Penang. Penang, Penang, Penang. Sometimes when you say a word too many times it loses all meaning, other times it just becomes a word that get stuck in your head. Penang is one of those words that does both. What is a Penang? How do you cure a case of penang? What the penang is happening? It’s really penanging hot in here! Penang you too! It is a noun, a verb, an adjective, it is everything – yet what is a Penang?
Ok, that was just filling the void by randomly pounding the keyboard – and no, no substances were involved in concocting that thought train. Just, where exactly does the word Penang come from? Even more curious is that if you are from Penang you are considered a Penangite. Like say what?
Apparently, the word Penang comes from the reference to Pulau Pinang, which means The Island of the Areca Nut Palm. Ok, so does that mean if you are from there you are essentially a person of the nut? Hmmm, so many inappropriate references here.
More seriously though is that Penang is a highly educated, business and technology centre, with an ethnically diverse population, making it a highly sought after place to work and live for people all over the world. Makes sense that is a desirable place to work, as it is warm year round, safe, easy to get to, and is a modern city wrapped in an ancient shroud, with history coming out of every corner.
Travellers, especially the worldschooler community, are constantly raving about Penang, and seemingly everyone has spent 1 – 6 months here exploring all it has to offer.
Our adventures in Penang were compressed to about 2 weeks as it was really an in-between place for us. We had just left Singapore, without a plan, and we needed to figure out where to go next, so Penang suited everything we wanted in a stopover, except it was not as inexpensive a place as we first thought. It was by no means on par with the high costs of Singapore, but not the same as Sri Lanka, where we had been used to relatively inexpensive, well, everything!
Our foray into the world of Penang began with our first low-cost airline of our trip! Somehow we had found flights using major airlines to get us this far – all for almost the same cost as using the cheap-o-air versions. Our short hop from Singapore to Penang was at the back of an mostly empty aircraft on an average weekday evening. Moving further forward in the skybus would cost something (even though it was empty forward of row 15 or so) so we remained seated in our cramped, straight backed, seats for the 1 hour flight – no big deal. In fact I think it took us longer to get from the airport in Penang to our Airbnb than it did to get to Penang from Singapore by plane.
Our Penanging began with a drive by tour of the night life of Penang. No crazy lights or party people wandering the streets, but certainly no lack of inhabitants out in the steamy night air, enveloped in their enjoyment of some local culinary concoction, available at every corner. Nothing in Penang was ever to far from food – no activity, historical sight, or residence was ever more than a few steps from some sort of traditional dish.
The smells of Penang were both curious and alluring as they languished on the breeze, of which there was little the first couple days – but the smells of spices and curries were flung far and wide throughout the city and beyond. We had tried our best to stick to home cooking, as our Airbnb came with the use of an outdoor, but functional kitchen; however, the smells and sights of the local and imported cuisine brought us out of our cave and into the belly of the city – in search for delicious and nutritious (to an extent) nourishment (Ok, so I just misspelled that word (nourishment) on the first try (forgot the U), and the spelling suggestions were: nourishment or Irishmen, like really? … nutritious Irishmen.. who programmed this thing, Hannibal Lecter?).
Despite our lack of nutritious Irishmen to tickle our palate, the trip through the cuisine of Penang was filled with the promise of spice and diversity – both of which lived up to the hype. Indian, Chinese, Szechuan, Malay, Japanese, Korean, Western were a few of the food types available – along with mixes of the above and other labels that we didn’t understand or recognize. Anyway, we didn’t lack for choice in Penang.
One choice we did make, that turned out to be both delicious and worth the journey, was a vegan buffet place in the heart of the city (Georgetown). A variety of fantastic vegan dishes awaited us, with an extremely reasonable price tag attached to it – it was flavourful, filling, and nutritious – what more do you need?
Ok, so we didn’t just eat in Penang – we Penanged it up! We got out and explored! We ventured out on to a couple of the clan jetties in Georgetown. The rickety wooden jetties, home to Chinese family that settled in Penang, have been around for more than 100 years and extend out into the ocean from the city and seem to be barely holding on in places. We also wandered around Georgetown sweating and taking in the famous integrated artworks on a couple of occasions as well as visiting a little batik spot/museum, where we learned about how they make batiks.
Stopping to enjoy some flavoured iceballs to help cool us down was one of our favourite snacks in Georgetown. Of course doing anything in Penang in the middle of the day was hard, as the heat in Penang was constant and oppressive at times, yet still not as intense as Singapore (a 3 shirt-a-day town). Most days I am sure the humidity was probably running at 75% or more – so no dry days to be had there!
While gluttony wasn’t goal for our tour of Penang, we did indulge a few times when the lure was too strong. Delicious Indian curries danced across our tongues along with a few of our favourites from home (waffles!). Four other activities in Penang that made the favourites list, beyond eating, were the 3D Trick Art museum, the Penang Hill railway, a hike though the national park, and the outdoor splash pools!
The 3D Trick Art Museum was one of those places were you could pose in front of a number of scenes, painted to look 3-dimensional when photographed. You could be chased by a dinosaur, hang form a ceiling, or even ride in a rickshaw. The ‘museum’ was a bit over-priced for what it was and much shorter than expected – but it was one of the highlights of Penang for our kids, so probably worth it – but the cheese factor was high when walking through the museum. You can even find exampled of the 3D art in the Penang airport.
Up on the north end of Penang was the National Park, Taman Negara Pulau Penang. The national park was a great hike but a sweaty one! We recommend heading out early in the day, bringing tons of water, and if possible, take the boat ride back around. Also if you kids are a bit on the ‘are we there yet?’ side, keep an eye out for the wildlife, as there are lots of monkeys to keep you busy (and busy keeping your lunch safe). If you take the boat back after the hike to the turtle centre, you can stop in at the swimming beach (Monkey Beach), as the beach (Kerachut Beach) near the turtles isn’t ideal for swimming. During your hike you can even grab a couple of geocaches – like we did!
Another one of our outings was to the the Penang Hill Railway. The railway is a bit expensive, but cool way to see the city. As with many things around these parts, if you are a tourist, expect to pay double the rate of the local. I understand why, but had to learn to always look at the higher price first and expect to pay that. The ride up and the view of the island and surrounding area is great. The area at the top is full of vendors and guides, as well as an impressive compliment of oversized arachnids inhabiting the areas near the start of the trails. Our eldest daughter, and her lack of enthusiasm for the 8-legged insect eaters, definitely had s difficult walk along some of the trails because of the spiders lurking in the trees. Luckily for all of us, they were a relatively harmless species that was more interested in 6 legged prey than us. We only ended up spending a couple of hours there, around sunset, but probably could have stayed longer and done a bit more hiking; so plan wisely and expect to need a few hours to see and do it all up there.
Now, the other thing that made Penang a great stop over for us, was our hosts in the Airbnb. Yan and his family were tremendously friendly and welcoming. We felt that it was more a temporary home than a guesthouse. Our girls met his kids (also girls) who were the same age and they had a blast for the time we were there. They danced, played, watched youtube (As kids do) and had a great time! Other things making the house a great place was the location. It was right next to the beach and easy to get rides into town (get the Grab app), was clean, well stocked with clean drinking water and other necessities, and perfectly set up for families. We booked 8 days and stayed 13 in the end – as we didn’t see the need to move! That and some visa issues! On our last night we joined our host at a private party with his family and his friends from China and Penang; one was even an international movie star! All of them were super nice people and it was great to hang out to eat and drink with them. We even tried some very good Chinese alcohol to go with the hot pot dinner! Partying in Penang with new friends was a great way to end our stay!
So despite our best efforts to make Vietnam our next port of adventure – their inefficient visa system wasn’t up to the task (too slow – and note to people doing the same as us, don’t trust their ‘times’ for approval, expect twice as long as they say, and expect no reply to any inquiries) – so our pre-planned route took a hard right and headed south, below the equator, to the nation of islands known as Indonesia; Bali to be more specific. This is where our Penanging stopped and our search for the best nasi goreng turned up a notch! A dish found throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, and even the Maldives!
Next up… Indonesia, but who knows which blog will actually be finished next!
M (Secondary director of information and geography of the M4 travels)
We recently wrote a piece on our experience with house and pet sitting for worldschoolerexchange.com to share a bit more details about our great experiences with pets around the world and hopefully inspire other families to try it out! We’re sharing the link with you along with some photos below of our latest house sit with Rocky and the chickens in tropical Cairns, Australia!
Our time in Sri Lanka during our first foray into the ancient island nation was interesting and eye opening. We had slow travelled for most of the first month and spent the majority of the time in the northwest part of the country. Our one room rental was not luxury but allowed us to slow down and meet local people and enjoy what the area had to offer.
Our second stop back in Sri Lanka was going to be a bit different. We knew that we wanted to see some of the well travelled tourist spots in the south of the country, as they are popular for a reason, and not just sit still. So, with the images of the impossibly blue and turquoise waters of the Maldives still fresh in our minds we flew the giant bird back to Sri Lanka – back into the chaos!
Headed south, we took the fastest road in Sri Lanka. It was a toll highway that stretched from near Colombo to the south coast. Finally a road without cows, dogs, bikes, tuk-tuks and all sorts of other interlopers interrupting the flow of movement. We arrived in record time, for Sri Lanka anyway, and found our guest house in the old fort area of Galle.
Galle is a town set in and around an old Dutch trading fort. It was a nice setting for the views and sunset, but definitely was no longer what it once was. It is now filled with restaurants, bars, guesthouses, and souvenir shops. Each one trying to attract tourists with their increasingly elaborate signs and offers. Galle was the first place in Sri Lanka where we saw the local population seeiming outnumbered by tourists. It was strange, as we had spent most of the past 2 months in areas with few tourists, but now we were back in the belly of the beast – the tourist trail! (Dun-dun-dunnnn).
Our guest house was smack in the middle of the touristy area of Galle Fort, but you wouldn’t have known it was a guest house. It looked like an old mansion, well past its prime, potentially abandoned, but with lots of character, sitting in between shops. It wasn’t clear that it was anything at first – but once inside you could see it was a family home, one that had been there for a long time!
The owners were very kind and the patriarch of the family enjoyed talking the ear off of anyone that would listen. He was also very inquisitive and knowledgeable about a multitude of topics. He happily listened to everything we had to say, seemingly increasing his already vast knowledge of the world. Also, luckily here the girls also met a couple other little girls and had playmates for a couple evenings. Our room upstairs was in the back of the structure, a room that was best described as spartan, but livable. The old tiled roof was on its last legs and each morning greeted us with a fresh pile of its mortar on the floor next to the door. A balcony that might have once looked out over the ocean and the sunrise to the east, now stared directly into the adjacent buildings, and the garden below, that is if you dared to venture out on it. A fan that had 2 functioning settings, take-off and couldn’t push over a butterfly, was our only source of cooling during the stifling nights. Luckily a mostly functional mosquito net kept us from the abundant night time intruders doing their best to separate us from our blood, one small bit at a time!
Despite the obvious state of the house, the owners had an extreme amount of pride in their home. It had been in the man’s family for generations, built by one of his relatives long ago, and continued to serve as the centre for the current family. Renovations are badly needed, as the sky is clearly visible through the roof in places, and half of the upstairs isn’t even usable anymore – but that might be the future for another generation of the family – one that has a pride running deep for the area, and their home. While many of the other stately homes in the area have been sold to outside investors, looking for a base to get a piece of the tourist dollar in Galle, this home has, and will continue to stay in the family; at least that is their current plan.
The rest of our time in Galle was mellow. We ate some good food, toured the Japanese Peace Pagoda high above the hills opposite Galle Fort and even stopped in a turtle rescue centre / hatchery. The centre was a big hit for the girls, as who doesn’t love turtles! The guide gave us his best rendition of a tour, one that certainly had been given before, and we were able to see living examples of each species found in Sri Lanka. The organization is one of a few that are important for the turtles of Sri Lanka, so we hoped that our meager contribution would go to continue the efforts to help them. Another nearby attraction worth mentioning is the famous stilt fishermen. We were pretty underwhelmed and disappointed to see that the fishermen really only seemed to be there to pose for the tourists and to push tourists’ butts up the stilts to get their photos taken with rods (no line!), for money of course. We get this is how they make money now and, really, it’s probably better for the state of the fisheries but we just couldn’t…
After Galle, we headed along the coast to Mirissa, another stop on the tourist trek along the south coast. Here we stayed at a quaint little guest house with an extremely friendly family. Yeshin Guest house was the perfect location for heading to any of the area’s beaches and just relaxing. Our girls were lucky to have a little friend to play with in the host family’s son and many a day was spent by the three of them chasing and playing in their yard.
Welligama Bay, near Mirissa, was also the location where both our little adventurers learned to surf. Maëlle started the drive for finding the perfect wave and her little sister wasn’t far behind. Two days of lessons and more waves were caught than missed by these two super girls! It was amazing watching them show off their prowess on the boards. A balance that was acquired through gymnastics and dance came into use as the waves were no match for these little surfers! We think they might be hooked, as I’m sure this won’t be the last time we see these two on surf boards.
Another popular attraction in Mirissa is blue whale watching. While all four of us are adamant ocean creature lovers and never want to pass up a trip to see the majestic creatures of the sea, we just couldn’t make ourselves go for it. It wasn’t the cost, nor the time commitment, nor the boats being used (although really that should have been taken into account), but the methods used by the companies to ‘whale watch’. More than one account of the trip found on any number of traveller or review sites indicated that the whale watch was more of a whale harassment hunt, and the majority of the trip was spent chasing or surrounding the whales (when they found them), often well within the recommended safety zones around the whales. Nothing about that appealed to us, so we let it slide – the chance to see the blue whales was worth passing up if we could be part of the group that showed the tour operators that their procedures were not acceptable by the only way they would notice, by not getting our money.
Our last adventure around Mirissa involved getting train tickets for Sri Lanka’s most famous train ride; the Ella-Kandy route. We knew about this train and had wanted to see it for ourselves since we had planned on coming through this part of the country. Getting tickets wasn’t easy however, as it involved finding a train station that sold advance tickets. Not everywhere did that – so luckily a station near by Mirissa did, and we headed off to get some tickets. We picked out the route and the date and even added another train route to our itinerary, Kandy to Colombo, thus avoiding another horrendous car ride through the twisty roads near Kandy. Four tickets on both train rides, both in first class (with A/C), came to less than one car ride on one of those routes, so it was an easy choice! Unfortunately, the total had to be paid in cash – and we were about 150 Rupees short (around $1.10 CDN). Seriously eh? We had come all this way, figured out how to book tickets and still had to get back, but were just that much short of getting our tickets, and of course to fit with the cliché, the ticket booth was closing in a few minutes! So… we either we had to give up the tickets or change classes on one of the routes. Luckily we were able to go down to 2nd class on the Kandy-Colombo route and save some money, while still getting where we needed to go! We had concerns that the second class trains in Sri Lanka would resemble those of the lower class trains in India we had ridden years before, and thinking ahead we definitely were apprehensive about having those tickets. Luckily, those fears were never requited and the trains turned out to be just fine, if not in need of a good deep cleaning.
Soon our time in Mirissa was over and we were off to Udawalawe and the national park for another safari. We had considered going to Yala National Park and visiting the most popular of Sri Lanka’s National Parks, but the distance, the pending car rides to and from, the cost, and the hoards of tourists that would certainly be waiting made us reconsider and turn north to Udawalawe.
Udawalawe is a small hamlet in the middle of south central Sri Lanka. It is well positioned for guest houses to serve as the starting point for the visit to the near by National Park of the same name. We found a basic and non-remarkable place to stay to base out of and arrived after our trip from Mirissa. In hind sight we should have booked the evening safari the day of our arrival, or booked it out of town immediately after our safari the next morning, but we hung on in the little town for 2 nights – a place with very little to do.
Our safari to Udawalawe started out slowly, after an early morning start, with more waiting than animal watching. We ended up entering the park well after sunrise, in a traffic jam/stampede of jeeps carrying scores of tourists. Immediately however we were pleased to spot elephants near the entrance gate. Sauntering along to their own beat they slowly moved off into the brush to forage for their breakfast. The rest of the tour however, save for the other encounter for elephants, was less remarkable than expected. Perhaps our previous experience with a safari in Wilpattu had set the bar high, but the Udawalawe experience just didn’t quite meet our expectations. A driver than spent more time on his facebook account that looking out for things for us to see was only part of it. His crocodile spotting was on point, but seeing other things was a bit hit or miss. He spotted at least 3 crocs from a distance and made us spend a much longer time than needed staring at them, while he checked to see what had happened in the social media world since his last check 4 minutes ago. His timing was also perfect for taking off just as I had lined up a nice shot of a bird or animal. My camera has an over abundance of half blurred images caused from a lurching jeep and an underwhelming number of actual animal photos.
Luckily, just before the end of our drive through the jungle, we found a herd of elephants in the brush. While most of the drive around the park was watching the jeep drivers act just like they do on the main roads (rushing to a pinch point in the road, neither letting up an inch, and then spending the next 10 minutes inching by each other to get through – where a 5 second delay at the start, by either driver, would have allowed the other to pass easily and then it would have been over… but nope, that never happened), occasionally we were alone on one of the paths around the park. It was here that I saw the slimmest glimpse of grey in a patch of green and brown; one that the driver missed, likely during one of his frequent checks into who liked his most recent selfie! I yelled out for the driver to stop and back up and just emerging from the brush was a herd of elephants – a mother and baby and a number of juveniles. We sat quietly and alone as they fed and wandered around us. We were alone with the herd for at least 10 minutes before another jeep arrived, allowing us to watch the magnificent pachyderms get within about 5 m or less from us. It was incredible and a memorable experience.
In Udawalawe we saw about 10 elephants total; not too shabby! However, on our trip from Udawalawe to Ella we probably saw 5-6 elephants along side of the road, just waiting to be fed. A much easier, and cheaper, way to see the symbol of pride of Sri Lanka; and you don’t have to be up at 5 am to do it!
Next stop Ella. Another twisty, tortuous ride through the roads of the highlands and we were in the coldest place we had been in Sri Lanka! In the hills you didn’t even need a/c to feel comfortable at night. It was great! We stayed in a nice little guest house and walked to some of the most famous sites in Sri Lanka. We visited Little Adams Peak – a high point in the area. The girls did amazing on that day, despite the heat (yes it was still hot in the day) and hiked up and down this peak. The going wasn’t too tough, but at one point we saw a woman just above us lose her footing and fall over the side of the path. A flash of an arm, and the woman beside her grabbed her just before she fell head first. I ran to get underneath her, to catch her if needed, and helped push her back up the hill. No one was hurt luckily, but you could see the woman was a little shaken, but happy to have been helped!
Little Adams Peak provided a marvelous view of the surrounding hills and tea plantations, and of course another chance for the ubiquitous instagrammers to get their shot of staring off into the distance while looking over a cliff. They actually line up to do the same pose over and over again – often with a similar wardrobe.
After the peak we hiked over to the Nine Arches Bridge; perhaps Ella’s most famous photo spot. The bridge is a brick/stone nine arched train bridge that spans a ravine. It was built about 100 years ago and has become famous for the amazing views over the bridge and jungle and nearby tea plantations. It is a beautiful area and we ended up visiting twice, including once while the train came through, and once we even walked all the way back into town by the tracks – a long, hot journey, not recommended in the middle of the day.
Ella was even more touristy than Galle and the backpacker crowd clearly decends into this former sleepy grove in the hills en masse at all times in the year. Despite the constant threat of rain while we were there, the restaurants and the trails and the area was filled with crowds of travellers.
We only ended up staying a few days, they hopped onto the highly anticipated train for our trip through the scenic hills to Kandy. The train ride was filled with twists and turns, bridges and vistas, jungle and tea plantations, and finally sunset and then darkness. We ended up being in first class, with an over powered a/c unit, not actually needed for this trip, as the air was cool and fresh in the hills. We watched as this one couple spent at least 80% of the 6 hour (or so) trip hanging out of the door of the train trying to recreate the famous photos from this trip. I am sure they took at least 1000 or more photos, as the entire time they were snapping away. Sure it was beautiful, but I hope they saw it with their eyes and not just through the view finder of their phone.
Our second time in Kandy was more pleasant than the first. No one was sick, and we stayed with a fantastically fabulous family (Dilly and Samantha) just outside the city. They had a very comfortable Airbnb and were superhosts to the max! Totally! They were on top of everything and were extremely thoughtful. It was probably the best Airbnb host experience we had on our trip so far (and we’ve had a few). We decided to go easy on our last couple of days in Sri Lanka and just hung around the Airbnb and visited the terrific botanical gardens. These are not to be missed if you are in Kandy. They are a bit pricey to visit (by Sri Lankan standards) but worth it!
Finally as our time was winding down in Sri Lanka, this time for the last time on this trip, we took the train back to Colombo and stayed one final night near the airport before heading off to our next adventure in Singapore – another pet sit!
Our last day in Sri Lanka also corresponded with our youngest daughter’s birthday. She was going to have a birthday in the air! So we surprised her by ordering a cake to be served on the flight. The flight attendants on Sri Lankan Airlines were awesome. They brought out the cake and even sung happy birthday to her. She was a bit embarrassed, but I am guessing she won’t forget that for a while! The cake was delicious btw!
So with Sri Lanka behind us and a new adventure in South East Asia on the way we looked back at the past couple of months and the thousands of new memories we made. Sri Lanka has a place for everyone. Veteran travellers, neophytes to the world of adventure, and those just looking for the perfect insta shot will have their buckets filled with gorgeous scenery and generous people. We may have left Sri Lanka, but it won’t be leaving us anytime soon, as our memories will have us thinking about the place for years to come.
Another installment of the M4 travels brought to you by M (Managing Director of air travel)
Travelling is work. I know that sounds hard to believe, but travelling, not just vacationing, can be as hard as sitting in a stuffy air conditioned building pounding away on the plastic keyboard in front of you. Well, the best way to describe it is that travelling is a different kind of hard and not always the life of leisure that is portrayed in many of the Instagram and Facebook posts that bombard us during our average day.
Those things that make travelling hard, are the ones that are rarely talked about until the afterwards, where the memories make it seem less stressful than it was at the time. Jetlag (gah!), lugging bags up and down stairs (double gah!), dealing with changing weather (the heat!!), sweating through three shirts a day, transportation issues, constantly being surrounded by people that often speak other languages and constantly being in a new culture where you don’t know all the customs or rules of etiquette are hard at the best of times, but do that over and over again and have kids with you, and well, it is work. We are not complaining – don’t be mistaken to think that because we find it hard at times that wish we wouldn’t have travelled – no, absolutely not, it is just that sometimes, even on a supposed ‘vacation’ you need a vacation!
Enter the Maldives. For us, the Maldives was our vacation from our travels. Sure it was travelling, but it was our ‘splurge’ for this trip. We had been travelling since the end of July, and now it was January, and we needed a couple of weeks of easy travel. No this wasn’t a preposterously easy adventure that required no more than our open wallets to be satiated in our relaxiousness (not a word… don’t care), but it was one where we had fewer expectations of ourselves and the country being visited. [Note: I am sure the Maldives has lots more to offer than just beaches, but we weren’t searching for it this time!] Also, we wanted to see the Maldives while we still could. With the potential for sea level rise increasing every second that we don’t do anything to prevent it, the Maldives might not have long – an increase of 2 m in sea level would see almost the entire country under water. The other reason we chose the Maldives was because of the location. It is a mere 1.5 hour flight from Sri Lanka (and a reasonable price too), and we needed to leave Sri Lanka after 30 days, or pay to renew our visa, so why not? It is supposed to be one of the most amazing places on the planet!
Despite the ominous future for this country, we ended up spending a marvelous 21 days on two drastically different islands in the sun-baked nation, soaking up as much sun and sand as we could handle. Nothing more was expected from our visit than mellow days and quiet nights – but anything on top of that was a cherry on our proverbial cake.
For those that don’t know, the Maldives is composed of islands spread over a 300 km2 area of the Indian Ocean, between Sri Lanka / India and Africa, but closer to Sri Lanka. It has numerous inhabited islands and likely more resort islands spread over 26 atolls with a maximum above sea level elevation of about 2-3 m. The only way to reach most islands is by slow ferry, speedboat, or sea plane; the latter being the priciest. Also it is a 100% Muslim nation and finding a cold beer to sit on the beach with and enjoy while watching the sunset is near impossible outside of the resort islands. You can’t even bring it in with you!
So our adventure in the Maldives began in early January. We had just spent the last month of our travels in Sri Lanka in a one bedroom ‘cozy’ rental house, and we were starting on month 6 of our full time travels – and definitely were wearing out a bit. Sri Lanka was/is full-on travel. The travel blogs show you the idyllic side of Sri Lanka, cool train rides where you can hang completely (and irresponsibly) out of the train, amazing beaches where you can be appear to be completely alone, and (the required third item in a list) huge temples at sunset where you can be at one with the world. Sure – those exist, but getting there involves a lot of sweat, dubious and somewhat sketchy car or tuk-tuk rides, guides with little to no actual useful knowledge of the area, and numerous other obstacles that take a 40 km journey and turn it into a seemingly endless trudge through the directionless countryside. Having been through all of that for the last month, we needed to get some quiet and hopefully this beautiful, paradise to the west of Sri Lanka was going to be it.
Departure from Sri Lanka
When asked what would be the ideal time to take a flight, I’m pretty sure almost no one will say 6 am; especially an international flight, but you can guess what time our flight from Colombo to Malé, Maldives was at on January 8th. Yep, 06:00. Gah! Double Gah! Triple Gah!
Our last night in Sri Lanka was spent at a cool little guesthouse, where the owners rescue animals from around Sri Lanka. There were too many cats or dogs to keep track of wandering the yard, but all turned out to be extremely friendly. The girls were of course enamored with their new found furry friends and proceeded to deal out belly rubs and back scratches by the boat load to the eagerly waiting animal population. Our location was ideal for our early morning flight, a short 10 minute drive to the airport, and for the first time ever in Sri Lanka the advertised time for the drive was right on!
A 6 am flight requires a ridiculously early wake up time – 3 am. Luckily the anticipation for all of us to see that world famous turquoise water was enough motivation to get up and get moving right on schedule.
Luckily the check-in, customs, and flight were uneventful, and a short 1.5 hours after take off we were calmly descending aboard the huge Korean Air A330 into paradise.
Arrival in Paradise
Exiting the airport after a lengthy customs delay we were hit by the blast of hot, humid air as the airport, as to be expected, is on an island and right beside the water! The entire arrivals area is open and just outside of the airport, across the street from the arrivals is a port, essentially filled with dozens of waiting boats – soon to take their eager guests to the multitude of resort islands. A few of the luckier people hop on a sea plane and jet off quickly to distant resorts and islands in search of their own private paradise.
While our appetite for a glimpse of the famed turquoise waters was soon fulfilled, as it surrounds the airport, our desire for relaxation was going to have to hold on a bit longer, as our pre-arranged speedboat from Malé (the capital city) to our guesthouse on Dhigurah (1.5 – 2 hour journey) was not leaving until 4 pm (16:00). Seeing as though it was only about 9 am at this point, the next 7 hours were going to be long. We stored our luggage at the small bag drop place at the airport and took only the essentials to town with us. We shopped for a few necessities that weren’t easily found in Sri Lanka, as well as a few other must haves for the tropics (e.g. fins), ate some lunch, found a cool playground / park for the girls to run around in, and then still had about 2 hours to wait for the boat.
When we finally got on the boat, a medium sized speedboat that held about 50 people, a couple of the travellers in our group were done. We had been up for over 12 hours at this point and had wandered around in the sun – and now sitting in a sweltering boat waiting for departure, it was too much. A little bit of gravol for the upcoming choppy ride, and with the sweat pouring down their little bodies, Maelle and Maxine fell asleep. It was way too hot to actually sleep, but when you are done, you are done – and each girl didn’t complain, they just leaned over and hit the snooze button.
We arrived around 2 hours later after a mildly choppy ride between the airport and Dhigurah to a waiting ride from our guesthouse. Finally, we were almost there. A short truck ride to the hotel and we now in paradise. Greeted warmly by our host with a cool towel and a fresh coconut we felt instantly at ease and at home. Our home for the next 11 days was going to be this little piece of paradise – Bliss, Dhigurah.
It will be hard to talk about Bliss without sounding like some kind of advertisement for them, as we found everything to be amazing, and the location to be perfect for what we wanted and needed for a vacation! Anne, the owner, was an amazing host and went out of her way to make us feel welcome and at home, as did the majority of the staff (special thanks to Brechtje!) The guesthouse felt new, modern, beachy (is that a term?), clean, and with a location so close to the beach we always left our sandals in our rooms instead of dragging them along. It was perfect for our stay and the bonus was that because we booked a family room it was two adjoining rooms, with the girls having their own room and separate beds! Having that bit of separation was perfect for all of us!
Bliss was as its name implies – total serenity and relaxation. The beach was an amazing shade of white, although not the sugary soft that it looks to be, but was more than adequate for our tastes. The next 11 days flew by at Bliss. Delicious food, snorkeling, a couple of boat trips in hunt of the elusive (to us anyway) whale sharks that are supposed to frequent the area, more beach, wandering around in search of hermit crabs (hint – go just after sunset, they are everywhere!), and just doing nothing – as much as possible with kids that is!
Tasty Maldivian breakfast
Over those 11 days we saw huge changes in the girls in how comfortable they were in the water. They had been snorkeling a bit before, but never really got into it. They would give it about 2 minutes and say that was enough – but here with the crystal clear ocean and the multitude of colourful fish, the girls gave it another shot and stuck with it! They became awesome little snorkelers in such a short period of time. We found that all it took was staying with them, being patient and letting them explore at their own speed at first, but really just letting them play around and get comfortable with the mask and snorkle. Once they were good with that, they wanted to explore more. Each one of them usually snorkeled right beside us, occasionally climbing on our backs for a bit of rest, but they were there in the waves, on the reefs, in the deep – they loved it! Maxine would get excited whenever she saw something colourful move, a gentle tap on the shoulder would amplify into a series of whaps on the side of the shoulder or head if the creature in question was big, very colourful, or in the opposite direction we were looking. These two little ones held their own out there on the water and were rewarded with seeing manta rays, black tip reef sharks, white tip sharks, huge trigger fish, turtles and countless other creatures of the reef.
At one point, while on the hunt for the whale sharks, the boat saw a large manta ray in the water – everyone jumped in to get a good look. Maxine and I (Mike) were the last ones in the water, but by the time we hopped in, the manta had left the rest of the other snorkelers and was swimming right in front of us. We were all alone with this magnificent ocean dweller. Its ~2 m wide wing span stretched out in front of us as it approached, mouth agape feeding, and swam less than 2 m away from us, effortlessly gliding just below us before circling and returning immediately beside us. We had a front row view of one of mother nature’s most breathtaking creations and it wanted us to remember it. It is always a humbling experience to be in the water with one of the wonders of the ocean – they make us look so helpless and immobile while they cruise past like the breeze. Maxine was calm and loved it – she really is super comfortable in the water!
While we knew that the first 11 days at Bliss was our real vacation, the next 10 days were to be spent in a reasonably nice guesthouse as well – but this time on the island of Rasdhoo, in a different Atoll. Another 2 speed boat transfers (3.5 hours total) – this time with less waiting, and we were there.
Rasdhoo provided a much different experience to that of Dhigurah. Dhigurah is a long island with clean beaches, lots of trees and jungle, and a relatively small town and small population. Rasdhoo, by contrast, is a smaller round island, and more densely populated – with little natural vegetation left. Rasdhoo seemed to have a mini mart on every corner and a souvenir shop in between, leaving room for few other types of businesses besides dive shops and hotels. On Rasdhoo the beaches do not completely encircle the island, but the section designated as the ‘bikini beach’ where foreigners are expected to stay, was relatively nice.
Oh yes, the ‘bikini beach’ – as you may or may not know, in Muslim countries (and I’m not an expert by any means on it) you are expected to maintain a level of modesty with your dress – especially if you are female, so wearing a bikini is totally out of the question. The bikini beach is essentially the only place on the island where it is deemed to be acceptable to be in, well, a bikini. It is mandatory here – so prepare for the mankini shots! (Kidding!) Each island seemed to have a designated bikini beach, but it was right beside the regular beach, so I’m not sure if anyone actually cared as we also saw many locals hanging out on this section of the beach on each island.
Our 10 days on Rasdhoo involved a lot of beach time. We snorkeled almost everyday, and even went to a couple of other islands in the atoll for snorkeling, including one with impossibly white sand, ethereal turquoise waters, and an incessant techno beat from the oversized portable speaker from the multitude of European daytrippers.
We did get one off shore snorkelling trip in, and Marianne did sneak in one early morning dive where she saw a ridiculous number of sharks (check the instagram page). Rasdhoo turned out to be a good place for snorkelling and seeing sharks, as the lagoon just off the bikini beach was shallow and easy for us and the girls and was the home to at least 3 juvenile black tip sharks. The sharks would patrol the shallows in search of their next snack. Also, of course Marianne spotted a moray eel on her first snorkel! She just can’t not find them now! In general the beach on Rasdhoo was smaller, and not as nice as Dhigurah – but it was still the crazy clear waters and beautiful sunsets – so nothing to complain about.
Sharks – Photo Courtesy of Rasdhoo Dive and Watersports
Those last 10 days went even faster than the first 11, and soon our time in the Maldives was up. We enjoyed the time we had there and definitely never thought it was possible to get there without breaking the bank, but the change in tourism in the last decade has made it easier. Maldives is highly recommended but be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen/sunblock (as it is expensive there), drink lots of water, help keep the islands clean, and enjoy yourself. Oh, and we did end up sneaking in a bit of geocaching while there. We found a couple caches around Malé and even one on Rasdhoo; Maxine found this cache all by herself and said asked if Grampy would be proud of her! Of course he would be, right Grampy?!
I would love to tell you about all the amazing adventures we had in the Maldives, but alas, as I eluded to in the opening paragraph, we needed a vacation from travelling, and here we did little other than relax! Of course after Maldives it was back to Sri Lanka! This time with 200% more adventure – more tuk-tuk rides, more lengthy car rides, a couple of cool train rides, surfing, elephants, meeting lots of local people, and generally just exploring some of what Sri Lanka had to offer. After the 3 weeks in vacation mode we were ready again to get back to work and travel.
J’ai décidé de faire un blog en franҫais sur le Sri Lanka. J’ai passé plus d’un mois en Sri Lanka. J’ai vu Kalpitiya, Alankuda Beach, Kandy, Puttalam, Galle, Mirissa/Weligama, Ella et les parcs nationaux Wilpattu et Udewalawe. J’ai nagé dans l’océan plusieur jour. A Weligama, on a fait du surf pendant deux jours. C’était mon activité préférée. J’ai pris des cours avec un instructeur. J’ai réussi à rester debout sur la planche à mon troisième essai et ensuite j’ai réussi à tous les coups! Dans mon deuxième cours, j’ai appris comment tourner la planche. C’était plus difficile. La planche était plus petite. Si tu ne connais pas beaucoup le Sri Lanka tu peux lire mon blog !
La population: 21 millions
La capitale: Colombo
Grandeur: 65 610 km2. Le Sri Lanka peut rentrer dans le Canada 152 fois !!!
Langues: cingalais (sinhala), tamoul (tamil) et anglais.
Ma nourriture préférée ici est les rottis aux oeufs ou mangue et chocolat. Je n’aimais pas les curries ni le dahl.
Au Sri Lanka tu peux trouver beaucoup d’animaux. Le parc national Wilpattu et le parc Udewalawe sont des places ou tu peux observer les animaux suivants :
Welcome to the island nation known as the Pearl of the Orient. The tiny but fierce island will challenge you to explore its rich history, its modern side, its seemingly endless beaches, and even more endless twisty roads. You will be immersed into a culture that on the surface resembles that of India, but has its own indelible history that will separate it, in your mind and heart, from the rest of the world. Food will be a pervasive theme on your voyage to find your reason d’etre in Sri Lanka. You will find few of the island delicacies pass your pallet with a whimper as they either excite or surprise you, but rarely disappoint. Vegetarians and vegans can delight in the variety of fruits and vegetables available at even the humblest of stands in the remote corners of the country. Eating your way around Sri Lanka is certainly one way to explore this country of ten thousand temples.
Sri Lanka, a place that has been known by many names, Ceylon, Serendip, Eelan, does not do anything quietly. It may be a small player on the world stage, but the 20+ million inhabitants of this island all have their part to play in the chaos and symphony of this nation – and certainly their influence on us travellers allows them to reach much further than their own shores.
We aim only to give a high level view of our travels of Sri Lanka, as we spent 6 weeks (during 2 visits) exploring and living in the communities around the island, as we could not do justice to a full post on the entire nation without writing a novel few of you would read! The M’s had many adventures in Sri Lanka, from safaris (yes we did 2!), to beaches, to markets, to hikes to scenic vistas, to just sitting back and talking with people who were from there. We experienced a lot of what Sri Lanka had to offer, but there was so much more. Six weeks in Sri Lanka is probably only akin to listening to the first track on a box LP set – but it was a start for us and gave us a great taste of life in the Indian Ocean.
The First Week
Our arrival in Sri Lanka was as the sun was setting and the evening ritual for the animal and human inhabitants of the island began. The cacophony of birds echoed around the airport tarmack as airplane door opened and the jungle surrounding us made it seem like we landed back in time. A blast of heat after exiting the over chilled air plane left us with lungs gasping ever so slightly for breath, but eyes and minds already filled with wonder and anticipation. Naively we were descending into the heart of the empire, the centre of the island nation’s chaos – Colombo, with nary an idea of what to expect.
The exit from the airport was smooth, but not quick. The customs agents, as per the usual, seemed to relish in watching the masses languish in lines snaking along the smooth tiled corridor. They moved with the urgency of a snake digesting its latest dinner, knowing that the line was never ending; always replenished by plane load after plane load of wide eyed foreigners in search of their self or, at the least, a few dozen Instagram worthy photos to make their friends or mates back home jealous.
After being spit out into the arrivals hall after collecting our baggage, we did the usual dance of avoiding the taxi touts and money exchange booths, searching for the required ATM to dispense to us our saved up cash for the highly anticipated visit. An hour or so later, cash and new mobile sim card in hand, we negotiated our way into a taxi to our guesthouse. The guesthouse was on the south side of Colombo, near the other airport, while the airport we just arrived into was on the north side. A seasoned veteran of Sri Lankan travel would have probably avoided this situation, but alas, we were but a new born into the world of Ceylon, and knew not of what awaited. Our previous journeys in India had prepared us for the potentials – but we had been assured that this would not be the same. We hoped, and then jumped in and waited to see what would happen. The first hour of our voyage of approximately 45 km to the guesthouse was spent mostly staring at the dark and watching as pedestrians passed our barely moving van. Hour two was spent mostly doing the same – with the youngest of our daughters finally succumbing to her requirement for sleep, and passing out gently in the backseat of the overheated, slightly dilapidated (ok, who am I kidding – barely roadworthy) taxi van. The constant hum of the motor at idle and the harmonious and incessant sounding of the car horns were more than she could handle after a long day of flying. Luckily we only flew for 4.5 hours from Dubai to get to Sri Lanka, but it was too much for a 4 year old to handle without much sleep. Hour three – will we even get there? I think I saw the same man with a cane who was walking back near the airport pass us. Hour four – yes, seriously, we finally arrive. A 45 km ride taking almost 4 hours was not an anomaly, but a foreshadow of our road adventures to come.
Our first sampling of the local hospitality left us with high hopes that our family adventures here in the jewel of Asia were going to be epic. The first host was inviting and thoughtful, as he had prepared a light snack for us on arrival. Of course it was way too spicy for our daughters to even look at, but the thought was there. With a rejuvenated spirit we quickly checked out our accommodations for the first two nights of our stay in Sri Lanka and then headed off to find some additional sustenance to allow us to survive til morning. Luckily a great local place, just across the rail tracks, on the beach was still open and happily serving the hungry locals and tourists alike.
The first two days were calm – beach, food, relax, repeat. Oh, and more food in there somewhere. We tried new and exciting dishes, things we didn’t know existed like kottu roti. The smells and textures had us eager for more; but soon it was off to our next location, one that we booked the night before and that was to be our home for the next month – the eco-house on the northwest coast; a mere 150 km up the coast.
Tracks in Mount Lavinia.
Beach at Mount Lavinia.
Restaurant on the beach
Arrival at the Eco-House
The Uber driver pulled over about 1 km down the dirt road leading to our next destination. The car, a slightly larger Honda Fit than available in North America, couldn’t make it any further. The ruts and pot holes (although that isn’t really a fitting description, as they were more like mini road lakes) were too much for the little Japanese import and its 5 cm of ground clearance when fully loaded with 4 travellers and their bags. The driver had gotten us the 150 km from our last place to here in a non-record setting 5.5 hours. It was a long, long ride. Luckily our last kilometer was a track well known by a local tuk-tuk driver, Ali, who had been coordinated by the home owner to meet us and guide us to the place, as it was not easy to find. Ali, who did his absolute best in trying to communicate with us, often resulting in both sides laughing a bit as we tried to figure out what each meant, did a couple trips to grab us and our bags, ferrying them and us to the house. Our Uber driver seemed slightly less than pleased about our location, but did the normal Sri Lankan thing and slightly nodded his head to the side, then was off, back to Colombo.
The first glimpse of the eco-house was through the open side of the tuk-tuk as it puttered its way into the gated yard. A small concrete structure dotted with what appeared to be plastic bottles embedded in the concrete stood off to one side of a decent sized yard, mostly filled with what seemed like crops, with not much else filling in the gaps around. A large beach dune imposed itself into the horizon 100 m or so to the west, a small line of dense jungle vegetation separating us from that dune. We came to love and hate that dune over the next few weeks, as it signified both a healthy beach environment but an obstacle to conquer each time we ventured forth to enjoy the coast. Our oldest daughter came to name it the ‘dune of doom’ as it was our routine to often voyage over the dune some time during the heat of day – a journey filled with sweat, sand, and mosquitos, and for her, the potential for the encounters with spiders made it that much worse!
The house from the outside
Tuk Tuk in the yard
Climbing up the dune of doom
Decending the dune of doom to the beach
The interior of the eco-house was not exactly completely spartan of amenities, I mean it had a bed (yes, one, big enough for 4), a bench, a bookshelf, a huge spider, a fridge, and a huge overhead fan, that did little but move the dust around – as we would, with great despair, find out on our first night, but it most certainly was not luxury. A basic life was to be had here and we were in for it. The sleeping situation became one of a large family style bed – we all shared and sweated equally, passing into the sleep each night after reaching a point of heat exhaustion.
An outdoor kitchen and bathroom rounded out the experience, with a lanai/porch area available for both eating and entertaining. Our adventure began at the eco-house in early December, continued through Christmas and New Years, and included many a day spent traversing the dune of doom to the beach and writing a few of the precursors to this blog. A trip to town here and there, oh and a trip to the hospital were also part of the eco-house experience; as we learned soon after arriving that the no-see-ums certainly do like to bite – and infection sets in easy in the humidity! All is well now, so no worries there! So after this experience we learned that our daily routine required change, so each day we applied a liberal amount of sunscreen and insect repellent before venturing forth out of the house – it was a must! Spending time outside also included the use of a stand up fan and mosquito coils at all times.
We honestly only made it through the weeks in the house because of the help of Sureka. Sureka, a local woman hired to help cook, get food and run errands, and clean around the house was a savior. She helped us figure out how things worked in the area, told us not to expect too much to happen around Poya, and helped us to develop a taste for real Sri Lankan cooking and food. Every breakfast and dinner she made was painstakingly thought out and prepared with care. Curries, dahls, papadams, naan, fish, veggies, rice, chapatti, coconut pancakes, pastas, everything for us and our kids was fresh and ready when we asked. It was a veritable selection of Sri Lankan delicacies that adorned the table each day, with favourites on repeat on request. A favourite of one of us, not to be named, was a dahl that showed up day in and out on the breakfast menu. It was delicious the first few times, but wore its way off the must-have list for the rest of us after a few days; either way, the effort to accommodate us whenever we asked was there, and she was an absolute necessity for staying, and worth every penny we paid to her. She was also lovely and brought her youngest son with her several times. Though he did not speak any English, he really liked playing with the girls and it was fun to watch them run around.
Christmas and New Years (and a birthday!)
A tropical Christmas was a new experience for the girls. They knew little outside of rain and cold at Christmas, except a couple of years ago where the white stuff made a rare appearance at this time of year. We did our best to prepare our daughters for the Christmas away and in the remote location – as it wasn’t going to be the usual present filled experience they have seen so far. We have always emphasized the importance of family time over presents, but we certainly weren’t going to completely eliminate the experience for them this year. Santa made his requisite visit and left a few small toys to delight the kiddos; however, the bigger part of this was spending time making and decorating the few ornaments we hung on a small tropical bush growing in front of the house. Of course we may have now implemented a new Christmas time tradition. The house had a pole on the patio in front which caused many an impromptu pole dancing party. Pole dancing to Christmas music while wearing Christmas hats in the heat will certainly be something we won’t forget.
Christmas day was actually spent at a local resort, a 45 min walk down the beach. Here the girls enjoyed the pool while sampling some rarely found western cuisine. One of us was confined to pants in this heat because of the infected insect bites and was not able to partake in the aquatic Christmas festivities. Another part of our December was the birthday of our eldest daughter. She knew her present, but none-the-less squealed with joy upon receiving her most anticipated gift yet – a mermaid outfit and mermaid fin! She could now swim with the mermaids and other sea creatures, as she clearly was ready to do so! The weather held that day, despite the previous days of rain, and she frolicked away in the waves for much of the afternoon. Rare to see her happier than that day! Made it worth it for all of us.
New Years came and went with little celebration outside of a small tip of the cup with Mr. Gordons and his friend Ms. Tonic. Side note to everyone reading: finding tonic outside of a major grocery store is not easy in the northwest part of Sri Lanka. In fact, it was a difficult beverage to acquire in most areas, so if you have a need for Mr. Gordons, Mr. Bombay, or Ms. Tanqueray to have a companion to mix it up with, stock up when you find it!
Cleaning the Beach
Our oceans are in trouble. Those who doubt that can stop reading this blog right now and google any number of articles on the plastic problem in our ocean and all over the planet. Seriously, stop reading and get educated. Go… then come back!
Our first glimpse of the coast was one of utter shock and then awe. We couldn’t believe that this vast expanse of reddish-brown sand was practically deserted, save for a few fishers, but was absolutely covered in plastic waste. It was an unimaginable sight – to stand on a remote beach, in a relatively sparsely populated area of an island in the Indian Ocean and have to pick your way through plastic to get to the sand on the beach. We were honestly both saddened and motivated to not let this stay as it was.
Marianne organized a clean up, and just after new years, after spending weeks picking at the trash here and there by ourselves, a group of locals joined our cause to clean this section of the beach and adjacent dune. A brief bit of education about plastic along with the physical labour of the clean-up crew (mostly kids) resulted in a 200 m section of beach going mostly plastic free in just over an hour and a half. A great start for this beach, but unfortunately, likely to be one of many efforts required to keep it clean. Turning our back on the problem isn’t our way and Marianne has the drive to get these things going, and hopefully has started the spark in the locals to keep it that way. The owner, though away, helped us organize this initiative and hopes to continue doing regular clean-ups.
Wilpattu National Park
A to do list of Sri Lanka, or a bucket list for those so inclined to enjoy the cliche, must include a safari. The typical safaris are those in the south, Yala National Park or Udawalawe National Park, as they have been widely spread over social media, and rightly so for their bountiful and extraordinary wildlife. However, Wilpattu NP is a national park not to be missed! We will compare safaris on a later blog, as we were fortunate to have the chance to do two of the three NPs mentioned above. No spoilers here however, but we will let you know the details!
So our New Years Day started early, as there was little fan-fare or ball-dropping going on the night before, except a few minutes of fireworks around midnight in sleepy northwest Sri Lanka, and sleeping in with the heat was not really an option. So with a two-hour tuk-tuk ride with Ali planned, we weaved our way through the crowded streets of Puttalam and along the elephant frequented road that led to Wilpattu. This was our first real adventure tourism in Sri Lanka. A single stop for a cold ice cream to break up the tuk-tuk ride was our only respite for that arduous journey. Anyone who has ridden in the back of a tuk-tuk will attest that it is not the most comfortable, nor the coolest ride. This stop also provided us with a highlight from that trip. During the ice cream break, while the 4 Ms were thoroughly enjoying their frozen treat in the 30+ C heat, Ali proclaimed, quite loudly and seemingly out of nowhere, “Bathroom. It’s a go!!” and off he rushed. Sensing an urgency behind his words we assumed that he had proclaimed his intentions to keep us from wondering about his sudden lack of presence. Ten minutes or so later, looking sweaty and disheveled, he emerged from the back of the poorly lit store, wiping his brow furiously with a well used handkerchief, he quietly indicated he was ready to proceed with the journey. That bathroom break nearly did him in and none of us wanted to repeat his bathroom journey for fear of appearing as though we had barely survived that trip to the porcelain throne. The rest of the trip to the park was as the first part, hot, sweaty, and filled with the monotonous hum of the tuk-tuk’s severely under powered 4-stroke engine. We did actually love tuk-tuk rides!
Bright and early the next day, we piled into the modified pick-up truck (aka the jeep) and headed into the park in search of the elusive and majestic leopards, along with the hope of spotting an equally sight-worthy elephant. The guesthouse we stayed at had a reception and dining area lined with spectacularly close-up shots of the many leopards of the adjacent national park, wetting our appetite and filling our dreams with the chance meeting of an apex predator on its own turf. Our safari was a 5 hour ride through the bumpy dirt roads of the park searching for leopards, elephants, iguanas, peacocks and all sorts of other wild creatures. We saw our fair share thanks to our jeep driver / guide with his more than impressive sight, but the elusive leopard, the spotted ninja of the park, was just that, and never showed a hint, outside of a few footprints in the sand, that s/he even existed. No matter, as we knew that was the cherry on the icing to see a leopard, we left fulfilled with our current roster of Sri Lankan wildlife in the memory banks and on the memory cards.
The last week of our first visit
Our next week there was our last of our first visit, and we spent most of it in Kandy. Unfortunately, even the most careful of us can succumb to any number of the germs out to get us, and in Kandy the youngest of our brood spent the better part of 4 days battling a stomach bug that jumped up and got her, and only her, seemingly from out of nowhere. A calm, hotel bound final few days in Sri Lanka went by quickly, and except for our visit to the very entertaining traditional dance / cultural show the majority of Kandy’s culture and temples were left for another visit. Fortunately our little one healed up completely, just in time for another harrowing ride through the narrow, over crowded streets of this tear drop shaped nation – the last before heading to another type of paradise surrounded by turquoise.
So, Sri Lanka… there is so much we didn’t say about you. How could I accurately describe the feeling you give people when they arrive completely unaware of the full-on experience they are going to get. Your tuk-tuk and car rides could be a video game, but with many lives, as getting through unscathed is almost impossible! Your food both assaults and delights your senses, as the spices sneak up on you and overtake the other tastes and linger like a friend that just won’t leave after the party is over. Every bit of the country is alive at seemingly every minute of the day and night, except that one time we rode to the airport at 3 am, and we only saw about 5 people on bikes and 2 people standing randomly staring at the side of the road. All of your beauty and faults come front and center for every local, tourist, and traveller to see – and love them or hate them, they are what make your country unique and a can’t miss place to visit.
This was but our first of two visits, as we came back for more, which will be continued in another blog.
Written by M (sub-inspector of hand cleanliness and teeth brushing)
Nous avons eu le privilège récemment de parler un peu plus de notre voyage dans une entrevue avec Johanie Bilodeau de Radio-Canada Saguenay Lac-St-Jean. Voici le lien pour entendre l’entrevue, lire le texte et voir des photos:
Istanbul, a city where Asia and Europe meet. A city torn between two continents but a hundred different cultures. A place that has had more history happen within its borders than some of the most well-known cities in Europe or Asia. A place where every single adult male seems to smoke. A city where the coffee is thicker than the mustaches – and that is saying something! All that and it has a lot of cats. Like seriously; a lot.
We spent a cold, rainy three days there at the beginning of December, but with the warmth of the people we didn’t feel like we needed those two layers! As we had been chasing the end of summer temperatures down through Europe for the past two months, culminating in what was the longest almost-still-summer season in history, the chill of Istanbul was both a welcome change, but also a wake up that the cooler weather was not far away and we needed to head even further south to continue our version of the Endless Summer (without surfing).
Arrival in Istanbul can be relatively straight forward if you have a contact before you arrive to arrange transport, otherwise you face a barrage of touts looking to get you in their taxi, minibus, car trunk, or other; for a first time traveller it would be a bit overwhelming, but for us it is just an annoyance at this point – as you have to ignore and walk, despite what people offer. For convenience sake we had contacted out Airbnb host to arrange some transport, but really there are a ton of companies online that will do it for you as well, and the price turned out to be similar.
Our flat for the stay was in the Sultanhumet area of old Istanbul, where just across the street was the oldest street in the city, once a connection from the waters of the Bosporus and the city. We were within a 5 minutes walk from the famous Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, and about 12 minutes from the famous Grand Bazaar. The view of the mosque and Hagia Sophia (an ancient church, now museum) was impressive. Both structures are imposing on their own but bookending the plaza they share added to their grand auras. A small light show in the moderate fountain in the plaza made for a nice photo opportunity at night and with a 2 hour time change from Spain, we had no problem staying up late enough to get the plaza almost all to ourselves for photos.
The Hagia Sophia
The Blue Mosque
The next day we again visited the two religious domes, but in the light, they were more grandiose with the hundreds or thousands of people crawling all over the area. We visited each, the Blue Mosque being free to enter, but obviously a revered religious place to the Muslim community so many of the visitors where people there to pray. A modicum of respect was asked, so that people praying could be left in peace, yet few seemed to heed that note and snapped away. Much of the interior of the mosque was under repair or refurbishment, unsure which, so the impressive ceiling was barely visible. The Hagia Sophia was much more impressive with its visible high ceilings (although some was under repair) and internal structure and artifacts. There was one strange, yet popular place in the church that always seemed to attract a line of people. A simple hole, worn smooth in the marble of one pillar, was constantly being probed by people’s thumbs. They would insert their thumb and twist their wrist almost 360 degrees – while making a wish. The ‘weeping pillar’ was supposed to grant wishes – but besides from a wish of a less sore wrist after that twist, I’m not sure how it works.
Inside the Hagia Sophia
Carpet in the Blue Mosque
Enjoying a bretzel in the rain!
So besides those two huge religious places we took a 3 hour boat tour around the Bosporus and wandered around the Grand Bazaar, a market that is hundred of years old and has somewhere around 4,000 vendors. Out of 4,000 vendors, only about 5 or 10 different types of stores were visible, with hundreds of similar stores of each type visible in any direction. Most stores seemed to see either sweets, lamps, dishes, tourist souvenirs (of varying types), some weird assortment of clothes with obviously fakes North American or European brands, jewellery, or carpets. There were of course a few other stores that popped up here and there but if you really liked the lamp you just saw, don’t need to turn back to double check, just keep walking and five other stores selling the same will be right around the corner. The Grand Bazaar was huge, but surprisingly well integrated and almost camouflaged into the city. We didn’t know we had entered or left it until we were literally at a doorway. It was also a nice reprieve to wander the ancient market on a dreary, wet day in Istanbul.
Now, most of our Istanbul adventure was fairly tame. We avoided our flat like the plague, as a horrendous sewage smell was continuously emanating from the bathroom. Apparently, the building was old and as such had old plumbing which would odorously pollute the flat whenever the wind blew – it made for an unpleasant 3 nights. The rest of the time we spent wandering around Istanbul being offered all kinds of amazing food from the seemingly endless supply of restaurants, listening to every single man call our daughters princesses, getting wet from the rain, and most importantly (for the girls anyway) making friends with as many cats as possible!
Istanbul is famous for its street cats as there are thousands and even one of them has a statue – a small statue though! Cats are as much a part of Istanbul as are the churches, temples, mosques, ancient markets and old cobblestone streets. Cats are well fed by many of the city’s residents and are generally friendly. The girls has a blast petting an endless stream of felines that seemed to come out of every nook and cranny when a gentle ‘psstpsst’ was uttered. I was sure we weren’t going to escape Istanbul without at least 2 or 3 of the four-legged furballs stashed in our luggage, especially after we ran into a little kitten, no more than a couple of weeks old, mewing at us as we strolled past. Needless to say, that little guy got a lot of love in a few minutes. I think if we were returning directly to Canada, and not continuing on, we might have been at the airport with a new family member… or three!
Out littlest friend!
Making a friend on the street!
Making a friend at the restaurant!
These of course aren’t the only reasons to visit Istanbul, but with our limited time, we just stuck to one area and took our time there, no need to try to do too much! And to my friend who worked at the restaurant right next to our flat, thanks for the tea, the conversation, and the recommendations for the city. While everyone in Istanbul is trying to sell you something, they need to eat too, be kind to them, as not once did I meet an unfriendly person, even after I said no, or moved on. They all said, ‘see you again soon – come back to see me when you want something’, regardless of what they were selling they all seemed to actually enjoy talking to people.
After our first blast of actual winter (similar to back home in Vancouver!) we were off to Dubai, and our first taste of real heat in months. Until then…
Our trip to Dubai in early December was short, but well worth it! We arrived on a Friday, left on a Monday, but took in a few of the key sights along the way! Dubai certainly is a place of grand opulence and engineering marvels. It is incredible how they were able to build such a city in this location – a desert with limited freshwater.
During our stay in Dubai we could only visit a couple of places, as it is actually very large, and takes a long time to move around. Luckily, we had a local guide! Colin, a friend of ours who often works in the area was kind enough to spend a day with us and show us around Dubai! Thanks again Colin! We visited the Dubai Mall, one of the largest malls in the world, if not the largest. We saw the aquarium in the mall, along with the rink, the huge waterfall wall, and of course the fountain light/water show with the Burj Kalifa in the background – the tallest building in the world (for now!). There were what seemed like thousands of stores spread out over at least 4 or more levels. Also, their food court was more of a food mall in itself.
Our favourite activity was not the mall, nor soaking in the pool at our fancy Airbnb or at the cool little beach at ‘La Mer’ that we visited, nor seeing the impressive Burj Khalifa, but the desert excursion we did on our last full day. We did a 7-hour desert dune bashing, sand boarding, camel riding, falcon hunting, dinner and show excursion. Our driver, Yoosuf (not sure how to spell that), was an actual Emirati, coming from the area north and inland of Dubai. I sat up front in the 4×4 with him and was able to chat a lot about the area and the traditions of the region. He told me a few very interesting things about the UAE and its citizens, all before we even got to the fun of the day.
Did you know… that Emirati people are given a house by the leader of their country when they marry? Yoosuf said that every person from UAE are given free tuition at schools and universities, free health care, and a free house when they get married. Apparently, it is so that people have a home to start a family and will contribute more to the society and country if they don’t have to worry about things like that – also it is something that the previous King (or Sheikh) declared he would do for his people. Also, Yoosuf said his people pronounced Dubai like ‘Due-Bay’, not like most people say it ‘Due-Bye’. Needless to say, they LOVE their king!
Ok, now for the fun. We arrived in the desert North of Dubai after a 1.5 hour drive from the city. I think about 1 hour was spent just getting out of the city, the rest driving on sand swept roads through the dry, semi-desolate red/brown/golden landscape. Sometimes their roads get covered with sand and they have to clear them, kinda like snow back home. Funny how areas so different sometimes have similar issues! Arrival at the desert excursion centre was without fanfare and we were left to mingle at a small side of the road market, with no venders, while waiting for the trucks to be prepped for dune bashing. They needed to let some air out of the tires, add a flux-capacitor, adjust the sand spoilers, tune the Johnson shaft, and install the nitro tanks. Once the mods were completed we piled back into our Nissan Patrol/Armada and were off in to the desert in a small convoy of 4 or 5 large SUVs. The dune bashing started mellow enough, with some easy driving up and down small dunes near the start of the track, but that didn’t last long. With our driver half playing on his phone searching for the right soundtrack for our desert adventure, he started to ramp up the dune bashing. Soon we were listening to the traditional sounds of the region while suddenly sliding half-sideways down what seemed like an almost vertical wall of sand. Next we were up the other side, twisting and turning through, over, and around the dunes, holding on as best we could, unsure what to expect next. I honestly thought that the truck would roll over on many of these dunes, but the heavy widetracked SUV gripped and pulled with its partially deflated tires, like a sidewinder cruising through the desert. Some of us, sitting in the middle at the back, admitted to feeling queezy… The dune bashing went on for a good 15 minutes or so – up, over, across, down dunes as we followed what seemed to be a well known path through the sand; yet one that was completely invisible to us! Actually, it turns out that the drivers change their route every day, adjusting to the shifting dunes, just looking for the angles and crests in the sand that they know to be safe, yet fun to ‘bash’. A haunting reminder of the harshness of our desolate environment and seriousness of the job was a turned over and rusting truck just off the dune bashing track. A monument to always understanding your abilities and being prepared for this place. Luckily for us, our driver, who grew up driving in the desert, was very skilled and actually looked more comfortable driving on sand than on the highway. He clearly enjoyed his job so we asked him if he actually pays to do this job. He laughed. A break in the dune bashing was just ahead, where sand boarding was waiting. After snapping a few pictures in the impossibly soft and fine red sand, the group of around 20-25 people took turns sand boarding down a short dune. Our girls were the first on the board, riding it like a sled. Zip, down they went. I was next. I chose to stand – although I think the guide actually expected me to sit as well. He reminded me it wasn’t like snowboarding, when he saw that I was comfortable standing on a board and adjusted it to put my left foot forwards – ‘Just go down straight’ was his advice, as the sand was too soft to allow for turning. I lurched forward off the top of the dune, went into the normal boarding position and zipped down the dune no problem. It wasn’t particularly fast, nor difficult, but was still fun! I think I may have set the bar high, as the procession of people following me each tried, and failed to make it down the run standing up. I think a couple got as far as halfway, but most didn’t make more than a few metres before going face first or flying off the board. The sand was so soft that no one even came close to getting hurt. Marianne ripped down the hill as well, re-invigorating people and thinking it was possible. After a few more people bailed out, we saw maybe one or two other people make it about 95% of the way down the hill standing up. Their board style wouldn’t be called conventional, but hey, it worked! I made one more slide down the hill, and then we were done. Packed up and ready for the next part of the adventure.
We drove from the sand boarding back through part of the dunes, before getting on a main road again. Our final dune bashing was mellow and almost an anti-climatic way to leave the area, but had we done this last bit first, I would have thought it was fun enough! Our next stop was the Bedouin camp in the desert. We arrived into what appeared to be an area covered in Bedouin camps. Our guide thought there were around 50 camps in the area, and with the fleet of buses and SUVs shuttling people from the highway to the camps, I believed there were at least that many. Our camp was mellow at first, a small group of tables right on the sand with a couple of small tents. Right next to the tent was a guy doing a falcon show. A falcon swooped back and forth at the small piece of meat dangling from a rope acting as a moving target. Next to this was a number of camels in a procession. We were ushered to the camels for a ride. Marianne and our youngest daughter on one, me and our older daughter on another. They climbed aboard the camels easily, and silently. The camels barely noticing that they were there. I however, was clearly not who the camel was hoping to climb aboard. As I climb up and sit down on the kneeling animal, the camel lets out a loud ‘Uggggghhhhh’ as if to say, are you seriously on my back right now? Of course this made the girls laugh. Poor camel. Riding a camel is not horrible, if you are used to it – but not the most comfortable thing I have sat on, and the ride was actually reasonably smooth – at least compared to what I expected. The dismount was a bit more dramatic. In order for us to get off the camel, the camel needed to kneel down again. The guide just said to hold on – but gave no indication that we would go from level to about a 60 degree angle towards the head in about 0.5 seconds. I was sitting on the back part of the camel, behind Maëlle, and I was almost launched clear over the front! Luckily I was able to hold on! This of course helped prepare those on the other camels for what was to come. I am sure I heard the camel sigh when I got off, but maybe I was just imagining that! The rest of the evening was good, good food and good entertainment. We watched a fire show, a man that seemed to spin continuously for at least 15 minutes, and of course, a belly dancer! The meal was decent as well. We shared the camp with a few other large groups, but our package included table service – theirs was a buffet style. Either way, the food was tasty, plentiful, and the evening fun. Definitely a great time, and worth it if you have an afternoon and evening to spare in Dubai! It was reasonably priced for all four of us, with transport and food!
Dubai is a modern city, with all the modern conveniences and of course some of the most expensive things in the world; however, it is a city that has history still embedded all around it, it is people and land. It isn’t the cheapest city, nor the easiest to get around, but in December when it isn’t 50 C, it is a nice place to visit, and was a welcome warmup from our past few days in Istanbul, where winter was coming!
This is a review of our car hire for the 2 months we were in Europe, the 2018 Citroën C-Elysée.
Model: Base, or just above
Engine / Transmission: 1.6 l Turbo Diesel with 5 speed manual
HP / FT-LB torque: Somewhere in the range of 100 HP and probably 150-180 ft-lb but I honestly don’t know.
Seating for 5 (but honestly, no more than 4 adults)
Body Style: 4 Door Sedan
Tires: 4 of them 205/65R16 (ish)
Features: Power windows, inconveniently located near the shifter, power locking doors, with a single lock button on the dash, Apple Car play, Large glove box, confusing cruise control, adjustable headlights, small and oddly shaped center armrest, and mirrors that barely adjust.
A serious review of this basic oil burner would talk about the storage, the handling (G forces), the 0-100 km/h acceleration and braking; but this is a semi-serious review, so I will of course probably not mention most of these.
We had a Citroën C- Elysée as a rental on our recent 2-month road trip through France, Italy and Spain. The C- Elysée, the darling of the Citroën fleet, the workhorse of the French car makers’ models, the most common car we saw… NOT! I honestly think I saw a grand total of about 5 other C- Elysée’s in our two month driving tour, and 4 others were taxis in Spain! I am not sure how many of this model they made, or sold, but I am guessing I wouldn’t have to use more than my hands and feet to count them – based on their prevalence in the European landscape. Unless there is a hidden hamlet somewhere in the lands of barely travelled France, where nothing but C- Elysée’s roam, I would have to believe they made and sold a grand total of 6; ours included. In a continent where hatchbacks and estates (wagons) rule supreme, a four-door sedan wasn’t a rarity, but just not the norm. Us getting a 4 door sedan was not anticipated either – as we booked what should have been a wagon, but car rental companies being what they are, substituted an equivalent car for the wagon. Only thing I have to say about that is… equivalent my a$$.
On to the features. The CE (as I will now call it for simplicity) was likely at the bottom end of the model range. I am guessing the only options we had were the power features and A/C, as I can’t see what else would have been an additional paid add-on. The car had a strange location for almost everything. The cruise control was hidden behind the left side of the steering wheel, on a small stalk with a small selector wheel and two very (very) inconspicuous speed adjustment buttons. These buttons were hard to feel on first pass and I wasn’t sure they did anything at first. Two different settings on the cruise were also accessible from this stock, with one limiting the upper speed of the car, and the other setting the cruise. Not sure the purpose of the first option, as you could adjust the limit to whatever you wanted and it actually didn’t do anything related to the cruise – in that you could still pass the upper limit set. I still don’t know what it that was for. The cruise, once engaged, worked okay. I wouldn’t say it was perfect, as it didn’t seem to understand what a hill was, as descending a hill required a lot of breaking to keep it even close to the pre-set limit. That would be a big fail in my books.
Another strange option was the ability to adjust the headlights. I don’t even know where to start on this one. WHY? When in the history of driving had you wished that you could adjust the headlights up and down? I don’t mean the intensity, but the actual position in front of the car. The headlights could be pointed out as normal, or down so that you could look for spare change in front of the car. I must have missed that in my previous reading of car features, as I had never heard of it, or knew it existed. We only became aware of this completely ludicrous feature about 3 weeks into our rental. After having driven across France and a good part of Italy, we were getting sick and tired of staring at the road about 5 m, or less, in front of the car at night. We literally couldn’t see the car in front of us on a dark night. We thought that car had poorly adjusted headlights and were finally making plans to head to a local dealership to get them re-adjusted, as the darkness came earlier and earlier with the onset of fall and daylight savings time ending. Then one day, by accident, I decided to check to see if the internal light dimmer would do anything. You know, that little wheel on the left side of the dash, near the headlights that usually dims or brightens the dash lights? Well, to my amazement, and astonishment, the headlights of the car pointed up. WHAT? The solution to our evening driving problems was solved, but it is something that should have not needed to be solved. Who thought that this was a key feature to put in a car with a grand total sales of 6? A feature that is probably in a total of 2 cars in the history of the world!! Anyway, now with this new feature under our command, the night driving improved and we could again venture out past 6 pm! Freedom! I would like to hear the sales pitch on this option… ‘Lost spare change? Need to check if you shoes are still on? Trying to look for your dignity? You need adjustable headlights!’ Anyway…
The next key feature of the CE was the power group. The windows and the central locking. Central locking was controlled by a single button on the dash near the radio. No backseat unlocking for your passengers, they are completely under your control. Not the only car with this feature, but probably should be the last. Unless this is a car you use for trapping people – then it is a perfect feature! The power windows did have individual controls, and the backseat passengers could even open and close their own windows… if they could find the controls! Turns out, the front controls (all 4 windows) were clustered forward of the stick shift – like small guards on each corner of the dual cup holders. The back windows were also inconveniently located in the centre console, near the air vents, which made reaching them very difficult unless your arms extended well past the normal length. Our kids in the backseats were able to operate the windows with their feet, but only just barely. Great for stopping them from randomly opening the window at 130 km/h on the highway initiating that ear popping ‘whump whump whump’ pressure sound, but inconvenient almost every other time. The front windows and their central location were equally as mis-positioned as those in the back. Stopping at France’s (or Europe’s) frequent toll booths made for an extremely annoying dance of shifting and opening or closing the window, as doing both at the same time either required cooperation from the passenger, or a third arm. Sometimes neither were an option. Positioning of the window switches on the door makes sense in so many ways, and even after nearly 2 months in this little blue machine I kept reaching for the window switch on the door… I just couldn’t get used to the central location. If you were shorter, or alternatively had your seat way back, reaching for these controls was plain awkward and poorly thought out.
Exciting instrument cluster
Note window controls above the shifter.
The CE had a functional, if not imprecise, 5 speed manual transmission. I assumed that it was like every other transmission on the market today in the mass produced cars, syncromesh – or you didn’t need to learn to double clutch to shift. Most shifts in this car would agree with that synopsis, but every so often, like a double-yolked egg, you wondered what was going on. Second gear and reverse had a stubborn streak that would often require an extra oomph to get them to comply with your demands for movement. I have been driving stick shifts for 25 years or so now, so I am not new to them, nor have I only ever driven top of the line ones. I grew up driving a manual pick-up truck, then an old VW 5 speed, so getting the little stick to do my bidding was not something I even considered as a concern in a ‘new’ rental car. I don’t know this car well enough to make solid assertions on what was going on, but previous experience leads me to believe that someone learned to drive stick on this car, as going into second is usually the hardest jump for a beginner. And as for the reverse that was about as strong as limp toast left in milk, I would have to guess that the clutch and gears have seen better days. Backing up a few small hills in Italy required more than a little coaxing from this people mover and relying on it to get you safely out of areas in the Cinque Terre area was a bit more than I was willing to ask of it. A nice feature missing from this car would have been hill assist, as the actual transmission/clutch seemed to be too weak for the car. A 6th gear would have been a nice addition for cruising at high speeds and additional fuel economy as 5th felt too pushed to be the top end.
The little blue oil burner was a pleasant surprise when it came to acceleration and fuel economy. Even driving at the 130 km/h limit of the French and Italian autoroutes, the economy still came in at a reasonable 5.2-5.4 l/100 km, and it didn’t take that long to get there. The diesel was certainly not the most powerful out there, and couldn’t really overtake anything in a hurry, but did its job when asked. It nimbly moved us around the twists and turns, motorways and hills and country sides of Europe. For a small car I couldn’t have asked much more. I liked the prototypical grunt of the diesel as it took off the line, and the mild knocking as it idled ready for action. It was not a quiet engine and may actually be mistaken for an idling school bus, plus the interior sound dampening between the engine compartment and the cabin was probably made of 1-ply toilet paper stretched thin but if hearing isn’t your best feature, this car would do just fine.
Storage and Space
With a trunk capable of easily holding 4 suitcases and then some, the CE’s storage space was much more than advertised on the outside. Annoying trunk lid arms / hinges set inside the trunk cut into the otherwise ample storage but did not completely deter us from packing it as full as it could get. The trunk was perfectly suitable for a family of four on vacation and would be more than adequate for the average trip to the grocery store, outlet mall, or kids’ sporting event. Inside the car the lack of adequate storage in the backseats (small pockets in the doors and back of front seats) limited what was neatly packed and reachable resulting in a lot of loose items all over the place. The front had slightly more in-door storage, but a tiny centre console where I could put my wallet or my cell phone, but not both, and a lack of a loose change drawer made it a pain to constantly reach for the wallet when paying the numerous tolls across Europe. The glove box was sufficiently deep to store small animals, lunch, and shoes, along with gloves. None of those were necessarily tested.
Space within the car for the passengers was another issue. Perfectly fine for 2 adults and 2 children but putting more than 2 children in the back was a stretch. The middle seat position would of course be the master of the window switches and receive all of the AC but would that make up for the shoulder pain of being squished, probably not.
Score: Storage: 3.5/5; People Space: 2/5
An interesting feature the CE came with was Apple Car Play. Sounds fancy, right? Well, yes, and no. The overall radio system was confusing at first, with at least 3 different selections necessary to get the regular radio to play, and it was even worse when the Car Play was engaged. The radio seemed to change frequency on its own and didn’t always go to the adjusted station. No idea what was going on there – as it did this the whole time we had it. Now, I suppose Apple Car Play is a good idea for a few things; maps being one. It was very convenient to plug in our iPhone and put the directions on the car’s info screen. No issues there, until it stopped working. For no reason, on multiple occasions the Car Play would not work at all and we had to remove the car connection from our phone and reinitialize a new one. Again, no idea why it did this. Other than this, Car Play is just plain annoying if you have someone using the phone with directions on the screen – it constantly changes the screen and mutes the radio. I know this isn’t an issue with the CE directly, but the software, but as Citroen chose it for this car, it fits with the overall experience with this car. Oh yes, and another spectacularly useful feature of Apple Car Play was that while plugged into the system everytime you took a screen shot on your phone, it took a screen shot of the Apple Car Play menu in the car. Extremely useful.
Citroen did their best to make money with this car. I mean they made at least 6 of them, and built it ‘on-the-fly’ without consideration for little things like design or functionality – that has to count for something right? Well, yes, it means this is a car capable of getting you from point A to B, but after hours you will be wondering why point B was so important to get to that I did this to myself? But that won’t matter as you won’t really be able to hear yourself think over the engine noise and the poorly lined windows allowing a steady stream of road noise to fill the cabin. Also, if you were unlucky enough to be the 5th adult in this car, stuck in the middle of the backseat, you will be wanting to be anywhere but where you are, so forgetting about point B and dreaming about your happy place will be the only thing to help alleviate the cramps in your shoulders and knees from being squished. Add to this the Apple Car Play feature that shuts itself off randomly and a radio that changes stations makes for a fun ride.
A sort of half effort seems to have been put into the design and build on this car and it is definitely better off as a rental / taxi vehicle and not something I would even consider buying. I will say that it is a good sized car for Europe’s narrow streets and tight parking spots. We were able to fit it almost anywhere, even considering it has a turning radius of an oil tanker. So after our 2 months with this car I returned it to the heartless car rental corporation and didn’t even look back – good riddance.
As per our last blog, France to Italy, our adventures in Italy began with a trip from Charmonix, through the tunnel under Mont Blanc, and our arrival in Italy was somewhat anti-climatic, as the actual border is somewhere under the mountain in the middle of the tunnel. Not surprisingly, there did not appear to be a difference between Italy and France at first glance! The next few kilometres introduced us to the Italian method of roads, road signs, and driving style – all of which varied somewhat from France.
Also, as described, our first plan for Italy was to head right to the home of Mamboland (as per Marianne!)… Milan! I knew of Milan as the fashion capital of Italy (maybe the world? I’m a little rusty on my fashion news) and assumed that we would be sticking out like homeless people on the red carpet. To our surprise, we were not completely out of place in everyday style – our jeans and such were most certainly not the nicest garments on the street, but didn’t place us in the category of out of touch with fashion foreigners that I expected. However, as the evening descended, and people headed out for their ‘Apperitivo’, it became obvious that the casual attire of the average person from Milan (Milanoan?Milano? Milaninite? Milaninaire?) was a bit above the average back home. We briefly (very briefly) considered donning the shiny shoes and flashy suits of the locals to blend in, but quickly squashed those ideas when presented with the elevated prices – the price to look flashy in Milan is not just your dignity when wearing a shiny zebra striped, two sizes too small, three piece suit with matching shoes, but a large number on your credit card account! Luckily for you readers, the only image of me in that suit is now in your head…
Arrival in Milan went as planned. We found our Airbnb easily after driving for about 3 hours or so on the racetrack, I mean Italian autoroute, where drafting 2 mm off the bumper in front of you is not only acceptable but expected. I am guessing with the way Italians ride your rear bumper they have somewhere to be that is more important than you do or have the reaction time of a fly on speed, but I would probably be just giving them the benefit of the doubt that they don’t deserve. I’ll reserve my actual impression of Italian driving for another time.
We checked into our Airbnb in the Navigli district/area of Milan. It was a sleek ground floor flat on one of Milan’s streets clearly designated for automobile and motorcycle acceleration testing. Day and night cars would come around the corner, pound the throttle to the floor boards and roar past (well, ‘buzz past’ in the case of the millions of scooters) our window, which was apparently made of sound amplifying glass. Also, the entrance door for the complex was right beside our unit, a door that weighed somewhere around 5000 kg and would close with enough force and sound to wake the dead in Japan. A plethora of visitors or residents returning to the building at 4 am certainly made for a restful night sleep! The rest of the flat was equally as functional and awesome. The upstairs bedroom was an open concept flat with a ceiling height around 1.5 m (5 feet-ish), perfect for the girls, while the downstairs kitchen, kitchen sitting area, kitchen couch area, and kitchen door entrance, as well as the bedroom, had a ceiling height of around 8,000 m (26,000 ft). Floor to ceiling cabinets in the kitchen made for a lot of storage! Storing something in the upper cabinets required not only a ladder but fall arrest gear and a parachute. Yet, it gets better. To make things even more convenient, the utensils were stored in a drawer located completely under the in-kitchen table, requiring an arm at least 2-3 times normal human length to reach anything, along with a flexibility level somewhere along the lines of a gumby doll. Glasses were also conveniently located in this section of the kitchen above this table, making everything very user friendly. Yet, everything looked stylish! A trend we would find throughout Italy. While this place lacked a few of the common appliances we take for granted – including a toaster, it did have at least 3 or 4 ways to make coffee, but in no way stopped us from making whatever we wanted to eat. After 4 nights of the Indy 500 outside of our ground floor bedroom (with the windows about 50 m up), we were off again to another location. As said in our last blog, we did do more in Milan that just wander around the apartment.
Ok, here is where the rest of our Italian adventure continues… With Milan in our rear view mirror, we set our sites and our little 5-speed, for the south, to a homestay near Grosseto, a place near the west coast of Italy a few hours above Rome. But, before we arrived we needed to feed the beasts, and no, there were no other animals than our small humans with us.We discovered a place near Bologna called Eataly World.
A place dedicated to Italian foods and food production, and well, to be honest, shopping. There were lots of restaurants and merchants selling pastas and pizzas, wines and beers, olives, and oils and vinegars and almost everything else Italian. A Disneyland-like place for Italian food lovers. You can even get these cool three-wheeled bikes with a front basket, to cruise around with and load up on your Italian must-haves.
A couple of hours later, full of a very tasty thin crust pizza, and with more things to try at our next place, we loaded up and jumped back into the Italian Grand Prix headed south. Past Florence, past Sienna and into the Tuscan hills along the west coast, we found our Agritourismo stay. This is essentially a stay on a working farm. It is similar to an Airbnb, but is a bit more rural. It worked out great. It was a small section off the main house that had all we needed. The farm was run by an older Italian couple who raised horses and ponies. The girls even got a ride on one of the ponies, Tombolino, and you could tell they loved it!
From this area we visited closed wineries, closed farms, closed organic markets, empty beaches (full of garbage), and empty twisty roads. It was like we had Italy all to ourselves. We took one drive around Orbetello, SW of Grosseto that wound its way around a small peninsula. It started off as a twisty, narrow road with 180 degree hairpins, that climbed up and around the hilly peninsula. Soon it turned into a road that would be best described as a mountain bike single track. We triple checked the map, and it was the main route, to my dismay. We continued along at a snails pace, only stopping briefly in a few spots to take in the breathtaking view, before finally reaching the other side and the sweet sound of pavement under our tires again. A restful few days here were appreciated and we left the friendly hosts as we decided to go a bit north again into the Chianti region of Tuscany.
Chianti was much like the rest of Italy. Quiet.
We picked a full house as our next Airbnb, and soon felt the chill of autumn setting in, as the house came without heat. We could of course pay to heat the house, but the host indicated that she didn’t think we would need it, as the days were still approaching 16-18 C. The first night in the house clearly rebutted her idea that it would be fine. We were like meat-popsicles in a fridge. Even I found it chilly – I put on a sweater indoors. So I imagine the girls and Marianne were probably close to hypothermia. We relented and the next day put on the heat –sparingly – yet it still cost us around $45 Euros for 3 days of heat. Crazy, but as gas was expensive there, not too surprising! So from Elsa’s ice palace we set out on our daily excursions to the Tuscan countryside. We went to Chianti en Grieve one day, only to find almost everything closed, although the signs said they were open.
Another day we went o the Cascade del Mulino a Saturnia, a geothermal hot spring that flows into these very cool pools. The water was warm, not hot, it was outdoors, and it was totally free!
So we soaked up the sulfur smell and basked in the human soup for a bit, before returning to the house in the hills of Chianti. Also, at this place was something I had never seen of, or heard of before, a pizza vending machine! Like what? It made you hot pizzas and spit them out in like 3 minutes. We didn’t dare try, as why would we? With so much good food all around in Italy, a vending machine pizza must be pretty low on the list of must haves!
Anyway, over the few days there the only things open were a farmers style market and the impressive Antinori Winery. The biggest in the region. We only ended up buying one bottle of wine there, as everything seemed very expensive compared to the 3 or 4 Euro wine from the grocery store we had been getting on just fine with for the past month or so. A bottle that would not be opened until Dubai and unfortunately did not impress beyond the cheap grocery store wine. On our last day in the region we took a day trip to Pisa to see the famous church. It was quite impressive, with murals and frescoes and paintings, each the size of a wall and of course each being hundreds of years old, along with and lots of decorations made of gold and such – you know, the normal decorations of a humble and benevolent building. Oh yeah, we also saw a tower than had a structural issue – some engineer hundreds of years ago forgot to carry the one, and next thing you know it was leaning. Didn’t want to get anywhere near that in case it fell over – so we stood out on the grass in front, along with hundreds of other terrified tourists, much to the joy of the local screamy guy. He dressed in some official uniform – but I think he was just hired to yell at people, he seemed to enjoy it. He essentially said that we were making his day by standing on the grass – as he got to yell at us, but I am sure he added in something about the signs and getting away from the tower that was about to fall. Anyway, we moved to the side and took a photo of us trying to help keep this old tower from falling over – to show we tried, before moving on.
Our last night in Chianti we stopped on the way home to take in the spectacular sunset, a truly amazing sight!
Also, that night we had a meal prepared by the hosts, a traditional meal of the region – cured meats, olives, their own wine, lasagna, and a chicken in tomatoes dish – all pretty delicious.
Now, after almost 2 weeks in Italy, we headed for the true coastal Italian experience, the Cinque Terre area. Those five villages have become world famous for their cliff side views and colourful buildings set along the Mediterranean Sea. The incredible hiking and perilous driving attracts visitors from worldwide to experience this isolated and unique piece of Italy.
After a brief visit to the walled city of Lucca, on our way to Cinque Terre, where we biked around the city in about 45 minutes, we arrived to find the rugged Italian coast, only to be greeted with more twisty and terrifying roads, each with a speed limit way beyond what would be considered sane. Our Airbnb was located somewhere between two of the coastal towns of the Cinque Terre, Vernazza and Corniglia. The directions to the place were not exactly clear. I mean, trying to see through a fogged up windshield in the fog at night with sunglasses on whilst squinting without lights kind of clear. We eventually found the turn off to the place just as the sun had set and darkness began to take a hold of the area. The road to the guest house was one that I would have assumed lead to immanent death if you did not know there actually was a house there. Also, to make the matters worse was the road was about 1.5 car widths wide, and the turn off was a full 180 degrees hairpin from our current direction. I couldn’t make that turn, just wouldn’t work. So, my options were limited. Luckily we figured it out and got turned around in a widened area down the road so we could drive down the driveway without issue. Of course, halfway down the driveway was another 180 degree turn to stay on the driveway, this time with a steep drop off about 2 m off the edge. A bit of maneuvering and we made it, safely! Yet, the house was still not to be found. The parking was about 200 m away from the house down the rocky, steep hiking trail. A real treat for hauling rolling suitcases along. The house turned out to have spectacular views of the Mediterranean Sea and the cliffs. We could even see the towns to Corniglia and Vernazza from the balcony.The wind was pretty much constant up there and made for a noisy night of sleep– but was a great base for taking in the scenery and starting a hike along the famed Cinque Terre pathway. Day two and we were up and ready to roll with some hiking! We headed along the path from our Airbnb, almost exactly halfway between two towns, towards Vernazza. It was about an hour of constant descending through some pretty rocky and rugged terrain that was called a path! The recent storms in Italy (about 2-3 weeks prior) had done a number on the roads and pathways, minimal efforts had been made to repair this section of path, so some areas were trickier than others to pass. After about an hour all of us made it in good spirits to Vernazza, a well earned lunch in our sights. The village was busier than expected, as tourists and locals mingled about along the waterfront for the mid-day lunching hour. We grabbed some local food, fresh seafood for one of us, and toured around a bit more. Some souvenir shopping and a few minutes later we boarded a train for the most northerly village Monterosso al Mare. Trains run all along the coast here, through tunnels built in the cliffs. It only takes somewhere around 3-5 minutes to go between villages in Cinque Terre, with a voyage from top to bottom taking around 20-25 minutes or so.
We only ended up exploring for a short time in 4 of the 5 villages as we used the train to hop around and were at the mercy of the sun, as our return trip to our guest house was the hike up from Corniglia. Actually, as it turned out, we caught the last possible train to Corniglia, for us to be able to hike in the quickly fading daylight, and had to hike up from the train station at least 100 m straight up a back-and-forth set of stairs before we even reached the village and the start of the path that would lead us to our beds for the night. Our desire for gelato (unfortunately, an unrequited one) after a long day of exploring made our final push to get back a bit later than expected. We hit the final stretch of pathway as the sun started its final decent to the horizon, Helios himself ready to head for his night palace in the east. Les filles, as we call them, were amazing all day long, rarely complaining about the constant up and down hiking over uneven terrain and even making comments on the incredible scenery. They made it all the way along the arguably hardest section of the Cinque Terre hike and loved it! With pathways almost completely empty, temperatures in the high teens, and a brilliant, yet non-punishing solar companion all day long, makes me wonder why so many people flock to this area during the height of summer – only to fight just to get a few seconds of each view, instead of being able to stop and smell the proverbial roses. Now with this natural wonder on our ‘been there done that’ list we pointed our blue metal stallion in the direction of Genoa (just for lunch) and then France, for our second foray into La République Francaise.
Do you remember the song, ♫ “One Night in Bangkok” from the 1980’s, by Murray Head? You know, the one that goes… “One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble … Can’t be too careful with your company … I can feel the devil walking next to me … ” ♫ Well I feel that tune/motif would be a good song to summarize our brief trip to Switzerland.
♫ “One day in Geneva and your bank account tumbles… I don’t seem to have enough money … and I don’t understand why no one will talk to me.. One day in Geneva and the world is pricier … Be careful what you order for lunch… they don’t take cards and it costs a bunch…” ♫
Ok, so I’m no poet laureate, nor do I claim to have Shakespeare flowing through my fingertips, but a description of Switzerland, from our brief encounters would be: clean, friendliness level somewhere between cold and frozen, and essentially looking just like France.
I don’t have much else to say really about Geneva – except for our trip to the LHC (that’s the Large Hadron Collider) at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research). They are doing some amazing work at trying to figure out the universe, its origins, our future, and probably about a million things I don’t know enough about to even pretend to be able to explain. We only wandered around a couple of interpretive sections available for free to the public, as the actual tour of the facility was for adults only! Or at least kids older than ours – so a bit disappointing to not see how the actual scientific work was done, but it worked out okay, as the interpretative areas were pretty interesting. I still think it was worth the day trip from where we were staying (about 1.5 hours each way).
Something that I didn’t know before our trip to the chocolate country was that Switzerland isn’t actually part of the European Union (EU). It is still independent and has it’s own money – very convenient for a day trip, as you can imagine! I just assumed it had at least adopted the Euro… but nope! So, with another colourful bill in my wallet we wandered looking for adventure and food! Not necessarily in that order. Of course, unless you are preparing to climb a mountain, getting dressed up for skiing, or there to embezzle lots of money, it may be a less than exciting place to be! We found a geocache, visited a tiny overpriced bookstore, saw a huge ejection of water, and ate a mediocre to poor (and overpriced!) restaurant in the supposed interesting part of the city. So, while it was clean with cool old buildings and had a big water spout that jetted into the lake, it lacked any kind of feeling as a city I would want to spend anytime in. I’m sure there are a million reasons to visit and spent time in Geneva and locals or others could tell me all the reasons why Geneva is amazing, but from our experience it was something I could have skipped and not missed anything. Just our opinion.
Have we mentioned how weird it can feel for North Americans to travel in Europe? Driving between countries is nothing. No official border crossing, no line up, nobody there to stop you, no delay. No need to declare anything to anyone. That’s travel heaven! Flying in the European Union is just as easy. It’s like flying domestic anywhere! No customs! And with really cheap flights to a lot of European destinations, it’s no wonder why Europeans are so well travelled. They jump on a plane, like we’d jump on a bus or in our car, to get to places for the weekend. I envy them for that.
But our faithful ground-based blue Citron, oops, Citroën is the transportation mode of choice for our European journey. We left Chamonix and France behind on November 6th after two fun days spent exploring the small alpine village, wishing we could snowboard down some of the amazing looking peaks, but alas, tis is not the season…
After an interminable tunnel under Mont-Blanc (~11 km and more than 40 Euros later…), we popped over into a new country: Italy! We crossed several more tunnels on the Italian side. We seriously must have crossed over 40 km of tunnels in the Alps. A few hours drive and another toll road later, we were in Milan, or as they call it here, Milano, our first Italian destination. I had a brief taste of the city in 2017, during my big birthday treat: Mamboland Milano. Salsa fanatics reading this will understand. After 3 days of intense training and dancing, I had only had the briefest glimpse of the city and what it had to offer, so I just needed to visit it again and explore with the family this time.
We somewhat arbitrarily decided to stay in the Navigli district, in an Airbnb (probably no. ~12(?) since we’ve started our trip), a cool loft a few steps from a canal. It turned out to be quite a good choice. I had no idea that Milan even had canals. They were built to help bring materials into the city centre by boat. They say Leonardo Da Vinci himself likely helped improve the canal design when he was in Milan. It is no Venice (no gondolas) but we saw people rowing and kayaking on the canals in the dark with head lamps at night. The streets bordering the canals in the Navigli district are lined with many cool bars, restaurants and shops. Mid-afternoon, things are fairly quiet, but they pick up come 6 pm for “Apperitivo” time. Apperitivo is essentially Happy Hour where you buy a drink and you get food included. So for somewhere from 5 to 15 Euros depending on the place, you can get a drink and munchies at your table or a buffet to choose from which really could fill you up. But this is what Italians do BEFORE they have dinner which is usually quite a bit later.
We opted for just going for dinner with the girls on our first night in Milan. We headed on foot to a nearby restaurant named Taglio that had good reviews and we were bracing for finding a line-up or a place supposedly reserved but seemingly empty… We were almost concerned when we found the place completely empty at the time AND not reserved! Not only were we able to get in the first restaurant of our choice, but Maxine rapidly (like only kids can) spotted a shelving unit full of toys! What a pleasant surprise! It made the wait so much easier! We tried a few local specialties there and had a pretty good meal. We were off to a good start.
What to do in Milan with (or without) kids
We stayed in Milan 5 days in total. The weather was calling for rain on most days so we mostly looked for things to visit indoors. However, the weather was mostly dry with some sprinkles here and there so we certainly spent a lot of time outside too and walked and saw a lot on foot. I think we’ve averaged about 8 km of walking per day. Let’s face it, trying to accomplish this feat with our children in nature would have simply been unthinkable! So with a pretty easy public transportation system to navigate and cooperating children, we were able to see quite a bit. Here are a few of the highlights of our stay:
Science and Technology Museum Leonardo da Vinci. This is a place I had wanted to visit on my previous trip to Milan but had not been able to. The place is massive and includes several buildings and floors. Plan to spend most of your day there if you want to see it all. We spent about 4 hours, and that’s speed walking through a lot of it, and did not even get to some of the sections. Lots of really interesting exhibits, mostly in Italian, but you get the gist of what most things are. There are quite a few interactive displays, games and videos to keep the kids engaged. There is a whole room full of paintings and inventions from Leonardo Da Vinci that were based on his drawings. Topics of the exhibits are broad and range from agrology to space exploration, with transportation as a big focus of an outdoor area and large buildings containing everything that moves including trains, planes, helicopters, boats, even a submarine! For 35 Euros for all of us, that was a worthwhile visit.
Duomo. That’s the giant gothic church, symbol of Milan, in the heart of the city. Hard to miss. We did not visit the inside nor go on the roof but that is apparently something worthwhile doing for the view and to get a closer look at all those creepy little creatures adorning the church’s roof. I enjoyed seeing and admiring it every time we’d pop over in the area, especially at night with all the lights. Beware of the rose sellers. One “gave” roses to the girls but then of course wanted money… An opportunity to teach something about “gifts” offered to the girls…
Just walk around! So many shops, gelato places and picturesque buildings and streets. Milan is a European fashion mecca so if you have time, money and room in your luggage (unlike us), plan on shopping!
Castello Sforzesco. The castle is located in central Milan and houses a number of museums featuring various collections of artworks, furniture, armours and weapons and even musical instruments. For 5 Euros per adult (free for kids), we were able to visit a number of them. Not a bad way to spend a few hours on a rainy day. I would also imagine the gardens would be quite pretty in the summer.
Natural History Museum. Put a bunch of stuffed animals, bugs, fossils and dinosaur replicas under the same roof and you generally have a winner with kids. Most of the info is in Italian only but with kids, who has time to read anything anyways? Again, 5 Euros per adult and free for kids. I like this free-for-kid thing they seem to have for a lot of attractions and museums in Europe.
Apperitivo. Ok, I have to admit that we did this the cheap way and probably did not get the greatest experience possible. I took the family to a hostel called Ostello Bello on a cute street across from the place where I stayed in 2017. During my previous stay, I went for a drink there while waiting for my roommates. I had unintentionally stumbled upon Apperitivo. I had no idea what that was at the time, and, after paying for my 4 Euro glass of wine, was a bit skeptical and pleasantly surprised with the buffet that was “included”. What? Free food??! So I just took the family there for a quick one. A drink and plate of pasta and bread later and that was basically dinner. After walking around all day, that was perfect timing and amount for the kids!
Salsa! Ok, that one is NOT a family activity that we all enjoy but I could not help mentioning it. If you did not know, I am a big salsa fan, not only the edible variety, and Milan is a hot bed of salsa superstars. If you are into salsa dancing at all, depending on your preferred style, you would be remiss to pass on an opportunity to take classes at the schools of world famous instructors such as Adolfo Indacochea (Latin Soul Dancers (LSD) Milano) or at Sosa Academy, Tropical Gem’s school. It was a bit of a drive to Rho but I took 2 back-to-back classes at LSD’s new studio and left extremely sweaty, inspired and content. That’s the kind of lessons that salseros fly all over the world to various salsa congresses to take. I just wish I could teleport myself there weekly… More on salsa around the world in a future blog.
The rest of our time, we managed to fill with crafts, school stuff, cooking some yummy Italian meals, eating, drinking wine and even getting a foot massage!
So this wraps up Milan. After our fill of cityscape, we were looking forward to experiencing the beautiful countryside so we hopped in the car and headed southeast towards southern Tuscany and the coast. Maybe we’d even find a horse or two for the girls to ride somewhere along the way and a bottle of wine…
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