Safari at Phinda

Our next stop would be the most exciting: Mountain Lodge in the Phinda Private Game Reserve. The Lodge is a lux grouping of rondovals located on a private, 56,000 acre animal reserve with an abundance of wildlife near Hluhluwe. Our huts were decadent, with giant bathrooms, glassed showers, and stand-alone bathtubs with views of the bush. Nyala and Impala would come right up to our private plunge pool while we would sun ourselves between game drives. The service was divine and the staff were warm and hospitable. You can read my TripAdvisor review here.

Many of us dream of an African Safari. Perhaps it stems from our childhood fantasies of having a pet monkey, riding an elephant or taming a lion. Travelling with our 14 year old son J made the excitement all the more real. Before we had even made it to the lodge we had past herds of wildebeests, long necked giraffes, and many surprisingly cute warthogs. The smells of the savannah were intoxicating and the earth baked in the bright sun.

Waking early in the morning, just before day break, we would head up to the lodge in the predawn light to sip cups of tea and coffee before heading out on a 2 or 3 hour game drive. We would explore the reserve coming upon herds of zebras, buffalo, impala and wildebeest.  We would watch elephants knocking down the tall trees and giraffe towering above them. Monkeys would chatter loudly warning the valley below of the cheetahs on the prowl. Later in the day we would head out in the truck – driving into the brush in search of white and black rinos, hippos and lions. We would stop for tea along side one of the many beautiful watering-holes, careful not to get too close to the waters edge, and sip tea and afternoon amarula in the warm sun. With the long shadows of late afternoon we would explore more of the reserve well into the darkness – with the stars burning in the heavens we would make our way through the brush spotting the animals of the night: an owl, a giant porcupine and the leopard. During our 4 days at Phinda we participated in 8 game drives. Our tracker John, who had been with Phinda for 16 years, was simply superb at tracking animals – a fact that was proved to us late night looking for a leopard.  Our ranger Felicity was everything you could have wanted. Not only was she incredibly knowledgeable and an excellent tracker herself, she was also friendly, inviting, and a true joy to spend the hours with.

After an exhilarating, bundu-bashing ride through the forest, or an afternoon spent quietly watching the cheetah slinking through the tall grass, we would head back to the lodge in our trusty Land Cruiser where there would be fresh drinks and cool towels waiting. Breakfast and lunch were served in the pavilion overlooking the southern part of the reserve and dinner was either there or in the boma or gathering place where we would dine on barbecued springbok, ostrich, chicken or fish. The food was delicious and they were always ready to cook you up something off menu at any time.

I wish I could go every year.

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The Dolphin Coast

After exploring Cape Town for a few days we travelled eastward to KwaZulu-Natal where M was born. After landing in Durban’s King Shaka Airport we took our rented E Class and drove a further 20 minutes up the coast to Ballito, an oceanside vacation town on South Africa’s Dolphin coast.  In Ballito we stayed at the swanky Coco de Mer Boutique Hotel only steps from the warm waves of the Indian Ocean. Our rooms were luxurious, with beautiful bathrooms; they looked out on a tropical forest complete with blue-balled monkeys screaming in the trees, and lizards basking in the sun. You can read my TripAdvisor review here. Though M was raised in Queensborough, a suburb of Durban, we decided to stay in Ballito because of safety issues in the city and because it’s perfect for a relaxing time away. In the morning we would watch a herd of 30 dolphins travelling along the coastline, frolicking in the waves, as if to great the morning’s visitors to the beach. We spent countless hours in the sand, enjoying the sun and surf, eating at little oceanside restaurants and generally enjoying the local sights and sounds. Hopping into our rented car, we went to explore where M had grown up – his old houses, school, and scout hall. It was interesting to see the things that had changed, and the things that hadn’t. Incidentally the woman that run the tuck shop when mark was in elementary school was still there 25 years later – and recognised him!

Only a few short days in Ballito before the main event – our safari next.

A Few Days in Cape Town

We touched down in Cape Town in darkness. Table Mountain loomed in the distance as our car left the airport and sped along the 2, through the dimly lit townships towards the jewel of Africa. Our driver weaved down the city’s main thoroughfare, Strand Street, past shiny cars and shimmering towers. People flooded the sidewalks coming from bars and restaurants, loud and boisterous – a far cry from the slums we encountered on our way in. I had decided on the beautiful Romney Park Hotel in the upscale neighbourhood of Green Point just a short (and safe) walk to the shops and restaurants of Green Point and Cape Town’s Victoria and Alfred Waterfront area after strolling the city streets through Google’s Street View, reading countless reviews of the city’s many hotels, looking at restaurant menus and reviews, and generally researching as much information on different areas as I could. Our spacious and nicely finished two bedroom suite overlooked the garden and pool with sparkling ocean views in the distance. You can read my TripAdvisor review here.

We had a leisurely first full day in Cape Town, enjoying a short stroll to the nearby restaurants and shops of the waterfront where we soaked up the warm African sun and the jovial atmosphere of this little pocket of activity in the city. We dined on wild game kebabs at Belthazar and enjoyed beautiful views of the harbour and Table Mountain from the ferris wheel. After a quick walk back to the hotel, we spend the remainder of the day basking by the pool.

We had arranged a private tour of the Cape Peninsula and our car and guide picked us up early after a delicious breakfast at the hotel’s The George restaurant.  Leaving Green Point we meandered along the M6 through the posh neighbourhoods of Sea Point, Bantry Bay, Clifton and Camps Bay. Each home guarded by increasingly high fencing topped with razor wire. Escaping the urban landscape of Cape Town we continue through the historic town of Hout Bay, and up the steep drive to the southern side of the bay where we were treated to amazing views of the granite cliffs and shining blue sea. Making our way southward through Table Mountain National Park we stumbled upon baboon troupes, centuries old farms, forested vistas, and the wide open views of the Atlantic Ocean.

As the four of us moved even further south, the landscape changes, ostrich farms and forests gave way to scrub and open plains. We had arrived at Cape Point, a Natural World Heritage Site within Table Mountain National Park.  After parking the car we climbed the stairs to the upper lighthouse and marvelled at the 360° view from Cape Peninsula’s southernmost lighthouse. Riding the Flying Dutchman Funicular back to the entrance we get back into the car to travel just a bit further south to the Cape of Good Hope. There is a slight breeze, the sun is shining, and it couldn’t be a nicer day to enjoy the sites and sounds of southern Africa, and we were not alone. The parking lot was full, with visitors from around the world taking photos and videos of this historical site. Joining us in festivities were two wild ostrich and we watched in amazement as tourists tried getting close to them in order to have their photos taken alongside these finicky giants. We didn’t need to be reminded to give these animals a wide berth.

As we could travel no further south, we turned the car around and headed northward along the eastern side of the peninsula to Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town. Boulders Beach is famous for its huge colony of Jackass Penguins that settled there in 1985. To see thousands of these fascinating creatures on the white sand beaches of Africa is simply amazing. After exploring the colony on the elevated wooden walkways we had a great seafood lunch at Boulders Beach Lodge and Restaurant which has views out to the False Bay, white sandy beaches, and, of course, the penguin colony.

After our relaxing lunch, and a short stop at a local street-side market (little j got a slingshot), we climbed back into the merc and continued our journey northward towards Cape Town. Our next, and final, stop on our day long exploration of the Cape would be the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. The weather had taken a turn for the dreary as we began our exploration of this stunning garden nestled up beside the mist shrouded Table Mountain but it was still hard not to be impressed with the large collection of mostly native plants, flowers and trees in this national treasure. After several hours exploring the many acres of the gardens we took the last leg of our journey back to our hotel for some rest.

We would be leaving for the dolphin coast early the next morning.

a few days in bangkok

Bells
after a week in saigon (minus a few days in hoi an to which i did not bring a camera battery – so you will see no pictures), i travelled to bangkok to meet up with b, who had never been to asia before, for a week of vacation silliness in a city still known for its wild side.  if i had to choose only one country to vacation to, it would be thailand.  having been twice before, this third trip to the kingdom would be my shortest, and the first time i would not leave bangkok for the duration of my trip.  there are plenty of hotels to choose from in bangkok; from the top-of-the-line to backpacker-chique.  i am partial to the sheraton royal orchid on the chayo praya river, besides i can stay on points.  all rooms in the hotel have been (or are being) renovated and have river views.  the ferry, a free luxury that all river hotels have, takes you to saphin thaksin bts (skytrain) station and you can ride the modern convenience throughout the central area of bangkok and up to the jj market.  even though taxis are inexpensive, using the skytrain system sometimes can prove easier near the main shopping area.  in the evenings taxis (or when you are up for a thrill, a tuk-tuk) can take you directly to your destination for very little.

Royal Orchid Sheraton

River LifeRiver SideAlong the River

as i have mentioned before, i do enjoy relaxing by the pool, eating and shopping on a vacation and bangkok offers exactly what i was looking for.  siam centre, still my favourite place to shop, is located along side the downright luxurious siam paragon centre, mbk centre – the place for leather goods and various quality levels of knock-offs and another dud mall, siam discovery, that i usually avoid.  for a bit of culture thrown in, jim thompson house is located a short walk from this corner as is worth seeing, if only to see a traditional thai style house, right in the middle of this bustling metropolis.

Temple DetailTemple Detail 2Wat PhoOfferings to Buddha

of course i have a favourite restaurant in bangkok – eat me, located on convent road a few blocks from sala dang bts station, has had me coming back several times each time i am in town.  the intimately scaled, yet open style of this tropical restaurant is a favourite haunt for travelers in the know, expats from the world over and hi-so thais not only because of its delectable internationally flavoured menu but also the informative longtime owner darren hausler, who can often be seen chatting-up other guests and the headwaiter, who’s seductive voice could at easily talk you into a second dessert.  the city of angels is also known for its street food as bangkokians spend much of their evenings and time off out, on the street.  this way of life has lead to some of the most diverse street food that i have seen in my travels.  the smells and sights will excite the true foodie, and anyone with a sense of adventure will want to try a snippet from many a cart.  as a good rule of thumb with any restaurant, if it’s not busy, don’t eat there!

Mother of Pearl DetailReclining Buddha

i have an every increasing list of things to do when in bangkok.  i have never made it through.

saigon

Smoke Trails

there are many thoughts and images that come to mind when one thinks of vietnam.  it is a country that has weathered many occupations, wars and calamities.  for many, it is synonymous with a failed war, befittingly called the american war here.  before that the french occupied the area and going back before that the chinese left their legacy of rule.  the influence of america’s war, french colonial rule and chinese control can be seen in the architecture, food, religion and the population itself.  though i am familiar with south east asia, this was my first trip to vietnam and i was not disappointed.  many travel writers have compared saigon of present to bangkok 10 to 15 years ago.  and while there can be many parallels drawn between the two, saigon and bangkok are unique gems in their own rights.  in these writers’ defense saigon is, as bangkok was (or in a more limited capacity is), still a city that has many draws for the ‘backpack in one hand, lonely planet in the other’ crowd of travelers that help open the world of travel to the masses.  i however, travelled to saigon with luggage on wheels, my laptop, several cameras and lenses sans a lonely planet guide under my arm – and still managed.

visiting saigon was prompted by my friend s who is living in vietnam for one year in order to adopt her second child.  s, who i have know since high school, already has her beautiful 3 year old daughter m, who she adopted from china several years ago, and together they are living outside the tourist zones of saigon in quận 8.  having lived in the city since january, s was a tour guide that could help navigate such a whirlwind of a city as well as offer some sound advice on the idiosyncrasies that make saigon both unique and possibly treacherous.

the first thing one might notice after leaving the airport in the relative comfort of a taxi, other than the heat and humidity of course, is the sheer number of motorbikes on the road.  as  our taxi weaves through the sea of literally thousands of motorbikes, each using their horns as a type of echo location device, it dawns on me that this might be as close to controlled chaos as i have ever been.  i am reminded of traveling through india many years ago – but it is only a glimmer – as the city unfolding before me takes centre stage in my mind’s eye.  as i had landed after 10 pm, traffic was actually light and we made it south from the airport to s’s place in less than half-an-hour.  as saigon, and vietnam as a whole, continues to develop, the middle class continues to grow as evidenced by the relatively new homes that have been built throughout the city’s many districts or quận(s).  as we pull up the house s shares with a couple who is also living in vietnam to adopt two children (3 and 12), i am struck by the difference in architecture compared to an average home in vancouver or toronto.  as with most newer homes in saigon, s’s home is a row house with 4 floors.  the front of the house literally opens up completely, both to act as a front door and a garage door.  it seems that if you are lucky enough to afford an automobile in saigon, you must also park it in your living room.  with no cars at the house, the living room merely had to cope with two motorbikes.

morning in quan 8sunrise quan 8

ah, the motorbikes.  i was quickly initiated into saigon’s motorcycle culture the next morning when s, along with m strapped in, and i head out into the blurry streets in search of breakfast that didn’t include noodles.  heading further from the city centre, towards a newer enclave of homes and shops being built for the booming expat populations that have begun descending on this relatively undiscovered south east asian gem, we stop at vietnam’s answer to starbucks – highland’s coffee and have a delicious breakfast of eggs, french bread, fruits and yogurt.  the french’s lasting influence on the cuisine in vietnam cannot be ignored.
Parking

after fueling up on breakfast (and espresso) we get back on the donorcycle and head into the thick of saigon’s quận 1, the central business, tourist and shopping district.  the roar of the traffic, the echoing horns and palpable energy pulsing through the air, continue to rise as we move closer to the heart of the city.  while the average resident of saigon is not unaccustomed to seeing foreigners throughout the city, two europeans with a chinese toddler (often sleeping!) riding through the crowded city streets on a motorbike still draws it’s fair share of smiles, add to that that it is the woman driving and you have the perfect recipe for some outright laughter.  as the throngs of motorcycles squeeze through the streets, jockeying for space amongst the buses, cars and taxis you are reminded of just how fragile we as humans really are.

for me, traveling is often about meeting people, eating and shopping – with my fair share of lazing by a pool thrown in – and less about sightseeing.  i hate to schedule every moment of a trip as much of the more interesting days seem to unfold all on their own.  district 1 offers plenty of distractions for everyone, from the backpacker in the group to the gucci girl of the pack.  shopping is a pastime that can easily engulf an entire week in saigon – from the comfort of the air conditioned plazas to the dozens upon dozens of shops lining every street throughout district 1 – there is no end to shopping, at any price point.

for the foodie in the group, stumbling upon saigon – with it’s thousands of street vendors and hundreds of restaurants offering local specialities, and specialties from throughout the country – it is easy to immerse yourself into vietnamese food on a grand scale.  with its history of french occupation saigon is also home to many french restaurants and bistros… for those craving a baguette and a glass of wine for lunch the refinery, located near the park hyatt, is a perfect place to stop while exploring the city.  saigon is also home to a few 5 star hotels, each with their own way to eat, and experience the city.  firstly, the rex hotel – the choice of foreign journalists during the war –  with its sparkling, almost kitchy, rooftop restaurant brings you just far enough up from one of the district’s main intersections without disconnecting you from the pulsating rhythm.  it is worth a dinner on a friday or saturday  night before exploring the nightlife.  Secondly, bringing you up much further – the 23rd floor to be exact – is the bar/restaurant of sheraton saigon towers.  the view is stunning and brings you far above the crowded city streets, and if you happen upon here at dusk you’ll be able to see the bats swooping and performing aerial acrobatics in search of the evening’s meal.  the sheraton also offers two towers for guests and is the hotel that i spend my last night in before heading to bangkok.  lastly, for the 5 star afternoon tea break, i suggest the hotel majestic’s street level restaurant.  one cannot discuss food in saigon without mentioning the famous quan an ngon, located near reunification palace.  this restaurant, popular with locals and expats alike is an open air oasis allowing you to dine on some of saigon’s best street food under the rustle of banana leaves and palm trees.  despite all this, sharing phở, rice noodles and beef strips in a beef broth, with locals, late at night at a street vendor’s seating area on the sidewalk, remains a highlight of my trip.
The RefineryRefinery Lunch

a week anywhere would be hard without seeing some of the sites.  throughout the city there is evidence of the french occupation.  wide streets, lined with beautiful examples of french architecture are prominent throughout district 1.  the central post office exemplifies this and is a popular tourist destination.  perhaps one of the most disappointing tourist spots is the reunification palace – which looks less like a a palace and more like a university designed in the 70s.  the park located across from it however, is a lovely expanse of grass and trees and provides a quiet refuge during a hot day.  though hard to find, the emperor jade pagoda provided a glimpse into some of the chinese influence on vietnam and gave me a chance to take some pictures with my new lens.

PrayersOfferingsExitCyclo Close-up

with the world economy in its present uncertain state, it is hard to say if saigon will continue to change at its present pace, but regardless, like many other times in its history saigon seems to be at a pivotal moment and is sure to continue to draw more and more tourists eager to see and experience its charms.