Category Archives: Food

Inside London: explored through locals

London will always occupy a special place in my heart- I can never forget my first solo holiday in London in 2004- I immediately fell in love with its history, diversity, arts, culture, food and parks- so much so that I decided to live and work in London for a year.  I lived in a small semi detached house in East Putney and have some of the best memories of South London( one that requires another blog!) I am lucky to still have friends living there, and am always keen to get their updates on ‘the places to eat & drink’ on FB

So last week I decided to try something new: Explore one of the greatest cities of the world through the locals that live there. I approached three friends, who live and work in London- they are unknown to each other, work in different industries & have different personalities. While reviewing their replies, I got three different perspectives of London. In the process we have unravelled hidden gems and great finds. So I hope you find this article interesting 🙂

Note: pictures used in this article have been collected through the internet and are not taken by me, photo credits have been provided where necessary 😉

Poulomi
POULOMI BASU
is an award winning documentary photographer who is based in London and New Delhi. When not travelling on international assignments, Poulomi loves interacting with fellow photographers in London’s hip watering holes

Shefali

SHEFALI GUPTA GERA, or ‘Shef” as she’s known to friends,  was born in the UK and has lived in London for almost half of her life. A true ‘Londoner’ she works in strategy for an American investment bank.  Shef enjoys exploring London’s gastronomic scene and travelling off to exotic destinations

NEHA GOENKA SMITH is a professional who’s lived in London for 6 years, Neha currently works with the UK Government to address GHG emission

 

1) YOUR FAVORITE NEIGHBORHOOD FOR BREAKFAST OR A FUN SUNDAY BRUNCH?
Poulomi:  Dalston Superstore,( 117 Kingsland High SE8 2PB, London) Time Out London describes it as“a New York-styled ersatz dive bar upstairs (clad in cement, brick and steel vents) is the perfect place for a chat ‘n’ carouse”

Dalston Superstore
Dalston Superstore

Shefali:  there are so many interesting places, but if I’d have to narrow it down my favourites are-
CLERKENWELL : Smith of Smithsfied or SOS (67-77 Charterhouse St, London EC1M 6HJ)
A reviewer in Squaremeal London calls it a “cavernous, sandblasted rocker starts the day quite quietly as a breakfast and brunch destination serving up posh bacon butties, porridge and French toast to Smithfield early birds”
and Modern Pantry(47-48 St John’s Square, London EC1V 4JJ) Time Out London  says “chef Anna Hansen has form in creating enticing fusion dishes that make the most of unusual ingredients sourced from around the globe – we guarantee even the most devoted foodie will be bamboozled by a couple of items on the menu”

The Modern Pantry
The Modern Pantry

SHOREDITCH:
Breakfast Club2-4 Rufus Street, London N1 6PE)

Breakfast at the Breakfast Club, Shoreditch
Breakfast at the Breakfast Club, Shoreditch

and Caravan, Emyr Thomas of Bon vivant saysCaravan offers a weekend brunch menu to rival any in London in a relaxed and effortlessly cool setting on Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell…The open plan layout and double facing glassed front make this an ideal location for enjoying a vibrant part of London”

Caravan, Shoreditch
The modern industrial setting at Caravan, Shoreditch


MAIDA VALE:  Raoul’s(13 Clifton Road, London W9 1S)

NehaSunday’s are spent near our home in Beckenham and my choice is Fee& Brown(50 High Street, Beckenham)  Blogger- The Faerital Foodie calls it one of her favourite coffee shops

Fee & Brown Beckenham
Fee & Brown Beckenham

 

2)FAVORITE  PLACE/ PARK/ SQUARE FOR A PICNIC?
Poulomi– London fields Victoria Park( Vicky Park) Visit London says “Victoria Park in London’s Tower Hamlets is a large park with canals, ponds, a pavilion, tennis courts and a sports ground. Open air pop and rock concerts are held in the park during the summer

Victoria Park, Londonfields
Victoria Park, Londonfields

Shefali Regent’s Park. Spread over 395 acres it is one of the largest parks in Central London. The park also houses the Open Air Theatre, London Zoo, Primrose Hill, the country’s largest free to access waterfowl collection and 100 species of wild bird. The Broke Londoner says “ Primrose Hill is located a few minutes away from the north side of Regent’s Park – just across the London zoo. From Camden Town, it’s a pleasant 10 – 15 minute walk along Regent’s canal. When in the park, the slope is steep, but climbing is worth the effort, since from its 78-metre height Primrose Hill offers a clear view over Central London”

Regents Park
Regents Park

NehaAlways the Hyde Park especially by the Serpentine Lake

Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park
Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park

 

3) MY FAVOURITE VIEW OF LONDON……
Poulomi: Parliament Hill, Hampstead. Time Out London says “Famous for its iconic views over London, Parliament Hill is capable of reviving even the most jaded Londoner, and on a clear day, you’ll have to tiptoe over tourists and locals lounging on the grass and admiring landmarks (The Gherkin, St Paul’s) among the numerous tower blocks”

Best views of London from Parliament Hill
Best views of London from Parliament Hill

Shefali: The Aquashard bar at the Shard ( Level 31, 32 London Bridge Street London SE1 9SG)

View from the Shard Photo credit: Paul Winch-Furness
View from the Shard
Photo credit: Paul Winch-Furness

Neha: The views from Shard are great but I prefer the view from Paramount bar on the 32nd Floor of Centrepoint tower (Paramount, Centre Point, 101-103 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1DD)

View from Paramount in Centrepoint building
View from Paramount in Centrepoint building

 

4) BEST NEIGHBOURHOOD TO EXPLORE INDEPENDENT MUSIC GIGS & UPCOMING ARTISTS
Poulomi: DALSTON
Servant’s Jazz Quarter(10A Bradbury St, London N16 8JN) Londontown.com describes it as “Despite the name, Servant Jazz Quarters is not strictly a jazz club. Instead you’ll find music from many genres at this Dalston music venue which supports innovative artists from all backgrounds, and particularly those from the Hackney area”

 Cafe Otto(18-22 Ashwin St, London E8 3DL)

Vortex(11 Gillett St, London N16 8AZ) Time Out London says “The Vortex has developed a strong profile on London’s improv jazz scene and is now well known for its consistently exciting programming. Mopomoso is the improv club night to catch here”

The Vortex, Dalston
The Vortex, Dalston

Shefali: CAMDEN ( Here’s an interesting link on how to get to alternative music gigs in CamdenThe Forge (3-7 Delancey Street, Camden, London NW1 7NL)  “ is an award-winning venue, home to London’s most diverse musical talent. Its amazingly flexible building is reflected in the great breadth of the programme, which ranges from informal jazz and comedy on a Monday to high-class concerts in mid-week and pulsating live music club nights at the weekend
Shoreditch/ Hoxton are great for live gigs too

Live acts at The Forge, Camden
Live acts at The Forge, Camden

NehaSHOREDITCH/ HOXTON
Elephantdrums.co.uk explores musical venues in the Shoreditch & Hoxton neighbourhoods,

Standard.co.uk has an interesting article on East London guide: music venues

 


5) YOUR FAVOURITE  ENGLISH PUB
Poulomi–  The Narrow Boat (the Narrow Boat Pub, 119 St Peters Street, Islington London N1 8PZ) is a hidden gem of a pub situated directly on Regents Canal in Islington

Shefali Not so much English pub as Gastropub and so many to choose from
The Garrison (99 Bermondsey St, London SE1 3XB) is an award winning pub near the Borough market. Great little place calls it a gastropub

The Builders Arms(1 Kensington Ct Pl, London W8 5BJ) Time out London describes it as “Less well known than many Kensington pubs because of its location – hidden among the maze of avenues behind the High Street – this establishment has a great local feel”

The Cadogan Arms(298 King’s Rd, London SW3 5UG) in Chelsea is a well known pub, here’s what blogger Jeanne Horak-Druiff of Cooksister has to say of Cadogan Arms in her blog.

NehaFreemason arms(  32 Downshire Hill, London NW3 1N) in Hampstead heath will always remain my favourite. Its pretty interiors and massive beer garden make it a popular draw year round. Here’s what blogger Sunny in London has to say about Freemason Arms and other pubs in Hampstead Heath

Freemason's Arms in Hampstead heath
Freemason’s Arms in Hampstead heath

 


6) THE BEST FISH AND CHIPS  IN LONDON
Poulomi: RiverFront BFI (BFI Southbank, London, SE18XT)  “their lightly battered pollock, chips, tartar sauce & minted peas” is a killer

Shefali:  Sea Shell of Lisson Grove (49-51 Lisson Grove, Marylebone, London NW1 6UHM) Top table says “Marylebone restaurant The Seashell of Lisson Grove promises to fulfill the fish and chips dreams of any discerning London diner. This fabulous kitchen, according to food critic Alain Ducasse serves up ‘the best fish and chips in London”

Fish and chips at Seashell of Lisson grove
Fish and chips at Seashell of Lisson grove

Neha:  sadly, not my thing!


7) FAVOURITE FRESH FOOD MARKET:
Poulomi:  Broadway market in Hackney, East London(Broadway Market, London E8 4PH)

Spotted by Locals says “Broadway Market on a Saturday is a snapshot of what life in Hackney is all about. A true mix of styles and cultures, young and old, traditional and new. It is a microcosm of what living in a truly global city is all about and I love it”

The Londoner describes it as “ jam packed with delicious food, beautiful jewelry stands, vintage clothes, old vinyl records, buskers & street performers, local produce & more fresh fruit & veg than you can shake a stick at”

Broadway Market Photo credit: Andrew Sidford
“Meaty Goodies on sale’  at Broadway Market
Photo credit: Andrew Sidford

Shefali:  Borough Market(8 Southwark St, London SE1 1TL)
Time Out London describes it as “London’s oldest market – dating back to the thirteenth century – is also the busiest, and the most popular for gourmet goodies. Traders satisfy the city’s insatiable appetite for artisan cheeses and ham from acorn-fed pigs. If food is your thing, then Borough, with its abundance of beautifully displayed organic fruit and veg, cakes, bread, olive oil, fish, meat and booze, is the place to go”

Neha: Borough Market for its great selection of local British Cheese, fruits and vegetables.

'Cheese for sale' at the historic Borough market
‘Cheese for sale’ at the historic Borough market

Here’s what the Gastronogeek’s guide to London has to say about Borough market
The London Eater covers a day out in Borough market
The Borough market blog is an interesting blog written by fellow Borough market stall owners & chefs featuring interesting shops and eateries to visit within the market
 

8) Best place for Traditional Afternoon tea
Poulomi:  Peggy Porschen in Belgravia(116 Ebury St, London SW1W 9QQ)  London Town says “For excellent cakes and pastries Peggy Porschen’s shop in Belgravia is the place to go – it’s where many A-listers including Elton John, Stella McCartney and Sir Anthony Hopkins place an order when they’ve got something to celebrate

Peggy Porschen cake shop
Peggy Porschen cake shop in Belgravia

Shefali:  Tough one but based on experience it would have to be Charlotte Street Hotel  (15-17 Charlotte St, London W1T 1RJ) for its “Very cool vibe and great food” and The Palm Court at the Ritz Hotel (150 Piccadilly, London W1J 9BR) for its “old school glamour and service!”

High tea at the Ritz
High tea at the Ritz

NehaDiamond Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum and Mason offers a great high tea experience. The Afternoon tea club  says “Located on the store’s fourth floor and decorated throughout in calming pastel hues, this pretty tea room is the image of refinement, with clean white tablecloths and comfortable leather armchairs completing the look, whilst also adding a touch of luxury for good measure”

9) Best neighbourhood for shopping/ Favourite Department store?
Poulomi: King’s Road & Sloane square. The Street sensation says “The curved facade of Peter Jones department store marks the start of the King’s Road at Sloane Square. Nearby, on the opposite side of the road is the Duke of York pedestrian precinct and the Saatchi art gallery. The further away from Sloane Square you walk, the greater the number of smaller, independent clothes and shoe shops there are, plus a good selection of contemporary furnishing stores

The posh stores at Sloane square
The posh stores at Sloane square

Westfield Stratford(2 Stratford Place, Montifichet Road, Olympic Park, London E20 1EJ) – there are more than 250 shops and 70 restaurants in this mini shopping city!

Shefali: Fenwicks on Bond Street(63 New Bond Street, London W1S 1RQ) for its bespoke collection for ladies

Fenwick on Bond Street
Fenwick on Bond Street

 Selfridges (400 Oxford Street, Marylebone, London W1U 1AB) Urbanpath describes it as “the famous Oxford Street department store continues to keep its finger on the retail pulse as it approaches its centenary. As well as six floors of fashion, Selfridges has an ever-popular food hall, famous window displays and on-going series of exhibitions and events

11) Best high end restaurant deal?
Shefali– There are many dining deals to be found on www.toptable.co.uk

 12) Favourite place for chilled out drinking?
Poulomi–  The Owl and Pussycat(34 Redchurch Street London E2 7DP) Time Out London says “ The gentrification of trendy Redchurch Street continues as this former east-end boozer returns in a familiar gastro pub guise. Fashionably mismatched Chesterfields, stripped tables and antique fittings furnish the lilac-coated main bar, which serves pints of Peroni and Heineken, a selection of four rotating ales, and wines by the glass

Shefali:  Most hotel bars, but I particularly like the Oscar Bar at Charlotte Street Hotel (15-17 Charlotte St, London W1T 1RJ) MrandMrsSmith say “The buzzy Oscar bar is popular with Bloomsbury’s media crowd for after-work cocktails and sharing plates. Perch atop a multicolor humbug-striped stool and sip an Oscar Limeade (Grey Goose vodka and apricot brandy muddled with fresh lime) with a tapas platter of chorizo, manchego and octopus, or knock back rock oysters with a glass of fizz

Coburg Bar at the Connaught hotel(16 Carlos Pl, London W1K 2AL) Time Out London gives it a 5 star rating “The cocktail list focuses on classics, which it introduces with a brief history. Execution is flawless; two manhattans, one a ‘perfect’ version and one sweet, were the best we’ve ever had in London”

The Coburg bar at the Connaught
The Coburg bar at the Connaught

13) Favourite time of the year in London and why?
Poulomi: May through October – between Summer & Autumn

Summer in London on Primrose Hill
Summer in London on Primrose Hill

Shefali: Winter – love the coziness of wrapping up and eating amazing comfort food 🙂

Winter in London
Winter in London

Neha: Summer- if its not a wash out, plenty of time to be spent indulging in picnics at the park!

 

FURTHER REFERENCES & READINGS

Spotted by Locals– a great guide to London created and written by locals

The Londonist is similar to Time Out only that they now have a cult following amongst Londoners They describe themselves as “We provide everything you need to know about the capital, as well as celebrating the quirks, eccentricities, hidden and surprising bits that make up the alternative side of the city”

The Lost Londoner is an interesting alternative guide to London

I know this Great little place  “is a collection of thoughts on the best in London’s unexpected special little venues and activities”

The Telegraph online edition has a plethora of interesting articles covering London’s Arts and Culture, Food & Drinks scene

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Beach Diaries: Susegad Goa

Laid back people, feni, coconut palms, shacks, siesta and endless stretches of beach. This just about describes Goa! Its no wonder that this tiny union territory has been receiving so many visitors for more than 4 decades.

Goa has been infamously known for its topless beaches & hippie havens. All that is in the past, however full moon parties  and casino cruise ships continue to attract the young, reckless and rich

Small enough to explore with relative ease, Goa is rich in culture and tradition as is reflected in the Portuguese inspired food & architecture, this can best be enjoyed by exploring the Latin quarters of Panjim  known as” Fontainhas”. Driving past sleepy villages where residents still observe the siesta( NOTE: most shops and offices remain closed between 1.30-3.30pm everyday) and whitewashed 16th-18th century churches, one almost gets a feeling of stepping back in time. For beach bums- there is no dearth for powdery sand and blue waters. Foodies are spoiled for choice with a almost every cuisine served up in a plethora of beach shacks, restaurants and upscale bistros. Yoga is now synonymous with Goa, the village of Assagao in North Goa is fast becoming a major hub for yoga shalas and retreats.

So here’s my guide to Goa. I’m excluding the usual tourist traps which have been covered by many travel magazines- the overrated beaches of Baga and Calangute, the crowded casinos on Mandovi River & the grungy hippie havens of Anjuna/Vagator.

BEACH BUM PARADISE- SOUTH GOA
South Goa is known for long stretches of white sands and gentle blue waters. The beaches here are relatively devoid of annoying vendors & beach shacks, so its perfect for people looking at getting away from it all. South Goa in the recent years has become a haven for luxury 5 star hotels such as the Park Hyatt or Leela and apart from the Taxi-mafia, this part is of Goa is perfect for beach bums looking to soak in all the sun and sand

Agonda Beach- I’m starting with this beach, because you should visit it now before it gets commercially exploited. Devoid of beach shacks & annoying vendors, this beach remains uncrowded for most part of the day. Surrounded by palms this 3km long crescent shaped beach makes for a perfect day trip getaway

HOW TO GET HERE- Agonda is at the southernmost part of Goa, about 75 kms away from Panjim BUT only 10-15 minutes away from Palolem beach

STAY- there aren’t too many comfortable options here, given that its relatively unexploited( READ:basic) Fern Gardenia resort is equidistant to both Agonda and Palolem beaches and offers eco logwood cabins set in a beautiful location on a quiet road with a hill as the backdrop

Agonda Beach
Agonda Beach

 Palolem Beach– undoubtedly the best and most popular of all South Goa beaches, this crescent shape beach is surrounded by pretty palms; so gentle are the waters that you’ll feel like you’re swimming in a pool! There has been a huge inflow of visitors to the beach and there are signs of exploitation everywhere (crammed beach shacks and vendors) but the gentle waters make it worth the visit. I recommend following it up with having a meal or tipple at CIARAN’S just off the beach

HOW TO GET HERE: Palolem is approximately 80 kms away from Panjim and around 2 hours away from the Dabolim airport.

STAY- There are many options for accommodation in Palolem, prices range from basic to mid-range. Ciaran’s offers the best in terms of value- stylized wood log cabins with most creature comforts. Another option a few kilometers away from the beach is the Fern Gardenia Resort which has eco log cabins and landscaped gardens with the stunning backdrop of a hill

Palolem beach
Palolem beach

Varca Beach- is best known for its pristine white sands, this relatively large beach spans 7 kms making it amongst the longest of South Goa beaches. Varca is very long and considered a private beach (there are many 5 star hotels that have private entrances from their immaculately pruned gardens)so it remains devoid of large crowds, I found the swimming in the waters fun, with occasional playful waves tipping you over!! Sunset walks on the beach were sublime as the beach seemed to stretch forever. There aren’t too many beach shacks on Varca and food served here is mediocre- so I would recommend sticking to a beer. For dining I recommend Joecons Garden Restaurant in the nearby Benaulim- their fresh seafood selection is vast and live band churning out 80’s hits makes for a great dinner spot.
HOW TO GET HERE: Varca is approximately a 1 hour drive away  from Dabolim Airport
STAY there are plenty of five star luxury resorts along the beach such as Zuri White Sands, we stayed at the Club Mahindra which was right on the beach

Morning walks on the endless Varca beach
Morning walks on the endless Varca beach

Majorda beach- we stumbled into this beach in January and fell in love almost immediately!! Lined with just the right number of beach shacks, Majorda beach’s clear waters and clean golden sands are a hit with travelers visiting from all corners of the world. As you enter the beach from the main parking lot, there’s a shallow stream through which you walk across to get to the beach.
HOW TO GET HERE: Majorda is approximately 18kms away from Dabolim airport or half an hour’s drive away
STAY- Vivenda Dos Palhacos in Utorda( 10 minutes drive away) is a lovingly restored Portuguese mansion centered around the beautiful pool. Owners Charlotte and Simon Hayward(brother-sister) have done a great job in adding a touch of warmth to the service and interiors

Hidden find- not too far from the Palolem and Agonda beaches is the derelict fort of Cabo De Rama. Not much remains inside the fort but the stunning vistas of the surrounding beaches is worth the drive

View atop Cabo de Rama Fort
View atop Cabo de Rama Fort

SLICE OF PORTUGUESE HISTORY- PANJIM and OLD GOA

Old buildings in Panjim
Old buildings in Panjim


Nestled between the Mandovi and Zuari river is the tiny lovable capital of Goa- Panaji or Panjim! The impressive river promenade is lined with elegantly restored Portuguese historical buildings on the left. The Mandovi river on right has a festive air- lined with casino cruise ships and river facing food pavilions. Step into the heart of Panjim- the Latin quarters or “Fontainhas” to find it lined with Portuguese mansions housing galleries and art spaces. My favourite part of Panjim was driving up to the posh Altinho quarters( the Chief Minister’s official residence and former Archbishops home are on this hill) to Sunaparanta( meaning “Golden Goa” in Konkani) Housed in a beautifully restored palacial Portuguese home,this place has become a center for promoting upcoming artists in Goa. I recommend visiting their café Bodega overlooking a pretty courtyard

Another example of Portuguese buildings
Another example of Portuguese  architecture as seen in public buildings in Panjim

A half an hour’s drive away from Panjim city will take you to the religious capital of Goa. It is said that there were more churches in Goa than in any other city in the world and hence was dubbed the ‘Vatican of the East’. There are churches dating as far back to the 16th and 17th centuries, the most notable being the churches of Saint Francis Assisi, Basilica of Bom Jesus and ruins of the monastery of Augustine(which evokes the lines of  Shelley’s famous poem  “Ozymandias of Egypt”)

Bom Jesus church
Bom Jesus church in Old Goa

STAY- Panjim Inn & Panjim Pousada are the best for soaking in the rich culture and heritage of this part of Goa. Panjim Inn retains the air of an Old Portuguese home and Panjim Pousada was formerly a Saraswat Brahmin home. Rooms are moderately priced, the owner Ajit Sukhija and his son Jack are passionate about sharing the history of Panjim and Goa with residents. They also operate the Gallery Gitanjali located just across the Inn.

SHOP- Velha Goa( beside Panjim Inn) is the place to visit for old “Azulejos” Goa tiles and traditional Portuguese ceramic pottery. The Gallery also has a small collection of Mario Miranda prints and wall hangings. Gallery Attic( Alfran Plaza, Panjim) has a good selection of restored antiques and furniture

The attractive entrance to Velha Goa in Fontainhas
The attractive entrance to Velha Goa in Fontainhas

EAT- one can never go hungry in Panjim! There are many restaurants serving up traditional Goan food( think: Vindaloo, Xacuti, Xec Xec, Balchao) Mum’s Kitchen is an award winning restaurant just next to Miramar beach serving up the best Goan food.
A relatively new restaurant creating ripples in Panjim’s food scene is- Black Sheep Bistro(BSB)( Swami Vivekanada Road, Panjim) a hip new place housed in an old building, BSB offers a modern twist to old Goan classics- I particularly liked the Goan sausage( chorizo) on pau with shavings of dark chocolate, young owner Prahlad Sukhtankar is passionate about wine, hence an interesting and affordable wine list!
Ritz Classic is an institution- frequented by locals, Ritz serves up the freshest of seafood drawing influence from the Konkan coast, their fish curry thali is very popular and be prepared to queue up  for a table at this popular eatery

Goan delights at Ritz Panjim
Seafood delights at Ritz Classic Panjim

VIBRANT NIGHTLIFE- CANDOLIM
As you head north of Panjim you reach the tourist hub of Candolim. Candolim was relatively sleepy up until early 2000 which saw an explosion in construction along the beach. Beach shacks, restaurants, guest houses, hostels and a few 4 star hotels jostle for space along the beach- Candolim has come a long way. The Beach isn’t much to write about and over the past few years, I find the presence of vendors and beach sports( jet skis & banana boats) rather annoying.  However, the endless restaurants and bars add to the vibrant and lively air and thus it is best for a night or two.

Candolim Bomras
Bomras in Candolim

Bomras ( Taj Fort Aguada Road) is the toast of the town. The garden setting offers a relaxed dining option with Burmese chef Bomra Jap rustling up modern twists to Burmese food. I particularly liked the Char grilled catch of the day, wash it down with the interesting Lemongrass & Ginger mojito.
Soumyens( Opposite the Candolim Jambaleshwar temple) you wouldn’t think much of the place when you enter the rather unimaginative outdoor seating area, but the food will blow you away- Chef Soumyen’s steaks are a must try as are his desserts- the Chocolate soufflé and Cointreau infused dark chocolate mousse are a must try! Bob’s Inn( beside Novotel Hotel Candolim) – is the place to visit for an affordable tipple, be sure to try the local Feni and be warned that it can mae you very tipsy!

YOGASHALAS AND WELLNESS HAVEN- ASSAGAO
20 minutes away from the bustling and noisy tourist traps of Baga and Calangute, takes you to the village of Assagao. Known for its wealthy residents living in beautifully restored Portuguese bungalows, Assagao is fast emerging as a wellness destination. The notable yoga schools such as Purple Valley and Swan Retreat offer 14 day teacher training programs drawing in people from all over the world. Sushumna Yoga Studio( one of the oldest studios in Goa) recently relocated here and  offers interesting classes in Vinyasa Flow. Assagao has slowly developed into a posh village with upscale galleries and restaurants.

The Villa Goa
The Villa Goa

EAT- Villa Blanche( Badem Church Road, Socolwaddo) run by Yogini is the toast of town, her Sunday brunch is a must. Set admist a shaded pretty garden, the buffet table is laid out in a homely style- on a dining table. There are many treats on offer- Quiches, Seafood Paella, Savoury Pumpkin mousse,  Sweet potato fritters with horse radish, cous cous, hummus, and German potato salad and the desserts are a must try!

Pretty outdoor seating area in Villa blanche
Pretty outdoor seating area in Villa blanche


Gunpowder( 6 Saunto Vaddo, next to People’s tree) is another must go to, serving up South Indian fare, this place has become a hit with tourists and locals alike. Its outdoor setting in atop a small hill gives it an outdoorsy feel
Ciao Bella( Assagao Badem Road) serves up Italian food, much has been said of their fresh pasta and ravioli and their picturesque restaurant is well visited

STAY- accommodation is mainly limited to  newly renovated/ restored Portuguese mansions with luxurious trappings. The Villa Goa is a great choice-note villas are booked on a weekly basis and suitable for a family of 4-6 persons. Another great choice is Villa Sunbeam– owned  by the flamboyant  Delhi socialite Jivi Sethi, the landscaping and pool gives a super plush feeling to this place

SHOP- Cheshire Cat Gallery- run by Karen Peace and Van Andlen, this jewellery store has a unique collection of jewellery set on sterling silver and 22k gold with semi precious stones. Drawing influences from India, England( Victorian era) & South East Asia, each piece is different and beautiful.  They also have a clothing section which stocks Aurobelle and other independent designers.
People Tree– this well known Delhi studio for cool clothing has set up shop in Assagao. Housed in an old bungalow, this is a must visit

THE VILLAGE LIFE- SIOLIM
Its difficult to miss the beautiful Siolim church as one drives in from Assagao. Siolim is recommended for people looking to experience the quiet village life. Not too far from Siolim is the Chapora River and Fort( around 4-5 kms) which makes for a delightful stop for sunset.

The beautifully restored Siolim House
The beautifully restored Siolim House

STAY- Nothing more majestic and historic than the Siolim House, started by Varun Sood and his French wife, this beautifully restored Portuguese mansion is for those looking into to soak a bit of history! A litte further into the lane is Neemrana’s Ishavilas, part of the Neemrana Noble homes- this whimsical and over the top villa is crammed with baroque Thai and Rajasthani pieces- you may love it or hate it.  One things for sure- the two Villa Caretakers from Himachal and manager Anthony are fantastic. On an advance notice of 4-5 hours a special Goan fast can be arranged for Rs 750/ person- their chef will rustle up a delicious home style Goan feast, finger licking good!!

The Neemrana's whimsical property- Ishavilas
The Neemrana’s whimsical property- Ishavilas

DRINK– Teso Waterfront is undoubtably the place to head to for a sundowner. This uber chic outdoor venue offers sweeping views of the Chapora River. Do be warned that food is average.  

The view from Teso Waterfront
Bistro with a view- Teso Waterfront

BEST BEACH NORTH GOA- ASHVEM/MANDREM
Undoubtedly my favourite beach! We only discovered this beach in January this year and came back in March. What great about Ashvem and Mandrem beaches are that they are relatively flat and therefore its relatively easy for long strolls, the grayish sands are dotted with rocks and the gentle waters are a delight to swim in, there are plenty of upscale restaurants and bars which make this beach delightful. Its not odd to spot small groups of people practicing yoga on the beach.

Ashvem beach
The Serene Ashvem Beach

STAY- Aquatica Goa offers relatively reasonable cottages in lush landscaped gardens, its located just across the road from La Plage restaurant, so the beach is no more than 5 minutes away.

Cottages overlooking the lotus pond- Aquatica Ashvem
Cottages overlooking the lotus pond- Aquatica Ashvem

La Cabana Resort is also another moderately priced situated on the beach- the accommodation is in comfortable wooden log cabins and their bar Palasha offers great views of the beach. Another interesting choice is Ashiyana Yoga Retreat and Spa is a great choice for people looking at getting a mix of yoga and the beach. The entire resort is designed in an eco friendly way embracing the elements of the earth,  their yogashala has a fantastic line up of respected visiting teachers from all across the globe

EAT/ DRINK- La Plage is undoubtedly the place to head to for food. Just off the beach, this upscale beach bistro is creating ripples in the Goa food scene. The Grilled sardines and Tuna tartar with wasabi are a must try. Service is notoriously laidback and sometimes downright rude- service staff couldn’t be bothered with you, but the food more than makes up for it, so sit tight! Bardo is the newest uber trendy beach venue to head to for sundowners- they have a good line up of international deejays, so put on those branded sunglasses and head their way to shake a leg.
If you can’t afford to stay at Sur La Mer– I recommend you head there for a romantic dinner. The beautiful hotel and restaurant is centered around the long swimming pool- their Blue Cheese stuffed naan and grilled catch of the day is a must!

Grilled Sardines at La Plage
Grilled Sardines at La Plage
Sundowners at Bardo
Sundowners at the hip Bardo

HOW TO GET HERE- Ashvem and Madrem beaches are around 2 hours drive away from Dabolim airport, the nearest village is Siolim which is around 15-20 minutes away

I’m leaving you with a few images of food and places to visit

Blue cheese naan at Sur La Mer
Blue cheese naan at Sur La Mer
Grilled catch of the day at Sur la Mer, Ashvem
Grilled catch of the day at Sur la Mer, Ashvem
Fresh catch at Fisherman's wharf near Mobor beach in South Goa
Fresh catch at Fisherman’s wharf near Mobor beach in South Goa
The famous restaurant where Charles Sobhraj was caught is also the inventer of the Cafreal- must visit O Coquiero in Porvorim
The famous restaurant where Charles Sobhraj was caught is also the inventer of the Cafreal- must visit O Coquiero  restaurant in Porvorim
Jade Jagger Shop in Ashvem
Jade Jagger Shop in Ashvem
Gallery Gitanjali in Panjim
Gallery Gitanjali in Panjim

Island of Serendipity: Sri Lanka

kalkudah beach-deserted and quiet
A deserted and pristine beach in the East coast-  Kalkudah beach

A thick blanket of clouds seemed to cover the island on our descent from the skies. The monsoons had just arrived over a week ago leading to turbulent weather, a shaky landing with little visibility made our touchdown to Colombo rather “memorable”- only in a not-so-nice-way! Thankfully all gloomy thoughts were dispelled on stepping out of the aircraft, replaced with an energy to explore each and every corner of this small nation that many call the Island of Serendipity

A male tusker in Minneriya National Park
A male tusker in Minneriya National Park

No stranger to us Indians, Sri Lanka has only recently emerged, in 2009, from an ugly war that lasted many decades (With the LTTE- Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam demanding a separate country/state for Tamils)Sri Lanka gained independence from the British empire in 1948. The late 1960’s & 1970’s saw a revival in the free market economy. Many artists, architects, philanthropists and writers from Europe flocked to this island nation only to flee the civil war in the 1980’s that divided the country for nearly 3 decades. It is estimated that over 100,000 Tamils & Sinhalese lost their lives in the war, including the assassination of the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. The last phase of the war was particularly gruesome & many war crime atrocities being committed.  Fast forward to 2013, I am happy to report that all seems well ( at least on the surface) in this country that is gearing up to be the “next big thing” in Tourism in South Asia. Not surprising why- Stunning natural coastlines on the east & west coast; Ancient Buddhist relics and temples dating back to the 3rd century BC; Diverse wildlife and national parks committed to protecting them; Historical buildings & forts that are a testament to the colonial influence of the Portuguese, Dutch & British; friendly laid back largely Buddhist citizens and finally delicious food. Sri Lanka seems to have all the tick(ed) marks for a winning holiday destination

Frescoes dating back to the 3rd century BC in Lion rock Sigiriya
Frescoes dating back to the 3rd century BC in Lion rock Sigiriya

If you are planning to visit Sri Lanka, may I recommend that you spend at least 10 days, of which a good 3 days are lost to road travel. Roads although good (by this I mean free of potholes), getting around from the east to west coast is an arduous task, mainly because there exists very few highways.  The strict implementation of speed limits and two lane highways means that you will cover a distance of 50km in 1.5-2 hours. So a distance of 300 kms can take anywhere between 8-10 hours depending on traffic and cops! Do keep this is mind, when getting an itinerary together for your trip.

My recommendations on places to visit in Sri Lanka are based out of the fact that I visited when monsoons were in full swing in the east and south coast. If you have done your homework, you will clearly see that I missed the following: the Dutch fortress town of Galle, the beaches of Unawatuna & Mirissa, Yala National Park & Arugam bay. That’s what’s going to tempt me to come back for in my next holiday (which I foresee will happen in March 2014) Sri Lanka has dazzled me much in the same way as Bali, I’m yearning to go back and explore the east and south coast

BENTOTA & HIKKADUWA

Bentota beach in the afternoon
Bentota beach on a rainy afternoon
Sunset in Bentota beach
The clouds lift out to reveal a beautiful sunset in Bentota beach

My sister in law’s 50th birthday brought us to Sri Lanka in June, the main celebrations being centered in Bentota. We stayed at the charming Amal Villas-owned by a German and Sri Lankan couple. Having booked out all the villas we were happy to be chilling by the infinity swimming pool which made it feel like we are wading through paddy fields. Their restaurant is undoubtedly the best in Bentota and is just across the road.  To get to the beach you needed to cross a railway track, which was scary but fun! Bentota beach was lovely, however there was no question of swimming out due to strong currents, we were happy to spend our evenings watching the sun go down in a deserted beach (being the off peak season) A short stop at the Bentota Sea- Turtle Rehabilitation center ( 15 minutes away from Amal Villas) is a must especially for those with children- you can take a peek at the endangered olive ridley turtles amongst others such as the odd green turtle that lost its flap

The pool at Amal Villas Bentota
The pool at Amal Villas Bentota

STAY- Amal Villas (http://amal-villa.com/en/hotel-sri-lanka.html) Rooms start from Rs 6500 onwards. Its sister property Club Villas(http://club-villa.com/)  is a chic and upscale alternative, rooms start from Rs 9000+ taxes

The turtle rehabilitation center in Bentota is a must visit
The sea turtle rehabilitation center in Bentota is a must visit
The gentle waves in Hikkaduwa Beach
The gentle waves in Hikkaduwa Beach

A day trip to the lively Hikkaduwa beach is a must. Hikkaduwa was famous for its coral reef which was destroyed thanks to the 2004 tsunami. Its calm and turquoise waters make it an absolute delight to swim in. Hikkaduwa boasts of a lively nightlife with many beach shacks/ pubs playing live music and serving good seafood. STAY- Chhaya Tranz Hikkaduwa(http://www.chaayahotels.com/chaayatranz.htm) Rooms start from Rs 8000 onwards

The view from the sundeck in Chhaya Tranz Hikkaduwa
The view from the sundeck in Chhaya Tranz Hikkaduwa

NUWARAELIYA

Gentle green hills laden with tea bushes seem to stretch out as far as the eye can see. Old colonial buildings, the botanic gardens, streets with English names, large roundabouts & quaint cottages, have deservedly earned this town the rightful title of “New England”  Did you know that Sri Lanka is now the world’s third largest exporter of tea? This is all mainly accounted by tea produced in this region. One can’t help but fall in love with the “old world charm” of this town. We stayed a little further out at the Heritance Tea factory( which I recommend seeing putting aside the nightmare of check out with rude and arrogant managers)  the hotel in itself is an institution- a working tea factory surrounded by nothing but tea estates.

Tea gardens in full view at Nuwara Eliya
Tea gardens in full view at Nuwara Eliya

STAY- Grand hotel(http://www.grand-hotel-nuwara-eliya-sri-lanka.lakpura.com/)  in the heart of  Nuwara Eliya town retaining its stately British colonial ambience, rooms are simple and cosy. Rates start from Rs 8000 onwards. The Langdale by Amaya(http://langdalebyamaya.com/ )is also highly recommended . Room rates start from Rs 9000 onwards
NOTE- do carry along a light sweater as evenings can get cold. If you aren’t carrying anything, fear not, there are many shops near the main bus/train terminus that sell “export surplus” woolen clothes!

PASSIKUDDAH

A panoramic shot of Passikuddah Beach
A panoramic shot of Passikuddah Beach
The pool at Centara Passikuddah
The pool at Centara Passikuddah

A back breaking 300km or 10 hour journey bought us to a tiny village in the east coast of Sri Lanka. Up until 2009, Passikudah was in the hands of the Tamil Tiger rebels having been completely cut off from the rest of the world. Today Passikudah is tipped as being Sri Lanka’s answer to the upscale Nusa Dua with luxury  5 star properties already dotting the beach which many (including me) consider to be one of the best in Sri Lanka. Powdery white sands, gentle turquoise waters allowing you to swim up to a kilometer in & fantastic coral reef( destroyed closer to shore unfortunately) makes this a top draw. Visit now before it also gets commercially exploited. There is no nightlife to speak off so dinners are mainly restricted to the resorts

Snorkelling in Passikuddah
Snorkelling in Passikuddah

STAY- We stayed at the Centara Passikuddah, a Thai luxury chain and newest entrant to the 5 star hotel scene dominating the beach. Rooms are large & spacious with the usual impersonal 5 star décor you can get in any hotel across the globe. We got a sweet deal on a pre-opening rate which was Rs 6500/ night making it also the cheapest in Passikuddah!( http://www.centarahotelsresorts.com/cps/cps_default.asp) If you’re looking for a resort with individuality stay at Maalu Maalu offering luxury accommodation in stilts and thatched roofs(http://www.maalumaalu.com/) Room prices start from Rs 9000 onwards
The restaurant at Uga Bay Resort next to Maalu Maalu is a must eat- their grilled king prawns are to die for!

The inviting pool at Maalu Maalu Passikudah
The inviting pool at Maalu Maalu resort in Passikudah

HABARANA- MINNERIYA NATIONAL PARK & POLONNARUWA

Panoramic shot of a herd of elephants in Minneriya National Park
Panoramic shot of a herd of elephants in Minneriya National Park
An elephant swimming in the lake
An elephant swimming in the lake

This town formed our base to explore the elephant sanctuary in Minneriya National Park & the ancient city of Pollonaruwa. Minneriya National Park is known across the country as having the highest number of elephants in the wild, it is said that in the dry months of August and September, visitors have seen herds of over 200 elephants gather in the lake at dusk. I considered myself lucky to a) spot a male tusker, usually very shy and hardly seen b) to see an elephant descend into the lake and splash itself with water and c) See two herds of 20 something elephants. All this in a month which received very heavy rainfall is truly lucky. Elephants aside, the park has a diverse eco system- migratory cranes, wild bison, wild geese, peacocks, langurs all made our safari worthwhile. To soak in nature’s abundance is the best feeling ever. A safari with pick up from hotel in Habarana is Sri Lankan Rs 5000, park entry fees is INR Rs 500/ person.

   
   

  

Panorama of Cinnamon Lodge lake

An evening visit to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is a must. This is Sri Lanka’s second oldest city( after Anuradhapura) created during the reign of King Parikrambahu in the 12th century. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site as it still contains near- intact ancient buildings set in a grid like layout of what was once a glorious city.

Ancient Ruins of Pollonaruwa
Ancient Ruins of Pollonaruwa

STAY- Cinnamon Lodge (http://www.cinnamonhotels.com/hotel.php?hotel=3253) all the way! From its stunning grounds comprising of a lake filled with migratory birds to the monkeys sitting on our verandah, the Cinnamon Lodge really gave us the feeling of being next to wildlife. The spacious and comfortable rooms & restaurant makes it my recommendation. Rooms start from Rs 8,000 onward

SIGIRIYA AND DAMBULLA

No visit to Sri Lanka is complete without a visit to the “Lion Rock” Sigiriya and Cave temple of Dambulla that form part of the cultural triangle. Indian nationals get a 50% discount on tickets (around Rs 500/person) It is advisable to wear comfortable walking shoes as the climb up ( especially Lion Rock) can be unforgiving. It is thus advisable to visit before 9am.

The “Lion Rock” in Sigiriya

Sigiriya was the glorious capital of King Cassapa, who meticulously planned his impregnable palace at the foot of a 370 metre granite rock. Visitors wanting to head up the final stairwell and palace are greeted by the daunting sight of a Lion’s paw carved onto the rock. It is said that with growing time and fear of invasion he moved his palace to the top of the rock. Sigirya was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site forming the best example of ancient urban planning. The frescoes in the caves of the rock date back to the 3rd century BC were said to have been inhabited and painted by monks.

The stunning view from the palace on top of the rock
The stunning view from the palace on top of the rock

Dambulla is famous for its cave temples carved beneath a massive hanging rock. The rock standing tall at 150m is said to be a place of worship dating back to 1st century BC( when the frescoes were painted) The shrines within the temple are a classic example of 18th century art from SriLanka, Kandy.

The Dambulla Cave Temple
The Dambulla Cave Temple

STAY- Amaya Lake on the banks of Lake Kandalama is 8km away from Dambulla. Room rates start from Rs 5000 and up

SRI LANKAN FOOD

A traditional Sri Lankan meal cooked in clayware
A traditional Sri Lankan meal cooked in clayware
Sri Lankan Lamprais an absolute delight
Sri Lankan Lamprais an absolute delight

Sri lankan buffet for breakfast
Sri lankan meal condiments- pickles
Sri lankan meal condiments- pickles

Sri Lankan Lagoon Crab Curry    Coconut water as served in all restaurants

HOW TO GET HERE

The best way to get into Sri Lanka is flying into Colombo International airport- which has several connections with Chennai( India), Kuala Lumpur( Malaysia),
Bangkok( Thailand) and Singapore. The airfare from Chennai airport cost us Rs 11,000 nett return( 1 hour 15 minutes flight time). So my advice is book at least 3 months ahead to avail of good deals. The great part about connections from South East Asia is that most budget airlines such as Tiger Airways & Air Asia offer good deals sometime as low as SGD 150 return( nett)

GETTING AROUND:

The most sensible thing to do if you’re looking to explore Sri Lanka in 10 days is hire a car( which comes with a driver) Almost everybody seems to be doing that. Fact is, it is very expensive hiring a car for point to point services( as they charge you for coming back) Car hire charges for a large van which can accommodate up to 6 people is $ 38( USD) a day or 100 km( whichever is higher) smaller cars will be between $25-30( USD) a day or 100 km( whichever is higher) We used an agency Sri Lanka Exclusive Tours( Email: sle.tours@live.com) Manager name Sampat ( Telephone no:+94 75 4773100) Their driver Buddika ( Phone: +94 772244684) was pleasant, un- intrusive, well informed & our informal tour guide for the 11 days. Most hotels have provision for providing accommodation & food for drivers but do budget around Sri Lankan Rs 200/ day for food in places where they don’t offer the same

THINGS TO KNOW:

1) HOTEL BOOKINGS: All hotel room prices quoted here are in INR(unless stated otherwise) most hotels have additional taxes varying from 15-25%, this needs to be added to the final room price. Booking.com and agoda.com constantly have deals but do keep in mind that their rates are excluding taxes, most hotels in Sri Lanka require a pre-payment so in all likelihood your credit card may be charged at the time of booking

2) CURRENCY: The Sri Lankan rupee is roughly half of the Indian rupee. Although accommodation is expensive( equivalent to India) eating and drinking out is relatively cheap with a fancy meal costing you anywhere between INR 800-1500/ person( inclusive of taxes+ bottle of wine) Otherwise budget around INR Rs 500-800/meal at a beach shack

3) SHOPPING:
Stones:  Sri Lanka is famous for its rubies and sapphires, its important that if you are keen to shop, ditch your driver! Most driver’s get a commission from taking their clients to these stores, the commission can vary from 20-30%, which will be accounted for in the prices they quote you. If you are really keen to purchase sapphire do note the price for a single carat can go upwards of USD $300, depending on the cut, colour and clarity. It is advisable to purchase the stone and do the setting in your own country. Stone quality used in silver settings are poor. Always ask for a certificate- most good jewellers will ensure they give you this. Finally don’t be ashamed to bargain, big jewelers are also willing to cut their prices by at least 30%!
Clothing: Sri Lanka is also famous for its cotton and export surplus for all the big brands such as FCUK, Zara & H&M etc Cotton Collection and Odel in Colombo are worth visiting.
Home accessories  If you are looking for home accessories, head to Paradise road in Colombo/Bentota which is an absolute delight!
Sri Lankan masks: are a must buy, each mask having a particular function/meaning, some are made to ward off evil spirits, others are for good health and prosperity

Masks for sale
Masks for sale
Mask maker busy at work
Mask maker busy at work

Noritake: In India, Noritake dinnerware is synonymous with luxury, it’s a sign that  you have finally arrived and I hadn’t quite figured out the Indian obsession with the Japanese dinnerware maker, till I visited their factory outlet in Colombo. The attention to detail and dinnerware is truly remarkable. What’s even more remarkable is their prices- at least 40-50% cheaper than the retail price.  Address of FACTORY OUTLET: Warakamura, Matale   94-66-224432 / 2244127 / 30 and FACTORY OUTLET 2: No: 280; High-level Road; Colombo 06.  94-11-2816363

Noritake Factory outlet outside Kandy in Matale
Noritake Factory outlet outside Kandy in Matale

Makan time:Street food Singapore

In a follow up to my recent blog about eating out in Singapore, I thought I would come up with an easy guide on what to eat in terms of street food.  Its ironic that my initial impression of Singapore turned out to be a lasting ( hopefully accurate) impression of the general South Asian attitude to food- “there must be food in every corner, plenty of food, for thou shall eat!”  It seems that anytime is a good time for Makan( when roughly translated from Malay, it means “eat”)
It’s hard not to escape sampling or nibbling an odd bite or two, especially when every office building, shopping mall & high street is crammed to full capacity with food courts catering to a gamut of cuisines, reflecting the cultural diversity of a city island nation that is made up of so many immigrants from all over Asia.

So I thought I’d come up with a guide of what to try when here..

GETTING STARTED WITH BREAKFAST
The best place to sample the local breakfast is in a Kopitiam in a food court. Other satisfying options are bigger chains such as Ya Kun Kaya Toast and the Toast box that offer a standardized selection of breakfast staples

Nothing better than a Kopi O and Kaya toast to get you started for the day
Nothing better than a Kopi O and Kaya toast to get you started for the day

Kopi O – I can never get over its caffeine kick! Kopi O is strong bitter black coffee said to be traditionally roasted with lard, thankfully that’s all in the past & I am to believe that the roasting process typically omits the lard

Kopi C- is nothing but Kopi O with the addition of sweetened condensed milk. It still gives you a good kick thanks to the high caffeine and sugar content

Teh Tarik- inspired by our Indian masala chai and filter coffee foam, Teh Tarik uses a strong brew tea with evaporated/condensed milk. It is then poured “pulled” back and forth two cups to give an attractive foam on the top

Kaya toast
– “Kaya” refers to a spread made with coconut cream, pandan, eggs & sugar. This delicious spread is applied on freshly toasted thick bread with generous helping of butter and makes for a delicious accompaniment to your Kopi

Rice Porridge-similar to a congee, here bits of meat or seafood are added to a porridge base of rice usually topped with spring onions, fried shallots & garlic bits and sometimes chilli padi. A very popular Asian breakfast choice for people who prefer savory to sweet

SINGAPOREAN CHINESE
This unique cuisine was born when the first wave of Chinese immigrations arrived from many different provinces. The provinces of Cantonese, Hainan, Hokkien & Sichuan have the most dominant influence on food.

Char Kway Teow- stir fried thick rice flour noodles in dark soya sauce ( sweet) with prawns, seafood, leafy Chinese spinach & bean sprouts. Traditionally it was considered a fatty dish for laborers as it incorporated using pork lard, thankfully that’s all in past as healthier cooking oils are used

Singapore's favorite Char Kway Teow
Singapore’s favorite Char Kway Teow

Carrot Cake- a rather misleading name in my opinion, as it contains nothing next to a carrot but is delicious nonetheless. Steamed rice flour and radish cakes are diced to be stir fried with garlic, egg, prawns and sometimes dark soya sauce( sweet) or regular light soya sauce.  Carrot cake is usually garnished with a generous dose of spring onions.

Hokkien ( Prawn) Mee- popularly known as “prawn mee” noodles is derived from stir frying egg noodles and rice vermicelli( bee hoon) in pork lard and adding eggs, prawns, seafood,  bean sprouts & soy sauce. It is almost always served with a Sambal sauce and lime.

Mee rebus– Boiled yellow noodles ( Hokkien) are put in a bowl with a thick curry like gravy. It is usually garnished with a boiled egg, limes, spring onions, green chillies, shallots, beansprouts & tofu

Mee Rebus
Mee Rebus

Bak kut Teh-a dark colored delicious pork rib soup rich in flavors due to the addition of star anise, fennel seeds, cloves and cinnamon in the broth

Heartwarming Bakutteh
Heartwarming Bakutteh


Chicken Rice-
derived from Hainan, this delicate dish is made by serving steamed chicken( usually cut into small pieces) over fragrant rice with a chilli paste. It is usually almost always accompanied with a light chicken soup, sliced cucumbers & Kailan( baby spinach)

The famous Hainanese Chicken rice
The famous Hainanese Chicken rice

Char Siew Rice- “Char Siew” refers to diced pieces of boneless barbequed Chinese pork ( Cantonese origins) It is commonly found in Chicken rice/ Roast duck stalls and served over steamed rice topped with dark “sweet” soy sauce & diced cucumbers

Yong Tau fu-
traditional preparation where tofu is stuffed with a prawn/ pork paste. Now it broadly encompasses a variety of vegetables stuffed with the prawn/pork paste such as eggplant, okra/ladies finger, bitter gourd & mushroom

Mapu Tofu– a traditional dish of the Sichuan province. Extremely spicy yet delicious, it is typically composed of tofu with ground pork, fermented black beans and Sichuan peppers.

The spicy Mapu Tofu
The spicy Mapu Tofu

Chilli Crab – You cannot come to Singapore & not try a Chilli or Black Pepper crab! The red tangy sauce is flavored with notes of garlic & vinegar. The sauce is then thickened by adding flour & egg. This is best enjoyed with a bun to soak up the delicious sauce. The Black Pepper crab is equally popular

Singapore's national dish the- Chilli Crab
Singapore’s national dish- the Chilli Crab

Bak Hwa- is the Cantonese version of Barbequed Pork with a unique sweet salty flavor profile. Bak Hwa is commonly added to most rice and noodle preparations

A busy Bakhwa store in Chinatown
A busy Bakhwa store in Chinatown

SINGAPOREAN-MALAYSIAN

Popiah- the Malay version of a fresh spring roll usually served on the side with a hoisin or peanut sauce. The base is typically a paper thin wheat pancake with bean sprouts, lettuce leaves,  grated carrots & turnips & finely chopped peanuts

Laksa- This classic Peranakan dish is said to have its roots in Penang, where the ethnic Chinese settled down to create a unique cuisine incorporating local ingredients. Laksa refers to a thick coconut based noodle soup to which assorted seafood is added with beansprouts, chilli padi & sambal sauce as a garnish

The Singapore Laksa
The Singapore Laksa

Fish Otak Otak- a classic Peranakan dish is prepared my mixing the fish with garlic, lemongrass, coconut milk & chilli padi paste. This mashed fish is then wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed before being placed on an open fire grill rendering a smoky taste to the final preparation

Nasi Lemak– Traditionally eaten by the Malays during breakfast, Nasi Lemak refers to a rice cooked in coconut milk. Pandan leaves are usually added to enhance the flavours.

Rojak- when literally translated means “Wild mix” in Malay. This refers to a preparation where bean sprouts, Chinese greens, cucumber, fried tofu & fried pineapple are tossed together with chopped peanuts and a spicy prawn paste

Satay- the quintessential Malay street food favorite remains as ever so popular here in Singapore. Served in bunches of 10 with a sweet peanut dipping sauce, Satay consists of pieces of meat placed on skewer sticks and grilled over an open flame with generous doses of oil and peanut sauce slathered to give it a lovely brown glaze.

A perfect accompaniment to your chilled tiger beer- Satay
A perfect accompaniment to your chilled tiger beer- Satay

SINGAPOREAN- INDIAN
A unique cuisine created by the first wave of Indian settlers in Malaysia, today Singaporean “Indian” food is extremely popular and can be best sampled in institutions such as- Samy’s Curry or Muthu’s Curry. I’m always amused by how Singaporeans excitedly exclaim “ I love Indian food especially your Roti Prata and Fish head curry!” to which I always say this is virtually unheard off in India! ( Except maybe in Bengal and Kerala!)

Fish Head curry-
A spicy and sour stew like dish comprising of the head of a Red snapper fish cooked in various Indian masalas with assorted vegetables and tamarind rendering the dish the loved ‘sour’ taste

Another Singapore favorite- Fish Head curry
Another Singapore favorite- Fish Head curry

Roti Parata( pronounced “Praaaataa”)- similar to our Indian paratha( or flat bread cooked in a pan) only slightly more softer and stringy. Its usually served with a flavorful curry but now we find interesting variations such as Ice cream, cheese and even durians!

Comfort food Roti Prata
Comfort food Roti Prata

SINGAPOREAN- INDONESIAN
Nasi Goreng- The Indonesian version of a fried rice. Steamed rice is tossed with greens, seafood/chicken, shallots, garlic and a generous dose of sweet soy sauce also called “Kecap Manis”. Usually served with fried egg as a garnish and satay too.

Nasi Goreng
Nasi Goreng- served with satays

Nasi Padang – originated from the Padang province in Indonesia. This refers to an Indonesian buffet which typically consists of steamed rice- yellow & white, served with many choices of meat and vegetarian preparations.

A typical Nasi Padang stall in a food court
A typical Nasi Padang stall in a food court

Rendang- diced pieces of beef are marinated with a spicy paste consisting of lemongrass, garlic, shallots, ginger, turmeric & galangal; it is then slowly cooked with coconut milk for at least 3-4 hours giving the meat a divinely rich taste!

Rendang curry

DESSERTS
I must admit I’m not a big fan of South East Asian desserts which usually incorporate red beans and fruits. Having said that this is my personal choice, so I would recommend that you be adventurous and try some of these interesting concoctions

Iced Kachang- grated ice is packed into ice balls and served with sweet red beans, jelly, corn & finally topped with assortment of colored and flavored sugar syrups

Cendol- said to have its roots in Penang, Malaysia, this iconic dessert has been modified to suit Singaporean tastes. Cendol consists of a coconut milk base to which thin green noodles, glutinous rice, red beans, jelly and ice shavings are added, the flavor is sweetened with the addition of palm sugar

Cendol
Cendol

King of all fruits, the smelly sweet Durian: visitors have been forewarned off the tales of the stinky smelly Durian. Singapore’s favorite fruit has been written about by food lovers across the globe, the fact that there are signs all over the MRT stations banning travelers from carrying durian on train, makes it all the more compelling to try! You could either love it or hate it. So my advice is  put aside the “toiletty, stale cheese” smell and be surprised by its delicious “custardy” texture and sweet taste

The iconic durian
The iconic durian


So to all my readers headed to Singapore for a short city break, I hope you find this blog informative. Remember, always make time to sample the diverse food and tickle your taste buds…if you discover something delicious along the way( excluding BUBBLE TEA) feel free to share the same with me 🙂

Note to readers: Some images in this post have been sourced from the internet,  special credit to Rasa Malaysia &  Seriouseats.com

Pondicherry: A little piece of France in Southern India

Sunlight streams through the tall majestic tree lined boulevards; I walk past ochre colored stately colonial mansions, glorious old churches and pretty cafés; it is only until I hear the familiar honk of a passing auto & feel the humidity( note-sweat)  that I’m reminded I am indeed in Pondicherry and not a French coastal village.  This quaint little town tucked away in the Southern part of Eastern India oozes French charm and a distinct joie de vivre reminding visitors that it is a former French settlement. Pondicherry, was decreed a Union territory of India in 1962, thankfully many decades later, I am pleased to note that the town still maintains its distinct French character- streets bear French names, heritage buildings have been lovingly restored to their former glory, tiny bakeries flourish reviving the French pastry making traditions & French still remains the second language to many of the locals living here. It’s easy to see why most Indian visitors will fall in love with this place instantly- giving us a chance to experience what the tourism officials proudly call the “French Riviera of India” without actually stepping out of India…

A restored colonial building
A restored colonial building

Those who expect the Pondicherry experience to mirror that of Goa will be left disappointed- there isn’t any of that to be found here. Noisy bars & nightclubs are conspicuous by their absence and tourism infrastructure in Pondicherry is relatively basic. Pondi appeals to those who have a lazy, laid back approach to their holidays.  Soaking up the history by walking through the White town( or French Quarters), meditating at the Auroville Ashram 15kms away, reading a book at a quiet café, taking an afternoon nap under a shaded tree in Auroville, shopping in interesting galleries and pottery studios & finally tucking into a delicious Creole meal for dinner at L’Orient by Neemrana          

Here are my top picks of what to do while you are here

1)     Visit and stay at the historical French quarters

The attractive entrance to a hotel in French quarters
The attractive entrance to a hotel in French quarters

2)     Spend the day in the Auroville commune

Freshly baked bread@ Auro bakery
Freshly baked bread@ Auro bakery

3)    Shop and visit the Tamil Quarters

Inside Maison Tamoule- a classic example of architecture in the Tamil quarters
Inside Maison Tamoule- a classic example of architecture in the Tamil quarters

4)    Sample traditional French pastries in Baker Street@ Rue Bussy or Auroville Bakery

Reviving the French pastry making traditions at Baker st
Reviving the French pastry making traditions at Baker st

FRENCH QUARTERS OR  “WHITE TOWN” 

Circe de Pondicherry
Circe de Pondicherry

Visitors are immediately transported back to a time where clocks ticked slowly and glorious colonial mansions existed. This small part of town retains a distinct European vibe, no surprises also that it receives the maximum number of tourists (which is actually nothing compared to the hordes of tourists that visit Goa).  The affluent locals with the help of tourism authorities and French historians have lovingly restored many of the historical building here. The roads retain the original French grid layout and their French names. A perfect way to start exploring the streets is by foot. You may begin your walk from Bharati Park on to Rue Mahe de Labourdonnais, turn left into Rue Romain Rolland and walk the entire length of the street, at the end make a left into the parallel street Rue Dumas & finally turning right into Goubert Avenue or the beach facing Promenade. There are many interesting buildings, galleries, shops & cafes to visit along these streets.

Palais de Mahe- Pondicherry's newest hotel
Palais de Mahe- Pondicherry’s newest hotel in the French quarters

The Promenade/ Beach Road/Goubert Avenue- this 1.5 km beachfront stretch running alongside the French quarters, is considered to be the pride of Pondicherry. Every evening after 5pm, the road is made closed to traffic and named a pedestrian only zone, making it a popular spot for evening walks amongst locals. The Promende hotel and Lighthouse makes for an interesting stop, the former being very popular for sundowners.

Passing renovated buildings in the French Quarters
Passing renovated buildings in the French Quarters

Bharati Park-a beautiful tree lined park in the heart of French town, offering visitors and locals a respite from the sweltering heat of summers. This park adds to the French character of the historical quarter

Aurobindo Ashram(Rue St Gilles/ Rue de la Marine)
– Founded by Shri Aurobindo in 1926 & developed over many years by the Mother ( Mira Alfassa), the Ashram is one of the top tourist draws in the French Quarters. Many come here seeking solace and respite from the stressful life in the city. The quiet and cool environs of the Ashram make it a perfect place to meditate or to practice yoga.

La Maison Rose( # 8 Romaine Rolland)- An interesting boutique housed in an attractive colonial mansion, features the works of several designers dealing in clothing, children’s wear, accessories as well as Indian fashion, home furnishing and antiques. Their al fresco café is a must visit when the sun goes down

The inviting courtyard at La Maison Rose
The inviting courtyard at La Maison Rose

Curio Centre( #40 Romaine Rolland)- an intriguing antique shop sells massive four poster beds, traditional wooden pillars, Yallas or wooden carvings, Tanjore paintings, Carved wooden doors and much more

Artifacts and stone carvings as seen at the entrance to Curio centre at Rue Romaine Rolland
Artifacts and stone carvings as seen at the entrance to Curio centre at Rue Romaine Rolland

Notre Dame Anges( # Rue Dumas)- a delicious pink and cream color draws you closer for a look. The church built in 1858 and is an architectural and visual treat

Notre Dam de Anges
Notre Dam des Anges

TAMIL QUARTERS OR “BLACK TOWN”
Running to the left of the main arterial shopping street, known as Mission St, are a parallel grid of roads that give us a glimpse of the old traditional houses belonging to the once- affluent Tamil merchants and Brahmins. Most of these building are giving away to gawdy Jewelers show rooms but thanks to the efforts of a few sensible locals, some effort is being made to preserve its heritage

Maison Tamoule( Vysial St/ Rue Calve Supraya Chettiyar)-A Neemrana property( hotel) situated in the heart of the Tamil Quarters, this unique Tamil house also has distinct French elements. Do visit even if you’re not about to stay, their friendly staff are only to happy to show you around

Inside Maison Tamoule- a classic example of architecture in the Tamil quarters
Inside Maison Tamoule- a classic example of architecture in the Tamil quarters

Aquarelles Gallery( Vysial St)- situated opposite Maison Tamoule, this art gallery stocks the works of 3 water colour artists, most notable of whom is Raj Kumar Stabathy(a genius in my opinion), his use of light and intricate detailing make him a master! The other two talented artists- Ejoumale and Abel also have noteworthy paintings

Artist Raj Kumar Stabathy's works on display@ Galerie Aquarelles
Artist Raj Kumar Stabathy’s works on display@ Galerie Aquarelles

Maison Perumal( Rue Perumal Koil)- a CGH property( hotel)- another classic example of Franco-Tamil design, this hotel also deserves a visit. Stained glass windows are paired with majestic wooden pillars creating a surprising synergy that is evident of the Franco –Tamil style

Maison Tamoule-Room
Maison Tamoule-Room

AUROVILLE
It’s impossible to come to Pondicherry and not visit Auroville. Known across India and the globe for producing high quality natural incense sticks, essential oils and exquisite handmade paper, the likes of which are retailed throughout India (and at the Auro & Kalki boutiques in town) The Auroville commune founded in 1968, is the brain child of the Mother (Mira Alfassa- of Egyptian-Turkish descent) who aimed to create a free thinking society/nation made up of people from different countries creating cultural harmony. Initially formed with around 60 people, its population has slowly crept up to over 2000 residents. It’s hard to tell when driving around, in what seemed like a forested area, that this was a barren wasteland allocated to the Aurovilians who carefully nurtured it to its current “green” state. Most residents that are part of the commune, have given up their life savings, to start afresh on a new slate- contributing to the development of the commune and nature. I have been told that citizenship is extremely selective. Consumption of alcohol and drug substances is highly discouraged. Meditation, deep thoughts & open communication are encouraged. Off course, like any other organization, Auroville is plagued with bureaucracy and internal scandals- thankfully none of this is apparent immediately to wide-eyed visitors!  Most of the futuristic designs of the principal buildings of the commune can be credited to Robert Anger.

Matri Mandir-
this futurist dome represents the Soul and Spirit of the Auroville community, in line with that visitors aren’t allowed to carry cell phones & cameras into the main shrine area. Children below 10 years of age aren’t allowed to visit too. There is a huge impressive amphitheatre made with red sandstone before the entrance. Inside the Inner chamber or dome, we find the world’s largest optically perfect glass globe. The entire architecture encourages you to sit down and meditate.

Matri mandir
Matri mandir


Auroville Visitors Centre-
is a collection of futuristic buildings that houses a restaurant, café, Boutique d’Auroville( great for their pottery, Library and bookshop and Gallery. I found their boutique a great place to stock up on massage oils, essential oils, pottery & incense sticks.

Mantra pottery ( Kottakarai, Auroville)- a charming pottery studio 5 minutes away from the Visitor’s Center. The brainchild of Aurovilian Angad Vohra, the unit started production in 1994 and has evolved over the years! All the pottery here is handmade and local villagers are employed and trained in this field

Mantra pottery studio
Mantra pottery studio

La Ferme Cheese- Started as a humble establishment in 1988 by a Dutchman Benny Ernst with the simple aim to provide cheese to residents of Auroville. Little did Benny know that this would spurn off such a huge demand across India that his cheese can be found in upscale restaurants and hotels! The milk used for producing the cheese is sourced from Auroville farms and local villages, pasteurized and finally vegetable enzymes( note no Rennet) are used to create a 100% vegetarian, artisanal cheese.  No preservatives or emulsifiers are used in the process. Their fresh cheese Mozzarella, Feta & Ricotta are worth sampling as are the seasoned cheese such as Lofabu, Jeera cheese, Gruyere and Auroblochon( a 6 month old piquant cheese)

Auroville bakery- spurned by the need to provide Europeans with their bread and pastry, the bakery started as a modest establishment and today remains so. But don’t let that put you off, step in and drool over their delicious quiches, pain au Chocolat and Chocolate moelleux. La Boulangerie, located just down to road also makes for an interesting stomach pleasing stop

Auro bakery   Freshly baked bread@ Auro bakery

SHOPPING:
Ok so I don’t usually propagate shopping as an essential part of your holiday itinerary, but it’s hard to resist when you’re in Pondicherry and (a bargain hunter). Most shops are along the stretch of Mission Street &  within a couple of 100 yards of each other.

Kalki ( # 134 Mission Street)- showcases all products from Maroma-an Auroville venture specializing in incense sticks, essential oils, massage & aroma therapy oils, natural soaps & bath works, pottery, hand painted home accessories &  paper lamps

Titanic( # 33 Rue Ambalatadayar Madam)- Looking for a Massimo Dutti linen shirt for under Rs 1,000( $20)? this is the place to head to. Known for stocking export surpluses or rejects from leading Fashion houses, this is the place to head to if you’re looking a bargain- do note that being an export reject their could be faults with the stitching or labels but you’ll eventually end up finding something!

Hidesign Factory outlet( # 69 Jawaharlal Nehru Street)-
synonymous in India for bespoke leather handbags and accessories, Hidesign is an iconic Indian brand that now manufactures for the house of LV. There are deep discounts at factory outlet (at least 25-40%) on previous season’s designs

Casablanca( # 165 Mission Street) -Pondicherry’s first department store, Their home section of the 3rd floor is worth visiting- you may get a deal or two with clearances sales

EATING
Over to matters of the stomach, here’s my picks on places to eat and drink
Le Club ( # 38 Rue Dumas)- possibly the only place t remind you of a beach side shack, easy laid back vibes and comfy al fresco section makes this a perfect place to head to for drinks. Do order a calamari fritto to go with your chilled drink

The laid back beachshack feel at Le Club
The laid back beachshack feel at Le Club

La Maison Rose (# 8 Rue Romaine Rolland) – cosy courtyard setting with oodles of charm. The European fare here is a must try.  Please avoid the thai tofu curry (tad bit too sour) Lunch reminded us of sitting in a packed café in Provence with the unmistakable French accents

Delicious Juicy burger @La Maison Rose
Delicious Juicy burger @La Maison Rose

Le O’rient by Neemrana(#17 Rue Romain Rolland)- this courtyard restaurant is the only restaurant I can think of in India to serve up Creole cuisine- French food heavily influenced by the Indian culture. Don’t give their Creole food a miss

The inviting courtyard@ Neemrana
The inviting courtyard@ Neemrana

Villa Shanti( # 14 Rue Suffren)– I’ve been told this is THE place to head to for cocktails. Too bad we missed giving it a try!

The attractive entrance to Villa shanti
The attractive entrance to Villa shanti

Le Dupleix (# 5 Rue de la Caserne) – heartwarming European fare in an uber cool airconditioned setting- a relief for the sultry evenings. There is a courtyard too, for those who love the outdoors

Grilled poulet( chicken) at Le Dupleix
Grilled poulet( chicken) at Le Dupleix
Thosai Suzette at Le Dupleix
Thosai Suzette at Le Dupleix

Baker street (Rue de Bussy-Lal Bahadur Sashtri St) don’t let  the rather  standard & non descript façade put you off, for once you step in you are transported to a Parisian patisserie. Focusing only on French pastry- their chocolate éclairs and Chocolate mouilleaux( cake) are sinful!

French pastries on display@ Baker Street
French pastries on display@ Baker Street

Tantos( Auroville road)- I’ve you’re craving Italian this is the place to head too which packs up for both lunch and dinner. Another inexpensive grab and go option is Café Ecstasy on Mission Street( no really a place to charm you over but the pizzas are good hands down!

STAYING

Hotel Du Parc( #5 Jawarharlal Nehru Street)- our favourite budget place! For under INR 3,500you get spacious clean rooms with a touch of history;  its proximity to the Aurobindo Ashram and Mission Street are a definite plus. Manager Ravi and staff are ever attentive to guests needs

Le Dupleix( # 5 Rue de la Caserne)-a Hidesign venture  managed by the Sarovar group of hotels, we were bowled over by the hospitality of the staff and chic rooms- effortlessly blending the old with the new. Their breakfast is delicious and café food heartwarming. I highly recommend staying here. Room prices start from INR 4,000

And effortless blend of contemporary and old at Le Dupleix
And effortless blend of contemporary and old at Le Dupleix
Le Dupleix Deluxe Room
Le Dupleix Deluxe Room

L’Orient by Neemrana Hotels( # 17 Rue Romain Rolland)- a big disappointment from our check-in to the lackadaisical attitude of staff. What put us off even more were their musty rooms that smelt of old sheets & damp walls. It was only at our adamant insistence that they offered to change our rooms. If you’re able to put that aside, there’s plenty of history inside the hotel and rooms each of which have been named after a colony. Suites are priced at INR 6,500 and room start from INR 3,000 upwards. Stay at Karaikal suite which boast of a massive 4 poster bed and private terrace overlooking their pretty courtyard below

A standard room at L'Orient by Neemrana
A standard room oozing with history at L’Orient by Neemrana
Antique furniture@ L'Orient by Neemrana
Antique furniture@ L’Orient by Neemrana

Palais de Mahe-a CGH property( # 4 Rue de Bussy)– we stepped into this property and were blown away by the design. Room prices are slightly on the high side and start from INR 8,000 upwards

Mango Hill( Old Auroville road)– the only hotel which boasts of a pool situated just outside the Auroville commune. Rooms are spacious, simple and comfortable. Makes a good choice if you are looking to stay near Auroville. Room prices start from INR 4,500

Mango Hill outside Auroville
Mango Hill outside Auroville

INTERESTING ARTICLES AND LINKS TO  PONDICHERRY
http://travel.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?264545

http://www.auroville.org/health/food/laferme.htm

http://www.cntraveller.in/content/puducherry

http://www.cntraveller.com/recommended/cities/24-hours-in-pondicherry/what-to-see-in-pondicherry

http://www.intachpondicherry.org/English/home.aspx

BEACH DIARIES: Bali uncovered

Endless vista of terraced paddy fields on our way to Amed
Endless vista of terraced paddy fields on our way to Amed

Bali has for centuries conjured up many exotic images- lush green vegetation spurned by many volcanoes (some of which are still active), endless terraced paddy fields, stretches of white sand beaches offering fabulous surfs, proud & traditional islanders that are deeply religious and ceremonious. It was these  very images that attracted the first wave of artists, musicians & anthropologists in the 1930’s, that came in search of finding their island paradise. Bali has had a fairly turbulent & violent past- exploited by the Dutch rulers & invaded by the Japanese during the Second World War, the Balinese finally claimed independence through the valiant efforts of Gusti Ngurah Rai. Today Bali’s International airport is named after him and that grisly past is long forgotten. Its not surprising then that the island’s main source of income is tourism. The 2002 & 2005 bombings had shaken the tourism industry from its very roots & it has taken several years for the economy to recover. But thanks to Elizabeth Gilberth’s ‘Eat Pray Love’ which subsequently became a (cheesy) movie, tourism has seen a resurgence and some places south of the island have already become overly touristy.

Over the past five years, I have been truly lucky to visit this island many times and soak in what I’d like to call the Hawaii of the East.  As an Indian, it is impossible not to fall in love with the Balinese & relate to their cultural heritage. For starters, over 80 per cent of the Balinese adhere to Balinese Hinduism. Religion is interwoven in the everyday life of the Balinese- with each day involving participating in many ceremonies. The island is dotted with numerous little temples whose walls depict many scenes from the Ramayana & deities of Lord Rama. The great part about Bali is that the island is relatively large with each part offering travellers something different. If you want to enjoy the surf & nightlife stay in the southern part of Bali at Kuta or Seminyak; if you are looking to relax and unwind in a 5 star luxurious setting to enjoy the powdery white sand beach head to Nusa Dua where most of the 5 star hotels are located; Experienced surfers & beach bums can stay at theDreamland Beach/ Uluwatu area; For those seeking to explore the lush green terrain, paddy fields & gain an insight to the arts & culture of Balinese head to the cultural centre of Ubud. If you do however have a lot of time in hand and wish to tread of the beaten path, then head to the relatively unexplored areas of the North East and North west of Bali. Amed & Candidasa are tiny villages/towns on the Eastern coast where you can enjoy the best snorkelling & diving in Bali. The town of Lovina on the north west coast has long stretches of soft black sand beaches (volcanic beaches) with azure blue waters, it is here where you can spot dolphins. Pemuteran ,an even tinier hamlet,  an hour away from Lovina is our new find- with a bio rock marine reserve, and a short boat ride to Menjangan island- you can enjoy some of the best snorkelling/dive experiences in Bali without being bothered by the usual touts and tourist traps. Tourism is relatively new here and I would advise you to visit before it gets over exploited…

Map of Bali
Map of Bali

Irrespective of where you choose to stay, here are some of my top 5 picks of things to do in Bali for a first time visitor (excluding just relaxing on the beach-which would be obvious)

  1. MUST watch the sunset at ULUWATU– wherein lies the ruins of an old temple perched up on the rocky cliffs offering sweeping, panoramic, breath taking views of the sea & the massive surf below

    sunset on uluwatu copy
    Sunset in Uluwatu with sweeping views of the sea below
  2. MUST spend the day at the cultural capital UBUD-a sprawling picturesque town surrounded by the lush green paddy fields & hills. The streets here are lined with endless cafes & galleries & handicraft shops. The Ubud Palace and Legong/ Kecak ( traditional dance recitals are worth watching) Walking trails to the famed terraced paddy fields can be organised from here(do keep in mind this will require at least 3-4 hours)

    Kecap performers
    Performers greet guests after a traditional dance recital
  3. MUST have a sun downer at the hippest beach clubs namely Ku de Ta at Jalan Laxmana Oberoi, Ayana Resort’s Rock bar & the newest entrant Potato Head ( do try their Millionaire Martini) Do not get intimidated rather revel in spotting the many celebrities and beautiful people, all lounging about with their over sized sunglasses, Roberto Cavalli maxi dresses and white linen clothing, blowing air kisses!
  4. MUST experience the aquatic and marine life off the coast of Bali. The shipwreck at Tulamben( next to Amed) or Padangbai( next to Candidasa) are definitely worth checking out. There are many PADI certified dive centers in both Amed & Candidasa. The Bio rock reserve of Pemuteran & 70 metre coral wall off Menjangan island

    Finding our little Nemo- diverse marine life in Bali
  5. MUST  get in touch with your inner self with a morning session of Yoga at the Yoga Barn in Ubud or Desa Seni resort in Canggu. Both are considered institutions by yoga and wellness buffs offering fabulous classes with world class instructors

    An old Javanese Pirate house at Desa Seni Resort, Canggu
  6. MUST watch the sunrise  Gunung Batur- never mind the 3am wake up and 2 hour hike up a steep, jagged active volcano. For those that make it to the top in time are rewarded with undoubtedly the most spectacular sunrise with an uninterrupted view of  the caldera  and lake below, the rim of the active volcano, Gunung Agung and the Rinjani volcano in the Lombok islands far off.

    First rays of the sun as seen from Gunung Batur
    First rays of the sun as seen from Gunung Batur

For those of you who are planning to visit & have already done some research, you will note that I have avoided mentioning Kuta, and that’s for a good reason. Please head to Kuta is you’re looking for crammed up hotels, cheap pubs and bars filled with loud and many a pot bellied, middle aged men or itsy bitsy noisy teens on their spring break- in that case do yourself a favour and please skip reading this blog

SEMINYAK/ PETITENGET 

Seminyak beach as seen from the Oberoi

The posh area answer to the crowded Kuta area. Seminyak is famous for its trendy restaurants,cafes, boutiques & bars.  Enjoys a great stretch of beach but mostly for surfing,  the strong currents don’t really allow you to go too deep into the water. There are many surf schools off the beach, so you should sign up for a class. Seminyak has changed over the years and has actually become very crowded, there are touts around every corner and if you are looking at heading to the beach, be prepared to be accosted by many a salesperson offering to sell all sorts of things. There’s plenty of accommodation available here but  its mainly ranging from mid to high end. The great thing about Seminyak is that you can enjoy the luxury of a villa with your own private swimming pool for as little as $ 150-200 /night. Petitenget area is a quieter extension of Seminyak and now has many interesting hotels, restaurants and bars. The streets along Jalan Seminyak to Jalan Laksmana/ Oberoi are lined with interesting design shops,  upscale clothing boutiques & art galleries making it an interesting walk with many stops!

The perfect sunset in Seminyak as seen from La Lucciola
The perfect sunset in Seminyak as seen from La Lucciola

NOTE- BEWARE of money changers, all of them claim to be authorized  but will without your knowledge deduct a commission, sometimes as much as $20 ( which is quite a lot for Indonesians) Do be sure to check that the exchange rate on the board tallies with what you will receive.

Places to Drink-
  for a more relaxed sunset drink try La Lucciola– Frangipani Bar, around 10-15 mins away from Ku de ta. Potato Head is  the newest entrant in the upscale swish trendy beach club scene, Cocktails here incorporate the use of mixology. Must try- the Millionaire Martini. Drinks can be an expensive affair though, expect to pay anywhere between $ 15-20 USD a drink. Rumours in Jln Laksmana is another great place to catch up for a drink, do note it tends to pack up post 7pm

Places to Eat:  most of the restaurants are on Jalan Laksmana Oberoi nicknamed EAT STREET. Most meals are in the range of $20- $30 USD per meal ( mains and dessert)
Cafe Bali–  run by French nationals, it has an amazing ambiance & decor, must try their desserts, warm choco lava cake & raspberry creme brulee! Great for breakfast or Lunch
Mykonos- great Greek food, down the road from Cafe Bali
Chandi- ex head chef of Nobu in New York has started his own restaurant, very experimental cuisine, we had tried fab desserts here but heard the food is really good( and expensive)
Ultimo– a great place for Italian cuisine and Tratorria- another great alternative to Ultimo

Places to Stay:
High end: Oberoi Hotel- bang on the beach and really gorgeous. Others include-The Legian OR Rasa Seminyak OR The Sofitel OR The Samaya OR  The Elysian. Room rates are expensive ranging from anywhere upwards of $ 250 USD per night

Mid end Villas: many villas around this area, the closer the proximity to the beach, the higher the price, most of them are usually no more than a 10-15 min walk from the beach and have a private pool. Usually entrance to these villas are down a narrow alleyway,do not get scared its quite common in Bali and extremely safe! Try the following places ( where we have stayed in the past) VILLA BUGIS www.villabugis.com (  a 15 min walk from the beach) OR VILLA LA ZUMBA www.balijetaime.com ( a good collection of villas available on weekly rents) OR  LA VILLAIS   DES EXCLUSIVE VILLA AND SPA http://www.lavillais.com/home.html Room rates on all of the above Villas start from $ 150- 450 USD per night depending on Villa size and number of rooms

JIMBARAN

the serene Jimbaran beach
The serene Jimbaran Beach

Its hard to tell that Jimbaran was formerly a fishing village. Dotted with luxurious 5 star hotels,  Jimbaran  beach is probably the best beach for swimming with its white sands and turquoise blue waters ( after Nusa Dua). Jimbaran is also  known for its beach shacks serving up some of the freshest seafood in Bali, prices range between $10-$30 USD per person, excluding drinks( seafood aint cheap!)  Its best to add Jimbaran to the tail end of your Bali itinerary as it is a mere 15-20 minutes away from the airport and most hotels offer a complimentary drop off facility. Uluwatu is only a 20 minute drive away and I would recommend watching the sunset from here.
Places to Stay:
Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay- an absolutely fantastic location in the best/ most gentle part of the beach. A very expensive option though
Intercontinental Jimbaran– right next to Four Seasons, great location on the beach front. Check out booking.com for deals, you could get a room for under $ 200 per night if lucky!
Jimbaran Puri Bali– the stretch of beach here is great. Offers much more affordable rooms in the price range of $100- 200 USD per night
Puri Bambu– this place is pure nostalgia, a good 20 min walk away from the beach, we first stayed here in 2007. Rooms are super reasonable & basic. Service is great and breakfast the best! http://www.puribambu.com/

UBUD:

The famed rice terraces just outside Ubud
Sample of Balinese architecture as seen in UBUD
A typical Balinese designed traditional temple as seen in Ubud

Undoubtedly the cultural capital of Bali. Surrounded by green paddy fields, Ubud’s bustling streets are lined with  interesting cafes, shops & art galleries. Soak in the cultural experience by watching a traditional Legong or Kecak dance performance. Walk away from the town centre and stumble onto admire the architecture of traditional Balinese homes. The artistic villages around Ubud are worth dropping into each village mastering a particular craft such as Batubulan for stone carving, Mas for wood carving , Batuan for paintings and Celuk for silver jewellery. The Neka Gallery in Jalan Raya Sanggingan is a must see- stocking some of the biggest names in the Bali art scene. Ubud also a melting pot for all yoga and wellness buffs. The Yoga barn is the best place to head to for world class yoga classes. Time permitting a day visit to the famed UNESCO world Heritage classified terraced paddy fields in JatiLuwih is a must
Places to Eat
Bebik Bengil ( Dirty Duck)-an Ubud institution, specializing in the crispy deep fried Balinese duck. They also served other delicious Balinese delicaces. The setting is perfect looking out to the paddy fields
Kafe- run by the Yoga barn people, this lively café is packed every afternoon. Their organic and vegan food is a must try as are their vegan desserts
Batan Waru- another popular place serving up delicious Indonesian and Balinese food. Must try their Key Lime Pie which is to die for!
Café Wayan- another great place to try local delicacies and South East Asian cuisine, the décor and garden setting is spot on
Where to stay
High End: Komaneka at Tanggayuda- highly recommended by friends, this place is a little away( 15 min drive) The hotel offers complimentary shuttle services to the town center though. Offering you sweeping views of the valley below. Others include-Four Seasons Hotel at Sayan, Komaneka at Bisma, Uma by Como
Mid end: There are many mid range options available in Jalan Hanuman which is parallel to Jalan Monkey Forest.
Tegal Sari –we stayed here in 2008 and are happy to report that it is still popular. For under $ 40 USD per night you can expect to get comfortable simple accommodation overlooking the paddy fields. Location is perfect and not to far from the center of town surrounded by paddy fields. http://www.tegalsari-ubud.com/enhanced/index.php
Kebun Indah– owned by the Café Wayan people, it’s a little further down the road from Tegal Sari but once again offers great accommodation which is worth the price. Scenic views of the terraced paddy fields http://www.alamindahbali.com/kebun_indah.htm
Bambu Indah– great setting, slightly out of town, however offering sweeping views of the valley, accommodation in the form of individual wooden Javanese houses .  www.bambuindah.com/
Off the Beaten track: Balam Bali Villa in Mengwi which is 30 minutes away from Ubud, surrounded by nothing by paddy fields on all sides,  you must stay in the Pirate house http://www.balambalivilla.com/site/Balam-Bali-Villa-76.html

NUSA DUA:
“Five star vacation”- that just about sums up Nusa Dua. Famed for its powdery white sands and calm waters ideal  for swimming, it comes as no surprises that Nusa Dua is packed with 5 star luxury properties each having their own private beach stretch. With their standard hotel designs, looks and the usual luxury trappings, one hardly gets the feeling of being in Bali. Staying here I could experience the same in a Miami or Bahamas
Recommended hotels: The Conrad and The St Regis
A word of caution, do not book any of the hotels that are on Tanjong Benoa beach or not on the beach front- it may well be that those hotels  are outside of the gated Nusa Dua area and nowhere as nice.  My dear friend from Croatia was fooled into thinking it was part of Nusa Dua and landed up having a horror vacation.

CANDIDASA AND AMED:

Early morning view of Gunung Batur and the mainland as seen from our boat journey to Padangbai
Tenganan- bali aga village
Inside the walled Bali aga village in Tenganan


Head eastwards away from the usual tourist route and experience the fantastic marine life. A three hour scenic drive brings you to the hamlets of Candidasa and Amed ( 40 minutes away from Candidasa) Candidasa was ruthlessly exploited by the hotel and construction boom in the 1980’s and as a result its reef and coast was heavily eroded. Hence the one thing that strikes visitors when coming into this town is the absence of beach/sands. Amed has retained its small town charm however hotels are springing up quickly, so do head here before its gets touristy. Both towns are laid back and there are many small bars and restaurants lined up on the road offering affordable and heartwarming food. Choosing either Amed or Candidasa as your base, a day trip dive/snorkel to Tulamben is a must, it is here that the wreck of a warship Liberty lies, snorkelers can enjoy looking at the live coral and colourful fish while experienced divers can actually head into the wreck to explore what remains. The coral reef off Padangbai is also worth seeing. It is advisable to set sail by 7am, as the waters are gentle and there are no strong currents, moreover this will ensure you head back by noon before it gets too hot. The boat ride to the dive/snorkel site by itself is stunning with the sea on one side and the Gunung Agung volcano on the other( side of the land) Pasir Putih or white sand beach is also great for snorkeling or just swimming, this is around 20 minutes away by boat from Candidasa
Around 5 km away from Candidasa takes you to the town of Tenganen where you can see the original Balinese village( Bali Aga) The village is closed to visitors after 7pm everyday and the inhabitants still practice ancient rituals governed primarily by animistic beliefs. From here you can hike out to the rice terraces of Gunung Agung which offers sweeping views of the sea and rice field terraces below

Places to Stay
Rama Candidasa-  offers luxurious rooms overlooking the large waterfront. The in house restaurant serves up delicious food. We stayed here for 5 nights in 2009 and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Room rates range between $ 75- 200 USD per night
Puri Wirata Amed– basic, comfortable accommodation on the beach/water front. Their dive center is good and offers PADI certification. Good value for money, room rates start from as low as $ 40 USD per night

Dusk sets in Amed

PEMUTERAN

pemuteran beach
Reef workers at Pemuteran Beach


A five hour drive from Denpasar airport brought us to the North west corner of Bali namely Pemuteran . Virtually unheard of until some years ago. Pemuteran beach is now again popularity. Pemuteran has the first and perhaps largest artificial Bio rock reef project in the world. The soft black sand( volcanic beach),  gentle blue waters and surrounding green mountains make it one of the most beautiful unconventional beaches in Bali. The hotels and locals are committed to protecting the reef and there are designated points through which snorkelers can enter and exit the beach( do note :wearing the snorkel fins are essential before entering the reef to prevent damage to the coral) So gentle are the waters that we almost felt like swimming in a massive pool! There are many different types of coral to see such as the sponge coral, electric coral, soft and hard coral, so many different kinds of coral fish. It’s best to start snorkeling by 8.30 am as the sea is calm and visibility good.
A 30 minute boat ride away brought us to the island of Menjangan which is renowned for its coral reef and marine life. There is no accommodation on the island and visits are mainly through boat. Menjangan is a great for divers too who can admire the jaw dropping 70 metre coral wall, snorkelers like me enjoyed the view from above and swam with a large group of coral fish.

menjangan island copy
Perfect snorkeling in Menjangan Island

NOTE- reviews of Menjangan Island diving/snorkeling are varied, the biggest complaint being that due to the tide and strong currents often garbage from Java is washed ashore. We also experienced the same in our snorkel trip (it had poured down the night before) however as we were snorkeling away a good 10-15 metres away from the shore it wasn’t nearly as bad. As with all dive/snorkel trip it is advisable to begin early when there are little or no currents, visibility good & waters cool

Places to Stay
Amertha Bali Villas– spacious beach front villas, tastefully done up with Balinese décor. Each villa comes with a private swimming pool. The dive center attached to the hotel offers snorkel gear. The beach in front of the hotel has a safe entry/ exit zone. Room rates start from $ 150 USD onwards per night. Taman Sari Beach resort- their sister property offers more affordable accommodation with $ 100 USD per night. The in house restaurant is very good
Pondok Sari beach resort- Rooms are done up in traditional Balinese décor. Very attractive looking restaurant not sure about the food though
Matahari Resort- high end luxurious setting. Expect to pay anywhere upwards of $ 300USD per night ( FULL BOARD)
Places to Eat
There are very few places to eat besides the hotels ( where food is ordinary not great!)
Bali Balance– for the best coffee in the morning… Their bakery is not so good though. Free wi-fi is a plus.
Frangipani– scenic setting overlooking the mountains of East Bali. Food expensive but very good.
Warung Tirta Sari– affordable and delicious balinese food. Located just beside Amertha Bali Villas, this is a must try!
LOVINA, in North Bali is another alternative if you do not wish to travel as far as Pemuteran. We were in fact looking at booking a stay here mainly to see the dolphins in the morning. However, from the reviews online, we settled for the more sleepy and remote village of Pemuteran. Lovina, also has soft black sands and gentle azure blue waters, however almost all snorkel/ dive trips will eventually bring you to Pemuteran and Menjangan island. Lovina, in that sense has many more restaurants, hotels and bars and is a little more lively than Pemuteran. I have been told that an early morning trip to see the dolphins here is an absolute must.
How to get to Pemuteran: from the airport Pemuteran is a good 5 hours drive away. The journey costs $40 USD. I would advise travelers to spend a couple of nights at Ubud( around 1.5 hrs away from airport) and then head to Pemuteran which is 3.5 hrs away, otherwise the journey can be a little tiring especially if you are coming in from a long haul flight.

GUNUNG BATUR/ MOUNT BATUR

The cloud lift out to reveal a magical sunrise
The clouds lift out to reveal a magical sunrise

If you are planning to stay in Bali for over a week, please note that no visit to Bali is complete without watching the sunrise from the ridge of an active volcano in this case- Gunung Batur. We set off in the early hours of dawn (3.30am) with a torch and guide, we make way to climb up a steep and jagged edge of an(active)volcano. A grueling 2-2.5 hour hike uphill brings you to the summit where you wait with a dozen other hikers for the sunrise. As the first rays of the sun beam out, you are greeted with a spectacular sight of the caldera and lake below, Gunung Agung( another active volcano)- which seems like a few kilometers away, Mount Batur and finally Mount Rinjani across the Lombok Straits in the Lombok islands. As you take the treacherous route downhill, your guide will show you lava flows and lava vents. Some gimmicky guides were actually showing tourist how to make hard boiled eggs using the steam- highly dangerous! At every step downhill you are reminded that this is an active volcano. The loose sand and jagged volcanic rocks do not help. I would advise everybody to wear comfortable hiking shoes; there was evidence of many shoes in tatters on our route down. Also carry a light sweater with you because at 3.30 am it is almost around 13-15 degrees cold.. You can expect to reach your hotel by around 10 am in the morning after which I would recommend a hot tub soak and Balinese massage.  There is a local hot spring in the Kintamani area.
Places to stay: unfortunately there is very limited accommodation around this area. You could stay in Ubud, set off at 2.30 am in the morning & drive up( takes around 1 hour) However if that’s too much for you, you best options would be to stay in hotels around Kintamani/ Penelokan areas
Surya hotel: very basic inexpensive accommodation, please do not go here with high expectations. Comfortable bed, clean sheets, hot water and a basic restaurant- this just about sums it up.Location beside the lake Batur. Room rates range between $10 -20 USD per night. Recommend staying here only for 1 night. http://www.suryahotel.com/index.html
Hotel Segara: once again simple and inexpensive accommodation beside Lake Batur. Room rates range between $ 10-30 USD per night http://www.batur-segarahotel.com/

Finally moving on to matters of the heart and stomach, here’s a list of must try local delicacies

INDONESIAN DELICACIES
Gado Gado – tossed mixed vegetables with grated coconut, served with prawn crackers, boiled egg and peanut sauce
Satay- skewered meat, traditionally beef, served with sweet peanut sauce

Rendang- traditional dish where pieces of meat( mainly beef) are slow cooked with spices, lemongrass and coconut milk rendering a rich taste
Nasi Goreng– an iconic Indonesian dish, referring to fried rice and assorted vegetables and kecap manis sauce

BALINESE DELICACIES

Babi Guling or spit roast suckling pig turned over a fire of coconut husks for at least 2-3 hours, till the meat is soft and tender and skin crackling!

Admiring the Babi Guling or spit fire roast suckling pig
Admiring the Babi Guling or spit fire roast suckling pig

Bebik Betutu duck stuffed with various spices, steamed in a banana leaf served with white rice

Bebik Betutut at Dirty Duck Diner in Ubud
Bebik Betutut at Dirty Duck Diner in Ubud

Ikan Pepes: white fish marinated with various herbs and lemongrass, steamed in a banana leaf, served with white rice

Pepes ikan served with gado-gado and yellow rice
Pepes ikan served with gado-gado and yellow rice

Lawar served traditionally with the suckling pig, Lawar refers to thin slices of raw mango or turtle meat or  young jackfruit or chicken, tossed with galangal, shallots, turmeric &  grated coconut and sometimes tossed the uncooked blood of a pig- there are many vegetarian options available though
More information on Balinese food and spices please visit http://www.2indonesia.com/food.htm

Grilled catch of the day at a Jimbaran Beach Shack
Grilled catch of the day at a Jimbaran Beach Shack
Millionaire martini@ Potato Head
Millionaire martini@ Potato Head

Local Drinks: 
Beer- Bintang or Bali Hai are great lager beers to cool off with in the hot afternoons and balmy evenings
Wine- Hatten Rose, perfect for a hot and sunny afternoon, passable for wine drinkers
Arack (Attack)- similar to fenny distilled in Goa, India. This is made from coconut palm. Do note there have been many warning against trying cocktails sing Arack in cheap bars, so my advice is to stick with a good or high end bar while drinking this drink

Art Galleries and shops worth visiting
For those of you looking to invest in reasonable art for your homes or looking to make your walls pretty, Bali has a zillion art galleries. Quality of art rates from average to exceptional. Do note, unless you are an art expert it is extremely difficult to guess an original art piece. Here are some galleries worth visiting
Reservo Art in Seminyak-  run by a French man, they have 3 branches in Seminyak featuring works by contemporary Indonesian and Balinese artists. Visit their webpage for further details http://www.reservo-art.com/about-us_5.html
Neka Museum and Art gallery in Ubud- an exhaustive source of original art from Bali. Naturally you can expect to pay top dollar as all works are original.Further details please visit: http://www.museumneka.com/link.asp
Uluwatu in Jalan Laksmana/ Oberoi Seminyak for the Balinese lace, slightly expensive but good nonetheless
A Bit of Bali in Jalan Kerobokan( close to Seminyak) for Balinese statues and all outdoor features
There are many design shops along the Jalan Raya Sunset strip selling Indonesian teak furniture, driftwood, petrified wood, outdoor features, original bathroom fittings and even Javanese houses  for the export market. Most of them are already shipping to India, so you shouldn’t have a problem trying to ship anything back home!

Of Chocolates and wines

Chocolate and Wine- who can think of a more sinful combination? The town of T’ain L’Hermitage, as we discovered, offers precisely this with oodles of French charm!

The spectacular sight of the steep green vineyards of Paul Jaboulet and M.Chapoutier greeted us on our arrival in the train station of T’ain. Much has been written about the wines of Northern Rhone, the spiritual home of Syrah or Shiraz(as its known to the new world) Northern Rhone is a region whose wines are often overshadowed by its famous sisters- Bordeaux & Burgundy. Make no mistake; the Hermitage wines are exceptional- intense fruit, plump, coffee, chocolates,peppery & full bodied( will need to age for at least 3-4 years before being approachable)

The region of Condrieu, on the Northern most tip of Rhone, produces the most divine white wines made entirely from the Viognier grape (think of perfumed apricots, peaches, sprinkles of nutmeg) Our initial choice was the Cotie-Rotie (meaning “roasted slopes” due to the ample sunshine) to pay our homage to legendary winemaker Ernesto Guigal, whose wines are the stuff dreams are made off, and who was responsible for putting Northern Rhone wines on the wine lovers map. Bad train connections meant we had to give it a miss (Note to self: please carry an international driver’s license in the next trip)

Our next and obvious choice was T’ain L’Hermitage. It’s hard not to fall in love with T’ain- unmistakably picturesque because of the surrounding vineyards lining the steep slopes, the Rhone River, easily accessible by foot, friendly people, great food & finally home to Valrhona- the legendary French chocolate maker. I remember a time in Singapore when every restaurant & patisserie was going through a Valrhona phase- warm fondant, chocolate tart, dulce de leche ice cream….it seemed very surreal that we were finally here

  

After a super fast check in at our B&B, we decided to hit the streets, starting with a delicious lunch at a breezy café by the river side- Andouilette sausages served with salad & Homemade ravioli stuffed with spinach, broccoli and cheese, all washed down with a carafe of local spicy Hermitage( Syrah) wine.

     

As if that wasn’t enough, we made our way to the Valrhona shop boutique to have a look at over a 100 different types of chocolate (okay 100 maybe exaggerated, more like 50!) all available for sampling. The staff members were ever so friendly in offering us endless chocolate squares: my personal favorite being Guanaja( 70%Cocoa, extra bitter) If you’re not too keen on dark bitter chocolate, try Caraibe( 66% cocoa) or Manjari( 64% cocoa) Their never ending range of chocolate related products ranged from chocolate pearls & cooking chocolate to hot chocolate, ice cream & pralines. Happily digging our way through(what seemed like)a zillion samples we rightfully agreed that it was enough and we had to burn it off the extra calories. Our punishment was declared: climbing up the sunny L’Hermitage hill to the vineyards.

   

Cave Du T’ain, an excellent wine cooperative at the bottom of the hill, offers an informative self guided Discovery route map, allowing you to explore the vine laden hill at your own pace. Cave Du Tain also organizes wine tastings, giving visitors a chance to sample many wines from the Northern Rhone region

Armed with the map and decent walking shoes, we made our way uphill, huffing and puffing along the way, promising never to overindulge! The scenic walk starts at the bottom of the hill and slowly ascends upwards taking you through the famous “La Chapelle” vineyard of Paul Jaboulet, picturesque country estates (owned by the winemakers) and the granite terraces which took almost 20 years to build to retain the granite sand (crucial for rendering power and structure to the Syrah grapes) Those that make it uphill are rightfully rewarded with panoramic views of the Rhone river, the vineyards of Saint Joseph( across the Rhone river) and the town of Tournon-sur-Rhone. The walk takes approximately 1 hour 30 minutes and is a must for absolutely everybody interested in knowing more about this venerated region.

  

    

It was early evening as we slowly made our way down the Hermitage hill, admiring the sheer beauty of the vines and terroir, we had to end our evening with a wine tasting stop at the house of Paul Jaboulet, famous winemakers of the Hermitage region, now known the world over. Wines from their La Chapelle vineyard in the L’Hermitage Hill are considered by many to be among the greatest. Our complimentary tasting session of 3 wines comprised of: Le Cassines Condrieu( Viognier), La Petit Chapelle Hermitage( Syrah) and Domaine de Thalabert Crozes Hermitage( Syrah) giving us a good insight into the structure & taste

 Before we knew it, it was time for dinner and this time we decided to go easy and tuck into a salad and yoghurt! I would     recommend T’ain as a night stay, make sure you arrive in the morning to ensure you can leisurely see the Valrhona boutique, Cave du Tain walk & picturesque town center on the banks of the Rhone. For wine tastings I will recommend Cave du Tain and Paul Jaboulet who offer complimentary tastings( especially if you are two people) Do note that while it isn’t obligatory to buy a bottle of wine, it is recommended you do buy (it would be polite) as they are also priced at a bargain!  M Chapoutier also organizes wine tastings,  prior appointment will need to be made( they are located in the main street off the station and beside our B&B- Le Castel)

UNDERSTANDING THE WINES OF HERMITAGE

SYRAH- is the principal grape grown here. In fact it is here in Northern Rhone that Syrah was born. Majority of the red wines contain 100% Syrah, however producers can add a small percentage of Marsanne and Roussane. The wines of Hermitage display intense notes of berries, plum, chocolate, pepper and have a full bodied finish. They often need to be approached after 5 years and stay perfect upto 20 years!

     

MARSANNE-  is the main white varietal of the Northern Rhone, It displays exceptional longetivity in the warm, pebbly soil of Northern Rhone. The picture taken above is from Cave du Tain’s vineyard containing 100 year old Marsanne grapes! Chante-Alouette, a vineyard owned by M Chapoutier, produces exceptional full bodied white wine, green gold in colour, honey and almonds in the palate with a rounded finish- a must try…

ROUSSANNE- is the other white varietal of Northern Rhone

Main Producers- Paul Jaboulet, M.Chopoutier, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, Cave du Tain & Delas

FURTHER AFIELD:

Crozes Hermitage– refers to the appellation situated beneath and behind the L’Hermitage Hill. It is a fairly large appellation with many producers. Offers good value for money. The red wines are best drunk young.

Saint Joseph- refers to the appellation situated across the Rhone river in the town of Tournon-sur-Rhone. Again, the wines here offer great value for money and age well
( upto 4 years)

Steeped in Wine

Most people tend to associate French wine with the region of Bordeaux. The Bordeaux region is undoubtedly one of the top destinations for wine tourism attracting many aficionados from across the world. However, if you are willing to look further afield, there awaits you a charming & rustic wine region, which has for sometime been known to produce magical, knee weakening wines of the Pinot Noir grape that is bound to leave you spellbound for years to come- this is region is known to the world as Burgundy, but to the people of France as Bourgogne( pronounced-Boor-goon-yaay)
As influential wine writer Harry Waugh said “The First Duty of wine is to be Red…the second is to be a Burgundy
Burgundy is the uncrowned champion, yielding some of the world’s most venerated wines

         

Part of the reason why this region receives far less visitors than its famous sister-Bordeaux, is simply because the winemaking here is still at its rustic & rural & complicated best; Burgundy makes less than a quarter of Bordeaux wines; the vineyards are fragmentally owned- meaning to say one winemaker can own several small parcels of land, some as small as 100 yards, in fact it is highly unlikely that any winemaker can own more than 2 ha of land in any one particular village. This alas, tends to make Burgundy vineyards the most expensive real estate in the world & incredibly confusing for many wine lovers across the globe, who tend to get daunted by its sheer (dis)organization. Many of the families living here are third generation winemakers, learning the techniques which have been handed down from their forefathers, their life revolves around making wines in a rather unpredictable climate (thanks to global warming) Finally, there is far too little information available online, making it difficult for a first time visitor or wine novice to plan a holiday here.

So when I had to accompany my husband to a conference in Spain, we decided to have a spend a little more time in France- explore this region & share with you some information that you could hopefully find helpful when planning a trip there

We rolled into Dijon on a cloudy afternoon from Paris. Dijon is the capital of Bourgogne and a city known for its rich cultural heritage, the resplendent Notre Dame cathedral & home to the world famous Dijon mustard & gingerbread. We used Dijon as the start point of exploring the wine region of Burgundy giving us easy access to the world famous vineyards in Cotes de Nuits region. We spent our entire evening walking through the cobblestoned streets of the town center marveling at the ancient buildings. It is sad that the stone Owl in the church of Notre Dame is said to bring good luck when touched upon & so we did the same. It was interesting to note, that the Dijon tourism board actually created an “Owl walk” where visitors, could follow the Owl stones on the street (similar to the Hollywood Walk of fame) taking you through interesting turns and narrow alleyways-each with a story to tell. Some noteworthy places to see include Les Halles-the historic fresh food market located minutes away from the Notre Dame Cathedral, stocking everything imaginable to French food-charcuteries, seafood, mustard, gingerbread, macaroons, fresh vegetables & fruits! Unfortunately, we reached the market too late(Note: open from 7am-1pm); We were recommended by the tourist office in Dijon to visit the Amora Mustard museum, but since we were pressed from time couldn’t get around to seeing it! However we did get to sample and buy Amora/ Maille mustard from one of the many little shops in the town center. Do be sure to try the Pain d’Epices or Spiced Gingerbread, which is delicious..

            

All that walking made us thirsty and we marched to the nearest bar to quench our thirst. Dijon is famous for its Kir– a delicious drink made with white wine grapes(Aligote) and Cassis( black currant) liquor served as an apertif. After a satisfying dinner in town where we tried Escargot Bourgogne(snails in a garlic butter parsley white wine sauce) washed down with a Kir royale and Red wine, we decided to call it an early night ahead of our mega wine tour the next morning

We signed up with Wine and Voyages to take us to visit the famous vineyards of Cotes de Nuit region. Unfortunately it was a rainy day..This was more than made up by our friendly & informative guide Christopher & the fact that we were the only two people on the group tour ensuring we hogged all his attention! While driving through the quaint villages of Cotes De Nuits, he carefully explained to us the basic of Burgundy wines-the appellations, the  terroir( a word used very often here)  Cotes De Nuits is better known for its aromatic( cherries & strawberries) medium to heavy bodied red wine made entirely out of a single varietal- Pinot noir grape. We were shown the legendary villages & vineyards of the Cote D’or region- Fixin, Gevrey Chambertain, Chambolle Musigny (where we stopped for our first wine tasting at Andre Ziltener), Vosnee-Romanee & Echezeaux . Our highlight was seeing the vineyards of Romanee Conti- whose wines are said to be amongst the most expensive in the world, drunk by the likes of billionaires & movie stars.  Our final stop for tasting was at negociant- Moillard Grivot’s cellar room in the village of Nuits-Saint-Georges, this gave us the chance to learn about the wines coming from all the different villages of this region. With our head buzzing from all the great wine we made our way back to Dijon train station to take a train to the next stop in Beaune.

         

Our main reason for choosing to stay in Beaune was because it gave us a chance to explore the wine region of Cotes de Beaune. There are many things to do in Beaune (do note: by this I mean wine related pleasurable activities!) Famous negociants & producers such as Bouchard Pere Et Fils & Joseph Drouhin allow visitors to see their historic wine cellars some dating back to the 13th century, a cellar visit is usually followed up with a tasting of around 4-6 wines, giving one the chance to explore wines from the various regions of Burgundy. Beaune also houses Hotel Dieu, formerly a hospital, famous for its unique Burgundian-Flandish glazed tile roofing. The Musee du Vin, contains interesting information pertaining to the winemaking in Burgundy, the building in itself is beautiful. Beaune, as we discovered, is best explored by foot, its narrow streets aplomb with historical buildings, echoing with tales of wines & grapes. The smell of fermenting grapes permeated the air that afternoon constantly reminding us that we were in Burgundy’s wine capital! If that wasn’t enough there is even a wine book shop-Atheneaum dedicated to everything related to wine- from accessories, gadgets, maps, postcards, books, novels, glassware and wine selection

         

We signed up for a 3 hour wine tour with Vineatours. Our guide Brigitte promptly picked us from our hotel. We were driven through the villages & vineyards of Cote de Baune- Pommard, Volnay, Corton, Puligny Montrachet & Chassagne Montrachet( the latter two having the highest concentration of white Grand Cru vineyards) Our visit was followed up with a wine tasting at a winemaker’s cellar in Chassagne Montrachet. I was rather disappointed with the selection of wines used for the tasting-most were no more than 3 years old, hence extremely young, harsh & tannic

Not satisfied, we decided to visit Marche Aux Vins- a wine cellar which was formerly a church behind the Hospice de Beaune. The candle light, vaulted ceilings & endless array of Burgundian wines makes for an atmospheric tasting experience. For 10 Euro/head, you can get to sample over 15 different types of regional wines- most were average but we did come across a few noteworthy wines.The benefits of wine tours & tastings at cellars is that it gave us gave us a chance to sample wines from Grand & Premier Cru vineyards, which are usually unaffordable to the ordinary folk! It also reminded us how wine produced from the same region but two different vineyards 5km apart, tasted so different-bringing to light the importance of terroir or slight variations in the soil. We felt that Burgundy wines are terroir-fic: if you’re lucky to chance upon a bottle from a good winemaker, vineyard & drink it at the right age, it will leave you craving for more. The memory of the heady aroma of crushed strawberries, plum & horses will stay with you for years to come. In the hands of an average winemaker from the inferior vineyards, you have a somewhat lack luster & boring wine

     

Overall we found Burgundy a fascinating region which, given the chance, will willingly open its doors to you. Unfortunately we weren’t so lucky with the weather which at most times was rainy & borderline cloudy- we had to remind ourselves that September is usually the month between summer & autumn, hence such weather. On the plus side, we got to see the harvesting of grapes in the vineyards, which was fascinating. It was interesting to note that in some places we actually saw the grapes being sent to a garage-like/makeshift production unit/ home of the winemaker- going to say that wine making is still so rustic and plays such an important part in people’s lives here. We were lucky to stay in a B&B that served up the most heartwarming & delicious French food ( Restaurant T’ast au Vin)- Poached eggs in a Bourgogne/Red wine sauce, Homemade Foie Gras terrine with apricot jelly,  Homemade profiteroles with Chantilly cream & Black currant parfait, all washed down with a fairly decent Bourgogne Village appellation Pinot Noir….

I shall leave you with a memorable quote: “Burgundy makes you think of silly things, Bordeaux makes you talk of them and Champagne makes you do them.”- Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

       

   

    

DECONSTRUCTING THE WINES OF BURGUNDY
Cote D’Or or golden slopes signify the narrow ribbon of Grand cru vineyards approximately 55km in length encompassing the Cotes De Nuits & Cotes de Beaune region of Burgundy.
There are only four grape varietals in Burgundy the most famous being Pinot noir  found in the Grand & Premier Cru vineyards of Cotes de Nuits & Cotes De Beaune
Chardonnay  is the white wine varietal. The vineyards in the villages of Chablis( North), Mersault & Macon( South) produce excellent steely Chardonnays
Aligote is a white varietal that is mainly used in the making of Kir & as we head further south into the Gamay is grown. Gamay goes into the making of the Beaujolais wine- a light red, with flavours of berries & cherries best drunk young. Producers are forbidden to mix different grape varieties, hence it is 100% single grape varietal
There are four appellations or gradings:
Appellation Bourgogne/ Regional– the lowest of the grades signifying that the wines are from the Burgundy region but no specific area in the region. The quality can vary drastically. More often than not, the grapes used in this wine were of below par quality. Having said that a good producer will ensure good quality
Appellation Village– the next level which implies that the wines are made from grapes harvested in one particular village in the Burgundy region
Appellation Premier /1er Cru & Appellation Grand Cru– the wines are made from grapes harvested from a specific vineyard, the name of the vineyard is clearly stated in the bottle
Quite often you will come across the word “Clos” in the label- the concept of the walled enclosures called ‘Clos’ come from the 13th century from the monks who spent most of their ‘spare’ time making wine

It is important to note French laws require that each vineyard be mapped out & awarded its quality status accordingly

HOW TO GET THERE
Burgundy is easily accessible by train from Paris’ Bercy station, the train ride usually lasts up to 1.5-2 hours. Frequency of trains is very good, almost every hour. The capital of Bourgogne is Dijon. Dijon is a great starting point for accessing the vineyards of Cotes-de-Nuits and Nuits-Saint-George
From Dijon I recommend that you head to Beaune to explore Cotes De Baune region and the many wine cellars of negociant’s and winemakers.