Thursday, 14 August 2008

Koh Phangan, June 2008

Weather, what to expect?
We really needed a holiday so we decided to risk it and go to Koh Phangan in June. It is not really the best time to go to the islands but since we got soaked during our last visit, in January 2007, we thought it couldn't be worse anyhow. And guess what? It wasn't! The weather was much better actually. During our first few days on the island we saw quite some clouds, but afterwards we experienced loads of sunshine for most of our days.
Prior to booking our flights we had checked the weather forecasts for June and it seemed that June was actually the best out-of-season month. There is a dip in rainfall in between 2 monsoons according to Lonely Planet's When to Go pages. Another useful source of information is the Thai Meteorological Department web site, but don't be fooled by the icons published on the weather forecast web sites. The most reliable sources are actually the locals and expats. We checked Camille's Samui Weather blog quite often and got in contact with Scottish expat Ray, living and working on Koh Phangan, and Steve who runs the, initially in French, Phangan Guide web site. They all said June should be fine ... and it was :-)

It wasn't exactly our first time on the island, so we decided to stay in Haad Rin for just a few days only. We have both outgrown the FMP scene, so we needed to select a second Place to Stay on the island. In order to choose the next location/beach where we could stay I asked for some feedback on TripAdvisor and Twitter. Steve and Ray came back with some suggestions and it seemed that their suggestions "overlapped" greatly and that the North-West of the island would offer what we were looking for.

North West:
Steve really knows the island and his suggestions were really excellent. We ended up with the following shortlist:
Sunset Cove and Blue Ocean Garden on Ao Chao Phao beach and Cookies Salad Resort and Salad Hut on Haad Salad beach, they all looked great! We ended up chosing for Sunset Cove because Salad Hut was fully booked, Blue Ocean Garden didn't have a pool and Cookies Salad Resort was unfortunately suffering from noise from a nearby construction site (new resort).
We didn't regret our choice at all! Sunset Cove was just amazing! When we initially booked we were told the front row bungalows were all fully booked, but when we got there we were fortunate to be able to upgrade to a front row bungalow due to a cancellation.

It is really difficult to explain what makes Sunset Cove such a great place. There is just something about the atmosphere at Sunset Cove. The staff is very friendly, smiley and super efficient but in a very chilled way. Management makes itself unnoticeable but is constantly there to accommodate its guests. You take a plunge in the pool at night and the lights in the pool will go on without anybody saying anything. You are strawling on the front deck at night and again the lights will go on (no IR sensors, just people caring).

When coconuts need chopping down because of the obvious risk they pose, the coconuts are being sliced open and offered to the guests as a free drink/snack ... just a nice attention.

I lost my sunglasses while staying at Sunset Cove and I asked if I could put up a note at the reception area. I just scribbled something on a piece of paper and 5 minutes later when I went back to reception they had printed an A4 sheet and had placed it in a very visible spot. I thought they were going to show my own note, but no ... they exceeded my expectations, again!

Also, when you order a drink, staff will bring it to your bungalow, the pool, etc without needing to ask for your room number. Nobody ever asked for our room number when we had a drink or food, but all the bills were 100% correct at the end of our stay. We were a little worried about this at first, so we took some notes just to make sure. We shouldn't have it seems, because everything was billed correctly.
The bungalows looked good and were actually very functional. I especially appreciated the bathroom that could be cooled down by leaving the door to the room open (with aircon on). The shower was outdoors, which is great, but having the rest of the bathroom inside actually makes it more comfortable. Also the extra little frontroom at the entrance of the bungalow is separate from the bedroom and contains a fridge, TV and DVD player and is cooled down by a fan. This setup works really well actually. The deco of the bungalows is not the most trendy or modern you will have ever seen, but this should not be an issue at all.
The pool at Sunset Cove is the socialising hotspot and the infinity-setup of it works really well.

Food and drinks at Sunset Cove are good but if you fancy a change of scenery one evening, you can just walk to Blue Ocean Garden's La Dolce Vita restaurant for some Mediterranean fusion food.
Another added advantage of staying at Sunset Cove is that Ao Chao Phao beach is easily accessible from Thong Sala and you can get around pretty easily on a scooter. Once you go more up North, the roads become really tricky. There is a lot of construction and road works going on which makes some beaches more difficult to access.
Sunset Cove is nr 1 on TripAdvisor, and it is well deserved.

While staying at Sunset Cove we went to check out the nearby beaches and other places we considered staying at some point. This is when we realised that Ao Chao Phao beach is actually very accessible and a good "basecamp" if you want to explore other parts of the island.
One evening a group of us went to Haad Salad beach for some drinks at Cookies Resort and food at Salad Hut. Cookies Resort is a nice place, with great owners, but unfortunately the nearby construction of a big resort is causing some daytime noise hinderance. Not what you want on your relaxing holiday! Currently Cookies is not easily accessible, even on a scooter it can be quite tricky but this might change once the road works and nearby resort are finalised. Give it another 6 months and make sure to check the TripAdvisor forums or Phangan Guide. Once these issues are resolved Cookies will be a great Place to Stay. And it currently is a great place anyway for some evening drinks or food with a panoramic view of the beach. Cocktails are really good!
Salad Hut looked really nice, but it had a more family with kids kind of feel to it when we saw it daytime. So it might be less appropriate for a romantic getaway, but this could just be a biased view based on a one-off. The food at Salad Hut really did live up to the expectations and its reputation ... it was great!
Mandalai on Chaloklum Bay is a weird one. Amidst a fishing village you have this trendy looking hotel and bar, but it just doesn't seem to make sense. Go and check it out for a "feature", but be aware that it is smaller than it looks on their web site and you don't exactly get idyllic surroundings with it.

Haad Rin:
We stayed in Haad Rin a few times in the past and I must say I really like Sarikantang. In my eyes this is the best place to stay when you want to be near the "action" but at the same time be able to escape the madness. Sarikantang itself offers really nice accommodation and has a fantastic Spa (hoovering above the beach). Last time we stayed at Sarikantang, we were not impressed by the food but this issue had now been solved. The staff is very friendly, smiley and efficient but unfortunately the expansion of Sarikantang and the need for more staff and procedures has also caused it to lose a bit of its family-ran business feel. It now feels like a well-oiled machine, but that also means it loses the human touch element a little. E.g. you need to pay a deposit (not physically but billed to your room) for your key, you need to pay a deposit for every DVD you borrow, restaurant staff is being motivated by an "employee of the month" bonus, ...
Don't get me wrong these are minor issues and I would certainly go back, because I still believe this is the best place when staying in Haad Rin. Also, Sarikantang organises a free transfer from the ferry on arrival.
Make sure to ask for the masterplan map (a jpeg floorplan of the resort, the URL has moved unfortunately so I can't link to it) before booking accommodation. Previously we stayed in Deluxe First Row bungalows (numbers 24 or 26 are the best options).

This time we opted for a more recent bungalow of the Seaview Deluxe type (nr 59) which had nice deco but the indoor bathroom still wasn't indoor enough to just leave the sliding doors open in order to cool it down with the bedroom aircon. This bungalow was ok, but we still prefered the bungalow type we stayed in previously.


North West:
Well I mentioned them already, but here you go again: Sunset Cove's restaurant, La Dolce Vita at Blue Ocean Garden, Salad Hut's restaurant and Cookies Salad's restaurant.

Haad Rin:
I'll keep this one really short: Emotion of Sushi! You don't expect fine dining or trendy eateries in Haad Rin, but this place manages to offer something different in Haad Rin. Upstairs is where you have sushi in a nice chilled Zen environment and downstairs you have a lounge bar that serves really good cocktails. It seems this place has now been consistently serving great sushi for almost 4 years and the expat lady who owns and manages it does a great job.
You find Emotions of Sushi near Haad Rin beach, on what is called Seagarden Road (one of the side streets of the main street that runs parallel with the beach).

> Koh Phangan is definitely going up-market. It now is more difficult to book the most expensive rooms at resorts, they seem to go first.
> In general, the web sites of hotels and resorts have drastically improved in just 18 months. Most hotels and resorts now have really slick looking web sites that load much faster than they used to.
> Social media are really efficient when planning holidays, because, er ... their social ;-) TripAdvisor is a great tool and when I posted a question on Twitter, I got some really interesting feedback from Ray Nimmo who actually has his own IT/Web Design company in Thong Sala and who currently is developping Phangan Google Map.
> Make sure to also check out, because the amount of information is amazing and Steve has a good reputation for taking care of his customers.
> Scooters ... hmmm, be careful! Ray had warned me about this, but on our night out from Ao Chao Phao to Haad Salad we decided to take our scooter anyhow. On the way back, just oustide of Haad Salad, we got chased by stray dogs and needed to swirve in order to avoid road works. We managed to avoid both the dogs and the road works, but when we finally got back to Sunset Cove we said "never again!". A scooter might be ok for bopping about daytime and for short distances, but at night when its pitch black just get a taxi!

For more information and Tips for Starters for Thailand, please visit my previous posts.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

From Bangkok to Koh Phangan

On our latest holiday to Thailand, my girlfriend made it her mission not to fly Bangkok Airways because the price of the flights was artificially high. In comparison to what we paid to fly Singapore Airlines from Manchester to Bangkok, it just didn't seem to make sense.
I was initially going to write an extensive post about the available options to get from Bangkok to Koh Phangan, but I actually found a really good overview on so I won't be reinventing the wheel on this occasion.
There indeed is an extensive list of options available, so I will just explain which options we were considering and what we finally chose. And, was it worth not flying with Bangkok Airways?

The options we were considering:
1) The bus-ferry combined ticket with Lomprayah or Seatran Discovery. We finally didn't go for this option because we would lose an entire day and bus rides are not my favourite means of transportation.
2) The night train from Bangkok to Surat Thani. We almost went for this option because the first class cabins are really ok and you get some decent catering on-board, please have a look at the Seat 61 web site and make sure to watch the videos. The added advantage of the night train is that you don't have to pay for accommodation that night, which means extra savings.
3) Flying to Surat Thani with AirAsia and taking a ferry to Koh Phangan.

We opted for flying with AirAsia:
The flights with AirAsia were really cheap, so we decided to fly into Surat Thani and take Raja Ferry from Donsak Pier to Thong Sala on Koh Phangan.
At the AirAsia check-in it became clear pretty quickly how AirAsia manages to offer really low fees. The luggage allowance is pretty low at 15kg/person for checked-in luggage, so we were hammered with excess luggage. Since we don't really master the art of travelling light, we needed to pay an additional 2,000 Baht. A cost we would also incur on the way back ... this reduced our initial savings, but we were still much better off financially in comparison to flying with Bangkok Airways. A tip: if you have excess luggage, have a snorkel or flippers sticking out and put a few Padi stickers on your luggage. It seems that diving gear (and golf gear) won't be charged to the same extend. I am not sure about this but someone explained this to us while we were queueing to pay for excess luggage, so it might be worth giving this a try?
On arrival at Surat Thani airport, the entire process of getting to Koh Phangan was painless. At the airport (which is quite small) the buses of Phantip Travel are waiting to take customers directly to the ferry, Raja ferry in our case. You get on the bus and pay a combined fare for the bus and ferry (450 Baht to Koh Phangan, much less to Koh Samui). The bus ride takes about 1h30 to Donsak Pier. There are several "terminals" at Donsak Pier, but the bus drops you at the correct one in function of where you are going. When traveling to Koh Samui you leave from a different pier.
At Donsak Pier there is a restaurant where you can have some food and a drink while waiting for the ferry. While we were there, a girl was selling accommodation on Koh Phangan. She was very knowledgeable about places to stay on the island and was an independent "agent" really. Her prices were the same than what you would pay by booking direct and she offered good advice, although she "forgot" to mention construction noise near a resort when people were informing about it.
Raja ferry itself, was what you would expect from a ferry really. Big, ugly and not really comfortable ... but it got us to Koh Phangan in about 2h30.

To get back from Koh Phangan to Bangkok we had booked an early flight from Surat Thani (no choice anymore), which meant we had to spend a night on Koh Samui. We decided to stay near the Nathon pier on Koh Samui.
Since we now had to get from Koh Phangan's Thong Sala pier to Koh Samui we booked a Seatran Discovery ticket to get us to Nathon. This boat would supposedly take us directly to Nathon pier, but on our arrival on Koh Samui we weren't very impressed about the fact that we now had to jump on a mini bus to actually get to Nathon, which implied more luggage dragging.
The hotel we were staying at on Koh Samui had arranged a taxi for us at Nathon pier, so it all went a bit pear-shaped timing wise. We decided our taxi driver shouldn't be the victim of this so we called him back and waited for him to come back and pick us up at the pier, where we were dropped by a bus... The taxi driver was really friendly and he confirmed some stuff for us concerning our early ferry to Surat Thani the next morning. Basically you have to go to Phantip Travel's office in Nathon and from there they handle everything for you to get to Surat Thani Airport. Transport to Nathon pier, ferry and a bus from Donsak pier to the airport. It is all stress-free really with Phantip Travel, you just have to know where their office is in Nathon and be there in time.

Conclusion, was it worth it?
Hmmm, we did end up saving quite some money which allowed us not to worry about money for the rest of the holiday. We kind of made this an incentive. "If we don't fly Bangkok Airways, we will just treat ourselves to everything we want." Spa treatments, food, drinks, ... all paid for by not flying Bangkok Airways! Well, except for our night out in Bed Supperclub/Bangkok ;-)
If you think in Pounds, the money you save by not flying Bangkok Airways could be negligible. However if you compare this amount in Pounds to its Baht "purchasing power" equivalent, you get a very different picture.
Would we do it again? Go through the hassle of extra buses, longer ferry trips and wasting time to save money? Not sure really. I think it would strongly depend on the amount of time we can spend in Thailand. If you have more time than money, then the alternative transportation means are worth it. If however you have more money than time, then it's a no-brainer > go for Bangkok Airways and save yourself the hassle!

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Bangkok June 2008

Our latest Thailand holiday in June 2008 was quite an impulsive booking. The previous months had been quite hectic so we decided to treat ourselves to a Thailand holiday when my girlfriend stumbled across some reasonably priced Singapore Airlines tickets from Manchester to Bangkok, with only a short stop-over in Singapore. £530 to fly with Singapore Airlines really was a good deal and June being low season in Thailand, we would be able to book good value for money accommodation.
However, we did experience some major trouble trying to book the tickets online with Singapore Airlines. The online booking module just didn't work and when calling customer services we were told "you can only book this tickets via the web site" ... which didn't work!
Fortunately, I remembered that a colleague at work had spoken highly of Trailfinders and someone at the sports club I am going to had also mentioned Trailfinders for booking his flights, so we decided to give them a try. If the online module from Singapore Airlines didn't work, maybe that Trailfinders would have access to the actual booking system? I spoke to a lady at Trailfinders and I explained which tickets I was after. She was very helpful and came up with some options, but not the particular flights we were after. I was slightly disappointed and I ended the call with "thanks for your help, we will have a look at the other options". A couple of minutes after having hung up, the phone rang and it was Trailfinders. The lady we had spoken to previously had actually found the tickets in a special promo section under duo-tickets (or partner-tickets) and had asked the technical supervisor what the last phone number was that had called her so she could ring us back. A few minutes later our flights were booked and we ended up paying only a fraction more (between £10 and £15) than the prices mentioned on the Singapore Airlines web site. We were really impressed with Trailfinders and decided we might use their services again in the future, because you can easily spend an entire day browsing the web to find good value flights.

So, 10th of June we departed from Manchester and having checked in online, we enjoyed the fastest long haul check-in ever. Singapore Airlines provided excellent service, video on-demand and a constant flow of drinks. This would have been an excellent flight if it wasn't for the screaming kids. No sleep and a serious jetlag later we landed in Bangkok on a Sunday morning. It only took took a short taxi ride to get to our hotel on Soi 29, off Sukhumvit Road. We had booked Legacy Suites for the rooms, the location and the swimming pool. Value for money seemed good so we decided to give this hotel a try. First impressions on arrival were really good. Nice looking lobby, friendly and efficient staff, we were allowed an early check-in and received a free upgrade to a Legacy Suite (maybe because we had another booking with them 2 weeks later?). So far, all good! When we got to the room, we were nicely surprised. It was huge! A kitchen, living room, bed room, 2 Samsung lcd TVs and really nice bathroom (with Grohe fittings). Unfortunately the trouble started when we jumped in bed for a rest... the lights just didn't switch off. The domotics system was going completely mental and there was no relation between switches and light bulbs anymore. 3 hours and a horde of technicians later the problem was finally solved and we could have a nap. It was 3pm by this point and the early check-in had been completely waisted by this point ... and so were we.

Legacy Suites Review:
We had only booked 2 initial nights in Bangkok, before setting off to Koh Phangan. On our way back we stayed at Legacy Suites for 4 nights time, so we spent 6 nights in total at Legacy Suites.

Let's start with the positives:
Very modern, fully equipped spacious rooms. Excellent value for money.
Modern, spacious lobby.
Free Wi-Fi in public spaces.
Knowledgeable, polite and friendly efficient staff.
When you need a taxi, the hotel's staff always manages to find you one in the shortest time possible and when booked via the hotel you never need to negotiate for the taxi driver to put on the meter.
Location is quite good on Soi 29, in between 2 Skytrain (BTS) stations. Just off Sukkhumvit but really peaceful to Bangkok standards (once in the room, I said "listen ... you can't hear anything").
The pool looks good and is big enough for a swim, but it could do with a clean early morning, every morning. The sun loungers are new, comfortable and the hotel provides towels.

The negatives:
The "electrics" seemed to be a problem during both our stays. On our first stay the domotics system in our room didn't work, causing the lights to stay on at all times. On our next stay there were problems with the elevators, so we had to take the service elevator to get from our room to the ground floor.
Musty smell in the bathroom (in a Legacy Suite).
Attention to detail when dusting and cleaning the rooms. DVD player shelf was heavily laden with dust during first stay (in a Legacy Suite) and the rug was badly stained during our second stay. We are not neurotic about stuff like this but it is just a shame really because the rooms look really good.
In order to go to the swimming pool you need to go through the lobby, which sometimes feels a bit weird when you are dressed in shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops amongst other guests in suits (this is probably more of an issue for women).
The little things: very modern toilets in the lobby but nothing to actually dry your hands, 2 Samsung LCD TVs and a DVD player but no DVDs you can borrow, always items missing in the mini bar (which you have to notify reception about in order to avoid being charged), fully equipped kitchen but no towel or cloth (if guests can keep the kitchen more tidy there is less work for cleaning staff), the condom pack on the list of items in the room makes it sound like a seedy hotel while it isn't at all, confusion about the Free Wi-Fi by one member of staff, who pretended we needed to pay for it (happened only once I must admit)
During our stay there was extra refurbishing work in other rooms going on, causing quite some noise ... but they scheduled it well and this was unavoidable really.
No room service nor available snacks or drinks when at the pool, which makes sense for serviced apartments. You might be able to get some Japanese food from the restaurant but no easy snack or quick sandwich.
Breakfast ... don't bother! It took 4 attempts to get fried eggs that were actually well done (without being fussy) and we suspect that it actually was a lady serving the food that went in the kitchen to actually get the job done. By the time the eggs were ok (9:45am) there was no bacon left and we had to ask for knives, coffee cups, butter and bread because after 9:30am things seem to "slow down". We stayed 6 nights and had breakfast twice. But we never considered this a problem really. In Bangkok you only have to walk a few yards to find food anyhow.
The Japanese restaurant that is part of Legacy Suites and where breakfast is served, is quite pricey really (just check the price of a Singha beer). However, this restaurant must be doing something right because they were doing very well every evening. Mainly Japanese people ate there and I guess you would be ready to pay a premium if the food is really good and you actually know what you are ordering ;-)
Overall I would say that this place seems to suffer from an identity crisis "Am I a hotel or serviced apartments?"

Would we stay at Legacy Suites again? Not sure really ... they are competing in a price bracket where by paying a little more you can get the full 4/5 star treatment (when shopping around). We would for example consider the Marriott Resort & Spa on the river for our next stay, being fully aware that the rooms would probably not compare.
It depends what you are looking for really?
If you are looking for spacious modern rooms and will be self-catering, then Legacy Suites is perfect.
If you want the luxury of a nice breakfast, room service, snacks and drinks at the pool, an international bar and restaurant, then Legacy Suites isn't for you.
Legacy Suites' management could turn these serviced apartments into something VERY good by paying more attention to detail and deciding whether they want to run a hotel or serviced apartments. If they would just forget about the breakfast (but put some essentials in the fridge for the guests on arrival), completely go for the serviced apartments approach and slightly reduce the price this would result in a really good differentiated offering.

Bangkok, Tips for Starters:
I described many Tips in my previous Thailand post, but would just like to add a few...
Unfortunately I wasn't able to find the magazine Farang, Untamed Travel anymore but luckily the magazine Bangkok 101 tells you everything you need to know when in Bangkok. You can find this magazine in most of the better book shops.
Dress well and pay less! It struck me that when you replace your traveler T-shirt with a shirt, and shorts with a pair of decent jeans, you all of a sudden find yourself paying only 10B at the fruit stalls, instead of 20B, and when buying a Frappucino you get a loyalty card "buy 5, get 1 free". So basically, look like an expat instead of a traveler and you might find you end up paying less. Another advantage is that you won't get hassled by the con-men trying to get you into a gem-shop ... a classic! When your tuk-tuk ride in Bangkok is ridiculously cheap, there is a catch!
When taking the Public Taxis at the new airport, do not accept anything else than "meter"! The public taxis at the airport are quite well regulated, but on this occasion one of them tried to rip us off ... when we asked him to put the meter on he said "oh no, 450B because big bags". He probably didn't realise this wasn't our first time in Bangkok and we actually know what the ride should cost, so we decided to get out of his car and take our bags back to the public taxi desk. The supervisor handled the situation really well and we got back into another taxi a few moments later. The same supervisor had a chat with that taxi driver ... don't know what they exactly said but the supervisor described him as "bad man" afterwards. This is quite exceptional actually and it was the first time that a taxi driver refused to put on his meter at the airport. In the city centre however this might be a bit more of a struggle and some taxi drivers will refuse to take you somewhere if the destination is a bit of a nightmare to get to or doesn't make up for their time. You can get really stuck in Bangkok traffic, so I do understand that some taxi drivers must be struggling with the increasing petrol prices. We made sure to always leave a decent tip to the taxi driver!

Going Out in Bangkok:
Please also have a look at my previous Thailand post.
If you want a night out in Bangkok, especially when you are staying near Sukkhumvit Road, you can start of with a few drinks at Cheap Charlies...

From there continue to Bed Supperclub on Soi 11 (700B to get in, but you get 2 drinks for free). Just make sure you have your passport with you, because you won't get in without it. In Bed Supperclub's main white room the music was excellent and Bed seems to draw in a nice crowd. We went on a Saturday and the DJ was playing some really groovy tunes. The sound quality in there is really good actually and they don't push the volume up too loud, which makes it more enjoyable in my eyes ... or ears in this case.

Places to Eat and Drink:
We didn't try many new places, but we ended up eating at Fuji quite often. The Fuji chain of Japanese restaurants can be found in the shopping malls, which sounds a bit naf but the food was really good actually. We were lucky enough to be close to Emporium, which is my favourite shopping mall, and Fuji became our "sushi pitstop" on many occasions.

If you want something different there are many impressive rooftop restaurants and bars in Bangkok, such as the Vertigo Grill & Moon Bar, Sky Bar at The Dome, 360 Lounge at the Hilton Millennium, ...
Dining river cruises can offer an alternative experience, but make sure to compare the different options available. The converted rice barges such as Manhora offer the coolest experience I would think. I believe this type of boat was shown on Five Travel's Rough Guide to Bangkok.

Places to Stay:
Well, obviously Legacy Suites is an add-on in comparison to previous posts.
A colleague recommended the Marriott Resort & Spa in Bangkok (on the river) and I must say this sounds like a tempting option. It has the added advantage of the Manhora Dining Cruises leaving from the pier at this hotel.
Bill2p on TripAdvisor recommended several "character" hotels in Bangkok and they all looked pretty amazing (click here for the TripAdvisor post).

I will soon post "From Bangkok to Koh Phangan" and "Koh Phangan June 2008".

In the meantime, please have a look at my Picasaweb albums for Thailand (new and old)

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Day Trip York and Harrogate Pictures

After a really nice drive out to York and Harrogate ... here are some pictures.

Thailand June 2008 Pictures

Our Thailand, June 2008 pictures are now online ... travel review will follow soon.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Barbados September 2007

A one week holiday to Barbados all of a sudden sounded feasible now that I am living in England. Flights were reasonably priced and it was possible to have a direct flight from Manchester airport, so off we went on September 3rd to the Caribbean. Even though this was during the hurricane season, we decided to chance it because Barbados seems to be very rarely directly hit by a hurricane. The island's more Eastern position, compared to the other Caribbean islands, safeguards it from most hurricanes. We enjoyed loads of sunshine and the little rain that fell didn't affect our holiday at all.

Since we had trouble deciding where to stay on the island, we finally opted to stay in 2 different places. We spent 4 nights at the Yellowbird Hotel in St Lawrence Gap and 3 nights at The Crane. The former placed us right in the middle of the "action", close to many bars and restaurants. The latter offered a 5* experience at a reasonable rate, in a more remote location.
The central location of the Yellowbird Hotel allowed us to easily travel by bus or rented car. We decided not to stay on the East Coast because from what I read this part of the island was mainly packed with luxury resorts.
We had hoped to stay at Little Arches, near Oistins, after reading many positive reviews on TripAdvisor, but the hotel was fully booked. If this would not have been the case we would probably have stayed at Little Arches for our entire stay.

The Yellowbird Hotel itself is located in a little bay, which offers really nice views from the balcony. The hotel is separated from the little stretch of sand in front of it by a small one way road.

This stretch of sand is not ideal for sunbathing or swimming but this is no issue at all, since there is quite a nice beach, called Sandy Beach, just next to this bay. You easily reach this beach when you walk to the right when leaving the hotel and facing the sea. When you walk in the other direction, a small walk gets you to Dover Beach which is an even nicer beach.

Compared to other beaches I have seen in South-East Asia these beaches are not especially nicer, but I must admit the turquoise water is impressive.
But let's get back to the hotel itself. The Yellowbird Hotel offers good value for money with spacious rooms, sea front balconies, aircon, kitchenette, free local phone calls, etc. But, the rooms could do with some refurbishing, because everything looks a bit dated and worn out. However don't let that put you off because this hotel is really reasonably priced when compared to many other hotels and the staff is very friendly, helpful and super-efficient (you will know what I mean when you see Michelle at work). When booking a room at Yellowbird just make sure to ask for a room that is not located near the noisy bars (a room that does not end with "1") and make sure you bring some earplugs anyhow. The nearby bar/club has quite a powerful sound system and it is a nuisance for people wanting to have a rest.
"The Gap" is home to many bars that are a bit "rough on the edges". The new Pravda Lounge Bar, just next to Yellowbird Hotel, however offers a refreshing alternative to the louder bars further down the road.

St Lawrence Gap is known as a hotspot for many popular restaurants such as Pisces, Josefs, David's Place, etc. but we ended up going to Little Arches' restaurant called Café Luna. The hotel and restaurant have a "romantic" intimate feel to them and the service at the restaurant was second to none. Food was really good and so were the wines but expect a "European style bill". Luckily the Dollar (and the Barbados Dollar) were quite weak compared to the Euro and British Pound so the bill came in on par with what you would expect to pay in Western Europe for a really decent meal. If the exchange rate wouldn't have been as favourable, prices would have been quite hefty and this does not only relate to the restaurants. This probably explains why on the island many of the hotel rooms come with self-catering facilities.
If you want a less posh meal and you fancy something a bit more casual, make sure to go to Oistins for the evening "Fish Fry" where dozens of food stalls sell freshly fried fish. Strangely the "Fish Fry" is being advertised all over the island as taking place on Friday evening only, which results in bus loads of tourists being dropped in flocks on that specific evening. We went on a Saturday and there was still a busy Fish Fry with more a local feel to it ... sounds like a much better plan to avoid the crowds by going another day.

After our stay in St Lawrence Gap we moved to our next hotel, The Crane. When we got there, my girlfriend was a little annoyed at me for not having stayed at The Crane for our entire stay ;-)

The rooms are very nice, the cascading pools are fantastic and the beach is great. I've seen statements saying The Crane has "One of the ten best beaches in the world" ... which is a bit of an exaggeration really but it is quite impressive with its pinkish sand, aligned palm trees and rough sea.

At the time we went, the prices were really competitive because there was construction work going on. When choosing a garden view room you get the best deals, but you just need to do some lobbying with The Crane staff (via e-mail) prior to your arrival in order to get a room that is not overlooking the construction work. The only "problem" with this hotel is its location. It is quite remote and if you don't have a rental car you might feel a little stuck. The hotel's restaurants Zen and L'Azure are quite posh and pricey and the entire resort "goes to sleep" pretty early, which is when the rental car comes in handy.

> Get yourself Dollars to exchange for Barbados Dollars (B$) on the island. Strangely it was much better for us to first change Pounds into Dollars (2$ for 1£) in the UK and then change these Dollars into Barbados Dollars on the island (2B$ for 1$). If we would have brought Pounds to the island and would have exchanged it into Barbados Dollars, we would have seriously lost out on it.
> Footprint Travel Guides does a pocket book for Barbados. I bought it and it came in really handy.
> On the Lonely Planet web site you can download the Barbados chapter from their Caribbean Islands guide.
> Do not wear camouflage clothing on the island. Even though it is mentioned nowhere in the Footprint guide nor in the Lonely Planet's Barbados chapter "it is an offense for anyone, including children, to dress in camouflage clothing".
> Get yourself the free "Barbados Shopping Island Map" and the free "Barbados in a Nutshell" guide at the reception of your hotel. The former is a really good map for when you want to visit some of the towns (a bit similar to Nancy Chandler map drawings of the towns), the latter gives you a good overview of all the restaurants and bars on the island.
> Once you have settled in your hotel room, get yourself a Mini Moke rental car. I used my Footprint guide and called some car hire companies I found in this guide. Sunny Isle Sixt Rent a Car in the nearby Worthing had a promo deal going on. We ended up paying 253 Barbados Dollars for 3 days, which is about £20/day.

> Have a drive out to Bathsheba and see how the surf crowd "hangs out".

> Eventually also have a drive out to the West Coast and Bridgetown, but I must honestly say I wasn't that impressed by neither of them.
> Make sure you go for one of the Catamaran Sailing Cruises, that is being advertised on the island. A colleague had recommended Cool Runnings and I was really happy we finally went for this cruise because it was one of the highlights of our Barbados holiday. Even though you might feel these cruises could turn out to be a little "commercial", once you set foot aboard the catamaran you can't help but smiling. The staff on board are just great, helpful and smiling. We had a really good time and my girlfriend enjoyed the snorkeling so much she would like to do much more of it.
> Try some of the local rum, it really is quality rum. Even the "standard" Mount Gay Rum is very good.

The island left me with mixed feelings about the "locals". I had some really great experiences and some less great experiences.

Let's start with the negatives:
> You remember me saying that camouflage clothing is an offense, well guess how I found out? On our first day (still jet lagged and tired) I popped out of the hotel, for an Internet Café, in a pair of knee-length shorts I bought in Thailand and they had a camouflage pattern printed on them. This led to an altercation with some local youths who were being quite verbally aggressive. In our hotel room I found a book "Ins & Outs of Barbados" that indeed explained that this was an offense. I felt really annoyed at myself for not knowing about this because I always read up about local customs and I didn't know about camouflage clothing to be an issue on this island. So I felt pretty bad about this, but the way this was communicated to me was plainly wrong.
> On another evening, driving away from the Oistins Fish Fry in our Mini Moke someone shouted "white kunts" at us. Aarrgghh, why? We always behave in a respectful, polite and open minded way ... why would someone just shout at us?
> One of the Aloë Vera sales guys you find on many beaches also got verbally aggressive when I gave some of the Aloë Vera, that we just bought from him, to a girl who was traveling with her mum. We had been speaking to them for a while and since the sales guy talked me into buying some of his stuff, I ended up with too much of it and gave some away to our fellow travelers. Now, this was not to the liking of the Aloë Vera sales guy who became verbally abusive because he hadn't managed to sell to them earlier and now we were giving away some of our Aloë Vera. By this point I must say I was starting to get fed up with the attitude of some of the rum-fueled locals.

The positives:
> The overall levels of service and politeness are really good around the island. The first taxi driver that took us from the airport to the Yellowbird Hotel immediately set the tone by being very friendly, sympathetic and polite.
> Hotel staff is always very professional, polite and helpful. Bigger hotels maybe result in a less personalised service and are maybe slightly less welcoming but overall the experience is still very good.
> Our dining experience at Café Luna was amazingly good. The staff were excellent and they were genuinely friendly and helpful.
> On board of the Cool Runnings Catamaran Cruise we again experienced amazing staff.
> My favourite experience was when I went for a drive to Bathsheba and I got a bit lost on the way back to The Crane. I ended up asking a few people who pointed me in the right direction and finally an older gentleman who was going in the same direction just jumped in the car with me. This was definitely better than GPS ;-) Once the gentleman arrived at his destination, which was on the way to The Crane, I drove on for a little while but had to ask again. I was in a little village where I asked, I presume, a local teacher for directions. The lady pulled a brand new metallic blue Jeep over and had a chat with the driver of this car. The two ladies in the car must have been in well their fifties (if not sixties), they were wearing big white posh hats and were driving in the direction I needed to go. I had some serious trouble trying to keep up with them in my Mini Moke ... it felt like a scene from "Cocoon" ;-)

Would I go back? Well, probably not actually. However if you have loads of cash to spend and you want a tropical short-stay destination that is just a direct flight away , then Barbados might indeed work out just fine.

St Lawrence Gap

Places to Stay:
Little Arches
The Crane Resort & Residences
Yellowbird Hotel

Places to Eat:
Café Luna
David's Place

Cool Runnings
Footprint Travel Guides
Lonely Planet
Mini Moke
Sunny Isle Sixt Rent a Car

Picasaweb Album

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Ghent - Places to Stay

This is my selection of hotels and B&Bs in Ghent + my favourite restaurant, shown on a Google Map.
If you would happen to stay at one of these places or have some fantastic food at The House of Eliott, please leave me some feedback.

Brussels - Places to Stay

This is my selection of hotels and B&Bs in Brussels, shown on a Google Map.
If you would happen to stay at one of these places, please leave me some feedback.