Hello, Hello Kitty! – 18 days in Japan with a toddler

Japan was long on my list but somehow we never got the chance till this May to jump on a flight to Tokyo. As we traveled with our 18-month year old baby, this trip required a bit more preparation in terms of advance booking of accommodation and itinerary setting. I do plenty of research before almost every trip (to make sure I do get my pick of the nice hotels at affordable prices and book ahead any sights to avoid long queues) but for the trips with the baby, it moves to the next level – control freak level that is!

This trip will be split into at least two different posts as the information is very fresh in my mind and I will probably dwell on the details more than usual. Also, if you plan to take this trip with a toddler (like us), I guess the more info the better. Please note however, we did not choose the itinerary or accommodation to suit the baby but rather tried to ease the baby into our travel pace. Therefore, no all inclusive, baby clubs or  private transfer for us.


Some information I wised I had before leaving:

  1. Your hotel in Tokyo and Kyoto might have trouble finding a baby cot/bed for your toddler. Some do offer baby cots for under 12 months old babies but do not recommend it for toddlers. Most Ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) will not have one available. We traveled with a Phil&Teds Travel Bed and I am very glad we did. We could set it up in no time and it took little space (you will appreciate this particularly in Tokyo). You can check it in as hand luggage as it is very compact. We put in a backpack as we already had three pieces of hand luggage.
  2. You will find baby food in Japan (in big cities and drug stores rather than super markets) but in our experience the tastes are not so easy to get used to. Except or some simple veggie/fruit purees, our son was not too keen on the food and ended up eating a lot of rice and bread. Unless you are in a flat and can cook your own food, get some baby jars to last you for about 5-6 days. We had 6 jars with us and once finished, we wished we had more. Fruits you will find easier than veggies.
  3. Check your bullet train Pass not only for name but also that the duration is correct- If you plan to travel in Japan a bit, you will buy a Rail Pass Voucher for high speed trains. It can only be bought outside Japan from authorized travel agents. Upon buying ours (children up to 6 years travel free), I checked that the names were spelled like in the passport but did not notice the duration. Upon arrival in Japan, when going to the train station to exchange the voucher for the actual train pass, I noticed the duration was 7 days instead of 14. It took more than an hour and several phone calls to solve this in Japan.

The itinerary we decided for alternates between city and some place located in nature. We flew into Narita, spent 4 nights in Tokyo, took the train to Takayama in the Japanese Alps and spent two nights. We then took the train to Kyoto and pent 5 nights. From Kyoto we went for an Onsen (Japanese hot baths) experience at Kinosaki-onsen (3 nights). We then returned to Tokyo for another 4 nights and flew out. Looking back, the only change I would make is to limit the stay in Kinosaki-onsen to 2 nights and add one to Tokyo. 


Once you arrive at Narita, transfers are pretty straight forward. We took a Limo Bus (there are several terminals with busses covering each Tokyo neighborhood) that dropped us in front of the hotel.

Tokyo is huge and confusing even for the most seasoned traveler as it is built on vertical as much as on horizontal. We used to joke with Mr CTT that is the size of Berlin, New York and Paris put on top of each other. A map will do little to help, especially in the beginning. For example, even if something is located on the other side of the street, you might still spend 10-15 min to reach that point via a sky walk.

We spent our first 4 days in Ginza – the business center of Tokyo. We choose this location for the vicinity with the Fish Market which is a must visit and must eat (fresh fish makes for amazing sushis), especially as it is set to move outside the city in preparation for the 2020 Olympics. We stayed at the Keio Plaza (Shiodome station) that has great Ginza views from the bar.


Ginza is well connected to the Central Station and from there you can reach almost every part of the city. We spend the first 2 days in Tokyo recovering from jet lag, visiting the Fish Market and the Hamarikyu Gardens (located close to each other) and the Tokyo Tower.


The third day we ventured out into Asakusa neighborhood to visit the Tokyo Edo Musem. If you do one museum in Tokyo, let it be this one. Fun for all ages, it really puts things in perspective as regards the rich cultural heritage of Tokyo and Japan. From there, it is still a 30 min stroll to Senso-Ji, the largest and most photogenic temple in Tokyo. The main road leading up to the temple is full with good value souvenir shops. On a Sunday, you will most likely stumble upon a local festival or gathering involving music, people in costumes and plenty of action! Asakusa is the neighborhood that best embodies the traditional Japan. From the same neighborhood, you can walk to the Tokyo Sky Tree and the Asahi Brewery Headquarters. If the temperatures are high, rest and enjoy a local tap beer at the ground floor of the Asahi modern building. There is German-inspired Brauhaus hidden behind the golden glass even if this is not obvious from the street.



The next stop in our trip was Takayama, in the Japanese Alps. To reach it, we took a shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya and then changed trains for a local train to Takayama. Travel time of about 3h in total. In Nagoya, we picked up a Bento box with local pork cutlets for lunch that proved more tasty that the look from the box. All train stations (even local ones) have a latin alphabet translation of their name. This came in handy for local trains to more remote locations as the indications of the conductor were only given in Japanese.

Takayama has a beautifully preserved city center and is well known for its sake breweries and tasty Hida beef ( same breed as Kobe but not from the Kobe region). The tourist info point is located in front of the train station as they have maps in English. We easily found the way to our Ryokan.

The next day, we headed for the morning market, on the river banks. If you are after traditional pickled food veggies or other souvenirs, this is a great place to shop. We then headed to the old city center and went for a sake tasting.  I was not a sake fan before but once I gave it a chance (actually about 12 chances, as there were as many varieties of sake produced by the brewery)  it started to grow on me.



After criss-crossing the city center a couple of times, we stopped for a short performance of  Karakuri wooden puppet theater. Here you can see the mechanical karakuri ningyō in action. The toddler was not too impressed but plenty of local children were very excited about what was going on on the stage.  On the same premises there is small museum of traditional lion masks. We finished the sightseeing day with a trip to the temples on the hills above the city.


A great memory from Takayma, beyond of the great historical center, was our Ryokan: Asunaro. They were so welcoming and going the extra mile to make sure we have everything  we need in the room for the baby (including a diaper bin). The kaiseki dinner prepared by them was delicious. They kept brining out all this great fish and beef… tasty and beautifully presented. It looked like a work of art!

To be continued …..

Happy travels,

Let’s go on a trip, ladies ! – Bangkok and Khao Lak

Thailand is by now a well-established destination for winter sun seekers. Not close enough for a short break but rather well connected to Europe in terms of flights so you do not need to take several connections and loose time in airports,  which maximises your time on the ground.

I was not particularly attracted to the idea of Thailand. To me, it conjures images of tourist hoards and temples queues. I could not imagine that there are still places where you could fell some connection to the country, its natural beauty and traditions and get to know the people. But then the opportunity of a reasonably priced direct flight from Paris CDG presented itself. My partner (Mr. CTT) had limited vacation days left as we were in end Oct – November 2016, close to year end. So I decided to ask some friends to join me and do a first post-pregnancy holiday sans-family. After this trip, I decided to do one ladies every year! Surely, Mr. CTT benefits of the same prerogative (except for taking ladies along…:).

Therefore, after a medium to long-haul flight – depending on your travel habits –   of 12h we were in Bangkok. The temperature was a warm and humid 26 -28 degrees. This being end of October, the rainy season was still lingering in the central and South Thailand. For the next 10-days we continued to have 2-3 h rain each afternoon. Contrary to European rain, the tropical rain was not so easy to negotiate when we were out and about. In other words, if it starts raining, you better take cover and wait. There is not rain jacket or umbrella that can resist the downpour for more than 1-2 min. One particular afternoon in Bangkok, the rain was so heavy and came about in a matter of minutes that we had no other choice than to hail a cab and ask for a ride to the hotel.


The accommodation in Bangkok was great treat (Ariyasomvilla), combining the local architecture with the traditional Thai hospitality. As we arrived from the airport, we were offered access to shower, fresh towels and pool to cool off as it was still morning and the room was not yet ready. Fuelled by the adrenaline of this exotic place, we took a shower and had a coffee and then dove right into the local sightseeing trail. The location of the hotel is a bit remote from the main/central area but there is access to a light rail system that is very convenient. The neighbourhood is modern looking, with a mix of shopping malls, hip bars and food stalls lining both sides of Sukhumvit road (Thailand’s longest road).  While the main road itself doesn’t offer a lot in terms of entertainment, in the adjoining ‘sois’ (alleys) you will find plenty of restaurants markets and bars. The hotel itself is at the end of Soi 1 – the first alley on the left hand side off the main road.


A capital with in excess of 8 Mio people, Bangkok can be pretty intimidating at times.  A good map is key to finding your way, especially in Chinatown or other back alley areas. Sidewalks are a luxury. Not always present and mostly crowded with stalls and different means of transport. You will end up walking on the street at times.

What added some element of chaos to our experience of the capital was also the death of the former Thai King that was ensued by a period of national mourning. Locals were pouring into the streets and queuing at the Grand Palace to pay their respects. The Grand Palace was closed for tourists at this time.

How we spent our 3 days in Bangkok? Combining sightseeing, river trips and walks in different neighbourhoods. Ah, and sampling great Thai food:

  1. Day 1: Tour Jim Thompson’s House – Do use a guided tour, included in the price. The grounds are beautiful and you could spend 30 min just looking around in the garden and the exterior. There is a nice terrace for a short coffee break. Take a food tour or a Thai massage in the afternoon. Dinner at the hotel was really nice. They specialise in vegetarian options and also have very tasty cocktails. As this is was our first day after the flight, we tuned in early.
  2. Day 2: Wake up bright and early and head to Wat Pho, home of the reclining Buddha and the famous Golden Buddha. The Wat Pho complex is big and encompasses more than just the area where the statue is housed. We spent more than an hour wandering the temple grounds and staring at the statues and mosaics. If open, go for the Grand Palace next or if you want something a bit more manageable in terms of crowds, the Wat Arun. For Wat Arun, you will have to cross the river. There are plenty of options – you can ride the water taxi up and down the river for around 20 baht and take a tourist hop-on-hop-off that will stop at all the main sites. Have dinner at Supanniga, Sukhumvit Soi 55 if you are based in Shukumvit.
  3. Go to one of the floating markets. Khlong Lat Mayom is a bit less touristy but expect some ‘traffic’ jams at peak times. For lunch, head to Chinatown and walk the smaller alleys. You can get great food for next to nothing in one of the many joints lining the street. We went at the Prachak Roasted Duck Restaurant and it was the best Chinese food so far. Finally, go for some a Mall experience. More than retail therapy, malls are like mini vertical villages where you can spend hours window shopping, eating and chatting while enjoying the AirCo. It is not only retail therapy; it is a way of life.


After three full days of Bangkok traffic and noise over-stimulation, it was time to escape to the beach. We took an internal flight with Air Bangkok and in 1h30 min we were in Phuket. I dreaded the island itself and its promise of an all-inclusive holiday mecca and headed up the coast to Khao Lak. It is an hour’s drive from the airport so rented a car and driver.

Khao Lak itself is nothing to write home about: a small medium-size sprawling village now living from tourism. It is quite popular for its (still) laid-back ambiance, uncrowded beaches and as a departure point for liveaboard trips to the Similan Islands. However, this might soon change as there were significant rebuilding efforts after the tsunami and additional accommodation options have sprung up. It is difficult to imagine that this was one of the worst hit areas hardest hit by the 2004 tsunami as everything seems to be up and running like it had been there for ages. There is now an early-warning system has been installed along the coast to avert the population in case of earthquake. That, combined with a handful of signs for tsunami evacuation routes, are practically the only clues to what went before.

We were based in La Flora Resort, a mid-range hotel that offered direct beach access, different morning activities and a spa with good value massages. It is walking distance to the many restaurants and bars that line the main street into the village. You will find a number of travel agencies in the village to help you organise all types of activities, much more varied that the hotel options. We crammed 3 activities in our 4 full days on the coast and we really enjoyed each of them:

A full day trip to the Similian islands – the trip out and back will take more than one hour each way. They are further afield compared with Surin island but both the landscape and the beach are uncrowded and almost unspoilt. The archipelago is part of the national park Mu Ko Similan so development is kept to a minimum. As part of the trip, you will meet a local nomadic tribe and have lunch on the island. I was really looking forward to snorkel there but I was less than impressed about the coral. Still, it is a great day out if you want to enjoy the beach and clear blue water and muuuch les crowded that the Ko Phi Phi or Ko Lanta.


A full day canoe trip to Phang Nga Bay – You know that James Bond island that everybody has on their Fb feed once they come back from Thailand? Well, it turns out that this is one stone formation in a bay of stone formations and, despite its international repute, there are better sights to be enjoyed in the same location. We took a small tour (about 12 people) that involved a boat trip sightseeing in the bay and a canoe trip to enjoy the internal lagoons at low tide. As soon as we were out in the canoe, the tropical rain started. It is difficult to describe the feeling of being completely surrounded by water plus more water pouring from above… The lagoons were great to explore by boat even if this involved some manoeuvring of the pressure inside the inflatable canoe to allow the boat to slide in and out the narrow passage ways. It was a great, if very wet, experience in an area of great natural beauty that rivals the Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.


Half a day Thai cooking class – We found a Trip Advisor recommendation of a great cook in Khao Lak. Here is her page: https://annkhaolak.wordpress.com/. Ann met us at the hotel and then we drove to the market to choose the ingredients. We then drove to her studio to cook and eat our creations. It was a great experience that helped us connect with some of the locals in the market and also though understanding some of the fruits and vegetables that were a mystery to us but staples of their kitchen. I really recommend you give it a try. She will send you the recipes by e-mail so you can always try to re-create the nice food at home. Do not forget to grab a jar of curry paste at the market and pack it in your suitcase before you leave though.


From Khao Lak it was back to Bangkok for us. After a short night spent on the Riverside of Chao Praya River in a beautifully landscaped but huge hotel (Anantara), we boarder to flight back to Paris.


What is your favourite part of Thailand? On a next occasion, I want to visit the North and get a better sense of the ‘real’ Thailand.

 

Happy travels,

 

 

 

 

 

Discovering the European South – Beaches and mountains of Cyprus

 

We travelled to Cyprus last year, in September. For residents of the European North, September is the month when we start to become itchy for another break in the Sun. This is especially when summer means two weeks with temperatures above 20 in June and two weeks again in August, if we are lucky. September is also when prices start to get back to more reasonable levels as most of schools holidays draw to a close.

 

I have been to Malta, Greece and Southern Italy before so decided to give this last bastion of the European south a chance as well. Drawn by the prospect of tasty Greek-style mezze and lazy beach days, we hopped into the only direct flight out of Brussels (Ryanair) and jetted 4h 30 min to Larnaca. I should mention that this was the third family escape with our baby (6 months at the time) so we got the hang of airport travel, car rental and hotel necessities before.

First impressions:

  1. Airport arrival was easy. Car rental was straightforward. Finding our way in the dark (landed around 8PM) from Larnaca to Limassol not so straightforward even if there is good road signalling system. Bring a GPS :)!
  2. Child seat was provided by the rental company but you might want to bring your own. The one we got looked like it was well loved for at least 5 years before arrived in our rental car

 

The hotel we booked was really nice but quite pricey as well (Amathus Beach Hotel). It had easy direct access to a private beach area of 2000m2 via a stroller/wheelchair accessible slope which was a plus for us. In the end, it turned out to be less important as the baby decided to get a bit sick and spent most of his time in the room. Then, I got a virus which meant that in the end we booked a really nice hotel for both me and my baby to recover from sickness. If you do decide for this hotel and have a baby with you, know they are prepared for everything; even have paediatrician doctors on call.


Food wise, their breakfast spread was impressive. I even think I spotted some sushi one day. But then it might also have been the fever I was running at the time. For lunch and dinner, we have sampled some of the restaurants on site (Limanaki Fish Restaurant was original and good but then this is to be expected from a 5-star resort) but also fully enjoyed more classic eating options as the Nama Tavern Restaurant at about 10 min walk from the hotel. The portions were huge and the food fresh and tasty. I am getting hungry only thinking about it. There were other options, in particular UK-inspired pubs and add-day breakfast but I did not find them very appealing.

The beach is nice and in September you can expect very nice bathing weather. It might be however that public access to this part of the beach (a bit in the outskirts of Limassol) is limited due to the string of sea front hotels. A nice beach with public access is Lady’s Mile Beach, about 10 Km from the hotel. You will need a car to reach it. Think a few lounge chairs and nice clear water. There is only one restaurant on site.

After 5 nights in Limassol with limited sightseeing options due to my general “less-than-stellar” health state, we moved in land to escape the crowds and try to get a glimpse of the more traditional Cypriot life. We booked a guesthouse at the foothills of Mt Olympus in the village of Lofou. By now both I and the baby were feeling a bit better so we were ready to explore much of the area on foot (me) and carrier (him).


The accommodation was a great stone-built guesthouse by the name of Apokryfo. A super nice couple was running the place and they made sure there was nothing missing. Our studio (called Almond) had a little kitchen and fire place. We have not used any of them. The dinner that they cooked on site was out of this world.

There was no menu to choose from, only a selection of the day that they would prepare in the kitchen and bring it out to your table, on the terrace facing the pool. Most of the guests went for this option and after a couple of nights we understood why. Great vegetable base options but also meat, all in plentiful supply. I must have gained 1 kg just at Apokryfo. You have a menu with selected local wines to choose from. Without being wine experts, all the recommendations made by the hosts were spot on. The combination of great food and nice wine plus the outstanding atmosphere and deco often lead to guests starting to chat with each other, sharing travel stories and dinners going well beyond 11PM.




And if you were wondering how come we enjoyed such long nice dinners with a 6 month old baby, bring the baby phone with you. The location is compact and chances are that, after your baby goes to sleep at night, you can slip out to enjoy a nice dinner on the terrace with full coverage on your receiver. Even better, your room will only be a few meters away so you can always have a quick check between courses.

Lofou is a quaint little village with cobbled stone streets. It can provide for some interesting leisurely strolls and great vistas over the area. There also steep steps on some parts as the village is built on two levels. We loved the old school area and the view from the school yard.

From Lofou, you can easily venture out in the Troodos Mountains where more serious hiking options are available. The wine valleys are reachable by car and there are a few wineries you can visit.

We took a day tip to Paphos (about 30 km out). We visited the harbour – quite touristic with high priced restaurants – and the Archaeological Park. The archaeological park was very interesting but challenging with a stroller or if you have reduced mobility. There is virtually no shade so if you are visiting at mid-day during a hot day, take water, sunscreen and a hat. The House of Dionysus is definitely a highlight. It costs next to nothing to get into the park so added to your list if in the area. All in all, there are some amazing historical ruins without the crowds you see in places like Athens and Rome.

We now consider Cyprus as a serious contender to Greece for the great food, variety of landscape and more manageable crowds. However, as far as the variety of beaches goes, Greece still holds the crown.

Happy travels,

 

September is the best time to visit Southern Italy – Top 5 things to do in Apulia

If you are still in search for some sun bathing opportunities and warm weather in September head to the South of Italy, in Apulia region! You will love the food, relax in the true ‘Dolce vita’ style on the Adriatic coast and most importantly, pay half the price of a holiday in August.  

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Best 5 restaurants for traditional Romanian food in Bucharest

I know Bucharest well as I used to study there before moving to Brussels. Now still, I often travel back and forth between the two every other month or so. Living abroad, I learned to appreciate a good Romanian restaurant, not only for surprising the occasional friend after a long sight-seeing day but also to indulge in some tasty cooking myself.

As with many Eastern European capitals the food scene is constantly evolving but there are a few places that have been now around for some time and I consider them to be a reference when looking for a good traditional meal. Spoiler alert, this post will make you hungry and maybe even make you reach for a credit card and book a flight to Bucharest.

So here it is:

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Just back from a road tripping week-end in the North of France – Le Touquet, Hardelot-Plage and Boulogne-sur-Mer

Against my own best advice as regards travelling in August, the weather in Belgium just managed to chase us out of the country once more. This time direction France, Nord-pas-de-Calais region. Now, this is not exactly the European South so we did not expect 30 + degrees and warm seas but we did want some sun and a change from the grey Brussels scenery.  

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Blast from the past – how we spent 5 days in Malta in 2012

Most of my friends travel in August. I am doing everything possible to avoid travelling in August which is the European peak season and corresponds to traffic jams spanning from Spain to Greece (ok, a bit of an exaggeration but you get the picture) and airports testing their passenger capacity limits. My shoulder season preference is however often broken by family and friends visits that, on most occasions, require both a car and plane ride. So, week-end trips aside, I try to stand by the “No travel in August!” rule.

To fill the current ‘non-travelling’ time, I am compensating with some travel writing and travel planning. As I was recently sorting photos, I came across a few nice ones from Malta, so here is a short post of our tour there from a couple of years ago.

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A chill out August break in Copenhagen 

This week-end we visited friends living in Copenhagen. For us, visiting people living around the world is the best way to combine our two favourite things: travel and spending time with friends. Also it has the perk that you do go out with a local which is often much more interactive and informative than going out with the Lonely Planet guide. So, we try to do this quite often, especially around Europe.

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How we got lost in Marrakech, Morocco

Actually, it is not that difficult to get lost, particularly in the old part of town (Medina). Just to give you a bit of context, the Medina of Marrakech is big, around 4 kilometers in diameter in places. It can also be very confusing, with winding covered streets, narrow dead-end alleys, and hundreds of dusty side streets only mopeds and donkeys can navigate.

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India – a place that will stir up all your senses

When planning my last year’s trip to India, I was a bit nervous.

For one, I was traveling with two other girls. Any travel advisory out there, from Lonley Panet to the UK Governement Travel advice will imply that might not be such a bright ideea. Couple or group might be better. Even so, in my view, as three is definitely better then one alone, I had good chances of survival.

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