Sunday, May 2, 2010

Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

Our most relaxing overseas holiday – ten days in Kota Kinabalu (KK) in the north east corner of Borneo. We stayed in the Sutera Harbour Resort in the Magellan wing and were treated liked royalty. The staff was so friendly and helpful, the rooms were luxurious, the food was delectable and to top it all off it wasn’t expensive. This resort also boasts a golf course with night lighting, 5 swimming pools, a 10 pin bowling alley, cinema, marina and is only a five minute shuttle ride from the heart of KK.

In KK itself, the shopping was great. There were plenty of clothes, shoes, electronic gear and all at great prices. Air conditioned shopping centres such as Centrepoint, KK plaza, Merteka Plaza had a huge variety of shops. We were fortunate enough to visit during one of their Mega sales. These occur in March, August and December where you can get up to 70% discount off already unbelievably cheap prices.

There are also plenty of fresh seafood places to eat at in KK. Kampong Ayr is an open air market and impressed us with the quality and the prices. There are also many restaurants and food halls in the shopping centres which offer a large variety and great prices.

If you’re into nature trips then this has it all as well. The Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park is just 20minutes from the resort. The waters are crystal clear and brimming with marine life. Snorkeling reveals all types of coral, sea cucumbers and colourful fish. Visiting the orangutans is another highlight. There are two places in Sabah where you can see rehabilitated orangutans – Sandakan (about an hours flight away) or Rasa Ria resort (about an hour away by shuttle or taxi). At Rasa Ria we saw two cheeky apes – one with the name of “Tiger Wud” because of his penchant for finding golf balls at the nearby golf course.

No trip to KK is complete without a trip to Mount Kinabalu. For the adventurous an overnight stay and early morning climb to the summit to see the sun rising is a must. For those of us with a little less energy then a stroll around the botanic gardens at Mount Kinabalu can be rewarding with the number of orchids, pitcher plants and , if you’re lucky, a sighting of the rafflesia. This is the world’s largest flower, taking ten months from bud to flower and only staying in bloom for 7 days.

Kota Kinabalu is a great destination for Australians – it is only a 5 hour flight, the exchange rate is great and the people are so hospitable and friendly. We would love to go back but are so worried that it won't be as good - maybe we will live with the memory.

Tuscany - Off the Beaten Track

A journey to Tuscany isn’t complete unless you visit well known towns such as Florence, Lucca, Siena, San Gimignano, Montecatini, Montalcino to name but a few. However it is often the smaller, less well known villages that remain in your memory – the highlight of an unforgettable trip to Tuscany.
Travelling around Europe in a car you quite often manage to stumble across a little gem of a village that isn’t mentioned in any of the glossy tour brochures and sometimes barely rates a mention on road maps. Bagno Vignoni in Tuscany, east of Montalcino, was one of these villages. Small and unprepossessing on first glance, it surprised us with its thermal waters and friendly residents (apparently the total population is 36!).
As we drove up we noticed people wading in channels of water. On closer examination we noticed steam arising from them. These channels were the overflow from the hot spring in the centre of town where the water temperature is 52°C. One by one we took off our shoes and dipped our feet in the very warm water. It was almost a surreal experience to be wading in bath temperature water in irrigation channels carved out of the limestone embedded ground.
The thermal waters of this village were first known by the Etruscans and then by the Romans who built the village square, closed in on 3 sides by town walls about one a half metres high, into baths. The Romans consecrated these waters to the Nymphs. From the 12th century and throughout the 13th century, Bagno Vignoni became a stopover point for Christian pilgrims travelling from Northern Italy on their way to Rome. Around this “square” there are buildings designed by Bernardo Rossellino in Pope Pio II’s honour. Legend also has it that Saint Catherine of Siena stopped here.
Around this square of water are a few shops selling typically Tuscan fare and also a tavern with a very friendly host who expounded the virtues of his red wine over the more famous Brunello of Montalcino. While our experience of Italian wines was minimal and those we had tasted were “weaker” than our Australian wines our host showed his knowledge of his wine and our tastes by choosing a full bodied red that, while relatively expensive, was very good. During our visit we elicited that he and his French fiancĂ© had worked on an Australian vineyard so were very familiar with Aussie tastes.
On another foray into the Tuscan countryside we visited Volterra. While this is a better known village than Bagno Vignoni it was still a treat to visit as there were fewer tourists and therefore a more authentic feel to the town. Volterra is west of San Gimignano and can be reached by a scenic and very windy road. Views across to the coast are spectacular. Originally it was founded by the Etruscans as one of twelve cities of the Etruscan Confederation and they constructed a town wall nearly seven kms long. A significant proportion of this wall still stands although it was replaced by a shorter medieval wall in the 12th century. Its population of 25,000 had a brisk trade in metal, timber, wheat and alabaster. Roman rule was evident from about 300BC and an amphitheatre was built about the 1st century BC. Roman baths were also built nearby but probably after the decline of the amphitheatre. Volterra had its share of ups and downs over the centuries due to wars with Florence and varying markets for its produce of grain and alabaster. Today it is an industrial, agricultural and tourist centre with many alabaster workshops.
A wander around the streets evokes strong emotions as there are many reminders of all its inhabitants in the architecture of the town although it has a decidedly Medieval feel. More detailed information can be found in the museums, such as Museo Etrusco Guarnacci. The highlight for
us was the amphitheatre where it was easy to imagine actors playing to their Roman audiences. We also indulged in some alabaster eggs and I have to admit to not being able to leave without buying a stunning glass dish.
Living in Australia it is hard to imagine buildings and sculptures that have survived for thousands of years yet these are so common in Europe, particularly in this part of Italy. Being able to visit magnificent examples such as in Volterra without the hordes of crowds that one comes to expect from travelling throughout Europe is a real treat. I can’t wait to pack up my suitcase and make the journey back to Europe and its incredible history again.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Food memories

For those of you who are Master Chef devotees, there is a suggestion of an association with food and memory. When you taste a particular food it reminds you of a time and place in your past. Food and travel are particularly evocative in this respect. Some places that you visit are even more memorable because of the food you ate there.
There was nothing quite like the first real Italian pizza that I tried. I was on a group tour in Florence and it was going to be our last night in Italy and we hadn't had a real pizza. It was raining and there was no restaurant in the hotel - a converted monastery - we were in the suburbs of Florence and there was no noticeable restaurant area. So we wondered around in the rain until we found a pizzeria (and the rest of our tour group). This pizza was nothing like Pizza Hut - it was simple, using only the freshest ingredients - and it tasted amazing. Really thin crispy pastry and such tasty tomatoes. You haven't tasted tomatoes till you've had one in Italy! These are rich red, with a dense texture and real tomato flavour.
Then there was the most amazing picnic by the side of the road. We went to the Sunday market in Annecy in France and wandered around inhaling all the delicious aromas of freshly baked bread, aromatic cheeses, rotisseried chicken. Pates, fresh fruit, vegetables, all types of fresh meat. We bought bits and pieces, hopped back into the car and stopped by the side of the road overlooking the lake in Annecy - unbelievable how fresh air and fresh produce can leave you feeling slightly heady - and we didn't even buy any wine!
We were told that when we go to the Dordogne region of France we needed to try their pate fois gras and to accompany it with a Monbazillac wine. This wine is made from three grape varieties semillion, sauvignon blanc and muscadelle all of which have noble rot. This makes it a sweet wine and not what you would normally think to consume with a savoury pate. But the combination is truly memorable. And it was made even more memorable by the fact that we were sitting in the spring sunshine overlooking the amazing Dordogne River and Valley. This was the perfect end to a morning of sight seeing.
Of course, you have Champagne - both the region and the drink. You have never tasted champagne until you have tasted it in Champagne. To wander through the "caves" and see the whole process from start to finish and to taste that amazing bubbly nectar. Sparkling wine just won't do - it has to be real French champagne. Grand Cru, premier cru - they all taste incredibly good. Food, memories are made even better with champagne.

To cruise or not to cruise