Some places we stayed and ate during out world trip

June 21, 2007

EDIT June 07:

I kinda gave up with this section, though it was good in principle.

Here’s some discussion of places we’ve stayed, had meals and boozed, which may be helpful for people Googling, but will also be a satisfying way to get things off my chest…

Lotus Suites, Mumbai, India

This is the first played we stayed. We wanted somewhere near the airport to rest after our first long haul, before getting a domestic flight to Kerala the next morning. We booked it in advance and splashed out – it seemed like it’d be classy and interesting as it professed to be an ‘eco’ hotel. We imagined a fairly high standard place with good facilities and services as it was pretty expensive – we paid about £100, way over the budget we’d set for the rest of the trip.

Big mistake – the looked pretty slick on arrival but it stank of kerosene (or something similar). Worst of all, its design is very problematic – a central atrium contains the restaurant and a pool at the bottom, and all the noise carries up to the rooms, most of which face inwards. We really need to sleep but it was impossible – the pool and restaurant were noisy, but they were also having a party of something and a pounding sound system made it feel like we were trying to kip behind the DJ booth in a club. Very unfortunate.

Just to further sully the place’s appeal, we got a complimentary car to the airport the next day. On arrival, the driver demanded 500 rupee (over a fiver). Bizarre notion of complimentary. He insisted he was just a taxi driver who needed paying, but his car definitely said Lotus Suites on the side.

I would heartily recommend people avoid this place.

Sagara Beach Resort, Kovalam, Kerala, India

I was nonplussed by this place when we arrived, but it grew on me. We’d booked it in advance as Fran’s friend Becky had booked a package to Kovalam. It’s quite a package tourist-oriented place, and the Sagara seemed to be a hotel that made a lot of its money from package tourists. We’d again paid more than our budget (we’re working on around $5-$15 a night ideally, around £2.50-£8, for accommodation in Asia – when food etc in touristy places is going on for Western prices, it’s one way of keeping costs down a bit) but for our money we had a big double room, with bathroom and large balcony.

As with a lot of these cheaper hotels in Asia, the place was full of staff (or people just hanging around who may or may not have been staff; if they were, maybe they could have been gainfully employed cleaning up the rubbish-strewn area near the pool), many of whom hassled you to buy extra services. In this case it was for Ayuvedic massage and then later a Kathakali performance. We knew nothing of the qualifications of the person doing the former, so declined, but took them up on the latter, which was great.

The performance took place in the rooftoop restaurant, which itself should have been pretty nice, overlooking palmtrees (with the sea obscured beyond), but was marred slightly as the view was obscured by netting (to stop birds?). And the food wasn’t terribly exciting.

Food and drink in Kovalam

My fave place in Kovalam was the German Bakery on the seafront. I insisted we head there for breakfast/brunch of several occasions, as it had a good view, was elevated above ‘street level’, saving you from endless touts, was lovely and airy, and had good food, including nice cakes and pastries. And the staff were charming – not in that pushy, professionally friendly way either, just place pleasant.

The staff weren’t so nice in Fusion, a kinda trendy-ish restaurant further along, but the food and ambience were good (even if you paid a bit for the latter). It was again on a first floor – good for views and avoiding touts, who will hassle you endlessly if you sit on ground level on the sea front. It also had the classic loo – a nice clean squat toilet with comical cartoon instructions on how to use it.

Another friendly place we went in Kovalam was set back from the beach, in the swampier bits. (Former paddies maybe). I wouldn’t have wanted to go there at night (mozzie-tastic methinks), but in the day it was cool, with nice setting among the lotuses, lilies and litter, and friendly young dudes for staff. Food was good, and cheap. I think it was called Spice Village.

Bentley’s, Mumbai, India

We had one night in this place in Colaba in Mumbai. Despite having an idiot drive who couldn’t find it, it was great when we got there. Spread across a few of Colaba’s marvellous, decrepid old tenements (1930s?), it had big, airy rooms with classic old fittings and furniture. Service was no nonsense, location was great. If you can cope with the madness and horrors of Mumbai…

New Siam II, Bangkok, Thailand

We booked this a wee bit in advance again, just for peace of mind. It’s fairly generic, and not inordinately friendly, but it’s clean, has a wee pool (if you want a dip while in Bangkok) and is in a good location – between the (im)famous Khao San Road and the river (where you can jump on the water buses).

Plumbing in our shower room was a bit ropey (on both occassions that we stayed in two different rooms), most of the staff really need to work on their people skills, and the in-hotel travel agency charged quite a lot for sorting our Cambodia visa, but really this place is fine for the higher end of the low-budget spectrum.

Pagnana Guest House, Siem Reap, Cambodia

We didn’t book ahead for Siem Reap (the town near Angkor). After the absurd bus ride from the Thailand border (hanging around, dirt roads, potholes, breakdowns), we arrived late and tired, and this is the guest house the bus folk were in league with. We checked it out and, lo, it was skanky and unpreposessing, but we were knackered and it was cheap (US$8/£4) for an okay-sized room, with en suite (cold water) shower and a double bed we decided to stay. Plodding round a new city at night with a backpack isn’t always terrible appealing.

By the way, I dumped the card for this place and cannot for the life of me remember the correct spelling. Paganna? Pagnana? Can’t remember.

Anyways, the place is redeemed by the friendliness of the mob of stray young men who live (kipping on the furniture in ‘reception’) or outside on a recliner and work there. Really nice friendly chaps, and not just professionally friend because they’re trying to sell you something. Good company. Lohn and Baby especially – the former a camp chap with good English and a sort of compere person, and the latter with bad English but a sweet surly-cum-affectionate disposition. Both had bad teeth. Let’s hope as Cambodia develops they can get some dental attention.

Dara Reang Sey, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Again we booked ahead. Another fairly standard US$16 a night guest house, with comfortable beds, clean room and bad room. And hot water. Yay. Restaurant was a bit boring though – or maybe that’s just ‘Khmer Food’, which from our experience was very bland indeed.

FCC, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

This fake ‘Foreign Correspondents’ Club’ is worth a visit if you want a dash of the old ‘old colonial’ vibe, some draught beer and a change from the street-level life of touts and traffic etc. We ran into some chaps we’d met in there and spend a few very pleasant hours playing pool, drinking jugs of beer and looking out over the Tonle Sap river. We didn’t eat there though – for food we went to the very weird backpackers enclave by the lake to the west. With its foreigner-oriented, low-budget accommodation, bars and eateries, all oddly disconnnected from the rest of the city, this place feels like a movie set. We had an okay curry for for a few quid each though.

Nhu Lan Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Straight off the bus from Phnom Penh, a tout grabbed us and led us to this place. Very nice indeed – fairly standard, but in a quiet side-alley off Bui Vien (one of the main backpacker-oriented streets) with friendly staff, very spacious clean rooms and handy bank of PCs (though the internet wasn’t free – something we’d only experience later on). We only stayed one night, but I’d recommend this place. Think our big twin room with en suite was US$12.

An Phu Hotel, Hoi An, Vietnam

An Phu, who handle open tour bus tickets in Vietnam, also run this hotel. Again, after a long bus ride, they stopped here and showed us a room. The place looks grander than it is, but with its pool (unused by us due to cool weather and rain, but great in principle), reasonable tariff (US$12 for a good-sized room with two big beds and hot water), and worthwhile breakfast buff (pig out for an extra US$2), it was great, despite the overfurnished, somewhat gloomy room, leaking water heater and reported occasional roach and rat (I didn’t see any of either species).

Good location too, but then Hoi An is small, so it’s unlikely you’d ever be more than 15 mins away from the central markets etc.

Central Stars, Hanoi, Vietnam

We got the train to Hanoi, so stepped off the backpacker conveyor belt for a moment. After being ripped off by a taxi driver we tried a few hotels on Bao Khanh, but they were a bit pricey for us. We wandered around some more until reps found us. Eventually we ended up at Central Stars, which is close to Hang Bac, the street that’s going the way of Khao San in Bangkok. It was in an alley off of quieter street in this hectic part of Hanoi, the Old Quarter. Which seemed promising in terms of the relative quiet for a good night’s sleep factor.

It wasn’t great, noise-wise. Why? Because the hotel might be friendly and attractive and have free internet and breakfast (Vietnamese stumpy bagette, tea or coffee) included, but it was just plain noisy. We stayed one night in a front, lower room with a balcony – it was clean and comfy, but recent renovations have left electrics half finished, while there was nowhere to hang anything (towel rail had obviously fallen off), and the balcony door’s lock didn’t work. So we moved to a back room, on a higher floor. Light was from a well, which also served to carry noise. Oh, and the water pump was very close too.

It must be made clear here that, yes, I’m a light sleeper, and I need sleep if I’m to be fairly functional. Central Stars would be great if only the accoustics weren’t quite so bad. As it is, the vast staff/extended family (who hang out/live in ‘reception’) make such a racket late at night and early in the morning, it’s a long way from restful. It’s funny, as in western hotels, generally reception is an area for guests, where staff are quiet and attentive. In a lot of the Asian places we’ve stayed, reception feels like a place where you’re imposing yourself, while the family watches TV or chats (in the case of Central Stars chats by shouting at each other).

Still, good location and friendly (they even stopped hassling us to buy tours etc after a few days), even if it’s let down by the accoustics…

Sensi Paradise, Koh Tao, Thailand

This is where we spent Xmas. We’d booked it a long way in advance, back when we still earning livings, and it was considerably more expensive than anywhere else we’d stayed in SE Asia. As such, it was something disappointing on some levels. At £40 (US$80 ish) a night, they could have at least provided hot water showers. It was nominally an eco place, and they were emphatic about the island’s lack of water, so maybe only having cold showers stopped people using too much water. Still, solar water heaters could be one way to provide hot showers and still be eco.

The main disappointments about Sensi Paradise, however, were due to its location. It’s right on the main habour of Koh Tao, and though this is a small, pleasant enough place (with a slight one-horse-town vibe among all the dive places), you still get a the racket of the blasted long-tail boats, with their two-stroke engines.

Also, it faces northwest, so gets very little direct sun. Combine that with its lack of beach (at least when we were there late Dec) and it’s not ideal for sun-lovers. Worse still, the prevailing winds of the late monsoon were bringing all the rubbish from the harbour into Sensi’s corner of the bay, which wasn’t exactly picturesque when you were eating a meal.

Still, the place had a very nice vibe, in large part thanks to the lovely, friendly staff, Thai and Burmese, who mostly spoke very good English and very amiable, chatty and helpful. Service generally was efficient and good.

I dunno, you have such expectations and hopes for your Xmas, and we did especially as we’d booked so far in advance, and it was a our big pricey treat after loads of cheapo places. Probably nothing could have lived up to expectations, but if I return to Koh Tao, I’d definitely head for somewhere with some more sun, and less passing traffic.

My sister’s place, Queenscliff, Sydney, NSW, Australia

You couldn’t really find an urban home with better views, I suspect. My sister’s clifftop place has huge panoramic windows with a view down to Freshwater Beach, and out across the Pacific. It’s like being on the prow of a ship. Amazing.

Hydro Majestic Hotel, Medlow Bath, Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia

After spending new years in Manly, we wanted to get out of Sydney and see a wee bit more of New South Wales. The coast, Byron especially, seemed pretty busy, and as one of Rachel’s friend’s had recommened this place, we splashed out on it on Lastminute.com

I thought it was a few km from the train stop and tiny village of Medlow Bath, but in fact it’s right by the road. I was disgruntled to find out ‘Garden View’ room looked over the carpark, with the road and railway just beyond. So we upgrade – as the thing about the Hydro Majestic is its views. You’re paying for the views, down over the Megalong Valley (arond 5km west of Katoomba and its famous sites). You’re certainly not paying for the service – it’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that the place is short-staffed.

It’s a fairly big hotel, built in 1904 as a spa and stretching along the ridge. Which is fine and dandy, but it’s a total drag when you want a drink in its marvellous Hydro Lounge or its balcony with sunset views but the bar is closed. Which it seemed to be most of the time. One barman, on Friday, said Saturday was the busy day, but even then it closed at 8.20pm, leaving you to schlep to the hotel’s distant Grand Dining Room to buy drinks – negoiating long corridors and locked doors along the way.

It’s not a cheap place, so this just feels all wrong – paying out for a mid-range, relatively posh hotel you’d at least expect there to be a few staff arond to ask if you want any more drinks.

Still, the views are amazing. More than that though, the place just has a wonderful vibe of faded early 20th century glamour. Which has then faded a bit more. The place needs some repairs and a bit of a spring clean – but then a few cobwebs maybe suit the ambience, which is very very Overlook Hotel. If you don’t know the Overlook Hotel, watch Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, one of the best haunted ‘house’/ghost movies ever made.

The Hydro Majestic wasn’t exactly spooking, but its Overlook vibe was great. Despite the shortcomings of the management of the place, and its slightly sad state, and lack of grounds, I’d definitely return – but preferably in the winter when its massive log fires are going, and preferably when they’ve finished the professed indoor pool and new facilities. The existing pool is too close to the road, and lacks a decent screen of trees; the new facilities, according to the room paperwork were due to be finished in 2006, but a woman on reception updated this to 2007. Who know when they’ll be finished though as the preservation orders on all these wonderful Blue Mountains buildings seem to prevent people from even maintaining them fully, let alone adding new elements.

The Overlook, aka The Hydro Majestic

Hmm

Not really been keeping this section very up to date have I? Hm.

Oh well. Here’s a few highlights from our time in NZ:

The Tree House

This is a great little hostel on the north side of Hokianga Harbour in Northland. We only had a night there, but it’s got such a special vibe it’s worth mentioning. I wouldn’t like to stay in the dorms, which are off the kitchen and relaxed common area, but couples or whatever can get little cabins. We had one beside a pond. The place is particularly notable for its peace and calm, a mood in part down to the setting among myrid trees. There’s regenerating bush, but also a wonderful array of species from around the world including macadamias (an orchard of them), papaya, banana, aspen and poplar, etc etc.Here’s their site

The Bay House

This is a great café and restaurant south of Westport on the stunning West Coast of NZ’s South Island. It’s an old surf club house I believe, set on a gorgeous beach. Great spot and good food (though I suspect this depends on the chef, as friends say the food had got pretty poor a while back with staff changes). Here’s their site.

Beer

New Zealand, the the South Island in particular, has a remarkable brewing culture. This is in part due to the success of Mac’s Brewery, near Nelson, which, over the past 15 or so years proved that small breweries could really make their mark. One of their products, Black Mac, is also the beer that stopped me being a teetotally aged 24 (after five years of avoiding booze), so NZ beer has a particular significance for me.

Anyways, I could write a whole book on NZ small brewery beers, but suffice to say places like Macs, Founders, Moa, Harringtons, Mata and Emersons produce beers that are extremely notable, even on the world stage. Best ones I’ve tried so far though have to be those made by (and served only at) the Mussel Inn in Takaka. Only tried them once and sadly not been back, but they’re quality – rich and flavoursome, particularly the malty ‘Dark Horse’ black beer and the honey ale ‘Captain Cooker’ manuka beer.

Such a pain being designated driver all the time on mine and Fran’s NZ travels (she can’t drive), as I don’t even like to have one beer then drive. As well as doing some more tramping, what I’d really like to do on another visit to NZ is a proper beer tour…. then seriously look into importing these products to the UK. The UK might have a stupendous brewing culture, but some of the NZ ales provide a unique beer experience – being light and refreshing but complex like the best British real ales.

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