With the end-May and June school mid term holidays around the corner in Singapore and the June school holidays hitting Hong Kong from end June through to August, it’s the perfect timing to go on a long holiday. And a long holiday is the best time to properly get to know and fully explore a holiday destination. Our go-to recommendation is Auckland, New Zealand. If you are hoping to escape the Summer heat then it is the perfect spot to enjoy the cool crisp of the Winter season as the seasons are in reverse from the rest of the world.
What do you do in Auckland? Lots .. especially if your holiday is all about chilling out and savouring the sights. Last December, I ventured over from Hong Kong and as the journey entailed almost a ten to eleven hour flight, I took the opportunity to make this a more relaxed holiday to really explore Auckland and take in the beauty and bits of what visitors have often called one of the world’s most scenic countries.
WHERE TO STAY?
To decide where to stay you first have to recognise that Auckland is a bit of everything – city, town and beach so I spent a few days in all three locales.
City living – in the heart of the city, there is no better location to stay at then The Langham Auckland. This beautiful and well-appointed hotel lies in the heart of the city on Symonds Street so you can just about walk around its immediate surrounds to get a taste of shopping, the great cafe culture, water front restaurants near the harbour and the in-city parks.
If you want a bit of a treat, we highly recommend checking into a Club Floor room at the hotel. The access to breakfast, complimentary tea, all day drinks, snacks and the free wifi will make your stay completely worth the while.
Whilst there we also recommend a must-do which is a massage or day treatment in the Hotel’s Chaun Spa for a complete relaxing treat and to complete your stay, nothing like the Wedgewood high tea at the Hotel’s Palm Court Lobby Lounge.
You will see that this is the place for locals and high tea lovers who want to enjoy a ‘chi-chi’ treat in the middle of the afternoon, great service, a lovely piano lounge ambience, chatting over what must be the classiest nibbles in the city.
Small town getaway – to get a feel of what a small town feels like, you must spend a night or two in the village of Devonport. We checked into the heart of town at the Devonport’s Esplanade Hotel. This hotel is nothing short of quaint and charming from its friendly service to the tea with scones on the menu and the big and hearty breakfast (which was really good) and included in the room rate.
Just outside the Hotel which fronts the park and beyond that a small beach front, there are also several excellent restaurants, a lovely library, a small cinema, bars and even a well-stocked supermarket. Hotel guests also get 24 hour free parking if you are driving.
Also across the hotel is the ferry pier where for about NZD$7 you can take a ferry into the city or just rent a segway or a bicycle and cycle around the town – just to get a feel of small town living.
Beach Retreat – true blue Kiwis will tell you that there is no place to live in Auckland except along the Shore – the North Shore that is. This is beach lovers and surfers paradise and those who love the lifestyle will fall in love with the Takapuna area.
We stayed at the lovely Takapuna Oaks which has its own beach front and is a short drive from the main Takapuna town which is a bustling town centre with Shore City as its main high street mall.
A great place for a quiet and serene retreat and a glass of wine, the outdoor balcony on the dining room at the Oaks offers blissful views of the Auckland city skyline just across from the hotel.
WHAT TO DO?
I love the simple pleasures. My itinerary for a chilled holiday in Auckland:
Eat at a food truck – over at the corner of Commerce and Fort street, check out The White Lady which sells the best tasting burgers that I have ever had.
Check out the waterfront restaurants for a gourmet evening out – known as the Viaduct Harbour area, there are over 30 waterfront restaurants to explore. Even if you walk around just outside this precinct, you will find many other interesting eats.
Take a nature walk – there are so many tracks to walk or hike
Explore the markets – during the weekend, there are city and farmer’s markets and at night – there are markets (on weekdays) at various empty parking lot locales throughout the city that sell food and bric-a-brac. All loads of fun!
Make a date with lady luck at the Auckland Sky Tower Casinos or just go up the tower for a 360 degree view of Auckland.
WHERE TO GO?
Day trip to Waiheke island – think of a boat trip, a bit of a hike into another charming seaside town, vineyards and good food, a beach to explore, zip lining and you have a day out at Waiheke, a nearby island that makes a great day trip.
Drive to Rotorua – this is Volcano country, famous for its geothermal hot springs, mud pools, geysers. The area has many attractions and is about a 3 hour drive from Auckland itself but definitely worth a day trip if not at least an overnight stay.
Harbour Cruise – or just take a leisurely cruise with any of the deals from Fullers along the scenic coastline.
Coromandel – another beautiful escape from Auckland is this beautiful, natural hideaway retreat that has somewhat become the Hamptons of Auckland.
Hobbiton– you can’t miss this one especially if you have made it all the way to the land down-down under! There are Tours of the movie set, dinner, a farm-stay and various events with lots to see – if you make the drive down to ‘middle earth’.
A Singaporean passport is a valuable commodity these days especially when no visas are required to get in and out of China. Which is why when you are next in Hong Kong, besides exploring and eating your way through the fragrant harbour, we recommend a 3 day sojourn from Hong Kong into Macao and then across the Chinese border into Zhu Hai. Wandering on a whim from Macao into Zhu Hai, we were pleasantly surprised at what there was to see.
Zhu Hai is no small-time border town. Bursting with colourful nightlife from night clubs, KTVS and massage parlours to cheap shopping and good eats, getting there is hassle free. Jump on a bus from the main Macao train station and you are there within minutes, across the Chinese border into Zhu Hai or if you have decided to stay in Macao for a few days then the easiest way to get to Zhu Hai is to hop on a free bus from the Venetian Hotel (just enquire at their Concierge) to the border crossing from Macao. You don’t have to be staying at the Venetian Hotel to use the bus service!
Once there, we recommend three places not to miss, especially if entertaining the kids is one of your objectives:
THE NEW YUAN MING PALACE
If you have ever wondered how to Emperor and his family and court used to spend their time, then a visit to the New Yuan Ming Palace (free entry) is a must.
This Palace built in 1997 comprises an amusement park of 1.39 km², including an 80,000 m² lake and surrounding grounds was recreated as a replica to the old Summer Palace (not to be confused with the new Summer Palace gardens and grounds in Beijing). The old Summer Palace built in 1709 was a palace ground with an imperial garden with 40 splendid scenic spots. Unfortunately, the garden was robbed and burned down by foreign invaders 140 years ago, leaving a scene of devastation.
The Yuan Ming Palace lies at the foot of the Stone Forest Mountain in Zhu Hai and is quite a delight to wander around as it replicates 18 scenic spots of the original Summer Palace in the same size and dimensions. Wandering around the courtyards, you get a glimpse of certain areas of the Emperor’s private quarters including his court, living quarters, throne room, school and class rooms for his children complete with costumes.
You can pose for photographs in some of the costumes for hire, take photos for a small fee with the resident actors, cruise the lake on the Emperors barge whilst being entertained by his court eunuchs and concubines or watch the theatrical performances which range from the Emperor choosing concubines to the Emperor holding court.
Boat rides and theatricals are ticketed. There are souvenirs for sale on the shopping street, which was modeled after the shopping street in Old Summer Palace, where the emperors tasted the daily life of common people with handicrafts on sale. The website is in Chinese here but if you want more detail in English, see here.
THE OCEAN SPRING RESORT
If you like hotsprings (man-made rather than natural occurring) then this lovely resort by the ocean called the Zhuhai Ocean Spring has 69 hot spring pools over an area of 40,000 square metres. There is probably no other spa made quite like this in terms of sheer size and proportions so truly seeing is believing. There are a few hotels within the area that offer entrance packages etc so you might consider an overnight stay so that after a day of hot spring dipping you can collapse happily back into the convenience of a nearby hotel room.
The resort has two regions, indoor and outdoor. It is largely modelled after a Moroccon hot spring although each area has its own theme from Asian to European. The spring waters come from the depths of the ocean and contain mineral contents and trace elements that are reputedly good for health. From different flavoured hot springs that are fragranced with herbs and various perfumes and aromatics that have health benefits, expect also pools with salt water, chrysanthemum, mint, tangerine peel, ginseng and other herbs to pools with green tea and even milk, coffee and red wine that you can soak into. Definitely a nice retreat when the weather starts to cool. Check out the Trip Advisor comments here if you are planning a visit.
CHIMELONG OCEAN KINGDOM
The place we probably thoroughly enjoyed in Zhu Hai and where you would want to spend at least one full day is the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom. Comparable to and newer than Singapore’s Universal Studios and way better than Hong Kong’s tired Ocean Park, the Ocean Kingdom has all the song and dance of a Disneyland entourage of performances, parades and shows plus roller coaster fun and water rides.
Connected to this attraction are 3 hotels that also sell packages for entry and within the same compound of hotel and theme park, is another attraction called the Chimelong International Circus City which has an award winning circus act. We had no time to explore this one but will definitely save it for a next visit.
The park features one of the world’s largest aquariums with whale sharks, beluga whales, polar bears, penguins and arctic wolves and has been pegged as a world class destination that I would say rivals most of Asia’s theme parks (including the one we have in Singapore)
There are 8 themed zones within the park – Ocean Avenue, Dolphin Cove, Amazing Amazon, Ocean Beauty, Polar Horizon, Fun Zone, Mount Walrus and the Hengqin Ocean. With each there are theatrical performances, animal performances and rides. Also food and souvenir stores. Basic tickets start at RMB350. Download the park map here.
Must do ride – try the Amazing Amazon that features one of the world’s longest roller coasters with a 1,300-metre track reaching as high as 20 storeys, the roller coaster is really a thrill seeker’s dream especially if you enjoy being looped in and out upside down!
We first laid eyes on Pingyao in a picture book about China late last year. The book listed 100 places in China to see within your lifetime, and a particular photo caught our imagination. It was of Pingyao, a UNESCO Heritage Site, hauntingly evocative with tight clusters of grey courtyard houses sporting elegant curved eaves and seductive with the promise of ancient Chinese history. We decided there and then that this 2,700 year old town was going on our bucket list.
Barely six months later, we were there, having first caught a flight from Singapore to Beijing, then a domestic flight to Taiyuan airport, followed by a 100km drive to our final destination. It was off the beaten track but well worth the trot.
Pingyao in Shanxi Province is special because it is the only complete walled city remaining in China. Inside the 12m thick city walls are mostly Ming and Ching Dynasty courtyard houses which are still inhabited today by its resident population of 20,000. Apart from the locals, it is crawling with domestic tourists, but you can count on one hand the number of international tourists. It gave us a sense of having ‘discovered’ a hidden gem yet to be found by the bulk of the world’s tourists….I’m sure they will descend soon enough.
It’s all about history here. The first thing you should do is get the three-day pass that gives you access to the museums. (This is sold at a central ticket booth in the middle of the town.) These would be the 19 sites around the city, including houses, ancient offices, and temples which have been turned into museums. The city wall counts as one on the list too. Not everyone of them is worth visiting, as we found out. But here are the things you have to see and experience:
#1. Walk the Wall
From street level, all the homes may be hidden from sight behind high walls; but up on the city walls, all of old Pingyao is spreads below you. It’s a picturesque sight: undulating roofs, private gardens and 300 year old courtyard houses spread out below, and you understand why it inspired the setting of Dreamworks’ Kungfu Panda II.
The easy 6km walk on the city walls bring you round the city along an impressively clean, broad walkway. But some sections of the wall is unprotected, and you could unwittingly step off the edge to plunge to your death below, so keep to the middle of the path and you’ll be perfectly fine.
Dioramas of ancient life in Pingyao have been installed in the little turrets along the wall, so look out for those. Around the six city gates, look at old artefacts on display, as well as the fascinating architecture planned to repel and defend. There is an ancient dungeon by one of the city gates. We couldn’t find it, though we may have been looking at the wrong places.
#2. Rishengchang, China’s first bank
Pingyao was once a centre of commerce and it was home to bunch of insanely wealthy merchants who dealt in trade as banal as tofu, to fine silks and firearms. Being ever practical and sensitive to opportunity, someone set up a bank — China’s first — to support these people. The bank, Rishengchang, is now a museum of…well, the bank. Laid out just like courtyard house, walk through bank offices, the bank manager’s residence, the dining room and even accommodation provided (as a service) for privileged customers visiting town which have been recreated in fascinating detail. Rishengchang issued the world’s first cheque and it is on display there, too.
#3. The Tongxinggong Armed Escort Agency Museum
No, it’s not about gun-toting prostitutes but a security company which provided armed escorts to clients travelling with valuable goods or cash. One of the most fascinating museums, this evokes all the stereotypical images you’d have from kungfu movies — gentlemen pugilists who practiced their moves in hidden courtyards, and took on bandits with their kungfu moves. You see it all here, complete with their collection of weapons and fascinating photographs of corporate travel.
The dioramas that depict their lives are impressive. Don’t miss the re-created bedroom of the ‘Principal’ who slept over an underground vault containing clients’ money and goods, and the practice yard which kungfu paraphernalia. They must have been very successful as all the principals — the sifus of the agency — lived to a ripe of age, even for our standards.
#4. The ancient government buildings
This sprawling complex is essentially the tax man’s office and courthouse rolled into one. It also shows you the priorities, obligations and consequences of the state and ordinary peasant back then. After seeing this, you’ll be glad you weren’t living in those days.
Beyond the main entrance and in an expansive courtyard designed to awe the hapless peasant, you arrive first at the tax office (priority Number 1) followed by the bailiff’s (priority Number 2) and torturer’s office (Consequence Number 1) nearby. Right next door over a garden wall, and cynically next to a pretty rose garden is the dank, dark prison complete with wooden cage and stocks. Used until the 1960s, it has no doubt been cleaned up, but you get the idea of how miserable life was there. Across the rose garden lies the exhibition hall of torture instruments which I happily skipped (there were instruments for interrogation, punishment and execution) and wandered instead to the magistrate’s quarters nearby, ensconced in lush gardens a distance away enough not to hear the goings-on in the rose garden. It’s well preserved, and interesting architecture and the story it tells is definitely worth a visit.
#5. Pingyao’s main streets
Pingyao is a little town and completely walkable. Explore leisurely and take time to look at the architecture, peep into half hidden courtyards and stroll down the side lanes off the main thoroughfares to soak in the real Pingyao.
The main streets are equally fun, though all the shops are targetted at tourists now. Then again, they are nice shops of local brands selling modern, design forward bags, retro-inspired skincare, stationery and artisanal teas all stylishly packaged. There are some ‘antique’ shops too piled with bric-a-brac like old Chinese door knobs, figurines and weighing scales.
The streets are abuzz until pretty late at night. During this time, Pingyao looks very different too, as every main door is alight with red lanterns, which seem a cultural practice here. Bring your camera and tripod.
1. Book a flight to Beijing. The domestic flight from Beijing to Taiyuan can be bought online on ctrip.com. They don’t issue e-tickets though: your receipt would serve as the ticket to board. Buy first class — it’s inexpensive and it gives you some relative peace and quiet.
2. Book your return hotel transfer from Taiyuan Airport in advance. It is a long drive and you won’t want to call the hotel to send a car only you arrive to find yourself kinda stuck.
3. Bring walking shoes. Leave your heels at home. There’s no ‘fine dining’ in Pingyao. Just go casual.
4. Three days is all you really need.
5. It’s a family friendly place. Public toilets at the tourist sites are generally clean, and if you’re tired of walking, there are loads of electric shuttle ‘taxis’ that ply the streets. Hop on one and agree on a fee, or book one to bring you around for the day. Only if you don’t want to walk.
Shanghai makes a pretty quick and good holiday stopover, especially if you live in Hong Kong. A two hour plane ride gets you there relatively quickly and cheaply so its a great quick holiday idea if you are planning to get into China for some eats and shopping which is just what I did over the recent New Year.
3 Places To Eat
Lin Long Fang at 10, Jiangguo Dong Lu near Zhaozhou Lu – I think I am seriously addicted to what I consider the best and probably cheapest Xiao Long Bao that I have ever eaten along with the most delicious Onion and Scallion Noodles! A local hole-in-the-wall place that you definitely must not miss – this is Lin Long Fang which is a sister brand to the already famous Jia Jia Tang Bao. Enough said, the pictures tell the story as does the receipt and the amazing value for money – look at that bowl of chilli and the noodles. There are many variations to the xiao long bao and after trying most – I suggest you stay true to the original Pork filling. Simple is best! Delicious does not begin to describe this especially when dunked in their light vinegar and ginger sauce.
Mr and Mrs Bund – Mr and Mrs Bund is a French fine-dining experience that you don’t want to miss whilst in Shanghai because whilst not cheap, it offers relatively good value and is located in one of the most central and beautiful colonial buildings along The Bund. It is run by Paul Pairet, who also recently opened the 3000RMB per head super exclusive Ultraviolet restaurant and bar. The food is good and the drinks are not watered down and there is a lot of oogling to do as this is surely the place to entertain, be seen and to see. Whilst still in the area, pop into the nearby Peace Hotel for a nightcap or aperitif at the Peace Jazz Bar in the hotel lobby. There is a minimum spending surcharge of 200RMB per person which you can fulfil easily by ordering drinks and eats from the bar menu. You will not regret a visit – soak in the ambience of this nostalgic old time jazz bar, the band of musicians (one of them is actually 94 years old) and the Shanghainese songbird with a sultry voice.
Tsukiji Aosora Sandaime at Luwan District Changle Road 191,1-2 Floor – This restaurant is so far the best Japanese restaurant that I have tried in Shanghai. Forget the ones at the bund and head to the Japanese enclave in Shanghai where you will also find a number of clothes and jewelry boutiques and small dessert and drink cafés all around this restaurant. True, that these are not the cheap prices that you pay in Japan, but given that this is Shanghai and other Japanese restaurants literally charge an arm and a leg – this place is reasonably priced for the quality and quantity. We definitely enjoyed the freshest sashimi here, a most creatively presented salmon carpaccio Japanese style and sake at RMB150 a bottle which is half the price compared to what you pay at all too average Japanese restaurants in Hong Kong. The staff here were knowledgeable and helpful and the chef who makes an effort to make small talk as he prepares the sushi offers tips on how to appreciate each morsel. Also a must-order is the eel rice – light and fragrant.
3 Places To Shop
From kitschy to cool, Shanghai has it all. My favourite places to go to in Shanghai are definitely these:
Tai Kang Road or Tian Zi Feng at No.210 Taikang Road, Huangpu District – Shopping and food all in one area – tian zi fang is also known as Tai Kang Lu and you should plan to have one meal here or even just tea as there are just so many cute hole in the wall tea-houses and restaurants to explore here. And after eating, you can meander through the lanes and shop at the novelty restaurants and shops. Must visits are the Tono Palace cat cafe where you can pet sleepy kitties who snuggle at your table, the Modern Toilet Cafe where urinals and toilet bowls are actually seats in the restaurant and the Teddy Bear Cafe where a tea party with teddies big and small seated at your table is actually possible.
Yu Yuan Bazaar at No.269 Fangbang Middle Road, Huangpu District – I loved this place! Not because I like kitzchy tourist stuff which I have to admit is such fun to look at and buy. From fridge magnets that look like bowls of rice and noodles to shops that sell water bottles that kids take to school to shops that sell xiao long bao that you can sip up with a straw … I had a fun two-hour wander into the bowels of this bazaar that is housed in a maze of pagoda roofed buildings. Definitely will go back the next time I am here.
The Superbrand Mall in downtown Pudong – This is about 5 floors of shopping haven – the mass market brands are all here from made-in-China brands to Hong Kong labels to international names, you will find them all here. Do not mistake this for an outlet mall offering slashed discount prices – the prices are generally retail and the merchandise to season. I bought lots of fun stuff at CA, a brand that I last saw in Italy and for the high street brand die-hards there is a big Zara, H&M and even a Toys R Us here. Expect to spend half a day wandering through it all. I was too distracted to take photos. LOL!
3 Places To Explore With Kids
If you have kids in tow and a long weekend to spare, then here are 3 places you might want to pop into. If you click the links they will take you to the attraction websites where you can see pictures of the attraction. Otherwise, I am afraid that what you see below is all I had time to snap whilst busy exploring!
The Science and Technology Museum at No.2000 Shiji Avenue, Pudong District – You can easily spend 3 hours exploring this museum as it has a few sections which are fairly far away from each other and the building is colossal in size. There are movie screenings for the different science related exhibits and walking from hall to hall is quite a distance so it takes a long time to explore but all in all, this is a pretty impressive Science museum and about the best one that I have ever been to. If you have boys they will love the Robotics area. The Home earth and Animal Kingdom sections are massive and all the stuffed animals which are in actual size make it feel like you are up close to the real thing and walking through a taxidermist’s personal zoo. The benefit of this is that it actually gives you and your little one/s a good perspective of the actual size of a real living animal – scary to say the least. Eat before you come by as the food options (as with most tourist attractions) are there but limited. Besides the food, the thing that needs some improvement is the gift shop which sells cheap and cheery merchandise. Unappealing and surprising considering everything exported globally in terms of toys and souvenirs is made here in China but definitely good for your pocket. Whilst you are at this venue, one shopping option to include is the amazing copy goods market at the ground floor of the museum outside EXIT 6. Good bargains and fake goods and toys but all around good fun. There are small independent restaurants inside this area but if you are thinking of heading back into the museum half way after shopping – forget it as the museum allows you to exit the exhibition halls with a quick uv ray stamp on your hand just to eat in their food mall but not physically exit their premises.
The Shanghai Ocean Aquarium at No.1388 Lujiazui Ring Road, Pudong New Area – The outside of this aquarium looks really impressive as is its location which is in the middle of main Shanghai city. The aquarium is mainly made up of travelators with overhead tanks – a bigger version of Singapore’s Underwater World on Sentosa. You walk through the first bit looking at all the tanks with the smaller fresh water fish and marine life and the rest is a long travelator which brings you around the various levels of sea water marine animals and fish and the occasional diver cleaning the tank or feeding the fish. If you have never seen this before then there is some thrill in it as you feel like you are moving through a safe passage through waters where only big fish swim. But if you are comparing this to Ocean Park in Hong Kong then it does not come close. The aquariums in Qing dao and Beijing are way more impressive than this one but this is adequate if you have small kids. There are no restaurants at this attraction and the gift shop here rocks which is why you may want to avoid it with your little one (unlike the Science and Technology Museum). No matter about the restaurants as just immediately outside this attraction are the IFC building if you want international restaurants to eat at or the alternative which is my new found favourite and a place my cousin introduced me to – YANG’S DUMPLINGS. You want to order the Shrimp and Pork Dumplings fried at the bottom, steamed on the top – heavenly on a cold wet day. MUST GO!
The Pudong Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai History Museum – There are two ways to see the Pearl Tower – up on it or from a distance. The best viewing spots if you are opting for the latter are probably from the IFC Building in Pudong OR along the outdoor Bridge that connects IFC to the Superbrand Mall, Hyatt and other big buildings. For first timers, of course you should go up the Tower just for kicks but honestly it is for the novelty factor because the same view can be had from the Shanghai Tower, Jin Mao tower nearby or any of the other tall buildings in Shanghai. If in any case you are around the vicinity, we recommend you pop by the Shanghai History Museum which is below or at the base of the Pearl Tower. It tells the story in paintings and exhibits of Shanghai’s history from its opening as a port in 1843 to the communist takeover in 1949.
So we’ve got gorgeous rooms in Amangalla and the days are lazy and languid. What’s there to do in the medieval fortified town? Here’s Part 2 of our Fort Galle travel post.
#1. Soak It All In
First built by the Portuguese in 1588, then taken over by the Dutch in the 17th century, before passing into British hands in 1815, Galle Fort has colonial architecture galore, suffused in an elegant old world vibe. Walk the town often to soak it in – the vibes early in the morning, afternoon and evening is totally different, but all very charming. Look at the beautiful villas old and new, stroll the old parade grounds and military buildings, and pop into the quiet, quaint shops selling houseware, local cotton, pretty knick knacks, and Sri Lanka’s famous sapphires, moonstones and other gems. In particular, go to Barefoot (41 Pedlar Street, Fort Galle, Tel: +94 91 2226299) for gorgeous local cotton products, homeware and beautiful old fashioned photo albums. And definitely get some lovely gems from the trusted MM Ibrahim Jewellery at Church Street.
#2. Whale Watching
Whale watching season is between November and March and Sri Lanka is a great place to catch a glimpse of migrating blue whales, the largest mammals on earth. We chartered a private boat – a refurbished Indonesian fishing trawler – from Mirissa Watersports (www.mirissawatersports.com), and with their crew and our Amangalla butler, set out at dawn and sailed for over an hour. At one point, we encountered hundreds of spinner dolphins on both sides of our boat, leaping and spining out of the water. Then we spotted a blue whale and her calf soon after and followed them for well over half an hour as they rose to the surface every three minutes. Breakfast of tea, danish and fruit on the boat soon after as we headed back.
#3. See A Ceylon Tea Plantation
Make a trip to the 150-year-old Handunugoda Estate, about an hour’s drive out of Galle Fort, is a low-altitude tea plantation owned by Malinga Herman Gunaratne, the estate’s third-generation owner, who is also an award winning local author. Have afternoon tea with him on the verandah as he talks about ‘the old days’ in beautiful clipped English, see his tea processing plant and museum, and sample the many intriguing blends he makes including the virgin white tea, exclusive to Handunugoda and harvested using gold scissors!
#4. Bike Through Villages
A cycling tour (www.idletours.com) into the local villages and past padi fieldsis the best way to soak up local flavour. The padi fields with water buffaloes and cranes are stunning, and as you look out for monkeys, kingfishers, wild peacocks along the way, don’t forget the potholes and muddy tracks that might trip you up too. It’s well worth the effort. A few guides will bring you around, and young kids will follow in a tuk tuk so they get some fun too.
#5. Chill Over Cocktails at the Beach
Dine at Wijaya Beach, a favourite restaurant on the beach. Hang out here from mid afternoon to dinner, have cocktails, swim, have local rice dishes, pasta, and one of the best thin-crust pizzas around, prepared from their own wood fired oven. Take a walk by the beach and watch the famous stilt fishermen (below) in action. Bring your own towels, but they have a shower for you to clean up, sip a margarita and watch the sun set. We went there twice in a row — it’s that kind of holiday.
Set within Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka, the Amangalla boutique hotel weaves an intangible magic that truly bewitches. This is Part 1 of our Sri Lanka Travel Story.
Of all the gorgeous hotels and resorts I’ve had the privilege to stay in, one of the most enchanting in every genuine sense of the word, is the Amangalla which sits within the 17th century ramparts of Galle Fort in Sri Lanka. With the expressway that now connects Colombo to Fort Galle, the journey from the airport should take less than three hours.
When I first visited though, the highway was not yet open and our party of two families including three kids had to crawl four hours through bad traffic to get to Amangalla. But Amangalla had taken care of us exceedingly well from the word go — in the minivan was a picnic basket full of cold towels and drinks, and a print out of possible attractions we could pop into along the torturous way, to stretch our legs and use ‘facilities’. We were so impressed by their attention to detail in anticipating our needs and comfort and this was to happen again and again in our stay there.
Amangalla transports you back to a time when life moved at a gracious pace. Polished, long boards of original hardwood floors, cane-woven plantation chairs and wooden furniture, deep windows and verandahs, slowly whirring fans and lazy days evoke that sense of colonial, ‘empire’ vibe. With just 28 rooms and staff who give very personalised service, the Amangalla feels more like a friend’s very large home.
A holiday here is all about soaking in the pace of life and taking it slow. We started every morning with a walk on the old ramparts of the fort, watching local residents out for their own morning walks, and enjoying the sea that lapped on the other side of the wall. Half an hour is all you need to walk the full circle of the walled town.
Then we headed back to breakfast of Sri Lankan string or rice hoppers with curry on the broad verandah of the hotel. Sometimes, we’d see school children in their white uniforms dropping off from school buses and cars at the side of Amangalla and to walk to their schools at the end of the lane. These kids study at two mission schools not unlike our own in Singapore; we follow them to the school gates where teachers in bright saris usher the kids in, and from a side building, we hear a student band practicing the odd notes on a trombone.
It’s these incidental vignettes of life in Fort Galle that makes this place so absolutely magical. And it’s like time had stood still here since the 1950s — vintage cars on the quiet streets, blackboards that still show the schedule of incoming ships, offices with wooden desk and typewriter still in use, old army barracks, the parade square… It’s just enchanting.
In between, the hotel pampered us with a leisurely pace of life – minus television – with an exceptional level of service delivered discreetly. A personal yoga session in a garden pavilion ended with a butler appearing as if by magic, serving us coconut water. Returning from shopping jaunts, someone would invariably be waiting by the time we reached the hotel’s verandah, bearing cold scented towels. While the nearest beach was a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride away, they’d pile us with fluffy towels to bring along for our use and launder it later without extra charge. We were always met at the entrance with cold towels and water, whether we returned from a day at the tea plantation or a 15 minute jaunt to the shops nearby. Every night, a little dessert will be delivered to the room while every child has a gift left on his bed – a carved elephant, a wooden keychain, a paper kite – prettily wrapped and be-ribboned. When we went whale watching on a chartered boat, our butler came along as well bearing two wicker baskets of breakfast – danishes, scones and fruit — complete with silver pots of coffee and tea, and sugar in a bowl of fine china.
If you had dinner in, it was often a feast of various curries, sambols and pickles with fragrant rice while a very English afternoon tea was served in The Zaal, the main hall — scones and clotted cream, cakes and cucumber sandwiches borne on silver trays, with pots of Sri Lankan tea from the nearby plantations! The best thing about it is, the price of dining in the hotel was surprisingly inexpensive.
Within the courtyard and frangipani-fringed gardens of Amangalla was a most inviting pool, a spa of dark wood and echoing serenity in the old wing of the building, a bespoke men’s barber and nail salon for the ladies. Nearby is a small terrace where private yoga lessons were sometimes held. At night, as I was told by a friendly manicurist at the spa, some staff feel a little chill as they walk past that garden terrace, and try not to wander there alone if they had to. And babysitting into the wee hours of the morning in the old wing give send shivers up the spine of the more timid personnel. According to the hotel’s own literature, there is apparently hints of a ghost residing in Room 25 — but after rearrangements and renumbering of rooms over the years, the supposedly haunted location is now no longer a guestroom I am told, but somewhere in the spa. As fascinating a story as it is – which I had eked out from her — I must assure you that at no time during my stay had I felt anything less than perfectly warm and welcomed at Amangalla.
Two of the hotel’s facilities turned out a huge hit with the kids and indeed the rest of us adults. The Baths — we love the old fashioned word — were two massive private rooms which we could book for free, which held a jacuzzi, cold plunge pool, sauna and shower, plus lockers, toilet and changing facilities. Our two families would spend an afternoon there and the kids would have a whale of a time.
The other was Amangalla’s library which my daughter calls ‘the ultimate hang out place’. It’s a beautifully cosy place with lots of vintage books for adults and kids, old photographs, coffee table tomes, board games, and my favourite — scrapbooks showing the events and faces of days past at this hotel.
Even though Amangalla was established here only in 2004, this building was always a hotel. Before it was Amangalla, it had been The New Oriental Hotel (NOH) for almost 150 years, since 1865. The building complex was actually completed in 1715, with the oldest part of the hotel dating back to 1684. The NOH was run by a family since its founding, and was very much part of Galle Fort’s community and local history. NOH became the Amangalla only in 2005 when the last owner of the NOH passed on. It’s heartwarming to see how the history of the NOH and the people that surrounded it are still remembered as part of Amangalla’s heritage in the sepia toned photographs and well-thumbed scrapbooks so nicely laid out in the library. In its dining room, the NOH’s original crockery and china are still in use every day bearing the NOH crest and initials.
We ended our stay at Amangalla soaking in Galle’s famous sunset on the top floor of the old wing. Our butler had brought us a round of Pimms. Seated on cane chairs in front large casement windows, we had a view that stretched over the tops of Galle’s tiled rooftops and out to sea. As the sun eased into the sea and clouds transformed into rolling sheets of red, rose, then blue and gold and the birds fell silent, quite by chance — for we had not encountered this in the days before — we heard from a distant army camp a lone bugle play out the Last Post. You would expect a stay at the immensely gracious Amangalla to conclude thus. Impossibly elegant with an old world dignity, always discreet, but perfectly timed.
If you love driving and the great outdoors, a trip to New Zealand, especially to South Island is an absolute must. New Zealand has always been the second choice holiday destination when compared to her more popular and highly promoted neighbour Australia, but no more. Post the LOTR (Lord Of The Rings) era, the country has become a choice destination opening her doors to reveal its many natural wonders, friendly people, great outdoor lifestyle and some wonderful eateries that I fell in love with on my last visit.
I headed to New Zealand in April this year over Easter – a lovely time to enjoy Autumn weather for the Kiwis. And the plan was to spend 5 days in the South (particularly on Mount Cook) and 5 days in the North (Auckland) visiting family.
Coming out from Hong Kong, it was an 11 hour journey – almost like flying from Hong Kong to Europe! I decided to head first to Queenstown as one of our objectives was to run in the Aoraki, Mount Cook Marathon. My plan was to run in the 5km Front Runner Race with my daughter whilst my husband signed up to run the 21km half marathon. In the past three years, we’ve tried as a family to plan our holidays around a running event. Mainly to encourage and support my husband who took part in his first half marathon running around Lake Kawaguchiko at the base of Mount Fuji in 2011 and also to make sure that we worked towards a healthy goal before and during each binge holiday.
Driving from Queenstown to Mount Cook with a Stopover at the Kawarau Bunjy Centre and the Ladybird Hill Salmon Farm and Winery
A reliable car and a good GPS are your best friends on any driving holiday. I recommend that you book these in advance. We used THRIFTY which had some good deals and I made the booking when we booked our flights which turned out a wise decision as we were rewarded with an upgrade when we landed at the airport and arrived at the THRIFTY Counter which was easy to find, just past Customs.
To get to Mount Cook (3775m above sea level and New Zealand’s highest peak on South Island) you have to drive from either Queenstown or Christchurch. The drive from Christchurch is a longer one to reach Mount Cook so with limited holiday time, we opted to land in Queenstown and then drive about three and the half hours to the Hermitage Hotel Chalets which we also pre-booked ahead of our visit.
Our drive started in the late morning the idea was to stop for a late lunch and drink at a Salmon Farm and winery along the way, a favourite with locals which was also about an hour’s car ride from our Hotel. The GPS was amazingly easy to navigate and the scenery – worth the whole drive!
Along the way we stopped at the world’s first commercial bungy jumping centre at Kawarau, just outside Queenstown on the way towards Mount Cook. The Kawarau Centre is where the whole idea of jumping off a bridge started 25 years ago (yes, in New Zealand) and they offer solo or tandem jumps that are 43 m down into the roaring river below.
There are also three zip lines which I opted going on as they looked much safer and it only required you to sit down while a line pulls you 130m quickly down the same river from one end of a ledge to another.
About an hour later, we drove into Omarama to have a quick drink at the Ladybird Hill Cafe, Restaurant and Winery. This lovely stopover also houses a Salmon farm where you can try your luck catching salmon and have the restaurant cook your catch. There is also salmon – smoked or sashimi-ed as hot doeurves along with a selection of the wineries wines on sale and for tasting.
With the evening on the way, we drove straight to Mount Cook Village to check into our cozy Chalet reservations at the Hermitage. There are actually a number of other places that you can stay (budget dependant) if you are going up to Mount Cook Village but if you are going during a holiday season remember to book ahead as they are quite quickly snapped up. The Hermitage Hotel sits on the top of Mount Cook and it was a snap decision for us only because it was the host hotel for the marathoners. It also marked the start and end point for the run and was the host venue for all the runner’s pre-run briefings and post-race activities. Connected to the the Hotel is the Edmund Hillary Centre, a very highly rated Tour and Visitor centre with a Planetarium where one could book an evening tour to see the stars or book a tour to the Tasman Glaciers, both of which we booked ourselves into.
Booking at the Chalet instead of at the main hotel was a great idea. Parking was just in front of our charming cabin that could easily sleep 4 to 5 people. Wifi is not free but otherwise, the cabin is fully equipped with a small fridge, stove and kitchenette that you could easily cook a substantial meal in.
We, of course opted to explore the quality eats – all within driving distance of the Hotel and Chalets and ended up driving around the corner to have a hearty dinner at the nearby Backpacker’s Lodge Bar and Grill.
Sir Edmund Hilary’s Centre, Glentanner Park Centre, Peter’s Lookout and Twizel
If you have the kids with you or if you need a wet weather plan, a tour at the Planetarium at the Sir Edmund Hilary Centre is what I would recommend. This Centre is relatively small and right at the end of the Hotel’s gift shop which is probably the only shopping venue in the village. But in terms of booking your activities on Mount Cook – this would be your first stop as spots for activities like a Star Gazing or Glacier Tour fill up fast. If you are up for a real adventure the other thing to do is to book a helicopter ride to the glaciers and land on one of them and after that take a guided walk around the surrounds.
With a Runner’s briefing planned for us at the Hotel in the evening of Day 2 and a long day of driving behind us, we decided to keep the tours for another day and instead take it easy by just driving a short distance around Mount Cook Village to familiarise ourselves with the key points for the Run. After breakfast, we headed about 21km away from the Village to the start of the 21km marathon at Glentanner Park Centre along the scenic Lake Pukaki. This Centre has a small information centre where you can book helicopter tours and is also offers good facilities for Campervan parking. It also rents camping facilities and basic lodging units and is home to the Tasman cafe which has a good all-day dining menu and a lovely outdoor area for evening BBQs (on certain weeknights) which means that you can eat alfresco under the wonderful blanket of stars which is supposed to be at the clearest point on the planet, under New Zealand skies.
We drove another 21km from this point (42km from the resort) to Peter’s Lookout where the start of the Full Marathon was to flag off. Beautiful and scenic, Peter’s Lookout offers probably the BEST and most expansive view of Mount Cook and its surrounding area from Lake Tekapo to the Mount Cook Village.
After taking many beautiful snaps, we headed another 45 minutes by car to the nearby sleepy resort town of Twizel for a quick lunch. The town is tiny with a few restaurants, a super market and a few shops.
Run Day, The Mountaineer’s Cafe and an Evening Of Star Gazing
Woke up to glorious Autumn weather on the Run Day. If you have never done a fun Run on a fairly straight road with the mountains in front of you and the air cool and nippy then I highly recommend this one as a first! It was a first for me and my 9 year old daughter as we happily completed the 5km Front Runner.
In its first inaugural year, the Aoraki Mount Cook Marathon and Fun Run is a great run for families with a 5km, a 10km and a half and full marathon and if you are interested in participating next year – google the name of this site to look out for dates. After the Run and about two hours of rest and refreshments, we were ready to go out for a late lunch at the nearby Mountaineer’s Cafe. So much to like about this great little restaurant with its log cabin feel and good food!
After replacing half the calories lost on the Run, we headed back to our log cabin retreat for part 2 of our siesta and then went back to the Sir Edmund Hilary Centre for a Star Gazing tour that started at the Planetarium. Really liked the well-explained, entertaining and interesting look at the night sky and how to recognise the various different constellations. It was too bad that it started to drizzle afterwards which meant we were given a partial refund for the fact that we could not take up the second half of the tour outside under the actual blanket of stars. Definitely something I plan to return to do only because it is at this place in New Zealand that the night sky is supposed to be the darkest and clearest to the naked eye.
Glacier Tour and Lake Tekapo
On our last day at Mount Cook, we headed out early in the morning for a half day tour to explore the Tasman Glaciers by boat. I rate this activity as the key highlight of my entire visit to New Zealand. We took a bus out from the Hotel to the embankment beyond the glacier lake. There we hiked a good 25 minutes to the lake where we boarded a motorised boat with maybe 15 other like-minded adventurers.
There is nothing to describe the extreme serenity you feel with nature on board that boat on the glacier lake. No other tourists or people for miles around – just you and the elements and coming up besides a 3000 year old glacier to touch it. I learnt in that one afternoon why glacier water is so blue – and that is because there are particles in the water that actually reflect the sky on the water – a naturally occurring optical illusion and a reminder of the beauty outside the concrete jungles that we live in.
After dropping back at the Hotel, we headed out by car for lunch to another small alpine Village – Lake Takepo – an hour’s drive in the other direction from Twizel! Less sleepy than Twizel, you probably need about two hours maximum for a meal and walk around in this village which has more restaurants, lodges and accommodations for people who just want to enjoy the lake side venue and the outdoors. Find a decent number of restaurants from grill houses to Japanese and Italian.
The Drive Back to Queenstown and on to Auckland
After breakfast the next day, we started our two plus hour drive back towards Queenstown airport to catch a connecting Jetstar flight to Auckland. On the drive back, we stopped at the Goldfield Mines – no doubt a tourist attraction but right next to the Wildearth Outdoor Kitchen and Cellar Door, a lovely bistro and winery where we enjoyed some clams and a glass of vino before resuming our drive.
Our last stop before the airport was for a lunch date at the Amisfield Winery. If you want to make a final pit stop for a lovely meal and some great wine before leaving South Island, this would definitely be the choice venue. HRH William and Kate made it one of their stopovers in April when they visited New Zealand.
If you’ve been inspired to make a visit – we recommend you look here for a South Island holiday!
Maybe you’ve lived in London for a while and are revisiting your old haunt (like me); or you’re just swinging by Londinium again for the fifth time because you happen to be in the region and you like London awfully much (like me). If you’ve been there and done most of that in the city, here’s our guide to a few extra things you could do if you’ve got a few short days here and have done the usual tourist sights.
But before we move on, let’s get one detail out of the way. This is not a shopaholic’s guide. Everyone else, come along….
WHERE TO GO:
Potterheads, set aside one day for the Warner Bros Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter. We spent an entire afternoon there, up close and on the set of the Harry Potter movies. With 10 years’ worth of original sets, props, costumes, drafts and drawings, you get all the behind-the-scenes secrets you want.
The tour starts off with you walking into the amazing dining hall of Hogworth’s (marvel, swoon, faint!), then on to see props big and small and fascinating, like the entrance to the Rusty Cauldron, the dining room of the Weasley house, the Hogworth common room, Snape’s potion room, even the house at Privet Lane, the room under the stairs and the Knight Bus (minus the talking head). It’s amazing to see the details of every prop, including the innocuous ones that are just small components of the set – for example, the labels of every bottle of potion on the shelves is handwritten, and the names on each of the 17,000 wand boxes at Olivander’s is unique.
The tour takes about three hours, and tickets are timed so you can’t just wander in anytime you like. With two cafes within the sprawling studio, you don’t have to worry about getting hungry. The studio is located about one hour out of central London, so unless you’re diving, the easiest way to do the tour is buy a ticket from Golden Tours which brings you, at fixed departure times, from their pick up point at the Colonnade Mall near London’s Victoria Station, to the studios and back. The coach ticket includes the entrance ticket to the studio timed to coincide with your arrival. No hassle, just loads of fun. We did the 10am departure which got us to the studio by 11.15am, with lots of time to shop for Potter souvenirs until entry time at noon. We could tell you more about the studio, but we’ll just spoil the fun.
Here’s a tip though: get to the pick-up point at Victoria about half an hour early to bag the good seats on the coach. After the tour, the coach brought us back to London around 5pm, with enough time to comfortably catch a musical in the evening.
If you love history like me, visit Kensington Palace after its major refurbishment, with three new, stunningly artistic exhibitions of the merry monarchs of England. We loved ‘Victoria Revealed’, a touching exhibition of the tender, romantic relationship between the grouchy looking, black-clad Queen and her husband Albert, all described in her own words, excerpts from her personal diary. See her wedding gown, insights into her own unhappy childhood, toys and clothes of her kids. We loved how she reminded her husband so very nicely that at the end of the day, she was the boss, and sighed at how she bid her beloved Albert goodbye when he died at only 42. It’s a beautiful exhibition not to be missed. Head to the Queen’s Apartments to see an almost surreal presentation of the end of the Stuart dynasty through the eyes and (imagined) dreams of Prince William who danced himself to death on his 11th birthday party, and hear the walls literally whisper with place gossip.
Finally explore the King’s State Apartments (above) and enjoy its interactive adventure game where you pretend you’re a newbie at the court of George I and II. Are you going to be conservative and safe, or flamboyant and bold and take risks? Head through the Presence Chamber, the Cuppola Room and further into the King’s chambers through cunning or trust at the king’s court. If you play the game right, you may find out the secret code and end up with a ‘royal appointment’, like my kid did. What a funky way to see history for you and older kids.
We hoped to see the fourth exhibit about the modern royals including the iconic Princess Di and her clothes – but it wasn’t opened yet when we were there, though it’s due later this summer. After the history lessons, take a retail break at the Palace shop, and trot down the garden to the Orangerie for a spot of lunch or tea with other blue-rinsed ladies. They offer a very British and polished if unimaginative menu, but just sitting in the elegant surrounds is nice enough. Entry to Kensington Gdns is £15 per adult, while kids go in free. You can buy the tickets online.
Yes, it is a usual tourist venue, but like every visit to Paris demands a drop-in at the Louvre, every drop-in to London requires a visit to the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square. They often have new works and admittedly, it’s just a place I love to go back to again and again. Not being particularly religious, I can’t say I’m all that crazed over the 13th century ecclesiastical works, but add on a few hundred years and the pictures become more appealing from the 1700s to early 20thC. It’s a joy to see them over and over again, and certainly not a place to hurry through. Give yourself time to gape and gawk at the works of the grand masters, and read the little explanatory labels that tell extraordinary stories of each of the paintings. After that, knock yourself out at the shop with its lovely range of postcards, posters and art books; or stop at their rather popular restaurant upstairs for a light meal. The food isn’t bad even if the service is a tad slow. Here’s a tip – there’s a perfect photo op looking outwards from the main terrace of the National Gallery. You get Trafalgar Square and Big Ben in a nice line…and look out for a fluttering Union Jack between the two landmarks. (Entry is free, but do donate a polite £4 per person to help the gallery upkeep the enjoyment.)
In summer, buskers hang around Trafalgar Square into the night. When we were there not long ago, tourists were dancing spontaneously to the sound of blues and jazz emanating from a sax into the night. It was really quite magical under the glow of the lamps and the darkened statues. Loved it!
While you’re in the vicinity, drop into the National Portrait Gallery next door. It’s fun and fascinating, seeing faces gaze out at you from centuries ago – kings, queens, famous people, people who have been beheaded…all sorts…and well into the 20th century with photograph portraits. Certain Friday nights offer sketching activities with wine, so if you’re in town over the weekend, check it out on the website. There are two shops in this gallery – one is the gallery shop itself with a nice collection of postcards and souvenirs based on the artworks, and in the basement next to the café, a lovely art bookstore with tomes for adults and kids. It’s a great spot for gifts and bookish indulgence.
Speaking of bookish delights, across the road from the National Gallery at the junction between Northampton Ave and The Strand is a large Waterstone’s bookstore with good coffee upstairs. The books include a great section of cookbooks, thrillers and crime, and classic and modern lit. Round the corner at the church St Martin in the Fields, pop into the shop in the basement next to Café in the Crypt for high quality souvenirs and gifts. The café runs jazz nights every Wednesdays with dinner, I think, so if that’s your kind of music, buy a ticket and spend an evening there.
In the evenings, we caught a couple of musicals – Rock of Ages, raunchy, funny and good fun with loads of 1980s rock anthems, at Garrick Theatre. Watch out for the theatre attendents who rock along with the music and attempt to hawk bottled beer with a swagger and rock ‘n roll attitude. Absolutely fun. Under 16s are not advised to attend, but they’ll let the kids in if accompanied by presumably responsible parents, so my kid got in without a hitch.
On the other end of the spectrum, we also saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which very recently opened, at the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane. The special effects, sets and props for this family musical is quite amazing really, and it’s nice to see how the audience comprise of elderly people, dating couples and kids – a testimony to the lasting appeal of Roald Dahl. It was an enjoyable musical even if it didn’t knock my socks off, but if you have kids in tow, this is not to be missed. For a bit of grown up fun, buy a big glass of wine to bring into the theatre and have a very reasonably priced G&T waiting for you at intermission.
Where To Eat:
Call it gastro-fatigue, but we resolutely did not go on a Michelin hunt this time. It’s nice to totter around London and discover little cafes and deserving restaurants on your own. The traditional Sunday roast was rather nice albeit slow slow slow at Bumpkin at 102 Old Brompton Road. It’s a pretty, rustic restaurant with a pub in the front. The restaurant at the back serves nice trad Sunday roast (just over £19) with enormous crusty Yorkshire pudding and a tempting wine menu and knock out fish & chips. The beef was a bit stringy but the lamb was good. The considerable wine list and cocktail options were well priced.
We stumbled quite by accident onto the newly opened Jamie Oliver’s Union Jacks at Covent Garden which serves British fare, updated with a touch of Mediterranean influences. So new it was still working out its teething problems – a number of dishes and drinks had run out (!), the service was a bit sloppy even if they were all rather friendly and the tables were too cramped. But the food was really quite good: loved the chicken livers with toast, the fried mushrooms were a good beer bite, and the pizza we ordered, called The Banger, topped with British sausages (£13.75), was delicious. Prices were spot on. Three of us ate one pizza, three starters, four drinks and the bill came up to just over £50 though the cocktails were rather overpriced. (This is a good spot to eat just before heading to the theatres at Drury Lane – a three-minute walk away.)
Our last meal in London was at Italian restaurant Fratelli la Bufala (35-37 Villiers St, London WC2N 6ND) at Embankment. There are two in London – one at Shaftesbury Avenue and the second one here. I must say, for a quick, mid-market meal, it was very enjoyable. The Casertana pizza we had with broccoli rabe, sausage and mozarella had a lovely chewy fragrant pizza base and a rich, cheesy topping – a little salty perhaps but altogether really fun to eat. We had the most enormous classic tomato bruschettas ever, and a nice pinot grigio to wash it down before catching the long flight home. We were in a hurry, told them so and were in and out of the restaurant in 25 minutes. Perfect and service was suitably friendly.
Finally, I will admit that in these 3 days of revisiting old haunts and experiences, I managed to slip in one campy, cheesy meal down memory lane at Chinatown. My favourite old restaurant from student days is no longer there, so I slipped into a suitably old fashioned one – not Wong Kei please! – serving a suitably old fashioned menu. (Told the daughter it was the quintessential Singapore student experience when you’re a bit homesick and deprived of Asian food, and that it was cheesy experience she had to experience….in case she decided to study in London in future.) Amid the usual din and working round my rusty Cantonese, I ordered a shamelessly old fashioned menu I enjoyed lifetimes ago – Singapore noodles, Westlake beef broth and roast duck. The noodles were a little bland, the beef broth was oozing with corn flour and MSG and the roast duck drowning in oil…but it was a tiny, clandestine spot of delight. Loved it.
Where to stay:
Citadines PrestigeTrafalgar Square is fantastically located at Trafalgar Square between Embankment and Charing Cross Tube. Both are within five minutes walk from the hotel while Leicester Square Tube is about 7 minutes walk away. Leicester Square, Soho, Covent Garden and many many theatres are easily walkable. While not superbly luxurious, it’s more than adequate, and the apart’hotel concept gives you a kitchenette and more space than most hotels in London. There are at least two 24-hour express supermarkets and three drugstores like Boots within five minutes’ walk. Service at the hotel is friendly and efficient and gives you if nothing else, free coffee in the lobby. From S$440 or HK$2730 a night.
For those of us living in Singapore, Japan is almost a 7 hour plane ride away but for those of us living in Hong Kong, a trip to the Southern most part of Japan – to Okinawa is only 2 hours and 15 minutes via Dragon Air (a Cathay Pacific carrier) or Hong Kong Air on a daily departure.
So on my hubby’s and daughter’s recent birthday (both a week from each other) I packed us off on a 4 day 3 night break to this lovely coastal Japanese town which offers all things Japanese and yet looks and makes you feel more like you have been transported to chilled out Hawaii. Yes – swaying palm trees, pristine blue waters and uncombed beaches, pineapples and coconuts – you will find them all here. It is also home to the US’ Naval troops here in Asia which accounts for its heavy American influence and yet the city has retained its own charming local Okinawan culture, food and heritage which has produced most of the world’s centenarians (people who have lived past 100 years) mainly credited to the food that these islanders eat and their general healthy lifestyles.
For tourists, Okinawa offers both beach and city options to explore. If its a summer holiday getaway I would recommend the beach option but if you are heading there for the up and coming Easter school break (for Hong Kongers) or anytime nearer the winter months (where Okinawa gets to its coolest about 13 to 15 degrees) then choose the city option. There are plenty of things to do in downtown Naha and its immediate vicinity. A small tip if you love to drive – bring along your International Driving License. Car rentals are aplenty and cheap about JPY4000 a day compared to taxis and tours which are relatively expensive.
It being March and just past the coldest month in Okinawa (February), I went with my travel agents recommendation of spending a few days at the Double Tree Hilton in Naha. It turned out to be a great choice as it was connected by a monorail right in front of the Hotel which could bring you to almost all of Naha’s choice attractions.
DAY ONE: SHOPPING AND EATS AT KOKUSAI-DORI
If like us, you arrive at midday then save this day to explore Kokusai-Dori street. This long and colorful street located in the heart of Naha is the city’s main shopping belt and choc-a-block full of interesting restaurants, ice cream stores, countless snack and gift shops, stores selling tee shirts for pet and pet owners as well as shops selling sake and snake wine. In between the small off-shoot lanes, parallel to the main thoroughfare are a pot pourri of small bars, body and foot massage parlours.
Mid-way through this street is a wet and dry market called Makeshi Public Market where aside from the bric-brac stores selling tourist souvenirs, tee-shirts and local bakery items we also checked out the local seafood which you can order and have them sashimi or cook for you at any of the restaurants on the second floor of the market. Here in the wet market, we also sampled their famous Black Boar or Pig which the Japanese brew into a thick, delicious caramel style gravy that tastes and looks a lot like Singapore’s Tau Yu Bak.
As far as department store shopping goes, there is a modest Mitsukoushi Shopping Mall with a super market and food hall below (where you can do a bit of sampling) and another small fashion Mall called Opa to explore.
A meal is a must along Kokusai-Dori. You should check into any of the Isakaya or Yakiniku restaurants which serve skewered food, usually grilled or presented for you to cook the way you like it on a hot plate. Here besides Beef, you can also order their Black Pork which is on all the restaurant menus.
If you want to eat local, then walk into any of the restaurant’s that sell Okinawan cuisine which offer their famous handmade soba noodles served with slices of black boar sliced or prepared in spare rib style, their delicious ‘Yushi Dofu’ served with a sweet or vinagrette sauce and ‘Goya’, their bitter gourd either served with seaweed and veggies (raw) or fried with Tofu and mixed veggies which they call ‘Goya Champuru’.
This slightly bitter gourd which resembles and tastes like a slimmer and sweeter version of the bitter gourd that you get in Singapore is the secret diet staple of the Okinawan Centarians.
Finally there is Teppanyaki. We decided to give Trip Advisor’s #1 recommendation, Sam’s Place a try. Sam apparently has more than one place and he in fact has Sam’s Anchor Inn, Sam’s Grill, Sam’s Sailor Inn and Sam’s Maui Grill, all Polynesian style teppan restaurants with staff in sailor costumes, polynesian music and talented Teppanyaki chefs who can juggle their pepper and salt shakers whilst wielding the samurai style blades in the process of cooking your dinner. Best part is the fact that the restaurants are child-friendly and decently priced!
Save space also for the local ice cream. There were many local brands to sample, all soft creamy not super sweet so you feel like you could easily have a second scoop. We spent almost every evening at Blue Seal.
DAY TWO: CHURAUMI AQUARIUM, THE NAGO PINEAPPLE PARK AND THE CHATAN AMERICAN VILLAGE
Book a tour to the Churaumi aquarium which is a world-class facility that houses the most spectacular Whale Sharks and Manta Rays in captivity. The Oceanarium is part of a larger Park known as the Ocean Expo Park which houses the Oceanic Culture Museum, a native Okinawan Village, the Tropical Dream Centre which is like a local botanical garden, the Emerald Beach where you can take a dip in the open Ocean and a Tropical and Sub-Tropical Arboretum where you can learn all about plantlife.
We decided to keep our Tour option simple and booked the Naha Bus Tour (rainbow coloured bus) at about JPY4700 per adult and JPY2300 per child to the main Oceanarium with a side trip to the Nago Pineapple Park. The bus leaves at 8am sharp (beware the Japanese are sticklers for punctuality) and this 2.5 hour ride on board a comfy air conditioned tour bus allows you some shut eye as you head along the scenic coastal beach to the Aquarium.
We were wowed not only by the whale sharks and manta rays but also the interesting variety of marine life that the aquarium houses including a separate Manatee pool, Sea Turtle Pool, Dolphin Lagoon and a Theatre where there is a daily dolphin show.
NAGO PINEAPPLE PARK
Enroute back to the City is a stopover at the Nago Pineapple Park, another reminder of the similarity between Okinawa and Hawaii in terms of tropical weather and local produce and farming.
Here at this farm, you can indulge junior by renting a automated Pineapple Cart that lets Junior get behind the wheel and navigate or actually ‘drive’ through the pineapple plantation.
Your point of embarkation being the huge gift shop that sells every thing pineapple flavored from cakes, biscuits and chocolate to vinegars and wines. Definitely a well thought through tourist trap but excellent if you are not shy about digging in to the free nibbles.
CHATAN: AMERICAN VILLAGE
We got back to the Hotel, rested our feet and then decided to go explore the American Village in Chatan. In terms of all-things American, there are two areas to head to – Chatan or Kadena. The former has an American style village as its near the US Naval base and the latter is a bar town filled with teeming night life and restaurants. We decided that with 8 year old in tow, the Village where the famous landmark, its Ferris wheel stands would be a better bet.
Both are fairly far off – almost an hour’s ride on the local Bus from the Bus Terminal near to us but it was worth it as there, we rediscovered Red Lobster (fondly remember from my visits to the US ages ago)! Also spotted A&W’s a brand that I have not seen like forever in Asia since it closed its doors early in the 90s in Singapore.
DAY THREE: SHUJIRO CASTLE
A visit to an Okinawan castle was on the list on Day 3. It turned out to be a lovely windy day to visit the ruins where Okinawan royalty and the Ryukyu Dynasty used to reside in the 14th and 15th century.
There are several gates, shrines, lakes and bridges within the castle surrounds to explore. The site has been beautifully restored after the Battle of Okinawa in World War 2 almost completely reduced it to ashes. Modelled to look like a replica of the Forbidden City, the Castle engages young and old visitors through a map of the ruins which has different stop points where you can collect a stamp. This ensures that you walk the entire castle tour and not miss out any of the interesting stops.
Things to see include the Castle Sundial, Bankoku Bell, Throne Room, Stone Shrine and Hokuden Parade area where royalty was crowned and visitors formally received. Just below the castle in the road leading up to the grounds, make sure you stop by Ryuku-Sabo Ashibiuna for the best Okinawan handmade noodles: http://www.ryoji-family.co.jp/ryukyusabo.html. Located on the former site of the Misato Palace, the mansion used by the Sanshikan (prime minister) during the Ryukyu Dynasty, the restaurant has earned a solid reputation for its fantastic meals and dining room overlooking an elegant garden. You can sometimes listen to live music put on by students from the nearby Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts.
What in heavens name would bring you to Qing Dao you ask? Honestly, I would have never in my Simply Fabulicious years have ever visited this slightly remote sea-side satellite city in China except for the fact that my dear husband had a work trip there during my daughter’s school holidays so we decided to tag along and visit a city where (about 30 years ago) only farmland existed.
Indeed Tsing Tao (does the name ring a bell now?) or Qing Dao (as they call it in Hanyu pinyin) has evolved into one of China’s many modern cosmopolitan cities, a home to shiny new malls and swanky branded hotels and eateries that stand as testimony of the power of the Chinese dollar and its unrelenting spirit of progress. So if you ever find yourself headed this way to Qing Dao, you can say that you read it here first … 3 leisurely and lovely things to do with kids in tow whilst in this Chinese city where you guessed it – the famous bottle of Tsing Tao beer (another way to pronounce Qing Dao) was born, brewed and bottled.
And so what do you do and eat if you have 3 DAYS IN QING DAO:
#1 BRING YOUR BELLY DOWN TO BEER STREET!
Get ready to guzzle I say … and bring hubby, kids and all who are game down to Qing Dao’s world-famous Beer Street, the most famous beer street in all of China and also where the Qing Dao’s backstreet ‘boy-bands’ are a dime a dozen on the street and you can rent a rousing song for a couple of yuan whilst the Beer ‘Aunties’ will ply you with their bottles of green gold.
How did Qing Dao get its name? Well, one of its early immigrants were the Germans who lent the locals their brewery skills. This has in the last 20 to 30 years resulted in the city’s selling product, the world famous Qing Dao (spelt Tsingtao) beer which tastes pretty good actually as its slightly sweet, a little bit like Singapore’s Tiger!
This restaurant had no sexy or sleezy beer aunties but it claims to be the “birthplace of beer couture”
What you can enjoy if you want to try some ala carte and cooked to your preferred style
We tried a couple of things.
If Starfish and BBQ is not your thing then how about some Donkey Meat?
Yes you read correctly! If you are into local ‘delicacies’, this is a very popular dish in Qing Dao. Look out for this local specialty with restaurants like this with the neon sigh all around town. Apologies, I did not have the stomach to try this!
#2 THE KIDS WILL LOVE POLAR OCEAN WORLD
If you are staying in the heart of Qing Dao then a 20 minute cab ride takes you out to Polar Ocean World, Qing Dao’s version of Ocean Park. This place is pretty big with two large zones – an outdoor arena where there are several shows happening at different times of the day and an indoor main area where you see all the exhibits, aquariums and also has a separate arena for shows. The people at the Ticket Booth will advise you which arena to head to first, depending on what time you arrive at the park. I headed with my 7 year old to a 45 minute outdoor performance (completely in Mandarin, of course) with clowns and a walrus doing sit ups and several performing seals diving in and out of the water.
After the show wander inside to the amazing indoor floor to ceiling aquariums and also petting and feeding zones.
The highlight of my visit, my 7 year old daughter got the chance to pet and feed a very tame and friendly white dolphin for only 50 RMB which is about S$10. Only in China!!!
There are also seal feeding enclosures, a chance to see artic wolves, a polar bear along with many other amazing varieties of fish with another show to watch just before you leave the arena!
Truly a great aquarium to visit and probably 4 to 5 hours is about all you need to see and do everything. The tricky part is getting a cab to take you back to town. I learnt and experienced something in China that would be unheard of in other parts of the world – the concept of cab sharing! This seems absolutely normal and part and parcel of daily life in China’s satellite cities. I have not seen this happen in Shenzhen or Shanghai but here it seems to be an everyday occurance here. Expect the driver to stop and pick another passenger along the way as long as your cab is not full. We had to share a cab back to the hotel area with another mother and her son who were unfazed by having total strangers (us) in the cab with us.
#3 PARASAIL OR CHILL AT THE LOCAL WAIKIKI – BEACH #1 OR BEACH #2
I know what you are thinking – does this Beach have a name? Well the answer is NO! Its known by the number and Beach Number One is the better of the two.
In Summer, the sea is littered with people, standing room only! Sharing some shots of the beach babes and costumes that I have not seen since the passing of the 80s.
Para sail, a wonderful experience if you have a child about 6 years and up. Prices are reasonable and you can bargain with the boatman to come along to take photos. I paid another RMB20 to go on the boat with my daughter to take some snaps of her virgin ride.
Other beach activities (below)!
#4 CLIMB LAO SHAN AND HAVE A SCORPION LUNCH
One of Qing Dao’s famous tourist attractions is Lao Shan, its ‘old mountain’ (direct translation) and this is accessible by the many tour buses that you can book a day trip to via your Hotel Concierge or better still if you get the chance to rent a car and driver up, make sure that its to the top most summit.
There are several stops along the way (much like what you see in the picture below) but you want to be as close to the top as possible or else its a long walk up from the other points along the mountainous terrain.
We were lucky to have a friend who used to live in Qing Dao and was familiar with the place. He drove us to the very last stop on the highest part of the mountain and together we took a 2 hour hike by foot to the summit and source of the spring that runs through the Lao Shan mountain.
From here it is long walk up but the scenery is wonderful and the weather is cool especially on a morning hike.
Two plus hours later – we are at to the top of the mountain where the spring water is at its purest and straight from the source
The descent is more pleasant and we head for lunch at this restaurant in the picture below.
And on the menu was this local delicacy – an entree of KFC style Scorpions and Bugs along with some cold delicious beer and other local dishes.
What do bugs taste like? Pretty ok actually! And a bit like prawn if I had to find an appropriate description. GO TRY!!!