Timor-Leste (East Timor) has some unenviable credentials. It is the third poorest nation on earth, 70% of its population are subsistence, it has the least tourist visitors of any country in the world not at war and has 50% unemployment. Aside from that the Timorese are known to be open, friendly and generous people, as we found on our brief visit. This fascinating country has huge potential with an increasingly educated youth population, a wealth of natural resources and an equatorial climate. Since 2017 they even have a Gay Pride which includes people from the LGBTI community, members of the clergy, tribal folk, students and government officials. Timor-Leste is a leader in South East Asia for gay rights, although unfortunately, it still has not enacted laws to protect its LGBTI population.
Darwin is Australia’s top end capital city. Although remarkably small, its quiet, relaxed vibe is a natural gateway for those seeking adventure in the Northern Territory. Attractions like Litchfield and Kakadu National Parks, Katherine Gorge, crocodile spotting and outback desert experiences await unsuspecting visitors. This time however, we were not in Darwin for any of these reasons, rather to catch a cruise ship to Singapore which also happened to coincide with the celebration of our first wedding anniversary. We arrived on a Saturday to spend two days before our departure and to sample what surprises Darwin had to offer. The weather was at its best, perfect early days of August were dry, mildly hot, low humidity and brilliant sunny, blue skies stretching endlessly into the ‘never never’. Our Uber driver said, “It doesn’t get better than this in Darwin”.
Palm Springs is one of North America’s premier gay destinations. Its harsh, arid, desert setting offset by the surrounding snow capped mountains certainly make it a unique stop on the tourist trail. Sun, sun and more sun, a host of clothing optional gay resorts and a bumper crop of gay bars create a perfect sandpit in which gay men can play to their hearts content. Our two hour drive north west from San Diego was relatively easy, through spectacular desert landscapes and hillsides covered in vivid orange and yellow wild flowers, a product of the unusually plentiful spring rains. Visitors to Palm Springs soon learn the city is no metropolis. A small CBD with wide open spaces and light traffic flow make it very easy to negotiate, even for newcomers.
It was 8 am and we were ready to explore the world’s largest sand island just off Hervey Bay in Queensland. Strapped into our off-road, four-wheel drive bus we were soon hurtling through the Australian bush on the narrow, rough, sandy roads of Fraser Island. With names like ‘the rollercoaster’, these tracks into the ‘never never’ were sure to provide plenty of thrills. First stop was Lake McKenzie. This spectacular rain-filled, crystal clear blue basin of water floats serenely on powder white silica sand. No swimming for us on this cool morning but it didn’t stop the intrepid tourists from Norway. Central Station was our next stop with towering 400 year old Fraser turpentine trees, exotic stag horns, and ancient, rare ferns growing in Wanggoolba Creek, a truly pristine environment.
On Jewel of the Seas, heading from Miami through the Panama Canal to San Diego, we had the opportunity to chat with Alessio Quaglio who has only been with Royal Caribbean for one and half years. Before Royal he was with Norwegian Cruise Lines for six years. His interest in people and travel grew from being a tour and staff leader in his hometown of Civitavecchia, the port closest to Rome. He trained originally as a biomedical engineer but after his first contract with ship life he became ‘hooked’. His first job at sea was as an immigration officer, then front desk manger and now as a Guest Services Manger on Jewel of the Seas. Alessio has multiple responsibilities as the officer in charge of guest services. He looks after the loyalty program, front desk operations, guest administration and the huge task of printing the ship’s daily Compass Newsletter.
Miami Cruise Terminal, one of the largest cruise ship terminals in the world, is home port for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line company. This is where we headed to board our ship, Jewel of the Seas, which became our home away from home for 16 nights, along with 2500 fellow passengers, and 800 delightfully friendly crew members. The final destination for this cruise was San Diego but the highlight would undoubtedly be the passage through the amazing Panama Canal, famous as one of the world’s greatest feats of modern maritime engineering, allowing ease of passage between the northern and southern hemispheres. We bid farewell to Florida as we sailed past Miami’s famous South Beach, heading to our first destination, Cartagena, Colombia. The first part of the cruise was completely devoted to relaxation. As we had discovered on previous cruises it wasn’t hard to take full advantage of the indulgent leisure facilities on the ship.