Thursday, September 30, 2010

Cooking up a Thai Storm

There are probably hundreds of food blogs around the world but only a handful here in Dubai. Arva, the writer of I Live In A Frying Pan has successfully managed to get a number of us in contact and last Thursday we all met up for a Thai cooking class at the International Centre for Culinary Arts (ICCA). From the cyber world to the real word, it was a great opportunity to meet like-minded foodies around our common interest...eating!

I had never heard of the ICCA but whilst their main focus is on training professional chefs, they offer a huge variety of cooking classes for the general public as well. Hidden away in the Hana Centre shopping mall in Satwa, it was a real shock to find a huge gleaming industrial kitchen hiding behind the innocuous looking door. Group classes require a minimum of 8 people and at Dhs 200 per person it is great value since we learned not only how to cook delicious Thai dishes but we also got to eat the full 3 course menu once we were finished.

Being a professional cooking environment, extremely attractive hair nets were the order of the day - needless to say I didn't bring that little memento home with me to use again. We started off with dessert since that needed time to cook and set: Pandana Creme Caramel. I had always thought that the brown syrup on top of creme caramel was poured on before serving, I learned that in fact it is toffee (simply melted and caramelised sugar) which is poured into the bottom of the ramekin so that once the creme caramel has set and you tip it on to your plate then the toffee is there on the top - a sort of upside down cake. Pandana leaves cooked in coconut milk, liquidised and then strained into cream, egg and sugar are what gave this dessert its Thai flavour. Not being able to eat dairy and not being a big fan of cold custards, I didn't actually eat the finished article and realise that I also forgot to even get a photo!

Starters included a Green Papaya Salad with caramalised cashew nuts and Shrimp on Lemongrass Sticks. The shrimp was very much like the sate lilit that I had in Indonesia; shrimp, chillies, ginger, coriander and other ingredients minced together and molded around a lemongrass stick which was then breadcrumbed and deep fried. The demonstration from the chef of how to do it looked easy - in practice, picking up the wet shrimp mixture and trying to mold it around the stick was disastrous and the chef had to 'improve' pretty much everyone's attempts. It seems the trick was to have as much flour as possible on your hand and to move your hand round the stick as quickly as you could so that the mixture wouldn't glue onto your hand instead of the stick. Not an easy job. Both dishes were quite heavy on chilli (as with a lot of Thai cooking) so whilst I could appreciate the flavours, in order to preserve my tastebuds I could only manage to eat a small amount.

The main courses of Red Fish Curry and Crispy Beef in Honey were both amazing and suited my palate since I put in the tiniest amount of red curry paste into the fish and no chillies at all into the beef. Luckily my team (Arva and Salman from Dubai Moves) had no issues with these changes to the official recipe. The fish was extremely easy to cook since the sauce was basically just coconut milk with curry paste, fish sauce and lime juice and the fish only needed a few minutes to poach in the sauce. I made this again last night and Simon agreed - yummy! The beef was also easy to make but it required a bit more preparation since the beef needed mixed with oil, soya and rice flour before cooking it and it included julienne'd vegetables (always painstaking to cut veg so finely). The result was fabulous though and when the time came to plate up all our dishes we had significantly less beef on display than the other teams - I have no idea where it had gone but the fact that we didn't finish cooking until 9pm and were starving may give a small hint! I've also made this again at home but it sadly didn't turn out half as nicely - practice will make perfect though.

To accompany the mains we had sticky Thai rice and stir-fried noodles with vegetables. I usually use rice vermicelli noodles but these were the flat tagliatelli-style rice noodles and they gave the dish a much more attractive look - when I made it again this week I used vermicelli noodles so my official verdict was to use the tagliatelli ones next time. As a team, preparing all the julienne'd vegetables didn't seem like a big task, doing it alone this week I seemed to be there finely chopping carrots, peppers and other veg for an absolute age. Still, worth investing the time to eat a flavoursome meal - you could throw in some prawns or thinly sliced meat to make these noodles into a complete meal on their own.

This is the first cooking class I've done and I really enjoyed it. My only issue was that by starting the class at 7pm, I was already feeling extremely hungry so for the future I would definitely want to start around 5pm so that everything would be ready to sit down and eat at a more reasonable hour. It was great to meet other bloggers and hear about how they got into writing their blogs - check their sites out too. Roll on the next event.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Discovering the Old Dubai

Dubai's reputation is that of a shiny new city full of architectural wonders, gold, luxury hotels and shopping malls. That is only one face though and Dubai actually has a lot of history to offer residents and visitors. History here only takes you back about 100 years though, not the hundreds or even thousands of years of history you will find in Europe, the Levant and much of the rest of the world. We started our delve into Dubai's past in the area of Shindagha which lies at the mouth of the Dubai Creek.

In the 1940s, most Dubai residents lived along the Creek in either Shindagha or Bur Dubai. The world-famous Jumeirah was home to just a few small fishing settlements. At that time Dubai was ruled by the current Sheikh Mohammed's grandfather, Sheikh Saeed. It was Sheikh Saeed's House that we went to visit - at just Dhs 2 (less than 50p) to get in it's certainly not a bank-breaker. The majority of people in the 1940s lived in 'areesh' houses which were made of palm fronds and which of course no longer exist. However, there were some solid houses made of coral and mud and Sheikh Saeed's House and the surrounding buildings were amongst them. All houses in those days (mud and areesh) were cooled by a windtower which was designed to catch the wind from whichever direction it was blowing and channel it down into the house.

Buildings were not made to last (sadly that trend seems to have been followed with all the recent 'freehold' developments too) and what actually stands in the Shindagha area is a replica of the buildings that were once there. The house consists of a central courtyard with numerous small rooms leading off it and upstairs except for a large sitting room ('majlis'), the roof is open with great views onto the Creek. The door to each room is tiny and even I had to duck to go through - a security tactic since it's easier to defend against someone who has to enter the room head first. Each room within the house exhibits different aspects of life in the 1940s and at the entrance to the house there is a room with photos of what the area looked like in the 1990s before it was redeveloped. What was left of the original house had to be knocked down as the photos show clearly that repair would have been impossible since walls had crumbled and collapsed.

Many of the exhibits are old photos that provide a fascinating insight into what Dubai was like. It is hard to imagine how quickly a small settlement of uneducated tribesmen could rise up to be the megacity we see today. Sheikh Saeed looks like a druid or wizard with his long white beard, long white hair and tall, slender frame. Photos also include Sheikh Mohammed's father, Sheikh Rashid who is remembered as the Father of Dubai since it was his vision that laid the foundations for Dubai's current wealth and prosperity, as well as photos of Sheikh Mohammed and his brothers as children. Shindagha now backs onto an 8 lane motorway and Port Rashid but the photos show that previously the area lay along a pure white beach directly on the sea. Other exhibits include old maps of the area, the various currencies and coins used here for the past 100 years and models of dhows and pearl fishing boats.

We had planned to visit the whole area which includes other rebuilt historic houses but unfortunately the 40 degree heat forced our retreat. The rooms in Sheikh Saeed's House, although fitted with AC, aren't linked to each other so it's necessary to come outside into the courtyard each time and after over an hour of that we were just a little drained. Presumably in the past the rooms were linked to a windtower above but having them open to the air now wouldn't do the exhibits any good! A fascinating place to visit, but better in the cooler months. As Arnie would say, "We'll be back".

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Dubai Restaurant Review: The Boardwalk

In a nutshell: extensive menu, good food and reasonably priced.

The Boardwalk at the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club (in the yacht club) has always been a favourite of mine because you can sit out over the water of the Dubai Creek, watch seagulls strutting their stuff on the balustrades and soak in the view of the water with the greenery of the Creekside Park on the opposite bank. At this time of year, sitting outside at lunchtime is just not an option unless you want to melt into your food and we found that the outside decking area is currently closed for structural repairs in any case. We sat inside where we could still have the great view, but in a nice cool environment. We were surprised that it was so quiet considering that it was a Saturday lunchtime and wondered if they nightmare Deira traffic is what keeps people away. Arriving just before midday, cars were almost at a standstill but when we left just after 1 o'clock there was no traffic at all - no idea why but we certainly weren't complaining.

The menu is themed around different continents (Asian, Far Eastern, European etc) which means that there is a very wide choice to suit all tastes including appetisers, soups, main course salads, curries, noodles, sandwiches, grilled meats and more. We were both in the mood for a substantial lunch and steak & chips was just what we had in mind. Both steaks were cooked just as we'd requested (medium-well done) and the chips were nice and crispy. I realise that in order to expedite things, frozen packeted chips are easier for restaurants but I wish more of them would make their own. Deep fat fried chips are never going to rate as a healthy food, but at least if they were 100% potato they would be a little less bad for you! We were tempted by the mouth-watering desserts but as most of them had dairy in them we decided to resist temptation since we're both off dairy at the moment. Prices at The Boardwalk are similar to other hotel-style restaurants so it's not a cheap lunch but there's nowhere else in Dubai where you have the views you find here so that makes it worth it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dubai Restaurant Review: Rosso - Amwaj Rotana

In a nutshell: good but not outstanding food with a painfully slow drinks service

Earlier in the summer we ate at the Amwaj Rotana's Japanese restaurant Benihana and had a fabulous meal. Unfortunately, Amwaj's Italian restaurant Rosso comes nowhere near the standard set by its neighbour and we won't be returning.

In terms of decor and design, Rosso is true to its name and everything is dark red, modern and funky. The music being played was chilled out lounge music, although towards the end of our meal a couple of random opera songs came on - did someone press a wrong button? There is a large bar area as you enter as well as rattan lounge chairs outside so you have a few options on where to sit for a meal. We chose to sit in the main restaurant area which, as seems to be the 'in-thing' in Dubai, has a glass wall looking into the kitchen. Similarly to Prego's at the Media Rotana, Rosso has a wood-fired pizza oven and the bread delivered to the table is a full loaf cooked in a round tin in the pizza oven. A good start until we received our menus which were very plasticky and felt cheap, as though we were at a cafe not a fine dining restaurant.

Our starters were all very good, although my melon and parma ham was served on a long dish with 3 hollow areas. Usually a plate like that would be used if you were serving a starter of 3 different items and each item would then be in its own little hollow. Trying to cut melon and ham on a plate that isn't flat was not very easy and nearly resulted in it all falling in my lap! The cold cuts was a huge plate of charcuterie that was just too much meat for one person to manage. The beef carpaccio was a much more reasonable portion size, as was the minestrone soup. Everything tasted as it should but there were no wow factors or original interpretations such as at Cucina in Courtyard Marriott where the melon and parma ham is served with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds.

I chose seabass for my main course and advised that I didn't want any garlic or pepper. I didn't realise that would mean I wouldn't be given any sauce for the fish at all; when I asked if I could have a sauce I was given a red peppercorn sauce - bottom marks for attention to detail. I also enquired about what the seabass came with and was told it was only the courgette and tomatoes stated on the menu so I ordered potato wedges which I was told were 100% potato roasted in the oven. When the fish arrived, it had new potatoes as well as the vegetables and the extra wedges were not only coated in some sort of marinade but whilst they may have been cooked in the oven, they certainly were not roasted. I sent the wedges back and asked them to not charge me for them. Simon and my friend Louissa both ordered the chicken but it appeared to be a baby bird that had been flattened out so it didn't look anything like chicken. Although it tasted nice, Louissa found the presentation of it quite off-putting. Dara had a steak which was tasty but not really different to steak anywhere else in the world.

Our biggest gripe of the evening was the shockingly slow drinks service. Simon ordered a Harvey Wallbanger and it took the waitress about 20 minutes to finally tell him that the bar didn't have any Galliano. Louissa ordered a vodka and tonic and it took nearly half an hour to arrive. I ordered a bottle of water and it never came at all. The restaurant was busy but not manic, the bar was not heaving and there were a lot of staff so to me this showed a total lack of training and organisation. Restaurants make huge profits selling alcohol (since there is such an astronomical mark-up) and so failing to offer and serve those drinks means a significant loss of potential turnover for a restaurant. Even if a restaurant isn't too worried about its level of guest service, I'm sure it will be thinking about its profit margin.

The cost of the meal was very cheap because we had our summer promotion voucher from our meal at Benihana (during the summer Rotana gave its loyalty card holders a voucher of 50% of the value of their meal to use against their next meal) as well as our 25% Rotana Rewards discount off the balance. Prices are very similar to other such restaurants with starters at around the Dhs 70 mark and mains of around Dhs 100. Not expensive but value for money is not necessarily the cheapest - it's the best experience for your money and sadly Rosso did not deliver this.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ajman - Worth a short visit

It is easy to spend your weekend going to shopping malls, out for a meal with friends or simply sitting at home watching TV. However, there is a lot out there to do and see so Simon and I have decided to try and do something a bit more interesting at least two weekends a month. We started our quest yesterday with a trip up to Ajman; the smallest of the 7 emirates that make up the UAE. I've lived in the UAE almost 30 years and had never been there, had I been missing something fantastic all these years? Unfortunately not, although there were a couple of interesting things that made the trip worthwhile.

Ajman is only 40 minutes north of the weekend that is - with working week traffic it's more like 2 hours. The main thing that struck us with Ajman is that it is all apartment blocks, we hardly saw any villas and those we did see were of the 'falling apart style' similar to what you'll find in the local area of Satwa behind the Fairmont Hotel. There are a lot of attractive new tower blocks but from what the newspapers say, a lot of these (sold as 'freehold') have no power, water or sewage since the Ajman authorities lack the infrastructure to provide it. The other thing to strike us was that it seemed to be almost all residential; we didn't see any area that looked like a business district. This makes sense since a lot of people who couldn't afford to live in Dubai and couldn't find accommodation in Sharjah moved to Ajman since it was cheaper. What the builders of all the towers we saw had clearly forgotten to build, though, was car parking - there were cars parked on every available scrap of sand and I wouldn't have liked to be the owner of a car stuck in the middle with no way out!

The Dubai Explorer had said there was a good souk and a museum but we never found the souk since there were no signs for one at all. Does it really exist? We didn't see any old cultural areas at all except for the museum which apparently dates back to about 1775. The museum looked like it would have been quite interesting but sadly it was closed for Eid. We couldn't help laughing at the sign outside, what constitutes an official morning and an unofficial morning? Clearly, it means days of official mourning (basically a public holiday is declared when a member of the ruling family dies) but a tourist could misconstrue it!

Close to the museum we discovered the Ajman Kempinski Hotel. I had looked at the hotel a few months ago with a view to going there for the weekend but the Trip Advisor reviews were all terrible and said it was dated with a dirty beach and right next to the port. I don't know where those visitors had been staying because we were really impressed with the hotel and will definitely plan a weekend there at some point. Maybe they've had a recent refurb, but we found all the interiors in excellent condition and tastefully done and the best beach in the UAE I would say. Seriously. Dubai has sadly lost all its beaches due to the 'wonderful' palm projects so most beaches now consist of sand that is brought in by truck and this replenished sand becomes like mud when it mixes with the seawater. Ras Al Khaimah has similar artificial beaches and the East Coast lost its beaches due to Cyclone Gonu a few years ago and so they have no choice but to bring in sand to replenish them as well. The beach at the Ajman Kempinski was proper white sand and turquoise waters: gorgeous.

From the Kempinski we drove along the Ajman Corniche (beach road) but the public beaches aren't very well maintained and didn't appear to have many facilities. After a few kilometres the beach facilities suddenly drastically improved and we realised we had crossed the 'border' into Sharjah so we turned back round to finish our exploration of Ajman. The port in Ajman is located just north of the Kempinski but it wasn't visible from the hotel's beach - in Abu Dhabi the Meridien and Beach Rotana hotels both lie on artificial beaches looking onto horrible construction sites and a power station. Past the port we came to the Fish Market with traditional dhows moored up outside and we decided to have a wander through. Outside, where all the waste is dumped, the stench was pretty ripe but once inside we really couldn't smell fish at all. There was an interesting fish cleaning area with about 40 men squatting on boxes, descaling and filleting fish on wooden blocks for customers. Descaling was done with a big knife rubbed vigorously back and forth over the fish - sending scales flying everywhere! We didn't see any refrigeration at all but presumed that most people were buying fish to eat that day so it would still be fresh.

The final stop on our tour was at Ajman City Centre to get an inexpensive lunch. Inexpensive...yes. Healthy and tasty...not really. There is only a fast food court in this City Centre, no Japengo or other shopping mall chain of real restaurants. Another example of the fact that there is not a lot of money in Ajman. With a choice of KFC, Hardees, McDonalds, Pizza Hut...I was really overwhelmed with the choice! Even the non-burger joints were only selling pre-made food that was being kept semi-warm in chafing dishes. I went for the best of a bad bunch and ordered from SalaThai - cold beef in oyster sauce, lukewam rice and tepid vegetables. Strangely enough I won't be rushing back for more. In terms of shops, the mall is very small with about a quarter of it taken up by Carrefour and the rest containing the usual shops you have in Dubai.

Ajman wasn't a wasted journey since we were able to see that we haven't been missing anything all these years. I would still be interested to go to the museum one day and will certainly plan a weekend to the Kempinski at some point since it's far enough away to feel that you've really got out of Dubai and yet it isn't a long drive at all. Their restaurants looked good on paper (Indian, Chinese and a sports bar with surf 'n' turf type food) and they have a bar with a 3-lane bowling alley, pool tables and table football. Since there didn't appear to be anything else happening in Ajman, it's a good job they offer some entertainment. My tip: go to the Kempinski for the weekend, visit the museum which is 5 minutes away and stop off at the fish market which is 10 minutes away. Short and sweet.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Al Bustan Rotana Hotel - Very disappointing

In a nutshell: we won a free night's stay but we'd have been better off staying at home
Bustan Rotana Hotel: do not stay here if you can avoid it
Rodeo Grill: 3/5 - a bit hit and miss

Over the summer, Rotana Hotels gave away thousands of free room nights. If you spent over Dhs 700 on a meal then you got a scratch card that revealed where your free night would be. We won a night at Al Bustan Rotana which is near Dubai Airport and were really looking forward to it. Granted, we'd just come back from holiday, but after all the holiday laundry we needed another bit of R&R! Sadly our hopes for a restful, fun weekend were smashed from the moment we arrived.

Upon check-in we were given a letter explaining that the pool was closed for cleaning for 5 days. If a guest is booked in a hotel at the weekend for one night then it is safe to assume that guest is not coming on business and will be wanting to lie by the pool, don't you think? We only made the reservation a few days prior to check-in so I would have expected the reservations team to have been informed about the pool so they could inform potential guests. Failing that, the manager should have been checking the bookings in the system and calling guests at least the day before their arrival to advise that the pool would be closed. It is just not acceptable from a (supposedly) 5 star hotel to have such a lack of guest care.

We were informed that we could use the free shuttle bus to go to the Towers Rotana and use their pool but that we couldn't move our free night to the Towers since each hotel only had a specific allocation of free nights. Of course each hotel would have an allocation but I am 100% sure that a lot of the free stay's wouldn't be used and that they could have let us stay at the Towers if they had really been of a mind to provide the best level of guest service possible. We had the choice to cancel the weekend or accept the less than ideal circumstances, so we decided to stay. The room was quite large, with ample wardrobe space and a fair-sized bathroom - the bright yellow gold taps in the bathroom weren't to my taste though and the lack of a power shower was a shame. A plate of chocolates and dates was delivered to us as an apology for the pool, a nice touch.

After we'd checked-in and dumped our bags in the room, we got the minibus to the Towers. The Towers Rotana's pool area is on the roof of their multi-storey car park behind the hotel. The Shangri-la Hotel has the same set up but they have a bridge from the hotel across to the pool so you don't feel that you are sitting on top of a car park. Towers Rotana does not and exiting the hotel, walking over to the car park and then going into the car park to get the lift to the roof doesn't give you that 'Wow, this is the life' sort of feeling. The pool itself is small but adequate. However, the loungers were old-style metal ones and each one had a pool menu attached to it with a very rusty metal chain. Nice look! The fact that there was no real greenery planted to provide shade or to create a garden feel also meant that the whole area was baking hot - even at 43 degrees it is possible to create an illusion of a cool oasis with a little bit of landscaping.

We were pleasantly surprised to see that the pool restaurant was open but less pleasantly surprised to find that the solo waiter had to go all the way to the main hotel in order to pick up orders and drinks! We opted to go over to the hotel for lunch since we figured whatever we ordered by the pool would be cold by the time it had made the trip across to us. Flavours on Two was offering an a la carte lunch with about 20 things on the menu, of which the waitress knew absolutely nothing about - she didn't even know what the soup of the day was! That is a management fault, not the staff member, since a restaurant manager should train all his/her staff on the menu and at least inform them of the daily specials. We had chicken wings and an avocado salad - all fine but nothing outstanding.

That night we ate dinner at the Rodeo Grill; a fairly small steak restaurant with an open kitchen down one side. When we arrived the restaurant was fairly empty but by the time we left there were quite a number of tables. Our soup starters were both excellent - lobster & crab bisque for me and chicken chowder for Simon. The bisque had the full flavour of lobster without being 'fishy' and the chowder was the perfect consistency with lots of shredded chicken. I opted for a Rodeo Grill special steak with potato wedges and vegetables. Now, to my mind potato wedges should be roasted but these had not only been fried but they had been fried in oil that hadn't been hot enough so instead of being sealed immediately, they had absorbed a lot of the oil...not the most pleasant. The vegetables were al dente and there was a nice varied selection, however my steak had quite a meaty flavour to it. Yes, I realise that steak is meat (!) but steak shouldn't have a strong flavour - I find it gets that flavour when it's been frozen and then defrosted and cooked. Simon couldn't fault his Fillet Neptune which ws served with asparagus and hollandaise sauce so at least he had a great meal.

After all that, did we have a good night's sleep? Sadly not! The bed was extremely hard and it felt almost like lying on a plank of wood. The bedsheet was also not cotton and, in Simon's words, it was 'noisy' so that every time we moved the sheet crackled, plus as it wasn't pure cotton it wasn't breathable and so Simon found it quite hot and uncomfortable. To add final insult to injury, we went down for breakfast to find what looked like a great buffet. On closer inspection though, there was no pork bacon (what 5 star Dubai hotel doesn't offer pork?) and the 'hot' food I put on my plate was all cold, it made me wonder how long the food had been sat out on the buffet since the hotel didn't seem to be very busy. I sent it all back and asked if I could have the breakfast steak that I'd seen on the room service menu. Expecting a minute steak with hash browns, mushrooms and tomatos, I was gobsmacked to receive a proper big steak - a bit much for breakfast but at only Dhs 44 it was excellent value.

So all in all, we did wish we'd just stayed at home, spent the day at our own pool and walked over to the Courtyard Marriott for dinner at Cucina. You don't know if you don't try though. I really could not recommend the Bustan Rotana at all and am amazed that they have 'Leading Hotel of the World' membership - perhaps that's something you can just pay for though as opposed to being independently assessed and awarded? Better luck next time...

Monday, September 6, 2010

Bali Coast - Choose your location wisely

Bali has a vast amount of coastline but the majority of tourists will remain in the area near the airport in either Kuta, Jimbaran Bay, Nusa Dua or Sanur. We visited all these areas and each one is extremely different from the others so it's important to choose wisely. Do you like to party on holiday or is that your idea of a nightmare? Do you like to stay in your resort and pretty much not venture anywhere else? Do you have children who need entertained? Choose the wrong area and you could seriously regret it, so read on for my tips and hints...


We didn't realise but, at only 4 hours from Darwin, Kuta is the Benidorm or Ibiza of the Far East for Australians. If you like to shop and party then Kuta is the place for you. As a single 20-something I would have loved it: great bars, cheap drinks and really hot surfer dudes. As a married 32-year old, not so much. Kuta Beach is huge and it has great surf (apparently) but you would practically have to fight for a spot to lay your towel down amongst all the throngs. Call me old-fashioned but coming off the beach and going shopping dressed in nothing but your bikini or your surf shorts is not a sight I want to see - the locals don't say anything but to my mind it shows a total lack of respect for the culture and people. In the centre of town the roads are one-way so the traffic could almost rival Jakarta. There are loads of surf shops (Rip Curl, Billabong etc) and trendy boutiques plus souvenir-style shops but we found the quality of the clothes (in the market stalls) and knick knacks on offer was really poor. The hawkers drove me crazy since we couldn't walk 2 feet without being asked, "You want transport?", "Where you from?", "You want DVDs / sarong?". My sister taught me the most important Bahasa (Indonesian) words you will need in Kuta: "Tidak, Makasi" which means no, thank you and it really works - as soon as you say it to a hawker they leave you alone. Genius!

The restaurants in Kuta are great though and we had a succession of mouth-watering meals. Our hotel served amazing food (a mediocre breakfast but fabulous a la carte food), Lucy and Jamie flew over for the weekend with us and their hotel restaurant (Rosso Vivo) served the best fondant chocolate cake ever and the local Balinese restaurants we ate at (Kunyit Bali and Gabah Restaurant) were excellent. The bars, as I mentioned, are also fantastic - we're not so old that we didn't go out a few times! The cocktails at Rosso Vivo were divine and Legian Street is the main bar street with a succession of bars on both sides all competing to drown out the music of their competitors. We drank at a place called Maccaroni which had a great vibe. Kuta also has a waterpark in the centre of town called Water Bom, we didn't go but it looked like it would have been a fun day out. We also had blissful massages at Smart Salon & Relaxing Spot (what a name!) and the price of just $10 for a 60 minute massage added to that blissed out feeling.

On our last night in Kuta I lead the way to Legian Street so we could have a pre-dinner drink. I am notorious for having no sense of direction and for turning any shortcut into a major 'long cut' so I really blame Simon for letting me choose which way to go. What should have been a 10 minute walk took us over 1 hour! We ended up walking along an unlit road with cars and mopeds speeding past until we finally saw a hotel and asked directions. Left, right, left...sounded easy so off we set down a dark alleyway into a totally local part of town. It would have been really interesting if we could have seen anything but it was dark and all I could think of was that we were going to get mugged. To say I was in a bad mood would be a slight understatement since my feet were getting blisters and I was hungry! Finally we got onto Legian Street and stopped at the first place we saw (The Kopi Pot) to eat some dinner - it was edible food but I wouldn't recommend you visit this particular place. In order to end the holiday on a positive note, we got a taxi to Rosso Vivo so we could have the chocolate fondant again plus some vodka cocktails. All's well that end's well, as they say.

Where to Stay in Kuta

If you do decide to stay in Kuta then you will find a wide selection of hotels to choose from. We were staying at the Rama Beach Resort & Villas in an area of Kuta called Tuban. This is a local hotel which is not, despite the name, actually on the beach. The beach is only a few minutes' walk away but it was not the sort of white sand paradise beach you would want to walk along, lay out in the sun on or swim in the sea at. It was more of a working fishing beach, not a tourist one. We were staying in a pool villa with our own private pool - amazing and at only $250 a night we thought we couldn't miss the chance to stay there when a private pool villa would normally be $700 and upwards at other hotels! The main pool at the hotel was huge and had great shallow areas to sit in the water and read a book or drink a cocktail. The food, as I mentioned, was fabulous although the breakfast was disappointing so even if you don't stay here you should come for a dinner. Avoid the spa though: we had a free 30 minute massage and maybe because it was free, the therapists gave us really sub-standard massages and both of them had a real attitude - until we gave them each a tip that is!

Lucy and Jamie stayed at the Kuta Sea View Hotel on the beach road - this is where the fantastic Rosso Vivo restaurant and bar is, so again...go there even if you don't stay here. The bedrooms were of a good size but the AC was one of those that goes off once it reaches a certain temperature and then turns back on once the room heats back up so they found they couldn't sleep very well with the fluctuating temperature. Also, Rosso Vivo has nightly entertainment until after midnight which is great if you're sitting having a drink but wouldn't be so good if you're trying to get to sleep.

Kuta also has a Hard Rock Hotel and this looked like a great place to stay if you want to be central and have children because they have loads of children's entertainment. Their swimming pool also has an artificial beach area as well but if screaming children is your idea of a nightmare then you'd want to steer well clear. Kuta beach has a huge wall between the beach and the beach road so all the 'beach hotels' are actually on the beach road and it's necessary to cross the road in order to reach the beach. We weren't sure if the wall was to protect the town from strong winds or to stop cars from getting down on the beach. One hotel that was actually on the beach was the Inna Kuta Beach but we didn't go in to check it out.

Nusa Dua

Quite a few international hotel brands (Melia, Novotel, St Regis, Club Med, Westin) can be found at the beach of Nusa Dua. It's about 30 minutes away from Kuta so is ideal if you want to avoid the crowds, the main downside is that taxis are controlled by the hotels and so the price is quite high. Our taxi to Nusa Dua cost less than 100,000 Rupiah ($10) but the taxi back was a fixed price of 130,000 Rupiah and a taxi to the airport was 300,000 Rupiah ($30) even though you would reach the airport before you get to Kuta.

The water at Nusa Dua was the calmest water we saw because it lies within a big bay. It was low tide when we got there and you could walk out for what looked like miles with it just ankle deep - with diving shoes though since there was quite a lot of stones and sharp coral hiding under the seaweed growing along the sea bed. The beach was also very clean and was more the postcard-perfect image that I had expected in Bali. We ate lunch at the Melia Bali; the resort looked great and offered a huge variety of activities for adults and children, although the food wouldn't win any awards.

Jimbaran Bay

I had read in Lonely Planet that Jimbaran Bay was a "superb crescent of white sand" and they were absolutely right. On the day we went to Nusa Dua we had planned to go to Jimbaran but our taxi driver told us Nusa Dua was much nicer - a much nicer fare more like! Jimbaran is just 10-15 minutes and $3 in a taxi from Kuta compared to the $10 he got from us to go to Nusa Dua. The minute I stepped onto Jimbaran Beach it took my breath away - this was the paradise beach I had been looking for. The bay is huge and walking from one end to the other could easily take a couple of hours. The sea is not as calm as Nusa Dua and the waves coming in were maybe 3 times taller than the men in the sea, we didn't see any surfers though but I'm not sure why that would be.

Jimbaran is still a fishermen's beach and the families all live along the beachfront with their colourful fishing boats safely beached up out of the reach of high tide. We reached Jimbaran just before sunset, in time to see the boats being rolled down the beach ready to set out for night fishing. The northern end of the bay has a huge number of seafood restaurants serving up the day's catch at tables set up right on the sand looking out to sea. We ate at Dewata Cafe and had fabulous grilled whole red snapper, whole king fish and jumbo prawns. The fish were excellent value ($12 each) but the prawns were quite pricy ($30) - still, the experience of eating with sand between our toes and the waves lapping up to the shore was priceless.

We didn't visit any hotels at Jimbaran but there is an Intercontinental (and a Four Seasons) and if we were to go to Bali again, that is probably where we'd stay just so we could soak up the bay every morning. If we could have transplanted our villa at the Rama Beach here then that would have been absolute heaven. There is no nightlife at Jimbaran except the seafood restaurants but it's a short cheap trip into Kuta for the occasional night out.


Sanur is apparently where tourism first started in Bali and it is where you will find most of the foreign consulates - and brothels our taxi driver told us. We got dropped at the Bali Hyatt to have breakfast and whilst the grounds were lovely, the breakfast was perfect, our lunch was good but not mind-blowing and there was a whole host of interesting activies on offer, the hotel buildings were a bit '70s looking although we didn't see inside them.

Sanur suffers from coastal erosion - perhaps because the hotels were built too far onto the beach and so it lost its natural protection - and so there are man-made water breaks all along the coast, luckily attractive ones which look like little temples. There is a concrete path along the seafront which made it really easy for us to walk what seemed like the entire length of Sanur. Apart from the Hyatt, the beachfront hotels looked like local ones and from the outside they mostly appeared to be of a good standard with many offering sun loungers that you could pay a couple of dollars to use for the day. After we'd walked for about an hour, we paid our 20,000 Rupiah and collapsed onto a couple of loungers to soak up the sun.

Maybe it was the time of year, but the sea at Sanur was full of seaweed floating in it so going for a dip to cool off wasn't the most pleasant of experiences. We'd also seen a sign at the Hyatt that you should wear your shoes in the sea due to the presence of sea urchins - ouch! Just as we were leaving our loungers to head back for lunch, a group of fishermen arrived with wellington boots on and waded out to sea to stand and fish. We're not sure what they were catching but it made for a great photo. We walked back to the Hyatt but I wish that we'd hired one of the Jukyut boats (fishing boats modified as pleasure boats) to sail back in style. Sanur was the only place we saw these boats so I'd recommend a day there just to try them out, but in terms of sea and beach quality it can't compare to Jimbaran or Nusa Dua.

Initially the Bali coast did not tick my box for being a paradise island but once we got away from Kuta, we found that paradise in both Jimbaran Bay and to a lesser extent in Nusa Dua. You can't be bored here since there is such a variety of places to visit and things to do, no matter what you're interested in or how old you are. Just make sure you choose the right place to base yourself and you will have the perfect holiday.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ubud, Bali - Culture and beauty

Ubud is known as the cultural heart of Bali and I had read that it was not to be missed since you can see the traditional way of life, temples, rice paddy fields and stunning scenery. It exceeded all our expectations and should be on every visitor to Bali's list of places to spend a few days. It is about a 1.5 hour drive north of the airport and since we arrived on Independence Day, the streets were all deserted and we saw no traffic at all. The town is becoming more touristy but it still maintains that traditional feel with a market at the centre, loads of art galleries (it is the artist centre of Bali), the ancient Ubud Palace, traditional homes and rice paddies all around the outskirts. If you are going to Bali, missing out on Ubud would be a sacrilige since this area is where you will see how the native people have lived for hundreds of years.

There are numerous luxury hotels scattered around Ubud and we stayed at the Maya Ubud. This has to be the most gorgeous hotel we have ever stayed in! The hotel is built down a hillside with the Petanu River at the bottom of the hill. If you have any mobility problems then it won't be the best hotel for you since there were 150 steps from the main part of the hotel down to the riverside pool, restaurant and spa - there was a lift but not for the whole descent. The hotel has two pools - one at the top of the hill and one at the bottom - neither of which I went in since they were too cold but they did look fantastic. There is a choice of either rooms in the hotel building or private villas. Our budget didn't stretch to a villa but our room was huge so we certainly didn't lack any space. The only complaint we had was that the bed was very hard and the extra foam pad they provided then made it too soft - there's no pleasing some people!

The Maya has 2 restaurants although the main restaurant has different sections (a la carte dining, buffet dining and pool dining) so it could be said there are 4 restaurants. As with everywhere in Bali, the restaurants are all open to the air, I presume to get natural cooling as opposed to installing ACs. They really struggled with keeping buffet food hot so I would recommend sticking to the a la carte part of the restaurant at night. We went for the buffets because the first night was a special Independence Day buffet and the second night was a traditional suckling pig buffet with cultural show. The spread was disappointing though, mainly because it was cold. Breakfast offers a wide selection of Japanese, Indonesian and international foods - bear in mind though that 'hot' items are far from actually being hot. The a la carte food we had was great though - Vietnamese spring rolls, bihun goreng, salad with grilled tuna steak...all fantastic.

In the town centre there are various 'homestays' on offer where local people offer rooms to tourists. Not something Simon and I would do on holiday since the hotel is part of the experience for us, but I imagine it would give a far more real experience. The Balinese live in family units with up to 25 or more people living together. Luckily they don't all live in the same house or there would be queues for the toilet in the morning! Within a compound wall you find numerous little houses and each family has their own house; as children become adults and set up their own family then they build their own house within the compound. Many of the entrances to the compounds were amazingly carved with Hindu statues to protect the family.

Ubud itself is quite small and whilst it was technically possible for us to walk from the Maya to the town centre, we would have been risking life and limb since the road was very windy, there were no pavements and motorbikes and cars fly around the corners without a care in the world. The hotel has a free shuttle bus during the day and the one time we went out for dinner the restaurant (Bebek Bengil) sent a car to get us and dropped us back at no charge. If you like shopping then Ubud has plenty of genuine bargains to be had, we decided we'd shop at the coast but we regretted that when we found the quality was not as good as Ubud. Ubud Palace is in the centre of town but compared to other temples in the area, it is not half as interesting. We set off down a pedestrian street where you can pay for a concrete slab to be poured so you can write a message - a great way to have tourists pay for making roads! The street was mainly homestays but at the end of the street (it is quite a long walk) you come out at rice fields - our first sight of the gorgeous green of a paddy field.

I had read up on the area surrounding Ubud and we planned to arrange a car and driver through the hotel. In town there are loads of tour organisers but we didn't want to go on a mass tour and we didn't fancy using an independent tour guide since these are just men with their own cars so we weren't sure of the safety. Luckily our shuttle bus driver put us in touch with a friend of his who worked as a tour guide and had his own car so we set off on a full day trip with him. As Bali is 90% Hindu, you will find Hindu temples throughout the island. We visited 2 of the most famous: Goa Gajah and Gunung Kawi as well as Pura Samuantiga where we were the only visitors (see photo below). Be prepared for lots of steps when you visit the temples because Bali is very hilly - Gunung Kawi alone has 250 steps down to it and you have to climb the same stairs to get back out.

The temples in Bali were all originally Buddhist temples and once Buddhism was overtaken by Hinduism, the Hindus adopted the temples as their own. The Hindus hold ceremonies and celebrations at the temples but I couldn't help feeling that the original purpose of the temples was missing somehow. In order to enter any temple you must have your legs covered to below the knee as a sign of respect (shoulders don't need covered though) and you must have something tied around your waist - this is because the Hindus believe that your spirit can leave your body and by tying something around your waist you protect yourself (this is what our guide explained but it may be slightly more technical than that). Simon and I both had to buy sarongs at Goa Gajah before we could go inside (we could have borrowed a sarong but decided having our own was easier) and in some temples we had to tie an additional strip of material around our waists.

Goa Gajah is located at the intersection of 2 rivers as this is seen as a holy place in Hinduism (and presumably Buddhism before then). There are three main areas: the initial temple complex with a fountain of ladies pouring water into the holy pools; a cave temple which you enter through the mouth of the sculpture and which has small shelves carved into the walls where hermit monks would live; and the lowest area with a stream, bridge and lily pond of the holy water. On the flat ground between the upper and lower areas we also walked through a beautiful little rice field laid out on the flat ground. We got there early before the tourist hordes arrived but apparently it would have been heaving by mid-morning and that would have ruined the tranquillity of the site for us.

The highlight of Goa Gajah was that our guide took us out the back way through a village instead of back up to the main entrance. Along the way we came across a green snake across our path, I was busy trying to photograph it when our guide pushed it with a stick to make it move and it started heading for us with its head up and swaying like a cobra! I would have loved to get a photo but our guide screamed and pushed us back down the path at a run since that particular type of snake is poisonous. Once he had gone on his way (the snake, not the guide), we headed back up the path and up a hill to the village. Sadly the majority of Balinese people have no concept of environmental cleanliness so we had to climb through a rubbish pit to get up to level ground - not nice I can assure you. The thinking of the people is that by throwing the rubbish down the hillside it will be washed away to the river by the rain and so 'miraculously disappear'. It was fascinating to see the village though - not a single other tourist in sight.

Gunung Kawi is found at the bottom of a much larger hill than Goa Gajah and there are stalls selling all sorts of trinkets the whole way down. We decided to have a look on the way back up - but we could hardly breathe on the climb up and were certainly not in the mood for shopping. So when you're there if anything takes your fancy then buy it on the way down. Half way down the hill we came to rice paddies and our guide asked if we'd like to cross the field to see some hidden temples. He didn't need to ask twice and we headed off along the very narrow mud bank between the fields, into the forest and down a rather slippy muddy bank to find small caves dug into the hillside. Apparently the monks in Buddhist times would come to train, pray and meditate in these caves. When we headed back to the main trail, some other tourists (without a guide) saw where we'd come from and they headed off that way but I think the narrow track through the forest put them off because they were back on the main path a few minutes later.

Gunung Kawi is famous because it is a series of carvings into the rock face - similar in a way to Petra in Jordan, except a lot more basic. At the bottom of the 250 steps you arrive at a river; on the near-side of the river there was a temple carved into the rock face and dedicated to the Prime Minister and his concubines and on the far-side of the river lay a very similar temple but it was that of the King and his concubines. Along the other rock faces there were also numerous caves used by hermit monks for praying and meditating. We followed the river along a rice field mud walkway to see a waterfall, but in August it was more of a trickle than anything else and in the rainy season I think it would be lethal to try walking to see it since the mud wall is literally the width of a man's foot.

Leaving the temples behind we headed for Lake Batur (the largest lake in Bali) and the volcano of Mount Batur. We were told Batur last erupted about 20 years ago and the devastation wreaked by the lava can still clearly be seen - very beautiful but slightly eery. A 2 hour hike up Mount Batur is possible but we decided it sounded too much like hard work, especially since making the hike to see the sunrise would have meant heading up the mountain at 4am. No thank you. After an edible tourist buffet lunch at Batur Sari with amazing views of the volcano and lake, we drove down to the base of the volcano to soak in the hot springs at Toya Devasya Resort and Spa. I was worried the water would be burning hot, but it was just perfect and it isn't a sulphur spring so no horrible smells to contend with. On our drive back to the Maya we passed rice fields dug out down the hillsides, shining like jewels as the sun reflected off the water and the young green plants. Gorgeous.

We could have easily stayed longer in Ubud and it would have been nice to go back and spend another day wandering around the town doing a bit of souvenir shopping. We had 3 full days there but even a whole week could be very busy since there is so much more to see in the surrounding area than we had time to visit. Ubud provides such a fabulous cultural experience and the scenery is breathtaking. It really is a place you can't miss on a trip to Bali.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Jakarta - Great food but not a lot else

The Republic of Indonesia is made up of over 17,000 islands (only about 6,000 are inhabited though) stretching from Malaysia in the west across the Pacific past Darwin, Australia in the east. It is the 4th most populated country in the world (230 million people according to Wikipedia) with the world's largest population of Muslims. After over 300 years as a Dutch colony, Indonesia won its independence after World War II; we were in Indonesia for the Independence Day celebrations on 17 August. The largest island within the country is Java and this is where Indonesia's capital city, Jakarta, is found and where we started our trip. From Jakarta we then flew to Bali to spend time in Ubud in the hills and Kuta on the coast.

The only reason to visit Jakarta on holiday is if you are visiting friends or relatives who live there - that is what we were doing as my sister, Lucy and her boyfriend, Jamie live there. If you don't know anyone in the city then my advice would be to avoid Jakarta because you won't be missing anything. Jakarta's population is approximately 10 million and it seemed to us that most of them owned either a scooter or car - no 'old-fashioned' bicycles here. This means that traffic is a nightmare at rush hour times and that there is so much pollution you never see a truly blue sky.

We visited the historic area of Taman Fatahillah (Fatahillah Square) which is where the few remaining colonial buildings, such as the old Town Hall, are still standing. The square is cobbled and pedestrianised with museums housed in the various buildings. Those buildings that haven't been converted to museums are however crumbling and have no windows, no floors and trees growing inside them which give the area an unkempt, dilapidated feel. We wanted to visit Sunda Kelapa (the old port) but after heading off in what we thought was the right direction, the heat, smells from the open drains and feeling that we were going the wrong way made us decide to turn back and head for lunch instead. We got as far as a river with slums along its banks; in light of Indonesia's oil riches, it is extremely sad to see the level of poverty of many Indonesians.

Taman Fatahillah is the site of Cafe Batavia - Batavia was the old Dutch name for Jakarta - which I had read in Lonely Planet was a 'must visit'. The building is 150 years old and has that Raffles-colonial charm. Downstairs was very dark so we sat upstairs in the conservatory where the old-world charm stretched to having ceiling fans and inefficient ACs so you really felt like they would have done 100 years ago: extremely hot and humid. Our meal was mediocre and I feel that after an extensive refurbishment almost 20 years ago and winning various awards in the mid-90s, it has sadly not been properly managed or maintained.

I have to also mention the National Monument which stands in a large park in the centre of Jakarta. Unfortunately we weren't able to go into the park because there were protests going on outside. It seems that organised protests are a common thing in Jakarta so there was no way we were going to venture past the police, army, truck with barbed wire at the ready and hordes of shouting Indonesians just to walk through the park! Driving past though, I think the park would make a great picnic spot surrounded by greenery and no traffic.

Jakarta is not all doom and gloom though! It has a fantastic restaurant scene and if you enjoy shopping there are over 1,000 shopping malls. Lucy and Jamie live in an expat area near the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Simon and I had the best massages of our holiday there (the most expensive as well though at $50 each). The Pasaraya shopping centre is a huge department store with the top floor entirely devoted to Indonesian art & crafts. We bought a few souvenirs and marvelled at the huge amount of work that must go into the wood carvings on sale, although we weren't sure who would buy 5 foot animal carvings - hotels perhaps? Over at Ratu Plaza we were able to buy high quality copy DVDs. Yes, copy DVDs are illegal but in the Far East you cannot buy originals since they just do not exist. Simon and I are not big shoppers so half a day of shopping was more than enough for us.

Unlike Dubai, all restaurants in Jakarta can sell alcohol so you don't need to eat in 5 star hotels in order to have a glass of wine with your dinner. We had lunch on our first day at a small Italian restaurant called Trattoria where we were able to sit outside having a beer and watch the Independence Day parade march past. Even though it was Ramadan during our holiday (which in Dubai means that nobody is allowed to eat or drink in public during daylight hours), in Indonesia they maintain normal daily life which means that non-Muslims are not adversely affected by the Holy Month. That night we ate at Harum Manis which is a fine dining Indonesian restaurant - if you are in Jakarta then I recommend you have at least one meal here. Although some dishes (beef rendang for example) were too spicy for Simon and I to eat, all the food was beautifully presented and the non-spicy food tasted fabulous. The restaurants we ate at weren't of the roadside variety, but the prices were still excellent and a 3 course meal with drinks cost about $45-60 (Dhs 165-220 / £30-40) which are just unheard of value compared to Dubai.

Two other great restaurants we ate at were Loewy in the Oakwood Shopping Arcade and C's at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. These were almost the only non-Indonesian dinners we had in our whole holiday and I can confirm that you can get just as good foreign food as you can Indonesian. Loewy is a French brasserie and we were told it is packed every single night, the night we were there being no exception. My prawn salad was divine and had the biggest prawns ever; after 3 courses and numerous drinks we had to be rolled home - handy then that Lucy and Jamie live right upstairs from Loewy. Our meal at C's was without fault: attentive service and wonderful food. A garlic prawn 'amuse bouche' was served and as I had already told the waiter about not eating garlic, I was given a mozarella and tomato amuse bouche instead. Impressive service. C's has an open kitchen in the middle of the restaurant with crates of fresh herbs and spices dotted around creating not only an original design but also great smells. Every single dish served was perfect, including scallop salad, crab claws, fresh crab cakes, steaks and vegetables. The only thing lacking was other diners - we were almost the only table there.

On our last day in Jakarta we headed out of the city to the Taman Safari Park and up into the tea country for lunch. Taman Safari is an open park where you drive your own vehicle through - many of the animals are free to come right up to the car and put their head in the window looking for food. On the approach to the park there are countless stalls selling bananas and carrotts for feeding the animals. Even in the lion and tiger areas, the big cats were lying by the side of the road - me leaning out of the window to photograph the tiger prompted our driver to ask me to close the window since tigers can move 8 times faster than humans and he was not that far away from us! The safari is one thing I would definitely recommend in the Jakarta area, although going to Jakarta just for that would be a bit much. From Taman Safari we headed up to the Puncuk Pass which, at over 1200m was considerably cooler and fresher than the smog and humidity of Jakarta. The tea plantations were not as abundant as those we've seen in Sri Lanka but they provided a refreshing change of scenery. We ate lunch at the Puncuk Pass Resort and had an edible, but not amazing meal.

Visiting Jakarta was worth it for us since we got to spend time with my sister and Jamie. However, if we had gone there with no family to visit and had expected something like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur then we would have been sorely disappointed. There are countless temples, the floating market and so much life to see in Bangkok and in KL (we visited 3 years ago) we had a full day tour with a car and driver and there were plenty of interesting places to visit and sites to see. Sadly Jakarta does not rank up there with those Asian cities so I would say to just bypass it completely and head straight to the other islands.