The seaplane dips ever so slightly as we approach to land on the glacial waters surrounding the wild, remote islands and inlets of British Columbia's far north-west.
From my vantage point in the cockpit, the pine forests stretch endlessly into the horizon, their uniformity broken by the occasional snow-capped rocky mountain peak. Apart from the odd lone fishing boat, there are no obvious signs of human life. We begin to close in on the green-blue waters of a fjord below with a gentle bump signalling our landing. As our pilot steers the aircraft down the waterway, the green-roofed floating log cabins of Knight Inlet Lodge come into view. Against the dramatic backdrop of the mountains, they seem positively dwarfed.
``Welcome to bear country,'' our pilot says as we pull up outside the lodge.
The bears he is referring to are the grizzlies -- the admired and feared animals which dominate Canada's north-west outskirts. Knight Inlet has one of the largest concentrations in British Columbia. The guests who make the journey here come for just one purpose: to see these animals up close. Two of the lodge's staff come over to greet us before we are led to our rooms. Mine is tucked away at the back of a cosy timber cabin with a fireplace and spectacular views across the inlet. We're given just enough time to settle in before the Lodge's guides direct us to a boat for our first bear-spotting session. As we set off, we are told the rules of bear-watching: no loud-talking, perfume or camera-flashes; the idea, of course, is not to attract attention. No more than a few minutes have passed when our guide -- a Canadian local who drives huskies during the winter -- points ahead to a moving brown figure behind a bush. It moves forward so that its shape can be seen. Yep, it's a bear -- and a big one at that. We are told he is around 180kg and most likely a male. The boat's engine is turned off and we sit and watch. It is so quiet that the cracking sound of branches being broken by the bear as he feeds echo through the valley. He eventually catches our scent and briefly lifts his large round head to sniff the air. Deciding the salmonberries on his bush are far more interesting, he resumes eating. We leave him be and continue our search. The anchor is pulled up and we head to a grassland area further north where we find two smaller grizzlies on the water's edge. We are told there can be up to 40 bears sighted within a few kilometres of the lodge. As they like to feed by the water, you're likely to see at least a dozen, even on a bad day. Satisfied with our first bear sightings, we head back to the Lodge for dinner.
Knight Inlet's two resident chefs have been cooking all day and their efforts of crab, roast beef, vegetables and varied cakes and sweets are devoured by our hungry crew. By the end of the meal, I feel as if I've consumed an entire bear. Still, I somehow manage to squeeze in a glass of red by the fire where the rest of the guests have gathered. The next morning, after waking to the sounds of bird calls, we are split into groups -- some will go off on a hike while others will take out the kayaks. Our group is hiking through a forest to see where the bears sleep, eat and just hang out. After a short motorboat cruise down the inlet, we disembark before boarding a big bear-proof truck for our journey into the forest. Unlike the rules on the boat, we are instructed to talk loudly when off the truck to let the bears know we are here. The aim of this tour is to see where the bears live, but not to actually run into one. If they know we are here, they will keep their distance. We follow an old logging route into the forest. Light soon turns to darkness as the thick rainforest canopy blots out the sun. We eventually pull over to begin the first of a series of short walks into the bush. A few steps down a trail, we are stopped by our guide who crouches down near a brown mound ... bear droppings, and still warm. We look around nervously, but all is still: whatever left it behind has moved on. As we move further down the trail, we come across a large sheltered depression beneath an old-growth rainforest tree. Our guide explains it is a ``day bed'' -- a place for bears to sleep in between foraging for food. Not far away we find a tree covered in bear fur which is used as a scratching post. After a good few hours exploring, we head back to the Lodge for lunch before our afternoon bear-viewing tours. This time, more bears have come out to play. As we watch, two cubs take part in a spectacular chase along the water's edge. The pair are pursued by a cranky adult grizzly who has apparently objected to their presence. Further along the inlet, a large chocolate-coloured head of another bear appears above the grasses. We also encounter a pair of bald-headed eagles carrying sticks to a nest, and an enormous sleeping seal making use of a random log which has floated into the inlet. One of the guides offers to take us on an afternoon cruise to some of the inlet's glacial waterfalls. A thick blanket of fog descends into the cove before lifting to reveal mountain-top glaciers and sheer rock faces with waterfalls fuelled by melting snow. We also see more bald-headed eagles and seals. But it's too early in the season for whales, which also frequent the local waters. By the end of my three-day stay, I feel as if I have stepped back into a time and place before humans occupied the planet. With just four hours left before I must fly home, I decide to squeeze in a last-minute kayaking tour. Three grizzly bears are out on the shoreline. My kayak drifts towards one of them. Although I am a good few metres away, I can see all his features in great detail -- from the hump on his back, a small scar on his head to his giant front paws. I thank him for allowing me into his home.
Several major airlines fly from Sydney to Vancouver, from about $AU1300. The lodge, Knight Inlet Lodge, is 80km north-west of Campbell River, British Columbia. Guests flying from Vancouver stay overnight at Campbell River before taking a float-plane to Glendale Cove.
Package: ... Scenic Tours' four-day grizzly bear expedition can be added to any of its tours or taken alone from May to late October. Fare from $AU2345 includes return air faresfrom Vancouver, two nights at Knight Inlet Lodge, one night at Campbell River. All-weather gear and boots included. More: www.scenictours.com or 1300 723 642.
Journeying by rail to Australia's Red Centre is hardly the fastest way to travel - but that's exactly why thousands do it. The Ghan has been crossing the desert from Adelaide into Alice Springs for more than 70 years, but these days it also collects passengers from Sydney and Melbourne. We boarded the Ghan in Melbourne after flying from Sydney.
It is one of the greatest ways to experience the Northern Territory Outback while not leaving the human comfort-zone of bunk beds, cooked meals and proper bathroom facilities. For those intent on having a motoring holiday but not wanting to risk a breakdown in the desert on the way, it is also possible to take the car aboard.
The Ghan inherited its name from the Afghan camel drivers who arrived in Australia almost 150 years ago to transport goods through the inhospitable terrain. Telegraph linesman later relied on camels before they were replaced by trains in the late 20s, when the Government decided to build a railway line.
The 1 1/2 day trip is one of the best ways to appreciate the vastness of the land. Panoramic windows in each of the cabins ensure passengers do not miss any of the sights, in daylight at least. There is also something to be said for the old-fashioned feel of the wooden-panelled interiors and uniformed conductors strolling the corridors.
Passengers ranged from families with young children, couples and backpackers to pensioners and war veterans. For most, it was their first trip, although one train buff named Frank, a war veteran, said he'd made the trip more than 10 times, simply because he relishes the experience. He doesn't even get off at the Alice but stays on board for the return journey.
We travelled overnight to Adelaide, with the few hours before bedtime spent in the lounge car, swapping travel tales with the other passengers and taking advantage of the bar. While some of the guests retired to the smoking lounge for port and cigars, I decided to give in to sleepiness and crawl into my first-class cabin bunk-bed where, despite the rocking and odd bump, it was surprisingly easy to sleep.
Brilliant sunshine blazing through the window took the place of a regular alarm clock, waking me naturally. But for those who might otherwise accidentally sleep through breakfast, a friendly announcement is made before food is served. Meals on the Ghan, unlike pre-prepared airline offerings, are cooked by on-board chefs and range from bacon-and-egg breakfasts to gourmet dinners. Later that night a grilled lime and ginger snapper went down extremely well with wine for dinner, while a picture-perfect orange sunset provided the backdrop in the restaurant car.
The Ghan passes through several key tourist spots on its way from Melbourne to Adelaide, including Geelong, the sandstone ranges of the Grampians, Victoria's wheat district and Bordertown. We arrived in Adelaide shortly after 10am and disembarked to explore the local sights for five hours before starting the final leg of the trip. There's a choice of tours but we decided to hit the local shopping strip before enjoying a long lunch in one of the city's many restaurants. The most scenic leg of the 2387km journey is from Adelaide. The lush green coastal vegetation rapidly turns more scrub-like as we pass by spinifex plains and salt pans across to the rugged MacDonnell Ranges.
Just in case of monotony, I had brought some books. A conductor took a bet that I would not get through one. He won. It is amazing how satisfying it is simply to watch the landscape, the changing colours of the sky and the sunset.
Most travellers watching their budget choose the day-nighter cars with reclining seats. But for those wanting a proper bed, sleeper cabins are available with almost all the facilities of first class, the only difference being they have to share a bathroom.
Overseas travellers are expected to make up the bulk of passengers on the Ghan when it embarks on a new route to Darwin. Construction on the long-awaited link has started and is expected to be completed by early 2004.
A Top End Club has been established to register the names of people who want to be first on the Ghan's historic first crossing to Darwin. But for us, when the Ghan rolled into the Alice Springs station at 10 am, everyone disembarked to begin the next leg of their outback adventure - everyone, that is, except Frank.
Our writer Linda's outback travel tips
- Drink lots of water. It can get hot in the Territory at any time of year. Drink at least eight glasses of water daily and carry plenty of water with you whenever you are walking, climbing or cycling - at least two litres for every one hour of activity.
- Fossicking. Prospecting is a Territory tradition and all you need is a fossicker permit to go on your own quest for agate, amethyst, garnet, jasper, zircon, and of course gold. For permission to fossick on freehold land and mineral leases you must ask the owner or leaseholder. Individual fossicking permits are not required if you are on a tour.
- Crocodiles. The need for caution and commonsense cannot be stressed too strongly in areas containing, or suspected of containing, the dangerous saltwater crocodile. Despite its name, the saltwater crocodile is equally at home in both salt and fresh water and is often found considerable distances from the coast and estuarine river systems.
- What to wear. You should dress in cool protective cotton clothing, a wide-brimmed hat and sturdy shoes. Sandals are not appropriate and can be hazardous in some situations, including slippery rocky terrain around watercourses.
It was with some trepidation that I agreed to go on a Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival camping trip.
While it is universally regarded as one of the hippest music festivals in the northern hemisphere - style muses Alexa Chung and Chloe Sevigny are regulars - as a Gen X indie-rock survivor, I thought my days of drinking cans of warm VB while standing in portable toilet queues had gone the way of my faded Nirvana T-shirt. However, the pull of seeing live music outdoors again - Nick Cave, Tame Impala, Yeah Yeah Yeahs - was too great, even if I was going to have to bring ear muffs.
Heading into its 15th year, Coachella has become one of the most successful art and music festivals in the world.
What began as a one-day gathering on an Indio Polo Club field back in 1999 has become so popular it stretches over two weekends, with bands playing the same set twice to cater for the demand.
Part of its appeal is that Coachella attracts the biggest names in the business - The Stone Roses, The Cure and even Madonna have performed.
It also taps into the upcoming music scene, scouring the world and inviting the best still largely unearthed talent to play alongside the megastars.
In preparation for the weekend, my travelling crew check into the Andaz Hotel on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip in West Hollywood to overcome jet lag. The hotel is famous for having hosted parties by rock'n'roll royalty such as The Rolling Stones and The Who back in the day.
While still "cool", the hotel is more of a relaxed oasis for weary travellers.
The two-hour road trip from LA to Coachella is broken up with a quick stopover at the Desert Hills Premium Outlet to collect some cut-price jeans, sunnies and yet another pair of Converse shoes.
Upon arriving in Indio Valley, where the festival is setting up, we climb into golf buggies and are driven to a field of white-marquee style tents - the luxury safari tents camping ground. Across the field, there is a pool with deck, massage tents and showering trailers with mirrors and power.
Inside my tent, a wrought-iron bed covered with '70s print cushions takes the place of a sleeping bag. There's power. A fridge. Even aircon.
The "mess hall'' is yet another luxuriously furnished tent that serves hot breakfasts and late- night snacks.
With a three-day festival ahead, we plan our days.
The advantage of staying next to the festival grounds means we are a short golf buggy trip to the stages.
Despite its popularity - the festival attracts about 85,000 over the two weekends - there is never the feeling of being in a crowd, except, of course, near the moshpit.
It is a relaxed atmosphere with the fashion - think Woodstock, Ali McGraw, Michelle Phillips - and the celebrity-spotting is just as entertaining as the onstage acts.
The stark but stunning desert landscape is best appreciated from atop the now iconic Coachella ferris wheel.
Both toilet and drinks queues are surprisingly short, while the fast food is so good that even singer Katy Perry queues.
The VIP area - tickets can be bought at extra cost - is teeming with celebrities who appear to enjoy mingling with the masses instead of taking advantage of their backstage trailers. We spy Twilight stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart huddled in a corner (they broke up a few weeks later), Paris Hilton with her chain-smoking sister Nicky and actor Lindsay Lohan.
True Blood star Alexander Skarsgard outed himself as a fan of The Stone Roses, as did Katy Perry and UK Vogue cover girl Lily Donaldson.
Even back at the campground, we have a celebrity encounter when Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee, famous for partnering with Baywatch star Pamela Anderson, walks past on his way to have a shower.
Being a desert, the days are hot, think mid-30C and the nights cool. To avoid the midday heat, there is the option of joining the pool party scene in downtown Palm Springs. The hotels open their doors to the public - except for those hosting the real VIPs like Bono - to lounge by the pool with a cocktail under one of the district's ubiquitous date palms until it cools down.
Others wile away the hours with a yoga or Pilates session, or take photographs of the 9m tall statue of Marilyn Monroe who lived in the neighbourhood.
It is hard not to fall in love with Coachella. Not just for the music but also for the afternoon desert sunsets - arguably the best act each day - and the chilled-out nature of the crowd.
Not even an eye-stinging violent desert dust storm could dampen my enthusiasm for the festival, nor the headline act - the Red Hot Chili Peppers - who gritted their teeth and crunched their way through the final hour.
After four days and more than 40 bands, it is time to go into recovery mode - and a long, luxurious shower.
We check in at the Shore Hotel in Santa Monica, opposite the famous pier, before heading further south to stay at Belamar Hotel in the artist and surfing hub of Manhattan Beach.