Friday, March 29, 2013

Dine with NSW wine

During the NSW Wine Festival the entire month of March has been dedicated to matching NSW wine with meals created by Good Food Guide-rated restaurants and for $30 and $40 it is an excellent deal and chance to try some of the best restaurants Sydney has to offer.

As a huge foodie of course I had to squeeze in as many of these meals into my Sydney trip as possible, unfortunately that meant only 3 restaurants but this was enough to give me a nice little overview of the Sydney dining scene.

Left: Barramundi with pumpkin brandade at ARIA. Right: Mulloway with black prawn risotto at The Tea Room QVB

Flying Fish: Mulloway, white balsamic pink fir potato, grape, hazelnut and salt bush. 2011 De Iuliis Chardonnay, Hunter Valley.  
The mulloway was cooked to perfection, the flavors, textures and presentation were lovely and to top it off the wine pairing was heaven. One con however, with the restaurant only half full during lunch we were placed at a not so nice table in a corner where the air conditioner unit kept dripping right onto our table, that killed the nice dining experience mood.

ARIA: Roasted fillet of barramundi with pumpkin brandade, caper and piquillo pepper vinaigrette. 2011 A. Retief Chardonnay, Tumbarumba. 
After constantly hearing that this is one of Sydney's (if not Australia's) best restaurants I have wanted to try it for quite sometime, it definitely was the best of the trio, the food was delicious, and very well matched with the wine, the service was flawless. I would spend the extra $$ and go back to ARIA to indulge in their regular a la carte and definitely take advantage of the seven sommeliers they have on hand, mmm!

The Tea Room QVB: Pan seared mulloway, sweet corn and prawn black risotto; dessert of passionfruit crème brûlée and almond tuile. 2012 A. Reteif Winbirra Rosé, Hilltops. 
It was really interesting to try the mulloway at two different highly rated restaurants and to see how differently they prepared and presented the dish. The Tea Room satisfied all my girlie desires, it was great sitting in such a gorgeous setting with a delicious glass of rosé.

This is the last weekend, so if you're in Sydney make sure you don't miss it! Click here for a complete list of participating restaurants.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Watch Out Sydney, I'm Heading "Home"!

In just a few hours I'll be heading home to Sydney for six weeks. As an expat and traveler one of the hardest travel decisions I've had to make is spending money and more importantly valuable vacation days, to go back "home". For four years I have made plans to visit Sydney then postponed them, frustrating my friends and family by opting to go on more exciting adventures to places I have craved to see, to places I have never been before, places that add to my goal of seeing every country in the world.

But four years is a long time to be away from the people you love and the place you spent most your life. And I am excited to see all my family and friends, especially the ones I haven't seen in years, I am excited to revisit all my favorite hang outs and restaurants, to try new restaurants, to swim in Sydney's beautiful beaches and I'm excited to see the city from a new perspective.

And yet I'm also anxious about seeing the city from a new perspective. I never liked living in Sydney, dealing with racism on an almost daily basis made me bitter, never fitting in made me seek out new places to live. But leading up to the visit I find myself asking the same questions, will I like it more now? After all my experiences and travels I am far more self assured, or will I find I have outgrown it even more? Especially after adopting a European lifestyle and attitude so thoroughly?

Reading and listening to other expat stories I have noticed their experiences are the same, expats find them selves disillusioned when back home, and how can you not? after months/years of experiences of seeing and trying new things, going back home must surely be one huge anticlimax.

It's going to be an interesting six weeks, and it's going to be fun (and quite possibly frustrating) trying to get answers to my questions and uncovering more about where it is in the world I really fit in and want to be, it's such an exotic problem to solve, and the reality is that I love that these are the questions I'm trying to find answers to, it's pretty great to be a traveler and expat.

Friday, February 22, 2013

How to Choose a Hotel - Our Booking.yeah Moments

Have you seen the new very hilarious, and very dorky ads from Have you ever had a reaction like that?

I definitely have had this feeling (and probably something very close to that reaction) for several hotels I have stayed in in recent years, which I'm quite proud about because too often a bad hotel stay can ruin your entire vacation, at least I know it can ruin mine. But i'm quite lucky with 5 weeks vacation a year, so going wrong once or twice isn't as dramatic as it would be for those who only have 2 weeks vacation a year and risk it all on one hotel.

Our method is simple, we choose our hotels based on review score and rarely book anything that has a score below 8, but the higher the better and anything above 9 is sure to be a great deal and make us giddy. Since learning to use's reviews in this way we haven't gone wrong once for whatever it was we were looking for- from 5 star decadence to rest your head for the night budget and everything in between. We then cross check the hotel reviews with those on Tripadvisor, we have found that these generally tend to be in the same range.

The interesting thing is our budget has remained almost unchanged but the standard of hotels we stay in has shot up, on average we have spent around €89 per night, but we no longer let budget and price dictate the hotel we choose.

And the result? 

Choupana Hills Resort & Spa - Funchal, Madeira. Probably the best hotel I have ever stayed in, set up in the hills and surrounded by eucalyptus trees we were blown away with a private bungalow overlooking the sea, but what truly stood out was the impeccable service. (I also wrote a very comprehensive review on Tripadvisor).

Image used with the permission of Choupana Hills Resort & Spa

Lawrence's Hotel - Sintra, Portugal. Few things are better than being upgraded and upon check-in we were upgraded to a suite. To top it off the setting is magical and the service is very attentive, it is also home to an excellent restaurant. Lawrence's was so good that we decided to have our wedding and wedding weekend there!

Image used with the permission of Lawrences Hotel.

Mercador - Lisbon, Portugal. Jaw dropping decadence set in a gorgeous building that dates back the 16th-century with all the extra touches and luxuries, for such a high standard it was excellent value for money. Understandably one of the highest rated hotels we have ever stayed in.

Image by Ana Carvalho. Used with the permission of Mercador.

Riad Chbanate - Essaouira  Morocco. Imagine a super lux, exotic Moroccan riad, well Riad Chbanate is the reality. Not surprisingly it has also won a Tripadvisor Travelers Choice Award. The rooms have excellent attention to detail and lavish large bathtubs, the service is excellent.

Frogner House Apartments - Oslo, Norway. Super stylish and housed in a beautiful grand building, the location is in a nice area of the city making it unbelievably good value and and quality for Oslo, which we usually find painfully expensive and horribly depressing. 

Image used with the permission of Frogner House Apartments.

Monte Santa Catarina - Monsaraz, Portugal. A relaxing little country house with friendly staff who went out of their way help us with anything we needed and who had excellent recommendations and insights into the surrounding area.

Image used with the permission of Monte Santa Catarina.

Albergaria do Calvario - Evora, Portugal. A boutique hotel in a lovely setting, some of the best service we received in Portugal hotels, they also offered a delicious breakfast full of locally produced products. Inspired by our stay I wrote a blog post about it here.

Image used with the permission of Albergaria do Calvario.

Hotel Regina - Vienna, Austria. One of our biggest gamble's on choosing a hotel was when we decided to recommend a hotel to the family for Christmas, but the Hotel Regina did not disappoint, although the entire hotel was booked out they fulfilled our request to have the room with the piano. Christmas Eve and Christmas day had a perfect setting.

Image used with the permission of Hotel Regina.

Riad Thais - Essaouira, Morocco. My favorite Riad in all of Morocco, at just €50 per night. The entire riad was new and excellently designed and furnished, what really made it amazing though was the service, the owner went out of her way for us and even made me the most lavish breakfast imaginable when I told her I couldn't eat gluten.

Image used with the permission of Riad Thais.

Lisbon Story Guesthouse - Lisbon, Portugal. Unbeatable value at just €30 a night, clean and a cute vintage chic design, it was the perfect place for an overnighter in Lisbon.

Image used with the permission of Lisbon Story Guesthouse.

Vacation/weekend getaway bliss!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Holy Culture Shock, Batman!

There are two questions I've been asked a lot lately; 

"Why did you leave Portugal?" and "What made you move back to Amsterdam?"

There is not one simple answer to these questions, living in Portugal for a year was an incredible experience full of ups and downs, it taught me many things especially things about myself, it gave me a thicker skin when it came to certain social situations, it gave me the opportunity to experience the frustrations and joys of a completely a different type of lifestyle and culture, and to wake up every morning to a gorgeous sunrise over the sea, none of this will be forgotten but what stands out the most is Culture shock and just how real it actually is.

cul·ture shock

The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

Experiencing this came as a surprise because after living in several countries and traveling extensively I not only (very naively) believed it was something that I was immune to - me? culture shock? Yea right, I'm super cosmopolitan girl! but a part of me also believed it only happened to a select group of people who enjoyed a little whinge every now and then, people who like to compare everything to their home country, people who never really appreciated or wanted to give any other way of life a chance. But I realized culture shock is more than an attitude problem and it can hit you no matter how much of a seasoned traveler or how open minded you are. And culture shock hit me hard, I vividly remember the sunny summer afternoon I decided to read a little about it and found myself ticking off every single symptom, suddenly everything made sense; the constant judging and stereotyping of the locals, the complete and utter preoccupation with my health, the feelings of loneliness, powerlessness, the constant feeling that I was being cheated, overlooked, looked down on.

Things began to look up after this realization and some powerful advice from my husband;

"Whenever you're frustrated about something, rather than judge people, think about and ask yourself why they might do things that way"

The culture shock eventually eased away and I have been left with a longing to understand, explore, see, taste and experience more of this amazing country, but as far as living goes Amsterdam is where we belong in this stage of our lives, Portugal was an awesome, crazy ride for a year but it feels good to be back in lovely Amsterdam. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

A (Quiet) Gem in Alentejo

When you live in one of Lisbon's pretty little seaside towns getting away from the crowds of locals and tourists is at times almost impossible, which is what made the little town of Évora roughly an hour away from Lisbon (or 2 hours by bus) in Alentejo such a little gem.

In Évora, keen to get some good quality, tranquil nature walking into our timetable my husband enthusiastically asks our hotel receptionist "where can we go for a hike around here?" the receptionist  looks at us like we're mad and suggests another town 40km away where we can see a charming little town on a hill and have a coffee in one of the several charming cafe's. I didn't get the impression that walking is a national pastime here, actually, a couple of weeks earlier we found locals asking us why on earth we would possibly want to walk from Cabo da Roca to Sintra when we could easily drive there... but the Sintra forest is one of the prettiest forests I've seen in Europe and walking through there is well worth skipping a car for a day. And as it happens walking in Évora is also worth skipping the car and driving to the next town for coffee. Just outside the town you can follow a path along a 9km ancient aqueduct - the Água de Prata Aqueduct or Aqueduct of Silver Water built between 1531 and 1537. The walk takes you through some beautiful countryside with stunning orange, yellow and red hues speckled with green cork trees and the occasional white farm house.

Images by Mats Stafseng Einarsen.

Looking back on Évora

Though you don't have to get into the countryside to enjoy peace and quiet because Évora itself lacked the crowds and had a tranquil quiet vibe all along it's charming narrow streets making it perfect for a quaint little weekend away.

Templo de Diana


Must eat: local food in the countryside always has a tendency to blow my mind and the regional porco preto surely didn't disappoint but an interesting (and tasty!) regional dish that is a must try is the Alentejo gazpacho, chopped tomato, cucumber and green pepper are immersed in iced water and olive oil and then sprinkled with oregano, it comes with a side of bread for dipping. It was like drinking a Greek salad, and it definitely went down easy in the scorching 35c degrees and even easier with a delicious glass of white wine also from the region.

Alentejo style gazpacho

Stay: Albergaria do Calvario a beautifully decorated boutique hotel with friendly staff, excellent service and a delicious breakfast offering the best local produce.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Morocco - Assault on the Senses

Our overland trip from Marrakesh to Lisbon started with an explosion on our senses the moment we arrived in Casablanca and made our way to Marrakech. The smells, the sounds, the sights were all different, chaotic and overstimulating. Morocco was the first country truly outside my cultural bubble and the culture shock I felt was as claustrophobic as the narrow covered streets within the Medina walls.  

After working our way overland into Spain we were exhausted, exhausted from all the scams, all the hassles, all the garbage and all the foul smells, but at the same time strangely fulfilled - we finally stepped outside our comfort zone and got a taste of adventure again.

Morocco is a country of contrasts - it is ugly yet beautiful, chaotic yet peaceful.   

Morocco is ugly. One of the first things I noticed on arrival was the sheer amount of garbage floating around, it is everywhere and I mean everywhere, so much so that halfway through our journey we realised although great for sharing with our friends and family and for displaying on our walls, our photographs weren't really capturing all the truth and if we looked back on them in 30 years they wouldn't be a real representation of our Morocco adventure, so we decided to also start capturing the ugly truth and our photos suddenly got much more interesting. 

Shepherd among the garbage in the Rif Mountains

Chaotic rooftop in Essaouira

Marrakech Medina

Morocco is beautiful. There are details and colors carved within the Medina walls that just leave you stunned and architecture that leaves you breathless. The call to prayer is eerily beautiful and a constant reminder that you're in an exotic destination. Outside the cities there is nature that is simply wild and beautiful.   

Details in the Medina of Fez

Details in Rabat

Intense color on Riad walls

Cat takes refuge under lush bougainvillaea

Another cat takes refuge in a broken pot

Beautiful Azrou from afar

Beauty. The Rif Mountains

Beauty. Shepherd in the mountains

Pink walls of Marrakech

Morocco is Chaotic. Don't stop! Don't stop! It seems as though every time we stopped for any reason we were surrounded and hassled by beggars and absolutely everyone who had something to sell. Medina's and souq's are especially overwhelmingly chaotic on all levels: they are cramped, loud, smelly and colorful, they are never ending and winding. Shop owners yell at you, shop owners hassle you, people beg, loud music beats from Berber drums, colors stimulate you, stray cats everywhere, the smell of piss and shit overwhelms you, the smell of fresh leather, the smell of meat sizzling. The smell of all of these together. 

Marrakech Souq

Cramped and chaotic Essaouira.

Windblown streets Essaouira

Windblown in Essaouira

Morocco is peaceful. There is nothing more peaceful than seeking refuge from all the chaos of the Medina within the walls of a riad. Quiet, seclusion and a warm welcome with mint tea is the norm. Some of the friendliest hotel hosts we have ever encountered on our travels around the world were in Morocco, many who went out of their way to make sure we were relaxed and well fed.

Riad in Essaouira

Savoring mint tea

Rugs air out on a small quiet street that leads on a secluded nature walk
Stray cat in Azrou

Morocco is truly an adventure but you will need a thick skin, street smarts and a good sense of humor. Be warned and be prepared because every day is overwhelming in so many ways.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Box of Sweets in Morocco

The little white boxes of sweets are very recognisable in Morocco and they stir quite a lot of emotions, our little white box caused a commotion, was ogled, begged for and almost stolen.

We bought our sweets in Djemaa El-Fna, which was probably not unlike most nights buzzing with music, snake charmers, henna ladies and hundreds of tourists. Restaurant waiters continuously tried to lure us in to eat and we retreated into one of many, pleased to have a moment to savor the peace of no one approaching us, of no one trying to sell us something, of no one trying to beg us for money, where we could take our time to observe the chaos around us. It was there, after filling our bellies with delicious grilled meat that a cart full of sweets rolled by, we (and the French couple next to us) couldn’t resist the opportunity for something sweet and carby after our protein fest. Noticing this the waiters began to yell at the cake man and shooed him away from their customers.

After some mint tea with a couple of our sweets, we took our time heading home through the souq, browsing the rich coloured spices and fabrics, and politely declining offers from shop keepers, all passing eyes locked on our box of sweets. Soon we realised we were lost, and that one second of stalling is all it took for us to be approached,

”It’s closed it’s closed” the boy lied as he pointed in the direction we were heading.
”It’s OK” we say, we wanted to continue our lazy walk home without a guide.

But he persistently continued to follow and we continued to walk, suddenly he surprised us as he jumped and grabbed at the box, I held on and we were locked in a battle for the sweets that seemed to go on forever, but I won and he scurried off. Stunned I looked at the box in my hands now broken, the sweets a mess but salvageable, and although I no longer wanted them I held onto the box tightly anyway. We hurried on trying to find our way back to our hotel, but we were lost and we were getting deeper and deeper into parts of the souq we didn't recognise. And as shop owners began packing down for the evening I began to feel panic. But it wasn't long before we realised we had been going in circles, and on round three of circling the same streets we found our way back to Djemaa El-Fna where we could breathe a sigh of relief.

Back in the square we allowed a stall owner to pull us in for some spicy tea and cake. Relaxed we walked home via a route that worked for us the night before, a little girl approached us to sell a fluorescent wand, we declined and she raised her fingers to her mouth gesturing for a sweet ”you want a sweet?” I asked, she nodded and was left stunned as I handed her the entire box.