The Perils of Popping the Question in Public Places

In late 2017 I concocted an elaborate plan to propose to my boyfriend Stefan. Same sex marriage wasn’t even legal in Australia at the time, but I was in no doubt that I wanted to marry this wonderful man who had miraculously appeared in my life just two years earlier, and I was aiming for a proposal he would never forget. 

Winter can be a great time to visit New York

My long game was that I knew exactly WHERE I wanted to propose – we had a trip to New York booked for the week before Christmas and in the course of my “things to do in NY research” I’d stumbled across the Whispering Gallery in Grand Central Station – more on that shortly. 

But first we needed to survive the deplorable Marriage Equality Plebiscite hatched by right wing conservative nut-jobs (why I should have to ask every Australian’s permission to marry remains a mystery to me). And even a YES vote didn’t even guarantee passage of the legislation through parliament.  

I also needed a plan in New York to lure Stef to Grand Central Station at some obscure hour when it would not be packed with commuters – I was planning a proposal, not a public performance piece. 

To help make this a trip to remember, I had secretly upgraded our flights to Premium Economy, and put in a points bid for a Business Class upgrade.  

So as you can see, I needed a few cards to fall my way if my plan was to proceed perfectly. 

On November 15th Australia voted YES to Marriage Equality – tick. On December 9th most of Parliament (with the notable exception of some of the same nut-jobs who dreamed up the plebiscite) voted marriage equality into law – tick. And on December 18th my hopefully-soon-to-be-fiance was gob-smacked when he learned he was about to fly Business Class for the first time (thankyou Qantas!) 

He celebrated by eating about a plane load of hash browns in the Melbourne Business Class lounge before the flight. 

Some 23 hours later (many of them in a lie-flat bed) we arrived in New York, refreshed and excited. Mid-December in the Big Apple is a great time to visit – the Christmas atmosphere is like nowhere else. Decorations, window displays, light shows, ice skating and carolling make you feel like you’ve stepped onto the set of a Christmas movie.  

Not that I had time for ice-skating – I still had the key part of my plan to execute. On our second day I manoeuvred us to Grand Central so that I could do some reconnaissance.  

The Whispering Gallery is located below the main concourse just outside the famous Oyster Bar. There also happens to be a Shake Shack (burger and milkshake specialists) nearby – store this information for future reference. 

The ‘gallery’ consists of four arched entry ways in a square formation. Stand at diagonally opposite corners of the archways and an astonishing acoustic phenomena allows a soft whisper to be heard 30 feet across the gallery despite the din of passing crowds. Your whisper travels up the curved wall, across the domed ceiling and back down the wall to the ears of your companion.  

It’s the same acoustic trick that can be experienced in the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in London or the Gol Gumbaz Mausoleum in India, or many other ‘whispering galleries’ around the world.  

Having scoped out the site, I determine to return the following evening, after a Broadway show, for the big reveal. 

Our third day in Manhattan is distinguished by mile after mile of walking, enjoying beautiful crisp winter weather under a pale blue sky. Up Park Avenue, down Broadway, across Central Park, it feels like New York is putting on a show for us. 

In the evening we see Waitress on Broadway and leave the theatre floating on albeit aching feet.

True story: I met Jason Mraz in a restaurant before the show!

I suggest some more sight-seeing, maybe a walk to Grand Central… Stef is not keen, he says he’s tired. “What if I take you to the Shake Shack at Grand Central?” I innocently ask. So easy. Putty in my hands. Pretty soon we’re marching down 42nd street as fast as our tired feet will take us. 

We arrive at Grand Central and head down stairs. My plan is working, the gallery space is relatively quiet. But I also know I won’t be able to hold his attention while he has burgers and shakes on his mind, so to Shake Shack we go – burgers, fries and a seriously good peanut butter milk shake. 

Nothing like Shake Shack to make you forget your aching feet

Leaving Shake Shack I see that the gallery is clear and the corners are free – time to do this thing, my heart rate is up a bit. We approach one of the arches and I tell Stef to stand there, and then – his phone rings. His sister Skyping from home. He takes the call while I wander around trying to compose myself. 

While Stef’s on the phone I see two girls obviously trying to fathom the secrets of the whispering gallery. And this Skype call seems like it’s never going to end – I’m getting mad with Stef, his sister, and the two girls who can’t figure out how a whispering gallery works.  

I approach the girls. “Hi, are you here for the whispering gallery?” I ask, maybe a little brusquely.  

“Oh my gaarrrd yaaasssss, do you know where it is?”  

I can almost hear my own eyes rolling in my head as I proceed to explain the gallery to the two Americans.  

“You: stand over there and face the corner. And you: stand in that corner. Then start whispering.”  

The girls obey and are suitably impressed by the magical acoustics. 

Eventually Stef gets off the phone, but the idiot Americans are STILL whispering to each other!  

Stef wants to know why we are hanging around. I tell him to wait, that there’s something I want to show him. “You’re being weird,” he says. 

At last the girls tire of whispering to each other, and I place Stef in one corner of the gallery. I go to the other corner and whisper a greeting to him. “Wow, that’s amazing,” he whispers back.  

“It’s called the Whispering Gallery,” I tell him. “The Whispering What?” he asks.  

“I brought you here to ask you something.” 

“Say again?” I hear his disembodied voice from the other side of the arch. Seems like the Whispering Gallery is having an off night, and I’m starting to lose my nerve. What I’ve got to say, I only want to say once. Time to think of a plan B. 

We leave Grand Central and I suggest we swing past Saks to see the Christmas light show, thinking this might afford a romantic opportunity. Sadly, its more crowded here and I’m really not vibing the location. 

Stef wants to Subway back to the hotel, but I suggest we walk through Rockefeller Plaza. Carols are playing on the PA, the ice skating rink is filled with people, and the iconic Christmas tree is twinkling above it all. 

Rockefeller Plaza

“Yeah it’s nice, can we go now?” asks Stef.  

“Not just yet.” I usher him to a bench roughly under the Tree, with not too many people around. We sit for a few minutes before I go into my more or less prepared speech, drop to one knee and ask the big question.  

Considering that he’s been asking me when I’m going to propose for about the past year, I don’t understand why he is so shocked and surprised. 

Plan B, but it worked

But he said yes, and I guess that’s all that matters.  

Points Magnet Part 5

Hotels My Way

A great way to add to your points balance is to use Qantas Hotels for all of your accommodation bookings. You’ll earn 3 QFF points for every dollar, but look out for promotions when Qantas offers up to triple points. Think of this as a way that your CURRENT holiday can help to start paying for your NEXT holiday.

The stunning Grand Hyatt Playa Del Carmen Resort (bookable on Qantas)

Qantas may not have as many properties as booking.com, and the search engine is a little less user friendly, but I think it’s still worth it for the points. 

If you really don’t like the Qantas search engine, try looking at properties on another booking site like booking.com. Once you’ve found your property go to Qantas to see if they have the same hotel. 

Before you commit to the booking you should check a comparison website like trivago to see if the property is cheaper somewhere else – Qantas has a price guarantee. Find the same property at a cheaper rate somewhere else and Qantas will match it AND give you 1000 bonus points for your trouble.  

The price guarantee is subject to various conditions (of course) and must be exercised on the day of booking. I’ve never tested it – because I’ve never had to. It specifies Australian websites, so I’m not sure if they’ll match booking.com. 

Having said that, the support and assistance I’ve received from Qantas on a couple of occasions when things went wrong has been excellent. Dealing with Booking.com on the other hand has usually been a long drawn out ordeal. 

The other disadvantage of Qantas Hotels is that you are charged at the time of booking. Typically with booking.com you won’t pay until you arrive at the property.

If you are like me, you don’t have overwhelming loyalty for any particular hotel brand. Choosing a hotel is primarily about location for me. So I won’t mind if the perfectly located hotel is a Hilton or a Hyatt or a Howard Johnston (subject to price of course).  

That’s why I never paid too much attention to hotel loyalty programs – because I never stayed at the same brand often enough to collect a useable points balance. 

But I’ve recently changed my view. Most hotels belong to a group loyalty program and most group loyalty programs have airline partners. Meaning that you can redeem those scrappy points balances for QFF points and actually get to use them one day.  

For example, the Hilton HHonours program covers Hilton, Hampton, Conrad, Waldorf Astoria hotels and more. You earn up to 10 points per $US spent on stays. You’ll earn more points for your spend at the property. And you can set your preferences to automatically convert your points to a range of airline miles programs including Qantas Frequent Flyers.  

Example: 

Book Hilton Hotel at Qantas Hotels for $2000               Earn 6000 QFF Points

Pay with Qantas Amex Ultimate card                              Earn 2500 QFF Points 
Spend $200 on room charges at Hotel 

Earn 14,960 HHonours points exchange for miles       Earn 2244 QFF Points 

That’s a total of 10,744 points for a $2,200 spend. Using my redemption valuation of 3 cents per point, you’ve just added $322 worth of buying power to your QFF balance.  

Here are some of the major hotel loyalty programs that allow you to exchange points for QFF points: 

World of Hyatt 
Marriott Bonvoy 
Hilton Honours 
Choice Privileges Choice Hotels 
IHG Rewards Club 
Pan Pacific Discovery 
Radisson Rewards 
Accor Hotels Le Club 

They all have different redemption rates, exclusions and conditions, but all are free to join.  

So my tip is: join them all!  

Set your redemption preferences to Qantas, tell the hotel you are a member on check in, and hoard all those extra points on your next holiday that might otherwise go to waste.  

Points Magnet Part 4

What’s in a Point?

So you’ve started to build up a useable QFF points balance and you’re wondering what to do with them. 

With so many ways to use your points in the QFF program, it’s really important to understand what those points are worth before you start spending them. It will also help you to understand the value of a promotion (eg credit card sign on points bonus) or if it is worth paying a credit card surcharge to earn points on a purchase. 

I value my points at 0.5 cents at the lower end, and 3.5 cents at the upper end. Let me explain how I arrive at those figures. 

Lets start in the Qantas Store. You could buy the proverbial toaster with your hard-earned points. You’ll be down 31,070 points for a toaster that retails at around $149. That’s a miserable redemption value of 0.48 cents. Great value for Qantas, not such a great deal for you.  

So let’s say we purchase Woolworths vouchers with our points. Seems like a sensible thing to do. The best value you can get here is a $250 voucher for 47,500 points. That’s a redemption value of 0.52 cents per point.

Points Plus Pay…

Here’s another way to spend (waste) your points. Qantas let’s you do ‘points plus pay’ on a range of products and services, including flights and hotel bookings. This example shows you getting a $457 hotel booking for 72,632 points – or 0.63 cents per point. Better than a toaster, but I’m still not satisfied. 

So let’s get some serious rewards…

I’ll be flying Sydney to Dallas later in the year. It’s a 17 hour marathon and I’ve booked an economy ticket (ugh). But I’ve also got enough points to REQUEST an upgrade to Business Class. Wish me luck. I’ve had some success in the past but this type of upgrade is never guaranteed. However, the difference between my Economy fare and my desired Business fare is about $3,100 and on this basis I’m calling a valuation of 3.1 cents per point. And that’s more than 6 times better than a toaster.  

You could also go after a Classic Award flight. They can be a little tricky to find, and it pays to be a little bit flexible with your dates and routes, and you’ll still have to pay taxes and carrier charges. But here’s one I picked up recently and I’m pretty damn happy about it. Melbourne to Singapore on Emirates, one of the most highly regarded first class services in the air, with a ticket value of $3300 plus taxes. And I got this for 90,000 points. A redemption value of 3.6 cents per point.  

Related image
This could be you

So now you have an idea of how to value QFF points. You can use this information to assess the benefit of that 100K-sign-on-bonus-CreditCard with a $450 annual fee: At the lower end of my valuations, those points are worth $500 (specifically, you could cash them in for $500 worth of Woolworths vouchers). Or you could hold out for an upgrade or a Classic Award at the upper end of my valuation to gain a $3,600 benefit. 

But the most important thing is…. don’t buy the toaster. 

Tourists in the Mist

Way back in 1988 I travelled to the African Congo, deep in Dianne Fossey country, on an exploratory mountain gorilla safari – exploratory because the tour operator had never been there before and really was making it up as he went along. Despite his best efforts at getting us all killed, we did get to see the gorillas and it remains one of my most treasured and indelible travel experiences – I got to hold hands with a wild mountain gorilla!



Tourists in the Mist

I wrote this article and it was published in a national magazine a short time later. The photos in this post are slide-to-digital conversions, so apologies for the poor quality.

My first national magazine article


It came with a crashing of jungle and tearing of vines. Our guides began to clap softly and make curious guttural growling noises. We stared open-mouthed at our first mountain gorilla. 

“There he is,” someone whispered reverently. All of the fatigue and frustration of our three hour search had disappeared. Sitting in a small grassy clearing was a massive black-haired gorilla, munching the leafy branches he had just stripped from a tree, observing our little party with indifference.  

The guides beckoned us and we advanced slowly, crouched with cameras at the ready. The huge creature rose, beat its chest then ambled off into the jungle with a lurching, spinning motion.  

We were on the trail of a mountain gorilla family and, following this first one, soon found the main body of the colony. They were shy at first and retreated from our approaches. But soon I sat on the luch tangle of jungle floor, at arm’s length from an enormous adult gorilla, marvelling at its gentleness and the distinct intelligence apparent in its black expressive eyes. 

I’m certain the gorilla was almost as interested in me as I was in him. It is a very special experience to sit with one of these four hundred pound animals and yet feel no fear or sense of danger. I sat transfixed, staring back into those pensive eyes, trying to imagine what the gorilla might be thinking. 

Several sancturaries in the Virunga Volcanoes of Eastern Zaire, Rwand and Uganda constitute the last bastions of survival for the endangered mountain gorilla, and they are tightly controlled by the respective governments.  

In Zaire, the Virunga National Park and Kahuzi Biega National Park are the best places to view gorillas in their natural habitat. Both are classified by Unesco as World Heritage Sites for their ecological importance. 

Kahuzi-Biega is home to the Eastern Lowland Gorilla and was established in 1975 primarily for their preservation. The larger Virunga National Park was proclaimed in 1925 and a family of mountain gorillas has recently been discovered there. Mountain gorillas can also be seen in the Parc Nationale des Volcans in Rwanda and the Kigezi Gorilla Reserve in Uganda. 

There are probably no more than 300 mountain gorillas in existence. More common are the Eastern and Western lowland gorillas.  

The mountain gorilla, larger and with longer hair than the other species, lives at an altitude ranging between 2,500 to 4,000 metres, making any visit to see them reasonably strenuous. 

Growing to 175cm and up to 200 kilograms, the herbivorous gorilla requires diverse vegetation, so families travel over vast areas. The dominant male, or silverback, determines the family’s social habits as well as the foraging activity. On the death of a silverback, the family will break up, offering other solitary males the opportunity to establish their own family groups. 

They are principally terrestrial, although the young will climb trees. By night, the gorillas build nests to sleep in by flattening the dense jungle with their immense body weight.  

I visited mountain gorillas in January, which is supposedly outside Zaire’s equatorial rainy season. It is a country of xenophobia and military paranoia, and the soldiers are certainly far less friendly than the gorillas. Pity the innocent tourist who unwittingly photographs a soldier in Zaire. 

Most gorilla safaris begin from Goma in eastern Zaire, bordering Rwanda. Goma is the favourite resort of dictatorial President Mobutu Sese Seko, making the local military personnel even more paranoiac. 

Goma overlooks the vast waters of Lac Kivu and lies in the formidable shadow of the brooding 3,470 metre Nyiragongo Volcano, which devastated the area in 1977. The volcano can be climbed in a two day excursion from the town, with primitive shelter just below the rim of the crater. It is a steep climb over extremely rough terrain, but the end result is rewarding.  

Swimming is Lac Kivu is more hazardous, as unseen gases rise from the depths and regularly claim the lives of unwary bathers. Tourists have recently died just standing on the shore of the lake, killed by the toxic gases. 

Five star accommodation has not yet arrived in Goma, but the best hotel is probably the Masque. Alternatively you can stay at the far from luxurious camping grounds of Le Club Sportif, where the showers are disturbing, the staff intimidating and the toilets positively frightening. 

About an hour out of Goma is the Zaire Conservation and Nature Institute at Rumangabo. The gorillas here have only recently been discovered and have a relatively short history of human contact. In order to minimise the impact of human contact, groups of no more than six people are permitted to visit each day. 

You can camp here and enjoy spectacular views of the Virunga ranges. The surroundings are lush and dank, and banana groves and cornfields abound. Short walks into the jungle and hills will provide interesting encounters with tiny villagers and friendly locals.  

From Rumangabo you make a four hour trek through these hills and villages to stay overnight in a small but comfortable woven-cane hut. The locals will race out to greet you as you walk, shouting “Jambo”, ask for cigarettes, and even offer you some ‘banana juice’ (a noisome brew indeed). 

The cane hut is inhabited by a particularly gregarious rat that scurries about the roof for most of the night. We soon dubbed the hut “Fawlty Towers” and our rodent host “Basil”. Amazing how one rat can disturb your slumber. Someone said “don’t worry about him, just count your toes in the morning”. We would have done better to count our bananas, which were ravaged during the night. Basil was a very fat rat.  

We rose before seven for a quick breakfast and began our search for the gorillas, taking with us four rifle toting African guides, clad in army greens. They were armed in case we met poachers. 

The initial part of the trek is through cornfields on well defined paths, and the walking is relatively easy. But soon the cornfields give way to dense rain forest jungle and you leave behind all semblance of tracks, following the guides as they hack a passage with their razor sharp pangas. You begin to appreciate the uncanny ability of the guides to track the gorillas and then – hopefully – find their way safely back to the hut.  

Depending on the movements of the gorillas – and a healthy slice of luck – it can take from two to five hours just to locate the family. Patience and perseverance are definitely required. The guides, who speak little or no English, take immense pride in their work so it is unlikely they will allow you to return without seeing the gorillas.  

Indeed the guides seem to enjoy the meetings almost as much as the tourists and are genuinely fond of the gorillas. They delightedly point out gorilla ‘nests’ and droppings to encourage you as they get closer to the family. 

Gloves are essential because of nettles and thorns. Insect repellent is also advisable. But miraculously all discomfort and fatigue vanish when, just as you were beginning to despair, the guides locate the gorillas.  

It may be necessary to hack through the jungle for some distance further before the more sociable members of the family can be approached. Whilst you are not likely to get close to any of the young gorillas, some adults will sit placidly as you put out your hand to stroke their coarse hair, and even reach out to touch you gently with the back of their hands (our guides encouraged us to do this though we later learned that this is strenuously disapproved). 

On my second visit to the gorillas it took nearly five hours to locate the family, travelling right over the top of the mountain. The return journey was ripped straight from an Indian Jones movie, as the guides took us down a sheer, muddy mountainside, sliding and tumbling haphazardly. 

But the exertion of visiting the gorillas should not deter more senior travellers. Any reasonably fit person accustomed to walking for long periods should be able to cope with the trekking. The guides show great concern for visitors, and provide constant encouragement for those who begin to lose heart. Whenever one of the older women in our group showed signs of fatigue, the guides stopped us from ploughing on and implored “poli poli, Mama” (poli is Swahili for slowly).  

During our stay at Rumangabo three women in their seventies successfully made the two day trek. The oldest, a spritely 78, claimed to have had a love affair with a gorilla which repeatedly reached out to pat her white hair. Despite everyone’s exhaustion, these close encounters with the wild mountain gorillas of Zaire was well and truly worth it.  

Free Points Alert

Here’s a couple of free points offers… 

For Qantas American Express Ultimate cardholders you can earn 5000 points by adding a supplementary cardholder. Just login to your account and look for this popup: 

This has been running for a day or so. If it doesn’t appear when you next login, keep checking.  

For Qantas Wellbeing users, get 1000 points by requesting a health insurance quote (no obligation). 

Don’t have the app? Get it here by following my link:  

Points Magnet Part 3

Groceries My Way 

As a fan of the Qantas Frequent Flyer Program, it’s no surprise that I’m going to tell you to sign up (if you haven’t already) to Woolworths Rewards.

If you shop at Woolies and AREN’T signed up, then you’re crazy. Like it or not, those loyalty points are factored into the price of everything you buy – so you may as well collect the points! If you don’t, it’s like giving Woolworths a tip, or saying “keep the change” every time you shop. 

Great, you’ve got a Woolworths Rewards Card. Set it up to transfer points to your QFF account. Now… get another Woolworths Rewards Card. And keep a regular check on your email account.

Whilst WR is a loyalty rewards program, the irony is that Woolworths is more likely to reward disloyalty. Stop using Card A for a while and watch the special bonus offers start to appear in your inbox (they think you’ve gone to Coles). Activate them. Use them if they make sense to you (but don’t buy stuff you don’t need just to get the points). 

While you’re happily collecting bonus points on Card A, pretty soon you’ll be getting similar offers on Card B. 

If the bonus offers dry up, consider getting another card.

Make sure everyone in your family is shopping on one of your cards to maximise your points. You can also collect WR points at fuel and bottle shop outlets, and Big W. 

Notwithstanding those special offers, you’ll get 1 Woolworths Reward point for every $1 spent. Each WR point converts to 0.43 QFF points (2000 WR points converts to 870 QFF points, transferred to your Qantas account quarterly)

Let’s compare value: 

2000 Woolworths points buys a $10 voucher/discount when used at Woolworths. 1 point is worth half a cent! 

870 Qantas Frequent Flyer points is worth approximately $26 when used for points upgrades or awards flights at Qantas, based on my 3 cents per point valuation. 

The Woolworths award can be used on life’s essentials, and is easily cashed in. The Qantas award is a lifestyle choice and is a little bit more difficult to cash – but so much more fun than buying toilet paper. It’s up to you, be sensible or be self-indulgent, but don’t miss out on the points! 

Now, how many QFF points could you collect in a year from grocery shopping? Let’s say you spend $250 a week at Woolworths (not a stretch for family of four). And you activate and exploit all of those bonus offers. And you pay on a points earning credit card like the American Express Ultimate card that I have recommended previously. 

  • Table 1 – $250 Weekly Grocery Bill
    • WR points: 13,000 converts to 5590 QFF points 
    • Bonus Points: 40,000* converts to 17200 QFF points 
    • (*based on 4 x 10,000 bonus offer for 4-weekly shopping targets)
    • Amex 1.25 points for spend 16,250 QFF points

Congratulations, you’ve just banked 39,040 QFF points towards your next award. 

Get that AMEX card on this link: http://amex.com.au/refer/brettjRzIr?XLINK=MYCP

Now let’s put the icing on that cake:

Shopping at Woolworths ONLINE via the Qantas Mall can increase your points yield even further, AND save you time in the supermarket.

It takes some planning and organisation, but I think it’s worth the effort. I use Woolworths online (via Qantas Mall) to buy the things I know I’m going to need for the coming week. It’s also a great way to browse the half-price specials and snap up those things you regularly use at a ‘bargain’ price. It won’t replace that dash to the shops for the bread and milk that you just ran out of, but if you can get into a routine you can easily get most of your groceries this way. 

They pick and pack the groceries for you, so you save time in store. I also find that I am less prone to impulse buys (usually chocolate), so it’s arguably good for wallet and waist as well! 

But back to the points… every time you shop at Woolworths online via the Qantas Mall, your spend is tracked by Qantas and they will reward you with 2 points (standard, sometimes up to 4 points) for every $1 spent. That’s 4 times the standard earn rate in store!

For example: 

  • Table 2 Points Yield on $200 Online Grocery Shop
    • 200 standard Woolworths rewards points (converts to 87 QFF points) 
    • 250 QFF points from your points earning credit card 
    • 400 QFF points from the Qantas Mall 

If you were able to do $200 of your weekly family-of-four grocery shop online instead of instore, you’ll collect at least a further 20,800 QFF in a year.  

Add that to the points from Table 1 and you are at around 60,000 QFF points – not for buying more stuff, just from buying the same stuff in a different way.

You could look at this as a $360 cash back on your groceries, or up to $1800 to spend at Qantas. (I’ll cover points valuations in more detail in another instalment)

Or you could let Woolworths and Qantas keep the points – it’s up to you! 

Key Point
Use different Woolworths Rewards cards to attract
more bonus offers

Key Point
Watch your emails and activate offers, track your shopping to reach your goals, but only buy stuff you need

Key Point
Plan your weekly shop and do it online through the Qantas Mall to turbo boost your points yield

Honeymoon Booked!

Costa Rica here we come…

Still sorting out some of the finer details, but we are very excited about going to Costa Rica at the end of the year for our honeymoon.

Flying Qantas and American Airlines (booked economy, fingers crossed for points upgrades) via Dallas, its about a 30 hour journey to the capital San Jose.

Then we pick up a G Adventures 16 day tour exploring jungles, volcanoes, and tropical beaches, hopefully seeing monkeys, turtles and sloths.

After roughing it around the country, Stef is likely to kiss the ground when we arrive at the Four Seasons to wrap up our Honeymoon in the lap of luxury.

Feeling the heat in Havana

City of salsa, sex and swagger

Parque Centro Havana

Our taxi has been driving around the same few streets for about 15 minutes and its pretty clear he doesn’t know how to find our Casa Particular (homestay) in downtown Havana.  

Arriving in Cuba can be a little nerve racking – from the antique (junked) planes beside the runway on the airport approach, to the interminable and unexplained wait for our bags, then finding our “hotel transfer” to be a derelict taxi with a driver who speaks no English, and a highway shared with equally ancient horses and carts, and a journey of abject poverty through outer Havana.

There is a clear sense of having gone back 50 years to a very different world. 

Questions are asked of locals doing car repairs on the street (a common scene) and eventually we confirm the location of our Casa. The street entrance is non-descript and we head up 3 flights of narrow stairs hefting our cases (defences up, I’ve refused offers of assistance from a friendly local at street level). 

Surprise – our hosts don’t speak English either. A flurry of gesticulation, my Duolingo Spanish and her bad English manages to sort out the finer details of our accommodation and then we are in our room and ready to make our first foray into Old Havana (Habana Vieja).  

Well, one of us is ready. My partner Stefan is in an advanced stage of culture shock, foetal positioned on the bed. He has a thousand questions about what to do and where to go, to which I have only one answer: “I don’t know, we’ll find out”. This does not please him, so he engages the landlady for advice. He has even less Spanish than me, so it is a fruitless exercise.  

Eventually we hit the streets of old Havana and begin what will be a gradual falling in love process with this incredible city.

At first there is the almost orgiastic photographing of colorful and classic American cars, ironically emblematic of Havana.



But then we start to appreciate the exquisitely beautiful old buildings, some spectacularly restored and others in perilous disrepair. 

One of our first stops is Hotel Inglaterra in the centre of Havana. The oldest hotel in town, and oozing old world charm, if you don’t asphyxiate on the cigar smoke. The real appeal here is that its one of the few places to get any internet access. Stefan settles into the bar nothing like a Cuba Libre and some much-needed social networking therapy to ease your anxiety.

This is a classic walking city – spend your days exploring Habana Centro and Habana Vieja and you’ll be richly rewarded with sights and sounds and cheap rum and mojitos.

Walk the Prado from the waterfront to Parque Central – it has the feel of the grand avenues of Paris. Take in the magnificent Capitolio Nacional then head down Muralla to Plaza Vieja where you can enjoy coffee or cocktails overlooking the square. Then onto the church and monastery of St Francis of Assisi built in 1608, one of my favourite parts of Havana.

Iglesias San Francisco

At the Plaza del Armas you might be lucky enough to get caught up in an historical re-enactment – the Cubans have plenty of revolutions to choose from.

We also had a slowly growing awareness of a certain vibe on the street, a kind of charged atmosphere. “Have you noticed…” I tentatively asked Stefan. Yes, he had picked up on it too. How do I say this? Havana is a hotbed of salsa, sex and swagger.  

It’s nothing for Cubans of any age to spontaneously show off some moves on the street or in a park and the salsa here just might be the sexiest in the world. The music and salsa is everywhere and the resulting mood is joyous and exuberant – and sexy.  

On another corner a towering transexual smiles knowingly at us, gives an impossibly high high-kick, and sashays on down the street.  

The heat from the Cubans is palpable – beautiful Men and women alike saunter along the streets throwing us smouldering looks as if to say ‘si, I just had incredible sex’ or ‘hola, would you like to have incredible sex with me?’ Fearing something might be lost in translation, we smile tentatively, exhale and move on. 

Have I mentioned the food? I went with fairly low expectations of the local cuisine – but we were amazed every night by the quality of the restaurants in Havana. Sure, we ate at places expensive by Cuban standards but – for the quality and sophistication of the food – cheap by western standards. It’s creole and cajun meets African and Latin American, with plenty of haute cuisine finesse. I had some memorable ceviches and sumptuous paella. Cuba also excels with pork and potato dishes. 

A little less sophisticated is the ubiquitous flan – desert of the day. Everyday. Everywhere. But still good! 

The economy here is a complete mystery to me. We saw nothing that would pass for a grocery or convenience store, nowhere selling clothes or everyday items. The only exception being the high end boutiques around Central Parque  – but the prices for designer goods here were well beyond our reach, much less the locals who don’t all seem to be sharing in Cuba’s tourist boom. 

I’ll say it now… Cuba is not ready for Western tourists. And that is the best thing about it AND the reason you should go there before it IS ready.  

There’s a small number of western style hotels that are outrageously expensive, and then there are the casa particulares, such as our accommodation and not much in between. Our Casa was charming but spartan (HOT TIP: take your own pillow). Affordable but still expensive for what you get. WIFI is scarce, credit cards don’t work. Group tours are really expensive, so we opted for cheaper locally booked transfers and tours. Transportation between cities is uncomfortable – you’ll be crammed in with as many tourists as the driver can fit. The roads are poorly signposted and you can forget google maps, so don’t even think about driving yourself. But what you compromise in western comforts will be well and truly repaid in authentic experiences – after you summon the courage to leave your casa.  

Recommended Stay: 

Casa Misiones, on Pena Pobre (old Havana). Great location, plenty of charm. Terrible pillows and toast. Friendly staff. Book through http://www.cubaccommodation.com 

Recommended Eats: 

Habana 61, Café Espada, 5 Esquinas Trattoria 

Travel arrangements: 

Check out www.experiencetherealcuba.com and drop a line to Rena. She helped us with internal travel arrangements. A nice compromise between organised group tours and fully independent travel.  

Top Tips: 

Learn some Spanish, byo pillow, byo maps, take plenty of hard currency

Travel Ethics

As travellers today we might think of ourselves as roving ambassadors, enriching ourselves and the world with cross-cultural experiences as we traverse the globe. But do we have a responsibility to think about where we spend our tourist dollar, and to think about who we might be hurting or helping? 

This has never been more pertinent for LGBTI travelers as the gulf between equality and discrimination becomes more glaring in countries across the world.  

Here’s a list of countries where homosexuality or homosexual acts are forbidden and punishable by law: 

Algeria, Antigua & Barbuda, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bhutan, Botswana, Brunei, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Comoros, Cook Islands, Dominica, Egypt, Eritrea, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guinea, Guyana, Iran, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Kuwait, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Myanmar, Namibia, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and The Grenadines, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Togo, Tonga, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Uganda, UAE, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe 

There’s quite a few countries here that I’ve been to and plenty more that I’d like to visit. Sure, Eswatini was never high on my bucket list (btw it’s the new name of Swaziland, and yes I had to Google that), but a lot of those countries are highly desirable tropical paradises. You’d think they’d be more chill! Why would a Maldivian policeman bother to get out of his hammock to arrest Faisal and Abdul for having a quickie in their fishing dhoni?

And Bhutan… wtf??? This tiny Himalayan Kingdom that measures Gross National Happiness instead of GDP (they pretty much don’t have any GDP) may not be nirvana for their gay citizenry facing up to a year in jail just for being themselves. 

So what’s your rule when it comes to visiting countries that make same sex relations a crime? Should we boycott all such countries? Or just those that actively enforce those laws? Many countries turn a blind eye to their archaic anti-gay laws (possibly in a cynical pursuit of tourist dollars), and hey, it can be hard to avoid Singapore and Malaysia for an Australian who regularly travels internationally. 

For me, Brunei’s recent toughening of anti-LGBTI laws – death by stoning no less! – are just a bridge too far. I won’t be travelling to this sultanate anytime soon, nor flying on the national carrier Royal Brunei Airlines, or lining the king’s pockets by staying at any of his hotels! 

And should we use our tourist dollars to vote against Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women, China’s human rights violations and annexation of Tibet, cultures that practice female circumcision, Japan for whaling, the otherwise charming Danes for their senseless slaughter of dolphins, the USA for building a wall against Mexico??? 

And what about our own backyard? How should foreign tourists respond to Australia’s treatment of refugees, our record with our own first peoples, the racist attitudes of many of our politicians,  and hey we only just got marriage equality after being dragged into the developed world, and what a shit fight that was! 

Maybe Muslim Brunei should have boycotted Australia when Pauline Hanson wore a burqa to parliament. 

So should we stay home waving an indignant fist at our computer screens, or do we go forth into the world and hope that in some small way our tourist diaspora will spread seeds of tolerance and understanding? 

No right or wrong answers here – everyone will have their own travel deal-breakers – but plenty of questions to ask ourselves when booking our next trip.  

Boycott Royal Brunei

International travel doesn’t have to be all about self-indulgent hedonism. Sometimes we can make a small statement with the choices we make about where to go, how to get there, and where to stay. That’s why I’m putting out the call for all my friends to boycott Royal Brunei Airlines, and hotels owned by the Brunei Investment Group.

Brunei has just introduced the death penalty for homosexual acts and for adultery. And if that isn’t barbaric enough, it is DEATH BY STONING.  

RB is a state-owned airline, so I would urge anyone who cares about human rights, or the safety and fair treatment of LGBTI people around the world, to think twice before flying Royal Brunei.  And while we’re at it, let’s also boycott visiting Brunei, or staying at international hotels owned by the Brunei Investment Group (controlled by the Sultan of Brunei, one of the world’s richest men).  

The Hotels include the Dorchester Collection and the Beverly Hills Hotel. 

https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2019/03/29/five-star-hotels-owned-anti-lgbt-brunei-avoid/

Australian Senator Penny Wong says Brunei’s Penal Code breaches the UN Declaration of Human Rights, so we can only hope that the Australian Government will reconsider its trade and business arrangements with Brunei. They could start by revoking Royal Brunei Airlines right to fly into Australia. We can only hope that something is done before the first public executions begin.  

You can help by signing my petition here:

https://www.communityrun.org/petitions/ban-royal-brunei-airlines