TRAVEL: The Weekend Bali Disappointed Me


On our sixth visit to the island that holds a very special place in our hearts – if only for the fact that hubby and I were married there two years ago (in July) – we landed in, and left Bali physically exhausted and unspeakably disappointed. Okay, truth is, I was more vanquished about the weekend trip than my forever-chill husband, Chris. No, the island had absolutely nothing to do with it, because as far the whole world is considered, Bali is, and will always be one of the most mystical travel destinations. It was the blasted heavy downpour that greeted us the moment we arrived and carrying on every single day until the day we had to fly back to Singapore, that cast a long, dark shadow upon one of my anticipated summer trips, and which I am unable to shake-off until today. So much so that I keep telling my husband we need a rebound beach trip, and preferably somewhere that would give me all the sun, intoxicating beach feels, and course, fantastic food that my chubby little human body can absorb. Some place that has yet to disappoint us. Yes, Phuket, looks like we will be seeing each other again pretty soon. You have always been like a dirty little addiction for which we haven’t yet found a cure.

But back to Bali. Thing is, when you’ve had somewhat of a winning streak in your past holidays, you tend to slip into this weird zone of entitlement in which you start thinking and behaving as though every other holiday that you will have in the future will be perfect and happy. Maldives, Australia, Abu Dhabi, PhuketAvoriaz, Bordeaux, Krabi, Phnom Penh, etc. and yes, even rainy Paris in February – all these places we’ve traveled to during the last few months, have been nothing short of fantastic. And so I thought, Bali will be as consistently wonderful as it had been for us since our very first visit back in 2010. I was wrong.

DD Ubud Villa_vickyras

We stayed at this quaint little traditional villa in the Ubud tropics called DD Ubud Villa, which is a good place to hie-off to if you just want to disconnect/unplug from the hustle and bustle of the concrete jungle life you’ve been living. The place is far from luxurious. In fact, what they have are very traditional wooden little houses with basic amenities and a small balcony where you can just sit, relax, or have your meals. It is situated right in the middle of the woods so expect to hear cricket (and probably other small animals/insects) sounds day in and out. Depending on which house you get assigned to, expect to walk up and down 60 to 80 steps – so be careful, especially when it’s raining and the steps can be quite slippery. Better yet, ask for the casita close to the breakfast or pool area.

There's just something utterly sexy about outdoor baths, don't you think?
There’s just something utterly sexy about outdoor baths, don’t you think?

I liked the outdoor bath which is quite spacious. There is a bathtub, toilet and a shower, with a working hot water supply (except on our last day in which we didn’t have hot water). I thought it was pretty neat taking long, hot showers late at night with the cacophony of sounds coming from the forest’s little inhabitants. The resort has a tiny natural pool, which looks bigger in photos but really isn’t and the water is perpetually cold – especially the weekend we were there and it rained nonstop from Thursday. So we didn’t really get to try it out. In any case, it shouldn’t be that bad during hot summer days when, hopefully, the water is tepid enough for a decent dip. The place does not have it’s own restaurant, but they do have a menu where you can choose from and they order it from a partner restaurant. We tried a few of the dishes and they weren’t that bad either. Food is quite tasty and the price is pretty reasonable. Last orders are taken at 7:30pm, so if you are having your meals at the villa, take note of this because you will have a very hard time looking for food after. Chances are, you will end up paying extra for a transport to Ubud town centre or the nearby restaurant. If you are staying at DD for a few days, make sure you buy and stock big bottles of mineral water as there are no nearby store to buy supplies from. They do provide complimentary water everyday, but these are small 250ml bottles only.

Because we were unable to 'let the room breathe or let the sun shine in', so to speak, as there was only heavy downpour the entire time,  the room had this musty scent which wasn't that bad, really.
Because we were unable to ‘let the room breathe or let the sun shine in’, so to speak, as there was only heavy downpour the entire time, the room had this musty scent which really wasn’t that terrible.

You may also request for massage service in your room and the masseuse were quite good and I really liked the soft flower-scented oil they use for the massage. It doesn’t leave you feeling like a greased-up pig during or even after. Given the villa’s location, moving around can be such a pain. The only solution is to book transport for your tours. We did a morning tour the day after we arrived and opted to go on a whole day tour again on our last day – in which we ended up going to only two places because of the torrential rains that made the travel somewhat unbearable. We literally spent 7 or so hours inside the van moving from one place to another in what seemed like an exercise in absolute futility because of the terrible weather. At the end of the epic fail of a tour, all I got was foul temper and a sore bum. All things good and awful considered, our stay at DD Ubud Villa wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t fantastic either and to be fair, it was mostly due to the terrible weather in Bali that weekend. Oh, they do have free wifi but the connection is intermittent and often very slow, which we didn’t really mind that much because we were there to sort of disconnect.

Be that as it may, we couldn’t spend the whole weekend moping so we visited a few places which I would recommend you do the same, hopefully, on a much better weather situation. Here they are:

1. Visit the Pura Tirta Empul. A UNESCO-protected world cultural and natural heritage since 2012. This Hindu temple is where you will find the holy spring where believers bathe and offer prayers to cleanse their weary bodies and troubled minds. This spring is said to carry healing powers. You pay Rp 15,000 (US $1) to enter the temple grounds.

Entrance to the holy spring.
Entrance to the holy spring.
Looking to purge your body and mind of all negative influences? A dip in the holy spring just might give your troubled soul a reprieve.
Looking to purge your body and mind of all negative influences? A dip in the holy spring just might give your troubled soul a reprieve.

2. Visit (or in our case, view from afar) the legendary Mt. Agung. Still considered an active volcano occasionally belching smoke and ash, Mt. Agung is the highest point in Bali and had its last eruption in the year 1963. They have trekking tours being organised regularly if you are into that sort of thing. We would love to trek one of Indonesia’s volcanoes one day but on the weekend that we were there, we had to content ourselves with feasting on delicious local Indonesian fare for a fee of Rp 120,000 (US $9) per person for the lunch buffet at a restaurant overlooking the mountain. Before you reach the viewpoint, you will have to pay an additional Rp 30,000 (US $2) per person.

View of Mount Agung on a rainy, gloomy afternoon in Bali.
View of Mount Agung on a rainy, gloomy afternoon in Bali.
Lunch buffet with a view.
Lunch buffet with a view…of my visibly scarred thunder thighs. LOL.

3. Visit one of the organic cocoa and coffee plantations in Kinatamani for Luwak (and other variants of) coffee-tasting.  Unfortunately, I cannot recall the name of the plantation, but we did have a lovely time going around the property and I even tried my hand at manually grinding the coffee beans from the civet cat’s poop. We bought organic Bali Ginseng Coffee and organic Bali Cocoa. Personally, I think our Pinoy tableas (Filipino hot chocolate) taste much better than their cocoa. A cup of Luwak coffee costs Rp 50,000 (US $3) at the plantation and we were told that it’s more expensive outside.

Coffee beans from the civet cat poop being roasted.
Coffee beans from the civet cat poop being roasted.
Hubby enjoying his Luwak coffee.
Hubby enjoying his Luwak coffee.

4. Visit Ulun Danu Bratan. The temple complex is located on the shores of Lake Bratan, whis is the main source of irrigation in Bali. This temple complex is the site for offerings ceremony to the Balinese water, lake and river goddess Dewi Danu, due to the importance of the lake to the island.

Hindu temple by the lake.
Hindu temple by the lake.
Placid.
Calm waters of Lake Bratan.

5. Visit the famous Pura Tanah Lot. Arguably one of Bali’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting over a million of visitors from all over the world each year. It is also considered one of the holiest grounds on the island to worship the Balinese gods. At the base of the rocky islet where the temple sits atop, venomous sea snakes are believed to guard the temple from evil spirits and intruders. The offshore rock where the temple rests has been shaped continuously over the years by the roaring ocean tide. During low tide, people can walk up to the temple area, however, most of the time, when the tides are high, people are not allowed to get near the temple. They say Tanah Lot is most beautiful during sunset so we braved the inclement weather hoping it will clear up by the time we get there. Unfortunately, the rain pressed and the sky remained ominous grey.

The mystical Tanah Lot temple.
The mystical Tanah Lot temple.
Tanah Lot selfie.
Tanah Lot selfie.

TRAVEL: KRABI-utiful Weekend


For only our second travel adventure of the year, Hubby and I chose to hie-off to the island of Krabi in Thailand. If you recall, not too long ago, I kind of gushed about my soft spot for Phuket. But as much as we adore this island, I couldn’t really bring myself to go there again. At least not so soon. And so Krabi, which is an adjacent island, and one that I had never been to prior to this trip, won almost by default. Like going to Phuket, it only takes an hour and a half (sometimes less, depending on how efficient and fast the aircraft is) to get to Krabi from Singapore via air. As most of you would probably agree, when you only have the weekend to burn, short trips make practical sense.

When we landed at the Krabi International Airport at half past three in the afternoon, I thought it wouldn’t take us half an hour to cross the immigration and collect our weekend luggage because there weren’t (at that time) an overflowing number of tourists. And so we took the stairs leading up to the second level of the airport building where the Immigration checkpoints were located. Half an hour passed and we barely moved an inch. Something clearly wasn’t right. People were getting restless. A few of us would leave our queue for a few seconds to sneak a peek at the Immigration situation and see what could possibly be causing the hold up. That’s when we realised that there were only two counters open and with the officers’ very slow and deliberate processing of each visitor, it would take about three to five minutes from the moment you hand you passport to the time you get it back with a stamp! Two more planes landed and offloaded their passengers and the hall got even more crowded and chaotic, with the slippery sort of tourists cutting queues whenever they can. I flew off the handle several times, it was like having mini coronary episodes every 5 minutes that we were stuck there. After almost two hours (yes, we ended up queueing at the immigration longer than the time it took us to fly from Singapore to Krabi), we were finally out and had only an hour or so before sunset. Luckily, our airport pick-up waited patiently for us and we were no sooner on the road to the resort.

Pakasai Resort's welcoming committee (member)
Pakasai Resort’s welcoming committee (member)

We stayed at Pakasai Resort in Ao Nang, Krabi. From the outside, Pakasai Resort would strike you as just another regular resort you’ve probably visited in most of your travels. But once you step into the property, your impression drastically changes from ‘Okay, I could stay here’ to one of sheer wonderment. At least that’s how positively our stay in Pakasai has affected us.

Pakasai Resort Krabi _vickyras

The place was built entirely around the little forest the owners and their staff have worked very hard to cultivate. I don’t know exactly how many species of plants and trees they have inside the property but I’m guessing it’s quite a lot. They even grow their own salad vegetables, as well as, make their own compost fetilizers. It’s like living in the midst of a happy, fragrant garden (with the occasional pee-like smell coming from one of the tree species there, the name of which I had forgotten) with the cicadas serenading you with their unique sounds, especially during the day when the temperature is absurdly high. More or less an hour away from the Krabi International Airport, Pakasai Resort gives its guests the unique experience of being so close to nature (by that I mean trees and flowers and the insects and small animals that have made the place their natural habitat) and at the same time, a few meters’ walk to Ao Nang Beach.

Pakasai Resort Krabi_vickyras

The rooms are spacious with individual balconies (some of which have the swinging daybed) and big bathrooms. I especially loved the shiny hardwood of our bedroom floor and the ultra comfortable bed which had us sleeping like babies during the two nights that we stayed there. The are no lifts at the resort so if you are given the room on the higher plane of the resort (we were at room 421), you will be taking several steps on a slightly steep incline. Hubby and I loved it though! I mean, it’s a pretty good exercise for the legs, too. There aren’t a lot of channels on the TV – only one movie channel in English and the rest are news, TV5 Monde (French), a German channel, and some channels in Thai. But it didn’t really matter to us because we were too happy exploring the resort and the nearby beach.

Pakasai Resort Krabi _vickyras

Food is not bad. Breakfast selection is quite diverse. The pool sitting on top of the restaurant is pretty neat. The water is great and super clean and there’s a pool bar to cater for your drinking needs. Lastly, all members of the resort staff are hands-down wonderful! Always cheerful and eager to serve. We are DEFINITELY coming back and when we do, we are thinking of doing the guided bike tour around the island and taking Thai cooking lessons – two things the resort offers its clients.

Pakasai Resort Krabi_vickyras

There’s that and a few other things that we absolutely loved about Krabi. First of all, Krabi is nothing at all like her raunchy, nasty bad-girl big sister, Phuket. Perhaps it’s because the island is predominantly Muslim (we saw more mosques than buddhist temples on our way to Aonang Beach from the airport), which explains why it’s quieter and people were more – for lack of a better word – proper.

So here’s our list of favourite things (to do) in Krabi:

Sunset dinner at the Long Tail Boat Restaurant. We took a stroll down Ao Nang Beach just in time for the sunset, when we saw this row of restaurants along the banks, and decided with this one. Come to think of it, the cost of the food on this side Krabi is quite high compared with most of the restaurants elsewhere and my guess is it’s because of – you’ve got it right – the view! When you offer an unobstructed view of the sunset, I believe you have every right to charge a premium. Food was good – though perhaps not the best one you’ve had yet (if you’re a fan of Thai food – but who isn’t?!) because in Thailand, it’s not that difficult to find great local food. We ordered vegetarian spring rolls for starters, fried rice with crab meat, some fish dishes – and they were well-prepared. Food portion is just right for our kind of appetite. Though a small part of me wished they could’ve been more generous with the fried rice with crab meat. The restaurant staff were quite nice and friendly and we didn’t have any issues with the way our food was prepared and served. All in all, Long Tail Restaurant is a good place to dine at when you want a killer sunset view and you don’t particularly mind shelling out a bit more baht for it.

Sunset dinner at Long Tail Boast Restaurant.
Sunset dinner at Long Tail Boat Restaurant.
Sunset in Ao Nang.
Sunset in Ao Nang.

Sunbathing at Ao Nang Beach. I wouldn’t really put Ao Nang beach in the category of the world’s best beaches but it does have its fine points. Ao Nang is pretty charming during sunset, when you actually have a wide room for romantic walks on its fine, light-coloured sand, due to low tide. During the day, though, it’s not so easy to find a spot to put your blankets/mats if you want to sunbathe as the water occupies most of the shoreline. You may have to walk further down to where the ‘Last Fisherman’ bar is and if you’re lucky, you can have a nice little spot to plop on to. It’s pretty striking how much different Krabi is from Phuket. I love how quiet and less raunchy it is in Krabi, but with food and massages that are just as good as in Phuket, yet a lot less expensive. There are restaurants, massage places, and souvenir shops aplenty for you to discover. And speaking of massage…

Team Altaie in Krabi
Team Altaie in Krabi
Wheelin' it.
Wheelin’ it.

Get as many massages as you can until your bones are almost as malleable as claydoh. After our morning sunbathing session, Hubby convinced me to get a foot scrub with him. After foot scrub, we ended up having back and shoulder massage as well because we wanted to take advantage of the happy hour discount of 50% off published service rate! Note: Most of the massage and service salons along the banks of Ao Nang beach offer Happy Hour promos from 10am to 2pm. After our foot scrub and massage, we took our late lunch and went back to the beach for the afternoon sun salutation. As the sun started to descend, we gathered our stuff and walked over to this massage place we saw on our way to lunch, offering a One Hour Coffee Body Scrub + One Hour Body Massage for a jaw-dropping price of only 500 Baht! And so there we were, husband and wife, naked as the day we were born, getting pampered from head to toe at a fraction of what it would have cost us in Singapore. The massage place is called SMILE and I’m pretty sure they would appreciate more business from island visitors, so please do look it up when in Krabi.

Smile! Coffee body scrub + Body Massage (2 hrs), FTW!
Smile! Coffee body scrub + Body Massage (2 hrs), FTW!

Eat as much Thai food as your stomach can accommodate and digest. Who cares if you gain a pound or two over the weekend? You must never deprive your senses of a great meal – and especially not when it’s everywhere you look and it also happens to be super affordable.

Dined at Blue Mango on our last night. They serve local and western fusion-ish type of food. Not bad.
Dined at Blue Mango on our last night in Krabi. They serve local and western fusion-ish type of food here. Pas mal.

Repeat from one to four, until it’s time for you to leave the island. Sadly, all we had was one weekend so we had to stop at some point, right? But with our Krabi-utiful experience, don’t be so shocked when you see us back there again before the year is over.

Deep bend at sunset.
Deep bend at sunset.
Team Altaie: Seven years and counting!
Team Altaie: Seven years and counting!

TRAVEL: PARIS Sera Toujours Paris!


Mon rêve. Votre rêve. Truth is, we all have had wild fantasies about this city. And I think, it isn’t such a crime to desire something so beautiful, rich and elegant. The first time I visited Paris, three years ago, I thought I just walked into a theatrical dream. It was in spring and we enjoyed pitch-perfect weather the whole time. Though it was quite a short stay, we were able to cover pretty decent ground in the sense that I was able to do some of the touristy things – visits to la Tour Eiffel, Musée du Louvre, Montmartre, Champs-Elysées, Notre Dame, Jardin du Luxembourg, etc. Obviously, there’s still so much of Paris that I haven’t seen, so we made sure to cover a bit more during our last visit in February. It was winter and the mood was a bit different, more sombre in fact, and I think our stay in Paris was even shorter this time, following a longer stay Avoriaz and Bordeaux just days before.

Le Panthéon. As many of you probably know, the Panthéon was first constructed as a church dedicated to St. Genevieve, the Patron Saint of Paris, but after many changes over the years, it now also serves as the final resting place of some of France’s most noble citizens. There is currently some renovations works being done but inside it’s business as usual, so fret not, you will still be able to pay this amazing attraction a visit. There is a fee of 7 euros, with some standard exceptions (students, etc.), but quite frankly, a small price to pay for some good cultural and historical immersion right in the heart of Paris. Inside the Panthéon, you will see a lot of paintings dedicated to St. Genevieve and also plenty of sculptures аt thе base оf pillars depicting French Revolution. When you go down to the crypts, you will see the resting chambers of France’s illustrious poets, philosophers, architects, scientists and writers such as Voltaire, Alexandre Dumas, Marie and Pierre Curie, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Soufflot, Louis Braille, etc, and also, former Presidents and children of the revolution. In other words, these aren’t normal joes like you and I. There are guide booklets at the entrance (just after you cross the checkpoint area) and they come in different languages, so you can always refer to it if you need to know more about the Panthéon. One hour is definitely not enough to soak in the rich history of the Panthéon, as well as the people interred therein, so I suggest that you visit after a good meal.

Inside Le Panthéon.
Inside Le Panthéon.
Elaborate sculpture dedicated to La Convention Nationale.
Elaborate sculpture dedicated to La Convention Nationale.
It is not enough to conquer; one must learn to seduce. - Voltaire
It is not enough to conquer; one must learn to seduce. – Voltaire

Jardin de Tuileries. The day started on a very gloomy note because the weather wasn’t exactly ideal for walking around Paris, as it was raining in torrents. So, we thought we could spend the afternoon at Musée de Louvre. Alas, a whole bunch of us seemed to have had the same brilliant idea because the queue for tickets was so long it would’ve taken us two hours just to get ours. And so we abandoned the idea and took to walking around Jardin de Tuileries instead, heavy downpour and all. Despite the inclement weather, the garden, with its perfectly manicured lawn and trees, appear unfazed, just like the beautiful sculptures scattered around the area. I remember the first time we came here, it was on a sunny spring day and we spent some time soaking in the sun lying supine on the grass. I prefer that actually, my skin brushing against the soft grass. Though I must admit, the rain and dark skies do give the jardin a more sombre, dramatic backdrop. Between this and Jardin du Luxembourg, I will take the latter anytime but a garden is a garden and France, especially, seems to do them pretty well.

Jardin des Tuileries
Jardin des Tuileries

Pont Alexandre III. To say that Pont Alexandre III is stunning is no doubt an understatement. With its resplendent details – the cherubs, nymphs, pegasus, etc – unseen in any other bridges, Pont Alexandre III is undeniably the most beautiful of all bridges in Paris – and perhaps even in the world. Joining the Champs Elysées and the Grand Palais on the right bank with Napoleon’s resting place, Les Invalides, on the left, Pont Alexandre III commands your attention from different angles and keeps you suspended in that state of wonderment long after you have walked away. We saw the whole stretch of the bridge from the boat when we did the Seine River Cruise in the afternoon and came back two days later, this time walking along the riverside towards the start of the bridge. We couldn’t walk all the way across because it was raining heavily that afternoon with the wind blowing in icy gusts, rendering our umbrellas completely useless against the deluge. I mean I do understand why couples would feel extra romantic crossing Pont Alexandre III, fingers intertwined, perhaps even stopping briefly for a kiss a few times.

Pont Alexandre III
Pont Alexandre III

La Seine. While Paris can be associated with so many landmarks, all worth their weight in gold, the River Seine provides the mirror in which the whole city can coquettishly glance upon its beautiful reflection, especially on a warm summer/spring day, so that any person who may happen to take a furtive glance on the water as well, will for certain be enamoured. On our last trip to Paris in February, we took the afternoon river cruise with Vedettes de Pont Neuf. It was my first time to take the cruise so I braved the freezing gusts of Parisian winter wind on the second level of the boat just so I could marvel at the landmarks ahead and on either side of the river banks. La Tour Eiffel, Musée du Louvre, Pont Alexandre III, Pont des Arts, Notre Dame, Place de la Concorde, Grand Palais, and many more enchanting landmarks can be seen from the boat as it gently glides along the water. The cruise itself lasts for an hour or so, with the guide speaking in a combination of English and French for the benefit of the non-residents on the boat. There is a food and beverage shop at the dock, so you can buy snacks before you take the cruise. But if you’re not too hungry, I suggest you skip the snacks and just go for a decadent meal and dessert at any of the brasseries cluttered around the riverbanks. The river cruise costs between 10 to 14 Euros. Though I think they have promo rates being offered depending on the season.

Vedettes de Pont Neuf
Vedettes de Pont Neuf
La Tour Eiffel as seen from the Seine River cruise boat.
La Tour Eiffel as seen from the Seine River cruise boat.

Pont des Arts. So we came here to see the lovelocks, and no, we did not add to the weight by having one of ours placed there as well. Either we are too old for this or we truly believe that our love is a lot stronger than any corrosive padlock. haha. Although this practice did not start with France (Belgium, Japan, etc, are in on the game as well), I suppose it does make a lot of sense for people to have it in the world’s most romantic city. They have long ceased people from clamping locks on Pont des Arts because the weight of these darn things has caused a part of the bridge to collapse. So the starry-eyed lovers have moved on to conquer Pont de l’Archevêché and Pont Neuf as well. It seems there is really no stopping young love.

Love locks at Pont des Arts.
Love locks at Pont des Arts.

Champs-Elysées. The world’s most famous avenue deserves a stroll anytime, any day and on every trip to Paris. Shopping is not mandatory, of course, but I gotta admit it’s strangely pleasant to give in to the lure of capitalism once in a while.

It was the eve of César Awards when we made a quick trip to Champs-Elysées. So they had this photowall just outside the famous Fouquet's. We thought it deserved a selfie.:)

On the subject of food, I mean really, what is not to LOVE about French cuisine?  We hit a lot of brasseries where I consumed large amounts of cheese, wine and dessert. What of meat then, you might ask. Well, considering how I shun meat except for chicken, pork (occasionally), fish and escargot (my favourites!) there’s really nothing of the exotic kind to share. Those that I remember fondly were Le Saint-André located at the Latin quarter and Le Libre Exchange (next to Brochant metro station) – both of whom I have reviewed on TripAdvisor as well.  Then, there was this fabulous crêperie near Henry IV which we visited after our tour of Le Panthéon. Really good stuff in there, too.

Le Libre Exchange is easily one of our favourite brasseries in Paris for very good reasons, namely: (1.) Great food (2.) Value for money (3.) Lovely service. I remember dining here for the first time back in 2012 as we were staying quite near the place, and back then I thought it was just okay. And on our recent trip to Paris, we dined here on three separate occasions and we noticed that there’s been amazing improvement especially with the way the staff relate with the customers. Really, really pleasant experience from the minute we were welcomed to the restaurant, to the time our orders were taken, when our food were delivered to our table, and when we had to settle our bill. When we were there again on our last night, there was this huge group of people who came in, literally filling up all the seats available in the restaurant and the staff were taking orders and bringing food and drinks over to different tables without breaking their rhythm or even showing a slight indication of fatigue, considering it was already a bit late at night. Amazing!  Food-wise, I’ve tried their escargot, la poule, cheese platter, omelette and they were pretty good. Hubby tried le lapin (rabbit) and he was truly happy with it, as well. They have quite a few things on their menu which I’m pretty sure are good to the taste as well.

Île flottante at Cafe Le Libre Change.
Île flottante at Cafe Le Libre Exchange.

Le Saint-André is every inch a typical Parisian brasserie, cozy with soft lighting and abuzz with lively conversations among diners. But what puts it in the same league as those places you’d most likely visit again a few times over is the warm hospitality of the staff. The guy who took our orders and brought our food was certainly very accommodating and friendly. Here, you don’t get that feeling of being hurried to place your order and wolf down your food. This is a good place for winding down with a good meal and a lovely glass of wine after a long day of walking around doing touristy stuff around Paris. I ordered a salmon dish with this delicious sauce (perhaps it was béarnaise?) and a side of fresh veggies. They also have free wifi so you may certainly have a great meal and Instagram it, too.

Café Le St. André
Café Le St. André

Looking back on our wonderful dining experiences in Paris, I was beginning to think the Parisians’ bad rep for customer service might possibly be an embellishment of sorts. Either that, or our timing must have been really splendid in those times!  

Voila, c’est tout. Rendez-vous l’année prochaine, Paris !

La Belle Bordeaux Part III: Bordeaux City


On our last day in Bordeaux, our hosts aka my très gentils beau parents, took us on une petite promenade around the city, a few hours before we were to take the TGV bound for Paris. We certainly did not have enough time to explore and experience the incredible things the city has to offer, especially first-time visitors like me. But I must say that I really, REALLY liked the city. In my travels, limited as they were, I have come across cities that are good for visits and those that might actually be great for settling in. I think Bordeaux falls perfectly under the second category, along with Sydney and Singapore. Below are some of the attractions and landmarks I have seen during our brief walk.

Rue Saint-Catherine. The Rue Sainte Catherine is one of the largest shopping streets in France, stretching to about 1.2kms. It runs through most of the city centre from the Grand Theatre all the way to the Port d’Aquitaine. This shopping street is the Champs-Élysées of Bordeaux.

CNY feel at the Rue Sainte Catherine
CNY feel at the Rue Sainte Catherine

La Cathedrale Saint-André. This cathedral holds a lot of historical weight, for in 1137, the future King Louis VII – the royal figure said to be responsible for Bordeaux’s worldwide reputation for wine – married Eleanor of Aquitaine here. The exterior wall of the nave dates right back to 1096, while most the structure was built between the 13th-14th centuries. Incredible details such as flying buttresses, the rose window, gargoyles and other sculptures can be seen in both the exterior and interior of the cathedral. The cathedral as well as the 50m (164ft) belfry called Tour Pey-Berland are both open daily for visits.

La Cathedrale Sainte-André is not very easy to take a full scale photo of, especially with just my phone camera, given the sheer size of it.
La Cathedrale Sainte-André is not very easy to take a full scale photo of, especially with just my phone camera, given the enormous size of it.

Hotel de Ville. The Hotel de Ville is another one of the unforgettable fine buildings in Bordeaux that was built in the 18th century as a palace for the Archbishop (Prince Rohan), which is why it is located just next to the Cathedral.

Hotel de Ville.
Hotel de Ville.

Monument aux Girondins. At the foot of the Monument aux Girondins are two beautiful fountains. Next to the column there are a couple of statues that honour two of the greatest names of Bordeaux: Philosopher and former Mayor of Bordeaux Michel de Montaigne and Charles Louis de Montesquieu, one of the architects of the “century of the lights” and a winegrower.

Monument aux Girondins
Monument aux Girondins

Place de la Bourse. Place de la Bourse, originally known as the Place Royale, was built in the 17th century, as dedication to the glory of then King Louis XV (1729-1755). The city of Bordeaux at that time, was at the height of commercial boom. Located right on the banks of Garonne River, Place de la Bourse offers visitors the best of both views – that of the architectural genius that is the chain of buildings itself and of the beautiful river flowing just next to it. We came here in February and unfortunately, the weather at that time was rather gloomy, with occasional drizzle. However, that did not take away from the spectacular view laid out before us. There is definitely no bad angle here. Looking around you, it’s quite easy to imagine how pompous it must have been during its heydey. I wish we had time to really explore the place but it’s good to keep something pinned for a return trip, hopefully in summertime.

La Place de la Bourse
La Place de la Bourse

L’Eglise Notre Dame. This church built in the late 11th century adapts the Romanesque-Byzantine style and is richly decorated, both inside and out. Stone carvings on the doorway depict biblical scenes.

L'Eglise Notre Dame
L’Eglise Notre Dame

La Belle Epoque. La Belle Epoque is indeed très belle and the food très bon! From the design on the ceiling and the walls all the way down to the floor, La Belle Epoque sets out to seduce its customers – and succeeds. And then came the staff who greeted us with the warmest ‘Bonjour!’ and ushered us to our table. Our orders were taken promptly and food were delivered to our table, warm and perfect as they should be. I ordered this squid dish with Basmati rice and I loved how the meat just breaks apart in soft, delicious molecules in my mouth! The salmon starter with a tasteful sauce whose name escapes me at the moment, was also equally amazing. The restaurant is located in one of the most popular spots in Bordeaux, just opposite the Garonne River. Definitely one of the best restaurants I have ever visited anywhere in the world in terms of food, ambience and service.

La Belle Epoque
La Belle Epoque

Others. Just a few more captures of la belle Bordeaux. Thanks to my amazing iPhone6 camera and Snapseed, these photos seem to have taken a life of their own.;)

La belle Bordeaux
La belle Bordeaux
Bordeaux Opera
Bordeaux Opera
Sanna, comme Paula by Jaume Plensa, is a series of seven feminine figures envisaged since the encounter between the artist and the city was planned.
Sanna, comme Paula by Jaume Plensa, is a series of seven feminine figures envisaged since the encounter between the artist and the city was planned.

TRAVEL: Top Things To Do in ARCACHON and La TESTE-de-BUCH


Located some 55kms from Bordeaux is another arrondissement called Arcachon which sits on the banks of the Atlantic coast. Compared with most towns in France, our friends at Wikipedia say Arcachon is fairly young at around 150 years old. Prior to it being officially acknowledged by Emperor Napoleon III as a town, Arcachon is said to be just a sprawling forest of pine, oaks, and strawberry trees with almost zero road links. Today, however, Arcachon is fast becoming famous for its fine beaches, the remarkable Arcachon houses so unique in architecture, great seafood, while neighbouring La Teste-de-Buch is home to the famous Grande Dune du Pilat. After spending the previous day gallivanting around Sauternes, my In-Laws took us on a road trip to these two arrondissements and what we have seen there certainly confirmed raves by tourists.

1. Arcachon Beaches. In Arcachon, you will find a long stretch of fine sandy beaches that has become so popular with beachcombers and surfers, too, especially during summer. As it was winter when we came here, we saw only a handful of people braving the icy cold temperature. There are restaurants and bars along Boulevard de l’Ocean, as well as private properties lucky (or wealthy) enough to hog a slice of this natural beauty.

I love the beach, even in winter.
I love the beach, even in winter.

From here, you can also take the boat for a tour around the Birds Island.

Up for some bird watching? You wouldn't want to skip this one!
Up for some bird watching? You wouldn’t want to skip this one!

Or simply roam around the city centre and take photos.

Fresh fruits at the local marché
Fresh fruits at the local marché
Picturesque Arcachon.
Picturesque Arcachon.
Walk the world one city at a time.
Walk the world one city at a time.

2. Grande Dune du Pilat. When my in-laws told us that we will pass by the Grande Dune du Pilat after our trip to Arcachon beach, it didn’t really occur to me that it would be as astonishing as the one that greeted us when we arrived at the site. First of all (and pardon me for my ignorance), I didn’t really think that there could be a sand dune in Europe and one as tall as this one in Pilat. My husband and I have been to the Red Dune in Dubai, and though Le Grande Dune du Pilat is nowhere near it in terms of size and the fine quality of the sand, it more than made up for its lack with the fantastic view of the Atlantic Ocean and Arcachon Bay from the top and the verdant forest in surrounding areas. They say that the dune is about 118m above sea level and stretches up to nearly 3kms, making it the highest sand dune in Europe.

The largest sand dune in Europe.
The largest sand dune in Europe.
Dune du Pilat offers a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean, Arcachon Bay and the surrounding verdant forest.
Dune du Pilat offers a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean, Arcachon Bay and the surrounding verdant forest.

The climb up can be a little challenging but like I said, totally worth the spectacular view from the top. It was very cold the afternoon that we visited with the wind occasionally blowing in freezing gusts, making the climb all the more fun. I can only imagine how even more beautiful it can be up there during summer! There is no fee charged for visitors and there’s one or two snack shops at the base of the dune if you ever feel the need to snack or hydrate before and after the climb. There are toilets and souvenir shops as well. This is definitely a great place to visit when in the region.

The Atlantic Ocean down below.
The Atlantic Ocean below.

3.  (Sea)Food trip. Arcachon takes pride in being recognised as one of the top four places for best oysters in France, alongside Normandy, Brittany and Marennes-Oléron. I must confess that we didn’t exactly have our seafood trip in Arcachon but rather, at this port-side restaurant in La Teste-de-Buch called Restaurant du Port.  Which, if my non-existent geographical knowledge is to be trusted, is really just next to Arcachon. It was still low tide when we got to the restaurant but the water quickly rose to cradle the little colourful sailboats up in its arms, lending the whole scene a slight touch of romance (because we all know France really goes hand-in-hand with romance).

View from Restaurant du Port.
View from Restaurant du Port.

We ordered from the menu escale and got a plate of oysters each for starters and they were truly fresh and delicious! We tried Loubine à la plancha, Pavé de Boeuf and Parillada plus crême brulée and tarte aux noix for desserts – all top-notch in terms of taste and portion.

Les huitres!
Les huitres!
Loubine à la plancha
Loubine à la plancha
Tarte aux Noix
Tarte aux Noix

If I’m not mistaken, the set meal costs around 20 euros, which is quite reasonable given the quality and taste of the food. Overall, this is a great restaurant to visit and you must not leave without sampling their seafood dishes (oysters, especially), which is what they are mainly known for. C’est très delicieux!

TRAVEL: La Belle BORDEAUX Part I


People come to Bordeaux to pay homage to the unparalleled Bordeaux wines and the estates that produce them. While we may have done our fair share of chateau visits, sipping wine here and there, we have found that Bordeaux has a lot more to offer citizens with severe case of wanderlust residing outside of La France. And what a great discovery that was!

We came to Bordeaux from Avoriaz, where we parted with our dear friends after a week of ski fun (too short!). The Vimards drove back to Fribourg, while Team Altaie took the bus to Geneva where we made full use of our 40-minute ‘layover’ by walking over quickly to the famous Lake Geneva, snapping a quick selfie, sprinting to the train station with our luggage, and grabbing a cup of coffee before boarding the train bound for Basel, where we would take the flight straight to Bordeaux. At 8pm, we finally arrived at our destination and a few minutes later, I was already having my first (of numerous) sip(s) of wine. 

Hello from Geneva! (Subtitled: Masabi lang)
Hello from Geneva! (Subtitled: Masabi lang!)

We stayed in Bordeaux for three days and it’s clearly far too short a time to really enjoy life like a real Bordelaise. But, I accumulated a bagful of happy memories to keep me intoxicated until our next trip, and that’s good enough for me…for now.

Bienvenue à Sauternes!
Bienvenue à Sauternes!

After recovering at home for one day, we made Château Guiraud our first stop (Merci beaucoup Pap!). Château Guiraud is a sweet white wine ranked as Premier Cru Classé (French, “First Growth”) in the original Imperial Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, so ordered by Emperor Napoleon III. Belonging to the Sauternes appellation in Gironde, Château Guiraud is considered the oldest and one of the largest estates in Sauternes with over 100 hectares of vines, producing around 100,000 bottles per year.

Château Guiraud, Premier Cru Classé in the 1855 Imperial classification
Château Guiraud, Premier Cru Classé in the 1855 Imperial classification

Château Guiraud used to be known as the ” Noble House of Bayle ” when it belonged to the Mons Saint-Poly family. The property was later on sold to a Bordeaux merchant named Pierre Guiraud, then passed on to his son until finally, in 2006, it was sold to four business partners namely, Robert Peugeot, Olivier Bernard, Stephan Von Neipperg and Xavier Planty. 

IMG_0400
Château Guiraud used to be known as the ” Noble House of Bayle ” when it belonged to the Mons Saint-Poly family.
May we be like fine wine whose taste and aroma get fuller and sexier as the years go by.
May we be like fine wine whose taste and aroma get fuller and sexier as the years go by.

What most people don’t know – and they should – is that Château Guiraud is the only1855 Premier Cru Classé to be certified for organic agriculture in 2011. Château Guiraud and its owners are fully committed to growing grapes the organic way. When we were doing the tour, we noticed this very colourful small wooden structure just in front of the accueil. We were told that it’s an insect hotel and they have seven of those scattered around the massive property. Interesting piece of information: Before going organic, they had around 200 insect species and today, they have around 600. Amazing, right?

The 'insect hotel' only found in Château Guiraud.
The ‘insect hotel’. You will find 7 of this scattered around the Château Guiraud estate.

Fee: You pay 10 Euros/person for the tour which already includes tasting of their wine. You can also buy bottles directly from them after the tour and the wine-tasting. And if you purchase a bottle, they will waive the tour fee. If you can’t understand and/or speak French (like I do), fret not, because they can also explain everything to you in English. The wine itself is nothing like any other sweet wines I have tried. I’m usually not a fan of sweet wine, neither am I an expert when it comes to wines, but I usually go with how my senses respond to the first sip. Petit Guiraud’s aroma rises up to your nostrils, not aggressive but gentle like the swaying of the hips of a samba dancer, carrying with it a cacophony of wondrous scents, with a hint of caramel and maybe something very fruity as well. And it is exquisitely smooth. Seductive, in many ways. You absolutely must visit Château Guiraud when in Bordeaux!

Never leave without a bottle…or more.

The beauty about being in this region is that you are literally surrounded by vineyards, from small to massive estates, from the lowest to the highest Classification rating like Premier Cru Supériur Château d’Yquem.

In the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, Château d’Yquem was the only one in Sauternes given this rating, solidifying its perceived superiority and higher prices over all other wines of its type. French luxury goods giant LVMH Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton is the majority owner of Château d’Yquem. In July 2011, an 1811 bottle of Château d’Yquem sold for £75,000 ($117,000) at the Ritz in London to a private collector, Christian Vanneque, making it the most expensive bottle of white wine ever sold.

Welcome to the expensive world of Château d'Yquem.
Welcome to the expensive world of Château d’Yquem.

It is said that unlike most of the châteaus in Bordeaux, you cannot simply walk into Château d’Yquem for a tour. Nope, it doesn’t work that way. You need to make reservation way in advance and they only open for public visits very few times a year. But you can drive up to the entrance and admire the expanse of their vineyard, breathe in grape-scented fresh air, while telling yourself that you are standing amidst some of the most expensive grapes that produce some of the most expensive wines ever…and take photos. Guess what I did?

Château d'Yquem's vineyard in winter.
Château d’Yquem’s vineyard in winter.
Premier Cru Supérieur Château d'Yquem
Premier Cru Supérieur Château d’Yquem

We did not visit any more wine estates after that because we had a 12th century French castle on our itinerary in the afternoon which I will tell you all about on my next post. So stay tuned. Or don’t. It’s entirely up to you. On hindsight, it’s probably good that we have kept the rest of the chateau visits for our future trips because, baby, Bordeaux has got me hooked. xoxox

TRAVEL: Ski Holiday in AVORIAZ


Have you ever had one of those snow globes, perhaps given by relatives or friends as ‘pasalubong’ or souvenir from their trips abroad? Well, I never had one but I have always thought them pretty, and I often wondered what it must be like to be inside one. Two weeks ago, my snow globe fantasy just got real with our trip to Avoriaz in the French Alps.

Avoriaz is a ski resort in the heart of the Portes du Soleil, just inside the French side of the Franco-Swiss border. Built on a sunny plateau of land, the resort was the brainchild of the Olympic skier Jean Vuarnet, who wanted to link the pistes of Morzine to those over the border in Switzerland, covering a network of slopes that spans 13 resorts. Avoriaz is France’s first car-free resort which makes it a safe place for children to walk around the centre.

Avoriaz 1800, for those who want to ski hard and play hard.
Avoriaz 1800, for those who want to ski hard and play hard.

When Hubby and I were plotting our travel calendar for 2015 a few months back, I intimated that I would like to travel some place exciting during winter and preferably with snow. Being a stickler for details, my husband carefully worked out a 2-week itinerary for us which involved a rendezvous with his best friend (and his best friend’s family) in Switzerland before driving up  as a group to Avoriaz for a week-long ski holiday; a trip down to Bordeaux to visit the family; and finally, a rendezvous with more family members in Paris before flying back to Singapore. How can I possibly not adore my husband’s OC tendencies?!

Picturesque Avoriaz.
Picturesque Avoriaz.

You see, I have never seen snow in my 30-odd years of existence. I have experienced winter in Australia but never in Europe or any other four-season region, so you can imagine how excited I was. Way. too. much. The days leading up to the actual trip saw me mainly obsessing about how many layers I should put on, how much cheese and wine I can consume without combusting into a fiery ball of dairy and alcohol,  how many kilometres and landmarks we can cover in two weeks, and if I will learn how to ski in mere five hours. Schengen visa secured, vacation leave filed and approved, bags packed, Pinky the traveling pig bathed and prepped for the big trip, soon we were on our way to Changi airport to catch our flight to Zurich. 

After a quick stopover at Fribourg for aperitif and lunch with the Vimards, we were finally on the road to Avoriaz where we would spend the next six days basking in air so pure and snow so white. We were very lucky to have had the most perfect sunny weather in Avoriaz, without which, our stay would not have been as magical.

So. One week in Avoriaz and about a million snippets of only the fondest experiences gathered. But in the interest of brevity (although my intro is already far from being short and sweet), I will narrow it all to just six highlights, which are…

With our ski instructor, Sylvain.
With our ski instructor, Sylvain.
Never  too old to learn how to ski.
Never too old to learn how to ski.

Skiing

Nothing beats skiing in the Alps, they say, and I’m overjoyed that my first ski experience happened right in Avoriaz. We stayed in a fully-furnished family apartment at Pierre et Vacances which is just a few meters away from the resort centre. The men of the house, Christophe and Guillaume, enrolled the wives (FayFay and I) to a three-day exclusive ski class with Evolution 2 ski and snowboarding school, lasting 1.5 hours each day.  Frankly, I didn’t expect that I would be able to ski in mere five hours but thanks to our très gentil ski instructor Sylvain, I found myself going down a relatively steep slope and even managing some left and right turns on our final class!

Team VimTaie on a raquette adventure
Team VimTaie on a raquette adventure.
IMG_0154
Walking in winter wonderland.

Raquette à neige or snowshoeing

Simply means walking on thick layers of soft snow in snowshoes/rackets. We did this on our last day in Avoriaz and had a great time descending about 400 meters from Avoriaz to Les Lindarets, alternatingly walking or sliding on our bottoms. From there, we took the télésiège back to the resort. We were only a small group of six on that day, including our raquette guide Camille, who told us plenty of stories about the area. We even saw a few chamois scurrying away from us as we traversed through their territory.

Sledding with le petit Victor
Sledding with le petit Victor.

Luge

Although you see mostly kids sledding in the designated luge area, it didn’t stop us from borrowing little Victor’s sled and having a bit of fun with it.

IMG_0001
Lunch at Les Fontaines Blanches.
Charcuterie.
Charcuterie and cheese fondue.

Gastronomy

Although Avoriaz does not have the same gastronomic reputation as Morzine, it does have a few dual-purpose (lunch and dinner) restaurants that serve great food and some lively bars for drinks and light bites open until late at night. If you have a big appetite, you definitely must try the lunch buffet at Les Fontaines Blanches. They have a wide selection of all-you-can-eat aperitifs, mains and desserts for a reasonable price of about 25 euros per person. If you happen to ski around the Lindarets, you can check out the restaurants there with their delectable plat du jour. They seem to be very popular with locals and visitors.

Le vin chaud meets la Pinky.
Le vin chaud meets la Pinky.

Vin Chaud

Vin chaud, or hot wine, is a beverage typically enjoyed on special occasions in cold places. It is mildly spicy and warming, with just a little splash of Cognac. I first heard about it from a friend who recommended that we try it when in Avoriaz. First sip and I knew it won’t be missed but it does give you that warm-fuzzy sensation. It’s good to have tried it though.

Sunset in Avoriaz.
Sunset in Avoriaz.

Sunset

There are only a few things more evocative than watching the dazzling colours of the sunset descend over the snowy plateau and the snow-capped chalets in Avoriaz. I had tears just looking at the sunset view.

Grocery shopping at Carrefour

This may sound ridiculous to your ears but I do love being inside the supermarket. To me, walking up and down aisles lined on both sides with all sorts of goodies arranged in specific manner begging for you to come pick them up and bring them home is almost akin to a fulfilling sexual experience. Okay, maybe not to that extreme, but yes, a trip to the supermarket is always a happy endeavour for me. We purchased our week-long food supply from Carrefour and had most of our meals in the apartment. Thanks to FayFay’s dexterity in the kitchen, we enjoyed great-tasting dishes right in the warm comfort of our cabin.

Meet the VimTaies.
Meet the VimTaies.

Our Avoriaz trip is definitely one for the books and none of it would have been possible without the exceptional planning of Christophe and Guillaume, all done over a series of Skype calls between Switzerland and Singapore. Having said that, you really ought to be planning the next VimTaie holiday, guys!