Saturday, October 7

The best and worst of Bali


Garry has added another country to his list.  We’ve just returned from a week in Bali, Indonesia.  Sadly I’ve visited Indonesia for business before so no new stamp for me. However this was the first visit to Bali for both us.  We were curious to see if it really does live up to its sordid lager lout reputation.

The vacation was a last minute decision.  Much to our surprise (and delight) we were offered a week’s free accommodation in a luxurious private villa by an industry colleague.  Fiona’s original travel companion had cancelled at the 11th hour and she was keen to share the experience with others.  In the end we simply paid for our flights and within weeks found ourselves flying out of Sydney one Friday evening.

The villa itself was gem.  Four individual rooms (complete with ensuites) encircled a kidney-shaped pool and private gardens.  The center of the villa features an open-air kitchen and living area that opened out on to the pool deck.  Two in house maids kept things running smoothly behind the scenes, while a local masseuse and driver pampered and guided us each day.


Garry thoroughly enjoyed lounging by pool all week while I took time out to explore a couple of local tourist venues.  In between our indolent moments we continued to run our business remotely.  This all worked superbly until a systems upgrade by the local telecoms company left us without reliable internet access for two days.

The villa’s location in Sanur ultimately proved to be both a blessing and a curse.  A blessing because it was located on Bali’s eastern coast well away from the crass and infamous back packing paradise of Kuta.  A new, modern supermarket was also available just a couple of doors away.  The local beach was rarely crowded.

However we soon discovered that Sanur was also a long way away from many of the island’s best shopping, bars and restaurants.  This meant that dining out often involved a mind-numbing commute in slow moving traffic for up to an hour in each direction.  Yes – you can dine like a king for half the price of a premier Australian venue – but only if you’re willing run a daily gantlet of noise, clutter and chaos to get there. For me this stressful book-ending experience spoiled the entire evening.  


We were also reminded that Indonesia is a developing nation when I picked up a nasty bug and enjoyed 24 hours of diarrhea. Despite these setbacks we enjoyed a superb Sunday brunch at the W Hotel in Seminyak. We then returned later in the week for a memorable dinner at nearby Meera Putih.  This restaurant’s interior in and of itself was worth the trip. Soaring white light clad pillars capture your eye the moment you enter the dining hall; each surrounded by full size (artificial but incredibly life like) palm trees.

We also discovered Mandailing Estate Coffee quite by chance while shopping in a local mall.  This is certified Wild Kopi Luwak; the world’s rarest coffee.  I recall seeing news stories when we were living in London about cups of this coffee being offered for £50.00 each.  We bought ourselves a 180gm bag, enough to make 4 cups of coffee for five days, for less than $20.00. 

This coffee is famous for its origin.  It comes from the remote highland regions of Sumatra.  Here wild Palm Civet cats (they look like a very furry mongoose) feast each night on ripe Arabica coffee cherries growing in the local coffee plantations.  The coffee beans ferment as they make their way through the animal’s intestinal tract. This process neutralizes the coffee’s natural acidity. 

The coffee bean skats are then collected by the locals and once roasted result in a smoother drinking experience.  Personally I thought that without its acidic edge this brew tasted rather like instant coffee.  However, experimenting with double shot variations resulted in a satisfyingly strong but less bitter cup.


Our culinary adventure was somewhat soured a few days later when we discovered that less scrupulous farmers cage the wild Civets and force feed them cherries to create an industrialized version of this famous coffee.  We found two such creatures in barren wire cages while visiting a local tea sampling venue.  While our coffee was the real deal it seems that many others are not.


When we did venture out the local sights were a little and miss. Fiona and I spent an afternoon exploring the verdant rice terraced valleys in Tegalalang and a thundering waterfall in Tegenungan.  The terraces were superb.  They were the real deal albeit enhanced with paths and stairways for easier tourist access.  I spent more than hour wandering the hillside soaking in the vista.  It was wonderfully refreshing to see something green after days of urban clutter and concrete.


Fiona and I also visited Uluwatu Temple.  This Buddhist temple sits precariously on the edge of a plunging rocky cliff face.  Sadly, the idyllic location didn’t live up to its Tripadvisor rating.  We found a dusty, dirty and decaying temple complex overwhelmed by busloads of selfie stick wielding Chinese tourists.  They blocked every path, crowded the stairways and constantly waved their sticks around like deadly Jedi light sabres.  The temple’s most iconic buildings were also out of bounds to all but the most fervent local worshipper.

Garry and I concluded it was worth the trip to experience Bali.  We also agreed that if we were to return we’d base ourselves on the opposite side of the island and hide away within the walls of an appropriate five-star resort.


Sunday, July 30

Bogans be gone!


My little bro has opened my eyes to a whole new part of Australia.  For as long as I can remember the Gold Coast was known as Australia’s Bogan Capital.  It was always the holiday destination of choice for larger louts long before discount airlines made Bali an affordable alternative.  News headlines constantly proclaimed it one of the nation’s crime hot spots and graduating high school students flocked in their thousands for an annual “Schoolies” week of drunken revelry.

As a result, I’ve never had a burning ambition to visit the Gold Coast.  Until recently my experience of the region had been limited to its popular Theme Parks and a brief afternoon excursion to see the iconic beach at Surfers Paradise.  It was therefore with some trepidation that I signed up for a weekend away with my brothers on Gold Coast.


However, my fears proved to be unfounded.  Little bro Matt gave my brother Hamish and I an entertaining eye opening tour of the Gold Coast.  Over three days we dined in style, shopped for designer labels and enjoyed an afternoon winding through the quirky back roads of Mount Tamborine.  

Matt showed us shade-dappled streets lined with swanky cafes and country lanes teeming with boutique wineries and micro-breweries.  In fact the only remotely Bogan experience we enjoyed was a crazy evening of laughs at Dracula’s adult cabaret; and a less than impressive Thai meal on our final night out.

The genesis of our weekend away was my brother Hamish’s forthcoming 50th birthday.  Matt suggested we time some time out together to celebrate while noting that I’d missed a family gathering in Rarotonga for my own 50th birthday two years earlier.  The Cook Islands excursion occurred three months after Garry and I had acquired our company.  At the time our initial learning curve was simply overwhelming as we worked towards the company’s busiest trading period of the year.


Our weekend together in late July was a wonderful time away.  We rented a rooftop apartment that came decked out with its own spa pool, BBQ zone and stunning coastal vista.  We made the most of our venue with a Moet fuelled birthday breakfast on the sun-drenched balcony and evening meals of Kangaroo burgers on brioche buns.  I’ll definitely be back to enjoy more of the best that the Gold Coast has to offer.


Saturday, June 24

Chalcots Estate


In 2008 I published a post about the Chalcots Estate towers scattered along our street in London.  At the time their drab and stained concrete exteriors were being re-clad in modern aesthetic thermal panelling.  The work was part of a comprehensive £66 million refurbishment that saw flats receive an extensive exterior upgrade and new internal fittings.
  
The estate consists of five towers spaced approximately 100 metres apart.  Four of the five towers rise an impressive 67 metres (219 feet) or 23 storeys. Their residents enjoy one of London’s most enviable skyline views; especially those living on the south side. Towards the south lucky residents enjoy sweeping views across Primrose Hill and Regents Park and on towards to the Palace of Westminster and the River Thames. 


Roll the clock forward nine years and the same buildings are back in the news this week.  Sadly the news isn’t good.  On the evening of 14 June a faulty fridge exploded on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower a similar housing estate tower near Ladbroke Grove.  Within minutes the fire, which should be contained within a single apartment, swept up the building’s 70 metre (220ft) exterior.  At least 79 people are believed to have died. Nine people are still in hospital, of which three are in critical care.

The speed at which the Grenfell Tower fire spread and the deadly destruction it’s caused has stunned the nation. The building had recently been re-clad in shiny new insulating panels identical to those used on the Chalcots Estate towers. Tragically, these panels have proven to be highly inflammable and thus wholly unsuitable for high-rise buildings.   


Since the fire testing on similar cladding across London and the UK has found hundreds of buildings harbour the same catastrophic fire risk. Yesterday Camden Council, the authority responsible for Chalcots Estate, ordered an evacuation of its towers. An urgent review had revealed numerous fire hazards resulting from their earlier refurbishment beyond the risk posed by deadly thermal cladding.

Residents living in 711 high rise homes were given just hours to gather their belongings and vacate every building.  Some are now temporarily housed in a nearby recreation centre while others have been placed in surrounding hotels.  Residents are expected to be homeless for several weeks as urgent repairs begin. Eventually the cladding on all five buildings will also be replaced.

Garry and I watched the news in awe as the streets from our old London neighbourhood were broadcast around the world.  For years while on our way to catch the Underground to and from work we’d walk past three of these towers and the local recreation centre. My daily commute also took me past the Grenfell Tower. 


The Grenfell Tower was a prominent landmark.  I use to marvel at the way my elevated train line curved around two sides of the building. The entire experience always struck me as one of those iconic Hollywood establishment shots that a director would use to develop a movie's opening scene.  

It’s hard to imagine that the same landmark is now a blackened, charred hulk.  I also find it hard to comprehend how such deadly material ever came to be used on high rise buildings across the UK. Tonight Garry and I are quietly thanking our good fortune that our Sydney apartment is clad in brick and painted concrete slabs.  Our hearts go out to all those affected by this month’s tragic events.  

Sunday, June 18

A Banksy weekend


I emigrated from New Zealand more than 28 years ago.  At the time my decision was motivated in part by a desire to experience a more cosmopolitan lifestyle.  Since then New Zealand society has transformed itself.  Today when I venture back across the Tasman Sea I find an increasingly diverse range of world class restaurants and entertainment; plus hotels and tourism ventures as sophisticated and immersive as anything I’ve experienced overseas.

The contrast couldn’t have been any starker than when I took time off to spend a long weekend with my mother last week.  My trip began with an Air New Zealand flight in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.  I’ve been dying to experience this new 21st Century pencil nosed aircraft.  I wasn’t disappointed. 


The aircraft’s advanced feature were very much on display. For example, the cabin windows are huge.  I had an aisle seat but was still able to enjoy the view as we came into land in Auckland. The cabin felt lighter and airier.  The air wasn’t as dry and dehydrating.  The inflight entertainment system was sleek and responsive.

Soon after arriving my mother asked if I wanted to see the Banksy exhibition in town.  I nearly fell off my chair.  Surely Mum was joking.  How on earth could a regional city in little old New Zealand be hosting a Banksy event?  Banksy is renowned British street artist.  His works regularly sell for upwards of USD 1 million or more.  To date his identify is unknown adding to the aura of his fame.


Incredibly the Tauranga Art Gallery was hosting an exhibition of street art.  The event featured 22 works by the elusive Banksy including several instantly recognisable pieces.  The Oi YOU! Collection which includes these works, plus 58 pieces by other prominent artists, has been touring New Zealand and Australia for several years. 

The Collection is owned by George Shaw and Shannon Webster who began collecting in 2005.  Their passion for Banksy art was perfectly timed, They were able to buy several works the price of his work began skyrocketing.  I was delighted to see his famous Flower Thrower.  This work depicts a protester throwing flowers rather than Molotov cocktails. 


The Tauranga Art Gallery had also commissioned a number of street art murals around the inner city.  Mum and I took a walking tour to see these pieces in their all their glory. We picked the perfect day to venture out as the sun was shining and temperatures were surprisingly mild for winter.


Sunday, May 28

Far North Fun


My Mum clocked up a pile of frequent flyer points when we toured Africa a couple of years ago. Last year we realised they were about to expire so Mum and I made plans for her visit Sydney for a week. We scheduled the trip to coincide with ANZAC day as its timing this year allowed Garry and I to book in a four-day weekend. Taking time off has become rather challenging now that we're small business owners.

On a whim I decided we should all take an extra day off and spent four nights in Far North Queensland visiting Garry's brother and his family. My Mum was delighted by this idea as it's been almost 25 years since she last visited Port Douglas (which was also my first visit to this popular resort town).


We flew out shortly after lunch on Friday.  Unfortunately Garry had to cancel at the last moment. He'd come down with a shocking dose of flu and decided he was best to rest and recuperate at home. Our tropical excursion coincided with the tail end of the tropical wet season.  However, we got lucky. the few brief showers we experienced never hindered our plans. Several days even saw enjoying extended periods of passing sunshine.

We based ourselves in a spacious holiday home overlooking Six Mile Beach. I'd rented it under the assumption three of us would be travelling.  As a result, Mum and I really found ourselves experiencing a rather luxurious stay.


Our first day was spent driving north as far as Cape Tribulation.  We began the day with a croc-spotting cruise on the Daintree River.  We weren't disappointed.  We saw one huge croc and several smaller baby crocs happily sunning themselves along the muddy river bank.  Mum and I then caught the Daintree Ferry and made our way to the Cape, stopping briefly at Alexandra Lookout to soak in views of the Daintree river mouth.

Cape Tribulation was exactly as I recall. This was my third time there.  The first was also with Mum in 1992. Back then the road was unpaved and could only be safely traversed in a four-wheel drive vehicle. Today its a comfortably paved road all the way to the cape.  After a rather disappointing lunch and a rainforest boardwalk we made our way home.


On our way we dropped into the Daintree Discovery Centre. We had the centre's rainforest canopy walkway and canopy tower climb largely to ourselves for almost an hour. Sadly there no Cassowaries wandering the forest floor.  However, we did later see a wild Bush Turkey on the roadside.


Our second day was spent experiencing the Agincourt Reef on the Great Barrier Reef.  We caught a Quicksilver tour out to the outer reef.  The company has done a superb job of creating a memorable day. We filled our time with snorkelling, touring the reef in a semi-submersible and viewing the reef from an underwater observatory. I also surprised Mum with a helicopter flight over the stunning ribbon reefs. We were lucky enough to see a couple reef sharks basking in the shallows.  All in all is was an incredible day.


Our third day was spent shopping, dining and generally chilling out.  Mum bought a lovely necklace and I finally found some new swimming shorts that fitted me perfectly.  We also ate some of the most delicious salt and pepper calamari we've ever tasted.


Our final day was spent on the Kuranda Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.  We spent a couple relaxing hours wandering the markets in Kuranda and enjoying some truly mouth watering savoury crepes at a highly recommended market cafe.  It was then back to the airport for an early evening flight home again.