Posts Tagged With: restaurants

Maui: Our First Wet and Wicked Days

So, we’re in Maui. We decided to come here after much twisting of rubber arms for our friends’ wedding. But, they’re not just any friends. They’re about the best neighbours one can ever have, so we thought we would return the favour by attending their nuptials. Plus, we really wanted to come to Maui – there was that.

We arrived to grey skies, which by yesterday graduated to full-on rain, the socked-in, all-day kind. Sometimes it was ‘light’ showers; sometimes a torrential downpour. In any case, it’s been pretty wet. Nevertheless, we’ve made the best of it, touring around the isle and even sneaking in some snorkeling up north at Honalua Bay (pictured above). The conditions were pretty good, albeit a bit rough. Visibility was decent considering it was the afternoon and we chewed up a bunch of time prior trying to find a place recommended for its amazingly fresh mahi-mahi tacos. We found it after taking a bit of an involuntary tour of Lahaina, but it was definitely worth the confusion of going down the wrong Lower Honoapiilani Road at first.

Our south Kihei cottage’s welcome sign
cottage sign

The next day we woke up to yet more rain, so after taking our time getting organized, we decided to drive down to swanky Shops at Wailea for some $10 iced Americanos, and then up north to seek out better weather (we got ‘showers’ instead of rain). We had noticed when we flew in some people running about on beaches down below, pointing at planes, so we made a note to check them out ourselves. Sure enough, today was that day. But, more about that later.

First, we had to eat. Upon reading many reviews of ‘must-eat-at’ places, Mama’s Fish House in Paia on the north end was at the top of almost every list. Founded in 1973, this place looked like it hadn’t changed a whit since. The name ‘Mama’ has a particular affinity for me, so it was perhaps a bit destined that we try it.

Set beach-side on Maui’s dramatic north coast, with a view that you could feast on while – um – feasting – this is the kind of place famous people go. Seriously, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if I had spotted Don Draper slurping down a whiskey sour in a giant bamboo tumbler at the main bar (this place has two). Picture a super-kitchy and dimly-lit teak-wooded place, complete with cheesy but classic Hawaiian tunes, amidst hanging shell necklaces intertwined on lamps, tiki torches lining the lawn. Well, this place was no ordinary fish house.

And the prices sure weren’t. You see, they have a very simple payment system. What you do is go to the ATM, withdraw all the money in all of your bank accounts, bring it in a wheelbarrow to the restaurant, hand it over, and they will give you amazing food and outstanding service in return. It actually seemed like a fair system, and we didn’t drink any booze – YMMV.

Mama’s sign
mamas

Macadamia-crusted mahi-mahi stuffed with crab and lobster ($52 – outstanding)
macadamia mahimahia

A selection of carefully-chosen condiments for my curry fish trio of Ahi Tuna, Mahi-mahi, and Ono (from left: fresh house chili sauce, local banana, macadamia nuts, and Mama’s homemade mango chutney)
flavours

Me and Mr. Tiki on Mama’s grounds (he seems happy with this relationship)
me and mr tiki

It was a great way to spend a rainy afternoon. However, after that epic meal, we really, really needed to go for a walk. Enter the aforementioned airport beaches. First, it required a drive through the charming town of Paia on the Hana highway. Paia feels like you’re in a time warp, like stepping into a Hawaiian spaghetti-western, with a watering hole, local bank, ice cream parlour, and several many touristy shops. For you BCers, think of it as a tropical Fort Langley.

Anyway, we made for Baldwin Beach, carefully avoiding parking lot puddles the size of small swimming pools (yes it was still raining). Grabbing the umbrella, we trooped out onto the impossibly-beautiful honey sand beach and watched the local boogie boarders/body surfers navigate the waters.

At the park looking back toward the highway
north maui

This guy seems to know what he’s doing
surfer1

surfer2

Surfers laughing together after one particularly crazy wave (the guy in the middle hurt his shoulder and we figure the one on the left must have lost a tooth)
DSC06667

And so concludes our first couple of days here. There’s lots more I could tell you, such as when the cottage owner’s friend’s dog hijacked our pool right before we got a decent swim in – but this post is already waaay too long. The rain’s supposed to clear up soonish (already by the time I publish this post), and believe me, we will seize the opportunity by the snorkel. Stay tuned.

– S

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Categories: Beach, Hawaii, Travel, wedding | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Sanur: Home and Away

Well, it’s been a while now since we returned from our favourite place in the world (that would be Bali, for those of you not paying attention) – and let’s just say it’s a bit of an adjustment. But I don’t want to waste your precious reading time lamenting about being back in chilly Canada. This is a postcard about our home-away-from-home: sleepy Sanur.

After dusty, scorching Seminyak and the serene lushness of Ubud, we departed for the golden sands of the southeast coast. Sanur is where we first experienced the magic of Bali, where we discovered a peaceful bungalow-style hotel on the beach, where we made lifelong friends and are always treated like family. With fond memories in tow, we were anxious to get there and start creating new ones.

Once we turned off the main street (Danau Tramblingan) and into the Tandjung Sari driveway, I exhaled deeply. It’s hard to describe the feeling I get when I enter these grounds. It’s like I’ve closed the door on an all-too-busy, crazy, rushed world, retreating into a hidden paradise. The long, narrow, two-laned driveway is lined with palms in the middle and high hedges on either side, only hinting at the bungalows behind it. It’s as if I’ve entered a home in a village, going back into another quiet, simpler time. It’s a feeling of arriving at a place unlike anywhere I’ve been before; someplace safe, warm and welcoming.

As usual, we were greeted warmly by the staff in the receiving area: a huge, open-air pavilion that was once part of a Balinese royal house. Three ceremonial beats on a large gong announced our arrival, and we were given cold towels by a fresh-faced Balinese woman. Happily signing in, we started what was to be a two-week-long reunion with all our old friends and the Tandjung Sari family. Indeed, several times a day we were welcomed with a chorus of exclamations, handshaking, kissing on each cheek (often three times), and lots of Apa kabar (what’s the news?). To which we’d reply: baik, baik (very good – especially since we were there).

The Tandjung Sari beachfront at twilight.

bali hotel twilight

We had booked one of the new garden bungalows (they hadn’t built new ones since the ’90s, so this was pretty special). Bright and spacious, the bungalow boasted beautifully blue tiled floors depicting Balinese themes of animals and birds; industrial-strength air conditioning; a welcome bowl of island fruit adorned with frangipani; a separate room with wash area complete with skylights; and yes… the classic outdoor shower. This time we even got an outdoor bathtub – an essential tool for the cooling-down process, especially after scorching beach days, and yes, our dreaded morning runs along the boardwalk. (This we endeavoured – and succeeded – to do every morning, despite any late activities the night before. It was really the only sane time to do it – that is, if you didn’t want to faint of heat stroke while dodging bikes, scooters, sketchy gangs and, God forbid, the razor-sharp women hawkers who hang around outside the Circle K, just waiting for the next victim to drag down a crowded and confusing alley of shops.)

Outdoor bathtub – Cam’s favourite place to cool off while reading the latest Jack Reacher and sipping a cold Bir Bintang.

bali tub

Shortly after our arrival, I really began to relax. Translation: lots of spa treatments. Fresh fruit peel facial and rose petal face masks, a dual manicure and pedicure (to the tune of $15 Cdn – absurdly cheap compared to the $70 – before tax and tip – jobby I had at home).

And then there was the massage. Not just an ordinary one – it was a Javanese massage. Picture a 4-foot-ish Javanese ibu knocking on your bungalow door with just a sarong and some oil. You dress down to your skivvies, lie on your bed and proceed to get worked over by her magic fingers both back and front. Modesty goes out the window as she transforms your entire body into a lump of jelly and goodness. Her touch is utterly perfect: not too gentle that you can’t feel anything, but not too strong that it starts to get stressful. Perfect for us picky North Americans. Again, absurdly cheap: $20. For an hour and a half. ‘Nuff said.

Then there was the fresh fruit every morning at breakfast: pineapple, papaya, watermelon, even passionfruit or banana juice if you so desired. Not to mention perfectly-baked buttermilk biscuits and Tandjung Sari’s famous croissants: fresh from the oven, with a rewarding puff of steam when you break one open. Everyone swears they are better than what you find in Paris, and we can’t disagree.

Shar on bike along Sanur’s beach boardwalk.

bali shar bike

Our resident family of ginger kucings.

bali kitties

Our third and last week in Bali – what we referred to as our “bonus week” – was spent pretty much planted on the beach, where our biggest decision of the day (aside from what to have for lunch or dinner), was if we should go for a swim in the pool or float on our backs in the 27 degree Indian Ocean.

However, we did manage a day trip to east Bali – to a series of pretty, small fishing villages lining the coast and stemming south from the town of Amed – satisfied our snorkelling urge. The quality was outstanding, with the best part not having to rent a boat to get to the reef. All we did was park on the road, cut through the grounds of an obscure homestay on the beach, step out onto the black sand and put our flippers in the water. A push off the rock and we were transported to a world of angel and Nemo fish, bright blue coral, sea turtles and eels. We let the current take us deeper into the relatively garbage-free water (a treat compared to, say, what we experienced in Nusa Dua) – swimming through warm, cool, and then almost too hot patches – down to a sunken Japanese shipwreck (there are doubts about its provenance, but it was cool nonetheless). We emerged two hours later, and with salt water crust in our hair and cracked lips, rinsed off underneath a rustic communal shower before wolfing down our picnic lunch. Hours later I felt the ill-effects of the classic too-long-in-the-water-without-protection nasty burn, but it was sooooo worth it.

A young woman dances the traditional Balinese legong

bali legong

After the ‘cool’ mountain air of Ubud (28 degrees as opposed to 32 – it makes a difference, believe me) we were once again cozily-wrapped in the hot and humid, even with the ocean breeze. But the warmth of the island doesn’t just come from the elements. It’s in the people, too: their gentle and welcoming nature, their stunning smiles, their genuine interest. During our time in Sanur, a series of invites ensued: drink gatherings, birthday outings (including Cam’s), legong dance performances, art exhibitions, dinners at our friend’s house… so much that we barely had a night to ourselves during our whole two-week stay.

But that’s what I love so much about the Balinese: they are eager to include you and have you take part in their customs (and to practice their English while they’re at it). Just take the wedding we went to in Ubud. It’s just what they do, who they are. And that’s what keeps us coming back.

The full moon and me.

bali shar moon

– S

Categories: Adventure, Bali, Beach, Dining, Glamorous, Pool, Shopping, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a 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 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

The Freaky, the Fresh and the Fabulous

From a rustic beach fry shack to fine-dining at the Eiffel Tower (well, in Vegas), I’ve had some pretty varied and unique foodie times. While traveling, Cam and I tend to shy away from all-inclusives (with the exception of one or two no-brainer getaways), instead opting to frappe la rue on our own and explore. To me, not only the cuisine but the actual dining experience is all part of the unknown, the weirdness of travel that often makes a good story. (We have another litnus test of how good the restaurant is by what their bathroom facilities look like. I’ll save that for another post.)

Since I refrained from listing every funny little place I’ve been to in my last post of a similar nature (A Dozen Ovens), here’s the second part of some weird and wonderful foodie scenes. Let’s start with one of my favourites…

1. Ibu Oka  Ubud, Bali
Our driver Made accompanied us to this Ubud, Bali institution in the heart of the mountains, where the specialty is fried Babi Guling (suckling pig). The scene is rustic, the menu basic with a choice of four different combinations: Special Suckling Pig (with rice), Different Suckling Pig (also with rice, not entirely sure what’s ‘different’), Suckling Pig Meat, and just the Pig Skin. Grab some Indonesian fruit tea, have a seat on the floor and get cozy with your neighbours. Personally, I found it the whole meal extremely fatty, so I mostly ate just the meat sans skin, giving the rest to Cam and Made. But it was a must-do and undeniably an unforgettable experience. If you go, don’t forget to collect your shoes from the massive pile on your way out.

2. Tapas Bar in San Sebastian – Spain
The old quarter in San Sebastian was home to my first tapa dining experience. Basically, we tried to do what every good tourist should do: follow the locals. So we walked in pretending like we’d been there a hundred times (we couldn’t have been more green), casually sidled up to the bar (more like carefully picking our way through hoards of leering Spanish men), and helped ourselves to the dizzying array of itsy bitsy bites lining the bar (well, I might have wrinkled up my nose and given some the sniff test). The whole time we wondered how anybody would know how much we ate, or who was keeping track for that matter. Turns out the bartender had a pretty sharp pair of peepers, because by the end he had a tally of everything we touched, even including a few glasses of the local vino (which we ordered via the pointing system). He gave us the bill itemized on the back of an old receipt and we were done. Oh, and food was awesome – everything from fresh prawns to thin proscuitto on crostinis – and the atmosphere crowded, smoky and alive.

3. Pizza Venezia – Sayulita, Mexico
Along a dusty, lone Mexican village road appears what at first seems like a mirage, and then turns into a bright yellow surfboard. On it boasts the menu of Pizza Venezia, a place that is both a feast for the eyes and the stomach. All bright reds and yellows and brick, this fire wood oven, thin-crust pizza joint is home to some gutsy Italian-turned-surfer who landed in Sayulita sometime within the last three years. Apparently he liked it so much he decided to stay a while. Delicious and refreshingly uncomplicated, the pizza pies were cheap (an extra-large pie put you back a mere 90 pesos – about $6 Cdn). Perfect for a late-night snack on the way home, the rest saved for a picnic on the beach the next day.

4. Le Baiser Salé – Paris, France
Le Baiser Sale translates to “The Salty Kiss”. Being avid jazz buffs, Cam and I decided to hit up this place after we attempted to get into another jazz club where the cover charge back in ’04 was 25 euros (about $50 Cdn back then). This was at a time when the Canadian dollar was at an all-time low, mind you, but still – $50 to get in? Each? Even though they were open to negotiation (the price got lower as we began backing out of the club), we decided to move on and stumbled upon Le Baiser Sale. Despite the fact that it was ‘only’ $25 to get in, it turned out to be one of the best jazz clubs we’ve ever been to. I’m including it in this dining post because they did serve food – mostly snacks to accompany your champagne – but I think that counts. Enter via an outdoor patio, sweep past a bar and up a narrow staircase to a small, dark room with a makeshift bar and a stage – and when I say stage, I mean a basic platform of sorts. The sheer intimacy of the place was astounding: as four young guys belted out classic Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson, we were so close we could feel the beat pulsing in our chests; see the spit and the sweat. It was like they were playing just for us.

5. Hu’u Bar & Grill – Seminyak, Bali
Picture a dark and romantic outdoor setting, the tropical breeze tickling your bare shoulders as you stroll along the poolside patio under white canopy and twinkling fairy lights. Now imagine the delish taste of duck crepes as you dine surrounded by mosaic-like decorative busts and low-hung chinese lanterns, with cool hip groove beats filling the air. And, if you want your own private dining experience, there’s always the cozy dining day-beds strewn about the property. The food is pretty decent, but it’s really the ambience that keeps us coming back. Where else do you get to lounge about on huge white pillows while sipping on a lychee nut martini? Who knows: you may just run into Paris Hilton partying it up right next to you.

6. Lobster on Booby Cay Beach – near Negril, Jamaica
Let’s face it: this is no fancy hotel dining, or drinks by a hip poolside bar. It doesn’t get more fresh, and I mean really fresh than having your lunch cooked for you right on a sandy cove in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. I think these lobsters were caught maybe 20 minutes before, and the next thing you know they’re on the grill. Delightfully delish. Have Famous Vincent take you over to the island.

7. Kayu Manis – Sanur, Bali
This funny little place is slightly off the beaten track, some distance from the touristy throngs on Sanur’s beach boardwalk. After reading some decent reviews on Trip Advisor, we had our hotel make us a reservation. Still, it took us a while to find it in the dark, and after wandering around for an hour, we found it tucked just off the street, surrounded by trees and tropical flora. Even at 8 pm, the interior was sweltering hot, and much to our dismay, they didn’t serve any booze aside from the local beer. We forgave them because the food was good; however, when we tried to get the bill, they wouldn’t let us pay, no matter how much we insisted. Suffice to say both parties were very much confused. So, we ended up leaving without paying. For some people this is a dream; for us just felt downright strange and wrong. Totally bewildered, we relayed the story to our hotel hosts, who were just as confused as we were. Then about a week later, the restaurant phoned our hotel to say that someone from the restaurant was coming to pick up the money for our tab. Seriously! Poor Cam had to run about to get cash from the money exchange, put it in an envelope, and have it at the front desk for pick-up. So much for thinking we got it comped because they thought we were movie stars.

8. Eiffel Tower Restaurant – Las Vegas, Nevada
For a special occasion, a completely decadent experience (or if you just can’t get to Paris, France for the weekend), the Eiffel Tower Restaurant in Vegas is a must-try. It’s pretty close to the real thing, its authenticity bolstered (pun intended) by makeshift tower beams jutting through the walls, an almost pitch-black interior, and a martini bar to die for. My sister and her husband came with us to Vegas last year for a special birthday of mine (see A Most Un-Glamorous Journey for more on that trip), and although my sister got sick the night of my birthday dinner, we still enjoyed a romantic evening for three. Attended to by at least four tuxedo-clad servers (who all seemed ecstatic to be serving us), this restaurant boasted an incredible view of the main strip, notably the fountain show at the Bellagio. It oozed romance and yes, a bit of a cheese-factor, albeit classy cheese. An appetizer of roasted foie gras for $28? Why not? You may as well really splurge and have the Filet Mignon for $56. It’s totally worth it.

9. Random Restaurant at the top of Mt. Batur – Bali
Although the view to Gunung Batur is clearly incredible, the touristy and crowded buffet-style restaurant perched on a cliff at the side of the road wasn’t. Think exorbitant tourist prices for a measly, fly-ridden selection of fried rice, dried-up satay, and wilty greens. I won’t even get into the state of the washroom. Not to mention it was so windy up there, my bad food practically flew off my plate. (To be fair, that’s not the restaurant’s fault). Anyway, an obvious tourist trap, but what can you do – not a lot of choice way up in the middle-of-nowhere-mountains. The only thing that tasted somewhat okay was the prickly red rambutan fruit – plus it was really cool and exotic-looking.

10. Burrito Revolution – Sayulita, Mexico
A Sayulita institution, Burrito Revolution is a gem of a place, with burritos the size of babies and sauces with different spice levels (hint: watch out for the whitish one – very spicy). Although you can sit inside, it mostly caters to the grab-and-go people. Make sure you get lots of napkins, because within one bite you’ll be wiping the delicious stuff off your mouth and chin. Incredibly fresh, handmade  and hot – think smoked marlin wrapped up with tomatoes, beans and fresh guacamole. Come hungry and prepare to wait a bit – you’ll be glad you did. The last time we were there, the proprietor let us have a taste of the newest thing on the menu: tacos (yummy). And, you gotta love their awesome sense of humour – I just had to take a picture of this sign!

– S

Categories: Bali, Dining, Europe, France, Glamorous, Jamaica, Mexico, Spain, Travel, Unglamorous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Cozumel Christmas

OK, I know it’s a bit early to be talking about Christmas. But then the other day I was looking through some old photos and was reminded of the Xmas that we decided to get the heck out of Dodge and head to Paradise – AKA the island of Cozumel, off the coast of the Mexican Riviera.

It was a little out of character for us, because we always, always host holiday family dinners. So when we announced one year that we were spending Christmas on a beach far, far away, the family was quite surprised. To give you some context, think of the movie Four Christmases – and so we gave each other the gift of sanity that year.

Anyway, after a 6-hour plane ride, one-and-a-half hours on a bus (stopping at every hotel along the way), arriving in Playa del Carmen, waiting an hour for the ferry, and then enduring a 45-minute less-than-smooth sailing, we finally set foot on the beautiful island of Cozumel. It was definitely worth the trek. And so I’d like to share with you the…

Top 10 Things I Loved About Spending Christmas in Mexico

1. Seeing crazy, over-the-top decorations.
Cozumel’s main square devoted itself to gigantic decorated trees, neon signs, nativity scenes, and (naturally) a scary larger-than-life Santa climbing up a ladder to God knows where. Look out below, kiddies.

2. Avoiding the really awful weather back home.
While everyone else was freezing their behinds off, we were sipping a margarita on a lonely stretch of beautiful white sand. ‘Nuff said.

3. Singing Christmas carols in Spanish 
One night, close to the big day, we were eating chile rellenos at an open-air neighbourhood restaurant when we heard some commotion near the street. When we went to check it out, to our delight we discovered a half-dozen local children clustered around a nativity scene at the front of the restaurant, singing carols in Spanish. Recognizing one of the songs as “Silent Night”, we enthusiastically joined them at top volume. The kids, concentrating on their music books and mesmerized by the decorations festooning the place, took no notice of us silly tourists blundering along with them.

4. Zooming around in Purple Pepe 
Access to the beach was a bit of a hike for those of us staying in town, making for expensive cab rides. So we decided to rent a car – more specifically, a convertible. The only one the rental agency had at the time was a 1970s purple Volkswagen bug that we affectionately named “Pepe”. It was an adventure to drive; complete with a stick shift reminiscent of an old school bus. Despite her being old and decrepit, Pepe got us from Point A to Point B just fine, and we were able to get off the beaten touristy track and check out some lovely spots on the less-traveled leeward side of the island. Who cares if it didn’t have a fancy airbag? Or working seat belts, for that matter. The improvised paint job was pretty sweet, though.

5. Going on a snorkelling tour on a rough day
This had to be one of the best, and most challenging, snorkelling experiences I’ve ever had. We connected with a local woman named Rosy Flury, and although the water was quite choppy that day, she determined our experience level to be good enough to go anyway. There was only us and a family of three (from Calgary, no less), which made for a really personal experience. We went to several different reefs, some shallow and some deep, where we were witness to all sorts of slimy and fascinating underwater things during this two-hour adventure. The best part was on the way back, sailing against the freezing wind for 45 minutes. Nothing like protecting yourself from smacking sea spray with just a wet towel and sunglasses.

6. Decorating a palm tree instead of a Douglas Fir
Although it doesn’t have the same effect as its bushier relative, I really liked the look of those purple and green banana pepper lights against the thin palm stalks. Very exotic. I still put them up in our window back home where they blink merrily.

7. Going to Midnight Mass – in another country
Going to Mass on Christmas Eve is crazy popular in Mexico, for obvious Catholic-centered reasons. We visited this particularly ornate church just up the street from our villa one night, and then again on the Eve. For a bit of perspective, check out before and after shots:

Pre-Christmas Eve:

Christmas Eve:

Unlike the previous night, there was pretty much zero chance of getting a seat. So we listened to the sermon from the steps, with about 200 other people. We didn’t understand a word the priest was saying, but since it was Christmas Eve, we had an inkling of the overall message.

8. Diving right off the beach on Christmas day
We spent the day at an intimate beach club, our only other companions a Santa hat-mimosa-drinking tour group. When we felt like cooling off, we just strapped on our masks and fins, waded into the turquoise-blue water, and transported ourselves to another world.

9. Waking up and feeling warm
Yep, you can’t beat waking up late on Christmas day, having a cup of coffee with Bailey’s, taking a swim to clear out the cobwebs, and letting the sun dry you on your patio chair. The hardest part is trying not to gloat while the family back home tells you they just finished shoveling a foot of snow off their driveway.

10. A Christmas sunset on the pier
Better than a pile of discarded wrapping paper and stomach cramps from eating too much.

– S

PS. The family fared just fine without us. Which means we might do it again… soon.

Categories: Adventure, Beach, Mexico, Sunset, Travel | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Streets of San Francisco

Hands-down, one of my favourite American cities is San Francisco. Although the whole state of California is pretty freakin’ rad, SFO really does stand out. It’s not a beach city, but what it offers in cuisine, attractions, shopping (!), general friendliness and yes, lots of weirdness, more than makes up for boring old sunny shores and sparkling sand.

I’ve been there twice, with both trips revolving around seeing a concert. The first time I went we saw The Tragically Hip, a classic Canuck band, at the Fillmore. Yup, the very same Fillmore where Jimi Hendrix and his entire generation of rock stars played back in the day. Second time was to see City and Colour, also at the Fillmore. Although they were two very different shows, both were amazing and intimate; I even got a few splashes of Hip singer Gordon Downey’s sweat on me. Let’s just say it was a very different experience from seeing them in a hockey arena.

Anyway, the point of writing this post was to reveal some awesome highlights (and funny little snippets) of our time there. It’s not until you experience SFO first-hand that you really understand why there’s a hundred songs and movies made about this great city.

1. Fisherman’s Wharf/Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory
Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, it’s gimmicky. But, when in Rome… well, you should just do it, the first time, anyway. And once is enough. Have clam chowder in a bread bowl. Go to Ghirardelli Square and indulge in heavenly chocolate of all kinds: nuts, fruit, dark, white, milk, candied, sea salt, caramel, whatever. Visit the barking seals at Pier 39; go for a spin in the Rocket Boat around the harbour and the Bay Bridge. Have lunch at a sidewalk restaurant and delight in quirky street attractions… speaking of which…

2. Random Naked Cyclists
Ok, the whole “demonstration” is probably not random, and I know they do this in other places, too (including Victoria), but this just seemed – well – utterly San Fran. You’re having a bite to eat patio-side when suddenly a rush of nudies on bikes fly by. One thing you must remember when in SFO: always have your camera at the ready because you never know what’s going to happen. (Nice ciggy between the red nails in this pic, BTW. Ewwww.)

3. Alcatraz Island
This place is definitely worth a closer look than just a snapshot from the other side. Since I’m a big history nut and I gravitate toward the freaky and weird, it’s right up my alley. Join a walking tour on the grounds and then head inside the cell block, strap on some headsets and prepare for an audio experience that will really creep you out. You even get to see remnants of the famous escape depicted in the Clint Eastwood movie Escape from Alcatraz. If  you truly want to get the bejesus scared out of you, sign up for the night tour.

4. The Ferry Building on the Embarcadero
This old ferry terminal is now home to a myriad of shops, trendy restaurants, open-air markets, and cool little cafes. While you’re shopping for your wine and cheese, you might – just might – run into someone famous. Like the time we spotted Martha Stewart and her entourage at the Ciao Bella ice cream shop. Ol’ Martha was looking pretty good with her perfectly-coiffed hair, black leather pants and high boots. Naturally, people were practically falling over themselves to give her stuff, as you can see in this pic I semi-clandestinely snapped.

5. The Food!
I seriously have never been to a place this side of the country that’s got so many awesome options for foodies. You could probably eat out every day for years here and never hit all the great restaurants and street carts. From a funky little breakfast establishment in Nob Hill to a chic and classy reso on Fillmore, I could go on and on, but here are some worth mentioning:

  • First Crush Restaurant – friendly, late-night service with a cool bar, fab wine list and homestyle treats such as fried macaroni.
  • Bourbon Steak Restaurant in the Westin St. Francis Hotel. We happened to have reservations here when owner/celebrity chef Michael Mina was whipping the kitchen staff into a frenzy. The place was hopping and the service impeccable – we even had our wine glasses refilled by his business partner, also on duty that night. Now that’s personalized service.
  • Redwood Room in the Clift Hotel – this hidden gem is popular with the professional work crowd, yet still evokes a casual feel. It is the West Coast, after all. We hopped right up to the classy bar and watched the place fill in a matter of minutes. I was instantly dazzled when offered a free glass of champagne (mistakenly poured for someone else). The moving pictures on the wall added a touch of eeriness that was undoubtedly cool – thank you, Philippe Starck.

6. Street Entertainment in the North Park
SFO has mastered street entertainment – with the North Park especially keen to show off. One lazy afternoon, as we were partaking in a lunch of pepperoni calzones at a sidewalk restaurant, this huge black guy dressed in white coattails and top hat approached and amicably offered to sing for money. After we opted out, he moved on to the next couple, who also declined. I think at this point he was getting tired of rejection; either that or he was just having a really bad day. And so we watched, amazed, as he literally shifted from nice to nasty in a matter of seconds, shouting and berating the couple for not helping him out. And then there was the larger-than-life Tinsel Man at the street market. In short, the people-watching is pretty spectacular. Oh, and the murals aren’t bad, either.

7. Golden Gate Bridge (obviously)
No question, one of the must-dos. The key is getting hooked up with a tour (complete with a little history thrown in) aboard one of those old-fashioned trolley buses which take you through the park and over the bridge. The weather was beautiful that day; not an ounce of fog in sight. I was almost disappointed. Can you see me in the mirror? (Hint: I’m the one with the big sunglasses.)

8. Shopping in Union Square
We stayed in the Square the second time around – right up the street from H&M, Neiman Marcus, DSW Shoe Warehouse, the works. I thought I died and went to heaven when we stepped into Bloomingdale’s – just the array of sunglasses alone on display was dizzying. I eventually settled on a gorgeous leather jacket, which I had to carry with me while we wandered around and eventually got lost trying to get back to our hotel. This was especially fun through some less-desirable neighbourhoods. Thank God for Cam, who gave anyone who dared look our way (or my jacket’s general direction) the Jack Reacher stare.

9. Baseball Game in AT&T Park
It was the Giants against the Oakland A’s – their cross-town rivals. Picture a warm night, the overpowering smell of dirt, grass and beer. People shouting and cheering. Chowing down on hot dogs and popcorn. The sun setting behind a humongous glove. Oh, and the Giants won – Tim Lincecum was awesome, a wild example of mullet over matter.

10. Lots and Lots of Live Music
Coming from a smaller city where economic realities can limit access to outstanding live entertainment, I really appreciate its abundance in SFO: tons of great venues, varied styles, and real talent where you least expect it. Take, for instance, the time we stumbled into a dark, grotty bar on lower Mason Street (perhaps a slightly dodgy part of town at night) and were blown away by a show featuring a blues dude going by The Harrison B. One six-string, one snare and cymbal, and these guys rocked the place.

– S

PS. We’re making our way down there again in a few days. (Well, technically, we’ll be making a side-trip there via CalTrain from San Jose.) Once again, we’ll be basking in San Francisco’s glorious weirdness. And loving it.

Categories: California, Dining, Shopping, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Dozen Ovens

One of my favourite things to do is eat, especially on vacation. There’s something about being away from home, trying different places and styles of cuisine that’s addictive. It can also represent an opportunity for prime people watching. So without further ado, here are some of my most memorable dining experiences in no particular order: the weird, the wonderful, and the quirky…

1. KU DE TA – Seminyak beach, Bali, Indonesia
At some point whenever we’re in Bali, we hit this place – not so much for the food (good but very pricey) as for the atmosphere. The idea is to get there just before sunset, order a chocolate martini (no, really), and get ready to be blown away. Overlooking amazing Seminyak beach, the place seems large enough to be a resort, with lounge chairs on the grass, covered dining areas framing a large pool, and a lounge with long benches and pillowed seats (be prepared to get chummy with your neighbours, who are probably rock stars from, say, Glasgow). For prime sunset-watching, try to score seating on little wooden-type stools that offer a rustic beachy feel. Chill-groove beats abound and the people watching is stellar: you’ll encounter everyone from Aussie trust fund kids to Japanese tourists, surfers and even sheiks and trophy wives. See if you can tear yourself away from the view and the scene to hit the washroom – an experience all its own. (And a great place to cool off, too.) Oh, and don’t forget to look as bored and jaded as possible.

2. The Living Room – Kuta, Bali, Indonesia
Great upscale dining, walkable from KU DE TA. It’s the epitome of how Bali can really dress a place to an exorbitant scale with massive floor-to-ceiling white curtains, chandeliers, white lights, and red velvet settees. True to its name, it did kind of feel like you were in someone’s living room – if that someone happened to be Henry VIII. After an excellent dinner, we headed to the bar to party it up until the wee hours with a couple of Aussie girls we had met at KU DE TA. I swear, if the Balinese weren’t so polite, they would have kicked us out hours earlier.

3. Kinta Mexican Bistro – Cozumel, Mexico
This is an off-the-beaten-track gem of a place on an island that otherwise caters to cruise shippers on day trip mini-benders. You’ll be charmed as soon as you step through the front door and into the funky interior, with its low-lighting and chic art, dazzling bar, and inventive menu (strawberry starfruit martini anyone?). Step along the lit walkway through the garden patio with its hushed privacy amidst mini-palms, where we dined the first (and second) time we graced this little eatery. It’s no Señor Frog’s, and that’s the whole point.

4. Balcony Bar & Restaurant – Byron Bay, Australia
This restaurant’s tagline is, “Be seen on it, not from it.” Step onto a red-carpeted winding staircase and make your way up and through a curtain to the main dining area. Fortunately, that’s where the cheese-factor ends. You are then transported into a wicker-abundant, beachy-type scene. If you’re fortunate to sit outside, prepare to drink in one of the highest views of funky downtown seaside Byron Bay (which, BTW, is reminiscent of BC’s Saltspring Island. Except on more acid). It was here that we feasted on the most unforgettable Moroccan chicken wings while listening to three drunk Aussie girls complain about their dating woes.

5. Chandi – Seminyak, Bali
Located on the main strip in fashionable and gastronomically-diverse Seminyak, this restaurant quickly became one of our regular haunts, with its heavenly combo of Indonesian and Australian cuisine. We initially stumbled upon it while looking for a place to take refuge from shopping in the interminable heat (which, to say the least, doesn’t make Cam a very happy camper). Chandi exudes calm and cool, which instantly put us at ease (that and the fact we weren’t shopping anymore). We settled in lounge chairs surrounded by glass walls, overlooking the street where we could gaze at the poor saps still shopping. Must-tries: watermelon gazpacho soup, crab dumplings and Balinese crispy duck.

6. “Ghost Restaurant” – Sayulita, Mexico
Since this place actually deserves its own blog post, I’ll just give you a snippet of our experience. We were wandering around looking for a break from chile relleno and taco chips when this tiny Italian reso popped up out of nowhere. Desperately needing something to mask my acute back pain (namely red wine), we decided to give it a shot, and it turned into one of the best evenings in Sayulita (what back pain?). However, despite returning there several times, this enigma of an eatery remained closed for the remainder of our trip. We pressed our noses to the windows several nights and saw only upturned napkins and abandoned wine glasses that never moved or got washed. Eventually we concluded our night there obviously never happened at all, but that it would have been a great time, and we were glad we didn’t experience it together. As you can tell, the place messed with our minds.

7. Restaurant Perraudin – Paris, France
Steeped in old-world charm, this French reso in Paris’ Latin Quarter will make you feel like you just stepped into Madame’s own kitchen. It’s quaint and cozy, with red-and-white checked tablecloths, and popular with both students and professors (needless to say, we stood out a little). It’s so homey that the menu is written on the mirror with a white wax pencil. Naturally it’s all in French, so while there, we furtively cracked open our language book to translate, all the while keenly aware of the patrons squeezed in at both sides of our elbows. Boudin noir sounded intriguing until I realized it was blood sausage. After much deliberation, we eventually dug into a rich lunch of beef bourguignon, potatoes gratin, and a hefty bordeaux. We topped off that feast with creme brûlée. I basically didn’t need to eat for 10 hours after that meal. (And I think when I did, it was back to this place.)

8. Jimmy Watson’s Wine Bar – Melbourne, Australia
Hands-down, Melbourne has some of the best eateries in all of Australia. Mind you, I haven’t been to every inch of the place, but this city sure hits the mark when it comes to cuisine variety, affordability, and quality. What I love about Oz is the abundance of wine bars – and Melbourne does not fall short of these. Enter Jimmy Watson’s Wine Bar. I think we tasted pretty much everything on the bar menu, and not because we were flush at the time (far from it), but because the proprietor kept bringing us samples to try (at no charge – how great is that?). Specialty wines, dessert wines, honey wines … oh the honey wines. After a solid while of debauchery, we figured it would be a good idea to actually eat something, and so appeared the tiniest chicken (it was actually a quail) on a plate before us. The poor thing looked so comical, so, well… dead that I had a hard time lifting even a waif-like morsel to my mouth. More honey wine?

9. Unidentified Grotto Restaurant – Saint-Émilion, France
Due to a long time lapse, I can’t recall the name of this particular establishment, but it’s either Le Tertre or La Cote Braisee. In any case, picture a dark, stormy night in a tiny medieval village in the heart of France’s wine country. A torrent of rain, heels slick against the cobblestones running for shelter into an underground wine cellar carved out of solid rock. Once inside, this grotto was strangely welcoming with its candlelight and out-of-this-world smells. And so ensued a storm-filled evening complete with what it seemed like endless amounts of foie gras: on toasts, in salads, stuffed in roast duck (thankfully not in my tarte). Then there was the odd choice of Celine Dion on the stereo. One or two songs, I can deal with. But a whole album? Let’s just say by the time it started round three, we were gone. (If you had a similar experience, please let me know what the restaurant was actually called.)

10. Cafe Batu Jimbar – Sanur, Bali
This is one of my best-loved restaurants in Bali. Located on Sanur’s main drag, this friendly establishment is within walking distance from the lovely beachfront Tandjung Sari hotel and boasts Indonesian and Australian specialties. Although there is seating in the more casual cafe inside, the real treat (sans air conditioning) is the outdoor patio, a great spot for people watching amidst white fairy light-bedecked palm trees. Live music accompanies the scene, from classic jazz numbers to salsa to rock & roll. There’s also a store next door featuring specialty foods, wine, even greeting cards. The best part is you can buy a bottle of wine here and have it uncorked at the restaurant, only paying a corkage fee instead of restaurant bottle prices. Try the gourmet ice cream.

11. Brasserie L’école – Victoria, BC, Canada
Located in (gasp, yes!) my actual hometown, this classic French restaurant remains one of my favourites anywhere. It doesn’t take reservations (bless them, they don’t want to be the type of place that’s booked solid for 3 months), so it’s best to show up early, put your name on the waiting list and then head to one of the many other selections across town for a drink (try the bar at Fiamo). Chances are you will get a table within the next hour or so, and it’s so worth the wait. Once there, cozy up and sink your teeth into the endive salad with bacon, apple, hazelnuts and mustard wine dressing. Pair it with the Albacore tuna. Or sirloin steak with Roquefort butter and frites – ask for the “fancy” version – fries cooked in truffle oil. (I knew someone who once just ordered a side of the fancy frites to go, and then ate the whole lot of them before she got home. It’s that good.)

12. And, of course, Le Resto Ming – Sanur, Bali

– S

PS. This is just a smattering of memorable global dining experiences (it was extremely hard to narrow it down). So keep an eye out for a part two of this series.

Categories: Australia, Bali, Beach, Dining, Europe, France, Mexico, Sunset, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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