‘Slumdog Millionaire’ almost put me off going to India. All those back-alley shops, dirty cesspools and crowded trains? Hell, no. Not for me. But it’s amazing what a woman’s charms will do, and before I could say, “I don’t want any bloody dhal makhani” we were touching down at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. Destination? Udaipur.
The city of Udai. Jewel of Rajasthan. Venice of the East. Whatever you choose to call it, Udaipur is pretty damn impressive. Unlike so many Indian cities, it’s not a random sprawl of tumble down buildings with a sprinkle of chaos thrown in for local colour. In Udaipur the city revolves around the lake. Lake Pichola, to be precise. One of five that lie lazily in front of the Aravalli Hills, their placid waters at odds with the chaos of streets that bicker behind the lakefront havelis.
Once home to Udaipur’s aristocracy, these lavish waterfront homes were the Clifton bungalows of 16th century Rajasthan. Everyone wanted one, hardly anybody could afford it, and gawking visitors would peek in the windows as they thumped down the steps to the water. Most have now been converted into hotels, but why bother with aristocracy when royalty will do just as nicely?
You’ll probably only go to Udaipur once, and if you’re travelling in style there is simply only one address. Except this hotel doesn’t have an address. It doesn’t need one. It’s a place where the post – and everything else, for that matter – arrives by boat, and a healthy stretch of water separates the chaos of India from the blissfully calm courtyards of what is, quite simply, the most romantic hotel on the planet.
A handsome Rajasthani doorman sweeps down the red-carpeted staircase as our boat glides up to the landing deck. A brocaded velvet umbrella shields my wife from the spring sunshine and an elbow is offered to escort her up the stairs. Seamlessly, the umbrella disappears and a rain of rose petals marks our entrance. The doorman beams from under his bushy moustache: “You are welcome at the Taj Lake Palace!”
The name says it all really. This gleaming white hotel is built on a small island in the middle of Lake Pichola; an island so small that the hotel is the island. And it used to be a Palace. A pleasure palace, in fact, built in 1746 by Maharana Jagat Singh II. The 62nd successor to the royal dynasty of Mewar would use the manicured courtyards and rooftop terraces for summer shindigs for his royal court.
The royal family have since packed their bags for the City Palace on the mainland, but regal touches abound throughout the hotel. Marble corridors lead to our opulent Palace Suite, where lake views flow in from almost every direction. The City Palace peeks in the bathroom window, and from our small balcony I look out to Jagmandir Island; another pleasure palace where the gardens still host Udaipur’s most glamorous parties. Marble, velvet and crisp linen abound, but like a new maharajah I’m hungry to soak up the pleasures of my palace. Well, mine for a night or two, at least. And pleasure is something the Taj Lake Palace offers in spades.
The therapists at the Jiva spa greet me with a beatific namaste, and ask if I’ll be having my massage on land or water. As if the hotel isn’t enough of an escape, the ‘spa boat’ allows couples to set sail into Lake Pichola for treatments and a little time alone.
The pool-loungers beckon, but the sun is dipping behind the hills and I have a date with a gondola. Mercifully free of gondoliers murdering Italian love songs, all we hear is the gentle murmur of the water under our keel as we slowly circle the hotel, admiring the sunset and sipping our glass of Bollinger.
Back at the hotel, a quandary awaits: dinner at the rooftop Bhairo for outstanding city views and a menu of contemporary European cuisine, or back onto the water. Ah hell, when in Rome… so we opt for a romantic pontoon dinner, perhaps the most unique dining experience in Asia.
Moored on the calm lake waters, the pontoon is a floating restaurant for two. We order the tasting menu from Neel Khamal, the hotel’s Indian fine-dining restaurant, with a bottle of New Zealand merlot and sit back to soak up the lights of Udaipur. Our waiter hops in his boat and motors off to fetch our starters. Soup follows, then mains and a spread of desserts, all the while Udaipur glints back at us across the water. Fireworks from a local wedding light up the sky and boom out across the city, declaring new love to all and sundry.
Behind us the Lake Palace shimmers in the moonlight, a white marble jewel giving the Taj Mahal a run for its money in the romance stakes. Shah Jahan may have built his Taj as a monument to love, but what’s so sexy about a mausoleum? When it comes to romance in Rajasthan, the Rajput kings of Udaipur certainly knew how to woo their women. A pleasure palace, indeed.
Taj Lake Palace Hotel, Udaipur, India. Visit www.tajhotels.com or call 00 800 4 588 1 825 (toll-free).
First published in Private Edition; Autumn 2010
Is it possible to walk past a field of grazing sheep without fighting the inexplicable urge to turn and go ‘baaaaa’ at them?
It’s a question that seems to follow me down the narrow lanes of St. Mary’s, the main island in the impossibly scenic Isles of Scilly. Here the slender roads seem to wander at random, encouraging visitors to wander beside fields where flowers bloom, sheep graze and rabbits skitter between the hedgerows. Fringed by brambles and rambling berries, the maze of footpaths and country lanes is heaven for eco-conscious travellers who’d rather strap on their walking shoes than climb into a tour bus.
But perhaps I’d better sit down on this dry-stone wall and backtrack a few steps.
The ‘Isles of Scilly’ I hear you ask? Yes, yes, the silly puns have all been made before, but I’m dead serious when I say that these idyllic isles are one of the most beautiful corners of the United Kingdom and one that few South Africans tend to visit.
Cast away in the Atlantic Ocean some 45 kilometres from the British mainland, the Isles are a sub-tropical slice of England that’s a world away from the smoggy skies of London, enjoying mild temperatures and more sunshine than anywhere else in the UK.
As any South African who’s worked in London will know, sun is in short supply in England, which is why in the mid-1900s Scilly boomed as the country’s most important flower grower. Today, with flowers jetting in overnight from Kenya, the flower farms lie fallow and just a few small-scale operations dot the roadside, selling cut flowers and the famous narcissus bulbs of Scilly.
Nowadays tourism is the mainstay of the islands and although over 200 chunks of rock make up the Isles, just five of them are inhabited: St. Mary’s, St. Martin’s, Tresco, Bryher and St. Agnes. The rest are left to the elements, under the stewardship of the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust.
Designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1975, almost all of Scilly belongs to Prince Charles – under the Duchy of Cornwall – who rents the uninhabited areas to the Trust for the princely sum of one daffodil per annum. Delightful.
St. Mary’s is the hub of the Scillies; home to the airport, heliport and ferry harbour. The scheduled plane and chopper services will fly you to the mainland in just 20 minutes, while the ferry will take a little longer. Once you arrive, the pace slows down considerably. There are no hire cars available on the islands, so the tinkle of bicycle bells is about all that will disturb walkers in the country lanes.
Well, that and the chatter of bird-song.
“We get some good old gales blowing through here,” smiles Will Wagstaff, local ornithologist and tour guide. “With the wind, we get migratory birds blown off course from as far afield as America, 3000 miles away!”
When he’s not ‘twitching’ further afield Wagstaff leads meandering nature walks across St. Mary’s, introducing visitors to the unique flora and fauna of the island. Edible flowers, arcane insects and – especially – the islands’ rich birdlife are unearthed and explained.
“We even get the Arctic Skua here,” says Will. “They’re always chasing after a share of whatever the other birds have caught. A bit like nature’s taxmen!”
I leave the rambling birders to their lunch break and take a wander down towards Hugh town, the life and soul of St. Mary’s. It’s boatmen, not taxmen I’m interested in.
With so many islands scattered across the unpredictable Atlantic, the islands have a strong sea-faring tradition; a history best explored amongst the ‘gigs’ at The Boatshed on the beachfront.
The 32-foot rowing gigs restored here have been a part of the Isles since the 18th century; a time when ‘ships were made of wood, and men were made of iron!’ Teams of islanders would race the gigs out to passing ships, and the first to reach it won the job of piloting the ship safely into harbour. These fast agile boats were also popular with tobacco and alcohol smugglers, and eventually gigs were banned from having eight oars as the Customs and Excise officers couldn’t catch them!
Wandering along the seafront into town you’ll also pass the bus stop, where ‘Katie’ – a classic touring bus – departs every few hours for tours of the island. St. Mary’s is an island made for walking, but if your dogs are tired you could be forgiven for a few hours of four-wheeled sightseeing.
Hugh Town itself is just a few streets across, but is home to everything a small village needs to look after locals and visitors alike. The bakery in Garrison Lane makes some of the best Cornish pasties you’ll ever taste, while the Mermaid Inn is usually well stocked with a few kegs of ‘Scuppered’ and ‘Firebrand’, brewed locally by the cheekily named Ales of Scilly.
From The Mermaid’s restaurant you can watch the comings and goings of the harbour, where there’s a buzz throughout the day.
The local Boatmen’s Association runs daily scheduled services to the ‘off-islands’, as well as sightseeing tours to uninhabited islands further afield. With your boat schedule in hand and a few quid in your pocket it’s the best spot to start your island-hopping, and you can easily spend the morning wandering across St. Agnes, hop over for lunch on St. Martin’s before ending up back on St. Mary’s for a dinner of fresh local crab at ‘The Galley’.
My destination is the pint-sized island of Tresco though. I throw my bag into the open-top boat and the engines rumble us across the bay. The aquamarine water is what I’d expect to find in the Maldives, and glistening sandbanks betray the tidal races that make these waters so treacherous.
Tresco has all the natural beauty and tranquillity of the other isles, but with one trump card up its sleeve: the Tresco Abbey Gardens.
Hailed as ‘Kew Gardens with the roof off’ the Abbey Gardens were laid out in the early-1800s by Augustus Smith, who would cajole passing ships to give him plants from the four corners of the globe.
By fashioning tall windbreaks he funnelled the howling Atlantic gales up and over his fledgling garden, and built terraces to provide the right conditions for plants from across the planet. Today, over 20 000 species from 80 countries – including South Africa – thrive in this magical mystery garden.
Statues hide around corners, quiet benches beckon you to stay awhile, and Neptune gazes over the garden towards the distant sea. Yes, even in this earthy garden the sea plays its part. The Valhalla Museum is home to a fascinating collection of intricately carved figureheads and historic artefacts from over 60 ships wrecked on the Isles of Scilly in the last 200 years.
The sailors tossed ashore here over the centuries may have found it a windswept, forbidding place, but in the bright autumn sunshine it’s hard to think of a prettier corner of the British Isles. I leave the gardens behind and wander up the western edge of Tresco, hoping for a pint of ‘Scuppered’ in the local pub. With the lights of my hotel twinkling across the channel I can think of few better places to be shipwrecked.
First published in Garden & Home magazine, April 2010
- Where to stay: You’ll find plenty of B&Bs and guesthouses on St. Mary’s and the nearby islands. Self-catering accommodation and campsites are also available. I loved the Hell Bay Hotel on Bryher Island; it’s the only hotel on the island with just a handful of rooms, and one of the best restaurants on the Isles. Visit www.hellbay.co.uk.
- Getting there: The easiest way to get to Scilly is to fly on British Airways to London Heathrow, and then take the scenic First Great Western train from London Paddington to Penzance. From Penzance (also worth a few days of exploring) you can fly or take the ferry. Visit www.ba.com and www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk.
- Web: Visit the official Isles of Scilly tourism board website at www.simplyscilly.co.uk.
"Hello Missy Sir! Handbag, copy watch?"
The cries of the street vendors follow me as I push my way through the throng of tourists crowding the ever-popular Temple Street Market in Kowloon. It’s a nightly draw-card for any visitor to Hong Kong and – together with the Ladies Market – is where you come to shop on a budget. A vibrant stew of stalls, restaurant and street performers, where confident bargaining and feigning disinterest in that fake-Fendi will quickly knock a third off the asking price.
Hong Kong is retail Shangri-la, but – as my wife will sadly admit – I am not a shopper. I am, however, a committed diner; and in a city that boasts over 11 000 restaurants it looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me.
It may sound daunting, but if you need guidance on your culinary adventure stop in at Kowloon’s Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin temple; famous for its fortune-tellers who will explain — through the telling of a fable — what your future holds. For me, a steamer or three of dim sum invariably looms large.
The kitchens of Hong Kong offer cuisine from across China, but these humble dumplings – usually served at breakfast or lunch – are far and away the favoured snack in the home of Cantonese cuisine.
For an easy introduction into the world of dim sum, head across Victoria Harbour to the suburb of Central on Hong Kong Island. The Star Ferry is the best way to get across the world-famous waterway, and a one-way coupon costs just HK$3. Make your way to the glitzy Times Square shopping mall, where you’ll find hundreds of happily munching diners at Super Star Restaurant. Through the glass-walled kitchen there’s an army of chefs steaming up the windows as they create heaven in a bamboo basket.
Super Star is also known for taking a comic look at this Cantonese treat, so don't be surprised if your Shrimp Dumpling comes out in the shape of Nemo. If you’re smitten, the branch in Tsim Tsha Tsui will even teach you the basics in a fun one-hour dim sum cooking course where you get to devour your ‘masterpieces’ afterwards.
If you’re after something more authentic, wander up the steep streets of Central to the rough-and-tumble Lan Fong Yuen for your baptism by fire into the frenetic communal tables of Hong Kong dining.
Little has changed since it opened in the 1920s: steamers full of freshly-made dim sum trundle through the restaurant on creaky trolleys, only to be whipped away by hungry diners. You’ll need to be quick to get your hands on the popular har gau pork dumplings, and don’t forget to let the trolley-pusher stamp your ticket with what you’ve taken.
Yum cha just wouldn’t be the same without a pot of aromatic green or jasmine tea, which usually arrives unbidden. When the tea runs out just leave the lid off to signal to the waiter that you need a top-up of boiling water. The leaves are good for at least five or six pots, so don't order a fresh pot each time. If you want to bring leaves home with you you’ll find excellent tea shops throughout Hong Kong, many of which offer guided tea tastings.
Out the door and across Gage Street, fill in the gaps with a freshly baked egg tart from Tai Cheong Bakery. A favourite stop for Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, the flaky tarts with custard filling are rich, decadent and delicious. Enjoy one while you wander along to the historic Man Mo Temple, where clouds of fragrant incense billow out onto the street.
If it’s temples you’re after, hop on the MTR subway train to Tung Chung and grab a gondola on the Ngong Ping 360. The 5.7-kilometre cableway glides you gently up to the serene Po Lin Monastery. Here a 268-step climb leads you to, if not enlightenment itself, at least the foot of the world's largest outdoor seated Buddha. If you’re feeling peckish, the monastery offers a set-menu vegetarian lunch that’s easy on the pocket.
From Po Lin you can follow the winding road down to the long and laid-back Cheung Sha Beach for a swim. It's also not far to the tumbledown fishing village of Tai O, a rare surviving example of a traditional Chinese stilt-village built over the waters of the South China Sea.
By this time the sun will be heading westwards, and when darkness falls there’s only one place in town to see the remarkable cityscape; from the top of the famous Victoria Peak.
The Peak Tram runs from Central every 10 minutes, offering one of the most memorable views on earth as it scales the impossibly steep hills en route to the top. At the summit, the Peak Tower offers magnificent views of Hong Kong Island and across to Kowloon.
Feeling peckish again? Once you’ve soaked up the city lights it’s time to find some dinner. The tourist complex at The Peak has a range of restaurants with spectacular city views, but although they’re ideal for romantic dinners in most cases you’ll be paying a premium for forgettable food.
Rather head back into Central, to the famous Yung Kee Restaurant in Wellington Street.
Yung Kee’s signature Roast Goose has been drawing diners since 1942, when Mr. Kam Shui Fai's 'restaurant' was a humble cooked food stall in Kwong Yuen West Street. Today though it’s a regular stop for local celebrities and tourists in the know and while the dish that made him famous is the main draw card, the menu offers other Chinese delicacies for the daring diner.
Alvin Yeung Jr., on the other hand, is a man getting daring in the kitchen.
Sweeping aside age-old taboos, Leung has brought molecular gastronomy to Asia with his 'X-treme Chinese Cuisine'. Using his degree in science to the full, Leung’s menu follows the trail blazed by Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià, picking apart the flavours of Chinese cooking and reassembling them in an unrecognisable, yet strangely familiar, form. The 'Chef's Menu' at his restaurant – Bo Innovation – doesn't come cheap, but for a gourmet adventure it's worth every well-spent dollar.
Another reliable bet is the tiny ‘Alcove’, clinging to the top of Peel Street in Central. Here the menu changes daily and the emphasis is on personal attention and an innovative look at classic Chinese dishes. Stir-fried Green Beans, Chinese Kale with Garlic Sauce and Scrambled Egg with Crab Meat are all favourites dished up with immaculate attention to detail. Dark wood panelling, jazz in the background and eclectic décor make this a far cry from the typically bright-and-brash Chinese restaurant, and the perfect romantic hideaway amongst the Hong Kong skyscrapers.
It’s just one of the many kitchens in Hong Kong offering up a mouth-watering range of dishes from all over China. Wandering down the streets of Central, my ‘shopping list’ of restaurants at the ready, I realise it’s no surprise why this city is known as the ‘fragrant harbour’. Despite three trips in four years, I’m still hungry to taste more of Hong Kong.
First published in Food&Home Entertaining magazine, March 2010
- The Hong Kong Tourism Board has an excellent website to help you plan your trip. Go to www.discoverhongkong.com.
- South African passport-holders do not require a visa for visits less than 30 days
- The Hong Kong Dollar (HKD) is roughly equal to the South African Rand.
- F&HE travelled to Hong Kong with Flight Centre, Cathay Pacific and the Hong Kong Tourism Board. To book a trip to this fabulous Far East destination contact Flight Centre on 0860 400 747 or visit www.flightcentre.co.za.
Smile, you’re in Thailand!
Your first steps onto the streets of Bangkok are likely to be a shock to the system. The traffic-clogged streets, bustling markets and glitzy malls are a world away from the paradise islands and serene temples you were expecting, but take a deep breath, drop your bags and embrace the capital of the ‘Land of Smiles’.
It may sound like trite brochure-speak, but Thailand is quite easily the friendliest country on earth, and everyone from the tuk-tuk driver to your waiter will be only too happy to chat and offer help if you need it.
Bangkok is also home to its fair share of tourists sights, and most visitors head straight for the Grand Palace, a gorgeous gleaming complex on the banks of the Chao Phraya River that’s home to some of the country’s most magnificent temples. A few steps away you’ll also find Wat Po, the oldest temple in Bangkok and home to the colossal 45-metre Reclining Buddha. The outer courtyards are also worth exploring, and Wat Po is home to a famous school of Thai massage. If you feel the need to have some kinks ironed out just pitch up and wait your turn. Across the Chao Phraya, the mosaics of Wat Arun gleam in the sunlight and the temple is worth visiting on one of the popular river cruises.
Bangkok has dozens of attractions to keep you busy, but if the crowds get too much there are wonderful day trips to consider: don’t miss the 14th century ruins in historic Ayutthaya, or west to the Damnoen Saduak floating markets and the war memorials of Kanchanaburi; home of the famous ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’.
When you’re done with Bangkok you really have two choices: south to the islands, or north to the jungles. The country may be vast, but it’s surprisingly easy to explore on long-distance buses and an extensive network of domestic flights. However, the train system is ideal for independent travellers and offers air-conditioned carriages and comfy seats that fold down into spacious bunk beds with linen supplied!
The train tracks north will undoubtedly lead you to Chiang Mai, gateway to the jungles of the far north where elephant trekking, river rafting and visits to the hill tribes will keep you buys for days on end. Over 800 years old, Chiang Mai is the relaxed Cape Town to Bangkok’s Johannesburg, and the perfect place to slowly soak up local culture or perhaps try your hand at a Thai cooking course.
Sooner or later though, the beaches will beckon, and Thailand is famous for its palm-fringed sands that fall into aquamarine seas; the picture-postcard of paradise.
Ko Samui in the Gulf of Thailand and Phuket on the Andaman Sea are still popular with package tourists, but can be crowded in the high season. For sand with a bit of space rather head further south to Ko Lanta and its Marine National Park, or west to Ko Chang and the far-flung Ko Tarutao.
It’ll take a little longer, but the jealousy on your friends’ faces – and the grin on yours – when you show them where you spent your holiday will make it all the more worthwhile. Perhaps Thailand is the ‘Land of Smiles’ after all.
If you’re planning your second trip to Thailand and have ticked all the major sights, don’t miss out on these top spots a little off the beaten track.
- Sangkhlaburi: in the far west of the country, a stone’s throw from Myanmar, this small country town is way off the beaten track. Like all border towns it’s a mish-mash of cultures and languages, and is becoming a good spot to go elephant- and jungle-trekking without the crowds of Chiang Mai.
- Ko Tao: Avoid the crowds on nearby Ko Samui and Ko Pha-Ngan and head for this tiny slice of sand. It’s the ideal place to finally get that scuba qualification you’ve always dreamt of, as the courses are cheap and there are dozens of coral reefs to gawk at. With a name like ‘Turtle Island’ you may just bump into a few too!
- Khao Sok National Park: Dust the sand off your shoes and head for the verdant jungles of Surat Thani province. Together with its four neighbouring parks Khao Sok forms the largest nature reserve on the Thai peninsula and offers spectacular trekking. Discover thundering waterfalls, 180 species of bird, an explosion of flowers and, if you’re exceptionally lucky, spot the resident wild elephants, leopard, dusky langurs and Malayan sun bears. Don’t forget the binoculars!
First published in HighFlyers magazine, February 2010
Who would have thought that discovering humble mosaics would be one of the most memorable moments of my all-too-short visit to New York City?
I was expecting many things from my trip to the Big Apple. Towering skyscrapers, brusque New Yorkers, corn beef on rye sandwiches, ubiquitous yellow cabs. Shards of tile, however, were far from my mind.
And yet it’s mosaics, dotted across the East Village like breadcrumbs left by an artistic Hansel, that seem to catch my eye at every turn.
“See the mosaic of the beaver, up there in the eaves?” asks Andrea, pointing to the ceiling of the Astor Street subway stop. “You could say New York was built on beaver fur; it was one of the exports that made the early Dutch traders fabulously wealthy. You’ll see that beaver motif all over New York.”
And Andrea should know. As a New York local (although she now lives over the East River in Brooklyn) she knows the city backwards and is one of the extraordinary volunteers with an organisation called Big Apple Greeter.
Offered as a service to New York visitors, a ‘Greet’ – offered free of charge – pairs tourists up with a local who will show them the city for a few hours. It’s a visit, not a tour; so don’t expect a head full of facts and figures. Instead, you’ll get to know a small slice of the city, understand how the subway works and peek under the covers of some of New York’s multi-faceted neighbourhoods.
As we climb the subway steps out into the bright autumn sunlight of Astor Place there’s more public art on offer. A five-square-metre black steel cube known as ‘Alamo’, sculpted by artist Tony Rosenthal, has been perched on one corner here since the ‘60s and dominates Astor Place, named for 18th-century beaver-magnate John Jacob Astor.
But it’s the rubbish bin next to it that catches my eye. And then the lamppost. And the road-sign across the street. Each of them intricately decorated in a tapestry of pottery shards, glass and mosaics.
“These are all done by Jim Power, a homeless artist who has been in the area for years,” explains Andrea. “I was hoping he’d be around here today, but…” she trails off.
Carefully themed to their surroundings, Power’s mosaic murals commemorate everything from the 9/11 attacks to rock gods from the ‘60s; the latter on a lamppost outside where the legendary Fillmore East concert hall used to stand.
Jimi Hendrix and The Who may well have had a few pints at McSorley’s Old Ale House around the corner on East 7th Street. Opened in 1854, just three families have owned it in its 150-year history and today you’ll still find sawdust scattered on the floor and an apronned barman pulling pints.
But it’s too early for a drink, so we keep walking. Up one block to St. Mark’s Place, where St. Mark’s Comic Shop holds thousands of vintage comics and every action figurine you could ask for. It’s heaven on earth for adults who never left their childhood behind.
Across the block is Trash & Vaudeville, a glam-punk clothing store that resolutely refuses to leave the ‘70s. “We used to have some wild times in the Village. I used to shop there,” Andrea says a laugh. “Now my daughter does!”
This schizophrenic mish-mash of cultures and cliques is typical of the East Village, a suburb of immigrants where cultures mingled and merged. European Jews were first, Germans followed and when they left the Ukrainians, hippies and beat-poets moved in.
Veselka, a 24-hour Ukrainian restaurant on Second Avenue, has become one of lower Manhattan’s most popular diners. New Yorkers flock here from across the city for a plate of pierogis; steamed (or fried) Hungarian dumplings filled with anything from spicy rocket to sweet pumpkin.
We wander back down Second Avenue and Andrea pulls me into the Gem Spa, a legendary café serving a Manhattan institution. ‘Egg Cream’ contains neither – it’s a curious mix of syrup, soda water and milk – but is as New York as corn beef on rye.
And there is no better place to sample the quintessential New York sandwich than the Lower East Side; the spiritual home of the deli.
The pavements are buzzing as we walk to the area where hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants crowded into tenements in the late-1800s. Although many of them prospered and moved on, they left behind a legacy of fabulous bakeries, delis and restaurants.
It’s impossible to ignore Katz’s Deli on East Houston Street; home to the city’s most celebrated Corn Beef on Rye sandwiches and made famous in ‘When Harry met Sally’. A sign with “I’ll have what she’s having” still hangs over the ‘orgasm’ table today. It’s a cheerful, no-frills place filled with gawking tourists and hungry locals.
A few doors down, the family-owned Russ & Daughters deli has been open since 1914, “and we still get customers coming in who’ve been shopping here for the past 60 years,” a smiling Nicky Russ tells me over a counter brimming with kosher goodies.
The typically Jewish deli is an ‘appetizing’ store and sells only fish, dairy and baked goods. The closest you’ll get to meat is a ‘pastrami-spiced salmon’, one of a dozen varieties of cured salmon on offer. Along with wonderful cream cheese and fresh-baked bagels it’s the perfect place to stock up for a picnic.
And where better to enjoy it than a few subway stops across town on the newly opened Highline Park.
Where Central Park is spacious, lush and an escape from the city, the Highline embraces the cityscape of Chelsea. Landscaped on an abandoned elevated-railway track, the Highline runs for about 10 blocks (with another 10 in the pipeline) to the old Meatpacking District where butcher’s yards and warehouses are being transformed into chi-chi boutiques and top-end restaurants.
It’s been 25 years since the last train trundled along these tracks, but clever landscaping with hardy grasses and indigenous shrubs, and the addition of sleek concrete walkways and wooden benches, has turned this derelict railway into the city’s most exciting open space.
And perhaps that’s why I fell in love with New York. It’s a bright and brash metropolis that is home to some of the world’s greatest architecture and art galleries, yet cares enough to give a set of old railway tracks a new lease on life. Family-owned delis last for generations, vacant lots transform into community gardens, and simple lampposts become works of art.
The Highline and Jim Power’s street-art may be overshadowed by Central Park and the Guggenheim, but even in the Big Apple small things matter. A little like those mosaics.
Published in the January 2010 edition of Garden & Home magazine.
- Where to stay: I loved the Hotel Beacon on the Upper West Side. The rooms are some of the most spacious I found in New York, and come with handy kitchenettes. The views over Central Park and Midtown are wonderful and it’s right across from the bountiful Fairway Market. It’s a great spot to feel like you’re ‘living’ in New York, not just visiting as a tourist, and it’s only a few subway stops from the bright lights of Times Square. Visit www.beaconhotel.com or call 001 212 787 1100.
- Big Apple Greeter: If you’re a first-time visitor you shouldn’t miss out on a visit with a Big Apple Greeter. It’s a marvellous way to be introduced to the city and will help you find your feet in no time. Visits, which last around 2-4 hours) are free of charge, and Greeters do not accept tips. Find out more on www.bigapplegreeter.org.
- Flights: A number of major international airlines fly to New York, but I flew via Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways. It may take a little longer, but you’ll find a cheaper fare and the award-winning airline’s brand-new Airbus fleet is a pleasure to fly on. Visit www.etihadairways.com or call 0800 98 2363.
- Top tip: The New York Citypass is a great way to save money. For just $79 you get entrance to six of the city’s top attractions, including the Empire State, Statue of Liberty and the three major art museums. You’ll save 40% on the usual admission price, and get to skip the long lines. Go to www.citypass.com.
- Web: Visit the official New York City tourism board website at www.nycgo.com
Want to go wandering, but don’t have grands of Rands? Here are six exotic overseas destinations that won’t send your bank manager running…
Why go? Whether you’re a beach bum or intrepid explorer there’s little you won’t find in India. Jungles prowled by endangered tigers, ancient forts marooned in the desert, lake palaces, exquisite monuments, exotic temples, towering mountains… the country has it all, and that’s without mentioning the glorious food. India is dirt-cheap on the Rand, so if you don’t mind sharing it all with a billion locals India is your oyster.
When to go: India is vast, so when also depends on where. Monsoons hit the southern regions in May/June and move across the country. December and January are your best bet for clear skies and mild temperatures in the most popular tourist areas.
Make it happen: You’ll need to apply for a visa, but these are issued free of charge at the Consulate in Durban or Johannesburg. Flights start from about R6000 return, and you can either fly direct from Johannesburg on SAA, or get a cheaper fare with one of the Middle Eastern airlines. Travelling around is cheap if you live like a local and use the extensive train system, the world’s largest. Expect to pay from R50 – R150 per night for a double room in a decent small hotel.
Why go? With 17 000 islands flung across 5000 kilometres of ocean, there’s an island destination for everyone. The western reaches of Sumatra are prone to earthquakes, but surfers let nothing stand between them and the legendary breaks of the Mentawai Islands. You’ll find more great surf and sand on the popular holiday island of Bali, which is also famous for its affordable spa retreats in Ubud. On Java you’ll get ancient temples and rumbling volcanoes, while the Gili Islands off Lombok are the place to turn to turn up, tune in and chill out.
When to go: Straddling the equator, Indo is hot and humid almost any time of year. In most parts of the country there’s slightly more rain (which usually comes in short, intense downpours) from October to April, but you’ll also benefit from low season prices and fewer European tourists.
Make it happen: A visa-on-arrival will cost you $25 and a clean and a comfortable beach bungalow will set you back as little as R150/night for two. The easiest way to get there is via Singapore on Singapore Airlines. Expect to pay from R8000 for a return ticket from Johannesburg. Keep an eye out for super-cheap stopover specials.
Why go? Enjoy tropical paradise just a few hours from Johannesburg, with a healthy dose of adventure thrown in for good measure. Choose between an island-hopping dhow expedition through the northern islands, hiking through the spectacular spiny forests of the west coast, whale watching in the east or tracking rare lemurs in the tropical rainforests of the Central Highlands. Just surviving the chaotic streets of the capital Antananarivo is a story in itself!
When to go: The best time to travel in most areas is April and October/November, and you’d best avoid January to March when there’s heavy rainfall across the country and a high risk of cyclones in the northeast. Hotels get full (and expensive) during the European holidays in July and August.
Make it happen: All passport holders require a visa, which can be issued at the Consulate in Cape Town, or Embassy in Pretoria. Accommodation ranges from pauper to prince, but you should get a decent double room on the coast for around R350. Don’t forget the island is malarial, so see your travel doctor well before you leave! You can fly from Johannesburg to Antananarivo with Air Madagascar or Airlink, with fares starting at around R5000.
Why go? Buenos Aires, the ‘Paris of South America’, is full of faded glamour and long-legged Latino women dancing the sensual tango. The glaciers and forests of Patagonia are like nothing you’ve ever seen, while the snow-capped peaks of San Carlos de Bariloche offer excellent skiing in winter. Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America, towers above the wineries of Mendoza, and the cataracts of Iguassu form one of the world’s most spectacular waterfalls.
When to go: Similar to South Africa, spring is gorgeous just about everywhere in Argentina. If you want to explore Tierra del Fuego or climb the high Andean peaks you’ll have to visit in the height of summer. Which is just as well, as it’s the time to avoid the steamy tropical north.
Make it happen: South Africans can get a visa on arrival at Buenos Aires, so there’s no paperwork to worry about! A decent guesthouse double room will cost around R200, but is likely to be about 25% higher in Buenos Aires and Patagonia. South African Airways is now giving Malaysia Airlines a run for its money on the SA-Buenos Aires route. Expect to pay around R8000 return.
Why go? Hidden to the western world until the early 1900s, the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu ranks as one of the world’s greatest wonders. Whether you tackle the Inca Trail or take the lazy route to the top, the sight of this ancient citadel (and the altitude!) will leave you breathless. With a camera full of photos set off to explore the rest of the country, from the floating villages of Lake Titicaca to the gorgeous Pacific beaches.
When to go: Late May until early September is the best time to visit Machu Picchu so it’s wise to plan your trip around then. If you’re sticking to the coastline, hot and humid December to March is best as the central and southern beaches are cloaked in garúa (coastal fog) for the rest of the year.
Make it happen: No visa is required for tourist visits up to 90 days. A double room will cost from around R150/night, but considerably more in the capital Lima. A permit for the Inca Trail is a hefty R2400, but can you really put a price on a view like that? You’ll need to fly via Buenos Aires or São Paulo (both served by SAA). You won’t get much change from R10 000, but once you’re there the living is cheap.
Why go? Home to the enigmatic ancient city of Petra, Jordan is the ancient foil to the glitz and glam countries of the Middle East. Once you've soaked up the 2000 years of history, head to the blood-red dunes of Wadi Rum to experience a night out in the desert. Go for a little float around the oh-so-salty Dead Sea, and then wash the sand out of your hair with a dip in the coral-filled Gulf of Aqaba. End off your trip with a bittersweet cardamom coffee and fragrant nargileh water pipe in Amman, enjoyed to the hip-swinging beat of Arabic pop.
When to go: Spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November) are best, with mild daytime temperatures. March can be cold and rainy in the north, but is perfect for diving in the Gulf of Aqaba. Snow can fall in some parts in winter, so go prepared, and avoid travelling during the (very quiet) holy month of Ramadaan.
Make it happen: An entry visa is issued on arrival, and will cost around R100. A decent room in a mid-range guesthouse will set you back about R250 per couple. Fly there with one of the Middle Eastern carriers: a return ticket can be yours for around R6900 all-in.
First published in HIgh Flyers magazine,