Sunday, December 31, 2017

US$2 for WiFi and about the kindness of strangers on a cruise ship from Bangkok to Singapore

I usually sail on small ships because I like the intimacy of the voyage on a ship with only about 200 to 300 passengers. But some years back, I boarded my very first mega-cruise ship, a ship from the fleet of the Royal Caribbean, to join the very first cruise to sail into the Singapore Cruise Terminal and officially open Singapore's international cruise terminal. It was on this cruise from Singapore to Bangok that I was the lucky recipient of kindness from a stranger.

This trip from Bangkok to Singapore was my first cruise on a mega-ship, and the difference in size between my usual smaller ships and this mega-ship I found myself on was so stark that I took to calling the mammoth Voyager of the Seas ship of the Royal Caribbean, the Republic of Royal Caribbean. It was true. 

This ship was not a cruise ship; it was a floating country. I sailed on it as one of the passengers sailing from Thailand on the very first cruise ship to use the international cruise terminal of Singapore, launching it in the process. The new cruise terminal was launched via formal ceremonies presided over by Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister, which I then attended upon disembarking in Singapore. By the way, this international cruise terminal has definitely put Singapore on the map as Asia's cruise ship hub.


Anyway, back to the Voyager of the Seas. This ship I sailed on to Singapore was so huge that it was basically a floating city, and that’s why I nicknamed it the Republic of Royal Caribbean. In fact, this Royal Caribbean ship was so big that it took me awhile to get a grasp of this floating city. I had to walk a whole lot – yes, it was an exercise to go anywhere -- whether for breakfast, or to retrieve something I'd forgotten in your room, or to go up to the observation lounge of the ship, for example – and at that time this was definitely all the exercise I never ever got in Manila

I kept losing my friends on this ship, as well.

On my first night, my friends and I had taken separate elevators up to the 12th floor, and after that, we’d never seen each other again because we'd gone in separate directions -- and once you're going one way, well, you're off to a different city almost. On another night, we’d all gone to the game event but we’d had to sit separately because there were only odd seats free by the time we’d arrived. And that was the last I’d seen of them as well, in an auditorium with about 1200 people


Amidst all the people, though -- or perhaps because there are so many people? -- there were lots of instances of kindness by strangers.

On my first night on board, we were docked outside Pattaya and everyone sensible was accessing the Internet from the cruise terminal instead of on board the ship. It cost US$.65 a minute to access the same Internet on board the ship via satellite, so of course we were all going for the free Internet whenever we could.



Anyway, I’d just arrived to board the ship but I’d seen everyone with their laptops and iPads sitting around the cruise terminal area, so I’d assumed WiFi was free. So as soon as I’d checked into my stateroom and unpacked, I’d lugged my Macbook Pro down to the terminal – a walk the equivalent of two runs around the Manila Polo Club field, by the way – from my room and sat down on one of the chairs.

Shock of my life when I finally got settled and I asked someone how to get on the Internet. Internet access at the port terminal cost US$2 for two hours, which was a steal by cruise ship standards; but I hadn’t brought any money with me to the cruise terminal. I'd left my wallet in the safe, and all I had was the cruise ID I needed to re-enter the boat.

The guy sitting next to me – the same one who'd broken the bad news about the US$2 fee – probably took pity on me, as I’m sure I looked like I was about to kick myself for stupidly not bringing any money to the terminal.

Plus, by then I was exhausted from a really busy 24 hours and the long trip door-to-door from Manila, and I’d just lugged my heavy computer across the Republic of Royal Caribbean and down to the terminal for nothing.



Well, he actually fished for US$2 from his pocket – this is a complete stranger, I have to stress again – and gave it to me.

“Here,” was all he said.

Oh my goodness. A total stranger was giving me money out of nowhere. We made small talk and I found out that he was from Florida, cruising with a bunch of relatives. I tried to find out how I could pay him back on the cruise, but he just said: “Forget it. No worries.

Of course I made up my mind to return the US$2 if and when I saw him on the ship again. Have I seen him again on the Republic of Royal Caribbean, though? Of course not. On that mammoth ship, I had enough difficulty finding my friends, much less finding kind strangers.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Happy days at the Anantara Vacation Club in Phuket

“Mommy, we’re here!” Annika, my daughter, said as our car stopped in front of the modern building that served as the reception area for the Anantara Vacation Club near Mai Khao beach in Thailand, only 15 minutes from Phuket International Airport but definitely an entire world away in feeling.

Anantara Vacation Club Phuket in Thailand

Immediately, smiling attendants bearing orchids and cold drinks came to greet us, and thus began our one-week family holiday in Thailand. Anantara is a famous name in the international hospitality industry, with luxury properties all over the world. 


Anantara Vacation Club Phuket in Thailand

But the Anantara Vacation Club, a unique shared ownership concept, is a relatively recent offering, and the Anantara Vacation Club Phuket (AVC Phuket) is brand new. Having stayed at other Anantara resorts before, all with good memories, we decided to try this new resort in Phuket without hesitation.


Anantara Vacation Club Phuket in Thailand

We entered the  Anantara Vacation Club Phuket (AVC Phuket), a large property filled with a hotel building on one side and villas in neat rows. When we reached our two-bedroom villa with a private swimming pool, I was amazed by its spaciousness as well as by its excellent contemporary design

Anantara Vacation Club, Mai Khao, Phuket
With 260 square meters to enjoy, it suited our needs completely. In fact, it’s the kind of villa I’d want to own, if I had the chance. The Anantara Vacation Club Phuket (AVC Phuketvilla had one bedroom on each side and a combined living space with a long kitchen counter and an equally long solid wood dining table in the middle. 

Anantara Vacation Club Phuket in Thailand

From here, we had a view of our pool. Meanwhile, our two bedrooms each had a bathroom, and the master bedroom – which also had a sliding door on one side that opened directly onto the swimming pool – had a massive bathroom with a high ceiling that’s larger than most hotel rooms. Every feature of our villa was luxurious, tasteful, and extremely comfortable. 

Anantara Vacation Club Phuket in Thailand

Of course, Annika loved the 34-square meter swimming pool, with one end practically flowing into the master bedroom. This was where we began and ended each day, with me doing my daily exercise laps, my husband reading a book on a floater, and Annika splashing around everywhere.


Anantara Vacation Club Phuket in Thailand

In between, there were enough activities to fill our days. Annika attended the Jakka Children’s Club which offered lessons and games all day, including a rock-climbing tutorial and a batik painting class with fun and friendly instructors.

The spa at the Anantara Phuket

Meanwhile, I took these opportunities to fit in some much needed “me time” at the spa of the Anantara Resort next door, the sister property of AVC Phuket. The award-winning spa of the Anantara Resort, set amidst a jungle with lily ponds and giant ferns, is simply wonderful, and it was here that I had one of the best energizing massages I’ve had in my life. 

One afternoon, Annika and I even signed up for a mother-daughter spa afternoon. I had an Elemis brightening facial while Annika had a bubble bath in the spa’s outdoor tub and a kiddie manicure.

The spa at the Anantara Phuket


I also indulged in a private yoga class in our villa while everyone else was out. My instructor would arrive everyday with yoga mats and an MP3 player, and we would go through a series of specific yoga poses for an hour in the outdoor terrace

Meanwhile, my husband delighted in working out at the fitness center next to the Jakka Children’s Club with a private trainer, and in walking along beautiful Mai Khao beach, the longest stretch of golden sand in Phuket, feeling the breezes coming in from the Andaman Sea.

Anantara Vacation Club, Mai Khao, Phuket


Every evening also provided something delightful. 

One night, AVC Phuket organized a movie night by the main swimming pool. We all swam in the pool or sat on the lounge beds with fresh juice drinks and appetizers as a family-friendly science fiction film played on a giant inflated screen at one end of the pool. 

Anantara Vacation Club, Mai Khao, Phuket

On another evening, we joined in the fun at the Chaam restaurant, where a colorful street food buffet was set up in the patio, enabling us to dine al fresco and to sample various local specialties.


Seafood grill by the pool at the
Anantara Vacation Club Phuket in Thailand

On our last evening at the AVC Phuket, however, we arranged a special private barbecue in our villa. There are three options for this, and we decided on the “Ultimate Andaman Seafood Grill” since this seemed most appropriate for our wonderful setting.

The AVC Phuket team set up a buffet table and a grill right by the swimming pool, and at sundown, the Chaam restaurant’s head chef arrived to grill the food himself. The table was laden with various fresh seafood and meat, and all we had to do was pick what we wanted for grilling. 

Pad Thai at the Anantara Vacation Club in Phuket

Then, while waiting for our choices on the grill, we helped ourselves to salads and cold dishes from our own buffet table and dined on a lovely table by the pool.

“I love the Anantara Vacation Club,” Annika exclaimed that night, as we feasted on an entire sea bass stuffed with special herbs by the master chef. “Can we come here again next year?” We all smiled at each other. We were certainly all in agreement on this point.

Publico Ristorante opens at The Quayside in Singapore for authentic Italian food

Singapore is full of good restaurants and another authentic Italian restaurant has just opened at The Quayside with views of the Singapore River.

Publico Ristorante at The Quayside in Singapore

The Italian restaurant Publico Ristorante is now serving real Italian food in a breezy setting overlooking the Singapore River. The restaurant is the third and final concept of the multi-faceted gourmet playground, PUBLICO, to open at The Quayside. The interiors are inspired by modern Italian architecture, which is brought to life through intricate masonry details at the bar, a bold geometric granite floor from Italy, and custom-made furniture pieces made by award-winning New York design firm, AvroKO



One of the focal points of the indoor area of Publico Ristorante is roaring twin pizza ovens, where a selection of bar seats are available to get up close to the action. Taking inspiration from the al fresco piazzas dotted along Italy's coastline, floor to ceiling windows and doors flow open onto the leafy terrace to give the illusion of a garden experience from the indoor dining area. 


The menu at the Publico Ristorante at The Quayside in Singapore

It's still early days, but already the great favorites on the menu of Publico Ristorante include the signature Risotto “alla Milanese” with saffron, pecorino cheese and red wine reduction, and wood fired pizzas including the Baci e Ricotto - a delicious creation of homemade tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, smoked scamorza, shavings of pork belly and crumbled ricotta.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Where to stay in Santorini: the best hotels for a romantic holiday

Enjoy a trip to Santorini, one of the most popular island destinations in Greece, and book a luxury hotel for your stay. TRAVELIFE Magazine shortlists some of the best hotels in Santorini for a relaxing vacation in Greece.

Santorini photo courtesy of LATEDEALS.CO.UK

Santorini, officially known as Thira, is a small island in the Aegean Sea. Found in the Cyclades group of islands, it is known for beautiful caldera views and unique Grecian architecture

The best time to visit Santorini is between September and October when it's warm, the perfect weather for sightseeing. The peak season is in July an August, so avoid the crowds by going in June and September which are especially lovely months.



Above Blue Suites is a boutique hotel in Santorini that has ten rooms, each with a unique design. 

Away from the towns of Santorini, Astarte Suites is perfect for those seeking a more private respite. 

Situated in the town of Oia, Katikies Santorini offers unique Cycladic rooms with a view of the Caldera and the Aegean seas


Take in the breathtaking view of the Santorini sunset from Grace Santorini located at the highest point of the Caldera

This spa resort has 44 suites and four villas designed in the traditional Cycladic style with views of one of the world’s most spectacular sunsets across the Aegean Sea. 

17th century canaves that were carved into the cliff side have been transformed into luxury designer suites at Canaves Oia Hotel. 

Making friends over raclette cheese; and what not to do when a love affair ends

Tonight, I'm in one of the most peaceful places on earth, living a #Travelife. Even if I practice reiki, which is a form of natural energy healing, I decided to get a reiki session for myself and it was amazing. And the rest of the day, I spent taking walks and thinking about Travel and Life while staring out into a vast expanse of beautiful forest.


For some reason, I remembered a party I recently attended, hosted by the Ambassador of a European country. The truly marvelous spread included a vast selection of cheeses and I just couldn't stop eating the raclette, which is basically a wheel of cheese heated in a specially-made contraption and then a portion of it is poured over boiled potatoes and eaten with gherkins and pickled onions

I love raclette, but it's very heavy. And if you eat so much of it, you're often advised to take it with lots of hot tea to ensure that the melted cheese doesn't stick to your insides. 


That night, several people advised me to take wine instead. "The alcohol will ensure that the cheese doesn't stick," they said. And it was during one of my innumerable lining ups at the raclette counter that I met a very interesting man who introduced himself as a pharmacologist. We started talking because he gave me his place in the long line for a plate of raclette cheese

"What exactly do you do as a pharmacologist?" I asked him, more out of courtesy at the outset. If he had so kindly given me a place in line, the least I could do was talk to him -- or so I thought. I had a general idea what the job was all about, but I guess I was just making cocktail party talk. However his answer roused me from the usual cocktail chatter



 "I usually deal with drug overdoses or chemical overdoses from suicide," he answered. Gosh, I'd heard about chemical overdoses from suicide, of course, and how this is probably among the most horrific ways to go. And now I had an authority next to me. 

"Is it really the worst way to go? If someone is going to kill himself, you'd think he'd choose a better way to do it. Or at least a less painful one," I said. 

My new acquaintance sighed. He then said: "The problem is, most people who do take chemicals for suicide aren't thinking straight. The ones I've seen so far are mostly people who are distraught about love affairs and about losing the love of someone, and so they just take anything without thinking hard about the consequences." 


Again, suicide because of a love affair was something I'd seen in movies, or in the opera; but I'd never really thought a significant number of people went this route in real life. I've always believed that if someone is distraught about a love, well, the last thing they should be doing is killing themselves. 

If they're unhappy over the end of a relationship, they should be getting better or getting even, rather than getting chemicals for suicide. Someone who wanted to leave a relationship in the first place won't exactly be shedding tears at their funeral, after all. 

Personally, if something like this happened to me, I'd probably hire a personal trainer, buy a new dress, get a haircut or spend a week in Chiva Som instead


My new acquaintance seemed to read my mind because he said: "You'll be surprised just how many people think about taking their lives when a love affair sours. I get called to advise on such cases very regularly. In fact, if I get a phone call after midnight, I usually already know what this means -- and it's another love affair suicide case."

He added: "It's really too bad, too. Because instead of getting a chemical harmful to their health, they could actually be seeking a chemical that might help them inch nearer towards the fountain of youth instead."

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Visiting a wine maker from a French aristocratic family in Pommerol, Bordeaux

Talking about good wines and interesting visits to winemakers in France last night at a holiday dinner, living a #Travelife, reminded me of the time we knocked on the door of a chateau of an aristocrat in Bordeaux to see his unique way of making wines.  

Living a never-endingly eventful Travelife in Bordeaux...

One day, on one of our many visits to the winemaking region of Bordeaux in France, we drove to the wine town of Pommerol, to visit an aristocrat in his lovely family home.

The home has been in the family for over 500 years, and it has also been a working winery for just as long.


Chateau de Salle is not a very famous name in the wine industry, even if it is the largest winemaker in Pommerol, and extremely well regarded in terms of product quality. Moreoever, the de Lambert family is perhaps Pommerol's most famous local inhabitants.

But I arranged to see it on a private visit because I wanted to meet Bruno de Lambert, the current family patriarch, and to see his home/ vineyard.


The wine of Chateau de Salle itself is pretty good. But it is not a fashionable or famous one because Bruno de Lambert makes it exactly and only the way he wants to make it. He said to us, with a twinkle in his eye: "It is my wine, after all. So I can do whatever I want with it."

So true, actually, if you think about it. It is his wine, indeed, and he can do whatever he wishes with it.


In fact he told us a story of some young American boys who'd visited him recently. Bruno said: "They asked me who the boss is. I replied: I'm the boss, of course."

Then he continued: "Then these American boys said, "No, Monsieur de Lambert, you are not the boss. I was slightly taken aback as I thought I was the boss. But they said: "You are not the boss. You are the king." He added: "And I had to agree. Indeed, on this estate, I am the king. King Bruno the 1st."


Obviously we will not meet many aristocrats with such candid humor and yet also with a passion for wine and for their lifelong endeavor. This is why I wanted to visit Chateau de Salle.

The Travel Companion, who knows his wine, was quite unimpressed at first, when I told him I'd arranged a private visit with the owner of Chateau La SalleFor one thing, he'd never heard of the wine or the chateau. Even a quick look on the Internet yielded almost nothing.


So next he emailed many of his wine friends around the world and there was literally no one who could tell him a comprehensive thing about Chateau La Salle.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, this is not a really big issue. There are thousands of winemakers in France alone, and many of them are unknown outside of their own localities.

The bigger question for him, then, was: Why on earth were we visiting this particular winery then? The answer became clear almost five minutes into our visit. We drove through some of the most beautiful landscape in Bordeaux. And then we found ourselves in front of this graceful and ancient family home of la famille de Lambert.


By French castle standards, it's really more a manor home and so it's unlikely to impress anyone who already owns a chateau. But then again, Bruno de Lambert isn't at all keen on impressing anyone but himself. He creates wine and generally lives his life the way he wishes, and without any thought for marketing, media or any of these 21st century business innovations.

That said, he is one of the nicest and most humorous French aristocrats I have ever met.


We walked around to the back garden of his home as he explained the fine details of the building and the gardens. Then, pointing to the two lions at the foot of the staircase leading to the gardens, he said: "See those lions? Their tongues and tails were cut off during the French Revolution."

We're talking about the French Revolution that began in 1787, of course.


As he is from an aristocratic family, I almost hesitated to ask him about how his family fared during this time. But I couldn't help doing so, after he brought up the topic of the revolution himself.

He replied, with great understatement: "It wasn't a good time for my family. Many of them had to leave or immigrate, and the few who didn't were lucky they weren't beheaded in the town square."

Then he added: "When they eventually returned home and were able to recover the property, apparently all they found inside was a broken chair. The revolutionaries took everything inside the home away and burned these in the square."

So, much earlier than this point, it was already becoming apparent to the Travel Companion why I had chosen this place.

He had nothing else to say after this, and he was grinning from ear to ear the whole afternoon, as we sat around drinking his wine in Bordeaux living a never-endingly eventful Travelife.