Little Ferry Big Fun

The writer and his family were guests of the Little Ferry Company.

What a difference people make. The experiences we have when we travel are always made better by the people we meet.  Those who greet us, escort us, serve us and manage our expectations turn a good time into a great adventure.

Skipper Kevyn, the owner and operator of the Little Ferry Company, may not be as pretty as his two little vessels but he’s a man of passion for his craft and his river.

The Little Ferry Company operates two electric vessels on the Swan River. The design of the boats is inspired by the Gatsby era of the 1920’s.  A brass bell, curved windows and elegant cedar trim are decadent maritime styling and stepping aboard is a wonderful feeling of comfort and nostalgia.

Casting off from Elizabeth Quay is a bit confusing for the ears. Expecting a chug-chug from the engines there is nothing to hear.  It’s quieter than a Prius.  It’s also more fun.

The two German electric motors operate on lithium batteries. The Germans learnt how to make electric marine motors for their renowned U-boat fleets of World War I and World War II. It’s a long way from the North Sea to the Swan River but the heritage is clear to see, hear and smell.  These are vessels that are void of vibration, fumes and noise.

As we make our way out of Elizabeth Quay on yet another blue sky Perth day, we turn to port and make our way up river. Sticking with the river channel boat traffic, there’s no getting away from the fact that these boats attract a lot of attention.  Perth boating traffic is always a bit friendlier than the road variety and the smiles and waves are certainly evidence of how attractive these vessels are.

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Elizabeth Quay is the home port for the Little Ferry Company

Skipper Kevyn gives impressive commentary ranging from the past, the present and the future. He talks passionately about the history of the Western Australian Rowing Club building, the current buildings along the foreshore and those that are up and coming, such as the remarkable Ku De Ta restaurant site on Point Fraser and the imposing Perth Stadium on the eastern bank opposite Claisebrook Cove.

For the kids, the vessels are a delight in not having to sit still. There are windows to stick heads out of, plenty of comfortable seats to try out and a skipper who’s only too happy to give a young sailor the opportunity to ring the brass bell as we enter Claisebrook Cove.

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Claisebrook Cove is an opportunity to grab a coffee from the numerous cafes or a beer and a meal from the Royal Hotel. Doing a walk around the precinct, including Trafalgar Bridge which spans the inlet, takes about 15 minutes and stretches the legs nicely before the return trip back to Elizabeth Quay.

There’s a great feeling of optimism about Skipper Kevyn and his Little Ferry Company. With the increase of services and attractions on the Swan River, the opportunity to travel to fresh new destinations in vessels that are beautiful and comfortable will appeal to day trippers, overseas tourists, wedding parties and old salts just wanting to get on the water.

Fact Box

The two vessels cruise the Swan Rover every day between 10am and 5:30pm and are located in Elizabeth Quay. The ferry can be boarded one way or return from Elizabeth Quay or Claisebrook Cove in East Perth.

Single fares for adults are $12 while a return fare is $22. A family fare return is $58.

For details on Little Ferry Company special offers and news call Kevyn on 0488 777 088 or check out the website on www.littleferryco.com.au

 

 

Rockingham Time

As a guest of Quest Apartments and Rockingham tourism operators, my family enjoyed a very busy weekender out of Perth.

Great weekenders, and the much savoured long weekend, often mean we try to travel as far as we can to somehow ensure the best time possible because we’re as far as we can be from home.

For so much of the Australian population, the state capital cities are our homes and these cities all have fond traditional weekend destinations. In Melbourne, the locals love Daylesford while in Sydney it might be the Blue Mountains.  In Brisbane there’s the Gold Coast while Adelaide has the Barossa Valley and Hobart has just about the whole island of Tasmania to choose from to get away for the weekend.

In Perth, Margaret River is the big one to head for. Close to four hours from Perth it is renowned for its opportunities to indulge and excite.

What about if I told you that south of Perth, just 45 minutes away, or north of Bunbury, just 90 minutes away, is a seaside community that offers high quality accommodation less than five minutes’ walk from the most remarkable beach and boardwalk in Western Australia and has a well-coordinated suite of tourist activities to interest anyone with a heartbeat?

For a breakaway with the family, and to shake off the beguiling summer laziness of the weeks immediately following Christmas, we headed to Rockingham to have an adventure and try out the Christmas presents, including the snorkel sets, boogie boards and beach towels.

For two days my family of four experienced the brilliant freshness and vibrancy of the Quest Apartments, a Rockingham Wildlife Encounters tour of Shoalwater Bay with dolphins, seals, ospreys and pelicans surrounding us for over two hours, a stand-up paddle board lesson tailored for all ages and dining experiences along the Palm Beach foreshore to rival and largely outdo the most popular Perth beachside eateries.

On top of this, I took the opportunity to experience the Jetpack experience available on Rockingham Beach and my son Tom enjoyed a ride on one of the jet skis available for tour group hire.

On a recent trip to Rockingham by a very different route I had arrived on Rockingham Beach after jumping out of a perfectly operating aircraft at 14000 feet.

As I had swung in my harness, linked in an embrace of clips and straps to my tandem skydiving instructor, I had looked around. We were high enough that there was curvature to the horizon and I could see Penguin Island and the smaller islands of Shoalwater Bay and the broad, thin white stretch of Palm Beach that marks the Rockingham foreshore.

It was at the Penguin Island jetty, where Shoalwater Bay meets Safety Bay that our weekend began. By mid-morning we were on the waters of Shoalwater Bay, within the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park.  Just past Seal Island we encountered a pod of ten dolphins.  Watching them graze on the sea grass below and lazily rise to breathe was remarkable but then the pod must have realised a few of us had cameras.  Sliding behind the wake of the boat they suddenly leapt from the water, spinning and splashing with what I am absolutely sure were smiles on their faces.

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Dolphins of Shoalwater Bay

We make our way around the bay and find some seals basking in the sunshine on Seal Island. All males, these seals get down to Rockingham from the islands around Lancelin to the north of Perth to escape the females and enjoy a bit of fishing and lazing about doing nothing on the beach.  Oh for the life.

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Dolphins of Shoalwater Bay with Seal Island in the background

It’s a tour with so much to see and while I probably am not usually too keen on commentaries, there is a lot worth listening to as well. After a quick stop on Penguin Island to successfully locate some little Fairy Penguins it’s back to the mainland, about a kilometre away, to complete this first adventure that has surprised and thrilled us all.

We make our way to the Quest Apartments and the kids are immediately impressed by the spaciousness of two adjoining rooms but before they can grab the remote control for the television it’s time to hit the beach and try out the snorkelling gear and boogie boards. Palm Beach has to be the best beach in Western Australia for a child to learn how to snorkel and Waikiki Beach, with the sea breeze in your back, has to be one of the best boogie boarding beaches.

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Quest Apartments Rockingham; new, fresh and close to all the action

That evening, we are sun blasted and salt encrusted and even though the kids are fading they don’t want to miss an opportunity to walk along Palm Beach once the sun has set and with torches and nets in hand they catch some prawns as they flick along the surface the water. It’s strictly catch and release as we’ve booked into Rustico’s, a popular tapas bar on the foreshore and with a big day deserving a big meal we suitably indulge and then walk back to our rooms for the evening where salty heads sleep soundly.

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Rustico’s Tapas on the Rockingham foreshore

The following morning after a great foreshore brekky we meet up with Bill at Surf Mania who is keen for us to have a go on a stand-up paddle board. I wish I had a few photos of us falling in after overbalancing but we are all surprised with how stable the boards are, particularly on the still waters of Palm Beach.  Just watch out for local resident, Bluey, when you’re walking through the water (see pic below).

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A very mean and bold blue manna crab, called Bluey, stopping me from getting closer to my family in the background.

We all take our turn and while I was obviously the best at standing up and paddling I don’t say anything to the family, choosing to wait until I can write and brag about the experience.

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Up and about on a Stand-Up-Paddleboard

Having completed the slow, calm and relaxing activity of stand-up paddle boarding we make our way a few hundred metres down the beach, about halfway between the café strip and where the skydivers are starting to land on the beach. We’re at one of Rockingham’s newest adventures, the jetpack experience.  The device works through a water jet propulsion system with arm levers that determine the direction you travel.  The controls are surprisingly sensitive and as Jetpack and Flyboarding Adventures operator Edward explains, you need to learn quickly how to vary your direction and altitude to avoid being dunked in the water.  It’s tough to get the hang of and you swallow a bit of water but it is something completely different and completely enjoyable.  With a bit of practise I’m sure I could be put to use doing stunts for the next James Bond movie.

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Up and about, and down with a splash, at Jetpack and Flyboard Adventures on Rockingham Beach.

Checking out of Quest Apartments later that afternoon I notice my daughter Matilda on the balcony taking a last look at the sea view. She turns and tells me that she is thinking about what I always tell her; if you’re sorry to leave it means you’ve had a great time.  She says she is very sorry to leave.

As we drive back to Perth I think about a family weekender we recently made to Broome, near the top of Western Australia. Broome is often described as being on ‘Broome Time’. I guess it’s meant to convey a slowing down, a lack of rushing about and taking it easy.

Is it possible we can enter a new description in the lexicon of Western Australian travel?

Rockingham Time.

Let Rockingham Time be a very Western Australian description for making the most of every minute. Let Rockingham Time be more than the traditional view of Rockingham being a pleasant day trip from Perth.  Let Rockingham Time be a weekend, or even better a long weekend to explore and indulge yourself, your friends and your family at full speed.

Whatever your age, whether it is a taste for dining or a thirst for adventure let Rockingham Time guide you through at least two days of exquisite time well spent.

Get to Rockingham. Get stuck in to what it has to offer.  Be exhausted and be alive.

Fact Box

Rockingham is 40km south of Perth and is home to the Royal Australian Navy’s biggest fleet base at Garden Island.

Quest Apartments Rockingham features 96 fully self-contained studio and one and two bedroom apartments with rates starting from $199 per night. Call 08 9591 0600 to enquire about their summer packages.

For information on tours, adventures and equipment hire in Rockingham call the Rockingham Visitor Centre on 9592 2778 or email enquiry.rtc@westnet.com.au

January 2017

A Day on Mandurah Waters

Taking the opportunity of a summer holiday day trip to Mandurah, I’ve hired a Bowrider Runabout from Mandurah Boat and Bike Hire. The drive from Perth to Mandurah takes less than an hour on the Kwinana Freeway and exiting at Mandjoogoordap Drive will lead you directly into Mandurah.

Driving a boat around the Mandurah canals and estuary isn’t as relaxing as being on open water. It’s a busy waterway system and even though you don’t need a Skippers Ticket to hire a boat from Mandurah Boat and Bike Hire, I’m glad I’ve got mine and know a few of the rules to keep things safe and friendly.

Less than a minute from leaving the jetty and while the kids are still laying down their towels on the bow lounge seats I spot dolphins ahead of us, just relaxing in the water in front of the huge Moreton Bay Fig tree at Stingray Point.

The tree was planted in 1930 and has been surviving well until in recent years too many cormorants have been nesting in the tree and the toxicity of their droppings has been burning the foliage.

After a slow chug through some of the nearby canals, admiring boats as big as houses and houses as big as castles, we head out to the estuary. At Boundary Island we cut the engine and drift up onto the beach. It’s a popular spot to stretch your legs and have a swim, although walking through the shallow water may result in undesirable interaction with the resident crabs.

Heading out into the broad expanse of the estuary the kids jump off the back of the boat and do a couple of laps of the boat before climbing aboard. We make our way back to our departure point at the same time as a lot of boats are heading back to various pens and ramps.

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Plenty of room to relax

Many of the boats on the water are pontoon hire boats and look to have two or more families on board. Fully shaded and with plenty of seating they look perfect for a day on the water with plenty of room to move about. Typical of my ungrateful mob, I am derided for not hiring a pontoon boat so I nudge our bow into the wake of a passing boat, slip sideways and allow a nice amount of water to spray over the bow and drench the wretched children.

Before returning the boat we take another look in the canals and easily locate more dolphins. I idle the engine and let the kids spot them surfacing, taking bets on where they’ll surface next.

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Matilda, Tom and Olivia spot the locals

After we return the boat we walk along the boardwalk, admiring the public art on display, and enjoying some Cicerello’s fish and chips and Simmo’s ice cream before heading back to Perth.

It’s an easy day trip break that hasn’t broken the bank or left us completely knackered. I reckon we’ll be back again next year but I’m guessing we’ll be on a pontoon boat with friends. That’s fine by me.

A Summer Freo Weekender is the Way To Go

Beginning a weekend escape in Fremantle is tough. Markets? Museums? Fish and chips? Coffee? Ice Cream? Suddenly, with a burble and then a roar, a new contender emerges to kick off our weekend like a cork leaving a bottle; jet boat.

West Coast Jet Boat met my brief for some fast speed action by cranking up an 80’s soundtrack of Aussie rock classics as the throttles were pushed forward on open water. As Midnight Oil’s Beds are Burning pounded the ears, the boat stopped and spun, pounding us with a tonne of water that rose up from the bow.

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West Coast Jet, a quick way to get wet

As we circled the Duyfken like some dorsal finned predator from the deep, I recalled the significance of this little replica ship. In 1606 the original Duyfken sailed around Cape York, met Aboriginal Australians and chartered 350 kilometres of the Cape York coast.

Albeit of less historical importance, our jet boat ride was a great experience for the family to share, enjoy and to get wet. With the amount of water coming into the boat it’s surprising there’s any water left in Gage Roads. Through salt blasted eyes, I notice Matilda in the row in front of me throw her arms up while I grip the rail behind her seat to keep myself steady. It’s a great ride and slide that lasts longer than I expected and is the perfect way to kick start our Fremantle weekend.

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West Coast Jet roars through Gage Roads

Leaving the boat, we walk, dripping wet, across to Esplanade Park. Before checking into the Esplanade Hotel Fremantle by Rydges, we have a ride on the Tourist Wheel Fremantle. Installed in 2013, this impressive wheel has comfortable gondolas to view Fremantle from a height of 40 metres. It’s a great way to look down on the port city and put everything in perspective; the harbour, museums and old west end are to the north of the park, shops and markets to the east and just below and to the west of us is Fishing Boat Harbour, sometimes called the fish and chips precinct.

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With our ride over we continue across the park and enter the Esplanade Hotel.

The first time I was at the Esplanade Hotel was in 1987. It was the Americas Cup and I was in the lobby when Marc Pajot, skipper of French Kiss, burst in through the entrance, brushing aside anyone in his way, including me. He’d just lost a race to KZ7, the New Zealand challenger, and was a bit upset.

Arriving now with my family beside me, it’s a very different feel from 1987. There’s not the chaos of 1987 and there are less Lacoste shirts and deck shoes as well. What I pick up right away is that wonderful sound you get when you enter atrium style hotels. It’s a hum. There is a life to this hotel. It makes you feel a part of it right away and the warm sunlight streaming in from windows high above the centre of the hotel add to the light, active atmosphere.

As I make my way across to the reception I find myself singing the WA tourism jingle from the late 80’s, “G’day from WA” (Give a smile and say, G’Day from WA!).

It’s not that the hotel reminds me of the 80’s, it’s just that it was a defining moment in our states history and the history of this hotel (the America’s Cup, not the jingle) and I’m finding it hard to shake (the jingle, not the America’s Cup).

There’s so much to do in Fremantle but we’ve elected to choose an easy path for this weekend. I haven’t got a bad word to say about Fremantle museums but for this trip I haven’t got any good words either. We’ve decided to stay away from the Museums and spend some time in the hotel pool. While the kids launch a giant inflatable pretzel, their parents enjoy a drink from the poolside bar before fighting the kids for rights to lay on the pretzel.

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Esplanade Fremantle Hotel, a beautiful oasis pool

As the sun sets on our afternoon by the pool, adjoining rooms provide plenty of space for all of us to get ready for dinner. We walk up to South Terrace and meet some friends for dinner at Pizza Bella Roma. Even though the sun has set, there’s still that floating summer evening light and it’s easy to see just how many people are out early for dinner. Along with the throng, cars drive slowly down the strip not for pedestrian safety but so that their drivers can imagine that everyone is remarking on what a wonderful job they’ve done polishing their cars all afternoon and making sure the stereo bass goes up to eleven.

After bruschetta, pizzas and vast veal schnitzels we search desperately for room in aching stomachs for ice cream. Resurrected by the summer breeze on the Cappuccino Strip, we make our way just up the street to Dolce Vita Gelato. No Neapolitan here. This is quality ice cream with a great choice of flavours and plenty of space to pull up chairs and all sit together. As I enter the age that my father was when I was a small boy I am now enjoying the flavours he did that I didn’t. Spearmint milkshakes. Rum and Raisin Ice cream.

With barely the energy to bid goodnight, we part company from good friends and mosey our way back to the hotel, just a short walk away, not quite enough to burn off even the tip of my waffle cone.

The next morning it’s off to the Fremantle Markets. Refurbished and revitalised in the mid 1970’s, the markets draw locals and tourists together.

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Fremantle Markets

As a kid, I used to love the market shops and hated the time mum would want to spend choosing the fruit and veg. Now the fresh produce is what I’m drawn to and I have to drag the kids along, telling them we have to look at all the fruit before picking the best and cheapest.

Within the markets, stall owners spruik and buskers of all ages seek a coin for their talents. Outside the markets there are street performers who are engaging and enthralling. Thankful for having my carefully chosen grapes to snack on, the kids sit down to watch as flaming torches are juggled, swords are tossed and spectators are heckled in good fun.

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Fremantle Markets

Back at the hotel, there is time for another swim before the Esplanade Hotel High Tea. Three tiers of scones, sandwiches, mini lemon meringue tarts and crème brulee’s in little pots with shortbread lids is the flourishing finale to our Fremantle weekend. What began with a wet, wild rush has ended in splendid, indulgent elegance.

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A casual, refined High Tea, Fremantle Esplanade Hotel style

 

Labuan: A very surprising and welcoming island

I featured Labuan Island in a recent interview on 6PR radio.  This article was written for Grand Dorsett Labuan.

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Grand Dorsett Labuan

I’m standing in the lobby of the Grand Dorsett Labuan amidst a crew of Dorsett Grand Labuan staff. They are about to perform their welcome song for my crew, an assortment of trekkers from various parts of Australia who have recently completed the Sandakan Ranau Death March Trek, retracing the footsteps of Prisoners of War in 1945.

I’ve been pulled into the group and handed the song sheet which is in English and Bahasa Malay. I keep up reasonably well even though I don’t know the tune and speak very limited Bahasa Malay.

The one image I have of this experience is looking up from my song sheet across at the singers alongside me as they belt out the line, “We welcome you to Dorsett Labuan!” and they’re singing with smiles on their faces. They’re not embarrassed and there’s no reluctance to show their pride and enthusiasm for their hotel.

My group of trekkers are spellbound. Many have travelled throughout the world and it’s the most heartfelt greeting any of them have received in a hotel. I used to think being gonged on arrival and handed a peach iced tea was pretty special but these guys are the best I’ve seen at welcoming guests.

The Dorsett Grand Labuan is the only five star hotel on the island and just minutes from the airport, waterfront and the busy town centre. The hotel receives regular awards for its customer service and with their singing staff I think they also have a good chance of winning Malaysia’s Got Talent.

Labuan Island is a territory of Malaysia off the western coast of Borneo and to the south of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah. It can accessed easily by plane or ferry or if you’re slightly more adventurous, by speed boat. Electing the speed boat route takes 20 minutes from the mainland and you motor past islands, shipwrecks and red hulled offshore drilling ships waiting for their next job.

The island has a wonderful pace about it and even the traffic is slower than you’ll find in other parts of South East Asia and distinctly more courteous.

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Labuan:  Where even a Ferrari will slow down to let you cross the road.

While most tourists come for the great duty free shopping, particularly the textiles and technology, there is also a very good museum with free entry located five minutes’ walk from the Dorsett Grand Labuan. The colourful history and cultural themes of Labuan is well documented with many interesting and interpretive displays.

The first Governor of Labuan, James Brooke, was better suited to his original inspiration for coming to Borneo in the 1800’s.  After some strategic discussion at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, Brooke set off across the South China Sea to rid Borneo of its Pirates.  He was better at being swashbuckling than sitting behind a desk but those who took his place have done a magnificent job of creating an island where the shopping is brilliant, the history is rich, the hawker markets are cheap and delicious and the diving and fishing is just about unbeatable anywhere in the world. For those with a love of reality tv, Survivor Island, where the first ever Survivor series was set, is located nearby to the north and tours allow you to wallow in the same mud pools as the contestants, including a nude Richard Hatch.

My trekking group have come to Labuan to bind together the Sandakan Death March Trek that began with many days of trekking through mountainous Borneo jungle and then riding a stock carriage train to the coast, then a fast boat to the island. Every step we’ve taken and the stories we have talked about have led us to Labuan War Cemetery, the final resting place for the few whose remains are known and the many who are only ‘Known Unto God’.

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Labuan War Cemetery

As we walk the lines of memorial graves we think about the Australian and British Prisoners of War who perished at Sandakan and Ranau and on the three death marches in 1945. We think about how the final 15 prisoners were shot and killed 12 days after the war had finished. From 2434 Australian and British Prisoners of War, only 6 survived.

We stand in front of Richard Murray’s grave. He stepped forward from a line of men and said that he alone stole rice, knowing he would be killed. Stealing rice was a capital offence and he sacrificed his life so that others may live.

We stand in front of Captain John Oakeshott’s grave, a doctor who had the opportunity to escape but decided to stay with the sick. He was one those killed 12 days after the war had ended.

As a fighter jet from the Royal Malaysian Air Force flies over the Cross of Sacrifice at the cemetery we also remember the sacrifice of so many local people from Sabah and Sarawak who were killed during World War II and the bravery of those who provided assistance to the prisoners.

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The Royal Malaysian Air Force pays tribute to the fallen from the Empire.

It is a beautiful war cemetery, well maintained by Labuan authorities and staff are on site Monday to Friday from 7am to 4:30pm.

While the trek has been physically exhausting the walk through Labuan War Cemetery has been emotionally exhausting. Returning to the Dorsett Grand Labuan, our group is quiet and some choose to just sit in the lobby while others go off to breakfast, for a swim or a play with the resident sun loving cat.

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Susan Carlos is a wonderful General Manager of the Grand Dorsett Labuan but this cat is truly in charge.

For each us, in our own way, we find the space to reflect on our journey. I’ve cried during this trek but for now I am smiling. As I remember the staff at the hotel who sang to us I know I have to come back and share this experience with others, for the history of the past and for the friendships of the future.

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Back to Borneo, the race is on!

Escape Travel (Sunday newspapers)Legoland – The building blocks for an amazing family adventure

Published by Escape travel supplement for Australian Sunday newspapers. 

The writer and his family were guests of Tourism Malaysia, Tourism Johor and Tiger Air.

In life, when we have a straightforward decision to make we often use the expression that the decision is black and white. This means it’s an easy decision to make. There aren’t a lot of options or consequences.

For a family holiday the typical black and white decision might be something like, ‘Shall we holiday in Australia or go overseas?’ or ‘Shall we have an adventure or enjoy the luxury of a resort?’

I have just discovered that life is not just black and white. It is also blue. It is red. It is green and yellow and orange. It is just about every colour you can imagine. Life is Lego.

Without doubt one of the most wonderful memories I have of arriving at the Legoland Hotel was all of us bursting out laughing with sheer happiness at how wonderful the hotel looked.

Two adults and two children were just in awe of this hotel that looks like it’s built of Lego bricks. It’s got big blue turrets, an exterior staircase made out of oddly coloured Lego bricks and over the entrance is a gigantic green dragon whose bottom has smashed through the roof.

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If you needed any persuading that it couldn’t possibly be as gloriously bold and bright as I’m describing, let me just refer you to the doorman’s stand at the entrance. You know that stand you go to outside a hotel front door when you want to ask the doorman to get you a taxi or ask if there is an umbrella you could borrow? Well this stand is a big green Lego brick. Even the signs that the security guards carry at the entrance to the theme park that say, ‘Security Check’ are made of Lego.

If you’ve missed the exterior of the hotel upon your arrival the interior is even brighter and is chaotic. There is a large Lego castle and Lego pirate ship in the middle of the reception area and there pits full of Lego bricks where children are deliriously building whatever they want, no instructions required.

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Have you ever wanted to burst into song in a lift full of strangers? If you are shouting out ‘Yes!’ then make your way please to the Legoland Hotel at Jahor Bahru, Malaysia. As the doors close in each lift a mirror ball starts to spin, flashing lights swirl in the confined space and disco music begins. I feel sorry for those people who are on the lower floors as Dancing Queen is only just getting going when they have to get out. We get a longer ride and by the time our doors open we strut out of the lift still singing and striking poses that ABBA’s Agnetha and Anni-Frid could only dream about.

The 249 rooms throughout the hotel are all themed. We’ve got ourselves an Adventure room overlooking Legoland. On the shelves and walls of our room there are life-size Lego monkeys, parrots, lizards and snakes while in the bathroom above the toilet is a giant Lego tarantula and above the sink is a giant Lego scorpion. On another wall in the bathroom is a Lego hat like Indiana Jones would wear.

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The carpets are themed. The walls are themed and the bed linen and pillows all represent your theme. Even the hallways outside your room continue your theme.

I’m not sure what dangers lurk on the Kingdom and Pirate themed floors but whenever we leave our room Matilda and Tom keep pushing me over, trying to save me from falling down the ‘open trap doors’ on the carpet.

Not long after we settle into our room the kids complete the quiz that reveals a code to the room safe (guarded by a large Lego monkey). Inside the safe there are prizes for the kids and then there’s a knock on the door.

At the door is Daphne Tan, the Public Relations Manager, Sales and Marketing, for Legoland Malaysia Resort. I’ve been keen to meet Daphne who is so enthusiastic about the resort facilities.

I don’t know if she’s ever seen a more excited family than ours and with our loud voices and the kids running around, I’m sure that when she got back into one of those disco lifts she enjoyed the relative peace and quiet.

With a few hours before sunset and a bright blue sky outside we decide to head out to the water park. From our room, down the disco lifts and out to the water park takes us less than five minutes.

We head straight for the Build-A-Raft River, a lazy winding river with lots of tubes to drift on. There are giant Lego clams that squirt water at you and there are Lego bricks that drift by and you can collect them and build your own raft. Our construction is more like flotsam than a raft but it does the job as Tom perches on top and it’s kept stable by his patient sister.

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Next stop is the wave pool. Quite shallow and with waves regularly rolling through, it’s an opportunity to actually have a peaceful float, looking up at the giant Legoland sign on the hill and studying the amazing architecture of the hotel.

Moments later I’m told it’s time to move on, not by one of the numerous life guards but by two children desperate to ride the Red Rush. This ride is a very high and wide waterslide and you climb into a big circular life raft to make your descent. It spins around enough to cause a few screams but not scary enough to stop the kids bolting back up to the top to do it again…and again.

We slow down the pace after multiple Red Rush rides and try out the make-a-boat. This is the moment where I am back in my own childhood in my old cast iron bath with claw feet. I’d build boats out of my bricks and sail them on storm tossed seas made by swaying my legs back and forth. Occasionally my waves would spill over the top, carrying my boat over the edge and breaking into pieces on the bathroom floor.

Matilda and Tom are building a boat and I set to work making my own. When we’re finished we run to the start of the obstacle course that the boats have to make their way down. There’s a starters gate and we count down for our race and are held up momentarily by other kids who also want to race their boats.

Moments later they’re off and my boat immediately twists to one side and is rolled underwater by another boat and crushed, just like my dreams of victory. Somehow, Matilda and Tom’s boat escapes the carnage and reaches the bottom first, a triumph for the little family from Australia!

A few more slides, a few more thrills and it’s time to go back to the hotel, to have a shower with the tarantula and scorpion in the bathroom (using Legoland Hotel soap in the shape of a Lego brick of course).

The next day we make the five minute walk to Legoland, this time without our bathers. After having a chat with the red Ninjago character we head off towards our first stop, Legoland Driving School. After a DVD presentation on the rules of the road and a briefing from an instructor on what they learnt from the DVD the kids make their way outside to the vehicles. The course replicates a real road environment complete with traffic lights, roundabouts and all sorts of signs.

I have a photo of Tom driving his car that I will pass on to his driving instructor in about ten year’s time. Despite the lessons, despite the briefing, despite the six foot bright white arrow painted on the road, there is Tom, looking intently ahead, on the wrong side of the road.

About this time last year Tom was lucky enough to spend some time with Formula 1 Grand Prix driver, Daniel Riccardio. They had a chat and Tom gave Daniel one of his Hot Wheels cars. Perhaps Daniel gave Tom some tips on using the road a bit differently to the rest of us.

Legoland has more than 70 rides and exhibitions. Throughout the day we are on rides, off rides and looking at amazing Lego creations, including the recreation in Lego of Asian landmarks in Miniland and the Star Wars exhibition. Watching the Millennium Falcon rise up while being blasted by little Star Wars Lego Stormtroopers with blinking lights coming out of their blasters was amazing … for all ages.

There are roller coasters to ride before lunch, and some you shouldn’t go on after lunch. There are also opportunities to get creative by building your own designs. We have a go at constructing a high rise building and then hitting the earthquake button. I’m glad we don’t live in any of the buildings we made. We make cars and race them down a slope. Just like the boat building challenge of yesterday, my skills are old school and obsolete. I am lost. I sit at a table trying to work out how various pieces fit together but my fingers look up at me as if to say, “Give up now old man. Leave it to the kids.”

The trick for any theme park is to be something for everyone. Legoland works because Lego transcends age and ability. Even though I couldn’t put together a car using Lego Technic, there are old school bricks and there are big Duplo bricks for the really little kids. That consideration of all ages is really what defines the Legoland Hotel and Legoland water and theme parks.

Thinking of everyone is difficult but it’s what Legoland does best. Even the toilets have low facilities for little kids, accompanied by low sinks and hand dryers.

What surprised me the most during our time in the land of Lego was meeting so many Australian families who had just driven across for a day trip from holidaying on Singapore. We stayed for two nights at the Legoland Hotel and in that time had easy access to the water and theme parks. We also travelled through Jahor Bahru to the whimsical Hello Kitty Town and saw the amazing shopping centres that attract Singapore locals.

For one evening we travelled out of Jahor Bahru to the Sungai Lebam for a firefly cruise. Far from the dizzying sights and sounds of Legoland we sat in silence, apart from the gentle splashing of the mangroves by a crewman to awaken the fireflies.

Tom and Matilda held fireflies in gentle, cupped hands. We proved that great experiences for kids can contrast. Legoland is full of splendour and spectacle that has your senses reeling by the end of the day. For the firefly cruise, my kids had their senses reeling by just sitting still and watching the flights of light float around them.

As part of this evening adventure we also had an extraordinary dinner at the jetty used by our cruise vessel. The Restoran Bujang Terapung served us some of the best fish and crabs I’ve ever eaten and gave us a tour of the live seafood pens afterwards, including the gentle handling of a huge horseshoe crab which resembled a cross between one of Sigourney Weaver’s aliens and a Roomba vacuum cleaner.

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When we leave for Singapore, I talk to our driver, Habib, about my love of Nasi Lemak. All of a sudden we’re off the beaten track and we’re just around the corner from where Habib lives, at his local street side eatery. Minutes later we’re seated around local families he knows well, I have a new baby in my arms from the family sitting next to us and on our table are four huge bowls of cendol, plus a banana leaf wrapped nasi lemak for me and plates of fish batter sausages, deep fried bananas and donuts for the rest of the family. The cendol is the best I have ever had. The savoury mix of corn kernels with kidney beans and the sweetness of the pandan flavoured jelly in the shape of string beans, all mixed together with ice and coconut milk is a delicious treat to be long remembered for the experience and the taste.

If Legoland is your destination then make it your accommodation as well. The hotel is an adventure in itself and access to the theme parks is easy, particularly considering hotel guests are granted access to Legoland an hour before the gates open to the public. You will also have the time to have adventures and experiences around Jahore Bahru that will astound you. If even the Singapore locals go to Jahor Bahru for the shopping that should also tell you something about the worth of having a longer stay in this part of the world.

So, it’s not a black and white decision to just visit Legoland. It is a fabulous, bright, multi-coloured decision that, chosen wisely, will see you experience a wonderful theme park and a beautiful part of the world.

GETTING THERE

Legoland Malaysia is west of Johor Bahru, the capital city of Johor. Fly to Singapore and take a taxi across the causeway to Johor Bahru or fly to Kuala Lumpur and then catch a short flight down to Johor’s Senai International Airport. It is a one-hour drive from Singapore’s Changi International Airport and 20 minutes from Johor’s Senai Airport.

Many airlines fly from Australian capital cities to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, including Qantas, Malaysia Airlines, Malindo Air, AirAsia and Singapore Airlines. My family travelled to Singapore from Bali on Tiger Air.

STAYING THERE

At the Legoland Hotel, all deluxe and suite rooms can sleep up to eight people. All standard and premium rooms can sleep up to five people. An Adventure-themed premium room will cost about $203 and each room has its own treasure hunt, Lego bricks to build (and step on) and all guests have entry to the Legoland Theme Park and Legoland Water Park one hour before the gates open to the public. An adult one-day ticket combo includes entry to the theme park and water park and is RM180 ($A56). A child one-day ticket combo is RM144.

EATING THERE

The hotel’s buffet restaurant caters to all ages, tastes and styles while the theme parks have a variety of fast food restaurants and snack bars. Just make sure you save the burgers for after the roller coasters.

For some excellent traditional Malaysian cuisine, try the street stalls throughout Johor Bahru. One highlight is the slightly bizarre cendol, a traditional dessert made with green jelly noodles, ice and coconut milk with added extras on request such as beans and corn.

Singapore in a Beautiful Hurry

The writer was a guest of the Mandarin Oriental, Singapore Flyer and Tiger Air.

For a recent trip to Singapore, travelling from Bali, my family elects the Singapore headquartered Tiger Air to carry us. Tiger Air is now part of the Value Alliance, the world’s largest partnership of leading low cost airlines.

Our flight meets and exceeds our expectations. We leave on time, arrive early and get our bags quickly. I could leave it at that for my expectations but there are also some other experiences that deserve a mention. Before the flight, Tom (6) is invited to the cockpit to meet the pilots and study the dizzying array of instruments. He talks to the pilots who have noticed his t-shirt has an aircraft print on it. It’s a visit I’m allowed to photograph and will later feature in his presentation for class news when school resumes.

Taking our seats, Matilda and Tom are each presented with Tiger Air gift bags with a soft tiger toy. It settles the kids well, particularly given their concerns for not having movies to watch like the full service airlines provide. It’s easy to forget a time when there was no personalised inflight entertainment offering games, tv shows, movies and music. Tiger Air have got around the lack of entertainment by providing a friendly service that includes making conversation and taking the time to look after the kids.

For most of our family, we have visited Singapore before. For our youngest member, Tom, it’s a first look at this remarkable island. We only have two days and Tom is still a bit short to go on many of the rides available at the theme parks on nearby Sentosa Island.

Ruling out Sentosa we also decide to give Singapore Zoo a miss this time. It’s a spectacular zoo that we have enjoyed by day and by night in years past (sans Tom).

Singapore has so much to offer that even without being drawn to the drawcards of the zoo or Sentosa Island we have decided to spend our time within walking distance of our hotel.

We arrive at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, perfectly placed in the heart of Singapore and looking out in all directions thanks to its oriental fan shape design. The Mandarin Oriental has 527 rooms and suites and we’re lucky enough to have two rooms overlooking Marina Bay.

For a number of years I have heard people describe atrium style hotels as outdated but it’s not my love of all things 80’s that is responsible for my love of atrium style hotels. I love that wonderful sound you get when you enter atrium style hotels. It’s a hum. You can hear the life of the hotel. It makes you feel a part of it right away and the warm sunlight streaming in from high above the centre of the hotel add to the light, active atmosphere. Glass elevators glide up the sides of a column that rises up from the centre of the hotel.

As night falls, Marina Bay becomes one of the most spectacular city sights in the world. Each of our two rooms has a wall sized panoramic window that feels as if the activities on Marina Bay are there to entertain just us. Way out to the left are the Gardens By The Bay while dominating the Marina Bay landscape is the Marina Bay Sands Hotel with its three tiers, topped by a structure surely inspired by Noah’s Ark. In front of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel is the ArtScience Museum, described as resembling an opening lotus flower and often referred to as the welcoming hand of Singapore.

Further around the bay is the Fullerton Hotel. The former 1920’s post office basks in its colonial past with architecture designed when the British Empire was at its height. In front of the Fullerton Hotel is the Merlion statue, water cascading from its mouth into the bay. Closer to the Mandarin Oriental is the Esplanade Theatre building, resembling the biggest durian fruit you’ve ever seen and on the waterfront near the hotel is a street food market with sizzling satay sticks and giant crabs trussed up, waiting to be cooked with black pepper or maybe chilli and garlic.

Having taken in the view, taken a breath and taken in the view again, it’s time to head out. We’ve got a booking on the Singapore Flyer, one of the world’s greatest giant observation wheels. In your capsule at the top, you are 165 metres off the ground and you have 360 degree views of Singapore and the sea beyond.

The Singapore Flyer doesn’t stop and you step into your capsule as it slowly rotates through its orbit. For half an hour you can look at the islands great landmarks and you have plenty of time to try out the various features of your camera to get some spectacular photos.

It’s a great way to start your Singapore adventure. While it’s gentle and relaxing, the anxiety starts to build that there is just so much to see and do. Perhaps it would be better to do the Singapore Flyer at the end of your adventure so you could look out at everything you’ve done. I’ll leave it to you to decide.

The Singapore Flyer venue includes hawker style food stalls and a gift shop with plenty of merchandise to stock up for friends, family and work colleagues.

On our way back to the hotel we walk along the waterfront and through a food market busy with locals all bustling for the food being sizzled and grilled to order. Back in our room we’re just in time to sit at our window and watch the laser show that takes place on Marina Bay each evening. Streaks of purple and green scan across the bay but tiredness is setting in and as we take the shopping bags off the beds they are quickly replaced by sleepy heads.

The following day the family spend some time in the 25 metre swimming pool that while not quite on the rooftop is certainly up high and has great views of the city skyline.

Singapore has always used space very well. There is room to work, rest and play, and breathe. The Mandarin Oriental similarly uses its space very well. Apart from the space created by my beloved atrium, the views from the in-house Chinese restaurant are of a green belt of foliage on a large balcony, beyond which is the congestion of buildings clamouring for the sky. Around the pool deck there is wide open space and more foliage that breaks up the city skyline.

While the family are swimming, I have gone to the hotels spa for the signature spa treatment. They have their work cut out for them with me. I have had one spa treatment before in my life and as I tell the staff, it resulted in me mistaking the disposable underpants as a hairnet. Added to this sense of unfamiliarity and anxiety is the damage I have done to myself in recently climbing a mountain. We discuss my blackened toes and agree that they should not be touched. I’m not sure who was most relieved not to touch them.

The signature spa therapy devised for me considers my anxiety and desire for a simple experience that is enjoyable and therapeutic. I answer a questionnaire about my health as honestly as I can and in consultation with my therapist we selected oil aromas that calm me and actually stop my mind and body fighting each other. I stop thinking about what’s coming up next in my life. I stop thinking about what I need to do for my family. I just stop. I relax.

I returned to my family still with blackened toes but with a spirit that was soaring higher than any summit I’ve stood upon.

My rejuvenation was quickly tested by our next Singapore excursion. It’s time to pick some shopping malls to visit and close to our hotel is the Raffles City Mall, Suntec and Marina Square, all renowned for having plenty of opportunities for all ages to find something to buy.

Our mission is to make Matilda’s day. She has read somewhere, months earlier, about Bonheur Patisserie who specialise in gorgeous macrons. Macarons and Matilda go hand in hand, or hand to mouth as the case may be. We make our way to Raffles City Mall, pausing for a photo with the kids outside the Raffles Hotel. The Long Bar is calling me back after many years of absence but Matilda’s needs are greater.

Watching her gaze in wonder at the assortment of macarons at Bonheur Patisserie is a greater joy to me than any Tiger beer and a bowl of peanuts at the Long Bar could ever provide. We all choose a flavour to savour and not a word is spoken as we ensure each little crumb is gathered and devoured. My Rum and Raisin is rich and strong while the Earl Grey, Nutella and Salted Caramel all carry distinctive flavours that linger.

That evening we walk over to the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands and have a superhero themed dinner at the Super Heroes Cafe before walking to the Gardens By The Bay. For the time we have and the little legs wearing out we decide to forego exploring the 101 hectares of pavilions, domes, lakes, sculptures and conservatories and make our way straight to the Supertrees. These giant structures are between 25 and 50 metres tall, filled with vertical gardens and come to life at night with a display of light and sound described by Tom as ‘Epic!’

I’ve secured tickets for the OCBC Skyway, a steel platform that links several of the Supertrees together. It’s 22 metres off the ground and 128 metres long.

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We’re allowed just fifteen minutes to walk on it and take in the view of this amazing botanic park and the city lights beyond. It’s our last adventure in Singapore before heading to Changi airport and it leaves a wonderful impression on all of us.

We leave Singapore having met our challenge. More than that, we have had fun together without having to go our separate ways. We’ve stayed in luxury together, eaten and shopped together, enjoyed adventures together and we’ve done it all by walking distances that weren’t too much for even the youngest member of the team. Not bad for just two days. Next time we’ll make it four.