Tuesday, July 31

It's fake, it's fun, it's Florida

Orlando lacks absolutely any authenticity, yet wears it like a badge of honour. Its resorts and parks pedal a sanitized version of almost every conceivable environment. In a single day you can tour an artificial African savannah, Europe’s cultural icons and postcard perfect replicas of America’s most popular streetscapes.

In fact, the most authentic experience we encountered was Raglan Road, the local Irish pub at Downtown Disney. The pub's reception is situated in an original 19th Century building carefully dismantled in Irish and shipped to Florida. It’s even owned and managed by native Irishmen. Sadly, the rest of Downtown Disney lacks any defining character.

We based ourselves for fours days at the Buena Vista Palace hotel, located across the road from Disney. It had recently been renovated and was offering a cheap rate in an attempt to win back clientele. We were pleasantly surprised. Our room was well appointed and offered a stunning, uninterrupted view over the lake. You’d pay twice the rate we did for a room like this in any other city.

Aside from the usual distractions we spent several days raiding the local malls and designer outlets for bargains (of which there were plenty). Our suitcases left far heavier than they arrived. We even found time for a round of mini-golf. Here the ultimate water hazard consisted baby gators in a nearby pond.

We also caught the Circus Soreil production, La Nouba, on our second night in town. As always, the production was slick, and the acts were an amazing array of skill, balance and bravery. There’s nothing quite like watching a man stack chairs and tables into 20-metre tower, before climbing to its peak to perform an extended handstand.

We spend two delightful days at Universal Studios. I finally got to experience the Jaws adventure boat ride and fend off rampaging dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Scooby Doo drove by and Popeye stopped to offer us a photo opportunity. In the neighbouring Adventure Park, we encountered the delightful Dr Seuss Land and risked life and limb on the Dueling Dragon roller-coaster. However, the highlight of our day out was completely unintentional.

As we strapped ourselves into the wild rapids water ride, the heavens above opened up and soaked us with a truly tropical downpour. By the time our boat entered the ride itself we were already sopping wet. My cell phone destroyed itself and my wallet began converting old receipts into wads of paper mache. It was also our last day in town. An urgent change of clothes was required in the car park before heading off to the airport.

Yes, Orlando lacks character, but boy it was fun. Best of all, Garry loved his enormous roasted Turkey Leg. You can’t find them anywhere else quite as big!

Thursday, July 26

The Deep South beckons

The countdown is on! We're completing last minute details today in preparation for our grand adventure in the Deep South. Tomorrow morning we depart from Gatwick for Florida. We already have our two-day passes purchased for Universal Studios and our convertible on order. We're looking forward to five wonderful, sunny days. House burglars cruising the net for abandoned homes beware - my parents will be house sitting while we're out of town.

My friend Michele will then collect us from the airport in New Orleans. We'll spend two days catching a glimpse of this hurricane devastated city before heading off to San Diego. I'm looking forward three days here after hearing so many wonderful things over the years. We've been warned that the descent into the airport gives Wellington, New Zealand a good run for its money.

I'll then be off to Auckland for 36 hours while Garry continues on to Sydney. I plan to fly to Sydney via Melbourne. This gives me a chance to have dinner with two of my best friends before they fly out for a month in Alaska and the USA. Once we've caught up with everyone Down Under Garry heads directly back to London. I'll be working in our Sydney office for a few days before making business stopovers in Shanghai and Hong Kong en route home.

Our flights home kick off a third Round-the-World ticket. These are incredibly good value. Our next ticket not ony gets us home but then takes us to Iceland for Christmas, Greece next May and back to Australia via Panama and Cancun, Mexico. I'm really looking forward to this last leg as we'll be exploring the Panama Canal and wandering through ancient Mayan ruins. Amazing!

In addition to these long-haul flights we've planned two long weekends away in Autumn; Budapest in October and Malta a month later. Phew! Time for a new hobby!

Tuesday, July 24

Blue skies over London

London continues to experience the wettest Summer in living memory. It's hard to believe that after 18 months in the UK we're finally seeing traditional English weather. West of London flood waters continue to rise. Almost 150,000 homes now under water making it the worst flooding in 60 years.

Yesterday I managed to spot blue skies over London. I was sitting in seat 6A on British Airways flight 950 to Munich. As we broke through the cloud above Heathrow the sky was a dazzling blue. Sadly, this is likely to be the only such sky we'll see this week. England has already had nearly two-and-a-half-times its normal rainfall for this time of year. This will definitely be the wettest July on record by month's end.

This evening two major rivers, the Thames and the Severn, are well above normal levels. Experts expect them to burst their banks within 24 hours. More rain is forecast and more severe flood warnings have been issued. The drought that greeted us in December 2005 is definitely over!

I spent yesterday afternoon in Kitzbuhel celebrating my niece, Nicole's 5th birthday. It's hard to believe she is already five years old. I joined my parent and my brother's family at a wonderful restaurant in St Johann. The weather was very warm and pleasant in Austria and the same today in Munich. However, a major thunderstorm came through Barvaria this evening delaying my flight home by more than an hour. This made for another long, tiring day of international commuting in planes, trains and taxis.

Sunday, July 22

The city that never sleeps

I've just flown in from another three days working in New York. Heathrow was in chaos. Incredibly heavy rainfall yesterday had resulted in the cancellation of 141 flights. People were queuing in every terminal waiting to be rebooked on alternative flights. The weather could not have come at a worse time. Yesterday was the first day of school holidays nationwide, with thousands heading off for sunnier locations.

Today's paper says that an inch of rain fell in an hour in many places causing surface flooding around the London region. The M5 motorway going West was closed as were other major roads leading out of London. Several Underground stations were also closed due to flooding. We've been warned to expect more flooding. Record rainfall in June has left the countryside saturated. Fresh rain simply flows across the surface now rather than soaking into the ground. Bookmakers are slashing the odds that this will become the nation's wettest July on record.

The weather wasn't any better on the opposite side of the Atlantic this week. On Wednesday morning I was woken early in my hotel by the most deafening thunderstorm and torrential rain that pelted down for hours. Despite the rain, the traffic and pedestrians continued to flow. My hotel was located a block off Times Square. Here the city quite literally never sleeps. After visiting for years I'm still amazed by the crowd on the street no matter what day it is, or what time of day.

The biggest news event in New York this week was an enormous mid-town steam pipe explosion. A aging steam pipe on Lexington Avenue, about a block from Grand Central Station exploded creating a car-swallowing crater during rush hour. One person was killed. The first I knew of the today's drama was at Union Square subway station. All the lines travelling up the east side had been suspended and station officials were directing commuters away from the platform.

Tomorrow I fly to Munich to deliver a cultural training workshop for a client travelling to Japan. Tomorrow is also, my niece, Nicole's birthday. I'll be joining the family for one last celebration in Europe before making my way back to Munich for work. This client assignment is an unexpected bonus as I hadn't anticipated I'd see my parents again this year after saying farewell in Oslo

It seems a life time ago that I was in Graz enjoying a weekend with the family. The lobby of Graz railway station can be seen below. Riding an escalator up into this vista is a memory I won't soon forget.

The travel continues next week. I'll be back in London again on Monday evening. Garry and I then be counting down the hours to our much needed 2.5 week holiday in the USA and Down Under. Our first stop is Orlando. I'll have crossed the Atlantic four times in little more than a week. The weather report looks promising!

Friday, July 13

4000,16, 8.2,282

My visitor counter passed the 4000 mark overnight. I installed this counter back in March last year. Over the last 16 months an average of 8.2 daily visitors have read 282 separate postings. I'm now averaging 1000 visitors every 100 days.

December last year was my most prolific month of posting. I posted 24 times during the month, closely followed by 22 posts in January this year. That makes an average of 17.6 posts a month, or once every two days. No wonder Garry tells people I always have my head in my laptop. Thanks for reading folks.

In the coming months I'll be sharing news of:
  • our forthcoming USA trip (Miami, New Orleans, San Diego)

  • a brief return to New Zealand and Australia

  • business trips to Madrid and New York

  • a long weekend in Malta

I'm particularly looking forward to our stopover in New Orleans. I'll be catching up with my long-standing friend Michele and her American husband David. Michele and I first met in 1990 during my second visit to Australia. I doubt that either of us would have predicted we'd be living on opposite sides of the planet 17 years later.

Wednesday, July 11

Soaking it up in Oslo

Most of the UK experienced record rainfall in June. Yorkshire alone experienced rainfall more than 300% above average. Across the North Sea, Oslo also reported a record month of rain since 1895 when records began. This Nordic city endured 223.9 mm of precipitation in June. Sadly, the rain continues to fall in Norway as we discovered last weekend, much to our dismay.

Garry and I joined my parents at the start of their Nordic tour for two days in Oslo. We arrived on Friday without incident, checking into our central city hotel shortly after 11:00pm. The weather dawned overcast but dry on Saturday morning. After a leisurely breakfast we selected the Munch Museum as our first tourist highlight of the day. Here we saw a pastel drawing of the Scream, a forlorn proxy for the famous oil painting stolen in 2004. The painting was recovered a year later and is currently undergoing restoration.

From here we made our way back into town, walking the length of Karl Johan Gate, considered the city's main street. Our walk took us past Oslo Cathedral and the national Parliament, before ending outside the Royal Palace which sits on a low hill overlooking the central city. We then made our way to the waterfront, encountering a second art exhibition; Steve Bloom: Spirit of the Wild. This is an outdoor display of more than 100 incredible wildlife photographs. Each giant image sits on its own display board, stacked like dominoes outside the Nobel Peace Centre.

We stopped for lunch at Aker Brygge, a new Darling Harbour style redevelopment of shops, restaurants and apartments. It was then on to Bygd√ły by ferry to view the famous Gostad Viking ship, the Fram polar explorer and the original Kon-Tiki, balsa wood raft. I'd forgotten how grand Norway's nautical heritage really is.

Sunday was spent touring the Holmenkollen Ski Museum & Ski Jump Tower. The experience was made all the more surreal thanks to heavy cloud that periodically hid the jump tower from view. The starting platform sits 60 meters above the ground, a breath-taking 417 metres above sea-level. The view down the length of the jump ramp is nerve-racking to say the least.

As we left the hillside, the rain began to fall, slowly at first, but soon gathering pace. It never let up again until our departure. This made our final tourist adventure rather sodden. We caught a bus to the Norsk Folkemuseum, an open-air museum consisting of traditional houses from all over Norway. The 13th Century wooden Slav church was a definite highlight, while the rain gave us a sense of how harsh rural life really was 200 years ago.

The weekend ended on a slightly sour note. I accidentally left my camera in the bathroom at the hotel. A quick call yesterday confirmed that it hadn't been handed in. I've lost all my photos from the weekend with the exception of the image you see below. All other photos on this post came from my parents.

The large, bright Freia sign caught my eye on Saturday as we were returning from dinner. It sits atop a department store over looking the pedestrian mall running along Karl Johan Gate. It immoralises a local brand of chocolate. The company’s flagship product, Freia Melkesjoklade (Freia Milk Chocolate), has been a national favourite since 1906. Like so many domestic icons worldwide, Freia was sold to overseas interests in 1993. It's now part of the Kraft Food empire much like Vegemite in Australia.

Our flight home was also delayed three hours. At first the weekend looked as if it would end in the same disasterous manner as our trip to Geneva last year. However, our luggage was swiftly off the aircraft enabling us to dash for the last train into town. As we pulled in Paddington, our train was the only locomotive to be seen. The sight of a silent, empty Paddington was magic. It's moments like this that money can never buy.

Tuesday, July 3

Colour my world

Overnight I've used Virtual Tourist to generate a map of the world showing all of the countries I've visited since my first overseas experience in 1983. By Virtual Tourist's reckoning I've hit the 50 nation mark. My personal count is 49 as I don't generally count North Korea, given that I spent barely 15 minutes inside this nation in 2003.

A quick glance at this map suggests that I'm not a huge fan of the tropics or war zones, otherwise any sight is fair game for my passport. I'd agree. However, I can see myself filling in at least some of the blank tropical zones. For example I'd love to visit Angkor Wat in Kampuchea and still have plans to visit Panama, Mexico and the Caribbean. Without a doubt it's been an incredible journey so far.

Monday, July 2

Eight decades and counting

Garry and I drove my parents down to Fernhurst today to join celebrations for my Aunt Shirley’s 80th birthday. The trip was relatively swift and uneventful allowing us to enjoy four seasons that swept through over a two-hour period; sun, rain, sun showers, torrential rain and just plain cloudy. I was also fascinated to discover that construction work has begun on the final stretch of the A3 still lacking a dual-carriageway. I learnt later that a twin-bore tunnel is being built, scheduled to be open by 2012.

Everyone was in fine form down south today including my Aunt. I still can’t believe she’s 80. If you ask me she hasn’t aged a day. Shirley's still the same person I recall meeting for the first time almost 30 years ago. She remains an intelligent woman who offers a strong, well-articulated opinion while retaining the virtue of a lively, open mind. If this is what awaits me 40 years hence I shall be a very happy man.

The dame in the dome

Last night my parents and I enjoyed an incredible music experience at the new O2 Arena. We saw Andrea Bocelli in concert, performing along side Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and James Galway. The venue’s acoustics were as genuinely good as critics claim. Reverberation was far less than anticipated and the sound system carried most notes surprisingly well. There did seem to be a small range in the upper scale suffering distortion which effectively ruined most of James Galway’s efforts.

Mum and Dad enjoyed themselves as did I. It was rather magic to finally see Dame Kiri Te Kanawa perform live. She looked and sounded truly divine. Sadly, Andrea Bocelli didn’t quite have the same effect on me. More than once he didn’t quite nail his signature pieces. Without a doubt Anthony Callea now sings Bocelli’s, The Prayer , with far more power and conviction than the master himself.

The seating in the venue was comfortable with reasonable spacing. The facilities were plenty and easy to access. Huge queues were backed up outside most bars and restaurants running around the perimeter of the dome, much as they had been last weekend. Witnessing these snaking lines for the second time makes me reluctant to risk dining before any future event.