Sicily 2018

Thankfully our almost 10 hour ferry ride from Malta to Catania Sicily was cancelled due to strong winds (we heard that the journey is pretty treacherous even without the wind).  We grabbed a cheap flight right into Catania and arrived just in time to rent a car and hit the road.   The Priority Pass lounge in the Malta airport (international departures) is called Lavalette Club and is definitely worth a visit – good food and drinks.  We booked a car through www.holidayautos.com which provided us with free 3rd party insurance and since we paid with our Citi Prestige credit card we received free primary insurance.  Most credit cards do not offer free primary car insurance in Italy.

Here are the highlights of our 2 week trip which we drove counter clockwise from Catania:

Cefalu

Situated on the northern coast of Sicily, Cefalu is one of the true gems of Italy.  Sandy beaches with incredible sunsets, a Norman cathedral which was begun in 1131 and is set in the middle of tiny cobblestone streets exuding such intoxicating charm.  A huge rock face juts out from the medieval town called the Rocca and contains ruins from the 5th century BC.  We stayed in a B&B with a terrace overlooking the water and a balcony facing the cobblestone streets – absolute magic.

Castellammare del Golfo

Just west of Palermo and below steep mountain slopes we found Castellammare Del Golfo – an adorable fishing village with lovely churches, cute restaurants and a nice sandy beach.  The whole cape from Castellammare to Trapani is stunning and worth a visit.

San Vito Lo Capo 

San Vito Lo Capo is the northwestern cape of Sicily and is a sandy beach paradise.   The resort town is framed by gorgeous mountains and the turquoise sea.  An idyllic location to rest and unwind.

Marsala

Marsala wine is actually quite delicious – unlike the sweet export that we know in North America.  The town has 3 cave wineries that are worth the visit on Sundays as they have free tasting- make sure to check times of operations before making the drive.   Cantine Florio, Donnafugata, Cantine Pellegrino.

Selinunte

One of Sicily’s impressive Greek archaeological sites, Selinunte is truly a marvel.  Perched on the sea and splayed across much land, this mostly isolated vista is stunning.  You can spend 3-4 hours wondering these ruins and the rest of the day on the adjacent sandy beaches.

Agrigento

Agrigento is THE Greek archaeological site of Sicily known for it’s Valley of the Temples – a UNESCO  World Heritage Site.  And Agrigento is also a lovely historic town.  We stayed in a truly noteworthy B&B which had a huge terrace overlooking the Valley of the Temples, wonderful rooms, a great breakfast and the loveliest hosts.

Modica

Modica was one of our favorite stops in Sicily and is a lovely UNESCO- listed Baroque town.  Known for it’s chocolate, Modica is a food lovers paradise.  Nestled between steep valleys there is much to explore and sample here.

Noto

On our way to Siracusa we stopped in to Noto – and we are so glad that we did.  Noto is a UNESCO World Heritage site for it’s Baroque architecture which is a true must see.  The historic town is filled with cute little nooks, museums and lovely restaurants.

Siracusa

What can I say, Siracusa is  the reason why we came to Sicily.   Ortigia is the ancient Greek historic part of Siracusa and that is where we spent the majority of our time.  Wherever you turn in Ortigia you see something beautiful and interesting to marvel.  This is a place we will definitely visit again.

Taormina

A definite Sicilian must see, Taormina is a historical picturesque town.  We didn’t get the chance to stop by this time around, but have visited on previous occasions and just love the charm of the people, the views and the amazing scenery.

 

Gozo and Comino (Malta) 2018

Malta is an archipelago comprised of 3 islands.  The main island is the largest and is the one that we landed on.  We grabbed a bus (which ended up being 2 hours long – to avoid our headache check the schedules and routes so that you don’t make the same mistake we did) to the ferry terminal to catch the 25 minute ferry to the second largest island in Malta called Gozo.  The ferry runs every 30 minutes and is super convenient to get back and forth.  Overall the public transportation in Gozo is incredibly convenient and civilized – cannot say the same about the bigger island Malta – the buses seem to run on their own time regardless of what the schedule states.

We rented an Airbnb in Fort Chambray which is a fort built by the French in the 1700s.  The fort has been partially modified to house condos and has 2 stunning pools – the location was amazing – you can see the Fort even from the island of Malta!  If you are near Mgarr or the fort, consider visiting a restaurant that we fell in love with – Giuseppe’s.  This place has patio seating overlooking the Mgarr Harbour and the statuesque Lady of Loreto church and square.  The delicious inexpensive home cooked meals brought us back 5 of the 7 nights we were in Gozo!

Gozo has a coastal walking path around the island which is broken out into 4 different 4-7 hour walks.  This was one of the most enjoyable parts of our week-long stay in Gozo.  Each day we took a different path and saw first hand the incredible history and natural beauty of Gozo.  Our first path started right outside of our Airbnb at Mgarr and we followed it along to Xlendi which is a quiet sea side village with a beautiful cove which is a definite must sea.  Along the way there is an even smaller cove called Mgarr Ix Xini Fjord (which can also be reached by car) – absolutely one of my favorite quiet spots on the island and the setting for one of the scenes in By the Sea a movie with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.  Along the way you will also see the jaw dropping cliffs of Sannat – Ta Seguna Cliffs and the Ta Cenc Cliffs which are the highest cliffs in all of Gozo.

Even if you do not do all the walks around Gozo, make sure to visit the caves of San Lawrenz, the beach town of Marsalforn as well as the Xwejni Beach Bay which is very close to Marsalforn and easily found along the coastal walking path between San Lawrenz and Marsalforn.

Ramla Bay is considered the best beach of Gozo (or even Malta) it has a wide red sandy beach and a couple of restaurants with nothing much else around it (bus stops very close to the beach).   A smaller and much quieter bay is San Blas Bay which is well worth the hike.  It is a sister bay to Ramla and also has a red sandy beach (although much smaller).  There is a hut restaurant there and not much else except for the stunning views and the sound of the crushing waves.

Most of the buses on Gozo travel through Victoria which is the capital of the island and is definitely worth a stroll through it’s ancient streets.  Another recommended stop is the Citadel which is an area that has been inhabited since the Stone Age and has stunning views of the Gozo Valley.

The island of Comino (which is the small island between Malta and Gozo) is well worth a full day visit (or even a stay as it now has 2 hotels located on it).  With a population of 4, Comino is a very quiet island which draws hikers (there is a wonderful coastal path around the island), historians and beach lovers alike.  Make sure to bring water and snacks/lunch for the walk.  There are a few snack trucks right at the ferry drop off/pick up point, but beyond that there are no stores or amenities.  Blue Lagoon, which is a beach located just north of the ferry drop off on Comino is a turquoise, light blue water which is beyond delicious in the hot sun and looks like heaven and paradise rolled into one.

Getting to Comino from Malta or Gozo – ferry schedule and information.

Koh Tao – 2018

We arrived to the small island of Koh Tao by Lomprayah ferry from Koh Samui – the journey is quite painless (even though I do get sea sick, the vessel was quite large and glided through the water seamlessly).  We were picked up by our hotel (most hotels on the island provide free transport to and from the ferry – there is no airport).  The Aminjirah hotel is quite funky and set on the side of a cliff overlooking the stunning northwest coast line and Nang Yuan Island.  The rooms are quite basic, but have all the necessities – I highly recommend upgrading (a few dollars) to the ocean view rooms as the view from the balcony and the room is beautiful.  The infinity pool is a lot of fun with its colorful floating beanbags that 20 somethings sunbathe on (as did I shamelessly).   Very fun young vibe in this hotel.  I would highly recommend getting the short boat ride to Nang Yuan Island for snorkeling and sunbathing.

Our next hotel on the island was the Jamahkiri resort situated at the other end of the island on Shark Bay.  This resort built by Belgians about 15 years ago is truly stunning.  We booked it by searching for the best portal by going on www.cashbackmonitor.com which ended up being www.topcashback.com (5% back) and entered hotels.com through it (10th night is free).  We paid for the hotel using our Citi Prestige Mastercard (which gives you the 4th night free).  Using all of these tools this 5 star resort with an ocean view room, free wifi and free breakfast broke down to being $61/night.  The private beach offers snorkeling with reef sharks and huge turtles as well as many beautiful and colorful fish.  The pool overlooking the ocean, the fitness room and other amenities were fabulous.  You are a bit isolated in Shark Bay – the free hotel shuttle to the ferry dock allows a quick resupply of staples.  And if you want to avoid the hotel restaurant prices, the Eagle View is a lovely family run restaurant a mere 3 minute walk (all up hill) from the hotel.  The prices are reasonable and the view is spectacular – if you are willing to wait awhile for your meal.

As we sipped champagne from our balcony we knew that we would be back to this gorgeous and friendly island and more specifically to this resort.

 

Koh Samui – 2018

We flew on Air Bangkok from Phuket to Koh Samui and took a Grab from the airport to the Sheraton Samui.  We booked a basic room knowing that with our Platinum SPG status we would get a nice upgrade and we did!  We paid for the stay with the Citi Prestige card which automatically deducts the 4th nights stay cost.  All in we were only paying $135/night for this incredible hotel.  The ocean view suite was amazing.  We had  a living room, reading room, small kitchen and huge bedroom and bathroom along with a double deck overlooking the ocean.  With the status we also received a free breakfast every morning which was spectacular – more like a Sunday brunch at a 5 star restaurant than a regular breakfast.  All the amenities were well thought through – 2 large pools, a great beach and a well stocked fitness room.  The prices for food in the hotel were hotel prices so we took advantage of the nearby restaurants and dined like kings for pauper prices.  Our favorite restaurant was just outside of the hotel and is called Mamas – great flavorful food at very good prices.  We could have stayed for weeks!

We transitioned to the Intercontinental Samui – we used our 2 free nights that we receive annually by each having a Chase IHG Mastercard.  The cost of the card is $49 annually and the hotel that we stayed in starts at $250 a night.  Because we have Ambassador status with the IHG chain we receive an automatic upgrade and late check out as just some of the perks.  This 5 star hotel is spectacular – my jaw dropped when the Grab dropped us off and we walked onto the reception deck overlooking the ocean.  Cant say enough about this hotel, but as always the costs for food and drinks in these types of places are pretty high, so we found a small restaurant on the beach just a 2 minute walk away from the Intercontinental restaurant).  We would eat  breakfast, lunch and dinner there– hip beach vibe, freshly baked pizzas, tasty Thai food and great Happy Hour prices for drinks – they even have bungalows with private bath, air conditioner and television ( a few meters from the beach) for $23/night.  The Intercontinental also had free bicycles which we used to ride to the nearby 7-11 to pick up beer and other staples.

Phuket, Thailand 2018

Flying in to Phuket from Penang was a very quick 1 hour flight on FireFly – and very inexpensive ($90 with a carry-on bag and back pack  including taxes per person).  Upon arrival we grabbed a Grab which is the ride sharing program for Asia – what we should have done is hailed a taxi as Grab is not allowed to pick up from Phuket and is a bit more expensive than a taxi.  We arrived in Patong Beach about an hour later and settled into our Airbnb which was in the heart of the city but set back on the mountain just enough for us not to have to hear the never ending party music from below.  The Airbnb was a very modern apartment which had a great balcony with views of the mountains and of the ocean.  The best part of this stay was the rooftop infinity pool which had fantastic views of the mountains and ocean and was a great place to have a drink while watching the sunset.

While in Phuket we visited the Green-Elephant Sanctuary which is a phenomenal place, rescuing elephants from the very cruel tourist industry where they are forced to provide rides to tourists all their lives.  The sanctuary was just opened a few months ago and to date there were 3 elephants which were all female- 35 year old, 15 year old and 40 year old Mallee.  These elephants will never be chained or ridden again.

Mallee lost her toes riding tourists up and down mountains but they still forced her to work.  She arrived at the sanctuary 4 weeks ago and as soon as she got off the truck she ran to the mud pool and started to play in the mud.  The rescuers thought that after such a long truck ride she would be too tired, but clearly finally unchained and free she knew she was safe and wanted to play.  We got to feed the elephants with pineapple and bananas (they prefer the pineapples) and eat both with the skins still on.   We also played with them in the mud bath and got to wash them off in the little lake and the XXL shower.  It was an extraordinary day which we will never forget.

Overall we found Patong to be very loud and busy.  It was a bit cleaner than Penang, but still on the dirty side.  We were excited to be headed out to visit Koh Samui.

Penang, Malaysia 2018

Our flight from Singapore to Penang was slightly delayed but the pilot made up the time in the air and we arrived to hot and sunny Penang on time.  Our Uber driver ended up being a food and beverage manager of one of the large hotels in Penang and was incredibly helpful.  I usually try to get a vibe from the locals about how they view their government and surroundings.  Certainly not something that I do in countries where I would be putting the person in jeopardy to state their honest opinion – but in Malaysia I thought it was a safe question.  Rainey was very open and helpful with information about the island…we arrived at our hotel – the Four Points by Sheraton Penang and thanked him for the great conversation.

What can I say – you get what you pay for, but at $62/night all in (minus 25% paying with our City Prestige card we get our 4th night free) + free breakfast and a room upgrade (Platinum SPG member), we got a lot more than what we paid for in the Four Points by Sheraton Penang.  We got upgraded to the sea view suite which has a stunning front row view of the endless sea.  The staff are very helpful and welcoming.  The gym has a gorgeous view of the water as well and the pool is clean and refreshing.  The downside is that the beach is not the best – c’est la vie – there is a free shuttle to some better beaches although we later found out that all beaches in Penang are quite dirty and have many jelly fish.

Our first night we walked over to the Strait’s Quay and had dinner at Real Food.  Amazing organic, vegetarian, locally sourced food.  I wish there were more restaurants like this one – thoughtful about where food comes from and how we impact our planet.   Food and Uber in Penang are very inexpensive and even though we were eating in an upscale mall, our dinner with tip (which is not expected here) came to $20 USD.   But once we tasted Pinxin food (vegan) in Georgetown Penang we knew we found our favorite restaurant in Penang.  For more variety, with vegetarian and non-vegetarian options there is a good Indian restaurant called Sri Ananda.

My heart goes out to the dogs of Penang.  The culture here is not very supportive of our four-legged friends.  Many are homeless and because they are not spade/neutered the population increases.  They are friendly and hopeful that someone will feed and love them.

Singapore – 2018

We flew on Cathay Pacific business from Hong Kong to Singapore – it was a really pleasant 4 hour flight.  Singapore felt even muggier than Hong Kong and the air conditioning of our uber ride was very much appreciated.  Our hotel was the Wanderlust design hotel which is an SPG partner located in the middle of Little India.   As a platinum member we got a  late checkout, SPG points and a room upgrade (a loft on the top floor with a big tub in the middle of the first floor of the loft and many large windows looking onto Little India).  They also offered us free breakfast as first time guests to their hotel (which was awesome).

We really should have stayed longer than the 5 days – there is so much to see in Singapore.  Unfortunately, Rob was not feeling well, so the first day I was on my own and decided to walk as much of the city as time would allow.  Orchard Road is Singapore’s retail heart, with discount outlets, department stores and upscale boutiques, alongside luxury hotels. Emerald Hill Road is a mix of colorful Chinese baroque houses and casual pubs, while al fresco bars and eateries can be found along nearby Cuppage Terrace. The Newton Food Centre is a popular foodie hub, offering everything from barbecued seafood and roasted meats to traditional desserts.  These parts seemed like a merger between 5th Avenue in New York and the Champs- Elysees in Paris – all a bit too smelly and congested for me as I just wanted to walk.  BUT, if you like to shop in high end shops and eat in fancy eateries you would be in heaven.

At the fringe of the Orchard Road shopping district you will find the 158 year-old Botanical Garden – the only tropical garden which is a UNESCO World Heritage site – a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the city.   We also enjoyed the views, greenery, shade and history of  Fort Canning Park -another nice respite from the busy city center.

The Marina Bay in Singapore is quite beautiful with it’s very unusual Marina Bay Sands hotel.  Unfortunately it was all booked up for our stay, but certainly worth at least one night given it’s unusual rooftop infinity pool (which is the largest in the world) and stunning high vistas of the city and the marina.  Next to the hotel are the Gardens by the Bay with their signature Supertree Grove – very much worth the visit.

We didn’t make it to the MacRitchie Treetop Walk but heard it is a fantastic 4-5 hour hike just outside of Singapore city.  Next time for sure.

This upscale hotel took advantage of celebrating the year of the dog in an interesting way:

As Rob started to feel better, it was time to leave Singapore and fly to Penang.

Hong Kong – 2018

The beginning of our first international journey of 2018 started in Hong Kong.   We were a bit apprehensive starting a long journey so soon after the loss of our beloved dog Fozzie, but we needed a break after a month of grieving his loss.  To read about Fozzie’s bucket list trip.

We arrived in Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific business using 50K Alaskan points.  The flight from LAX was almost 16 hours long and business class was quite empty due to it being Chinese New Year (we were wondering why everything was so expensive to book…we totally forgot that our arrival was the beginning of this huge celebration).  I must admit that I expected more from Cathay as they are known for their hospitality and service.  We were fed breakfast/lunch upon boarding and then were not fed for the next 13 hours.  Now keep in mind that this long break in service was during pacific time day and it was hard to go through from 11 am to 2 am without food.  There were snacks that we could have had but unfortunately as a vegetarian I couldn’t eat the hamburger or the duck soup.  Thank goodness for fruit and nuts in my bag.   Ok, I know, first world problems…very grateful for what I have.

We grabbed an Uber at the airport for about $45 USD and headed to Le Meridien in Cyberport.  As  a platinum SPG member we were certainly taken care of here.  A great sea view room with free breakfast (which was amazing), evening happy hour which included free cocktails, lovely wine, and ample hot and cold snacks (so much so that we used this perk for a few of our dinners).  There was also a free shuttle which ran almost every hour and took hotels guests to the very central Hong Kong station.  In retrospect we should have saved our money on the Uber and taken the fast train from the airport (110 HKD or about $14 USD each) and then taken the free shuttle.  If you are traveling alone that is definitely the way to go!

We had a lot of fun hiking the Victoria Peak trail which takes you high above the city and is very walkable from the hotel – it is actually very walkable from many areas of the city.   We also hiked the Dragons Back trail which is a really easy hike taking you up above Hong Kong and allowing you to see amazing vistas.