Category Archives: Travelogue

Travelogue Baltic 9: Stockholm


25-27 June 2016

The arrival into Stockholm’s Archipelago is breathtaking. As many as 24,000 islands filter from the Baltic to the city. The scenery calms from the windswept, wild beauty of the uncivilised woods, meadows and beaches into the mellow countryside of pretty little villages and summerhouses, then into the harbour, where at the mouth of Lake Malaren lie the 14 islands that make up Stockholm.

The Vikings passed through this Archipelago long ago, but the official story begins in 1252 when the fort was first built. A town grew around it and boomed when Sweden became a major Baltic power. Under Gustav III, the city began to flourish culturally and is now known for opera, cutting edge crystal design and Nobel peace prize ceremonies.

Our plan for Day 1 was to cover the islands closest to where our ship was docked in Frihamnen (Djurgarden, Skeppsholmen and Sodermalm). The hotel we were moving to the next day was across town in Soder so we would cover the further away sights from there in Day 2 (Gamla Stan, Kungsholmen and Ostermalm).

Little plays to plan though and after a brisk walk into town, we discovered that Djurgarden is essentially a big park – and the southern end of a massive “city national park”, which had been reserved for deer hunting until someone came up with the genius idea of preserving the green belt and opening it up to the public.  A very impressive commitment by the state since such a vast amount of prime real estate must be worth a mint!

Djurgarden is also home to the Nordic Museum, which looked great from the outside but didn’t stand a chance in luring us in from the bright sunny day (which we’d learnt was a gift not to be squandered in the Baltic!).

Further down the road is the famous open-air museum, Skansen, containing 150 buildings brought together as a representation of Swedish life, from farmer to aristocrat. While it sounded like it might be a better museum than most, the long queue and the promise of much more ahead prevented us from paying it a visit.

We took time to stop at the ABBA Museum and get our photos taken in one of those life-size posters with the faces cut out – so, yes, we are now immortalised as part of the Swedish supergroup! – on our route past Tivoli (same name as the one in Copenhagen; not sure if there’s a connection) funfair to catch a ferry to the next island.

We made a quick calculation at the ferryport and coughed up for an Access pass card which would cover us for all public transport for the full duration. They only do 24 and 72 hours, which is unfortunate since we needed for 48, but 250 Krone all in was still compelling versus 40 Krone per journey – and the hassle of getting tickets each time.

The hop from Djurgarden to Skeppsholmen is so short that it’s a wonder they didn’t just build a bridge instead. We posited that maybe ships pass through so the bridge would have to be too high. Or maybe there are so many islands that building a bridge feels like a slippery slope that would necessitate more bridge building. Or maybe it’s just a habit thing; there was a framed history on the wall, all in Swedish, which hinted the ferry might’ve been in operation since 1860 (as a small, open air service for a handful of people at a time).

Skeppsholmen had been home to the Swedish naval fleet since 1640. Everything had been built in “the era of the fleet” but have served as museums, restaurants and schools since military operations were phased out from the 1940s. New buildings, like the Moderna Museet, have been added and new uses are being found for dormant building, eg reopening the Torpedo Workshop for use for the performing arts.

A short bridge connects Skeppsholmen to a small island called Kastellholmen, named after the small citadel – Lilla Kastellet – at its highest point. Built in 1848, it is now a conference venue. Both islands form part of the city national park so are very green and make for a pleasant walkaround. Sad but true that some of the most wondrous places were only initially populated for their military purpose.

Our intention had been to go to Sodermalm next, for the remainder of the afternoon, but we got a bit sidetracked when we found our self-guided tour left is on the far side of Skeppsholmen so the most logical path was to walk along the bridge onto the mainland, along the harbour and then walk through Gamla Stan (the Old Town), which was the main item on Day 2’s agenda, holding and surrounded by most of the buildings of historical significance.

Nevermind though, it was lovely day so we embraced the change in plan and admired the scenery.

We’d been a bit ruined on being impressed by scale after grandiose St Petersburg, but otherwise Stockholm would be none slouch in weighing in on a Big Fancy Building competition.

The Royal Palace, at the foot of the Norrbro Bridge, contains 608 rooms making it one of the largest palaces in Europe. City Hall on Kungsholmen Island is built from 8 million bricks and 19 million mosaic tiles, houses the Municipal council and hosts the Nobel Prize Banquet each winter. Riddarholms Church was founded in the 13th Century, has been the Royal mausoleum for 400 years and is known for its distinctive open work metal spire.

Lots and lots of big fancy buildings – I just hope we can still tell them all apart when putting together the photo album!

Gamla Stan was packed and, being a 30 degree day, sweaty. The roads, being authentic in an authentic medieval town, are narrow and roughly cobbled so it’s not ideal for sightseeing, being herded and bumped around. It did smell good though from the number of open-fronted bakeries and ice-cream shops preparing and selling fresh waffles and ice-cream cones on the streets.

I’d hardly say we did it justice, but we did do it… all the way through to the bridge on the other side which connected to Sodermalm, our originally intended destination for the day.

We’d run out of steam a bit to start a whole new island, so picked a waterside pub instead from which to do some sedentary spectating.

We’d chosen well, being across the road from the ferry port, and even more serendipitously, the ferry arrived exactly when we needed it.

This took us back to Tivoli where we intended to grab a bus back to the ship from Djurgarden. Sadly, our luck had run out and we’d missed the last bus (by less than 10 minutes!), so we had to walk back but, as always, the walk back felt much shorter because we knew where we were going, so it wasn’t so bad.

Our return to the ship was bittersweet. We were glad to be back, but sad it was our last night.

Making the most of the time we had left, we did the rounds of a few of our favourite things  (like quesidilla and rare roast beef slices at the Park Café) before returning to our cabin to shower for dinner and pack (we’d been instructed to pack an overnight bag and leave our luggage in the passage by 11pm).

We’d been seated in the same section of the dining room all week, so had gotten to know our server (Melbert) and his assistant (Cesar) quite well. It was sad to be sharing our last meal – but they upped the ante with a whole basket of Christian’s favourite seeded rolls and a bonus plate of starters AND main courses. We may never adjust to real life meals again!

Disembarkation is, as you can imagine with anything with 2000 guests involved, quite a process. We were initially assigned to Group 8, designated to meet in the Safari Club at 06h45, but this would leave us waaaaay to early to check into our hotel so we pleaded and were reassigned to the second last group (30; 08h50).

This meant we didn’t have to get up at silly o’clock (although the sun would have risen several hours earlier) and had enough time for a full breakfast at the Windjammer, which was serving until 8.30!

In typical fashion, it was raining. We’d gotten first glimpse on waking that there was a light drizzle… and it hadn’t abated any by 9 when we left the Serenade of the Sea for the last time.

Our intention had been to use our Access passes to catch a bus to our hotel but the weather made that proposition far less attractive – especially since we now had 3 big suitcases to lumber. We flaked and caught a taxi to Solna.

Solna was to the East on the mainland and I’d chosen our hotel there for a few reasons:
1) diametrically opposite to the harbour so we’d sightsee from homebase to centre point and back each day
2) it was in the direction of and looked like an easy commute to the airport
3) there’s no such thing as bargain accommodation in Stockholm, which made the Radisson an unusually economical choice
4) breakfast included (which we would need after the gluttony on the cruise)
5) free wifi

The hotel was great. Even though we arrived very early (before 10), they happily checked us in and gave us our room… which was ENORMOUS  (and not just as compared with our cabin)… and on the 11th floor with a spectacular view. The hotel also had lots of amenities (sauna, gym, restaurant), attached to a shopping mall, and had a bus station and a train station across the road so very convenient. You never *know* these things from the online ads and descriptions, but this was all we’d hoped for and more.

We resigned ourselves to a truncated walking tour for the afternoon – based on the weather – and thanked our lucky stars that a) we’d gone so off course the previous day and b) we still had our (3) brollies.

The only things I really wanted to see were the Changing of the Guard (at 1pm at the Palace) and some of the sights from the Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo et al).

We grabbed a Metro into town and effortlessly changed lines to get out at Gamla Stan. It was a lot more manageable than the day before, possibly because it was Sunday but probably mostly because of weather. With the rain little more than a fine intermittent drizzle, it was actually a pleasure for sightseeing – although won’t have made for such great photos as compared to a lovely blue sky.

We hightailed to get to the Palace for the stroke of 1, but needn’t have rushed. The Changing of the Guard is a lengthy affair – 70 or so marching band, complete with drummers and full brass section, so it takes some time for them to snake through town to get to the Palace. Of course, being elevated at the Palace (there’s a long steep ramp up to the entrance) gives a great vantage point and it was a sight to behold watching the soldiers slow-march from the mainland along Norrbro toward us.

… and then turn left past the Palace.

… and go around the corner.

Good to know for next time that they circle the building and do most of the show on the other side! I surmise we had placed ourselves at the back entrance.

There was quite a crowd around the other side – and people have terrible umbrella etiquette! – so we saw little, but could hear everything.  And we were surrounded by beautiful buildings and statues and a formidable church, so there was plenty to gawk at.

Our Plan B for the afternoon was exploring a pocket of museums in Ostermalm, just off town Central so, since the weather was still a bit bleak, we put the plan in motion.

Old hats at public transport by now, it was a quick ferry to Djurgarden and a tram across the bridge into Ostermalm.

Taking the opportunity while on home turf, it seemed only fitting to try the Museum of Swedish history. Their feature exhibition was on Vikings, with an impressive collection of artefacts, providing bone-chilling detail on the hard core existence people of that time lived.

There were a couple of skeletons that had been recovered and laid with buttons, gold thread and jewellery that had survived their owners, but it was the skeleton of a horse and dog that got me. They’d obviously been sacrificed “to the gods” and the horse had been killed by conk to the head and the dog on its back. Not nice.

The Museum had put some effort into making the exhibit more upbeat though and there were several interactive options in the courtyard, including archery and crafts but, like the napkin folding and towel animals classes on the cruise, we gave them a skip.

The weather was much better by this time so we renewed interest in the Millennium Tour.

The internet was rich with information on how awesome the tour is and how it’s not to be missed, but details were scant on when, where or how. Dated articles directed to the Stockholm City Museum on Sodermalm as the starting point for the tour (“on Saturdays” with no time given, not that it mattered seeing as it was Sunday anyway) or to source a map for a self-guided tour… but the museum is closed for renovations (until 2018!!)

We’d asked at the tourist office in Gamla Stan and they directed us to the tourist office in Central so, since Ostermalm neighbours Central, we hopped on a tram to find the tourist office.

The Girl With The Tourist Office Uniform (disturbingly) had no idea what we were talking about. We told her that The Girl In Gamla Stan had told us about tour maps and, with a little looksee under the counter, TGWTTOU found a Millennium Tour map!

It was in German, Italian and Spanish.

But it was a map.

And, we later found out, it was supposed to cost us 40 Krone (ZAR 80), so SCORE! (As much as a trilingual Trilogy map not in English can be considered a score).

Thrilled at our find, we made our way back to Sodermalm, negotiating our way deftly through the (now very familiar) Gamla Stan.

All this around and abouting was thirsty work so we combined lunch-on-the-go with lunch at McDonald’s so we could use their free wifi to translate the map.

Stieg Larsson’s stories of crusading journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, and his unlikely side-kick, a tattooed wildchild with a penchant for violence called Lisbeth Salander reveal more of Stockholm than its signature dramatic waterside views, designer shows and classic cafés. Larsson chose his real-time home, Sodermalm, to be the homebase of the good guy characters in his fictional works, quite pointedly having the official and evil influences across the bridge from his beloved island.

Our little tour took us past:
1. Bellmansgatan – Mikael’s attic apartment
2. Monteliusvagen – a gravel walkway overlooking Lake Malaren and the old town. Eerily misty from the rain!
3. Lundebron – Lisbeth’s original apartment
4. Mellqvist Kaffebar – hip café where Mikael met both Lisbeth and Erika, his mistress. Now just called Kaffebar.
5. Synagogue on 13 St Paul – nondescript and quite unexciting
6. Gotgatan – a main feature road where Millennium offices are and where Lisbeth shops at a 711
7. Fiskargatan 9 – Lisbeth’s new 21-room apartment  (which she only uses 3 rooms of)
8. Mosebacke – a square with a statue of entwined sisters in the shadow of the looming water Tower
9. Kvarnen – an old world tavern  (the stained glass windows say 1908) where Mikael enjoyed a drink and Lisbeth used to meet her rock-chick friends. Now 178 Krone for 2 beers!

We had planned on a traditional Swedish meal at Kvarnen for dinner – elk meatballs, smoked reindeer sort of thing – but the prices were outlandish (R400 for meatballs and mash), so we Googled a Plan B.

Sodermalm is known for being very trendy, in a sort of grungy urban way. We’d seen our first litter, more graffiti and a few hobos, which was dramatically different to the refinement of the Central district or the natural beauty of the leafier islands. But it is also (allegedly) rich with traditional food options so it was a question of cross-checking location, price and opinions.

According to several reviews, Meatballs for the People on Nytorgatan (600m away) was the place to go for atmosphere, flavour and price. Sounded like a win.

It was relatively easy to find… but closed for the summer! What?! And such a pity too because the venue looked so fun and the menu spot-on!

The sign in the window did recommend one of their other 3 sister restaurants, the closest of which was just around the corner so we thought we’d give it a try.

The restaurant we found ourselves guided to was a trendy lounge bar with an even more trendy artisanal menu. Not a thing we wanted to try and CRAZY prices!

Out of steam and ideas, we decided to go back to Solna and let fate decide.

Smugly using our Access cards to the fullest, we jumped on the Metro and crossed town to get home, grateful to have the mall annex on our hotel to fall back on. And ended up at Burger King.

All was not lost on the meatball front though and we were delighted to find that our hotel included meatballs in their breakfast buffet! Nice one, Radisson!

Travelogue Baltic 8: Riga


24 June 2016

Riga was a specific inclusion on our cruise request when we were shopping for quotes, after having seen it in the tail-end of a travel show and it seemed so quaint and pretty. There was also a cruise option a night shorter but that excluded the Latvian capital, which seemed a shame since it’s a relatively far-flung destination unless you’re already in the neighbourhood, as we would be. We were just very lucky that this cruise fell on our first choice of dates as well – a universal sign that this was the perfect Honeymoon choice.

And now here we were. In Riga.

Having learnt from our too-early start in Tallinn, we had a leisurely start to the day. Slept in a bit, hit the gym, casual breakfast at the Windjammer… and a good thing too because when we arrived we found out that the day before was their big Independence Day (celebrating the fall of the Communist regime) so the whole city was only opening at 12.

This gave us a chance to have a bit of an unfettered walk-around… everywhere, as it turned out. Riga is very small!

The shuttle from the ship had deposited us just short of the Opera House. A great big beautiful building with manicured gardens in front and a river with bridges equal in form and function alongside. Of course, it seemed a bit like Mini Town after Peterhof!

Across the gardens we found what turned out to be the Freedom Monument. A bit short on information, we tried to eavesdrop on a tour group, but we’d missed the gist of the story so moved on.

Our attentions – once we were past the McDonald’s that was doing a roaring trade, of hungover party-goers no doubt – were caught by a cylindrical castle covered in ivy. There was a weapons museum attached to it, which we would like to have seen, but it was closed on the grounds of it being The Day After ‘n all.

No mind, we could see an impressive rooftop of sorts from there so headed in that direction. It was the Church in the town square. This was clearly a major attractions because everything was at a glance geared to tourists; souvenir shops, waitrons in traditional dress, boards offering traditional dishes. On closer inspection, this was Dome Church and actually Dome Square, so we headed off to find the Town Hall Square.

We took the long way around so that we could incorporate walking along the river and in 2 short blocks time we were at the Daugava River, where we found a statue of a big fella in a glass case. Fortunately his story had an English translation:

Legend has it that a long time ago a tall strong man cold Lielaps Kristaps (Big Christopher) carried people across the River Daugava. While sleeping one night, Kristaps heard a small child crying on the other side of the river. He immediately rose to fetch the child and began to carry him. Half way across the child became so heavy that Kristaps barely managed to get to the other side. Exhausted he lay the child to sleep in his shack and fell asleep himself. When Kristaps awoke the next morning he found a large chest of gold where the child had been. When Kristaps died the money was used to found the city of Riga.

So there you have it. As good as gospel.

The other story (according to the tourist brochure) is that, being at the mouth of the Daugava River, Riga became an important port along the Vikings trade route, catching the attention of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of merchant guilds who dominated the Baltic maritime trade along the coast of Northern Europe.

A little less romantic a story, but a trifle more believable.

Having walked the full length of the outskirts – from bridge to bridge – we then returned to the Old Town, there were signs of life, as everything opened up again, as is the way of the day after the night before.

We consulted the map to see what was left to do. The cityscape includes a 13th century cathedral, a castle, a few dreary Soviet highrises and dozens of Art Nouveau buildings. It’s a haven of museums with the Latvian War Museum, Art Museum Riga Bourse, Latvian Museum of Architecture, Museum of History of Riga and Navigation, Barricades Museum, Museum of Ancient Baltic Jewellery, Museum of Photography… Museum of film / sport / porcelain… you name it, they had a museum for it!

We went to none of those!

We did spot something called The Cat House, which piqued our interest because we’d seen the logo on lots of stuff in tourist shops.

Opposite the Great Guild stands 2 turrets, a black cat with an arched back sitting on each.  Legend has it that the Guild denied membership to a well-off tenant who was so infuriated him that he had the 2 cat sculptures made and put on the turrets with their tails turned towards the offices of the Guild. One of the Guild elders in a court proceeding turned the cats to a more appropriate angle.

But the statement was made, the annals written and the t-shirt gotten (literally in this case).

The Old Town is a UNESCO Heritage site and looks like a fairytale with its cobbled streets, but feels Parisian with its buzzing social life. Now with the town in full tilt and us having seen what needed seeing, we took our last half hour to sit and catch a breath, watching the Latvian day go by.

Travelogue Baltic 7: Helsinki

22 June 2016

Having done little to no research for Helsinki, our Cruise Compass gave a sweetly succinct history to prime us:

In 1550, the king of Sweden had big dreams for newly founded Helsinki. Unfortunately, a series of disastrous fires, plague and war kept the town from growing…. until another series of events changed its path forever. After Russia defeated Sweden and annexed Finland in 1809, Czar Alexander I moved the capital – and the university – from Turku to Helsinki to be closer to St Petersburg. The city flourished, but Russian rule was short-lived. The Finns declared their independence in 1917, endured a devastating Civil War, and emerged with a new Republican government. Helsinki has since been its sparkling capital. Noted for its graceful architecture and elegant gardens; the Senate Square’s neoclassical style has Russian written all over it. Finnish art nouveau also defines much of the cityscape, with the mermaid fountain near the fish market its symbol.

Seeing as everything we’d read about Helsinki spoke of how small and compact it is and since we could see what looked to be a church spire of consequence on the not too distant horizon, we skipped the ship shuttle into town in favour of making the walk part of our own tour.

Right from leaving the docks there were signs of life: pierside restaurants, people on bicycles and pushing prams, a large and lovely park… only problem was that our location didn’t feature on the map we had. It was from the Cruise Compass and we rationalised that either it was because people getting the ship shuttle didn’t need to know or, more cynically, that without the knowledge would be compelled to take the shuttle.

With the spire to guide us, we simply felt that we were getting the full experience; the suburbs that others didn’t get to see. It helped that it was a beautiful sunny day (but not too hot) and that the city is so pretty and green.

It must’ve been a good 3km walk to the city centre, but we did manage to tick off a recommended sight or 2 en route.

We entered Helsinki at Kauppatori Market Square, located at the harbour end of the esplanade. A lively and colourful spot with everything from fruit, flowers, vegetables and freshly caught fish to local handicrafts, the market was a buzz with locals grocery shopping and tourists stroking woollen merchandise and sampling Finnish and Lapland delicacies. Strawberries must be a thing in Helsinki because scores of people were eating them straight out of little baggies or punnets.

Our rudimentary ship map indicated that there was a tourist office just off the square, which made for a logical first stop.

The tourist office is very jacked; lots of maps and brochures, lots of fluent and friendly staff and access to buy tickets to anything that needed.

A quick flip through the “Hel Yeah” book and we’d pegged our first 2 activities.

The first was Suomenlinna, only accessible by water, by a 15 minute ferry journey. The ferry departs from the east side of the market, opposite the presidential Palace. With 6 minutes until the next ferry to Suomenlinna, the lady at the counter chuckled good naturedly at our fluster as we stuffed our research materials in our tog bag and rushed through our thanks and goodbyes.

It was only upon reaching the ferryport – maybe a minute later, on the other side of the market and 100m away at most – that we realised why she was amused. We were possibly the only people in Helsinki rushing. There is no traffic, the people are relaxed and the public transport is superlative.

Suomenlinna is an irregular bastion fortress constructed on uneven terrain and on separate islands. Suomenlinna is also a UNESCO Heritage Site and one of the largest sea fortresses in the world, drawing over 800,000 visitors a year.

The main route across the fortress runs from North to south and takes in all the sights, so we got us a map and that’s what we did.

The brochure shared much of the back story to give context of what we were seeing.

Suomenlinna construction began in the 18th century (1748) when Finland was still part of the Kingdom of Sweden. It served as a Swedish naval base during the Russia Swedish War in 1788 before surrendering to the Russian army in the Finnish War in 1809. When Finland was incorporated as an autonomous part of the Russian Empire the fortress became a Russian base for the next 110 years, until it became a prisoner of war camp in the Finnish Civil War of 1918. In WWII it served as a coastal artillery, anti-aircraft and submarine base.

In 1973 the Finnish garrison vacated the islands and handed it over to the ministry of Education and Culture and today it is home to 800 or so permanent residents. It has the dubious honour of having served its role in the defence of 3 states – Sweden, Russia and Finland – with guns that still face west as a reminder of the period of Russian rule in the 19th century.

The islands are a completely open-air museum with guests free to explore the dark and murky tunnels inside the bastion walls. It can’t have been pleasant manning those bastions. They are far from comfortably and if chilly now on a perfect summer’s day, must’ve been freezing in winter!

Those first bastions lead to the Great Courtyard which has served as the main square since 1760s and now houses the tomb of August Ehrensvard (who must’ve been someone special, but there was no mention of him in the brochure and little more than his name and date – presumably of his death – in Roman numerals on his tomb).

The church on Suomenlinna did feature quite highly both in the materials from the tourist office and the Suomenlinna brochure. It was built to serve as a Russian Orthodox garrison church, but converted to a Lutheran church in the 1920s alongside Finnish independence. Its steeple doubles as a lighthouse for both air and sea traffic but besides that it’s a church among churches in a very church-intensive part of the world (and very plain after all the glitz and glam of the St Petersburg cathedrals!)

More interested in the military stuff (apparently), we beelined for Kustaanmiekka, which offers a view of the original bastion fortress as well as the late 19th century Russian defence line, complete with sand banks and artillery emplacements. Ramparts on Kustaanmiekka were built to house gunpowder during the Crimean War in the 1850s but with their big wooden doors and the grass grown over their rooves (presumably to hide and buffer the gunpowder reserves), they would fit just as well in The Shire.

What was more impressive was the collection of families on the postage stamp sized beach… SWIMMING!

To give perspective, it was a lovely summer’s day *for the Baltic*, meaning early 20 degrees without windchill, and clasping jersey neck together when the icy wind took up, which it frequently did.

The path next led to King’s Gate, built in 1753 as a ceremonial gateway to the fortress. The gate is built on the site where a ship carrying the fortress’s founder, King Adolf Frederik of Sweden, was anchored while he inspected the construction of the fortress. Royalty really did have it lush.

Last stop was at the Vesikko Submarine, the highlight of the tour for Christian. Built in the 1930s and having served in WWII, the Vesikko is literally one of a kind since, according to the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, Finland was forbidden to have submarines and all except this one were scrapped. It was moved to its present location and opened as a museum in 1973. Fully restored, Vesikko is an opportunity to get a feel for the confined spaces submariners worked in and find out more about the tech of the time. Christian’s report was that it was very small and cramped inside and that he was surprised that it was only manned by (up to) 4 people.

Feeling culturally enriched already, the only pressure left was getting to the 2nd excursion on time. SparaKOFF is a historic tram that has been converted into a pub and offers passengers a unique sightseeing tour on a 40 minute lap of the city. Of course, the next ride was on the hour, which was in 9 minutes time from when the ferry docked… and station was 600m away.

Again the only people rushing in Helsinki, we power-walked around the market, down the main shopping street, alongside another pretty park – a rarity to finding one right in a city centre – past the elegant cafés and the smartly dressed people casually occupying them, past the lilting quartet playing Vivaldi, barely eyeing the impressive architecture, but delighting in finding the corner to turn right at… and then alarm as we realised we didn’t know what we were looking for… until we saw it.

There it was. The red party tram.

On the other side of the red traffic lights.

We thought we’d just missed it.

But this is Helsinki. And the tram driver had seen us. So he waited for us.

What a fun way to see the city! The tram seats about 24 people at tables for 2 or 4 and has a wooden bar built in at the back end. With big bay windows either side and tram tracks that run past just about everything of interest, it’s the perfect way to get a lay of the land. And have a local beer or draught for a well-rounded experience.

From what we’d mentally navigated on the tram, we made Senate Square our first visit on foot. The Square sits on a site that originally held 17th Century buildings; it is considered a masterpiece of city design and neo-classical architecture with its current 19th century tenants. The Government Palace, Cathedral (a behemoth and a beauty, easily the most recognisable building in Helsinki), University buildings and The National Library of Finland surround the Square, with boutiques and restaurants in between.

The one thing we saw from the tram that we didn’t get to on foot was Temppeliaukio Church, which sounds very impressive, carved out of solid rock, with a dome spanning 70 feet, covered on the interior by 15 miles of Finnish copper wire. It is both a popular tourist destination and working church.

In the short time we had for our afternoon in Helsinki the big takeaway is that it’s very pretty. They’ve taken care to keep a lot of green in their city and it gives the whole place an overarching air of relaxation. The buildings are elegant, the people are graceful. It’s easily navigated on foot or, preferably on a sunny day like that one, enjoyed on ass, at a cafe or on the grass of one of the parks.

If we’d have an overnight in Helsinki there are several things we saw at the market that we’d have liked to try for dinner, ranging from fresh seafood delicacies to more meaty Lapland delights.

But we didn’t have an overnight so it was back to the ship for us. As always, the walk back felt so much shorter now that we knew what we were doing and we were back at the port within half an hour, having hatched a plot to pub crawl the ship to ensure that we had explored the whole thing.

Travelogue Baltic 6: St Petersburg – City Tour


21 June 2016

Our second day in St Petersburg started quite the opposite to the first. Both of us had a restless night, fearing we’d oversleep… and got up half an hour earlier than planned (which was *early* seeing as we had to be on the bus by 7 15!)

Fortunately, on this cruise there was no such thing as too early for breakfast and, in fact, the main dining room was ready and waiting to serve us. The main dining room offers a combination of buffet and table services, with waiters at the ready to bring you a plate of your own design. That seemed – even after the opulence of St Petersburg – a bit too decadent to be practical when there was a buffet right there, so we dished for ourselves and were soon happily munching our gravlax/bacon/eggs/sausage etc, at leisure with plenty of time to spare. As is typical, people at the table complained at how long their food was taking (no more than a few minutes), but they were damned if they’d get up and serve themselves!

Passport Control was even quicker than the previous day as they just checked the existing stamps, and we were among the first to meet on the platform, before the coach had even arrived.

The drive into town seemed that much quicker the second time around; possibly because more familiar so we were anticipating the destination with some sense of the route (you know how the way home always seems quicker than the way to a new place).

Our first familiar sight was the Neva River, the main waterway in the 6 islands that make up St Petersburg. We’d passed over it yesterday; today we stopped alongside it to cash in a wish by rubbing the brass gryphon heads that sit alongside the Egyptian sphinx statues.

This was also an ideal vantage point to get a good look up and down the wide river. It’s obvious to see why it is called the City of 1000 Palaces. St Petersburg is nothing short of magnificent with the grandiose facades along the riverfront of a bygone era where bigger was better and detail essential. No cost was spared in the elaborate designs and adornments that distinguished one mansion from the next in the single continuous row. Even the exterior paint job is meticulous, with a pretty consistent palette of dusky pastel colours with the slatted columns painted white.

We made another roadside stop further down the river at the Rostrums. These are tall terracotta twin columns with ships’ props embedded. At the base of each is a huge statue of a Poseidon/Neptune type chap. This section of the river was even wider (apparently it’s a kilometre wide – in the middle of town! – at some points) and the row of riverfront palaces as grand and consistent, side-by-side, as far as the eye can see in every direction. This city is nothing short of magnificent, in every conceivable sense of the word!

Even the roads are broad, which is unusual for an olden times city. Bearing in mind it was by now around 08h30 on a workday, traffic was thick, but not unmanageable (especially for us, long-suffering Jo’burg drivers). I suppose everything is relative though because even in the 1800s there was considered to be too much carriage traffic… but then the solution was simple: only nobleman could use the roads. That wouldn’t fly nowadays where it’s all for one and one for all and the parking is even free to be fair to everyone.

The next stop was St Isaac’s Church. The previous day’s tour had ended with a visit to a souvenir shop. We’d been assigned 20 minutes to shop but since Uda had flippantly pointed out some pretty notable sights through the window a few blocks earlier, we sprinted down the street retracing our bussteps to get a photo of the church, Palace and statue she’d printed out. Little did we know that we were returning to these the next morning!

The Church is a behemoth of a building, able to seat (well, stand, since Russians stand while worshipping) 14,000 people! It is adorned within an inch of its life and surrounded by the more of the same massive mansion block buildings in every direction. Words cannot describe the scale of everying in this city to the point that your imagination can form a true picture from my words!

The statue across the road from the church is of Nicholas I, Catherine the Great’s grandson. The (magnificent) palace behind it was built for his granddaughter, Maria, who refused to live in it because she couldn’t bear the thought of the view being her grandfather’s ass. Proper First World problems.

The big excursion for the morning was a visit to the Hermitage Museum. It kicked off with a bang when even the entrance Baroque staircase was a sight to behold. The decoration accent colour is gold. As in gold leaf, not golden coloured paint. Not my idea of a good time, but gives you an idea of the reckless abandon with which construction and decorating was undertaken. It was mostly the Empresses (Catherine I, Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great) that are credited with the elaborateness and, as Christian said, it was easier back then when the Csar/ina had complete control over all the wealth and could spend on whatever they chose. He further said it was a good thing too because otherwise we wouldn’t have these magnificent things to admire now, in a world that’s a lot more selective in its opulence.

The Hermitage tour kicks off with the Winter Palace, built for Elizabeth but used first by Catherine the Great. Catherine ceded to Alexander I, her favourite grandson. Then his brother Nicholas (from the statue) became Emperor. It’s a tricky story to follow.

“Hermitage” literally means “place for solitude” since the buildings were never meant to be public. Ironic for a building now this busy – as in queues out the door, down the street, around the corner, across the road and through the park! Fortunately we were there as it opened and had a pre-arranged group ticket so were just ahead of the rush.

The Small Hermitage is 2 buildings running parallel with a garden between them. This is where Catherine housed her art, which she was known to have never liked (but collected because collecting was fashionable). Since the art was hung as her private collection in her place of solitude, she is known to have said “only me and the rats can see it. And I think the rats like it more”

It is a formidable collection of legendary artists – so legendary that even I know them and I know less than nothing about art!

The first masterpiece I recognised was Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”, which he is credited as painting in 1669, the year he died, but had etched 30 year’s prior so really was a life work. This painting was in a whole section of tens of Rembrandt originals… and I’ve now got an appreciation for his talent. While I’m sure one is supposed to appreciate brushstrokes, paint texture and whatnot, the ones that appeal to me are where the paint is smooth and the likeness so good the painting could be a photograph.

The Hermitage also houses 2 of the only 14 Da Vinci originals that can be found outside of Italy, both of Madonna and Child (the religious icon lady, not the singer).

The full tour was about 2 hours and took us through the Winter Palace, Small / Old / New Hermitages and the Hermitage Theatre. We also saw some of Rafael’s paintings and a Michaelangelo sculpture, so were only a Donatello short of a set of turtles!

The next stop wasn’t far from the Hermitage, but took some effort for a bus in the traffic. We found a good drop off point outside Michael’s Palace – another magnificent hunk of building, which cost 7 million Roubles to build in a time when the entire social budget was 700k!

Our destination was the Church on Spilled Blood, which is located on the spot of assassination of Alexander II (son of Nicholas I). He was very popular because he abolished serfdom and made military conscription compulsory for all (previously noblemen were exempt). He also encouraged Finland’s autonomy, liberated Bulgaria and sold Alaska to the USA. Obviously though you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs and thus this was the 8th attempt on his life – and was aimed at overthrowing monarchy. Terrorists threw a bomb under his carriage. He wasn’t injured but the General next to him died immediately. The Csar – being the good guy he was – got off his carriage to see if anyone was hurt or needed help and the assassins got him with a second bomb. He was badly injured and died 2 hours later in the Winter Palace.

Alexander’s son commissioned the church at the place of his death in his honour. He was so popular that the nobles donated a million Roubles and the common people another half bar. 700 square metres of mosaics don’t come cheap! … Although they do save a fortune on pews since Russians pray standing.

We were running a bit ahead of schedule so Uda called ahead to see if we could go straight to lunch. We were initially batted, but the host venue called back about 5 minutes later saying we could come in 15, so we took a walk down to Nevsky Prospekt (the main shopping street) to get better photos of the big church monument thing that commemorated the victory in the 1812 Napoleonic Wars.

Lunch was served at the Museum of Fine Arts. Based on how particular they were about our time of arrival and the fact that we were served at tables in the middle of the foyer, I surmise this to be a limited offer for which they close the museum over lunch.

Salad was already plated at our place settings, with caviar canapés and bread on the table for self-service. Then followed a bowl of borscht and a plate of chicken stroganoff. Strawberry sorbet to close. It probably was a treat of a meal… but we’ve been spoilt by the restaurants on the cruise ship. We may never be able to eat normally again!

Last on the itinerary was the Cathedral of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, another baroque construction, consecrated in 1733. This was the first main cathedral built in St Petersburg, as a memorial to their 18th century military glory and is the burial place for the Imperial House of Russia.

Peter the Great’s daughter Catherine had been buried in 1708 in the wooden church that stood on this spot and which laid foundation for the creation of this Cathedral to house the Royal tombs of the Romanov Imperial House, and which is currently the final resting place of 46 members of the dynasty.

We were starting to piece together the story and from what we could tell it was:
Peter the Great (unified Russia, moved capital to St Petersburg)
Catherine I (Cinderella
Peter II (Peter the Great’s grandson, last of the male direct line of Romanovs)
Anna (Peter the Great’s niece)
Ivan (Anna’s niece’s infant son, ruled for a year… as an infant)
Elizabeth (seized throne from Ivan; Peter the Great’s daughter)
Peter III (Anna’s nephew; assassinated within 6 months by his wife, Catherine the Great)
Catherine II (Catherine the Great, ruled 34 years)
Paul I (Catherine’s son; ruled 4 years, 4 months, 4 days, strangled in his bed)
Alexander I (Paul’s son, ruled 24 years and died of typhus)
Nicholas I (Alexander’s brother, ruled 30 years and died of pneumonia)
Alexander II (Nicholas’s son, assassinated at Church on Spilled Blood)
Alexander III (Alexander II’s son)
Nicholas II (Alexander III’s son, married to Alexandra)

The Romanov line ended with the October Revolution where the Bolsheviks murdered Nicholas and his family so that there was no chance of returning to a Csarist regime. The whole family were buried unceremoniously at the time, but much later disinterred and brought to their own designated tomb in the Cathedral.

Quite a maudlin end to the day, but reaffirms St Petersburg as a place rich in history and stories of great victories and great tragedies.

Driving out of the city once again, it’s such a contrast of the beautiful elegant mansions built in the age of opulence versus the functional-to-a-fault grey compounds so obviously built by the Communists. Still enormous though, which seems to just be the St Petersburg way.

It was with regret that we said our goodbyes to St Petersburg as it grew smaller on what should have been the sunset, but of course wasn’t seeing as it was the longest day of the year, with darkness of less than 40 minutes so the sun was still high in the sky at 8 o’clock at night!

Travelogue Baltic 5: St Petersburg – Peterhof

20 June 2016

The day started with a mad dash. We had overslept and woke – with panic! – at 07h48, almost an hour later than planned since we needed to disembark by 08h30 and of course still needed to get breakfast on board!

Fortunately the weather was good so less layers (and no brolly hunt!) meant quicker prep and we were pounding the passages just over 10 minutes later, hair-wash day ‘n all!

Christian, ever-cautious planner as he is, insisted we go past the meeting place (on the other end of the ship from the Windjammer breakfast bar) first. Turned out to be a good call as we were issued our stickers and instructions on where to meet the bus (in 45 minutes; on the other side of immigration) leaving just enough time to have a flash breakfast. Well, hopefully enough time; there was still the gamble of how long passport control would take (but it was a risk we were willing to bear).

We probably did ourselves a favour by being that little bit later judging by the queues, which were virtually non-existent. Other passengers hadn’t been so lucky, had overestimated the time required and consequently been sitting on the bus for the better part of an hour already.

A visa is required for shore excursions in Russia. If you make your own plans, you need to arrange your own visa. If you do the ship’s excursions you travel on a “Captain’s visa”, which really just means it is included in the package and doesn’t require any additional paperwork. We’d done the latter since it was so much easier and visas are an expensive exercise, so sailed (pun intended) through passport control.

We were perfectly to time, arriving at our assigned coach just before 9. Our guide, Uda, greeted us warmly. She gave it another few minutes before expressing that we were waiting on the last 5 guests on our roll for the day. When they still weren’t with us 10 minutes later, she did a few rounds of hurried counting up and down the aisles, double-checking herself. Counting sounds like hard work in Russian (although they probably say the same about us).

Starting with the usual pleasantries, Uda told us we were lucky to have such a warm, clear blue-skies day, sharing that St Petersburg usually only enjoys around
60 sunny days a year. She wasn’t surprised at all that it had been cold and wet in Tallinn the previous day. So much for summer!

The drive into town was about 20 minutes. Uda filled the time with stories about the city, its history and its name.

The city was obviously named after St Peter. The name was changed during first World War because St Petersburg sounded too German, so it was changed to Petrograd (“grad” means city in Russian) to make it sound more Russian. In 1924 it was then renamed Leningrad after Lenin died and was only changed back to St Petersburg in 1991 with the fall of the Communist Empire.

The city is held in esteem to this day by the rest of the country, having gained hero status in the 900 day siege in WWII. The city held the Germans at bay for almost 3 years, but not without loss. Desperately starved of food, the siege shrunk the population by half (mostly because of starvation and exposure) to 1,5 million people. Soldiers and workmen were rationed to 250 grams of bread (or similar substitutes when there was no bread) and general populous half of that. To top it all off, they were subjected to one of the coldest winters, with temperatures dropping to up to 40 degrees below, with no electricity and no heating.

Now the city is back up to 5 million people, thanks to the immigre who come to work and study (this is the cultural and educational capital of Russia) and is the second biggest behind Moscow, which is 600 km away and has in excess of 15 million people.

It sounds like St Petersburg has had more than its fair share of strife, in the early days attributed to its position as strategic trade route between Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. This sparked the 21 year war (1700 – 1721) with Sweden. Peter the Great won back St Petersburg against Charles VII of Sweden – a highly revered military leader of the time so it was quite the coup – and established his summer Palace, Peterhof, as monument to the victory. His vision were completed OTT, using the Palace of Versailles as his muse, complete with mansions, gardens that went on for days and endless fountains.

Peterhof was our destination for Day 1 of the tour.

On our way out of town, Uda shared with us about how the people of this city lived and live. In olden times there was a big divide between the haves and the have nots.  St Petersburg is dubbed “The City of 1000 Palaces” because it is so grand with a more than representative sample of mansions and stately buildings. The royal and noble people built enormous places, ridiculously decadent in both size and decor. The ground floor would house the hundreds (or in some cases, like the Winter Palace, thousands) of staff required to maintain the place. The owners would then occupy upper floor/s, hosting parties with reckless abandon… if they were there at all.

The Bolsheviks confiscated these inner-city palaces from the aristocracy during the Revolution and nationalised them, turning them into communal flats. The palaces were reallocated room by room, such an entire family would occupy a single room, sharing kitchen and bathrooms with other families. The palaces went from being decadently airy to providing an average of 5 square metres per person.

Uda told us that most families had a dacha (modest chalet) or cottage (quite roomy generally double storey house) outside the city too. This is where they would escape the city in the summer to go to the forests or swimming at the lake (presumably dropping everything on those 60 sunny days she spoke of). From what I can gather, these may have been the family homes that they occupied before moving into the allocated quarters in the redistributed Palace accommodations. Uda’s family dacha was 100km south of St Petersburg, she told us, which had been very far out back in the day, but was the perfect “just out of town” now that the city had grown so much (sounds a bit like Hartebeespoort back home).

We arrived to Peterhof, able to see immediately the grandeur old Peter had intended. Enormous buildings in yellow with white columns and trim, expansive cobbled and gravelled courtyard and walkways, sculpted and manicured gardens in perfect symmetry as far as the eye could see and fountains. LOTS of fountains.

The tour ended up being a walk through the gardens, pointing out notable fountains from the 150 on the property. Not naturally being one excited by such things, it was impossible not to be impressed. If not by the magnitude of the project, then by the impressive application of rudimentary physics and technology, using gravity to move the unbelievable amounts of water to these (largely aesthetic) features. There is no internal recycling of water at all. The water moves from springs about 4km away to the storage lakes, through the fountains and then out to the Baltic Sea.  30 cubic kilolitres of water a day!

There were some fountains of deep symbolic intent – eg the Eve fountain in the Western end of the garden symbolising the end of paradise, with her matching Adam on his own fountain in the Eastern end – and some where enormous effort had been put in above and beyond the fountain, like a checkerboard cascade which had been designed to match the Palace’s blue and white checkerboard floor and which had all sorts of statues (including some oddly out of place dragons) on either side and at the top.

Peter I also had some whimsical ideas like the water road he had put in. With jets on either side of the sand road, twice a day the road became impassable because of the solid water arch they created. He also conceptualised the trick fountains, where jets strategically hidden behind benches would be activated when certain stones in the cobbled pathway where stood upon. There were some proper upside down smiles from some of the grumpies on our tour who got “tricked”!

There was a “should have been” trick in the monument just outside of the trick fountain garden, where legend was rhat one could gain a wish by throwing coins at the metal figure. It was fortunate if your wish was for more coins because this come true simply by visiting the other side of the statue!

On our way out of the gardens we passed Catherine the Great’s swimming pool. It’s enormous. Pity the pool guy who had to maintain that! Can’t imagine she had much time to linger in the pool though, what with her husband being killed and her claiming power via coup d’etat n all. It is now the only mechanically pumped fountain in the Gardens.

The end of the circuit deposited us back in front of the Palace building, with a magnificent view surveying everything we’d walked over the past few hours. And that was only the Lower Gardens. Who knew what the Upper Gardens held.

Despite ourselves, we’d enjoyed it. We had been very fortunate with the weather; I’d imagine if it were cold and or rainy, we’d have had less good humour for the anecdotes and water features.

The stories of the Royal family, their eccentricities, extravagances and anguishes was intriguing.  Mental note to self was to figure out the chronology of the Catherines, Peters, Alexanders and Nicholases!

Travelogue Baltic 2: Rostock


17 June 2016

The beauty of this cruise is that the vast majority of the sailing is done overnight, so you wake up (almost) every morning in a new port in a new country.  Today was the turn of Rostock, Germany.

Organised excursions for the day varied from a day trip to Berlin, a tour of beachtown Warnemunde and a tour of university-town Rostock. None appealed to us since Berlin was a 3 hour bus trip each way, it wasn’t the weather for the beach (barely 20 degrees and gloomy) and we felt a group tour might frustrating, constantly being herded and hindered (especially since we’re a good 20+ years below the average age on this cruise!)

We made arrangements to catch a shuttle into town to make our own way around Rostock and headed for the gangway (which was conveniently on our deck!). The disembarkation process was simple enough, just requiring a flash of the sea pass to log our departure, so within minutes we were in Germany. Of course, I can’t say “on dry land” because, as dumb luck would have it, it started to rain the moment we disembarked the ship.

It was only a very light drizzle, but it brought out the crazy in everyone, apparently! A short walk down the pier and we were at the bus stop. The only thing that demarcated this was an actual bus stopped there.

We arrived to mayhem. A beanpole of a young German chap in cruise uniform was in the doorway of the bus, taking a heated verbal lambasting from some fiery Mexicans at the foot of the bus’s steps who were clearly displeased at not being able to fit on the current bus, which already had its full complement of passengers – and was clearly subject to the “only want to hear one click” German flexibility when it came to allowing additional, which the troupe of Mexicans were animatedly asserting was the solution. It escalated to the point that the little cluster tried to storm the Bastille and push their way onto the bus and had it not been for the fact that the German chap was a quarter of their age and twice their average height, they might very well have succeeded! Despite a little old lady trying to squeeze her way past him (squealing in the process), his superior wingspan outed and he scooped the lot of them out of the bus, yelling for the bus driver to close the door quickly behind him.

Poor fella then found himself on the ground with all sorts of yelling and hand waving in his face. He did his best to get everyone to form a line, but there was to be none of that – nobody was prepared to concede even a single position in case they didn’t get their seat on the next bus. Giving up, the German retreated to his box of supplies, swearing audibly to himself and pretending to look busy counting tickets. I walked up to him to ask for a tourist map and he gave me a death stare… calming only (marginally) when he realised I wasn’t there to complain.

It couldn’t have been more than a minute or two later that the next bus arrived. The German had given up; he didn’t even try to get the orderly queueing system line in place. Good thing too as there was physical violence in the doorway of the new bus as an American almost leapfrogged over the Mexicans to get on the bus. It was almost comical as the American pushed them aside with his best “talk to the hand” palm, shouting justification that he’d already missed 3 busses and wasn’t missing this one, as 2 tiny old Mexican ladies grabbed at his shirt and one of their husbands threw punches. The American landed on the top step, swiveled around and was squashed flat against the driver as he tried to get in position for his old school thumb-in fist slow rotation circular undercut punching. His wife had been left behind in this skirmish and was now looking bewildered at him through the bus window as he took his seat in the front row, dishevelled but smug.

We had no such trouble. We asserted ourselves into the throng and rode the wave onto the bus. It was like very noisy body-surfing. Most of the people who missed that bus did so because they were so busy faffing with their brollies, which made us almost glad that we’d (already!) misplaced our Copenhagen one.

It was about 20 minutes into Rostock and we were deposited on Long Street, aptly named for being the longest street in the historical centre, reconstructed into a parade street of monumental buildings in the GDR era.

We were grateful for the buildings to get out of the rain – and fortuitously found ourselves in the Galleria where we got new brollies, down from 49 Euros to a bargain 5 Euros (the Germans do know how to have a decent sale!) so we got 2.

The brollies made it more comfortable to walk to the tourist office, where we sought refuge for the 15 mins of hard rain while collecting tourist maps and plotting our course.

Rostock is a perfect day trip stop as everything is within walking distance in a convenient circuit with no double-backing required. A quick review of the map and its accompanying legend determined that our day would be a university-church-market-hall-wall-gate-church-church-harbour-church-church tour. Somewhere in the middle there would also be a leisurely visit to the craft brewery.

The tour started with a single step. Literally. The University of Rostock’s main building is adjacent to the tourist office, so taking a step outside revealed the first sight on the map. The university is one of the oldest in the world, founded in 1419, and is in a beautiful terracotta Renaissance style building so we felt we’d already achieved something.

A walk down the main shopping street, Kropeliner, got us to the New Market (well, as new as new can be, being almost a thousand years old) and town hall (“Rathaus”, built in 1270). The square is surrounded with a facade of pastel gabled houses and is a bit like Warsaw’s square, but filled with fruit and vegetables stalls instead of cafés and restaurants.

We ticked off the gates and the city wall, built in 1350 and large sections of which are still preserved today. We skipped most of the churches in favour of a walk along the harbour’s popular promenade, the end of which housed the microbrewery we’d been recommended.

Zum Alten Fritz was cosy and warm inside, with traditional German wood-intensive decor. The middle of the room was dominated by a huge wooden bar with all copper vats and pipes (presumably) delivering fresh beer to the stations piled high and wide with beer glasses of various sizes. Between the bar and the front bay windows that overlooked the (damp) beergarden were a handful of high tables, where we sat, and the rest of the space was restaurant tables and booths, with people eating enormous eisbeins and other great big pork dishes. The local brew, Stortebekker, was very satisfying so we settled in and enjoyed the view and the atmosphere.

The trip to Rostock would not have been complete without at least sampling the famous Rostock beer though so we went back into town to source some.

Ironically, the first venue with Rostock branding was right underneath the famous St Marien church, renowned for its astronomical clock (built in 1472)… and now for some pretty formidable free wifi! Fortunately the beer wasn’t as strong as the wifi, so we were soon able to mobilise to get back to the bus stop to catch our shuttle back to the ship.

The bus stop was manned by a different tour director, who had effortlessly lined the guests up in single file, had everyone waiting patiently for the next bus and managed an uneventful embarkation. It was almost disappointingly orderly after the kerfuffle in the morning!

Travelogue Baltic 1: Copenhagen

15 – 16 June 2016

The Baltic cruise had actually originally been our second choice for honeymoon destination (behind a Costa Rica and Panama combination), but trumped thanks to our – in retrospect very wise – decision to opt for the “one stop shopping” cruise option. The first half of the year had been very hectic, so having a single booking translate into the majority of an itinerary was an absolute blessing! (Not that all the busyness has prevented us from booking our next 3 getaways already, mind! 😀 )

Quite used to our usual double-barrel flight arrangements through Dubai, the journey was as painless as any, marred only slightly by my sinus infection’s insistence on using cabin pressure as a valid reason to flare up, leaving me gasping for breath, sniffing and sneezing. Fortunately we had a row to ourselves, so tissue plugs in the nostrils and full horizontal allowed me to sleep through the worst of it. A very glamorous and romantic start to the honeymoon indeed!

We arrived to a very moderate 20 degree Copenhagen. As per pilot’s update, a smattering of cumulonimbus threatening some light late afternoon showers in an otherwise perfectly pleasant day.

The airport is really tourist friendly with English translations on all the signage and simple options on how to move from the airport to Copenhagen Central (or catch a train to Sweden, or a host of other presumably popular options).

We mastered the automated ticketing machine and were soon headed to Track 2, which we trusted was the correct one since we arrived to a platform of tourists all equally unsure of the same decision – and all audibly joyous (little more than 10 minutes later) as we all pulled into the Central Station, as planned.

We’d picked up a tourist map at the airport and the short train ride was more than enough time to navigate our path from Central Station to our hotel, which was only a few hundred metres and an almost straight line away.

Cabinn Inn is a very functional and conveniently located hotel in a city where the word “bargain” simply does not apply to accommodation. The rooms are tiny, with a small double bed taking up the majority of the floor space, a single bunk fitted above the head of the bed and the en-suite little more than a shower head above a toilet cubicle. The Rand:Krone might literally be more or less 2:1, but you’d get way more than double the value for this R1600 room (excluding breakfast, which is another R170 each for a continental selection) back home. Nevermind though, it was just a place to rest weary heads – and, no doubt, good practice for our cruise cabin.

Denmark is a Nordic country attached to Northern Europe by a bulb of landmass, with a collection of islands – called the Danish Archipelago – stretching into the Baltic Sea. Copenhagen is the capital, situated on the Eastern side of the largest island Sjaelland (Zealand) and spilling over to the Western side of neighbouring island Amager (which is where the airport is).

Denmark is joined to Sweden by a combination of tunnel and an 8km suspension bridge over the Oresund strait which houses both rail and motorway. I can imagine this modern convenience would have been quite handy back in the 10th century when the Vikings established their little fishing village and more so in the 15th century when Christian IV started working his magic to elevate Copenhagen’s standing – and in so doing, requisitioned many of the regal buildings which are among the numerous tourist attractions in the city today.

Our plan for the arvie was to move immediately towards the main canal (the one that runs between Sjaelland and Amager) to walk the length of the waterfront until Christian Bridge and then veer inland to meander the main city centre en route back to the hotel, catching some dinner somewhere along the way.

Well, that didn’t happen.

Mostly because a) things are a lot closer together than they appear on the map and b) there are some supremely consequential things that maps don’t show, like bridge maintenance that renders a route unplayable. A good combination of problems to have seeing as the former dilutes the latter.

Our walk was very pleasant. And a lot less traumatic than me having to bicycle, like 9 out of 10 residents of Copenhagen do, apparently. The lay of the land is very flat so amenable so consequently there are hoards of bicycles everywhere. Fortunately for us, being the middle of the work day, we saw them in slots in parking lots. Can only imagine there must be a proper cycling rush hour before and after work!

Barely a block and we were at Kalvebod Brygge. The waterfront consists of wide wooden decks fringing the canal on our side and what looked to be restaurants and cafes dotted along a similar waterfront on the other side of the water. There was no railing separating deck from water and there were several people socialising, sprawled out on the wood, chatting on the steps and sunning themselves on deck chairs, like the canal was a beachfront (and like it was hotter than it actually was). All very orderly good clean fun, which is probably why there were none of the usual barrage of signs prohibiting this, that and the other.

We detoured from our waterfront walk when a pole of tourist signs caught our attention with a pocket of places of interest a block or two inland and, in so doing, wandered along Hans Christian Anderson Boulevard. With the Glyptoteket and Tivoli in front of us we realised we’d come full circle, so took a turn into Ny Kongensgade figuring the ‘kongen’ bit was something to do with king, royal etc. It did. And we caught the (outside of) a few museums, churches and the Christiansborg Palace a block or so in.

We learnt that a “lapidarium” is where stone sculptures and carvings are retired to; Copenhagen’s Lapidarium of Kings is found in Christian IV’s brewhouse. We also learnt that The Glyptoteket is an art museum, built around the personal collection of Carl Jacobsen, son of the founder of Carlsberg Breweries. Combining these bits of information with a sighting of a BK billboard announcing that beer is an option of drink in their meals meant we learnt a third thing – beer is a big part of Danish culture – and a fourth thing – we were going to like this place!

We extracted ourselves from the cultural part of the walk to cross the bridge to Christianshavn, a semicircular island pocketed in the close section of Amager.

The buildings along the water on this side were quite different to their historic counterparts on the side we’d just come from, with lots of metal, glass and shiny facades. With no particular agenda in mind, we wandered along Christianhavns Canal – a bit like Amsterdam, with all the brightly coloured boats moored on either side and the bars and cafés spilling onto the streets – thinking we’d reconnect with the Sjaelland side over the next bridge.

Our plan was thwarted however when the next bridge, which also seemed to be the last bridge, was under construction. A pity too because we’d spotted a hive of activity on the other side that we wanted to check out… but now that would mean walking back all the way we came and then retracing all those footsteps on the other side. Typical.

We did also see a couple of big cruise ships docked and assumed one of them to be our destination for the next day (excitement!), so logicked that we could do that end of the waterfront along with the citadel and Little Mermaid the next day when we moved over that side to board our cruise. Thus, we followed the next part of the plan and took Borsgade towards Stroeget (the main shopping street).

All the walking had activated our appetites, but it was awkwardly too late for lunch and too early for dinner so we reverted to Old Faithful from previous travels and hit the 711. This was our first real exposure to Copenhagen prices and we got quite a fright when a slice of pizza and a Carlsberg each was about R250!

It was good (pepperoni!) pizza though and the beer was cold, so it’s hard to complain when you’re able to sit on the steps at the base of a regal horseman statue, in the sunshine, with a view across a pretty canal at a collection of beautiful centuries-old buildings… when one could just as easily have had to be working in the winter back home. Not that (m)any seemed to be working here – there were swarms of people “beaching” canalside!

Stroget – at 1.1km, the longest pedestrian street in Europe – stretches from Radhuspladsen (City Hall Square) where we were all the way up to Kongens Nytorv Square (the back end of Tivoli), with a healthy collection of high-street shops, restaurants and bars. We combined our sight-seeing with hunting for a dinner place, for which we were hoping to do something traditionally Danish since we only had one evening in Copenhagen.

Also, it seemed like as good a time as any to tick the traditional Guinness off our list. R312 for 2 pints of Guinness at The Dubliner officially puts Copenhagen in first place on our Guinness Index!!

We had happened upon a tourist publication while in The Dubliner that suggested Vesterbro (the suburb on the far side of Tivoli) as a good destination for casual dining, which made for as good as any a next mission.

We walked a fair way down the Istedgade and didn’t see anything by way of traditional food – although by their sheer numbers, you’d think schwarmas, burgers and Italian food were local specialities! – so sought refuge in an grungy alternative bar called Simpelt V instead.

Hard to say how long we were there since it was as light as day when we left as when we arrived – our first taste of white nights on travel-fatigue day (compounded by my watery-eyed sinus haze) was very confusing!

It had also confused our bellies so, determined not to have the Tuborg and Carlsberg be our welcome dinner, we got a bacon and cheese hotdog at the 711. The Danes are as passionate about hotdogs as the Icelandics, so it was a legit bit of on-the-go dining, mastered by the 1-man-band who was working the tills, toasting our rolls and even catching a shoplifter simultaneously – easily a 3 or 4 person shift back home (and the shoplifter would have gotten away, for sure).

Flaking while it was still light felt very defeatist, especially on our first night.

… but a long night’s sleep (plus a Med Lemon, an Allergex and a generous slathering of Vicks) did me the world of good and I woke in a far better state.

Pity the weather wasn’t as complicit. We woke to grey skies and it was already drizzling as we hit the streets in search of breakfast.

It was coming down a fair bit by the time we got to the top end of Stroget so we sought solace in, you guessed it, 711. It didn’t disappoint and we procured delicious fresh Danish pastries (in both sense of the word) with melt-in-your-mouth pastry, light creamy custard and rich smooth glacé icing.

With renewed vigour, Chris then very cleverly sourced us a cheapo brolly, which made our walk in the rain that much more manageable.

Beyond wanting to tick the few sightseeing boxes we’d missed the day before, our new mission was a (warm, dry) place that served smorrebrod, the Danish traditional open-faced sandwiches.

We struggled on the main shopping street since most places only serve from 11 or 11.30. We should have guessed as much from the day before where there was much advertising (and reviews in the travel guides) for brunch and lunch, which seems to be the focal meal for the day.

We eventually came right with nondescript Restaurant and Cafe Nytorv (which I later found out is actually a bit of a heritage site, being 150 years old and one of the oldest inns in Copenhagen), where a humourless hostess looked very unimpressed that we wanted to order off the lunch menu a full half hour before time! She did begrudgingly concede – although it took so long for the food to come we thought she might be holding out until the legit serving time!

When it was served, we could see why it had taken a bit of time. Each plate was a beautifully constructed pile of things atop a dark crusty bread base. This was no simple “grilled cheese sarmie”!

Unwilling to try the adventurous traditional herring smorrebrod, we’d opted for one meat and one seafood to sample a variety. The meat one was a thick wedge of warm liver paté with sautéed mushrooms and crispy bacon; the seafood was (cold) shrimps with sliced boiled egg, caviar and lemon. Both were very tasty… but certainly not the portions one would expect Vikings commanded (especially not at R160 apiece!)

The rain had stopped, so it was a good time to get back to the hotel and make our way to the cruise ship.

It was very easy to do since the front desk called a taxi for us and we paid with credit card so didn’t have to worry about running out of or having too much currency (which was a double relief since we hadn’t drawn any cash since Copenhagen is so card friendly).

The harbour was further on the other side than we’d thought so we didn’t get a chance to see those last few sights… but it didn’t matter because we were so excited to be at our big ship, Serenade of the Seas.

Checking in was easy enough and soon we were footloose and baggage-free, etc exploring this sea hotel that was to be home for the next 10 days.

The ship has everything we expected and more – multiple pools, multiple restaurants, countless bars, indoor and outdoor cinema, video game arcade, casino, HUGE gym, running track, basketball court, climbing wall… etc. We ended up accidentally having lunch when we wandered through the Windjammer Cafe and the curry looked and smelled too good to pass up!

By then our room was ready so we made our way to 3554 and were delighted to find that we’d been upgraded to an outer cabin, which had a porthole and lounge area – and was easily 3 times the size of our Copenhagen hotel room! Being on such a low floor, it felt from the view of the liquid horizon like we were just above the waterline. Very lush indeed!

On a less delightful note, my suitcase had already been portered to the room but, sadly, the trolley handle was broken. This compounded what can only be described as a fail for my poor luggage this trip since my personalised belly band had gone AWOL on the international flight, I’d accidentally left the pullover protective sheath cover at Cabinn Inn, Christian had lost the keys to my lock (very unlike him) and now the handle. So much for bad things happening in threes!

Guest Services were quite calm about it, gave me a form, logged the case (no pun intended) and said housekeeping would pop by to take the suitcase to the carpenter for fixing (not entirely sure what a carpenter can do for a plastic handle, but am ever hopeful and preparing to be awed).

They also despatched a fella with a big pair of bolt cutters to clip off the offending keyless lock, so I could unpack my suitcase into the spacious wardrobe before my suitcase went off to be repaired.

With all that excitement behind us, there was little else to do but leisure in our “stateroom” and Christian utilised our lounge room and the Danish cable feed on our flat-screen telly to watch the Euro Champs England/Wales game. I’m sure most of our neighbours appreciated (I know all of our neighbours must have heard) the high-volume jubilation when “our” team won.

We joined the welcome party on main deck at 5, which was (at best) very average. We had a beer to be social and cringed at the $$ pricing and mandatory 18% gratuity on everything. Fortunately though, all meals are included in the cruise cost so it numbs the pain a bit – especially when dinner is a multi-course feast at the a la carte restaurant, as we’d chosen to do. (Nevermind the cheeky quesadilla we’d munched in the Park Cafe in the Solarium en route to dinner! It’s impossible to go more than a few hundred metres on the ship without eating *something*!)

After dinner we caught a show in the Tropical Theatre. It was a frothy variety show featuring all the artists doing full shows during the duration of the cruise. Great idea to help (us) decide what to hit and what to miss.

The cruise director gave us the stats on the nationalities on the guestlist. Over a thousand Americans in the overwhelming lead, with British, Canadians in second and third and a handful of Spanish speaking countries peppering most of the remaining Top 10 slots. No mention of Saffas; guess we have the sorry state of the Rand to thank for that!

Travelogue New Zealand 3: 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.

Travelogue New Zealand 2: 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!

Travelogue New Zealand 1: 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 cafés 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 and 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 garden 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 momentoes 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 originally 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 quesadilla, 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 Tussaud’s to shame, artifacts 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 disorganised 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!