Languedoc wine region

A Rosé Holiday in Montpellier


The student-centric city of Montpellier is not what one assumes when you say you’re jetting off to the south of France. Typically, the exotic beaches of the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera), Nice, Cannes and Saint-Tropez fit the bill but for me and my crew, a short jaunt to the 8th largest city in France to sip rosé in the sun is just what the doctor ordered.

To start, Montpellier is perfectly located to get a quick taste of the fabulous Languedoc wine route. We started off with a half-day tour led by the friendly and knowledgeable Karina from Montpellier Wine Tours to visit two medieval, family-owned estates.

Montpellier Wine TourSet at the base of Pic Saint-Loup, Château La Roque’s entire biodynamic selection was perfect on the palate and we couldn’t escape without two bottles of Château La Roque Rosé 2015 in tow. Followed by Château de Lascaux, sitting amongst the dated stone walls in an old monastery, set the scene perfectly for our second tasting.

Château La Roque VineyardA short train ride from the city is the unpretentious colorful port town of Sète. Narrow canals create a maze around the old town, surprisingly busy for a Sunday when the rest of France shuts down. Families enjoyed ice-creams, as we parked ourselves in front of the foodie mecca Les Halles, to sip more rosé in the sun to the sound of locals playing music in the street out front.

Languedoc coastAfter a scenic walk along the Languedoc coast, we discovered a small, quiet beach. It was an ideal and unsuspecting place to grab a baguette, some cured ham and cheese to picnic, coupled with a light, refreshing rosé in the scorching heat. On our way back to town, it was only necessary to sit along the canal to soak up the last of the day’s sun and try the big fat locally farmed oysters, king prawns and mussels.

Seafood platter in SèteThe best part of Montpellier is not only the short 14k proximity to a stunning coastline but cycling there! A paved path with fit runners, wild horses and fishermen hug the lush green river Lez, topped with Lilly pads and flamingos and lined with bright purple, yellow and white flowers mixed with bright red poppies. We let our skirts flow with the wind as we rode hired bikes along the pathway to its mouth Palavas-les-Flots, and stopped along the way for yet again another indulging picnic and bottle of rosé to reward ourselves for the day’s efforts.

Cycling to Palavas-les-Flots

Montpellier wild horsesMontpellier is an interesting city for sure. A friend asked why go? There’s nothing there, he said. But if you like great wine, fresh seafood and fantastic weather, there’s nothing not to like. It’s a quirky and charming place, tattoo and piercing shops nestle up next to century-old buildings; student friendly cheap eats, kabab and bagel shops rival Michelin recommended bistros while street performers, hippies and homeless dogs roam the streets.

Place de la Comédie“Summer is for tourists, wine country is for locals,” Karina said. And I’d like to pretend just for a weekend I was both. Even better, Montpellier turned Sophie from a rosé sceptic to a convert. Nothing beats a rosé holiday!

We loved:
Glouglou: A cute wine bar with a large range of taste-to-pour varietals. The glouglou platter of oysters, salmon, cured ham, cheese and foie gras was a perfect snack to share post-wine tasting.

glouglouThym Et Romarin: An awesome recommendation from Karina, we had our favorite meal in town here with excellent service by Jean. The confit duck and baked camembert were a dream.

The Beehive Pub: Set in a charming square where local townsfolk enjoy a beer at any time of day, the selection of over 40 whiskies gave us no reason to apologize for enjoying a few post-dinner aperitifs at an English pub in France (gasp!).

Le Pré Vert: This beautiful brunch location has the most enormous, delicious salads. Think goat cheese on toast with orange slices and almonds; smoked salmon and trout with mixed vegetables; or pesto chicken and fresh mozzarella.

Grand Hotel du Midi:  Just on the cusp of the old town, this funky contemporary hotel was perfectly situated in buzzing Place de la Comédie in the heart of the city. Service was great, free-Wi-Fi, a friendly bar with a great selection and small balconies to enjoy the morning sun.

Grand Hotel du Midi

 

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Pintxos Fever in San Sebastián ​


I must have gained 10 lbs at least. Pintxos for breakfast, pintxos for lunch and more pintxos for dinner. I’m not complaining though. I certainly would call my first visit to San Sebastián in Basque Country Spain a success.

Pintxos, San Sebastian

Pintxos, San Sebastian

Pintxos are sort of a form of tapas, bite-sized snacks typically served on a small piece of crusty bread in northern Spain. It’s common ground for both locals and tourists to stand at the bar, napkins thrown on the floor, as you help yourself from wooden boards sitting out on the countertop with everything from Jamon (cured Spanish ham), gambas (shrimp), anchovies, croquettes, imitation crab meat and goats cheese to some really interesting and unique ones, each place having its own specialty and recipes. They are best paired with a local vino tinto (red wine) from neighboring Rioja or a garagardo (Basque for beer).

Some places are really good at the honor system and keep track of what you’ve taken while you munch away, while others you must first show your plate to the bartender then pay before taking a seat. Once we finally arrived in the pintxos capital of the world San Sebastián it was non-stop snacking.

I met my Australian bestie Nidya in the industrial port city of Bilbao, as it was an easy place to sync up. I was just a short flight from London but Nidya made the long journey from Brisbane to Singapore to Zurich then finally Bilbao. Hotel Abando was perfectly situated for our one night stop off. It gave us an opportunity to catch up and get our first taste of the famed Basque delicacy of pintxos at notorious Café Iruña, then a few others along Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea, a foodie’s dream street, before making the hour journey north the following morning.

Nidya and Lisa selfie at Pintxos bar on Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea

Nidya and Lisa selfie at Pintxos bar on Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea

In Basque they speak their own language Euskal Herria so Nidya’s native Spanish from growing up in Peru didn’t necessarily always get us far. She even admitted it’s not what it used to be as it’s now more of a form of Span-glish, but it still was a big help which defaulted her the role of interpreter at times.

Pension Goiko, in the heart of the compact streets of Old Town (Parte Viaje), San Sebastian was a cross between a hostel and budget hotel suitable for both backpackers and couples. The location was unquestionable. The beach was just a short stroll away as well. One thing that didn’t go unnoticed is the noise from the alcohol-fuelled night owls who filled the streets till the early morning. I’d argue however that you would likely get the same problem anywhere in Old Town so just bring ear plugs and enjoy being in the thick of it.

Unfortunately it rained all weekend but we still managed a walk along the beach and through the picturesque port. We were delighted to come across  fresh oysters in the middle of yet another rain storm, but we weren’t too fussed as it was a great excuse to escape the cold, wet weather. I can only imagine how beautiful the sea would look on a sunny day as the town is known as a surfer’s paradise.

The city was a lot larger than I imagined, with Old Town, two beaches, and the local neighborhoods, there was plenty to do. Known for it’s Michelin starred restaurants, we couldn’t get in so last minute so we stuck to the narrow cobblestone streets of Old Town. My favorite pintxos bars were La Cepa for their melt in your mouth Jamon – seriously it was the most magical and sensory thing I’ve ever eaten; Casa Alcalde for their house vino tinto, and Nagusia Lau for their great pintxos selection including morcilla and fresh octopus. Other popular spots include Taberna Gandarias, La Cuchara de San Telmo, and Bar Nestor although we were so caught up we never made it to those.

San Sebastián Old Town

San Sebastián Old Town

Atari was the real deal when it came to a more formal dinner. Ordering off their raciones (small portions) menu we stuffed ourselves with beef cheek, local fish of hake, and squid with black squid ink. All the tables were fully booked ahead but we were lucky one came free just as we arrived. Even better, the bar turns into one of the hottest after dinner spots in town, as both locals and tourists take their Aperol spritz on to the steps of neighboring church Iglesia de Santa Maria to mingle under the stars.

When the rain finally cleared the following day we stumbled across Mercado de la Bretxa on the cusp of Old Town. On Saturdays the fruit and produce vendors are out, replaced by craftsman on Sundays. Luckily for us, there was a fundraiser taking place for a few hours that we passed by with just chance. We watched a gastronomic cook-off on one side of the market, amateur chefs competing on who makes the best salsa-verde. On the other side, they were dishing out local beer Keller accompanied by merluza (fresh hake fish, lightly battered and fried). A local informed us this was the real deal in terms of authenticity, as two seconds later a small marching band formed, strumming and blowing their horns to traditional Basque songs. 

 

As the San Sebastián Film Festival was on that weekend it made for some interesting additional fun. Later that afternoon our noses lead us to the Japanese pop up Cinema Caravan. We sat out on the wet stone steps of a schoolyard sipping sake and eating takoyaki (fried octopus balls) while watching a video installation against the old walls and jamming along to the DJ set. Later that night while sipping Basque craft beer we chatted to Bertrand from Bordeaux. He was in town for the film festival and gave Nidya some insider tips for her next stop in Barcelona while I sat trying to make sense of his broken english, Spanish with a french accent, and Nidya’s translations.

Port of San Sebastian

Port of San Sebastian

Our luck would have it that on our final day the sun finally came out! It gave us the perfect reason to walk off all our pintxos calories as we hiked to the top of Monte Urgell to witness the famed Statue of Jesus, and stunning views over the sea.

So the biggest question remains, when can I go back?

 

My Norway in a Nutshell Itinerary


Welcome to the land of a million waterfalls, trolls, and Vikings. Where every corner you turn the dramatic landscape changes within the blink of an eye. Where seafood is fresh and abundant and your pocket is constantly empty from the astronomical cost of EVERYTHING.

Huge troll at Voss train station, Norway

Huge troll at Voss train station, Norway

Clever Norway tourism coupled the best bits of the region’s most popular sites and made hopping around to them very easy through their Norway in a Nutshell itineraries. Simple and effective, anyone, all ages can easily book online and craft an itinerary through breathtaking landscapes and (no longer) hidden secret places either on their own or as part of a guided group.

Jamie and I decided however that we would go rogue and take the best of Norway in a Nutshell and craft our own agenda while booking independently. We worked out that albeit slightly more expensive since the box-set tours book the cheapest train times, which aren’t always convenient, this gave us more flexibility to stay where we wanted on our own clock.

Even better, budget airline Norwegian Air run flights daily from London Gatwick. Flights can be reasonably priced and include free Wi-Fi on board.

Lisa & Jaime’s Norway in a Nutshell itinerary:

Day 1: Bergen

Bryggen, Bergen

Bryggen, Bergen

Known to be the cutest and most picturesque in the country, I wish I had more than just one day to explore this coastal city. Apparently it’s also the happiest place in the country too. We rented an Air BnB from an attractive local, centrally located between the train station and the historic area of Bryygen.

Despite a down pouring of rain all afternoon, our efforts to explore were not tainted. I tried my first (of many) classic fish soups over lunch at Café Opera, a casual bar and restaurant situated in the heart of the city across from the Opera. In fact, I didn’t realize at the time how affordable the food truly was there. It was where I first learned how large portions in Norway can be, evidenced by Jaime’s huge salad, so you could argue the astronomical costs are value for money.

The wooden boardwalk streets and pointed houses of historic Bryggen are so cute they definitely visually ticked the box of classic Norway in my mind. The entire city, and country for that matter, plays the part and is dressed for the outdoors and the brisk summer cold. Yes, you read that right, 50 F degrees in August.  It reminded Jaime of a mini-Seattle, each shop selling lightweight puffers, wool, reindeer slippers and of course, the iconic country mascot – the troll.

To escape the rain we stopped in at Una, a modern bar serving a range of over 20 craft beers on tap plus a wide selection in bottles. It was there we met Skip, a 70-ish-year-old American from Virginia who had been traveling around Europe solo for the last five months. Looking like a hippie version of Santa Claus, we couldn’t help but be friendly and share a beer to hear about his wild stories of a 3-week rage in Greece; learn that Bergen is considered the Nashville of heavy metal deemed as such by Crazy Dennis who runs the nearby music venue The Garage, and politely excused ourselves after finishing up with the full history of his ex-wife and funeral home business.

The night ended walking through the quiet backstreets of the hillside above the city, then on to dinner in the heart of the fish market. King crab claws, lobster, mussels, and prawns at Fish Me. Some things in life are worth the splurge in cash.

Day 2: Voss

The view over Vangsvatnet, Voss

The view over Vangsvatnet, Voss

Known as the adventure capital of Norway and home to Extreme Sports Week, this was one stop on the Norway in a Nutshell’s standard itinerary we changed to accommodate a full day of adrenaline pumping fun. So we decided to go paragliding! If you aren’t familiar with the concept, we basically ran down a hill then off the side of the mountain. Then we safely floated over the amazing scenery of Vangsvatnet Lake, mountains and the small town, thanks to the large glider attached to my tandem pilot’s back.

Pargaliding over Voss, Norway

Pargaliding over Voss, Norway

It was totally awesome! I enjoyed it so much more than my skydiving experience in New Zealand (read here) as there is no free fall at all.  Basically, I hung out on a comfy seat floating about the world like Edward Cullen in Twilight for a quick five minutes before landing in a run on the ground. You start with a run, which I apparently still did for a long time once airborne, and land in a run as well. I also started screaming before I even left the ground but I must note that at no point did I ever feel unsafe.

The best part about Voss Tandem is that it’s all certified. The booking system is also super easy. I put in my contact details and date, and a few minutes later I had a text from Biorjan, my pilot, confirming I was booked. Almost too easy! Jaime referenced my booking in a second submission and the two pilots hooked up behind the scenes to ensure we could ‘fly’ together.

Paraglider coming in for landing

Paraglider coming in for landing

Biorjan told me his whole story to calm my nerves. He’s been jumping off things such as this since 2005, is a carpenter by trade and does it for fun to help support his new born twins. I knew most of that though because I looked him up on Facebook in advance and the pictures of him gliding off of a mountain with a parachute wearing a pair of skies gave me the confidence I needed. I almost tried to trade Jamie though after learning that her pilot Oyvan is somewhat of a local legend, the ‘grandfather of paragliding’ they say.

Following our big success, it was straight down to the popular Tre Brør (Three Brothers) in town for a magnificently huge and delicious cheeseburger coupled with a beer from the Voss Brewery.

Day 3: Stalheim

View of Nærøy Valley from the Stalheim Hotel

View of Nærøy Valley from the Stalheim Hotel

If you ever wondered what a cross between the Grand Budapest Hotel and the hotel featured in the thriller The Shining would be like, then the Stalheim Hotel is worth a visit. Once the golden hotel of Norway in the 80s, it certainly has seen its day.  But what draws the tour buses and tourists stopping in off of on their Norway in a Nutshell adventures is simply, the view!

After finishing up in Voss it made sense to us to go the short distance to the hotel to relax for the night before carrying on. And I must urge, if you don’t stay in a room with a view you shouldn’t stay here at all. Sure, it’s cute with baby pink linen, a mint green bathtub with powder blue tiles and has a very weird charm to it and all but for the most expensive accommodation on our trip (again, we were paying for the view) you’d at least expect a working ice machine, an upgrade from paper cups, a step up from generic toiletries in the bathroom, and a functioning gift shop.

The lobby confused me, and maybe that was the point. Furniture from many different periods scattered between rooms set against fire places, cozy corners, and the huge windows that looked out to the famed ‘view’. But when there is nothing around but the great outdoors, confined to an overpriced, tired buffet attended by large Asian tour groups and a few honeymooners, dinner did the trick, but only just.  A sneaky hint of peanuts in the pesto sauce nearly set Jaime’s allergy off. Even scarier, this is a country that takes food allergies very seriously as signs with food contents and potential allergens are posted in nearly every eatery.

“Excuse me what type of deer is this? Rein?” At least we tried the country’s meal of choice, reindeer, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to ask without being awkward if it was the real thing. Good news though, she nodded back with a yes.

Despite waking up to rain in the morning, the second best part was then driving down from the top of the mountain through ‘the view’. A super-steep, windy road took us away from the hotel, further into the Nærøy Valley. Stunning waterfalls, 25 in the Valley alone to be precise, sprung from each corner as the countryside further presented itself.

Day 4:  Nærøyfjord

Rain has clear on Nærøyfjord

Rain has cleared on Nærøyfjord

On my bucket list for years has been to see the famed fjords of Norway. So here we were, boarding a vessel at Gudvangen to take us 2.5 hour through the most famed and picturesque fjords of the country, and it was pissing rain! Everyone knows everything looks better in the sun. Reduced visibility from the fog and clouds, I can still say that it was totally awesome.

Sure, the whole boat is full of tourists, but like anywhere else that’s what happens when you do the most touristy thing in a place. Yea, it was so cool. Waterfall, waterfall, waterfall…did you just see that waterfall? Oh, and the village of Undredal. Cutest thing I have ever seen!

Cutest town in Norway, Undredal

Cutest town in Norway, Undredal

People watching is also a favorite past time so we sipped a few beers, stayed warm and came out during the really good bits to take some photos and chat to a young couple from New Jersey who gave us tips on what to do in Iceland as I’ll be there this coming New Years. We were lucky there were a few breaks in the clouds and it didn’t rain the whole time. I must go back though! Sneaky tip – try the porthole in the loo to stay dry while also getting an amazing view.

Waterfall view from the loo

Waterfall view from the loo

Day 5: Flåm

The heart of Flam

The heart of Flam

What a name! Flåm. The final stop on the fjord cruise ends in the small village of Flåm. There’s nothing much there other then another stunning view of more waterfalls as the primary reason so many tourists and cruise ships stop in is to begin their journey on the scenic Flåm Railway.

View from Flam Marina & Apartments

View from Flam Marina & Apartments

Jaime and I stayed the night in town at the Flåm Marina & Apartments. It was very quant and the rooms were clean, with nice balconies overlooking the fjord. The village is so small it’s a short walk to the main bit, with a few restaurants and gift shops. The highlight however was the Ægir BrewPub. The food portions upstairs at Flåmsbrygga are huge and delicious and the beer sampling is what they do best. Set in an old stave church, the wood beam and stone Viking-looking interior and interesting shape made it an ideal place to spend the evening as the rain continued down.

Jaime is a viking!

Jaime is a Viking!

If traveling on the Flåm Railway (Flåmsbana) from Flåm you want a seat on the right hand side facing away from town. This showcases the most dramatic views of the landscape as the train travels across steep terrain. It makes a tourist stop on a viewing platform at Kjosfossen to view the massive waterfall 93m tall. Quite an eerie experience to view the overwhelming falls in the rain, as a woman with long hair in a red dress stood twirling on the edge of the mountain singing to the sound of spiritual music coming from what looked like an old abandoned shed.

Day 6: Geilo

Trekking around Geilo

Strong posing while trekking around Geilo.

When people describe taking the train across Norway from Bergen to Oslo they are not joking when they express how magnificent the journey really is. The stretch from Flåm to Geilo was straight out of something I only ever dreamed. Rivers and rapids, lakes, glaciers, snowcapped mountains, rock formations with a single fire-engine red house standing out in the distance. There’s a huge mountain biking culture here as well and many bring their bikes along to trek across this awesome terrain.

We stopped in Geilo, only to later learn that it’s an upmarket ski resort. In the summer, it’s a great place for hiking. We imagined we’d be a lot more physically active up until this point in the trip but due to the rain we swapped exercise for beers. Luckily for our stay in Geilo the weather was perfect for a 12K hike around the Ustedalsfjorden. It was pretty quiet, bar a few other hikers so it was just us and the massive valley to explore. We packed a picnic, with wine and cheese of course, and set out to do what Norwegians do best – explore the great outdoors.

Hiking through Geilo in style

Hiking through Geilo in style

We were massively disappointed to learn that the two best restaurants in town Hallingstuene and Ekte were fully booked. Even in off-season you must book well in advance. We ended up at Karma Spices of India, run by an Iranian family, and it was quite average.  I’ve never before seen cheeseburgers and fish soup on any other Indian restaurant menu.

Day 7: Oslo

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It’s about 4 hours from Geilo on the train to finish off in Oslo. Oslo has a reputation of being even more expensive, but also lacking in the tourism department. With just a half a day to spare we opted to go the Nobel Peace Center. It’s a great place to spend a free hour and really brought to light some of the applauding humanitarian efforts happening all across the world.

We finished with what could only be a perfect meal. Solsiden is rated one of the top seafood restaurants in the city and overlooks the Oslo Fjord and trendy Aker Brygge waterfront. We divulged in sashimi of scallops, halibut, octopus and salmon before each devouring a delicately prepared fish main course.

Sashimi starter at Solsiden

Sashimi starter at Solsiden

We sadly left Oslo with empty pockets and a bit fatter than when we arrived but with happy memories, great vibes of the local people, and amazing pictures, until our next adventure as traveling buddies presents itself again.

 

Becoming Australian


Prom dress; singing Waltzing Matliza

Prom dress; singing Waltzing Matliza

Senior citizens in bright pink prom dresses and oversized sports coats stood at the front of Richmond Town Hall while singing Waltzing Matilda, Australia’s unofficial national anthem. Confused, and slightly drunk, I attempted to sing along amongst the 79 other people from 32 countries that would momentarily become, like I would too, an Australian citizen.

Arriving two weeks earlier from London, I sat outside at a pub in Windsor catching up with friends I hadn’t seen in nearly 6 months. At first they seemed unsure of what was so different about me. Was it my hair? Had I grown back into my city slicker ways?

No.

I was pale. They had never seen me so pale! Two winters back to back and I showed up in sunny Australia the color of a ghost.

I was way more emotional coming back to Australia then I had expected. But then again I’m still confused why I didn’t anticipate I would be. Australia was my home for almost 5 years. That’s longer than college, and longer than my time in Hoboken.

It’s strange to come back to somewhere that was your home for so long, and everything is still the same. All of my favorite places; all my favorite people. But I think that’s what made the whole citizenship experience more special.

I went back to my old flat. I slept in my old bed with the same bed sheets, the same towel hanging in the shower, and my shoe rack in the closet. I even had left my summer wardrobe behind. It was like I lived there, but in reality I was in someone else’s bed, using someone’ else’s things that were once mine. The good news was it was at least my best friends’ and not some strangers!

I immediately stomped my old haunts. I sauntered down Bridge Road for avocado on toast at my local Gypsey & Mosquito and bumped into my former doctor. I had mac and cheese and burnt ends at Meat Mother with old coworkers after getting my nails done at my favorite budget salon Paradise Nails. I took Wes’s dachshund Frieda for walks along the Yarra River, she’s kind of my dog too, or at least I pretend she is.

I didn’t realize until I came back home how much I had missed it all. Waking up each morning to the bright sun, coercing me out of bed. Even spending time in Sydney, the place my love affair with Australia first started, made me ache to move back. There was familiarity of running along the coast from Bondi to Bronte, stopping to watch the surfers, and sipping drinks at swanky beach bars.

Iceberg's, Bondi Beach

Iceberg’s, Bondi Beach

So as I sat in the back row in Richmond Town Hall waiting for my name to be called, of course it was in alphabetical order, I smiled to myself a bit. I approached the whole citizenship thing a bit casual at first, I paid my dues and lived in the country long enough, but when I finally entered into it I felt excited to be an Australian.

Lisa Vecchio, Australian Citizenship ceremony

I’m an Australian!

I waved my little Aussie flag high to greet my best friends Anne Marie and Nidya (who amazingly flew in from Brisbane for less than 24 hours to share the celebration). I looked over from time to time and smiled at the Asian guy to my right, who was so excited he kept jumping out of his seat. I was grateful as the mayor explained there is a reason why they have a banner hanging out front stating that asylum seekers are welcome, and felt proud to live in a place that provides refuge.

To sit amongst a group of people who were there for many different reasons, all with varying colors, languages and motivations, and to think about how I got to be in that same room, was one of the most rewarding things I had ever done. And afterwards as I sat with a plateful of dumplings and my bottle of wine with some of my closest friends, I felt damn proud to call Australia one of my many homes and to now call myself a tri-citizen.

 

A Weekend Escape to Riga, Latvia


Gentle snowflakes touched my brow as I stood proudly next to a Siberian husky. The tranquillity of the white landscape, deep in the Latvian countryside after dog sledding amongst the pines, was peaceful. Or at least I imagined it would be. My recent purchase of a leopard-print ear band matched my gold puffy jacket and tan furry snow boots perfectly. I already had my Instagram image perfected in my head.

After boarding our Ryanair flight at Stansted to Riga, Lizzie and I chatted over a wine and giggled at the fact that we had no idea what to expect at touchdown. My Lonely Planet download failed and out of character I had done no planning. Weather, food, currency, language, tourist sites…I would have to go circa 2003 backpacker days and just wing it as after all, there was no snow on the ground so dog sledding would have to be postponed until next time. The above was just a fantasy yet my outfit remained the same.

Lisa Vecchio, Old Town, Riga

Lisa Vecchio, Old Town, Riga

It turns out Riga was pretty cool despite the untraditionally warm weather. In fact, it’s considered one of the most “hipster” cities in all of Europe. Here are some tips on how to make the most of your time if you a have quick escape to Riga.

Eat:

Latvians are passionate people, so this also explains their love of smoked meats, sauerkraut and pickled everything.

  • Ala: Every person I spoke to elated both the authenticity and fun factor of this traditional folk house. If frequenting over the weekend, go early to snag a bar seat or even better make a reservation to sit at one of their large communal tables. The local beer selection is vast (26 taps!) to compliment the over-sized portions of conventional Latvian cuisine with a modest price tag to match. Stay late as it transforms from eatery to party spot. In addition, the service was fantastic as our bartender and waiter both made sure we had an opportunity to sample all the local delicacies and brews on tap – the garlic bread is extraordinarily different, delicious and a must try.
Platter and craft beer at Ala, Old Town, Riga

Platter and craft beer at Ala, Old Town, Riga

  • Burger Story: I would argue that this is the best burger I’ve had in my life. Hipster with a clubby vibe and unsuspecting, this late night spot is the most Western yet delicious meal I ate my whole time in Latvia.
  • Šefpavārs Vilhelms (pancake house): Latvians love a self-service buffet and this small pancake eatery is as authentic as it comes. While there were also labels in English to describe every pancake available under the sun, from banana to cottage cheese fillings, I felt the most anticipated option of potato pancake was bland. Then again, I didn’t fully take advantage of the variety of toppings including candied fruit and sour cream, all of which the locals appeared to drown theirs with. Better yet, my entire plate was a mere two Euro.
  • Central Market: In what was once a WWII Zeppelin hanger and considered one of the worlds most modern markets during the 1930’s, this colorful hub where all of the grannies come to gossip is sensation overload. It contains everything you would need, from fruit and veg carts to aged meats to a fishery as pungent as a bad joke. Handicrafts and knick-knacks line the market’s outer walls offering tourists a cheaper alternative to the souvenir shops in Old Town.

Explore:

Riga was described to me as independent, and the embodiment of culture. If you’re good at what you do and good at getting by, you live in Riga. While central Riga does have its fair share of chain stores, Latvia is the type of country where you can certainly score something interesting when supporting independent retailers.

  • Riga Free Walking Tour: Everyday at noon outside of St. Peter’s Church you’ll be greeted by a bright yellow suitcase to signify you are on the Riga Free Walking tour. Tours vary from exploring Old Town or leaving the touristy cobblestone streets to get out of your comfort zone and into greater Riga to see the Russian and German influence alongside the Art Nouveau architecture. Agita was a wonderful host and I would recommend the tours to anyone – please tip as you feel appropriate.
Riga Free Tour; yellow suitcase

Riga Free Tour; yellow suitcase

  • Kalnciema Kvartāls (craft market): Only held once a month, we took the scenic route and walked the 40 minutes out of the city centre to get here. A cab would have been more appropriate to avoid the busy walk amongst the paved highway extension. This market is as authentic as they come. Predominately tourist free, we bundled our scarves up tighter as snowflakes landed across our thick winter coats while we witnessed native sellers showcasing dried meats, liquor and cheese to winter outerwear and Latvian couture. Everyone gladly spoke english once we responded wide-eyed to their enthusiastic explanation of goods on display.
Vendor at Kalnciema Kvartāls (craft market, Riga)

Vendor at Kalnciema Kvartāls (craft market, Riga)

Drink: 

As a top eastern European stag-do (bachelor) destination, Old Town Riga has a plethora of late night spots and hostel-hosted pub crawls. Expect Riga Black Balsam, the traditional Latvian herbal liquor mixed with vodka (45% ABV) to play a big part of your night. Also anticipate beautiful Latvian craft beer.

  • Naughty Squirrel Hostel: We checked into our private room with en-suite and were immediately handed two shots of Balsam. “Tradition,” we were told. So when our pub crawl host introduced himself as Voldemarse, or Volde for short, I knew then that we were going to have a great night. He actually commented that he doesn’t mind that his name is so closely affiliated to the Harry Potter villain Lord Voldemort as at least guests remember his name. 5 pubs later and we were sharing a pint and burger with Volde at the hostel bar.
  • Aussie Pub Riga: Conveniently situated next to Old Town Hostel, with over 14 Latvian beers on tap served from an old VW van, this small Aussie-themed bar is one of the top spots for beer tasting. In fact,  you can sample them all for only 10 Euro. The upstairs is small but cosy and a great place to chill as you can expect the pub crawl to use the ground floor bar as the standard first stop. Don’t let that turn you off from watching biathlon though, the Olympic sport which combines cross country skiing and rifle shooting.
  • Tims Mints: This local hangout in the heart of Old Town is a hipster haven for locals, craft beer and cocktails. They even have board games and table football. This is the type of place you could quietly chill in the afternoon with some friends or dance the night away as it becomes a popular meeting point in the centre of it all.

So there you have it! Medieval Old Town meets post-communism hipsters. Riga certainly is an easy place to enjoy a weekend away.

The Freedom Monument, Riga, Latvia

The Freedom Monument, Riga, Latvia

Queenstown: A Solo Adventure


I intently stared out of the window, camera in position as we descended out of the cloudbank and into view of the vast snow tipped mountains called the Remarkables. This landscape is absolutely extraordinary.

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The plane began to shake as we entered the windy valley between the incredibly close mountain ranges, then all of the sudden, oomph. My head smacked the side of the window and my tray table unfastened itself from the locked position. Panic. We must have dropped a few feet before leveling out again. “Don’t worry,” said the flight attendant over the intercom. “It’s just the wind between the mountains, nothing to be alarmed about.”

Welcome to Queenstown! A buzzing town of snow bunnies crossed with adventure sports, breathtaking scenery and world-renowned pinot noir sipped against the backdrop of white capped peaks.

“Are you skiing?”  “Snowboarding then?” “So, what are you doing here?”  My reply was simple, I’m here to eat well and drink wine. Snow Sheep Queenstown In a town where every other backpacker, boys weekend or family vacation seem to hit the slopes or jump off either one of the tallest or oldest bungy’s in the world, is it possible to enjoy yourself as a single traveler not in the slightest interested in the above? Sure is. I’d even rate Queenstown as not only my number one favorite destination in New Zealand but at the top of my books all around. So what’s there to get up to?

The Bars:

I hung with the locals at Atlas Beer Café, deemed Queenstown’s home of craft beer including microbrew Emerson’s (go with the English Porter on the hand pump) along with some guest taps and locally sourced food, like the lick smacking steak with demi-glace and Café de Paris butter, served with a side salad and fries.

The Find, previously known as The World Bar, was a great place to go solo. Maybe it’s just because Queenstown, unlike many Aussie bars, actually have bar stools at the bar. There’s nothing better than saddling up at the bar for a snack staring up at the teapots which house cocktails for the backpackers who trickle in later in the evening.

And lastly, cozy, dimly lit places like The Bunker  and Bardauex offer extensive New Zealand wine collections and a soothing, chilled out atmosphere with big comfy sofas around outdoor fire pits or indoor blazes.

This is between all of the countless bars and nightclubs including Cowboy’s, Winnie’s and Searle Social Club amongst many other late night spots where you can find inebriated late teens and early twenty-something’s, and myself on one or two occasions, dancing the night away.

The Wine:

But then let’s not forget it was the wine I came for.

The Winery is a storefront that offers a taste of over 80 different New Zealand wines. Grouped by variety, the philosophy of this place is simple, yet expensive. Insert your “wine card” and choose from a taste, half glass, or full glass of some of the most desired wines in the region. At about an average of $5 a taste, I tried a few high-end Pinots then called it day.

This was after I went on my Queenstown Trail: Original Wine Tour just the day before. Lance, a 20 year wine-guide veteran led us to four different wineries in the Gibbston Valley, Central Otago. I’d rate them as such:

Best Tasting Room: Gibbston Valley Winery – set in New Zealand’s largest wine cave

Best Tasting Host: Waitiri Creek – Jason, the vineyard manager of this family owned winery passionately and simply broke down the chemistry of wine making into terms us normal-folk could understand

Best Wine: Remarkable Wines – only winery where I enjoyed the whole range; walked away with the 2009 Pinot Noir

Best Notoriety: Amisfield – while I can’t afford their both delicate and elegant vintages, Will and Kate famously made a stop here on their recent visit

The Food:

When in New Zealand it’s all about the lamb, oysters and prime cuts of beef.

I felt I was back in Melbourne while dining at Madame Woo, an eclectic modern Asian restaurant with delectable sticky pork belly dishes and thick curry’s set to tune of some of my favorite bands like the Kooks and Cold War Kids.

While Vudu Café is rated the number one brunch spot, you’d be lucky to score a seat. Instead, Bob’s Weigh Café was a smaller, simpler option serving great muesli and rumored the best coffee in town.

The Great Outdoors:

Skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing aside, in town there are still a few options.

While the number one activity is to ride the Skyline Gondola up Bob’s Peak, I decided to take the bolder way up: my two feet. It took an hour from the base to zig zag through the forest up the mountain following the Tiki Trail. I’m not going to say it was easy, but nothing any reasonably fit person couldn’t handle with a few huff and puff’s in between Gatorade guzzling breaks. Even better, the trail was absolutely quiet. Only every so often I’d run into another hiker passing down on the trail. The best part was finally reaching the top and the breathtaking views over Lake Watakipu. Lake Wakatipu Once at the summit there are a few options from dining, bungying, zip-lining, more hiking or the luge. And while the luge came highly recommended from a charming traveler I met, after standing in line for an hour in freezing rain sandwiched between two families with small, irritating children, my ride down the ‘scenic track’ was more of an escape effort if anything. With the rain coming down too heavy to hike back down Bob’s Peak, I coughed up the steep fair of $19 for the Gondola ride back into town. Queenstown Luge The People:

And none of my above experiences would have been so great if I was truly alone in it all. There were kind, approachable people that I met along the way. From an impromptu pub-crawl to discover the town with a friendly Norwegian, to the American and Aussie girls from my wine tour who invited me along to dinner and the handsome Irish boy who bought me chocolate/chocolate-chip ice cream. It was only on the last day as I sat in a café to escape the cold and rain before flying back to Australia that I had a sense of being alone, but luckily a book and one last English Porter did the trick.

My old friend nicotine


I just smoked a cigarette like I was 13 years old. Does that even make sense? It probably wouldn’t if you’ve never smoked for 15 years, or more, or less.

How I feel when I smell smoke. When I go for a run and hate coming across it. I think, what vile person smokes on the public sidewalk! Don’t you know I’m running and nearing 6 months quit?

Or I’m at the bar, and everyone goes outside. But I can’t go outside. And I love going outside. I’m the person who goes outside. I’m the person who talks to strangers. I’m the person who is too cool for the bar because I’m more concerned about smoking by myself in the corner outside. And I love it.

I’m coming on 6 months quit. I took 2 drags in the bathroom line at a Rastafarian club in Indonesia and said, no! I won’t start smoking again, here.

I fought battles in my mind and with the girls I’ve smoked my first cigarettes with, then cried about it, and still said, no!

I just had a few drags on a balcony at a work conference in Noosa, Australia. I wasn’t even that drunk. I just said to myself, I want to know.

I want to know what it feels like to feel something so familiar and not know it at all. Like losing a friend. Like moving the millions of times I’ve moved. To say hello and goodbye in the same sentence.

I took a drag. In fact, I took 4. I expected my old friend. My 15 years of nicotine and dependencies. I expected the nearly missed flights and panic attacks.

But what I actually felt was being 13 again in the woods of South Jersey. I was a child smoking for the first time with a disgusting taste in my mouth and burn in my throat and a quick buzz to my head. I liked it, but not enough.

I took another, and another. I knew the only way I would like this was to keep trying. To feel myself transition from a feeling and taste of confusion and disgust to my old friend I love to hate.

I want that friend but decided that I don’t so much more. So I took 1 more drag to just double check. Then excused myself and went to bed.

An excerpt from a scratch of paper written on 11th June 2014…that’s the end of the story. I wrote this down, went to bed, and haven’t tried again since Mom! 

 

The Charm of Gili Trawangan


Low tide bicycle

Gili Trawangan was once a hidden treasure that only backpackers knew about. A small island off of Lombak, there was a time where Internet bookings didn’t exist and half of the island was uninhibited. This has quickly changed, and in recent years development has escalated at an unfortunate pace. The evidence was apparent, but the renowned party island still has its unique charm.

Horse and buggy

Standing in the middle of the main street with luggage in tow after exiting our fast-boat from Bali, it was a surprising quick dash to the make-shift sidewalk to dodge a cidomo, the brightly colored horse and carriages that double as both people movers and local transport. A nice escape from bustling Melbourne, there are no cars on Gili T, so getting around consists of your two feet, a cidomo or a bike hire from the many vendors up and down the main drag. Come prepared knowing that most bikes are sea-rusted and it’s hit or miss to get a good one. Luckily Eileen, Louise and I found the Triplets, 3 pink and green matching bikes that were not only quality but made us look really fashionable in unison.

Black Penny Double Villa

Accommodation on the island can vary from boutique hotels for around $200 a night to a fan-only room down one of the back streets for about $15 a night. Like most places in Southeast Asia, it can be cheaper to not book ahead and haggle your way to a pillow, but we landed on Black Penny Villas in which we pre-booked via Agoda.com to be safe since it was over the Easter holidays. Our two bedroom villa, private plunge pool included, was in a great location halfway between sunset and the boat terminal. It was decent enough; despite some questionable Trip Advisor reviews however if I had my pick and was willing to shell out a bit more cash, I would stay at The Beach House or Scallywags Resort, two cute boutique hotels just next door. The most entertaining part was what happened to Eileen on our first night. She wrote, “Had a mishap last night when I couldn’t turn the lights out and the guy from the hotel had to help me. Was way more complicated by the fact that I was locked in my room like Rapunzel.” This was due to the fact that she turned in early being jetlagged but there is only one key for the room, and therefore we locked her in before having a night cap at the Irish bar across the street. When someone came in response to her phoning reception for help, she couldn’t open the door to let them in.

Fish pedicure

Our afternoons consisted of relaxing over spa treatments for incredibly cheap prices, yet ranged in quality and included pedicures, massages, body scrubs and ear candling (or at least that last one was just me) all to the tune of soothing music. I was tempted to get one of the fish pedicures where you put your feet in a small aquarium and let them nibble off your dead bits but was concerned about hygiene so opted out.

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Every night around 6 pm we would ride the Triplets to the west side of the island for a spectacular sunset. Bingtang in hand, we’d overlook the foggy backdrop of Bali’s famed Gunung Agung in the distance while pink, orange, and blue hues would magically change tones until the sky went black. Most places would also have fire pits and local entertainers doing impressive fire tricks and I was grateful that Louise showed me how to slow my shutter speed so I could capture some awesome action shots. Then came another challenge, riding in the pitch black dark, iPhone in hand to light the way as we peddled back to the bustling restaurant strip.

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Dinner each nice was also a treat. It’s not uncommon for quality restaurants like The Beach House and Scallywags, amongst a few others, to have fresh seafood on display. The drill is you pick your seafood from an ice chest of lobster, prawns, fish, and more. They weigh it and once you give your nod of approval they immediately throw it on the grill. While you wait for it to cook there is a free salad bar. Lobsters averaged about $50, so the three of us shared one. Another night I had pepes, fish grilled in banana leaf. When we weren’t dining on seafood there were a range of options including the local staple nasi goreng (fried rice) to Thai and tons of western food. In fact, the most surprising element of my whole trip was how abundant western food was. I’m used to dining in countries where it’s okay to try the local stuff, in fact it’s encouraged, but this time around there was a lot of playing it safe.

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One of the most interesting days on Gili T was jumping onto the Triplets and discovering the whole island. We rode around feeling like we were the stars of Eat, Pray, Love. We first stopped off on the east side and sat under thatched roof huts drinking lime fizz while sun baking. We BYOS (bring your own snorkel) so it was very convenient to be able to laze around and then hop into the crystal clear water for a quick underwater exploration. Funnily though, when we asked for a snack from the large proprietor who was an enthusiastic fan of Bruno Mars, we received the reply, “the kitchen is closed. The chef is still asleep.” That’s island time for you. We were getting hungry for lunch though so hopped back onto the Triplets and took them for a ride in search of the remote, colorful beach hangout/restaurant/accommodation, The Exile. Riding down the dead center of the island, carefully maneuvering the bikes to avoid large rocks and unexpected holes in the dirt path, we witnessed where the locals stay when they’re not servicing the hordes of tourists. Horses and cattle grazed behind coconut trees, children raced their bikes, and workers hammered away further transforming the island to accommodate for more tourists.

In the evenings the various restaurants would turn into island clubs, with live music, reggae or remix popular international artists set to the tune of a relaxed beat. Like a wolf pack, the nine of us (us girls accompanied by a few of Louise’s volunteer friends) all hopped onto our bikes, rode through the dark streets after watching the sunset and eating $5 curries at a small Thai restaurant tucked away off of the main strip. We then settled on a night out dancing at Suma Suma where we drank Bintangs until the early morning, soaked ourselves in sweat, and listened to a local cover band do a heart wrenching rendition of Stand By Me and then hand the stage over to an Indonesian Rastafarian who imitated Bob Marley. What was most surprising was the amount of locals interspersed with the tourists, singing at the top of their lungs – many of which looked well under 18.

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The only way to close out this first part of our trip was to indulge in a final attempt of pure relaxation and the number one spot for it is Pearl Beach Lounge. If you spend a minimum of 100,000 R (approx. $10) you can use their beach loungers, free Wi-Fi and pool for the day. It’s such an amazing deal considering the coconut shrimp, calamari and duck pad thai are to die for. We spent one day roasting on the beach, only to discover the pool has a waterfall and swim up bar. After uncovering that, it was all Bintangs poolside and water aerobics under the crash of the waterfall. Our last evening we treated ourselves to fine dining at one of the nicest places on the whole island, Ko-ko-mo. We indulged in fresh seared tuna and crab raviolis then finished it off with the fallen chocolate dessert. The way that  Eileen described our dessert could also be our farewell to Gili T. “L & E devoured it at equally rapid paces. Both loved it, both sad it’s over.”

When You Wish Upon A Star


It is pitch black as there is absolutely no fissure for natural light to seep through. As I look up, it appears as if the sky is filled with tiny stars; a mini Milky Way almost. The small boat I’m in glides along the river avoiding hitting the narrow walls. In the distance I can hear rushing water. The further we travel on the louder it gets. I know I’m safe but I can’t help but think at any moment we could go over the edge. Due to the darkness the only indicator that we would have reached it would be my terrorized scream, if it were even possible to get out.

It turns out to be okay though. The raft taps gently against a board of wood that was positioned deep into the cave for the very purpose of prohibiting us from travelling any further. We turn back in the direction we started and once the boat brushes against the platform I know that this short journey is over. The tiny elements in the sky are still lit though, but my turn is done. I step up onto the platform and flip on the small headlamp attached to my helmet.

It’s impossible for stars to be underground, which is exactly where I am in the Waitomo Caves in the North Island of New Zealand. In fact, with my headlamp on its clear that the millions of “glow worms” lighting the roof of the cave aren’t even in fact worms, they’re maggots. I don’t want to think about it though so I turn my headlamp off and stare at the beauty all around me while I wait for the others to complete their journey through the luminary tunnel.

The small town of Waitomo, famous for the unique underground limestone caves and illuminating creatures that reside inside them, primarily survives on caving tourism, in addition to farming, mining and forestry. Waitomo is a Maori (the indigenous people of New Zealand) word made up of two parts, ‘Wai’ which translates as water and ‘tomo’ which means entrance or hole. Evidently 30 million years ago the entire Waitomo region was under the sea.

Most famously many adventure seekers come to Waitomo for black water rafting trips in which they explore the caves in complete darkness aside from their headlamp, and use a rafting tube to drift through the various passageways and swim through underground holes. Others begin with a 30 meter abseil to the bottom of the cave floor, and include many other climbing, swinging, and rope oriented maneuvers.

I, however, took the cruisey tour and booked with Spellbound, who provided a relaxed look into both the geological formations and the glow worms. The first stop was The Cave of the Spirit (Te Ana o te Atua). The clearly delineated path had lights that could be switched on as we went deeper into the cave to take a closer look at the various stalagmites and other formations.  I was told that it took 3 men 7 months to carve out the section of the cave we were able to visit, although I was assured that engineers do tests often to ensure it is structurally sound. Resting amongst the beautiful natural arrangements sat several types of decaying animal bones, including those of the known to be extinct Moa bird.

Before moving on to our meet and greet with the infamous glowing insects we made a quick stop at the cafe, or to be more realistic a wooden shack sitting atop the underground world to share in some instant coffee, hot chocolate and biscuits while looking at interesting fossils found in the area. To my luck there was even a toilet positioned further away in the grassy area, and when my guide jokingly told me to not fall in, I understood why after looking down into an endless hole I was meant to squat over. Yikes.

Then it was time to put on our retched smelling, unsure if they’ve ever been washed, I hope I didn’t pick up lice, helmets before entering the second cave. The glow worms, Arachnocampa luminosa, are apparently unique to New Zealand, however not just to caves, as they typically live in forestry environments. Being a “glow worm” is just one stage of four that the fungus gnat fly completes in its life cycle.  Despite what they are, experiencing the stunning phenomenon of watching the stardom of their poo glow is quite an unforgettable experience.