Accor Group has the Mgallery by Sofitel. Marriott-Starwood has Tribute Portfolio and Design Hotels, Hyatt has The Unbound Collection. Hilton on the other hand, has Curio Collection by Hilton. While Mgallery is very well represented in the Asia Pacific, and the select few I have stayed in have been very good, these small, independent boutique hotels supported by the behemoths that are the big chains are somewhat rare in the Asia Pacific.
During my trip to Sydney earlier in 2018, I was curious on this new brand, and perfect timing too. Having just opened in December 2017, the West Hotel, a Curio Collection by Hilton got me, well, curious. This curious cat was well pleased by what he found.
Up and Coming
The West Hotel is located in Barangaroo, a new up and coming urban renewal district adjacent to King’s Street Wharf, Darling Harbour and the western side of Sydney’s Central Business District. With convenient access to the airport via the Airport Link at Wynyard Station, and a new pedestrian link and tunnel between Barangaroo and Wynyard Station towards Martin Place and the CBD, you will be hard pressed not to tap in to your curious side in exploring Sydney.
This medium-rise new build blends seamlessly with the office blocks, residences and hotels nearby, and despite it being next to the Eastern Distributor Expressway, it does not feel too crowded, busy or chaotic. Being next to the nightlife, restaurants and bars of trendy Barangaroo makes up for it if the peace and quiet needs a bit of social hustle and bustle.
Trendy without being Trend-ick
The one thing that does get to me about these fancy design-focused boutique hotels is how they the design brief is focused on the word ‘trending.’ While being hip and trendy and fancy is fun, it can at times feel overwhelming, too much and just all over the place (the one that starts with ‘S’ and ends with ‘O’ and is linked to S*****L, I am looking at you).
However, the West Hotel Sydney avoids this trap by toning down the trendiness while not sacrificing the hipness. The room is elegantly appointed, but with tasteful chrome finishings and details carefully tucked away but adding to the feel.
The public areas make full use of the limited space, with the bar feeling like a chilled oasis, the winter garden a good atrium centre-piece, the light dimmed just nice without being too dark and the colour scheme cool and muted.
I usually try and book a hotel with a pool. However, the West Hotel Sydney does not have a pool. At first I was a little bummed out by the lack of it, but the 24 hour access gym with good equipment made up for it and my need to get active. That, and Sydney’s beaches and rock pools are the perfect swimming facilities as it is!
Another feature which I love at the West Hotel Sydney is their hospitality room, a.k.a. freshen-up room, or as I like to call it, “I have a late flight but I need to shower before going to the airport” room. Unlike most other hotels where they ‘invite you to use the fitness facilities to freshen up,’ the West Hotel Sydney has a very spacious ‘powder room,’ just in case the late check-out does not cut it.
Lounge and Dine
The Solander Bar at the West Hotel Sydney is, to put it simply, chilled. It knows it cannot be the next fancy nightclub, so it becomes the next chilled cocktail bar with chilled house music on. Facing Sussex Street on the ground floor, watch the world go by over a nice little drink.
Or perhaps chill in the winter garden that opens out from the bar with your nice little drink and a little nibble from Solander Dining before an evening out on the town, a fancy dinner at King Street Wharf, or just because. A bit apt to wine and dine in a venue named after a botanist that somehow feels like a green house.
Readers will know my love affair with Sydney. Interestingly enough, I used to live down the road on Liverpool Street, and after that across the harbour in Pyrmont, and having to pass the neighbourhood the West Hotel is in. I can say, without a doubt, it is a funky little neighbourhood.
While the rest of the CBD is primarily a 9 to 5 spot, and gets quiet after office hours, adjoining Barangaroo, King Street Wharf and Darling Harbour are among the CDB’s entertainment hotspots. As Barangaroo continues to develop, with more space opening up as more urban development comes to completion, expect more entertainment life here, and little gems amidst this ‘fancy office park.’
And the Rooms?
The rooms are very well appointed and spacious, among the larger ones in the CBD. The double-glazed windows will make the Eastern Distributor Expressway next to you seem almost non-existent, as you see the traffic but do not hear it.
The bed is spacious and comfortable, with a cosy seating area in a corner, with an adequate work space. The wardrobe is open, could be better but the finishing and detail is really nice. Try and spot the bird as you hang your dress shirts.
The bathroom is adequate, with polished counter tops, tasteful mirror décor, good lighting and a very responsive rainforest shower. I want to say it is as generic as it comes, but it is a good middle ground between the otherwise bland standard hotel bathroom and over-the-top design-inspired throne of a toilet. The Bluetooth in-room sound system is an added plus, and very powerful!
If you want a smaller property in a quiet yet not too quiet part of Sydney that does not cost a ludicrous amount, be close to public transport and airport connections, and be within decent walking distance to the sights, sounds and smells of Sydney, I would put a hand up for the West Hotel Sydney. While it is not as close as the Four Seasons to the Royal Botanic Gardens for my morning run, the warm-up through Martin Place makes up for it!
Booking?: I booked online on the Hilton website. Look out for deals!
Address?: West Hotel Sydney, Curio Collection by Hilton,
65 Sussex Street, Sydney, NSW 2000, Australia
Nearest Station: Wynyard Station
Peak Season?: Hard to say for a major destination like Sydney, but year end and late February-early March around Sydney Pride would definitely be packed
Brussels, or Bruxelles, or Bureaucrat Central, the capital of Belgium and the defacto administrative heart of the European Union is, like any city with multiple identities, a study in the cultures and influences that made this the predominantly bilingual French-Dutch city in the Dutch Flemish half of a country, a unique melting pot and a centre of the experiment that is a united Europe (God that was a mouth-full). It is more than a monument of ambition: it is, like any good Belgian chocolate, a mix of unique ingredients that work and leave you wanting for more.
City of Hills
Unlike the Dutch half of Belgium that is Flanders which is mostly flat, Brussels, is fairly hilly, and this is something you will notice when you arrive at Brussels Central Station. Unlike Antwerp with her massive, grand arrival hall, a nexus of trade, Brussels’s station is very much a product of her art deco 1920s time and slowly reveals itself as a showcase city for royal ambitions.
Stepping out of Central, you will notice the handsome streets, almost Parisian facades and hills. Central itself is located within one of the city’s many hills, and the landmark Cathedral of St Michael and St Guluda/Co-Cathedral Collegial des Ss Michael et Gudule/Collegiale Sint Michiels en Sint Goedele co-kathedraal, just next door, is a good vantage point to look towards the old city.
Walking down the Rue du Montainge, towards the old city and the Grand Place/Grote Markt, the sheer bustle and congestion, the proximity of buildings and grandeur of Northern Renaissance buildings will make you look up most of the time. No grand plazas like Antwerp here. Think urban canyon of St Mark’s Square in Venice.
Nibbles and Scribbles
Within the Grand Place/Grote Market, are an array of alley ways where your nose, and stomach, is a sufficient guide. Crepes and waffles, chocolate pieces and chips galore, all wonderfully delicious and made in just the right size, you can walk and nibble, and still have room for one more as you digest your snack while walking. I am not ashamed to admit that my diet in Brussels was dominated by waffles and crepes.
If something more high-brow is your thing, head up towards the Place Royal, in the aptly named Royal Quarter, for a study in Low Country art. While not as expansive as Amsterdam’s Rijkmuseum or home to curated collections in Den Haag’s Mauritshuis, the art and galleries in this square here have a good collection of lesser known but equally stunning artworks, with print shops selling good reproductions.
The Royal Centre
The monumental Royal Centre on top of a hill is for stunning vistas, both of Brussels and the imperial image it seeks to project. From the expansive Brussels Park in front of the Royal Palace of Brussels to the neo-classical lines along the Konigsplein or Place Royale, the royal and imperial ambitions of a clean-lined, grand centre is on display.
The Koningsplein/Place Royale draws your eye upwards as you approach from the lower wards in the city, with the Church of St Jacques du Coudenburg providing the focal point and the equestrian statue of Godfrey du Boillon a centre piece looking out to the city.
The axis centred on the Konigsplein/Place Royale provide stunning vistas to other parts of the city, from the copula of the Palace of Justice to the green parks of Brussels Park and Mont Des Arts.
Monuments for Monumental Dreams
As a student of international law and geopolitics, Brussels is one of those destinations which I have to go to if only to see one particular major institution. I am that much of an international law geek that I purposely went to Den Haag to see the ICJ, Geneva to the former League of Nations quarter to Brussels and the legislative heart of the European Union.
Located a bit off-centre to the west, easily reached via tram or a leisurely walk through character-filled neighbourhoods, the Espace Leopold, focal point of the European Quarter, is one of the homes of the European Parliament. The complex is unassuming, blending well with the neighbourhood, and incorporates the classical frontage of the former Brussels-Luxembourg Station.
Going back westwards, if you extend the visual axis from the European Quarter to the Royal Palace and Konigsplein/Place Royale, the other stunning site of Mont Des Arts offers amazing views of Brussels. Thanks to the hilly terrain, this city is not short of vantage points, but this is one of the prettiest.
From the spire of the Brussels City Hall at the Grand Place, framed by the neo-classical buildings fronting the terraced gardens, and its proximity to Brussels Gare Central railway station, this spot is easily a picture-postcard spot before zooming off to your next destination.
Train connections? Local trains, high speed inter-city trains, Eurostar and Thalys provides excellent connections to Brussels through the three major railway hubs in the north, centre and south of the city centre, with regular services across the Low Countries. In fact, you can just turn up at Amsterdam Centraal and you’ll be on a train to Brussels within the hour.
Jason’s Lounge Perches: Southeast Asia’s Chilled Lounges 2018
The beauty of Southeast Asia is both in its contradictions and variety, from fancy rooftop bars to chill, pared-down cliff-top perches. After extensive, err, research and exploration, at least over the past few months, my little compilation here should satiate that desire to find the next ‘hidden’ spot.
I have actively sought out out-of-the-way places or relatively new openings that encapsulate the destination’s many facets, and could, potentially, be a destination bar in its own right.
Paradise Bar, Labuan Bajo, Flores
If there was every an unassuming with a slightly hyperbolic name which lives up to its name, then the Paradise Bar in Labuan Bajo on the Indonesian island of Flores would fit the bill. Perched on a cliff a little out of town (if we can call Labuan Bajo a town), this random bar away from the main drag of backpacker hostels, dive shacks and basic bars is a welcome respite.
Best approached on foot from the main quay of town, a short 10 minute hike up the slope will lead you to a beautiful terrace tucked away behind dense foliage. You could always take your motorbike up, but where is the fun in whizzing past the nice little atmospheric villages?
Inside, the terrace captures you immediately. There is an unobstructed view of Labuan Bajo harbour, as far as the eye can see, with islands dotting the foreground with the endless Java Sea ahead.
The sunset at 6pm will certainly remind you why you would not mind being stuck in the middle of nowhere. With a cool drink, good cheap prices (though still relatively more expensive than the USD1 beer in town), this spot is a good place to unwind after a day of island safari or just to continue on chilling after a day on the sea, be it for sunset or the twilight hours.
I would be remiss to tell you that the street can get dark after sunset, so be mindful!
Atmosphere: Open, wide terrace, with unobstructed views of the harbour, islets and islands, with a very chilled crowd. Primarily travellers.
Drinks: drinkable cocktails and basic beer
Price Point: Agreeable prices for an out-of-the-way destination. USD 5 drink
Feel: Relaxed atmosphere, primarily tourists, good place to chill on a lazy late afternoon
Address: Jalan Bingkom, Labuan Bajo, Manggarai Barat, Nusa Tenggara Timur, Indonesia
Tel: +62 823 3935 4854
SOHY, Ho Chi Minh City
As befitting a rising Southeast Asian city, Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as I occasionally call her, now has a few rooftop perches of pretty good standing, like every other major Southeast Asian city.
However, unlike KL’s occasional live band Helipad, Jakarta’s musically pared down Cloud Lounge or Bangkok’s posh yet accessible CRU Champagne Bar, Saigon’s SOHY has found a way to combine fine dining with rave club, with a touch of beach bar. But for the stunning view of Saigon from the terraces, one would be forgiven if you thought you were at Potato Head in Bali.
With 3 floors to choose from, starting with an open terrace with hard house, to fine dining Italian on the second floor and a champagne bar on the top terrace, SOHY, with Shree just one terrace down, has made Saigon’s Centec Tower in to a Hanging Garden of Nightlife.
While the view is stunning, the music good, and the crowd young and upwardly mobile, the one drawback I found was that it opens pretty late: 6pm late, which barely gives you time to enjoy the sunset with a sundowner while watching the sun descend over the Mekong Delta, with the skyscrapers of Saigon a symbol of where this rising Asian power wants to be.
The beauty of this spot: it could easily be one of the destination bars of Southeast Asia, coming hot on the heels of the sky-high bars of Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, with a skyline to boot.
Atmosphere: Beach bar meets cosmopolitan warm-up nightclub. A little posh, yet very accessible. I came up with shorts.
Drinks: Impressive cocktail selection, go for the espresso martini, not half bad.
Price Point: Average price compared to ‘grounded’ Southeast Asian bars at USD 6/+.
Feel: I want to say trust-fund babies. Mostly locals, not many tourists or expats, yet.
Address: Centec Tower Rooftop, 72-74 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Tel: +84-90 299 9888
Horizon Bar, Ritz Carlton Langkawi
Like SOHY, this is a fairly new addition to the drinking roster in Southeast Asia, having opened in Q4 2017. However, it was worth the wait, personally. Located within the expansive grounds of the Ritz Carlton Langkawi, Horizon Bar is one of two seaside bars on the property. While The Bar at The Grill is closer to the water, Horizon Bar lives up to its name, with the bar perched on the rocks above the crashing waves below.
Now, this bar is, in one word, posh. Like, very posh. Sure, it is best to be there in standard resort uniform of white linen shirt and swim shorts but do remember this is very much a jet-set bar. Having said that, just swipe your card and remember, ‘you are on holiday.’
With the seating area shared with the adults pool, but designed with privacy in mind, you are both seen by the crowd yet tucked away at the same time. The outdoor bar area is split over a few steps, with one narrow terrace meant for couples fronting the sea, a super bar with unobstructed views of the sea right behind that, a seating area for groups behind that, a larger ‘single group area’ to one side and the covered bar at the back. This is a bar to see, be seen yet stay hidden in.
The signature drinks menu is bespoke, but the bartender can make most standard cocktails with competency. The view at sunset, weather permitting, is divine, with nothing obscuring you. The buggy is always a 5-10 minute call away.
Atmosphere: Posh. Like, understated posh. A few statement pieces, but the bar is, on the whole, minimalist. Why add distractions when the sunset is the main show? All seats are oriented to the sunset.
Drinks: Decent cocktail selection and wine list.
Price Point: I will not lie. Posh. Just swipe and do not think.
Feel: Uber luxury resort, where the uniform is designer swimwear and white button-downs.
Address: The Ritz-Carlton Langkawi, Jalan Pantai Kok, Teluk Nibung, Langkawi, Malaysia
Tel: +60-04 952 4888
Bangkok Penthouse Park Hyatt
On a few trips to Bangkok, whenever I chill by the hotel pool, I will always hear a conversation that goes along the lines of this:
“Oh, which rooftop bar should we go to in Bangkok?”
“There are a million here. I don’t think I can tell them apart.”
Having said that, the Terrace at the Penthouse, Park Hyatt Bangkok, has her own charm that does put her at a different position than the others. For starters, the Terrace at the Penthouse is part of a 3-floor food and beverage destination that is more intimate than your standard massive destination rooftop restaurants. If the woody private bar atmosphere of the Bar at the Penthouse is not to your liking, head up pass the mezzanine to the Terrace for, well, a Penthouse view of Bangkok.
The Penthouse at the Park Hyatt was designed like a well-travelled, seasoned urban professional. His paraphernalia includes a classic motorcycle at the Dining Room entrance, his love of classic rock and motorcycle goggles, and a few choice pieces of furniture form his travels. Head up to his Terrace, and it feels like someone’s terrace, albeit done up for a large number of his friends.
The view is good, looking eastwards along Sukhumvit Road, and north/south along Wireless/Witthayu Road. You do not get perfect views of the sunset, but you get a cosy atmosphere, with a well-appointed outdoor bar and cosy furniture.
Best of all, it is not overwhelmingly large, and as it does not have the ‘star’ appeal or large-scale capacity of Sirocco, Vertigo or Red Sky, the intimate atmosphere will make it a nice spot for sundowners after a day of exploring, business dealing or simply lazing by the pool.
Atmosphere: Chestnut and oak wood panels give this a very masculine feel, with clean lines, simple minimalist decoration and comfy sofas
Drinks: Good cocktail and wine selection. I am a big fan of their vodka martinis
Price Point: Average by Bangkok rooftop bar standards. THB 400+/drink.
Feel: Your fancy friend’s rooftop terrace extension, with ample space to laze around. The chairs are that comfortable.
Address: 34th floor, Park Hyatt Bangkok, 88 Wireless Road, Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330, Thailand
Tel: +66 2 012 1234
Nearest Station: Ploen Chit BTS Station
Smoke & Mirrors, Singapore
Singapore is one of those cities that just ooze urban vistas. This city state has a dense, unique skyline, and has an array of rooftop bars to cater to the discerning traveller in search of a watering hole. One of the more laid back places in the middle of all the fancy action, however, is located at the National Gallery Singapore’s terrace, and is, personally, home to one of the more stunning views of the city.
Located on the roof terrace of the ‘Court House’ wing of the National Gallery Singapore, this chic, understated and thankfully not overcrowded bar, has stunning vistas of Marina Bay, the Marina Bay Sands and Raffles Place CBD towers, all while you are surrounded by the tamed greenery Singapore of noted for.
Smoke & Mirrors brands and positions itself as a destination bar, and while every other rooftop bar in Singapore (and Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok and Jakarta) likes to make that claim as well, this one deserves the moniker. The views are unparalleled and service adequate.
The feel of this bar is casual chic, with a very urban professional vibe. Not as many tourists as the other, more famous rooftop bars in Singapore, and the prices are reasonable (by Singapore standards). Try their mango beer: it comes from a micro-brewery in Jakarta and is perfect for those steamy, tropical evenings.
Atmosphere: Brushed stainless steel and marble panels, minimalist chic to not distract you from the view outside. Very upwardly mobile urban professional.
Drinks: Interesting cocktail and beer selection. I highly recommend the mango beer.
Price Point: Reasonable (and lower) than standard Singapore rooftop bar standards. SGD 15+/drink.
Feel: A rooftop ‘resort-style’ terrace. Just add swimming pool and you would think you were at a fancy urban resort.
Address: #06-01, National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew’s Road, Singapore
Tel: +65 9234 8122
Nearest Station: City Hall MRT Station
What is my criteria?
Antwerp, or Antwerpen, is one of those interesting destinations that does not pop up frequently in people’s minds, at least if you are not based in Europe. It is however, a fantastic little destination, which is best approached by train from Amsterdam, for the best arrival experience, at least in my opinion.
All that glitters
Arrival in to Antwerp via high speed train from Amsterdam or Paris is definitely the way to go. A short-ish 2 hour train ride away from Amsterdam Centraal, this gem of a destination will definitely feel like it as you pull in to Antwerp Centraal. This grand baroque cathedral of a railway station will definitely remind you of a city built on trade and diamonds.
Once the opulence and gild of the railway station settles in to your imagination, the city’s plazas and boulevards will set your imagination alight in this the major city of Flanders, the predominantly culturally Dutch part of Belgium.
Just next to the railway station is the Diamond Quarter, aptly named ‘Diamant.’ Do not let the bland exterior fool you: those stores and plain façade hide the Antwerp Diamond Exchange, numerous jewellers skilled in cutting the finest and among the most sought-after gem sets.
Straight out from the main façade of Antwerpen Centraal and Diamant is De Keyserlei, continuing on westwards to Teniersplaats and the Meir, all grand entranceways in to the central of Antwerp. Antwerp is a very walkable city, with wide shaded boulevards, ample trams, a lot of pedestrian space and monumental vistas that are arguably on par with Paris’s Champs Elysees, Newcastle’s Grey Street and Edinburgh’s New Town.
Antwerp can pleasantly surprise you, even if you have high expectations of a city of this magnitude. Walking along the wide boulevard of the Meir, the city’s commercial heart, shopping arcades blend in seamlessly with art-deco constructions, baroque edifices and 19th century opulence.
The Rembrandt House has a fine collection of Dutch works, set in a beautifully restored house, tucked away in the corner along the Meir. Given the right spring day, not your usual street performers will be enthralling you on this boulevard, with my particular highlight being a well-tuned soprano.
Amidst this avenue, you will still be reminded that this is a city in flux, that tries to balance all her commercial interests in one go. In between the medieval city and renaissance quarters, art-deco towers rise up, reminding you of the commercial importance of this city, but unlike other edifices, these almost seemingly blend in at street-level and only really pop up once you see the city from the opposite bank of the River Scheldt.
For an interesting view of Antwerp, head to the banks of the River Scheldt, where, next to the Grote Markt, is Sint-Annatunnel, a pedestrian tunnel that links communities on both sides of the river. This 1km walk under the River Scheldt was built in 1933 and has beautiful painted tiles that tell the story of this unique construction.
The Great Market
Like all great trading cities in the low countries, Antwerp pay homage to her grand market square, the Grote Markt, where the statue of Brabo, or the Brabo Fountain, lies prominent in front of the City Hall. Fantastic beer gardens and bars line the square and the surrounding alleyways, a departure from the formal lines of the renaissance city on the Meir.
The great belfry of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekatheedraal, or Cathedral of Our Lady is a prominent landmark in Antwerp and provides a good juxtaposition to the spires in the Grote Markt. The interior is, to put it simply, divine, with many beautiful Dutch Masters, Antwerp resident Peter Paul Reubens in particular, hanging in-situ as they would have been when they were initially commissioned. A very interesting way to bring in the people to church: turn it in to an art gallery.
Adjoining the Grote Markt are the old quays and docklands, some of which have been repurposed as art spaces, pop-up markets and warehouse nightclubs. As Antwerp once was one of the great trading conduits linking the interior of Europe to the great outside, Antwerp now becomes the great conduit that links the outside art world to this section of Europe. The Museum aan de Stroom or MAS, is in itself a piece of art and houses a fine collection of works from across the world and is arguably one of the more interactive museums out there. It also has fantastic views of the city from the top terrace.
Chocolate, Chips and Shells Trails
Think Belgium and Belgian Chocolate would surely pop in to your head. Apart from the usual Godiva and Leonidas, Antwerp has a fantastic array of small, artisanal chocolate shops, all tucked away in the old city. These small establishments are worth the hunt, and are consistently as good as their more famous counterparts.
The chocolate trail combines with the, as I now call it, the chips trail. Fries, pomme frites, chips, call them whatever but they taste pretty good in Antwerp, and you cannot go wrong with whichever shop you go in to. However, one particular shop, at the Groenplaats, seems to get the crowds. Queue looks long, but it is fast moving, and as it is next to a Leonidas and a few good bars, you might as well add on a chocolate trail and pub crawl while you’re here.
Another interesting feature you may notice as you walk around Antwerp would be the small bronze shells you see embedded in the pavement. It was only after a visit to the St James’s Church when I realized that there is a third trail that converges in Antwerp: the Way of St James, or the Via de Santiago de Compostela. Yes, that famous Pilgrimage Trail actually starts up in the low countries and passes through Antwerp.
Little did I know, my travels would converge in a nexus where the trails of commerce, art, diamonds, chocolates, beer and religion meet. It helps that it is still one of the largest ports in the world (the Port of Antwerp actually almost reaches the Dutch border) and one of the grandest railway stations around.
WiFi? The City of Antwerp has free decent speed wifi available city-wide, so there is no worry for you to hunt around for free wifi if you are too lazy to get a local sim or pay for roaming.
Train connections? Local trains, high speed inter-city trains and Thalys provides excellent connections to Antwerp with regular services across the Low Countries. In fact, you can just turn up at Amsterdam Centraal and you’ll be on a train to Antwerpen within the hour.
Sydney is one of my favourite cities. She may be on the other end of the world from a lot of major destinations, and her relative remoteness is a red flag for me moving back, but there are sights and sounds which remind me why I still love her. Her coasts and beaches are an obvious, and the Bondi to Coogee Walk highlights these perfectly.
City to Surf
There are many ways to start the Bondi to Coogee Walk, though my favourite would be a weekend stroll. Point to point, this would take 40 minutes, but where is the fun in that? Start with a nice brunch in Coogee and end with late afternoon drinks in Bondi. A fun 5 hours!
The easiest (and personally, the most efficient) way of getting there is identifying your start and end point. For me, I take the train from the City (Central or Martin Place on the T4 Eastern Suburbs Line) towards Bondi Junction. Bondi Junction is a large bus interchange for the Eastern Suburbs, and if you have not decided where to start your walk, this spot would be a good option to have a think-through and board the first bus you see.
From Bondi Junction, I take bus 313 or 314 towards Coogee. The 10-15 minute bus ride passes through nice examples of late Victorian/Sydney suburban architecture, leafy neighbourhoods and narrow-ish streets. The bus stops right at the beach. The promenade and shops along the beach road have a great selection of cafes and restaurants, with Coogee Salt, a short walk down the main street away from the beach, being a personal favourite.
If I had to rank my favourite Sydney beaches by number of visits, Coogee would be top, followed by Maroubra and Bondi. The beach has great distractions, from cafes to stunning cliff-side views. Plus, it is easy to get to and not as crowded as Bondi, but not as expansive as Maroubra. Yes, my Sydney days were beach-centric.
Walking along the beach promenade northwards, you will reach a nice park that ascends up to cliffs. This is the start of the Bondi to Coogee Walk, with beautiful public art installations beacons to your journey. Walk left and up the cliffs and you will be on your way to Gordon’s Bay, enroute to Bondi. Walk right and down, and you will be by the Coogee Rock Pool, with Rock Pools a defining feature of Sydney beaches.
The walk along the cliffs are truly dramatic, as you look down towards the Pacific Ocean, as the surf violently crashes against the rocks below: a sure disaster for boaters but a stunning view for those with a flair for the dramatic.
Gordon’s Bay is a small inlet, a spot for fishing but too small to either surf or lay in the sand. The next cove up, Clovelly Beach, is another deep inlet, a narrow and safe sound with a small beach but good conditions to practice your open water swims along the embankments with the surf rescue team perfectly positioned at the mouth of the inlet.
Surfing by the cliffs
It took me a while to figure out why Bali is such a destination for Australians. Apart from the obvious proximity of Bali to Australia, the close resemblance of the cliffs of Bali to the surf beaches of Bronte brought some perspective to this.
Due to coastal erosion, part of the Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk became unstable, and as a result, the walk went through part of the Waverly Cemetery. There is something poignant about walking through these monuments and memorials, perched against the cliff, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Bronte Beach is one of the major surf beaches in Sydney, with a stunning setting amidst the cliffs. While it looks narrow, the rocky cliffs on either side frame the setting beautifully, as the mostly surfer crowds look out from the beach, waiting for the right time to hit the waves.
Continuing along the cliff walk, you will notice beautiful rock formations, including a section called the Tamarama Rocks. This rock formation, basically rocks overhanging a cliff, provides a beautiful vantage point to view sections of the Bondi to Coogee Walk, from Tamarama Beach onwards towards Mackenzies Point.
This is also a spot where the ‘daredevil’ images of Instagram are taken, with people standing on the ledge, seemingly on the overhang down towards the rocky cliffs and Pacific Ocean below.
The stunning rocky terrain and cliffs cause the coastal walk to hug as closely as possible, providing a beautiful view of Sydney, one which can easily make you fall in love with this beautiful ocean-side setting.
From Mackenzies Point, it is just a short walk towards Bondi, and you can easily recognize it by the sudden mass of humanity stopping at a particular cliff and rock formation. It is hard to get a bad picture of Bondi from this spot, the beach is just that photogenic.
Icebergs Club Bondi provides the perfect spot to end the Bondi to Coogee Walk, as you head up to the terrace to enjoy a much well deserved glass of cool white wine, watching the world pass by.
It is also a good spot to practice your open water swimming, by a practicality. The pool at Icebergs Bondi is fed by the ocean, as waves crash in to the edge of the pool, feeding it with fresh sea water, sand and a few waves.
While Bondi is crowded and is a destination beach, it is still filled with a myriad of characters, scenery and distractions, from street art on the promenade to the Bondi outdoor gym, from fancy boutiques to standard souvenir shops. It is also easy to get the bus back in to town, with a very regular, albeit crowded, bus service towards the City or Bondi Junction.
Transport: Take the T4 Eastern Suburbs Line towards Bondi Junction. At Bondi Junction, take bus 313 or 314 towards Coogee. Coogee stop is easy to find: it’s the one with the beach. Buses back from Bondi are plentiful. Just get on one which says ‘City’ for direct City service or ‘via Bondi Junction’ if you want to break your journey.
Opal Card: taking public transport regularly? Get an Opal Card. Readily available at the Airport Express train station and easy to top-up, this provides great value if you will be using the airport station more than twice in a week, reducing your airport station access fee. On Sundays, there is a cap on travel fare, meaning after taking the ferry to Manly for Sunday brunch, travel on the ferry, bus and train network is free all day!
Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk: thirsty? Don’t worry. There are a lot of water fountains along the way, even if there are not many convenience stores along the walk.
The Mekong River is one of those unique destinations, which personally can only be appreciated when traversing it from source to flush. The closest I have ever done to this grand exploration was exploring 3 of the 4 countries. A cruise and kayak along the Laotian side, a run along the Cambodian embankments and now, a paddle down the Vietnamese delta end.
Escape from Saigon
The start of a Mekong Delta Expedition is My Tho, a roughly 2 hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City. Once you get out from the hustle and bustle of Saigon, along the major expressway which then narrows down to smaller highways and by-ways, the sights that just scream ‘Indo-China’ pop out.
Passing green rice fields, going through small towns and settlements, navigating the traffic challenge that is Vietnamese driving and braving the roads, you will be happy you got in a nice, comfortable, well-airconditioned transport.
After the 2 hour drive, you would expect to see wide open spaces, rural idyll and of course, a lack of density. Well, we are in one of the densest parts of Southeast Asia, so expect to see people living cheek-to-jowl even in this ‘far flung’ end of one of the largest cities in Asia. The quay at My Tho hammers this home, when you observe the sheer congestion and mass of boats moored by the banks of the Mekong. Such fun!
Cruising the Delta
There are a myriad of operators conducting tours on the Mekong Delta, but they have one thing in common: their boats are relatively narrow. These small-ish boats are perfect for skimming the wide delta and navigating the channels.
Out in the Delta, the contradictions of Southeast Asia becomes apparent: massive highways and impressive bridges juxtaposed against small sampans and narrow village roads. Yet it is this contradiction which gives this Delta character.
After passing a few islands in the Delta, we moored by the banks of Thoi Son island. From here, we were greeted by a song-and-dance and refreshments before starting a short walk in to the island’s interior and on to shallow boats for a unique experience.
Paddling through palms
One of the images you see of Vietnam, apart from those tunnels and WWII sites, is one of serene paddling through dense foliage, as you explore the backwaters of the Mekong Delta. Lush greenery, against the silt-laden channels and a local paddling a flat-bottomed boat.
Yes, we had that. That, on top of something I thought I would never see: boat-related congestion in a village on a narrow irrigation canal. Truly a unique experience, and while not the ‘ideal,’ it was different. Old ladies deftly navigating their boats, avoiding collisions despite the sheer congestion.
From here came the ‘tourist traps.’ A honey bee farm and a ‘picture session’ with a blind python. While I personally am not a fan of these, it did come in with the tour and I did know what I was getting myself in to. Might as well make the best of it.
Sweet Delta Images
While I am not a big fan of the hard-sell, make me curious enough and I may just bite at what you have to offer. This was what they did after another session of cruising down the Mekong.
From the congestion of the irrigation canals and the buzzing of sting-less bees, after a nice lunch with a sumptuous spread (tours are not all bad: they feed you well if done properly) at a riverside restaurant with a nice view of the Delta, we were brought on a ride.
After a pony-drawn carriage ride through back-roads, we ended up in a truly random place in the middle of the jungle. The smell of sweets though was unmistakable. I was told we were going to a coconut candy factory. I was not expecting a cottage-industry outfit, and this was something different.
In between playing with the resident cat, listening to our guide tell us how coconut candy is made, and get a bit confused by the tall blond Russian trying to sell coconut candy and related products, I have come to realize one thing: travelling in a tour group will occasionally throw a curve ball.
On the boat ride back, the life of the Mekong came in to perspective. Tourists and travellers come and go, and the residents continue as normal. Congestion on the canals and delta channels does not faze them. Tourists take pictures of them packing candy and they continue on their rhythm, headphones in their ears. Tour busses clog their streets during ‘peak hours’ but they still ride their motorcycles in complete serenity, ignoring ‘proper’ traffic routines.
Tour groups: there are a myriad of tour options to the Delta, from private transfers to large bus groups. The options at the Saigon Post Office are a good bed. Be warned: you get what you pay for. A little extra can be the difference between a basic boiled dish to an imperial spread.
Tips: Bring small change, as the boatmen and paddlers do not get much despite what you pay the operator. It is not easy paddling a flat bottom boat all day.
I used to call Sydney hope in the early 2000s, and this city has arguably helped shaped my viewpoints and outlook to life. A city on a stunning harbour, eager to move forward yet knows when to do so at a chilled pace. A city that knows the importance of beauty, especially when she has so many opportunities to showcase it to the world. A city that is both banker-thinking yet beach-bumming at the same time. Did I mention how much I love Sydney?
The Harbour City
The founders and city administrators of Sydney know what they have on hand, and they knew it early. Port Jackson and Sydney Harbour have always been an entry point for the city, and even with rail or air links, this is still reflected on approach. Air paths follow entry along Port Jackson, and taking the airport express to the city will showcase the beauty of Sydney Cove as the train exits the tunnels and goes above ground at Circular Quay.
This is a city built around her water, and it would be completely wrong to not at least spend some time walking around Miller’s Point, Circular Quay and the Royal Botanic Garden fringing Sydney Cove.
Most of Sydney’s icons are located on or close to the harbour, and for good reason: they look stunning on the water. From the skyscrapers of the CBD to the Sydney Opera House, from the Harbour Bridge to Darling Harbour, this is a city whose iconic image is hard to beat. As artsy and intellectual as Melbourne is, I’m sorry, I still have a thing for Sydney: she made me work out to look good for Icebergs.
City to Surf
The urban sights of Sydney are pretty generic for a major outpost of Empire: the standard Victorian architecture of the Queen Victoria Building, the mock-Gothic manor house of Government House, the monumental architecture along Martin Place and Customs House are unique yet familiar. The pedestrian mall of Pitt Street, skyscraper canyon of George Street and urban leisure of the Barangaroo-King St Wharf-Darling Harbour corridor feel very, well, typical of a wealthy urban centre, but there are pockets where Sydney shines in her own right.
Take a morning run along Circular Quay and Sydney Cove and the psyche of the city comes to perspective. Sure, city residents look as if they enjoy lounging around, but they need to maintain their fit look. Sure, the city looks like a major global city, but the city residents talk and think and discuss of major topics as they run in the park or row to make sure they maintain their edge. This is a city that knows she has an image to maintain and knows the maintenance that comes with it.
Yet for a truly iconic image of Sydney, then head to the eastern suburbs and the coast where the beaches and stunning cliffs are. There is a reason why the City to Surf is a concept, a thing, a driving force in the city.
Surf and Turf
Getting from the city to the surf is a fairly easy affair. There are direct buses from the city, and there is the train + bus option. I personally prefer the train + bus option, mostly because I like trains and there are more buses from Bondi Junction. From the CBD, take the T4 Eastern Suburbs line to Bondi Junction, a major bus hub that has bus links to all the major eastern suburb beaches.
Maroubra beach is personally one of my favourites, a nice long stretch of beach, suitable for kite surfing and a spot of open sea swimming, despite the waves. However, for a fun exploration of the coast, the Bondi to Coogee Walk is a very fun option. Taking bus 313 or 314 from Stand K of Bondi Junction to Coogee Beach, walk left from Coogee Beach, along the cliffs and coasts to such sights as the surfer destination of Bronte Beach, the deep inlet of Clovelly beach, and end at the iconic Bondi Beach.
Coogee Beach is a nice little beachside suburb with very good cafes and brunch options, so a late brunch before an afternoon walk towards Bondi to burn the calories is a very viable option. On arrival at Bondi, reward yourself with a drink at the Icebergs club before dipping in for a few laps in the salt water pool. Stand by the railings and get ready to feel the force of the Pacific as it blasts straight towards you, before experiencing the work hard, play hard culture at Bondi Beach.
Iconic Monuments, Iconic City
While the eastern suburb beaches are the more popular and easily accessible, Manly Beach would provide a good alternative. Taking the Manly Ferry from Circular Quay to Manly, the harbour views on this trip is on par with any Sydney Harbour cruise.
Manly, and Manly Beach, is a fun little spot to enjoy brunch by the sea. With a nice selection of cafes and restaurant, my personal favourite being the Manly Pantry, the laid back, leisurely pace will undoubtedly make you slow down a tad as well.
The view as you head back in to the city from Manly along the harbour is truly an iconic view: promontories and beaches jut out to the harbour, as yachts cruise along, with the unmistakable sights of the CBD towers, Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge providing for that picture postcard view.
If there was a case study for how iconic architecture can place a city on a map, there would be a chapter on Sydney. The trials and tribulation of the Sydney Opera House could easily be a production in itself, and the marvel of the building has not only put Sydney on the iconic destinations map, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Catch a production in the city, be it an opera or concert performance, to truly experience this performing arts destination. Sure, there are backstage tours, but it is nothing like listening to Violetta sing of joy de vive at a production of La Traviata or enjoying a glass of sparkling fronting the harbour during intermission.
This joy de vive that permeates through Sydney is what makes the city unique. From a stunning skyline to surfable seas, beckoning beaches to harbour views, Sydney would leave an indelible mark to any visitor.
Opal Card: taking public transport regularly? Get an Opal Card. Readily available at the Airport Express train station and easy to top-up, this provides great value if you will be using the airport station more than twice in a week, reducing your airport station access fee. On Sundays, there is a cap on travel fare, meaning after taking the ferry to Manly for Sunday brunch, travel on the ferry, bus and train network is free all day!
Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk: thirsty? Don’t worry. There are a lot of water fountains along the way, even if there are not many convenience stores along the walk.
hThe first time I went to Saigon in the early 2000s, I saw a city in flux: a romantic city, with forlorn memories of her glory days and a sheer mass of humanity on motorcycles. In 2018, I still saw a city in flux, but one remembering where she was and knows where she wants to be. A window to the past always open, but always looking ahead to once again being a major lynchpin in Indo-China. The mass of humanity on motorcycles remains: always a fun challenge for walkers like me.
Parisian flair, Asian touch
One of the things you will notice in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, or whichever term you want to use, are her elegant boulevards that connect her districts, or as I like to call them, arrondissements. The main arteries are beautifully manicures, with shady trees providing the perfect avenue for an evening promenade. Some even have dedicated ‘local’ and ‘major’ lanes, one for bicycles, another for cars. Very civilized.
For a taste of what was intended in terms of grandeur, head over to the Hotel de Ville, now the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, and the city’s main public square. Here, what was once a canal is now paved over, but the outline of the grand boulevard is still present: stretching for a good 1km, this links the city’s heart to the Saigon River’s banks.
Very much a product of her age, Saigon is filled with beautiful examples of colonial French architecture: a Paris in the Tropics. From the pastels of the Hotel de Ville to the elegant buildings along the main thoroughfare, the mansions along Le Loi to the Gustaff Eiffel-designed Post Office building, and the Notre Dame to the Saigon Opera House, the sense of provincial French familiarity permeates through the city.
Personally, the best way to experience a city is on food: the avenues and streets of Saigon are built just for that. Once you get past the initial fear of crossing the street, and remembering to take deep breaths, look straight and walk at a consistent space across the road, you are set for an experience not many Asian cities can offer: a pleasant walk.
The city is densely built, with trees providing constant shade as you walk. With architectural distractions left, right and centre, it is hard to decide where to start, where to stop and where to look. However, District 1 is designed in such a way, with a firm grid, it would be hard to get completely lost once you identify landmarks.
Walking along the river promenades, on the Mekong River and Saigon River sides are a treat, and this is where this city in flux truly shows itself. At the bridge linking District 1 and District 2, the eclectic dynamism and eagerness of Saigon, and modern Vietnam, is for show: the restored Finance building, juxtaposed against massive public works program, anchored by the Bitexco Finance Building: the old, the new and the idealism.
The architectural beauty of Saigon is easily accessible thanks to a lot of them being converted to museums: the former Governor of Indochina’s residence is now the Ho Chi Minh Museum. The exhibits are generic, but the interior and views from the upper terrace are stunning. The Hotel de Ville is sadly not open to the public, but the nearby Saigon Opera House is, and the theatre now holds regular modern arts and interpretive dance performances.
The Museum of Vietnamese History, built by the French amidst courtyards and the Saigon Botanical Garden is a treasure throve of Cham artefacts, Sino-Vietnamese art and houses a memorial turned Hung Kings Temple to the numerous wars affecting the region. The interior of both these buildings are worthy of mention, and if you are lucky, the sunlight streaming in through the windows against the incense inside the memorial temple would provide for stunning pictures.
If French Colonial history is not your thing, then perhaps something more recent would whet your appetite. The Presidential Palace, or the Reunification Palace, built on the site of the former Norodom Palace, is so saturated with history, it is hard to miss on any walk of the city.
The interiors are mostly open, and when your timing is right, preferably early in the morning, or in between tour groups, you can wander the halls and corridors and imagine what transpired here just 40 years ago. Beautifully restored state rooms, private quarters and the bunkers are kept as they were in-situ, complete with the helicopter used for the evacuation, with the tanks and bombs reminders of the last push for reunification.
Day Trips and Thrills
A few hours drive south and you will be in the Mekong Delta, which is a unique destination in itself. A good respite from the hustle and bustle of Saigon, but in a densely populated delta of a major river, do not expect a tranquil spot.
Realistically, you will need to be part of a tour group to experience most of what is on offer here, but for an independent traveller, the trade-off is somewhat worth it. After a 2 hour drive, traffic dependent, you will be in the town of My Tho, the starting point for many river cruises. From a paddle in canals through nipah palms and small villages, to a coconut candy manufacturer to a honey manufacturer, complete with a python as a gimmick, it can be an oddly fun day out from the city.
Tipple after Trippin’
Apart from the dynamism and attention to restoration and repurposing in Saigon, the array of watering holes in this city has impressed me compared to my last visit. While the Park Hyatt Saigon is still my go-to place for after-exploration tipples, a few others may just make my ‘Southeast Asia Bars to Watch’ list.
Eon51 on Level 51-53 at the Bitexco Financial Tower has, without a doubt, the most stunning view of the city. One of the highest bar in Southeast Asia, this bar has a commanding 360* view of the city, if you don’t mind a walk around the deck.
However, Shri, one of two rooftop terraces at the Centec Tower. has one of the best cocktails in town, with an art book to match. Located on a terrace at the northern end of the city, this spot has a stunning view of the city at sunset.
If I had to pick my favourite, SOHY, just upstairs from Shri at Centec Tower, is a surprise entry in my rolodex of bars. This 3-floor terrace combines outdoor terrace with beach-vibe club and champagne bar, with an Italian restaurant just to round things up. Hardly any expats or tourists, this very local place could easily help place Saigon as one of the next leisure destinations in Southeast Asia, a viable alternative to Bangkok, vibe, view and price-wise.
Museum of Vietnamese History – VND 15,000 with a VND 40,000 camera fee
Reunification Palace – VND 30,000
Ho Chi Minch City Museum – VND 25,000
In 2016/17, I was involved in a fairly large World Bank project involving Indonesia, and it was during this particular sojourn where I discovered the beauty of Komodo. While I have heard of the islands and its reptilian residents, it was only after this project when I suddenly got the call. In the grand scheme of ‘calling’ and my actual ‘action,’ this was definitely one of the fastest I have ever ‘implemented.’
The Spice Islands
Komodo is the main island within the Komodo National Park area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite its world renown, it is still relatively untouched, all for the better. To get to the site, there is the usual ‘cruise from Lombok’ option, or for those with a rush, the ‘fly to Flores’ option, which personally, introduces you to the Spice Islands and the Pacific Ring of Fire first hand.
The most realistic option getting to Flores, named so because the Portuguese were spellbound by its beauty, is from Jakarta, where regular direct and connecting flights are available. Arrival in Komodo Airport is an experience in itself, as you pass volcanoes in the middle of the sea, or stunning landmasses amidst the deepest blue.
On arrival in Flores, and specifically Labuan Bajo, the sense of ‘island-life’ and ‘rustic idyll’ permeates, as there is no true ‘town centre,’ especially considering that this location is essentially a fishing village which relies on the tourism and fishing industry. You would want it that way, as what better way to relax than having a nice drink overlooking the bay, with good fresh seafood from the fishermen and vendors who give you a fair price?
The primary reason most travellers come by to this relatively remote part of Southeast Asia, are for the komodo dragons, islands and diving. While regrettably I did not have enough time for diving (as I need a refresher after 3 years of not diving), I did make sure I had enough time for dragons, islands and beaches.
There are a number of operators that do island safaris from Labuan Bajo, some on speedboats, some on dive boats, some on liveaboards, some on cruisers and some on fantastic yachts. I opted for a liveaboard. While not as fast as some of the dive boats or speedboats, I did have the whole boat to myself, with the only noise being the waves crashing against the bow. The speedboats on the other hand sounded like 10 Harley Davidsons with loudspeakers.
Most operators conducting day trips would suggest Komodo Island or Rinca Island as part of the itinerary, with a stop at Padar Island. While on maps, the islands look relatively close by, the straits that separate these islands are at the confluence of the Java Sea and Indian Ocean, and currents can be strong, especially between Rinca and Padar Islands.
I went with Komodo Transportation and Travel, a local outfit with a fantastic guide, who made my private tour really something. My boat, the aptly named ‘Traveller,’ was the perfect vessel, being a liveaboard, and having the capacity for 14 people. Yes, a boat for 14 guests and I was the only one.
As smaller, faster boats passed us, I lazed on the sundeck, with drink in hand, book by my side, sunscreen on the ready. We passed small fishing communities and wildlife on the islands as we cruised towards Padar Island, that large island between Rinca and Komodo, and where those stunning travel photos are usually taken.
The cruise, like all seabourne journeys, is subject to the currents, and while the first 2 hours from Labuan Bajo to the tip of Rinca were smooth sailing, the crossing between Rinca to Padar did get rough at times. If you are ever contemplating squeezing in Komodo’s Pink Beach, Padar Island, Rinca Island and Kelor Island, that would be almost impossible. It is either Komodo or Rinca, one cannot do both in a day cruise.
Green Hills & Gaping Thrills
Padar Island is worth the stop, if only for the summit climb. The beauty of being on my larger but slower boat, as that by the time we berthed at harbour, the larger tour groups were descending, meaning I had the summit walks mostly to myself. The mostly barren, steep island with sheltered beaches and coves makes it a magical site, with unobstructed views of Komodo and Rinca islands.
Rinca Island is one of two sites within the Komodo National Park where you can view the fabled komodo dragons safely. While Komodo Island is a spot where you are assured of sightings due to the dragons being used to humans, Rinca Island is a good spot to see the dragons in their natural habitat.
After a short walk from berth to park headquarters, pass low-lying flat lands and mangroves and the occasional buffalo, you will be mesmerized by the rolling hills of Rinca, resembling pastoral New Zealand than tropical Indonesia.
The 1.5 hour walk, with our park ranger, resulted me in counting at least 16 dragons. Yes. 16 dragons, from 2 baby dragons, to countless larger dragons underneath the kitchen giving a Japanese TV crew quite the fright, to a dragon guarding her nest to my favourite: dragon lazing on top of the hill, under a gazebo, monarch of all he surveys.
From Rinca, we made our way to Kelor Island, the final stopover before Labuan Bajo, and a frequent spot for snorkelling, kayaking, SUP-ing or a climb to the summit for a fantastic view.
Due to time constraints, I had to pass on the evening bat exodus, but time flies when you are having fun on a cruise.
View from Paradise
Despite the rural idyll, Labuan Bajo is a tourist town, but not in the veins of San Sebastian, Ubud or Queenstown. Prices are reasonable and the locals, on a whole, do not attempt to make a quick buck from travellers. The bars are good, the restaurants serve fresh fish and everything is mostly walking distance.
One of these spots, a bit off-centre, is Paradise Bar, which lives up to its name at sunset. Cool beach-house beats play, with a wide terrace overlooking Labuan Bajo, the bays, islands and sea beyond. Drinks are reasonably priced, and for the sunset views, worth the steep hike up.
La Pirate, a sister property of La Pirate in Bali, has a lovely rooftop terrace and bar, with an infinity pool overlooking the harbour. The drinks are pretty good too, and it’s a nice spot for a late lunch.
The stalls of the night markets along the seashore, where the fishermen dock and unload their catch, is an excellent site for good, cheap seafood in the evenings, frequented by locals and tourists alike. No overpriced fish for tourists and reasonable prices for locals here: it is very egalitarian.
For something posh, Atlantis on the Rocks at the Plataran Komodo, is without a doubt, a good escape from the world. Taking a car (or in my case, a motorcycle) along narrow roads, looking down at steep cliffs, rolling mountains, crystal clear seas to my left and right while riding on the saddle of a mountain, makes the journey (and the drink) worthwhile.
Komodo Travel & Transportation
I used Komodo Travel & Transportation, and Ali is a fantastic guide. His boat, the ‘Traveller’, is apt for those who want to rekindle that romance of travel. www.komodotraveller.com
Komodo National Park Fees
Weekdays: IDR 295,000 (trekking) IDR 310,000 (trekking + snorkelling)
and on Sundays/Public Holidays: IDR 370,000 (trekking) IDR 385,000 (trekking + snorkelling)
Times to visit:
Peak – April to October, as the monsoon is less prominent, and particularly busy during the dry months of July to September, when komodo dragons are out and about and the sea is more agreeable.
Off-Peak – October to December is a decent time to visit: weather is not as hot, the sites are not crowded and the komodo dragons are still around, as they tend to hide when the storms roll in from December onwards.
Tucked away in a nice little corner of the Malay Peninsula, just off the major international shipping routes but along the leisure sailing routes, lies a collection of islands that provide a nice little alternative to Bali, Phuket or Samui. It also happens to be a favourite haunt. This is Langkawi.
Duty is Free
Langkawi, like a number of islands off Malaysia, has the special status of being a duty-free island (The others include Labuan, off Borneo, and Tioman, off the east coast of Malaysia). While the prospects of duty-free alcohol and chocolates (and kitchen ware. Do not ask why) seem to appeal to some, it can just be a happy secondary perk for others.
Expect to see price of alcoholic beverages to be significantly lower than on the mainland, or depending on the venue, on par with the mainland. Hunting for the ‘best’ duty-free value can also be a sport for those who come up from the mainland, and the selection of whiskeys, vodkas and scotch here is, at times, worth the effort.
With 99 islands to choose from (and significantly more during low tide), the options for you to get your own private beach retreat is endless, provided you do not mind taking the effort. Boats and yachts are available for rent or charter to explore the islands at a leisurely pace, or long tail speedboats that ferry excursions for island hopping.
For something a bit more human-powered, most beaches have kayaks, jet-skis and boards available for rents. Kayaking excursions include mangrove exploring or paddles to nearby islands, while jet-skis range from jet-ski tours to messing around along the shore.
Personally, I take a kayak out from Cenang Beach to Rebak Kechil Island, a good 20 minute paddle, depending on the currents. A good, private beach with a nice sandbar, with excellent views of the airport, arriving and departing planes, and that long stretch of commercialized beach.
For something more private, Datai Bay is more genteel in their watersport options, with excellent kayaking or stand-up paddle conditions in a protected bay. However, this option is restricted to in-house guests at the Datai Langkawi or Andaman Langkawi. Worth the premium.
Rugged Coastline Drive
The coastal road hugging the coast along the western coastline of Langkawi, from the airport towards Telaga Harbour, and onwards towards the Datai or Tanjung Rhu are some of the nicest drives in the country. Stunning shoreline, the sea peeking behind the trees, with sheer cliffs on your left and right as you do hair-pin turns on some bends.
Renting a car in Langkawi is a good option, especially if you intend to explore the island. Car rentals are relatively cheap, with good quality, new cars available from vendors. The only drawback would be finding parking if you happen to frequent Cenang Beach, though paid parking behind the mall is well situated in the middle of the strip.
Exploring the island on a bicycle is growing in popularity, heat notwithstanding. With Langkawi being the venue of the Le Tour de Langkawi and Langkawi Ironman, the closer it is to season, the number of cyclists getting used to the terrain might just inspire you to get on a bike.
Green Hills & Suspended Thrills
On approach to Langkawi, be it by air or sea, you would notice the beautiful green hills and peaks that dot the landscape. This being a UNESCO Geopark, options about to explore the natural beauty of the island.
While the mangrove tours along Tanjung Rhu would bring you around the wetlands, karst formations and eagles that give Langkawi her name (Lang being a Malay word for eagle, Kawi being a word for limestone), if you are short on time but do not mind splurging for a quick nature experience, opt for the Langkawi Cable Car that goes up Mount Matchinchang.
Langkawi Cable Car has three options, namely standard cable car, express cable car and express cable car + skywalk. While the cable car is an experience bringing you high above the jungle with vistas including the Seven Wells Waterfall, the skywalk is worth the extra premium, as you trek along the peaks with a guide who brief you on the nature in the area. The suspended skybridge is not for the faint of heart, as some sections of the Langkawi Sky Bride has glass panels for you to look down to the ravine below.
Water falls from sky to sea
Personally, one of the spectacular sights in Langkawi would be her waterfalls. In an island filled with fairy tales and legends, this particular waterfall resonates with a lot of myths and legends in Asia: located along Mount Matchinchang, up the road from Oriental Village and the start of the Langkawi Cable Car, is the Seven Wells, or Telaga Tujuh.
This is a collection of stunning waterfalls and pools that emerge from the springs close to the summit of Mount Matchinchang. While most would be at the base of the waterfall, looking at the stunning, immensely tall waterfall as it crashes down below and onwards to the sea, a stunning viewpoint can be had at the pools at the top of the waterfall.
Cool water, natural slides, rockpools and gently cascading water provides a great counterpoint to the sheer aggressiveness of the water as it goes off the ledge. This would be a good metaphor for Langkawi: peaceful yet hyperactive, commercialized yet rustically idyll.
Rent a car:
there are a number of car rentals available at arrivals of Langkawi International Airport. Taxis can be expensive, and hard to come by if you explore further afield.
Langkawi Cable Car:
-Normal prices start from RM30, but the wait can be painful, especially during weekends and holiday season
-Express: starts from RM90. Worth it.
-Express + Skytrail: RM120. Also worth it.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.