Tag Archives: food

St Kitts and Nevis

Saint Kitts and Nevis is an island country and microstate in the Caribbean and our first official foray into the West Indies (or the Lesser Antilles). With only 261 square kilometres and about 50,000 residents it is one of the top 10 smallest countries in the world.

The capital city is Basseterre and is where we found ourselves landing.

Basseterre is on the larger island of Saint Kitts and is the main port for passengers and goods. The smaller island of Nevis is about 3 km southeast of the main island across a shallow channel called the narrows.

Much like the Dominican Republic, the immediate port arrival is full of all of the tourist things that you would expect (but without the beaches and pools). There were touts aplenty, t-shirt and trinket shops, duty frees, and the general assembly of bars, cafes and restaurants.

Getting around is pretty easy as the streets are typically named after the things that are on the street. So there is Bank St, College Street, Fort Street and so on. There are two main churches in town, the biggest is StGeorge’s Anglican Church which sits up the hill past all of the initial tourist mess.

The other is the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception which sits closer to the port and opposite the Independence Square park.

As it would happen our wanderings took us up the hill, where we found ourselves at Warner Park, the local cricket ground and home of the local Caribbean Premier League Team. Being a cricket tragic, I had to wander in, on and around a West Indian Cricket Ground. Such a pity there was not a game on, but I will take what I can get.

Saint Kitts and Nevis were one of the first of the islands in the Caribbean to be colonised by Europeans and housed the first British and French colonies. It is also the most recent British territory in the Caribbean to seek and gain independence, gaining it in 1983.

The Brimstone Hill Fortress is a national park, and one of the most popular tourist attractions on St. Kitts. As one of the one of the most well-preserved British polygonal-style fortifications in the Western Hemisphere.

Frigate Bay lies just southeast of the capital and is the home of the tourists who choose to hang out a bit longer than our mere day trip.

The St. Kitts Scenic Railway is a 3-hour ride that circles the island by both narrow gauge train and 12 miles on buses. It was built as a sugar cane railroad and now goes past the island’s sugar plantations and sugar factory.

Now let’s call this one straight. This place is seriously humid. Sweating in hot temperatures is normal for me, but here even Jill was dripping in sweat as we walked around. The thing that does need to be mentioned is the food. Everywhere we went we passed the most amazing smelling restaurants we had ever encountered. As we had come off a cruise ship, we were stuffed but if we ever come back, the food journey will be high on the list.

We did manage to sample the local beers ($2 each) and dipped our toe in the water with a Johnny Cake. The Johnnycake is something that I had heard of but never tried. I asked the lady what it was and got a relatively indecipherable answer so figured the best way wax to just order it and play lucky dip on what arrived. I do tend to do this a lot. The beers were great, but the fried doughy bread thing stuffed with (jerk) chicken and salad could probably have been avoided.

St Kitts was lovely and with a bit more time it would be nice to explore it a little more fully. Reading into what we missed revealed rainforests, sandy and volcanic beaches and given the relatively small size of the place, they are all quite easily accessible with the hiring of a vehicle. And for future reference, August is when the cricket is on and pumping with the Caribbean Premier League.

Fiji

Fiji in an island nation made up of over 300 individual islands. It is a famous tourist destination and has been established and set up with this entirely in mind. It is renowned for rugged landscapes, palm-lined beaches, coral reefs and clear lagoons.

Ever since I was a kid I remember seeing those Fiji package holidays that were always being advertised. They always seemed to include an idyllic resort, flights included and more often than not, they were under a thousand dollars. While the price has gone up (considerably) all of the rest is still available today.

Our trip would take in 3 separate resorts and also include a night at a B&B in Nadi (mainly to avoid a long drive and potential drama on the final travel day). So for the most part we should get a nice spread of what is here.

The first and biggest issue that we had on arrival was getting access to WIFI, and this was our first real introduction to life in Fiji. In order to get access to the mobile data network at the airport, be prepared to hand over your first-born child as the prices are obscene. We had just left Samoa where we got a SIM card with data for 5 tala (about $3) for the month and found that we were now paying $70 Fijian ($55 AUD) for 15 days. And for this amount of money you got a patchy spotty service that kept dropping in and out the whole time.

This got even worse once we got to our second resort, where we were told that if we wanted WIFI in our room then we had to pay an additional $40 Fijian for 3 days access.

This service was slower and even more spotty than at the first place.

Before we go any further, the first thing that must be discussed is Fiji Beer. It is terrible and costs more money than you would pay for beer back home. There are three main options (Fiji Bitter, Fiji Gold and Vonu) and they are all atrocious to drink. Fiji Bitter tastes acrid, while gold is tasteless. Vonu at least borders on passable but if you are given any other choice, I would drink that.  I ended up finding Camel (a Hanoi beer) and grabbed that.

Add to this the price. The cheapest that we could buy a stubbie at a resort was $10 ($6.9) and this went up to $17 ($11.75) at the last place. Before we left Australia, we were buying cans for $3.50 at the Emu Park RSL and the beer actually tasted good.

Fijian resorts

Fiji is full of resorts and they are all pretty similar. The 5 star options offer high end service at high end prices and really don’t give you a sense that you are anywhere near Fiji (you could just as easily be anywhere (beachy) in the world. As for the lower star options, they are all pretty much interchangeable with a limited (westernised) menu and drink and food prices that rival anything that you would pay back home and more in many cases.

Every menu that we came across in our time here had the following options steak, fish and chips, burger, pizza, fish curry, chicken curry and vegetarian curry. And that is what you will have available at almost every resort, for every meal, for your whole time here. There will be a daily special (lunch will almost certainly be a club sandwich or chicken wrap) and the dinner special might be a chicken schnitzel with chips. Every now and then you will get a nod towards something local, like Kokoda (the Fijian version of Oka or Ceviche) but it will be overcooked (sit in lime too long) and made bland.

Don’t get me wrong, the food is nice enough. The options are just extremely limited and over an extended period (more than a few days) they get pretty boring.

Let’s get a few things straight on our accommodation. They were all absolute beachfront, with green grass, swimming pools, palm trees and idyllic locations. All the rooms were private, en-suited, clean and serviced regularly and they all offered similar services and tours. They were all quite remote (far from villages) so you had to get in a cab to see things. Across the board the food was poor and overpriced as was the beer and cocktails (only the level of overpriced changed).

So in the grand scheme of things, all of them were fine. There was nothing stopping you from having a good time at any of the resorts for a week or two. But that said, there was still stuff that put us off some of them.

Resort One

Our first resort was a cheap and cheerful 3-star number. It was fun and quirky with an open-air bathroom. The place was nice but was completely overrun with free-range dogs. This seemed to be a plus for many but was a bit annoying for us at meal times or when the dogs decided to scuffle with each other. But at $155 Aussie a night, I could not help but imagine all of the coastal towns back home where you would find similar digs with better food and cheaper drinks.

StarsNight
Price
(AUD)
Beer
Price
(Fiji)
Meal
Price
(Fiji)
WIFIMassage
(Fiji)
***15510-1428Patchy40/hr

The big winner here though was the $40 massage. Don’t get me wrong, Fijian massages are terrible if you have anything that needs attention. There is very little therapeutic about them, but if you are looking for a light, easy, relaxing way to kill an hour, then you cannot go wrong. I was there early in the day and the ladies were doing nothing so I ended up with a four hands massage for my $28 Aussie.

The biggest issue that we had here was the staff. They were friendly, but the place was their own private playground and you as a guest happened to be infesting. This meant that the music was at unbearable volumes almost all of the time and if they wanted to talk to each other, they just yelled to each other, across the entire resort. This wore very thin after a while.

Resort 2

Resort number two was a step up in stars, but inexplicably a step down in expenditure. For no apparent reason we went from 3 to 4 stars but saved ourselves $35 a night. The room was bigger and nicer, with indoor plumbing and was entirely lovely. The staff were just as friendly, but without the yelling, the dogs were there but were fewer and much better behaved.

StarsNight
Price
(AUD)
Beer
Price
(Fiji)
Meal
Price
(Fiji)
WIFIMassage
(Fiji)
****12012-1536$40 for
3 days
70/hr

The beach at resort two was a bit nicer than the first but had the benefit of some lovely blue starfish to be seen straight off the sand in front of your room.

No real snorkelling to speak of but that was the same for all three of the resorts.

In reality, resort two was probably our pick of the three but it was also plagued with the poor food and terrible internet options that all three had. But importantly, it did have a big screen TV that allowed me to wake up at 3am and sit with the security guard watching the world cup rugby Quarter final games between Fiji and England, closely followed by South Africa against France.

Resort 3

This was at the high end, positioned on one of the best beaches in Fiji and upon arrival it was clear that the extra money was for the beach. The room was smaller and less well appointed than Resort two and the prices across the board were higher, in fact all of the prices here were through the roof. But the beach was magnificent.

StarsNight
Price
(AUD)
Beer
Price
(Fiji)
Meal
Price
(Fiji)
WIFIMassage
(Fiji)
****$215$15-17$45Patchy
and slow
$140/hr

Jill and I have spent a lot of time talking about Fiji and its attractions and charms. Neither of us have anything adverse or bad to say about Fiji at all. The people are friendly, the location is stunning, and as beach holidays go this is a fine place to come. And sure once upon a time, when it was cheap, this would definitely be the place to come. But the days of a cheap Fiji holiday are mostly gone.

For the prices that you pay here today, you could get as good (if not better) options all the way up and down the Australian coastlines. The food would be better, the drinks prices would be cheaper and you would have saved yourself a plane fare.

Sigatoka is a small town wedged about halfway in between resorts two and three. As we had lain about enough, we decided to hop a bus into town and check out the local markets (being a Saturday and all). Sigatoka is now commonly dubbed as “Rugby Town” due to the local rugby team’s influence on the Fiji national rugby scene.

This is where we got to do some local shopping and mingling with the community rather than being trapped in a resort. I managed to grab myself a Fijian Rugby shirt and a Bula Shirt and we got some reasonably priced beer, wine and snacks. I even managed to grab a few roti wraps (with a chicken and potato curry filling and a tuna filling) for about a buck each.

Fijian Food

This will not really be a fair section to write as the food that we had was almost always resort food and it was bland, templated and made for western tastes (at least the perceived ones). I am certain that if we were able to have gotten out and about more then our food experience may have been vastly different.

The food options were a mix of Indian and Chinese with a bunch of local fruit and root vegetables thrown into the mix. Over time the Indian and Chinese foods had both been localised somewhat and did not really resemble their roots. But they were still ok. Particularly the Indian, ignore the lack of chilli, the flavours were good.

Kava is the traditional drink made from ground-up roots of the Piper methysticum. The root is traditionally crushed or ground in water and drunk as tea. Kava has been used in ceremonies and cultural events in the Pacific region.

And it tastes like mud.

Nadi

Nadi was a breath of fresh air after having spent so much time on the beaches and in the resorts. The beaches were lovely but the resort food was pretty bad and the prices were through the roof. We got a place near the airport (but still on the water) and immediately were happy. The beaches were nowhere near the standard of the resorts and neither was the water.

But the price for a stubbie of beer went from $17 to $5 and the food was better and a ton cheaper and even the cocktails were reasonably priced. In reality the best meals that we had in our fortnight in Fiji was here and not in the flash beachside resorts.

Overview

I rate Fiji as a lovely place to visit and we are glad that we came, but in hindsight neither of us think that we would return. There are many more beachy type destinations around that offer as much (if not more) than Fiji at a fraction of the cost.

I have already mentioned the stay at home (in Australia) options, but if you were determined to head overseas then the other options that I would include would be:

  • The Maldives,
    • Malaysian Islands,
  • Philippine Islands,
  • Sri Lankan beaches,
  • Samoa and
  • even some of the lesser Greek Islands.

All of these offer the same sort of relaxing beachy feel and will set you back about a half to a third of what you would pay here in Fiji (granted the Maldives does also have the super high-end options that would blow these prices out of the water). And importantly they will all offer good authentic food and drink options at far better prices.

The night in Nadi slightly changed our opinion and softened our view of Fiji, but the cost of the resorts is too exorbitant for it to be a go-to option.

Sri Lanka

This was a break stop to avoid the killer long flight back to Australia, while we meandered back home.

For long-time readers, you may recall that back in 2013 we went to Guilin in China and met an amazing Sri Lankan couple (Ruwan and Dilani). While chatting they asked if we were planning to visit Sri Lanka (which we were not). So we rejigged our plans, visited Sri Lanka and loved it.

So this stopover was all about catching up with them and breaking an otherwise long flight to get back home.

But first, a quick note about our almost empty flight over to Sri Lanka from Dubai. We have never been on such an empty flight. Business and Premium economy were pretty full, but for us plebs at the back of the plane, we had entire rows to ourselves.

After arriving we were collected our bags and made it through customs and immigration in record time and then had to contest with the taxi drivers and touts. As we arrived late we stayed at an area called Negombo. This is a nice beach spot relatively close to the airport. We planned to stay with Ruwan on the trip but due to the late arrival the first night was here.

After ridiculous offers of cab fares to our accommodation (4500 rupees) we fought a patchy internet connection to order a car from the Pickme app which suggested that 2000 was more reasonable. After the Wi-Fi connection dropped in and out (losing our ride each time) we eventually got ourselves a tuk tuk. This meant we needed to walk (past the Buddha statue), out to the road where we got met by our man.

Negombo

From here a quick ride, with a lovely breeze, over to the seaside town just north of Colombo. Our accommodation was amazing, and less than half the price of what we had been paying in all of our travels through Europe and the Middle East.

The next morning we were up for a walk along the beach before Ruwan came to pick us up for our journey to begin properly. Our first adventure was on the hunt for mud crabs. Jill’s Uncle Terry had posted to try them on my Facebook and Ruwan had seen this so now we were on a mission. After a false start or two (through the local fish markets etc.), we found the local mud crab exporter and shipper at the local piggery (an obvious place to find it). The big thing about the mudcrabs was that in Australia the going rate sits at around $50-60 a kilo and in Sri Lanka it is more like $20.

Colombo

Well, Colombo has certainly grown up a lot since our last visit. When we arrived a decade ago, there were virtually no buildings over about 5 storeys high. During the past decade, China has funded the construction of massive infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. There are numerous high-rises all around that were not here a decade ago. The most obvious of these is the Lotus Tower.

The lotus tower “Nelum Kuluna” is the tallest skyscraper in the country.

It stands 351.5m tall and cost US $113 million to build. The official blurb tells us that the lotus symbolises purity and represents the country’s flourishing development.

But the lotus is also the symbol of the political party that the President at the time (Mahinda Rajapaksa) hailed from.

Added to the above, the Chinese investment has been spent on building are some massive white elephants (notably the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport and Port City). These developments have sent Sri Lanka into a debt crisis. The lunacy of these investments has been publicly described as (I love this one) “monuments to fiscal profligacy”.

Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) was assigned 2000 hectares of land with the funding to build it ($190 million) coming from the Chinese government in the form of high interest development loans.

Built during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa the location of the airport just happened to coincide with where he lived. He also built the Hambantota International Port there (the port has been leased to China on a 99 year lease) and tried to get an international cricket stadium built there too.

The first stage of the airport was completed with projections to serve one million passengers and handle 45,000 metric tonnes of air cargo each year. It opened in 2013 however, due to low demand, all of the international airlines left by 2018. On average now 4 flights per month land in MRIA.

Port City was next in line. It is a 269-hectare ocean reclamation development funded by Chinese direct foreign investment however the project was seen by many to be merely a Chinese debt trap.

When completed, Port City Colombo will have over 5.6 million square meters of built space, boasting the best in design and standards. The development will comprise of 5 different precincts including a Financial District, Central Park Living, Island Living, Marina and the International Island. The loan agreement allowed two Chinese companies to jointly operate the terminal and take a 65% stake in the port for the next 35 years.

When the land was being reclaimed, plane loads of workers were flown in from China, they were housed and fed in on-site accommodation. The only real benefit that was derived for the local people was that the rock and gravel used for the fill were sourced from Sri Lanka.

In addition to the projects above the former President also sought Chinese investment in the financing and construction of ports, power plants, roads and mines. According to Wiki, Sri Lanka’s foreign debt increased US$11.3 billion in 2005 to $56.3 billion in 2020. Foreign debt in 2019 was about 42% of GDP but by 2021 it rose to 119% due to these loans. Sri Lanka has defaulted on these and is unable to make even interest payments on loans. In 2015 surrounded by screams of alleged cronyism and corruption, he lost a bid for a third term. 

The mismanagement of Sri Lanka has led to some terrible things being done to its people. We were told of the on the ground impacts that followed from defaulting on the international debts. No vehicle (or any other large imported item) has been brought into the country for the last 3 years, petrol was scarce for months at a time and the community has been saddled with high taxation to pay back the debts that were incurred. In the meantime, the projects that incurred the debts were folly and sit as white elephants.

Anyway, the sad realities dealt with, let’s talk about travelling and exploring this amazing country.

Ruwan had been monitoring our travels up until now and had been observing the sorts of things that we had been doing and seeing. Being the cracking fella that he is, he tried to organise things that were totally different for us to do, while we were in Sri Lanka. The first thing on the agenda was a 5am wakeup so that we could get on the road and head to the Elephant Transit Centre.

The Elephant Transit Centre is a wildlife protection facility in the Udawalawe National Park. On our first trip, we had visited the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage which took care of orphaned elephants. This one was similar but the focus here was about getting them back into the wild. Because of this, there was much less human interaction and, for the most part, all of the elephants were babies.

We missed the morning session and had a few hours to kill so we hung with Ruwan’s handyman (whose sister worked at the centre). We went to his home, walked through the countryside and got to see a taste of real Sri Lankan life. This included the sheer joy that he could share this experience with a couple of foreigners. The hospitality was overwhelming, including the fact that they fed us. The meal was something a little out of left field as we sat by the riverbank and ate an incredibly hot (spicy) porcupine curry.

Yep, you read that right. Porcupine, yet another animal to add to the weird animals that we have eaten list.

The thing that Ruwan has done since we first met was to turn himself into a superstar photographer. Being stuck at home through COVID has prompted him to amuse himself so he has bought a flash camera and a monster lens and has been taking some absolutely amazing wildlife shots. As you can see from his photos below, he has some serious skill and my little phone camera really doesn’t cut it.

I put him in a headlock (metaphorically) and got some photography lessons from him, so my photos may improve. Anyway, the next thing on the list of things that he had organised for us was a safari at the Yala National Park. Moving on from the elephant centre we kept going to our accommodation for the night, Ruwan had us booked into a safari lodge. This involved a really dodgy night roughing it in a tent in the middle of the jungle. I posted the photos on Facebook and everyone questioned my description suggesting that it was more “Glamping” than roughing it. Anyway you can make up your own mind on just how tough we did it.

As you can see from the photos above it was a hardship roughing it in the jungle at a safari lodge (Mahoora).

Yala National Park

The next morning it was up at 5 am where we met our Safari Jeep and headed out for the first entry into the Yala National Park.

Yala was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1900 and became a national park in 1938.

Ironically, the park was initially used as a hunting ground for the elite under British rule.

Yala is made up of 130,000 hectares of land which combines a strict nature reserve with a national park. It is divided into 5 blocks (2 of which are accessible to the public) consisting of light forests, scrubs, grasslands, tanks and lagoons. It is home to 44 varieties of mammal and 215 bird species.

Among its more famous residents are the world’s biggest concentration of leopards, elephants, sloth bears, sambars, jackals, spotted deer, peacocks, and crocodiles.  Pretty much all of which we got to see (with the exception of the sloth bears).

Of particular interest was an up close and personal experience with a bull elephant. While perched high in our jeep the elephant came out of the jungle and took exception to our presence. So it walked over to the jeep and head butted the car trying to push it over, while we were sitting in the back of it.

While zipping along we got word of a leopard, and turned and chased it. We got lucky and caught the last minute before it disappeared back into the jungle. In case you were wondering…it was a boy leopard.

Tourist Prices

This was a bugbear for me last time we were here in Sri Lanka and it remains one today. Almost everywhere you go in the world, there are two pricing scales, one for the locals and one for the tourists. This we are used to and have come to expect and in some cases even embraced. But Sri Lanka takes this concept too far.

They did last time and continue to do so to this day. Originally the open gouging of tourists was confined to the tourist sights run by the government but now this has grown to be common practice throughout the tourism industry in Sri Lanka.

I guess that this was a little more evident this time around as we were travelling with locals everywhere we went. On our original visit I was complaining that our Sigiriya trip would cost a local 40 rupees to get in but would cost us 3900 and Polonnaruwa was 50 for a local and 3250 for the foreigner.  

So our accommodation cost was organised by Ruwan (he got it for 7,000 but the cheapest we could do online was 12,000) this translates to the difference between $35 and $60 for the night’s accommodation. We had the BBQ dinner at the safari lodge and the cost for Ruwan and Dilani was 700 rupees ($3.50) while the price for us was $US22 (7,100 rupees). We sat at the same table and ate the same food. Below is a list of some of these differences that you may be subjected to.

ItemLocal
Price
Foreigner
Price
Sigiriya 1009,700
Polonnaruwa free8,100
Lotus Tower5006,500
Yala National Park97014,000
Udawalawe National Park1509500
Elephant Transit Centre1151900

Sri Lankan Food

Sri Lankan food is amazing and made even better because Dilani was a spectacularly good cook. The range and variety of local foods was fantastic (albeit that she toned the spiciness level down for Jill). Mudcrabs, prawns, dahl, veggies, curries, string hoppers, accompaniments. Really how could anybody ever complain at feasting on a wide variety of yummy food every night.

The last stop that we made was at a local stall on the side of the road where we got fresh curds with treacle (or local honey in our case). Eaten in a clay pot with a banana leaf shard as our spoon.

Once again we have visited and loved Sri Lanka. We are already talking about when we can come back. Add to that the proximity to the Maldives, this may become a regular holiday run.

Serbia

Serbia is a landlocked country in the Balkans. It shares land borders with Hungary (north), Romania (northeast), Bulgaria (southeast), North Macedonia (south), Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (west), and Montenegro (southwest), and Kosovo.

Serbia has about 6.6 million people.

Having loved our (240 km and 8 hour) bus ride into Bosnia and Herzegovina we decided to fly out for a 40 minute puddle jump into Serbia, more specifically Belgrade.

Belgrade

Belgrade is the capital and largest city of Serbia. It is located at the junction of the Sava and Danube rivers with a population of around 1.6 million. Belgrade is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world with the first dated records of habitation going back to the the 3rd century BC.

Our accommodation saw us perched between the old and new town directly opposite the old main railway station and associated park.

The park is amazing with an incredibly impressive monument to Stefan Nemanja (over 20m high).

He was a medieval Serbian nobleman who together with his son Sava (who the big church is named after) are considered the fathers of the Serbian Orthodox Church).

As it was early enough we dropped off our gear and headed out on a walk to see the sights. We chose to hit the ones that were away from old town, where we would be spending most of our time the following day. So we turned the corner from our hotel and started our way up the hill aiming towards St Sava Temple.

But within two blocks we had already landed upon the railway museum, which was incredibly impressive in its own right.

Half a block up and across the street we came upon the Government of the Republic of Serbia building.

This was built in the 1920s and was the first public building built in Belgrade for the purposes of the public administration of the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

Next came the Department of Defence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Belgrade city museum, public health department. And they were all housed in amazing soviet era architecturally designed buildings that were incredibly impressive.

Anyway, we did eventually make it to St Sava Temple which again, blew our socks off. The church is dedicated to Saint Sava (son of the dude with the big statue opposite our hotel), the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church and an important figure in medieval Serbia. It was built on the location of St. Sava’s grave.

The next morning we were up and off to the 160 acre Belgrade Fortress. For many centuries the entire town existed within the walls of the fortress. It sits at the meeting of the Sava and Danube rivers.

As with all of Europe, the warring tribes saw this piece of land change hands many times over the millennia. The romans had their turn and according to wiki “in the period between 378 AD and 441 the Roman camp was repeatedly destroyed in the invasions by the Goths and the Huns. Legend says that Attila’s grave lies at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube (under the fortress)”. In the following centuries the fortress suffered continuous destruction under the Avar sieges. 

The name Belgrade was first mentioned in AD 878 by Bulgarians. The fortress kept changing its master as Bulgaria had it then the Byzantines and then Bulgaria again, in the 11th century it was given to the new Serbian state as a wedding gift. In the 15th century it was conquered by the Turks (with short periods of Austrian and Serbian occupation), but it remained under Ottoman Empire rule until 1867, when the Turks withdrew from Belgrade and Serbia. 

From the fortress you got a fair view of the Gardoš Tower or Millennium Tower.

It was built and opened in 1896 to celebrate a thousand years of Hungarian settlement in the region.

Within the walls is St Petka’s Chapel which was built in 1417 and was allegedly erected over a sacred spring. At one time it held the holy relics of St Petka. With all of the destruction of the fortress over the years, the exact location of this chapel is not known so a replacement was built on the grounds in the 1930s.

The amazing thing for us was that to visit and walk through the fortress and associated grounds was 100% free.

There was one odd children’s playground area with dinosaurs in it that had a small fee.

But as we did not want to play on the playground, we avoided that cost.

From the fortress, you spill out into the remainder of old town and the main tourist and shopping district of Belgrade. This part of town is full of funky old buildings with tons of character.

As you wander through you come upon the Cathedral Church of St. Michael the Archangel or simply St Michael’s Cathedral. This is a Serbian Orthodox church in the centre of the old part of Belgrade. It was built around 1840, on the site of an older church dedicated to Archangel Michael.

The Historical Museum of Serbia is currently in this building but it has been granted the building opposite our hotel (the old main railway station) as its permanent home and will be moving soon.

The Stari Dvor or old palace was the royal residence of the Obrenović dynasty (1800’s).

Today it houses the City Assembly of Belgrade. 

Novi Dvor or new palace was was a royal residence of the Karađorđević dynasty (late 1700 & 1800’s)

Today it is the seat of the President of Serbia. 

House of the National Assembly was built in 1936 and has served as the seat of parliament for the Parliaments of Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro and since 2006, Serbia.

For the most part, Serbia has been great. The food is good (if not exactly heart smart), the prices are reasonable, the beer is well-priced, and there is plenty to see and do (mostly without charge). I would certainly not hesitate in coming back.

The Golubac Fortress is somewhere that looked amazing but sadly (at about 120km from Belgrade) we could not get to. It was a medieval (fortified) town on the Danube 4 km downstream from the current town of Golubac. The fortress was built during the 14th century and has ten towers. Most of these started square but evolved to get many-sided reinforcements to accommodate modern firearms.

Luxembourg

Luxembourg, officially the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, is a tiny landlocked country of around 2500 square km and a population of under 650,000.

This makes it both one of the smallest and least populated countries in Europe.

It borders Belgium (west and north), Germany (east) and France (south).

Luxembourg’s recorded history dates back to Roman times but the modern day version is considered to begin in 963. The House of Luxembourg was a royal family that ruled in and around the region for centuries.

There is evidence of primitive inhabitants dating back to the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age over 35,000 years ago. The first real evidence of civilisation is from the Neolithic or 5th millennium BC, from which evidence of houses has been found. 

Originally, the City of Luxembourg was originally built in the mid 10th century as a small fort (the castle). It was built on a steep rocky outcrop at the junction of the Alzette and Pétrusse Rivers. Due to it’s strategic position it has been occupied and controlled by the Italian, Spanish, Belgian, French, Austrian, Dutch and Prussian. With each iteration and rule various engineers contributed to the fortifications stronghold. The fortress was so strong that at one point it earned the title of “Gibraltar of the North.” 

Luxembourg was one of Europe’s greatest fortified sites between the 16th century until 1867, when its walls were dismantled. The fortifications and the old town have been classified as world heritage sites by UNESCO since 1994. 

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg became a founding member of the United Nations in 1945 and in 1949 it also became a founding member of NATO.

This is a catch up as I published this one out of order, we were actually in Luxembourg, before Switzerland but I got the two L’s (Luxembourg and Lichtenstein) mixed up in my head and only just realised (3 countries later) that I had missed this one.

Luxembourg City is modern and the capital of Luxembourg it has done an excellent job of blending history and modern progress. The modern city is a highly efficient and functioning centre of commerce (particularly banking) while the Old Town area has kept the history and beauty of the city alive.

The first thing to know about Luxembourg is that all public transportation is free.  

From our hotel (in the red light district near the train Station) we did the tourist walk towards the Old City to check out what Luxembourg had to offer.

The first thing that we aimed for was the Pont Adolphe Bridge. Originally built between 1900 and 1903 during the rule of Grand Duke Adolphe, the bridge had the biggest stone arch in the world at the time. The big double arch spans more than 85 metres across the Pétrusse valley at a height of 42 metres, and a total length of 153 metres.

Crossing the bridge you come to the Monument of Remembrance, officially known as Gëlle Fra. It is a war memorial dedicated to fallen Luxembourg soldiers. 

At the top of the obelisk is a golden statue of the Greek goddess of victory, Nike. She is holding a wreath and looking down on a fallen soldier laying at the base of the pillar.

Constitution Square, or Place De La Constitution is next.

This is a lovely garden built on the site of a former bastion or fortress wall.

At the center of the square the Luxembourg flag waves, towering over the green space.

Across the road is the Notre Dame Cathedral. It took more than 300 years to construct and is free to enter. Looking nothing like the more famous Cathedral with the same name, this one has three towers, stained glass windows, intricately carved pillars, and a vaulted nave.

Place Guillaume and Place d’Armes are the two main squares in Luxembourg City.

Place Guillaume is home to the Luxembourg City Hall. A statue of the former Grand Duke William II riding a horse dominates the eastern half of the square. 

Place Guillaume and Place d’Armes are the two main squares in Luxembourg City. Place Guillaume is home to the Luxembourg City Hall. A statue of the former Grand Duke William II riding a horse dominates the eastern half of the square. 

Place d’Armes is in the heart of the pedestrian zone of Luxembourg City. It is lined with cafes, restaurants, and shops. During the holidays, the square hosts a Christmas market and every other Saturday there is a flea market in this central square. 

Grand Ducal Palace was originally Luxembourg City’s first town hall that was built in 1418.

It is the official residence of the grand ducal family.

During the summer months, the Luxembourg City Tourist Office runs exclusive guided tours of the Palace. These 75-minute tours are booked out months in advance. They allow visitors to take a look behind the scenes, including the Grand Duke’s office, the dining room and the “Salon des Rois”.

The money raised from ticket sales is used to support a foundation that supports humanitarian and solidarity initiatives to assist vulnerable people and those in distress, both in the Grand Duchy and in developing countries.

Luxembourg is lovely, there is plenty to see and do but in real terms, you can do the lap within half a day, perhaps a little longer if you do the palace tour. I feel this may be the case for many of the smaller European countries. The train in and out is a breeze, and the free transportation around town makes this place a dream for a quick pop-in and look around.

Luxembourg food

Luxembourg is a very international country, as over the years people have moved here from all areas of the world. Their food is a mix of French, German, and Belgian cuisines, but other countries also feature strongly in restaurants across the country.

This actually blew us away, Luxembourg has delivered the best food that we have eaten all trip. Strangely enough we did not eat traditional but rather we had Syrian and Italian and both were exceptional. We did not eat in flash hotels or restaurants, we picked the local small joints (as we usually do) and were totally blown away with the quality, taste and service that was on offer.

Traditional Luxembourgish cuisine however is deeply rooted in local farming and seasonal produce that include meats, sausages, cheeses, potatoes, cabbage, and beans. Wine, honey, and mustard are also traditionally made throughout the country.

The traditional stuff is a bit more basic and includes things like:

  • Bouneschlupp and Gromperenzopp (Green Bean and Potato Soup),
  • Gromperekichelcher (Potato Pancakes),
  • Bouchée à la Reine (vol-au-vent),
  • Letzeburger Kniddlelen (Luxembourg Dumplings),
  • Wäinzoossiss mat Moschterzooss (Sausage with Mustard and Wine Sauce)

Given that the local stuff was a bit stodgy, I had not planned to do a food section here. But the stuff we ate and the service that they gave was phenomenal. Having come out of North America where you are expected to pay a minimum of 18% extra for service as a tip, not one lot of service (that we paid for) came close to what we got here in Luxembourg as part of the experience.

There is real pride taken in both the service and the products that are brought to your table. In fact, even at our dodgy neighbourhood Italian joint, we were served with a porcini mushroom mousse as a free appetiser while we considered the menu. If there are any foodies reading along, put Luxembourg on your list.

Iceland Cruise

6 June to 17 June 2023Jewel of the Seas

Amsterdam– Reykjavík– Isafjordur – Seydisfjordur – Belfast – Liverpool – Cobh/Cork – Amsterdam

This has been a really tough one for me to summarise. Life during and after Covid has been very tough for the cruise ship industry. The experience today is very unlike the cruises that we had done before the pandemic. And in many respects, the changes are not for the better.

Jill and I both agreed that this was the worst cruise that we had ever been on. It wasn’t terrible, but it was nowhere near the standard of the other cruises that we had done. So we tried to break down what it was that made it so.

Was it the ship?

No.

While the ship was older and smaller it was more charming and intimate than the bigger ships and had more style and character to it.

It was a bit of a visual throwback to the halcyon days of cruising. Certain elements were tired, but a small revamp will fix that once the revenues return.

Was it the staff?

No.

The staff were super friendly (as usual) and more than willing to assist at every turn.

Was it the ports?

No.

The ports were fantastic and could not be faulted.

Was it the food?

A bit.

The food was a bit down on its usual standard and the choices were lacking at times, but there was still something on every menu for everyone.

So what was it then?

The entertainers were obviously the B team, with the real headliners and acts on the newer ships. There was a massive focus on karaoke on this cruise which was very uncomfortable and disturbing for the rest of the guests. A bunch of people (guests) with American Idol aspirations but no talent warping away (at volume) with nowhere for us mere mortals to hide or escape them.

The pianist in the main bar was a thumper, who could not sing, didn’t know the words and fluffed his way through most of the songs. Another of the entertainers played so loud that there was nowhere to escape.

We had one night at one of the specialty restaurants (Izumi) where we paid an extra $US40 a head to eat there and the experience was terrible. While the food was OK, it was not worth the additional expenditure. The service was slow and poor, the ambiance was loud and akin to a cafeteria and at the end of the meal we found that there was an enforced 18% gratuity tacked on top of the bill.

The theme nights were terrible (in a food sense) with only a single option (in the main dining room) that represented that theme. The rest of the menu items were an eclectic spray across the board. On a European cruise, there was no focus on European things or foods. Although there was a fish and chip night when we were in England.

Instead there were Indian and Mexican nights. In fact, Indian was a constant staple for every single meal (despite the fact that there would have been less that 20 Indian guests on the whole boat – admittedly the chef was Indian). But the desserts were excellent, every day and for every meal. Those options were perfect.

On a similar theme, many of the announcements were delivered in both English and Spanish (less than 20 Spanish speakers on the boat). The German and Dutch tourists (it did leave from Amsterdam) were constantly asking what was going on. This may be fine for the Caribbean cruises but in Europe it didn’t work here.

It is clear that in a post Covid world significant cost cutting measures have been put in to strip away some of the outgoings while the industry rebuilds. But this has happened to the detriment of the cruise experience and threatens to derail the industry if this is not realised and adjusted, before it is too late.

The cost-cutting started with the dropping off of the higher-end spirits. As an example, I used to be able to order a Macallan single malt whiskey on the drinks package but it was pulled, so I switched down to the Glenlivet, which has also been pulled leaving only a Glenfiddich. As the cruise progressed, Jill started on the Kim Crawford’s Sauvignon Blanc which was also being phased out to lesser wines.