourful tie-dyed pants and t-shirts, singing and dancing as they weave their way along the footpath. No-one pays them much attention—it’s fairly common place in Newtown.

Revived by the coffee we pop into one of the many op-shops selling pre-loved, brand-name clothing at a fraction of the normal price. A pair of bright lime green leather boots attract my attention—dammit they’re not my size. Would I have bought them if they were? Well I could have been tempted—let’s face it you don’t see lime green boots every day …

Further along we can have a tarot reading by Psychic Sarah, or get a temporary henna tattoo for $15. More op-shops; second hand furniture shops; book shops; a shop selling nothing but buttons of every shape, size and colour imaginable; and another with the most divine stained glass lamps that twinkle in vivid blues and rich reds; yet more cafés and restaurants and finally we reach our accommodation—a slightly up-market backpacker hotel.

This hotel was built in the 1920s, and although it’s been modernised and lost its old façade, its rooms still have the original parquetry flooring. It’s three storeys and there is no lift. There is however a lovely guest lounge complete with large squishy sofas, and a modern kitchen behind the reception which also has the original old flagstone floor—worn so smooth that it’s established a shine all its own.

As well as the beautiful parquetry, each room has its own tiny railed balcony accessed by some lovely old French doors. The balcony is just big enough to take a small bistro table and two chairs that can be moved inside the room in inclement weather. Each room also has its own bathroom—hence the up-market aspect. But the best thing about this hotel is its location—smack in the middle of King Street.

We unpack, sort ourselves out, and set off for dinner. Turning left onto King Street we can choose Italian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese or the Steak House. Turn right and we can have African, Thai, Indian, Korean or simple fish and chips at a place called Newtown Beach. The fish and chips come wrapped in newspaper and we eat them with our fingers while sitting under sunshades and pretend we’re at Bondi Beach instead.

On our way back to the hotel we pass a pub where we stop for a nice glass of red and listen to some smooth jazz by a group of young lads—very talented and probably from the Sydney Conservatorium.

By the time we get back to our room it’s raining. We open the French doors and sit by the balcony sipping another glass of red while listening to the sound of the rain on the Plane trees, and gazing across the night sky watching the planes flying low as they come down to land at Sydney airport.

That’s another thing about Newtown—it’s directly under the flight path of Sydney’s third runway. The planes are so low their landing lights almost touch the roofline. There is however a curfew from 10pm until 6am when the jets wake us up. But no matter—we’re in the most fascinating place in Sydney and the early wake-up means no waiting for the warm ham and cheese croissants and hot chocolate from the French bakery round the corner.

Bon appetite!

Three Perfect Days

There was an inflight magazine, Hemispheres I think it was, that used to include an article in each issue on Three Perfect Days in one particular country, city or town. It included things to do and see; places to go and how to get there; where to eat and drink, and how not to blow your budget while you’re doing all this. Some of the places were interesting; others were just bizarre, but they were without doubt perfect because someone else was paying.

Each article was written by a journalist or travel writer who was paid not only to write the piece, but expenses, accommodation and fares were paid for as well. Apparently it’s called travel writing.

I always thought that would be the perfect (pardon the pun) job. What fun I thought—travelling to exotic and exciting places; staying in five-star hotels; eating in fabulous restaurants, and probably rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous. 

So I enrolled in Travel Writing 101—and thereby killed the dream.

In his opening sentence the presenter exploded the myth of the travel writer sitting in business class sipping champagne and being whisked off in a limo to his destination, by telling us that 90 per cent of travel writing is done by junior writers in an office somewhere in the bowels of your local city. He then went on to tell us how much money they made. I won’t upset you by saying it out loud, but believe me, I’m sure I could make a better hourly rate at Pizza Hut!

Our assignment for the week was to write a piece about somewhere we had never been and knew nothing about. So off we went to trawl the internet for information, and pictures, because you can’t have a travel article without the enticing pictures.

The following week there we all were with our travel pieces. I had been to Canada for three days, to a town called Gander (look it up—I had to …) and had written 700 words on an aviator’s paradise. I told of its history, its customs, its food, its scenery, and its icebergs. It read just as if I’d been there.

One lady had been to the Oktoberfest and enjoyed excellent German beer and sausages; donned a German costume just for fun, and joined in a knee-slapping dance. Another had spent three days in Morocco touring bazaars and eating couscous—she came home with a lovely hand loomed prayer mat. And one chap had spent his time with the Maasai people in Tanzania and showed us how they dance by jumping up and down.

And so I have decided to include in my blog Three Perfect Days in a place of my choice—I shall bring you the world—and we will travel it together.

Commercial television

I don’t watch commercial television. I’ve tried. I’ve really tried. Most recently the other night, when a few colleagues at work were talking about some show that sounded interesting, and I decided I’d give it try. So I settled down with a cuppa, and the remote—just in case …

The show started. It was fun and I was sort of getting into it when after about ten minutes ads came on. I watched the ads and slowly felt the edges of my brain turning to pea soup. Back came the show, then after another ten minutes, more ads. I sipped at my cuppa and patted the dog by my side. The pea soup was thickening. Back came the show—by now I’d all but forgotten what it was about—it also seemed to have missed something out and not quite returned to where it left off. Or maybe it was the pea soup confusing me.

More ads. This time I reached out for my little crossword book and pencil—anything to stop the pea soup from spreading, and when the show came back on I’d lost interest and reached for the remote.

But it made me think. Why do they do that? Yes I know—dollars, but why use that format. Have we become a nation with such a short attention span that we can’t concentrate on anything for more than ten minutes at a time? Do we need a break to absorb what we’ve seen and embed it in our minds before returning to it? We can’t watch something for an hour without losing track of the plot? Mind you, this particular show didn’t seem to have a plot.

And speaking of plots, and actors—were we? Yes we were—you just lost track. I watched a download last night (no ads in those) where one actor was so wooden that I felt like hitting her up the side of the head with a plank of wood to bring her back to life. Actually, you could have painted a face on the plank of wood and used that in the actor’s place. I don’t think anyone would have noticed the difference. But I digress. 

Here’s a suggestion. Run the show at length, then show half an hour or so of ads. Those that want to watch the ads can, and those that don’t can find something else to do in the interim. Walk the dog; play with the kitten; talk to the kids (now that’s a novel experience); make tomorrow’s lunch, oh no wait I know—check their phone! Phew I said it …

Or another idea (I’m on a roll now …) an entire channel devoted to ads. Run about two hours of ads, and then have a quick half hour reality show using the products from the ads. How awesome would that be? You could have cooking shows following two hours of food products; house renovation shows using products from electrical appliances; gardening and furnishing ads—I might even watch that myself given my current circumstances, or the Open University could run short courses following insurance and banking ads. Finance 101: Which bank offers the best short-term investment rate and how does it impact on your private superannuation? Discuss. 

Channel 10, you can contact me on this number: 000WTFTV.