The Personal A to Z of Travel hits the S Word

And so onto Luce’s S Word

S ~ Splurge; something you have no problem forking over money for while traveling:

Walkway to yet another luxury restaurant Cancun Mexico

Now this category proved to be quite difficult, as I am a notorious skinflint who likes travelling cheap, to make the best of whatever cash I have. However the thing I have recently discovered with a passion is the all-inclusive luxury holiday. Now some folks decry the all-inclusive gig as not really travelling. I think that sort of attitude is just a kind of snobbery. Sure if you just hang about the resort it’s a waste of fuel miles getting there, but on the limited number of all-inc deals I have done the hotel complex has provided a safe and very comfortable  environment to explore the local area, with the added advantage of not having to carry huge amounts of cash or face enormous credit card bills on my return.

The first time we did an all-inc was to the Mayan Riviera in Yucatan Mexico. We stayed at the Grand Palladium Colonial Resort & Spa. The resort architects had been careful to integrate the hotel infrastructure into the rainforest and mangrove swamp environment, with covered walkways between the hotel lobbies, restaurants and our palatial villa block. If we were feeling lazy there was always the land train, golf buggies or a boat to get us about.

In Mexico we shared the pool with a brown pelican

Our suite was enormous with a mini-bar that was refilled daily so there was always a chilled beer for relaxing in the whirlpool bath. Only a short walk through the mangroves was a long sandy beach with plenty of sun beds. It was just the place for a mescal and a beer as the sun set over the Caribbean. Wherever there was an open space we’d find iguanas basking in the sunshine, while frigate birds and black vultures soared effortlessly on the thermals overhead.

Iggy

The restaurants were great, with a choice fo Japanese, Mexican, Chinese, Italian and Rodizio, a Brazilian where they spit-roasted virtually every creature you could imagine running around a farm-yard. However all that luxury did not prevent us from exploring the Mayan sites at Tulum and Chichen Itza or the wildlife Park at Xel-ha, where we spotted some Coati frolicking in the jungle.

Temple of Kulkulhan, Chichen Itza

Since our Mexican adventure we have done all-inclusive deals to Cuba and the Cape Verde Islands.

Nothing quite like a gruesome Swedish murder mystery to while away the hours on a tropical beach

Sure the upfront price was expensive, but once I factored the minimal spending money we needed in, I don’t think it made the experience any more expensive than a package deal to Europe. Each holiday was certainly cheaper than our trip to the Neapolitan Riviera. Mind you, I don’t think I’d choose to do all-inclusive somewhere like Spain or the Greek Islands where  local restaurants and bars are part of the attraction (I don’t even like half-board in Europe, it’s rarely good quality for the price you pay), but that’s a different kind of holiday

The Travel A to Z Lumbers Back with N to P

So much positive stuff seems to be happening right now that I’m wondering if I will ever get around to polishing the A to Z off, but here’s the latest installment.

Nicest Hotel I have ever stayed in:

Now I have stayed in a lot of hotels over the past 50 odd years. In general I tend to think of a hotel as somewhere to sleep and leave my stuff, particularly if I’m only on a short break, but the occasional touch of luxury is great if we are staying put for a while. Price does not always correlate with nice though. For example on the two occasions I stayed in Istanbul I much preferred the small family run Avicenna, near the Blue Mosque, to the beastly corporate Conrad, despite the Conrad having a pool and other mod cons.

The Meltemi Apartments

The Meltemi Apartments

However if I had to make a choice, I’d plump for the Meltemi Apartments in Perissa on the Greek island of Santorini. So what did I like about them?

Our blue and white apartment was pretty much self-contained, well furnished and clean. The air conditioning actually worked, which doesn’t always happen in Greece. It was also close to a number of bars and restaurants and the beach was about five minutes away.

Yassou

There was also a local bakery, which was great for breakfast and a supermarket, where we could get two litre water bottles filled with wine from a barrel for about 50 cents. Not to mention a hoard of cats, like Noodles, so called because the lady who ran the joint fed him on Chinese takeaway.

Noodles and his brother or sister or cousin

The manageress was pretty cool herself and largely left us alone, except for the odd hair care tip, “Use lots of conditioner darlink”. And there was none of that big chain meaningless corporate crap like mission statements or brand identity nonsense.

Our private jacuzzi

Best of all we had our own private jacuzzi on our own private sun terrace. All this combined with Santorini’s relaxing atmosphere, great food, ouzo, beer and Vin Santo made for a great holiday.

Obsession:

Which one? Architecture, food, drink, wildlife, archeology?

No it has to be photographing birds.

Jackdaw Stockholm

Which is something I do everywhere we go even in my back garden,

Green Woodpecker, my back garden

most times these are the same creatures you can see in the UK, like this hooded crow,

Hooded Crow, Peterhof, St Petersburg

although you won’t see one in the south of England, and this fieldfare, both snapped in the grounds of Peter the Great’s palace at St Petersburg,

Fieldfare, St Petersburg

but occasionally something a bit more exotic like this green heron that I discovered helping himself to the koi carp in at our hotel in Cancun Mexico.

Mexican Green Heron

Passport Stamps:

My more recent passports have very few stamps in them, since hardly anywhere in Europe bothers to stamp other European passports any more. Which is a bit of a shame, as I always thought getting a stamp almost made up for the time wasted queuing up at the immigration desk. In my present passport I have stamps from Russia, Mexico and Croatia , but past passport stamps include; Hong Kong, Australia, Fiji, the USA, Canada, Spain, Gibraltar, Finland, Cyprus, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Norway, Greece and Israel.

Santa stamp Finland

I think this one from a Santa special trip to Arctic Finland is quite fun and shows that not all official functions have to be that serious. However for ruthlessly beating a passport to within an inch of its life you could not beat Egypt in the early 90s, where the forces of petty officialdom inflicted all of these wallops within a week.

Egypt, hard on passports!

A to Z of Travel ~ Greatest Feeling to Keepsake

Is it the anticipation, is it stepping off the plane in a new place?

No the

Greatest Feeling While Travelling

is leaving the airport and getting on whatever transport is taking you to your destination. For me it means I have fully arrived after having; got up far too early and got to the departure airport at an inconvenient time, had my shoes and camera x-rayed by a security jobsworth, been ripped off by airport catering outlets, bought various things at inflated prices that I didn’t want to stave off the boredom of waiting for the flight to be called, queued up too many times to remember, endured OPCs (other people’s children – they are always far worse than your own ever were), been cramped in a metal tube for hours on end listening to someone else’s little ball of joy howling all the way, queued for immigration, fought over baggage reclaim, endured the Homeland Security nutter who thinks your alarm clock is a threat to the USA “Because we are at war”, explained to Department of Agriculture guy that the thing on the X-Ray is a damp swimming costume rolled in a towel not a haggis and finally been scowled at by Customs officers, before that moment of panic when you can’t find the railway station or coach park!

Only then are you truely free from all the idiots who will impede you.

Cheers from Munich

Next best feeling is sitting down for your first beer.

Hottest Place I have ever been to

This is a bit subjective as I’m not really the sort of person who records figures, but I’d say it would have to be Luxor in Egypt. We went in July because it was quite cheap and I remember opening the door of the air-conditioned Nile Cruiser and being hit by a blast of hot air just like opening an oven door. It’s the nearest I have ever come to feeling like a frozen chicken. On the plus side it did not take too long to get used to the heat once we arrived and the tourist sites were not that crowded.

Incredible Service

I don’t really do luxury that often, but it would be a toss up between the Paradisus Rio del Oro Resort in Guardalavaca Cuba and the Grand Palladium Colonial Resort in Mexico, Both of these all-inclusive resorts were absolutely brilliant and the staff genuinely happy.

We have had all your money now get lost

For restaurant service the Witchery in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, has waiters who verge on OCD in their attention to straightening linen.

Longest Journey

In Fiji, Air Pacific the national carrier have only one 747. It broke down when we were due to fly on to Hawaii, we got bumped off the replacement 767 and abandoned by the airline staff in Nadi Airport. We spent the night at a cockroach infested airport hotel before I tracked down the Air Pacific office and got us put up in better quality one. We spent another two nights in Fiji before being flown to Los Angeles, where we were able to spend a few days, before our connecting flight to London. On the plus side Air Pacific coughed for the accommodation and food, refunded what I had shelled out for the airport fleapit and put us in the First Class Bubble (free booze all the way) of the now mended 747 on the way to LA. We also got to use the Qantas First Class lounge at Nadi Airport. It had a glass fronted fridge the length of the room filled with free beer and a toaster with loads of  Vegemite! 

Our nightmare UK rail journey was from Edinburgh to London around Christmas 2010 there will be a separate post about that soon!

Keepsake

The Famous Jackaroo Hat on Holiday in Cyprus

It has to be my Jackaroo hat, bought at Cairns, Australia. It’s real kangaroo skin which I have no qualms about, having eaten kangaroo and found it to be good. It’s battered and stained with sun tan lotion, sweat and beer, and quite well-travelled too having been to Fiji, California, Florida, Mexico, Cuba, the Cape Verde Islands, Spain, Portugal , Cyprus, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Greece and Italy.

A to Z of Travel ~ Experience to Favourite Mode of Transport

And so onwards to E

E – Event you Experienced that made you say wow.

Wow!- there have been rather a lot of these over the years, here’s my selection

Me in Red Square: Kremlin on the left and GUM Department store on the right

Moscow’s Red Square and discovering just how big it really is. Like many of the children of the 60s I remember seeing the May Day parades from Moscow in grainy black and white on the TV. Seemingly endless columns of tanks, missile launchers and goosestepping soldiers would march pass the scowling Politbureau, as they took the salute from the top of Lenin’s tomb.

Lenin's Tomb in front of the Kremlin

Even so it was only when we passed through the Voskresensky Gate in 2010, that I fully appreciated how enormous Red Square was, bordered on one side by the Kremlin and the other by the GUM department store, which today is more like a luxury shopping mall.

GUM all lit up and pretty

At the far end 300 metres away was the beautiful onion domed Cathedral of St Basil, where the chapels under the domes are being restored to their former glory.

St Basil's Cathedral

Of course one of the reasons for the square being so huge was fundamentally and horribly practical, it gave the occupants of the Kremlin a clear field of fire to massacre anyone attempting to storm the citadel!

The Pyramids of Chichen Itza in Mexico.

Temple of Kulkulkan Chichen Itza

It’s hard to imagine that these huge buildings dating back to the ancient Mayan and Toltec civilisations were mortared with the same stuff used to make chewing gum! The site itself is huge and surrounded by jungle, real Indiana Jones stuff.

Dachshund Parade Krakow: this happens on the first Sunday in September in the Polish city.

A Knight in Shining Armour

I have no idea why it happens, but it has now been going for about 20 years and some of the costumes are very creative.

His Majesty

We discovered this event purely by luck. It was featured in the easyJet inflight magazine I was reading as we were on our way there.

And just to prove we have the wow factor here in the UK, Stonehenge in Wiltshire.

Stonehenge

I do actually think the stone circle at nearby Avebury is more impressive as a piece of neolithic architecture, it’s far bigger for a start and there is a good pub that does decent food too, but it’s not as complete or as photogenic as Stonehenge.

Other wows would have to include: watching the Sun rise and set over Uluru in Australia, the Great Barrier Reef, Philip Island’s (near Melbourne) Fairy Penguin Parade as the Sun goes down, the rock-hewn city of Petra in Jordan, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, taking a helicopter ride through the Grand Canyon and then another through the man-made canyons of New York city, the Pyramids of Egypt and those of Teotihuacan near Mexico City, The Valley of the Kings and the Temples of Karnak and Aswan, Abu Simbel, the Parthenon in Athens, the mosques of Istanbul and the megalithic passage tomb of Newgrange in Ireland. However they are all on film rather than digital.

F – Favourite Mode of Transport

Local train Moscow Station St Petersburg

It would have to be by train. It’s so much more civilised than flying, you usually travel city centre to city centre without expensive and inconvenient trips to out of town airport locations, you are not subject to so many queues, petty bureaucrats and silly regulations or rip off airport prices. Scenery can be enjoyed as it passes by and you can get up and take a walk.

My favourite rail journeys have been St Petersburg to Moscow, London to Edinburgh (obviously enough) and the Oresund crossing from Copenhagen in Denmark to Malmo in Sweden over the Baltic Sea. Speaking of railway bridges between Edinburgh and Dundee there are two Victorian stunners: the amazing cantelever construction that is the Forth Bridge and the two and a quarter mile long Tay Bridge. Worth the trip alone even if you don’t like Marmalade.

The Tay Bridge enjoying some lovely Scottish weather

Return to the Tower and a Traditional East End Burrito

The weather here in the UK was so grim yesterday that it’s hard to believe that Sunday in London it was like this.

South Bank of Thames from the Tower of London

We had returned to the Tower of London for the girls to get their ice skating session in before the daughter had to return to Edinburgh. I’m fairly familiar with the area around the Tower (back in the 1980s I had a girlfriend who worked at the Tower Hotel) and it is amazing how much the area has changed in recent years. This is particularly so on the South Bank, where the grim facade of warehouses has either been refurbished as fancy shops and restaurants or replaced with quite stunning modern buildings like those in the photo above.

The building that looks a bit like Judge Dredd’s helmet is the seat of the London Assembly, where the comedy Mayor of London Boris Johnson writes endless cheques to bankroll the Olympics. Incidentally Boris is not the Lord Mayor of London, who hosts the big Lord Mayor’s Show in November, but at least he is democratically elected to represent Londoners. The Lord Mayor of London is Head of the City of London Corporation which governs the London financial district that falls more or less within the old city walls, a role that dates back to 1215.

The really high building you can see in the photo is The Shard (well officially the Shard London Bridge) which at 310 metres will be the tallest building in the European Union when it is completed later this year.

The Shard

Designed by Renzo Piano ,who also designed London’s Central Saint Giles development and NEMO in Amsterdam, it will be a mixed commercial and residential building. Apparently Piano knocked up the original design on a napkin over lunch with the developer in Berlin.

Also in the frame above was one of the Thames Clippers that I mentioned in my previous post, so I took a snap as it went by.

Thames Clipper passing the London Assembly Building

The Tower of London has been many things since William the Conqueror founded it as a fortress to keep the local Anglo-Saxons subdued back in 1066. Aside from being a royal palace, a prison and the home of the Royal Mint it also housed the Royal Menagerie which was first referenced in the time of Henry III when the Sheriffs of the City of London were forced to pay four pence a day to feed the King’s polar bear who was kept there. All kinds of beasts were kept at the Tower and in the 18th Century you could save the one and half penny entrance fee by turning up with a dog or a cat to be fed to the lions.

Kendra Haste's Wire Lions at the Tower of London

The last of the creatures were moved to Regents Park in 1835 so aside from the Tower Ravens, the only animals that you will see today are Kendra Haste’s fantastic wire sculptures by the moat.

Once the girls had finished at the ice rink we hopped on the tube to Stratford to have lunch at Wahaca in the Westfield Centre.

Pure Evil's artwork at Wahaca Westfield Stratford

Each branch of Wahaca has graphics by a local artist, Stratford’s are by street artist Pure Evil. I particularly liked the Day of the Dead style Pearly Kings and Queens on the toilet doors merging Mexican and London iconography, but people would quite rightly think it a bit strange for me to take a camera into the loo, so I contented myself with a picture of the cats at the bar.

Bar at Wahaca Stratford.

As usual the food was brilliant, I had a Chicken Tinga Burrito and a couple of Pacifico beers,

Chicken Tinga Burrito

and went home well happy.

Madeira – Meat and Mariachi on the Rua de Santa Maria

On the last night of our Madeira break tragedy struck, the Donna Maria restaurant was closed! fortunately we didn’t have far to look as at the top of Funchal’s Rua de Santa Maria we found the O Jango restaurant.

Judging by the decor I suspect this place may have once been an African restaurant, probably based upon the cuisine of Portugal’s colonies of Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique. Whether it was or not, it’s now resolutely Madeiran and the Espetadas were, if anything, even bigger than Donna Maria’s, even if they did come on a metal spit rather than a Laurel Bay skewer.

Espetadas

Complete with vegetables this gut busting beef feast was only €13 per person and savagely delicious. In fact with starters, wine and a couple of beers the total bill only came to €66 for the three of us which is amazing value compared to what you would pay back in the UK. In fact all the restaurants we tried were relatively inexpensive except for the Casa Portuguesa.

Rua de Santa Maria has some great bars too. Bar Caracas is essentially a man behind a counter, a TV, a table and three chairs. It’s where all the old Portuguese guys hang out, so we’d only have a few drinks in the early evening and then leave the bar to them so they could ruminate over the football and complain about their kids in peace. We went Dutch and drank Head Knocks, lager with Genever chasers. The bar keeper was extremely enthusiastic with the spirit measures (€3 each, but about four UK measures) and by our second visit local gin ended up being substituted for the Genever, though the empty stone bottle found its way back onto the well stocked shelves.

Another place that we liked was the Joana Rabo de Peixe Mexican restaurant. We only had drinks there one evening, but we chose well because it was Mariachi night.

Mariachi Band

Mind you the band was so big that they had to perform in the street outside. Not very Portuguese I admit, but with the street blocked by happy people enjoying the Latino sounds, a fantastic atmosphere.

Indoor Chili Update – Wahaca Chilis still Going Strong and Gay Hussar Doing Well

Thanks to those lovely people at Wahaca we have had free chilis all summer long.  The original plants have long outgrown the kitchen window sill and are now sitting by the French windows in the lounge to catch the best of the winter sunshine.

Wahacca Chilis Still Fruiting

They are still in flower and fruiting even if they are getting a bit spindly. They have been joined recently by a Scotch Bonnet plant that I grew from some seeds scavenged from a supermarket pack.

Scotch Bonnet Bush

It’s a much sturdier plant and although this one has yet to flower, the one in the kitchen has just come into bloom, so with a bit of luck we shall have some of those red hot little peppers in time for Christmas.

Back in the kitchen I have a small crop of chilis grown from the seeds collected from the chili pods used as table decorations in the Gay Hussar.

Gay Hussar Chilis

These have a much more subtle flavour, you can even eat them raw chopped through a salad. I just hope we are not too late in the year for them to produce a fine crop of little fruits.

A Beer with Nick at Poncho No.8

You know a trip into London’s Soho is rarely uneventful. The other week just before the weather started to get a bit rubbish I took a wander down to Poncho No.8 in Old Comption Street to have a beer with Poncho founder Nick Troen. Approaching the bottom of Frith Street my attention was drawn to a gutsy rendition of Sisters are Doing it for Themselves from the pavement outside Cafe Nero.

‘That’s a very tight sweater that lass is wearing’, I thought, before it clicked that no sweater permits that amount of swing, yes she was naked from the waist up.  Naturally everybody around had become very British, sneaking a look as they pretended nothing out of the ordinary was happening at all. I maintained my own stiff upper lip and carried on to the restaurant where Nick joined me for a cold Pacifico and a very tasty burrito.

Poncho No.8 Old Comption Street

Now Nick had started his career in the world of corporate banking and I was curious as to why he and his business partner Frank Yeung, had jacked that sort of security in to do something as risky as opening a chain of Cali-Mex restaurants.

‘Well, it’s not as nuts as you may think in terms of crazy danger, just financially very risky! Though of course we’d done our research, I did my thesis at the LSE on burritos and Frank has had a lot of experience in the catering industry, so we felt the risk was significantly mitigated. On the other hand, we’d always wanted to work for ourselves, didn’t have any debt, and mortgage, any wife or kids, so if we did fail, it wouldn’t be the end of the world’.

‘Mexican food is so versatile and disparate, you can pretty much fashion it into anything you want, fast food, mid market or full sit down, and still have huge variations within those sectors. The popularity of Mex food was rising and we saw a lot of space to create a premium mid market offering. Our experiences from California and New York and seeing how the Americans had evolved the burrito into a more Western-centric food was a big factor. ‘

Huge Range of Burrito Fillings at Poncho No.8

I’d certainly agree that Mexican food is on the up, what with restaurants like Wahacca, El Burrito and Mestizo, all in London’s gatronomic mix and Tommi Miers‘s recent TV series Mexican Food Made Simple , but what is next for Poncho No.8, more restaurants or retail products?

‘So many options for where we can go, and whereas we’ll always experiment with different ideas like Ceviche, and Soho’s unique restaurant, more City branches are likely. We think the trend will move south towards Central and South America. We did a limited time offer of Ceviche – fresh fish cured with lemon and lime juice which is Peruvian in origin, but can be found throughout Latin America. Look out for some cevicherias popping up soon.’

Having tried ceviche in, of all places Edinburgh, I will look forward to that, but finally I could not resist asking whether Nick could cook or was he was just the brains behind the operation?

‘Er, neither! Frank is definitely the cook, and we both share strategic and operational decisions. My most particular role is directing the brand and voice of the company which I think is incredibly important. People like companies to reflect the personal element that exists in all of them (after all any business is run by people). Our company is all about funky food, great service and helpful service, and it’s vital to get this across in everything from the design of the shop, to being on hand to go drop some burritos off to a customer ourselves if we’ve got high demand!’

That’s got to more fun than being a banker!

The topless beauty was swilling coffee at one of Cafe Nero’s pavement tables in Frith Street as I made my way back to Oxford Street. I wonder where she kept her change?

Indian Tapas, Tequila and Beer – Another Night Out in Soho

As we had adults Saturday night this weekend, we decided to try out the new Indian tapas restaurant Imli, in Soho’s Wardour Street. Arriving in London’s west end a wee bit early we headed off to the Nordic Bar for a quick drink before meeting up with Mr Wolfe in the tequila bar downstairs at Wahaca.

I have often walked past the Nordic Bar in Fitzrovia’s Newman Street (no. 25) and thought “I really must try that place”, but never got around to it before. Situated in a basement, it’s pretty dark inside and the black walls don’t help to brighten the place up. Draft beers are Tuborg and that bloody awful Carlsberg, which isn’t very imaginative since they are both made by the same Danish brewer, but there are beers and ciders from other parts of Scandinavia in bottles as well as a selection of Swedish vodka. Prices are what you’d expect from a London pub so quite a lot cheaper than a real Scandinavian pub!

Next stop was the tequila bar downstairs at Wahaca where we met up with Mr Wolfe and tried the smoky Forever Oax reposado mescal with a Pacifico beer chaser, which went down well with some nachos and guacamole. We had just enough time to savour an old Marguay reposado tequila before legging it across Wardour Street to Imli (167-169) where our table was ready.

There has been a fair bit of noise about this place bringing the concept of tapas to Indian food recently, but Mother India in Edinburgh and Glasgow got there first. Still Imli’s menu is packed full of really tempting stuff. We took the easy option of going for the set menu B at £25.95 (there is a set menu A at £19.95 which is pretty much the same only minus some of the meat dishes). The first stuff to arrive were a grilled spicy chicken salad dressed with honey and ginger, Aloo Matar Tikki Ragda – a potato and pea cake served with a red onion and tamarind chutney and some deep fried spicy squid, all beautifully presented and quite delicious.

The next course to arrive was honey grilled duck on a bed of turmeric mash. although a bit on the small side it was really, really good and I could have eaten much more of it. This was followed by lamb rogon josh, plus a creamy curry of mushroom, baby corn and spinach and a Bombay alloo, accompanied with pulao rice, plain and cheese naans. Again all very nice. Finally a home-made fig and ginger ice cream finished off the meal perfectly. All in the food was very good and as with Mother India the smaller portions ensured that while nobody went hungry there was not any waste.

On the down side the drinks are a bit pricy (large Cobra about £7), there are no little extras like heated towels or even an after dinner mint after the meal and a 12.5% service charge is added to your final bill. I think that’s a bit cheeky given the extortionate price of the booze. On balance though it was a good night out despite the four of us all walking out £45 lighter.

There was only one thing left to do, so cutting down Old Comption Street we just had time for a couple of pints in The Coach and Horses before getting the tube home.