29 May 2014

{Cape Town}: Luxury Apartments + Waterfront Favorites

If you've been following this blog for any amount of time you probably already know that I have a soft spot for Cape Town.  The city was my very first introduction to South Africa and it also happens to be where I met my handsome soon-to-be husband.  Since said husband-to-be's parents live near Cape Town, along with many of our closest friends, we tend to find ourselves in that part of the country a lot.  Especially when you're at the age where everyone and their mother seems to be getting married.  But, I digress.
Any weekend spent in Cape Town is a good one in my books.


Since Cape Town feels like a second home, we've developed a terrible habit of forgetting to play tourist when we visit.  As we drive past the yachts that line the V&A Waterfront or gaze at the cable cars on their way up Table Mountain, we always promise that we'll set aside a day or two to enjoy all that the city has to offer, but somehow time manages to slip away and before I know it we're back on a plane bound for Jo'burg.

...Which is precisely why I jumped at the opportunity to partner with Lawhill Luxury Apartments on our last trip into the Mother City.  Ideally situated in the waterfront, our weekend escape was filled with beautiful marina views, copious amounts of good food {with the poundage to prove it} and lazy evening walks along the harbor.  And while I can travel on a budget like a champ, I must admit that living the high life never felt so good.
The entire weekend was like one long, wonderful dream that I didn't want to end.


Perfect location aside, one of my favorite things about our apartment was that it offered an upmarket self-catering option, meaning that we were able to save on smaller meals and then splurge on dinner in the evenings.  We stopped at the market on our first morning in Cape Town and then made ourselves breakfast and lunch at the flat throughout the rest of our stay.  Even if we had wanted to pay the exorbitant restaurant prices that Cape Town's Waterfront is known for, we would't have been able to find a better view than the one we had from our own balcony.  And when we did venture out in the evenings, we were able to walk.

In fact, I don't think we drove anywhere once during our stay.
There's simply too much to do and see within walking distance.  

Coupled with fantastic service {and I really mean world class}, magazine-worthy decor, a shower that feels like heaven, a bed that invokes involuntary urges to hibernate, and a balcony view that resembles a painting - I really can't imagine a better way to experience the V&A Waterfront.

And, with Cape Town having just been named the top travel destination for 2014 by the New York Times, there's really no better time to visit than the present.  Hint, hint.


Should you decide to book a plane ticket, here are a few of our Waterfront favorites:

Sevruga, which is quite possibly our favorite restaurant in the history of ever.
{Their sushi and dim sum are 1/2 price daily between 12:00 & 6:00pm}
Alba Lounge, for sunset tapas and drinks
The Grand Beach Cafe, for vibe, cocktails, and an amazing view
Quay Four, for good old fashioned fish and chips
Market on the Wharf, for trendy food stalls with a South African flair
Two Oceans Aquarium, for penguins, sea turtles, and everything else under the sea

And while we're raving about South Africa, here's a link to a video that captures so much of what I love about this adopted country of mine.  If this doesn't give you goosebumps then I'm not quite sure you have a pulse ;)


A huge thanks to Lawhill Luxury Apartments for hosting us during our stay!  As always, all opinions are my own.  Also, for a limited time Lawhill Luxury Apartments will be offering a 10% discount to A Home Away From Home readers using code AHAFH2014.  You can book your discounted stay here.

07 May 2014

{Greece}: The Island of Milos

Truth be told, Milos just sort of fell into our laps.  We knew we wanted to visit Sifnos and Milos happened to be situated along the same ferry route.  Then, I read somewhere that Milos is often likened to what Santorini was twenty years ago; all the beauty, but a fraction of the crowds. And with that, I booked us into an adorable seaside villa in Pollonia and our Greek Island itinerary was complete. It was all pretty impulsive, really.


During our stay in Athens, a number of locals expressed genuine curiosity in our choice of islands. "What made you decide on Milos and Sifnos?", they'd ask with a perplexed look on their face, followed by, "I think you made a really good decision."  In terms of Milos, Athenians consistently agreed that the island was home to the country's best beaches… a secret they hoped to keep hidden from the lure of tourism for as long as possible.

After a few short days of beach hopping on the back of a scooter {and one near death experience… side-eye Jurgen…}, we had to concur with their proposition.  It's hard to even imagine that places like Milos legitimately exist outside the realm of pinterest.  While Milos lacked the intimacy and charm of Sifnos, it's beaches were absolutely breathtaking in a "pinch me this can't be real" sort of way.  If you're into hidden coves, waveless oceans, volcanic rock outlays, never ending cave systems and Greek fishing villages, Milos is your place.

On that note, here are just a few Milos beaches that get a two thumbs up from us…

Sarakiniko

The resounding favorite of the Greeks and one of our favorites too.  The surrounding outlays are composed of white volcanic rock giving the whole area a 'lunar' feel and the water is virtually waveless.  There's also a ton of unmarked caves in the area rumoured to have once been frequented by pirates.


Fyriplaka

Fyriplaka easily wins the award for the most perfectly turquoise water and the beach is also equipped with loungers, waiters and a functioning bar.  We arrived mid-afternoon and had to scavenge around a bit before finding an open umbrella so plan to arrive early.  You can also rent snorkel equipment here.


Tsigrado

Tsigrado takes the cake as the most idyllic beach I've ever set foot on.  Better yet, it's so hidden away that Jurgen and I were the only ones there.  We really and truly had our own private beach for a couple of short hours.  Be warned though, it's a bit tricky to get there and the trek down requires the use of ropes and a ladder.  Without singling anyone out, I'll admit that one of us broke down in tears at one point.  Fine, it was me.  But, once my feet were safely on the sand I could easily agree that the trauma was well worth it.
Tsigrado is officially a little piece of heaven on earth.


Fyropotamos 

Fyropotamos is ridiculously photogenic and epitomises what I think of when I think quintessential Greek fishing village.  While we didn't make it to the beach, we did spend a good hour or so on the pier soaking in the scene in front of us and wondering how one would hypothetically go about purchasing a seaside property in the area.  Apparently, a handful of fisherman still live here permanently.  Lucky fish.


Milos Catacombs

Ok, so this isn't a beach, but it is really fascinating and definitely worth a visit.  The catacombs date back to between the 1st and 5th century and may be even older than the catacombs of Rome.  It's thought that some of the earliest Christians used these catacombs not only as a place to bury their dead, but also as a safe haven for worship in an effort to avoid widespread persecution.  The catacombs are open Tuesday to Sunday from 8:30 - 2:00 and tickets are €3.  This was easily one of the highlights of our entire time in Greece.


By the numbers:

We stayed at Tania Milos in Pollonia {and loved it} for 110 euros per night.
The most delicious homemade breakfast spread was included in the above rate.
We ate plenty of pastitsio, seafood pasta and greek salads.  A typical meal cost between 10 & 15 euros.
Oh, and the nutella waffle bites at Aggeliki in Adamas were heaven on a plate.
We got around on the back of a scooter at a cost of 15 euros per day.
Our Milos highlight? Sunset on the beach at Tsigrado.
Our Milos "must-see"? The catacombs in Trypiti.

08 April 2014

Postcards from Clarens

Hello my dear friends!  It's been awhile.  Life has been busy, but good, in a productive sort of way.  I'm finding it hard to believe that we're already well into the fourth month of the year, meaning that I'm also well into the fourth month of my internship... and that the wedding (!!!) is officially less than six months away.  
But, I suppose that's a topic for another post.

Today I wanted to share one of my very favorite places with you, Clarens.


Nestled right against the foothills of Lesotho, Clarens is one of the towns in South Africa that Jurgen and I find ourselves going back to the most.  When we visit, we usually don't have an agenda in mind and tend to fill our days with cafes and books and cappuccinos and art galleries and chess games and leisurely jogs along the river.  It's the perfect place to be blissfully carefree and lazy.


Despite having been to Clarens more times than I can count on one hand, prior to our most recent visit, we've had fairly mediocre experiences with accommodation in the area.  On our first trip, our bathroom lacked a door... which is a pretty big deal when one of you happens to come down with the stomach bug of the century (hint... it was me).  On another occasion our shower was the equivalent of a trickle.  And on yet another occasion we accidentally rented a house that turned out not to be in Clarens at all (oops). 

So, on our last visit we decided to play it safe and book ourselves into the Protea Hotel Clarens, a boutique hotel located along the main street as you drive into town.  And I'm so glad we did.  For starters, our bathroom had a door, our shower was blissful and we were within easy walking distance of town.  Our room was also comfy and cozy and offered amazing views of the surrounding mountains.  The staff were helpful and the lounge area had a fireplace, making it the perfect place to cuddle up with a warm drink and a good book in the evenings.  Topped off with a superb (and reasonably priced) menu, I don't think we'll be staying anywhere else in future.  If you're ever in the area, PH Clarens comes highly recommended par moi. 


 As for Clarens itself, the town has sort of evolved into an aspiring artist's haven and art galleries pervade its every nook and cranny.  There's no shortage of quaint little cafes, and micro breweries are starting to pop up here, there and everywhere.  Hiking trails line the surrounding hills and a quiet river runs through the edge of town.  The breathtakingly beautiful Golden Gate Highlands National Park is only a few kilometers away.

Just a four hour drive from the hustle and bustle of Jo'burg, over the past several years Clarens has undoubtedly become our favorite weekend getaway.  Two or three days of breathing its clean air and I feel recharged and ready to take on the madness of day to day city life again.  I think a large part of its charm comes from the fact that tourism hasn't discovered it yet.  For the time being, it remains untouched, uncrowded and authentic.

Which is just how I prefer it.  

If you happen to visit Clarens, here are a few of our favorites:

On our last visit, we stayed at the Protea Hotel Clarens for R950 ($95) per night, and loved it.
Daily breakfast and free wifi were included in the above rate.
 Our favorite eats are the Roter Hahn278 on Main, and Artist's Cafe.
{The schnitzels, meat salad, and cherry beer at the Roter Hahn are not to be missed}
For adventure seekers, the abseiling is a blast.  See here for our experience.
Our Clarens must-see? Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
And, if you happen to be looking for wedding venues, we loved The Gourmet Shed & Andes Clarens Guesthouse.

_ _ _ _ _

Also, you've probably noticed that A Home Away From Home has a new look!  Melyssa from Bumble & Buzz Design has been working with me on this over the past couple of months and I couldn't be happier with the end result.  She was able to take my vague and incomplete ideas and transform them into exactly what I'd been looking for all along.  I can't recommend her enough.  She's amazing.

19 February 2014

Exploring the Kingdom of Lesotho

Tucked away amongst the clouds and surrounded by the sprawling magnificence of the Drakensberg lies the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.  One of two independent countries falling within South Africa's borders, the nation exists as the only country in the world falling entirely above 1,000 meters, with it's highest peak reaching 11,320 feet.  Having wanted to explore this unique part of the globe for several years, Jurgen and I jumped at the opportunity when friends suggested we plan a road trip through Lesotho in the Fall of last year.


It's difficult to find words that adequately convey how breathtaking Lesotho is in terms of its raw beauty.  Throughout our entire trip, around every twist and turn there seemed to be a new, indescribable view that somehow rivaled the last.  We spent hours on the side of the road marveling at the pristine setting in front us, trying to contemplate how in the world a place like this could actually exist.

The only real item on our itinerary was to enter Lesotho via the famed Sani Pass and enjoy a warm glass of gluhwein at the highest pub in Africa.  Beginning in South Africa and ending at the Lesotho border, the Sani Pass is renowned for its scenic views and somewhat notorious 4x4 route. Many people make the drive in one day, enjoying a drink at the top and then heading back down without ever entering Lesotho.  This is very possible, although it's essential that you have a properly equipped vehicle and someone who's comfortable navigating fairly tricky dirt roads (certainly not me!).  With the right equipment, the trek is certainly worth it.  The Sani Pass easily ranks as the most beautiful drive I've ever been on.  The atmosphere at the pub is also contagious as seasoned travelers casually swap itineraries and exchange stories.


For the rest of our trip, we simply drove, admiring the views and stopping for picnics where and when we saw fit.  One thing that completely caught me off guard in Lesotho was its remoteness.  Having travelled Africa extensively, I've always been able to find basic amenities such as internet cafes, petrol stations, and cold soft drinks with relative ease.  Not so in Lesotho.  Not once did I come across a wifi connection and we went through our entire trip without tracking down an operating petrol station or a cold soft drink.  We did find warm cokes in glass bottles at one point, but that was just about where the luxuries came to an end.

While this certainly adds to the adventure and authenticity of the experience, it also means that you need to be prepared when you enter the country.  Make sure you have a full tank of petrol and bring any essential food and toiletry products with you.  Food and drinks are available, but you'll be mostly limited to chips, soggy cocktail sausages, eggs, porridge, bread, and juice.  Luckily, our friends came prepared with pots, pans, cutlery, etc., and we brought a cooler full of meat and vegetables, so we mostly prepared our own meals.  We did enjoy a basic dinner at Oxbow Lodge on our second night, but it was overpriced for what we received.  

All things considered, on our next trip I think we'll try to camp.  It would be easy to pitch a tent just about anywhere that strikes your fancy and you would find yourself surrounded by some of the most picturesque views in the world.  That being said, it's also important to point out that we travelled through an undeveloped section of the country where tourism is scarce.  Other areas in Lesotho attract thousands of tourists each year for craft markets, pony trekking, cave paintings, and waterfall viewing.  My guess is that these areas are much more developed.  I'd recommend Roxanne's posts for information on Lesotho's better-known attractions.  Pony Trekking is definitely sitting towards the top of my 'someday' bucket list.


All in all, I absolutely loved Lesotho.  It was like no place I've ever been before - natural, untouched, and unregulated.  The people were extremely friendly and the little villages epitomized rural African charm.  And while I now feel like we've truly experienced the incomprehensible beauty of rural Lesotho, I'm yearning to explore more of what the country is famous for.  In future, places like Katse Dam, Semonkong, Malealea, and Bokong Nature Reserve will definitely make the list.


A few more useful tips...

- An entry visa is not required for the United States, South Africa and most other countries. -
- The Lesotho currency is the Loti, but the South African Rand is also universally accepted. -
- Bring plenty of cash with you as ATM's are scarce. -
- Fill up on petrol before entry as well - gas stations are few and far between. -
- Make sure you're equipped with a proper vehicle.  4x4's are recommended. -
- Double (or even triple) the time it would typically take to drive a given distance when planning your trip.  Roads are generally in bad condition.  It's slow and easy going. - 
- Make sure you purchase a good map in advance. -
- Pack food, drinks, and cooking utensils, particularly if you'll be heading off the beaten path. -
- Bring warm clothes, even in summer.  It's chilly in the mountains, especially in the evenings. -
- Be prepared for one of the greatest adventures of your life! -

Have you ever been somewhere completely different from anywhere else you've ever been?
Was your experience positive or negative?

If you're planning a trip to Lesotho and have any questions, feel free to email me here!