Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fiji - Doable but not easy for Levelers

The island paradise of Fiji is a challenge to reach, especially for American continents'  East Coasters, but what you find is worth the 10-plus-hour flight from Los Angeles.

Tip: If you fly Air Pacific, the national airline, both flights will be late at night so you'll want to sleep. Consider an upgrade to the upper economy section. You will have a small flight of stairs to negotiate, but it's quieter and at least going to Fiji you will have a three-seat row for yourself.

Why go
Start with the positives: No tipping, everyone speaks English and you can drink the water.

Best of all are the native Fijians, the friendliest, most hospitable, kindest and happiest people you are likely to meet anywhere in the world. They live in paradise and know it. From exuberant shouts of "Bula!" - the universal greeting and welcome - to hugs and the poignant refrain of "Isa Lei" - the song of farewell - you will become a member of the family.

It is not uncommon to be greeted with "Welcome home."

Surrounding this congenial family are incredibly lush tropical growth enhanced by fertile volcanic soil, dramatic mountains, springs, waterfalls, beautiful seas and amazing diving and snorkeling. And most of it is unspoiled; sunburned coconut palms still outnumber sunburned tourists on most of the 100 or so habitable islands.

Getting there
Once in Fiji, reaching some of these sights is not for the faint of heart. Unspoiled also means under developed.

Roads, even the paved ones ("sealed" to Fijians) are rough and the unsealed ones can require four-wheel drive to handle the hills.

Tip: Consider it a free Fijian massage, but if you have back trouble keep the driving to a minimum.

Once you've arrived you may face a hike along uneven trails, across rocky streams and up steep, slippery slopes, but don't worry, in the next few posts I'll tell you what's worth the effort, how much that will be and when to say no and relax instead.

A little about Fiji

Depending on who did the counting and how high the tide was, the nation of Fiji consists of 303-331 islands, two thirds of which have neither space nor water for habitation. They are of volcanic origin, but no volcanoes have spouted in centuries.

Population was 837,271 according to the 2007 census with indigenous Fijians making up half of that. It is one of the few if not the only nation where the original inhabitants still control the lion's share of the land.

Three are considered "big" islands: Viti Levu, the largest, is home of Suva, the capitol; Nadi, where the nation's international airport is located; and most of the tourist infrastructure. Vanua Levu is half its size, slightly smaller and to the northeast and Taveuni, below and to the east, is by far the smallest and least developed.

Getting from island to island is done by plane, helicopter or seaplane, ferry and/or one of the small cruise ships.

Resorts range from backpacker/hostel basic to Turtle Island five-star exclusivity and price. Many cater to Australians and New Zealanders and offer affordable inclusive packages.

A good guidebook, and probably the most recent is Fiji by David Stanley, a Moon Handbook, US$19.95.

Leia Mais…
Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A little bit of heaven: Steenberg Hotel and Winery

For those of you who don't get a kick out of following paw prints and scat through the African bush, Steenberg Hotel and Winery, just outside of Cape Town in the Constantia Valley, is a perfect alternative. It is consistently at the top of South Africa's Top 10 luxury resorts.

Its trim, perfectly manicured grounds, tidy white buildings with thatched roofs and centuries old buildings will make you think a section of Flanders has been magically transported to South Africa. In a way it was: Steenberg is the oldest farm in the valley, having been established by the Dutch in 1682 to provide provisions for ships on the spice route.

It was also the first farm in South Africa owned by a woman, Catharina Ustings, a German native who arrived at the Cape in 1662, bought the estate in 1682 and survived five husbands. When a lion killed one of them, legend has it Catharina went after the lion on horseback and killed it.

Tip: The grounds are basically level with smooth paths and you will encounter very few steps.

Inside those trim, restored, historic buildings are all of the comforts of the 21st century. Decor ranges from Dutch-inspired to contemporary African, all enhanced with original art and antiques.

Stars of the guest facilities are the Heritage Suites built in the original Jonkershuis, young man's house. Nine suites have been transformed into three which come with butler service, a kitchen probably better equipped than the one you have at home, private splash pools, working fireplaces, complimentary laundry service, refreshment bar and Wi-Fi and internet service. Need I add that the linens are luxe, the beds divine, the amenities outstanding and the bedrooms spacious?

Tip: The bedrooms are also upstairs. If a flight of stairs bothers you, request one of the 21 rooms in the Manor House - on the National Register - and Barn.

What to do there?

By all means visit the stunning new Winery and gardens and try Bistro Sixteen82 where the tapas are as varied as they are delicious and reasonably priced - $5-$7 with wine around $20 a bottle or less.

Tip: Don't miss the rich, red Catharina and the mouth-filling sauvignon blanc, for which the winery is famous.

While on the subject of eating, Catharina's in the farm's original wine cellar, is considered one of the Cape Town area's finest restaurants. Chef Garth Almazan creates memorable dishes, many inspired by his Malay grandmother, and service is exemplary. The Sunday Jazz Brunch is a favorite with Cape Towners.

Count on manager Gaby Gramm to keep it all humming smoothly.

Need pampering? You will love the on-site spa and hairdresser.

Need sport? When you tire of swimming, the magnificently situated and challenging Peter Matkovitz-designed golf course winds around vineyards and gardens with stunning views of Table Mountain. And surprise, ladies, the women's locker room is as nice as the men's!

Curious? Visit other vineyards and winery and the historic coast with charming little seaside towns and the $1 train that connects them.

Content? Thought so.

Leia Mais…