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Posts Tagged ‘food’

My friends and I have established a rather fabulous habit of heading out for a girls’ weekend twice a year; once in Summer and once in Winter. We make our travel choices based on availability of low cost airfares to European destinations, and, literally on the way home from our last escapade to Copenhagen, we booked our next adventure. How did we make the decision? Search the Easyjet and Ryan Air sales and see which city was cheap to get to, had an interesting ring, and none of us have yet been to. And so it was that we found ourselves on the way to Tallinn, Estonia.

I had very little pre-conceived ideas about Tallinn. A couple times I made the horrendous blooper of saying that we were off to Latvia. I KNOW it is the capital of Estonia, am horrified by my slip of the mind and con-fuddle with other incredible countries in Eastern Europe, but I can safely say that without a doubt, Tallinn is one of Europe’s most treasured secrets, at least for the weekend girl-traveller in search of an adventure.

I fell in love at least 10 times during my 72 hours in beautiful Tallinn. Here are the moments my heart skipped a beat…

  1. The fairy-tale maze of the Old Town

    The old town is a picture book of winding cobbled streets leading to a main square. It’s gorgeous. And it’s small, so you can literally walk from one side to the other, albeit you have to wind a little. The best way to orient yourself is to get yourself onto one of the many walking tours, which we did on our first morning. Ours met at 10.30am in Freedom Square (the tour is free but you tip a well deserving guide at the end) and was a 2 hour tour of the upper and lower Old Town. In our group (mostly comprised of Americans straight off the cruise ship) we climbed the hill to look at the old city wall and hide in the shade of Kiek in de Kok, check out the wedding cake pink parliament building and get a couple vantage points to gaze out over the roof top maze of the city from above. Our guide gave a fabulous potted history as we looked out to the various landmarks puncturing the sky between the medieval spires; the Television Tower, the Tallinn balloon, the two white columns of the “KGB” Viru hotel, and the hulking white masses of the two giant cruise ships docked in the harbour. Lute music played and the sweet smell of roasting nuts added to the medieval vibe of the Upper Old Town. We peeked into the great caverns of two fabulous and contrasting churches; the opulent and over the top orthodox Alexander Nevski Cathedral, with Russian women shrouded in headscarves kissing and crossing at the feet of boxed deities, and the oldest church in Estonia, the Dome Church, a cool escape from the blazing sun, this church simple and peaceful but with rather sinister looking ornate coats of arms hanging on the walls. We diligently followed our guide down into the Lower Old Town cutting through the “Short Leg” street, a steep set of steps cutting through the old city wall, taking in the quirky souvenir shops, cafes and other curiosities peeking out from behind the medieval windows. At the foot of Short Leg street we spotted street art by the local “Banksy” before heading back towards the big stage of the Main Square “Town Hall Square“. Here we left our walking buddies and headed to the shade of a canopied café for a well deserved cup of coffee…
  2. The hideous shot at the local bar

    On the first night we made a mini pilgrimage to a place that we have been tipped off (by one of the guide books – “quirky things to do in Tallinn”) to visit, the infamous Valli bar. We went for two reasons; it was touted as a “local” pub. And that is was. At least it seemed so, the faces all turned as we clattered through the door and I’m sure the barman had a smirk on his face when he carefully prepared the second reason we went there, for the hiddeous “millimalikas” (jellyfish) shots. These beasts taste like paint-stripper but we were determined to sample the local moonshine (although I think it’s made purely for tourists). I thought it looked rather beautiful. It was vile to drink. Some kind of vodka, zambucca and tabasco sauce concoction. I quite liked the tabasco, it was when I hit the zambucca I was struggling. Luckily we got sidetracked into conversation with a small army of Finish girls who were over on the boat for a cheap night out. None of us managed to finish our glasses of jellyfish…

  3. The blue sky at night

    We touched down in Estonia the day after Midsummer celebrations. The timing wasn’t great as we missed out on major party fun and giant bonfires, but we were amused and delighted all weekend by the fabulous blue skies that appeared to extend well into the night. Being that little bit closer to the North pole, Tallinn has longer days in the summer. We would periodically peer out of bar/restaurant windows as night crept on and exclaim “look, blue sky”. It never got old.

  4. The beach holiday moment I wasn’t expecting

    The weather in Tallinn was rather up and down, with bright sunshine one day and torrential downpours the next, but throughout it was very pleasantly warm. Luckily we decided to use the first day of bright sunshine to make the short taxi ride to the beach. From our conversations in the Valli bar the previous evening we learnt that Pirita Beach is the place to head when you want some beach time. So, after a fairly long day of sightseeing we decided to spend a well-deserved couple of hours on the sand. We jumped in a taxi and within 10 minutes we were walking out onto power sand and a beautiful view of flat calm Baltic sea. The water here is very shallow so you can paddle out a long way before taking a deep breath and sitting down to get your full body immersion in that refreshing icy water. The heat demanded it though and once you get your shoulders under you are truly invigorating and back in the world!It’s a really beautiful spot, with trees tumbling down right onto the beach, some beach apartments and a couple cafe/restaurants to keep you satiated. It seems to be mostly locals rolling out their towels and a very chilled way to spend an afternoon. Gazing over to the left you can see the spires of the old town, the Tallinn balloon making its “flight” up and down the line, and the giant ferries slowly leaving dock into the hazy afternoon

    A beach holiday in a couple hours. Complete down time. The salt in your hair, the sun
    on your shoulders and the sand in your toes. Ahhhh perfect…

  5. The tongue-tingling mind-expanding delicious cuisine

    The one thing I was not expecting what to have some of THE most delicious food I have ever tasted. And all packed into 3 days. We may have been lucky, but I can HIGHLY recommend these spots for food that will literally have you moaning out loud with food pleasure!

    Von Krahli Aed
    . For a romantic/cosy evening meal in the old town. Have the Roasted Rainbow Carrots and Pan Fried Trout. Don’t leave without having Magic Mushrooms for desert.F Hoone, in Telliskivi. Perfect for a lazy lunch with a large glass of wine. Could make decisions over this incredible menu, so went for two starters (and a large glass of wine). Grilled goats cheese with fig jam, beetroot pesto and raspberries, AND Spicy coconut soup with shrimp. Came back here again for brunch, and tried their beautiful (to look at and to taste) Botantist’s Gin cocktail.

    Mekk restuarant. We ducked in here to escape a torrential downpour and discovered the best rye bread in Tallinn. Classy place with sophisticated plates. I opted for delicious dumplings. The cocktails were out of this world.

    Rataskaevu 16. Just down the street from Von Krahli Aed. Stunning food in a stunning building. The service was exceptional – super friendly and welcoming. And the food was deeeeelicious!! I did two starters and a desert again here as couldn’t make decisions. Creamy tomato soup with smoked fish and lentil salad with goats cheese cream. Divine. The warm chocolate cake was the desert winner. Again, this place is perfect for a cosy evening meal. Watch out for the cabinet of moths and beetles in the ladies loo!

  6. The sinister secrets of the KGB
    The Viru hotel. Built by Russians and the only place that “foreigners” were allowed to stay during the Cold War. The hotel was built of the strongest and finest materials. The hotel had an incredible kitchen with top chefs, a hairdressers, the finest shops… all the things that you couldn’t get outside in the City. But the walls were filled with spy cameras and microphones, there were bugs in the ash trays and cooked into the crockery. The whole hotel was buzzing and humming with surveillance. The KGB ran this place and had whole floors out of limits where they were listening, watching, and sleeping. A man behind a newspaper in the bar. An old lady reading a book on one of the halls…. This short but exciting tour takes you up onto that “off limits” floor and gives you a peek behind the scenes of this fascinating hotel. Oh, and if you dare, you can stay there! Entrance to the KGB museum gets you free entrance to the
    nightclub. We didn’t risk it 😉
  7. The cool industrial hipster district

    Telliskivi is a seriously hip part of town with cafes, bars, boutique shops all nestled in warehouses covered in graffiti. Known as the “Creative City” this part of town was run down and crawling with undesirables in the fairy recent past. Now you can have lunch in a train carriage, browse the weird and wonderful flea market, take selfies along the graffiti wall, and sip some SERIOUSLY delicious cocktails at our favourite food/drink spot F Hoone. This place is super cool, photogenic and we didn’t see half of it! (our timing wasn’t great, as it was the holidays a lot was closed – so we had to window shop). Just across the train tracks outside the Old City, this place is a funky alternative spot to shop, eat, drink and be merry.

  8. The cab connectivity

    Somewhere I heard that Tallinn is the most digitally connected city in Europe. I’m not sure if it’s true but one digital experience that was noticeably superior to any place I’ve been recently is what I am referring to as the “cab-connectivity”. We had to use cabs as one of the girls was on crutches with a broken foot (not great on the cobbles!), otherwise you could easily walk everywhere. But the cabs were a DREAM. And this is because we used the app Taxify. Don’t pick up cabs on the street (if you do, check the yellow stickers and make sure the starting fare is low – they can vary from 2 Euros to 5…), use this app instead. It’s incredible. Your taxi is ordered and you are being whisked away within MINUTES (the max we had to wait was 5). You watch the taxi arrive on your map, rate your driver, and you can see the fare in advance, so no getting ripped off. They also have Uber there, which was supposed to be even
    cheaper, but we were VERY happy with this one!
  9. The karaoke bar that creates memories to inspire a movie

    I don’t know why but sometimes in these old and exciting cities, I would rather seek out a karaoke bar for a night of howling into a microphone over sticky drinks than hitting a local night spot for some dancing. Well, you can dance in karaoke bars! We randomly happened upon this karaoke bar on our Saturday night. It was down an alley and we had to pick our way over some off duty strippers who were taking a break outside a “Gentleman’s Club” at the entrance to said alley to get to the bar. It was sticky, neon, empty except for a very inebriated man who was leaning against the wall crooning badly into the mike. A group of locals looked up at us as we peered into the karaoke palace, bemused. I just knew we had to come back.

    I find those places deeply romantic. Not in the love sense of romance but in the “this feels like somewhere straight out of a novel or movie, about a girl on the run, adventuring across Europe. Meeting nameless characters and having lost conversations in sticky bars.

    So anyway, it didn’t take a HUGE amount of persuasion of my girlfriends to suggest we head along after dinner. Just for one song. We had the place to ourselves for the first 45 minutes, racking up all the power ballad favourites, ordering in the drinks. Jumping and spinning on our own private dancefloor. It was sticky-neon-singalong-heaven. Then our howls started attracting more punters and before long we had a small collection of those waifs and strays that always find their way into these kind of bars. Some boys from Austria wanting to join in our fun. A gang of Finish guys taking it very seriously, an older couple knocking our the Estonian favourites, and the bar man joined in with about 3 different versions of Wonderwall. It was hot and sweaty, we sang until our throats were raw, the movie was rolling. 4 hours passed in the blink of an eye.

  10. Serious but smiley; the friendly Estonians

    I seem to always say “the people are so friendly here”, but genuinely our experience of people in Tallinn was excellent. Most people were those who served us, so in bars, restaurants,  the dude in the Tallinn Balloon, our many taxi drivers… But all were interested in us and really helpful. The fabulous lady who met us at our AirBnB not only drove us around the local area to give us some orientation, she took us to the supermarket and waiting whilst we piled all manner of snacks into our basket and then she drove us home! The Estonians (or Tallinners) we met had an air of seriousness about them, but were incredibly welcoming. Our last encounter with a Tallinner was in the airport on the way home when we needed an escort with a wheelchair for our hobbling friend. Kaarel, a fabulous young man straight out of the army and now with his sights on University swept us through the airport, chatting about his life and dreams, Brexit, and all sorts, and got us quickly and safely onto the plan ahead of all the other passengers. With a serious face but a smiling face 🙂

Other things to do:

  • Cure a broken heart with a love potion from the Raeapteek pharmacy on the old square.
  • For the best views of Tallinn, take the 120m high flight on the Tallinn Balloon. Go before 10am to beat the crowds and get the best ticket price.
  • Stay in this very cool AirBnB. Close to all the action (walkable distance to the Old Town, Telliskivi, and two big supermarkets) and it has it’s own hammock for relaxing in the afternoon.
  • Spend a couple hours connecting to Tallinn’s recent past and the days of Russian and German occupation, at the Museum of Occupations.

 

 

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I’ve just spent the last two weeks driving along the bottom of Africa. The very bottom – from Cape Town, along the Garden Route to Port Elizabeth. This is my second time, the first was 9 years ago and I was backpacking, living in cabins and tree houses, drinking beer in jacuzzis full of other backpackers. This time, way more civilised, on my honeymoon in amazing shiny hotels. A different world. Although I was excited to show my husband Africa, perhaps this wasn’t entirely the Africa he was expecting, but it was a fabulous one! My top five highlights…

1. The food. I can honestly say in just over two weeks I did not have a bad meal. I didn’t even have an average meal. Everything was delicious, from the gourmet delicacies in the French restaurants of Franshhoek to the cheap and cheerful late night curry on Long Street, Cape Town.

SA and Italy tie for first place in my food Olympics.

2. The friendly people/service. In SA when you are served food or provided a service, they respond with “pleasure” and they sound like they mean it! Often lacking in other places, there is always a friendly face and people care (or seem to!).

3. The views/scenery. I truly believe that Cape Town is the most beautiful city I have ever visited. Table Mountain and the bay and the rolling green down to the town is stunning. Who could argue with that backdrop? The 12 Apostles and then the Garden Route, for a photophile like me, I was addicted to snapping away on my camera as gorgeous scenes rolled past my window.

4. The weather. At this time of year the heat is on and as I know back home it’s super grizzly at the moment it makes me appreciate it all the more. The heat permeates my skin and seeps into my soul and s-l-o-w-s me down and I love that. All worries just melt away and there’s nothing to concern myself with but where the next cafe or bar is to sit, gulp down an ice cold castle and people watch…

5. The adventure. We packed in a lot (considering we’d slowed down to Africa time), from hanging with 2000 penguins on Boulders Beach on Christmas Day, to bobbing in a cage surrounded by 7 great white sharks, to a wine tour on horseback, to taking two cheetahs on a sunrise walk on leads (!), to our final hurrah of a three day safari in Shamwari. The safari was INCREDIBLE, possibly the best 3 days I’ve ever had on holiday. Up each day at 5am, out on a four hour game drive, home for breakfast. Relaxing in the day, then off at 345 for the second, searching for the Big 5. We found them all, the leopard took a lot of stalking and we nearly gave up hope, but when she finally came out of the bushes, it was the biggest rush. That and getting charged by a frisky male elephant!

It was with a heavy heart we left SA, but with our next stop being Mauritius it wasn’t the worst thing in the world!

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Twenty four hours from now I’ll be in a taxi on the way back to the airport. I’ll be heading home, back to the UK, after a fabulous nine days in Thailand, Phuket. This trip was a work trip, I was attending an annual sales conference for our Asia sales reps, and presenting to them throughout. I was lucky enough to sneak in a few days before and after, on the weekends, and I rekindled my deep love for this wonderful country.

And now I only have one day left.

As the clock ticks down to that final taxi ride, my mind races with all the possibilities of what I could do in my final day. A full day tour to a national park with a starlight canoe tour? An elephant safari and monkey show (!)? A taxi ride to the biggest “Wat” (temple) on the island, a spiritual top up, followed by another incredible massage? Or just relaxing, lounging on the sunbeds by the pool, reading and getting some proper down time?

Choices choices.

The first few days on the island were a whirlwind of activity – we stayed at the tranquil and beautiful Baan Vanida Garden resort and took in the beautiful beaches on the west coast, from Karon to Kata, the powder white arcs of sand, the glittering sea, as warm as a bath. Zipping between bays in a tuk tuk, the devil may care feel of driving with the wind blowing your hair. Up to see the Big Budda, winding the wirggling roads through a more rural thailand, through rubber plantations and passing elephants on the road. Getting amazing 360 views of Phuket as the sun was setting and turning the landscape a dusky pink.

And a night out in Patong. It had to be done.

Then we transfered to the oasis we’re in now – Radisson Blu Panwa Beach resort, on Cape Panwa, a little stump on the end of the island. This hotel is stunning, the reception/bar area has the widest views of the sea, and the beautiful infinity pools below stretch out to meet the sea. Water water everywhere.

After spending 4 days in a conference room, we finally spilled out into the sunshine yesterday afternoon, and today was all about getting back into Thailand. A massage, a longtail to Coral Island. Snorkelling, spotting puffa fish and electric blue starfish, and the most delicious prawn green curry on plastic tables overlooking the beach.

The air is thick with humidity, heady with the scent of frangipani. The food is delicious, bursting with incredible fresh flavours. The people are absolutely and most definitely the nicest people in the world.

I want to stay here. I want to cancel my taxi and wander Thailand for another month. I want more. I want my muscles to become loose from the massages, my skin to be smooth from the oils and exfoliation of the sand. I want to become fit with all the swimming and healthy from all the fresh food (no diary, no carbs!). And I want to redistribute my wrinkles – enough of the lines between my eyebrows from frowning at computer screens, I want to move them to the corners of my mouth, from all the smiles and small bows of gratitude that happen a hundred times a day here (Krup ku kah…).

But I only have one day.

I’m not sure what I’ll do tomorrow. I’m going to start with a good sleep and take it from there. But I’m not going to put pressure on myself to do everything. I just want to “be” here. My love affair with this country continues, and I will be back for more. I just know it.

Buddha

Sunset at the Big Buddha

desk chairs

Khai Nai Island

fish feet

Fish feet!

flowers

The sweetest smelling flowers in the world

Fish and curry

Grilled fish and green curry

Karon Beach

beach with longtails

Coral Island

tuk tuk

On a tuk-tuk ride

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Tobago. It has a far away, exotic ring to it. I never really knew where it was, somewhere near Trinidad, somewhere in the Caribbean, I think. (It turns out Tobago is very close to Venezuela). And so, it was a wonderful kink of fate that led me to this beautiful gem set low in the translucent and magical Caribbean seas. I entered a competition to win a honeymoon. I completed a simple form and popped it in a plastic box (I remember a beautiful scantily clad carnival dancer shimmying her sequins infront of the exhibition stand), then, a month later I got a call. You’ve won the competition and you’re off to Tobago!!

My observations…

  • Tobago-time must be observed. Stepping off the plane (10 hour direct flight from the grey skies of Gatwick), your head is still rushing at a million miles an hour – you try to convert the speed of dealing with the 9 to 5 from home into a new holiday rush to plan trips and get things done in your short week on the island. No, no, no, no, NO. Stop. Relax. Have a ginger shandy. Sit in the shade. Gaze at the turquoise water. Breathe. Get on Tobago-time. No rush.
  • Aside from Italy, the food in Tobago is one of the most consistently delicious food I’ve encountered on all my travels. Fish steaks bigger and more tasty than anything I’ve had, salads with delicious zingy dressings, fruit so lip-smackingly mouth watering and sweet and succulent. Coconut breads, marinated chicken, subtley spiced exotic roti, mmmmmm. And the ginger shandy is THE most refreshing drink in the 30 degree heat…
  • Having the opportunity to witness the majestic Leatherback turtle nesting on the beach under a bright starry sky. This is SUCH an incredible experience. The Leatherbacks are giants, the one we saw was measured at 1.71 metres, and watching her hour long dance of egg laying, sand patting, shuffling, turning, and heading back out to sea was an experience I will never forget.
  • Underwater love. I spent a lot of time in the water, on the water and under the water. There is something about the colour of the Caribbean that makes my heart sing. It’s the most divine turquoise water, and the light reflects and bounces off it in such a beautiful way. Aside from the extreme saltiness of the water (a killer on the eyes and nose when it gets in the snorkel mask), it’s a joy to be floating in and under. I’ve never seen such a diversity of underwater life, from the rainbows of tropical fish to the terrifying moray eel, to the gnarly scorpion fish, the biggest puffa fish I’ve ever seen (I didn’t know they could grow that big), to the elegant and bizarre octopus, and the coral gardens! Another world. Spent time snorkelling, diving, swimming, floating, sailing, speedboating. Be near the water, as much as possible.
  • Getting to see the island. It would be easy to stay in the bottom south west tip of the island. The airport is there, as are the main resorts and the capital. There’s enough to more than satisfy a week of time, especially on Tobago-time. BUT there is a lot else to see on the island. Craggy bays, fishing villages, high drives up to get views of sweeping arcs of sand. Forts, canons, trees of every imaginable fruit (and nut!), villages on the side of mountains. The Caribbean coast, the Atlantic coast (two very different places), and the people, congregating in beachside bus stops, peddling their wares in small coastal towns, going about their day to days, cruising in their cars with the reggae booming out…
  • Tobagonians like their bass. Boom box bass. Reggae, calypso, all kinds UP LOUD. Everything is turned up to 11. In the middle of the morning, in the middle of the night. I can’t imagine people complain about loud music here. They probably complain if it’s turned down too low!
  • Price. For some reason I thought everything would be cheap. I seem to think this every time I go away. I don’t know where I get this idea from, but needless to say it’s not particularly cheap to stay here. Food, drink, all on par with the UK (perhaps a little less). A lot of people stay all inclusive, I think it’s nicer to have the reason to escape the resort and check out the local places, but it doesn’t save a huge amount. Excursions are expensive, but you’ll want to do them!
  • Lack of critters. I was warned about sandflies and mosquitos. I didn’t really experience them at all. This may be because for once in my life my deet worked, or it may be the time of year or sheer luck, but I got away pretty scott free from critter bites this time.
  • People keep coming back to Tobago. We met a lot of people on our travels who had been coming back to Tobago for years. One couple had visited the same resort as us – Coco Reef Spa Resort – sixteen times! It has a real family feel, like everyone knows each other, even on the plane over and back, everyone seems to know each other. In fact the cabin crew were on the party boat cruises that happened in the week! A lot of fellow holiday makers had been all over the Caribbean, to multiple islands. Antigua came up trumps, but Tobago was close. It seems that Tobago is one of the least unspoilt and least expensive, things are changing with the recession, prices are rising and tourist numbers are falling, but there is optimism that this will change.
  • Attitude. I loved the local people. My experience was largely hotel staff and taxi/tour guides, so I appreciate this isn’t representative, but I found they had a special charm all of their own. Very laid back, not in a hurry. Some people found them a little rude, but it isn’t rudness, they just aren’t as uptight and stressed about life and react in accordance with that. Once I’d grasped Tobago-time, I found it hard to feel bothered by a lack of super sharp service. They were friendly and that’s enough for me!

Tobago was a real gem. I had very little expectation going into the trip, except I wanted sunshine, and I got that. I LOVED the food, the turtle watching was a huge bonus and the snorkelling and diving was fabulous. I fell in love with the spirit of the place – enjoy yourself, through food, rum punch, dancing to loud music, relaxing under the shade of a palm tree. Life is good here, don’t work too hard. The perfect antidote to my 9 to 5.

Pirate's Bay

Secluded bays…

Pigeon Point

A tobago bus stop?

Crab and dumplings

Crab n’ dumplings

Crochet pants

Crochet pants, Tobago style

Pigeon point

Observing Tobago-time

Leatherback nesting

Giant Leatherback in her nest

Christmas coral on brain coral

Underwater love – Christmas and Brain coral

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