Thursday, 31 March 2011

15. Norfolk ‘Does different’

Luggage no priority on Norfolk Island

Government House

Emily Bay

Mike Collings on his verandah

Hidden in the roots of a fig tree

Calf at Puppy's Point

With Radio Norfol's OB unit


Norfolkair B737-200 leaving Norfolk Island

Swell looking toward Phillip Island

Old lighter in the Kingston Heritage are
Having lived in Norfolk, England, for over 30 years, it feels really strange to be in a place with the same name but which could not be more different.

When Captain Cook discovered this 5km x 8km dot of land in the vast South Pacific Ocean in 1774, he named it after his patron, the Duchess of Norfolk. Had he known at the time that she had died since his departure from England, who knows what it might have been called?
For two periods in its history, Norfolk Island housed penal colonies and there are some splendid reminders of that period. The beautifully maintained heritage area in the south of the island is 1 of 11 listed convict sites in Australia.
Just under half of the current population of 1373 are descendants of the Bounty Mutineers, whose families moved from Pitcairn Islands in 1856. But the majority who live on this idyllic little piece of our planet are Australians and New Zealanders.
The local weekly newspaper records both population and visitor numbers, hence I am one of 722 tourists currently here.
Driving on Norfolk Island is very different. For a start, local traffic regulations insist you give way to cows and Kingston geese. Then, everyone has their version of the ‘Norfolk Wave’, with endless variations from a crooked finger to a full hand. I have tried to perfect the gesture, used constantly by all drivers, but my version doesn’t have the relaxed style of that used by the locals.On several occasions I have experienced waves at either side of the street, including from pedestrians.
The local police have, as far as I can tell, no penalty for being ‘out of control while waving’, but they do warn against ‘hooning’, which I gather is loutish behaviour behind a wheel.
I have resorted to referring in conversation to ‘my’ Norfolk and ‘your’ Norfolk as the easiest way of differentiating between the two.
This Norfolk has a telephone book which includes people’s nicknames in the listings, and has three pages of Christians, proud descendants of one of the more famous of the Bounty mutineers.
There’s a local language Norf’k, a cross between old Creole English and Tahitian. Thus, I have learned ‘Watawieh yorlyi’ (hello, how are you) and Ai gwen naawi (I am going swimming).
One hugely controversial current issue is a proposal that the teaching of the local language should be dropped from the school curriculum.
Norfolk was given self government in 1979 and the many potholes on the island roads are just one indication that trying to balance the economy with little income other than tourism is far from easy.
Faced with only one weekly scheduled air service from New Zealand, Norfolk Island administration runs its own airline, Norfolkair, which provides connections several times a week with Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Newcastle on the Australian mainland.
But it loses a fortune and is a huge drain on the island’s fragile economy. So much so, that there is increasing talk of a move to give up self-rule and take the handouts that Australia would be able to offer.
It’s an issue that, understandably, divides the community.
You can do as little or as much as you want on Norfolk Island. It’s a great place to relax, potter, stroll or read. Conversely, there are all sorts of historical tours and activities to keep both locals and tourists entertained.
With many years as a broadcaster for BBC Radio Norfolk, it’s not surprising that I am invited to ‘do a turn on air’. It’s the first time I have ever broadcast from a studio with two open doors and cowpats outside the gate! ‘Fletch’ (no guesses what his surname is) and George the station manager fill a happy hour comparing the two Norfolk’s, George even recalling the link we had with Norfolk Island on ‘my’ Norfolk’s first ever programme on September 11th 1980.
The local newspaper, the Norfolk Islander, calls to ask if I will grant them an interview. I am interviewed by Tom Lloyd, who founded the publication, with his wife, 46 years ago. He has now sold it to the Snell Family, but lives just across from the ‘Printery’ where the Islander is hand assembled each Friday and contributes editorial from an office behind his garage.
In fact Tom has been to ‘my’ Norfolk and we chat about several people we know from the twinning between the 57 Norfolk’s and Norwich’s around the world.
The Islander sells 1480 copies each week, more than one copy per head of population!
Pauline from Norfolk Online meets me at the Golden Orb for a chat. I’ve only been in once before, but Jack, the owner, remembers my name, Sue, one of the weavers, met me last night and Chris, who is so involved in local activities that I have still to see in the same place at his wife, Sorrell, is washing up in the kitchen. It’s that sort of place.
Pauline’s daughter Mauatua, meaning ‘all of the Gods’ is named after Fletcher Christian’s wife.
My friend, Mike Collings, who is the boss at the weather station, has taken me to every corner of this verdant and beautiful island.
The one blot on the landscape is at Headstone, where island rubbish is burned before the ash is pushed into the sea. There can be no landfill here, because it would interfere with the precious drinking water supply. There is some recycling, with aluminium being crushed and sent to New Zealand. Glass is also broken up and used as hardcore for road building. But the smell from burning tyres and plastic plus a horrid brown sludge in the nearby ocean is something that needs urgent attention if the idyll is to be preserved and protected for the future. One solution currently being investigated is whether a commercial worm farm could process much of the waste currently being burnt.
But, despite that one negative, it’s a beautiful place. As a huge swell crashes between Norfolk and the nearby uninhabited Phillip Island bird sanctuary, the horseshoe-shaped Emily Beach remains with hardly a ripple. It is, undoubtedly, one of the most perfect and unspoilt swimming beaches I have ever seen.
In the holidays, local children camp in the adjacent Norfolk Pine Woods and have a joyous time, safely enjoying the wonderful climate and the bath-warm water.
The land is so lush that the island is almost totally self-sustaining in fresh produce. My friend Mike is already harvesting tomatoes, lettuce and rocket, parsley and basil planted in his garden just seven weeks ago. This weekend, he is planning to plant a banana ring, which will grow from the compost heap in its core.
I have stared in wonder at the unpolluted night sky, the Milky Way and thousands of stars clearly visible, so close you almost feel you can touch them.
Vince, the local police sergeant, hears I am from another Norfolk and, most generously presents me with a Norfolk Island police badge.
Foodland, the main island grocery store, has both Easter Eggs and Christmas cake on display, some shelves bare as the ship is awaited from Australia with new stock early next week.
I visit the Post office to send a 10 kilo parcel of accumulated paper, gifts and memorabilia back to my Norfolk. The mail boat is still four days away, but I am told that it’s already too late and the mail is closed.

Life truly does go slowly on Norfolk.

My Norfolk Island photographs can be viewed at

A selection of images from ‘Around the World in 60 days’ is at

Sunday, 27 March 2011

14. In a blur from Asia to the South Pacific

Changi Airport

Colonial Tramcar Restaurant, Melbourne

Diana Robertson making an important choice

City Tempo Apartment, Melbourne

Chloe Breakwell and Mike Souter

Melbourne Metro

Feet on the Melbourne Metro seats

Currawong Blue B and B

Bush Fire sprinkler

Chandon Vineyard restaurant

Mike's hat among the laundry

Vines being protected from birds

Diana and Malcolm's temporary accommodation

air New Zealand B777-200 Business Class

Air New Zealand Business Class lounge

Norfolk Island Airport

Mike Souter at Emily Bay, Norfolk Island
There’s so much in Singapore to see but I really do need a morning to get organised. I have been away from home for over three weeks and I need to sort out paperwork, repack my bags and, importantly, to do some ironing.
I finish early enough to have time to take an aerial view of the harbour by cable car. But when I get there, nobody seems to know about me and, even when I proffer my press card and the visiting card of my host, the Spanish inquisition ensues and so I decide not to bother.
So I take the MRT back to Little India where I enjoy a splendid lunch at Komala Vilas vegetarian Indian Restaurant. ( I reckon that, as it has been in business since 1947, it should be OK. And it turns out to be. I enjoy some very tasty and authentic food, which is unbelievably cheap. My mango lassi is simply divine.
I realise that I am the only non Indian eating and I am the only one using a fork rather than his hand.
In the late afternoon, I do a bit of window shopping and visit the Singapore Cruise Centre to watch the fast ferries on the forty minute journey to and from Indonesia.
Callum joins me for a farewell swim and a final glass of wine at the Shangri-La. I am very touched that Evelyn from guest relations and Ben the general manager, both of whom are off-duty, take the time and trouble to wish me a safe onward journey. The hotel and its staff have been absolutely splendid and most hospitable.
The limo drops Callum off on the way to the airport, the lady driver telling me about her husband being in hospital after suffering a serious stroke, something her teenage son is taking especially hard.
Check in and other formalities at Changi is remarkably stress-free and I am in the Singapore Airlines’ lounge only 15 minutes after arriving at the airport. The award-winning lounge offers a splendid selection of food and I enjoy an absolutely first class meal which includes lamb stew and Tasmanian cheese, before boarding the plane.
For the first time ever, I don’t even have a drink on board, turn down the offered dinner, request eye shades and earplugs and, with a midnight departure, try to get some sleep. The man behind me has been playing with something electronic which has an annoying beep every time he presses a key, but mercifully he has stopped. Why do people not have any thought to others as they bawl into their mobile phones and play with their gadgets?
I an expecting Singapore Airlines’ business class to be one of the best I would experience, but I reckon they have neglected their older fleet and invested just in their A380’s. The seat is so sloping that I have to reduce the angle to attain any sort of comfort. In the morning, I note that the man next to me has opted simply to have a slight recline. The breakfast – and the overall experience of the airline – is very disappointing.
As a ‘valued customer’ I am given a pass for Express arrivals, but there is no guidance as to where it is and, for the first time in almost a month of travelling, I join a queue to enter a country.
Australia and New Zealand are very strict on the importation of foodstuffs and there are hefty fines if you fail to declare anything. So I have prepared a bag with even the smallest of my edibles just in case.
I am met at Melbourne Airport by my Australian pen pal for over twenty years from my primary school days, Diana Robertson and her partner, Malcolm Hackett. I’ve only met them once before, when they came to Norfolk in the 1980’s. We’d lost touch in recent years, but I had placed a notice in one of the local Sunday papers and she got in touch the same day.
Malcolm kindly drives me on a route round the city so that I can see some of the splendid parks and historic architecture. I remark that I think it rather looks like my home town, Glasgow. But that may have been largely because it is pouring with rain. I am booked in for one night at City Tempo (, some new short stay apartments. I am pretty lucky to have got a room, because it’s Australian Grand Prix weekend and almost everywhere is booked solid.
I am impressed with the facilities. Each self-contained little unit has everything you could possibly want for self catering, including a mini dishwasher. A nice little touch is that there’s a small carton of fresh milk in the fridge to go with the complimentary tea and coffee. It’s a bit short of power points at the desk, but they seem to have thought of everything else.
But there’s no time to linger. I have a quick shower before heading off with Diana to the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant. Due to the Grand Prix, we have to walk in the rain to a different departure point than that advertised and it seems odd that the thirty or so guests could not have been advised of the change.
However, that’s a minor criticism. The four course luncheon is splendid, beautifully served by Gerhard and perfectly cooked by John. Dutchman Gerhard is pleased that I use the term Netherlands, rather than Holland where I ask him where he is from. Both Diana and I indulge enthusiastically in both the food and the excellent wines from Victoria.
The incessant rain does nothing to stop our enjoyment although neither of us has all that much of an idea where we actually have been.
Diana leaves for home, leaving me to explore the city with my Metcard, which for just $7 Australian, gives me unlimited travel round zone one, which goes well to the suburbs.
Having lived in Norfolk for over thirty years, I decide to go out to Sandringham, where the Queen lives at Christmas. In Norfolk, not in Melbourne. I get off at Windsor, where the Queen also lives. Further on our route, we pass through Brighton. Where Prince Albert liked to live. It’s all very confusing.
On the way back, the train gets busy, which seems odd, because the commuters should all be heading out of town. At Richmond, they all get out, leaving just the man across the aisle and me in the entire carriage. ‘Looks like we’re the only two not going to the footy,’ says he. It turns out that the station serves the MCG, where tonight is the opening game of the Aussie rules football season between Carlton and Richmond.
It turns out the man’s father used to be the Australian manager for Norwich Union insurance in the late 1960’s and he is amazed when I told him that my first job at the BBC was less than 200 metres from the company’s head office. It’s a small world indeed.
I have a beer at Australia’s oldest Irish Club, the Celtic Club, which was established in 1887 and a very decent bite at a nearby restaurant.
In the morning, after a nine hour sleep, reception calls to tell me I have a young lady to see me. I must have drunk more than I realised last night.
No, only joking, this is Chloe Breakwell, who I first met when I was on Naval Reserve Duty on Lord Howe Island some nine years ago. Now she is 21, and just off the Yarra River where she has been having an early morning row with the Melbourne University Club. With oars, not an argument.
Over an excellent egg and bacon muffin breakfast, Chloe tells me she is at Trinity College, studying for a doctorate in veterinary science. Her brain and local knowledge was useful in helping me order a coffee from a bewilderingly confusing list. I opt for a flat white which I think means a milky coffee.
I am thrilled that Chloe is doing so well and make her promise she will visit me when will both be in England in the summer. Apart from anything, having a tall beautiful blonde staying with me in a rural Norfolk village will be great for local gossip! Perhaps I should start the rumours myself…
The weather yesterday rather curtailed what should have been my sightseeing afternoon in Melbourne, but I know I’ll be back.
Today’s schedule means an early journey to Hurstbridge. The 90 minute journey costs just $6 AUS (4 GBP), which I think is truly amazing value. On the way, I am surprised at the graffiti around and also how many adults put their feet on the seats. It wouldn’t happen in Singapore.
There are some great station names on the Metlink network. I can go to Sandown Park, Tottenham or Chelsea. When they ran out of place names in England, they came up with Balaclava and Ivanhoe before just opting for silly nouns like aircraft, officer and batman.
Malcolm and Diana meet me bang on schedule at Hurstbridge, despite some quite long waits due to single line working.
We drop my bags at the Currawong Blue B and B in Panton Hill ( which looks absolutely splendid. I have my own en suite room, with a separate sitting room, kitchen and breakfast room. It’s beautifully and quietly situated and I so wish I could spend more time here.
We take a tour round the garden, where huge water tanks and a sprinkler system will be used in the event of bush fires. Just over two years ago, Malcolm and Diana lost their home, a beloved dog and all but some tax files, their laptops and the clothes they were wearing when after 10 days of the temperature being over 40 degrees, the conflagration of 7 February 2009 swept through their 230 acre Strathewen property. But they can consider themselves lucky. Out of 220 people in their local community, 27 lost their lives. In the wider area, 173 people died. The Bush Fires of 2009 were so catastrophic that the fire risk scale on which 100 was previously the most serious, reached an unprecedented 280.
The pair, both retired teachers, are closely involved with efforts to support and rebuild the local community. There’s now a new $3.5M Aus school for just 40 local children, a community centre in the pipeline and a book, ‘Footsteps in the Ash’, in which local people tell their moving and often horrific stories.
It’s at times like this we can only marvel at indomitable human spirit in the face of adversity.

The nearby Yarra Valley is full of vineyards and we opt to visit Chandon ( I am concerned that Monsieur Moet will be less than thrilled that some upstart Aussies have stolen his brand, but it’s OK. It’s his first antipodean adventure and jolly fine it is too. The adjoining restaurant is beautifully sited overlooking the vines, a lake and some grazing Angus cattle. We opt for platters of cheese and meat with a glass or two of the liquid product, which all goes down very well indeed.
Near Coldstream, we pass Dame Nellie Melba’s House. I like both her toast and her dessert.
In the evening, we enjoy an excellent dinner at Mercer’s Restaurant in Eltham (, where I have the best bit of steak I have had in many a long year.
Back at Melbourne Airport, Air New Zealand’s Express check in makes the processing totally painless and I am in the airline’s most excellent lounge only 15 minutes after being dropped off by Diana.
The Air New Zealand B777-200 is, by far, the best business cabin I have had so far. With a design used only by them and Virgin, you actually get a little cocoon, which features a totally flat 6’2” bed and a great deal of privacy. You take off and land slightly sideways which was fine for me, but I know is not liked by some.
The ‘Air Show’ includes a virtual cockpit view, which I have not seen before. There’s an excellent safety briefing, which includes a cuddly character to make the normally dull presentation both informative and entertaining.
Dylan, the flight service manager and his team of Geoff and Dan are quite superb, doing their jobs with humour and professionalism. The meal, which includes lamb shank, accompanied by an excellent 2007 Hawkes Bay Gimblett Gravels and wonderful ice cream with a really good 2009 Malborough Forrest Botrysided Riesling.
The cabin, service and catering are as good an airline experience as I have had for many a long year.
I have a brief overnight stopover in Auckland before my two-hour Sunday morning flight to Norfolk Island.
Air New Zealand’s check in and lounge is again excellent although the flight crew are not a patch on the team yesterday. Maxine, especially, has forgotten how to smile. I ask her if she’s been brought in from standby, but apparently not.
There’s not a full business class service on the route, but I am given a new product called Works Deluxe, which is everything but the legroom. My Star Alliance priority luggage comes off almost last. I mention this to the Air New Zealand lady at arrivals who, as she sweeps two unaccompanied minors in front of me in the immigration queue, tells me it's an Auckland issue!
On Norfolk Island, I am met by Mike Collings, boss of the local weather station, who I first met on Lord Howe Island in 2002.
After a visit to the local Sunday market, he gives me a whistle stop tour of the Island where many of the descendants of the Bounty mutineers ended up and to where many British convicts were transported.
It looks absolutely gorgeous and my next blog will go into detail about my week in the South Pacific.

My latest photos are at

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

13 Singapore memories – or lack of them!

In-Room Breakfast

Terror Club

Sembawang Patio

Food-court lunch

MRT Train

Light rail train

Rasa Sentosa Resort at night

Dining in Casserole

Farewell to friends
I’m hugely impressed with the lighting design in my room. It has every conceivable combination you could ever want, including some splendidly subtle night lights. When they come in to do the evening turn down service, they actually rearrange the lighting. It’s a very nice touch. My only criticism of the room is the lack of storage and drawer space, but I am told that most visitors are here for only three days. But they have actually raised the beds up a couple of inches, so that suitcases can be slid underneath. Clever.
My panorama room would cost around 220 pounds a night. But a family of four could have a room for less than that and, of course, you could spend up to 350 for a top of the range suite.
This morning I go for a swim before breakfast as I always like to do. The rain is absolutely bucketing down, the sky is leaden grey and all the ships in front of my window are invisible. In fact, it appears to be a perfect morning for a swim. I’ve only done a couple of lengths when a member of staff appears, sheltering under a rapidly soaking towel. I am ‘advised’ that swimming is not encouraged during a rainstorm. When I ask if that actually means ‘would I leave the pool’, he smilingly tells me that it does.
Oh well. Another of life’s little pleasures withdrawn by Health and Safety.
While I don’t especially like eating in my room, it’s a lot better than being in the food factory. My table is beautifully laid, the presentation and food is excellent and I don’t think I have ever had a hotel breakfast trolley that incorporates its own warm cupboard. There’s even a drop leaf to the table. All most impressive.
One of my Navy chums Sheena Thomson, has sent me a Facebook message from Abu Dhabi, recommending that I visit the former Admiral’s House near what used to be the Naval Base in the North of the Island. As today is my ‘being a tourist day’, I’d planned to travel on Singapore’s wonderful Mass Transit Railway anyway, so it’s a good call.
At Sembawang, which I remember only as jungle, there are now countless skyscrapers, shopping centres et al. I find a very friendly taxi driver who takes me to the swimming pool I remember from 1972, now rebranded the Terror Club, rather than the HS Terror of yore. I did my formative Tiger drinking here and was subsequently led astray by some Australian Naval Officers in Bugis Street. But I need to have sunk a LOT more Tigers to tell all about that episode!
The Sembawang patio used to have Naval Tailors, rowdy bars and market traders, but it’s just a few little shops now with a three lane road where a little country lane used to be.
The Admiral’s House, supposedly open for lunch according to its website, isn’t, so I repair to a food court near the Sembawang MRT for a most excellent pepper beef and rice lunch for an incredible two pounds.
In a way I’m not disappointed about the Admiral’s House. When I was last there as a Royal Navy Midshipman, it was immaculate, with smartly dressed stewards serving drinks and nibbles. The whole area just looked tired, neglected and a bit depressing.
At Choa Chu Kang, I leave the MRT and take a spin on its little brother, the light rail transit. I complete a circuit of the Bukit Panjang LRT and now know where Singapore’s five million residents hang out. The little elevated railway is amazing with its little one and two coach driverless trains whizzing along between the stations carrying folks to and from work and school. I am hugely impressed with the youngsters. They are beautifully turned out, respectful; give their seats up for older folk (like me!) and there is none of the inconsiderate larking about and noise you would get from their European equivalents.
After hammering my MRT card to death while visiting some of Singapore’s renowned shopping malls, I repair to the Rasa Sentosa Resort.

I am meeting the French-Algerian General Manager, Ben Bousnina, for pre-dinner drinks. We are joined by an Australian, Paul Christian, who is completing a video about the refurbishment programme. Paul disappears off to have dinner with a client and is replaced by Ben’s clipboard-yielding Singaporean hotel manager, Tina.
Ben decides that he will join Ching from Communications and I for dinner and poor Tina, who’s about to leave for home and to administer to her teenage family, is persuaded to join us.
But it’s a great evening. We are in the Casserole restaurant and Ben orders an amazingly eclectic mix of Indian, North African, European and Asian dishes. The lamb soup is divine, the tagine is simply splendid and the bread and butter pudding simply wonderful. There was a lot more and a very decent bottle or two of red, but you’ll have to take my word that it was a tremendous feast.
I enjoy a visit ‘behind the scenes’ to see spaces like the staff recreation rooms, locker spaces etc. Ben takes up my challenge of a game of table tennis, but sadly no undamaged balls can be located, so France/Ecosse is declared an honourable draw.
At reception, there’s gathering of staff and musicians. A German couple are leaving after a long-stay winter break and Ben and the staff has a tradition of singing a farewell song. It’s a splendid occasion, quite moving, with the GM pulling in all sorts of young staff members to ‘do a turn’.
I participate enthusiastically in a rendition of ‘Love Me Do’ and end up in the lift with the musicians doing more Beatles tunes. I was totally sober. Honest.
But what the episode showed me was worth more than any number of press releases and media briefings. Running a resort is completely different from running a corporate hotel. Yes there is always the necessary teamwork, attention to detail and that sort of thing. To succeed as a staff member in the resort business, you need to have fun!

In the morning, I have a splendid swim and another excellent breakfast before throwing the entire contents of my two cases on to the bed. Tomorrow I will be in the southern hemisphere, with shorts and t shirts out and trousers and jumpers in. That sudden change requires quite a lot of reorganisation. I also need to start thinking in much more detail about my activities Australia and New Zealand and despatch a flurry of emails to the Antipodes reminding folk of my impending arrival.

Singapore – and the Rasa Sentosa - has been great.
Like everywhere on this trip so far, the destination just deserves more of my time.

Monday, 21 March 2011

12. Spotless Singapore

Singapore airlines B777 Business Class

Callum McCulloch

Singapore River at night

Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa Resort

Siloso Beach

Wave House


Ever-developing Singapore

MRT at night

In-room breakfast

There’s a slight kerfuffle in reception at the Sofitel Saigon. A man from the Quang Minh laundry has arrived with my package but the concierge says he wants 600,000 Vietnamese Dong. That’s around twenty quid for three days worth of smalls and t shirts! But the zeros have slipped a little and it turns out that he wants only a tenth of that.
After a splendid breakfast in the Club Lounge, where I really do feel a valued guest, the wonderful hostess tells me that my car is waiting.
Vincent, mon grand ami francais, has kindly arranged for one of the hotel’s limousines to transfer me to the airport. As the bell-boy loads my luggage into the car, he asks me if I have remembered my iPod and charger from my room, which he noticed as he took my bags. I have already retrieved it, but I very much appreciate the thought.
Airport check-in is easy and quick. There’s a slightly bizarre choice of things to do in the absence of a Singapore Airlines designated lounge. I am allowed to choose only one from things like a 20-minute massage, a noodle meal and entrance to the Rose CIP lounge. I opt for the latter, mainly on the grounds that I am not often these days regarded as a ‘Commercially Important Person’.
The Singapore Airlines’ B777 is pretty quiet. I choose a Singapore Sling from the extensive cocktail menu just to show solidarity. But it’s sickly and red and not especially to my taste. But the box is ticked.
The flight is a little over two hours but the in-flight service feels rushed, with the beautifully dressed hostesses trying to clear my tray away before I have finished.
The spotlessness of Singapore is apparent immediately after landing at Changi. There doesn’t seem to be anything out of place. Even the air-side vehicles and plethora of other airfield detritus are neatly aligned. It’s all very impressive.
I get through the formalities in unbelievably quick time and I am looking for my Shangri-La welcome board within 15 minutes of landing.
I first came to Singapore as a midshipman in the Royal Navy in 1972 and was last here in 2002. The changes in just the last 9 years are extraordinary, never mind since I first explored Sembawang as a 19 year old.
The driver is very chatty as we go on the direct expressway between the airport and the Sentosa Island resort. There is hardly a boring building in sight. Architects have excelled here in designing buildings that are attractive, innovative and inspiring.
The limo has been stopped for less than a second when I am greeted by two smiling ladies, who whisk me into a lift at the Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa resort ( and to my room before I have properly taken in my surroundings.
The view from my room over the South China Sea is stunning. I don’t think I have ever seen so much shipping at anchor.
I have not even started to unpack when there’s a ring at my door and my old chum from primary school in Scotland, Callum, arrives. He’s under escort, which is quite sweet and tells me later that he wasn’t even allowed to know my room number!
Callum, who is married to a Singaporean woman, is actually working on a new maritime attraction as part of Sentosa World and I am thrilled that someone with local knowledge is able to give me a real insight to the island.
After a glass or two of excellent Cabernet Merlot for me and Chablis for him, kindly supplied by the hotel in my welcome package, we take the beach tram and the monorail to Harbour Front station to catch the MRT.
Singapore’s metro is among the best I have seen anywhere in the world. It is driverless, spotlessly clean, fast, frequent and efficient. Callum helps me buy an ‘EZ link’ card, which I will use on Tuesday for some serious exploration of the transit system.
We get off at Raffles Place, centre of the central business district with amazing skyscrapers and stop briefly at the Singapore River. Our destination, suggested by Callum’s wife, Hui, is the Lau Pa Sat market. I love it.
Set in an old fish market built in 1894, it is made from cast-iron columns fabricated in Glasgow. As we sit there, I think how extraordinary it is that the two of us, brought up just outside Scotland’s famous industrial city, are able to dine under such a beautifully designed canopy.
People arrive from several of the nearby food stalls, among the scores in the market, urging us to choose their wares. We opt for a splendid stuffed-paratha like Indian starter with some Indonesian mixed satay, washed down by a jug of Tiger Beer. It´s absolutely splendid.
In the morning, I venture to the vast Silver Shell Café for breakfast. It’s beautifully designed, with a great choice of things to eat. But I just hate buffet breakfasts. I loathe the jostling at the toaster, kids screaming and racing about and the lack of interaction with the few staff on duty. I find the experience of buffets, not just here, stressful and impersonal. Surely I am not alone?
I am surprised to learn that there is no alternative, except in-room dining, something I find extraordinary in a resort of this size and quality.
Ching, from the hotel’s communications department, kindly shows me round. The hotel has only been open for a couple of months after a multimillion pound refurbishment, which took eleven months. Workmen and engineers are still on-site doing tweaks. I bump into a very casually dressed French general manager, Ben Bousnina, clipboard in hand, and, later, the newly-appointed hotel manager in a similar guise.
One of the outstanding matters is fan blades for the rooms, which have to be re-engineered.
What they have done during the shut-down is certainly impressive. The resort has two enormous banqueting and conference suites, among the biggest in Singapore. With its beachfront location, I can certainly see the vision as well as the commercial potential.
We visit a selection of rooms, which include some huge balconies and outdoor living spaces which are, I am told, ‘the biggest in Singapore’.
There is so much space that the hotel feels deserted, but I am told is about half full.
We adjourn to the nearby Siloso Beach for lunch at the Trapizza restaurant. It’s badly run down. The gents’ loos are an absolute disgrace, with dirty and cracked tiles, a blocked urinal and an open drain, with its protective cover unattached.
Ching, sensibly, opts for plan B and we enjoy an excellent Nasi Goreng in the now delightfully empty Silver Shell café. Bizarrely, with every other seat in the vast food factory available to them, an elderly English couple plonk themselves at the next door table.
Aaron Yeo from the Sentosa Leisure Group, ( who has organised my stay, in the absence of the Tourist Board who have ‘run out of budget’, takes me and a locally based journalist, Mallika Naguran, on a splendid tour of some of Sentosa’s myriad of attractions.
I am impressed with the artificial surf machines at the Wave House, with one young lady doing seemingly impossible tricks on a surfboard under a curtain of water. The last time I saw one of the machines was on the back of Royal Caribbean’s latest cruise liners.
I let Aaron and Mal brave the zip wire in the MegaZip adventure park while I take pictures of them descending from the treetops to the beach. I have time to have a brief chat with Englishman Drew Graham in between him interviewing for a new marketing assistant. Aaron and I are eminently well qualified for the position, but Drew is well aware he can’t afford us!
On the way back down with a completely mad buggy driver who makes Jensen Button look slow, I chat with Nicky, another expatriate Brit member of the team.
I enjoy the trip on the Skyline ski-lift and, especially, the luge ride back down. In the Butterfly Park, Mal takes a photo of one of the beautiful creatures on my hat. We take in an excellent simulated log flume ride in Cineblast, with great 3D effects, slightly spoiled by a dreadfully amateurish pre-show. In Desperados, we try to shoot bandits from atop our mechanical horses, but Mal and I are no match for sharpshooting Aaron.
There´s a lot more to do, but we’ve run out of time. Sentosa, with more rides under construction, offers much and I am very impressed with the progress they are making with a resort which goes back to 1972, the year of my first visit to Singapore.
My chum Callum pitches up and we enjoy a swim in an almost deserted pool before catching the hotel bus to Harbour Front and the MRT to Little India.
At the Khulfi Bar in Upper Dickson Road, he enjoys a lassi and me a splendid Khulfi. The setting is most impressive although neither of us is impressed with the owner’s attempt to get a tip with some unnecessary dollar coins being presented in my change.
We walk past the Bugis area, transformed from the seediness of my formative years, to Little Arabia where we have a really excellent meal in our third continent of the evening.
I’ve very much enjoyed this evening. Callum’s local knowledge has shown me that there is still a low-rise side to the otherwise clinically perfect high-rise Singapore which, we concur, is unlike anywhere else in Asia.

For a digest of my best photographs of the trip so far, go to

The photos  of my current destination are at

Saturday, 19 March 2011

11. A train to the Vietnamese seaside

Sai Gon night market

Vietnam Railways air coinditioned 'soft seat' coach

Vietnam Railways restaurant car

Novela Resort pool

Vietnamese lunch in Mui Ne

Shades Apartments, Mui Ne

Adverising boards, Mui Ne

Fishing boats, Phan Thiet

Vietnam Railways stewardess
At first glance, my rail ticket from Sai Gon to Phan Thiet, the coastal resort to the north east of this busy city, seems expensive. But 88,000 Vietnamese Dong is under £3 or about 4 Euros.
I am told that prices here are going up rapidly, but Tim, the boss of Come and Go Vietnam and I enjoy a very adequate meal in the night market washed down with a couple of large Tiger beers each for about eight Euros, which seems pretty good to me.
The train is made up of a real assortment of rolling stock. There is one double deck coach, which looks the most modern of the lot. One is painted yellow and branded ‘Golden Trains’, while the majority are blue and red. The locomotive is green.
I am in a ‘Soft seat A/C’ carriage, which is pretty ancient, but has air conditioning, seats that recline and airline-style tables in the armrest.
The seat next to my allocated one is occupied, so I select two empty seats at one end of the coach. The stewardess, whose sole job seems to be distributing a bottle of water per passenger, sits across the aisle and spends most of the journey sleeping.
My fellow passengers are made up of local people whose motorbikes have been stowed in a luggage van and whose helmets are hanging on the coat hooks and a scattering of tourists, mainly American and Australian.
The loos are of the squat variety, with a pretty powerful jet hose to clean up afterwards. Across the corridor is an area with sinks and soap.
To break up the journey, I venture along to the restaurant car to have a cup of very black coffee which, in Vietnam, is drunk with condensed milk. It costs less than a quarter of what I’d pay in Europe. Later in the journey, a trolley comes round selling, among many other things, freshly cooked hard boiled eggs.
At one of the stops, the friendly stewardess buys some barbecued corn on the cob. She offers me one, which I decline, but she accepts some of my coconut candies. She speaks no English at all.
There are no continuously welded rails, like in the UK, so the train has the ‘diddledy dah’ rhythm I remember from my childhood. It’s most conducive for forty winks.
The line is mainly single track, so the train stops for quite lengthy periods, to allow another train coming in the opposite direction to pass. Consequently, it’s no surprise that we are half an hour late arriving in Phan Thiet.
On arrival, there is a clamour of taxi drivers vying for business. I make sure that I follow Tim’s recommendation and get a vehicle from Mailinh or Vina Sun, which are generally said to be reliable with meters that are checked by the authorities.
The coastal resort of Mui Ne is reached after twenty minutes of weaving in and out of a melee of ox carts, bikes and motorbikes.
I am booked in to the Novela resort ( which is so close to the ocean, my beach front room has salt-stained windows. It’s very clean, with a well-equipped bedroom, a very nice pool and a nice outdoor restaurant and bar.
Mui Ne is developing fast and, at the moment is largely a strip of development on the beach side of the road with another on the inland side. It might be the time of year, but the clientele seem to be largely young folk from the US and Australia on gap year trips and older couples from Europe.
After a decent lunch, I have a look at the resort, which is somewhat blighted by advertising boards. But it has a nice laid back feel, is very clean, with some nice restaurants and places to stay.
I particularly like Shades apartments (, which is run by Kiwis Vaughan and Sharon Ellis. With only eight bedrooms, this is my sort of place. Their young Vietnamese receptionist, who tells me his name is Jack, gives me the grand tour and I must say I am impressed. The whole place is immaculate, really peaceful, with a lovely swimming pool and bar and right on the beach. I am impressed that they include the cost of laundry in their prices, which range from 50 US dollars per night per room in low season.
I am surprised how much the US dollar is quoted in Vietnam. It is certainly the currency of choice as far as tourism is concerned. I am also surprised that there seems to be no obvious animosity towards Americans. Considering the atrocious tactics of B52 carpet bombing, from which you can still see enormous craters, people just seem to have envy for the US way of life. They even provide burgers and chips for unadventurous American students.
At no point here have I felt repressed and controlled in the way that I have done in other communist countries such as the former Soviet Union and East Germany. The authorities here appear to be very low key indeed.
The receptionist at the Novela Resort tries every trick in the book when I intimate I need a taxi to get me back to the railway station. From paying almost double the standard fare in advance, to giving him a deposit to ‘guarantee’ the taxi, he is very keen to earn a commission.
He even persists when I am down at the pool chatting to a Tasmanian girl, Gizelle, who works for an NGO in Vietnam and who has come to Mui Ne to escape from the big city for a few days.
At check out, there’s a delay while the room is checked to make sure I have not escaped with the family silver. The Novela has been fine for a short stay but their staff need to learn better English if they are to be able to deal with an international clientele.
I pick up a Mailinh taxi in the street outside, driven by a mad woman who drives on her horn and who has a number of very near misses.
The train back to Sai Gon is very busy, but the same friendly stewardess finds me two empty seats.
Back at the Sofitel, I am again given a regal reception, and I enjoy a quick swim and a very tasty hot snack in the excellent Club Lounge before repairing to my room where there’s Premier League football on the TV and a very nice half bottle of Merlot to enjoy.
Vietnam has been all I had hoped for and more. Lovely people, great value for money and, to make us Brits feel totally at home, they even have British-style three-pin plugs!
Later this morning I am back at the airport en route for Singapore, with the first of two legs of my journey with Singapore Airlines, who will also take me on the overnight journey to Melbourne, where I will be on Thursday.
My technology tells me that there are now 1242 folk all over the world who are reading my blog. The stats tell me that 48% are using Internet Explorer, 34 folk are using an iPad and that I have 27 readers in Denmark.
Big brother is indeed watching.
My Thai and Vietnam photos are now at
For a digest of my best photographs of the trip so far, go to