Travelling with Ian Thorpe

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Mar 16, 2017

He’s one of Australia’s best-known athletes. And if you want to stay on the Thorpedo’s good side, here’s a tip: don’t hold up the queue at airport security.

When you walk into a hotel room, what’s the first thing you look for?

I adjust the temperature of the aircon, usually down. I also set the temperature of the living area differently to that of the bedroom. This is the deal for me: if housekeeping notices the different temperatures and has set the aircon at those when I return to the room, I’m really impressed. It’s not a test but if the hotel gets that level of detail right, I’ll stay there for the rest of my life. Little things like that make a big difference if you’re a frequent traveller.

What do you like to find in the minibar?

Ice-cream – it’s one of my weaknesses. I have a rule, though: ice-cream has to be better than what it’s telling you it is. Chocolate ice-cream is not better than chocolate so you shouldn’t eat chocolate ice-cream. Whereas vanilla, for example, tastes far better than eating a vanilla pod. That’s my rule.

Is there a place you could have given a miss?

Vegas. It’s just too crass for me. Everyone’s like, “Go and see the shows” and I say, “Yeah, I saw the shows but walking down the street is too busy!” There’s plenty to do and I’ve enjoyed myself there but that’s one place I don’t think I need to go back to. And it’s too hot.

Which destination was a surprise to you?

A lot have been. I want to be surprised by most of the places I go to; it’s one of the pleasures of travel, whether pleasant or unpleasant, because you take stock of how you feel about a place. I was in India recently, driving past an area that was quite impoverished and yet there were kids going to school in these immaculate uniforms. I loved India. It’s a melting pot of religion and culture.

Have you ever gone completely off the grid?

I filmed a documentary [SBS’s DNA Nation] with a tribe in Africa called the Hadzabe and that was off the grid. There’s still a group of people who live in a mostly hunter-gatherer way and I was with them for a little while. I learned how to use a bow and arrow and we went on a hunt. I asked the people what animal they were hoping to find and they said “a giraffe”. I thought, “Oh, no” because I didn’t want to find a giraffe but then they explained that it feeds many people in the group and only one animal has to be killed. We have detached ourselves so much from what happens when we eat meat but this group needs it for survival.

What was your typical childhood holiday?

It was like a lot of Australians’: let’s drive to some beach! Forster [on the Mid North Coast of NSW] was one. I think everyone who is from Sydney went to Forster as a child. I learned to fish during those holidays. And the first time I [remember being] in a pool, I was on a beach holiday.

How do you kill spare time in a new city?

Either enjoying the hotel or getting out there. There’s a hotel I stay at – the Conrad Tokyo [conradhotels3.hilton.com] – where the concierge knows that I like the bizarre things that happen in Japan so he’ll print me a sheet of all the crazy things I may enjoy doing. At this one festival, you had to try to catch goldfish [goldfish scooping]. Or, if it’s blowfish season, I’ll go to the fish market to see blowfish [puffer fish] or some other creatures from the deep being sold. I think all these odd little Japanese quirks are incredible.

What has been your most memorable dining experience? 

I’ve been the guest of honour at different places, which means I’m always given some food I think is bizarre and I have to politely eat it, whether it’s horse, snake or gall bladder. I usually try it. That said, I now know I love blowfish. If I’m in Japan during blowfish season, I’ll make sure I have it.

Which destinations do you keep returning to?

Kyoto. I usually stay at a ryokan [traditional inn] and I do the Philosopher’s Walk each time. It’s like being in a time warp and is quite inspiring. I learned how to meditate in Kyoto and got hit with a bamboo rod by a Buddhist monk to straighten my back while sitting. I also love Positano and Tuscany. My last trip was to Sardinia, which is one of the best places I’ve been to in Italy. In summer, Italy is spectacular; it’s one of the most perfect places on the planet in which to be a tourist.

What is the worst place where you’ve been lost?

On that trip to Africa, I needed to use the bathroom. I wandered off from the group and realised that I had no idea where I was. And we were out looking for animals at the same time. I had to work out where to go really quickly.

What’s your No. 1 travel bugbear?

People at airport security who don’t know what’s metal. The clasp on your belt is metal! The coins in your pocket happen to be made out of metal, too! And you [should] have enough time to realise that when you’re in the line. 

If you could be anywhere else in the world right now, where would you be? 

I’m actually happy to be home. I love the warm weather in Australia. Everyone is happier, the things you’re doing each day are wonderful and, for some reason, people are a lot more tolerant at this time. 

SEE ALSO: Travelling with Claudia Karvan