On the Great Ocean Road

As I sunk my fork and knife into the delightfully cool and creamy vanilla bean ice cream sitting happily atop strips of savoury bacon layered on a single handsome waffle, my heart skipped a beat.

Was this love at first bite?

I should mention the Casterton waffle was studded with chopped walnuts and drizzled with maple syrup.

The charming converted-roadhouse interior at Piknik in Swan Bay – the cafe where you can also find fresh-made jam and other hot, hearty meals sourced from the Bellarine Peninsula – certainly upped the feel-good factor.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My journey of discovering the Great Ocean Road, and its surrounding Geelong and Bellarine areas, began in Victoria’s state capital Melbourne the day before.

This Australian adventure was courtesy of VisitVictoria together with AirAsia X, before the Malaysian low-cost carrier transitions its Melbourne services from Tullamarine Airport to Avalon Airport on Dec 5.

The Australian domestic airport is set to provide the same ease and comfort to travellers in its brand-new international terminal when it commences later this year.

AirAsia X’s transition to Avalon Airport means that the one-flavour candy pack that is Melbourne for many travellers to Victoria, will soon transform into a fun assortment of unforgettable experiences.

The airport is located roughly 50km away from the state capital and 15km from Geelong with easy access to the beautiful Bellarine region, all the way to The Twelve Apostles and Gibson’s Steps in Port Campbell without missing Melbourne’s CBD.

Before the impressive sweet treat for breakfast at Piknik, checking out from Mantra on Russell (don’t miss its Meat Lover’s pizza!) came with a sense of wide-eyed excitement of what I would soon experience.

The chilly October morning wind didn’t stop me from practically sprinting to the Meerkat Bistro with camera in hand when I saw the little creatures from afar at Werribee Open Range Zoo.

One part of Zoos Victoria, this African-themed zoo in Werribee houses many endangered or critically-endangered animals.

It offers two trails – African River Trail and Australian Trail – focusing on different animals.

Having only seen giraffes and zebras in action on Nat Geo, the Off Road Safari tour at the zoo-based conservation effort in Werribee put a wide smile on my face.

The vast 225-hectare land that stretched as far as I could see served as a natural canvas for the ostriches, rhinos, and zebras.

I was so in awe of the sight that I found myself taking mental pictures of the animals – the curious giraffes especially – pausing occasionally just to let the wonderful moments sink in.

Dinner that night was a whirlwind six-course meal onboard The Q Train, a travelling restaurant that departs from Drysdale Railway Station, a quick 15-minute drive from Geelong.

The beach-view balcony at Novotel Geelong afforded me the view of the city still getting ready for its first-ever White Night – an all-night series of art installations, which happened on Oct 13.

Melbourne was the first Australian city to hold the event back in 2013.

Walking around the area at night was truly an experience to be treasured.

Local bands and musicians could be heard from different corners of the city, while I admired the creative light projections on buildings and landmarks.

There are some things I never thought I would cross off of my bucket list.

Swimming with dolphins is one of them.

Even though the dolphins didn’t come out to play that day, Sea All Dolphin Swims in Queenscliff made sure everyone on the boat was relaxed and had fun.

The thick wetsuits made sure I kept warm in the water, while also providing slight buoyancy as dozens of seals lay lazily on a cabana-like structure sticking out in the middle of the ocean.

A few baby seals were curious enough to come at arm’s length away from my face, and a stingray was even swimming below. It was truly a magical experience.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get better, the friendly instructors said we could jump off the top of the boat!

Victoria has certainly captured my heart by then.

But when I got to Port Campbell National Park, the place took my breath away.

The Twelve Apostles is a collection of limestone stacks that I was privileged to experience from a birds-eye view in a helicopter, with the 12 Apostles Helicopters.

After the 15-minute ride, I got to see parts of the structure again from Gibson’s Steps.

Like a painting brought to life, the cool colours of the water matched perfectly with the shades of sand and stone.

What was most intriguing and fascinating was Loch Ard Gorge, named after the ship that wrecked in the area in 1878.

Only two survivors emerged from the tragedy, Tom Pearce and Eva Carmichael, who were both only in their late teens.

The 1,750-hectare coastal strip of Port Campbell National Park and the Great Ocean Road are destinations that definitely deserve a second visit, but next time, I’ll make it a road trip with my favourite people.

AirAsia X currently flies twice daily from Kuala Lumpur (KUL) to Tullamarine Airport (MEL) in Melbourne, Victoria, until Dec 4, and will commence twice-daily flights from Kuala Lumpur (KUL) to Avalon Airport (AVV) from Dec 5.

Palau plans sunscreen ban to save coral

KOROR, Palau: The tiny Pacific island nation of Palau will ban “reef-toxic” sunscreens from 2020 in what it claims is a world-first initiative to stop chemical pollution killing its famed corals.

Palau, which lies in the western Pacific about halfway between Australia and Japan, is regarded as one of the world’s best diving destinations, but the government is concerned its popularity is coming at a cost.

A spokesman for President Tommy Remengesau said there was scientific evidence that the chemicals found in most sunscreens are toxic to corals, even in minute doses.

He said Palau’s dive sites typically hosted about four boats an hour packed with tourists, leading to concerns a build-up of chemicals could see the reefs reach tipping point.

“On any given day that equates to gallons of sunscreen going into the ocean in Palau’s famous dive spots and snorkelling places,” he told AFP.

“We’re just looking at what we can do to prevent pollution getting into the environment.”

The government has passed a law banning “reef-toxic” sunscreen from Jan 1, 2020.

Anyone importing or selling banned sunscreen from that date faces a US$1,000, (RM4,184) fine, while tourists who bring it into the country will have it confiscated.

“The power to confiscate sunscreens should be enough to deter their non-commercial use, and these provisions walk a smart balance between educating tourists and scaring them away,” Remengesau told parliament after the bill passed last week.

Environmental pioneer

The US state of Hawaii announced a ban on reef toxic sunscreens in May this year, but it does not come into force until 2021, a year after Palau’s.

The Palau ban relates to sunscreens containing chemicals including oxybenzone, octocrylene and parabens, which covers most major brands.

Palau has long been a pioneer in marine protection, introducing the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2009, in a move that has been widely imitated.

It has also banned commercial fishing from its waters and last year introduced the “Palau Pledge” requiring international visitors to sign a promise stamped into their passport that they will respect the environment.

Craig Downs, executive director at the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Hawaii, said other nations would be watching Palau’s move closely.

“It’s the first country to ban these chemicals from tourism. I think it’s great, they’re being proactive,” he said.

“They don’t want to be like Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, where they’ve had to shut down beaches. The coral reefs around those beaches have died”.

Downs said there were numerous scientific papers pointing to a link between sunscreen chemicals and coral reef degradation.

“What we’re saying is that where there are lots of tourists getting in the water, sunscreen pollution can have a detrimental effect on nearby coral reefs, as far as five kilometres away,” he said.

Downs called on sunscreen manufacturers to “step up and innovate”, saying the chemicals used for UV protection had been largely unchanged for 50 years.

He said there were some sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that were not reef toxic but added: “The other alternative we’ve been pushing is sunwear — cover up, wear a sunshirt”. — AFP

Myanmar Buddhist temple now a nirvana for snakes

YANGON: Crossing a bridge to the middle of a lake in Myanmar’s Yangon region, pilgrims arrive at a temple to pin their hopes on the pythons slinking across the temple’s floors and draped across windows.

“People come here because they believe that their prayers will be fulfilled when they ask for something,” said Sandar Thiri, a nun residing at the Baungdawgyoke pagoda — dubbed the “snake temple” by locals.

“The rule is that people can only ask for one thing, not many things,” she said. “Don’t be greedy”.

In the main room of the temple is a tree with figurines of Buddha around it. The serpents move slowly through the branches, their forked tongues darting in and out as they gaze down on the worshippers prostrating themselves.

Many locals regard the presence of the dozens of pythons, some measuring up to two or three metres in length, as a sign of the pagoda’s power.

Win Myint, 45, said he has been coming to Baungdawgyoke since he was a child.

“Now I am older and I come to give offerings, which has made some of my wishes come true”.

Nearby, a monk dozes on a chair with two serpents curled at his feet, their thick bodies holding 1,000 kyat notes tucked in between their coils by hopeful visitors. A woman, brave enough to venture close to a python, gently caresses it.

The mythical “naga” — a Sanskrit word for snake — is a common figure seen in temples throughout Southeast Asia, where Buddhist, Hindu and animist influences are intertwined. Nagas are usually carved out of stone and placed at the entrances.

But seeing a live snake slithering among Buddha statues is rare, and for some visitors, that serves as a draw to visit Baungdawgyoke — a short drive southwest of downtown Yangon.

With snakes curled up next to meditating monks, the image is reminiscent of a story in Buddhist mythology when the Buddha sat under a tree to meditate.

According to the legend, as it started to rain, a cobra protected Buddha by fanning its hood wide over his head to act as a shelter.

Nay Myo Thu, a 30-year-old farmer, believes he will receive good fortune by bringing the snakes he finds in his fields to the temple instead of killing them, adhering to a Buddhist belief that all animals are sentient beings that can be reincarnated as humans.

“I don’t want to bring about any misfortune by killing a creature,” Nay Myo Thu said. “Catching and donating the snakes brings me good fortune instead”. — AFP

Amritsar, the golden city

WHEN I saw thousands of people, including military personnel, beginning to march towards the India-Pakistan border near Amritsar, my heart jumped a beat.

Are these two nations going to war again – when I am in Amritsar, of all places!

Images of the carnage, which let to the displacement of millions during the 1947 partition of India, flashed across my mind.

But thankfully, this was not a foreboding of a war to come.

Rather, a parade that signifies the countries’ brotherhood and cooperation, as much as it does their past rivalry.

This is the Wagah border flag ceremony, which has been taking place since 1959.

Every evening at sundown, the security forces of India (Border Security Force) and Pakistan (Pakistan Rangers) lower their flags at the border – just one of two road links between the countries – in a drill characterised by elaborate, dance-like manoeuvres, a ceremony which has drawn massive crowds of onlookers for decades.

And this is just one of the many historic attractions that locals and tourists are able to enjoy during a visit to Amritsar, India.

I was there in the city as one of several guests of AirAsia, which brought us there to mark its maiden flight from Kuala Lumpur to Amritsar.

Amritsar is also known for being the birthplace of famous Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar, as well as for its renowned Golden Temple – or the Sri Harmandir Sahib – the holiest gurdwara (Sikh place of worship).

The sanctum, which was built in 1577 around a man-made pool, was overlaid with gold foil in 1830, which gave it its name.

Over 100,000 people visiting the temple daily, drawn by the view, as well as the free vegetarian meals served to all visitors who want it.

Those wishing to pay the gurdwara a visit are also advised to return to the location at night for a completely different, yet similarly stunning, view of the shrine.

As one pilgrim we met there put it: “You want to visit this temple for worship as much as you want, to be intrigued by its beauty.”

Other places worth paying a visit include the Partition Museum, Sadda Pind heritage village, the Jallianwala Bagh public garden, which houses a memorial to commemorate the massacre of peaceful protesters by the British army on April 13, 1919, and the historic Gobindgarh Fort, which has been developed into a live museum for the public.

And as much as you would fall in love with the history and architecture of Amritsar, you would not get the true Indian experience without a taste of northern Indian cuisine, and a quick stroll down the old streets of Amritsar for cheap goods.

And while the taste of ‘laddu’ or the ‘kulcha’ on your tongue might only last the flight back home, the experience of seeing the holy city and its iconic venues would definitely last a lifetime.

AirAsia operates four return flights each week, on Tuesdays, Thursday, Saturdays and Sundays, between Kuala Lumpur and Amritsar.

Living history

AS THE capital of Spain’s Andalusia region, Seville is famous for major landmarks that date back to the Moorish Almohad dynasty of the 12th century.

Three of them – the Cathedral of Saint Mary, the Royal Alcazar palace and the Archive of the Indies – are listed as Unesco’s World Heritage Sites.

The Cathedral of Saint Mary (better known as the Seville Cathedral) is a large Gothic-style structure built on the site of a former mosque, and is the third largest church in the world.

It was completed only after 101 years of construction in 1506.

Inside, there is a long nave covered by an ornate gilded ceiling 42 metres above.

The church has a large and beautiful Gothic altar piece of carved scenes from the life of Christ, built by Pierre Dancart.

There are 15 doors on the four sides of the building, and the cathedral has 80 chapels.

Besides being the final resting place of legendary Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, it also houses the tombs of Spanish monarchs Ferdinand III and Alfonso X, among others.

Some of the architectural features of the mosque which once stood on this site have been incorporated into the structure – like the columns and bell tower.

The cathedral’s Giralda tower began as a minaret built in 1194, and is one of only three remaining structures of its kind in the world.

When the Moors were conquered in 1248, King Alfonso X insisted that the tower not be destroyed. Instead, it was preserved and became the cathedral’s bell tower in 1402.

The Alcazar of Seville is another architectural wonder made up of Mudejar and Gothic styles. The palace complex has been featured in several films, including HBO’s Game of Thrones.

At the centre of the complex is King Pedro’s palace which was constructed in 1364.

The palace began as one of the many buildings built by the Moorish dynasty which came to power in 1161. The Moors built a grand mosque and palace called Al-Muwarak.

After gaining power, King Pedro I ordered the construction of his palace on the site, where the finest artisans were employed to create the Mudejar interior of the palace surrounded by majestic courtyards and patios.

Visitors can enter the complex via the Plaza del Triunfo through the Puerto del Leon gateway, underneath the figure of a lion on the glazed Azulejo tile panels.

Moving through a triple arch, you arrive at the Patio del la Monteria which borders on the original King’s palace. This beautiful patio has arched windows and Mudejar decorations.

The complex also features a magnificent gilded dome interlaced wood, tile decoration and tapestries, and horseshoe arches or Moorish arches.

There are also palatial gardens, ponds and loggia (rooms with an open side facing a garden).

In a grotto beneath the gardens, just before the exit, visitors will be greeted with the spectacular sight of the reflective, cold-water baths of the Dona Maria de Padilla.

Some 400km north of Seville is the historic university city of Salamanca, also known as La Dorada (the Golden City), due to its sun-kissed golden, orange and pink facades.

The city is the capital of Salamanca province and part of the Castile and Leon region. It is home to the Universidad de Salamanca, founded in the 1100s, which adds to the city’s vibrancy with its international student population.

One of the city’s landmarks and popular gathering area for both locals and tourists is the Plaza Mayor.

Located in the older part of the city, it was built in 1729 by architect Alberto Churriguera and surrounded by colonnaded loggias with each facade having a different number of arches.

The loggias house various restaurants, eateries, pubs and cafes where visitors can enjoy their food and drink while admiring the sight and soaking in the atmosphere.

Every night, at around 9.15pm, the whole Plaza Mayor will be lighted up. During this time, musical groups called Tunas play in the outside seating areas of the restaurants to entertain diners.

For more indepth insights into Spain, let Trafalgar show you the way with its many special curated guided tours. Visit Holiday Tours and Travel website at www.holidaytours.com.my.