Travel

Edendum

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Image: Edendum

Italian: the nation’s favourite cuisine, second only to the mighty curry. We’ve come to see it as safe, easy food; a collection of familiar, reliable dishes that can be knocked together in no time at all. It’s the “job done” meal that ticks everyone’s boxes, and it remains the average Brit’s dinner party go-to. But do we really know Italian cuisine? Are the dishes we order (often without so much as glancing at the menu, never mind the specials board) giving us the true flavour of Italy? The answer is, clearly, no.

I promise you, I cast no judgement over the types of Italian restaurants that the average town in England relies heavily on for its pasta and pizza needs (trust me, I’m as fond of a 2-4-1 steal as the next person). But if you’re someone who also seeks more than mass-produced lasagne and bland carbonara of a Friday night, then a dinner date within the welcoming walls of Edendum will be time (and money) well spent. Loosen your belts, dear reader, because it’s time to get under the skin of “the good old Italian”, one delightfully authentic course at a time.

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

I can’t help but love Edendum from the moment I step inside; it exudes a kind of shrug your-coat-off-and-relax warmth. Alluring deli produce lines the shelves, begging closer inspection, and the restaurant’s core beliefs and practices are stencilled across the walls. Any restaurateur who claims to transport a slice of real Italy straight to the mouths of Brighton gets my attention immediately, and upon talking to Diego (one half of the founding duo) it’s clear the word “authentic” isn’t bandied around without substantial backing. He and Lorenza are here to feed not only our hunger but our understanding of genuine Italian cuisine, and with a recently revamped menu this education may require a few visits.

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

Starter

There’s only one occasion when I can tolerate the texture of velvet, and that’s when it presents as the smoothest, creamiest goats’ cheese. This heavenly cheese is the first component to get my approval on the gnocco misto fritto sharing platter, melting and expanding on my tongue. The kitchen is kind enough to separate the meats from the cheeses, so my companion and I enjoy a split-down-the-middle version of this house speciality. Accompanying the goat are: a pungent gorgonzola, a subtle brie, a nutty fontina and a burrata so oozy I need a spoon. Crispy-yet-soft doughballs soak up this dairy-heavy dish, while cerignola olives, cherry tomatoes and spiced homemade chutneys provide an essential acidity which cuts through the richness of the cheese.  

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

Over on the meat side of the table there are comments along the lines of “This is the best prosciutto I’ve ever eaten. In my life. Ever” which I interpret to mean that if I wasn’t a pescetarian I still wouldn’t get a look in. The generous meat board also offers servings of coppa, cooked ham, spicy smoked spianata salami and wafer-thin mortadella.

Almost too pretty to eat, the gamberoni and Roma broccoli heads dance on their slate backdrop amongst swirls of saffron mayonnaise and edible flowers. Since I relish any opportunity to get my hands messy when eating, I don’t mind the shell-on presentation of these marinated king prawns; the delicate flavours underneath are well-complemented by a glass of Soave Classico.   

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

Main

We continue at a slow pace, and my companion switches to a glass of the Sangiovese Bigi to accompany the filetto di maiale con fichi. His first bite confirms how perfectly tender the pork fillet is, and I leave him to explore the parsnip purée and fig reduction while I gush over fact that someone in Brighton has finally nailed polenta mash. 

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

The smooth and salty base of my polenta e branzino is so addictive that it’s a shamefully long time before I pay the crispy-skinned sea bass any real attention. The delicate morsels of fish are tender, flavoursome and surrounded by capers and anchovies. While the scattered sun-dried tomatoes provide a sweet balance, some might feel this dish dances on the wrong side of salty, but I maintain that it comes down to personal preference. Just ensure the friendly and efficient waiter keeps your glass topped up with a crisp, dry white.

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

Dessert

The dessert options are presented, and a certain crème brulée con sorbetto al frutto della passione winks at me, just as it did at 10.42am when I first drooled over the brief but comprehensive list of dolci. At this stage, I’m so full I’m beginning to resemble a ball of gnocchi, but I place my order regardless, because anything with a name so beautifully lyrical is worth a little discomfort.  

It transpires that the crème brulée has not yet properly set, and I’m told it would upset the chef if I tasted anything less than perfection. Inwardly I bow down in respect. Edendum’s founders believe that the success of a dish depends just as much on the person cooking it as the quality of ingredients, and with this one swift assertion from the kitchen it becomes clear just how much heart and soul they’ve invested into pulling together their wonderful Edendum family.

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Image: Barefoot Rosie

We share the cannolo sicialano instead, but in truth we’re too full to appreciate it. Limoncello shots follow, and we roll out of the restaurant with a jar of the crema di carciofi e aglio from the deli as a souvenir of a delicious evening. That’s artichoke and garlic spread to the rest of us, and it’s bloody exquisite.   

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Image: Edendum

Verdict

Edendum is the place to take your in-laws, because the menu will impress them so much that you won’t need to. It’s the place to treat your new beau, because the cosy ambience will show that you know how to make a person feel special. It’s the place to host a business associate, because the waiting staff will meet your every need without bothering you unnecessarily. It’s the place to be when what you really want is a holiday in Tuscany but you’re a little bit skint. It’s the place to drop in when you need authentic Italian ingredients for your supper club and don’t want to support a chain deli. It’s even the place to dine alone; somewhere you can sit solo, and enjoy a sharing platter for two without anyone casting a judgemental glance your way.  

It’s also a place to return to, for the burrata with green pea purée, for the good value Pre-Theatre menu and, of course, for that crème brulée. See you again Edendum. Grazie di tutto.

 

 

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Surviving a Shitstorm

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“I had planned to go easy on you, but there’s this fierce warrior-goddess inside you, fighting with all her strength, calling out for a deeper treatment”. That was my reflexologist, mapping the soles of my feet exactly five days after my world imploded. I wanted to believe her, but not even head-to-toe chainmail could have made me feel warrior-like. A shitstorm had hit me, and I didn’t have a clue how to survive it.

You don’t need the hyperventilating, tears-and-snot detail of it all; suffice it to say, 2016 tore me apart. It dealt me one blow after another throughout the year, culminating in pure heartbreak. It unstitched me at the seams and didn’t stop until it had sunk its beastly claws into the very core of me. It catapulted me into a reality I could never have imagined and that I couldn’t stomach; anything I ate rose back up my throat choking me like the words I couldn’t say out loud. For a while, I’d had the only thing that mattered to me – LOVE – and in the slam of a door it went up in flames.  

Just like the two fishes symbolic of his zodiac sign, my lover’s heart began to swim in two opposing directions: one half chased something he didn’t even know existed, while the other half clutched at the shadows of the happiness he was throwing away. He became the epitome of Piscean indecision; a dark, deep, watery, enchanting and soulful mystery, whose penchant for living in a fantasy world ultimately demolished the reality we’d built down here on earth. Bags were packed, contracts were broken, memories were stuffed into boxes, keys were returned. The sky went black.  

In the first waves of shock, I sank. I reeled from the agony of it all, barely breathing. I knew that existing solely on wine and toast wasn’t sustainable, and that crying all day at my desk would wear thin with my boss, so I gave myself permission to do whatever was necessary to feel human again. If this involved letting people down, changing plans on a whim, over-indulging and over-spending, so be it. Anything to make me feel safe. Anything to make me feel loved. Anything to replace the weight of mourning with the lightness of joy. I asked myself: where do you want to be while you feel like this? Bali. The answer arrived like Usain Bolt. Just like that, I gave myself permission to escape.  

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I clung to this decision like a liferaft in the Drake Passage, with resounding approval from loved ones. “Put an ocean between it all and it might look a little funnier”, a text message read as I departed Heathrow ashen and depleted of strength. I dragged the shell of my former self 7,760 miles from the source of my pain, and touched down in The Land of a Thousand Temples, desperate to be healed.

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I never thought I’d be grown up enough to take a sabbatical. That was a word you heard whispered amongst your parents’ friends, referring in hushed tones to an acquaintance whose life had fallen apart to such an extent she couldn’t get through a dinner party without laying her mascara-streaked face down on the crockery and going to sleep in front of seven strangers. Yet here I was, amongst the hippies and the Hindus, beginning my own sabbatical. “I just need Bali to throw as much weird healing at me as possible”, I declared, and the island dutifully delivered.

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Legend has it that the magic of Bali – the very essence of why it’s such a healing haven – lies in its volcanic soil. This magic crept under my skin, whispering reassuringly, and I had no choice but to listen. I dug my feet into the earth. I howled at the moon and drank the stars. I climbed peaks in the blackness of night to watch the sunrise. I ceremonially released the past and beckoned the future with the help of the wildly crashing ocean. I covered myself in glitter and danced to reggae with strangers. I formed a coven with two amazing merwitches (a word we hope The OED will officially recognise someday).

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I skinny-dipped and delved into life’s big questions with a beautiful Alaskan kindred spirit. I poured my sweat and tears onto the yoga mat at every opportunity. I confronted my fears. I ate my weight in tropical fruit. I found a 95-year-old medicine man who healed me in mysterious ways I am not meant to understand. I bathed in waterfalls and monsoon downpours. I received massages and heart-melting smiles from locals. I gained a Balinese family. I met a guy at the public cremation of a princess. I met a guy whilst rescuing a litter of kittens from certain death. I drank coconuts and cocktails, watched sunsets and let turquoise waters kiss my skin.

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I practiced gratitude and spent time alone, absorbed in the chaos of my inner world, trying to make sense of it all.

I SURVIVED.

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After months of suffocating anxiety, finally I was able to just sit – with no distractions or support – and contemplate my life without the overwhelming sense of panic, anger, grief and fear I’d been consumed with. Where once I’d been rigid with tension, my body now relaxed and the waterfall of tears slowed to a trickle, rising up only in moments of healthy release. I gave myself permission to trust my instincts again, without which I would never have washed up on the shores of Bali.

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“Find closure”, people say. Closure. When your heart is still fully engaged in a situation, closure is the kind of word that makes you want to tell everyone to kindly fuck off. But the truth is, whichever word you use – peace, acceptance, forgiveness – you will eventually find a way of not being consumed by the issue every breathing second. And when you realise you’ve reached that point, it’s a Margaritas-all-round kind of milestone.

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Sometimes I still crumble – actually, let’s go with often. I’m a work in progress. Because I handed over my heart to a boy with blue eyes, for what I understood to be a lifetime. Because his face makes me weep with love, familiarity, confusion and loss. Because we shared private jokes nobody else gets. Because of memories and landmark dates. Because when he danced my sides split with laughter. Because he was my home. Because I can’t switch the love off. Because the world we created together was demolished one Wednesday night. Because trust was replaced with betrayal. Because my mind takes me to dark places when I imagine him smiling with someone who has thinner legs than me, a nose piercing, and the kind of forehead that can pull off a fringe. When my brain lures me there, I tumble through deep portals, into galaxies of the unthinkable, unsure if I’ll make it back alive. But I always do, somehow.

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Living without the person you love to the depths of your soul feels like shit, guys. There’s no sugar-coating it. But somehow we must rise. Somehow we must find a way to steer our ships calmly and authentically through stormy waters. Somehow we must hold the shards of our shattered hearts in our palms, and ever-so-slowly place the pieces back into our chests. Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces will never fit together the same way again, but a new shape will form, which we must grow to love. Above all, we must remember that scars are beautiful; they’re the tapestry of our existence.

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Every day during my two months in Bali, I’ve embraced fire; to cleanse, to feel strong. I’ve breathed volcanic air, fired up my muscles in Vinyasa Flow, lit candles and incense at bedtime and burned the toxicity of 2016 on the beach at midnight. I’ve worshipped that majestic fireball that’s born in the sky each morning and that dies on the horizon each night. Fire has become everything to me; it has attempted to evaporate the water of his Piscean energy and to dry the tears that have drowned me. There’s a burning determination within me to turn my pain into productivity. He may have written the ending to our story, but I’m in charge of the narrative from here on.

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Will I write a tale in which I transform the turmoil of 2016’s shitstorm into progression, personal growth and flourishing creativity? Yes.

Will I continue to heal, slowly and delicately unfurling like a leaf in a slow-motion nature documentary until I’m vibrant and whole again? Yes.

Will I remain steadfast in my pursuit of a life that sets my soul on fire? Yes.

And will the warrior-goddess that my reflexologist saw within me rise triumphant in the end? Absofuckinglutely.  

Latitude vs Attitude

Legend has it, there exists in this world a curious type of person who proclaims winter to be their favourite season.  I’ve never encountered such a person and doubt that we’d share more than passing pleasantries if we did meet.  Certainly, we could never hold down a genuine friendship, on account of how I tend to leave the country once the north wind begins to blow and the agonising countdown to Christmas commences.  We could be pen pals, at most.

I blame my parents for my barefoot ways and my insatiable need for vitamin D.  My Australian father is a legitimate sufferer of S.A.D. and a genuine candidate for light therapy.  My mother was a Sagittarian sun-chaser who believed that if she did not travel physically then her mind would travel – in other words, she would go completely and irrevocably mad.  Neither parent demonstrated much tolerance for the winter months.  My father would frequently pepper conversations with the following fun fact: “The weeks between your mother’s birthday on 24th November and my birthday on 17th January are the darkest six weeks of the year”.  Their solution to winter was to escape it, whenever possible.  I never stood a chance, did I?

photo 2I accept that I am a fairweather Brit, that I love my country but only when its skies are smiling at me.  I can take the abuse thrown at me by friends when I mention a flight booked, or a foreign adventure fantasised.  I am a lizard who soaks up the sun, a seasonal escape artist who misses the X-Factor final because I’m usually ankle deep in sand.  It’s simply who I am, and it has never concerned me.  Until now.

Now, life has taken a different shape.  No longer the drifter, I am now the nine-to-five-er, the post-work-grocery-shopper.  I made a choice to be here, beside my man while he carves out a beautiful creative existence and puts his stamp on the thespian world.  Currently, he is the artist, the drifter, the dreamer, the freelancer, and I’m OK with that for a while  But here’s the crux of the matter: I am not in the least bit mentally or physically equipped to endure the impending winter.  I can’t change my latitude this year, so I need a plan.  Pronto.

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I’ve often entertained the idea of becoming one of those “man up and knuckle down” types, but could never grasp the key ingredients of turning that concept into reality.  However two events occurred, not so long ago, which confirmed that it’s time I try: I purchased my first onesie and subsequently declined an invitation to a fun social engagement in order to stay home and suffocate in the hot, fleecy heaven of said onesie.  I literally hid, and felt guilty for being a social let-down.  It was Saturday night, people, Saturday night.  But with perfect cosmic timing, a game-changing article came to my attention, outlining the practice of hygge; the Danish notion of cramming as much guilt-free, feel-good, fun-loving, family-centred, book-reading, duvet-swaddling, dog-walking, pastry-indulging, cinnamon-scented cosiness into life as is humanly possible.  I don’t believe I need guidance on how to enjoy life in general, but as I believe we have established I could do with a few pointers between the dark months of October and February, and finally I discovered something of great impact.  

These clever, inspiring Danes allow themselves – without apology – to indulge in whatever makes them feel positive.  They don’t deny themselves experiences which will increase their happiness, nor do they force upon themselves experiences which will induce stress.  Hygge has no literal translation in English, but my understanding of the sentiment goes something like this: however simple, if it feels/smells/tastes/sounds/appears lovely in any way to you personally, seize that little bit of magic and glide with it all the way to Spring.  If lighting a few candles makes you feel snug and peaceful, knock yourself out. If your idea of rock and roll is cooking quesadillas in your slippers for a bunch of friends who are also wearing their slippers, then rock on.    

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I’m now officially obsessed with hygge.  Each day I evaluate activities, emotions, invitations, ideas, items and sensory experiences by how hygge they are.  If they’re not hitting at least an 8/10, forget about it.  My wardrobe door even displays a list I’ve compiled – mostly red wine and open fires – as a daily reminder of Nice Things About Winter.  And, quite crucially, I’m curbing the guilt feelings of my inner social butterfly – the one who hates cancelling plans – because if I don’t nourish myself during this testing period, my loved ones won’t want to spend time looking at my miserable face anyway.  I’m fairly certain that somewhere over the waters, there was a Danish version of me wearing a similarly ridiculous onesie on that very same Saturday night, ignoring calls from her trendy, vodka-sipping friends, and she didn’t feel a shred of guilt for having taken the quiet, cosy option.  She is now my heroine.

So I may not love rain, or illness, or frozen windscreens, or dressing in layers, and I may never give up dreaming of warmer climes, but I do love the concept of hygge with all it can teach me –  and by conjuring all the cosy optimism I possess, I will make it out the other side.   

Habitat Restaurant & Bar

Food review of Habitat Restaurant & Bar, Brisbane, Australia (first published on brisbane.concreteplayground.com.au)

If the definition of its name is anything to go by, you would expect Habitat to present itself as an environment in which you can feel naturally at home; a welcoming locale, day or night. Happily, this West End restaurant and bar successfully lives up to that expectation, providing a trendy yet unpretentious setting for post-work drinks, as well as a life-saving breakfast menu full of inventive hangover cures, should they be required the morning after. With a lunch and dinner menu equally as strong – featuring locally sourced, organic produce and ample portion sizes – Habitat proves itself to be as versatile as it is conveniently placed.

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Ask the staff for the best brunch recommendation and you’re sure to be advised that nothing beats the Vegemite and cheddar loaf, served with smoked bacon, free range poached eggs, rocket and macerated tomatoes ($13.50).  Sadly for pescetarians, it’s not possible to substitute the smoked leg ham for smoked salmon on an order of eggs benedict, but you can get a vitamin-rich alternative to meat by requesting a serving of beautifully ripe avocado instead.  Not a lover of the mighty poached egg?  Fear not: the menu creatively deviates away from the more predictable breakfast offerings with flavoursome dishes such as twice baked pumpkin and honey soufflé garnished with rocket, parmesan and feta ($14.00), or the aromatic white bean cassoulet served with ciabatta and lemon caper crème fraîche ($14.50).

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There’s an air of rugged masculinity to the spacious interior; throughout its visually balanced design it combines sleek, industrial-chic with rustic textures and moody grey tones.  A long, narrow mezzanine level separates diners from the main bar area, and gets you a little closer to the street espresso bar (which, incidentally, serves a thoroughly decent latté, complete with the customary froth-art).  It’s this confident design amalgamation, teamed with laid-back beats and a solid selection of craft beers and signature cocktails, which creates the buzz and draws the evening crowds. It’s worth noting, however, that whilst this laid-back local continues to gain popularity with Westies and visitors alike, aim to arrive by 10pm to avoid the disappointment of missing last orders from the bar.

Rating: 7/10

Style: Modern Australian

Ideal dish: Twice baked pumpkin and honey soufflé

Price Range: 3/5

Outdoor Seating: Yes

Good For Groups: Yes

Delivery: No

Wheelchair Access: Yes

Takes Reservations: Yes

 

Deluxe in Lux

It’s a pleasing moment when a journalist receives an invitation to eat something delicious, sleep somewhere beautiful or participate in something fun (often we are chained to writing articles of our editor’s choosing) because it provides us with a blank page on which to run with any narrative theme.  For me, on this occasion, the theme is LUXURY; pure, indulgent, gratifying luxury.

As a shoe-string-backpacker at heart, the prospect of some occasional luxury remains a delightful treat.  When travelling, I’m more likely to be heard asking “Would it be possible to get some sheets on this bed?” than “Are these sheets 100-count Egyptian cotton?” but make no mistake: I know 5 Star.  I have stayed in some of the best hotels around the world, received some of the best service and gorged myself on the best pillow mints in existence, so when I give somewhere the thumbs up, I do not do so lightly.

The fairytale town of Clervaux, Luxembourg

I was pondering the concept of luxury as the chauffeur-driven car (a shiny black Jaguar, to be accurate) wound its way through dense forest, circling the basin in which lies the picturesque town of Clervaux, Luxembourg, where I was about to spend two nights reviewing the boutique and design hotel, Le Clervaux. Through small gaps in the trees I caught frequent glimpses of steeples and spires, of turrets and 12th Century architectural detail; the town appeared to be the setting of a medieval fairytale.  It also appeared to be a well-kept secret, quietly nestled into a beautiful valley, typical of the Ardennes region, and I wondered how long it would remain so undiscovered.

A hidden gem

Arriving at the hotel stirred a mixture of awe and childlike excitement within me.  The design was instantly striking; both sensitive to the building’s history and in keeping with modern aesthetics.  Architecturally, the façades of the conjoined buildings demonstrated perfect union between old and new, and woven into the strong interior design was a dynamic fusion of masculine and feminine.

Interiors by JOI-Design

Moody greys and sultry blacks were accented by blocks of bold, fiery red.  Here, a touch of elegance in the wallpaper print; there, robust angles and clean lines.  The design spoke of glamour, of European chic and of smoldering beauty, with a distinct fashionista edge.  It was the most remarkable hotel interior I’d seen.

Interiors by JOI-Design

Best described as deluxe, my suite was no less impressive, with picture-perfect views of the castle.  The attention to detail within the design and layout was notable, and the amenities were superb.  It seems the thrill of the miniature kettle is a thing of travel past; Le Clervaux has raised the bar with individual Nespresso coffee machines.  Inside the undeniably sexy en-suite, an assortment of divine-smelling Fairtrade toiletries prompted me to let out an involuntary squeal, which echoed against the high ceiling and sounded at odds with the peaceful silence of my surroundings.

Interiors by JOI-Design

Interiors by JOI-Design

Despite the enormous bed luring me into the embrace of an afternoon nap, the wellness centre was calling me louder.  With a comprehensive spa menu and therapists of the highest quality, it was clear these facilities were one of Le Clervaux’s key assets.  I experienced head-to-toe treatments: a whole-body sea salt scrub (which left me with cashmere-soft skin), a deep cleansing facial and all manner of massage techniques. Forget Hot Stone Massage; at Le Clervaux it’s all about the Hot Ball – a heated balloon which is rolled at just the right pressure over your body, accessing every inch to loosen the muscles and lull you into a helpless state of relaxation.  As someone with sensitive skin and a strong environmental conscience, it is also crucial that I mention the wellness centre’s important choice of beauty products: Thalgo.  Created from naturally occurring minerals and nutrients found in the sea, these marine-based beauty products left neither a blemish on my skin, nor unnecessary impact on the environment, thanks to the brand’s core commitment to minimising its ecological footprint.

New levels of luxurious relaxation

Outside of the treatment rooms, there was an abundance of facilities to profit from – mood-enhancing, colour-changing lights in the pool, a decent sized jacuzzi and a relaxation room of ample comfort – but it was the hot zone I found the most enthralling, with its dark, enigmatic design and unusual variations on the classic sauna and steam experience.  Acutely aware of European spa protocol (namely the insistence of complete nudity) I let go of my inhibitions and de-robed into my own unashamed nakedness.  Admittedly, it did enhance the experience somewhat, allowing the skin to fully benefit from the steam, salt vapour and other glow-inducing atmospheric conditions.  But a friendly warning: if you’re averse to witnessing the unclothed form of the opposite sex in close proximity, some prior mental preparation is in order.

Post-pampering, it felt a shame to spoil my newly cleansed skin with unnecessary cosmetics, so I was relieved to note at dinner that whilst the hotel itself oozed glamour, there was no pressure on its guests to follow suit.  As a pescetarian, the hotel’s most prestigious restaurant Rhino’s Steakhouse was sadly wasted on me, however I can highly commend them on their extraordinarily generous crayfish salad and wood-fired pizzas, and with regards to the meat, let me say this: as someone who once was a carnivore, the steak menu was something to behold.  Meat lovers, eat your heart out because the choice of quality cuts, sauces and sides is extensive.  The hotel’s other restaurant Da Lonati served me the most tender, flavour-rich melanzane parmagiana of my life – which is saying something given how many times I’ve eaten this dish in Italy.  If you can resist the temptation of sinking into the world’s most comfortable bed for just a little longer, it’s worth pausing in the Cabana Lounge for a nightcap.

A wonderful welcome at bedtime…

In my humble opinion, the mark of excellence at any hotel is the standard of the breakfast – I’m looking for quality, creativity, variation and abundance – so I was delighted to discover Le Clervaux excelled on every point.  Each morning I was greeted with “Voulez-vous du Champagne?” (note: never in life is the answer to that question anything but “Oui, merci”) and a mouth-watering buffet so broad I deemed it necessary to wear stretchy pants to allow for my inevitable over-indulgence.  It was a breakfast-lover’s paradise; farm-fresh, locally-sourced, hot from the oven, freshly-squeezed, decadent, vitamin-rich and always beautifully presented.

How could I resist?

It intrigued me as to who would visit this wonderful little gem, so discreetly tucked away in the Luxembourgish forest, but as the Marketing & Communications Manager, Nicole, explained during a tour of the facilities, the town of Clervaux is situated amongst some of Europe’s best rural hiking routes, and is especially blessed in historical buildings and landmarks.  It is also a town of unique character (exhibit A: the mayor recently “handed over the keys” to the town and red carpets were laid along the small streets surrounding the hotel, upon which were held a delightful little festival for all to enjoy).  Add to that the superb business and conference facilities of the hotel itself and the aforementioned spa heaven and you’ll start to understand, as I did, why this well-kept secret is quickly gaining recognition as a travel destination.

The Family of Man photographic exhibition at Clervaux Castle

Go for business, go for golf, go for the cuisine and the fine wines, go for history, go for hiking, go for your physical wellbeing, or simply go for your sanity – because at Le Clervaux the stresses of your daily life will simply melt away, and in my experience that’s the greatest luxury of all.

The best views in town

I departed the charming streets of Clervaux the same way I had arrived – in that shiny black Jaguar – sad to leave behind the romanticism of the Rapunzel-esque town, but sure of one thing: if you are somebody well accustomed to luxury of the highest order, Le Clervaux will more than meet your expectations, and if you are somebody for whom luxury is a rare treat, it will simply blow your mind.

Visit www.le-clervaux.com to book your own blissful break

 

The Big Green Apple

First published by Responsible Travel

If nature in New York sounds like an oxymoron, it’s time to take a broader look at what The Empire State offers beyond Manhattan’s urban jungle.  The excitement of NYC is not to be missed, but when you’ve had your fill of skyscrapers and shopping sprees, head to the iconic Grand Central Terminal and board a train away from the city’s buzz and bright lights.  You might just discover that the Big Apple is bigger and greener than you thought.

If you’re tight for time, a one hour train journey from Downtown will take you to the seaside shores of Long Island, where South Oyster Bay and the Amityville River offer tranquil waters for kayaking, and the many small, car-free islands reward hikers with spectacular city and ocean views. Native marine life is abundant, and aboard the numerous boats departing Riverhead and Montauk you can discover the thrill of spotting whales, seals and porpoises in the wild.  You can easily spend a day on Long Island connecting with nature, enjoying fresh seafood and still make it back to Manhattan by cocktail hour!

It may not seem conceivable amidst the hustle and bustle of Times Square, but drive 90 minutes away from the traffic-filled city and you’ll find a winter wonderland of snowy mountain peaks, frozen ponds and waterfalls.  Their close proximity to Manhattan makes The Catskills a popular winter sports destination; snowmobiling, snowshoeing, tubing and ice fishing are just a few ways to enjoy all that beautiful white fluffy stuff. Cosy lodges dot the land, beckoning you in with log fires, locally brewed ales and eclectic menus featuring local farm produce.

Further Upstate lie the vast Adirondack Mountains, where hiking and trekking opportunities are inexhaustible.  Local guides offer insider knowledge of the landscape and with over one hundred summits, it’s a paradise for hiking enthusiasts.  Advanced climbers skilled in self-navigation can try bushwhacking but you don’t have to tackle “The 46” to appreciate nature’s splendour – Adirondack Park is home to many easier walking trails.  Cascade Mountain’s easy-to-reach peak is a favourite amongst locals, and Lake Placid (two-time Winter Olympic venue) welcomes walkers of all levels.  For an alternative endorphin-kick, try white water rafting in this stunning wilderness.  The region is also blessed with the fiery colours of Fall, as the deciduous forest bursts into colour each September and October.  The Lake Placid community marks this annual natural phenomenon with the Flaming Leaves Festival, and the area comes alive with hot air balloon rides, live music, craft stalls and ski-jumping competitions.

While Manhattanites speed through life in a “New York minute”, a few hours from the throng of yellow taxis and pretzel stalls is a community of people for whom time passes more gently.  As a non-commercialised society, the Amish are known for living without modern conveniences, believing them unnecessary distractions from their simpler way of life.  The Amish Trail, leading through Cattaraugus County’s Enchanted Mountains, is a rewarding way to learn about their fascinating culture and history, and glimpse the world through Amish eyes.  Follow the trail and you’ll see communities going about their daily lives, practicing traditional farming methods, travelling by buggy and dressing in characteristic plain clothes.  Business is done from people’s homes, advertised by hand-painted signs inviting you to venture inside and sample diverse goods ranging from individually stitched quilts to homegrown vegetables.  Their shops are worlds away from Bloomingdales and Macy’s; you’ll receive a personal, friendly welcome and come away with locally produced goods that you won’t find elsewhere, as well as a better understanding of their approach to life.  From here, culture vultures can take a scenic drive north west to Victor, Ontario County, where the culture of the Native American Seneca people is preserved and celebrated at the Ganondagan Historic Center.  Visiting the reconstructed bark longhouse is akin to stepping into a time machine, where Seneca life and heritage dating back to the 17th century is depicted through historical artefacts, educational videos, dance, food and nature walking trails.

Back in NYC the action continues 24/7, but peace and quiet can be enjoyed by escaping the city within the city.  An early morning meander through Central Park reveals the urban hub at its least chaotic, with only pre-breakfast meeting joggers to keep you company.  Well marked routes lead you through the most photographed spots, including the “Imagine” mosaic; a tribute to the late John Lennon.  Outside the park, bikes are a great mode of exploration, with free route maps and dedicated Greenways separating cyclists from traffic.  When you reach the Hudson River Greenway, park your bike and switch to a stand-up paddle board – you’ll experience unexpected tranquility and views of the metropolis you’ll never forget.  It might even prompt you to shout “I heart New York” at the top of your lungs!

Two Hearts, Two Hemispheres

Sunset in the southern hemisphere

Sunset in the southern hemisphere

My heart lives in two hemispheres

Two nationalities claim to own me

Two countries try to keep me

Two cities aim to delight me

 

My heart lives in two hemispheres

I have loved ones in both

I have possessions scattered here and there

I’ve called both halves my home

 

My heart lives in two hemispheres

It longs for both, in tormenting greed

It may live and breathe in the south

But in the north it truly beats

 

My heart lives in two hemispheres

Neither right, neither wrong

But in the north another heart beats

And with that heart, my heart belongs

Sunset in the northern hemisphere

Sunset in the northern hemisphere

The Sliding Doors of a Storm

The wind was as strong as Indonesia’s equatorial sun, the day Mother Nature blew in that tempestuous storm. The darkness threatened overhead, then broke around me.  I had no obligation to sail, but in those bitter-sweet final days, time was of the essence.  I feared that wild, untamed ocean like a criminal fears a judge.  It was a “Sliding Doors” moment: instinct said stay, pride said go.  The ocean taunted me, rising angrily against anything in its path.  Tears blinded me as I stepped onto the inadequate boat.  The sea drew me into its violent clutches, and swept me away.

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The Auspicious Night Bus

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Two girls board a night bus in Bangkok, expertly and competitively bagging the upper-deck front seats.  They’ve sent their men to stow the baggage.  The Norwegian girl smiles affably at the English girl, realising they have the same intent: maximum comfort for the long journey ahead.  Their bond is instant. The men get along too, but that’s immaterial.  Twelve hours seems like two.  A month of shared experiences follows, then flights between their respective countries.  Wedding vows are witnessed, babies are born, families are entwined.  Throughout it all the girls’ bond remains strong.  This is travel friendship at its best.

A Balancing Act

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Sunday 16th February 2014, 9.59am, Koh Phangan, Thailand:

My backpack is locked in my beach bungalow. What a ridiculous problem to have on departure day. My own attempts to open the little wooden door have, obviously, failed miserably and now a small army of local boys (loosely imitating staff) have turned up with a box of a hundred unmarked keys which one of them is unsystematically trying the jammed lock with, whilst another is breaking in through the window, taking entire panes of glass out as he goes. He looks at me as if to say, “This shit happens all the time around here” and I smile, because it’s unequivocally true. He then tries to charge me 200 Baht for fixing a problem that was quite clearly there before my arrival, which is something else that happens all the time around here. Because this is Thailand, and this chaotic, corrupt, disorganised and wildly beautiful land is the place I chose to be during this one-month escape of a cruel annual joke in England we call winter.

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Last year, as my 30th birthday drew closer it intrigued me that I had never properly ventured solo into the world. All my life I’ve been seeking, discovering and exploring the planet within the safety of great and trusted company. Why had I never gone alone? Was it through fear? Complacency? Habit? It was time to find out. One passenger, one ticket, one bag. Destination: Koh Phangan.

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My other reason for this trip was the simple need to pause and process the mayhem of life. As a friend so perfectly put it, I just needed to go somewhere beautiful for a while and clear my head. What followed was a month of auspicious encounters, surprise adventures and a healthy dose of introspection. The clearest way for me to describe the past month is by dividing it into lunar phases, representing not only some key moments during my journey, but also the moon that is so hedonistically celebrated on this island.

Part 1: Solitude (aka Waning Gibbous Moon)

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Bangkok was its usual polluted self: a blend of intense heat, pandemonium-inducing traffic, neon lights, cheap clothes, persistent hawkers, street food, rats, throbbing club beats and political protests. My room was a typical windowless box above an Indian restaurant which doubled as a noisy all-night karaoke bar. The bed crawled with insects, the walls were adorned with unidentifiable stains and, outside in the soul-less concrete corridor, strands of electrical cables hung from the ceiling, dripping with water and sparking frequently. The end of the corridor was blocked by prison bars (to prevent travellers making a desperate escape by leaping off the roof?) and I would not have been surprised to see Robert Carlisle’s paranoid head emerge from within darkened corners. It was your typical Bangkok dive, costing a total of £3.50. Most people fit neatly into either the Love or Loathe category where Thailand’s capital is concerned, and I’m never quite sure to which I belong. On past experience I have to reluctantly conclude it’s the latter, but I’m prepared to believe that could yet change. In any case, 24 hours after arrival I beat a hasty retreat south.

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My first few days of island life were spent in relative solitude. Beyond ordering food and haggling songthaew taxi fares I barely engaged in conversation. During those days I mostly worked, albeit from the beach with a beer in hand, chipping away at the word count for an approaching deadline. Convincing myself that each hour of work should be rewarded with equal time at the hands of a Thai masseuse, I would break frequently because, really, what’s the point of being a freelance writer if you can’t choose your “office hours”? The more days that passed, the fewer words I spoke, which generally felt soothing, until a need for meaningful human interaction kicked in. I submitted my article, bid my masseuse farewell and switched locations on a whim.

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Part 2: Liberation (aka Half Moon)

A whim, it turns out, can be quite the gem if you act upon it… Enter Camille, the wise and funny Zimbabwe-born Australian resident who I affectionately call Blondie. Two travellers, one available beachside bungalow and an unexpected invitation to share. We became friends instantly, bonding over our shared interests and curiosities about the world. Island life with Blondie on Koh Phangan was a series of spontaneous and fun events, like the enticing trailer of a summer movie: neon-painted bodies dancing carefree at the Half Moon Party; sun-kissed skin and salty hair; the wind-whipped exhilaration of motorbike rides over tropical terrain; beach-hopping island exploration; new friends, cold beers and old songs; sunsets and uncontrollable laughter.

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It was a liberating time. The cobwebs of winter were blown away and I felt vibrant again. We shared a mutual understanding of each other that belied our short friendship and gave us confidence in its longevity. Seven days later, with farewell tears at the jetty (pathetic or what?) we went our separate ways. Some people’s paths are destined to cross, and meeting Blondie brought me back to myself again. As she departed, the next chapter beckoned: The Sanctuary, a holistic retreat where I would spend a week cleansing my system and clearing my mind.

Part 3: Rehabilitation (aka New Moon)

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Arriving via a rough but mercifully short longtail boat ride, I was plunged straight into The Sanctuary’s hub and it felt a little overwhelming. The place was packed with hardcore hippies; dread-locked, tattooed and deep in stoned conversations about progressive ideas for rejecting the modern world. Even as someone who is perfectly at home with New Age living, I had to admit it was an intense environment. There was so much colour, texture and eye-catching detail coming from the artwork in the wood-carved space and from its inhabitants that I found myself in a bewildered trance. Very soon, of course, what had seemed intimidating felt perfectly normal, and I relaxed into a nourishing routine.

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Opting out of a strict detox programme, I took the middle road which permitted a few beers at night and didn’t involve voluntary starvation – the thought of fasting made me practically weep when I saw the veggie menu. I spent the week engrossed in yoga, meditation and a host of holistic healings from which I drew deep benefits and learned some potentially life-changing things about myself. I slept in a 10-bed dorm overlooking the sea, devoured daily spirulina juices and treated myself to herbal steam and cold plunge sessions at dusk. I rose with the sun, read in hammocks and floated on my back letting the sea carry my weight. As each day passed, my mind felt less cluttered.

IMG_1405A close ally at The Sanctuary made an astute observation one day, commenting that it felt a little like rehab in the sense that you checked in with your own issues and by the time you checked out you’d take on everyone else’s too, which was both amusing and true. The hub of the restaurant was like an obstacle course of social encounters – it was imperative you chose your seat carefully or you might end up with a side order of Group Therapy to go with your curry. It became commonplace to tell intimate secrets to someone you met moments ago. Strange as it may sound, it felt completely normal, perhaps even cathartic, in that environment.

Within that social bubble I met a fascinating cast of characters: The sexy photographer/yogi from Sydney whose humour and easy company instilled in me a sense of peace; the esoteric Canadian with the intense stare who spoke freely about his depression and had no concept of personal space; the bubbly Camden girl with the beautiful eyes who was learning the art of letting go; the kind-hearted but wild pensioner trying to kick the habit of a lifetime; the unfulfilled surf instructor moving from one meaningless fling to another; the Italian farmer who hiked miles through the jungle each day in preparation for a Nepal trek; the quiet girl who engaged with nobody and slept around the clock; the tattooed German heavyweight fighter with the surprisingly gentle character; and last but never least, my good friend and close confidant, the kind-hearted nurse with the enviable zeal for life who needed time out from caring for others to nurture herself. Then there was me: how would others have defined me in one sentence, I wonder?

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The retreat’s setting was lovely, tumbling down a thick jungle mountainside to a small bay, but it was also isolated and after 7 days a feeling of claustrophobia was growing within me. I had gained so much from my experiences – The Sanctuary possesses a mysterious and special kind of magic – but I needed to escape the bubble and get back to the “real world”. Plus, all the soul-searching in the world won’t quench a woman’s thirst for shopping…

IMG_1561Part 4: Contemplation (aka Full Moon)

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During the final phase of my trip I wanted to marinade in all that I had experienced, somewhere with sunsets and broad horizons. I intended to be alone but remain open to company should I meet the right people, thus striking the balance I’m so conscious of maintaining in life. I found a small wooden beach bungalow on the opposite side of the island, a few metres from the water, with a hammock on the verandah and plenty of palm trees for shade. It was basic, but I made this hut my home, unpacking my few belongings and burning incense and candles for atmosphere.

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Nearby were daily yoga and meditation classes, fantastic home-cooked food courtesy of a smiley woman called Pim, and a charming community of long-stay travellers who invited me in without hesitation, sharing esoteric conversation, joints and astronomy lessons around the bonfire. It was exactly where I needed to be, and as I surrounded myself with people who were so firmly on my wavelength, something was unlocked within me. I noticed that life was starting to flow more fluidly, more creatively. I’m certain it’s the same whatever your walk of life; medical students feed their appreciation and understanding of the workings of the human body when in the company of an award-winning surgeon, just as fashion students might buzz with excitement during an encounter with an accomplished catwalk designer. When you accept that every encounter or experience we have in life can teach us something, all sorts of windows and doors start appearing where previously you only saw walls.

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After this month of travelling alone, what is my verdict? Decidedly positive. Once my initial nerves subsided I found that it felt completely natural, and discovered that it not only suits but excites me. The possibilities are endless and the choices are my own. Solo travel tests my fondness of time spent alone, gives me space to be myself and meet strangers with a clean slate, and the chance to ponder such mind-boggling questions as what makes me happy in life, and why tropical sea lice don’t sting your tongue when you open your mouth in the water (the latter question could be put down to an excess of sun and coconut water). Most crucially, my experiences have given me a deeper understanding of living through my heart rather than my head, they’ve taught me to trust my instincts and shown me how to focus on my passions. In short, this has been a blessing.

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And so, as the whole island prepares to celebrate the Full Moon, I prepare for departure. It’s not exactly a celebration for me – because who in their right mind would want to leave such an idyllic haven? – but I can feel proud of what I have accomplished on a personal level, and rather than returning home with a heavy heart and a cluttered mind, I feel relaxed, inspired, creative and centred. Now if only I could retrieve my backpack from that locked bungalow…

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