Monthly Archives: November 2012

Ubud: Serenity Now

Tucked into the Balinese highlands, in the midst of long and lush flora, gently-flowing rivers, and cooling skies, lies Ubud, Bali’s cultural capital. On previous trips to Bali, we’ve only gone to Ubud on day trips perusing silver, batik and wood carving shops while baking in the afternoon heat, stopping to have a kopi es (iced coffee) until we’d gathered enough energy to venture out again. We’d have a grand old time at the monkey forest, or partake in a popular locals’ pastime, such as dining at Ibu Oka’s (for more detail on that, check out one of my previous posts: The Freaky, The Fresh, and the Fabulous).

But listening to other travellers describe how peaceful, even magical, it is to actually stay in and around Ubud made us think differently for this trip. There were stories of incredibly private villas with glorious pools set in the middle of lush rice fields, with a myriad of spa resorts and retreats steps away, where you could rejuvenate, meditate and no-doubt exfoliate yourself to a temporary Nirvana. Many people swear Ubud is the ‘real’ Bali, so we thought we’d give it a try.

We arrived via transport from Seminyak, about an hour away. Our destination was a villa in the outskirts of Ubud proper, in an area called Penestanan. Once our driver figured out how to find our rather elusive and hidden villa, it was crazy to think we could actually have missed it. I took one look at the entrance’s 100 or so steep (and I mean steep) stone stairs and said to Cam, “How are we going to get our suitcases up there?” He pointed to the two frail-looking Balinese women who greeted us on the street and said, “That’s how.” OK – I had to see this.

Without hesitation, each woman took a 50-pound suitcase of ours and placed them ever so gently on their heads. And up the stairs they went. And up. And up some more. By the halfway point, I was panting from just carrying my beach bag. Watching these women, I was respectfully humbled. Who needs bootcamp, anyway?

Pic of our entrance stairs sans incredibly strong ladies (but an equally capable Cam).

The villa is called Rumah Cinta, which translates to the house made out of love. It was humongous – built to contain at least a couple of families. In fact, they closed off half of the house so the two of us occupied the newer half.  The place had all the right things: a large pool and an open-air, stone-built shower (the greatest thing EVER) for starters. It was simply an awe-inspiring place, somehow mystic, comprised of beautiful traditional Balinese architecture as shown in the pic below, which just happened to be above an alcove in our gardens:

(There were so many large and small touches like this that every day we seemed to discover a new gem or another – including many shrines on the property, which received daily offerings.)

Shortly after we settled in, it started raining unlike anything I’ve ever seen or heard. Not the typical long, misty, all-day affairs we get at home. No, it was one of those tropical rainstorms that give little warning and a lot of result: big, hard drops that render you completely drenched almost immediately, umbrella or no.

Our timing was spectacular: getting caught right in the middle as we were walking back from the supermarket. It was so ridiculously loud and intense that we  laughed most of the way… until the aforementioned 100 steps, where we slopped and slipped as we juggled bags and umbrellas all the way up. Despite this, it was a lovely respite from the from dusty, scorching streets of Seminyak. Once somewhat dry, we tucked in for a night of watching the rain from our balcony, relaxing, reading, and drinking Bali Hai beer. We finally succumbed to a long, deep sleep to the tune of a VERY loud singer – what we originally thought was a frog and then later learned it was actually a large gecko – and dreamt of green phosphorescent fireflies (which we really did see – very cool).

View of our villa grounds from the master bedroom balcony during a rainstorm.

We woke up early that first morning and breakfasted at Ibu Putu’s warung, a local’s restaurant just down the path. Ketut, the man whose family manages the villa, met us there to help us prepare for our first-ever Balinese wedding. He had invited us to his brother-in-law’s wedding about five minutes after we arrived. Although we were initially taken somewhat aback, we quickly learned that it’s considered a bit sophisticated to have foreigners at your wedding, especially as we were in the (relative) Balinese sticks. Whatever the case, we were only too happy to oblige to attend as very pale ornaments. Ketut dressed us in layers of fancy sarongs and sashes – required for entering holy sites and temples – and off we went with another couple hailing from – weirdly enough – Edmonton, Alberta.

Ketut led the way through the village, and once at the family compound, we were greeted warmly by the betrothed couple, who then promptly disappeared to adorn themselves in elaborate dress and makeup.

Then we proceeded to wait. And wait. Two hours, many cups of sweet tea, spicy satay, rambutan (a favourite of Cam’s) and several suspicious-looking jellies later, the young couple emerged, snapping us both out of our near-comatose state. The bride and groom then led a procession through the streets to her family’s home for more visiting and eating. As the actual ceremony was not for another several hours, we decided to bow out at that point.

Me with the bride and groom: Koming and Wayan. I’m the one in the middle.

Since we were only in Ubud for three nights, we decided to do yet another thing we hadn’t done before: walk through the Ubud countryside (translation: vast rice fields). While attempting to follow a route suggested in one of our guidebooks (the directions left a bit to be desired), we made a few wrong turns, one in particular that set off a neighbourhood dog in a fit of snarling barks, chasing us back up the slope (much to its owner’s delight).

The trek took about three hours, during which we sighted rice field after rice field, flooding, harvesting, a river gorge and an intricate irrigation system, scarecrows comprised of a combination of stalks, metal and garbage, and miniature shrines. Finally the crooked stone and dirt path spit us out, sweaty, hot and dirty, about 1000 metres from where we were staying. Very convenient.

An old ibu works the fields.
A flooded rice field before harvest.

Although you can pretty much get anything you need in Ubud – massages, manicures, health retreats, yoga studios, sweet organic cuisine – really, there is no need. The place itself is enough – serene and beautiful in its nature alone. It envelopes and captures you with its beauty and raw nature. (Not to mention you could hide out in a warung/homestay and pretty much disappear altogether for months on the cheap.)

I can’t really articulate properly how I felt in Ubud. Some people may describe it as a spiritual connection. Others would say my aura agreed with it, or some other such nonsense. All I know is I felt quiet. I could just clamber up to our rooftop terrace (where the feature photo of this post was taken) and stare into the surroundings all day. Just watch life go by. I felt like I didn’t need to talk, or even think all the time. I felt serene. Or maybe I found something there I haven’t found anywhere else: peace.

Then again, it might have been the Bali Hai – pun intended.
– S
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Categories: Adventure, Bali, Dining, Pool, Travel, wedding | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Postcard from Seminyak

Sooooo… it’s been more than a week since we first arrived on the sweet, sweet island of Bali, in the Hindu heart of the Indonesian archipelago. As incredibly long as the flights were (about 21 hours of total travel), we ‘toughed’ it out as best we could in our first-class pods. Rather than reiterating the fabulousness of traveling first class on Cathay Pacific, I’ll direct you to my 2010 Bali trip post.

We arrived in the crowded, hot and vaguely smelly Denpasar airport unperturbed, because after several trips to Bali, we know the drill. We arranged for immigration Fast Track service, and sure enough our paid ‘facilitator’ was waiting for us with a sign as we got off the escalator.

As our new friend disappeared with our passports, we eyed up the long and winding customs queue from the other side and couldn’t help but sigh with some relief that we had skipped over all of that. Of course, it’s always a little scary handing your passport over to a relative stranger, but this service is definitely worth it. Six mysterious minutes later our man emerged with our stamped passports and tourist cards for the return trip all tucked inside. Sweet developing world goodness.

Newsflash: it’s bloody hot when you’re in close proximity to the equator. Here, it’s 32 celsius with 100% humidity pretty much every day at this time of year. Constant sweating and at least two showers a day is the norm. This goes on well into the evening – it’s basically shorts and tanks ’round the clock. After a couple of days, we seriously can’t even remember what it’s like to be cold. Mind you, according to the weather reports from home, it’s the usual 24/7 November rain and wind festival, so I’m definitely not complaining – we’ll be re-joining the rest of our grumbling paisanos soon enough.

Our Seminyak villa: where all that is good and warm can be found. (And also many, many mosquitos.)

Our previous visits to Seminyak were done by day trip from sleepy Sanur (AKA Snore) on the east side of the island, our usual home base. This time, however, we rented a villa off Jalan Laksmana, the main road, sometimes called “Eat Street”. The idea was to hit some of our favourite haunts and actually log some beach time.

A Balinese cremation ceremony on Seminyak beach – note the duck trying to escape.

It’s become a bit of a tradition for us to hit Ku De Ta at least once a trip for sunset drinks and epic people-watching, and this trip was no different. It was a beautiful night, definitely sunset-worthy, and after scoring a sweet spot overlooking the beach, we settled in for lychee martinis, mojitos and lobster dumplings.

It was all moonbeams and kitten bums until I was returning from the washroom in high heels, misplaced a step, and did a spectacular face plant right in front of picture-snapping dinner patrons (I distinctly remember a flash or two as this was happening). The frustrating thing was I hadn’t even had that much to drink!

I returned to my seat with a wobbly chin and tears in my eyes, smarting from a temporary nose-dive (literally) to the ol’ self-confidence. Cam brought me around by pointing out the ridiculousness of the situation and soon had me laughing again. Everyone’s been there, in one form or another. Mine just happened to be on camera where every poseur in Bali happens to show up.

Hawkers on Seminyak beach.

On another night on the town, at another putatively super-cool Bali hangout (that shall go unnamed here), we happened to spot a big, furry rodent friend while sipping martinis and – unfortunately – waiting for our appetizer. I heard some scuffling, but Cam saw the whole thing, complete with rat jumping from the top of the bar (yes!) to the ground before zipping away. Our appetizer arrived shortly after that, and we promptly crossed the place off our list. Forever.

On the flip side, if you’re in Seminyak, go to Chandi. Just. Go. Are you there yet?

Let’s bottom-line this: for some, Seminyak is a must-see, renowned for its brown/black sand beach stretching from Kuta to the south, great (but expensive) shopping, and incredible restaurants. I know what you’re thinking: Oh, that sounds just horrible! However, compared to much of Bali, Seminyak is dirty, dusty, crowded, noisy, and just generally waaay too busy for us. It’s kind of like a been there, done that sort of place. Once is enough, say us.

But if you’re looking for a more ‘real’ laid-back Bali experience, try a villa tucked into the rice fields in Ubud, or head for the quiet sands of Sanur. That thought leads to my next post: walking through rice fields, getting caught in torrential rains, being practically deafened by gecko calls, and attending a Balinese wedding. This is all from our private haven tucked up in the cool, serene Bali highlands.

Sun setting over Seminyak beach.

– S

Categories: Bali, Beach, Dining, Glamorous, Pool, Shopping, Sunset, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sin City Finale: The Long Journey Home

For those of you eagerly awaiting the final instalment in the epic Vegas trip, it’s time to exhale and enjoy the schadenfreude-al goodness of a day that you didn’t have to experience. For all previous chapters, check out:  Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3.

As well-known high-roller Charles Dickens once wrote: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. As you can gather by that statement, the journey home started off well and then ended… not so well. We were picked up at the Aria by the same limo we arrived in – but, of course! And so just as we arrived, we left.

Moments before I took this picture, this guy said, “I’ll take an 8×10 of that.” And then wished us well.

LAS Arrival in Style
We departed the Aria after saying farewell to our arena-sized room and shortly thereafter arrived at the airport. And, as responsible Canadians, we gave ourselves plenty of time to check in, etc., before boarding. Translation: way more than 20 minutes. We headed up to the first-class check in counter, only to be greeted by a somewhat flustered ticket agent who informed us that we had plenty o’ time to catch our flight, seeing as all Alaska Airlines flights were either delayed or cancelled. When we inquired as to what was going on, he gave us the short version: there was a network failure that basically grounded the entire airline. He suggested that we might be stuck at the LV airport for a couple hours; in the grand scheme of travel, that was no big deal.

Six hours kinda sucked, though.

LAS Terminal 3: Up Close and Really Personal
Yes, it was about six hours. Turns out that during some routine construction, Alaska’s internet connection through Sprint was accidentally cut (literally, the cable was severed), both in Wisconsin and – get this – Seattle as well… which happens to be Alaska’s hub. This minor incident pretty much rendered Alaska’s network dead, so no one could issue boarding passes or check in for flights. Basically, the planes were grounded until it got fixed. Well, at least it wasn’t anything mechanical, I reasoned with myself. No, that came later.

We passed the time by watching shows on our iPad, going to a pub, watching another show, going to another pub, etc., etc. It went on like this for what seemed an eternity. I tried not to think that all this time we could be spending outside in the glorious 34 degree Vegas weather, lying by the pool. OK, maybe not the pool, given my last two experiences there à la Vegas-style douchery, but still.

So after many episodes of Justified and Modern Family, several glasses of pinot grigio and humongous plates of ‘merican food, our plane finally starts boarding. (Of course, Cam was up at the ticket counter every so often trying to figure out what the hell was going on, wrangling food vouchers, bantering with other hapless passengers, and the like. He says it helps pass the time – somebody is always worse off than you, and this turned out to be true, as you’ll see.) Although our connection to Victoria from Seattle had evaporated, it certainly was not forgotten. In fact, we pretty quickly worked it out that there was no freakin’ way we’d make it home that night. Ugh.

Well, at Least We Weren’t Like This Guy
Once settled and safely in the air, the air hostess took pity on us (bless her heart) by pouring us coffee with Bailey’s along with generous glasses of yet more pinot grigio. As we made our way up to cruising altitude, we both noticed a young fellow traveling alone, seated diagonally across from us in first. He looked extremely worse for wear, holding his head in hands for most of the taxiing and looking a particular shade of grey. Cam informed me that he had been chatting with him in the ticket counter line-up. With a sardonic grin, he relayed to me this guy’s deal: he’d been partying in Vegas for a full three days, living it up in the clubs each night (morning?) until 9 am. In fact he thought – as he woke up in a rather stunned and severely hungover haze that very morning – that he was going to actually miss his flight.

Next thing we knew, this guy is standing in the hostess cabin where of course you cannot hang out post 9/11, chatting away and trying to avoid the barf bag the hostess handed him earlier. When Cam passed by en route to the washroom, he gave dude an inquiring look, to which Hangover Harry replied, “I have anxiety attacks sometimes” as a source of explanation. I don’t doubt it in the least. Cam sort of regretted saying to him a bit earlier, “Don’t jump”. Sort of.

Sleepful in Seattle
We arrived in Seattle a good 3.5 hours after our scheduled connection to Victoria. Not that anyone was going anywhere, mind you. We headed straight for the Alaska info counter – we were the first ones there – to figure out what we do next. After an  interminable amount of time, with much sympathetic clucking and tapping of keys from the ticket agent, she informed us that the next – and last – flight to Vic (11 pm) was all booked. We were officially SOL. And so were all the people behind us – and there were many. Still, we managed to secure seats on an 11 am flight the next day – the earliest we could get – and wrangle a nearby hotel. We walked past the extremely long and growing lineup as we made for the exit.

The Airport Hilton was close and comfy, complete with low-lit corridors and bunker-style halls. Cam fondly described it as “virtually charm-free”. But, it did the trick, especially when it came to purchasing provisions, which we had to do since our luggage didn’t make it with us. Of course it didn’t.

The check-in person informed us that the gift store was open for another 15 minutes, so off we went to acquire snacks, deodorant and other various and sundry travel items. It wasn’t until we got to our room that I discovered I had nothing to sleep in. So, off we went back to the store where the overly cheerful clerk greeted us once again, this time enthusiastically gesturing to a particular table with a “buy one, get the other half price” (or something to that effect) t-shirts. We bought two of the worst-looking ones – both with the same Seattle motif – one pink, one grey. Chuckling, we made our way back, only then to discover we’d no toothbrush or toothpaste. (Yes, I really should have taken inventory beforehand. Total rookie move.) I can live without most things for a night, but brushing my teeth isn’t one of them. Of course now that the store was closed, I phoned the front desk, and about 15 minutes later, someone from housecleaning arrived with the much-coveted instruments in hand. At least it was ‘free’.

There’s No Place Like Home
We awoke after a fitful sleep on lumpy pillows and headed to the lobby’s ‘business centre’ to email work (no option for Wi-fi in the room), letting them know we wouldn’t be in for a while, if at all that day. We got to the airport in plenty of time for our mid-morning flight, and everything seemed to be going smoothly as we boarded. We’re almost home! I excitedly thought – a little prematurely… but you know that by now, right?

We’re patiently waiting for the plane to taxi when the pilot makes an announcement that makes my blood run cold (or boil, it could have gone either way): the plane was having mechanical issue with the luggage door. Which meant us and our luggage had to disembark and wait for another plane. And to think we were so close! The pilot didn’t even finish the announcement when a woman across from us (stranded coming back from Mexico with what it looked like as a broken arm), burst into tears. Shaking, she then started begging the man in front of her for some pain killers. I didn’t blame her in the least.

Back we went to the Alaska service counter, where we’d been clocking a significant amount of time. After explaining our situation, the agent prepared us for the worst-case scenario – delay, possible overnight YET AGAIN, as all subsequent flights were booked after this one. No sooner had she told us this when she switched gears and informed us that our replacement plane would be ready in an hour. I wasn’t optimistic. But, this time she was true to her word, and we all clambered back on into the same selection of seats on a different plane.

Forty-five minutes + twenty-four hours later, we touched down on Canadian soil. For someone who absolutely dreads coming home after a vacation, this time I was eternally grateful, and actually was tempted to kneel down and  kiss the ground. The ironic thing was that a day or two later Alaska sent me a customer service survey asking me how I enjoyed my trip. The subject line was “Tell us About Your Latest Flight”. Although the folks at Alaska did a pretty good job of troubleshooting the whole situation, I really didn’t have the heart to blast them – it’s not like the frontline folks cut the blessed cable.

At least my rose was still intact.

– S

PS. OK, you’ve had your schadenfreude, so let me put a balancing coda on this. As of this moment, we’re in the YVR Cathay Pacific First Class Lounge waiting for our flight to Bali via HK (yes again). We’re staying for three glorious weeks, so watch for some genuine weirdness coming your way. In other words, I’ll be blogging. Here’s what first class looks like on CX.

Categories: Adventure, Glamorous, Travel, Unglamorous | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sin City Part 3: Las Metras

Part 3 of our fun-filled stay in Sin City. If you need to catch up, check out Part 1 and Part 2.

Post-pool-party-from-outer-space scene, we return to our mansion/suite to rest a bit after our long day of imbibing, douchery and sensory overload (if I saw another mojito or drooling guy in a cowboy hat it would have been way too soon). Plus, we needed to reserve some energy for the big night ahead: Metric at the House of Blues in the Mandalay Bay hotel. (BTW, we had no idea who Shpongle was, but Wikipedia did.)

Me in our massive conference room before the show.

Metric on stage. I know this pic is not exactly a close-up, but trust me: that’s really Emily Haines at the keyboards. Best I could do with my iPhone 3, which has only sneaker-zoom (i.e., walk closer to your target).

Still, pretty damn awesome venue for the ultimate intimate experience.

Although it was a real rock ‘n rolla of a show (including an acoustic version of “Gimme Sympathy” for an encore), the one disappointment was it only lasted an hour or so. I couldn’t understand it until a colleague of Cam’s said that’s typical LV: show lengths are sometimes limited (especially those with a casino close by) in order to get people back to the slots. Maybe that’s just a myth, but to someone who doesn’t even really gamble, I found it simply maddening.

We ended the night with our own little concert – blasting Metric and dancing in our hotel suite, adrenaline pumping. That’s when I truly appreciated (and used) all of our space.

Next day, back at pool. This time we went to the ‘public’ pool and settled in for some relaxation – for real this time. Or so we thought. In some ways, it was like Liquid all over again, but this time it was the redneck-trashy version. The girls in the pic below were pretty tame; it was the 20-person, middle-aged, we-left-the-kids-at-home gang that drove us (OK, me, really) over the edge. Beers, cocktails, cigars, cigarettes, shouting, drunken-picture taking, splashing, and all of the body piercings and tattoos you would expect in such a gathering. In one comical scene, Drunky McBachelorparty pitched a cell phone to his buddy in the pool which splashed down about 30 feet short of its intended target. Ba-bye, iPhone – we hardly threw ye.

Well, you don’t come to Vegas to rest (or save money), that’s for sure. We eventually abandoned this scene to do a walkabout on the strip, and I just have to share some over-the-top Vegas shots.

Classic clash of cultures: a Thai shrine with a backdrop advertising Donnie and Marie performing at the Flamingo.

Our very own 15-foot chocolate dragon on display at the Aria. Like, seriously?

That evening, we decided to go for martinis and a shrimp cocktail in the Eiffel Tower restaurant (to the tune of $96 US!). And there was only three drinks between the two of us.

But, the fun view was worth it:

For something a little less exorbitant, we decided to take a friend’s advice and hit up the popular off-the-main-drag Firefly Restaurant. Potent martinis, delish tapas, cheap prices, oh my! So what if it overlooked a strip mall parking lot? Ambience isn’t everything!

– S

PS Stay tuned for the final chapter of the story – our EPIC trek back home and the joy of unglamorous travel.

Categories: Dining, Glamorous, Pool, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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