Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Waterford Estate

The highlight of living in Cape Town is not the mountain, as some would lead you to believe. It is not the sea which is too cold in which to swim. It is not even the way it conveniently manages to keep poor people out of the lines of vision of rich people. It is undoubtedly its proximity to the Cape Winelands – as good a reason to live there as any. In fact, if I were to start a city I would ensure that there was a plethora of possible vineyard sites within spitting distance beforehand.

While living in Cape Town, I visited plenty of farms in and around Paarl, Franschhoek and Stellebosch, and they are all so good that it became tricky for any one of them to stand out. Until I won a prize at a press conference to spend a night at Waterford Estate (Note: I was/am under absolutely no obligation to write about it).

It is one of the few vineyards in Stellenbosch at which one can spend the night in a large, beautifully furnished room on the second floor of its main building. Breakfast and six or seven bottles of wine are provided and the view out of the bedroom is so wide guests can see sunrise and sunset from the bed.

The lounge - contemporary decoration (apologies for it being out of focus).

The eye-watering view out of the bedroom window.

What the vineyards do offer, generally, is beauty, and Waterford Estate doesn’t disappoint. Although I arrived in a crap mood because the sign for the vineyard had fallen down and I’d covered most of the roads of the Western Cape finding it, the way it was set up from the gate to where guests park was incredible. I could describe it, but rather just look at these.

Both pics are of the main building at Waterford Estate. This is what is immediately presented to all visitors here. Pretty damn decent, I'd say.

That being said, prettiness is not something which necessarily differentiates one farm from another - you’ll rarely see an ugly one. There are two stark criteria which push Waterford Estate’s notability ahead of most others.

The first is the idea of a wine safari. I am not sure of other farms do this, but Waterford boast a concept in which you taste the wine while sitting sitting by the orchard in which (at least some of) its grapes were grown. Our guide (whose name escapes me) was involved in the whole wine production process from seed-planting right through to putting the cork in the bottle, so we were given a thorough explanation on every part of the farm which we drove through (and drank near). We were regaled with tales of how crops had been affected by massive winds and fires, how grapes are selected, how the quality is maintained and so on. All the while in a stunning setting.

This is a proper wine safari - this truck having arrived at Waterford for safari purposes from Singita.

The highlight of the safari was sampling Waterford’s signature wine, The Jem. This creation of this wine was a nine-year process with a plethora of concoctions attempted before Kevin Arnold, cellar master, and his team gave it the ok. We sampled this sitting on a hill with a view that stretched nearly the whole way to Cape Town.

The wines on the safari were matched with food – we sampled olives and nuts with the white wines and droewors and biltong with the reds. It all paired up beautifully, but it post-safari that Waterford surprised us again.

Three of Waterford's top red wines: a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and it's premier product, The Jem.

I am sure most of you who have traversed wine country will have sampled the nectar alongside food. Well, Waterford Estate pairs up wines with chocolate. Usually putting two things people like together is a decent recipe for popularity. Well, how’s about two things people absolutely adore? The secret is in the high-quality chocolate provided, flavoured beautifully. A deep dark chocolate, a brown rose-water flavour and a milk chocolate accompanied with four of Waterford’s high-quality wines. I suppose the message is that wine is not just a meal accompaniment, it is a leisure pursuit too – not something wine-producing countries like South Africa need to know, but the rest of the world could be taught a thing or two.

The chocolate-pairings and the wine safari do make Waterford stand out within the region. However, and most importantly, it still provides the main top-quality aspect that one would expect anyway: superb, well-thought out wines.

It certainly gets my stamp of approval.

This is a Simon travel pointer.

Monday, 21 February 2011

One of my favourites: Wan Chai

We live in Central Hong Kong – behind us is Victoria Peak, to the west is Sheung Wan and to our east is my favourite part of Hong Kong, the district of Wan Chai.

Wan Chai is a great mix of everything Hoingkongish. It comes with the shopping centres which this city is known for, but also creates a link between this city’s western and eastern communities. While Central has a plethora of British pubs, and Kowloon (the portion of Hong Kong which sits on the Chinese mainland) has very few, Wan Chai manages to host the most mixed crowd you’ll find here – local Cantonese, local British-sounding folks, tourists, long-term residents, people who work in banks (from executives to tea servers), those creepy old men with young Filipino girlfriends and so on, and it is because of what this district offers.

Although it is peppered with 24-hour strip clubs and a plethora of drinking establishments, the real charm of Wan Chai lies in its small cheap restaurants called cha chaan teng (which loosely translates to “tea restaurant”) where great Asian food can be found for only a few Hong Kong dollars escaping one’s wallet. There is also western food available but it is mostly of the chain variety – Subway, McDonalds etc.

Cha chaan teng generally look a bit grubby and cramped, but I am yet to be disappointed by one. There’s no fucking around when it comes to eating in these spots – no one has hung fancy tapestries all over the place or has a leatherbound menu. The menu is either a laminated piece of paper or a giant poster stuck to the wall – with a whole lot of complicated combinations (always in Cantonese, sometimes in English, often in a hodge-podge of both) which can allegedly save you money.

Usually there is enough English on the menu to work out what is going to come, but often a little understanding of how cheap restaurants work here is required – and I am not expert yet. Do not expect a vegetarian meal. Even if you order a meal without meat, it has probably been cooked in some sort of animal fat. Those of you that hate fish? Some random dishes are cooked in XO sauce. In fact, there is one cha chaan tang restaurant we often pass in Central which keeps beef brisket and some kind of sea sponge thing warm in the same pot. If a dish says “offal” avoid it like the plague - it means entrails (you may know it as innards). Outside these few points, one can eat great food for not much money.

Cha chaan teng have sparked off similar kinds of restaurants – same set up, different food. And our discovery in Wan Chai this last weekend – this post’s Serious Travel Tip – was a Filipino eatery set up like a tea restaurant in Jaffe Street, right near Wan Chai station called Mang Ambo. We had no idea what Filipino food would taste like, but for $30 each we got a grilled beef kebab (sosatie, not schwarma) with some amazing (kind of like basting, but with something awesome added) sauce on it, two kinds of beef curry, chicken and beans cooked in a peanut satay sauce, and two portions of steamed rice. If I was more of a foodie, I would be able to tell you what was in this delicious concoction of morsels. All I can tell you is that the food was superb, the waiter/chef/maitre de spoke English and talked us through another set of (labyrinthly-construed) combos which bypassed the usual guesswork involved. And did I mention that the food was good?

A stroll around the district afterwards revealed the largest and cheapest sweet-shop which I have seen in Hong Kong – a splendour of candy, chocolate, little fragments of goodness all over the place just waiting to be forced through my greedy jaws. Cafes, furniture shops, knick-knacks, some dodgy clubs and allsorts lined the streets all the way back to Queens Road before we began strolling home.

And towards Central, the roads became cleaner, the shops became classier, the buildings got higher and shiner, there was English everywhere and we couldn't afford things anymore. I missed Wan Chai from when we were about thirty metres out of it...

If you visit Hong Kong, Wan Chai is easy enough to get to. From the mainland you can take underground trains (MTR) to Central or Hong Kong Station and then change to the Island Line (the blue one) to go two stops to Wan Chai. A ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui will also bring you to Central and if you don’t fancy trains, trams or buses, it is only about a fifteen minute walk eastwards to Wan Chai, down Queens Road.

PS. Also available in Wan Chai: western egg.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

An interesting... fight with the temperature and queue-jumpers

It's been a wild few weeks. After escaping the snowy USA where my heart actually started beating slower because of the mid-winter freeze-fest, I was looking forward to getting back to the lovely, tropical, humid Hong Kong to defrost. Well, Simon Gear, Derek van Dam and their bunch of pointy weathertwit cronies played a nasty trick on me. Hong Kong is freezing. The temperature has hovered around 10 degrees Celsius (about 50 degrees Fahrenheit) which may sound warmer than the fortnight we pranced around northern Pennsylvania, but America actually prepares for winter.

Turns out, this city is not equipped for anything below the temperature at which you'd serve soup. Our house is as airy as a fat man after a meal of beans, but without the required warmth thereof. The wind sweeps through here and the house in its totality provides about as much protection from it as a sieve would. As we arrived back here loaded with Christmas presents but with hardly any money, a heater was a luxury in which we could only invest come pay day. So there was a three-week freeze in this house where you couldn't sit comfortably without donning a jersey, jacket, beanie and scarf while sitting beneath a duvet. I am being dead serious.

We've had three guests this year already. Michelle was the initial visitor, and her first night here - you know the one where you are supposed to be jet-lagged and tired after a 13-hour flight? Well it was an absolute shit-show. She brought two bottles of wine as a thank you present for inviting her to stay here - we chugged them down by 10.30am. The two of us then set off to explore the city and after a stroll around one of the largest shopping centres I have ever seen (I am convinced that there are more square metres of shopping space than housing in this city) we ended up on the roof of IFC which is a building (containing yet another shopping centre) on Hong Kong island - right next to a bar serving gluhwein, with a view of the skyline on Kowloon. There we sat, beneath a heater powering through our warm drinks and Peter Stuyvesants when right next to us plonked two people we'd never met before. Within three minutes the four of us had started chatting merrily away and one of the new folks, a Hongkonger who has lived in Australia for everish ended up spending the whole evening with us (and the next night, come to think of it) - she's our first proper friend in Hong Kong. The already swirlish afternoon became a cocktail-infused chaotic evening in which I distinctly remember us having our arms around each other while belting out any song we could think of. How the neighbours haven't kungfu-d us yet is beyond my comprehension.

(L to R: Michelle, Donald Duck, Me, Mike)

As all of our visitors will undergo, we dragged Michelle to Disneyland which is probably my favourite place in this city. We also dragged our second visitor, Mike's best friend Nikki, there as well and spent a night in a Disney hotel. I don't really need to describe Disneyworld to you - it's pretty much exactly what you expect. I can't do the justice that the marketing promos do. But I do find that I have way more fun there than actual children. It was even more special when we visited with Nikki as one of the rides (a slow one thank god) broke while we were on it and we had to walk through the whole thing. It's way cooler than it sounds.

We also visited Macau (some people spell it Macao) for the first time while Nikki was here and stayed over on one of the casino hotels there called The Venetian. Turns out it is the largest casino in the world, in the city that makes the most money out of casinos. Yep, Macau overtook Las Vegas as the world's biggest gambling spot - largely due to bans on gambling in Hong Kong (where only horse-racing betting is legal) and China. And The Venetian is quite simply the biggest, brightest, over-the-top building in which I have ever found myself - it's like the size of a major European airport and makes Monte Casino seem like a dirty 5-cent coin. Even the garishly lit-up Sun Coast Casino (the second ugliest building in the world, after the SABC HQ in Jozi) can't compete with what the electricity bill for The Venetian must be. We listened to a live band, then watched the Aussie Open (which, now that I think about it, must have been a replay as we saw it at something like 2.30 in the morning and we're only 3 hours off Melbourne time) and then ate meat and noodles (the Chinese equivalent of a petrol station pie or greasy London kebab) before retiring.

The following morning we ate the best dim sum I have come across since we made the move to this part of the world. Dim sum is basically Chinese tapas (although I am sure a proper foodie could provide a better explanation than that) - lots of little morsels which are shared around the table. It does get a bit hit and miss, but you have to try to find out. Pork and cabbage dumplings - good. Stewed offal - not so much. Whoever comes to Macau with us gets dragged to this superb restaurant.

Milla, another one of Mike's buddies (but I have adopted her too) was our last guest - she was only here for two nights on her way to Bali - but we managed to squeeze in a visit to Lama island. Yadda yadda it was lovely and food was good, but one of my favourite Hong Kong experiences happened here. Now, people who live in this city have a severe inability to queue. It is a complete cluster-fuck every time any semblance or order is required (although strangely enough, not regarding queuing for buses) and as we waited to board the ferry to return back to Hong Kong island we were shunted each and every way by locals trying to get to the front of the line. Well when the gate opened and everyone tore through as if there were only three seats on the boat (there are actually about 200), officials suddenly realised they had opened the wrong gate and we all had to turn around and go the other way. So all the pushers and shovers whose manners live up their own arse got stuck at the back of the queue. Call it incredibly small and pedantic - I do not care. It is the day I got one over on Hong Kong and I very publicly and verbosely let them know as we got onto the correct ferry. However, none of them shouted back so it was far less gratifying than the commuter-rage in which I engaged back in London and Joburg, when other people let you have it in return.

Other than that, I am currently job-hunting which is going about as well as, and at the pace of, the State of the Nation address. The annual Christmas waistline increase is also yet to be conquered, but it's progressing, albeit at the pace of a blood clot.

And there's beer in the fridge. So all's well.