Starting At The End

It seems appropriate to start not at the beginning but at the end after falling head over heels in love with a part of Italy I can’t wait to visit again.

I’ve enjoyed the most glorious three days exploring the coastline between Portofino and Riomaggiore, having been based in a gorgeous town called Santa Margherita.

Most of us have heard of the Cinque Terre, but the rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera is so much more. It’s in the Liguria region of Italy and compared to the South of France, it is relatively inexpensive and extraordinary in its scenic beauty, history, food and wine.

The first day I was truly spoiled. A friend and colleague picked me up with his wife and we drove to Portofino along an expressway with multiple tunnels and the Mediterranean sitting as a jewel at the end. This part of Italy’s coast is very popular with the Italians as it is easily reached by train or car in just a couple of hours. The hotels and restaurants are very busy on Friday and Saturday nights so it’s necessary to book even in June or September – count yourself incredibly lucky if you get a room at all in July or August.


We wandered through the quaint fishing village, stopping for Prosecco and an impressive selection of nibbles that the Italians usually present with your aperitif. These include delicious cheeses, prosciutto, home grown olives and tempting pastries and breads. Then we headed way above the port to meet with family and friends to share in a delicious meal peppered with gales of laughter and everything you think Italians to be – slightly mad but completely lovable! From such heights it’s easy to appreciate why the port is nicknamed “narrow port” and at the same time difficult to imagine how the super yachts, which dock in this area, get in at all.

On day two we rented a small motor boat which was a great way to see the coastline. If the weather had been better we would have loved to have explored areas around San Fruttuoso only reached by foot or boat. After returning to Santa Margherita via Portofino, we enjoyed a lovely lunch of Spaghetti alle Vongole – spaghetti with clams accompanied by a bottle of Vermantino from Sardinia. We used our local connections to get a booking at Portofino’s La Taverna del Marinaio. The food was exceptional – although I was told Puny, U Magazin and U Batti are excellent too. Be sure to make a reservation.


The following day we took the train to Riomaggiore – the most southern of the five villages of the Cinque Terre. A walking trail, known as Sentiero Azzurro (Azure Trail) connects the villages but we were disappointed to find the lower pathways between Manarola and Corniglia closed. Mudslides hit the region hard in 2011 and have caused lasting damage in sections so our only option was to go up and over the hills. At times, these felt like mountains. It was a grueling exercise and one I would suggest only if you are fit or slightly crazy! The views from the top are glorious though so well worth the effort.

Heading north again I discovered the fourth village called Vernazza which was, to me, my favourite. Back down by the water we lunched at a fabulous restaurant perched above the rocks and village in the remains of an ancient fortress. After a long day we headed back by train to Santa Margherita.

The Cinque Terre is very touristy but very beautiful. The villages are pretty and contain many historical and religious features – some quite similar to Corsica. It really is astounding how the people have adapted – their gardens, olive trees and vineyards are carved into the rocky hillsides. We were told that the gardeners need to wear rope around their waists to save them from falling. Apparently the walk between the northern most towns of Vernazza and Monterossa is the most picturesque. For that reason, I would recommend travelling in the opposite order – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and lastly, Riomaggiore.

The trains are inexpensive, run relatively frequently and offer some stunning views. There are also ferries and tour groups for those who don’t want to walk. I found the ferry’s ability to back up to the rocks in quite a large swell both impressive and a little scary.

We were pleased to have based ourselves in Santa Margherita at the Hotel Continental. The town was picturesque and a good location. The hotel has received mixed reviews however, including great views, very average décor, both good and very poor service combined with appalling internet access. Taxis are horrendously expensive so walking or train is best where possible. Overall, my experience was amazing and I can’t wait to return.

Along The Silkroad

Much to my disbelief I actually made my flight to Bangkok . It had seemed that there was simply too much to do but, as is always the case, the things that haven’t been completed will wait and it’s not the end of the world.

12 hours later the sights and sounds of Bangkok assault my senses and I truly realise I am on my way to Europe. We head downstairs at Suvarnabhumi Airport and find a public taxi. Then 30 minutes and 700 bahts  (NZD29) later we are at our hotel on the river via the expressway.

Bangkok has an energy that is quite different from its Asian cousins – the people are gentle, smiley and genuine. We arrive on a public holiday called Vesak and in deference to the religion of the people and Buddha, it is a day of no alcohol and the entire city – restaurants, bars and hotels – comply willingly. I cannot imagine the same happening in New Zealand or Australia.

Arising in the morning my colleague heads into Sukhomvit for a dental appointment. Dentists in Bangkok are highly qualified and inexpensive compared to home, and many people visit Bangkok for their dentists, hospitals and surgeons. I, on the other hand, lounge around the pool for a much welcomed dose of Vitamin D.

I love to stay on the Chao Phraya River, and have stayed at some of the finest hotels – The Peninsula, The Oriental and Shangri La, to name a few.  I now stay at a relatively inexpensive hotel The Chatrium Riverside, which features suite style apartments with their own balconies and gloriously comfy beds.

The river is a hustling and bustling field for commerce. Barges and ferries making their way in both directions, carefully avoiding the numerous free hotel shuttle boats heading both across and up and down the river. If you have some spare time jump on a local ferry that costs next to nothing and take in the sights, culture, temples, markets, and of course, the people! If you have more time enjoy some of the local tours: the orchid gardens, the floating markets and the many and varied temple tours. Take one of the free hotel boats at the Sathorn Pier and head to The Peninsula or The Oriental Hotel for afternoon tea or a fabulous cocktail and watch the world go by.

One treat I always allow myself is a visit to Jim Thompson House, which pays homage to the man behind the eponymous world-renowned fabric brand. Jim Thompson disappeared mysteriously in the 1960s, but his legacy lives on both in the House, which is now a museum, and with The Thai Silk Trading Company – known as Jim Thompson. Set in lush tropical gardens, the house is quite magnificent and we can all imagine the parties, the intrigue and the lifestyle that took place here years ago. I understand too, from many locals, that Jim Thompson will continue to be a hero in their eyes. Both for developing the silk industry in Thailand, but also for offering a prosperity previously unheard of to many of the silk farmers up North.

We head briefly to Central World – one of many superb shopping malls in Bangkok. If you are a shopper Bangkok is for you! Every brand you can think of is represented here. Travelling by the BTS Skytrain is the best and easiest way to move about. Bangkok is inexpensive and efficient (and even air-conditioned!). Catching a Tuk Tuk is fun and a must do (not for the faint hearted), but you will find a metred taxi is by far cheaper.

Asiatique is a new market area filled with fabulous restaurants, stalls and local artisan products – based on the river you can reach it by taxi or their free shuttle boat form Sathorn Pier (Saphan Taksin stop on the Silom Line).

Packed and ready to leave, we head there for our last meal – delicious Thai – and a whizz on the ferris wheel to drink in the lights and colours of Bangkok.

Bangkok is a special place – our 24 hour stopover isn’t long enough – it truly is a destination in its own right!