The Saroche – Luxury has a price!


I’m aboard the 39 meter (127 foot) long barge – the Saroche. And I honestly – I’ve think I’ve landed in the lap of luxury.

The service on the barge is so personal, and so fast that I’m reminded of Goldie Hawn’s line when her butler brings her Cavier in the film ‘Overboard’, “Thank goodness, I almost had to wait”.

This is definitely not your budget holiday trip, but then sometimes it’s fun to be different. We opted for this cruise for several reasons, and it is interesting how close and yet not close it came to matching our expectations.

I should start by explaining that this is not really a cruise. It’s really a barge trip down a series of canals in the Champagne Region of France – the Marne Valley to be exact. And where our expectations and the reality have diverged is really in the Champagne Touring. But I’m getting ahead of my story.

The Saroche is an absolutely lovely boat – low and long, she was purpose built to be a ‘hotel’ barge, and while her history diverted from that at times, it is her basic design. The front of the barge, under the deck where there sits a large Hot Tub, a dining area, and a lounge area, are just three staterooms. This is a trip for a max of 6 passengers – and with 4 crew, it’s easy to imagine why the service is so completely personal. And we are just 4 passengers – one of the couples had to cancel at the last moment, leaving Jason, our host, unable to fill that slot.

Our cabins are glorious. Dawn and Jason spent last winter completely remodeling the cabins – and they now reflect the Art Deco/Art Nouveau theme that Dawn thought would be appealing. Light wood, poster art from 1930, and huge beds and equally large bathrooms make the cabins a haven. I’m particularly fond of the shower in the our bathroom – it has both a rain shower and a hand shower, and plenty of nice hot water. Perfect.

The main cabin, which has the spiral staircase to the upper deck, a large lounge area with a full open bar, two sofas, and a game/library cabinet is quite comfortable. The focus however is on the dining area. Here Dawn with the help of the crew (Sarah, Luther, and occasionally Jason) serves up delightful 4 course meals for lunch and dinner. I’ve never eaten so well, or so often, in my life! Wine glasses are never allowed to be empty, and once they figure out your preference (I love hot water if the weather is nippy), they are fast to be sure that your need is met, before you even have time to think about needing it. “I almost had to wait…”

There is simply nothing that I can say about the food that wouldn’t sound like I’d been drinking the Koolaide. It is outstanding. Jason does his very best to match the food with wines from Vineyards in France, but with less absolute success. His pairings tend to be young wines, and their lack of maturity is often a flaw. But this is a minor quibble. This cruise is not about fine wines (albeit that there were some outstanding wines opened and enjoyed) – it’s about knowledgeable pairings – and in that Jason excels.

The cheese courses are a case in marvellous point. We have a cheese course twice a day for 6 days. And Jason does not repeat a cheese. I will admit that there were cheeses that I could die for (the Comte he served us was the best I’ve ever had), and cheeses I didn’t try (I’m not keen on the Blue Cheeses, and I can’t eat cheese made with goat’s milk, it makes my throat swell), but all in all, the cheese course and the wine pairings that with them were legendary.

Jason did promise us a list of the cheeses and wines – I’m sure it will come by email in a few days – but even holding a list I doubt I could duplicate the experience. The kitchen has a built-in cheese store, so that they are served at the right temperatures – something that has always given me trouble at home.

Each night finds us moored at a different location along the Marne Valley Canal system, enjoying a late dinner. Each morning finds us either moving at a snail’s pace down a canal or through a lock, or sometimes taking a day trip into the surrounding area.

While I loved the relaxed pace of the cruises – not really a snail’s pace as much as a walking pace – it was the side trips that I found truly interesting.

We visited a little known battlefield from World War I – La Main de Massiges. This labyrinth of trenches laid buried for years until it was unearthed and an association started (only in 2008) to keep it open, accessible, and properly signed. For an in-depth description of the place (in French – sorry) – do click here. Our visit was made even more interesting by about 20 WWI re-enactors who were there to film a movie about the involvement of soldiers from the Czech Republic. It was unworldly to walk thru the trenches, knowing that just around any corner one might run into soldiers doing their level best to be period correct.

For me, as much as I dislike visiting battlefields in general, this visit was a highlight.

Another outstanding exploration was to the Eisenhower War Rooms – a small museum in Reims that was the actual site where the treaty ending WWII was signed. It was signed again the next day in Berlin because the Russians wanted it to be officially signed there – but here in this tiny room, in this now lovely town – but at the time heavily bombed battlefield – the treaty was signed. It is hard not to find the room strangely inspiring, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the then movers and shakers gathering to end the war.

I also loved the visit to chocolatier Thibault. It’s a lot of fun to make praline filled chocolate champagne corks – although the very best part was the wrapping machine. I’m such a techy! I really loved the tasting as well – there’s is simply nothing wrong with chocolate – particularly good chocolate.

Bottom line – I loved aspects of our cruise. I enjoyed the company of our new friends, I totally relaxed in the hot tub in the afternoons as the glorious scenery glided by, and I ate way to well, and way to much. I think for me, a week of ‘relaxing’ is too long. I was itching to get going again, but that’s a personal problem. And I definitely think that Dawn, Jason, and their crew deliver on their promise – you are indeed in the lap of luxury for a week.

Signing off to enjoy Museum Night in Paris – Muse d’Orsey here I come! The Soup Lady.

Seafood Dinner in Peniche


Peniche is a tiny – seriously tiny – sea coast town located between Coimbra and Lisbon. And it’s claim to fame, aside from some of the best surfing waters in all of Portugal is a single restaurant- the Marisqueira Mirandum.

Leave it to my hubby to dig out information on this tiny but amazingly good restaurant. I think a book on the best restaurants of Portugal might have been a contributing factor – but in any case – we made reservations, and even found a lovely Air BnB near by.

Getting to Peniche was interesting – very interesting. There’s a famous Napoleonic battle field in between Coimbra and Lisbon, Bussaco, and naturally that rated highly on our must do list. Finding the battlefield was almost as hard on us as it was on Massena – the Marshal who was involved. It’s on a high ridge, and the land in this part of Portugal is best described as seriously hilly. It’s a tortured landscape, up and down and round, with hidden valleys, drastic cliffs, and huge marshes. In1810, this was contested space – with the French attacking, and the Portuguese with the leadership of Wellington on the defence.

Wellington wasn’t that interested in winning – the royal family of Portugal had already fled to Brazil. His interest was in delaying the French long enough to get his troops off the mainland of Europe without losing more men that needed, and to succeed he had to slow the French down.

This he did in great style at Bussaco. He even spent the night at the Santa Cruz Convent, currently closed to visitors, but easy to find – once you find the Forest of Bussaco that is! I’m not going into detail on the battle (read about it here), but the Forest was a lovely place to visit, even just as a drive thru!

After visiting the over-the-top Palace Hotel of Bussaco and enjoying the painted tiles that celebrate Wellington’s ‘Victory’ – we headed down the ridge towards Mealhada, the auto-route, and Peniche.

Mealhada is famous – really really famous – for Suckling Pig. And I’m a fan of Suckling Pig, so as it was lunch time – I’m routing for us to stop and try it out.

Conveniently, there’s a tourist info booth located right at the entrance to town. And you can see immediately that the town is devoted to it’s ‘Piggy’ reputation. There are easily a hundred ceramic, papier-mâché, or plaster pigs decorating the tourist booth. They come in all sizes – and are mostly hand painted by local kids. I ask for advice – and of course they can’t recommend a specific restaurant, but they are willing to point out several options on a handy tourist map.

Back in the car – we check out tripadvisor – and the #2 restaurant in Mealhada is Rei dos Leitoes – which I translate to King (or Queen?) of Milk Pig – aka – Suckling Pigs. I’m on it – that’s the place. We are heading there. (Yeah, I thought about going to #1 – but it was closed on Mondays…)

And the Rei dos Leitoes totally delivers. Probably my favourite meal in all of Portugal – albeit a bit on the touristy side. This is the high end of eating Suckling Pig – at least a half dozen wait staff, white glove service, a full bar, Portuguesas Business men entertaining clients, and the occasional touring oriental family. And us of course. They seat us quickly, and bring over plates of appetizers for us to choose from.

We opt for the pork patties – which in hindsight was a mistake. The dinner portion (the only option available, even though it was lunch time) of Suckling Pig turned out to be a huge portion, and we couldn’t finish it, our appetites ruined by the pork Patty. But that’s a minor complaint, and of course our own fault. If you visit Mealhada and go to the Rei dos Leitoes – stick to the reason you came. Don’t get distracted by the other offerings – it’s Suckling Pig for everyone.

And it was delicious. Skin crispy, meat juicy, properly cooked, served hot, and with the outstanding chips (fresh potatoes cut into flat circles and double fried) that we’ve come to expect in Portugal.

I love everything about this restaurant. The decor is modern with an enormous collection of pig sculptures – large, small, silly, cute, dignified – you name it, they had it. And I adored the toilets – very modern with lighted sections to push to flush either strong (+) or light (-). Very fancy.

We head out to find our way to Peniche, and yet another meal. We’re Eiser’s – we travel from meal to meal.

Our journey this time is uneventful – it was getting to Bussaco that was the challenge – not getting away! I can’t figure out why Massena didn’t just follow the route the current auto-route takes to Lisbon, it would have saved him a lot of time and effort. The auto-route runs along the coast, and while I understand it would have been marshy, it still would have been easier than going up and down and up and down the hills to the West. But he didn’t – and thus the Penisular War was lost.

Peniche turns out to be easy to find – and we are quickly lost in the maze of tiny one-way streets that are characteristic of small town Portugal (or big town Portugal for that matter). With much squeezing between parked cars, and the occasional folding in of rear view mirrors, we find our BnB and make ourselves at home.

We have time for a nice walk thru town before dinner, and I definitely want to check out the famous surfing beaches. It’s a chilly walk however, and we move quickly thru the walled portion of the city, admire the sole surfer willing to brave what must be freezing water, and head back to our BnB to prepare for dinner.

And what a dinner it is!

World renown for the Seafood – that’s our obvious choice. There is a tank of Lobsters – some of whom are well over 4 pounds, but we decide to go for the two person shellfish dinner – and are not disappointed. It’s a feast of epic proportions.

The platter holds a stacks of those tiny snails that we loved in Spain, several sautéed Shrimp, Clams cooked in butter, 2 crabs, some chunks of Lobster, a pile of Barnacles, boiled shrimp (heads on of course), and several oysters. I allow Victor to eat the Oysters uncontested – he lets me enjoy most of the clams. We basically eat everything, including tasting the barnacles – which our clever waitress assures us we will love – if not this visit, then the next one.

It’s totally yummy.

We walk slowly back to our BnB, and tuck ourselves in. Tomorrow will be another busy day!

Signing off – The Soup Lady

The Legacy of Apartheid- Founder’s Dinner at the Founder’s Lodge, Shamwari Game Reserve


The 6 of us gather for drinks before dinner in the lounge, and Freddie arrives to escort us into the ‘den’. It’s been reset as a dining room for the occasion, fireplace lit, candles on the table, lovely place settings.

We decide to seat women closer to the fire with me in the middle seat, and the men opposite – Victor facing me across the table. To my right are a former Policeman and his wife, to my left a Lawyer and his wife. I’m identifying their jobs because later on in the evening, our conversation will get very interesting – their jobs have given them very different perspectives on the issues facing South Africa.

But dinner begins politely enough with a menu of options to choose from, including a soup or goat cheese salad, a choice of main course, and a choice of dessert. I opt for the soup, a stuffed chicken dish, and a sweet cake for dessert. I’ve discovered that folks here love their sweet cakes – and I’m quite the fan of their work.

Over the course of dinner, and following several bottles of wine, conversation turns to the current state of affairs in South Africa. Since our dinner companions are all from Port Elizabeth, although from quite different walks of life, their opinions are very intriguing.

They agree that the current government is completely corrupt – an opinion I’ve heard over and over again from the folks who will talk politics with me. I’m not sure that this is a majority opinion however, since none of the folks who are of a darker skin color seem as willing to admit that there is a problem. After all – the party in power is the ANC – Mandela’s group – so calling them corrupt is perhaps not acceptable. I’m not sure.

One thing I am sure about however is that calling the government corrupt seems a somewhat universal theme – folks in the US call parts of their government corrupt, we in Quebec are certain that there is corruption at the higher levels, although pinning it on a specific individual is a challenge. So South Africans are not unique in feeling this way – it does seem however that in some cases the accusation is accompanied by accounts of house buying, major home renovations and trip taking on the government dime.

There is agreement as well on some of the statistics – 20% of folks unemployed, apx 37% living below the poverty line (related stats I’m sure), a frightening amount of crime, along with a looming water crisis in the ‘food basket’ areas of the Eastern and Western Cape. In the 25 days that we have been here there have been reports of several mass murders, including one where gang members gunned down 18 members of the ‘unofficial’ community protection group in one of the informal settlements (Philippi) near Cape Town. And there are some interesting laws that have been enacted – I’m told that farms are forbidden from using machinery to do most jobs – instead they must hire manual labor – a way to keep folks employed. And I’ve personally seen numerous restaurants where the number of staff clearly out-number the clients. This is redundancy mascaraing as employment, but I’m not sure that anyone is fooled.

I ask my dinner companions how they feel about the towering electric or barb wire/razor wire fences that surround almost everything, everywhere in South Africa – and they confess that they are fenced in as well as fenced out. The folks to my right loudly state that the fences are essential – and cite recent incidences of violent crime against older folks living in gated compounds that still aren’t gated enough. The folks to my left on the other hand mourn the lack of open access that they remember from their youth – when kids could play in the streets safely.

Today they explain life in the middle and upper classes is lived inside enclosures. You get in your car inside your compound, and only open the gate long enough to allow the car to drive out – and that after checking the cameras to be sure no one is lurking nearby. You drive to your destination, another gate is opened (after making sure of your identity), and only after the gate is secure behind you do you get out of the car. Play dates have 6 members – 2 Moms, 2 Kids, 2 Body Guards.

If you work in an office building or hotel or factory, the process is the similar – enter your car, open the gate, drive to the ‘office’, open that gate, close the gate – get out of the car. No one light skinned wanders the streets, walks to work, lives without gates and guards and security.

There are of course exceptions – in the townships and informal settlements – life is very different. There are fences – but they surround the township, and as a legacy of Apartheid have few entrances so that the police can close off the township quickly if need be. Within the township, as we witnessed when we were traveling with Mr. Podbrey, there are few fences. But still even these buildings have wrought iron gates at the doors that can be locked closed for the security of those within. No matter our status – we all apparently have things we must protect.

The former policeman and his wife to my right seem to feel that all this security is beyond necessary, it is essential. There is too much crime for the police to deal with, and taking security into your own hands – or the hands of your community is just, proper and expected. (Later I will chat with a lady who lives in Jo-burg. She tells me that the cost of this security in her neighbourhood is 2,500 Rand a month – a huge amount to folks who consider paying 20,000 Rand a month for food for a family of 5 outrageous).

The lawyer and his wife disagree – they think that all this excess security only builds up the need for more and more security. It’s a self-fulling prophesy. You expect the worst, and that’s what you will get. I must agree with them when I think of Canada, the US, Britian, Europe, Thailand, South Korea – most of the other places where I’ve spent time. In all these places, fences are mental, not physical. My stuff is this side of a line, yours is the other side – and we’ve both agreed that this is the case. No fence is needed. And surely not 6’ high stone fences topped with razor wire and huge mechanized wrought iron gates. How have all these places managed to convince folks that you should respect what is mine – not feel you can/should just take it? Where and when did South Africa go this other route? Folks who have never left South Africa (Africa?) are unlikely to appreciate the huge difference in mental state that exists

The lawyer’s wife argues that supporting all the various charities and foundations that are working to make things better is a valid road to improvement. The couple to our right thinks these things are a waste of money. Putting the money into more and better police is the way to improve safety in South Africa.

On the other hand, I think back to our conversations with the young folks in the Khayelitsha Township outside of Cape Town. They were much more positive about the future – planning on getting an eduction and perhaps working in IT if Soccer doesn’t pan out as a career. Meanwhile our dinner companions tonight are thinking of sending their kids – and grand kids – abroad to ensure their future.

We are physically and mentally stuck in the middle. We come from a place where there are few if any fences, and if they exist, they exist to keep pets from roaming the neighbourhood, or to keep young kids out of swimming pools, not to create compounds. In fact, in my community, building a fence completely around my yard would be against the law. I’m not allowed to do this – but then neither is anyone else in my neighbourhood. I’m wondering if one would have to start by tearing down all the fences. You certainly can’t tear down a few – it would make those few a target.

Here’s another frightening fact about South Africa – this one gleamed from local newspapers. In Cape Town, only 12 of the 35 public pools will be open this summer because of the water crisis. But while this seems reasonable, it is worrisome. How will black and coloured city dwellers cool off during the hot hot summer months ahead. Granted public pools are only one way – but they are an accepted place for young people to play, to exercise, to be. Close them and you rob young folks of an acceptable option, and kids are not going to sit at home. That’s not going to happen. My expectation – there will be a dramatic increase in crime by young folks in Cape Town during the summer – from frustration and boredom, not from malicious intent. I’m sure there is a water shortage – but I’m also sure that there are other ways of dealing with it that will not just make a bad situation worse.

In a breakdown report of unemployment stats in the same newspaper (quoting a report just released but with data from 2015) it was stated that 30% of Africans (blacks?) are unemployed, compared to 19.6% of coloured and 6.4% of whites. And women outnumber men of course. To have a basis for comparison, I looked up unemployment records during the Great Depression in the US in the 1930’s. The highest rate of unemployment then was 17%. So we are talking about almost double the amount of unemployment among the largest groups in South Africa.

In the Western Cape alone there are 628,000 unemployed individuals in the second quarter of 2017. This in an area filled with wineries, farms, lots of tourism, and several huge employers. Again to put things into perspective – that’s 1/3rd of the population of Montreal, and more than the entire population of Vermont.

In the end, we all agree to agree that there are huge problems in South Africa, problems that aren’t helped by a government seen by many as hopelessly corrupt, and made worse by unequal applications of primary facilities – large police presence in upper class areas, single police cars patrolling the huge and unruly informal settlements.

And we can all agree that all groups are being forced into paying for protection that the government can’t or won’t provide. The fees that folks in the enclaves pay monthly for ‘protection’ are by their standards out of line – perhaps 1/4 of their food bill to use something meaningful as a source of comparison. In the informal settlements – the cost is even higher. It might cost a mother her son in Philippi, a price no one should have to pay.

The serving of dessert changes the tone of the conversation, and we all focus on what will happen tomorrow. The first game drive starts at 6:30 AM – so it’s time to head off to bed.

We can’t solve South Africa’s problems over coffee.

Signing off – The Soup Lady.

We Shoot – We Score!


Our plan for today is simple – we leave Stellenbosch, head just 30 minutes down the road to another town renown for it’s Wineries – Franschhoek – and do some more taste tests.

The winery Victor has chosen for us to visit is another larger one – Boschendal. And we’ve pre-arranged our wine tours. Victor discovered that by pre-arranging, you get much better hosts – and frequently a private tour. And Boschendal is no exception. The great-grandson of the original founder of the winery (now employed here by the current owner) is our host – and he regales us with tons of information about not only the wines, but also the Hugenaut history of this area of South AFrica. His name is Francois – but of course he speaks no French. That is long gone, but the naming tradition continues. Interesting.

Today is Sunday – and on Sunday everyone that has a bike uses it in this area. We pass rider after rider on our way to the winery – and not surprisingly – are surrounded by riders and their families who have made the estate their picnic ground. In a word – it’s mobbed. But our tour is private – so there!

Naturally – they have organized how to ship wine to the states – so two cases later, we head on to lunch (extremely forgettable meal at Fyndraai), and drive into Franschhoek. We are greeted at our newest lodging – Le Quartier Francais – with the news that we have been upgraded to a suite – and we are the first guests in this newly renovated space. And it is best described as huge and fancy! The art around the lodging is outstanding, the art in our suite makes one gasp – and the entire room is so huge I have to take pictures. The living room area has a fireplace (which they offer to light should it get cool), and the bathroom features not only the mandatory huge free standing bathtub (but please don’t use it – we are having a water crisis) and double sinks – it has a heated floor! Curiously to me, the toilet and the shower are both glass enclosed rooms. Odd – private but not so private if you get my drift.

It’s rather early in the day – so we opt to wander the one Main Street of Franschhoek and look for a book store. The first one we find is called the Treasure Box, and it’s a used book store run by an elderly lady. The door to the shop has a metal fence across the front – and a note to ‘ring bell and pull the gate’. We do so, and when we ask why the protection – she admits that she was robbed at gun point and decided not again. She also lets us know that her husband died suddenly (5 years ago), and she still has never discovered all the codes he used on the internet things – like bank accounts and wifi passwords.

Oh.

We buy a cook book from her – which she lets us know does NOT contain any recipe she would cook – it’s about Africian, not Afrikaner cuisine, and we head back out to explore. The rest of the village is composed of either tourist traps or stores for locals like 3 different grocery stores and a pharmacy. Despite the warning from the gal at the Treasure Box – we find that the village feels quite safe.

Our hotel was the site of a world famous restaurant for many years – but it closed in June (the chef wanted more time with her family) but the newly opened replacement is La Petite Colombe. The tasting menu looks very interesting, and by our standards is not terribly expensive, so we opt to give it a try.

An excellent choice as it turns out. The 12 course meal is well prepared, well served – and very interesting. I thought only one of the dishes wasn’t an absolutely standout – which is probably a record. My favourite courses were the “meet the chef” which had us up at a ‘chef’s table’ in front of the kitchen enjoying a soup made with expertly seasoned freshly made noodles, and a quail egg, the Asian style tuna that was yummy to the last dribble, and BBQ quail and lobster tail combo that hit all the right notes.

My husband of course had the wine tasting with his meal – I opted for sparkling water and a few sips here and there.

A wonderful meal to go with a wonderful suite and a wonderful day.

Signing off because bed is definitely beckoning- The Soup Lady

Rovos Rail – Cruising Across South Africa


I’m on the Pride of Africa – an over the top luxury 20 car train that is currently snaking itself from Pretoria to Cape Town.

And it is truly a cruise on land. All the things that annoy me about cruises – too much food, and not enough exercise – but oh so relaxing. My fellow travellers are an eclectic mix of South African, Dutch, Canadian, Australian, and American. English is the language de jour, although one occasionally hears Chinese (from Vancouver), Africaans, and Dutch. It’s all together kinda neat – in an decidedly too elaborate way for my simple mind.

And alarmingly – no Wifi. Nada. For a full 3 days and 2 nights. Which means I’ve been out of contact for all that time. I just spent a few minutes chatting with the train manager – and he assures me that in a year or so, they will have solved that problem. Bit late for my purposes of course.

There are almost as many wait staff as there are guests – I suppose that is not surprising given the cruise motif. But there aren’t any shows, other than the food of course, and there is no pool or exercise facility. Instead, we have an Observation Car, a Lounge Car, a Smoking Car (glass walled to keep them in – and us out), two dinning rooms, a car devoted to a huge kitchen, and the rest of the train are the cabins.

The private cabins are huge. Our cabin is a mid-sized version and features two comfy arm chairs, a bathroom with a full sized walk-in glass shower, and a Queen sized bed. I think most cabins are the same size, although one group I was chatting up complained that their cabin didn’t have the two chairs. And I did peak into a cabin that had a bit more space between the chairs and the bed. Apparently it also had a bathtub, but that’s just a rumour. But never mind – everything is leather, or wood, or glass, heavy brocade materials, old fashioned lamps, and lots and lots of AC units.

Wouldn’t want someone to get either too hot or too cold!

And the views out the absolutely clean windows are of Africa. We started our journey in Pretoria (just a few kilometres from Jo-burg), and for the first two hours or so we go past station after station with primarily black customers patiently waiting for their commuter trains. Young folks and old, in traditional dress and today’s standard jeans and a T-shirt – they were, as we’d been warned, primarily blacks. Apparently the white population of South Africa has abandoned their rail system to rely on cars. This is a terrible mistake, but given that the trains we saw (other than ours) had no AC – and it’s over 90 degrees – I suppose I’d be hesitating to use the public rail as well.

A more disturbing view is that of the corrugated metal tiny shacks that serve as home for countless folks. We rode past whole towns of these shacks, some with fenced in yards – some with nothing but dirt in front and in back, and others with carefully planted gardens. The sheer numbers is astounding. But even more disturbing is the casual attitdude towards garbage. There is literally tons of garbage in just the section between the rail lines and the homes – it’s very clear where ‘no-man’s’ land begins – and that’s where the garbage is left. I asked about social services to clean up this mess – and was told that it is done often, but the lack of places for these folks to put garbage properly makes dealing with the problem an endless task. Maybe so – I must admit a lot of it looked to be ‘fresh’. And sometimes it was just a question of where you looked. On the right side of the train – clean as a whistle. On the left – coloured garbage bags lie everywhere, and those light weight plastic bags are as common as Christmas Ornaments on the bushes.

Back to Rovos Rail. This is a private rail service that offers luxury travel on several ‘Journey Itineraries’ thru Africa. We are taking the journey to Cape Town, but they also go to Victoria Falls, Durban, and Namibia. The train is glorious – it’s hard to find issue with the abundance of silverware at dinner, the constant inquiry as to your happiness and needs, and the over abundance of delicious alcohol on offer. Naturally, the Pride of Africa’s wine cellar specializes exclusively in the high end South African options – including a Port and a Brandy that blew my socks off.

Breakfast offerings include lattes of course, Lunch offered as much as you can drink white wine and port, and we’ve been promised a 5 course tasting menu for dinner tonight – paired with 5 other South African wines.

My issues are pretty much as predicted – the scenery, while lovely, is huge and perhaps a bit boring. I mean we saw a massive flock of Pink Flamingo’s – from a distance, and a herd of Springbok fled when we quietly came past, but generally it’s hours and hours of flat dry lands – going from the more bushy grasslands near Jo-Burg to the Karoo Plains. Eventually we will enter the mountain passes and tunnels that herald our arrival into Cape Town – but right now – after almost 2 full days – I can’t say the scenery has been stunning by Canadian Standards.

And sleeping last night, despite the amount of alcohol and the soft as down duvets, was problematic. The train did stop for 5 hours – but I actually find it easier to sleep when the train is moving – for some reason I kept waiting for it to start moving, even though our all so competent hosts had made it clear that we were deliberately stopping so that folks could get a good night’s rest.

Just like a good cruise, there are excursions. Today’s ‘off the train’ trip was a 2 hour tour of the Diamond Museum in Kimberley. I was thrilled by the prospect, but disappointed in the reality. Our guide was very careful to explain that they no longer use the methods on show – but there was no description of how they are currently mining diamonds. Even more disappointing – our ‘mine’ tour was a fake. Concrete, wood, and flashing lights to convince us that we were underground. Having actually taken a real mine tour – where we actually descended in a still working miner’s lift – and walked thru actual stone tunnels – this was quite disappointing. I did enjoy the movie, and there’s a fair museum to visit – but despite renovations in 2009 – it’s at best a ‘less than Disney’ experience. There are much better museums in the UK – I suggest you read up on some of my other blogs.

Another source of disappointment – we are just two. So if conversation lags, we must chat up strangers. Not a problem – but lots of our fellow travellers came in groups – so the pickings have been slim. And since I’m not travelling with The Intrepid Traveller, I can’t rely on her ability to instantly appeal to strangers.

On the other hand – food has been excellent (I always wondered what Ostrich would taste like – and it’s like lean beef, not ‘chicken’ at all). The service can not be faulted. The wine selections have been superb – and we still have a day to go.

Signing off with hopes that things will improve in the next 24 hours – The Soup Lady

I’m Flying Tomorrow – and I’m nervous. My stomach is killing me…


I’m leaving my safe and warm nest tomorrow for a 35 hour flight to another crazy adventure trip – this time to Bali. I’ve always wanted to go to Bali – ever since I saw the movie South Pacific, it’s been on my ever expanding bucket list of things I have to do some day.

And finally – I’m going. The trip is mostly paid for – I’ve gotten some Indonesian Ruples to pay for the Visa when I arrive – and I’m about 3/4 packed.

My packing issues are probably the source of at least part of my stomach concerns. Bali is just a very short stone’s throw away from Komodo National Park – home of some of the best scuba diving in the world.

I can’t go to Bali and not go scuba diving in Komodo Park – that and not seeing the dragons would be an expensive mistake. If you go that far – at least do the highlights!

In the book and susquent movie “Eat, Pray, Love” – the heroine goes to Bali – and doesn’t see the dragons. Loser. Silly movie. Monkeys are cute – and I’m sure that healer was a lot of fun – but when are you ever going to see hundreds of living, breathing, moving, and apparently ill tempered dragons? Get a grip. See the sites.

So – what does this have to do with packing issues? Well – if you are going diving – in a serious way – you need to bring your own regulator, BC, Mask, Snorkle, Fins, Dive Computer, Dive skin – etc. with you. And instead of just easy to squeeze in bathings suits and a few shirts – I’m now trying to figure out where to put stuff that really was never designed to be packed.

To add concern onto worry – apparently luggage has a habit of not making it to Bali. 3 changes of planes, 35 hours of travelling – just too many opportunities for even clearly labeled luggage to go off on it’s own and visit some other city.

So I’m doing carry on for the critical items – unfortunately – that’s my regulator, mask, Dive Computer, C-cards, and Dive tables. Plus bathing suit, shoes for the boat, hats for the boat, my toiletries, and my clothes. If all of that’s carry on – why am I checking luggage I’m wondering? Oh yes – fins and BC – truly bulky and not dive killers if they go missing. So one mostly empty suitcase in the hold (that is probably getting lost), and one over loaded and super heavy (for me) suitcase to carry on.

If you can’t lift it over your head – can you really call it a carry-on?

Well muttering about my packing concerns is not getting the stuff into the suitcase.

Signing off to go be nervous nearer my suitcase – The Soup Lady

Bistro 1843 – crazy location, awesome food


Who’d a thunk it? A crazily great place to eat on Ile Bizzard. I mean – I thought ile Bizzard was just about the golf courses – not about food.

But there I was – guests of a friend of ours who positively loves great food – and bring your own wine places. He’s clearly an ‘oeniphile’ – that’s someone who knows a ton about wine – with over 1000 bottles in his cellar – and he knows his food too.

So joining him somewhere new to you – but not to him – is definitely going to be good. And this was very very good.

The owners/chef are a bright young – completely bi-lingual couple – who just 6 months ago had their first child. The wife (Sara-Ann) is the hostess, waitress, and general friendly soul, while the husband (Karik) does the cooking – and great cooking it is. Meanwhile the baby is upstairs – with her night-nanny. Turns out the 2nd floor of the historic homestead turned gourmet restaurant is where they live. Talk about a seriously easy comute.

The restaurant has been open for 4.5 years – which just says that sometimes I’m incredibly slow at learning about new places. Our friends have eaten there dozens of times – and were greeted warmly by the hostess – who in addition to providing outstanding service – gifted us with an extra dessert. Given that our meal extended over 3 hours – and she locked up behind us – I’m pretty sure that extra dessert was our reward for last of the night!

Rumor has it that you must make reservations a month in advance – and our friends admit to thinking they have scored if they can get a reserveration with just a week’s notice – yes it’s that good, and that popular.

But I know you are waiting to hear about the food.

The menu is quite limited – as would be expected of a place with just 30 seats, and one chef in the kitchen. The Table d’hote – which just means off the menu – all the meals come with a soup or sald and dessert – had 3 offerings – of which 2 were outstanding. My friends adored their steak – one served with a bernaise sauce – made up to order since it wasn’t supposed to be served that way, and the other had the steak with the reduction of bacon and maple. Yummy. I positivied adored my meal – a completely yummy piece of cod served with figs. My husband’s lamb offering wasn’t quite as good as ours – so sorry dear.

The soup d’jour was a sweet potato ginger concuction that was a tad heavy on the giner – but not so heavy that my husband didn’t lick the bowl.

For entrees, following our friend’s suggestion – we ordered the scallops in curry. Oh my – that was easily the best dish of the evening.

Desserts were also excellent – well presented, and elegant. I tried the walnut tart – packed with walnuts and served with home-made ice cream. My husband had a blueberry upside down cake which he finished with joy. The free dessert i mentioned earlier was the flourless chocolate cake – heavy on cocolate and served with a maple ice cream that I loved.

So – good food, good wine, good friends – comfortable chairs, pleasant surroundings – and the feeling of being in a home – not a high turn over restaurant.

Great meals are made of this.

Bistro 1843 on Urbanspoon

Moroccan with Attitude – the Aziza in San Francisco



My kids have been trying for years to get us to go to the Aziza, and the stars finally aligned this weekend. What a treat!

Lots larger than it looks at first – but still relatively small – the Aziza is located on Geary Blvd, close to the Presidio park with its miles and miles of walking trails. Geary Blvd, at least in the area near the Aziza is a motley collection of Russian shops, low-end grocery stores, and intriguing shops. From the outside, the Aziza appears to be just another darkened doorway among many others, but inside it sparkles with subdued elegance and quiet elegance. Even full, the noise level was acceptable, the feeling a low-level comfortable sophistication completely in tune with the emphasis on fancy bar drinks (like a muddled Fig option) and contemporary cuisine.

I had to take a picture of the menu – it’s that distinctive. Rather than giving the name of the dish – the options just listed the ingredients – eggplant, caper, tomato, gypsy pepper – for example. No indication on how the food would be prepared – for that you must trust the chef.

Under the kids guidance, we opted for the 13 course tasting menu. It made for a long meal – we arrived at 5:30 and left at 8:30 – but it was well worth both the price and the patience. Stunning pretty much sums it up.

Presentation is clearly their strong suit – and I was so consistently amazed – I forgot to take pictures! For example – our 1st course – described as rice cracker, yogurt, corn, coffee – was served on a rock glass that had a piece of plastic stretched over the top to create a ‘plate’. The cracker was then perched on top – appearing to float in the air. Delicious – and amazing. Great combination.

My personal favorite courses were the Scallops (I ate mine – and my son’s), the sous-vide egg, and the deserts. Oh man, the deserts. We ordered one off the a la carte menu – a blackberry creation that was delicious, and then enjoyed the 2 desserts that came with the tasting menu.

I can’t guarantee that anything we had will show up on the menu when you arrive – but I can assure you that the presentation will be worth the wait for a reservation. Go. Enjoy. Go Again!

Aziza on Urbanspoon

Foodio54 Note – the address is right – the name is different! (and it’s been the Aziza for years..)

Kasbah on Foodio54

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8 Easy Steps to Eating Smart when Eating out!



This is one of my all time favorite topics. I leave and breathe eating out – and I watch my weight like a hawk. I went with Weight Watchers in Feb 2002 – lost 30 pounds by June 2002 – and have kept it off for over 11 years now. Clearly – I’m pretty pound of that accomplishment. I weigh what I weighed in High School. Rocking Grannie!

BUT – there’s a price to pay in staying slim and eating out more nights than I eat in – and I call it the menu game. And like all games, there are rules.

Step 1: Before sitting down – Choose your price point and be sure that the restaurant offers options that will work. For example – if you are thinking of spending about $20 per person – the average price for the entries on the menu should be $10 to $15. The wine, the dessert, the tip and taxes will bounce a $10 entry up to $20 in a blink of the eye.

Step 2: Choose your cuisine – A study by the folks at Tufts School of Nutrition has determined that there are ‘better’ cuisines and ‘worse’ cuisines from an average calorie point of view. Not surprisingly, Vietnamese and Japanese have the lowest average calories when their most popular dishes were analyzed, while Italian, American and Chinese have the highest average calorie counts. (Check out the exact numbers in the study published in JAMA Internal Medicine by Susan Roberts, Director of the HNRCA Energy Metabolism Laboratory. Susan Roberts also is the author of “The “i” Diet” (www.myidiet.com))

Step 3: Try not to arrive famished. This is so hard to avoid, and so critical to keeping control over how much you eat. The other day I ended up devouring almost 1/2 of a delicious milk shake because I was just too hungry when I walked in to remember to ask for water.

Step 4: Always ask for water first – and always drink it before ordering. Then you can focus on what you are ordering, and not ‘shop hungry’.

Step 5: Plan ahead – and either order a small portion – or try to put 1/2 away before you start eating. Restaurants, particularly smaller ones at lower price points, serve way too much food. In fact, those crazy folks at the Tufts Nutrition School cited above studied calorie counts and determined that average meals in 33 randomly selected smaller restaurants in the Boston area ended up weighing in at an astounding 1,327 calories per meal – that’s about twice a normal meal, and more calories than I normal consume in a day. More distressing – fully 73% of the meals they analyzed in their study contained more than 1/2 the daily recommended calories per day for an adult. No wonder we get fat eating out. So plan on take out – every time you eat out. In fact 12 of the 157 meals analyzed actually contained more than 2000 calories – the calories recommended for an entire day

Step 5: Be a fussy eater! Ask for all sauces and all salad dressings to be served ‘on the side’. That way you can control how much of the most fattening things get in your stomach!

Step 6: Don’t order what you really shouldn’t eat. If you don’t order the french fries – you won’t be tempted. Don’t ruin fish (something you should try to eat at least twice a week) by getting it fried, and if you order steak – order the small portion.

Step 7: Put your fork down between bites. This works for any meal – home cooked, or eaten out. Study after study has shown that it takes time for your tummy to register ‘full’, and it’s easy to eat so fast that you go past that point. In fact – this is why I love tasting menus. The time delay between the courses gives my body time to decide how hungry I still am.

Step 8: Carry food with you – and eat it when you get hungry! I always have a small resealable container of almonds with me. They are the perfect snack – not terribly high in calories, take effort to eat (if it goes down fast – it didn’t count is false!)

Well there you have it – 8 easy steps to eating Smart when eating Out.

Prime29 – Glorious Restaurant, so-so Food


We’re in Detroit – that should be steak country right? I’m thinking if you want a great US steak – you should be able to get it here. Well – forget about that if you go to Prime 29. So beautiful, so disappointing.

Lets talk about the good stuff first. The restaurant is beautiful. They did a brand-new renovation in a space the size of a small Target (Ok – probably not that big – but you get the idea.). The space is divided up into a series of smaller spaces with huge round tables/banquets nestled into the walls, a huge bar, a huge terrace area with a glassed in gas fire pit and heat lamps, plus standard dining rooms as well. It went on forever.

I just loved the look – dark woods, rich carpet, nicely dressed wait-staff (well – except for hostess in too tight skirt and top – and huge high purple heels – but the guys ate that up), and comfy seats. We opted for the terrace – open air, not a great view – but the weather was so nice it was worth it.

The menu was a bit of a shocker – $41 for a 12 oz rib steak is in the pricy area in my book. But the Filet – 8 oz – was just $34, much more reasonable. And as a teaser – there’s Prime Rib for $29 – but only on Sunday. Since I was eating there on Saturday night – that’s a non-starter.

But I’m flexible, so I order 2 appetizers – a cheese and fruit plate and a tuna tataki, neither of which was cheap – but I had hopes they’d be good. The tuna was a winner. Nice slices of cold tuna, served on a seasoned salad of avocado slices. Yummy. The cheese platter really should have been awesome. There are so many delicious cheeses from micro-producers these days that you can really pick and choose. So Cheddar, Pepper Jack, Cheap Brie and amazingly – Boursin were hardly an impressive selection. Not that they aren’t good cheeses – but for $18 I’d expect at least something like a Jasper Hill, or a local Michigan cheese. Not cheese bought from Price Club. Really. This the best you can do?

But ignore my complaints – my husband’s medium rare filet was medium well, the truffle fries were battered frozen fries (come on people – frozen french fries – at an upscale restaurant?) that weren’t very truffled, and the lobster bisque was declared thin and watery by my friends.

So – it’s a beautiful place to go to be seen, but hardly foodie worthy. Oh well. Next time in Detroit, maybe we will make a better choice.