Monday, 28 July 2008

Slow the Clock at Praga

I was hoping for fantastic weather in Prague, ‘cause frankly there has been no summer in London this year.

One of the best things about Eastern Europe is the lower standard of living, which means we can indulge in classier accommodation without wincing. Radisson SAS was a great choice as it was on a side street of the central Wenceslas Square.

There was thin layer of clouds thickening in the afternoon, quite breezy. Our first stop was the landmark Charles’ Bridge. While the architecture and sculptures were works of art, I was more drawn to the artists painting (selling) their interpretation of the city on along the bridge.

The sun finally shone through as we reached the Prague Castle.  St. Vitus Cathedral was indifferent to most European major cathedrals. Don’t get me wrong, I know I don’t seem to show my appreciation to the architectural work of many cathedrals in the major cities, but when compared to St Peters or even to Sagrada Familia, these cathedrals are beautiful, just not breath-taking, overpowering or moving. Admittedly, they do seem a little repetitive when there is at least one in every city, no?

The view from the castle overlooks the entire city; a sea of red roof tops.

It was time to  explore the hotel's neighbourhood.

After a brief rest in the hotel we began our search for this little restaurant that was supposed to be great for authentic Bohemia cuisine. Boy was it a long search. We repeatedly mowed the same street and turned every sideways to look for the name Upinkasu. Nothing. Half an hour later, with despair, we went into the dead-end of an uphill alley, and there it was, its name hidden among indecipherable Slovak.

Thank god they had an English menu, but you only get it if you can catch the attention of a server. We were ignored for almost 20 minutes after we secured an outdoor table. We ordered their special sausage cooked in beer, beef straganoff and pork knuckles.

The sauces in straganoff and the sausage dish were not dissimilar, heavily seasoned and ultra thick gravy? The honestly couldn’t taste the sausages as they were drowned in the salty pool, and by the time the food arrived, it was nightfall so I couldn’t make out what was in the dish. The other two dishes were unremarkable, they were exactly what it said on the menu.

The next day was bright but still cloudy. We wandered around the old town area and caught the Astronomical clock’s puppet parade, followed by the souvenir shops that filled every space in the cobbled streets.

It started raining. Dammit. Did I bring London with me?

We chose a bar/restaurant that served modern European food hidden in Wenceslas Square for dinner. Since the Bohemia cuisine didn’t tick my tastebuds, I went for gnocchi creamed with pine nuts and lime; James opted for a safer ham hock. Despite the horrifying presentation (some suggested it looked like a plate of mice embryos – lovely friends), the gnocchi was good, the lime lifted the heaviness of the dish and pine nuts gave the gnocchi a good crunch. It did become quite boring half way through though. James’s safe choice was even better, however, tender pieces of ham hock perfectly seasoned.

There was a very popular cake shop next to the restaurant, with mainly locals queuing outside the shop while servers frantically take orders from fast-speaking customers. Forgive us for the boring choices of Tiramisu and banoffee, but we were under the impression we could always go back for more adventurous varieties if the basics were good. But they weren’t. Tiramisu was on the dry side with only a very slight hint of liqueur, more layering would have eased the dense cream, yes cream, it wasn’t mascarpone. The banoffee was oly mildly better, with very artificial banana flavours. So dessert doesn’t seem to be a Bohemian strong point.

The next morning we hit the market with handcrafts and local produce, which was only a corner away from the Wenceslas Square. The handmade witches and puppets weren’t perfect, but had their own characteristics, so we bought one each.

The stroll in the Wallestein Garden and the Dripping Wall were pleasant, with peacocks freely wandering alongside. I like easy holidays, with plenty of time to dawdle along the river. The modern art museum was a surprise find.

And it started pouring down again.

Dinner at Celnice was back in the New Town. It looked decent enough so if I were to try the representative Bohemian goulash, this would be the chance. James opted for a beef knuckle, I think he got the entire cow, the dish was massive. Unfortunately it was also quite dry and chewy. Goulash was… not my type of food. I can’t say it wasn’t good, the dough was fluffy, meat was tender, but I simply believe it is not my cup of tea.

At night, Charles Bridge has a deadly air of mysteriousness around it.

On our last day, we already know the city centre back to front, so we ventured further to the Vysehrad castle, seeing the sun was blazing. Frankly there wasn’t much to see, we just enjoyed the sunshine. We had more fun by the river feeding ducks and swans for the good half of the afternoon before catching our flight home.

Prague is a well-preserved historical beauty; the atmosphere was almost unspoilt by the heavy flow of tourists. In terms of sight-seeing, none of the sights were disappointing, but I enjoyed the laid back tempo above all.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

West Coast of the States

San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Totally the ideal summer break. We had so much on our agenda; visit Auntie Amy in SF, clear the outlets in Vegas and chill out on Beverley Hills in LA. It wasn’t a short trip, so I have saved the little details and picked out the best bits…

Problem with a morning long-haul flight from Hong Kong is that we land as walking Zombies in the afternoon. Frankly I had no recollection of the evening I landed despite my aunt & uncle’s hospitality.

The next morning we were already on a plane to LA. While I was spoilt enough to have visited almost every Disneyland around the world (ironically, not Hong Kong’s), this was my Bro’s first. Mum felt bad for depriving him, but at 16…

After the Disney day, we basically passed out from fatigue. I remember taking the most expensive pre-booked cab from the theme park to Beverley Hills, where we checked into our hotel around 5. Then we blacked out.

How long does this jetlag thing last?

We also had Universal Studio on our schedule. We were up at 7… obviously too early for the rides. The universal village kept us occupied for a good hour though.

To say breakfast at the village was hearty is an understatement.  Mum and I shared a tortilla, yet we still struggled to finish. Dad’s three-egg omelette left him a very happy man, albeit high in cholesterol; and Bro had a relatively normal-size waffle, slapped with (a pile of) cream and (a bottle of) chocolate sauce, topped with (a basket of) fruits.

Vegas, the hottest place in the States. Literally. It hit a scorching 43 degrees during our stay.

Dehydration, excessive walking, jetlag and George Bush meant we were knackered. So we settled for the in-house restaurant at MGM, so we could drag our zombie arse back upstairs straight after dinner and snore. The Rainforest café was relaxing, the chimp giggle reminded me of the prick I used to work with, and the starry ceiling with the occasional wishing star was sweet.

Why do they call it starters when they were the size of my washing basin? That plate of nachos could feed an entire row of cinema-goers. I thought I had taken the supersizes into account by ordering 2 mains and 3 starters for 4 adults. Should have gone with one each.

The Steakhouse at Circus Circus has been voted the best in town for two decades. A booking was inevitable. Despite the aged hotel and deteriorating casino, the Steakhouse maintained an air of grandeur; dark mahogany frames and deep green walls and velvet curtains, adorned with various awards and certificates. The grill in the middle of the dining room was sizzling the most mouth-watering smell of juicy meat.

The king crab leg and oyster starter was okay. We later found even bigger Alaskan crab legs in Costco at SF for an eighth of the price, and binged on those instead. Don’t you just love drawing out the stick of crab flesh like a sword?

Porterhouse is not my kind of meat; I didn’t like it, especially when I thought it was overcooked. The ribeye, on the other hand, was beautiful. Extremely beefy and juicy and tender, perfectly aged to retain its flavours. Appreciate it was char grilled, but it could have gone easier on the char, as my steak had too much of an unpleasant bitterness.

We’re back on my uncle’s turf in San Fran and he suggested this awesome place for some good meat and fun: Texas Roadhouse Steakhouse. It was a contrast to The Steakhouse in Circus Circus. There were barrels of peanuts to entertain the ever-growing queue in a shack, and customers had the habit of dropping the shells on the floor… so rustic and cowboy like.

The best part – every hour the music gets turned up and the entire serving team gather and perform a Texan dance routine in their "I love my Job" t-shirt. Loved the atmosphere. Steaks were beautifully grilled too, without the burnt-bits.

Stalls selling seafood snacks swamped the Fishermen’s Wharf in San Francisco. Not all of them looked good though; dead crabs lying on the counter, miniscule scampi in fist-size batter and alien-abducted fish swimming in butter. We followed the rule of thumb and the crowd.

It wasn’t the freshness of the food if I’m honest. It was the general atmosphere people enjoyed; spells of sunshine, sitting by the sea, beer in hand, more prawns in a rocky bun than one could eat.

Somehow on my way to the Cheesecake Factory, I bought a Marc Jacobs. This place is sinful. 
Hmm... I don't know. Maybe I was too stuffed (never was there an empty moment in my stomach for the entire 2 weeks), maybe it wasn't dense enough, maybe too sweet, I think I've had better.

A Japanese dinner to see me off, too. Another swell joint introduced by my aunt. Two massive sushi boats, with some of the best sea urchin I have tasted.

They are staying on for another week. I had my flight booked for London... with all my shopping from the 3 outlets!

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Sunshine & Beach - Thailand, Malaysia & the Philippines

A friend of mine was trying to decide on a destination for his beach holiday in April, flying from Singapore. Needless to say, if he was loaded then the Maldives or Bora Bora would be the blindingly obvious choice. Sadly he isn’t.

Back in the good old days before I started working (that was less than 4 years ago btw), a week or two in the Southeast Asia each year was inevitable. I have lost count of the summers we spent at the Sheraton Resort in Phuket.

We have been to Bangkok, Pattaya and PaTong once, and once was too much. It’s the Laguna that we loved. The Laguna was perfect. Shuttle bus and boats that took us to the other four resorts nearby; short taxi ride to the city centre with modern shopping malls and restaurants; swimming pools that meandered around the resort; canoeing in the calm waters and the endless stretch of beach…

We used to spend a day or two on the outlying islands to snorkel and dive to our hearts content, then a couple of days to chill in the resort and perhaps another day to shop around in town. Unfortunately the islands got so badly polluted by the sudden influx of poor quality tourists. At first we were snorkelling no more than 3m from shore, and were swarmed by colourful fish the size of my forearm, nibbling our butts. Then the water quality deteriorated and we were swimming much further out to find cigarette butts.

Away from Thailand we changed destinations to Sabah in Malaysia. The resort district was closer to town centre, which was less developed than Phuket. However there is a long seaside promenade lined with all hip restaurants and bars. “Double Sky” proved to be the most-loved seafood restaurant with honest prices. It follows the traditional of allowing patrons to choose lively seafood from the tanks, then the chefs recommend their recipes.

We boated to Sipadan, one of the best diving islands on earth. It was beautiful. Thank god they banned hospitality establishments to preserve the island. Minimum facilities, we goggled up and dived. Oh, and we saw a humongous lizard that scared the crap out of us.

The highlight was white-water rafting along the Padas River. The train we took looked like the first train invented. It was pouring, and the tarnished roof was leaking more rain than outside. No doors, just spaces that invited people to jump. And the only ventilation was from the person breathing next to you. Anyhow, rafting in the rain was awesome. The operators spoke enough English to caution us about crocodiles…

No I didn’t jungle trek. I see enough monkeys on a daily basis… ugly ones too!

Getting to Boracay in the Philippines was a pain in the arse. Indirect flight to Kalibo Airport, followed by a 90-minute coach journey to the Caticlan jetty port, then 30 mins on the cute spider boats to Boracay Island. Finally another 25 mins from the port to resorts on a tricycle, which accommodated 6 people plus luggage. The poor thing could barely move. Actually it didn’t when we hit a slope. Dad had to walk his way up the slope while the second motorist pushed the bike. Not to mention the suffocating exhaust fumes it was churning out.

But it was all worthwhile when we got there. The White Beach.

Everything was along the beach. Fishermen were selling their catches of the day to tourists, and the restaurants would prepare them in the evening. I’d seriously stick to the world-class hotel restaurants, however, as our experience with the smaller local ones was awful. I thought the Filipinos are supposed to be good at cooking….

The Crystal Cove tour was fine, but better still was when we rented our spider boat for a day (for £20?!); dived, snorkelled, fished and island-hopped wherever we fancied. The locals barbequed us a seafood lunch on a deserted island, with a fire they built from scratch. Doesn’t get more primitive than this.

My ultimate, best in memory sunshine & beach spot was Langkawi, but that was so long ago. Our resort was secluded in the middle of the sea, and so we had to rely on shuttle boats to go anywhere. That was the only downside. Instead of going to the islands nearby, Langkawi already hosted the most beautiful powdery beach, still we joined a cruise tour to dive further offshore…