Category Archives: Africa

Travelogue South Africa: Kynsna

KNYSNA

13-17 July 2017
Based on a New Year’s resolution to get fit(ter) in 2017, we succumbed to entering the Knysna Half-Marathon that our friends had been trying to get us to enter for years, unsuccessfully.
It seemed like July was lifetimes away and there would be plenty time to train… But you know what they say about time when you’re having fun. It’s not training, it’s flying.
We had planned ahead with the flight though and had Vitality Flight Booster in place to get us from Jozi to George for a long weekend to balance the running bit with a lekker experience on the loveliest coast in South Africa (in our opinions).
Half day’s leave aside, it was the usual frenzied depart from the Big Smoke and we both banged away madly on laptops on the flight down. A worthwhile exercise such that we could arrive with ducks in neat rows, to join our friends Tim and Wendy who’d be our partners in crime and who had flown down earlier than us.
They had caught a taxi to Oubaai Spa and Resort and made a mini-break of the few hours our later arrival afforded. They’d brunched and had a massage and by the time we arrived were nestled in the bar lounge with their own very comfy couches and fireplace that they’d made the setting for their card games. With their Bluetooth speaker and not another customer in sight, they were not only told to make themselves at home, they were the atmosphere.
All excited to be on holiday, we shared a welcome drink and a catch-up on our quick and painless transfers and then headed for the car – a very fancy free upgrade Mercedes – to make our way to our actual destination for the weekend.
We’d booked better than our usual, thanks to the Vitality travel benefits and found our digs to be very lush; a double storey cottage in the very lovely Belvidere Manor lodge. With bedrooms on both floors, we found ourselves with private suites as well as a cosy communal lounge (complete with fireplace) and kitchen/dining room.
Giddy at our good fortune, we moved to The Bell – dubbed “The smallest pub in Knysna” and the deal-sealer on our choice of accommodation.
With the outer appearance of an old-school barn, in black and white with a big wooden door in a low doorway that Christian had to bend through to avoid hitting his head, and its 10 or so tables in the inviting low yellow glow, The Bell was perfect for our welcome dinner. AND it served the local craft brew, Forresters, on tap!
With a formidable menu of pub grub favourites, we ploughed our way through bangers & mash, fish & chips and a chicken and mushroom pie that was to die for. So far Belvidere Manor was shaping up to be our kind of place!
Friday morning began with the included breakfast; a tasty buffet of fresh baked goods, cold meats, preserves and cheeses, and scrambles and bacon for good measure. We were allocated what we considered to be the best table in the house, a round wrought-iron table in the corner of the wrap-around verandah that hugged the house, with the rolling lawns that infinitied into the view of where the clear blue skies met the sea beyond.
We lingered over breakfast, loosely planning our day but mostly enjoying the morning sun, so strong enough in winter to cut through the chill of the morning but moderate enough to allow for proper basking.
Our first and only mandatory task for the day was collecting our race numbers for the next day’s Marathon. The registration set-up was in a marquee in the same grounds as the Knysna Oyster Fest grounds, so there was already quite a bit of activity with participants of both making their way onto the field.
The process was very well organised and it was only a few minutes later that we were on our merry way with our goody bags in hand.
The stands in the registration hall were all sports related, pedalling all sorts of sportswear, accessories and paraphernalia. It’s scary how expensive everything is for a sport that technically requires no equipment. This certainly wasn’t looking like an event where you just pop on some trainers and hit the road!
The boys took part in one of the interactives, where you had to pedal as fast as you can for a minute and they rewarded you for calories burned with the equivalent amount of Smart Shopper points. Wendy and I shopped (and bought nothing).
With our admin done, we made our way down to the Waterfront to have a coffee in the upstairs restaurant that afforded us the best views through the floor-to-ceiling windows, but out of the icy light wind.
It was really good to have a Friday to ourselves to relax and watch the day go by. With the race the next day, we intended to take everything at a leisurely pace, so planned to stock up on snacks and head back to enjoy the fireplace in our cottage with an afternoon of cards and laughs.
We’d seen signs for a Superspar so headed off in that general direction. Walking a few blocks in and having no new clues as to its whereabouts, we asked a couple of car guards for directions. Their “you can’t miss it” style directions were an oversell and despite our best efforts, we seemed to criss-cross the better part of the whole of town… And ended up at Checkers!
We do love a new card game and were grateful to have an afternoon of tutorial and practice for this cool new game Tim and Wendy taught us that was clearly designed with drinking penalties in mind! With a cosy fire and easy company, we had a fun and relaxed fritter into the evening.
Dinner had been predetermined as Chatters pizza parlour, based on the delicious aromas that had wafted from the restaurant as we passed on our hunt for the Superspar (whose superhero ability must certainly be invisibility, from our experience).
We arrived at Chatters just before 6pm, amped for an early dinner to suit out early night aspirations. Chatters was already busy and were fully booked for a double sitting. Not taking ‘No’ for an answer, we tested a new technique and just hovered until someone (else) made a plan… Which saw us sitting at a garden table and eating fresh pizzas 20 minutes later, washing it down with a single glass of red to balance celebrating the good life with good sense of the impending morning ahead of us.
Returning home we thought we’d prep ourselves for the morning and then resume position playing cards, not realising how much admin goes into race prep! Besides the usual stuff like pinning numbers to shirts and whatnot, this race had some sophistications like electronic timing tags that had to be attached to shoelaces, conveniences like a togbag service that required ID tagging, and of course situational circumstances that needed a whole bunch of pre-planning.
The race starts at the top of a mountain so we needed to catch a taxi to the park-and-ride shuttle meeting point (and there’s no Uber in Knysna so it was a prearrangement that had to be made at hotel reception with a local driver); the shuttle required a tag that was included in the race pack. Once at the top of the mountain there was an inevitable wait while the 8500 participants all were shuttled up to the start so we needed to be warm.
The organisers had advised that they would be collecting discarded clothing and blankets to be donated to the poor and those affected by the terribly Knysna fires that had ravaged the town only weeks before leaving countless people homeless. This meant that we didn’t have to ration clothing on the day, having to carry whatever we wore through the whole race. It was a blessing and a curse and resulted in a veritable tower of clothing that I intended to layer myself in – a bold combination of colours that possibly even the homeless may baulk at!
By the time we were done it was bedtime. A great call – a good night’s sleep is invaluable when it comes to anything taxing, especially something tasking the mind as heavily as it was bound to task the body. I was still VERY intimidated at the thought of running 21km in a row!
But the morning came and our prep paid off. The taxi was waiting at 6am, as arranged. The shuttle was an incredibly well-oiled machine. And we had no more than a half hour to hover and worry and not get toooo cold (although I couldn’t feel my toes, they were so numb).
Soon we were huddled at the start, counting down to the gun going off… And we were away.
Well, not immediately away. It takes quite some time for that many people to even get to the start line and it was a good 5 minutes before we were even on the official track, taking the first official step of oh-so many.
As always, the first kilometre was slow and clumsy while the pack sorted itself out. And again we wondered why people who fully intend on walking the race still jostle to get to the front for the start.
The first few kilometres were uphill but we were pleasantly surprised as we’d prepared for quite a climb based on the anecdotal accounts we’d been given from friends who’d successfully completed the course in previous years.
It was still good relief when the course plateaued – and another relief when the several kilometres of downhill were not as death-defying as they’d been painted to be.
The hardest part was actually the last couple of kilometres as the course joined the seafront promenade. After all the ups and downs, running on flat ground was a lot harder than it should be. Most likely because of the 20 odd kilometres that had been put onto my wildly unprepared legs already. Running out of juice, I even had to walk a bit in the home strait, able to see the Finish line; so close but yet so far away!
We did remarkably for our first attempt; I came in on 2 hours and Christian 10 or so minutes after me. We’d set our sights on somewhere around the 2h15 to 2h20 mark and had thought that to be optimistic as Half-Marathon virgins! Of course, we didn’t hold a candle to Tim’s ridiculously fast 1h48 finish! … But that just meant he had time to get the beers in while he waited for us!
Conveniently, the Finish line for the race was into the Oyster Fest ground so it was an easy sell to have a lovely long sit and sample all the Forresters craft beers that were flowing freely. The weather had truly been kind to us on this winter’s morning and even though it was chilly with a persistent icy breeze, the sun was still smiling on us – and it could have been a LOT worse on a coast that’s known for being Cold And Wet.
Lunch soon became a concern – hardly surprisingly only with a few bananas on board and almost 1500 calories burned! – but the queues were too long as the Festival stalls to make them viable for standing on weary legs, so we decided to see what the town had on offer.
Exiting the grounds, we lucked upon a bank of taxis sponsored by Europcar that were shuttling guests to local places of interest. We jumped in the Thiessen Island one, which left immediately almost as if on command and with us as the only passengers so we felt quite swish.
We were going to hit the Forresters brewery for lunch, but it proved to be as elusive as a Superspar… Which worked out to our favour as we found ourselves on the doorstep of Freshline Fisheries, a name I’d seen featured highly on TripAdvisor and which perfectly fitted my proposed brief for lunch: the finest fish n chips in Knysna.
At that it was. What a fabulous lunch!
Snoek cakes, battered hake, deep-fried calamari, grilled gurnard, Thai prawn curry, fat finger crispy chips. We mowed through the lot! With insult to injury being that the place isn’t licensed so the boys ended up having to hunt down Forresters brewery anyway to get takeaways to accompany lunch!
Fed and happy, we phoned our taximan from the morning to come and fetch us and were amused that he’d upgraded us from the morning’s Camry to a Mercedes – he must’ve heard about how well we’d run!
He took us home where we welcomed a long shower and slathered lotions and potions on our tired muscles to try stave off some of the impending pain that inevitably comes with such a test of endurance as we’d put ourselves through.
The sun was out and our patio sheltered from the rain so we were able to relax and bask in the sun and in the afterglow of our achievements.
All too soon it was the time that every Saturday brings. Rugbytime.
The boys had decided it was an event most suited to The Bell so at 4.30 we made our way down to get settled for the 5pm Lions vs Sharks game. We weren’t the only ones with that idea of course and our little pub was packed, bar one little table for 4 that suited us nicely, thank you!
We settled in and had dinner there as well before grabbing a take-out bottle of wine to resume our positions in front of our fireplace with a new card game to try, called Exploding Kittens, which was probably only marginally more dramatic than the mammoth achievement we’d accomplished that morning.
We woke up to a grey, wet and very cold Sunday, thanking our lucky stars that the Big Day prior had been so mild by comparison. It would have made a tough race even tougher if it had been as bitterly cold… And a proper “character building” exercise if it had been raining as well.
Hobbling to breakfast, we were seated in the cosy lounge to have our first course (fresh baked goods and hot drinks) while we waited for a table to free up. The leisurely pace was appreciated with my aching body making everything take a little longer than usual anyway!
We’d assigned the day to doing a bit of sightseeing and oyster-sampling and were not going to let a little damp weather spoil our plans. We were however going to happily let it delay them a bit, relishing the opportunity to light another fire and enjoy some couch time (and a new application of lotions and balms to soothe the muscles!)
A break in the drizzle prompted us to get moving and we drove around to the East Heads and explored Leisure Isle and its sliver of beach as well as a flash visit to the look-out point to get some snaps.
Content that we’d ticked the tourist boxes, we made our way to the Forresters Brewpub. Which was closed. As was the boutique where I wanted to get fun denim jacket we’d spotted earlier in the trip. And the waffle shop we’d earmarked for afternoon snacks. Clearly Sunday is not a big business day in Knysna!
We backtracked to Thesen Island which is always lovely and lucked out on the last table at a very festive restaurant called Tapas & Oyster. They had a live duo belting out classics and an army of servers bringing endless little plates of tapas to the tables, which made for a buzzing atmosphere.
It was a great choice. As not-a-fan of oysters, even I couldn’t resist sampling the interesting choices on the menu. We started with splitting portions of tempura oysters, oysters in garlic butter (sort of like snails usually are served) and an exotic oysters in tequila with a splash of chilli, a dollop of cream cheese and a whiff of caviar. All were delicious… But not enough for me to join the others in the final round of classic conventional oysters.  But I did try the crispy salmon California rolls which, with their layer of batter around the outside, was completely my speed.
It was a very pleasant afternoon indeed! … Which we closed off with watching the sunset over the horizon, creating a silhouette over the boats docked in the harbour.
Quite smug at our successful afternoon, we rounded off with a last few rounds – and a waffle! – in our local before taking a last bottle of red back to our cottage for a final fireside fritter.

Travelogue: Drakensburg

DRAKENSBERG
12-15 May 2017

We were fortunate enough to be invited by our friends Vern and Kaya to his family’s sharehold on a house in the Drakensberg for a long weekend; an invitation which we grabbed with both hands!
Vern’s family had owned their stake in the cottage for decades – since his early childhood – and he spoke of it so animatedly that our only concern was that there wouldn’t be enough time to do all the cool things he told us were on offer at our destination.
Getting together for a planning session (and a curry) 2 evenings before departure helped enormously as we crafted both an itinerary and a grocery list so, with everything in place, all we had to do was bide the 2 sleeps and 2 long work days until our roadtrip to the ‘Berg.
Friday eventually came and Christian fetched me from my office a little later than planned, thanks to the commencement of a fine drizzle that both heralded the start of a much-publicised coldfront and the inevitable traffic chaos that comes with the slightest sign of any weather interruption. Within half an hour the route that Christian had taken to get to me that we were retracing to begin our journey was already frought with traffic light outages and bumper-bashings. Ah, Joburg. There’s no place like home… but we were quite happy to leave the carnage behind us for a weekend!
It wasn’t so bad and about another half hour later we were on the open road, with Christian expertly juggling the challenges of the rain and a team telecon (on mute, so they couldn’t hear my tiktiktik on the keyboard of my laptop while I finished up my Friday).
The weekend forecast of a coldfront was not a word of a lie and we’d gone from a literally short-sleeve start to the day to a very chilly, very early sunset, pitch black by 5pm.
We made good time and hit Harrismith by 6pm for the ritual refresh and rewater. That pitstop sure has changed since my first memory of it (in the 80s); it boasts a better restaurant selection than many shopping centres in the Big Smoke now! But we weren’t shopping – and the raging fireplace in the bathrooms reminded that we were headed for our frosty mountain adventure.
Back on the road, our progress was slowed by chevrons guiding us through the perpetual upgrades in the Harrismith interchange and onto the magnificently improved R74 (that had been a colander of a road when we’d travelled to Spionkop for a wedding in 2011). Unfortunately all good things come to an end and the last section of the journey was on tarmac pocked so badly along both sides that Kaya had already advised us to stick to the middle of the road wherever possible.
Arriving into the ‘Berg we used the major resorts as our guide and were soon at the Drakensberg Sun, our neighbour for the weekend. The “cottage” (as Vern modestly referred to the 4 double-bedroom home) is in Bergville Estate, a quaint little suburb behind the Drak Sun with traditional family-style bungalows on old-school suburban-size plots winding up the mountain from the valley on tree-themed roadnames. Ours was Bottlebrush.
With only an overnight bag each, there was little settling-in to do, so after the “R2 Tour” (as Vern called it) of our home for the weekend, we focused on helping with the finishing touches on dinner.
A little drizzle had not deterred our hosts from pushing the proverbial boat out on the evening meal and there was a mammoth stuffed chicken on the Weber under the covered patio with ovenbaked veg and more pork sausage stuffing in the oven making the house smell heavenly! Kaya whipped up a brown onion gravy while Christian was tasked with manning the roast potatoes and I laid the table, and we were soon clinking glasses with an epic roast meal to celebrate our arrival.
Half an hour later we were in a similar situation to the poor bird that was no longer. Stuffed to the hilt!
With a crackling fire on the go, we retired to the lounge with red wine, Lindt balls, a pack of cards and a new game that Vern taught us (“Knock Knock”) for entertainment.
Mountain life was going to suit us juuuust fine!
We woke on Saturday to a chilly morning (that was apparently, ironically, nowhere near as cold as home, thanks to the killer coldfront that had hit Joburg in our absence) and stuck to the  programme, heading out to Valley Bakery for breakfast and to procure the baked goods and treats we’d mapped on our weekend plan.
It was easy to see how this eatery had earned its place as top restaurant choice in the ‘Berg, with mingling aromas of strong coffee and fresh bread and the option to browse, sample and buy all sorts of sweet treats – and the reserve some Pasteis de Natalie (custard tarts), which Vern and Kaya had had before… and had missed out on on a previous visit where the fresh tarts were being put on display when they arrived, but were all gone by the time they finished their breakfast!
Revitalised (and 8 Pasteis in hand), we ticked off the other “admin” item; we restocked our firewood. Well, more accurately, the boys sorted the firewood while we snuck in a cheeky homemade chocolate tasting and browsed the local craft store which, in my case, lead to the purchase of the world’s softest scarf.
Back at the house, we took advantage of the break in the drizzle to investigate our surrounds. The valley is gorgeous and the estate immaculately maintained – presumably by the hotel, that trades access to its facilities in return for use of the estate’s roads for more convenient access to its timeshare chalets.
We were exploring the hotel’s lakeside paths when the rain returned so we caught solace in the hotel bar, The Grotto Lounge, to grab a cocktail (also on our To Do list). We were in luck to not only get a comfy table for 4 in the quite-full bar, but also to have stumbled across the hotel’s afternoon indoor entertainment – quiz and bingo.
Naming ourselves after our cocktails, The Bloody Marys swept up first place in the quiz and picked the bottle of red wine as our reward. We passed on the bingo since our quiz round had been more of a test of patience than trivia with just 10 questions being draaaaawn out by the quizmaster to fill an hour! He was fond of prefacing every question with pointless things like “I would love to know…”, adding superfluous dramatics onto the questions (“what is the shortest element on the Periodical Table evaaaa?”) and then consulting with every person in the room before revealing the correct answer. Our sweeping victory on 7/10 (the nearest contester was 4/10) was a great note to leave on, so we headed back to our cottage.
Even with the intermittent drizzle, the afternoon was moderate, so we made the most of the scenery, taking to the (covered) patio to continue the afternoon’s theme, cracking open the cottage’s copy of Trivial Pursuit. The challenge of it being the 1982 UK edition didn’t concern us at all and we rehashed the excellent quizmaster skills we’d learnt earlier on to turn what can be a serious boardgame into a marathon giggle!
Between our inability to roll exact dice and the taxing questions – jogging non-existent memories of Yugoslavia and Rhodesia, arbitrary connections to the Royal Family and impossibly detailed entertainment questions about TV shows that haven’t aired in 40 years or more – the game took us through dinner preparations (another slap-up affair, with bacon-wrapped fillet prepared on the Weber and served with Kaya’s (now) famous mushroom sauce. WOW!) and into the evening, with a crackling fire to keep us company.
Sunday morning started the way every great Sunday morning does, with a giant fry-up. Christian had woken up motivated and hit the kitchen so the rest of us roused to the delicious aroma of frying bacon. And eggs. And sausage. And mushrooms. And beans. There was so much food, we didn’t even have enough space on the plate to bother with toast!
Feeling a little guilty after the extravagant feast and spurred by the fresh, clear morning, we decided to take a walk to the Blue Grotto, which is easily accessed from walking trails signposted from the lakeshore in the gardens of the Drakensburg Sun. It’s an easy walk with well-marked tracks through the indigenous forest and we were soon at the Blue Grotto, admiring the waterfalls and rock pools. Way too cold to enjoy them in the water, but pretty to look at nonetheless.
The trail isn’t circular so we retraced our footsteps and were ejected from the hike back at the same starting point… which is also the launch point for another, shorter, walk around the lake. Since the weather was still good and we were still (moderately) fresh, we kept going and circumnavigated the lake, over the dam wall and back up through the hotel gardens.
Not a bad effort, with about 10km all in all. And it clearly shifted breakfast since we were unanimous that our dinner plan – an outing to Winterton – was definitely going to have to move forward to Late Lunch territory. The idea was to do a short drive to absorb the countryside and eat at a place Vern and Kaya had enjoyed many times previously, a place called Bingelela just outside Bergville.
Heading out to dinner at 3 in the afternoon (!) allowed us spectacular views of the fields and snow-capped mountain backdrop… and softened the blow of the restaurant being shut when e got there! Being Mothers Day, it seemed as if they’d done a big event for lunchtime and were not  opening for dinner trade.
It wasn’t a problem though, having seen a few worthy contenders on our roadtrip, we returned the way we came and pulled into the Thokozisa Lifestyle Centre, a small collection of shops in a brightly decorated thatched complex – clearly the Drakensburg’s warm and rustic interpretation of a mall.
The restaurant was happy to seat us and we welcomed the cosy table close to the fire. Kaya and I went for a gander around the shops while our food was being prepared and returned with a(nother) scarf and a big bag of koeksusters, which would serve nicely as a dessert around our own fireplace later on.
Another upside to the (very) early dinner was that we could return while it was still light and have some visibility of the pocked roads. And still have time for a few rounds of card games before our early night in advance of our 5am departure.
It had been a very shrewd decision to leave on Monday morning instead of Sunday afternoon as we’d managed to squeeze in so much more in just the few extra hours!

Travelogue Mauritius 7: Epilogue

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!

Travelogue Mauritius 6: Trou Aux Biches

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.

Travelogue Mauritius 5: Mont Choisy & Grand Baie

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.

Travelogue Mauritius 4: Ile Aux Cerfs

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!

Travelogue Mauritius 3: Port Louis

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!

Travelogue Mauritius 2: Grand Baie

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.

Travelogue Mauritius 1: Mont Choisy

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.

Travelogue Morocco 4: Marrakech

MARRAKECH
24-26 April 2013

With 489km to cover, we had to be up and out early, hitting the road at 07h20. Breakfast was the same disappointing affair as the previous day – boiled eggs and chocolate croissant (separately), brightened only by the superlative OJ (very sour and authentic, but not pulpy) and excellent hot chocolate (made entirely with hot milk).

Since we have a full sized bus for just 17 people, there is more than enough room for everyone to stretch out, so it’s not too bad for the long haul. Quite soon most people were napping, so it was quite peaceful to watch the countryside pass by.

For a country of 35-odd million people, I’m not sure where everybody is. You can go for miles and miles without seeing sign of a human. Or animal for that matter. And Fes being one of the biggest cities at 1,5 million people seems to end too soon after city centre for credibility (although at least we did see more of what we consider traditional Morrocan architecture, which provided a level of smug contentedness).

The “highway” is by no means what we’re used to and very picturesque. Although predominantly single lane either side, the allocations are generous – and everyone seems to crawl evenly so we weren’t ever stuck wanting to overtake. The tarring is consistently perfect and they (the French I presume) were meticulous to the point of obsession with lining the road with double rows of trees either side. We’re told that most are cedars, which are protected (probably because of the obscene amounts they use for those gargantuan doors and gates).

It’s remarkable to see how well established and maintained the infrastructure is even in the smallest towns. Double lanes standard in city centres (not a whiff of a pothole); wide pavements tiled with elegant and decorative paving stones with neat and generous flower and tree gardens embedded; at least 1 showy traffic circle with manicured gardens, fountains and/or statues even in the smallest town; clear of litter and debris, with the odd streetsweeper spotted sweeping the gutters like life depends on it. It’s like the Moroccans are better at being European than the Europeans! … Except for the Arabic on the street signs and a disproportionate representation of green roof tiles (apparently a tribute being a well-associated Muslim colour).

Our first pitstop was in the University and ski resort town of Ilfane. It’s a private and pricey university, twinned with Georgetown University in Washington. The town is nestled into one of the Middle Atlas Mountain slopes and besides being renowned for skiing (getting snow up to 1m deep in town), it’s also known as the Little Switzerland of Morocco, having been built by the French in the 1930s with A-frame chalets and beautiful little cabins. It is gorgeous – and certainly worth an investigation for a cheap ski holiday!

We rolled into Marrakech at about 18h30 and checked into our hotel – a luxurious resort with gorgeous lobby with marble floors and enormous chandelier suspended from a triple volume section in the centre that hinted at the floors above. Automated doors led to a generous terrace with wonderfully extravagant swimming pools, welcome in the hotter drier climate than that from which we’d just come.

We had an hour before dinner to check in and make ourselves comfortable in our rooms, which turned out to be superb – and a welcome break from our bus!

The hotel dinner was excellent, including mash potatoes (my best!), roast turkey in lemon and herb gravy, a beef goulash type dish (Moroccan-style of course) and incredible creme caramel for dessert. Of course, the buffet offered far more than that, but it was these few simplicities that hit the spot and sated.

We’d planned to catch the 20h30 hotel shuttle to the famed Marrakech souk, but were dismayed when the bus filled before our eyes and the 4 of us were left standing on the pavement watching a busful of people disappear toward town!

Luckily, we’re not easily disheartened and we simply flagged down a taxi and negotiated a R50 return fare – and ended up regretting bothering with the shuttle at all, when our own steam was so convenient, cheap and easy. We agreed for the taxi driver to meet us at the designated spot (a KFC, definitely to be revisited for mealtime purposes later!) and hit the market with much excitement.

The market was chaos! Starting with the main square, with loads of entertainment, snake-charmers, drum circles and so on, there were literally thousands of people wandering around, soaking in the atmosphere. There was no way that the 4 of us would manage to maneuver together through the crowds in the dark, so we split up to shop. In the 6 square kilometres of shopping area on offer!

Mother and I picked an aisle and immersed. It was quite overwhelming so we decided to set the pace, researching and price-comparing in order to be ready for real action and quality purchasing the next day. Mother also did her fair share of Cinderella’ing, trying on every pair of bright yellow slippers she could get her hands (well, feet) on… And getting more and more depressed as each one was either too big or too small (or not yellow enough).

Time passed all too quickly and we were soon communed at the KFC, fruitless shopping trip behind us, but optimism that our prudence would stand us in good stead the next day. And optimism that our great hotel dinner might be a prelude to a great breakfast buffet.

Sadly, breakfast was far from greatness. While there was a revival with scrambled eggs and they added a pancake station, there was no french bread to make Vietnam sandwiches with – and still no bacon or bangers! Now very sorely missed!

Still, we were fed and watered and ready to go on the city tour when the coach arrived to fetch us. The tour started with the Mosque (of course) and Koutoubia minoret. All the Moroccan minorets are square, as is this one with its 3 x 18 carat balls of descending sizes on a spire atop the dome, and a 1kg ball of solid gold to top it all off.

The opulence continued at the Bab Agnar Gates, the most beautiful of the gates with cut stone arranged in clean, regular lines around the arch, floral decorations and calligraphy adorning the cornerstone and frame panels. This gate was famed for where the Berbers brought their fruit liquor (40% proof) down from the mountains to sell in the medina.

Then into the kasbah (fortress) and on to the royal residence. A maudlin visit to the Saadian mausoleum for 16th century rulers. Traditionally, the dead weren’t embalmed, and were buried lying on their side facing Mecca. As was customary, they would always separate kings, princes and queens, burying important people in the centre quad.

We entered the Bahia Palais, which became a tourist sight in 1956 alongside Moroccan Independence (you can only see about a quarter of it though, because the king still uses the suites when he’s in town). The palace took 17 years to build – 1893 to 1900 – and was reserved for the first of the 4 official wives to bear a son. He also had 24 concubines (bought or given as gifts, aged 13-14 years old who at 35 become cleaners) to complete the harem. The palace covers 8 hectares, 4 of riad and 4 of rooms and buildings, all with tiles in natural mineral or vegetable colours. The walls are incredibly thick and other measures have been taken (like doors within doors) to insulate from searing summer heat and freezing winters.

We wound around, being shown this and that, including the leather works and steelworks (where business is largely conducted as in olden times – and the welders don’t cover their eyes and wear flipflops!) – and being taken into what we suspect are the ‘kickback’ stores, where guides get commission on sales generated from the guests they bring in. The most interesting of these was the pharmacy/spice shop combo, where they tried to flog us (over-priced) everything from “35 spice” to cumin to arnica to Argan oil to mint tea. Of course, Mother wasn’t falling for that and “went to the loo”, returning with a gorgeous big leather overnight bag! She’d snuck out and down the road to haggle a bargain with the leather man! 😀

Can’t really blame her. Knowing the El-Jamaal Fna Souks cover 6 square kilometres of shopping, means that if you miss the opportunity to buy there and then, you may very well not be able to find your way back to that store. We’d learned this the hard way at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul last year! …And we were quite committed to committing when it came to the day’s shopping. We methodically ticked off the items on the list that we’d plotted and planned over the duration of the trip, added some new ones and bargained and bought like we were on a trolley dash!

Still, we seemed to be out-shopped by Monique (a short plump half of a middle-aged couple) from Brussels, who doesn’t seem to be able to resist any peddlar who walks up to her (and who doesn’t bargain). We laughed when we met back at the bus and there was Monique with a Moroccan cotton shirt (not even close to her size) slung on her back, 2 mens leather belts fastened around the waist, bangles up to her elbow, bulging shopping bags clutched in her henna’ed hands, husband in newly acquired silly hat in tow.

There was an hour to freshen up and then it was back in the bus and off to the Fantasia cultural evening. We ended up sitting with our Saffa friends and the Canadian couple from Ontario; much easier company than the Lebanese and Belgian couples we’d shared the awkward lunch with en route to Rabat.

Dinner was a bit weird. Started with soup, plated at the table. Seemed to be what I’ve seen (imaginatively) described as “Moroccan”, ie a hearty consistency with barley, chickpeas and veg. Not quite sure if it had meat or not. As has become customary, we asked for butter or olive oil to have with our bread. As is customary, they said they’d get it and never did. They don’t do ice either, which is annoying. It’s so subgrade drinking Coca-Cola – or wine for that matter – without ice. It’s really the simple things that make you appreciate home!

The next course was even more odd, because it was so unexpected. The waitress delivered a platter with half a sheep on it. Literally. We got the entire right side of a sheep between the 6 of us! Just plopped on the table without instruction, carving utensils or any sort of accompaniment. No garnish, starch or veg! We hacked at the poor beast, each serving ourselves using our own knives and forks. Such a pity, because so much must have been wasted – and it was very tasty.

If we thought it was odd, the Canadians were horrified. They *really* didn’t know how to operate this course. The wife picked a bit at their end of the sheep and was visibly unimpressed. When asked, they said the lamb was a bit dry and, seeing as our end was very succulent, I suggested she try the shank. She didn’t know what it was, so I told her it’s the bit that looks like a drumstick. She pulled on the leg bone, which came out clean (the lamb was that tender!) and she placed it gingerly on her plate, looking at it puzzled as to why I’d suggest it. Glad to clarify that I really meant the knob of meat around the top of the bone, it was very rewarding to see how much they enjoyed the meat when they eventually recovered it. It all made better sense later when the couple told us they’d met when they worked at McDonald’s…

When the table was cleared, another server delivered the next course. Chicken and veg with couscous. Another mountain of food! It was a bit dry so we made a plan and nabbed an extra bowl of the hearty soup to use as gravy. An excellent plan!

Dessert was (yet another) bowl of fruit. Just fruit. Costa chopped up and apple, which we passed around. I did the same with an orange. There seems to be no middle ground in Morocco – either obscene amounts of baked goods or dull and boring whole fruits. These people really need to embrace an elegant simplicity like ice-cream and chocolate sauce!

The whole way through dinner, we had entertainment brought to us. Groups of musicians and dancers from the various Moroccan tribes. They have a very different idea of tempo and rhythm to ours, to be sure! We specifically enjoyed an odd little hand-flicking dance that the first lot did, which looked like they were trying to dry a fresh manicure. It was also unusual that their “dancers” clearly weren’t recruited based on looks or age, nor were they the usual scantily clad belly-dancer types but rather draped in quite excessive layers of cloth and carrying a tune seemed optional for their “singers”. The beat was carried by handheld drums and/or tambourines and one tiny wrinkled old tambourinist seemed to take a shine to Mother, doing a bizarre Arrested Development chicken dance, alternating banging the tambourine in her ear and leering and jeering at her with contorted facial expression. By the time the group moved on (with Chicken Dancer continuously turning back and throwing parting shots in our direction), Jolande, Diane and I had tears streaming down our face from laughter! Such a pity that their partners had missed all the fun, having pleaded “smoke break” (despite neither being smokers) as the troupe approached, tired from being cajoled into getting up and dancing with the entertainers. Might have been a different story if they had been the slinky sexy belly-dancers! 😉

After dinner, we moved to sit on the concrete grandstands facing the centre quad to watch the belly-dancing show (in the conventional sense and outfit) and horse displays. The equestrian elements were divided into 2 types, the traditional warlike charging and tricks and balancing acts by skilled horseman on horseback; dismounting and remounting, running alongside and remounting and twisting and slipping around the horse like it was a gymnastics prop! The charging was a bit more disturbing, with the riders in flowing robes and turbans, frothing the horses up to quite a pace and then skidding on the brakes and shooting their rifles in the air (crackers not bullets). The real thing must’ve been quite fearsome… But it can’t be fun for those horses having to endure that every night.

All the entertainers came out and paraded around the field a bit in a sort of closing ceremony and then the night was called a close and the bus took us back to the hotel.

Having a later night than we have been, it was nice to have no plans for the morning so we could sleep in. We met our Saffas at 9 for breakfast and were ready well in time for the 10 o’clock shuttle into the market for a last whip around.

We didn’t buy (much) and the highlight was ending off with the much-craved KFC. I tried the Big Filler, which is chicken strips with cheese, ham (surprisingly; first pork we’ve seen in Morocco), garnish and ranch dressing. Served with McD’s style chips and Mirinda… met ys! Very delicious!

A shuttle back to the hotel and we’re packed and ready to move out. Back to Casablanca this arvie and then homeward bound tomorrow!