Aussie adventure: Perth and Fremantle

If a visit to the Land Down Under isn’t on your bucket list, perhaps it should be. Australia has a well-deserved reputation as a place of stunning natural beauty and a relaxed, easygoing lifestyle that makes it a popular destination for travelers from around the world. The fact that its seasons are inverted also makes it an attractive option for those who might have a case of seasonal affective disorder and need some warmth and sunshine during those long winter months.

We visited Australia just after Christmas and were met at the airport by relatives who had emigrated to the country decades ago. We were also greeted by the warm summer air and a cool breeze which immediately put us in the mood for a laid-back, stress-free Aussie vacation.

Visiting Australia around Christmastime is a bit of an experience in and of itself because it can be pleasantly puzzling to those of us from the northern hemisphere to see Yuletide decorations during the middle of summer. But of course it is worth remembering that Aussies deserve a Christmas too, even if Frosty the Snowman wouldn’t fare too well in their heat.

Our extended Australian family were excellent hosts, arranging activities for us nearly every day, taking us out on a boat, feeding us and putting us up in one of their homes, all of which was a big advantage – both on our wallets and to make sure we made the most of our time. They showed us good spots for fishing and golfing and attractions off the beaten path. We were also informed that Aussies would never say “throw another shrimp on the barbie,” because they call them prawns, not shrimps.

Starting our Australian vacation in the Perth area of Western Australia (WA, which locals claim stands for “wine anytime”) we spent our first day at Kings Park and the adjacent Botanic Garden, featuring regional plant life and a nice view of Perth from the World War I Memorial.

A hike through the Botanic Garden is good way to get acquainted with the natural beauty of WA, with a highlight being the Lotterywest Federation Walkway – a glass and steel bridge that passes through a canopy of eucalyptus trees.

The following day we visited Cohunu Park, which is a large petting zoo home to typical Aussie wildlife such as kangaroos, emus, koalas, and dingoes. (The dingoes are safely ensconced in caged area, so don’t worry about them taking your baby.)

It is a fun place to visit, especially if you are traveling with children, and a good opportunity to see some Aussie animals up close, but be advised that it might feel like a bit of a rip-off. On top of the $15 entrance fee ($5 for kids), they also charge $30 to take a photo with a koala (per person, using your own camera) and tickets for a train around the park are $4 each. There is also no food for sale, so you might want to pack a picnic basket. Despite these minor drawbacks, the park is definitely worth a visit to see some Australian fauna, with the kangaroos a particular fascination for our three-year-old, Lea.

One advantage of having relatives in Australia is that we had access to both fishing and golfing gear, and we made good use of both. On New Year’s Day, we went beach fishing on Preston Beach, and were pretty successful catching herring using chicken breast and squid as bait. We all caught at least one or two, including Lea.

It is a lot of fun to drive out on the beach but keep in mind that you might not want to attempt it unless you have a four-wheel drive vehicle and a driver who knows what he or she is doing, otherwise you might get stuck. It’s also a good idea to let some air out of your tires which makes the vehicle more maneuverable on loose sand.

The next day we visited Serpentine Falls and played nine holes at the Serpentine golf course. This course is an excellent option for those on a budget, only costing $10, but keep in mind that you need to bring your own golf clubs. (They don’t mind if you share though so all you need is one set, and the dress code is also fairly relaxed, only asking that you don’t go shirtless or shoeless.)

The golf course was not busy at all which is an advantage for those of us whose golf game is a bit rusty – no pressure from other groups behind you waiting for you to get the ball in the hole. A good time to go is late afternoon, when it is a bit cooler and has the added benefit of seeing kangaroos coming out to graze at dusk.

Serpentine Falls is also worth a visit, another opportunity to see kangaroos up close as they hang around the picnic area hoping for a handout. (Feeding them is prohibited however.) Be sure to bring your bathing suit for a swim at the falls.

While in the Perth area, you wouldn’t want to miss visiting Fremantle and Rottnest Island. Get to Fremantle (or Freo, as the locals call it) early to take a look around the town before catching the ferry to Rottnest (or Rotto). The ferry ride can be a bit choppy so keep that in mind if you are prone to seasickness.

Rotto is a charming little island renowned for its native inhabitants called quokkas – which are cute, docile creatures that vaguely resemble large rats. (This is how the island got its name, with a Dutch explorer calling the place “Ratnest,” or “Rottnest” in Dutch.)

You should give yourself plenty of time on Rotto if you want to explore the island and do any activities like snorkeling or swimming. We got there a bit late in the day and didn’t have much time before having to catch the ferry back to the mainland, so we didn’t venture too far from the port – playing a game of minigolf and taking a few pictures of quokkas before getting back on the boat.

Freo is also worth devoting a good amount of time to. We didn’t have much time there on our first visit but were so impressed that we decided to come back a couple days later. It’s a pleasant, relaxed beach town characterized by classic Victorian and Edwardian architecture that reminded me of places in the southern U.S. such as Charleston, South Carolina, or Savannah, Georgia. It has a bit of a Bohemian, Wild West feel to it as well, and has been called the “hippest place in Australia.” Good opportunities for nightlife and live music if that’s your thing.

We started our day in Freo at the Maritime Museum which is very much worth a visit to see an impressive collection of boats, including the Australia II sailboat that won the America’s Cup in 1983, breaking a 132-year winning streak by the New York Yacht Club – an achievement that Aussies still seem rather proud of. Outside of the museum is a display of panels commemorating the arrival of immigrants to Australia and the ships on which they arrived. Take a moment to find your family names on the panels but keep in mind that they are not very well organized and incomplete.

There are many excellent dining options along the Freo waterfront and other attractions worth seeing such as the Roundhouse – Fremantle’s first prison and its oldest building – and the Markets, which offer all sorts of local wares and souvenirs, as well as fresh fruit. If you want to really explore the town, you should give yourself two or three days.

Finally we visited Perth, which is also worth a visit particularly if you want to get a sense of daily Aussie life and do some shopping. It is a bustling city of 1.8 million and easy to navigate using the metro system. Although there are not a lot of sight-seeing opportunities in the city, its central pedestrian street is nice to stroll along.

After spending almost two weeks in the Perth area, our journey continues with a flight to Alice Springs.

Moose, Vikings and Legos: Highlights from Sweden and Denmark

Sometimes the best travel plans are the simplest travel plans. Since we live in Denmark, it doesn’t get much simpler than travelling next door to Sweden for a countryside retreat, which is what we did for the first leg of our 2017 summer vacation.

The house we rented in Sweden was in a little town called Vittsjö, about an hour’s drive from Helsingborg. It was an idyllic country home with a pond on the property, which was surrounded by farmland. The house had no TV, internet connection or cell phone service so it was the perfect place to go to truly unplug and relax. We spent our days catching toads, making popcorn on an open fire, canoeing in the pond, and playing games.

We also visited the nearby Smålandet Moose Safari, which is a recommended visit if you are ever in the area. They have an impressive population of moose and bison, which are remarkable animals and if you have never seen any up close, definitely worth taking a look.

The second of leg of our vacation consisted of a couple days back at our house, while the third leg was a trip to Legoland, on the Danish peninsula known as Jutland. On the way to Legoland we stopped at the Trelleborg ring fortress for an annual Viking festival held every summer. We enjoyed the festival very much, and the girls were particularly transfixed by a storyteller who told tales from old Nordic mythology.

It was pleasing to see the girls so engrossed by traditional storytelling, offering a reminder that no matter how accustomed we become to the marvels of technology with our iPads and videos literally at our fingertips, some simple props and a good story still has the ability to hold a child’s attention.

The first day of our visit to Legoland was a wet one – with sporadic downpours throughout the day. We made the most of it though, doing some things that we probably wouldn’t have had the sun been out – for example, seeing a 3-D Lego cartoon at the movie theater and visiting the haunted house – and I must admit the short wait times to get on rides was a nice perk.

The following day was sunnier and warmer and we got to enjoy more of the rides that we couldn’t on the first day due to the rain. Naturally, the waiting times were longer than the previous day but not as bad as you might expect. The lines move pretty fast.

According to our daughters, the best rides were the merry-go-round, the Ferris wheel and the safari ride. They also enjoyed the gold mining activity, and Lea was especially proud of the gold medallion she won.

And of course, they loved the cotton candy, or candy floss as they call it in Denmark.

Memorable Minsk

Last week, I was in the Belarusian capital of Minsk for work, and although 90% of my time was spent at a hotel conference center, I did manage to see a few sights and get a general impression of the city. I can even make a recommendation or two.

One of the first things you notice about Minsk is how exceptionally clean it is. It is also a very walkable city, and although I did not have a chance to try it, the city’s metro system is supposed to be first-rate. The locals tend to be friendly and helpful, and I was also told (anecdotally) that they are generally honest. One of my colleagues lost a valuable pearl necklace and it turned up at the hotel’s lost-and-found rather than in a pawn shop, so that’s a good sign. It’s not all places that you might expect that to happen.

I had a chance to walk around one evening after work and found myself admiring the buildings quite a bit. While the architecture is generally done in the monumental socialist realist style, it has more charm than you might imagine. (The photo above is of the Palace of the Republic, which stands on Oktyabrskaya square. It is used for concerts, as well as conferences and political meetings.)

With more than 80% of Minsk destroyed during World War II, it is the perfect place to go if you want to see architecture from the Stalinist era – being that there are very few buildings that date back earlier than the 1950s, with the best Soviet architects completely rebuilding the city during that period. Some have even described Minsk as “a perfect Soviet city.”

It is also home to some beautiful Orthodox churches.

The highlight of my time in Minsk was a concert at the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre. It is an impressive building, and the performance inside was unforgettable – some of the most talented ballet dancers and opera singers I have ever seen.

Also, interestingly, the décor lining the walls inside the opera house featured hammers and sickles from the Soviet era.

This is actually a common sight around Minsk, where you will see many relics from the days of communism, including a statue of Lenin. While many former Soviet countries have tried to shed that image (including, for example, Ukraine, which in 2015 officially prohibited communist symbols in the country), Belarus is one of the few places where you can still see these symbols proudly on display.

So, if you are nostalgic, curious, or simply have an appreciation for history, it is certainly a place worth visiting.

Long, Fabulous Weekend in Rome and Pompeii

First off, let’s put to rest the notion that seeing the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Vatican Museums is too much for one day, or that you need to join a tour group in order to “do them properly.” In fact, it is not only doable, but highly enjoyable and remarkably stress-free if you plan your time well – and of course make the necessary reservations in order to skip the long ticket lines.

Having previously visited Rome, on a day trip from Tuscany some 15 years ago, I have always mildly regretted that I ended up staying at the Vatican too long and arrived at the Colosseum a few minutes after its closing time. It was bittersweet to examine the exterior of the Colosseum but not being able to go inside, and I always told myself that if I ever returned to Rome, the Colosseum would be at the top of my list of sights to see.

So, when my wife Malene expressed an interest one day about taking a trip to Rome (where she had never been), I began thinking about making a point of revisiting the historic Italian capital, and this time ensuring that all the items on my bucket list were checked off.


Then, of course, a monkey wrench was thrown into my planning when we watched the 2014 movie “Pompeii” (one and a half stars at Rotten Tomatoes) and both ended up with a desire to visit the ancient city destroyed (and at the same time, paradoxically, preserved) by the famous eruption of the Mount Vesuvius volcano two millennia ago.

Okay, so Rome and Pompeii it would be…

Anniversary Gift

After a couple years of mulling it over, finally, last fall I decided that for our fifth wedding anniversary in December, I would surprise Malene with tickets for a trip to both Rome and Pompeii which we would take over a long weekend in the spring, hopefully after recruiting the grandparents to watch over our two young daughters for a few days.

Without too many hiccups, the plan was set for a three-day visit (arriving on Thursday afternoon and leaving Sunday morning), and since a trip to Pompeii was arranged for Saturday, the trick was to ensure that all the most important sights in Rome were seen on Thursday and Friday.


We started Thursday afternoon by visiting the Pantheon, which was amazing, the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain, which were beautiful but massive tourist traps. (Pro tip: do not accept roses from the street peddlers unless you are willing to give money, no matter what you are told about these roses being “free.” They’re not free.)



Having already experienced the disappointment of missing the Colosseum 15 years earlier, I knew that planning was important in this regard, so I had gone online for advice a week before we had left for Rome.

Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail

In a thread at entitled “Are Forum/Colosseum and Vatican too much for one day?” a few commenters advised not to try cramming them into one day or simply expressed the opinion that the Forum/Colosseum and the Vatican each deserve their own day, but one piece of advice caught my eye, which I ended up printing out and making part of our itinerary for the trip.

A user by the name of Dave recommended that it is possible to do both in the same day without much hassle, as long as you start early. Be there by 9 AM, he advised. I’m glad we took his advice. We got there about 8:45 and since we had already purchased our tickets we were able to quickly make our way in.


Entering the Colosseum is a bit surreal. We all have some idea of the horrors that took place there, at least those of us who have seen “Gladiator,” but when you arrive, you realize that this is not just a place where a few bad things happened, but that its entire purpose was the depraved entertainment of privileged spectators by watching the less fortunate fight each other to the death – or, worse yet, by being torn apart by lions, bears and other wild animals.

The fact that the opening of the Colosseum back in 80 AD was celebrated with 100 days of “games” that featured gruesome deaths of thousands of animals and humans is a bit overwhelming when you confront the issue head on, and to be honest, I had the same feeling in the Colosseum as I once did when I visited the Auschwitz camp in Poland. Even nearly 2,000 years removed from those events, it’s hard not to contemplate human nature a bit and wonder if perhaps people are naturally just cruel and bloodthirsty.


But That Architecture

At the same time, while pondering our humanity and wondering if deep down perhaps we are a bit sadistic or maybe just fundamentally indifferent to the suffering of others, it is easy to also be taken in by the splendor of the place and recognizing it if nothing else as a rather impressive feat of engineering and architecture – especially for people operating a couple thousand years ago with what must have been relatively primitive construction methods (or maybe that’s just my 21st century historical bias).


My wife and I also noticed how the builders of the Colosseum used bricks that were surprisingly not much different than bricks that are used today. It turns out, in fact, that the ancient Romans developed the use of bricks under Emperor Augustus, borrowing techniques developed by the Greeks, and actually the technology hasn’t changed much to this day.

Déjà Vu

After about an hour in the Colosseum, we headed over to the Forum, which we enjoyed exploring for another hour or so. There were many beautiful and interesting sights to see, but if you have ever visited Athens’ Parthenon, Acropolis or Temple of Zeus you might get a sense of déjà vu. It occurred to Malene and me that, perhaps, one ancient ruins site might not be much different from another.

Forum Romanum

But of course, this shouldn’t be taken as a non-endorsement of the Roman Forum. By all means, if you visit Rome, you should see the Forum, if for no other reason than because, according to legend, it is the place were Rome was founded in 750 BC by Romulus, who, along with his twin brother Remus had been raised by a she-wolf. (Click here for more on that possibly apocryphal story.)

Forum Romanum

After getting our fill at the Forum, and a bit ahead of schedule, we proceeded to the Colosseo Metro station to catch the metro to Termini, changing to the A line and getting off at the Ottaviano stop metro stop where we had a delicious lunch at the nearby Duecentogradi sandwich shop before entering the Vatican Museums.

Skip the Lines

While making plans for our trip to Rome, I had been told that it is wise to make an appointment for the Vatican Museums rather than just showing up and buying a ticket. I cannot stress enough what a good idea this is. When we arrived at the Vatican Museums, we were taken aback by the exceptionally long line to get in, but then spoke to a Vatican employee and were reassured that since we had a 1:00 appointment, we could skip the line and head directly into the building to collect our tickets.

This made all the difference in the world, and for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why anyone would go to the Vatican without a reservation. I felt a little sorry for the people standing in line, wasting precious time standing out in the sun when they could have been inside making their way to the Sistine Chapel.  

Getting inside the Vatican Museums is a bit hectic, and for the first time, I really counted my blessings that we hadn’t brought our two young daughters on the trip. They would not have been happy, I don’t think, and most likely neither would Malene and I, so if you are thinking of taking small children to Rome, I would think twice. They probably won’t be very interested in the sights and keep in mind that many of the activities would be somewhat demanding for young children who tire easily. Rome is not terribly stroller-friendly either – or wheelchair-friendly, I suppose.


Malene and I decided to try to make a bee line for the Sistine Chapel, but in the Vatican Museums, going “directly” to the Sistine Chapel still means a long, winding walk through a number of cavernous buildings. It is indescribably beautiful though, and worth taking the time to savor. You end up walking down the most majestic hallways you have ever seen, which are covered with gorgeous frescos, magnificent sculptures and other ornate décor from floor to ceiling.

Sistine Chapel Raises the Bar

By the time we made it to the Sistine Chapel, I thought that I might have already had my fill of religiously inspired artwork, having just walked past hundreds of some of the most incredible paintings on earth, but this trepidation disappeared the moment we entered the room. It is quite simply breathtaking and awe-inspiring, and despite the fact that you are accompanied there by hundreds of tourists and there are guards shouting things like “No photos!” it is still a very special, personal moment that you are not likely to forget any time soon.

The only “problem” is that once you gaze upon that sight, you might become a tad jaded and maybe even slightly desensitized to other beautiful works of art. Indeed, after leaving the Sistine Chapel and seeing other paintings on display in the Vatican Museums, I would sort of shrug and think to myself, “Oh look, another masterpiece.” The Sistine Chapel certainly raises the bar of expectations when it comes to art appreciation.

After the Vatican Museums, Malene and I headed over to St. Peters Square with the intention of going inside St. Peters Basilica, but upon arrival we discovered one of the longest lines we had ever seen and decided that it probably wasn’t worth the wait. So, with no regrets, we opted out of entering the church and just absorbed the atmosphere at St. Peters Square, marveling that even Catholic nuns were made to wait in line with no VIP treatment whatsoever.



The next day was our big trip to Pompeii. I had booked a day trip through the company City Wonders, which I would highly recommend. The trip was well arranged with very engaging and knowledgeable tour guides who offered all sorts of interesting tidbits of information.


The tour started with a visit to Mt. Vesuvius, or Vesuvio as it is called in Italian. The tour guide made clear that it was optional whether we wanted to climb the volcano that was responsible for Pompeii’s destruction in 79 AD and Malene and I resolved that we would try to make it to the top. Although the climb started a bit rough, we found our stride and made our way up to the summit in no time. This is strongly recommended, both for the view you can enjoy at the top and sense of accomplishment, not to mention the fact that there are few people who can say that they have looked into the cone of an active volcano.


Proceeding from Vesuvio we stopped for lunch at a place that serves traditional Napolitano pizzas, which we were told are quite different from Roman pizzas. Malene ordered a Margherita pizza and I had a Bianca (white) pizza, both of which were delicious, and we decided based on our limited experience that Napolitano pizzas are better than Roman pizzas, but perhaps not quite as good as New York pizzas.

Following lunch we got back on the bus and made our way to Pompeii. Despite all the amazing highlights that we had already seen over the past couple days, there was little to prepare us for the amazing experience of Pompeii.


An Ancient City

The ancient ruins were remarkably well preserved and provided an intimate glimpse into life in the first century. As we started walking around, it began to dawn on me that this place was much bigger than I had expected. I suppose that I knew that it was a city, but as you start exploring, you realize that it really is, like, a city. Our tour guide was fantastic, explaining all sorts of details about the place that we wouldn’t have known without an expert, including insight into the lives of slaves at the gladiator school and prostitutes at the brothel.


While I would not necessarily recommend joining a guided tour of the Colosseum, Forum or Vatican, for the Pompeii leg of the visit, I would definitely suggest a guide – although, naturally the guided tour is only as good as the guide.


If we had another day in Rome, Malene and I would have liked to visit the Catacombs, but alas, we had to catch a flight back to Copenhagen. Next time, though, the Catacombs will be at the top of the to-do list – now that I think about it, a good reason to make a point of returning someday.