Dragons

Ho Chi Minh – Maxing a weekend from HK

DragonsNow that my rehab is over from being fitted with the most technologically advanced bionic limbs and a new eye that gives me more functionality than a iPhone 4, I can once again get back to my job and start traveling again.

So, recently it was a trip to Ho Chi Minh – this is going to be a long post, but hopefully it’s got lots of helpful stuff: online visa application, best flights from HK, hotels, restaurants, clubs an bars, shopping gems, trips and massages.

I don’t remember much about Ho Chi Minh the first time I went – delerium had set in after I’d managed to pick up something nasty during a hunt for gem smugglers in Quy Chau back in ’95.

Suffice to say that the place is completely different now than it was 15 years ago, when it was all bicycles, nón lá’s and Australian NGOs.

I’ve traditionally been a monstrous fan of Hanoi so have spent far more time in that city over the last few years, but I thought it was time to give HCM another shot, and a very pleasant weekend was had too.

Getting there (from HK):

Flights:

United Airlines offer a fantastic option to max your time in HCM on a weekend from HK.

UA869 leaves HK at 20:40 getting you in around 22:00

UA862 leaves HCM at 06:15 getting you back to HK around 09:50, which means you can be in the office by 11am, which is perfect.

At that time in the morning in HCM it takes 20mins to get to the airport from the centre of town so it’s not too brutal a wake-up call if you’re checked-out, packed and ready to go.

At HCM on the way back we paid US$39 each for extra legroom and ended up on the front row of economy class, which meant we could dash off the plane and into work in the quickest possible time.

Visas: We tried the online visa service by www.myvietnamvisa.com.

This was convienent and good value and the approval letter arrived within 48 hours.

I thought I was being terribly smart by using this service, but once we landed in HCM and sauntered off the plane to immigration, it became apparent that at least 80 other people had had the same bright idea, and so there we sat in immigration for over an hour, waiting for our visas to be processed.

Unless I really can’t get my passport down to the consulate here in HK the next time I plan to go to Vietnam I won’t use this service, as it was no fun hanging out in the airport until well past 11pm after a long day in the office.

Things to know if you decide use the online service:

1) Your visa approval letter will contain a bunch of other names that have nothing to do with you. They process the visa applications in batches of up to 20 at a time, just ignore these other names and check that yours are on there.

2) Run, elbow, trip and barge your way to immigration from the plane to try and be at the front of the queue for visa processing (it’s on left of the immigration hall). It should then only take 15-20 mins.

3) They do take multiple currencies not just US$ and dong (as it says at the counter). We paid in HK$ and although it was a fairly steep exchange rate, there are no ATMs around so you don’t have a choice.

Hotels:

HCM should be bursting at the seams with beautifully refurbed deco hotels, but for some reason this is not the case.

The place is chockablock with the raw materials, but all of them seem to be state run. So establishments like the Continental, the Rex, the Majestic, and the Grand to name but a few, are absolutely horrendous. Your options therefore, are to stay 5-star brand name, or to go 3-star and below townhouse, otherwise you’ll just be frustrated by what these wonderful old hotels ought to be like.

We stayed high-end in the Park Hyatt in District 1 (centre of town), and it was fine rather than excellent. However, there are so many tiny, friendly, cheap and clean little townhouse hotels in District 1 that until a truly interesting boutique/heritage hotel opens I’ll stay in one of those.

Next time we would probably stay somewhere like the Catina as it’s slap bang on Dong Khoi, which is a good little street for shops, bars and restaurants, and has in-room wifi.

Quan An Bistro

Quan An Bistro

All of the ones below are in District 1, and oh my lord, how cheap it is to eat! The only time we spent over US$40 for the two of us was in Square One in the Hyatt.

Like Thailand though, it’s likely that the best meals you can have are just at the most local, plastic-stool-type hawker stalls, which are dotted around the place. Don’t be shy, just point at what you like the look of, or ask another diner what’s good. English and French are pretty widely spoken by young (English) and old (French).

There are a bunch of what I call Heritage restaurants in HCM, in villas or old houses, sporting antiques, dark woods and a slightly colonial feel. The ones we tried were:

 

Tib187 Hai Ba Trung -  This place is highly recommended in every guide I looked at inexplicably as it’s way, way past it. Avoid.

Quan An Bistro -  71/5 – 71/6 Mạc Thị Bưởi (083.8258275) – down an alley off Mac Thi Buoi in an old town house.

Service was good and the food was really decent. Enjoyed it muchly and the staff were friendly.  Looks much better in real life than on some of the websites I’ve seen.

Temple Club - 29–31 Ton That Thiep.

Enjoyable meal – food was good and the decor stylish. Better known as a relaxed lounge bar, it’s best to go for an early dinner as the nightclub down the street’s bass post-9pm was so strong the light-fittings jingled the entire meal.

Others:

Square One - in the Park Hyatt. Very good food but glad we only went for lunch. The most pricey at US$60 for two, and a bit 5-star pompous.

Au Parc – 23 Han Thuyen St, (08-829-2772) – Cute French bistro open from breakfast through dinner time, on the park near the old post office and cathedral etc.

3A3 Bun Bo Hue – 39A Ngo Duc Ke Street in District 1, (38 293 526) – but has branches all over the place. Canteen style, packed for lunch, great food and good value.

There are loads of restaurants in HCM and lots recommended that we’ll try next time we go. We just wanted to get a handle on the centre of the city so we didn’t go outside District 1. We’ll leave those assaults for future trips.

Cafes with WIFI:

There are coffee joints and cafes all over the shop. Highlands Coffee still seems to be the most pervasive, and has free WIFI which was very useful as most mobile providers don’t have cheap data passes to Vietnam yet.

LiquidBars/Clubs:

It seems that a fair amount of fun can be had in HCM at night. If you’re gay, then it seems you can have even more!

Liquid Club - 104 Hai Ba Trung – We kind of outdid ourselves on our first night out by running across Liquid on Hai Ba Trung.

It was the first club we passed on our way back into town from Tib, and who were we to resist the lure of a four storey blue neon festooned club with paramilitary bouncers outside it? T’would have been churlish not to explore.

The other clubs we visited after that were tame, snooty or a little bit dull in contrast.

It’s a happy house/techno club that seems to be very popular with locals and not so with expats. It was packed with cognac swilling tattooed gangsters in caps, surrounded by stunning six-footers, and office-workers celebrating birthdays (we knew this because we were subjected to a techno rendition of Happy Birthday at least five times in three hours).

There were scantily clad GaGa styled dancers and a slew of “PR” girls all in yellow making sure the punters weren’t lonely. Waiters were easy to spot in snazzy white-tie with turquoise trimmings, and security were even easier to spot in fatigues and berets.

The laser show was retina burning, bamboozling and skirted on the edge of inducing some kind of Ipcress Files breakdown. We were completely deaf when we tumbled out. Masses of fun, with absolutely no edge to the atmosphere.

Q Bar – Hasten then to Q Bar, under the Opera House which is touted as the most sophisticated bar in town. We hit it quite late on in the night and weren’t at all impressed.

Inside it was clubby, snooty, and very obviously where all the most knife-edge of gays decide to hang out. There’s nothing more cool about being gay than being straight. It doesn’t mean you have to pose, sneer and scowl at the heterosexuals because they decide they too fancy a bit of a dance and a drink. To be fair it seemed to be the fags’ hags that were most hostile. Maybe my shoes offended them, or they thought I was going to steal their bangles.

Outside was more chilled and welcoming.

Villa - 2/F 131 Dong Khoi St – We then headed out again into the night and heard pounding bass from a darkened 2nd floor premises. This was small, dark and super gay. Thoroughly friendly, and fun with none of the bitchiness of Q, but the music was not quite as daft as Liquid.

Crazy BuffaloGo2 Bar - De Tham Street – We spent a few hours down on De Tham street sitting in the street side cafes. Great backpacker watching and very relaxed despite the mopeds and general street craziness.

I don’t usually have any interest in hanging out in places where the tourists wear their luggage on their backs and Tevas on their feet, but this was actually pretty fun. Go2 had a great corner location which was marvelous for viewing the general goings-on and it has a pool table. Crazy Buffalo is a huge 4 storey club that’s opened recently opposite and looks quite wild, a least from the outside.

Shopping:

The real standout store for me was Verlim. They are an interior design outfit that also sell their own designs of lighting, objet d’art, restored and new furniture as well as paintings, carpets and upholstery.

With a strong Belle Époque influence it’s no surprise that Verlim has been commissioned by the likes of David Tang for pieces in his establishments.

Their style is right up my strasse.

You can find them at 41 Ho Tung Mau St., District 1, Ho Chi Minh City Tel: (84.8) 8211655

There’s also a couple of outlets of Ipa-Nima, Christina Yu’s handbag and accessories store. I still have a real soft-spot for her whimsical designs that are handmade in the country. There’s branches at The New World Hotel at 76 Le Lai Street, and also at 85 Pasteur Street.

Not for the PETA members amongst my readers, but Viet Thanh has some really good value leather handbags and accessories in croc, ostrich and snake. Some of the designs are rather old fashioned, but there’s also some classic styles that will never date.

Silk and embroidered goods are the other popular buys in Vietnam. I’m not a huge fan of Vietnamese silk, I prefer Thai and Laotian styles, but for embroidery they can’t be topped. There are tonnes of embroidery stores, which sell everything from Christmas napkin and tablecloth sets through duvets and kid’s clothing. You’ll find them all over District 1, and there’s not one which stood out over the others for me particularly. Kitsch but very cute.

Massage:

We had a good few massages around town. We particularly enjoyed My Spa at 15C4 Thi Sach Street, tel 0989 973 309. I also rather liked the Lotus Tea served in all the massage palours. I’d never come across it before.

Street Crime:

Fortunately I have never been the victim of violent crime in Asia. It does happen, but in general I think SE Asia is very safe.

However, do hold onto your handbags girls in Ho Chi Minh. I always have mine clamped under my arm and over my shoulder on a short handle, and always zipped up.

Right in front of The Park Hyatt at 2:30am on a Friday night a foreign girl walking a few paces in front of me was mugged by two guys on a moped. At first we thought he was just going too fast through a traffic light and was on a course to hit her and we all started shouting, then we saw he had grabbed her satchel strap which was round her neck and pulled her to the floor. We raced towards them shouting and the pillion passenger let go, but not before the girl had suffered a pretty nasty injury.  We made sure she got to a clinic and she was fine, but it shook me a little as it was a violent assault rather than an opportunistic slash and grab.

Apart from that, Ho Chi Minh was a lot of fun – the locals are genuinely friendly, the food is fantastic, the shopping is good and there’s too much to see and do to get even slightly bored

My only disappointment (much like Hanoi), is that there is a dearth of good boutique hotels, and I have literally no idea why this should be. Hopefully this will change sometime soon.

Mopeds
The Garth Hotel

The Garth Hotel, Grantown, Scotland

The Garth HotelIt’s unusual for me to be in Scotland as a tourist, so the past few days have been an absolute delight. In the Highlands almost every bend in the road reveals another breathtaking vista, and we had the perfect weather for touring – strong winds that produced roiling clouds, localized showers and startling sunshine. We stayed on the edge of the Cairngorms, in the Trossachs and finally in Edinburgh and we received some wonderful hospitality.

The Garth Hotel, Grantown on Spey

Our Coutt’s World concierge suggested this small hotel in Grantown, as it’s recognized as having a rather good little restaurant.  We turned up unannounced and managed to grab the last of the 18 bedrooms, and although we were right above reception meaning a little bit of noise first thing in the morning, we had the strongest wifi signal in the building.

Rooms

The rooms were unexpectedly well appointed if I’m honest. Newly refurbed, they were cosy, nicely styled and had bright bathrooms with heated towel rails (important in somewhere like Scotland). The double beds were just standard double-sized so pretty small, but there were comfortable.

Service

The front of house staff were delightful.

Food

A mix of cuisines at dinner, but a lot of solid Scottish fare with quality local ingredients. The smoked salmon was real good, but it was the melt-in-the-mouth smoked mackerel that was truly delicious. We had beef and game hotpot, steak and some great cheese too.

Breakfast was the star of the show though. Once you’ve started off the day with a full Scottish of that standard you’ll want to do it every morning.

Drink

A good selection of Speyside whiskeys as you would expect, some local beers and a modest wine list.

Price

We paid a very reasonable GBP45 per person for bed and breakfast. It was the last room they had and gave us a bit of a discount, which was a nice and unnecessary touch.

Location

Castle Road, Grantown-on-Spey, Morayshire, Scotland, PH26 3HN. Tel: 01479 872 836, email: reception@garthhotel.com

Summary

If I was ever in Grantown again, I wouldn’t bother looking for another hotel, I’d definitely go straight to the Garth – it’s homely, comfortable and delightfully styled.
We poked our noses in at another couple of hotels and were not tempted. The Craiglynne Hotel was full of coach parties, and whilst I do love old-people, I don’t want to feel like I’m staying in a care home. The other was the Grant Arms, which was rather more outwardly striking than the Garth, but the rooms weren’t up to much.

Tosca Neon

Ritz Carlton, Tosca: An unholy mess of a restaurant

Review:

Tosca Glass WallThe poor chef at the Ritz Carlton’s Italian eatery Tosca must have been gutted when he first saw his restaurant space.

Usually a chef will at least be able to rely on the decor and ambiance of his restaurant to enhance his diners’ experience, and help balance out any glitches in the food. Here at Tosca, the food was going to have to be unfailingly excellent to keep patrons’ eyes and minds off the shockingly awful interior design.

Unfortunately, the food was not quite able to stand up to the task.

First things first.

The Space: There is no way you will every forget you are in a hotel restaurant here. It’s a giant hall of a place. The one feature I did like was an absolutely enormous silver chandelier. However, once you see the chandelier you then have to look at the ceiling above it, and you realize that whomever the designer was, they forgot about the ceiling and left it looking like the roof of a conference centre. Sloppy.

Interior Design: I am just not eloquent enough to describe the sheer atrociousness of the restaurant interior. The closest I can get to is that it resembles the absolute worst of China’s super-sized sauna lobbies. Everything is an assault on the eyes. There is not one thread of coherence running through the entire space.

There were blue neon lights, red standard lamps, turquoise glass water features, turquoise glass wall panels, brown marble floors, wooden paneled fascias, fret-work ceiling panels, chromed wine-fridges, black banquettes, red and gold striped chairs, purple glass tableware, spangly reflective ornamentation and grey linen table cloths.

The number of different textures, colours and materials used was just mind boggling.

Pet Peeve: The seats. There a number of banquettes running the width of the restaurant serving around six tables each. Because they are not attached to the floor and are lightweight, this means that when any of the other people sitting on it tap their feet or push against it in any way, every other dinner has to endure their seat moving too.  I spent my entire meal lightly vibrating because the woman sitting on the next table was continually tapping her heel on the floor whilst pushing back into the banquette.

Service: Efficient bordering on over-efficient. After ten minutes I had to stop the waiters from topping up our water glasses after every single sip.

Also, even though my companion and I were in the full flow of conversation, every time they put a dish down and we’d thanked them for it, and then re-started our conversation, the waitress would proceed to talk over us to introduce the dish – she showed absolutely no discretion in deciding whether it was an appropriate thing to do.

If I’m having a tasting menu multiple courses long, then this kind of thing can be useful. When I’ve chosen what I’ve ordered and it amounts to two dishes, I don’t need to reminded what it is as though I have the mind of a goldfish. Just back off.

Tosca NeonFood: Modern Italian, there was plenty for us to choose from that sounded good.

Unfortunately, my starter was rubbish. It was meant to be artichoke velouté with a crispy egg and black truffle shavings. Not one element of it had been seasoned and the whole thing was just a cloying gruel. I suspect that the truffle was either not ripe or old as it had no scent and no flavour. Not a good start.

My sea bass main came, and was raw. Don’t get me wrong, I often enjoy fish rare, but literally half the fish was uncooked and stone cold.

The replacement fish arrived after my companion had finished his main course, but was very tasty and beautifully cooked when it finally did come. Served on a spring onion fondant and with buffalo mozzarella, it was an unusual combination that I enjoyed.

My companion was luckier: he had a tasty onion soup to start and a very good piece of steak for his main.

So, unfortunately the food was rather a mixed bag.

Drink: There’s a good selection of wine by the glass, and the Sardinian red that my companion had was very good.

Price: We paid $1688 for two with the only booze being one glass of wine. I expect those prices in a 5-star hotel, but then I also expect the food to be faultless and the decor to not be channeling Katie Price’s subconscious.

Location: The Ritz Carlton, above Elements Mall, part of the ICC building in West Kowloon. 1 Austin Road West, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Tel: (852) 2263 2263

Summary: Wild horses wouldn’t drag me back for dinner.

Note: I’ve realized from looking at photos on the internet what the issue with the interior is. The design is actually fine in daylight (although those water features are still vile),  it’s just at night that everything falls apart. Look at the photo in daylight through the link here and you’ll see what I mean.

Satri House

Satri House – Worth paying for the best room.

Satri House

Review:

There are now many choices of where to stay when visiting Luang Prabang, that little Cotswold-style gem of a town in central Laos.

On our last trip we decided to stay on the edge of town in Satri House as Mr H had his heart set on staying in one particular room he had seen online. Built in the early 1900s for the Laos royal family, it consists of a mishmash of separate buildings and salas; old and new. Thankfully, the new wing has been very sympathetically styled and blends in well with the old.

We stayed in the upstairs suite in the original wing of the hotel.  There are only three bedrooms in the house (pictured above), as well as a couple of beautiful public lounges. Suite 442 where we were, occupies one half of the upstairs and was worth the money.

I’m sure the other rooms are also very nice (the hotel was refurbed and expanded over a couple of years ending in 2009), but it felt good to be in the authentic wing of the hotel.

AnteroomRoom: Everything you want in an Indochine colonial villa of old; Silk, hardwoods, art and furniture. AC helps, and the bathroom was large, new, airy and stylish, (just remember to close the shutters as people can see you at the mirror.)

The “lounge” wasn’t really a lounge, more an anteroom to the bedroom, but it was a comfortable and bright place to read and plan our next meal or shopping foray.

Service: I don’t know why, but service staff were almost exclusively male. Everyone was very friendly, and we were shown varying degrees of competence and initiative, but you had to pick your man if you wanted to be sure they understood more complex requests.

This is Laos, and they are only just getting to grips with the level of service that well-heeled tourists expect. Being friendly is a good start, but don’t expect Mandarin Oriental levels of excellence for a good while yet.

Facilities: Large pool for the size of hotel; big enough to swim lengths and a great way to cool off in the stifling heat of a Laotian afternoon. There’s a small bar, and a nice restaurant that whilst isn’t offering anything out of the ordinary in terms of lunch or dinner, did put on a really good breakfast.

There’s also a spa, although I didn’t get a chance to partake, and you can take bikes out rent-free to explore the surroundings.

The grounds are beautifully kept and the hotel is very nicely styled. Lots of nicknacks that you think would look great in your own home. The hotel does in fact claim that many of the furnishings are available in their shop in town, but it was a huge disappointment; with low quality products in a dusty old shop.

Ambience: There is a bit of a hush about the hotel, sometimes it feels like a bit of a museum, but it is a very pleasant place to chill out, with lots of different nooks to sit and enjoy the surroundings. You don’t feel too bad spending hours lounging around in your room either when you have a suite like 442. It feels more like a house than a hotel up there.

Price: The rate card starts at US$180++  for a standard room, and rises to US$400++ for suite 442.

Location: Satri House is on the eastern edge of town away from the centre. You’ll need a taxi back from a night out, and we made good use of the bicycles to get in and out of town during the day, (you can always load them into the back of the “Song Tao” style taxis, if you decide you can’t make it back to the hotel in the heat!), if you want to have the town and it’s splendours right on your doorstep, this is not the hotel for you.

One word of warning though. We stayed in Sari House during Laos New Year (beginning of April) and the local fair was in full, exuberant cacophony well into the early hours and is located less than 200m away.  It was great fun to go to and see, and we weren’t much bothered by the techno and concerts that blared from midday until the wee hours, but I imagine that it would ruin some people’s holiday. Some guests did indeed check-out and move to different hotels. This happens every year, so forewarned is forearmed.

Summary: I would definitely recommend staying in the original Satri House, we had a good time, and Mr H was very happy with his room.

Next time we go to LP we will stay somewhere different simply because there are now so many interesting little hotels to try out, that it would be daft to stay in the same one twice.

Necessity meant that we had to visit Laos at the beginning of April, but I wouldn’t really recommend visiting at this time. On the positive side, the town was almost empty of tourists, but on the negative side, it’s stubble burning season. The air is full of smoke, your clothes will stink, and you will never see a clear blue sky. For anyone with respiratory problems, it would be a nightmare.

Singapore Traffic

Escape from Singapore: One long nightmare on the drive to Melaka

Singapore Traffic

On a recent trip to Singapore, we decided to include a jaunt up the coast into Malaysia to visit Melaka; the venerable old sea-port that was usurped by the swampy village at the tip of the peninsula as the premier entrepot in South East Asia in the 1800s.

Having spoken to friends who said the journey would take less than three hours, we thought it a great idea. We’d heard the food was good, and it fitted in neatly with some reconnaissance I needed to do.

What a palavar the whole thing turned out to be!

It’s definitely worth making the trip, but do read the rest of this post to avoid the rookie mistakes we blundered into.

  1. Book your car as far in advance as possible, and tell them that you are going to Malaysia.
  2. There are extra charges for driving into Malaysia to cover insurance etc.

    We left it until just five days before we wanted to make the trip and all the big agencies were booked out. We therefore had to use a small agency that was based downtown and wasn’t open on a Sunday. This meant that we had to faff about working out with them where and how we were going to leave the car, which involved buying parking tickets before we left and driving to the location we were going to dump the car so we’d know how to get there, and then having to factor in the time that we had to get back to Singapore so that we could make it to the airport and our flight back to HK.

    A good one hour wasted here. Faff and nonsense.

  3. Buy a NETS cash card and try and get hold of a Touch’n Go card for Malaysia
  4. If you drive a car in Singapore, then you have to have a NETS cash card. This is a stored value card that you swipe to get through all the highway toll booths. From what I can gather, it’s pretty much the same as an Octopus so you can use it for all sorts of transport and retail payments too. Buy at any 7-Eleven and you can top up at the same.

    Whilst you don’t need a Touch’n Go card to travel in Malaysia, it is quite useful. It’s worth asking the car rental agency if they have one you can use just in case someone has left one in a car as it often happens. This means that instead of having to pay a person in a toll booth at each highway stop, you can just swipe your way through the fast way. You can top up the card at marked toll booths as well, which is useful. Again, this card can be used for other retail and transport purchases in Malaysia.

    I think we spent around 70 Ringgit on tolls there and back.

    If you don’t get the Touch’n Go card then you need Ringgit in Malaysia almost immediately, so do have cash on hand. Apparently you can pay in Singapore Dollars, but you’ll get the rapacious exchange rate of 1:1 (there are currently almost 2.5 Ringgit to the Sing Dollar.)

  5. Don’t get lost in Singapore.
  6. Sometimes even the most highly trained of intelligence personnel can be baffled and thwarted by mediocre consumer technology, and poor signposting.

    I didn’t know how to use the Google Maps search function on my iPhone, and the GPS was about 50m out. Coupled with the stupidly late signposting of highway exits and junctions, we spent a ludicrous amount of time trying to get out of Singapore, which completely took the fun out of the journey to Melaka.

    Faff and nonsense. Lost another hour on this.

  7. Make sure you have at least three-quarters of a tank of gas when leaving Singapore.
  8. Petrol is about half the price in Malaysia than it is in Sing. I’m not sure how strict the authorities are about this (apparently checks are random), but considering their policy on most rules and regs, we decided to avoid any chance of a SGD500 fine (approx. US$400), and fill up after wasting a good quarter of a tank getting lost in the city state.

    You’d have thunk that there’d be a slew of petrol stations close to the border to capture all the business of cross-border traffic, but no. We lost at least another half an hour finding gas, and that was about 3km back down the highway. Do not go into the industrial parks looking, there is no gas there…

  9. Border Crossings
  10. This is going to take time, at the very least half an hour each way. You can pick up immigration cards for Sing when you leave (ask the immigration guy for them in the booth),  and you can pick up the Malaysian ones in a little office by the roadside when you’re queuing for immigration.

  11. Understanding Malaysian Drivers
  12. There are two types of drivers to particularly look out for. Crazed speed freaks who drive literally on your bumper even if you are currently overtaking a vehicle, and fast lane slow-coaches who stick to the speed limit with righteous indignation, impeding yours and others’ progress. Undertaking is not allowed, but is sometimes the only option. Look out for slow moving traffic as rarely are indicators or hazard warning lights used.

    Traffic police often drive in unmarked cars, so if you’re unlucky you could be pulled for speeding.

Once out of Singapore we had just half an hour of light left, but the drive to Melaka wasn’t too fraught. We made decent time traveling at around 120kph. There were a lot of boy racers, trucks, buses and generally poor driving that meant you had to keep your wits about you, but the highway was good and we made Melaka in a couple of hours.

It took us an hour longer than that just to pick up the car and get out of Singapore…

Tim's Kitchen

Tim’s Kitchen – bothered about the sharks fin

Tim's KitchenReview:

We found ourselves in Sheung Wan last night and in need of a swift bite to eat. There aren’t a whole lot of quality restaurants down and around Morrison Street, but I have been meaning to go to Tim’s Kitchen for a long while and so Cantonese it was.

The original restaurant was set up by Chef Lai in 2000 after retiring from Hang Seng Bank where he’d worked for the past 33 years, most of them as their Executive Chef. The restaurant has two Michelin stars, and is well known for its authentic and precisely executed Cantonese cuisine.

Food: As we were in a rush and it was only the pair of us eating we didn’t have a lot of food, but what we did have was very, very good: stir fried lettuce with soybeans, beef tenderloin with celery, and poached chicken with black mushrooms.

The soybeans on the lettuce were like bullets of umami and salty goodness, perfectly complementing the sweet lettuce. The chicken was succulent and tasty, and the mushrooms very meaty which made the chicken seem even more tender. I’m only just learning about 口感 kougan, or “mouth feel” in Chinese cooking, but this dish struck me as one that had been constructed very much with that principe in mind. The beef was also tasty, many times you can barely taste the meat because its poor quality, no issue with that here.

Drinks: We just had a pot of white peony tea so can’t really go into the drinks menu here.

Service: The service was efficient and we appreciated the waiter telling us that the soup only came in gigantic bowls so would be too big for us to share (why they couldn’t serve it in small portions is beyond me, I wish someone would explain this policy to me as I come across it all the time).

Ambience: The decor is modern and clean, the chairs comfortable, and you don’t feel that the tables are crammed into the space. Not sure why their napkins are made out of curtain material though.

Price: Like a lot of higher-end Cantonese restaurants you can eat cheaply or crazy expensively depending on your menu choices, which is perfect. Those on a lower budget can sample food from a top chef which is simple, and those out to blow a stack of cash can opt for the far more sophisticated fare on offer.

Our meal came to HK$257 for three dishes and a pot of tea which was great value.

Summary: All in all a good meal, apart from the big problem of Shark’s Fin being on the menu, which is why I have to review the restaurant as Caustic at the moment.

Had we had more time to choose our restaurant we would have bypassed Tim’s Kitchen if we’d seen the menu, so unfortunately we won’t be going back until the Shark’s Fin is off it.

My problem with shark’s fin is one of sustainability rather than cruelty, because overfishing is a far bigger issue than the finning in my opinion. I admit to being ill informed about the issue, but I’d prefer to be erring on the side of caution. If it transpires that any restaurant serves shark from a sustainable source, then I will be very happy to eat there.

Location: G/F – 1/F, Shop A, 84-90 Bonham Strand, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong. Tel: +852 2543 5919

Sunset Bunga Raya

Three Hotels in Kota Kinabalu

Reviews:

Sunset Bunga Raya

Sunset at the Bunga Raya

Kota Kinabalu is one of those destinations that is very family friendly and easily reachable from HK and Singapore in particular. Then there are the Koreans who come for the golf, and finally those people like me who use it as a transit point to the far more interesting destinations either deep in the jungle, or off the eastern and northern coasts.

The first two categories of tourist head to the resorts out of town, so as I wish to avoid them, I stay elsewhere.

This year I’ve stayed in three of KK’s hotels and enjoyed my short stays in town immensely.  KK has a fantastic set of night markets that sell some of the best seafood in the whole of South East Asia – all freshly caught and grilled including king prawns that are literally a foot long, and amazingly cheap beautiful lobsters.

In town:

Hyatt Regency

The best of the in-town hotels. Right on the seafront, the rooms on the front afford astonishing views of the sunset over the South China Seas. Among the most incredible sunsets I’ve witnessed.

The hotel has been refurbed more recently than the Meridian, so whilst it’s quite a bog-standard and bland business hotel with averagely sized rooms, it’s well appointed and doesn’t feel tired.

The hotel is close to the more interesting bars in town and just by one of the night markets.

What I did like particularly was the super old-school club lounge. Great service, some smashing snacks and again, that awesome view that really makes you enjoy your sundowners which are free and plentiful between the hours of 5pm – 8pm.

Location and contacts:

Jalan Datuk Salleh Sulong, 88991,
Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Tel: +60 88 22 1234

Website

The Meridien

I stayed here the first time I came to Kota Kinabalu after reading reviews of both the Hyatt and the Meridien on Trip Advisor (Why did I do that I ask myself? It seems that people who write on the website are just not used to the same standards of accommodation that I am, cooing as they do over the fact that there is a separate shower and bathtub…)

Anyway. Again I had a seaview room, and the views made up for the fact that the hotel is stuck in the 1980s. The service was fine and the room-size was good, but oh my, it’s a tired old girl, and the club lounge wasn’t competing with the Hyatt either.

Once we’d stayed in the Hyatt, we wouldn’t go back to the Meridien, as they were basically the same price at a very reasonable US$200 for a sea-view room with club access.

Location and contacts:

Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens, Sinsuran, Kota Kinabalu, 88000
Phone: +60 8832 2222

Website

Off-Shore:

The Bunga Raya

Whilst not particularly convenient for the airport, I did spend a couple of days at the Bunga Raya on Gaya Island.

Originally there were only the sister hotels of Bunga Raya and the Gayana Eco Resort on Gaya Island, but there is some busy building now across the bay from the Eco Resort. Fortunately the Bunga Raya sits in it’s own bay so will never be compromised by further development.

The Bunga Raya is the smaller of the two resorts and is somewhat more expensive.  Although guests of the two hotels are free to come and go between them, the beach and facilities were almost deserted when we were there back in Easter. Astonishing given the quality of the accommodation.

Make sure you are given a true sea-view room if you stay there, and you won’t be disappointed. The rooms all have large terrace balconies, and large bedrooms. The decor is precise and although the bathrooms are dark, they are well stocked.

Service was patchy. Nice touches like a morning muffin and fruit basket, but generally the service was very, very slow – the pool was without towels for a couple of hours one day so we all had to just sit around drip-drying. Was also surprised when seated at the bar that there were no snacks served with the drinks. Unusual for a 5 star hotel.

The staff were very good at remedying problems when they occurred, but it begged the question as to why the problems occurred in the first place. We were given a really late check-out of 5pm and a free transfer back to KK because the staff were changing shifts which were much appreciated.

Again though, the staff were more concerned about giving us a present of a necklace when we left than actually help us take our luggage along the dock, which was just a bit baffling.

Food was also patchy. The breakfast was very decent, but the evening meal we had was surprisingly disappointing considering the amazing ingredients on offer in the town. I had a chicken soup that was overpowered by too much cinnamon, and a fish salad that had so much lime and vinegar on it that it destroyed what was potentially an excellent dish.

I was also confused as to why the evening menu tended towards the international rather than the local with a very limited choice of seafood, and no beach barbecue.

They have a spa which has a number of treatment rooms spread up the side of a hill and is accessed across a suspension bridge. All quite fun, very nicely styled and we had a couple of very good massages.

Anyway. Considering the price of the room, which was US$500 a night, we decided that the location, environment and standard of the accommodation did make this a hotel we’d go back to if we had more than 24 hours to spend in the town, despite the dodgy service delivery at times.

It is so convenient for KK, has beautifully clear water, a lovely beach, is surrounded by jungle, is delightfully landscaped (as long as you ignore the Italianate fountains out the back, and the gigantic fake mushrooms in the pond), is quiet, friendly, has a great pool, and a wealth of wildlife to marvel at like wild boar, monitors and hornbills.

Location and contacts:

Malohom Bay, Gaya Island, Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.

Tel: +6 088 442233, 475533

Website

Dawn
Dawn breaks over Phang Nga Bay

Koh Yao Noi – The Paradise Resort

Dawn

Dawn breaks over Phang Nga Bay

Now usually I wouldn’t divulge my most favourite places until I’d swooped in and secured the real estate at a decent price, but I feel compelled to share this one right now.

I love holidaying in Thailand, and I’ve recently discovered another little gem that joins the River Kwai and Khao Sok in my list of perfect long weekend jaunts from Hong Kong.

Koh Yao Noi is smack dab in the middle of Phang Nga Bay, a gentle 45 minute boat ride from Phuket. It’s got all the charm of Koh Samui and Phi Phi back in the day i.e. limited numbers of tourists, a fair number of dirt roads, secret beaches, fantastic and cheap food, and a laid back local populace.

There are two upscale accommodation options on the island,  The Paradise Resort and the Evason Six Senses, and for this trip the Paradise checked all the boxes:

  • A decent hotel spa
  • My own terrace with sala and jacuzzi
  • A villa on a hill overlooking the marvelous karst scenery of Phang Nga bay
  • No large groups of Russian tourists (sorry Russian tour groups, but you’re noisy and tend to wander around inappropriately in speedos and thong bikinis).
  • Quiet

I’d say The Paradise has 80% of what you get at the Evason for less then half the price, (and the 20% that is missing is made up entirely of aesthetics, more sophisticated food and a wider range of spa treatments.)

Paradise Resort

The Paradise Resort

So, after a night in Bangkok at the Eugenia, we caught the early flight to Phuket and were picked up by the hotel at the airport. After a 15 minute transfer to a marina, we waited for a few other guests to arrive and then shortly after we set off for the island.

Transfer: THB2,200 per person, one way. To leave the island we took a huge public speedboat back to Phuket which was just as convenient.

The view from my bed

Villas:  We stayed in a Jacuzzi Deluxe villa, which was perched high on the hillside with a sea view. I’m not a huge beachy person, and much prefer having grandiose open views rather than being able to access the beach from my front door. I was expecting thunderstorms too which are always more exciting when you’re up high.

Good sized room, well constructed, nice natural materials; all wooden, stone and slate inside. Great little terrace with a covered sala one end and an unheated, sunken jacuzzi. Bathroom also opened one entire wall onto the terrace so you felt like you were showering outside, (Mr H was a little concerned he could be peeped at so wasn’t keen on opening up, but I was certain it was fine).

The room was excellent value for money.

Service: The manager is a friendly Swiss guy who’d been in the hotel trade for decades. Staff were helpful, although at times a little slow to respond.

Facilities: We made good use of the spa, which was well priced and very pleasant. There was also a yoga sala on the beach and a lot of watersports options. There was a good deal of wildlife around the hotel, from hornbills to monitor lizards.

Our guide kayaking on a tiny lagoon inside a limestone island

The hotel organised a boatman and guide for the day and we went kayaking around Phang Nga Bay which was an excellent excursion.

Because we were so much closer to all the best islands and lagoons than people staying on Phuket, we could get everywhere earlier than the hordes of braying booze cruisers.

The kayaks would be strapped to the side of the boat until needed and we’d zap off in our long-tailed skiff to each location. The hotel also organised a great picnic lunch and we had plenty of water, towels, extra dry bags for our gear and sunscreen etc. Very thoughtful.

We explored all kinds of hidden lagoons a la “The Beach” and generally just pootled around with our very nice guide.

Food: The food we had at the hotel was good if limited. Un-fussy, lots of fresh seafood and locally grown produce. Buffet breakfast was generous and surprisingly varied. You could eat in the restaurant or on the beach and there was also a beach bar with friendly staff and TV to watch if you wanted. Not sure how bonkers it would have driven me if I had stayed a week and only been able to eat at the one restaurant.

Beach: The tide goes very far out on the beach here and leaves quite a muddy bay behind it. That doesn’t bother me, and there was a well landscaped, large swimming pool to use. But I know that a lot of people who don’t have the same kind of daily access we do to beaches in Hong Kong need to have their beach expectations managed.

Getting around: The resort is barely accessible by road, and is remote from the rest of the island. It’s in a great location with wonderful views of the karst islands rather than just bare ocean. There are private speedboat transfers, or you can hop on the public boats that ferry staff over to the inhabited side of the island.

We took an eyeopening ride back to the hotel one evening in a taxi. From half-way the roads were just rubble and we had to get out and push the taxi up a hill at one stage. All quite fun!

Island: The rest of the island is super chilled. It’s a mainly Muslim community so it’s not a raucous party island. Apart from the Evason, the rest of the accommodation is very simple, low-budget backpacker style beach huts. There are no penny-pinching gap-year backpackers which is a blessed relief.

We had a fantastic meal at Sabai Corner, and would highly recommend sitting there watching the sun go down and eating supper.

We also had a spa treatment and lunch at the Evason Six Senses. It was very pleasant, very sophisticated and ever so hushed. Shhhhh.

The villas are impressive, but unless I was going to the island in high season and really needed the seclusion that money buys, I wouldn’t be tempted. The hotel also caused some upset in the community when they arrived, and so the locals were unimpressed for a long while. Apparently management are now more sensitive about their role on the island and relations are slowly improving.

Price: THB15,600 for four nights! That’s around US$500. Awesome value. This included one night free which was a special deal for patrons who lived in Asia.

We will definitely be going back to The Paradise. The hotel isn’t the plushest, most sophisticated in the world, but for the budget that they must have had to build it, it has been very thoughtfully planned and maximizes the stunning location. It sits gently in it’s surroundings and the atmosphere (at least in low season when we were there) is friendly and super chilled, and you just can’t argue with value for money like that.

Koh Yao Noi is a delightful island, and staggeringly unspoiled considering that Phuket is mere minutes away.

w1

W1 Wending – Zhejiang comes to iSquare

A great meal, complicated by the fact that the restaurant serves shark’s fin.

Review:

I’m always keen to try new Chinese restaurants, and W1 is definitely very new.  The original restaurant is in Ningbo, one of my favourite Chinese cities – coastal, a tasteful mix of old and new, well-planned, with friendly people and great food. They have only just opened up in iSquare and the management have been transplanted from Ningbo. For once my admittedly poor Mandarin skills were actually of use in this city!

Zhejiang cuisine is probably best encapsulated in Dongpo Pork. The sublime, meltingly soft pork-belly is stewed in wine and soy sauce and it’s that aspect that seems to come through in many dishes. A mellowness that is then accented with vinegars and crunchy vegetables.

Food: As there were only two of us the restaurant manager sized the portions down of those dishes that would more normally be shared in a bigger group. I loved that. I have often asked restaurants to do this as I hate to waste food, to varying degrees of success. What a refreshing change for the restaurant themselves to suggest it. They also don’t use MSG which is a big plus.

So, we started off with the Four Pickles: Delicious Drunken Crab that was ice cold, with sweet, sweet roe, crazy fresh and a wonderful gingerness to the marinade. Sucking the meat out of the joints was very satisfying. Then there were boiled peanuts, some pickled greens and duck tongues which were all very tasty.

Next up was shrimp with beancurd. Buttery, melt in the mouth prawns served with a gentle red vinegar.  Very simple and well balanced.

Then we had crab soup which again was delicate and fresh.

After that the pork belly stewed in wine and soy sauce with turnip. Mmm. Mmm. Mmm.

By golly those Chinese knew what they were doing when they came up with this one! There’s been about 1000 years to perfect the dish, and W1 certainly did it justice. The addition of turnip was perfect and the sweet unctuousness of the pork and gravy was balanced by it being served with a fresh, crisp, steamed baby green on top.

They had run out of the mustard greens we ordered, so we had baby cabbage instead. This was served in a super hot stone pot and the cabbage had been stir fried in pork dripping, with shallots and garlic. It was so good that my partner described it as among the tastiest vegetables he’d ever eaten.

Drinks: We didn’t delve too deeply into the drinks menu as I was driving. We had Puer tea, in a pot that was kept full throughout the meal, being refilled from a source in the kitchen rather than the same leaves being left to stew for hours at our table. Again, a service touch that was much appreciated.

Service: Efficient wait staff and the manageress on duty was incredibly helpful and friendly. We muddled through in our mix of English and Mandarin. The menus have good and full descriptions of the food and the restaurant’s ethos in English.

Ambience: The views from the restaurant are fantastic. Straight over the harbour from the 25th floor. The restaurant itself is light, with lots of crystal and Louis XIV influences. The booth tables are a little uncomfortable though as you can’t move the seats, so I had to perch on the edge of the seat to get close enough to my bowl to eat. The food was so good though that I didn’t really notice this slight inconvenience after a while.

Price: Very reasonable for the quality of the food. We paid HK$695 for the meal above.

Summary: I would like to say that  I will definitely go back to W1, towing a whole group of people with me so that I can try more of their dishes and make a proper meal out of it. The food was excellent.

However, because they have shark fin on the menu, I can’t until I know the source of it. Finning disgusts me but apparently the practice is limited and it’s unlikely that fins used in HK restaurants are from sharks butchered in this way. However, my issue is one of sustainability. To my knowledge there are no sustainable fisheries of sharks, and their numbers have been so decimated that many species are on the verge of extinction. So, this is why I have to rate W1 as Caustic even though the meal was excellent.

Location: 2501, iSquare, 63 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui. Tel: 3153 2188. www.wendingno1.com (this is their Ningbo restaurant website)

liberty

New Chef at Liberty Group

Vicky ChengSo, there’s a new chef taken over at LPW and LEX: Vicky Cheng – a Canadian who comes with a good pedigree. He trained under the much decorated and successful Daniel Boulud (for the less gastronomically inclined, that’s Daniel from TV’s “After Hours with Daniel”).

Sadly Chef Makoto Ono has returned to Winnipeg, Canada, to take over the helm at the family restaurant Edohei, as his father is ill. If ever I happen to be in Winnipeg, I shall definitely be visiting.

If you didn’t know how lucky Hong Kong was to have Makoto Ono here for a short while, or if you didn’t ever eat at Liberty Private Works (previous review here), you can read more about him on James Chatto’s website, and Vicky Cheng also get’s the thumbs up.

I haven’t been to Liberty Private Works for a while now, but find myself at Exchange quite often. It’s one of the restaurants in the IFC environs you always seem to  be able to get a table at when you book half an hour before lunch (make of that what you will), and they have a really reasonably priced set menu with pretty solid fare.

I went last week in fact and tried their sous vide dishes. One was a baked egg and the other was a salmon fillet. The flavour of the egg was amazing, but it took a little getting used to the egg-white being the same texture as the yolk, and looking undercooked even though it wasn’t.

The same goes for the salmon really. Great taste, but I didn’t go a bundle on the texture – I now understand why most chefs will quickly fry or grill off meat and fish once cooked this way. I appreciate that technically it was an impressive piece of salmon, but it would have helped if it had looked appetizing too.

Liberty Exchange: Podium level, 2 Exchange Square, Central . Opened from Monday through Sunday for lunch and dinner from 10am – 11pm. Tel: 2810 8400.

Liberty Private Works:

3/F 12 Wellington Street, Central. Tel +852 5186 3282.  Email info@libertpw.com. www.libertypw.com

Eugenia_room

The Eugenia, Bangkok. Still a little gem.

Update:

The Eugenia is now off the Candy list. It’s now tipped into being a little too scuffed.

Review:

I’ve tried out a number of hotels in Bangkok over the past few years since I first stayed in the Eugenia back in 2006 (review here).  Getting around Bangkok is still a bit of a nightmare, so you have to mitigate this by planning where you stay very sensibly in relation to what you want to go and do.

I made the mistake of staying near the palace during one visit and spent more time stuck in traffic jams than I did sleeping, eating, shopping and getting massages combined.

For me, the Eugenia is still number one on my list for the following reasons:

  • It’s pretty quick to get to and from the airport.
  • I love the styling.
  • It’s got a pool.
  • It’s tiny – just 12 bedrooms, which is my kind of boutique hotel.
  • I love the breakfast in your bedroom at no extra cost.
  • It’s a 10 minute walk or 3 minute hotel tuk-tuk ride to the Sky Train.
  • It’s close to Siam by Sky Train which is where I like to shop.
  • It’s within a 5 minute walk of some awesome home-furnishing shops like Incredible and Almeta Silk.
  • My favourite foot massage joint in Bangkok is within a 5 minute walk – Mulberry Spa.
  • It’s close to a lot of good restaurants, bars and clubs.
  • It’s on the right side of town to get down to Silom and some of my other favourite restaurants and bars by taxi if I don’t want to get the sky-train.

So for convenience and style it ticks lots of boxes, and makes up for what it lacks in facilities and flawless service by being tiny and friendly.

Rooms:

I’ve stayed in both the 1st floor Eugenia rooms which are at the front of the hotel and open onto a terrace, and the Sawadee rooms on the 2nd floor which are at the back. What you lose in terrace you gain in peace and quiet, and I was very happy staying in the Sawadee rooms this time round.

The Eugenia is all about colonial shabby chic, so floorboards creak, air-con is quite noisy, and there’s no lift, but that just adds to the feeling that you’re staying in someone’s house rather than a hotel, and that’s just fine with me.

When I first stayed here the rooms had the most fantastic heavy linen sheets, but now they have gone back to cotton (albeit very high quality), I was unaccountably disappointed by this.

Beds are very comfortable though, huge deep mattresses and lovely duvets.

All the drinks in the minibar are free which is a nice touch, and as they don’t really have a breakfast room, they bring it to you in your room as a matter of course, which is perfect. We also got a good wifi connection in the room which was useful.

Bathrooms:

I love The Eugenia’s monotone floor tiles.  The showers are hot and strong, and the copper bathtubs a lovely treat.

The only quibble is that although their organic, homemade bath products all smell fantastic, they aren’t that great at doing the job of lathering up, and tend to leave me feeling a bit gunky. Must try harder on that front.

Service:

Don’t expect perfect English here. The staff are all very helpful and are as attentive as they need to be, without being overbearing. I tend to try and find one staff member who I can go to for everything rather than having to explain things a couple of times to different people who don’t understand. This trip it was Ong-Art Rungsamai, the reservation manager. He was efficient and used his initiative to help us find and book what we needed in the city.

eugenia_swimming_pool

Facilities:

There is a good if tiny restaurant downstairs: the D.B Bradley room, which I’ll review separately, and the Zheng He Lounge for reading and drinks, both beautifully decorated, and very chilled.

The swimming pool at the back of the hotel is big enough to exercise in and is mostly shaded during the day, and there is a little sala bar beside the pool which is a lovely spot to hang out and have a pre-dinner drink.

Where: All the contact details are at the bottom of this post here, which has more photos and blather too.

Price:

Costs have risen since we first stayed (although that was very soon after it had opened), but not by much. We paid US$230 a night this time round for a smaller Sawadee room rather than US$166 for the larger Eugenia room back in 2006, but I still think it’s great value for what you get.

Sunset and low tide in Sham Wat Bay
Sunset and low tide in Sham Wat Bay

Sunday evening bliss – Sham Shek Tsuen

Hong Kong corners:

I’m feeling all bucolic at the moment. I think it’s spending more time on Lantau with the cows that’s doing it.

Sunset and low tide in Sham Wat Bay

I’ve always been slightly reticent to reveal my favourite “secret” places in Hong Kong in case more people decide to descend, but I’ve realised that very few civilians can be bothered to or have time to investigate the furthest reaches of our nobbly territory, so I’m going to start sharing, (albeit I’m still not going to give you my most favourite places for now, we’re going to start small).

Tucked down in one of the most hidden corners of Lantau is Sham Shek Tsuen and Sham Wat Bay.

If you ever walk between Tai O and Tung Chung (a highly recommended, easy walk around the coast, through some fantastic villages), then you will come to Sham Wat which is below the Big Buddha.

There are a couple of little eateries, and the locals are just super lovely.  The muddy bay is chock full with oysters, mussels, cockles and crabs, and the village is known for its oyster omelettes and dried seaweed.

A beautiful corner of Hong Kong, where you can sit with a can of beer, dangle your legs over the sea wall and watch the sun slip below the horizon into the sea and the locals harvesting their seafood. Chill-mc-chillin.

The villagers insisted on giving us lots of fruit from their orchards.

The best way to get there (as most of you don’t have a Lantau permit) is actually to do it as part of the walk to or from Tai O, or by bike if you’ve got legs of steel.

But if you fancy a last beer after a day on the beaches of South Lantau then the only way to go is by taxi, and get ready for a pretty hairy ride up and down the Sham Wat Road.

Call taxis on 2984 1328 or 2984 1268. Be persistent, taxis can be wildly difficult to get through to here.

caustic_candy_cheow_lan_1

Khao Sok – stunningly simple

Once again, Thailand comes up trumps with an easy long-weekend getaway from Hong Kong.

Spectacular karst scenery on Cheow Lan Lake

Khao Sok contains the oldest rainforest on the planet, and together with Klong Saen and Klong Nakkha wildlife sanctuaries, and the smaller adjacent parks of Sri Phangnga and Klong Phanom, it encompasses a huge protected area of 4,400km² – four times larger than the whole of Hong Kong’s territory.

What that means for us, is that there’s a great big national park about 2.5hours drive from Phuket airport where we can go to play.

I first visited Khao Sok back in 2004 and in the intervening six years, it’s barely changed – which is both surprising and gratifying.

There are a few more guest-houses and a couple more places to get a (pretty poor) massage, but not much else.

Here’s the lowdown:

Where and what?

Khao Sok is about 2.5hrs drive north of Phuket, and about 1hr north-east of Khao Lak and an hour or so west of Surat Thani.

For visitors, it’s split into two parts.  The settlement around the park headquarters along the Sok river where all the guesthouses are and from where you can trek into the forest, and then Cheow Lan Lake in the north where you can go and stay in raft-huts.

Cheow Lan Lake was formed when the Rachabrapah Dam was built in the early 80′s. A blessing and a curse, as most large hydroelectric projects are, the lake covered a huge area of virgin rainforest, causing massive harm to the local wildlife and has made the most remote parts of Khao Sok accessible to rampant poaching.

It does, however provided sporadic supplies of electricity, and is absolutely one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes I’ve ever visited – beats both Halong Bay and Phang Nga Bay on that front.

Glam it most certainly is not, but awesome it is, young grasshopper.

When?

For a  Brit, one of the bonuses of spending so much time in sub-tropical Hong Kong is that when it comes to holidays I do not need to head for the beach to get some sun in my bones. Khao Sok is a real all-year-round destination.

But if you were splitting hairs, I’d say the best time is on the cusp between the wet and dry season so that the reservoir is full, the waterfalls gushing, but you’re guaranteed some sunshine, and hopefully when it’s not too busy.

I like the rainy season personally, but I’m a contrarian.

Getting there – Driving is the only sensible option.

Most tourists visit Khao Sok as an organised 2-3 day trip from Phuket, or are backpacking through as it is on the trail and it can be super cheap. This means that 99.9% of visitors have to take part in organised activities which mostly have to stick to the same schedules.

Either fly into Phuket or into Surat Thani, hire a car and drive up. The roads are beautiful, it’s very easy to find, and the scenery is spectacular. You’ll also be able to stay in the best hotel – The Cliff and River – and make your own itineraries, which is highly preferable.

First Things First:

Get a hold of Waterfalls & Gibbon Calls - Exploring Khao Sok National Park by Thom Henley. Whether you do this when you arrive at Khao Sok or manage somehow to get a hold of a copy pre-arrival, it’s really worth reading before you decide how you want to spend your time in the park. Plus, a percentage of the cash goes to a children’s educational trust.

Tells you all about the flora, fauna and history as well as having a rundown on the places to stay and eat. Invaluable.

Accommodation – Park Headquarters

You can either have a spin round the village and take a look at all the different bungalows on offer, or you can just choose out of the ones I think are the best options.

Looking down to the restaurant from our balcony at the Cliff

If you have to stay around park HQ, then I would recommend The Khao Sok Rainforest Resort. It has a few “mountainside” bungalows set up a hill that look out over a bit more scenery than most of  the bungalows which are at ground level. It’s also run by one of the best guides in the park – a poacher turned gamekeeper who will take you on some great treks, hacking his way through the forest with his machete. They have good food, and really the only reason to choose The Cliff and River over this is that The Cliff is more stylish and has air-con.

We also stayed at Las Orquideas for one night, which was new, neat and tidy and run by a very friendly Spanish chap and his Thai wife.  There’s only a handful of bungalows and it’s quite a way away from both headquarters and the main restaurant area. He’s planted some beautiful gardens, but with a THB1500 price tag, I’d take The Cliff at THB2000, or the Rainforest Resort at just THB600 instead. Sorry, but you fall between two stools.

If you want something a bit more special though, there’s only one option:  The Cliff and River, about 10-15mins drive from the park entrance. This is where a car comes in handy again. You’d be completely reliant on this hotel’s facilities and activities if you didn’t have your own transport which, in all honesty, you don’t want to be.

The bungalows c1-c5 are some of the best, being up the hill halfway between the restaurant (downhill), the spa and reception (up-hill) and a few footsteps away from the lovely swimming pool/jacuzzi. But most important are the stunning views of a sheer karst cliff rising hundreds of feet above you. Breathtaking.

The rooms are large, have air-con and TV. They have lovely terraces and cute little indoor/outdoor bathrooms. Well worth the THB2000 per night.

Take note: This is a pretty new concern. Service is friendly but a bit haphazard, and they only take cash. In the low season, they don’t have many staff, so it’s more difficult to organise massages etc (we turned up for our pre-booked massages only to be told that there was just one therapist so we’d couldn’t have them simultaneously, which kind of defeated the purpose of booking).

All of the accommodation includes breakfast in the price, and as usual the breakfast is pretty darn generous and tasty in all of these hotels.

Food – Park Headquarters

It seems there are only two restaurants that are not part of a guesthouse complex. One is Thai Herb, the other is Pawn’s.

Thai Herb is a pretty good little restaurant. It’s set on stilts on a couple of different levels and is surrounded by a very pretty garden. The food was good and it was shooper cheap. Definitely recommended.

However.

Pawn’s is a whole different kettle of fish. She cooks some of the most delightfully balanced food I’ve ever eaten. It’s not just the fact that she plucks most of the ingredients out of her back garden so that they are super fresh, she just has the chef’s gift of being able to tweak her dishes to perfection. But she deserves a separate panegyric altogether, (Oo, look at me and my new Thesaurus…)

Activities – Headquarters areas.

You can go kayaking or inner-tubing down the Sok looking for wildlife and spinning out of control. You can follow the trails by yourself through the park or hire a guide to take you off the beaten track. If you haven’t tried it, inner tubing is great fun.  It’s not just for the backpackers in Laos, grown adults are allowed to enjoy it too!

Next time we go back we are going to go and do a bit of jungle survival with a couple of likely-looking guerrilla types for 4-5 days living off the land, and weaving our own hammocks etc – all very Ray Mears.

I have to say I was a bit offended when one of the guys pointed at me and said, “Of course if your girlfriend comes we’ll have to only do maybe 50%. Not 100%.” Caustic Candy then set him straight by dislocating his shoulder in one smooth movement and telling him the story of how she lost her eye and what happened to the perpetrator of that attack.

I usually delight in chauvinism and use it against them as it makes men foolish and incautious, but as I wasn’t working I thought  I could show my hand and teach this little scalawag a lesson.

There are also options to go trekking by elephant if that’s your thing. I’m still confused about whether it’s a good or a bad thing for the lovely Lelfants, so I tend to steer clear myself. The world is a complicated place sometimes.

Wildlife and Flora.

Wild animals are obviously pretty shy and the locals say that the rise in tourists has driven many of the animals deeper into the park.

Don’t go expecting to see tigers and bears, but do expect to see their traces if you go hiking off trail. We saw big cat paw prints and evidence of bears sharpening their claws on tree trunks.

We heard and saw gibbons and macaques, countless snakes and insects as well as eagles, hornbills and lots of other birds. You definitely hear more than you see, but for me that’s the magic of forests and jungles: the sitting and the listening.

We also went to see the Rafflesia, but frankly I was more concerned I might step on one the new buds hidden in the mulch, and decided that maybe it was better to see some things on the TV, and that I didn’t really need to experience all the wonders of the world up close, if it meant I might hasten their extinction.

Permits:

Poaching is still a big issue with trapping rather than hunting being the modus operandi. I’d happily pay  THB1000 a day for a permit to visit if it meant more rangers could patrol. The permits are only THB200 right now which is very generous.

So. Lots to do and much cheapness. It’s all sounding good for Khao Sok so far.

And now, any trip to Khao Sok should really include a visit to Cheow Lan Lake, but as this post is now getting a little long, I’ll tackle that separately.


caustic_candy_rock_gibraltar

A long weekend in Gibraltar and my twisted sense of style

One of the facts I like most about Gibraltar is that the tiny enclave gave us the word gibberish. The Spanish/English version of our own dear Chinglish here in HK. Thank you Gibraltar.

Another fact, for those of you who didn’t go to school, is that the Rock of Gibraltar is the northern Pillar of Hercules.

caustic_candy_rock_gibraltar

Various versions of the Greek and Roman myths of Hercules’ Labours have him smashing the mountain of Atlas in two rather than having to climb over it to get where he was going to, and this event created the Straits of Gibraltar.

Thus was the Med connected to the Atlantic, and one part of the split mountain is The Rock, and the other Monte Hacho or Jebel Musa across the water in Morocco, (that’s Morocco across the water in the photo below).

caustic_candy_gibraltar_sunset

Poor, dear, run-down, misrepresented, ignored, forgotten and maligned Gibraltar. Known more recently as the poor-man’s cruising destination, home to online-gambling giants, British squaddies, and for having the worst food in the Med. It’s a crime, it really is.

Don’t get me wrong. It has a long way to go, but Gibraltar is massively better than it used to be. What’s more frustrating is that it doesn’t have to be like this.

It needs one champion. One patron who will buy both The Caleta and The Rock hotels and restore them to 1920′s glory (David Tang, Lungarno, Rocco Forte or Byblos would be my choices).  The rest of what’s needed will follow.

I love the place. I think it’s delightful, and there is more history packed into its 6.8 km² area that almost anywhere else on Earth.

I tell people I’m going every year and there are either blank looks returned by non-Europeans, or looks of commiseration by my fellow Brits or Continentals.

This is what I love:

  1. It has a great climate.
  2. It is in an amazing location.
  3. It has staggering natural beauty.
  4. It has low tax status.
  5. It has some frikkin’ awesome architecture from Napoleonic docks and fortifications, to old-school Spanish streets and art-deco hotels.
  6. Is has a truly fascinating history, with some quite wonderful landmarks.
  7. It has some beautiful gardens.
  8. It’s super retro in the best 70s tradition.
  9. I can indulge my interest in trade, ports and naval strategy.
  10. (This may sound strange coming from me), it has possibly the coolest bowling alley in the world.
  11. Because it’s so ignored it’s not very busy, and I can happily gets lots of work done and not be tempted out to restaurants, delis and clubs.
caustic_candy_old_gibraltar

Everything is there to make it into an even better version of Monaco, but unfortunately no one who could do anything about it has realised this yet. Shame on you British Government.

What you have to ignore though to appreciate all of the above is:

1) Truly horrendous dining options.

There are no great restaurants, there aren’t even any good restaurants. Really there aren’t.

I mean, we’re on the Med, at the southern tip of Spain in a town that has been ruled over by the Moors, the Spanish, the French and the British and has been a trading port for thousands of years, starting off with the Phoenicians in 950BC by crikey. (Another useless fact, is that archeological evidence suggests that the caves of Gib seem to have been the last bastion of Neanderthal man before they were finally wiped out by good old Homo Sapiens.)

This place should have spectacular cuisine! At the very least you should be able to get fresh bbq’d fish straight out of the sea on every street corner, yet it is impossible to find.

Pizza Express seems to be the epitome of modern sophistication in the town, and The Rock hotel which is meant have the best restaurant, clings onto it’s 1970′s Robert Carrier style menu like there’s no tomorrow. It’s one thing to hark back and recreate 70′s French food in new, lighter and exciting ways, it’s quite another to have stuck with the same heavy stodge since that decade, serving it in 90°C heat in Fawlty Towers’ dining room.

Queensway Quay, which is meant to be the hip, hot and happening Mega-Yacht marina is bland, bland, badly built and a bit more bland.

2) Traffic.

Get you’re damn roads sorted out, and quickly. I don’t want to sit in a traffic jam every time I want to go anywhere.

3) Hotels.

The Rock and The Caleta on either side of the rock, are wonderful examples of art-deco architecture, and they have great swimming pools. But they are pretty dreadful establishments. Shabby, disorganised, slack and with bad restaurants and facilities. Staff are often overwhelmed and rude at the Rock, but both have a certain retro charm, that is crying out to be refurbed beautifully.

The Eliott, more in the centre of town, had an upgrade about 4 years ago, and scores highest on efficiency as well as actually having working internet access in every room (unlike the Rock where you either have to sit in the lobby or mostly stand on one foot facing west if you want to get even a bar of signal in many of the rooms). It’s probably the best of a rum-ish bunch.

4) Development

A few year’s ago (pre-financial world blow-up) there was a brilliant plan to reclaim more land from the sea (strongly opposed by the Spanish) and build Gibraltar out a little, putting in a marina that could take huge yachts and building on the marine repair and engineering facilities and skills that are already in the town.

Every year the mega-yachts have to pass through the strait on their seasonal shift from winter in the Caribbean to summer in the Med. What better place to get your repairs done and take on fuel than in tax-free Gibraltar? And if there were a couple of decent hotels and some great restaurants it would also start attracting the users of those yachts to board in Gib rather than further into the Med.

That’s the sort of tourism you want. Not package tourists who come and spend a few pennies in Marks & Spencer, for crying out loud! And who go to the pub and grab a couple of pints and a pie, only to go back on board for their dinner and disco dancing.

That is not the quality tourism that can keep an economy vibrant and fresh. You need people to stay in town for 3-4 nights and splash some cash around.

Instead, what Gibraltar now has is a stucco, albeit low-rise, marina complex called Queensway Quay. It’s stuffed with themed and franchised restaurants (like Pizza Express), pumping out low quality, non-local food at extortionate prices. It’ll do, as it still has better restaurants than other parts of town, but it’s utterly generic. In fact, it’s rather like The Waterfront in our own dear Discovery Bay, but with even less charm.

5) Casino

Can you believe that the only casino in the town is run by Gala, better known for its Bingo Halls in the UK?

No thank you.

I prefer my casinos to be more of the Mando standard in Macau, or 50 St James in London: Small and refined.

Apparently the casino will move to a new building at some stage, so one can only hope it will have a bit more class.

6) Macaques

I hate them. Anyone who hikes the Maclehose in Hong Kong, or has been to Ubud in Bali will know what I’m talking about here.

There are other things lacking in Gibraltar like unique shops, good local food stores, decent customer service etc, but really you can’t expect those things in the Gibraltar of the present day. The population is really small, and is still caught between working in some sort of support role to the British military, catering to the dreariest form of tourism, or to the worst end of the financial services industry, poor loves.

Hopefully some hedge-funds will start choosing Gib over Geneva and Monaco and the whole place will change overnight.

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Spot HM’s sub

Upshot.

I’ve stayed in a room with sea view and balcony at The Rock. I’ve never had breakfast there or dinner, but have partooken of a few sundowners and snacks on the Wisteria Terrace. I’ve also stayed at the Eliott more recently and apart from the choking-ly expensive GBP18 fee for 24 hours of internet usage, it was of a higher standard decor and efficiency than the Rock, if a little less charming architecturally.

We lunch at The Caleta and dine mainly on Queensway Quay. We drink down in Grande Casemates Square often at the Lord Nelson, bowl in King’s Bastion and for some reason, even have late night kebabs and have, on more than one occasion, almost got into a fight. How British is that?!

It’s a lovely town to walk around, plus there is a diversity of history which is obvious and fascinating, with lots of different places to visit or hike to.

If you’re London based, a nostalgia freak or just a little bit twisted, and have been most everywhere in Europe for a long weekend, Gibraltar is close and easy to get to. It really is a great little place to discover, and get some sun in the bones. It’s tiny, hot, super-quiet and has enough to do to keep you happy for a good few days.

Alternatively, if you just want to slip into oblivion for a while – concentrate on getting a project finished or just collect your thoughts, there’s a lot worse places to sit on a terrace and watch the Qatar Gas II Project in action than The Rock.

Liberty Private Works – Hurry before he becomes the next big thing

Update:

I had an email from LPW to confirm that the kitchen will continue to operate after the Exchange Square restaurant/bar opens.  Thank the lord.

Review:

A complete stranger felt compelled to tell me about the fabulous meal he’d had at a new chef’s table back in September 09. I was at a gallery preview of some rather self-indulgent black and white, semi-porno photograhs and this chap was the most interesting thing about the whole affair.

Unfortunately I was about to go deep field for a few months and so have only just had the opportunity to go to Liberty Private Works.  And thank the lord I did!  Renovation work is already underway in a space in Exchange Square and chef Makoto Ono is not sure whether he’s going to be able to keep Liberty operating as well as the new mega-resto.

On to the experience:

Food:  Set menu, which suits me perfectly.  I’m a busy, harassed bee and have to make far to many decisions every day already, so the mental overload that occurs when I have to then tackle the choosing of what I want to shove down my gullet sometimes diminishes the whole experience of enjoying my food.  I’d much prefer to leave it in the capable hands of a trained master, and believe me, Makoto Ono is that.

Unpretentious, well-executed, super-tasty, pleasingly surprising, playful food. He looks proper pleased when you like his food, when you appreciate his taste and texture combos. The guy and his team are genuinely and seriously good.

What did we have? Home-cured gravlax, plumptious scallops, beautiful beef, local sea bass, asparagus, fruit compote, tomato jelly, all sorts, and all beautifully balanced.

Drink:  Doesn’t get better than this. They do have a wine-list and bar, but you can bring your own wine and don’t have to pay corkage!  Bloomin’ marvelous.

As it was gorgeous boy’s birthday, I snaffled a bottle of Ruinart Rose champagne (HK$498 and maybe the best widely available punk out there folks) and a wonderfully good value Torbreck Woodcutters 2006 Shiraz (HK$288) into the restaurant earlier in the day – some of his favourite vinos and perfect choices for an eclectic 6 course meal.

My wonderful Coutt’s concierge had these put by at Rare&Fine Wines on the edge of Queen’s Road West, so I just swooped in, was strong-armed (!@*&?) into a swift tasting of some lovely New Zealand wines and then barreled off down the road to deposit them at LPW pre-meal, with boyf none the wiser. Brilliant party trick that. Many brownie points garnered and lovely to get one over on “He-Who-Usually-Stores-Surprises-Up-His-Sleeve”.

BTW – I do highly recommend Rare&Fine Wines – check em out.

Ambience & Service: Usually I would review these two aspects separately, but because the only people you interact with are the team of Makato Ono and his sidekicks Albert and Claire, I have to consider them together. Liberty Private Works is super small and intimate. The space is maybe 400 sq-ft in total. That’s it: 14 bar stools, bar area/kitchen, team of 3 chefs and a blackboard.

The chefs are respectful, sweet, attentive, easy-going, bloody talented, happy to chat and tell you exactly what you’re getting. Makoto even started doing the washing up whilst waiting for the actual washer-uppers to arrive – and I don’t think he was indicating that it was time for us to leave, I think he just has pride in his kitchen and isn’t worried about getting stuck in.

Just a really chilled, welcoming, happy atmosphere of people making good food and other people enjoying that food. We were a real mixed bunched that evening. Me and the boy, another HK couple, a gweilo/HK business foursome, and an HK/mainland business six-some. Nice.

Hope I’m not boring you with the gushing praise…Anyhow, more good news to come.

Cost: $620 per person. Jeez, you could go to most outlets in So-Lo and spend that on three courses. I would have paid double. Couple that with the $0 corkage and it’s worth the 3 storey climb.

Location: 3F, 12 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong. (Opp California Fitness). Tel +852 5186 3282. email: info@libertypw.com

Liberty’s future is uncertain my dear readers.  The night we went Ono-sama told us that they’d swung the first sledgehammer of the renovation of Aria.  Yes, this chef who left Beijing because our Northern Friends still aren’t quite able to let go of historical umbrage and shunned his Japanese restaurant (woop woop HK’s gain), has the backing to take over a large, prime piece of banker/lawyer territory in Exchange Square.  And, whilst I agree that this town could do with a restaurant that crafts its French onion soup over an 8 hour period, and that knows how to produce a decent Caesar salad (both stated aims), I can’t help crying into my bubbly and raising my hands and eyes to the sky in exhortation that this surely isn’t the only ambition of the man? In Hong Kong. At the moment. Ono is one seriously hot property.

Readers: Dine with him before he hits the big time and you potentially lose him to soup and salad.

Makato Ono: Do not sit back and drown in a vat of HK mediocrity: let the 5* hotels concentrate on comfort food. You sir, need to keep pushing the envelope.

Mau Kee: Would you like some insanity with your soup madam?

Review:

Crikey Moses! I didn’t sleep for two nights after I ate at Mau Kee in Pui O, South Lantau. As you can probably tell, I finally had a weekend in Lantau last week, and it was after my visit to Dai Long Wan, and discovered the Island Club that my hiking partner and I finally found ourselves in Pui O just in time for an early dinner last Sunday.  It had been a beautiful day, one of those that makes you wonder in amazement (but praying it stays that way) why you’d only seen 4 other groups of people out on the trails of this wonderful island.

Food: A mind boggling menu. Everything from chicken a la king, steak and chips through chicken and sweetcorn soup, to salt & pepper squid. We opted for Cantonese and had chicken and sweetcorn soup which came with a garnish of diced savaloy (enough for 12 and I was praying it was corn starch that had given it the consistency of snot), beef and celery – (very tasty, but super salty), chicken with chilli and peppers (tasty and hot),  and some Yangchow fried rice (tasty).

Flash forward one hour and I was itching like a mofo, and sweating buckets. Flash forward another 6 hours and I still couldn’t get to sleep properly. Flash forward another 3 hours and I had the most horrendous nightmare I have ever had that actually made me so distraught I couldn’t go back to sleep and made me start shaking when I told my boyfriend about it.

Boyfriend also complained about disturbed sleep. So, me thinks, maybe a soupcon too much MSG…

Ambience: Village restaurant, everything you would expect: noisy, TV’s blaring, people shouting, bamboo chairs, i.e. the usual, (The only slight issue I had was with the dog that they allowed customers to bring in and wander up to diners.  Somehow if it’s an outdoor restaurant I have no issue with this, but indoors?  I just think it’s a bit rough).

Service: Staff were friendly and attentive, no issues there.

Price: Decent price, what you’d expect. Dishes from $20 to $70 ish.

Location: Opposite the first bus stop that you get to when you are properly in the village of Pui O from the direction of Mui Wo, Lantau, Hong Kong. Tel: +852 2984 1151

I tell you what, if you are sensitive to MSG, this little restaurant is definitely not a destination for you. Holy Bloody Moly it was a full-on 36 hour trip! I thought the drugs were bad but MSG is a whole different ball game. Mau Kee? Never.Ever.Again.

Island Club – replacement for Frog & Toad on Lantau?

Of course nothing could replace the Frog & Toad on Lantau, it was a unique institution. But, I am interested to see that The Island Club has now been set up in Chi Ma Wan’s Dai Long Wan village.  I met the very nice Shirley Chan on a reconnaissance trip last weekend,  and discovered not only an organic veggie farm, but also her Island Club.

Dai Long Wan has a lovely beach and although has no road access it’s actually very straightforward to get to – either walking a quick 25mins from Chi Ma Wan prison, by 20min kaido from Cheung Chau, or by junk.  It’s not really on the junk trip radar anymore, but the Island Club will provide you with all sorts of watersports equipment, bbqs and booze.  Either $350 or $450 per person for all the food and booze you can tuck away  (including those lovely organic veggies), I think it would make an awesome stop off for a lazy weekend beach party. Certainly of more interest than the hideous Stoep on Cheung Sha.

We carried on round the coast to Sea Ranch for a bit of a gander.  Fantastic walk, really pretty path from Chi Ma Wan Prison all the way to Sea Ranch, but Oh My God!  What a horrible canker on the bottom of Lantau that former “luxury” resort is.  It’s post-apocalyptic, it’s rotten, it’s spine-chilling frankly.  Broken windows, broken blinds, desiccated pot-plants left out for years on balconies, one house had a bunch of weird statues of 4ft tall african tribesman standing outside their front door – oddness. A couple of the flats/houses are lived in and there are 24hour guards, but it really feels like hell descended and just ate everyone up.  Shpooky. We ran away ‘toot sweet’.

Anyway: Click here for all the contact details and how to get there.

Eddie’s – Still Clinging On…

Update  21.5.10:…or not.

A post was seen on a Lantau community page with a lot of kitchen equipment for sale very recently from Eddie’s. Maybe it’s all over.  I think a case of decent food, wrong venue, wrong location. If anyone knows get in touch.

Review:

Well, Eddie’s is still hanging on there in Tong Fuk.  My original review way back when I started blogging last summer provoked a tornado (i.e. windy but brief) of localised reaction, including some unrepeatable opinions which even made me blush – unfortunately for you my dear readers, I have some kind of moral conscience and so decided not to publish the comments as it would have started an even bigger s**tstorm.

Anyhew, I found myself deciding to give Eddie’s another go a few weeks back and we had a very good meal of fish and chips. Admittedly both were under-seasoned, but that’s easily corrected at table, so not a biggy.  The fish was really very good.  Big, luscious slabs of meaty, perfectly flaky fish, and although I’m a breaded rather than battered fan, the batter was nicely crispy and not doughy and cloying at all.

The portions were a very generous size as was the side-salad accompaniment.

The service was better if still a little amateur, but this time it was endearing and friendly rather than rude and frustrating, so that’s a step in the right direction.

I still think Eddie’s would do better business out of Tong Fuk.  I think they should have grabbed the Thai restaurant’s space next to The Stoep when that came up for rent renewal a few months back.  The Stoep is a dreadful restaurant and Eddie’s seafood/sustainable theme would be perfect for junk trippers and the quality starved natives of that village.

And one final point – Eddie’s you’ve got to change your website from being Flash based, and take down the notice in the news section that “due to unforeseen circumstances” you can only open on weekends for dinner.  Re-brand poppet!  Call Eddie’s the best Weekend Dining Retreat in Lantau. You could claim that like many Lantau residents you go there at weekends to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and your stressful weekday job… Positives chaps, not negatives, (I don’t know why I feel it necessary to give you advice, but I just think you are still getting this thing wrong).

Your site architecture at the moment means that search engines can’t find you.  If I were you, I’d use WordPress, Joomla or Expression Engine to host your website – free, and so easy to use that you don’t need to pay anyone for design and developing.  That way, my reviews won’t come so close to the top of the searches, which I’m sure would be a great relief!

Location: 17B Tong Fuk Village, South Lantau, Hong Kong. Tel: 2980- 2636

Things Not Going To Plan For Aqua Group

Following on from the widely held belief here in Hong Kong that Aqua Group has completely screwed up the opening of Hullett House in Heritage 1881 so far, comes the news that all is not going well up in Beijing.  All four of their outlets in the Legation Quarter have now been closed for 2 weeks apparently over a big old cat fight between them and the landlords. Ever with his paw on the pulse, Beijing Boyce has the details here.

The Grand Stage – Dim Sum in Sheung Wan

Review:

I’ve had lunch at The Grand Stage on the 2nd floor of Western Market twice in the past couple of weeks, and I’m pretty impressed, and only have one quibble.

Photo snatched from their wedding club website

Food: Fairly comprehensive offering of trad Dim Sum. Beef balls, siu mei, wanton, turnip pasties, radish cakes, cha siu bao, sticky rice in lotus leaves – you get the picture.  The execution is also exceedingly good, and I think that it’s some of the tastiest Dim Sum in Hong Kong. It had a certain freshness and crispiness which was very pleasing.

However, and this is just stupidity – it arrived at the table barely warm which really took the edge off for me, and was frustrating – otherwise I’d have been jumping up and down on sofas and declaring a love of Katie Holmes.

The first time I went and experienced this lukewarm fare I put it down to being part of a large group and never being the first to dip into the baskets, but the second time I went we were just a party of four, so the sad fact is their service process must be all screwed up. It just goes to show how good it is though that the taste and freshness shone through the lack of warmth.

Ambience: The Grand Stage must be one of the biggest spaces in Hong Kong. It is fantastic to be under such a soaring ceiling.  It’s all a bit Mainland nightclub what with the red walls and the neon lighting, but it’s a lot of fun and I love the chandeliers. The great thing about the high ceilings is that even when you’re surrounded by 400 other people, the sound gets whipped away into the rafters so you don’t feel that it’s super noisy.

Service: Pretty typical Hong Kong. I’m a gweilo with non-existent Canto skills so I’m used to being misunderstood in Dim Sum restaurants. It was always easy to catch someone’s attention even if it was difficult to convey my meaning, so the fact you got swift service was good enough in my book.

Price: Not much more than $100 per person for a really decent amount of food, so good value.

Location: In Western Market right at the end of Des Voeux Road in Sheung Wan.  Best to book ahead as it seems to always be busy. Tel: (852) 2815 2311.

As I’m often in Sheung Wan I shall return to The Grand Stage again I’m sure. If I had holidaying visitors coming to Hong Kong I would probably take them here over Luk Yu Teahouse and the Dynasty in Wanchai’s Renaissance Harbour View just because it’s a bit more fun in the case of Dynasty and better food and service in the case of Luk Yu. For business lunch though, I would definitely opt for Dynasty.

I was vacillating over the category of The Grand Stage – Mama/Huhu or Candy, but even though the temperature wasn’t spot on, the food was very good and the overall experience has tipped it into the candy category for me – maybe it’s the New Year spirit that is making me feel generous!