The friendly rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne began on my connecting flight from the former to the latter.
After 16 hours in planes and airports I’m usually not much in the mood for idle chatter, but the gushing praise for my destination from the passenger across the aisle (and evidently from Melbourne) pricked up my ears. Incredible food, friendly people, a vibrant cultural scene, great sporting events… on all fronts, it seemed Melbourne was the only place in Australia to head for. And after a week wandering the city, it turns out he was right.
Melbourne has never quite grabbed the limelight like Sydney. There’s no spectacular location for those postcards home, no bronzed beach babes sunning themselves on Bondi… instead it’s the kind of place that just keeps to itself and gets on with the important business of being one of the world’s most liveable cities. And indeed it is. If I didn’t live in gorgeous Cape Town I would live in Melbourne, no question.
With a profusion of pavement cafés and leafy city streets lined with brand name boutiques it has all the style of Europe, only without the miserable weather and grumpy people. And wandering the streets is far and away the best way to experience the capital of the southern state of Victoria. The CBD is compact, clean, safe and simply made for exploring on foot.
Your best bet is to start on Swanson Street, in the heart of Melbourne. This wide shopping arcade bustles with people at almost any time of day or night, with Melbournians enjoying the shops, restaurants and nightlife of the inner-city.
Department stores and unique boutiques aside, Swanston Street is also close to the culinary heart (or should that be stomach?) of the city. Melbourne is famous for its diverse population, and the city’s many ethnic groups have happily brought their cuisine with them.
Wander down Victoria Street for Vietnamese cuisine straight out of Hanoi, or explore colourful Little Bourke Street - home to a vibrant Chinatown where you’ll find great dim sum and Peking duck. The curiously named West Lake Restaurant does an excellent yum cha service at lunchtime, where a trolley groaning with Cantonese delights meanders amongst the tables.
Hop one block over to Lonsdale Street and you’ll find the Greek precinct – Melbourne is home to the world’s largest Hellenic population outside of Greece and you’ll find mouth-watering souvlaki and mezze dishes here. Nearby Lygon Street is home to a clutch of Italian restaurants, but the beckoning waiters on the pavement can sometime be a little heavy on the kitsch.
When your feet get tired from pounding the pavement hop on the free City Circle tram. Melbourne has the largest tram network in the world, with 249 kilometres of double track and over 1770 tram stops. On the City Circle line a tram comes along every 12 minutes for most of the day, and is free of charge. A useful audio commentary lets you know where you are on the line and where to alight for particular attractions.
Heading past the historic Flinders Street station the tram trundles towards the newest part of the city, the Docklands. It’s here that a new suburb of glamorous and gleaming high-rise skyscrapers is growing, a relatively new concept in a city of sprawling suburbs with large gardens for the weekend ‘barbie’.
Hop off the tram at Docklands for a wander along the quayside where eco-friendly public gardens provide welcome green spaces and striking street art decorates the brand new promenades. Across the road, the gleaming Etihad Stadium awaits raucous nights of Aussie Rules football. Once you’ve admired the quirky ‘Cow up a tree’ statue, take a stroll along the promenade to the James Squire Brewhouse & Restaurant at Waterfront City to sample one of Australia’s finest beers.
Hop back on the City Circle tram and ride a few more stops to the corner of La Trobe and King Streets from where it’s a short walk to the Queen Victoria Market.
There’s been a market here for over 130 years and five days a week (it’s closed Mondays and Wednesdays) it bustles with locals filling up shopping baskets, and tourists gazing in wonder at the fantastic array of fresh produce on offer.
Piles of fresh herbs lie alongside mounds of fresh veggies and cherry-red tomatoes in the vegetable hall. A fishmonger crows about his fresh Trevally and Coral Perch, while a mound of Swimmer crabs from Australia lie amongst a field of Chilean scallops.
In the meat hall racks of Australian lamb get wrapped in paper and tucked into shopping baskets alongside gourmet sausages, free-range wild rabbit and organic ducks. Or fillets of kangaroo, if you’re feeling particularly unpatriotic; Australia is one of few countries in the world to devour its national emblems.
All in all it’s an epicurean’s dream shopping arcade, but if – like me – you’re in a city hotel for the week there’s little chance to cook up a storm. Instead you’ll have to stock up on picnic goodies in the deli hall where rounds of cheeses, buckets of olives and stacks of cured meats beg to be piled on fresh sour dough from the bakery and enjoyed on a picnic blanket in one of the city’s many gardens.
And green space abounds in Melbourne. Next door to the market is the historic Flagstaff Gardens – once a harbour signal station and lookout in the 1840s – which is a convenient spot for tucking into your picnic goodies on a sunny afternoon.
Across town, the Fitzroy Gardens lies right on the edge of the city centre, yet is another wonderful escape from the crowds.
Laid out in the shape of a Union Jack (although this is only visible from the air), the garden’s acres of lawns in the shade of English Elm and sprawling Moreton Bay Fig trees offer dozens of perfect picnic spots. The gardens are also home to one of Melbourne’s most curious tourist attractions; the family home of explorer Captain James Cook.
The humble cottage originally stood in the village of Great Ayton in Yorkshire, northern England, but was moved lock, stock and barrel to Melbourne in 1934 where it was reassembled – brick by brick – to celebrate the centenary of the state of Victoria. Careful research and restoration mean that today it closely resembles the cottage Captain Cook returned to in 1771 after ‘discovering’ Australia on one of his famous Pacific voyages.
If Cook hadn’t met his maker in a battle in Hawaii I like to think he’d approve of having Melbourne as his new abode. Melbourne is certainly one of the world’s most liveable cities, but it’s also a city that tempts and entertains tourists.
After enjoying incredible food, exploring a cosmopolitan city and meeting ever-friendly locals I think the Melbourne-fan in the airline seat next to me may just have been right. Perhaps Melbourne is the most exciting city in Australia… but just don’t tell the Sydneysiders.
IF YOU GO:
First published in the Saturday Star Travel Section, 1 August 2009
- Go to www.visitmelbourne.com for more information on planning your visit.
- Qantas flies six times per week from Johannesburg to Sydney, with regular connections to Melbourne. Visit www.qantas.com.au.
- South African visitors require a visa to visit Australia.
The clatter of chopsticks on the glass tabletop was deafening. Boiling water poured from over my left shoulder, splattering into the teapot and running towards our pile of bamboo steamers. The wizened old man wielding the large tin kettle glared at me and hobbled over to the next table. A bent-over woman pushing a cart shouted something in Cantonese to the four-hundred-odd diners crammed into the communal tables of Lan Fong Yuen.
"What did she just say?" I asked my ever-patient guide Joe.
"Fish stomach," he beamed. "She's saying that those are the steamers with Steamed Pork Wrapped in Fish stomach. I'll get you some."
In a minute he was back, an armful of steamers filled with more delicacies of Cantonese cuisine. The fish stomach actually wasn't bad… a little spongey and tasteless, but edible. The "White Cloud Phoenix Talons" or bak wun fung jau was an altogether different story.
Try as I might, I just can't do chicken feet. Especially not when you pop the whole steamed talon into your mouth and roll it around. Nope, not for me. I won't tell you about the steamed duck feet either.
The kitchens of Hong Kong may offer a mouth-watering range of dishes from all over China, but the city is the home of Cantonese cuisine and the humble dim sum dumplings are far and away the city's favourite snack.
Dim sum literally means "to touch the heart" and the sight of a table full of bamboo steamers is sure to bring a smile to your face. Hong Kong boasts the world's best dim sum chefs, but there are few better places to try these steamed delicacies than the work-a-day Lan Fong Yuen. It might be slap-bang in the heart of Central, a glitzy district on Hong Kong Island, but this is a place that hasn't changed much since it first threw open its doors in the 1920s.
The fans just barely get the humid air moving and those grumpy old men topping up your teapot look like they've poured one kettle too many. But there's a reason this place is buzzing any day of the week… the food is outstanding, and affordable.
Over 400 people cram into this restaurant at any one time, the communal tables seating anywhere from six to 10 diners. Fold in your elbows and grab a seat wherever you can. Before you tuck in, wash your chopsticks with the first pot of tea and leave the lid off for a refill. Can't trust those dishwashers it seems!
Well-fed and ready to hit the streets, you'll be spoilt for places to explore. Perhaps a ride on the Ngong Ping 360 cableway to see the giant seated Buddha at Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island? Peaceful temples and a 268-step climb lead you to, if not enlightenment itself, the foot of the world's largest outdoor seated Buddha.
Politics plays a role even in this peaceful spot though and the Buddha, which was built shortly before Hong Kong was handed back to China, faces north; blessing the Motherland.
From Po Lin you can follow the winding road through the rainforest to the long and laid-back Cheung Sha Beach for a swim. It's also not far to the tumble-down fishing village of Tai O, a rare example of a traditional Chinese stilt-village built over the waters of the South China Sea.
Stop in at the rarely-visited Kwan Yam Temple, with its breathtaking views. Seldom visited by tourists, the tranquil temple is maintained by a handful of female monks who tend to the shrine's main attraction; the serene 10 000 Buddha Temple.
Sound a bit sedate for you? Hong Kong has two fantastic theme parks to keep young ones, and the young-at-heart, happy.
Lantau Island is home to Hong Kong Disneyland; the fifth and smallest Disneyland park in the world where Mickey and his assorted friends entertain guests in English, Cantonese and Mandarin. Open since 2005, it is riding on the coat-tails of Hong Kong's legendary attraction; Ocean Park.
With roller-coasters, aquariums and over a dozen rides – all connected with a scenic gondola system – it's no surprise this entertainment venue on Hong Kong Island draws nearly five million visitors each year.
But it's not just about family fun. This is a city of lights that puts Paris to shame in the romance stakes.
The best place to escape the crowds is with a romantic stroll along Bowen's Walk, a tree-lined promenade hugging the hillside above the bustling Wan Chai district.
Perched just above the last row of skyscrapers, and offering fantastic views of the city below, Bowen’s Walk winds its way through the forest and offers one of Hong Kong’s most delightful, and peaceful, spots.
Be sure to stop in at 'Lover’s Rock', a small temple which draws couples from far and wide to pray for a happy marriage. Mrs Chiu, who has looked after the temple for over 40 years, is on hand each day with incense, candles and paper lotus flowers to offer to the gods in exchange for a good love life.
Come sunset the romance continues as the Hong Kong skyline becomes a blaze of colour as skyscrapers light up the sky. As the shadows lengthen head straight for the pier on Victoria Harbour and hop on-board the Aqua Luna. Built in the style of the traditional Chinese junks that have plied these waters for hundreds of years, the open-air top deck – cocktail and significant other at your side – is the perfect place to watch the sun slip behind the hills of Hong Kong Island.
In the darkness, the best spot to view the twinkling city lights is from the top of the famous Victoria Peak. The Peak Tram runs from Central to the top of the peak at least 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 270° views of Hong Kong Island and across to Kowloon. The Peak Tower restaurant is also a popular spot for dinner by candle- (and city-) light a deux, offering awesome views and some of the best cuisine in the city.
Just below the peak is another of the city's top restaurants.
The Yung Kee Restaurant in Wellington Street, Central, draws local celebrities and tourists in the know to sample the eatery's famous Roast Goose.
Yung Kee may now attract the A-list crowd, but it started life with somewhat humbler ambitions. Back in 1942 Mr. Kam Shui Fai's 'restaurant' was a humble cooked food stall in Kwong Yuen West Street, but word of his Roast Goose has spread far and wide and since the 1960s it has been one of the city's most popular restaurants.
The dish that made him famous is the main draw card, but the menu offers quite a few other Chinese delicacies for the daring diner. Bird's Nest soup is a pricey yet popular choice, while Shark's Fin, Pigeon and Frog all come flying out of the kitchen. If you're not an adventurous eater there is a range of other chicken, beef and seafood dishes to enjoy.
As you savour your last sip of Jasmine tea, sit back and wonder what tomorrow might hold.
Can't decide between a visit to the quaint village and outdoor seafood restaurants of Sai Kung, or a wander through the shops of Tsim Sha Tsui? Perhaps the fortune tellers of the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin temple can help.
However, you don't want to come face to face with your destiny dressed in your drab travelling gear. Kowloon's Nathan Road is famous for its clothing shops and bespoke tailors, but ignore the cut-price touts and head straight for Hong Kong's most famous man of the cloth.
Sam’s Tailor has whipped up natty threads for everyone from Princess Di to Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela… and has the thank-you letters from his famous clients adorning the walls to prove it!
His tiny shop in a small arcade off Nathan Road has become a regular stop for presidents and princes visiting Hong Kong. With suits starting at a few thousand rand it’s not the cheapest in town, but for perfectly tailored suits and shirts it’s certainly money well spent.
If your pocket is more suited to pauper than prince, then best to head for one of Hong Kong's many clothing shops offering everything from international labels to cut-price knock-offs.
Not too concerned about the pedigree of the label? The Ladies Market and Temple Street Market are the place to be, where the regular cry of "Hello Missy Sir! Handbag, copy watch?" makes it pretty clear that this is where you come to shop on a budget. It's a vibrant stew of stalls, restaurant and street performers where confident bargaining and feigning disinterest in that fake-Fendi will knock a third off the asking price.
So, suitably attired it's time to see what the future has in store, and in the 'fragrant harbour' there is only one place to visit.
The wafts of incense assault the senses the moment you leave the MTR station and you simply follow your nose to the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin temple.
Surrounded by soaring apartment blocks, the temple is a small slice of serenity amongst the busy northern neighbourhoods of Kowloon on the Chinese Mainland.
Locals come here to present offerings (including whole suckling pigs!) and burn incense to the gods in the hope that their prayers will be answered. Ask a local to show you how a handful of burning incense and the clatter of fortune sticks on the flagstones can be the first steps on the path to happiness.
But back to those fortune tellers.
Once you've let a single fortune stick emerge from the pile, wander down to the rows of mystics who will reveal your future in a parable. Being born in the year of the snake my outlook wasn't fantastic, so I agreed to heed the teller's advice and be cautious.
All that future-gazing tends to work up an appetite, and if there's a man who has elevated cuisine to a religion of his own it's Alvin Yeung Jr.
Not one to ignore a challenge, Leung has given the boundaries of Chinese cuisine a shove and brought molecular gastronomy to Asia with what he bills as 'X-treme Chinese Cuisine'. With a degree in science it's no surprise that he's dedicated his time in the kitchen to picking apart the flavours of Chinese cooking and reassembling them in an unrecognisable, yet strangely familiar, form.
"I want to challenge the traditional style of Chinese cooking and eating," says Leung and, judging by the crowds of the city's young and beautiful gracing his tables one Friday evening in early summer, he's touched a nerve.
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. A Sashimi of Tuna Belly comes dusted with foie gras powder and served with tweezers, while the traditionally salty and heavy 'Yun Nam Ham' surprises every diner with its petite serving of ham-infused jelly.
Traditional cooking infused with a hefty dose of entrepreneurial spirit and the glitz of Asia's most exciting city. Bo Innovation is a mirror to the rest of Hong Kong; breaking new ground while keeping one foot firmly rooted in the past. From Feng Shui masters and fortune tellers to world-class entertainment and an über-modern Asian tiger, Hong Kong is certainly a place where tradition and modernity collide.
Now, I wonder if there's any fish stomach still on offer at Lan Fong Yuen…
Published in Sawubona magazine, the in-flight publication of South African Airways, June 2009.
- South African Airways flies direct to Hong Kong from Johannesburg.
- 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.
There are many things I'll remember about Prague; the graceful Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square. The Astronomical Clock with its parade of characters, and the stout men in bars pulling pints of Pilsner. But none of these will remind me so much of the city as that blind accordion player.
Neatly dressed in slightly threadbare black pants and an anonymous white shirt, his dead eyes staring dead ahead as his hands flew across keys his eyes could not see. Arms straining at the weight of his gleaming accordion, the mother-of-pearl inlay glinting in the lights from the bar. His eyes blind, but ears finely tuned to the chords soaring across the room as he and four other Steinbeck-esque Gypsy musicians played their Romani hearts out in a broom-cupboard of a restaurant in a far-flung suburb of the city.
"Come to my friend's restaurant," said my guide Milos. That's how it all started, as we wandered down Wenceslas Square, where Soviet bullet holes still pockmark the Museum. "He's being kicked out by his landlord and they're having a closing down party. Nobody else will speak English, but you will have fun."
With a new-found Aussie friend in tow I headed off; by foot, train and tram to meet Milos somewhere in the district of Nové Butovice. A dozen tables were crammed into two small rooms, the guttural sounds of the Czech language bouncing off the walls. Hardly a soul looked up as our lone English voices jarred against the Slavic.
But the blind accordionist wasn't the only surprise of the evening. Along with home-made sausage and potent cherry vodka there was his partner in rhyme; the violinist. A slight man with a smile in his eyes who played the bow by night, yet drove a rubbish truck by day.
"He has to get up to drive the truck in just four hours!" exclaimed Milos, not for the first, or last, time that night.
And there we sat for over two hours; spellbound, as five gypsy men from the fringes of society used music to transport themselves from the rattling trams and selective unemployment of the booming Czech capital.
The staccato notes of the ivories swam with the strings of the violin, dancing with the insistent strumming of the guitar. The barman beamed as he dropped another round of beer on the table with a grin.
"Na Zdrowie!" called out Milos. Cheers!
Prague is like that, I found. Friendly as can be, and a surprise around every corner; if you're willing to look for it.
Perhaps too friendly, it would seem. After years in the tourist wilderness and a (thankfully) brief spell as the stag-party capital of the old Eastern bloc, the city has claimed its rightful place amongst the tourist hotspots of Europe.
It's a poisoned chalice though, for with tourism comes… tourists; thousands of them, all loyally following a well-worn path through the city. And, to be fair, with good reason I suppose.
The layer cake of European architecture in the Old Town Square (Staromĕstské Námestí if you want to practise your Slavic) is astounding and perhaps the only place in Europe where you can skim through architectural time as you circumnavigate the square.
The Astronomical Clock is a feat of engineering so wondrous it's said that the craftsman who built it was blinded after completing the clock, so that he could never build a replica.
A macabre story, but one that fits well with the brooding Gothic architecture of a city that's survived Nazi occupation, Soviet invasion and a painful birth into Western democracy.
Last stop on the "can't miss" tourist trail is the cobbled Castle District (Hradèany) west of the River Vltava. This district stretches across the hill overlooking the city and is home to some of the best churches and museums in Prague.
The castle complex is home to the presidential office and numerous government departments, but the snaking line of tourists are all here to soak up the views of the ornate St. Vitus Cathedral. Built in the French Gothic style, the ornate church is the largest in the Czech Republic and also contains the tomb of St. Wenceslas, the ‘Good King’ of the Christmas carol.
The other highlight of the Castle District is the views back across Prague. The Vltava snakes languidly through the twisted streets as church spires scratch the belly of the low clouds shrouding the city. It may be known as the 'City of 100 Towers', but if you take the time to count them you'll need in the region of 600 fingers.
The cobbled road down the hill leads you straight onto the Charles Bridge. Ornate, historic, awe-inspiring… it is all these things, but visit in the middle of summer and you won't see the wood for the trees. Of tourists that is. Stalls selling trinkets block your path, the Germans are out en masse and the scaffolding (the Bridge is undergoing major restoration) block out many of the statues. No, in mid-summer it's best to stay off the Bridge.
Rather admire it from afar by taking a stroll on the river banks. You'll have space to hear the river wash against the ice defences, ponder the yellow plastic penguins outside the modern art museum and gaze up at the Cathedral spires. And you'll get to hear your stomach rumbling.
All that walking is bound to make you hungry, but avoid the expensive cafes on the Old Town Square and head into the New Town to eat with the locals.
U Medvídků, a traditional beer-hall in the heart of Nové Město dates back to 1466. Over the years the wood-panelled room has been a brewery, beer-hall and even the first cabaret in Prague! Today though, it is simply an authentic Bohemian restaurant and beer-hall that draws crowds of locals and tourists each day for its pints of Czech Budweiser and well-priced local dishes.
If you’re looking for something more upmarket come night-time, the nearby Klub Architektu on the fringes of the Old Town won't disappoint. And don't let the 'Klub' fool you. Sure, you can kick back with a cold Pilsner here, but it's the generous portions of traditional dishes at reasonable prices that keep people coming back to the subterranean restaurant/bar.
Emerging out into the twinkling lights of Staré Město on a warm summer evening, you'll likely find yourself swept along in the river of tourists again.
Touts wave flyers for cut-price classical concerts, mimes vie silently for your attention and crowds gather at the Astronomical Clock, waiting for Death with his hourglass to bull the bell-rope. Should you join the throng and wait for the show, or head back to the hotel?
Tough choice, until you hear the sound of an accordion singing in the distance.
Originally published in The Weekender; 24 May 2009.
Turn up, tune in, bliss out
It's not often I get to watch tanned young things surf tropical waters as my international flight comes into land. Yet just beyond the wingtip, or so it seemed, herds of young Australians cut and ride the warm waters of Jimbaran Bay as our Singapore Airlines flight glides down onto the runway at Ngurah Rai airport.
"Salamat dating," wafts the voice over the intercom. "Welcome to Bali".
Of the 17 000 islands that make up Indonesia, Bali is far and away the most popular with tourists, offering tropical beaches, great surfing, outstanding cuisine and a wonderful mix of cultures and religions.
Most travellers find their feet in the tourist hotspot of Kuta, a short ride from the airport, but once you've recovered from the jetlag it's best to escape this package-tourist-purgatory of Irish pubs and fake sunglasses. It might be your first stop, but it's also the last place you want to spend time on the beautiful islands of Indonesia.
If you want to ease into your Indonesian escape, Bali's southern Bukit Peninsula is a good bet. From Mauritian-style resorts in Nusa Dua to humble surf-shacks near the fabled left-hand break of Ulu Watu there will be something to suit your pocket.
You're also just a short taxi-ride away from Jimbaran Bay where, come sunset, the stretch of sand transforms into a stunning strip of outdoor seafood restaurants. While your lobster grills over smouldering coconut husks, wiggle your toes deep down into the sand and call for another ice-cold Bintang beer.
Many of the restaurants even offer a free-shuttle service for the quick ride back to your hotel. One of the beauties of Bali is that nothing is ever very far away.
Just 145km wide by 80km long, the main sites are clustered in the centre of the island just an hour or two's drive from the south.
To be polite, the Balinese have a 'unique' style of driving so it's best to hop on a tour or charter a taxi if you don't want to collect a few grey hairs along the way. Perama Tours has offices throughout the island and is an affordable, reputable operator.
From the south a day-tour could include visiting the dive sites of the north coast, rice paddies of the interior or the slopes of Mount Agung; the island's highest volcano at 3142m.
Many tours also stop off in Ubud, but this village in the heart of Bali deserves a few days, not hours, of your holiday. A cool retreat from the steamy coast, it is also the cultural heart of Bali where galleries and craft shops line the streets and the island's top chefs compete with artistry on a plate. Don't leave town without trying the Babi Guling (Roast suckling pig) on offer at the Ibu Oka food stall.
Ubud is also home to dozens of outstanding spa retreats; from five-star resorts to one-room operations where an hour's Balinese massage can cost as little as R60. For something a little more active, the area offers excellent mountain biking, river-rafting (in the rainy season), walking and birding.
A visit to Ubud's Sacred Monkey Forest in the centre of town is also a must. Over 300 Long-tail Macaques live in the forest, clambering over the 14th century Holy Monkey Temples to make light work of the daily offerings.
Unlike most of Indo (as seasoned travellers like to call it), Bali is a largely Hindu island and the locals make small offerings each morning, leaving bamboo-leaf parcels of food, flowers and incense on doorsteps, tables and dashboards to appease the gods. Whether irreverent or just plain peckish, the macaques don't take long to pull the parcels apart looking for anything edible.
Hinduism is woven throughout the fabric of daily life in Bali, and temples dot the roadside at almost every turn. Tours of the island routinely include some of the most spectacular, and inevitably end up at the magnificent Pura Tanah Lot.
Facing the setting sun, the temple is built on an island just offshore that is surrounded by sea on the high-tide. When the tide is out the temple monks will show you the fresh-water spring that flows from beneath the rocks, and bestow a short rice blessing. For a donation of course.
Tanah Lot is at its most spectacular at sunset, but be prepared to share it with hundreds of other tourists and touts. Off beyond the sunset lies the powerhouse of Indonesia; the island of Java.
The capital Jakarta is the island's financial hub, but the central city of Yogyakarta is its soul; home to universities, artists and some of the world's most evocative temples.
The city centre is small enough to explore on foot, but if the tropical stickiness gets to you then there are always becak rickshaws around to give you a lift.
The palace of the sultans – the kraton – in the heart of Yogyakarta is the main attraction, but the city is also famous for its batik paintings. Cheap knock-offs abound in the main market, so rather head for a smaller gallery where you can see the craftsmen at work and learn a little about this delicate art.
However, the main artistry that draws tourists to this corner of Java lies a little way outside of town. In a curious mix of religions, Yogya is home to two notable holy sites from two different religions; the Buddhist temple of Borobodur and the Hindu ruins of Prambanan.
Prambanan was badly damaged in recent earthquakes, but is well-worth a visit for its intricate stone-work and a performance of the Ramayana ballet in a nearby amphitheatre.
My favourite, however, is the lost in time temple of Borobodur.
Built over 1200 years ago, the temple lay forgotten in the jungle until Sir Stamford Raffles discovered it buried under layers of volcanic ash in 1815.
Today, it sits serenely amongst the palms and is a popular spot at sunset when tourists clamber over the two million stone blocks to admire the intricate carvings of the path to Buddhist nirvana.
Nirvana is also what you'll find on the beaches of the Gili Islands, a ferry-ride away off the east coast of Bali.
Each of the three islands has its own character; from party-heavy Gili Trawangan favoured by backpackers and student-types to the cast-away Gili Meno where nothing much happens too quickly. Somewhere in-between is the delightful Gili Air, a heavenly mix of tropical escape and island style.
After a day spent diving in the channels or snorkelling the nearby reefs, you can crawl under a palm-thatch gazebo, order another Bintang and make that all-important dinner choice between freshly-caught prawns or still-flapping Snapper.
To the west the setting sun turns the skies above Mount Agung the colour of a monk's saffron robes. As you lean back, toes wiggling in the sand of yet another perfect beach, it's easy to see how these three tiny islands are the perfect place to turn up, tune in and bliss out.
- Originally published in Garden & Home Magazine, May 2009
Let's say a big thank you to Angola for skimpy thongs and golden tassles. Wait, hold on… don't turn the page just yet… bear with me for a second. It goes like this…
If the shiploads of African slaves hadn't brought their ritual 'semba' music to Brazil a few hundred years back it wouldn't have morphed into the 'samba' we see today. And without samba, all those lithe Brazilian women would be barefoot in the kitchen instead of bare-breasted atop a Carnival float.
The slaves' semba music was a bit like blues (who can blame them), but today the samba is an excuse to strip off, get down and shake some serious Brazilian booty. If that sounds like your idea of a damn fine spectator sport, start booking your tickets now for the 2010 Rio Carnival from February 13 – 16. You've just missed this year's shindig I'm afraid.
So, what's the deal?
The annual Carnival is celebrated across Brazil, but the four-day party that hits the streets of Rio 40 days before Easter is far and away the world's most famous, pulling in over 500 000 punters each year. The debauchery ends on the day before Ash Wednesday; the start of Catholic Lent when one is supposed to abstain from pleasures of the flesh.
Perhaps the Rough Guide to Rio puts it best: "Boasting the largest gathering of transvestites in the world, Carnival is infamous for its 'I-went-to-bed-with-a-woman-and-woke-up-with-a-man' style incidents. Leave your inhibitions at the airport!"
During Carnival (Carnaval if you're Portuguese) you'll find parties in squares, streets and clubs across the city, but they are all just a warm-up for the main event: the Samba Parade in the Sambadromo.
While it's just a massive party for the thousand of tourists and cariocas (Rio dwellers) on the grandstands, for the samba schools strutting their stuff it's a dance-to-the-death competition. Teams of judges rate each school on everything from their float theme and samba song to the glittering costumes. Or lack of.
Complete nudity is not officially allowed in the parade, but it's not unusual to find topless or near-naked beauties (of both sexes) wearing glitter, body paint and not much else!
And before the Carnival?
The good news is that there is more to Rio than four days of debauchery and dancing. You can promenade with the beautiful people along the glamorous Copacabana, join a volleyball game on the laid-back Ipanema beach (Saturdays are best) or pay your respects to the awesome statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado mountain.
If all that sounds too taxing you can simply kick back and order a caipirinha; the national cocktail of Brazil. If you like mojitos you'll love this simple cocktail of cachaça (a local rum), lime and Muscovado Sugar. Best of all, in anything-goes Rio you can order them at your deckchair on the beach while you soak up the views.
The city boasts one of the world's most spectacular locations, washed up between glamorous beaches and towering peaks coated in thick tropical forest, so there are adventure options aplenty.
Surf-breaks abound at Prainha, nearby Tijuca offers incredible rain-forests for walking or you can rock-climb the iconic Sugarloaf Mountain. If you make it to the top you can even paraglide back down, getting a bird's-eye view of the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City) before floating down to earth on Copacabana's São Conrado Beach.
My bags are packed, any last words?
Well, one of the things you'll see from up above are the favelas (slums) stretched out above the city. These are desperate places home to desperate people, rife with drugs and crime which often spills onto the streets of Rio. Street-crime and pick-pocketing are common in Rio, so be cautious where you walk at night. You wouldn't take your video camera to Hillbrow at night, so don't do it in Rio! If in doubt, ask your hotel for advice.
But don't let it spoil your fun. As you'd tell your mates visiting Jozi from London – be aware of the bad stuff, but focus on the good. And my, oh my, with a few thousand tanned, toned and topless Brazilians ready to samba in the summer sun you won't be short of distractions.
Visit www.rio-carnival.net to find out more.
Originally published in GolfPunk magazine; March 2009.
With the rand heading south it might be time to shelve that European sojourn until you can afford a few more euros. If you're looking for a break in a big city, but without the big budget, then Buenos Aires is for you. Brimming with culture, history and beautiful porteños this sprawling metropolis of 13 million people offers everything from ornate opera houses and fine dining to rabid football fans.
The entire city covers over 1400km², but it's the 47 barrios of the 'Capital Federal' that'll keep you entranced. Take a turn through the obligatory tango show and fill up at an 'asado', but don't think that a hunk of beef and sultry dancers are all that BA has to offer. Take a turn off the tango track and discover all that the 'Paris of the South' has to offer…
Why did the chicken…
They like to do things big in Buenos Aires. Big steaks, big buildings and - it seems - big roads, with BA boasting what is said to be the widest boulevard in the world.
Avenida 9 de Julio, celebrating Argentina's independence in 1816, throws 12 lanes of traffic in the path of unsuspecting pedestrians! Luckily you can have a break in the middle and gaze up at the magnificent 'obelisco' — a 67-metre tall granite obelisk – so take your time and wait for the little green man.
Despite losing some of their lustre, the grand avenues of Buenos Aires are destinations in themselves. Browse the bookshops of Avenida Corrientes, join the throngs of tourists in the pedestrian district along Avenidas Lavalle and Florida, or stop in at the famous ice-cream parlours and coffee shops of Avenida de Mayo.
Join a protest
Avenide de Mayo will (unsurprisingly, I suppose) lead you slap bang into the middle of Plaza de Mayo and, if you're there on a Thursday afternoon, yet another protest march. Argentines love to protest, and to get a taste of life at the picket line all you need to do is head for the Plaza at 3.30pm when mothers of the thousands who were abducted and killed — dubbed ‘the disappeared’ — by the security police in the turbulent '70s protest at the lack of information on the fate of their loved ones.
Keep your eye on the ball
Speaking of loved ones, football comes a close second to Catholicism as the national religion and you shouldn’t leave the city without experiencing a local football match.
The rough 'n jumble harbourfront suburb of La Boca is best-known for its colourful array of houses and tacky tourist shops, but it's also home to one of the planet's most famous football teams.
Boca Juniors is where football legend Diego Maradona cut his teeth and games at their home ground La Bombonera are a mixture of unbridled fury and passionate fervour. Support the opposition at your peril!
Tickets start from $80 (R250) or you can pay about $250 (R780) to go with a tour operator, which will include transfers and a guide.
From the theatre of dreams to theatres of a different sort, the city's Teatro Colon has hosted everyone from Maria Callas to Rudolf Nureyev, and is the first stop for cultured travellers. Celebrating its centenary this year, the ornate theatre is said to have some of the best acoustics in the world.
Unfortunately the renovations which began in 2006 are two years behind schedule, and the theatre will only reopen for performances and the popular guided tours in 2010. Until then you'll have to make do with admiring the ornate French Renaissance exterior.
Tango in San Telmo
Dancing on stage might be in short supply, but this is the city that gave birth to the tango! All you need to trip the light fantastic is to head for the cobbled streets of San Telmo and find yourself a traditional milonga dance-club where the beautiful people of BA spin the night away.
Start the night with dinner and drinks at the revitalised Puerto Madero waterfront and you'll be set for the night… but don't forget that Argentines don't even think of going out for dinner before 10.30pm or you'll be dining alone.
Hang with the dead
If you need to recover the next morning, take a slow wander through the well-heeled barrio of Recoleta. Apart from carpeted pavements and designer boutiques this upmarket suburb is also home to the Recoleta Cemetery, one of the world's most famous graveyards and the final resting place of Argentine heroine Eva Perón.
The gardens outside are also the perfect place for spotting the famous Buenos Aires dog walkers exercising a dozen large mutts at a time, while just around the corner from the cemetery 'Buenos Aires By Design' offers über-chic interiors from some of Argentina’s top designers.
» This article was originally published in Out There Travel, December 2008.