Thursday, March 10, 2016

In Heaven, Cape town and around

I have often thought about a place that has it all: the sunny weather, the good food, where you can paraglide, hike and surf, drink good wine, sail, hire help without breaking the bank, live cheaply. A place where English is widely spoken and there is cultural and city life. Well, I found it. South Africa, especially Cape Town area is all of that and more. It's heaven.
I had the chance to visit heaven when the weather was grey and miserable in the Netherlands which made me appreciate it even more.
And what is not to like. I random order
The Wine, ah the wine. 
Visiting a winery in South Africa especially the Stellenbosch area is like opening the gates to continues lasting pleasure. Even right outside of Cape town in Constatia, I have had unbelievably good experience. Probably visited around 7-8 wineries but Nederburg winery in particularly took my breath away. I can't get enough of the liquid happiness of their Motorcycle marvel red, a blend mixed in a godly manner. In Morgenhof estate I had damn amazing lunch, set in a rustic quiet farm yard,
Constatia Glen wine tasting and cheese was one to remember. For a wine-lover like me, I have found myself.



Paragliding 
Basically one of the best, most picturesque place I have ever flown was from Lion's head above the city of Cape Town. I was scared shitless from the predominantly turbulent flight but maybe even because of that I just thought I have seen pure beauty from above and my heart will forever stay in this moment just a bit. One day, on my death bed if I am senile at all, I will be looking back to that moment and think to myself, man I lived, I really did. And I landed by the Bungalow which is my number one favorite sunset watching restaurant spot ever since.
Soaring in Paradise beach was awesome too, Wilderness that is. I just have to return and fly more in South Africa, it has been decided.

When we talk about it, Dining, is a whole different chapter, especially for a culinary experiences starved Amsterdammer I have become. First of all, pretty much everywhere I have been the food was outstanding. Too many good experiences to share but let me just mention two: Hout Bay Market for a weekend lunch is coming to mind as a must. And then for fine dining Tintswalo Atlantic was just a jaw dropper with it's perfect location in a secluded premises, right above the sea and impeccable service.


Bungee Jumping
I know myself quite a bit and I am quick to convince myself in the most impossible things and do them. Things that have ranged from intimidating, frightened me or terrifying me. And it was all ok, until this. I have never sweated out something so much before. I thought skydiving all by myself was scary. Wait until you walk on that bridge all tight up like a lamb about to be slathered. But I am not a quitter, I did it. I jumped.
And then it was the triumph. That rush that's incomparable. The feeling alone that's worth living for.

Road trips
Garden Route is one of the most scenic rides in the world. Enough said. It was nice to be at the most Southern point too, ever since geography lessons I thought that place must bring Good Hope



Sailing
Knysna sailing is worth the trip to Africa all by itself. Pictures couldn't tell this story at all. It's like the Amalfi coast only wilder and less commercial.

Mandela 
There are many life stories that have been inspiring to read and know and many lessons to be learned from heroes, but if we must elect 10, my vote is for Mr Mandela, who changed the course of history with his tenacity to fight for what's right. A true worldly inspirational hero.
Sunsets
The sun setting in the sea is always a magnificent spectacle, but even more so at Chapman's Peak.

Surfing
Even though I only went once, it only raised the appetite for more, World class spots
Other reasons to visit the country come to mind too, Hiking, Wildlife, Nightlife, Quirky cosy little hotels, How cheap everything is, world class hospitality, friendly curious inviting society. It's just Heaven, that's it.
My plan is like this. 20 more years max and I am going to move to cyprus permanently but spend winter in Cape town. That's it, decided. :) For any detailed tips, shoot me an email.
And ok, the down sides.
There are not many really. It's a bit iffy with the wifi in many places, although easy and nice to get a local sim and lots of MB for next to nothing. And ok, not all areas are safe, but also never really felt unsafe. We went to several places that were considered a dodgy areas and it was really not much different than same areas in any other big city. Common sense brings you far.
Now that I am thinking about it, I should pay another visit.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

To Alaska with no luggage

It has been a childhood dream of mine to visit Alaska and recently an opportunity came for a free ticket to Portland, OR on air miles so I thought I head off and check it out.  I researched a few options but cruise seemed the easiest and fastest way to see a lot, so I opted for that. The little that I knew about cruising....

My flight involved a stop over in New York for a night and that was hardly a punishment despite the fact that I arrived in the city sweaty, sticky and with no luggage (!). They misplaced my carry-on suitcase at Amsterdam airport so I basically was heading to Alaska with only the cloths on my back, my laptop, phone and camera.
New York... I am in love with big cities and this is one of the most happening exciting ones of all. So was my might there, however short. I really liked being back in the USA. Ever since we moved out of the States I have been going every year and every time I go I sense this familiar feeling that I belong. I like how people chat you up on the street, how everyone smiles with their big white teeth, how big things are, how much energy there is and cheerful consumerism. USA is great, and New York is epitome of that greatness. You got the point, I am so cliché, I just love New York :)

Next day, tired, little hungover and still with nothing but my sweaty cloths from the night before (I arrived too late to shop) I headed back to JFK to fly via Portland and Seattle to Anchorage. At the airport I purchased from a gift shop: a tank top with NYPD logo and a t-shirt saying "property of New York", so long to good taste. Luckily I had a lounge access and could take a shower and change into my newly acquired "fashionable" attire. And so ridiculously dressed I started making a plan how to attack my problem of not having even a jacket.

In Portland I headed straight to Columbia store at the airpot and bought entire hiking gear for only 250 bucks. My knowledge of of PDX made me take the Max, light train, and head two stops away to Target. In literally 20 min there I got a lot: basic underwear, shoes, 2 skirts, 4 t-shirts, a dress, a coat to match all, 150$ total, gotta love the USA. And of to Anchorage.

That entire episode with the lost luggage made me realize several things:
1) you can get all you need in total of 2 hours visiting couple of stores so the amount of time I have spent to buy the items in my lost bag which I estimated is about 20-25 hours is absolutely waste of time
2) you can buy all you need in about the quarter of the price simply by asking yourself do I really need this or just because of lack of time to buy it
3) you can fit a week of luggage in a small sports bag and there will even be space left
4) we are too attached to material stuff, favorite t-shirt, sweater, jeans. At the end these are all things. Should not matter if you lose the, Crying over it is a waste of time.

The BOAT

The cruise ship name is Norwegian Sun, part of the Norwegian cruise line. As it was my first experience I could not compare it with anything. Food options were pretty good, only the intense hikes during the day kept me from getting some brand new good american body fat.



The Trip
As a child I was fascinated by the Klondike Gold Rush and I read everything I could find about it. I have spent months dreaming about the beauty of the Last Frontier, about the cold, short sunny summers, frost-biting winters, it's rugged coast line, bears and glaciers, dog-sledding, tiny wooden towns. I never stopped thinking of Alaska as this dream world coming from my childhood and in a way I thought it was all imaginary. But it was actually all true.
One just need to look at this and say no word more. I was lucky to have seen many beautiful things in my life but this one certainly ranks in the top of the top of the list:
Hubbard glacier seen from Norwegian Sun, September 2015

Valerie Glacier, September 2015




Alaska was more I have expected it to be. There was more to see, and whatever it was there was was far prettier than I thought. It helped a lot that the weather was great at least at the start of the trip.
The moment I could have embarked straight to the nature trails the moment I could and what I saw there was just repletion of the same story line, no, it's not a dream, Alaska is really That pretty.





I was looking for a history book to buy in pretty much every town we stopped but all the ones I found seemed to me too dry so I ended up with this, a historical research of prostitution during the Gold Rush era. Since most women in Alaska were actually involved with some sort of prostitution and most men sooner or later were customers it actually was a very good book to learn how society worked. Was good way to learn and pass time also.
One significant down side on that trip was the fact that the majority of alaska cruise goers are well into retirement age. That fact and also the fact that every night you are forced to spend on the boat as we did not stay overnight anywhere just made me feel a bit like in prison and I don't think I will repeat the cruising experience. What I like the most about traveling is the unknown, the discovery all by yourself. There is really no sense of adventure or discovery when you dine surrounded by the same gray-haired ladies and gents night after night. But hey, everything is a learning experience I certainty was well rested when arriving in Vancouver to spend 2 glorious days with one of my besties.







Sunday, August 30, 2015

Summer in Cyprus

It was a wet and cold June in Amsterdam. Just as the wind and rain were abusing the windows of our downtown apartment and the temperature rarely raised above 14 C I could not help myself but count the days the customary Cyprus holiday. 
Finally July came and our winterly pale selves have been promptly installed back in our Cypriot lifestyle. It’s hard not to like the later when on daily bases one can: go to the beach, spend majority of the day outside, meet friends spontaneously, eat out, buy fresh  delicious and incredibly cheap fruit and vegetables, hire inexpensive help, send the kids to daily swimming lessons, daily dancing lessons and several other activities without breaking the bank, go to gym and park the car for free right outside.

The 6 weeks of vacation bliss passed incredibly fast. It was very much involved around the kids and from what I sense so will be any summer holiday going forward until they turn the appropriate age when spending time with your parents becomes utterly uncool. But you know what, I am totally fine with that age ;) I fact when is it again?? 

The strawberries, age 5, learned the basics of swimming, riding a bicycle, had their first hiking trip, first vacation with other families, first sleep over and mastered the skill of communicating without speaking the language. That’s right, I find it incredible how adaptable children are. In the summer school all children spoke pretty much only Greek. Yet they made friends incredibly fast.

One of the many reasons I really like Cyprus is our home there. I have always been so much against holiday homes because I like to travel and the thought of having to go to the same place all the time seemed burdening. But that concept entirely changed after having children. Traveling with the little ones is a very expensive exercise: it’s 4 plane tickets, 2 hotel rooms, rental car, lots on food and entertainment.The maximum we could sustain is 2 weeks at best. Besides the hassle is so much bigger having to pack and discovering where everything is on arrival. All of a sudden having a fixed place to go to sounds like a fantastic  idea. The packing is limited as there is everything on arrival, including cloths, toys and other children paraphernalia. There is a car waiting outside. The grocery store, the bakery, the pharmacy, the doctor etc is all located nearby . There is a thrusted nanny on call, who also cleans and irons. The apartment is big, not a tiny crammed hotel room. Basically there is nothing to do except enjoy, and for good 6 weeks, not 2. Besides the place rents out easily pretty much over the entire year when not in use, so it ends up bringing money, not costing. The only down side is that it’s a bit far, 4,5 hours on the plane. But that’s also why the climate is so great. Cyprus is closer to Lebanon and Egypt than to continental Europe. 
And its home. I have mentioned that before but it gets more and more home each and every time. Even now I can close my eyes and stroll around dreamingly the sun drenched streets of old town Larnaca, 
If you ask me should you visit Larnaca I would say don’t. There is really nothing special about it. It’s small, a bit dull especially in winter, it’s not particularly picturesque, the beaches lack the azure color of the ones in Napa and Protaras. I don’t think you will feel the child-like excitement I have. It would be just another holiday destination for you, and probably not the most memorable one. 
But to me it is haven on earth.  There are memories coming in from every corner. I love the beach promenade, the old churches, the ever changing sea, the covered with fruit orange trees, the white houses, the warm wind and not to forget, the Sun the mighty Sun.
I told you I am in love, I was not kidding :) 

But like all good things, the holiday came to and end and with a heavy heart I had to say goodbye to the island. It was a bit depressing really. Netherlands welcomed us with a bucket of rain in the face. 16 C, wet and plentiful of that adorable piercing cold wind that makes you just love your life. Luckily more school holidays are coming and therefor more Cyprus trips. If it wasn't for that I would have been crying, literally. 





Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Democratic Republic of Congo, not your usual cup of tea

Not long ago my adventurous self got the travel itch and booked a trip to Congo. I did not think about it much, I saw Air France had a direct flight, the travel advisory said the political climate is calm and so I thought, why not. I have never been to Africa before, let's just see the "real Africa".
And Real it was. Congo is one of the least developed and poorer countries in Africa and the world. It's also one of the least travelled as it has been rampaged by disastrous politics. After I booked the ticket I did a little research and all I found out about visiting Congo was rather concerning. First of all as it's not touristy, if you do find a tour or so to join is ridiculously expensive, accommodation in hotels is either in a 5 star hotels of which they have 2 in Kinshasa for which you pay dearly, or cheaper hostels and the likes where safety and bugs is a major concern. Strangely enough though they do have a few private accommodation and I booked one of those via airbnb. That meant I had to share an apartment with a couple but what the hell I thought, it's an adventure right.

And so one dark evening in June I arrive to this house. This is a upper middle class neighborhood in Kinshasa with "proper" two level houses, canalization, electricity, a generator when the electricity stops  working, which is often, security guards. They all look like prisons from the outside. The main streets are paved but not the side streets which are covered with sand and because of that sand tends to be everywhere, in your room, bed, shoes. Not far from the house there is a western style supermarket which makes the neighborhood a desirable place to live, as it's pretty much the only one of that sort in town. Options for getting food were very limited. Either you buy food from the store, which made sense for breakfast, or go to a restaurant which was a very expensive ordeal. From what I gathered it is like that because the country is so corrupt and inefficient that it takes me 5 times as much resources to produce anything. Restaurants are for the most quite empty except the occasional expat or Congo-elite.
There is of course street food. I have never seen this before but I know all my vegetarian and vegan friends would have nightmares for eternity watching a lamb being skinned and cooked right in front of you.
For the rest Kinshasa is practically one big ghetto. There is nothing beautiful in that town except the eye-opening experience that human beings can survive and even be happy in the worse of circumstances.
Just a brief lesson in history. What sets Congo apart from most other African countries is the fact that during colonial times they had the worst of luck to be ran as Belgium King Leopold's private estate where for years he just drained the country resources and treated it's people inhumanly. Things got not much better after Belgium took over and practically did nothing to develop the country or "teach" the locals how to run their own country. Independence came and after a brief political havoc Congo's infamous gen. Mobutu took over and for over 30 years fucked the country up. Corruption is what it seems the most thriving part of the economy, poverty, famine, rape, illiteracy, secret police, lawlessness, off the scale child mortality,  you name it, they have it. Last few years civil wars were added to the mix causing all sort of disasters on it's own.
Basically if you believe in reincarnation, you may think you have done really awful things in your previous life to be born in Congo at your next one.


But there is hope.
I had to do something to get out of Kinshasa and pretty much the only place around worth visiting is the Bonobo monkey sanctuary. Those are the very famous monkeys that solve all their disputes with sex and are bisexual, incest-prone and do masturbate. All in all interesting characters.
But just as any of these places during summer, this one was also visited by school kids.
Here they are, funny, shy, curious, pushing each other around, laughing. Children are hope. They don't know any better than what they have and, as long as they are safe and loved, they are all full of joy and hope, same as all over the world. It really was a breath of fresh air to see the energy of those school kids in the jungly after couple of days in the chaos of Kinshasa.






And it was time to go. I could not even push the whole week so booked a d-tour back via Casablanca after 4,5 days in Congo.
What would I say about if you want to visit Congo. I think if you are crazy enough that you thought that's a place for you to go, then do it. Because you are obviously out of your mind and that's what is great about the world. Just beware to get your yellow fever certificate as that's a moment just after arrival to immediately face corruption, you will be harassed until you pay money, 20 USD in my case.
Also beware there is departure tax at the airport and you need to bring cash. Generally speaking the airport is a dodgy place and if you get the chance someone to help you out, someone that you thrust, go for it. If you have money to spend, you will. Prepare for that too. For the rest, when I went, June 2015, it felt relatively safe and relatively friendly and I must say, they know how to cook chicken. I don't think I have ever had such a good grilled chicken ever before. And brush up your French, you will need it.

CASABLANCA

Casablanca was the creddle of civilization after Congo. I saw the famous Mosque, roamed the market streets  in old town, had wonderful inexpensive food and even went to the mall and had my hair done.
If it wasn't for Congo before, I would probably find the city and bit dirty and chaotic and the locals a bit too intrusive. But since I did come from the darkest heart of Africa, I couldn't care less.
To me Morocco is a bit like visiting Turkey. It's a light, beginners version of their parts of the world. Very user-friendly for the most. What I found particularly pleasant is that most people speak at least basic English and usually fluent French. Visit by all means.