Sunday, March 26

Standing in the shadow of Hitler

Owning a toy company involves a few unavoidable commitments.  One of these includes meeting our key suppliers face to face at least once a year.  The annual Spielwarenmesse, or Toy Fair, in Nuremberg provides an ideal opportunity to meet with many of them in a single journey. 

Garry and I made our second pilgrim to the city in early February.  Along the way we stopped briefly in New York to meet with several suppliers who weren’t attending Nuremberg.  Unlike our first trip to this event this year we felt more in control of the experience.  We knew what to expect and were arriving with another year of exceptional results under our belt.

The fair is an incredible event.  It’s the largest trade show for toy industry in the world.  Every year over a period of six days almost 3000 exhibitors from 60 countries present their products. More than 54% of its attendees are international visitors.  The event fills 17 enormous exhibition halls, many of which are dedicated to promoting a single toy genre.

It was an exhausting time.  We met with suppliers every day.  We walked many of its cavernous halls in search of new suppliers.  Our evenings were then filled by suppliers keen to entertain us and facilitate introductions to new industry contacts.  On reflection we’re glad we scheduled our arrival in Nuremberg to include a full day to rest and recover from jet lag before the madness began.

We spent part of our free day visiting some of the city’s famous sights.  Nuremberg has a fascinating history.  It’s been associated with toy manufacturing for more than 600 years which explains why the fair is held here each year.  However, Nuremberg is better known for its place in the Holy Roman Empire.  It’s been called the empire’s unofficial capital as its Imperial Diet (Reichstag) and courts met at Nuremberg Castle.

In more recent times Nuremberg is renowned for its infamous association with the Nazi Germany era. The Nazi Party chose the city to be the site of huge Nazi Party conventions in part to emulate the Holy Roman Empire historical gathering.  These massive conventions, known as the Nuremberg rallies, were held in the city in 1927, 1929 and annually between 1933 and 1938.

Garry and I visited the Dokumentationszentrum (Documentation Centre), a museum that documents the city’s Nazi era.  It’s housed in the north wing of the partly finished Kongresshalle (Congress Hall).  The exhibition is a fascinating exhibit.  We spent several hours there learning more about this extraordinary period of Germany history. 

Afterwards we walked to the nearby Zeppelinfeld, where most of the big Nazi parades, rallies and events took place. It is fronted by a 350m-long grandstand, the Zeppelintrib├╝ne, where you can still stand on the very balcony from where Hitler incited the masses. It’s an odd sensation to stand here and recall the dramatic black and movie newsreels that captured these rallies.

We then made our way back into the old city and spent time wandering the castle grounds, admiring the view across its red tile rooves and exploring the old town’s narrow cobblestone laneways.  Last year we’d hoped to do this but soon found our days filled with trade show activities.  We’re glad we made time for a short break as the days that followed were even more frantic than those in 2016.

Sunday, February 12

Back in DC

Our business trip to New York originally included a stop in Philadelphia to meet with one of our key suppliers.  However, some last minute changes resulted in them travelling up to New York to meet us.  As a result we found ourselves with 48 hours to spare while waiting for our transfer flights to Nuremberg.

On a whim Garry and I decided to hire a car and drive to Washington DC for a whirlwind tour.  We left New York about 9:30pm and eventually reached our hotel shortly before 2am.  Garry can now boast of driving through Manhattan at night.  Getting out of the city proved relatively easy. Likewise, Washington DC was equally easy to navigate.

DC was bitterly cold…! After a lazy morning resting from our late night arrival we took a walking tour through the Mall.  Our route started at the Lincoln Memorial before finishing with an afternoon at the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Along the way we visited the new Martin Luther King Jr memorial.

Garry and I were last in Washington DC in 2005.  We visited the city while on our way to start our expat adventures in London.  It was wonderful to see this city again a decade later.  Washington DC is a timeline place.  In many respects it looks no different despite the passage of time. 

The inauguration of Donald Trump happened the week before our visit. As a result, many parts of the city were still in the throes of returning to normal.  The inauguration platform was still standing in front of the Capitol Building, protest marchers were still crowding the local streets and temporary fencing and media towers were still blocking streets around the White House.

The African American History museum was a fascinating venue.  I learnt a lot about the early slave trading economy and was appalled by the barbaric practises of the slave traders. The museum does a superb job of tracing African American history from its infamous beginning to the history making inauguration of Barack Obama.  One of the venue’s most memorable places is its room of reflection.  A circular curtain of water falls from the centre of the room while the surrounding walls carry quotes from some the nation’s most celebrated African Americans.

Our final day in the city was spent revisiting the Air & Space Museum, plus a few hours shopping for a winter wardrobe to keep us warm in Nuremberg.  We then retraced our steps back to New York and on to JFK Airport for an evening flight to Europe. For me the highlight of this journey was the opportunity to drive over the Verrazano Narrows bridge.

Saturday, February 11

Filling in time between meetings

Garry and I have just completed a business trip to New York.  It’s been almost five years since I was last there and even longer for Garry.  We scheduled our visit to the Big Apple as part of a stopover while enroute to the annual toy fair in Nuremberg.  The supplier we caught up weren’t going to be in Germany so we thought we did well to kill two birds with one stone.

Garry was excited to finally see New York in winter.  He was praying for snow while we were there but the best we got was freezing rain.  He was rather miffed when the city subsequently experienced one its biggest snowstorms in more than a decade less shortly after our visit.

In between meetings we also managed to see a few of New York’s famous sights.  We spent Saturday afternoon visiting the Statue of Liberty.  I took my parents out to Liberty Island in 2012 but Garry had never been out there.  We picked a good day to go as the crowds weren’t too bad and the weather was relatively mild on the island.  

We then finished our afternoon with a stroll through the High Line park.  This is clever location.  The park is built over the derelict structure of an abandoned elevated railway.  It weaves its way for more than a dozen blocks along the west side of Manhattan.  It even passes through the middle of several high rise buildings.

We also booked pre-breakfast tour of the new 9/11 Memorial Museum.  This is a private tour conducted before the venue opens to the public.  For almost an hour seven of us, plus a guide, had the entire place to ourselves.  It was very special to experience this poignant place without the bustle of a crowd.

The museum is very well done.  It strikes the perfect balance between recording history and capturing story of individual lives impacted by this tragic event.  We found it very moving.  For me it added another dimension to the events I’d witnessed live on TV from a Hong Kong hotel room all those years ago. 

Perhaps the most extraordinary artefacts are the impact zone pillars.  These mark the location where the hijacked aircraft hit each of the twin towers.  It was astonishing to think that these pillars were ultimately identified from within the mound of debris that smothered the site to depth of 15 metres or more. However, one of the most spine chilling images in the museum is that of a lone woman waving for help from the gaping hole that surrounded these mangled pillars.  She did not survive.

Garry and I were also entertained by our suppliers.  Their generosity allowed us to enjoy dinner one evening at a fantastic restaurant and take in a Broadway show.  We saw Josh Groban perform in the Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 at the Imperial Theatre.  We had seats on the stage itself which meant we found ourselves immersed in the drama itself.  It was a wonderful experience.

Saturday, January 21

The Wonderful World of Hong Kong

Regular readers of this blog will know that I've visited Hong Kong many times over the last 15 years. Its been a regular destination for business trips and a convenient stopover for numerous long haul flights between Europe and Australia.  Over the years its become harder and harder to find anything new to enjoy in the city whenever I find myself stuck in a hotel room for days on end.

I recently flew to Hong Kong for three nights to attend the annual Hong Kong Toy Fair. It was literally a flying visit to catch up with several key suppliers and search for new products.  I flew to Hong Kong via Melbourne on Saturday morning.  This rather unusual route let me to take advantage of a discount Premium Economy airfare and save the company several hundred dollars.

I use to fly to Hong Kong via Melbourne regularly for business. For many years this route offered the only night flight into Hong Kong with Qantas. However, it was never a very pleasant trip. The Qantas lounge in Melbourne is the worst of any capital city in Australia. This meant that the late night transfer was never much fun regardless of whether you sat it out in lounge or at the departure gate.

I had originally planned to have dinner on the Sunday evening with one of our suppliers.  However, the meeting was rescheduled shortly after I booked my ticket. As a result, I found myself in Hong Kong with a day to spare.  After a few hours of pounding the laptop in the name of customer service I finally ventured out to explore two local venues I'd never visited.

My itinerary for the day included Lamma Island followed by an evening at Hong Kong Disneyland. These are probably two of Hong Kong's most well known tourist traps so its probably not surprising its taken me so long to finally visit them.  Lamma Island is famous for its seafood restaurants.  The island has two clusters of dining establishments; located on opposite sides of the island.

The smaller of these two locations is Sok Kwu Wan. Boats from Hong Kong island dock here less frequently which means its often a quieter, less crowded place to dine.  I decided to give it a try rather than head for the crowds at Shue Wan. However, upon arrival I must admit I wasn't overly impressed by any of the dining venues. On a whim I decided to walk across the island and try my luck in Shue Wan.  

The cross island walk takes about 1.5 hours and covers a distance of about 8km. Unlike most "bush walks" the track is actually a concrete paved trail for most of its length. Much of the track is shaded which makes it a less arduous trek in Hong Kong's often steamy climate.  It also offers plenty of scenic vantage points which by Hong Kong standards are relatively free of humanity's visual clutter.

As I reached Shue Wan I found myself equally unimpressed by the dining options available.  I'm sure if you're a local you know which restaurants offer the best seafood.  However, for the uninitiated its main street filled with ramshackle venues simply felt like the perfect breeding ground for a nasty dose of botulism.  I decided to skip a late lunch and try my luck with an early dinner at Disneyland.

They say Hong Kong Disneyland is the Disney Corporation's smallest theme park.  However, my visit seemed to be perfectly timed as the crowds were relatively light.  Waiting times for rides were generally less than ten minutes and I never felt jostled by the surrounding crowd.  I had a wonderful evening reliving some of my favourite Disneyland rides. The only disappointment?  It's A Small World was closed for a private function. I simply love this uber kitsch ride with its stereotype cultural figurines and clunky robotic icons. 

I stayed in the park until the night time parade down Main Street, followed by the popular firework's display over Sleeping Beauty's castle. It was an iconic experience that left me with a childish grin from ear to ear. I still remember watching the opening credits for the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday evenings. Tinkerbell use to fly around the castle setting off fireworks with a wave of her magic wand. Disneyland's display does a pretty decent job of bringing this cartoon overlay to life.

Sunday, January 15

Riviera Living

Last year Garry and I stayed a night at the Ramada Resort Hotel in Ballina while on a short business trip to Mullumbimby. We loved the venue so much it was the obvious choice for a return visit during our Pacific Highway road trip. It was also a convenient place to base ourselves again as we had a follow-up meeting scheduled with the previous owner of our thriving toy company. 18 months into this venture we'd agreed to sell back a small product category that's no longer core to the business.

We spent three nights in Ballina.  This gave us ample time to spend a full day in Mullumbimby meeting the former owner of Artiwood.  The 42km journey had improved significantly since our last visit.  A new dual carriageway section of the Pacific Highway had opened a few weeks before our arrival making the journey easier than ever.  Then, with our paperwork signed and a review of the business completed, we finally headed back to Ballina in the last afternoon.

The last night of 2016 was spent enjoying delicious local fish and chips while looking over the Richmond River. Sadly there were no fireworks scheduled in Ballina so midnight passed without celebration.  However, the following morning during my leisurely breakfast on our riverfront balcony I was entertained by a pod of dolphins chasing a school of fish up the river.  It was magical moment!

We then spent two nights staying with friends on their lifestyle block near Alstonville.  It was a delight to catch up with Adam and Liz. We kicked back with a leisurely stroll around their property and a refreshing walk along the local beach. Adam and Liz really are living the dream. Before we knew it, the time had come to head back south. I also had to be back in Sydney by Friday as I had flights booked for a business trip to Hong Kong the following morning.

We decided to drive as far south as we could then stop for a couple of nights to rest and relax before tackling the traffic heading into Sydney. On a whim we decided to book ourselves into the Ibis Styles at Harrington Waters near Forster. This proved to be a clever decision. It took more than six hours of driving before we finally reached the venue in the early evening. Garry and I were both over it by the time we arrived.

However, the long day meant we'd put behind us all of the Pacific Highway that's yet to be converted to dual carriageway.  We were also excited to watch the car's odometer click over 4000kms.  We drove the vehicle off the lot 15 months ago with less than 5km on the clock. We still think its the best vehicle we've ever owned.

Harrington Waters was truly idyllic. Our hotel room looked out over the Manning River where pelicans and other bird life spent their time fishing directly opposite our first floor balcony. Harrington Rivers was a hidden gem.  Its been quietly transformed into a upmarket retirement community with some superb facilities and features some amazing waterfront homes. Our hotel was next door to a lively Irish Pub where we ate a complimentary breakfast.  A compact nine hole golf course was also within walking distance.

We loved the location so much we actually spent time talking with the local real estate agent about investment properties in the area. We're clearly use to Sydney house prices.  The cost a very decent homes in the area was barely a fifth the cost of our Sydney apartment.  While we're not in the market for a retirement property just yet, the location and its facilities have probably set the benchmark for anything we might consider in the future.