Tag Archives: accommodation

Critabianca, Cutrofiano

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During the second half of our time in Puglia, we stayed in a farmhouse (“masseria”) in the small town of Cutrofiano.  Set on seven acres and built in the 1700s, Critabianca has been beautifully restored by a delightful family from Torino and opened it’s doors in 2016.

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Throughout Puglia several masserie were built in the 1700s, often by the wealthy and arisocrats.  Over time, many were abandoned.  But with the growth of tourism in Puglia, many have been restored and turned into boutique bed and breakfast accommodation. What I loved about Critabianca was that it felt private and tranquil, yet it is cleverly located making it an easy drive to much of what we wanted to do and see. And Roberto, Roberta, Nicoletta and Alessandro will do everything possible to make sure you have a lovely stay. How gorgeous is the front door!

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The six rooms feel tranquil and luxurious with lovely antique pieces throughout mingling with modern requirements.  You can see hints of the original frescoes on the carefully scraped back walls.  Our family room (note children over 11 years only) was very spacious and comfortable, with a large outdoor terrace. And the pool was great for a refreshing dip after our days of sightseeing and exploring.

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Around the pretty grounds, you’ll find plums and figs, which Roberta turns into gorgeous jams for breakfast, and plenty of olive trees.   Breakfast is served in an outdoor courtyard on beautiful locally made ceramics. As well as making the jam, Roberta sets her own yoghurt, and Roberto is a dab hand at focaccia and cakes. The bread, cheese and eggs are from down the road, and I also had some of the best ricotta I’ve ever tasted. One morning we devoured a juicy melon, and not long after we saw Moussa, the cook, go out to the garden and grab another one.  Yes, the breakfast is about as fresh as it gets.

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Cutrofiano town itself is small, but on Wednesdays there is a good size local market with food, homewares and clothes.   You could put together a nice lunch.  The olive guy, bread and cheese guy were doing a roaring trade, and in another truck the chooks being slowly roasted smelt delicious.

Having seen a taste of beautiful ceramics in Grottaglie, I’d heard that in Cutrofiano town there was a large ceramics studio called Fratelli Coli.  And this is where much of Critabianca’s ceramics at the breakfast table are sourced.  There are huge outdoor pots and lots of beautiful homewares (I tried to take some photos inside but they said no).  We bought some fantastic oversized coffee mugs here, some small trays and the Small People also bought Pomi, the Puglian good luck charm.

We really enjoyed our stay here with this lovely family.

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Critabianca, Cutrofiano http://critabianca.com/en/
Fratelli Coli, Cutrofiano https://www.coliweb.com/en-gb/home

Puglia, part 2

Something you’ll see a lot of in Puglia is olive trees.  Everywhere.  Some really young, and some, revealed by their oversized, gnarled,  and intricately twisted trunks, really really old.  The oldest ones, clocking up some 3,000 years, are deemed archaeological monuments.  We passed a sign saying “olivari monumentali” (monumental olives) – I guessed some of those ones were there.  Anyhow, it turns out that Puglia is Italy’s biggest olive oil producer, cranking out some forty percent of the nation’s production, explaining their dominance in the landscape.

Something you’ll also see as you drive around Puglia is a multitude of towns you want to stop at or unusual buildings. “Stop the car!” I’d yell at the marito, which sometimes got a positive result, and sometimes didn’t.  Oh for more time.  So many more places to go back and see.  This little town, from a distance, looked like some kind of Disney fortress holding a princess.  Not as much close up, but I want to see what is behind those walls next time.

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Once we checked out of Don Ferrante in Monopoli, we had a few hours before we were due at our masseria, Critabianca.  I thought it was the perfect opportunity to detour to Grottaglie, a town renowned for it’s ceramics.  The Fasano family, the best known studio, have been in operation since the 1700’s.  There was plenty to like as we wandered from studio to studio, a few little things we bought home and others we bookmarked with photos – they happily ship to Australia.  By the way they all shut down at 1pm for the afternoon siesta, so do come in the morning or after 5pm and stay for dinner.   After a wander we headed to Cutrofiano where our beautiful farmhouse awaited (post on that coming soon!).

The next morning we headed to Grotta Zinzalusa.  The photos here completely understate the magnificence of this rock formation.  You can go in the cave for a wander, or hire an umbrella and chair for a day, or just lay your town on rocks and some did and jump into the sea from there.

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But we were after a sandy beach and headed further to Baia dei Turchi (Bay of the Turks).  You park your car and then walk a few hundred meters through thickish foliage down a narrow path, eventually emerging to a large stretch of sandy beach with a bit of wave.  There are chairs and umbrellas for hire, but a large public stretch if you prefer not to.  Beautifully clean and very enjoyable.

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That night we headed to the nearby small town of Galatina.  Like almost every Italian town, there is a piazza of sorts.  This one has some pretty greenery and lots of benches, where armies of Nonnos were gathered for a post siesta chat.  I came here to try the pasticciotti at Pasticceria Ascalone, the supposed inventor of the treasured Puglian sweet, back in the 1700’s.  And the pasticceria has been owned by the same family all this time, handed down generation after generation.  And it was a damn fine pasticciotto, but my favourite was still the one at the Gran Forno Santa Caterina.

We asked the lady behind the counter where we could head for a pizza, and she sent us to a place nearby called Goji.  I was a little dubious with a name like that, but it was great food with an even better ebullient owner who made us feel so welcome.  The Small People demolished everything.   There were also some expert dough throwing skills on display.

One night we went for a wander in the town of Nardo’, where we ate at a pleasant trattoria who’s name escapes me (and there was a great gelato shop and pasticceria nearby too).  Here I had to have orecchiette with cime di rapa (chicory), a signature dish of the region.  But this one came with some beautiful silky burrata which balanced out the bitterness.

We stopped by Santa Maria di Leuca, the very bottom tip of Puglia.  It’s a pretty little town too with some luxe day beds to spend the day if you like.

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But we were headed to Pescoluse, a lovely stretch of coastline.  It’s a large sandy beach where you can walk and walk quite far out, the water remaining shallow.  We relaxed here quite happily.

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That evening we headed to Otranto, another seaside town.  There is a huge castle and some lovely churches, but the laneways were very crowded and it was the one place I found rather touristy with an overload of gift and food shops and spruikers out the front.  I’m sure there are some good places to eat here but I think you need to do your homework beforehand.

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So we hopped back in the car and headed to the town of Maglie where we stopped at Il Fusticino.  The Small People happily devoured pizza daily, whereas my standard order was whatever fresh seafood pasta was available, not yet over the fact that I could get a pasta with a generous amount of seafood for 10-12 euro.   After dinner we popped in at the pasticceria next door (completing my daily pasticciotto fix) and handed over an embarrassingly small sum of money for four sweets.

I did really like Gallipoli (yes Italy has one too) a charming fishing village.   There was a seafood market here where the fish was so fresh that most of it was still alive.   Plenty of lanes and buildings to wander here, restaurants and cafes and market stalls. We stopped at a hole in the wall which was part deli and part bakery, where several locals were packed in buying stuff to take home for lunch.  We figured it had to be good and squeezed in to get some panzerotti.  So good.

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Lecce, often called “the Florence of the south” was also on our visit list.  Though our time here was shorter than we wanted with the GPS sending us around in dreadful circles.  Near the large piazza you’ll find some Roman style ruins, a castle or two (castles are du jour in Puglia, no town is complete without one), a lovely park, a good bit of shopping, and sweet shop after sweet shop!  The tools made from chocolate were very cool indeed.

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For dinner we went to Trattorie Le Zie.  This was one of those places where the simple appearance of the food totally belies it’s taste.   Absolutely delicious.    I finally ordered a “tiella” which is another local dish of baked mussels, rice and potatoes (I had tried to make thiss before our trip and failed miserably) which was just so flavoursome, I did email them and ask for the recipe but didn’t have any luck.  I must try and make this dish again.

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It was unfortunately at the end of our stay when we discovered the beautiful Melendugno coast.  The stretch here from Sant Andrea to San Foca is gorgeous, which beach after beach and stunning rock formations.   The area around Grotta della Poesia (Poetry Grotto) is particularly beautiful.

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Here you’ll see lots of mad Italians jumping off a cliff several stories high into the grottos (there is a smaller one for the less adventurous!).

More Puglia to come!

Puglia, part 1

Age. History. It surrounds you in the heel of Italy’s “boot”. The stone – on the floors, walls, ceilings, and paths – the castles, the churches. Modern and shiny would look very out of place here.

I’ve wanted to come to Puglia for some time now – the food, the architecture, the food, the beaches, oh and did I mention the food? It delivered on all fronts, and then some. We already know we’re coming back.

And people were so very kind. We have a few Pay It Forwards outstanding. One night when we got a flat tyre, a man and his son, and then a friend, came and helped us and walked away with a wave before we barely had time to thank them. At a beach, when I realised I’d run out of cash and there were no ATM’s nearby, the gentleman at the umbrella counter gave us an umbrella and said not to worry about it. On a pitstop to get the Small People some lunch at a bar in a pretty town, the credit card machine wasn’t working, and the guy behind the bar said no problem, feed the boys, come back and pay me later.

Tourism is a relatively new thing here, really only emerging in the last ten years. And then, most of the tourists seemed to be Italians from other regions – we heard comparatively few foreign voices. I suspect the next then years will be very different, as the word is spreading about this southern jewel.

Tips on visiting Puglia

If you’re thinking about this lovely part of Italy, here are a few tips

– Puglia has two international airports, Bari and Brindisi, which have direct daily flights from several European cities, mostly serviced by discount airlines. British Airways does fly to Bari and Brindisi from Gatwick, but only on certain days. Depending on where you base yourself (see below), it may be more convenient to use one airport or the other to minimise long driving times. We flew into Bari and out of Brindisi.

– If you plan to explore, you will need to hire a car. There are some trains and buses but it will take you a long time to get to sites. The roads are quite good, but some of the speed limits and road signs are shall we say for “guidance” purposes only. Also in many of the towns you cannot park right in the historic centre, so will need to park a few streets away. Where parking is ticketed, it is pretty cheap, €1 an hour or in some cases 60 cents an hour

– Have some mobile data and google maps at the ready. The in car GPS is broadly fine but does not cope well with some of the more rural roads, especially the Strade Provinciale (“provincial roads”) in the bottom half. It would sometimes tell us to turn left into a non existent road or send us down a complete dead end.

– It can be tricky to know where to base yourself if you don’t want to do too much driving. If you opt for instance for pretty Polignano a Mare or Monopoli, then it’s an easy drive to places like Alberobello or Bari, but a hike to places like Lecce and Gallipoli. Likewise if you opt for the coastline down the bottom half, then pack a picnic lunch for Alberobello and surrounds. We solved this by splitting our stay between the “top half” and “bottom half” which worked really well.

– Credit cards are fine, in fact Amex was much more widely excepted than in Australia (and never did I encounter a credit card surcharge like here). You will need some cash for your €1.50 scoop of gelato, or your €1 espresso or for parking meters – I could never get my credit cards to work on parking meters – and for market stalls.

– The afternoon siesta tradition is still in full swing down here so a lot shuts between 1pm and 5pm. Most restaurants don’t open for dinner until 7.30/8.00pm.

– Beaches are either a “spiaggia publica” (public beach) or a Lido (organised beach). At a Lido you pay anywhere up to €30 per day for an umbrella and a chair whether you stay one hour or ten, though down at Pescoluse it was €5 an umbrella and €3 a chair for the whole day. The beaches here aren’t pebbles like much of Italy, they are either sandy or large rock formations.

– There are very few large hotels in Puglia. Accommodation is largely smaller boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, or “masserie”, old restored farmhouses, typically with six rooms or less (have a look at the lovely one we stayed at here). So if you’re like us an need a family room or two rooms, and you have your eye on a particular place or area in peak season, do book ahead. Some places were booked out six months ahead.

Places to see

Monopoli
This was our base for the first half. What a charming seaside town with a very pretty historic centre, fishing boats, cafes and restaurants, bed and breakfasts and small hotels. It’s a very “house proud” town and the centre is beautifully maintained with lovely potted plants and flowers. In the mornings sometimes there would be a smattering of cigarette buts from those strolling the evening before, and out would come the nonnas with their brooms.

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There is also a small public beach with lovely sparkling water. There was a sandy area but plenty would just sit or lie on the rocks.

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We had some lovely dinners here too after venturing out exploring all day. The best pizza in town was at La Dolce Vita in the piazza with a light crust and excellent cheese. Here I also had an absolutely fantastic pasta dish of squid ink orecchiette with fresh tuna, baby peppers and breadcrumbs, one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever eaten; once the others on the table tried it, I almost had to fight them for it. Gorgeous fresh seafood too.

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We also really enjoyed Il Guazetto, a small restaurant in one of the smaller streets. My homemade spaghetti with seafood was full of fresh scampi, crab, and prawns and just so tasty. The fritto misto wasn’t far behind.

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At Piazza Palmieri a highlight was the mixed seafood plate. We couldn’t believe what came out for €13. It was huge, and beautifully cooked.

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The pasta dishes were good, but not as good as what we’d had elsewhere.

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At every restaurant when we sat down we would get a basket of taralli, a Puglian munch. Feathery light and crunchy, these were very moreish.

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I loved the bakery in the piazza, Gran Forno Santa Caterina. Lovely biscuits, taralli, focaccia and more.

Now I know Pasticceria Ascalone in Galatina is famous for its pasticciotti, and I tried theirs along with several others, but this bakery’s pasticciotti were my favourite. Their pasta frolla (pastry) had a texture and taste that won me over.

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They also sold deli goods and beer (we couldn’t believe how cheap the beer was, and then we went to the supermarket and saw that you could get a three pack for 1.50. Love those little fresh cubes of yeast, wish we had them here!

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There’s also other entertainment, like the occasional triathlon.

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In one alleyway there was an elderly gentleman’s workshop. Where he was making boats.  I’m not sure where the boats ended up as it wasn’t a shop.  He’d sit at his workbench working by hand, then shuffle over to some hand operated machinery, then shuffle back to his bench.  I wanted to chat to him but he didn’t look keen on interruption!

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Monopoli Accommodation
We stayed at Don Ferrante, a lovely small boutique hotel in the historic centre. They had a great sized family room (though they only take children over age 11) and beautiful stone interiors. There was a dipping pool which was good for a refresh before dinner. There is a rooftop balcony, but they only serve dinner there, breakfast is served in the basement.

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Polignano a Mare
Polignano is a ten or fifteen minute drive from Monopoli and lovely for a wander, or to stay. Like Monopoli, there are no big hotels but small boutique ones and B&Bs. It has a stunning ragged coastline, and like Monopoli a pretty historic town centre. There is a gorgeous cove with a public beach.

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Grotte di Castellana
After a dip in the Polignano beach, we hop back in the car and see the sign for the Grotte di Castellana. We weren’t sure what kind of caves were there but thought we would check it out. There aren’t a lot of people around and the lady at the ticket counter tells us there’s a group leaving in about two minutes for an Italian speaking tour (there are two or three English tours a day). You can’t wander in on your own but only with a guide; there is a shorter one hour walk or the standard 1 hour 45 walk, which is about 3.4 kilometres.

Well, were we blown away. These caves are rather amazing, though hard to get good photos without a top of the line camera I think with the lighting, so my photos don’t reflect just how amazing it was. These formations are believed to be as much as 90 million years old, though the caves were not discovered until 1938. The guide tells us that the stalactites grow one centimetre every 80 years! The extraordinary opening is eerily called “The Graves” but is often referred to as a “natural pantheon”, reflecting the famous Roman building. Don’t miss this if you are in the area.

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Bari
For some reason Bari gets a bad wrap, and you’ll often get told to skip it if you’re heading to Puglia. It may be because of the history of high crime, and I don’t know if it is different at night, but it was perfectly fine during the day and a really lovely waterside city. It of course has a castle, which seems to be a pre-requisite for every town in Puglia, but there’s a good shopping area too with lots of Italian and international brands, and plenty of restaurants and cafes.

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The Small People feel like their go-to Puglia snack, panzerotti, and we see some nice looking ones in a hole in the wall where an old man is standing behind the counter. One of the boys says he feels like arancini and the old guy yells out “Maria, do we have any arancini?”. “We do”, yells back his wife, “give me five and I’ll cook some”. For ten euro we have panzerotti, focaccia and arancini; nourished we continue exploring.

Of course we had to stop by “Nonna Alley” in Arco Alto in the historic area where the Nonnas are making orecchiette and cavatelli at unbelievable speed. Often they are working out in the alley, but it’s quite hot so many of them opt for in doors, and they are quite happy to chat when I stick my head through the door and ask if we can watch for a bit. They sell a lot of what they make to local restaurants, though some of the Nonnas will cook you lunch for whatever you negotiate! While I’m chatting to two of them a man walks in who usually brings them cime di rapa (chicory). They take a look at it and shoo him away, telling him it’s not good enough today. Its very cool to watch and I hope their daughters and granddaughters learn the art (I did try and tell them they should also teach their grandsons but this suggestion got an eye roll).  These women are national treasures!

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More Puglia to come in the next post!

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London

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Did I ever mention that I’m a bit of a rewards points junkie? I accumulate points every chance I can, hoarding them specifically for long haul travel every few years. And here we are, leaving the single digit Sydney winter morning temperatures behind, stepping into an unusual stretch of glorious twenty eight degree blue sky days in central London. “A heat wave” the UK press was calling it.

I hadn’t been to London for some years, and previous trips had been work related. I’d forgotten what the crowds are like. People think Sydney is getting crowded, we have nothing on these throngs. A friend I caught up with who had moved here from Sydney nine months earlier said that the crowds and congestion was one of the most difficult things to get used to.

With such lovely days we mostly walked rather than doing the underground, clocking up some 65km in four days. We saw, we shopped, we ate. But if you’re like The Marito and I, and need to start your day with a coffee, be prepared for some sticker shock. Coffee pricing was a bit of an anomaly. Our morning flat white was typically £4.50 (almost $9 Australian). Whereas you could get a pastry at Selfridges for £2, a takeaway sandwich at Marks and Spencer for as little at £1.30, a tasty ham and cheese baguette for £3.30 or two eggs on toast at a café for £6.50.

Sights and things to do

Tate Modern
One of the wonderful things about London is all the free museums, with a voluntary donation. Only special exhibitions require a paid ticket. I was really looking forward to the Tate Modern (there is also the Tate Britain) and with just cause. Walking around and seeing Dali, Warhol, Picasso, Magritte, Kandinsky and the like was a real privilege. We all loved it.

As is often the case with modern art, it can be controversial and prone to a few WTF moments. The Marito saw a white triangle hanging on the wall and thought it looked like something our builder had cut out at the reno site. And the smear of plaster looked courtesy of our gyprocker. A display on the floor of what looked like a series of poo perhaps was – when I read the description it said it was a reflection of “organic matter”.

It’s a fabulous art museum, don’t miss it.

The British Museum
This was hands down one of the most impressive history museums I have ever been to. Again, free entry. I had organised a “treasure hunt” through THAT Muse (Treasure Hunt At The Museum). The lovely Daisy met us at the entry and gave us a great museum overview and introduction, and then gave us the treasure hunt we had selected and the rules. It was really good fun finding the pieces on our hunt – we paired up in twos, and if there is another family on the hunt at the same time you can compete with them. It was an entertaining way to see the museum. They also do hunts at the V&A and the Louvre.

Hamleys
It’s sad that the iconic FAO Schwartz in New York closed down. Hamleys is the London version and great entertainment – multiple floors of fun, live product demos and cool displays. They have a lot of their own unique branded products as well as major brands. One of the Small People walked away with a giant BB8, who we hauled with us on the rest of our trip. He’s now safely esconced in Australia.

Kensington Gardens
We had a wander through the expansive Kensington Gardens, amused that many Brits not coping with the “heat wave” were lying in the park on towels with half their gear off. You pass all the cottages where the various royals and staff live before getting to Kensington Palace, where you can buy tickets to see a few rooms. On the day we were there it was Princess Diana’s birthday, and people had started putting flowers and tributes.

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Changing of the guard

It is one to tick off in London but it does move rather slowly and if you haven’t read up on how it works you have no idea what’s going on. We went up to the Victoria Monument to see it, which gave us freedom to move around and see the various troupes coming from various directions. I would have loved to have done a Buckingham Palace tour but it is only open for certain weeks of the year.

And here’s London’s nicest (camera shy) policeman – so incredibly polite, and also patient with the hoards of people that were asking him for directions.

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Borough Market
What a wonderful market! There’s a great variety of bread, pastries, fruit, meals to go, and lots of taste testing on offer. You could definitely come for breakfast our lunch. Some days of the week are only a “half market” so do try and catch the full market if you can.

I was really keen to go to Westminster Abbey, but the line was enormous.  If there is a “skip the line” ticket option, go that route.  We also wandered over to Big Ben but that was scaffolded for work, and Trafalgar Square was largely closed off too.  We had also planned a wander to Covent Garden but ran out of time.

The food halls
All the big department stores have food halls, usually in the basement or ground floor, where you can buy groceries but also sandwiches, salads, rotisserie items and ready meals. At the more “everyday” end is Marks and Spencer which we popped into quite a bit at lunch. The Small People, going through a teenage growth spurt, currently have hollow legs. They have almost reverted to newborn status, needing feeding every 2-3 hours, and we would regularly stop in for food on our walkabouts.

The next level up is Selfridges, who’s bakery and chocolate halls are impressive.

But the Harrods food hall is another level entirely, with luxe and incredible displays. At the caviar bar, where not a single seat was free, a quick menu scan showed prices starting at £44 and going up to £790.

Shopping
Oxford Street is a huge shopping strip, a good few kilometres on both sides to occupy you, same with Regent Street. You can also veer off into bits like Molton Lane which has some nice stores. There are all the big name brands you’d expect as well as some great British brands I’m partial to. Shops are generally open from 10am and close at 9pm, except for Sundays where it is more like 12pm to 6pm.

Breakfasts

Duck and Waffle
If you can’t be bothered queuing up for the London Eye, Duck and Waffle on level 40 of the Heron Tower in Bishopgate gives some sweeping views of London. Open 24/7 there is a pretty cool bar and a sit down restaurant, which we tried for breakfast. I had their signature duck & waffle dish and the confit of duck was delicious and indulgent. The Small People’s eggs were very good too, and they said that their first taste of “British sausage” hit the mark. It is a pricey breakfast with the view but also something different. Service was good.

45 Jermyn St
Next to Fortnum and Mason, I loved the interiors of this stylish bar and bistro and think it would be a fun dinner venue. The breakfast, while tasty, was very small and a bit frugal. My wild mushroom omelette was delicious, but came with no toast, and the small people got one small slice of bread each with their scrambled and fried eggs.

Dalloway Terrace
A stone’s throw from the British Museum, where we were headed that morning, Dalloway Terrace which I had heard good things about seemed like the ideal venue. We had a mixed bag experience. Service was all over the place and rather hopeless, but it was probably the best coffee we had. My shakshuka was incredibly delicious and I want to try and replicate it, but the Big Breakfast that the Small People ordered was dry and extremely unappealing, and not really that big for £16.

Daisy Green
Daisy Green is run by Aussies, as the Bondi Breakfast on the menu gives away. Daisy has a few siblings in other parts of London including Scarlett, Timmy and Darcey . It was a tasty and generous breakfast with some good creativity, we all really enjoyed it and certainly would have come back if it wasn’t our last day. We also had our first coffee under £4. Friendly staff.

Dinners

Unintentionally, we seemed to end up in the Soho area every night for dinner. I looked up various places before our trip and saw where I wanted to go, and they all just happened to be in the same area. Like New York’s Soho, there are plenty of choices clustered together.

Pastaio, Soho
I knew we’d be having plenty of pasta in Italy but I’d heard great things about Pastaio. And Steve Parle’s silky handmade strands certainly delivered, with a lovely simplicity that any nonna would approve of. There are also some great prosecco slushies, and my lemon one was very refreshing. It’s in a really fun laneway area, joining Kingly Lane where people were spilled onto sidewalks with a beer and lots of other venues to choose from. There are no bookings here.

Rosa’s Thai, Soho
A relatively cheap and cheerful Thai chain, there are a handful of Rosa’s across parts of London. The marinated pork skewers and the stir fried egglant dish were particularly delicious.

Yuautcha, Soho
This modern Chinese diner with a splash of blue rather than traditional red ticked a lot of boxes. Truly excellent service and really tasty food. We loved every dish.

They also have a very pretty pastry counter which you can eat in or takeaway.

NOPI, Soho
I had to try and Ottolenghi restaurant while I was in London, and booked NOPI sometime in advance since it was a weekend. Loved the fit out of this place with all the brass, and checkout the “hall of mirrors” style bathrooms. The food was delicious, I would love to get my hands on that eggplant recipe which The Marito and I particularly liked. And the twice cooked roast chicken. The only dish we didn’t enjoy was the chickpeas, as the spice overpowered and drowned the ingredients.

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Baked chocolate ganache, plum soil Malt barley ice cream, date fudge and chocolate soil

Accommodation
I had a whole bunch of Hyatt points (refer paragraph 1) from years of staying at Hyatt hotels for work and cashed them in for a few nights at Hyatt Regency The Churchill (otherwise this place is pretty pricey). Fantastic location, a stone’s throw from Selfridges and the Oxford St shopping strip, and the Marble Arch tube station around the corner. Decent sized rooms for central London but tiny bathrooms, if one of us was in there it was already crowded.

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Thanks for having us London! A few shots from around town.  Next up, Puglia.

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Honolulu, Hawai’i

Honolulu remains a hugely popular travel destination for Australians – in fact I heard so many Aussie accents everywhere I thought we’d taken over the place.  An easy plane ride (well compared to Europe or New York), clean beaches, plenty of shopping and warm weather all year round, what’s not to love?

If you don’t feel like sightseeing, it is a great place to just relax by the pool or beach, cocktail in hand, for a week or two.  Despite the crowds, the beaches are sparklingly clean – you won’t find any washed up Woolies plastic bags or coffee cups, it rather puts us to shame.

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If you do want to get off your beach chair, there is plenty to do. It’s worth hiring a car, driving through the pineapple fields, and checking out the serious surf on the other side of the island.  For those with small people, the Honolulu Zoo and the Sea Life Park are popular; luau’s, though a little commercial, are entertaining.

Having been here before, we didn’t do much sightseeing this time around.  But with the boys a bit older now we thought a trip to Pearl Harbour would be worthwhile where you can wander through the museums and watch a couple of films.  The calculated attack was quite extraordinary in its planning and execution considering the lack of technology and resources at that time. You can then take the short boat ride to the USS Arizona Memorial; its all sad and quite touching and nicely done.  I’m not sure why but there were flowers from the Australian Embassy that day.

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We also did the hike to the Diamond Head Monument.  If you’re someone that exercises, you won’t find this too difficult –  I even saw people doing it carrying babies and toddlers on their front or back.  But me, not being one of those people, nearly keeled over.  But there are great views at the top. If you’re there on a Saturday morning, across the road you’ll find the KCC Farmers Markets, where you can grab a shaved ice to cool down.

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It is pretty easy to get around using TheBus (flat $2.50 for adults and $1.25 for kids over 5, whether you travel for five minutes or fifty) or the Waikiki Trolley (flat $2 for everyone); otherwise Uber it.

And where to eat? You won’t struggle for choices, particularly on the main strip.  The Cheesecake Factory is a bit of a Waikiki institution.  The lines are long, the place is loud, the serves are huge – you get the general gist of the adjectives. When we saw that for our group of eight people we had a few cocktails, beers, a mixture of high priced (rib eye steak and salmon) and low priced (fish burger) dishes, that including the tip it was US35 per person, its understandable that there are queues every night. The food is pretty decent and with over 200 items on the menu you are bound to find something.  A particular highlight was  my ahi poke stack – loved it.

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With lots of the flights from Australia landing early morning, you’ll be in search of breakfast.  In my pilates class of all places I heard that Bill Granger had opened up a Bills, so we headed there.  The menu has been Hawaiianised a little, but a lot of Sydney favourites are there, and we enjoy our breakfast sitting on the small terrace.  The fit out looks to me like Miami art deco style and its an airy space.

We also try it for dinner one night.  Our server brings out all the entrees and mains at once, which is a bit odd, but the food is tasty and well priced.

My sticky pork is absolutely delicious, and the schnitzel also gets the thumbs up.

The kids want to try an American Diner for dessert, so afterwards we head down the road to Denny’s, the regular haunt of Jack Reacher.  Looking at the menu, if you’re on a budget and need a big feed and aren’t worried about cholesterol (plus cover your eyes so you don’t see the notes showing the staggering number of calories in the meals), then you’ll like this long standing American chain. The desserts were $4 each or so and just huge.

But the best treats in town are the malasadas from Leonard’s Bakery.  Leonard’s has been making these Portuguese treats since the 1950’s.  You can buy them plain or with a filling – I bought vanilla, chocolate and coconut – go vanilla all the way.  Absolutely gorgeous and all of $1.50.  I did try a few other malasadas during our trip and none were as good as these.

Another treat I loved was this honeydew melon ice block we got at the pool – can we get these in Australia?

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A place that has stood the test of time is Arancino di Mare.  We came here eight years ago and liked it, and found it still to be the same homestyle, casual Italian we remembered.

For a bit of family fun head to Tanaka of Tokyo.  The teppanyaki chefs have some good moves, and in our case some dry wit as well.  Unfortunately the vegetables and fried rice were ordinary, but all the seafood and meats were very tasty and well cooked. There is no food throwing done here like the teppanyaki we find in Australia – it is not considered safe.  We thought it was pretty funny that a country that allows you to freely carry arms thinks its too dangerous to throw an egg.

I was also pleasantly surprised by Il Lupino, which turns out some pretty flavoursome Italian. My wild boar ragu was rich and fragrant.

One night we hop on TheBus to Pier 38 to try Nico’s seafood restaurant. It almost feels like sitting at the Sydney fish markets.  By day you order at the counter and take a number, but at night its table service.  Lots of fresh seafood at good prices.  I saw a ahi poke sampler on the menu and ordered it, for a “sampler” it was huge and I would have been shelling out a fortune for that much tuna in Sydney.

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The clams and tuna steak are nicely done but the battered fish is a winner with a very thin and crispy batter and beautifully cooked fish.

One night we Uber it to Waialae Avenue, ten or so minutes from the main strip. A lot of dining choices here, among them we spot a craft beer place, Vietnamese, a French Bistro, a Chinese restaurant that is heaving with Chinese patrons, and a place called Mud Hen Water which has a great looking menu and is also very busy.  But we’re here to try Town, whose philosophy is “local first, organic wherever possible, with Aloha always”. (Aside and a bit of trivia for you that we learned from Cousin Jay our Pearl Harbour tour guide – Aloha doesn’t just mean hello, it can also mean love.  Trivia two – did you know the Hawaiian alphabet only has 12 letters?).

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The house bread is fantastic.  And we both adore the ahi tartare on top of  a small risotto cake – one of the most delicious things we had on the trip.

It is all tasty, fresh and nicely presented by enthusiastic and friendly staff.  One of the boys has pappardelle and they are silky smooth.

After dinner we walk up the road to Via Gelato. The gelato is handmade and the flavours change pretty much daily. Depending on the day, you might find flavours like ginger lemonade, apple pie or lavender.

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Accommodation

For the first few days we stayed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, or the Pink Palace as its commonly known.  The beachfront location is great and the foyer is pure Grand Old Hawaii, but the rooms are a little dated and the bathrooms very small.  Views are cracking – we arrived on the 4th of July and it was very busy with a huge regatta about to start.

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If you are staying in the Mailani Tower section, it has a small pool, but otherwise its a shared pool with the Sheraton next door and it gets very crowded and hard to find a seat.  But the kids loved the pool slide which they went on a thousand or so times.  I wanted to rent a beachfront chair ($40 per day, even if you only turn up for an hour), but found out that people rent them like, 25 years in advance (would be nice if the hotel tells people this when they make a reservation) so get in early.

Then off we went to The Big Island and when we came back we stayed at the Halekulani.  Good location, lovely rooms (though a tiny shower and bath), huge balconies, and probably the best swimming pool on the strip. Great breakfast buffet too.  The place is branded to death, in case you forget where you are (I was surprised they didn’t have Halekulani stamped on the toilet paper, it was on everything else) and every night there was a different treat at turndown – one night there was a little book light, which was cool.  But having come the incredible warmth of the staff at the Four Seasons in Kona, I found this place a little snobby.  The gestures were all there, but not the same soul as our Kona stay.

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The Cheesecake Factory Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Big Island, Hawai’i

Arriving at Kona Airport, we realise how different this island is to Oahu.  There’s miles of arid landscape, next to miles of green rainforest, both interrupted by somewhat violent yet occasionally beautiful hardened rivers of lava.  Mother Nature has been busy here.  It is very literally The Big Island, and you’ll need a car to explore.  Though a guide tells us that it was once upon a time the small island, growing over time from the eruption of volcanoes.

There is a lot to do here, and in our six days we only manage some of what we’d planned, underestimating time and distances, and wanting too to spend time relaxing at our gorgeous resort and enjoying the spectacular sunsets on the “Kona side”.  Funny that the west side is one of the driest spots in the USA, while the island’s largest town of Hilo (pronounced Hee-lo) on the east, some two and a half hour drive away, is one of the wettest.

The boys want to know if Panulu’u Black Sand Beach really is black, and one morning we set off on the two hour drive.  Its a lovely scenic route of coast, mountain, coffee and macadamia plantations.  In some areas they are trying to promote re-growth of plants, but its a hard ask through the lava.

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There are also a few small strips of shops with interesting antique and vintage stores, as well as this…..

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And yes, Black Sand Beach is indeed black.  Shoes are recommended, as understandably the sand is scorching.  So turtles love it, and there are a few wandering around.  One has laid an egg, and someone has built a little protective barrier around it.

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On the way back we stop in at a bakery for a treat. They do a roaring trade in Lilikoi (passionfruit) Malasadas, their best seller.   But I don’t think they are quite as good as the ones at Leonard’s in Oahu.

We next head to Papakolea Green Sand Beach, the southernmost point of the USA.  You’ll need a four wheel drive and some serious experience in off road rough driving to get here.  Otherwise there’s a group of drivers with suitable trucks and experience in navigating the bumpy terrain.  If you’re game, you can walk the rocky three miles from the car park – it is about an hour walk and a tough one in scorching heat.  Calling it green sand is a bit of a stretch, but the setting is pretty spectacular.  Nearby there is a cove where the sand is in fact green, but without such a dramatic backdrop.

On another morning we check out Hapuna Beach which is popular with the locals.  Easy to access and sparklingly clean, it is lovely for a swim.

In Kailua-Kona you’ll find Hulihee Palace, once the modest Summer palace of the Royal Family.  There is no longer a monarchy in Hawai’i, as the members of the family died out.  One of the larger towns in the island, it is still a fairly low key place.  There is a pier which could easily be turned into another Santa Monica type place, but I suspect it is a very conscious decision for the island not to go down that path.

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After walking around, we make a pit stop at Kope Lani Ice Cream which has some interesting flavours.  You’ll find Kona Coffee to be a popular flavour on the ice cream front in Hawaii.  Like Champagne or Parmeggiano, the rules around what can be called Kona Coffee are very strict.  The beans must come from a very specific area, and they are all hand picked.  The coffee plantations are all small family owned businesses; we met a few of the families during our stay, and it really is a labour of love. I would have loved to buy some of the coffee beans to bring home and support them, but at over US$80 per kilo of coffee, it was a bit of a stretch.

Driving up a mountain one day we stop at Holukaloa Garden Café.  Its almost classifies as in-the-middle-of-nowhere, but we are clearly onto something as very shortly the place is full.  They are all about slow food made from scratch. The glorious tomatoes are from the owners farm and under my fish is a bed of unfamiliar but really delicious greens. The Marito’s generous vegetarian lasagne is topped with a tasty macadamia pesto.

The most awesome thing we do is a helicopter tour of the island.  We debate this one a bit as it is quite an extravagance. But I come across a local magazine with an offer for a good size discount, and the deal is sealed.  The friendly ground staff give us a safety briefing (“please turn your devices to helicopter mode” they deadpan) and our pilot Koji gives us a briefing of our route.  The flights generally go for 1.5-2 hours, and Koji advises we’ll be on the longer end today as there is sniper training going on at the military base that day and we’ll have to go around it – I wasn’t  entirely sure if he was joking or not!

It is a pretty amazing way to look at the island.  Kealakekuka Bay is stunning, and apparently the site of Captain Cook’s death – there is a monument there in his honour.

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Along the way the landscape alternates between thriving green and volcanic black emptiness.

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We pass a 10 mile crack in the ground – the result of a 1975 earthquake.

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We then head towards one of the volcanoes.  This one is currently active, but not dangerously so.  Even though we are a long way up, when the pilot opens a small window and tells me to stick my hand out, it is scorchingly hot.

Continuing around the island, we head up to Waipi’o Valley – just stunning. There are some seriously long waterfalls.

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And then we circle back to Kona Airport.  What a ride!

Accommodation

We stayed at the Four Seasons Hualalai – wow. It was fabulous.   And it wasn’t just the stunning surrounds (I have never seen such amazing frangipane trees)…

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…or the turtles wandering on the shore

…but the warmth and sincerity of the staff, and the fact that they think of everything (“ma’am, would you like me to clean your sunglasses for you?”). At the pool station where you can grab towels, there is not only sunscreen, but goggles, toddler swimming nappies, leave-in hair conditioner, and goodness knows what else.  There are very cute toddler sized sunbeds at the small pool (there are several pools, so it is never crowded). At turndown a locally made ceramic jug and cup are placed on each bedside table with cool water. On the balcony, there is a small hanging rack for your swimmers (why don’t all beach resorts do this?).  And throughout the rambling resort, there are several fully equipped laundry rooms for guests so that you don’t have to return home with a suitcase of dirty washing. The rooms and bathrooms are a little dated, but very spacious.

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Sitting on our balcony, I enjoy this local pineapple soda.

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Our booking comes with quite a large voucher for the restaurants which we make good use of, as they are expensive and alternatives are a ten to thirty minute drive away. Ulu Ocean Grill is Japanese/Asian and it holds its own against Sydney’s Sokyo or Tokonoma. And while the prices are similar to Sydney, the servings are much bigger.

The Ahi Poke (pronounced pok-ee, it is almost a national dish) is prepared at the table and served with taro chips. Sublime.

I adore the kochujang sauce that comes with the crispy calamari, I want to pour it over everything.

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The miso Kombacha is perfectly cooked and the side of corn has a sauce with a kick.

Beach Tree, which serves largely Italian, while expensive, is excellent.

If only it didn’t have to end! Ziplines are popular on the island, but the boys did not weigh enough (you need to be at least 70 pounds) so we’ll need to put that on the list for next time.

Four Seasons Kona, http://www.fourseasons.com/hualalai/
Paradise Helicopters, https://paradisecopters.com/

Ulu Ocean Grille Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato