Chungking Mansions – great accommodation or den of inequity in Hong Kong?

When travelling, it’s always great when plans come to fruition.  At our arranged meeting point I meet my friend whose LAX flight arrived 20 minutes before my New Zealand one.  After a coffee, we find the bus into town, and get off at the correct spot – our 5 weeks of SE Asian travels are beginning well.  And, we’re off to stay in a mansion!

Chungking Mansions to be precise – and despite the name, these mansions were the cheapest accommodation we could find in the centre of Hong Kong.  Fantastic we thought.

As we approach the doorway, dragging our wheeled suitcases, half a dozen men offered us their cards – touts for suits, dresses and jackets that we could have made. Silk, linen, cotton, a sari perhaps?  All we wanted was to check-in and start exploring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This huge block is actually a collection of 5 buildings each named A, B, C, D or E -and each block has 2 lifts – one stopping at all the even numbers, the other at all the odds.  Despite the rabbit warren confusion, we found the appropriate check-in place. What we hadn’t realised there are hundreds of tiny guesthouses, and once checked-in we were taken to our accommodation – in a different block.

My room is across the hallway from my friends one: it’s tiny, spotlessly clean,  has air-con, a bottle of water and is windowless. It’s also shoebox-size, with an even tinier bathroom.  I have no problem with that, I only want this room to sleep in as I know I’ll be out exploring – this is my first time in Hong Kong!

We stayed here for 3 or 4 days, and then after our travels, I stayed another couple of days before returning to New Zealand.

This is not only full of guesthouses but also restaurants, shops and moneychangers.  As someone said you could have a holiday in Hong Kong and never leave the mansions.  No matter what you want it will be here: fruit, biscuits, bread, curries, pizza, computers, or kebabs; new luggage, new phone, Sim card, umbrellas or batteries, they’re all here -and of course suits, dresses, jackets, or a  sari.  In fact, anything you want.  We had our delicious, early morning, Indian breakfast, on the ground floor, every day.

This United Nations of people seem to come from, largely, Southeast Asia and Africa, and in conversation with a young Hong Kong woman on the ferry, she was astonished at our bravery. ‘I’ve never been allowed there’ she said. ‘My parents would never let me go anywhere near there.  Is it safe?  It’s full of drug dealers I think.’

There is no doubt about it, for years it’s had a notorious reputation, and at any one time, among the 4 or 5000 people who live, and or work, there.  I’m sure there are drug dealers, illegal immigrants, and sex workers.

Over the years it’s cleaned up its act, and despite still being a fire hazard, I never saw anything that concerned me.  However, over the past few years, there have been assaults and even murder (s?)

Originally built as middle class, one-family flats or apartments, many families, seeing an opportunity to make money, bought other flats and converted them into guesthouses to serve American soldiers on R&R from Vietnam -it was then that the sex workers started hanging around the entrance.

Would I stay there again?  Of course!  Would most my friends stay here?  Of course not!

our first day in Hong Kong we experience and march
shops and restaurants are beginning to open .. about 630 am. some are open all night
messages of support to the marchers – in the underground

 

 

 

Classic Villa – elegance in Christchurch

The Classic Villa has five stars, is eco-friendly and this historic, beautiful, bright pink villa has lived many lives!

Starting in 1897 – just 4 years after all New Zealand women won the right to vote – it was first owned by Christchurch boys high school as the chaplain’s house and, after many incarnations, including an old-folks home (that I always saw myself as being eventually  spending my final years in) through to its current reincarnation as a superb Italian style luxury B&B boutique accommodation – where I do stay!  Erected on land during Christchurch’s early European settlement days and known as Ravens Paddock, it’s opposite the old Christchurch Boys High School and Canterbury College where Lord Rutherford studied.

Table set for breakfast at The Classic Villa

With 5 Stars, it’s friendly, laid-back, efficient, and comfortable with the hosts serving sumptuous Mediterranean, /continental or traditional breakfasts.  The kitchen island is almost overloaded with cold meats, avocado, tomato, cheeses fruits, cereals, and juices, it’s a magnificent spread, all enjoyed a communal table with Peter, the consummate host, making sure teas and coffees flow -and of course, answering questions about where to go and what to do.

Step outside 17 Worcester Boulevard – a quiet one way pedestrian boulevard – and tram – and you’re in the centre of Christchurch’s cultural precinct including the Art Centre, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu  Museum, Botanic Gardens,  Cathedral Square, historic tram, punting on the Avon River, Hagley Golf Course, and of course, excellent restaurants, cafes & inner-city shopping: see more on their website The Classic Villa

I’ve always stayed in the ground floor rooms which have traditionally polished timber floors, kauri doors, ornate plaster ceiling roses, wood fire effect heater, luxury bedding, and mirrored wardrobes. The walls have art by Rhonda Campbell – which former President Bill Clinton took a fancy too. Good taste!

Evenings are great with a complimentary glass of something and nibbles in the lounge or garden and barbecue area.

Christchurch is the South Island’s largest city. It’s a vibrant, cosmopolitan place with exciting festivals, theatre, modern art galleries, great shopping and award-winning attractions.

Known internationally for award-winning gardens, Christchurch is also a great place for events, festivals and its street art.

Promenade along the Avon River
Street art beside the Piano
New Regent Street — a must visit.
Worchestor Street bridge
A shag/cormorant in the botanic gardens
The ‘cabbage’ tree – tekouka
Christchurch Art gallery 2 mins walk from the Classic Villa
street art in progress
public art
punting on the Avon .. other boats available for hire too

 

Christchurch – shaken not stirred

Christchurch Otautahi was shaken, not stirred by its quakes and New Zealand’s ‘Garden City’ earned itself a hipper nickname after the earthquake’s devastation and there were T-shirts proclaiming ‘Christchurch – The City That Rocks!’ – I wonder if they are still around?

Christchurch thrives not just on pretty gardens and quake humour, but on sport too. Locals are often described as ‘one-eyed’ by fellow Kiwis, due to the unshakeable belief that the Crusaders rugby team is the best in the land if not the world!

It also has a great theatre scene including  – but not only – the Isaac Theatre Royal

New Regent Street
Isaac Theatre Royal
New buildings continue to grow

Canterbury considers its lamb the best in New Zealand and so, the world. Make up your own mind about the food on your Christchurch holiday and join local foodies at the many places that showcase local, seasonal food and well as all the ethnic food restaurants in the city.

Christchurch also has a great coffee scene and an interesting history too  … see my recent coffee blog here.

You could also head over-the-hill to sample fruity wines in the vineyards of the volcanic Banks Peninsula. While there, try the crumbly cheddar, Havarti and Gouda from 19th-century Barry’s Bay Cheese Factory which I’ve frequented since I was a child – many of my ancestors settled on the peninsula in the mid-1800s.

Sweet-toothed people can head to She Chocolat restaurant in Governors Bay where even the main courses are laced with the lovely brown stuff.

Enterprising Māori traded produce with early English settlers in Christchurch and their culture continues to make its mark on the city. Check out vibrant poi and haka performance and feast on a traditional hangi dinner at Ko Tane, a ‘living Maori village’ at Willowbank.

You don’t have to be a super-sleuth to find the old timber home of our local whodunit writer Dame Ngaio Marsh it’s nestled in the lower Cashmere Hills and is well signposted for those wanting a tour.

I’m in my hometown for the next ten days so follow me on Instagram (kiwitravelwriter) for photos and, of course, more blogs will follow soon.

My first few days I will be staying at the fabulous Classic Villa – opposite the Arts Centre.

 

This is where I’m staying next week: Classic Villa Christchurch

The Classic Villa has five stars, is eco-friendly – and this beautiful bright pink villa has lived many lives! it’s also been awarded many awards.

From the home of an early minister of religion through to an old-folks home: its’ current reincarnation is a superb Italian style luxury B&B boutique accommodation. With 5 Stars, it’s also friendly, laid-back, efficient, and comfortable with the hosts serving sumptuous Mediterranean, or traditional breakfasts.

I once stayed here during a snowy spell!

Step outside and you’re in the centre of Christchurch’s cultural precinct including the Arts Centre, Art Gallery, Museum, Botanic Gardens, the Cathedral Square, historic tram, punting on the Avon River, the Hagley Golf Course, and of course, restaurants, cafes & inner-city shopping: see more on their website The Classic Villa

As you can imagine I’m looking forward to staying here again 🙂

Breakfast is set at the fabulous Classic VillaC

Best homestay in Northern Kerala – Kannur Beach House

The Kannur Beach House is a genuine homestay and owners Rosi and Nazir are your perfect homestay hosts: eating with their guests, at the communal long table, every morning and evening and willingly share their knowledge about local traditions, Malabari cuisine,  and places to visit when they’re asked. As another guest said to me, ‘this is a little slice of heaven.’ I agree. 

This has been a family home for about hundred years and around 2000 they built a replica building, alongside the original, to use for guests.

This is a must book beforehand stay as they have 6 rooms and many guests  – who often have stayed with them before, and many like me, stay for a week or more – so, for much of the time they are full, which is of course a great endorsement. I will willingly return here to do all the things I missed out on – I was there for a week’s R&R over the Christmas period, so was happy to just, successfully, chill.

My balcony

On the Malabar Coast in Kerala, and overlooking a brackish lagoon and Thalassery beach, this beach-house was perhaps the first in the region.

Kerala is a colourful mosaic of green hills, coconut groves, rainforests,  , backwaters, and beaches. Interestingly, unlike much of India, most of the Hindu temples are not open to non-Hindu.

Watch this space for more stories about the Kannur Beach house, food, and of course, only in this area, Theyyam, a ritual dance glorifying the mother Goddess, and which is a mixture of dance, mime, and music.

See an earlier post of photos of some of the birds I saw from the grounds of this delightful homestay.

Birds of Northern Kerala – while at the Kannur Beach House

Just some of the birds I enjoyed watching during my week at Kannur Beach House, with Thalassery Beach, a river, plus a brackish lagoon makes it ideal for birdwatchers.

Cooking classes in India – where to learn?

Chilli drying in Cambodia

At the beginning of 2018 I’m taking a cooking class in the foothills of the Western Ghats, Kerala, India.  I’m really interested in the growing of spices and herbs in the region, and it seems by staying at the Pimenta I will be able to see that, and learn to cook authentic dishes!

Many years ago, I attended one of the very first cooking classes in Thailand – of course now they’re everywhere there, and it seems that the Pimenta (the name for allspice) was also the leader in homestay and cooking classes.

I’d not really considered a cooking class, but a response from them on one of my social media posts about going to Kerala had put me in touch with them and, as they say, ‘everything else is history.’

So, watch my blogs, and of course Facebook and Instagram to see my photos, and find out more about my stay at one of the four bungalows at the farm.

In the meantime, check out their website and feel excited for me! 🙂

Chilli growing on my balcony

 

 

 

 

Hilton Kota Kinabalu ticks all the boxes for me

Flying into KK or Kota Kinabalu as its officially called, we, my friend Judy and I were picked up by Ben who was to be our guide – many thanks to Sabah Tourism Board for helping host us for 3 days and organising my itinerary. Ben was an ideal, and professional guide, and of course our driver, Wilfred (who incidentally, we find out, grows vanilla) was a safe and considerate driver.

First stop the was the Sabah State Museum, where we walked through the heritage village, in and out of many traditional houses and watched women making jewellery and arts and crafts. Inside the museum we enjoyed, in particular, costumes of years gone by and a photographic exhibition. We also made a note to ourselves to read more by Agnes Keith whose first book about ‘North Borneo’ as it was then, has become a tagline for Sabah – Land Below the Wind while another of her books, Three Came Home inspired a film of the same name.

Checking into the Hilton Kota Kinabalu, that evening we had early dinner with Jeremy, the marketing manager from the Hilton: he didn’t need to do any ‘marketing’ as the hotel and the Rooftop Poolside Bar and Grill spoke for itself. I had an Angus beef steak which was thick, tender and cooked perfectly, exactly as I’d requested – rare. Judy had salmon and said it too was faultless.

While up there we met the chef as well as the cooks and wait staff. Breakfast was in the Urban Kitchen on the ground floor and, as always, although I loved the wide variety of global food, I particularly enjoy being able to have Asian dishes for breakfast. The Urban Kitchen has an international buffet every night as well as having a special menu – for instance, Monday Malaysian, and Saturday Local Seafood Market. The Rooftop also specialises in the local seafood.

The Hilton Kota Kinabalu – really central, and which accommodated us for three nights in luxury – has been open since mid-March 2017 and, going by our experience, it’s living up to the names international reputation. Its spacious, luxurious rooms are all you could wish for – including in my room, a large rain or ‘deluge’ shower and big TV. It also had many power points and USB plugs, essential for travellers, and the bedside lights were fantastic – often one of the worst features in hotel rooms!

I also loved the welcoming lobby with its huge chandelier and especially the variety of little seating areas and magazines. Off the lobby was a quiet and well stocked library which impressed me.

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The Hilton staff were impeccable. I asked one of the wait staff ‘why are the Hilton staff so friendly?’ He responded. ‘I don’t know, maybe it’s just typical Malay, ma’am’. It’s true the Malay are friendly and helpful, but the staff here seem to really enjoy their various roles. Of course, Sabah, with the highest number of tourists in Malaysia, is not called ‘friendly state’ by accident.

This is about the third Hilton I’ve stayed at – it certainly was the best, by a long shot – and this, as followers of my blogs will know, is truthful and is exactly how I’d have written this had I not been hosted.

Drumming at a music festival in the Borneo Jungle

The Rainforest World Music Festival has just celebrated twenty years of family friendly fun: that’s two decades of unique, worldwide, musical experiences and talents in the heart of the Borneo jungle.

It started over twenty years when a Canadian, Randy Raine-Reusch, a musician and student went to Sarawak to learn their traditional music. He particularly became enamoured with the Sape, and this instrument has become an enduring, recurring theme of the festival which is held at the living heritage museum – the Cultural Village – just out of Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia, Borneo.

A much-loved tradition, that started a few years ago, is the drumming circle led by 1Drum.org Drums, and other percussion instruments, are provided for 100 people at each session – and each seat in the circle is highly sought after – and it’s first in first served.

Judy, from Los Angeles, and who was travelling with, was lucky to get a seat – ‘lucky’ as I pushed her into it. 🙂

Emerging thirty minutes later she said she was thrilled to have taken part and also said “I can see the attraction of playing music or singing on a group – the conductor was marvellous and easy to follow I can also see why you wanted me to experience it – it’s wonderful”. I suspect, had not everybody been asked to give up their seats for others, she could still be sitting there now. However, the second ‘sitting’ of musicians were just as enthusiastic!

The ‘outer circle’ of people (swaying, dancing, and flag waving) are just as much part of the noise and fun of the drumming circle as those sitting in the front row. So, when you get to this wonderful event make sure you too participate in the drumming circle.

Here’s a video from 2015 when, I too, was in the drumming circle https://youtu.be/NsFAvbL4UEw

Diary in these dates: 13th – 15th July 2018 for the twenty-first festival (#rwmf) and your turn to get drumming.

NOTE: this is a great stop-over destination between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres

Some general scenes from the drumming circle:

I’ve always stayed at Damai Beach Resort while at the #RWMF

The best burger in the world – in Ulaanbaatar of course!

Chinggis Khan statue is 40 metres tall

While in Ulaanbaatar recently, and before checking into our hotel (after staying at a cheap, cheerful and comfortable hostel for a few days) my friend and I ate at Modern Nomads – a Mongolian restaurant chain – just a few doors down the road from the Tuushin.

Three or four days later we discovered a different side to the Modern Nomads: the Black Burger Factory right beside our hotel and which had opened only a couple of months ago.

It seems black burgers are the newest trend in many parts of the world. “Burger King Japan” first unveiled the “Kuro Burger”—which translates as “black burger”, which features a dark black bun, a slice of black cheese, and the onion-garlic sauce, made with squid ink.

We were thrilled to find it and try their chicken burger: they also have Black Burgers with double beef for meat lovers, Brown Burger for dieters and a Steak Burger for chilli lovers.

‘So what’ I hear you say, well, we voted their chicken burger ‘the best burger in the world’ – and, as my friend lives right opposite one of Los Angeles top burger places, and where I’ve also eaten, our best-in-the-world title is high praise indeed!

So why is a great? It is great because it was delicious, tender, juicy, and because of all those juices, black gloves are provided with each burger to save your hands from the sauce that covers your fingers and runs down your chin and wrists 🙂

While I don’t approve of the waste from the plastic gloves, unless everyone recycles them of course, I understand the need for them – I almost needed a baby’s bib as well.

So, while this is not ‘traditional; Mongolian food, it needs to be on your to-do list while in Ulaanbaatar. Luckily for you it’s only moments from Chinggis Khan Square, an area all tourists will no doubt visit.

Sadly, my photos of Judy, with black gloves on of course, enjoying all the deliciousness of her black bun chicken burger, are not available – as those of you who read my blog will know, However, here is a photo (found on Trip Advisor) of a young woman savouring her burger.