Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Getting real: Soweto

Having seen an extremely tasteful South Africa, I wanted to experience something less carefully groomed so two of us booked a car and driver for a trip to Soweto (although it did seem a bit hypocritical doing so from the lush luxury of the Saxon).

Tip: You definitely want a car and driver for this. It's an easy half-day trip from Johannesburg with steps limited to a curb or two.

Our driver, Letle, grew up in Soweto and was from a tribe of clickers, like the natives of The Gods Must Be Crazy, so his name sounded like Let-click-la.

We headed southwest, appropriately because Soweto stands for South Western Township, passing by hillocks of tailings from gold mines and Australian eucalyptus trees brought in to support and balance the earth after having been gouged out in the search for diamonds and precious metals.

We asked the inevitable: Are things better for you now?
Life has been changed but we have a long way to go, said Letle. "Sixteen to 17 years of democracy is very short."

The huge kalabash-shaped stadium which hosted the World Cup is a source of pride. It's known as Ukhamba, a Zulu word for the clay pot used to brew beer; the white on top is the foam of fermentation.

Dust and pollution from gold and uranium mines thickens the air. "This is the territory of the good, the bad and the ugly, the poor, the rich and the people in between," said our guide.

 The hostels built in the 1900s for African mine camp workers became family units and are slowly being upgraded to house four families per buildings. As the township developed it was divided into six zones to separate people by tribes and language but the people integrated; most speak five or six languages.

As the income rises, families have single houses, but most have added corrugated metal extensions as children mature and begin families of their own.

At the top,  the homes are substantial and surrounded by more space and these neighborhoods resemble well-tended middle class suburbs.

The market here is not a glossy one for tourists, but has knick knacks and produce sold in small lots and queues of cabs and vans, the dominant form of transportation.

The Orlando West neighborhood is home to Winnie Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Mandela House, where Winnie and their children lived while he was in prison and he lived briefly after being freed, has been turned into a museum. No surprise the street is known as Nobel Laureate's Walk.

Add in the Hector Peterson Museum and Memorial and you can see why Soweto is one of the most visited townships in South Africa.

The day we were there several classes from the Khula Sizwe Primary School and our unspoken thoughts turned to their futures, better than their parents' yes, but will that be enough?

Leia Mais…
Thursday, June 9, 2011

Johannesburg's Saxon: Elegance Personified

If you define elegance as the finest of everything and all in good taste or whatever you want whenever you want it and often before you realize it,  Johannesburg's Saxon more than qualifies. If elegance to you is being cossetted in your own world, surrounded by friends or family in total privacy despite 24-hour butlers, the Saxon is it.

Once the private enclave of South African insurance magnate Douw Steyn, the hotel still retains the feel of a family retreat and the decor of an avid collector of all things African. Priceless collectibles are seamlessly grouped with excellent reproductions and unlike many hotels, you know immediately what country you're in - a real boon to international travelers who often wake up in a fog of muddled time zones wondering that basic question, "Where am I?".

The 24-suite hotel has added three stand-alone villas for another 29 suites, doubling its capacity.

Tip: One suite is specifically designed for the physically challenged although Levelers will find all suites step-less. 

Our group of four travel and food writers and one PR firm owner were given the one-level Villa One which comes with seven suites, central living room, eating and lounge area, pool, boardroom/library, kitchen with 24-hour butler and its own elevator connecting directly to the underground garage and allowing the rich and famous to enter and exit in privacy.

Tip: It also comes in handy for stair-avoiding Levelers and anyone in inclimate weather.

The "normal" access from hotel reception to the villa is by ascending one story via elevator then walking through the treetops within what seems like the rib cage of a Brobdignagian boa constrictor then going up about eight steps to villa level. The villa elevator eliminates all stairs. 

Service is as exemplary as you might expect. Granted, as journalists we were treated royally, but I suspect everyone else is too. Every time we turned around someone was offering a fresh bottle of sparkling wine or another tray of tidbits to try. The buffet breakfast in the hotel is a mind-boggling array of international selections from proteins and carbs to fruits fresh, dried, pickled or preserved.

The only chink in this armory of civility and luxury was encountered at the spa where we had to actually ask for water, the first time in two separate stays we had to "ask" for anything.

Warning: The spa is on two-levels; not good for Levelers.

Otherwise, we were totally spoiled, especially by the 1,000-thread count bed linens and the one-wand integrated system that turned on and adjusted lights, temperature and TV. Then there was the laptop in each suite, the free Wi-Fi, butler and the in-room telephone that could be converted into a mobile phone during our stay.

Driving through the suburbs of Johannesburg to reach the secluded and secure Saxon gave us a glimpse into how the whites barricaded themselves into compounds where they could temporarily escape the reality of being the privileged minority in a country of other races legislated into lower castes. And where the fear of retribution keeps security tight.

A stay at Saxon - where Steyn hosted Nelson Mandela as he edited "Long Walk to Freedom" after release from prison and where he continues to visit when in Johannesburg - gave us a taste of that privileged lifestyle anyone can now experience.

Leia Mais…
Thursday, June 2, 2011

Cruising the Southern Yasawa Islands in Fiji

Fiji is all about islands so when offered the opportunity to cruise several aboard Captain Cook Cruises' Reef Endeavour, I quickly signed on.

Tip: Smaller cruise ships can be a problem for Levelers because they rarely have elevators. Reef Endeavour had a small one but I never saw anyone using it because the stairs aren't bad.

Ship and Passengers
Fellow passengers (Endeavour accommodates 168)  numbered 38 Australians, 23 Americans, seven New Zealanders, eight Germans and two Canadians for the four-day, three-night trip from Denarau on the big island of Viti Levu around Vanua Levu and Navadra, the Sacred Islands, and Waya and Wayasewa Islands.

Cabins are basic but comfortable although you won't spend much time there. The ship has what you need - two masseuses, a bar salon with piano, a small but well provisioned ship's store for souvenirs (at decent prices), a dining room, small pool and several decks for sunning, sitting and relaxing.

Tip: Stairs are 10-14 steps from deck to deck, there's a large lip to step over to enter the cabins and a much smaller one into the bathroom where the shower is roomy for this size ship.

Meals were basic and good but not gourmet although the curry lunch was delicious. You won't ever be hungry but you probably won't go home raving about the food.

Tip: This is a good trip for anyone unsure of their seaworthiness: the waters are protected and smooth and the distance between islands is short. Just enough movement to rock you to sleep.

Water sports are the main daytime activity - SCUBA, snorkeling, glass-bottomed boat viewing (the glass is tinted so you miss the wonderful tonalities of the corals) and beach relaxing and combing.

Tip: Access to and from ship-to-shore boats is a snap and snorkel gear and beach towels are provided.

The first day out, Saturday, the beach stop was in the afternoon; Sunday we had two beach stops and Monday one in the morning.

The water is universally clear and beautiful but the quality of the beaches varies. Some have limited coral close in while on others you can't swim for the coral.

Tip: If all you want to do is lounge around fine, but snorkelers and swimmers are advised to go out on the snorkel boat. The exception is the sandspit on Waya Sewa Island where you can wade comfortably out to deeper water and snorkel easily from the beach.

Afternoons were spent in villages. Captain Cook Cruises has exclusive rights to a number of spots, but the inhabitants live by their schedules not the ship's which means things change.

Sunday we were scheduled for church services on Nalauwaki but because it was Palm Sunday, the afternoon service started later than usual and we had to leave in the middle.

Monday afternoon we visited Namara Village School on Waya Sewa Island and that evening we had a lovo dinner at Yalobi village on Waya Island.

Evenings were filled with talks, piano bar and a show by the ship's crew.

Snorkeling, especially the reef off Waya Island, where at one point it looked as if I was swimming over a field of heather in tones of blue, lavender, purple, maroon, chartreuse and peach.

Climbing the steps to my cabin deck and seeing the tiny palm tree that always reminded me of the captain's beloved palm in "Mister Roberts."

The play staged during the Nalauwaki (Methodist) Church service where scenes and acts were marked off by pulling a curtain halfway across the stage.

Cruising past fascinatingly shaped islands that changed tonality with each cloud.

The students at Namara Village School who couldn't wait to show off their singing and dancing skills and their classrooms.

The squirming kindergarteners of Yalobi village who sang for us and the women who showed off and sold their handicrafts.

That last night at Yalobi when the full moon rose over the mountains and slathered the sea with a path of luminescence.

Coming back into port at at Denarau Harbor and being told the large yacht named SuRi with the helicopter pad belonged to Tom Cruise. A bit of research on the web proved it didn't.

Hearing the throat catching song of farewell, "Isa Lei," sung by the crew  as we disembarked and knowing it was for the final time.

Leia Mais…