Travelogue Mauritius 7: Epilogue

Posted by cl@rks on Saturday Jun 22, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Epilogue
21-22 June 2013

We’d already made the executive decision not to bother with any of the tour options on the South of the Island (Curepipe and the volcano, Chamarel and the 7 coloured sands, the tea tour, the zoo etc), so all that remained to do on our last full day was nothing.

We slipped into the comfortable routine of our decadently multi-course breakfast and again watched in fascination as the chef at the hot buffet effortlessly flipped out our 2 perfect omelettes. He uses small cast iron frying pans each on its own gas ring. You choose your fillings from a row of dishes – cheese, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, chillies, ham etc – and he scoops as you choose, finishing off with expertly cracking the egg/s one-handed into the bowl, giving it a quick whisk and pouring it into the pan just as the other omelette is ready for a flip (which he does with a flick of the wrist like it’s a pancake). A few seconds later and omelette 1 is ready to go and he’s wash-rinse-repeating the whole process. Quick as lightning and every omelette perfect. When asked his secret he says it comes with 25 years of doing it – and he can’t remember when last he dropped one!

Breakfast behind us, we headed down to the water for a bit of kayaking. It was really hard work because the wind was up, so the water was choppy. We’d started paddling North up the Mont Choisy public beach, but were being pulled out to sea by the current so turned to head back. Easier said than done! Although I was maintaining a steady movement, there were times when I was just staying on the spot! A lot of work for no progress, I can tell you! Amazingly though, once you pass the point where the piers on either side protect the hotel’s little lagoon, it’s another story entirely. From paddling on the spot, it almost felt like I shot forward! Hallelujah! It really was quite a work out – so lucky I had a week’s worth of sugary breakfasts to fuel the machine!

The beach crew told us that it was 10 minutes to waterski time, which made for great timing – and gave me just long enough to spend some quality time with the jewellery peddlar on the beach. Mauritius is known for pearls of course, but also haematite (a silvery black shiny stone) and sandstone (brown glittery stones from Chamarel), which are often coupled with amethyst and turquoise from Rodriguez and Madagascar. They’re also big on shamballa bracelets, made with shiny stones made from the volcano’s lava. I got a black Shamballa bracelet and a haematite necklace with black pearls… And ended up getting a matching haematite bead bracelet thanks to the skiing being delayed because the speedboat battery was dead!

There was nobody else in the queue to ski so the crew agreed that I could go for one long circuit (they’d insisted I could only have 2 short turns the first time since there were others wanting to go). The water was quite choppy from the wind, but it was still a good ride and I enjoyed it immensely.

Taxing stuff done with, the loungers called. And we succumbed to a few blissful hours of rest and relaxation.

But there’s only so long we can keep still – and this was further tested by “Music Day”, which was a seemingly endless poolside karaoke caterwauling – so early afternoon we headed off for an amble that ended up taking us the full length of the public beach, around the point, through Club Med and the (very fancy) Le Cannoniers (with its gorgeous water features and old lighthouse historical monument (which they’re using as Bob Marlin’s Kids’ Club (very cute), through Pointe Aux Cannoniers and all the way to Grand Baie. We punctuated the trek with a few Phoenix breaks when a waterside spot grabbed as and, predictably, ended up at The Beach House. No point fighting something that works.

Cabous was in attendance, looking quite (beach chic) scruffy and doing the rounds being friendly and welcoming to the patrons, who again seemed to mostly be South Africans.

We were a bit peckish by this point so ordered nachos to share. Best ever!! (Self-confessed) Dorito’s, brilliant bolognaise, salad, cheese and cheese sauce with a healthy dollop of guacamole to top it off. Perfect accompaniment to yet another perfect sunset.

Nowhere near ambitious enough to walk back (and under the gun to get back for happy hour at The Pirate) we caught the bus – with a bus stop directly outside the Beach House with the exact right bus pulling up to it at the exact right moment, how could we not?!

The Pirate was quite a bit busier than it had been on any of our previous visits. A combination of people we recognised having their parting shot, new faces having their welcome rounds and us. The waiter seemed to recognise us – although he was very poker-faced about it – and brought us chicken fritters as bar snacks instead of the usual peanuts. Very welcomed alongside a few Blue Marlins.

Dinner was again in the smaller dining room and the theme for the evening’s meal was clearly seafood. We were served crab soup and the buffet was all fruits de mer, fish pie, fresh fried fish and whatnot. Pudding was a bit disappointing for me since it was a kind of eclair thing with butterscotch sauce… But a big dollop of coffee mousse on top to ruin it all.

Nonetheless, our resort had been great and the food largely excellent; our positioning for daytrips and excursions perfect. If we had it all to do again, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. On the whole, it hadn’t been as expensive as I was anticipating. Sure, resort prices are ridiculous, but with options across the road and up and down the street, this could be largely mitigated (for us, seemingly not so easy for the more remote resorts we’d seen dropping off our cruisemates). It definitely also helped to have half board, so main meals were taken care of but allowing the freedom to explore without the fear of missing out on all the lunches and teas that make up the value.

Worry of any sort messes with the island lifestyle and we can’t be having any of that!

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Travelogue Mauritius 6: Trou Aux Biches

Posted by cl@rks on Thursday Jun 20, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Trou Aux Biches
20 June 2013

With plan in mind to catch the (free) glass-bottom boat from the pier at the hotel at 9.30, we were braced for breakfast at 8.45. Deviating from the usual combination, I went “death by chocolate” and upped my usual pain chocolat with a pancake with cinnamon sugar, syrup and chocolate sauce matched with a cup of hot chocolate… Before embarking on my usual yoghurt, omelette, ham/cheese/bacon baguette story.

Sugar-rushing and ready to rumble, we were pier-side with time to spare – and alongside a German couple as our only boatmates. We alighted and settled either side of the glass-bottoms, with a very clear view of the seabed since the water is very clear and very shallow. There wasn’t much to see though; it was all sand and rocks (and water of course).

The driver took us out a bit and pointed behind us to the shore. Fascinatingly, we could see rain coming toward us in a clearly defined curtain, moving from over the forest behind the public beach, toward us from the North. Before we knew it fascination turned to horror and we were getting pelted (well, engulfed by light drizzle that was at an angle to cut straight below our tarpaulin roof) and getting drenched! Luckily, the rain moved very quickly over us – and of course it’s warm so not so bad… and our objective was after all to jump in the sea so, by definition, to get wet anyway.

But not yet apparently.

Somehow, the skipper’s attention had been diverted by a passing dive boat that had cut out so we ended up performing a towboat function to shore. Maybe not so bad as we towed them to the beach at Trou Aux Biches, which looked gorgeous and to be a perfect afternoon excursion.

Finally, we were back out to sea and ready to start snorkelling… Only to find we were one set short for our little group. Christian and I were to be sharing a set, so I took the mask and snorkel first and we jumped off the boat. The water was fab and warm but the current quite strong, pulling to the North. No a concern though because we had no particular course, so just bobbed around checking out the thousands of small brightly coloured fish swimming beneath us.

Then disaster struck. I passed the mask to Christian and the elastic snapped as he was putting it on. And it fell out his hands. And sank. The water wasn’t very deep, with us being able to stand on tippy-toes on some of the bigger rocky outcrops on the sandbed. We tried this to get a better look at where the mask had fallen, but only succeeded in getting some toes shredded from the unsteady footing. The German chap swam over to help, but was a little too leisurely so by the time he reached us, we weren’t even sure whether we’d moved position because of the current and even less sure what it might have done with the mask! We swam around for a bit looking out on the off chance we’d spot it, but with neither of us having a mask and only one snorkel between us, there was slim chance of anything productive coming of it.

We got back to shore a little disheartened, but it didn’t last long and we were soon cheery again on our trusty poolside loungers. After a couple of hours of reading and relaxing, we were ready to head off to see what Trou Aux Biches had to offer.

The walk down the main beach road was very pleasant, with decent pavements lined with cheery bright bougainvillea and of course the intermittent beach views. The wasn’t very much to see or do at Trou Aux Biches though (just a few souvenir shops) so we decided to walk a bit further in the hope of finding a lunch spot on the beach. No such luck. We walked all the way to Pointe Aux Pimentes (about halfway to Port Louis if the map we were using is to scale!) and didn’t find anywhere suitable… So we turned around and walked home.

No loss though, it was a very pleasant walk. And we did eventually get lunch – across the road from our hotel at The Pirate! Nothing fancy, just shared a pizza (they put chicken on their Regina as standard. Genius!) and a few Blue Marlins, but it was great.

By then it was 4pm, so we moved back to the hotel and spent a few hours playing games at a table at the end of the lunch deck with the waves lapping beneath us, watching the sunset. Simple pleasures.

We played until dark, then returned to the room to get ready for dinner.

Dinner was yet another masterpiece, with a Chinese theme for the usual 4 courses. Chicken noodle soup to start, with a plated assortment of bitesize Chinese treats to follow; then a stirfry buffet (chicken, beef and pork all equally delicious!) and a rice pudding to close.

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Travelogue Mauritius 5: Mont Choisy & Grand Baie

Posted by cl@rks on Thursday Jun 20, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Mont Choisy & Grand Baie
19 June 2013

Our concerted efforts to already charter the North, West and East coasts combined with our growing ambivalence toward the central and Southern “attractions”, moved us to decide that an agenda of nothingness at our own resort was to be the order of the day.

We managed to be at breakfast by 9 and made a leisurely lion’s feast of the fares for the better part of an hour, with little else on the itinerary bar a wander down to the watersports to see what might take our fancy.

That turned out to be an easier decision than anticipated since some schmuck had broken the (only) skis the day before, we’d missed the morning snorkeling trip and Christian’s injury precluded the pedelo, so kayaking it was to be. Nice enough, enjoying the sea and sun – and clever to start against the current to make for an easy return journey.

The tough stuff done, we made for a dip in the pool (not to be Captain Obvious, but the sea is very salty) and some downtime on the loungers; books in hands, anticipating the most challenging part of the rest of the day to be coping with the Sade (album, seemingly on repeat)… Then the rain came. Nothing to write home about – just a gentle drizzle, from patchy clouds and without affecting the temperature – so we moved to the covered patio to see if it was worth waiting out.

The entertainment staff at this resort are very exuberant, taking any opportunity to chat, try and rope you into some activity or another or generally ensure you’re having (their idea of) a good time. The head animator caught us and soon was plying us with riddles and challenging us to solve visual riddles with little pieces of stick he carries around in his pocket. Fortunately, the seemingly arb points he kept awarding us soon amounted to a cocktail reward, but we decided to leave on a high and go to Grand Baie for lunch.

Of course, once we were showered, dressed and on the bus, the sun came out and belted down all afternoon!

Nonetheless, it made for a very pleasant afternoon at the Beach House, where we wetted with ice-cold Phoenix draughts and whetted with a delicious creamy marlin in white wine pasta and a chicken and prawn curry and rice. We’d hoped to catch up with our new friends from Cape Town, but the poor wi-fi signal our side and their poor mobile network connection their side was making comms by any of the usual methods a challenge. Sadly, when we managed to chat later, it seems our forays in Grand Baie had overlapped so we could easily have hooked up!

We caught the bus back to Mont Choisy, but jumped off halfway to enjoy a sunset walk along the beach. Amazingly, not only are the roads and beaches spotless, but we passed a team of ladies raking the needles and cones from the thicket that runs between the road and the sand. Job creation or not, their contribution certainly makes this island life idyllic!

Sundowners and backgammon saw us through to dinner – yet another meal… And 4 courses of it to boot! Chicken soup and feta salad served to start, buffet main where we had pesto spaghetti with spicy lamb meatballs (and tried the fish parcels wrapped in cabbage), then a multi-layered chocolate and vanilla cake with custard to end.

Amazed at how doing so little can make one so tired, we mastered a chill evening with a few episodes of our newest find, Seed.

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Travelogue Mauritius 4: Ile Aux Cerfs

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Jun 19, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Ile Aux Cerfs
18 June 2013

Having settled into island life quite quickly but thoroughly, a 7am wake-up seemed like a tall order… Although a necessary evil for our full day catamaran cruise and waterfall tour on the East coast. Tightly securing caution from the wind, we set 2 alarms and requested a wake-up call from reception to ensure that we were up and out in time for our collection, and a hearty breakfast beforehand.

I’d plotted and planned the breakfast element, reckoning that there was no need to rush the carbo-loading since we’d been briefed that the tour starts with a cross-country drive from our position in the North-West to our departure point dead East, pausing to pick up other passengers en route. My logic allowed a decadently leisured lingering on the yoghurts, pastries and juices based on the premise of the other type of carbo-loading – loading the proteins into a handy carb take-away. Baguettes are perfect for that! It was a cinch packing a 1-egg omelette, a handful of ham, a chunk of cheese and a healthy smattering of bacon into a forearm of French roll and twisting a serviette nappy-style around the bottom to keep everything together.

With that, we were off with our new taxi-mates – 5 sullen Indian oldies from Durban at the back (1 with an annoying wheezy throat-clearing cough and splutter thing, which grew tired very quickly) and their 6th riding up front with the driver, telling stories of SA corruption and how unsafe and sad everything is (not the stories we should be taking overseas with us).

Fortunately, the next couple we picked up was a lot more up tempo and there was soon a better vibe all round. They are from Cape Town… And we were hardly surprised when the next pick-up was a couple from Jo’burg! We did mix things up a bit when the last passengers turned out to be a couple from Maputo, on holiday celebrating his 45th birthday.

We were dropped off at the docks and handed over our shoes (which was mandatory, and a little unsettling) at the jetty and alighted the speedboat taking us out to the catamaran. We were joined there by the other half of the tour group – a herd of animatedly excited Chinese people and a young British couple.

After a brief induction to their catamaran, how things work about and the running order for the day, we settled ourselves on the big nets at the front – (coincidentally?) alongside all the other Southern Africans. We were the first to order drinks – Stags, the only local beer we’d yet to try – which seemed to set the trend and soon there were clinking bottles cheering good health and happy birthdays on our side of the boat, while the Chinese girls busied themselves taking photos (of themselves and us) and making their first (of what proved to be many) outfit changes.

The weather had started off good, but unfortunately it got a bit cloudy and windy, neither of which are ideal conditions for our exposed position. Things improved somewhat when we sailed into the sheltered lagoon where we were anchoring to take the speedboat transfer to what had just been referred to as “The Waterfall” up to this point and which we assumed would be quite some spectacle. Well, you know what they say about assumption.

The waterfall turned out to be little more than 10 metres (maybe, tops) at a dead-end junction not wide enough to allow 2 speedboats simultaneously. The driver of the speedboat ahead of us was delighting his passengers with daredevil back and forthing, wetting the people at the front as he darted toward the waterfall, close enough for them to be showered with spray, then backing up quickly again. Our driver wasn’t quite as much a prankster, though he did get close enough for us to get a light spritz (which enthused the Chinese no end, happy-snapping pics of us since the South Africans all happened to be at the nose of the boat).

All in all, it was a bit of an oversold but underwhelming element of the tour… Although it was a laugh (probably because of the Stags and the – likely uncoincidental – good humour of our group).

Next on the agenda was the BBQ lunch on-board the catamaran, which again proved to be a bit disappointing. I suppose it’s tough to bulk cater for people, using only the limited galley space and a small braai grill on the back of the boat… And even worse to grill for South Africans when it’s such a big part of our lifestyle that our standards are so high. Needless to say, very average rice, coleslaw and pasta salad and hopelessly overdone and sat-too-long chicken and fish weren’t the lavish on-deck feast the pictures on the sales materials had presented. At least we hadn’t upgraded to the lobster lunch (served in the same sorry state) as the Mozambicans had done in light of their birthday celebrations.

After lunch we were speedboated to our afternoon on the island, Ile Aux Cerfs. It was lovely. With the lagoon and beaches sheltered from the wind, we were able to properly enjoy the golden sands and azure waters. It’s not very far from the mainland (opposite Le Tousserok) and has an 18 hole golf course in the middle that the fancy resorts on East coast can access by speedboat. On the beach itself there is a bar and restaurant, ice-cream hut, plenty of loungers and enthusiastic waitrons milling around to cater to your fancy, but we opted to rather take a turn around the art and craft market and then chill with the Cape Town couple, swapping stories, sharing tour tips and generally having a marvellous time frittering the day away.

All too soon it was time to get back on the speedboat to get to the catamaran for the return journey (to the coast to catch the taxi transfer back across the island). The journey back seemed quicker than the ambling sail in the morning – perhaps sailing with the tide, perhaps the company and the merriment from the Stags – slowed only by our occasional wander into a sandbank, which we seemed to just wait out until the tide drifted us over it. Very island-style.

We were all relieved to get our shoes back – most in the firm belief that we’d seen the last of them – and it was a very different ride back in the van, mostly because the Indian oldies had predictably gotten there first and placed themselves 2-by-2 in the row seats, so we were split up and inserted among them, which livened the whole bus somewhat with group chatter, meaningful glances and giggling. I was positioned next to Cough and Splutter, but that wasn’t enough to dampen my spirits (nor raise theirs).

We waved goodbye to our friends from the day, having enjoyed their company immensely – and having made promises to meet up for lunch in Grand Baie later in the week. Having seen more of the island, we realised how fortunate we were to have chosen to be based in Mont Choisy – an easy bus ride to Grand Baie and Port Louis and on a road with several entertainment options, whereas these resort ‘estates’ are far more remote, no doubt having anything and everything you might need contained inside… At extortionate hotel prices. We also have a small resort with probably 60 or so rooms horse-shoed around the central area, whereas the resorts that we’d seen on the East coast all seemed much bigger with several hundred rooms. I’m sure that there are upsides associated with that kind of scale, but I prefer our homely spot, with more than we need and being able to come and go and feed our whimsy as the mood takes us.

We were very pleased to reach our hotel and get a shower and fresh clothes on, in time to make our way to dinner, which had been moved to the smaller restaurant upstairs to better accommodate the smaller winter (can’t believe this is their winter!) complement of guests. Another magnificent meal, with spicy fish soup followed by a mini pizza, with a buffet for mains. We had a few smaller portions of everything with guinea fowl, roast beef and lasagne from the main buffet and a delicious tagliatelle bolognaise from the pasta mini-buffet.

Another day successfully done and dusted in Mauritius!

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Travelogue Mauritius 3: Port Louis

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Jun 18, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Port Louis
17 June 2013

We’re settling in nicely with the breakfast routine and got a slightly earlier start having not had the travel lag to wear off. Meats, cheeses, yoghurts to start; omelette, sausages, bacon and beans for main… And a cheese, ham and bacon baguette for the road.

Feeling confident about the public transport system, we set off for the bus stop across the road in the direction of Port Louis. Even with 2 false starts (buses headed to other parts of the island), we still only had a 10 minute wait, tops. The 16km bus ride shouldn’t have taken as long as it did (about 45 minutes), but these buses stop ridiculously often with some bus stops as little as 50 metres apart – although it doesn’t cause the chaos it would cause at home, even though most roads are single carriageway, because there is much less traffic and congestion. Probably because there are convenient and affordable buses so people don’t need cars.

We took the bus to the end of the line – the Port Louis Bus Terminus and consulted the map we’d acquired at the hotel to determine that we were across the highway from the waterfront and on the same road as the market. Looking up to the hill on the left we could see the Citadel, so were optimistic that it’s be easy enough for us to get to the (only) 3 things we wanted to do in this city.

We started with the market, which is a few blocks of stalls and shops, fortunately closed off for cars since the pedestrian traffic is manic enough! We soon discovered that everyone sells a combination of the same things – knock-off clothing, souvenirs, spices, pashminas and pearls. It made shopping easy though and a few simple price comparisons and some haggling and we had the few items we wanted. Thankfully, there were very few hecklers, so largely is was a painless experience (although this could just be relative to the last few places I’ve been, which can be a shopper’s heaven or a nightmare, depending on one’s patience levels).

The city is laid out in a neat grid, although it doesn’t feel like it with the veering on and off pavements to avoid stalls, shoppers and general people-traffic. The only trouble we had finding our way to the Citadel was the fact that none of the street names are marked – and for a big grey building on a hill it is surprisingly tricky to spot as you get closer, thanks to the narrow streets and multi-storey (but no means skyrise) buildings. Nonetheless, we managed to find it and, a short steep hike later, we were standing in the battlements and enjoying what must be the best view of the city.

The Citadel was built by the British and named Fort Adelaide after the King’s wife. It was thought to be built to protect the 1,000 odd British settlers that were here when they changed the slavery laws and emancipated the French’s slaves. It was thought that this would lead to strife, which didn’t seem to happen and, like Durban, they just imported cheap Indian labourers to work the sugarcane fields instead.

Being a relatively young city, there isn’t much else of historical importance to see, besides the Black Penny Museum… Which we went past, but didn’t bother going into, on our walk along the esplanade at the Waterfront. We did almost go into the Keg & Marlin on the promenade, but decided against it thinking that since we’d managed to avoid KFC, Steers and Debonairs, we might as well maintain the day as authentically Mauritian.

The Waterfront doesn’t hold much of interest, just a few glossy buildings with label-brand shops and the to-be-expected handful of restaurants and cafes. It is clean and pleasant though and the waters relatively clean and clear for a working harbour.

Having completed the full circle of the town, we headed back to the bus terminus and – with some difficulty since it was obviously school-leaving time for the day and there was a mess of scholars everywhere – found our bus stop. Luckily, there was a bus to Trou Aux Biches (the next stop down from ours) about to depart. Not so luckily, we had to stand… Which proved to be quite a challenge as the bus jerked and jiggled down the narrow roads. I’m sure that the school kids behind us were having a good giggle at our jellying, but at least those on either side of us had the good manners to just stare.

We got back well in time to enjoy a refreshing swim and admire the sunset from the comfortable vantage point of a poolside lounger, then retire to our balcony for some Vonta and backgammon until dinner.

Dinner was a plated soup (consomme) and starter (divine chicken and mushroom vol au vent type pie thing), then buffet main course (we opted for rare steaks, egg and veg chow mein and crispy skinny chips). There was a pancake buffet for dessert, but we just didn’t have any room!

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Travelogue Mauritius 2: Grand Baie

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Jun 18, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Grand Baie
16 June 2013

We set off from the hotel at about 2pm for our excursion to spend the afternoon in Grand Baie. We’d had advice from the chaps from Durban the night before that the island was easily navigated by buses, which were easy enough to catch since our hotel was positioned on the main beach road between Port Louis (the capital) and Grand Baie (the tourist haven, teeming with entertainment options and nightlife). This opinion had been verified by another fellow (coincidentally also from Durban) we’d met at our morning skiing session. So, on leaving the hotel, we politely declined the taximan at the door, offering a ride to Grand Baie for 500 Rupees. A few minutes wait at the bus stop 50m down the road and we alighted for a bargain 22 Rupees each.

The buses are a bit shabby, but not dirty, so the savings were a welcome tip – especially since Grand Baie was only a 4.5km ride away.

Being a Sunday afternoon, most of town was closed, including most of the highbrow label stores in Sunset Boulevard, which is a mall made up of quaint little cottages each housing a small store. This didn’t matter to us as it wasn’t what we were after anyway and we were quite happy to wander up and down the waterfront and beachroad, stopping to look here and there, but mainly just getting our bearings.

Some time later, we took a break in a lively spot called The Beach House – bright and white-washed, overlooking the sea – with an ice cold Phoenix draught in hand. It was only as we were leaving that we spotted all the posters and plaques in the entrance and realised that it’s Cabous Van Der Westhuizen’s bar. Perhaps this was why the tables on either side of us were all South Africans. Or perhaps not; this island is full of Saffer tourists (like us)!

Needing to fuel the rest of our sight-seeing, we did an on-the-run take-away from a bright green foodtruck on the beachfront that had a mouthwatering chicken donner displayed. It was served with all the usual schwarma trimmings and sauces… But on a baguette of course! It was a great sandwich!

We’d done some tour price comparisons as we went and stopped in at our operator of choice to confirm a cruise on the East island and waterfalls for Tuesday. 100 Rupees cheaper than the lowest price we’d had – and a third of Ziad’s price!

Pleased with our purchases, we celebrated at Cokoloko, taking advantage of their 4-7 happy hour “1 litre Big Daddy beers for 160 Rupees”, with the box of popcorn they served alongside, which for me was a win compared to the endless flow of nuts served everywhere else.

Not wanting to miss out on our already-favourite happy hour at the Pirate, we got to the bus stop for 5.30 and were soon on a jam-packed bus headed back to Mont Choisy. While it’s easy enough to catch a bus to our area because of where we’re positioned between Grand Baie and Port Louis, we learned that some buses are better than others route-wise and we had taken one that veered inland a bit where we were coastside. No mind though, the conductor was kind enough to point out the best disembarkation point for us and we had no more than a few hundred metres walk to get back to our hotel.

…at quarter past six, with plenty of time to relax at the Pirate, sip a Phoenix, recap our day and discuss plans for the week ahead before we were due at dinner, which only stats at 19h30. We were in no rush, so even made time to induct our balcony with a few games of backgammon, sipping on Vonta (Fanta and vodka).

Dinner was a completely different format, being a 4-course set menu rather than all the previous buffets. I was a bit worried about this, being the fussy eater I am, but it turned out all good with a creamy soup starter; shrimp and pineapple cocktail; mixed grill and berry cheesecake.

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Travelogue Mauritius 1: Mont Choisy

Posted by cl@rks on Monday Jun 17, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Mont Choisy
15 June 2013

How very early 5am is in winter! Especially when you’ve been out on the red wine the night before… And you’re so excited for your holiday that you wake up at 3.30, afraid you’ll oversleep (and end up getting up at 4.30, half an hour before the alarm goes off!) Fortunately, Mother was uncharacteristically on-time so we were bags packed (in her new car) and en route to the airport (in fully econo mode) with time to spare.

… Which we wisely spent at Wimpy, carbo-loading for the journey ahead.

Good thing too because, while our short 4 hour hop of a flight was just about back-to-back feeding, we’d never have lasted through the first 2 rounds of snacks to have our first main meal “lunch” at 11. A really respectable ravioli though, well done BA!

We landed at the Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport, which is in Plaine Magnien at the very south of the island while our accommodation was at the very north. This isn’t as daunting as it seems, as we soon found out with an easy 40 minute (private car) commute. Like in Sri Lanka, we found ourselves on the only highway on the island, fortunate that it ran exactly from where we departed to where we wanted to go. Hardly surprising though, since Mauritius is only 65km from north to south and 45km east to west, so nowhere is really far from anywhere else!

Our driver initially took us to the wrong resort, but was soon sanctified when it was apparent that it was an easy mistake to make with Mont Choisy comprising several resorts, hotels, motels and villas… Most with Mont Choisy in the name! Second attempt fruitful, we discovered Hotel Mont Choisy Coral Azur to be our home for the week. We hadn’t even taken our bags out the car when the driver pulled up because the resort seemed fancier than we expected but, to our surprise and delight, this was it… sparkling pool, loungers, palm trees, blue skies and even bluer sea!

We checked in and the porter escorted us to our room, 218, a lovely upstairs suite with private balcony overlooking the gardens and the Indian Ocean beyond. The room is mostly an obscenely large bed (made up of 2 three-quarters side-by-side), reassuringly made with just a mountain of pillows, a sheet and a purely decorative runner – in contrast to the down duvets and electric blankets at home.

We’d checked in at about 5pm and in the quick once-over of our room and discovery of our balcony we realised we were in the midst of our first Mauritian sunset, so decided to do a quick up-and-down our road while it was still light.

A short adventure revealed a road generously dotted with holiday accommodation, restaurants and shops. We spotted signage for a supermarket (which we wanted to visit to buy stocks for our minibar since the hotel prices were predictably extortionate), but couldn’t seem to find the shop. Arrows pointing in both directions but the centre point seemed to be an Indian restaurant on one side (bannered as Indian, but also serving Chinese and pizza!) and a clothing shop on the other. We were flummoxed, so decided to consider our next moves over a beer at Le Bay des Pirates – a decorated-to-death bar, restaurant and dancefloor with thatch overhangs, banana trees, barrel bar tables and a wooden boat centrepiece. It was 6.05 on Saturday and they offered a Happy Hour from 6-7 on weekends, so it seemed like kismet!

We tried the local Phoenix, which is quite strong tasting and bitter, and then the Blue Marlin, which is equally strong but sweeter. And then tried each again to secure our first impressions.

The only other patrons were an entertaining couple – Terry and Antony from Durban – who’d been to Mauritius before and had lots of sage advice for us, and who were generally well-travelled so we shared anecdotes about the highs and lows of various places. They also solved the mystery of the missing supermarket for us, explaining that you have to go through the clothing store to get to it. Thinking they meant “past” rather than “through”, we nipped back to the clothing store. True as nuts, you have to go through the clothing store, through the ensuing souvenir store and only then get to the supermarket! Three stores armadillo’ed all using the same entrance! We stocked up on water, Fanta and a couple of cans of variant of Phoenix – lighter and with lemon – that would serve as poolside wetties for the following day.

Having not eaten in a few hours, grumbling tums encouraged us to return to Coral Azur for our dinner (since we’d booked half board so our breakfast and dinners were included). We were met with a sumptuous buffet with everything you can think of and piled plates high with an odd mix of a bit of everything – pasta, roasted chicken, curry, sausage stew…

Full and tuckered (even though it had only been a 4 hour flight, commuting had taken the entire day), we turned in early and watched a few episodes of series on the laptop (real 2013 travellers) before turning in.

A gloriously long night’s sleep later, we made no rush to up and out to breakfast, served until 10. When we did, we discovered it was a beautiful clear-skied, sunny day – perfect for a leisurely breakfast on poolside deck. We plotted our day over cold meats, cheeses, yoghurts and full fry-up, deciding to try the watersports first, lounge at the pool until our meeting with our tour operator at 1.45 and then catch a bus to Grand Baie for the afternoon.

Taking a walk to the beach, we presented ourselves at the hut that serves as hub for the hotel’s watersports. The staff all speak good English and are friendly and very helpful. A pleasant surprise that the hotel includes the usual non-motorised activities (kayaks, windsurfs, lazer boat, pedelo etc) as well as a range of motorised (water-skiing, inflatables, glass-bottom boat snorkelling etc) all for free!

We started with the water-skiing. Despite a decade or more since the last time I skied, I had no trouble getting up and thoroughly enjoyed my laps on the smooth-as-glass open waters. Christian wasn’t so lucky and aggravated an existing rugby groin injury, likely ending his skiing possibilities for the holiday. Nonetheless, we were able to grab kayaks and took a trip up and down either side of the coast – even able to catch a rather spirited local church service on the seafront on the public beach a few properties down.

While we weren’t out for long, kayaking takes a different kind of fit and, lacking upper body strength as I do, I was grateful to have a lovely sit by the pool for an hour to relax after the morning’s activities.

Our tour operator, Ziad, met us at 1.45 to run through the “what to do” options on the island. The guys at the resort’s beach hut had told us about some of the tours that operate from the hotel and we were horrified when Ziad’s prices averaged three times what we’d been told! This made us more resolute to get another opinion in Grand Baie before committing to anyone. We politely let Ziad finish and headed out the hotel for our outing to Grand Baie.

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Travelogue Morocco 3: Fes

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Apr 24, 2013 Under Travelogue

23 April 2013

On first impression, Fes is a big hustle-and-bustle city, with an active pavement cafe culture (men only) and wall-to-wall restaurants and apartment blocks (all in dire need of a coat of paint). It’s as neat and tidy as the rest of the Moroccan cities we’ve seen – exemplary road maintenance conditions, free of litter and lots of attention paid to lining and adorning the streets with trees, shrubs, flowers and park benches. In the main avenues in the area where the hotels are, there are 3 lanes for traffic in either direction with the equivalent 6 lanes of gardens and walkways for an island and similar amounts on either side for tiled pavement terraces in front of the shops. Lots of people around, enjoying their city.

Fes has about 1,15 million people and is located between Rif and Middle Atlas mountains, so is rich and fertile because it gets water from both sides. Fes el-Bali is old city (from 9th century) with a labyrinth of 9400 narrow streets, while Fes el-Jedid is new city (from 13th century). El-Bali has the first university in the world, started by a woman from Tunisia. Our tour guide pointed all this out from our vantage point where the tour commenced, that had panoramic views that gave a stunning perspective to the day’s itinerary.

We started our tour with the 7 gates of the Royal Palace. This is the residential palace, which is an 82 hectare estate where the King lives when he’s in Fes. Originally, when the King decided to move to Fes and they therefore needed to build a Palace, it wouldn’t fit into the Old City (Bali) so they just started building the new city (Jedid) to accommodate. The 7 gates are enormous keyhole arches with bronzed doors. They still clean the bronze doors the old school way, with tomatoes and vinegar, the marble columns with lemon.

Moving off from the square onto the side street heralded our entrance to the Jewish Quarter, a bit of a misnomer these days since there are no longer any Jewish people living there (there was a mass emigration after WWII to Israel and the few remaining Jews live in the new city). This quarter has always been a prosperous trading area, starting off selling salt, now known for gold. Luckily for our guide, group and us it was still too early for many shops to be open, so our memories will have to be photos not trinkets and we didn’t hold the group back with our would-be shopping, as had become customary.

We’d been prepared that this was to be an entire day on foot as the entire medina is pedestrian and donkey-cart only. We walked down to the road and entered by the Blue Gate. This meant our induction to the medina was through a butchery and fishery row. It was a bit of a shock to the system, with the strong smells from the narrow covered walkways lined with open butcheries and on-counter meat displays, including some stomach-turners like severed animal heads and live chickens, rabbits and turtles still in cages with their impending fate all too clear.
A few roads down, by stark contrast, we visited the Qu’ranic School. It’s central quadrangle is lined with very detailed mosaics and carvings, with Qu’ran verses (hardly surprisingly) on every surface, mostly stucco of plaster, alabaster, marble and ceramics. The school holds about 80 students at a time, who live at the school for complete immersion in their Qu’ran education, and impressively the school still operates business-as-usual in this 600 year old building, with very few restorations having been required.

Next was the brass shop, selling brass plates with painstakingly tapped engraving and traditional Berber camelbone inlays, Moroccan lamps, pewter teapots. This store posed no danger; clearly not our category!

Winding through the twisty turny roads, you pass few windows (as mentioned in Casablanca, it was customary for windows to face internal central terraces) so it was a pleasure to be allowed entrance to a Riad to see one of the upmarket houses. A riad is a house with garden while a dar is just a house. Most of the houses of the time were built 2 or 3 stories high. The bottom floor was lined with mosaics on the walls and marble on the floor to keep it cool; in winter the family moves upstairs, which is made from wood to keep it warmer with the rising warm air.

The houses are all very close together, some alleys and passageways so low / narrow / dark that it’s hard to imagine that people live there – and to comprehend that these people can’t move furniture in or out so tradesmen have to take supplies in and build their stuff inside!

It really is a different world and such a different life. So odd to see little little children walking purposefully on their way to who knows where, somehow recognising their way in what seems to be a complete maze to us. We walked past a school and it’s so foreign to see a campus that doesn’t have a blade of grass or even much natural lighting for that matter. We passed a group of teenagers on a bend in the walkway, huddled around a boombox, which would be perfectly normal for teenagers anywhere in the world, but seems so out of place here – and must get quite monotonous for them compared to the limitless entertainment options their counterparts in other parts of the world have!

Of course there is still a lot of influence of religion and tradition and there seem to be a disproportionate number of roads, workshops and stores dedicated to the seemingly complex courtship and marriage demands. Specialised tailors creating fabrics, garb, handmade lace and sequins. Sublime bordering on the ridiculous with the puffed and adorned couches and bedazzled stretchers for the event. Pots, crockery and eventware for sale or for rental. And my favourite, the jewellery, including the 18 carat gold jewel-encrusted belt that the would-be groom presents to the potential bride as part of her dowry – that has every man silently hoping to court a skinny and every mom fattening up her daughter in anticipation of the impending nuptials!

We had a late but traditional multi-course lunch, learning from the previous day and teaming up with the Saffa couple, the American friends and the Canadian girl to share a couple of set menus. We opted for the chicken tagine, couscous with chicken and veg and a side order of kefta (spiced meatballs with tomato and egg) and, as anticipated, were still filled up by the baskets of flat bread, mese starter of sweet carrots, cauliflower, olives, rice, aubergine etc. My highlight was making a schwarma sort of thing with the kefta and flatbread… And avoiding the fresh melon dessert.

It was an exhausting day, packed with culture and ritual lessons (in English, French and Spanish every time nogal) and aft er being shown how to make brass engraved plates, twill silk, dye fabric, make carpets, tan leather, weave agave silk fabric, chip tiles, lay mosaics… we were FYI’ed out for the day! And of course knowing better than to buy wares from these tourist traps, we still remain relatively empty-handed!

We did muster the energy to jump off the tour bus at the main road in town to explore a bit and found that while the city is as vibey and lovely as it appeared from the bus, there’s not a hell of a lot to do. It’s all restaurants and cafes that line the main street, but the cafes are largely male-only (by tradition, not dictate) and the restaurants all empty (we’ve read in a few places that Moroccans don’t have a culture of eating out – suppose the women at home have to have something to do, so they must cook… And bake for fun). We have dinners at the hotel included in the package we bought, so that was out, but we found a delighful cafe and had some delicious and super-fresh confectioneries with cappuccini and the like (I of course don’t drink them, but Mother says they’re strong but wonderful).

We wanted to be back at the hotel to photograph the sunset (7pm) from the rooftop terrace (Jolande is quite an avid photographer), but were disappointed to find that the lay of the hotel on the lower side of the slope in the shadow of the hotel between us and the main drag meant there was little attraction in sunset photography. Jolande has said she’ll aim to do a sunrise shoot instead, but seeing as that’s 5h40 tomorrow morning, I’m thinking she can just give us feedback… And I’ll pinch the pics off Facebook! 😀

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Travelogue Morocco 2: Vasubilis – Maknes

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Apr 23, 2013 Under Travelogue

22 April 2013

Today’s journey takes us 234km cross country from Rabat to Fez via Maknes. While a seemingly short distance in home terms, there is lots to see in Moroccan ones.

There are 35 million people in Morocco, with mixed heritage from all the various invasions. The dominant local tribes are the Berbers in the High Atlas mountains (medium-sized, white-skinned, round-faced farmers), Zayan in the Middle Atlas mountains (tall, skinny, white skin, black hair and eyes, nomad shepherds) and Chluh people in the Rif Mountains in the South (tall, strong, blonde with blue/green eyes). We had expected darker, more “African” looking people, so were surprised to hear that the first black people came from Ghana only in 11th century, from Niger and Mali in 15th century and then later from Sudan.

En route to Maknes, in the Rif Mountains, we stopped at Volubilis to see the Roman ruins from the 3rd century BC to AD 40. Archaeologists have uncovered what was a wonderous complex spanning hectares and hectares down a hillside and into the valley. As was convention, the town was surrounded by a stone wall and there were 6 gates allowing access and exit to the countryside beyond.

The complex was inhabited by some very rich Romans, counting 50 large houses of as much as 17-20,000 square feet each! Seems a bit excessive for families of 6-8 people, but they had decadent entertainment areas and tens of servants to contain within their compound.

The town shows how thoroughly Romanised then-Mauretania was from the public buildings and sophisticated townhouses. They were a relatively advanced civilisation with a sophisticated aquaduct system, central public watering stations, oil press, washing facilities and lutrines (unisex), with all the usual indulgent mosaic floors, larger than large arches, fountains, swimming pools, columns and statues. It’s remarkable that the mosaics have lasted almost 1,000 years – and you can still clearly see all the artwork depicting Greek and Roman mythology, symbols and patterns.

Like all the open air sights we visited in Turkey last year, it’s refreshing to be able to walk around these pieces of history freely – and to see that there is no graffiti or damage inflicted by disrespectful tourists.

Peckish from our walking and exploring (although not starving thanks to the brunch pitstop at the bakery with all its fresh delights) we were perfectly happy with the next item on the agenda: lunch at Palais Terrab in Maknes. Until we got there. It was yet another big crowded and rushed dining hall, where people were herded to tables to be forgotten, drinks took ages and food was served seemingly at the convenience of the busy harassed-looking waitrons.

A bread basket was already on the table, sans butter as is apparently the norm. Of course, Mother hunted some down and the flat loaf turned out to be very soft and tasty. Meanwhile, a salad platter was served; a big plate of beetroot, chickpeas, sweet carrots, cucumber, rice and olives. I added some chickpeas to my buttered bread and was ok with that.

The waiters had taken our tagine orders when we sat down and we’d opted to share a lemon chicken one but when, 45 minutes later, everyone else at the table had eaten theirs and ours still hadn’t arrived, our Saffa friends shared theirs with us and we turned ours away when it eventually came. We were then served biscuits and mint tea (which the waiters serve with much showmanship, pouring from a teapot a full arm’s length above a tray of tea glasses). We’d been short-changed the Briwate though, which was the highlight I’d been waiting for (because they look like samoosas, which I adore!) all hour and a half we’d been stuck in the restaurant! They brought them and it was worth the wait – sweet mincemeat in deep-fried pastry (like a samoosa and also triangular), with castor sugar sprinkled on the outside. It was supposed to be a starter, but actually worked better as a dessert. Needless to say, after the shoddy service, they didn’t charge us for our meal either!

Back on the bus, we hit the road to Meknes, a traditional Moroccan medina (town enclosed by ramparts), protected by stretches of walls totaling 40km. We entered by one of the several elegant gates, the Bab el-Khemis or Thursday Gate, so named because this used to be the entrance to the weekly market. The Bab el-Berdaine is said to be the most magnificent, but Bab el-Khemis seems to do alright for itself judging by all the posers and photographers!

We were taken to the old stables, which were quite imposing with very high ceilings above rows and rows of arches. The horses were tied 2 a side to each of the arch pillars and it was designed in such a way that wherever you stood, you’d get a good vantage point down the aisles in front of you as well as the diagonals, making it easier to control such a big stableful.

Of course, all these horses must be fed and Meknes is close to the Middle Atlas mountains, so horses are very important for them. The Berber horse is favoured to Arabians as it is taller and so better suited to the terrain, but eats more as well. We toured the granary appended to the stable that housed all the grains and hay to feed that lot.

On our way out, we made a stop at the Bab Mansour gate, arguably the finest gate in Morocco (so we’re told). It was commissioned by Sultan Moulay Ismail in 1673 when building the kasbah, but he never got to see its completion (although his son made sure this happened). We got a quick photo of that magnificence and opted rather to spend our allotted 15 minutes doing a whip around the market directly opposite the gate.

The Place el-Hedime (Square of Ruins) links the medina and the kasbah and provides a congregation place for business, entertainment and socialising. It’s a noisy buzz of eastern music, shishas, cafes and peddlars selling their wares from stalls or displayed on mats in the square itself. We didn’t make it past the first stall and I ended up with 2 mini tagines for table condiments and Mother with a lovely leather wallet (not bad for R40 all in all!).

As unbelievable as it sounds, we’ve only spent R250 between us since we left home – including shopping and bakery exploits! Wait until tomorrow and the markets in Fes though! 😉

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Travelogue: Champagne

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Aug 25, 2015 Under Travelogue

Travelogue Champagne
22-25 August 2015

The plan to visit Champagne was hatched when Lixi’s milestone birthday reared its very lovely head on the horizon. It was clear that a plan needed to be made; and the plan needed to be epic. There would have to be Bubbly. LOTS of Bubbly. So what better place to celebrate than the home of Bubbly itself?

After deftly overcoming the usual obstacles (leave, flights, budgets, itinerary) in a matter of days, the plan was made and we were set for Epernay.

Our first validation that our decision had been a wise one was when we were upgraded to Business Class on the Dubai – Paris second half of the outbound leg of the journey. Having both achieved Silver status on Emirates, Christian and I had taken advantage of the free Business Lounge access to pass the time between flights. It makes the world of difference to the 3 hour stop-over to have an abundance of comfortable armchairs, extensive buffet and open bar at our disposal!

The lounge also has its own boarding gate, which is where we were told by the lady checking boarding cards that we’d be travelling on a brand new A380 and she’d taken the liberty of upgrading us. What a pleasure!

It was a tough job balancing enjoying all the extras that come with the premium service and getting some shut-eye. Just a couple of glasses of Champagne (to fit the theme of the trip, of course) and a few episodes on the big-screen telly, before transforming the seat into a flat bed for a perfect sleep… until a delicious eggs benedict breakfast with crispy light croissant, Bucks Fizz and an assortment of other accompaniments.

Our excitement at landing at Charles de Gaulle was dampened by an hour-long wait for our luggage. Clearly the downside to travelling on such an enormous aircraft. When we finally had our bags, there were still loads of people waiting for theirs and we thought that the (real) Business Class and Emirates Skywards Gold members (who had their own carousel) couldn’t have been very impressed having paid all that tom and then having to wait around forever to get their stuff.

While our wait at the carousel didn’t feel like time best spent, we still had just enough tome to catch the RER to Gare du Nord and connect with a Metro to get to Gare L’Est in time for our midday meeting.

It was, as always, awesome to meet up with our friends and, as usual, our communal holiday began with excited chattering about the journey, news from home and impressions on what lay ahead on our shared adventure.

The others had already bought train tickets for all of us, so all that remained was to make our way to the platform for our 12h36 train to Epernay.

We’d picked a perfect day to arrive and emerged from the station into a warm and clear day in the town that was to be our home base for the next 3 nights.

First stop was to pick up our rental car. Easily done since the agent office was conveniently located behind the town’s church – a landmark impossible to miss. Soon we were in our electric blue hatchback and headed off on the wrong side of the road (well, right side for France, but wrong side for us) to try and find our house.

A few wrong turns – which we wrote off as “sightseeing” – and we found our house. It had been another Airbnb booking and proved to be a gem.

The house was triple storey, with living area (lounge, dining room, kitchen and guest loo) on the ground floor, 2 bedrooms and a bathroom on the middle level and the main loft-style en suite bedroom and a big sewing room on the top floor. The coup de gras was a lovely back garden, where we enjoyed a celebratory bottle of chilled champagne to welcome our arrival. Our host had left the bottle for us as a gift for Lixi’s birthday, indicating that it was from her father-in-law’s vineyard and that there were more bottles from his range in the fridge, should we so wish to purchase them. We rated this Goulard Brut a 5.5, but appreciated the gesture and could envisage ourselves dipping into the stocks should the need arise.

Tastebuds piqued, it was time to do some real tasting! Epernay is famous for Avenue de Champagne, so that made a logical first port of call on our mission. We trooped down our road, past the church and into town. We did a loop through the centre, round the traffic circle and into Avenue de Champagne, facing up the street, with its wide cream pavements and grand buildings lining either side, with regal black metal palisade fencing and gold lettering spelling out names famous and aloofedly unfamiliar, but all classy and French. The first door on the left was a Tourist Office, so we stopped in and got a map and advice on Epernay and the popular Route de Champagne (in anticipation of a roadtrip).

Map in hand and plans in the making, our first tasting was at a Champagne bar called Comme, which Lix had already pencilled in our preparatory research phase. It was a good call and we bullishly started our tasting with a bottle of Pinot Meunier (6.5) and Rosé de Saigner (4), beautifully paired with a pork and mushroom ribelette, portion of ham and a cheese board, served with a basket of toast and French loaf. Obviously.

The summer sun is deceptive so even though we only left Comme in the evening, it still felt like daytime… so we stopped for sundowners en route home, where we had a very lovely time people-watching (well, mostly people’s plates-watching) and soaking in the Frenchness of it all.

Exercising our own Frenchness, dinner supplies were sourced from the Carrefour and consisted of paté, chicken, ham, cheeses, breads, chianti and 1664 (beer). It was a divine night for a walk home and a lingering evening around the diningroom table.

Christian and I were in the top floor loft room, so the early sunshine through the uncovered sky lights ensured we were awake and ready to make the most of Sunday morning. Feeling ambitious, we kitted up and took a jog around the town.

This proved to be a marvellous plan because we not only got a better lay of the land (which revealed that our house was super conveniently located), but also managed to catch the town market. While this was little more than a flower stall, a green grocer stall and a lady selling rotisserie chickens and roast potatoes (that very nearly had us doing Sunday roast for breakfast!), the market did lure us to what must – without any exaggeration – be the most heavenly store in the world! A deli that had so many delicious things that there are too many to even begin describing! We exercised enormous self-control and just nabbed a couple of crĂȘpes stuffed with cheese, ham and bechamel sauce and considered ourselves blessed to have been exposed to such a sacred place.

Returning to the nest with our spoils, we regrouped and hatched the day’s plan: Catch a train to Reims, where some of the bigger houses are open on Sundays. This would be easy enough to do as the trains between Epernay and Reims are regular and (relatively) inexpensive (assuming you’re not travelling on the Rand).

We decided on the midday train, giving us enough time to go via Avenue de Champagne for a quick sneaky tasting en route to the station. We picked Collard Picard – for no reason other than it was the first gate that was open – and sampled their Brut (6.4) in a very civilised fashion at one of the table and chair set-ups neatly arranged in their perfect white pebble garden.

A good starter to the day’s main event; we nipped down to the station and were soon on the train to Reims.

The tourist office is right outside the station, so it was a simple task to review the big map to decide where we were going and to get a take-away map to get us there.

The destination of choice was Taittenger; the route set to take us past the other big attraction in town, the Cathedral.

Sadly, the weather had taken a turn and it had started to drizzle but, fortunately, it wasn’t cold and we were on a mission, so it didn’t dampen our spirits.

Luck was on our side and we arrived, by complete serendipity with not a stitch of pre-planning, with 5 minutes to go until the next tour, which started with a video presentation on the usual history of the estate and an introduction to Champagne and its terminology, preceding a guided cellar tour and concluding with a tasting.

We were taken 12m underground, where it is a chilly 12 degrees, and shown the vaults where the 4km of chalk-walled tunnels house 2 million bottles of arguably the world’s finest Champagne. These bottles are stored for years and turned by hand (alternating a quarter revolution one way and an eighth revolution the other way bi-weekly) to ensure the perfect fermentation and meticulous sediment extraction, so that anywhere from 7 years upward, perfect Champagne can be distributed all over the world.

The tour was also interesting since the tunnels themselves are so steeped in history, having housed clergymen escaping persecution hundreds of years ago and creating an entire underground village for locals during the World Wars. The chalk walls are soft enough that many people have carved messages and drawings and it was fascinating to see how these have transcended time, while the Champagne sits waiting to be ready.

Best part of the tour though was of course the tasting… and it was well worth the wait. Our group rated the Brut a solid 8.1 and the Vintage 2008 (meaning all the grapes from that bottle were from the 2008 harvest) a respectable 6.3.

We hadn’t eaten since the morning crĂȘpes and it was by now well into the mid-afternoon, so lunch was most certainly the next order of the day.

We easily retraced our footsteps to the main avenue that led up from the station, that was lined with cafés and restaurants.

We sat at the first that appealed… only to be told that the kitchen was closed until dinnertime. It made the next best choice somewhat easier though, since there was only one place clearly open. Fortunately, it proved itself to be both quick and amazing, which were the exact two qualities we were looking for and soon I was happily munching on a 300g “French mincemeat”, which is sort of a flat meatball or a burger without the bun, and very good crispy pomme frĂźtes.

The boys managed to wolf their food down so as to pop into the English pub across the Avenue – lured in equal parts by the big screen football and an enormous neon Guinness sign – to gullet a stout before we had to get back to the station.

We got back to Epernay just after 5, leaving an hour to do some more tasting. De Castellane was an obvious choice since it was near the station and had a big imposing branded tower above the building that implied it must be something special. We sampled the Grand Cru, which only earned a very average 6.3 on our (now known to be tough) scale.

Up the hill and back onto Avenue de Champagne, we chose A. BergĂšre because it was still busy with patrons – usually a good sign. We tasted the Brut (5.2) and the Grand Cru (6.2), while reviewing all we’d seen and done on our afternoon in Reims.

Needing a palate cleanser, we stopped off in a brasserie en route home for a pint, enjoying the evening sunshine after the damp afternoon.

Dinner was then a very French affair with baguettes and patĂ© and cheese and chianti… and 2 bottles of our host’s Goulard Brut (which earned a much higher rating on this second time round and seemed more fairly priced – at 15 Euros a bottle – after having a better idea on the going rates).

Monday morning was not sunny, but much brighter than the previous, no doubt thanks to the previous day’s exhuberance. The plan was to roadtrip the region and find a nice chateau for lunch.

We hit the road and headed for Verzy… only to find a ghost town. NOTHING is open on a Monday! Not even the lighthouse… so we’ll never know why in the world they even need a lighthouse!

The drive was still nice (for everyone but Lix, who was tasked with winding around the narrow streets on the wrong side of the road) and it became clear that it would have been a mean feat to taste all the Champagne houses in Champagne in a lifetime, let alone our long weekend! The one little village had its own mini tour route laid out from the town square, with 31 houses in walking distance.

Our ultimate destination was Chalons en Champagne, where we knew we were bound to find something open. And we did.

A delightful bistro that had a perfect set menu offering duck paté, bavette (steak) with shallots and frßtes and a scrumptious crÚme caramel to finish off.

Returning to Epernay, we went straight to drop the car off so we could resume our mission: complete Avenue de Champagne.

The plan was to walk the full length and do Mercier at the top, but when we got there and found out that we had to do a tour in order to do a tasting, we passed. We’d had the tour the day before and figured there was unlikely to have been any major breakthroughs in Champagne-making overnight, especially since the region doesn’t seem to operate at all on a Monday.

So we went to Michel Gonet instead – a beautiful old house, which has apparently previously housed the British Embassy – and did a leisurely sampling of the Blanc de Blanc (7), Vintage (6.2), Chardonnay (5.2) and RosĂ© (5.3).

With little time to go before the 6pm closing, the last option available to us on the Avenue was, conveniently, 2 vineyards exhibiting their wares (for free) in the Tourist Office. There we were given background and samples of the Lorint Brut and RosĂ© (both 5) and the Alain Mercier Chardonnay (5) and Meunier (7.5). We liked the Meunier so much that we asked to buy a bottle. No such luck, the exhibitor loudly told us that he couldn’t sell from the Tourist Office… then whispered his address and told us to meet him in 20 minutes.

Fortunately there was a brasserie next door, so we waited out the time until our “deal” with a pint. We learned a little lesson about experimentation: for me having ordered a Panache (a shandy of sorts, more unusual than unpleasant) and for Robby who had what might very well be The Worst Beer In The World.

Chalking it up to experience, we headed back up the road to meet our Mercier man. True to form, he was waiting in the parking in front of his (gorgeous) boutique hotel, with the back of his van open and ready to effect our transaction. We bought four bottles to reward his efforts.

On our way home, we stopped at L’Univers pub outside the Church and enjoyed our last evening in the company of what is clearly Epernay’s version of Gathering of the Clans. The pub cleverly has a little Tabac in the entrance – a kiosk selling basic supplies – and we marvelled at the simple genius of the one-stop shopping (and how many of our “married with children” friends would offer to pop out for bread or milk to get a quick pint in).

We had planned our supplies perfectly and made a slap-up picnic dinner with the last of the bread, paté, chicken, cheese and garnishes we had leftover from previous meals. Enjoying our last night together at our trusty diningroom table.

Tuesday was the big day. The day it was all about. Lixi’s birthday. We got up, dressed and packed and made our way downstairs to do presents and have a lingering Champagne (literally) breakfast. Lixi seemed pleased with her haul: a set of engraved Champagne glasses from us and a very lush spa day from Faye. How awesome that was as old friends – as in going way back, not being old ourselves,  obviously – get to spend such auspicious occasions together!

We’d opted to catch the earlier train to Paris so as to have less rush on the other side to get to the airport, so our evac from our wonderful holiday house was set for 10, to get us to the station by 10.30 and in to Paris just before 12.

We surfaced from L’Est onto the streets of Paris and made our way toward Gare du Nord, where Lix had earmarked Terminus Nord as our destination. A surreal restaurant with classic decor and antique pieces that looked like it had been frozen in time; like Hemingway or Picasso could have sat at our table in their day.

The service was exceptional and the food exquisite. Those that did, got the escargots they’d been after all holiday – served in the shell with a light parsleyed garlic butter – and we all had steaks of some persuasion for mains, with melt-in-mouth crunchy frĂźtes. Add a bottle of white and a bottle of red and the bill was gasp-worthy… but you only live once, right?

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Travelogue Indonesia 4: Sanur and Ubud

Posted by cl@rks on Sunday Jun 14, 2015 Under Travelogue

12-13 June 2015

The fast boat from Lembongan back to the mainland was much smaller than the ones we’d been on previously, taking no more than about 20 people. Presumably this was because of our convenient departure directly from Mushroom Bay and the boats from the main points further up the island would command more traffic. They must have a great understanding of supply and demand as the little boat arrived full and left full, we had no trouble getting a ticket and nobody seemed to have been turned away.

There are 3 boats a day and we’d opted for the 11am to give the best balance of a lie in on the departure side but still a full day to explore on the arrival side. The  concierge (in the loosest use of the word) at our hotel had commended our choice when we’d bought the tickets from him, saying that was low tide. And thank heavens for that; can’t imagine the (unwanted) ab workout my poor unsuspecting relaxed holiday body would’ve had to endure if the tide had been in and our Wave Warrior skipper was crashing through bigger ebs!

On the upside, the journey was barely half an hour.

Arriving in the port, with no sense of direction and no clues on which way to get to our hotel, we dealt with our vulnerability by hailing a taxi. This would have been easier had it not been for the hundreds of scooters parked around the ‘No Parking’ signs, requiring the taxis to do some tricky negotiating to get to the pick-up point.

Our hotel is very swish and right on the beachfront; a real gem of a find, discounted to nothing on Agoda.

Our room wasn’t yet ready (it was barely midday and check-in was at 2) so we left the bags with the porter and took a stroll along the beachfront.

The paved pathway and the endless visual stimulus of activity both in the sea and on the beach kept us entertained, while the feet moved themselves one in front of the other. The stroll that turned into a 10km (according to the pedometer on my phone) walk to the very end of the beach and back!

We did stop for refreshment at Le Pirate, one of the many beachfront cafés. We were lured in by their comfy daybeds, the promise of the icy-cold San Miguels and real authentic Balinese pizza. All of which delivered way beyond expectation and took a huge amount of willpower to break away from.

On return to the hotel, we were surprised to find we’d been upgraded. Instead of the original room we’d been allocated in the back corner, we’d been moved to a stunning garden unit near the pool! Asking no questions, lest a mistake be corrected, we scuttled off to our flash new digs and settled into our new station with no effort at all.

We had searched all along the beachfront for an ATM, without success. In need of cash (we’d spent MILLIONS on the islands… which, at 1000:1 didn’t translate into a fortune in Rands), we caught the hotel’s free shuttle into Sanur town where we were told we would find one.

One? There was a literal bank of them!

Much like the shops that cluster according to what they sell, it seems that all the ATMs are positioned together as well. This is a really silly system – the shops must surely struggle when surrounded by direct competition and the banks would definitely service more people if they expanded their footprint.

And you can’t go without cash like you can at home; while more places accept credit card here than in most of the farflung places we’ve been to, there are still lots of places that don’t. Small traders don’t, taxi drivers don’t and while most hotels and restaurants do, some don’t, so you have to carry cash just in case. Credit card usage also comes at an added 3-5% merchant fee, which stings on top of the 15-21% tax and service fees levied on most bills. By the time you’re done, unless you’re Rain Man, the prices on the bill are only a vague guideline of what you can sort of expect to pay.

Good thing we got cash though as this opened up our dinner options. After a swift sundowner at the hotel pool bar, we headed along the trusty beachpath to find ourselves some dinner.

We found a homely lively real mom ‘n pops seafood shack where we had delicious fresh prawns, deep-fried calamari rings and a brilliant snapper fillet, grilled to perfection in a garlic butter so that the outside had a crisp to it. The food was served with traditional Balinese condiments – a red, slightly grainy hot saucy and an oil-based onion relish.

Thank heavens for the walk back to the hotel after all of that food or we’d never have been able to fulfil our planned early night (in anticipation of our early morning day tour to Ubud).

We did manage to get up at the princely hour of 8.15 (very early by our Bali standards) and took a trot down the now-very-familiar beachfront walkway to look for a tour operator to make our Ubud dreams come true.

Obviously, nobody was open yet.

We found a cleaner who was nice enough to guide us through a windy-windy route of back streets to “where da taxis are”.


A taxi.

And by that I mean A Single Solitary Taxi.

But we only needed one. And he quoted us 450,000 Rupiah for a half day tour, so we hopped in and headed to Ubud.

The driver introduced himself as Wayan. This seemed quite coincidental as the business card we’d gotten from another tour desk the day before was also someone called Wayan. I asked if this was a common name. The driver explained the firstborn son is always named “Wayan” (meaning oldest), the second is “Made” (middle), the third is “Nyoman” (usually Man for short), and fourth is “Ketut” (often elided to Tut). If you have a fourth son, he’s “Wayan Balik” (Wayan again). So yes, Wayan is a very common name!

Our driver had asked us what we wanted to see on our daytrip and we’d listed the usual suspects: monkeys, temple, market etc… He suggested a detour to the Budsari coffee plantation. Seemed as good an excursion as any, so we approved the suggestion.

We were greeted at the door by a charming young hostess who guided us around a short looping pathway with live exhibits in the gardens on either side. She picked berries and leaves here and there as we went, skinning and splitting so that we could smell and guess. Coffee cherries, vanilla, lemongrass, ginseng, cinnamon… it’s quite hard to pin down the smells without the familiar visuals cues.

The path included a Luwak cage. Luwak coffee is famed to be “the most exotic, rich, smooth and excellent coffee from Bali”. It’s little wonder too, since the bean has such an unconventional journey from tree to cup! They pass through the Paradoxurus (that’s the scientific name, the locals call them Luwak). These little (furry and cute but apparently aggressive) creatures live in the trees and one of their food sources is the red coffee cherry. While the bean is in the chap’s belly it ferments, then exits the animal still intact through the digestive system. The beans are collected from the forest floor, dried, roasted and then ground and sifted by hand until it’s a fine powder. We checked and were assured that the beans are washed twice before being processed.

The tour included a sampling of all of the teas and coffees produced from the spoils of the vegetation we’d seen. Highlights were the mangosteen peel and lemongrass teas for me, Bali and Ginseng coffees for Christian… and finally finding a coffee I like: coconut coffee, which tastes like neither. It tastes like caramel!

He’d also asked what we wanted to buy at the market and when jewellery was on the list, he suggested a stop at Celuk, which is famous for its silversmiths.

He took us to a big company that included a tour on how jewellery to prime you for their ridiculously large, canteen-bright showroom with umpteen display cases glinting with pieces from the completely unimaginative to garish globs of misguided creativity. It was not what we were looking for – I wanted somewhere quaint and charming with original pieces – so we were in and out like a turnstile.

We then took a turn past the Temple. We were given sarongs to tie around our waists before being allowed to enter the sacred grounds. The funny thing is that most of the statues flanking entrances also have sarongs (always a black and white check fabric) placed around their waists, presumably also to preserve their modesty.

The temple complex was nice enough, but we’re still a bit temple fatigued from our past few holidays, so it was a quick 10 minute looksee, contrasting the other tourists who were poring over the exhibits and enjoying lengthy lectures from their guides.

Next stop was one we’d been really looking forward to: the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary.

It’s really awesome. A self-guided walk along smoothly paved pathways (you have no idea how welcome that is after losing a layer of skin on the barefoot beach path walk yesterday) that wind through and past the highlights: main temple, dragon stairs, holy pool, holy spring temple, open stage, deer stable.

The thing we appreciated was that we expected monkey *exhibits*. It’s not. The monkeys live there, wild and free, and you wander through their home; ancient trees with Tarzan hanging vines arching the passageways that only slightly interrupt their habitat. The monkeys are quite used to people and wander among them, occasionally using a person as a post or plucking at an item of interest (which is why you are warned to remove glasses and anything not securely attached to your person).

There are stalls selling bananas – with the proceeds going to the maintenance of the sanctuary – which the monkeys will take right from your hand. There were loads of delighted tourists dangling peels or propping a banana strategically on a shoulder or lap to lure a monkey in for a photo.

For R30 entrance fee it’s well worth doing, and travellers with more sightseeing time (or appetite for temples) could easily entertain themselves there for double or triple the time that we did.

Wayan then took us to the village of Ubud. It had been a consideration for us to split our week between the beach at Sanur and then have a couple of nights inland as a breakaway in Ubud instead of going to the islands as we had done. Thank goodness we did as we did – Ubud is a very busy “sleepy little village”.

It has the expected single lane road, with lovely shops lining it and a really good market… but none of them are pedestrian streets and there is the added complication of cars alongside the squadrons of scooters. It’s mayhem.

We paid a quick visit to the obligatory temple and then focused our energy on jewellery shopping, eventually doing a fantastic job at a shiny little outlet called Kapal Laut (only to find that they have 3 branches in Sanur, so we could just as easily have shopped close to home. Doh!).

Wayan then suggested that we lunch at the rice paddy, which was a fabulous idea (especially since we hadn’t had a formal breakfast, opting to snack in the car to save time).

He took us to a big and bustling restaurant, where we got a front and centre table overlooking the tranquil rice paddy terraces so, with our back to everyone, it was quite peaceful.

We savaged a crispy duck – delicious! – and paired it with a juicy chicken curry. We certainly have eaten well this holiday!

The drive home was delayed somewhat by a traffic jam coming out of Ubud where a cremation ceremony was blocking the road. Apparently this is quite commonplace and, being the spiritual people they are, the drivers just grin and bear it. It seems hard work being a Hindu: all the shrines, offerings, obligatory decor and regalia, ceremonies and lots and lots of patience.

Every hotel we’d been at dotted banana leaves with petals and incense sticks about the place several times a day. The houses we drove past, no matter how humble, had murals moulded into their walls and sculpted into their cornices, statues in their entrances and shrines taking up most of their gardens. Traffic circles were stages for resplendent displays of mammoth stone statues illustrating religious tableau. It’s fascinating. Especially for the uninitiated.

We’d managed to tick off everything we wanted to see – and more! – on our short tour, so the plan was to spend the afternoon relaxing at the pool. Having had such luck with the hidden pool on Gili T, we decided to follow the signs to the smaller pool in our hotel complex. Hardly small by any means, it was a series of 3 pools, the largest being very deep at around 7ft, separated from the smaller, shallower two by a little waterfall tunnel.

Perfect to wile away a couple of hours.

Our original plan was to have a farewell seafood dinner in Jimbaran, the fisherman beach on the far side of the peninsula. The restaurants provide free transfers and the hotel had already recommended the one they considered best… but it seemed like a mission, so we walked down our road to the Cat & Fiddle Irish Pub instead.

It was a good decision and we enjoyed a relaxed evening, singing along to the cover band. And, for an Irish pub, they served a legit rendang (for Christian) and fisherman’s pie (like a cottage pie but creamed white fish instead of mince, for me).

A great last hoorah for an excellent stay in Bali!

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Travelogue Indonesia 3: Lembongan

Posted by cl@rks on Friday Jun 12, 2015 Under Travelogue

10-12 June 2015

Christian’s commitment to punctuality combined with Bali’s promise of delivering the predictably unpredictable made for quite a lengthy wait for the boat. Really not so bad though; we passed the half hour viewing the bright sunny midday from the comfort of the shade under the giant TRAWANGAN sign, with soft sand under our bare feet.

The cause of the delay became apparent as our boat docked. A rowdy group of American “Uncle Ed’s 50th Bday Tour” partygoers spilled out onto the beach. One quite literally, dropping her backpack into the sea while attempting an epically clumsy disembark. There was a tour leader with a flag on a stick (that gave away the theme of the group trip) running here and there, barking orders to the rebellious, issuing encouragement to the hapless and sweating up a storm while trying to herd her proverbial cats. 

We headed right into the airconditioned cabin, still freshly reminded by the learning-the-hard-way sunburn that the open-air deck choice had taught our virgin skin en route from Padangbai. Christian’s shoulders were still angry red (leaving a very white skin chest vest) and my thighs and feet were still the shade of bright pink normally reserved for nail polish (and toenail polish at that!) so, factor 50 or no factor 50, we were avoiding continued exposure at all costs.

The boatride proved to be longer than we’d hoped, stopping twice on the journey to Padangbai, then requiring a change to a smaller boat as we arrived into a channel on Lembongan that must’ve been too shallow for our bigger fast boat.

All in all, it took 3 hours on the boat to get from Gili T to Lembongan, but 4 hours door-to-door as the harbour, of course, was on the exact opposite side of the island to where we needed to be. The boat tickets all include transfer service and this one was an bakkie convert with shadecloth roof and cushioned benches along the sides.

We were the last passengers to be dropped off so the journey fortuitously doubled as an island tour, which presented inland to be little more than a network of single lane once-tarred roads that spidervein from the apex down to beach access around the coastline. The roads were riddled with tourists on scooters, jiggling their merry way from one point to another, which wordlessly determined our mutual decision to not become part of this most misguided biker gang.

Having dropped our co-passengers at various fancy resorts, we were preparing for the disappointment of being, like them, placed clifftop with lovely views of the sea but no direct access to it. Fortunately, our fears were unfounded and we were deposited on the edge of the beach, where a porter from our hotel was waiting to escort us to our lodgings two doors down.

Lembongan Island while by no means big is much bigger than the Gili Islands we’d come from, so I’d agonised a bit on where we should position ourselves. The shortlist became the main length of beach that stretches from the left tip to more or less the centre of the island (as viewed from Bali mainland) versis a quiet cove adjacent to it, called Mushroom Bay. The name won me over and that’s how we found ourselves staying at Lambung Beach Huts right on the waters of Mushroom Beach.

The accommodation was superb. We had a beach hut wooden bungalow, two storeys with a (completely outdoor) bathroom and (partly outdoor) daybed patio beneath the upstairs loft bedroom with balcony overlooking the sea, through the frangipani and palms. Again with a 4-poster bed and fresh white linens. Idyllic!

With sunset rapidly approaching, we headed straight out to grab a sundowner. We walked the full stretch of our beach (200m or so) to assess our options and end up at the farthest hotel, the Mushroom Beach Bungalows, which won thanks to it’s sea-facing deck, infinity pool and pretty glowing lanterns easing in the nighttime.

We had a few Bintangs while soaking up the tranquility of the evening at the cove from our prime vantage point, and ended up staying for dinner.

Unable to decide between the dishes on our shortlist we ordered all 3 – which isn’t as gluttonous as it sounds as Indonesian portions are considerably smaller than ours – and were soon (very soon; nothing takes more than 10 minutes) languishing a snapper with salsa topping, red prawn curry and a seafood platter with calamari, tuna fillet and prawns. All beautifully fresh, no doubt from the day’s catch on the island.

Our hosts at the hotel had done a hard sell on their dinner offering when we checked in; their dinner kitchen presumably a big part of their trade since there was no pool to attract other guests during the day. We felt a bit bad as we return triumphant from a first evening and great dinner and proactively quelled any guilt we might’ve felt (or questions they might’ve posed) by ordering a couple of Bintangs to take back to our balcony as nightcaps.

Breakfast at the hotel was a casual affair, under the shaded thatch with beachsand floor. The food was excellent though, with freshly squeezed orange juice, toast with eggs of any preference… and bacon! Really good bacon too, sort of streaky rashers with a lovely generous length of fat like back bacon – truly best of both!

We’d already decided the day would be a relaxed beachy one, but figured we’d best sate the curiosity on what comprised our little neck of the woods. We took a walk up the road – or maybe that should read “The Road” since there was only one – and saw that there was not much to see.

Lots of construction going on; presumably new villas and lodges based on signage and foundations. Building is a very manual process and largely undisciplined from what we could see. Can’t blame them really, being 11am and hot as Hades! (And this is technically winter, Bali being 8 degrees south of the Equator).

Confident that we’d “supervised” enough, we assessed the beachfront options and chose to fritter away the day at the Sedag Resort, mostly because of the novelty of finding our own private infinity pool. Terraced just below the main pool, our little slice of paradise had a ledge just big enough for our 2 loungers and an umbrella, and a pool about twice the size of our own at home but only a metre deep… and spilling over into the bay below. Perfect view of everything; perfect getaway from everyone.

The afternoon drew to a close with us returning to our bungalow at sunset for sundowners on our balcony. All very relaxing.

Having enjoyed our 3-between-2 ordering the night before, we again exercised the right not to have to choose and split a beef rendang stew, chicken curry and a seafood platter that included calamari stuffed with tuna – the best thing I have tasted in as long as I can remember! Mental note to self to try and make tuna meatballs on returning home!

…which was approaching all too soon.

We had already arranged (with our front desk) our boat tickets for the following morning to fetch us directly from Mushroom Beach to return us to the mainland for the last leg of the Bali itinerary, in Sanur. Slow island life sure goes by faster than you want it to!

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Travelogue Indonesia 2: Gili Trawangan

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Jun 10, 2015 Under Travelogue

8-10 June 2015

After a decadently long and delicious slumber, we finally arose with half an hour to pick-up time (the transfer to the port for the fast boat to Gili T). Fortunately, both dressing and packing were lighting-quick jobs, so we were out the door minutes later.

It had literally just started to rain as we were locking up our suite so, grateful for our ultralight beach holiday packing, we grabbed our suitcases and made a mad dash across the pool terrace. Sopping from the sprint in the tropical squall, we sat down to peruse the breakfast menu… as the rain stopped. We’d managed to get caught end-to-end in the only-a-minute-long downpour. That has to be lucky, like rain on your wedding day!

Breakfast was a simple offering of melons (that I didn’t eat, thanks Nordic Ice), egg toastie (very welcome) and black tea for me (will try and get used to that) and coffee for Christian  (the type that leaves a black slick down the cup and a silt layer on the bottom, but he seemed to like it).

We were ready and waiting in the reception at 10, as instructed, and when the transfer driver hadn’t arrived by 10.15 we asked the reception to call them. The receptionist seemed puzzled by our request and kept pointing at the wall clock… which had stopped… and showed 9.45. It took some convincing to get them to call, and the verdict was “on their way”. Obviously Bali Time works the same as ours back home.

Minutes later our transfer arrived.

An ancient wrinkly man on a Vespa.

For the 2 of us and our suitcases.

He tried to gesture that he’d take us one at a time (with a suitcase)… but we showed him the Yellow Pages, communicating that we would rather walk. The compromise was that we would hoof it and he would take the bags.

So, with that, we walked from our hotel at the end of the beach, along the harbour, all the way to the other far end of town: 300 metres and 5 minutes later, were at the Ticket Office collecting our boarding passes, still well in time for our 10.30 boarding (for the fast boat that ended up being 20 minutes late. Bali Time strikes again!)

We had bought the full Padangbai – Gili T – Lembongan – Sanur ticket all in one go, so were relieved when the boat ride was comfortable (and quick) enough. We sat on the flat rooftop to enjoy the view in the pleasant cool of the overcast morning, eavesdropping on the coversations around us for entertainment.

On arrival in Trawangan, we were surprised to see a porter awaiting our arrival, welcome sign ‘n all. Who knows how long he’d been waiting there seeing as I’d not told the hotel where we’d be coming from for them even to hedge their bets on multiple boat arrival times per origin.

He led us across (what we were to discover is) the main road (that runs along the beachfront all the way around the island) and down a side street. A short 45 metres (according to the signage) later, we arrived at Secret Garden 2. Our accommodation was quite true to the pictures online – roomy wooden A-frame bungalow, decorated to within an inch of its life with mammoth four-poster bed with draped mosquito netting taking up most of it, and elaborate framed painting of Buddha on the black and white speckled feature wall and enormous mural of the caricature-ish Indian dancers with gold spot-colour accents and a heavy wooden frame above the full length of the head of the bed, that would surely kill – or at least maim – us in our sleep should it choose to fall.

Our bathroom was interesting, accessed from the main room through a clear glass sliding door, exposing it to have a shoulder height wall and open air in the triangle of the A-frame. I’d booked us upstairs hoping that we’d be able to see the sea from our entrance balcony… but that was a fail since we’re facing away from the sea, ao have a lovely view of the homestays below and behind, and a construction site for another building of condos directly opposite. The flatscreen TV bragged about in the ad must’ve been taken really close up as it’s the tiniest cutest TV you ever have seen! The screen is only just bigger than Christian’s tablet (but with it all the way across the room, it’s a challenge for even the eagle-eyed!) A nice touch to include not only a DVD player but a sleeve of DVDs (movies and series) as well.

We didn’t come to Gili T to watch TV though, so we set about our adventuring post haste. My One Thing I wanted for our stay here was to circumnavigate the island (estimated at 8km from what we’d read), so we started with that. Back to the main road and taking a left. The main town section had almost a double lane (unmarked, with no clear indication from travellers as to whether there was a right or wrong side in either direction); the rest was all a single lane shared, at times quite noisily, by its users.

There are no cars or motorbikes (thankfully, because Padangbai was quite “busy” with its 2-wheel mavericks), just lots of horse-drawn carriages (all with jingling bells; the reason why the holiday song snippet stuck in my head was “… lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you!”) and tourists on bicycles (who clearly don’t ride at home, so wobble and panic about the place), sharing the path with lots of barefooted, barechested and often barely aware pedestrians, so it’s chaos.

We managed the full island lap in what would have been just under 2 hours if we hadn’t stopped at The Exile: a most excellent beachfront pub and restaurant, where we sampled bone-chillingly cold Bintangs (served in an enormous bottle somewhere between a quart and a litre, but unmarked so it’s a mystery) and marvelled at the beautiful water that graded from turquoise at the shoreline to deep navy blue on the horizon, broken only by the tourists lounging on the hammocks and sitting on the swings installed in the shallower waters for their amusement.

On our way back into town we spotted a sign for a “hidden pool bar” which was an irresistible allure (completely overshadowing the same-size “residents only” sign beneath it). The pool was gorgeous: crystal clear, warm as a bath with a swim-up sunken bar with submerged cocktail seats… and half-price cocktails to boot! With that we frittered away the sunset hours in complete bliss. Longest I’ve swum in can’t remember how long!

Celebrating our little find, we vowed to return in the morning for the aqua-biking (underwater exercise bikes) workout session, thinking that exercise in this environment could only be a pleasure and, at 9am, surely easily possible.

We celebrated our great decision-making with a post-sundowner at Tir Na Nog, “the biggest Irish bar on the smallest island in the world”, where we had a Guinness (in a bottle, unusual for us) and an invite to quiz night (1 million Rupiah bar tab up for grabs!) the following evening. Game on!

Delighted at how the day had turned out, we were blind-sided by an Indian restaurant that cast aside all good intentions to eat only local food. It was a good call with a very satisfying lamb vindaloo and butter chicken to share, served with 2 types of rice and peculiar round crispy naan bread. Very nice.

Last mission was to source a snorkelling trip for the following day, which we did with ease since everything was still open and the tour guides still pedalling a fine trade well into the night from the tourists spilling out from all the restaurants and bars. R100 each for a 10-3, 3 island snorkelling excursion? Bargain!

I woke up (with holiday hair so exhuberant that it may preclude me from further holiday pics) at 9.15, so we’d completely missed our Hidden Pool workout (phew!)

… and we set off for breakfast.

The hotel gave us vouchers for a beachside restaurant called Egoiste. A lot more lush than we were expecting from a free breakfast, thrown in with such economy accommodation, we were treated to 2 eggs on 2 toasts with a delicious pineapple smoothie, served in a large parfait glass with a bendy straw. Delicious – and a good refuel for the day’s adventure.

It’s great that town is one main road, as we simply walked back in the direction we’d come  from the previous night until things started looking familiar and then hunted the tour office from the name on the booking stub. Easy peasy and we were soon equipped with fins, masks and snorkels and off to the boat, the Coral Voice.

The boat trip was a great decision! The Gili collection of islands consists of ours – the biggest, Gili Trawangan, the farthest from Lombok (the “mainland” island; we’re not in Bali anymore) – then Gili Meno in the middle and Gili Air closest to Lombok. The islands get more chilled as you get closer to Lombok. You can see Gili Meno from Gili T, but it obscures Gili Air, that in turn obscures Lombok, with its lovely hilly coastal facade. It is cool that each island has a horizon view of its neighbours.

Our boat trip took us first down the coastline of our own Gili T, where we were deposited in a serene azure patch of ocean with visibility easily 30-40 metres. I don’t know anything about fish, but the schools were plentiful, colourful and energetically weaving in and around the coral bed so there was plenty to watch!

After half an hour we were called back to the boat to transfer to Gili Meno where the skipper jumped into the water and took us on a guided snorkel, pointing out things of interest and guiding us to where turtles swam beneath and jellyfish-looking things swam between us.

We were then off to Gili Air, where we were again given a half hour to paddle about and admire the under- and above-water sights. The boat moored on the shore so we could grab some lunch at one of the beachside eateries. We delved into local cuisine with a capcay (sweet and sour veg with seafood) and ayam pelecing (spicy chicken), both served with rice and both very tasty.

The food was served very quickly, so we still had some time to spare on our lunch break to have a wander down the main road on Gili Air. Much quieter and more laid back; far less people, narrower road, no horsecarts… but still loads of restaurants and bars, so hardly remote in the strict sense of the word.

By the time we got home to our own Gili it was after 3pm. That was an incredible excursion for 100 SA Ronds each!

Having been told there is only one boat a day from Gili T to Lembongan  (our next stop), we did the wise thing and took our tickets to the boat company office to do pre- check-in and secure our places for the next day. Reassuringly, they already had our names on the list so it was a 2 minute process.

Sight-seeing and admin done for the day, we retired to our Hidden Pool at Villa Ombak for sundowners.

As nice as all our wallowing in the sea and pool had been, a shower was very welcome after the long day. As the central part of our open plan, open air bathroom, the outsized showerhead could sadly only be described as a “rain shower” if it were actually raining! Really dismal water pressure! Fortunately, we were in no hurry, so showering became as laidback and leisurely as an excursion all in itself.

The plan for the evening was the quiz night at Tir Na Nog, leaving an hour and a half for dinner. We’d become quite accustomed to the layout of town by now… and done considerable deliberation on our back and forths as to where to sample an authentic Indonesian meal. It had taken quite a bit of willpower not to participate in the Irish Pub’s Mexican Fiesta buffet (R90, including a Bintang).

We ended up back at Egoiste, where we’d had breakfast, at a stunning table on the beachfront. We had a Mie Goreng (like Nasi Goreng, but noodles instead of rice) and Rendang (lightly spiced beef stew). Both devine – worth another order for sure!

The quiz night was well-supported, held across the road from the beach front bar in a big open-air hall structure extension to the restaurant. We did very well initially, being in tie for 1st place at halftime. Sadly though, Round 4 was all about Indonesia… a subject which we (very apparently) know nothing about. With a 0/8 for that section, we slid to 4th place. We managed to gain some ground back on the last round and ended in a very respectable tie for 2nd place. So, we didn’t walk away with the 1 million Rupiah bar tab first place prize – thankfully!!

We’d have had no trouble finding a welcoming recipient for our spoils had we won the tab and wanted to cede it to someone. The pub, like the whole street, was buzzing. Lots of pubs had live music and there were more than enough party-people to ensure that no band went lonely. It’s a great hair-down, shoes-off town – and we were definitely among the oldest people!

It’s been equally weird not seeing a single Saffa here and seeing so many young (twenty-something, mostly Australian, but healthy portions of American and Brit) tourists staying in the flash resorts, normally full to bursting with aged Germans. Illustrates the combination of rustic, party appeal with cheap island lifestyle for the world’s stronger currencies. Drinking here is more expensive than at home, but with eating considerably cheaper and transport and excursions dirt cheap, what is a reasonably priced holiday for us must be a steal for them! Especially thr Australians since Indonesia is on their doorstep so am sure they benefit from Asian budget airline prices too.

We had good intentions for our last morning – circumnavigating the island  (*again*) on bicycle.

I must admit that we may very well have overslept and missed it, had it not been for the Muslims. Mosques are the Dachshund puppies of places of worship. While a church might rouse you momentarily with clangs or chimes, mosques are relentless with all that wailing! Our luck, our bungalow was spitting distance from a very punctual, very enthusiastic mosque.

We were told that the cycle would take an hour and a half, we budgeted an hour and only took 45 minutes… even with Christian’s wobbly seat and puncture 10 minutes in. It was a far less white-knuckle ride than the one in Amsterdam last year but, then again, it was emptier (9am is very early for the late night culture) and flatter (literally at sea level, obviously)… and not to say that it wasn’t hair-raising for every one of the oncoming pedestrians caught deer in my headlights and for me with every oncoming horsecart (with their cheerful jingling sounding quite macabre).

Worked up quite a hunger for brekkie, which made the Egoiste’s already-excellent eggs on toast most appreciated. I have also discovered that I might be a fruit-drinker, after being a vocally averse fruit-eater my whole life. The fresh blended banana juice was every bit as yummy – and every bit as “nothing but fruit” – as the pineapple one had been the previous day, neither of which I would ever have ordered under normal circumstances.

Motivated by the restart of the James Blunt CD on repeat, we took a last walk along the beach, back to Secret Garden 2 for a last jump in the shower(room) and off to the jetty for the next installment of Bali Adventure 2015.

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Travelogue Indonesia 1: Bali – Padang Bai

Posted by cl@rks on Monday Jun 8, 2015 Under Travelogue

BALI – Padang Bai
07 June 2015

We could not have picked a better time to take our winter break. En route to work, in the dark, on the morning of our travel, the pretty little blue snowflake icon on the car digital dashboard did nothing to warm my heart, let alone thaw my numb toes. It was, not to be dramatic, the coldest day in the world.

A day that flew though in the usual mad dash to the finish line. It was a relief to sink into the outsized wingback chair at the Shongolo lounge – with an enormous glass of pinotage and a plateful of stroganoff – knowing that Out Of Offices were activated, dogs were all safely at their respective Holiday Camps, car was valet parked and baggage was checked. Our biggest challenges for the next 24 hours were to choose channels, decide between chicken and beef (with the odd fish curveball, no doubt) and to try and get some – but not too much – rest on the flights to optimise our acclimation on The Other Side.

It’s a real “planes, trains and automobiles” to get to Bali (doing it our way, that is). The usual Joburg to Dubai hop was a well-practiced cinch, the transit skip a great opportunity to catch up on some steps (almost 6000 end-to-end in our Terminal, celebrated with extortionate R151 pints at the Heineken Bar) and the 7,5 hour jump to Jakarta quite painless, thanks to Big Bang Theory Season 8 and Brooklyn Nine Nine Season 2 boxsets on Emirates’s unbeatable entertainment system.

Arriving in Jakarta, we were greeted by a slightly shabby but spotless Terminal. It was the understated utilitarian set-up we’d expected… but what we didn’t expect was the magnitude of the airport complex. Landing at 11pm and flying out again the next morning at 10am, I’d booked us into the Airport Hotel, conveniently situated (as all the online literature said) right in Terminal 1. Typically though, we’d flown into Terminal 2 and were to fly out of Terminal 3 the next day. And the terminals are spread generously over the airport complex, requiring a (fantasy) shuttle bus (which we gave 20 minutes of doubt’s benefit) or a taxi (a bargain at R40 for the convenience, especially since I was still in my thermal vest and approaching expiration at a rate far quicker than the fantasy shuttle’s alleged arrival).

Our hotel, the d’Prima, was pleasant and our room small but perfect for what we needed: barely enough width for suitcases (big but empty, at an unprecedented 10kg Travel Light Record each) on either side of the big, white, poofy-pillowed, silky-cotton-sheeted, perfectly-horizontal, no-belt-buckled bed; airconditioned heaven, it was. And Christian, a bath of perspiration from the stifling humidity, was thrilled to have a long, cool shower.

The hotel stay included breakfast. We weren’t expecting much since our induction included a vague wave toward a coffee bar counter and the instruction that breakfast is “only” served between 4 and 10am.

We were pleasantly surprised the next morning when we were told the breakfast du jour (and probably every jour actually) was a roti, expecting the cheese-filled pancake sort of thing we’d had in Sri Lanka. It was nothing of the sort – and nothing like we’d have called a roti. A warm bun with a cover layer that looked and tasted like a soft fortune cookie, with something sweet melted in the centre that must’ve been syrup-inspired because the overall flavour was like a waffle or one of those steam puddings you have to make in a double-boiler so the syrupy sauce runs down the outside when you turn them out of the pot. It looked plain and I was expecting it to need condiments to jazz it up… but it was so soft, warm and moist that the whole thing was gone before I could really bed down the flavour and its genius contributors. Mental note to try those again to get a handle on them properly.

Breakfast came with tea and coffee, both served black as standard and requiring me to ask for milk for my tea. The breakfast bar attendant seemed surprised by my request, but complied. Mental note also to try tea black and see if the local brew somehow justifies the absence of dairy.

Catching a taxi to the (correct) Terminal was easy. All we had to do was step out of the hotel and we had drivers flock to us.

The flight check-in was equally simple with a very uncluttered Terminal thanks to the banks of machines outside where passengers could check themselves in, print their own boarding passes and even print their own luggage tags. And everybody actually does it. At home we seems to have a very laggard attitude to new technologies, queuing for habit’s sake and wordlessly committing to progress “next time”.

By stark contrast to the already-29-degrees morning weather, the plane was bloody freezing! Christian loved it, of course, (already glistening from the short trot across the runway to alight the plane) and I fear that hour and a half onboard Air Asia Refrigeration might rank as one of the highlights of his holiday for him.

I appeased his reintroduction to Outside with a “Welcome to Bali” Burger King lunch (still at the airport) and joked that I’m going to submit the tillslip with my tax return since it said R149,000 at the bottom. We’re going to spend like millionaires this holiday!!

It was easy to get a taxi; again, stand and let the drivers come to you. R400 for a 2 hour transfer down the coast to Padang Bai? Bargain!

The drive itself was interesting too. The airport isn’t actually in Denpasar, but in Kuta. We’d been advised not to stay in Kuta (on our return to the mainland at the end of our itinerary) because it’s too hectic and touristy… and this advice rang true in just the small bit of it we saw on our evac route. We did drive past Sanur Beach, where we will be staying, and saw Lambongan Island distant on the horizon, which made me a bit giddy from excitement, seeing all the topography from my flat online planning take shape before my very eyes! And the aircon in the car was blasting so Christian was happy too.

The transfer was slow going, mostly because of single carriageway and the type of traffic rather than the amount. It gave time to take in the sights – very tropical with lots and lots of frangipani and palm trees, and small square pagoda-style buildings close to the road. Bali is *very* Hindu so the houses and gardens all have adornments and intricate statues that keep the eye busier than this flash tour does justice.  Although maybe “flash” is an overstatement as at one point a hotel salesman pulled up on his Vespa alongside our driver, knocked on the window and a proceeded to hard sell… all at 40km per hour!

First stop in “town” was to get our boat tickets sorted for our island-hopping, more by our driver’s insistence than our request, so he presumably gets a kickback. Happily so, since it was quick and easy to sort the lot and that concluded the admin for this holiday, especially since the boat ticket includes door-to-door transfers to the port.

The driver then dropped us at our hotel, a charming place at the end of the waterfront called Beji Bay. It exceeded expectations from the sweet open-air reception, through the gardens and pool area to our roomy suite!

Eager to explore, we headed straight out and hit a right to “town”. We traversed the harbour and concentric inland areas of activity to get a lay of the land (and do some market shopping, for a Bintang vest for Christian and some swim shorts for me), and then passed our resort to go up the hill to explore the resort and temple.

Confident we’d done the small town justice, we resigned to our pool. Well, pools, considering it was an infinity jacuzzi into a big pool into a paddle pool. We had the place to ourselves, which was great for a splash around and relax.

Next activity had been pre-decided early on. We’d spotted a cocktail bar with an appealing happy hour from 5-7 that reminded us of the place in Mauritius that had served us so well. So that’s what we did!

The whole waterfront strip was quite quiet, but at least Padangbai Bay Resort had some lads at the bar, some ladies on the terrace and some divers preparing for their night dive. Weirdly, the Bintang only comes in 300ml or 700ml… so we worked our way through the large ones as the waiters refreshed our complimentary popcorn. It was only when the bill came and there was a 21% mandatory service charge that we realised why the staff was so attentive!

From there we surveyed the eating options in an effort to find somewhere both atmospheric and appealing. Instead, we found Molly’s… and had to stop in for the sake of homage to Christian’s local at home, Molly Malone’s.

By then, the dinner crowd had started moving in and we found ourselves at the upstairs front-and-centre harbour front restaurant (Kerti’s) that Christian had liked from the start. Unable to decide, we ended up ordering the marlin, tuna and prawns to share… a bargain at R45 per main course dish, so why choose?! All delicious, and quite different to the way they’d have been prepared and presented at home, with a tasty spicy brothy gravy.

We’d obviously made the right choice in eatery as most of the people we’d noticed passing had ended up moving through while we were there. Winning!

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Travelogue Japan 4: Kyoto

Posted by cl@rks on Sunday Jan 11, 2015 Under Travelogue

07-11 January 2015

While there wasn’t much pressure to catch any specific train since we’d pre-bought 7-day rail passes, the 1,2km trek in the snow with all our luggage was decidedly unappealing so the commitment came in pre-arranging the transport to the station. Our host in Yuzawa, Gabriel, had thus kindly booked 2 taxis to fetch us on the morning of departure to get us to the Echigo Yuzawa station in time for our planned 09h16 train.

The whole exercise went off seamlessly and we were soon (literally) bulleting off back to Tokyo, from where we would connect to Kyoto (since there are no bullet trains any more direct for our flight path).

Tokyo Station is HUGE. Since we had an hour between trains, we had a wander around and even surfaced to street level to get our bearings. The shops in the station are predictably mostly food and travel supplies, although as with everywhere else it wasn’t food you’d readily recognise so there was lots to pore over.

We bought echiben for the journey: beautifully prepared and presented lunch boxes composed of a variety of elements that are sold at stations and on the trains. With 20 or more options at our stall alone, we were spoilt for choice.

The one we eventually chose was divided into 2 compartments. The left had 2 rashers on a bed of sticky rice covered in light egg shavings. The right had hire katsu (like pork schnitzel) and battered beef meatballs accompanied by little cupcake cups respectively housing a floret of broccoli, a floret of cauliflower, pickled cabbage and a small portion of spaghetti bolognaise decorated with fresh peppers. It is all so pretty that opening the box feels more like opening a present than a lunchbox!

On arrival in Kyoto we were spared the usual game of “where in the world are we?!” by our host’s precise and accurate directions (which had been automatically delivered alongside our travel itinerary on confirmation of our booking – Airbnb is great!).

It was not even a 5 minute walk from the station to our house (for the next 4 nights) and it was easy to navigate even with our bags even though our road has no pavements thanks to Kyoto’s ingenious road markings, with painted lanes for pedestrians on the outer edges, bicycle lanes next and a single car lane in the middle. Japanese are so compliant and obedient that everyone sticks to where they’re supposed to be and it’s a wonderful experience for all concerned!

Our landlord, Jesse, was at the house when we got there and was really friendly and helpful and a wealth of advice on what to do and where to go. Fortunately, his suggestions matched the majority of items on our existing Awesome Detailed Itinerary and the new additions fitted in easily with our plans.

The house itself was incredible. A 3 bedroom with 2 Western double beds in one room upstairs and easily space for 4 or more futons in the other 2 rooms, 1 upstairs and the other off the entrance hall downstairs. We had a cosy living room with tiny couch and a few low rattan button stools around a little coffee table, modcon iPod deck and a sliding door leading onto a charming tiny zen garden.

The main bathroom was off the lounge, cleverly with the basin area doored off from the bath / shower room (which wasn’t much taller than me and housed a wall-mounted handshower and weird little 1m x 1m zinc knee-deep sunken bath) so we’d be able to get ready in the mornings in tandem. The loo was off the entrance hall where we’d come in, that was big enough to house a dining room table and be the storage area for the bicycles that came with the rental.

Our kitchen was little more than a narrow passage that ran from the front door to the bathroom alongside the dining room and lounge. It wasn’t wide enough to have two people pass each other!

First item on the gameplan as Geisha-spotting. We’d read that Gion was the place, but Jesse narrowed our search to a small alleyway just before the river. Our house was so conveniently located that it was a “left turn along the main shopping street until a left into the alley before the river; if you get to the river, you’ve gone too far.”

True’s nuts we spotted a Geisha within minutes of meandering in the assigned spot! Truth be told, we spotted one Geisha, followed her and saw her exchange words with another coming directly towards us… and got a (surreptitious) photo of her as she passed! Granted, she looks like a ghostly blur in the background, but still…

Excited from our Supreme Touristing, we set about finding a dinner spot. Easier said than done with literally hundreds of restaurants to choose from – and all look equally unattractive! We eventually homed in on a beef and leek restaurant for dinner. We had the special, which was exactly that! A rice bowl with tender strips of beef and leek, so full of distinct flavours.

Since our house was so comfortable, we were keen to initiate it so walked back along the main road, Shijo Dori, doing some window-shopping en route. The area is very upmarket and picture-perfect with wide covered pavements and uniform illuminated name boxes outside each store. The city has gone to a lot of trouble to create ambience, decorating the eaves of the pavement roof with stylish banners and lanterns. They also pipe music onto the streets (plinky-plonky classical Japanese).

Our trusty 7Eleven provided us with beer and snacks for the night and breakfast supplies for the morning (which promises to be complicated to maintain since bread comes 6 slices to a pack, cheese 7 and ham 8).

Thursday was allocated to walking touring and sightseeing.

Our route took us first to Higashi Honganji, the mother temple of Shin Buddhism, one of the largest Buddhist denominations in Japan. The Founder’s Hall is one of the largest wooden constructions in the world (at 76x58x38 metres with 175,967 roof tiles, 927 tatami mats and 90 pillars!) and was renovated in 2011 for the 750th memorial service of the founder, Shinran. The temple complex is big and awesome and was a good induction to Kyoto, noted for being Japan’s cultural hub.

Nijo Castle was next on the list and 600 Yen (R60) gave us access to the compound to view the exhibits in its 2 palaces, various support buildings and expansive gardens.

The castle was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun (bearing in mind Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan). It is one of the finest examples of the early Edo period and Monoyama culture in Japan because of the style of its building designs, lavish paintings and carvings that Iemetsu generously commissioned. In 1867 the castle the castle became the property of the Imperial family, who donated it to the City of Kyoto in 1939, whereupon it was renamed Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle).

By contrast, lunch was a quick and efficient affair at a diner we walked in to by chance where you order from a vending machine that issues a little ticket which you present to the server who was stationed on the inside of the u-shaped seating counter.

The food was served super-quickly but was, as always in Japan, excellent quality and very tasty. Even this cheap and cheerful diner served us complimentary tea and a small bowl of soup on arrival – the Japanese are supremely hospitable! Unbelievable that again the whole restaurant was run by one person in the kitchen and one server – and there’s still enough time for the little extras, sincere smiles and all the please and thank-yous that come with any exchange in Japanese.

Vowing to try another vending machine diner within the remainder of the trip, we set off to see how the other half lives, at the Imperial Palace.

The complex is a stately affair with looong wiiiide gravel driveway leading up to the Palace gates. That were shut. Tight. Fail.

Still, the gardens and water features were nice. And we ticked another sight off our list.

We took a long walk along the Kamo River, me mostly entertaining myself with Japan’s most prevalent soundtrack: traffic light signals. The Japanese government seems to have put a lot of thought into the less fortunate by incorporating ridged tiles into their pavements. Striped tiles run along the centre of the pavement for general walking in a straight line and dotted tiles indicate where there’s an intersection to turn off the path (eg at a traffic light mid-block) or where the pavement ends (eg at an intersection). They combine these tactile signals with audio ones at traffic lights, with a different tone for east-west crossing versus north-south and different sets of tones for each intersection. Thus, a blind person would presumably be able to track their journey using the audio tones instead of road signs (of which there are precious few, mind you). The result for the sighted tourist is a great game of “bing-bong, bing-bong”, “doodooladoo” and my favourite “pew, pew-pew!” which may very possibly have made a long walk feel longer for my comrades! 😀

Our route deposited us at a beautiful temple and pagoda in Gion. This must be a local sight of popularity too since there were several couples dressed in traditional regalia, slip-slopping (with socks!) about in their kimonos and shogun robes, taking lots of photos of themselves. The kimonos are mostly quite spectacular and the shogun outfits look quite comfortable being multi-layered loose-fitting robes… but it’s a big victory for tradition that they’ve retained the slops and socks part of the get-up.

The socks all seem to be the same: white, mitten-style with a pocket for the big toe and another bigger pocket for the other 4 and they seem to be sewn from cotton rather than knitted. The men’s slops – tatami-style straw ones with fabric thong – look comfy enough, but the ladies ones all seem to be misshapen and ill-fitting. They narrow at the front, so almost everyone has foot overflow on both sides and the thong seems impractically tight so the wearer is constantly shuffling to get into and stay in the shoe. We surmise that this is tactical to maintain the ladies’ weak and vulnerable facade, shuffling along with tiny little steps. I think it might force me to pull a Malory and demand to be carried everywhere!

En route back from Gion, we did see our 3rd Geisha. She was crossing the bridge across from us and turned down the same little alley Jesse had told us about. He obviously really knows his stuff!

Apparently you can still hire a Geisha to come and entertain you, but it costs a small fortune. Then she pitches up just after dusk, with a little beautifully wrapped gift and sings for you or recites poetry or some other artisanal song and dance. Not one for our itinerary or budget!

Since we’d planned a daytrip to Hiroshima leaving early the next day, we foraged for dinner at our trusty 7Eleven and Christian finally got to try a Japanese curry and rice (tasty but unremarkable).

On returning from our Hiroshima daytrip, we were surprised by Lixi and RoRo with some quality sake and nibbly bits of melt-in-your-mouth-fresh crusty French loaf with genuine Wagyu beef (which is the same as Kobe beef but not necessarily from Kobe. Qualifying as Kobe beef requires parentage and grandparentage on both sides to be from Kobe for the sacrificial cow to qualify). Lix lightly fried the beef and it was everything it’s been made out to be – soft as butter and full of flavour!

They had sourced the goods from a local premium food market, which they told us was the mecca of all things imbibable and promised to show us the next day.

Our plan for the evening was to find a place that Jesse had recommended because it’s a bottle store by day, but at closing time they wheel in some keg barrels to act as tables and serve directly from the shelves and fridges. The old lady owner even tallies up your bill using an abacus, which is a nice touch!

We found the place, but got turned away because it was too full, so spent the evening at the wine bar across the road instead, people-watching and keeping an eye on a Japanese game show that had girls competing ferociously in a combination of events that would fit anywhere between Pop Idol and a toddler’s birthday party.

On the advice of one of my friends back home, we spent our last day at Arashiyama, a little suburb out west of Kyoto in the Sagano district.

What a great decision!

Our Pasmo passes got us there quickly and cheaply and deposited us in a charming sleepy little town that had a buzz of activity on the main drag from the station to the town’s famous wooden bridge.

The main attractions – besides the bridge, of course – were a temple / gardens combo and a bamboo forest. Both sounded too challenging on an empty stomach so we sourced donburi for motivation. Donburi is a bowl of rice and beef strips with a partially cooked fried egg on top that completes cooking in the bowl from the heat of the rice alone. We operated on instinct with when to break the yolk and when to fold the egg into the rice and seemed to do quite well, turning the gelatinous beginnings into a yummy mess quite quickly. The table had the traditional spice block and a sprinkle of the sesame and chilli salt on top made for a pretty and zesty overall effect.

Even though everything in the town is very close, we managed to get lured in by the shops and spent an hour or 2 happily wandering in and out of the shops, inspecting knick-knacks and buying gifts and souvenirs.

The temple and gardens are quite lovely.
Tenryi-ju was established in 1339 on the grounds of a temple that had been there since the 9th century. The temple has been ravaged by fires 8 times in its existence, most recently in 1864, but each time the gardens survived, maintaining the 14th century ambience and making it one of the oldest gardens in Japan.

On our way from the temple to the Bamboo Path, we stopped to sample another local delicacy – croquettes! Delicious crunchy potato with beefy bits in it. Mmmmm! But then again, I never have met a croquette that I didn’t like.

We’d been told that there is a quaint old train that returns to Kyoto… we ended up catching it quite by accident. Took an “alternate route” back to the station we’d arrived at and ended up encountering the old train at another station we hadn’t even been looking for. Bonus that it took our Pasmo cards AND the end of the line was our Shijo station so we wouldn’t have to even change trains at Kyoto as we’d had to on the way out.

Double bonus was that our station has an exit right into Daimura, the Wagyu store.

More accurately, it is an emporium of delightful things and as we blissfully wandered the aisles of chocolates, baked goods, meat produce and liquors both average and special occasion, servers offered us tastes of this and bites of that.

There are no words to describe the place with any justice: Premium chocolatiers and patissieres displaying perfect wares and packing each purchase as meticulously and beautifully as a gift for a favourite child’s milestone birthday. Beautiful clinical butchery with marbled wagyu steaks carved and displayed elegantly in glass cases. Alcoves of perfectly-lit sake so that just buying it is a romantic experience. Fresh produce like you’ve never seen before – apples the size of melons and fist-sized strawberries, all elegantly displayed.

A real feast for the eyes if nothing else.

We bought wagyu and French loaf just like the night before, but triple the quantity and with an (R18 massive) onion to sautée alongside. Christian treated us to jamon and cheese tapas for starters.

Feeling as lush as the massaged cows that had provided our meal, we languished in an amazing meal in super-comfy digs with amazing friends for the last night of a spectacular holiday.

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Travelogue Japan 3: Hiroshima

Posted by cl@rks on Saturday Jan 10, 2015 Under General

09 January 2015

When we’d first started planning the trip, we’d debated spending a night in Hiroshima, thinking it to be such a noteworthy city in world history that it would be unmissable. Very watery reviews from a good proportion of travellers + Lix and RoRo’s lack of motivation to go there + an already decided-upon unlimited travel Japan Rail pass made the decision that much easier: Christian, Michele and I would daytrip it from Kyoto.

This turned out to be really easy as our house’s local subway station was 2 stops from Kyoto main station, from where we would catch a Shinkansen bullet train to Hiroshima. We didn’t have to pre-book anything, just up and out by 7.30, through the morning peak hour subway chaos and into the supreme calm that is the big and beautiful Kyoto Station.

The building is all stone and metal inside and even though it’s all grey, it’s neither cold physically nor perceptually. It’s only 4 floors, but the central hall is quadruple volume and each upper level is reached by a set of escalators, which run almost end-to-end up to an open-air roof garden terrace so look a bit like a metallic waterfall climbing upwards to the heavens when viewed from the bottom.

Our tickets required a train change in Osaka, but the lady at the ticket office had told us which platforms we needed for each departure and arrival so it was easy-peasy getting to the right train. It’s all such a well-oiled process and the trains are so clean and comfortable (seats similarly sized to aeroplanes, but with triple the legroom) that all 3 of us slept…

… through…

… and miraculously woke each other up in time for our arrival in Hiroshima.

The station was a bit smaller and a lot easier to navigate than the previous had been – and the tourist office were very proactive in guiding us to all the freebies that were included in our Japan Rail passes, including the hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus and the ferry to Miyajima Island, home to Torii Shrine just off the mainland.

The tourist bus was a great place to start, so we hitched a ride in it to Hiroshima Castle.

Established in 1589, the castle tower was destroyed in the atomic bombing and rebuilt in 1958. Inside the tower is a museum of Samurai culture. We were relieved to discover all of this after we thought we’d failed epically after having to remove shoes and don house slippers to view 2 very average exhibitions. Fortunately these were just the entry compound and there was more beyond when we entered the Castle complex beyond.

There still wasn’t much of interest to us so, after a wander past the shrine and tower, we walked through the gardens to the castle complex rear exit.

The most effective walking tour route fortuitously meant we had to tackle an early lunch as next item on the agenda. An easy call since we already knew we had to have the local speciality in the area which had made its name.

We walked through Hondori Street (a long shopping arcade) to reach Okonomu-mura village for our okonomiyaki (described in the guide as “flat cake of unsweetened batter fried with various ingredients”).

We were very pleased that there was an okonomiyaka restaurant directly under the “Welcome to Okonomu-mura” sign. Done.

We were ushered into the restaurant and chose a booth opposite the now-standard counter alongside the kitchen which, in this case, was a wall-to-wall flatbed silver fry counter.

There were 3 guys manning the kitchen, working from the far end to our side: First guy stacks raw cabbage, onion and pork onto a pancake. Next guy flips it over to cook the pork, while he has noodles and specified ingredients frying on the side. Then he pops the ingredients onto the noodles and flips the pancake et al on top of the noodle pile. Then he cracks 2 eggs onto the flatbed grill, loosely scrambles them and shifts the noodle pile on top. The whole pile then sits for a minute while the egg cooks, he flips it to reheat the pancake and deftly chops the pancake-noodle-stirfry-omelette into 6 edible portions using cross-swipes of the flat scraper-lifter tool in each hand and deposits the whole lot on a cast iron skillet. The server brushes the top with basting, adds cheese and seasoning and serves!

Really yummy! AND we managed to double-bill with a deep-fried oyster starter (important as the city is equally known for eating inexpensive oysters in casual setting “oyster huts”).

Our restaurant was close to the historical sites, so we walked the few blocks along the river front. Everything is named Peace -Something so we walked along Peace Promenade to get to Peace Park where there are Peace Memorials and a Peace Museum.

The first sight is the A-Bomb Dome. The building was first built in 1915 as a government office of sorts and was popular for its distinctive – and considered attractive – dome. The building now is relevant as it was the only building left standing near the hypocentre (the epicentre of the blast) from the notorious A-bomb drop on 6 August 1945.

The building soon became commonly called the Genbaku (“A-Bomb”) Dome, due to the exposed metal dome framework at its apex (all the roof tiles and outer casings had burnt instantly in the blast). The structure was scheduled to be demolished with the rest of the ruins, but the majority of the building was intact, delaying the demolition plans. The Dome became a subject of controversy, with some locals wanting it torn down, while others wanted to preserve it as a memorial of the bombing and a symbol of peace. Ultimately, when the reconstruction of Hiroshima began, the skeletal remains of the building were preserved and now serve as a tangible icon of what happened and place where people come to honour the lost and commit to peace.

Over the bridge is the Cenotaph memorial for A-Bomb victims. Quite austere with the eternal candle, giant flagpole, dedications and lots and lots of fresh flowers on display, the monument is the central element in a big quad and park with water features and smaller monuments dotted about.

Behind the cenotaph is the Peace Memorial Museum, offering bargain entry price of 50 Yen (R5).

The museum is a small but well structured collection of photos, exhibitions and artefacts from the fateful day, explaining how it all came to be, what happened and – refreshingly – educating on what’s happened subsequent with nuclear armament and why we need to sustain peace and avoid such an awful thing from happening again. To anyone.

Sure, we learn what happened in history at school, but it’s so “day and date” that you lose the perspective on the human element. The displays really drove home for me how utterly devastating that bomb was. A fireball a million degrees Celsius at its core, reached maximum diameter of 280m in a second. Fierce heat rays and radiation burst out in every direction, flattening buildings within a 2 km radius and burning hundreds of thousands of people to death instantly. 85%of Hiroshima’s buildings were within 3km of where the bomb exploded, so the damage extended to virtually the entire city with 90% of all buildings destroyed beyond repair.

And yet, despite getting the magnitude of the destruction, the display that hit me the most is one of the steps of a bank that have been lifted to be displayed as they were in situ, and you can see how the stones on the wall and steps have been whitened from the heat… except the grey patch where someone had been sitting. The remnant shadow of where someone literally instantly melted.

Our little tour of the peace sights vindicated our decision to daytrip to Hiroshima. Otherwise, it’s a lovely city anyway. Beautifully laid out and pleasing on the eye. Apparently at a British junket in Hiroshima a few years ago the mayor was asked why Hiroshima is so neatly grid-style unlike other major Japanese mazes and he was quoted as saying “We had some help from the Americans.”

I would have liked to catch the ferry across to Miyajima Island to see the famous torii gate at Itsukushima Shrine, but with a 20 minute streetcar + 20 minute train + 10 minute ferry, we’d left it a bit late. Oh well, next time.

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Travelogue Japan 2: Yuzawa

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Jan 7, 2015 Under General

03-07 January 2015

After our exuberant last night in Tokyo, we overslept and missed our intended 10am departure for Niigata and subsequently ended up on the 12h16 train to Yuzawa (they run more or less every half hour).

The Shinkansen bullet trains are incredible – so fast, yet so solid that you don’t feel like you’re hurtling across Japan. Which is exactly what we did. East to West coast in an hour! I had slept soundly the whole way (having woken with the lurgy that had stricken RoRo on New Years Day) but am told that there was nothing to see as the train is parenthesesed by barriers, blocking the view completely.

Arriving in the sleepy winter wonderland valley of Yuzawa in Niigata, we were instantly in love. Beautiful thick snow everywhere; mountain rising up directly in front of us as we exited the station. We caught a taxi to our accommodation, mainly because it would be too hard to negotiate our bags in the snow (and we didn’t realise the journey would be so short).

We’d been told that what we’d booked was previously a hotel – and we had the whole hotel to ourselves! Our arrival confirmed it: we were to be the sole guests of 3 storeys of slopeside hotel. Quite a contrast to our Tokyo home – which could fit into our Yuzawa lounge – it was big, airy and comfortably furnished with plus-sized couches and king-size beds. The hotel has an unassuming roadside entrance, but the living area has wall-to-wall windows facing the ski slope, which serves as very entertaining live TV!

We got a quick tour of the facilities – including the 2 private basement onsen baths and a detailed review of the remote control panel to operate the heated toilet with all sorts of spray options to rinse and blowdry your bits – and settled into our rooms. Michele had been allocated a first floor room (which was described as 2nd floor because Japanese start counting from Ground), but ended up sleeping in the lounge in the living area adjacent to our room because her heater wasn’t working properly and she said the uninhabited hotel reminded her too much of The Shining. And with The World’s Most Comfortable Couch as an alternative, she was spoilt for choice.

It was a bit late (mid-afternoon) by this point to fuss with ski rentals etc, so we took a walk along our road instead to see what there was, get some supplies, scout a spot for dinner and whatnot. Even with the inordinate amount of snow everywhere, the kilometre walk to the Station was easy enough, assisted enormously by the jets of water spurting out from the middle lane of the road and running from side feeder roads, keeping the road clear of the enormous amount of snow. Our host, Gabriel, had explained that the source of this water was the underground spring – same one that fed the onsen. Very clever.

Our initial preview of Yuzawa revealed that it was different to the ski resort towns we’d previously encountered in that there wasn’t an apres ski bar anywhere to be found. Most other resort towns we’d been to had put equal energy into entertainment on and off the slopes. Also, while everything we’d read pointed to Yuzawa being a tourist town, nothing had indicated that it’s very definitely only a Japanese tourist town since the restaurants we passed were all Japanese menu only.

On returning to the house, Gabriel warned us that we’d be well advised to get to dinner early as everything filled up when the slopes close at 5pm and since the restaurants are all small with only a handful of tables, short of waiting (outside, in the snow) the next easy-access sitting wouldn’t be until around 9 o’clock.

Just after 5pm already, he and his family were on their way out for dinner and he offered for us to walk with them so he could point out his recommendations of restaurants and shops.

We were already too late for the tonkatsu restaurant he had suggested to us but, based on the queue of people waiting in the cold for a table, we assumed it must be as good as Gabriel said and noted to return there the next day, early enough to avoid the queue.

We took our chances and went into the first restaurant without a waiting list, which turned out to be a tempura restaurant. What a luck!

We ordered the set menu, which was an awful lot of food! A miso soup, big wedge of tofu, small plate of pickled veg (no idea what it was), bowl of rice and a mountain of tempura veg (including an enormous shitake mushroom), fish, calamari and prawns (each easily 20cm long). Everything is served at once and makes for a very busy table! There are always soy sauce and chilli flakes on the table and often another condiment or two, in this case a cellar of sesame seeds. Salt and pepper aren’t standard table items as they are in the Western world.

Our feast behind us, we returned home for an onsen and a quiet night in, enjoying the comfort of our new home with its warm and inviting living room (and the simple luxury of being able to speak out loud after being repressed in Tokyo!)

The onsen isn’t what I expected. I’d thought it would be a sort of warm swimming pool, Turkish Bath style, but its more a hot bath suited to shorter dipping. Our house had 2 onsen – one “personal” one about a metre by a metre and a half and a group one about twice the size (and the perfect width to sit back against the wall and toes touching the other side). Both follow the same format with a small reception room with wooden shelves to undress and redress, hand showers in the onsen room to clean off before entering the onsen, and the onsen itself a simple rectangular bath like the swimming pools of yesteryear when they were still tiled.

Each bath is fed by a continuous trickle of hot spring water and the bath simply overflows like an infinity pool when it’s filled to capacity, draining from the bathroom floor (probably on to somewhere useful if the cistern-basin idea is anything to go by). The onsen also has a plug, so can be emptied if the water gets icky (which shouldn’t be too often since the rules are strict about showering beforehand and there is a constant flow of clean spring water entering the bath). It is very hot so, contrary to our expectation that we’d spend hours languishing in it like a Jacuzzi, we only lasted about 10 minutes.

The next morning we went to the ski hire shop, conveniently just across the road from our hotel. We were pleasantly surprised at the rates – R420 for 2 days equipment hire! – and were soon on our way with skis, poles, boot and for Christian and Michele pants and goggles too. I went to secure a ski pass (R700 for 2 full days) while the others went to find an intructor to give them a private lesson.

As promised on our “ski in/out” hotel’s write-up, there was a ski chair lift right outside our door and our pass covered not only our slope, but the whole mountain including the gondola that ran from the Ropeway Station a few hundred metres down the street to midway up the slope which had a few restaurants and shops.

Having snowed all through the night before, the powder was perfect! The slopes aren’t busy at all – not like the mayhem in Europe when I’d learned to ski – so it’s an ideal training ground and a pleasure for the already initiated.

Alex was having her turn at being ill that day so had, wisely and with remarkable restraint, stayed in for the day. I took on the mountain as a solo mission and worked out a run from the gondola station to the very top of the mountain that had me entertained for an hour at a time through a variety of green, red, black and blue routes.

By the end of the day, we’d all fallen in love with Yuzawa and asked Gabriel if we could stay 2 extra nights (conveniently, he was our landlord for our intended next stop so we simply traded properties). I guess we’ll never know what Hakone would have been like but since its main attraction was its private onsen and we had two at Yuzawa anyway, we were very motivated to stay at our lovely hotel.

After a brilliant full day’s skiing, we were at the restaurant for 5 o’clock… and were still second in the queue! Fortunately the wait wasn’t very long though and since they had taken our order while we waited, the food was served to us as we sat down. It was another set menu type thing with the standard miso soup, pickled veg, tofu and rice and the most incredible tonkatsu, which is a breaded pork fillet along the lines of a schnitzel but thick and tender and juicy, served with a mountain of shredded cabbage, carrot and watercress. Its partner condiment was a sticky sweetish barbecue sauce which matched perfectly and there was a creamy light sauce that we only realised afterwards was likely a sort of salad dressing to make a coleslaw type effect with the veg.
Since Alex was still quarantining herself, we made short work of dinner and picked up some beers and sake from the bottle shop to take home for a quiet night in. Made for a really nice evening.

Day 2 of skiing was even better because I had Lixi with me – and it was a great feeling just knowing we’d extended our stay so there would be no mad panic to pack and leave later on.

We made arrangements to all meet at the Alpine restaurant at the top gondola station for lunch and each spent our morning making the proverbial hay while the sun shone.

The slopes were brilliant, so much snow, wide and long runs and, with relatively few people, no queues at any of the chairlifts. Alex and I managed all the runs before lunch, including her first go on a (steep and narrow!) black run ever!

We were pooped by lunchtime so had a lovely long and lingering pizza/pasta lunch at Alpine, comparing notes on who had done what in the morning and watching Ski TV through the big window (although we witnessed far fewer and less spectacular bails than our house’s view).

Alex and I skiied for about another hour and caught the gondola down rather than risking the long black slope in the failing light.

Our onsen awaited and was practically a religious experience for our tired bones and aching muscles! The water was 44 degrees so it took little more than 10 minutes to get to watershed invigoration.

Lovely and clean and toasty – and in no hurry for dinner after our leisurely lunch – we settled around our lounge table, with its traditional floor cushions on 2 sides and The Most Comfy Couch in The World on the other 2, and got stuck into the bottles of local sake we’d bought at the shop Gabriel recommended.

Michele was having her turn at the flu, so decided not to brave the cold for dinner. The four of us wandered up the road heading for a restaurant called Yoshi Toshi (one of the few restaurants with English signage) which Christian had spotted and wanted to try. Unfortunately it was closed, but there was another restaurant directly opposite and a peek through the door showed it was quite full – always a good sign – so we gave it a bash.

Much like the other traditional restaurants we’d been to, it was very small with only 4 low tables and a counter of about 10 chairs facing the open kitchen. We were seated at one of the 4 low tables and given menus… all in Japanese. There was one picture, which looked like a set menu so, since we’d done well with those so far, we ordered 4.

We ordered sake too, which was served the traditional way into a small cup to the point that it overflowed and filled the saucer below. This apparently symbolises the welcoming from the restaurant and the generosity that they will display in looking after you.

The meal was excellent! Tasty miso soup and superb chicken katsu breaded cutlets.

We celebrated our success with a visit to Swing Bar, which still appeared to be the only bar in town and advertised on its signage that its operating hours were 8pm to 3am daily. How odd.

We soon made friends – or rather, in this case, were made friends with – a trio of young US Marines. They told us that their deal is 5 years in the Corps and in return the Marines pay for 3 years university education for them. Seems like a great system. Must rack up since there are apparently 5000 marines on their ship alone!

A couple of rounds of beers and Jagers (the killer mammoth tumbler “shots”) and it was hometime. It was so awesome surfacing to the crisp night air, with all the pretty snow and mountain backdrop for the short walk back to the hotel. Such simple pleasures we miss out on at home.

Our last day was taken very slowly with all efforts concentrated on relaxing. It was raining lightly so nobody was keen on skiing and it was an indulgent day of napping, chatting, slothing and of course onsen, all set to the rhythmic “bing-bong” warning chime that the ski station outside our window made every few seconds as each chair arrived.

The first time anyone left the house was close on 6pm, to return ski equipment, do a spot of souvenir shopping and source a place for dinner.

The first 2 were easy, the third not as much so. We wanted to try something that we hadn’t yet eaten and the task is harder than you might think when the display menus are Japanese only and the 1000 words that the accompanying pictures speak are clearly Japanese as well!

The answer came to us in the form of a glowing billboard opposite the station: Kenchin Soup.

The restaurant looked like such a good find. With a charmingly rustic entrance complete with the traditional sliding paper doors, the inside was warm and comfortable but more ‘functional’ than a lot of the places we’d been to. With wooden floors and normal chairs and tables, we surmised this to be more of a canteen for the locals.

As with most places we’d been to, there was only 1 person working the floor (doorman, waiter and bussing functions) with 2 people in the kitchen. Our server was an old man, who was delighted to see us and ushered us into the back into a private dining room with traditional straw mat floors, low tables and cushions. As had been our lure, he pointed excitedly at the picture of the Kenchin soup in the menu, clearly recommending it to us.

Unique to the local area, Kenchin is a thick Japanese stew containing more than 10 different vegetables, soy sauce and miso paste. The picture on the board looked like a hearty beef or lamb stew but, even though all veg, Kenchin is just as hearty and delicious and there are some of the more exotic veg that you’d swear are meat from their texture and flavour.

We had ordered some side dishes too, including tempura prawns (as big as the monster ones we’d had the first night), hire-katsu (crumbed pork cutlets) and negitoro (minced tuna sashimi served as a tartare-style meatball in a bed of Japanese spring onion). Everything is so tasty; really fresh with sharp and defined flavours.

It was snowing properly by the time we left and we all looked like snowmen by the time we got home.

Our evening round-up (“clearing the stocks from the fridge that would be too cumbersome to carry”) had us in complete agreement that staying in Yuzawa had been a genius move that might just have ruined all future possible skiing holidays for us!

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Travelogue Japan 1: Tokyo (Part 3)

Posted by cl@rks on Saturday Jan 3, 2015 Under Travelogue

TOKYO (Part 3)
02 January 2015

Jetlag had set in and all of us were rustling and stirring by 4am. Way too early to do anything constructive though, so everyone stayed nestled with Kindles, phones and tablets for entertainment, dozing on and off until 7.30.

Our shower rotation was less traumatic than anticipated and actually helped prevent our pinhead living area from becoming too crowded (with our mountain of electronics on chargers, let alone our 5 Western bodies).

RoRo whipped us up some heavenly scrambled eggs for a light brekkie and we hit the road just after 9 – almost an hour ahead of schedule.

The roads were quiet and nothing was open yet – a surprise to us seeing as we’d only yet surfaced into the Tokyo afternoon.

We’d plotted and planned the day’s itinerary the previous evening (at – yet another – Hub pub) while we were out, so we had a good idea of what we wanted to do and how to get there. We did however change course on our first stop, Kappabashi, which is famous for being where all the plastic food displays (commonly found outside most restaurants to illustrate their menu) are made. Challenge was that we didn’t know *exactly* where to go and feared getting disheartened if the first sight was a wild goose chase.

Directions in Tokyo are fun at the best of times with a complicated address notation system thanks largely to buildings having been numbered as they were built, rather than having predefined numbers. This has resulted in an awkward retro-fitted address format allocating 3 numbers to each address: block, building, residence. For example, the address for our digs is 3-4-7 Yanaka, Taito.

We caught the Asakusa Line to Higashi-ginza where Exit 3 surfaced us directly outside the Kazibuka-za Kabuki Theatre. Our plan was to get short tickets, which allow access for a single act. Unfortunately, it would appear that half of Tokyo (plentiful donning traditional kimonos, socks and slippers, and umpteen in fur coats) had the same idea so the first act was already sold out and it would be an hour’s wait in the queue to get tickets for the 13h00 act. We satisfied ourselves with taking photos of the building and promising to take in a show in Kyoto instead.

We were just around the corner from the famous Tsujiki Fish Market, where we’d planned to lunch after Kabuki. No problem though, lunch at 11am was game on!

Most of the market was closed for the holiday, but we still got to see some shop owners preparing fresh seafood for their customers – some quite elaborate, like one involving grilling a fresh scallop in the shell, topping it with tuna strips a d salmon roe and then blowtorching it to lightly sear it. Not expensive, but too much of a wait for the make-one-at-a time chef to get to us.

By pure chance we stumbled in Sushi Sen, which had been recommended to us by a local at The World’s End pub on New Years. No queue, so we were in and seated at the counter in no time. We opted for a few platters so we could sample more things. Everything was so fresh! And the soy sauce (like all of them we’ve had so far) so light and tasty you can practically drink it on its own! Sadly, a few of the things we ordered didn’t come, but we chalked it up to “lost in translation” and wrote it off as not to be.

Getting the hang of the spaghetti of subway lines, next stop was digital town in Akihabara, known for it’s megastores of electronic goods. All we wanted was a portable speaker to use with the party iPod we’d brought (and clearly not been able to use anyway in our complete-silence holiday house), but we were unprepared for the FOUR AISLES of options! Luckily it was Christian’s choice or I’d still be there!

We’d been rotating our shopping, having commandeered a table at Starbucks to combat the fatigue from our unintentional early rising but decided that, since we’d done almost everything on the list for the day, we’d head back home for an afternoon nap before dinner (planned to be at Ninja restaurant, themed as just that, where you get ambushed at the door and served by chaps in ninja suits).

When we got back home, Michele and I decided to forego the nap in favour of a quick walking tour instead. We loaded Kappabashi (the plastic food place) into Google Maps and headed off.

We had no trouble finding it at all – clearly easier on foot than by underground as it’s easier to get your bearings. Pity though, when we got there, most of it was closed. A few kitchenware stores were open but, while the Japanese are pretty famous for their quality knives, it held little interest for us. Still, the walk had been worthwhile and even I – navigationally challenged as I am – was starting to recognise landmarks and find my way around.

When we got back, the others were ready to head out – and we’d worked up quite an appetite with all the walking on only a few bits of sushi – so first order of business was dinner, at Ninja in Akasaka.

The restaurant lived up to its name, being quite elusive to find… and then (allegedly?) closed for the holidays. Not the end of the world though; there were so many options around the station.

We had a false start at a tempura restaurant, which looked amazing from the illustrated menu in the window. The restaurants are so small and narrow that it’s not uncommon not to be able to get a single table that seats our group of 5. We ended up having a leisurely dinner at a restaurant that very possibly could’ve been more Chinese than Japanese, but the food was great and plentiful (we ordered about 10 different things – including tempura prawns to assuage our initial disappointment) and really cheap at R900 for all the food and beers for all of us!

Kenny had made contact stating interest in meeting up with us, so the rest of the evening was easy for us, leaving him to play tourguide again.

Kenny did a masterful job of showing us how diverse Tokyo is. We connected at an English pub called Hobgoblin in Rappongi, changed atmosphere with a hip-hop style dark ‘n dingy pub called Geronimo’s, popped in for a beer at a fancy supper club lounge bar and eventually parted ways again when he deposited us at an awesome place called The Train Bar, not so imaginatively named as it is literally a bar in a refurbished train caboose.

The last was the coolest by far – small and fun, excellent staff and a wall of CDs which you could give to the bartender to play. We had a raucous time there entertaining ourselves and others until all hours… and felt compelled to literally get the t-shirt to commemorate the experience!

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Travelogue Japan 1: Tokyo (Part 2)

Posted by cl@rks on Thursday Jan 1, 2015 Under Travelogue

TOKYO (Part 2)
31 December 2014

Our day began as the previous night had ended – later than expected and snuggled in our futons (which were pleasantly way more comfortable than they looked). With first item on the agenda being “waiting for Lix and RoRo’s arrival” (them having been delayed at Gatwick and so missing their intended connection in Istanbul), we made a calculated decision to only rise at 2pm after a midday initial awakening.

Jeff had obviously given up on our previous night’s arrangement for a walk-through (“at breakfast time; we like to up-and-out early,” we’d said) of how things work, but had left us a note which, at 5 lines long, made us wonder what he’d planned to pad the intended tour with.

Test-driving our kitchen/shower/loo set-up between 3 of us did leave us curious as to how all 5 of us plan to manoeuvre the space over the next few days’ ablutions!

Jeff was back by the time our friends arrived… and took the opportunity to tell us that we’d have to be even quieter than the previous night if we didn’t want Grumpy Old Man Next Door to thump on the wall. Oops.

After a quick catch-up, our newly expanded troupe of 5 hit the streets.

Our plan was to hook up with one of RoRo’s mates who lived near Tokyo Tower, so we grabbed a Pasmo travel card at the Naka-okachimachi station for our inaugural subway journey, to Kamiyacho station.

Kenny was waiting on the platform for us and turned out to be a class tour guide! He took us on a walking tour that started with the Tokyo Tower,  a communications and observation tower located in the Shiba-koen district of Minato. At 333 metres, it is the second tallest structure in Japan, with a lattice design inspired by the Eiffel Tower.

Being in the area, we popped in at Kenny’s apartment to meet his wife, Laura, who was unable to join us as she was staying into tend to their son and brand new (only a few days old) baby daughter. They have a gorgeous home that could probably fit our entire digs in their lounge!

With all the walking (some 6000 steps by that point), only a slice of toast on board, the cold and the premature winter darkness, dinner at 17h30 seemed like an obvious next choice on the agenda. Quite a few places were closed, being New Years Eve, but we were soon settled at Meat Man Yakaniko (“fried meat”) skewer restaurant. A feast of meats – all delicious – on skewers ensued and while we were assured that Kenny wasn’t ordering anything obscure or sinister (in Japanese, so we had no idea), sometimes it’s best not to ask and rather hunker down and enjoy. The Japanese cook to our taste – lightly searing everything so it’s really tender and juicy. And lots of skewers of nibblybits (and not a carb in sight) is surprisingly filling!

Back on the road, we walked through Roppongi – the really upmarket area – past all the designer label stores. The streets were relatively empty, partly because New Years Eve isn’t known to be prime shopping time and partly because it’s a big holiday in Japan, known for mass exodus of Tokyo to home towns elsewhere.

We took a walk down Takeshita Street, a popular pedestrian-only road lined with major brand shops and smaller independent stores renowned for trend-spotting and -setting. It was much busier than the other places we’d been to, bustling and buzzing with all the shops open and trading.

Having a Plasmo card made traversing the city so easy. We just hopped on a subway to take us to Shibuya, famous for its busy neon billboard-intensive crossing akin to London’s Picadilly Circus. Here we experienced the opposite challenge – previously quite a few of the places Kenny wanted to take us to were closed; here a lot of them were full! The Japanese are quite rigid about seating capacity and weren’t amenable to our offer to hover standing.

No mind, there are so many bars and restaurants that we ended up at a lovely spot overlooking Shibuya.

Sadly, that’s were Kenny had to part ways to get back to Laura, so we bid our farewells and had a last drink while we plotted next steps.

We had previously decided to spend midnight at a temple, so it was just a question of which one. We opted for the Sensoji one in Asakusa, being close to home, so that we wouldn’t have to face the maddening post-midnight throng on the subway.

Plasmos out, we crossed the city in a single swipe, 19 stops and 230 Yen (R23).

It was a good call. Asakusa – cited by The Rough Guide to Tokyo as “the city’s moat colourful and evocative district” – was a hive of activity with food stalls and markets open and tending to the hordes of people. The queue for the shrine was already several hours long, which seemed a bit excessive for the few seconds each person would get as they were ushered through the shrine to say their prayer.

On our own mission, we got beers from the bottle store and positioned ourselves right next to the shrine to people-watch and soak in the atmosphere as midnight was rapidly approaching.

Midnight itself was a strange one – no countdown, no gongs, no fireworks. The crowd just seemed to know the time and titter excitedly with lots of hugging and selfies as the invisible clock silently struck midnight.

Formalities concluded, we jumped on a (very busy) train to get back to Ueno Station, eager to share our previous night’s finds with Lix and RoRo. Already it felt like “coming home” to exit Ueno and see our fave, The World’s End Irish rock pub, across the street!

It didn’t disappoint.

It was full but we were allowed to hover in the doorway passage. We were soon befriended by an Englishman, who revealed that he’d been living in Tokyo for 18 years, working as a sumo wrestling journalist. You don’t hear that that every day.

We were treated to quite a spectacle as the bar staff surprised 2 of their colleagues with a farewell dedication video. We couldn’t fathom what the occasion was, but their video was long, well put-together and the verbiage must’ve been quite touching since both girls were soon in tears. Cherry on the top was the DJ proposing to one of the two girls! (Hopefully he makes a better fiancĂ© than DJ – the only thing worse than his music taste was his mixing!)

The pub gave every table a bowl of (cold) noodles on the house to welcome in the new year. A nice touch, but an awkward dish to share.

We left World’s End to go TOKYO (Part 2)
31 December 2014

Our day began as the previous night had ended – later than expected and snuggled in our futons (which were pleasantly way more comfortable than they looked). With first item on the agenda being “waiting for Lix and RoRo’s arrival” (them having been delayed at Gatwick and so missing their intended connection in Istanbul), we made a calculated decision to only rise at 2pm after a midday initial awakening.

Jeff had obviously given up on our previous night’s arrangement for a walk-through (“at breakfast time; we like to up-and-out early,” we’d said) of how things work, but had left us a note which, at 5 lines long, made us wonder what he’d planned to pad the intended tour with.

Test-driving our kitchen/shower/loo set-up between 3 of us did leave us curious as to how all 5 of us plan to manoeuvre the space over the next few days’ ablutions!

Jeff was back by the time our friends arrived… and took the opportunity to tell us that we’d have to be even quieter than the previous night if we didn’t want Grumpy Old Man Next Door to thump on the wall. Oops.

After a quick catch-up, our newly expanded troupe of 5 hit the streets.

Our plan was to hook up with one of RoRo’s mates who lived near Tokyo Tower, so we grabbed a Pasmo card at the Naka-okachimachi station for our unaugural subway journey, to Kamiyacho station.

Kenny was waiting on the platform for us and turned out to be a class tour guide! He took us on a walking tour that started with the Tokyo Tower,  a communications and observation tower located in the Shiba-koen district of Minato. At 333 metres, it is the second tallest structure in Japan, with a lattice design inspired by the Eiffel Tower.

Being in the area, we popped in at Kenny’s apartment to meet his wife, Laura, who was unable to join us as she was staying into tend to their son and brand new (only a few days old) baby daughter. They have a gorgeous home that could probably fit our entire digs in their lounge!

With all the walking (some 6000 steps by that point), only a slice of toast on board, the cold and the premature winter darkness, dinner at 17h30 seemed like an obvious next choice on the agenda. Quite a few places were closed, being New Years Eve, but we were soon settled at Meat Man Yakaniko (“fried meat”) skewer restaurant. A feast of meats – all delicious – on skewers ensued and while we were assured that Kenny wasn’t ordering anything obscure or sinister (in Japanese, so we had no idea), sometimes it’s best not to ask and rather hunker down and enjoy. The Japanese cook to our taste – lightly searing everything so it’s really tender and juicy. And lots of skewers of nibblybits (and not a carb in sight) is surprisingly filling!

Back on the road, we walked through the really upmarket areas, past all the designer label stores. The streets were relatively empty, partly because New Years Eve isn’t known to be prime shopping time and partly because it’s a big holiday in Japan, known for mass exodus of Tokyo to home towns elsewhere.

We took a walk down Takeshita Street, a popular pedestrian-only road lined with major brand shops and smaller independent stores renowned for trend-spotting and -setting. It was much busier than the other places we’d been to, bustling and buzzing with all the shops open and trading.

Having a Plasmo card made traversing the city so easy. We just hopped on a subway to take us to Shibuya, famous for its busy neon billboard-intensive crossing akin to London’s Picadilly Circus. Here we experienced the opposite challenge – previously quite a few of the places Kenny wanted to take us to were closed; here a lot of them were full! The Japanese are quite rigid about seating capacity and weren’t amenable to our offer to hover standing.

No mind, there are so many bars and restaurants that we ended up at a lovely spot overlooking Shibuya.

Sadly, that’s were Kenny had to part ways to get back to Laura, so we bid our farewells and had a last drink while we plotted next steps.

We had previously decided to spend midnight at a temple, so it was just a question of which one. We opted for the Sensoji one in Asakusa, being close to home, so that we wouldn’t have to face the maddening post-midnight throng on the subway.

Plasmos out, we crossed the city in a single swipe, 19 stops and 230 Yen (R23).

It was a good call. Asakusa – cited by The Rough Guide to Tokyo as “the city’s moat colourful and evocative district” – was a hive of activity with food stalls and markets open and tending to the hoardes of people. The queue for the shrine was already several hours long, which seemed a bit excessive for the few seconds each person would get as they were ushered through the shrine to say their prayer.

On our own mission, we got beers from the bottle store and positioned ourselves right next to the shrine to people-watch and soak in the atmosphere as midnight was rapidly approaching.

Midnight itself was a strange one – no countdown, no gongs, no fireworks. The crowd just seemed to know the time and titter excitedly with lots of hugging and selfies as the invisible clock silently struck midnight.

Formalities concluded, we jumped on a (very busy) train to get back to Ueno Station, eager to share our previous night’s finds with Lix and RoRo. Already it felt like “coming home” to exit Ueno and see our fave, The World’s End Irish rock pub, across the street!

It didn’t disappoint.

It was full but we were allowed to hover in the doorway passage. We were soon befriended by an Englishman, who revealed that he’d been living in Tokyo for 18 years, working as a sumo wrestling journalist. You don’t hear that that every day.

We were treated to quite a spectacle as the bar staff surprised 2 of their colleagues with a farewell dedication video. We couldn’t fathom what the occasion was, but their video was long, well put-together and the verbiage must’ve been quite touching since both girls were soon in tears. Cherry on the top was the DJ proposing to one of the two girls! (Hopefully he makes a better fiancĂ© than DJ – the only thing worse than his music taste was his mixing!)

We left World’s End to go to The Hub, one of a chain of English pubs… but we must’ve gotten our wires crossed as the bartender was cashing up when we got there. Ever-courteous though, a waiter escorted us the few hundred metres to the next branch, which he obviously knew to still be open. It was still full-scale pumping!

A few nightcaps, some bleated classics and a handful of new friends later, we called it a night.

Last stop in at our trusty 7Eleven for supplies for the morning. The bread is so funny – packed as “loaves” of 2, 4 or 8 slices. Presumably this is because space is such an issue with little to no storage room. Kenny had been telling us that there is a very strong culture for eating (almost all) meals out because restaurants are cheap and excellent, and groceries are relatively expensive (and bulky to store).

It was easily 5am by the time we got in – and we were likely not as quiet as we should’ve been, crinkling crisp packets, giggling and stage-whispering.

It didn’t last long though and we were all off to bed very soon.

Where we stayed until mid-afternoon on New Years Day.

Poor RoRo was man-down with his cold, so we left him sleeping and went off to our usual Taito area around Ueno Station for a spot of dinner.

We decided to try something (else) authentic so did a barbecue restaurant. Each table is fitted with a chimney and the waitress brings a small circular braai with fitted grid ready coals to the table along with whatever raw ingredients you’ve ordered.

We struggled with the Japanese menu as the pictures were small and blurry, but the English one wasn’t much more helpful as there were no pictures and the descriptions were unfamiliar (like yagan and urate). We ended up ordering by pointing at the pictures on the Japanese menu and did a pretty good job, ending up with some pleasant cuts of beef, pork and chicken. We did have one fail in a portion of chicken cartilage that looked suspiciously like coccyx and had no meat at all. Clearly a delicacy that we don’t understand. We’d also ordered a soup hotpot to share, which was a delicious rich broth with cubes of beef, ramen, egg and sprouty things in it. Delicious.

But quite small, so we ended up at McDonald’s about a half hour later ordering a Quarter Pounder.

Most of the shops were still open so we spent a few hours wandering up and down the rows of stalls, prodding and browsing and buying all sorts of stuff. We’d thought Japan was going to be really expensive, but it’s turning out to be a trove of bargains! We bought ski gloves for under R90, Adidas track tops for R100, Chris got 2 pairs of Adidas crosstrainers for R230 each… we’d probably still be shopping if it wasn’t for luggage concerns!

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