Shilo’s Cities: Sydney in a Week

29 01 2008

Sydney is a cosmopolitan city on the edge of the Australian world, on the scale of New York or Paris but with a big and beautiful harbor, a fun-loving population, and beaches with shades of blue you never thought possible. The adventure that is Sydney could never be “done” in a week or even a lifetime, but if you have a few days to get a taste of the energetic Aussie metropolis, these are my suggestions:

DAY 1: Victoria Harbor and Sydney Bridge 2007-sydney-031.jpg

When you arrive by subway or taxi in the city, your feet automatically propel you to the oldest and most interesting part of the city or any city in my opinion: the waterfront. Victoria Harbor is a busy blue mess of ferries, sailboats, speedboats, tour boats, and cruise ships. For an unbeatable view of the giant harbor and the expanse that is Sydney, book yourself on the Sydney Bridge Climb. If you can climb a ladder, you can climb the 440-ft bridge, right up to the tallest part of the top arch. Your legs will shake, your heart will beat along with the traffic flying past you, and you will climb back down SO much more hard core. Too chicken to climb? No worries, piker, you can get a similar view from the bridge’s pylon, no harness needed. You are also in place to explore The Rocks, Sydney’s oldest neighborhood which is chock full of shops and restaurants serving mean pavlovas. One hundred years ago this was the dirtiest, nastiest place in Sydney; today it is a manifestation of architectural incongruity as shiny steel skyscrapers swing into the sky right behind stone buildings over a century old.

DAY 2: Bondi Beach 2007-sydney-238.jpg Surf’s Up!

I thought I knew what the color blue was before I went to Bondi. I was wrong. Even if you are not a beach bum, you will enjoy this world-class surfing beach with non-stop pounding waves, soft rock-free sand, shops selling sun hats, and hundreds of surfers bobbing in the flow, waiting to grab their next mother’s nightmare of a wave. Stroll the boardwalk, munch some fish and chips, slather yourself with coconut oil and bake with the topless babes, then go for a swim in the crazy crashing waves (you might want to hold onto your bikini bottom, however, as the waves at Bondi ARE NOT playing around). Walk south along the coastline from the southern end of the beach to access several more beaches, inlets, ice cream shops, and hot surfers. Finish off your Australian beach day at a pub with a nice cold pint of Victoria Bitter- there is no other way.

DAY 3: Taronga Zoo 2007-sydney-449.jpg Meerkats hard at work

Taronga Zoo is across the harbor from the CBD (Central Business District); you must arrive via ferry, a languid ride right past the Sydney Harbor Bridge and Opera House (great photo opportunities)! Taronga is a very cool zoo, a conservation haven which cascades down a verdant hillside and is home to a wide variety of all kinds of animals, including the native marsupials in their natural habitats. Visit the sunbathing crocs, say what? at the size of the kangaroos, hide your baby from the dingoes, take a picture of yourself with a baby koala, laugh at the idiotic duck-billed platypus, spend way too much time with the meerkats and finally figure out what the heck a wombat is. Catch the bird show (backdrop: Sydney and her harbor), then ride the gondola back down across the zoo to catch the ferry back to the waterfront.

DAY 4: Find a treasure! 2007-sydney-371.jpg The Rocks Market

Sydney is a shopper’s paradise; there are tons of stores and awesome prices thanks to the continent’s close proximity to Asia’s inexpensive goods. Billabong and Ripcurl are popular clothing brands to bring home (and oh-so-Aussie cool), and if you are into name-brand shopping then you will have no shortage of options in this city, especially down George Street and the area nearby. Budget shoppers are in heaven too, as heaps of warehouse-sized clothing stores burst at their seams with supercheap clothing and accessories; the quality isn’t top notch but for $5 dresses and $2 shirts, who cares? The weekend Rocks Market by the waterfront is an excellent source of Aussie-made products like crocodile jerky, gold-coated eucalyptus leaves, and money pouches made out of a kangaroo’s scrotum.

DAY 5: The Royal Botanic Garden and the Sydney Opera House 2007-sydney-310.jpg Friday Night

Sydney’s Botanic Gardens are more than a green oasis in a bustling city, they are a living museum of Australian flora. Wander the grounds and picnic by the crashing waves; go for a jog or check out the Herbarium which contains plant specimens collected by Captain Cook’s crew. Close by is the stunning Sydney Opera House; don’t just stare up in awe at the tiled, sail-like immensity of the building- buy a ticket to a performance and experience the Opera House aurally. Get tickets in advance or at the box office for operas, ballets, and symphonies. If that isn’t your thing, enjoy the Opera House from the outside and have a glass of Australian shiraz at the open-air bar next to the waterfront promenade. On Friday nights there is no better place to be in the South Pacific.

DAY 6: Chinatown and Darling Harbor 2007-sydney-362.jpg Music at Darling Harbor

Only twenty years ago Darling Harbor was a run-down, unsavory place for lowlifes and outta-lucks; now after a massive urban redevelopment it is a Mecca of Modern. It is home to the shark-filled Sydney Aquarium, the epically peaceful Chinese Garden of Friendship, the National Maritime Museum, and a plethora of other attractions including an IMAX theatre, a gigantic shopping mall, waterfront cafes, free outdoor music performances, theaters, and water-based architecture, all under the quiet whisp of the Sydney monorail. Next door is Chinatown with pink-budded trees, red archways, and Paddy’s market at Haymarket, a HUGE indoor marketplace selling crafts, food, souvenirs, clothes, animals, leather goods, and electronics, with all the familiar clamor of a traditional bazaar.

DAY 7: Get Lost! 2007-sydney-386.jpg

This is YOUR trip to Sydney, and your journey should have plenty of free time for discovering, wandering, and following your heart’s desire. You see some of the best things when you are lost! Chill out in curious cafes and pubs, explore buildings that catch your eye, amble down strange streets, meet weird people, and stumble onto new experiences. This idea of unplanned free time runs counter to many Americans’ idea of traveling: to see as much in the shortest time possible. In Sydney or any other foreign city, take some free time (okay, even PLAN some free time if you have to) to explore your passions and you will return from your travels not only with a wider world view, but with an updated understanding of yourself as well.

“God made the harbor, but the devil made Sydney.” Mark Twain

See you on the beach!

Photos and post by Shilo Urban

TRAVEL QUIZ ANSWERS: Can you speak Kiwi?

27 01 2008

1. B. Slip-slop-slap means to put on sunblock (a MUST in New Zealand);

Watties is the beloved tomatoe sauce of New Zealand- don’t call it ketchup

2. TRUE: A waka is a Maori war canoe

3. Brekkie= Breakfast

Rellies= Relatives

Mozzies= Mosquitos

Sammie= Sandwich

Chocka= Chock full of

Pokies= Poker Machines

Uni= University

Sunnies= Sunglasses

Brill= Brilliant

Krissy Pressy= Christmas Present

4. POMS are from England: “Prisoners Of Her Majesty”

5. Kia Ora= Hello in the Maori language

I’m a Box of Fluffies= Box of Birds= Supergreat! Doing Fantastic!

ABF= About Bloody Fine= Doing Pretty Well

Piss= Beer

6. Togs= Swimsuits

7. Haka. The All Blacks are the National Rugby team and before each game do a very intimidating Maori war dance known as the Haka.

8. F; Paua is a New Zealand abalone, and Marmite is the fermented meat yeast spread.

9. Heaps= A whole lot of

Dodgy= sketchy, shady

Muppets= idiots

Hangi= Traditional Maori dinner cooked in the earth

10. Jandels= Flip-flops

Hundreds and Thousands= Candy Sprinkles

Biscuits= Cookies

Capsicum= Bell Pepper

Jelly= Jello

Bin Liners= Trash Bags

Kumaras= New Zealand Sweet Potato

Gummies= Gumboots= Hardcore Waterproof Farming/Ranching Boots

11. Bach= One room vacation home/cabin

Wop-Wops= In the middle of nowhere

12. False- they are coffee drinks:

Short Black= Espresso

Long Black= Espresso with a little hot water (like a strong americano)

Flat White= Like a strong Latte with less foam

13. Tiki Tour= Headed out roaming, no real plans or itinerary

Chilly Bin= Ice Chest/Cooler

Tuis= A popular New Zealand ale, named after a native bird

Keas= The world’s only Alpine Parrot, found near Milford Sound and known as the “cheeky kea” for its overt personality and destructive tendencies (eating hiking boots and weather stripping from cars)

14. Right Joe= Fool

Piker= Someone who backs out at the last minute

Hard Case= A real character, someone with a lot of personality

JAFA= Just another freakin’ Aucklander

15. Big Smoke= Auckland

OE= Overseas Experience, a right of passage for young Kiwis



0-5: What are ya? Get to New Zealand right away!
6-10: Choice. Work on the accent and she’ll be right.
11-15: Sweet As! You deserve a chocolate fish and a Steinlager.
Good on ya, mate!

What are ya?= Are you stupid, are you crazy, are you mad?

Choice= Cool

She’ll be right= Everything will work out fine

Sweet As!= Very Cool, like “Sweet as pie!” Also: hot as, tired as, funny as…etc.

You deserve a chocolate fish= Kudos to you, job well done (also used sarcastically)

Steinlager= Unoffical beer of the Southern Island and the “Southern Man”

Good on ya, mate= Universal “way to go, thanks, cheers”

TRAVEL QUIZ: Can you speak Kiwi?

26 01 2008

The rugged isolation and incredible natural beauty of Aotearoa are perfectly complemented by the laid back, inclusive vibe of the New Zealanders.  The mélange of native Maori traditions, British influence, and a good dose of shoulder rubbing (and ribbing) with the Aussies has created a culture quite unique in the world.  This is most obvious whenever Kiwis open their mouths.

Keep track of your answers and come back tomorrow for the answers, your score, and one more reason to go to New Zealand!

1. You are at a barbeque at Piha beach and your mate Jaime says you’d better
slip-slop-slap. Quick, grab the:
A. dog’s leash
B. Wattie’s tomatoe sauce
C. sunblock
D. ice cream spoons

2. True or False: You would find a waka in the water.

3. Like Aussies, New Zealanders love to abbreviate. Can you translate these popular words?

Krissy Pressy

4. If you are a POM, where do you live?

5. You overhear this conversation at a pub on Cuba Street in Wellington:

“Kia Ora, how’re you going?”
“I’m a box of fluffies, mate, a box of birds, and I’ll be ABF when I can get some piss!”

Should you notify security?

6. You wear your togs to dinner at SkyCity in Auckland. Why is everyone laughing?

7. Before the start of each rugby game the All Blacks do the _____________.

8. Which is NOT a popular food in the Land of the Long White Cloud?
A. Lime milk
B. Bean sandwiches
C. Paua fritter                            *BONUS*   What is a paua?
D. Spaghetti for breakfast
E. Concentrated meat yeast       *BONUS*   What is the name of this spread?
F. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches

9. You arrive with your friends in Rotorua and there are heaps of dodgy muppets at the Hangi. Are you good as gold?

10. You are shopping at the Otara market for your Maori friend Steve who has given you a list of things to buy.  What do you need?

Red jandels
Hundreds and thousands
Three Capsicum
Strawberry Jelly
Bin Liners
One pound of kumaras

11. You have been invited to your cousin’s bach in the wop-wops. Do you pack an evening gown?

12. True or False: A long black, short black, and flat white are types of sheep.

13. You and your friends are headed out for a tiki tour and have a chilly bin. Do you fill it with Tuis or Keas?

14. You are all roped up to bungee jump off the Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown and at the last minute you chicken out and can’t do it.  This makes you a:
a. Right Joe
b. Piker
c. Hard Case

15. Your flatmate Ian is leaving the Big Smoke for his OE.  Will he take a bus or a plane?

Come back tomorrow for the answers and your score!

Volunteer Vacations: Give back in ’08

22 01 2008

Often we travel to relax, to escape, to calm our harried souls and rejuvenate our spirits. We go to take in the the sights, to take pictures, to take a break. But what about giving back to the foreign communities which give us the priceless gift of experience?

Volunteer vacations are the newest up-and-coming travel trend, and tour companies are making it easier than ever for travelers to eschew the traditional ‘us-and-them’ tours for a more integrative and socially-conscious travel experience. While this is an encouraging sign that world-rompers are starting to realize the need to make a positive impact on the lands they visit, there are a zillion different companies promising cultural immersion and a guaranteed warm and fuzzy feeling from all that difference-making. How does the smart traveler sort through the options?

The smart traveler listens to the experts, like the National Geographic Adventure Magazine, who recently named GAP Adventures the best adventure company on earth. GAP runs dozens of volunteer trips in twelve countries from Latin America to Asia in addition to their wide selection of adventure tours worldwide. GAP’s volunteer trips are extensions of their community projects through the Planterra Foundation, and you may find yourself caring for endangered sea turtles on the coast of Costa Rica, teaching life skills to street kids in Cuzco, or coaching soccer in Mozambique. Kind of makes that Waikiki beach break look a little lame, right?

Check out these volunteer vacations from GAP Adventures:

Project Ecuador: Volunteer on an organic farm or at a primary school in the coastal community of Rio Muchacho

Project Uganda: Help rebuild and refurbish schools and orphanages in Jinga before a chimpanzee adventure

Project Vietnam: Work in local schools and with community leaders to improve rural living conditions

Come back from your next trip with more than a tan; return with the knowledge that you have changed lives- not least of all your own.

For more information, free brochures, to speak with an expert or book a trip, please visit The Adventure Travel Company online or call us at 1 (800) 467-4595.

We must be the change we wish to see in the world.  Ghandhi

posted by: Shilo Urban

Mana, Vomo, Malolo, or Malolo Lailai? Fiji’s Best Island Resorts

18 01 2008

FIJI. Just say it. Already the visions of teal blue ocean waves, swaying palm trees, bare feet in white sand, neon-orange sunsets and frosty umbrella drinks are filling your head. The Fijian islands are chock full of excellent accommodation choices, whether you are looking for a honeymoon getaway, a backpacker layover, a family vacation, or a cultural adventure. I visited over twenty resorts on nine islands and saw many others and these are my picks for travelers of every persuasion.

Pack lightly! All you need is sunblock, sandals, a sarong, and reservations at one of these amazing resorts.


Namale Resort on Vanua Levu Island: There are other resorts as insanely romantic and extremely isolated as Namale, but it is the small touches which raise it above the rest. You arrive at your room to find your name carved out of wood on the door and Bula Bula spelled out in frangipani leaves on your mosquito-net covered bed. Grab a Fiji Bitter (included, of course) from your fully stocked fridge and have a wander around the immense grounds; chances are you won’t run into anyone other than the golf-cart driver who asks if you would like a ride. Before going for a delicious, candlelit dinner in the immense but somehow cozy main bure, hang out in one of the many private pools and hot tubs overlooking the ocean, have a champagne picnic brought to you in the spa, or maybe go horseback riding on the beach at sunset. And when you leave Namale, you will create a garden stone, pushing seashells, pink rocks, and your initials into a wet concrete block that will become part of the resort’s immense garden grounds, for travelers to admire and for you to find when you undoubtedly return to Namale.


Vomo Island Resort on Vomo Island: The white sand of Vomo Island sinks like cheese as you walk and is the definition of a perfect beach, whether you are on the calmer, swimming side of the island or on the wilder, rougher, water sports side. Just offshore Vomo is some of the most brightly colored coral in the world; snorkel or SCUBA to your heart’s desire and recuperate in a hammock overlooking the South Pacific. Cocktail hour is at “The Rocks”, an ocean side bar with front-row seats for the sunset flight of hundreds of fruit bats home from the neighboring island. After your spa or gourmet breakfast, hike up to the island’s highest point for a god’s-eye view, visit the baby sea turtles and learn about the resort’s breeding program, or return to your room decorated in Fijian minimalist style, and share with your sweetie the bottle of wine that is chilled and waiting for you.


Malolo Island Resort on Malolo Island: This resort caters to lucky, lucky, children and the adults who are paying their way. While the ‘rents enjoy fizzy blue drinks that match the bright water of the beach side bar, the kids can play in the giant playhouse and tree house, throwing around car-sized bouncy balls and stuffed animals, all under the watchful guise of the hotel’s nannies. The spa here is a jungle spa, meaning that while you lay face down getting your flesh massaged, half of the room you are in is actually the dark green Fijian jungle- those tropical bird calls are no recording. Rooms have recently been renovated in a perky blue and white theme, and your most pressing decision will be from which hammock to watch the seaplanes splash down.


Musket Cove Resort on Malolo Lailai Island: This giant resort is not as luxurious as many, but it is a center for world cruisers, and people sailing around the world tend to add spice to the nightlife in a country where most travelers are coupled off. The beach is fantastic, the stock store is fun for browsing, and the sailboats tied up are great for dreaming. Even the pool boasts a real sailboat (it was explained to me in one word: “Canadians”). Musket Cove has several bars, one right over the water offering $2 beer that must be the world’s most perfect setting to watch the sun sink into the salty South Pacific. Though the grounds of Musket Cove are large and spread out, there is not a big-resort feel and you are not sharing your beach chair and Mai Tai with the screams of children and stomps of their older brothers.


First Landing Resort on Viti Levu: Sure, Denarau might be a few minutes closer to Fiji’s international airport, but do you really want to spend your first or last night in paradise in the “Waikiki” of Fiji? If you need a place to crash when you first arrive or the night before you depart, stay at the place where legend has it the ancestral Fijians first landed. The beautiful private villas have private pools with private waterfalls, and you can take dinner with the resort’s hosts overlooking the yet another picture-perfect beach. As you watch your first (or last) Fijian sunset out on the foot-shaped peninsula before returning to your villa, you will understand why those first Fijians never left, and you might just decide to join them!


Maravu Plantation Resort on Taveuni Island: This family-friendly hotel might be across the road from the beach, but what it lacks in instant ocean access it makes up for with a genuine Fijian experience. Taveuni is the garden island of Fiji and the jungle greets you warmly; here you can hike past palm trees and streams dotted with purple spotted crabs to multiple hidden waterfalls. Return to the resort and relax in your traditional bure nestled in the thick green lawn, or come up to the main lodge and check out all of the Fijian artifacts. The bartender mixes special cocktails each night to go with a buffet dinner with piles of lobster meat a foot high and a ridiculous amount of desserts. Whatever you do, don’t miss the evening show, the best in Fiji, starring the resort workers’ children. The very young ones sit in the laps of their parents and sing their hearts out, the young ladies tell an ancient story with their graceful dance, and the boys perform a warrior chant with such passion you cannot fail to be moved, and just maybe get a glimpse of the true Fiji as well.

Shilo Urban

“Trust me, my name is in the Bible,” said Dr. Moses

16 01 2008

Whenever anyone says, “trust me,” or “honestly,” or “to tell you the truth,” they are lying. I know this now, but on a very hot June day in Cairo outside the National Egyptian Museum, Dr. Moses looked quite official with his white hair, laminated name tag, and clipboard in hand.

“I work at the American University of Cairo,” he continued, “and can be your guide inside the museum for sixty Egyptian pounds.”

This was much cheaper than the group tours of the museum, and as most of the exhibits were not explained in English, I figured that ten bucks was a decent rate for a two-hour lesson in the country’s foremost archaeological museum. Plus I was a guide in Paris at the time and knew you could learn a lot in a museum with the right person. I shook the hand of Moses, and my travel partner Joe and I proceeded into the giant building.

Dr. Moses led us through halls of alabaster jackals, past statues of scribes with crystalline eyes, around rooms full of stiff mummies, by the intricate throne of Tutankhamen, and around the mask of Akhenaten. I had seen exhibits of Egyptian artifacts before, but not in this abundance or array. What would be a highly touted roving exhibit in the U.S. was pushed into the corner of one room of one hall of one side of the enormous museum. Dr. Moses, true to his word and his namesake, told me the stories behind the silent stone sarcophagi, which important displays were often overlooked, how to discern the gods and pharaohs from one another, and how the whole collection came to be. I was soaking it all in, thrilled with my budget guide and all the awesome stories I was learning.

And then he took me to his brother’s perfume shop across the street.

Dr. Moses continued on with his lessons, as if the tiny store with two-way mirrors was merely an extension of the world’s greatest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. “Lotus oil, worn by Cleopatra, is only produced in Egypt. Amber is the most sensual of all fragrances, and clove was used to anoint embalmed bodies.”

Things were getting a bit weird in the plush red velvet room and I started to imagine my embalmed body, smelling of the finest patchouli and sandalwood. I was growing ever more uncomfortable amidst the bottles of perfume oil on their glass shelves, sparkling like stolen diamonds. Was the tea we were continually being served drugged? Did Dr. Moses and his fraternal conspirator have evil aspirations beyond selling some kids a few vials of perfumed oil? I whisper my suspicions to Joe, who replies with a chuckle over my paranoia- so typical of a green traveler like myself. “Just finish your tea, buy some Lotus oil for your mom, and let’s get the hell out of here,” he said.

So I forked over what was probably way too much money for a small “unbreakable” vial of the purest perfume oil either side of the Nile River. Dr. Moses’ brother was quite crestfallen that I had not bought a whole liter of lotus essence, but after many a la shokran (no, thank you) we were finally granted leave and said our goodbyes to the brothers. Joe patted our new friends on the back and we left the jewel box store.

Dodging donkey carts and squealing taxis we made our way back to the hotel. Feeling a little bit stupid and a lot American, I apologized to my travel partner for imagining things.

“You weren’t,” he said. “When I said goodbye and patted the brother on the back, he had a gun strapped to it.”

In shock, I dropped my unbreakable vial of perfume oil. It broke.

af007501.jpg af005201.jpg af008901.jpg

Shilo Urban

NOTE: I did not post this story to scare anyone away from travel to Egypt but rather to share something that might help other travelers- plus everyone loves a story about an “expert” getting snookered. I traveled all over Egypt in the summer of 2003, right after the start of the Iraq War, and I never felt one ounce of anti-American sentiment; in fact, when people with whom I came into contact found out I was from Texas, they fell over themselves to tell me how highly they thought of my homeland, how they wished more Americans would travel to Egypt, how much they wanted to go to Las Vegas and whether or not my father was a cowboy (and how many camels he would take for me). Egypt is the most amazing place I have ever been and I would go back tomorrow in the blink of an eye! The best part of Egypt is not wandering around in the giant temples, or sailing down the Nile at dawn, or even crawling in the tomb space inside the Great Pyramid. The best part of Egypt is getting to know the Egyptian people: the bartenders, translators, bakers, shop owners, guards, guides, bead sellers, waiters, carriage drivers, dog owners, cabbies, and yes, even Dr. Moses, whose name is in the Bible.

So what are you waiting for? You know you have always dreamed of traveling in Egypt. Start a real plan today!

re: shilo my god u won

14 01 2008

shilo my god u won

 …was the subject line I read around 9AM one Sunday morning, on a message from my boss Karen.

I was in a state of semi-sleep, existing in those few minutes between the time you get out of your bed and when you actually wake up. My intial morning ritual involves most of my addictions: caffeine (turn on coffeemaker), music (turn on itunes) and internet (check the email, the myspace, and the BBC to see if World War III has started overnight. I admit it; I am a product of the Information Age). So it was in this stupor that my squinty eyes made out the subject line and sender of the message. I knew immediately that I had won an adventure tour to a land far, far away. My stomach blew out of the top of my head and I started screaming and yelling, jumping and dancing. My neighbors love me.

I knew I just won a trip, but what I didn’t know was where that trip would go. The contest was given by Intrepid Travel, one of the small group adventure tour operators that we work with at The Adventure Travel Company.  Every new day required a new entry, a paragraph about why you wanted to travel to the destination. A trip a day was given away, and each morning I would choose a new adventure tour I wanted to win and type up an entry. Tanzania, Guatemala, Italy, India- I had entered so many times I couldn’t remember which country I chosen the day before. Quickly I searched on my laptop for yesterday’s messages, my heart pounding away as I scrolled down to see that I had entered to win a trip to…


Wow. China. I chose well. China is THE next travel industry superstar, the new superpower of the 21st century, and the home of the next Olympics. The ancient nation once termed “the Sleeping Dragon” has woken up, shaken the crust from its eyes, and is now looking around as hungry for information, entertainment, and consumption as I was that Sunday morning. I am fully stoked. I am going to China in 2008!

When will I go? Is the nightlife in Beijing as crazy as they say it is? Can I catch a glipmse of the Shaolin monks? Is the Great Wall really that hard to hike? Is it possible to train with the acrobats in Shanghai? Do the terracotta warriors of Xi’an look as scary in real life? How do you say “thank you” in Mandarin?

Stay tuned as I plan and live my next trip: WILD CHINA 2008

Shilo Urban (China National Tourist Office)