The Isle of Skye

Sitting in front of an open fire in our quaint little hotel on the Isle of Sky. Once again, it’s been an amazing journey traveling from Oban to Tyndrum, past Ben Nevis and Glen Coe to Ballachulish then Fort William, past Loch Linnhe and Loch Locky to Invergarry and on past the majestic Five Sisters and Loch Alsh to Kye of Lochalsh and then finally crossing the bridge to the Isle of Skye (whew!). We’ve been blessed with good weather. We were warned that if it were cloudy/misty then we wouldn’t see much – which would be a shame as the whole point of being on Skye is to experience it’s stunning beauty.

But the gods have been smiling on us and so far the weather has been relatively mild (by Scottish standards) and we’ve had clear blue days and even sunshine. When it’s rained we’ve blissfully been indoors.
Tonight we took a pre-prandial walk. So dark. There are no street lights; the only light coming from the windows of houses  scattered about. We can just make out the mists on the mountains and the dark waters and it’s so still and quiet. The only sound is our feet crunching on the road and the lapping of water nearby.
And it’s only 6 o’clock. It takes some getting used to night falling so early – it still surprises me when I realise it’s not yet 5 o’clock and it feels like night time. Here on Skye there’s nothing to do. We sit by the fire and drink red wine and whiskies and read. A self imposed exile and a time to recharge and enjoy being on holidays in an unfamiliar territory and nothing to do. Bliss.

 

Majestic Mull

A very comfortable 45 minute ferry ride followed by a 70 minute bus journey through the spectacular landscape on the Isle of Mull had me absolutely enthralled, The colours of this countryside are wondrous: rich russet browns of dry bracken mingle with the pale wheaten gold of grass and the dark rock face is spattered with verdant green moss. Such warmth in the landscape in late November makes me wonder how the countryside would look in other seasons. I can imagine how lush and green it would be in summer with its bright blue sky and water; and in Spring  it must be full of vivid flowering blossoms while winter would see it covered in snow. In late autumn it’s stunningly beautiful. We pass seals in lochs and later fluffy sheep with black faces that look so much like caricatures of themselves standing on little black legs. And then there are the hairy (and very pretty) highland cows. Returning we spot deer camouflaged amongst tall grass. It’s delightful. I feel like I’m in another world. Nowhere have I seen such landscape.

The journey homeward in mid-afternoon is equally transfixing as the sun goes down (we’re in Scotland – the days are short) and hits the large rocky cliffs and sets them glowing with an orange light. The pale watery blue sky is slashed by pale pink clouds. Stark white houses with grey slate roofs dot the landscape and look like they have been transplanted from a picture book. Later as thesunlight fades there is a magenta hue to the foliage of trees and ground cover (or perhaps it’s heather) which contrasts with the deep green of the pine trees. There is so much colour here. Russet, orange and the occasional yellow leaves hanging on to bare branches. This place is majestic.

Mull_2 copy Ilse of Mull copy

 

Holiday bathing

One of the things I like to indulge in is lying in a bath, sipping a white wine and reading my book (kindle).  We often stay in hotels that have great baths in the bathrooms and they always have good products – shampoo and conditioner, handwash, shower gel, body lotion, but never anything to put in the bath. This perplexes me.  I’m a real fan of bath additives: electric soda, lush bliss balls, bath salts, essential essences, all manner of foaming, good smelling products to make having a bath a truly luxurious experience.

I always wonder if I should take along some bath products when I go away but inevitably I don’t because its just one more thing to pack and packing is challenging enough: no matter how long or short the journey/trip my luggage is always crammed full of stuff – the “I might need this” or the “just in case” items: one too many pairs of shoes or extra tops that inevitably don’t get worn.  But then there’s also the risk of not packing enough – and then having to tramp all over the place looking for an extra t-shirt/gym shorts/socks, walking shoes etc.  Items that you wished you’d brought. Travelling dilemmas.

At the moment we’re staying in a beautiful old mansion in Oban (Greystones) that is deceptively large and modern inside.  We have a huge bathroom with an enormous shower and a really big stand-alone bath.  Its deep and perfectly proportioned so that I don’t need to  hang on to the sides of the tub to stop myself from sliding under (have you been in one of those large marble bathtubs that are so deep and curved  that you have to hang on for dear life?  It doesn’t make for a relaxing experience).

So off I will go to purchase some bath salts or something to make the water soft and enhance my bath time experience.  Note to self:  next time, do bring the bath stuff.

London – Cambridge – York – Scotland: dispatches from the road

From Hong Kong to London felt like an endless journey. 13 hours air time arriving a few hours later from departure time. An interesting experience. Never ones to sleep on arrival we stayed up chatting, eating, drinking. We were staying with M’s brother and sister-in-law right in the heart of London – across the road from the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and around the corner from the Eye. Walking distance to everywhere. And walk we did. There is so much to see in London, so many monuments and places of interest, museums and galleries. We had a list of places we wanted to visit but we also just took pot luck wandering about and found ourselves in some amazing places – like the Courts of Justice and Southwark Cathedral- simply because we liked the look of a street or a building and wanted to just explore.

Amongst the places that I wanted to visit/see were those that were familiar through songs, films and nursery rhymes: Picaddilly Circus, Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Harrods, and of course all the Monopoly sites. We walked from place to place, from morning till late afternoon, stopping at a pub for a fine English Ale and one of their fabulous pies. One day we walked the equivalent of 20k (which included the many steps we took around the National Gallery where so many of the art works just took my breath away).

British Museum
British Museum
London
London
London
London
London
London
Picadilly Circus
Picadilly Circus

 

London
London

From London we hired a car and drove to Cambridge. A straightforward journey should you have NavSat or similar. We thought our iphones would do the job with Google maps but for some reason neither of our phones were able to accesss data. Fortunately we had a paper map but this was of little use for those who aren’t familiar with the streets and traffic of a foreign city. But many fraught turns and deciphering of the signs got us out of London and on our way. It was a relatively short drive to Cambridge but again, not knowing the city and not having proper navigation meant that we spent some time driving around one way streets that ended up nowhere till we found our accommodation, a gorgeous B&B right in the centre, and conveniently located near a very friendly pub.

Cambridge is full of people on bicycles – just like in the films. They’re something of a nuisance on the raod, but given that we were the foreigners, we couldn’t complain. The buildings were stupendous. Seriously old. Seriously beautiful. And gorgeous little narrow cobble stone roads. I felt that at any moment I would turn a corner and meet Harry et al. It was charming and delightful. So many of these ancient buildings had retained their original character, though many were now big brand name shops. Such a contradiction.


From Cambridge to Ely to see the great Cathedral and climb its winding narrow stone staircase to the top of the Octagon to see the physical structure behind the beautiful decorated internal facade. Mind boggles at how so many hundreds of years ago men managed to construct this magnificent edifice; not just in terms of the carved stonework but the structure itself: there are huge beams made of single oak trees that must have weighed tons. Ely was well worth the detour.

Next stop York, home of York Minster Cathedral. Once again we got lost trying to find our way in to the town – so many one way streets and road signs that meant nothing to us until we had driven by and realised we should have turned left/right etc. Fortunately we stopped and asked a passer-by where we were and she gave us very clear directions. We were not far at all, but without her we could have been driving around all night.

Our hotel was directly opposite York Minster which is something of a jewel box or tardis. It doesn’t appear to be very big but inside it is huge, and impressive. York is another place like Cambridge – but perhaps older – where most of the buildings are original – Tudor mostly – but now house restaurants and all manner of shops. It was fantastic to walk around in the evening, marvelling at these ancient buildings and the little alley ways and all the old pubs. Again, like being in a fairy tale or film set, though the biting cold reminded us that this was, indeed, reality.


From York we headed off to Scotland. It was meant to be a short(ish) journey – some 2+ hours but we found ouselves on the motorway going in the wrong direction more than once and then ground to a stop on a section where there were roadworks. Motorways generally make for a quick but not particularly scenic journey so being stuck on one going at a mere 2mph wasn’t very rewarding. It took us over an hour to cover perhaps 10 miles. The delay did give us the opportunity for a fine photo of the Angel of the North, a huge and dramatic iron sculpture beside the motorway. It transpired that a truck had broken down and once we were clear of that it was all systems go. And go we did. Through Northumberland where we got off the motor way and traveled along small roads through beautiful countryside. It was like all of a sudden the landscape just opened up. It was so pretty, so picturesque and so so different from Australia. We passed through James Herriot country (All Creatures Great and Small) in Thirsk (North Yorkshire) to Northumberland and then crossed into the Sottish Borders. Travelling through this country has been delightful and I’m only sorry that we couldn’t have taken longer to stop and marvel at this incredible country.

5 star spas

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I’ve become a fan of 5-star hotels. How could you not? King sized bed with pillows that make you feel that your head is resting on clouds and doonas so light you feel that you’re in heaven and never want to get up. Turn down service. Bathrooms with the biggest fluffiest towels you could ever wish for and all the amenities you could ever want. Room service that is prompt and friendly and nothing to do but relax. This is holidays. I think that spending a week (or even just a few days) in a fabulous hotel is a holiday all on its own – never mind the journey or the destination.

And then there’s the hotel spa. Sure they’re expensive (sometimes incredibly so) but it’s an indulgence well worth the price. I badly needed a massage. A long flight followed by hours of walking, pounding the pavement in shoes not meant for more than prettifying my feet and a serious morning work out in the gym gave me a sore back and tight shoulders. In Kowloon I thought I’d just go to one of those cheap massage places the city has in abundance but on reading reviews of massage places it turns out that many of them are fronts for brothels or else they’re so dirty (report of one where a dead mouse fell on to the head of the masseur) that I had to rethink the proposition. My husband suggested I just have a massage at the hotel. I thought it was too expensive but he persuaded me – we’re on holidays so may as well indulge. And so I rang and booked a session. I was asked to come in 30 minutes earlier in order to have a sauna and relax in the warm spa pool before hand. What bliss. The massage was exactly what I wanted/needed and without a doubt this was the best spa/massage experience I have ever had. I’m now won over. Bypass the ordinary and go for luxe. Your body is worth it.
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Kowloon: Temple St Blues

Last night we went down to the Temple Street markets to eat local food. We finally found a small place with outdoor tables serving beer and a menu that included soy marinated goose. Yum. We’d just sat down and poured our beer and were just ready to order when our bowls and glasses were quickly whisked away together with the table and stools. In 30 seconds flat all the outdoor tables were packed away and the diners were standing off side. It was the civil police. Apparently it’s illegal for these little places to trade outdoors. They’re all really tiny, having room for only 3 or 4 tables inside – and not very pleasant, so they rely on their outdoor seating which is much more atmospheric.

The patrol had been by an hour earlier and shut all these places down but once they’d left business resumed as usual. This time a huge altercation ensued. The owner was remonstrating with them – to no avail. Four of the officers stood by and then the federal police were called. A number of the diners started yelling. It was quite a fracas. We stood by, holding our bottle of beer and glasses, wandering what was going on. One man who had been very vocal told us how apalled and ashamed he was about this kind of  heavy handed regulation. Hong Kong citizens were being denied liberty and it was very unfair on the proprietors. They can’t make a living serving just a few tables indoors and they cop a huge fine – the equivalent of AUD2,000. This was yet another example of the slow but inexorable advance of restrictions since the end of the UK lease.

We stood waiting for the gendarmerie to leave but they didn’t seem to be going anywhere so we finished our beers, paid and left in search of somewhere else to eat. Unfortunately the bustling food scene had been well and truly shut down. No one was serving outdoors. We finally decided to eat indoors at a place around the corner but it wasn’t quite the atmosphere or experience we were after. No matter, it was late and we were hungry. And the food was good. But within a few minutes shopkeepers started putting out their tables and calling to passer-bys to sit and eat. The constant hustling for customers had resumed and Kowloon night life kicked on.

Hong Kong bustle

Hong Kong is a giant city full of skyscrapers, teeming with people. 7 million people live in Hong Kong. 3 million of those are in Kowloon where we are staying.
We arrived very early in the morning – 4.30am – half an hour earlier than our scheduled arrival. In the quiet hours of the early morning the airport was almost deserted. We sped through Immigration and collected our baggage and were quickly whisked by taxi to our hotel. I had estimated that it would take at least an hour to get through customs/immigration and another hour to drive into Kowloon but our driver had his foot to the floor and we arrived at our hotel before 6am.

We had decided that rather than book an extra night so that we could check straight in to our room we would simply drop off our bags and go out in search of breakfast and then spend some time at the pool while we waited for our room to be ready. Alas, it didn’t go to plan – the weather was cold and miserable and there was no room at the inn. Lovely lady at check in tried to see if there was a room available immediately but the hotel was fully booked the night before so she suggested that we wait upstairs at the spa till the breakfast place opened at 6.30. So we sat and waited and then went down to have a coffee Before venturing out into the streets for breakfast.

All the shops had their shutters down. Hong Kong was still asleep. Finally we found a little Chinese shop where we had a rather strange breakfast: noodle soup with roast pork came with a side of a thickly sliced piece of toasted white bread and two fried eggs. A rather revoltingly sweet iced coffee accompanied it – it tasted like it had been made with glucose syrup. Not really what we were after but it filled the time and our stomachs. Walking along the streets we had a call from the hotel to say that our room was ready. We returned and checked in. It was 8am. Great service. We had a lovely room on the 22nd floor with a king sized bed and large bathroom and views over Kowloon.

A nap and then out to explore the city. It’s vast. Full of big name shops alongside small local ones selling all manner of things and all sitting alongside towers of housing that look as though they belonged in another world: tall, dirty and over populated. It felt like something from a different world.

It gives the sense of being a dirty place except that the streets are regularly swept. Perhpas its just the grime clinging to the edifices and the pollution and lack of adornment. Inside the malls all is gentrified – gleaming clean and full of expensive designer label goods. It’s not cheap. The shopping mecca that it once was is no more. Goods that were once cheap are now the same price as back home. Has Hong Kong caught up with the West or has the West caught up with Hong Kong? Now you get the same shops everywhere in the world including Sydney. And it’s all the same. So forget coming to Hong Kong to shop – that era has gone. But we didn’t come here to shop, we came as a stop over en-route to London. A break in our journey and an opportunity to indulge in some hot weather before plunging into the cold UK winter. And to just be amongst the bustle of an Asian city. Nothing beats discovering street food and market stalls and exploring the underbelly of a great metropolis.

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Le Meridien- Khoa Lak Beach

imageWe booked one of those Luxury Escapes at Le Meridien Khao Lak Beach on the recommendation of a friend.  I have to admit I had some reservations about it.  It was more expensive than we generally spend on hotels but then again, it did come with all meals, four half hour massages each and a drinks evening. But I wondered what the catch was.  Perhaps it would be a tired hotel in need of  customers. Or we’d get an awful room. But we took a punt – my husband desperately needed a holiday where there was nothing to do.  His idea of bliss is to put his headphones on and listen to music.  Or to read.  Or both.

So I contacted the resort to see if our dates were available:  we only had a week squeezed in between other trips so dates were non-negotiable.  Fortunately they were available and  I went ahead with the booking and just to make the trip a bit more special booked a flight on a Singapore A380 on the upper deck with extra leg room.  What a difference flying with a proper airline makes: cool hand towels handed to you before take off, generously poured drinks, a menu card and good amenities in the toilets.  Plus the food was actually good. Perhaps we’d been flying low cost too long (I suppose that Malaysian Air is low cost – it certainly is comparatively).

We flew via Singapore but only really had enough time to get from one terminal to the other before boarding.  Surprisingly Silk Air (Singapore’s domestic airline) turned out to be another well serviced flight with food, wine and attentive smiling staff.

Landing in Phuket we were greeted by the hotel driver in a very well appointed Toyota Camry (wood grain finishes, bottles of water and papers and magazines.  I fell asleep on the long drive to the resort – its over an hour and at that stage we’d been travelling for quite a while (we left home at 7am and it was now – our time – 10pm.)

Our check in was seamless – the quickest we’ve yet experienced and on entering our room I expelled a sigh of relief.  It was gorgeous.  A huge king size bed with the best pillows I have ever slept on. They were heavenly.  Great big bathroom with deep bath and separate shower, lots of bench space for cosmetics and toiletries and their signature body wash was lovely – a mixture of essential oils that didn’t dry out your skin.  And they were very generous with their offerings – every evening one of the service staff would knock on the door to see if we wanted/needed anything – extra tea/coffee, toiletries, towels – nothing was too much.

But more than that, I had contacted the hotel to let them know that it was our anniversary and the trip was a surprise for my husband.  In the room was a gorgeous vase of ‘flowers’ made from banana leaves, cookies and chocolates, a cake and a bottle of Proseco on ice together with a personally written card from the General Manager, Jennifer.

Jennifer is one of those remarkable people who seem to drift about amicably conversing with guests but I’m sure her job takes great energy and stamina.  I was impressed that she responded to all the comments on Trip Advisor – good or bad – with such aplomb and grace.  That’s what decided the place for me.  Knowing that someone cares about the experience their customers had.
As for the comments on Trip Advisor, they were the usual mixed lot.  Some thought the resort wonderful, others griped – it was tired, there were some missing tiles on the bottom of the pool, they didn’t get the service they demanded.  We had no such issues.  The staff were attentive, professional and smiling.  I always find that if I’m pleasant and polite and courteous to the staff, they accord me the same respect.  I make it a point to always say hello or good morning, good evening etc and ask how they are and try and remember their names.  I also like to engage in a conversation with them.  People are intrinsically interesting and everyone has a story to tell irrespective of what they do for a job.
I don’t know what the expectations are of some of the writers of negative reviews were – one actually complained that there was a palm tree outside her window blocking the view!!! Lol. We’re at the beach – there are palm trees.  Its part of the charm.

Admittedly, the pool was in need of work and so Day 3 of our stay there came a letter from management to say that the pool would be out of use for some time but we could use one of the other pools. Fair enough.  There was also the beach so this didn’t present a problem.  Or so I thought.  iI met a couple who felt that they’d been deceived.  The hotel should have notifiied them about this.  They would have booked elsewhere.  And why couldn’t they just shut the resort down for the time it would take them to fix the pool?  I smiled politely and pointed out that given the wet weather, it really wasn’t an issue. Besides, the other pool was available as was the beautiful beach should the sun ever come out again.

I must say that I did get tired of eating in the same 3 places day after day, although we did venture out to a couple of small local eateries just for a change of pace. There’s not much around the hotel and even in Khao Lak – a good 9ks away, there’s nothing worth doing.  It lacks the hustle and bustle and diversity of other towns and cities and after 2 visits we decided it just wasn’t worth the trouble. (Our first visit was just to have a look see – the hotel had organised free shuttle service due to the pool renovations and we found the tailor who had come so highly recommended on Trip Advisor and I encouraged my husband to have a causal linen jacket made (a most beautifully made garment).  In fact he had jacket and trousers mde – not to be worn as a suit so much but just because every well dressed man needs a good linen jacket and a good pair of causal linen trousers.  The second visit was for a fitting and a trip to the market to see what fresh produce was on offer – not much at all.

To sum up, my best experiences at this lovely resort – and it is lovely and lush and well maintained – were the fabulous bed and pillows (pillows that felt like clouds and sent me to sleep almost instantly.  I haven’t slept so well for almost a year) and the massages at the Spa. These were the best massages I’ve ever had.  Not only was it a beautiful space but the women were so good at what they were doing.  Not a word passed between them.  Each time I fell asleep.  I felt like Goldilocks – the massage was not too hard, not too soft.  Just right.  More than just right.  It was blissful. And so my overall experience of this resort was not just positive but delightful. And I thank all the staff who took the time to greet us and serve us in such a friendly and professional way.

Khao Lak beach
Khao Lak beach

All things end

Khao Lak beach
Khao Lak beach

Today is our last day in Thailand.  Actually its our last morning as we fly out at 2.55pm which means we have to leave at mid-day.  Not much you can do with half a day – especially when you linger over breakfast, reading, checking emails and writing blogs.  But we do have a final massage booked just before we leave.

It always seems the way that the final day of your holiday turns out (weather wise) to be the most perfect.  Why is that?  We’ve had days and days of rain which precluded doing very much and now, at the end of our stay the weather shines in all its glory.  We’re lucky that yesterday too was such a day and we positioned oursselves beachside, reading, listening to music and just watching the waves crash in.  And we swam.  What a different experience swimming in the Andaman Sea is.  We’re used to the wild waves of the Pacific – and its icy cold water. Its always a such a pleasant surprise when we travel north to Queensland to find the water so much warmer.  I always brace myself against the  onslaught of those first cold waves crashing against my body, tentatively wading further out to where the sea is calmer, where you can be buoyant and jump waves without being caught in their foaming fury, tumbled as they drag you in to shore, not knowing which way is up.

But I digress, the sea here is warm and comparatively flat, though not as flat as other SE Asian beaches where there isn’t a wave in sight.  How does that happen?  Why are there no waves? Where do they go?  This little beach in Khoa Lak is one of the best (outside Australia) that I have seen.  The sand is white and clean, palm trees line the foreshore and the waves, though small and mild, are good enough to romp amongst though  they’re not the kind that you can body surf in.  No matter.  Enough just to be able to jump over or dive under and come up laughing.  There’s nothing quite like playing in the sea.

Rain’s stopped and all’s right with the world

At last the rains have stopped and we’re enjoying a balmy evening with a warm breeze. Sitting in the Le Meridien lobby overlooking the lush gardens enjoying a post dinner drink. There’s nothing to do here. That’s the point of one of these holidays – an opportunity to just switch off, put your brain on hold and just relax. For some, that’s easy to do. For others – me – it poses a challenge. But after all the rain and feeling a bit stir crazy its a welcome respite to feel that this is what holidays are all about. I could do with another Fra Angelico on ice but maybe that’s a bit excessive. Then again, it’s holiday time. Which means indulgence. We had a wonderful massage tonight in the resort. The other day we ventured into the centre of Khao Lak and had a massage at one of the local places. Enjoyable it was not. It was one of those places where they just go through the motions and despite saying it was too strong (painful) they continued whilst chatting amongst themselves all the while. It was cheap but I’d rather spend money on a better service. On someone who knows and actually cares. I think I came away bruised. I just wanted it to stop and couldn’t wait to get out of there.

There’s nothing in Khao Lak worth seeing. We found a reasonable little restaurant(!) but it was merely ok. Beer and some local thai food. Shops that sell tourist craap and little else. The little place at the end of the street opposite the resort where we took our washing was friendly and good but it was a far cry from the food stalls in other parts of the country. The market was poor and limited. Hardly worth the excursion and we only went in search of limes. The little supermarkets didn’t really have fruit and veg. I don’t know who they cater for.

The resort is lovely. It’s huge with a number if pools and places to eat though unfortunately because it’s the wet season and few guests a number of the restaurants were closed. And because of the torrential rains even some of these were closed for a couple of days.

No matter.There’s a gym and the spa centre and a huge lobby with a well stocked bar. And the martinis are excellent. Salute!