Kolkata teeming…

Not surprisingly, I jumped at the offer to join a tour group organised by the Asia touring experts Exotic Holidays NZ with an itinerary visiting the contrasting regions of Kolkata (old Calcutta) in Western Bengal, Sikkim in Northern India and the Kingdom of Bhutan. Each of these destinations is worthy of a blog, but i’ll begin with Kolkata…!

Flying from Auckland with Singapore Airlines takes just under 11 hours and transfer time at Changi Airport can be as full-on or relaxing as you wish to make it. This airport has quite justifiably made the list of one of the world’s best airports and with immaculately clean surroundings, flower and Butterfly Gardens, movie theatres, swimming pools and spas as well as great shopping experiences, your time really does “fly”.  If you have more than 5 hours to spare, there is a free Singapore City Tour by bus provided from the airport, and it’s very worthwhile if you haven’t been before.

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We connected to Kolkata on Silk Air with the journey a respectable 4.5 hours and an efficient aircrew on board. An animated conversation with a Singapore resident (on his way to a meditation retreat in India) about the best places to eat in Singapore took my attention away from the smallish seats, limited legroom and seriously outdated (and somewhat grubby-looking) coral pink decor.

Arriving in Kolkata was an interesting experience that involved being finger-printed and photographed by quite stern looking gentlemen who showed their obvious frustration with their outdated equipment, before being assaulted by the full force of a 32℃ humidity laden evening. Nevertheless, our air-conditioned chariot awaited and we embarked on an interesting 35-minute journey to our accommodation for the night – the Lalit Grand Eastern Hotel on Old Court House St, Dalhousie Square.

This hotel was an oasis of tranquility nestled among the frenetic shopping and business areas of Kolkata and the staff were excellent and welcoming to a group of tired travellers just wanting to get to our beds.  Our rooms were in the comfortable contemporary section of the hotel, but I understand that the fully renovated Victorian and Edwardian sections of this c.1841 hotel are absolutely stunning. Breakfast is served in the lobby-level Alfresco dining room that had an airy “conservatory” feel to it with views out to the surrounding lily-ponds. There is a multitude of food choice from traditional Indian fare through to European pastries, fruits or made to order hot dishes. A word of caution – unless you like your tea or coffee very sweet and milky, ask for black tea or coffee and request your milk separately!

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Traditional Indian tea should be tried at least once however and is a spiced, sweetened black tea mixed with milk which often includes cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, pepper, fennel, and star anise. It is sold all over India by chai wallahs, or tea vendors, who pour the tea from big kettles into small cups. We experienced this unique experience and were told by our guide that it is quite safe, due to the kettles being constantly on the boil by way of a crude kerosene burner fitted under the kettle – however, we drank it without milk!

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Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal and has a city population of in excess of 4.5 million. Under the late 17th century rule of the East India Company and later the British Raj, Calcutta served as the capital of the Indian British held territories. In 1911 the capital was shifted to New Delhi and later after Independence from Britain in 1947, the city suffered several decades of economic stagnation which is evident in the numerous once elegant colonial buildings that have sadly fallen into decay and ruin. Interestingly, our guide (a Professor of History) also assisted Australian author Joanne Taylor with her book “The Forgotten Palaces of Calcutta” and conducts a walking tour which visits some of these fascinating buildings. I would be up for that!

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It was Festival time in Western Bengal which meant more craziness than usual on the streets of Kolkata as the population geared up to celebrate Navaratri – a nine-night festival that honours the Mother Goddess in all her manifestations. On every street corner, communities vie with each other to erect life-sized temporary temples, and individuals, businesses and communities commission the specialist local artisans to construct for them the most impressive statues of gods, goddesses and deities to outdo each other. We were taken for a walk through some of the streets that house these artisans and the level of craftsmanship that goes into these statues and temporary temples is simply stunning.

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This finished product display was created by one of the top artisans and we were told was sold for a very high price. 

You witness the designs beginning as clumps of straw folded to an approximate design and then being covered with a layer of clay. Successive layers of clay are added, moulded, sanded and manipulated into lifelike and larger-than-life scenes from mythology.

They are then expertly painted, decorated and sequinned, dressed and transported (often on the back of a rickshaw or by a group carrying poles) to their place of display and worship.

In an ironic twist, at the end of the festival and as part of the ritual, the effigies are returned to the earth by being thrown into the Ganges! Some displays are pure Bollywood theatre but what an experience to witness their creation!

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Next stop was the Pareshnath Jain temple on Badridas Temple Street, one of Kolkata’s most important temples. Entering under the Temple gateway, your visual senses are overloaded with a display of heavily ornamented buildings, intricate colourful gardens, statuary (some with very comical features) and fountains, but the real surprise comes as you draw closer to the main temple.

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Intricately paved marble floors compete for your attention with walls, windows, ceilings and pillars that are entirely decorated with mosaics of coloured glass, mirror, semi-precious stones and marble.

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Chandeliers hang from every ceiling and you are left wondering how such awe-inspiring symmetry and precision could have been achieved, by hand in the mid-late 19th century. The heavy use of mirrored mosaic gives an impression that the structure is made of inlaid silver and the effect is quite dazzling in the bright light. Interior photos are not allowed and as with most religious sites, shoes must be removed.

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Our departure/transit hotel was The Peerless Inn Kolkata, on Jawaharlal Nehru Road. They provided good facilities for showering and freshening up before braving the festival crowds for a last-minute spot of shopping and then heading back to the airport.  Located 45 minutes from the airport, this is a predominantly business hotel with a good central location, good facilities and a pleasant buffet restaurant.

Kolkata like many cities in India can be an assault on the senses – the noise, smells, sights and the sheer number of people can be overwhelming and some of the things you see make you realise that our first world problems are ridiculously unimportant.  Many people live in adverse conditions, with very little but their determination, smiles and their good humour which remarkably shines through. All in all, India is definitely a place I will return to but I don’t think I would plan or travel it alone. Being part of a guided or escorted tour and being in the care of operators who are locally based, is the only way to go. India is also an ideal location for onwards travel and my next blog will be about getting from Kolkata to Sikkim in Northern India and then onwards to Bhutan.

Tips & Recommendations

  • Don’t be afraid to eat the local food – just take care and use common sense when eating items like salads that may have been prepared with non-bottled water.
  • Do try all of the amazing varieties of Indian bread – from luchis, puri and pathiri to roti and chapati – for breakfast lunch and dinner, with dal or the many curry options.
  • Don’t leave Kolkata without trying some of their speciality fish dishes or the famous and delicious momos.
  • Beer in India is cheap and very good quality and after a hot day out – delicious!
  • Always, always have spare tissues and hand sanitizer in your pocket or bag.
  • Photos are not permitted in temples or holy places – please respect this.
  • Take a pair of socks to put on when entering temples as shoes must be removed.
  • Use a well-known and trusted touring company like Exotic Holidays NZ to take the hassle out of your holiday.

 

Asia History

24 Hours in Portland, Maine

I’m sure that most travellers will agree that after the bright lights of New York City and the old-world English charm of Boston, most US cities have a very hard act to follow and my hopes were virtually nonexistent when it came to the state capital of Maine. But as if to prove me oh so wrong, Portland turned out to be my favourite stop on our NYC to Montreal road trip – it’s quiet, unassuming vibe was a welcome relief after the bustle of Boston and the fresh sea-salted air reminded me of being back home in Wellington. For anyone wanting a foodie stop on their East Coast road trip, this is the place and there are a raft of newly-renovated apartments and lofts to rent on Airbnb – we stayed here and promptly decided the deco and couch were nice enough to spend the evening in with a bottle of wine and random episodes of Gilmore Girls.

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The next day, we started our morning with a cold brew and some morning bread on the sun-drenched terrace (an ultra-thick slab of cinnamon-spiced brioche) at The Standard Baking Co., located in the Old Port directly across from the Casco Bay Ferry Terminal. It’s a family-owned bakery making artisanal breads and pastries and heavily influenced by Maine’s pan-European past. There’s German Vollkornbrot, French brioche and cinnamon scrolls to rival the kanalbullar I tasted in Stockholm. Definitely a place for any bread geeks out there!

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With the last brioche crumbs gone, we headed off to wander around the Old Port. Until very recently, downtown Portland had suffered in the name of capitalist progress. The opening of a huge mall in southern Portland (the largest in the state of Maine) put many department stores and smaller retailers in the port area out of business and stores sat empty for several years. However, recently the council has committed to rejuvenating the area, with ongoing projects to protect the city’s elaborate Victorian architecture, and the Old Port is now a mecca for independents and quirky eateries.

We spent the morning wandering past local coffee roasters, organic food stores, homeware shops and market stalls selling jewellery and art. It’s nice to escape the cruise ship crowd and explore the smaller streets that branch off from Commercial Street. The best place to get a photo is either down on the pier by the Information Centre (14 Ocean Gateway Pier – worth visiting for the toilets and friendly advice on the city and surrounds) or next to the Casco Bay Ferry Terminal, where restaurants and bars stretch out onto the piers.

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One thing this city has in common with its West Coast namesake is a small but buzzing independent coffee scene, which is surely the lifeblood of the city’s “hipster” revival. We stopped at Coffee by Design, a café with a cosy, community feel to it and just a stone’s throw away from the information centre. Other local recommendations included Tandem Coffee Roasters, which is just a bit further up the street on Anderson Street, and Crema Coffee Company on Commercial Street, which we popped into to take a look at – a huge space, great for working and with a fireplace for those cold wintery Maine days. For any keen coffee beans, there’s a great guide to Maine’s coffee culture both in and around the city here.

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After the coffee break and before heading out to Cape Elizabeth to do some seagull spotting, we decided to make one last stop at Duckfat in Middle Street, just off the Old Port area. People from around the country flock to this tiny eatery to try the Belgian-style chips that are fried in (you guessed it) duck fat and served in a cone along with one of eight homemade dipping sauces – we can highly recommend the horseradish mayo! If we’d had more time, we definitely would have stayed in to eat – they also do sandwiches, salads, charcuterie, milkshakes and soups, and if everything is as good as those fries were, then it is definitely a lunch-worthy stop.

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Finally, before you leave the Portland area, make a stop at Cape Elizabeth for superb views of the rugged Maine coastline. The town was originally settled as one of the English trading posts in the early 17th century, with the first being on Richmond Island where beaver skins and rum was traded with the Native Indians. It went from strength to strength as a trading outpost until it became Maine’s twenty-third town during the American War of Independence. Along with the Portland Head Light (which was built at the order of George Washington), visitors can also see the remains of a large artillery fort (hence the name Fort Williams Park) that was built at the end of the 19th century and remained active until 1962. The park is a twenty-minute drive from Portland and there is lots of free parking on site.

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Happy travels folks, Mo

Food History USA/Canada

New Zealand – no description needed!

South Island, NZ – Part I –

Boasting about my home country and its beauty is something I enjoy doing regularly while travelling. It’s astounding just how many foreigners want to visit our Aotearoa; the magical and faraway haven. Despite being reasonably well travelled internationally, I am ashamed to say that my own backyard remains relatively unexplored so with two weeks of annual leave up my sleeve, myself and two friends packed up our Toyota Corolla and made the trip “down south”.

Setting off on the Kaitaki (Interislander Ferry), our Cook Strait crossing was blessed with calm seas and clear skies. As we cruised into the Marlborough Sounds, we were lucky enough to spot two dolphins frolicking in the waves off the bow of the ship – a good omen for the trip ahead perhaps? We stepped foot on southern soil just after lunchtime and promptly hit the road.

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Our first overnight stop was in sunny Nelson. Surrounded by stunning vineyards and a number of great New Zealand walks, we instantly regretted only having one night in this unique spot. We stayed at the Quality Inn, which was affordable, clean and quiet.

The next morning we set off for Blackball, a small gold-mining town on the West Coast.  While driving through the stunning Nelson Lakes National Park, we made a quick detour to Lake Rotoiti (also known as Lake Arthur). Thanks to the indispensable ‘jetboil’ we were lucky enough to enjoy a cuppa overlooking the icy blue water and snow-capped mountains (Mount Robert and St. Arnaud’s Range). In the summer, the lake is a popular water-skiing spot but we were thankful to be rugged up sipping hot tea!

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After a few more hours behind the wheel, we arrived at Blackball and checked into ‘Formerly the Blackball Hilton’ for the night. The story behind the quaint small-town hotel is an interesting read (more about it here)  Tip: while in Blackball, pop across the road and sample some Blackball Salami – we particularly enjoyed the venison pepperoni.

While the sun was setting, we visited Punakaiki and the famous Pancake Rocks, which were utterly breathtaking (and a must-see for the anyone in the area).

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The next morning we were on the road bright and early, making our way to Franz Josef via Haast (a UNESCO world heritage area). A must-visit is the Hunter Gatherer Café in Harihari which is one hour north of Franz Josef.  Tip: get the cheese scone, it’s to-die-for.

We arrived in Franz Josef just in time to take a helicopter flight to the glacier before the weather packed in. The flight was about $200pp for 20mins of flying and 10mins on-ice time. It’s not until you are standing on the glacier that you really appreciate its sheer magnitude.

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Tip: wear sensible shoes and sunglasses! We finished the day with a soak in the thermal springs and dinner. For an affordable but atmospheric eat, I would definitely recommend SnakeBite Brewery (Asian fusion cuisine).

As we made our way further south, the temperature continued to drop (we hit -1 degree coming into Queenstown) but the scenery only got better. A real highlight was Glenorchy, a small town about 40 minutes out of tourist hub Queenstown. We stayed in a small station cottage (quite the rural experience) owned by a friend. In the morning we explored some the spots used in the filming of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, including Isengard, Lothlorien, and Amon Hen. Just drive past Paradise, a small village north of Glenorchy for 10-15 minutes and you’ll find them.

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Leaving the tranquility of Glenorchy behind, we journeyed back to Queenstown for the weekend to enjoy the Winter Festival.

 Part II to follow…

Many thanks to guest blogger Lottie of Wellington, NZ – looking forward to Part II!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food History New Zealand Pacific

The Beauty of Barga and the Garfagnana

If you’re looking for somewhere to get away from it all, the medieval town of Barga in the Garfagnana is a lovely location. While there are several historic sites, churches and monuments, none are as compelling as the vistas of the countryside and mountains, so it is the perfect place to take a break from sightseeing and spend a restorative day or two ‘smelling the roses’. If you’re after a little more action, Barga is also a great base for some serious mountain biking and hiking.

The Garfagnana is the area that encompasses the valley and hills trailing the Serchio River between the Apuan Alps and the Apennines towards Lucca. It is probably the most undiscovered part of Tuscany and is prized for its wide skies and mountain vistas. Mostly consisting of small, hillside hamlets scattered among oak and chestnut forests, Barga is one of the larger settlements in the Garfagnana and is billed as the most Scottish town in Italy (a nod to the Scottish Highlands).

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Getting there

Barga is approximately 35km from Lucca and is an easy, 45-minute drive. From Pisa, it’s about an hour. There are regular trains from Lucca to Barga-Gallicano station on the Lucca – Aulla line (€9.00 return trip). From Barga-Gallicano station, Barga is about 4km uphill. If you’re fit, take a bike with you (additional €3.00 return trip on the train), but the climb from the station is quite steep and would challenge a novice rider. Buses run from across the road from the station, but may not connect with all trains, so it is best to check at the time of booking. It is also possible to travel direct from Lucca by bus.

Staying there

If you don’t have a car, you will almost definitely want to arrange accommodation in Barga. For those with a car, the range of accommodation extends to luxury spa hotels and agriturismos in the surrounding hamlets.

We travelled by train (with bikes) and stayed in Barga at 3-star Villa Moorings Hotel, which was a 5-minute walk to the old city and to a range of restaurants and osterie. Villa Moorings Hotel is a Liberty style villa-turned-hotel and is packed to the gunnels with history and charm. Our room and bathroom were vast and full of period furniture and fittings. Beatrice, the owner/manager, was as charming as her hotel. She has done a wonderful job of repurposing the villa, once owned by her grandparents – think frescoed ceilings, grand staircases and ornately tiled floors. The effect of stately charm extends to the outdoors where there is a large pool alongside a grassed lawn and orchard. We travelled to Barga in June and booked through a booking website, however you can contact Beatrice direct on +39 583-710915 or +39 583-711538. We paid €101 for the night plus €10pp for a breakfast that was delicious and way more substantial than we needed.

Eating out

There is a range of trattorie and osterie in the old city and several options outside the old city walls, including bars and pizzarie. Like other Tuscan cuisine, the Garfagnese take pride in preparing traditionally simple food, using local, seasonal produce. We had dinner in the old city at L’Osteria, which included an antipasto of cheese, nuts and honey, followed by macaroni (no resemblance to what we are used to in NZ) with truffle, then by lamb and potatoes – all delicious and relatively inexpensive at €39 plus drinks. We skipped dessert and were treated to a glass of local limoncello ‘on the house’ before we left.

What to do

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A walk up to Barga’s Duomo (Church of San Cristoforo) through the old town is a must. Walking through the town, you can be forgiven for feeling somewhat of an intruder – the cobbled lanes and stepped passages are very narrow and steep; even the piazze are tiny. Follow your nose uphill and you will eventually arrive at the terrace of the Duomo where you can take in the majesty of the views of the Serchio river valley, the Appenines and the Apuan Alps. From behind the Duomo, looking down towards the valley floor, you can see steeply terraced plantings of grapevines, olive trees, citrus and vegetables that are typical of the area. The Duomo itself is well worth a look and will provide welcome relief from the heat if you are there in the summer.

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Sommocolonia…
Looking out of our hotel window, I was intrigued by the tiny village sitting atop a not too distant hill to the north of Barga. Beatrice was quick to provide us with directions that included a hike up to Sommocolonia by way of an ancient mule track (mulatiettiera). The mule track can be joined about 2km from Barga at Catagnana; keep an eye out for the red and white ‘signs’ (which may just be paint marks on the road, and may almost be worn away). We lost our way a couple of times and needed guidance from a helpful local, the owner of two mules which we had the pleasure of encountering along the way. The climb up to Sommocolonia is not difficult, but it is a steep walk and requires a reasonable level of fitness (approx. 1.5 hours). At the top, from the tiny village (population about 35), the views are sublime. Originally an important fortified Roman outpost, Sommocolonia was partially destroyed by bombing in 1944 during the Second World War. At the village’s highest point, a monument to the partisans who died fighting alongside US forces seems incongruous with what now appears to be a peaceful and sleepy village. It’s a good idea to take plenty of water and a snack with you. When we visited, the only people we encountered were also hikers and although it was very hot and made sense for locals to be indoors, the chance of happening upon a bar or any other eatery seemed very remote.

Another big thanks to guest blogger Niki McNeilage of Wellington who is currently spending a few months living and touring in Italy, France and Spain.

Europe Food History Italy

Heidelberg Cool

I don’t know what I was more excited about – seeing daughter Mo who had been studying at Heidelberg University for the year, or staying in this charming town – the first stop on our much anticipated Christmas Market tour of Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic! Of course it was seeing Mo – but timing our trip to commence late November meant that we could have our cake and eat it too.  Yes, it’s Winter in Europe at that time of year but if you want to experience the charm and beauty of a traditional Christmas with all the bells and whistles (and sometimes snow), then put on your hat, coat and gloves and start your Yuletide adventure (our Czech Christmas Market blog to follow).

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The historic town of Heidelberg is located in southwestern Germany and sits on the banks of the Neckar River. Home to one of Germany’s oldest and most reputable universities founded in 1386, it is not only a quintessentially vibrant University town but a popular tourist destination.  The romantic and historic cityscape, baroque Old Town, Heidelberg Castle and the well-known Philosopher’s Walk are among just some of the many attractions in this town full of Gothic and Renaissance architecture.

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Driving from Frankfurt Airport to Heidelberg took around 1 hour and with a satnav that we couldn’t re-programme into English, we quickly became proficient at German driving instructions!  We always prefer to stay in the historic centres of European capitals for the atmosphere but this is not always the easiest for car parking, so you have to do a lot of research in advance if travelling by car.  There are many excellent tour operators who have itineraries that cover the best of the Christmas Markets by either coach or river-cruising, so if driving is not your bag maybe consider one of these as an option.

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We booked into The Hotel Goldener Falke, right on the historic Altstadt Marktplatz, with a window overlooking the colourful Christmas Market. Located right next to the 15th century Heilleggeist Kirche (Church of the Holy Spirit), the atmosphere was incredible. Rugging up in puffer jackets, we joined the locals and other tourists who gather from around 4 pm as the dusk settles in, to enjoy a Gluhwein (our mulled wine) or two.  You very quickly forget the cold – but have to watch out for those uneven, narrow cobbled streets by the end of the night! Interestingly, our concern that it could be noisy next to the square at night, was dispelled after the first night. The markets finish at a respectable hour, the cold sends people indoors to fires and a hearty dinner at a reasonable time and our excellent hotel was not only well heated but had very good double-glazing.  Hard to imagine that this festive square was once where witches and heretics were burned at the stake or local miscreants suspended in cages for all to see their torment and shame!

Our first day was spent in a daze of sightseeing, eating and catching up.  Typical of old town environs, everything from the Hotel restaurant to the little traditional pubs features decor with lashings of dark timber, heavily-carved furniture that all give a homely, traditional feel and makes you want to linger. We sampled such delights as Käsespätzle (a “warm the cockles of your heart” type of German macaroni cheese), Bratwürste mit Sauerkraut und Kartoffelpüree (traditional sausage with Sauerkraut and mashed potato) and Apfelstrudel (apple strudel). My new favourite German word and food became Kartoffelpüffer – the name of the German equivalent of Swiss Potato Rosti. The restaurant at our hotel served the traditional Schnitzel dinner exceptionally well and one evening we were lucky to have the front table overlooking the market, watching the snow gently falling on the festivities outside. Breakfast at the “Golden Falcon” is also worthy of mention being varied, plentiful and included in your room price.

Another happy evening was spent at the Kulturbrauerei on the eastern end of the Altstadt. Dripping in atmosphere with painted ceilings, good home-brewed beer and a convivial atmosphere, the food was hearty and traditional and washed down with copious amounts of the obligatory Gluhwein. Tables were long bench type arrangements so you may end up sharing with someone else, but it’s all part of the charm.

 

Our photos certainly don’t do justice to our experience, as the dull skies make everything look a little gloomy, but in reality, it was far from that. The Castle was particularly interesting. Having suffered extensive damage from lightning strikes, wars and fires since its beginnings around the 13th century it had slowly decayed over the centuries after being ransacked by locals for stone and ornamentation. In the 19th century, the ruins were the romantic setting for many painters, writers, poets and those young men and women completing their “Grand Tour” of Europe. Ironic that some 150 years later and after the occupation of Heidelberg by the American military in WWII,  the majority of its present tourists are Japanese or Americans who swarm the observation terraces to take in the spectacular views. There are excellent displays inside the Castle as well – from the intact Apothecary Museum to the World’s Largest Wine Barrel or Heidelberg Tun. Opening hours in Summer are 8am-6pm or Winter from 10am-5.30pm and the reasonable charge of 4-7€ (slightly more for interior as well) it’s a great day out.

This is a town where you don’t have to pay for everything if you just want to wander and drink in the sights and history.  Walk the Alte Brücke (old bridge) c.1786 with its intriguing brass monkey statue and the twin-towers which once formed part of the city wall. Another famous attraction that has inspired many a well-known Poet is the Philosophenweg (Philosopher’s Walk). Established in 1817, the walk reaches an altitude of 200 metres. Along the route, there are botanical displays that would no doubt be quite stunning in Summer, with an eclectic mix of exotic and tropical trees and shrubs. The invigorating walk is well worth the view at the top where you can admire the town from above with fantastic views across the River Neckar and back to the Castle. In Summer the walk is also illuminated at night and must be a sight to see.

The 18th century Rathaus (town hall) is another beautiful building and the Kornmarkt, the old agricultural trading centre/square features the well-known statue of the Madonna with great views of the Schloss (castle) and a photo opportunist’s dream.

In three days we really didn’t leave the old town except to drive out but it was obvious that the town must have been (and still is) a very affluent one judging by the beautiful 19th and 20th century villas on the sides of the Neckar, built to take in panoramic views and all that this lovely destination offers.  It must have been a very “genteel” place to reside or study in days gone by and I know that Mo’s own experience has left a lasting impression on her.  Happy travelling, Liz

Europe Food Germany History

Slow travel – Lucca, Italy

If you’ve pounded the cobbles, jostled with hordes of tourists, wilted in queues for the ‘must-sees’ and yet remain in love with Italy, consider Lucca in Tuscany as a slow travel destination or base for your next experience of la dolce vita.

Ignore the current herd mentality: ‘Tuscany is done to death. Florence is overcrowded. Chianti is expensive and overrated’. Head to Lucca for an experience that is quintessentially Italian, in a city that is very liveable for residents and tourists alike.

Yes, the scenery in the surrounding countryside is jaw-dropping – olive groves, vineyards, peach and cherry orchards. And yes, the medieval buildings, churches, and monuments are awe-inspiring. It’s the essence of Lucca and its citizens (Lucchesi), the ease of getting around, and its proximity to other transport hubs that differentiate Lucca as an ideal destination.

Lucca is defined by le Mura, an ancient 12-metre high, 4.2km stone wall that surrounds the historic centre of the city. Originally built to protect citizens from invading Pisans and Florentines, the wall is now a tree-lined promenade and wooded park for the Lucchesi and invading visitors. On any day, the wall resembles a treadmill of strollers, amblers, dog-walkers, runners, and cyclists. On its grassed and wooded bastions, locals engage in cross-fit, yoga, board games and any number of other activities.  It’s a venue to meet friends, sit, read, and for those with time on their hands, to while it away. Drop down from the wall into il centro and you’ll discover a maze of cobbled streets, lanes and piazze. There are myriad shops, bars, delis, restaurants, trattorie, pasticcerie and gelaterie. Of course, there are also supermarkets, banks, pharmacies, and the usual trading establishments you would expect to find in a thriving city. After all, unlike many of Italy’s other, more touristy cities, the Lucchesi live and work in their historic centre.

Lucca is not however confined to its historic centre. Outside the wall and beyond its pastured fringe, a tree-lined ring-road spills traffic to nearby residential, commercial and agricultural areas, and to all the services essential to support the city.

The Lucchesi are a paradox of professional and polite yet warm and friendly, parochial yet cosmopolitan, and laidback yet conscientious. In the hotels and restaurants and in many of the shops, staff speak sufficient English to easily accommodate visitors. They know when you buy a coffee that you’ll likely want to sit at a table outside, and they don’t charge extra for table service, which is common in many of Italy’s busier tourist cities.

Getting about is easy. Walking or better still, cycling is the most convenient way. In fact, the centre of Lucca is limited to residents’ vehicles and in much of the centre, vehicular access is prohibited. Whether you’re an accomplished cyclist keen to take advantage of the fantastic cycle routes on offer outside the city, or a novice hoping to master a few laps of le Mura and pick up dinner from the deli, there are bike shops that can rent or sell you the right bike for the job. Lucca is a city of bike users and bike aficionados.

Options for activities in Lucca are plentiful. Shopping ranges from high-end designer stores to farmers’ markets. Take in some of the sightseeing, festivals, shows, exhibitions, and concerts on offer. There’s something for everyone. Take a language course or a cooking class. Don’t be surprised, when you’re out for dinner, to find there’s a free concert in the piazza you’re dining in. For the more active, there’s hiking, mountain biking, equestrian, and cycling.

Within an hour of Lucca and an easy day trip by train or car (or by bike for the fit), you can visit the vineyards, wineries and olive oil producers in the hills of Lucca and in Monte Carlo; the seaside resorts of Viareggio and Versilia; the spa towns of Bagni di Lucca and Montecatini Terme; the mountain towns of the Garfagnana; or Pisa (and its famous tower). Many are worthy of at least one night’s stay, if you have the time.

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Florence and all that it offers, Siena, the hill towns of San Gimignano and Volterra, and the Italian Riviera cities of La Spezia (the southern gateway to the Cinque Terre) and Portovenere are within easy reach by train or car. You will almost definitely want to consider making more than a day trip to these.

Venture further afield by car or by public transport; trains hub out of Pisa and Florence, and both cities are serviced by international airports.

If you’re looking to immerse yourself in la dolce vita, Lucca is an easy and relaxed destination to do it from. Expect the unexpected, take the time to observe the locals, soak up the atmosphere and experience the culture. Do as little or as much as you like; you just might not want to leave lovely Lucca.

Big thanks to guest blogger – Niki McNeilage from Wellington who is spending a few months living in and experiencing the charms of Italy, Spain and France.

Europe Food Gardens History Italy

Denerau, Fiji – where the living is easy..

This was our ninth, yes ninth trip to Fiji in twelve years – that’s how much we love this country and its beautiful people. Over the years we progressed from the more child-friendly islands and resorts to seeking out those hotels and resorts that allow a little more peace and tranquility. This visit we tried The Westin Denerau which was a very affordable option when compared to some of the “no-children” resorts.  If you really do have to bring the kids though, the next-door Sheraton Lailai Kid’s Club facilities are available to them.

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Some people enjoy travelling to exotic countries and staying in modern, minimalist hotels and resorts but I must be a bit old-fashioned – I enjoy seeing some authentic and original cultural features and lush tropical surrounds to make me feel like I’m not at home.  That’s not to say that the Westin is any way old-fashioned or that their facilities and services are not top notch. Up until late 2005, the Westin was known as the Sheraton Royale which confused quite a few people as the Sheraton Fiji was right next door.  Situated on the resort coast of Denerau just 15 km’s from Nadi Airport, it is an ideal destination for those who want to leave New Zealand and be sitting in a deck chair some 4-5 hours later – the perfect “drop & flop” holiday – no time-zone changes, no jet lag. We always book a transfer through the travel agent to ensure an air-conditioned ride, but taxis are plentiful and cost around NZ$30 each way. Denerau is a gated island entered via a security post over a small bridge, so is safe and secure day and night and why it is such a perfect place for families as well as couples.

More recent years have seen the Westin add an excellent spa facility nestled into its park-like tropical grounds.  Located just across from the main hotel entrance, the spa and facilities offer a gym, lap pool, steam room, Jacuzzi, private treatment rooms and studios/suites designed as “adult only” facilities.  Guests staying in the main hotel can use all of the facilities at the spa, but with the surroundings being peaceful and serene, you don’t often see children there!

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It’s a pretty special experience driving up to the traditional Porte cochère of the Westin for the first time.  Met by the perennially smiling Fijian porters who overflow with “bulas” (the Fijian hello that you will hear at least 50 times a day), you enter the lovely traditionally decorated (and mercifully cool) lobby to be checked in for your stay.

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Another few bulas later and you are guided to lovely cool, spacious rooms with lots of traditional artwork, very large, comfortable beds and good bathroom facilities and toiletries.  Each room has a nice little deck or balcony area where you can sit with your morning cuppa or a G&T at the end of a hard day of relaxing – but you don’t really use them because there are so many better places to sit and watch the sun come up or go down.  Rooms range in price seasonally but can start at NZ$300 per night which includes full breakfasts.

Close to both Sheratons are small convenience stores that sell soft drinks, ice creams, and other basic groceries and for other supplies, you can take a short trip down to the Denerau Marina where there is a mini-supermarket.  The Marina is an interesting assortment of shops and restaurants that seem to be different every time we visit, so I’m not sure of its financial viability given that most of the hotels provide for all of your needs.

Something we enjoyed immensely at dusk, was sitting at the Waterfront Bar at the Sheraton Villas and watching the fruit bats fly across from Denerau Island to the mainland.  It was hard to imagine where they all go for the night but I imagine if you shook one of the coconut palms, a few may fall out!

We’ve always had excellent breakfasts at Fijian resorts and most have a feature theme night from Asian or Seafood to traditional Fijian cuisine ranging from NZ$45-$100.  The latter will usually include a very good cultural display with fire dances and traditional dancing.  The Fijian people are so naturally good-natured that they always look like they are enjoying themselves immensely and they really can sing!  Food and alcoholic drinks can be pricey in Fiji but are usually of good value and quality – probably comparable to eating out in New Zealand.  There are some cheaper options to be found like the Mexican Mamacita’s at the Wyndam, the Pizza & Fish and Chip Bar at the Radisson or the Golf & Racquet Club pizzas or curries.

Memorable meals were those at the Kitchen Grill (the name belies the casual formality) where we reserved seating on the sandy waterfront in front of the main restaurant.  Luckily the weather has never disappointed us and so the balmy evening breeze and your toes in the sand is a magical experience – so do make sure to take your shoes off!  After dinner, a stroll along the waterfront pathway which connects each of the hotels means you can pop into another hotel for a night cap, some live music or just enjoy a bit of post-meal exercise and people watching.

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If you want something really, really special or want to really, really impress – leave the kids with the wonderful Fijian babysitters, put on your best bib and tucker and take yourself off to the Ports O’ Call at the Sheraton.  Don’t forget your wallet because this one will set you back financially but you will never forget it!  Formal white-jacketed waiters, the baby grand piano in the background, impeccable silver service and an atmosphere reminiscent of the 1920’s with food to match the occasion make for a unique evening.  Even if you are full to bursting after the Lobster Bisque, Truffle Risotto, or Beef Wellington, do make room for dessert.  Bombe Alaska is delightful but for sheer showmanship, try the Flambé. A masterful gentleman will prepare your dessert from a mobile trolley where he will peel oranges, bananas and other fruit with unbelievable skill before setting it all alight in a whoosh of good Brandy.  Crepes and cream complete a “heaven on earth” sort of dish!  Apart from dessert, a definite highlight is that when you leave the restaurant, most of the staff gather at your table to sing the Fijian farewell song “Isa Lei” in voices that make you think they must be professional choristers working at their second job!

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Places to eat;

  • Meals at any one of the restaurants or bars at the Sheraton Villas or Sheraton Fiji can be charged back to your room at the Westin.
  • Other hotels within easy walking distance include the Hilton, Sofitel, Radisson or Wyndam and all take cash or credit cards.
  • Take the Bula Bus – day passes NZ$5 pp (or walk if you are keen) down to the Denerau Marina where there are many restaurants and bars.
  • Walk across the road to the Denerau Golf & Racquet Club for a pizza or curry – they have a big screen for any major sporting events (especially the rugby).

Things to do;

  • Watersport activities are available at the Sheraton Fiji and include windsurfers, Hobie-cats, paddle-boards, and snorkels. They were free when we went but I believe there is a small charge now if you are not a Sheraton guest.
  • Paid water activities include the banana boat at the Sheraton Fiji and a host of scuba activities ranging from the bubble-makers course in the hotel pool to full days out snorkeling or scuba diving on the reef.
  • A myriad of tours on land and sea that can be booked at any of the hotel’s activity desks. Very popular are the Island-hopping cruise where you get to swim, eat and snorkel at various island resorts or the evening dinner cruises.  This is a great way to check out other potential destinations for your next holiday.
  • 18-hole golf or tennis across the road at the Denerau Golf & Racquet Club – but do book your round or session in advance and yes, they do hire out shoes and equipment.

Must do;

  • Visit the Fiji Rum Company and sample some of the amazing flavoured rums and liqueurs that are being developed using local sugar cane produce and native labour. Take home a bottle of the coconut rum as it not only makes a great liqueur but a delicious ice-cream topping for a dessert treat!
  • If you are a gardener like me, the Garden of the Sleeping Giant created by actor Raymond Burr (Ironside & Perry Mason) holds one of the largest collections of Orchids in the world and is surrounded by native forest and beautifully landscaped grounds, lily ponds and a huge collection of flowering plants. Every time I go to Fiji, I see a flower that I haven’t seen before. Priced at around NZ$18pp you receive a complimentary fruit drink at the conclusion of your tour.
  • Have a meal at the Ports O’ Call Sheraton Fiji to remind yourself what it is to be treated like you are the most special diner in the restaurant.
  • Any one of the beautifully named treatments at the Heavenly Spa – I tried the aptly named “Passage to Fiji Paradise” a full body exfoliation followed by a coconut milk bath and warm stone wrap. By the time the treatment finished with a massage, I almost had to be woken from a deeply relaxed state!

Bula vinaka – I love Fiji! Liz

 

Food Gardens New Zealand Pacific