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

FES
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

VOLUBILIS – MEKNES
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 New Zealand 3: Waiheke Island

Posted by cl@rks on Monday Feb 8, 2016 Under Travelogue

WAIHEKE ISLAND
5-7 February 2016

The whole trip had come about because Bronwyn, my most long-standing (we now shy away from the word “oldest”) friend, hatched the plan for an epic 40th birthday weekend with about a year’s worth of notice so we had time to plan. We (probably) would have gone anywhere, but her choice of destination made the choice a no-brainer. Bron had also done all the admin and bookings for the weekend so really all we had to do was pitch up in Auckland.

We’d been included in the ‘family’ plan so would be staying at a bach with Bron and James, Aunty Lorraine and her friend Di (“The Mothers”) and Tyron (Bron’s brother) and Helena and their baby, Tyler.

The term “bach” – so we were told – stems from the word “bachelor’s”, as in “bachelor pad”, and was used where men had accommodation away from the family home. In older times it possibly implied a modest dwelling, but nowadays the term apparently carries no size reference, nor implication of modesty from what we saw and experienced.

Bron and James were super organised and had sorted all sorts of groceries and drinks to take along for the weekend so they took their car across (with all our luggage) on the vehicle ferry, pairing us with The Mothers on the 09h30 passenger ferry. The ferry ride sails across the harbour and past Auckland’s largest volcano, Rangitoto. The passenger boats are comfortable, fast and frequent making the half hour odd experience a painless one.

I’d grabbed a couple of pamplets at the ferry port to do some last minute research and found out that Waiheke Island is “the jewel in the crown of the stunning Hauraki Gulf”. The name comes from the Maori language meaning “cascading water”, although the island is now equally well known for its world-class wines, freshly pressed olive oils, cuisine and art. It’s a lot bigger than we expected, with 133km of diverse coastline dotted with coves, inlets, beaches and walkways. All good to know.

Bron had updated us when they arrived to say that we couldn’t check into the bach yet so we were in no rush and opted to walk the 20 minute distance to get to Oneroa Village (what the island’s locals refer to as “town”) rather than catch a bus or taxi. You can’t often go wrong taking a walk along a road when it is named “Ocean View”.

We used the rest of the waiting time wisely to grab a brekkie at the Beach Club restaurant and browse in the generous handful of shops in the main hub.

Soon enough it was time for check in so we reversed our journey to walk up Ocean View road to the bach Bron had chosen for its convenient location across the road from the party venue for the following night.

Our bach was large and luxurious, with 4 double bedrooms leading off a spacious open plan entrance hall. The other half of the house was plushly carpeted lounge and sitting room, diningroom and large kitchen with centre island and bay windows overlooking the vineyard neighbour that stretched across the valley and infinitied into the sea beyond. A wide verandah lipped the house, dotted with comfortable couches, loungers, table and chairs and a suspended wicker egg chair. The front shared the perspective and view with the kitchen; the back looked onto a gravel courtyard with jacuzzi, outdoor patio and pizza oven with a backdrop view of Cable Bay wineries on the hilltop opposite.

We had a grand old time settling in, wanting to sit on every couch, lounger and – most of all – the egg chair. The day had also gone from the morning’s overcast to a fine drizzle so there was no incentive to leave our luxury sanctum.

Bron had some guests that had followed our thinking and made a weekend of it, and she’d invited them around to our bach for a Friday evening braai. Since we had an outdoor pizza oven as well, we had to use it, and soon had a production line going loading pizza bases with delectable combinations of toppings as starter snacks. Christian did a top job single-handedly manning the braai and delighting with rare rump fingers to whet the appetites for full grill he masterfully managed to have ready all at the same time.

The house was perfect for entertaining and there was a natural flow of people between the verandah, through the living area and kitchen, and spilling out to the jacuzzi and around the pizza oven. It was great to meet Bron’s Auckland friends and get to spend some time getting to know each other in anticipation of the big event the next day.

Saturday morning launched with the opening of presents! Bron languished over the mountain of gifts laid out on the table on the verandah and everyone ooo’ed and aaah’ed as each new treasure was revealed.

The rituals set back breakfast a bit, but Tyron (a chef by trade) hit the kitchen to make eggs benedict for all of us. The other bachful of guests had by this time arrived so poor Ty was posted at his pot on the stove for quite some time poaching 30 eggs the authentic way to feed the hungry masses.

The weather wasn’t great, but spirits were high so we all went down to Oneroa Beach. The sun was covered by the clouds and there was intermittent drizzle, but not enough to dampen our enthusiasm – and the people swimming were wet already anyway!

Christian and I then did a breakaway from the group to sneak in a wine-tasting at Cable Bay. It seemed the neighbourly thing to do since we’d been admiring them as our view since we got there – and we had to pass the entrance on our way home anyway so the odds were stacked in our favour to make it happen.

Waiheke’s climate is hotter and drier than the mainland and the ocean acts as a fan and an insulator providing a longer, warmer season and more moderate temperatures. This is why there are more than 30 different wine-makers on the relatively small island and the overall general quality of the wine is so good. The Cable Bay winery and cellars were very busy. Hardly surprising for a Saturday when it’s so easily accessible from the city. We sampled the wine, which was (almost) as good as the view!

By the time we got home it was time to get ready for the party. The ladies were already well underway, but the boys were blissfully unfettered about time, lounging in the jacuzzi.

I helped Bron with her finishing touches then threw myself together and we headed back out the driveway and across the road to Mudbrick Estate, which is where the party was to be held.

Lots of guests were already there, all “dressed to impress” as the dress code had called for. The venue was beautiful and shared the view we had from the bach but, being further up our hillside, there was just more of it from that vantage point and with the silhouette of the Auckland skyline on the horizon across the bay the whole effect was breath-taking.

Bron’s party had been allocated an outside terrace and a function room for (later) formalities and jovialities. The wine flowed and guests mingled as naturally with new friends as with old, so it was a really good vibe. The estate’s catering was as excellent as the wine and the format of finger foods and nibblybits worked well with the relaxed atmosphere and allowed everyone opportunity to appreciate the gorgeous sunset.

Bron also had a DJ lined up, who kicked in as it got dark and got the guests bopping with a playlist of Bron’s favourite tunes interspersed with popular crowd-pleasers. Bron, Tyron and I all said a short speech, but otherwise it was all fun and festive “kick off your shoes” from there.

Needless to say, we were there until closing and a bit beyond. Even though the stars seemed closer and brighter than they ever are at home, the driveway was still very dark as we made our way back to our bach in the early hour of the morning. Again we were grateful for Bron’s genius plan so we weren’t among the group of people waiting to get a taxi back to the harbour to return to the city on the last ferry of the night.

Sunday morning was a later start for everyone and once we were up and packed up, we waved The Mothers and Tyron & Helena off (they had an earlier flight so needed an earlier ferry) and walked into the village for some brekkie (conveniently having sent our suitcases down in Bron’s car).

As a last hurrah we did a midday cheeky bottle of Dog Point cab sauv at The Oyster Bar before it was time to get to the ferry and bid fond farewells and make all the “see you soon” promises we need to make to endure the parting of ways.

From there it was really easy to grab the Skybus from across the road from the ferry port to the airport. $16 and 45 minutes later we were at the airport, due to start our long journey home. We were obviously in much better stead for the great trek home as this time Christian didn’t set off the alarms as we walked through the security scanners. He had done so in Sydney where the combination of the heat and the rucksack he was carrying had left him with a sweaty patch down the middle of his back that set off the sensors and required a pat down. The security man was quite sheepish when he realised the source of concern.

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Travelogue New Zealand 2: Auckland

Posted by cl@rks on Monday Feb 8, 2016 Under Travelogue

AUCKLAND
3-4 February 2016

We’d booked the short Wellington to Auckland hop on Jetstar for the plain and simple reason that it was a shedload cheaper than any of the other airlines. Aware that it was a ‘no frills’ carrier, we didn’t expect any bells and whistles, but started to doubt our choice when everyone we told had something negative to say about them – and mostly from firsthand experience!

Our morning had started rushed and on very little sleep after a spirited farewell to the lively city of Wellington, so we resigned ourselves to ‘what will be will be’ and looked forward to napping on the hour-long flight.

But it was not to be. In a bittersweet turn of events, the air hostess woke us shortly after take off to give us breakfast. It came as a surprise since the budget fare didn’t include hospitality and we hadn’t opted for it as an extra. Moreover, the hostess hadn’t offered to everyone and was still making her way toward the back of the plane, singling out the lucky recipients.

We can only presume that Jetstar must be aligned with Qantas, that has a partnership with Emirates, with whom we are Silver members of their Skywards loyalty programme, which (clearly) comes with all sorts of fringe benefits, like surprise chicken and bacon Caesar wraps.

Arriving in Auckland was uncomplicated with an unusually open plan set-up with no restricted access between the carousels and the Arrivals hall and – thanks in no small measures to NZ efficiency – it was mere minutes before we were united with Bron, my longest standing friend and the primary reason for this trip in the first place.

The drive from the airport was an education (of the fun kind). Bron and I had loads to catch up on, while she pointed out places of interest and explained the lay of the land intermittently as we went.

She has based herself in Mission Bay, which we were soon to find out was central and convenient. We did little more than drop off our bags and pack a togbag for our planned sleepover at other friends, and then head out again with Bron who dropped us off some 1km down the road at the beachfront.

In no hurry and with the entire day to see Auckland, we’d opted to walk into town, which we were told was as simple as “making sure you keep the sea on your right”. It turned out that it actually was that simple and, 6 or so kilometres later, we were at the Ferry Port in Auckland with the CBD rolling inland on our left.

By this point we were starving – and in no  state to dawdle with lunch – so trusty Burger King was essential. The aircon was welcome after the exposed walk along the beach path (about which I refuse to whine seeing as we were passed by countless runners and cyclists so it couldn’t have been that bad!) and the free wifi well timed for me to complete my online exam for the Digital Media course I’d done over January and that had to be completed by the weekend, which was going to prove tricky with our itinerary being what we’d made it!

Christian in the meantime Googled “what to do in Auckland” and where it was that we’d arranged to meet Danni (my long term friend – and outsourced right brain – who I’ve never met in person) to go to their place for the night, so as to fashion us a plan for the rest of the arvie.

The meeting point was an easy one, as Christian discovered that the road was up and to the left of our current homebase and very nearly in plain sight from where we were sitting! Thus, the pivot for the afternoon became to go up the Sky Tower to get aerial views of the city and surrounds and really to, well, see what we could see.

Auckland is a very complex animal to fathom from on the ground since its coastline (at least from our direction of approach) is all twisty and turny, with a series of bays that link towards the city skyline, and then a whole bunch of other stuff across the water and much talk about “The Bridge” which seems to be the grand divide between the city and outer suburbs on the Northern side. As always, it feels like info overload upfront…. but starts coming together as you move around the area. And the Sky Tower seemed like a genius way to accelerate getting our bearings.

SkyCity is an entertainment complex that houses restaurants, eventing facilities, gaming, Auckland’s only casino and the Sky Tower. At just under 400 metres high, the tower has glass elevators that shoot you up to the viewing deck where, at 200 odd metres up, you can see far and wide in all directions. There is also bungee jumping, which seemed to thrill the onlookers almost as much as it thrilled the jumper!

Winding our way back to the meeting point was simple enough and there were lots of shops windows to hold our attention as we walked, and went into one or two of interest. One such produced a Manly Sea Eagles training vest, which was too cool for Christian to resist (although he did remind me that the area was now to be called just “-ly” because he wasn’t there anymore).

Meeting Danni was a strange, awkward, surreal, meaningful, closing-one-chapter-and-opening-another awesome moment.

We had met through work when she had already emigrated to New Zealand and was introduced to me as a freelance designer who could help me put together a portfolio of sellsheets for the marketing materials I had been enlisted (also as a freelancer) to create. The content of the mailers was all travel related so an obvious and natural launchpad for peripheral and anecdotal conversation since it was a passion we already shared – and Danni made everything that was in my head look so much better in real life!  It was soon clear to me, no doubt thanks to our shared dedication to verbosity and over-investment, that Danni was the pictures to my words… but with plenty (articulate) words of her own!

That work stuff came to a close, but had entrenched a solid go-to relationship (on Skype and much later on Facebook Messenger) which is now mostly recreational, but I have found every possibly excuse to work with Danni since – and drawn on her generous nature to help me with things above and beyond, like ludicrously ambitious personal projects and my wedding invitations.

I’m assuming that the face-to-face meeting must’ve thrown her off too since her opening gambit was just that I am taller than she imagined. Not in a weird way, just a brainfart.

Danni’s husband Shawn was with her, catching a ride home after his day at work in town. I’d met him before, once or twice in SA just before they’d emigrated, where I’d just started the freelance job doing the marketing materials and he was also doing some work.

Introductions and salutions sorted, the 4 of us headed off to the car (in the extortionate inner city parking lot that is, if you can believe, even more expensive than Sandton City, at some $20 a day!) and the conversation was already flowing smoothly as we emerged from the lot back into the daylight and Danni and I had managed to get the “this is so weird” out of our systems.

Our final destination was Gulf Harbour, one of the most Northerly suburbs of Auckland. Both of our hosts are passionate about their new home town, which made for steady and vivid narration on our commute/tour out of the city, across The Bridge and along the through the suburbs. How very lucky for us that they lived diametrically across from Bron so we covered enormous ground on our first day’s sightseeing!

Auckland traffic – at 4.30pm anyway – is nowhere near as bad as Joburg’s. The inner city traffic seems to be more because of the amount of time allocated to pedestrian crossing rather than a crush of cars and, while a bit congested on either side of the bottlenecking at bridge, the traffic moves smoothly. I suspect the Kiwi drivers might be more conservative, with traffic violations actually being enforced and that, in turn, less accidents lead to less avoidable congestion.

Of course, the experience was completely biased by me not having to drive and with everything new and exciting and with 3 travelmates for company… so perhaps I should get a party car going for the work before I’m absolute in my judgement.

We were surprised and delighted with a sunset excursion at Shakespear Park, starting with a fun cheesy pic at a permanent giant photo frame with *the most* spectacular view as a backdrop.

We then stopped at a free park – where anyone can come and picnic/camp for free AND there are gas braais and all sorts of things provided – and walked down to the most divine little beach, where we could kick off shoes and dip toes in ocean.

This bay is a well-kept secret and there were only a handful of people sharing the beach with us. It was still light as day, although easily past 6pm by this point. How winning to be able to wash away the cares of the day with a frolick and a splash on your way home!

Danni and Shawn live in a Utopian suburb that has wide pavements and no fences and rolling lawns and views that make your eyes transfix. Their home is equally lovely and we had a comfy guestroom with luxurious thick soft carpets and it all felt like we were having a holiday within a holiday at some sort of leisure resort!

We’d pre-planned for dinner at their local pizza place so as soon as we’d dropped our things, we took a toddle down the street, along the path and across the field to the restaurant. Sunset was only now becoming dusk, approaching 8pm.

We settled on the terrace and ordered pizzas and Guinness (for the Index, logging the $9,60). When it got a bit chilly – the restaurant is beside a lake, so it’s inevitable – we moved inside to enjoy desserts and share a steady stream of funny stories about exploits and antics all over the globe!

Not sure if it was sadly or serendipitously (seeing as we all had an early start with respective work and play commitments), but Christian and I were wiped from the short night’s sleep the previous night and a long day travelling and adventuring, so we called it a relatively early night.

After the best night’s sleep since we’d left home, we were up according to plan and ready to leave just after 7 for Danni to drive us down to Gulf Harbour Marina to catch the ferry into town with Shawn.

It could just be novelty factor, but after the Manly and now Gulf Harbour experiences, it would appear that we are ferry fans and could envisage ourselves using them as work commute transport. Not a particularly useful self-discovery when you live in Jo’burg!

We’d pre-planned for Bron to meet us opposite the Botswana Butchery, right outside the ferry terminal and she was there like clockwork, with her mom and mom’s friend Di (referred to almost exclusively collectively as “The Mothers” over the duration of our stay) in tow.

We were driven to Hakapuna (on the other side of The Bridge) for a delicious brekkie in a scenic seaside café. We really were being treated to seeing Auckland from every possible angle!

Breakfast seems, from our small sample experience in Australia and New Zealand, to be a lot more expensive than at home. Not just in translating the exchange rate but also in price comparison with other mealtimes. Consistently $15 – $20 for a plate of food (at 12:1 in Aus and now 10:1 in NZ), it’s a far cry from the good ole Spur Unreal breakfast for R25!

We had a gap before we were due at our next engagement – drinks with Christian’s ex-colleagues in the afternoon – so we returned to Bron’s house to shower and relax while she went to a meeting and then came back to pick us up again. We were very lucky she was so accommodating with playing Taxi Driver for us!

Bron still had some things she needed to arrange for her party (decor items and whatnot), and her excursion to the mall was as good as any, so we tagged along, more providing moral support than anything of real value.

A shopping mall is a shopping mall so not much to report there… except that McDonald’s has pies. The fact is that everywhere has pies – NZ is as pie mad as SA – but somehow it was cooler to get a Georgie’s pie from McD’s. I got a mince and cheese and Christian got a butter chicken, which he said wasn’t as good as the one from Fix, and neither one was as good as Pieman’s Pantry pies at home.

While out and about, it made sense for us to go straight to our afternoon meeting so we got Bron to drop us just out of town so we could get a walk in en route to our designated meeting point, which was loosely arranged as being Wynyard Quarter, the quayside area just past the ferry terminal. This area is a collection of lots of vibrant eating and drinking options so we were bound to find somewhere to suit.

Even with the walk-in we’d requested, we were still early. It gave us an opportunity to peruse the stretch and we decided that Jack Tar was to be the bar du jour. It was a bit windy – the bane of being coastal – so we sat inside, relegated to enjoying the view through the (literal) bay windows.

Our company for the afternoon was 2 of Christian’s ex-colleagues, who both had relocated to Auckland (independently of each other), which was less than coincidental since both are Kiwis. They are festive chaps and order of the day was a nostaligic re-run of our beer o’clock shenanigans in SA. It was great to catch up, which we did over a few choice spots on the quayside.

Both are very happily settled in Auckland and echoed our other friends’ sentiments this city brings a very good work/life balance. The “life” feedback was that it was mostly outdoorsy stuff like beaches, kayaking and general quality time which is a bonus because drinking and snacking in Auckland is very expensive!

Although we’d planned to catch a bus back (how awesome to have safe and reliable public transport), we got an Uber back to Bron’s with one of the chaps since he lived close to her house.

We’d managed to meet Bron, James and The Mothers in by minutes, so still had time to swap stories on how we’d spent our respective days before it was time to turn in. What a lot we’d squeezed into our 2 short days in Auckland!

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Travelogue New Zealand 1: Wellington

Posted by cl@rks on Friday Feb 5, 2016 Under Travelogue

WELLINGTON
1-2 Feb 2016

The decision to go to Wellington was Christian’s, with his logic being that we’d recently been to the world’s most Northerly capital, on our visit to Reykjavic, so it made sense to counter with the world’s most Southerly. I hadn’t even known that Wellington is New Zealand’s capital, assuming it to be Auckland!

It was just a quick pop-in-pop-out pitstop and, much to my delight, cousin Lucy confirmed that she’d be hopping across from Christchurch in South Island to join us. It was only a 30 minute hop for her, but not so bad for us either with a manageable 3 hour flight over the Tasman Sea from Sydney.

It’s always weird to gain or lose time by crossing time zones when travelling and I was again reminded that it feels like you’re being robbed when you lose time during a holiday. This time we lost 2 hours, having left Sydney 09h30, travelling for 3 hours and arriving in Wellington at 14h30. Felt like we’d spent the whole day travelling since we’d been up and out early for the 2-hour before international flight (which feels like it shouldn’t be, as a Saffa lumping Oceania together as close cousins) deadline. Imagine the converse: sleep in, get to the airport in Wellington by 09h30 for an 11h30 flight and land in Sydney at 12h30. Far more sensible. Mental note to self to plan for intra-itinerary time gain to make holidays as long as possible!

Lucy’s plans had her arriving in Wellington in the morning, so our arrangement was for her to get a lay of the land and meet us at our hotel at 6pm. We’d factored a whole wedge of time for the airport/city commute which, much like Sydney, was completely unnecessary since the bus stopped right outside the Arrivals terminal, happened to be there when we got there and took all of 10 minutes for the full journey. Our earlier-than-planned check-in allowed us an earlier meeting time… and soon it was all hello’s and hugs for the long-lost cousins.

We started our Wellington experience with the quayside, taking a walk along its full length before stopping at one of the many bars and cafĂ©s on the waterfront. Lucy and I were already chatting away like old friends, so Christian must’ve been quite relieved to have a cold beer for company!

Although we had originally factored an early dinner into the quayside excursion, nothing appealed so we chalked it up as sundowners and shifted to sharing jugs of beer with midi glasses so that we could enjoy a few more of the numerous places, all humming with activity and many with very relaxed beanbag and blanket mats on the riverbank.

Hunger always outs with us though amd so, since it was getting chilly with the sun having disappeared behind the tall CBD buildings across from the waterfront and a too-cool breeze coming in from the water, we walked back up Willis Street intending to go past the hotel and on to the Courtenay Street which is famed for its entertainment options.

We didn’t make it that far. Just before our hotel we spotted Capital Market, a sort of food court of restaurants and take aways. Once we were inside, we were hooked. There was every possible type of food and it was tricky deciding what to have.

As usual, curry won. This time the tie-break being Lucy’s admission that she too is curry mad. It also helped that the shop had a canteen-style display, so we could see what we were going to be buying… and it was impossible to walk away once we were close enough to see and smell the delicious food. To top it all off, the special – 2 curries, rice and naan – for $12 made it a no brainer. We’d been paying way more than that in Aussie Dollars, so had an all-new definition of “bargain”!

Fuelled and ready to rumble, we turned the corner (literally) and began our Courtenay Street adventure. It was about 8-ish by this point and an impressive collection (it was Monday night, after all) of patrons were out to play. Most of the road is bars and restaurants, vying for their slice of the entertainment pie with offers of $10 jugs and meal options. Clearly a university town.

We ended up at a place called Mish Mash… until way later than intended because you don’t get the ambient sense that it’s home time when nobody else is leaving.

En route back to our hotel we stopped in at a Fix 24-hour store. Christian had drank himself peckish and had a hankering for a cheese and ham roll. I was going to be social and use the opportunity to sample an NZ pie – which seem to be as popular and as accessible as at home – but there was something in the warmer that distracted my attention. Deep-fried crumbed lasagne! Oh. My. Word. Complete genius! (And, oddly, half the price of a pie)

Tuesday’s open of play was set for a generous 10am following the antics of the previous night and not wanting to repeat the oversleep episode so soon after Saturday. Our thinking was that we’d take the cable car to the top of the mountain that provided Wellington’s backdrop and walk down through the Botanical Gardens, which would deposit us at the top end of the Quayside; we’d walk the length of the waterfront (again) which would get us to Oriental Bay where we’d lunch and sloth before trekking up Mount Victoria to the look-out point and then return to the city down the other side which conveniently leaves you at the bottom end of Courtenay Street and all its options for whatever we wanted to do next.

We managed all of that, sort of.

The cable car offered quite a few surprises. Firstly, its station was right in the middle of town and not at the base of the mountain where I just assumed it to be since most of them are really, aren’t they? Secondly, it was a public transport vehicle so it was mostly normal people doing normal things,  going up and down and stopping at their normal stops in normal ways. Thirdly, it was much shorter than I expected, so we didn’t chug up a steep face like Hong Kong and weren’t deposited in the clouds like Table Mountain.

We did have a very sedate walk down through the gardens… which was quite cathartic after our late night the night before.

The only thing I did learn was that Agapanthus is treated as a weed because it isn’t indigenous and self-propogates so easily. I should have used that as a justification in the whole “no Roses, Marigolds or Agapanthus for Pebbles” debacle with Mother in 2006/7!

The gardeb route deposited us more or less at the top end of the quayside, as planned. The walk in the morning was quite different to the previous evening thanks to the market of pop-up shops in shopping containers along the land side of the boardwalk, providing good conversation fodder as we joked about buying impractical mementoes like heavy statues and elaborate Maori feather skirts.

We bypassed the Te Papa Museum – noted as a premium tourist attraction in Wellington – thinking we’d do a visit later if there was time, and made our way to Oriental Bay.

The beach wasn’t what we expected. There wasn’t the waterfront of (seafood) restaurants that we’d intended to choose from for lunch. In fact, there was only one (expensive) restaurant on the beach side and one (expensive) gelateria/pizzeria take away on the right. We’d orginally considered basing ourselves in Oriental Bay for the lush apartments and beautiful views… but I think we’d have been quite disappointed at the lack of action.

Wasn’t so bad as a walk-through excursion though and we enjoyed dipping toes in the ocean and admiring the view from “the other side”.

The downside was that we were 1,000 steps ahead and 1 lunch behind… and there was a literal mountain between us and mealtime. Valiantly, we stuck to our plan and took the high road up Mount Victoria.

It was a huff and puff of note and more than a few times I questioned our commitment to completing the climb. But we did. We trekked up the mostly steep sandy slopes, slops slip-sliding, brows sweating, conversation waning… expecting to summit as an intrepid explorer planting a flag in new ground, a bald patch in an otherwise untamed bushy apex.

Except, when we got there, we were not only not the only summitists but, worse still, we emerged onto a tarred parking lot with *cheaters* who had driven up to view from the very civilised concrete viewing deck, with printed info boards and whatnot. Very unrewarding after our blood, sweat(, sweat, sweat) and tears to get up there.

The one thing this civilisation did not deliver was a cart/kiosk/canteen of any sort with any form of edible. We were starving! And had to walk all the way down the other side to get fed!

Fortunately, the downside is also the downhillside so it was a much easier journey.

It was quite rewarding and inspiring to pass the landmarks that we’d admired on the way up so so so much quicker on the way down!

The path led us straight to the end of Courtenay Street where, after some hours of wishful thinking and craving sharing, we found what we’d already predetermined to be our destiny: a Mexican restaurant.

We feasted on burritos, nachos and quesidilla, which was equal parts quality and well-timed, making it The Best Mexican Meal Ever.

It’s amazing how a life-saving experience can re-inspire. Nourishment gave new motivation for cultural enrichment and we set off for Te Papa to see the much-spoken-of Gallipoli War exhibit.

It was such a good move. I have never seen such a quality production! Giant models that put Madame Tussauds to shame, artefacts and personal testimony that would clench the hardest heart. Maudlin as it was, it was a classic once-in-a-lifetime experience.

What a long day that was. Like, a 25 thousand step day!

We all needed a refresher so retreated to our hotels for a shower and change before communing on the rooftop bar at the top of our hotel for sundowners. It was lovely when we got there, if not a bit on the hot side (which they were obviously aware of, seeing as there were complimentary sun hats and lotion available).

As always, when the sun retreated behind the buildings and the breeze sets in, it gets nippy. That signalled the time to move to town.

We still had the Cuba Street box to tick. Perfect opportunity to double-bill with Murphy’s Irish Bar!

… which we propped up until closing.

… and then did a nightcap on Old Faithful, Courtenay Street.

Having not eaten since the Mexican fiesta in the arvie, all the walking and talking had driven us to midnight munchies.

The 24 hour food options are quite a business in such a vibrant party town, but are so disorgangised that it takes some PT to check all the prospects if you find yourself hungry with no specific hankering.

It took a complete up and down the street to settle on butter chicken pies for me and Christian and a veggie toastie for Lucy. From different stores, obviously.

By this point it was 2am and time for teary goodbyes (read: mad dash to get Lucy back to her hotel safely and us back to our sanctum while there was still vague hope of 4 hours of sleep). It was surreal that it’d only been 32 hours since meeting Cousin Lucy… but boy had we made the most of our short time together! (And lots of promises to repeat the experience soon and repeatedly!)

Sooner than you can say “6.57 bus” it was 6am and time to get up, showered, packed and off to the airport.

We’d tracked the route the night before, sacrificing precious minutes of sleep to have an empirical idea of our flight plan for the morning… and yet still Christian was ready and waiting (impatiently) ahead of schedule, visibly agitated at me drying my hair (which I’d planned to do).

We left on time and rattled our trolley cases down the desolate early-morning Willis Street and rounded the corner into Dixon quite calmly, bus stop in sight ahead, until we heard the bus coming up behind us.

We BOLTED down the street with our cases and, fortunately, the bus got waylaid at a red traffic light. We pushed across the road on the pedestrian crossing in front of the bus and the driver was nice enough to not only open the doors for us, but also say that we could sort the fare at the bus stop that was still a hundred or so metres away.

Christian shot me the very meaningful “told you so” look at our nearly missing our bus.

I felt a bit sheepish until I spied the big digital clock above the bus driver. We’d nearly missed the 6.46 bus… not the 6.57 we’d planned on catching!

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Travelogue Australia 2: Sydney

Posted by cl@rks on Monday Feb 1, 2016 Under Travelogue

SYDNEY
28-31January 2016

It was a good thing our transfer from Port Douglas to Cairns Airport was booked for when it was (1pm) because our little last frolick on the beach had flash-fried a decent tanning, which continued to set over the course of the drive to the airport and through the flight. Any longer and we (well, I. But you knew that) would have been burnt to a crisp!

Coral was again our driver but was (this time being in a people carrier with four other people) considerably less chatty and, from our position at the back of the van, the trip was all scenery sans narrative. A coup for Christian who had snoozed on the way there – and would most often opt for the road less Attenboroughed.

We were well in time for our flight and had even scored the prized front row seats with extra legroom (obviously online check-in isn’t a “thing” with the mature audience with whom we’d shared our off-season mini-break). We hadn’t expected an onboard meal so had had Hungry Jack at the airport (an amazing feat with one girl manning the cashier, cook and delivery functions; easily a 5 man operation at home)… but, never afraid to be a meal ahead, ate the roast beef and the chicken stir fry – and relished the Lindt ball and strawberry ice-cream dessert – that was served to us anyway.

Arriving at Sydney Airport, we were again pleased by our bags arriving on the carousel within minutes. It had given us just enough time to gather data for the bus/shuttle/taxi/train options, and we were set on taking the train to St James Station.

The airport is within the city so a mere 15 minutes later we emerged from the station at Hyde Park in Sydney Central. Around a corner and up the road and we were at our hotel, Megaboom.

Post check in, we were pleased to be vindicated that the hotel we’d chosen for its fun name was perfectly appointed and our suite nicely decked with the requisite creature comforts.

Everything had been so quick and easy since arriving that we got ahead of the game and took a trot down to Circular Quay to get an advance night sighting of the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. It was all very exciting, bar the Bridge having had its thunder stolen somewhat by the miniature (original, predecessor) version of it that we saw in Newcastle last year.

Friday morning’s first mission was to meet up with Christian’s cousin, Helena, who had kindly offered to take time off to tourguide us on our Sydney weekend – along with her family, travelling from Canberra (Grant and Kurt coming from home) and Woolongong (Gabriella coming from uni) to spend time with us.

Helena made it really easy for us, planning daily bundles of excursions in advance but giving us bitesize sets of instructions to follow. It was easy enough to catch the 373 bus to Coogee and head towards the steps… and there she was!

After enthusiastic reunioning and introductions, group consensus was to begin our planned beach walk, which would wind us along the coastline all morning and end up at Bondi where we would meet up with Grant and his cousins (out from Germany and on their last day in Sydney) for lunch.

Coogee was a lovely beachfront, really idyllic and picture-perfect and, had it to do again, we should probably have spent more time there. But you never know these things up front and it seemed more pragmatic to get some walking under the belt while fresh – and less than practical to start the journey of 10,000 steps (hopefully) with wet swimmers and sandy slops.

The conversation – catch-ups, introductory staples and general – flowed easily as we walked along the path and up a hill and round a bend and through a park and past a bowling green… and emerged at Gordon’s Bay, which was a bit rough for swimming. Around the next bend found us at Clovelly, an interesting set-up with concrete decks on either side of the bay turning the inlet into a sort of outsized open-ended swimming pool. This apparently had been a busy-work project initiated by the government during the depression to keep people employed and productive. What a great idea; would be good if the devils at home could manufacture a few decent projects like that to keep some idle hands working.

Walking machines that we were, we whipped past the bathers and baskers, around the bay, out the other side, up and around the bend to Bronte Beach, where we stopped at one of the pavement cafés for a wetty. It was a really beautiful day so the area was buzzing and the beach populated (attributed to uni not being in session for the year yet); great for people-watching in our downtime.

Back on the road, the coast next took us to Tamarama Beach, where we must have looked the part since a lady craned out of the passenger side of the car to “excuse me” us to ask for directions to the Tamarama Beach Club, which by dumb luck we were able to provide since we’d just walked past a building with that name emblazened all along one facade (but which was obscured from the lost lady’s view because of her direction of approach) and the path to that building ran alongside the pavement (which she also wouldn’t have been able to see from her car).

Clearly old hats at this beach walk lark, it was little surprise when we rounded the next bend and were faced with Bondi Beach.

We had to cross most of the beach itself to get to the narrow swimming zone, demarcated by lifeguard flags. It was tough, being South African, to leave our things in our bag unattended on the sand while we swam (which obviously for me meant mid-shin wading).

In the meantime, Grant and his German cousins had arrived in Sydney, so we navigated them to our spot on the water’s edge. They were keen for a swim but since angry grey clouds had pulled in, we moved off the beach to the undercover corridor at the pavilion. None too soon either as soon it was raining up a storm!

No mind though, it would take more than a few raindrops to dampen our spirits (especially since we were still damp from the seawater!) so we walked down the road to the Bondi Hotel and had a very tasty lunch, meaning a barramundi and chips for Christian and I.

Over lunch we got the back story on the Germans. It was Grant’s cousin, Barbara, and her son, Simon, who were on a 5 week holiday in Aus. Fortuitously, their stay had overlapped with ours as they flew out of Sydney the day after we flew in, giving us the serendipitous Friday sweetspot. From lunch we got in another swim at Bondi before Barbara and Simon were driven to the airport and we returned to our hotel.

We reconvened with Helena and Grant at our hotel in the evening and headed to a recommended dumpling restaurant, Din Tai Fung, in Chinatown for dinner. We were hungry again after our 25+ thousand step day and shared a combination of steamed and fried dumplings for starters and all sorts of exotic treats for mains. Although not particularly late, we were among the last to leave the restaurant.

Saturday started with a panic. Somehow my phone – despite being on the powerbank – had died overnight and Christian’s alarm hadn’t gone off, so we woke up 45 minutes later than the planned meeting time!! Our gracious travel companions were very easy going, so had thought nothing of it and gone ahead with meeting their kids as planned. We threw on some clothes and chucked some swimgear in our togbag and hightailed down the road to meet them at the coffee shop they’d chosen for brekkie.

They were very chill about our faux pas (now diagnosed as a flat powerbank and a 5-day week alarm) and perfectly happy enjoying their own company. So nice to meet the 2 new faces to put to all the stories I’ve heard over the years – and who I so narrowly missed meeting on their last trip to South Africa.

Group communed, we were ready to walk down to the harbour to catch our ferry to Manly Beach, which is across the water and just past the heads that serve as the entrance to the harbour.

Manly is very cool. The landing point must’ve served for decaded because it’s all old buildings that look like they could easily be 100 years old. From there it’s a legit beachtown with wide pedestrian streets, market stalls and buskers and entertainers swapping atmosphere-creation for cash.

We did a bit of ambling and browsing, but really only attempted direction when the subject of lunch came up. Grant had mentioned earlier, when we’d arrived, that there was an infamous spot called Hotel Steyne that always made tabloid headlines for brawling among liquored Manly Sea Eagles, so that was enough to pique our curiosity and secure it as lunch destination du jour.

The restaurant was a lovely airy sea-facing dining room with self-service counters at the back. The food was delicious and we had very tasty toasties and pizzas. The Hotel seemed too savoury to believe the stories… until I realised, on going to find the loo to change into swimwear, that there was a whole lot more to it. Passing through the big front bar, the bustling courtyard full of checkered characters and the stale-beer smelling pokie room at the back, the stories seemed a bit more plausible.

We hit the beach and all enjoyed frolicking in the cool Pacific Ocean water, at our various chosen depths. Christian, still not getting the rules and compliance thing, got into trouble with the lifeguards for a constant commitment to swimming beyond the demarcated flag zones. The guards were tooting away on their whistles and bleating requests on their megaphones as he carried on bobbing, blissfully unaware… much to our amusement, watching from ankle-depth in the safe zone.

A family after my own heart, the suggestion was tabled to go get ice-cream so that brought to a close our episode on yet another of Sydney’s glorious beaches.

The ferry ride back to the city is quite quick and pleasant, so it must be a pleasure to live somewhere as lovely as Manly and commute in and out of the city.

On our way back in, we happened to pass a Gallagher’s Irish pub so felt obliged to stop in to measure the Guinness Index. $10 a pint, putting Sydney into 2nd place (still behind Hong Kong). The Wellington 7s was on and our timing totally coincidentally coincided with the SA vs New Zealand, which we narrowly lost in the last plays after the final whistle. All was not lost though since we were still through to the next round and teed up to play Australia in the quarter final.

Having made the pitstop, we had to move to get back to the hotel and get showered and changed to meet the others for dinner.

We’d decided on another visit to Chinatown after the success of the previous evening – and on Gabriella’s recommendation of an authentic but modest dumpling place. It was an excellent suggestion and everything we ordered (to share between us) was amazing!

The big plan for Sunday was to meet up with old friends from SA, Carrie and Andre, who had emigrated in 2015. The arrangement was for us to go through to their house in the ‘burbs in the early arvo, so it left the morning for us to see The Rocks and Darling Harbour.

The Rocks is the old section of town which had been the first settlement when the original migrants had made Sydney their home. Helena and I had a lengthy discussion as we walked en route about the hows and whys of who went past this then-remote neck of the woods, thinking that it seemed very out of the way in a time when travel was, to be base, a bit of a schlep. We rationalised that it perhaps was in perspective when you consider that those voyagers were traversing the globe for a few spices and whatnot and if that was enough to motivate, then maybe a little tropical pitstop was a treat after all. Gabriella picked up the tail end of our convo and piped up “Well, I’d come here for a packet of chips and a high five”, which is a winning tagline for the Sydney Tourism Board if I’ve ever heard one!

Not sure about the first settlers (unlikely to have scored a bag of chips nor cared for a high five), but the next few batches can’t be faulted for wanting to stay. The Rocks is a perfectly preserved slice of history, with the turn of the last century buildings and narrow cobbled streets now housing a generous helping of cafĂ©s and restaurants as well as a street market (possibly only a Sunday thing?)

It was easy enough to find space at a café to settle in for some brunch and an enormous toastie and milkshake hit the spot, as we soaked in the atmosphere in the shadow of the famous bridge.

Keeping up our steps, we walked from The Rocks to Darling Harbour. Part of the fun was taking in the foreignness of all the strange Aussie names of things:
Girra Girra Steps, Waranara Terrace, Nawi Cove. All very exotic.

We were given some background on and a basic run-through of Darling Harbour, which was sadly the end of the line for our tour courtesy of the Michls. The few days we’d had together had been so much fun that it was with a heavy heart that we parted ways at Town Hall station to embark on the next segment of our adventure.

Dab hands at the train system, we found the train to Hornsby effortlessly and were soon on our way – for the first time – over the bridge and into the ‘burbs.

Carrie was waiting for us at the station (for some time, I suspect, since our timings had been so sketchy) and we were delighted to reunite! She took us on a quick tour through her new home town and we were soon at their lovely new(ish) home.

It was awesome to catch up with the Boshoffs who, we couldn’t believe, had lived in Sydney for a year already! They were still amazing hosts and lavished us with a lamb shank feast in their charming lush green back yard to the soundtrack of the babbling creek that flowed in the bridged canal flowing between the house and garden.

With a bellyful of deliciousness on board, the plan was hatched to take a trot down to the Cole’s store to get some brownie mix and ice-cream for dessert. A good opportunity to see the neighbourhood on the ground. We also ended up buying a replacement case of beers, which was less than optimal for poor Christian who had to hump them all the way home!

The brownies more than made up for it though, teasing us with delicious aroma while we waited patiently for them to bake, amusing ourselves with trying to fathom the mystery that is Aussie Rules football.

Comfortable in the living room, we watched the first few episodes of The Last Man on Earth while we enjoyed our dessert and stretched the last section of our day together, before our hosts drove us to the train station for our return journey to the city.

Now very au fait with the lay of the land, we opted to go to Town Hall station… and logicked on our walk back to the hotel that this would also be the better station in the morning because, even though a little further on the train, it’d be an easier station to get to in the morning throng since it was a flat walk with fewer traffic crossings than the shorter, downhill, weaving walk to St James. And, with a 09h45 flight requiring us to be at the airport around 07h30, prudence  would be of the essence.

We could not be more wrong. We emerged from the hotel at 07h00 to an empty street and only encountered the first other lone sole at the first intersection! There were progressively more people as we approached the station, with a few mini-bursts of life as our flightpath happened to cross-section a bus stop… but certainly nothing you’d call a “rush hour”. Maybe Central wakes up later because it’s retail driven? Maybe there’s a business district bustling elsewhere?

We were at the station in minutes, convinced that we’d be faced with a flood of people coming in on the train we’d need for the airport journey, as has been common on our previous experiences with metropolitan primetime public transport travel. We stood back on the platform, prepared for the influx to disembark before we tried to enter the train.

The train arrived.

We waited for the rush – both people – to exit before making ourselves comfortable in the caboose we had all to ourselves.

The hard part done, Sydney Airport International Terminal was only 5 stops for us, so we were at our destination before 07h30. What a win!

Sweet sorrow to conclude our Aussie Adventure. And really sad news that they’re all first world and automated so there’s no stamp in the passport to commemorate a truly excellent vaycay.

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Travelogue Australia 1: Port Douglas

Posted by cl@rks on Thursday Jan 28, 2016 Under Travelogue

AUSTRALIA: GREAT BARRIER REEF
22-28 January 2016

For the first time ever, our beloved Emirates didn’t run like clockwork. We were informed as we neared Dubai that our landing would be delayed because of thick mist over the airport. The delay was only an hour… but an hour was enough to jeopardise our connecting flight to Brisbane!

On (eventually) landing, we were relieved to see that we hadn’t missed our flight because, like many others, it had been delayed for 2 hours in the domino effect the mist had caused. The relief was short-lived as we realised that this salvation was at the very real risk of missing our next flight, the connection from Brisbane to Cairns, which had only 2 hours transit time.

Never ones to have our spirits dampened by logistics, we drown our concerns in the buffet in the Business Lounge. Scottish salmon, prawns, Champagne and a hotdog and mini donut (for good measure) later and we were truly in a “what will be will be” headspace when we boarded the plane for our 16 hour flight.

Sadly, the Bourbon-fuelled old worry-wart next to us in the window seat of our 3-seater row, reminded us several times of the implications of the delay since – sorry for him – his connection was an hour after the original landing time so he had a snowball’s hope in hell of catching it. And had us in hell living and re-living the prospect.

But, the travel gods (or rather, the Aussie work ethic since it was all thanks to our luggage coming out on the carousel quicksticks) were on our side, and we whipped through the controls, which deposited us neatly in front of the Virgin Australia check-in desk to hand over our luggage for the short hop to Cairns. What simple genius to have a Domestic check-in counter in the International Arrivals so you don’t have to hump everything across the airport between terminals!

And a good thing too because Christian got into trouble as it was for jumping on the terminal transfer bus through the back door, which was right in front of him when the bus stopped. Despite no signage to that effect, the driver was insistent that it was Exit Only and made Christian get off the bus and come through the front door. Christian might have been less compliant if he’d already humped our 2 big suitcases in with him!

The 2-hour Cairns flight was an excellent time to nap, with lots of legroom and nobody sharing our 3-seater, and we were soon in sunny Cairns with our private transfer driver ready and waiting for us. Her name was Coral, not a word of a lie! She joked that the only thing that contested with her for most things named after it, is Cook this-that-and-the-other, after Captain James Cook, who had the first contact with this part of the world.

Coral (The Driver) was very knowledgeable and shared snippets of interest on what we were passing as we took the scenic hour-long drive along the Cook Highway (a bit of a misnomer, being a delightful meandering mostly single lane road). It was mostly tropical forest creeping up the mountain (the same range that runs all the way down to Sydney) on the left and the Coral Sea on the right, with intermittent traffic circles which allow access to the artery that runs to the coastal towns dotted along the tropical North East Queensland coastline. The Australian Government has strictly regulated big chain access into this part of their country, so everything is still quaint and countrified.

The road into Port Douglas – our final destination, finally, having left home on Friday night and arriving Sunday afternoon! – is lined with hundred of huge palm trees, a disproportionately grandiose entrance to the charming boutique seaside town.

We had booked into By The Sea luxury apartments because of its high rating for location, but its reviews had understated completely. Placed on the corner of Macrossan Street (home to all the retail and entertainment action) and The Esplanade (running along our end of 4 Mile Beach), we could not have asked for better. And we didn’t have to ask. The hotel included EVERYTHING in their package. We could get (free) beach chairs, loungers, towels, beach games, bicycles, cooler boxes, ice, DVDs, books, gym equipment, laptops, tablets, boardgames etc etc etc from reception. No charge, no rush to return. How very awesome; what a nice touch!

After our long haul to get to Port Douglas, we were amped to see the place! A quick shower and some clean clothes later and we were on our way out and into town to get some supplies. Being walking distance from anywhere to anywhere, Port Douglas manages to cram everything you need for a perfect holiday – beach, restaurants, pubs, excursions suppliers and essential holidays goods shops – in a handful of roads and we had placed ourselves perfectly to access everything.

Starting with a gander of the famous (well, to us anyway, having read all the travel info in the onflight magazine) 4 Mile Beach, we slipped off our slops and hit the sand. It’s a strange beach; not the soft white sand you’d think, the sand is compacted and solid underfoot, like the tide permanently only just went out. There are also “stingers” rife, so you can’t swim anywhere but in a small demarcated area, fenced by tight mesh nets and manned by lifeguards. It’s really unusual to see so many people walking along the beach, but not breaking the waterline.

I delighted in walking on the little balls of sand that (presumably) crabs spit out when making their tunnels. It was sort of like sandy bubble wrap or crashing through piles of crunchy leaves; weirdly addictive.

Beach seen, we tried the other direction. A short trot down Macrossan Street (well, the full length) and we were at the bayfront, which Coral had said was a popular sundowner spot. We agreed, so we double-backed and got the groceries (the usual bread, bacon, cheese, eggs), as well as a selection of local beers – tinnies singles so we could sample a selection.

We returned to By The Sea to drop off our spoils and take advantage of the cooler box and ice on offer. Feeling very pleased with ourselves, we headed for the park to enjoy our first Aussie sunset.

There were several people who had the same idea – a mixed bag of young and old, families and couples – so we had plenty to keep us entertained with the sea in front of us and (amongst other things) the heated family cricket game right behind us.

It’s really good to see people enjoying public space. And even more so to see them respecting what they have been given. The park is spotless and well maintained – even the public ablution block which is unmanned, but clean and in perfect working order, which would sadly never be the case at home.

On our way home we made the traditional stop in the Irish bar (uncreatively named Paddy’s) for a Guinness to log it against our growing Index. At R96 a pint, it comes in 5th behind Hong Kong, Toledo, Reykjavic and UK. It’s an expensive way to comfort us against the extortionate price the Baron charges (R36 a pint), which prompted the global research!

While at Paddy’s we were recommended pizzas at Rattle & Hum Pizza bar and, never ones to turn down a pizza, it made the perfect dinner plan. Needless to say, the whole experience was different to home… but the most disturbing was when we asked for the condiments (expecting chopped garlic and chilli) and we given little sealed tubs of prepacked “garlic aoli”, a sort of creamed garlic sauce. Really not the same.

Exhausted from the travel, we were home and in bed by 9!

… and only woke up at midday on Monday! 15 hours sleep to get over the travel!

It was overcast which had no doubt contributed to our lie in, but it was still 27 degrees with 90% humidity so the beach was the natural choice for the afternoon.

But, before that, we had important business. Lunch. And booking our Great Barrier Reef Tour.

We walked down to the Bay since that seemed the most logical place for boat companies and we hit paydirt. We got megawraps at Hog’s Breath Diner from their lunchtime bargain $9.90 menu AND we got a chance to review the literature on the various company and tour options. We narrowed down our choices and crossed off the shortlist by visiting the respective companies until we settled on the Calypso full day tour to the Outer Reef, with 2 snorkels and a dive (Christian’s first!) between Agincourt and Opal Reefs.

Very pleased with our accomplishments, we walked back to our sanctum to commence our afternoon’s beachtime.

Arming ourselves with loungers, towels and books from the resort library, we took the left turn onto The Esplanade and hit the 4 Mile Beach. Knowing what to expect this time, we handled ourselves like locals, dropping off our loungers and our bag near the lifeguard tower and taking a long walk along the beach to see if the 4 Mile bit was literal.

We can’t be empirically sure, but it seems credible enough. The beach is on a shallow concave bay so even though it feels like you’re walking in a straight line toward a corner, you never reach the corner because you’re on a constant gradual curve. We gave the curve a half hour and then turned around and retraced our footsteps.

The burst of activity having made up for our slothly start to the day, we felt justified in spending the rest of the afternoon lounging about and soaking in the view, until it started to get dark so we retreated to the heated pool at our resort.

Impossible to resurrect ourselves for public consumption, we decided to get DVDs from the resort library and make nachos for dinner (we had all the supplies already and our unit had a convection microwave, so it couldn’t be simpler). Again we were grateful for our choice of digs – literally everything we could ask for!

By the time we’d cooked, eaten (in a very civilised fashion at the table on our private patio) and watched our movies, it was (again) the early hours of the morning. It was clear that acclimatising wasn’t going to be an overnight game!

Tuesday started a little later than planned, but still in the a.m., which was a good start. As it turned out it was a public holiday, Australia Day, so there were festivities planned in town. We prepared with a bacon sarmie, using one slice of bacon each… although Aussie bacon packs the same size as home consist of only 3 humongous rashers per pack! Each rasher being easily as long as my forearm, elbow to fingertip!

In keeping with the patriotism, we decided to tick off all the hotspots on the tourist map we’d been provided by our reception on arrival. On closer inspection, we were tickled to see that few of the landmarks were of actual historical significance and we’d incidentally already seen/been to most of the places on the map.

Still, we needed to take a turn past the festival being held at the park and that was the start of Murphy street which ran parallel between Macrossan and the sea and would loop us neatly back to our beach, where we could complete the afternoon.

Getting to the park was easy. Lots of the restaurants and shops in town were closed for the public holiday… and EVERYONE was at the park. The organisers had picket-fenced off most of the park for a big marquee that housed 4 eating stations (obviously the 4 top restaurants in town) and they’d even set up 2 smaller marquees on either end, one with a generous band line-up and the other with entertainment like pie judging and tug ‘o war contests. Very festive.

We circled the event and then realigned with our original plan to had up Murphy Street to the lookout point. The map did not show how steep the road was though and – in the stuffy humid heat – we were puffing, panting and sopping by the time we got to the top of the short hill. The view was pretty though, so glad we did it, all considered.

At least we were able to go down the other side of the hill and end up at our corner, grab the usual collection of beach paraphernalia and call it a day.

Having to be at (and that means walking to) our dive shop at 8am for boarding our dive trip, we needed an early night. We hit the Cole’s supermarket (the only chain allowed in town – and fast becoming our favourite place thanks to their range, prices and unwavering commitment to airconditioning!) and picked up a tray of lasagne. We complemented our glamorous dinner fittingly by picking up a bottle of wine from the hole-in-the-wall bottleshop; literally a booth counter in the wall, with a glass window where you could browse the merchandise, which you ask the cashier to fetch for you.

Despite our best attempt at responsible behaviour, we both still nearly didn’t sleep a wink, both worried we’d sleep through our 3 alarms (all set to different times in line with their respective SA / Dubai / Aus settings) and miss our dive trip.

Of course we (Christian) didn’t and soon enough it was 7am and we were fuelling up with scrambles on toast, heading out the door, traversing town like seasoned pro’s and at the dock with time to spare.

There were about 30 people in all on our trip; 7 diving, with all but me on an intro dive. This meant that the best course of action was for us to snorkel the first site and then dive separately at the second (Chris with the intro group and me with a dedicated dive master who could take me a few metres deeper than the intro group) and then the option existed for us to either snorkel or dive the last site.

The boat took us out to the farthest point and we had a brilliant first experience with the world-famous (!) bucketlist (!) Great. Barrier. Reef! The visibility was spectacular. being able to see 30-40 metres in the crystal clear water… not that you needed to when the action is all so close to the surface. With the coral growing best in the sunlight, there is a great deal to see within a few metres under the surface. Even so, at the edge of the coral shelf, where the depths plunge, the water looks bright royal blue and is translucent so you can still see quite a distance below, to see the likes of the turtle and small shark we saw within the first few minutes of the excursion!

It seemed like a tall order to beat, but the scuba diving was truly spectacular. Christian had an incredible opportunity to have his first dive in such a magnificent place – and he’s amped to do it again (although we’ll have to carefully consider where if we’re going to meet his expectations with the bar set this high!). My dive was naturally excellent too, being lucky enough to have a private dive at my pace and duration. The highlight was seeing sharks up close. Even though these local sharks are too small to eat people (and have no interest in us), it was still electrifying to be so close to something in the wild. At one point I was nothing short of mesmerised by a shark a few metres from me that was swimming in a loose figure of 8 through a shoal of silvery fish that shimmered and sheened around it giving it an ethereal glow. Of course the dive instructor took all the magic out of it later when he explained that this was likely part of the shark’s ecosystem / hygiene routine… drat.

We opted to snorkel the last site since it was a high reef with lots to see on the surface and worked on our free diving with the snorkels instead to add to our rapidly-increasing range of aqua skills.

What a day. Really truly awesome.

We rounded off with a seafood dinner (of course) of the local speciality, barramundi, a white flaky fish that was done beautifully in a thick, fluffy and crunchy batter and served with a mountain of chips. It started to drizzle during dinner and our timing could not have been better because soon after we got back to our spot, it started coming down in sheets! So hard it took out the town’s electricity and the whole of Port Douglas was in blackout.

The rain here is something else. It comes down hard for long periods. It rained through almost every night, incessant throughout the night. Presumably it’s typical of tropical climates (and this isn’t even anywhere near monsoon season!). And they do say that the rain in Port Douglas is measured in metres, not centimetres. And it is kind enough to rain at night rather than dampening the daytimes. But surely all this rain should ease up the humidity somewhat?!?

It’s probably why the beach sand is so odd. It’s always like some rogue wave has washed up the shoreline and flattened what should be soft white sand. No doubt it’s a combination of the punishing rain all night and the inability for anything to dry because of the humidity. It had taken Christian’s shirt 2 day to dry after our traipse up to lookout point – and that was on our covered patio under the ceiling fan!

Our last morning was a bright and sunny one so we ditched our original plan to use resort bicycles to take a ride down the beachfront to Wilderness Village (a zoo habitat thingie) in favour of taking advantage of our beach a last time. The sun was bright, the sky blue and the sea (well, our little demarcated swimming section) warm as a bath. Paradise!

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Travelogue Newcastle 2

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

NEWCASTLE 2
08-11 Nov 2015

Our walk to the bus station in Reykjavic at 5.30am (!) was easier than both our arrival walk and our expectation. Apparently bloody cold doesn’t feel any bloody colder bloody early! As if by way of an approving farewell after our awesome adventure, the Northern Lights blinked green flashes on the few clear patches of the otherwise cloudy sky, by way of farewell.

We made good time and immediately boarded the bus (with 15 minutes to spare) to nap on the 40 minute commute to the airport which, as usual, was a waiting game with little but foraging for breakfast to keep us entertained until departure.

It makes good sense to be knackered for an Easyjet flight though. The seats are wide and comfortable enough but with no reclining and no entertainment, it’s best to be tired enough to sleep away the journey. Fortunately, my niggling cold and antihistamines from the airport rendered me unconscious, so I’m sure it was a lovely enough flight for those that were “there” to enjoy it.

Manchester Airport is another thing entirely. The car hire is at an off-site ‘village’ so we were guided to a shuttle bus stop that would lead us to the chariot that would get us back home to The Toon. It took forever to come…

And then – horror of horrors! – I found out that Alex had booked with Europcar… which anyone who lived through our Spain Great Car Hire Saga of 2013 would know was questionable territory for us. But, when we made Christian co-driver on the rental agreement our agent, Yakov, said he was already loaded on the system and upgraded us to a large Skoda stationwagon “for all our luggage”, which totalled 2 small carry-on cases and 2 togbags. Still, it was very roomy and comfortable so small mercies from the karmic wheel turning.

The English countryside is prettier than its given credit for and we all wondered why we never road trip the journey rather than mapping the destination.

We made it back to Tynemouth in one piece, largely thanks to Alex’s tireless driving and navigating (with a small special mention to the Burger King at the truckstop), in time to refresh and jump on the Metro to Newcastle Central for our concert.

The concert venue, the O2 Newcastle, has the feel of a converted theatre in size and layout, but must’ve been a concert hall for a fair amount of time based on the lived-in wooden flooring and the smell of stale beer.

The tickets had advertised starting time as 7pm – which seemed fitting with Bad Manners’ frontman (Buster Bloodvessel) well into his sixties – so we were relieved on arrival to see it was still a supporting act on stage. There was, in fact, still another supporting act to follow – a band called The Extra Specials, who specialise in covering The Specials’ songs – and soon the fatter aging fans were huffing and puffing from their pogo’ing and carrying on.

Most of the audience had made efforts to dress the part for the evening and there were more Oxblood Doc Martens in one place than I can remember ever seeing, even in our heyday. Braces, brogues, monochromatic outfits – the uniform for the non-conformist!

Bad Manners gave an excellent (and lengthy) performance and the crowd gave an equally enthusiastic response, with some of the older fellas taking survival breaks along the way.

We shouldn’t point fingers too much though since after the concert, early hours of Christian’s birthday ‘n all, our after-party of choice was to go home and midnight snack on toasted cheese sarmies!

This weekend’s arrangements in general were much looser since we’d done all our sightseeing the previous weekend. We’d already made plans to meet Natalia and Uncle Bill at Lui’s for a coffee at 11 and Lucy, Mick and the kids at the new fish shack on King Edward Bay for lunch, so had the luxury of a lie-in and breakfast of choice for Christian’s birthday, bacon sandwiches. Alex and Robbie had been nice enough to sneak out and drop off the car (in Newcastle Central) so met up with us at Lui’s.

It’s always nice to meet in person people who you’ve heard so much about or sort-of know from Facebook. Feels like you’ve got so much catching up to do with people you’ve never even met before!

Our coffee date went all too quickly so we convinced Natalia to come to lunch with us. Uncle Bill was having none of that (“in my day fish ‘n chips were for poor people!”) but was easily talked into a lunch date for noon the following day for a carvery at The Gibraltar Rock, so there was no need for long goodbyes and we all had something to look forward to.

The fish shack was quite a surprise – far off the usual greasy chippie, the choices were mackerel, red mullet or monkfish all served in a paper basket lined with a wood-fired oven bread akin to a naan, with the fish and 3 scoops of 3 different salads nestled around the edges and an artistic swirl of 2 different sauces to top it off. Everything was fresh and crunchy and between the naan-like bread, the sambal-like salad and the curry-like sauce swirl, Christian was pleased as punch with his birthday lunch!

We’d been very lucky with the weather (enough so that there had been half-naked swimmers at the fish shack! Not that it was anywhere near warm enough to warrant that, mind!) so decided to make the most of the clear day and enjoy a beer at a pavement table in the sunshine on Front Street. Everyone else seemed to have the same idea and the only available table was at the Working Man’s Club, which was good enough for us.

As soon as the sun started setting behind the church it started to get chilly, which was perfect impetus to get us moving to get home and into warmer evening gear for the trip to Newcastle for the New Zealand vs Tonga game.

It was the last game of the day so, at a 7.45pm, allowed us opportunity for a civilised dinner in Tynemouth, rather than competing with the crowds in town.

The pie, mash and gravy at the Turks Head was so good it felt like it was MY birthday! The menu format is very simple and effective, guiding you through choice of pie flavour (chicken & mushroom, steak & ale, venison or potato & leek), choice of mash variant (plain, cheesy, horseradish or mustard), choice of side (peas, mint peas, mushy peas or beans) and then sauce (gravy or red wine sauce) so you get the exact combination you want. And for a fiver it was a quality bargain meal! It was so filling that we were all a bit sluggish on the journey and the boys didn’t even have a drink in the first half of the game!

There had only been 2 rugby tickets for this game so Alex and I had a wander around the town and the fan park then cut through the China Town to get to Harry’s, where we’d planned to meet the boys later. Even with our walking, we were still a bit full so nursed a drink while we people-watched.

The boys joined us soon after and showed us a video of the stand-off between the Kiwi’s Haka and the Tongan equivalent. The stadium was pin-drop silent during the performance but roared in appreciation when the players were done. I zoned out on the rest of the feedback from the game since NZ always win, don’t they?

We caught a cab back to Front Street, where it looked like things were winding down… but we still managed to get in last rounds with Mick at a spot we hadn’t yet tried, called Lola’s.

Our last day allowed us a very leisurely start, only needing to be at the carvery for noon. Of course, this also meant we were *ravenous* when we got there and dished up *way* too much food… and finished *all* of it. Three roasts, four veg, two (types of) potatoes, Yorkshire pud; all swimming in gravy and all gone very quickly!

The Cain contingent across the table (Uncle Bill, Natalia and Aunty Mary) had dished more conservatively, but seemed to enjoy their meal just as much so we can conclude that it’s a winner even when the meal isn’t as much of an emergency life/death situation. (And a bargain at 2 people for 10 Pounds!)

Even with the frenzied feeding upfront, we still enjoyed a leisurely lunch date and a lengthy chat. We bid farewell to Uncle Bill and Aunty Mary from there, but Natalie caught the Metro into town with us because she had a shopping date planned with her friend, James. She also tipped us to visit the Grainger Street Market if time allowed after the game.

We made it to the stadium in the nick of time, hearing the Samoan anthem as we were walking in and getting to our seats just in time for the opening bars of “Flower of Scotland”. Our seats were near the front of the section behind and just to the right of the posts that saw all the action in both halves – the Samoan offensive in the first half and Scotland’s in the second. To my mind, we could not have asked to be better placed for a game that seemed to have more than the usual tryline action.

After the game we made our way back to Grey Street so the boys could watch the Australia game while we went to investigate the market. It was relatively late for the market so most of it was shut already, but there were still a few shops worth investigating.

Intent on (another) curry dinner, we made our way back to Tynemouth to have a sit-down at Gate of India. It had other ideas however and we were put off by the long queue for both in-dining and take-away so cut our losses and headed for home for sausage sandwiches instead.

Our quiet night had us up and fresh early on Sunday for our final packing and cleaning before meeting Mick and Lucy at Lui’s for breakfast at 9, so that Alex and Robbie could be off for their 10.30 train, Mick could get to work and Lucy and the girls could get Christian and I to the airport for 11.

Another brilliant holiday all wrapped up; thanks to all the people that made it possible and special!

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Travelogue Iceland

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Oct 7, 2015 Under Travelogue

ICELAND
04-07 October 2015

I’ve wanted to go to Iceland since about the time I first encountered the Chappies fact “Did you know? Reykjavic is the world’s most northerly capital”. It sounded so far. So remote. So exotic. Very alluring.

I’m not sure I ever really seriously thought I’d get to Iceland though because it’s so far. So remote. Very expensive.

But opportunity presented itself when the Rugby World Cup placed us in Northern England with games a week apart… leaving the week in between as the perfect chance to sandwich the bucketlist trip. And we do love a good sandwich, so it was an easy sell to Christian, and our trusty travelmates from London.

The hardest part was coordinating the planes, trains and autombiles (or, more literally, the taxi, plane and bus) to get us from Newcastle to Reykjavic quickly and economically. Fortunately, Alex can Google a travelplan like nobody’s business so with her masterplanning and my negotiating on Airbnb, we soon enough had the method and the destination sorted.

Opting for a private taxi to get us to Edinburgh was genius, door-to-door with no worries and no mucking about. The bus on the Iceland side was simple enough since the locals are very smart in coordinating shuttles to coincide with flight arrivals – sounds obvious, but I’d bet ORT would never come up with something so practical.

Iceland has a tiny population of approximately 330,000 people, most of whom live in the capital. This has always been the case, with the founding population burgeoning in the first 25 years (from eatablishment in 874) to about 10,000 people, and then rising to 30,000 by 930. Interestingly, Iceland’s tourism is growing so rapidly that they’re now seeing multiple times their population in people from all over the world (mostly in summer, I suspect).

Reykjavic was discovered in 874 by a Norseman emigrating from Norway at a time when high taxes were being imposed and land becoming scarce. He named it “Smokey Cove” because of the smokey haze created in the bay by geothermal steam. This natural warm water has longsince been piped into the cities and used for heating houses, but is so abundant that they have now even laid plastic tubing below the pavements in town and run natural heated water through it to defrost them in winter. Iceland is very proud to create all of its power from renewable energy sources, with 25% coming from thermal and 75% from hydro.

Our welcome to Reykjavic was bittersweet since it was drizzling and we had a very sketchy tourist map to get us to our quarters…. which we knew was supposed to be an easy walk from the BSI (central bus station). Alas, we took a wrong turn, took the long way around and were very grateful when we found our road and our wonderful house.

We’d managed another Airbnb win with this one – a large Victorian looking home, with spacious unkempt front garden and welcoming driveway. Knocking at the (wrong) door revealed an old lady who was nice enough to let us in anyways, even though we were supposed to have gone around to the entrance at the back of the house. We were led along her hallway to a door that opened onto a landing. Her son was actually our host and he lived upstairs and our apartment was downstairs in the basement.

The whole house was warm and our flat had big rooms and soft lighting, so was very inviting after the long journey.

Nonetheless, we didn’t get to enjoy it for long as it was edging on 10pm and we were long past dinnertime, so we kitted up again and headed into the night to find somewhere to feed us.

Fortunately that turned out to be no more than a block away and we were soon settled in a bustling and lively kebab shop, devouring very tasty lamb schwarmas and washing them down with Viking beer.

It was a short and functional dinner because we had to get to the supermarket before it closed at 11pm. Our host, Sigurjon, had been nice enough to stock us a loaf of bread, a big block of cheese and some basic breakfast items like coffee, bread and milk, but we needed supplies for our planned tour the next day.

The shop was an education in itself. Everything is SO expensive in Iceland! Our picnic pack ended up being very modest – hotdog rolls (that come in packs of 5, oddly), some ham (to partner with Sigurjon’s cheese, which looked to be something in the lines of Emmenthal), a small pot of mayo and a dozen eggs – and it was over R220!

Still, not enough to lose sleep over. And our house proved to be very comfortable and warm, thanks to the thermal heating, and we slept the sleep of cocooned babies.

MONDAY: GOLDEN CIRCLE TOUR

Monday was an early start with our tour company collecting us from our house at 8.30.  Nonetheless, we were up early enough to boil some eggs and toast some bread to ensure we were heading into the Golden Circle on the best footing.

Our driver/guide was an excellent storyteller and kept us updated and entertained as we picked up the last passengers and headed out of town.

He gave us a crash-course in geology, explaining how tectonic plates float on the Earth’s mantle and how shifting plates lead to eruptions, which cause lava to flow onto the surface and create new crust. Iceland is positioned above very active plates with volcanic eruptions on average every 5 years. That said, there have been 3 eruptions in the last year illustrating that the island is actually – in cosmic universe time – still very much in formation phase.

Our first destination was Thingvellir (Parliament Planes) National Park rift valley lake, which is about 84 square kilometres in size (about the size of the island of Manhattan). Thingvellir lies on the junction of the plates which is more clearly visible here than anywhere else in the world because the two plates are constantly diverging, causing fissures and gullies throughout the zone.

We alighted at Logberg where we followed a walking trail that illustrated the areas claim to fame via a series of info boards. Apparently back in the day, when Iceland was little more than a series of fledgling settlements, this was the area where chieftains from all around the island met up annually to discuss things and stuff, deal with matters affecting everyone (in a seemingly very civilised democratic manner) and dole out justice on criminal enquiries. As per legacy of Viking violence and vengeance, the legal council would decide on crime and punishment but it was up to the aggrieved party to enforce – mostly beheading for men, drowning for women and hanging for thieves who were seen to be the lowest of the low, even behind those found guilty of incest and infanticide, which were both rife.

The location is breathtaking and the council meetings must have been something to look forward to, especially for the people representing the Northern parts with their long relentless dark and freezing winters.

The guide pointed out the spots where the TV show Game of Thrones was filmed, most recognisable being where Briana battled The Hound and where the Wildlings fought off the Cannibals. He told us other references of arthouse films that were shot there, but none ring any bells.

Back on the bus, we headed to Gullfoss (“Gold Falls”); a wild waterfall that falls a combined 31m between a 11m fall narrowed from a wide river with an abrupt 90 degree right turn and immediate secondary 20m fall. The water rages and torrents and it’s obvious that all the signs warning not to cross aren’t being dramatic in the slightest.

Of course, one of the storyboards tell the legend of how a fella from the side of the river we were on was enamoured by a farmgirl on the other side of the river and thus braved the river to swim across to her. Comically, the story concludes with saying that they’re unsure of the girl’s response to the boy’s arrival… but they “had many well-respected children”. Sounds like they know exactly what the girl’s response was!

On our drive from the falls to the geysers, our driver pointed out that there are no reptiles or insects, no cockroaches, no ants, no rodents in Iceland, just an abundbance of birds. *No Spiders* has to be big tourism (immigration even?) booster!

There are also no trees, per se. The biggest “trees” are no more than thigh high. This is because Iceland used to be mostly under the sea, back in the Ice Age where hundreds of metres of ice was so heavy that it weighed down Iceland, which essentially floats on magma, such that the lowlands were submerged (forming the sea bed) and the highlands would have been a collection of small islands. The soil is consequently still rich with seaweed composites and minerals, making it very fertile… but not enough so to counterbalance the conditions above ground. Consequently, the majority of ground cover is mosses and grasses. And the Icelandic, with their offbeat sense of humour, enjoy the often-told joke: What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest? Stand up!

The stop at the geysers was scheduled as 90 minutes so, despite having scoffed our cheese and ham sarmies, we opted to try the traditional kjotsupa (lamb soup) in the restaurant to kill some time. Over R1000 for 4 soups and 4 beers – eeek! Luckily the soup was really excellent – a broth full of flavour with chunky potatoes and veg and a generous portion of lamb – which took the sting out a bit.

Warmed from the inside by the soup, we were ready to watch the geyser. The main geyser, Stokkur, erupts every few minutes so we’d been advised to be poised finger-on-the-button to snap photos as the hot water gushed from the crater into a plume several metres in the air. We were lucky and got it first time!

We’d also been warned to stay on the path since the geysers obviously eminate from underground and there’s no guarantee how deep the crust is closer to the craters (but the paths have been reinforced). Apparently every year there’s *someone* who falls through the crust and gets scalded by the hot water below. We didn’t venture off the path but had to marvel at the fools that did, and at the curious who’d remove a glove to test the rivulets streaming away from the geysers… and then, everytime, flick their hands in disbelief when the water burned them.

On the way to the last stop, the driver made an unplanned diversion when he saw a paddock with horses. He stopped the bus and had us line up at the fence even though the horses were far away at the other side of the field. Sure enough they all came over to visit with us and the guide told us that Icelandic horses, while decended from Norwegian horses, have been bred to be quite unique, specifically in terms of size and sociability. The horses are distinctly middle-sized, are very friendly and have a lovely thick coats creating duskier colouring than other horses.

The impromptu horse experience stole the thunder of the last sight, a waterfall not particularly high but wide.

We were dropped off back at our house at around 5pm and confirmed our return with our South African friend who has recently moved to Iceland on work contract, so that she could make her way over to our house.

We were smart enough to have acquired vodka at duty free (having been warned about the extortionate prices in Iceland) which we combined with orange cordial and genuine, fresh, icy-cold, straight-out-of-the-tap Icelandic water for not-so-fancy but will-do-nicely-thanks sundowners.

Jean-Leigh had only been in Reykjavic for 6 weeks but had much to tell about the life, logistics and must-see of the city. She also told us that her arrival brought the South African contingent living in Iceland to 94 people, which is way more that we’d have thought.

There was some conjecture about what to do for dinner since Icelandic specialities stretch beyond the food of bygone eras to include very accessible categories from the Western world, no doubt largely owing to the large American base in Reykjavik that was maintained from World War II until relatively recently. This in mind, we bowed to the highly recommended (by Jean-Leigh, the internet and the selection of travel guides we’d browsed along the way) Lebowsky’s, named after the cult classic movie, “The Big Lebowsky” and famed for amazing burgers in a highly stylised setting.

The call was a good one and we all ordered different things and all the food looked amazing. Using this as the benchmark and making a pointed effort to observe burgers wherever we went, it was easy to see why Western food was becoming an Icelandic speciality – they just do it better than we do. The burgers (standard 150g) are perfectly proportioned to generous amounts of topping, that include sweet streaky bacon, melt-in-your mouth cheese and bearnaise sauce popping up frequently and when you’d least expect it. We also later found out that all their meat is organic, still farmed the old way where animals are left to graze in the hills and the mountains all summer and then herded (with horses) at the end of the season.

Now based in the centre of Reykjavic’s happening bit, Laugevegur, it was easy to pub crawl around town since everything was one road up or a few doors down.

Coming home we realised that town was much smaller than we had thought and already the city grid was forming in our heads. It certainly helped that our lovely house was in the road that ran along the pond, but on the side closest to town – the perfect address for anything you want to do in Reykjavik!

TUESDAY: REYKJAVIC

Tuesday was a late start after our welcome to Reykjavic-by-night, because we had no formal tour arrangement and because our wanderings around the city had shown us that it was compact and easy to navigate so we wouldn’t need a full day to see what it was we wanted to see. It was great to have a sleep-in and lounge about in our cosy lair all morning.

Lunch became the motivator to venture out and we made it our mission to find a hotdog which, bizarrely, is something Iceland has become known for.

We tried a hotdog stand at the waterfront, encouraged by the queue of people surely meaning it must be good. And it was good, if not a bit plain. Soft roll, meaty vienna, crunchy diced shoestring onions. R40 for a “nice” hotdog the length of my wrist to fingertip.

We had to have a second hotdog from somewhere else to yardstick. We opted for one from the 24-7 supermarket since I’d seen the earlier and been drawn by the viennas wrapped in bacon. It didn’t feel very authentic… but we did it anyway… and it was great! Another delighful coup de gras presented itself in the condiments with a mayo-like “hotdog sauce” (that’s all the bottle said in English) and potato salad with bacon bits, as well as the usual onions (fried or raw), ketchup and mustard. Same price as the hotdog from the stand; we’d found a winner.

We took a walk to the Harpa events complex, a very noticeable modern glass building on the harbour. And, by contrast, the very modest Prime Minister’s office which, built in the 1700s, looks like a farmhouse and acted as a prison in the 1800s before it became the official government building in the 1900s.

From there it was very easy to find our way up Laugevegur, browsing and stopping in at a few shops of interest along the way, as we wound our way up the hill to the famous church that looks like a rocketship.

Quite pleased with our outing so far we took some time out in Reykjavic’s oldest cafĂ©, Prikkid, on our way back down the hill.

Amazed at how easy it was to navigate through Reykjavic now that we had our bearings, we made our way past the duckpond on our way home to pick up our things and go sample one of the outdoor thermal baths.

The boys decided not to go, but Alex and I braved the unknown and were soon neck deep in hot water.

We started with the smaller pools, which seated about 12 people in a circle, sort of like a jacuzzi, but deeper and still. We did the 3 warm pools, each rising a few degrees until we were in the hottest, being early to mid 40 degrees. We only managed a quick toe dunk in the cold pool that was signposted as 8-12 degrees!

Then we moved onto a bigger pool which had sections marked as warmer but you could wade from one area to another rather than having to get in and out like in the small ones. Our favourite was a shallow section where you could lie in the warm water with the nape of your next resting on the boundary wall.

We ended off with the steam room, which was so hot you couldn’t stand in one place for too long without burning the soles of your feet.

All this in the outdoor 6 degrees temperature while we were willing it to get dark so we could see if the Northern Lights would present themselves.

In keeping with our chill day, we took a wander into town to look for a traditional Icelandic meal. We ended up at Loki Cafe opposite the spaceship church with lamb soup with smoked lamb on flatbread, lamb patĂ© on rye and tasting bits of Christian’s very experimental platter that had dry fish, fermented shark and trout on rye.

With another early tour in the morning, we were soon heading toward home and were lucky enough to be treated to a Northern Lights show in the clear nightsky right above us, then and there. Green ethereal and smoky stripes that made the skyline look eerie, like aliens had landed!

WEDNESDAY: SOUTH COAST AND WATERFALLS TOUR

It was coming down in sheets on Wednesday morning, which must’ve been lousy for the driver but, combined with the steady motion of the bus and monotony of long-distance travel, made for a good naptime on the first bit of our tour – the hour-long drive To Get There.

The journey was punctuated by a refreshment/comfort stop and a few photo opps, including a waterfall that appeared to flow upwards since the wind was so strong against the mountain that the water didn’t get to complete its fall. Our guide told us that the name ‘Iceland’ is a bit of a misnomer because they island is far more windy than it is icy… but obviously Windyland didn’t offer the same allure.

The first main stop was at Myrdalsjokull in Katla Geopark, which is a glacier mounted atop a volcano. The glacier gains and loses ground depending on weather conditions, for example it melted by almost a kilometre between 1930 and 1969, then grew by almost half a kilometre until 1995 and has been ebbing ever since with the prognosis being that if global warning continues then the glacier may have as little as a century left before it’s gone completely.

Katla, the volcano, is part of a much larger (110km) volcanic system that erupts on average every 80 years and is overdue an eruption since its last episode was in 1918. It’s quite a thing too since the glacier sitting on the volcano compounds the effects of the eruption itself (lava, ash etc) with the gush of water from the melting ice, which can accumulate as much as 300,000 cubic metres of water in a few hours – not a lot of warning to evacuate the affected areas, especially when the thick toxic volcanic ash and fumes make visibility little more than arm’s length!

Fortunately today was not Katla’s day to make up for lost time eruption-wise and we enjoyed a short hike to the edge of the glacier and admired its enormous face… me from the cosy comfort of today’s “outfit” consisting of thermal vest, long sleeved shirt, jersey, hoodie, jacket, scarf, tights, jeans, ski socks and gloves. Basically, everything I’d been able to pack in the silly togbag that had been allowed on our Easyjet flight! Can’t complain though, when you bear in mind this is fishing territory and the fisherman have for centuries been pushing the boats out into the water, waist-deep in these icy seas.

As beautiful as the Black Beach, Reynisfjara, is to stop at, I draw the line at emerging hand from glove to take a few snappies; no chance of toe out of sock for a swim!

The scenery is very dramatic with the shiny black sand against a backdrop of volatile crashing sea with whiter-than-white foam in front of you, and behind you sky-high cliff face with jagged rocks and jutty sections from a lifetime of extreme conditions and every force majeure imaginable.

Just around the cove, we visited Vic (named after one of the many Icelandic words that cover English’s simplistic bay/fjord spectrum), which was made a settlement because the lay of the land allowed equally for farming and fishing. Rolling green mountain, black beach and (marginally) calmer sea, smattering of brightly coloured tin houses and a Little House On The Prairie church up the hill surveying it all. While we ate our packed lunch chicken sandwiches and surveyed it back.

The sun had come out and so, since we were at the seaside after all, I unzipped my jacket and took off my gloves. We took some snappies of seaside and rainbows and then were on our way again.

The last 2 stops were both waterfalls:
Skogarfoss (“forest falls”) and Seljalandsfoss. The first being a very high and majestic waterfall and the latter positioned in such a way that you can walk on a ledge behind it and see through the waterfall’s curtain.

The drive home was an anticlimax, mostly spent deciding where to have dinner. We had the driver let us out at Laugevegur and walked to the Dubliner Irish Pub which had been perpetually closed on the several times we’d checked in on it. Success! It was open!

Traditional Guinness In A Strange Land down, we were released from the shackles of having to do anything conventional so we went to Chuck Norris diner and ate baskets of burger goodness.

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Travelogue Newcastle 1

Posted by cl@rks on Monday Oct 5, 2015 Under Travelogue

NEWCASTLE
01-04 October 2015

Having sworn I’d never holiday in the UK again (because of the dreadful state of the Rand and a worldful of as-yet unexplored destinations), the last thing I’d imagined was breaking the pledge to attend a sporting event, of all things.

But Christian was very excited to have been (a bit too) successful (if you ask me) in the IRB lottery and had secured tickets to all 3 matches being played in Newcastle. Since I’d never been to Newcastle, wanted to see birthplace, would get to see his favourite cousin and had our trusty travelmates joining us from London, it all seemed like a swimming idea!

Better yet Christian’s aunt and uncle offered to house swap for us and (favourite) cousin Lucy volunteered to fetch us from the airport so, since it was homeground and there was no “what to do” research to be done, there was little else to do but book flights and wait impatiently for what promised to be a cracking holiday.

The wait was well worth it and we were greeted with warm welcome – by the Newcombe ladies: Lucy and her daughters, Nell and Effie – and warm weather, which I’m told is a rarity.

The airport is close to town and it’s a pretty scenic drive through the countryside and winding village roads, so it’s more of an experience than the chore it is back home. We were soon at our holiday digs, a charming home in the very lovely Tyneside; parallel and one road in from the beach and a short trot into the action on Front Street.

Since it was such a perfect blue-sky day, a quick shower and change later, we were out the door and headed on foot to see some of what our locale had to offer.

Tynemouth is beautiful and quaint, like a slice of history untouched by time. Some effort and dedication must have been put in to maintain the turn-of-the-last-century-and-before buildings and retain the elegant facade of the much-prettier architecture from a time where form surpassed function.

We took a turn down Front Street, which was a buzz of activity with patrons from generous helping of coffee shops, pubs and restaurants spilling outside to pavement tables, enjoying the sunshine. Lucy pointed out the highlights as we listened intently and mentally mealmapped feeding times for our short stay.

The end of Front Street brought us out at at The Priory, where we turned left and walked along the coastline to Longsands for a nibble at Crusoe’s on the beachfront – delicious steak pie and sausage roll (made with real pork sausage).

Little Nell had a lovely runaround in the sand but – lacking the necessary play paraphernalia since our excursion had been spontaneous and on foot – had to settle for the promise of a return visit the following day for a proper beach playtime in the “sandysandsand”.

It was only a short walk back to the house, to my surprise still moving in the same direction as we’d come from; revealing we’d walked in a big loop and reinforcing my shocking sense of direction.

Wanting to make the most of our time together, we tagged along with the Newcombes to their house, where we had a leisurely mooch-about until Mick got home from work and Nell insisted on a “walk around the block”, so we went to the shops. Another lovely neighbourhood, we enjoyed the stroll around Whitley Lodge, appreciating how different everything was to home and feeling quite content with clean and open suburbanness of it all.

With the girls fed and off to bed, we called in for a curry and settled in at the diningroom table for a yummy dinner and quality time with quality company.

On Friday morning Lucy called in for us just after 9 and we took an amble to Front Street for breakfast at Lui’s.

And what a breakfast it was! Cumberland sausages, Lorne sausage, black pudding, white pudding, doorstop toast, eggs, beans, mushrooms, tomato… spoilt for choice! We vowed a return over the weekend with the London contingent.

… who were due to arrive imminently, so we made our way back to the house…

… with 20 minutes to spare.

The usual joyous reunion, our friends were as delighted as we had been to see how lush our accommodation was and just as eager to see what Tynemouth had to offer based on our enthusiastic reviews of what we’d seen and done so far.

We took then down the now-familiar route to Front Street, where they oooed and aaahed as we had about the prettiness of it all.

We started the walking tour with a stop-in at “The Land of Green Ginger”, an old very traditional-looking church that had suffered waning parishioners and thus had been converted into a shopping arcade in 1980, despite religious influences wanting the church to be demolished rather. It’s quite comical to see an old school church with a giant plastic ice-cream cone model at its door, beneath a banner pronouncing the church to be the home of an ice-cream parlour.

As you walk into the church, there’s a big brass plaque with a list of names of parishoners who volunteered to fight in the second Anglo-Boer War (the one that the British won), counting among them Christian’s great-grandfather, Peter Slater.

We then walked the length of Front Street – pinpointing establishments we intended to sample – and walked up to the Priory. We decided to forego the tour, opting rather to walk the length of the pier to the lighthouse at the end. The pier is quite a length and has a twin eminating from the opposite bank of the river, together guiding ships safely into the mouth of the Tyne.

From there our next stop was the Collingwood Statue – a monument to the Admiral who led the first British ship into the Battle of Trafalgar. The statue of Collingwood himself is set high atop a stone column, with wide stone steps below flanked by four of the actual canons from his ship, The Sovereign. The view from the monument’s park looks out to sea and was particularly spectacular with the sunny clear day contrasting the bright green grass with the backdrop of blue skies and seas.

From there it was a stone’s throw to our ultimate destination, Northshields Fish Quay, for lunch. A bit hot under the collar though, we stopped in for a Magners cider in The Quay Taphouse before making our way to have fresh and plentiful fish and chips at The Waterfront restaurant.

A bit overspent on time, we hightailed back, deftly navigating a shortcut through town, to Longsands to meet Lucy and the kids.

The beach was quite busy, with people clearly making a plan to come and enjoy the quite unseasonal summer’s day in Autumn. While warm and sunny, it certainly wasn’t swimming weather by home standards and we didn’t want for swimwear nor regret being in jeans.

On the beach Lucy had spotted people she knows and on our way out we all bumped into some people Christian had met when he’d been out a few years ago so, combined with our confidence at navigating around the town, was as warm as the weather to feel like a local on our first full day of holiday!

We celebrated our good spirits with a stop in at Copperfields, a traditional pub located behind the – one would guess aptly named – Grand Hotel, and then were back on the road for a sunset walk along the waterfront.

Not really sure of where we were or where we were going, but knowing we couldn’t go far wrong as long as the sea was on our right, it took encountering a tourist sign to realise we’d walked from Longsands, through Cullercoats and almost missed Whitley Bay!

We turned inland and had a pint at the King George pub, momentarily homesick from other patrons who had their dogs with them. That said, none of our lot would behave well enough to socialise in this manner, so we’d miss them just as much even if we had brought them with us!

We decided our next stop would be the Avalon biker bar that Christian had visited and enjoyed on previous visits… but were disappointed when we found the venue and the bar had been closed down. The entire street was largely boarded up pubs and clubs though, so we surmised we’d stumbled into the graveyard of what had previously been the thumping heart of The Best Stag Do Destination of not so long ago.

Never known for dwelling on disappointment for too long, we went into Fitzgeralds instead – a large pub, oddly empty, especially bearing in mind there were 2 burly bouncers manning the entrance. That said, they spent the entire duration of our pint denying a girl access to the pub despite her heatedly and stubbornly negotiating at them.

Turning the corner and going into the Fire Station, we got a taste of what the Stag Do phenomenon was all about, thanks to a large and rowdy group of lads circling their victim – a poor chap in a fullbody penis costume – goading, issuing dares and plying shots and beers at a rate of knots (no doubt enabled by the crazy “buy in bulk” drinks specials).

We escaped to the pub next door, The Victoria, only to be exposed to more of the same. Literally. Penis Man and Friends had trailed in behind us.

Christian, in a well-timed display of voice-of-reason, bundled us into a taxi back to the far more civilised Front Street, where we ticked Cumberland Arms and The Priory off our list with quick nightcaps before walking home.

Saturday was grey and overcast, but fortunately still dry. Christian and I were up early so we wandered up to the shops to source orange juice and such, and were rewarded for our efforts by a magnificent find: Heinz tinned pork sausages and beans! Which made an excellent pre-breakfast, in advance of the brilliant bacon butties that would ensue when the others rose.

Fed and feeling far better than we ought to, we headed out to see what Newcastle Upon Tyne had in store for us.

The Metro station hosts a market on weekends which, with a random mix of bric-a-brack new and old, looked like it warranted some time to be earmarked for a proper look the next weekend.

The Metro is quick and easy – but quite pricey at 3 Pounds some change for one way – and we were soon in Newcastle.

Right in front of us was the first sight of relevance – the Earl Grey Statue. We stopped to take a group photo and a kind passerby offered to take the pic for us so we could all be in it. Sadly, she was more enthusiasm than talent so, while she was painstaking about getting the 4 of us all into the pic, she cut off poor Earl Grey. Since she was so nice about being part of the whole moment, we were too polite to reset for the pic… and I’m going to have to settle for including a Google pic into the photo album for the holiday!

Grey Street is a very elegant road of serious buildings, unfettered by modern glass skyrises, that leads down to the river at the Tyne Bridge (which Christian revealed is an exact replica of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, built for practice at exactly a third of the size).

Walking along the river took us to Millennium Bridge, where we were highly amused by a busker passionately singing (clearly a song penned with his own ink judging by his emotional and animated delivery) about how London is full of aliens, paedophiles and Tory twats!

We were still laughing when we got to the other side of the bridge… and were still humming his tune as we walked around the Baltic Art Gallery on the Gateshead side of the river.

All our walking necessitated a whistle wetting, so we popped into the Pitcher back on the Newcastle side of the bridge, near to our busker who unfortunately seemed to have run out of steam and apparently had no more eccentric episodes to share. No mind. His one hit wonder was unexpected and unforgettable.

Next I was treated to a first-but-no-chance-last experience at Gregg’s Bakery, a chain of pie shops. I had a baked bean, cheese and banger pie. What an epic combo!

Our return journey up Grey Street was quite different since everywhere was heaving with rugby supporters – lots confusingly in Bok jerseys and kilts – and the Samoa vs Japan game was being projected on a big screen at the base of the Earl Grey Statue.

We paused to enjoy this new atmosphere, taking in a pint at Harry’s and grabbing a pulled pork roll from one of the food stalls (who were coining it, churning out rolls at no less than 5 Pounds a pop).

The Stadium was conveniently located just up the road and we’d timed it perfectly, arriving minutes before the opening ceremonials.

The atmosphere was electric, with quite an even representation of South African and Scottish fans fuelling the friendly rivalry of warcries and chanting. Even I, not one for sport at the best of times, couldn’t help getting swept up in the moment and yelling at the field, mostly encouraging but with intermittent exasperation when the Boks hinted at lagging performance. Either way, we won the game with a convincing 34-16 and all of us but Robby were thrilled with the outcome.

The roads were carnage after the game so we quit while we were ahead and jumped into a cab back to Tynemouth.

… which was also heaving when we got back, thanks to (what felt like) the entire town’s contingent in the pub to watch the England vs Australia game.

We had a quick drink in Barca and then moved over to The Turk’s Head pub across the way because it was conveniently situated next to the Gate of India restaurant, where we planned to source dinner from.

Our thinking was solid and our order placed at halftime was ready just as the game concluded, meaning we could escape the air of disappointment in the pub following England’s loss (and consequent ejection from this World Cup) and retreat to our very lovely holiday house with (another) curry feast.

Sunday was slated to be a late-start morning, with nothing to do except be ready for our cab, which was booked to collect us at 13h30 to drive us to Edinburgh to fly to Iceland.

We’d scheduled a brunch with Lucy at our now-favourite Lui’s and were well-rested and spring-stepped when we left home at 09h45 for the short walk to the breakfast heaven that awaited us.

It was just what the doctor ordered and we thoroughly enjoyed the blur of eggs and pork products that constituted what can only be described as a “generous” breakfast.

Bursting from our feasting, we volunteered to walk the long way home, up toward the local Sainsbury’s, overshooting past the soccer fields and emerging opposite the far end of our road and were still home with an hour to spare to pack, relax and have a laugh with some Friends reruns on telly before our cab driver arrived bang on time.

There’s something to be said for the comfort and convenience of door-to-door cab service… especially if you’ve got 4 people to share the 120 Pounds fixed fare. We were delivered to Edinburgh airport in perfect time with nothing to worry about except being excited for the next episode of our adventure.

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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

SANUR AND UBUD
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”.

Paydirt.

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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