Dubai

A Desert Oasis!

May 2017 saw my return visit to Dubai. The 17hour direct flight on Emirates is certainly do-able, as the airline is very comfortable, even in Economy class. The place had changed a lot since my last trip back in 2009 when the GFC had just hit. The new mecca of skyscrapers provide a nice mix with old Dubai. The contrasts were quite unique, yet in a funny way, it all works.

The Emirati men are immaculately groomed, and even though the traditional Abaya covers 95% of a woman, the detail of facial make up worn is a work of art. My local guide, Muhammad told me he goes to great lengths and spends a small fortune on his barber, who razor sculpts with precision his “perfect” goatee every week – these people take pride in appearance.

The dress sense, although still to be described as “conservative”, has relaxed a little over the years. I did see a few more expat ladies wearing shorts and sleeveless tops while out during the day. However, when out in public, I do suggest visitors be respectful of the culture and dress accordingly.

Dubai was buzzing again, tourists were back, especially in the hot spots such as Burj Khalifa Tower, The Dubai Fountains, Souks, Jumeirah Beach area and eateries. Wealth is everywhere, most noticeably with designer brands & cars. Where it is normal for us to see an abundance of Japanese cars on our roads, in Dubai, Ferrari’s, Porsches and Lamborghinis are the “go to” modes of transport.

85% of Dubai population are expatriates. Those I had the opportunity to speak to, all spoke very highly of working in Dubai and how well they are treated. They are able to earn a decent living and send the majority of their income back to their home countries. Many have taken the bold step and ventured to Dubai on their own, so the draw to find “your own kind” is quite prevalent here.

The weather was warm, my hottest day peaked at 41°C, but as it was a dry heat, it was surprisingly bearable. As long as you are aware of what to expect, you can be mentally and physically prepared for those hot dry temperatures.

I was fortunate enough to head out to Abu Dhabi and visit the Grand Mosque. Now I am not normally a great church/mosque kind of gal, but I have to say, it took my breath away. The sheer beauty and grandeur of the building both interior & exterior was mind blowing. I was also very pleased to see how respectful they were of the extremely strict dress code. You had to adhere to it, otherwise you were denied entry, and this scrutiny applied to both men and woman.

On one of my evenings, I ventured out on one of the Dune Bashing excursions. What an experience, the drive out is exciting & fun, however, if you do suffer from motion sickness, best you ask for the front seat. You end up at a dinner oasis set up in the middle of the desert where henna tattoos, camel rides & shisha pipes are all on offer. Food, culture & entertainment are all rolled into one unforgettable evening.

Dubai, is definitely worth a visit at some stage in your lifetime.

Winnie

St Petersburg Russia

Your average first timer might expect to see clapped out Ladas belching smoke, cabbage and spuds on every menu, a rough and tumble landscape and gruff inhabitants lamenting the weather. St Petersburg today could not be more different, it is a sensational visit.

Come and you will find a city endowed with gorgeous architecture, each building beautifully kept and presented. In downtown St Petersburg there are no hi-rises, no ultra modern steel edifices to get in your face, it’s all about historic architecture. Buildings are just 4 stories high, each with a splendid façade looking onto cobblestone streets. Slick, clean canals branch off the main harbour and meander through downtown. Long flat boats packed with wide eyed tourists glide these waterways, taking it all in. Nevsky Prospect is the main thoroughfare, a bold wide boulevard dissecting the city. It is flanked by lovely shops and busy bars. Coffee and beer is served just like you would find in Barcelona or any other European city. From Nevsky you can see impressive tall buildings scattered across all four corners of your vista. Bigger and even more impressive than their residential neighbours these spectacular churches dominate the skyline. Each one send huge arched rooftops adorned with a massive cover of bright shining gold high into the sky. This gold is spectacular, it really says I’m important, let me shine.

To pick just a couple to visit… the church of the Saviour on blood is a 5-10 minute walk along the Canal off Nevsky Prospect. It is a stunning example of baroque and neo classical styles with amazing mosaics. It’s definitely worth a visit. Then there is St Isaacs, the 4th largest cathedral in the world. It is big and bold, the big tough cousin of beautiful Saviour, stunning edifice inside and out.

Equally spectacular but for other reasons is the Hermitage Museum of art and culture…. Spread across 5 massive historic buildings and with over 3 million exhibits this attraction is an absolute must see in St Petersburg.

The St Petersburg underground metro system is something to behold. London, come take a look at what a clean transport system looks like. No-one eats or drinks on the metro, it is perfectly squeaky clean. And it’s not just a practical way to get around, it’s also beautiful, with statues and artistic features that would be right at home in any art gallery. Some of the enormously long escalators are fascinating to behold… transporting commuters a full 100metres beneath the streets.

This description is merely scratching the surface of what there is to see and do. Definitely put St Petersburg it on your to-do list

Wayne

Laos

My New Venture

As I near the half century mark, I have made a conscious decision to try to visit a different country every year for the rest of my life. So I started 2017 with Laos. I’ve always wanted to go there and I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

I arrived into Vientiane airport and made my way into town where we were staying at the Settha Palace, which is a gorgeous boutique hotel. Our hotel was conveniently located within easy walking distances to restaurants, bars, shops and numerous spa houses. The city is dotted with small hotels of varying star ranking. If you are looking for the larger more corporate and/or group hotels, they are located about 10mins out of the centre. By far the flashest hotel would be The Landmark, which also hosted Barack Obama not so long ago.

In the evenings, alongside the river, Vientiane has a large market which is open every day where you can buy t-shirts, sports shoes, souvenirs etc. If shopping is not your thing, approx. 50m away, you can partake in one of their outdoor aerobics classes.

We found ourselves a rooftop bar and a seat out on the terrace, where we perched and watched the evening unfold before us. 2 powered paragliders were flying over and around the markets as well. I have to say, the river was the place to be- it was a real combination of sights.

After our drink we moved on to dinner, and found an open air restaurant located on the beach. Had we been back in NZ, this place would have been deemed a wreck. The deck was wonky, the walkways were uneven, the stairs were narrow and steep – but you know what, it was packed. Our waiter didn’t speak English, but we got by with lots of smiles and lots of pointing,….unlike the American tourist at the next table, who thought if he spoke loudly to his waiter that he would somehow understand English better…nah, not a happening thing!

In the evening, local hawkers with their food stalls line the streets…..on that note, Vietiane doesn’t seem to have a lot of footpath space, so you find yourself walking on the edge of the roads a lot of the time. Keep an eye out for the open drains & cracked pavers, a trap for young players walking home in the dark.

Ensure you see the highlights of the city and head out to visit some of the renowned temples areas such as Wat Sisaket, Haw Phra Kaew and Phra That Luang. Always remember to dress appropriately for these temples by covering knees & shoulders.

Luang Prabang was our next stop – after a quick flight we found ourselves in a UNESCO World Heritage city. Everything was “quaint” and “cute”. Small guesthouses ranging from 8-35 rooms where permitted in the centre, which is what gives the town its charm, no great big buildings or hotels. They also have a bright and colourful market that runs every evening.

An experience that I can now tick off my bucket list was the Tak Bat. At 5.30am you head into town and wait in the streets for the hundreds of saffron robed Monks to walk silently down from their temples to receive (alms) your food offerings. This daily ritual is a lovely opportunity to get up close and personal with the monks.

Restaurants are found all along the waterfront, so selecting a little eatery with nice views was easy. Food is good and super cheap, and be prepared to walk, as it is much easier to move around on foot and find those little hidden treasures & sights.

On our second day in Luang Prabang we hired a boat & guide and headed out on the Mekong River. A stop at the sacred Pak Ou Buddha Caves was enlighting, and then we made a visit to Ban Xanghai village, where we were blessed with a traditional Laotian Baci ceremony by the villagers. This tradition has all the villagers tying a piece of string around your wrists and wishing you luck & warding off bad spirts. We had to wear the string bracelets for 1-3 days in order for the luck to work. We were then offered food and made to feel very much a part of their community.

To sum up, although I only experienced a small part of Laos, it is still relatively unspoilt, affordable and filled with delightful people. I would recommend this part of the world for personal leisure travel. As it doesn’t really cater for the masses, this lack of large infrastructure, is what makes it so appealing.

Winnie Fong
GO Conference & Incentive

Macau

It’s changed!

It was 1989 since I was last in Macau, when it only had one casino, a handful of shops & restaurants and the iconic St Pauls ruins.   Ferry tickets were harder to get, as the services were not as regular and I recall waiting in a long queue for tickets back to Hong Kong….………..well hasn’t that changed.

Stepping into Macau in 2016 was like arriving into a completely different world from what I remembered.    Now filled with big glitzy hotels, high end shopping complexes, casinos, bars, restaurants, including some Michelin star dining experiences.

Cotai is the main hotel strip – the Asian version of Las Vegas.   The hotels are of a magnificent scale with more being built as we speak.   Perfect for a quick weekend away or for a 2-3 day conferencing event, as the choices of hotel & conference room facilities are endless.

The cute little streets are still there but are a lot harder to find, as they are being swallowed up by the large scale complexes that are taking over.   However when you do come across one of these old styled streets, the charm can still be felt.   These areas are filled with tourist now, which is nice to see, but can get very crowded.     If touring, there are quite a few narrow streets, so I suggest using smaller vans to travel in would be the way to go, especially during an orientation around the township.

With the increase in popularity, the place is more vibrant and is a lot safer than back in the day when it was a quiet sleepy town.

I made a quick visit to the Coloane, - here you find the locals, the quieter streets, temples and Portuguese styled architecture.    Coloane still has some remnants of the old fishing village that it use to be, which makes for great exploring on foot.
While in Coloane, a compulsory stop at Lord Stow Bakery for their famous “Portuguese tarts”.   We timed it perfectly, because as we were leaving with our goodies, a queue of people had formed out the door and around the corner.

If you want something closer, Old Taipa Village is close to the Cotai area.   More for your Chinese snacks, restaurants and bars, so a good place to go to more so in the evening.

Last stop of course was to learn how to make the traditional Bloody Mary……at the St Regis Hotel, where they claim they have the best Bloody Mary in town.    I’m not a great fan of tomato juice at the best of times, but I sampled one and it was pretty good.

All in all, it was wonderful to head back to Macau to see how much it had “grown up”.

Winnie Fong
GO Conference & Incentive

Macau

Vietnam

Chao Ban! (Hello)

Bikes & People…….and there are a lot of them.   The constant horn beeping is something we kiwis need to get use to pretty fast when you first land in vibrant Vietnam.     Their use of horns is not in frustration, but to let others know they are there, and when you have 8 million people in Ho Chi Minh alone, that’s a lot of horn honking!

Walking across the road is an experience.  Once you step onto the road, keep walking, keep the same pace and whatever you do, never turn around and run back.    The Vietnamese are amazing at manoeuvring their vehicle “around you”.    You can discount the term “Asian drivers”, as they really are quite incredibly skilled.…….we could learn a few things from them!

I would describe Ho Chi Minh as buzzy and really fun to wander around.   You feel very safe, as there are so many people around and the locals are friendly.   If you are a foodie, then you are in heaven, the food is fabulous.  You can choose from high end culinary dishes in fancy restaurants to sitting on a little plastic chair in the middle of the street eating chicken & rice with the locals.     We stumbled across a tiny family run noodle house, where dad hand pulled the noodles, mum cooked them in the boiling broth and the daughter served them to you.   They allowed you to bring in your own beer to drink, so 3 bowls of freshly made noodles later, our total bill to pay was NZ$5.00.

Head a little further out of town and you can indulge in some culture.    At Cu Chi you can immerse yourself within the network of connecting underground tunnels.   Guides can take you through a series of tunnels as you twist and turn your body to get through and pop out at the other end – definitely not for the claustrophobic!     A ride down the Mekong Delta is also a highlight.   These tiny lean ladies have the strength of an ox as they guide you down the river.

Hanoi is north of Ho Chi Minh or a 2hour flight away.    Known for its French influences, the bustling Old Quarter where narrow streets are filled with shops, trades and street food is located in the heart of the city.     It is quite unique to Asia to have a lake in the middle of your town, which adds to the beauty of this area.     It’s a very pretty city and has an elegant feel to it.    Hanoi makes for easy access to Halong Bay, which is a 3½ to 4 hour drive away from Hanoi, but the road trek is well worth it.  I would definitely recommend a 2 night cruise.   You have many differing junk cruises to choose from ranging from luxury, budget to private hire.   They cruise over extremely calm waters, so seasickness is not an issue.    The trip includes a visit to a floating fishing village which is quite extraordinary, how these people live their lives without land is quite remarkable.    Kayaking and guided cave visits are also an option on your second day.    Dependant on what time of year you choose to cruise, the weather in Halong varies quite a lot, so be prepared clothing wise.

Overall, Vietnam has so much to offer with so many more places to visit such as Danang, Hoi An, Nha Trang, as well as being so close to Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and with its affordability you could easily be away for months.

Winnie Fong

Ireland

It’s hard to put your finger on it… is it the open friendliness that all people Irish seem to exhibit, whether simply asking them for the time or directions to the nearest pub? They are just so helpful and keen to assist. Or is it the dull recollection of last night’s festivities that leaves everyone in a permanent state of good hommie? Or maybe it’s just a really nice place full of happy people, whatever the reason, Ireland is a blast to visit on an incentive trip.

Dublin is Ireland’s centre of culture & learning, the bulls eye of Guinness production and a perfect place to take the craic. “Taking the craic” is quintessentially being Irish… it’s about having fun, conversing with mirth and generally having a great time… it’s about quick stepping music, wood panelled bars and generally a having warm attitude to strangers.

The poor Irish have had a lot to lament over the years including a serious lack of potatoes and jobs at various times, but the economy seems better today, Ireland seems proud of its progress, there is an optimistic feeling in the air.

I was lucky to be in Dublin when the temperature soared through 25 degrees, it was as if the whole city was celebrating. Every bar was bursting jovial patrons out onto the cobblestone footpaths, the Guinness was flowing faster than the Huka Falls… and everyone just seemed delighted…but perhaps that was just any ordinary summer weekend in Dublin.

Some critical highlights for a group visiting Dublin would have to be the Guinness factory where you can perfect the art of pouring your own black pint, Jamiesons the whiskey distillery which takes appreciation of this fine drop to the highest level, Trinity College with the Book of Kells, and of course the many classic pubs.

The hotels although relatively few are of a high standard, but one’s visit to Ireland would be simply incomplete without one’s very own historic castle stay for the night… Mine came with a pack of gun hounds, some birds of prey, a velvet smooth golf course, a couple of charming, ever-pleasant butlers and a very large dollop of Irish informality.

Ireland is not England and it’s not Europe, it’s its own identity, its own flavour, and it’s definitely worth the effort to get there to experience the craic for yourself.

Wayne Harris

New Caledonia

New Caledonia is an often overlooked destination for conferences and incentive groups but at just over 2.5 hours flight from Auckland it’s really a very easily gettable destination.

Air New Zealand and Air Calin codeshare flights so chances are you’ll possibly even go out with one carrier and come home on the other.

Noumea is the main town in New Caledonia, situated a 45 minute drive south of the airport. Noumea township is strung along the coast in and out of many calm water bays, each protected from Pacific Ocean swells by the world’s largest reef system, completely surrounding the main Island.

The minute you arrive you know you’ve landed in a French territory; the signage is French, the language is French, the cars are French… so for those who like a bit of Continental there is no better place to kick back, relax and get your bit of “bonjour in the sun” – whilst hardly even leaving our own backyard. Le Meridien hotel recently concluded a top to bottom refurbishment and sits proudly again in its new garb just a 10 minute walk along the beach from the Anse Vata end of town. The rooms are large, each with lovely big picture windows, the pool and beach are inviting, and as you’d expect the food meets the best of French standards.

Dining options for groups are well catered for onsite at the hotel and also in town where there is a good selection of restaurants capable of taking large numbers.

Their winter climate is comfortable (like the Gold Coast). September/ October is the best time to visit, when it’s warmed up a bit but has not got into that hot and humid timeframe in peak summer.

Another option to consider is the brand new and very smart hotel recently built at Deva, about 2 hours drive north of the airport. Their rooms are stunning, and the hotel itself is beautiful. This location is best suited to those wanting a high-end get-away-from-it conference experience. I’d suggest a 3 night stay with time for golf, time for reef snorkelling and time for kicking back by the pool…. and yes some business sessions too.

So definitely think about New Caledonia for conference and incentive groups up to around 100 in size. If you’ve been to the Pacific Islands before then New Caledonia provides a different experience, it’s French-ness in particular is a great point of difference for Kiwis wanting to discover new experiences.

Wayne

Marlborough

Degustation and Relaxation in Marlborough:

If you are seeking a real taste of New Zealand and you have been to the popular destinations such a Queenstown, Rotorua and Waiheke then Marlborough should be your next stop.

Marlborough already has an exceptional reputation for great winemaking, beautiful scenery especially the Marlborough Sounds and the freshest produce including seafood, so it is the perfect venue to have a concentrated focus on your tastebuds.

When flying into Blenheim on a clear day (and the region has more clear days than anywhere else in the whole of New Zealand) you will be able to see from the mountains to Cook Strait. I promise that your first sight of Marlborough will leave you in awe and wanting to see and experience more.

The minute you arrive you know that life here is all about quality food and award winning wines so you simply have to indulge.

This region is the world’s “bulls eye” for Sauvignon Blanc so that is the perfect tipple to kick off your first (of many) wine tastings. Beautiful and welcoming vineyard tasting rooms overlook neat rows of vines, each of these working their hardest to grow world class grapes.

Fine food and wine experiences include tastings at the various and easily reached vineyards or for something a bit more go all out and do a “meet the chef” experience as part of a group meal.

Another really cool way to enjoy even more of the local wine and cuisine scene is to hop on a boat and cruise the Marlborough Sounds. Whilst the boat glides along you can unwind and taste the freshest local fresh salmon and steamed mussels, and of course some more of that delicious local wine.

If you want to take a step back into history and get a feel of Peter Jackson’s creativity, make sure head out to the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre which is one of the world’s largest private collections of great war aircraft and artefacts. This is also the home of the Classic Fighters Air Show which is usually held around Easter each year.

Whether you are travelling with a small group of 10 or a large group of 200 people, there are plenty of accommodation options to cater for all.

For the ultimate authentic wine country experience in a moderate sized hotel you can stay right in Sauvignon Blanc central, where I’m sure when you wake up you can hear the grapes growing. It’s fun to hop on a bike and ride from one vineyard to another.

Or if you are travelling with a large group and wish to stay in central Blenheim then there are two excellent 4 and 5 star hotels to choose from.

Slightly further away is Picton where you can stay along the marina and wake up to the gentle sound of the water and the sight of the fishermen bringing in today’s freshly caught seafood. If you want to really treat yourself and take it up a notch, there is a boutique resort set in a native bush along the edge of the Queen Charlotte Sound where you will discover a totally unexpected luxury. This is the ultimate experience to leave you feeling rejuvenated and replenished.

I promise you will have a great time in Marlborough. Their wines are world-famous, their waterways are a national treasures, and from the mountains to the sea, your time in Marlborough will be amazing. GO and see for yourself.

Fay Buitendijk

Adelaide & Melbourne

Aussies…………gee whizz more food & wine!

It was my first visit to Adelaide late last year, so I was looking forward to seeing what this city offered. It was a very hot December day when I arrived to a balmy 40 degree heatwave with a wind factor of zero!

My hotel (Mayfair) was one of the new kids on the block. A boutique style hotel, that was very centrally located, within easy walking distance to shops and eateries.

Having arrived on a Sunday, the famous Central Markets were closed,…. I was gutted, but being typically female, I bee-lined it to Rundle Mall where I was able to satisfy my retail fix and take advantage of the air conditioning.

Adelaide’s transport system is very accessible & easy to understand. I hopped on a tram and took in the scenic 20 minute tram ride to the beachside suburb of Glenelg. Being a weekend, it was buzzing with people enjoying the foreshore parks, cafes and live entertainment.

Adelaide is very much a food and wine region. I had the lovely opportunity to visit a few of their great vineyards: Penfolds, Chateau Tanunda & Jacobs Creek. These establishments were all very different in style, but of course all produce fabulous wines. It was a delight (to me anyway) to stand at the “creek” of Jacobs Creek……albeit it was completely dry at the time, and a bit of a buzz to feel I’d actually been there, given that the name is so famously associated with Australia.

Adelaide food and produce were beyond expectations. One of my special treats was a street breakfast, where all the stalls had been set up in what I assume was an old factory. The factory had been converted into an apartment complex on the upper levels, with cafes & retail on the ground level. The food was local, the vendors local, and it was a fun and different way to start the day by wandering about and eating whatever you wanted from each stall.

2KW was one of the new rooftop bar & restaurants situated in town. You had to be in the know, as its doorway access resembles your typical office building. Once you are on the roof, the views and restaurant layout is pretty impressive. A place for the hip, trendy and beautiful.

My time in Adelaide was short, but I did manage to gain an overall very positive feel for the place. I do look forward to returning again, to further explore the many things I missed this time around.

Onward to Melbourne. Normally I visit for business, running from one appointment to the next, so it was a nice change to be introduced to a “different” side of Melbourne.

I’ve never really appreciated the “graffiti” that litters the alleyways of Melbourne, but it is a completely different world when you have an actual graffiti artist “talk” you through the laneways, describing the various works and their meanings. We ended up at their studio where I was able to get my hands on spray cans and create my own masterpiece on canvas. I have to admit it is a lot harder than you might think to create art by spray paint, however my art creation was a lovely momento to take home.

Food in Melbourne goes without saying, Melbournians are great foodies, and they are spoilt for choice with the wide selection on offer.

I was taken to a “hidden bar” with no signage, it was tucked away in an alleyway. As the secret door opened I entered another world. It was packed and I have never seen such a large collection of whiskies in one establishment. Me being a whiskey lover, I had died and gone to heaven. My party of 8 must of looked the part, as the doorman moved us up to the front of the queue of expectant people and we were seated straight away. It was a great little find, but be prepared to wait.

How’s this for a Rockstar experience for those who just want that bit more from life. Start with a helicopter flight over the Great Ocean Road area to land at a private retreat. It’s not a house, I add, it’s a monstrous bloomin mansion, with your personal chef and his crew waiting to cook you lunch. Don’t worry, If you tire of watching the chefs cook, you simply slip away for a shoulder and back massage in the pool house where the team of masseuses are in waiting. This venue is very impressive, almost over the top in fact, but hey, you only live once and to do something this remarkable is a once-in-a- lifetime buzz.

Melbourne as always, never fails on charm, great food, wines and shopping. It has a welcoming feel about it, hence I’ll never tire of visiting to discover new experiences.

Winnie Fong
GO Conference & Incentive

Singapore

Fay’s tips for visiting Singapore

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Singapore is “City Nation”… but a delicate question arises…  is it a city in a nation or rather a nation in a city?

With a dynamic mix of cultures, ideas and histories this clean and safe city has everything to keep you surprised, impressed and excited.  We were extremely lucky to get the opportunity to discover this amazing city for a few days recently. Of course, in true explorer style we scouted through every inch of the city to ensure we experienced all that Singapore has to offer.

Your first stop should be a visit to Singapore’s first UNESCO World Heritage site - the Botanical Gardens. Make sure you go nice and early to avoid the heat, a walk through the gardens followed by a brunch at Halia Café is a great start to any day. Deeper into the park is the Symphony Lake,filled with turtles and Catfish. They’ll love you for the treats which can be purchased with a simple gold coin donation. This is also where the Symphony stage is located, a venue for regular open air concerts.  From here you must go around the corner and visit the breath-taking Orchid gardens.
Before you know it you’ll have spent a few hours taking in fresh air and admiring all the different gardens, flora, and animals which call the park home.

As the day starts heating up there is no better place to be than inside an air-conditioned space. Having spent quite a few hours maxing out our credit cards at the local markets and shopping malls our two favourite places to shop were ION on Orchard which is known to be ‘the centre of gravity’ and the Singapore Retail Scene.  Filled with over 300 stores, everyone is guaranteed to find something they like. Should you want a less crowded shopping experience with independent boutique shops, then head to Haji lane. Located in the heart of Singapore’s Arab quarter, the street is lined with narrow colourful shop-houses and Middle Eastern Cafés.

After you’ve filled a second suitcase to bring all your new goodies home, and you need to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, catch a short cab ride to Gardens By The Bay. Although we aren’t fanatic gardeners ourselves, it is impossible not to be impressed by Gardens By The Bay.
Pop into the Flower Dome first and experience various parts of the world through different garden styles.  Then head into the Cloud Forest where you are sure to be wowed by a mysterious world veiled in mist.  The highlight of Gardens By The Bay was definitely lying flat on our backs (alongside everyone else doing the same) to make the most of the light show which performs at 7.45 and 8.45pm daily. This is when the spectacular Super Trees come alive with an exhilarating display of light and sound. And the whole experience is supplemented by the most incredible backdrop of Singapore’s impressive skyline, Marina Bay Sands hotel and the Singapore Eye.   

The next day we got underway in a really fun way by having breakfast with the Orang-utans. Singapore Zoo is not your usual city zoo, set in 26 hectares of rainforest, the animals get to roam freely in an open and natural habitat. Walking from one exhibition to the next it is amazing having Orang-utans and other species of monkeys sway inquisitively above.

And lastly, no trip to Singapore would be complete without indulging in the local cuisine. “One” simply must take high tea at the elegant and gentile Clifford Pier, whereas the DJ, lighting, outrageous cocktails and outstanding view across the harbour from Lantern Bar is a total must visit. Then there is the Tiffin Room at Raffles which guarantees an explosion of delight on the palate from its huge selection of curry dishes from all over Asia. It’s surprisingly affordable too.  Both Clarke and Boat Quay have innumerable bars and restaurants to meet any taste or budget and at the bottom end head for any of the hawker centres. The food will always be clean and fresh,  so don’t be shy to mix things up a bit when in Singapore, indulge in this nation of tastes… or should that be a city of tastes?  

Rio

Rio…….We’re at the Copa… Copacabana!

As the song goes…….”music and passion were always in fashion at the Copa…..they fell in love” and so will you with this sensational, and soon to be much-more-accessible, part of the world for us Kiwis. (New Air New Zealand services to South America from December 2015)

Rio De Janeiro excites with a tantalising blend of exotic teasers … during the day the wide beaches are the playground (and showground) for the myriad of fit bronzed bods. Then when the sun goes down everything cranks up a gear. Visualise the unmistakable beat of Samba pulsating the night air, but here in Rio it’s imbibed it with a liberable hit of Caipirinha to really get things swinging … this place really is alive at night… it’s got energy.. you WILL fall in love.

For those who find all this excitement & exercise just too exhausting, simply sit back, slide off your Havaianas,  and relax… people watching is a national pastime in Brazil, it’s just part of the culture. 

One gracious treat is to be pampered by your hotel wait staff providing “beach service” in a private beachfront area.   Slide into your comfortable lounger as your beach butler meticulously sets up your towel, cold water and refreshing snacks.  Hey if you are going to spot eye candy then why not do it in style.  You also don’t need to take much, as you can pretty much buy anything you want from the roaming vendors

Alternatively you can sit for hours at any of the simple eateries along Copacabana or Ipanema Beaches, you won’t get bored because there is just too much to take in.

As if ripped from a circus, street entertainers will perform unannounced for you, anticipating your reward with a few coins for their skills.   Body proud Brazilians work out religiously right on the beach. No air conditioned comfort here. Instead there are numerous outdoor gyms and exercise classes with instructors knocking out the best from their hard working participants… all day, every day.     

Football, volleyball and foot volley players litter the beach, weaved in amongst the many joggers, skaters and bike riders – everyone makes full use of exercise pathways along Copacabana beach. 

Strategically placed along the way are what we would think are just advertising boards, but they serve a dual purpose:- there is a little button on the side and when pressed cold mist is expelled to cool you down, - now that’s “upstairs for thinking”, as temperatures can reach the high 30’s early 40’s in the peak of summer. 

Something that does come as a surprise in a country that we relate to living and breathing the thong/“g-string”, is that local will tell you they absolutely hate wearing them!

Brazilian food is fantastic.  Their famous churrascaria style meat service off long skewers is a show stopper, however, Rio also caters well for the non-red meat eaters and vegetarians too!    Their national drink is the Caipirinha, affectionately called “rocket fuel” …. the first mouthful will knock the tastebuds about a bit, but from there it’s all plain sailing into a South American happy place!

My favourite attraction has to be touring the Favelas (Slums) by open top jeep.  This adventure gives a great insight into how so many people in Rio live, in very basic houses clinging precariously to the side of the mountain, all with million dollar views.  A highlight of the tour is to visit one of the local homes to see for yourself.  These tours are well controlled, you can only enter with an approved guide, so it is all very well monitored & safe.

It goes without saying you must visit Christ the Redeemer.   You feel a sense of enlightenment when you are up there.   It can get a bit hectic with the crowds, but it is definitely a must do.  If you can’t cope with the last few steps leading up, there is a lift and elevator to take you up to the statue.

Sugar Loaf is also definitely worth the crowds and effort.   For those who are scared of heights, claim middle ground in the cable car as yours and save your view until you get to the top.   The cable cars can hold up to 65-70 people at a time, and are smooth and quick, so you are up there before you know it.

Dancing is quite simply part of life here, with bars and clubs filled to the brim each night.   Rio boasts one of the Top 10 Bars & Clubs in the world, which is a must visit on any itinerary.   The venue is set over 3 floors and to see the interior décor alone is worthwhile.   It’s not your typical club with “doof doof” house music, its live Brazilian jazz infused samba… all very appealing.

Carnaval is normally staged in February, which means it is exciting as well as manic in the city at that time of the year.   The locals are just as crazy for this event as the visitors.  The costumes are beautiful, the dancing is spectacular and the competition is fierce.

I love this part of the world, and even after 14 visits never tire of it.   Rio also makes for easy access to other parts of South America should you wish to venture further afield.   It’s definitely a must do “tick off the bucket list” kinda place!

Winnie Fong
GO Conference & Incentive

Cuba

Cigars, classic cars & fabulous bars…. that’s Cuba!

So you’ve been everywhere eh… really… but what about Cuba? Cuba is a frontier very few have crossed into. The country has been isolated from the rest of the world for decades and as a consequence of its exclusion from our commercial world offers an experience like no other in our modern times. The 50 year iceberg blocking relations between USA and Cuba is now finally thawing, so be quick to experience the real Cuba, as it won’t take long, once the gates open, for Starbucks and all those similar vanilla enterprises to stamp their mark.

Cuba has a rustic charm, something I hope they can hold onto, despite the inevitable foreign invasion. Even since my last visit a year ago tourism numbers have increased. A lot more visitors are walking around asking for directions and the limited number of hotels are very booked up, an early sign of what’s to come.

Walking is the name of the game in Havana and if you are into photography then you will be in heaven. Every corner you turn there is something of interest. All of the beautiful old and sometimes derelict buildings are crying out for some TLC, a reminder of how gorgeous these old girls must have been in their hey day. There are signs of work commencing to restore some of these old beauties so they again stand elegant and proud.

Local people are smiley & friendly, and always up for a photo, as long as you make sure you return the favour with a few Cuban peso “cuc”.

Surprisingly, Havana has a fun mix of transport modes. There are the rickety “bicitaxis” which are similar to a rickshaw but on a much “simpler” scale, a great way of getting in & around the cobbled alleyways. The zippy little “coco taxis”, which look like small yellow motorised helmets zooming around the city, great for getting to places quickly. For a more traditional feel you can opt for “horse and carriage” rides, and then of course, the good ol’ “American Classic Cars”. Worthy of at least a half hour ride through the suburbs and along the Malecon (Havana’s version of Mission Bay or Oriental Parade). These classic cars are a fun way to get around and are plentiful. The hardest part will be choosing what make and colour!. Everything in Cuba is on a “negotiation basis”, so make sure you have an agreed price with your driver before getting underway.

Cuba has a really interesting mix of eateries from traditional and quite basic to gorgeous restaurants hidden away behind old crumbling facades. The food quality will also vary enormously as will the level of service, which means the whole eating experience may require enormous patience or completely blow you away. The best way to find out what life is really like for Cubans is to hit a local supermarket if you happen to stumble across one. The lack of good will put a sobering perspective on how tough their lives are compared to ours. You can’t snap your fingers and demand whatever you want when you want it…. that’s just not Cuba. Locals still heavily rely on the “Libreta de Abastecimiento” (ration booklet) which restricts what they can buy through the system… and even then only when very limited products are available.

In Cuba music is everywhere… on street corners, in restaurants, everywhere. All of the bars simply ooze good fun and dancing is in the Latin blood. Rum flows freely, cigars are the encouraged and quite frankly it’s such an easy atmosphere that it’d be hard not to fall in love with the unpretentious simplicity and casual charm.

Ernest Hemingway is the icon for Cuba and “supposedly” put the Daiquiri and Mojitos on the map. A couple of very well known bars in the old town pay tribute to Hemingway’s frequent visits.

The warm and humid weather can be a bit tiring for us Kiwis, but in order to see, feel, live what this place is all about, it’s well worth sucking up the journey and heat and ticking Cuba off your bucket list while it is the real deal!

Samoa

Samoa the Surprise Package

Like most Pacific Islands, in Samoa no one is in a hurry, however things still get done. The locals are friendly and offer welcoming waves and a broad grin as you pass by. The roads are littered with pot holes so getting about is slow… but who’s in a hurry anyway. And despite what little they have, the local villages and houses are proudly presented.

My very first visit was when the All Blacks went across to play Manu Samoa in rugby. Every village was decorated with AB’s & Manu Samoa flags……….needless to say when I visited again 4 months later the flags were still up. The Samoans are not letting go of their success in getting the All Blacks to come to Apia, and want to make sure everyone knows it!

If you are going to explore around the main island allow way more time than you first think as Upulo is bigger than people expect. Also a combination of uneven roads and low speed limits makes for a slower journey.

I visited the local markets in Apia township, where you can buy any coloured lava lava, any sized tanoa bowl, wooden knick knack of any kind and even school uniforms. For the health conscious know that a bite to eat from the market food hall will mean only fried food.

A tour around Robert Louis Stevenson Museum is a must. The guides are extremely informative and most of all so passionate. The tour last for about 45mins, but goes by very quickly, as they walk you through the property where the family resided. With more time I would have walked up to Robert’s gravesite which is located on the mountain above the homestead. Good walking shoes and no urgency for time are required to make this trek.

The famous and well photographed To Sua Ocean trench is a beautiful swimming spot, interestingly located right in the middle of a family’s garden. The precarious long ladder down is steep and slippery in some places so not for the faint hearted, but the reward of a refreshing dip was well worth the effort. The ocean currents can draw through the trench and depending on the tide the water may also be deep in some areas so care is required. The land owners have very kindly erected a platform and guide rope in the water, so you have something to hold onto whilst frolicking about.

Piula cave pools are slightly closer to Apia. A little less spectacular, but if time is not on your side, it’s a nice alternative. Many private homes boast natural attractions such as waterfalls & water holes, all charging a small cash fee to enter. So you do have a few cooling off spots to choose from as you drive around the island.

Food overall if pretty good, they make the most of what produce they grow. There are handful of good restaurants scattered around Apia and hotels offer quality cuisine. Local “must try” foods are Palusami, which is divine - a combination of taro leaves cooked with coconut cream. Oka l’a is a delicious raw fish marinated in onions, lemon juice, salt and coconut cream. And then finally the whole roasted suckling pig, with loads of crackling is a definite go to.

As my stay was short, I did not managed to get to any of the outer islands, as would of liked to have gone over to Savaii ……. maybe I will save that for my next visit. Winnie Fong

Niue

Wahoo, we’re going on an incentive trip to NIUE… you’re joking right?

No, dead true, it’s a fantastic little island with some real gems of ideas for an incentive group, or for that matter a corporate wanting a conference venue that most people will very likely never have been to. It’s a cracker little place and well worth the effort of opening your mind to. And for less than $3000p/p ex Auckland for a fully inclusive incentive programme Niue definitely ticks all the boxes.. price, unique activities, quality accom & food, 3 &1/2 hours away and climate.

Niue sits up there in between Tonga, Samoa and Rarotonga. Direct flights on Air NZ to this little rock of coral make access dead simple; the sun shines warm in our Winter, with the NZ$ there is no exchange rate to worry about, and it’s just a load of fun… and probably somewhere you’d never ordinarily think of for a small group corporate escape.

Scenic hotels have recently obtained the Matavai Resort and it’s the place to be. GM Simon Jackson came from Haast so has slipped into this tight knit community (just 1500 inhabitants on the Island) like a glove. I think he knows everybody on the Island and like a famous magician he’s the man when it comes to pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

An ideal incentive or conference group size for Niue is around 30 guests, although the Scenic Matavai resort with its 44 high quality rooms could easily handle a buy out of the whole place to look after as many as 88. As a buyout you’d honestly have the whole Island to yourself.. just how much fun would that be.

One of the striking things about Niue is that the people genuinely love seeing visitors, it’s a warm and welcoming place. There are no drugs on the island, there is no litter nor graffiti, there hasn’t been anyone in the 5 room jail for months (or is that years… no-one can remember). The golf course and lawn bowling clubs are right next door to the jail so duck in there too. Mark Blumsky (ex-Mayor of Wellington) is chairman of both clubs so he’s likely to invite you in for a beer.

A funny old story goes that the winner of Niue’s annual golf championship one year was in fact a very recently released prisoner. He’d had a lot of time to fill in while he was in jail so used to duck next door each day and practice his game… can you image that happening at Poremoremo.

Think fishing… scream Wahoo. The fishing is just outrageous in Niue. None of this roaring out in rolling seas for 2 hours to find deep water, just putter out 50 metres from the wharf and you are in 100m… midnight blue, crystal clear water crammed with giant sized tuna, Wahoo and Mahimahi. From the terrace at the Scenic Matavai Resort you can watch the boats trolling, dolphins dance in the bay and from July – September whales feel close enough to touch. I get seasick in the bath but in Niue it’s such a doddle to go fishing, so every group simply must include an option to fish. And a really big part of the fishing fun is when the whole island population appears at the wharf to welcome the boats in. It’s a public celebration, cameras click as the fish are weighed, the gantry strains as it lifts boats clean out of the water onto waiting trailers. The NZ High Commissioner is on hand overseeing the occasion, the chief of Police is there, and of course Simon from Scenic Matavai is there (so he can get the biggest and freshest fish for tonight’s sashimi)… in fact everybody is there, it’s just a fantastic scene, the kind of event we no longer have in NZ.

One thing Niue doesn’t have is a sandy lie-and-do-nothing beach. But that is more than made up for by the stunningly clear water chasms and tidal pools where you can snorkel and swim. There are no rivers on Niue so there is no silt in the ocean, it’s crystal clear. Diving and snorkelling is amongst the best in the world. You simply must get in the water in Niue.

It’s only 68km to drive around and explore the whole island and the Niue Tourism authority has installed the best information and signage system I’ve seen anywhere in the world to make your own exploration of the many walk-in sites off the main roads dead simple.

Niue, called “the Rock”, is actually a massive clump of coral all on its alone in the middle of an expanse of Blue Ocean, but in truth it’s a real gem in our South Pacific and well worth your visit.

Wayne Harris

General Manager
GO Conference & Incentive
Auckland
09 9144624

Japan

So Why Don’t Many Kiwis Incentive Groups Travel to Japan??

Quite simply because Kiwis don’t know what a fascinatingly complex and completely different incentive experience it is, says Wayne Harris GM of GO conference & Incentive in Auckland.

It’s definitely not an easy place to organise a group to - infact it’s very challenging - but that’s the PCO’s problem, the main thing to know is that NZ incentive travellers will love Japan.

Japan’s always been an unknown for Kiwis, an enigma, one giant big question mark… sure, we are curious about it, but this lack of understanding has meant we’ve never got past an idle interest as far as incentive travel is concerned.

We know a lot about popular incentive travel destinations like Australia, USA and Europe, however very few NZ corporates have had the inclination (or is it courage) to head to Japan for their incentive trip. That’s a mistake because Japan is completely different from NZ… so get ahead of the curve, take off to Japan before everyone else does. And with the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo a lot of focus will fall on the destination in coming years.

When you really think deeply about it Japan fits the mould perfectly for an incentive destination from New Zealand: direct services on Air New Zealand, reversed seasons so it is nice and warm there whilst it’s freezing here, it is extremely safe, SPOTLESSLY clean, people are very welcoming, the cuisine is simply amazing, and it’s all in a completely foreign culture. And then… the beer and wine are very good, shopping options are endless … we get 90 yen for a dollar… that’s really about as good as it gets.

Tokyo is absolutely massive, that’s mega-30-million-population-size massive. It’s not one city as you might think, rather it’s a series of city-sized suburbs all joined together by highrise buildings to form one mega society. As a visitor to Tokyo it’s wise to target one area of the city at a time as each has a different appeal. Harajuku is where all the young kids hangout, it’s the place to cruise around with your mates and just people watch… and like good kids they are mostly home in bed by 10pm… Ginza is for grown-ups with its High Street brand shops and an older demographic… then there is Roppongi with its myriad of tiny bars and restaurants. This is where the late night crowd gathers to Karaoke and party through to the small hours. By far the most efficient way to get around is on the metro train system, but be warned, some of the stations are as large as Timaru. Taxis are everywhere, and so long as you carry a card with the name of your hotel written in Japanese you’ll be sweet, as English is not commonly spoken.

Some aspects of life in Japan are quite bizarre... that’s bizarre in a good way, such as the pristine cleanliness of the whole country. It says much about the people who show so much respect for each other and their environment that they simply don’t litter…. That’s NIL, Nothing, No litter at all…. Hard to believe but true. It’s absolutely magnificent to see, and a sobering message for us from 100% Pure NZ to take on board.

There is a bizarre comic book culture in Japan and this manifests itself in much of the branding and advertising. The Maid Café culture in Akihabara is another eye-opener. You can order “Conversation with a Maid” with your coffee or perhaps you’d just like to play board games with her? But the most outrageous experience would have to be Robot restaurant in Shinjuku. The pre show bar area is an explosion of mirrors and psychedelic decor, made all the more unusual by a 5-piece band of robots knocking out the tunes. And then it gets really weird… as you descend into the basement 3 floors down and take your seats in what resembles a gladiator auditorium… It’s not a case of “bring on the Christians” rather a sensational, endless stream of noisy entertainers emerging from behind a black curtain, featuring Taiko drumming warrior girls, fire breathing dragons, sword wielding pyschos and 10 foot tall robots. It’s bizarre, sensational and unbelievable all wrapped into a crazy 1.5 hour show.

And for a more relaxed pace of life there is Kyoto the Unesco World Heritage city, situated around 500 kilometres away from Tokyo. That distance is just a few clicks less than Auckland to Wellington but in the bullet train the journey will only take you a nudge over 2 hours. Kyoto has rivers as crystal clean as you’d find at Mt Cook, there’s enjoyable unhurried shopping in covered arcades, as well as glorious historic Temples like Tenryu ‘Ji with its adjacent bamboo forest. And at night wander down to Kiyamachi with its great little Japanese style bars and restaurants strung alongside the stream. Gion is the area where the private clubs are housed and It’s not at all uncommon to see beautiful Geisha walking there.

So “why don’t more Kiwis incentive travel to Japan?”

A big part of the answer is that international tourism to Japan is still relatively small. Business people have been visiting for decades, but international tourism only makes up around 15% of the total tourism game, so incentives are still quite new. They have plenty to learn still about our incentive demands such as non smoking hotel rooms and king beds instead of singles, but as International tourism grows so that will that change too.

So now the search for new incentive travel experiences for Kiwis and a great incentive destination appear to have met at Japan. At GO C&I we’ve had to develop our own incentive itineraries that reflect what we want and what’s actually possible in Japan and they work, said Wayne Harris, and we expect to see interest in Japan grow as more groups visit and return delighted.

It’s a very exciting space, knowing there is a brand new Rising Sun destination on the Kiwi incentive horizon.