[BBC Video]: “Australian Experience w/John Vlahides: Sydney & Blue Mountains”

BBC America has been running a series of brilliant short films on Australia, which I co-produced and hosted on behalf of Lonely Planet. Wow, Australia—what a country.

No matter how many times I visit Sydney, I always get a thrill when I spot that spectacular harbor, and feel like I’m seeing it again for the first time. I can’t pick a favorite perspective—but how thrilling the view from the Olympic salt-water swimming pool beneath Sydney Harobur Bridge.

Hard to believe the Blue Mountains are so close to Australia’s biggest city. Dense eucalyptus forest, dotted with craggy rock formations, sprawl two million acres, exuding a mist of oil that refracts sunlight a smoky blue—hence the range’s name.

The birds are incredible. As we descended cliffs into a tiny pocket of rainforest, a pair of rare black cockatoos flew past at eye level. Tracing their route, I spotted other giant birds, the sort you only see in pet stores in America, perched wild in treetops, cawing and screeching an echoing chorus.

Dig the ride out of the canyon: you ascend via the world’s steepest railway. The film barely conveys the vertical drop, nor the sensation of feeling suspended, face first, inside a cage. My stomach was in my mouth. I can’t wait to do it again.

The view from the air of Sydney Harbour – note the swimming pool at the bridge’s foot, and the opera house across the water.

[Video]: Why It’s Fun to do Live TV

It’s always fun to do live TV. This week I appeared on ABC7‘s afternoon chat show, 7Live to inspire imagination about road-tripping California in springtime. For a moment I lost my train of thought, but discovered an on-the-spot solution to conversational stasis: Drum on the newscasters’ desk until you regain your rhythm. And laugh, always laugh. Honesty shines brightest.

Video: Why It’s Fun to Do Live TV from John Vlahides on Vimeo.

What’s New in California, Summer 2013: San Diego Edition [Video]

On location in San Diego, with help from a colony of penguins and corps of giraffes, I hosted this rollicking G-rated travel film (which I also co-produced and wrote) for Visit California, showcasing what’s new around the state this summer. Heavens, I look so clean cut. My mother will be proud.

Favorite moment comes when the giraffe tries to eat our equipment. The thing about giraffes is, they’re the dumb blonds of the animal world: super tall, with beautiful long eyelashes, and not much upstairs. But watch out. Their legs can rotate a full 360º, and they can kill a lion with a single swift kick. The trainer had told me to swat them on the nose if they misbehaved – they did, and I did – but it seemed best to me that we all get along, so I kept laughing and feeding the animals as fast as I could.

[Video] Kitesurfing in Madagascar

Adventure sports are as foreign in Madagascar as the concept of leisure time: in a country where 90% of the population has no running water, survival trumps entertainment. French entrepreneurs are trying to change that, investing in new tourism infrastructures to draw foreigners and (ideally) teach the locals new, marketable skills. In my investigation of this subject for NatGeo Television, I traveled to Sakalava Bay, where I had just two hours to learn to kitesurf—normally it takes three days. I’m already looking forward to returning to this barely known beach resort and showering the locals with greenbacks.

California Road Trip in March & April: Postcards from the Highway

Hilltop above Carmel Valley, California

Wine Country Srping: Hwy 121, Sonoma County


Big rains this spring have greened the entire state of California, from north to south. What’s not green is white: the Sierra remain buried under the deepest snowpack in 20 years.  In a few weeks, once rainy season ends, everywhere but the mountains will turn gold—the color of lion’s fur, the dusty brown of tourist season. Now is the time for a road trip. As a professional travel correspondent, I always schedule California research trips for spring. Here’s why. Continue reading

Debunking Dubai’s Five-star Myth: When Business Class Masquerades as First

Dubai is home to some of the world’s most instantly recognizable hotels, but does the service measure up to the facilities? Some come close, but none I found merits the rarefied ranking of a real five-star. And that includes the iconic sail-shaped Burj al-Arab—which I prefer to call the Bourgeois à l’Arabe.

What distinguishes five-star from four-star service? The primary difference lies in the anticipation of a guest’s needs. A good hotel provides what you want before you know you want it. An example: You’re at a city hotel in, say, London, and step outside just as it begins to rain. Before you have to ask, the doorman offers an umbrella. Sure, any good four-star stocks umbrellas, but only the five-star will thrust one into your hand at the exact moment you need it, without your having to request it. Herein lies the problem. Continue reading

Ilakaka, Madagascar: Boomtown Gone Bust

On assignment in Madagascar for National Geographic and Lonely Planet, I made a detour to investigate Ilakaka, the gem capital of Madagascar, a boomtown gone bust, where Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law got shot to death. The place gave me the creeps. I didn’t stick around.

Sufi Mystical Music in Morocco

On assignment in Morocco last year, Lonely Planet gave me the task of investigating Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, for broadcast on National Geographic Channels International. The following footage wound up on the cutting room floor, but recently reappeared on YouTube.

Sufi music is a means of connecting to the Divine through chanting and dance. But it’s more than simply worship; it also serves a therapeutic purpose. When someone is depressed or otherwise mentally ill, Sufis consider the sufferer to be endiablé – inhabited by a devil – and the only solution is to drive away the demon with an ever-crescendoing swell of heavy percussion and songs set to religious poetry. It’s incredibly loud – especially when the horns blare.

Imagine yourself depressed. A brotherhood of ten robed mystics shows up at your bedside and starts drumming and singing in a clamorous fortissimo. There’s no ignoring them – and that’s the point: to penetrate the sufferer’s consciousness, rouse him from torpor, and get him up and moving in a sort of trance-dance. Once this happens, the music must not stop until the endiablé falls to the floor, an indication that the demon has been exorcised. Continue reading