Monthly Archives: May 2012

Lassie! Pipe down a bit with the cereal!

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Where: Pitlochry, Perthshire, Scotland

The incredible warmth and charm of Pitlochry is summed up by this sign.

Plate of Food: This is a place that has a “salmon ladder” so it is no surprise that fresh Scottish salmon features on many menus here. I had some truly wonderful salmon in Pitlochry (including at a restaurant where we turned up an hour early for our reservation because we didn’t change the time on our watches – oops), but when in Scotland I am always partial to a full Scottish breakfast. This is a plate of eggs, bacon, sausages, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, and black pudding. So, just a light meal. In my defence, we were doing some rather long walks through the countryside…and I didn’t have the tomatoes. Very restrained.

I ate my breakfast of (ahem) champions in the cramped dining room of the bed and breakfast in which we were staying. There were many guests staying that weekend and our small tables were nestled very close to one another. So close that it was difficult to have a private conversation without overhearing everyone else’s conversations next to you. So close it was difficult to cut your bacon without elbowing someone in the ear. As the room filled each morning, silence would descend. People became very interested in their own plates and we all ate to the awkward tune of cutlery clinking against plates and tea being quietly slurped.

We became aware of a curious middle-aged couple who were very prim and proper and unfailingly courteous to each other as if they had only just met (“Please, do sit so you can see out the window.” “Oh no, please, you sit there!” “No, no, I insist!”).

The gentleman always ordered a cooked breakfast, but his lady friend demurely chose the tinned fruit and cold cereal. In the eery silence and under his watchful eye, she delicately poured milk in her bowl, then raised her spoon to her mouth, and crunched mouthful after mouthful of the NOISIEST cornflakes in Scotland. The sound filled the room. Being a well-mannered woman, she was embarrassed by the volume of her breakfast cereal, so she held one fine-boned hand up in front of her mouth as she chewed. Huh? Amazingly I can still hear you even if I can’t see your mouth.

She steadily worked her way through the bowl until eventually the spoon was laid to rest and the entire room let out our collective breath. Top o’ the morning to you!

The best: Through some weather phenomenon, we have always experienced sunny weather when in Scotland (except for that ill-fated climb of Arthur’s Seat) causing us to wax lyrical about the beauty and delights of this nation. Your Scottish experience may well have been wet, grey, and haunted by deep-fried Mars bars (yes, that is a real thing), but mine was not.

The sun shone brightly on our time in Pitlochry. There were bright daffodils growing in cheerful bunches on the roadsides, and the river was flowing fast with the run-off from the hills. The village itself was exactly what you imagine a rural Scottish village to be: quaint, quiet, friendly, and charming. There were sweet little tea shops offering fruit scones and ginger cake, there were ancient-looking pubs offering dark corners in which to sip your dram of local whisky, there were castles straight out of story books, and there were beautiful walks in the surrounding area to help you work off your ample breakfast.

A perfect spot for a distillery, right?

We walked along a beautiful path to the smallest whisky distillery in Scotland – Edradour. The walk was peaceful and gentle. Our route was flanked by mossy stone walls and we looked out over low hills, just beginning to show the green of Spring. There were babbling brooks, more daffodils, and (in case we are getting too pastoral) a fantastic whisky tasting at the end.

Story that needs to be told: We stayed in a cozy, family-run bed and breakfast just off of the main street in Pitlochry. The wallpaper was floral. The stairs creaked. The rooms smelled like rose scented soap. We were 50 years too young for this place, but it was great.

When we arrived in the late afternoon, having driven from Aberdeen, there was no one at the front desk. We rang the bell and waited. We could hear footsteps upstairs and the occasional distant voice. We rang again. Finally, a man came bustling through the door and into the reception area. He cheerfully greeted us while smoothing down his fly-away hair, then walked right past us and through another door.

We looked at each other and waited.

Suddenly he appeared behind the desk and started looking for something under all of the papers. All the while he chatted animatedly, but distractedly to us. Before we could properly check in, he dashed off to find his wife. He returned (without his wife) and continued his flustered work. He glanced at the hall clock and remembered that he was supposed to be picking up his daughter from the train station. He shouted up the stairs at someone and searched for his keys before striding in and out of various doors in the reception area.

This was getting ridiculous. Basil Fawlty, is that you?

Eventually our host left and his wife completed our check in. She spoke to a young girl who came down the stairs and asked her to “call Dad and tell him you’re not at the train station because you arrived this morning”.

A rolling stone gathers no…oh, too late for these ones.

“Whisky may not cure the common cold, but it fails more agreeably than most other things.” Scottish Proverb

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Fortunate me

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We need to talk.

But don’t worry! It’s not one of those talks. I just want to check in with you to see how you are doing. It’s been about 4 months since I started writing this blog and you started indulging me by reading it.

Thank you.

You’ve vicariously traveled to 19 different countries. Wow! That’s better than those package tours that strap you and your backpack into a bus for a 10 day blitz of Europe. And, 4 months in, you have no pile of laundry to deal with after your trips (except for that pile of laundry that you normally have to deal with. I can’t do anything about that), you have no overtime to work to pay off that extra week in a hotel, you have no sand to vacuum out of your suitcase (where, oh, where does it all come from?!), and you have no extra kilos to shift after overindulging on your travels (except for those extra kilos you normally…oh, never mind).

And me? I am delighted to be writing these travel tales. Truly delighted. I am even more delighted that someone is reading them and enjoying them. Thanks for all of the kind comments and the “Likes” on the blog. I love hearing from you, so please do drop me a note when you’ve read something that resonates. Comments make the web world feel less like a black hole!

This is how I feel about this blog! No, not like a fish out of water…

There have been 832 views of my blog so far which is very cool or it just means that my family are taking it in turns to visit the site and bump up the numbers (if that’s the case, guys, can you get me to 1000?)! I must’ve done something right back in April because on one day my blog had 30 views. It’s a personal best, people! And records are made to be broken so I’m now aiming for 31 for one day in June. Dream big.

In other interesting news, someone searched ‘sisterdom taboo stories’ and was directed to my post about Mexico. Uh, I guess I am sorry that you didn’t find what you were looking for (taboo? really?), but hope you enjoyed reading about tostadas! I only feel a little creepy.

So, what’s next? Well, I keep writing and striving to post 3 times a week (if only kids could feed/dress/drive themselves). If there’s anything you need, let me know. A specific country you are curious about? More photos? Less…something? We’re in this together, you know.

I’m so glad we talked. Let’s do this again in another 4 months!

I’m ready to travel. Are you?

How do you say “Oops” in Dutch?

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Where: Various waterways of The Netherlands. We were lucky enough to go on a 2 day boat trip with friends. Our route started in Den Haag to Kagerplassen (a network of lakes), then went through Leiden and south to Rotterdam, ending just north of the city centre.

Me. In a boat. In Holland. In the sunshine. Miracles do happen, people!

Plate of Food: We were no fools. We traveled with friends who enjoy the finer things in life: good food, great wine, leisurely boat trips in the sunshine…This worked out very well for us indeed.

My friend is a great hostess; she endlessly and effortlessly provides food and drinks to her guests. On this trip, she conjured up delightful snacks and meals from thin air. I am not sure where she stored this treasure trove of delicacies, but periodically she would open a hatch in the boat and come out with creamy cheeses, olive tapenade, fresh baguettes, and juicy watermelon. With each platter of tasty nibbles, I became more and more sure of our undying friendship.

It appears as though boating in Holland has a lot to do with rosé wine. Not in your experience? Well, my friend, then you didn’t do it right. It was perfect rosé weather: sunny, warm, languid, and jolly. Yes, that is a minor miracle in The Netherlands in June. So we celebrated.

Don’t we look like we do this every day? Wait, CAN we do this every day? Please?

One simple, indulgent snack that my friend pulled out of her bag of tricks was sweetened condensed milk with fresh strawberries. Don’t judge hastily. Allow me to explain. Take the lid off of the condensed milk. Grab a big, red strawberry. Dip into tin of creamy sweetness. Eat it. Pay no attention to the sweetened condensed milk dripping off your chin or the strawberry juice on your fingers. Repeat and be happy.

It had never occurred to me to eat sweetened condensed milk with strawberries (I was still buying ripple chips and dipping them into french onion dip – huh). That was the brilliance of this trip – none of it had ever occurred to me: to go on a boat trip, to use the waterways as grand avenues between so many beautiful places, to bring CAVIAR on said boat trip (oh, yes, she did), to sit back and talk and laugh as you discover a country from a new perspective. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? But thank goodness for friends who do think of these things, invite us along, and then bring along great food.

The Best: I lived in The Netherlands for 4 years and saw a lot of the country in that time, but this was by far the best way to see a nation that has a love/hate relationship with water. The threat of water breaking through dikes is real and is (very rightly) taken very seriously. But the people also embrace water sports, and boating in particular. I loved this entire trip for its slow pace, its silence, and its new perspective on a country I called home.

We travelled on huge waterways with larger vessels alongside us and highways crossing over top, but we also cruised down narrow canals so shallow we would have been able to stand in the water. We gazed out and saw green grassy paddocks with fat cows grazing, but we also went through villages where we gazed in at cafes and houses as we passed by. We passed tiny churches and huge windmills. We didn’t travel far, but the variety of what we saw and experienced was extraordinary.

We went under innumerable bridges: some opened like a drawbridge (hinged on one side), some lifted straight up on four posts, some were hinged on both sides and opened in the middle, some spun out of the way, and some didn’t open at all so we all ducked down while we squeezed underneath. Wait, don’t stop reading! The bridges were really interesting, I promise!

Watch your head! Some bridges only allowed a few inches of clearance.

Here the bridge just lifts vertically on four posts. Fascinating, right? Right? Hello?

Let me draw you back in by talking about…locks. No, really. We went through many locks which were astounding to me. They have opening times, did you know? And traffic lights. And you queue up to take your turn going through them. The massive doors open and you guide your boat in, tethering your rope to a hook on the side of the lock. The walls are concrete and tower above you. You wait. Then water starts rushing in, swirling around. You feel the boat start to rise and soon you come up from the dark depths into the sunshine. The doors creak open on the other side and out you go. But not before placing a tip in the wooden clog that hangs down the side of the lock. What’s not to love about that?

We’re waiting in our final lock of the trip. You can see how much higher we are than the water on the other side. Those clever Dutchmen!

Massive doors opening and the adventure continues!

Story that needs to be told: The boat we used was our friend’s father’s boat. It was immaculately maintained and cared for. The wood glowed from polishing, the metal fixings shone and had not a speck of rust on them, and everything had its place. It was obvious that this was a craft from which he took much pleasure and pride. Five young adults borrowing it for a weekend probably did not fill him with confidence.

He needn’t have worried though because his son was very careful and responsible. Our friend navigated many tricky locks and bridges without any problem.

He should have, on the other hand, worried about me.

We were leisurely puttering along near the end of our trip on a small canal in a very rural spot. Large lily pads with spiky white flowers crowded the banks. It was quiet except for the happy shouts of some kids cooling off in the water near a bridge. I was lounging in my usual spot on the cushioned bench of the boat. I swung my arm up onto the edge of the boat as you would along the back of a couch and knocked something with my elbow. It was a pole for the sun canopy. And it silently dropped into the dark water and disappeared.

My mouth went dry.

I looked around. No one had noticed anything, they were too busy enjoying the trip…on the immaculate boat…that we BORROWED…from a man who would now hate me. Should I say something? (C’mon, it would cross your mind, too.)

I piped up and confessed that I had caused a pole to drop over the side. We stopped and circled around. We stared expectantly at the water as if the pole might eventually surface, gasping for air, and spluttering “SHE pushed me in!!”

It did not surface.

We asked those boys who were swimming to come and comb the canal bed with their feet in the hopes they would feel it. I wanted to help, too, but to be perfectly honest there was no amount of guilt that would get me to drag my feet along the murky, muddy bottom of a canal. Let the keen 12 year old boys do it! They searched, but found nothing so we were forced to admit that it was gone forever. We paid the boys for having risked their lives (seriously, have you ever seen what they dredge out of canals??) and we went on our way.

Our friend’s Dad never said anything to me about the lost pole. It may have been because he didn’t think my Dutch was good enough, but I like to think that it was because he was kind and gracious enough to recognize that one pole is worth sacrificing for a weekend of stellar memories.

“Better lose the anchor than the whole ship” Dutch Proverb

Beautiful Holland. Don’t let me borrow your windmill, I might break it!

I would never trade my sister for a burrito…a tostada, yes.

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My sister was staying with me in Rio for the past 3 weeks which meant that anyone else in the room with us was completely extraneous. Huh? Husband? Children? Who are you? Some of you will relate to this: non-stop talking, sometimes in code, and uncontrollable laughter. Yay for sisters! Others will be puzzled. I’m sorry. Being immersed in sisterdom reminded me of some of the trips my sister and I have taken together. So…

Where: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (I feel I have to defend this one because there are people who are critical of Mexico and of all-inclusive resorts. In fact, I was one of those people. Except this was exactly what my sister and I wanted: warm weather, food, and drinks so that we could stay focused on all that, well, talking.)

Plate of food: I love Mexican food. I do. LOVE. No, Taco Bell does not count (but in an emergency the 7 Layer Burrito will do, just ask for extra guacamole. I mean, c’mon, customize your fast food, people.)

No, I am talking about/salivating over mole sauce, tamales, chiles rellenos, cilantro, beans, tostadas, ceviche….Say it with me: Olé! (You know you want to.)

We enjoyed great food in great quantities during our stay. My favourite were small tostadas served daily as a mid-afternoon poolside snack. What’s that you say? It’s been 90 minutes since my last meal? And I’ve done nothing but read my book since then? Well, then, pass me a tostada! These were palm-sized corn tortillas topped with pork, avocado, cilantro and lime. They were warm, fragrant, and fresh. And just what we needed to keep our energy up if we were going to see out the afternoon in our sun loungers. Phew.

I dare say that if we had asked the gentleman who insisted on eating a cheeseburger every afternoon IN THE HOT TUB, he would not have mentioned the tostada as a highlight. All I have to say to him is that you and your dripping mustard are the reasons I never put a toe in that tub. That and the fact that I would’ve had to sit on your lap to actually fit in the hot tub. Let’s move on.

The Best: I can’t begin to comment on the sights around Puerto Vallarta. Although we did see many things (lively marketplaces, hidden churches, a tequila museum, Richard Burton and Liz Taylor’s Mexican love nest), it was all just an undercurrent of activity to what was really the highlight: being with my sister. We walked, we talked, we ate, we talked, we watched the Academy Awards in Spanish, we talked…. Trips like that are wonderful in their own right. Uncomplicated, indulgent, undemanding, and good for the soul.

But I will offer this: the best was visiting a glass factory, where men worked in teams to handle and shape the molten glass. It glowed in dazzling colours at the end of their long poles as they pulled and twisted it like taffy. Some glass blowers would press the malleable glass into wooden molds to create perfect rectangles. Even from where we stood the intense heat from the ovens made our foreheads tingle. It was noisy and hot, but these men worked silently and steadily creating these beautiful works of art.

Scientists will be able to date this photo based solely on the fact that those jeans have PLEATS.

Story that needs to be told: Or in this case Random Thoughts that need to be told:

  • We spent the majority of our trip laughing hysterically at things that were probably definitely only amusing to us. Although we opted for an all-inclusive and enjoyed the perks of it, we were still struck by some oddities about that type of a trip. Namely that they plied with us alcohol from morning to night. Somehow they convince you that it is completely reasonable to start your day with a mimosa and end it with an Irish coffee (complete with flaming tableside mixology!). To be fair, we did not put up much of a fight. A mimosa with huevos rancheros just feels right.

This guy conducted an elaborate preparation for our nightly Irish coffee. We were good for business – the women in the background are already drooling over it.

  • There was a club across the street that was affiliated with the hotel. Manned completely by keen youth, they put on a nightly performance of choreographed singing and dancing. They weren’t shy about using strobe lights and the smoke machine. Walking back one day from an excursion, we were followed closely by a young guy in black denim and leather. We walked faster, so did he. Then he called out to us, “Hey, ladies” which is never going to lead to a deep, satisfying conversation, is it? He repeatedly asked us what we were doing that night. We tried our best to sound like the kind of sisters who would be joining a convent and then retiring to bed at 8:30 to do cross stitch by candlelight. Don’t want to give the wrong impression, you see. He finally flashed a smile and told us to come check out the show…oh. Turns out he was one of many talented performers who donned sparkly outfits in Puerto Vallarta’s answer to Broadway. My bad.
  • There was a daily session of pool volleyball at the hotel. To make things “festive” it also involved a sports bottle filled with vodka. I have not the faintest idea how that worked into the rules, but the leisure crew who came up with this genius idea harvested the depths of their creativity yet again and christened it “Vodka Volleyball”. However, the guy who announced it every afternoon called it “Wodka Wolleyball”. It’s an improvement, I think. He also did his best to lure the aforementioned man from the hot tub by calling “Hello, Yakuzzi? Time for Wodka Wolleyball!” We never took part in the volleyball sessions, mostly because there is nothing worse to me in this world than playing volleyball. Sorry. We did, however, begrudgingly join a line dance one afternoon near the end of our stay. The leisure team were starting to get concerned by the girls who never took part in the activities (please refer to ‘sisters’ and ‘extraneous people’). All I can say is that it is a blessing for all involved that this was the time before video phones and YouTube.

“What’s the good of news if you haven’t a sister to share it?”  Jenny DeVries

Let the waves whisper “Wolleyball” to you…

You fill up my senses…

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Where: Santiago, Chile

Old reflected in new. Downtown Santiago.

Plate of food: Shrimp! With enormous amounts of garlic! And butter! This dish was not subtle in any regard except for the nondescript cast iron pan in which it arrived. The shrimp were swimming (no pun intended) in melted butter, and the chopped garlic settled onto the bottom of the pan in a thick layer. It may sound as though it was too much of everything, but I can assure you that the shrimp took on just the right amount of sweet garlic and smooth butter flavours. I can also assure you that the garlic butter sauce was perfect for dipping fresh, crusty bread or fries or ANYTHING into.

Shrimp. Butter. Garlic. Reminder to self: don’t complicate things!

I must admit that I was well into my adulthood before I could eat shrimp. I hated the texture most of all. I avoided them at all costs and could not comprehend anyone who ordered platefuls of shrimp. This aversion was probably wise in my early years as I grew up  about as far away from an ocean as you can get. Beef was a better, local option.

Thank goodness I came to my senses about shrimp well before this trip to Santiago. Shame I realized too late that I did not have a breath mint to combat all that garlic….

I ate these shrimp at The Central Market in Santiago. This fish market first opened in 1872. Today it is a bustling venue with fish mongers and restaurants sharing the space. We were squeezed in amongst many other tables in the middle of the market, but the atmosphere was incredible: noisy, friendly, energetic. Musicians played Chilean folk songs as they wandered between tables. People were tucking into plates piled with fish, crabs, squid, and octopus. High above us, sunlight shone in through windows and intricate metal arches stretched gracefully over the crowds. The food was simple and delicious. The beer was cold. I couldn’t help but grin between mouthfuls – this is how I love to eat!

The Best: An afternoon spent at Casas Del Bosque vineyard. We drove 45 minutes west from Santiago through dry, scrubby hills until we arrived in Casablanca Valley: a mirage of verdant green vineyards. Casas Del Bosque is one of these vineyards. We enjoyed a short, but impressive tour of the facilities, and then proceeded to a wine tasting. We sat back and tasted 4 amazing wines while the kids munched on the root vegetable chips provided alongside. Hey, everyone’s happy.

The restaurant, Tanino, located on site was a lovely spot to enjoy great food and more great wine. We sat outside on the beautiful patio, overlooking rose bushes, vines, and the distant Andes while munching on sweet potato sopaipilla (a small disc of fried dough)and fresh tomato salsa. I will be forever grateful to Casas Del Bosque for providing colouring books to my children at lunch and for putting a small playground next to the grapevines and alongside glorious sunloungers. Thank you. No, really.

Spend $45,000 on lunch or change the currency and…buy a house.

These few hours spent at Casas Del Bosque were The Best because they transported me to a place of sun and vines, and surrounded me with beauty. I love the care, thought, precision and style with which the winery has been created. It is a vision of perfection at which to arrive in the valley. And once there, the wine and the food and those sunloungers will make you never want to leave.

Drop whatever you are busy with (or place it down gently if it is your child) and go HERE. You can thank me later.

Story that needs to be told: A few snippets…

  • We stayed in a ridiculously posh hotel room thanks to some loyalty points we accrued while we lived in a hotel for, um, nearly 4 months. I am still a sucker for tiny bottles of hand cream and neatly boxed sewing kits, but this was taking it to a whole new level. I’m talking about free bottles of wine, platters of fruit and cheese, artisan chocolates, a DINING ROOM in our suite, thick fluffy robes, and our very own butler. You guys. C’mon. And, yes, you know that I was completely composed as our personal butler delivered bowls of water with rose petals floating in them (really??), but as soon as he left I did the only sensible thing which was to exclaim loudly, take photos, and scan the room yet again for things that I could legitimately stuff in my bag to take home.

I was never one for staying in hostels…

  • Our wedding anniversary fell on our final day in Chile. We didn’t plan anything special, but serendipity stepped in. As we finished dinner, a lounge singer started her evening set. Her second song of the night was one of the songs performed at our wedding ceremony. As I listened and watched our daughter perform what can only be described as an interpretive dance, I felt a bit teary that somehow that song had found us all these miles away, all these years later, in the middle of stunning Santiago. (The song is “Annie’s Song”. I would be wondering the same thing.)

We then went up to our room, only to discover our butler delivering champagne to our room. It was just exceptional hospitality, not anything to do with our     anniversary. Despite being in a suite for the whole week, we were in a standard room for our final night. So we had no choice but to put the kids to bed and    then retire to the spacious bathroom to enjoy our champagne. It felt like an appropriate celebration for a relationship that has grown and deepened whilst exploring many countries and staying in innumerable hotel rooms. Not so sure about the whole champagne-in-the-bathroom thing, but we toasted our travels, our marriage, and those kidlets who hijacked our hotel room.

  • While driving in Santiago (which is not to be taken lightly – we got so horribly lost that we nearly did not make it to our wedding anniversary), we stopped at a red light in a residential area. A young man, down on his luck, approached our car. As we watched, wondering what is small change in Chile – $1,000? $5, 000? Crazy currency!! – he stooped over and breathed out ever so slightly onto our driver’s side mirror to fog it up. Then he yanked his sleeve down and rubbed the mirror clear in small, deliberate circles. This bizarre process completed, he stood up and looked at us through the window. We were dumbstruck. We have never had our mirror cleaned. In that manner. Ever.

Flying over the Andes. Breathtaking.

After only a week in Chile, I can say that we are not done with this country; we are left merely begging for more.

“Without new experiences, something inside of us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken.” Frank Herbert