Day trip from London to Whitstable

For the first May Bank holiday weekend, we had a staycation instead and went to Whitstable, a small seaside town about 1.5 hours train from London Victoria. Our first impression was that this is a very ‘white’ town with few international tourists. As you walk down the main street, there are loads of bars, charity shops and some independent shops. As it was around the time of the Royal wedding, there were all sorts of Harry and Meghan bunting and memorabilia.

This pub had some live music, making for a lively atmosphere.

It was a sunny day so we spent it walking by the seaside, where many families and kids played on the rock ‘beach’ while seagulls flew about.

We walked back and forth and back and forth until we decided The Forge was the seafood shack worthy of our stomach space and money. Naturally there was a queue – we queued for about 15 minutes and ordered half a dozen oysters and then sat at their outdoor tables to enjoy them.

Then we had coffee at Blueprint Coffee, a cute artisan cafe that sources their coffee beans from Ozone Roastery in London. It came with London prices but we loved it nonetheless, especially the banana bread which had a nice caramelised crunch to it.

Dinner was at Birdies restaurant, a French bistro with red checkered table cloths where we had a delicious lobster bisque and some tasty seafood. Definitely make a reservation as we saw guests being turned away.

All in all, Whitstable is a nice day out from London once you’ve exhausted the other towns like Oxford, Cambridge and Bath. We will be back though, as we spotted some pretty and one-of-a-kind furniture by independent artists.

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A ride back in time to Sri Lanka’s colonial past

Sri Lanka is a destination we’ve wanted to go to for the longest time. So much that my Lonely Planet guide is now 3 years old.

We spent 6 full days in Sri Lanka not including travel time and let me say first that I wish we were there for longer. 10 days would’ve allowed us to travel at a more relaxed pace and perhaps see another town.

However, if you are pressed for time, you may find our itinerary useful.

Day 1 – Colombo to Kandy

Upon landing in Colombo international airport at 11:40pm, we booked a taxi which took us straight to Kandy. This was a 3 hour journey (US$50) – we were surprised at the amount of cars and trucks on the road at this time of the night. We took this route anyway as it allowed us to start early in Kandy the following day.

Day 2 – Kandy

We are not massively interested in religious and cultural sites so we skipped the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and other similar sites. However, you will spot massive Buddha temples on street corners and roadsides. In Kandy, what struck us most is the chaotic and polluted roads as our tuk-tuk veered down mountain sides and into the heart of the traffic in the city’s centre. We found the pollution here to be worse than Colombo partly because the roads are not wide enough so your tuk-tuk sits in traffic a lot.

What we enjoyed most in Kandy is the cooking class we took at Thotupola Residence. There were only three students including us, and we learned to make a variety of curry dishes including chicken, green beans, beetroot and lentil. The ingredients were extremely fresh and gloriously colourful and we had to grate our own coconut to make our coconut milk and sambal – the lunch afterwards remains the best meal we had throughout our entire time in Sri Lanka. Don’t forget the freshly fried poppadum, of course.

On the recommendation of our tuk-tuk driver, we had an Ayurvedic full body massage at the Ayvehrda Wadagedara. It was very relaxing minus the oil they poured into our hair which left our hair oily for a day plus more. We paid around Rs 9500 for both of us. Not sure if we were paying a foreign price as the prices weren’t listed.

Day 3 – Kandy to Ella

All the guide books will tell you to take the observation class for the train journey so you can observe the scenery. In our case, we were lucky to even get second class tickets because apparently they sell out a month in advance! We could see many frustrated backpackers who had unreserved seats and ended up standing for hours. For the record, it took us 6.5 hours on the train from Kandy to Ella. We sat on the left side of the train and were convinced that it was the more scenic side. We were lucky to have a group of guys playing local music in our carriages which made the passing hours more enjoyable.

The train journey took up a large part of the day and it was nearly 3pm by the time we got into Ella. Ella is a pretty small town so you can walk nearly everywhere except it’s quite hilly and the roads may not have lights in the dark. Tuk-tuks are relatively cheap (Rs 200-350 to go from our hotel to town).

In Ella, we stayed at an amazing accommodation, the Arana Sri Lanka Eco Lodge and Yoga Centre. The owners, a German and Sri Lankan couple, have built the hotel taking into the natural environment. Everything in our room was made of wood. We had breakfast and dinner here one evening and the food was very tasty. We loved the breakfast which included a variety of coconut roti, pancakes and fruits. The chef was very friendly and never minded us when we asked for the recipe to some of his dishes.

Day 4 – Ella

Considering how chilled Ella was, it’s a miracle that we woke up for a sunrise hike at 5:30am. Our grogginess was quickly awakened when our guide Abi (who had ankles of steel hiking in flip flops) led us up many flights of steep stairs. We were travelling at quite a fast pace and after about an hour, we reached Ella Rock. The sun was up from the horizon already; we would advise starting at 4:30am to capture the best photos. After the sunrise, we hiked another hour or so to Ella Rock where we saw some magnificent views of rolling mountains against the bright blue sky as far as the eye can see. Our thighs were absolutely killed by the end of the hike but this hike was one of the highlights of our trip. For your information, our guide charged Rs 2000 total for the hike.

The rest of the day was spent lounging in town, eating vegetable khottu, drinking copious amount of fresh coconut water, and shopping for a new dress because Sharon didn’t bring enough summer clothes. We especially liked checking out the tea shops which had an abundant variety of tea leaves (e.g. coconut, cinnamon). They smelled so sweet!

Day 5 – Udawalawae National Park

We chose to go to the Udawalawae National Park because Lonely Planet said that watching elephants here “rivals some of the best safaris in East Africa”. Our research suggested that it was best to go on a safari in the morning 6-9am or late afternoon 3-6pm. So we woke up in the wee hours of early morning for a 5am departure to Udawalawae National Park. The car ride was about 2.5 hours. Our hotel kindly helped us arranged a taxi driver who drove us to the national park, waited till we finish the safari, then drove us to Galle (Rs 14000).

Our original plan was to get to the park, find a safari driver which we were told would be dotted at the entrance of the park. However, it seems that our taxi driver had some private arrangements with a safari company so we were (slightly) pressured into a private tour which costed Rs 6000. Sharon hated being pressured/cheated; Jason was convinced that it was worth the money because our jeep looked better. A safari park guide later jumped onto our jeep and introduced himself as a ‘volunteer’ who worked solely on tips. We later realised that many jeeps did not have a guide with them. Our guide expected a tip of Rs 1000 though we gave significantly less. Apparently the minimum wage in Sri Lanka is Rs 10000 per month.

Given the safari company’s name was Crocodile Safari, we were slightly concerned that we would end up seeing crocodiles rather than elephants. Our worries were unfounded as we started to see elephants within 10 mins into the drive. Our guide pointed out the difference between male and female elephants (male is usually alone whereas females hang out in groups). The jeep gets within 10 metres of the elephants so you get to see them at a fairly short distance. We saw five elephants together at most. These elephants did not have tusks; our guide told us this was due to a degenerative disease – probably for the better as the park doesn’t experience any issues with poaching.

We also saw other animals including water buffalo, crocodile, Sri Lankan national bird, green bee hunter and peacocks.

Do not underestimate how tiring a safari can be – Sharon struggled to stay awake in the heat!

Safari costs (total for 2 people):
Crocodile Safari: Rs 6000
Entrance fee for park: Rs 7000
Tip for guide: Rs 1000

Day 6 – Galle

Galle was a 3.5 hours drive from Udawalawae National Park. We stayed at the Green Casa which was outside of Galle Fort and approximately a 10 mins tuk-tuk ride away. Although slightly out of town, the accommodation was spacious with its high ceilings and delicious local breakfast. The hotel’s owner has his own cinnamon plantation and this was evident in the cinnamon scent used throughout the accommodation.

We spent the rest of the day walking around town which included some colonial architecture that must’ve been glorious once upon a time, unfortunately now they are mostly dilapidated buildings. Some have been converted into cafes, restaurants and independent shops. We had lunch at the Peddlar’s Inn and dinner at Lucky Fort where you can try 10 different curries for a mere Rs 1500 for two people.

Day 7 – Colombo

The train ride from Galle to Colombo takes 2 hours and it was the hottest and most cramped journey imaginable. We had the lucky spots standing by the train doors until a lady shouted at us while shoving her pram on board. Slowly we were edged to a space between two connecting carriages and we balanced precariously while the train chugged along. Impressively, vendors continue to walk up and down the train selling snacks such as wade and fresh pineapple.

Once we got to Colombo, we got cheated by the tuk-tuk drivers standing outside the station who took us to our hotel about 5km away for Rs 700. Do not commit such mistake – apparently all tuk-tuks in Colombo are metered and all you need to do is walk further away from the station and flag down a tuk-tuk by the main road.

Colombo is much more urban compared to the rest of Sri Lanka and you get the sense it’s very much a city undergoing rapid development. There were the tell tale signs of McDonald’s and lots of construction going on along the main highway facing the harbour that announces the imminent arrival of hotels like Hyatt.

Our favourite part about Colombo was hanging out at Galle Face Green watching the beautiful sunset which was many shades of crimson, orange and red. The Galle Face Green is a green space stretching along the ocean for about 0.5km and many locals hang out here around sunset and Valentine’s day. There are also many stalls selling street food. We were tempted to try but skipped it given that our stomachs were feeling unsettled at the end of the week. Having diarrhoea at a place where you have to pay for dodgy bathrooms with no toilet paper is not a situation you want to be in! Despite our best attempt to avoid such situation, it happened anyway. On Valentine’s Day. Fact.

The other thing we enjoyed about Colombo was checking out some shops which we wouldn’t find back home. Sharon’s favourite was a shop called SALT which sold dresses handmade using the batik technique. There was also a Fairtrade social enterprise called Selyn which sold products made using the traditional handloom.

Being the capital, Colombo had a lot more choice in the restaurant scene. We tried Monsoon where the modern decor could pass for a hip restaurant in London. If you like curry, The Fat Crab was a great place for spicy crab curry and tiger prawns. We also tried vegetable rotti from local bakeries which was tasty, filling and a total bargain (Rs 40). After many days going without coffee, we finally attended to our coffee craving and tried Hansa Cafe on Lonely Planet’s recommendation. However, it was disappointing as the cappuccino was too milky.

Overall, we had a fantastic time in Sri Lanka. Our main recommendations would be to spend longer in Hill Country, always carry Kleenex and plan your transport routes in advance.

Sardinia: Part 2 – Pula

The next part of our Sardinian journey began with a nervous start.  In an unfamiliar car rented from downtown Cagliari, we joined the busy flow of traffic out of the capital and stalled several times. Drivers shouted in Italian (who could blame them?). Cars zoomed past. After several times of stalling and getting out of the way of many of some who were in much more of a hurry, we  escaped the chaos and complete the more tranquil 40km stretch to the town of Pula. Sharon insists that next time we will get an automatic.

Pula was a small town and had a feeling that people worried less and had a more carefree attitude to life. Residents watched football on a large TV placed in the town centre, ate home-made gelato well into the night and lazed on the beach, filling in crosswords for hours on end.

Our accommodation ‘Cosy Sunflowers’ was spacious and cosy. Our host had plenty of heart and hospitality; he even provided a local mobile phone with data allowance to use. We think we were staying in his house as we could see many shirts and he regularly walked back to the direction of his Aunt’s when he visited us. We were too shy to ask just in case he was!

The things we enjoyed in Pula most were:

After spending a windy day at one stretch of the Chia beach, we discovered the Campana beach which was more sheltered from the wind.

1. Chia Beach
We enjoyed bringing our beach gear to this glorious beach. We loved this beach so much that we went there two days in a row. There are a few beaches in this area but they are largely next to each other along the same stretch of coast. The warm sun dried our bodies as we swam in the ocean, enjoyed our dried fruit and bananas (for digestion), sunbathed and napped among the fine sand all throughout the day. We were aware that the beach could get quite windy at times, so we would highly recommend taking a beach umbrella. If you’re unfamiliar with setting up a beach umbrella like us amateurs, eventually some friendly Italian will help you out.

2. Hanging around the town centre
We loved the gelaterias serving olive oil based ice cream and browsing the stylish shoes on offer (wish we could have bought a pair). It was enjoyable to have dinner in the square and listen to the sounds of people enjoying their evenings.

3. Home cooked meal by our hosts’ aunt

Our host provided a home cooked meal for us to have at home. It was a splendid arrangement of fish, pasta and a limited amount of vegetables (potatoes) The portions were huge (as you might expect from Italian hospitality) and our host’s aunt took huge pleasure from us devouring her food.

We thoroughly enjoyed our trip to the south of Sardinia and left with many fond memories to treasure. The most memorable moment of all was that after the best day at the beach, Jason decided to propose when Sharon was nearly asleep. “Let me get my glasses so I can read this card.” Come again?

Chia beach and Pula will always hold a special place in our hearts because it is the place where we got engaged. Next time, a visit to the North?

Breakfast tasted extra sweet the next morning!

Sardinia: Part 1 – Cagliari

We flew into Sardinia via Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia. The city itself was not too big; many sights are within walking distance other than the Poetto beach and Park of Molentargius. In our view, the sights itself were not as impressive as ones you may find in other major Italian cities but we checked them out anyway given that we spent 3 nights in the capital. In hindsight, probably 2 days in Cagliari would have been sufficient.

The highlight of Cagliari was definitely the food which we found to be different from other parts of Italy. Here are a few which we highly recommend:

Clockwise from top: fregola with mussels and clams; Durke which sells the tastiest amaretti biscuits; one of the many seafood dishes in Martinelli’s; squid ink pasta at Sa Picchetara.

  1. Ristorante Martinelli’s – We came here for our first evening. Good thing we booked as we could tell many people were being turned away on the night! On the recommendation of the waitress, we ordered the seafood platter under the Appetisers section of the menu. The seafood included salmon, tuna, swordfish, prawns, octopus, squid and much more. Who knew that the texture of fresh octopus actually tasted closer to fish? We were absolutely blown away by the taste, humongous portion and affordable price (our bill for two came to approximately £40).
  2. Sa Picchetara – This restaurant was slightly further out from the centre but we walked there nonetheless. Here, we had some tasty pasta with fresh tomato and prawns, as well as spaghetti de nero seppia (squid ink) with claims and bottarga. It was the first time that we tried bottarga – salted and cured fish roe, usually from grey mullet or bluefin tuna. I had no idea what the bottarga we ate came from but I prayed that I wasn’t contributing to the extinction of bluefin tuna! Bottarga may sound unappetising but we enjoyed it and even brought back some for cooking at home.
  3. Amaretti biscuits – These biscuits made of almond and sugar are typical Sardinian treats you could find in many cafes but our absolute favourite was from a tiny family-run shop called Durke on Via Napoli 66, which were so fresh and chewy. We only wish we brought back more!
  4. Fregola with mussels and clams – This is a traditional pasta dish you will find in many restaurants in the city but we first tried this in Kasteddu for lunch. Fregola is a pasta shaped like tiny balls and they tend to tuck into the crevices of the mussel and clam shells. We liked that the pasta was cooked in a light stock-based sauce with fresh seafood so you don’t feel too heavy after the meal. In fact, we found that most pasta dishes in this city weren’t loaded with cheese which is quite nice for a change.
  5. Toyo Sushi – At first instance, it seems strange to have Japanese food in Sardinia but the seafood was so fresh which makes very tasty sushi and sashimi.

Clockwise from top left: Antico Caffee has been around since 1855, a great place to take a coffee and patisserie; the main street next to the wharf is bustling all the time with market stalls; snapped this photo while we were cycling along the promenade; Bastione di Saint Remy where we watched a sunset.

Other than the food, we joined a cycle tour with New Way Sardinia which took us out to the places we couldn’t see on foot. We lucked out because it ended up to be a private tour! We were keen to see the Park of Molentargius because it was apparently a breeding ground for flamingos. The best time to see the flamingos is during spring when as much as 20,000 flamingos could be seen in the park’s grounds. Unfortunately, on the day we went in early/mid September, we could only see a few flamingos, and one flamingo in particular was quite close but rather grey than pink. Our guide told us that grey means that the flamingo is young. Following the park, we cycled onto Poetto beach which was the closest beach to the city. It was rather windy on the day so we didn’t swim but we could imagine it would be very busy during summer.

Back in the city one evening, we watched the sunset at the top of Bastione di Saint Remy, a perfect end to the day!

Loire Valley by Public Transport

Cycling in the Loire Valley was one of those things that we’ve always wanted to do and on this year’s bank holiday weekend, we nearly did it. If it wasn’t for the 33°C heatwave.

Tours

Tours was an excellent base as the train station is well served by trains to many cities in the Loire Valley. It was also one of the busier towns with more things happening. We stumbled upon a few delicious places including QG Restaurant Artisanal (this was our favourite), Dagobert (for alfresco dining side by side Parisian style), Bar Les Trois Ecritories (for its salmon tartare and escargots), and Smaak (for an excellent salad after you get tired of eating all the meat).

The Les Halles market at Place Gaston-Pailhou is a feast for the eyes. Great place to purchase fresh seafood, meat, cheese, bread and fruits if you are in a Airbnb accommodation. We bought some delicious cheese and saucisson there to bring back home.

Not too many of those hip cafes you would normally find in London except Le Petit Atelier – we really missed our daily coffee whilst in France! However, there were loads of bakeries around (Honoré Le Boulanger on Rue Nationale did not disappoint!) and we had our fair share of pain au chocolat every day.

Honore Le Boulanger

Visiting Amboise and Chenonceau

Picnic by the Loire

Visit Amboise on Sunday because it hosts the regional market where you will find everything from cheese, bread, meat, fruits to clothing and shoes. We bought some fresh tomatoes, bread, goat cheese and took a picnic by the Loire. Ah, bliss. We then walked around Amboise’s centre which is made of two main streets.

Normally you could get a bus from Amboise to Chenonceau during the summer months but the bus does not run on Sundays. We went to the Amboise tourist office and asked them to order a taxi for us – thankfully most staff in tourist office and attraction sites spoke English. The taxi ride cost us £37 and about 20 mins to get to Château de Chenonceau. It was worth the ride; otherwise, we would’ve had to train back to Tours and take another train back to Chenonceau.

Château de Chenonceau is indeed as beautiful as the postcards. It has some interesting history having once served as safe passage for refugees and a hospital during WW1. The exhibition also shows the influences we may not have recognised from the various wives, mistresses and aristocrats had on its architectural transformation to date.

Visiting Blois and Chambord

Exploring Chateau de Chambord

The other chateau on our list was Château de Chambord. Our original plan was to train from Tours to Blois, then rent a bike and cycle to Chambord. As we were on the verge of a heatstroke, we took the Navette 41 shuttle bus for 6 euros return. Note the bus schedule is infrequent with only two bus on the day that we were there. Check this website for the bus schedule. Technically we could’ve taken the same bus to visit Cheverny that same afternoon but we headed back to Blois instead. Other than the Royal Château de Blois, the town was unfortunately rather underwhelming. The main street was full of old and dusty shops which were mostly closed or shut down. One even appeared to have a signed that said it was closed as of 2004.

If we had more time, we would have…

  • Spent longer in the Loire Valley – we didn’t realise the grounds of the castles were so large that you could spend half a day visiting just one castle.
  • Tried some kayaking along the Loire river starting from Amboise with the option of camping among one of the many secret islands. Check Loire Aventure for details.
  • Took the Eurostar instead of a flight because it would mean we could’ve carried a few bottles of nice Vouvray wine!