We flew EVA Air (a Taiwanese airline) to and from Thailand on this occasion, on an excellent business class deal. Janie and I were both hugely impressed by the quality and professionalism throughout the journey.
But on the flight home from Bangkok to Heathrow, the strangest thing happened; I was transformed into Kung Fu Pandaman.
It seemed a benign enough flight and interaction at first. Lillian, the air stewardess in the picture above, handed me, amongst other things, a pair of pyjamas for the flight. I have not worn pyjamas since escaping the clutches of my parents’ mores around 1980, so I attempted to return the pyjamas to Lillian.
On the outbound journey, my polite, “no thank you” to the air hostess was simply accepted. But when I tried similarly on the return journey with Lillian, she abruptly said, “you must have them,” and insisted that I retain the pyjamas.
Then, when clearing up after dinner, she again challenged my attempted rejection of the pyjamas. “Our pyjamas are wonderful. You will love them. In fact, you must try wearing them.” Janie captured this exchange in the picture below; it could be argued that Lillian’s entreaty came with menaces.
I asked Janie what she thought the protocol or etiquette was for donning aircraft pyjamas. Janie’s view was that these business class seats were so individual and private that I could change into the pyjamas discreetly in situ, but that if I felt self-conscious about doing that I could change in the loo.
Self-conscious – moi? Change in the loo – moi? No way and not on your nelly, respectively.
As I donned the unfamiliar garb, I felt a strange transformation coming over me. Was it my unfamiliarity with nightwear? Was it the glass of port I’d had with my cheese? Or was it a more profound transformation than that…
…suddenly I felt that I had supreme martial arts skills. Only my deep-seated good manners and concern for other travellers prevented me from releasing a bestial roar…
I rose to my feet and Janie gasped, in awe and wonderment, “oh my! It’s Kung Fu Pandaman”.
“Wham bam, thank you ma’m”, I replied; an ejaculation quite out of character for me, but not, it seems, for someone who is transforming into Kung Fu Pandaman.
I imagined that my superhero transformation was to some purpose; perhaps the plane was about to be hijacked or the pilots were all about to fall sick; something of that kind, requiring a superhero to restore calm and safety for all passengers.
But strangely, no superhero requirement was forthcoming. Which was a bit of an anticlimax.
“On second thoughts”, said Janie, “perhaps you look more like Tai Chi Pyjamaman”.
“Z/Yenshin!” I said, as I started to transform back to the reality that awaits when we land.
Tragically, when we got off the plane, I “forgot” to take my pyjamas with me, just as Janie “forgot” to take her pair too. Stewardess Lillian is no doubt still stewing over the pyjama rejection.
Our original idea for this relaxation break holiday was perhaps to go to an Ayurvedic place, where we could have a healthy, restful and reasonably private retreat. But on exploring the options, we couldn’t find such a place with tennis courts, nor could we find an Ayurvedic place that would let us eat and drink like normal people.
So this choice, the Banyan Tree Spa Sanctuary in Phuket, seemed like an excellent compromise. Several tennis courts, several restaurants, our own pool villa and massage treatments thrown in as part of the deal.
We did end up working up our own sort-of routine, to such an extent that we have both become a bit institutionalized after nine whole days of it; but that is institutionalized in a good way.
Here is a description of a regular day, which was pretty much all of them.
We’d rise quite early (it gets light around 6:15/6:30) and take some coffee and fruit before playing tennis 8:00 to 9:00. Three excellent courts; our court was one of two AstroTurf (other brands of false grass are available) courts, very bouncy, very true. I’ll go into the tennis a bit more later.
Then back to our villa to shower and get ready for a late breakfast; we’d get down around 9:45/10:00; breakfast stops serving at 10:30, so that’s plenty of time to chow down. I’ll describe the breakfast in more detail later too.
Again back to the villa where we would probably find our cleaner, Jeap, still doing sterling work on our place, but she’d mostly be done. Then we’d have our villa to ourselves for several hours, during which time we’d read, sunbathe, swim, jacuzz, and/or possibly hide from the sun a while, possibly steam. Sometimes I gave the uke a go in this earlier part of the day. I had a good swim each day; 40 “lengths” which really meant 20 lengths and 20 diagonals, or put another way 10 circuits – probably the equivalent of about 25 lengths of my bodyworkswest club pool.
At 16:00 every day we had massage, together, in our massage sala at the end of the garden, which was an amazing luxury. Initially we tried different masseuses each day, but on day six we both had exceptionally good massages and the young women, Guitar and Nan, seemed to work especially well together as a team. (Almost all the Thai staff take an English name or nickname, some quite strange words as names to our ears. One was known as August; one was known as Peach.) Anyway, we arranged for Guitar (Janie) and Nan (me) to look after us for the rest of our stay, which seemed to please those two (who indeed are good friends) as much as it pleased us.
The treatment was 90 minutes, including a pre massage footbath ritual and a post massage relaxation with fruit and ginger tea.
We’d then enjoy the last of the light, perhaps on the terrace or from the villa, before enjoying the early part of the evening before dinner. Benjy the baritone ukulele often got his slot in that period.
Then shower again and dress for dinner. I describe the meals later in the piece too.
When we got back to our room after dinner, the evening service will have cleaned and tidied up pretty efficiently. Not only that, but each night they left a little present (mostly gimcrack to be honest) and a little treat, such as honey pots for steam cleansing or some kaffir lime and salts scrubs for the outside bath or some special relaxing tea for a bedtime drink. Janie particularly liked the night that they changed all the sheets and pillow cases into satin ones and put candles all around the bedroom. They also bedecked Tom-Tom and Ditsy-Dot, much to their delight.
We had specially requested one of a handful of recommended villas, one of which we got, 212. The next villa, 211, also on our list, had a tree/sewer problem when we first arrived and the couple in there had been relocated while the problem was fixed. The staff kept apologising to us for the noise, but in truth it was mostly so far away and short-lived we barely noticed.
Then by chance we were asked to share a buggy back to our villa on the fourth evening (strangely the only time we were asked to share throughout our stay) and we meet the nice German couple from 211 who have just moved back into their villa. The Frau asks if we have seen the iguana (by which she surely meant monitor lizard) which had been appearing in their garden since they returned. Naturally, Daisy wants to keep up with the Schmits and spends hours looking out for the iguana/monitor lizard the next day…and thereafter…all to no avail.
The GM of the hotel, Sriram Kailasam, came to see us at breakfast on our penultimate full day, so naturally Daisy complained about the absence of a monitor lizard in our garden. After all, 211 had seen one and our villas are supposed to have equivalent benefits.
The GM said that he had received complaints about the monitor lizards before, but always previously about their presence, not their absence. Indeed, he told us that one client could not be convinced that he hadn’t seen a crocodile.
Well, perhaps the GM fixed it for us, because on the very last day, ever so briefly, Monty The Monitor Lizard popped in to say hello and goodbye. He didn’t stay long enough for a photo, but that’s monitor lizards for you.
Wild life in our villa
Despite the rarity of the lizard visits, there was an abundance of wild life in our garden, especially frogs in our divine lily pond and a great many birds – some in search of the frogs, we feared.
I particularly liked one frog who seemed to wait up for us on the patio step and then do a performing leap when we got back from dinner. Janie saw him many times; I only cottoned on to him towards the end of our stay. But the amphibians, like the reptiles, seemed to have ticked a box for no publicity in the photo department.
…plus a little list, in increasing rarity of visit order:
Eating – Breakfast
The breakfast is an extraordinary spread. We saw some folk chowing down on vast quantities. We ate well in the morning without going mad.
There was always a juice of the day and we usually tried it. It would tend to be something like “pineapple and mint” or “pineapple, orange and strawberry”, but occasionally would be something too weird like “beetroot and carrot”. There were dozens of juices to choose from each day.
Janie would always make up a plate of tropical fruit for us to share. We’d pretty much always have the signature Bircher Muesli or a yogurt each.
I liked the noodle soup as a main, steering away from the traditional bacon, sausage etc. stuff of which there was loads. I soon tired of the fish, shrimp, chicken and beef balls, but picked up on Janie’s point when she said that she preferred noodle soups with slices of meat. Realising that there was always some sort of chicken or pork dish available (intended for rice, hash browns or fried noodles) I took to picking up a few slices (and some of its gravy) and thus enhancing a noodle soup which I had made up with just noodles and vegetables. Delight.
Janie soon migrated to the meat dishes with some rice or fried noodle and away from the soup altogether.
Eating – Dinners Chronology
First night – Thai food in the Saffron restaurant. Tried signature dishes, i.e. satays and fish cakes to start and a prawn pad thai noodle dish. Highlight though was a curried pork (crispy belly). As much rice as you like, choosing from four kinds in this restaurant. Also some nice rice cracker/thai papadom-type things, some sorbet between courses and little petits-fours at the end of the meal. A fruity Riesling to go with it. Excellent food – we’ll eat here several times I’m sure.
Second night – we fancied just simple food tonight so opted for a bar meal of crudites and wagyu burgers. Washed down with some Marquis de Riscal red (perhaps not so well suited to this climate). Slightly comedy (or tragedy) service for this simple meal in a very quiet bar, but a very nice duo playing and singing pleasant songs made up for it.
Third night – again avoiding the main restaurant buffet, we reverted to the Saffron for another splendid Thai meal. We ordered less this time having learnt our lesson the other night. A shrimp starter to share, followed by a peppered pork ribs dish and a duck curry, plus a plate of morning glory in oyster and garlic sauce. Some more of that fruity Riesling. All very delicious.
Fourth night – with the buffet shifted to the Thai restaurant tonight, we thought we’d shift to the main Waterfront restaurant. We opted for a simple meal of fried calamari to share, followed by grilled white snapper and mash (Daisy), seafood pasta (me) and spinach to share. Switched to a very flavoursome Sauvignon Blanc for the European food. Good meal.
Fifth night – we felt obliged to try one buffet, opting for the seafood one which is more in the style of a barbecue. Tried a few different things, including sushi, a seafood soup and then the barbecued shrimp, lobster and snapper. I also tried a little seafood and spinach lasagna – a bit bland compared with the pasta of the previous evening; indeed all of the food might be described as such in truth. Daisy tried a variety of deserts which didn’t please her all that much, apart from the ice cream and some home made chocolates. I made a small desert of just those highlights. I opted for the Sauvignon Blanc while Daisy opted for the Riesling that night. Great to try the variety of food the once, but the experience confirmed our view that we prefer to choose our own dishes and focus on a smaller quantity of finer food.
Sixth night – Saffron restaurant again. Mix up with our table resolved without pain and suffering. We tried signature dishes of sea bass with a light sweet chilli sauce and a barbecued chicken with a sort-of curry sauce (unexpectedly dry), preceded by a shrimp ball thing with a sweet chilli dip. Riesling for both of us. The least inspired of our Saffron meals so far, the dishes sounding more interesting than they proved to be.
Seventh night – Tre restaurant – right on the other side of the estate beyond the golf course where the double pool villas lie. We took a buggy to and from this one (normally we walk to the restaurant and merely buggy home). Really posh nosh, this restaurant. Lovely aspect too. The chef is mad on mushrooms and truffle oil, almost to a fault. We shared a starter of cheesy stuffed pasta with frothy cheesy sauce, followed by a halibut with langoustine dish for me and a very fancy chicken dish for Daisy. Pomme puree and a very fancy-pants salad to go with. Even more than the other restaurants we got lots of amuse-bouche and little extras action, including petits-fours even though we had no desert, no coffee and indeed barely room even for the delicate little sweets.
Eighth night – back to Saffron restaurant to try a slow cooked longhorn beef dish which closely resembled my “famous” Guangdongese braised beef dish, except this was with tenderloin rather than brisket. We also had the pork belly curry again which was again excellent. We started with a rather yummy prawn and green papaya salad to share. That Riesling is a perfect food match with this type of food so we stuck to it.
Ninth night – back to Tre. Janie loved the pasta starter so much last time we had it again. For mains, Janie had a John Dory dish with brioche and basque-style trimmings which looked spectacular. I had a sea bass dish with a herb thingie, which looked less inspiring but was equal to or even exceeded Janie’s John Dory. Riesling for Janie, Sauvignon Blanc for me.
Tenth night – back to Saffron for a reprise of some of our favourites; the satay starter, the duck curry, morning glory and the slow cooked pork ribs. The chef came out to see us for a chat; he didn’t seem the type to chat much, not in English anyway, but I think the GM tipped him off that we had been full of praise for his cooking. That Riesling for the last time, just a couple of glasses.
Weather forecasts in/for Phuket
We subsisted in unwarranted fear of poor weather for most of our stay, mostly because we looked at weather forecasts and thought we understood what they meant. What we hadn’t factored in was the very different use of symbols for Phuket compared with home. This difference seems to apply to any weather website, even “our own” such as the Met Office or the BBC. For example, this rain symbol…
…which was showing for several of our days, for Phuket seems to mean, “perhaps there’ll be a passing shower at some point in the day…or perhaps not, probably not, to be honest”, whereas for the UK that symbol would mean, “relentless gloom, at best dank, at worst bucketing down, guaranteed for the whole day.”
Again, several days showed this symbol…
…which for Phuket seems to mean, “perhaps there’ll be a passing thunderstorm at some stage today, but probably it will just be nice and sunny all day, just like it was yesterday and indeed almost every day”, whereas for the UK that symbol would mean, “SEVERE WEATHER WARNING: THUNDER AND LIGHTNING DANGER. DO NOT LEAVE HOME UNLESS IT IS ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL OR YOU WORK FOR EMERGENCY SERVICES.”
Daisy picked up a rather untimely back injury just before we set off, so we were in some doubt whether she would be able to play. But we are pretty sure it is a piriformis strain, so stretching with due care on the tennis court, swimming and massage are a good prescription for this particular injury.
We had some good battles on the bouncy, skiddy AstroTurf surface provided. Most days we saw little if any other tennis activity. But as misfortune would have it, Day Two was a bit of a fiasco, as we got to the courts really late and suddenly the courts were packed. On the stroke of nine (indeed Janie swears they marched on early) a European couple turned up for our court, so that was that.
Day four, when I am one point away from a rare victory, the same European pair turn up about 8:45. Determined to send the message that we want our court for the full hour, I proceeded to “lose” several points, indeed a couple of games and take enough breaks between games to get close to the hour. Why this pair didn’t use another court is a mystery (I thought they might be German people, but later thought I heard them talking Italian). Anyway, they hung around obediently waiting for our court. Cometh the hour, I thought Janie might steal a draw as a result of my diversion, but I managed to finish the match off successfully at one minute to nine.
That was a rare win for me on Day Four. Forgetting the abandoned Day Two match, we played eight, of which Daisy won three, I won three and we drew twice. I found it very hard work on that surface, whereas it really suited Janie’s precision, skiddy style of play. I think she’d roll up a strip of that AstroTurf and take it with her everywhere if it were possible to do that. Mercifully it is not.
Outbound Journey, 11 February 2017
We whizzed through Heathrow Terminal 2 so had plenty of time to relax in the Air Canada lounge – we were flying Eva (a Taiwanese Airline) on an excellent Club deal.
It was a pleasant enough flight – we had pre-chosen our grub from an enhanced menu for those who pre-choose, so had a lobster tail and fish in a creamy sauce with mash – very nice. Also a rather interesting fish tortellini as our snack meal. Lie-downable seats meant that we both got a reasonable amount of sleep on the flight too.
The transfer at Bangkok and the short flight to Phuket was a bit of a rude awakening after the relative peace and luxury of the Eva flight. The business of going though immigration on arrival reminded me of our previous visit to Thailand in 2001; not by similarity but by contrast. On this occasion, the airport was heaving with people and we queued for what seemed like an eternity. Our previous “immigration” by road from Laos was a sleepy, deserted border post – so deserted early in the morning we had to break the border to get in to Thailand and had a devil of a job explaining ourselves on exit.
The short internal flight was a packed, smelly noisy plane; the mechanical noises from the undercarriage were positively alarming. In particular, the big Russian “gentleman” with Soviet-style territorial ambitions sitting next to me was no fun. Then the chaos of Phuket airport on exit – somehow we did manage to find our agent’s courier (“Coco The Clown”, I named him) and off we went in the direction of tranquillity.
We got to the Banyan Tree around 21:00, which just about gave us time for some basic orientation, transfer to our lovely spa pool villa and back to the main hotel Saffron restaurant for a delicious Thai meal before bed.
Return Journey, 22 February 2017
I shall write up the return journey separately in the coming days, as I think the world needs some time to get used to the idea of seeing photographs of me looking like Kung Fu Panda at 30,000 feet.
Our original plan was to spend a week or so in North Yorkshire, but Janie’s success with the Wimbledon ballot for 1 July and her desire to be back 6 July for the Hampton Court flower show, meant a shorter trip this time, just to Scarborough. Still, we’d have the opportunity to see Tony and Liz, plus take in a couple of days of cricket.
Despite our having raved about Cafe Fish on our previous visit to Scarborough in 2014, advice which Chris and Charlotte took and with which they concurred, Tony & Liz still hadn’t tried the place. So Janie booked it for the Saturday night as our treat for Tony’s birthday.
By booking our hotel early enough in the year this time, we’d managed to get a decent size of room at the Palm Court Hotel ; much nicer than the hotel we’d stayed previously and a joy to have the parking behind the Palm Court guaranteed as part of the deal.
Saturday 2 July
A relatively event-free journey – we set off in good time, leaving the flat very early and only stopping at the house for 90 minutes or so – the “5 minute stop” Janie had promised she needed. Still, we got to Scarborough mid afternoon, so there was time for some rest before meeting Tony and Liz. Janie went off to get a swimming costume, having forgotten that the hotel had a pool. In the end, neither of us swam. I watched the denouement of the Querrey v Djokovic match from yesterday and called Janie to tell her the result while she was still at the shops choosing her cossy.
Tony and Liz came to the hotel for a drink before we wandered three minutes down the road to Cafe Fish. There we ran into Harry and Blossom Latchman, their friend Elaine and Geoff Norris, who were getting towards the end of their meal. Janie and I remembered (and were remembered by) the Cafe Fish people, especially proprietor William, so we really must have seemed like the locals on home turf despite being in Tony and Liz’s home town. Tony and Liz were a bit discombobulated by all this.
Unsurprisingly, we had an excellent meal at Cafe Fish; I think Tony and Liz thoroughly enjoyed it. They walked back to our hotel with us, having arranged for their cab to meet them at the Palm Court rather than the restaurant.
Sunday 3 July
A fine breakfast and good weather (albeit with a cool northern breeze) for our first day at the cricket. A pleasant walk from the Palm Court to North Marine Road and (as previously) a very straightforward matter to collect our visitors’ tickets and make our way to the pavilion.
There we were greeted by Robin and Jennifer Smith (whom I had got to know last year at Headingley) and also Tony (a former Yorkshire committee member I’d met last year at Headingley), plus the regular Yorkshire host Geoff Cope with his delightful dog Queenie. From the Middlesex side, Andy West was there and we were assured that Harry, Blossom and Geoff were around – they had taken sanctuary from the cool breeze behind glass, one level down.
That pavilion balcony spot is a great place to view the cricket. Yorkshire had won the toss and elected to bat. Most people thought it a good toss to win at Scarborough, but the ball seemed to do a bit; Yorkshire batted well and Middlesex bowled without luck that first morning.
At lunch, Harry presented Janie with her life membership of Middlesex, which was a lovely surprise for her. Mind you, as she managed to get the lunchtime conversation onto controversial subjects such as Brexit, feminism and commercial ethics within the space of about 20 minutes, “life” started to sound more like a sentence for everyone else than an award for Janie! Actually, joking apart, that Yorkshire group are an interesting bunch for proper conversation.
As always, the day passed quickly. Yorkshire looked well placed at the end of the day just shy of 300 with only 5 wickets down. We walked back to the hotel and like doing very little indeed in the evening, which is precisely what we did.
Monday 4 July
Brighter start to the day than yesterday. Again a pleasant breakfast in the hotel and then the walk to North Marine Road. A smaller group for lunch today, but for tea we were joined by Shirley Houghton (David Houghton’s wife) plus John Hampshire & his good lady. I didn’t realise that John Hampshire had been the first coach of the Zimbabwean test team when the southern African teams rejoined the international fold in the 1990s.
Fairly soon after tea it got gloomy and then it started to rain. There was a brief respite, but only brief before the light deteriorated again. Middlesex only two down but a long way from safety still.
We walked back to our hotel in the gloom, hoping to get in before the end of the Murray v Kyrgios match and before the heavens opened. We ran into Barmy Kev, Big Harv and another of the Middlesex regulars on St Thomas Street. We chatted for a while, in my case with one eye on the skies, declined the opportunity for a “swift drink” and got home just before the heavens opened. We took a couple of glasses of wine and some nibbles to our room and caught the end of the Murray match, plus some other interesting tennis on the box.
Tuesday 5 July
We had breakfast in the hotel, then checked out and drove over to Tony and Liz’s place for “elevenses” and a look at the progress they have made with their house since our last visit.
In the end we didn’t get away until lunchtime, which lengthened the drive home a bit, hitting the rush hour towards the end of the drive. Unusually, we split the journey into three; I did less than half the run, the Daisy took over the wheel but was feeling fatigued by Luton-ish so we stopped for petrol and had one more changeover, such that I did the final leg.
We followed the Yorkshire v Middlesex match on the way home, along with the tennis.
Wednesday 6 July
On the Wednesday, I played a good morning game of real tennis after clearing my e-mails and then worked from home in the afternoon, catching the end of the extraordinary Yorkshire v Middlesex match on the internet radio. This is how it panned out, scorecard-wise. Who’d have thought it? Back to Lord’s in the evening for another “last minute sub” game of real tennis; two very good, close matches in one day – exhausting.
When we travel abroad, I tend to spend some time finding out about and buying local music. Over the years, given our predilection for visiting developing nations, this has not always been an easy search and for sure the lagging end of my cassette collection, for example, was music bought abroad long after cassettes had become obsolescent back home.
Nicaragua proved especially challenging on the music front. I thought Leon would be our best bet as it has a reputation as a student town with a vibrant live music scene. But the live music scene seems well in decline, such that midweek there is no scene to be seen (or heard).
Our local guide in Leon 8 February, as reported in my blog for that day, drew a complete blank on both the matter of live music (probably because there really wasn’t any that midweek night) and CDs. We did a little bit better on the CD front under our own steam on 9 February, but only through the good offices and guidance of a nice man in the musical instrument shop, helping direct us to (possibly) the only recorded music vendor in Leon.
The Leon CD vendor spoke no English and probably would be minimally helpful in Spanish too. In broken Spanglish we asked for Caribbean-style Nica music and he indicated that no-one on the Pacific side of the country buys or sells that stuff. Instead, he talked us into buying a second Nicaraguan typica/folklorica CD, probably surplus to our requirements. Still, at about 50p a pop, the extra CD was not exactly a big deal to us. Perhaps more of a big deal to the vendor.
On a Spanglish request for modern music, he simply stuck two CDs into my hand; one named Bacanalero to Brutal, which is basically a various artists mix of Latin American merengue, bachata and salsa music, primarily from Dominican and Puerto Rican artists. This was similar to the response we got in Guatemala 12 years ago to a similar request – except that the Leon vendor didn’t put the CD onto a sound system so we could hear it and thus the locals didn’t all start dancing in Leon, unlike the Lake Atitlan Guatamalan menengue-dancing locals. The sounds on my Bacanalero to Brutal CD are reasonably up to date though and the disc has the reassuringly modern “2014” on it. The other CD was named La Cuneta Son Machin and the vendor signaled to me that this second one was “really the one” in his view.
Our attempt to get some Caribbean music with Guillermo the next day did not fare much better – he didn’t think Masaya would yield anything so we ended up in Granada where he picked up an MP3/CD with a bit of absolutely everything on it, including some Caribbean side music, including the recommended Dimension Costeña, but this is clearly even more of a low quality bootleg jobbie than the regular CDs you buy on the street.
When we got to Mukul, I did a bit of Googling and ascertained that La Cuneta Son Machin is becoming one of the most successful Nica bands ever – half populated by sons and nephews of Nicaraguan folklorico patriarchs Carlos Mejía Godoy and Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy. La Cuneta’s latest album, Mondongo, has just been nominated for a Grammy award; apparently the first time a purely Nica band has been nominated for a Grammy. We’ll find out whether they won while we are at Mukul. How cool is that? Well, just a little bit cool. And no, they didn’t win, but heck, to be nominated is still a big deal. Just don’t try saying “La Cuneta” in polite company after a couple of rum and cokes…
…anyway, it should be easy enough to get hold of this historically successful and current album, right? Wrong. We tried. Mukul itself only sells bog standard stuff – Putumayo world music CDs at over £20 a pop. Managua Airport shops? Not a chance. So in the end I needed to one-click a download of Mondongo from Amazon.co.uk…
…not exactly helping the Nicaraguan economy the way I had hoped (and boy does the Nicaraguan economy need help – the inability to buy local music locally is but one example of the commerce shortage in this country, which has in theory been a liberal democracy with an open economy for 25 years) but at least we were able to get our lug-holes around the album. Yes, it really does rock, btw, before you ask.
Try listening to it twice and see if you can avoid the infectious rhythm and sound being stuck in your head. This is the sort of track that could be next summer’s global craze. I encourage all Ogblog readers to open their windows and play Mondongo loud, to ensure that you and your neighbours are similarly infected, thus all dancing, clicking and buying the album. It’s the least you can do.
Breakfast the next morning (as always, after tennis) was served to us by Juan, a jolly, chubby waiter who was delighted to learn that we were Londoners because he loves the late Princess Diana and Big Ben. Bless. I explained to him that the Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster (the icon he actually loves) is not actually Big Ben but is that part of the Palace containing a huge bell, which is named Big Ben. He seemed pleased to be better informed. We did not discuss my take on the late Princess Diana.
On Juan’s recommendation, I tried a smoothie named “green machine” which was mostly fruit with some spinach for colour, edgy flavour and lots of goodness. Janie tried a more conventional fruity one. I tried the nica chilaquiles; quite spicy with chicken and cheese, certainly worth trying once. Janie asked for a salad with rocket and goats cheese. The only weakness in the breakfast was the regular coffee, which tasted a bit strong and stewed, so I resolved to try a proper americano (with espresso coffee in it) henceforward.
We tried La Mesa (the haute cuisine restaurant) that evening. We shared an octopus carpaccio starter. I had a slow-cooked daube of beef dish, while Janie tried pork cooked three ways. We shared an ice cream/sorbet desert. Very rich meal. Orlando looked after us again, as did Hungarian sommelier Imre who recommended a very tasty Malbec; Bodega Noemia A Lisa.
18 February 2016
Breakfast the next morning was served by someone other than Juan. I opted for a lighter meal of granola pancakes while Janie opted for omelette and bacon. At the end of the breakfast we were furnished with an unexpected extras bill for the smoothies, my choice of coffee and even for Janie’s toast to go with her egg and bacon. I refused to sign the bill and raised the matter with Frederico, whom we had in any case arranged to see that morning about the boat arrival debacle. Frederico agreed that we would not see such extra charges for our breakfasts.
That evening we decided to try the new Beach Club, which only opened in December and has just started doing dinners with an experimental snack foods menu. We thought a lighter meal would go down well. Daisy started with tempura prawns and moved on to steak. I started with tostones with queso (plantain fritters with a sort of local haloumi on top) and followed with a sort of shrimp cocktail. Chips, veg, shared ice cream to finish and two glasses of house wine. Over £80, which seemed steep (like St Tropez prices to us, without the St Trop. setting) for such a casual meal, especially when compared with the higher but relatively modest charges for the haute cuisine food. To be fair, this Beach Club thing is still experimental and the staff were delightful, but there is work to do on menus and pricing.
18 February 2016
We both opted for smoked salmon bagels as the main part of our breakfast. These were really delicious and we guessed (correctly) that we would both return for these again before we leave.
This evening is Italian night in the main restaurant but you can mix and match with a la carte. So Daisy started with a mozzarella and pomodoro thingie, while I indulged in red snapper ceviche. Then I had a pork with yucca dish ( a sort of posh vigoron presumably) while Daisy had stingray with mash – she decided that stingray is not really her thing on the back of that experiment. We finished off our delightful bottles of wine from earlier evenings.
19 February 2016
This breakfast time we both opted for croissant french toast with cream cheese. The “with cream cheese” bit deceived me into thinking this might not be insanely sweet, but it was. Yummy though. The green machine smoothies made the breakfast feel that little bit less naughty.
This evening we thought we would try the shrimp ion the main restaurant. We both started with an excellent gazpacho soup, “almost as good as Anthea’s” we agreed. Daisy had her spicy shrimps with coconut rice, whereas I took mine as advertised with yucca chips. We shared a piece of grandma Pellas’ special rum cake. We both drank Muga Rose this evening; Daisy (the lush) had two glasses while I had a modest one.
20 February 2016
It is traditional in Nicaragua to eat Nacatamal with your family over the weekend, so Sunday morning had to be the day for me to try it at Mukul. Much richer and more yummy than the one we tried in Leon, but what a massive portion for breakfast! Daisy was having none of it and went English style for scrambled eggs and bacon that morning. Wimp.
That evening we returned to La Mesa, the haute cuisine restaurant. There we tried a smoked fishes platter as a starter to share, then I had a wonderful lobster tail dish not vastly different from Daisy’s wonderful lobster tail thingie. Daisy tried a lamb stuffed in cabbage dish, which was also very good. We shared an ice cream/sorbet again. We tried Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay to wash it down; there’ll be some of that left for tomorrow.
21 February 2016
Last breakfast and we both wanted to return to those yummy bagels. So we did.
We both wanted to eat light, as we were getting up so early the next day. So we decided to do without a starter and simply order mains with fries and a salad to share on the side. I tried the shrimp burger – an unusual idea that works well (or at least this particular recipe works well). Daisy tried a more conventional burger with bacon and cheese. (The shrimp burger also has cheese). We went for the shared ice cream/sorbet desert again – we have mixed and matched different flavours across the days, so as not to be samey. Daisy had a glass of tempranillo with her steak, allowing me one and a half of the two remaining glasses of Kendall Jackson.
Overall, for sure we ate well during our week at Mukul and the staff couldn’t have been nicer.
One of the reasons we booked Mukul was the promise of two recently-built tennis courts on site. (Another reason was the promise that Mukul is the best hotel in Nicaragua just now.) We are keen to play tennis during the restful part of our holiday, otherwise there is the risk of unmitigated sloth.
The courts were indeed clearly new and in excellent condition. They are some distance from the hotel; presumably part of the grand design for the posh villas as well as the hotel resort. But this is not the first time we have stayed at a resort hotel that transports you a mile or more to the courts. That side of things worked excellently well, thanks mostly to the good offices of majordomo Grinhilde (an unlikely name for a Nicaraguan – “my father spent some time in Germany and returned to Nicaragua liking that name”) and driver Juan aka Ponce.
Ponce had been the land vehicle driver for the rescue mission on 16th, so we had formed some kinship from that. Ponce is from the Mosquito (Miskito) coast and made very interesting conversation with us. On arrival at the courts the first time, I asked him, “which court is best?” and he answered immediately, “that one”, (the easternmost court), “the wind affects it less.” Good advice, as the wind was a major factor at this time of year.
We played early morning (starting between 7:15 and 7:30 for about an hour) five of the six mornings we had at Mukul. Just one morning Janie felt too tired, so we rested on a while longer and swam in the main pool before breakfast instead.
The sun didn’t really affect one end more than the other – the courts pretty much face north-south. But on several days the wind really did assist one end. I took the adverse end, which was really hard work but on the other hand the wind assistance required Janie to control the ball exceptionally well.
The surface was incredibly bouncy. It reminded me of indoor carpet courts I played on at Queens a few times, many years ago. You get full value plus for your top spin and lob shots. None of this bounce and wind would make for a great professional game, but it does make for good fun tennis, which is fine for us. Poison for my nascent real tennis career, but heck, who cares, we were on holiday.
Frederico told us that Jim Courier often stays nearby, which is nice, but I can’t imagine that any of Jim’s shots would stay inside the netting with that exaggerated bounce. Mercifully, Jim didn’t stop by in the early morning to watch Ged and Daisy prancing around the court in the high winds.
Indeed no-one was to be seen at those courts early morning, although it was the only time that we could possibly have given it a go, given the heat of the day and the early darkness.
But basically we loved the tennis there. On our last proper morning, the wind dropped for most of the game, but, perhaps surprisingly, my form dropped along with the wind. It was all I could do to clamber back to even-stevens at 5-5 deuce, at which point we agreed to call it an honourable draw, as we often do.
Walter took us to our room and completed the check in formalities. We still had the latter part of the afternoon to enable us to orient ourselves, settle in to our delightful Bohio and enjoy the sunset view from there. We took some glorious sunset photos later in the week:
We decided to take dinner in the main restaurant, where Orlando looked after us and sensibly suggested we try the seafood special dinner. An octopus ceviche appetiser followed by a proper, delicious crab bisque, a main course of lobster tail and fish fillet with rice and vegetables, followed by sorbet. Orlando recommended a Spanish white named Santiago Ruiz; interesting and unusual.
Each morning we were brought coffee and cookies to our bohio. The local magpie-jays are sugar junkies and attack the cookies and sugar as soon as you leave same unattended for more than a few seconds. On the first morning, even though Daisy recovered the sugar holder once she had finished, the magpie jays simply removed the film and caused havoc with the sugar packets. We learnt to take that stuff indoors and keep it from the birds. But Daisy loved sharing some of her cookies with the delightful, though thieving, creatures:
We did play tennis each day and of course ate some good food. I’ll write up those activities in separate pieces.
Today we transfer at noon, so no need for an early start, but still we are up early packing our things. Packing is a bigger deal for Daisy than it is for me, so I also have time to sit on our lovely Morgan’s Rock sun deck and do some more reading before breakfast…and indeed after breakfast before we leave.
We are to be taken by boat, which sounds like a most convoluted process, with three boats involved, but apparently it takes only 30 minutes compared with an hour or so by road.
When we arrived at Morgan’s Rock, we were told that our boat transfer would probably not be possible, as the Nicaraguan Navy had suspended sea transfers due to the strong winds. Readers who know me well will realise that this news was not bad news to me, as I am always a reluctant sailor.
So I was not overjoyed yesterday when we were told that permission for boat transfers had been reinstated. We even tried hinting that road was fine for us and that perhaps, with all our heavy luggage, road would be easier for all concerned, but we were assured that boat was the better option when possible.
So, the baggage carriers shlep our bags down to the beach, we get into a little boat with all the luggage, the team (with great difficulty, assisted by some French holiday makers) push us out far enough for the engine to start and we (and our luggage) rapidly join a bigger boat operated by Carlos. So far, so slick.
There’s a nice shady canopy on Carlos’ boat, which is just as well because this is the hottest part of the day.
Daisy quite likes boats and is in her element for this short ride. I sing La Bamba to while away the time, placing special emphasis on the line, “yo no soy marinero”. Carlos, who speaks no English and now assumes that I speak some Spanish, asks if I am a Mexican. I try to explain in broken Spanglish that I am neither a Mexican, nor a Spanish speaker…nor a sailor.
Carlos points out the place where the trans-Nicaragua canal is due to exit into the Pacific, although we subsequently learn that the powerful Pellas family, owners of Mukul and far more besides, have probably got their way to have the canal mouth located a fair bit further away from their fifedom of natural beauty.
We get to within a few dozen meters of the Mukul beach. There is no sign of the amphibious vehicle that we expect to shuttle us to the shore. Then, ominously, the lifeguard swims towards us to speak with Carlos:
My inadequate Spanish gleaned little, except that we were basically being told, “five minutes”. “Cinco minutos”, said Carlos, “tranquilo”?
“Tranquilo”, I said. Five minutes is not long. Obviously the vehicle is a little delayed, that’s all.
Ten minutes later, more ominously, the swimmer returns. I note that he seems to need far more swimming effort to get to us than he did to get away from us, which gives me some small comfort that tide and wind are in our favour; eastwards towards the shore and that enticing looking resort and beach.
Due west, of course, there’s nothing between us and the Philippines for about 15,000 kilometers, apart from an outside chance of a tiny Micronesian atoll. 15,000 kilometers; that’s almost three times the distance between London and New York. Have pity, dear reader, these types of thoughts pass through the overactive mind of a nervous sailor when all at sea.
The Spanish conversation went on for longer this time, but the bit I understood was the notion of ten minutes. “Diez minutos”, said Carlos with his mouth and digits, “tranquilo”? “Tranquilo”, said Daisy, sensing that I probably didn’t have it in me to say that word again, as I was becoming a little untranquilo.
Frankly, I could have coped fine with ten more minutes if I knew it really would be ten, but by now I was really worrying about how the co-ordination of the transfer could have gone so badly wrong and therefore how long it might really take them to sort things out.
The increasing breeze added to my nerves. As did my thought that we had not donned life jackets on this boat (nor indeed the first boat). When we went on short rides to and from Jicaro, on the paddling pool that is Lake Nicaragua, we were made to don life jackets every time, as a requirement of the Nicaraguan Navy. Given that we were never much more than 150 meters away from the nearest islet, that requirement had seemed excessive there. How come this safety requirement was absent (or flauted) on the fierce and mighty ocean that is the Pacific, with winds on the borderline between sailing being permitted or prohibited and 15,000 kilometers of open ocean between us and the Philippines?
By the time an hour or so had passed, my unease had turned to something a bit closer to panic. Suffice it to say that my Ultimate Travel document wallet has teeth marks that would have enabled the recovery investigators to identify me from dental records in the absence of my carcass.
Carlos had been in telephone contact with Morgan’s Rock, but seemed reluctant to let us speak to anyone, unable to understand some fairly obvious international words such as “te-le-fon” and sign language. To be fair, he was probably being sold the same, “someone will be there soon” line of bullshit that he was feeding back to us, along with an instruction to “keep us tranquilo”, which was becoming increasingly difficult in my case, in the absence of tranquilo-isers.
Janie was very calm; irritatingly calm. I decided that some female panic was needed to change the dynamic and add some urgency. So I said, “if we aren’t off this boat in five minutes, I’m going to jump in the water and swim to shore.” This was, of course, an empty threat. Our passports were in my pockets, along with my wallet and credit cards. Anyone who knows me well knows that I would not place at risk nor would I readily abandon on the boat such important and beloved items. Nor would I abandon Janie on the boat, now I come to think of it.
Moreover, one of the few things I know about boats is that in almost all emergency circumstances, the safest thing to do is to remain with the boat and await orders from the skipper. That advice is on the back of a postage stamp, coincidentally in my aforementioned wallet. The inscribed postage stamp is there for the very rare occasions I have needed to substitute for Michael Mainelli as host for Z/Yen boat trips on Michael’s Thames sailing barge, Lady Daphne. I wrote memory joggers for the information and safety messages on the back of a stamp, so I could honestly say to the guests, “any further questions, ask the skipper, not me. What I know about boats can be written on the back of a postage stamp. Here’s the stamp.”
Yo no soy marinero. Yo no soy capitan.
No, I had no intention of actually jumping ship. But I did get a reaction from Janie, then a more furtive interaction going between Janie and Carlos, which at least got him onto his phone again.
Whether my near-mutiny made any difference we’ll never know, but within five minutes of my “jump” threat we were “rescued” by a small, completely uncovered boat, some 75 minutes after we arrived off the shore of Mukul. That boat took us (and our luggage, but no life jackets) several kilometers back towards Morgan’s Rock, to another bay where a vehicle awaited us and drove us the last few kilometers to Mukul.
There we were greeted by Frederico, the general manager, with whom we agreed that now was not the time for a metaphorical post mortem on the shambles, merely for relief that no actual post mortem was needed. So we calmed down, cooled down, oriented, checked in and started our blissful week of rest at Mukul.
Before continuing the tale of our travels, a brief aside on eco lodges and our experiences.
We’ve now stayed in two this holiday, Jicaro and Morgan’s Rock. We’ve stayed in a few over the years, though none recently until this holiday.
We’ve always been a bit cynical and sceptical about eco-tourism. After all; there’s nothing very eco-friendly about tourism and something a bit cheesy about hectoring notices in hotels imploring the traveller to help save the planet by accepting fewer bedding and towel changes. as much as anything else, such requests seem to us to do more for hotel’s profits than for the planet.
Indeed, our previous experience of eco lodges; often with a do-goody vibe and everyone eat around the table together like scouts, had for years put us off the idea of staying anywhere boasting that term.
The term “barefoot luxury” is a similar turn off for us; too often an excuse for ludicrously high prices and ludicrously little to show for the money – more like barefaced larceny. But I digress.
The two Nicaraguan eco lodges we tried, Jicaro and Morgan’s Rock, were both way ahead of our eco lodge experiences of the past. Both have been designed to have a minimally invasive impact on their natural environments and maximum positive impact on local communities, all of which we applaud. In particular, Jicaro struck the right notes for us in almost every respect.
The Morgan’s Rock blurb was a little more old-school eco-preachy. Are you really setting standards of pre-emminence in eco-tourism by feeding all the hotel’s food waste to the animals on your massive hacienda? I seem to recall staying on a farm when I was a nipper (before ecology had even been invented) and learning that such behaviour is simply what all sensible farmers do.
Morgan’s Rock does get one huge tick in the box from me for its superb-sounding extensive programme of slow-growth hardwood forest farming and stewardship. This is very hard to achieve both sustainably and commercially, yet the owners seem to be finding a way, which is laudable and I hope replicable elsewhere.
Both properties fall down in my view on their approach to drinking water. The idea is to avoid lots of plastic bottles – good idea. The Jicaro approach was to invest in a treatment works for the local water and to assure visitors it is safe to drink. It probably was “safe” in a clinical sense, but it tasted funny and my tummy was not quite right during our stay there. I drink a lot of water and it reminded me of the way my tummy used to be in the old “water purification tablets” days of my travelling youth.
The Morgan’s Rock blurb suggseted that their drinking water approach was the same as that at Jicaro, but when I asked about it soon after arrival (I really didn’t fancy another icky three days) was assured that the water in the room was actually Fuente Pura mineral water poured into large serving flagons from giant bottles. I’m not sure how much better that approach is than smaller bottles, especially as, presumably, large quantities of that water are wasted when the flagons are emptied. Either that or unsealed mineral water is sitting around in flagons for an unhealthy period of time before being topped up and drunk.
I realise that all of these hygiene, comfort, convenience and ecology issues make it difficult to get the balance right, but I’m not sure about either approach we encountered this time.
But the big thumbs down award for ecological correctness gone mad goes to Morgan’s Rock, for the following sign placed beside the toilet:
In case you cannot read it, the sign asks the user of the tolet to place their used toilet paper in the bin rather than in the toilet, as the water is treated for reuse. We find it hard to imagine a much more unhygenic suggestion. Perhaps “share intravenous drug needles to reduce depletion of earth metals and thus help save the planet?”
Daisy and I went into civil disobedience mode immediately at the toilet paper suggestion and did what we considered to be the right thing. (No we did not smear anything on the walls. We simply flushed our used toliet paper.)
When I raised the delicate toilet paper matter on departure, the front desk manager nodded sagely, assured me that a bit of paper down the toilet would not mess up their treatment works and confessed that many of the staff don’t like those signs as so many guests remark about them adversely. You don’t say?