Live Blogging: San Francisco and the Bay Area

This is a live blog that will be updated as I travel around the Bay Area. I am spending a few weeks exploring San Francisco and the Bay Area. The images below are some of the places I have been to and all the places that I have been eating in. Full reviews will follow.

But first, one of the many views of the Golden Gate Bridge that I took during this trip. I have literally hundreds taken from all different vantage points across the Bay.

San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge

 

Chinese New Year Traditions and Celebrations in London

It’s the Year of the Horse on 31 Jan 2014 and celebration goes on for 15 days until the next full moon. What does this mean for you? You can read you Chinese horoscope here.

Chinese New Year Year of the Horse

Chinese New Year Traditions

A lot of the traditions are based on superstition and myth. Through the years, this has all evolved to common practices that people follow blindly as that is the way it has always been done. The 15th day or Chap Goh Meh is the most important day for the Hokkien people and for the Cantonese, it’s the 7th day or Yan Yat, which is everybody’s birthday.

Chinese families usually prepare for Chinese New Year with a very thorough house cleaning. On the first day of new year, no cleaning or sweeping is allowed as this is deemed bad luck, you don’t want to sweep all your luck away. This follows decorating their homes with auspicious symbols, flowers and new soft furnishings. Red and gold are the auspicious colours. The bolder the better.

Other traditions : you are not supposed to cut or wash your hair, cut your nails, pluck your eyebrows or anything of the sort. Something to do with bad luck again.

In Malaysia, we would visit family on the first day of New Year and lots of people have “Open House” where you just drop in for a visit, bring some gifts, grab a bite, have a few drinks and sometimes gamble a bit. There are usually quite a few open houses around town and you need to work your way around all of them, especially if they are business contacts. This goes on for the first 2-3 days of the New Year.

Kids love the New Year as married couples have to give kids lucky red packets full of cash.

You are also supposed to place a bet on something or gamble to open your luck for the year so head to the nearest bookies or get out the mahjong set.

Chinese New Year Celebrations in London

On Sunday 2 Feb 2014, Trafalgar Square will be the centre of the celebrations where there will be dancing, singing, lion dances and fireworks. All around Chinatown, the local businesses will be hosting their own events along Gerard Street, Wardour Street and Shaftesbury Avenue. Watch out for the guys in dressed in God of Prosperity costumes handing out money.

You will find Lion and dragon dances accompanied by loud drums (and sometimes firecrackers) will be featured both in Trafalgar Square and at restaurants and businesses around Chinatown as it supposed to scare away the evil spirits and brings good luck. These are usually performed by kung fu troupes trained in acrobatics and special kung fu moves. The Royal China Restaurants will have Lion Dances at several of their branches over the New Year period.

Chinese New Year Food

The most important event is the reunion dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year where the whole family gathers for a slap up meal. All the New Year dishes have auspicious names and everything has a significance like you have to have a prawn dish as it’s called “ha” in Cantonese and sounds like laughter. All animals are served whole like a whole steamed fish (heads and tails intact) or a whole suckling pig, as it means unity.

In some parts of China, the tradition if to make Jiaozi dumplings as the shape resembles gold ingots and is a symbol of wealth and prosperity. A special gooey new year cake made of rice flour is usually served at new year as the myth goes that the sticky cake will prevent the Kitchen God from reporting any misdeeds to the Jade Emperor.

A New York Itinerary

I have not been to New York in a while but will be off there in the next couple of months. Usually when I travel, I do a lot of research beforehand and create a long list of must see, must eat and must dos.

When Air France ran their competition recently, I tweeted a bunch of these mini itineraries and one of these tweets won me a flight to the Big Apple. Hopefully, I will have time to do all of these on my list.

 

 

@TravelNotebook #AirFranceAt80 My #nyc picks-Rubin Museum 2see unique Tibetan collection,walk Central Park,out 2Flushing 4Asian Street foods

 

Am always up for more suggestions, so if you have any things I must see and do and places to eat , do post them in the comments below.

Visiting San Francisco – Mini Itineraries

San Francisco is one of my favourite US Cities. I have been there quite a few times over the years and each time I try to discover something new to see and do. I usually spend my time in San Francisco as a local and don’t tend to do a lot of touristy things. But if you are visiting for a first time, here are some of my suggestions.

These series of tweets were suggestions I made for a twitter competition held by Air France recently.

Nothing like a good American diner, a stack of blueberry pancakes with bacon while watching the waves crash onto the beach below. if you go during the weekend, expect to queue. I always take a walk along the beach after breakfast/brunch and dip my toes into the Pacific Ocean.

Filimore Street is a bit like Hampstead High Street, a nice residential area, lots of lovely boutique shops and local Californian restaurants. Lovely street for shopping and nothing like the big departments stores or touristy crowds around  Union Square.

The Pork Store Cafe is another old American diner. I love the retro decor and their pulled pork is just superb. A walk around Haight is a must as this was at the centre of the Hippie movement in the 1960s. Now it is an area full of new age book shops, psychics and quirky shops. I heard that it has got a bit dodgy of late so go with care.

The Mission is a uber trendy area now that is has all been regenerated. You can get there by the Bart. The first time we were taken there for the best tacos in town by some friends, we were told to not look at the cars around us if we stopped at the traffic lights and to just walk straight into the restaurant when we parked. It was not safe to linger on the streets. Nowadays, Mission is a not only safe to walk around but is also home to a lot of innovative new restaurants. We went for some superb Cuban food here and will have to revisit on my  next trip.

Travelling by boat across the bay is just such a treat, especially coming from London. The views of the City from the Bay is stunning and you can see the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz from the ferry. You can get to Sausalito by car too but it is no where near as fun.

The ferry building is now a bustling food centre with numerous eateries and a fab cook shop. On sundays, the Embarcadero hosts an enormous farmers market, Californian style. A great way to spend a Sunday morning, grazing your way through the stalls.

The Slanted Door is one of the most talked about Vietnamese restaurants in town. It serves a Vietnamese (pseudo fusion) in a contempary and stylish space. If you are after something more authentic and down to earth, I found a few places for great Pho in Chinatown and the new Chinatown on Geary.

If you are already in SF, a visit to the Bay Area is incomplete without a visit to Napa Valley and doing some wine tasting. You can drive yourself or take one of the organised tours. The tours takes you to a champagne tasting, a brandy distillery and some vineyards. it’s easy and efficient way to do Napa but you can’t pick which vineyards to visit. My top pick was the unforgettable Carneros Brandy which has since closed. Maybe one of the other ones will offer an equally good product. Best of all about the tour is that you can snooze on the bus back. If you plan ahead you can book a table at Auberge du Soleil and even stay over in their hotel. I have not managed to book a table there so far.

If I venture away from the City, I usually drive. Driving towards Napa Valley allows you to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. Along the way, you have to stop at an In and Out Burger and order from the secret menu. As you get closer to Napa, you will see signs for the Outlet shops. It’s not the biggest outlet mall but it has some great brands. Well worth a shopping detour.

Beyond Napa Valley, you will find Calistoga. This is a little town that has one main street with buildings like in a cowboy film. This town is famous for it’s spa hotels. I usually stay one night and book in for a full day or volcanic ash mud bath, mineral soak and massage. It’s all quite reasonably priced too. One of the hotels has a massive pool filled with hot water directly from the Geyser on the property. It’s pure bliss here. Try and fit one night here or a day trip at least.

I will update with some newer tips and things to do on my next trip. There are so many more things to do and see around San Francisco and the Bay Area.

 

 

 

The Winchester Christmas Market

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The smell of cloves and cinnamon waft in the air and it immediately evokes memories of Christmas trees, log fires and all the lovely seasonal things that December brings. This is the smell that enveloped us as we walked into the Winchester Christmas Market.

The source of this spicy scent were the huts selling Christmas wreaths, decorations and mulled wine at the entrance to the market. All these huts were abundantly adorned with all sorts of twinkly lights and pretty decorations which immediately puts you into the right mood for a spot of Christmas shopping.

03-Winchester Christmas Market (3)

The Winchester Cathedral Christmas Market is set very dramatically right in the middle of Winchester Cathedral’s Inner Close. There are a few stalls at the front of the Cathedral but the rest of the market is further around the side. To get to it, you have to follow the crowds and walk through a crowded narrow corridor under historic arches. This is supposed to be one of the biggest Christmas Markets in Europe now.

02-Winchester Christmas Market (2)

The market is really impressive as it is set up under the dramatic architectural eaves of the Cathedral. Lots of German style market huts adorned with twinkly lights stretched around the courtyard. In the middle of this was the Ice Rink. We could see large groups of families waiting their turn for a spin on the open air the ice rink.

06-Winchester Christmas Market (6)13-Winchester Christmas Market (14)16-Winchester Christmas Market (12)

The stalls seemed to be doing a roaring trade as there was quite a large crowd. The stalls were selling Christmas wreaths, candles, hand crafted Christmas ornaments and all sorts of other festive things.

There is a section of the market for the Artisanal Craft stalls. This section of the market was the most interesting as there were lots of unique gifts made by artists here. A lot of artisanal craft people selling pottery, art, jewellery, bags and scarves. Lots of beautiful things for Christmas pressies. Some of the presents we bought here were a silver charm from Sally Wilcox, a print and some cards of doggies, hand made bird house and some twinkly ornaments.

Winchester Christmas Market

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12-Winchester Christmas Market (13)

Winchester Christmas Market

Of course every market has to have a refreshment area. At the back of the market, a group of food trucks were circled around a seating area. The stalls were selling the usual array of fast food from hot drinks and hot dogs to candy floss. As we just came from lunch, we didn’t sample a lot from here but we did share a hot dog with our canine travel buddies.

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We had a very fun and productive visit to the Winchester Christmas market and I would highly recommend a visit for a lovely day out and to do some Christmas shopping.

The Winchester Christmas market is on until 22 December 2013. More details here: http://winchester-cathedral.org.uk/christmas/christmas-market/

Eat Cook Explore was a guest of Winchester Tourism and a visit to the Christmas Market was part of our day trip to historic Winchester.

Luxe Glamour at the Grande Bretagne Hotel Athens

Breakfast on the roof terrace of the Grande Bretagne Hotel is dominated by this view of the Acropolis, the ancient monument that dominates the skyline of Athens.

Gran Bretagne Athens View of the Acroplois

Gran Bretagne, Athens -View of the Acroplois

Athens is such a charming city, a mix of modern buildings among the ancient monuments like the Acropolis that defines this city. The new metro stations are like mini museums where you can see excavated ruins in the ticket office and layers of strate and skeletons that they found while building the stations. You can not help but be reminded of how much history there is around this city.

I have stayed at the Grande Bretagne numerous times due to it’s central location on Syntagma square. It is part of the Starwood group of hotels, a Luxury Collection Hotel and is one of the grandest hotels in Athens.One drawback of being in Syntagma square is that it will get closed to traffic if there are any strikes or protests as they tend to congregate in the square in front of the hotel.

I have also stayed at the Hilton Athens slightly further up the road too but it is a completely different style, more modern and contemporary but has the largest outdoor hotel pool in all of Athens.

My room at the Grande Bretagne was a junior suite on the Butler floor. This floor has its own check in desk and you don’t have to queue with others on the front desk. As you are shown to your room by your personal butler, you can place your order for a welcome drink. A few minutes later, a knock at the door signalled the arrival of my butler with a lovely pot of green tea.

Gran Bretagne Hotel Syntagma Square Athens

On this occasion, this suite had 3 rooms, a sitting area with a desk, the bedroom and an enormous marble clad bathroom with double sinks. There were 3 TVs in the suite, one in the sitting area, one in the bedroom and one over the bath. I did try to watch this tv while in the bath but it was impossible if you are lying in the bath as the angle of the screen was not movable. Nice idea but not great in practice.

Gran Bretagne Hotel Syntagma Square Athens

The beds are very comfortable with high thread count sheets and a choice of pillows (essential in my book). Being a 5 star hotel, they had all the usual amenities like a fluffy bath robe, slippers, a range Gilchrist and Soames toiletries, bottles of water and in room kettle.

Gran Bretagne Hotel Syntagma Square Athens

The rooms at Grande Bretagne are very quiet even though the hotel is on a busy square. Unfortunately there was no view from the window as the Grande Bretagne is surrounded by other buildings. This was made up for at the roof terrace where the buffet breakfast is served. The roof also houses their swimming pool which is lovely for sunbathing but not very big so not for doing laps.

The very extensive buffet breakfast offers the usual cereal, muesli and cooked breakfast, greek style. You can order eggs cooked in the style you want and in the hot trays are selections of sausages, bacon and other savoury items. Freshly squeezed juices, vast baskets of fresh fruits and of course Greek Yoghurt with local honey is laid on too. I always try to get here early to get a seat facing the Acropolis. There is something quite romantic about having your breakfast while feasting your eyes on one of the great historical monuments. It turns the mundane into something extraordinary.

Sightseeing

Within walking distance to the hotel is the old town Plaka where you will find hoards of tourists and touristy tavernas.Plaka has been modernised but you still get the feel or ancient Greece here. Walk down past Plaka and you will see quite a few ancient monuments squashed in between the souvenir shops.

On Syntagma square itself is the Parliament which used to be the King’s Palace. Guards dressed in traditional costume guard the this and the tomb of the unknown soldier. You have to catch them changing guards as they do the most unique march with their tasselled shoes.

Christmas Greek Style on Syntagma Square

Eating out

I did not have a chance to eat at the restaurants in the hotel but I did have room service. Food from room service in any hotel is usually nothing to shout about and this is the same at the Grande Bretagne. My usual order is grilled fish which the Greek do so well and served with such style by the staff.

The food at the tavernas around the area here range from really nasty to Michelin starred standard. A couple to try out include Daphne’s, not so much a taverna but now an upscale restaurant. The menu is similar to other Greek places but they have made it all a bit chichi. Quite expensive and you can eat better in Athens. A much better bet is To Steki tou Ilia, past the Plaka, which specialises in Greek lamb chops. Order by the kilo, and use your hands. It’s the best.

Things to order at a Greek taverna

  • Horta – wild greens drenched in olive oil and lemon juice
  • Kolokithakia fried zuchinni
  • Paidakia – grilled lamb chops
  • Tsatziki – a very garlicky yoghurt dip
  • Grilled fish with Skordalia if you can find it. Very garlicky mashed potatoes.

Try to avoid the moussaka and greek salad trap as these are usually not the best things on the menu.

You might find better places to eat if you wander up towards the yuppy Kolonaki area. Lots of bars and cafes and more upmarket eateries. This is where the high end boutiques are and the beautiful people of Athens congregate.

Shopping

Lots of shopping to be had around the Syntagma square area. Just walk down the Ermou Street and you will find the recognisable European brand names like Zara and the likes.

Athens is a great place to visit in the Spring and Autumn as it gets unbearably  hot in the summer. An escape to the Islands in the summer is perfect as the blue skies goes on forever and the azure seas are irresistable. From the end of October, the city transforms when all the alfresco cafes close up outdoors and take their business indoors. The tourist traffic is greatly reduced and the pace of the city seems to revert back to an ancient rythm.

The food at the tavernas here range from really nasty to Michelin starred standard. A couple to try out include Daphne’s, not so much a taverna but now an upscale restaurant. The menu is similar to other Greek places but they have made the food all a bit fussy. Quite expensive and you can eat better in Athens. A much better bet is To Steki tou Ilia which specialises in Greek lamb chops. Order by the kilo, and use your hands. It’s the best.

Hotel Grande Bretagne

Constitution Square

Athens 10564

Greece

http://www.grandebretagne.gr/