The Colours of Valparaiso, Chile

Valparaiso just oozes colour, in both housing and street art, even on a cloudy day. A collection of dozens of steep hills around a port, each cerro (hillside) is effectively a barrio (suburb) strewn with haphazard and squashed-in buildings clinging to the hillside. It was once a rich port city, but that was a long time ago and it now has a general air of dishevelment. In the absence of money, the people of Valparaiso have turned to whatever paint colours they can scrounge to paint what are often just particle board and tin dwellings.

A few Cerro still have a working ascensor (funicular) to help with the very steep hills, but the majority have now fallen into disrepair, so everyone gets to work their glutes on the stairs, usually multicoloured as well of course. Cerro Concepcion and Cerro Alegre are the two most touristy, renovated, and probably safest areas of the city, although thefts and mugging are still a risk. It’s a beautifully grungy place, which Unesco agrees with, giving it world heritage status in 2003.

And Valparaiso’s arty soul is not restricted to the buildings, the walls and stairs are alive with wonderful colourful street art as well.


Stunning Sculpture by the Sea in Bondi

The annual Sculpture by the Sea exhibition is on again

This is one of my favourite times of the year, as spring is turning into summer and the Bondi to Tamarama coastal walk hosts over one hundred stunning sculptures. With a backdrop of beautiful beaches, and ocean all the way to the horizon, it’s no surprise that hundreds of thousands of people visit it over 18 days each year in late October/early November. You should too.

Gallery of the sculptures.

4 good reasons to go to Kep, Cambodia

The perfect recipe for a joint birthday party with your best friend – travel with a group of friends and family to Kep, on the south coast of Cambodia. Which is exactly what my BFF Helen and I did recently. Why did we pick Kep? I’ve been there before and liked it a lot, it’s hot and coastal and very laid back. And it has a few extra attractions to seal the deal.

1. Crabs and peppercorns

Kep is famous for it’s bountiful supply of delicious crab. Next to the fish markets in town are a row of crab/seafood restaurants, built out over the sea on stilts. There is no better way to have dinner than to pick one of these restaurants and order up a large serve of crab in peppercorn sauce (Kampot peppercorns are another local speciality). Wash it all down with cold beers while listening to the sea wash under your floorboards, and get your hands very sticky pulling apart a dozen or so freshly cooked crabs, cut in half and covered in sauce. Or maybe the squid in peppercorn sauce for a change? There may be a power-cut while you are eating, it doesn’t matter, candle light will do nicely.

2. Kep Lodge

There has been a big increase of accommodation in Kep in the last three years (from a low base), but I’m sticking with my original favourite, Kep Lodge. A boutique lodge with only a handful of cabins and a big open air communal restaurant/bar and  pool, it’s a couple of hundreds of metres back up the hill, amongst lush vegetation, and it’s great value too – very affordable and very comfortable. My front deck with its armchairs and hammock was a great excuse for a siesta, and the pool and bar were both good options to cool off.

3. Rabbit Island

View my previous post to see why this is such a bonus: Rabbit Island.

4. Kep fish markets

In addition to spending lunch or dinner in the crab restaurants, a visit next door to the fish markets is a must-do. This is a true village market, with locals selling to locals, although there are often a few tourists with cameras wandering around as well. The crab traps are brought ashore here and their bounty immediately put up for sale, as well as the current catch of squid and a variety of fish. Many locals come here for a meal fresh off the BBQ, and it’s great lunch option for us too. There are stalls for clothes, shoes, homewares, basic electronics, and plenty of fruit and veges. And you can’t miss the durian, the smell is impossible to ignore. It’s a small market and a great place to browse, people watch, and chat with the locals.

Where would you like to have your next birthday party?

Do you have the Mountain Goat gene?

Some travellers just seem to be born with the mountain goat gene, but sadly I am not one of them. What’s a mountain goat gene I hear you say?

Mountain Goat
Mountain Goat | Source:

It’s the gene that enables you to be surefooted scrambling over rocks and uneven surfaces, up and down slopes of gravel or shale, jumping from one rock to another, fast and balanced. OK, it may not be a scientifically proven gene, but trust me, in all my years of travelling I have realised that there are only two camps – every person either has the mountain goat gene or they don’t, and there is no in-between. It’s not a factor of age or fitness, it’s an innate ability and balance when going where any mountain goat might go. If, like me, you don’t have this gene, you can’t fake it, and you can’t learn it. Give me a well built path of tramped down earth, a walkway, some steps, and I can walk all day. But throw in uneven stones, clambering up and over rocks, loose gravel and steep slopes, and I hesitate, I lose my rhythm, I stop and try to figure out where to put my foot next, I over-balance and then grab your shoulder, I graze my knee, I bruise my leg, and I probably end up on my bum. Sometimes I choose to sit down and edge forward gingerly, sometimes I trip myself up and end up there anyway.

73_4_turkey_cappadocia_800When I was younger I envied those with the mountain goat gene, but in the end I realised  it doesn’t matter. Because the truth is, if it’s something I have to do, to get to somewhere I really want to be, then I do it anyway. I will be scrambling without elegance, clutching at any guide or tree or random stranger for balance, cursing too loudly and sitting down when I need to – but I’ll do it.

Because if I am in Cappadocia I can’t ignore the amazing landscape and rock dwellings.

Because there’s rarely a waterfall that doesn’t need some rock scrambling to get to it. (but I try and save it for pretty spectacular falls these days, any old local one just won’t do)

Because sometimes you need to get to the top of the hill (and back down) via a mountain goat track to see the most amazing sunrise or sunset.

The people with the mountain goat gene can’t understand why we with the “klutz” gene are so bad at doing something that is as natural as breathing for them. And us klutz’s don’t understand how they don’t fall over and injure themselves, preferably painfully!  But if like me you are a klutz, just remember that we are the truly brave ones, because we actually choose to force ourselves over these mountain goat tracks, without the right skill set and against the full force of our genetics, just so that we can enjoy whatever is on the other side.

Grit and Graffiti, the street art of Buenos Aires

What does street art and graffiti tell us about a city, its history and inhabitants?  The answer can be “a lot”, it’s an interesting way of exploring the culture. And good street art makes exploring on foot even more visually interesting.

Street Art Buenos Aires
Artist Jaz – Street Art Buenos Aires

When I first arrived in Buenos Aires I did what I always do – I started walking around the neighbourhood. There was a lot of street art on the walls, but it was only when I did a walking tour with graffitimundo that I got an insight into what was inspiring and driving the street art movement, and how different it was to other parts of the world.

Street Art Buenos Aires
Artist Jaz – Street Art Buenos Aires

The first surprise was learning that graffiti developed much later in Argentina than in places like the US, although perhaps not so surprising since there was a military government and “the dirty war” for 7 years to 1983 (one of a number during the 20th century). During this period huge numbers of people disappeared for much lessor ‘crimes’ than graffiti. When graffiti did start emerging after military rule, the first participants didn’t have much access to information about graffiti in other countries, and so developed their own norms. There was no access to spray cans so graffiti in Buenos Aires still is mostly drawn and painted, not sprayed.

Graffiti & Street Art in Buenos Aires
Graffiti & Street Art in Buenos Aires

Street art was not illegal so there was no need to do it in the middle of the night, instead street artists would paint in broad daylight. They usually asked the owner of the wall for permission as well. The huge economic shocks at the start of the 1990s and again around 2001/02 had another surprisingly influence on the street art culture. With life literally so hard for the population, a number of artists started painting or stencilling cute, kitsch and funny art, rather than political/protest art, to cheer people up. This style is still present today, and will always bring a smile to my face.

Graffiti & Street Art in Buenos Aires
Graffiti & Street Art in Buenos Aires

After three hours of walking around dozens of key street art sites (there is also a cycling version which sounds fun too), it was cool to realise that I could start to recognise the distinctive style of individual artists, thanks to the descriptive abilities of the guide, and since then I have been able to look up my favourites on facebook and see what new work they have been up to.  By its very nature, street art has a limited life span, so I would be keen do this again next time I visit Buenos Aires as I would love to see what new work is out there. And to end it perfectly, we finished up at Post Street Bar, Thames 1885, where the walls and the roof terrace are painted and stenciled by some of the best street artists, and there is a gallery if you are interested in buying their work. After all that walking is was a good place to sit and have a drink. (note: this is not a sponsored review, the author paid full price for the walking tour).

Graffiti & Street Art in Buenos Aires
rooftop at Post Bar – Graffiti & Street Art in Buenos Aires

Degustation relaxation in Mendoza, Argentina

Wine tasting can be a tiring business, it needs real stamina. Mendoza is quite rightly a world renowned wine region,and I have already spent a day exploring and tasting by car, and another day of the same by bicycle. Now I feel the need for a little time out. My lodge owner comes up with two suggestions for me. I can either spend a day rock-climbing, or I can do a long degustation lunch at a winery restaurant (with matching wines of course).

ready for the degustation to begin
ready for the degustation to begin

Surprisingly I chose the long lunch. Now that might not sound very different to wine tasting, but this time I can sit in one spot for hours and it all comes to me, instead of getting in and out of a car door dozens of times in a day. So off I go to the Casa Del Visitante, at the Familia Zuccardi Vineyard for a spot of degustation relaxation.

The hardest thing I have to do all day is decide whether I am going for the 8 course or 12 course degustation. With a rare sense of restraint, I choose the 8 course menu (with 6 matching wines). My table is in a prime spot in a room with floor to ceiling glass and a view over the vineyards, on a sunny blue day. At times I am so distracted by the view and the food that I forget to take photos!

Cured trout from Tupungato with caramelised peas and kefir. This is a lovely light start.
Santa Julia Torrontés 

Cured Trout
Cured Trout

Lamb sweetbreads with sunflower seeds ice-cream and sweet eggplant foam.
Corn creme brûlée with brie, tomato marmalade and lamb’s kidneys. I can thank Colin Fassnidge at 4Fourteen in Sydney for getting me over my offal aversion, so that I am now excited instead of scared to see these dishes on a menu.
Santa Julia Reserva Bonarda 

Corn Creme Brûlée with lambs kidneys
Corn Creme Brûlée with lambs kidneys

Crunchy yolk wrap with tomato fondue and bacon chips. I still have no idea how they achieved a runny yolk inside a crunchy cooked filo, but it was delicious!

Crunchy yolk wrap
Crunchy yolk wrap

Lamb ravioli with smoked corn cream and crunchy leek. Crunchy leek, say no more.
Zuccardi Serie A Bonarda

Braised lamb rump with truffled beans puree. This is the most substantial of the courses, the rump is large and rich and delicious, and I realise that I am very very full already.
Zuccardi Q Cabernet Sauvignon 

Braised Lamb Rump with truffled beans puree
Braised Lamb Rump with truffled beans puree

And then there are 3 desserts to finish me off:

Torrontés grappa and raspberry sorbet with tangerine and cardamon gelee. Alcoholic sorbet and gel lollies are colourful and fun

Roasted squash tagliatelle in torrontés, cinnamon mousse, Malamado viognier and apple infusion. The sweetness of the squash makes it a great dessert ingredient.

roast squash tagliatelle (dessert)
roast squash tagliatelle (dessert)

Coffee truffle filled with chocolate and black olives, mascarpone and vanilla sauce, white brownie mousse. Maybe I am just too full by this stage but I wasn’t as wowed by this dish, the olives seemed overpowering in it.

Malamado Voignier

Coffee Truffle
Coffee Truffle

Mmmmm… time for a slow wander around the vineyard (to aid digestion) and then back to the lodge for a light nap I think. This has been a delicious and interesting way to wile away a few hours of the day, one that I would happily repeat.

Hobbiton, NZ, a journey to my childhood

The Lord of the Rings inspired Hobbiton, New Zealand.

Imagine a happy place of green rolling hills, colourful doorways and a beautiful big symmetrical party tree with spreading branches. Well, that’s where I came from. Oh, and it’s also the film set for a crucial part of a couple of little known trilogies – Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. That’s right, Hobbiton is alive, well, and absolutely thriving in Hinuera in New Zealand. Which co-incidentally is where I spent the first couple of years of my life.

Hobbiton, New Zealand
Hobbiton, New Zealand

Hinuera is one of many small farming enclaves in the Waikato, a intensely farmed area of New Zealand a couple of hours south of Auckland. It is a bucolic vision of green rolling pastures (except in summer when it can look like the dried brown hills of a drought, basically because a good summer is a drought!). One particular farm here has housed the Hobbiton film set for about a decade now. It came about as the director Peter Jackson scouted the country by helicopter looking for the perfect “Party Tree” of Hobbiton, huge and spread symmetrically, with its lower boughs brushing the ground, where a whole village can celebrate. He spotted one on this farm, and the whole film set was created around it. (the locals claim the lucky farmer refers to the party tree as the “money tree”, an apt description after a decade of film production fees and massive tourism)

The popular film set tour of Hobbiton, NZ.

And there’s no doubt it is a very popular tourism attraction right now. It’s only about an hour away from where my Dad lives, so I had to visit it for the nostalgia kick on my recent trip to NZ. There are tour buses arriving constantly everyday from Auckland, Tauranga, Rotorua and Matamata, as well as self drive visitors like ourselves. The starting point is a cafe, ticket shop and merchandise shop by the roadside.  So what does the tour involve? Well, no matter how you got to Hinuera, you first have to buy a ticket which includes getting taken by bus from outside the ticket booth to the Hobbiton set. (I like the way they use old school buses – makes us feel too large for Hobbiton right for the start!)

Hobbiton, New Zealand
Hobbiton, New Zealand

The enforced bus transport makes sense as we head off down the farm over a few kilometres of steep, winding, gravel, one lane wide tracks. Suddenly from the drought stricken landscape around us, an oasis of green appears – clearly the Hobbiton set has some fairly effective watering systems in place. Our local guide then walks us around Hobbiton, which is bigger than I expected, and keeps us entertained with anecdotes of the set construction, maintenance and filming, as well as some of the more obsessive fans he has met on tours, although you don’t have to be one of them to enjoy this.

It’s hard not to want to stay and live in Hobbiton, it is perfectly staged to meticulous detail, and is almost hyper-real, the saturated colours of the greenery, the bright front doors, the hobbit sized clothes on the clothes line – it seemed very charming and I did start to believe that this was exactly what it looked like when I grew up here.  It’s a kid’s dream village.

Hobbiton, New Zealand
Hobbiton, New Zealand

The enjoyment of the tour is aided by the local guides who understood that everyone wants to get photos of themselves in front of every famous piece of scenery, and had artfully designed the walking tour to make that happen easily. And it wasn’t harmed by the recent addition of the thatched Green Dragon pub, where us weary tourists could stop for a cold beer or cider at the end of our tour, knowing the brews are the ones created specifically by a local brewery for the 3000 odd film crew  that had worked here. I would not have been surprised if a hobbit had wandered on by (actually I was a bit disappointed that none did).

The tour lasts about one and a half hours. On return to the shop by bus, you can also chose to watch a farm demonstration show including cute little lambs and farm dogs.

Good food recommendation for Hobbiton, NZ.
Te Poi cows near Hobbiton, New Zealand
Te Poi cows near Hobbiton, New Zealand

My main tip would be to skip the on-farm cafe, which was disappointing – possibly the worst cafe food I’ve come across for a few years in NZ. If you are travelling under your own steam (or can persuade your tour driver), go just a few miles down the road to the neighbouring farm district of Te Poi, and stop at the Te Poi tavern (by the big black cow) for a feast of good old fashioned home-made hamburgers  – I recommend the Works Burger.

Hoxton Hotel – an east end hipster haunt in London

When I booked the Hoxton Hotel for my short stopover in London, I didn’t realise it was such a hipster joint. But even better than that, it’s great value, fun, and in a great location near to Old Street tube.

Apparently I turned up during London Fashion Week (not something I have marked in my diary). “How on earth did you get a room here during LFW?” ask my local London (hipster) friends. Truth is, I have no idea, I just booked it on their website a few weeks earlier. Maybe someone had just cancelled, maybe I was just lucky? When I booked it seemed like a great price for a decent hotel in a fun part of London. Only later did I realise what a cool pricing policy they have.

There’s the periodic £1 room sales. And there’s the pricing policy that starts around £59 six months in advance and rises to about £199 one day in advance. This is a really good place to plan ahead for.

The staff are friendly and professional, theres no attitude oozing around here. I arrive looking like a frumpy backpacker (probably because I am), and they treat me as warmly as the guests that look like they might be LFW stars.

The decor and rooms are funky but also very well equipped and practical. I love the iconic rock/paper/scissors pillows, and the white-on-white wall art.The bed is very comfortable and the bathroom downright luxurious. A great touch is the Hoxton Guide, a credit card sized fold out map with staff recommendations on local bars, restaurants, shopping, art, music and “looking good”.

And they have the best room service breakfast I’ve come across, in terms of having items and quality I actually want to eat for breakfast. Instead of filling out a form and hanging it on the doorknob, I mark my choices on a recyclable brown paper bag, and voila, next morning there is my yogurt, banana and juice ready and waiting by my door – and it’s free.

And for the sociable, there’s the Hoxton Grill and Bar on the ground floor, a very popular place indeed to hang out on a weekend. And yet still a great place to have a delightful porridge breakfast in peace the next morning. I’ll be back.