Birthday in Bologna

Posted by jswt | Posted in Italy - Bologna | Posted on 25-06-2012

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By chance occurrence, by dad ended up in Bologna, Italy while I had a few days to kill before flying home, so I flew in for a visit. We had a great time wandering, eating some amazing food, learning travel lessons, window shopping and just enjoying life. Highlights included a day trip to Venice, a magical silent movie night in a square with a live orchestra, and a damn good 60th birthday steak (and beer). Got a feeling this won’t be my dad’s last travel 🙂

Content in Catania

Posted by jswt | Posted in Italy - Sicily | Posted on 22-06-2012

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3 weeks in Catania, Sicily = some of the best time I’ve ever spent on the road. The quality of life is so high, and the tone is so relaxed, it’s just… fantastic.

Note form highlights this time:

It’s the prefect lifestyle: wake up late. work. go for swim. have nap when too hot. work. go out for dinner around 10pm when cools down. eat/drink/gelato till 1 or 2. back to hotel. sleep. repeat.

Some of the best food on the planet. Simple, 3 ingredients, and out of 3 weeks of eating out, only one lame meal, while most others were stunning. The markets were alive and vibrant – the groceries sucked because no one shops there, you go to the market.

The wine flows freely – it’s so good, and so cheap (the wine bar down the road was 1.60euro/litre for table wine that’s better than most of what we get at home. Up that to an “expensive bottle” and tastebuds were blown.

Mount Etna is the volcano that looms over Sicily. We hiked up into some of the craters, which felt like walking on the moon.

We rented a car for 3 days, which was ultrafun: a 1971 Fiat 500. It was like a toy car, but was the perfect way to cruise around little winding tight streets and zip in and out of towns up and down the coast. Highly recommended.

There was a big crew party at a beach bar. Italians party like crazy, even on a Sunday night.

3 weeks of eating and drinking is a social affair.

So yeah – you should go. It’s the class, style and quality of Italy with a dash of relaxed mediterranean love of life – a perfect blend.

Overnight in Malta

Posted by jswt | Posted in Malta - Paceville | Posted on 20-06-2012

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I popped down to Malta from Sicily for a night to hang up with a friend and likeminded nerd, W… It was a barrage of drunk 17yo brits on spring break, and a nice night of catching up and bar hopping. A short visit, but I liked the vibe in Malta and would probably go back for a little vacation sometime to check it out more.

Casablanca, Morocco

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Morocco - Casablanca | Posted on 15-04-2012

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2 weeks in Casablanca held romantic ideals, but the reality was a lot less lovely than expected… You know the faded black and white Bogart memories and dreams you have associated with the place? Well… The film was shot entirely at a sound lot in California — the producers knew better than to spend their time in Casablanca itself.

The city is really just a slummy port town that’s been mangled and aside from the financial district and their (surprisingly good) mall, is falling into serious disrepair.

There were a few highlights of the couple weeks there though:

1) Chris’ parents were passing through on a cruise at the same time we were there, so though Chris has to work, I got to spend the day exploring the old city with them. We had a great day: strolled deep into the heart of the habbous, drank sweet mint tea, had a nice dinner @ Rick’s Cafe with some fantastic Moroccan wines, and Chris was able to get away from work and join us for dessert… Wonderful day!

2) The location of the hotel was superb – right on the beach, with a pool, where we spent a great afternoon hanging out with a bunch of the peeps in the sun. (Note: This nowhere comes close to making up for the absolutely terrible service at the hotel – see below).

3) The tour had it’s 20th anniversary party which was really, really, really good… Moroccan feast, snake charmers, shisha, drunken revelry on the dancefloor… The party popped 🙂

These three things don’t override the overwhelming negatives… Everyone on the tour got sick from the food/drink/sanitation (including me – brutally ill for 4 days), the women were all harassed by the Moroccan men, I caught pickpockets with their fingers in my pockets, the city is noisy and dirty and has zero charm, and we had the worst hotel experience we’ve ever had (seriously: never, ever, ever stay at the Riad Salam Hotel — the place is falling apart, and the service was agressively bad… we’ve stayed in 150+ hotels and have never experienced poor service like this – it was beyond rude to the point of confrontational and horrible.)

If you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go, but if you’re looking to have a good time I have to encourage you not to waste your time with Casablanca… Fantastic reports came back from Marrakech and Fez, so aim for those instead.

Paradise Found – Soneva Gili / Maldives

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Maldives - Soneva Gili | Posted on 01-04-2012

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[If you’re here looking for information or tips about Soneva Gilli, you can find some tips down here]

I’m writing this post at the tail end of what’s been a honeymoon beyond anything I could have dreamt of…

It’s been 6 months since we got married, as we’ve been travelling on the road with work until now, so with a couple weeks off and some frigid winter at our backs, we needed some sunny pastures. We’ve little need for second toasters, so at the wedding, rather than a gift registry, we’d set up a Honeymoon Registry to which friends and family had contributed quite generously, so the question became: what do two people who travel constantly, and live in hotels do when it comes time to take a vacation?

We’d both forever had dreams of staying in a house on stilts over blue water, so that was our primary mission. We were leaving from Rome, and returning to Morocco, and decided to look at options normally beyond easy access for Canadians. We did a lot of research, and with the help of our travel agents decided on the Maldives, and focused in on a few options. The whole 400-room US name brand hotel was completely unappealing, so we looked at smaller companies and properties and it came down to two: Hufaven Fushi and Soneva Gili. Both were small luxury properties, where one catered to a bit more of a shine and flash, and we were drawn more to the rustic remoteness of Soneva Gili. Our travel agents negotiated a great deal with a honeymoon package and some nice extras, Chris used his airline ninjitsu to some first-class/roundabout airfare completely on points (yay massages in the in Bangkok first-class lounge!), and we were off…

Upon arrival at the Male airport we were greeted by a host from the hotel, and after a short wait in the humid 30 degree tropical night air, we were taken to the beach across the street from the airport and us and our luggage was loaded onto the boat. We’d arrived at 11pm, so our speedboat trip roaring through the darkness with only an occasional cluster of lights in the distance was a little unnerving, but some smiles from our hosts and some fresh fruit juice put us at ease. During the trip the host asked for our shoes, and placed them into a bag and said “You can have these back when you leave – you won’t need them”.

A half hour later we rounded a sandbar with a single palm tree upon it and pulled up to a long wooden jetty with some trees and a bit of white sand at the far end. We were greeted immediately by Mustho, who introduced himself as our host for the week as we walked down the wooden jetty as the illuminated waters below glistened blues and greens as I’ve never seen before. Mustho put us on a golf cart and said that since we’d come in so late he would give us a tour in the morning and would just take us to our villa so we could get some sleep, so we cruised through the shadows of palm trees and onto a long triangular jetty that stretched out over the water with villas along the outsides. We pulled up to our unit (#19) which looked like a rustic thatched roof house on stilts, and we opened the door to an open air living space filled with the rush of waves crashing in the distance and florally fragrant salt air, and our jaws dropped. The villa looked rustic, but was subtly luxurious and had everything we needed for our stay on hand: to the right was the changing room, washroom and overwater shower, and to the left the bedroom with fantastically plush bed and daybed, and in front of us the living space dropped right down to a deck where we could barely see lounge chairs and hammocks in the darkness. Mustho had set up a chilled bottle of champagne for us, but when he excused himself with the promise to meet up with us at breakfast, we chose to put the champagne in the fridge and crawl into bed to sleep away the 30 hours of travel time…

The next morning, we came out of our room to one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen — the view from our villa was a lagoon of the clearest light blue-white water that stretched out before us to waves crashing on a reef break, and beyond, nothing but blue sky horizon. The living room dropped directly down to a well equipped deck (hammocks, lounge chairs and day beds), and with the nearest other villas in view on a jetty at least half a kilometre away, we felt completely private, contentedly isolated, and wonderfully unto ourselves.

We’d planned to meet Mustho at breakfast, so we dragged our tired asses into the open air double headed shower (you can watch the fish swimming by while you’re showering!), got dressed and walked down the jetty to the island. The island itself is a coral atoll of pure white sand that is about a metre above sea level at it’s highest point. Lush green palm trees and foliage abound, hermit crabs and cute little lizards scurry out of your path, and all you hear is the calls of tropical birds while drinking in the sweet air.

We walked across the island to the restaurant – a large open air hut with tables set up between the palm trees on the beach in front. We were a little concerned that we’d missed breakfast, as there were only 3 other tables of people, but we’d soon learn this was just as should be expected – with only 45 units on the entire island (average maximum number of guests is 100), it was truly a place that you felt alone with space to breathe.

As we walked up to the restaurant, we were greeted by a smiling face who introduced himself as Soda and guided us to a lovely beachfront table under the shade of two palm trees. He took our tea and coffee orders, and recommended some of the fresh fruit smoothies and juices and set us loose upon the breakfast buffet which was nothing short of fantastic – fresh fruit, pastries, fish, champagne, waffles, omelettes… and that was just the buffet – there was an entire a la carte menu as well! As we filled our bellies with deliciousness and our eyes with beauty, Mustho appeared out of nowhere to check on how we were doing, see if we needed anything, and once we were finished our meal showed up again to take us on a tour.

We did a lap of the island in the cart while Mustho oriented us to our home for the next 10 days, and we ended up at the spa where he told us that part of our honeymoon package would be an couples massage which we booked for the following day before he took us back to our villa. We ordered lunch in to the villa, and the rest of the day was spent hanging out on the deck, throwing ourselves in the water occasionally to cool off and napping and relaxing. Sunset was about 7:30, so we freshened up and wandered down to the bar and were seated in some lounge chairs with a perfect view as we sampled their exceptional cocktails and applauded the setting sun. As darkness set in, we strolled over to the restaurant and were greeted again by Soda, or waiter from the morning who seated us and set us up with menus, and it was then that we really began to get a sense of the quality of food we were going to experience that week – the set menu was mouthwateringly fantastic, and the food was all perfectly cooked, incredibly fresh, and wonderfully presented. A small note here, that the resort actually grows all of it’s herbs and most of their vegetables in gardens on the island. The Maldives do not allow net fishing, so all the fish (save a few exotic imports) are line caught that day by fishermen from the neighbouring islands, and the freshness shows – the only tuna I’ve ever had that fresh has been in Hawaii where it’s all caught that morning! Dinner was amazing and with good food and some wine in our bellies, we retreated back to our villa to lay on the rooftop deck under the stars listening to the waves crash on the reef in the distance…

On our second day on the island, we got up, had a swim, and wandered off for breakfast where again we were greeted by Soda who remembered all of our drinks from the previous morning. We clued in about then that when you arrive on the island, you’re assigned a waiter who serves you every meal at the restaurant – and Soda was great, remembering and having our drinks ready for us every morning, knowing what wine we’d ordered at dinner… A very nice touch which speaks volumes to the top notch service and attention to detail everywhere on the island. Just as we were saying “I wonder if Mustho will be around”, he popped in at breakfast to check on how we were settling in and check if there was anything we needed – as he would do every morning, and eerily almost every time we though of him or said his name.

We grabbed some books at the library, and after some reading, swimming, lounging, and lunch in the villa, we strolled over to the spa for our treatment. As we walked across the jetty to the spa, an attendant came out and greeted us with cold towels and offered us some lemongrass iced tea while we waited. The spa building is out over the water, with one side of it almost completely open with infinite views of the blue white lagoon. Our masseuses came and introduced themselves to us and took us to a treatment room where we got on side by side massage tables, and when we looked down realized that the floor was glass under the tables and we could see directly down into the water and watch the fish swimming by the coral below — stunning, and wonderfully relaxing. The next 80 minutes were absolute bliss and some of the best massages we’ve ever had, as the little thai girls worked us over with shockingly strong hands, and left us so relaxed at the end that we were in a walking dream state. We hung around, had some juice and ginger tea before floating back down the jetty to the island. More villa relaxing before our regular evening routine of sunset cocktails and delicious dinner with Soda wrapped up a blissful second day.

On our third day, we went for breakfast and then over to the dive shop, as I wanted to do some scuba diving while I was there and Chris, who’d snorkelled but never Scuba dived decided he wanted to give it a try. The guys at the dive shop were exceptionally friendly, and Tom and Andy had us set up that afternoon for Chris to do some basic skills followed by an “experience scuba” drive, and I would do a checkout dive. I figured this’d just be us bobbing around on the shore proving that we could breathe, but after Chris did just that, they loaded us on a boat and I was happy to learn that we were going out to a nearby reef and doing a full on dive, each with our own one-on-one instructor/guide. We hopped off the boat into the blue water, and dropped down onto a big sloping reef wall that was covered in corals of every color possible, and waves of fish of all sizes and colours grazing up and down the wall. It’d been a while since I last dove, but a few minutes in and the breathing came back and it was sensational to be doing such a beautiful dive with Chris for the first time. Once back on shore, Chris was pretty hyped about the diving and with not much coaxing from Tom signed up for the PADI Open Water course over the next few days – of course, this was more expensive than doing it elsewhere, but he was getting one on one training with a great instructor, confined water dives in water vs pool, and boat open water dives to some of the most beautiful dive sites I’ve ever seen. So over the next three days, Chris would go off to scuba class, and I’d snorkel in the lagoon, go to the gym, meditate, and read around our regular routine, and in the evenings we’d do his homework and make snide comments about the 90’s training video — which was just an absolutely perfect state of bliss.

On the 4th day, after Chris’ diving, we decided to vary the routine slightly and check out the By The Sea restaurant, which is their asian/seafood restaurant. The 12 booths were already booked, but we were happy to sit at the sushi bar, which worked out very well as the chef was a joy to watch, and we chatted him up throughout dinner – he’s a stocky Sri Lankan guy who’s been a sushi chef for 23 years, including 5 years training in Japan and working at some high end resorts around the world, and he settled on the Maldives because he could get the freshest fish there (his eyes lit up when he said this). We ordered some appetizers and rolls, and then decided we’d each order the “chef’s suggestion platter”. He asked us what we like, and I gave him a few suggestions, and when Chris got excited about the tuna, the chef asked if he wanted all tuna, which got an emphatic yes. Chris was served a plate completely covered with beautiful rolls and sashimi of the reddest, juiciest most amazing tuna we’ve ever seen, and I received a variety of rolls and the most exquisitely carved sashimis I’ve ever tried – absolute art! We eat sushi 3-4 times a week back in Vancouver, and depending where we are, frequently on the road, but we both agreed that this was *the best* sushi we’d ever had – so perfectly presented, and fresher and tastier than anything we’ve had before. Mmmm!

On our 5th day, we had another perk of our honeymoon package, which was a cooking class with Nicholas, the chef from the grill restaurant. The class was right on the beach by the open air stone oven, and they’d set up two tables facing the water. Nicholas showed up and introduced himself, had the ingredients for us to make a seafood risotto, including *fresh* lobster, scallops, crab, and calamari. Chris nominated me to be the helper, and himself for the role of cheerleader so he sat back to watch. I love to cook, but I don’t get much opportunity being on the road without a kitchen most of the time, and admittedly my skills are not quite on the level of a world class chef – so after throwing me a few tasks that left me confused and violently abusing the seafood, we decided that Nicholas would cook and teach us along the way. It was great – he was a good teacher, and threw us a lot of techniques and tricks, and answered our questions (even though some I’m sure were silly to him), taught us ways to make it in advance and store it, and in the end served us a private meal of a fresh and amazingly delicious seafood risotto on the beach. He stuck around and chatted and answered more questions for a while, but then had to get back to his restaurant to finish prepping for dinner service, and left us to happily munch away and finish off the risotto before Chris headed off to scuba class, and I headed to the gym to burn off some of the risotto.

Day 6 was Chris’ 4th and final dive for his class, and the day before the instructors had suggested that I come along as they were going to take him someplace cool and since Chris’d be finished most of his skills work I’d be welcome to dive along with them – and man was I glad I did. We went out about 20 minutes by boat to a place called Banana Reef that was just a bit of surge at the surface, but was a round circle of reef from just below the surface to about 20m. There was great visibility, and just a little bit of current to carry us along the edge of the reef as I stared with wide eyes at the walls and waves of fish unlike I’d ever seen before – there were thousands of fish of all shapes, sizes, and colors just hanging out around grazing on the corals with no where else to be. If you looked back into the blue darkness away from the reef, you’d see the occasional big shadow swim by like tuna or things you didn’t want to think about. We saw a giant leopard printed moray eel, and at one point there was a school of about 300+ yellow snappers that was a little aloof at first, but then relaxed and their synchronized movements wrapped around me and they enveloped me inside their school — a surreal experience to be staring out at nothing but an all-encompassing wall of shimmering yellow, blue stripes and eyes. Back on shore, Chris was a certified diver, so after a quick shower we met up with Chris’ instructor Tom for some celebratory cocktails before again hopping on a boat just before sunset and being shuttled off to our private honeymoon dinner.

Just offshore, there’s a small island big enough for a bit of white sand and a lone palm tree, which they’ve dubbed “One Palm Island”. The boat zipped us out to the island, and we were greeted by our chef and waiter for the evening, before being shown to our table – the lone thing on the island surrounded by candles and lights. It was absolutely gorgeous. The chef was preparing us a mixed grill bbq, and dinner was appetizers, soup, heaping plates of freshly grilled meat and seafood (tuna steaks, lobster tails, scallops, lamb, beef, omg!) and desert. We’d picked a bottle of sparkling wine which we’d served at our wedding (Pares Balta from Spain – mmm) and a bottle of The Chocolate Block, so we had bellies absolutely full of good food and wine, as we sat back on our private island, and after dinner relaxed with a couple Cohibas while we enjoyed the glow of the candles and each other’s company. When we were done, the boat came and picked us us, and we giggled and merrily stumbled our way back to our villa for a midnight swim and some sweet dreams.

Day 7 was a “do nothing day” where we just lounged about, read, hit the gym for a bit, snorkelled, and had lunch in the villa. That evening, the resort had organized a cocktail party on the beach and we made the most of the free flowing champagne and cocktails.

Chris got quite chatty and started rocking his schmooze mode and was networking himself around the beach with the staff and other guests, all of whom proved rather fascinating. We realized that we’d been on the island almost a week, and aside from some smalltalk with fellow divers, hadn’t spoken to anyone but staff that whole time — we were craving a bit of interaction, but it’s a solid testament to the island’s ability to make you feel remote and secluded. As the sun set and the party waned, we wandered over for dinner on the beach where Soda’d set up a private table at the water’s edge surrounded by candles for us. It was asian buffet night, and the food tables were set up outside like a street market – two rows of “vendors” each with their own specialty: fresh tempura and spring rolls, spicy noodle dishes, seafood in many forms, handmade wanton and noodle soups… It was all so delicious that I kept going back, but would take little breaks in between to lie in the hammock and just smile at the awesomeness of it all. Full bellies led to midnight swims and sweet dreams once again…

The morning of day 8 I’d signed up for the Sacred Earth meditation at the spa with their visiting practitioner Olaf. I showed up at the spa, and while we waited for another (who never showed) he explained to me that what we were going to do was a dancing meditation that would tap into our trance state and guide us through different harmonic frequencies… He looked as though I should be a little surprised, but t’was familiar territory for someone who’s spent the occasional sunrise dancing with thousands of strangers shooting fractal energies out of my third eye. It was a little strange to be dancing in a room with my eyes closed, but the soundtrack worked well to start on the lower chakras and slowly wave frequencies up and down until the whole body was awakened. Dancing alternated with a shaking technique which was new to me, and managed to throw the body into trance and numb it so that all that remained was thought while you vibrated faster and faster through beta to delta states – and an interesting side effect was that the sunlight flickering in through my eyelids reminded me greatly of the large hypnosis machine I’d seen a couple years back at an electronic art forum I’d attended in Germany. An hour later, thanks to Olaf, I emerged sweaty and glowing and well alive having danced and shaken my ass off and went to meet Chris for breakfast. We spent the rest of the day enjoying lazing about until shortly before sunset when we were to meet Mustho on the beach, where he put us on a little sailing boat (a traditional Maldivian dhoni) for a sunset cruise. The wind was low, so it was a slow go, but that gave us time to recline on the two daybeds, eat the tapas they’d sent along, and work our way through the sparkling wine the captain kept refilling our glasses with. Infinite blues, pink skies, and rosy cheeked smiles mirrored the glowing orb or orange that sank into the sea off the bow of our silent boat.

At sunset, the wind died down completely, so a boat came out to tow us back to shore where we wandered off to another amazing dinner and our evening routine.

On day 9, we were starting to realize our time was coming to an end, and we’d booked ourselves another scuba dive, and were back on the boat with Tom and the dive crew shortly after 2pm. They took us about 25 minutes out to a reef I couldn’t pronounce that was nearly invisible from the surface, but was 2 spires of rock that dropped down to darkness, but had a nice 20m ledge between the two. We sank down, and cruised around the first spire down about 20m circling the rock checking out the corals and fish, and then crossed over towards the other spire across a field of little garden eels that’d disappear into the sand when you came near. The second spire was teeming with life, and you could barely see through all the fish to the surface. As we swam up, 4 big jackfish came bolting through, but it was the effect it had on the reef right before they hit that amazed me most – they travel so fast that they send out a bit of a shockwave ahead, and when the first fish felt that, they all dropped down to get out of the way, and then their schools would follow. This had the ripple effect of thousands of fish in all directions suddenly and almost simultaneously dropping down 3+ meters which was crazy surprise. We continued around the spire where the ground dropped down and off into nothingness, and when we came around one corner, Tom stopped suddenly and pointed, and I looked ahead where I could just see the shadows of the reef at the edge of view — then I realized that a HUGE piece of it wasn’t reef, but what appeared to be an enormous round dinosaur kissing the reef as it grazed on coral. It was a Humphead Wrasse or Napolean Fish that had to have been almost 2m long, and at least a metre high, and caused me to actually cry out “holy sh*t” when I saw it, I was so surprised and stunned. Luckily, it was a friendly beast which just casually turned and drifted away into the deep blue when it saw us. The rest of the dive was a slow climb up and around the spire until we were at the top of the mountain and ready to surface. The wildlife wasn’t done showing off yet, as on the boat ride back to the island a school of dolphins decided to play in the boat’s wake, full on leaping and jumping to our surprised cries of joy.

We wandered back to our villa smiling and talking about how glad we were that we’d gone out diving this one last time, and opened the door to find a delicious treat – the general manager (a lovely friendly man with a great smile, who Chris had talked to at length at the cocktail party the other night) had sent over a bottle of champagne and some tapas as congratulations for our honeymoon.

The rest of the afternoon was spent putting the bottle to good use, and we watched the sunset from the sunbed on the rooftop deck on our villa, and wandered over to dinner where Soda’d prepared another surprise for us – he’d set up a table away from everyone else, right down at the water’s edge, surrounded by candles. “I wanted to give you something special for your last full night on the island”, he said. We thanked him profusely, and honestly meant it – it was a real treat to have him serve us all visit, he’d memorized our likes and regular orders, and we’d found ourselves looking forward to having breakfast or dinner “with Soda”. After dinner we wandered back, with the unspoken sadness hanging in the air that this was our last night in our villa, which’d come to feel a lot like a dream home over our stay.

The next morning I woke early, and made myself a cup of tea and went up onto the rooftop deck for my morning meditation where I worked through the sense of sadness that I was feeling about departure – that it was pointless to try to hold on to something that’s a temporary gift, and that instead of feeling loss at what we were no longer going to have, tofocus on the memories and time we’d been blessed to spend together. That sounds really hippy-dippyish, but it really rang true and wiped clean my slate to enjoy and make the most of the rest of the day. Chris finally rose, and after breakfast, we returned to the villa to pack our things (a well practiced task that took little time) and enjoy our last swim off the deck. Checkout was at noon, and our flight wasn’t until late that evening, so we’d planned on just spending the day lounging on the beach somewhat homeless, but were surprised when Mustho picked us up, and delivered us and our luggage to a cabin hidden in the jungle and told us that Alex had wanted to make the last day of our honeymoon comfortable and had set us up with a homebase for the day – truly a kind gesture that made rinsing up before departing later that night much easier. We spent the day on the beach and floating in the pool, reading and napping on the daybeds, and taking notes on avoidable parenting techniques.

A quick stop into the dive shop for Chris to get his PADI card and say goodbye to Tom, was the only reason to get up and as the afternoon progressed and the beach cleared, we watched the yachts cruising past as the sun sank into the sea for our final sunset in this paradise. No sooner had the sun gone down, than Mustho popped out of nowhere to let us know that he’d set up a bottle of Champagne and some tapas for us at the bar that afternoon, but had been unable to track us down. We asked to have it sent over to dinner, and when we finished showering up changing into some suitable off-island attire, we ate like kings at their superb mediterranean buffet one last time drinking great champagne and tripping fantastic on what had been a stay beyond expectations and hopes.

After dinner and some farewells to Soda, we met Mustho at reception and settled our incidentals bill (exactly as expected, no surprises or unexpected charges – a nice treat from most hotel stays), we were walked to the end of the jetty and loaded onto the boat with our luggage and took off into the darkness as Mustho and the rest of the staff waved from the end of the jetty until we could no longer see them. A half hour trip through the night under the moonlight, and we arrived at the Male airport where we flew out…

I cannot state again how impressed I was with our experience at Soneva Gili in the Maldives – from the moment they picked us up, until that final wave from the end of the dock, we were treated to the highest calibre of service, and graced with the luxurious remoteness the property provides. The food exceeded all expectations, the accommodations were flawless, and all services we received (diving, spa, sushi restaurant, etc) were exceptional. The honeymoon package, the extras negotiated by our travel agent, the suggestions from Mustho, and the kind extras from Alex (the GM) just made the entire trip a magical experience, and a honeymoon beyond anything we could ever have hoped for or dreamt of.

If you are considering a trip to Soneva Gili, here’s a few tips that we think are worth sharing:

– Get on the Meal Plan: This is not an all inclusive resort, and you’re on an island with one food provider and your only option is top shelf 5 star dining – don’t think you’ll save money by trying to just order off the menu. We recommend the half meal plan which covers lunch and dinners at the restaurant (it’s extra for their special dining experiences in the sushi restaurant, grill or wine cellar), and you’ll likely be so full and warm that a small lunch in your villa will suffice. If you don’t want to have to think about it at all, just go full meal plan, and enjoy eating like a king.

– Appreciate the staff: they are all subdued and polite, but absolutely fantastic. Pay attention to names, as you’ll be seeing them all again – your server at the restaurant will be assigned to you for the length of your stay. Be kind, and listen to them… there’s a lot of educated speciality hidden out there, and good reason they’re on hand.

– Use a travel agent: You might have a hard time booking through the resort’s website, and will have better luck finding the dates you want through an agent who can go direct to package distributors. As well, an agent will be able to snag you some extras and perks that make your stay more enjoyable.

– Don’t take it for granted: if you go to a property like this, and find yourself thinking it’s not good enough for you, or that life owes you this level of existence, you need to re-analyze your life.

One last note, on the subject of gay travellers… We were a little concerned about going to an Islamic country as a gay couple on our honeymoon, especially after the recent religious extremist uprising the month prior to our visit. We’d emailed our travel agent with our concerns, and they’d relayed it to the resort who crafted a reply that put our minds somewhat at ease. We were still a little nervous upon arrival, which turned out to be completely for naught – it seems that the double-income-pink-dollar keeps that hassle clear of the resort as smoothly as if they’re serving alcohol or pork (also illegal in the Maldives — outside the resorts). We saw many gay couples on the island, but be certain that there’s no nightlife or clubs, and the island attracts a more refined traveller than you’ll find at a circuit party – if you’re looking for pills, partying and hookups you know where to find that… But if what you’re looking for an unimaginably gorgeous and romantic one on one getaway with your partner, then you’ll find yourself in safe, welcoming, good company.

I don’t know if we’ll ever get an opportunity to return to Soneva Gili, but I’ll always be dreaming of the time we spent there and hoping one day to slide back into the tranquillity and first class rustic luxury that made our honeymoon the best trip of our lives (so far!).

(this post has been written from the Male airport lounge, the Singapore T3 lounge, and the Thai Airlines First Class Lounge in Bangkok where my progress was interrupted by a nap and full body massage… Next stop, Rome onto Casablanca, Morocco!)

When in Rome…

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Italy - Rome | Posted on 18-03-2012

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A week in Rome, just as spring had sprung… a fantastic week of eating, drinking, and exploring with the fellow tour-wives in and around a good productive week o’ work. Highlights included being shown a few of G’s favorite places (after he’d taken an apartment and been living like a local there for a while), checking out the Vatican, swing dance staff party in a cellar, late night warehouse partying w/ James Holden, and the food… oh, the glorious deliciousness! Simple pastas gone wild (sweet potato ravioli stuffed with vanilla infused sausage = omg), chocolate shot glasses filled with liqueur, pastries full of mmmmmmm, and fantastic fantastic fantastic wine thats plentiful, cheap and delicious.

Chris’d never been a fan of Italy up to this point – he’d always been frustrated by work challenges, and could never really get past that… But this time, everything changed for him – after working his way through Russia and Eastern Europe, he had no problem waving his arms and asserting himself properly to the games of the Italians, which he was now able to play back and laugh off. Once that wasn’t a huge stumbling block, he threw himself into the flow and finally clicked with Italy which makes me ecstatic as I’m game for any excuse to soak up tastes and styles like no where else provides.

Keeping this post short, as there’s really not really much more to say… Covered the touristy stuff when we were here a year and a half ago so this week was just spent doing as the Romans – as I’m more than happy to do.

Graciously Graz

Posted by jswt | Posted in General | Posted on 26-02-2012

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After cold months through eastern bloc countries, we popped over to Austria for a week in Graz which was really great. The sun had come out, and the week we were there was essentially their Halloween and they partied in costume for the whole week including a giant parade one day. That night the city was packed with the local university students dancing in the streets as all the bars set up streetfront bars and stages and had music going in the squares – we walked into one area that must have had 3-4000 people all just dancing, and smiling and being seriously merry.

The city is gorgeous, having never been bombed out during the war, and there’s a huge mountain fortress right beside the city that’s great for hiking. This being one of the first sunny times of the year, the mountain was covered in Austrians just laying about drinking up the sun, and sipping coffees in the little restaurants at the top (the beer garden doesn’t open until summer – sigh). Right in the middle of the mountain, there’s old bunkers, and one’s been turned into a giant club that fills a whole cave. Big respect to the Austrians for knowing how to party really really well and enjoy life.

On Saturday we had a day off so we rented a car and drove out to a hot springs resort/town called Bad Blumau, about an hour from Graz. It was full for the day (tip: call ahead for reservations on weekends!), but somehow we talked them into letting us come back later, so we whittled away the afternoon driving around the hills of Austria having our own Sound of Music singalong, and picking our route by heading randomly towards the oddest sounding villages. We ended up at a castle along the way which doubled as the Austrian Study Centre for Peace and Conflict resolution – a noble academy indeed. Lunch of beer and schnitzel, some weird dirt roads through forests, and then back to the resort for a *fantastic* soak in their well developed hot springs – one of the best developed hot springs I’ve ever been to: big indoor and outdoor areas (with a volcano!), giant sauna space downstairs, bars, restaurants. The whole resort is done up like a bedouin Hobbit lair reimagined by Dr Seuss – seriously, the asthetic is odd, but really unique and kinda cool. After a good soak, we rolled back to Graz and sunk into a deep sleep.

Tip: Restaurant Der Steirer is good eats, a great wine list and very reasonably priced. Worth seeking out.

Anyways, our week in Graz was lovely – even if it’s just a small town, I’d go back in a heartbeat… the people are incredibly friendly and fun, the city’s surrounded by accessible nature, and it’s just an absolutely gorgeously cute place.

Bored in Bratislava

Posted by jswt | Posted in Slovakia - Bratislava | Posted on 20-02-2012

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A week in Bratislava, Slovakia in February during the coldest winter in years… Not recommended. Post-communist-bleak people and archtecture (except in the small old town, which has a lot of sadly vacant businesses), scammy cabs, quiet nightlife (though got a feeling things get wild in the summer). Found one cafe in the city centre (Schtoor) that had good eats, great design and was always full of interesting people who looked like they were planning art projects or revolutions (or both). Great internet at the hotel tho, so I worked a lot. Got pretty brutally sick near the end of the week. A forgettable place, though if you’re passing thru aim for the summer when the surrounding area is probably more accessible and at least the bobsled track‘ll be open 😛

Rockin in Romania

Posted by jswt | Posted in Romania - Bucharest | Posted on 16-02-2012

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If you’re considering a trip to Romania, my advice to you would be to schedule your trip at a time other than early February during the worst cold snap and snowstorms they’ve seen in 40 years. You may also have more luck getting around the city if you visit sometime other than the week after the government has collapsed and they’re more concerned with finding a new president than clearing sidewalks and roads. Due to both these circumstances, my exposure to Romania’s capital city of Bucharest was somewhat limited, although I’m sure there’s some worthwhile exploring to be had beneath that deep layer of snow and ice cover.

It’s an interesting city with an odd mixture of classic gothic architecture, alongside bleak communist boxes, scattered around bombed out shells of old buildings or collapsed ruins. The city’s also known for it’s roaming dogs (which organize into packs at night and tend to occasionally eat tourists), and out of control homeless population, especially for the thousands of children who live beneath the city (check out this documenary – Children Underground for more on that).

Our hotel was a little out of the city, and the massive amounts of snow kept us somewhat homebound, and our first time venturing out of the hotel was on Monday night when our group was invited to the residence of the Canadian Ambassador for a reception. We rolled up to a large, beautiful old house on a street of pillared mansions and embassies, and were greeted by the Ambassador who welcomed us to his home. We spent the evening eating, drinking and mingling with prominent locals and Canadians, many of whom were involved in some way with the embassy and consolate – a very, very interesting world of travellers who’ve all worked in some strange places and all have great stories. As things wound down, the group left, but Chris and I were invited to stay behind for a drink with the Ambassador and his wife, the second Ambassador, and another woman who was an art dealer with a fantastic grasp of history. We spent the next few hours sitting around drinking Moldovan wine and handmade Haitian rum, while our stammered french was used to discuss the world, the origins of genius and shifting cultural influences with some rather interesting and intelligent people…

The next evening, we’d been invited to attend a local Romanian circus in town, which ended up being quite fantastic – it wasn’t quite the caliber of circus we’ve come accustomed to, but it was a soulful traditional circus where you could tell the performers were family involved with all elements of the performance. They had some great numbers, and we were all kept rapt by the animals (lions and tigers and elephants and camels and horses! oh my!) and the seemingly huge cast. They’d organized a lovely reception afterwards where we sampled some local eats and mingled with the performers. It was very humbling to look out behind the building and see rows of caravans covered in snow, and realize that’s where many of the artists and circusfolk live.

The next couple days were the standard routine of sleeping, working and hitting the gym and doing everything possible not to go outside in the -25 degree weather.

On Friday afternoon, I was invited to sit in with one of the techs to watch the show and see how he operated the lightboard. We went out a little early, and D gave me a great primer and answered my (hopefully not too naive) questions, and was wonderfully intuitive to my threads and fed me a lot of great information about how the board is programmed, the data networking involved, and the differences between the technical lighting skills and artistic lighting direction. I got to sit in and watch the show while watching over his shoulder, and understand a lot more now about lighting cuepoints, scripted sequencing and programming, the effects possible with a real lighting rig, and organic vs programmed effects. Thanks D for the schoolin!

After the show, I met up with A and she and I went into town for our irregularly scheduled platonic date night. She’d had a few recommendations from the promoter that turned out quite well, and we started at a lovely french restaurant where our waiter was very helpful and guided us through a nice sampling of some Romanian wines. After dinner we went back into the old town and headed to a bar/club called Bordello. We arrived about 10, and met up with M & G in what ended up being a fantastically designed old room; the downstairs was a 20s style saloon and the upstairs was a bordello influenced red velvet walled warm lounge with delicious flair. We were wondering a bit about it, as it was quite quiet, but we settled into our table and enjoyed the reasonably priced cocktails (top shelf drinks = $8… hello grey goose!). The DJ was mixing videos on all the TVs in the place, and the soundsystem was fantastic and suddenly about 11:30 the place went from kinda good to seriously fantastic – the DJ cranked up the pace, the rooms were solidly packed with smiling hot people, the waitresses were saucy, and there were scantilly clad women dancing on the bars. Chris showed up around 1am, and played catchup while the music got to be increasingly fantastic (serious respect to the DJ’s impeccible taste and his video mixing) and we ended up having a really, really great night out. 4am kebab and a slippery cab ride home wrapped up the evening…

On Saturday night we were invited out for dinner with the Canadian Ambassador and his wife who suggested a lovely restaurant in a recently reno’ed old building. We met them about 8, and spent the next few hours working our way through the chef’s tasting menu, sipping Romanian wine and were joined along the way by the second Ambassador and his wife. The evening flowed by in a wonderful blur of good food, wine and laughter and the night flew by as thoroughly enjoyed their company, conversation and worldview, and we didn’t end up back at the hotel until almost 3am.

Sunday morning was packing and prepping for departure onwards to Slovakia, but it gave time to thinking about how I’d really like the chance to return to Bucharest at a later date. Yes, the cabs are all going to scam you, and you can’t use an ATM without having your card cloned, but the city’s got a unique vibe to it that comes from that dark blend of recent challenging strife with the hopeful, tempered acceleration towards something on the horizon. We’d been offered amazing hospitality by the Canadians in the city, we’d glimpsed a smiling soul of a city, and hope to return to explore further when it’s not buried and hidden under a solid layer of ice and snow.

Shivering in Sofia

Posted by jswt | Posted in Bulgaria - Sofia | Posted on 05-02-2012

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So, I’m not sure what I expected to find in Sofia, Bulgaria, but whatever it was ended up far exceeded by what was there. I didn’t go in expecting to have a bias, but since I knew nothing about Bulgaria except that it was close to Serbia (far from my favorite place), and that my good friend R was married to a time to a Bulgarian (who was an awful, awful person) — somewhere along the way, I’d projected a view of Bulgaria which I was happy to find out was completely wrong.

The architecture wasn’t as blocky and russian as I expected – it was beautiful old pillared buildings, and ancient churches, and falling down concrete apartment blocks with bleak character. The people weren’t as gruff and serbian as I expected – everyone we met was super friendly, spoke fantastic english, was helpful and social and interesting. The food was not bland like in russia – we went to many restaurants where the food was *amazing* and so cheap we felt guilty (Seriously – we were eating like kings for under 20 euros, and I could find a great lunch [fresh soup/sandwich/drink] for under 3 euros).

We were in a hotel that was showing it’s age (and didn’t really understand the concept of non-smoking rooms [“but we open window! Look, no smoke!”]), but the fantastic central location made it perfect for wandering and exploring.

Admittedly, my exploring was cut short when jetlag and an afternoon spent in a waiting room at Gatwick airport lumped upon me a nasty cold. With Chris having to go to London for meetings, I spent 3 days curled up under a blanket catching up on work in a cold syrupy, snot filled haze where I was much happier and warmer than wandering around out in the -25c cold snap (brr!).

Getting to meet and eat the little I did, I’ve got to say that I really want to go back to Bulgaria sometime and give it a bit more exploring. There’s a ski hill right on the edge of town in Sofia, and a proper resort a couple hours out that I would really consider for a ski trip sometime… I can only imagine the cafes and nightlife and hiking that would be available in the summer sun, along with their Black Sea resorts… Throw in the friendly people with the serious value with their currency, and I find myself quite fondly looking back on the city, and unexpectedly looking forward to returning to give it a deeper go sometime.