I have been writing features about travel and food for many years and have ventured to many corners of the world to explore new destinations. In recent years I have covered the Caribbean extensively including all the main islands and the lesser known ones. I spent a spectacular week sailing in the Grenadines followed by 10 days on remote island inhabited by giant lizards. The wine route in South Africa is a personal favourite and warranted three trips but I have also visited and covered community projects, charities and the townships. I specialised in safaris for a while when Dara was younger and managed to review many child-friendly and adult-friendly reserves particularly in the north east of South Africa along the Botswana border. I was fortunate to visit Asia over a four month period and covered Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand. I was a regular visitor to China and Hong Kong for a few years for both business and travel writing and if I had a lifetime I wouldn’t be able to cover the vastness and rich culture and heritage across that amazing part of the world. I recently completed a trip that covered all the amazing new places to visit, eat and shop in New York in a two centre review that covered the best of Miami. I did a follow-up review of Key West (always changing) and the best of Orlando’s theme parks including Disney and Magic Kingdom and much more.
London being almost a second home is a regular destination and there are always new attractions, restaurants, bars and hotels to cover. Across Europe this year I covered Portugal – both the west coast (Martinhal – see attached) and the more popular tourist areas (where the Irish have made a home from home). I spent time last year covering Abu Dhabi and Dubai, a perfect two destination escape (features attached).
The Chocolate Bloc By Norah Casey South Africa has incredible weather. Every second day during the summer you are guaranteed scorching sunshine and calm winds. Its almost built-in sun protection weather because every other day you might imagine you had been transported to a different country over night so different is the climate. We had days of ferocious winds which offered instant face lifts and chapped lips. We had storms of lightening and thunder out in the Bush. We had rain – not just ordinary rain – the sort that pours out of the sky for hours at a time and soaks everything in minutes. Then there were just ordinary cloudy days – days for driving and exploring. This day was of the rain-drenching variety, which brought its own adventure, but it is also marked as the day we got to try The Chocolate Bloc – a wine that had become our Holy Grail. We had opted for horse riding that morning and a light rain began to fall as we headed out of the stables for an hour and half trek on the side of the mountains (between Plettenberg Bay and Knysna). Us hardy Irish folk, we told the stable owner Vicky, are well used to a bit of rain – and she, a hardy Home Counties English woman readily agreed to continue on. We were about 10 minutes into the ride when the deluge began – sheets of heavy rain fell upon us. Still we assumed it would be over in a flash and urged our, by now, unwilling steeds to stick to the trail. Above the roar of the rain I could vaguely make out Vicky shouting out some interesting facet of tree-life or pointing to a bird, but her words were whipped away by the wind and the roar of the downpour. At some point – probably about half way through our 90 minute ride – we realised that this was no ordinary shower and as the clouds emptied above us our six-year-old was whimpering softly about wanting to go home. Vicky being a hardened land-lover ploughed on through waist-high bushes of heather – our horses, their heads hanging low and saddles rain sodden sauntered after her. With the promise of hot chocolate and a hot bath on our return Dara braved the climb. We finally admitted defeat when the rivulets of rain were gathering an inch deep in our shoes and our clothing was saturated. We headed back with not a moment of respite from the rain. By the time we unsaddled we were sodden and muddy. When we arrived back to Hunters by some wonderful intuition Julie – the ever-attentive GM – had organised for hot chocolate and tea to be delivered to our room. The rain showed no let-up and we languished in hot baths and lit the fires in both rooms. Once we were warm and dry we noticed that the rain had followed us inside and was leaking through the African thatched roof. The staff went into overdrive arriving with towels and buckets – hastily preparing another room for us – two men were despatched to put a tarpaulin over the roof – it was all very exciting and a far cry from the sun worshipping of the day before. We learned afterwards that this unprecedented downpour – which lasted the whole day – had led to three deaths in nearby George and that a mini-bus had been swept away in Knysna. As if by recompense for the dreadful weather we were promised a treat for our last night – a bottle of The Chocolate Bloc for dinner. Its not that The Chocolate Bloc is expensive (at SAR 275 a bottle in a restaurant it comes in at around E32) its more that you have to find someone willing to sell it to you. The Chocolate Bloc was produced by Boekenhoutskloof vineyard near Franshoek – the wine producer is one Mark Kent – a young entrepreneur (featured on TV while we were there as one of the most eligible bachelors in SA!). Mark according to wine sources in South Africa is one of the most exciting wine producers – inventive and an avid risk-taker. The fact that he chooses not to take part in trophy shows sets him apart (with Springfield) as a wine producer who needs no plaudits for his work (other than the delight his growing followers have in his wines). In 2003 only 81 barrels of The Chocolate Bloc were produced – limited to 24 per customer and guarded ferociously by those who were lucky enough to have secured a batch. Once decanted and left to breath we approached our first tasting with reverence (even the staff were on standby to witness the occasion). The chocolate aromas hit the nose immediately overlaid with subtle fruits – overripe berries. But nothing compares with the first taste. The chocolate overtures are unmistakable – a more subtle mocha flavour than I had expected. The velvet smooth wine had remarkable flavours – prunes, marshmallows, and treacle with a spicy aftertaste (the Shiraz influence) that lingered on the palate. The blend is Grenache-based with a mix of Shiraz, cabernet, cinsaut and viognier. Like most South African reds its heavy on the alcohol at 14.5% but still less than some we tried. It was a wine to be savoured – with or without food (my preference would have been to drink the bottle there and then without the wait for dinner). This is all by way of context for our evening meal – our last (sadly) at the wonderful Hunters. Given the night it was we were looking forward to warming winter fare. The chef did not disappoint. We
began with wild mushroom and truffle soup with watercress froth. The strong tastes were perfectly balanced and although I wouldn’t have thought the watercress was necessary it brought a welcome lightness to the soup. Perfect (especially as it was accompanied by the drum of rain on the windows). The second course was a hearty dish of shredded lamb with feta and tomato piled on filo pastry sitting on a base of onion relish. Our only complaint was that the portion was on the large size (it would comfortably have made a main course) and the lamb was so tasty that we had to eat it all – leaving us a little over full for the main course! The sweet onion relish was a delightful accompaniment to the richness of the lamb and the delicate tomato and feta went surprisingly well with the dish. An unusual assortment of flavours that was somehow right for the night it was. For the main course Richard opted for Kingclip freshly caught on the line nearby. This white delicate fish has large flakes – delicate and fragrant. The kitchen had topped it with a light gratin and served it on a bed of crisp green beans and a side of seafood ravioli. My choice was slow-cooked duck with a tangy orange sauce served with crumbly polenta-type maize, which was buttery and light. The strong gamy flavours of the duck were partnered beautifully by the sweet orange and being a huge fan of polenta the maize was irresistible. The main courses thankfully were better portioned – leaving just enough room for dessert. South Africa has some wonderful dessert wines and we were treated to an impromptu tasting of some eight of the best a few nights previously. The Vin De Constantia won our vote and we enjoyed a glass of the sweet nectar with our pudding. By now the incessant rain provided a comforting and familiar background noise – muffled in the comfortable confines of Hunters sitting room. The rain drenching horse ride was a million light years away as we sprawled in front of the open fire chatting to the amiable Fasie (a trainee hotel manager) a passionate wine lover with an incredible knowledge of south African wines and vineyards. Fasie, who had entertained us and educated us over the five days, joined us for a final glass (and for him his first taste) of the wonderful Chocolate Bloc – if only rainy days in Ireland brought such cheer.
I will post more reviews here over time and share some insider tips:
‘My Travels’ is a weekly Q&A in which we ask public and private figures the travel questions that matter… and make us laugh. Let us know what you think, and who we should feature next!
Where have you just been?
I escaped to New York last week to celebrate the end of my son’s Junior Cert… more stressful for me than him, I think. We stayed in Fitzpatrick’s Hotel, a home from home, and he got to see the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. I got to see the inside of Bloomingdale’s. Perfect!
What three things do you never leave home without?
My phone. I tweet, do emails, make notes, order Hailo – use it to park my car, catch up with the news and make the odd phone call. I also bring a highlighter pen (the real secret to good management) and lip balm.
What’s your favourite city?
Vancouver is stunning. A city where you don’t have to leave the city to leave the city. Towering snow-capped mountains dwarf the contemporary skyscrapers. I grew up in the Phoenix Park but Vancouver’s Stanley Park is a true wilderness. It has great art, good food, a fantastic culture mix and it’s a bit quirky. Go and you’ll understand.
Dressing for the plane: style or comfort?
Very difficult one. When I was a jobbing journo (and I still do lots of travel writing) I used to turn up for my economy seat and hope they might upgrade me if I looked halfway decent and they often did. Now I like to curl up with comfy clothes with my headphones playing distracting music and a good book and I don’t care where I sit (except for next to babies – sorry!).
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve eaten overseas?
I’ve eaten cockroaches in Cambodia – deep fried in spice and they were crunchy and not too bad, I ate crickets in China, snake in Burma but the weirdest and grossest ever was on a visit to Tashkent in Uzbekistan where I was working with the World Health Organisation and as the guest of honour I was offered the sheep’s eye – served whole and raw on a plate in advance of the feast. I can’t tell you how hard it was to bite into it, I can still feel that slimy eyeball juice squiring out of the hard outer shell. I don’t think it was an option to say “No thanks”.
What destination exceeded your expectations?
Definitely Cambodia – I stayed in Siam Reap near Angkor Wat – the UNESCO Heritage site with all those amazing temples. I was expecting to be in awe of the temples but I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with the people and the place.
I went to visit an amazing home for street children and a school which was spread out over the grounds of the family home of a man who lost his father at the hands of the Khmer Rouge (over two million people were killed under Pol Pot). Over 1,000 kids turned up each day to learn in ramshackle lean-tos and teachers donated their time after work. There was a chalked message on a bit of wood nailed to the gate and I asked him what it said – he told me: “ It says something very important to us – ‘Khmer help Khmer’.”
They’re proud people, incredibly artistic – a wonderful place.
What destination didn’t?
Actually lots of places haven’t now that I think about it – all those beautiful photographs of pure white sandy beaches and turquoise waters they use to lure you in rarely turn out to be true. But my biggest disappointment was Bali. I thought I was going to this exotic Indonesian paradise and it turned out to be the Santa Ponsa of Australia – especially Kuta.
Ever had a holiday romance?
Of course – a beautiful French man called Francois who broke my heart while camping in the south of France when I was 21. Before that, there was the lovely Miley from Donabate who shared the swing boats with me in Portrane every evening one summer when I was 13. That was the real holiday romance!
What three songs would you include on a travel playlist?
You’re going to expect travel songs like Madonna’s Holiday or Don’t Fence Me In, but I am in love with music and my 15-year-old son Dara regularly sends me linksto new stuff. So at the moment – and I am just packing to leave – I have downloaded Imagine Dragons (Demons is my favourite), Of Monsters and Men – Little Talks is incredible and Macklemore Irish Celebration – just brilliant.
What’s your next trip?
Tomorrow. I have taken a break from trying to run the world and escaping with my boy to Florida – we’re doing South Beach Miami – staying at the National – a beautiful old Art Deco hotel. I’ll be queuing with him and half of the inhabitants of South Beach tomorrow night to get a seat at Joe’s Stone Crab – all that therapeutic shell cracking – if it’s good enough for Frank Sinatra then it’ll be worth the wait.
– See more at: http://www.independent.ie/life/travel/travel-talk/my-travels-norah-casey-30401090.html#sthash.AAyFsDvU.dpuf