A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: rduignan

Japan - Tokyo and Hakone

Tuesday 7 April

We are off again. After the trauma in February of finding Ray's cyst was actually a metastatic melanoma and all the tests that ensued followed by a truly restorative month skiing in Meribel we arrive at Heathrow ready for our flight to Japan. After the disaster of having the kids' teddies stolen by the cleaners from our BA flight we have chosen to fly JAL and if the check-in staff are anything to go by we are in for a good flight.

This turns out to be right and everything from the seats, the enormous TV screens, the fastidious service and the truly charming staff make this an incredibly easy journey. The only discordant note is a young English couple (why is it always us?) determined to drink the bar dry and unfortunately regurgitating their endeavours later in the loo. Luckily they weren't noisy and were far enough away from us so we could get some sleep before touching down in a wet and very cold Tokyo. Temperatures have plummeted from the usual 20 degrees to a wintery 4 degrees and we feel the chill as we step off the plane. I stop to clean up the kids (both having been travel sick during the descent) and we become fascinated by the loos themselves. Heated seats, sprays to wash your bottoms, automatic flushes - the kids are in heaven. I finally drag two now incredibly hygienic children out of the ladies and go through customs. The airport is immaculate and the staff efficiency personified and my love of Japan is confirmed when an air hostess rushes up to us with a mobile phone in her hand tagged 'seat 10c'. It actually wasn't our phone but the honesty they display is in such sharp contrast to our own back at home that I feel somewhat humbled and ashamed at the same time.

After a short drive through the industrial outskirts of Tokyo we arrive in the business district and to the Mandarin Oriental. Our rooms are on the 31st floor and the view from each window is of a metropolis of a size I have not seen before. As far as the eye can see there is tower block after tower block, each jostling for space and light. It is almost overwhelming and far bigger than anything I had imagined. As the afternoon light fades and the lights of the city get turned on the vista becomes even more impressive and magical. We spend our first evening having dinner in one of the hotel's restaurants with a birds' eye view from our table of the east of the city dominated by the Sky Tree, which is the tallest tower in Japan.

Thursday 9th

Ray is up early for a tour of the fish market, Tsukijii, which is reckoned to be the largest in the world. Nothing could have prepared him for the sheer scale of what he was about to see. The market is made up of three or four distinct areas. The high profile tuna auctions start at 5am and are held in an open-outcry area that is itself as big as many other fish markets. The two tuna lying side by side that he took photos of are each worth an astonishing ¥1m!

Bordering this is the wholesale area, which houses some 1,500 small businesses in a huge grid-like structure. The organisation and efficiency with which retail buyers (for hotels, restaurants and shops) access what they need left him awestruck. Each business is a blend of activities, merchanting everyday needs like bream etc with specialities such as rock and spiny lobsters, razor clams and the like.

Beyond the wholesale area is another part of the market dealing with small fish and crustaceans (much of which is used as the base for miso, the ubiquitous Japanese stock), pickled vegetables and products used as accompaniments like the roots that produce wasabi, the fiery horseradish.

Finally, visitors decant themselves into a retail area that sells fish, household goods (see the knife stall!) and also houses outstanding mini-restaurants and snack-houses, which are rammed with both local Japanese and tourists.

Ray felt that Tsukijii made a visit to Tokyo worthwhile on its own although he is a self-confessed anorak about these things! I was sad to miss it but with Jack allergic to some fish and Amy feeling sick most mornings it seemed best to avoid. This was probably wise as they were wiped out with jet lag and we only woke up at 10.15 and had to make a mad dash before breakfast finished.

An hour later we set off to explore the local district on foot in glorious spring sunshine. The streets are amazingly clean and orderly, the taxi drivers clad in jackets and ties and as for the the building sites - something to behold with a uniformed guard at the gate and the site itself tidy, efficient and above all, productive! We stop to have a coffee at a Starbucks and even here are asked to wait whilst a table is cleaned and a reserved sign placed on the table ready for us once our order is completed. It is all a joy and we sit and people watch for the next half hour. I am fascinated and could have stared for hours. On the whole people dress in smart, traditional clothes with a main colour scheme of black, brown, grey or navy and the women clutch their designer handbags as a statement. A face mask is a common sight, which I find a little unnerving, but after a while it ceases to seem abnormal.

We wander past the river (brown and polluted in comparison) where Jack looks for water snakes for an eternity until I can stand no more and drag him on past various shrines and back streets where order gives way to a chaotic cats cradle muddle of electric cables suspended in the air. We look round their main department store (sadly mainly stocking western designers and so no different from our own) and finally return to the hotel late afternoon. A good introduction to Tokyo but jet lag and our previous sleepless night is taking its toll so after an early supper we collapse into bed.

Friday 10th

The phone rings at 10.40am and it is Yuka, our guide, who has been waiting in the lobby for an hour, too polite to call us earlier. We have overslept! A mad scrabble to get the kids up and all of us dressed and we are ready (if hungry and in dire need of a coffee). We take the subway to Ginza and set off to see the famed Sony store. I had been expecting an architecturally interesting building to warrant a visit and this it is not. Instead it is more of a lifestyle store with beautiful miniature landscapes, similar to those in Legoland, used to display the Sony goods. We wander through the seven floors and whilst my attention is diverted by Amy determined to get a mini Sony Walkman out of us, I lose sight of Jack. A mad search and minor heart attack on my part until he reappears with Ray. Why does losing a child render you so desperate and leaves you feeling sick for some time after?

We continue to explore the Ginza area with a stop at the Hakuhinkan toy store. Here one really notices the difference in our cultures and tastes. Popular toys are Pokemon, Tamagotchi, Hello Kitty and various Japanese cartoon characters that I have never seen. They love little trinkets they can hang off their mobile phones and bags and in the soft toy department, small toy dogs are the animal of choice. Stickers are incredibly popular as are novelty erasers and, of course, anything electrical. We manage to finally extract the children and head off to a restaurant called Seryna in the Roppongi area for a sukiyaki meal. Amy is by now feeling rather sick (partly her usual stomach problems and partly lack of food) and whilst Ray and Yuka order the food I am outside dealing with a vomiting child. We definitely put a few would-be diners off the restaurant but I am so proud of her resilience and the way she re-enters with a smile on her face announcing she feels much better and saying "kon nichi wa" to everyone.

Sukiyaki is where thinly sliced marinated beef is cooked in front of you at the table and accompanied by stir fry vegetables and rice. It is absolutely delicious and although we pass up on dipping it in the raw beaten egg provided, we devour the rest with Jack announcing that this was the best meal he has ever eaten. It takes ten minutes of him saying "arigato" (thank you) to everyone before we manage to leave!

Refreshed and in much better spirits we set off to Shibuya to visit the Meiji Shrine. The shrine sits in grounds of around 175 acres and was originally a garden where Emperor Meiji visited many times. Almost all of the 100,000 shrubs and trees were donated by the people from all parts of Japan and thus includes all the species found in the country. You enter the park through a beautiful wooden Torii Gate consisting of two vertical pillars (one either side) and two horizontal ones across the top, which wards off evil spirits. By the gates are barrels of vintage saki on one side and on the other barrels of vintage Burgundy - both offerings to the gods. We continue on down a tree lined avenue and pass through another Torii gate before stopping to wash our hands at a Temizusha (stone font for ablutions). From here we walk towards the main shrine building in front of which are little desks where you write prayer messages on paper or wooden plaques. The kids are enthralled by this and write long messages asking, among other things, for a new home, a dog and to make nice new friends! Having hung our plaque up amongst the others on the wall we go to the shrine itself. The shrine is a good example of Nagarezukuri (Japanese shrine architecture) and is made solely from Japanese cypress wood. At the shrine itself you throw coins into the offering trough, bow twice and clap twice as you say your prayer. Jack takes this very seriously and bows with such solemnity that I find it hard not to laugh.

Luck was on our side as we complete our visit and get back to the car just as the rain starts. En route to the hotel we stop at one or two more typical Japanese stores before calling it a day.

Saturday 11th

We leave nothing to chance and are woken up by telephone calls and three alarms! A grey day and we decide to go to the Edo Tokyo Museum first to escape the drizzle. Although nothing as spectacular as some of our London museums the kids are fascinated to get a glimpse of how the Japanese lived in the olden days. We spend hours staring at the giant model town and the Shogun's palace with Jack's imagination fuelled by stories of ninja and samurai. Maybe it is the weather but we all seem in a discordant mood with each other and Ray and I in particular seem to be on different paths. It is at times like this that the travel seems harder.

After the museum we head to Asakusa and the Senso-Ji temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo. We pass through the Kaminarimon Gate and then walk down Nakamise Street which is decorated with red lanterns and lined with about 90 shops, mostly selling tourist items. It is Saturday and the place is packed. Ray sets off in front with Jack, head down and determined to get to the temple, oblivious to the shops and their contents. In complete contrast (Mars and Venus) I follow with Mimi and could have bought up mountains of glorious tat (ninja headbands for Jack, a kimono for Mimi, black glossy chopsticks, hello kitty bags) if only I wasn't hurrying to keep up with Yuka. I will have to sneak back.

The temple itself is lovely but for me lacked the calm and serenity of Meiji Jingu. The rain has stopped, however, just in time for me to take a photo of the buddha statue and the blossom. We head back to the car along a street adjacent to Nakamise avoiding the crowds but also my kitsch shops. I think evil thoughts!!

Today Yuka is taking us to a local tempura restaurant where we have to queue for ten minutes to get a table. The place is only full of Japanese and is obviously a popular local. Although beautifully cooked the kids don't take to the tempura and resort instead to bowls of steamed rice whilst we tuck in. Clutching wooden chopsticks as Samurai swords we leave the restaurant and head by car to Ueno Park and its famed avenue of cherry trees. The children are thrilled to be free and run around waving their 'swords' and pretending to be ninjas whilst we wander down the avenue enjoying the cherry blossom. It is nearing its end and the rain has not helped, but you still get a sense of the beauty of spring in Japan. Adding to the effect are the red lanterns hanging between the trees and a stream which runs down one side. The only blots on this beautiful landscape are the endless 'garbage sites' set up along the path. The Japanese are paranoid about dirt and litter but unfortunately take this too far and the wooden bins slightly dominate the walkway. This is nonetheless a wonderful park to visit and we spend a blissful hour wandering through it, stopping to look at the fountains and the giant statue of a blue whale.

Our final destination is the Imperial Palace Plaza and the Double Bridge. The current Emperor and his wife still live in the palace itself and this is hidden from view but the plaza is dominated by a beautiful gate house and two ornamental bridges stretching over the moat. I find the Japanese architecture very serene with its white walls and beautiful sloping black roofs stacked up in layers. With the skies beginning to dark we decide to head back to the hotel for a rest before heading out for dinner.

Tonight we head to a restaurant called Misono (apparently the originator of Teppanyaki) for dinner. We clutch our taxi cards which you have to show to the driver. This has the destination (and return address) written in Japanese as none of the drivers understand English script and few speak English. Showing the usual Japanese concern for people and manners our driver jumps out of the taxi and guides us, umbrella in hand, to the door of the restaurant - I cannot imagine the same effort being exerted back home.

The restaurant is situated on the top floor and down the length of the room is a long steel counter which is the cooking plate itself. In front of this are high chairs lined up and every 8 guests are cooked for by a chef. I am pleased to see we are the only westerners here - always a good sign. In Japan, tepanyaki is all about the beef with lobsters, scallops and abalone offered as a starter. There is none of the theatrical performance we are used to in London or in Melbourne for here in Japan it is taken very seriously and the theatre is simply the skill of the chef in his preparation and presentation of the food. It is also extremely pricey, 16,000 yen (£100) being the cost per person of the food itself and so for many unaffordable and they tend to head to Korean barbecues instead.

Our chef starts with the lobster and Jack nearly faints at the sight of its claws moving as it is cooked. We explain that it is dead and that the heat makes the muscles expand but he looks on sceptically eyeing the chef as some barbaric butcher! Next is the beef which is very different in appearance to our English cuts, being far more marbled and incredibly tender. Just as he lays the dishes in front of us Amy falls asleep in her chair and nothing can wake her. She misses it all. The food is incredible and utterly delicious and a wonderful end to our stay in Tokyo.

Sunday 12th

We set off in the car to Kamakura, a charming village en route to Hakone. We stop first at the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine which is Kamakura's most important shrine. It was founded by Minamoto in 1063 and moved to its current site in 1180. The shrine is dedicated to the patron god of the Samurai and the deified spirits of the Emperor Oji are enshrined here. It has a 1.8km approach and being a Shinto shrine, we pass through a stunning red Torii gate before approaching the shrine itself. It is spectacular. After the shrine we wander over little Japanese bridges crossing streams filled with carp before coming to a small ornamental lake. We stop for the loo - immaculate as always with the standard array of buttons to warm the seat, wash various parts, dry and deodorise. The only oddity is that more often than not there are no hand dryers or towels as the Japanese prefer to bring their own and it is standard practice to carry a small towel or flannel with you wherever you go. Back outside we sit by the lake and Yuka gets the kids ice cream. Luckily amidst the standard Japanese flavours (green tea, potato, plum pickle and a vivid blue one whose flavour was lost in translation!) she finds vanilla and the kids are blissfully silent for a bit. Suddenly the peace is interrupted as two eagles dive into the water and fly up to nest in a nearby tree. They are joined by four more and soon the air is filled with these magnificent bird of prey. The children sit entranced for ten minutes watching this magnificent aeronautical display until it is time to leave.

Our next stop is the Hasedera Temple and gardens, which we view alone whilst Yuka queues for a table at a nearby restaurant. According to legend in 731 AD two statues were carved from a giant tree and whilst one was put in a shrine the other was thrown in the sea. 15 years later the giant wooden statue washed up at Nagai Beach in 736 AD and this temple was constructed to honour it. The gate to the temple is surrounded by Japanese pines and has a giant red lantern suspended from its roof. Inside are beautiful ornamental gardens built around ponds and streams with small decorative stone bridges, stone lanterns built like mini temples and the usual stone inlaid paths. There is a formula to all Japanese gardens which need to display various elements and try and replica nature. Streams, therefore, must meander not be in straight lines, water irises are often planted in the water to represent reeds, carp are always placed in ponds, waterfalls and rock piles built to represent the mountains and moss grown in carpets under the trees. The colour is derived from the greens of the leaves and moss, from the blossom on the trees and bushes and not usually from flowers.

We could have stayed much longer at this beautiful site but Yuka is waiting and so we head to Ishibashi Noodle bar for lunch. This is probably our most successful lunch yet and the children inhale the delicious soup. We had asked Yuka to take us away from the tourist route and into a local place and she has done just that. The food is simple, but incredible.

Before leaving Kamakura we stop to see The Great Buddha which is an impressive gigantic bronze statue of Buddha but in hindsight perhaps worth missing as the time used here means the clouds come down before we get up the mountain to Hakone and thus Mount Fuji remains hidden from view. We stop at Lake Ashi anyway and wander along the waterfront, now clad in coats as the air in the mountains is significantly cooler. The lake is rather beautiful with a stunning red lacquer Torii Gate set into the hill side. We are disappointed not to see Mount Fuji, the symbol of Japan, but apparently the success rate of viewing it are only 10% so it is just the luck of the gods.

We head off to Gora Kadan, a ryokan set on the side of the mountain near Hakone. As we cross the railway line to get to the entrance our hearts sink a little at the hotel's location but nothing had prepared me for the luxury and simplistic beauty we were about to encounter. The ryokan is set in the former summer residence of the Emperor and looks out over the beautiful mountainside below. Water plays a significant part in the design of the hotel and runs either side of the main corridor and falls away into a carp filled pool below. All the staff are dressed in traditional Japanese robes and kimonos and we are taken to our rooms where we meet Setsuko who is to be our 'assistant' during our stay. She is an elegant 60 year old lady, immaculate in green kimono, who shows us what to do in a ryokan as there are many rules and traditions.

First we remove our shoes and are shown the wooden flip flops we are to wear in the main parts of the hotel. These are placed on a straw mat facing the front door. Inside we wear socks which are divided so the big toe is separate from the other toes to allow the wearer to use the flip flops. We slide back the rice paper screen and enter the Tatami room which is simple in design with low ceilings, pale walls and undecorated save for a vase of flowers to one side placed by a screen painting. In the centre is a low table surrounded by cushions. Through another sliding door we pass through an annexe where there is a low writing table before walking out on to the terrace. Here we put on outside shoes to walk the short distance to the bedroom. Through another sliding door we pass a room housing a large round wooden bath, which resembles a hot tub and is permanently topped up by hot running water coming from a shoot in the wall. Beyond that is our bedroom where futons are placed on a raised dias and covered in thick duvets - needed in this cold mountain air. The pillows are the traditional rice filled pillows and, as we later find, take some getting used to. Laid out on the beds are our kimonos which we are to wear whenever we are in the ryokan. It is all simple and rather beautiful and, after the modernity of Tokyo, we finally feel like we are in Japan.

We undress and put on our kimonos and go next door so that Setsuko can tie them properly for us. You have to tuck the right side into the left or it represents death and funerals. Properly attired we are served a welcome green tea and then are taken off to the Onsen baths. Here the boys are directed off to the right whilst Mimi and I head left. You take off your flip flops and enter a changing room where you strip off and place your kimono in a basket. We are alone and oddly, despite being at ease naked at home, we feel rather self conscious standing in this public room with nothing on. We enter the bath chamber where a huge round bath filled with natural hot water from the volcanic springs dominates the room. To one side there are small wooden stools and in front of each is a hand held shower, a wooden bucket, wall mirror, and shelf containing soap, shampoo and conditioner. As instructed we wash our bodies and hair, rinse off and then enter the bath. The temperature is 40 degrees and Mimi finds it a bit hot so we decide to head to the outside onsen bath instead. We slide open the door and enter a beautiful Japanese garden and there is a pool surrounded by rocks and trees. The pool is again fed by the volcanic springs and is the same temperature as inside but here the early evening air helps moderate the heat. It is magical and we float in the warm water, dimly lit by lanterns and feel completely free. Rather reluctantly we finally drag ourselves back inside and change into our kimonos as we are late for our dinner.

Setsuko is waiting and we sit down on low cushioned chairs in the Tatami room. The table is laid out with beautiful red and black lacquered tableware with our chopsticks resting on ornate rests. The children have miso soup followed by simple beef and rice and Japanese vegetables whilst Ray and I are in for 9 courses! Gora Kadan is renowned for its food and it does not disappoint. Some of the dishes are exquisite - the sashimi amongst the best I have had and the wagyu beef literally melted in our mouths. Even the boiled sea roe which sounded very unappetising on paper is actually delicious. Ray is braver than me and wolfs down the tiny raw squid and other unidentifiable items but we both fail at the tofu and starch soup which just looks (and to be honest tastes) revolting.

Whilst we eat enough to do a sumo wrestler proud the children get restless and so Setsuko takes them off and shows them how to write kanji script with the brush. First she wets the solid block of ink and then scrapes it with a china stick to loosen the ink before dipping the brush in. With a deft hand she draws the symbols for Amy's name making it look effortless and easy (it isn't!!!).

Finally, tired and sated we head off to bed, laughing at yet more shoes placed just inside the loo door solely for wearing in there. God knows how dirty we must appear to the Japanese tourists who visit England. We all lie in a row on our futons and I have to say, we like it best this way all tucked in and calling out goodnight in true 'The Waltons' style.

Monday 13th

We wake to rain and rather a lot of it. As we knew this was forecast we don't mind and there is something rather lovely about lying snuggled up in bed listening to a downpour. The joy of our uniform of kimono and socks is that we don't have to think what to wear and enjoy the freedom from decisions. It also speeds up getting ready and a few minutes later we are seated in the Tatami having breakfast. We have chickened out and have opted for the western breakfast as I am not sure that Amy's tummy could cope with miso soup smells first thing. We meet up with Yuka and decide to postpone our tour until the afternoon and so spend the morning doing some school work and going for a swim.

After lunch, with no let up in the rain, we decide to venture out anyway and drive the short distance to the Hakone Open Air Museum. The museum opened in 1969 as the first open air art museum in Japan and the spectacular grounds house some 120 works by well known modern and contemporary sculptors. The landscape would be worth a visit on its own but the exhibitions, brilliantly laid out in this backdrop, are truly breathtaking. This is no formal museum tour as many pieces can be interacted with (the foot bath and springy giant fried eggs) and some which children can play with. Our favourite is 'Woods of Net' which is a domed canopy (useful in this rain) suspended from which is a beautiful array of interwoven coloured nets. The kids climb up through the openings and play in the nets for at least half an hour, shrieking with laughter and declaring this to be the best day ever!!

We finally extract them and make our way to the Picasso museum in the centre of the park. I had expected one or two paintings but not the incredible collection that was laid out before us. In this remote area of Japan, high up in the mountains, there is probably one of the best displays of his work I have ever seen. Paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, ceramics, gemmail, silver and tapestries - all the different mediums he worked in are exhibited here. It is simply brilliant.

After a wonderful afternoon spent in the park we return to the car somewhat wet and bedraggled but also elated by our discovery. The Hakone Museum, on its own, is worth coming to this region for.

We have another Onsen bath but this time have the company of a large Taiwanese lady. She is charming and oddly having someone else there makes me feel much more at ease. Mimi is by now an expert and scrubs away at her body holding the spray this way and that to rinse herself down. In her perfect English the lady sweetly points out that the soap in a net bag that Amy is at that moment using to clean her bottom with is actually the facial soap for everyone! I wince in embarrassment but neither Mimi or the lady bat an eyelid. Despite the rain we decide to head outside where parasols are waiting to shield us. It is even more magical sitting together in the bath under a traditional Japanese parasol in this tranquil garden. Amy announces we must build one of these when we get a new house and I only wish it was possible as I am as addicted as her to this concept.

Instead of the nine courses we have opted instead for a shabu shabu which is thinly sliced beef and assorted vegetables cooked in a pot of broth placed on a stove in front of you. Unfortunately it was still precluded by four courses and whether it was the heat of the bath or the jet lag I still cannot shake off, I suddenly feel green at the sight of the food and have to head outside to recover. I do not do justice to the dinner but at least the shabu shabu is simple and I manage to eat some.

I am tired and even the rice filled pillow (rather hard and unyielding) does not stop me nearly falling asleep before the kids. We sleep for ten uninterrupted hours - total bliss.

Tuesday 14th

It is still raining but as we are off this morning it does not really affect us. The children hastily try out our own bath with Ray before a final breakfast prepared by Setsuko. It feels strange to put clothes and shoes on again and I feel rather sad to say goodbye to our beautiful and simplistic way of life in this ryokan. It has been a wonderful and unique opportunity to experience the lifestyle of the Japanese in such caring hands. We all hug Setsuko goodbye and will miss her gentle presence.

We drive down the winding mountain roads (Amy is sick!) past truly spectacular scenery and arrive twenty minutes later at the train station. As we stand on the platform a bullet train passes through the station and I cannot begin to explain the noise and speed with which it passes. At 300 kph it is something quite extraordinary to see and I am grateful for the barriers along the platform protecting us from the train. We board the train and what was a three hour car journey takes only 30 minutes before we are pulling into Tokyo station. Yuka guides us to the platform where we are to catch the new bullet train to Kanazawa. This train is only two weeks old and there are people lining the platform, armed with cameras, ready to capture it on film. It is rather a beautiful looking train and the inside is incredible. We say goodbye to Yuka and settle down into our luxurious cabin ready for Kanazawa and our next adventure.

Tokyo skyline

Tokyo skyline

Tokyo at night

Tokyo at night

Japanese store

Japanese store

Loo instructions

Loo instructions

Torii gate

Torii gate

Pagoda at Sensojii

Pagoda at Sensojii

Kids with cherry blossom

Kids with cherry blossom

Ueno Park

Ueno Park

Cherry blossom

Cherry blossom

Cherry blossom close up

Cherry blossom close up

Gate Tower at Imperial Palace Plaza

Gate Tower at Imperial Palace Plaza

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine

'Samurai warriors'

'Samurai warriors'

The Great Buddha, Kamakura

The Great Buddha, Kamakura

Wood of net

Wood of net

Jack in the nets

Jack in the nets

Amy in the nets

Amy in the nets

Tamini room at Gora Kadan

Tamini room at Gora Kadan

Setsuko with the children

Setsuko with the children

Our shoes

Our shoes

Kimonos

Kimonos

Jack in his kimono

Jack in his kimono

Amy in her kimono

Amy in her kimono

Jack and Amy's names in kanji

Jack and Amy's names in kanji

Posted by rduignan 06:20 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Sri Lanka - Sigiriya and Kandy

2nd January

Dilan picks us up and we set off towards Sigiriya. Not long into the drive we pass a river and spot the most beautiful kingfisher. We stop the car so I can grab a photo of it and when I tell Dillan I am ready to leave he apologises for the delay in setting off but tells us he was waiting for a snake to cross the road. Sadly by then it had gone and none of us saw it but from that moment on, on an almost hourly basis and for the entire holiday, Jack asks Dilan if he has seen another snake. Later Dilan takes a back road through the farm land and there in front of us is a Mongoose. My first ever sighting which was slightly marred by the fact that Amy chose that moment to throw up!

We then pass through tiny, rather poor villages, with makeshift houses barely more than tents. Two women are on their way to the river with the baskets of washing on their heads, the usual dogs barking round their heels. A couple of men, bodies thin from hard work, stand chatting clad in shirt and turquoise tartan sarongs (a popular fabric in this country). What never ceases to amaze me is that out of these run down houses the children appear dressed for school immaculate in their white uniforms. With all our modern facilities and washing products back home we could never achieve that level of whiteness.

After one and a half hours we arrive at Sigiriya in the Matale district and park in the tourist's car park at the base of the site. Slightly unjustly the Sri Lankans, when they visit, have to park a mile away from this point and walk in. We stop by the gate to go to the loo and the kids are fascinated by having to squat over a hole in the ground. The smell is overpowering in the heat and flies beginning to buzz around but luckily this only adds to the interest. It is boiling hot and the kids have wilted before we go ten feet and Ray wonders whether to abort mission but I am up for the challenge and drag my poor family along with me.

Sigiriya is an ancient palace which was built on top of and around a massive column of rock nearly 200 meters high. It was created in the 5th century by King Kashyapa who chose the site for his new capital. He built his palace on the top of the rock and decorated its sides with colourful frescoes. At one time the whole of the face of the hill would have been covered in paintings making it one of the largest 'pictures in the world'. On a small plateau halfway up the rock he built a gateway in the form of an enormous lion and it is from this structure that the place gets its name - Sihagiri or Lion Rock.

Today only the ruins remain and at the start of our journey, at the base of the rock, we pass the remnants of the garden complex with its two moats, various pools and halls. One of the amazing things about the construction is the water system they set in place with an intricate and complex labyrinth of clay pipes which still today bring water down the rock face to the remnants of the pools below. In two places you can still see the water bubble where a fountain once stood. This area was apparently used in the dry season and as the rains approached the entire court would move up to the palace at the top of the rock. The children moan and whine and we haven't even started our ascent of the 1000 (or 1200 depending on who you ask) steps! I mutter the usual thing about glass half full and half empty and how lucky they are to be at this incredible place but my words fall on deaf ears - who wants to travel with kids?! We climb up the first section of stairs, our guide struggling to get their attention. Luckily he has a breakthrough when he shows them a stone burial chamber which, as recently as twenty years ago, was broken into by thieves who stole all the treasure. This fascinates them and without realising, they have climbed another 50 steps whilst asking questions.

It is at this point that our guide realises he needs a ticket for Jack (as he is seven) and leaving us to rest in the shade and asking us to speak quietly so as not to disturb the wasps(?!), heads back down the steps to the ticket office. We hastily fill the kids with food and water and refuelled and cooled down in the shade they revive and are now on a mission to get to the top. Up we go until we reach a narrow metal spiral staircase which we have to climb in order to view the murals. The staircase hangs out off the rock with a view straight to the bottom. My vertigo sets in, legs are now jelly and I feel sick. Ray and Amy are nearly at the top which leads wobbly me to get Jack up. He is normally useless at heights as well but fortunately today hasn't noticed the sheer drop below and confidently walks up. The murals are still quite colourful and I find it amazing how they were painted in such detail on these sheer sides.

Back down the ladder and relief for me. Here, all those years ago, they carved a path (paved with marble) into the rock and built a large parapet wall to protect them from attack or from falling. These walls were painted in egg white, lime and honey, forming a white mirror-like lacquer which reflected the murals on the rock face. On these walls people would write their names as they passed forming a wall of graffiti. In its time it must have been a dazzling sight but still, with only remnants of the paintings, lacquer and graffiti remaining, it is pretty incredible.

Finally we reach a small escarpment where the Lion Gate is situated. The paws and staircase are all that remain of a once colossal gatehouse built in the form of a crouching sphinx-like lion which measured 35m high by 21m wide. It is here that our guide's comment about wasps becomes clear. On this platform stands a first aid tent and as we look at the final steps heading for the summit we can see dark clouds around the rock face. These are wasp swarms and if disturbed attack with vigour. Our guide announces that the wasp numbers are not too bad at the moment but that nearly 1000 people had to be taken to hospital in July and August after bad attacks. Apparently this is the time of year the Sri Lankans visit en masse and they tend to be in large groups and rather noisy and it is the latter that irritates the wasps.

As we watch a noisy group of Americans head up in front of us and look at our near exhausted children we decide to call it a day and head back down. Multiple wasp stings on a 4 and 7 year old would not be the ideal scenario. We head back via the Cobra Hooded Cave named after the giant snake like rock that looms over the entrance. Jack, slightly disappointed that it is not an actual giant cobra, takes more interest in the ambush rock. Here, over a thousand years ago, they balanced giant 20 foot boulders on top of smaller rocks so that in a time of attack they could dislodge the small rocks and send the boulders hurtling down the hillside - awesome concept for a seven year old boy!

As we reach the bottom and look up once more at the giant rock we can see why Sigiriya was once proposed (against the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China) as the eighth wonder of the world. It is an incredible monument to man's great engineering and building skills and will rank with some of the greatest places we have ever visited.

We set off on our drive to Kandy, stopping at the side of the road for a quick picnic. Not perhaps the scenic stop we had envisaged when we planned the lunch and rather involves us sitting in the car eating our sandwiches with Dilan standing outside surrounded by hopeful looking stray dogs. We are near a Thambili (king coconut stall) and buy a couple to drink en route. I am getting used to the taste now and, with words of famous models extolling its virtues for great skin, persevere unlike the rest of the family.

After a long and bumpy, but rather beautiful drive we arrive at Victoria Golf Course where our hotel is situated. Although the grounds and lake in the distance are very picturesque Ray and I both have a slight sinking feeling as we pass other villas on the estate. We arrive at Bougainvillea Retreat and our concerns are justified. Although the villa is situated in a stunning spot with an infinity pool looking over the lake below, it is the building itself that lets it down. The open ground floor that we are standing in houses some dubious art, a free standing cocktail bar, rather nasty sofas and a pool table - none of the charm of Sri Lanka that we are used to. We head outside and sit on shiny green sofas until we notice they have been invaded by black hairy caterpillars. Beside the pool they have room for three sun loungers and the rest are crammed in a small patch of grass to one side. Sprawled in these are a rather large German family, beer bottles and cigarettes in hand and an impressively full ash tray beside them. It all feels very seedy and run down and we want to bolt.

Ray whispers to Dilan that we will not want to spend three nights here whilst I head upstairs to check the rooms (spacious and simple but fine) and the set menu which starts with cream of mushroom soup (not so fine and hardly a local dish!). The kids, oblivious to all this drama think the hotel is wonderful and have found two hanging chairs and are swinging rather precariously towards a side table. After various phone calls the other options are not really viable and we decide to stay and make the best of it. After a swim in the pool we head upstairs to our rooms and I start to unpack. Rather like the rest of the hotel the dressing room feels a bit dirty and the odd personal belonging still lurking in drawers doesn't help. The final straw is when I go to open the safe and find a gun and box of bullets and some loose change inside. I step back in horror and call Ray in. He sets off to find the manageress (who has just returned) whilst I try and hang our mosquito nets above the bed. The hotel has swarms of mosquitos but no nets in these rooms but as we have carried our own with us unopened so far on this trip I am rather pleased to be using them. After some swearing and with the use of a screw in hook and some parachute cord (my father would be proud) I have erected the nets.

Pi, the manageress, returns and is amazed I have managed to open the safe as it has been 'locked for a year'. The gun turns out to be a type of pepper gun kept for protection during times of unrest in previous years. Does this make me feel better? Marginally I suppose but it only adds to the Fawlty Towers atmosphere.

Later, after a tepid shower(!!), we sit outside on a candlelit table overlooking the pool. The mosquitos are out in force but we have coils lit by our feet and are fine. Dinner then changes everything - the staff are wonderful and out of the kitchen comes the best food we have eaten in Sri Lanka yet. The chef is a stand-in until the new one arrives and if I was the hotel I would hang on to him forever - everything he produces is delicious. It is funny how good food changes everything and happy and full we return to our rooms, exhausted.

3rd Jan

The sun pours into the room through the net curtains at 6.30 and we wake early but it is rather nice to lie and read a book. Today we are going to be lazy and chill by the pool so we are in no rush. When we finally head downstairs the other guests have headed off on tours and Pi is away for the day so we have the hotel to ourselves. Bliss.

I bring out the paints we brought from Java and the kids sit for an hour, brushes in hand, happily painting away. We swim, play cards and lego and laze in the sun. Amy and I get attacked by the caterpillars (agony) and their minute hairs remain in our legs and continue to hurt for days. We later learn the trick is to pour on some coconut oil and scrape the area with a blunt knife. We also discover that the sun loungers by the hedge or on the grass are not the ones to use (red ant bites) but these insect attacks apart, the day is a happy one.

Later that afternoon the staff carry a huge wooden canoe on their shoulders down the hill to the lake. The rains have left the route rather muddy and by the time our little procession reaches the water we are all splattered in mud and we giggle at our appearance. The canoe has two seats but both are broken (no surprise!) and so whilst Ray balances on one, the kids and I sit Indian style on the floor of the canoe and paddle off. It is beautiful out on the lake and we go past local men fishing and swimming before paddling out into the centre. The lake is surrounded by lush forests and birds sit in the trees or skim the still water surface looking for insects. We are on our own, surrounded by pure beauty and the peace of it all is rather wonderful. Finally when our arms are too tired to paddle any more we return to the banks and are met by our lovely staff who help us back up the hill. I feel so guilty looking at their white uniforms covered in mud but they are gracious as always.

That evening the children make friends with a girl and boy of similar age and are happy as can be - the only problem now is keeping the noise level down. We eat an exquisite Sri Lankan curry (local food at last) by candlelight sitting outside which is a perfect end to a great day,

4th January - Kandy

Dilan comes to the villa with strict instructions to make sure our knees and shoulders are covered as we are off to visit Kandy, the last royal capital of Sri Lanka. It is most people's favourite city in Sri Lanka and it is not hard to see why. It is situated in the hill country 465 metres above sea level surrounded by tropical forest and built around an ornamental lake. The architecture is elaborate and ornate and made up of palaces, royal parks, bathing houses and temples as well as a few colonial buildings built during the time of the British Empire. The overall effect is of grandeur and splendour and this is made more so because today is the ceremony of the full moon and everyone is dressed up in their ceremonial costumes to visit Temple of the Tooth.

The Temple of the Tooth is a series of temples originally built around 1690 but restored in stone in the 18th century. It was built to house the upper canine of The Lord Buddha himself and this precious relic attracts hordes of pilgrims throughout the year, clad in white and bearing offerings of lotus blossoms and frangipani. We have picked both a good day and shockingly bad day to visit depending on which way you look at it. Due to it being the Festival of the Moon and a public holiday there are thousands of people queuing to get into the temple and as we head through the gates Ray is turned away as his shorts do not reach the knee (we had warned him!). I think he planned this on purpose as he looks remarkably relieved and pleased with himself as he heads off to view the British cemetery in peace and quiet. Dilan gets the tickets and we leave our shoes at a little kiosk before joining the throngs heading for the entrance. It is pandemonium and rather scary as the crowds converge to get through the archway and make their way up the stairs. Amy drops her flower offerings and I try to scoop them up between people's feet. Oddly, for a nation so child friendly, they are anything but in this queue today and push and shove the children just to gain a few feet in the queue. The children whimper in fear but there is no turning back for us against this tide of people and we have to carry on. Dilan takes Jack and I carry Amy and lose my polite British 'after you' attitude and begin to elbow my way forwards glaring at anyone who pushes against the children.

There are literally thousands of us heading up the stairs and halls of the temples and just when I think we have made a grave mistake and can take no more we reach the main hall and the crowds disperse into its cavernous space. There in front of us, visible through a small arch, is a glimmering gold and bejewelled casket measuring around 3 foot high which contains the sacred tooth. It is mesmerising and a privilege to see as it is only on view on certain days of the year. We leave our offerings, say a few prayers and decide that that is enough and head for the exit leaving the pilgrims to pray and queue for further rooms. We blink in the bright sunshine and I give the children water and a banana whilst Dilan gets their shoes. The chaos of earlier forgotten as we survey the Buddhist flags and all the colourful sashes on the saris, splashes of colour against the dazzling white walls of the temple. I still love the Buddhist religion and the aura of its temples but oddly here, with more of an Indian culture, it has less of the peaceful spiritualism that we experienced in Thailand and Indonesia.

We meet up with Ray and head off in the car to the Botanical Gardens in Peradenya about 5 km west of Kandy. The children announce they are starving and so whilst Ray offers to watch them and Dilan gets the tickets I have to negotiate a Sri Lankan cafe/store to get food. After a lot of smiles and waving of hands I manage to buy some biscuits and everyone is happy. We are met by our guide Pali, an incredibly knowledgeable botanist and lecturer who takes us to the Orchid House. After the orchid houses in Singapore this feels rather basic but still beautiful and the children are happy as they have spotted some terrapins in a nearby pond. A buggy then turns up to take us on a tour of the rest of the gardens and I feel a bit silly initially as we glide past the other visitors as if we are visiting dignitaries. I soon change my mind, however, as the Botanical Gardens cover an area of 147 acres and walking that far in the late morning heat would not have been an easy option with the children.

The Royal Botanical Gardens, originally the Queen's pleasure garden in 1371, were converted to botanical gardens by the British colonialist rulers during their stay between 1815 and 1948. Having cleared thousands of hills of invaluable forest cover (not popular with the Buddhists who see them as sacred) for their tea plantations they then created this extraordinarily beautiful area, similar to Kew. Over the years these gardens have not only become one of the most visited sights in Sri Lanka but also contributed to the conservation of much of the flora so unique to this country.

After the orchids we pass the spice gardens with cardamom, cloves, peppers and vanilla - all examples if what is grown in Sri Lanka and exported world wide. We then move on to the main gardens where the vegetation is purely tropical with an abundance of palms, bamboos and lofty trees with their large buttress roots. Growing off the trunks of many of these trees are orchids and ferns and amidst the large leaves are either bright vivid flowers of large fruits. The children shout out excitedly when we see a group of monkeys eating mangoes and we stop to watch them as they play.

We pass bamboo of such immense proportions which apparently grows at a rate of a foot a day until they reach around 30ft high and then grow no more. A statistic I still find hard to comprehend. We see cannonball trees, rain trees and rows of sentry like palms which form the various avenues such as Coconut Avenue, Royal Palm Avenue, Palmyrah Avenue and Cabbage Palm Avenue. We then approach a large lawned area of park where young children, enjoying their day off school, are running around playing games or resting in the shade. Amy is desperate to join in and begs for some time to play. I watch as she nervously approaches two young girls, dressed in saris, unaware of the language barrier between them. They all stand a bit nervously eyeing each other up and I come to her aid, introduce her to her new companions and start to chase her around. Soon the girls and a group of children have joined in and we race around playing tag laughing at each other. Amy hangs on to the hand of her new friend and together they laugh and giggle and chase Jack and me around. I marvel at the freedom with which children break down the barriers of race and language and form bonds so easily. I feel immensely proud of my little girl as she hugs them all goodbye and then slips her 'loom band bracelet' off her own arm and on to the arm of her new friend. She is so genuine in her affection.

Beside this lawned area is a white colonial building which during the Second World War was used by Lord Louis Mountbatten, the supreme commander of the allied forces in the South Asia, as the headquarters of the South East Asia Command. Ray is fascinated and he and Pali discuss the history whilst the kids and I recover from our energetic play in the sun .After an hour and a half our tour is coming to an end. These Royal Botanical Gardens are extraordinary and well worth a visit not only for the plants but also for the beautiful landscape of lakes and bridges, parks and trees. They are far better than I had ever envisaged and magically brought to life by Pali who has dedicated his life to these gardens.

We head back through Kandy and Dilan drives us around the lake and past some of the beautiful buildings before heading up the hill to a famous scenic spot where the whole of the city is laid out below - a sparkling jewel of a place beside the blue lake, fringed in white railings and set amidst the green background of the forests. It is easily the prettiest town we have visited.

We head for home and spend the rest of the day swimming in the pool and dodging the caterpillars. A final candlelit supper - this time a barbecue, and a chance to reflect on our time here. This hotel is in such a pretty spot and has exceptional staff in its employment. Pi (the manager) is lovely but I think happy with this shabbiness and enjoys the freedom to come and go as she pleases (most days) and yet the hotel is crying out for some investment both in time and money. It needs gutting and refurbishing and could then be a great place to stay in. It is funny, though, how people you don't like on your initial meeting later become good friends and this is how we feel about Bougainvillea Retreats. We have, despite the set backs, been really happy here.

Sigiriya

Sigiriya

Some of the steps up

Some of the steps up

Murals

Murals

Lion gate

Lion gate

Steps down!

Steps down!

View at Bougainvillea Retreat

View at Bougainvillea Retreat

Painting by the green sofas

Painting by the green sofas

Temple of the Tooth

Temple of the Tooth

Sacred casket

Sacred casket

The crowds!

The crowds!

Orchids

Orchids

Terrapins

Terrapins

Amy's friends

Amy's friends

Avenue of palms

Avenue of palms

Canonball trees

Canonball trees

Kandy 1

Kandy 1

Kandy 2

Kandy 2

Posted by rduignan 06:24 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Sri Lanka - Wallawa and Ulagalla

28th December

As we head to the airport for our flight to Sri Lanka news of the Air Asia crash is just filtering in and not what we needed just before we board our Air Malaysia flight (not an airline with the best record recently!). The first leg to Kuala Lumpur goes smoothly and we manage to keep the children awake both on board the 10 hour flight and during our 3 hour stop over at KL. Despite being 4.00am for them they are surprisingly jolly and sit with bowls of chicken noodle soup watching Tom and Jerry on TV.

The next short flight to Colombo is anything but peaceful and probably the most scary I have ever endured. We fly through a huge storm with lightning flashing past the windows and this rather tired old plane is battered around in the turbulence. At one point, in the midst of the storm, it was clear that one of the engines was labouring which causes a ripple of panic down the plane. The Air Hostesses have to remain seated for the duration of the flight and no one is allowed to get up, even for the loo. It was only 3 hours long but felt like an eternity. The only blessing being that the children slept through it all too exhausted to notice the drama outside. We touch down at Colombo to great relief.

We appear from the plane, tired and exhausted, and whilst Ray juggles three bags I try to carry Amy, pull a suitcase and hold on to Jack. An airport representative has been sent to collect us and fast track us through customs. She is resplendent in a turquoise sari and I breathe a sigh of relief knowing that she will help with my load - none of it! She smiles, shakes her head and says she can only guide us to the lounge and cannot carry anything or pull a suitcase. I am not sure what assistance she actually gives us and think dark thoughts as she sashays at speed through the terminal, burden free. We finally make the VIP lounge where our Sri Lankan rep is waiting with cold flannels and water. Life is looking up. He explains that Sri Lanka has been suffering from two weeks of torrential rain, some roads are impassable and our driver has been unable to get to the airport. They have a replacement for tonight and we pile into the car and head for our hotel. We check in to our rooms in the dark and are not sure whether the hotel is a convenient airport stopover or something more.

THE WALLAWA

We wake to the sound of heavy rain at dawn but turn over and fall back into an exhausted sleep. A few hours later the sun comes out and we emerge from our rooms. What an oasis we find ourselves in. The Wallawa is the former residence of the Commander of the RAF in Sri Lanka when it was an important staging post to South East Asia. It is a very elegant property but it is the gardens that enchant us most - part English and part Colonial. We sit on a terrace with rattan fans swirling above us and order breakfast. The children are distracted by the small chipmunk like squirrels that live in the tree and rush onto the terrace in a hasty raid on breakfast crumbs. Amy and Jack head off in pursuit and we sit back, coffee in hand and enjoy the vista and the warmth. It is wonderful to be back in this tropical heat and in a different Asian culture and strangely enough the whole family feel somewhat more at home here.

We decide to let the children relax by the pool today whilst Ray goes on the tour of Colombo. Dilan, our driver for the duration of our Sri Lankan stay, arrives and is utterly charming and efficient. We will be in safe hands. Ray goes to Colombo and visits the old fort area with an architectural historian called Mark Forbes. He has a fascinating time and, without the encumberance of the kids, is actually able to have an in depth tour and an adult conversation.

The kids and I meanwhile brave the icy pool and lie in the sun until industrial sized red ants move us back nearer the hotel. We play croquet and badminton, set up lego figures and devour the afternoon tea. Jack cannot get over the delicate taste of the tea (grown here in Sri Lanka) and has about three cups.

That night we have our first Sri Lankan curry with its nine accompanying dishes - a wonderful introduction to their cuisine and a welcome change to eat spicy food again.

30th December

We pile into our air conditioned people carrier and set off on our journey North east towards Pinnawalla. Like Indonesia, driving in Sri Lanka is not for the faint hearted. Here most people travel in motorised three wheeled tuktuks which swerve across the road at will. Dogs lie sprawled on the road enjoying the warmth of the road surface and locals stand and chat a few feet onto the road, oblivious to the oncoming traffic. The rule of thumb seems to be that you hoot and overtake any vehicle going slower than you whilst the rule for the dogs (and some people) is head straight towards them and hope they move, which luckily they do. Jack was concerned that the hooting meant everyone was angry but actually they are merely saying 'Hi, I'm here, wish me luck as I overtake you on a blind bend going rather fast'!

Sri Lanka is a country rich in vegetation and within a short space of time Dilan has pointed out four different types of palm trees - the King coconut palm (used for its milk and water), Fishtail palm and the Palmyra palm (both used for toddy and syrup) and the Beetlenut palm (the fruit of which they chew turning their mouths red). We have stopped by a rubber plantation so we can watch them tapping trees. He shows the children mango, jackfruit and bananas all growing near the roadside and we pass small stalls along the way selling all these fruit as well as King Coconuts which has the water they call Thambrili and drink daily for their digestion. A short while on we stop to see bricks being cut and dried initially in the sunshine still brown in colour. They are then piled up in around a fire in small shelters and baked until brick red.

After this the scenery changes and we drive through the paddy fields. I love being back amongst these lush, vibrant green fields with the water buffalo grazing and the egrets, dazzlingly white against the rice plants, hunting for insects. There is something very serene about these fields and I never tire of looking at them.

Dotted along the roadside are a mixture of brightly painted brick houses (reminiscent of Java) and then rough lean-to structures with roofs of sacking or corrugated iron. Outside almost every dwelling is a colourful row of washing hanging from any available surface and yet more dogs lying in the sun. The men, clad in sarongs and shirts, are whippet thin and usually in flip flops or barefoot. The women, depending on their age, either wear colourful saris or t-shirts and pretty skirts. Strangely, unlike the men, the women hold a lot more weight but still have the same dazzling smile. School children, immaculate in white, are collected from school either in tuktuks or walk along the road sheltering under umbrellas from the midday heat.

After three hours in the car we are nearing Pinnawalla but instead of going to the elephant orphanage, Dillan has arranged to take us to the Millennium Foundation instead. Here funds raised from tickets go to protecting and housing working elephants who have been rejected or are no longer needed. The children are to look after the 15 year old Punja (daughter of one of the older elephants at the sanctuary) and are soon feeding her pieces of melon and bananas. They laugh as her trunk tickles their hands, the tip as agile as fingers as she picks up the pieces.

We are allowed to ride her and the kids and I climb on to her bare back and hang on to each other as she sets off up the path. I feel a bit vulnerable as we cross a bridge high above the river and hang on to the children a big tighter. I needn't have worried. She is sure footed and calm and brings us safely back in one piece. Punja is then led to the river and we wade up to our knees in the muddy water and scrub her sides with rough coconut shells. They ask if we would like to climb on her back as she goes deeper into the water to cool off. They warn you will probably get sprayed but Amy, game for anything, is soon stripped down to her pants and sitting on her back. Sure enough she is soon doused with water and shrieks with laughter as it sprays over her. A moment of pure freedom and joy and results in Ray catching one of my favourite photographs ever. Jack finally plucks up enough courage to have a turn and again gets saturated. He laughs and begins to relax but I can tell he is still apprehensive and feeling vulnerable on this giant animal and needs me close by his side.

I now have two kids wet from the muddy river and have to stand them in a bucket of water to clean them. They don't care and are still high on their experience at the sanctuary. I get fresh clothes and luckily Dilan has two dry flannels so they are soon sorted. Unfortunately as they get dressed they spot a snake charmer loitering by our car and con their father into paying for them to watch. The two of them look on open eyed as he begins to play on his pipe and the cobra uncoils and rears up out of the basket. They stare, almost hypnotised by its swaying movements and then all of a sudden the cobra tries to strike at them. He has no fangs and is harmless but they are not at all sure and leap back in horror. The charmer reassures them but seeing their fear pushes the snake back into the basket and retrieves a python from a bag for them to hold instead. Again my gutsy daughter is soon draped in its heavy coils and demanding a photo.

We finally extract ourselves and drive another hour before stopping for a truly shocking lunch at a restaurant that is obviously used by all the tour operators for this purpose. They have an over priced and inedible buffet and our chicken curry has bones that do not resemble the usual ones found on a chicken carcass! Luckily the kids have an omelet which is actually rather tasty and so drama is averted.

Dilan stops for fuel and I grab a packet of biscuits from the four items available in the 'shop'. These prove to be a lifesaver as the rains have left many of the roads flooded and impassable and we cannot take the most direct route to our hotel. We drive past rivers swollen from the flood water, rubbish still hanging high in the trees marking how high the levels got. We make slow progress as the route is congested with lorries, grounded for two weeks in the rain, now on the road again. Sri Lanka is also investing heavily in improvements to its infrastructure and road works are a common sight everywhere we go. Although obviously needed on many of the routes the works can hold up the traffic for an age as the vehicles jostle for space on the road and try and negotiate round the hole in the ground, the workers and oncoming traffic. A cacophony of noise and chaos accompanies these moments and what was initially amusing begins to wear us down after so long on the road.

After four hours in the car and with the sky turning dark we turn off down a long mud track. Here the rains have made the way almost impassable and Dilan has a tough time navigating around the dips, grooves and holes left behind. We finally draw up at the Ulagalla Hotel and climb wearily out of the car, stretching our tired limbs. The children are asleep and, with a sweet member of staff cradling Amy whilst I hold Jack, we set off in a buggy for the five minutes drive to our villa. A few initial hiccups such as no beds for the kids but this resolved and too tired for dinner we have room service and are asleep by 8.30!!

31st December

Jack and I are woken at 5.30 by a noise near to the window. We peek through the blinds to find the trees by our villa full of monkeys. Grabbing a dressing gown and leaving Ray and Amy asleep we dash outside to view our new neighbours. It is like being in the jungle - bright coloured parrots are nesting in the trees, a wild peacock calls out from a high branch and monkeys are literally swinging everywhere. We hold hands and set off down the path almost deafened by the dawn chorus. Ulagalla is set on a nature reserve and is renowned for its bird life but it is the monkeys that grab our attention. As the sun rises and a warm glow spreads through the trees I look at Jack in his pyjamas and smile as he entwines his hand with mine. We both sense the sheer magic of this moment and stand there in happy silence truly glad to be alive. When we have had our fill of monkeys we head back and raid the mini bar for biscuits which we munch on the verandah as an early breakfast. Amy comes to join us and we sit there watching the morning unfold.

Later the four of us set off to walk along the path towards the hotel for breakfast. The villas at Ulagalla are set far apart amidst the reserve and ours is up a small hill amidst some trees. Either side are lush paddy fields and tall palm trees and the air is thick with dragon flies and butterflies. Jack spots a crested lizard and crouches engrossed watching its every move whilst Mimi and I spot elephant tracks at the edge of the road. Apparently a wild elephant tried to cross the rice field the day before we got here and left a muddy churned up mass of footprints in his wake.

Ray has gone before us and when we find him at breakfast I can sense a change in the mood. Poor thing was accosted the moment he stepped into the hotel for money for the beds for the children despite the fact that they had accidentally double booked the two bedroom cottage we had initially reserved. Then on arriving at breakfast and ordering an espresso he was told a cappuccino was free but an espresso was not, that the inclusive breakfast actually consisted of a pastry basket and everything else would be charged. After the incredible hospitality at Wallawa (a sister hotel) and the charm of its staff this bare faced commercialism is a bit of a cold flannel to the face. They soon realise they have overstepped the mark and then follows a Fawlty Towers moment when our table is laden with food and countless members of staff hover around us asking if 'madam would like this or that'.

Dilan appears having sorted out things with the manager and he and Ray then set to altering our itinerary. Sri Lanka in Style (our agents in the country) have compiled a wonderful itinerary but have underestimated the amount of driving and the length of time each journey would take. The roads in Sri Lanka, as I mentioned earlier, are sometimes hard to navigate and their course often winds through hills and the countryside which slows the actual journey down. A good rule of thumb here is take the time they have suggested for the drive and then double it! Complaints about length of journeys was a common theme amongst many of the travellers we came across during our stay and worth taking into consideration if you visit. That said some of our favourite moments of the trip turn out to be the drives as they allow you to really see the make up of this stunning country. After a discussion with Dilan they have decided to focus on Sigirya, a once proposed 8th Wonder of the World, rather than Anuradhapura which was the ancient capital of Sri Lanka. This is because the ancient city is now only foundations rather than standing buildings and they felt it better to spend more time at the rock fortress of Sigirya. The itinerary resolved we can now relax.

The children spot a large water monitor lizard and set off in hot pursuit whilst I explore the hotel. Ulagalla is an elegant hotel set in a colonial style building with beautiful wood floors, teak and rattan furniture and old ceiling fans gently swaying to and fro. The sides are all open and across a small lawn they have built one of the prettiest pools I have seen for a long time surrounded by the beautiful rain trees and with monkeys and peacocks wandering at will nearby.

Ulagalla strives to be an Eco friendly hotel and each guest is given a bike to get to and from their villas on. It became one of my favourite things to do and I would happily volunteer to return to the villa to collect a missing item if it afforded me some minutes of solitude peddling along the path. The hotel is wonderfully remote and set amidst stunning scenery with an abundance of wildlife. We have decided not to move for two days and just enjoy the serenity of it all.

We spend the day relaxing by the pool and enjoying our surroundings or lazing by the pool. More people have arrived and the hotel is a flurry of activity in preparation for New Year's Eve. When we return in our finery that evening the hotel does look beautiful with flowers and lights everywhere and with the tables laden with crackers, party hats and little trumpets. The latter soon put to good use and we are rather relieved we got there early so the orchestral attempts do not disturb child free tables.

The hotel has laid on a seven course banquet - western style. This is a mixture between truly inedible and occasionally quite tasty. It is such a shame not to have had a Sri Lankan feast and we wish the hotels had more confidence to serve their own cuisine rather than trying to emulate a European menu. It was heart breaking to see so many unfinished plates return to the kitchen after all the obviously hard work the chefs had put in to it. That said it was a very jolly evening and Sri Lankan crackers are rather fun as they don't all contain presents but rather one in every six has a pretend gold ring in it. Amy got one of the rings (phew!) and luckily Jack was too busy reading out jokes to care. We didn't make midnight but caught a buggy home clad in our gold hats and waving torches in the air. Jack and I woke at midnight with the fireworks going off and said a sleepy happy new year to each other before falling back into bed.

2015!!!!

New Years Day

I wake up at 5.40 as I am off on my bird watching walk at 6.00. I stand outside in the dim light waiting for a buggy to come but after ten minutes and no sign of anyone I decide to walk to the hotel. Waving my rather ineffectual torch around I can just make out the path and luckily the light is beginning to come up so I find my way. Arriving at the hotel I find some of the staff standing out on the verandah drinks in hand enjoying the last gasp of their New Year's Eve. Everyone is rather stunned to see a guest at this hour and the lady on reception does a rather unhelpful 'are you sure you booked the tour' comment. It is only when they check the diary and find my name in large letters that there is a scurry of activity and ten minutes later my lovely guide appears. Luckily he had known of the tour and had got ready at 5.30 just in case.

We set off, binoculars round our necks, along the path by the paddy field and turn off towards the lake. The light is coming up now but as it is a bit cloudy no sign of the sun yet. The path is a quagmire of mud left over from the heavy rains and we slip and slide through inches of squelchy mud as we make our way along the lake. Part of me is wondering if this is a good idea as I look at our shoes and legs and try to spot birds in this dim light, a crested hake eagle a dim shadow in a tree. Suddenly we turn the corner and come to the main part of the lake and it is simply stunning. Four or five fishermen with rubber rings around their bodies are floating on the lake drawing up nets, birds land on the lilies, lapwings wade in the shallows and in the far distance an elephant drinks at the waters edge. A warm orange glow covers the water as the sun breaks through the cloud and as if as a signal, the birds start to sing and land on the branches of the trees. We spot egrets and black headed ibis and the bizarre looking Malabar Pied Hornbill with its double beak. My favourites, though, are the smaller birds, a blaze of colour in the early sunshine. A kingfisher of startling blue, the vibrant green bee eaters and the Black Hooded Oriole with its bright yellow feathers.

My guide is incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about birds and points out numerous species and makes me listen to their calls. We have now left the lake and walk through a forested area and out into the village past a row of rain trees. Apparently the British brought them from Africa and planted them along the roads to provide shade. They are such an iconic shape and the villagers seem to naturally to be drawn to convene below them either to chat to neighbours or rest from the already warm sun. We pass several pigeons but unlike our dull variety these Orange Breasted Green Pigeons are, as their name suggests, colourful and incredibly pretty. As we make our way back to the hotel gates we pass what I assume is a common rooster but turns out to be a Ceylon Jungle Fowl which is Sri Lanka's national bird - so much for my bird knowledge!

As we make our way towards the hotel I apologise again for making him get up early on New Year's Day but he sweetly says that he volunteered to do it as he could not think of a better way to start the year. I have to agree - for me 2015 started with a gentle stranger in the early dawn of a Sri Lankan morning surrounded by true beauty. Let us hope that this year can live up to such a magical start.

I return home to find the others just waking up (it is only 8.30 after all!) and a bit later we set off to breakfast. Amy is determined to bike to the hotel and as the bikes are far too big she finally agrees (after a lengthy discussion!) to sit on my saddle whilst I peddle along. A bit hair raising as we wobble along the bumpy track but we make it and she is happy.

After breakfast as the children go off in search of the water monitor lizard again I sit with a coffee and watch a group of monkeys walk past the hotel and pool. It is a few minutes before I realise that this is the 'ante natal class' and that each of the monkeys has a small baby hanging below her tummy, their little paws clasping round her back. There must have been ten of them and as they get to the trees they rest in the shade whilst the baby monkeys play on the ground and in the low branches. It reminds me of countless mornings spent pushing Jack in his pram to meet up with other mothers in the park and I smile at the familiarity of the sight.

My thoughts are broken when I hear Amy announce to Jack that there is a snake behind her sunbed. I levitate and dash the short distance to them and sure enough there is what looks like a long thing snake disappearing into a hole. At second glance it looks rather still and flat but not wanting to take any chances we retreat and Jack is dispatched to find the gardener. He returns in a matter of minutes and luckily confirms that this is a newly shedded skin and not the actual snake however, not so fortunately the previous wearer of these scales is probably down the hole. He retrieves the skin which sadly breaks in two as he picks it up but the children are thrilled anyway by this awesome souvenir. Sri Lanka has numerous poisonous snakes and not every medical centre apparently carries ante-venom. Not wanting to put the bumpy roads and the hospitals to the test I move us to beds as far away from the hole as possible.

After all that excitement we spend the rest of the day relaxing in these beautiful surroundings, have a Sri Lankan curry at last and a torch lit stroll home.

We have really enjoyed Ulagalla. It is a beautifully presented hotel in a stunning setting and has so much to offer. On the downside we have found the constant hovering and expectancy for tips (even in your villa when they make the beds) rather exhausting as is the bill handed to you to sign before the drink or food is set down. This desire for money and profit detracts from the calm and relaxation of this resort and although the staff are very charming they lack experience and this shows. There is a new manager and hopefully he will be able to sort these elements out and will then have an exceptional hotel under his management.

Squirrels at wallows

Squirrels at wallows

Swimming pool

Swimming pool

Bricks being baked

Bricks being baked

Paddy fields 1

Paddy fields 1

Paddy fields 2

Paddy fields 2

Washing Punja

Washing Punja

Amy being washed

Amy being washed

Snake charmer

Snake charmer

Our villa

Our villa

Monitor lizard

Monitor lizard

Pool

Pool

Monkey and baby

Monkey and baby

New Year's Eve

New Year's Eve

Bird walk 1

Bird walk 1

Bird walk 2

Bird walk 2

Fisherman

Fisherman

Posted by rduignan 07:03 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Queenstown

Our drive

We set off on our drive twisting and turning down the winding mountain road. Needless to say twenty minutes later Amy is sick but luckily we are near a garage and so can freshen up and prepare for our journey again. This time I go in the back with the kids armed with snacks galore and a very naff Christmas CD we bought in Kaikoura. Amy is feeling better and we sing jingle bells (accompanied by a chorus of New Zealand children) at the top of our voices as we drive on towards Christchurch and over part of the Canterbury Plains. We are in a festive mood, incredibly happy and I look at my little family and treasure this trip and time together.

We head west on the scenic route towards Lake Tekapo. This a beautiful drive along a straight road with rolling pastures either side giving way to more alpine scenery as we get to Burkes Pass. The sides are steep and dramatic, so involved are we with the views that we are at Lake Tekapo before we realise it. It is stunning with icy blue/turquoise coloured water which stretches way in to the distance with the dark green of the pines on the edge a stark contrast in colour. We climb out of the car and walk down a path to a rocky beach. Someone has started a stone wall enclosure and so the children have their picnic inside this whilst adding their layer of stones to the ramparts. Ray and I sit on a large boulder gazing out across the lake. What a picnic stop.

We drive on past a famous statue of a sheepdog (of all things) and head on along the road through the heart of the Mackenzie Basin. This is probably one of the most stunning drives I have ever done. Either side of the road are masses of lupins in pastel colours forming a carpet of colour stretching along the entire route. I try and photograph this sea of flowers but it simply does not do it justice. We head on for a few more kilometres and reach Lake Pukaki. If I thought Tekapo was beautiful nothing had prepared me for Pukaki. It is a glacial lake that is famous for its striking blue colour and it is literally breathtaking with the snow capped Mount Cook very clear and imposing in the background even though it is 80k away. Photographs and postcards to not do it justice. It is much more impressive in real life and on this sunny, cloudless day the blue colour is mesmerising.

We finally tear ourselves away and set off on the final drive to Queenstown. We head up through the Lindis Pass which is an amazing stretch of road and takes you through the highest point of the highway in the South Island. The road is winding and steep in places but this gives you dramatic views of the mountains either side. With slightly green children we head through the Kawarau gorge and stop in Cromwell to do a supermarket shop and allow Ray a chance to rest.

The supermarket is heaving as you can imagine a few days before Christmas and Amy does not help by pointing out every Christmas item in the store. Finally I get enough provisions to be able to self cater over Christmas (at vast cost as groceries are expensive here) and we drive the final twenty minutes to our villa.

Commonage Villas are a revelation and situated high on a hill above Queenstown. We were always concerned about what the villas would have been like but these fears are unfounded. Our home for the next five days is a pretty three storey house, immaculately done up and with stunning views over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu. They have decorated a Christmas tree for us and the children shriek with excitement when they see it. We turn on the TV and there is Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing the drummer boy (which is Ray's favourIte Christmas song) and in the words of another tune 'it's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas'. We have four cards waiting to open - my uncle, sister and parents and then one from the Colegraves. It feels so wonderful to see their smiling faces on a card and lovely to be remembered so far from home. Whilst I cook spaghetti bolognaise the kids have discovered the villa has Sky TV (which is regarded as the 8th Wonder of the World) and do not move from the sofa.

QUEENSTOWN

Tuesday 23rd December

A rather grumpy taxi driver arrives at 9.30 to take us to the airport. Inside the car are signs forbidding pretty much everything - no smoking, no eating, no drinking, no feet on the seats, no swearing. I get awful giggles whilst Ray maintains dignity in the front and strikes up a form of conversation. We arrive at Glacier Southern Lakes, meet our helicopter pilot, Andy, and within a few minutes are strapped in and ready for our adventure.

Jack and Amy are chatting away through the microphones and the pilot is non too amused. He is used to genteel adults in his helicopter and not the boisterous enthusiasm of two children. He needs to concentrate on instructions from the flight tower and cuts us in to silence in a brusque antipodean way. Ray and I are rather self conscious and tell the kids to be quiet and then everyone is rather upset. So much for a trip of a lifetime. The thing we are learning about New Zealanders is that they are to the point and sometimes this can be interpreted as brusqueness, annoyance or rudeness. If you do not take offence you soon learn that it is just their manner and as they relax so the attitude softens. This is the case with Andy and we are soon all friends again and begin to enjoy the ride.

The flight is stunning and yet rather scarey. Flying in a small helicopter above mountains of this scale and with the scenery below so vast and rugged makes me feel very mortal and incredibly vulnerable and my imagination works overtime. This is not helped by the fact that the warm air that usually pushes the helicopter up tends to turn into a down draft as you fly over precipices and the land drops away dramatically. I grip my seat and say a few prayers. All of a sudden granite gives way to snow as we fly over the glacier. I had never realised how narrow crevasses are and yet how eerily deep. We fly over a particularly bottomless looking one and then land on the glacier itself, close to the highest peak in the mountain range, which is called the Remarkables. It is dazzling in this bright sunshine.

The thrill for all of us as we get out of the helicopter and walk in the snow is huge. We had dressed in shorts and canvas shoes that morning as it was 30 degrees but all of a sudden feel completely inappropriately attired as the chill of the snow begins to freeze our toes. The kids begin to whimper at the cold but we start a snow ball fight and soon all is forgotten amidst the laughter and fun. It is an incredible moment for us all to stand beside a helicopter on this mass of snow and ice and yet in temperatures more suited to sunbathing by a pool. We eventually climb back in but with grins that remain for the rest of the day.

As a complete contrast to our glacier we now fly down over a beach and watch seals sunbathing on the rocks and swimming in the sea. Extraordinary to be on snow one minute and down by a beach the next. We were going to set down on the beach but, at the advice of the pilot, give this a miss as the sand flies are out in force. Instead we head up the coast towards Milford Sound.

Milford Sound is actually not a sound (a large sea or Ocean inlet) but rather a fjord set within Fiordland National Park. It was named the world's top travel destination a few years ago and it is easy to see why. It is breathtaking and flying up the sound in the helicopter enables you to enjoy the sheer scale and beauty of it all. Having lived in Norway as a teenager the scenery is very reminiscent of some of the fjords there but here it is not only edged in steep cliffs but also dense rain forests. Apparently a unique effect happens as the high rainfall drains through these forests. The rainwater gets stained with tannins until the water becomes the colour of strong tea and it is in this marine environment below the water that the world's largest population of black coral can be found.

Milford Sound is 16km long and at the pinnacle is Mitre Peak rising 1692 metres above the water. We fly down its length trying to take in all the beauty and the children particularly love the vast waterfalls cascading down the steep sides. We fly over the small settlement of Milford Sound itself and then on up over the end of the sound and on to land by a small mountain lake. We all get out and climb the big boulders that frame the small lake. Here the water is also dark in colour and the vegetation low scrub with small pink flowers growing on the rock.

After ten minutes of exploring we set off again and head off to our pilot's favourite stop of the whole trip. To increase the drama of the moment he slowly flies the helicopter up the side of a mountain, almost hovering in the air, until suddenly the land falls away and there nestling in a hollow is the bluest lake I have ever seen. It is a glacial lake but unlike the icy blue we are used to this is a brilliant cobalt blue in colour. We are viewing it on a cloudless day with the sun blazing and it is only on these clear days that the colour is so intense and dramatic. No photograph does it justice (although I try) and we hover over it for a full five minutes just taking it all in.

Finally, tearing ourselves away we head off to land for lunch on the mountain ridge overlooking Glenorchy and Lake Wakatipu directly across from Blanket Bay Lodge. We have the whole place to ourselves and as the kids go off to explore Andy sets out one of the best picnic lunches I have ever seen. We sit, glass of chilled white local wine in hand, and soak in the view below. We are miles from anywhere in blissful solitude, it is a hot cloudless day and this has to be one of my favourite days ever. The only problem, and one Andy says many clients experience, is that it is almost sensory overload. We have flown over so much breathtaking scenery that I cannot take it all in and it is something that I will have to gently absorb.

That evening we head out to Arrowtown to see Don and Jan Spary, who are old friends of my parents. Don and Dad were in 9 Squadron together and when he finished in the services moved out here with his New Zealand wife and set up a helicopter company. It is rather poignant to see how their lives have differed from my parents. Like Mum and Dad they too lead a full and active social life and are surrounded by family and friends but somehow sitting in this stunning spot and with a warmer climate, life here has perhaps been the kinder of the two environments. We head to a local restaurant for supper and meet up with their son Fergus (an old friend of mine) and his daughter Edie. Amy is thrilled to make a new best friend and the girls disappear off hand in hand with poor Jack in tow whilst Ferg and I reminisce about times in London.

24th December

Christmas Eve and we spend the morning in our pyjamas making paper chains to decorate the house with and, I am afraid to say, watching Sky TV. Usually in England I would be running around like a mad thing getting ready for the big day but the joy of travelling is that everything is simplified and pressure free. We finally head off blinking into the bright sunshine and leaving Ray ensconced in a good book on the terrace we go off to explore Queenstown. We are boiling and retreat into the cool of Starbucks for an icy coffee and a game of blow football (a childish game of moving a scrunched up paper ball along the table towards a goal by blowing through straws). Afterwards we go shopping and leave a trail of things we want for 'Father Christmas' to buy. A complicated game which sees me handing money over in a clandestine way and arranging to pick bags up later. Finally, too tired to trudge back up the hill, we ring for Ray to collect us.

That night we have our Christmas supper (roast chicken etc) which disappointingly was somewhat bland. Despite New Zealand being a huge farming community the quality of the meat and some of the vegetables is frankly not great and lacks flavour. Still the children did not seem to care and are far more interested in the giant box of crackers we had purchased - silly jokes and plastic presents are all they really care about.

We lug a mattress up from their bedroom and set up their bed under the tree. They want Father Christmas to find them there. They soon fall asleep, arms wrapped around each other, their heads beneath the baubles. A sweet idea but rather complicated for Santa to tiptoe past them to put all the presents round the tree.

CHRISTMAS DAY

Needless to stay an early start made even earlier by the bright sunshine streaming into the room. Our first hot Christmas. Squeals of excitement as wrapping paper is ripped off and Father Christmas has successfully delivered the right things. The real joy here is that there is not the usual excessive pile of presents for the day to be centred around and everyone is much the nicer for it. Jack sets to building his lego and Mimi and I make a cat out of some modelling clay, pausing only for bacon sandwiches.

We Skype home and eventually head down town for a Christmas walk. Queenstown is packed with people. The beach is full of backpackers in bikinis and Christmas hats, the queues for ice cream long in this heat but everywhere a happy, slightly hippy crowd. Ice creams in hand we sit on the waterfront watching the world go by.

Later that day we head out to Arrowtown to join the Sparys for their Christmas. Three of the Sparys' five children are there with their kids and so we are a happy and chaotic group of 15. The children lie on skate boards and set off down a grassy hill at speed whilst we shelter from the heat and tuck into champagne. I sit with Jan podding a mountain of peas whilst the others take turns in the kitchen - everyone has a role. They have ham, lamb and turkey and not knowing which to have we load up plates with everything. It is a truly happy meal and we laugh hilariously at in family jokes and Alastair wearing a truly horrendous turquoise and pink jogging suit sent to him by his sister. An annual event to send him the worst outfit and this one is a sure contender for the crown. We watch the Queen's speech (rather surreal) and eat pavlova (a much better invention than our heavy Christmas pudding).

Finally at 9.00 we head for home after a really lovely Christmas. The Sparys had scooped us up and included us in all their family fun and we could not have been more grateful. It meant we did not feel so far away from family and Jack and Amy had had a ball. We Skype home and watch my sister and parents start their Christmas as we end ours.

26th December

Our final day in Queenstown and a relaxing one. We head out once more to Arrowtown in the afternoon but this time to explore the little town itself. We drop the children off with Ferg and set off child free to explore. Arrowtown grew up around the gold mining and you can still pan for gold in the river today. It is a picturesque town with white clapperboard houses and even a tiny (but rather good) museum. We stop for an ice cream and wander happily for an hour down the Main Street crammed with boutiques and little gift shops. We head back past two postcard pretty churches and pick up the children.

We have loved Queenstown and I could never tire of their views. We have been blessed with idyllic weather in which to explore it and it is hard to leave.

As we stand on the terrace the next morning we think back over our month in New Zealand. It has been a magical journey from the Bay of Islands down to Queenstown. We have flown over and driven through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world, we have been lucky enough to stay in some extraordinary lodges and experience the outdoor life first hand. There have been too many wonderful moments and sights to list, but hIghlights for me have to be Pink Beach, our sail through the Bay of Islands with the dolphins, the Maori welcome at Treetops, the view at Grasmere and our incredible helicopter flight over Milford Sound. The food has been of the highest quality but for us we feel too many places are trying to be inventive and haute cuisine rather than serving high quality produce in its simple form. We have been charmed by the people we have met and the kindness shown to us throughout our visit. Could I live here? In many ways yes - the quality of life is second to none and with their high standards of education it would be a great start in life for any child. As a New Zealand friend said "anyone living in a house without a great view in this country has to be mad" and that is true. You could certainly build the house of your dreams (stringent housing rules permitting) and as New Zealand only has a population of just under 5 million the overcrowding and demand on houses that we experience in the UK is not a problem here. What is an issue, however, is that the newer generations are not investing enough in the overall quality of their built environment. We also found the direction that many of the young are taking to be coarser and more materialistic one. Although I love this country and leave a bit of me behind, I could not commit to living here forever.

Lupins

Lupins

Mount Cook across Lake Tekapo

Mount Cook across Lake Tekapo

Helicopter ride

Helicopter ride

Landing on the glacier

Landing on the glacier

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

Above Milford Sound

Above Milford Sound

One of the mountain lakes

One of the mountain lakes

Cobalt blue lake

Cobalt blue lake

Picnic lunch

Picnic lunch

Sleeping under the tree

Sleeping under the tree

Christmas Day

Christmas Day

Christmas supper with the Sparys

Christmas supper with the Sparys

Queenstown

Queenstown

Posted by rduignan 06:17 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Kaikoura and Grasmere Lodge

Tuesday 16th December

We arrive at Blenheim, pick up our hire car and set off on our road trip of the South Island. The A1 goes from Blenheim to Christchurch and the sat nav, rather like in Australia, says drive straight for 150km and then turn left! We pass through the Marlborough wine region with vineyards either side of the road and then, with the railway tracks following our every turn, we drive along the coast. It is stunning and rather rugged and the sea a vibrant blue in the bright sunshine.

Finally we come to signs for our lodge and literally turn left off the A1 and down a short drive. What immediately strikes us is why the owners, with land stretching out to the coast, have chosen to build what is undeniably an attractive lodge hard on the main road between the north of the island and Christchurch. It is a bizarre location to have chosen given that they have worked so hard to be Eco friendly with deer grazing by the lodge, planting olive groves and running a conservation programme for endangered birds. Our hearts sink as we watch the cars and trucks go by but luckily the charm of the staff and the beautifully presented tree house helps to make the location bearable. The tree house is literally built into a tree and we lug our suitcases up steep steps to get to the rooms. These are quirky and rather charming and even have a fire for us to light later. If you ignore the road, the views of the mountains in the distance are rather wonderful.

The dining room is not a pretty one but Mike, the duty manager, is one of the best we have encountered and we are soon relaxing with a delicious glass of wine and surprisingly good food, if again a little fussy and complex. The chef is a finalist of New Zealand Masterchef and knows her stuff.

The next day the weather has clouded in a bit and we set off for our whale watching tour a bit nervous about the conditions at sea. We arrive at the whale watching centre which, unlike our trip in Australia, is about as commercial as you can get. There are five boats, each holding 40 people, and they leave every hour so the place is crammed with tourists all trying to sort out their tickets and seats. The chaos really starts when a sign for the 10.30 trip comes up on the screen saying 'warning - extreme sea sickness likely'! Great - Amy and Jack go green on a mill pond so the idea of trying to go out in a very stormy sea without dire consequences is not a pleasant one. We decide to give it a miss but luckily for us (and to stop a rebellion with the kids) they then announce that no children under 12 will be allowed out in the boats today or tomorrow. As we find out later, this is fortunate for us. Apparently the sperm whales dive incredibly deep and so it can take up to an hour from when it dives to when it surfaces again and thus the average sighting per three hour trip is one whale. The fellow guests who went out on the boats returned without a glimpse of a tail and felt rather conned by the whole experience. I think the time to go is when the orcas pass through once a month as then you will have more to see.

We go into the little town of Kaikoura to buy some provisions and to look around. It is like a Cornish seaside town, busy in season, but rather like a ghost town the rest of the time. Everything is geared around the whales and dolphins and their images are everywhere from souvenirs to cafe signs. The whales are obviously the town's big attraction and they trade on this.

We return to the lodge and as the sun has come out we bask in the sunshine and have a light lunch al fresco. We then set off to the foot of the mountains to walk a small forest trail. This is a round loop with the first half a steady climb up through the trees. We meet a hiker by the first stile who looks rather exhausted which does not bode well for us with a four year old. The children moan and drag behind and the first twenty minutes is rather arduous and we are disappointed with their lack of enthusiasm. Finally, when they realise that there is no getting out of it they cheer up and begin to enjoy the trail. We lost a family friend to cancer the day before (this is when you feel far from home) and so have decided to collect wild flowers and leave them somewhere in her memory. We find a small bridge across a waterfall and this seems a perfect spot. The children clasp their hands together and say touching little prayers - our way to say goodbye. The weather has turned again and not knowing how much further to the half way mark we decide to retrace our steps. We are rather wet and muddy by the time we get to the car (two hours after we left it) but rosy cheeked and happy.

Much as Hapuku Lodge has looked after us we are keen to cut our stay short here as there is to be no whale watching and Kaikoura is not a beautiful spot. We return to good news as Grasmere Lodge (our next destination) has agreed for us to go a day early. The hotel is actually enjoying a four day break but they will allow us to go to our cottage as long as we are prepared to self cater for the first night and part of the next day. We readily agree.

GRASMERE LODGE

Thursday 18th

We pack up the car and set off on our drive to Arthur's Pass. As both the kids still get car sick I have decided to sit in the back with them to keep them occupied and look after them. I squash in between Amy's car seat and Jack and look longingly at the large comfy front seat. We follow the coast for a bit and this is easy as the children spot seals on the rocks and hunt for whales convinced that every shadow or lump of seaweed is actually a sperm whale. We then turn inland and seem to follow a rather odd route (courtesy of our sat nav). We end up in a small town which is in chaos from road works and by the time we get on the right route our tempers are somewhat frayed.

The situation does not improve when I do a bit of back seat driving as a car heads towards us on our side of the road. New Zealanders are so used to having roads to themselves that they overtake or drive in the centre of the road as if they own it. Needless to say we have a row which culminates in the kids and me getting out of the car and Ray driving off. Looking back, how ridiculous must it have looked a woman with a red handbag and two kids in the middle of nowhere. Needless to say Ray returns, the kids (relieved not to have to be stranded) declare their love for him whilst I sit in silence in the back thinking poisonous thoughts!

The scenery as we head up into the mountains is simply stunning and Grasmere Lodge is set in the middle of all this remote beauty. We are greeted by Jo (the owner's wife), two Jack Russells and a smiling baby in a pram. I can feel the tension beginning to leave us all. She leads us up the hill in her car a short drive to our cottage and it is hard to describe the view that greets us as we enter. The whole of one side of the cottage is glass and in front of you stretches a panorama that defies belief. I have simply never seen a view like it. Below us a river meanders through the mountain range that rises majestically in front of us, their sides clad in vibrant yellow broom. This is a 360 degrees view and one you could never tire of. The colours change as the day progresses and the mountains almost turn red in the evening sun. We cannot believe our luck or tear ourselves away from the window - we have completely fallen on our feet here.

I cook rice soup (all the children have dreamed of) and it is devoured within minutes, blissful smiles on their faces. They find self catering the best - a beautiful location but with home cooking. Glass of wine in hand we collapse on the sofas to all watch Princess Bride. This has long been one of our favourite films but this time Jack and Amy really enjoy it too and we laugh at the silliness of it all. "My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father prepare to die" becomes a catch phrase for the rest of the trip.

Friday morning at 4.30am Jack has a nightmare and comes in to our room. I cannot go back to sleep and so, leaving the boys snoring in bed, head out to the terrace to watch the sun rise. Whereas normally you look east to the sun for the best view here it is the rays of the sun turning the mountains in the west a vivid orange that are more spectacular. The glow spreads slowly across the range lighting them up in a blaze of colour. I sit, hugging my knees, watching it unfold in front of me - a truly magical moment.

Breakfast at home on our own - total bliss. We sit in our pyjamas, coffee in hand with the kids eating Cheerios and us munching on toast. We are in no hurry, there is no one to bother us and life feels pretty perfect. Eventually, rather late in the morning we get into the golf cart left for our use and head off towards the Lodge and the start of the walking trails. We have chosen to do the child friendly Broom Hill and river view trail and set off following the colour markers. The hill is so named because it is covered in bright yellow broom. Broom is virulent in New Zealand and considered a nuisance but aesthetically, when in flower, it covers the hillsides with a mass of yellow flowers and is rather spectacular. We reach the bench at the top of the hill and eat a biscuit looking out over the river below and our cottage nestling in the hillside. I am falling in love with this area. We make our way back past the manuka bushes and spiky Matakauri shrubs and head home.

Ray heads off in the car to view Arthur's Pass and get some provisions. He returns later with news of a mouse epidemic causing chaos in the local area. Apparently this is the worst plague they have had in twenty years with some residents catching between 50 and 100 mice per day. Beech trees in the national park were the culprit - they had dropped millions of tonnes of seed, which sparked the endless parade of the furry critters. A mild winter meant there was a bigger seed drop than usual, which had made the problem worse.

Later that evening we go down to the lodge to have a drink with Tom, the owner, and relax by the fire. He is a down to earth and utterly charming New Zealander and so enamoured are we with the whole place that we ask if we can extend our stay here. Luckily for us the cottage is free and so we book it immediately. As if this place was not perfect enough they have just employed a French chef who without doubt is the best of the trip - even beating Kim at Treetops. At last simple, great ingredients cooked to perfection. What is it about a French chef and his sauces. The results are incredible and the plates scraped clean. Tom and Jo seem to create a family atmosphere at Grasmere and apart from two German boys who clean the lodges and the French chef the rest are fellow New Zealanders. They have either been there for a few years or return when they can between university terms - this extended family imbues the lodge with a real feeling of love for the place which is easily tangible as a guest.

Saturday 20th

We forgo breakfast at the Lodge for our own chilled version at the cottage. It is drizzling and we lounge around in no hurry to go out, rather glad of the rain to create an excuse for our laziness. A little later the kids and I are picked up by Andy and taken on a tour of the estate. The mist is still down and we begin to wonder what it is with us and farm tours - we seem doomed to view them in the clouds. Cleverly he has planned an alternative kid friendly tour and our first stop is to feed Marcus the lamb with left over bread. Grasmere was once a huge sheep station but now it has a pet flock of about 9 sheep including a ram with wonderful curly horns. They all come for the bread and the children feed them and laugh as they are nudged around by boisterous sheep.

Next up is a large herd of cows to view and then some chickens to feed. We pass by the local train station, which is literally a tiny tin shed, and cross over the tracks and down to a fast flowing and very wide river. Despite the fact that it is now raining we don macs and skim stones for a while. Amy nearly kills her brother by picking up a large rock and trying to throw it in the water. It is too heavy and she drops it missing Jack's bent head by an inch. Andy and I gasp in horror at what might have been but all is well. As we head back to the car he shows us the thorns on the matakauri bushes and tells us that if you get one in your skin you leave it and it comes to the surface a day later with some pus. This gory detail was obviously fascinating for a seven year old boy and the bushes took on a new status of importance.

Our final stop is the beech wood where the kiwi birds tend to nest. There are signs up everywhere for poison as they are trying to control the epidemic of mice. I am not sure how they will try and conserve the kiwi population whilst trying to exterminate the mice but hopefully they have thought of that. We do not stay long as within seconds we are being eaten alive with sand flies. Amy cries in pain and jumps into my arms and I carry her back to the car. By the time we reach it my ankles have been eaten alive. This is the downside of an otherwise perfect country - the sand flies are man eaters and leave a bite which seems to last (and hurt) for a week.

One of the highlights of each day is for Jack or Amy to drive the golf cart down the hill. Jack has now mastered it and stopped careering off the track or wandering from left to right in a day dream. Mimi needs Ray to do the pedals but sits and steers on her own. She is completely erratic and I cross my fingers in the back and quietly say a few prayers. Ray remains calm and allows them free reign and Jack, in particular, grows in stature with his new found driving skills and the added responsibility. The fresh air does wonders for our appetites as does the wonderful cooking - yet again dinner is another triumph.

That night the mice discover our cottage and run backwards and forwards across our bedroom floor and even climb up the curtains. We find some traps in the kitchen cupboard and within minutes the sound of them being sprung echoes around the room. I am dispatched to get rid of the first two dead captives (disgusting!) whilst Ray resets the traps. An hour later and there is a growing pile of rodents in the grass outside our French door. As the trap snaps again Ray and I dissolve into giggles. What a ridiculous thing to be doing at 1.00am running around naked trying to solve the infestation. Finally we are too tired to reset the traps and fall asleep - they can have a party for all we care.

Sunday 21st

We wake to a beautiful morning and the view is at its best. It is truly an astounding vista and one, in a perfect world, I would wake up to every day. We have breakfast down in the Lodge and I am glad to see they also have our furry friends running amok down there. This mouse problem is going to be a difficult one to sort out.

After breakfast we go to meet Heather who is to take us riding. She is a wonderful Kiwi with an obvious passion for the outdoor life and for her horses. She is a charming, true country lady with a wonderfully friendly, weathered face and Amy immediately adores her. Unlike Treetops she is more safety conscious and so we all wear helmets - thank God as these are large horses. We set off on a small trial ride with Amy's horse being led by Heather and Jack and I fending for ourselves. Jack's horse, Oscar, was incredibly greedy and given half the chance would have his head in a mound of grass. Poor Jack had a struggle to keep Oscar's head up and got a bit disheartened initially but he persevered and soon they were firm friends. Amy seemed so confident on her horse, Lily, that Heather decided we were able to ride round the mountain loop.

We set off up a gentle incline and come to a small lake. Just as I am trying to work out where the path goes Heather sets off through the water. The children cannot believe they are doing this and after my initial trepidation, nor can I. The water comes up to the the horses tummies and we have to tuck our feet up to stop getting wet. Oscar, ever hungry, heads off with Jack to a tiny island in the lake and I look back from our safe position on the other side to see my son stranded in the middle of the lake. Here Heather gives me a great lesson in parenting - just leave him to find his way she told me, he will feel so proud when he has worked it out. Sure enough he coaxes Oscar off the island and manages to cross the rest of the lake on his own. His smile lit up the hillside. Note to myself - let him be more independent. Oscar then did a fart and Jack dissolved into giggles that were so infectious we soon all joined in.

We set off up a steep path that winds through the broom and the lethal matakauri bushes. After the story of the thorns we are rather wary of these bushes and try to keep our legs out of reach as the horses brush past. This is steep riding but the horses know their way and up we climb. We stop at a level spot for a much needed biscuit and water break and to take a few photos of another incredible view. I am amazed the kids are still enjoying it as we have been on the horses for an hour and have some way to go but luckily they still seem up for it. Our ride now leads us through a mass of yellow broom and manuka bushes (from which comes the famous honey), across little streams and finally round by our cottage. We wave at Ray and Amy, desperate to impress her father, refuses to be led anymore and sets off on the last bit on her own. Unfortunately this is also the point when the horses sense they are on the home straight and set off at speed for home. Amy passes me doing a fast trot, her little body jiggling in the saddle and with shrieks of laughter filling the air. As I climb off the horse I realise that two hours in the saddle has left me with stiff legs and an aching bottom - god knows how the kids must feel but yet there is no murmur of complaint. We say goodbye to Heather and Amy flings her arms around her legs desperate to prolong the moment of leaving. We have had the most incredible morning with one of life's truly special women.

We eat lunch and then the children flop on the sofa, too tired to even chase the mice. I am worried at getting Jack motivated to go for his clay shooting lesson that afternoon but luckily the lure of a gun overrides his tiredness. An hour later he returns looking like John Wayne with gun and a target box riddled with holes and another toothy grin. This is his thing and apparently he has quite a good eye for it.

Our final evening and we will be very sad to leave here. An English family has arrived at the Lodge for Christmas and are probably the most miserable group of individuals we have ever come across. Rather like the Von Trapp family the father lines up the five kids on the sofa and maps out the next day's plans and routine. Clad in their socks and sandals and wearing home knitted jumpers they are an eccentric and rather charmless group. Luckily they are eating in a separate room and we have our farewell meal on our own giggling about the mice and tucking into wonderful food. The chef here will be hard to leave. We do a guerrilla raid on the shop for discounted icebreaker ski thermals and possum rugs and then let the kids drive us erratically home in the buggy.

Monday 22nd

We are ready for our long drive to Queenstown and whilst Ray takes the car down to pay, the kids and I stand on the terrace soaking up the view one last time. Unfortunately whilst I am doing a final check the kids thought they would be helpful and get the buggy out of the carport on their own. An almighty crash and they have managed to go forwards into a log pile rather than reversing. I rush out expecting the worst but luckily Amy only has a small scrape, Jack is shocked and the woodpile, although teetering dangerously, has not collapsed. I don't know whether to be furious they have started the buggy or relieved they are ok. I go for latter option, restore order and shove a toffee in each of their mouths to stop the tears. Phew. What a start to the day! A final goodbye and we set off.

Treehouse

Treehouse

Flowers at Kaikoura

Flowers at Kaikoura

View at Grasmere

View at Grasmere

Our cottage surrounded by broom

Our cottage surrounded by broom

Marcus the sheep

Marcus the sheep

Dawn sun on the mountain

Dawn sun on the mountain

Horse riding 1

Horse riding 1

Horse riding 2

Horse riding 2

Horse riding 3

Horse riding 3

Amy and Heather

Amy and Heather

The guns!!

The guns!!

Posted by rduignan 03:10 Archived in New Zealand Comments (1)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 16) Page [1] 2 3 4 »