How it all began – or how a suburban family-of-six bagged a party lifestyle in Honkers

‘The Call’ comes through while I’m at the dentist, breastfeeding the baby, trying vainly to stop the toddler from sweeping all the magazines off the reception coffee table and overseeing the preschooler stutter through her reader. The seven-year-old is snuggly ensconced in the dentist’s chair watching Ice Age while I am being earnestly told that she needs a filling.
“Oh my goodness, I make sure she brushes her teeth every day!” I protest weakly, hooking the phone under my ear as I switch the baby to the other side.

It’s my husband on the line.

“Seriously, this is not a good time,” I mutter, trying to smile winningly and confidently at the dentist – I am a mother who knows what she is doing, not a rubbish mummy who forgets to wash and clean her children (not every day, anyway).

“My boss John’s resigned,” comes the hushed reply.

“What, Hong Kong John?”

“Yes, I’ve been offered his job.”

“Oh, that’s great!” I’m mentally calculating whether the promotion and subsequent pay-rise will be enough to pay for a new kitchen. “Hang on a minute, but Hong Kong John’s based in – Hong Kong?”

“Um, yes…”

The penny, or perhaps the dollar, drops. In my mind, I travel back in time to a hard-won few days off to visit to a friend in Singapore the year before – the maid, the driver, the spotless apartment, the swimming pool, the beautifully cooked dinners, the immaculately ironed laundry, the cocktails, the fancy restaurants, the fun… I think of my own home, the breakfast detritus still on the table, the dishwasher unloaded, the Cheerios stuck to the walls, the overflowing washing basket. I won’t go on.

“Sign the contract!” I squeak. “Have they sent it through? Sign it! Get it sent though now!”

“Why don’t we sit down and talk about it over the weekend?” suggests my level-headed husband. “It’s a big decision.”

“Sign. The. Contract. Now.” I demand through gritted teeth as the toddler sends the receptionist’s latte flying.

Three weeks later and the house is packed up, the furniture either sold, given away, donated to charity or left on the nature strip, six one-way business class tickets have been purchased, and we’re on our way.

Now, I realised we would be landing at Chek Lap Kok late at night, so of course it would be dark, but I still entertain elaborate visions of swimming pools and cocktails and elegant waiters serving me afternoon tea on arrival. Meanwhile, back on board CX100, the toddler has vomited up the Chuppa Chup kindly given to her by the air stewardess and the seven-year-old has locked herself in the bathroom. (Note to self, never, ever travel with kids in business again).

But what I hadn’t bargained for on arrival was the typhoon. Or the rain.

We are whisked to our serviced apartment in the pitch black, water streaming down the windscreen and lightning bolts streaking across the sky. We tumble out at Parkview and are taken to our rooms. A cot sits in the master bedroom (oh joy, sharing a bedroom with an insomniac nine-month-old is always such fun) and there is only one other room. The seven-year-old, the preschooler and the toddler will have to share the one other bed.

What follows are the toughest, funniest, most exhausting weeks of my life as we settle into Hong Kong life. My husband disappears off to work the following day and doesn’t return until midnight due to a mysteriously-labelled ‘black’ rainstorm (or possibly he discovered the Captain’s Bar; no doubt I’ll never know the truth), I am introduced to heaps of lovely ladies who all genuinely seem to want to have lunch or dinner with me (all suggestions are followed up with an emailed invitation the following day, something that rarely happens back ‘home’; “I can fit in a quick coffee in six weeks time?” tends to be the depressing norm), and what’s more, I actually go to all those lunches and dinners.

And the fun has never really ended. In the ensuing eight years, we’ve climbed mountains, kayaked the South China Sea, entered half marathons, gone to places we never would have anticipated visiting, made – and lost – a ton of friends, had posh brunches in hotels and enjoyed not-so-posh barbecues on boats and beaches. We’ve haggled in markets, investigated temples, stuffed ourselves with dim sum and drunk our own bodyweight in fancy French champagne. We’ve entertained guests from out of town, shown newbies around, celebrated landmark birthdays and anniversaries and enjoyed the longest of lunches. In short, we’ve had a ball.

Hong Kong grabs you like that. It’s sometimes not the easiest of places – I dream of the day the supermarket duopoly is smashed and a gleaming, competitively-priced Carrefour or Sainsbury’s opens up somewhere on the plains of Yuen Long – and some days it can be hot and sweaty and frustratingly you don’t achieve anything on your ‘to do’ list.

But mostly it’s fun, and ridiculous, and extreme, and fast-paced and alive. Which is why we hope to be here for many more years to come.

Oh, and the dentists are pretty good, too.

 

Cruising the Mekong

 

Sail away down the Mekong on board Gypsy

If you’re looking to make some family memories this summer but you want to try something a bit different, maybe a break that’s a little bit off the usual holiday trail, a brand-new Southeast Asian cruise could be perfect for you.

Gypsy is a 41-metre, two-cabin, private river boat that launched last month on the mighty Mekong. The lavishly refurbished cruiser sails in great style between Thailand’s Golden Triangle in the north and the ancient Laotian capital of Luang Prabang in the south, taking in a heap of sights and sounds along the way.

With space for four people, it’s ideal for families who want to enjoy a dose of cultural immersion as well as some serious downtime together.

The privately tailored tour meanders between Chiang Rai and the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang over four days and three nights, taking in the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort in Chiang Rai, myriad temples and the languid, lush countryside of the fabled Mekong Delta. Shore excursions include guided jungle treks, mountain biking, freshwater fishing, craft workshops, Laos whisky-tasting and a visit to the Pak Ou limestone caves.

Back on board, there’s a host of wellness and cultural options on offer, including yoga, folk dancing, Lao language classes, a weaving workshop and cooking classes. And when you’re ready to kick back and enjoy the scenery, there’s always the Champagne afternoon tea on deck.

The carefully thought-out spaces on the vessel include two cabins, a mid-ship lounge, a bar and dining area and a separate veranda-style lounge with al fresco panorama deck at the bow of the boat.

The interior design is the brainchild of Bangkok-based design consultant Jiraparnn Tokeeree, who has blended wood and thatch fixtures and fittings with woven leather seating, oversized bamboo daybeds and rich Thai silks and fabrics. Fabulous floor-to-ceiling windows ensure the spectacular scenery is always within view.

The air-conditioned cabins comprise one king and one twin room, and both have an ensuite shower and vanity.

Rates start from US$5,450 per boat for a four-day, three-night cruise, including all on-board meals, a welcome reception with canapes, soft drinks, water, beer, selected wines, coffee and tea, Wi-Fi, shore excursions, English guide, entrance fees and transfers, on-board activities and return airport or hotel transfers. Children under four travel free. mekongkingdoms.com

 

Expat travel – what’s new for 2018

Make 2018 your best holiday year yet. Carolynne Dear finds out where the travel experts will be hanging their beach towels this summer

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Muscat, and Oman in general, is top of many bucket lists this year

 

Living in Hong Kong and thus reasonably central to most destinations, the exciting prospect of family adventures overseas often turns into an overwhelming wishlist of potential destinations. So where to start?

For some, the lure of ‘home’ will outweigh many other considerations. But what if you want a ‘proper’ holiday once the relatives have been visited and old friends caught up with?

Of course travel with children throws up its own set of challenges. Most of us want to see or to do something a bit different on holiday, but how do you marry that with the demands of smaller globetrotters?

Lucy Jackson, co-founder of luxury tour operator Lightfoot Travel, is a mother herself and well versed in the needs of families.

“People like to get off the beaten track, but with littlies in tow it’s important to be practical as well,” she says. “Is there a decent chemist or doctor within reasonable reach, for example?”

Lightfoot is a luxury tour operator with offices in Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong (and one more about to open in Sydney), specialising in tailored holidays to countries all over the world. A staff of forty works across the offices and are sub-divided into teams of experts. These specialists visit ‘their’ area at least twice a year to keep up to date with new openings and developments and there are also teams of people ‘on the ground’ that Lightfoot works with. From being able to recommend the hottest chef in town, to just being aware of nitty gritty infrastructure information, it’s these sorts of detail that can ‘lift’ a holiday from fun to fabulous.

“One example is the new expressway between holiday hotspot Galle on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka and the capital city Colombo,” says Jackson. “It’s nuts and bolts detail, but it knocks an hour off the 120km journey time and makes things much more comfortable. It’s this sort of information that makes a whole host of resorts much more ‘do-able’.”

Of course Lightfoot team members are on-hand to make recommendations for the more exciting side of travel and basically ‘pimp up’ your holiday. “We recently hosted a family 70th birthday party in Sri Lanka,” explains Jackson. “We were asked to recommend a restaurant, but I knew of a fantastic local chef who could be brought in to create a memorable dinner. We decorated canopies with flowers by the rice paddies and it was a very special evening.”

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The brand new Six Senses resort, Fiji

According to Jackson, multi-generational travel is becoming increasingly popular, particularly in expat territory like Hong Kong. “Families often request best ‘meet-up’ destinations. I would say if you’re hooking up with European-based family, Sri Lanka is a great option. It’s pretty much halfway, the villas are gorgeous – think Bawa-style charm, lots of space, large rooms and of course they are fully serviced. With small children in tow, villas are always preferable to hotels. When you’re up at sunrise with tiny tots, you don’t want to be told the hotel breakfast doesn’t open until 8am. With a villa holiday, you can completely tailor your holiday to match your needs.”

If you’re Europe-bound, Italy is still on many wish lists, with a bit of everything for everyone. Croatia is enjoying a lot of interest, as is Montenegro. “I do think people are trying to find something a bit different in Europe and Montenegro ticks that box,” says Jackson. “And of course interest has risen since Aman Resorts opened on the Adriatic.

Tour agent Flight Centre (flightcentre.com.hk) agrees. “If you want to get off the beaten path and visit a destination before it’s overrun with tour groups, Montenegro certainly fits the bill,” said a company spokesperson. “With pink sand beaches, soaring mountains and lush forests, there are plenty of breath-taking natural sites to take in, juxtaposed with a treasure trove of medieval architecture.” The tour company recommends trying the Aman Sveti Stefan for a Balkan seaside getaway, or taking a sailboat along the Adriatic coast. “The ancient town of Budva is an interesting stopping off point.”

Portugal is also enjoying a bit of a resurgence – it’s affordable, there are lots of boutique hotels opening at the moment and it’s a great family destination.

“Often overlooked, Portugal is currently perceived as ‘safer’ than other European destinations due to recent terrorist events,” said Mark Thomson, a director at Minor Hotels which is owner of the Anantara resort group (anantara.com). “It’s loaded with culture and also has some great coastline and beaches.” The group has recently acquired a property on the Algarve, its first step into Portugal. The Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort overlooks the Victoria golf course and boasts 280 rooms and suites, five swimming pools – including a children’s pool and Palms outdoor pool, both of which are heated from October to May – kids and teens clubs, family activities, babysitting, and is just a few minutes drive to the beach, bars and restaurants of Vilamoura.

Hawaii is also rising in the popularity stakes, especially with more flights opening up the Pacific islands to Hong Kongers. Scoot is planning a flight to Honolulu by the end of this year. With beaches, shopping and heaps of activities, it’s a destination that suits all ages and budgets. “Catch a helicopter flight to Haleakala National Park, Haleakala Crater and Hana Rainforest Preserve, the largest rainforest in the United States,” says Jackson.

And what of the ‘shoulder season’, in March and April and again in October when most school half-term holidays pop up but there’s not so much time to travel long-haul?

“Oman is bucking the mass tourism trend and offers a ‘rarefied’ experience due to the relatively few travellers who visit,” says Jackson. “It’s a decent mid-haul destination and has got that exploratory feel – going out in dune buggies and so forth. But you can also pair it with a beach holiday around Muscat or Six Senses Zighy Bay on the Gulf of Oman – on arrival you’re taken up the mountain and invited to paraglide into the reception area – and with a heap of other activities it’s great for teens looking for a bit of adventure. March and April is also a good time of year weather-wise for the Middle East, mid-summer is too hot.

“Take an eight-day tour from Muscat, discover the Harjar Mountains and take a 4WD tour under the craggy peaks of Jebel Akhdar, stop at picturesque fishing village Sur which is famous for its traditional Dhow boat building, and finally enjoy a luxury safari-style tent and candlelit dinner,” says Jackson.

Anantara resorts recently opened Al Baleed Resort Salalah along the south coast of Dhofar. The hotel includes kids and teens clubs and is minutes away from UNESCO World Heritage Site Al Baleed Archaeological Park with grand mosque ruins and the Museum of Frankincense. The resort offers a 250 metre beach, outdoor infinity pool, spa, sports courts, watersports, dive centre, cocktail classes and Thai and Arabian cooking workshops. 

“Personally, I like Vietnam and Cambodia for those in-between holidays,” admits Jackson. “My picks would be the Four Seasons Nam Hai and The Victoria in Hoi An. In Siem Reap the Belmond is lovely and I have heard good things about Phum Baitang Hotel, which is a sort of ‘green village’ made up of Cambodian architect-designed villas and was of course where Angelina Jolie stayed during the filming of First They Killed My Father. Siem Reap is great for families, we can set up picnics amongst the temples, bike tours, boat trips on the lake – it’s very affordable and you can do it in just four days or so.”

And for Jackson herself? An extended family holiday in Noosa is on the cards for Chinese New Year, then she’s hoping for a trip to either Sri Lanka (“my favourite Asian destination”) or Sira Beach House in northern Lombok – overlooking the Gili Islands and a watersports lover’s paradise.

“The only issue with Lombok is the non-direct flight, but just take that extra leg and you will get so much more out of your holiday. As a company we pride ourselves on making these transfers as seamless as possible so clients are ushered from one flight to another without complications. We check that car seats and baby seats are in situ and everything has been thought through.  

“Lombok is great, it’s super safe and a bit of an antidote to bustling Bali. There’s golf, diving and you can cycle around the villages. To be honest, we don’t recommend guests stay overnight on the Gili’s anymore as they’re getting a bit of a party reputation, but Sira Beach House is gorgeous. And the locals are so friendly, you go out to a restaurant in Lombok and the staff will literally take my baby boy out of my arms and start cooing over him.”

Another family favourite for Jackson is Dedon Island Resort in the Philippines. Again, it’s an add-on flight – you fly to Cebu and then on to Siargau – but worth the extra effort. The tear-drop shaped island is reef-fringed and the resort all-inclusive.

For more information or to ‘pimp up’ your own holiday, contact lightfoottravel.com
2018 openings…

Bali – next month sees the opening of COMO Uma Canggu, a 53-bedroom resort on the south coast. Boasting a further 66 one-, two- and three-bed apartments and 12 penthouses with private pools, the resort is sure to prove a popular addition to the holiday island. It will also offer an in-house surf school and a beach club, comohotels.com

Laos and Cambodia – fancy getting back to nature but don’t want to rough it? Luxury tented accommodation will be hitting Luang Prabang in Laos and southern Cambodia this year. Rosewood Luang Prabang is a top notch tent and villa encampment located in a forest setting by a meandering river and waterfall. The five 100sqm tents feature Laotian and French colonial furnishings, private dining areas, wrap-around decks and a spa, rosewoodhotels.com

Shinta Mani Wild straddles Bokor and Kirirom National Parks in Cambodia with 16 sophisticated tents along a 1.5km stretch of riverbank. Opening mid-year, enjoy wildlife excursions and private boat expeditions, shintamani.com

Montenegro – Europe’s current ‘hot spot’ sees the opening of five-star The Chedi in Lustica Bay this year. With views over the Adriatic, this new development comprises 110 rooms, two restaurants, a bar, outdoor pool, heated indoor pool, spa and fitness area, ghmhotels.com

Chile – the South American destination is top of many bucket lists this year, so the capital city is no doubt happy to welcome the arrival of the five-star Mandarin Hotel Santiago. The hotel is located in the popular Las Condes district and boasts 310 rooms, 23 suites with views over the city and the Andes, a large outdoor pool and five restaurants, mandarin.com

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Cathay now flies direct from Hong Kong to Copenhagen

Family fun

Family friendly-hotel openings this year include Six Senses Fiji, Malolo Island and Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain, China  

Six Senses Fiji will be offering villa accommodation, each with their own private plunge pools positioned on the western side of the island. The property will also have two gourmet restaurants, an outdoor pizzeria, three bars, a gourmet food market and walk-in wine cellar and tasting room. A customised wellness and spa experience as well as treetop yoga, a state-of-the-art fitness gym, tennis club, a kid’s recreation club, water sports and two full-service marinas for yacht mooring and chartering completes the picture.

Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain in Chengdu, China is located at the gateway of the picturesque Qing Cheng Mountains. Fun family activities include panda tours, movie afternoons, river rafting, tennis, cycling, tai chi and yoga classes, an indoor pool, night-time photography tours, Sichuan cooking classes and historical tours to nearby ancient towns and heritage sites.

For further details about either property, contact Flight Centre, flightcentre.com.hk

Flight news

From this year, Cathay Pacific will be flying direct from Hong Kong to Dublin, Copenhagen and Brussels. Bookings are currently available through flightcentre.com.hk

Happy days with the kids in Kota Kinabalu

It’s that time of year again. The kids are on mid-term break and the cooler weather has ushered in “Granny season”. So with four children aged between eight and 14 to entertain, plus septuagenarian Nanny and Grandad from the UK, the Shangri La Rasa Ria resort in Kota Kinabalu was looking like a no-brainer.

We’ve been enjoying short breaks at this beachside hotel since 2011, so knew what to expect. Great pool – tick; good quality on-site restaurants – tick; plenty of “cocktails with sunset” opportunities – tick; kids club – tick; short flight – tick (it’s just 2hrs30 from Chek Lap Kok, although a fifty minute shuttle bus run from KK airport to the hotel).

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The tranquil Ocean Wing pool.

This time we decided to upgrade to the Ocean Wing, and wow, it was worth it. Although we have loved our little holidays in the Garden Wing, the kids have grown over the years and a water slide and proximity to the kids club is no longer such a priority.

The Ocean Wing is a separate wing, boasting bigger rooms, huge balconies complete with spa baths, a separate reception, and much larger pool (trying to stay on top of my training game for a half marathon in December, I was delighted to find the Ocean Wing pool complex incorporates a 30m laned-section of pool, not to mention a spotless, pretty much deserted gym).

It was also much quieter than the Garden Wing, which was looking pretty full given it was Golden Week. With a surfeit of loungers (no sneaking beach towels onto beds before breakfast) and plenty of staff on-hand with complementary fresh fruit treats, cooler boxes of water bottles and poolside menus, we soon relaxed into our break. Abiding by granddad’s strict “beer in hand by midday” holiday rule, we spent many happy lunchtimes gathered around tables at the poolside cafe. As a mother, it was a joy to see all four children conversing happily with their grandparents over those holiday favourites – Aussie burgers, salads, fries and pizza.

One issue we have had with the hotel over the years was its relatively isolated location. However, since our last trip about three years ago, it really seems to have upped its game in terms of activities. There is now a climbing wall, horse riding on the beach and a teen activity programme. The gorgeous kids club is still very much there, although we didn’t use it this time, and we still love the huge games room with Mahjong, pool tables, ping pong, Jenga, backgammon and chess (not a computer game or screen in site, which makes my heart sing). There are also regular shuttle buses running into the most popular shopping spots in Kota Kinabalu. I took this option one morning with my shop-starved teenage girls – the drawcard was a Sephora and Bath & Bodyworks – and contrary to my expectations, we did spend a very happy morning in the brand new mall at Imago Times Square. It was similar to Singapore’s Vivo City – gleaming, but without the high end glitz overkill that is so often the case in Hong Kong. We shopped H&M, Cotton On, Esprit, Victoria’s Secret, Uniqlo, Giordano, various sporting franchises, plus Boost Juice for the bus-ride home.

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Decision, decisions. A walk to the beach, a swim in the pool, or order another beer at the poolside cafe?

While we were gone, my husband had taken my son “adventuring” to a beach adjacent to the resort, made a bivouac with driftwood, clambered through a patch of jungle and discovered two snakes. “Best day ever!” said my son.

During the week, we also independently booked a trip on the North Borneo Railway (see previous Blog Post), and in the past have tried snorkelling in the marine park (this involves a bus into KK from where a boat speeds to you to a dive resort in the park – one of my best memories of Kota Kinabalu, and the day finished on a high with my eldest daughter spotting and swimming with a turtle). A massive zipline has also been erected between two islands in the marine park, but unfortunately we ran out of time – the kids were keen, so maybe on our next trip.

I am also happy to report that the orang-utans that used to occupy the reserve adjacent to the hotel are gone. Not that I didn’t think the reserve was doing a great job doing its bit towards the preservation of this gorgeous species of monkey, but since our last visit the government has been busy buying back tracts of Sabah rainforest to save it from further deforestation, and the orang-utans have been successfully breeding back in the wild. There is still a reserve on the other side of the island, but at an 18-hour drive or flight away from the Rasa Ria, a visit was sadly not feasible.

All in all, the holiday went better than expected (after 15 years as an expat entertaining various visiting family members while balancing the needs of my four boisterous children I am nothing if not a realist when it comes to “luxury” and “breaks”). We ate well, had a lot of fun and returned home with another stash of great family memories.

 

Tiffin and trains

We were very excited to be riding the North Borneo Railway today, enjoying breakfast and lunch on board as the old steam locomotive puffed its way through the jungles and villages of Sabah.

 

Construction of the historical railway started in the 1880s, in an effort to pave the way for the opening up of the untapped natural resources of Borneo for commercial cultivation. Naturally the scheme was dreamt up by those sturdy Brits, who never knowingly let a hot and humid jungle get in the way of a trading opportunity.

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We received a warm welcome on board from the staff of the North Borneo Railway.
And so the director of the British North Borneo Chartered Company, a William Clark Cowie, initiated the building of the first railway in Sabah. In 1903 the rail-link was extended 90km to include Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu). Land between here and Beaufort was cleared of forests for the cultivation of rice, tobacco, sago, tapioca, soya beans and pineapples. These crops were then hauled down by rail to the port at Jesselton and exported, no doubt for the delectation of all those Downtonesque Lady Crawleys the length and breadth of Britain. One can only guess what they made of the first pineapples to be off-loaded.

Unfortunately the entire railway system was paralysed during World War II under Japanese occupation, when rails, bridges and locomotives were all damaged. A programme of reconstruction was implemented post-war, when North Borneo became a Crown Colony.

After Malaysia was formed in 1963, the railway service was managed the Sabah State Railway Department, with diesel quickly replacing the steam engine. The North Borneo Railway was thankfully re-launched by Sutera Harbour Resort and the Sabah State Railway Department, initiating what is today a delightful experience.

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Breakfast is served on the North Borneo Railway.
Friendly staff ushered us into our extremely comfortable carriage, complete with bathroom and our own waitress who worked tirelessly bringing us drinks and food. With a toot and a whistle and a great puff of smoke, the British ‘Vulcan’ steam locomotive rolled out of Tanjung Aru station. The kids were kept busy waving at the locals waving back at them as we steamed our way to Putatan and then to Kinarut. 

A nice touch was the ‘passport’ we were given on departure, and our waitress rushed around to ‘visa’ stamp it every time we passed through a station. En route we enjoyed a delightfully presented breakfast of curry puffs, toast and coconut jam, steamed cassava parcels and a local cake made of rice flour and coconut milk. It was all very convivial.

We disembarked at Kinarut for a quick tour of the local Chinese temple, and then it was on to Papar, passing through jungle, fruit orchards and the odd herd of water buffalo. We had a 20 minute stop at Papar and a wander around the local markets while the locomotive was de-coupled and the train turned around. When we re-boarded, it was rather gorgeous to discover the tables had been neatly laid for lunch with tiffin tins containing fish curry, steamed vegetables, chicken fried rice and fresh fruit.

We puffed our way back to Tanjung Aru, arriving mid-afternoon. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable day, which kept four kids entertained and happy while soaking up a bit of the local culture.

And if you’re looking for a good South East Asian jungley tale to while away the morning, Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner follows the story of young Edgar Drake, who is summoned from his quiet London life by the War Office to travel to the jungles of Burma to repair the rare grand piano of an enigmatic army surgeon stationed there. With more plot twists and turns than a Mekong tributary, the story serves up an unexpected ending.

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Take yourself back to the jungles of South East Asia in the 1800s with The Piano Tuner.

The North Borneo Railway operates on Saturdays and Wednesdays. Bookings should be made through the Sutera Harbour Hotel at http://www.suteraharbour.com.