South Florida Sun-Sentinel


July 24, 2008

Time travel through cafes

Yesterday Josiane from the conference took me to Abbotsford Convent, a 19th century complex that has been turned into art studios and cafes.

We started on the second floor at Handsome Steve's House of Refreshment, which was like stepping back into the 1950's, with a tiny bar and simple tables and chairs in a space about the size of a storage closet. The ceiling and walls were hung with scarves and T-shirts and posters for the Geelong Cats, the Australian Rules Football team who won a big game against the Bulldogs on Saturday. One T-shirt read "God Was a Cat."

We ordered Lemonade of Honor and Handsome Steve told us about the time, when he was about 9, that the Cats lost in the national championship game. "I realized there was no God," he said. "That the world was imperfect. It was the end of my innocence."

Downstairs we moved into the 1960s at Lentils As Anything, a large room hung with large fish mobiles, and ordered a mixed vegetable curry. There were no prices on the menu. Josiane showed me the box on the counter where you put however much money you think the meal was worth. We dropped in a 20.

Around the corner we moved into the 21st century, sort of, at a cafe where we ordered tea and cookies (Josiane, a flourless almond cookie. I, an Anzac made with flour and oats). The sun was out so we sat outside, in the middle of winter. The waiter who brought our tea said "thank you" as he placed the pots, and "thanks" as he placed the cookies.

Every journey is in part a quest. My quest in Australia is to find someone with attitude. So far, attitude has been blissfully absent.

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July 21, 2008

Melbourne Festival of Travel Writing

I had been to travel writing conferences, and book festivals, but until this past weekend I had never been to a travel writing festival.

It seemed about time that travel writing got its own celebration. And a wonderful celebration it was. (Put on for the first time, and pulled off with great elan, by Jackie Dutton of the University of Melbourne.)

Of course I'm biased, since I participated. I gave a talk at the start, which unfortunately caused me to miss Elaine Lewis's session about her time running an Australian bookstore in Paris (which she charmingly records in her book Left Bank Waltz).

Someone questioned my remark about the declining popularity of travel books, noting that in Australia they are doing very well. I had noticed that, actually, on my visits to Melbourne bookstores. I told him that in the big chain bookstores in the States, the shelves of travel narratives had gotten smaller over the last few years. And -- though I didn't say this -- we don't have travel writing festivals.

In the afternoon I caught Angus McDonald's slide show of Indian hill trains. His stunning photographs -- accompanied by classical Indian music -- beautifully transported his audience to the subcontinent.

Since Melbourne is the home of Lonely Planet, three of their authors conducted a lively conversation on the workings of guidebook writers.

Sunday I taught a four-hour workshop, which made me miss more interesting authors: Arnold Zable, Josiane Behmoiras (on a subject dear to my heart: slow travel), Robert Dessaix. But my students were fascinating in their own right, revealing, in brief asides, travel experiences that humbled my modest exploits. (One woman casually mentioned a few years spent in Ethiopia.) I once wrote a column calling the Germans the "world's best travelers" but I may have to change that to the Australians. (I haven't heard of any travel writing festivals in Germany.)

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July 18, 2008

Possums in the city

I've been told by authoritative sources that I don't need to leave Melbourne to find wildlife.

I'm staying in Carlton, about a fifteen minute walk from downtown, and apparently in the park in front of my hotel you can see possums at night. Flynig foxes prefer Lincoln Square, a few blocks away. And all sorts of exotic birds can be seen in the botanical gardens.

I found some exotic potato chips in the local 7-Eleven, with flavors like Lime & Black Pepper, Sweet Chilli and Sour Cream, Honey-Baked Ham, and Tzatziki.

The Australian dollar is about equal to the U.S. dollar, which makes things convenient but not very cheap. I paid $34 yesterday for the Lonely Planet guide to Melbourne -- one of their slender city guides -- and, at that price, will read every page.

Carrying the precious guide back to my hotel I passed a woman in a hijab who was pushing a stroller with both her hands and talking on her cell phone at the same time, the phone conveniently held on her cheek by her tight head scarf.

At the entrance to the Royal Dental Hospital of Melbourne I found the Toothpick Cafe, which had a nice selection of hot and cold foods, plus two types of gluten-free cookies.

This morning I woke up at 5 a.m. and the possums suddenly made sense, as Melbourne, I remembered, is Dame Edna's hometown.

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Food, food, food

"Do you know where I can get a good meat pie?"

The man at the information desk of the State Library of Victoria looked a bit surprised. I had wandered around the magnificent building -- marveling at the great domed reading room, with its warm rays of wooden desks spreading out from the center, illuminated here and there by elegant green banker's lamps -- and now was hungry. And I have a thing about starting my visit to a place with local fare.

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The man thought a while, asked his assistant, and eventually they sent me to a little food court in the bottom of the building next door, where I had a nice pie of steak, bacon and cheese.

Afterwards, I wandered up Little Bourke Street, and then down Bourke Street, marveling anew at the range of restaurants. The first street turned into a little Chinatown with traditional Chinese restaurants -- a water tank in one displayed the largest crabs I have ever seen, sort of like footballs with legs -- and more modern bistrots, like the Post-Mao Cafe.

Bourke Street had some wonderful looking Indian restaurants, full of Indian office workers and the smell of curry. Pelligrino's Bar was a narrow room with people squeezed at the bar wolfing down plates of pasta. Back on Swanston Street I passed a Chinese dumpling place directly across from a Vietnamese noodle house.

Something tells me I'm going to go easy on the meat pies.

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July 16, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War and traveling to Australia

The nice thing about the barebones U.S airlines is that they make flying foreign airlines seem luxurious.

Stepping off my American Airlines flight at LAX and boarding Qantas was a bit like moving from coach to first class, even though -- in row 46 - I was far from the front. I showed my boarding pass and was directed to the back by a flight attendant who addressed me as "Mr. Swick."

Once in the air we were fed dinner -- a choice of seared salmon with snow peas or chicken with orzo salad. Before going to sleep, we were each handed a little bag containing a bottle of water, a dried fruit snack, oatmeal cookies, and M&Ms. To help us through the night.

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I slept, talked to my seatmate -- a Qantas mechanic flying back to Adelaide -- and caught up on movies: Smart People, The Band's Visit, Charlie Wilson's War -- shown on the screen embedded in the back of the seat in front of me."

We had two breakfasts -- the reward for stopping in Auckland -- and arrived in Melbourne a little after 9 am -- about 26 hours after I left Miami. If there are any typos in this, that's why.

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Returning to Australia

"Are you done?" I asked the man leaving the lobby computer.

"I'm out of here," he said. "I'm history. Soon moving into myth."

I'm staying at the Graduate House on the campus of the University of Melbourne (to sort of help explain that dialogue).

Though this is my second time in Australia, this is the first time I've felt that I've come to the other side of the world. It's not that planes have gotten faster. It's because nine years ago I flew straight to Cairns and the heat and humidity, the lush vegetation, were -- after 20-odd hours of sky -- right where I'd left off.

This time I arrived in wintry Melbourne. Yesterday was a lovely day -- partly sunny, in the high 50s -- but the slanting sunlight on facades, gray clouds seen through a web of leafless branches -- were things I hadn't seen in years. It is the landscape of my childhood, but one I associate with the time right after Christmas, not right after the Fourth of July.

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July 11, 2008

Going to Australia

I'm leaving Sunday (arriving Tuesday) to participate in the Melbourne Festival of Travel Writing. I'll be posting dispatches from time to time (but definitely not Monday).

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The sit-back-and-read vacation

The heading of the e-mail read: "Staycation your way to the exotic." And I thought: This is probably the fastest that a new obnoxious noun has been transmogrified into a verb.

Which was sort of interesting, since the press release was about Berlitz. "Staycation your way to the exotic" was just another way of saying: "Struggle to learn a foreign language."

This was the closest any of the countless press releases about the 10-letter word have come to mentioning what is - to me at least - the obvious activity for a stay at home vacation: reading travel books.

And there are a bunch of new ones to choose from.

The Wild Places, by Robert Macfarlane. A journey through the untamed parts of England and Ireland. Got a glowing review in Sunday's New York Times Book Review.

Traversa, by Fran Sandham. The account of a walk from the coast of Namibia to the coast of Tanzania. For everyone who's said there are no more travel adventures left.

City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China, by Jasper Becker. The checkered past of a city - its vast culture and rich characters - that is slowly disappearing.

Zeus: A Journey Through Greece in the Footsteps of a God, by Tom Stone. An intriguing mix of travel and mythology.

Strolling in Macau, by Steven K. Bailey. A small, informative and well-written guide by a former Sun-Sentinel freelancer.

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Places to go, things to do

Back to the Friday roundup:

EL AL is offering summer vacation packages of 5 and 7 nights in the mid to high $2,000 range that include airfare from Miami.

If you don't want to travel that far, Georgetown in our nation's capital has a revamped website where you can book special hotel packages. Most of the hotels are pretty expensive, but both The Georgetown Inn and The Georgetown Bed & Breakfast have rates beginning at $199. The Inn's offer is available till Sept. 7 (and includes a fourth night free) and the B&B's offer is good for the rest of the year.

We've all been hearing about how hip Brooklyn is, and here's more proof: It now has its first boutique hotel. Nu Hotel - and its Nu Bar and Nu Gym - is located at 85 Smith Street (at Atlantic Ave.). Rooms begin at $200 a night (which for New York is very good).

Speaking of hotels, a colleague just came back from San Francisco with raves for the Grant Plaza Hotel, where rooms with a double bed start at $69. That's not a typo. It's amazing how one of the most expensive cities to live in still has affordable places to sleep in. She said that the hotel is very basic - small rooms, nothing fancy - but clean and safe. And it's on Grant Street right at the entrance to Chinatown.

Closer to home, the InterContinental Tampa has a "Safari in the City" package (now through Aug. 31) starting at $149 a night, with a focus on trips to the aquarium, the MOSI dinosaur exhibit, the Lowry Park Zoo and Busch Gardens.

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July 10, 2008

The beauty of Turkey

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Turkey's in the news again and, as usual, the news is not good. Yesterday gunmen attacked the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, killing three policemen.

News is often negative, because it is by definition a recording of things outside the norm. But Turkey seems to suffer more bad news than most countries.

Yet when people ask me to name my favorite places, I always mention Turkey. It was one of those rare countries in which I was made to feel not like a tourist but like a guest. And not just in one city, but everywhere I went: Istanbul, Urgup, Ankara, Konya, Fethiye, Selcuk. The hospitality of the Turks - sometimes demonstrated through the simplest of gestures - touched me in a way that has rarely been replicated in my travels.

Of course, there is great political and religious tension in the country. But it rarely touches tourists. The consulate that was attacked yesterday is a 20-minute drive from the center of Istanbul, in a neighborhood unknown to tour buses.

Terrorism is one of the sad facts of 21st century life, and you're no more immune to it at home than you are on the road. It shouldn't dissuade anyone from traveling, especially to a place where you will be received with respect and gratitude.


Photo: The Golden Horn in Istanbul with a view across the way of the 14th century Galata Tower. Tom Swick, 1998.

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About This Blog

TOM SWICK
Swick has been the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel since 1989. He was born in Easton, Pennsylvania because there was no hospital in Phillipsburg, N.J. (so he began his life by crossing a border)...

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