Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

Balboa Island

Usually on the second stop of a holiday, Lorna lowers the pace of the holiday and we stop at a beach or a lake. This time, she has chosen an island off Newport Beach called Balboa Island.


Balboa Island is a high density, low rise community of cute houses. The harbour is crammed full of boats and the streets full of cake shops and ice cream/frozen banana parlours. It’s extremely kid-friendly, with hundreds of kids riding bikes and attending Junior Lifeguard camp dressed in a uniform of yellow tops and red shorts.

Lorna wants to retire here. From what, I don’t know. In any case, I’m not sure she has yet appreciated the price of houses here (just a shade below those of Lower Manhattan). The truth is that we would need a big lottery win to afford anything.

So what have we done? Tilly has spent beach time with two different friends from camp. The beaches here are as good as elsewhere on the California coast. We went surfing yesterday, but the surf was strong and broke too close to the shore. Instead we watched five big guys play in the surf and soon developed the game of human ten pin bowling to see how many would be left standing after the wave hit them. It was usually none. Often, the wave would knock them all over, they would stand up and then the undertow would knock them over again on the way back.

The island has a ferry over to the beach-fringed Balboa peninsula. $2 per car and $1 per human or bicycle.


We also went sailing in the harbour area with Tilly mainly at helm yesterday. Again there were shoals of summer camp children in pico sailing boats darting in and out of much larger (and more expensive) vessels

Every night the kids cycle to the town centre and we have an ice cream at one of the many ice cream and frozen banana parlours (NB Arrested Development is set on the island). The lines are long but the customers happy



Bluebell’s transatlantic adventure

Today we have a guest blog from Bluebell The Dog.


They leave me for 8 months while they swan off to Hong Kong, and then come back into my life last week. They tear me from a nice seaside town in Devon where everyone knows me and the butcher gives me a daily meaty snack and take me to a hot wet place in a big forest in The South of a place called America. Oh well, it’s a dog’s life.

What a day I had yesterday. After a weekend at a dog camp, I was bundled into a prison crate and taken to the nearby airport. There were hundreds of people to look at and lots of luggage to sniff at. One human didn’t seem to be at all pleased that I beat him at the game “Hide the Cocaine”, though there were some other humans dressed alike who appreciated my victory.

I had selected a window crate on the plane. A sexy poodle had told us what to do in the event of a crash landing (howl like mad) and where the exits were (outside the locked crate unfortunately). Trixie, the poodle hostess, then provided some dog snacks. She then said that somebody had ordered me a senior doggie meal. I don’t know how that mistake was made, but I hope it’s corrected for the second flight. NB it wasn’t because – “due to customer choice” – you have to pay for food and beverage on internal flights!).

The flight was long and the view faintly monotonous. The clouds looked good to start with, but once you’ve seen one inside of a pillow, you’ve seen them all. The on-board movies were good. I watched 101 Dalmatians, Beethoven and a classic Lassie movie. The last film reminded me that I probably should have told someone about that boy that I left down the mineshaft.

Changing at Chicago O’Hare airport was tough. The queues (sorry, lines) at immigration were long. A guard dog asked me what my reason for entering the USA were and whether I planned to bite the President’s dog. I then had to pick up my bowls and blankets from a baggage carousel (didn’t see any horses for the kids to ride on) and clear customs. They asked if I had been near livestock recently, but i didn’t tell them about chasing and eating those chickens the other day.

Of course, the connecting plane was in a different terminal. It was quite a long walk but I left my scent at every food joint along the way. The customers at Panda Express seemed to think it was a considerable improvement.

The Dog Lounge was excellent actually. As many snacks and drinks as you wanted, free whining and some space with other pedigree dogs away from all those mongrels, cats and guinea pigs.

With doggy passport and ticket in mouth, I then got on another flight to a place called Atlanta in Georgia. It turns out that I’m collecting frequent flier miles which can be redeemed for free flights in the future. This confused me; people actually choose to fly on these planes?

After hours of delay at 1am, he finally picks me up from Cargo, a kind of reception centre for VIPs. He’s got a new car with a sliding side door. I got a great view between the two front seats out of the front window. Atlanta appears to be mainly trees and neon.

The house they have is in the middle of a forest and is quite scary. There are lots of noises outside that I have never heard of before. On the positive side, they have a river at the bottom of their garden (sorry, yard).



A cruise in Halong Bay

Vietnam is a long way off being able to compete genuinely with China. The labour may be cheaper, but the transport and port infrastructure is far below that of China. It’s not many miles from Ha Noi to Ha Long Bay (95 miles), but it is a four hour drive. We did our journey there in the driving rain in a minibus full of South Africans who spent the whole journey discussing the price of everything they had ever consumed (and they weren’t young). Despite this backpacking tedium, there was a lot to see outside of the minibus: factories; lots of people; livestock; street hairdressers; and food to name just a few things.

Our destination was Ha Long Bay, a Unesco World heritage site. Essentially, this is is a x km2 body of sea filled with Karsts, conical-shaped mini-mountains protruding from water. Traditionally, its population is of fishermen who live on floating villages. The bigger population is now from travellers taking mini cruises. It has not (yet) been ruined however and this place definitely merits its Unesco status.

Lorna booked a one night cruise on a high class junk in the less frequented area of the Bay. I think there is a two night cruise you can book and I wish we had. We had two cabins, beautifully set out with most of the luxuries you would expect. The meals were a particular highlight. There were too many courses to count; the food was excellent and they even accommodated my dietary peculiarities.

But we came for the scenery. The weather had transformed itself from monsoon to sun. The view from the sun deck was exceptional and endless.


We stopped at a karst island and kayaked around some other nearby islands. The girls learned something about teamwork from kayaking together. Lorna and I renewed our Zambezi kayaking experience. The sea was flat and the kayaking easy.


We spent some time on the beach; it was also lovely. We visited some caves. We have a high threshold on caves, which was not met by these largely stalactite-less caverns. We visited a fishing village. It seemed traditional. Dogs and children lazed away their lives.

Should you make this trip? Absolutely. Book it today.

On the way back to Ha Noi, we broke the journey for 3.5 hours by visiting a Vietnamese village. They didn’t really have all of the elements of this sidetrip right yet. We marched around the farming area of this village for over an hour in the summer heat. Our guide regularly – certainly every 60 seconds or so – asked us if we knew what a particular plant, fruit or berry was. We played the game for 15 minutes or so before realising that the questions were rhetorical. He was going to tell us anyway.

We spent some time with an old guy who had plastered his family tree on the wall of his very decorative house. I’m not much interested in my own family tree (OK, not at all interested), but it is amazing how low this interest could go with someone else’s tree.

The best part of the trip was the traditional singing from a villager. It was great, but – judging from the interest from the local youth on their bikes who periodically stopped by to see what was happening – it was already dying here too. If I were a Vietnamese villager, I would be leaving for Hanoi (see previous blog).

Four things to like about Ha Noi

Make no mistake, but Hanoi is a great city. One that I’d like to go back to, preferably before the car brings the city to a standstill.


For one thing it’s incredibly vibrant, full of young people* on the streets at every hour of day and night. Crossing the road requires a specialist approach. Each road – and from all directions – thousands of mopeds, many motorbikes, a few bikes and some cars make their ways to their destination but not necessarily in any established format (ie, driving on right or left). They navigate using eye contact with all other road users. It seems to work; we didn’t see any accidents or even any vehicles with scratches or bumps on them.

As a pedestrian user of these same roads, you also have to navigate your way across the road via eye contact. You spot a gap in the road from both directions and communicate your desire to cross the road with your eyes with vehicles who might also be thinking of using that space. The mopeds will merely plot a different route on the road around your presumed route. The key rule is that you should not make any sudden movements. And it’s not just crossing the road where you need to be vigilant. The same rules apply when you are walking down the road as you can rarely use the pavements; they are either full of parked mopeds or street sellers blocking your way.

The second tremendous feature of Hanoi is the architecture – a mix of French colonial charm with Asian tradition and colour thrown in. There are almost no buildings over 3 or 4 stories which means that the city sprawls attractively for miles in all directions.

The third thing I like about Hanoi is the prevalence of lakes that break up and cool down the city. These French knew how to set up a cafe and these are great spots to wile away an afternoon watching everyone get on with their lives.

The fourth thing to like is that Hanoi is eminently affordable. There has obviously been plenty of inflation in all of the IndoChina area, but – with 20,000 Vietnamese Dong to each US dollar – you are guaranteed to have a full wallet even if you have only taken out the maximum ATM withdrawal of 2 million Dong (US$100). Food and accommodation are plentiful, varied and cheap.

Come before it’s too late.

* Population of 92 million with median age of 27


Japanese toilets and Ninjas

Our apartment in Hong Kong has a Japanese toilet. Three of us enjoy the experience a lot.

I first used a Japanese Toilet in 2000 when I first came to Tokyo. I was impressed that another culture had invented an entirely different experience that I assumed was fairly standard all over the developed world. Actually, French toilets of the 1970s were an an entirely different experience (but in the wrong direction).

The reason any of this is relevant is that we are back in Tokyo and staying in exactly the same hotel as I stayed in 12 years ago. The New Otani’s toilet is the basic (Japanese) model, with both spray and bidet functions which appear from the body of the toilet when you have done your business. I have to say I was a little disappointed.

The model we have in Hong Kong is the advanced kind. No only do they have spray and bidet functions, but also variable water temperature, post washing drier, and a variable temperature heated seat.

Tilly used one at Narita airport where they had an even better feature of “faux flushing noise”. If you were embarrassed about the sounds you were about to make, you would press the button and there would be the sound (but not the action) of water flushing. You see, innovation can occur everywhere.

Lorna took us to a Ninja restaurant this evening. Though a slightly contrived experience, a Ninja takes you on a journey through cave-like corridors to your individual dining cave. The (Japanese) food was good and expensive. The highlights were the sushi, the chocolate fondants and the magic show demonstration by magic Ninja.