Category: Travel (page 1 of 2)

Argentiere, Chamonix – too much snow

Mauritius: Port Louis on crutches

Port Louis was something of a mission, particularly with a girlfriend on crutches in tow. It’s just like every island capital, a bustling port with mild annoyances rather than real danger and seriously dangerous uneven streets and broken stuff everywhere. It smells like you’d expect, but the streetfood was fantastic. I devoured 4 roti dholl puris and a few samoussas during our few hours there.

One only needs 3 hours to see Port Louis. Sure, you could while away the hours in a sophisticats bar on the Caudan Waterfront marina development with its safety net of security guards and polished marble plinths – but why not throw yourself into the melee of Farquahar St market or the central food market like the locals. We got hassled to buy things we didn’t want or need, we saw glue for sniffing on sale but at no time was it a scary experience and people were more fascinated by us really.

There were distinct but small zones to the city, the colourful haggling Indians selling snacks and things for the home. The quiet Chinese business men on Royal street and the cold, unfriendly muslims who looked us up and down on their short strip.

The bus rides warrant a mention. It took us 1hr 40mins from Poste Lafayette via Centre de Flacq on the public bus (Rs 120 = 2.30 GBP). Flacq had a fantastic open air market which we shopped in on the way home. Jane sipped a glass of Alooda, whilst I bought chilli pineapple and cucumber which blew my brains out.

We also picked up some Green Island rum which came recommended and is delicious (Rs 150 = 3 GBP)

Mauritius week one

We arrived in Mauritius 5 days ago now and have mostly lounged around the beaches on the east coast. We are staying at Maison d’Ete near Poste Lafayette. It’s a nice Swiss run set of beach villas offering self catering with kitchenettes, but also a good onsite restaurant. The pools are small but pleasant and there are comfy sun loungers, all of which face the wild winter Indian Ocean.

It’s seriously windy, more so than expected and so much so that I struggle to take photographs. Those above were all grab shots on the iPhone.

The beaches here are lovely and wild. They are covered in volcanic black lava rocks, whilst the sand is a brilliant white contrast from the ground up dead coral. Swimming in the sea is difficult with the strong winds, but there are some living corals in the lagoon quite close to the beach and the fish are varied and pretty.

Apart from all the relaxing, activity has been a bit limited by Jane’s crutches but we have managed several short bike rides and a trip to Port Louis on the public busses which was an experience. More on that later…

Zermatt shot on film with the Leica M6

Taking Money to East Africa – 2011 observations

It probably seems a strange thing to write about, that is until you try to travel around East Africa as a European (especially British) with your £ and €.

These experiences are based on travelling in Tanzania and Zambia in 2011.

  • Dollars rule – You can pay for things directly in dollars and often get a very good exchange rate better than that stated by forex if you carry big notes. Many places only accept $50 and $100 notes and they must be new ‘big head’ notes. Exchanging dollars at money shacks seems to follow the same rules.
  • Euros – also seem quite acceptable right now as they are a strong currency. Eyes lit up when €500 notes were produced but personally I feel uneasy about carrying single notes worth so much money.
  • Local currencies – If staying in a country for more than a week it’s worth changing the occasional $100 bill at a money shop for small purchase use and in rural areas where they are not confident with dollars, but pay for anything large such as accommodation with dollar bills and use big ones to bargain on prices.
  • Cards – Credit cards and debit cards are treated in the same regard, they both incur fees except for things like online airline purchases. These are fees from the vendor and are on top of your bank fees, so this can add up pretty quickly but there are some things that are just too expensive to pay for with carried cash and if travelling for a long time you probably have to resort to this
  • ATM – There are ATMs that will dispense dollars in capital cities, but again there is a card handling fee on top of whatever your bank already charges so it’s not very good value and probably better to just pay for things with cards directly if possible.
Tipping confounds me because it is not a reward but a travel tax, one of the many, one of the more insultng… It is bad enough that people expect something extra for just doing their jobs; it is an even more dismal thought that every smile has a price

Mafia Island, Tanzania

Last week we stayed at Ras Mbisi Lodge on Mafia Island.

Getting there

Mafia is easy to reach via regular flights by Coastal Aviation from Dar Es Salaam airport. We flew straight into Dar and on to Mafia with only a short wait in the pleasant (old international) internal flight terminal.


Upon arrival we were greeted by Abu, the lodges driver who skillfully navigates the dirt roads to get you to Ras Mbisi in about 30mins.

A banda, the wooden house which is your home at Ras Mbisi complete with bathroom and shower
Inside the bandas at Ras Mbisi

Glorious white beaches and turquoise water

There are 8km of white sands across several tidal bays to explore.
Great sunsets every night

Food, a serious highlight

Food at Ras Mbisi was in general outstanding as long as you like fish. Breakfast is fruit, juice, pancakes and the option of full English. Lunches were somewhat filling at 3 courses usually with bruschetta starter and a buffet style main course. The lunches were sometimes better than suppers due to the lighter style of the food. Highlights were Bluefish-fingers, Pork ribs, crab salad, Cigale (delicious new find for me), crab and cocount soup and the delicious home grown rocket salads. For my taste, the only culinary weak point was some of the deserts, that involved cream (where condensed UHT milk was used due to availability). Better to just provide abundant fruity deserts I would have thought.

Excursions

One of Mafia Islands biggest attractions is the whale sharks, which you can swim amongst. Sadly they had not yet arrived during our visit, but we did some other good trips.

Boat cruise to Shugu Mbili, supposedly uninhabited but we found some itinerant fisherman in a shanti village. So small you can run around it in 10mins
Snorkelling around Shungu Mbili’s reef
Landing on Shungu Mbili

We also did an overland trip around the island to visit a few villages, the lighthouse and the ruins of a German prison in a beautiful spot. This tiring trip ended with a swim in the crystal clear sea at Kanga beach, one of the finest I’ve ever seen.

German prison ruins
Beach by German ruins
Kanga beach

Overall

Ras Mbisi is fantastic, we had a lovely relaxing stay and still managed a few activities. The staff are all friendly and wonderful, not least the owners John and Michelle who really go the extra mile to make you welcome. We had a birthday whilst we were there and were treated to a special seafood platter, wine and a chocolate cake made by Scarlet, their delightful little livewire of a daughter.

Such a good holiday that we are alreeady thinking towards when we can return.

Copenhagen: first time visit

Copenhagen centreI went to visit a good friend in Copenhagen last weekend. I have been keen for sometime to visit this city. It rained a great deal with heavy thunder and lightning storms which kind of got in the way but I was still able to cover quite a lot of ground.

On Friday evening I flew in and took the S-Train from the airport to meet Wilhelm. The metro system is quite young and immature but is seamlessly integrated with the brilliant and efficient S-trains which go much further afield – around Denmark and beyond. Payment is via a rather retro but charming clip card system.

We spent our first evening eating steak and drinking beer in Pixie in Østerbro, a great local hangout.

Unfortunately much of Saturday was spent dodging the terrible storms but we did have a nice (if a little heavy) traditional Danish brunch in Cafe Sorgenfri.

Sunday brought much better weather and we took the S-train out to Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek up the coast. The surroundings were beautiful and after a very nice buffet brunch in the cafe, we took a walk along the coastline and sat on the jetty before touring the museum. The exhibition was rather excellently done, dealing with architectural trends around the world and during interesting eras such as the Soviet Communist. I can’t say it was an upbeat exhibition but the combination of the fantastic surroundings and a well executed museum made for a great day out of the city.

On Sunday evening we had supper with Wilhelm’s girlfriend and friends after racing around trying to buy wine. Not easy to find an open supermarket on a Sunday evening in Copenhagen.

Monday was an early rise and Wilhelm went back to work. I spent the day engaging in some tourism, my way – Christianborg (tick), Rosenborg (tick) etc.

I spent an hour during a heavy rainstorm reading my revision book in the truly amazing state library overlooking the water. I would spend a lot of time there if we had that library.

Another highlight was Freetown Christiania, a walled off hippy commune only 10mins walk from the historic centre on Christianshavn. This alternative eco community has gone through a lot of turmoil during its 40-years in existence. Cannabis is openly on sale via market stalls which does seem to attract a criminal element but I would guess is a major source of revenue. But they also produce rather excellent Christiania bikes and stoves and there are a number of organic restaurants and music venues. I rather liked the place.

I finished the day by picking up a few gifts and taking refreshments in Gråbrødretorv, before taking the S-train back to the airport (only a 15min trip).

Compared to…

It’s hard not to compare the Scandinavian capitals. I found Copenhagen to be nowhere near as pristine as Stockholm, with evidence of a grittier existence more prominent throughout the centre of the city. The vast use of bikes, and seemingly more liberal and tolerant approach of society gave a Dutch feel to the place.

It’s not surprising that Monocle magazine voted Copenhagen the best city to live in during 2008.

More photos on flickr

Shot on an Olympus 35RC with Agfa APX100 @ ISO100 developed in Kodak HC110(B) scanned on a Canon 8800f

Tobermory, Sanna and Ardnamurchan

From London to Rifugio Guglielmina in a day, skiing the Monterosa

Weekend ski trips are the holy grail for any skier, they let us city slickers squeeze the maximum possible ski time into a busy working life but are becoming increasingly expensive and less achievable due to changes in airline schedules. The heyday for these trips feels like it was around 5 years ago when budget flights were at their lowest and ski resorts weren’t desperate to compensate for bad years of lost trade.

We set off from Kensington at 0330 on a Friday morning (that’s just one day off work) and flew at 0650 from Stansted to Bergamo. On arrival, we were greeted with the luggage at the efficient little Orio al Serio airport. Within 20 mins we had a blushing baby Fiat Panda ready to economically transport us to the Alps and back.

ACROSS THE PO VALLEY

The drive was straightforward, across the A4 until Novarra then a turn off into the Val Sesia with our destination Alagna at the end of the road. The whole journey took about 3 hours including a 15 min stop. After turning off the A4, it all becomes a bit rural, frequently getting stuck behind nonna. There are some fascinating and noteworthy places along the way such as Gattinara, Borgosesia and Arborio (of risotto rice fame!).

ALAGNA, END OF THE ROAD

At Alagna we parked at the bottom of the cable car (€4 per day) and hired skis from Sporthaus (conveniently next to the lift). After purchasing a 2 1/2 day pass (€91) we sped up to the top of the first cable car full of excitement. Next we waded through a few puddles (it was April after all in a bad season) to reach the Passo Salati gondola to reach the summit of Alagna.

FROM THE SUMMIT OF PASSO SALATI

A short fuori pista trip (5 mins) off the main piste to Gressoney led us to a fine pair of rifugi, namely Citta di Vigevano and our chosen Rifugio Guglielmina. We arrived at 1430, not bad after leaving London at 0330. A quick chat at the bar and dump the rucksacks and we headed off to ski for the rest of the day until the lifts closed at 1645.

On the first day we stuck to Alagna which is very limited in both lifts and runs, but is clearly called ‘freeride paradise’ for a good reason. With snow, there would be extensive off piste options all around in a similar spirit to La Grave in France where the lifts are merely there to allow access to a valley of opportunity.

The only one we tackled was a bowl right next to Rifugio Guglielmina which was in terrible condition, being in the shade it was an ice crust with wet slush under the surface.

EVENINGS IN GUGLIELMINA

After a couple of hours on Alagna’s sparse but long pistes, we headed back to the refuge and arrived to a soundtrack of Italian jazz on the patio. As it was Jamie’s birthday, we treated ourselves to a bottle of the fine Grattamacco Super Tuscan. Rifugio Guglielmina prides itself on an outstanding Italian wine cellar. Penne with cinghiale (wild boar), then carpaccio di vitello (veal) washed down with a few too many grappas and a scramble in the dark to the room after the generator packed in for the night made for a memorable birthday.

During our second night, we performed a 2880m altitude pub crawl by visiting the adjacent rifugio for a beer. We though this original, but at 2200 2 piste bashers parked up and proceeded to do the same as if it the local norm. I took some good night photos with my LX5 “compact landscape kit”.

GRESSONEY, STAFAL AND CHAMPOLUC

Rifugio Gabiet, GressoneyFrom the top of the Passo Salati lies a land of opportunity. Great off piste down to Alagna one way and miles of piste towards Gressoney and Champoluc in the other, all covered on the Monterosa ski pass.

Gressoney’s pistes are not so extensive nor difficult but offer excellent variety and great vistas. We benefitted from a free guide in the form of a guest we met at the rifugio who had skied the area since age 7.

We did not fully explore Champoluc, but this seems like the most extensive pisted area and also offers quite spectacular views. I believe the town is very scenic but did not visit.

TIME TO RETURN ALREADY

Alagnas refuges by night

Following a freezing cold shower (€3) in the rifugio, we made an early start to beat the weekend crowds on Sunday, knowing that we may finish a bit early. The temperature reached 23 degrees and felt more beach than ski resort like, as enacted by half naked basking Italians.

We descended back to Alagna at 1530 and returned our skis, took a wash in the toilet block by the lifts, ate a couple of slices of pizza al trancio (and bought gifts) from the lovely bakery and; finally descended in the Panda. Traffic was awful until the A4.

BERGAMO AGAIN

We dropped off the car at Bergamo airport and relaxed in the departure lounge (great shops) before flying back to London at 2240.

And that, is how to ski for the weekend…

Useful References