Hansar Samui garden[/caption]
It’s a scene I’ve seen played out in resorts all round the world.
The beach is nearly empty. Conversely, the pool is crowded.
I’m tempted by the beach to watch the passing parade but at midday, the passing parade isn’t much in evidence. Local Thais don’t visit the beach until sunset’s subsiding temperature provides cooling relief.
[caption id="attachment_3058" align="alignnone" width="448"] Sunset view from Hansar Samui[/caption]
Tourists apparently prefer a pool to a beach, particularly at this location as Bo Phut beach isn’t Koh Samui’s best. It’s a narrow sandy strip, not much to it at high tide while low tide necessitates a long wade out to reach chest deep water. There’s no shade to speak of either; not a Koh Samui coconut tree anywhere near.
The view however is spectacularly photogenic. Twenty kilometres away mountainous Koh Pha Ngan raises its leafy green head. Home to a famous monthly Full Moon Party, it’s a favourite hang-out for the backpacking set.
[caption id="attachment_3059" align="alignnone" width="448"] High tide at Hansar Samui's Bo Phut beach[/caption]
At this bottom end of the Gulf of Thailand around Koh Samui, the Ang Thong National Marine Reserve speckles the sea with 40 or so islands and fringing coral reefs. Day trips (snorkelling or diving) to the park are easily arranged from Koh Samui. Inquire at your hotel or from one of dozens of travel agencies operating at Bo Phut, Chaweng and Lamai.
(Naked Tip: An airport is under construction on Koh Pha Ngan. Fairly soon, this ‘backwater’ will become just as crowded as Koh Samui.)
Though Koh Samui has become one of Thailand’s most popular beach hangouts, it’s still big enough to tempt the peace-seeking visitor with a few remaining quiet corners.
How to get the best out of your visit to a Thai beach destination?
Thailand’s biggest beach resorts offer a mixed bag of treats. By choosing carefully, the rewards should follow.
Pattaya is all about mass tourism, from gaudy to grotesque though its 'sex and sand' reputation is undergoing a revamp to attract families. The same description applies to much of Phuket, particularly around Patong town, though like Koh Samui, it’s also big enough to offer escape routes away from the crowds if needed.
This leaves one other large beach destination to the international crowds: Hua Hin, more on that later in this piece.
Not so long ago, the early 80s in fact, Koh Samui was being 'discovered’ by international vagabonds looking for a Thai island escape with excellent beaches.
Now it’s almost as crowded as Pattaya, Phuket and Hua Hin but the beaches are better on Koh Samui than at the other three destinations.
As Koh Samui continues its growth trajectory on the Top Ten Thai Tourist Traps list, construction is never-ending. Resorts pop up on Koh Samui like Pad Thai noodles; on every menu and just as common.
I’ve heard about concerned citizens’ attempts to limit further environmental damage on this ‘Island of a Million Coconut Trees’, but this being Thailand, there’s always a path to get round building restrictions. A cash gift slipped to the right hand, be it a politician or developer smooths the way.
For now, like Bali and dozens of other so-called island paradises, Koh Samui will be nice when it’s finished.
Even so, the place hasn’t been totally ruined yet.
The Hansar Samui Resort & Spa is one of Koh Samui’s finest, a gorgeous little hotel that has managed to avoid the excesses of Koh Samui’s rampant building boom.
Service is good, typically for a Thai resort. The Thai people have a knack for being genuinely friendly. I’ve yet to observe a Thai hospitality employee lose his or her cool, even when faced with a frustrated impatient tourist who doesn’t understand how embarrassing it is to show anger and lose face.
That being said, in my opinion, the best thing about the Hansar is the superior quality of the food and beverage choices.
Since it opened four years ago, the same executive chef has stayed on board. Chef Stephen Jean Dion has lifted the food and beverage bar at Hansar Samui Resort & Spa to another level entirely. The ‘H’ Bistro is really a stand-alone restaurant, certainly one of the best on the whole island.
Even if I wasn’t staying in house, I’d make a point of dining here.
Differentiating from the rest of Koh Samui’s hotel resorts, the Hansar team is developing an organic garden at the back of the hotel, a win-win for the kitchen team and guests alike. Given the sandy soil, extreme wet and dry weather conditions, the effort put into creating a kitchen garden is highly commendable.
The hotel’s LUXSA spa is drop-dead gorgeous. Unlike a lot of hotel spas, this one is spacious. The treatment menu covers a broad range, from the obligatory after-sun skin refreshers, to a range of massage types (Thai, Swedish, Reflexology, Shiatsu and combinations thereof), facials, manicures and pedicures, wraps and pampering packages.
The pool bar boasts a daily 5pm until 7pm two-for-one happy hour cocktail time. I arrived one evening at 6:55pm, ordered one drink and was given another well past the official happy hour end time. I like that generous quality in a bartender.
The rooms all overlook the single large pool, gardens and beach. Larger than most standard resort rooms I’ve slept in, they’re well appointed with bespoke toiletries, a wide-screen television with cable channel access, king sized beds, a room-for-two shower and plenty of wardrobe space. Free wi-fi is accessible throughout the resort.
Though Bophut beach isn’t Koh Samui’s best, it’s good enough, fairly clean and usually uncrowded. The resort is within a few minute’s walk to the ‘Fisherman’s Village’, certainly Koh Samui’s most pedestrian friendly shopping and dining precinct. An eclectic assortment of beachside bars, restaurants and cafes line its single long main strip. From cheap and cheerful to pricey and sophisticated, all kinds of eating establishments can be found here. Perfect if you need an excuse to dine away from the resort, though I haven’t found anywhere yet on Koh Samui serving food as good as at the Hansar.
400 Baht will get you by taxi in about 20 minutes to Samui’s biggest beach and tourist centre at Chaweng. Lamai beach is another 10 minutes from Chaweng’s southern end. Add another 100 Baht to the fare.
Five minute’s walk from the Hansar foyer door is the main road where ‘Songthaew’ (from the Thai ‘Two Rows’, a small pick-up truck with two under cover bench seats) regularly stop to collect passengers. 50 Baht will get you as far as Chaweng.
Motorbikes and hire cars are plentiful. Drive a motorbike or car at your own risk. Traffic on Koh Samui has increased exponentially in recent years along with commensurate number of motorbike injuries.
Hua Hin is Thailand’s royal resort. Since His Majesty the King and entourage are permanently ensconced, Hua Hin’s traffic is busier though the atmosphere remains reserved in respect to His Royal Majesty’s presence. Formerly the beachside bolthole for Thai royalty and aristocracy escaping Bangkok’s throbbing hustle, now it’s open to all comers, new and old. Girly strip bars, ladyboy clubs and the worst kind of Euro-trash drinking dives are informally forbidden.
Tourist sights in Hua Hin are relatively sparse. It’s a relaxed small beach city with a lot of hotels built right on the greyish sands. Water quality this close to Bangkok’s effluent drifting down from the Chao Praya river estuary isn’t great; murky is the word that best describes it.
[caption id="attachment_3061" align="alignnone" width="377"] Beach from Let's Sea Al Fresco resort[/caption]
Like all popular seaside resort destinations in Thailand, property development is unrelenting. No fat cat with a spare Baht wants to miss out getting a piece of the golden tourist pie.
Hua Hin’s curse (and its blessing if a weekend escape from the capital is the ticket) is its relative close proximity to Bangkok. In a fast car, the journey between the Big Mango and Hua Hin is less than three hours.
Perfect for that weekend escape, simultaneously attractive to middle class Thais looking for a place to spend their retirement whilst not being too far removed from the family. Similarly, farangs hunting for cheaper-than-home beachside houses are buying up ‘house and land packages’ in some very dodgy instant towns, public transport, local shops and basic infrastructure not included.
Land speculation around Hua Hin appears grabbier than other parts of Thailand.
High rise towers line the beach all the way from Cha Am. Looking like a Thai Waikiki or Gold Coast strip than a quiet seaside resort, Hua Hin is bursting at its sandy seam.
Holiday units on upper levels face directly into the windows of other holiday units, all vying for prime position within skipping distance to the crowded beach. I look at this ridiculous overcrowding and think, ‘Holiday from Hell’.
For the casual visitor, Hua Hin boasts Thailand’s cleanest railway station (in respect to the King’s presence), a relic from an older age when steam trains carried the royal family from Bangkok to Klai Kangwon, the first palace built by King Rama Vll in 1928.
The royal palace grounds are open to the public, one of which is a lovely garden filled with middle class Thais doing a morning or evening jog on very tidy paths.
A very long stretch of beach extends for almost twenty kilometres from Cha Am in the northern fringe to its southern end at the monastery temple on the rocky outcrop at Wat Khao Taklap where Hua Hin’s urban sprawl finishes at An Taklap (Chopsticks Bay). The main beach of Hua Hin is a short walk from the historic railway station in the centre of town.
The Chatchai fresh food and seafood market also conveniently located in the centre of town is where all the tourist action is focused. Eating options vary from international menu dives selling familiar food (i.e. sausage and chips) to hapless farangs to street stalls grilling sticks of chicken, fish and squid. Som Dtam sold from countless mortars gets a constant pounding from smashing pestles. A few really good Thai joints boasting well-prepared local dishes rounds out the satisfying culinary picture. The Night Market virtually adjoining Chatchai opens daily. The whole place really starts hopping from sunset to about 10pm.
[caption id="attachment_3063" align="alignnone" width="299"] Seated statue at Let's Sea Al Fresco Resort[/caption]
I stayed at the Let’s Sea Al Fresco Resort in Hua Hin’s southern fringe, a boutique hotel that provides rare direct access to the beach. No higher than two stories, its forty or so rooms in two facing wings are large, airy and designed for cooling integration with the tropical climate. Each room faces one of the biggest swimming pools I’ve seen in Thailand. It’s a private lagoon instead of merely a pool, like a watery throughway bisecting the resort from lobby to beach.
[caption id="attachment_3062" align="alignnone" width="448"] Let's Sea Al Fresco Resort pool[/caption]
I was upgraded to a second story room sporting a private roof garden with sun bed and outside shower. Getting to the pool was as easy as falling out my window; instead I used the stairs.
My bed was huge. The bathroom was enormous; a double shower and bathtub big enough for two completes the picture. I loved the space and used every corner.
Kids under 16 are not allowed so no loud splashing or screaming will be heard outside your door early in the morning, unless of course four 60ish Australians decide to play water polo and drink beer all day and night.
A small spa accompanies the picture. If a massage or facial is part of your holiday routine (like it is mine when I’m in Thailand), the list of treatments is long, enough to satisfy an ardent hedonist.
What I enjoyed most about the Let’s Sea Al Fresco Resort was the catering. The restaurant occupies a renovated house facing the beach. Later additions expanded the dining areas to accommodate small functions but no matter where you’re seated, the sense is that you’re a special customer with privileged access to a lovely restaurant situated on a quiet private beach. This is quite an achievement in crowded Hua Hin.
Each employee I engaged with at Let’s Sea was helpful and disarmingly friendly, smiles wide, ever ready with a respectful Wai and a Sabaidee Krub or Ka.
[caption id="attachment_3064" align="alignnone" width="336"] Let's Sea bartenders with a Tom Yum Martini[/caption]
Not one for spending more than one day sitting near a pool, nice as it occasionally is, I’m easily restless and opted for a day trip to the Sam Roi Yod (300 Peaks) National Park some forty kilometres south from Hua Hin. Here some of Thailand’s largest remaining mangrove forests and lagoons are protected despite continued encroachment from shrimp and mussel farms swallowing up surrounding wild land. Birdlife is extensive while a small population of Serow (a rare antelope that looks like a goat) exists amongst the peaks though habitat pressure from increasing tourism poses an ongoing threat.
[caption id="attachment_3070" align="alignnone" width="448"] Temple roofs at Hoop Ta Khod[/caption]
Sprouting up from swampy lowlands like giant sugar cones, the karst peaks create breathtaking landscapes. Remote beaches are accessible but would require serious hiking to reach. I wish I’d had more time so I stopped at the touristy fishing village within the park instead of climbing steep mountains. From there a fast boat will take you across a shallow channel to a small island and the Than Phraya Nakhon, a large cave which is famous for King Chulalongkorn’s royal visit in the late 19th century, the same cave his father King Mongkut visited to witness the solar eclipse and where he coincidentally caught malaria which caused his death six weeks later.
[caption id="attachment_3071" align="alignnone" width="369"] Boats moored at Sam Roi Yod fishing village[/caption]
Sad to say, I was bored by the whole exercise. The boat ride was overpriced, the water dirty, the cave littered and the island utterly disappointing. It looked so much better from a distance. Up close, I regretted the experience.
[caption id="attachment_3065" align="alignnone" width="448"] Beach at fishing village in Sam Yoi Rod National Park[/caption]
After a couple hours desultorily wandering round the glum village replete with tacky shops selling tourist tat, sleeping dogs bored out of their brains like me, I asked my guide if there was anywhere nearby to visit during the remainder of my one day tour. He was somewhat at a loss to provide alternative options. I’m not sure if he was being lazy or perhaps he misunderstood my wish to climb a mountain or walk in a mangrove swamp.
[caption id="attachment_3066" align="alignnone" width="448"] Fishing Village dogs catching an afternoon nap[/caption]
A heavy smoker who coughed a lot, I forgave the guide his lack of energy, so we drove to the Three Buddha Temple (Hoop Ta Khot) in the middle of paddy fields at the edge of the national park. The walk from the car to the temple was fewer than ten metres but he sat in the car anyway.
[caption id="attachment_3067" align="alignnone" width="355"] 2 of 3 Buddha at Hoop Ta Khot temple[/caption]
After an hour at that temple, me killing time by taking photos of the three Buddha images from as many angles as possible, we stopped at the Wat Khao Taklap near Hua Hin where I was the only visiting farang.
[caption id="attachment_3073" align="alignnone" width="336"] 1 of 3 Buddha[/caption]
A Siamese cat scratched at my bare feet, begging for a rub behind the ears. I thought, ‘Funny this, my first Siamese cat in a Thai temple, how many trips to Thailand has it taken me to see a Thai cat in a Siamese temple?’ I think the sun was getting to me at that point so we drove back to the Let’s Sea Resort but not before I made a donation and bought a tiny brass Buddha statue in remembrance of the strange day. Incidentally, the view overlooking Hua Hin’s long beach is worth the climb to the top of the promontory.
[caption id="attachment_3068" align="alignnone" width="412"] Siamese cat at Khao Tao temple[/caption]
By then I was ready for a Tom Yum Martini at the restaurant bar.
[caption id="attachment_3069" align="alignnone" width="336"] Tom Yum Martini making at Let's Sea[/caption]
Seated on a comfy deckchair, I watched the light change while nursing my sour, sweet, spicy, salty drink. Two Irrawaddy dolphins swam by not one hundred metres offshore. A bartender shouted ‘Lohmaa!’ (Dolphin!), while a small crowd of beachcombers gathered, watching as the dolphins swam south towards the temple I’d visited earlier.
Was it another ordinary day at a Thai beach resort town?
I don’t believe there’s any such thing as ordinary.
Tom Neal Tacker travelled courtesy of Tourism Authority of Thailand and as a guest of Hansar Samui Resort & Spa and Let’s Sea Al Fresco Resort.
Koh Samui is an hour’s flight from Bangkok. Both Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com) and Thai Airways (www.thaiairways.com) offer frequent daily services.
Koh Samui’s airport is approximately fifteen minute’s drive from the Hansar Samui Resort & Spa. Private transfers can be included when booking.
Koh Samui is an hour’s ferry trip from the small port near Surat Thani. Ferries dock at Na Thon on Koh Samui’s western side. Bo Phut beach is approximately a half hour’s drive from Na Thon depending on traffic.
See www.hansarsamui.com for reservations and special offers.
Hua Hin is approximately three to four hour’s drive from Bangkok, depending on traffic. Train services operate daily direct from Bangkok to Hua Hin. The trip takes approximately four hours.
Let’s Sea Al Fresco Resort’s sister property in Bangkok is the new 5-star Lit Hotel (www.litbangkok.com). Private transfers operate once daily between the two properties at a minimal cost, approximately 400 Baht.
See www.leetussea.com for reservations and special offers.
Market scene near Shwe Dagon Pagoda[/caption]
Slow travel is what Myanmar is all about. Slow change follows suit.
What have I learned about Myanmar?
To begin, let’s study some basic facts about tourism in Myanmar as it is right now.
During high season (November until April) hotels in tourism hot spots such as Pagan, Yangon, Lake Inle and Mandalay are packed to the rafters.
No surprises here.
First, there aren’t enough hotels to satisfy demand. Infrastructure isn’t keeping pace with demand despite more hotels going up almost overnight, particularly in Yangon.
Second, those four destinations rightly offer much to travellers and they’re justifiably popular. Beyond the four, mass tourism support is rudimentary at best.
Third, this quartet of Myanmar hot-spots is linked by frequent air services. The majority of roads in Myanmar are rougher than a local opium drug dealer.
For time poor travellers, flying is the essential transport mode. As a consequence, new airlines have popped up overnight to meet demand. I’m not certain about how well international safety procedures are followed but the country is keen on investment from foreign visitors so risk factors have been studiously reduced. Safe flying appears intact as official government policy though I have my doubts as Myanmar’s government is anything but transparent.
How to avoid overcrowding and extortionate pricing during high season?
Visit in the off or low season.
[caption id="attachment_2979" align="alignnone" width="448"] Shwe Dagon Pagoda under monsoon skies[/caption]
I was in Myanmar during the beginning of the monsoon. Hotels had rooms to spare. Prices were lower. Tourist sites were uncrowded. Like the Thais, Myanmar tourism apparatchik has embraced the descriptive phrase ‘Green Season’ as an attractive monsoon moniker. Certainly the slightly cooler though damp weather is enticing instead of May and June’s sweltering and dry heat.
Most travellers will begin and end their Myanmar visits in Yangon, the country’s largest and busiest city.
Since the capital was moved to Naypyidaw in 2005, (apparently on instruction from a general’s astrologer whose advice was so esteemed by the superstitious leader that an entire city was built at huge expense in the middle of nowhere) Yangon’s administrative and government buildings are now mostly vacant or under restoration while morphing into 5-star hotels or perhaps museums. No doubt a shopping centre is planned for a number of those great old relics.
[caption id="attachment_2980" align="alignnone" width="448"] Not renovated yet? Old Yangon[/caption]
Yangon does nonetheless possess a nostalgic allure. When the British turned backwater Rangoon into the capital city in the late 19th century, the adoption of Victorian Raj-style architecture was apparently compulsory for urban planning under home rule. Much of that stuck-on heritage still exists; serving nicely as Yangon’s claim to fame amongst most travellers.
Compared to other southeast Asian cities where 19th century Anglo-Gallic architecture is saved only because greedy developers can’t get their dirty hands on the land, Yangon’s look of faded glory is conversely refreshing.
Just in time, local crooked property developers realise that in Yangon, maintaining an the old look, if only for the building’s facade, might just be the ticket to increased profitability.
The ‘Rip it down if it’s old and falling apart anyway’ mentality isn’t so prevalent in Yangon... yet.
If UNESCO grants World Heritage listing to Yangon’s CBD, as it’s rumoured to do, the nail on the heritage coffin won’t be struck down hard and the glorious faded ruins will get a fresh lick of paint as they’re tarted up for increasing numbers of tourists.
This current state of transition in Yangon partly fuels the ‘Go there before it changes’ attraction about Myanmar. Most savvy, albeit cynical, travellers realise how money talks universally.
Given the current Myanmar military government’s total embrace of corruption on a gigantic scale, no one would be mildly surprised to see the rules bent to suit the aims of the powers that be.
Yangon’s past is not yet guaranteed for saving.
Of course, Yangon isn’t all about nostalgic architecture tripping. It’s the home of the country’s most important Buddhist shrine, the sublime Shwe Dagon Pagoda.
[caption id="attachment_2981" align="alignnone" width="448"] A small side view of enormous Shwe Dagon Pagoda[/caption]
What St. Peter’s Basilica is to devout Italian Catholics, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda is to devout Burmese Buddhists. Eight hairs of the Buddha are embedded in the main pagoda, unseen but most assuredly there, so I was told by my guide and everyone else I asked.
The great gold wrapped Shwe Dagon is Yangon’s true beating heart. A whole industry revolves around it and the thousands of daily visitors who come to pay tribute to Buddha’s enshrined hairs and teachings whose influence inform whole populations of devotees.
Food markets, restaurants, monasteries filled with monks whose dawn perambulations, begging bowls in hand, saffron coloured robes swishing about their sinewy bodies populate the surrounding streets. Shops selling Buddhist relics mix in with florists selling kaleidoscopic arrays of plants for offering to Shwe Dagon’s numerous shrines. Astrologists operate out of miniscule holes-in-walls dispensing advice to starry eyed clients, me amongst them. Apparently I shouldn’t trust all my closest friends and a new business venture will grant me great riches next year.
[caption id="attachment_2982" align="alignnone" width="336"] Young monks collecting alms near Shwe Dagon Pagoda[/caption]
I visited Shwe Dagon every day during an eight days visit to Yangon. If only to hang out at a ‘mohinga’ cafe (the country’s ubiquitous fish noodle soup, served normally at breakfast) or to sip from tiny cups of ‘lapayee’, Burmese super-strong sweet and milky tea, about 10 cents per cup, watching the Myanmar world proceed slowly by. During monsoon season when rain hammers down with the force of a boxer’s punch and humidity is soaking wet high, no one moves very fast.
[caption id="attachment_2983" align="alignnone" width="382"] Burmese tea, 'lapayee'.[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_2984" align="alignnone" width="448"] Hot bowls of 'mohinga' for breakfast[/caption]
Yangon’s other vital organ, its stomach, comparing favourably to Shwe Dagon’s beating heart, is the riverfront. Not a tourist site per se, the commodious wharves are busy from dawn to dusk with all manner of intrastate shipping. Low slung barges offload or load with bananas, coconuts, sugar cane, pineapples, bags of rice and tonnes of cargo readying for shipment downriver to the Delta or upriver to otherwise inaccessible towns lining the great Irrawaddy River.
[caption id="attachment_3018" align="alignnone" width="448"] There is a boat under those coconuts[/caption]
At the Yangon River wharves Yangon city is alive and thriving. No industrial cranes operate at these inner city wharves. It’s all manpower or no power. Shifting 50 kilo bags of rice up and down shaky gangplanks while balanced on narrow shoulders is a job not suited to the weak.
[caption id="attachment_2985" align="alignnone" width="423"] Hard work under rice sacks at Yangon wharves[/caption]
If you visit Yangon, two stops are obligatory on the local tourist trail: Shwe Dagon Pagoda and the river wharves. See them both and begin to understand how this city lives.
[caption id="attachment_2987" align="alignnone" width="375"] Banana boatmen[/caption]
One day I ventured with an excellent guide for a walk on the wild side. We made an excursion to the Yangon River’s opposite bank to Dalah village, where the rents are cheaper, where the living is harder and from where the local folk commute daily on grimy crowded ferries.
[caption id="attachment_2988" align="alignnone" width="363"] Yangon River ferry[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_3020" align="alignnone" width="448"] Peddlers aboard Dalah ferry[/caption]
A bridge has not yet been built over the Yangon River. Its bed is too silty and the bridge foundations would prove too costly were two explanations I was given.
[caption id="attachment_2989" align="alignnone" width="448"] Empty water taxis waiting for afternoon rush[/caption]
Over in Dalah town, I visited yet another food market, this one so squalidly dirty that even I was a bit shocked. When you spy another decrepit pariah dog lying next to a slab of pig meat or a skinny chicken carcass covered in flies on a filthy bamboo table, butcher squatting nearby, machete in hand ready to chop off a gristly bit (the pig’s not the dog’s) for that night’s curry, the overall impression is one of complete exasperation touched with despair. How could I feel otherwise?
[caption id="attachment_2990" align="alignnone" width="422"] Dalah market scene with wandering dog[/caption]
Average annual incomes in Myanmar are stuck at the bottom end of extreme poverty levels as measured on OECD scales including annual income, nutrition intake, work accessibility, education levels and provision of health care. Villagers migrate to cities such as Yangon in search of a liveable wage, hopefully with enough cash to send to families steadfastly waiting for help in the home village. Despite political change, life for the great majority of Myanmar’s people continues to be inexorably challenging.
[caption id="attachment_2991" align="alignnone" width="448"] Dalah market laneway[/caption]
Worse still is a dog’s life. I felt sorry for all the street dogs I met in Myanmar. Theirs is not a contented life on the Buddhist wheel of reincarnation. Dalah’s dogs appear to have been meted an exceptionally dismal allotment in this life.
[caption id="attachment_2992" align="alignnone" width="448"] Hungry dogs at Dalah market[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_2994" align="alignnone" width="393"] Myanmar cafes offer tiny plastic chairs, useful when waiting for rain to cease[/caption]
My guide and I sat under cover in a cafe out of the rain for a couple hours, chatting about politics and Myanmar’s unexpectedly rapid change to modernisation. We had hired a cyclo-rickshaw to cart us around. The driver was a fun guy, ever ready with a smile, sporting iron strong thighs toughened from hauling commuters to and from ferry wharves and the bustling though sodden market.
[caption id="attachment_2993" align="alignnone" width="394"] Dalah cyclo driver at wharves[/caption]
Heavy rains for the past week nearly inundated most stallholders’ businesses. Dengue fever was rife. Hospitals were full of patients brought down by the dreaded ‘break-bone fever’.
[caption id="attachment_3017" align="alignnone" width="336"] Dalah market, child with mother[/caption]
On another day, without a guide in tow, I hopped aboard the slow train around Yangon. In a country with few railroads, Yangon is blessed with a circle line. I kid you not.
[caption id="attachment_2995" align="alignnone" width="348"] Monk waiting for circle line train[/caption]
From Yangon’s faux Oriental folly of a central station, trains depart approximately once every two hours or so, one heading clockwise, another anti-clockwise. Punctuality is admirably respected. This adherence to an almost British sense of punctiliousness is in stark contrast to the state of the rail bed and engine speed.
A TGV train this is not.
For about one dollar, you get nearly three hours of gently unfolding glimpses of life, like looking through a coffee table book filled with arresting images.
Fetid slums swimming amidst barges of floating rubbish intersperse with narrow paddies planted edge to edge with water spinach or rice. Some neglected paddies supported cloaks of suffocating water hyacinth; others were bright spots of lotus plants whose blossoms tilted towards the sun hiding behind heavy dark clouds. Fellow passengers napped or chatted on their phones.
[caption id="attachment_2996" align="alignnone" width="336"] Passengers on board the circle line train[/caption]
Mobile phones have proliferated in Myanmar since the price of a phone fell from USD$2,000 to less than USD$10 in a quick three years. Though internet connection in Myanmar, even in Yangon, is still wonky and the government controls access to online search engines, people seem to have embraced device-life here as much as anywhere else in modern society.
[caption id="attachment_3016" align="alignnone" width="448"] Paddies seen from circle line train[/caption]
Each station, (there were 38 and we stopped at each one during our 38 ks circumnavigation of Yangon) provided an opportunity to wave at passersby: noodle sellers, nut purveyors, cold drink hucksters and idle onlookers lazing the day watching slow moving trains.
Through open windows, no flyscreens or shades, just open space to let in fresh air, rain or clouds of flying insects, passengers are treated to outer Yangon’s rural scenery, the occasional water buffalo lifting its horned head from a swampy paddy or a horse cart trundling off into the distance to a market town up the Irrawaddy Delta.
[caption id="attachment_2997" align="alignnone" width="448"] Shacks seen from circle line train[/caption]
This was the best value commuter experience I’ve had anywhere.
[caption id="attachment_2999" align="alignnone" width="448"] Circle line station scene[/caption]
My very first stop in Yangon, not twenty minutes after passing through a surprisingly congenial Customs & Immigration procedure, was at Aung San Suu Kyi’s house located next to Inya Lake in the city’s toniest neighbourhood. ‘The Lady’, as she’s known universally in Myanmar no longer lives full time in the house where she was imprisoned for so many years. Instead she lives mostly in Naypyidaw, or she’s travelling overseas or throughout Myanmar.
[caption id="attachment_2998" align="alignnone" width="448"] Gate at Aung San Suu Kyi's house[/caption]
Being something of a political animal incessantly curious about what makes governments tick, I also visited the National League of Democracy’s national headquarters in Yangon. I leave it to you dear reader to follow up on the vagaries of contemporary Myanmar politics. Suffice to say, it’s a nasty business where power is held in the hands of a small group of very nasty people, some related to the ruling junta who pull puppet strings behind the scenes.
[caption id="attachment_3001" align="alignnone" width="448"] NLD campaign volunteers at work[/caption]
Travelling in Myanmar requires a degree of incredulity checking. Gossip-mongering is rife. I heard tales that made my blood run cold; or my ire was raised conversely to boiling point. In such a poverty struck country, a few kleptocrats closely connected to government or actually in charge of it, have attained ill-gotten wealth that would cause a blush in the face of a Marcos or Assad or even a Mobutu or two.
[caption id="attachment_3000" align="alignnone" width="448"] NLD headquarters[/caption]
The NLD headquarters continue to serve as a focus for military agents spying on campaign workers and visitors. The dingy drinks stalls directly across the road from where Aung San Suu Kyi’s volunteers crusade for transparency and justice in national government is where clandestine observers (i.e. paid thugs) are staked out, though their presence is not as stark as it was before the by-elections of 2012. I waved at a couple of them in hopes they’d photograph me from a flattering angle. No such luck.
[caption id="attachment_3002" align="alignnone" width="414"] Tea shop opposite NLD headquaters[/caption]
I also visited the Bogyoke Aung San Museum, the home where Myanmar’s modern founder lived with his wife, two sons and daughter before his assassination on 19 July 1947 when he was only 32 years old. The house was owned by a Chinese woman and leased to Aung San. When he died, she donated the house to his memory but the museum was created and opened to the general public only recently.
The house was damaged during Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the worst natural disaster to strike Myanmar in recent times, coincidentally a catalyst for regime change due largely to the generals’ attempt to isolate global recovery and rescue efforts from the hardest hit areas in the Delta. It is still undergoing repair though the damage was relatively slight. Aung San’s assassination day is a national holiday in Myanmar. Known as Martyr’s Day, it is marked in commemoration of the country’s founding father and his independent legacy.
[caption id="attachment_3022" align="alignnone" width="341"] NLD campaign workers[/caption]
The guards at this family museum wouldn’t allow me to photograph the house exterior or its gardens (photography is prohibited inside) so I had to be content with a photo of the museum sign instead.
[caption id="attachment_3003" align="alignnone" width="448"] Bogyoke Aung San Museum sign[/caption]
I came away saddened at the loss of such a young, intelligent and innovative man. The museum is small yet feels intensely personal. Some of his favourite books sit on shelves in a small office. Beds swathed in mosquito netting where the children slept look almost as if they were recently occupied.
By contrast, the National Museum in Pyay Road, Dagon Township is impersonal and austere. The Lion Throne is a remembrance of former royal glory days. Filled with artefacts of Myanmar’s dynastic past when various regions held sway over greater Myanmar right up until the country was more or less unified by one ruler in the 1850s when Mandalay became the country’s last capital under one king, this is Myanmar’s showcase repository of national hegemony. Its curators have done a fine job, probably with minimal resources and they should be applauded.
By all means, visit both museums, easily done in a single day.
Yangon is thriving, there’s no doubt about that.
Go there before it changes forever, won’t you?
Tom Neal Tacker visited Yangon as a guest of Viator, Travel Indochina and Shangri-La hotels.
Yangon is easily accessible from Bangkok and Singapore airports with frequent daily flights. Overland travel is problematic in regions where the ruling government continues to quash regional independence movements such as in the Karen and Rohinga homelands.
Viator, the global tour operator’s (www.viator.com) local Myanmar adjunct is Khiri Travel owned and run by the top bloke and all round nice guy Edwin Briels. Edwin organised the British motoring show Top Gear’s expedition into Myanmar’s inaccessible border region with Thailand. What he doesn’t know about contemporary Myanmar isn’t really worth knowing anyway.
[caption id="attachment_3005" align="alignnone" width="336"] Herbal medicine seller at Shwe Dagon market[/caption]
See www.khiri.com Viator’s newest personalised tour in Yangon with private guide, most meals, driver and accommodation is a three day insight into how this amazingly complex city works. My guide Ms. Nina was utterly charming, helpful and caring. She clearly loves her country and was desperately keen that I share her enthusiasm. What more could anyone ask of a guide?
[caption id="attachment_3004" align="alignnone" width="448"] Cyclo driver waiting near Shwe Dagon market[/caption]
Travel Indochina’s local operator in Myanmar is Tour Mandalay managed excellently by Marek Lenarcik and Karen Salamanca. This is a very well run group similar to Khiri Travel and essential to travellers keen on seeing Myanmar from an off-the-beaten-track point of view.
[caption id="attachment_3006" align="alignnone" width="418"] Yangon wharf workers[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_3015" align="alignnone" width="390"] Yangon River scene[/caption]
I thoroughly enjoyed my one day tour with wonder guide Mr. Johnny while we explored the back streets of Dalah, the waterfront wharves of inner Yangon, the Bogyoke Aung San Museum and a valuable side trip to the NLD headquarters. See www.tourmandalay.travel or www.travelindochina.com.au for up close and personal tours in Myanmar.
[caption id="attachment_3007" align="alignnone" width="388"] Yangon wharf cyclo driver[/caption]
Visas for Myanmar are required for all nationalities.
There is no international train service linking Myanmar with its neighbours.
Myanmar has no telephone roaming agreements with other countries. Internet cafes do exist but the connections may not be up to speed, literally.
ATMs have begun to pop up in major towns though they’re often ‘Out of Service’. Cash is dispensed in the local currency, the Kyat (pronounced ‘Chaht’).
US dollars are accepted in many tourist centres though not as frequently as they once were when US currency was compulsory for large purchases made by foreigners.
Credit cards are almost universally UN-accepted. 4 and 5-star hotels accept Visa and Mastercard, but only those with particular links to certain offshore banks. For instance, my HSBC Visa credit card was virtually useless as HSBC hasn’t yet negotiated an international agreement with Myanmar banks. Do not depend on using your credit card in Myanmar. It’s still a cash economy.
Myanmar people are some of the friendliest I’ve met anywhere in my travels. I would have thought since the country opened to mass tourism a few years ago that a Western white man’s face wouldn’t be such an object of curiosity but I was wrong. Away from the four main tourist centres, a Westerner is indeed a curiosity. Don’t be surprised to draw attention from unexpected sources. Kids will randomly follow you down a street. Market stallholders will stop suddenly mid-conversation with a customer to stare at you and smile. Passersby will angle their way towards you in order to get a closer look. This all being said, Myanmar people are respectful, polite and genuinely friendly. The curiosity is mostly entirely innocent. Almost none of the hard sell practices seen in other south Asian countries will confront you in Myanmar, though the street sellers in Pagan can be relentlessly pushy, albeit in a very friendly way.
[caption id="attachment_3008" align="alignnone" width="336"] Smiles under bananas at Yangon wharf[/caption]
Myanmar people are mostly very conservative. Displays of public affection are serious breaches of etiquette, though men hold other men’s hands and women walk arm in arm, side by side, physical interaction between opposite sexes in public is a public no-no. Though acceptable canoodling spots do exist, (Kandawgyi Lake and Inya Lake parks for example) men and women should not be seen kissing in public. Any display in public of sexual affection is almost anathema to Myanmar people.
All Buddhist temples, pagodas and shrines are sacred places. Men and women are not allowed to enter wearing shorts above the knees. Women should wear long loose fitting skirts or long pants. Low cut blouses or shirts are definitely not allowed. Cleavage is a no-go zone in Buddhist temples. Men should not wear singlets that expose shoulders. Under no circumstances may shoes and socks be worn inside a Buddhist pagoda, temple or shrine. Hats should also be removed. Never sit with your feet pointed at a Buddha image or another person for that matter. Never touch someone on the head, including a child unless the child belongs to a friend or is a close relative.
[caption id="attachment_3009" align="alignnone" width="267"] Woman readjusting her 'longyi'[/caption]
Myanmar women dress in colourful ‘longyi’. The sarong like garment (‘longyi’ for men is thin cotton sewn into a tube, for women it’s a tube or single sheet of cotton cloth) is wrapped round the waist with one end secured at the side. Men wear the same ankle length ‘longyi’ but in more subdued colours, blue, brown and russet checks being the preferred pattern and colour scheme. Men tie their ‘longyi’ around the waist in different fashion to women. It took me two days to perfect the method, which also meant I risked finding my ‘longyi’ wrapped round my ankles on several occasions. Given that public nudity in Myanmar is akin to sticking your feet in a Buddha image’s face, I was hyper-vigilant about any possible ‘wardrobe malfunction’. I learned how to hoist up my ‘longyi’ by drawing up the front fabric through my legs, gathering the excess at my lumbar region and securing it in place so that I had a very short pair of shorts, perfect for wading through high water in markets or riding a motorbike on a muddy track. I bought two ‘longyi’ during three weeks in Myanmar, one in the Dalah market for approximately USD$2.50 and the other from a persistent young man in Pagan for about USD$5.00.
Many men in Myanmar don’t wear underwear, I was informed, so I adopted the local practice, thanking myself daily for the extra freedom and immediate cooling relief. Going commando in 40C heat was a Buddhist godsend. Once I learned how to tie my ‘longyi’ in the proper Myanmar fashion, with a small bustle at my navel and two flaps clinging to my thighs, I was the recipient of numerous thumbs up signals coupled with broad smiles of appreciation, from both men and women I hasten to add. A 100% cotton ‘longyi’ dries quickly in Myanmar’s climate. I wore mine in the shower, stomped on it while shampooing my hair, draped it over the shower rail and had a fresh ‘longyi’ ready to wear the following day. Utter bliss. Add a T-shirt that covered my shoulders and a pair of thongs and I was dressed like a local ready for any Buddhist shrine or local cafe, maintaining a cool air of liberty while feeling the breeze blowing up my backside.
[caption id="attachment_3014" align="alignnone" width="336"] 'Longyi' wearing workers preparing bananas for sale[/caption]
Women in Myanmar are highly respected if they adhere to society’s dress code. I was told that properly educated Myanmar women wear their hair long and clean, tied back with fresh flowers woven into the shimmering tresses. They smile demurely and keep to themselves. This was confirmed to me by a man of about 22 years. The times are changing slowly in Myanmar, though in both Yangon and Mandalay many women dress in Western style with short skirts and high heels. They get a lot of looks but hey, fashion victims are everywhere.
In Myanmar you will see women wearing smears of yellow-ish ochre painted on their cheeks and foreheads. This is ‘thanaka’, made from the powdered bark of the Thanaka tree (Murraya paniculata or exotica) ground down on a stone slab and mixed with water. Worn both for its cosmetic and skin care properties (anti-inflammatory and acne preventative as well as a whitening agent or sunscreen), the Thanaka tree thrives in Myanmar’s dry zones, mostly around Pagan and Mandalay. Men use ‘thanaka’ paste as well but tend to apply it before going to bed though it’s not unusual to see men wearing it during the day as well. The best ‘thanaka’ is authentic stuff, approximately USD$5.00 per jar. It smells vaguely sweet and musky. Cheaper imitations exist but they aren’t very effective. Its anti-ageing properties are also highly praised. It hasn’t worked for me but I’ve only just begun using it. Perhaps I should have started younger.
[caption id="attachment_3010" align="alignnone" width="336"] Young women wearing 'thanaka' at Shwe Dagon market[/caption]
Superstition is rife in Myanmar. Astrologers hold a lofty position in society. Their advice is sought by the most senior government officials. A prime example is this: when a ruling general was told by an astrologer that Myanmar would be better off if all drivers shifted from driving on the left to driving on the right, the country would be more easily governed or some such nonsense like that. Since the early 90s Myanmar drivers now drive on the right, despite the fact that over 90% of vehicles have steering wheels on the right as they’re directly imported without alteration from Japan. Myanmar’s most prominent neighbours, Bangladesh, Thailand and India all drive on the left. Myanmar is lately the odd country out, much to the consternation of local drivers and foreign passengers.
No major decision is taken in Myanmar without consulting an astrologer first. Weddings, anniversaries, births, funerals, home purchases, major business decisions, you name it. Without an astrologer’s wisdom, you’re cactus. Same rules apply to general living. One guide pointed at three small dot-point tattoos on the back of a man’s neck, telling me he had them placed there to ward off the effect of snakebite. The venom would pass no further than the tattoos, thus preventing it from reaching the man’s brain and therefore saving his life.
[caption id="attachment_3011" align="alignnone" width="425"] Buddha statue at Shwe Dagon Pagoda[/caption]
Though Buddhism is the country’s major religion, small minorities of Hindus, Muslims and Christians exist. Superstition is embedded in all religions, despite overriding dicta from authorities on high. Another example is Nats. 37 Great Nats are spirits who were formerly human beings that met violent deaths. Lesser Nats exist in trees, water and other natural features. There are hundreds of Lesser Nats. Nats shrines can be found in all villages and towns. They’re usually positioned under old banyan or mango trees and are festooned with offerings of food, candles and small trinkets much like Buddhist shrines are similarly adorned. The king of the Nats, Thagyamin, is usually depicted seated upon a lofty throne atop a white three-headed elephant. He holds a conch shell in one hand and a yak tail whisk in the other. Most homes in rural areas have a Nat shrine inside.
[caption id="attachment_3031" align="alignnone" width="448"] Nats shrine in a village[/caption]
Great Nats spirits can be reincarnated in human beings as both men and women. Like Indian ‘Hijra’ whose spirits are linked to feminine deities, many Myanmar men reincarnated as female Nats spirits dress as transvestites and perform at frequent religious ceremonies throughout the country. The biggest annual Nats festival takes place during the August full moon in and around Mandalay. The festival has morphed somewhat into a big gay party that attracts lots of Thai ladyboys, gay men and lesbians and their supporters. Though Nats reincarnated spirits are not at all officially connected with GLBT international rights movements, Myanmar’s unique celebration of gender difference has evolved into something altogether unusual.
Myanmar food isn’t as chilli hot as in Thailand, though many exceptions exist. Chillies, chilli paste and chilli sauce spread liberally throughout cheap noodle snacks sold in every street in every Myanmar town prove the exception to the rule. Myanmar food is rather like an amalgamation of Bengali, Bangladeshi, southern Chinese and Thai. Rice is eaten daily if possible. Many Myanmar people can’t afford to eat rice every day. Rice noodles are cheap and widely available, served cold in a salad with a fishy broth, chillies and fresh herbs or hot in a soup such as ‘mohinga’.
Meat is expensive and abstemiously used in cooking. Chicken, mutton, pork or beef is typically cut into small portions and distributed in a savoury sauce such as curry. This is the norm. Fish is a national staple, particularly in the south on the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal coasts.
Tea is the national drink. A thermos of hot ‘Chinese’ tea, without milk or sugar is placed on every cafe table for free even if a milky sweet Myanmar tea is ordered.
Coffee culture is not prevalent yet in Myanmar. Espresso machines are rarely seen, normally only in big international hotels.
Myanmar beer is the preferred alcoholic beverage, locally brewed and served cold when refrigeration is available.
Locally made spirits (gin, whisky and rum) are cheap and widely available though not very good. Toddy palm spirit is cheap and widely available. Buyer beware, some toddy stinks of sour sap while a well made toddy can be quite delicious if consumed in the right circumstances. For me circumstances were right in the middle of nowhere when nothing else alcoholic was available to drink.
A couple wineries, fairly new to Myanmar, are established in the high country near Inye Lake. I drank a Shiraz/Carignan blend from Inle Valley winery and enjoyed it very much.
Myanmar people’s greatest vice apart from tobacco and opium addictions is the widespread consumption of betel nut. Mildly addictive, it’s a hunger staving stuff that stains teeth bright red when chewed and gives the chewer a sustained energy boost. Nearly all Myanmar men chew betel, either in a ‘pan’ preparation mixed with any or all of the following: green tobacco, cardamom, cloves, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, liquorice root and jaggery sugar and is available for a pittance at countless street stalls. The red spittle stains you see sprayed on random building walls or kerbs or in public toilets is expelled betel juice. Years of betel nut chewing will rot teeth, a real pity to see handsome young men with permanently stained rotten teeth. Most young women these days don’t chew betel. Is it vanity? Probably. I did see a lot of older women with tell-tale red stained teeth and gums. On them it seemed a quirky character trait, images from old National Geographic magazines leapt to mind. I felt immediately embarrassed at the thought, like an antiquated colonialist but each time I spied an old woman with red rotted teeth and gums, I thought, ‘Huh, she reminds of a photo I saw once.’
Tap water in Myanmar is not potable. Ice made from tap water will likely make you sick.
Hygiene in Myanmar is questionable. Most street food sold in Myanmar is not prepared with sensitive Western palates in mind. Hot water, soap and clean cloths for drying dishes, glasses, cups, etc is almost non-existent. I ate at many street stalls but only in the company of a guide. My guides would not eat at most street stalls for fear of dysentery or worse. The most popular busy restaurants and cafes are sure signs of good hygiene in practice. Myanmar people don’t want to be sick from eating bad food anymore than you would. Follow their lead when eating out. Most international hotels operate at a better standard of cleanliness, though exceptions exist. Use your nose and eyes. If it looks dodgy, avoid it no matter how hungry you are.
[caption id="attachment_3012" align="alignnone" width="336"] Fried crickets for sale at street stall[/caption]
Electricity supply in Myanmar is shall we say... intermittent? While I was in Yangon, the power went out for a couple hours on a daily basis. Most good hotels, large businesses and essential services (hospitals, the airport for example) run their own diesel generators. Those loud noxious contraptions you see planted permanently on the footpath next to a busy street is the generator, some are large as a shipping container. Imagine the noise.
Yangon’s public transport system is basic. Though I very much enjoyed the slow train around town, I wouldn’t want to rely on it to get me anywhere in a hurry. Public buses are common and useful though it helps to be fluent in Myanmar script otherwise you could easily board the wrong bus. Buses are slow and overcrowded. At least they’re cheap.
Taxis can be easily hailed in Yangon though don’t expect the driver to know every street. Some operate with metres running but most don’t. Negotiate the fare before you enter the taxi. Ask for local advice regards price and distance.
Yangon’s street numbering system outside the old British grid is based on a completely illogical system. Street signs, house numbers, business addresses listed by street name and number are fantasies.
Motorcycles are prohibited in Yangon, another silly general’s decree.
Medical facilities in Myanmar are not yet at an international standard of care and hygiene. If you become gravely ill, you’d better have a good travel insurance policy that provides a medical evacuation clause.
Universally applicable anti-smoking laws in public restaurants and cafes don’t yet exist in Myanmar. People light up in bars and many restaurants though most places catering to foreigners have a no-smoking policy or they provide a separate smoking area. Not so for bars where the smoke is thick as Irrawaddy Delta mud. Cough, cough.
For products that are made in Myanmar by local crafts experts, the NGO operated shop Pomelo is a one-stop shop for unusual gifts and souvenirs. Funky and like nowhere else in town, Pomelo is a great find. No. 89, 2nd floor, Thein Pyu Road, Botataung Township, Central Yangon. www.pomeloyangon.com
Since 2010 artistic expression in Myanmar has really exploded. Local artists are creating works that walk the fine line of political correctness and safety. They get away with criticising the government in ways that put journalists in prison. I am very impressed with many works I saw, though prices have risen to USD$10,000 per painting for many artists whose works are gaining international recognition. The best place I discovered in Yangon to buy art from respected artists at a fair price is Pansodan Gallery at No. 286, 1st floor, Pansodan Street near the Upper Block between Anawrahta and Bogyoke Aung San streets. www.pansodan,com
On most Tuesday nights the gallery runs an open house for visiting foreigners and guests. Many local ex-pats and writer/journalists stop in for this regular gathering. It’s a great place in which to learn more about Myanmar politics and society.
Near Pomelo shop is Genky 11, a Japanese-Myanmar massage therapy centre run as a charity and staffed by blind therapists. Inexpensive and excellent massages are available here, often without prior booking though during busy times, bookings are advised. Genky has two locations: Genky 1 and Genky 11. Ask a local for directions. Their website address is written in Myanmar script.
Yangon has five 5-star hotels that boast superior amenities: The Sule Shangri-La (formerly The Trader’s Hotel), The Strand Hotel, The Belmond Governor’s Residence, The Chatrium Hotel Royal Lake and The Savoy Hotel. Of the five, the Shangri-La is the most modern and offers the greatest number of dining options, conference facilities, spa, gymnasium and pool. The upper level Executive Rooms offer access to a private lounge where breakfasts, evening hors d’oeuvres and drinks are served daily. The hotel’s Summer Palace Chinese/Cantonese restaurant is really superb. The chef is from HongKong and he makes a mean dumpling or three. The lobby cafe area is very popular with local residents, primarily because the service is good and the hotel has an excellent wi-fi connection. I’ve never seen so many people nursing inexpensive pots of tea accompanied by two hours of free wi-fi. So many laptops opened... so many empty cups. The hotel is centrally located very near Scott’s Market area, the city’s main railway station and the Sule Pagoda. The old British Raj CBD is only a few minutes walk from the hotel. See www.shangri-la.com
[caption id="attachment_3036" align="alignnone" width="448"] Sule Shangri-La Peacock Lounge lobby cafe[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_3037" align="alignnone" width="448"] Sule Shangr-La Horizon Club room[/caption]
The Strand Hotel is the town’s original grand-dame hotel. Refurbished to a sparkling state, its 40 rooms are all suites, quite capacious and very well appointed. The hotel’s Long Bar is a local hang-out and popular Friday nights at Happy Hour. The hotel’s French restaurant is reportedly one of the best diners in town. There is no pool or garden however. The hotel is smack dab in the middle of The Strand road opposite the Strand Wharf (ferries to Dalah leave from here) so it’s a very busy location. Luckily all suites boast double-glazed windows so loud street noise isn’t an intrusive problem. The room rates are at the top end of acceptable pricing in my opinion. I’ve stayed in similar hotels in Paris, London and New York for an equal price. Good value? You be the judge. See www.hotelthestrand.com
Yangon lacks a good range of middle priced hotels, an unfortunate fact many travellers find out to their dismay during high season when rooms are full and vacancies are virtually non-existent. Even the most ordinary hotels will be full. The best of a disappointing lot is the small group of Clover Hotels. I stayed at one near Inya Lake, a bit far from the old centre but nearer to where most Yangon residents actually live. This Clover Hotel has nice views of Shwe Dagon Pagoda, particularly at night when the gold shrines are lit up like a bonanza. Breakfasts here are bloody awful. Eat somewhere else; 'mohinga' cafes are numerous. See www.cloverhotelsgroup.com
Clean no-frills hotels and hostels don’t really exist in Yangon, though very cheap doss houses with no facilities certainly can be found. Shop around, ask a local where a room for a nominal amount can be found and you may get lucky. Taxi drivers are sure-fire sources of information about local inexpensive accommodation.
Apart from very fine meals at the Sule Shangri-La’s Summer Palace restaurant and The Strand Hotel’s Cafe and Restaurant, I ate well in Yangon’s Chinatown in the old British CBD. Follow the local crowds to the cleanest places in which to dine.
The Corriander (sic) Leaf restaurant adjacent to the slightly sleazy Yangon International Hotel compound is the city’s best Indian restaurant. The food is primarily Punjabi. Tandoori oven cooking, northern Indian influenced curries, naan, rotis and chapattis made to order are the go. Cocktails are fairly good and fairly priced. See www.corrianderleaf.com
Every Anglophone with a literary mind will know Eric Blair’s (aka George Orwell) ‘Burmese Days’. Cheap Penguin rip-off copies are widely available. Orwell/Blair’s tongue-in-cheek sarcastic account of bored, racist and corrupt English colonialists and their hangers-on in early 20th century British Burma is enthrallingly dry reading. I couldn’t have liked it more.
U Thant’s grandson, Thant Myint-U’s masterpiece ‘River of Lost Footsteps’ is an excellent account of the great river Irrawaddy and the people who live on it, near it and depend on it for their livelihoods.
‘The King in Exile, the Fall of the Royal Family of Burma’ by Sudha Shah tells the tale of Burma’s lost nobility. Want to know what happened to the family that ruled over all Burma until approximately one hundred years ago? Read all about it here.
The Pagan Book House in Yangon’s CBD at No. 100 37th Street is a small shop that stocks a wide range of English books all about Myanmar/Burma.
The annual (there have been two festivals thus far) Irrawaddy Literary Festival is opening the world to Myanmar’s literary culture and Myanmar’s literary culture to the world. Still in early development, the festival has attracted highly regarded authors from round the globe, an effect of that ‘Go there before it changes’ opinion. Anyway, it’s a fun event spread over a few days, with a varied interesting programme. See www.irrawaddylitfest.com
This is the first of two stories about a recent visit to Myanmar. The other story about Pagan, Mandalay and beyond will appear within two weeks.
Thanks for reading.
[caption id="attachment_3013" align="alignnone" width="448"] Lone worker on Yangon wharf[/caption]
Tiny town school between Wangaratta and Eldorado--if you spell the name right, you graduate with honours.[/caption]
Is it the combination of mineral rich soils and a huge range of climate zones contained in a relatively small area? The diverse community of keen farmers, vignerons and orchardists collaborating with a very talented group of restaurateurs and hoteliers?
All this and more set this region apart in terms of sheer variety of produce and human expertise working in perfect tandem.
I visited recently, this time to explore a smattering of King Valley wineries while sampling the gastronomic delights around Milawa.
Tiny Milawa is well known for its mustard factory and cheese shop. Brown Brothers winery put Milawa on the gourmet map many years ago.
[caption id="attachment_2911" align="alignnone" width="407"] Snow Road Produce tea towels display[/caption]
Now a contemporary providore and cafe adds shinier lustre. Snow Road Produce (www.snowroadproduce.com) sells a wide range of local goods including a terrific range of wines and Beechworth’s Bridge Road beers.
[caption id="attachment_2936" align="alignnone" width="422"] Snow Road Produce espresso team in action[/caption]
Owned and operated by hospitality professionals Lachlan and Emma Routledge, breakfast and lunch is served six days (closed Wednesdays) while a simple menu of pizzas and a few well-prepared main courses is served Friday and Sunday nights until about 9pm. Ring ahead to make a booking as the thin crust authentic pizzas are popular. Coffee by local roaster Honeybird of Mount Beauty is superb.
[caption id="attachment_2910" align="alignnone" width="448"] Snow Road Produce Murray Breweries cordials[/caption]
Around Milawa, Oxley and Everton lies a rich assortment of farm shops and wineries. Sam Miranda Wines just outside Oxley opened a schmick cellar door restaurant a few years ago in a striking new winery building alongside the picturesque King River. (www.sammiranda.com.au) The food and wine matching at Miranda’s restaurant is always interesting while the range of wines is comprehensive and well made.
Nearby Ciccone Estate and John Gehrig Wines both typify the expertly crafted wines of the region and offer a wide selection of styles with welcoming cellar doors. (www.cicconewines.com.au and www.johngehrigwines.com.au)
Of course the daddy of them all in these parts is Brown Brothers (www.brownbrothers.com.au) where education and innovation has long been essential to the Brown family’s success in conquering global markets.
[caption id="attachment_2912" align="alignnone" width="427"] Brown Brothers barrel[/caption]
In my opinion Brown Brothers operates the country’s most professional cellar door. Long time employees charm customers with their generosity of spirit and warm welcome. I say this wholeheartedly though I know comments like this smack of advertorial. Honest-to-goodness hospitality pervades throughout the Brown Brothers business, setting a model that other less proactive businesses should have wisely emulated years ago.
[caption id="attachment_2913" align="alignnone" width="393"] Brown Brothers cellar door[/caption]
Wine making is essentially a farming business. Boom and bust periods are integral to life in a vineyard. Throughout lean and rich times the Brown family always endeavours to treat its employees like members of an extended clan.
The ethos of mutual respect runs true in everything the Brown family does, there for everyone to share.
Exemplified by its clever and long-running education program, Brown Brothers opened an Epicurean Centre years ago to showcase its broad range of wines matched with appropriate food. Several restaurant incarnations later, the excellent Patricia’s Table restaurant has reached a culinary pinnacle.
I’ve dined moderately well at Brown Brothers’ restaurant several times over the years. The most recent experience I enjoyed was the best yet. Head chef Douglas Elder has raised the bar to a higher level, specialising in maximum use of local seasonal produce.
[caption id="attachment_2914" align="alignnone" width="412"] Patricia's Table restaurant at Brown Brothers[/caption]
An entree of Fried Masterstock quail with corn puree, black bean dressing, rolled chicken terrine and shaved coconut was truly delicious. The Cellar Door Release 2013 Pinot Noir Rose partnering the dish was equally inspired.
Other dishes enjoyed during a leisurely lunch on a sunny winter’s afternoon in a large room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking landscaped grounds proved to be real slices of the good life: Chestnut and Ricotta Raviolo with Autumn Mushrooms (mostly Pine mushrooms the day I visited), Porcini Custard and Consommé to wit. Another entree of Cold smoked salmon, Dill Crème Fraiche, Brioche, Cucumber Piccalilli and Red Onion was also superb. Wine matching excelled, respectively a 2012 Limited Release Tempranillo and Graciano blend and a 2012 ‘Banksdale’ Chardonnay.
Under restaurant manager Bec Deslandes’ resourceful and friendly guidance, service is flawless. Our server, Julie Willis, was a fount of local knowledge whose utter charm sprang forth like a premium vintage 'Patricia' sparkling wine.
From Milawa it’s a short drive up the King Valley to Whitfield where the majority of top-quality wineries have cellar doors open to the public most weekends and public holidays.
If an abundance of Italian surnames is noted, remember that this area was settled by migrants escaping the deprivations of war from 1918 onwards until the early 50s. Italian families' tobacco growing businesses once proliferated in the King Valley and surrounds. They brought with them (usually hidden in packages and trunks on board the ships carrying them to new pastures) Italian grape varieties' rootstock from ancestral vineyards. Making wine primarily for home use in a style they preferred, less alcoholic and more savoury than the fuller bodied and fruitier wines common in Australia until the early 80s, these pioneering families now dominate today’s local wine industry.
The verdant foothills of the Australian Alps in Northeast Victoria appear vaguely Tuscan in appearance, particularly after several glasses of Prosecco when autumn and winter mists set into the landscape like a finely embroidered cloak.
At Dal Zotto Wines, Prosecco, the light bodied grape responsible for the frothy sparkling wine captivating Australia, is the wine of the moment. Winemaker Michael Dal Zotto has spent many months studying and working around Valdobbiadene, Italy’s Prosecco headquarters North of Venice nestled in beautiful hill country. Here he learned how to make Prosecco in a fashion the most loyal Italo-phile would love.
Dal Zotto boasts a cozy cellar door facility and a great range of wines including stunning examples of Barbera, Nebbiolo and Arneis. (www.dalzotto.com.au)
By sheer happenstance I popped into Dal Zotto while Michael Dal Zotto and a small team of volunteers was cutting up free range pork for salami and sausages. An aura of secret men’s business pervades salami making but this was an open kitchen full of fun and ‘dolce vita’.
[caption id="attachment_2915" align="alignnone" width="448"] Salami preparation at Dal Zotto[/caption]
Other esteemed wineries in the neighbourhood are Pizzini Wines, Politini and Chrismont. (www.pizzini.com.au www.politiniwines.com.au and www.chrismont.com.au)
[caption id="attachment_2918" align="alignnone" width="448"] Michael Dal Zotto and customers at the family cellar door[/caption]
Fred and Katrina Pizzini, like the Dal Zotto family, are local wine industry heroes. Katrina, an accomplished chef, runs a very successful cooking school from the winery. Fred has attained ‘Eminence Grise’ status while his kids continue the Pizzini tradition of creating stunning wines from their family vineyards. Fred Pizzini is the Nebbiolo guru in these parts. His ‘Vin Santo’ style wine is unique and well worth getting hold of a bottle when it’s available.
Chrismont’s excellent Riesling is sought after by knowledgeable wine buffs. The rest of the range is equally good.
Just down the road from Whitfield is Gracebrook Vineyards. Owned and operated by the Maples family, they've been farming here since the 1970s. The Gracebrook restaurant connected to the winery and cellar door is open seven days for lunch. This is authentic ‘Paddock to Plate’ dining as almost the entire menu is sourced from the family farm.
The kitchen is run by talented chef Colleen Maples who shares duties with two of her sisters. Another Maples progeny, Nathan, is a local builder who has helped construct the warmly rustic cellar door and restaurant dining room. Views from the veranda overlooking the valley and nearby mountains are mesmerising. (www.gracebrook.com.au)
[caption id="attachment_2919" align="alignnone" width="425"] Colleen and David Maples, daughter and father team at Gracebrook cellar door[/caption]
David Maples makes wines according to basic organic principles with minimal intervention in the winery. I tasted a wide range of his wines, from an austere Sauvignon Blanc made very much in the Sancerre style to a complex Riesling from the 2005 vintage. A 2010 Savagnin Blanc was the best example I’ve tasted of this variety produced in Australia. (Savagnin Blanc rootstock was confused by import authorities for Albarino which has resulted in some unavoidable confusion.) A 2009 Sagrantino was also very good, earthy, tannic and crying out for a big plate of Osso Buco. I also liked Gracebrook’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, both prime examples of adept cool climate wine-making techniques.
Apart from the great food at Brown Brothers and Snow Road Produce I dined at newest talented chef on the block Ben Bergmann’s excellent food at the Mountain View Hotel located in the centre of Whitfield. You can’t miss the Mountain View pub; it’s the only one in town. Owned by the Pizzini family and managed by German born Bergmann, this pub operates two distinct dining rooms. One is capacious and ‘pubby’ with a long bar running alongside widely spaced tables overlooking a huge beer garden where an imaginative menu appeals to both local residents who prefer a no fuss chicken Parma and smart travellers searching for great ingredients cooked with consummate skill by a chef who really knows what he’s doing.
[caption id="attachment_2920" align="alignnone" width="376"] Head chef and manager Ben Bergmann at Mountain View Hotel[/caption]
The other much smaller dining room is reserved for fine dining where a very moderately priced degustation menu allows Bergmann’s star to shine without dimming down. A comprehensive wine list comprising local favourites and imported beauties creates a very appealing package. (www.mvhotel.com.au)
[caption id="attachment_2921" align="alignnone" width="448"] A berry good dessert at Mountain View Hotel[/caption]
Bergmann’s ambition for this winning gastro-pub is clear: he wants to create a destination diner. Four adjoining rooms have been renovated to superior accommodation standard as an encouragement for guests wanting to reduce worries about driving after drinking great wine.
Given Ben Bergmann’s drive and talent, I believe the Mountain View Hotel is poised to become Victoria’s newest stand-alone gourmet restaurant up to the task of proving correct the old Michelin adage: It’s Worth the Detour.
Down the valley on the main road between Wangaratta and Beechworth is miniscule Tarrawingee, essentially the hamlet with a gracious old pub attached.
Many times over the years I drove by the old pub and felt sad. It was unloved but still lovely looking. All it needed was tender care and someone with drive to primp its interior while returning it to former glory.
[caption id="attachment_2923" align="alignnone" width="448"] Plough Inn wineglasses[/caption]
Lucky for us, dynamic duo Andrew and Feona Roscouet stepped in over a year ago. Andrew was the head chef at the sadly missed and excellent Wardens of Beechworth. He has plenty of street cred, having worked in fine restaurants in Melbourne and abroad. (www.theploughinn.com.au)
Put simply, he’s a gifted chef.
[caption id="attachment_2922" align="alignnone" width="336"] Andrew Roscouet chef owner at the Plough Inn[/caption]
He’s also one of the reasons I’m so enthused about this whole region as an Australian gourmet’s paradise.
The newly revamped Plough Inn at Tarrawingee is now one of the region’s finest restaurants. Service is top-notch (Thank you Kylie and Florence!) while Andrew and his talented sous-chef Tui rattle the pans with aplomb.
[caption id="attachment_2925" align="alignnone" width="448"] Kylie and Florence at the Plough Inn[/caption]
A very reasonably priced degustation menu (AUD$65 per person for five generous courses, AUD$90 per person with matching wines): Gratineed Scallops with Pea Puree, Crème Fraiche and Ginger crumbs were lip smacking succulent, sweet of the sea and cooked just enough to warm the juicy scallops to a state of perfection. A Twice-cooked Pork Belly with Sweetcorn Puree, Corn and Red Capsicum salsa and Goat’s cheese Croquettes was rich and exquisite. Beef cheek Agnolotti on a reduced sweet/savoury Onion Puree, thin slices of Fennel pickled in Chinese spices and rice wine vinegar with crunchy Savoury Corn Flakes was inspired if a little weird. Two Duck leg Confit spheres encased in bread crumbs then lightly fried over Lentils, Garlic Cream, tiny roast Pumpkin pieces and a house made Worcestershire sauce came together like a dream but by then I’d overloaded on protein and couldn’t finish. I had no problem polishing off the Sticky Date pudding with Poached Prune and house made Butterscotch Sauce which our server Kylie referred to as ’A Cup Of Heaven’. She was right about that.
We drank a complex and plummy/mushroom-y bottle of Ninth Mile Vineyard unfiltered 2011 Pinot Noir from a vineyard near Stanley sited approximately 800 metres altitude.
Before the Pinot Noir, to start we had two glasses of Ringer Reef Sauvignon Blanc from Porepunkah near Myrtleford, another cool climate wine from a great local producer.
Roscouet’s food verges on the generous side of rich. He says his local customers are meat eaters (farmers in this region tend to like their meat portions served giant sized) but I reckon he could add a vegetable course to the degustation to give us meat-wimps a chance to complete the feast without a nearby defibrillator powered up ready for action.
No matter, the old pub retains its historic atmosphere; the small front bar is direct from country Victoria casting, while the Roscouet family has wisely injected aspects of urban cool into the framework. For instance, the main dining room’s ceiling sports plywood sheeting draped over rafters hiding extra insulation. Melbourne and Sydney trendy renovated warehouse restaurants sport similar looks.
The Plough Inn also provides a modestly priced pub grub menu with terrific hamburgers, fish and chips and a small selection of items off the main restaurant menu.
Plans are afoot to open the rooms upstairs for overnight guests. A huge cellar under the old floorboards is set for renovation as well and a room off the front bar in the vicinity of the gent’s lavatory will become a boutique selling hard-to-find local wines.
Clearly this couple have big plans in mind for the ongoing success of the Plough Inn. They’re off to a smashing start.
Tom Neal Tacker visited Northeast Victoria as a guest of Tourism North East and the Rural City of Wangaratta.
The Northeast Valleys are approximately three hours easy driving from Melbourne via Wangaratta, the gateway town to the Northeast Valleys region via the Hume Highway.
Frequent daily flights operate between Melbourne and Sydney to Albury-Wodonga on the Victoria/New South Wales border, approximately 45 minutes drive to Beechworth or 60 minutes to Milawa.
Wangaratta is on the main Melbourne-Sydney train line. Sadly train service is patchy due to ongoing maintenance work on the recently repaired (badly) track bed in Victoria which has resulted in frequent replacement buses operating between the various towns linking Wangaratta and Melbourne. This service is not a clean, speedy V-Line and doesn't compare to the new-ish train service operating between Melbourne and Ballarat and Melbourne and Bendigo.
See www.victoriahighcountry.com.au and www.winesofthekingvalley.com.au for more information about accommodation, annual festivals, cellar door opening hours and tips on recommended driving routes.
A new site www.kingvalleyproseccoroad.com.au promotes the wonders of local Prosecco with extensive information about cellar doors, wine festivals and touring options.
For more information about Milawa’s gourmet produce and regional specialties check out: www.milawagourmet.com
The Murray to Mountains Rail Trail bicycle route between Rutherglen, Wangaratta, Beechworth and Bright is a very well maintained and popular touring option. Highly recommended, pedal to paddock is the way to go. See www.murraytomountains.com.au
[caption id="attachment_2924" align="alignnone" width="448"] The Baker's Cottage in Eldorado[/caption]
Wow! Could you ask for a better host than Sandy Bogusis of the lovingly restored Baker’s Cottage in historic off-the-beaten-track Eldorado?
I think not. Sandy is a qualified tour guide who specialises in Victorian wineries. She knows everyone worth knowing in the region where wine and food are concerned.
The Baker’s Cottage comprises two old miner's cottages linked by a rather odd shaped triangular dining room. With two bedrooms sporting queen sized beds, two lounge rooms, one large bathroom and one en-suite lavatory, a fully equipped kitchen and entrance hallway all set in a lovely garden, this is a home-away-from-home. I have never written that cliché before but I mean it. I could have moved permanently into the Baker’s Cottage and not needed anything else but my clothes.
[caption id="attachment_2931" align="alignnone" width="448"] The Baker's Cottage dining area[/caption]
Next door is a real old baker’s oven that was used for bread making when Eldorado was a gold mining boom town in the 1850 and 1860s. Ask Sandy to open it if you want to glimpse how baking integrated into a slice of history from Australia’s fabulously rich gold rush era.
[caption id="attachment_2932" align="alignnone" width="448"] The Baker's Cottage main bedroom[/caption]
Sandy stocks the larder with all the breakfast fixings you’d need. I would have liked a fresh fruit juice as well but that’s a very minor quibble.
All mod cons are included: two large flat screen televisions, DVD player, CD player, stereo system and an open fireplace for those nights when a fire is what the romance doctor ordered.
Sandy is also happy to collect guests from Wangaratta's railway station.
Eldorado is about 20 minutes drive from Wangaratta or Milawa and 10 minutes to Tarrawingee or 30 minutes to Beechworth. It’s a centrally located hamlet that appears to have slipped off the radar.
[caption id="attachment_2928" align="alignnone" width="448"] McEvoy tavern sign[/caption]
The McEvoy Tavern in Eldorado is a real delight. The smallest pub in Victoria packs in a lot of old country hospitality. Have a drink here and mix with real local people who love a chat about what makes Eldorado special.
[caption id="attachment_2929" align="alignnone" width="448"] McEvoy Tavern interior[/caption]
Interstate Highway junction[/caption]
In the early 1950s when President Eisenhower laid his blessing on the construction of the country’s interstate mega-highway system he also cursed great swathes of America into a state of unrelenting dullness marked by speedy access from one soulless chain store to another.
[caption id="attachment_2846" align="alignnone" width="272"] President Eisenhower opens the Interstate System in 1956[/caption]
Within forty years the whole network of wide lanes with limited access had spread across the land. Four or more lanes allowed motorists to zip past as the highways were designed to skirt most small towns. Great for speedy transportation, a death knell for many family-owned businesses.
[caption id="attachment_2847" align="alignnone" width="233"] Interstate Highway System team[/caption]
Zoning laws were relaxed to allow multi-national corporations first claim to retail dominance. McDonalds, Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola and the like were given free reign.
A loss of regional gastronomic difference was an overwhelming consequence. A burger, fries and soft drink tastes the same in Maine as it does in Oregon when produced by companies that don’t give a damn about culture, history or individuality. And let’s not talk about health factors. Corn syrup derived fructose and lots of salt are the only ingredients common across America these days.
But all is not lost.
Regional differences are found in abundance once you leave the interstate highways behind. The trip may take longer but it will be infinitely more interesting and rewarding.
If you want to see America driven by individuality instead of herd mentality, stick to two-lane roads well away from the Interstate Highway System.
If like me, you consider a meal at a McDonalds or Denny’s or Applebee’s or Taco Bell or Arby's as a one-way trip to plastic purgatory with endless regurgitation as the only outcome, never use the Interstate Highways in hopes of finding a decent meal – or accommodation for that matter.
[caption id="attachment_2850" align="alignnone" width="186"] Denny's chain store restaurant[/caption]
Motel 6, Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inns and similar, sterilised Bates Motels in all but name (check Hitchcock 'Psycho' reference), occupy prime verge position on America’s ‘Interstates’.
[caption id="attachment_2849" align="alignnone" width="275"] A typical Holiday Inn in America[/caption]
Horrid food and nightmare inducing accommodation proliferate alongside these mega-highways, conjoined by convenience, pumped up by false advertising and sadly kept in business by customers blinded by excessive consumerism.
People talk about the ‘Real America’ like it’s a myth. There is no myth. Instead there is contemporary reality blended with subjective impressions.
My view is illuminated by nostalgia while occasionally clouded by a touch of cynicism. I see the American roadside’s wholesale embrace of corporate sameness as a lack of collective imagination and education. So I get off the main road and like magic, find excellence, individuality, spirit and eccentricity.
There I am reminded again why I love a road trip in America.
Accompanied by two keen travelling companions, we made an excursion from Savannah, Georgia to Charlottesville, Virginia via Asheville, North Carolina. I fell in love again with America’s back roads and small towns where many caring people are making a difference to their local environments. Perhaps driven by a need for independence from middle-of-the-road boredom, perhaps by desperation, no matter, I see them as having stubbornly, proudly chosen to avoid rampant mass consumerism. They thrive through imagination and sheer drive, that and the retail rents are probably cheaper.
If there is such a concept as a ‘Real America’ I am convinced travellers have a much better chance of experiencing it by taking the slow road to that tiny town you’ve never heard of while winding a way through lands where chain stores and strip malls are not found.
[caption id="attachment_2852" align="alignnone" width="335"] Sunny Side Up table condiments[/caption]
Not far from Savannah, we stopped at the Sunny Side Up roadside diner. (Sunny Side Up, 4800 Augusta Road, Garden City, GA Tel: +1 912 964 9898 Open 7 days 7am -3pm) It wasn’t great, nor was it an awful dive either. Instead it was typical. Suburban townsfolk were taking their working breakfasts. Truckers on the lookout for an authentic and inexpensive meal mixed tables with retirees out for a weekly social meal with old friends. Waitresses in pale blue aprons, hair tied up in buns or cut short, wearing sensible shoes with pens stuck behind ears or in apron pockets smiled and asked, ‘Morning y’all, coffee?’ all in one combined interrogatory exclamation.
[caption id="attachment_2854" align="alignnone" width="336"] Sunny Side Up cafe breakfast account for three hungry travellers[/caption]
‘Good morning America how are you? Say, don’t you know me, I’m your native son’ wrote the famous folk muse Arlo Guthrie, a lyric in his song ‘City of New Orleans’. I remember it each time I breakfast in a rural American diner.
When I begin a day on an American road trip with a breakfast in an authentic diner like the Sunny Side Up, I am immediately put in a happier frame of mind.
Heading northwest through the flatlands of Georgia into South Carolina we stopped for lunch in Edgefield, approximately halfway between Augusta and Greenville. For uninitiated urban devotees familiar with rural stereotypes this is akin to stopping somewhere between Bugtussle and Petticoat Junction.
[caption id="attachment_2855" align="alignnone" width="362"] Edgefield Turkey sculpture[/caption]
Nevertheless, Edgefield proved a gem. The home of ten former South Carolina governors, (a state gubernatorial home record), resplendent with a central business district fresh out of Main Street America central casting, graced with well maintained public buildings and gardens, little Edgefield increased our reassurance we’d chosen the slow road to Asheville with the benefit of hindsight’s wisdom.
[caption id="attachment_2856" align="alignnone" width="448"] Chef Bob[/caption]
Chef Bob’s Cafe was a terrific find. Bob’s motto is ‘If ya leave hungry, it’s not my fault.’ He’s right. I’d go back there again just for his crab soup. (See www.bobssouthernsuppers.webs.com or Tel: +1 803 637 0008 located at 303 Main Street, Edgefield, SC 29824)
[caption id="attachment_2857" align="alignnone" width="448"] Chef Bob sign[/caption]
Around the corner from Chef Bob’s Cafe is Jane Bess Pottery (www.janebesspottery.com Tel: +1 803 637 2434 located at 206 Lynch Street, Edgefield, SC 29824) Bess found herself in rural South Carolina by a stroke of good fortune. Her kiln is attached to her small studio where she produces ceramics of wondrous expertise.
[caption id="attachment_2858" align="alignnone" width="352"] Jane Bess pottery shop[/caption]
Chef Bob’s Cafe and Jane Bess Pottery are the sorts of treasures not found on an interstate highway.
[caption id="attachment_2859" align="alignnone" width="363"] The lovely Jane Bess holding a bowl the writer bought[/caption]
Asheville, North Carolina has grown into one of America’s strongest counter-culture cities.
[caption id="attachment_2867" align="alignnone" width="448"] Street art in Asheville[/caption]
With an active organic food ‘paddock to plate’ low carbon emissions ethos, its culinary scene is leading the way for many small rural cities across the USA.
[caption id="attachment_2862" align="alignnone" width="398"] Asheville shops[/caption]
Architecture buffs will be well pleased to learn that Asheville boasts the country’s 2nd largest collection of Art-Deco buildings (Miami’s South Beach is 1st).
[caption id="attachment_2860" align="alignnone" width="432"] Asheville Art-Deco[/caption]
With easy access to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Asheville is also where many keen outdoors specialists have found a home base.
[caption id="attachment_2861" align="alignnone" width="336"] Asheville Art-Deco the Kress building[/caption]
The largest private residence in North America, Biltmore House, is also in Asheville. Funded by a Vanderbilt heir George Washington Vanderbilt 11 between 1880 and 1895, it was the last significant work designed by influential architect Richard Morris Hunt and famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. (See www.biltmore.com for tickets and more information) George Vanderbilt, unlike many of his family’s predecessors, was an intellectual and philanthropist, bent on building a monument to design while encouraging his enormous crew of construction workers to reside permanently in the hitherto backward region. He paid his employees well beyond the minimum wage and provided health care and free education.
[caption id="attachment_2863" align="alignnone" width="448"] Biltmore House[/caption]
That may seem commonplace now but back then such acts of munificence were a rarity.
Is it a huge French chateau plonked down atop a mountain in the far west of North Carolina? Yes. It’s also where the bulk of the Vanderbilt fortune dwindled in a final display of ostentatious wealth. The house was inhabited by the family for less than twenty years.
[caption id="attachment_2864" align="alignnone" width="233"] Biltmore House overview[/caption]
Maintenance costs spiralled. When the great depression hit Appalachia hard in the early 1930s, even the Vanderbilt fortune could no longer support such a vast estate.
The Biltmore Estate is now run as a private enterprise.
Justifiably popular, tour tickets are available for purchase before visiting.
A completely different way to see Asheville is from a seat on the LaZoom tour bus. The gaily painted big purple bus is decked out with a DJ console and a narrow stage from which the guides perform a running commentary on Asheville’s past and present. Our two guides, the slattern and foul mouthed Erlene Hooch, (straight out of a local trailer park) and the hirsute nun Sister Hairy Mary, (a refugee from the order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence), kept the laughs coming. The bus makes a pit stop at a pub, drinking is encouraged.
[caption id="attachment_2865" align="alignnone" width="448"] LaZoom's Erlene Hooch and Sister Hairy Mary[/caption]
If there’s a better way to explore Asheville while catching a running impression of what life is like in these parts, I’ve yet to discover the alternative. (See www.lazoomtours.com for bookings and more information.)
[caption id="attachment_2866" align="alignnone" width="448"] LaZoom bus[/caption]
An authentic American rural road, following one of the most scenic routes in the whole country is the Blue Ridge Parkway. It begins just outside Asheville and ends 469 miles northwards in Virginia.
[caption id="attachment_2870" align="alignnone" width="284"] Blue Ridge Parkway scene[/caption]
For nearly its entire length the Parkway runs along the summits of the Blue Ridge Mountains overlooking the Shenandoah Valley amongst others. (See www.blueridgeparkway.org for up to date weather information, road conditions and fuel availability.)
[caption id="attachment_2868" align="alignnone" width="194"] Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville views[/caption]
We left the Parkway near tiny Wythville, Virginia for a spot of lunch. In Wythville’s single main street is Skeeter’s Hot Dogs, a 'world famous' cafe that’s been in business for over 60 years. I asked for the secret to the deliciousness of the hot dogs. ‘Steamed buns’ was the answer, that and true ingredients, not very healthy but a fun indulgence just the same. I ate three dogs with mustard, chilli and cheese and drank an orange juice. Cost? Less than USD$7.
[caption id="attachment_2871" align="alignnone" width="448"] Manager/chef Wanda and Skeeter's Hot Dogs interior[/caption]
Upstairs from Skeeter’s Hot Dogs is the flat where Edith Bolling Wilson was born. She was First Lady to President Woodrow Wilson, the power behind the throne so to speak. When Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke, Edith stepped into the President’s shoes, hiding the true damaging extent of his illness while, for all intents and purposes, maintaining the office of the President until the next election. I never knew Edith Wilson was born in Wythville. Admittedly I’d never heard of Wythville either.
[caption id="attachment_2872" align="alignnone" width="391"] Edith Bolling Wilson sign marking her birthplace[/caption]
When you get off the Interstate Highways, surprising discoveries are made, Skeeter’s Hot Dogs and Edith Wilson history to wit.
Past Roanoke and on to Charlottesville, Virginia where the Thomas Jefferson designed University of Virginia dominates this small city’s economy.
[caption id="attachment_2873" align="alignnone" width="259"] One of the University of Virginia buildings designed by Thomas Jefferson[/caption]
Near Charlottesville is Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home and final resting place.
As a finish to a back roads trip through rural America, Monticello is a fitting place to stop and wonder about how this great country has evolved in the 238 years since Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.
[caption id="attachment_2874" align="alignnone" width="448"] Monticello[/caption]
Jefferson played many roles during his illustrious life: a scientist, a botanist, a President, a statesman, an author, a legislator, and an architect. He was also a farmer. His estate at Monticello was a crowning glory of early American architectural achievement. There is no better place to gain an increased understanding of this remarkable man’s life and legacy.
[caption id="attachment_2875" align="alignnone" width="448"] Thomas Jefferson's grave at Monticello[/caption]
The house is open to the public nearly each day of the year. Tours during summer’s high season are booked out days in advance. (See www.monticello.org for more information and tour bookings.)
I flew Virgin Airlines/Delta Airlines to New York City from Melbourne direct to LA with a four hour transit at LA’s shockingly bad airport. The transit involved visits to three separate terminals, a needless waste of time and energy. Catering options in all three terminals are abysmally depressing, same old chain outlets selling overpriced crap to a captive audience.
The Virgin flight across the Pacific from Australia to the USA was bumpy, very bumpy. Service was interrupted throughout most of the flight in respect of safety for both crew and passengers. I’ve experienced bouts of extended turbulence on previous long haul flights but nothing like this particular flight. The pilot did his best to inform passengers of ongoing attempts to avert, avoid and minimise the turbulence but the weather got the best of us. The turbulence lasted over six hours. I’ve never seen so many full vomit bags carried by harried crew members back to the galley for disposal.
Stuck in the stinky worst seats in the back of the bus, the torture that is an east bound economy class flight between Australia and the USA is only exceeded by a westbound flight from the USA to Australia because it takes almost an hour longer.
Virgin’s IFE is good with enough new release blockbusters to divert attention from the shocking reality of economy flying in the 21st century.
Virgin’s meals in economy are execrable. Drinks service was rudimentary, one tiny bottle of wine was offered, no refills and my impression from harassed crew members was that I had better not ask for another bottle.
I tried to change my return flight home, same route via Brisbane to Melbourne, well after peak holiday season (I flew to the USA just before Christmas and paid over AUD$2,400). After wasting four hours on numerous phone calls with various Virgin customer service representatives, the best deal I was offered to change my flight date was an extra USD$1,000 (USD$200 international flight change fee plus an extra USD$800 for Virgin’s loss on my previous booking). I understand that airlines aren’t charities but this kind of price gouging infuriated me. I was opting to fly at a post-peak time where many extra seats were empty on flights from LAX to Australia. I wasn’t asking for anything other than a date change. For the total price I was asked to pay I could have bought a business class fare to the USA from another airline via an Asian connection. With Virgin I was still stuck in the worst seat in the back of the bus next to the busy galley and toilets, last in the queue for meals and drinks service and being treated like a bum from a Greyhound bus camp. All this for nearly AUD$4,000? What joy!
The domestic flights between LAX and NYC’s JFK with Delta were better than anticipated. Now that Delta has installed free IFE in almost all its cabins (offering a far more diverse movie selection than Virgin’s long-haul flights) the final leg between LAX and JFK is tolerable. There is no catering on Delta unless you’re in business or first class but then all American airlines have dispensed with something novel as free meals on long flights so no surprises there. Delta’s menu options are standard American fare, sandwiches and snacks from multi-national corporations chosen (bribed?) by Delta’s catering specialists that consider a meal comprising a turkey and cranberry sauce sandwich on white bread with crisps and a cookie to be ‘healthy fare’. This is all yours for only USD$8.95, served in a box, wrapped in plastic, tasting like plastic. Drinks are extra of course.
Due to miscommunications between Virgin Airlines staff in Australia and Delta Airlines staff in the USA, our connecting flight between LAX and JFK was overbooked so my partner and I were seated at opposite ends of the cabin. The same happened on the flight between JFK and LAX; we were separated despite having booked our tickets simultaneously and stating we were travelling together. We complained but ground crew expressed an inability to rectify the situation.
Returning from LAX to Melbourne via Brisbane, we along with over 100 other transit passengers, were required to queue at the Virgin Airlines transit desk to re-check our baggage and confirm or acquire a seat assignment for our domestic connections. Two Virgin ground crew members operated the transit desk. We waited in the queue for over an hour, shuffling along like sheep ready to be dipped, mewling ineffectively, exhausted, crumpled and grumpy as one always is after more than 14 hours in cramped conditions without sleep or adequate food or comfort.
Why Virgin hasn’t implemented something as practical as a ‘Bag Drop’ station for speedy disposal of baggage and an electronic checking of boarding passes is beyond me. Given the number of loud and angry complaints I heard while in the interminable queue at Brisbane’s inefficient airport (I was informed by a Virgin supervisor that the airline is waiting for more space to be allocated by the airport authority in order to expedite transit passengers in a more efficient and less onerous manner), I was not surprised to overhear murmurs from the shuffling crowd: ‘Never again!’, ‘This is shit!’, Why don’t they have more staff on?’ etc.
See www.virginaustralia.com or www.delta.com for your own special view into man’s inhumanity to man from the back of the air tube.
Asheville’s Albemarle Inn is a gracious and well appointed boutique guesthouse owned and run by two devoted hoteliers, Fabrizio and Rosemary Chiariello. Three course breakfasts are cooked to order with great attention to detail and flair. Espresso coffee is also available, unusual in this part of the world. Rosemary arranged tickets to Biltmore Estate and LaZoom Tours, saving us a lot of time and trouble. She made dinner reservations at two of Asheville’s best restaurants as well. Having such a resourceful concierge at hand made us feel we were staying in a big city 5-star hotel, but with true country hospitality as a bonus. See www.albemarleinn.com
[caption id="attachment_2876" align="alignnone" width="448"] Albemarle Inn in Asheville[/caption]
About twenty kilometres from Charlottesville is the lovely historic property The Prospect Hill Plantation Inn. Owned and operated by Doc and Paula Findley, this is a family run business. The Findley's children were in residence during our brief stay, polite, well-behaved and friendly. The Plantation Inn is a rural residence, the oldest continually working frame-house plantation in Virginia. The principle manor house (circa 1699 with additions until 1850) is surrounded by extensive gardens and grazing paddocks. The long drive from the road to the main house itself is reminiscent of a scene from ‘Gone with the Wind’, atmospheric and quite grand. Like the Albemarle Inn, The Prospect Hill Plantation Inn takes great pride in its superlative catering. A popular restaurant operates weekends while in house guests are treated to excellent three course breakfasts. See www.prospecthill.com
[caption id="attachment_2877" align="alignnone" width="242"] Plantation House Inn near Charlottesville, Virginia[/caption]
In Asheville, try Cucina 24, a smart Italian influenced bistro right in the middle of town. House made pasta combined with terrific produce and excellent service make this an impressively sophisticated place in which to dine. See www.cucina24restaurant.com
Table Asheville is another cut above the rest of the dining pack. Like Cucina 24, quality produce is the key and it’s also conveniently located near the centre of town. Asheville’s chef brigade are rightly proud of surrounding organic farms and the marvellous ingredients they supply to the town’s most talented cooks. Table Asheville is modern-American style dining, with southern American flavours and a bit of French, a bit of Italian or Southeast Asian or Chinese or Latin American according to chef’s whim and what’s available from the local farms. The customer is the real winner here with such kitchen imagination serving up excellent food. See www.tableasheville.com
In Charlottesville, we dined really well on simply prepared and delicious food at Maya where everything is ‘made from scratch’. Maya has a Mexican slant to it but the food style tends towards traditional Southern USA wholesomeness. This is very much a local’s favourite hang-out. The bar is hopping every night and it’s an exceptionally friendly place. See www.maya-restaurant.com
‘Blue Highways’ by William Least Heat-Moon is a book I cherished long after reading it. Least Heat-Moon’s writing seeps into the soul while he travels the back roads in a search for America’s essence.
‘Old Glory’ by Jonathan Raban is a glorious book about southern American travels witnessed by a keen observer who delves into history, culture and politics as seen from a rural perspective.
Hellfire Pass on the 'Death Railway', the Thai-Burma Railway[/caption]
Over 100,000 people were killed during its construction, the majority forced labourers from South, East and Southeast Asia. Most died from disease and starvation. Thousands of Australian, British, Dutch/Javanese and American POWs were tortured to death by Japanese soldiers and their paid Korean guards.
During a war of almost indescribable cruelty inflicted on innocent victims, this catastrophic episode ranks as amongst the worst for sheer waste of lives.
[caption id="attachment_2767" align="alignnone" width="376"] 'Weary' Dunlop plaque at Hellfire Pass, one of many heroes[/caption]
The Japanese needed a railroad to haul war-making supplies from Ban Pong, Siam (Thailand) to Thanbyuzayat, Burma (Myanmar). They were willing to sacrifice just about anyone to get it built, rushing its construction beyond reason. Shortcuts were taken at every turn. For instance, 688 bridges were built but only 8 were made of steel and concrete. Given the tropical climate and propensity for wood to rot quickly was this planned obsolescence or simply crazed expediency?
POWs did everything they could to sabotage the work, using termite infested or flimsy wood, inserting wooden bolts instead of steel and using sand instead of concrete for foundations. If caught, their crimes resulted in immediate torture and execution.
[caption id="attachment_2771" align="alignnone" width="448"] Kanchanaburi War Cemetery sign[/caption]
Though travellers to this region will see an emerging refocus from World War 2 remembrance to eco-tourism, anyone visiting Kanchanaburi town will undoubtedly be reminded of how vital the railroad’s demise was to the end of Japanese plans for imperialism in Southeast Asia.
[caption id="attachment_2768" align="alignnone" width="448"] Current bridge over river Kwai at Kanchanaburi[/caption]
Day trippers from Bangkok tend to focus on the reconstructed bridge on the river Kwai at Kanchanaburi (the original Japanese bridge was successfully bombed and destroyed), the War Cemetery and nearby private JEATH museum. The acronym JEATH represents Japan as the controllers of the railway project and the five countries: England, America and Australia, Thailand and Holland involved in its construction. The simple displays commemorate lives lost, depicting a realistic POW hut while retelling personal stories behind the dreaded railroad. The museum is managed by the Wat Chaichumpol temple and was founded in 1977 by the chief abbot Venerable Phra Theppanyasuthee.
[caption id="attachment_2770" align="alignnone" width="448"] Kanchanaburi War Cemetery[/caption]
The drive from Bangkok can take up to four hours each way making for a very long day trip from the capital. I don’t recommend this option. It’s far better to allow at least a few days exploring the region.
[caption id="attachment_2772" align="alignnone" width="448"] Kanchanaburi bridge shops and child[/caption]
A popular side trip is a ride on the old railway between Kanchanaburi and Wang Po. The trip takes approximately two hours travelling through flat fields of tapioca trees and rice paddies before arriving to Wang Po and its picturesque position on a ridge above the river.
[caption id="attachment_2774" align="alignnone" width="448"] Train arriving at Wang Po[/caption]
A POW built cutting in the mountainside and trestle over the river remain as contrary testament to masterful engineering and obvious hardship endured by slave labourers.
[caption id="attachment_2773" align="alignnone" width="448"] Kanchanaburi bridge over river Kwai and visitors[/caption]
This is as far as the railway extends these days. The short-lived Thai-Burma Railroad was obliterated before the end of World War 2 and has not been rebuilt.
[caption id="attachment_2775" align="alignnone" width="448"] Trestle and cutting at Wang Po[/caption]
Approximately two hours drive further northwest of Kanchanaburi town is the Hellfire Pass Park. Here the Thai government has set aside a large swathe of forested land encompassing the old rail bed. The visitor’s centre and museum is well designed, guiding visitors from the earliest inception of the Thai-Burma Railway and its brief but horrendous existence under Japanese control to its ignominious conclusion.
A walk through Hellfire Pass is humbling. Most visitors stop at the end of the Hellfire Pass cutting and return to the centre, just under a two kilometres walk.
[caption id="attachment_2776" align="alignnone" width="448"] Track from Hellfire Pass[/caption]
Much more compelling is this option. Walk to the end of the track, approximately five kilometres. See what building this track of tears was really like for the slave labourers who lived in decrepit huts far down in the valley near the river. They walked up the mountain each day, worked twelve hour shifts in appalling conditions, subsisting on rice gruel while hauling stones up and down near vertical slopes. After a killing day’s work enduring unspeakable cruelty from their captors, they retraced their steps back down the steep mountainsides in the dark.
[caption id="attachment_2778" align="alignnone" width="448"] Konyu cutting at Hellfire Pass[/caption]
Over 100,000 workers and over 16,000 POWs died. Seeing the railroad from this perspective won’t ever let you forget that fact.
The hike is worthwhile. Remember to arrange transport from the end of the track or be prepared to return the same way, some ten kilometres and not recommended without water and food. The hottest time of year, April until July would be intolerably sultry. During monsoon, August until November, the track may be closed because of flooding.
Exploring the region at a more leisurely pace, preferably staying in one of the delightfully isolated river raft camps up the Kwai near the Myanmar border, only ten kilometres away as the crow flies, allows enough time in which to combine a visit to the Hellfire Pass Park and the entirely different experience of rural river life.
[caption id="attachment_2777" align="alignnone" width="448"] River Kwai Jungle Raft Camp[/caption]
Tourism on the river Kwai these days is shifting towards eco-experience.
The ethnically unique Mon people, whose language is completely different from Thai, dominate the ethnic mix of people living closest to the border. Having settled in Thailand from Myanmar to find more secure livelihoods, their lives have mostly improved economically.
[caption id="attachment_2779" align="alignnone" width="315"] Mon villager cook at River Kwai Jungle Raft camp[/caption]
The River Kwai Jungle Raft camp is essentially a series of floating rafts moored permanently near a forested riverbank. Private rooms are affixed to separate sections of the rafts. Connected by shifting bridges, each raft is wide enough for shared verandas just outside the front door and small private verandas outside the back door. Rooms are self-contained with a small bathroom featuring a... shall we say, refreshing cold shower. There is no electricity. You get one kerosene lamp and a tiny torch attached to the room key.
[caption id="attachment_2780" align="alignnone" width="448"] River Kwai Jungle Raft camp rooms and verandas[/caption]
Surprisingly, no rooms have been burnt to the water line, or so I hear. Fire extinguishers are thoughtfully provided nonetheless.
Invitingly looping hammocks feature throughout the public areas along with copious numbers of flower pots, chaise longues and shady verandas.
[caption id="attachment_2781" align="alignnone" width="448"] River Kwai Jungle Raft camp hammock in use[/caption]
A larger central raft serves as the lobby and reception. Attached is a bar with a combined undercover and open air dining area. Another undercover annex serves as a kind of communal massage area. Massages are inexpensive and enthusiastically executed albeit in very plain view.
The whole kit and caboodle is undeniably alluring. The lack of electricity (no bedside reading lamp, late night showering made more challenging without hot water, stumbling around in the dark on rocking planks tied together, you get the picture) may put off guests used to basic necessities but if you’re willing to ‘rough’ it, the camp delivers an altogether magical experience.
[caption id="attachment_2782" align="alignnone" width="448"] River Kwai Jungle Camp rooms[/caption]
My first night was almost sleepless. I couldn’t get used to the noise of water constantly rushing just beneath me, banging together the collection of wooden rafts sounding like a bamboo xylophone played loudly by a tone deaf sadist.
By the second night, I’d grown accustomed to unusual nocturnal perturbations and slept like a floating log.
Dawn on the river is beautiful. Mon people who work at the camp and live in the adjoining village maintain elephants as company and a source of added income for tourists coming along for the paid ride. Each morning I was fully awakened by the familiar hoots and trumpeting of elephants as they came to bathe outside my back door.
[caption id="attachment_2783" align="alignnone" width="448"] Elephant outside my back door at River Kwai Jungle Raft camp[/caption]
The village is well worth visiting. No electricity here either, though solar generators power computers and tiny televisions. I was told the Wi-Fi connection was adequate if regularly interrupted.
[caption id="attachment_2797" align="alignnone" width="448"] Mon village street scene[/caption]
A cooperatively owned small crafts shop selling intricately designed Mon fabrics, sarongs being the top sellers, is open most days until dusk.
[caption id="attachment_2784" align="alignnone" width="448"] Mon village main pathway[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_2785" align="alignnone" width="448"] Mon village house with solar panel[/caption]
The elephant training camp and village school make for contrasting neighbours, children and elephants alike learning to interact politely with tourists. A soccer pitch typically occupied by boys kicking goals is a short walk from a small Buddhist temple secreted into the forest.
[caption id="attachment_2786" align="alignnone" width="371"] Mon village Buddhist temple[/caption]
An adjoining communal home for the monks is built in the open traditional style without windows. I spied a young monk apparently lost in his thoughts walking on its upper level from room to room. Is there such a thing as sacred voyeurism?
[caption id="attachment_2787" align="alignnone" width="448"] Mon village schoolroom[/caption]
The idyllic scene described above obscures a present political reality. The majority of Mon people living in these parts are confined to Kanchanaburi Province. They are not allowed to live elsewhere in Thailand while their movements within Thailand are also restricted. Police roadblocks commonly seen during drives around the province are intended for non-compliant Mon people leaving the region without official permission.
[caption id="attachment_2788" align="alignnone" width="448"] Shy young girl at Mon village[/caption]
After breakfast we hop on a long-tail boat motoring downriver to re-enter the contemporary world, a half hour ride past towering cliffs, mist rising gently off the deep Kwai, which invariably poses a shock to my river-lulled system.
[caption id="attachment_2789" align="alignnone" width="448"] Long tail boat at dawn on river Kwai[/caption]
World War 2 historic sites aside, exploring Kanchanaburi’s other attractions poses limitations. This is not the Thailand of beach resort towns packed with endless strips of shops, cafes and restaurants. Nor is it replete with significant Buddhist temples such as at Sukhothai or Ayutthaya. This is rural Thailand. Tapioca plantations and rice paddies intersperse with forested mountains and tiny villages.
[caption id="attachment_2790" align="alignnone" width="448"] River Kwai at Wang Po[/caption]
Choose a river rafting trip, floating on bamboo logs strapped together with rope for a near immersion experience or opt for an elephant encounter, sharing a bath in the river or an amble through the jungle.
[caption id="attachment_2792" align="alignnone" width="448"] Travellers and elephants bathing at river Kwai elephant camp[/caption]
These two optional extras are the main alternatives to World War 2 memory trips.
[caption id="attachment_2791" align="alignnone" width="344"] Rafting on the river Kwai[/caption]
Not far from Hellfire Pass Park is the Sai Yok Noi waterfall. Adjacent to the main road that links Kanchanaburi to the border, access is very easy. A fifty metres walk will see you standing in front of a small pool at the base of a pretty waterfall.
[caption id="attachment_2794" align="alignnone" width="443"] Local kids playing at Soi Yak Noi waterfall[/caption]
Not quite off the beaten track but neither is it on one. A strip of curio shops and takeaway joints stand opposite the waterfall, looking very much like tacky Thai style Niagara.
[caption id="attachment_2793" align="alignnone" width="448"] Soi Yak Noi waterfall and pool[/caption]
Downriver a short distance from the River Kwai Jungle Raft camp, up a steep ascent perched above a more upmarket neighbouring river raft jungle camp (larger rooms on bigger rafts with electricity) is the Lawa Cave. Pay a small entry fee from an office situated at the track’s base otherwise the caves lights will remain turned off.
[caption id="attachment_2795" align="alignnone" width="448"] Inside Lawa cave[/caption]
Even so, remember to bring a torch if you intend exploring this dark place. Not being a keen spelunker, I found the cave only mildly interesting.
[caption id="attachment_2796" align="alignnone" width="297"] Inside Lawa cave[/caption]
A tiny Buddhist shrine is secreted into a small chamber just inside the entrance. Further in are much larger chambers, some with resident bats whose squeaks provided the only sounds within. The cave is mostly dry apart from the two deepest rooms where steadily dripping water continues to create stalagmites and stalactites.
[caption id="attachment_2798" align="alignnone" width="402"] Bridge connecting River Kwai Jungle Raft camp with Mon village[/caption]
The river Kwai, Kanchanaburi and the Mon people portray a fascinating admixture of today’s Thailand with strong links to wartime memories.
For anyone keen to learn more about how Thailand manages to blend recent history, shifting society and a preserved environment in a contemporary setting, this is as good a place as anywhere in which to make a start.
Tom Neal Tacker travelled as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Thai Airways.
Thai Airways offers the best direct connections to Bangkok from just about anywhere in the world. See www.thaiairways.com Though Thai Airways is currently experiencing financial problems service and reliability remain keynotes to its ongoing success. I never fail to be impressed by the genuine friendliness of each crew member I meet and I’ve yet to eat a bad meal on a Thai Airways flight, both in economy and business classes. Thai cuisine comes up trumps served at 10,000 metres; it’s all about the spice and freshness.
Visits to Kanchanaburi are easily arranged. Good travel agents offer a variety of options from day trips to longer excursions. It’s entirely possible to organise a visit yourself. Bear in mind that driving in Thailand, particularly on the crowded roads of Bangkok can be unnerving for the uninitiated. Hiring a vehicle, guide and driver is highly recommended.
The River Kwai Jungle Rafts has been in business since 1976. Package rates are available for two or three night stays. Prices vary between USD$119 and USD$172 per night per person including breakfast and dinner and long-tail boat transport from the main road access point approximately ten kilometres down river. See www.riverkwaijunglerafts.com for more information.
[caption id="attachment_2799" align="alignnone" width="448"] River Kwai Jungle Raft camp sign[/caption]
My friend and colleague Christine Retschlag’s blog The Global Goddess has a new chapter devoted to a special employee of River Kwai Jungle Rafts, the inimitable Sam Season, a 22 year old Mon man who lives in the adjoining village and works at the camp. His inspiring story is required reading for anyone staying on the river. See www.theglobalgoddess.com/2014/03/10/a-new-season-for-sam/ for the latest update about love on the River Kwai.
[caption id="attachment_2800" align="alignnone" width="427"] Sam Season and Christine Retschlag at River Kwai Jungle Raft camp[/caption]
Cape Cod beach near P'town[/caption]
The Cape Cod School of Art was begun in 1899 by E. Ambrose Webster whose work was strongly influenced by Claude Monet. P’town and chiaroscuro have been inextricably artistically linked ever since.
By 1916 over 300 artists and students were in permanent or seasonal residence, which at the time caused the Boston Globe newspaper to exclaim, ‘Biggest art colony in the world at Provincetown.’
Serendipitously the town’s financial downturn during the Great Depression proved attractive to writers and painters seeking an enticing base and value for money in terms of accommodation.
Even so, P’town was already an established arts community by the advent of World War 2. Writers were drawn to the hubbub of creativity despite P’town having entered an economic napping phase in the 1930s.
Eugene O’Neill’s first hit play ‘Bound East for Cardiff’ was first staged at the Lewis Wharf theatre in the East End of P’town. Tennessee Williams lived and worked in P’town as well as Susan Glaspell and the former USA Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz. Famous journalists John Reed, Louise Bryant and Mary Heaton Vorse also lived in P’town.
In the 30s surrealists Max Ernst, Arshile Gorky and Robert Matta worked frequently in P’town. Robert Motherwell also used P’town as an occasional base.
After World War 2 wandering artists truly placed P’town on the international map. Their abstract expressionist works were gaining recognition but hadn’t yet reached the tipping point of popularity. Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Franz Kline and Fritz Bultman all worked in P’town while Robert Motherwell continued his semi-permanent residency
Norman Mailer lived there. Kurt Vonnegut also based himself in P’town for some time. Film director John Waters has lived in P’town too, which begs no surprises.
Back in the 60s when local rents were cheaper and the distance between it and larger towns further up the Cape maintained an air of isolation, P’town emerged as the end goal for vagabonds, wanderers and miscreants escaping socially repressive mores. Artists and writers continued to seek inspiration or refuge in P’town. Clearly the town’s allure wasn’t dimmed by increasing popularity.
[caption id="attachment_2738" align="alignnone" width="247"] P'town main street[/caption]
Roads improved while a budding reputation for sunny summer weather combined with wide sandy beaches proliferated. P’town’s tourism grew quickly as it acquired a reputation as a summer holiday destination.
[caption id="attachment_2742" align="alignnone" width="250"] Herring Cove beach scene[/caption]
Since the early 80s and the beginning of the GLBT rights movement, P’town has grown steadily to become one of the world’s most sexually liberated towns. Currently it boasts the greatest per capita number of same-sex couples anywhere in the USA.
[caption id="attachment_2741" align="alignnone" width="191"] P'town during Carnival[/caption]
Rents and house prices have subsequently increased while Provincetown has turned itself into a very trendy Bohemian coastal village. Welcome to gentrification at its most contemporary state as DINKs (Dual Incomes No Kids) rule this cocky roost.
If in doubt about how gay P’town really is, try counting the rainbow flags hanging from just about every shopfront doorway. There are lots of them and it’s too easy (and fun) to lose track.
It’s also one of the friendliest towns in all America. Given the smiles plastered on almost every face I observed, I’d say just about everyone who comes to this picturesque, historic and slightly wacky town positioned at the end of a sand spit is well pleased to be there.
[caption id="attachment_2745" align="alignnone" width="276"] P'town friendly faces[/caption]
Wacky? Have a close look at the singularly phallic Pilgrim Monument jutting skywards from a slight rise in the middle of town.
[caption id="attachment_2739" align="alignnone" width="275"] Pilgrim Monument rises above all[/caption]
Why is it here? Nearly every American is taught that the original Puritan religious refugees sailed on the Mayflower from England in 1620 and landed at Plymouth harbor (or at ‘Plymouth Rock’ which is how most history books referred to the landing place).
Not so. The Puritans first landed at P’town in November 1620 before sailing further west to Plymouth where they founded a colony based on peaceful cohabitation with Native Americans (the Thanksgiving holiday celebrates their acts of sharing and generosity of spirit) and religious freedom.
[caption id="attachment_2740" align="alignnone" width="275"] View of P'town from atop Pilgrim Monument[/caption]
The Pilgrim Monument, built between 1907 and 1912 is still the tallest all granite structure in the USA. It stands 252 feet fully erect while commanding a masterful position over all of P’town. It’s the first thing you see when entering town. The monument was built to remind visitors that P’town was the first pilgrim landing place and Plymouth harbor was second.
But most everyone has conveniently forgot that fact.
In his famous song ‘Anything Goes’ Cole Porter wrote about Plymouth Rock. As it often happens in popular history, a mistake becomes legend which becomes myth which is now entrenched into the general mindset.
P’town rate payers attempted to remind patriots that here was the site of the Puritan’s first landing by constructing a gigantic upwardly thrusting symbol commemorating a transit stop on the road to liberty. Instead they ended up with a stony exclamation mark that looks like a big grey knob.
This big grey knob is mid-point between P’town’s East End and West End. P’town stretched from end to end is essentially a long strip of two or three parallel streets. West End is the slightly more gentrified of the two halves. East End’s extremity borders cheaper summer accommodation places, tiny boxes packed closely together facing quiet bay beaches, all very family friendly but looking rather forlorn. The western end of East End is full of specialty shops and galleries. They don’t look as expensive as those in the West End.
The West End is where P’town’s narrow assortment of grand houses line up facing the water and where the shops appear tonier. In the middle is downtown, also where you’ll find the town’s main wharf. Here the busiest bars, flashiest shops and greatest concentration of restaurants gather in one great retail extravaganza of mostly independent operators. Chain stores, mainstream international brands and ‘malling of America’ ugliness are non-existent in P’town.
The monument and adjoining Provincetown Museum are perfect starting points in which to get a sense of this quirky town’s history. When the men of the Mayflower signed (not a single woman was a signatory) the Mayflower Compact in P’town harbor they officially espoused individual rights and freedoms. (See the original text and names of the signatories here: www.pilgrim-monument.org/mayflower-compact#.UzUcH87QsdY)
[caption id="attachment_2746" align="alignnone" width="90"] Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum[/caption]
By the mid 19th century P’town had become one of Massachusetts’ wealthiest towns with per capita incomes amongst the highest in the state. Cod fishing and whaling businesses both reaped fortunes, largely for the Portuguese migrants (the majority of them fishermen from the Azores Islands) who settled there earlier. The Portuguese heritage is still strongly felt in P’town as these hardy fisher-folk established an atmosphere of independent social, religious and cultural life.
These days P’town is a holiday resort town of unique attributes. For GLBT persons bent on kicking up heels and having a good time in a relaxed place where politically focused matters of sexuality can be read as ‘been there, done that, get over it’, this is one of the few places on America’s eastern seaboard where acceptance of same sex couples is a given.
[caption id="attachment_2747" align="alignnone" width="300"] P'town during Carnival[/caption]
Only Fire Island, Rehoboth and Key West can compete on similar levels of liberating attitudinal conceptions. In my opinion, P’town is much more interesting.
Maybe it’s the cross breeding of puritan history, Portuguese influence and lately, sexual revolution that makes this town feel separately special.
For my money, the backdrop of calm waters in the bay to the west, rough open Atlantic to the north and east and the wonders of Cape Cod’s particularly interesting environment add extra incentives, enough to give P’town the edge over the aforementioned GLBT Meccas.
[caption id="attachment_2758" align="alignnone" width="280"] P'town overview[/caption]
A visit to P’town may be focused entirely on its abundance of arty shops, arty galleries, funky boutiques, cafes, restaurants and bars.
If nightlife is the main aim, remember that peak season summer nights in P’town stretch till dawn while the bars thrum with house music and sweaty, suntanned torsos twist round one another in an endless interpretation of how to do a ‘Bacchanalia’ in New England. There’s plenty of flash and splash to occupy oneself within the confines of central P’town. Even the most blasé hedonist will not lack pleasurable pursuits: Cape Cod, Escape Cod. Who needs a national park when a spunky muscle man or svelte sex goddess is in need of a bar side proposition?
For me it’s the lure of the adjacent nearby wild places that makes P’town so special. I hired a bicycle and had miles of very well maintained cycling trails in adjoining Cape Cod National Seashore Park pretty much to my lonesome during a half day’s rambling.
[caption id="attachment_2748" align="alignnone" width="120"] Cycling around P'town[/caption]
Cycling from Herring Cove beach to Race Point and through the Beech Forest, I tallied about 30 kilometres of easy riding on well maintained tracks. Tiny lakes hidden in dense scrub forest sparkled between sand dunes while circling hawks screeched at bright red cardinals hop-searching for grubs in dim clearings. Pine, oak, beech, hemlock and hickory tree thickets obscured pretty ocean views.
[caption id="attachment_2749" align="alignnone" width="448"] Cape Cod Race Point Lifesaving station house[/caption]
These cycling trails were the first ever built in an American national park. The detour proved a quick revivifying exit from P’town’s surfeit of fleshy excesses. Not thirty minutes easy pedalling from opposite the Pilgrim Monument brought me to reedy marshland filled with waterbirds that bordered a sheltered bay beach from which it’s possible to see whales migrating to and from Arctic waters during spring and autumn.
[caption id="attachment_2751" align="alignnone" width="250"] Herring Cove beach[/caption]
Close proximity to the cape’s wind scoured beaches grandstands hauntingly beautiful marshlands and forests, positioning P’town foremost in my mind as the funky town perched on an arboreal outpost wedged between sand hills. It’s most definitely a unique location.
If history is on the travel agenda, P’town bookends a fair share of colonial, post-revolutionary, mid-19th century marine commerce and 60s sexual liberation stories, quite a varied mix. Check out the town library’s reference collection (after visiting the Provincetown Museum).
Past Wellfleet near Eastham just off the road to P’town (US Highway 6) is the Old Cove Burial Ground. It’s a small cemetery, unmarked and rather lonely.
[caption id="attachment_2752" align="alignnone" width="448"] Mayflower graves cemetery[/caption]
Here lie the only authenticated graves of the original Mayflower passengers. The headstones are worn smooth with age but a few remain legible, for instance the grave of Constance Hopkins Snow. She didn’t sign the Mayflower Compact but she was one of the famous pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Harbor (Rock) via P’town.
[caption id="attachment_2753" align="alignnone" width="436"] Constance Hopkins Snow gravestone[/caption]
Also near Eastham is the main visitor’s center of the Cape Cod National Seashore Park. Cape Cod’s ecology, geology and environment are intelligently described in a comprehensive group of exhibits and displays.
[caption id="attachment_2755" align="alignnone" width="275"] Cape Cod National Seashore visitor's center[/caption]
The park rangers working on site are invariably amiable and well informed. Typically, employees of the American national park service welcome questions. The wonders of Cape Cod are cheerfully explained. Queries are warmly welcomed and enthusiastically answered.
[caption id="attachment_2754" align="alignnone" width="260"] Cape Cod visitor's center sign[/caption]
P’town’s permanent population numbers roughly 3,000. In summer it burgeons to over 60,000. Like a dance floor laser show it shimmers during summer’s hustle and bustle. Peak season is from May until September when accommodation, holiday houses and hospitality businesses are at their most frenetic. Off peak during spring and autumn is quieter, gentler and captivatingly beautiful. Winter is for true devotees, the only time when P’town’s party lights are dimmed... but they still cast a comely glow.
Tom Neal Tacker travelled as a guest of Qantas Airlines and Massachusetts Tourism Authority.
P’town’s annual calendar of events is packed with an extremely varied program from a film festival to a home made boat race, from a renowned arts festival to a gay bear’s week and to a Portuguese cultural celebration. The year’s biggest event is Carnival Week (3rd week in August), when the GLBT community is truly out in force.
See www.ptownchamber.com for more information including accommodation, touring and restaurant advice.
The Crowne Pointe Historic Inn & Spa is smack in the middle of town though gratefully positioned on a rise near the Pilgrim Monument just above the main road’s traffic and action centre.
[caption id="attachment_2756" align="alignnone" width="266"] Crowne Pointe Inn exterior[/caption]
Large suites are decorated with antiques and Presidential memorabilia. My king sized bed in the Lincoln Room almost needed a small trampoline to help me get into it. From on high I had great views over the townscape and nearby bay. All mod cons functioned perfectly. A large bathroom had everything I needed, including good quality toiletries, a full bath and shower.
[caption id="attachment_2757" align="alignnone" width="275"] Crowne Pointe room interior[/caption]
Best of all, the catering is terrific. Breakfasts are cooked to order and served in a lovely dining room with an enclosed veranda and huge bay windows. Lunches and dinners are equally fine. A small bar adds more pizzazz to the whole scene.
An on site spa boasts an indulgent menu of treatments. In summer a private and secluded outside spa pool draws guests to indulge in social repartee.
Naked Eats and Drinks:
Apart from the excellent dining at the Crowne Pointe, I recommend Napi’s restaurant for its authentic American food prepared with Italian flair. The location in a back alley makes this a favourite with permanent residents.
Another established and reliable restaurant is the Lobster Pot. Obviously, ocean delights are the main drawcard here. Fresh local seafood and fish served by talented professional wait staff combine to create a winning dining package.
The Atlantic House (A-house) bar claims to be America’s oldest gay bar. This rambling pub is a lot of fun. If you’re fresh in town, it’s a perfect place to begin engaging in your best new friendship.
Michael Cunningham (author of ‘The Hours’, ‘Specimen Days’, “A Home at the End of the World’, among others) bought a house in P’town years ago. Splitting his time between P’town and a home in New York, this insightful and accomplished writer is clearly very fond of P’town. His book, ‘Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown’ is compulsory reading for its observant, witty and honest view of this outpost proudly set at the outer reaches of America. I found two copies at the local library, borrowed one my first night and finished it at the beginning of my third and last day. Packed with facts and random personal observations about P’town’s propensity for attracting oddballs, eccentrics and geniuses, I felt far better informed for having read it.
This capital of the Coromandel Coast is a fabled place. Arabs traded here when they dominated commerce between Asia and Europe. In exchange for cardamom, cinnamon and peppercorns, the locals obtained sandalwood, frankincense and myrrh. A spice bazaar was born; prices skyrocketed faster than a fakir could shimmy up a rope trick. Europeans developed an addiction for the aromatic masalas, as they're known in India, giving depth and richness to bland northern European fare. By the 17th century, the Portuguese were trading along the southern Indian coast, adding their own Lusitanian influences to the regional cuisine. They were followed successively by both the English and the French. In the 19th century the English were reaping riches from the Coromandel Coast. They called the collection of towns packed together here along this busy harbour, Madras. In 1996, along with a return to traditional pronunciations and historic associations that many other Indian cities experienced, Madras became Chennai.
[caption id="attachment_2812" align="alignnone" width="192"] Chennai's main railway station[/caption]
Entrepreneurs introduced chillies, tomatoes and potatoes from South America to southern India. Locals took to these extraordinary new ingredients with gusto, and their export trade continued to prosper. By 1600, cardamom from Coromandel was worth more than gold.
[caption id="attachment_2815" align="alignnone" width="171"] Cardamom pods and seeds[/caption]
The coast brims with tropical tastes, mingling hot and sizzling with cool and seductive. Local chefs have constantly innovated, seeking new ways to use ingredients from all over the world. They exported their ingenuity as well: the Tamil word kari, or black pepper, was anglicised to curry.
[caption id="attachment_2814" align="alignnone" width="170"] Typical curry[/caption]
I love eating in Chennai. Certainly, food hygiene is a challenge, though fortunately I have a cast-iron stomach. Other visitors to Chennai I've known haven't been so lucky. Shun unwashed fruits, vegetables and tap water. Avoid the dodgiest food stalls. Nonetheless, be prepared for digestive complaints – they’re unavoidable. You've heard of Delhi Belly? Wait till you experience Chennai Chunder.
Coromandel cuisine, or Chennai cooking, is best known for its vegetarian, fish, seafood and rice-based dishes. This sturdy quartet of local ingredients has altered little over the centuries. Modern cooking, however, has undergone revolutionary change. It's as if an omniscient kitchen god decided to increase the size of the chef's larder from broom cupboard to a mansion. This is the parable of Chennai, indeed pan-Indian, cooking: tradition is supremely important yet adaptation and innovation are equally desirable.
Highly important is Ayurvedic cooking, the ancient philosophy of understanding food as much for its health-giving qualities as for sustenance. Proper understanding and preparation of food enhances a long life; this is the credo of Ayurvedic cooking, a quasi science steeped in tradition and based on religious observances. Though modern Indian cooks eschew its restrictive use of food combinations and somewhat archaic attitude towards non-Indian ingredients, most of them do have an innate understanding of it.
Tamils believe that hospitality is essential to a balanced and karmic life; an important tenet for Chennai’s 80 per cent Hindu population. Fortunately, strict adherence to faith results in superior vegetarian meals. There are non-vegetarian exceptions, of course. Chettinad Pepper Chicken is celebrated throughout India as a favourite Tamil dish, and locally caught crabs in various fried incarnations with masalas are Chennai delights. Fried fish with squeezed lime eaten with fingers while seated on a stool at a wharfside diner may not be a gourmet's idea of sublime dining but in my opinion it's one of the best things about Chennai.
[caption id="attachment_2817" align="alignnone" width="259"] Sea front at Chennai[/caption]
Food is celebrated throughout Chennai. It has countless restaurants, cafes and roadside stands selling authentic Tamil food as well as other regional Indian food. Be aware of sanitation issues, of course, but sample broadly. This isn't a city for the fastidious diner. It's a place for unabashed gluttony.
Take for example the Tamil virundhu, a splendidly festive occasion where it is impolite to begin eating or to leave the table before anyone else. It’s usually a family social event, though business associates might get an invitation if they're lucky. Large banana leaves, or as they’re called here thali, are placed before each diner, the leaf tip pointing left and slightly upwards. If the meal is non-vegetarian, separate leaves will often be used for the grilled meats: chicken, fish or crabs.
[caption id="attachment_2818" align="alignnone" width="174"] Full Thali[/caption]
Rice is added to the middle of the leaf when each guest is seated. Warm ghee or dahl is drizzled over the rice. Now everyone may begin to eat.
Sweets are eaten first to enliven the palate and are placed at the lower right of the leaf. This might be a small sampling of payasam, or sweet milky rice. (Fresh fruit is often served at the end of the meal to refresh after all the spice rich savoury courses.) At the top left is a pinch of salt or a pungent pickle, chutney or salad. In the middle will be fried banana chips, yams, potatoes, papads (deep-fried plain lentil flour crisps) or wafer-like appalams, (similar to papads but subtly spiced often with cumin, black pepper or garlic) or vadai (doughnut shaped fried savoury pastries) made from lentil, chickpea or rice flour. In the lower middle of the leaf will be a large mound of steamed rice and at the top right will be various curries: spicy, hot, sweet and sour and dry, rasam (tomato- and or tamarind-based soupy vegetable spice dishes often prepared with added lentils), koottu (like rasam but less soupy and usually with snake gourd or bitter gourd). Various sambars (highly spiced piquant and or pungent vegetable mixtures) finish off the top right of the thali leaf.
[caption id="attachment_2819" align="alignnone" width="266"] Vadai with rasam and dahl[/caption]
It is customary in Chennai, as it is throughout India to eat with the right hand. Keep the wrist loose, roll up any sleeves and dig in. Spoon whatever curry, rasam, koottu or sambar appeals into a portion of rice, scoop it up with the middle digits and thumb of the right hand and pop it into your mouth, making certain that it doesn't dribble down your arm or onto your neighbour's lap. It is something of a trick as the food is often quite runny. This is where the all-important rice is important as a sponge. Use the papads, appalams or vadai to help push the food into place and take small bites. Don't worry about not keeping up with other diners; no one will leave the table before everyone is finished. The waiters will continue to add more food to your thali as you begin to reduce the mounds of food.
[caption id="attachment_2820" align="alignnone" width="140"] Typical Tamil Nadu virundhu[/caption]
Eventually everyone will begin to slow down and groan a bit. This is the signal that an end is in sight. Finally, rice with curds or buttermilk will be served to help digestion, then perhaps a small banana. Betel leaves or paan will be offered to guests to chew, and the virundhu is complete. Fingers and hands are washed and the banana leaves become food for the cows. I advise a long leisurely walk after a virundhu.
Meals are based on what Tamils regard as the six key tastes: sweet (milk, cream, butter or ghee, rice, honey, molasses sugar or jaggery), sour (citrus, limes, lemons, mango, tamarind and yoghurt), salty (salt or pickles), bitter (bitter gourd, fenugreek, turmeric, bitter greens), pungent (chillies, ginger, pepper, clove, mustard) and astringent (turmeric, beans, lentils, coriander and vegetables such as cabbage or cauliflower).
The masala dosa I eat after my long train trip incorporates the six elements, something I didn't note until hours later when I find a fruit juice stall where I take pause after my savoury dosa. I need re-hydration in this sweltering capital of Tamil Nadu. Luckily I find a juice stand where I can see the glasses washed in front of me in soapy water, a rarity for Chennai street stalls.
For breakfast or snacks between meals there is tiffin. This might be as simple as a masala dosa or idli (fermented and steamed rice) and urad (black lentil) dahl cakes served with sambar or chutney or puliyodarai (tamarind and rice fried together with spices, ground nuts, urad dahl, curry leaves, fenugreek and asofoetida). Murukku, fried urad dahl snacks, are prolific at street stalls. A traditional Tamil dessert is pongal, rice sweetened with coconut, raisins and almonds. Fresh juices such as mango, papaya, orange or pineapple are universally available from street vendors or cafes. Fresh sugar-cane juice flavoured with lime or orange is available in season.
Filtered coffee is a uniquely Chennai specialty, perhaps recalling the Arab connection from hundreds of years ago and quite unlike its bland filtered coffee cousins drunk in North America. Locally grown Arabica beans are dried, roasted and finely ground. Boiled water is added until the brew is deemed strong enough and is usually added to hot milk and sugar. Like Greek coffee, it's an acquired taste as the grounds are left settled in the bottom of the cup. The national drink is tea and is grown in the nearby Nilgiri Hills district.
[caption id="attachment_2821" align="alignnone" width="146"] Chennai temple[/caption]
Chennai is packed with unexpected pleasures. Victorian Raj-era architecture mingles with ornate Dravidian Hindu temple buildings. The museums showcase Tamil culture. The visual arts are thriving: textiles, miniature paintings, local silks all come highly decorated. Tropical gardens offer needed diversions in this climate. Did I mention that Chennai is hot? The climate here varies between either hot and wet or hot and dry, according to the monsoon. Wear loose clothes and perambulate slowly. Luckily fresh sea breezes waft in from the Indian Ocean. Join the crowds at the shore. They’re there for good reason, to stay cool, be seen and to eat. I recommend a walk on the wild side in Chennai. Explore the densely populated streets and let your nose be your guide. If you're lucky you might find the city's best masala dosa. Tell Balaji I sent you.
The five-star hotels employ the best chefs in their signature Chennai Tamil restaurants, and the international hotels are reliable, though occasionally predictable and bland.
Chennai's seaside restaurants are where locals and tourists hang out. Fashions change faster than a Bollywood dance routine but the local crowds will lead you to the best places.
Avoid Western chain restaurants if you want authentic Tamil food and beware of empty dining rooms that promote western food. Usually they cater for tourists who wouldn't know an idli from a toasted sandwich, which incidentally is the worst item on any westernised Indian menu.
Use common sense: always look for fresh food and avoid dirty dining rooms. Chennai might not be India's cleanest city but good restaurants maintain proper sanitation standards.
[caption id="attachment_2822" align="alignnone" width="172"] Taj Coromandel hotel Chennai[/caption]
Bay View Point, Fisherman's Cove: Tamil fish and seafood specialties like mother would serve them at home. Phone +91 44 2747 2304.
Southern Spice, Taj Coromandel Hotel: This is Chennai's best in a superb location. Bill Clinton and Richard Gere have dined here. It's authentic and pricey. Reservations are necessary. Ask about a virundhu dinner. Phone +91 44 6600 2827.
Kaaraikudi: Traditional Tamil dining in a charming bungalow is perfect if you can't score an invitation to someone's home for true Tamil hospitality. Phone +91 44 826 9122.
Mrs Chandri Bhatt's Cooking Classes: She specialises in low-cholesterol Tamil cooking and is lots of fun. Phone +91 44 8211 434.
Malliki is Chennai's answer to Nigella Lawson, her cooking classes are popular on television. Phone +91 44 044 499 0872 or email email@example.com
Indonesian food varies as much as the country itself. Six-thousand inhabited islands make for interesting noshing opportunities. The topography alone creates enormous differences in foodstuffs from the outright basic to the outrageously complex. There is a world of difference between a Javanese Rijsttafel and a plate of fried fish and taro from Irian Jaya. A Rijsttafel banquet served in a fashionable Jakarta restaurant, dozens of dishes, some with meat, some with seafood, some with fish, some vegetarian, some spicy, some mild, some creamy, some soupy but all intended to enhance a large platter of rice (Dutch: rijs, rice tafel, table Rijsttafel, rice table) poses a great difference to a bit of fresh tuna barbecued over coconut husks served with baked cassava eaten at a beach stall in Jayapura.
[caption id="attachment_2827" align="alignnone" width="186"] Typical Rijstaffel[/caption]
Constant to Indonesian cuisine are these ingredients: rice, tofu and tempeh, chillies, vegetables and a plethora of fruits, both tropical and temperate. Other staples are: Kecap Manis, Indonesian soy sauce and Ikan Bilis, fried and dried anchovies used as condiments, consumed universally from Medan to Ambon. Trasi or Belacan or Budu, depending on where in Indonesia you eat it, is a semi-solid fermented fish and/or shrimp paste with a flavour similar to Vietnamese Nuoc Mam or Thai Nam Pla. As a condiment which adds an umami (Japanese, meaning earthy, soy or truffle-like flavour) element to most dishes, particularly stir-fries, soups and stews, it is invaluable and also an important nutrient, rich in B vitamins and iodine. Its pungent aroma is quite head-clearing.
[caption id="attachment_2828" align="alignnone" width="185"] Jakarta feast with satay[/caption]
Satay is ubiquitous; though it’s actually a Malay specialty, Indonesians claim equal rights to its origins. Real satay sauce must have fresh coconut cream and freshly ground peanuts. These are absolutely necessary. A good dousing of tamarind water is equally essential; its sour flavour counterpoints the sweet coconut and peanuts. Chillies should be freshly pounded in the mortar with lots of lemongrass and garlic added incrementally to the sauce as it begins to cook. Meats or fish or tofu should be marinated in lemongrass, chilli and garlic with a bit of soy sauce for a few hours before grilling. Coconut husk fire is best. Warm the satay sauce and ladle it on to the freshly cooked skewers. Freshly sliced cucumbers, chopped cabbage and carrot and quartered tomatoes are the usual accompaniments.
(Chef’s tip: If you make satay at home remember to soak the skewers in water for a few hours before threading whatever you’re grilling on to them first. It prevents burning on the open fire or grill.)
If you’re in search of good satay, let your nose guide you. Eschew all eateries that use bottled satay sauce.
Gado-Gado, the mixed salad of boiled eggs, lettuces, carrots, cabbage, bean sprouts, fried tofu or tempeh, lightly cooked green beans and boiled potatoes all smothered with satay sauce has saved many a vegetarian from sure starvation but I’ve yet to eat a Gado-Gado that didn’t make me think of ghastly lentil bakes and tofu surprise.
[caption id="attachment_2829" align="alignnone" width="163"] Preparing gado gado[/caption]
Bubur Ayam, or chicken porridge, is like congee but served with more accompaniments. As a breakfast treat after a night out on the turps, it’s a life saver.
[caption id="attachment_2830" align="alignnone" width="186"] Bubur ayam[/caption]
Rendang is another Indonesian success story in the international eating stakes. A rich stew usually made from beef it can also be made with goat, mutton, water buffalo, chicken, duck or jackfruit or cassava. Galangal, turmeric, ginger, chillies, lemongrass and coconut milk hold it all together and it’s served with rice.
When you truly believe that you couldn’t possibly eat another Nasi Goreng (fried rice) or fried Ayam (chicken), try refreshing your palate with Indonesia’s national salad, the Rujak. Made with chopped cucumber, jicama (yam bean), green apple, red papaya, pineapple, mango, chillies and flavoured with roasted peanuts, palm sugar and tamarind water, it’s a life saving palate cleanser and absolutely delicious.
The Best Soup:
Certainly Indonesians love their soups. Simple bowls of rice noodles in fish or chicken stock with trasi and some chopped greens, a bit of ikan bilis and a dash of chilli sambal and you’re right for the rest of the day. It’s cheap, satisfying in a way that only a good soup can be and it’s very wholesome. While appealing in their simplicity, I find most roadside stalls (warung) and street carts (kaki lima) serve somewhat dodgy soups. Beware of unwashed utensils, bowls and glasses. This could result in a meal that you won’t forget very quickly. Choose a restaurant or café or stall that is very busy, looks and smells clean and eat what most of the other diners are eating. The most popular and busiest warungs in Jakarta are near the market area of Old Batavia. Though this port district is sleazy and dirty, many inexpensive hotels cater to travellers here. Cheap and cheerful restaurants abound.
[caption id="attachment_2831" align="alignnone" width="142"] Jakarta soup peddlars, kaki lima[/caption]
The international embassy area contains Jakarta’s greatest concentration of shopping malls and slick chain restaurants. The usual deluxe hotels operate here too, air-conditioned and peaceful oasis in frantic and pedestrian unfriendly Jakarta. The Pasaraya Shopping Centre (Jl Iskandersyah ll/2, Blok M, Jakarta Selatan www.pasaraya.com) has its own gourmet food plaza located on the lower ground level. It’s very reasonably priced and offers a ‘suck it and see’ approach in immaculate surrounds.
The gargantuan Mall Taman Anggrek (Jl S. Parman West Jakarta www.taman-anggrek-mall.com) is a mini-city of shops, cafes and restaurants, all very schmick. If you fancy ice-skating in Jakarta, this is the place, I kid you not.
Of course the easiest way to avoid gastro-enteritis is to eat in a five-star hotel. In Jakarta, a five-star international hotel is not as expensive as it would be in Paris or Tokyo so this offers a plausible and safe alternative to the dodgy roadside stall. And you get clean cutlery. It’s how I found myself staying at the refurbished Hotel Indonesia Kempinski, itself a historic property as centrally and conveniently located as it’s possible to be in madhouse Jakarta. I was tired of walking on the wild side of town down near the funky wharf area that reeks of old ikan on its way to becoming trasi. Once I was ensconced in my refuge in Kempinski-world, I decided I was very hungry. Down to its buffet restaurant serving Indonesian food I went.
[caption id="attachment_2833" align="alignnone" width="176"] Another sop buntut[/caption]
Before long I was chatting with one of the sous-chefs about Sop Buntut, the local oxtail soup. In a tropical country, this hot and hearty soup made from bones and meat that needs to be braised for hours, is both an anomaly and a life saver. I mean, how many nasi goreng, nasi lemak and satays can one human eat before taste overload overwhelms and a KFC begins to look like a plausible alternative for lunch?
Up to the plate, steps Sop Buntut. I’ve had it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and haven’t had the same soup twice.
[caption id="attachment_2832" align="alignnone" width="176"] Sop buntut[/caption]
The Way to Sop Buntut:
This is by no means an authoritative recipe. Chef’s tip: Be generous with measurements as it keeps very well and the stock improves after a few days while the flavours set.
Start with a pot of fragrant broth made with oxtails, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and water. Once the broth has been clarified choose: carrots, shallots, leeks, celery stalks and leaves, tomatoes, potatoes and coriander. They are all part of the mix, but not always. Chef’s whim prevails. Sometimes the oxtails are seared in butter or oil first. Often they’re just thrown into the pot with a few knobs of crushed ginger, an array of spices and water. Bring the stock to a simmer, skim the rising scum and then add vegetables of your choice. Add rice noodles, fat ones or skinny ones, fresh or dried. Use the ones you prefer. If potatoes are added the rice noodles will be superfluous. Season the whole well with salt and black pepper.
At the Hotel Indonesia Kempinski my Sop Buntut also featured cardamom and a touch of cinnamon. I filled my bowl from the buffet’s gigantic stock-pot. The sous-chef was standing by watching me choose my additions: fried shallots, chopped fresh coriander, chilli sambal, some ikan bilis which weren’t necessary but raised an approving look from the sous-chef nonetheless, a drizzle of kecap manis and some finely chopped roasted peanuts. This Sop Buntut had rice noodles instead of potatoes, a bit of celery instead of carrots, a scattering of freshly diced tomatoes instead of tomato paste. After a thumbs-up from the enthusiastic sous-chef, I threw on some more chopped coriander and carried it back to my table.
The intense aroma of spice shot right to my inner nose, straight to the oldest part of the human brain, the part that senses smell. In short, mine was a visceral response. Was this the best Sop Buntut I’ve ever eaten?
After I finished the first bowl and had a second, I decided that it was.
Beware of pretenders to the Sop Buntut hall of fame. A few I’ve eaten have been ordinary. A hotel restaurant in Bandung offered bottled satay sauce as an accompaniment, a repellent prospect to be sure. Others have incorporated too many potatoes or carrots for my liking.
Sop Buntut should be redolent of spice and intense with umami from well braised oxtail meat and bone. It should be meaty and aromatic, restorative and nourishing. I like to see in my bowl of Sop Buntut a focal point of calm in crazy Jakarta. The spice draws me in, perfect for lingering.
You know you’re in very secular Muslim Indonesia when you see Bintang t-shirts worn by locals, not just tourists wearing t-shirts that say ‘I’ve been wrecked on Bali’. The Dutch left behind not only their propensity for hearty eating (see Rijsttafel) but also for brewing. It’s where Heineken operates in the tropics and everyone drinks Bintang as a result. Yes, it’s cold and it’s quaffable but it’s not my favourite tipple. As with Foster’s or Budweiser, I leave it to the masses. Since 2005, a micro-brewery has operated in Denpasar called Storm Brewery. Though it’s still early days, this is a sign of good things to come. Storm’s beers are seriously good but few outlets outside Bali stock them.
Local spirits such as Arak and Tuak are made from palm fruit, sugar or coconuts. An aged Arak with tonic and fresh lime is as good as a rum, lime and soda or gin and tonic. Add fresh mint to it and you have your own Javanese Mojito.
Indonesia is the world’s third largest producer of coffee. The Javanese drink it strong and sweet, often with condensed milk. Of course, Kopi Luwak, made from beans which have run through the digestive tract of the Asian Palm civet, a cat like member of the weasel family which lives on Sumatra and Java, is famous for being the world’s most expensive coffee. Approximately 500 kilos of it is produced annually. The beans are cleaned and ground before brewing but it still has an edgy factor about it.
Tea is the preferred drink throughout Indonesia, served sweet and milky, like Indian chai but without the spice. Ginger tea is served at the end of most official religious feasts and is also widely available. Great for calming tummy rumbles.
Wine is imported into Indonesia. It’s very expensive and reserved for special occasions.
Indonesia is a tropical fruit lover’s paradise. Mangosteens, lychees, pineapples, melons, guava, custard apples, loquats, rambutan, soursops, salak (snakefruit), sawo (like a cross between mango and kiwifruit), mangos, papayas and bananas abound. Durian is a dare-devil’s proposition. It’s expensive but worth it. Just hold your nose upon first introduction. It stinks of carrion but tastes like mango, pineapple and banana custard.
Tom Neal Tacker travelled courtesy of Garuda Airlines and Jakarta Tourism Authority.
Garuda Indonesia Airlines flies direct to Jakarta from Amsterdam, Sydney and Melbourne. See www.garuda-indonesia.com
Hotel Indonesia Kempinski
Jl. MH Thamrin No 1 Jakarta 10310 Indonesia
Tel: +62 21 2358 3800 www.kempinski-jakarta.com
The Lara Jonggrang restaurant is housed in a historic renovated Javanese mansion and serves authentic Javanese cuisine, including a traditional Rijsttafel. Book ahead.
Jalan Teuku, Cik Di Tiro 4, Menteng Tel: +62 21 3153252
Stockholm coastline in winter[/caption]
Stockholm is no exception of course. Its harbour is one of Europe’s loveliest and the city embraces the surrounding water to maximum benefit. A graceful metropolis, small scale despite the fact it’s Scandinavia’s largest, Stockholm is also very pedestrian friendly with an extensive public transport system that’s easy to use.
[caption id="attachment_2586" align="alignnone" width="194"] Gamla Stan Stockholm overview[/caption]
Minimising my use of public transport, I decided to walk nearly everywhere in an attempt to see more from the pedestrian's view, usually from one museum or cafe or restaurant to another in an effort to keep warm.
Stockholm’s most important museums are centrally located, all within easy walking distance to one another.
[caption id="attachment_2579" align="alignnone" width="169"] Stern of Vasa ship in Vasa Museum[/caption]
I’d heard about the Vasa Museum but I wasn’t prepared for such a surprise. It’s magnificent. I happily spent a whole day there fascinated by this great ship that never really went anywhere and was lost to time as the centuries passed. (See www.vasamuseet.se)
The Vasa is the only early 17th century ship ever to have been fully restored. With over 95% of the original timber still intact with recreated painted decorations looking as they did the day it launched, it’s like viewing living history. Designed by a Dutch master shipwright to act as Swedish king Gustav 2 Adolf’s flagship, the Vasa (the king’s family name) was intended to frighten opponents, in this instance the Poles for domination of the Baltic Sea.
But it was overmanned and over supplied with heavy cannons. The Vasa sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 about 1.2 kilometres (in the middle of Stockholm’s harbour) from where it was launched, an ignominious end to an embarrassingly short career.
[caption id="attachment_2580" align="alignnone" width="186"] Ship Vasa in its own museum[/caption]
After early efforts to salvage the sunken Vasa, within two centuries, the great ship was more or less lost in the depths of memory. Contemporary search methods helped to 'rediscover' the Vasa in the early 1950s. The ship was raised in 1961, its first time above the water line in 333 years.
Restoration took decades of painstaking work. The Vasa Museum opened in 1990. By 2004 a new climate control system was installed throughout the museum to stabilise temperature and humidity to protect the Vasa’s precious integrity.
Seeing the Vasa in its new home is humbling. How can it be otherwise? The beautiful ship can be witnessed as an example of supreme craftsmanship or simply as human folly.
They built something too big and overloaded it. Then it sank. Dozens of people drowned. A vast sum of money was wasted. The Swedish king took a huge hit to his prestige as did the Swedish navy.
Wandering the galleries surrounding the ship, I pondered all these facts but my thoughts were interrupted by two young men also discussing the sad fate of the Vasa. ‘It reminds me of Pirates of the Caribbean,’ said one. ‘Yeah, I can see Johnny Depp on the deck,’ added the other.
A curious fact about humanity: Everyone attempts to create a relative understanding to the extent of their knowledge and experience, in this instance a film series about cartoon pirates to a unique ship whose history is absolutely remarkable. So I was brought back to the present moment, a harsh reality. Two dunderheads making loud inane comments caused me to remember how something as grandiose and ill-conceived as the Vasa could have been built. Stupid human pride knows no boundaries does it?
This also reminded me why so many people visit somewhere and immediately make comparisons to what they already know, always looking for a link to what is familiar rather than just enjoying the difference for the sake of difference. ‘Those mountains look just like the ones near our place.’ ‘We’ve got the same stuff at home.’ ‘Why did I come all this way just to see what I see from my front window?’ All phrases I’ve overheard time and again. The repetition makes me sad.
Sadness appears inherent in Scandinavian psyche. Is there a more introspective, sensitive and aloof peoples on Earth?
While Swedes are notoriously depressive personality types, they’re also well recognised for letting their hair down when good food and strong drink are involved.
A trick of the travel trade I regularly put to effective use is to dine at a new city’s most innovative and best restaurant soon as possible, the first night in town if available. I did just this in Stockholm at Mathias Dahlgren’s eponymous restaurant in the posh Grand Hotel.
[caption id="attachment_2581" align="alignnone" width="182"] Grand Hotel in Stockholm[/caption]
The food was divine of course. Two Michelin stars still occasionally mean something worth noting. Dahlgren’s food delivers cutting-edge Scandinavian cuisine along the lines of Rene Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen, if toned down somewhat to satisfy an average Swede’s natural tendency to conservatism. (See www.mathiasdahlgren.com)
[caption id="attachment_2582" align="alignnone" width="346"] Mathias Dahlgren restaurant interior[/caption]
Typically for such a respected restaurant, the waiters were excellent and well-informed. What I’ve learned is to ask the most tuned-in waiter where he or she eats on a night off. Invariably I’m supplied with a short list of a city’s most interesting and un-touristy restaurants/diners and an offer to make a booking on the spot for any subsequent nights I wish.
[caption id="attachment_2583" align="alignnone" width="134"] Rolf's Kok restaurant sign, a welcoming sight[/caption]
This is how I found Rolf’s Kok (Rolf’s Kitchen) in central Stockholm. Not as fancy or expensive (not by a long shot) as Mathias Dahlgren but the food was just as good, the service just as friendly and I enjoyed the whole experience even more. (See www.rolfskok.se)
[caption id="attachment_2584" align="alignnone" width="120"] Rolf's Kok interior[/caption]
My time in Stockholm was running short. I needed to get to Turku in Finland and then Helsinki to catch a flight onwards. I’d manage to walk the old town, Gamla Stan, from end to end without freezing to death. I’d visited the Royal Palace, the Swedish Economics Museum and the National Museum and I’d learned to use the underground metro trains without getting completely lost.
[caption id="attachment_2585" align="alignnone" width="178"] Gamla Stan buildings in Stockholm[/caption]
But the Baltic Sea was still icy. I wondered if I could ferry across it to Turku.
‘Aland, where’s that?’ I ask. ‘An island between Sweden and Finland,’ I’m told by a Swedish tourism bureaucrat while discussing how I’ll travel between the two countries by boat during late winter. She raises her eyebrows at me as if to say, ‘Don’t you know anything?’
Admittedly, I knew next to nothing about Aland and its tiny capital town, Mariehamn, supposedly named after a Russian empress who liked the place so much her husband named the town after her in celebration of her fondness for its location. Later I discovered that wasn’t true.
What is true is that Aland is actually the name for the archipelago comprising some 6,550 tiny islands (many just rocky dots on a map called ‘skerries’) where over 90% of the 28,300 permanent inhabitants live on Fasta Aland (which means ‘Main Island’) where about 90% of those live in the island’s only sizable town, Mariehamn.
Aland’s name refers to the main island as well as the rest of the archipelago, which is governed by Finland (though it has autonomous status) and where the people speak Swedish.
Confused? I was.
As I learned more about this in-between island called island, I became increasingly interested.
In my opinion, any in-between place which is part of one country but doesn’t share that country’s language and which has gained semi-independence over the years because of demilitarisation and which now belongs essentially to no single country but is governed by its inhabitants in a quasi autonomous state has a lot to like about it.
Aland is close enough to Stockholm’s important harbour, Finland’s mainland and Russian/Prussian historic battles for domination over the Baltic Sea to have been hard fought over. Strategically, Aland is right in the middle of an old war zone. It was affirmed autonomy by the League of Nations in 1921 and effectively demilitarised shortly thereafter.
And I like the repetitive name: Aland (Island) Island. The root of the name Aland comes from Proto-Norse (Ahvaland) and means ‘Land of Water’.
Aland popped up from the shallow Gulf of Bothnia some 10,000 years ago, the blink of an eye geologically speaking. Fasta Aland is the biggest island in the group, granite in its northern reaches and alluvial sedimentary soil in the south where a bit of rich farming is worked on boggy land. The highest point in all of Aland, also on Fasta Aland, is Orrdals Hill which rises up 129 metres. These are low islands that hug the sea’s horizon, ‘Land of Water’ indeed.
[caption id="attachment_2587" align="alignnone" width="336"] View from northern Aland over the Gulf of Bothnia[/caption]
Mariehamn is a tidy town inhabited by comfortably well off residents. You know you’re in wintry Scandinavia when you’re surrounded by folk dressed snugly in goose down coats, fashionable boots and fur hats all looking very self-contained and disdainful as they march unsmilingly to business. Gross annual domestic product on Aland averages at about USD$56,000 per capita, so there’s money to be had in these islands.
You need money to live comfortably here. Goods and services on Aland average roughly 20% more expensive than mainland Sweden, which is already one of the world’s most expensive countries for travellers. Aland is a pricy place. No wonder everyone looks so smug.
Incomes are derived from tourism, shipping and retail profits from VAT free alcohol sales. The Viking Line ferry I was aboard, The Isabella, did a roaring trade in duty-free alcohol sales, the primary reason most of its passengers were travelling between Stockholm and Turku. Almost no one disembarked in Mariehamn. The majority of passengers remained on board ship to do their regular tax-free shopping.
Mariehamn was granted its name in 1861 by Tsar Alexander 2 in honour of his Tsarina. I’ve read that Maria Alexandrovna liked the location. I’ve also read that she never visited the place.
At any rate, the town was planned in Russian style with long boulevards and a waterside esplanade linking the two harbours that sideline the isthmus town’s borders. Streets in between follow a rigid grid pattern, perfect for funneling icy winds blowing straight down from the Arctic.
[caption id="attachment_2588" align="alignnone" width="186"] Mariehamn harbour in summer[/caption]
Mariehamn has a small history museum and art gallery that is worth exploring. I spent a couple hours there while idling around town. Admittedly I was the only idler to be seen. Winter is very low season on Aland. The town’s maritime museum is also interesting to gain an understanding of Aland’s quirky political history. The 19th century preserved sailing barque, 'The Pommern' is nearby and is also worth a look, particularly if you’re a sailor or nautical history buff. (See www.visitaland.com for details on the museums and hotel/restaurant recommendations.)
The town’s hotels looked very dour and resolutely unfriendly. According to the exceptionally helpful tourism bureaucrat I spoke with (desperately seeking advice as I’d made no plans and booked no hotel or restaurant), most of the town’s hotels open in winter were overpriced when Euros were measured against value. ‘So where do you recommend to stay,’ I ask?
‘There’s a place on the other side of the island that I recommend,’ she replied.
‘How do I get there?’
‘You go by taxi, there’s one still operating today, I’ll call him for you.’
Within fifteen minutes my bag is in the back seat and I’m driving through spruce forest, around ice cloaked lakes and picturesque little farms.
The driver says, ‘We have to watch for moose, but I don’t get many calls to go there in winter,’ he says, indicating how remote the other side of the island is and how rarely he ventures there. ‘They wander out of the forest at this time of year looking for food.’
I’m surprised moose live on Aland; it’s a long way from the mainland after all. ‘They walked here across the ice,’ he adds just as I was about to ask how moose came to be living on Aland.
I like this taxi driver. He’s friendly and exchanges information about his island home willingly.
‘The hotel you’re going to is supposed to be nice.’
‘You don’t know it,’ I ask?
‘I’ve never stayed there but people seem to like it.’
My one night on Aland takes a turn for the better. I’m not staying in austere and unfriendly appearing Mariehamn. Instead I’m on an adventure and staying at the only hotel on the far-flung northern side of the island thirty-seven kilometres from downtown Mariehamn.
As it happened, I’m glad I did. The Havs Vidden hotel occupies its own little peninsula overlooking the Bothnian Gulf. It’s small, exclusive and surprisingly connected to the whole world considering what I’d been led to believe by the taxi driver and Mariehamn tourist bureaucrats. I was half expecting to sleep in an igloo decked out with furs. Instead the hotel is all Scandinavian Contemporary design, lots of polished wood, fine fittings and simple style. (See www.havsvidden.com)
[caption id="attachment_2589" align="alignnone" width="336"] Outside room at Havs Vidden hotel Aland[/caption]
The Japanese and Scandinavians have a lot in common regards hotel room design. Form follows function is the rule. Authenticity is the modus operandi. Nothing is out of place or superfluous or sharp. Colour comes from outside, from the woods, water and sky. My room is wooden beige and I like the way it forces me to look out rather than in.
[caption id="attachment_2590" align="alignnone" width="175"] Havs Vidden room interior[/caption]
The Scandinavians have an ingrained affinity with nature. Their art and music is connected to it. To listen to a Sibelius symphony is to listen to the sounds of nature, birds whistling overhead, tree boughs cracking with ice, waves lapping against shoreline. You hear the picture.
My room is a cabin set in a patch of forest overlooking ice, snow and water. I’m all alone and I see no moose.
In this location, where nothing else is around, I’m lucky the hotel chef's cooking is delicious. I’m seated at my table by a lovely waitress who calls me by name. Offered an aperitif, subsequently told I’m to be served a three-course dinner. She sets the printed menu before me and asks if I can eat everything. ‘I think so, I’m hungry,’ I reply. ‘No, I mean have you allergies,’ she asks? ‘Only to bad food,’ which is my standard reply and one she understands.
I drank most of a bottle of Rioja while trying to enjoy my dinner in relative peace. (The owners are in residence, taking their dinner at a table near mine. They have a child who screams during most of the evening. The father cuddles the child but no one has the sense to remove it from the dining room so other guests can eat in peace.) After dinner I nursed a brandy in the lobby area near an open fire to contemplate life, liberty and the pursuit of demilitarisation far away from the loud spoiled child who should have been served a bowl of pasta in the kitchen out of earshot. Fortunately, the child’s shrieking didn’t negatively influence how I ultimately felt about the hotel.
Earlier I’d had a swim in the hotel’s indoor pool located in a spacious heated room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the sea. I then sat in the sauna alone for a while, had a cold shower, dressed quickly and ran back across the snow and ice to my cabin and dressed for dinner. I slid-slipped across glistening ice covered wooden pathways to the candlelit dining room in the main building which serves as bar, reception and dining room, where I ate well, wrote notes and read my book.
This was one of those nights when I felt all had gone my way, despite one screaming kid. I’d spent my inheritance on the taxi to nowhere and on one night at the hotel on the edge of beyond just to feel truly far and away on Island Island Aland. I couldn’t have been happier, though the taxi fare back to Mariehamn the next morning was a reality shock.
Following the one night on otherworldly Aland, by mid-afternoon I boarded another hardy Viking Line ice-breaking ferry to continue the passage across the lower Gulf of Bothnia to Turku, Finland’s old port, its former window on the world.
[caption id="attachment_2597" align="alignnone" width="178"] Turku in winter[/caption]
Previous visits to Finland prepared me for Finnish strangeness. For instance, Finns drink more milk per capita than any other nation, a curious fact. I’ve yet to discover why this is so. Finns love nothing more than to conduct business while slow roasting themselves nude in tiny wooden saunas. This I understand. Finland in winter is bleak and frigid. To sit naked in a hot box on a frigid winter’s day or night feels good. Finns are notorious for their truly ironic senses of humour. (What’s a Finnish joke? I don’t know, what’s a joke? Get it?) The language is of Finno-Ugraic origin, akin to Basque and Hungarian and therefore incomprehensible to linguistically challenged Romance Language speakers like me.
Finnish history is one of stalwart resistance to larger powers determined to put them out of existence i.e. Russia and Sweden. I admire the fact that Finland has survived intact past the 20th century. Finnish diplomacy has always metaphorically walked a tightrope of manipulation, acquiescence and courage under fire.
Finns make the Swedes look almost affable by comparison. Getting a Finn to crack a smile either requires a lot of booze or an innate comic ability akin to evincing a laugh at a North Korean Security Council meeting. Alcohol sold in Finland is horrendously expensive (when not bought VAT free in Aland) so coercing an unprompted laugh from a Finn can be a pricy undertaking.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. Many Finns I’ve met are warm souls keen to interact with strangers. Maybe I’m passing on stereotyped impressions?
[caption id="attachment_2592" align="alignnone" width="164"] Park Hotel Turku lobby area[/caption]
I stayed at the Park Hotel in Turku, a small-sized boutique hotel near the old cathedral and central to the old city centre. I liked the Park Hotel. (See www.parkhotelturku.fi) My room was small but cozy. I felt welcomed by all the hotel employees as an esteemed guest and not as a tax invoice.
[caption id="attachment_2591" align="alignnone" width="171"] Park Hotel facade Turku[/caption]
Run by a local family, the mistress of the house gave me invaluable advice on where to dine during my one night in Turku, which is how I found the Rocca restaurant and where I enjoyed as fine a dinner as I had at vastly more expensive restaurants in Stockholm and Oslo. (See www.rocca.fi)
[caption id="attachment_2593" align="alignnone" width="192"] Rocca restaurant in Turku facade[/caption]
I really came to Turku to visit the Sibelius Museum. The great composer Jean Sibelius never lived in Turku (you can visit his home ‘Ainola’ outside Helsinki) but he did have a profound affect on the Turku Music Conservatorium which was instrumental in setting up the museum to the Finnish musical hero. (See www.abo.fi/fak/hf/musik/eng/museum/valkommen)
[caption id="attachment_2594" align="alignnone" width="172"] Turku cathedral in winter[/caption]
My visit to the Sibelius Museum was wonderful. I paid my 3 Euro entrance fee and chatted amiably to the young man who was running the reception desk. ‘You’re the only visitor,’ he informed me. ‘Do you want to hear anything in particular?’
‘What do you mean,’ I asked?
‘I can play on the loudspeaker system whatever you want to hear.’
Being the only visitor has its privileges obviously.
‘Okay, how about some of his more obscure violin pieces?’
‘Sure, I’ll put some on now,’ which is how it came to pass that I enjoyed the unique pleasure of having the Sibelius Museum all to myself while I wandered its galleries and displays filled with the master composer's instruments and copies of his scores all the while accompanied by a personalised soundtrack.
[caption id="attachment_2595" align="alignnone" width="190"] Sibelius Museum Turku facade[/caption]
The greatest cathedral in all Finland is only 150 metres walk from the Sibelius Museum. For an hour, I sat alone in a back pew watching the late winter’s light play shadow tricks on stained glass windows while humming Sibelius tunes to myself.
[caption id="attachment_2596" align="alignnone" width="149"] Turku cathedral facade[/caption]
Later that same day I caught a fast train to Helsinki then a bus connection to its airport, allowing plenty of time for rumination on how travelling in Scandinavia during late winter is rather a lovely thing to do.
Tom Neal Tacker visited Stockholm with assistance from Stockholm’s Tourist Authority.
The Viking Line ferries travel daily throughout the year (weather conditions permitting) between Stockholm and Turku with stops at Mariehamn. The trip takes approximately 12 hours, can be broken in half with an overnight stay in Mariehamn and is very scenic. The ship passes through Stockholm’s inner archipelago, its small forested islands sporting the favoured summer homes of the city’s elite. See www.vikingline.com
[caption id="attachment_2598" align="alignnone" width="182"] Viking Line ship Isabella plowing through ice[/caption]
Stockholm’s First Hotel Amaranten is a centrally located modern hotel with about as much style as a Greyhound Bus Terminus. My key card opened a room that was already occupied. Open bags were on the bed and a make-up case was in the bathroom. Luckily the guest was not. Back at reception, I handed over the key card and said, ‘You’ve assigned me an occupied room.’ ‘No I haven’t,’ was the curt reply. The receptionist offered no immediate apology and tried to blame me for entering a room that was not mine. Alarmed at the obvious security risk the mistake clearly posed I repeated, ‘You’ve given me a room with someone already in it!’ She checked her computer records and said, ‘You’re correct. I’ll give you another room.’ Still no apology was offered. ‘I’ll upgrade you to another room.’ When I opened the door to the new room it was the same standard size and look as the one I’d be given before which was already occupied. I decided not to pursue the matter further. Sometimes it’s useless to fight a battle that’s already been lost. See www.firsthotels.com
[caption id="attachment_2599" align="alignnone" width="169"] First Hotel Amaranten facade[/caption]
Local resident adventure specialist Tomas Bergenfeldt runs a company aptly called Stockholm Adventures specialising in hiking, cycling and kayaking tours around Stockholm’s richly forested hinterland and idyllic inner archipelago. Had I visited Stockholm in spring, summer or autumn instead of winter, I would gladly have spent a couple days seeing Stockholm’s natural wonders from a bicycle or kayak seat as well as on foot. See www.stockholmadventures.com
[caption id="attachment_2601" align="alignnone" width="186"] Stockholm Adventures day trip scenery in summer[/caption]
For more information about Stockholm’s many attractions, museums, special exhibitions, concerts, public transport and tickets, see www.visitstockholm.com
For more information about what to do and see in Turku, see www.visitturku.fi
Great Blue Heron wading on Chesapeake Bay[/caption]
Sir Walter Raleigh explored the eastern coast of America for Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1584 and returned with tales of untold riches, safe harbours and rustic inhabitants. Captain John Smith followed in 1608 while he thoroughly explored the vastness of Chesapeake Bay, charting its shallow waters to establish a permanent colony at Jamestown in 1608. Here he met the princess Pocahontas and the first true American love story was begun.
Now, it is nearly impossible to imagine how Chesapeake (from an Algonquin Virginian Indian word meaning, ‘Greatest Water’) looked to Smith’s eyes. Descriptions of oyster shoals so immense that they rose from the water and posed hazards for passing ships are difficult to conceive today. Pristine clear water, washed perpetually pellucid from its northern headwaters at the mouth of the Susquehanna River’s drowned valley to its debouchment into the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Charles was a constant feature. The Bay extends 300 kilometres from north to south and expands nearly 50 kilometres to its widest point at the mouth of the Potomac River, the stories of crystal clear rivers feeding into the thriving estuary contrast completely with the murky waters seen later.
It remains however America’s largest marine estuary, a haven for wildlife and ships alike. A cradle of history and for centuries its most prolific fishery, the Bay has seen it all. Surrounded by rich agricultural lands as well as proliferating metropolitan centres, Chesapeake Bay’s water quality has suffered primarily due to nutrient runoff, mostly derived from nitrogen and phosphorus based fertilisers.
Deadly algal blooms in the 1970s were warning signs that the Bay was in dire straits, choking on the asphyxiating clouds of algae that sprouted from fertiliser runoff and industrial pollution. An ignominious end sped along by rampant, unchecked over-development of tidal marshes, the last refuges for fish hatcheries and water birds, was a real possibility. To make matters worse, over-fishing also contributed to the Bay’s ill health.
Oyster populations are estimated to be 2% of what they once were. The previously dense populations of oysters efficiently flushed clean the entire Bay in one day. Present numbers now take nearly one year to accomplish the same natural water filtration process.
Obviously rescue operations had become essential to the great Bay's immediate future. In 1983 the 'Chesapeake Bay Program' was created. Combining federal, state and local authorities in one decision-making body, this non-profit organisation helped to focus national attention on the Bay’s ecological plight. Further commitment was made in 2000 with the formation of the 'Chesapeake 2000' agreement which guided the Bay’s environmental restoration through to 2010.
The new agreement included New York, West Virginia and Delaware in this landmark plan that finally encompasses all the states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Strict controls are now in place regarding urban development, safeguarding wildlife breeding habitats and preventing further agricultural runoff into the Bay.
[caption id="attachment_2623" align="alignnone" width="170"] Chesapeake Bay Bridge & Tunnel connects sleepy Cape Charles to crowded Norfolk/Virginia Beach.[/caption]
For the casual traveller interested in exploring a part of America that is too often overlooked by international visitors, Chesapeake offers an intriguing insight into the heart of the nation. Far too large an area to explore in only one visit, I suggest that new visitors concentrate their time on the eastern shores of Maryland and Virginia with a side trip into Delaware to comprehend Chesapeake’s unique character.
[caption id="attachment_2624" align="alignnone" width="147"] Chesapeake Bay sunset[/caption]
St. Michaels, nestled into a quiet inlet at the mid-section of the Bay is within a few hours drive from Washington DC. It’s a very good place in which to begin an exploration of Chesapeake's less developed side.
[caption id="attachment_2625" align="alignnone" width="184"] St Michaels' harbor scene[/caption]
The prolific author and long time resident of St. Michaels, James Michener, based himself in St. Michaels while he penned his authoritative history, simply entitled 'Chesapeake'. Though typically Michener-ian in its scope, thick as a doorstop and weighed down with sentences as long as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge & Tunnel, it’s still compulsory reading to gain a feeling for this special place.
St Michael's Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s quirky displays help in understanding the Bay’s emergence as the nation’s first waterway. If children are involved, they will certainly enjoy being a sailor for a day. The Captain John Smith Water Trail is the U.S National Park’s first official water trail. Readily accessible sections of it are near St. Michaels on the Choptank River. Hire a canoe or kayak for a day’s exploration of the gently flowing tidal Choptank. It’s an opportunity to be Captain John Smith or Pocahontas for a day at least.
[caption id="attachment_2626" align="alignnone" width="177"] Tilghman Island waterway scene[/caption]
Tilghman Island, connected to the mainland by an historic drawbridge, is quintessentially Chesapeake. Quiet and serene, it is a world unto itself. A small fleet of skipjacks, a Chesapeake invention that replaced the barge-like 'Bugeye' oyster boat as the best means in which to dredge for oysters, operates from Tilghman Island’s main harbour. Skipjacks occupy a special place in Chesapeake’s maritime history. Even today motorised boats are prohibited from dredging for oysters. Only sail powered skipjacks are allowed, a link to shipwright skills mostly lost in this era of contemporary steel and fiberglass speedboats.
[caption id="attachment_2627" align="alignnone" width="163"] Tilghman Island skipjack bows and ducks[/caption]
The other place in which to see skipjacks at work is at Deal Island’s Wenona town harbour, where I inquire casually about sailing on one. My grizzled, salt-weathered respondent is laconic. 'You can just hire one at the wharf over there (pointing gruffly over his right shoulder) if you ask nicely. Or you can wait for the regatta. I’d take you out myself but you’d have to work hard or just pay me a lot of money.' This is typical Chesa-speak: direct, no-nonsense and to the point, very humorous too if you’re patient and have no expectations.
[caption id="attachment_2628" align="alignnone" width="187"] Deal Island town street scene[/caption]
Deal Island is also a notable Wildlife Management Area famed for its water bird population. Impressive numbers of indigenous birds make their home here and it’s a safe rest stop on the Eastern Seaboard Flyway for migratory species from far away as Patagonia or the Arctic. Wenona hosts annual skipjack races in early September. It’s also a busy soft-shelled crabbing town whose businesses export crabs all over the world.
[caption id="attachment_2629" align="alignnone" width="161"] Deal Island beach scene[/caption]
For a dip into another world, with its busy beaches and restaurants, spend a day or evening in Rehoboth Beach just 90 minutes drive to the east of St. Michaels on the Delaware shore. Seductively positioned near-yet-far from Chesapeake Bay, Rehoboth’s sea breezes may come as a surprise when the Bay itself swelters under a relentless summer sun.
Well known for its thriving gay/lesbian scene, Rehoboth is also Washington DC’s party route to the sea. Clubs hum, cafes buzz and restaurants shimmer during the hot summer season.
But Rehoboth isn't all about sex and sun. Quiet beaches stretch into the horizon and though the water is chilly, the swimming is safe at patrolled areas. Rehoboth has the Delmarva Peninsula (the spike of land that juts into the Atlantic Ocean, forming the eastern boundary of Chesapeake), at its back, an abbreviated amalgamation of three state’s names: Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. It is easily the trendiest town between Miami and New York.
[caption id="attachment_2631" align="alignnone" width="182"] Rehoboth Beach boardwalk in summer, great if you like crowds[/caption]
Sample the town’s art galleries, cafes and bars to see what happens when Washingtonians let their bureaucratically controlled hair down. At one of the popular clubs a bartender says to me, 'We make the strongest Margaritas north of Mexico but ours are more expensive probably.' I admire his honesty. During the summer's gay/lesbian festival, one of the most popular events is 'Drag Beach Volleyball' played right downtown in front of the busiest section of the boardwalk. Kids love this event. Why is it that small children and large drag queens share the biggest laughs?
[caption id="attachment_2630" align="alignnone" width="181"] Downtown Rehoboth in summer overview[/caption]
South of Rehoboth and well past tacky-touristy Ocean City (avoid this ugly mini-city of strip malls packed with cheap souvenir shops), the Delmarva Peninsula narrows as it separates the Bay from the Ocean and towns diminish in size and number. Quietude reigns again. Take time to explore the tiny settlements, their churches and curiously compelling cemeteries filled with weathered gravestones and memories of religious refugees searching for hope in new lands.
[caption id="attachment_2633" align="alignnone" width="181"] Assateague beach scene[/caption]
The Assateague Island National Park, just across the bridge from charming little Chincoteague town, is well known for its herds of feral ponies, made famous in Marguerite Henry’s renowned children’s book 'Misty of Chincoteague'.
[caption id="attachment_2634" align="alignnone" width="190"] Chincoteague ponies wading[/caption]
Ponies were released by shipwrecked sailors hundreds of years ago and gradually established breeding herds unique to the area. The annual Pony Swim from Chincoteague to Assateague islands exemplifies the adaptability of the native ponies; they’re like ducks to water. The beaches at Assateague are splendid: windswept, awe-inspiring and lonely.
[caption id="attachment_2632" align="alignnone" width="176"] Assateague ocean beach[/caption]
Tiny Onancock, (Pronounced ‘Oh-NAN-cock’. Don’t make the same mistake I did when stopping in a cafe to ask for directions to ‘ON-An-Cock’. I was politely corrected despite being given a harsh look) is Eastern Shore Virginia’s loveliest town. Blessed with a quiet and secluded harbour, two intersecting main streets lined with a small yet interesting assortment of shops, boasting two good restaurants (Bezzotto’s and The Charlotte Hotel restaurant) and graced with lovingly restored Victorian houses, here is where the description ‘quiet backwater’ can be best applied.
[caption id="attachment_2635" align="alignnone" width="448"] Onancock Market St at corner of King St[/caption]
Chesapeake charm, too far from the big cities to attract day-tripping crowds and holiday house owners. There’s a strong sense of community here, largely due to this part of Virginia often being ignored by state legislators across the big Bay and far away in Richmond.
[caption id="attachment_2648" align="alignnone" width="404"] Onancock harbour authority building[/caption]
At the end of the road at the great bay’s final exit into the Atlantic sits Cape Charles. One of the region’s most historic towns, where history is as common as crab cakes, this is indeed something to boast about. Cape Charles is an excellent place to hang back and relax in the sweetly somnolent atmosphere. It has one of the most extensive arrays of Victorian architecture on the East Coast and is mostly overlooked by the crowds rushing up and down the interstate highways over the Bay to the west.
[caption id="attachment_2637" align="alignnone" width="195"] Cape Charles bayside beach[/caption]
In fact, Cape Charles is a good place to watch the sun set over the water, an unusual claim to make on the eastern seaboard of the USA if you're not on Florida's Gulf Coast.The Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center is inviting and useful to gain further insight into the origin of the town. When I ask a center volunteer about Cape Charles’ architectural heritage she hands me a map and tells me to 'Wander around a while and soak in the feel of the town. We’re not like any other place in Virginia. We’re special, kind of remote and most people who find us really want to be here.'
[caption id="attachment_2638" align="alignnone" width="177"] Bridge over wetlands at Cape Charles[/caption]
The nearby Virginia National Wildlife Refuge is another jewel in the Chesapeake crown for birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts, as is the Kiptopeke State Park, well known for its population of hawks and waterfowl.
Perhaps Cape Charles is an appropriate town in which to contemplate why Chesapeake Bay exists as it does today. Unlike other drowned river valleys scattered about the globe that make up the world’s great bays, Chesapeake was formed by a cataclysmic event that occurred approximately 35.5 million years ago during the Eocene Epoch. A bolide, (meaning large asteroid or comet), more than a mile wide plunged into the water just off Cape Charles. Travelling at a speed estimated to be 113,000 kilometres per hour, it obliterated all life on the east coast of America at the time. Billions of tonnes of ocean water were propelled upwards and vaporised. Millions of tonnes of rocks and debris were ejected into the atmosphere. The impact crater plunged hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface and remained hidden until scientists discovered it in 1983 when studying satellite images.
Fossil remains have been subjects of fascination since Chesapeake Bay was discovered by Europeans over four hundred years ago. The Algonquin tribes that occupied the region for millennium must have been equally intrigued by the number of prehistoric creatures embedded in calcified rocks sticking out of the Bay’s many cliffs and ledges.
[caption id="attachment_2639" align="alignnone" width="179"] Ducks in flight over Chesapeake Bay[/caption]
Chesapeake Bay has had a powerful impact on America, not because it was formed by one of the greatest explosions ever recorded in the history of the Earth, but also because it witnessed the birth of a nation, fed its earliest inhabitants, created untold riches for innumerable families and provided homes to countless species of fish, waterfowl and other animals. The Algonquin people got the name right; it is simply the ‘Greatest Water’.
[caption id="attachment_2640" align="alignnone" width="190"] Inn at Onancock street-facing facade[/caption]
The Inn at Onancock is an absolute delight. Owner operated, immaculately clean, well-appointed and to-die-for breakfasts make this small guesthouse the best place to stay in the whole lower Delmarva Peninsula. The drinks and canapes served each evening provide guests an excellent opportunity to exchange travel tips. The owners are always on hand, offering advice and suggestions about the region. They're a wealth of local knowledge. See www.innatonancock.com
[caption id="attachment_2641" align="alignnone" width="209"] Typical guestroom at Inn at Onancock[/caption]
For more information about Cape Charles and Onancock see www.capecharles.org or www.onancock.org
For more information about Chesapeake's national park system and waterways including the Choptank River see www.nps.gov/cajo/
Chesapeake Bay is a year-round destination, though summer is easily the most popular time and consequently very crowded. Winters may be very cold though clear days and nights make it a special season with the least number of visitors. Mid-summer temperatures are often very hot with high humidity but onshore breezes from both the ocean and bay help relieve the heat. Spring and Autumn are typically the best seasons.
Sperm whale and fellow passenger during Whale Watching Tour off Kaikoura.[/caption]
The ocean floor plummets over 1,000 metres only a few kilometres from Kaikoura’s beach and tiny harbour. Sperm whales hunt while travellers needn’t venture far offshore to watch them surface in between deep dives for tasty squid and fish.
[caption id="attachment_2552" align="alignnone" width="448"] Sperm whale breathing off Kaikoura[/caption]
The huge population of local dusky dolphins and visiting seabirds that inhabit the area taking advantage of the abundance of seafood are added wildlife drawcards.
[caption id="attachment_2553" align="alignnone" width="185"] Dusky dolphins leaping[/caption]
In a day, I ventured twice to the waters off Kaikoura’s spectacular coastline, first to mingle during a whale watching tour amongst a pod of young male Sperm whales as they repeatedly sounded between deep dives.
[caption id="attachment_2554" align="alignnone" width="448"] Two Sperm whales off Kaikoura[/caption]
The planet’s largest carnivores (Moby Dick should ring a literary note) aren’t as frisky on the surface as Southern Humpback whales but what they may lack in acrobatic skills they make up for in sheer presence. Encountering these ocean wanderers is a rare occurrence. Kaikoura is one of the few places where sightings are dependable (the Azores islands in the mid-Atlantic is another).
Kaikoura is unique in that deep water is so close to shore. In fewer than thirty minutes leaving the town’s harbour, whales are seen lolling at the surface refilling their lungs and oxygenating their blood before the next plunge downwards.
[caption id="attachment_2555" align="alignnone" width="448"] Kaikoura coastline[/caption]
While I know Melville’s tale of the great white whale was based on an apocryphal story and likely exaggerated to suit the plot, I loved his book as much for its telling of the mythical whale as I did for the human allegory. ‘Call me Ishmael’ as metaphor but call me Tom when it comes to admiring rare leviathans.
The morning began misty and cool, ideal for whale watching. The weather cleared by midday and the sun appeared for the day’s next excursion, an albatross tour.
[caption id="attachment_2556" align="alignnone" width="448"] Beach at Kaikoura before whale watching tour[/caption]
The whale-watching tour boat was crowded and noisy. The smaller albatross watching tour boat was nearly empty and quiet.
What does this say about comparable attractions? Whale watching is big business that has crossed over into mass tourism. Albatross watching is by contrast, new business that caters to aficionados.
[caption id="attachment_2557" align="alignnone" width="336"] Feeding time during Albatross tour, with Wandering albatross[/caption]
Sadly, the world’s albatross are at peril. Long-ling fishing continues to decimate global populations (despite improved fishing hooks that release caught albatross) and ongoing loss of habitat due to increased human populations plagues nesting colonies. Global warming and reduced fishing stocks add more pressure to these magnificent birds and their ability to breed fast enough to recover.
[caption id="attachment_2558" align="alignnone" width="389"] Young Wandering albatross[/caption]
To see a Wandering albatross in flight is as rare an occurrence as seeing a Sperm whale lift its tail as it dives into the depths.
The Wandering albatross has the longest wingspan of any bird while its body is twice the size of a goose.
[caption id="attachment_2559" align="alignnone" width="448"] Wandering albatross in flight[/caption]
In short, it’s a bloody big bird with a menacing hooked beak that could lop off my hand if it came too close.
[caption id="attachment_2560" align="alignnone" width="362"] Wandering albatross and other seabirds battling over bait box[/caption]
Just off Kaikoura, it’s possible to get up close and personal with a Sperm whale and a Wandering albatross all in the space of one day.
[caption id="attachment_2562" align="alignnone" width="336"] Wandering albatross up close[/caption]
Dusky dolphins in their hundreds also call the waters off Kaikoura home. These acrobats of the water tumble and twirl high into the air, seemingly just for the fun of it.
[caption id="attachment_2561" align="alignnone" width="161"] Dusky dolphins[/caption]
The dolphins accompanied both boats, in the morning during the whale watching tour and the afternoon during the albatross watching tour. Each time I saw a dolphin hurl itself out of the water, I smiled and laughed at the same time. My heart soared with them.
Kaikoura is a special place, not only for its incredible wildlife and scenic position where sheer mountains meet narrow green pastures close against deep blue sea.
It’s also home to one of New Zealand’s best cultural experiences.
Lucky for me, I had enough time to enjoy a half day’s outing with Maurice Manawatu of Maori Tours Kaikoura. Maurice and his wife Heather began showing visitors their side of Kaikoura back in 2002. Since then they’ve won numerous awards for their impeccably run family business that shows interested visitors what local Maori culture is all about.
[caption id="attachment_2563" align="alignnone" width="336"] Maurice Manawatu sings a welcome at beginning of Maori Tours Kaikoura[/caption]
The tour begins in a forest near the private marae linked to the Manawatu family and their relatives. The marae is private, open by invitation only but Maurice has permission to use the access road to the site with its stunning views over the Kaikoura coastline (you may see a whale or albatross from the cliff).
During a very friendly welcoming ceremony where Maurice allocates each tour member a Maori name, the family history is recounted in an easily comprehended summary, allowing everyone special insight into how Maori culture evolved over the centuries and how this particular family came to live in Kaikoura. It’s a fascinating account of living history interspersed with song and a lot of laughs.
[caption id="attachment_2567" align="alignnone" width="156"] Maurice Manawatu greets a guest[/caption]
The tour takes in another favoured Kaikoura spot, parkland near the beach where Maurice and another family member show guests how to weave Maori baskets and other examples of treasured craft making. This could top the kitsch stakes but it doesn’t. Instead it’s a lot of fun, very interesting and interactive as well.
The half day’s tour finishes at Maurice and Heather’s home where guests are treated to a splendid afternoon tea and a chance to mingle with other family members while comparing notes and impressions with other tour guests.
I’ve done a few Maori cultural tours before, most frequently at Rotorua. While Rotorua is Kiwi-central for Maori driven cultural tourism, it’s big business that serves mass tourism, which is done well but often lacks authenticity.
The whole Maori Tours Kaikoura experience is completely authentic, ringing true at each moment. Maori Tours Kaikoura includes these words in its Social Responsibility Statement:
‘We believe in improving communities and play an active role in pursuit of a better place to live.
We recognize we have a special obligation to whanau, hapu and iwi and this is reflected in our policies and actions. We care about our staff……..assist in community projects, businesses and individuals where we can; and encourage our staff and whanau to experience the joy of volunteering. We realise it takes commitment to make a difference in our community.’
Their Environmental Policy Statement reads in part:
‘As Maori children we are taught from birth that if we remove the core of ourselves and ruin the fundamental nature of the world we live in, there will be nothing left for our children, their children and the generations to come. We acknowledge the natural environment in which we operate is a valuable resource and we actively support its preservation and conservation which is shown in our policies and actions.’
This could also be read as a mission statement for Kaikoura itself, the town where eco-tourism isn’t merely a catchphrase or a PR stunt to attract tourists.
Kaikoura is a place where a few actions speak volumes of words. Here is where the environment is truly respected not only as a means to livelihood and income but also as the essence of life itself.
Tom Neal Tacker travelled to Kaikoura as a guest of Christchurch/Canterbury Tourism.
See www.maoritours.co.nz for more information about Maurice and Heather Manawatu’s excellent day tours.
For more information about Kaikoura whale sighting tours and bookings, see www.whalewatch.co.nz
For more information about Kaikoura albatross tours and bookings see www.albatrossencounter.co.nz
Kaikoura is approximately 2.5 hours drive north of Christchurch or approximately 2 hours drive south of Picton.
Both cities are frequently served by Air New Zealand. See www.airnewzealand.com
New Zealand does luxury lodges just about better than anywhere else in the world. While in Kaikoura treat yourself to at least one night and one dinner at Hapuku Lodge & Treehouses located approximately ten kilometres north of Kaikoura township on a sprawling coastal property.
[caption id="attachment_2568" align="alignnone" width="219"] Hapuku Lodge main building and mountain backdrop[/caption]
My one-bedroom ‘treehouse’ ten metres above the ground sported gob-smacking views over picturesque paddocks, surf-washed beach and nearby mountains.
[caption id="attachment_2564" align="alignnone" width="448"] Hapuku Lodge Treehouse interior and view[/caption]
The room was an absolute treat of peace and quiet with all the mod-cons I’d ever need. A full sized spa bath and walk-in shower boasted top-of-the-line locally made toiletries. My bed was perfect, were I a princess the pea would never be discovered and I’d never have anything to complain about.
[caption id="attachment_2565" align="alignnone" width="448"] Hapuku Lodge Treehouse one bedroom bed and partial bathroom view[/caption]
Catering at Hapuku Lodge is flawless. I ate my dinner at the kitchen facing bar so as to chat with the chefs, one of whom was visiting from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California (one of the world’s most famous restaurants and the first in America to be organic well before the word became trendy). She kept supplying me with dishes I ‘must try’. Never one to say no to such offers, I was happy as a pig in the proverbial, full with food from the farm, not too heavy, not too light while prepared with skill and devotion to superb locally sourced ingredients. Wines poured by the glass were a bravura mix of Kiwi and imported French and Australian that perfectly matched each course of the degustation.
[caption id="attachment_2569" align="alignnone" width="214"] Hapuku Lodge Treehouses[/caption]
Breakfast in the same dining room where I ate dinner was equally good. Had I wanted it served in my ‘treehouse’, it could have been easily arranged.
See www.hapukulodge.com for more information and bookings.
Looking towards Hanging Rock with vineyards[/caption]
Author Joan Lindsay’s fabulous novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock, which was made into a sensational film by master director Peter Weir in 1975, tells the story of four women lost forever in the labyrinth of Hanging Rock’s rocky slopes. An ancient volcanic plug, (a mammon in geological nomenclature from the word mammary as the rounded shape resembles a breast), the basalt behemoth dominates the plain immediately north of Mount Macedon. A visit here is well worth a detour.
[caption id="attachment_2532" align="alignnone" width="299"] Hanging Rock[/caption]
Hike to the summit for great views over the ancient volcanic landscape. Northeast is Mount William, famed by indigenous people throughout all of eastern Australia for the quality of its flint stones which were traded up and down the country. Not a walker? A simple picnic at the rock’s base amongst the gum trees and watchful kookaburras accompanied by one of the local wines may prove a less strenuous option. Tables are scattered through the parklands next to the famous Hanging Rock racecourse.
With thirty-four wineries currently in operation, visitors are treated to a broad array of wines. Be prepared to encounter vinous descriptions ranging from racy and austere to refined and rich (i.e. zesty bone dry or fruity full-bodied). The dominant grape varieties are: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewurtztraminer, Riesling and Shiraz. Scatterings of red Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc are sparsely planted in warmer areas. A Macedon Ranges’ defining geological feature, one of many that make this region unique, is its rich volcanic soil, clearly evident in the colour of the basalt rock formations that are part and parcel of the scenic beauty of the locale. Another is the altitude. All Macedon Ranges wineries are sited above 400 metres, the highest at 700 metres on the northern slopes of Mount Macedon itself.
[caption id="attachment_2511" align="alignnone" width="252"] Macedon Ranges scenery[/caption]
John Ellis, the slightly grizzled though still dapper owner/operator of Hanging Rock Winery (www.hangingrock.com.au) has been instrumental in securing international fame for the region. He established his winery in 1983, grapes were planted in 1982. Always an eloquent spokesperson he says, ‘We weren’t the first however. Tom Lazar of Virgin Hills, who began making wines at his property in the 70s encouraged Gordon Knight at Knight’s Granite Hills and a few others to follow suit. There was a bit of a slump from the early 70s till the 80s but the region has been expanding ever since.’
Ellis served as Chairman of the Macedon Ranges Regional Tourism Association for many years, claiming, ‘What separates the Macedon Ranges from others is all of the wineries here are family owned. There are no multi-nationals.’ With further emphasis he explains, ‘We’re all small, different and individualistic. Our wines are basically limited editions.’
In 2002 the Macedon Ranges was granted formal Geographical Indication status. Its 650 hectares of wine producing land is one of Australia’s smallest G. I. recognised regions, a clear indication of its importance in comparison to larger areas of equal renown.
Though best known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay based sparkling wines, made in the same method as Champagne, wineries here produce many styles, from earthy and ethereal reds to both fragrant and full-bodied whites. Popping the cork on a bottle of prime Macedon fizz is to savour a rare treat. But don’t forget to indulge in the region’s other notable wine styles.
With alternative varieties such as Lagrein, Sangiovese and Tempranillo being planted the region is expanding its horizons. Ellis elaborates, ‘One or two vineyards of Lagrein does not a regional specialty make however. Riesling is a superb variety here as are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Macedon Ranges’ Shiraz is interesting too, very peppery and spicy. We all continue to do the best we can in marginal conditions. It’s why Macedon Ranges’ wines are so special.’
Here’s a short list of my other favourite Macedon Ranges wineries.
Granite Hills (www.granitehills.com.au) produces superb Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Shiraz but it’s really famous for successively outstanding vintages of Riesling. Owned and run by the Knight family since its founding in the late 70s, Granite Hills is one of Australia’s most consistent award winning wineries.
[caption id="attachment_2512" align="alignnone" width="157"] Granite Hills vineyards[/caption]
Also top-notch is Curly Flat (www.curlyflat.com), whose Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines continually rank amongst the finest in the country.
[caption id="attachment_2513" align="alignnone" width="201"] Curly Flat winery building[/caption]
Cobaw Ridge (www.cobawridge.com.au) is really off the beaten track. Here Shiraz and Lagrein grapes are kings of the castle. Cobaw Ridge specialises in long lived wines, full of character and finesse.
Both Zig Zag Road Winery (www.zigzagwines.com.au), for its prize-winning Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon and Midhill Vineyard (www.midhillvineyard.com.au) for its Alsatian style bone-dry Gewurtraminer, complete my short list.
Thirty-four wineries are listed as members of the Macedon Ranges Vigneron’s Association. Their website (www.macedonrangeswine.com.au) is a useful tool when discovering this district as many wineries are open to the public by appointment only. A number of boutique guesthouses are listed in addition to other dining options I've not mentioned below.
West of Mount Macedon is a scattering of small villages and two large towns: Kyneton and Daylesford. Their relative close proximity to Melbourne attracts tree-changers, folks bent on escaping the trials of the big city for a more relaxed back-to-nature country lifestyle. That many end up working harder than they ever did in the city should surprise no one toiling in the hospitality industry. Similarly, running a successful farm or small business in country areas isn’t quite the doddle some naive people may believe.
[caption id="attachment_2514" align="alignnone" width="210"] Piper St in Kyneton[/caption]
Drawing in permanent residents and visitors alike is the region’s sophisticated food scene.
[caption id="attachment_2515" align="alignnone" width="226"] Royal George Hotel in Piper St Kyneton[/caption]
Kyneton boasts a few outstanding restaurants in its unofficial ‘Eat Street’, Piper St: Annie Smithers’ Bistro (www.anniesmithers.com.au), Mr Carsisi (www.mrcarsisi.com), and the Royal George Hotel (www.royalgeorge.com.au) are each excellent examples of country dining at its best.
[caption id="attachment_2526" align="alignnone" width="177"] Piper Street sign[/caption]
The good value Dhaba at The Mill (www.dhaba.com.au), also in Piper St, does authentic curries with house made Indian breads.
[caption id="attachment_2525" align="alignnone" width="336"] Daylesford Town Hall facade[/caption]
Over in Daylesford one of Victoria’s best country pubs, the Farmer’s Arms (www.farmersarmsdaylesford.com.au) is run like I’d like to see all Australian country pubs; always friendly, always reliable and always great eating (and drinking).
[caption id="attachment_2516" align="alignnone" width="335"] Daylesford butcher shop window, fresh is best![/caption]
Three other restaurants in Daylesford start me salivating as soon as I make a reservation to dine there: the Lake House (www.lakehouse.com.au), Kazuki’s (www.kazukis.com.au) and Mercato @ Daylesford (www.mercatorestaurant.com.au).
The Lake House is already a legend in its own lifetime. When Alla and Allan Wolf-Tasker turned a run down cafe on the shores of a forgotten lake into one of the state’s premier dining destinations, they set in train a taste revolution that all of Daylesford now comprehensively enjoys. Alla Wolf-Tasker once told me, ‘the locals thought we were crazy when we began planting trees on the barren site as they’d spent years pulling them all out.’ Theirs was a task not only consumed by hard physical labour but also one of convincing conservative locals that good food and wine could change hearts and minds too. More than thirty years later, the battle has been won, thanks largely to Alla and Allan Wolf-Tasker’s dedication to excellence.
[caption id="attachment_2517" align="alignnone" width="260"] Lake House, service in action[/caption]
Kazuki Tsuya worked as a sous-chef at the Lake House, proving that great training comes full circle. I find it delightful that one of Daylesford’s most interesting restaurants is owned and run by an ex-Lake House employee, further proof that Daylesford has come into its own as a food town given that considering Tsuya’s background and experience, he could have chosen to work anywhere. Instead he chose to remain local. Well done.
[caption id="attachment_2527" align="alignnone" width="336"] Daylesford book shop window, wonderful selection of cookbooks here[/caption]
Mercato is such a lovely affair. With owner/chef Richard Mee in the kitchen and his partner, Maree Britt, working the tables, this little shop front fine diner is a consistent winner with locals and visitors alike.
[caption id="attachment_2518" align="alignnone" width="336"] Daylesford is full of surprises, including well-loved cars[/caption]
Just up the road from Daylesford is tiny Hepburn Springs. Here is where this region's tourism landed... if on wet feet. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most visitors ‘took the waters’ while seeking cures for ailments from gout to asthma by soaking in the region’s mineral-dense spring water. Though the public baths aren’t what they used to be, one particular hotel, the Peppers Mineral Springs Retreat is the best place to see what the fuss was all about. (www.pepperssprings.com.au or www.theargusdiningroom.com.au)
[caption id="attachment_2519" align="alignnone" width="269"] Pepper Mineral Springs Retreat front entrance[/caption]
Owners Wayne Cross and Chris Malden have done a superlative job in fashioning this faded Art Deco palace into a very contemporary and swish contemporary boutique hotel whilst incorporating many of the original features into the refreshed design.
The newly outfitted spa is quite simply stunning. The usual range of treatments is available but here authenticity is the key to success. Hepburn Springs’ waters haven’t changed; it’s still aglow with health giving qualities, which the Mineral Springs Retreat spa makes excellent use of.
[caption id="attachment_2520" align="alignnone" width="201"] Peppers Mineral Springs Retreat spa area[/caption]
I loved my floating ‘soft pak float bed’ water bed treatment for instance. Cross and Malden bought two of these nifty German made contraptions for their spa, (the only two operating in Australia I’m told). They’re water beds but you don’t actually get wet. The hour long treatment goes like this: imagine being rubbed down in the nicest way possible with an aromatised native oil of your choice, then plastered with healing ointments, then wrapped cocoon like in warm fluffy towels and then gradually and ever so sweetly settled down into an all enveloping water bed that wraps round you like a lover you never want to let go. After a long nap (sleep is inevitable under these foetal like conditions), I was gently awoken, sponged off and moisturised again. Feeling like a freshly minted fortune, I was then truly ready to tackle any possible stress inducing situation that may come my way. Luckily none did.
Best of all is the refurbished The Argus Dining Room. Banish all memories of execrable hotel food. Embrace instead the refreshing notion that hotel food can be pace-setting and inspiring. Chef David Willcocks is cooking the kind of food I expect to eat at a metropolitan foodie pilgrimage place. In a word, wow! Willcocks spent years working in Spain, primarily Malaga. The Andalucian influence is subtle at The Argus but it’s definitely there. Willcocks combines an intriguing Asian sensitivity and Spanish robustness in his cooking. Remember Adria Ferran of El Bulli fame? Willcocks’ cooking resembles that kind of innovation but without the consternation many diners felt when confronted with foodstuffs they’d never heard of.
[caption id="attachment_2521" align="alignnone" width="448"] The Argus: Red Roast Chicken, Oysters, Avruga, Congee and Mushroom entree[/caption]
Service is nigh on flawless at The Argus and the wine list is almost as scintillating as the food.
[caption id="attachment_2522" align="alignnone" width="448"] The Argus Sher Wagyu Beef, White Kimchi, Miso Mustard, Pickled Daikon and Kohlrabi[/caption]
Over in Malmsbury is the tiny and funky Small Holdings open kitchen bistro, formerly a church and now a temple to great food. There’s no menu but who cares? The food is rustic, unpretentious but authentically good. Using local produce wherever possible, the team here espouses ‘paddock to plate’ ethos and the customer is the beneficiary. Let the small team cook for you. You’ll be happy they did. (www.smallholdings.com.au)
[caption id="attachment_2523" align="alignnone" width="376"] Small Holdings in Malmsbury[/caption]
In Trentham, a lovely village well cared for by its tree-changing inhabitants, try Du Fermier (www.dufermier.com.au) owned and run by Annie Smithers herself (she sold her eponymous Kyneton bistro to Tim and Michelle Foster who’ve done a smashing job maintaining Smithers’ impeccably high standards). Simple Frenchified food done to perfection is the go here.
[caption id="attachment_2524" align="alignnone" width="170"] Trentham main street scene[/caption]
Tom Neal Tacker travelled courtesy of Macedon Ranges Regional Tourism Association.
Don’t miss the annual Macedon Ranges wine lovers Budburst Festival in mid-November. See www.budburst.com
The Macedon Ranges is within very easy reach of Melbourne. Less than two hours drive from the city’s CBD will bring visitors to Daylesford or Kyneton. Alternatively, Kyneton is on the main train line from Melbourne north to Bendigo with daily frequent services.
Master Navigator Tua Pittman at the tiller of the Marumaru Atua[/caption]
The Marumaru Atua is a double-hulled canoe/catamaran of about twenty-two metres length from bow to stern with a deck area of roughly fifteen metres by five metres. A mega-yacht this is not. A reminder of great voyages past, it is.
Sporting three russet coloured lateen sails decorated with ancient Polynesian motifs, she flies across the ocean's surface like a wandering albatross, beautiful and alone. There is no keel; the four metres long wooden tiller steers the 'vaka' easily.
[caption id="attachment_2416" align="alignnone" width="448"] Marumaru Atua vaka with sails up[/caption]
A small rattan roofed galley with enough space for two adults sits amidships.
[caption id="attachment_2418" align="alignnone" width="371"] Crew member Malik entering Marumaru Atua galley[/caption]
A single toilet with door is positioned in front of the galley faces the bow. When in use, leave the door open or closed; it's up to you. On such a small vessel everyone knows where everyone else is while privacy is respected. A bucket with rope attached is the flushing mechanism.
[caption id="attachment_2419" align="alignnone" width="375"] Crew member Erena Young hauling bucket of dunny water[/caption]
The remainder of the deck is open to the elements with two storage compartments that also serve as bench seats. Each separate canoe hull has enough space for eight bunk beds, sixteen altogether. There’s not enough space below deck to swing a cat, had one been aboard, creating a cozy arrangement that could make or break friendships.
[caption id="attachment_2420" align="alignnone" width="362"] Alex Olon and Thomas Wynne raising mainsail[/caption]
To comply with contemporary insurance regulations, the ‘vaka’ is equipped with a GPS and radio but we don’t rely on either. Running lights and cabin lights are powered by solar panels fitted to the stern timbers above the transom. During extended periods of cloudy weather a corkscrew propeller generator can be lowered between the hulls through a hatch to add a bit of extra juice. For our short journey, the propeller is lifted and secured beneath the deck.
[caption id="attachment_2421" align="alignnone" width="448"] Solar panels on Marumaru Atua with Rarotonga receding in the distance[/caption]
Wind energy is all we need this night. Given the weather conditions, there’s plenty of that.
I’m one of seven lucky passengers, four other writers, one public relations expert and a Pittman family friend who’s checking out the facilities on this maiden ‘tourist’ voyage.
[caption id="attachment_2422" align="alignnone" width="424"] Passengers aboard the Marumaru Atua ready to leave Avarua harbour[/caption]
The weather hasn’t kind for three days. A strong southeast wind is pushing waves to threatening heights. The narrow entrance to Aitutaki’s lagoon is closed due to rough seas.
No matter. We’re intent on pursuing the last voyage of 2013 before the summer cyclone season begins. A bit of nasty weather won’t put off true sailors but land-loving passengers may feel otherwise. A decision is taken to sail the ‘vaka’ in the direction of Aitutaki for approximately seventy nautical miles then turn round and return to Rarotonga, more or less matching the distance of a one-way trip from Rarotonga to Aitutaki.
[caption id="attachment_2423" align="alignnone" width="336"] Alex Olon, Tefini Pekapo and Thomas Wynne raising mainsail[/caption]
Two watches are assigned to the crew, the first from sunset until midnight, the second from midnight until dawn. Along with Pittman another Master Navigator and our Captain during this short voyage is ex-navy officer Peia Pataia. Pataia assumes overall command for the safety of the crew and passengers.
Pataia, Erena Young, Alex Olon and a young apprentice from a local school, Malik, take the first watch. Tua Pittman, his brother Noel Pittman, Tefini (‘T’) Pekapo and Thomas Wynne take the second.
[caption id="attachment_2424" align="alignnone" width="448"] Marumaru Atua crew members. Clockwise from top left: Tefini Pekapo, Malik, Alex Olon, Captain Peia Pataia, Tua Pittman, Erena Young, Noel Pittman and Thomas Wynne[/caption]
The swell reaches four metres once we’re a few nautical miles beyond Rarotonga’s sheltering reef. The Samoan Trench lies underneath. Bottom is over three thousand metres down. Once outside the reef, the water colour metamorphoses from tropical aquamarine to a deep steely blue.
[caption id="attachment_2426" align="alignnone" width="448"] Rarotonga at a distance on board the Marumaru Atua[/caption]
Three crew members are struck down with seasickness almost immediately, a common malady remedied only by steadfast dedication and gradual physical adaptation. Ginger tablets, Fisherman’s Friend lozenges and anti-nausea drugs may assist in reducing the symptoms of seasickness but they won’t cure it. My fellow passengers alternate between extreme seasickness and mild queasiness.
[caption id="attachment_2427" align="alignnone" width="448"] Noel and Tua Pittman leaving Avarua on board Marumaru Atua[/caption]
Another writer, a friend well known for his bush-walking and mountain biking prowess spends the whole fourteen hours voyage either rolled up in the fetal position on the deck or with his head hanging off the side filling the ocean with his stomach contents. By 21:00, all other fellow passengers are either trying to sleep down below on narrow and rocking bunks or curled up in blankets on the wet deck. Some hang heads over the side, muttering occasional groans. But not me.
[caption id="attachment_2472" align="alignnone" width="336"] Marumaru Atua mainsail up[/caption]
This was an experience in which I didn’t want to miss a minute. Requesting permission to sit on either of two stern end navigator’s seats, I happily sat through each seven hour watch, wide awake, often wet as a random wave washed over me, watching moonrise and moon set, the entire night's panoply of celestial grandeur, gazing at Venus rising as the sun set and later following its disappearance into the first light of dawn. Canopus the Dog Star became a familiar friend. I learned the difference between the false Southern Cross and the real Southern Cross. Orion’s Belt was a constant feature, nearly always highest in the sky and eminently visible.
I knew that if I went below and stretched out in a bunk, the risk of seasickness would increase. As long as I fixated on the horizon, the stars, the passing clouds and the moon’s position, I’d be fine.
I was reminded of something very important that night. Time really does stretch when modern markers are left behind. I lost track of it, was lost in my thoughts and thrilled to be alone. With nearly seven billion humans on this small planet, it’s not often I get to say that.
Peia, Erena and Alex were mostly quiet during their watch. Tua, Tefini (‘T’) and Thomas were also very quiet. Noel and Malik were both prostrate with seasickness, passed out on deck. Thomas suffers extreme seasickness but stayed his watch nonetheless. The man is a hero. I watched him sit the tiller in between frequent bouts of retching over the stern. Brief snippets of chat were rare, exchanges of information mostly. Checking position and adjusting the tiller to stay on course doesn’t necessitate a dialogue. I was mesmerised by the silver light dancing on the waves. Occasionally phosphorescence lingered in the tiller’s wake, like a glittering refrain at the end of a rousing speech, though nothing was to be heard other than waves crashing against the wooden hulls and wind ruffling full sails.
A thousand or so years ago, early Polynesians ventured across the planet’s largest ocean in search of new lands. They navigated mostly by the stars, a permanent planetarium seemingly embedded in their brains. These ingenious explorers migrated across huge expanses of uncharted waters without printed maps to guide them.
A few years ago, in commemoration of his ancestors’ remarkable explorations Pittman helped build a ‘vaka’, essentially a large canoe capable of deep sea travelling, at once recreating a vessel that the earliest Polynesians used to circumnavigate the Pacific Ocean well before European pioneers ‘discovered’ the unknown world. In building the ‘vaka’ Pittman and his friends simultaneously reconnected with their heritage.
That recreated canoe, the ‘vaka’ Marumaru Atua (meaning ‘Under the Protection of God’) sailed with six other canoes across the Pacific Ocean through the Golden Gate of San Francisco, proving that it was possible to sail vast distances without the benefit of modern navigation equipment.
Since that voyage in 2011/2012, the Marumaru Atua has been based in the Cook Islands at Rarotonga. Tua Pittman, his crew and benefactors have given the ‘vaka’ to the people of Rarotonga as a reminder of their intrepid past. Managed by Pittman and company, it now runs regular three hour evening trips beyond Rarotonga’s fringing reef, allowing passengers to witness southern stars far away from city lights as the big canoe sails beyond the island’s encircling reef on a short bout of sky tripping.
In March 2014, the Marumaru Atua and crew will begin monthly four day return voyages from Rarotonga to Aitutaki, approximately 180 kilometres north. Leaving late afternoon, the ‘vaka’ sails overnight to Aitutaki reaching the glorious lagoon’s shipping entrance by mid-morning. Passengers will have the choice of staying on board the ‘vaka’ or transferring to other accommodation on the island, returning to Rarotonga two days later.
Our brief trip is the ‘trial run’ in preparation for paying passengers. I’m pleased to report that a cruise on the Marumaru Atua from Rarotonga to Aitutaki is unique and should be on every real traveller’s so-called ‘bucket list’.
Sometimes the travel gods decide to bestow a gift. Fortunate recipients of this gift are well advised to remember it for they have received something both rare and priceless.
It has been my great fortune to be the recipient of random travel beneficence; this voyage beyond Rarotonga on the Marumaru Atua is one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever been lucky enough to experience.
For travellers interested in living Polynesian history, a voyage on the Marumaru Atua is essential.
For inquiries and bookings on the Marumaru Atua’s trips outside Rarotonga’s reef and to Aitutaki, contact Tua Pittman or Carmel Beattie at Island Discoveries via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
If a voyage on a ‘vaka’ doesn’t float your boat, don’t worry, there’s plenty else to discover on a visit to the Cook Islands.
[caption id="attachment_2428" align="alignnone" width="336"] Tai's weather rock at Muri beach[/caption]
Best known for its ‘newlywed and nearlydead’ customer base, a recent expansion of Cook Islands’ tourism choices should appeal to visitors not celebrating a marriage nor interested in spending days welded to a banana lounge by a pool next to a white sand beach, though both those options remain very popular.
[caption id="attachment_2429" align="alignnone" width="448"] Muri beach and lagoon[/caption]
Rarotonga is basically Cook Islands central. The country’s only international airport is on Rarotonga and it’s the biggest island in the archipelago. Cook Islands’ total population is fewer than 20,000 inhabitants. Approximately 12,000 people live on Rarotonga while approximately 1,800 more call Aitutaki home.
[caption id="attachment_2430" align="alignnone" width="448"] Uptown Avarua[/caption]
Rarotonga is a large volcanic island with peaks rising to over 600 metres in its densely forested centre. A double lane road of thirty-two kilometres circles the island. There is no cross-island road as the interior is too steep and rugged. A public bus runs two services, clockwise and anti-clockwise each thirty minutes. Passengers are picked up and dropped off wherever they choose to stop, sometimes only ten metres from one stop to the next. The night bus service runs clockwise only but not on Sundays. Hire car companies operate reliable services, renting small vehicles (Daihatsu mini convertibles are popular) and scooters to qualified drivers. A visitor’s driver’s licence is compulsory and can be purchased at the police station or through the rental agency. Bicycles are very popular transport options as well.
[caption id="attachment_2431" align="alignnone" width="448"] Fresh water stream running through Avarua[/caption]
Rarotonga’s best beaches are at Muri and Titikaveka on the southern side. At Nikao and Arorangi on the northwest side more lovely beaches stretch along the lagoon. They’re not quite as gleaming smooth sandy white as those on the southern side but the sunset views are better. Dogs are frequent beach bums. Generally friendly and looking for free entertainment, local dogs have taken to working on behalf of Cook Islands Tourism as semi-official 'meeters and greeters'. A volunteer animal rescue program began working in the Cook Islands earlier this century. Now all animals are vaccinated and 'fixed'. No longer are visitors confronted by the distressing sight of injured and abandoned animals left to fend for themselves. Each dog I met on Rarotonga (there are no dogs on Aitutaki) was very friendly and good company.
[caption id="attachment_2432" align="alignnone" width="361"] Friendly dog on Titikaveka beach[/caption]
Little Avarua is the main town where the government meets and the country’s largest market, Punanga Nui, is held each Saturday morning. Rarotonga’s surprisingly active nightlife is centred in Avarua. Check out Trader Jack’s and Whatever! bars on Thursday or Friday nights to see how Rarotongans socialise when they’re not at church or work. Saturday night revelries are a tad quiet, church going starts at 9am and it’s considered socially bad form to turn up nursing a hangover.
[caption id="attachment_2433" align="alignnone" width="448"] Trader Jack's bar at Avarua[/caption]
All major Rarotongan resorts sport restaurants and bars, some more lively than others. If your holiday wish list includes lively interactive post dinner activities, be advised to confirm the entertainment options when booking a room.
Aitutaki is much smaller, approximately seven kilometres long by three wide and is a remnant of an extinct volcano with an enormous encircling lagoon. Maungapu, is the highest point at 124 metres. Aitutaki’s lagoon is dotted with over a dozen motu that conjure images of tropical heaven: eye-popping white sand, water comprising every shade of blue, fringing coconut palms and coral gardens enticingly peppered with giant clams, black pearl oysters and an encyclopaedia’s worth of Indo-Pacific fish and crustacean species. I’ve seen quite a few tropical lagoons during my travels but few lagoons rival Aitutaki in terms of sheer blissful perfection.
[caption id="attachment_2434" align="alignnone" width="448"] Typical Aitutaki beach and lagoon scene[/caption]
Eleven churches operate on Aitutaki. Considering the population is fewer than 1,800 people, an impressive per capita ratio of proselytising opportunities abound. Christianity rules over all on Aitutaki. A conservative movement to stop all Sunday flights has a strong following.
[caption id="attachment_2435" align="alignnone" width="448"] No Sunday Flights Aitutaki protest sign[/caption]
Cook Islands takes up a lot of space, over two million square kilometres, almost all of it water. Fifteen islands comprise the archipelago, eight in the southern group (including Rarotonga and Aitutaki, by far the most visited and populous) and seven in the northern group. Apart from the airports on Rarotonga and Aitutaki serviced by frequent Air Rarotonga flights, most of the other islands in the southern group can be reached only by charter flights. Both Penrhyn and Pukapuka in the northern group can be reached by air, charter flights only.
The Cooks is a mix of volcanic islands ringed by fringing reefs or coral atolls with lagoons of varying sizes. For more information about the whole country including the thirteen islands not often frequented by international travellers, check out www.cookislands.travel
[caption id="attachment_2471" align="alignnone" width="448"] Titikaveka beach on Rarotonga[/caption]
My job while on this trip to the Cook Islands was to explore what else there is to do other than get married, honeymoon or lash out on an expensive retirement trip.
That I reconnected with my inner soul during my night on the Marumaru Atua was purely incidental and a trick of lucky fate.
Here’s a list of ‘Must Do’ activities on Rarotonga. I list them in no particular order of importance.
A ‘Navigating Pacific Skies’ progressive dinner with Tua Pittman should be a number one priority for all visitors keen on Polynesian history. As a precursor either to the three hour excursion beyond Rarotonga’s fringing reef or the four day trip to Aitutaki, this dinner in Tua’s excellent company starts at the Waterline restaurant and ends at a private home for dessert and is highly recommended as an introduction to a trip on the Marumaru Atua. Tua chauffeurs guests around the island while pointing out important stars, explaining navigation skills and relating Polynesian history. Inquiries and bookings can be made via email: email@example.com
[caption id="attachment_2450" align="alignnone" width="448"] Waiting for sunset during Navigating Pacific Skies tour with Tua Pittman[/caption]
Sunday’s 10am church service at Arorongi’s Cooks Islands Christian church. It’s free and better still, allows a glimpse into local culture in the truest sense. The service I attended was led by the new pastor recently returned to Rarotonga after living in Sydney’s western suburbs. Replete with song and laughter, fire and brimstone, this was old time religion Cook Islands style.
[caption id="attachment_2436" align="alignnone" width="448"] Arorongi church service[/caption]
My mobile phone couldn’t lock on to a signal during my first two days on Rarotonga. Frustrated by the lack of connectivity, I resigned myself to be off-grid for at least a week. Seated in a pew on the upper balcony of this church, I listened intently to the first of a number of hymns sung by a group of regular parishioners dressed to the nines looking like they’d won a trip to a prestigious awards event. Apparently, like the Welsh, Tahitians and Samoans, Cook Islanders can carry a tune as if musicality is an inherent genetic trait, they sing like angels. Suddenly, my phone locked on to the local provider and text messages silently beeped their way into the service. Another fellow writer seated beside me, (she’s something of a tech-head), sent me a sideways glance as we both raised our eyes upwards and muttered, ‘Jesus!’ A funny thing happened on the way to church...
[caption id="attachment_2437" align="alignnone" width="411"] Arorongi church ladies leaving Sunday service[/caption]
As a matter of particular interest, the preacher made several erroneous comments about ‘Diwali’ infiltrating pure Cook Islands Christianity. A number of Indian Fijian migrants have settled in Rarotonga in search of better paid work than can be secured in Fiji. While I was there Diwali was being celebrated by this vibrant Fijian Indian community. Diwali is one of the most important and cherished holidays during the Hindu year, a commemoration of the goddess of learning and light when children are invited by teachers to visit their schools though the schools are closed for the holiday, often bringing new books to stock the library. As proof that knowledge conquers ignorance, it’s an invaluable teaching aid. Most Hindu homes have candles or lanterns placed in doorways to banish dark evil spirits and to welcome in light and learning. It’s a wonderful holiday, not threatening to Christianity in any way at all, especially in a place as overwhelmingly Christian as the Cook Islands. Though I was upset by the ravings of an ignorant preacher who didn’t know that ‘Diwali’ is a revered Hindu holiday and not a religion of itself, I was interested to observe how the congregation reacted to the sermon. Judging by the looks on people’s faces, the reaction was fairly nonplussed. At the subsequent morning tea when all the congregation and visitors are invited into a nearby public hall to share donated food and non-alcoholic drinks, the talk I overheard was gossipy and fun, not frightful nor fuelled by resentment. I suspect the preacher has since been advised to monitor his hate mongering in public.
[caption id="attachment_2438" align="alignnone" width="397"] Arorongi church service, lady enjoying morning tea[/caption]
A Raro Safari 4WD tour of the island’s back roads and mountainous interior is terrific fun. Owned and operated by local environmentally minded enthusiasts of Rarotonga’s soft wilderness areas, this half day trip in an extravagantly decorated open 4WD is a lot of fun as well as insightful. We enjoyed the company of our guide, Mr Useless (many Cook Islanders are best known by their nicknames).
[caption id="attachment_2439" align="alignnone" width="448"] Mr Useless of Raro 4WD Safari taking a much needed break[/caption]
Mr Useless was anything but useless though he was occasionally a bit grumpy and difficult to understand, not because of a lack of English but because an absence of teeth often turned his words into unintelligible mumbles.
[caption id="attachment_2440" align="alignnone" width="336"] Emergency phone and Needle seen during Raro 4WD safari tour[/caption]
A Raro Safari tour is a fun day out following a somewhat random itinerary. Ask a lot of questions, show keen interest and the tour will certainly evolve into a very educational experience. See www.rarosafaritours.co.ck
[caption id="attachment_2441" align="alignnone" width="425"] Rarotonga rooster joins Raro 4WD safari tour[/caption]
Definitely more fun than any of us anticipated was the Koka Lagoon Cruise on Muri’s fabulously picturesque lagoon.
[caption id="attachment_2451" align="alignnone" width="448"] Koka Lagoon Cruises boat moored in Muri lagoon[/caption]
Billed as a ‘Glass Bottom Boat Adventure’, I had my doubts about authenticity as a driving force. I was dead wrong about that assumption.
[caption id="attachment_2443" align="alignnone" width="448"] Captain Awesome showing off his conch shell[/caption]
The four crew members, Captain Awesome, Captain Amazing, Captain Jack Sparrow and Captain Cook (Captain Cook was the head cook for the afternoon lunch included in the cruise) proved that a day out in a small boat doing very touristy things like snorkelling around a coral renovation project, or snorkelling among large fish looking for a handout can be a wonderful way to pass a day in paradise.
[caption id="attachment_2445" align="alignnone" width="448"] Captain Jack Sparrow playing a ukulele[/caption]
Enjoying a picnic lunch on a motu just offshore from Muri’s beach while being entertained by this outstandingly energetic crew who taught us how to climb a coconut palm, how to husk a coconut, how to differentiate coconuts according to maturity, usefulness and flavour, how to plait palm fronds to make a hat or plate and how to play a ukulele made for a very full day. I tipped my old fishing cap to them all.
[caption id="attachment_2442" align="alignnone" width="448"] Captain Awesome and Captain Amazing singing during Koka Lagoon cruise[/caption]
These guys could show a seasoned Vegas troupe a thing or three about how to maintain performance enthusiasm. I couldn’t have loved it more. See www.kokalagooncruises.com
[caption id="attachment_2444" align="alignnone" width="448"] Captain Awesome hanging off a coconut tree[/caption]
The Cook Islands Whale & Wildlife Centre is a must visit for travellers who are concerned about Cook Islands’ marine environment and its preservation. Owned and run by local heroine Nan Hauser, who is an internationally recognised expert on whales, dolphins and porpoises. Her work on cetacean habitats, their migration routes and how their very existence is now dependent on humans learning to leave them alone to regenerate after the decimations of the past two whaling centuries is widely heralded. As a generalised information facility about cetaceans from around the world, it is invaluable and Cook Islanders are fortunate to have it as a resource and research centre. See www.whaleresearch.org
The Cook Islands National Museum and Library in Avarua’s uptown area at the corner of Victoria Road and Constitution Park is a very small museum that packs a punch. Open Mon-Fri 9am until 4pm. Entry fee is CI$5.
[caption id="attachment_2446" align="alignnone" width="124"] Cook Islands National Museum and Library entrance[/caption]
The Saturday market, Punanga Nui in Avarua’s downtown area is where everyone comes to shop or just hang out. Like mixed crafts and produce markets the world over, a visit to this lively site is obligatory for all curious visitors who are intent on gaining insight into what makes the Cook Islands tick.
[caption id="attachment_2448" align="alignnone" width="426"] Black pearls on sale at Punanga Nui market stall[/caption]
Top stalls are: Farm Direct Pearls for some of the best and most reputable deals on locally raised black pearls, Rito Cold Pressed Coconut Oil Products for edible flavoured oils, health and beauty products, Tokerau Jim for hand-crafted art objects and jewellery and KMD Ukuleles for its range of expertly made ukuleles from native woods.
[caption id="attachment_2447" align="alignnone" width="448"] KMD ukuleles on sale at Punanga Nui market[/caption]
Of course numerous stalls selling fresh juices, fruit smoothies, icy frappes and healthy (or not) small meals and snacks are everywhere. Take your pick and pig out.
[caption id="attachment_2449" align="alignnone" width="336"] Punanga Nui market food and juices for sale[/caption]
A visit to Island Living store is highly recommended. Owned and run by Minar Purotu Henderson, this little shop is a gem which sells locally made and designed fabrics and crafts. The noni juice produced from the trees at Island Living’s garden plantation is on sale here. As a cure-all for everything from gout to cancer, the benefits of noni juice are highly regarded by all Cook Islanders.
[caption id="attachment_2452" align="alignnone" width="448"] Noni fruit at Island Living garden and plantation[/caption]
Henderson also runs the adjoining Plantation House restaurant which serves a set menu dinner for about twelve guests once a week, usually on Wednesday evenings. She’s a wonderful cook and uses her huge garden to great effect in the preparation of her special feasts. See www.islandlivingshop.com for reservations.
[caption id="attachment_2453" align="alignnone" width="448"] Minar Purotu Henderson at entrance to her Island Living shop[/caption]
A Nature Walk with Pa is a unique treat. He’s a local hero and the recent winner of a prestigious tourism award. Pa is over seventy years old, walks barefoot dressed in a loincloth and takes limited numbers of guests on a hike around the Needle, a sharp spire carved by wind and rain from an ancient volcanic plug and into the island’s jungle interior. During the trek Pa also explains the benefits of indigenous plants as curatives and life preservers. He’s living proof of how a good diet and exercise may lead to a long healthy life. See www.pastreks.com
[caption id="attachment_2454" align="alignnone" width="448"] The Needle in Rarotonga's interior[/caption]
The sunset cultural tour and show at the Highland Paradise Cook Islands Cultural Centre held two or three times per week is a mixed bag of treats. The marae on the mountain is clearly an important historical site and the talk about it and its significance to Rarotongan culture is really interesting. While emcee Danny, dressed in full Cook Islands chiefly regalia, instructed guests not to cross the boundary to the marae unless invited, a woman accidentally crossed the line into the marae. Within seconds, a very large coconut nearly conked the man standing next to her on his head. Had it struck, he would surely have died. A marae can be a powerfully spooky place. The show and dinner that follows the visit to the adjoining marae is full of great music and dancing but Danny’s incessant patter is hammier than a Porky the Pig cartoon. See www.highlandparadise.co.ck
[caption id="attachment_2455" align="alignnone" width="448"] Emcee Danny of Highlands Paradise Cook Islands Cultural Centre[/caption]
On Aitutaki Island these two ‘Must Do’ activities are highly recommended.
The Punarei Village Cultural Tour is an absolute wonder. The small company is owned and managed by Aitutaki born Ngaa Kitai Taria, a trained archaeologist who is now dedicating himself to revivifying Aitutaki culture as it was before Christianity’s impact caused the old ways to nearly disappear.
[caption id="attachment_2456" align="alignnone" width="227"] Ngaa Kitai Taria of Punarei Culture Tours[/caption]
The half day tour includes lunch prepared from a do-it-yourself umukai (earth oven), a visit to an ancient marae and Ngaa’s full attention as he escorts visitors around his work-in-progress, Punarei village.
[caption id="attachment_2457" align="alignnone" width="448"] Preparing the umukai at Punarei[/caption]
This excellent day out was a highlight of the visit to Aitutaki. I learnt more about Aitutaki’s past (and its future) in a scarce few hours than I ever would have learned traipsing around the island’s eleven churches in search of real or imagined history.
The lunch we helped prepare was actually quite delicious. As the umukai was truly authentic, the pork, chicken and fish tasted of mild smoke from fresh banana leaves layered over the hot rocks. The plantains, pumpkin, cassava and red bananas roasted along side were just as delicious. Fresh mangoes, guava, passionfruits and papayas were served with breadfruit salad and taro greens from the village garden.
[caption id="attachment_2458" align="alignnone" width="448"] Lunch of umukai at Punarei[/caption]
We laughed and talked about how much Polynesian culture, politics and society has changed since Captain William Bligh first visited Aitutaki in 1798. The whole experience is both very moving and highly educational. See www.aitutakiculture.com
Aitutaki is rightly famous for its spectacularly beautiful lagoon. You’d be crazy to visit this island without venturing out on the lagoon. For that, you’ll need a boat and a guide.
[caption id="attachment_2485" align="alignnone" width="448"] Gaynor Stanley PR expert from PEPR Publicity and Elani of Wet n Wild enjoying a moment in Aitutaki's splendid lagoon[/caption]
Wet and Wild is owned and run by local experts, Quentin and his wife Malea. Their youngest child, daughter Elani accompanied us for the day on the lagoon.
[caption id="attachment_2459" align="alignnone" width="347"] Elani joins us for a Wet n Wild Aitutaki lagoon cruise[/caption]
Wet n Wild offers fly fishing trips (bonefish are the fisherman’s dream here) and snorkelling trips around the huge lagoon. I snorkelled over great beds of giant clams, all iridescent blue and green as they filter fed on the sandy lagoon bottom, explored a rope festooned with hanging black pearl oysters strung between coral bommies, had a quick walk around a motu famous for its ‘honeymoon money’ photo opportunities and its preserve as a refuge for red-tailed tropicbirds and other wandering sea birds. The urge to continually jump overboard into the swimming pool like lagoon is irresistible. See www.wetnwild-aitutaki.com
[caption id="attachment_2460" align="alignnone" width="448"] Beach hammock at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa[/caption]
Tom Neal Tacker visited the Cook Islands as a guest of Cook Islands Tourism.
The Sunset Resort in Nikao, approximately three kilometres west of Rarotonga’s airport is a well run adults only boutique resort situated on a western facing beach. Two swimming pools delineate two areas of the same resort. The pool nearest the beach is closest to the best rooms. The other pool, despite being larger and slightly more inviting is surrounded by two two-story buildings that are nearer the lobby and reception area. The hotel carpark is also very close to one of these two buildings, the one I stayed in unfortunately. The rooms in the far side of this building are very badly positioned, being uncomfortably close to the island’s main road. I was assigned one of those rooms. Traffic noise was fairly constant, even in relatively sleepy Rarotonga. www.thesunsetresort.com
Over in Muri, on Rarotonga’s southeast facing coast is the Pacific Resort Rarotonga. One of the country’s best resorts, rooms either front a stunning beach or tropical garden area with fish ponds and a swimming pool. Most rooms are decorated in typical Polynesian style with bright colours, boast separate sleeping and living areas and newly renovated granite bathrooms. The hotel’s bar and restaurant are both deservedly popular. www.pacificresort.com
[caption id="attachment_2470" align="alignnone" width="448"] Muri beach scene at Pacific Resort Rarotonga[/caption]
My wish list accommodation choice on Rarotonga is the Little Polynesian Resort & Spa. With fewer than twenty rooms, all facing the island’s best beach at Titikaveka, this is the pick of the abundant crop. While Muri beach is lined with small resorts, Titikaveka is mostly undeveloped. I hope it stays that way. www.littlepolynesian.com
The Aitutaki Lagoon Resort occupies its own tiny island just a short ferry ride across a clear running tidal channel separating Akitua from Aitutaki. Beach front bures are the top choice here, though three overwater bungalows are perennial favourites. The little villas all have outside showers and inside bathrooms. Private decks are attached to each villa, perfect for dropping into a beach lounge chair for a spot of navel contemplation. Dinner is fairly ordinary but the breakfast buffet was better than most I prospected in the Cook Islands. www.aitutakilagoonresort.com
[caption id="attachment_2461" align="alignnone" width="448"] Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa beach view[/caption]
On Aitutaki’s western side is the very de luxe Pacific Resort Aitutaki (part of the same group that owns the Pacific Resort Rarotonga). The island’s best resort, the most expensive certainly, here the cooking is well above average in a country where too much food preparation is caught somewhere between 80s New Zealand Leagues Club inspiration and London Missionary Society reality. The infinity pool at this resort is one of the most photographed scenes in all the Cook Islands. The beach here, though superb by any concept of reality, is not as fine as the beach at the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort, advantage of occupying your own heavenly island off an island paradise perhaps? Were the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort beach transferred to the Pacific Resort Aitutaki’s superior facilities and style, we’d have a perfect winner. www.pacificresort.com
If the Cook Islands can claim a national dish, it’s probably ika mata, raw fish marinated in coconut milk, lime juice and mixed with chopped onions and/or tomatoes and if you're lucky a bit of chopped coriander. Tahitians, Samoans and Hawaiians prepare raw fish pretty much the same way. The Peruvians do it better and call it ceviche. In Mexico it’s served with more lime, coriander and a bit of chilli and is better still.
When the Cook Islands were occupied in the early 19th century by the London Missionary Society and Catholic church missionaries, local people coincidentally developed a fondness for tinned meats, tinned fruits and bland cooking. Much of that tradition continues today. New Zealanders are the Cook Islands most frequent visitors. Indeed, the Cook Islands are to Kiwis what Florida and Hawaii are to Americans and what Fiji is to Australians. For many Kiwis, their first overseas trip is to the Cook Islands. The influence middle-class Kiwis have had on contemporary Cook Islands cuisine is still a work in progress and appears to have been bogged down in 1980s low-brow cooking. I’ve had many truly excellent meals in New Zealand where innovative chefs winningly marry local produce with the country’s stunning wines. That innovation hasn’t yet fully reached the Cook Islands. This is my first impression. I heard there are several good restaurants on Rarotonga and Aitutaki but I didn’t dine at them.
[caption id="attachment_2463" align="alignnone" width="448"] The Moorings Fish Cafe on Rarotonga[/caption]
Unfortunately when I met Minar Purotu Henderson at her Island Living shop, it wasn’t a Wednesday and we weren’t on Rarotonga long enough to dine at her Plantation House. I read the menu at the Little Polynesian Resort & Spa and found it exciting and enticing but again, didn’t have time to dine there.
[caption id="attachment_2464" align="alignnone" width="422"] The Moorings Fish Cafe menu[/caption]
At The Moorings Cafe on Rarotonga, I ate a very good spicy fish sandwich and drank a fresh coconut juice (‘Nu’ juice in the Cook Islands). I’d like to go there again.
[caption id="attachment_2462" align="alignnone" width="448"] Island Living garden plantation on Rarotonga[/caption]
The umukai I shared during the Aitutaki Punarei Cultural Tour was really good because it was authentic, the ingredients were top quality and the freshness was outstanding.
[caption id="attachment_2465" align="alignnone" width="336"] Red bananas in Punarei's garden on Aitutaki[/caption]
Samade On The Beach across the channel from Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa is a lovely cafe/restaurant in a stunning location overlooking the lagoon right at the tip of the Ootu Peninsula. Recently acquired by an ex-Pacific Resorts GM, this place is set for great improvements. The small snack I ate of ika mata, fried calamari and plantain chips was very good and shows promise for better things to come. www.samadebeach.com
Also on Aitutaki is Tupuna’s Restaurant, highly recommended by trusted associates. The chilli crab cooked here has a strong following. Tupuna’s is open Mon-Sat from 6p and can be contacted via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or local telephone: 31 678.
The Cook Islands produce is essentially organic. Farms are small and clearly the soil is very fertile. The use of pesticides and fertilisers is almost unknown. The incredible freshness and flavour inherent in the produce is obvious. It’s a pity so many cooks don’t show innate respect for their ingredients or they’re stuck in a time warp of 80s Kiwi cooking when mayonnaise came out of large jars and curry powder was considered truly exotic.
Here’s hoping to a successfully evolving Cook Islands food culture driven by passionate and informed cooks.
Air New Zealand offers the best connections to Rarotonga. Daily flights operate between Auckland and Rarotonga providing easy one-stop connections with all Australian capital cities and all other New Zealand cities with Air New Zealand domestic services. A once weekly service connects Rarotonga to Sydney non-stop each Saturday. A once weekly non-stop service also connects Rarotonga to Los Angeles. Why Air New Zealand doesn’t do a better job promoting the LAX-Rarotonga-Sydney connection is one of those airline quandaries that puzzle me unceasingly. Imagine the holiday opportunities with that route. www.airnewzealand.co.nz
Virgin Pacific flies regularly between Australia and Rarotonga. www.virginaustralia.com
Air Tahiti operates a once weekly service between Papeete and Rarotonga as a code share arrangement with Air Rarotonga. www.airraro.com
A number of charter services connect all other Cook Islands that have an airstrip. It’s fairly easy, though relatively expensive, to get to Atiu, Mauke and Mangaia in the southern group. Penrhyn’s airstrip is over 1,300 kilometres north of Rarotonga. Charter flights to the northern group of islands that have an airstrip are hellishly expensive. Now that’s a ‘bucket list’ goal to bear in mind.
[caption id="attachment_2469" align="alignnone" width="448"] Cook Islands paddling[/caption]
‘My Island Home’ by Helen Henry an ex-Kiwi and island resident, widowed to the nation’s first prime minister’s son. Her story is a fascinating one.
‘The Book of PukaPuka’ and ‘Island of Desire’ by American travel writer Robert Dean Frisbie who came to PukaPuka in 1924, married a local woman and stayed to open a general store.
Finally I'd like to say a big 'Kia Orana' to all my Cook Islands friends!
Downtown Darwin's Mitchell Street at dusk.[/caption]
This impression contradicts a pertinent fact. Darwin and the Northern Territory are the most over-governed constituencies on the planet.
That's one parliamentarian for approximately every seven thousand voters.
Per capita, NT politicians out number NT doctors, lawyers and landscape gardeners.
What to do during a wet week in Darwin other than hanging around the grandiose Northern Territory Parliament building waiting for advice from one of the 25 ubiquitous MPs?
Spend a day at the Museum & Art Gallery Northern Territory. This is Darwin's culturally artistic pride and joy. Rightly so as it is an impressive museum that combines natural history, cultural history and the arts in a very clever ensemble.
The Territory is historically rich. For instance, Charles Darwin never visited the town named after him. While in Australia, he remained in New South Wales.
In the museum, the Cyclone Tracy exhibit is particularly moving. Stop for a few minutes in the small dark room where a constantly replayed original recording of the relentless wind is sure to unsettle anyone not hard of hearing. The impression is akin to what it may have been like to have endured the night that tore old Darwin down. Free entry. (Closed Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year's Day and Good Friday) See www.magnt.nt.gov.au Conacher Street, Fannie Bay Tel: +61 (0)8 8909 8264
Located smack dab in the middle of backpacking, cafe and restaurant row, Crocosaurus Cove can’t be missed. 'Darwin's ultimate urban wildlife experience, Home to the Cage of Death.' hardly lays claim to a tasteful experience but I have to admit, I was impressed by how well run it is.
Essentially a private zoo, it features scarily large crocodiles as main attention grabbers. Happy-go-lucky tourists here have an opportunity to be dunked into a large pool with one or two gigantic estuarine crocodiles. There is something to be said about watching an adult human in a Perspex cage being lowered into a pool with a five metres long, 800 kilos man-chomping crocodile. All that was missing from the perspective of the onlookers was the theme from 'Jaws' as a musical backdrop.
I was more impressed by the reptile handling experience. The guide/keeper was extremely knowledgeable, professional and in control. While being draped with a two metres long, thick-as-three-fingers water python named Pretzel, I felt surprisingly calm, in good hands so to speak. See www.croccove.com for opening hours and details. General admission price is AUD$28 per adult. The 'Cage of Death' is extra. Bring your own swimwear. 58 Mitchell Street, Darwin City. Tel: +61 (0)8 8981 7522
The safe salt-water Lake Alexander Park at East Point is guaranteed crocodile and marine stingers free. Its verdant location in Darwin's nicest neighbourhood is an attraction in itself. Swimming is encouraged. Bring a picnic.
[caption id="attachment_1611" align="alignnone" width="299"] Swimming around Darwin can be dangerous. Obey the signs.[/caption]
East Point juts into Darwin Harbour and was strategically important during WW2, when Darwin was bombed 64 times by Japanese aircraft from 1942 until 1943. The military museum here is well worth visiting, particularly for those interested in Darwin's history prior to 1974 when Cyclone Tracy virtually wiped the town off the map. See www.darwinmilitarymuseum.com.au for more details. 5453 Alec Fong Lim Drive, East Point, Darwin Tel +61 (0)8 8981 9702 AUD$12 per adult entry, open 7 days per week from 9:30 until 17:00.
Having nearly exhausted Darwin's tourist sights in three days, I decided to cross the harbour to Mandorah. Numerous cruise operators offer tours of Darwin's enormous harbour, three times the size of Sydney's, but during the wet season most tour owners are on leave.
The Sea-Cat Ferry leaves from Cullen Bay Marina, ten minute's drive from Darwin's CBD, offers a dozen daily crossings between Mandorah and Darwin. The trip takes about 20 minutes and costs AUD$23 for a return ticket.
The highlight of a visit to Mandorah is a visit to the Mandorah Beach Hotel, 500 metres walk from the Mandorah wharf. The beer garden here is a gem. Overlooking virtually all of Darwin Harbour, it's a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon or evening. Don't miss the return ferry however as it's 120 kilometres hard driving back to town on unsealed roads with wandering wildlife posing as traffic hazards. Late ferry departures operate on weekends. The hotel service is genuinely friendly; it's clearly a well managed business, quite a change from nearly all other establishments I sampled around Darwin. The Mandorah Beach Hotel is open 7 days. Rooms are available as well. Email: email@example.com
Darwin is unavoidable when visiting the northern Northern Territory. Visits to Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks start from here. The Tiwi Islands lie just to the north in the Arafura Sea. The town is surrounded by sublime natural beauty, yet it remains a curiosity of contrasts.
[caption id="attachment_1585" align="alignnone" width="448"] Darwin at night during the Wet monsoon season. Best place anywhere to see lightning storms.[/caption]
By all means, read the NT News while visiting Darwin. News written as fiction apparently doesn't bother the locals. Perhaps that explains much about Darwin in itself.
The Darwin restaurants I dined in were disappointing. I tried Pee Wee’s at the Point, (www.peewees.com.au Tel: +61 (0)8 8981 6888), Hanuman (www.hanuman.com.au 93 Mitchell Street at the back of the Holiday Inn Esplanade Tel: +61 (0)8 8941 3500), Il Lido, (www.illidodarwin.com.au Darwin City Waterfront f3-Wharf One Tel: +61 (0)8 8941 0900) and Garam Masala, (Shop 34 Mitchell Centre, Darwin City Tel: +61 (0)8 8981 1338). Low expectations may reward the fastidious diner at any of these mentioned here. I liked The Istanbul Café simply because it wasn’t trying to be something it couldn’t be. The location is ideal, prices reasonable and service friendly, a rare trio in Darwin. 12 Knuckey Street Darwin City Tel: +61 (0)8 8941 3777.
I heard that there were a few hidden dining gems in Darwin but during my visit they were either closed or remained hidden.
Choice of accommodation in Darwin is a dire proposition of averages: Two Holiday Inns, a Novotel, a Crowne Plaza, a Vibe, a Country Comfort and a Travelodge. I stayed at the newish Adina Darwin Waterfront. It's within hopping distance to the 'Wave Pool', Darwin's answer to a huge kiddie pool complete with a wave-making machine. The austere and impersonal outsized Darwin Convention Centre is opposite the hotel. The Adina Darwin Waterfront is just another bland 4-star hotel that serves one of the most disgusting breakfasts I've eaten in a modern hotel in Australia. The Curve restaurant and bar already needs a makeover. The lounges were dirty. Ashtrays overflowed. Service was of the disappearing, untrained kind. But the Adina sadly appears to be the best of a bad lot. See www.adina.com.au/darwin-accommodation for reservations and special deals.
Darwin is accessible from all Australian capital cities via Virgin, Qantas and Jetstar airlines. Garuda Indonesia airlines operates flights between Bali and Darwin. If you're heading to Dili, East Timor, Darwin is only an hour's flight away.
www.localharvest.org for a listing of farmers’ markets operating across the USA.
The Waipa Foundation based in Hanalei, Kaua’i sets the pace, an inspiring volunteer operation where travellers are welcomed with open arms. Each Thursday morning, interested visitors (register your interest online to ensure a place) are invited to help with the weekly poi making. Made from boiled, mashed and fermented taro, pure Waipa poi is packaged for sale during Tuesday’s weekly public market.
[caption id="attachment_2311" align="alignnone" width="336"] Pulling taro at Waipa farm on Kauai.[/caption]
Part of the joy here is the rare chance to ‘talk story’ with real Hawaiian people. ‘Talking story’ is exchanging histories while having a chat. The people of Hanalei are some of the friendliest in all Hawaii. See www.waipafoundation.org to get a place at the taro peeling table. If you’re lucky you may be asked to stay for lunch. This is as far from Honolulu’s tacky beach tourism as it gets.
Taro is the lifeblood of ancient Hawaiian culture. This most remote archipelago on the planet was always a difficult place in which to find food. First Hawaiians brought taro with them on their voyages across the Pacific Ocean. As a supplement to a primarily protein based diet, it was essential to good health. Over a thousand years later, poi represents the renaissance of Hawaiian culture itself. Making poi in the old way near the shores of Hanalei Bay is experiencing true Hawaiian culture and the emergence of green food tourism.
In 2000 the old Ferry Terminal building in San Francisco became the nation’s first large scale organic direct-from-the-farm produce market, selling everything from wine to beer, fish to fruit, vegetables and artisan cheeses. The renovated industrial site has grown to become one of San Francisco’s most important tourism sights and is open daily. Nearly all retailers here sell their goods based on the principles of the green food movement. (See www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.org for a listing of purveyors)
[caption id="attachment_2314" align="alignnone" width="216"] San Francisco Ferry Terminal exterior.[/caption]
California arguably claims to be the birthplace of America’s organic food revolution. Esteemed chef Alice Waters opened Berkeley’s acclaimed Chez Panisse restaurant (see www.chezpanisse.com for reservations) way back in 1971. The Chez Panisse kitchen used locally sourced organic produce well before the practice became fashionable.
[caption id="attachment_2315" align="alignnone" width="162"] Ferry Terminal market stall.[/caption]
Waters is called the ‘Mother of American food’ and for forty years has publicly embraced sustainability and healthy eating. Vice-President of the International Slow Food movement since 2002 she promotes bio-diversity, local food traditions and small scale quality products. (See www.slowfood.com for contacts across the USA)
Chez Panisse sous-chef Carrie Wilkinson tells me, ‘Forty years later and Chez Panisse is still trail blazing. As much of our menu as possible is sourced locally and is organic.’ Locavoring, sourcing all supplies locally to avoid fuel waste, is the latest buzzword to enter the restaurant world. Chez Panisse was carbon offsetting well before climate change entered public consciousness.
The USA green food movement gains inspiration from indigenous traditions. In this country of new migrants, tradition has simultaneously remained important. Native Americans maintain significant influence over localised food scenes, nowhere more so than in New Mexico. The area around Santa Fe and Taos in the state’s north is noted for its organically raised sustainable food driven culture.
[caption id="attachment_2335" align="alignnone" width="448"] Santa Fe shop sign.[/caption]
Naked Tip: Check out Georgia O’Keeffe’s museum in Santa Fe. O’Keeffe was a talented cook as well as renowned artist. Her compound at Abiquiu was planted with an extensive kitchen garden as O’Keeffe deplored the poor selection of vegetables available in Santa Fe. She wrote a cookbook about how to use organic produce. (See www.okeeffemuseum.org for opening hours and directions to her houses at Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch.)
[caption id="attachment_2316" align="alignnone" width="155"] Georgia O'Keeffe Museum exterior.[/caption]
For a city with a relatively small population, Santa Fe is blessed with restaurants specialising in regional cuisine sourced from organic produce.
[caption id="attachment_2334" align="alignnone" width="356"] Fajitas stall in Santa Fe's main town square.[/caption]
Green is good has been a slogan here for decades. It’s an arts city fuelled by an extraordinarily sophisticated dining culture. Check out the Coyote Café (www.coyotecafe.com) or Café Pasqual (www.pasquals.com) to discover what’s hot on the sustainable food scene in New Mexico.
The Midwest is historically strongly connected to the land. Surprising given its industrial roots, Chicago is one of America’s greenest cities. (See www.explorechicago.org for a listing of green hotels, green restaurants and green buildings.) Chicago’s 7 million plus square feet of green roofs comprise more than all other USA cities combined. Rooftop gardens have literally sprouted up all over this huge metropolis, like broccoli flowers on tall stalks.
[caption id="attachment_2318" align="alignnone" width="300"] One of Chicago's many private rooftop gardens.[/caption]
The green food movement here relies heavily on its famously enthusiastic adherents. Star-studded chefs like acclaimed Grant Achatz (who trained under Charlie Trotter's guidance) at Alinea (see www.alinea-restaurant.com for reservations) embraced sustainable harvesting practices right from the get-go of their illustrious careers.
Wisconsin is known as the Dairy State. Though encumbered by mass production (tasteless ‘cheese curds’ remain a popular snack), an emergent artisan cheese industry is taking keen restaurateurs and purveyors by storm. Wisconsin is brimming with picture postcard farms, especially in the hilly southwest region. The scenery here is some of America’s most bucolic and peaceful. See www.eatwisconsincheese.com and download its Traveler’s Guide to see how far an artisan organic cheese adventure will take you around the dairy state. Be prepared for a surprisingly long trip. At latest count, 44 artisan cheese makers are plying their wares to the public.
[caption id="attachment_2319" align="alignnone" width="145"] Wisconsin cheese display.[/caption]
Naked Tip: Don’t miss Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio at Taliesin outside Spring Green. Known as the father of ‘Organic Architecture’, Wright’s buildings are a synthesis of the natural environment melding into personal space. See www.taliesinpreservation.org for directions and opening times.
[caption id="attachment_2320" align="alignnone" width="185"] Part of Taliesin's extensive garden.[/caption]
There is a strong green food movement operating in the Piedmont region. Food activists such as Barbara Kingsolver (see her 2007 book ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’) and Michael Pollan (see his ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ published in 2006) have written extensively about the so-called ‘catchatarian’ and ‘locavorian’ movements, based on living off the land, using all local ingredients.
Naked Tip: America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, was an avid gardener and started one of the world’s first seed banks. His heritage property Monticello (see www.monticello.org for details and visiting times) located in the foothills of Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains near Charlottesville has recreated the original kitchen garden, all organic.
[caption id="attachment_2321" align="alignnone" width="179"] Monticello exterior.[/caption]
Around Asheville, North Carolina another green food movement has evolved, this one based on foraging from the enormous quantities of food Americans continue to waste each year. Though rummaging through rubbish bins is potentially a risky route to gourmet green eating, it’s a concept that has taken off among people who are trying to avoid the worst excesses of America’s dominant agri-business driven consumerist society.
Clover, (a pseudonym) is one of seven followers of an underground food movement sharing an abandoned house in central Asheville. He says, ‘We’re just living way simple, super low-impact, deep green.’ The house has been repainted greenish grey, courtesy of twenty-three cans of leftover paint from Home Depot. ‘We don’t dumpster McDonald’s,’ he adds but leftover sushi is okay as long as it didn’t sit in the rubbish bins overnight.
For more information about America’s newest hunting and gathering revolution, read green food activist and writer Sandor Katz’ books, ‘Wild Fermentation’ and ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved’.
A useful guide for hungry green-going visitors is www.eatwellguide.org, an extensive listing of restaurants, farm shops and markets around the USA and Canada.
[caption id="attachment_2322" align="alignnone" width="89"] Not all Americans look like this.[/caption]
Though many Americans continue to live gratuitously off the land, getting fatter by the day, the green food movement is well established despite whatever MacDonald’s may advertise to the contrary.
Tom Neal Tacker travelled courtesy of United Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Hawaii Tourism and New Mexico Tourism.
Canazei's bridge in winter. By Marisa Spiller.[/caption]
The towns of the Val di Fassa have names like Campitello, Campestrin, Fontanazzo, Alba and, the jewel in the crown, Canazei. Each boasts pretty houses and churches with onion-shaped steeple tops. We sit and have pizza in locales that have lacy curtains and where everything is wood-turned and carved. It is a place of folk art and a quaintness that is impossible to resist. You feel like you’ve been here before because you remember all those childhood stories about woodcutters, red apples and houses iced with sugar and dripping with sweets. Doors are adorned here with copper pots, teddy bears and sprigs of spruce.
There is no doubt that the locals are born out of this environment. They are mountain people, weathered and resilient with that ruddy colour that comes from living an age in the snow. They have knotty walking canes and appropriate boots and hats embellished with feathers and brushes. They look like fairy wood folk, their woodpiles neatly stacked by their doors. And, just when your mouth couldn’t get any more agape, a white horse-drawn sleigh with chiming bells jingles into view. Now you know it’s not real.
We stay at La Pineta, a family-run chalet a little out from the town centre. It sits in a field of snow where, in late January every year, Nordic skiers contesting the 72-kilometre Marcialonga, fly past its doors to the sound of cow bells, cheering and singing.
This is Canazei and it’s a wonderland.
by Marisa Tarascio Spiller
Albergo Hotel Chalet La Pineta
Via del Ciuch, 34
38032 Canazei di Fassa, Trentino Alto Adige, Italy
Cable car from Lambton Quay to Kelburn near the Botanic Gardens.[/caption]
These three metropolises currently claim over half the country’s total population. Like Australians, Kiwis have embraced the cosmopolitan life, choosing city life over country life in overwhelming proportions.
There’s a reason why Kiwis gravitate to their cities, employment being the primary reason. Secondly, if you want city lights and urban excitement in New Zealand, the choices are naturally limited.
[caption id="attachment_2345" align="alignnone" width="213"] Lambton Quay Wellington's waterfront at night.[/caption]
Here Wellington takes top line honours and there’s hardly a sheep in sight. Boredom as a kind of travel stasis rarely comes to mind when considering Wellington as a choice destination.
While Wellington has become the film capital of New Zealand, it has also grown into a fun loving small city packed with surprises.
Wellingtonians will happily point out the 'Tipping Buckets' fountain in Cuba Street right in the centre of town where Frodo Baggins (aka Elijah Wood) was cautioned by the police to remove himself from its uppermost pail after getting a bit tipsy with the locals during a pub crawl.
[caption id="attachment_2339" align="alignnone" width="448"] Cuba St Tipping Buckets Fountain by Peter Fisher.[/caption]
Apparently, the hobbits were enjoying just another night out while filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy that put Wellington on the map of notoriety in a way that earthquakes, horrendous storms, freakish winds and famed local author Katherine Mansfield couldn’t.
[caption id="attachment_2348" align="alignnone" width="127"] WETA studios building.[/caption]
If you’re a keen hobbit fan, then Wellington is definitely the NZ town in which to satisfy your curiosity. Which is a pity really... The capital of NZ is so much more than the back lot for a film, even if Peter Jackson uses it as one.
[caption id="attachment_2340" align="alignnone" width="93"] Gollum figure at Weta Studios.[/caption]
For instance, Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand has become Wellington’s cultural locus. Opened in 1998, the museum is a rapidly running success story with over 10 million visitors thus far and still counting.
[caption id="attachment_2341" align="alignnone" width="164"] Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand main entrance.[/caption]
Don’t miss viewing the enlarged copy of the Treaty of Waitangi which went a long way to protect Maori land rights during a time when British colonists were not often intent on even admitting that indigenous peoples actually had rights at all. (The original copy is housed under glass in the National Archives building also in Wellington.) Te Papa should be an obligatory stop on your itinerary and is an amazing insight into the Maori homeland Aotearoa, which translates as The Land of the Long White Cloud. Or The Land of the Long Flat Vowel as some Australian pundits describe the Kiwi’s predilection for flattening vowels so they all sound like ‘eh’.
The Karori Wildlife Sanctuary is another surprise. Within walking distance of the CBD are 252 hectares of pest-free sanctuary devoted to the rehabilitation of many of NZ’s threatened species. Kiwis, wekas, kakas and wetas thrive here under protection from roaming feral cats, dogs, rats and destructive possums.
[caption id="attachment_2342" align="alignnone" width="185"] Karori Wildlife Sanctuary entrance.[/caption]
Hearing birdsong here is unforgettable, a sound memory of what NZ may have been like before so many of its native bird species were wiped out from deforestation, loss of habitat and the introduction of predators previously unknown to New Zealand.
At Karori, it’s also possible to get close a weta, a cricket-like bug the size of a child’s hand, a memorably spooky experience. Peter Jackson's Wellington film production business is called Weta Studios. Scary looking insect names major international film production house?
[caption id="attachment_2343" align="alignnone" width="191"] Weta in hand.[/caption]
Wellington’s nightlife is unusually sophisticated for a city this size. It rocks. I wasn’t expecting much but Wellington really hums with delicious activity. Pubs, nightclubs, cafes and restaurants are packed and friendly. With over 400 dining options, it outranks even Sydney on a per capita basis. It’s certainly not the sleepy government town I anticipated. Clearly, having a collection of embassies, high commissions and their foreign workers has added much to Wellington’s cultural diversity.
[caption id="attachment_2344" align="alignnone" width="178"] Wellington nightlife can be quite busy.[/caption]
And if you decide to wear furry costume feet in public whilst trying to appear very small, I’m sure no one will notice.
Tom Neal Tacker visited Wellington as a guest of its tourism authority.
Note: Wellington is a windy city. On lists of the world’s windiest cities, it ranks first according to most global meteorological websites. Hold on to your umbrellas and hats travellers!
www.WellingtonNZ.com for general information on greater Wellington.
www.wellingtonrover.co.nz for Lord of the Rings Tours.
www.tepapa.govt.nz for upcoming exhibitions at Te Papa.
www.sanctuary.org.nz for more about Karori Wildlife Sanctuary.
Whale watchers on Hervey Bay.[/caption]
Nowadays, passengers are encouraged to create lots of noise when whales are sighted to attract their attention, hopefully encouraging enough curiosity in the whales to linger socially around the boat. When I first ventured on a southern humpback whale sighting adventure in Hervey Bay some twelve years ago, the overall experience was marked by hushed solemnity, as if simply being silent in the presence of these endangered animals was sufficient thrill in itself. But times have changed and much has been learned about southern humpback whale behaviour.
The number of whales that migrate along the eastern seaboard of mainland Australia has increased to such an extent that no longer are whale sightings considered rare events. Instead it has become commonplace during their late winter and early spring migration to see southern humpback whales all along the eastern shore of Australia from the northern extremity of Queensland’s outer Great Barrier Reef to southern Tasmania as the whales proceed to summer feeding areas off Antarctica’s icy shores. But Queensland’s Great Sandy Strait is undoubtedly whale watching central.
Previously hushed day trips out to the calm waters of shallow Platypus Bay off Fraser Island are no longer quiet. Southern humpback whales are attracted to noisy human activity. Waving, shouting, trilling and singing are encouraged by captain and crew. Don’t be surprised to find that whale watching trips in the Great Sandy Strait have become significantly louder on the decibel scale. I have the questionably good luck to be standing next to a young boy whose ability to replicate the sound of a revved up jet engine guarantees that all whales within earshot swim to us as quickly as their big fins can manage. The whales appear enthralled that such a small animal can make such a piercingly loud noise. I plant my hands over my ears and enjoy the spectacle of large whales peering intently at a small human who is peering at large whales but can’t determine which is more fascinated by which. I am also enthralled that such an incredibly visceral noise can be uttered by a human adolescent.
[caption id="attachment_1649" align="alignnone" width="448"] Southern Humpback spy-hopping.[/caption]
Last year’s southern humpback whale watching season was hugely successful. As the population of whales recovers from ruthless hunting, evidently the whales’ collective genetic memory is shifting from innate fear to curious interest. The whales show little wariness of humans while they rest at their historical watery wayside in the tranquillity of the Great Sandy Strait en route to Antarctica. A few individual whales have become familiar, recognised regular visitors, a positive sign as to the longevity of the species and the effects of long term protection.
The protected waters between Fraser Island and Queensland offer safe sanctuary for mothers with calves, adolescent whales gaining strength for the long swim south, mature males stopping in for a spy-hop or two, checking out females for potential future dalliances and whole family groups of mixed ages. Some whales stay only for a day. Many stay for five days or longer. Quick Cat 2 skipper Brian Perry tells me that from only dozens of whales spotted during an entire season in the late 80s, the number of southern humpback whales lounging around near the white sandy beaches of Fraser Island’s western shore has since grown to hundreds if not thousands.
The Perry family pioneered whale watching trips to Platypus Bay and the Great Sandy Strait 23 years ago. In 2009, they linked up with Kingfisher Resort at Kingfisher Bay on Fraser Island to offer half-day whale watching trips to nearby Platypus Bay. Though numerous whale-watching day excursions leave from Hervey Bay’s central marina, the Perry operation, using their speedy catamaran Quick Cat 2 specially equipped with hydrophone and underwater camera, departs Kingfisher Bay Resort’s wharf midway along Fraser Island’s western shore. Passengers are smack dab in the middle of serious southern humpback whale action within 45 minutes.
[caption id="attachment_1650" align="alignnone" width="448"] Humpback mother and calf submerged near boat.[/caption]
I relish the opportunity to spend more time interacting with whales and less time spent travelling between Hervey Bay’s marina and Platypus Bay. Luckily I’m rewarded with dozens of sightings. A female courted by three young males breaches fifty metres from the boat. The males take turns spy-hopping, balancing on rear fins. Their massive heads are completely out of the water as they all have a long look around. The female takes the opportunity to elude her bothersome suitors. They’re too young for serious mating activity. For now, it’s a practice game, fun for them, annoying for the female. Another female with a young calf, six months old Perry estimates, cruises near the boat. She shields her calf constantly but shyness is overcome by inquisitiveness while mother and infant both check out the hullabaloo coming from aboard the Quick Cat 2.
[caption id="attachment_1651" align="alignnone" width="448"] Southern Humpback diving.[/caption]
After five hours of whale watching, Perry and crew circulate word that it’s time to head back to Kingfisher Resort. When a waiter at the resort’s bar told me the night before that it was like ‘whale soup out there in Platypus Bay’, I nodded complacently, not believing a word of it. The most whales I’d seen on previous trips never exceeded ten at most. Today I’ve seen over thirty, whale soup indeed.
Hervey Bay is the closest airport to Fraser Island’s Kingfisher Bay Resort. Virgin and Jetstar airlines both offer daily flights from Australian capital cities. Transfers between the airport and the resort may be booked via www.kingfisherbay.com
Kingfisher Bay Resort offers 3-day packages including buffet breakfast from AUD$141 per person per day. See www.kingfisherbay.com for specials and bookings. Half-day eco-tours to Platypus Bay and the Great Sandy Strait on board the Quick Cat 2 can be arranged via the resort's tour specialists. Whale watching season begins mid-August finishing late October depending on seasonal migration patterns. Kingfisher Bay Resort also offers a variety of eco-tourism day trips around Fraser Island as well as a 3 day nature photography tour conducted by Danielle Lancaster of Blue Dog Photography late each August. Check with Kingfisher Bay Resort for further details.
Sydney Opera House.[/caption]
The Opera Bar on the concourse level is packed. Other waterside cafes do a roaring trade. Buskers cash in on crowds ready to contribute to amateur shows, acrobats on one impromptu stage, didgeridoo players on another. The new wing of the Museum of Contemporary Art is full of admirers or bored hangers-on. Packed ferries wash in and out from their prime-positioned wharves, full of commuters and tourists. Seagulls look fat on chips and meat pie crusts.
[caption id="attachment_2252" align="alignnone" width="448"] Museum of Contemporary Art new entry.[/caption]
Random pedestrians take time to read the Writer’s Walk bronze plaques commemorating national and international writers embedded into Circular Quay’s pavements. Comparatively speaking, not many onlookers read the plaques but a few curious travellers with obvious literary interests enjoy the potted histories nonetheless. These plaques are my favourite things on Circular Quay, those and the similarly embedded bronze dotted lines marking the extent of Circular Quay’s historic shoreline.
Sydney’s dress circle is looking great these days. (It will look better when the disastrous elevated section of the Cahill Expressway is removed and the train line is finally shoved underground but that’s a multi-billion dollar project waiting on a forward thinking government willing to commit to a budgetary decision beyond the next election date.)
[caption id="attachment_2251" align="alignnone" width="448"] Opera House and ferry.[/caption]
Remember Sydney 2000? The Olympics centre of planet universe? Sydney was the epicentre of sport and media attention combined. Juan Antonio Samaranch (former President of the International Olympic Committee, fondly nicknamed by smart-alecky Sydneysiders as ‘One Tomato Sandwich’) famously declared that ‘Syd-erney’ hosted the best Olympics ever. The city was completely and flagrantly abuzz with entertainment and sports-related activity, most of it free. Lanyard wearing volunteers worked the city streets like seasoned tour guides, greeting complete strangers with entreaties of charitable assistance, happy to help whomever whenever. There was an overriding sense that Sydney’s attractions-loaded gravitational pull had finally become globally irresistible.
[caption id="attachment_2253" align="alignnone" width="448"] Harbour Bridge towards Lower North Shore.[/caption]
At the coalface, Sydneysiders exclaimed joy at the surfeit of free parking spaces (me amongst them) in the normally car crowded CBD. Public transport worked better than ever, the cleaner trains actually ran on time. Better still, prime harbour side houses could be rented to visitors at unbelievable prices, even enough to fund a luxury trip to Paris for a month while their owners were keen to avoid the Olympian crowds. Already cashed-up Sydneysiders reaped lucrative rewards.
Those were heady times indeed.
Post Olympics, Sydney tourism slumped. Too many 5-star hotels built for 2000’s rush competed for too few visitors. Tourism Sydney and NSW Tourism PR campaigns were roundly criticised for relying on past glories rather than encouraging newly refreshed repeat business. A lack of imagination on the part of tourism bureaucrats was all too apparent.
Only recently has Sydney begun to emerge from its post-Olympics tourism doldrums.
Fast forward to 2013, an O. Winfrey chat show circus came and went. An E. De Generes chat show circus followed. Different audiences (mostly USA based) expressed renewed interest in visiting old ‘Syder-ney’. More cruise ships than ever are stopping in for a night or two. Most good hotels are registering over 80% capacity despite the Aussie dollar’s strength (its value against the USA dollar has slipped—every bit helps) and more visitors from China, India and the Middle East have taken up the slack left by Europeans and Americans frightened off by high prices and their own moribund economies.
Sydney is one of the world’s favourite cities. That fact hasn’t changed. What has changed is an increase in international visitors. Overall numbers are up again.
Apart from taking in the usual suspects: Bridge, Opera House, Circular Quay being the dress circle stars of the show, why not have a look at a few other sides of Sydney unknown to most visitors?
[caption id="attachment_2257" align="alignnone" width="448"] Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park.[/caption]
For instance, a short walk south from the Opera House along Macquarie St to Hyde Park takes in some major historical sights: the New South Wales Parliament building, the Australian Mint, the Hyde Park Barracks and the northern entrance to Hyde Park itself with its marvellous Archibald Fountain serving as the bubbly end point to the fig-tree lined walk south to the ANZAC memorial. Statues of Queen Victoria (glowering as usual) and her Prince Consort Albert (attractive as usual) stand at either end of the small Queen’s Square facing the front of renowned convict architect Francis Greenway’s St. James’ Church.
[caption id="attachment_2255" align="alignnone" width="298"] Queen Victoria statue in Queen's Square.[/caption]
It’s a quintessential downtown Sydney historical promenade. What most visitors overlook as they stroll along Macquarie St is the statue of Matthew Flinders in front of the State Library of NSW (The Mitchell Library). The first two volumes of Flinders’ journal concerning his circumnavigation of Australia in 1802 are housed within. A small statue of Flinders’ faithful and beloved cat, Trim, rests on the outside sill of a stained glass window of the library behind the much larger statue of the great navigator himself.
[caption id="attachment_2254" align="alignnone" width="336"] Statue of Trim, Matthew Flinders' cat in one of Library of NSW's windows.[/caption]
The plaque under Trim’s statue reads: TO THE MEMORY OF TRIM:
The best and most illustrious of his race. The most affectionate of friends, faithful of servants, and best of creatures. He made the tour of the globe, and a voyage to Australia, which he circumnavigated, and was ever the delight and pleasure of his fellow voyagers.
Written by Matthew Flinders in memory of his cat
Memorial donated by the North Shore Historical Society
I always pause (paws?) to reflect at this particular point in the brief walk along Sydney’s memory lane. Trim was famous amongst Flinders’ crew for his good nature and tenacity.
[caption id="attachment_2256" align="alignnone" width="336"] Matthew Flinders statue-Trim is behind him in the window.[/caption]
Here’s a short list of three off-the-beaten-track excursions, all easily managed in a day and readily accessible on public transport:
[caption id="attachment_2266" align="alignnone" width="180"] View over Middle Harbour with Spit Bridge.[/caption]
1) 1) Take a bus across the Harbour Bridge along the lower North Shore to The Spit and hire a kayak. Paddle up Middle Harbour past the Roseville Bridge into Garigal National Park to witness a slice of Australia’s largest city from sea level. If you’re lucky, at the northernmost reaches of Middle Harbour the water will run clear as gin and your only company will be kookaburras flitting in and out of surrounding gum forest while mullets leap from the water around the kayak. The city’s hubbub is completely forgotten. As you paddle over a white sandy bottom remember what Sydney once was before urbanisation obliterated the landscape. Be sure to return the hired kayak before the rental shop closes at 6pm. Also pay attention to the tides. A hard paddle back to The Spit from Garigal National Park takes at least three hours if the tide is running against you.
[caption id="attachment_2267" align="alignnone" width="163"] Welcome gate at Cabramatta.[/caption]
2) 2) Take the train to Cabramatta, former heroin distribution capital of NSW and now a reformed example of positive multiculturalism in action. The Southeast Asian community here dominates the atmosphere and the lively vibe is infectious. In summer, street vendors sell freshly pressed sugar cane juice served fresh in plastic cups with a squeeze of lime. AUD$2 is the going price. At any time of year, duck or pork sold from various roasting specialists perfume Cabramatta’s laneways while vegetarian fresh rice paper spring rolls pop up in dozens of stalls at about AUD$3 per roll. Vietnamese Pho soup is served in huge bowls for AUD$10, always a bargain. If a better example of urban renewal exists in Australia, please alert the media.
[caption id="attachment_2269" align="alignnone" width="171"] Wendy Whiteley's secret garden.[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_2268" align="alignnone" width="174"] Kirribilli House Gate.[/caption]
1) 3) Take the ferry to Kirribilli, five minutes across the Harbour from Circular Quay. Walk to Kirribilli House and Admiralty House along the foreshore besides some fairly non-descript apartment blocks to two of the Harbour’s ultimate chic addresses , both grand residences right on Sydney’s Harbour, the former is the Prime Minister’s residence in Sydney, the latter is the Queen of Australia’s residence when she visits Sydney. Entry without prior invitation to either house or their gardens (that’s you visitor!) is prohibited. Loitering at the wrought iron gate entrance is also discouraged but it’s a fun exercise tempting existential fate. Ask the security goons whether or not the PM is at home and be prepared to accept ‘No’ as the answer. Retrace your steps to the other side of the Bridge to the fantastical Art Deco amusement park Luna Park, skirting its northern edge while making your way across Blues Point Road to Wendy Whiteley’s private garden at McMahon’s Point overlooking Lavender Bay near Clark Park. Wendy Whiteley (widow of famous deceased artist Brett Whiteley) created this delightfully simple garden essentially out of a public dumping ground. Her daughter Arkie (who died of cancer at a young age) and husband Brett’s ashes are buried in the park. Artists are naturally encouraged to linger, perhaps to draw, perhaps to paint or write. Follow the shoreline to Balls Head past the Waverton bowls club at the shore’s edge along Berrys Bay to the last remaining bit of original bushland on this part of Sydney Harbour. Follow the track around the headland to search for an ancient indigenous rock carving of a man inside a whale and various middens. Stop to marvel at the view across the water to Darling Harbour. Walk back up Balls Head Road to Bay Road which leads to the Waverton railway station. Board the train back into the city from here, which is less than ten minutes away by train across the Harbour Bridge via North Sydney.
These three easy excursions provide a slice of Sydney life unknown to most visitors while the day trip to Cabramatta in Sydney’s western outskirts offers a glimpse into where the majority of Sydney’s population actually lives.
A house with a harbour view costs on average more than AUD$3,000,000 these days. Only a minority of residents can afford to live on the water. The other two side trips pack a lot of pizzazz into a day, no wonder Sydneysiders dream of living in a house on the Harbour.
But beyond the Harbour’s glittering shores, life in the suburbs has become harder, traffic is worse than ever according to complaints uttered by commuters making the daily trek into and out of town on over-crowded, late-running trains, ferries and buses. The lack of public transport funding is contentious as always, a side of Sydney most international and domestic visitors almost never see.
A journalist friend with whom I once worked (at a local newspaper) told me she thought Sydney was a ‘wicked step-sister of a city’ a nice way of saying it was a bitch of a place in which to live if money is short. That fact hasn’t changed. Sydney is very expensive, even when compared to the average daily living expenses incurred in well known money-gobbling cities such as New York, London, Tokyo or Paris.
For travellers trying to get by on less than AUD$200 per day, staying in the worst flea pit backpacker hostels and eating two take-away meals per day and walking everywhere, it’s possible but not very nice.
A recent acquaintance (originally from New Zealand) calls Sydney ‘Beyond Thunderdome’. Certainly that’s a description which conveys ‘Mad Max’ memories, applicable to Sydney’s public arena appeal.
But as former PM Paul Keating once quipped, ‘If you’re not living in Sydney, you’re just camping out.’
Personally speaking, I like camping out. Having been a resident of Sydney for more than twenty years, I say with hand on heart that it’s not the be-all-to-end-all Australian city but it’s a very nice place to visit.
Tom Neal Tacker visited Sydney as a guest of Swissotel Sydney.
One of Sydney’s better 5-star hotels is the Swissotel. A recent upgrade of its public facilities has provided even more good reasons to enjoy its restaurant and bar. An in-house spa is one of the city’s top pampering palaces.
[caption id="attachment_2260" align="alignnone" width="322"] Swissotel Sydney exterior.[/caption]
The upper two floors offer access to the executive lounge, free breakfast and evening drinks plus snacks for a moderate surcharge. The rooms from these two levels boast great views either over the lower Harbour to the Heads or west all the way to the Blue Mountains and the upper Harbour. A large outdoor heated pool and well equipped gymnasium add more value.
[caption id="attachment_2259" align="alignnone" width="448"] Swissotel Executive King room.[/caption]
Service is slick and efficient. It’s a very well run establishment, befitting its Swiss heritage, everything works like well... clockwork. The location in Market Street near the corner of George Street is unbeatable. All the city’s major CBD attractions are within an easy walk.
See www.swissotel.com for more information.
Another hotel I like is the Fraser Suites apartment hotel. It’s a sleek modern tower kind of hidden away in a quiet block of Kent Street near Town Hall. I’ve stayed here a few times and appreciated the in-room kitchens, very large rooms (separate bedroom and lounge room with kitchenette) which provide plenty of space in a crowded city. Though Fraser Suites doesn’t offer the same range of amenities as a truly full service hotel, it’s still a treat staying there as sometimes I like the independence that self-catering offers.
Over three nights during this recent visit to ‘Beyond Thunderdome’ I dined at Tetsuya’s, Est and Sepia in that order, (it’s work and somebody has to do it, which is what I tell everyone who asks me). Tetsuya’s is rightly famous. Since the early 90s ‘Tet’s, (as Tetsuya Wakuda is affectionately known to all persons who’ve crossed his gregariously engaging path) restaurant has evolved into a globally recognised temple of gastronomy. However, in my opinion Tetsuya Wakuda’s cooking these days isn’t nearly as cutting edge as it once was. That’s not a bad thing necessarily (maintaining an excellent standard for so many years is laudable and should be respectfully acknowledged) but during a degustation of more than ten courses, three of them were primarily comprised of very simple sashimi. I like superb quality produce as much as any glutton but those three courses out of ten exhibited a lack of imagination that impaired what should have been a feast of inspiration.
The meal I ate at Est was better than Tetsuya’s. Chef/owner Peter Doyle is one of Sydney’s hero chefs, a long-standing favourite of dedicated diners keen on the pursuit of gastronomic prowess who’s been in the hospitality game for decades. He commands great respect from his peers while customers continue to fall in love with his superlative cooking. A dinner at Est is simply sublime. By the way, both Tetsuya’s and Est provide seamless dining experiences. Wine lists are literally works of encyclopaedic art and service is nothing short of flawless.
That being said, Sepia was the restaurant that knocked off my socks and blew my mind simultaneously.
[caption id="attachment_2261" align="alignnone" width="448"] Entrance to Sepia restaurant.[/caption]
Hungry sophisticated travellers will be excited by the whole package at Sepia, one of the city’s most stimulating restaurants. Chef/owner Martin Benn is one of those rare geniuses, whose cooking talents display a level of sophistication that should be encouraged and embraced wholeheartedly by all dedicated gastronomes.
Devouring thirteen courses during a degustation of immense expertise, I admit to being in an element I’d like to call real food heaven for all holy gourmet cynical atheists like me.
While our table was being prepared, we sat in comfy leather lounges at the bar while sipping aperitifs. A Lillet Rose on ice for me, a chilled Floc de Gascogne for my partner in dinner crime.
Gracefully escorted into the slightly dark (sepia tones naturally), rather hushed but not unfriendly dining room, we checked out other diners. Fashion victims out for a big night on the town? Tick. Food bloggers snapping pics of plates while texting friends in HK? Tick. Small groups of family friends dining out at the big end of town? Tick. Date night for couples in the throes of infatuation? Tick.
Another Friday night out in Sydney for people interested in food that may provide conversation in and of itself? Most definitely yes.
To start: freshly shucked Pambula Sydney Rock oysters with lime and sake and a glass of Laurent-Perrier ‘Ultra Brut’ Brut Nature. I’m a total sucker for oysters and Champagne so I fell under the Sepia spell right from the get-go.
But wait there’s more...
Sashimi of Big Eye tuna, steamed Japanese omelette, white soy jelly, dashi onion cream, puffed buckwheat, green apple and nori.
A course that could confound anyone given the surfeit of ingredients but actually it was simplicity personified. The omelette almost melted along side the exquisitely fresh fish while all the other factors just melded into the mix like a magic pudding I never wanted to see end. A matching glass of Umenoyado ‘Gin’ Jinmao-Ginjo sake from Nara was a brilliantly chosen accompaniment.
Following was another sashimi course (Tetsuya’s comparisons are inevitable but Sepia’s two sashimi courses were infinitely better executed) of Bonito, flavours of roasted chicken, umeboshi, upland cress, green tea and nori. This course really rocked.
Crisped chicken skin and raw bonito with sour umeboshi and tannic green tea combined to create an umami driven taste sensation. Paired with an Austrian 2011 Furmint from Wenzel in the Burgenland, by then I had fallen into a state of pure culinary kismet.
A single barely cooked Scampi tail was accompanied with sudachi, parsley root, white miso, nori fried potato and white Linaria flowers. Great to look at, better to eat. Meltingly buttery, slightly sweet scampi was infused by the other salty, bitter flavours, the pretty little flowers adding both piquancy and texture all at once. A 2011 Clos Sainte Magdeleine Marsanne-Clairette-Ugni Blanc-Bourboulenc from Cassis in southern France was another gob-smacking wine match.
A Seared Mandagery Venison, boudin noir, chocolate crumb, macadamia nut yoghurt, blackcurrant and sichimi pepper reads like a bizarre dessert horror story but this incredible treatment of excellent quality venison and surprisingly complementary accompaniments was another perfect dish highlighting outstanding kitchen accomplishment, fully realising an ability to draw a clearly defined line between savoury and sweet without erring on one side or the other. The 2006 Dominio de Alauta Tempranillo from the Ribero del Duero was another example of truly inspired wine/food matching.
The Aged Garrotxa goat cheese, sake and goat milk dumplings, celeriac cream, nashi pear and celery matched with a cider from Suffolk (Aspall ‘Draught’) was yet another revelation. I didn’t think I could eat more protein after the venison but I was happy I did. Those dumplings were a tour-de-force.
The chef threw in a special course of his (becoming famous) Sugar ball with finger lime sorbet encased within. We were offered a special Japanese Yuzu liqueur to accompany that incredibly innovative course. Evidently, Benn worked for over three months to bring the perfectly spherical planet of sweet/sour sorbet freshness to fruition.
A Soft-poached meringue, truffle ice cream, truffle and rosemary honey hazelnut praline with malt second dessert followed. The 2011 Royal Tokaji Wine Company ‘Late Harvest’ Furmint-Harslevelu-Sarga Muscotaly matched that particular indulgence, fascinating to sample two wines (one dry the other sweet) made from the primarily Hungarian grape Furmint in the one meal.
We had three additional courses to the set ten course menu. The first were the Pambula oysters, the dumplings were second and the third was compliments of the chef, the sugar ball encasing finger lime sorbet.
Do yourselves a flavour favour: dine at Sepia to witness greatness in action.
[caption id="attachment_2262" align="alignnone" width="448"] Sepia restaurant bar at night.[/caption]
For very general information see www.sydney.com for accommodation tips, public transport information and special events specifica