Memorable meals

The Rock Restaurant, Zanzibar

The Rock Restaurant, Zanzibar

Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to eat in some top quality restaurants in the UK and around the world.  But, while gourmet food is always fantastic at the time, I’ve come to the conclusion that memorable meals are really made so because of the location, the occasion and the people they are shared with.

One of my most unforgettable meals was a stuffed butternut squash, cooked over an open fire in the Okavango Delta in Botswana.  The fact that the guide leading our trip bothered to make such an intricate and tasty dish with only a wilderness camp fire for an oven still amazes me.  The act of sitting under the stars to share it with new friends from around the globe and our local guides from a neighbouring village in Botswana before we all embarked on camp fire tales and singing made it a meal to remember forever.

When it comes to scenic restaurants, a couple of places top my list.  In Israel, we once ate at The Red Sea Star restaurant which is underwater in the Red Sea.  I no longer have any clue what I ate on the night, but I’ll never forget the bizarre experience of eating a three course meal as beautiful species such as Red Sea Clownfish, Lionfish and the odd turtle swam past the windows.  I’m pretty sure we didn’t eat fish.

On the beautiful island of Zanzibar, we once spent a very happy lunchtime eating at The Rock Restaurant, a tiny little place on an islet just off the beach.  The view out across the Indian Ocean was breathtaking and part of the fun was wading back to shore after our meal, when the islet had become cut off by the high tide.

Without doubt though, top of the memorable meals list for me was a dining experience we shared in a rural family home in Vietnam last year, after a morning visiting the villagers involved in an micro financed project we were supporting.  We were invited into the home of a local lady who showed us how to cook a delicious range of traditional Vietnamese dishes, including fresh spring rolls, which were fried over the open fire in her kitchen.  For us  the very fact that we’d been invited into a village home made it a very special meal for us.  I think we provided some reciprocal enjoyment for our host too, because she was most amused by our attempts to use chopsticks to turn the food frying over the open fire.  Thankfully, she intervened and deftly flipped them, or we’d have frazzled them for sure.

It was simple home cooked food, but in a place and with people I will never forget.

 

 

 

 

November 11th, 2014 | Comments Off on Memorable meals

Taking the train–overland travel in India

Beautiful Darjeeling - worth the long trip to get thereHere’s a number one tip for anyone planning to travel by train in India – expect delays.

After months of careful planning and timetable checking, our travel schedule came unravelled in one fell swoop when the departures board at Mughal Sarai Junction informed us that the Shatabdi Express was delayed by thirteen hours.  Thirteen hours soon became sixteen hours, then twenty and before we knew it, our train was running a whole day late. The dejected but resigned faces of those around us confirmed that this was by no means uncommon.  In India you can travel pretty much anywhere by train – providing you have plenty of time, patience and a healthy dollop of good humour.

The taxi driver who’d dropped us off at the station knew before we did that the train was delayed and was quick off the mark to offer his services in running us – via the ATM – to a ‘friend’s hotel’, but given that we’d only just met him, we decided to err on the side of caution and take matters into our own hands.  And so it was, that we discovered the joys of the Indian Railway system’s retiring rooms. Enquiries in the waiting room alerted us to the fact that there might be a ‘hotel’ at the railway station and after a tedious hour of queuing (including half an hour in the ‘wrong’ queue), payment of a modest amount for a room, plus twice as much again in baksheesh to oil the wheels, we had the dubious honour of unlocking our room.  It was less than salubrious with bed sheets that didn’t seem to have been washed any time recently, so the term hotel was something of an overstatement, but needs must when you opt for the budget adventure travel option across India. It beat an unplanned night on the platform with all our baggage at any rate.

A constant stream of platform announcements and the relentless clatter of thousands of people passing through the station put paid to any attempts to sleep but at least we had a bed to lie on, a light and book each to read.

Finally the departures board announced the imminent arrival of our train so we heaved and shoved with the best of them to get on board, only to discover an old lady sleeping in one of our allotted bunks. With relief, we soon established that she did indeed have her own space with family in the compartment across the corridor, but she’d decided to spread out a bit – cosily tucking herself up in our bedding as she did.  Thank heavens for sleeping bags.

Sighing with relief, we settled down into the journey and the next fifteen hours aboard proved to an experience like no other, presenting us with a fascinating insight into the intricacies of Indian train travel. Like a haat on wheels, there is nothing (or so it seemed) that you can’t buy on board a long distance train in India… Tea and coffee salesmen traversed the length of the train with steaming kettles of hot beverages, quickly pursued by others dispensing sometimes dubious looking snacks from cavernous buckets while yet more peddled a mind boggling array of household goods.

Finally, as the first rays of early morning light pierced the grey shadows of a very long night, we peered through bleary dust caked windows as the scenes of rural India unfolded before us, a landscape of lush green fields, dotted with the bright jewels of sari clad workers.

At long last, we heaved ourselves off the train into the luminous sunshine of New Jalpaiguri station, ready for the next leg of our trip to Darjeeling.  An  adventure on the world famous Darjeeling Himalayan Mountain Railway beckoned…

January 2nd, 2012 | Comments Off on Taking the train–overland travel in India

Beautiful Broads

Norfolk Wildlife Trust boat

Norfolk is a gorgeous county. Many of its coastal towns and villages, such as Cley and Brancaster Staithes are still wonderful havens of peace and tranquillity, where the simple holiday pleasures of rock pools, buckets and spades and great seafood still rule the day. Perfect for a relaxing English  seaside break. Just a little further inland, are the Norfolk Broads; a winding trail of waterways that provide a haven for birds and wildlife.

Inspired by the glorious early June weather, we decided to head off to the Broads recently, in search of British birds and wildlife.

A bit of research lead us to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust which manages a number of nature reserves in the region.  We’d booked ahead to join one of their wildlife spotting boat trips and duly joined skipper Maurice and a couple of other visitors for what turned out to be a truly idyllic two hour journey through the reed beds.

It was like stepping back in time.  On the larger expanses of water, people were busy with the traditional ‘brown boat’ sailing dinghies, streaming along in the wind, for all the world as if they’d just dropped out of ‘Swallows and Amazons’.  The more sedate sailors were pottering around on houseboats and day cruisers, or sitting on deck in the sunshine with a mug of tea.Coltishall riverside pub

On our eco friendly electric boat, we were able to chug quietly up and down some of the narrower channels, keeping a sharp eye open for anything interesting along the way. We were rewarded with close up views of many birds, including Reed Warblers and Sedge Warblers and there were so many Marsh Harriers soaring on the thermals above us that we lost count.  Our eyes popped as we saw a grass snake swim from one side of the reed bed to the other and Swallowtail butterflies fluttered around in a mesmerising aerial dance.

A one stage, we briefly left the boat and climbed to the top of the Trust’s special viewing platform, to take in a panoramic view of the Norfolk Broads, with sailboats dotted like tiny handkerchiefs in the distance.  We fancied that we might have glimpsed one of the region’s breeding pairs of Cranes, but had to concede that it was in fact a Grey Heron lurking to fool us.

Topped off by a pleasant saunter around the reserve’s nature trails and finally a leisurely pub lunch, it would be hard to imagine a more perfect English summer’s day out.  It didn’t cost the earth, we learned a lot about the area and our visit helped to provide a little bit of the money that the Trust needs to keep protecting this precious environment for generations to come.

Who could ask for more?

June 21st, 2010 | Comments Off on Beautiful Broads

Magical Morocco

Camel train Sahara Desert, Morocco

Although it was something of a whirlwind trip – stopping off at more than 10 towns and villages during a two week visit – a recent trip to Morocco was absolutely fantastic.

There’s something utterly beguiling about sleeping under the stars in the Sahara Desert and boy, is it cold at night!  Sleeping is perhaps an overly ambitious description of the experience, because when you are sharing a section of sand with another 10 bodies, all at similar odds between sleep and wakefulness, it’s hard to get any meaningful shut eye.  That’s without factoring in the camels wandering around the camp and the spectacle of being under an inky midnight blue sky, showered with brilliant stars. A bit surreal, but definitely not to be missed.

Between visits to the major cities of Casablanca, Fes and Marrakech, we had chance to get somewhat off the beaten track and visit some remote villages in the Atlas Mountains, where the daily life of local people is still influenced by long standing traditions.  There was stunning scenery, bracing air and brisk exercise to be enjoyed (apart from the handfulSkala Du Port, Essaouira of people who cheated and hoofed it up on a mule that is) as we hiked up to Armd village for the night.  Traders had set up little stalls with Berber goods for sale and after some hard bartering, I found myself in possession of a rather fetching hand knitted woollen beanie hat.  It came in useful, as the mountains gave us another breath sucking insight into quite how cold Morocco gets in some places.

In Essaouira, we had the lCafe Des Epices. Marrakechuxury of two days to potter around the town, to enjoy the active bustle of the fishing port and chill out at pavement cafes in the Medina, where we sipped the most glorious freshly squeezed orange juice – definitely the best we’d ever tasted.  Another highlight here was a visit to the local Hammam, but that’s another story…

As we neared the end of the trip, we set off for Marrakech, stopping en route to watch the famous goats of the Marrakech-Tensift-El Haouz region, which nimbly climb trees to eat the fruits of the Argan tree.  Quite an astonishing sight.

Marrakech was everything we’d hoped for. Vibrant and hectic, full of curious smells and sounds and with a souk worth getting lost in for a couple of hours.  In Djemaa El-Fna Square we watched agog as colourful characters entertained the masses with acrobats, magic, storytelling and dance, whilst nearby stalls served steaming bowls of food scooped from bubbling vats.  Courage failed us though and we didn’t tuck in, but headed instead to the Earth Cafe Marrakech, where we sank gratefully into their comfy cushions to enjoy some superb vegetarian food.

Our trip was arranged through G Adventures which made it possible to see so many fascinating aspects of the country in a limited amount of time.  Our travelling companions were delightful – there was a staggering 65 year age span between the youngest, at 19, to the oldest, who at 84 was an inspiration to all of us.

It’s a joy to know that life really is what you make of it, whatever age you are.

December 1st, 2009 | Comments Off on Magical Morocco

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