Monday, December 31, 2012

Beaches of the World

I would have to say that my favorite way to spend a vacation is on the beach! The soothing sound of the ocean waves, the contrast between different shades of blue sky and water, and the refreshing smell of salt and sand are appealing on so many different levels. Since I have lived abroad for three out of the past five years, I have been fortunate to have visited beautiful beaches in six different countries: China/ Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand, Indonesia, South Africa and Thailand. Each beach was beautiful in its own way and I couldn't say which was my favorite!

Since for the first time in my life I am living in a landlocked country (no beaches!), I thought it would be fun to reminisce about all that glorious time spent lounging ocean side in various Asian countries.

Repluse Bay and Deepwater Bay, Hong Kong (multiple visits 2007-08 and 2010-12)
Hong Kong is one of my favorite places because even though it's a crowded, cosmopolitan city, it also has surprisingly beautiful and clean beaches. Repulse Bay and Deepwater Bay are located about a 20 minute busride towards Stanley from downtown Hong Kong - watching skyscrapers turn into dramatic cliffs studded with mansions from the top of a double decker bus was an experience in itself! The two beaches are linked by a scenic footpath and walking between the two offered lovely views of the water. During my visits to Repulse and Deepwater Bays, I liked to swim out to one of the rafts anchored a few hundred yards out from the shoreline to escape the floods of mainland Chinese tourists who would rush down to the beach with their sun umbrellas to snap a quick photo of the sunbathers before scurrying back up to their tour bus.
Phuket and Ko Phi Phi, Thailand (January 2008)
Maya Bay, Phi Phi Ley
Hiking in Phuket
Scott and I visited the beaches of southern Thailand during our Spring Festival holiday from teaching English in Zhanjiang. This was a truly amazing trip! We stayed in Phuket for a couple of nights, and then rode the ferry to nearby Ko Phi Phi where we stayed in a rustic (as in, no electricity!) bungalow right on the sand. A highlight of this trip was the day we rented a kayak and spend the day paddling around the island exploring all the lovely white sand beaches that encircle Ko Phi Phi and swimming in the warm, crystal clear water. We also visited Maya Bay, where Leonardo DiCaprio movie, The Beach, was filmed. Spectacular!

Sanya, Hainan Island, China (May 2008 & November 2010)
A little piece of paradise in southern China
What's Sanya without matching tropical outfits?
We first traveled to Sanya, Hainan's prime beach location, during Dragon Boat Festival at the end of our time in Zhanjiang, and were so impressed by the cleanliness and tropical beauty of Sanya's beaches that we flew down for a second visit a couple of months after we moved to Shanghai in 2010. I know what you're thinking, and "China" and "pristine beaches" don't exactly go together in my mind, either. However, Sanya can rival any of the nicest beaches I've visited throughout southeast Asia. The coastline in the Yalong Bay area is lined with posh hotels (there's a Ritz Carlton!) and the beaches are truly gorgeous. If you're lucky, you can even spot a submarine or two traveling to or from the Chinese submarine base located out in the bay.

Jimbaran Bay, Bali, Indonesia (October 2010)

Sunset at Jimbaran Bay beach seafood restaurant
View of the ocean from our hotel
Ah, honeymoon in Bali! On our trip to Bali, we saw fabulous temples, street markets, craft shops, tea terraces and even a volcano in and around Ubud. After a few days in the interior of Bali, we moved to the fabulous location of Jimbaran Bay to spend the rest of our honeymoon at the Four Seasons Resort right on the beach. While the beach was gorgeous of course, the best part of this trip was our hotel. It was our first experience staying at such a luxurious hotel, and everything from the food, to the service, to the landscaping was 100% perfect. Not so easy on the wallet... but hey, it was our honeymoon! And when we wanted to save money on a meal or two, we just had to walk down to the restaurant on the beach from some fresh and inexpensive seafood.

 South Island, New Zealand (April 2011)

A hidden treasure
Our favorite vacation yet: we spent 10 days driving from Christchurch to Greymouth on New Zealand's South Island. The drive was truly breathtaking - I actually felt short of breath when viewing some of the most overwhelming natural beauty I have ever experienced. Every time we turned a corner I thought, "This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen." Then we would turn another corner, and again, I was confronted with the most beautiful thing I had ever seen! It was almost difficult to take it all in. During the drive, we saw just about every major geographical feature, from rainforest, to farmlands, to glaciers, to fjords, to... yes, beaches! One day near the end of our drive, I spotted the ocean from the car and so we pulled over. We came upon an absolutely breathtaking beach and there was not a soul to be seen for miles in either direction. I do not know the name of the beach or even where we really were when we stopped - and I think that is so typical of New Zealand that even a random, deserted beach along the highway is so stunningly gorgeous that it ranks among the top few beaches I've visited.

Langkawi, Malaysia (October 2011)
Private beach for our hotel.
Langkawi was our second Four Seasons beach trip and it was truly wonderful. This time we did not have a honeymoon as a handy excuse for our lavishness - we told ourselves it was an anniversary of our honeymoon in Bali from the previous October and therefore a fully justified vacation! The hotel was fabulous and the beach was all you would expect from Malaysia: soft white sand, calm and clear water, and a balmy breeze. Perfect.

Bintan Island, Indonesia (April 2012)
Beach on the rocks!
Our last beach Asian beach trip before we left Shanghai, we rode the ferry just about two hours from Singapore while on vacation there to check out the beach in Bintan, Indonesia. Bintan is a popular destination for many Singaporeans, and once we got there we could see why! Again, I love big cities that also have beaches that are easily accessible. If I am ever fortunate enough to be posted in Singapore, I will for sure be going back to enjoy the lovely Bintan.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Restaurant Review: Ile Maurice, Umhlanga Rocks

We had a luxurious three hour Christmas Eve dinner at a Mauritian- French restaurant called Ile Maurice in Umhlanga Rocks (a popular beach destination about 20 minutes’ drive from Durban). It was by far the best meal we had in Durban; actually, it easily was the best meal I’ve had since moving to Africa! Dinner at Ile Maurice was the first time I’ve tasted Mauritian food, which I can best describe as a delicious, greed-inducing combination of flavorful French food and island spices. Unfortunately I did not take any pictures during dinner, because I was too wrapped up in an eating frenzy to do so.  J

Scott and I both started with the crab soup, which, in contrast to the heavy, creamy bisque I have grown to expect when I order “crab soup,” was delightfully light, flavorful and spicy. For our main courses, Scott ordered the Carre D’Agneau Grille, a flavorful rack of lamb and I had the Canard a L’Orange, a very tender half duck basted in a delicious red wine and Grand Marnier sauce. Buttery mashed potatoes and lightly grilled vegetables for the table were excellent accompaniments to our mains. Finally, dessert: Crème Brulee Madame Mauvis (restaurant founder) for Scott and rich, creamy cheesecake for me. Très délicieux!

While the restaurant itself was very cute and had a nice view of the ocean from the top floor where we were seated by the window, a negative side to the evening was the drunken antics of the elderly South African couple seated at the table next to ours. As the couple consumed more and more champagne (for her) and brandy (for him) their arguing became louder and increasingly vulgar, with her shouting obscenities at him and him slamming his hand on the table violently. Later in the evening, the woman went on an anti-Jewish rant and circulated to each table, aggressively demanding that guests prove they are “Christians and not Jews” by wishing her a merry Christmas. This was amusing at first, but quickly got old and I was surprised that management did not do more to control the situation and/or kick the couple out of the restaurant once they started disturbing other guests. 

Restaurant Rating (ON A SCALE OF  TO )

AMAZING – trunk and tail-swinging good!
I had a lot of duck in China but never one like this. YUM.
AMAZING – trunk and tail-swinging good!
The waiter was very knowledgeable and I was impressed that they gave us a whole pitcher of ice water, impressive for a French restaurant!
The elephant in the room says this place needs improvement.
A nice spot, but the angry arguing and anti-Semitism were mood killers. Christmas Eve, people!
Overall Experience
Trunk-swinging good.
Had it not been for the drunken couple, Ile Maurice would have easily gotten five elephants.

Restaurant Review: Circus Circus, Durban Beachfront

Durban beachfront

A casual café and restaurant with six branches in or near Durban, Circus Circus was a great lunch spot for us on Christmas Eve day. The Circus Circus we visited is located right on the Durban beach front, and offered excellent food, with plenty of outdoor seating for a prime view of the ocean and stimulating people-watching.  The highlights of the meal were an excellent, creamy pina colada, and a very generous Mediterranean platter (think hummus, pita bread, and spanakopita!)

View of the water from Circus Circus

Restaurant Rating (ON A SCALE OF  TO )

AMAZING – trunk and tail-swinging good!
Great food and drinks, the pina coladas were the best I’ve had in Africa so far.
Trunk-swinging good.
They were very busy, so the service was a little slow.
AMAZING – trunk and tail-swinging good!
Ocean front. Blue sky. A frozen drink in my hand. People-watching. Perfect.
Overall Experience
AMAZING – trunk and tail-swinging good!
If I lived in Durban, I would be there every weekend.