Jul 272013

Posted from Kuta, Bali, Indonesia.

On Tue, Jul 23 morning Flavia and I loaded all our travel possessions into the van of our driver Jack and got ourselves transported to the very south of Bali. Our destination was Jimbaran, a small town on the coast known for its fairly nice beaches and above all its evening fish restaurants that magically appear across the beach and host hundreds, if not thousands, tourists to seafood feasts.

The south of the island is where majority of tourists go. It’s packed with youths, bars, western franchise shops and prices are double or more of what one finds elsewhere in Bali. The touristy centres are Seminyak and Kuta. Jimbaran, on the other hand, is keeping some level of genuine Balinese character, but as the resorts from its southern end spread out, it is very likely to lose that too. Then there is also the resort capital – Nusa Dua – where one gets confined behind closed gates and I’m sure hardly ever meets any locals other than the staff of her hotel.

We spent four days in Jimbaran with the objective to relax and wind down. The objective was met. One afternoon we hired a driver to take us to a couple famous beaches south of Jimbaran – The Dreamland Beach and The Padang Padang Beach. They are both great for surfers, but we found neither to be particularly exceptional. Our evening ended with the walk through the Uluwatu temple, which stand among the touristic highlights for those who settled for group tours and hardly stick their heads out of the resort. The place is packed with clumsy tourists who fall over each other taking unmemorable shots. The temple is nice, but ranks in our view way below Tanah Lot or Ulun Danu. Our evening closed with a Kecak dance performance, which is one of the typical Balinese dances. This one is accompanied by an orchestra of men singers who imitate instruments. The dances tell Hindu stories.

One night we also ventured to see one of the touristic centres – Seminyak. This only reaffirmed us that we made a good choice staying away from it. Allegedly Kuta is worth. All that I wrote above applies, so if you want to see Bali, well, this is not it.

Three nights out of four we chose to enjoy the Jimbaran speciality, which are the restaurants setup on the beach offering variety of grilled fish. The restaurants all offer very much the same food. The prices differ, as the northern establishments mostly accommodate tourists that come on a bus and hence pay twice or three times the price they would otherwise pay 5min walk down the street. The food is delicious and I could have it over and over …

All the good things must come to an end …
We truly enjoyed our stay in Bali and its surrounding islands. We have determined that we will come back one day, as there is still so much more to do and see here.

If you plan a trip to Bali yourself, let me state here a few take aways that might come useful:

  1. Balinese people are probably the most polite society you will meet in the world
  2. The locals are grateful to you for coming and visiting Bali, they will thank you for it and they will want you to enjoy your stay
  3. Bali isn’t a “knowledge society”. People typically know only what is absolutely necessary for them; however, when asked a question they ALWAYS answer even if they have no clue. Bring your guide or your iPad
  4. Always check your bill. Basic algebra isn’t a local strength. It goes both ways. Often you’re charged less than what you should pay.
  5. Many people never studied English, but they will always try to help and engage. Although on a basic level, you will always get by.
  6. Prepare to negotiate prices just about of EVERYTHING, but take it lightly. Unlike let’s say in … Cuba … once the price has been settled, everyone is friends again and you’ll get the best service possible.
  7. Start your holiday in Ubud and work your your way north, east and west. The south is where you’ll find an “industry” to pull money out of your wallet. Only go south to see it, but don’t spend too much time there.
Jul 242013

Posted from Kuta, Bali, Indonesia.

One can find variety of testimonies on Tripadvisor that comment on the quality of transportation between Bali and Gili Islands. More often than not the travellers recommend avoiding the fast boat services for the very basic reason – safety. We didn’t listen enough and put ourselves through by far the worst experience of our travel in Bali. Half way through our journey to Bali the strong sea waves spurred by the heavy currents punched out the front deck window of our boat’s deck and the sea water started pouring in! This lead to a considerable amount of panic aboard, some passengers commenced”feeding the cats” and our luggage got totally soaked as a result. We survived, no one got hurt and that’s what matters. Next time we’ll take a flight and avoid the fast boat adventure, let alone the company Semaya One! It turns out a similar accident happened to them already in the past by the way ….

Sanur is one of Bali’s holiday centres slightly north of the airport. We found accommodation in less than memorable 4* hotel Plaza Paradise and went on to discover the Balinese craftsmanship the day after our arrival. We got to see the silver factory, batik warehouse, wood carving and art galleries. These were all tourist hotspots with price adjustments clearly in place. Some negotiation though and we bought ourselves a set of beautiful teak wood bowls for our London home and at least we think the price was good.

Komodo National Park has been recently voted by public as one of the world’s natural wonders as declared by New 7 Wonders Foundation. The park stretches itself over three big islands – Komodo, Rinca and Padar – and many other small islands surrounding it.

On Saturday Jul 20 early in the morning Flavia and I embarked on a flight with Merpati Airways (local low cost airline) and flew over to the island of Flores, particularly to the township of Laguan Bajo, in which an airport has been recently constructed to enhance what is otherwise a poor fishing village and turn it into a touristl hub for the infamous Komodo islands.

There have been a few surprises we encountered in Indonesia, but this one rises to the top. As we embarked our boat, we realised there were going to be no other travellers other than the two of us, our personal guide, the captain and his deck hand. Wow – now we were talking luxury.

The islands of Komodo and Rinca blew us away. Rinca is clearly drier than Komdo, its grass is more yellow and vegetation slightly less dense. Komodo is greener and its hills can be compared to those of New Zealand’s north island or possibly to Highlands in Scotland. Both islands are of volcanic origins. Their fauna is exactly identical apart from the presence of macaque monkeys that can be found only on Rinca.

The variety as well as numbers of animals seem to be unlimited. We have seen deer, boars, eagles, monkeys, fowls and there are 3 species of snakes, water buffaloes and of course the dragons themselves.

Komodo Dragon is effectively a large monitor lizard that can grow up to 3m and 70kg in size. The males are larger than females. July is the mating season, so the males are chasing the ladies who tend to run away into the mountains, but hey, this is an island, there is no way they can escape. The eggs will be hidden in holes in September, the mothers will protect them for three months and leave. The baby dragons will hatch in April at which point the adults will return and try to eat them. The babies have developed the instinct to run onto trees and only leave those once they are able to defend themselves.

Our last night at Flores was spent at Laguan Bajo. The town is much poorer than what we saw anywhere on Bali, but one strange feature dominated our visit. It was the presence of Italian entrepreneurs everywhere. Why would the Italians buy the whole town and opened all these restaurants? Who knows!

We landed back in Denpassar, Bali, on Monday morning, booked a driver and went on to see one of the Bali’s most spectacular temples – Tannah Lot, one that is famous as it stands on a rock that can be accessed on foot during low tide and is surrounded by water during high tide.

Our Monday finished nicely in a family run Sanur restaurant just slightly off the main Street called Lilla. On Tuesday morning we left Sanur for Jimbaran where we’ll spend the last leg of our trip.

Jul 182013

Posted from West Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia.

Bali’s neighbour to the east is an island constituency of a similar size – Lombok, which tends to receive overall less tourism than Bali, but it does have touristic jewels nevertheless. These are three mini-islands called Trawangan, Air and Mini (by the order of size).

Interesting fact is also that the demographics of the Lombok area are different from Bali. The majority of the population of Lombok is Muslim, and the choice of accommodation gains another decision factor, which is the vicinity to local mosque. If you sleep right underneath it, you’re bound to receive regular early morning wake up’s through a fairly strong amplified middle-eastern sound …

It takes 1-1.5hrs travel on a speed-boat from Bali’s Padang Bay to the small islands and from then on everything slows down for you. Forget scooters, forget cars, forget even paved roads and here come power cuts, bungalows, bamboo structures, corals, sun and you’ll also meet an Indonesian Axel Rose and his buddy “Indonesian Slash”.

We chose Gili Trawangan as our destination. It’s the largest of Gili Islands with 1,500 local population and the largest touristic facilities. The island is 3km long and 2km wide. Most of the accommodation takes form of simple huts with a swimming pool and most are oriented to the east of the island. Our place was called Balenta Bungalows and we had for instance no warm water throughout our stay and we got used to it!

Our four days went by extremely quickly. I’ve got a sunburn to start with on the very first day whilst Flavia kept turning more and more brown (jealous!). We snorkelled, read books, did long walks all the way north and south of the island, saw two sunsets from “cool” beach bars, ate some amazing fish bbq’s and took a half day turtle-spotting snorkelling trip around the three islands on an overcrowded boat. The boat trip was the only flip we have experienced. With 80 people crowded in snorkelling gear on a tiny stretch of sea chasing the poor turtles wasn’t anything near what we believed we actually paid for. Next time we’ll ask more questions before we hand over our cash.

We loved the stay in Gili T and would come back any time again.

Jul 162013

Posted from West Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia.

Bali is a beautiful island geographically spread in-between the Indonesian islands of Java (big neighbour) and Lombok (small neighbour). According to the last census, the island has 4.5 million inhabitants and its population has been on a rapid increase over the past few years. The distance from its northern to southern tip is approximately 112km and it takes 153km to travel east to west. The population of the island associates itself mostly with Balinese Hindu religion (over 80%) whilst the rest believes in Islam.

The capital and the largest city in Bali is Denpassar, which is also where we landed after a long flight from Abu Dhabi. Some first learnings settled on us pretty quickly. The Indonesian currency must have undergone fairly significant inflation – 1GBP fetches nearly 15.000 Indonesian Rupee. Hence we have withdrawn our 3 million rupees right at the airport and suddenly felt rich!

This is a cash economy – forget credit cards. Although in some places it is surely possible to pay by a credit card, I haven’t really seen anyone doing it. Cash is the dominant payment vehicle. Barter is the way to go. The prices are already fairly low for Europeans, but negotiating the price can get one pay a quarter of the already fairly low price pitched by the locals.

Our first destination was the Balinese cultural centre – Ubud, where we settled for four days. Ubud is home to Balinese art and handicrafts and a vast number of international and Indonesian restaurants giving out an unforgettable culinary experience, and not least also to museums and dance performances.

After we partially overcame our jet leg, the Royal palace, the local information centre and the famous Monkey Forest were the first targets on our Ubud walk. The Ubud macaques are small apes 6-10kg in size and effectively waiting for tourists to deliver lots of food and entertainment to them. Some visitors get slightly scared by the monkeys’ insistence and persistence (including Flavia!).

Our evening programme was then the Lagong dance, in which young teenage girls performed a few traditional dance sets. The coordination of body movement with facial expression was stunning.

Our day two was about further cultural discovery via a long downhill biking tour. This is where we visited a local coffee plantation (and tried the world’s famous coffee that is processed after it has travelled through the Mongoose’s digestion tract and extracted from its poop!), rice fields, typical Balinese household, met locals and finally got to understand a bit about the traditions, such as why families keep living together, the importance of offerings to gods, the stories behind reincarnation, etc.

On the last day in Ubud we have hired a driver – Edi – who brought us up north to see the Ulun Danu Lake Temple and Jatiluwih Unesco protected rice fields. We have brought with us also two friends Joost and Liselotte. We met Liselotte over 1.5yrs ago in Australia whilst doing a three day trip to Kangaroo Island and here we were in Bali again! Amazing!

The next day in the morning we left Ubud and headed east to settle on Lombok’s Gili Island of Trawangan with the sole objective of relaxing on the beach and enjoying the sun.

Jul 092013

Posted from Dubai, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Our holiday finally came up and we arrived in Dubai, our stop over choice on our way to Bali.

The city often associated with luxury, extravaganza, futuristic mega-projects, Las Vegas style cheesiness and often believed to be a city state in its own right, which it is not.

We only had 3 days and were determined to check all of the must-see boxes.

Our day 1 was about Dubai’s origins. This is best seen in the north of Dubai – Deira, Bur Dubai, Dubai Creek and Bastakia Quarter. The Deira offers the raw experience of the famous souks (street markets). We visited the most important ones – Spice, Gold and Perfume souks. This is where one haggles with the merchants and gets constantly harassed to enter someone’s shop and buy stuff. It’s fun though!

Short water taxi ride across the Dubai Creek for 20 pence (GBP) landed us in Bur Dubai, the old Dubai where the Dubai Museum provided a short and clear synopsis of the city’s history. In short, if you were to come here a bit over 100 years ago, you’d find a couple of small villages surrounded by desert – Dubai and Deira. The two were strategically well positioned on a trade route from Iran, but not much else was going on. The trade route did lay down foundations to today’s success, that’s for sure.

The breakthrough came with the discovery of oil in 1960′s (as one would expect). What differentiated the emirate from its neighbours was the ambition to be more than only an oil exporter. Today’s economy profits from tourism and finance as much as it does from oil.

The area of Old Dubai is tiny compared to the New Dubai that we discovered on day 2 & 3. There are nearly 100 sky scrapers painting the city’s skyline. All of them were rapidly raised in the past few years only. We visited the tallest of them all – Burj Khalifa – and took a few shots from the visitor’s observatory on the 125th floor. Dubai mall is the largest mall in the world with its 1200 stores and is to be superseded by yet a larger one that is already being constructed a short ride outside of Dubai with planned 2000 stores. Yes, crazy … We have also visited the artificial Palm island, the Atlantis hotel, seen the 7* Burj al Arab hotel (from outside only!), etc. There is enough crazy stuff to see – indoor ski slope, mega indoor aquarium and ice rink – but not the type of stuff we typically get excited about.

Our favourite moment came with our half day trip to the desert on our Platinum Heritage tour. We learnt about the desert, saw local conservation area, learnt about the falconry, camel racing and ate some typical emirate food.

Overall, we enjoyed our time here. It’s a good stop over destination and for those with kids it can be easily more with the abundance of theme parks and attractions. I’m sure we’ll do another stop over in the future, but then there will be bigger, higher, faster and richer things to see – I’m sure about that ;o))

Jun 092013

Posted from Newport, England, United Kingdom.

A small island 16km south of Southampton or a short hovercraft ride away from Portsmouth offers the potential of being a nice bank holiday destination for those living in London and seeking a bit of time to relax away from the crowds and enjoying a bit of countryside. We have spent our late May bank holiday doing exactly that Simply put, if my opening statement is exactly what you’re after, go for it!

The nature of the island is remarkably beautiful. One gets to see the beautiful white cliffs like those in Dover. There is plenty of green everywhere and there is surprisingly also small fauna in the tall grass, e.g. you get to see rabbits jumping along the road, which can be hardly found elsewhere nowadays in England.

The life on the island is set in its own pace and the pace is quite slow. Sports cars can’t make much sense there as one can hardly drive faster than 30mph. The roads are narrow and the towns are small. With 140K inhabitants and 384 km sq. of land, it’s easy to get away from people if you wish to do so.

The concept of a nice stylish British pub is prevalent. In fact, we haven’t found any alternatives. Should you have any food intolerances or allergies, then you’re in a definite disadvantage. Asking for a soya milk, gluten free bread, or anything else non-standard is sort of speak “pushing it” a step too far.

It doesn’t necessarily demand high observation skills to notice that the service quality is on average quite low. To give an example, asking at a reception of a 4* hotel about the sightseeing highlights on the island returns effectively no answer. There might be effectively no more than five different attractions really, so even for those who simply don’t care, it shouldn’t be brain damaging to give it a quick read and be hence a bit useful.

The place is great for those who have kids. There are plenty of attractions to see. For instance the island’s landmark – “The Needles” – doesn’t purely offer the natural beauty alone, but an amusement park, hot dogs, ice creams, double-decker that addresses the danger of having to hike 1km up the hill, etc.

I don’t think we’ll be coming back anytime soon, but we truly did enjoy our three days on the island. The highlights were clearly the beautiful walks along the white cliffs with great visibility in every direction.

 Posted by at 8:23 pm
Apr 032013

Our very last day in New York! How sad! Still so much to do, try and see! We’ll need to leave those things for our future visit.

Our holiday was nearly over and we quite badly needed a less eventful day, so we awarded ourselves with a later alarm.

We left the hotel at around 11am and headed straight to the Nike Town. Flavia is a big fan! As a result I bought nothing and Flavia got herself a full bag of new fancy clothes … Very entertaining. ;o))

The weather was really nice and a walk down the 5th Avenue felt good. Cafe Bene, which we classified as our “Favourite coffee place in New York we never go to” offered a nice stop. This made it our second time in for what it’s worth.

Early afternoon and we are off to JFK airport on our return trip to London!

New York – WE WILL BE BACK!!!

Apr 032013

Our objective to cover what we believed were the key highlights of New York had been nearly completed at the beginning of Day 5. We unfortunately had to give up on the Statue of Liberty (currently closed to visitors), Ellis Island (also closed), Battery Park & Staten Island ferry.

Guggenheim museum opened in 1959 and was designed by a famous US architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The museum is today one of the must see in New York and attracts over million visitors every year. In order to beat the crowds we woke up early, pre-booked tickets in our hotel and rushed in shortly after 10am. Luckily enough the place was only semi-crowded by then. There was effectively no queue and in no time we were up on the top floor enjoying the views of the amazing rotunda shape of the building.

The museum exhibits both modern and contemporary art. On the contemporary front, a collection of influential Japanese artists called Gutai: Splendid background was to be seen alongside the rotating walkway from the top to the bottom of the building. In my mind heavily obscured by pragmatism and emphasis on skills on display, I only found a few art pieces enjoyable. A block of square canvas painted red with a piece of rope sticking out of it was great stuff, but all I could see was someone with too much time on their hands, whilst I’m sure others see revolutionary work with rope, paper and red paint. My favourites were clearly the exhibition of Kandinsky’s work from 1911 – 1913 and Thannhauser collection that included French impressionists, post-impressionists, Picasso, etc.

It’s challenging to even consider that one could visit New York without actually trying a proper bagel! It took us a little while, but we did find exactly such place called “Pick a bagel”. The place does everything bagel, so they offer possibly a dozen different types of the pastry and one can combine a multitude of ingredients to enhance the taste of the sandwich. Given the natural shape of a bagel, logically most of the ingredients actually fall through, but it does taste good!

Our attempt at shopping in the afternoon brought no tangible results. We longed to see Macy’s, but decided the place was a mess and quickly left. For instance expensive women wear suddenly leads to men’s basketball attire whilst sports is then located on an entirely different floor. Not convinced.

Tuesday evening was our Broadway night. Our choice was a play called Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. The play is highly rated, is fun and features Sigourney Weaver, so we were up to see a celebrity around here. We weren’t disappointed although at times it felt that the jokes were a bit over the top.

An evening burger on our last night in the Five Napkin burger place close to our hotel was a great finish of a nice day in New York.

Apr 022013

Posted from New York, New York, United States.

Monday was being forecasted as one of the hottest day to be bestowed upon us in the foreseeable future by many institutions and New Yorkers as well. Unfortunately for us the forecasts rang true until perhaps 11am after which cold, breezy and drizzly weather settled. Pity!

Anyway, we decided to take another long morning walk from Upper Manhattan to Chelsea where our appointment with a friend we met over a couple of days in Queensland (Australia) 1.5 years ago was set. Our friend works for Google and showed us the company’s allegedly largest office. Very cool. People playing table tennis, free high quality food of any type, lots of space everywhere … we loved it!

When done we continued down to South Manhattan to visit the 9/11 memorial. Some impressive structures have been built in the place where Twin Towers used to stand. The sadness of the occasion remains to be written all over the area.

Wall Street is just a couple streets away. When I visited New York in 1997 I remember we got a tour of the NYSE watching the traders run like mad in search for profits. Since 9/11 these tours are no longer available and so, to be honest, there is nothing to see other than the building, which is nothing spectacular.

Our sudden need to use Subway as we sped back to our hotel to attend to our evening programme turned out to be fake. We just messed up the plan a bit and upon our arrival to our hotel we learnt that our theatre tickets were for Tuesday, not Monday … Alright …

Not wasting any valuable time here, decision was made to take the Subway south down to Brooklyn and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge hoping to steal a few nice views of Manhattan. Brooklyn Bridge indeed offers a memorable experience. There aren’t many tourists to worry about unlike everywhere else in NYC – after all the walk requires that people actually “move” rather than stand on a conveyor belt. That made us feel somehow special ;o)).

With that our program on Day 4 was over and we headed back to our Garden Inn hotel.

Apr 022013

The weather on Day 3 has unfortunately gone slightly for the worse – chilly, foggy, drizzly. We were determined, however, to continue our mission in proving to New Yorkers that Subway is overrated and unnecessary. This time we set out to explore the north-west area that spreads through the Garment District, Theater District, Hell’s Kitchen and the Upper West side. Apart from Hell’s kitchen, all these zones seem to be appropriately branded, so that one always knows what to expect. I’d rather not investigate what you are to expect in Hell’s kitchen though …

The Lincoln Center is THE place in New York to watch performing arts (apart from all those played on Broadway I guess). We have only checked the architecture of it from outside. Looked nice, but not necessarily the highlight of our trip I’m afraid. Walking a few streets up and another building to photograph appeared – The Ansonia. Nice building, but nothing ground-breaking for those who come from historically gifted Europe. Let’s move on. The Dakota Building where John Lennon lived and was also assassinated in 1980 is a couple blocks away. Just across the street there is a Strawberry Fields memorial where we took a few photos over the “Imagine” mosaic.

The Natural History museum would have been a great fun, but we unfortunately didn’t have the time to see it. It’s on my list of future to-do’s. Instead we went on to across the Central Park and returned back down to Midtown Manhattan alongside the 5th Avenue. There was another ridiculously nice Apple Store on the 5th, which of course, we couldn’t miss.

At 1pm we had an appointment scheduled with Hilton Vacations representatives. In exchange for a considerable amount of HHonours points we were to give a testimony to Hilton’s loyalty programme, except that the ask was totally different. We were instead told about Hilton’s shared property programme at the end of which we were asked to dish out thousands of dollars and invest. I’m sure the intentions were great, but somehow didn’t feel (a) realistic, (b) real and (c) acceptable given we were on holiday and nowhere near thinking how to spend our next few years’ fortune. So the answer was “No, thanks!”, but the points will be useful.

As much as we love our walk experience, time was of essence yesterday. And so we finally made use of the NYC Subway. In the afternoon we arrived at Spring Street and from there we walked all the way through Little Italy, Chinatown and eventually ended up our evening at the famous Blue Note jazz bar.

There were two bands on the program – Kyle Eastwood band (the son of Clint Eastwood) and Larry Corryell band. Kyle allegedly composes music for his father’s blockbuster movies. Larry Corryell and his sons came after with jazz guitar fusion. Very interesting too, especially Larry’s son Murali seemed to be a all into blues (which is music I adore). We got some amazing tunes and great atmosphere out of it – loved it!

Our walk back across nearly the entire Manhattan was nice, but tiring. We dropped dead tired first thing we got back in the hotel.

 Posted by at 12:34 pm