Park Regis, Auckland, New Zealand

With the Cricket World Cup and Chinese New Year happening the week I was to travel to Auckland decent, reasonably priced hotels were at a premium and so I ended up at a hotel on Queen Street called the Park Regis. But don’t start thinking that you’ll be staying at anything that looks like the St Regis in New York – far, very far from it.

The hotel is an old office building converted into a hotel and my gut feeling is that the conversion was done on the cheap.

Where to start

  • this hotel was very expensive for what you got, but I suppose the week I was there it was a sellers market
  • the lifts were awful – one time it took 4 attempts for the doors to decide they could close the whole way so we could get moving
  • my room was near the lifts so I got the sound of the bell ringing whenever the lift visited my floor.
  • the room was just badly designed
    • the “desk” was 1m x .5m in size- useless
    • there were no powerpoints near the desk – I had to drape my cables across the sink(!) to get to the powerpoint
    • the phone was beside the bed and the cable wouldn’t reach the “desk” so you had to grab the second chair and pop the phone on that so you could be at the “desk” while using the phone
    • the internet cable was also next to the bed so you had to drape the cable across the room (and across the door) to get the cable to your laptop on the “desk”
    • The Internet service was just pathetic. You signed up for 1GB per day for around $23/day but the kicker is that you only get 300MB of that at full speed, after you’ve used the first 300MB they give you the option to either pay 10c a MB for the remaining 700MB that YOU’VE ALREADY PAID FOR, or they slow you down to a speed that resembles dial-up. Absolutely pathetic.

On the plus side the bathroom was large but not terribly well appointed or maintained – it had one of those prefab shower units in the corner.

I don’t normally say don’t stay somewhere, but do yourself a favour and DON’T STAY HERE!!!!

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Brisbane Marriott Hotel, Brisbane, Australia

I don’t normally stay at a Marriott hotel as I try to stay at an IHG or Accor hotel so I get my points (yep, I’m a bit shallow like that!) but this week due to all my normal hotels being full in Brisbane I decided to give the Marriott Brisbane a go having driven and walked past it many times.

The Marriott Brisbane is a relatively large hotel at the intersection of Queen and Ann Streets, though your taxi will take you to the back entrance on Howard St.

The room was a decent size and very nicely appointed. The bed and pillows were very comfortable so I was able to get a good nights sleep. My room was at the end of the rather short corridor away from the elevators so I didn’t hear any noise from outside my room.

The bathroom was on the largish size and had a separate bath and shower.

Being a member of the Marriott Rewards scheme I had free Internet access. The hotel is wired for Wi-Fi that you can log into with a very generous quota of 10 devices. This was good news as the wired connection in my room didn’t work so I could use my Apple Airport Express that I normally use to establish an in-room Wi-Fi network.  The speed of the hotel Wi-Fi was excellent. Two thumbs up here!

I didn’t partake of room service this trip but decided to make use of the hotel restaurant for breakfast and dinner. The food at the Motion Bar and Grill was very good.

For my dinner the first night I chose Lamb Rump with creamed corn, confit of garlic & kipfler potato chips accompanied by a New Zealand Pencarrow Pinot Noir both of which complimented each other quite nicely.

For breakfast I went for what is now my standard breakfast when travelling of Eggs Benedict with ham which was a respectable effort, and for my dinner on the second evening I ordered a 250gm char grilled scotch fillet with creamed garlic prawns & market salad greens with a pint of IGP (Itchy Green Pants).

The only downside of the restaurant was that it seems to be understaffed which leads to delays and errors being made.

Overall the hotel is very good and would probably be my second choice for a place to stay in Brisbane behind the Sofitel.

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Using VPNs to protect your privacy

We’ve all seen the depths to which governments across the world will go to get their grubby little hands on your private data. Often illegally!

The Prism surveillance program, XKeyscore & the recently mooted Australia metadata retention program are all cases in point. Yep, that’s Australia’s elected Attorney General there!

If you think that the spooks and federal, state & local police aren’t trawling through your information without a warrant (Canada, Romania, France, US) then quite frankly you are a moron and you shouldn’t be allowed to use the Internet.

So what can you do to protect yourself?

Most decent routers allow you to establish Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that encrypt your data and then send that data to somewhere else on the planet.

Without a VPN your data leaves your PC, goes through your router to your ISP and pops out in your own country and this is where your local spooks and cops are slurping up your data for analysis.

With a VPN the data that they slurp up is gibberish. It’s encrypted which makes it difficult (but not impossible mind you) for them to read.

How to setup a VPN?

This all depends on the capabilities of your router. There are 4 or so major VPN “standards” and you’ll need a router that supports one of more of them.

OpenVPN

OpenVPN is an open source project that implements a quite robust VPN protocol and it is supported by pretty much every VPN provider on the planet. Quite easy to setup and keep running. Downside is that you normally need to install a special firmware (DD-WRT or Tomato) on your router to get this capability and not all routers support this special firmware.

IPSEC

IPSEC is an Internet standard for the encryption and authentication of the data packets on the Internet. There are slightly different variants depending on whether you’re doing site-to-site VPNs or setting up a teleworker to dial into your network.

A very secure protocol but can be a hassle to setup correctly due to the number of knobs that can be tweaked. Things like NAT can cause you much grief.

L2TP/IPSEC

L2TP by itself does not give you encryption so is pretty much useless by itself for protecting your communications. But when L2TP is coupled with IPSEC you end up with a relatively good level of security for your Internet communications.

L2TP/IPSEC is a good trade off of simplicity and capability.

PPTP

PPTP is NOT considered secure anymore. Do not use unless you absolutely have to and nothing too confidential is flowing through the VPN. Probably OK for torrenting.

Are all VPN providers created equal?

In a word NO!

The technical capabilities of the VPN provider, the support experience and network speed all come into play when selecting a provider. You might also be concerned with how you can pay for your VPN – some providers allow you to pay with anonymous gift cards if you’re that paranoid.

I recently upgraded to a Draytek Vigor 2860 router. I’ve been quite impressed with it in the short time I’ve been using it. The 2860 supports dial-out VPNs, load balancing & failover VPNs, and policy based routing that allows you to select what data goes out via the VPN and what data go out direct to your ISP. You have have upto 32 VPNs configured.

During my travels I’ve seen that VPNs don’t all live up to their marketing hype. While all the providers below say on their webpage that they support “L2TP/IPSEC” your results can vary widely. For example, 2 of the providers below will quite happily establish an L2TP/IPSEC connection without the encryption turned on! Completely useless as a VPN to protect your identity and information.

VPN Provider Supports L2TP/IPSEC Support Quality Comments
Witopia Yes, with AES encryption and SHA1 Authentication I've only needed to use support once and it was fast and efficent Downside is that technically you're not allowed to setup Witopia VPNs on routers.
NordVPN Yes, with AES encryption and SHA1 Authentication Worked straightaway - have had no reason to speak to support yet Great so far - highly recommended
Private Internet Access Yes, but NO ENCRYPTION Poor and slow. Their L1 support staff are useless. They skim through the e-mail and then cut and paste an answer that doesn't help Avoid at all costs
Proxy.sh Yes, but NO ENCRYPTION Poor and slow - a question that I placed 7 days ago still hasn't been answered or acknowledged. Avoid at all costs
Kepard Yes, with AES encryption and SHA1 Authentication Worked straightaway - have had no reason to speak to support yet Great so far - highly recommended
vpn.ac Yes, with AES encryption and SHA1 Authentication Worked straightaway - have had no reason to speak to support yet Seems good so far

My advice

Try your chosen VPN provider before you make a long term commitment to them. Some offer a couple of days for a dollar or 2 while others will need you to commit for a month at around $10.

Try to setup the VPN on your router. I can assure you that you’ll probably have problems in the first instance so hit up support early and often to you can gauge the type of response you’ll get ongoing.

My suggestions

From my tests I’d suggest Kepard and NordVPN. Witopia would be up there if their T&Cs allowed you to host the VPN on your router.

In no way, shape or form would I suggest anyone use Private Internet Access or Proxy.sh if they needed a L2TP/IPSEC VPN on their router – life is too short to have to deal with incompetent help desks.

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Madeira Portuguese Restaurant, The Venetian Macau, Taipa, Macau

During my last holiday trip to Hong Kong I did the usual day trip to Macau. When you arrive in Macau on the ferry from Hong Kong you’re presented with a myriad of free buses to whisk you away to one of the 33 casinos in Macau.

The random bus I picked this time had me heading out to The Venetian on the island of Taipa.

If you’ve been to The Venetian in Las Vegas then this version has pretty much the same look and feel but is just much, much larger! As of early 2015 it’s the 7th largest building in the world based on floor area!

By the time I’d had a quick look around I ended up walking around the San Luca canal area and stumbled upon a square in the Shoppes with many restaurants.

Being in Macau I, of course, chose to eat at a Portuguese restaurant called Madeira Portuguese Restaurant.

For a starter I chose something light, the Ham & Melon platter which was refreshing.

For main I decided to go with a Braised Duckling dish. Not having had Duck cooked this way before I really enjoyed the dish. And it was a large enough serving to be able to walk away from the meal sated.

To wash my meal down I ordered the local brew, Macau Beer, in a European Pale Lager style. I found the beer a nice compliment to the meal but thinking back it was a pretty nondescript beer.

Overall, it was a decent meal though probably a little overpriced at M$364 or ~AU$58.

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Sampan Seafood Restaurant, Lamma Island, Hong Kong

For my first week day in Hong Kong I wanted to head out to one of the outlying islands, Lamma Island. It’s probably been 25 years since I’d gone on a day trip to Lamma Island with my parents while I was still in school.

Lamma Island is a short ferry ride from the Central Ferry Terminal and arrives at Yung Shue Wan pier on Lamma Island.

Once you’ve disembarked its a short walk along the waterfront to the township. Along this path are a number of restaurants with open air dining areas that overlook the bay – it’s a very scenic and tranquil place but I can imagine that the weekends would be absolutely hectic.

After the ferry ride I was feeling a bit peckish and I came across a Dim Sum restaurant called Sampan Seafood Restaurant. I’m not a big fish fan but their Dim Sum offerings offered more than just seafood.

From memory I ordered freshly cooked pork dumplings, prawn dumplings as well as some excellent roast pork buns, all washed down with tea.

The price couldn’t be beaten as my brunch was around the HK$110 mark (AU$15). Great value for money.

Next time you’re in Hong Kong jump on the ferry and have a great feed.

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